I tweeted, back in May: “I don’t need a RoadID. I just write all that information on my chest in Sharpie before each ride. #simplesolutions”
And I would never have bought one for myself. From a purely practical point of view, there are a number of off-the-shelf solutions that achieve the same end. The army has been issuing its soldiers dog tags for decades, for example.
But for Father’s Day this year, my wife and kids got me a RoadID, the dog-tag style one, and it changed the way I ride.
First of all, how PRO is it to unzip your jersey on a long climb and have some kind of something dangling on a chain to swing back and forth like a pendulum as you grind out the suffering? Answer: Very.
Second, beneath my name and address and emergency contacts, just under the line that says, “NKA (no known allergies)” and “No Med History,” on the very last line, it says, “You are loved! Ride safe.”
Now let me tell you, even a robot gets choked up when his wife and kids tell him they love him. I never wanted a RoadID, but you’ll never get this thing off me now.
My wife always tells me, implores me really, to ride safe. The words are as hollow and empty as a promise from the UCI. It’s not that she doesn’t mean it, that she doesn’t want me to ride safe. It’s just that I don’t really know what that means, “ride safe.” I think it means, “don’t get killed.” And, I try. I really do try.
It’s the “You are loved,” that changed the game. Now, when I am weak, I am loved. When I am scared after a close call with a belligerent vehicle, I am loved. And that makes all the hard parts of riding just a little bit easier.
When traffic is heavy, and I’m in a rush, and there are lights to sprint through or lanes to split, I remember now that I am loved, and I ease back.
I imagine that the strongest connections we make with other people are expressed with the words, “I love you.” It is one thing to say, “I have a wife and two kids.” It’s another to say, “I have a family who loves me.” And that changes everything.
Even the way I feel about RoadID.
Follow me on Twitter @thebicyclerobot.
I would like to tell you not to come and ride D2R2 (The Deerfield Dirt Road Randonee). It is not the most organized cycling event you will attend. The route is sadistically hard. It is dangerous in many spots, and you do NOT have the right bike for it, no matter what bike you have.
And yet, despite all that, sometimes because of it, this is the single best cycling event I have ever ridden.
Unlike many rides which start with someone on a bullhorn giving nominal instructions at a start line, followed by a starters pistol or some other clear sign that the ride has begun, D2R2 invites you to leave when you’re ready. Ride up to the sign out sheet. Record your number and time of departure, and then get rolling. Go.
What you discover, once on the road, is that there is no signage on the course. No arrows. No logos. Nothing. You are entirely dependent, for whatever length (100K, 115K, 180K) course you choose, on the cue sheet.
Here are some representative samples from the cue sheet:
“Continue straight past “Road no longer maintained” sign”
“Continue straight past gun club onto very rough jeep track”
“Top of hill, farm animals often in road; CAUTION, hard right turn on descent”
“T-intersection, LEFT onto Cowpath 40!”
Stage 3: “A hard dirt climb, a very hard dirt climb, and then a super-hard dirt climb”
“CAUTION: Super-fast downhil with crazy turns and full stop at the bottom”
“CAUTION: gnarly descent, stones, washouts next mile”
Rather than turning the ride into an orienteering course for the velo set, though, this approach to navigation forces everyone to talk. You start by asking if anyone has seen the sign for Cowpath 40, and end up talking about where they come from, what they’re riding, what they ate, etc. It galvanizes the pack, which is a good thing, because there are spots along the way where you need as many friends as you can get.
Another issue is the difficulty of some of the terrain. There are not just steep climbs. There are steep climbs on dirt, and there are not just steep climbs on dirt. There are steep climbs on loose dirt, strewn with gravel and loose stone. And there are not just steep climbs on loose dirt, strewn with gravel and loose stone. There are steep climbs on loose dirt, strewn with gravel and loose stone that go on and on and on, until you’re sure you’re going to throw up and quite possibly fall over.
I was lucky. I had good legs all day.
Ride founder Sandy Whittlesey has done what so many of the iconic races/rides in our sport have done before. He has looked at the area he lives in, figured out where all the most interesting places to ride are, and connected them with a bit of ambitious cartography. This is not a ride that seeks to imitate other rides. This is a ride that tries only to show you exactly where you are.
The ostensible purpose of the event is actually to benefit the Franklin Land Trust, a group that “works with landowners and communities to protect their farms, forests, and other natural resources significant to the environmental quality, economy and rural character of our region.”
In this case, that means rolling farmland, rambling jeep tracks, absurd, escapist dirt roads that shoot up inclines and snake along ridges, paved bits that bisect primordial forest and everywhere the rumble of a river or a brook.
I have hiked, biked and traveled all over the parts of Western Massachusetts and Southern Vermont the D2R2 takes in, but I had never ridden an inch of Whittlesey’s route. He showed me what I’ve been missing.
We rolled back into the start/finish meadow around 5pm with the first drops at the leading edge of Hurricane Irene plopping heavily into the grass. The grills were sizzling, the smell of burger grease wafting on the wind. There was a line at the beer tent, and there were smiles on every face.
It would be easy to chalk up the joy of D2R2 to the scenery or to the hard-man difficulty, but that would fail to capture the spirit of the thing. Simply climbing really hard, technical terrain does not make a ride great. D2R2 takes you up those roads because that’s the only way to see what’s up there. And, of course, you get the descents. I touched 50mph on one of them, a sketchy paved track that swooped and banked like a drunken sparrow. It was, without exaggeration, the best descent of my life, the sort that mixes bowel-guttering fear with smile-plastering joy. At the bottom I could only manage a torrent of profanity to express the complex emotions I’d just felt.
In this, its seventh year, the D2R2 has grown into a big, happy, unruly mess of an event. The word is out. Just short of 1000 riders took part, and word of mouth alone will drive that number higher in 2012. I would like to tell you not to come.
But I can’t.
Photos courtesy of and © Andrew Conway.
Follow me on Twitter @thebicyclerobot.
I must admit, begrudgingly, that Colorado makes a pretty spectacular backdrop for a stage race. From the mammoth climbs, to the sprawling vistas, to the dedicated outdoor community who line the roads to cheer the riders, the US ProCycling Challenge has looked really great. And adding altitude to the test of extreme climbing gives the race a wrinkle that few others can offer.
As I’ve watched it, along with the Vuelta, it has struck me that, if the Vuelta is basically the Spanish climbing championship, then the USPCC is just the US climbing championship. They have nice symmetry that way.
But while one is a storied, if slightly under-appreciated, grand tour, first run in 1935, the other is a complete upstart. Perhaps the USPCC is merely a sign of the times. The balance of cycling power has been shifting over the last two decades. North Americans are making up a larger and larger share of both pro riders and big sponsors. The USPCC may be the culmination of that shift.
Still, if history is any sort of lesson, the likelihood that this race will still be going in ten years is low. The Coors Classic, the primogenitor of the USPCC, was a great big race that attracted top riders from the European peloton. It ran as a three day event (under the sponsorship of Celestial Seasonings) from 1975 to 1980, when Coors took over as primary sponsor and expanded it to a two week race.
By all outward indications the Coors Classic was a highly successful endeavor, generating millions in TV, merchandising and advertising revenue. But the beer company pulled out after 1988 and race organizers were unable to secure a new sponsor. This is, in brief, the story of stage races in the US (e.g. Tour of Missouri, Tour of Georgia).
USPCC has given itself a further challenge, running its inaugural event in a recession, with sponsorship dollars fleeing the sport (HTC anyone?). So there is this tremendous incongruity playing itself out on my TV screen, great racing, beautiful scenery, top talent, but little hope of long term survival. I can’t convince myself to invest in it emotionally, and I can’t convince myself to turn away.
This week’s Group Ride asks: What do you think of the US ProCycling Challenge?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Last Fall, Padraig asked me if I’d ridden D2R2. I hadn’t. Generally speaking, I haven’t done a lot of events of any sort since my kids were born, but this year has been different. The boys are 4 and 6, and I am turning 40, so I’m trying to get some things done with my fitness, while I’ve still got it. I ran a crazy off-road half-marathon in July. I signed up for D2R2, too.
D2R2 is an event like few others. A long, dirt road ramble. An adventure race. A scenic romp over hill and dale. A giant cyclo-festival that is most certainly and explicitly NOT a race, that boasts beer and barbecue and lots and lots of fist bumping.
I pulled out the cross bike, thick with dust, and set about tuning it for a full day of dusty suffering. Honestly, it took me the better part of a week to get that thing tuned up and dialed in. After my first attempts I took it to a local trail system to test my work. What I discovered is that cantilever brakes might as well be twin Rubics cubes, such is my inability to get them tight, even and balanced. I also learned that my seat was too high, and not level, and slightly not-straight. A great wrench, I am not.
Back to the garage and the work stand and the hex wrenches. Back to the kids nipping at my heels, moving my tools from one place to another, asking me too many (i.e. all the right) questions.
Today, two days in advance of the grand depart, I took the bike to a more challenging milieu, a six-mile loop of semi-technical single track. If I could make it there, I reasoned, I could make it anywhere.
It was only six miles, but it was exactly what I needed to transition my brain from my road machine to off-road machine. Keep your weight forward on the loose climbs. Let the bike float beneath you on the descents. Lean into the turns. Avoid the trees. You know, the basics. By the end, I was hucking it off the big (read: not very big) jumps and sprinting into the banked turns. I was having fun.
If you read any of the bike forums dedicated to this Saturday’s event, you will begin to believe that you are not ready, can’t ever be ready and are likely unworthy for the daylong sufferfest. Fortunately for me, having sweated the technique a little, I know that even when you’re not ready, you still ride, and everything works out just fine.
At least, I hope so.
If you will be at the ride this weekend, do keep an eye out for me. I’ll be resplendent in my RKP kit, and I will need all the encouragement I can get.
Follow me on Twitter @thebicyclerobot.
It was a Thursday in April. The spring had been spectacular. I’d been piling on the miles and getting stronger by the week. I’d scheduled the day to work from home, which gave me the chance to take in a four-hour ride in the morning; a great loop in the mountains north of home was the recipe. I’d just finished a 2000-foot climb and rolled over some gentle terrain followed by a brief 45 mph descent. I thought I felt great.
The moment the road turned back up, and by up I mean an extended false flat, one that would last the next 10 miles, I found out that I was not okay. My legs felt as if they’d been hollowed out. It was an emptiness I’d never known.
Things didn’t really improve when I finished the false flat. I was still 25 miles from home and the steepest climb of the day lay ahead. Inside the convenience store I purchased a Mountain Dew and a Snickers bar. It was more a prayer than a calculated gambit to find energy. The word woozy doesn’t begin to illustrate the way my head reeled.
I sat on the sidewalk chewing and sipping my way through the refined-sugar equivalent of rocket fuel. I took no notice of the neon flavors.
The irony of crossing the top of Spunky Canyon in my condition escaped me. I descended for more than a half hour, pedaling only when mandatory.
In the shower, I slumped against the wall. I wondered if I was getting sick. I ate everything in the kitchen that didn’t require cooking. That afternoon I napped and managed only one email that could be construed as “work-related.”
I dashed off a note to a coach I frequently used as a pundit for all things cycling. By this time, my despair was Orwellian. My body had betrayed me, abandoned me. “What happened?” Honestly, I was less concerned with what went wrong than what was required to fix the situation. I needed a solution STAT because I couldn’t abide feeling like the flicker of a dead florescent tube.
You already know the answer: I was overtrained. So overtrained it took me three weeks to get back on track. This was my first season of consistent 15-18-hour weeks and my rest weeks had been, well, they hadn’t been rest weeks, had they?
And just like John Cleese’s character in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who claims a witch turned him into a newt, I got better. We all do.
Friends, I’m overtrained. For the first time ever in my life as a writer, I’m tapped. In the last 12 weeks, between posts for RKP, features for peloton and Bike Monkey, reviews for Map My Ride and copy for several industry clients, I’ve written roughly 50,000 words—half a novel.
I’ve tried to limp along for the last two weeks, but I’ve done a lousy job and RKP has suffered for it. While the desire is there, the feeling is similar to how Beethoven described being deaf—it’s not a silence, but a roar. I sit down ready to write but all I hear is static.
I am going to put the keyboard away for the next week. Following a trip to Chicago to promote my book The No-Drop Zone at Velosmith Bicycle Studio, I’m heading up to the Sierra Nevada to take in as many hors categorie climbs as I can manage in a week. As I empty one battery, I plan to charge another. I’ll be back by Labor Day.
Thanks for reading.
When I am strong, I believe, incorrectly, that I will remain strong indefinitely, as long as I continuing doing all the same things, all the time. So it’s always a big surprise to be five miles into a 60 mile ride and suffering like a worm on the end of a fishing hook, just dangling there, waiting for something big to come along and eat me.
As a cultivator of suffering, it’s astonishing how unpleasant it can get when you’re out of form. And I just think to myself, “Isn’t this what you came for? Isn’t this what you wanted?”
I try to believe that if I just hang in I’ll feel better in a kilometer or two, that I’ll get my legs under me and stop dropping off the back on every climb. Maybe if I eat something. Maybe if I drink a bit more. Maybe if I find a better gear, in the small ring. Maybe it’s just not my day.
The truth is, sometimes it’s just not. No one maintains their top level year-round. Right?
And yet, the surprise, the shock, when your regular companions ride away up the road, not because they want to hammer you, but because they can’t conceive of the idea that you’re not on their wheel. They pull off the front, expecting you to come through, and … nothing.
You have to be careful. Formless rides can be so dispiriting you struggle to pull on your bibs the next day. You begin a seemingly inexorable slide off the back of fitness. The couch gets that much more comfortable. You begin finding reasons not to ride. And then, a panic sets in. “Holy shit! I’ve got to get back on the bike!”
Sometimes you just needed a rest. Sometimes it’s a long slog back.
Fortunately, you will forget this. The season will change. It will get hotter or colder, and your legs will feel strong again. It will be you on the front, not even glancing over your shoulder. You’ll crest the tallest hill and shift back over into the big ring (if you even left it) and feel the power coursing through you, and you’ll forget that time, maybe not even a month before, when the sweat ran off the tip of your nose, your legs ached from ankle to hip, your vision blurred, staring down at your front wheel, praying for the end.
The beauty of self-imposed suffering is that it leaves few marks, either physical or mental. Ask anyone who’s given birth. Ask anyone who’s ridden a double century. Ask anyone who’s raced Paris-Roubaix.
Even our most pathetic lack of form gives us something to ride away with. Does it hurt less the next time? Do we become less afraid of the ten miles post-bonk? Do we gain a little bit of compassion for our friends when they hit their own empty patch?
I can tell you I have been there lately, lungs heaving, eyes stinging with sweat, stomach sour on too much engineered glucose product, and limping up the hill to my house, barely able to clip out in the driveway, and then laying on the kitchen floor, where it’s coolest, waiting for my back to give up its spasm.
I am sure there is something beyond this, if I can only manage to keep turning over the pedals.
Follow me on Twitter @thebicyclerobot.
Ever since I wrote the post “Wait and See” last winter, I’ve been getting questions about Asphalt Magazine. The post was meant to drive interest to the new magazine peloton, to which I contribute. I think Brad Roe, Tim Schamber, Adam Reek et al are doing a very fine job with the magazine. It’s easily the magazine I was hoping to produce when I started Asphalt in late 2002 and in fact, is better.
To the degree that anyone sees parallels between what we did at Asphalt and what peloton or any of the other road bike magazines out there are doing, I’m complimented. No greater praise can be lauded on Asphalt than to say that it had a lasting influence.
Even so, it’s a closed chapter in my life, one I would not wish to reopen even if there were hoards of investors beating down my door (come to think of it, that sounds downright scary). At the end of the day, I’ve always been happiest when I’m writing, and contributing features to peloton is ideal for me and the role of publisher is less so.
In two years we managed to produce five issues of Asphalt. There was a sixth issue almost ready to go to the printer when things got, uh, sideways. We printed the magazine on incredible stock which required us to source the magazine overseas; had we printed it here in the states we would have paid more for it to be printed than we charged to sell it. Part of my thinking for printing on such fine paper was that I always believed we would do a brisk business in back issues while the magazine was a going concern (and we did), and I wanted it to last. It seemed only fair that we provide people something that reflected the quality of the activity and the equipment they rode. What I hadn’t anticipated was the way the magazine has become a collector’s item in the years since.
As I keep receiving inquiries from people who want the entire set of back issues, the reasonable thing to do is to offer them in the RKP store.
I’d say he’s a few pounds heavier than when he stopped racing. The seventies were always an odd era, with flares and tank tops and silly sunglasses and long hair and Janssen is no less embarrassed about it than anyone else. He smiles wryly at a picture of himself looking like George Best. He ticks off riders like Robert Millar and Phil Anderson with their long hair now.
I forgot for a moment that he’d ever been world champion. He never mentioned it except in passing. I think it’s the Tour rather than the championship which holds the sweetest memories. Not surprising, really.
“The Tour is the biggest race, the most beautiful race you can win,” he said. But he won it at the last moment, as an afterthought. Surely, I asked, he’d rather have won with strength instead, instead of taking it on the final day without having once led the journey?
“But it was much more exciting that way, wasn’t it? We saw it when LeMond and Fignon decided it on the last day as well, with people crowding round the television or the radio, and the last day’s a sort of climax. And it was like that for me as well.
“And I don’t think I would have wanted to hold the yellow jersey longer. Right on the last day, nobody knew who would win the Tour, and that was my tactic. We had a team with three riders—Dolman, Beugels and Arie Den Hertog—and that was my team. And I was the fourth. I couldn’t do anything with a team that small, could I? The other riders had packed and gone home.
“So what could I do? I had to be very smart to win the Tour and the only chance was to do it in the time-trial.”
Two decades have passed, but those sensations that LeMond and Fignon must have known are still fresh to him. It took Janssen only a second to remember the gap between Bracke, van Springel and himself, and none at all to recall the number of seconds that put him in yellow.
It’s a back-to-front margin, to win the world’s biggest race with the smallest ever margin. And now he can’t even boast that.
“Records are made to be broken,” he said. “Ja.” He puffed again and stubbed out the remains.
“I was in Paris for LeMond and Fignon. I stood along the Champs Elysées. That’s not where we finished, of course, but it brought back the wonderful memories for me, that Tour de France. It has changed technically over the years, but the Tour is still the greatest sporting event in the world, and if you manage to win it, then you’ve achieved the most beautiful thing that the sport has to offer.”
It was the last year the Tour was public property. For the next four years it went to Eddy Merckx and the sport moved from a number of big-hitters to just one. I suggested that the game in Janssen’s era was more exciting. Not to my surprise, he agreed.
“I’ll go along with that. In my time, a lot of riders could have won. In the time of Merckx, Hinault, Coppi, it was a lot more predictable. You knew in advance who was going to win. Merckx was in the yellow jersey from the second day and the others couldn’t touch him. And for the public, the people who follow the sport on television and radio, that was less spectacular.
“When I rode the Tour, there were 10, 15 good riders. First one would win and then the next and then the next. But in the Merckx era, the Hinault era, the races were the same. So the public got fed up. Now, of course, there aren’t any big names such as Merckx. You’ve got very good riders, but…”
“Nobody as good as Jan Janssen?” I prompted.
“Who am I to say that?”
And then, as his son left to busy himself around the warehouse, I asked Janssen whether he had been born too soon, whether he would rather be his son’s age.
“It’s certainly changed now, that’s for sure. It’s more commercial, and the generation before me, van Est’s generation, they say it as well—we were born too early. There’s much more money to be earned.”
And that made it easier for him?
“Not easier. We had to be good all the time, from the first of February until the end of October. Because it was my duty to make the most of my sponsor’s name, to get publicity. I mean, there were other good riders in the team, but it was 80 per cent on my shoulders to get that publicity. And if you had an off-day, well, you were letting your sponsors down.”
So why, I wanted to know, is there more money now if in his own estimation the races aren’t so exciting?
“Because the whole sponsorship of the sport has taken off. It’s become so interesting to a company because a company that wants to get its name known, you can buy a good team, with good management, good public relations, and you can get all the big names.
“But it didn’t use to be like that, because the television in our time… Well; it was covered but not like now. Direct coverage for an hour and a half they have. Naturally, that is very interesting for the public.
“We got very good money, of course. And to be truthful, the French franc was worth a lot more than now. But I think the motivation has changed with the professionals as well. You get riders like Rooks and Theunisse saying after the Tour they’re stopping at home because they can’t be bothered with criteriums, and that’s not so attractive to the public. I don’t think you’re serving the sport doing that, because the more popular cycling is, the better it is for every one of the riders.
“It’s good that they’re well paid now, of course, but they have to give everything they’ve got. And now there are a load of riders who say ‘I only want to ride the classics in the spring and no Tour de France, no Giro d’Italia and no Tour of Spain, because it’s too hot there and there are too many mountains, and there’s this and there’s that.’
“And there are riders who say they’re not going to ride Paris–Roubaix over the bad roads, and no Tour of Flanders in the snow and rain. They pick and choose their races. Well, it didn’t use to be that way. You got a list of races from your team manager and you had to ride them.
“You can’t have a new Merckx or Hinault every couple of years, because people like that are rare, but what I would say is that the general level of top riders has gone down a bit. There are a number of good riders but no big-hitters any more. The whole sport has changed. They aren’t hungry any more. There’s so much money to earn now, even for a third-rate rider. Twenty-five years ago, a third-class rider didn’t get jam on his bread. So if they got 50 guilders for a criterium, they rode. But now every rider is well paid, so they don’t do so much for it. They say ‘Oh, I’ve got a good contract from the firm, I’m okay.’
“The hunger to ride well, to succeed and only then to earn money is over.”
He’s not bitter, I sense. Despairing perhaps, but realistic would be a better word. In 1967, by the way, Janssen nearly won the world championship for a second time. But he was, in two ways, just that little too late. To start with, he was half a wheel too late. But mainly, he had left it too late because he was now a mature man and with him was a youthful Eddy Merckx—just three years after the Belgian had won the world amateur race.
On the second lap at Heerlen, where Graham Webb and Beryl Burton had already won, there was an attack by Gianni Motta. So Merckx, the Spaniard Saez, and Holland’s van der Vleuten went with him. Merckx wrote later: “There was also an unknown Briton called Addy, who never took his turn and disappeared quickly.”
Bob Addy was a tall, home-based professional in the Holdsworth domestic team. How easily are one man’s dream moments dispelled!
Motta had been given excruciating distances to ride in training by a guru, half-doctor, half-svengali, and he was at that stage where fitness risked topping into exhaustion. Eventually guru De Donato would attract the attentions of the police, but for the moment he had Motta in peak condition.
You can judge how confident he felt by the fact that there were still 250 kilometers to go. The bunch wondered at his foolhardiness for a while; then, after the break had gained three minutes in 60 kilometers, began wondering again. There was a flurry of concern and the motorcycle blackboard man brought the news that Janssen had decided to chase.
That was bad news. Janssen was a brilliant sprinter—he beat Merckx on the line in Ghent–Wevelgem—and, what’s more, he’d proved in the Tour de France that he had the time-trialling ability to close a gap.
Motta turned to the blackboard man again and saw the numbers of the break, then a horizontal line with Janssen’s number below it. And, below Janssen, a large oval to indicate the bunch.
“Who’s with him?” Motta shouted. There were numbers missing, surely?
“Nobody,” the motorcyclist yelled back. “He’s by himself.”
The Italian turned to Merckx and called on him to work with him to stay away. Merckx wrote later in Eddy Merckx, Coureur Cycliste that Janssen was one of the few he considered “a true athlete.” But he wasn’t going to work to stop him.
Instead, he calculated that Janssen would be weakened by the chase but still strong enough to work to keep the group clear. More than that, the Dutch team—usually better organized than the Belgians, whom nobody could guarantee wouldn’t chase Merckx for their own purposes—would ease off if Janssen stood a chance. So too might anyone in Janssen’s circle interested in a contract for the following year. What’s more, van der Vleuten was already in the break.
In fact Peter Post did chase, but then equally Janssen did work with van der Vleuten. The Dutch figured that they alone had two in the break.
Before winning the amateur championship, according to a Dutch author, Merckx told his mother in Brussels that he would shake his legs on a downhill stretch to indicate that he felt fresh in the closing miles. He shook his legs and Mrs. Merckx was delighted. Young Eddy said later that he had done it because they were tired.
This time he remembered the wigging he got. As the bell rang for the last 13 kilometer lap, he winked at the television camera. It was the message to the folk back home.
But afterwards he admitted: “It looked confident but, frankly, I wasn’t that certain.”
Motta jumped on the last descent but failed. Janssen waited for the last 100 meters to sprint and Merckx leaped first. Through his arms, Merckx could see the Dutchman coming up on him inch by inch. Five meters before the line, he was alongside. Desperately, Merckx flung his bike forward beneath him and won by half a wheel.
Jan Janssen had to face his home crowd disappointed.
What is wrong with the Vuelta a España? No. Seriously. What is wrong with this race? It’s a grand tour for crying out loud. It takes in some of the most beautiful roads in Europe, in a country with a rich cycling culture, passionate fans, great food, etc., etc. And yet, the Vuelta is a second tier race.
You know this is true because you’ve read the previews that highlight guys like Bradley Wiggins, Vincenzo Nibali, Igor Anton and Joaquim Rodriguez as potential winners. None of those guys is a world beater. Nibali is defending champion, but this year’s Giro showed just where the young Italian is in the grand tour pecking order, close but not quite at the top. The top Spanish rider, Alberto Contador, prioritized the Giro and Tour ahead of his home country’s race. What does that say?
Perhaps the Vuelta’s diminished shine has something to do with its timing. We’ve already had two grand tours, and most of the big riders are thinking about the world championship now. Would a move back to the beginning of the racing season return the Vuelta to its previous stature?
The proliferation of shorter stage races (e.g. California, USA Pro Cycling Challenge, Romandie, Eneco) also clearly has an effect on our appetite for more stage racing this time of year.
Finally, there seems to be a finite amount of oxygen for grand tours, and the bigger the Tour and Giro get, the less air remains for the Vuelta. Say what you will about Angelo Zomegnan’s recent Giri (the man just lost his job), but that race has been fantastic in recent years, and the Tour remains the Tour, the ne plus ultra of the cycling year.
So, tell me, what is wrong with the Vuelta a España? Is it timing? Is it organization? Do we even need three grand tours? Would more prize money ensure more big name participants? If you were Javier Guillen, the director, what would you do differently?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Les Woodland climbed aboard his old Carlton bike to take a nostalgia trip across Belgium and Holland to visit some of cycling’s greatest riders. Cycling Heroes: The Golden Years tells the story of that journey he took in the early 1990s and the time he spent with some of the finest riders from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. Among those he visited were Rik van Steenbergen, Rik van Looy, Hennie Kuiper, Peter Post and the great Jan Janssen.
When Franco Bitossi was asked his impression of Jan Janssen, he was succinct: “Un artista della bicicletta, he could do what he wanted with his bike.”
Janssen’s palmarès is eloquent. Here are the high points:
1962 Championship of Zurich, 1964 World Pro Road Champion, 1964 Paris–Nice (GC and points), 1965 Tour of The Netherlands, 1964 and 1965 TDF points, 1966 Bordeaux– Paris, 2nd 1966 Tour de France, 1967 Paris–Roubaix, 1967 Vuelta a España (again GC and points), 1967 Super Prestige Pernod, 1968 Tour de France GC, plus a couple of 6-Days. He could beat you anywhere, any time, single-day, stage race or track.
Here’s Les’ telling of his visit with Jan Janssen from Cycling Heroes: The Golden Years.—Bill McGann
JAN JANSSEN (1940– )
I never sensed I’d have difficulty with Jan Janssen. It’s funny how much you go by appearances. I remembered this open-faced chap who never looked angry but always wore sunglasses. You never saw him quoted as saying very much, but then that was probably because most cycling reporters were French and Belgian and Janssen was one of the few Dutchmen.
The French must have felt odd about him, anyway, because he made such a point of riding in French teams. He won for them, but he also kept good honest Frenchmen out of the limelight. That is difficult to resolve in France.
He wasn’t at home when I rang. His wife answered and said he’d be in Germany when I suggested visiting, but he’d be back if I could leave it to the afternoon. He’d be delighted to see me. I thought my judgments about him were coming true.
I knew Putte because it was where I went for my supermarket shopping when I lived in a neighboring village. The border runs through the middle, so south of what used to be the customs check and lorry park you’ll see a mishmash of pubs, shops and houses, and on the northern end the buildings have the eerie conformity of Holland.
Town planning is something that came late to Belgium, but it suits both nations’ characters to have things as they are—the happy-go-lucky, haphazard Belgians and the more worrying, better organized Dutch. The last pro race of the lowland season, the Sluitingsprijs, is in the southern half. You’ll see the village listed as Putte-Kapellen, which is what the Belgians call it. There’s no race at the Dutch end but when they have a carnival, the fun fair takes over the whole village.
I rode through what remained of Belgium through sandy heaths and small villages as far as Kalmthout. I rode a circuit past my old house for old time’s sake and noted that the current residents are better gardeners than I ever was. Then I turned down through a little place called Heide to cross into Holland. Only a change in car number plates gave the border away.
I reached Putte alongside the Wip Er In sex shops (“Pop in”, it means, but it looks better in Dutch), turned right past one of the ubiquitous Albert Heijn supermarkets, and rode up through the herring stalls, poffertje makers (a small sweet pancake) and on to a road on the right called Postlaan. And there, several hundred yards on the left, is the factory where Jan Janssen makes bikes. He’s parted with the company since my visit, but that’s all that’s changed since he won the Tour de France. He looks barely different. And until Greg LeMond’s tussle with Laurent Fignon in Paris in 1989, this trim, bespectacled, blond-haired Dutchman held the record for the closest victory of all.
Jan Janssen moved to Putte at the start of 1969, from Ossendrecht further up the road. His baby, also Jan, had just been born. Jan Janssen is the equivalent of John Smith in England or Paddy Murphy in Ireland. His house is called Mon Repos, recognizing that Janssen was always the most French of the Dutch riders—Pelforth, Bic, all French.
In 1968, it was surprising that he was having lunch at Melun. There was nearly no Tour de France at all that year. The Americans were bombing Saigon, Martin Luther King was shot dead and President De Gaulle flew home from an interrupted tour of Romania to deal with student rioting on the streets of Paris.
That riot, one of several around the world as young people struggled against their governments, were against the central and stifling authority of the French state, which controlled not just the radio and television stations but much else that could encourage progressive thinking. Cobble stones flew and the dead and injured were transferred hourly to hospital by the dozen.
For a while it seemed all France might flare up. There were secondary riots in provincial towns of what was then the most centralized of states. And the greatest symbol outside the government of the Old Way, the traditional of the mighty against the freethinking, was the Tour de France—“that gaudy monument to capitalism,” as the communist L’Humanité called it.
Astonishingly, the riots stopped to allow the peloton to pass. And then they resumed.
At Melun, just before Paris, Janssen was 16 seconds back from Herman van Springel, the maillot jaune. He, Janssen and another Belgian, Ferdi Bracke, were all within three minutes. Just the time-trial into the capital remained. Bracke, a man capable of the world hour record, should have won. But the Gray Eminence, so called because of his prematurely lightened hair, tended to stage fright, flopping on the big occasion. Success wasn’t predictable. By contrast Janssen had the calmness of Dutch tradition. A nation saved by a small boy’s finger in a sea wall (an American story, incidentally, little known in Holland) doesn’t panic at a 30-mile time trial.
Janssen was one of the last three to start. The also-rans were showered and changed in Paris and had returned in their suits or tracksuits to watch the play-off of the biggest drama the postwar Tour had known.
It took 54,600 meters to make the decision. At the end, Janssen had 54 seconds on van Springel, still more on Bracke. He had won the Tour de France. That final yellow jersey was the only one he had worn. His 38 seconds were the smallest winning margin until Greg LeMond.
Even so, Janssen was a winner whom Geoffrey Nicholson called among “the more forgettable”, along with Lucien Aimar and Roger Pingeon. But Nicholson, a fair judge of men, was comparing him to Anquetil. And certainly, if the manner of his success was not crushing in the way of Anquetil or Coppi, then at least he left the race in suspense and not the foregone conclusion that so often visited it when Eddy Merckx or Miguel Indurain was riding.
It also began a happy sequence in which, every 21 years, the Tour put on a show. In 1947, no bookmakers would take bets on Pierre Brambilla winning, so secure were his chances on the last day. More than that, tradition demanded the maillot jaune was allowed his glory, undisturbed by petty attacks. But under his nose, the Breton Jean Robic—“like a little old man in glasses with a helmet like half a dozen sausages on his head”—bobbed off on a hill out of Rouen and got enough of a lead to stand on the uppermost level of the podium at the finish.
Twenty-one years after Janssen also won on the last day, LeMond fitted his aerodynamic tribars to ride to Paris and beat Fignon.
But for Janssen even those memories aren’t enough. Nor is his rainbow jersey from 1964, won by beating Vittorio Adorni and Raymond Poulidor in a sprint at Sallanches. There is sadness in his voice. “In 1969, I said I shall ride for another three or four years at most.” He was 29 then. “I want to quit when I’m on top. It will never be a question of my giving up when I can no longer hang on. I know when to call it a day.”
There is sadness because that day came more quickly than he believed. Maybe he told me this because he was tired from the journey back from Germany, or maybe he just felt it anyway. But he said it all the same.
“To be honest, I had no more ambitions. It was all traveling, racing, and the results weren’t as good any more. And the older you are, the more you have to prepare—train further, train more, look after yourself more, and I couldn’t face all that.
“And then in ’71, I was already doing a bit less—criteriums, smaller races, no Tour de France, which I found a bitter blow—and then, ja, I decided to give up. I was just another of the hundred or so nameless riders in the peloton. And then one day I was in the Tour of Luxembourg, in 1972, and I heard on the radio from one of the motorbike marshals: ‘Winner of the stage…’ I forget the name now…‘With the peloton at 15 minutes, with Jan Janssen’ and so on. And I can’t tell you what a blow that was. Jan Janssen, at 15 minutes? Winner of the Tour de France, former world champion, winner of Paris–Roubaix, winner of Paris–Nice, all the big races? That couldn’t be. And there and then I decided to do a couple more and then hup, I was done.”
We sat in the small works canteen next to the workshop. Staff came and went, among them his teenage son, who races in the black and white stripes of the Zuidwest Hoek club (“southwest corner”) in Bergen-op-Zoom. The three of us laughed and chatted for a moment and spoke of mutual friends. Janssen puffed on a cigarette, just as he did when he was racing. It’s only away from the European mainland that cycling was seen as a route to health; on the Continent it has never been more than a route to money. Janssen smokes, van Est smokes, and Eddy Merckx made an income advertising packets of Belga.
Janssen confessed it must be difficult for his son, a young bike rider with a famous father. But while Janssen zoon might try to overlook his father, Janssen papa likes being recognized. Not bigheaded, really, but he likes being recognized as Jan Janssen when he goes out with the trimmers, the keep-fit riders. He turns up on television around Tour de France time and the bike on which he rode from Melun to Paris is now part of a traveling show—he uses the English word.