Here we are again, Roubaix weekend. I can’t think about this race without hearing, in my head, the horrible rattling of the pack over those impossible “roads.” I can’t think about this race without imagining the jarring, the wishing for it to end, the ludicrous proposition of racing there, the relief of entering the velodrome.
Fabian Cancellara will win this race. He has to. It is impossible that he will not with the form he’s got, with the experience he has gathered, with his great rival, Tom Boonen, struck down. Something terrible will need to happen to the big Swiss to prevent him from sitting on a crappy plastic chair in Roubaix, a soigneur pawing at his face with a sponge glove, while the rest of the peloton limps into view.
But then, this is a race where terrible things happen. Cancellara has already crashed twice this week, once at Scheldeprijs, once on a simple recon ride. It is impossible to know his true condition, though the team has played down his injuries, calling them superficial.
I don’t know about superficial injuries. In my experience, the effects of a crash accrue over time. What seems like an innocuous spill in the moment feels like a hammer blow later, your body’s natural entropy accelerated and exacerbated as you ask it to do more and more work. Paris-Roubaix is work.
Nonetheless, with Cancellara in the race, all other horses must be dark. Sagan, Pozzato, Hushovd, Roelandts, Phinney. There. I’ve said their names. I could say more, but does any of them ring with the truth of Cancellara.
This week’s Group Ride asks, is it inevitable? Must Cancellara win? If not him, then who? Why won’t he win? What is the tactical play that overcomes his sheer strength?
Image: Vlaam – Wikimedia
UPDATE: With all the excitement (if we want to call it that) in my life of late, I haven’t been tending to the store quite as I should have. A few orders were backed up a couple of weeks; I’m sorry about that. I also meant to put the Roubaix shirt back into circulation before now. Well, it’s finally up and I’ll be filling orders today and tomorrow. If you’re nearby, there is still a chance I’ll get these to you before the race—Padraig
Paris-Roubaix is among the purest of pursuits. The cobbles cause it to instantly resonate with you, or not. There really isn’t much middle ground on this race. Either you love it or wonder, “WTF?”
The 29 stretches of pavé are each rated on a five-point scale. Not a single section receives a 1-point score. It is as if the French are suggesting that the pavé, by their very nature, are more difficult than any ordinary road.
It’s a truth no one needed to confirm for us.
And really, in this race, the road is nothing more than a pavé-delivery device. The attacks don’t go on the asphalt, they all go over the stone. If the entire race could be run over pavé, we, the fans, would be that much happier.
This shirt is intended for the former, rather than the latter. I went to Joe Yule and his recently launch apparel company Stage One Sports. Joe is responsible for the RKP logo, the kit as well as this T-shirt. Stage One will offer an a la carte collection as well as custom work for team designs coming soon to a peloton near you.
I wear a lot of T-shirts. This is the first time I’ve ever had someone design a shirt pimping my love for something. And really, when it comes down to it, as much as we love the riders who contest Paris-Roubaix, what makes the day memorable isn’t so much the racer as it is the pavé.
The pavé is the real star of Roubaix.
The shirt is a high-quality 100% cotton all-black Anvil T-shirt that should render invisible any grease stains you might pick up while working on your bike.
Order yours here.
Questions? Drop us a note.
BTW: We’d gotten complaints about the cost of shipping from a few readers. After talking with the post office, I learned of another way to do priority that brought the cost down. This should be a bit more palatable. Also, if you plan to order several items, let us know and we can bundle them in shipping and refund a bit of the cost to you.
There’s some scary shit in there. But it’s all part of the history and tradition of the race, whether you come in first or 40 minutes behind, like my first time. You get into the velodrome and go into the showers, and De Vlaeminck, Merckx, Hinault—all these legends have been in there before you, and you’re scrubbing mud out of your ears. It’s all part of the adventure.
In 1966, Paris–Roubaix became Chantilly–Roubaix, at least on the map. It moved out of Paris and off to the east to include cobbles that mayors hadn’t seen the need to resurface. And in 1968 it took in Jean Stablinski’s road through the Arenberg forest.
The Arenberg created a sensation. The British journalist, Jock Wadley, arrived in France to find newspapers predicting “only 30 at most will finish this race. Even fewer if it rains.” Another suggested riders would need a sprung saddle, padded bars and fat wired-on tires to finish in the first 10. One official said nobody would finish at all if it rained.
There were now 57 kilometers of cobbles. The 15 kilometers between Templeuve and Bachy had almost no tar at all.
Pascal Sergent wrote: “The press announced that the 1968 edition would be, without doubt, the most difficult and the most extraordinary in history and that the Queen of Classics would see a legendary winner in the style of cycling’s heroic period.”
It remained to see who it would be, for the order was changing. Where Rik van Steenbergen had had to succumb to Rik van Looy, now van Looy was also threatened. Eddy Merckx had won “his” world championship. Van Looy’s not inconsiderable pride was dented.
In 1965 Merckx had been in van Looy’s Solo-Superia team, sponsored by a margarine company and a bike maker. But he had committed the crime of threatening his boss and he moved to the French team, Peugeot. There he won Milan–San Remo for the first of seven times. But Peugeot was skinflint and its riders had to buy their own wheels and tires. It wasn’t hard to move to a new team supported by Faema, an Italian maker of coffee machines returning to the sport. And there, 1967, he became world champion.
Van Looy was grudging. When Merckx started 1968 badly, losing Milan–San Remo and abandoning Paris–Nice, he scoffed: “If Merckx is the boss, let him prove it.” The two were so wary of each other in the break in the GP E3 in Belgium that Jacques de Boever won instead. De Boever had never won a decent race in his life and never did again.
Before Paris–Roubaix, van Looy, now 35, said he was delighted by the tougher route. “It will make the legs of the young hurt,” he said pointedly.
Nerves in the peloton made the first break go at 17 kilometers. It had four minutes by Solesmes. There, riders seemed almost surprised to find cobbles. They got going just as the break began flagging. News of their weakening came back via the blackboard man and Merckx attacked, taking 13 others with him. The notable exception was van Looy.
At Coutiches, Merckx looked over his shoulder and counted. There were too many. He attacked. Only Ward Sels and Willy Bocklandt stayed with him. Of those, Sels was the greater worry. He was a sprinter of Rik van Looy’s level and sometimes his lead-out man. A little later things grew worse with the arrival of the mournful-looking Herman van Springel, whom any film director would cast perfectly as a pall-bearer. Van Springel didn’t have the same talent but Merckx was now fighting on two fronts.
Imagine, then, his relief when Sels punctured 26 kilometers from the finish. Merckx hunched his shoulders and spread his elbows in a style that was just becoming familiar and attacked. Van Springel had to sprint out of every corner to hold his back wheel. Merckx swooped past his rival at the finish by rising to the top of the banking at the finish and accelerating down and past him. He won, his right arm raised, by a wheel.
It was the beginning of the end for van Looy. Three punctures had done nothing to help his chances but the eclipse was starting. It’s not even sure what happened to him. Pascal Sergent says he was in a group sprinting for ninth place, eight minutes down. The result shows the sprint was for eighth, but that matters less than that van Looy’s name isn’t there at all. He rode just once more, in 1969, came 22nd and never rode it again.
And the Arenberg? An anticlimax. Merckx finished with barely a splash of mud on his white jersey.
There had never been a talent like Eddy Merckx’s. He is the only rider to have sent the sport into recession through his own success. Riders became disillusioned because they rarely raced for anything better than second place. Their salaries fell because sponsors saw little value in backing a team they knew would be beaten. And contract fees for village races tumbled because promoters had to pay so much for Merckx, whose simple presence guaranteed a crowd and advertisers, that there was less left for the rest. And this continued for season after season.
For him, Paris–Roubaix was just one classic among many. “I took a particular interest in my equipment,” he said, “especially if the forecast was for rain but, for me, it was a classic like the rest, with its own demands and a particular character.”
In 1970 he won Paris–Roubaix by more than five minutes. The rain fell, lightning was forecast over the northern plains, and riders fell and tore skin. Jean-Marie Leblanc, who went on to organize the Tour de France, broke his frame. Merckx left the Arenberg forest with six riders behind him. He punctured at Bouvignies, 56 kilometers from the finish, changed a wheel, re-caught the leaders and went straight back to the front. And, before long, off the front. He won by 5 minutes 20 seconds.
In second place that day—and fifth the year before—was a dark-haired, gypsy-looking man with long sideburns: Roger De Vlaeminck.
“In a country in love with Eddy Merckx to the point of servitude,” said the writer Olivier Dazat, “literally dead drunk on his repeated exploits, the showers of stones and thorns from the Gypsy constituted, along with the Mannequin Pis [the statue in Brussels of a small boy peeing], the last bastion of independence and humor, a refusal of uniformity in a conquered land.”
De Vlaeminck—it’s pronounced Roshay De Vlah-mink—won 16 classics and 22 stages of major Tours. He rode Paris–Roubaix 10 times and always finished, four times in first place. The only laurels he lacked were a world road championship and, because he was only a moderate climber, a big stage race.
He had a characteristic position. He crouched low across the top tube, his hands on the brake hoods, his elbows lower than his wrists. It provided bounce, springing against the shocks. When he got going seriously, he lowered his hands to the bends of his bars and pushed his body horizontal, a cyclo-cross man turned track pursuiter. He gave, said Olivier Dazat, “the impression of gliding, of being in a perpetual search for speed, like a skier perfecting his schluss.”
The weather in 1972 was apocalyptic. It drizzled throughout the race. Water lay between the cobbles and, more treacherously, on the irregular sides of the roads, hiding missing stones, displacing others under the weight of the cars and motorbikes that preceded the riders. There could be no worse setting for the Arenberg. The break entered it at full speed as usual, riders trying to get there first to avoid piling into fallen riders.
Their speed in the rain brought down a heap of riders, including Merckx. De Vlaeminck rode on and feinted an attack where the old mining road rejoins the tar. The others matched him and he sat up. It allowed Merckx to catch them.
There was a brief hope that a local would win when Alain Santy, a northerner, got clear with Willy van Malderghem, winner of the previous year’s Quatre Jours de Dunkerque. His moment lasted until 35 kilometers from the end, when his weakness showed. Van Malderghem pushed on alone with more than a minute and half in hand.
De Vlaeminck waited. The lead stayed unchanged. Then he set off and caught van Malderghem at Cysoing, dangerously close to the end. He pressed on and crossed the line, his left hand raised, a fraction less than two minutes ahead of André Dierickx and 2 minutes 13 seconds before Barry Hoban. Merckx was seventh at 2 minutes 39 seconds.
De Vlaeminck said: “When you’re really fit, you rarely get a flat tire because you’re more lucid. I had a puncture once, in 1970, and then never again in 10 years. The other secret is confidence. I often started with the idea that I was going to win. I missed my chance once or twice but no more than that. I knew how to get ready for Paris–Roubaix. I used to ride three days of 350 kilometers a day in the week before. I used to ride Gent–Wevelgem and then ride another 130 kilometers having just changed my jersey. One year I rode 430 kilometers in a day. I needed that, that sort of training, to start the race in a good frame of mind.”
He’d got it right. In 1974 he won by 57 seconds, ahead of Francesco Moser, who had crashed.
De Vlaeminck rode now for Brooklyn, a team sponsored by a chewing gum maker owned by brothers named Perfetti. The team—he rode there with his brother Erik and with Patrick Sercu—wore a garish jersey based on the American flag. The curious thing was that for all the American connections in the name and jersey, and the image of the Brooklyn bridge, the chewing gum sold in the USA only three decades after the team folded.
And why did it fold? Because a member of the Perfetti family was kidnapped and there was no money left for a team after paying the ransom.
By now, De Vlaeminck had started training in secret. His technique was straightforward if arduous: “I used to get up at 5am. When it was good weather I went out behind a Derny with my lights on. I used to meet Godefroot to go training and I’d already ridden 120 kilometers. I used to pretend that I was tired because I’d just got out of bed and try to persuade him we should have a shorter ride together. I don’t know if I took him in but I needed to bluff the others to raise my own morale.”
Godefroot trained with De Vlaeminck because the schisms in Belgium cycling meant he never spoke to Merckx. He said of De Vlaeminck: “In the evening he’d call me to ask me if we could go out later than we’d agreed. ‘It’s not worth doing too much,’ he used to say to me. The next day, he’d get up at six, train for two hours behind a Derny, and then he’d turn up at the rendezvous as though nothing had happened. That was Roger.”
In 1975, April 13 started dull with an occasional beam of sun. It had rained the previous days, though, and the race hit a bog of wet mud when it reached the first cobbles at Neuvilly. Chaos followed. Cars got stuck in the swamp at the side of the road and motorcyclists came sliding off. Riders who stayed upright picked their way through and the field shattered. By the time the cobbles ended there were just six in the lead. De Vlaeminck wasn’t there but he came up a little later with Merckx, and then at the approach to Valenciennes, they were joined by a group including Francesco Moser.
There were four by Roubaix, all Belgian. Merckx began the sprint on the back straight. De Vlaeminck looked beaten but struggled back. He passed Merckx just before the line and won with his pedals opposite Merckx’s front tire. He didn’t even have time to lift his arm.
“It’s nice to win,” he said, “especially when Merckx is beaten.”
André Dierickx was third and Marc Demeyer came fourth.
It was the following year that Demeyer both won and started promoting another brand of chewing gum, Stimorol, from Denmark. The success that caused such an exciting advertisement on Radio Mi Amigo wasn’t a surprise; in 1975 he had ridden alone in the lead for 50 kilometers. He was a gentle giant, Demeyer. He turned professional in 1972 with almost casual disregard, spreading his contract on the roof of a car just before a race. And, equally casually he then won the race, the Dwars door België.
Demeyer spent most of his short life as lead-out man for Freddy Maertens. He could win races for himself, as Paris–Roubaix proved in 1976, but he was self-effacing by nature and happy to ride as Maertens’ knecht, closing gaps and opening sprints.
There was no greater bitterness than between Maertens and his fans and the Eddy Merckx camp. They were opposites, Maertens the near-unbeatable sprinter and Merckx the rouleur.
Philippe Brunel of L’Équipe asked Merckx if it was true what journalists wrote, that there was an anti-Merckx brigade.
“And how!” he answered. “You’ve only got to remember the names of the riders there were at Flandria: Godefroot, the De Vlaeminck brothers, Dierickx, Leman, and then later on, Maertens. They all rode against me.”
De Vlaeminck’s response was: “It’s simple: we were all against him. Even my wife! During meals with the Flandria team, Merckx was all we spoke about, from morning to evening, to work out what we were going to do to beat him.”
That was the atmosphere when Paris–Roubaix set off for the 74th time, delayed by a protest which blocked the start. It got away only after the demonstrators had deflated all the tires on the car which Félix Lévitan, the co-organizer, had been expecting to drive. He considered the situation with a mixture of anger and puzzled offense. What had he done to upset the demonstrators, beyond giving them a piece of his mind?
The Belgian civil war between Merckx and Maertens reached an armistice when both fell off at Neuvilly. Maertens abandoned the race and Merckx finished sixth at 1 minute 36 seconds. Freed from his duty to Maertens, Demeyer had a free hand.
De Vlaeminck wanted the race, of course, and tried to split it by sending away two teammates. Johann Demuynck and Marcello Osler stayed away through the Arenberg cobbles but impressed few into chasing. Guy Sibille rode alone in the lead for 35 kilometers but that threatened nobody. Who on earth was this Sibille man, anyway? He’d come third in Milan–San Remo the previous year but he’d never won better than stages in regional tours. He did, in fact, win the 1976 French national championship, but that came after rather than before Paris–Roubaix. The others could ignore him, and they did—for three-quarters of an hour.
In the end, De Vlaeminck sorted things out for himself. There were still 30 kilometers to go. He went so decisively that Merckx couldn’t go with him, his legs and will hurt by having to change bikes five times and chase back to the leaders each time. Francesco Moser was there, though, and so were Godefroot and the lightly stammering Hennie Kuiper—and Marc Demeyer.
But De Vlaeminck was overconfident. He mastered Moser’s efforts to dislodge him and no longer had to worry about Godefroot, who had flatted a tire. He led on to the track, sure he had the best sprint. But he’d ridden too hard in the last 30 minutes and he’d gambled too much on the final dash for the line. Moser came past him and then Demeyer came by them both.
“They just sat on my wheel for the last 20 kilometers,” De Vlaeminck said miserably.
On January 20, 1982, Marc Demeyer went training for 100 kilometers in the morning, then went to collect new equipment from his team manager, Bert De Kimpe, boss of a team supported by Splendor, a bike company whose sponsorship went back to 1936.
That evening he was sitting at home, doing a crossword. He never finished it. He had a heart attack and died. He was 31. He is buried in the Outrijve churchyard at Alveringem, 40 kilometers east of Ypres in West Flanders.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
The Deuce is home.
It’s a piece of information that needs no introduction, requires no preface, begs no questions. It’s a bottom line, an endpoint, a conclusion. Is it all the resolution I’ve wanted? That’s a question I asked myself this morning as I looked out over Santa Monica Bay as I pedaled toward home. I was aware that I’m still not really ready for group rides, that I’m still not back to my old self. I’m done with suspense, with surprise, with anxiety, with all the factors that make stress stress.
Of course, nothing will release me more from the weight of the Deuce’s 37 days in the NICU than just having him here at home.
Two nights into this and it still hasn’t completely sunk in.
Frankly, after more than 30 days in the NICU, the suddenness with which he went from “improving” to “discharged” could teach jai alai players a thing or two about speed. The day after his doctor removed his chest tube he said to me that they would soon begin discussing when he could go home. In my mind, given how things had moved with all the hurried pace of rush-hour traffic on the freeway, reading between the lines suggested that he might be released the middle of this week. And that would be fine. With the danger seemingly past, patience was something I had by the liter.
The next real surprise was when we arrived at the hospital later that morning and the nurse tending him said to us in a conspiratorial tone, “The doctor might release him at the beginning of the week.”
Oh, well, wait, what? Come again?
My wife turned to me with the high-eyebrowed look of someone betraying a lack of preparation, I knew what she was feeling, what she’d say next. So when she said, “I’m not sure I even feel ready,” it wasn’t necessary.
After all the waiting, all the worry, all the tears, I was surprised that my reaction to his looming discharge was to wonder if I was prepared to care for him. Though he was already five weeks old, his condition had left me with the indelible perception that he was fragile, more fragile than his brother Philip was at two days, when he went home. With his two incisions sutured shut and his various picc lines and IVs removed he was a baby—no more, and certainly not less.
Just a day later the doctor approaches us for our daily consult and says, “I’m going to release the baby tomorrow.”
I’d like a large serving of ‘whoa’ with a side of ‘hang on a sec.’
There wasn’t much to discuss. We made arrangements to allow our son Philip to go with a friend to an Easter Egg hunt while we picked up the Deuce. There were forms to fill out, instructions to listen to, guidelines to impart, appointments to make. It felt a bit like buying a car from a car lot with only one car.
As we went through the paperwork the stoner parents of the 480g baby dropped by for 15 minutes or so. It was the first time I’d seen them in more than a week. I had the feeling we were seeing the first act in what would be a tragedy that would unfold over a lifetime. I hope I’m wrong. I’ll add that I don’t really mean to pass judgment on them, but I can’t fathom the choices they are making; maybe their disconnect is just a coping mechanism but my sense of a parent’s love looks at them and says, ‘No way.’ Even though the Deuce is fine, I doubt I’ll ever get over the feeling that I wasn’t at the hospital enough. I spend more time in Trader Joe’s than these two do at the hospital.
So Matthew was released on Easter Sunday. I’m not a practicing Catholic; it’s a fact that pains my parents, but the whys and implications are the stuff of another work. Whether or not you go to church says little, though, about the spiritual life you live. The symbolism of Matthew’s release on Easter wasn’t lost on me. It was unavoidable. Walking out of the hospital into the sun with him felt less like rebirth than birth itself. It was our first time to be outside with him and there was no denying that was a greater testament to his life than the previous 37 days. This was real life—no safety net. In that regard it struck me that the experience was not unlike what Easter represents, in that Jesus Christ’s rise from the dead was the miracle of his life, and it matters not if you’re speaking literally or metaphorically. And no, I’m not comparing my son to Jesus Christ.
Our son Philip is three and has shown all the interest in learning about Matthew that he shows in anything that isn’t a toy he can play with—very little. On one occasion I took a photo of a picture of him next to a picture of Matthew and then showed that to him. I thought the equivalence might help bring the lesson home for him and it did. For about 30 seconds. Next!
We arrived at the friends’ to pick him up and before climbing up into his seat, I opened the side door so he could peak in and get his first look at Matthew in person. His curiosity and regard for his little brother expressed a kind of love new to me. It was like learning about chocolate.
This stuff has been around all these years and I didn’t know?
We’re finally getting to know our son. Really getting to know him. Life in that isolette stripped him not just of his ability to move but the sounds he makes and his opportunity to connect with anyone by locking eyes.
Here are a few of the things we’ve learned about him: He’s a night-owl. Loves to be up from about 1:00 to 4:00 every night/morning. And he’s noisy. He’s got a veritable vocabulary of grunts, squeaks and gurgles. Then there’s his gaze. This kid is taking the world in. Shana and I have compared him to Stewie on “Family Guy.” We have this ever-present sense that he’s scheming and planning, that his opinions and desires outstrip his abilities much the way we kid our cats believe they could run the house if only they had opposable thumbs. The intensity with which he’ll look into my eyes is nearly unnerving. This is not something his brother was doing at this age.
But I like it. I think we’ve both been craving this connection.
At his first follow-up appointment this morning the pediatrician asked if we’d learned the cause of the effusion. His question concerned mechanism, the way a stab wound is the mechanism for blood loss. No, we never learned why. And we never learned why in a larger sense either. Early in his stay in the NICU I asked his doctor at a point when the two of us were alone if this was in any way related to advanced maternal or paternal age. Did being over 40 have anything to do with this? He told me no and then quickly added how there was another baby in the NICU had the same thing but the parents of that baby were of prime parenting age. We’ll never know. He was a 1-in-10,000 baby and though that could have played out in many other ways, we scored the lucky break with a mortal scare, but a condition that was only temporary. My nerves are shot, but he’ll grow up fine.
“Alex, can I have ‘Beating the odds’ for $2000?”
As I changed his diaper following lunch I looked down at him. Two small scars dot his chest on the right; that’s the only evidence left of his 37 days. They’re each about 5mm long. They’ll fade in the coming years, of course, and that’s an outcome that will serve him. The day I can no longer find them will be a sad one for me I expect. They are my one physical reminder of what we went through and for now at least, they are a kind of talisman, a reminder of just what we all have survived, what we are all capable of surviving.
Do you get like this? Your brain threatening to liquefy in a stew of stress, ambition, guilt, and the bone-headed decision to amplify and accelerate it all with massive doses of caffeine? I may walk placidly through the rooms of the small suburban home that shelters and renews me, but upstairs, where I plot and plan, all is amok.
Let me be clear in saying that I have no actual problems. This is the great travesty of my life, the rambling farce that balances the drama, an invention of difficulties where none might reasonably abide. I take some comfort, as I mill about my various family and friendships, to understand that most of my fellow travelers feel this same sort of mental/emotional/spiritual straining toward something better for themselves, something necessarily ill-defined and just over the rise, a churning yearning whose only firm tenet is that we are not currently doing what we ought to be.
This morning I entertained the idea of selling all of my non-essential possessions and giving the money away, the quicker to unburden myself of whatever material bondage might be restraining me. My better sense suggested I not mention this to my wife, sitting in the living room, reading a novel on her iPad.
I once had a guy tell me that the only difference between him and the crazy folks you see on the street, mumbling their stream-of-consciousness garbage laced with profanity and the broad outlines of conspiracies visible only to them, was that he had the brute strength to hold closed his jaws, to keep his own weary counsel.
And I sat in the dining room, Sponge Bob Square Pants echoing into my headspace from the kids’ Sunday morning conclave, and tried to gather my thoughts. I folded the laundry and washed the pots and pans from the previous night’s dinner. I thought about the day and the things that still needed done, bits of work that Monday would demand of me. I began to succumb to the fever dream of it all.
And then I looked out the sunny window and imagined myself riding away up the street, bundled to the eyeballs against this clinging, relentless winter, and I knew it would make me feel better, that it would be all the pharmaceutical I needed to relieve the worst of my own thinking.
Because, truth be told, I have no problems. I have everything I need, including a bike, prepped and ready to ride, pointing silently toward the basement door.
Image: Matt O’Keefe
I get a lot of press releases. Most require no reading. However, the press release announcing a left-handed bicycle was so mirth-inducing as to elicit giggles from me even as I was making my peanut butter sandwich for lunch. When a press release for a product I don’t actually want stays with me that long, well I have to think about why.
Then I thought about the date, so I clicked on the link. Nothing happened. I don’t know if this is a joke or not, but I figured, why should I decide? I’ll let you all be the judge on this.
Here’s the text that was included:
My relationship to my weight for the last five years or so has been one that isn’t entirely dysfunctional, but it doesn’t operate by any of the norms that characterize the rest of my life. I can make significant efforts for whole calendar sheets and see nothing in return. Or I can take a vacation from all discipline for a weekend and pay dearly. I’m someone who needs a scale, if only to remind me that discipline is a daily task.
So when my old scale died a watery death thanks to my toddler sending his bathwater skyward as if he were the tiniest cetacean going, I figured I’d upgrade to a scale that would give me solid body fat percentage numbers. Truth be told, while I wasn’t psyched to be buying another scale, the death of this one was just the occasion I needed to purchase something that could determine my body fat composition with at least rudimentary accuracy. The dead one claimed to do it, but the numbers were so high I don’t think it would have been accurate even on a sort of normal person.
I ran across the Fitbit Aria while in the Apple Store. My sense is that the few non-Apple items that are carried in an Apple Store are pretty well curated. If the Aria was the only scale they were carrying, well it must be okay, right? I will admit that the $129.95 price tag gave me pause, but I was already prepared to drop $80 or so on a Tanita unit and what intrigued me about the Aria was the ability to use the wifi in my home to send my daily weight to my computer and track it the way I track my time on the bike. Maybe, just maybe, that would give me the extra input I needed to better control, well, I’m not going to say just what needs controlling.
In broad strokes, the scale’s setup seemed simple enough. Pull out a battery and reinsert it to put it in setup mode, make sure the scale is within 12 feet of the wireless router and then a few other steps to make sure the computer was seeing the scale.
This would be where everything went to hell.
In short, I was never able to pair the scale—to anything. Not my desktop unit, not my laptop and not even to my phone, which struck me as a ridiculous suggestion, but one that came up in my reading through of their troubleshooting FAQ. After spending two evenings working on this rather than hanging out with my family, I emailed the company to ask what other suggestions they had. My worst fears about their tech support were realized when, despite a thorough description of actions I’d taken which included (from my email to tech support):
I have restarted my computer (as stated in my previous email)
I have placed the Aria within 10 feet of the router
My router is compatible with 802.11b protocol
My wifi password has no spaces and does not exceed 31 characters, nor does it contain any unusual characters
I have spelled the password correctly
I turned off my Airport Express during setup (as stated in my previous email)
I have tried setting up the scale using my iPhone
Tech support bro Fernando suggested, among other things that I might try restarting my computer and making sure my Airport Express was turned off. I even gave them the make and model on my wireless router and checked to make sure the scale’s firmware was up to date; I went so far as to provide them with the version of the firmware in question.
I should note that I made this purchase more than a month ago.
I’ll cut to the chase: I never, ever got the scale to work. Part of the tragedy in this for Fitbit is that because the scale won’t work at all until it is connected to your computer via wifi it does nothing. Had the device at least functioned as a traditional low-tech scale, I’d have been incented just enough to keep trying. However, because it performed none of its advertised functions, I harbored no hope for future success because following my most recent inquiry to tech support five days have passed with no response.
People wonder why they don’t see more negative reviews on RKP (for the record, until the publication of this post there had been exactly one bad review). The point I’ve made previously is that there is so little drive for it; I just don’t believe there are many products out there that you need to be warned against. It is entirely possible that there are scores of these scales out there and functioning as advertised. Some of them may even be in use among you. The point of this post isn’t that this product can’t work, it’s that if your tech support is monumentally ineffective, you can end up with an utterly unusable product.
Let me hasten to add that I was excited about this product; I wanted it to work well. This is not some Venus Flytrap of a review like the New York Times did on Tesla where they gave an electric car to a reviewer who hates electric cars. That review resulted in quite a lot of controversy, not the least of which is Tesla CEO’s accusation that the bad and inaccurate review cost the company $100 million—the actual value of canceled orders. Even the Times’ public editor found problems with the review.
I bring this up because when I read about the controversy, my feeling was that the Times had sandbagged Tesla. It looked to me like the reviewer could have spent some time talking to Tesla to better understand the car and thereby give it a fairer shake. It’s my personal belief that by the time you write a review of a product, you had better know it nearly as well as the company’s PR team, if not better. I didn’t believe that the reviewer, John Broder, had really done the job of a responsible reviewer; worse, his bias against electric cars suggests someone else with a more open-minded outlook should have reviewed the car.
Like I said, I wanted to like this product. After my final request for assistance to their tech support folks, 12 days elapsed before they got back to me with a half-baked excuse about their email not working right.
I swear, I’m not making this up.
Tech support and customer service are aspects of a company’s function that have the ability to make or break a brand’s reputation. I hear complaints from friends about various bike companies’ customer service departments from time to time. In nearly every instance, I’ve heard a countervailing experience from someone else. But bike stuff has the benefit of (usually) being so obvious in function and installation that very few people ever experience a problem that renders a product completely inoperable. That said, I’d love to hear some worst-case-scenario stories.
I’m still fascinated by what this scale might do, but it seems unlikely that I’ll ever find out. I will say that I’m grateful to Apple for extending me a full refund, though they were unwilling to do so until I showed the manager a photo of the Deuce in the NICU.
For purposes of my own entertainment, I plan to send a link to this review to Fitbit’s tech support guys. I’ll let you know if they ever respond.