So last week the Wall Street Journal published a piece on the death of Lycra cycling clothing. As if the use of man-made fibers, clipless pedals and shaved legs was one elaborate fad. Or fraud. The Journal doesn’t mind wooing controversy, and this was one of those occasions. The piece, “Cycling’s Spandez Coup d’Etat,” is a piece of work I honestly would have thought was beneath the publication. Why? Well, it confuses correlation with causation in that there has been an increase of riders not wearing Lycra and Lance Armstrong has fallen from grace. However, Armstrong’s fall did not cause people to huck their Lycra in the trash can anymore than he caused the rise of the hipsters. Then there’s the fact that while the writer cites Rapha as one of the brands selling clothing that subscribes to this new ethos. Nevermind the fact that most of what Rapha sells is, uh, Lycra. Pesky details. Similarly, Giro’s New Road line is an intriguing take on what cycling clothing can be. But it hasn’t exactly achieved the sort of penetration that merits the suggestion that Lycra is on its way out. Ditto for Levi’s.
While Giro’s new line has taken some flack, it’s truly an innovative take on what cycling clothing can be. Will it replace my RKP kit? Um, no. Do I think I could find a place for it in my wardrobe? Absolutely. It’s the sort of stuff I could see me wearing for a coffee ride or for running a bunch of errands by bike, or when heading out for a ride with my son.
The reader relatively unfamiliar with cycling will probably miss the fact that the only magazine editor quoted—Mia Kohut of Momentum—works for a lovely but tiny publication well out of the mainstream of cycling. Why not talk to Bill Strickland or Peter Flax of Bicycling? Similarly, my friend Josh Horowitz of Broken Bones Bicycle Co. was quoted, rather than anyone from Trek, Specialized or Giant. Josh is a good guy and has a fun take on the bike biz, but if you want to talk to someone who is actually influencing the industry, you’d be well-served to talk to John Burke.
Let me be ultra-clear about this: Using the shallow end of the bell curve as a bellwether for a new norm is just shoddy journalism.
Did Armstrong’s fall make it less fashionable to wear Lycra cycling clothing? Well that begs the question of whether or not it was ever fashionable, to which I have to answer only maybe. There’s no doubt, though, that the water has receded from whatever high-water mark wearing cycling clothing reached in relative hipitude. But what reporter Kevin Helliker misses is the simple fact that for 90 percent of us, Armstrong was never the reason we wore Lycra. We wear it because it works. What would have served both cycling and the reader better is if he’d chased the real story, not the sensationalist BS of projecting the demise of Lycra (which he prefers to refer to as Spandex).
There is a real story here in how cycling’s numbers are growing, thanks almost entirely to the hipster fixie movement. And it is a movement; we can no longer call it a fad. I’ll admit that you’ll never find me riding a fixed-gear bike in traffic. Why? I want to survive a while yet. You’ll never find me wearing skinny jeans. Why? I’m not skinny. You’ll also never find me growing facial hair for ironic reasons. Why? I’m not funny enough.
That said, I dig anything that gets more of us—and by “us” I don’t mean the us of cyclists, but the us of homo sapiens—out there. And that’s really the bottom line: More cyclists is better for anyone who rides a bike. An increased presence means more facilities, greater awareness on the part of drivers (at least, the ones who aren’t drunk), and more cyclists mean more livable communities. So while Giro has taken some heat for their New Road line, I honestly welcome it. People will ride more and longer if they are comfortable. For new cyclists, the idea that the price of admission means looking like a shrink-wrapped pro bass fisherman is too high for most people who self-select as normal. What Giro is doing has the ability to gradually integrate less-casual cyclists into die-hards of the sport.
And while we’re on the subject of Giro taking heat, last week also saw the arrival of a new ad campaign by the folks who brought back the lace-up shoe. In response to criticisms that the new Air Attack helmet looks like a skateboard helmet, they went to a skatepark with a road bike, a photographer and, well, let’s call him an acrobat. I’ll be honest and say that I don’t think it does anything to further the stated mission of the helmet—improved aerodynamic performance while still protecting your head—but it shows that they have a sense of humor and can laugh at themselves. Far too many people and companies in the bike industry lack this ability, and while there’s no requirement that you need to laugh at yourself, Giro’s perspective is refreshing. This ability to sit back and look at something critically, objectively is at the heart of the New Road line of clothing. Little wonder that they are responsible for both.
I’ve yet to wear the new helmet, but I’ve been wearing a few of the New Road pieces, a Merino top and the bib shorts and baggy-ish outer short. The fit is good and it’s comfortable. How much more than that is necessary is up for discussion. I’ve had a fair number of friends who understood adventure and a good time, but they’d never ride a bike because in their minds putting on Lycra meant surrendering their manhood at the garage door. I wish stuff like this had been available 20 years ago. It would have made my job at bike shops more interesting, more successful. Had there been a middle ground clothing-wise, I think we could have turned more bike buyers into committed cyclists.
Ultimately, my willingness to welcome Giro’s New Road line, or Club Ride or any of the other forays into this territory comes back to a point I made earlier. Even if they never wear Lycra, more cyclists on the road is good for those of us who choose to wear it. We’re less “other” once we’re both cyclists. More cyclists means better awareness that we’re out there and more acceptance that we have a right to be out there.
We’re more than a third of the way through the racing season and only last week did we experience what I consider to be a truly important day of bike racing, one worth remembering. The race in question was stage 5 of the Amgen Tour of California. A few different things happened that day, notable things, things that might teach us a lesson or two.
The first detail from the stage worth recalling was that a group of riders went to the front and waited, waited for a stiff headwind to shift to a crosswind. And when the turn came that shifted the wind 90 degrees or so, they hit the afterburners. The mayhem that caused further back in the pack held me breathless the way the last 5k of any Paris-Roubaix does. I kept waiting for someone to take over, some team to get organized, someone to make an effort that causes us to evoke all those phrases of machine-assisted work: drilled it, laid down the wood, gunned it, hit the jets. You get the idea.
And the move, the move we expected to come from race leader Janier Acevedo’s Jamis-Hagens Berman team—we certainly didn’t expect the bantam-weight climber to do the work himself—well, it never came. There’s been a lot of speculation that the lack of race radios and the resulting choke on extra-peloton communication was the deciding factor. Had Acevedo been on a Colombian team surrounded by like-abilitied teammates, the more likely answer would be that they simply didn’t have the fire power necessary to close the gap. But considering the number of first-rate domestic pros on the squad which includes guys like Ben Jacques-Maynes, you begin to wonder if perhaps they weren’t hiding in the pack and saving their matches for bigger fireworks to come. It’s the rare team that can police the front of a race for five or six days.
Would have a race radio changed matters? Very likely. The commissars will report who is at the front of the peloton and the fact that BMC was massing at the front is the sort of thing that usually gets communicated. Had they had race radios, the Jamis-Hagens Berman team would likely have made their way forward in the pack before the split occurred, or at least before the situation became completely irreversible. The result? We got real racing that day and the GC changed some place other than a time trial or mountain.
That group that got away included the oldest guy in the race, the oldest on a big team, easily the fastest guy over 40, Jens Voigt. His attack and subsequent solo effort were terrific fun to watch. It gave us a storyline we like: Guy everyone likes wins bike race. Bike fans go home or turn off the TV feeling satisfied.
Jens Voigt is the Chuck Norris of cycling. He’s old enough to be the father of some neo-pros; he’s tougher than gristle; he’s fast as email; and he’s fertile as the Mississippi delta. Who wouldn’t want to be all that?
But Voigt is also an East German who rode for Bjarne Riis at CSC in the mid 2000s and won some notable races; it’s hard to conclude that he’s always been a clean rider. Did he dope his entire career? I doubt it. I’d be willing to believe that he was clean in ’97 while he raced for the Australian Institute for Sport. Was he clean while on GAN from ’98 to ’03? That seems a little less likely. He won the Criterium Internationale in ’99. The problem we’ve had with doping is that while not everyone did it, those who won with any regularity have mostly been demonstrated to have doped.
What about his years at CSC—’04 to ’10? He won the Deutschland Tour twice, the Tour Mediterranean once and the Criterium Internationale four (4!) more times.
Do I think he has always ridden clean? No. Is Voigt clean today? Maybe. Maybe even probably. It’s worth adding that Voigt is a great example of how liking a rider may blind us to unsettling questions about a rider’s success during a particularly dirty period in the sport’s history. Voigt is the perfect example of a rider whose likely former doping we would prefer not to contemplate. It’s too messy, too ugly a thing to unpack. It’s perhaps the best argument for why all the riders from that generation should retire. It’s easier not to deal with it. We like him and if he retires with no confession in place, we can keep one of the final, remaining façades up.
I put that idea forward because what ought to happen—a full, unexpurgated history of who used what, when—grows increasingly unlikely with the prospect of McQuaid continuing as UCI president. And because the UCI is too compromised to be trusted, Voigt remains a nagging question mark. This is where a truth and reconciliation commission could really help, but I don’t think we’re going to get that unless McQuaid stipulates that anything revealed about Hein Verbruggen and him includes amnesty. And McQuaid doesn’t deserve it.
I believe that riders who have doped ought to afford the same opportunity for rehabilitation as other professionals who have broken rules. They do their time and then they return to their profession. We may not like it, but we’ve put a system of justice in place we profess to support. I’ll also add that I don’t have a problem with a four-year suspension for a first offense, but I think societies need to be able to show compassion and forgiveness and lifetime bans should only be warranted in extreme circumstances.
But this not knowing gnaws at me. It eats at my enjoyment of the sport.
Which brings me to the ultimate winner of the Amgen Tour of California, Tejay van Garderen. Van Garderen is of a generation of American cyclists who have been outspoken about drug-free racing. They speak in a way that suggests credibility and ethical behavior.
Here again, the UCI’s credibility is so undermined that it’s hard to celebrate van Garderen to the degree he deserves. I believe he’s a clean rider, but I don’t trust the system and that leaves a mild stain on him. I’d like a report issued once a month by Michael Ashenden in which he spells out who he has every confidence is clean and which riders are under suspicion. Van Garderen deserves better than what he’s getting. He’s a once-in-a-generation talent, and likely the next guy who could induce another bike boom in the U.S. But the moment people suggest he’s the next big thing for American cycling, he’ll be compared to Armstrong, which will cause him to be painted with the same doper brush, which is why it’s so important that if this guy is as clean as I think he is, we need solid proof to convince what will be a rightfully skeptical world.
Pat McQuaid has secured nomination for a third term as the president of the UCI. It is McQuaid’s most selfish, telling act since Floyd Landis elected to detonate the façade of legitimacy laid over the U.S. Postal Service Cycling Team. We’ve seen clearly in the past that McQuaid has really only cared about the truth when it serves to protect his role as UCI president. I had held out the hope that maybe if the Irish cycling federation listened to the worldwide cry to give McQuaid a retirement watch and chose not to nominate him for a third term, that maybe he would respect the wishes of his federation and go with some class.
I must have been smoking crack.
No, instead McQuaid made an end-run on the process and went to the Swiss federation and asked them to nominate him. Because McQuaid resides in Switzerland while he serves as UCI president, he is eligible to request nomination from them.
Let’s think about that for a second. The sitting president can be nominated by either his home federation or by the Swiss federation. No one else who might choose to run for president has that ability. No rider can simultaneously carry licenses from two federations. In the American political process, you can’t be nominated for president by more than one party. No one can vote in more than one community.
It’s a great illustration of just how broken the UCI is.
Of his decision to request nomination by the Swiss federation McQuaid said, “It has become clear that my nomination in Ireland has been politicised by a small group of people. However, I have received a wealth of letters from national federations all around the world urging me to stand for President again and I strongly believe that it should be for our national federations around the world to decide democratically on their next president.”
Pardon me, but it sounds like a reelection for McQuaid will be less about democracy than an understanding of how to game the system.
The problem with McQuaid remaining in power is a simple one. The entire peloton can clean up of its own accord, refusing everything from oxygen-vector doping to caffeine, and that really wouldn’t solve the doping problem. Why not? Well, without credible leadership that allows anti-doping efforts to be conducted without interference and—more importantly—with the assurance that a full battery of testing is being conducted at all races every year, we will have no reason to believe that the sport is clean. We’re way past the point of taking anyone at their word. What we need is a manager who gets the bottom line, someone who can make sure WADA is free reign to do their job without turning the process into an occasion for political grandstanding. It’s hard to say where we might find a candidate for that role, but of this much we can be certain: Pat McQuaid isn’t it.
I will endeavor over the following paragraphs to make no butt jokes, employ no puerile double entendre, and avoid, at all costs, referencing parts of the human anatomy I have barred my young sons from mentioning at the dinner table. We have over recent weeks been discussing product preferences for such crucial gear as helmets and gloves, and you, our readers, have chimed in ringingly with your insight and experience. We are group-sourcing this cycling thing, and it goes better when we all participate. So thanks for your effort.
Now, of all the touch points on the bike, I will argue that the most important one is the saddle. I don’t believe I have ever heard of a person’s ride being ruined by an insufficiently ergonomic lever, an improperly rounded handlebar or a properly functioning pedal of any stripe. To be sure, those things, bars and levers and pedals, if broken or set up badly, can have a dramatically deleterious effect on your ride, but your saddle, even functioning as it was intended by the bespectacled engineers who first drew its curves onto a sheet of paper, can turn a century into an eon, an epoch, a shambling millennium of despair.
And our hind quarters (careful now) are also highly individualized and various. We cyclists run from the beanpole narrow to the Volkswagen wide, our sit bones two points on a line describing a continuum not easily charted in leather or synthetic, with manganese, Ti or carbon rails. The seemingly simple curves of our selves are also bisected and punctuated by sensitive equipment (I know, I know) whose function ought not be compromised by a spirited, two-wheeled jaunt with our friends.
On my own primary road bike I recently installed a Specialized Romin saddle, which I assumed I would hate (because I assume this about all new cycling products that enter my world), but in actual practice (as with many of the aforementioned products) I love it. I can ride it for 100+ miles and maintain a level of comfort that keeps me seated on climbs I might normally attack out of the saddle, merely to give my aft deck (ok, sorry) a break.
This week’s Group Ride asks the question: What saddles do you love and why? Do you subscribe to the cut out model? Do you prefer firm or soft? What is it about you that works with the saddle of your choice? Give us enough detail that like-sized/minded riders might draw some benefit from your hard won experience.
My choice for doing GFNY was heavy on novelty, light on challenge. No idea what to expect, would it seem like a race, a group ride, a tour, an ‘athon? There was the challenge component to it. Of course, doing well is something, and winning would be nice, but it wasn’t a reason for participating.
Looking at the numbers, it seems that novelty and tourism were high on the list of reasons to come. According to the promoter, there were 5,000 registered riders. Of that, 20% were from outside the United States, and 50% of the foreigners, or 10% of the total, were from Italy. Of the remaining 4,000 riders, about 2,000 were locals and the remaining 2,000 were from outside the NY-Metro area.
Indeed, getting to the start demonstrated the importance of tourism and novelty. To get to the start line, participants rode onto the highway access ramps to the George Washington Bridge, part of Interstate 95. Many riders stopped to capture cyclists riding on the ramps. The payoff was standing still on the bridge; looking south you see Manhattan’s skyline beginning to shimmer, looking north you see the beginning of the Hudson Valley through a gauzy fog.
When the Fondo started at 6:59am, it was suddenly a race. Speeding off the bridge was great, but hitting the first park road along the Hudson, eight miles of hills, curves, and potholes, perched between a cliff wall and a stone wall, with a pack of people who didn’t know where they were going reminded me to back off. If I had some external confidence, like licensing requirements, I think I would have been more comfortable riding along. I saw someone execute a cyclocross dismount while his rear rim was riding on a completely flat tire. Hearing people go into the red on the first five-minute hill told me to back off, climb comfortably and create my own group rather than fighting for wheels on a pockmarked road when overall time didn’t count. I let what seemed to be a big group go over the hill and hoped to form another.
Got a small group, of sufficiently friendly folk, and continued at a good, but conversational pace. Met some folks but still able to roll nicely and enjoy the views. Passed through the towns of Hudson towns Piermont and Nyack with police letting cyclists pass through the intersections without stopping. Completed the first hour at around 21mph. The group grew from behind to be huge. Eventually, we came to the first timed climb, 35 miles in, right after a rest stop, where many pulled off. The Passo Del Daino as it was dubbed by the organizers, Buckberg Mountain to the locals. It was steep enough that drafting wasn’t an issue. I figured it was roughly a five-minute hill and I gave my best five-minute effort, yo-yoing with another rider much of the way up. I took him in the final 30 seconds.
The effort led me away from the group I had been in. Then the route quickly turned onto a narrow, somewhat technical descent I knew well. Loving the curves, I bridged up to another group, something I wanted for the Montagna dell’Orso (Bear Mountain) climb; it’s shallow enough for most of the length that drafting can help. But my new companions, too, thought drilling it over a non-timed climb was the smart play. I let them go and did Bear on my own. Strikingly, the timed climb began right after another rest stop. At least this one I’d be able to visit on the way back.
For Bear, the drill was ride the four miles at my limit and then ease all the way back down, and noodle to the next appointment. I passed a few of my former companions on the way up, and only a minute or so over my goal time for the hill. It’s a climb where the end takes forever to get to, but you’re at the top before you know it. Easing down the first few miles of Bear was a bummer; the dead-end road can be good for at least the mid-40s mph and was paved relatively recently, but the fear of hitting an ascending cyclist was too great. After leaving the access road and railing the open road descent past the second rest stop, another group came from behind to join me on the next ascent. This gang was none too friendly. Arguments ensued over small things like gear selection; some definitely saw this as a 110-mile race. Why they needed to argue about what kind of cadence was appropriate was beyond me. These guys were too angry to be around. Fun, this group wasn’t, so when they attacked the next untimed climb, I let them go.
Cimb three, the Colle Andrea Pinarello, was shallow enough and long enough that drafting mattered. I started it alone, and couldn’t find a rhythm. Three guys passed me on the way up. It felt like a climb too far.
There was a promise of well-stocked rest areas throughout the ride. I finally stopped at one two miles before the final timed climb. It was devoid of riders and well-stocked. A cup of Coke, a gel, some Gator and I was off again. Didn’t want to be weighed down for the climb.
On the last timed climb, Colle Formaggio, on the only roads of the day I didn’t already know—a neighborhood of McMansions built during the housing boom, an odd sight in the New York region, and weird to ride through a treeless landscape after being in the woods all day–I caught a rider at the summit and we started chatting. First person I chatted up in 68 miles. 42 miles to go and nothing left to do other than roll in.
His story was rather different. My partner of the moment had been recruited to help someone do well at the event. He and, I believe, two other guys were supposed to pace their leader through the fondo, but the leader was too antsy and had them drilling the pace so hard that one rider dropped the others and didn’t realize it. The others stayed back, but without their third rider, the other two blew up, and their leader forged ahead. As we were chatting about eats, that temporary teammate who had ridden ahead caught us from behind: he had waited at a rest stop and the group passed him without him awares. He was feeling good and had an itch to chase down the leader to help him through the rest of the ride.
My partner told him that the leader was at least five minutes ahead. The guy ramped up the pace and I decided to go with, and within five or six miles, we saw his leader. He asked that I ride to the front, keep the pace high and stay away from the back, “because it’s going to be ugly.” I recognized the leader. He was a foul-tempered guy I had been with on the road from Bear Mountain and let him go rather than dealing with his anger.
I respected my new partner’s wishes, dutifully rolled to the front of the new group, just as his leader accelerated. He eventually fell back, and I kept the pace high. After a minute or two, the berating began, “Oh, the Judas!” and it went on for some time. Thankfully, it was right before the last rest area. I peeled off as they went ahead.
At the stop, I saw a riding acquaintance, asked him to wait for me to fill up my bottles. He declined; something was moving him to get going rather than waiting a minute. But as I was filling my bottles, another riding acquaintance asked the same of me. I complied. We finished up together.
We rolled south on roads we had raced north earlier in the day. At the end of these quiet roads, we were led onto a busy street, the only road that leads to the finish, and we sped up as we battled cars for position over the final miles, an anti-climatic way to end the Fondo.
At the finish in Weehawken, there was a chicane to slow everyone down, and the circuitous finish also made it possible for riders to get a finish-line pic with the New York City skyline in the background. Folks were also waiting at the finish to bestow medals upon the finishers, and give them a traditional Italian finish line kiss. The last one turned out not to be part of the official package; an old acquaintance, an Italian journalist who was covering the event for an Italian paper, was there.
The finish area was a repurposed parking lot. Windy and somewhat desolate, with a big tent and a stage set up for a party, but as an early finisher, few were there. I only wanted to eat and go, but with the promise of prizes, and the time needed to find and scarf a meal, it made sense to stick around to see how the scene built up as the afternoon went on.
It was a ride. It was a day. It would not have been the same as riding alone, or with a gaggle of friends. I don’t know if I should have done it, but I was glad to have. This year? The entry fee makes me feel as if I should try other such events, on roads I know less well. I can still ride these roads with friends and Strava the climbs.
In retrospect, I had done myself wrong. The “competition” aspect of it led me to not follow my bliss of just hammering the Fondo until I could hammer no more. Crazy as I didn’t win anything and many of the fastest finishers where from out of the country. Dumb.
This GFNY gained some accidental notoriety in the month following the event. Two riders from the day were busted for doping. Two positives out of ten tests. One was a New York City rider who seemed to be an up and comer, and the other was an Italian in town for the Fondo. That the organizers decided to have drug testing will forever keep GFNY in my good graces. Some scoffed at the thought that people would dope for a gran fondo, but it demonstrates that the event is real racing. In contrast, the real racing at Battenkill was not subject to any drug testing.
As regulated group rides go, it was a decent time. If I had treated it the way I imagined a Gran Fondo should be run, I would have had a great time.