Just once recently I reached out and touched the third rail of cycling discourse with a post about a rider whose name I shall not mention here. The results ought to have been predictable enough, a chain of comments, some supportive, many critical, some baldly dismissive, that let me know that I had missed my mark. I have tried over the last year to leave certain topics for smarter, better-informed, less sensitive souls, but sometimes I become too enamored with my own ideas and keyboard blast something out into the universe better left rattling around the echo-y outer ramparts of my brain.
The great benefit of making mistakes, of course, is in the lessons imparted. Pain motivates change, as my old counselor often told me. And so the past weeks have been good as I have refocused on the good things in my cycling life, minding my own business, turning over the pedals, tuning up the machine, planning the next project, riding thoughtfully and using the sport to connect with the like-minded.
RKP is an important part of that equation. Here I try to write about my personal experiences in a way that readers can identify with, to share something even if we’ve not met, not ridden together. To me, RKP is another saddle to sit in, a coffee shop, church basement or veterans hall, a humble place to gather with those trying to live the same, better life. I come here for connection not conflict.
Is there a point to conflict? I ask that sincerely, not sarcastically. Does conflict enrich our lives? Is there some process whereby it draws us together, a joining by fire, or is that only true if we take the time to resolve our conflicts in some meaningful way?
I have very (self)consciously here mentioned church basements and veteran’s halls. Though I count myself an atheist, I retain a belief that the quality of my life is directly proportional to the strength of my spiritual connection to the world around me. In this context, spiritual just means unseen, the bonds between friends, the connection we feel to our physical and natural surroundings. Where I forge those connections can vary, but their strength and quality is usually the arbiter of my happiness.
I try to avoid conflict without being a doormat, to accept the things I can not change, as the saying goes, and to forgive as readily as I can, not because this behavior comes easily, but because it seems to produce the best results. Rather than argue, rather than swear and threaten and complicate, it is usually better just to ride away, to choose a different route next time.
For some, these might be trying times in the cycling world, far away events stirring emotions, emotions coming out every which way. It is always tempting to express my opinion, to make a particularly pointy point, but invariably I only exacerbate a conflict that isn’t mine to begin with. I don’t have to do that. I can change.
It is useful to remind myself that, both through riding my bike and writing about it, I am trying to connect with my world. Neither activity, much as I love it, has any real resonance without that connection. When I court conflict on the bike or at the keyboard, I am failing in my basic mission. I am missing the point.
I am not a religious person, but I retain a faith that, by doing these simple things, I can move forward, pedal over pedal, inch-by-inch into each day, in the saddle, at the coffee shop, in a church basement or in a veteran’s hall. And that is what I mean to do.
Image: Matt O’Keefe
Zipp is launching a bevy of new products and assembled a few of us journalist types in Tucson, Arizona, for some riding and in-depth presentations about these new products. The weather hasn’t been quite as cooperative as expected; so far I’ve managed only one ride, though we’re hoping today our ride won’t be canceled by falling snow.
You may have heard recently that Zipp has introduced two new wheels sets, the 30 and the 60. In broad strokes, these wheels are (compared to other Zipp wheel sets) more budget oriented and specifically made for day-in, day-out use. They both feature aluminum rims with a parallel brake track (not the canted brake track that is such a signature part of other Zipp wheels) for predictable braking under the harshest of circumstances.
All those of you who have wanted Zipp aerodynamics with aluminum reliability and a less painful bite to your wallet, you may now rejoice.
The 30 wheels take a low-profile rim approach. The “30″ refers to the rim depth of the wheels—30mm, which puts it on a par with the 202 and 101. The 60 is the more distinctly aero wheel and features a roughly 60mm rim (58mm, actually), which puts it on a par with the 404, in terms of depth. They use the same hubs featuring preload-free stainless steel bearings compatible with both 10- and 11-speed drivetrains from SRAM, Shimano and Campagnolo. Both sets use an 18-spoke front wheel and a 20-spoke rear wheel. The spokes are Sapim CX-Ray stainless spokes with Sapim’s new locking nipples for the most maintenance-free build possible.
Both rims feature a hybrid toroidal rim shape and the aforementioned parallel brake track. The rim design nicely characterizes the overall design of the wheels themselves. The canted brake track found in Zipp’s Firecrest wheels is faster, period. But it’s harder to manufacture and requires much more stringent tolerances for vertical truing so that you don’t have braking issues if the wheel comes out of true. The 30 rim is an all-aluminum rim, while the 60 rim is very much like the old 404 clincher using an aluminum brake track with carbon fiber fairing. However, Zipp’s David Ripley cautioned the journalists present not to think of the 60 as an old 404 clincher redux. Zipp engineers beefed up the aluminum and carbon fiber to prevent the occasional rim failures they saw at the spoke holes. Ripley stressed repeatedly that they wanted these wheels to be absolutely bomb-proof wheels suitable for daily use. [CORRECTION: Zipp informed us that the 60 rim employs a structural carbon rim with an aluminum hoop (the brake track) co-molded. This is a significantly stronger and more durable design than had the carbon just been a fairing.]
Both wheels take a page or two from current Zipp designs. The 30 features a 21.5mm max rim width while the 60 features a max rim width of 22.5mm to give tires a wider footprint, better traction and lower rolling resistance, not to mention increased rider comfort.
The wheel weights we were presented weighed 1655 grams for the 30s and 1780g for the 60s, so they aren’t especially light wheels. What really sets these wheels apart from other wheels in this price category are their aerodynamics. The 30s are a bit slower than Zipp’s Firecrest 202s and 101s, but not hugely so. The 60s, while not as fast as either Zipp’s Firecrest 404s or Firecrest 303s, are notably faster than many competing wheels. Drag numbers for the 30 put it easily ahead of the Mavic Ksyrium E5 and even faster than the Easton EC90 Aero 56.
A set of wheels includes quick releases, tubes and rim strips (brake shoes aren’t necessary thanks to the machined aluminum brake track).
I’ve had a single ride on a set of the 30s and experienced a quick, trouble-free ride, which is what you’d expect—at least the trouble-free part—for the first miles logged on a set of wheels, but it occurs to me that at $850 for the 30s and $1500 for the 60s, these wheels really change what people can expect for aerodynamic performance from a set of wheels at a significantly lower price point. With the 30s especially, this should be the beginning of the end for the box rim.
Zipp has also added a 650c version of their popular Firecrest 404 Carbon Clincher. Compared to a 66mm-deep V-shaped 650c rim, Zipp’s testing indicates the new 650c 404 will shave 127 gram of drag off of the V-rim’s 194g, for only 67g of drag. It’s a pretty staggering reduction in drag. We’re told the wheels weigh in at 1465g total, have a spoke count of 16 front, 20 rear, use Zipp’s proven 88/188 hubs and are compatible with 10- or 11-speed drivetrains from SRAM, Shimano and Campagnolo. Included with the wheels are quick releases, tubes, rim strips, valve extenders, wrenches and brake shoes. Suggested retail is $2725.
For those of you who do time trials or triathlon, Zipp has introduced a new integrated carbon fiber bar/stem combination called the Vuka Stealth. To give you some idea about the new bar and stem’s aerodynamics, the Vuka Stealth is said to have the same aerodynamics with its UCI-legal 3:1 aero profile as the 4:1 profile Vuka Aero with the SL145 stem. Cable routing in carbon aero base bars dispenses headaches like Coke machines do soda, but the Vuka Stealth has a surprisingly simple routing aided by specific layup, called Rapid Routing, and multiple exit holes allow the bars to be set up specifically for the different cable entry of bikes from companies like Trek and Specialized. It comes in three lengths with a two-position insert to allow a +/- 10mm fore/aft adjustment. And because it’s a Zipp product, it has nearly 2000 possible fit combinations. The hardware is made from aluminum and titanium and the clamp diameter is an industry-standard 22.2mm to accept extensions from nearly any manufacturer. Suggested retail is $1070.
Finally, Quarq has introduced two new cranks, the Riken and Elsa. Like previous Quarq cranks, these are accurate to +/- 1.5 percent. Riken brings Quarq power measurement to a new price point: $1595. Elsa weighs in at just 735g and adds two crank lengths: 165mm and 162.5mm; it goes for $1995. Both are available in BB30 options for an extra $50.
Of all the pieces in a cyclist’s wardrobe, the item that is most often overlooked, the piece that is most likely to be underestimated for its value, is the base layer. Done well, a base layer can make hot days feel like spring and wintry days as pleasant as sitting on your couch. I’ve recently been wearing two base layers—one with long sleeves and one that is sleeveless—from Gore that feature Windstopper barriers.
I’ve tried a fair number of wind-blocking base layers over the years and they have been uniform in their effectiveness. But they’ve all had one serious liability: Once you get good and sweaty, they cling to you and feel rather clammy. It’s not exactly an endearing quality.
I need to back up a second. Ideally, when dressing for cold temperatures, it’s most helpful to have any wind block layer laminated into the outer-most garment so that warm air can be held in the loft of the inner layers. That is without doubt the best way to layer for riding in cool weather. So, that said, why even bother with a base layer that puts the wind block mere millimeters from your skin? Well, I’ve learned over the years that these things can be handy for rides where you really don’t need that outer layer, but every now and then a descent or an open farm field the wind howls across can make a long-sleeve jersey and traditional base layer not quite enough. I’ve done races where I didn’t want to wear a jacket or vest, but needed an extra little something for that first hour. Bingo.
And then there’s the simple fact that I’ve been sent some really attractive long-sleeve jerseys by Rapha and Road Holland, and I’d rather show them off than some jacket that’s going to make me too warm. Most wind-blocking base layers will add another three to five degrees in range to your traditional LS jersey with base layer.
Now here’s where the long-sleeve Gore Windstopper base layer is different from every other wind-block base layer, such as Castelli’s: The Gore adds a thin layer of polyester between you and the Windstopper. At low heart rates, low enough that you don’t sweat much, wind-blocking base layers are perfectly comfortable. The trouble is once you go hard and start sweating, they cling to you like Saran wrap. It’s kinda gross, if you’ve got the presence of mind to think about it. Usually I found that I was just uncomfortable, but I’d experience a full-body yuck as I pulled it off later. To combat this, I’d often add yet another ultra-thin base layer, at which point you start wondering if maybe the vest wasn’t a better idea, but for years my team vests were pocketless and the thought of fishing under the vest to get to food kept me using wind-block base layers in those early spring races.
By adding that thin layer of polyester to the Windstopper, Gore’s base layer feels like every other base layer I own, but when I get sweaty, it doesn’t cling to me. The Windstopper layer is added to both the arms and the chest, but just the half that faces the wind, so overall it remains an incredibly breathable base layer. While I’ve got other long sleeve base layers, since first using this, I have to admit I have yet to use one of the others. The single biggest factor tipping matters in its favor is that I can go downhill without suddenly being chilled to the bone.
Gore offers the base layer in short-sleeve and sleeveless versions. While I haven’t tried the short-sleeve version, it seems to make a bit more sense to me because if conditions are cold enough to warrant the Windstopper layer, then I’m going to be wearing arm warmers with that short-sleeve jersey and I’m going to want coverage for the tops of my arms, that little bit left bare between the end of the base layer and the start of the arm warmer. That said, I have used the sleeveless version and have found it great for those days where a short-sleeve jersey, arm warmers and a traditional base layer just isn’t quite enough.
As base layers go, these things aren’t cheap. The long sleeve has a suggested retail of $79.99, while the sleeveless variety is only $59.99. That said, the wonder of Google can deliver one of these devices to your doorstep at a pretty healthy discount. Unfortunately, the depth of the discount available online makes this a product that isn’t terribly beneficial for bike shops to carry—who can compete with those prices. And ultimately, that is the conundrum that Gore faces. They really aren’t that well known for their cycling apparel and unless bike shops really get behind them and stock their stuff, that isn’t likely to change.
Still, the advantage may be theirs; I can’t think of a cyclist who couldn’t benefit from owning one these.
I need a favor. As I type, the leading edge of a winter storm that local meteorologists are calling “significant,” “historic,” “potentially dangerous,” “severe,” and the subtle but chastening “non-trivial,” is showering us with small, angry flakes. Predictions for final accumulations are being made in feet, rather than inches.
So I’m off the bike today.
Instead of converting glycogen to watts, I’ll be converting wood to smoke. Any exercise I get today and probably tomorrow will best be measured in shovel/inches, a unit that captures the density and weight of the snow rather poorly, but does give some representation of gross work done. The small, plug-in snow blower I went halfsies on with my neighbor a few months back must surely be cowering back in the corner of his garage, worrying about its worthiness to do battle with a blizzard.
But enough about me, and on to you.
You are riding today. It may be winter, but you are a hearty soul. Or, you live in a place where this storm is only an obscure news story. Perhaps it’s even summer where you are. Hello, Southern Hemisphere! You’re in the thick of it. You’re living the dream.
Today’s Group Ride just wants to hear about your ride. Is it warm? Is it dry? How far are you going? Who are you riding with? Are you fit? Are you psyched? Or are you just spinning out the minutes on the trainer, cursing the winter weather warnings and trying to build some base? Give me something to think about while I shovel and curse and then dry my feet by the fire.
In refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks unwittingly ignited a revolution in how the United States treated African Americans. It was a pretty simple act of defiance as things go, but by staying seated, Parks ripped the scab off long-simmering tensions between blacks and whites in the U.S.
In the decade that followed President Lyndon Johnson signed into law what was arguably the most radical and sweeping civil rights legislation since the Nineteenth Amendment—which gave women the right to vote—was ratified in 1920. African Americans were given the right to vote, protected from discrimination based on their skin color or national heritage and protected from discrimination in housing. What gave the civil rights movement its power was a societal epiphany, a collective dawning of consciousness about the inherent wrong of discriminating against anyone for their skin color. For reasons that we may never fully understand, sufficient numbers of Americans made their voice heard, a voice that said in effect, ‘This doesn’t work; we’re not going to accept this anymore.’
Of course, the road to equal rights wasn’t smooth or easy. There were murders, boycotts, riots, more murders and deployments of the National Guard to keep the status quo when the cops couldn’t or wouldn’t do it themselves.
I offer that as a backdrop to the recurring themes of today’s news. A majority of the American people have concluded they’re okay with gay marriage. What they’re not okay with anymore are priests and school teachers sexually abusing minors. They’re not okay with the Boy Scouts discriminating against gays. And they don’t seem to be okay assault weapons on the streets. The public not only wants change, they see it as necessary.
In our collective rejection of this old status quo I see a parallel to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. We aren’t willing to turn a blind eye to these crimes. My sense is that we’re approaching another societal epiphany, a large-scale sea change, one that will define us as a society that rejects discrimination of any form. Naturally, I hope that this movement isn’t marked by the violence that threatened to overshadow all the progress we were making.
So what’s this got to do with cycling? That’s easy: I see cycling confronting the same issues. I now think Travis Tygart’s pursuit of Armstrong affair is the precipitating event to wake cycling fans from their complacency about the problem of doping, much the way Parks’ defiance was the precipitating event in sparking the civil rights movement. I’ll admit, it took me a long time to see the case in this light, but there can be no doubt that the public at large is now aware of just how deeply ingrained doping has been in the sport.
Most of the cycling public ignored nearly all of the accusations against Armstrong and instead chose to believe the fairytale until the release of USADA’s Reasoned Decision. Through that I hear echoes of white America’s tacit approval of segregation. Pat McQuaid and Hein Verbruggen are little different from the Southern politicians and police chiefs who resisted the new laws, insisting they weren’t going to change how things had been done for generations. Indeed, considering how McQuaid and Verbruggen denounced both Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton once they decided to unburden their consciences by confessing the details of their doping, they are no better than Bull Connor, the Birmingham public safety commissioner who directed the fire and police departments to turn fire hoses and attack dogs on peaceful demonstrators during the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s demonstration in the spring of 1963. Connor, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, became the public face of Southern bigotry, the quintessential example of the old guard that was standing in the way of the equality we all now take for granted.
If it seems like a stretch to compare segregation with doping, consider that there was a time when seemingly reasonable people saw nothing wrong with separate facilities for blacks and whites—it was the law of the land thanks to the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson. Similarly, there was a time when taking performance-enhancing drugs just to get through a bike race wasn’t the least bit scandalous. Times change.
Could it be that the new generation of riders are analogous to what my generation was to the acceptance of African Americans as equals in school and on the playground? I think so. In their outspoken denunciation of doping, Taylor Phinney, Tejay Van Garderen and Mark Cavendish are a lot like the whites who linked arms with blacks and staged protests in the South. It may also be that riders like Levi Leipheimer and Thomas Dekker aren’t terribly different from Southerners who went with the flow until they recognized the tide had turned.
In shutting down the investigation by their independent commission, McQuaid and the UCI have proven to all but those with the most reptilian of brains that learning the full scope of doping in the sport has never been their primary interest. They lack the vision, the institutional spine and sufficient love for the sport to show real courage by allowing the commission to do the job they were charged with. After being booed by the crowd assembled at the recent Cyclocross World Championships, it seems impossible that McQuaid could somehow be unclear on the will of the people, yet he persists with the obstinate bearing of a smoker who won’t give up his cigarettes even after learning he has lung cancer. In that regard we can draw yet another comparison, this time to Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus. It was Faubus who called out the National Guard to prevent nine black students from attending Little Rock Central High School. You can’t help but wonder what he was thinking as he tried to prevent school integration.
It would be obscene to suggest that the issues cycling faces are as serious as the fundamental issues of equality that the United States wrestled with 50 years ago. But because sport is aspirational, a place in which we invest our loftiest dreams, the drama unfolding as a result of doping has held many of us in a disproportionate crisis. Sport is supposed to be a realm free of the clutches of corruption.
Democracy has a way of pushing aside tyrants in favor of more reasonable forms of engaging the citizenry. History remembers Faubus and Connor as villains who stood in the way of equality for all Americans, men who clung to outdated ideas and refused to change with the times. McQuaid and Verbruggen have denied any wrongdoing during their tenures, instead pointing crooked fingers at the riders, the teams and even the fans. They are our Faubus and Connor. History will show them no quarter.
So what might we expect from the future? It’s not unreasonable to conclude the UCI will be freed of the misguided leadership of McQuaid and Verbruggen following their next election. Of course, that is no more likely to put an end to doping than the civil rights movement put an end to the Ku Klux Klan. The difference is that the Ku Klux Klan wasn’t a fringe organization in the first half of the 20th Century, while today it is far outside of the mainstream of social thought. Likewise, drug use was a once widespread practice, but the day is coming when athletes will see doping for what it really is—
the most basic of lies.
Your bike is always ready. Even in states of disrepair and wanton filthiness, last night’s off-road tryst still clinging dirtily to down tube and chain stay, your bike is prepared to do its level best for you. Hung neatly in the garage or stowed carefully by the door, slung carelessly against a pile of similar machines or in pride of place in the front entry-way or even the living room, your bike is not thinking of not being ready.
While you are assessing the suitability of the weather, checking the hourly forecast, considering the wind, your bike stands stoically by, ever-willing. You pick a base-layer, discard it for another, assemble a pile to be donned at dawn, arm warmers, shoe covers, your phone in a baggy and your heart in your throat, all in anticipation of an effort your bike will make unstintingly, autonomically, like a knee jerking under a hammer blow. Your bike will never use the word ‘epic,’ doesn’t feel cold, doesn’t feel hot, doesn’t dehydrate or bonk or worry about either.
Later, as you work it over with cloth and degreaser, with wrench and lube, it does not care. It bears spraying at the garden hose with its dignity intact. You are not taking care of your bike. You are taking care of yourself. Don’t be deluded. Your bike isn’t thinking about being cleaned and tuned. It is not considering itself as an instrument of joy or torture.
Pull up and preen. Stand gaudily at the meet-up, ass on top tube, making small talk. Your bike is immune to the temptations of vanity. Its shininess or ornateness or elegant simplicity are not a thing that it considers. It feels neither humble nor proud. The worst seeming bike, rusty at bottom bracket and drop out, is fully prepared to go toe-to-toe with whatever carbon monstrosity it encounters. It never feels not-aero enough.
Your bike isn’t thinking about losing or winning. It doesn’t care that you shot off the front or out the back. It cares not one whit for its place in any order. It travels good roads and bad without comment or complaint.
Your bike is not thinking. It is only doing, mainly because it is unconscious. In this way it is even freer than we are when we pedal it away into our daily adventures. It is built with the truth that doing is almost always better than thinking. We would all do well to be so ready, so unburdened by doubt, so insusceptible to shame or pride or the urge to do more or less than is asked of us. Your bike isn’t thinking any of the thoughts that keep it from going. Why would you?
Image: Matt O’Keefe
Is it completely gauche, in the midst of the Cross Worlds, the Lancepocalypse and all manner of other deeply important events, to pause for the half minute it takes to point you toward some of the wares in the RKP store? Our overhead here in this corner of the cycling omniverse is low but persistent, and the warehouse is full to bursting with products of unparalleled quality and soul-nurturing goodness.
Our Cream of Courage embrocation is just the thing to slather over freshly-shaved legs. It’ll make you the best smelling rider in the paceline. Pete Smith at Mad Alchemy mixed this stuff up just for us, so it’s got a pedigree to go along with its complex herbal bouquet. Think of it as the perfect addition to your pre-ride routine, or an acceptable cologne substitute for last minute cycling dates.
And as long as you’re dressing to impress, why not kit up in the latest RKP bibs and jersey? Nothing says ‘wo/man about town’ quite like a sharp kit, and you’d be hard pressed to find one sharper than this. Designed by Joe Yule of StageOne Sports and made by Panache, we guarantee you’ll be 20% more impressively attractive while wearing it (if not any faster). We have all sizes still in stock, including yours.
And for off the bike, how about an RKP ball cap? I have always been uncomfortable with companies who call their ball cap a “podium cap.” It makes me feel unworthy. This cap is just a cap. You can wear it on podiums, if you’re one of those people who wins things, but you can also wear it to the grocery store if your hair’s a mess, like mine is, every day.
I hope you will understand that these sort of shameless appeals to your base consumerist instincts are not the reason we set up our stall here on the internet. But the staff accountant, comptroller and operations team have all recommended we sell more stuff, if only so we can continue to pay their handsome and well-justified salaries. This, it seems, is how the world goes round.
And thank you for your support.
One of the more noticeable differences between the Tarmac SL4 and its predecessor is its internal cable routing. The change in frame design to allow for internal routing isn’t peculiar to Specialized. Many manufacturers are offering frame designs with internal routing options. This has been driven to a great degree by electronic shifting systems, Shimano’s Di2 and Ui2 in particular. Some bikes offer an option for either internal or external routing, depending on whether you plan to use electronic or mechanical shifting systems; some still require mechanical systems to be routed externally. Not so with the Tarmac SL4. All cables get routed internally, whether the bike is spec’d with a mechanical or electronic shifting system.
Internally routed cables clean up the look of the bike, there’s no doubt. That said, I need to make a small declaration: Internally routed cables may look nice, but the bike suffers in almost every other way if you’re using mechanical shifting.
The first issue is assembly. Now, this doesn’t affect you as a consumer right off the bat, but it affects the shop you do business with because it can double the amount of time required to build a new bike. That slows down the productivity of the wrenches, thereby driving up the owner’s cost to build the bikes, and that’s a cost he has to figure into his bottom line. Where it affects you is any time you take the bike in for any service that requires replacing a cable. I’ve built a lot of bikes over the years and while I’m not as quick as I used to be, I can do a very thorough build on an ordinary road bike from the box in two hours. My initial build of the S-Works Tarmac SL4 took me six freaking hours. Now I’ll admit, had I been able to attend a tech presentation that went over the assembly procedure on the bike beforehand, I suspect that could have shaved as much as two hours off the assembly. I could have watched Avatar during the time I wasted just trying to figure out where each of the ferrules and cable guides went.
Even once I knew how everything fit together, when I swapped out the parts for SRAM’s new Red group, the tear-down took more than an hour and the assembly of the new parts took three full hours. Working on this bike will never, ever be speedy and you’re going to pay for it by being charged more in labor. And in the event you’re not, you ought to be concerned about your retailer taking a hit on his bottom line by not making enough on the labor. I know everyone wants a deal on parts and labor, but your local shop needs to make a profit so they can keep being your local shop. End of sermon.
The other problem that internal routing causes is a degradation in shift quality. I haven’t noticed a problem with rear braking, but I did notice that the Dura-Ace 7900 I first built the Tarmac SL4 with didn’t shift as well as it did on the Tarmac SL3, which had externally routed cables. Given that the group was fresher than sushi, there shouldn’t have been anything wrong with the shifting that wasn’t already an inherent problem in the group—which mostly boils down to high shift force. I consistently had a problem with either the rear shifting hesitating on downshifts, but if I increased cable tension, it would hesitate on upshifts. The sweet-spot in shifting proved to be nearly as elusive as the Snuffleupagus. I did manage to get the shifting to work with 7900, but it took a great deal of fiddling. With SRAM Red the dial-in of the shifting was a good deal simpler.
I’d like to go back to the seemingly incompatible goals of torsional stiffness combined with vertical compliance. If you’ve ever seen a modern helicopter on the ground with the engines off, then you’ve probably noticed how the rotor blades sag while at rest. Those rotor blades are made from carbon fiber and they are stiffer than a murder one sentence in rotation, but vertically they aren’t made for stiffness; they achieve their proper straight attitude thanks to centrifugal force.
Now, no bicycle frame is ever going to flex visibly under its own weight, but carbon fiber layup technology has come a long way since the original Kestrel 4000. Today, there’s software available that allows engineers to simulate particular layup schedules. They can specify the dimensions of the structure, the size and shape of each sheet and the orientation of the fibers. Following a set of calculations that make differential calculus look like long division the workstation yields feedback on how stiff that structure will be under a given load. The upshot is that we’re now seeing frames that are hundreds of percent more flexible vertically than they are torsionally.
I think it’s with observing that what carbon fiber allows a manufacturer to do is control the entire fabrication process from the shape of each tube to the material used as well as where it’s placed. As much as I love steel frame building, there’s not a builder out there who has as much control over their fabrication. After all, they aren’t creating their own tubing, specifying the tube shapes before they are drawn and then also dictating the butt lengths. Previous history has shown that the stiffer a steel frame is in torsion, the stiffer it will be vertically. The only steel frame I ever rode that is as stiff as today’s carbon fiber beauties was an Eddy Merckx made with Columbus’ stouter-than-a-Cuban-cigar Max tube set. I’ve ridden only a handful of bikes that bucked more on a bump than that bike; most memorable among them was Cervelo’s SLC-SL.
There’s a huge mitigating factor to this phenomenon: frame weight. While there was a time when a lighter frame deserved to be an end in itself because shaving more than a pound off a frame’s weight was a pound you could lose forever, shaving an additional 100 grams off a frame’s weight won’t give a rider much in terms of better acceleration or speedier climbing, but if you can starve an additional 100g off a frame, especially if you can do it without sacrificing torsional stiffness, the result is a bike with a livelier ride.
I’ve long held both fascination and admiration for the work that goes into laying up a carbon fiber frame. Never have I been more impressed than when I was laying on the ground in Tuna Canyon and my buddy unclipped my shoes from the pedals and picked up an intact bicycle. It became the only topic of conversation that could distract everyone from just how messed up my face was. It’s remarkable to me that I could render the frame useless with one firm swing of a hammer and yet it came through a 30 mph impact ready to ride. Holy Indian cow. My regard only increased when the recall was recently issued for the Tarmac SL4′s fork. Here’s a link to information about the recall.
For the most part, the geometry remains unchanged from the inception of the Tarmac straight through to the Tarmac SL4. The head tube angle, seat tube angle, fork rake, BB drop and wheelbase remain exactly the same between the various iterations. If yo’ve previously ridden a Tarmac and liked it, you’ll like this bike. I went into the geometry of the six sizes in some depth in my review of the SL3. You can check that out here.
The only difference between the SL3 and the SL4 is in the head tube length on the four largest sizes. The two smallest sizes (the 49 and the 52) remain unchanged. In the other sizes, the head tube has been shortened; I’m told this was to respond to requests by pros so they could position the bar lower. On the 54, the head tube has been shortened by 5mm, from 145mm to 140mm. On the 56, it’s been cut from 170 to 160. The 58 was chopped from 205 to 190, while the 61 got a haircut from 230 to 210. I’m of the opinion that head tubes are too short in general and that most riders, when properly sized will never wind up with a no-spacer fit. I’m also of the opinion that the majority of all pros are on bikes with ridiculous fits—no spacers, minus-17-degree stem that’s a centimeter (if not two) too long. What’s most surprising about this is that Specialized has taken a very proactive role in making sure the riders of the teams they sponsor are on bikes that fit them, thanks in no small degree to having one of the best fitters on the planet—Scott Holz—on staff. So it’s a bit surprising to me that their bikes would still have such short head tubes.
As I mentioned in a comment in response to Part I of the review, I went through a fitting recently, one that was exceedingly thorough and pinpointed some issues I’ve been wrestling with, but hadn’t been able to properly diagnose. And I write that with the acknowledgement that I’ve been through five or six fittings in the last eight years. The upshot is the realization that aging has resulted in more spinal compression than I had previously understood. I stand 5′ 11″ these days but still possess a 6-foot wingspan. Compounding matters is that I have a 34 1/2-inch inseam. While I want to have a chance to do a fitting with a 56cm Tarmac before I commit to it, on paper it looks like it’s time for me to drop down a size.
Ride Quality and Handling
What separates the Tarmac from many other bikes on the market is its combination of crisp handling, high stiffness, low weight and sensitive road feel. you can find bikes that are as stiff, but most are heavier and don’t have the road feel. There are bikes that beat it on weight, but most of those aren’t as stiff and as a result don’t offer the precise handling. Broadly speaking, I consider the sub-kilo frames in a class apart from all of the frames weighing 1000g or more. They have a liveliness all their own. You can go on a date with anyone who seems attractive, but when you’ve got chemistry it makes all the difference. Most of those kilo-plus frames are as fun as dinner with someone on Lithium.
It’s been interesting to watch the geometry of other bikes follow suit on the aggressive trail numbers of the Tarmac (62mm for the 49cm frame, 57mm for the 52 and 54cm frames, 56mm for the 56 and 58cm frames, and 53mm for the 61cm frame). What we’ve come to appreciate is that the stiffer the frame the sharper the handling can be. The inverse is also true though: If a bike isn’t super-stiff, you need to relax the handling so that the bike isn’t twitchy to the point of being difficult to control. I can say that with every steel bike I ever rode that posted numbers this aggressive, I didn’t like how they handled but with carbon fiber, it’s a very different story. Let’s put it this way: Steel is to stiffness what slapstick is to comedy, while carbon fiber is to stiffness what satire is to comedy—subtler and more calculated; it rewards skill.
I can come up with a dozen solid, objective reasons why this is a great bike, why the sheer ubiquity of Specialized dealers pumping these things into the market is a good thing for cycling. That still doesn’t seem to be a good enough reason to consider purchasing one. What separates the Tarmac SL4 from some of the more rudimentary expression of carbon fiber bicycles is the difference between an Arabian horse and the plastic variety you find on a carousel. Is this the greatest carbon fiber bike going? Ahh, that’s like asking if Mozart is the greatest composer. He’s on everyone’s short list—and with good reason.
If you’ve read my stuff over the years, you might recall that, while at my old gig, one of my favorite times of year included the last two days of March. Alas, it wasn’t for anything that appeared on the racing calendar, though. It was largely because I had the privilege of setting aside my normal duties and concentrating on fake news.
Yup, over those couple of days we would all concentrate on coming up with the goofiest – but potentially believable – “news” story for an appearance on the homepage on April 1. Indeed, the tradition pre-dates the web and, in the old days, we would produce at least one page in the appropriate edition of VeloNews dedicated solely to our April Fools’ Day coverage.
We had our hits. We once printed a story about Eddy Merckx’s decision to mount a comeback. As I recall, Sports Illustrated actually believed the story and repeated it as news. (I mean, come on, SI. Who would be crazy enough to believe that a five-time Tour winner would be in such need of adulation that he would return to the sport after retirement?)
The big score for me, though, was in 2005 when, under the nom de plume, Philippe Farceur, I wrote about a major shake-up in the management of the UCI. Ridiculous as it sounded, a heated argument between former UCI president Hein Verbruggen and WADA president Dick Pound resulted in Pound agreeing to take over the top spot in cycling after Verbruggen told him that “he was a windbag and that he couldn’t do better if he was in my shoes.”
Yeah, yeah, pretty nutty, but some actually bought it, including the Boston Globe, whose sports columnist John Powers reprinted it as gospel (and without attribution) and then became indignant when we pointed out it was an April Fools’ Day story. (I’m still rather proud of that, especially since Powers’ column appeared on the same day his newsroom colleagues were getting a Pulitzer Prize.)
Well, maybe Powers was just ahead of his time. I, for one, think it’s now time for life to imitate farce.
Change requires … actual change
That cycling is facing a tough road these days is something of an understatement. Think about the response to the events of the past few months, not by you, your cycling buddies or die-hard cycling fans. Instead, think back to how your non-cycling friends have reacted.
If yours are anything like mine, the first response to your interest in the sport of professional cycling usually involves a question, or two, or three about that fella from Texas and all of that there doping stuff.
To paraphrase, “Austin, we have a (credibility) problem.”
This is serious, too. It’s a crisis that far transcends the problems we faced back in the day, when the Festina scandal threatened to “forever change the face of cycling.” Remember that the best response from that total cluster@#$% came from the International Olympic Committee itself, when it held the world’s first international conference on doping in sport and took the first critical steps toward the formation of the World Anti-Doping Agency. The Olympic movement embraced the idea that the interests of a sport and the enforcement of doping rules may be inherently in conflict and that they should – at least at some level – be separated.
Cycling’s response was a bit more tepid. Far from changing the face of cycling, the guys in charge of the sport when it almost careened off a cliff, remained in charge of the sport. Topping that list, of course, was the aforementioned Hein Verbruggen and his heir apparent, then UCI vice president, Pat McQuaid. No new faces. Same old … uhhhh …. stuff.
Rather than embracing reform, cycling’s governing body did all that it could to fight it, delaying even its endorsement of the WADA Code until the last possible minute – the eve of the Athens Olympics in 2004.
I was at that first conference and I have to admit that I left more than a little skeptical of its outcome, particularly since they appointed a long-time IOC vice president, Dick Pound, to head the new anti-doping effort. I had serious doubts about an IOC insider being able to get past the inherent conflicts of interest that kept us from taking major steps toward serious reform.
I was quickly proven wrong when it came to Pound. Sure, there were problems with the new arrangement, due in no small part to the decision to leave national and international governing bodies in place as the first line of defense in the war on doping. But WADA effectively staked out its independence and Pound did his best to build a wall between the IOC, its international governing bodies and the new agency. In large part, he did so by speaking out publicly and offending more than his share of entrenched insiders, taking particular aim at cycling.
Cycling deserved to be singled out. It still does.
Pound was quoted in 2004 as saying that the public continued to know “that the riders in the Tour de France are doping.” I think we can all now agree that he was right. At the time, however, Pound was criticized by Verbruggen, McQuaid and one Lance Edward Armstrong, who characterized Pound’s comments as “careless and unacceptable.”
Remember when, in August of 2005 – not long after Armstrong’s “I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles” speech from the podium in Paris – L’Equipe revealed that an examination of pre-EPO-test samples from the ’99 Tour showed several turned up positive and that six of them belonged to Mr. Miracles.
In response, the UCI appointed Emile Vrijman, a Dutch attorney and FOH (Friend of Hein) to “investigate” the matter. Vrijman’s report was largely critical of WADA, Pound, L’Equipe and anyone else who raised the critical questions of what those samples may have represented.
Pound and WADA characterized the Vrijman’s work as “flawed” and “farcical,” a critique soon dismissed by the UCI and Verbruggen, who took umbrage at anyone who challenged the report and its conclusions.
Okay, now flash forward to the present. We now have a situation that again offers an opportunity to reform cycling.
As far as cycling is concerned, little has changed in the governance of the sport. Verbruggen is gone … well, sorta. McQuaid has stepped in as president. We have a new scandal and, much like the controversy surrounding those suspect ’99 samples, the UCI quickly took steps to address the situation (or as Mr. Armstrong quite correctly surmised in his recent CyclingNews interview, they took steps to “CYA”).
Recall that following the UCI’s acceptance of USADA’s reasoned decision and the accompanying penalty against Mr. Armstrong, McQuaid called for the creation of an independent commission to investigate a number of questions surrounding the sport. Topping the list of questions that needed to be addressed quickly was whether or not the UCI itself was somehow complicit in covering up doping allegations involving the sport’s biggest star.
McQuaid promised to cooperate, offering to supply the commission with documents essential to answering that big question. Well, McQuaid has apparently reconsidered. When the independent commission proved to be a little too independent, the UCI backed off.
McQuaid has now withdrawn the UCI’s support of the commission’s work, after refusing to live up to his promise of cooperation and without having submitted any documents of importance. This past week, the commission ceased operations and the UCI is now embracing the idea of a “Truth and Reconciliation” commission as an alternative.
Look, I’m not sure reconciliation is possible at this point, but I’d be willing to concede that it might be. I am quite certain, however, that the whole “truth” thing isn’t, at least as long as we have the same people in charge of the same things in this sport.
McQuaid needs to step back. Verbruggen just needs to go away. We need a new guy in charge of cycling and – despite it being a joke the first time I floated the idea – I think that guy is Dick Pound.
Aside from doping, Pound probably doesn’t know a helluva lot about cycling. His athletic career involved swimming, a sport in which he represented Canada at the 1960 Olympics. That doesn’t bother me one bit, either. We don’t need a cycling insider to take over this sport right now. What we need is someone who has no vested interest in cycling; someone who doesn’t shudder at the thought of what exposing closeted skeletons will do to friends and associates or whether the truth will be – and lordy I hate this line – “bad for cycling.”
Since the Armstrong debacle, Pound has gone as far to suggest that, if UCI muckity-mucks were in any way complicit in covering up doping, the governing body should be stripped of its Olympic charter. He’s right. The alternative is complete and comprehensive reform and I can’t think of anyone more qualified to oversee that reform than Dick Pound himself.
Love him or hate him, Pound’s tenure as president of WADA and his continued presence on that organization’s board, has proven that his is a take-no-prisoners approach. Pound, if anyone, has proven his independence. It’s something we need right now. If we can’t do an independent commission, let’s take a shot at independent leadership.
I can’t think of anyone better to shake things up for a year or two and then hand the sport back to the “experts.” Right now, at this critical moment, we don’t need a former racer or a former team director to change the face of cycling. What we need is an obnoxious, in-your-face, SOB, who isn’t afraid to step on toes or to make enemies. What we need is someone whose independence is proven. What we need is someone who can put this sport back on the road. We need to put Dick Pound in charge of that effort.
I was kidding the first time. This time I’m serious.
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.
At work, we are putting together our marketing plan for the year, and yesterday I sat for an hour with a guy who sells ads for one of the major cycling rags. When you buy advertising, either with a magazine or a website, typically you get a demographic breakdown of the audience they offer access to. Almost invariably the gender breakdown is something north of 90% male. The median age is almost always north of 40. Income is high. Graduate degrees are not at all uncommon.
I see these breakdowns enough that I shouldn’t be surprised by them, but I always am.
Our sport is male-dominated and wealth-driven. Despite a recent uptick in the profiles of some female pros, the industry, as a whole, is still trying to figure out how to attract more women and more young people. The classic “pink it and shrink it” approach to women’s bikes and apparel isn’t working. Whatever urban styling that’s been applied to lower price point bikes isn’t drawing in the youth.
I am told that the median price for a bike purchased last year by subscribers to the major magazines is somewhere between $3200 and $3900 dollars, and that close to 50% of readers will buy a new bike this year, despite having bought their most recent bike in the last three. (Please don’t quote these numbers as hard data. I am only summarizing the information I have received from many outlets to form a composite picture).
The point is that all us upper-middle class and wealthy men buy early and often and dominate the consumption side of the industry. It doesn’t not necessarily stand to reason that these numbers correlate directly to the participation of women and the less affluent, who may simply not read magazines and/or ride used bikes that don’t make it into anyone’s data, but given what I see out on the road, I don’t think they’re far off.
Regardless, this week’s Group Ride asks the question: How do we change our sport to be more inclusive? What are the prejudices built into both pro racing and bike building that turn off those outside the core demographic? Is change and growth even necessary? Given the recent retirement tirade by Nicole Cooke and the disturbing derth of stock bike options for smaller women, the answer seems obvious, but solutions to the problems range from similarly obvious to vanishingly obscure. Your ideas greatly appreciated.