This is how it goes. You think too much about the ride, so you forget something you thought you needed, a CO2 cartridge or some extra food, even though you staged it all on the kitchen counter the night before, or maybe on the basement stairs. It happens this way because it’s early and for no good reason you’re in a rush to get out the door.
Riding away from home, those first few blocks feel completely alien, a familiar place plucked out of time and all the lights on dimmers. Your legs feel heavy, but you know they’ll come around.
Soon enough the heat comes up into your torso and you begin to sweat, rolling along. You become aware of all the little things that are wrong with the bike. The lever throw is different left-to-right, front-to-back, or there is every so slightly too much slack in the rear derailleur cable. You should stop to roll the barrel adjuster over half-a-turn, but you don’t. Your left knee hurts and then doesn’t.
Everything is covered in dew. The cicadas and crickets work feverishly at whatever it is they do before the noise of humanity rises to drown them out.
After an hour, the sun is burning off the last vestiges of the dawn, and the world has awoken all around you. The solitary cars that slipped by just moments ago give way to streams of morning drivers. Their presence draws your attention away from all the quiet things of the first hour. The bike has disappeared beneath you.
This is where miles happen. The slow roll of the dawn-patrol succumbs to the hum of the morning proper. The whole world is speeding up. You make time almost unconsciously. You are not yet at the day’s first fatigue point, that magical moment when your hasty breakfast and failure to hit the water bottle early enough combine to challenge your easy progress.
You swallow two globs of ready, simple carbohydrate. You take long pulls off the end of your first bottle. You begin to feel capable again. Mental notes get made. Goals get reassessed. Your wheels never stop rolling. This is what makes wheels just about the best thing in the whole world. Bodies in motion.
Either you are working a well-worn route or spinning out the disparate points of a map pondered in the last-night flush of preparation. You turn here. You climb there. You come into towns and roll out again. Eventually, you are heading home. What was a pocket full of compact nutrition is now a pocket full of plastic wrappers or zip lock bags. There is a splash of liquid left in one of your bottles, always just a splash.
And then you’re on those roads most familiar to you, almost depressingly familiar for having to be gone over and over and over, the departure and arrival lounge of your personal airport. Once you reach them, you want to be home.
And then you arrive. The ride is over, the sense of accomplishment bumping up against the strangeness of being off the bike, on your two feet, in shoes not meant to be walked in. Endorphins churn their way through your brain to temper the fatigue. You renegotiate your relationship with gravity, come to terms with your sweatiness, reintegrate yourself into the normal human day. You are back.
We almost never stop to acknowledge the absurdity of what we do. Snug in our beds on a weekend morning, we eschew comfort for that opening hour of discomfort when all the parts are finding their place in the motion of the work. We want to cover some distance, the miles a sort of trophy to hold aloft. But the alarm clock and the sweat and distance covered invariably lead back home. We’ve prepared all the details, worked very hard and gone as far as we dared or had time for, all to get exactly nowhere.
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Photo: © Matt O’Keefe
I’m back home, finally, from nearly three weeks on the road, most of which was accompanied by Internet access that ranged between poor and nonexistent. RKP’s normal pace of posting has been off as a result, and I’m sorry about that. It’s been a strange trip, placing me on mostly flat roads and 100-plus temperatures nearly everywhere I rode. I capped the trip with an excursion to Sibiu, northwest of Bucharest, Romania. There I rode one of Nicolae Ceauşescu’s many monuments to himself, the Transfăgărășan Highway.
I’ve had more than a passing interest Romania and the Carpathian Mountains since, well, since reading Dracula in undergraduate school. The combination of a foreign culture, mountains and cycling kept the location in my interest until the BBC program Top Gear did a segment on the Transfăgărășan, calling it the greatest road in the world. I’m not actually a motor head, but I do find car reviews interesting for how they discuss the driving experience.
Jeremy Clarkson and his compadres run a fine balance of passionate enthusiasts, inspired comics and complete buffoons, which makes Top Gear one of the only shows I bother to record (other than Archer). The possibility that they had uncovered the finest single road around was better than having a cute girl wink at me. At least I knew what to do in this case.
I needed to ride it, of course.
That I made it to Romania with photographer Greg Page in tow goes down as the biggest surprise of my year. Just why that happened belongs to another story, though. We rented a car at the Bucharest airport and headed north early the next morning; We drove up the south face and parked at the top. My plan was to descend the north side, turn around and then climb back up and then descend the south side—there simply wasn’t time enough given the pace I’m climbing to ascend both sides. Besides, this ride was more about the down than the up.
You can check out my ride on Strava. My feature on the experience will be in Issue 15 of peloton magazine. If you aren’t already a subscriber, this would be a good occasion to fix that. Subscribe here.
When the Olympics were last held in London 64 years ago, there were just three track cycling events: the match sprint, the one-kilometer time trial, the tandem sprint and the team pursuit. Great Britain came away with two silvers and two bronze medals, which thrilled the home crowd because it equaled their total medal haul from the previous three Olympiads. But it was a far cry from what British trackmen achieved at the first London Olympics, in 1908, when they won five of the six golds.
Track racing was the main form of bike racing in Britain from the late 19th century until well into the 20th century. Massed-start road racing was considered too dangerous by the authorities in Victorian times and the races were moved to the big outdoor velodromes—including Herne Hill, the 500-yard oval built in 1891 (where the 1948 Olympics would later be held). When all its best cyclists were racing on the track, Britain was supreme at the 1908 Olympic events (held in the main Olympic stadium at White City). But when road time trials became organized on a national basis by the 1920s, track racing lost its former luster; and it faded even more when road racing became legal in Britain after World War II.
Track racing didn’t start to make a strong comeback until Britain’s first modern indoor velodrome was opened at Manchester in 1994. Since then, the success of the country’s track cycling program has been defined by the number of medals earned at the past four Olympics: 1996 Seoul (0), 2000 Sydney (4, including 1 gold), 2004 Athens (4, including 2 gold), and 2008 Beijing (11, including 7 gold). And now we have London 2012 and Great Britain’s almost total dominance.
The experts said it couldn’t be done, that one nation could virtually sweep the Olympic track cycling for the second time. And yet, despite wholesale changes in the track program from Beijing to London, including only one starter per nation, Great Britain claimed seven of the 10 gold medals this week (along with a silver, a bronze and a disqualification in the other three events). To see the dumfounded look on the faces of the crack French sprinters and Australian pursuiters, and to hear their coaches’ dire claims about the Brits’ magic wheels, hot pants or other secret strategies, you would think that the end of the world was nigh.
When watered down, the French and Aussie lament went something like this: “We’ve beaten the British in the world championships and World Cups for the past three years, so how come they’re so much faster this week?”
Dave Brailsford, the supremo of British Cycling and Team Sky whose resources were copiously used by his track racers, simply replied that their goal all along was to peak for the Olympic Games—and that’s what they did. Brailsford pointed out that that’s what his road team already achieved last month at the Tour de France.
In the road team’s case, it was total focus on getting his riders to top form at high-altitude training camps, where they rode at higher power levels than they would at the Tour itself. For the Olympic track team, it’s clear that the British athletes training and preparation (including all the technical, psychological and nutritional aspects) has been at a higher level than that of any other country.
The intensity of that training was emphasized by Sir Chris Hoy, triple gold medalist in Beijing, who said this last winter about the team’s work-out drills: “We’re used to working hard on the track, road and gym, week in week out, but [the lactic-acid-tolerance] drills on the turbo [trainer] stand alone in terms of pain. After the full set of sprints, which are interspersed with very short recovery times, I usually collapse into a heap on the crash mat next to the bike.”
Some of the British athletes, who trained just as hard as Hoy and his teammates, didn’t even get to ride at the Olympics. One was Wendy Houvenaghel, who earned a silver in the individual pursuit four years ago. When her event was replaced by the team pursuit, she became an integral part of the squad, but she wasn’t selected for the final three in London—even though she was on top form.
In her absence, Laura Trott, Joanna Rowsell and Dani King twice broke the world record in their journey to the gold medal. Tellingly, Houvenaghel, who was unhappy with her non-selection, later revealed, “We had done faster times in training in Newport the week before with me in the line-up.” In other words, in their final training sessions at the covered velodrome at Newport in South Wales, the British pursuit team raced faster than world-record pace. That’s like the Team Sky riders riding harder at training camp than they raced at the Tour.
After France’s multi-time world sprint champion Grégory Baugé was beaten by Britain’s Jason Kenny in the men’s sprint final, he was so mystified by his loss that he resorted to asking Kenny in the post-final press conference how the Brit improved so much between the world championships and the Olympics. Kenny didn’t give much of a reply, but it was instructive to learn from Kenny that his coaches were studying video of his opponents’ races and updating their tactical plans before each of his sprints.
That could also prove a handicap if that opponent doesn’t race according to plan. That was the case in the women’s sprint final on Tuesday, when defending champ Victoria Pendleton was the odds-on favorite to beat the Olympic 500-meter time-trial gold medalist at Athens in 2004. After Pendleton was relegated in their first heat after leaving the sprinters’ lane, Pendleton seemed flustered by Meares’s second-heat tactic of rolling to a near halt (reminiscent of the track stands the Aussie once used before they were banned). Pendleton clearly didn’t have the same track-standing skills as Meares and was forced to take the front position, and she wasn’t prepared to lead out the final sprint and had no answer to the Aussie’s come-from-behind effort.
But the lasting image of these track Olympics came from the very final race, the men’s Keirin, which Hoy won with one of the greatest shows of power, speed and perseverance that even his has ever shown. It was a superb ending to an Olympic week that saw the Scot become the first Brit to win six career gold medals. And he surely won this sixth gold with that intensive wintertime preparation that saw him “collapse into a heap.”
Hoy and his teammates’ success this past week also reflected their country’s heritage for track cycling that first emerged a century ago, and is now back to its brilliant best.
Follow John on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Hello Charles! First, let me say thanks for doing those updates during the Tour de France. I admit you ruined my morning productivity, but I probably would have been scouring the ‘Net for news on the stages anyway.
So the big question is whether we can see more during the Vuelta. Will you be ruining my work in August and September or are you making the big switch to being a lawyer full-time?
Whether you do or don’t, I wonder about this year’s race. There was talk before about moving the race back on the calendar, making it the first grand tour of the year again and maybe even making it shorter. Now, instead, we have a three week grand tour even earlier – and closer to the Tour – than before. What’s up with that?
Also, I wonder about this year’s route. It’s all in northern Spain and there is nothing on this year’s route anywhere south of Madrid. Don’t grand tours usually touch on the entire country?
Here’s hoping you will be back for the Vuelta.
Thank you for the kind note and rest assured that I will do my best to ruin your morning productivity for another three weeks later this month. With the help of my good friend and colleague, Patrick O’Grady, we’ll be delivering Live Updates throughout the 2012 Vuelta a España, right here on Red Kite Prayer.
So, let’s talk a little about this year’s race. First, the Vuelta’s spot on the calendar. Since its creation in 1935 and until 1995, the Vuelta was traditionally held in April and would often finish within a week or two of the start of the Giro d’Italia. In an effort to remove that schedule conflict, the race was moved to late August. A few years ago, there was some talk of moving the race back to April and even shortening it to a two-week event, rather than the grand-tour standard of three weeks. With a full UCI calendar and a reluctance to trim its length – and diminish its standing – the idea was (thankfully) scrapped.
2012 Vuelta a España (Click Links for Stage Profile)
Stage 1 – Saturday, August 18: Pamplona to Pamplona (TTT), 16.2km
Stage 2 – Sunday, August 19: Pamplona to Viana, 180km
Stage 3 – Monday, August 20: Faustino V to Eibar (Arrate), 153km
Stage 4 – Tuesday, August 21: Barakaldo to Estación de Valdezcaray, 155.4km
Stage 5 – Wednesday, August 22: Logroño to Logroño, 172km
Stage 6 – Thursday, August 23: Tarragona to Jaca, 174.8km
Stage 7 – Friday, August 24: Huesca to Alcañiz. (Motorland Aragón), 160km
Stage 8 – Saturday, August 25: Lleida to Andorra (Collada de la Gallina), 175km
Stage 9 – Sunday, August 26: Andorra to Barcelona, 194km
Rest Day – Monday, August 27
Stage 10 – Tuesday, August 28: Ponteareas to Sanxenxo, 166.4km
Stage 11 – Wednesday, August 29: Cambados to Pontevedra (ITT), 40km
Stage 12 – Thursday, August 30: Vilagarcía de Arousa to Dumbría (Mirador de Ézaro), 184.6km
Stage 13 – Friday, August 31: Santiago de Compostela to Ferrol, 172.7km
Stage 14 – Saturday, September 1: Palas de Rei to Puerto de Ancares, 152km
Stage 15 – Sunday, September 2: La Robla to Lagos de Covadonga, 186.7km
Stage 16 – Monday, September 3: Gijón to Valgrande-Pajares (Cuitu Negru), 185km
Rest Day – Tuesday, September 4
Stage 17 – Wednesday, – September 5: Santander to Fuente Dé, 177km
Stage 18 – Thursday, September 6: Aguilar de Campoo to Valladolid, 186.4km
Stage 19 – Friday, September 7: Peñafiel to La Lastrilla, 169km
Stage 20 – Saturday, September 8: La Faisanera Golf. Segovia 21 to Bola del Mundo, 169.5km
Stage 21 – Sunday, September 9: Cercedilla to Madrid, 111.9km
You’re right in that this year’s race does seem to be a little earlier than most past editions. It was actually last year when the race was moved to a spot a week earlier than it had been in past years. The thinking behind that move was to further distance it from the world championships, which might serve as an incentive for sprinters to stick around for the whole race, rather than bail in an effort to prepare for the race for the rainbow jersey. Of course, this year’s edition may not be all that appealing to sprinters anyway, but we’ll talk about that later.
This year’s Vuelta starts on Saturday, August 18, with a 16.2-kilometer team time trial in Pamplona, the capital of the old Kingdom of Navarre and home to the “Running of the Bulls” in July. I mention that famous festival because the time trial route will actually turn on to the same streets used for the traditional running of the bulls and then finish in Pamplona’s Plaza de Toros. (And no, fans will not be permitted to try and out-run cyclists through the narrow streets during this opening stage.)
Unlike this year’s Tour de France, the Vuelta will be relatively short on time trials. While the 2012 Tour de France offered up a total of 95 kilometers of the “race of truth” (stages 9 and 19), this year’s Vuelta will offer only a 16.2km team time trial and a 40km individual time trial on stage 11.
Looking back at Bradley Wiggins’ dominance in the time trials and the relatively few mountain-top finishes (just three) in this year’s Tour, the race was clearly designed to favor a guy with his talents.
Conversely, with Spain’s national cycling hero soon to return to competition – with his Clenbuterol suspension over this week – this race seems to be designed with Alberto Contator in mind. Like I said, the Tour de France only offered up three summit finishes. The Vuelta, on the other hand (and yeah, I think this is really cool) will feature 10 – count ‘em, ten – stage finishes atop hills and mountains. Some of them are going to be killer, too.
It should be a spectacular race, with Contador back in the mix and an-often-frustrated Chris Froome just aching to ride his own race without the obligation of having to hold back on the big mountains and set tempo for Brave, Brave Sir Wiggo.
As for the geographic concentration of this race, there are two good reasons. One is simply meteorological. By moving the Vuelta forward by one week, the race starts in mid-August. While Northern Spain is not exactly cool at that time of year, the temperatures are downright chilly when compared to conditions in Southern Spain. Do recall that the southernmost reaches of Spain feature Europe’s only deserts and they are freakin’ hot. Even in September, temperatures out on the road can approach 110 (F) and beyond.
I doubt we’ll ever see a similar concentration of Vuelta stages in southern Spain, since we could run the risk of having riders simply spontaneously combust out there on the road.
Another big reason, though, is something we mentioned earlier and that is that this is a climbers’ grand tour and the northern portions of Spain offer up some of the world’s most spectacular and challenging climbs you will ever see in a bike race. Sure, the southern reaches of Spain do offer up some great climbs, too, but they are more concentrated in the north.
This compressed format also limits the number and distance of transfers, which were a common feature – and source of irritation – in past editions of the Vuelta. Of course there is still a massive transfer from Barcelona to Ponteareas, which on the other side of the country. At least that one’s by plane and comes on the evening before a rest day. Absent, though, are the 100 to 200km transfers that seemed to pop up in the middle of the week, making life tough for riders, staff and anyone else traveling with the race.
Shorter, faster and more exciting?
One thing you might also notice on the list of stages is that the Vuelta, once again, will feature shorter stages than the Tour or the Giro. The Tour, for example, featured 13 stages that were 190km or longer, with the longest being 226km. The Vuelta has just four stages longer than 190k, and the longest is just 204.5km.
Shorter stages tend to compress the action, with breaks allowed to get away, but large gaps forming less frequently and more real racing along the way. The dreaded “_____ kilometers to go and the break has an advantage of _____” will be something we’ll hopefully be posting less frequently during Live this month.
There’s also the big bonus that shorter stages mean later start times, which means that viewers all over the U.S., for example, can keep track of the action from start to finish, without missing too many Zzzzzzz’s.
I’ve long said that the Vuelta is my favorite of the grand tours. This year’s Giro, however, set the bar quite high on the excitement scale, but the route and some seriously strong riders in the mix should make this one a race to remember. In addition to Contador and Froome, we’ll be seeing Igor Anton (Euskaltel), who crashed out of the 2010 Vuelta while leading the race; this year’s Tour of Calofornia winner Robert Gesink (Rabobank) and the man who lost the Giro to Ryder Hesjedal, Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha). Hesjedal, unfortunately, won’t be in Spain.
While an anticipated re-match between Contador and Andy Schleck is not in the cards, Froome’s presence will probably more than make up for the Luxembourger’s absence. In fact, this could turn out to be one of those GC fights that we’ll be talking about for years.
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.
Is it just me? It felt like the Tour (grand as it always is) was somehow lessened by these Olympics. Riders who might have gone harder in France saved themselves for London. Tom Boonen comes to mind immediately. Even Mark Cavendish, who was always going to take a back seat with Team Sky teammate Bradley Wiggins in yellow, used the Tour as training for the road race in his home country, rather than going full gas for another green jersey. A further cadre of riders pulled out of the Tour consoling themselves that the Olympics might still define their season, Thor Hushovd (he missed both races in the end) among them.
So what do we think of that? Has the Olympics, the road race and time trial, been worth it? Did you care when Alexandre Vinokourov rode off with the gold medal? Was Wiggins’ ride in the TT a valedictory, a simple victory lap or a true coronation? Did the Olympics turn you on?
I will say that I was tremendously disappointed in the road race. Team GB didn’t execute the plan for Cavendish. In fact, having watched Wiggins and Chris Froome both medal in the time trial, you have to ask if they were even the right guys to have in the road race. Were they saving themselves for their own event at Cav’s expense?
And then watching Vinokourov, one of the enduring faces of the sport’s doping past, cross the line, arms aloft, turned my stomach. Here is a guy who hasn’t won a race all year, but suddenly he has the legs to take a gold medal. When Rigoberto Uran turned to look over his right shoulder I immediately thought, “NO!NO!NO!” And it was over.
On the flip side of the coin, Marianne Vos’ road race win over Lizzie Armitstead was nail-bitingly dramatic, and certainly helped the pro women get some much deserved camera time. Kristin Armstrong’s gold in the TT a few days later was also good. Watching her with her son, on the podium, made me all emotional. And I abhor time trials.
So this week’s Group Ride asks: Was it worth it? Was Olympic cycling (and yes, I know the track events are still in progress) a worthy distraction from our normal program? Did London 2012 lessen the Tour, or was it another marquis event that will bring lasting attention to the sport? My British friends are thinking the latter, but how does this all look from your corner of the globe?
Photo: © Surrey County Council
Why would you train for a ride that is not a race?
I am riding with friends, and I do not want to be the weak link. I want to be helpful, and I don’t want to get off the bike. To walk uphill. There is nothing more soul-sapping.
And I like to go up.
Going up. It’s just so daunting. It feels impossible. Like you just are kidding yourself that you can get that pedal back down.
What I like is when you’re almost at your limit. And you find this place, this rhythm. That you can sustain. And you sit in that spot, just cranking it out. And next thing you know you’ve conquered a mountain.
Hm. What are you thinking? Literally, what goes on in your head?
Well that’s the beautiful part. Up to that point, you’re struggling. You’re filled with doubt.
You can’t make it. And then it all settles down. And your mind goes blank. And you’re just a piston.
But seriously, no other thoughts?
All crowded out. It’s that magic focus. It’s how you go up.
Photo: © Matt O’Keefe