It’s been an interesting year in the world of cycling. There have been some duels for the ages between larger-than-life figures. I decided to ask each of RKP’s contributors to pick their three favorite stories of the year. Some of their answers may surprise you.—Padraig
Lance Armstrong. No other figure in cycling has ever made headlines worldwide the way Lance Armstrong does. Whether it’s his battle to rid the world of cancer, the birth of a new son, doping charges or his battle of wits with Alberto Contador, Armstrong is a headline wherever he goes, whatever he does. He is also significant because no other figure has half the ability to polarize a group of cyclists as Armstrong. To some, he is a virtually convicted doper, to others he is a champion and figure of hope. No matter what you think of him, he has the ability to keep cycling in the mainstream worldwide, which, ultimately, is good for cycling.
The conviction of Dr. Thompson. That Dr. Christopher Thomas Thompson was even tried for one felony—let alone six—was a big success for cyclists everywhere. There were more opportunities for this case to go off the rails than can be counted, but some significant points were in the initial investigation, once the case was turned over to the district attorney and, of course, in Thompson’s cross examination. This case will be cited as a turning point in the recognition by the average person that cyclists are both vulnerable to the actions of malicious drivers and have a right to the road.
Doping. From Christian “cycling has changed” Prudhomme, to Danilo “the killer” DiLuca to the blood transfusion kits found among Astana’s medical supplies, one should draw the conclusion that some riders might be cleaner than in the past, but cycling, as a sport, has yet to shed the taint of doping. Prudhomme, the Tour de France director, made the ludicrous statement, “I recently confirmed that ‘there were no suspected cases’ (during the 2009 Tour de France). This means that the fight against doping progresses.” Astarloza’s positive proved his statement was both premature and dead wrong. If anyone should have been fired from the ASO, it shouldn’t have been Patrice Clerc, but rather Prudhomme for making such a reckless statement on behalf of such a storied institution.
The fire sale of Iron Horse bicycles to Dorel. Iron Horse wasn’t a prestigious brand, but it was long known as being a good value for new cyclists. Its descent into bankruptcy was an ugly, backbiting mess full of recrimination and charges of shady deals involving owner Cliff Weidberg and his son, who owned Randall Scott Cycles, a significant debtor to Iron Horse. Dorel (the parent for Cannondale, GT, Schwinn, Mongoose, Pacific, etc.) purchased Iron Horse for $5.2 million at auction, less than what Iron Horse’s three biggest secured creditors were owed, for a classic pennies-on-the-dollar deal. The sale left hanging dozens of unsecured creditors who were owed a combined $17 million as well as CIT Group for another $4 million, and made cycling’s biggest corporate colossus just a little bit bigger.
Lemond v. Trek. Just wait, the plus-size gal isn’t even on stage.
Contador and Schleck denying Armstrong an 8th TdF. When the Lance returned, so much of the American cycloratti was hoping he’d return to his throne, but personally, I was ready to move on. As the hype ramped up and up and up, through LA’s collar bone break, through the Giro and into the initial stages of the Tour, I was really wishing for the sport to move on. Not to be ungrateful for contributions made, but I was ready for some new legends to emerge. And they did.
Philippe Gilbert’s end of season wins. What I love about Gilbert is his incredible tactical sense and timing. This is a guy who beats riders head and shoulders stronger than he is, by keeping his wits about him and playing them against one another. Not a weak rider, Gilbert shows what racing might be like in the absence of race radios, when smart riders win as much as strong ones.
The emergence of Edvald Boasson-Hagen. While everyone was talking about Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador (myself included) another young rider was winning races (10) and taking the overall in smaller stage races like the Eneco Tour and the Tour of Britain. Boasson-Hagen is 22. He is exactly the sort of rider that today’s top guns should be wary of, because he’s going to get better.
USA Bike industry ignores its mounting inventory crisis for an entire year (repercussions will impact retail pricing and corporate profits until 2012). If you ever had any doubts as to whether bike companies know what they’re doing, well, here’s your answer.
Lemond v Trek: no matter which way it ends up (short of an out-of-court-plus-gag-order settlement), this story still has the potential to become the biggest scandal in US cycling history. It’s also the #1 story the cycling press wishes would just go away: no matter how—or even if—they report it, it’s a lose-lose for them.
American public starts to figure out that bikes are actually a lot of fun (and practical transportation, too). This is THE biggest sea-change in public attitudes about cycling since That Skinny Blonde Kid won some race over in France 33 years ago … although sometimes I liked it better when we were just a bunch of geeks and outcasts instead of too-cool-for-school fashion mavens in skinny jeans and ironic t-shirts.
Bonus: Mavic’s parent company (Amer Sports) puts it up for sale, can’t find buyer, de-lists it, fires its own President. You know the economy’s bad when no one wants a highly regarded company with the lion’s share of a long-term lucrative market.
Contador’s Tour win as part of the Bizarro World of Team Astana. I know of no other time in cycling history when, after the designated team leader takes the Yellow Jersey, the team manager wanted to put on sackcloth and ashes. The psychological war Bruyneel and Armstrong waged against Contador remains about the oddest thing I ever saw in cycling.
The death duel between Di Luca and Menchov in the Giro. While I watched it, I tried to forget Di Luca’s past doping offenses (he made sure I was reminded later…) and watched 2 superb athletes fight until neither had a watt left. Menchov’s crash in the final time trial made even the race’s last moments exciting. His poor performance in the Tour showed he had gone truly deep in the Giro.
Grand Tour VAMs. Both the Giro and the Tour had some spectacularly high VAMs (average rate of vertical ascent in a climb). There was one day in the Tour that saw the Tour climbing speed record Bjarne Riis set on the Hautacam in 1996 eclipsed.
Bonus: And the UCI says they are getting a good handle on doping. I’ve got some good ocean-front land here in Arkansas for anyone who believes that. I believe we lost ground during 2009 in the hunt for a clean sport.
Contador wins second Tour de France. The lead up to the race was more drama than MTV’s “The Hill” leading up to prom night. Every day there were hints that all the indicators being tossed out by Astana that “all is well” and “we are all behind our leader” and “Contador is our GC leader.” It was something everyone who listened and watched knew was slick talk and that there was 2 GC riders on the team, neither submitting to the other in reality. To see the dynamics play out was something that kept us all tuned daily for the month of July. I personally cannot wait ‘til 2010′s TdF!!
Fabian Cancellara SMOKES TT world championship. Fabian is a statesman for cycling and in my opinion one of the peloton’s classiest riders. He can be many things, but his TT skills are phenomenal and his lead up to the World TT championship brought us to anticipate a performance, which he delivered in jaw-dropping fashion.
Devolder repeats at Tour of Flanders. I love all the Classics, but I love the Spring Classics especially. Seeing Cav win Milan San Remo was incredible, to see Boonen win Paris-Roubaix was great, to see Schleck win Leige was sweet as well, but to see the Belgian Devolder repeat his win at Tour of Flanders held a meaning that goes to the very core of this race, to his pedigree, which makes him a national hero yet again, and brings this one to the top for me.
Notables: Team Columbia HTC should have an honorable mention notably as they really pulled off greatness in light of adversity, despite the other teams riding senslessly against them at times (Hincapie’s maillot jaune loss in TdF), they stuck it out and perhaps had the team of the year.
One of the greatest adventures of my newly minted career as a bicycle mechanic was when I was walked through my first overhaul. One Saturday just before New Year’s Eve, after we closed the shop up, the manager and I stayed behind, cranked up The Who and he began disassembling his Nuovo Record-equipped Cïocc.
Off came the wheels, then each of the cables and housing. Then he removed the brakes, the derailleurs, the cranks, and then the stem, headset and fork. Finally he disassembled the bottom bracket. As he removed each of the parts they went in the Safety-Kleen bath. He flicked a switch and left them to marinate. He coiled the cables before tossing them in the trash and he folded the chain on an old rag.
He showed me how to position the crank-bolt wrench so that you squeeze the wrench and crank arm toward each other to remove the crank bolts. But when he took the Park crank puller off the wall, a tool I had previously seen, but never used, the bicycle became as complicated as a Chinese puzzle, but with an entirely more thrilling solution.
He demonstrated how to hold the drive-side crank arm and use a Park Y-Allen to loosen the crank bolts. One sudden, firm twist broke the bolts free. I quickly learned the chainrings were tough to scrub clean.
With the frame stripped of everything save the headset cups, he washed down the frame and cleaned around the chainstay bridge, around the seatstays at the seat binder, at the head tube/down tube joint and behind the front derailleur braze-on.
We scrubbed the brakes and derailleurs down and used a rat-tail file to remove enough brake shoe material to remove any aluminum embedded in the brake shoes. They were placed on a clean rag to dry.
The quick releases received their own bath and then the non-drive-side locknut and cone were removed from each wheel’s axle. The ball bearings for the headset, each hub and the bottom bracket were placed in glass bowls, one for each size of bearing. After making sure the bearings were clean, we inspected them for scoring or any other sign of wear. Next, he took a rag, dipped it in the Safety-Kleen and then wiped shiny each of the bearing races and cones.
It was painstaking work, work for which only clear forethought and practiced technique could add speed. Satisfaction was proportional to effort.
We reassembled the wheels first; truing would happen the next weekend when he planned to glue on a new set tires. One finger-scoop-worth of Campy’s white lithium grease was applied to each race and then each bearing was placed like so many cherries into whipped cream.
When we spun the freewheel back on he showed me how to use the freewheel tool to tighten the freewheel onto the hub threads so that the rear derailleur adjustment wouldn’t be thrown off by trying to adjust the set screws relative to a not-yet fully tightened freewheel. It was fun to put my full weight into turning the wheel on the vise.
With the frame spun upside-down in the work stand, we finished off the headset and then re-inserted the fork and spun on the headset’s adjustable cup.
We reattached the derailleurs and brakes, and made sure to remount the front derailleur exactly where the clamp had made indentations on the braze-on. New cables ran from each lever. We cut new housing to match the lengths of the old spans. We only needed 4 and 5mm Allen wrenches and an 8mm box wrench. A quick stretch of the cables and then we tightened them once again.
A week later I decided I would overhaul my touring bike. When I realized that the hubs and bottom bracket used sealed bearings (which were pretty exotic for those days), I felt cheated; the experience was less thorough than I’d anticipated. It’s a bit like traveling to Paris with the expectation that you’ll get to speak French, only to have everyone there look at your shoes and speak to you in English.
A few months later I purchased a used Super Record-equipped Miele. The first thing I did was overhaul the bike and replace the brinelled headset with a Chris King—kind of ironic given my previous experience, but my time in shops had taught me that no headset was longer-lasting and less likely to brinell than the King.
As the years passed, overhauling my bike between Christmas and New Year’s became a tradition for me, much like the annual company New Year’s Eve party is for some folks, only this was a good deal more contemplative and peaceful.
These days I’ve see the overhaul as a metaphor for many aspects of my cycling life. Every year I break out the tape measure and goniometer and go over my fit with the help of friend who does fittings for a local shop. We break it down beginning with an examination of my flexibility and ending with a thorough examination of me on my bikes.
Last year, I overhauled my workspace in the garage, tossing out old crap, filling a box with stuff to sell on Craigslist and sorting the stuff I planned to keep. It was a catharsis, and because the adventure was novel as my first shave, it was exhilarating as well.
This winter I’m in the process of overhauling my fitness. An injury last year followed by the birth of my son left me adrift of my usual mileage; I was as unacquainted with my usual fitness as the incarcerated are with take-out. Getting me in my jeans was as difficult as passing a rich man through the eye of a needle.
So this winter I overhauled my riding routines. I’ve sworn off the fastest group rides that are a normal part of my riding week. I’m riding on my own more, and I’m wearing a heart rate monitor—not for the hard efforts; rather, to remind me just how easy easy is these days. It’s kind of a will-governor, if you will.
I always derived immense satisfaction from running through the gears one last time while the bike was still in the stand, checking the throw on the brake levers and then removing the bike to pump up the tires before a quick inspection spin. I’m not sure what this personal overhaul will yield, and it will be hard to say just what finished is as our lives are unfinished until departure. Until then, I will stick to the process. I know the process results in satisfaction.
Some of the aftermath.
This is how I got hit.
It was raining. She came by me on the left, slowly. She signaled. I thought, “Oh, Christ! You’re going to let me get by first, aren’t you?” And then she was turning right across me, and because it was raining, I was sliding. And screaming. She hit the brakes. I hit her front quarter panel and went down hard on my right side.
I sprung up, decided I was ok, and turned to berate my assailant. She peered up at me from behind the wheel of her Volvo, put her hands up and mouthed, “I didn’t see you.” To which I replied, “Well, of course you didn’t f*&$ing see me. You never f*&$ing looked.” She asked if I was ok, this is all through the windshield. She couldn’t be bothered to get out, or she was afraid I might punch her, which, given the adrenaline spiking through my system, was probably a legitimate fear. I said, “Yes, I’m f*&$ing ok,” and I rode off at top speed, leaving her and a small congregation of cyclists gawking. I may never have ridden so fast in my life.
It was only when I got home that my wrist started to ache, and I could see where I was bleeding. And suddenly I was really tired. I realized that I had been riding on adrenaline then. At the time I’d no idea. So, coming down off that hormonal high, my body sort of crumpled on the floor of the shower, and I had a brief, emotional moment there, with the hot water pouring over me.
I rode with a brace on my wrist for about a month after that. It hurt.
I imagine this scenario plays itself out pretty regularly on city (and non-city) streets, a car turning across a bike lane and a cyclist getting the worse of the deal. The injuries probably range from minor, like mine, to death. It is, at any rate, a common experience, and yet, even after riding the city for 20 years, I’d never been hit. And I learned from it, things I might never have learned otherwise.
I did what you’re supposed to do after getting thrown. I got right back on that horse and rode. At first I felt sad, like the shine had come off, like this thing I’d been doing for decades was somehow more dark and sinister than I’d imagined. After that, I entered an angry phase. I began seeking conflict with drivers, yelling, punching hoods. It was no fun.
After a month or two of two-wheeled rage, I had an epiphany. I was afraid. Everywhere I went I anticipated being crushed and killed, and rather than weeping and cowering, I was going on the offensive. If I wasn’t overtly courting conflict, I was having protracted arguments, in my head, with errant motorists. I was, I think, trying to make sense of a new landscape, one in which I could be doing everything correctly, and still be killed.
This was no way to go about riding a bicycle. I ride a bike, because I like it, not to drive myself into irrational rages. I had to change, not only my attitude, but also the way I ride. I had to be more forgiving, more patient. This took time.
First of all, I had to admit that the mistake the Volvo lady made is exactly the kind of mistake anyone could make. She was distracted. She ought to have seen me, but she didn’t. The other day I made a pot of coffee, but forgot to stick the pot under the spout, and so coffee ran all over the counter and floor. I’m no better than Volvo lady. Up to this point, I’ve maybe just been luckier.
Angry is no way to ride, or do anything else for that matter. Whether my anger is justified or not doesn’t even begin to be the point. When I’m angry, I’m the one who suffers. My ride goes to shit. I get off the bike worse than I went on. I don’t always like to forgive. I don’t always just move on mentally, but when I do, I feel better and happier. This is the hardest single thing I do on a bicycle.
Next, I had to recognize that no one is in MY way. I don’t actually own the way. It’s a public way. And, as it turns out, everyone wants to use it. Weird, I know, but true.
Third, I had to slow down. This one was hard, because I like to go fast. This one was hard, because previously, I had only one speed, which was as-fast-as-I-could. This one was hard, because it meant I missed a lot of lights that I might, in earlier days, have sprinted through.
Finally, I had to admit that I am flesh and blood and vulnerable. For a guy who used to fancy himself impervious to the predations of weather and road condition, this was a lot to ask. Here’s the thing. I’m a robot, but I have a lady robot at home who loves me. I have two little robots that scream “Daddy!” when I come through the door. I have a robot dog whose raison d’etre is walking by my side to the coffee shop.
I didn’t expect any of this. I always assumed that the consequences of a car accident would be entirely physical, but right away the mental and emotional aspects of the experience made themselves felt. I tried to pay attention. Though a minor accident relative to most car/bicycle interactions, it was a major event in my life, one that, after months of dissection and examination, I’m glad happened.
I got hit by a car and learned how large my ego had become, learned that, more than anything, I was in my own way, and that the best way to get where I wanted to go, i.e. everywhere, was to let myself be small and let the world be big. I can, if I squint, see the accident again. I’m riding along. A Volvo passes me on the left. Its brake lights blaze purposefully. I back off on the pedals. A turn signal. I brake. Nothing to prove. And then the car turns in front of me. Its shocks make a hiccuping sound as it bounces into the driveway of the grocery store. I glance over my left shoulder and then guide my bike out into the open lane to glide past the Volvo’s bumper.
And then I ride home. Whole and well.
Back in July, Team Astana was clearly not only the strongest team in the 2009 Tour de France peloton, but also one of the most powerful teams that had been put together in recent years. La Gazzetta dello Sport called it “Fortress Astana”. This caused Padraig to ponder about which team might be the best Tour de France squad of all time. He suggested the 1986 La Vie Claire team of Bernard Hinault, Greg LeMond, Andy Hampsten, Steve Bauer and Jean-François Bernard as the greatest.
I offered the 1908 Peugeot squad, which won all 14 stages in the 1908 Tour and took the top four GC places as the finest Tour de France team ever. I still hold by that view.
So who is number two on my list? Team France between 1930 and 1934.
Until 1930, the Tour as contested by trade teams, as it is today. Alcyon-Dunlop, Alleluia-Wolber and Lucifer-Hutchinson were the Cofidis’, Columbia-HTCs and Garmin-Transitions of their time. But, not surprisingly, loyalties could cross trade team lines and riders from a country could unite to help a fellow compatriot. Also, trade teams could combine to try to bring about an outcome that had been decided in a hotel room. Of course, this still goes on today.
At that time the Tour was run by its founder, an iron-fisted dictator named Henri Desgrange, who wanted his race to be a pure test of an athlete’s will and power. He made the race stupefyingly hard, even forcing the riders to perform their own repairs. As late as 1929 riders still had to fix their own flat tires. Desgrange loathed trade teams and felt they corrupted his race. Since the race’s inception he had tried to negate the effect of teams and domestiques (a term Desgrange invented) but in the end he had to surrender to the fact that massed-start bicycle road racing is a sport contested by teams and won by individuals.
It all came to a head in the 1929 Tour. Maurice Dewaele took the Yellow Jersey after the 323-kilometer stage 10 trip through the Pyrenees. His lead of nearly 15 minutes looked nearly unassailable. But as the Alps loomed, Dewaele fell ill. He was so sick that at one point he couldn’t eat solid food. He was pushed and dragged over the remaining stages by his teammates. More importantly, it seemed that a fix was in. Dewaele in his fragile state was extremely vulnerable to the attacks that never came. Astonishingly, he arrived in Paris still in yellow.
“A corpse has won,” lamented a miserable Desgrange who was convinced that something had to be done to protect the fundamental honesty of the Tour.
What he did was extraordinary. He dispensed with the detested trade teams and instead, put the riders in national squads. There was a French team, an Italian team, one for Belgium, etc. Since the bike makers had a 3-week publicity blackout, they refused to pay the substantial expenses of housing, feeding and transporting the riders. Again, Desgrange did the unexpected. He came up with the publicity caravan. Companies would pay the Tour for the privilege of driving their logo’d trucks and cars in front of the race. The national teams are gone, but the publicity caravan remains.
The effect of this realignment was huge. Instead of being scattered among many teams, the best French riders were now on one team. In 1930, the best stage racers in the world were the French, with the Belgians and Italians formidable but on a slightly lower level.
The early 1930s Team France has to be considered one of the greatest sports dynasties in history. They won 5 straight Tours with 3 different riders. That is a bench with depth. In 1930, the national team format’s first year, they not only won the Tour, they put 6 riders in the top ten in the overall, and team member Charles Pélissier won 8 stages.
Here’s the core of the team:
André Leducq: He won 5 stages in the 1929 Tour and went on to win a total of 25 stages. That remained the record until Merckx won 34. He won the Tour in 1930 and 1932. This was a man with talent. He had been world amateur champion and had won Paris-Roubaix in 1928 and would take Paris-Tours in 1931.
Antonin Magne: He won the tour in 1931 and 1934. Magne was the world pro road champion in 1936 and won the Grand Prix des Nations, then the unofficial world time trial championship, in 1934, ’35, an ’36.
Charles Pélissier: Charles was brother to 1923 Tour winner Henri and the capable but not outstanding Francis (who found later that he was a far better team manager than racer). Pélissier won those 8 stages in the 1930 Tour, which included the final 4 legs of the race. In 1931 he won 4 stages. Pélissier wasn’t part of the 1932 team (he would return in 1933) but Georges Speicher was. Speicher won the Tour and the world road championship in 1933 as well as the 1936 Paris-Roubaix. Also a member of the 1932 squad was Roger Lapébie. He won 5 stages in the 1934 Tour before going of to win the 1937 edition.
We can’t forget some of the other French team members:
Maurice Archambaud: magnificent against the clock but too heavy to win the Tour. He wore yellow but could never seal the deal, losing too much time in the high mountains. Nevertheless, he was an important contributor to the team’s success.
René Vietto: His story of giving up his wheel to allow Magne to win in 1934 when Vietto might very well have won the race himself is one of the legends of the Tour. This was a team that acted as one for a common goal. Vietto ended up wearing Yellow more than any man who didn’t win the Tour. He was one of the greatest climbers in the history of the sport, but both his knees and his time trialing would let him down when it mattered.
The French team was not only talented, it had a magnificent esprit de corps. When Leducq crashed descending the Galibier and thought his chances of winning the 1930 Tour were over, they rallied his spirits and dragged him up to the leaders and led him out for the stage win.
1934 was Team France’s last year of glory when it won 19 of the 23 stages. That is dominance writ large.
Cycling historian Jean-Paul Ollivier thinks the 1933 French team was the greatest assemblage of pre-war cycling talent ever. I think one could pick any or all of the 1930’s Tour teams as the best, and with the exception of the 1908 Peugeot team, one could hardly go wrong.
And then the magic ended. In 1935 Magne crashed out of the Tour and although Pélissier raced the 1935 edition, it was as an independent rider, not part of Team France. With the absence of the leadership these two riders gave the team, the magnificent cohesion that had allowed the French to steamroller their opposition evaporated. Romain Maes of Belgium mercilessly took the French and the rest of the peloton apart. Second-place Ambrogio Morelli of Italy finished almost 18 minutes behind. The best-placed French rider was Speicher, at 54 minutes and 29 seconds.
The only time the French would win the Tour again before the war was in 1937, and the tainted officiating in favor of the French and Lapébie still smells.
The French would come back to dominate the Tour de France during golden age of racing, the 1950s (and beyond), with Louison Bobet ( winner in 1953, ’54, ’55), Roger Walkowiak (1956) and Jacques Anquetil (1957, ’61, ’62, ’63 and ’64).
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
A true mixed bag of Xmas gifts this year. I was shocked, but not surprised, at how many claim not to have received any cyclorific surprises due to a year-round schedule of bike-related consumption that brooks no encouragement from family or friends at Xmas time.
I was amused to see a few commenters listing coffee as a bike-related gift. I mean, to admit of the use of performance-enhancing drugs right here in black and white and red connotes a feeling of safety we never dreamed we’d imbue you with, dear readers.
If you’re like me, you come out of Xmas in a pre-diabetic condition, born of too many cookies, cakes, egg nog, etc., and now you eye the New Year with a grim sort of penance paying wince, knowing you’ll have to drag yourself out the door in the worst weather to work off the excess. Or, perhaps you’ll simply pop in that new Sunday in Hell DVD and hibernate until Spring pushes the first buds and blades of grass up through the soggy earth.
Either way, happy, merry, happy, and ride on!
Welcome to the Christmas Ride here on RKP. As a special gift, we’ll not point out that, rather than logging on here for your Xmas time bike fix, you ought to be paying more attention to your kids/wife/husband/parents/girlfriend/boyfriend/dog/cat/goldfish. We’ll just get on with the business of expressing obscure opinions on obscure topics.
This week’s question:
What bicycle-related items did you find under your tree? And why are they there?
On behalf of everyone at RKP, we wish you and your family a wonderful holiday season. And if Santa left a Pinarello Dogma equipped with Super Record under your tree, then so much the better.
I ride my bicycle to ride my bicycle—Zen proverb
The discipline of cycling is a learned apprentice in all aspects of the sport. Part of our discipline, is that of “the routine.” The routine for the novice is not the same as the routine of the veteran. For the freshman of the group, it may be a routine that begins at the gathering of the ride. One may make observations of tinkering, the spin of a wheel, and the hissing of floor pumps busily at work. Notable too is the hurriedness of this given routine, hurriedly trying to make the deadline. It may be the characteristic rush to the beginning, or the catch up after a slow lead out, whatever it may be, it becomes the routine. For some, it functions adequately, and after the ride they requite their bikes to the garage or back porch until the next gathering.
I admit my sophomore years in cycling began this way. It was all I knew. However, once I was taught “the routine” by a veteran, I never forgot it. I was taught to think, to plan and to give proper time to the steed. In so doing, I would be the kind benefactor of its flawless function. My friend who taught this to me was one who simply affirmed what he did, his routine, and drew out a logical reason for it. He did not put down my previous routine, you know, the after-thought of whipping the bike out of a trunk and hope it made it that day’s ride. And in teaching me, he instilled the necessity of proper bike care, and thus being then ready for the next day’s ride.
The routine begins when I pull in the garage, upon dismount. I flick the stereo knob for choice music of the day, then place the bike tenderly in the pro work stand with a rag so as to not damage the goods. The bike waits while I draw up from the fridge a San Pellegrino with lemon. I place my helmet and shoes into the cabinet, slide on my sandals and begin methodically the reparations that day. Like a surgeon going in to operate, I assess the bike from across the work area, typically wiping sweat from my brow and sipping the drink. It’s a broad view if you will, considering the bike from a vantage point I don’t often have. Then I begin myopic work, the process of assessing trueness and function of every single part. I begin with trueness of wheels, cleaning the chain, and down the list I will go. From head to toe I assess each part and I know my bike’s every last detail down to the thread pitch of every bolt. Whereas I know every curve, every sexy part, I also know every little blemish, every little flaw in her and have a plan of how to remedy it.
And with each routine I try to recollect the ride, down to the very fine details the function of the parts. Recalling them now at this time allows me to address a mis-shift, a creak, a subtlety. Perhaps only a drop of lube or a quarter turn here is all it takes, but it is necessary so as not to hear the dreaded rattle, or hesitation that reverberates in a cyclist’s mind for what seems to be nearly eternity, or even worse, a snicker from your pals when they hear it. Lastly, to finish ‘the routine’ I take a final look at the tires, looking for small razor-sharp fragments that may have been picked up that day, a run of the finger and an in-depth going over with the eye, and with this, it is done. A snap of the brakes declares, “It is finished!”
Then up on the wall she will proudly hang ‘til being called on again the next morning. Then, each tool that has been used is then placed back on the wall in its rightful place, cleaned and wiped down, of course. The work stand, also, wiped down and folded neatly in the nook. The lubes and oils, all one by one placed on the counter top. Then the music will be stopped, the towel thrown in the bin in the corner, not to be used again, and the hands cleaned of today’s debris. While at one time I considered such preparation to be overbearing, but in all actuality, ‘the routine’ takes no more than 30 minutes.
For my friend, the routine was a regimented structure that functioned so highly it became a skillset. After he taught it to me, I have carefully replicated it ever since; the behavior, the quality, the mindset of supreme function and of ultimate purpose.
Plain black shorts went out of style for me somewhere between 1992 and 1995. I can’t recall the specific season, but by the time Miguel Indurain stood on the winner’s dais on the Champs Elysees in 1995, I had weeded every last pair of plain black shorts from my cycling wardrobe. By that Sunday in late July, all of my shorts were bibs and had sublimated panels in them.
I didn’t wake up one day with a grudge against black shorts. I was simply following my nose. I was by no means hip, but in my effort to emulate the fastest guys I rode with, among the many lessons I filed away, one note I took to myself was that fast guys have so many old pairs of sublimated team shorts that they have no black shorts in their wardrobe. To me, it was like being so rich that your daily driver was a Porsche 928.
And so I tossed anything that didn’t make a bolder statement than who manufactured the shorts. I tossed everything without bibs. Once, when a friend who didn’t race asked me why all my shorts advertised for someone, even companies that weren’t current sponsors of my team, I responded, “If they were ever willing to support cycling, even if for only a year, I’m still willing to support them today.”
It’s an answer in which I still believe.
For more than 10 years, there was only one pair of bibs that were exempt from this rule. As you can guess, they were the single pair of Assos bibs I owned. (Well, to be honest, I also had a pair of Assos bib knickers that I would press into service during bumper seasons, but because I never wore them during the same time of year, it wasn’t like I had two sets of black shorts in rotation at the same time.)
For more than 10 years I didn’t think anyone other than Assos was making a pair of bibs so noteworthy as to merit consideration if they lacked a sublimated panel bearing the name of a team. Perhaps it had something to do with my desire to be a part of a community, that to be part of a team meant I knew the secret handshake. Part of it certainly was related to my racing; fast guys are on teams and I was still trying to prove I was fast.
At some point comfort and fit became an acceptable alternative to the cool unity of the team bibs, kinda like the Snuggie for the cycling set.
When I got word that SmartWool was producing merino wool bib shorts just before Interbike, I was very curious and asked to review a pair right away. My first question concerned fit and support. I wanted to know if they’d offer the support and fit I’ve come to expect from other bibs. Those of you who have experience with wool shorts of yesteryear will recall that most of them had so much stretch that you couldn’t really claim they offered support for much of anything, not your junk or your muscles.
The Flagstaff bibs are literally what I’ve been waiting to see someone release ever since wool jerseys began making a comeback in current product lines, rather than just second-hand stores. The fit is terrific, with proportions between the caboose and upper thighs matched well to the shape of the avid—not PRO—cyclist. Further, they don’t stretch out over the course of the ride the way my merino jerseys do. As it turns out, getting home with a garment three inches longer than when I left isn’t my favorite.
To achieve the fit and support they do, SmartWool did cheat a bit. Wool only makes up 39 percent of the short fabric; 45 percent is nylon and 16 percent is elastic. In the bib, wool comprises 96 percent of the weave while the final four percent is elastic. But the story doesn’t end there; the weave used in the short is designed so that only wool touches your skin except for the grippers. Modern look outside, old-school feel inside.
These bibs receive other updates as compared to the old-style wool shorts. They feature an eight-panel design and flatlock seems for a form-following and less binding fit. Silicon gripper elastic keeps the cuff in place and if you’re the sort who doesn’t like the feel of gripper elastic against your skin and perfers to fold it up, the elastic features the SmartWool logo oriented upside down so others can get clued in to your choice.
The pad comes from high-end manufacturer Cytech and features—what else?—a merino cover. I’ve become a big fan of Cytech pads; they are to four-hour comfort what butter is to French cooking.
Perhaps my favorite feature of the shorts is how they have proven to be just a tad warmer than my other bibs. I’ve worn them on several recent morning when temperatures have dipped low enough in the early morning for me to summon all manner of thermal gear. Those black bibs pair perfectly with black leg warmers and a thermal jacket to which the matching bibs wore out years ago.
Available in four sizes, S-XL. Suggested retail is $150.
When I think about descending and what is required to go downhill with the abandon of a pinball, what I think about are the turns, not the straights. Once the road arcs with the lazy bend of a river descending becomes little more than an equation involving mass and gradient. The heavier the rider, the greater the speed. Full stop.
But there’s a point at which gradient, turn radius and the distance between turns levels the playing field and descending shifts from a gravity calculation to a matter of introspection. How we enter a corner is determined by our understanding of the road surface, the shape of the turn, our speed, our bike’s ability to respond to input—and more—and we sum up the conditions in the blink of an eye. All this, to decide if, when and how hard we should brake.
So at a certain point our ability to descend becomes a measure of our right brain’s ability to turn these disparate factors into a kind of art. Think of it as a cyclist’s response to the succulent curves of a Ferrari California. There is geometry enough to describe every swell, every arc, every contour, but the numbers miss the point, don’t they? The fastest line down a road has a certain art and it can only be appreciated in its whole.
I live in a city consisting of more millions than there are eggs in a carton, so I’m constantly meeting new people. Inevitably, it comes out that I’m a cyclist. Next question: “Where do you like to ride?”
I’m as unable to contain my enthusiasm for riding in Malibu as the average dog is to go on a walk. I all but wag my tail as I jabber about the views, the twists, the speed, the suffering.
“Oh, so you’re a risk taker.”
And just as inevitably, I’m on the defensive, differentiating what I and my friends do from BASE jumping and big wave surfing and all other manner of dare devilry. To me there is a central difference. I won’t enter a turn at a speed that I don’t have every confidence will allow me to exit said turn intact. I don’t personally know any riders who do.
While I don’t think it is possible to break descending down into discrete steps the way you might team someone to build a wheel, in my mind, there is a hard line I never cross: the line that separates what I know my bike can do from the unknown.
There’s something deeply spiritual and ethical about taking a turn at high speed, but a speed that you know with confidence will allow you to complete the turn. It’s a form of faith. Sure, things can go wrong; you can run over an unseen piece of glass, encounter an oil slick or have a brain fade that sees you ride off the shoulder, but the point of the effort is to assess the known conditions and then reduce your presence there to the briefest possible span. The burglar’s alter ego, if you will.
A high-speed turn can define a certain sense of faith, one informed by reason. It’s the same act of faith that leads many of us to treat our fellow man with consideration, to go to church, to obey the 10 Commandments. We view these acts as the wisest choice for a peaceful existence now and in the afterlife.
Entering a switchback at freeway speeds is a bit like hoping God will help you win the lottery, or that he’s really, really forgiving.
The ethical dimension is a question of responsibility, of impact. Every time a rider goes down, the crash ripples through the community. The first impact of course is to the injured rider. The second are the riders in his company who must tend to him; their ride will be marred, perhaps cut short and certainly disturbed by what they saw. There are the emergency workers who may be called upon should the injuries require it. There’s the news through the local community: local residents who saw the hullabaloo and area riders who hear about the crash through friends. It makes folks question the sanity of cyclists.
We speak of reducing our carbon footprint, but the footprint left by an accident takes a psychological toll on many and can be largely eliminated with a touch of the brakes. But that begs different questions: How much braking is necessary? What does it mean to ride your brakes down a descent?
Aside from the obvious hazard that comes from heating the rims with excessive braking, riding the brakes indicates a lack of faith, faith in one’s own ability to read the road and conditions, faith in the bike’s inherent ability to carve through a course of your choosing, even faith that at speed you have not abdicated all control.
Faith isn’t defined by maintaining micro-control, nor by hoping for the best in a foolhardy rush. Paradoxically, it lies between the two, in a state where not every inch of road is known and yet shy of that point beyond our ability.
It is within that window bounded by a fear of loss of control on one side and a disregard for ourselves and the future that we find true faith, a point where skill allows us grace in our liquid movement through the world.