I’m just working backwards from this starting point, in the saddle, on the road, trying to figure out what the hell I’m doing, legs pumping, sweating. I leap out of the saddle three-quarters of the way up a climb to push a too big gear over the top, my chest heaving to catch up. And then free-wheeling down the backside, giving myself a few seconds before I stoke the big ring again.
These are the particulars though. There is more, right? Beneath that veneer of sweat? Beyond arriving at my destination? Why am I doing this? What is cycling?
In broadest strokes a cycle is just a rising and falling, a repetition, a thing that comes and goes, a pattern from which we might infer any number of meanings. To every thing, turn, turn, turn, and all that. We can settle into a cycle or be trapped in it, a meditative trance or a downward spiral.
Attach two wheels and find a way to power them. Harness your mind to the task of the rising and falling, of coming and going. Bury your needle in speed or comfort yourself with aimless meandering. Leave and come back. Create a journey where none existed before. Pour your soul into the effort.
In Stanislaw Lem’s ground-breaking 1968 novel His Master’s Voice a transmission is received from space, a clear, repeating pattern, a cycle. Scientists, mathematicians and philosophers are put on the job of understanding what it might mean. Various theories are developed. The transmission, inscrutable on its face, inspires fear, awe, creativity, doubt and curiosity. No one cracks the code despite millions of dollars being thrown at the problem, despite teams of multi-disciplinary experts working at it full tilt. The cycle goes on and on, and ends up saying more about the humans reacting to it than it yields in meaning about itself.
Let’s factor out the bike. I love the bike, and the bike is a hobby of its own, but the bike is not cycling. The bike is a tool with which to cycle, an instrument for absorbing effort and feeding back meaning.
The act of cycling is the act of simultaneously creating and trying to extract meaning from that creation, an overwhelmingly positive process. This is the emotional afterglow of a hard ride, sitting at the kitchen table, peeling off arm warmers, replaying the grinding climbs in your mind, the wicked descents. In this light, cycling is art, true art. Its simplicity belies its depth, ephemeral and vanishing, impressionistic.
Riding a bike is a mundane task. It is transport, and it is recreation. But the practicality of it, the very ordinariness of it, is its real genius. Cycling is a blank canvas, all potential ready to become kinetic.
For the most part, you don’t change cycling. You go round and round, and it changes you, the story written across your body in hardness or your mind in its suppleness. It is through riding that we create ourselves. We are the meaning. We are cycling.
Follow me on Twitter @thebicyclerobot.
Photo: © Matt O’Keefe
Since I moved to the States, American friends have often asked me what I miss most about “England’s green and pleasant land.” I tell them I miss the expected things: meeting old friends for a chat at the village pub, hiking with my brother in the Surrey hills, or watching a good game of English football. But what I really miss—and only a British club cyclist would fully understand—is hill-climb season.
English hill climbs aren’t long, but they’re very, very steep! These short, intense time trials organized by cycling clubs all over the country are among the most popular events in British cycling. Maybe we should import the idea to America….
Hill-climb season happens right now, peaking around Halloween, when there’s a nip in the air, a thick mist hanging over waterlogged fields, and slick, wet leaves covering the back roads where the races take place. These hill climbs are usually two- or three-minute efforts up near-vertical, ancient roads that over the centuries have cut a trench into chalk or sandstone ridges. And the climbs have evocative names such as Horseblock Hollow, Pea Royd Lane, or The Rake.
This past Sunday, a 22-year-old club cyclist from Lancashire named Jack Pullar won the British national hill climb championship on that very hill: The Rake. It starts outside the library in the village of Ramsbottom, passes the Rose & Crown pub a short way up the climb’s easier opening half, and finishes just before another pub, the Shoulder of Mutton. Thousands of fans, most of whom arrived by bike, lined the 874-meter-long climb that averages 11 percent, and has long stretches of between 20 and 25 percent.
Competitors on Sunday had to cope with head winds and a fine drizzle, making it tough to avoid wheel spin on the steepest parts, so Pullar didn’t get closer than five seconds to the course record of 2:16.9. That time was set, remarkably, 19 years ago by Jeff Wright, who used a fixed gear of 42×19 on a good day! Fixed-gear bikes are preferred on these short, sharp ascents because of the more-direct transfer of power to the single rear cog.
Such is the intensity of “sprinting” up these rugged climbs that some riders end up zigzagging across the road or even having to stop and run. Most are in agony when they finish. After his championship-winning effort, Pullar told Cycling Weekly: “My body shut down when I finished, and even when my friends told me I’d won, I said I couldn’t have cared less.”
There are few efforts in cycling that are as demanding as a British hill climb. You quickly go into the red zone, just as you would in a kilometer time trial or individual pursuit on the track. But there’s no elevation gain riding around a velodrome! I can still remember a hill climb I did up that aforementioned Horseblock Hollow, which averages 11.4 percent for a kilometer with some of those nasty 20-percent pitches that characterize English climbs. The anaerobic effort was so excruciating that, on stopping, I lurched to the side of the road like a drunkard and threw up.
It’s because every rider has to race at his or her maximum intensity that hill climbs are so popular with spectators. The starting order in English time trials is different from those in Europe, where the fastest riders nearly always start at the end of the field. In the UK, in a field of 120 riders, the best riders are seeded from the back, but at 10-minute intervals, with bib numbers 10, 20…through to 100, 110 and 120. That keeps the crowd’s interest high throughout the event, usually with a resounding climax at the end.
Virtually all of the UK’s hill climbs take place in September and October, with the top national contenders probably riding a dozen separate races, sometimes twice on the same weekend. One of the most popular, and easily the oldest, is the Catford Classic Hill Climb, which was first held in 1886 and has been staged for the past 127 years, except for breaks during the two world wars. It’s held on a course an hour south of London. Yorks Hill, which starts at a dead-end farm lane, climbs for 646 meters (707 yards) at a 12.5-percent average gradient, with two pitches of 25 percent. Amazingly, despite advances in bike technology and training, the course record of 1:47.6 by South London rider Phil Mason has stood for 29 years!
Just a handful of Britain’s hill climbs are longer than 10 minutes, with the short, sharp ones giving fans the most excitement. And just as cyclo-cross has successfully crossed the Atlantic, perhaps UK-style hill climbs could be the next big thing for bike racing in North America, especially if they are compressed into a similar, short season in the fall.
Most of the current U.S. hill climbs, up mountain peaks such as Mount Washington in New Hampshire, Mount Evans in Colorado, and Mount Tamalpais in California, are held in the summer and are mass-start road races, not time trials. The few uphill TTs include those at Pinnacle Hill, near Albany, New York; Lookout Mountain, near Denver; and San Bruno Mountain, near San Francisco. These are all 15-minute climbs, which is at the top end of the classic UK hill-climb format.
The nearest we’ve come to a British-style event was the one raced up the Manayunk Wall in Philadelphia, which was an amateur time trial held on the Friday night prior to the Philadelphia International Championship. In 2000, that race was also contested by a number of pros, with the victory going to former U.S. pro champ Eddy Gragus, who recorded a 1:50.18 for the one-kilometer course—which had a flat opening section before reaching the 400-meter Wall and its maximum grade of 17 percent.
Many American cities have steep streets that could host hill climbs—including places such as Pittsburgh, Richmond, San Francisco or Seattle—while most experienced riders know about steep hills in their local areas. Imagine a race up Sycamore Street in Pittsburgh, which was a highlight of the Thrift Drug Classic in the 1990s; or up San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill, which has seen prologues for the Coors Classic in the 1980s and the more-recent Tour of California.
Short, snappy hill climbs in the autumn are made for riders who race criteriums all summer. In fact, in the month before he started an unbeaten run in this year’s hill-climb season, new British climbing champ Pullar was doing a crit series—and now he’s talking of following in the footsteps of his countrymen Chris Froome, John Tiernan-Locke and Brad Wiggins, and heading to the Continent.
Curiously, British television has yet to embrace hill climbs, but their sudden-death format and enthusiastic crowds are compelling ingredients for great viewing. And in this country, where reality TV is king, a sports event with instant impact could even make it big. I’d love it to happen because, then, I wouldn’t get homesick in hill-climb season.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
A seat bag occupies a curious space within the life of a cyclist. It’s usefulness is in direct proportion to its hideousness. The bigger they are, the less attractive they are. You want one that will carry all the items necessary to get you out of a jam, but no one wants the cycling equivalent of an expedition backpack hanging off their saddle, unless maybe they are actually on an expedition.
If that’s not enough to make you wrestle with what seat bag will best suit your needs, then consider the way that little velcro strap that goes around the seatpost has a habit if just brushing the inside of prized bib shorts. Those first couple of pulls multiply until you have the equivalent of leg fleece. Eventually the leg fleece gives way to a hole. Back when I raced and got several new pair of cheap bibs every season, it wasn’t a big deal. These days, with good bibs running upward of $150, that first pull is a tantrum inducing event.
This past spring I ran across the Micro Caddy from Lezyne. It comes in two sizes, small and medium. The small, shown above, is just big enough to hold a tube, a CO2 cartridge and adapter, plus a mini tool in the small pocket on the under side of the bag. It’s the sort of bag useful for the morning group ride. The medium is But that’s not why I fell in love with it. The Micro Caddy uses to neoprene straps that fit around the seat rails—nothing wraps around the seatpost. It’ll never put a pull in your prized bibs. The medium has the same circumference, but just runs a bit longer. You can fit a second tube in it. Because the straps are made from neoprene, they stretch. Should you suffer a flat out on the road, the straps will compress the bag to keep any leftovers in it from clinking around and making you think your cassette locking is loose (been there, wondered that).
Whether you go for the small ($20) or the slightly longer medium ($25), it’s a foolproof way to take better care of something that matters far more than what hangs off your saddle—your bibs.
I’m a lucky guy. The crash I recently experienced is demonstration of a great many things, like how roads don’t always offer consistent traction, and just how quickly the brain can process information. It’s also as clear a demonstration of my luck as I’ve ever received. That I didn’t break my jaw or any teeth, not to mention my nose or any cervical vertebrae is as near a miracle as I’ve experienced. I won’t lie; I’ve never hit anything so hard in my life. If I ever do it again, I’m not gonna be happy about it.
But that’s where my luck ends and other stuff takes over. The outpouring of support, whether just kind notes by email or Facebook, comments here or on Twitter, and then the more concrete support in the form of beers, more beers than I could drink in a year, maybe five, well that’s not luck. Fortune strikes me as a good word, as in I’m fortunate to enjoy so much wonderful support. Or, it is my good fortune to receive such an enthusiastic response to a real need.
The friendships that led to the beer fund, well, those are harder to characterize. Certainly, I’m fortunate to have such good friends who would step up for me. But friendships have an accidental element to them, the factors that brought you together. I like to say I make my own luck, that I don’t believe in fate, yet there’s no denying that my friendships with Robot and Eric wouldn’t have happened without the bike. I couldn’t have chosen to meet those guys, but I chose the bike and meet them I did.
And let’s be honest, every now and then an event transpires in a friendship that so grows and increases the depth of the relationship it’s tantamount to finding out that the one guy in the foxhole with you did the job of three.
I’ve done what I can to live by the values that my parents attempted to impart to me, but it’s been a journey. I like to kid that the RKP merchandise is all created for entirely selfish reasons. I’m not kidding. I wanted that kit, that T-shirt, that hat, but only because I wanted to add more cool stuff to my wardrobe. There’s an irony at work here, though. The biggest piece of my personal journey into adulthood has been selfishness. I was a nice enough guy when I was 25, but I was pretty focused on my education, my needs, my life. Finding a way to grow my heart to be a decent (if not excellent) husband and a reasonably devoted father has required a good deal of mental arithmetic. I’m not joking about this, either; to back up what I knew to be right, I had to work through the logic as well.
And while my journey out of acute selfishness and into occasional (and mostly more benign) selfishness is by no means complete—a plane yet to reach its airport, I’m comfortable with humility the way I am with an old pair of shoes—any hour of the day. As is true for most people, I suspect, my parents remain giant figures within my life, and I still calibrate my moral compass to theirs in many ways. Humility is something they demanded of me, and for reasons that elude me, it stuck in a way generosity didn’t. Consequently, I’ve probably not been the advocate for my own work that would have been most helpful. Oops.
These two seemingly independent values, generosity and humility, came clanging into the beer donation with such force the sound still drowns out the TV and most conversation here at home. I struggle with what has taken place for a lot of reasons, but generosity and humility are the two factors that seem to make that road most bumpy.
Robot alluded to my reluctance to accept help. I need to explain myself a bit: I see community activity along these lines as something you do for someone who is a victim. Someone who got a nasty disease, like my friend Charles, or someone who was hit by a car, someone who’s being picked on by a couple of assholes just because he’s a little guy, like Paul Kimmage.
I’m different. I knew the risks. While I don’t think I ran out of skill, I did happen to run out of luck. In my world view, the crash was just an accident and entirely my responsibility. Victim? Not me. As to my health coverage covering less than half of what’s being charged, well, that’s on me too; I need to write more for more different outlets, so I can spend more on a better plan. Like I said, on me.
That isn’t meant to argue against what all of you have done; rather, it’s a necessary effort to illustrate how your collective generosity has … hell, I’m not even sure how to describe what a monumental revelation and experience this has been for my wife and me. Remember the scene in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy opens the door and sees Oz in color? This experience has been no less revelatory. I’m not the guy people rally ’round. Except for the fact that, apparently I am.
Carl Jung wrote, “There is no birth of consciousness without pain.” I take that as the de facto koan of the cycling life. It’s a fundamental truth about what cycling has taught me, still teaches me, a lesson about lessons. The experience of having the crash and the outpouring of support in the wake of Eric and Robot’s efforts are yet another confirmation of Jung’s statement, but in a way I could have never guessed.
I think it’s fairly human to wonder just how many people will show up to your funeral when you die. There’s a curiosity about just how you figured in someone else’s life and whether you mattered enough for them to show up to say good bye. The movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” is as fine a meditation on the role we play in the lives of others as we’re likely ever to view. There’d be a fundamental dishonesty at work, a selfishness of heart if I didn’t reveal that this has been my personal opportunity to play the part of George and see just how much people care. I’ve had a few good cries about this. It’s humbling to realize how badly you’ve miscalculated your place in the world.
There’s also a broader urge fueling everyone’s generosity, something bigger than me or the regard RKP readers have for my work. Sometimes the community just rallies. My role was simply to be the focal point for Robot and Eric’s efforts. I was the barn that needed raising. Some of you expressed some disappointment that you didn’t get a chance to contribute; here I need to reiterate that we didn’t (I don’t) feel right taking more than I need. For those of you who still have some good will that needs a home, maybe I can serve not as a focal point but a lens, one to point your attention to the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA). I think they are doing more to grow cycling in the United States than any other organization. They’ll influence a whole new generation of cyclists, hopefully many generations to come, keeping them in the sport when they would be likely to transition to Xbox or football or cars or getting stoned. They could use your good will. You all have already done more than enough for me. I say send NICA a beer or two in the name of Philip Brady.
There’s a karma at work here. Maybe it began when I brought Robot on as a contributor. Maybe I spun that wheel up a bit when I reached out to Charles and gave him a home here at RKP when, really, reaching out beyond just simple friendship shouldn’t have been necessary. Who knows? What I can say for sure is this: I’m grateful to every one of you who stepped up. Whether you just sent a note, made a comment or bought a beer, thank you. But that’s not enough. I’ll be paying this forward. I’m not sure how, but at least I can say when, which is at every possible turn.
Once again, thank you.
What a week it’s been. Since USADA released its reasoned decision on the US Postal doping conspiracy, the flood of confessions that followed and the various spin off conflicts and conflagrations, my head has been a mess. My urge is always to find the way forward, to stay positive, but I have not found a good way to wrap my mind about what’s happened to our sport.
Then, of course, Padraig crashed his bike, which put a lot of the stuff on my mind into much better perspective. What a cadre of deluded pro athletes did in hotel rooms and shady medical clinics over the last decade-and-a-half is fascinating and depressing in equal measure, but I am part of something larger than that, something that starts with my closest friends and family and extends out to the larger cycling community. We launched the Beer Face Crash Relief effort to try to help Padraig out with medical expenses, and that just reinforced for me how massively positive cycling and the cycling community are for my life. I stopped thinking about doping and the dopes who doped.
When the idea of raising money first came up, my initial reaction was fear. Padraig and I are close. What if I couldn’t do it? What if I failed? And then, within 24 hours of the first conversation we’d raised every dime we needed. All we did was ask for the price of a beer, and you, our readers, drowned us in it.
This might be the single, biggest surprise of my cycling life, following closely behind being asked to write for RKP in the first place. That was like having my favorite band ask me to be their new guitar player. If you’d ever heard me play guitar, you’d know what a long shot that analogy really represents.
Of course, there have been other great surprises, finding out I could ride 100 miles in a day, finding out I could clear a section of single-track I’d failed to ride 100 times before, meeting people on steep hills and forming instant bonds simply by dint of our shared effort.
If you ride, it will come. That has been my experience.
This week’s Group Ride asks: What have been your biggest (and best) surprises from cycling? What have you learned about the world that you wouldn’t have dared hope was true before? What have been the gifts and how would you have gotten them, if not for the bike?
I’ve got something to share with you. Part of the cost of me being a total word nerd is that some turns of phrase in the bike industry drive me crazy. Case in point: Any time a magazine refers to a “review” as a “test.” The God’s honest truth is almost no one ever gets a piece of gear from a manufacturer with the express advance consent to destroy it by some scientific method. Sure, bikes get broken (been there, done that) and phone calls containing profuse apologies ensue (made them). But actually putting a bicycle frame or component on some sort of test rig so that you can push it to its absolute limit and then report on the particular method of failure isn’t something bike magazines routinely do.
The upshot is that what we all publish are best described as “reviews.” My opposition to the use of the word “test” is that it implies some sort of scientific evaluation. While I do my best to subject bikes and components to objective evaluations, there’s always a subjective element, a part of the experience, the appraisal, that cannot be reduced to raw numbers. As a result, it’s really rare that we are ever in a position to discuss failure mode on a first-hand basis.
That said, crashing can be a pretty effective way to find out just how strong a part is. When I went down in Tuna Canyon, I came as close as I’m likely to come to finding out about failure modes for a few different items. Some of you have asked what I was riding and how it fared. The bike that day was a Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL4 with the new SRAM Red and Zipp Firecrest 202 Carbon Clinchers.
Aside from my jaw and teeth, I can also claim to have thoroughly investigated failure modes for the S-Works Tarmac SL4 frame and fork, not to mention the S-Works Shallow Bend Carbon Fiber Handlebar, as well as the new Zipp 202s.
The final GPS sample taken just before my ill-fated face-first dismount indicated that I was traveling at 29.9 mph. That’s one true statement about the moments leading up to my crash. Here’s another: I never touched the brakes. I think it’s safe to conclude that by the time I buried my wheel in whatever I shoved it in with sufficient gusto to arrest my bike’s forward motion like a couple of drunks in a bar fight, I may have scrubbed a bit of speed, but it couldn’t have been anything significant. Of that last statement I’m certain for one simple reason: The time that elapsed between my bike stopping and me stopping was insufficient to allow me to tuck, roll or even get my hands or arms up to protect my head and face. When people talk about things happening in fractions of a second, I can tell you this was faster than love at first sight.
If ever there had been a time where I might have reported on riding something hard enough to break it, well, this would have been that occasion. Taking one for the readers. Occupational hazard. Being empirical. Whatever. The simple fact is that I didn’t break the handlebar. I didn’t break the fork. I didn’t break the stem. I didn’t break the frame and most impressive, I didn’t break the front wheel.
Let’s say that last one again, for emphasis: I didn’t break the front wheel. Hell, it didn’t even come out of true. While my face took the majority of the impact force, the front wheel did take a fair drubbing when it hit whatever it did to bring the bike to a stop and thrust me, tether-ball-like, over the bar.
I can recall my friends picking up my bike as the paramedics were doing their dead-level best to convince me that I’d been unconscious since the release of Star Wars. Amid the many questions they asked as they secured me to the backboard, in the background I heard my buddies say, “Man, his bike is fine.”
I also recall thinking, “Yeah, no shit. Have you seen my face?”
Like I said, I thought that if for no other reason than it hurt too much to say out loud. At that point I still had a mouthful of gravel and dirt. The dirt didn’t bother me; the gravel was a definite pain. The experience was not unlike having a mouthful of peppercorns. Inevitably, you’re going to swallow some and I really could have used a beer to help wash it down. Looks like I have plenty of those now, though—thanks again.
I’ve broken my share of components over the years. I’m not a heavy guy (that day I was all of 162 lbs.) and I’m not even all that forceful as I ride, but I’ve broken bars, stems, seatposts, saddles, a couple of forks and plenty of wheels. When I picked up my bike from the friend who stored it for me for a few days, the only indication I could find that proved the bike had hit the deck was some dirt on one lever and on the bar tape; there was a bit more dirt on the front wheel.
I’ve inspected the bike thoroughly. I can’t find anything wrong with it. And I’m aware that the way composites are laid up today, they are designed that if they suffer a serious impact, though several layers of carbon may break, the entire structure won’t instantly fail. This gives the rider the opportunity to feel that something is soft, not all is right, time enough to pull over and avoid catastrophe.
I can tell you this bike feels the same as it did before I went down. The story might be different if the bar or levers or some other component had taken the second big impact, rather than my face, but they didn’t. I’ve looked for any indication I can find that I shouldn’t trust this bike and I couldn’t find a reason not to ride it.
So I rode it today.
It’s fine and I’m better for getting back in the saddle of the horse that threw me.
My ride today was, in part, an affirmation in my belief of how far carbon fiber technology has come in the bike industry. I don’t think manufacturers get enough credit for how much they’ve improved the durability of carbon products. And I’m not suggestion this is in any way isolated to Specialized or Zipp. I am willing to bet most of the bikes and wheels out there would have survived my particular crash. I can’t imagine how hard you have to hit to actually make any of those things fail.
Like I said, I didn’t enjoy this, but I’m glad that the bike I was on performed as advertised. I might even call it a “test.”
PLEASE READ BELOW
As you know, Patrick crashed his bike. In fact, he just about tore his bottom lip off, and 9 hours in the emergency room later, not to mention the prolonged attention of a plastic surgeon, he’s got bills that insurance won’t touch.
We, his friends, would like to help him get out from under the accident as quickly as possible, so he can focus on healing and also preparing for the imminent birth of his second child.
The man himself is massively reticent about this whole undertaking as he feels responsible for the crash. It was, after all, a solo effort. So, we would like to propose something slightly different.
We have all enjoyed RKP over the last few years. In a very real way, we’ve been on a long, hard ride together, cheering and celebrating our sport, brainstorming solutions for the problems it faces, and sharing expertise on the products we use. Patrick has been the ride leader, and given there is no entry fee for this ride, we’d like to suggest each of you buy our leader a beer. Figuratively of course.
Let’s say a beer is $5. We’d like to ask each of you to contribute that to the fund to cover Patrick’s medical costs. Just $5. You wouldn’t hesitate to buy a buddy a beer after a hard ride together. Let’s do this for Patrick now.
It looks like the ambulance ride, ER time and follow up with the surgeon come to $5,000, so we’re aiming to buy Patrick 1,000 beers. Help us make this happen.
Here are the particulars:
CURRENT TOTAL = $5000+ – Thank you!
We have reached our goal! In fact, we have surpassed it. And, in the interest of complete transparency, before we do anything further, we need to get a final tally of donations and a sharper total for expenses. This has all happened far more quickly than any of us imagined, so while we started out with the goal of raising $5,000, we figured we’d have time to more clearly outline expenses before we even began to approach that goal.
Your generosity has been sudden and overwhelming.
The last thing we want to do is move the goal posts for this project, so we are working quickly to gather what bills are available and to factor in the tax consequences of taking in this money. At the moment, it appears we have all the money we need to address the Brady family’s financial consequences from the crash.
Over the next days we will put out another post with all the details of the expenses and contributions. Thanks everybody who wrote in and/or donated. We are all humbled by the way our community has rallied to our aid.
Next year’s 100th edition of the Tour de France is still more than eight months away, but we already have a good idea of what sort of race it’s going to be—even before race organizer Christian Prudhomme reveals full details of the official route on Wednesday in Paris. Some wild rumors have been circulating through the cycling world, including a nighttime stage finish on the Champs-Élysées, which indicate that it’s going to be a Tour worthy of celebration. And following Monday’s decision by the UCI razing Lance Armstrong’s seven Tour victories from the history books, the hope is that there will be total focus on the race itself and not on yet more doping rumors.
Besides the course, which promises at least 10 significant stages, what looks like being a major feature of the 2013 Tour is one of the most competitive fields in the event’s history. At least eight of the 22 likely starting teams have a strong chance of producing the eventual champion, while the course appears to be both balanced and demanding. First then, let’s take a look at the likely route of the June 29 to July 21 Tour.
TOUGH START, RUGGED FINISH
We’ve known since last year that the Tour will visit the French island of Corsica for the first time in the race’s 110-year history (the race wasn’t contested a total of 10 times through the two world wars). Corsica’s terrain is extremely mountainous, except for a coastal plain along the east coast—which will host the Tour’s first and only flat stage in Corsica, finishing in Bastia with a likely mass sprint. The second and third stages are both short (around the 150-kilometer mark) and feature significant climbs in their run-ins to Ajaccio and Calvi respectively, which will give us an initial look at the overall contenders.
All the race personnel (except the riders) will take overnight ferries across the Mediterranean to gather the next afternoon in Nice for what will be a strategically decisive stage: a 20-kilometer team time trial along the waterfront. The last time an early TTT was included at the Tour, in 2011, Garmin won the stage by four seconds, while the two teams that produced the final podium (BMC Racing and RadioShack) were separated by just six seconds. But those six seconds gave eventual winner Cadel Evans a psychologically advantage over Andy and Fränk Schleck through the following 10 stages before the Tour reached the mountains.
This year, when the TTT result is added to the two difficult stages in Corsica, a firm hierarchy will exist prior to the first mountaintop stage finish—which looks like being on stage 8 at Ax-3 Domaines in the Pyrénées. Whatever the GC looks like there, it will probably be quite similar a week later when the race reaches the next summit finish, said to be Mont Ventoux, on July 14.
In the week between the two mountain ranges, the Tour will see a second (probably easier) climbing stage through the Pyrénées, a 600-kilometer transfer to northwest France for the first rest day, four sprinters’ stages and an individual time trial. This stage against the clock looks like being a specialists’ TT on a flat, probably 45-kilometer course in Normandy, finishing at the iconic island of Mont St. Michel. Whichever of the GC candidates does well there will get a nice boost in morale before the crucial stage finish atop the Ventoux, which some believe is the hardest climb longer than 20 kilometers in France.
After a second rest day, the Tour heads to Gap, the gateway to the Alps—where four tough, but different types of stages will decide the eventual outcome. This stretch opens with a very hilly individual TT, again around the 40-kilometer mark, in the foothills north of the turquoise-blue Serre-Ponçon lake. Then comes the keynote stage, one that almost happened two years ago, which climbs L’Alpe d’Huez twice—thanks to a final 50-kilometer loop over the Col de Sarenne, a narrow, rough-surfaced mountain road that is being given a new coat of tarmac, before returning to the base of the Tour’s most popular climb.
The next day sees the peloton head north, probably over the Glandon, Madeleine and Croix-Fry passes with an uphill finish in Le Grand Bornand—where Fränk Schleck and Linus Gerdemann were the last two winners. The final alpine stage appears to be an unusual one for the Tour, taking in one big, mountainous loop from the beautiful lakeside city of Annecy. Another 600-kilometer transfer takes the race to its final stage, finishing as usual on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, but according to a report in this Monday’s edition of La Dépêche the final sprint could well take place at nightfall—followed by a massive firework display to commemorate the end of this 100th edition.
THE PROSPECTIVE CHAMPS
Despite the early rumors that the 2012 Tour would be a climbers’ Tour, the likelihood of a team time trial and two individual tests puts the emphasis back on those riders who are strong in the time trials and the climbs. That would mean that Team Sky’s defending champion Brad Wiggins should shoot for a second Tour title rather than, as has been mentioned, go for victories at the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España next year and let teammate Chris Froome lead Sky at the Tour. Obviously, that situation will need to be decided by team management in the next couple of months.
Froome, second at this year’s Tour, is obviously strong against the clock and in mountaintop finishes—like several other probable contenders, including Saxo-Tinkoff’s Alberto Contador, BMC’s Evans and Tejay Van Garderen, and Garmin-Sharp’s Ryder Hesjedal and Christian Vande Velde. All of these men, along with the two Sky riders, will get a boost from the early team time trial.
Besides these half-dozen yellow-jersey contenders, several others will also be planning on strong challenges. These include the more specialist climbers, Joaquim Rodriguez of Katusha Team, Vincenzo Nibali of a much-strengthened Astana squad, the 2010 default winner Andy Schleck of RadioShack-Nissan, and Jurgen Van den Broeck of Lotto-Belisol.
Then there is the world TT champion Tony Martin, who’ll be the GC leader of the Omega-Quick Step team now that Levi Leipheimer has been sacked over his involvement in the Postal team doping scandal. Martin is somewhat of an enigma, but should he get his weight down a few kilos while keeping his unquestioned power, there’s no reason why he should lose too much time on the summit finishes—remember, he did finish second on the Ventoux stage in 2009. But the German’s challenge will be hampered by his Belgian team focusing first on racking up sprint stage wins for the newly arrived Mark Cavendish and team captain Tom Boonen.
This should be a good Tour for North Americans. Besides overall contenders Hesjedal, Vande Velde and Van Garderen, next year should see the Tour debuts of Garmin’s Andrew Talansky, a future GC player, and BMC’s Taylor Phinney, who should have a vital role for Evans and Van Garderen in the TTT and add his power to defending his team leaders’ positions in the flatter stages.
As always, there’s a fear of seeing a repeat of the devastating high-speed pileups that marked the opening weeks of the past two Tours and wrecked the chances, among others, of Wiggins, Van den Broeck and Contador in 2011, and Hesjedal and Vande Velde in 2012. But with a muscular opening to the 2013 Tour in Corsica, followed by the TTT, the hierarchy will be established before the race reaches the three flatter stages in opening week, and this will calm down the usual first-week tension when every team vies for stage wins.
Some critics have compared this first post-Armstrong-doping-decision Tour with the so-called Tour of Renewal in 1999, a year after the infamous Festina doping debacle. The big difference this time is that there’s no undetectable drug like EPO in existence, while the majority of riders in today’s peloton is already competing clean. Given those facts and the increased scrutiny of every rider’s blood parameters by the anti-doping authorities, the chances of seeing a worthy winner of a hard-fought and clean Tour are as strong as they’ve ever been.
Let’s hope that’s the case, and that everyone, especially the fans, can enjoy Tour No. 100’s hopefully spectacular firework display over the Arc de Triomphe next July 21.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
The original mountain bike pedal, the one that started it all, the Shimano PD-M737, was a pedal of such clairvoyant utility that it not only defined the genre of the mountain pedal forever, it also transcended it. It set the two-hole drill pattern for all mountain shoes which, considering the myriad drillings available for road shoes, is a feat on the order of getting the UCI to accept responsibility of any kind. Not only was the 737 popular with mountain bikers who wanted all the advantages of clipless pedals without the liabilities of trying to flip a road pedal over, it caught on with the touring segment of the road market. These riders wanted the advantages of clipless pedals and the fact they didn’t have to flip them over to clip in was handy, but the real selling point was that off the bike, they didn’t suffer the gait of a Mallard.
It’s rare that anything pulls off such a double whammy, but to do both in the same year of release is unheard of. Consider that when Bruce Springsteen hit the scene he was the model for a new, rawer, more personal rock and roll. Today, he’s a national institution. But in 1974, he was just an unshaven slacker you wouldn’t let date your daughter.
The 737 was the slacker you threw your daughter and gave the keys to your prized Mustang.
That’s not to say the 737 had no flaws. The bearings wore out, making the pedal sloppy and noisy. Worse, a pair weighed more than the conscience of young George Washington, post cherry tree. But they had one feature that make them vastly superior to every other competitor that entered the market until Time hit with their Atac. To engage the pedal, all you had to do was put your foot on it. There was no requirement that you catch the pedal toe-first. You could catch either the front or the rear of cleat on the pedal to engage; there were gates at both ends of the pedal. A double-sided pedal with gates both front and rear results in four gates per pedal, which is why they their mass was enough to bend light. Heavy or not, it’s a feature that Time and Crank Brothers both thought enough of to design into their pedals, but somehow, later Shimano pedals lost that feature.
It’s like selling a car with no stereo. You just don’t do that. If you’re not going to include a sound system, then the engine had better be its own sound system. That’s how Ferrari can get away with such an omission, but I digress.
I began riding a set of Ritchey’s WCS Paradigm Mountain Pedals this summer, first putting them on my mountain bike and then switching them to my ‘cross bike when I began to plan for the ‘cross season. Why did I switch a 223g set of pedals to a 19-lb. cyclocross rig? Easy. I wanted to make it lighter.
Kidding … sorta.
Sure, the pair weighed less than even one of the 737s (I’m not exaggerating—a pair of 737s weighed more than 500g), but the real reason is that I noticed on my first ride on the Paradigms that they had restored the double engagement feature I so loved. That mattered to me for cyclocross because following a dismount, getting back into your pedals so you can go top-fuel dragster on the gas is as imperative as sunlight.
Unfortunately, following my crash, I learned that my face has veto power over entry fees. Wow; I didn’t see that coming.
Ritchey products, like few others on the market, have an identity that’s more easily read than their genes. WCS products may not be cheap, but they share a uniform emaciation, stripped of anything remotely ornamental. In as much as these products are beautiful (and I do find them attractive), it’s because they are all business, kinda like an old-school circular saw—no protective slides and auto-switches. It doesn’t hurt that with so little to the pedal it sheds mud like cooking oil on Teflon.
As a result, there’s less to the spindles than the brain activity of a coma patient. They are secured to the cranks with an 8mm Allen wrench, and while they go on easy enough, I’ve always hated removing pedals that don’t have flats, but that would add weight, wouldn’t it?
Part of the particular genius of the Paradigms is that they feature only two gates. The front gate for one side also serves as the rear gate for the other side. One stone, two birds.
They feature three bearings: a sealed cartridge bearing at the end of the spindle, a long-lasting and load-bearing needle bearing in the middle and then a lightweight bushing for the inner bearing. Also contributing to what should be a very long-lived pedal is the chrome-moly spindle.
Float for these pedals is four degrees. It’s not a huge amount for those whose joints creak and quake, but it has proven to be enough for me and eliminates the slop that can make other pedal systems less efficient. Spring retention is adjustable, natch.
Even though these pedals are part of Ritchey’s top-of-the-line WCS line, I was a bit surprised that they only retail for $159.95. They’ll last longer than your next TV and thanks to their simple silver-and-gold look, they have yet to appear out-of-place on any bike I’ve mounted them.
It’s a typical Ritchey product: Somebody else’s idea, perfected.
All things considered, this has to be the strangest two weeks of my cycling life. A bit over a week ago I had the worst crash I’ve ever suffered on the bike. To give you some idea how radical my impact was, the only image I can conjure to describe the experience is the Looney Tunes short in which the ACME catapult slams Wile E. Coyote into the dirt. My experience would have been just as comical had it not been, you know, me.
It takes a most unusual calculus to figure that 47 stitches is in any way a blessing, but it’s been 13 or 14 years since I was last on the deck courtesy of a road bike. Pardon me, but I kinda feel like my number was up. Not crashing for more than 10 years is its own kind of fortune. Similarly, the fact that I didn’t manage to break my jaw or any teeth, or bite through my tongue is luck on a scale that could make me as superstitious as the entire European peloton. Where’s my rabbit’s foot? Screw that, somebody get me the whole damn bunny, STAT!
But my crash came the day the USADA “Reasoned Decision” on Lance Armstrong was issued and trying to read pieces of that on my iPhone in the ER through the lens of a morphine drip was as comically black as Slim Pickens riding the nuke in “Dr. Strangelove,” just minus the glee. Again, you’ll have to pardon me, but this would be where I think the gods gave me a taste of cosmic irony.
Oh yeah bud? Mid-morning ride? You think you can afford that time away, do you? How ’bout this? WHAP!
Tess of the d’Urbervilles didn’t know how good she had it.
The hand-wringing over the derailment of the Blue Train has been enough to break fingers. The anger burning in cycling fans has hovered like a swarm of Africanized bees, swirling around, looking for its most suitable victim. Here are a few stings for the riders, a few more for the media, a couple for the sponsors who turned a blind eye to the obvious, a dozen more for the UCI. The rest can go to everyone who ever drew a paycheck from Tailwind Management. But wait, let’s save a couple for Chechu Rubiera for being more tone deaf than a whale oil lamp. Speaking to El Diario de Mallorca (link is to the Cyclingnews piece), the newspaper of record of Mallorca (yeah, Chechu, to defend your former team captain make sure to talk to the smallest newspaper possible, preferably one on an island), he said he never saw Armstrong dope. Okay, fine, maybe he didn’t—but that doesn’t do much to rebut the testimony of those who did. Weirder still, he called Michele Ferrari the best coach there is.
Well, I suppose in a way, we can all agree on that.
It’s a shame he doesn’t grasp that his defense did nothing to help Armstrong but did a marvelous job of making him (Rubiera) look like a tinfoil hat.
But that hardly counts as news compared to the fact that the UCI has attempted to distance itself from its once favorite son, Armstrong. It announced that, yes, it will ratify the USADA reasoned decision, thus stripping him of his seven Tour wins, plus every other result he gained since August 1, 1998. This is either but one important step to cleaning up the sport, or it is the sound of the other shoe dropping—in other words, the end of the progress surrounding this case. Previous episodes, such as the Festina scandal, would suggest this is as far as this episode will drive, but other events suggest this car hasn’t hit its tree just yet.
The flight of sponsors from Armstrong in just two days was to watch the inverse of the Titanic. Rather than people jumping off a ship, this was nearly a dozen ships jumping off a person. How many dollars left the bike industry that day? Think of what you could have funded with that! (I mean, aside from the world’s best doping program.) And the LA Times has weighed in now with an editorial—rather than the skewed perspective of Michael Hiltzik (and while he makes some good points, he can’t change the obvious)—that calls for Armstrong to cut all ties to his eponymous foundation, which is a severing of ties so monumental it’s a bit like suggesting all the disgraced banks abandon their office buildings on Wall St. One is synonymous with the other. Gads, he could be forced to fly coach after this.
Finally, we finally have for all to see a true one-to-one correlation between doping and sponsor departure. For years to come Google searches of “Lance Armstrong” and “sponsor” will turn up item upon item about the sponsor diaspora from the one-time marketing goldmine that was Big Tex. If anything will ever demonstrate to cycling just how seriously sponsors dislike doping, no moment is more teachable.
It’s been curious to sit back and watch the incredible flood of negative stories that are now surfacing about Armstrong. The way these stories—take this one for instance—were kept under wraps for so long and yet now are bubbling out like an over-soaped load of laundry is as wondrous as the comeback was itself. Who knew?
It’s into this maelstrom of seething, mama-grizzly rage that Skins chairman Jaimie Fuller issued his open letter to UCI president Pat McQuaid. Incredibly, going to the compression wear maker’s home page brings up Fuller’s introduction to the letter, complete with his picture, which is a fine way to really personalize the message; honestly, it’s a better touch than a signature. It’s a genius move—seriously—someone should have done before now.
Of course the week’s events can’t be as cut-and-dried as that. No, they have to be salted. Rabobank, cycling’s single most loyal sponsor, announced they are ending their sponsorship of their team following a 17-year run. Their official statement cited the USADA investigation into Armstrong and US Postal as their reason for pulling out of the sport, but of course, nothing is ever as simple as it looks. Rather than damn the athlete and his team, Rabobank official aimed a scathing attack at the UCI, writing, “The report shows that the international cycling world is flawed. Doping is supported even within the highest institutions of the cycling world.”
The UCI’s response was so off the mark that crews are working to pull its fuselage out of Lake Geneva. Rather than accept the criticism that most of the cycling world believes the organization to be corrupt they “accepted” that the sponsor was pulling out due to the organization opening disciplinary proceedings against one of its sponsored riders, Carlos Barredo, going as far as to cite, “a more recent action taken by the UCI against a rider of the team, the UCI understands the context which has led to this decision being reached.”
The UCI is the idiot husband whose wife announces she is leaving because he won’t stop cheating, to which he replies, ‘Oh, so you’re upset that I told you your haircut is ugly?’
Previously, I thought if there’s perhaps one constituency that McQuaid might respect and listen to it’s the heads of sponsoring companies. Because the UCI has yet to listen to the riders, the team directors or the fans, it was either natural or naive to think maybe they’ll listen to sponsors. Now we know. Fuller’s grenade over the transom is a great move, a parental, “Get your room cleaned up or there will be no more allowance.” But based on their response to Rabobank I think what the UCI really needs is that ACME catapult, something to knock some sense into them.