The middle of June. The precipice. The brink. Just a few weeks left to tune up for the Tour de France, which means that all the “just riding this race as training” is almost over. Top Tour contenders will be getting in their last minute collarbone fractures at the Dauphiné and the Tour de Suisse. Aerodynamic positions are set. The UCI is getting its crack Reject-a-Bike squad ready for the time trials, and the AFLD and UCI are ratcheting up their those-guys-don’t-know-what-they’re-doing rhetoric in anticipation of some really wearisome l’Equipe headlines.
At this stage we are beginning to draw up our list of favorites, a list that must begin with Alberto Contador and include Andy Schleck, but from that point breaks off and meanders through the peloton with a lot of maybes and possiblys.
From last year’s podium there is Lance Armstrong to consider. The now 38-year-old former champion and globe-trotting cancer fighter has had an early season to forget, one in which he made the biggest news by being accused of serial doping. Again. Between injuries, illnesses and general lack of form, you have to wonder if the Lance v. Alberto narrative we’re bound to have crammed down our collective throats is even worth spinning in the first place.
Then there’s Bradley Wiggins. Team Sky’s million dollar baby has thus far flattered to deceive in the black and blue of his new squad. With a nose for the controversial headline, Mr. Wiggins’ 2010 has been remarkable for an utter lack of remarkableness. He can’t possibly sneak up on the competition this year, but could expectations for the Brit be any lower?
And what of the Italians? Ivan Basso won the Giro going away, but could he possibly be strong enough to do the double? Or will he turn super domestique for Vincenzo Nibali, the young talent who served him so well on their native roads?
World Champion Cadel Evans can’t be discounted entirely, but the Giro might have proven that BMC don’t have the riders to support a Grand Tour winner. Evans has done the rainbow stripes proud, but the last time the World Champ won the Tour was Bernard Hinault in 1981, nearly thirty years ago.
You’ve also got riders like Denis Menchov, last season’s Giro winner, moving his focus to the Tour in an attempt to round out his palmares. In a similar situation to Evans, you have to wonder if Rabobank have the riders to deliver Menchov to the top step. The Russian also has an amusing habit of falling off his bike, which is usually a bad idea in July in France. Ask Joseba Beloki.
This week’s Group Ride looks at the favorites for the maillot jaune and wonders who is in the best form and why? Is it one of the riders mentioned above or is there an outsider you think has the goods? Has Contador done too much with wins in Volta ao Algarve, Paris-Nice and Vuelta a Castilla y León, not to mention his current escapades at the Dauphiné? Will Andy Schleck’s knee be strong enough to let him dual with Contador in the high mountains? Let the pre-race chatter begin.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
As some of you might be aware, there are sports other than cycling. One of those sports is soccer/football/futbol/futebol/voetbal/fußbal/calcio, and in this other sport with its many names, there is a big tournament coming. They call it the World Cup. This international tournament, which takes place every four years, is, by all accounts, the biggest sporting event in the world.
I know. I know. With the Tour de France on the horizon, who can be bothered?
Well, as I think I’ve mentioned here before, my other area of quasi-expertise is in the aforementioned sport, and here on the verge of the quadrennial explosion of the “beautiful game” it has me thinking about what the future of cycling could be, both here in the United States and in the rest of the world.
I cast my mind back 20 years. I didn’t own my own computer then, and following soccer (excuse, temporarily the American terminology) meant tuning into a one hour highlights show late on a Friday night. Of course, for a man of passion, that was never going to be enough, so I bought a computer and a short wave radio (seriously) and began following matches by live text update and by tuning into local stations in Manchester, London, Derby and Ipswich. It was like trying to quench your thirst by catching rain drops on your tongue.
Over time, the situation improved. Games were available by satellite TV at the pub. ESPN began to show matches. Soccer specific channels came on line. And today, I can say, with some relief, that there is now more soccer available to me than I can possibly choke down in a month of Sundays.
Now, who cares?
Well, you should, and here’s why. Where I was with soccer 20 years ago is, roughly, where I am with cycling now. I follow races large and small by live text feed online. I catch highlights shows. I squint at live Internet video with Belgian commentary. I read and read and read and read. For a man of passion, it’s not quite enough.
And yet, like soccer, cycling is an international sport. It has a governing body which is actively trying to globalize its brand, to raise cycling’s profile in heretofore unexploited commercial markets. It’s hard to say whether the timeline will be the same, but it’s fair to guess that those of us in currently “non-cycling oriented” nations will gain increasing access to coverage of our sport over the next two decades as investment in Asia, Australia and even in the US begin to bear fruit.
It would be easy, and cynical I think, to say that soccer has a distinct advantage over bike racing in that the ready-made market for its matches is much larger and the advertising revenues are so much greater. The point is not that cycling stands to make the same money as soccer, but rather that the potential reach of the sport is similar, and the success of that initiative can probably be attributed to the philosophy of the UCI, which is to globalize as much as possible.
To be sure, globalization has brought soccer to the United States despite the entrenched interests of our peculiar sports, baseball, American football, basketball, et. al. My generation and those older had no access to the more international forms of sport, and so became calcified in our interests. The younger generation lives in a much larger world, and they are curious.
For those outside the US, the “soccerification,” if you will, of cycling will also have the benefit of broadening the sponsorship pool and stabilizing the economics of the pro peloton. While European sponsors may shy away from being associated with cycling’s doping culture, bigger international sponsors will feel comfortable investing in new, clean teams, such as Garmin and Sky.
Traditional soccer nations have wrestled with their sport’s growth in worldwide appeal. What were once clubs have become brands. Tribal lines and heritage have become harder to defend. If cycling does make it down that path, there will be cultural losses in Western Europe. Already, French and Italian races that were once major dates on the calendar have made way for races in other parts of the world. Some will lament. Some will rejoice.
If it means I can watch the next Giro d’Italia live on television with English language commentary, then you can count me among the latter.
Last week cycling lost yet another home to the peloton. The Tour of Missouri which had quickly risen in the continental ranks as second only to the Tour of California, was found beaten to death this past week, pummeled by some dirty politics and back room dealings. Word on the street unfortunately has it that there are either links to the mafia or a sheep-lovers cult and the murder rises to that of a crime of the highest order. Tour organizers found the lifeless body of the Tour of Missouri outside the steps of the hill on the capitol steps, just west of the Governor’s mansion and immediately put her on life support. Diligent efforts were made to save her life, but after courageous efforts, she passed this past week on May 27.
After a seven-month negotiation with State Tourism, which included a bi-partisan state senate and house approval of $1 million in support for the Tour of Missouri sponsorship, the United States’ second biggest professional cycling event and one of the top stage races outside of Europe, will be officially cancelled should earmarked funds not be released by Tourism and the Governor, according to the board of directors of Tour of Missouri, Inc.
“This may be a win for the Missouri Tourism Commission and the Governor, but a huge loss for the state of Missouri and its citizens,” said Mike Weiss, chairman of the Tour of Missouri, Inc. “It has been an insanely complicated battle for something so beneficial, and it’s left all of us absolutely baffled.
—Tour of Missouri press release May 27, 2010
So, OK, I’m indeed bitter, pissed and sarcastic here. It seems like yet another continental racing effort that just seems to come and go. The sad reality is I can go on with a list of them that I have came to love, like loved ones in my family. The Tour DuPont, Coors Classic, Red Zinger, Tour of Georgia, and now the Tour of Missouri. What does it take to develop a race w/tradition and a heritage that is set in stone?
Can we blame the opposition? As cyclists, we sometimes are not even unified ourselves in something we love. Some work and negotiate to make these races happen. Sometimes it may mean negotiating and developing what appears to be odd relationships. However, working with others to gain support that is more in our interest than theirs is to our benefit, i.e. Amgen and the Tour of California. Despite these benefits however, there are those who despise the corporate support of our racing ventures and cannot understand why we have such odd relationships. Others are indifferent and do nothing in support nor otherwise.
The sad reality is that it takes money and a lot of it in order to support races and events of this magnitude. Private sponsorships, mutual relationships and negotiations have got to be delicately balanced in order for us to have and enjoy something so central to us, that of big cycling events and races.
So our opposition uses this against us. They exploit this weakness and use it as an advantage. They use those who say nothing and point to them as examples that ‘most don’t really care’. The vocal opponents would rather see money used elsewhere.
The key is this: I hope for our sakes that we can unify our divergent ideas, respect our differences and recognize the single thing we have in common. The bike. Sure, we can have interesting discussions like we have here at RKP, we can even heat it up at times, we can correct one another, challenge one another, but when it comes to the outside circles that we congregate ourselves we should represent cycling well and always help it become elevated to the ranks it deserves.
As far as the Tour of Missouri goes, rest in peace my friend, it was a great ride wasn’t it?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
You guys astound me. You floor me. I mean, really. I write a Group Ride soliciting comments about your favorite pair of sweaty, old gloves or a pair of shorts that doesn’t bind or chafe. And what do you do? You give me stuff like this:
Clarity. After a certain amount of miles the head clears and non-bike world again becomes manageable. Work (the work that pays the bills) is a reasonable task instead of a chore. Miles on the bike give me the best accessory, a life. – Erik
OK, so that totally fails the test in that life is not an actual accessory. If it was we’d all have one, and let’s be honest, most of us don’t.
Along the same lines, there was this:
What I love about cycling that is-not-the-bike is the fatigue of the legs and the lightness of being after a long and hard ride. All my everyday worries and problems are gone for that moment. What else there is to like? Kids cheering at the roadside and and bad Belgian roads. Really the worse they get the more pai…fun it is. – Cthulu
I liked WVCycling’s bit about fresh pavement too. Here in New England, where the winter turns our black top into a total freaking moonscape every year, fresh paving is a gift from the cycling gods, and of course the Department of Public Works.
And of course, Soleur is always good for something like this:
Whats to like not-the-bike…..
-the summer sun rising off the east horizon
-the effortless spin in summer, as the bitterness of winter is all gone
-the dogs that chase me, that are smiling, and we race to the corner each morning
-how the k’s just roll over and over and over, instead of slowly ticking one by one
-sounds of nothing
-long and late evening rides where the wind dies down, kids are playing, and life is abundant around as you spin through a neighborhood
-the salt on the bibs and feel of the unzipped jersey
-girls that yell out the window sexy..sexy, then mention ‘its an ole man’
-everyone not-the-bike asking if your gonna ride in ‘the tour’
You know, I’m a sucker for all that philosophical crap. I really, really am. I even have a degree in philosophy, just to prove how very serious and intellectual I am. And I’m grateful to you guys for making the Group Ride so much fun. But, like I said before, you all failed. The rest of you, the ones who mentioned saddles and embro and arm warmers and pedals and shoes and power meters, you got back to the parking lot first (that’s how you win a Group Ride, right?).
The bad news is, you’re all sweaty and you neglected to stop and drink an espresso at the turn around or a beer at the top of the climb. You’re fast, and you’re legs smell nice, but…next time, boys. Next time.
Image: Bibliotheque Nationale de France
There is no there there.
Of all the cycling blogs I read, the one that most consistently surprises me is Competitive Cyclist’s “What’s New.” Written by the man who set the tone for CC’s product descriptions, Brendan Quirk, “What’s New” is a perpetually shifting grab bag of racing reveries, firm opinions, exposed biases and product insights. It’s the only cycling blog I can say is guaranteed to teach me something with each new post.
In a recent post, Quirk commented that the best single piece written about Amgen’s Tour of California wasn’t even written about the race. The piece ran in the New York Times’ opinion section and I can unfairly summarize it as being yet another examination of one writer’s inability to grasp the true identity of Los Angeles.
It’s not in my nature to write response pieces, but the points of intersection involved here caught in me like the hook to Ina Gadda Da Vida.
I’ve lived in Los Angeles County for 14 years. In that time, I’ve lived in a few different area codes and I’ve worked in most of them. I’ve written a guidebook about riding in Los Angeles County. From Simi to Montrose, I’ve ridden each of the region’s best-known group rides.
In writing for the Times, Verlyn Klinkenborg takes an unusual tack. Rather than suggest the tired observation that due to the city’s diverse offerings, it has no true identity (which is the literary equivalent to the Gary Larson’s “Bummer of a birthmark Hal”), Klinkenborg suggests that perhaps an entire lifetime spent in a single strip mall’s Chinese restaurant might reveal the city’s true nature.
Los Angeles is a city that specializes in many of Western Civilization’s ills. From memorable Hollywood blockbusters, to cinematic masterpieces and porn, it produces the best and worst of what happens on film. It is ground zero for each new cosmetic procedure and fad diet. Fashion trends come and go here faster than the traffic.
But Los Angeles can be as normal as Topeka, Kansas. Every career you’ve ever had or considered is being done here, and every middle-America success story and family woe can be found around the corner from any of the city’s thousands of churches.
To learn the secrets of this vast city, I’ve had to study, and I certainly don’t know many of them yet. I know the roads of the South Bay and Westside intimately, but if I head out to the Montrose Ride, I make sure to stick with the group. My knowledge of restaurants falls on the same lines.
While one can grasp the essential nature of New York by picking up a copy of the Times, the New Yorker or the Village Voice, not a single publication can speak to the enormity of Los Angeles. Its perpetual sprawl may be a blight on the landscape, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t interesting things happening all over.
And that’s when it occurred to me. The group rides one finds here are diverse in terrain, speed and ability. They produce different sorts of riders. You can do the Rose Bowl Ride your whole live and never learn a thing about climbing. Do the Donut Ride more than a few times and the Palos Verdes Peninsula climbs will force you to think about your weight, your diet. The Simi Rides draws more than just the locals, it draws those with ambition, just as Hollywood draws those who seek the limelight.
Drawing a parallel between the diversity in the rides and the diversity of the city is easy, but it doesn’t get at the real truth. Truth always happens at a personal level. Faith, epiphanies and crimes all take place within individuals.
You can do a group ride for years and really only scratch the surface of its identity. Get to know the riders and you begin to learn things about the neighborhood (such as the preponderance of engineers in the South Bay or lawyers and doctors in Santa Monica). Dig a little deeper and you meet riders like the guy I spoke to once on the Montrose ride who really prefers mountain biking but has limited time on Saturday mornings and the only way he can get out of the house is by telling his wife he must be on time or he misses the ride.
I’ve met guys who think their ride is the natural center of the universe. For a sprinter on the Rose Bowl, a climber on Simi or a rouleur on the Donut, the pairing of discipline and terrain is a faint whiff of heaven on earth. There are many more riders for whom their ride is a Sisyphean enterprise, offering them a challenge greater than they’ll ever achieve and yet futility never enters their mind.
The greater mystery is composed of hundreds of riders, riders I meet everywhere I go. And by everywhere I mean not just LA, but Chicago, Memphis, Boston and beyond. There are those riders who will happily sacrifice any sort of peak, any shot of ever seeing the front—except in the event of a complete mistake by them or others—in exchange for being able to ride comfortably in the pack year-round.
For every rider I know who is riding 20 hours per week and wants to peak for the state road race or crit, I know 10 guys who scrape for every mile, squeezing rides in before staff meetings two days a week, and worrying that beer and travel might increase their suffering. I know retirees who are faster now than they were at 40. I ride with race car drivers, actors, powerful lawyers and ground-breaking doctors. I also ride with project managers, engineers, small business owners, stay-at-home moms and bike shop employees.
To all the world the peloton looks utterly uniform in its lycra, colander hats, bare legs, wraparound sunglasses and African-flag-colored outfits. That glancing dismissal is the same one LA gets hundreds of times each day. Los Angeles is a city with no one truth, just as there is no one way to do a group ride; each rider will have his or her own plan for the day.
The more I talk to other cyclists when I ride, the more I hear fascinating and surprising stories. I’ve become a student as much of the riders as the rides, for there is no typical rider. The reasons for which we ride are as varied as this city.
Now that we’ve been given the gift of mechanical doping, I am thinking about all of the little bits of gear that help me along my way every day, the gloves, the helmet, the shorts and jerseys and gloves. The socks! Don’t forget the socks.
Are gloves manual doping? Does anyone ever actually read the manual? IKEA could stand to dope their manuals a little. I bought a couch from them, but could only manage to manufacture a chaise longue from the kit they gave me. Now who’s the dope?
Is Gatorade electrolyte doping? What is an electrolyte? Who was in the Electrolyte Orchestra other than Jeff Lynne? What is the future of symphonic rock? I hope it’s not these guys, cause they’re six kinds of awful.
If a motor is mechanical doping, is having a high VO2 Max or high lactacid metabolism, talent doping? Should Greg LeMond give back his three yellow jerseys because damn it, his natural capacity for processing oxygen is just way beyond anything I can compete with? My answer: yes. Perhaps cycling could develop a biological handicapping system so that schlubs like me could compete in Grand Tours and have our times adjusted (from days down to hours) to keep us competitive with the extraterrestrials who actually win those things. Who’s in? Where’s the petition?
Rather than getting into a long, tortured discussion of seat tube motors, torque, battery life and the dark side of the human spirit this week, I’d like this Group Ride to focus the stuff that helps us enjoy the ride. The question is: What is your favorite piece of gear/kit and why? Don’t start waxing rhapsodic about your new carbon fiber frame or a wheel set. Like the Lance’s autobiography, this is not about the bike.
It’s about not-the-bike. What not-the-bike do you like best … while you’re on the bike?
Image courtesy Robert Wise Productions
In movie making, writers of thrillers and mysteries will often use a device to heighten suspense and keep viewers from guessing too much of the plot. That element is called a Red Herring. Formally, a Red Herring is a kind of fallacy. It’s an argument introduced to distract the audience from the topic by inserting irrelevant information.
The “Miss Lonely Hearts” character in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window is one of cinema’s great Red Herrings. Her personal drama of a loveless life that deteriorates into a suicide attempt is completely unrelated to the disappearance (and murder) of Mrs. Thorwald. Similarly, the stolen money, and what ultimately becomes of it, is utterly unrelated to the real plot of Psycho. They are distractions of a grand order.
Cycling now has its own Red Herring. It is being called “motorized doping”—using a bicycle with a tiny motor hidden from view to potentially offer the user an extra 60-100 watts at critical times. It comes at a truly inopportune time. The fight against real doping, that is, the scourge presented by engine-enhancing blood transfusions and EPO has proven to be more than the UCI is equipped to deal with.
Even though this story is really just coming to light now, it has been a topic of discussion, even concern, for months. According to the UCI, some bikes were checked at both Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders. Enrico Carpani, of the UCI’s technical commission, says they found no unusual bikes.
And yet, the story persists. One of the problems is that former pro Davide Cassani, who inadvertently alerted the world to Michael Rasmussen’s Italian training regimen (when he was allegedly training in Mexico), carries great credibility and impact due to the fact that he has the distinction of being a television commentator who unmasked a doper. Cassani demonstrated such a bicycle on TV and then boasted how he could win the Giro with its help, despite being 50 years old.
How is it that Pat McQuaid couldn’t dispatch this rumor—it is, after all, only a rumor at best—with a single knee-slapping guffaw? You know, the melting-into-the-couch, uncontrollable, tears-down-your cheeks laugh you’d do if someone told you straight-faced that Barack Obama wasn’t American or even Kenyan, but an alien and he controlled the drug trade on behalf of other aliens who were preparing for an invasion of Earth.
It is more than my vivid imagination can conjure. I have an easier time believing in something that took place “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” than I do in the idea of a secret e-bike powering the world’s reigning Olympic and World Champion in the time trial to victory at Flanders and Roubaix. After all, if Cancellara wasn’t strong enough on his own to get the job done at those two monuments, then please, Captain Skeptical, how did he manage a gold medal and rainbow stripes?
Perhaps he’s been on an assisted bike all along? Yeah, that’s it.
And wouldn’t such a bike have required not just complicity, but cooperation on the part of Specialized? Morgan Hill’s favorite employer was ready to sell its Shiv to consumers in the wake of its UCI ban. Joe Cyclist doesn’t have to worry about UCI bans. How many consumers would say ‘yes’ to a road bike equipped with a jet pack? What are the chances that if Specialized actually managed to create a mechanical assist to the crowd-favorite Tarmac that they’d really keep quiet about it? Okay, so they couldn’t really publicize something that offered an illegal advantage. But the cost of developing a frame to handle such an addition (and today’s carbon fiber frames aren’t engineered to have extra stuff crammed in them) would be significant, too significant for most bike companies to do without trying to trickle that technology into other bikes.
So what we have is a Red Herring, a distraction. Perhaps a magician’s sleight of hand. Because certainly the more important question about Cancellara’s performances is whether or not he executed them with no biological doping. All indications are that he was clean, and he’s been tested a fair amount, which is encouraging.
The only question regarding motorized doping worth asking is who started the rumor and what possible motivation they might have to do so.
But instead, we have UCI technicians working to develop a scanner that will tell them whether or not a bicycle is equipped with a motor.
Really? Is that the only way they can dispel this nonsense? How about look for control wires? How about weigh the bikes? How about look for control buttons? Given the current state of e-bikes and the amount of engineering Shimano employed to develop its Di2 group, you are safer assuming there is no motorized doping going on than asking a boy scout to escort you across the street.
Why aren’t we laughing? Why aren’t in tears begging the mongers to stop—that if we laugh any harder or longer, we’ll throw up? This is funnier than Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Every euro the UCI spends developing a motor scanner is a euro that ought to be going to the fight against the real doping.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Cycling is a to-do-list person’s paradise. From “oil chain before tomorrow’s ride” to “win Tour de France by age 25” cyclists can amass more boxes to be ticked and action items to action than there are gallons of crude headed for the Gulf Coast.
Lists aren’t exactly sexy, at least, not like a Campy C-Record crank or Brigitte Bardot circa 1968. But they are an indispensable part of preparation, the process of being ready.
Boy Scouts are taught to “be prepared.” In my mind, that’s thinking of contingencies. In racing that means training for each of the elements you’ll find in a race. You must do interval upon interval, sprint until your quads request a retread, learn to descend like you are pursued not by the peloton, but by cops.
The bike wash, followed by the bike inspection is as much a part of the arc of a week’s training as the riding and eating. As your miles go up, so does—hopefully—the bike maintenance. Seeing your bike dialed and ready before event day can do a lot to inspire confidence for the coming day and help you visualize a successful ride, no matter how you define it.
What we do to deliver on schedule is writ both large and small. After all, training isn’t as simple as some intervals and a sprint or two. Those are built on base miles which were planned well before the winter solstice.
And of course, there’s the day itself. For most of us there’s a kind of comfort that comes with the arc of the day. The routine has its elements and its timing. Alarm, breakfast, the odd extra cup of Joe, chamois cream, bibs, chest strap, base layer, sun screen, embrocation, arm warmers, jersey, socks, shoes, helmet, glasses, gloves. (Damn you, Theodore Dreiser.)
But after all the physical needs of preparation have been ticked, we are left with that most difficult apparatus—the mind. Mental preparation can do or undo a day more fully than any flat. If someone says he was unprepared for the difficulty of a race, rarely does he mean he hadn’t trained enough or didn’t have the right clothes on. No, he is saying that in his mind, he simply didn’t believe the day could be that hard.
And that’s the trick. Preparation is belief. Believing that you have done the correct training, that you are wearing what’s necessary, eating what works and have what it takes. Done well, you give yourself the confidence to ride to your fullest potential. But belief can trump the elements of preparation, and render them as irrelevant to your ride as the day’s news. There are days, special days, where for no obvious reason you feel good and know you’ll ride at the front.
The irony is, only the greatest champions are prepared for that sort of confidence on a daily basis.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
In the early hours of a January morning in 1909, a young theology student named Minne Hoekstra laced his skates up tight and set off into the darkness on the frozen canals of the Dutch province of Friesland. Still recovering from pneumonia, Minne was determined to best his rivals in the first Elfstedentoch, or 11 Cities Tour.
The contest, almost 200 kilometers long, brought Minne to the finish line first — more than 13 hours later in the dark of the night. It wasn’t until three years later that weather permitted the race to be held again on Friesland’s icy canals.
And so rather than waiting for the weather to cooperate every year, the Friesians began an 11 Cities spring bicycle tour in 1912. But “11 Village” tour might be a bit more appropriate in Friesland.
And so last weekend, my girlfriend and 12,998 of our closest friends, having caught the Elfstedenkoorts — or 11 Cities Fever — set off at sunrise to tour Friesland over the 240-kilometer course. Having spent most of the past year on 50-pound Dutch city bikes, our eagerness was through the roof, but our fitness left something to be desired.
It helps that I have a compulsion to never do anything in moderation. (More cynical minds have called this a sickness.)
Setting off on two handmade-in-Holland Koga touring bikes, the sun greeted us as we made our way out of the first city, Bolsward. We couldn’t help but marvel at what a few rays can do to our spirits after a long, cold and dark winter in northern Europe.
The wind snapped our jerseys and marked the passing of time. Our cadence was set by the guttural sound of Dutch cheers and farmer’s clogs on other bikes. Literally.
A large portion of the Netherlands sits below sea level, so it’s no surprise that it’s flatter than Kansas. But don’t be fooled. That doesn’t make for easy riding. Now, there’s a curious thing about this country. No matter which way you look, the wind is always in your face.
Even a doped-to-the-gills Pro rider would have trouble with this blustery business. Multi-national conglomerates like GE harness the stuff to light cities and power factories.
But we did have two things working in our favor. The first was that there were 12,998 other riders to draft behind. The second was the Dutch tradition of oliebollen. Exact translation: “oil balls,” which are deep fried dough balls, often filled with apples or raisins. Having perfected the art of bonking years earlier, I learned long ago that it can be unforgiving.
My older brother swore by stuffing his jersey pockets with cookies stolen from his college dining hall. “Better than any Power Bar you’ll ever find,” he said proudly.
So, we took heed. I bought a half-dozen oliebollen before the start and put them in a plastic bag and slipped the grease balls into my jersey. Picture Krispy Kreme, Dunkin’ Donuts or your local summer carnival’s sugary funnel cake – but better. Much better.
Okay, I’ll admit, things got a little messy. But the doughnuts did the job. Sugar rushed to our brains faster than I’ll ever ride a bike. “Hell, the Red Light District and the sticky sensimilla of Amsterdam had nothing on this stuff,’’ I thought to myself as I went in for another bite. “This is the finest the Netherlands has to offer.”
We instantly found our rhythm. We flew past windmills, old and new, over bridges spanning canals. There were racer-lookin’ riders on lighter-than-air carbon bikes and farmers riding …. well, farmer’s bikes. Thoughts wandered in and out of our brains. Or maybe it was the wind.
One of the requirements of the 11 Cities Tour is to get a card stamped at each of the cities to prove you’ve hit them all. (What’s the 11 Cities Tour if you’ve only seen 10 of them?) Fine in theory, but it added a few hours to our trip because thousands of riders bottlenecked in the tight-walled streets of the old towns, forcing us to walk through the card-stamping sections. Compared with efficient chip card systems that mark split times in other rides, this process was quainter than a Dutch farm girl holding tulips.
I had to remind myself that this was a century-old Dutch tour, not one of the Spring Classics, and that was part of its charm.
The time off the bike gave us a chance to dig into our oliebollen and sip on soup provided by the organizers. Farmers opened up their barns to sell snacks. We pressed on, snaking our way through the riders and taking advantage of their efforts in the wind.
With smiles across our wind-whipped faces, we crawled across the finish line almost 12 and a half hours after we set out. We were greeted by a lively crowd and a tent filled with flowing taps of beer and grandmothers who handed us medals and stamped the final stamp on our cards.
Unlike Minne, we had no hearty Friesian blood in us. But we did have the benefit of Dutch tradition. We had oliebollen and good ol’ fashion Friesian enthusiasm – thanks in part to Minne’s efforts more than 100 years ago.
If you ever find yourself in Friesland at this time of year, be prepared to catch the 11 Cities Fever. It’s as contagious as the oliebollen are addictive.
I already have Grand Tour hangover, that malaise that settles in when there isn’t a daily race to follow by television/live web feed or text updates. This just-finished Giro d’Italia was simply the best three-week tour in my memory. Constant lead changes, ferocious crashes, valiant and successful breakaways, the GC boys spinning away at the steepest climbs in Europe—these are the things that cycling fans want to see, and this year’s Giro delivered them all in spades.
Ivan Basso, he of the curiously rehabilitated reputation, earned what had to feel like a highly redemptive maglia rosa. Between a wishy-washy half acknowledgment that his previous approach to high-end racing had left something to be desired and signing up with Dr. Aldo Sassi, the hottest trainer in the pro peloton, Basso is back in a big way, not to mention his Liquigas squad, who came in as contenders and rode away as champions, with Basso on the top step and Vincenzo Nibali in third. Basso danced in the pedals when he had to, but his team also did an excellent job of sheltering him from wind and the predations of three weeks in the saddle.
Nibali and Basso showed that having multiple captains can work on the road, and also that the younger rider will, eventually, win a Grand Tour, perhaps with Basso as his super domestique. Stranger things have happened on teams not called Astana.
Pre-race favorite Cadel Evans fared not so well, ending in 5th place in the general classification, though he consoled himself with the points jersey. Evans did the World Champion’s jersey proud by racing strong, attacking when he could and generally behaving as though he belonged on the front of the pack. Unfortunately, his BMC squad was nowhere when Evans needed them most. Evans’ former Lotto team perfected that trick. BMC just picked up where they left off. You have to wonder what might have been for the scrappy Australian had he been paced into the big climbs as Basso was.
Other talents also announced themselves. Young Richie Porte of Saxo Bank and Matthew Lloyd of Omega Pharma-Lotto, both Australians, forced themselves onto the scene with some daring rides and some stiff defenses of colored jerseys. This writer really enjoyed watching them ride and make names for themselves over the withering efforts of older riders like Alexandre Vinokourov and … um … well … I’m just glad Vinokourov didn’t win anything.
Mention must be made, finally, of David Arroyo. The 30-year-old from Caisse d’Epargne emerged from the shadows of his better known teammates to take the biggest prize of his career, a second place in a Grand Tour. The Spaniard was gutsy all through the Giro, and dug deep to defend the maglia rosa when he had it. In the end, Basso was too much for him, but Arroyo has laid down a marker with team management, now that Alejandro Valverde has been consigned to a two-year ban.
As regards the questions floated in the Group Ride, let me just float some opinions on questions not already addressed above. First, Italian podium girls are not hotter than French ones. They are equally hot. If my VO2 Max wasn’t closer to my shoe size than to the population of your favorite restaurant on a Friday night, either one would serve as ample motivation to earn a post-race peck.
The Tour of California, for me, detracted from the Giro, which is deeply unfortunate because the ToC is a great race. Still, what if George Hincapie had been riding for Cadel Evans instead of riding loops around downtown LA? A concurrent ToC forces the big teams to make decisions that hurt cycling fans. Scheduling fail.
Andre Greipel definitely deserves to ride the Tour de France. Just not for HTC-Columbia. For sale, one rather large, scary-looking German dude. Real fast on a bike. Somewhat whiny. All serious offers considered.
I don’t know what happened to Team Sky under the blazing Tuscan sun (and rain). Bradley Wiggins pulled a real Sastre on this one, disappearing almost before he’d even really announced his presence. Perhaps the couch cushions on the super plush Sky bus are just a bit too comfy. Perhaps their espresso maker went on the fritz. Or perhaps they really were just out on a training ride. Doubt it though. I think they just sucked.
That brings me to old Charlie Sastre, who I maligned in the last paragraph. I like Charlie. He just keeps riding and riding, and yeah, that Tour de France win was probably as good as it gets for him, but damn it, you gotta respect a guy who can finish 21 Grand Tours. You just gotta.
And with that, I officially turn the page on the Giro and begin to stare out of windows wondering how in hell Christian Prudhomme can possibly put on a TdF better than what we’ve just seen.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International