We’ve all heard the statement at work, at family gatherings, among friends, at parties: He’s a cyclist. It’s the same sort of explanation that you’d give if you showed up to a Super Bowl party with E.T. You’d introduce him around and then say, He’s from another planet.
For a lot of folks, that little explanation is actually an apology. In three short words they’ve told everyone gathered, He’s a little weird. He won’t eat your pie. Don’t expect him to touch the mashed potatoes. Your beer is safe. He spends more time on a torture device than I do in my car.
Your mere presence has upset the equilibrium of the room and the explanation is an effort to keep things on an even keel.
And while your dedication to something that doesn’t make you pantloads of money may arouse the sort of suspicion usually reserved for felons, what non-cyclists miss are the dividends that cycling pays. Sure, they can guess that you’ve got a rigorous diet if you’re lean, but that’s the least relevant of the lessons cycling teaches us.
Hanging onto a pack screaming down a country road at 28 mph will teach you unquantifiable lessons about endurance. Each time you dig deep to close a gap, move to the front or maybe even attack the leaders, you make a big statement about reserves, not just that you have them, but that you have faith you’re not at the end of your rope.
Outsiders only see fatigue, expense and deprivation when they look at cycling. We know otherwise. When you or I look at a bike, what we see is fun waiting to happen, maybe the key to a greater performance. When we see an open road, the exhilaration centers in our brains fire. When we see a hill we imagine deep suffering followed by childlike fun. The world thinks we eat like refugees, but we know that 5000 calories burned means a mammoth dinner with no guilt. Fatigue? As if. Cycling renews us, gives us strength to tackle the rest of life.
Outsiders don’t see how those lessons can inform other parts of our lives. A baby that cries for 20 minutes is much easier to deal with than a climb that lasts for an hour. Examining posturing by coworkers in a meeting is much easier to do if you’ve had to size up the competition when your legs burn so bad you want to sit up and stop pedaling. A bad day or even a bad week can be endured when you’ve dealt with months of bad form.
The point is less that we can do these things because we are cyclists than because we are cyclists we can bring more to these other parts of our lives; thanks to the lessons we’ve learned from cycling, we’re more complete. After all, if we needed to drop one part of our lives, as much as it would hurt, cycling would go long before we’d give up our careers or our families.
So while we recognize one another as fellow cyclists, and therefore friends, we understand a greater truth. Cycling helps to define each of our lives, enriching our days and giving us an outlet of expression that makes the mundane easier to endure and the high points that much more joyful. But it isn’t the whole of our identities is it? When in the peloton we identify each other not as cyclists—that denominator that unites us—but as doctor, lawyer or father of five girls. After all, your identity is written by those to whom you matter most.
Adventure has always been defined by the unknown. From foolhardy sea captains to explorers of dubious sanity, the history of mankind has been punctuated by leap after hail-freakin’-mary leap into the unknown.
Science in its myriad expression has eliminated much of the unknown. We have hyper-accurate surveys of the planet’s surface. We can hurl satellites at objects you can’t see with the naked eye. We’ve been to the top of every 8,000-meter peak, and into the deepest ocean trenches for reasons as simple as curiosity and as vainglorious as the record books.
Mountain climbing continues to serve as the shorthand for adventure. No other piece of equipment can so quickly evoke the response “nutty” as the climbing rope. Climbing is, at its very core, a quest to defy death. No other endeavor spells it so simply or so clearly; any 3-year-old knows that gravity isn’t the goodwill ambassador to bones.
Outside Magazine has served as the preeminent chronicler for the adventurous of spirit. If it’s never been done before and enjoys the financial backing of some active-lifestyle clothing company, they’re sure to have someone there for the first-person perspective.
However, this notion that adventure is only so if no one else has done it chafes me. Unclimbed mountains enjoy GPS surveys, so that even unnamed peaks in Kazakhstan are as defined as the ski slopes of Squaw Valley. How much is truly unknown when some team undertakes that new line? Plenty, in fact.
The adventure, the unknowing, isn’t what’s external, rather what’s internal. The challenge is one’s own ability to execute the endeavor. As cyclists, we already know this. How much easier is it ride any climb the second time around? With experience as your guide, the fears are easier to banish, your limits aren’t quite so … limiting.
A friend who once held the record for the 40k TT in California told me a story of how he, as a junior, undertook one of the longest climbs in his area with two of the local Cat. 1s. They knew a thing or two about deception and suffering. Kilometer after burning kilometer the junior would ask, “How much further?” And they, in unison, would reply, “Just a little more.” They kept this up to the very top of the climb at which point the budding talent knew he’d been had.
Imagine if you showed up for an organized event and all you knew was that it would be at least 80 miles. Think about how not knowing the exact mileage, the terrain, the amount of cumulative climbing or where the feeds were would affect your mindset. I dare say that would be adventure. I know of places in North America where you could—from a single departure point—define courses pool table flat, riddled with punchy Liege-Bastogne-Liege hills, or cruise into the mountains for a succession of second and third category climbs. The not knowing could cripple some riders.
The unknown is a powerful motivator in our purchasing habits. SUVs are sold to people who plan for every contingency. Should they need to haul a boat they don’t own, drive to Istanbul without refueling, or eject the Bond villain into the night sky, their bases are covered. It is insurance itself.
Think about your favorite garden-variety long ride. You very likely love to get it in any time you can and wish you could plan more days around it. Now, think back to the very first time you did that ride. You probably didn’t know what you were in for.
The unknown can encompass anything from success to annihilation. The riders most likely to survive, most likely to thrive aren’t those who go in with confidence, but those who recognize the very real room for disaster. It’s in humility, when we know failure is looking over our shoulder that we make a success our own, that triumph becomes something more personal than luck.
Here at RKP World Headquarters we’ve been dreaming up lots of fresh ideas—besides the ones in our posts. We decided against the Beatles cover band that would arrange the Fab Four’s hits as tangos. We also rejected the furniture factory that would make couches from Jell-O. We were all set to commission Claude Monet to paint a portrait of Eddy Merckx, but we were reminded that Monsieur Monet’s availability dropped considerably after what was termed a “major life event” in 1926.
Though we are still in negotiations to hold the Sherwood Schwartz Commemorative Gran Fondo in the San Fernando Valley, we’ve decided to stick closer to stuff we know.
To that end, Robot has designed a T-shirt to commemorate Thor Hushovd’s recent win at the world championships. You’ll see more details on it and how to order one in the next day or two.
We’ve also slapped the RKP logo on two items guaranteed to improve the look of anyone’s riding ensemble. First up, we asked Specialized to do a run of the new Purist bottle with our logo. Half of the bottles feature the new Mo-Flo high-flow valveless top, while the other half feature the new Watergate top with the self-sealing Heart Valve.
And because a comfy foot is a happy foot, we asked DeFeet to do a run of our all-time favorite socks, the Wooleators. Half the run is natural (off-white) for good weather riding, while the other half of the run is charcoal (so you can get them clean following your own personal Paris-Roubaix).
The bottles and socks are in stock and are up on the store. You might mention to your loved ones you want the gift pack of socks, bottles and stickers.
Much about professional cycling can be understood in terms of the Brady Bunch, that late ’60s, early ’70s television confection that taught a whole lot of us American types exactly how to function within the confines of an idyllic suburban milieu. The Brady Bunch took everyday family problems, turned their volume up to 11 and broke off the knob. If I hadn’t seen that one episode (“Mail Order Hero”) in which Bobby fakes a terminal illness to get a visit from his hero, Jets’ quarterback Joe Namath, then I most certainly would have employed that strategy to win a visit from my own “hero” of the time, Farrah Fawcett.
Whew, that was a close one.
The Grand Tours are like the Brady girls, Marsha, Jan and Cindy. Sure, Marsha (the Tour) is the oldest, prettiest and the one whose route you’d most like to explore, but she’s so conceited and self-centered sometimes. Seriously, high maintenance girls/Grand Tours can be so much more trouble than they’re worth. Jan (the Giro), on the other hand, is smarter and more well-rounded and probably deserves more lines in the show. She has a subtle sophistication that Marsha lacks. You could spend your whole life with her, grow old together, raise small tours of your own, like Suisse or Eneco. Cindy (the Vuelta) is just cute as hell, but it’s hard to build a whole show around her. She has that adorable lisp, and you’re just sure that when she grows up, in that future that never comes on television, she’s going to be a real knock out.
To carry the metaphor to the next, and even more absurd, level, the Tour of California is Mrs. Brady, not your first choice, but you’d do her. Come on, she (it) is gorgeous. The Tour of Oman is Alice, the maid. Her timing is all wrong, and she’s not pretty, but you can’t help but feel she brings something necessary (warm weather training) to the show.
The three big component makers, Campagnolo, Shimano and SRAM are like the Brady boys. Campy is Greg. He’s the oldest. He’s a bit of a playboy, but also sort of a mess. Shimano is Peter, the middle child. He’s the go-to if you need to get something done, because you get less drama than with Greg. Sure, he’s prone to fits of fancy, like that one time when he imagined he was a great detective, prancing about the tiny screen with a deerstalker hat on (Di2 anyone?), but ultimately Peter is your friend. When everyone else is at tryouts for football or cheerleading, Peter is on the couch, doing his homework. SRAM is Bobby, the young upstart. Bobby’s got real potential. He learns the most from his mistakes. He’s going to be a solid grown up.
The Brady house is actually a good metaphor for the pro peloton as a whole. Mr. Brady is an architect, he designs other people’s houses, i.e. he sets the style for how other people race and ride. The Brady house was, at the time, a super cool, modern design that all suburban families were jealous of. It managed to be futuristically perfect for a family of eight, plus maid and dog, but also homey and comfortable. Just like the peloton of that time, though, the Brady house looks hopelessly dated through today’s eyes. What was once cutting edge, now looks sort of silly, like Greg LeMond’s time trial helmet.
I shouldn’t pretend to understand really. I’m just Tiger, the family pet, out in a small house of my own in the backyard, only sporadically involved in the show, never really allowed in the house for fear I’ll ruin the furniture.
The seven-day, 600-mile long Quizno’s Pro Challenge has already landed the honorific of “the greatest bike race ever held on American soil from August 22-28, 2011.” True enough. After all, the 1996 edition of the Tour DuPont, which was 1225-miles long, was held in May. Nevermind about the 18-stage edition of the Coor’s Classic held in 1986 which was won by Bernard Hinault and was held in … August, though obviously not running from August 22-28.
We don’t know a lot about the Quizno’s Pro Challenge just yet. Aside from seven stages encompassing 600 miles of racing, we’ve been told it will feature a prologue and one individual time trial plus several mountainous stages, and just one stage suited to sprinters.
If the 2011 Giro d’Italia is any indication, stage race organizers may be starting to think about what makes for exciting racing to the viewing public. Mountain racing is exciting, whether you are watching in person or on TV. And whether you’re at the top of the climb or 5km from the top, it’s still exciting to watch. Contrast that with watching a crit two corners from the finish. Yes, watching a pack fly by at 36 mph is pretty cool, but you almost never have the feeling that you’ve watched a win in the happening. Worse, watching a crit on TV is rarely as good as a trailer-park fight on an episode of COPS.
The chance to watch 120 PROs tackle the mountains of Colorado is a siren call to any roadie. As sure bets go, it seems likely that some folks who would have traveled to see the Amgen Tour of California will, instead, head to Denver to take in some stages of this new race.
And that, dear friends, begs the question: What gets you out to watch bike racing? Have you ever built a vacation around going to watch a bike race, be it the Tour de France, the Amgen Tour of California or the Hell of the North? Further, to the degree that you would consider attending either the Amgen or Quizno’s races, which would you go to … and why?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
I’m going to guess that Tom Petty hasn’t suffered much, because the waiting most definitely is not the hardest part. Sure, the waiting sucks. The waiting can be hard. You show up at the coffee shop’s parking lot at 5am. It’s dark still, cold. Your buddy is running late. You’re just starting to feel the caffeine quickening your pulse. If you wait another minute, you’re going to have to pee again before setting out. Where the F is he? It’s hard.
But it’s not the hardest part.
Even for the warriors of Paris-Roubaix, the night before in the hotel is not the hardest part. The butterflies will assault their stomachs like the protagonists in an unmade Hitchock film. Their palms will sweat. Their minds will race, but these moments bear no comparison to the feeling in their loins during that bowling balls and bowler hats section of cobbles through the Arrenberg Forest.
The hardest part is difficult to identify. For some of us it comes in a leg-deadening climb on a group ride with a bunch of hammers. For others it comes in mile 99 of a rolling century. But being able to pinpoint the hardest part is usually an exercise in retrospection.
The hardest part of what we do, whether it’s riding or just living, is recognizing the hard part when it arrives. Regardless of what we’re physically doing at that moment, the hardest part compromises our psycho-emotional faculties, so that we become unable or barely able to continue, either climbing, or getting out of bed.
We train for these moments. We ride hill repeats. We ride long, slow miles. We take rest days. Or, we confide our fears and anxieties to spouses and/or friends. We get a therapist. We join a support group. We tell the folks closest to us that we love them, and we remind ourselves what’s so good about life. This is all vaccination for when the hardest part comes.
We toughen ourselves for the hardest part, but, almost by definition, the hardest part comes when all that preparation breaks down. The hardest part is keeping it together in those moments. Sometimes, if you have trained well, you will be able to disassociate yourself from what’s going on, bring all that preparation to bear, find that little bit of mental/emotional toughness you need to persist.
Sometimes you find it. Sometimes you don’t.
The hardest part might be cresting the Gavia pass in a driving snow, or it might be taking the phone call that tells you a loved one has passed unexpectedly. It might be dragging yourself across the finish line in the Roubaix velodrome, dead last and forty minutes down on the winner, or it might be losing your job.
The hardest part might be just going on after what looked like the hardest part has come and gone. Life makes champions of us all, often when we least expect it.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
I’ve got friends who crash so often it’s a casual occurrence to them. Two of them in particular seem so okay with it that the lost skin, destroyed bikes and even loss of control don’t seem bother them. Somehow, they make it seem routine.
To be able to take skin loss and broken bones in stride is an obviously requisite part of PRO. I was never able to relax in the face of carnage. I always flinched at the sound of scraping metal as if I’d been goosed. It was a big factor in my decision to stop racing.
A few years ago, during the Tour of California, Levi Leipheimer crashed with Tom Boonen right next to him. Leipheimer disappeared from view and Boonen never flinched. He didn’t turn his head, look down, even shudder. The event didn’t even seem to register with him.
I asked him about it the next day. He told me, “It’s natural; it’s something you’ve got. It’s the same in the sprint, and I think a lot of the riders have that kind of concentration…. The moment you panic is the moment you crash.”
He confirmed for me what I’d known for a few years; I never had the PRO’s sense for pack riding. I didn’t panic, but I definitely flinched.
Illnesses achieve routine status long before we ever get on the bike and because they come on so gradually only the worst, most surprising news can shock us.
But I got one such shock this morning. My wife woke me at 1:00 because our little team captain was throwing up with the force of a fire hose. We got him calmed down, cleaned up, the bed changed and him back to sleep. I followed suit.
Just before I was to get up for my group ride my wife woke me again to tell me how she had been throwing up ever since we got the Little Guy back to sleep (that’s what, five hours?) and needed my help. Only three questions were necessary to conclude that they had eaten tainted grapes. The three of us were in the car on the way to the ER before the city woke.
Years ago I was in a race infamous for its 180-degree turn 150 meters from the finish. I’d done the race a few times and had yet to do well, or even enjoy it. After cresting a small rise we accelerated on the down toward the turn and a rider weighing a good 30 lbs. more than me bumped me hard. To keep my tensed body from pinballing back and forth between him and a friend to my right, I reached out my right hand and put it on the small of my buddy’s back to steady myself.
Of course, just as I put my hand on his back the peloton began braking for the turn. I was certain I was about to wear multiple chainrings in my back like some sci-fi cross between a human and a dinosaur. Visions of broken frames, bars and wheels danced around my head like so many cartoon birds.
I did the only thing I could; I pushed away from his back, careful not to push him to the right at all. It slowed me just enough I could take my hand off his back and get it back into the drop even while the rest of the pack was braking hard. By the time I exited the turn I was so relieved not to have crashed I didn’t even care that I was too poorly placed to contest the sprint.
The ER visit was a race of a different sort—one that lasted 10 hours—and I can assure you, this time I didn’t flinch. The surprise came when I realized I hadn’t felt quite that brand of relief since that nearly ill-fated race; that is, not until both my wife and son were belted in and I placed the car in drive to head home.
I really hope that Bryan Nygaard, Kim Andersen and the Schleck Brothers just never announce a sponsor for their new team, so that we can go on calling it The Luxembourg Project indefinitely. Projects are neat. Think of some of history’s great projects, the Hoover Dam, the Pyramids at Giza, the Alan Parsons.
Calling themselves The Luxembourg Project also leaves open all sorts of options for businesses other than a pro-racing team. They could open a chain of restaurants specializing in Luxembourgish food. They could start a hip-hop record label featuring only Luxembourgish MCs. The sky is the limit, no pun intended.
And so now, as they complete their takeover of Bjarne Riis’ Saxo roster, and add various and sundry others to their squad, the time has come to ask a slightly more serious question about the team with no name, namely (see what I did there?) what are their goals? What are they after that they needed to leave the icy flatlands of Denmark for the rainy, cold flatlands of Luxembourg?
They’ll have the Schlecks to sprinkle over the three Grand Tour podiums, and presumably they’ll have Fabian Cancellara to break Tom Boonen’s spirit wherever the indomitable Swiss chooses to ride against the…um, domitable Belgian. They’ve also got Jakob Fuglsang, Stuart O’Grady, Jens Voigt and Dominic Klemme (also Saxo), Linus Gerdemann and Fabian Wegman (Milram), the Italian sprinter Daniele Bennati (Liquigas-Doimo), Brice Feillu (Vacansoleil), Maxime Monfort (HTC-Columbia), Joost Posthuma (Rabobank) and Robert Wagner (Skil-Shimano).
They’re stacked. They are the Pamela Anderson of pro cycling.
So this week’s Group Ride is: What will constitute success for TLP? Do they have to win a grand tour? Do they need to win more than one classic? Will it be enough to simply accumulate a number of wins equal to those of all their riders’ wins from last season? Or do they just have to win more than Team Sky did in its inaugural season?
What will it take?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
At our core, we are believers. To be a cyclist is to know the way the world goes wrong. Flatted tires, lost skin, sudden showers, nervous groups, malicious drivers, there is an ever-growing list of risks you can claim as intimate. Each threat is a variable you plug into the risk calculus that might tick out, “Stay at home.”
It’s not as if we forget. But the doing gives us little time to think. At the top of a descent we might suggest to others or ourselves to be careful as we drop. But on descent we shift from awareness to is, evaluating only the line itself, not how things could go wrong. Little else can make us as nervous as thinking about a touch of wheels transforming the pack into yard sale. Funny how safety isn’t awareness of the thing itself, but rather awareness of the shifting electron cloud of wheels. It’s the is that is.
Of all the activities we regularly undertake, the one requiring the greatest physical skill is arguably pack riding. Race or not, 80 warm bodies occupying the same amount of space as a nightclub—only moving at 30 mph—takes trust to the point of absurd; to non-cyclists, we might as well profess a belief in the Great Pumpkin. We trust those around us to maintain their line, to accelerate on schedule, to brake no sooner or harder than utterly necessary. And given that unlike a freeway, anyone can show up for a ride without so much as a test, we’re putting our trust in the unproven in a way we wouldn’t accept among cars and drivers, even with the addition of airbags.
But no amount of awareness can prevent all accidents. Sooner or later we all go down. That’s not the mystery. This is: We persist. The recovery is ugly. From bandages to range of motion, it is work as true as the training itself. It lacks the cool of riding—no team gear, no screaming crowds, no finish line—which is why in its solitude, recovery is totally PRO.
Honestly, statistics are no match for the fear that moulders. Those spores can poison more than just one ride or one road. The saddle itself can become a minefield leading us to washouts, flats and T-bones that never materialize. To get back on the bike we must make a mental leap—everything will be fine.
Sooner or later we throw a leg back over the saddle. Maybe we ride alone at first. Maybe left turns feel trickier than right. Maybe we pick back roads for a week or two. But that timid heart gives way to our old self and we head back to the group. We continue to believe that the rides and races go well more often than not, that the good days outnumber and overwhelm the bad.
But our faith is greater than knowing most days turn out well. Faith is the knowledge that all of the days—good, bad and dripping—add up to something more, a meaning, one we’re left to make sense of on our own. That answer gives the sunniest days a luster, the darkest days warmth and our final days a reassurance that we played with all our heart.
It’s getting to that time of year. The wind blows cold. The sun sets early. Rain falls. The garage door rises, and I wheel out my bike. My breath bursts in a cloud in front of my face.
These are make or break moments.
After a summer of constant pedaling and an early autumn of blissfully lowered temperatures, we’re getting to the hard part now, when throwing your leg over the bike requires that little extra bit of motivation.
I’ve just christened a new bicycle, a sweet, blue, steel Torelli (full disclosure: Torelli is an RKP advertiser) with a brand new SRAM Rival kit. White saddle. White bar tape. White pedals. Hammered tin head badge. Very handsome.
What is more motivating than a brand new ride? Nothing. Nothing is more motivating.
I have spent the last weeks acclimating myself to DoubleTap® technology, learning the ways of Sampson pedals, retuning myself to a new gear array, fine tuning saddle position. These are excellent distractions to have when the weather turns.
Of course, it’s less than ideal to take a shiny new thing and subject it immediately to rain and grime and sand and grit. I hesitated at first, but the hesitation was fleeting. I just couldn’t see the sense in lying to my new bike. It’s dirty work being my bicycle. Robots don’t feel cold and wet. They require bikes that are similarly oblivious.
And so, we’ve been running the river in all of fall’s best and worst conditions. We’ve climbed our hill in the cold darkness, and we’ve climbed it with torrents of rain flowing down the asphalt. We’ve pounded through the flats and spun through traffic.
When I ordered my new bicycle from the kind folks at Torelli, they offered me the option to customize paint and decals. I chose a less logo-y look, one they themselves recommended, thus the hammered tin head badge, and a small decal down low on the seat tube just above the bottom bracket that reads “Made in Italy.”
When I am head down into the wind and wondering if I will be able to make the cut this year, if I will be able to face up to another winter in the saddle, I look down at that small sticker and know that I will.