This weekend’s opening time trial at the Giro is listed as “Stage 1.” To me it looks like a prologue. What makes it a full stage as opposed to a prologue?
A quick question and quick answer for this one. The UCI’s Rule Book defines a prologue as anything less than eight kilometers. Beyond that, it has to characterized as a full stage.
The name is not the only difference, though. If a rider suffers a crash or a mechanical that keeps him from finishing a prologue, he is still able to compete the next day, being credited with the same time as the last finisher.
If the same thing happens in a time trial that exceeds the 8km prologue limit, the rider who doesn’t finish is eliminated from competition.
Aside from the Tour de France, a lot of riders – especially sprinters – seem to drop out of the “other two” grand tours, leaving the Giro to prep’ for the Tour or leaving the Vuelta to get ready for worlds. Isn’t – or shouldn’t there be – a rule that keeps riders from scoring wins and then leaving in search of greener pastures?
Well, there is a rule that keeps riders from leaving a stage race and immediately entering another event, but that’s about it.
UCI Rule 2.6.026 makes certain that if a rider drops out of a stage race like the Giro, he cannot participate in another race until the Giro is over. There is an exception, which allows the UCI to grant special dispensation if the rider and his team director make a request and the director of the race the rider has abandoned agrees.
I know a lot of people who think it should be even tighter than that. There are some who think a rider who doesn’t actually finish the stage race shouldn’t be credited with stage wins he scored on the way up to his abandonment. Certainly, that’s the practice with riders contesting the jersey competitions. Even if a rider were to have an unassailable lead in, say for example, the mountain jersey competition, he would not be given that prize, even if he were to drop out on a flat stage on the final day. To me, that seems a bit harsh, but it is what it is.
As for taking that draconian step with stage winners, I am not so sure. I do understand fans’ frustrations when they see a Mario Cipollini, Alessandro Petacchi or Mark Cavendish leave when the race hits the mountains, I still think forcing them to finish a three-week tour just to be credited with stage wins won two weeks earlier would be an extreme measure. It would certainly change the character not only of that particular race, but of the entire grand tour season.
I guess one rule change might be to extend the ban on racing even beyond the finish of the particular stage race – say an extra two weeks for “rest” – if the rider didn’t have to abandon due to injuries suffered in a crash. That would certainly keep a lot more riders in the Vuelta at season’s end, no?
I actually don’t mind seeing the sprinters dominate the opening week and then take a flyer out of the race. I used to love watching Cipo’ rack up wins and then have him come hang out in the press room or VIP tent as the Giro hit the Dolomites. That said, I really do admire those sprinters who ride through all three weeks and then make a run at winning on the final day in Milan, Paris or Madrid.
I am a long-time reader and big fan of the Explainer and, especially of your Live Updates.
First, I want to ask what your plans are for the Live Update Guy as the grand tours kick off this year. I know since you left (that other cycling publication) you’ve been practicing law. Are you still going to do the Giro, the Tour and the Vuelta?
Second, after all of the years you got to cover those races, which of them is your favorite? While I know you don’t always do “Live” from location, you must have been to a few. Which is the best?
At this point, I am planning to do Live Updates from each of the three grand tours this year. I’ll be starting off with the Giro on Saturday and, hopefully, commenting on all three this year. A lot of it depends on my trying to find a successful economic model that allows me to do that. Yes, I do enjoy practicing law, but I have to admit that I love LUGing the grand tours.
Red Kite’s Padraig and I are working with a couple of my former colleagues from the old days at VeloNews on the sales and technical sides. I honestly think that we’ll get this set up so that it’s not a purely volunteer effort.
By the way, I’ve also signed on to do some Live Update work during the Tour of California for CyclingNews.com, which should be fun and interesting, since they were our chief rivals during my time at VeloNews. Those folks have turned out to be terrific and were also quite supportive during my illness last year … as were my friends and colleagues over at VeloNews in Boulder.
Anyway, as for your second question. Yes, I did go to all of them and yes, I enjoyed every minute of it. In the 17 years I worked at VeloNews, I attended at least part of seven Tours de France and did two complete editions of the Giro and once covered the Vuelta in person. Of the three, I would have to say that it was the Vuelta I enjoyed the most, but that may have been due in large part to the fact that I took my then-10-year-old son, Philip, with me to the 2004 Vuelta. To use a hackneyed old cliché, it just doesn’t get any better than that.
As for the Tours, I think my favorite of all time was the 1998 Tour, which gave us the infamous “Festina Scandal.” It was that race that put me on Velo’s “doping beat” from that point forward and probably even led to my decision to go to law school, which has come in pretty handy since I left. I was part of the media scrum assigned to cover the judicial part of that Tour. It was fascinating. I still remember my favorite one-liner from that year, which ranks among my favorite.
While waiting for the start of the seventh stage individual time trial from Meyrignac-l’Église to Corrèze, we heard that the Festina team was planning to compete, despite having been ordered off the race the night before. There was a big flurry as reporters divided their crews into covering the race and sending people to chase after the team, which ultimately had a press conference at a local restaurant. For some reason, that day I got the job of covering the racing, which seemed like the lesser story at the moment.
Standing around in the parking lot used by team busses, a German reporter and I stood under the hot mid-day sun and talked about the scandal and what we were probably missing at the time. At one point, he kicked at the dirt with his boot, smiled and said “Well, at least no one’s talking about how much weight Jan Ullrich has gained in the off-season any more, eh?”
The following year was fascinating, too. Not because it was the first in Lance Armstrong’s unprecedented string of seven Tour wins, but because I spent the entire three weeks driving – and staying at hotels – with Rupert Guinness, John Wilcockson and the man who would eventually become the biggest thorn in Armstrong’s side, David Walsh, of the Sunday Times of London. As you might imagine, there were some interesting conversations over those three weeks.
Anyway, if I were to recommend going to either one of the three … it would be a tough call, but I would have to suggest you pick the Vuelta. All three are spectacular races run through beautiful countries, but the Vuelta seems a little more relaxed. I think fan access if better and it seemed, to me at least, that it was more fun for some of the riders because of that.
Okay, folks, it’s time for me to start Live Coverage of Stage One of the 2012 Giro d’Italia. Have fun and I hope to see you throughout the season.
The Explainer is 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.
Follow me on Twitter: @Charles_Pelkey
Junket is a word for a trip made at someone else’s expense, as in a press junket. It is also a sweet, milk-based dessert thickened with rennet. RKP’s main and tallest editorial practitioner, my friend Padraig, will be enjoying one of these two things over the weekend and into next week at the invitation of the Specialized bicycle making company.
The thing which Padraig will be enjoying—like me, you’re still hoping it’s the milky dessert—will include a ride with the Omega Pharma-Quickstep team, or at least, those riders who will be racing the Tour of California. The roster, as it stands, includes Tom Boonen, Levi Leipheimer, Dries Devenyns, Bert Grabsch, Frantisek Rabon, Stijn Vandenbergh and Peter Velits. Whether or not Leipheimer races ToC remains to be seen, but he’ll be in attendance regardless, possibly eating junket. The mode is to grate some nutmeg over top.
Hopefully that won’t preclude him from answering questions, some of which we need to come up with here and now.
We might, for example, say to Tom Boonen, “Tom, every woman and half the men in Belgium want to sleep with you as a result of your big wins in Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix this year. Given the success you’ve already had, how do you motivate yourself for stage races during the rest of the year?”
The obvious answer is that there are women (and possibly men) the world over who can still be inspired to lustful admiration by winning stages and intermediate sprints, but it would be fascinating to hear Tommeke answer the question for himself, no?
There are also some lay-up questions to Levi about how it feels to get hit by a car (spoiler: it hurts and is scary), but even after that I’d love to hear how, at 38 and coming back from being hit by the aforementioned automobile, do you put your season back on track. How do you revise your goals to be both ambitious and realistic at the same time?
At that point, I might turn to Peter Velits and say, “Hey, Pete. You finished second at the 2010 Vuelta, winning the individual time trial and the team time trial, as well as climbing like a monkey on macchiatos (macchiati?), what do you rate your chances for the ToC, and who would have to get hit by a car to put you in the team leader’s role?”
Then you’ve got guys like Bert Grabsch, Frantisek Rabon and Dries Devenyns, a trio of steam engines in lycra, and I’d like to know how it feels to be in the same team with Boonen. Do they hide his room key? Do they call his mobile pretending to be his girlfriend? I would. I would also sprinkle rosewater on his junket, like the English apparently liked to do in medieval times. That’d be hilarious.
We have an audience with the Omega Pharma-Quicksteps. What do we ask? What do we want to know?
Follow me on Twitter: @thebicyclerobot
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
The 2012 Giro d’Italia begins this Saturday in Denmark—here are 6 questions on my mind heading into this year’s first grand tour.
1. Will Taylor Phinney be the first American since Christian Vande Velde to don the Giro’s maglia rosa?
Looking over the Giro’s start list, there appear to be few riders able to defeat American Taylor Phinney in the 8.7-kilometer individual time trial that opens the race Saturday. From there, two field sprints are likely to follow, then a travel day and a team time trial once the race returns to Italy on Wednesday. Phinney’s BMC sqaud holds no GC aspirations—it’s racing simply to win stages. With the young American, Norway’s Thor Hushovd (perhaps Phinney;s greatest competition Saturday), and a supporting cast that just won the TTT at the Giro del Trentino, look for BMC to make its mark early—perhaps with Phinney leading the charge.
2. Can Tyler Farrar find his field sprint speed?
Tyler Farrar spent the first part of the season training for the classics—now he turns his attention to the Giro, hoping to regain the sprint speed that won him his first stage in the Tour de France last July. Farrar won two stages in Italy in 2010, beating men like Matthew Goss, Andre Greipel, and Alessandro Petacchi to take what were then the biggest grand tour victories of his career. This year, Farrar faces Team Sky’s Mark Cavendish at the Giro, a rider also trying to ride his way back into shape after some time away from the bike. A win would certainly be a confidence boost for the American, who is still winless on the season following his cobbled focus.
3. Will Mark Cavendish prove that his lead-out train deserves a place in Team Sky’s roster for the Tour de France?
Bradley Wiggins has won Paris-Nice and the Tour of Romandie so far this season, making him one of the top picks to win this summer’s Tour de France. So it’s only natural that some have started to wonder how the aspirations of the defending green jersey champ (and 20-time stage winner) Cavendish and an in-form Wiggins can co-exist in a squad with room for only nine riders. Sprinting is a team venture, and Cavendish needs a strong performance in Italy to prove to Team Sky management that he deserves to have his full lead-out train (with men like Danny Pate and Bernard Eisel) on the Tour’s starting line in Liege.
4. Will Damiano Cunego thwart Scarponi’s attempt to win the Giro “for real”?
With two defending champions starting the race, Lampre’s official stance is that Scarponi is going for the overall while Cunego is hunting for stage wins and fitness for the Tour de France—a race in which he finished sixth last year. But while Scarponi has progressed steadily as a Giro GC contender (he finished fourth in 2010 and then was awarded the overall title after Alberto Contador’s retroactive suspension) one has to wonder how he and Cunego will co-exist should the 2004-Giro champion feel he has the legs to race for himself. Cunego could turn out to be Scarponi’s greatest ally—or his biggest rival.
5. Will Frank Schleck prove what many have suspected: that he’s more of a grand tour contender than his brother?
Until Andy Schleck won Stage 18 of the Tour de France on the Galibier, pundits were wondering if Leopard-Trek management had made a mistake in not asking the younger Schleck to defer to the elder during last year’s Tour de France. With Jakob Fuglsang’s last-minute withdrawal and the subsequent addition of Frank Schleck to the roster, we will get another chance to see what Frank can do in a grand tour without worrying about his brother. 2010 was the last time we saw Frank riding for himself over the course of a three-week race. But that was at the Vuelta a Espana—at the end of a long season in which Frank broke his collarbone at the Tour de France. While a bit underprepared, Schleck’s fresher heading into the Giro. He should get stronger as the race progresses.
6. Can Basso win his third Giro without the help of Vincenzo Nibali?
Ivan Basso won his second Giro d’Italia in 2010 with much help from third-place finisher Vincenzo Nibali. This year, the two riders have swapped places from last season, with Basso leading the team at the Giro and Nibali taking the reins at the Tour. In a 3-week stage race, two heads are often better than one—especially in the mountains. This season, it seems as if Basso has abandoned more races than he’s finished, but he says he’s ready after finishing key Giro preparation events in Trentino and Romandie. Can Basso prove that two heads are not always better than one?
What are your questions for the first grand tour of 2012?
Follow me on Twitter: @whityost
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
I spent my formative years struggling between wearing clothes that were unfashionable but fit me and those that were fashionable, but didn’t remotely fit me. Not only did I not understand it, my mother didn’t either. Most of the pants I wore in grade school were loose at the small of my back; to keep them at my waist I had to pull my belt pretty snug. Most of my shirts fit okay at the shoulders and then billowed out as they went down, like I was wearing a tailored tent.
Eventually I began to notice from time to time that some clothes simply fit better than others. As much as I loved Patagonia casual wear, their polo shirts were flappy on me, even in small. Their pants and shorts either fit in the seat and loose in the waist or fit at the waist and tight across my crotch. Levi’s 501s stopped fitting me after I took up cycling. I had to switch to the 569s—sit at the waist and roomy through the seat and thighs. Those skinny hipster jeans? I’d never get ‘em past my knees, unless I went for the 40-inch waist.
It wasn’t until an ex-girlfriend taught me about fit models and how all clothing begins with pieces of fabric cut to fit some individual that I began to appreciate why some things fit and others didn’t. Understanding that actually made shopping easier; it eliminated whole product lines because I knew they weren’t cut for me.
When I first got into cycling I was pretty unaware of just how cycling clothing needed to fit. I got it more or less right, but I occasionally bought shorts that were too big and all my jerseys were a size larger than necessary. Even through the turn of the century, most cycling clothing had enough stretch to accommodate differences in physique within a given size.
More recently, with the advent of Power Lycra, compression panels and skinsuit-tight jerseys, I’ve begun to notice some stuff doesn’t fit as well as it used to, or as well as some of the competition. In my reviews of clothing I’ve begun to talk about the nature of the fit. The point isn’t to say this fit is good or that fit is bad, but to note how it fits. We can talk about features like materials, reflective piping, dual-density foam in pads and Power Lycra panels until our faces are cyan, but if you—like me—have a bounteous and spherical caboose, some bibs aren’t going to fit you all that well. It won’t make them bad, but it’s worth knowing that there are others that might fit you better.
The importance of this was driven home for me this past winter when I had an experience I really didn’t want to have. I’ve long been an admirer of Vermarc clothing, but I’d never had the opportunity to wear any of their stuff. It’s a big world and I just didn’t get around to it until this winter. I tried one of their top pairs of bibs. On my first ride, I cut a three-hour ride short because my ass hurt. How could that be? I was wearing the pride of Belgium. What gives?
In objective terms, I’ve been riding 143mm-wide Specialized saddles, though it was recently suggested to me that I might do well to try the 155mm-wide version of the Romin. Not the Incredible Hulk, but not bantam, either.
Well, as it turned, out my sit bones are wider than the widest portion of the densest foam in the pad. I was writing out of the margins, so-to-speak. It doesn’t mean they are bad bibs at all. It just suggests I’m seven feet tall and the owner of a new Mini Cooper.
While this won’t be complete by any means, I wanted to note my experience with some of the different lines out there to help give you a better basis for comparison. For the record, I’m 5′ 11″ and currently weigh 163 lbs., which I hate to admit, is heavy for me.
- Assos—the Uno and Mille bibs are fairly consistent in their style of fit, though the Unos are a bit more snug on me. Like I said, I’ve got enough of a butt that I can’t do straight-leg jeans. The Mille in particular is a fantastic fit for me. And with both pads, my sit bones come down squarely in the middle of the densest foam. I wear a large.
- Castelli—these are cut for riders with a slighter frame. For me, by the time I’ve crowded my ass into them they are a bit tight across the front. I’ve experienced this more with some of their bibs than others, but I do get it to some degree with all of them, save the Claudio (thermal) bibs. In my mind, most are climbers’ bibs. I wear a large.
- Capo—This line is pretty remarkable for its middle-of-the-road fit. I’ve had no issues with their bibs, nor have any friends reported issues with their stuff. I wear a medium.
- Voler—I’ve had issues with being sort of between sizes. I was too big for the smalls but the mediums weren’t as snug in fit as it seemed they ought. I can’t recall ever being between sizes with another line. The quality has come a long way from what it once was, but the pad will only stay put if the bibs are tight enough that you don’t catch the bibs on the nose of the saddle. I wear a medium.
- Panache—this is another line that offers ample room for my bumper. In addition to being roomy enough to accommodate both of my glutes, the pad is one of a handful that can rival Assos’ for comfort in terms of width and placement of the densest foam. I wear a large.
- Rapha—I’ve just begun wearing the new Pro Team bibs and have been impressed with the fit. They are cut with plenty of room for my glutes without being loose up front, which is what happens if the butt is too roomy (which I did experience once). I wear a medium.
- Hincapie—like Castelli, these tend to lack a bit of room in need in back. I wear a medium.
- Giordana—Giordana has so many different product lines, there’s no one essential truth to their fit. Most of their stuff fits me pretty well, though the FormaRed Carbon bibs use the same narrow pad in the Vermarc bibs I tried. I wear a medium.
- Vermarc—overall the fit was good; I just need a wider pad. I wear a medium.
- Etxe Ondo—these could use a bit more room in the butt, but overall the fit was pretty good given the Power Lycra panels. I wear a medium.
- Specialized—these had a very traditional fit. It may be that the Lycra they used was just particularly forgiving (I believe it was 6-oz. throughout) and that what made the fit. I wear a medium.
- Primal Wear—not quite enough room in back, so it ended up being a bit snug in front. I wear a medium.
- Nalini—another pair of bibs that needed more room in back to keep the front from being too tight. I wear a medium.
- Assos—all the Assos jerseys I’ve worn have been cut on a pretty noticeable taper. However, there are always materials with such great stretch utilized that the fit ends up being remarkably forgiving. distinctly short, lengthwise. I wear a medium.
- Castelli—the jerseys I’ve tried are cut a bit more straight than Assos jerseys, though it appears their top-shelf stuff is cut on more of a taper. Mid-line stuff is somewhat long, but the pro stuff appears to be shorter. It’s really easy to buy a size too big with Castelli. I wear a medium.
- Capo—cut on a slight taper and cut on the short side, though not as short as Assos. I wear a small.
- Voler—cut remarkably straight and nearly as short as Assos; it’s a unique fit, but one I like when I’m not in perfect shape. I wear a small.
- Panache—these jerseys feature a significant taper and run short. Out of season I need to wear a medium; when I’m fit and want a pro-style fit, I’m a small.
- Hincapie—these are cut straight and long. They’ve got to fit the man himself. I wear a small.
- Giordana—again, Giordana offers so much stuff their fit is all over the place. Inexpensive stuff is generous in fit, while primo stuff like the FormaRed Carbon is short, snug and tapered. I wear a small.
- Vermarc—they feature a tapered cut and run slightly short. I wear a small.
- Etxe Ondo—yet another tapered cut, but these run on the long side, though not so long as Hincapie. I wear a small.
- Specialized—this is a remarkably straight cut with a little more length than some stuff. A conservative, fit-almost-anyone cut. I wear a small.
- Primal Wear—cut pretty straight and with a fair amount of length. I wear a small.
- Nalini—tapered cut, almost as short as Assos. I wear a small.
Bottom line: I’m not trying to steer you into or out of any one clothing line. I have my personal likes, but the value in this is to give you a greater frame of reference for choosing clothing next time you go to buy something. Fit is at the root of comfort. Go be comfortable and ride well.
Every company has a story to tell. Glossy ads, marketing copy, websites, blogs, Twitter feeds, all of it aimed at creating a very specific impression of the brand. Paradoxically, ours is an industry that chases technology at the same time it basks in its sepia-toned heritage. A bike, component, or apparel maker who can bridge the gap between the two is destined for success.
And more than materials, most of which are common across product categories, provenance is perhaps the clearest shorthand for what a company is about. Campagnolo, that company founded on the back of a lost bike race and new invention (the quick release skewer), embodies what it is to be Italian, the melding of the aesthetic with the practical. For decades Campy’s graceful swooping lines and Italian bonafides have kept riders coming back, even at high cost, even when Shimano was doing everything better and cheaper. To Campy riders, the product and the provenance were inseparable, which is why Campagnolo are still making their components in Italy (and Eastern Europe), rather than the Far East.
The modern way, of course, is to research and design a new product, a jacket for example, in the market into which it will be sold. Numerous companies in the US and Western Europe maintain robust R&D groups in their homes countries. But then manufacturing happens in the Far East. When labor and materials cost roughly 10% of what they do in the target markets, outsourcing production makes good financial sense, although it plays hell with the provenance of the product. It changes the story.
If the short-term fiscal gain of outsourcing production proves too tempting for most, one question the industry hasn’t yet answered is whether that divorce between design and production makes a long-term difference. And part of the reason we don’t have an answer to the question is that most of the companies manufacturing in the Far East are still telling the stories they founded themselves on. They believe they can be coy about where their stuff is made. In the States, the law mandates a MADE IN XX tag on most products, but that’s not story-telling, that’s just compliance. In Italy, the standards for establishing “Made in Italy”-ness are so loose today that taking a product made elsewhere and placing it in a box, in Italy, will just about qualify.
The new stories are mostly about the design and technology of the product, not where it’s made. So we see a nylon rain jacket made in China retailing in the U.S. for over $250. None of the advertising for the garment mentions Asia. Instead it portrays hardened Europeans perched on the side of Alpen cols. It hits on the heritage of cycling, not on the reality of high-volume, contract production, even if it maybe sells short the skilled workers who make those jackets. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, we are told.
There are Chinese and Taiwanese craftspeople capable of the same quality work that their European or American counterparts produce. It is possible to manage a manufacturing process that effectively melds cutting edge design by passionate and experienced engineers, with low cost materials and labor, to produce a good product. In fact, the best monocoque carbon fiber frames being turned out in Asia are better than anything being made in the U.S. by the same method. They have the tools. They have the expertise.
And you know that there are good stories to tell about the technology, quality and methodology the industry’s Asian design partners bring to the game. It would be tempting to say there is a cultural bias working against these stories getting out, a covert racism, but the truth is it’s about the money.
It is hard to determine the value of a product without knowing the whole story. Are we paying for one talented designer and a slick marketing campaign, or is the thing in my hands actually very costly to make? The same jacket, from the previous example, also gets made in Italy by a different company. The price is roughly the same. Does being made in Italy, as advertised, increase its value?
You could argue (I have) that people and places find their way into the products they make in ways seen and unseen, measurable and immeasurable. So, even if it’s just a feeling, I believe that it’s ok to place a premium on the provenance of a thing. I want to know who the man behind the curtain is.
I realize that I am, perhaps, in the minority here. To a wide swathe of cyclists, the price is what matters, and as long as the products conform to their expectations, they see no problem. My issue remains, if you’re not willing to tell me where and how you make it, how can I validate what you want me to pay for it? If you’re telling me it’s the finest Italian design, I don’t expect ash from Mt Vesuvius embedded in the finish or a faint smell of Parmagiano-Reggiano, but I do expect that an Italian sensibility informed every aspect of its production, even if I can’t tell you exactly what that means.
In the absence of being able to test every product in advance of buying it, I rely on the story when I put my money down. I can tell you that I will NOT pay north of $250 for a nylon jacket made in China for the simple fact that I know it didn’t cost more than $50 to make. The same is true of a $5000 carbon frame. I don’t dispute the quality of the thing, but I do resent not having the cost inform the price. When I buy a jacket/bike/derailleur, I don’t want to buy a million magazine ads and a pro team sponsorship. The story is important, but I shouldn’t have to pay for it, and telling misleading or incomplete stories to part me from my cash isn’t the way to make me a long-term customer.
We don’t hear more about Asian manufacturing because those stories drive down prices. They make it harder to differentiate one frame coming out of a factory from another. The net effect is a lot more dollars spent on marketing. Telling a different story.
I want to be able to connect to the products I buy, just the way I want to be able to connect to the people I have in my life. Provenance is a way to connect. It lends authenticity. It fills in the gaps in an ongoing conversation, but it’s also a way to validate the price you’re paying for the thing in your hands, no matter where it came from.
In a very real way, Italy spoke to the world through Campagnolo and the myriad frame builders who turned out steel frames throughout the twentieth-century. We have this thick sense of Italian cycling, of French cycling, of British cycling, of Belgian cycling, and the bike industry is keen to exploit the richness of that sense to sell us stuff. But that’s mostly veneer. Like Italy before, Asia is speaking to us now, but the companies who sell their wares are only letting them lip-synch.
Follow me on Twitter @thebicyclerobot.
When I heard (through a somewhat cryptic email) that Rapha was going to offer cycling shoes, I need to be honest and admit that I was more excited than intrigued. My duty as a reviewer obliges me to maintain a certain skepticism about any new product. Alas, I’m a bike geek and some companies tend to do consistently good, if not excellent, work. With Rapha, quality is never really up for discussion. I’ve yet to see a product of theirs suffer from a corner cut, so I had what I believed was good reason to expect that a pair of cycling shoes by them would be very good, if not stellar. Is that more credit than an unknown product deserved? Probably, but consistency of practice is how one earns a reputation.
While their early jerseys were cut on the large side and difficult to size correctly, for the last three, maybe four years, their apparel has fit very true to size. How is this applicable to a shoe review? If I had any concern about the shoes going in, it was whether a pair of 42s would fit the same as my others. Any concern I had that way was laid to rest the moment the shoes arrived; as you’re probably already aware, the Grand Tour shoes use the same sole and last as the Giro Prolight SLX and Factor shoes because they are produced to Rapha’s spec by Giro. I can report from previous experience, the Easton EC90 sole is lighter than the touch of a pickpocket and stiffer than my first belt of Yukon Jack.
If you’re familiar with Giro’s Factor then you’ve probably noticed the more subdued appearance of the Grand Tour shoes. Rapha sourced yak leather (yes, yak, as in those big furry beasts that occupy climates less hospitable than outer space) from the shoe maker Ecco. The yak leather is reasonably soft and because it is perforated it also breathes better than a great many other shoes I’ve worn.
Like the Factor, the Grand Tour shoes feature two velcro straps and a ratcheting buckle for adjustment. This is where these shoes have to come in for a knock from this reviewer. First, let me just say that when it comes to shoe closures, the Boa has it all over everything because it does a better job of distributing pressure across the foot. It’s superior the way The Who were superior to every band you ever heard in a neighbor’s garage. Those garage bands were a fun way to pass an afternoon during high school, but they were no match for Townshend and co.
Moving right along. The bigger issue with these shoes—for me—is that they really aren’t intended to hold a foot as high-volume as mine. As has been explained to me, I’ve got a foot that is wide (E at minimum, but on one occasion an Italian crispin created a set of 41.5 EEEEE dress shoes that fit me terrifically), and that detail is compounded by a really high instep caused in part by a very high arch. The Grand Tour’s velcro straps barely pull far enough around to attach.
Turns out, that’s probably very good news for you. This shoe really isn’t designed for my ridiculous dogs. It’s designed for a typical American, roughly D width and with a bit more volume than your usual Italian shoe. But thanks to the Giro SuperNatural fit system, my high arches are well treated by the biggest of the arch supports. Like the Factor, the SuperNatural insoles include three different arch supports, depending on your personal fit requirement. I like these insoles so much, I’m willing to overlook the shoes’ other drawback just because how good my feet feel when they are within these shoes. I suspect that riders at the other end of the bell curve—those with especially flat or narrow feet will end up with little strap wings protruding from the sides of the shoes—curb feelers for the pedal set.
One natural question about these shoes is whether the yak leather will stretch. Because this is a natural leather, it’s going to stretch some, sooner or later. In the weeks that I’ve been riding these shoes I’ve been able to readjust the velcro straps and I tighten the ratcheting buckle one click more than the first time I saddled up with these. I attribute that mostly to the leather settling into the shape of my feet—getting those straps to fold around a different point at the D-ring wasn’t easy. I should mention that in only my second ride in these shoes I got caught in five hours of drizzle on a day that was supposed to be simply overcast. I was as pleased by that as the time I was hit by a snow squall while riding to work. The shoes cleaned up easy enough, though.
Now, these shoes are by Rapha, which is to say that you’re going to pay a premium for them, and by some reckoning, a painful one at that. The Factor goes for $289. The Grand Tours go for a whopping $450. I mean, Edgar J. Hoover, that’s a lot of greenbacks! The difference in price—$160—is a not insubstantial pair of cycling shoes in their own right. Everything about these shoes is top-notch, from the box they come in to the shoe bags to protect them when you travel to the leather conditioning cream included. Whether or not these shoes will work out to a reasonable balance of value vs. quality vs. luxury is an answer that can only be arrived at individually. What I can say in their favor is that they are the best-made production cycling shoes I’ve ever worn and the natural leather has made for an appreciable increase in comfort—especially for a shoe not really designed for my foot. I love the Factor, but the Grand Tour is a noticeably superior shoe. It’s easy to quibble about price, but it’s much harder to criticize anyone for producing the best product they are able.
It can be fun working as a journalist in cycling. Not only do you get to travel to distant lands, interact with different peoples and witness amazing feats, you also get to know the athletes who make cycling the most beautiful sport in the world. One of the more intriguing characters I’ve met is Bradley Wiggins, a fellow Brit, who celebrated his 32nd birthday this past weekend by winning his third major international stage race in less than a year: It was the Critérium du Dauphiné last June, Paris-Nice in March and now the Tour de Romandie.
I first interviewed Wiggo—as his countrymen like to call him—over lunch at an English pub, The Flask, near North London’s Hampstead Heath on a grey December day in 2000. The tall, pale-faced Brit was then 20 years old and still an amateur track racer. He’d already traveled the world and was dressed like an American college kid in khaki pants, dark-blue turtle-neck sweater and a baseball cap; but he gave away his Englishness with a broad, monotone London accent.
I’d been intrigued by Wiggins for some time because his dad, Gary Wiggins, was an Australian racer I’d seen compete with Falcon, a British pro team, in the mid-1970s, and later in a bunch of European six-day races that I reported. Gary had a useful sprint in both road races and on the track, but he was never more than a journeyman professional. After he married in 1979, he and his English wife Linda moved to Ghent, Belgium, where Bradley was born. But his parents split a couple of years later and their son was only five when he and his mother returned to London.
“I wasn’t in contact with me dad for 17 years really,” Wiggins said at the London pub, “but me mum always spoke about him, and has obviously got a lot of pictures and stuff. I tried [cycling] out at 12 years of age … and it went from there.”
With cycling in his blood, young Brad “tried it out” at London’s venerable Herne Hill velodrome. He learned the ropes from the other members of the Archer Road Club, the same cycling club his father joined when he arrived from Australia at age 23. As a schoolboy racer, Brad won a national championship in the points race at age 15, soon stepped up to the national junior track team, and placed fourth in the points race at the 1997 junior worlds in South Africa.
It was the following year, at age 18, that Wiggins made his true breakthrough at the junior worlds in Havana, Cuba. After qualifying fastest in the 3000-meter individual pursuit, he raced Germany’s Daniel Palicki in the final. “It was an exciting final but I was totally in control,” the confident Wiggins told me. “He was still two seconds in the lead going into the final two laps. It was just the style I rode … pulling out a sprint at the end.” That victory over Palicki by almost three seconds gave Wiggins the incentive to shoot for glory at the Sydney Olympic Games, which were two years away.
“The Olympics is what I’ve set my aim at since ’92 when I watched Chris Boardman win the [pursuit] gold in Barcelona,” he said. “I’d just started cycling, and watching that was pretty inspiring. I thought I’d love to do that. So I thought Sydney, at 20 years old, should be a realistic goal.”
Wiggins rode two events at those Games, taking fourth in the Madison with Rob Hayles and a bronze medal in the team pursuit — a disappointment after he led the British foursome to the fastest time in the qualifying round. For me, that was a reminder that at about the same age, my boyhood hero Tom Simpson also won an Olympic bronze medal in the team pursuit in Australia — at Melbourne in 1956.
As a result, after that first interview with Wiggins a dozen year ago, I wrote in VeloNews: “Not since Simpson died in 1967 has Britain produced a young rider with the potential of Wiggins. … This soft-spoken Englishman has had a start to his career that’s as every bit as precocious as Simpson’s. And besides following a similar path to the former world road champion, Wiggins even looks and races like him.”
Unlike Simpson, who went to Europe to focus on road racing and ditch track racing (other than lucrative six-day contracts), Wiggins’s goal at age 20 was to win three track gold medals at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. He did win the individual pursuit, while taking silver and bronze in other events, and he stayed with the Great Britain national track program through 2008 in Beijing (where he won two more golds).
By being part of Britain’s most successful Olympic team, in any sport, Wiggins achieved domestic fame and earned enough money through the Sky-sponsored track program to buy a farmhouse in northwest England, where he lives with wife Cathy and their two children Ben and Isabella. Perhaps he needed to do that, because it helped gave him the confidence he’s now showing as the leader of Team Sky at the world’s leading stage races. But Wiggins might have followed a path similar to Simpson’s and achieved the status he now has in road racing much sooner in his career.
In the season after that 2000 interview, Wiggins raced with his national road team and won two European stage races, Luxembourg’s Flèche du Sud (where Fränk Schleck was in the field) and Spain’s Cinturon de Mallorca. He then spent six seasons with French pro teams, focusing on winning prologue time trials; but the muscle weight he put on training for track pursuits stopped him making much progress in road racing. The only road win he took (other than short time trials) came in September 2005 when he took the hilliest stage of the Tour de l’Avenir, finishing three minutes ahead of the field after a long breakaway with his then Crédit Agricole teammate Saul Raisin.
Wiggins has always been outspoken in condemning riders who dope, and when his Cofidis team withdrew from the 2007 Tour de France after one of its riders tested positive, the Englishman threatened to quit the sport. That led him to signing in 2008 with America’s Team High Road because of its fiercely anti-doping policy, and then to the equally clean team, Garmin-Slipstream, the following year.
With the Beijing Olympics behind him, Wiggins finally focused on the road and through the winter and spring of 2009 he shed 7 kilos (about 15 pounds) from his track-racer’s body. The result was the skinny bike racer we see today who has applied his former skills to his new ones—during his brilliant fourth-place finish at the 2009 Tour, Wiggins described his method of riding the mountain passes as “mentally tackling them like a pursuit.”
In switching to Team Sky in 2010 (after prolonged and sometimes painful negotiations to buy him out of his Garmin contract), Wiggins returned to the to the coaching personnel at British Cycling, led by team boss Dave Brailsford, with whom he’d trained for all those pursuit medals. It’s taken them awhile to discover the best schedule to bring Wiggins to peak form when he needs it, but by alternating high-altitude training camps in Tenerife with high-profile stage races it seems like they’ve discovered a winning formula.
After that London pub lunch back in 2000, I wrote: “You may not have heard of Bradley Wiggins, but unless something drastic halts his current progress, his name will be one that resonates through the cycling world in the upcoming decades.”
Perhaps this decade (or even this year!) will see Wiggins achieve the dream that Simpson had in the 1960s: become the first Brit to win the Tour de France.
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
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