Of all the tools I have purchased for bike maintenance, my Silca Pista is the single oldest item I own. It’s reliable like a good dog. Like a dog, it’s not free, and it requires some work, but its operation is so familiar as to provide comfort.
Between all the different bikes I’ve owned, reviewed or wrenched on plus those bikes of teammates I’ve raced with, I estimate I’ve used it to take tires up to 8 bar more than 15,000 times.
I’ve had it so long, were it human it would be emancipated. At this point, it’s a bit like a commercial aircraft; The only parts I haven’t replaced are the base, barrel, handle and chuck. Hoses, grommets, gaskets, plungers and more, I’ve replaced everything else on this pump at least once. The miracle is that I have at times purchased new parts before actually needing them and then—after a year or three—have been able to find them to install.
There are pumps with bigger bases, bigger handles, larger diameter barrels, bigger gauges, but the Silca Pista remains my standard. Give me a smooth valve stem and a little shoulder room and I think I could run a kids’ balloon party.
Companies keep trying to top this baby but a quick lesson in physics taught me why larger diameter barrels don’t improve pumps; they actually increase the amount of force necessary to reach a given pressure. Not so bueno for cyclists who have the upper bodies of a T-Rex minus the green and the scales. That Columbus tube is laudable not for its pedigreed manufacturer, but rather its small diameter.
I’ll put it this way: If you ever enter my garage and can’t find my Silca Pista, call 911, because it’s been stolen.
As riders there are rules we obey without even thinking. No tube socks. No spitting into the wind. No bare knees when it’s cold. We make our Saturday rides and find ways to get our miles in even with the pressures of work and family. Some weeks are better than others, but we are defined not by the deviation, rather the aspiration. It is the rule that tells who we are.
Does anyone really need more rules in life? The reasonable answer would seem to be no, but the rules we use can reveal a lot about our ability to judge the situations in which we find ourselves.
Are all Saturdays created equal? Must Saturday mean at least 75 miles and a few thousand feet of climbing, or is every fourth Saturday dialed back for rest?
If there is a break off the front, do we chase? Is there a teammate in the break? Is the 11 the right choice on a wet descent? Do we ride injured or sick because we can’t give up the miles?
Our constant reassessment of road conditions, the group, our own legs are—no matter how much we aim to impose our will on the bike, on the ride—a sign of humility. I once heard on the news a political analyst who specialized in the Middle East. He said, “Well the first thing you have to understand about the region is that every statement you make begins with, ‘it depends.’” To me, it was a sign of true insight.
Every new lesson I learn results in a new rule. Maybe it’s a sign of aging—that I don’t have the strength of will I used to possess—but I think my riding is more a test of my knowledge and experience now. My own wisdom has overcome my loss of youth.
But there is one riding rule I’ve come to value, even to cherish, and it’s not about riding at all, even though I learned it from the Grand Tour riders. It’s about saving. For them, it was saving something for tomorrow, next week. For me, yes, it means saving something for tomorrow, but more importantly, it means saving time for my family, saving some energy for the rest of the day, saving myself so I can be fully present for those who love me. We’re not much different from soda: That first sip is sweet, but no one wants the empty can.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International.
Enthusiast publications confront a fundamental problem at the very outset of their existence. Whether the magazine or web site covers bicycles, guns or cars, much—if not most—of its revenue will come from advertisers. Keeping those advertisers happy can be a challenge, even if its products are good. One lousy (or just substandard) product followed by an honest review can see ad revenue dry up faster than British humor in the summer sun.
The Los Angeles Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning car reviewer, Dan Neil, once stoned (verbally, mind you) a GM vehicle and suggested that some of the company’s top brass were out of touch and didn’t much deserve their jobs. He stopped short of asking for their heads on pikes, but anyone who read the reviews heard that between the lines.
GM pulled their ad dollars and asked for Neil’s head on a pike.
Surf magazines have generally skirted this issue by forgoing reviews of surf equipment; most surf magazines just don’t review surf boards. Bike magazines arouse suspicion in their readers by finding all bikes to be stiff at the bottom bracket while offering stellar vertical compliance. The products that most reviewers don’t like usually have at least one detail in common—the manufacturer isn’t an advertiser.
How did this situation arise? It’s hard to say, but one practice helped corrupt the relationship between publisher and advertiser. It used to be that there was a separation between church and state: editorial didn’t know what advertising was up to and advertising didn’t poke their head into content. Somewhere along the line the ad sales director realized that if he knew about positive editorial ahead of time, those mentions could be leveraged to sell more ads. Editors were forced to plan issues in advance and tell advertising what those plans were. Naturally, there was pressure to say who was getting positive, rather than negative, mentions.
The fouling of the tide pool came when advertising started asking for specific products to be reviewed and to make sure those reviews were positive. At times, it’s possible to have a mutually beneficial relationship between ad and edit. In a small staff, both can serve as eyes for the other. Many times I’ve told ad sales guys about someone doing interesting work who seems to be well-capitalized. Other times I’ve had ad sales guys come to me and tell me about a new bike, new energy bar or other new product. I’m a bike guy; I love hearing about new stuff.
I’ve had conversations with some manufacturers and they made it clear that they believed the bigger the ad they purchased, the better my review would—or should—be. I’ve yet to meet someone who held this belief who believed me when I told them I didn’t play that game. In more than 18 years of writing about cycling, I’ve had exactly one instance where I was instructed, yes, INSTRUCTED, to change what I wrote. In that case, I was told to soften a negative review. It was, coincidentally, the most overwhelmingly negative review I’d ever written. The energy bar in question failed just fine without my input.
When I launched Asphalt Magazine, I decided my job was to excite the reader about cycling. Given a reader’s busy day, the few hours each week that can be spent reading a bike magazine ought to reinforce the idea that cycling is the best feature of his or her life, outside of family. In talking with manufacturers I balanced my need to be honest with their need to have positive editorial by telling them, ‘If something seems substandard or if I just plain don’t like it and can’t see beyond my prejudice, I will send it back to you with my suggestions. I won’t lambaste you in my pages.’
Radio Freddy and I had many conversations about new directions that Belgium Knee Warmers might take. Several companies expressed some interest in advertising with BKW. Radio Freddy and I talked about the backlash we might see in the readership by moving from no advertising to taking ads. It’s reasonable for readers to wonder if the sudden introduction of advertising into a blog will change the content out of a concern to keep the advertisers happy.
I decided I was willing to risk a readership backlash in order to meet other goals I had for our content.
BKW readers have seen the blog go silent for days, sometimes weeks at a time. We never offered an explanation, but you might have guessed why. As we weren’t making a dime from BKW, jobs and family sometimes precluded us from devoting time to something we loved enough to do for free.
Advertising isn’t going to change what we write. I’ve never been interested in pursuing the Consumer Reports angle of product testing and the bike industry doesn’t present too many opportunities for Time-like investigative journalism. Unsafe products are few and far between and our only negative or critical posts are generally confined to the issue of doping. That won’t change.
Advertising dollars will give Red Kite Prayer the opportunity to recruit more contributors on a more consistent basis and it will give me the needed justification to devote more time to what has become the most enjoyable and challenging work I do.
As I write this, we have yet to sign a single ad contract. Even so, I know the short list of companies that are the likely advertisers for the site. Those companies that choose to advertise with us will wind up getting some very favorable edit. I won’t be shilling for anyone; rather, the support we receive is an endorsement of the content we provide. I can think of no higher compliment than to have some of the industry’s top manufacturers say they support the work we do. Well, almost.
The best compliment we’ve gotten is your readership.
The final kilometer of Classics and Grand Tour stages is marked with an archway from which hangs the flamme rouge—the red kite. Its passage marks the greatest drama of the race, a ratcheting up of tension and anticipation that culminates in the winner’s celebration.
Of course, the red kite holds different meanings for each rider. For the time trialists, it’s the last chance to attack and beat the sprinters at their own game. For the leadout men, there’s a final dig before pulling off to the let sprinter shine. For the sprinters, that red kite is a signal that their moment is less than two minutes to come. For much of the field, it’s simply the signal that the pain is nearly at an end.
What unites each of them is a moment that inevitably comes after passing under the red kite. Each rider will bow his head as he summons the last of his strength for the finish. It’s the same bowing of the head that recreational riders will make before rolling to the finish of a century.
Summoning the strength to make a final surge to the finish is as universal as the urge to finish; no one wants to roll across the line in defeat and that final effort is the chance to accelerate to a personal victory that comes from the satisfaction of knowing you left everything on the course.
The psychology of riders can rarely be guessed, but the red kite prayer is a moment we all share, a search for our remaining strength as we summon the will to leave it on the road.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International.