I’m not sure why, but every time I hear someone mention Paris-Nice, I envision Omar Sharif standing on the deck of a ski chalet wearing a Russian ushanka and imploring some cream-skinned Euro princess to follow him to the Orient. There is, literally, no good reason for this association, so let’s talk about bike racing instead.
Paris-Nice, “the race to the sun,” rolls off the start line on Sunday, (American viewers can catch some of the race on Versus) the 7th. Eight stages will wind their way south from Montfort-l’Amaury (Prologue), south of Paris to the Promenade des Anglais in Nice (Stage 7). For the big pros who hope to compete in the Grand Tours later in the season, Paris-Nice serves as the first coveted win.
Last year, the clear favorite, Alberto Contador, blew up on Stage 7, gifting the race to his Spanish compatriot Luis León Sánchez. It was, to date, really the only sign that Contador is not a robot.
Interestingly, the French anti-doping organization AFLD will NOT be working with the UCI on Paris-Nice this year, after AFLD director Pierre Bordry accused the UCI of favoring Lance Armstrong in 2009. UCI head Pat McQuaid didn’t appreciate the accusation, so the AFLD has been pushed aside. All very mature and professional, as usual.
Historical notes: Sean Kelly is the king of Paris-Nice having won seven straight titles between 1982 and 1988. Also, of note, during the 2003 race, Kazakhstan’s Andrei Kivilev died due to head injury sustained in an accident. His death prompted the UCI to mandate the use of helmets.
So who will win?
Contador, as the mostly undisputed top stage-racer in the world, is favorite, but León Sánchez and his Caisse d’Epargne teammate Alejandro Valverde have to be considered as well. In addition to that crack (not a drug reference) Spanish contingent, Quick Step’s Sylvain Chavanel, Cervelo Test Team’s Heinrich Haussler, Garmin’s Christian Vande Velde, Liquigas’ Roman Kreuziger, HTC Columbia’s Tony Martin, Radio Shack’s Levi Leipheimer, Saxo’s Fränk Schleck are all riders to watch.
Some, like Haussler and maybe Martin, will be looking more for stage wins, but this is a race where a big stage victory can shake up the GC.
So let’s hear it? Who are you picking? Who are you pulling for? And why?
But of course, even before we get to Paris-Nice, we have what will hopefully become one of the legendary classics—Montepaschi Strade Bianche, better known as the Eroica. While most of the talk lately has been about who is ready for Paris-Nice, Garmin-Transitions Ryder Hesjedal, who has twice finished in the top 10 on this event, has cited it as a big priority for his spring.
Previous winner Fabian Cancellara will be back and last week’s winner of Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, Juan Antonio Flecha, who has indicated Paris-Roubaix is among his goals, will both be lining up.
So who’s your call?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
My first experience with Sampson products came back in 1987 when a coworker at the bike shop I worked at bought a Centurion Ironman spec’d with Sampson pedals. For those of you who don’t recall these pedals, they featured an unusual L-shaped cleat that wrapped around the back of the pedal. They featured a unique clutch that held the pedal in place after you clipped out so that upon clipping in again it was in (hopefully) exactly the right position to clip in without fumbling around with your shoes.
The cleats were very difficult to walk in and broke. A lot. I wasn’t exactly impressed.
A few years went by and I received a test bike from Sampson. It was made from Reynolds 853 steel. For construction, Eric Sampson sought out Reynolds’ famous frame shop in Nottingham, England. This was the frame shop where all the Ti-Raleigh frames were built, a shop with as much history as there is to be found in the bike industry. The bike included a few different Sampson components, including cranks.
The bike was one of my favorites of the quartet that I reviewed. My opinion of Sampson changed dramatically.
Since then, I’ve reviewed two more Sampson bikes. Each time, he has done something essentially unknown among his competitors: He calls me and asks me what could be better. Invariably, I get another call a few months later in which he tells me about what changes he was able to make to respond to my suggestions.
I confess, during these calls I rock back in forth in my chair, grinning at my obscene power. Weekly calls of this sort could give me an ego transportable only by 18-wheeler.
So a couple of weeks ago I received a pair of the new s5 pedals. They feature steel spindles, a lightweight alloy body, a 62mm-wide cleat platform, three cartridge bearings and a cam-graduated hinge to make entry easier. The s6 pedals feature a titanium spindle.
Sampson claims a weight of 121g per pedal. My test pedals weighed exactly 121g each (the titanium model has a claimed weight of only 99g per pedal). I was so dumbfounded, I weighed them a second time. I can’t recall the last time a weight was accurate to the gram. Eric says he weighed at least eight pairs himself just to make sure the weight was dead-on.
Eric says that unlike most competitors’ pedals the contact plate on the s5 is replaceable to allow you to keep the look of the pedals new. The spring tension is also very adjustable thanks to a 20-position indexed Allen bolt. The cleats mount via a standard three-hole mounting pattern.
I’ve been a Speedplay X user for more than 10 years. While I have some other pedals at my disposal, Speedplays have been my pedals of choice. Non-Speedplay users tend to be critical of the system, pointing out how shoes will rock side-to-side when the cleats are worn. I tend to replace my cleats pretty frequently and never have any complaints about rocking or the amount of float when using them. It feels perfectly natural.
Okay, so that said, the Sampson’s are striking for their secure feeling. My cleats featured no float, which added to the ultra-positive power transfer. Entry and release is easy enough. I’ve set the release tension pretty low; thrashers afraid of unwanted release can increase tension dramatically.
Suggested retail for the s5 is $139, while the s6 goes for $239. Initially, they will be available in red and white. My test pedals are pre-production; they should be available in black in June.
I’m not sure there’s much more to say about a pair of pedals other than they are light, easy to get into and release and, best of all, provide a secure platform. By comparison both the Dura-Ace 7800 and 7810 pedals—while good pedals—they are heavier than the Sampsons, don’t feel quite as secure and are more expensive. Same for the Look Keo Sprint.
For years I wrote that Sampson products were a terrific value because they typically offered 85 percent of the performance of the top-drawer stuff for 50 percent of the cost. Those days are gone. He said he wants to compete head-to-head with companies like Shimano. After riding these pedals, there’s no denying that they are a great alternative to Shimano and Look.
By now you’ve seen plenty of images from this past weekend’s North American Handmade Bicycle Show. There were some very deserving award winners. In the interest of not contributing to overkill we wanted to include a few shots from bikes that really caught our eye and maybe didn’t get much airtime.
This lugged carbon and steel (correction: titanium) creation from Alchemy featured rounded points on the lugs to prevent stress risers from occurring at the ends of the points that could damage the carbon tubes.
Richie Moore is an alum of Litespeed and he shares the Tennessee company’s penchant for tubing with interesting shapes. His new venture is called Cysco, after his home town of Cisco, Georgia.
Special thanks to special correspondent Touriste-Routier for the images.
Last September I wrote The Elephant, an analysis cum-indictment of Alejandro Valverde, his role in Operación Puerto and the doping shadow hanging over the pro peloton. Since that time, Valverde has won the Vuelta a España. Then, and perhaps still, Valverde represented the modern face of doping controversy, arguably the top rider in the world, at least by UCI ranking, with the strongest circumstantial link to serious foul play. His persistence, both in protesting his innocence and winning big races, seemed to me like the single biggest threat to cycling’s future.
Six months on, my perspective has shifted.
And what caused that shift? Improbably, it was the issue, in France, of an arrest warrant for Floyd Landis on the grounds that the American rider had hacked into the computer system of the French lab that produced his doping positive in 2006 in order to steal documents pertaining to his case. The very notion of the Metallica-quoting, former Mennonite engaging in any sort of international computer skullduggery so amused me that I resolved to read his book, Positively False: the Real Story of How I Won the Tour de France, a tome I had, up to this point, disregarded as superfluous to my understanding of how the cycling world works.
Landis’ book isn’t great. It sort of wanders all over the place, basically outlining what a naive, straight shooter its protagonist is and then lambasting the process of appealing a doping ban and indicting the system that convicted him more than the science, though there’s a bit of that too. I’ll save you the blow-by-blow of my reading the book, then turning to the internet and hundreds of additional pages of independent legal analysis as well as USADA memos, etc. as I stopped thinking about Landis mostly and instead sought to understand more fully how the anti-doping effort actually works.
And what I learned is that it’s complicated.
I thought it was complicated before, but mainly from an administrative standpoint. What I discovered is that testing, sanctioning and prosecuting dopers is a Kafka-esque legal undertaking wed to a scientific process that struggles for accuracy, repeatability and consistency from race to race, country to country and year to year. I began, if I’m honest, with a desire to believe that Floyd Landis didn’t cheat, a desire born of liking the public image of the rider more than anything concrete, and I ended with a deep ambivalence about Landis and subsequently my prize elephant, Valverde.
I realized that I had been applying a double standard.
I loved Landis’ performance in the 2006 Tour, the way he seemed to be assuming the mantle of American cycling leadership from a retired Lance Armstrong, his folksiness, and that amazing comeback on Stage 17, the performance that ultimately led to his doping positive and being stripped of the Tour de France victory.
I didn’t like Valverde. Viewed through the prism of the Puerto investigation, I convicted him of cheating, based on the circumstantial evidence available through the press, and then further indicted him for his flamboyant denials and audacity in continuing to compete in the biggest races at the highest level. In my mind, I was watching a cheat who suffered no consequences. He rubbed our noses in it. He imperiled our sport for his own selfish interests.
This is, of course, complete prejudice.
I don’t know Floyd Landis, and I don’t know if he cheated. I’ve heard awfully compelling arguments that he did, and equally strong reasoning to suggest he didn’t. I don’t know Alejandro Valverde, and I don’t know if he cheated either. Maybe yes. Maybe no.
By continuing to ride, and by the UCI and now CAS (the Court of Arbitration for Sport) taking so long to resolve his case, Valverde has remained the elephant in the peloton. But maybe what that elephant points out is not that doping is alive and well, but rather that the UCI’s system for detecting and prosecuting doping cases is nowhere near sufficient to the task. Valverde goes on winning, a path not available to Landis, and by doing so he proves one of two things, possibly both, that he can win races without dope or, in the event he was and is doping, that the tests don’t work nearly well enough.
Today, the Vuelta a Murcia rolls out of its start in Spain. That race’s director, Paco Guzman, barred Italian teams from entering his race to protest, he said, the Italian’s ban on Valverde, who is from Murcia. Ironically, Valverde and his team, Caisse d’Epargne aren’t racing Murcia either, due to a mixup over payments. At time of writing, UCI chief Pat McQuaid had become involved, threatening Guzman with UCI sanction and demanding an apology. It’s an ugly mess.
I see now that cycling’s politics don’t admit of easy resolutions for what, to most fans, seem like straightforward questions. Did a rider dope? Did he not? Are the races clean? Is the process fair? Are the rules applied equally across the sport?
Last September I wrote that Alejandro Valverde was the elephant, but now I see that no one rider can own that distinction. In fact, now that we’ve recognized the doping and the problems it cause, what remains is the UCI’s ability, or lack thereof, to clean things up, to give us a clean competition where we trust the participants, the administrators and the results. This is the elephant who casts its enormous, gray shadow over the races, the sponsorships, the legends and the rising stars. The dope lingers because we don’t know how to stop it. The UCI is as confused as the riders are. And I, as a fan, have to find a way to reserve judgement, for now, and possibly forever.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
There’s been a creeping trend in the PRO peloton over the last couple of seasons that mystifies me as much as the enduring attraction for Brittney Spears. PRO teams have been wearing baggy wind breakers and vests featuring solid colors with the team’s sponsor logos silkscreened (silkscreened?!) in white on the nylon tent fabric.
I cut my teeth watching Spring Classics that when contested in rain would show the colors of the peloton muted beneath a layer of clear PVC. For all that the average rain cape isn’t—breathable, well fitting, long lasting, sophisticated in construction—it always had a certain elegant function to me. Teams were unmistakable in their rain capes, but the foggy window look that the rain cape provided told you that conditions weren’t just cold, they were seriously rainy. After all, PROs don’t put a rain cape on for drizzle. If a PRO has a rain cape on, Noah is framing a boat.
Aside from looking strictly amateur (they could just as easily say “Billy’s Carburetors” as “Rock Racing”) the number of dark blue and black vests in the peloton at some races can make it downright difficult to tell the riders apart. Not really that big a deal in the grand scheme, though.
Of course, there’s another point to consider: The average rain cape is as comfortable as a Hefty trash bag, as flexible as granite and as wet inside as it is on the outside. It does at least offer the improvement of shielding you from the wind while making sure that if you’re going to be wet, at least you’re warm.
My first rain cape featured a zipper that rusted immediately following its first use in appropriately inclement conditions. Thereafter, each time I donned garment, a red dust flew into the air. Eventually, the creases that formed in the PVC cracked, increasing the garment’s breathability, if dramatically cutting its weatherproof functionality. The experience was kinda like noticing all the afternoon light streaming into your kitchen after the outside wall collapses.
The sensible thing to do in rainy conditions is to ride a bicycle with fenders. It’s like eating your vegetables, separating your lights from your darks in the laundry or changing your car’s oil every 3000 miles. But we’re cyclists and if you’re reading this now, your connection to the sport isn’t about sensibility, its about emotion. Admit it: You like to go fast, but you don’t want to look like a teeny-bopper while you do it.
That’s where the Assos ClimaJet Breaker comes in. Now, we have some disclosure to get out of the way. The typical PVC rain cape runs somewhere between $20 and $40. The Assos ClimaJet Breaker is the world’s only rain cape that costs more than a good French dinner. It does, however, last considerably longer. I’ve never gotten more than two seasons of use out of a PVC rain cape, but after more than a year of use of the ClimaJet Breaker it displays exactly zero signs of wear. I might as well have just opened the packaging; I could hang this in a shop’s inventory.
A stay-fresh appearance has some appeal, but it’s not really a deal-closer among selling points. That a see-through fabric can be so supple is, however, a real shocker. It’s as if Assos discovered see-through steel. That suppleness gives the piece two key qualities. First, it’s the only rain cape I’ve come across that’s as easy to pack in a jersey pocket as a vest. Second, using a soft material allows it to more closely follow your form and because it was cut by Assos, rather than Joe’s Burlap Sack Outlet, the fit is practically bespoke.
Allow me a little aside: I’ve met a great many riders who graduated from the entry-level clothing we typically purchase as newbie cyclists to club clothing made by any of the myriad custom producers and among the tallest of them I hear (and see) a consistent fault. The long-sleeve items consistently feature sleeves that are too short. It’s as if they were the jersey (or jacket) answer to knickers. If you are among those who’ve had this problem, I can tell you you’ll never end up with wrist tan at the end of a long day spent on the hoods. If the sleeves of this—or any other—Assos garment don’t reach your wrists it can only mean one thing: You’re a giraffe.
(I’m using their photo of the ClimaJet Breaker on a model because he looks the part more than I do and this thing isn’t easy to shoot. Casper is more easily caught on film.)
And that’s the thing about Assos. We all gasp at the price, but in every other regard, the clothing is nearly without peer. It is a correct reponse to any clothing issue you’ve ever had—not the only correct response, mind you, but one that can never go wrong, like showing up to a dinner party with a bottle of Pinot and a bottle of Chardonnay. Assos garments never fit properly until you’re in the saddle and then they fit perfectly. The materials often seem like underkill until you’re out riding and you discover an hour into your pedaling that you couldn’t be more comfortable.
Almost all rain capes feature a long hem that, thanks to the stiffish PVC, ends up trailing behind you like tail on a kite. The ClimaJet Breaker is both different and not. It’s different in that it does feature a long hem, but the previously mentioned suppleness of the fabric means that if you don’t have a caboose like a watermelon, it can protect said caboose from rooster-tailing spray with one little downward tug.
The zipper is small and fine, helping the garment retain its terrific fit, now matter what position you’re in. It is, however, small enough to be a challenge to try to zip up on the fly after pulling it from your pocket. I don’t know too many riders who actually put jackets or vests on while rolling any more, so maybe that’s not much of an issue.
The standard joke about rain capes is how, despite side vent panels, you end up as wet inside as it is outside. While true, that inside moisture can be 20 or more degrees warmer than what’s falling, and that difference is key to comfort. Under hard riding moisture will build up some inside the ClimaJet Breaker even though it has side mesh panels, but it is far more breathable than versions made from PVC. At moderate efforts it breathes well enough to end up no more damp inside than a standard vest. Amazingly, in dry conditions—say it stops raining and the sun comes out—the fabric contains an active membrane that expands in the presence of water and contracts to open pores in dry conditions. On a sunny day it is roughly as breathable as a standard wind breaker, and that’s significant because it makes this rain cape more than just a rain cape.
And that’s not something you’ll ever say about a PVC rain cape.
If the Group Ride were an actual race, and Padraig was the RKP DS, then I’d be climbing up the stairs of our lavishly appointed bus right now and apologizing for letting the team down on the opening day of the race season (in Belgium). Clearly, I mistimed my attack, launching the Het Nieuwsblad prediction thread only a few short hours before the race rolled out of Ghent, leaving almost no time for you, the peloton, to chase it down. Don’t worry. I’ll round into form as the season goes on.
Having said that, what a great weekend of racing. Juan Antonio Flecha busts one off with 20km to go and makes it to the line, ALONE IN PHOTO, the best way to finish. Heinrich Haussler, that yapping terrier of a rider, broke the tape second, ahead of a sprint won by Tyler Farrar, for third place.
Gee, that’s funny, no Belgians in the top three. How embarrassing.
I wonder if it has anything to do with all those Flemish hardmen spinning their wheels in the South of Spain in advance of the season, instead of in the wind and cold of their native land. Ironic, then, to be beaten by a Spaniard.
Flecha was all class, not only in winning, but also in paying tribute to his fallen friend Frank Vandenbroucke, a cheater, yes, but a cheater with a flare for the dramatic and a heart of fool’s gold.
Of course, Sunday held the survival race-themed, 2010 running of Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, the weather in Belgium turning from “good” to “hellish” overnight. The storm that tore across the northern lands even had a name, “Xythia,” straight out of the Chronicles of Narnia. 195 riders were on the start list. 26 finished. That’s 13% of the peloton you might call “tough.”
Apparently, temperatures in the 40s with wind gusts to 60kph are too much for the pros. Having commuted in those conditions I can confirm that they’re sub-optimal, but really boys, aren’t you being paid to race?
Bobbie Traksel (WHO?) raced and won for Vacansoleil, the Pro Continental squad’s second big win of the year after Wouter Mol took the GC in the Tour of Qatar. Kinda makes you think the smaller investment sponsorship in a Pro Con team might make more sense than the big money Pro Tour ticket, since, to this point, the top purveyor of European camping vacations has garnered more positive press than most, if not all, of the lower level Pro Tour teams.
RKP props to Thor Hushovd and Sylvain Chavanel who were among the few big names who bothered to finish K-B-K. Will it take a Norwegian and a Frenchman to teach the Belgians what it means to be hard again?
There is, of course, time for redemption. We’ve only just begun. Are you listening Tom Boonen?