The Pyrénées. With the possible exception of the Dolomites, no other mountain range strikes as much fear and wonder in the hearts of cyclists. Years of following the Tour de France have educated us in the ways the Pyrénées present a greater challenge to cyclists than the Alps. Indeed, the first great mountain included in the Tour de France was the Col du Tourmalet—and its acceptance was based on a lie, that the snow-covered mountain was passable.
Let’s be honest: A cyclist’s idea of a good time counts as torture in most third-world countries. What we think of fun most folks file under manual labor. Such is the nature of adventure.
Bike tours may be the most devilish of lies. They package ditch-digging in a Disney-safe package, presenting us with sumptuous meals and memorable beds, all so that we may go out each morning and crush ourselves on roads most drivers avoid.
All romance aside, even on vacation it’s easy for the repetition of big days in the mountains to run together, for fatigue to make you wonder why you’re not sitting by the pool enjoying a glass of rosé. That’s why a theme can help.
This winter Peter Easton of Velo Classic Tours and I began talking about a challenging twist to the average bike tour. Why not do a traverse of the Pyrénées Mountains? Begin near San Sebastian, Spain, and ride through the Pyrénées Atlantiques, Pyrénées Orientales and Catalan Pyrénées to finish in Girona. Along the way, take in the most memorable of the Tour’s famous Pyrénéan climbs.
Think of it as the double-album greatest hits collection. The two week tour is built around two eight-day itineraries to give you a chance to do either the west, the east … or both. We respect that not everyone can get the time necessary to spend two weeks in the mountains.
It is our belief that offering an itinerary with the arc of a story, a pilgrimage from sea to sea, gives meaning to each of the days. Beginning in the heart of Basque Country and ending in what has become one of the most storied towns in cycling for American cycling enthusiasts. Echoing the close-knit community of Peugeot’s Paris-based foreign legion riders—as led by Phil Anderson and Allan Peiper—Girona has become the home away from home for numerous North American cyclists, and teams.
Think of this as the Pyrénéan answer to the Route des Grandes Alpes—the Haute Route West, if you will.
For those of you unfamiliar with Velo Classic Tours, Peter Easton is known for selecting the best hotels and restaurants in a town. He’s as likely to tout the local chef as he is the nearest climb. He’s a man of many dimensions and a day of big riding deserves to be followed with a great meal.
Tourmalet, Hautacam, Arcalis, Marie-Blanque, Bagargui, Superbagneres, Aubisque, Envalira—they are mountains that redefine limits, giving those cyclists who conquer them a greater sense of possibility, a new way to define achievement.
This thing won’t be easy, but it might be the most fun you ever have on vacation.
It is my firm belief that it is within the nature of men to covet things. To develop passions that steal our senses from us and cause us to do things like drive to Montreal by moonlight on a Saturday night after the bars close with the lights off and the cassette player blaring Tom Waits.
This is not a statement of mankind, but specifically of men. It is in our nature to fall in love with well-made inanimate objects. Art, yes, but also: cars, record albums, bottles of wine, chairs, guitars and, of course, bicycle frames. As a young person there were many things I loved, but the first object I can ever remember summoning a nearly sensual response in me was a Merlin mountain bike frame.
The year was 1989 and titanium was Hollywood starlet exotic. It was shiny, lustrous, of immaculate proportions and even when motionless promised a ride unlike anything I had ever experienced. I think this is how eight-year-old girls react to pictures of unicorns. It was no less magic in my eyes.
Little more than a year later I bought one. I had been in a car accident and lost the better part of a summer. I took a fair chunk of my settlement and bought a Merlin mountain bike frame. It was my most cherished possession, ahead of my handmade Miele equipped with Super Record. And yes, the experience of riding that bike lived up to the fantasy I had spun in my head. The geometry of that bike gave it a poise Grace Kelly would have found remarkable.
Unfortunately, the three founders of Merlin—bright guys all—turned out to be terrible businessmen. The company managed to squander a clear lead in the ti bike market that ultimately resulted in the company’s purchase by its chief competitor, Litespeed. Suddenly, I knew how Paul McCartney felt when Michael Jackson bought The Beatles’ catalog. Ouch.
Merlin’s bad luck didn’t end there. While the owners of American Bicycle Group (Litespeed’s parent) certainly meant well by the brand and were better businessmen than their predecessors, two titanium brands in one house is as pointless as a band with two drummers. Trust me on this, I’ve been there.
Prior to the purchase the big differences between Merlin and Litespeed were geometry, finish appearance and the double-pass weld (Merlin) vs. the single-pass (Litespeed). In broad terms, the double-pass weld is believed to result in a better-aligned frame with better-looking welds. I’ve heard a few people claim even greater differences, but we’ll leave it at that. There was no denying that the satin finish of a Merlin had a rich appearance that the unpolished frames from Litespeed lacked. Geometry was a slightly different matter. Merlins benefitted from the expertise of Tom Kellogg and Joe Murray on the road and mountain frames, respectively. They were some of the finest handling production frames on the market. Litespeeds, on the other hand, were all over the place. While the Classic handled great, the geometry on the Vortex changed almost as often as the Litespeed decals.
To make clear the differentiation between the two brands, ABG began engraving the Merlin frames. I can only surmise, but I’ve talked with many friends and they all came to the conclusion I did: If the tubing was thick enough to be engraved, then it was heavier than necessary and therefore not really the perfect titanium bike. Ultimately, even ABG couldn’t save the brand and shuttered it.
Enter Brendan Quirk and Competitive Cyclist. Last week Competitive Cyclist announced it had purchased the former belle of Boston. For Quirk, the acquisition was personal, like a rally nut trying to revive Lancia, though perhaps a little less Sisyphean a task. In his post on his blog “What’s New” Quirk talks of his love for Merlin as only a former flame can spin. What’s amazing isn’t the way he plans to return the brand to its former glory—exactly—but that he’s honest in revealing he hasn’t fully decided just what will become of the brand. When will they be available? Unknown. Will it be sold to bike shops? Unknown. Will it be their house brand? Unknown. Will they include a box of Girl Scout cookies with each purchase? Unknown.
Clearly, this is a purchase that wasn’t made following a thorough examination of a business case. MBA students all over the country are ruing the lost opportunity. You’ll pardon me if I’ve had a bit of fun here; the circumstance begs for a few chuckles, however, there’s a more serious observation to be made.
I haven’t been shy about professing my respect for the bunch in Little Rock. It’s easy to bad-mouth Internet retailers but the fact is that any time an Internet retailer drives a brick-and-mortar under, that shop wasn’t doing its job well. Whenever I am researching a product and want to know more than what I read on the manufacturer’s web site, I go to Competitive Cyclist. It used to be people went to bike shops to learn about a product before purchasing online. Today, I can’t think of too many shops who have an employee half as knowledgeable about every product in their shop’s inventory as the product descriptions contained on the CC site. Imagine walking into a bike shop where every single employee had exactly the same level of knowledge and competence. That last wasn’t meant to get a laugh.
It may be that Brendan Quirk’s greatest talent isn’t in understanding what shoppers need to know about a product, but in how to spin a yarn about a brand. Quirk might turn out to be the best shepherd Merlin could ask for. He may have been just what this brand needed all along.
I’ve missed that Merlin handling, though I think my Seven Cycles Axiom is very close. The only way to know is by getting one to review. And to do that, I’ll send him every box of Girl Scout cookies I can get my hands on.
For as long as I’ve been a cyclist, I’ve been gearing obsessed. Because speed is a function of gearing and cadence, and I liked speed, each of those numbers was as important to me as the number of miles I rode, at least at first. My priorities have shifted since then, but I’m still obsessed with speed and the most efficient means to attain it, which means I’m still preoccupied with gearing.
My first serious road bike featured a triple with half-step gearing. For those unfamiliar with half-step gearing, this was a setup used in touring where a fairly widely spaced freewheel (say a 13-28) would be paired with a crank with 50/45/30 chainrings. Done right it resulted in a drivetrain with almost no redundant gearing and by making sequential shifts between the freewheel cogs and chainrings, riders could make smaller steps in gearing than if they used more traditional selections. It was perfect for nerd like me.
I haven’t ridden half-step gearing since I sold that bike; I can’t say I miss it. I’ve remained fascinated with gearing choice though and have tended to err on the side of lower gears for long climbs. I continued to use triples off and on; I had an FSA carbon fiber triple on one of my bikes as recently as 2007. To me, the beauty of using a triple was matching the widely spaced chainrings with a narrowly spaced cassette. Stateside, I’d run a 10-speed 12-23, while in Europe I’d run a 12-25. Sure there were issues with chainline, Q, shifting and weight, but there’s a price to be paid for a drivetrain that spanned from roughly 30 gear inches to 120.
FSA is to be credited with the invention (if we can call it that) of the compact crank. They also get credit for offering the first carbon fiber crank that was stiff enough to be ridden by racers. The combination of smaller chainrings and carbon fiber meant that cranks, which often weighed a full kilogram weigh less than 700g; some less than 600g. They were as stiff as many of the old-style aluminum cranks and the 50/34 chainring combination moved the chain down the cassette, no matter how strong a rider you were.
In truth, the compact has all but eliminated the need for a triple. It weighs less, offers greater stiffness, improved chainline, lower Q and better shifting than even the best triple. Plus, when paired with some of the more mountain-oriented cassettes such as the 11-26, you get nearly all the low end found with the old triples plus more high end.
Then there’s the fact that this K-Force Light crank set enjoys a stunning white finish with graphics you can read at 30 paces, rather than only 30 inches. My 175mm crankset weighed in at 613 grams, which is a bit more than advertised, but they are still lighter than many options on the market. Flex? I’ve ridden exactly one crankset in my life in which I could feel the crank arms twist when out of the saddle and the only reason I could detect that was because I was also riding a bike equipped with the Dura-Ace 7800 crank concurrently. There may be stiffer cranks out there than this, but I’ve found nothing to criticize here.
Pricing on these is all over the place thanks to the Interwebs. While it’s no good for bike shops, the fact that you can install these with only two tools means that purchasing them online can save you perhaps as much as $200.
I still run into a great many cyclists who look upon compact cranks with the same disdain they reserve for helmet mirrors and neon-yellow windbreakers. In some riders’ eyes, it’s just not PRO. My view evolved when Tyler Hamilton rode one through the 2003 Tour de France, launching an epic breakaway to Bayonne and climbing the cruelly steep Col de Bagargui in a 36×25. It occurred to me that if your average PRO can pull the peloton along at nearly 40 miles per hour in a 53×12, then maybe I didn’t need a high gear bigger than I could do an interval in.
Honestly, I can’t do an interval in a 50×12. By shrinking the chainrings a bit, I get more usable gears out of my cassette and in my experience, selecting equipment to suit your needs is always PRO.
A year ago, I was as against race radios in the pro peloton as a French television executive. To me, the saddest moment in any race is that moment, within sight of the finish line, when the poor bastards who have been fighting into the wind all day long, their jerseys unzipped to the waist, salt caking at the corners of the their mouths, get swallowed up by the chasing horde, a pack of cackling hyenas who have spent the previous hours calculating with their director the exact amount of effort it might take to ruin the breakaway’s day.
It is not by any particular guile that this moment is effected. It is merely a matter of having your DS tell you what the time gap is and then ratcheting up the speed on your on-board cyclocomputer to the exact number which will cause the train from Clarksville to overtake the train from Cityville. It’s a math problem more than a race.
And yet, even without radios and computers, this is a fairly standard scene in bike racing. It is the cruelty of the catch, which makes the joy of the successful breakaway such honey-sweet nectar. How much effect the radio has on these outcomes is the subject of no small debate.
Regardless, this week UCI president Pat McQuaid made it entirely clear that the international governing body would press forward with a plan to phase out radios, the latest bout of brinksmanship in a conflict with the team’s union, the AIGCP, who wish the retain the use of the ear piece in all pro races. The AIGCP represents of the Pro and ProContinental Teams, not, just to be clear, the riders themselves.
And now I must confess that, having read a fairly compelling missive on the subject from AIGCP head Jonathan Vaughters, as well as a passionate defense of the technology by Jens Voigt, I find myself in a much more ambivalent place as regards radios.
I have not fully abandoned the notion that races would be better without them, but nor do I feel best qualified to tell the riders what will or won’t make them more safe. They don’t ride down to my office and throw things at me while I type, why should I, in my capacity as a fan, deign to tell them the best way to do their jobs? It is less about whether or not radios have a place in cycling than it is about how those decisions get made. Who makes them? Who has a voice and who doesn’t?
This week’s Group Ride asks the question: Given recent developments in the debate over race radios, are you for or against, and why?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
For weeks I’ve been trying to remember which mechanic taught me the back door to proper brake set-up. By proper, what I mean is the way that I’ve come to appreciate as superior to all other variations on the task. As much as I want to say it was Wayne Culpepper, one of the national team mechanics who taught me loads when I got my license, I recently remembered the knowledge goes back further, to Bill Farrell, the inventor of the Fit Kit and proprietor (and faculty) of the New England Cycling Academy (NECA).
In the early ’90s I took Bill’s course for mechanics. The curriculum taught you the purpose and how to use each tool in the full Campy tool kit. You learned how to use a frame alignment table and, the biggest single part of the course, you learned how to fit someone with the Fit Kit and to correctly adjust cleat position with the R.A.D. (Rotational Adjustment Device).
Barely mentioned in the curriculum, and not the primary thing any wrench talked about after finishing the course, was his instruction in how to assemble a bicycle as efficiently as possible. From chasing and facing down to wrapping the bars, Bill, a guy who I don’t think ever worked in a shop, had a method for assembling a bike that allowed me to assemble a bare frame into a ready to go bike in two hours. Boxed bikes from big manufacturers? I could get some of them together in 45 minutes. (These days, a partial overhaul can take me three hours, embarrassing, especially given that I don’t own a single loose ball BB or hub any more.)
One of my favorite tricks he taught me, and one I still use without fail, is to dial a brake’s barrel adjuster half way up its threads before running the cable through. The purpose for this is three-fold. First, and most important, it ensures that after securing the brake cable and seating the housing (cables don’t actually stretch, but housing does seat some) if there isn’t sufficient lever throw, I can dial it in with the barrel adjuster rather than loosening the cable. Next, once I have lever throw in the ball park, I can choose to either tighten or loosen a barrel adjuster to make sure the levers have exactly the same throw. If there’s one thing that will drive me nutty it is if the levers have unequal throw. Finally, this step allows a rider to change wheels and not have to use the brake’s quick release to adjust the lever throw.
This last point is more important than most mechanics consider. I’ve seen riders get a bike tuned up with a set of clinchers on and then swap to a set of tubulars. The wider box section rim will require the quick release to be opened all the way just to allow some lever throw and getting a big tire like a Vittoria CG through the brake blocks could be an iffy proposition.
No one cares that I do it on my bikes, but it gives me a certain reassurance that I’ve been careful, deliberate in my work. What’s better is when I see a friend’s new bike and I notice that the adjusters are dialed in some. That one touch, more than almost anything else I might see on the bike, will cause me to ask who assembled the bike. To me, it’s the sign of a real veteran.
On Saturday night I kissed the wife and kids and rode off on my freshly tuned bicycle to a launch party for the Ride Studio Cafe Club. Ride Studio Cafe is, in essence, exactly what it sounds like, a high end bike/coffee shop. Studios are always high end. Otherwise, they just call themselves ‘shops.’ Regardless of the price points and the stylish marketing, what sets the Ride Studio Cafe apart is the characters behind the scenes and the approach they take to cycling (and coffee).
Rob Vandermark, the founder and president of Watertown, MA. based Seven Cycles, is the prime-mover on the bike side, and Jennifer Park, who operates two very successful local coffee shops,
heads up the cafe side did some informal consulting during set up.
Unlike other bike/coffee shops that simply merge the two elements into one, Ride Studio Cafe has sought to explore the top end of both businesses, decanting super high end bike frames and accessories as well as single source, artisan coffees.
Their website bills the Club (the reason for the party) this way:
The Club is a collaborative of friendly cycling enthusiasts and racers that congregate around all the positives aspects of performance cycling.
The purpose of the Club is to engage riders to be more connected to riding. To ride more often and to enjoy it more; to find riding routes—and routes to cycling—that are more fun and more challenging; to support camaraderie that brings out the best in us—on and off the bike.
It all sounds very genial and community-spirited, but I’m a skeptic. I was born that way.
Ride Studio Cafe is located in Lexington, MA, a wealthy Boston suburb surrounded by other wealthy suburbs. They sell Seven there, and Rapha apparel, and coffees whose origin can be described with reference to location, farm and roast date. One could assume, I think reasonably, that these people are some serious snobs. I walked through the door braced for pretentiousness.
I must confess that hearing Vandermark talk about “coffee cuppings” (tasting events) was my first exposure to the phrase, and I was surprised to hear a bike guy talking about java the way wine people talk about that grape juice they drink. Despite that (I am, after all, something of a Philistine), I found Vandermark able to speak humbly and passionately about what they’re trying to do. Repeatedly he acknowledged the high price of the products and services on offer at the studio, but explained that they really believe what they’re selling is the best of the best, and, in the end entirely worth it. There was no bravado or condescension, just a humble request to give it a try.
The Club presentation was made by Vandermark, cyclocross racer and photographer Dave Chiu and cyclocross/endurance rider Matt Roy. Chiu talked about the RCS race team and about the ability to move from the club rides and race events up into the full pro/am team. Roy talked about club-sponsored brevets and other endurance events, running from 100k to 200k, 300k, 400k, and 600k distances. An upcoming “dusk-to-dawn” ride was mentioned.
It all sounded like good fun, and Chiu and Roy both made an effort to welcome riders of every ability. There was beer. There was wine. I scored a cup of entirely potable coffee. Someone brought cupcakes. Everyone was friendly. There was even a group clustered around the indoor bike rack cooing over the various and sundry machines the attendees had chosen to ride in. It was, if you’ll forgive the phrase, a pretty sweet rack.
I began to think this might be a place I should spend more time. High end, low end, middle, um, end, these are bike people, and they want you to be bike people too. Highly caffeinated, merino wool-clad bike people.
And who among us is against that? For locals, you can read more about the club, and its benefits, here.
Image courtesy Gregory Brown
Correction: This piece originally stated that Jen Park was a part owner of the Ride Studio Cafe, which is not the case. She is simply a friend of RSC’s ownership group. See correction above.
Last week several media outlets carried an open letter that UCI President Pat McQuaid wrote to the union of professional cyclists, the CPA. Published on the UCI’s site as well as VeloNews, McQuaid explained the problems with riders’ desire to use radios and how the riders’ voices have been heard.
He did this in a sprawling, at times rambling, nearly 2000-word letter. His bottom line came less than 400 words in the letter, effectively eliminating the need for three-quarters of his communiqué. So why are radios banned and why is the point beyond negotiation? We’ll get to that, but first, let’s look a bit at the document he drafted.
In McQuaid’s opening sentence he previews what I’ll go ahead and call a bit of cowardice. He says, “The discussions are heated….” How about give us a simple declarative statement. We know where the discussions stand. We don’t need him to set the scene. He should tell us something of his views and not passively. Take a stand. How about instead of “That is why I feel it is necessary to address you collectively to try to clarify some points in the debate that is unfortunately no longer calm and constructive.” just write, “I write to you today to clarify the UCI’s decision to ban race radios.”
McQuaid refers to the “progressive banning of earpieces”; just how he uses the modifier “progressive” is a bit of a mystery. Is he saying that the decision marks a progressive improvement in the sport, or is he referring to the fact that the ban wasn’t enacted all at once. Similarly, he states the debate is “no longer calm and constructive.” I’m not sure who he has been listening to, but points made by AIGCP President Jonathan Vaughters have been in my reading both respectful and entirely rational.
He ratchets up the rhetoric congratulating “most of you” for the ability to “up until now … remain reasonable.” By not calling out just who isn’t “remaining reasonable” he casts a broad net, damning many with his faint praise.
The letter is plagued with a series of undefined referents. The next one that troubled me was, “our sport has been susceptible to wide criticism.” Um, who are we discussing? Are we discussing stakeholders within the sport, or people outside the sport? I define stakeholders as riders, sponsors, directors, race organizers, equipment manufacturers, governing bodies and even fans. If we’re discussing “wide criticism” from within, define which stakeholder is leveling the criticism. If it’s from outside anyone we define as a stakeholder, who gives a shit? Obviously it’s unwise to govern the sport in a way that alienates potential sponsors, but if you don’t have any skin in the game, why should we care what you think?
Further confounding the reader’s search for clarity he refers to “this attitude.” Just what attitude is that? I’m guessing it’s the one that leveled “wide criticism,” but we have no idea who was doing the criticizing or just what that criticizing was. That said, he uses this vague reference to rhetorically wonder just what will set of the next conflict—presumably with the riders, though he doesn’t make that clear.
McQuaid finally reveals who the boogeyman in the race-radio ban scenario is: France Television. Apparently, executives at the network gave the UCI an ultimatum: get rid of radios or “television would be reduced.”
Where I come from this is colloquially referred to as blackmail.
Up until now we have all been led to believe that the decision to ban race radios was one made by the UCI and the UCI alone. Not only is this not the case, but McQuaid revealed a terrible weakness: He demonstrated that it is possible to blackmail the UCI and win, if what he says is true.
His next point concerns how German television (ARD and ZDF) have both dropped all cycling coverage because of doping. What he is attempting to do here is to draw an equivalency between race radios and doping. The logic goes: Doping caused two networks to drop cycling coverage. Less television coverage is bad; therefore doping is bad. Another network is threatening to drop cycling coverage because of race radios. Therefore race radios are bad. If race radios can do the same thing doping did—result in less cycling on television—then race radios are just as bad as doping.
People, I’m not making this up. McQuaid wants us to think of race radios as a no less a threat to cycling than doping.
Perhaps most disturbing is the second comparison he draws to doping. He writes,
“I would have preferred to leave doping out of this discussion, but I realise that I can’t resist pointing out a few facts on this subject …
“I don’t think that the riders are in the best position to remind us of the seriousness and the urgency of certain situations: if doping still exists, it’s is only because there are still riders who dope! And if it is true and undeniable that the habits of a large number of you have changed, it is also true that we are still confronted with a fairly high number of cases, which, despite the remarkable progress of our anti-doping results, means we are constantly in an environment of suspicion and tension faced with the public opinion.”
No one suggested he need refer to doping. There is no rational connection between the use of race radios and doping. By comparing the two, McQuaid unfairly paints many riders as dopers. Note his use of “large number” and “fairly high number.”
Just as insulting is his observation that the riders’ indignation, as evidenced by Jens Voigt’s and Grischa Niermann’s open letters, should be reserved for doping scandals. The suggestion here is that by not speaking out more forcefully when riders test positive they have somehow lost the right to complain.
McQuaid insists the UCI has listened to the riders, the teams, indeed anyone who believes race radios are helpful when he writes, “you have been falsely led to believe that the opinion of riders was never taken into consideration….”
What McQuaid and the whole of the UCI doesn’t understand is that riders don’t want a submission form for a newspaper-style letter to the editor. They want a seat at the table and a vote. When decisions are made about the competition they provide, they deserve a seat at the table and what is meant by a “voice” is a vote.
In short, a decision regarding race radios would be more easily viewed as democratic, and not unilateral, if each of the major stakeholders in the sport—riders, sponsors, directors, race organizers, networks and governing bodies—had a vote.
I’m surprised that no one has drawn a comparison between the Boston Tea Party and the ban on race radios. While the race radio ban isn’t a tax, both conflicts arise from the same dissatisfaction—no voice in the affairs that most concern them. Until you have a vote, you don’t have a voice. Period.
Suppose the UCI said, “We have come to realize that the speeds of the races are too great. To reduce speeds we will limit professional riders to a maximum gear of 40×17 to preserve their health; we have also determined that a flat bar will give riders a better vantage to see road hazards, thereby cutting down on accidents. Both these changes will give fans a greater opportunity to see their heroes as they ride by.” Would it be reasonable to expect the riders to compete in Milan-San Remo knowing their average speed might only be 33kph, making the race a nine-hour affair. Such a decision would affect the riders (by changing the nature of the racing), equipment manufacturers (think of the changes to bikes), team directors (changes in strategy), networks (changes in airtime) and race organizers (the length of road closures). Do you think each of those stakeholders would simply accept such a change made by the UCI?
Even if you dislike race radios, and I’ll admit that I was ambivalent on them for a while, I expect you can agree that riders deserve to vote on any decision that concerns them.
For now, though, that desire, no matter how reasonable some of us think it is, will remain unattainable. McQuaid’s patrician attitude demonstrates that he has no intention of giving riders a seat at the table. No matter; he has undermined his own authority with this letter, showing he is unwilling to take responsibility for decisions, and susceptible to blackmail. Even if McQuaid isn’t listening to the CPA, the CPA is listening to him.
Cycling can survive without the UCI, but the UCI can’t survive without cyclists.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
I have friends racing cyclocross who obsess about tires the way stoner college friends of mine obsessed about the best strains of pot. Neither of those do it for me. Similarly, there’s no chance I’ll lose any sleep from thinking about what I’ll wear to a friend’s party. I’m not a slave to fashion. At least, not in the traditional sense.
In fact, where cycling is concerned, I’m a complete clotheshorse. I check weather forecasts less out of a sincere concern for the weather than to give me my starting coordinates for the next day’s choice of clothing and embrocation.
Will it start cold and stay cold? Or will it start cold but clear and warm rapidly? Will it be wet? Or will it become wet? Each variation gives me the opportunity to consider the best response and maybe wear a piece of gear I haven’t pulled out in a few weeks. The fact that my local climate will spend most of the year hovering between 50 and 70 degrees gives me ample opportunity to vary my wardrobe between short sleeves, arm warmers, long sleeves, light base layers, heavier base layers, knee warmers, all manner of embro and, occasionally, the thermal bib.
Last fall at Interbike I noticed the Mango top in the Nalini collection. Nalini is one of the best-respected Italian manufacturers of cycling clothing going. They’ve made more clothing for more teams over the years than I could cover in this review. To this day, they are the default selection for many Italian pro teams. Points for innovation aren’t often awarded to companies other than Assos and Castelli, but Nalini is a reliable source of fresh ideas—for instance, they produce both red and white leg warmers, but the trick there is that only the front panel is either red or white; the back, always-spatter panel is serviceable black.
With a suggested retail of $250, it’s not a cheap piece, but then specialty items never are. I’ll get to that, in a minute, though.
This is a spring-weight top. While windproof, it features no warming insulation. It’s good down into the low 50s for me, which would probably translate into the upper 40s for those of you in more northern climes who are more accustomed to riding in objectively cold temperatures. The back of the top is adequately breathable, which is to say, when I wore it on a rainy day my back was only wet from perspiration, not soaked from the downpour, but on hard rides it doesn’t turn into a greenhouse on the inside; a feeling uncomfortable enough for me that I’ve skipped weekend post-ride coffee sessions to get home to remove the offending piece.
The cut on this may be my single favorite among its many great features. There’s just enough room inside that I can choose how heavy a base layer I wear beneath it, but it’s cut slim. While the back of the Mango bunched up a bit in the photo above, once I was stretched out on the bike, the fit was form-following and the sleeves were slim enough they didn’t flap and just long enough to reach my gloves. Sizing on these is typically Euro; I wore the medium, the same size I would wear in tops from Castelli or Assos.
The Mango is a cyclist’s cabriolet. By that I mean you can remove the sleeves. For the record, Nalini calls this a jersey and while I suppose that’s technically accurate, it strikes me a a hybrid sort of product; not really a jersey and not really a jacket, but perfect for changeable days. I’ve seen a dozen or so variations on this theme and in each and every circumstance I disliked them because they always had some sort of collar-like flap of material to cover the zipper. That extra material, meant to conceal the jagged-edge appearance of the zipper would flap in the wind; no bueno. Alternatively, the zipper would stay exposed and would look as attractive as corn smut. You can see the black zipper just at the outer edge of the white trim. The contrast helps to hide the appearance of the zipper. Sharp.
The Mango takes an unusual approach in that concealed beneath the removable long sleeve is a short sleeve, turning the jacket into a wind-front jersey. The upsides to this are numerous. First, there is the fact that when you remove the sleeves, you are left with a garment that keeps its design-sense intact. You don’t get some mismatched jersey sleeve poking out, so there’s no chance for the green of a club jersey curdling the red of a good-looking vest. Admittedly, my review sample is black with white and red accents, which would be hard(er) to spoil, but I like that the appearance of the top can’t be disturbed by removing the sleeves.
What makes the Mango especially trick is the way you remove the sleeves. A small reflective tab, reachable over your shoulder opens the zipper. The red portion of the zipper features unusual teeth that can be pulled apart. It works well enough that you can do this on the fly, though it may not be as easy as pulling down arm warmers. I found the right sleeve to be easiest to remove and the left sleeve to require me to hold the zipper pull in place with my thumb and index finger while I pull the end of the zipper out with my other fingers. I suspect it would have operated a touch more simply if a left-handed version of the zipper existed.
While sitting around having coffee I’ve messed with the sleeves just to see if I could zip them back on without removing the top. The answer is yes, it is possible, but it was difficult enough that I was distracted from the conversation at hand. Maybe not one of my more sociable moments. I wouldn’t suggest trying it on the bike.
Of course, there is another option here and that is that simply pulling the zipper open part way on each sleeve can offer a noticeable jump in ventilation. I’m generally the last guy on a ride to push my arm warmers down, but I’ve pulled the zipper part-way open on a few occasions and found that to be a terrific way to regulate temperature. However, once I did this, the zipper was open for the duration. To re-zip the zipper, you have to completely undo the sleeve first, which is not a big deal post-ride.
For those among us whose identities aren’t completely vested in team kit, this is a terrific piece for spring or fall. I wish I’d had something like this for those nasty spring rides I suffered through in the Berkshires.
Let me just put out a list of potential Milan-San Remo winners first: Phillipe Gilbert, Thor Hushovd, Mark Cavendish, Tyler Farrar, Heinrich Haussler, JJ Haedo, Peter Sagan, Oscar Freire, Michelle Scarponi, Damiano Cunego, Alessandro Ballan, Giovanni Viscontini, Matt Goss, Filippo Pozzato, Alessandro Petacchi, Andre Greipel, Alan Davis, Tom Boonen, Ed Bo Hagen, Fabian Cancellara.
That’s 20 names. And there were some I left out, just because I thought them unlikely winners. I don’t see any of the above as dark horses.
Of course, it really depends on what sort of race gets run. Last year I remember waiting for the climb of the Cipressa and thinking “someone’s got to attack here,” but then they didn’t, and it all came back together. Oscar Freire won out of the sprint in his typical out-of-nowhere style.
History suggests that the Cipressa and Poggio seldom serve as effective springboards for non-sprinting winners, so you can probably cross of names like Scarponi, Cunego, Ballan and Viscontini, but who wouldn’t love to see SOMEONE spring a surprise and stay away? Scarponi is in such wicked form, you can just about see him pulling it off.
In the end, it will come down to who is hungriest.
So this week’s Group Ride asks the question: Who is, in fact, hungriest? Who’s going to win the 2011 Classica de la Primavera, the 102nd Milan-San Remo?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
I’ve made some mention here that I’ve got a book coming out in May. It’s called “The No Drop Zone: Everything You Need to Know About the Peloton, Your Gear and Riding Strong.” You can think of it as Road Cycling 101. As much as I (and others) here at RKP focus on aspects of the sport that only the dedicated care about, this book is exactly not that. It’s not meant for you. While I wrote it in a way that if any of you picked it up you’d probably find something interesting, and maybe even learn a thing or two, it’s meant to help new riders get up to speed and give us some new friends to ride with.
In an effort to reassure prospective readers, I’ve been reaching out to some of the best-respected names in the industry to secure endorsements for the book. They have come through in ways so generous I’m left mouth agape.
It’s hard to know how to thank people once they’ve said something nice about your work. When I saw that Fatty over at Fat Cyclist was taking a week’s hiatus to work on a side project and wanted folks to fill in for him, I immediately volunteered. Fatty was one of the nice people to write an endorsement for “No Drop Zone.” I couldn’t think of a better way to say thank you than to volunteer a bit of help.
I write this assuming that you’re already a reader of his; his is one of the best blogs in cycling, if not the outright best. It takes a special skill to deal with all the implications and concerns of cyclists and do it all with tongue plugged into cheek. I envy him that.
Make sure you stop by today, if for no other reason than to help me say thanks. Heck, make sure you read all of this week’s guest posts on Fat Cyclist.