After a late breaking winter and bright, cold spring, the summer heat (and humidity) arrived yesterday like a groom late for his own wedding. I opted to get out and ride solo early this morning and still managed to work up a lather worthy of a Kentucky Derby winner.
Instead of the regular Friday morning soft-spin out to the green suburb and back, I opted for a route that took me up along a pair of small lakes. I was feeling adventurous, and the warmth hadn’t settled on the asphalt like a wool blanket yet.
Dancing (plodding really) up a short, sharp climb I spied a road I’d seen before, Agawam Road, a steep spur I’d wondered about, so I swung my front wheel onto it’s narrow ramp and headed up. Less than a quarter mile in I reached a cul-de-sac hemmed by large, neat homes, each with a driveway worthy of an Italian stone mason. One of the residents, looking bored and pre-warm, lifted her gaze to meet mine, her eyes asking, “Really? Why?”
This is the second time in the space of week I’d tried a new road and found only a dead end. “Very clever, New England,” I thought. “How about next time we just call that a court and save each other the trouble? Thanks.”
It got me thinking about detours though, those unexpected other ways that sometimes lead to paradise and sometimes to the withering gaze of the intruded upon. I have taken good ones and bad ones. Some have helped me get where I was going that much more quickly, and others have left dog-chased and regretful.
This week’s Group Ride asks: What have been your best and worst detours? What adventures have you found and what disappointments have you courted? On balance, it seems, my meandering has been positive, because I keep turning down roads both obvious and forbidding in search of a better way to go.
Image: Matt O’Keefe
So there’s this news that Specialized has built its own in-house wind tunnel. My professional reaction was nothing short of “Holy cow!” It’s a colossal investment for a facility that will do nothing for a company that produces mountain bikes, city bikes, kids bikes—even an electric bike—and none of the bikes in those categories will be affected by this new facility. For a week or two Specialized’s PR team had been posting little teases on FB and Twitter, photos that were mostly just jokes, along with the phrase “aero is everything.” I was curious, but mostly only because I could tell it would lead to some announcement. But what?
More than four years ago the road product manager at one of Specialized’s competitors told me flat-out that we had essentially reached the end of the line in terms of big gains on weight and that all the real advances in technology that would aid performance would come from aerodynamics. The point being not that bikes wouldn’t continue to get lighter, but that the gains would be so incremental and at such an incredible cost in terms of durability and expense that for most bike companies the diminishing returns wouldn’t justify the investment. Instead, the gains to be made in aerodynamics were (and are) relatively low-hanging fruit.
Computational Fluid Dynamic software has speeded up development time by giving engineers virtual wind tunnels on work stations. But that software has limitations. The work stations are crazy expensive (and thats from a guy who doesn’t find Apple products to be unreasonably priced) and the license for the software costs what an engineer does. And then there’s the fact that you can only learn so much in CFD. At a certain point, you have to go to the wind tunnel. When you consider just how expensive wind tunnel time is (it can run what a good recording studio does) and how much of it you need (eight hours is barely enough to get a fair picture of how a single bike with no rider performs), then you can see how it would be possible to keep one busy for three shifts per day.
Having been on-hand for a company’s rental of time from the San Diego Low-Speed Wind Tunnel, I’m aware that you rack up a host of other costs any time you do testing. There’s the down-time for travel, and while a SoCal-based company like Felt can drive to San Diego before rush hour, Morgan Hill is a full day’s drive; any other location requires a boarding pass. Add meals and hotels to your transportation costs, and suddenly renovating a warehouse starts to sound like a pretty good idea.
I should also add that there are a great many products on the market that bear the signifier of “wind-tunnel tested.” It’s a do-nothing claim. I don’t mean to suggest that companies lie when they report that. No, the point is that plenty of companies visit the wind tunnel after the design work is complete, molds are cut, and production units are about to ship to retailers. “Blowing” a bike or helmet or wheel after the design work is complete means you know how much drag it generates. Wind-tunnel development requires multiple visits and for longer periods of time than are required just to make the claim of tested.
Significant in this that the staff and students of SBCU will gain access to the wind tunnel to aid them un better understanding the aerodynamic implications of a given fit; it’s yet another good reason for a retailer to send staff to Morgan Hill for training.
There is a darker side to this announcement, though. This ratchets up the bike development arms race. If you’d asked me which company would be first to introduce an in-house wind tunnel, I’d have said Zipp. I gotta figure the boys in Indiana have one on the drawing board. Prior to the PON acquisition I’d have guessed that Cervelo was working on one as well. Methinks that the new owners might be a bit more conservative in their spending.
While you might have winced at the industry’s first $10k bikes, news that Specialized had developed a $20k version of their Venge in conjunction with McLaren caused more than a few people to require the Heimlich Maneuver. Marketing costs generally get spread over an entire company’s bike line, which is why it’s so important to have a popular $200 mountain bike if you want to sponsor a big pro team. However, development costs are charged to the category of bike that generated them. You can expect to see all S-Works bikes tick up with this additional expense.
I expect we’re going to see a faster Venge. I expect to see that. What I wonder is if we’re going to see a more aero Roubaix. I don’t really care for how this is going to ratchet up bike development costs. But we’re going to learn a lot because Specialized is going to learn a lot. I love learning. I’m an eternal student. That part excites me. For that, I can’t freaking wait.
Finally, spring is in full swing in the midwest after what was an agonizingly long winter. For cyclists, spring brings hope like no other. It’s a fresh start. More time to ride in better weather and longer days. We all feel it, racers and non-racers alike. This year spring sprung about a month later in many parts of the country, with large swaths seeing snow into the first week of May.
Back in my youth, the first real sign of spring was the Good Friday Road Race that kicked off the racing season in Ontario. There was always something magical about the lead up to that race. The tension and excitement was as palpable as the scent of liniment permeating the start line. I put in the most amount of work possible during the winter to ensure I was in the mix at the end of that day. How you did on Good Friday set the tone for the rest of the season. Were you on track, or did you need to pile on the miles and speed? The race and your legs would let you know.
I spent the waning hours of daylight from November to March sprinting against the sunset. The cold of winter always gave way to miserable dampness. I was happy to put in the work though, dreaming of Good Friday glory. In the extremity numbing cold and darkness, thoughts went beyond local races. A teenagers dream of tifosi lined roads against the backdrop of blue sky and snowy peaks passed the grinding miles.
Riding in the elements of the harsh Canadian winter was as good for my soul as it was the legs. I imagined the hard men of the hell of the north training in similar conditions, brothers, separated by an ocean, joined by similar resolve. When the weather was too inhospitable, I sought refuge in the basement. On the rollers for hours, stoking the fire were thoughts of souplesse perfection. I suffered for the promise of spring and the possibilities Good Friday would bring.
25 years on I am no longer fueled by racing or dreams of Europe. My riding time is defined by daylight savings, the elements, work and family. I try not to slug it out in sloppy weather, raging winter winds or anything below freezing. I don’t own a trainer or rollers anymore. Running and xc-skiing take up more of my fall and winter now. If its windy and snowing, I seek solace on groomed tracks in the forest. If its cold and raining, a quick run does the trick. Maybe I have gone soft.
While I love running and skiing, the first hint of spring sees me dropping them like a bad habit. I welcome the coming of spring with as much enthusiasm as I did 25 years ago, even if it means something different now. Except this year, spring never came. But Good Friday is still a psychological point on the calendar, it lets me know I will be riding soon and allows me to gauge how my fitness is shaping up.
So when in mid-February I realized I had not sat on my bike in almost 3 months and Good Friday was only six weeks away, I started to get the itch. The weather had something to say about that though. Temperatures 20 degrees below normal is frigid in the upper midwest. When it wasn’t cold, we were hammered with a series of snowstorms. I thought when daylight savings time hit things would change. It didn’t. I started to question whether I had clinical Seasonal Affective Disorder and convinced I wouldn’t throw a leg over my bike before April. Day after day, I passed my bike in the garage, thumbing the slowly deflating tires which matched my mood.
As Good Friday approached, I decided I’d had enough and forced myself to ride in conditions that were less than optimal for the older, wiser me. Suffering from lack of time in the saddle and whatever mother nature wanted to throw at me, I actually didn’t feel too bad save the the tenderness of those first few rides around my sit bones.
On that Friday I awoke to blue skies, a forecasted high of 50 and no wind. The same weather report stated we set an all time record: the most snow on the ground that late in the season, which coincidentally, lined up with my own record of least miles that late in the season.
No matter, the roads were dry and I soaked up a much needed 50 soul quenching miles. And then, we got more snow, roads un-ridable for two weeks and weather uncooperative for two more.
Its now late May, more than two weeks from our last measurable snow, and I just got back from a long ride and turned it over fairly well, the sit bones no longer aching. I couldn’t help to think back to Good Friday and how, as in years past, I still use it as a silly gauge as to how I am coming along. It was 89 degrees today, I have the tell-tale tan lines on my arms and legs and the winter from hell has already subsided into a distant memory.
There is one thing I do remember though: that Friday, the break in the weather and that ride. It was a victory and good Friday indeed. Bring on the summer.
The Giro was snowed out today, which suits Danilo Di Luca quite well, I’m sure. It has been a dramatic race, mostly due to the weather, but also because Vincenzo Nibali has shown himself to be head and shoulders above his peers around nearly every bend of Italian pavement.
In fact, Nibali was so good in the uphill time trial to Polsa that only Sammy Sanchez got within a minute of him. That means he was more than 2% faster than everyone else. I saw the gap, and I immediately thought, “there is no way,” which may just be where we are with pro cycling. I don’t have any reason to suspect Nibali specifically, but that’s a big gap in such an important race.
Subsequently, Vini Fantini-Selle Italia’s Di Luca got popped for EPO (EPO for christ’s sake!!!!!), and I thought, “hey, all the time I’ve spent not paying attention to the racing was time well not spent.” I am sadder about that than I sound here, mainly because I always shroud my sadness in sarcasm. It’s a family thing.
Padraig summed it all up well just the other day, but perhaps recent events suggest the moment he described is passing like so many moments before it in pro cycling. Is it about the racers? Is it about the teams? Vini Fantini DS Luca Scinto sure did sound sad and pathetic announcing Di Luca’s test result. Fool me twice, eh Luca?
This week’s Group Ride asks the simple question: How believable is pro cycling today? Use a scale from 1-10, with 10 being unimpeachable and 1 being pro wrestling. Where are we? Do wins like Tejay van Garderen’s last week do anything to shift the balance against the news of Di Luca’s positive test?
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
We love cycling for the transformative suffering on display ascending amid the majestic ski stations in France. The searing, soul-stealing pain that surely marks each lap of the track during a 60-minute bid for glory occupies a different place in our consciousness. This hour-long contest is the essence of man’s competition against himself.
For many of us, our hardest hour is not on the bike.
It is a dark place we know better than we think even if we will never, ever wind up a 54×14 on a velodrome with a shot at fame.
The hardest hour started minutes ago when you should have gone to bed.
Instead you’re reading this essay. Or sitting on the couch with someone warm and loving. Drinking Scotch with a television on.
The hardest hour kicks off around 10 p.m., without fanfare or a starting gun, when you know you should go to bed in order to rest tired legs and weary eyes.
Getting an extra hour of sleep for an entire week is akin to an extra night for most of us. Maybe more. Some cyclists pay hundreds of dollars a year to ensure they are topped up on electrolytes and the right kinds of sugars all in order to get a performance edge over their friends on a group ride. That pales in comparison to the edge an extra hour of sleep gives you.
The hardest hour begins at 5:00 a.m. when against all odds you awoke at 4:55 and turned off the alarm five minutes away from your reckoning. The tender nudge from a warm leg was all it took.
The hardest hour almost kept you from driving to go for a ride with a friend you haven’t talked with face to face in over a year. Or was it two years? Three? Is an hour to drive for each year of absence really too much? All it took was a few white-knuckle, 53×12-powered descents to be back at the elemental togetherness that transcends separation and defines true camaraderie.
You push. You fight. Our hardest hours are seeded with what writer Steven Pressfield calls “Resistance,” a slow leeching of the sack of poison that we all carry inside. That we have the bike means we’ve stitched it up as best we can. Pity those whose veins run thick with it. You at least know you have the tools to overcome.
We can also use the preparation and execution of an hour record as a window into the professional’s life. What amateurs don’t see is that every day of a professional’s life is made up of a progression of hard hours. They chain them together like cigarettes. For a professional cyclist, worth is accounted for by the watt, nourishment is measured to the gram, love is meted out by the minute and recovery is scheduled to the hour.
For the rest of us, the true measure of our success and failure is revealed by our performance during the hardest hour.
What is your hardest hour?