Hailstones, snowstorms and survivors
I was taken aback last week when I heard about a field of pro racers coming to a halt during the opening stage of Argentina’s Tour de San Luis. It wasn’t because they had to stop for a train rumbling through a rail crossing; no, they stopped to seek shelter from a storm, one of heavy rain and hail.
Wait, I thought, aren’t bike racers supposed to carry on whatever the conditions, rain or shine? Next, they’ll be stopping because it’s too hot, or too cold, or maybe too windy! It wasn’t always so….
In my first multi-day race, the Easter Three-day on the Isle of Wight in southern England, we raced through a violent hailstorm. Within 10 minutes of hailstones hitting our bare arms, legs and heads (we didn’t wear helmets back then), the intact pack was reduced to about a dozen. That was perhaps the most unusual way I’ve ever gotten into a breakaway!
A couple of years after that, I took my bike to Italy to report the Tour of Sardinia, an early-season race that Tour de France champions Jacques Anquetil, Lucien Aimar and Jan Janssen were riding. They would all survive a true winter tempest of lightning, rain, hail and snow on a mountainside of that sparsely beautiful Mediterranean island. British rider Derek Harrison told me the peloton was slowed when an intense part of the storm covered the road an inch deep in golf-ball-sized hailstones, and Tour winner Janssen stopped several times to wipe his glasses clean and another time to scrounge a pair of woolen gloves.
That day, I climbed just ahead of the race to the 4,000-foot summit of the Arcu Correboi pass, where a well-muffled spectator gave me two swigs from a flask of Cognac before the riders arrived. As the hail turned to snow, a white blanket covered the bumpy road. And after the peloton passed, I began the steep descent, where the wind-blown snow stung my face. In order to see, I had to close one eye, leave the other half open and screw my head around at an angle.
My feet, hands and face were slowly freezing when suddenly a great booming sound came from behind, and a high wall of metal loomed into my peripheral vision. It was a snowplow. The driver waved me over, stopped, put my bike in the back of his truck and helped me into the heated cab. He dropped me off 10 miles later in the remote mountain town of Fonni, where a group of villagers crowded around this still-shivering stranger, and one of them took me and my bike into a bar to treat me to another tot of brandy!
I had a more frightening snowstorm experience in the mid-1980s after reporting the Étoile de Bessèges, a February stage race in southern France — where rookie American pro Thurlow Rogers from Southern California was shocked one day when the water in his bottles turned to ice. I covered the race by bike. The next day, I headed east on a back road through the Cévennes. As I gained elevation, the light snow grew in intensity, and fell so deep on the road that I had to dismount and push my luggage-laden bike as best I could; I’d gone too far to turn back.
There were no houses on that desolate plateau, and I hadn’t seen any vehicles since early in the day. I was having trouble navigating in the whiteout, and I was getting colder and colder, despite putting on all the extra clothing I could find in my panniers. What should have been a pleasant two-hour ride was turning into a never-ending trudge … perhaps I wouldn’t even make it.
The snow kept falling. And when the road began dropping toward a far valley, I hopped onto one pedal, scooting the bike, in the hope of getting to a village before I collapsed with hypothermia—well, that’s what was going through my mind after all those hours of plodding alone in that bleak, silent, snow-covered landscape.
Just as I was despairing of ever reaching civilization I spotted a truck moving in the far distance. It didn’t come my way, but when I reached where it had been, I found the road had been partially plowed. I was able to start riding (very slowly) again … and I did reach a village, where I stuffed myself with cookies and hot tea before continuing to a real town. I checked into a small inn and soaked in a hot, deep bathtub. Bliss.
As for the most memorable day of bad-weather bike racing I’ve witnessed, that came in 1988 at the Giro d’Italia — and I don’t think anyone told the peloton to stop racing when heavy rain turned to snow on the Passo di Gavia. I know how cold it was because the French journalist I was traveling with stopped his car on the 8,600-foot summit. We stood in snow being driven horizontally by fierce crosswinds and watched the racers climbing laboriously, one by one, through the blizzard.
I’ve written about that (truly) epic day many times: how first-man-to-the-top Johan Van der Velde was so cold he stopped and climbed into his team car, and stayed there for many long minutes, warming up and changing into dry clothes before continuing; how second-man-to-the-summit Andy Hampsten donned ski gloves and a balaclava before tracking a solo path through snow and fog on the treacherous, dirt-road descent, risking frostbite, before claiming the leader’s maglia rosa in the valley; how several riders went hypothermic; and how only a handful actually quit the race.
Bob Roll, who was one of the survivors, wrote a piece titled “The Day the Big Men Cried” for one of his books. Those big men weren’t stopped by a little hailstorm — as their counterparts were last week in Argentina.
That’s a somewhat harsh verdict on today’s peloton, so I was pleased to see a couple of tweets this past Sunday from pros training on the Spanish island of Mallorca. Former U.S national champion Ben King of RadioShack-Nissan wrote: “Miserable training! 4 degrees C, windy, pouring rain and hail, 2 hrs was the max that [we] could face … and I’m still numb.” World champ Mark Cavendish of Team Sky added: “My cheeks are red and stinging from a hail storm….” Yes. But better that than red from embarrassment.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Last week we discussed the Men of the Hour—a rather easy-to-compile list of the men we all expect to be at forefront of the sport in 2012. But while the sport’s Men of the Hour might be easier to identify, a list of Up-and-Comers is certainly more interesting to make as it allows for more prognosticating. After all, it’s always fun to go out on a limb—especially if you turn out to be right.
Colombia – Something tells me we’re on the verge of a renaissance, as Colombians have been taking some pretty huge scalps at the U23 level over the past few seasons including the Baby Giro (now called the GiroBio), the Tour de l’Avenir, and the World Road Championship. It’s therefore no surprise that much of the country’s best talent—men such as Rigoberto Uran, Fabio Duarte, Carlos Betancur, and Sergio Henao—is now turning heads as pros. But 2012 should see an even better sign of the South American nation’s resurgence as the Colombia Coldeportes team—the first full-time, European-based Colombian squad the sport has seen in years—has already gained entry into some of Europe’s biggest races. The team’s main goal? A Tour de France invite—and they think they can get it as soon as this year.
Sep Vanmarcke – Belgium’s Sep Vanmarcke burst onto the scene with a second-place ride for Topsport Vlaanderen at Ghent-Wevelgem in 2010, beating George Hincapie and Philippe Gilbert in the process and earning himself a contract with Garmin-Cervelo. Fast forward one year and there was Vanmarcke again at the front during the classics, this time burying himself for the sake of teammates Thor Hushovd, Heinrich Haussler, and Tyler Farrar, yet still finding the strength to finish 4th in the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen and 20th in Paris-Roubaix. Thor’s departure bumps Sep up a rung in the squad’s cobbled hierarchy this year, and considering Farrar’s inconsistency on the pavé, Vanmarcke could easily find himself in a position to win a race for himself this spring.
Salvatore Puccio – This is more of long shot, but keep an eye on Team Sky neo-pro Salvatore Puccio, the winner of the 2011 U23 Tour of Flanders. Talented young Italians come a dime-a-dozen, which explains why most find themselves signing their first professional contracts with Italian squads. Not Puccio though, his impressive U23 resume turned some World Tour heads and the Italian was smart to take advantage of an opportunity to join one of the best cobbled teams in the sport. If Puccio’s decisions on the road prove to be just as savvy, expect big things.
Omega Pharma-Quick Step – The losers in the Philippe Gilbert sweepstakes made smart choices on this winter’s transfer market, bolstering their stage race ranks with the additions of Tony Martin and Levi Leipheimer, while avoiding a potential logjam at the head of their classics squad (I doubt Gilbert and Tom Boonen would have fared well together in the same team). With Martin and Leipheimer, the team now has two men ideally suited to the route of the 2012 Tour de France—and both can counted-on to win their share of stages and overall titles in smaller stage races as well. In fact, the season’s already started-off on the right foot at Argentina’s Tour de San Luis with Francesco Chicchi winning two stages and Leipheimer currently leading the overall after winning the ITT. Better still, Tom Boonen and Sylvain Chavanel appear healthy, fit, and motivated. Their return to form is certainly a good sign for the spring classics—and for a team looking to be competitive all season long.
Thomas De Gendt – Another member of the Topsport Vlaanderen class of 2010, De Gendt had quite an impressive World Tour debut with Vacansoleil in 2011, winning stages at Paris-Nice and the Tour de Suisse. A man built for the Ardennes, De Gendt should get more chances to ride for himself in all the spring classics this year—especially if Stijn Devolder proves unable to regain his Ronde-winning form from 2008 and 2009. But while the classics remain a goal for any Belgian, I wonder if De Gendt’s destined for greater things—like grand tours. The 2011 Tour de France was the 25-year-old’s first ever 3-week event. Not only did he finish the race in his first try, he finished 6th on Alpe d’Huez and 4th in the ITT in Grenoble, Stages 19 and 20 respectively. Those are telling results, for at a time when most riders were getting weaker, the Tour rookie was getting stronger.
Rabobank’s Young Grand Tour Men – Rabobank’s Robert Gesink is still only 25 and despite his poor Tour de France last year remains Holland’s best hope for grand tour success. However, with men like Steven Kruijswijk and Bauke Mollema nipping at his heels, he’ll need to do something soon (like, now) if he wants to stay relevant. In 2010, Kruijswijk finished 18th in his first Giro d’Italia—at barely 23 years of age. He bettered that result considerably last year, finishing ninth and then following it up with a stage win and third-place overall at the Tour de Suisse a few weeks later—against some very tough pre-Tour competition.
As for Mollema (who along with Gesink just extended his contract with Rabobank through 2014), his 2011 was even more impressive: tenth in Catalunya, ninth in Paris-Nice, fifth in the Tour de Suisse, and fourth at the Vuelta (along with the green points jersey and a day in the red jersey as race leader). Like Gesink, Mollema’s also a talented single-day rider who should challenge in hillier classics such as Liege-Bastogne-Liege and il Lombardia (I’m still getting used to the new name too). And Mollema’s only 25 as well—that makes 3 super talents for Rabobank—all under the age of 26. With all three riders deservedly expecting grand tour leadership in 2012, Rabobank’s management might have a problem on its hands—then again, it’s not a bad problem to have. And in case they’re reading, here’s an easy answer: Kruijswijk gets the Giro, Gesink the Tour, and Mollema the Vuelta.
France – Yes, we’re still waiting for the true return of the French to the top steps of the sport’s most prestigious podiums—but there’s good reason to believe it’s going to happen soon. First of all, a very talented group of young French professionals is on the rise, led by men such as Pierre Rolland, Arnold Jeannesson, and Thibaut Pinot. It’s been a while since France had a rider who looked as if he could develop into a legitimate grand tour contender and now they have three.
Better yet, France has been identifying and developing young riders (juniors and espoirs) better than any country in the world, as evidenced by Frenchmen winning three of the last four junior world titles and two of the last three U23 world titles. While a rainbow jersey is never a one-way ticket to greatness, the French Federation’s run of success certainly bodes well for the future—especially since world champions aren’t the only quality riders the program is producing. And last but certainly not least, one has to expect that Thomas Voeckler’s heroic 2011 Tour de France (coupled with a terrible showing in the 2010 World Cup by the French national soccer team) has inspired at least a handful of young French boys to choose cycling over soccer that otherwise might not have. It only takes one rider to change a generation’s perception of a sport—maybe Voeckler’s stunning performance will reap greater rewards 5 to 10 years in the future.
Young Italian Sprinters – If last season is any indication, Italian fans might soon have someone other than Daniele Bennati to hang their field sprint hopes upon. Sacha Modolo, Andrea Guardini, and Elia Viviani won a combined 29 races in 2011—and all but a few came via field sprints. The three still need to prove themselves in World Tour races (only Viviani won a race at the World level—and even that was in Beijing), and Modolo’s the only one to have started a grand tour (twice, in fact—but he failed to finish both times). But at ages 24, 22, and 22, respectively, they still have time to develop.
Project 1t4i – Even though it’s a Dutch squad, Project 1t4i (formerly Skil-Shimano) will be led by two young Germans this year: 2011-revelation Marcel Kittel and HTC-import John Degenkolb. It goes without saying that Kittel is an up-and-comer—the 23-year-old won 17 races in 2011 (18 if you count the Amstel Race in Curacao) including four stages each at the Four Days of Dunkirk and the Tour of Poland. Kittel’s biggest victory—and proof that he’s a force to be reckoned with in coming years—came at the Vuelta a Espana in September, the first of what looks to be many grand tour stage victories throughout his career.
No slouch himself, Degenkolb won six races in 2011 including two stages at the Criterium du Dauphiné. That said, it’s clear that Degenkolb (also 23 years of age) is a future classics star—he reminds me of Matthew Goss in that he’s a talented field sprinter who shows even more potential as a classics hard man. Last year, the rookie was given a start in every spring classic that mattered from the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (he finished 12th) to Paris-Roubaix (he finished 19th). With 1t4i already receiving several wild card invites to just about every cobbled race on the calendar, Degenkolb will be given new chances to impress in 2012.
So that it for my Up-and-Comers for 2012. If all goes as planned, our 2017 Men of the Hour will be a list of mostly Colombian, French, and German riders.
Who’s on your list Up-and-Comers for 2012? Come join me on the limb!
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
As cyclists we may measure time a bit more observantly than some. Sure, we follow the course of a year the same as everyone else. But each year is another season spent on the bike. Each year is a self-contained string of high points, misses. It’s the way we mark each year that gives us our perspective.
It comes up in the way we talk about our riding with other cyclists. Even for those of us who no longer race (if we ever did) it’s not uncommon to mark previous years in the course of conversation.
I’m ahead of where I was this time last year.
It’s been five years since I could climb that in the big ring.
I’m always lousy in January.
The odd feature of this life is that we can get lost in the routines of training. Base miles in the fall and winter, intervals and early races in the spring, riding hard all summer long. We don’t always look up to make sure we’re keeping it fresh.
But eventually we mark so many years we hit one of those personal milestones. Thank God for friends. While I let my birthday slip quietly by last month, a friend is celebrating his 50th birthday. As is true with the gift of cycling, he doesn’t look it. To celebrate, we rounded up an 18-strong group to break our routine and do something a little different.
As is typical of many Sundays, we climbed one of the canyon roads in Malibu but this time dropped into the San Fernando Valley to climb Dirt Mulholland which I mentioned in my recent post when I went for a ride with Spencer from Ritte Racing. From the Valley, Mulholland is a six-mile climb with a few respites, though it’s all work.
Stepping out of the routine can help reminds us of the bigger picture, celebrating life in the unusual even as we’ve worked celebrate it by establishing routines to make the most of the time we have.
There’s nothing particularly remarkable about riding a dirt road, but it’s something we don’t usually do and it was a way to mark the occasion, and a way to entice friends who aren’t local to come up for a ride we’ve promised each other to do annually.
Here’s to marking occasions with a special ride.
Diane Lees owns a bike shop, teaches yoga, hosts a radio show and still finds time to ride her bike. I think she put her watch in a trash compactor. I’ve known her since the days of Asphalt and my every interaction with her has been a delight.
She interviewed me for her radio show, “The Outspoken Cyclist,” this week. The show will be on WJCU 88.7 FM live (in Cleveland) at 5:30 (that’s Easter Standard Time). You can live stream the show or wait until 6:00 and then download the podcast. We had a great time talking and I’m hoping that unless you meet me in person it’ll be the first and last time you hear my voice (why is it we hate the sound of our own voice?).
To check it out, drop by here.
A reader considers using human growth hormone to fight aging and argues doping rules are just plain wrong
I read with interest your column on supplemental testosterone therapy for older men and the impact it might have on the aging process. I usually like your column, except when you get on your high horse on the subject of doping.
I am a 57-year-old masters’ racer and can probably say I am basically just a “weekend warrior” and not looking to make a living off of my riding. First off, it seems unfair to apply the anti-doping rules used for professionals to a bunch of older riders whose lives include more than just racing.
Even then though, I think professionals should be allowed to dope, too. As one of the comments said at the end of your column last week, open doping would “level the playing field” and it would stop all of these stupid guessing games about whether someone has doped or not.
I have friends who’ve been using supplemental testosterone for years now and they look healthy and strong and say they feel great. I had considered it, but my doctor says that my levels are not all that low and she doesn’t want to run the risk.
I have been asking her about using human growth hormone as well, but she seems reluctant. I live close enough to Mexico that I have thought about traveling there to make an appointment to see a doctor about buying hGH and maybe testosterone there. If I get caught, then fine. I’ll just ride on my own.
Does cycling even have a test for hGH?
To be honest, I was tempted to just delete your email, largely because you seem to be advocating practices and arguments that I find to be both medically dangerous and morally abhorrent. Whoa, I just used “morally abhorrent” to dismiss your argument … okay, okay, so maybe I am riding a high horse.
So, instead of deleting your email, let’s take a look at what you’re suggesting.
I often receive emails and see comments from those who want sport to take a sort of laissez-faire approach to the question of doping. For a lot of reasons, I’ve never been able to buy into that kind of thinking.
Rules are rules
In your case, let’s start off with the most obvious. Doping is against the rules. Yeah, I see that you’re a 57-year-old masters’ racer and, frankly, no one outside of a really small circle of participants, friends and family is ever going to take notice of race results turned in by guys in our age groups.
Nonetheless, you’ve chosen to engage in a competition with a specific set of rules with which every participant, either explicitly or implicitly, has agreed to comply. That may not seem like it’s important when you’re riding in the Men’s 55+ division at the local Tour de Office Park, but it is.
When others are complying with the rules and you don’t, you’re not participating in the same event. By suggesting that you might dope and ride until you are caught, you’ve pretty much abandoned the whole concept of what makes a sport a sport. Operating under a commonly accepted set of rules is the very essence of sport. Think about the alternative for a moment.
I could, for example, quite easily win the Masters Golf Tournament this coming April. I would crush Tiger Woods and the rest of the professional field with a series of guaranteed holes-in-one. Of course, in my case, a Kim-Jong-Il-like golfing performance could only come about if Woods and others followed the rules and I simply carried the little white ball from the tee and dropped it into each hole.
Under the current rules, doping is just a subtler version that obvious (and admittedly ridiculous) strategy. Raymond, aside from the medical risks (which we’ll touch upon in a minute) of your planned foray into Mexico, you risk cheapening the experience of competition for yourself and for those against whom you would be “competing.”
Dope for one, dope for all!
But aside from suggesting that you are thinking about cheating until caught, you’ve also raised the common argument that doping shouldn’t be part of the rules governing sport – especially ours.
I’ve heard that a lot and the argument usually comes down to the advocates of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) saying that getting rid of doping rules would, as you said, level the playing field. They summarize their argument with a variant of the old NRA bumper sticker, suggesting that “when PEDs are outlawed, only outlaws will use PEDs.”
In my book, that’s a surrender to the belief that dopers will always be a step ahead of the testers, so we should just give up. It’s an argument that may have once carried weight, but the progress since the creation of WADA and increased funding for research has narrowed the gap. I honestly believe sports in general, and cycling in particular, are cleaner now than they have been since advent of blood-manipulating drugs, like EPO.
When discussing the scourge of sports doping in historical terms, we often hear of early efforts dating back to the ancient Olympic Games. But honestly, the real impact of doping in sport wasn’t felt until the development of exogenous hormones that allow competitors to alter the fundamental structures of their bodies, artificially stimulating muscle growth and, above all, altering the composition of their blood.
When recombinant erythropoietin began to make its appearance in cycling, the early mistake some athletes made was to operate on the belief that if a little is good, more must be better. We’ve all heard anecdotes about riders jacking their hematocrits up to and beyond 60 percent in the early days. We also all heard some reasonable speculation that the spate of cardiac deaths that affected riders in the early 1990s were not merely coincidental.
Despite Michele Ferrari’s now-infamous pronouncement that if properly administered EPO is quite safe, the drug, even in moderate doses, poses some serious risks, including cardiovascular complications and elevated rates of some types of hormone-sensitive cancers.
As EPO use in the peloton became more common – and more sophisticated – once-dominant riders were finding themselves struggling. Some were soon faced with that Faustian choice of whether to dope or to retire.
In the pre-Festina-scandal world of cycling, teams were actively engaged in promoting drug use by riders and, to some new recruits, it was made clear that they could either dope … or go back home and become a bricklayer.
After that infamous 1998 Tour scandal, the pressures remained, but were far more subtle. Your argument in favor of “leveling the playing field” would return us to a point where athletes would essentially be required to dope in order to compete. Were such doping without medical risk, that might be a valid point, but it isn’t without risk.
What you’re offering is a world in which we’d be asking 20-year-olds to make decisions whose consequences may not manifest themselves for years. For what? For our entertainment? So that Phil and/or Paul can happily declare that a certain rider just turned in “an unbelievable performance!” (without the slightest hint irony)? Unbelievable, indeed.
The law of unintended consequences
As a recent chemotherapy patient, I was a little disappointed to learn that EPO and other erythropoeisis-stimulating agents (ESAs) were not an option for me, even when my hematocrit dropped from its normal 48 to less than 30. For years, such chemo-induced anemia was casually treated by oncologists who saw ESA use as a logical response to declining red blood cell counts. As it turned out, though, there was a significantly higher rate of cancer recurrence in those patients receiving ESAs than in those who did not. Oops.
I am not suggesting that well-monitored use of ESAs will automatically lead to higher rates of heart disease and cancer among otherwise healthy populations. What I am suggesting, though, is that we are at a point in modern medicine where even our most sophisticated methods are still quite crude. We simply do not know what the long term consequences are in many cases.
You know, back in the old days – the late 1960s and ’70s – hGH was only available by removing it from donor cadavers. In 1985 doctors began diagnosing and reporting cases of patients, who had received hGH treatments 15 or 20 years earlier, developing Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease – also known as Mad Cow Disease. It was enough to prompt the removal of cadaver-sourced growth hormone from the market. Oops.
These days, recombinant growth hormones are produced by several pharmaceutical companies, using sophisticated genetic engineering techniques. Your risk of exposure to Creutzfeldt–Jakob or some other transmissible spongiform encephalopathy is pretty much nil. Of course, there are still increased risks for other things like headaches, impaired vision, a rare form of diabetes, Hodgkins lymphoma and – just like last week – sexual dysfunction. Oops.
In your case, you’re considering the use of human growth hormone despite there being very little peer-reviewed evidence of its potential benefit and ample evidence that it carries with it significant risk. Again, you’re a masters’ racer. Your decision isn’t going to change the world, nor will it place the onus of making a similar decision upon a 20-something rider trying to make his or her way in the world of professional sport.
In your case, it’s just a risky – and potentially stupid – move that will probably only affect you. Do yourself a favor, though, and read an interesting 2003 article in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, which concludes that “the over exaggeration of the effects of growth hormone in muscle building is effectively promoting its abuse and thereby encouraging athletes and elderly men to expose themselves to increased risk of disease for little benefit.”
That “over exaggeration” is the result of a burgeoning industry of hGH advocates who see it as another in a long line of “cures” for the aging process. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence out there, but there haven’t been comprehensive, double-blind studies of the anti-aging effects of hGH. A valid study would examine both its purported anti-aging effects and the potential for negative side-effects. Simply put, at this point there is little evidence to suggest that hGH is either safe or effective when it comes to athletes or those of us who dream about being young again. Despite the absence of compelling evidence that it provides a competitive edge, WADA has included hGH on its banned substances list.
Look, Raymond, we all get older. Like you, I miss being 25 and fast. Unlike you, I am not willing to tamper with my body chemistry in a seemingly futile effort to turn back the clock. Let’s just roll with it.
And, yes, WADA does have an hGH test. Watch out.
The Explainer is now a weekly feature on Red Kite Prayer. If you have a question related to the sport of cycling, doping or the legal issues faced by cyclists of all stripes, feel free to send it directly to The Explainer at Charles@Pelkey.com. PLEASE NOTE: Understand that reading the information contained here does not mean you have established an attorney-client relationship with attorney Charles Pelkey. Readers of this column should not act upon any information contained therein without first seeking the advice of qualified legal counsel licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.
January is a funny time of year for cyclists. Where July is all the same in the Northern Hemisphere—that is, warm and filled with rides in short sleeves and bibs, January can mean almost anything. Here in the South Bay we’ve got brilliant sun, temperatures in the 70s and sunsets the Internet dating sites wish they could sell.
I swear, June isn’t this nice.
But January is supposed to be a time of cold, snow and ice. At minimum it should be the exact opposite of what makes you yearn to ride. It is to the romance of a bike ride what grocery shopping with your sweetie is to falling in love. Some places are suffering real winters complete with frozen slushy stuff, while other places are at least reasonable if not downright mild.
And for those who are riding, this ought to be a time of base miles, at least, in theory. Again, the left coast gets this wrong as well. I’ve got friends who are drilling three-hour rides. Base? If they ever did it, those miles were finished before Christmas. After all, the racing has already begun here.
So what’s it like where you are? Double if you’re in the Southern Hemisphere. Are you getting to ride? If so, what sort of miles are you doing? Is it fun or is it a chore? You don’t have to explain why. We know the why. Life without cycling wouldn’t be life.
Image courtesy Ray Assante
Comparing anything in the bike industry is a dangerous business. There’s a long history of manufacturers expecting—and getting—reviews of just their equipment without having the results muddled up by any comparison to the work of a competitor. There’s also a history of pissed-off companies withholding ad dollars, not just in the bike industry, but any industry you look at. If you never see an ad from Campagnolo, Shimano or SRAM, this series would probably be why. Most bike companies aren’t wild about reviews that don’t spit-shine their every effort. So I’ll try not to be surprised if none of them ever advertise with me. They’re each accustomed to kid glove treatment, but I can’t in good conscience claim to have written an in-depth appraisal and not note some of the weaker features—some intended, some not—that give these groups their real-world identities.
So which component group is best for you? After all, that’s the question. Judging from the comments these posts have received, very few readers were willing to accept the idea that there was a winner. And that’s okay. What I wanted to make people aware of was that there are objective features found in some of these groups that elevate that group in consideration. When someone tells me, “It’s just a matter of preference.” I bristle in the same way that I do when someone tries to tell me, “How can you say with certainty something is a good piece of writing? It’s all subjective.”
Um, nope. No, it’s not. You see, if I posted a piece of writing riddled with misspelled words, used no capital letters and included no punctuation, you’d stop reading after just a few minutes. I guarantee it. And that’s even if all the verb tenses are correct. No matter how excellent the ideas might be, without a sense of the rhythm and focus of a writer’s ideas, the work becomes just a jungle of words. Similarly, a group is just a bunch of bike parts until they are properly assembled and adjusted to the point of working according to factory spec.
Below are a number of considerations that help illustrate some of the stronger features each of the groups has to offer, while also highlighting some of the weaknesses to be found as well.
Foolproof shifting: Despite the input from some readers that (insert group name here) shifts like crap, my experience is that Dura-Ace and Red have been more foolproof than Campagnolo. Red gets a ding because if the chain is in the largest cog and you try to downshift again because, for instance, you believe the chain’s in the 21 when it’s actually in the 23, unless you’re paying attention and push a bit harder on the lever, you’ll end up upshifting, so you’ll get a higher gear when you were looking for a lower one. I’ve made that mistake, but I’ve also learned that if I go for the downshift and the cog’s not there, all I have to do is push a bit harder and the chain will stay put. Not so bad. Sure, it’s simpler the way Campagnolo and Dura-Ace let you know you’re out of cogs: the lever won’t move, but there’s more to this feature than that.
More impressive is that a Red group built with the included Gore cables I could ride through a hurricane’s storm surge and the shifting would continue to be butter-smooth.
I’ve missed dozens upon dozens of upshifts with Dura-Ace because I needed to rotate my wrist to get that last bit of lever travel and couldn’t because I was mid-sprint. And I’ve overshifted the Super Record thumb buttons just as many times. But I’ve never missed or over-shifted an upshift with Red, in part because I can pull the lever back to the bar, tucked beneath my index finger.
In downshifting, practically speaking, I never downshift more than two cogs at a time. I broke too many Shimano chains in the 1990s because I tried shifting three cogs (or maybe more).
There’s no clear victor, but I give the edge to Red.
Front derailleur trim: That Dura-Ace no longer features any trim is a fail. I don’t know a rider who doesn’t get at least a bit of front derailleur rub in some gear. That’s not to say perfect adjustment isn’t possible; the problem is that so few mechanics (me included) know exactly how to achieve it. Because Red only offers trim in the big chainring isn’t a fail, but it gets a B-. Super Record is the clear winner here because you can trim easily in either the big or little chainring.
Braking performance: With regard to modulation, I give the edge to Super Record. For absolute brake power, Super Record and Red have an edge over Dura-Ace, but not by a lot. That said, swapping out wheels often makes a bigger difference than going to different groups. I’ve ridden each of the groups with wheels that resulted in poorer than expected braking and with wheels that offered braking that was a bit more responsive than I wanted. Ultimately, they all offer terrific modulation. They are so good they beg the question: Who really needs hydraulics?
Sound: A full Red group is the noisiest group I’ve ever encountered. Full stop. Still, it’s not that terrible. Is it one of the group’s worst features? I don’t think so. I seem to have spent so much time on Dura-Ace that I’ve come to accept its noise level as the standard by which to judge. The upshot to that is when I get on Super Record the group is so quiet I relish the cut in noise. Win to Super Record.
Ease of shifting: For riders with small hands or relatively little hand strength it’s fair to note that the shifting systems require differing amounts of force to execute a shift. This difference is more pronounced with the front shifter. Since Dura-Ace changed to running the derailleur cables beneath the bar tape, the force required to execute a shift has gone up, and with the front derailleur it’s noticeably so. Red requires less force to execute a shift, but this is another occasion where the clear edge goes to Super-Record. It’s the system I recommend for women riders.
Crank options: Super Record is off the back on this one. Campagnolo offers the Ultra-Torque crank in either 53/39 or 50/34 configurations and only four lengths: 165, 170, 172.5 and 175mm. Red offers six chainring combinations and six lengths (165 to 177.5mm in 2.5mm increments). Dura-Ace gets the slight edge, for while they offer the same six choices in chainrings, they offer seven lengths, adding a 180mm option to the array.
Gearing choices: If we leave out non-group options such as pairing a Red group with an Apex rear derailleur and cassette and just stick to in-group options, Red doesn’t look so hot with its four choices. Dura-Ace offers more choices with eight different cassette options. However, though Super Record only offers five options, they take the V here because the 11-speed 11-23 offers everything a 10-speed 11-21 offers, plus it adds a little kindness for the odd hill. The 12-25 and 12-27 options make lots of sense where I live and for those folks who need a little extra help on longer climbs, the 12-29 cassette provides something the other groups don’t offer.
Ergonomics: Okay, Dura-Ace just plain loses on this. The current control lever body has all the design sense of a freeway accident. Sure, it’s functional, but looking at it doesn’t invoke any desire to hold it in my hand. The Super Record control lever is its tactile opposite. I can’t not want to touch one, to hold one in my hand when I see it. It simply looks made to fit my hand and if my hand belongs there, then I’m going to put it there. The Super Record brake levers also feel better on my fingers than either the Dura-Ace or Red levers. They aren’t really made for someone with big hands, but the included shims help with that. But as I noted for those of us with smaller hands I wish they offered the ability to adjust the lever throw. That’s a miss.
Red strikes an interesting balance by offering a lever body that is comfortable and natural to hold and giving the user the opportunity to adjust both the brake lever throw and the shifter paddle position. Edge to Red.
Weight: This one goes to Super Record with a weight of 1950 grams (4.3 lbs.). Red is an extra 30 grams, which is pretty darn close. Dura-Ace may be the heaviest of the bunch, but it wasn’t too many years ago that a 2 kilo group would have seemed like the stuff of killer tomato movies.
Cost: Recently, I was talking Campagnolo’s general manager for North America, Tom Kattus. We were talking about how people choose groups and he noted that Super Record isn’t a fair comparison to Dura-Ace or Red because it’s so much more expensive. The fair comparison is Chorus, he says. That’s a helpful consideration if your primary motivator is price. But I think anytime someone looks at Super Record they do it for a simple reason: They want their conception of what is best. People may shop for the best price on Super Record, but by the time they do that they’ve already decided that’s what they are buying. Super Record buyers don’t want better—they want best. The 7-series Beamer is an amazing sedan. However, the Maserati Quattroporte can reasonably be called the best four-door sedan on the market. Some people will argue Jaguar or Porsche, but you can’t count the Maserati out, and that’s the point. The best deals I see are for Red, so again, it takes the win.
Ease of repair: There are three criteria for this section. First is how quick is it to work on or replace a part. Little touches like the clearly marked and easy to reach derailleur set screws plus the easily accessible lever adjustment screws control lever nuts make Red my favorite to work on. Should I want a component worked on and some small part replaced, such as a component within a control lever, Super Record is the ticket. Just take it to an authorized Campagnolo service center. But if I’m away from home and need a replacement part due to a crash or other need (this happens), I’d rather have Dura-Ace. It’s better stocked, both here and abroad. Regardless, if I walk into my garage to work on a bike I’d rather work on Red than Super Record or Dura-Ace. I have the highest level of confidence that I’ll make the adjustment I need in the least amount of time if I’m working on Red.
Crash sensitivity: If you go down, it’s handy to be able to ride home. Super Record’s more liberal use of carbon fiber puts them at a distinct disadvantage here. Any time a friend who owns a Campagnolo Record or Super Record group has gone down we know to call for a pick-up. The components remind me of what a mentor from Arkansas once said of chickens: “They just look for reasons to die.” Unfortunately, Red levers seem to be rather susceptible to death by impact and abrasion as well. Even after going to carbon fiber brake levers I have to admit that Dura-Ace seems more likely to survive a misadventure.
Cool factor: Ah cool. What’s cool is (of course!) entirely in the eye of the beholder. I’ve got plenty of friends for whom cool can only be bestowed by something Italian. Other friends believe that if you’ve spent a dime more than necessary your purchase wasn’t cool. They go for Red. And there are plenty of folks for whom cool only comes by sticking close to the mainstream. No winner; this is a draw.
Overall appearance: The effect graphics can have on a part is easy to underestimate until you see something amazing. One of my favorite features about Red is its bold use of graphics and color. It makes a statement. And while I really like the overall look of Super Record, there are places where the look is more industrial than stylish. Maybe I’d like the look more if I didn’t expect so much from them. For God’s sake, they’re Italian. Their stuff ought, by right, to look so good that I should fantasize pretty girls will blow kisses to me when I ride by on Super Record. As to Dura-Ace, 7800 was a better looking group; 7900 recalls Apple products in the 1990s after Steve Jobs was forced out. I recall seeing one Apple computer and thinking, “They what?” The difference between average industrial design and great industrial design is the difference between Hyundai and Aston Martin. There’s so much I like about Super Record, but Red takes this by a wheel.
Ideal users: The best answer for one user is not the best answer for all users. I tend to steer women to Campagnolo groups for the ease of shifting if they don’t have great hand strength. I’ll recommend Red if it seems like they will have trouble with the reach to Campagnolo brake levers. For newbie racers or those who race ultra-technical courses where you might be hard on the brakes for a tight corner and then sprinting back up to speed, I think Dura-Ace is better than Mexican Coke, because you can brake and downshift at the same time. If you’ve got big hands, also Dura-Ace; the lever bodies are bigger and you’ll be less likely to notice the increased force required to shift to the big chainring. Like to maintain your equipment yourself? Red is the easiest to work on and achieve the desired result in my experience. And for you sprinters, it’s Red. Red Red Red Red Red. And everyone knows that if you hang your identity on Euro cool your bike will feature Campagnolo.
And the winner is …
As I tallied up the various considerations above, I suspected that what I was going to find was that I’d given more points to Red than the other groups. I was surprised to find that it was essentially a tie between Super Record and Red. When I think about the bikes I’ve had at my disposal recently, I realized that I chose which bike to ride according to the following criteria:
- If the bike absolutely had to work correctly at all times and I knew I couldn’t afford a missed shift due to drivetrain vagaries, I chose Red.
- If I wanted the perfect gearing for a hilly day and light shifting plus terrific progressive brake power for descending, I chose Super Record.
- I seem to wind up on Dura-Ace only when it’s the equipment on the bike that I want to ride.
My Super Record drivetrain has been so fussy that there have been rides where I’ve made a conscious choice not to take it. The more I think about it the more I realize that if the drivetrain had worked flawlessly all the time—instead of only recently—I probably wouldn’t be as enamored with Red as I am. All of the groups have issues that bug me. I’d like the Super Record brake lever throw to be adjustable. I hate the Super Record brake quick release. I’d like more cassette choices in Red. I’d like lighter shift action with Dura-Ace. All that said, that 11-speed 12-27 cassette paired with a compact crank will get me through any terrain when I’m fit. And if I’m not fit (which would include all of 2011 and every bit of 2012 so far), well maybe Fatty will let me contribute to Fat Cyclist again. In the meantime, I think I’m going to go lube my Campy chain; I’m riding it tomorrow. And the next day.
I bought my first pack of baseball cards when I was eight-years-old. It was 1979. I sorted through the small stack of cardboard looking for anyone I recognized, then I chewed the crappy, stiff piece of gum. I would love to say there was a Jim Rice or a Steve Garvey in that first pack, but there wasn’t. I don’t know why I kept buying them after that, but I did.
In fact, I became obsessed.
Within a year or two I had thousands of cards. I had Jim Rices. I had Steve Garveys. I had long checklists of players, and my collection was organized by team and card number. I no longer bothered to chew the gum.
At that time you could buy books with values listed for all the cards by the top three companies, Topps, Fleer and Donruss. I poured over those books obsessively until other kids, similarly afflicted, would come to me to appraise their best cards. I would make guesses, then consult the book, until I discovered I was correct all the time. I had memorized the book.
Soon I was investing real money, buying old Mantles and Aarons and Mays at the local coin shop, trading with my less informed friends, trading up, trading sideways, enhancing my collection, pursuing weird collecting tangents tied into baseball history and rearranging my cards to tell a story. Here are all the 1958 White Sox. I collected them because I liked Luis Aparicio, a diminutive short stop I’d never actually seen play the game.
Now I am one of those American men who keeps a cardboard box full of old cards up in his attic. Most of the gems I sold off in college, just for spending money. It pains me to think of it (although I still own a very good condition original of the card above).
Baseball cards gave way to vinyl records. I have carted those around my entire adult life, and they’re all shelved in the basement, next to the turntable that’s not plugged in.
After records, I bought guitars. Black Les Paul Std., vintage reissue SG Junior, Gibson ES150 hollow body electric, Travis Bean aluminum neck- through-the-body, Fender Telecaster, and on and on. Bought, sold, traded. For a while I was flipping vintage drum sets too. A white oyster Gretsch jazz kit. A Slingerland blue sparkle kit. Stacks of Marshall stacks and small Fender tube combos.
Just researching the color names for that last paragraph took me to the Gretsch drum site, and I had my credit card halfway out of my wallet when I came to my senses. These objects, they speak to me in a way I can’t all the way explain.
Of course, this story ends, for now, with the bike. Most of the time when I think of bicycles, I think of cycling, of pumping up steep hills at the end of my breath, of swooping down descents with the rims humming and of rolling along with my friends. The bike is a tool for cycling.
But that doesn’t come close to explaining what’s going on in my garage, every hook full, or my parts bin and its enclosed esoterica. It doesn’t explain the time I spend on eBay combing through listings for frames, memorizing the values, noting the idiosyncracies of each one.
Most of the time when I romanticize cycling, I reach for those first ride memories from childhood, the feeling of freedom and independence, but there is another side to it that harkens back to my time as an obsessive little boy, buried in the couch poring over books and delighting in arcane minutia, the sort of background that would lead a grown man to spend his entire day and large portions of his night reading, talking and even writing about bicycles.
Follow me on Twitter @thebicyclerobot.
Had it not been for the entry of SRAM into the world of road component groups there would likely never have been a reason for me to do this series of posts. It’s their presence that makes this question interesting. How SRAM even came to offer a road group makes this conversation all the more interesting. After all, if you were a cyclist in the late 1980s and ran across the early Gripshift units you can be forgiven for having concluded that SRAM would never make anything you’d willingly purchase. The shifters were wonky and bulky, and had to be positioned in a relatively inconvenient position. Even with a Shimano drivetrain the shifters required some fiddling.
Somehow, SRAM survived this first questionable product. They made acquisitions. Among their many acquisitions (which included Rock Shox and Truvativ among others) they picked up Sachs. You may recall that back in the 1990s Sachs licensed Campagnolo’s Ergo control lever design and put out an 8-speed group of their own.
Had SRAM been run by some MBA with a background in accounting and no history in cycling, I can guarantee you that SRAM’s first component group would simply have re-badged the old Sachs designs after the company’s lawyers negotiated an ad-infinitum agreement with Campagnolo for its existing lever design. But that wasn’t the case. SRAM, like a great many bike companies, has the good fortune to be run by a bunch of minds at their best when discussing bicycles. Even though the Sachs name no longer appears in SRAM’s family of brands, the acquisition was it’s first genius stroke. It gave the small company a portfolio of existing designs and the opportunity to build a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in Schweinfurt, Germany. It was all the leg up they needed.
When word began to circulate that SRAM would come out with its first full road group, we all wondered just how it would shift. Early reports were that they hadn’t licensed a design from either Shimano or Campagnolo, which meant they had a genius team of patent attorneys, less for what they filed than what they avoided. They’d danced through a minefield and arrived at the other side, feet intact. Certainly there was going to be ample time for Shimano to disassemble a shifter and file a suit, but by the time you’ve gone into full-scale production on an integrated control lever you’ve vetted the design pretty carefully.
Let me back up a second. It used to be that the rear derailleur was the lead guitar of any component group. Why? It was the crux move, the soufflé a l’orange that makes the meal. If your soufflé falls, the meal is a miss. The rear derailleur was the engineering triumph of a group. Designed well the slant parallelogram would require the same amount of lever throw as well as an equal amount of overshift to execute a shift from one cog to the next. Done poorly, your shift from the 13t cog to the 15 was different than your shift from the 21t cog to the 23. With the rear derailleur very well understood at this point, the challenge has shifted to the integrated control lever. Witness Vision Components. While I love the work of the folks at FSA, the fact that their one full component group is triathlon-based and uses bar cons is all the evidence we need to prove the argument. Until you have introduced an integrated control lever claiming you produce a road group is a bit like saying you can see Russia from Alaska. It’s a stretch.
Even if you’ve tried a SRAM road group and didn’t like the company’s work, they deserve a measure of respect just because of the challenge the company had to meet to deliver a fresh shifting system to market. And that tag line, “Will you make the leap?” It wasn’t just some cutesy line. At the heart of that question is actual technology. Double-Tap shifting relies on an innovative (pronounced patent pending) ratchet system that causes one pawl to float over the other depending on how far the lever is depressed.
Best Features: My first, favorite feature of Red, indeed of any SRAM road group, is the engineering that goes into their components. In any engineering problem you always begin with your givens, that is, your lines in the sand. Ride any SRAM group and brake response remains incredibly consistent, more consistent than Campagnolo, which is far more consistent than Shimano. Switch Shimano groups and you might as well relearn cycling. God forbid you should mix Dura-Ace levers with Ultegra brakes. The differing mechanical advantages of the two levers result in vastly sub-par brake performance. Red brake performance is like Force brake performance is like Rival is like Apex. While this is a bit off the track of an evaluation of Red as a group, give this another line or two. The point here is that SRAM established what they believed brake performance should be. It’s a firm line in the sand. No matter who you are, no matter what you spend, you deserve a certain level of brake performance, and it’s not inferior to what the pros get. Contrast that with Shimano. Ultegra is grabbier than Dura-Ace. How come? Better yet, why has brake performance for Sora and Tiagra always been so inferior to Dura-Ace? Do people on a budget have a reduced need to stop?
I really like that what you get with Apex is the same braking experience as Red; it’s just heavier.
SRAM shifters also benefit from two unique-to-SRAM design concepts. The shifters employ a technology called Exact Actuation. That means that there is no multiplier on cable travel. In broad strokes it means that if you move the shifter enough to move the cable 1mm, the derailleur moves 1mm as well. It makes drivetrain setup quick and easy and results in a less finicky drivetrain overall. And while I know plenty of riders who will swear there is nothing ever finicky about Shimano drivetrains, I’ve experienced it first-hand.
The next unique-to-SRAM design concept that I like is its ZeroLoss shifting. That we tolerate shift levers that can move a centimeter or more without accomplishing a shift boggles my mind. ZeroLoss means that if the shift lever is moving then the cable is moving, and if the cable is moving, then the derailleur is moving—you’re shifting. The kicker here is that it’s really not a particularly innovative concept. We would never, ever tolerate play in our brake levers. Extra throw? Sure, but you pull on the brake lever and that brake is moving. So why do we put up with lever movement that does less to move a shifter cable than turning the pedals? SRAM shouldn’t be occupying this territory alone, but they are, so they deserve some credit. Compare: A SRAM upshift requires less than 1cm of lever movement to execute; a downshift requires 2.5cm of lever movement to execute. Bear in mind, that’s a completed shift. A Campagnolo rear downshift lever moves 2cm before you engage the cable. The buttons move 1cm. A Shimano rear downshift lever moves 1.5cm, the rear upshift lever moves 2.5cm.
Practically speaking, what this means is that you’ve executed an upshift with any of SRAM’s levers by the time you’ve even begun a downshift with a competing system. You’ve executed a downshift with SRAM before you can execute an upshift with Shimano. There’s no adequate defense for that design flaw, weirder still that neither Shimano nor Campagnolo has addressed it so far.
I get a lot of questions about whether DoubleTap levers are confusing to operate. My answer has always been no. The reason why has to do with the play in Shimano and Campagnolo shift levers. The upshift with SRAM requires so little lever movement that a downshift never feels unnatural. You can execute a downshift with SRAM in less throw than you can complete any shift with Shimano. Only upshifts with Campagnolo come close to matching the efficiency of SRAM shifters.
Generally speaking, I don’t consider DoubleTap a selling point; it’s just not a liability. However, the fact that you can tuck the shift lever beneath your index finger and execute an upshift with far greater ease than you can with Shimano and to a more foolproof degree than you can with Campagnolo does make it a terrific system for someone with a long sprint.
You want to know what I just love? How the brake lever throw can be adjusted with just a 3mm Allen and by peeling back the lever hoods. That it doesn’t require the removal of the lever face plate nor result in that slack-jawed appearance you get with Dura-Ace demonstrates just how forward-thinking SRAM’s engineers are.
My other favorite feature of SRAM component groups (because it’s true of them all) is the PowerLock chain connector. It’s easy to connect and surprisingly easy to take apart, making chain cleaning something you can do with a minimum of fuss.
Worst Features: That aforementioned PowerLock chain connector? It’s strictly single-serve. Not wild about that. Maybe I’d feel different if I had a dozen of them tucked in a spare parts bin, but I don’t.
For a company that seems to take input from almost any source, I’m stunned and disappointed that SRAM only offers four cassettes for Red. Four. Hell, they offer six different chainring combinations for the Red crankset—12 if you count the two different spindles. Worse, all of the cassettes begin with an 11t cog. They do offer a greater array of choices at the Force level, but it seems to me that very few Red users will ever need an 11. I really hate that I can’t get a Red cassette that begins with a 12. Hate hate hate.
The shape of the SRAM lever body isn’t terrific. It’s not the end of the world as some users have complained, but the shifter body is a bit wide and a touch tall. I’ve not had a problem with the meek bump at the end of the lever, but I often hear riders complain that they fear their hands will run off the end of the lever. Just what event might cause that worries me more than the lever does, though.
The other aspect of the Red group that doesn’t pass muster is the titanium-caged front derailleur. I still like it better than Campagnolo’s carbon fiber outer plate front unit, but that’s a bit like saying you prefer malaria to meningitis.
Assembly and Maintenance: The first time I assembled a SRAM group from scratch I was amazed at how easy it was to do. That first group was mostly Red with an Apex rear derailleur and cassette so I could run some really low gearing in the Alps, so technically, it wasn’t a full Red group, but my sense of working on other SRAM components is that a Red rear derailleur and cassette wouldn’t have altered the assembly in any appreciable way.
The one knock I have against maintenance is that if you need to replace a derailleur cable you absolutely must use a brand new cable with a soldered end. Better if you use a new Gore cable, of course. And it helps to put a slight bend in the cable about an inch from the end.
Once together it won’t need anything other than chain lube for at least 1000 miles. The only reason I know about the challenge of replacing a cable is because I moved the group between bikes. I’ve put 2000 miles on a chain and not found any appreciable chain wear.
Group Weight: 4.37 lbs. (1980g)
Best Internet Pricing: $1499
The blank slate
When Red Kite Prayer founder Patrick Brady asked me if I would pen a regular column on this site, he gave me no particular theme to write about, no particular length and not even a deadline. “Just enjoy yourself,” Patrick said. That was too good an offer to turn down. Or was it?
Being given a completely blank slate is both a luxury and a liability. It’s a luxury because in the world of journalism you are nearly always writing something that an editor has commissioned, with a set number of words and a (nearly always) very tight deadline. With this column I can choose any subject I like, as long as it’s loosely connected with cycling. And that’s the liability: There are so many facets to this sport and so many people involved with it that choosing just one topic is a not a simple task.
Among the things I’ve written about this month have been the challenges I’ve faced over the years as a cycling journalist and the tribulations (of a different nature) that talented bike racers have to overcome to achieve greatness. So, this week, I’m choosing to write about … hmmm … the blank slate.
One of the first times in my life that I faced a blank slate came during my Eleven-Plus exam — a matriculation test that English schoolchildren took (at age 11 or older) to decide whether they had the requisite knowledge to move on from sixth grade to a grammar school (England’s version of a charter high school). If you didn’t pass muster, you were sent to a secondary modern, a less-pleasant fate.
This happened eons ago, yet I can still recall sitting at my school desk, dipping my pen into an inkwell, and puzzling over the choice of essays we’d been given. There were three subjects listed, and we had to write about one of them. After panicking and thinking I couldn’t write anything about any of them I decided on the third subject: “The Life of a Milk Straw.” But as soon as I wrote down the title my mind went as blank as the page.
It seemed like an impossible challenge, and I struggled to channel my wildly diverging thoughts. Back then, a milk straw was made of paper not plastic, so I thought backwards from the finished product and put pen to paper: “I began my life as a tall pine tree in a forest in Canada.” Then my imagination took over, tracing the story of the tree being logged and floated down a river to a paper mill on the Pacific coast … and a milk straw emerging at a factory and traveling with dozens of other straws in a box packed onto a boat crossing the Atlantic to England … before the box was eventually opened at our school, where a small boy sucked on the straw to drink his third-of-a-pint bottle of milk that we were given at morning break every day.
The examiners must have liked the essay because I passed the test and went on to grammar school. Which reminds me of an even blanker slate I faced in my fourth year at the high school, when I was 15. English grammar wasn’t my favorite class, and the English teacher, Miss Norah Barter, was not my favorite teacher. She usually marked my papers with a C+, or a B– at best.
Then, one day, she gave us a very different task. We didn’t have to parse a page of a book or write about some obscure subject she’d chosen. Instead, Miss Barter told us to write an essay about anything we liked — and we had half an hour to complete it. What to do? I didn’t have long to decide on how to fill this blank slate. And so I began writing about something that interested me a lot, but could be a bore to Miss Barter. Perhaps my choice was a mistake and she’d give me a D….
What came to mind was an event I’d attended that week in London with my brother Dave. It was a “friendly,” as the British call an exhibition soccer game, and it was unusual because it took place midweek at night, and floodlit games were still a novelty. Adding to the interest were the two sides: West Ham United was one of England’s most exciting football teams, and Fluminense, from Rio di Janeiro, Brazil, played the most exotic soccer we’d ever seen.
The match between the two clubs was magical, with the final score being something like 7-5 after 90 minutes of brilliant end-to-end soccer and spectacular goals. There were amazing players on both sides, including West Ham’s right back John Bond and left winger Malcolm Musgrove and Fluminense’s Didi, one of the greatest midfielders of all time. With all these wonderful ingredients, my essay was easy (and fun!) to write. Miss Barter liked it. She gave me a first-ever A, and even read it to the class as an example the following week. “You see, even John can do good work,” she said.
What has all this to do with cycling you may ask? Well, half-a-dozen years after that English writing project, I learned how to apply the blank-slate theory to bike racing. I was in my first season of road racing with Redhill Cycling Club, and one of my earliest races was a Cat. 2/3 event on the notoriously hilly Ashdown Forest circuit in the county of Sussex. I began the race with an injured knee and wasn’t sure how long I’d last. I knew I couldn’t try my usual (novice) tactic of going out on an early break, so I’d have to make it up as I went along — gradually filling the blank slate as I did with that story about a paper straw.
Instead of attacking, I sat back in the bunch, watching what the more experienced riders were doing. They were also watching and waiting as the steep climbs made it a race of attrition. My knee was hurting the whole time, but because I was riding conservatively it didn’t get any worse. And by the time we were on the final lap, I even began thinking about doing something I’d never done before (because I was never up front to try it!): make a late-race attack. I followed a couple of moves on the last rolling hills, and feeling fairly fresh, I instinctively jumped away on my own at the foot of the 2-mile climb to the finish. No one came with me, but I dared not turn to see if there were chasers. I was running scared. And then, suddenly, I saw a small crowd at the top shouting and clapping. They were cheering me on. I crossed the line with an arm in the air and, as soon as I stopped, I collapsed to the grass at the edge of the road, exhausted and exhilarated. I’d won my first victory.
A blank slate has never again looked the same.
You can follow John at twitter.com/johnwilcockson