If I had been cynical/skeptical/jaded about this Tour de France over the first two weeks, yesterday’s stage with its double ascent of Alpe d’Huez cured me. With riders leaping off the front and dropping off the back, there was so much going on, so much chaos, that I found myself riveted. I have always been a fan of the epic climbing stages, and this one delivered enough thrills to qualify for the four-ticket bounty at the state fair.
And though Chris Froome and his Sky minions have controlled the race with well-calculated and muscular performances whenever and wherever it’s been necessary, so too have his rivals taken ample opportunity to attack. The race has been anything but a stately promenade to Paris.
I was wrong in my initial belief that the green jersey competition would be more interesting than the GC. Peter Sagan is riding away with the points competition, despite not dominating either in the intermediate or finishing sprints. On the other hand, once you look past Froome, the next four GC riders are within 47 seconds of each other. With one last mountain stage to ride, podium spots are anything but assured.
The preeminence of Team Sky in three-week races seems confirmed now, though Bradley Wiggins failed to impress (or finish) the Giro. Still, the short reign of Alberto Contador is clearly over, and it remains to be seen whether racers like Vincenzo Nibali and Joaquim Rodriguez can translate Giro and Vuelta performances into French success.
Sagan has stolen Mark Cavendish’s thunder, and even Andre Greipel is finding ways to win stages. The lack of real dominance is good for the sport, both from a fan’s perspective and from a credibility standpoint. It says something powerful that Froome’s ride in France has drawn so many questions, while the seeming parity of his rivals speaks volumes about the possible cleanliness of the top tier competitors. Maybe, just maybe, this has been a good Tour de France for cycling.
This week’s Group Ride asks, what have you enjoyed about this 100th Tour de France? Did it live up to your expectations? What were the surprises? And what does it say about the current state of Grand Tour racing?
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
There is a place that we will know only once we have arrived there. It defies definition by latitude and longitude, lies at an indistinct distance from the starting point, and access may be denied if we are alone, or sometimes if we are not alone.
We know we’re there when the pedaling seems effortless or the weather seems perfect, even possibly when it’s snowing, or when we realize that a broad, stupid grin has appeared below our noses while we rolled along, wholly unaware.
Some days I can arrive there simply by rolling up the garage door, my left hand on my top tube, my right adjusting the cant of my helmet. Other times, I can ride and ride and ride, sweat pouring through my brows, stinging my eyes, straining at the pedals to achieve the correct velocity or find the right rhythm, only to find that place unreachable in the time I have allotted, or more accurately, in the time life has allotted me.
At some point, a prison break feels a drop in the pit of his stomach, a visceral sense that the chasing guards and their dogs have stopped chasing. We disappear into the pages of a novel. Jules Verne has taken us 20,000 leagues deep. H.G. Wells has us off in his time machine. For a few minutes, maybe more, it all goes non-linear.
I leave my house and ride an ugly, meandering loop, a child’s scrawl on a map, and I return home, and I haven’t been anywhere near this place, never arrived there but simply rode around in the ultimately nonsensical way of the cyclist, leaving home, traveling for hours, only to arrive where I started. Solipsistic. Self-referential.
With friends, I can ride along with my hands on top of the bars, my head swiveled to one side, riffing on the same joke we’ve been telling since the 20th century put us on a two-wheeled machine in the first place, or else digging deep in the mine of shared human experience, exhuming what diamonds we might, and again time disappears and miles burn like so many calories flying invisibly off our back tires like road spray.
When I dream of this holy place, when I see it in my mind, I am climbing up a narrow, heavily wooded road by myself. My heart is in my throat. I can almost hear it pulsing in one of my ears. I am close to my limit, but at that pace, that rhythm that suggests I can hold and hover there until the crest passes, my head sawing back and forth over the top tube like a metronome. Click. Click. Click.
And there’s nothing else, just me and the work, time slowed down and dripping like molasses, every other thought crowded out like children in a game of musical chairs.
Every time I set out, every time I agree to meet someone for a ride, I am hoping to get to that place, if only I knew just where it was.
Image: Matt O’Keefe
While at Copper Mountain I spent the better part of two days riding mountain bikes. For me, the point to the exercise was to ride a bunch of bikes I was unlikely to actually review, while expanding my vocabulary of bikes. I’ll also confess that with singletrack latticed across the ski area, not doing some mountain biking while there seemed like it would have been a criminal missed opportunity.
I do try not to be felonious.
The thing that surprised me as I walked by to my room following my last ride was that I never ended up riding anything with 26-inch wheels. It was both an accident and not. I’d intended to ride something with 26-inch wheels just to have the experience of riding the smaller wheels again, but every time I went to select another bike, I went with yet another 29er. I know what happened. My sense of fun trumped my interest in being thorough. It’s also why I did multiple runs (I’ll explain that in a minute) on two bikes rather than switching after each run. The sense I had was that the first run was the handshake and the second run was the conversation. I can’t say I was always faster on the second run, but I felt like I had a better feel for the bike the second time down the descent.
I need to reiterate that the altitude kicked my back 40. The base elevation for Copper Mountain is 9700 feet. That’s not so bad, except for the fact that I had to sleep at that altitude, too. The ongoing oxygen deprivation was almost comical in its effects. Even the slightest uphill effort could leave me lightheaded and gasping. So while I used to think that lift-served mountain biking was strictly for the Marlboro set, I need to admit that sometime this spring the thought occurred to me that if you weren’t pedaling up to the top of the mountain after each run you could get at least three times as many runs in. Other things this attractive include Mexican Coca-Cola, the Ferrari Daytona and a babysitter … that changes diapers. Hey, I’m a parent.
Yet another admission: Two days into our stay, had someone come to me with fast-acting EPO, like three-hours quick, I’d have gone for it. I don’t fault the folks at Specialized for picking such a lovely spot so completely devoid of oxygen; I just felt frustrated that I was so compromised in performance. I felt such a sense of desperation at my inability to pedal it gave me yet another window into what may transpire for some riders when they consider doping.
The elevation at the top of the lift was, as shown above, a whopping 10,700 feet. Following one trip up I decided to try to check out a trail that started a bit above where the lift ended. I’ll be generous in my retelling and claim that I rode 200 meters. You weren’t there, so you won’t know that I’m grossly exaggerating. When I pulled over to catch my breath, I made it look like it was a planned stop to go pee on a tree, not that anyone was watching, of course. Still, one must keep up appearances. Dignity and all, you know?
I was able to take in four lift-served runs. The first two were aboard the S-Works Camber, a 24-lb. trail bike with 110mm of travel and 29-inch wheels. While I’m unwilling to name names, I am willing to reveal that a few years ago the top engineer for one bike company known for making very fine road bikes said to me that full-suspension 29ers was just a bad idea, that they’d never ride well and that for reasons of control, you really wouldn’t want a 29er to have more than 100mm of travel. Ever.
Um. Yeah. About that. Do you think I should tell him how much I liked the Camber? No, me either. As an example of a bike that doesn’t work, the Camber fails miserably. That is, it fails at failing, which is to say it was good fun. I’ll admit that when I demoed one in spring of last year it was a heavier bike that really didn’t offer much in the way of interest. The steering was mildly quicker than the Stumpjumper FSR 29, but it weighed more and wasn’t as stiff. So when I purchased my bike, I went with the Stumpy. However, this new S-Works version of the Camber has a much more aggressive feel to it while still feeling plenty plush for my riding style.
And what is my riding style? Well let’s say I have the downhill competence of a cross-country rider who’d like to be a freerider, just without all the airtime. I know, kinda lame, but if I’m in the air, it’s usually because it’s being handled by someone with a license and a logbook. The reality is that for a great many of us who have come to an agreement with our own mortality, one in which we promise not to bait it and in return we get a chance to have some fun, if not stupid, free-fall fun, a bike like the Camber is pretty cool. It’s not a cross-country race bike; it’s a mountain bike for people who enjoy cruising single track and aren’t afraid to pedal uphill some. For roadies who want a full-suspension 29er and aren’t planning to race cross country, this is a great example of what to look for.
After my runs on the Camber I took a break for lunch. It was there that at least two different Specialized staffers said I really needed to take a run on the Enduro. You’ll pardon me if at least initially I took their exhortations as a sort of ill-advised encouragement to a new driver—”Hey, you like cars? Forget that Ford Escort. Just wait until you try the Porsche 911!”
I was wary in that last-time-I-did-this-I-broke-my-arm sort of way. Not that I’ve broken my arm in more than 35 years, but still. When I expressed concern at what I’d do with more than six inches of travel, how it seemed unjust to use a Bugatti Veyron to drive to church (within the speed limit), I got assured nods that I would, indeed, know what to do with it. That nature would take its course. Seriously? I can’t tell a seven-inch-travel bike from an eight-inch-travel bike, at least not unless you tell me which is which. In as much as I have a wheelhouse, downhill bikes don’t enter my bridge; hell, they aren’t on my boat.
As it turned out, the only way to end the conversation, or at least steer it to something else as we ate lunch, was to promise that I would take at least one run on the thing. I pictured my mother astride a Ducati—any Ducati—as the rough approximation of me tearing down the singletrack on the Enduro.
To recap: The Enduro veers from the outer reaches of trail bikes into all-mountain—better known to some as freeride. It features 29-inch wheels, 165mm of travel, weighs less than a fair-size dog (25.9 lbs.) and I was told had chainstays short enough to avoid that bus-in-a-parking-lot feeling so common to the Stumpy 29er when trying to negotiate switchbacks; more objectively, they measure 41.9cm compared to the Stumpy’s 45cm stays. The Camber is right in the same territory, at 44.7cm.
At low speeds this thing doesn’t countersteer; all steering requires just that, steering. That takes a bit of getting used to. It felt a bit ungainly initially. However, once I dropped into the singletrack and got the thing up to speed (I have no idea just how fast that might have been but it was roughly between “look out!” and “oh yeah!”) it handled naturally, moving with me rather than in response to me. There were times when I could easily have cruised around some rocks and instead I just railed through them, just to see what the bike could do. What it did was roll through the stuff as if it was as unremarkable as pocket lint. Whatevs.
Sure enough, when I got to the first couple of switchbacks I noticed the Enduro carved through them in a way neither the Stumpy or Camber could. Shortly thereafter I lost time. What I recall is being aware that just after New Order’s “True Faith” started on my iPod, I began letting the bike run. I have a memory of me singing along to Peter Gabriel’s “I Have the Touch,” Thomas Dolby’s “One of Our Submarines” and Sinead O’Connor’s “Troy” but the rest of the run is a series of mental snapshots captured mostly when I needed to hit the brakes.
Terrain that had been difficult on the Camber was a good deal easier on the Enduro and stuff that was fun on the Camber became stupidly exhilarating. At one point I pulled over just to give my arms a break. After clipping out and pulling out one of my earbuds I noticed a sound. I was laughing.
It was on my second run that I gave a bit of thought to why the bike was working so well for me. Ever since I’d made the switch to suspension in the early ’90s (a whopping 80mm of travel back then), I had appreciated that while some riders saw suspension as a ticket to air time, the real benefit to suspension was improved control. The more your wheels are in contact with the trail, the more control you have over where the bike is going. The Enduro allowed me more than just control; it gave me a certain faith that everything would just work out in those dicier situations. I’d see braking bumps and ruts and think, “Problem!” to which the bike looked back with the face of Alfred E. Newman and said,
Still, I braked too much.
The Enduro is arguably the biggest surprise in a cycling experience I’ve encountered in more than 10 years. I really didn’t think the bike would work for me, and as it turns out, I was able to make enough use of it that I could appreciate the intention behind the bike. There is still room for me to develop as a rider with that bike, which is something I think is important in any mountain bike purchase. Allowing for your developing skills is an aspect of a mountain bike purchase that really doesn’t have an analog in road bikes.
Our final day of riding gave us the opportunity to do a group ride, either on- or off-road. I chose the dirty ride with the hope that I wouldn’t be DFL on the climb up to Searle Pass. As it turns out, I wasn’t, but that’s only because I didn’t ride the full eight miles there. At five miles I was so hypoxic I couldn’t have spelled the word that refers to the condition. For the ride, I’d chosen the S-Works Epic World Cup. This 100mm travel beauty with 29-inch wheels carved like a paring knife but really left most of the suspension duties to the rider. Elbows and knees are the ticket. At five miles I’d reached an elevation of roughly 11,200 feet and realized that even if I could ride higher I wouldn’t be conscious to enjoy it. It was after turning around that I really wished I had selected a bike with more travel. The kicker was the realization that the Enduro was just as nimble (at least, in my hands) in the switchbacks as the Epic. Oh, and a word to the wise: This whole one-chainring-thing really only works if you’re in proper condition. It’s funny to me how roadies can never have too high a gear while mountain bikers have figured out they really won’t pedal a hugemongous gear, so they don’t bring it along.
This past week I and at least one journalist from every reputable cycling media outlet flew to Colorado to attend the launch of the 2014 product line for Specialized. I heard at least five languages other than English spoken, and no less than six distinct accents of English uttered. At one point at the mountain bike demo tent one of the mechanics called my name so I could go over for saddle height adjustment and suspension setup and I responded with, “C’est moi,” which I do from time to time when I’m kidding around. Well, given the population assembled at the oxygen-deprived locale of Copper Mountain, the tech turned and said, “Oh, sorry, are you from France? Are you with a French magazine?”
Me and my sense of humor.
In addition to all the journalists, many of Specialized’s top dealers were in attendance as well. I’d prefer not to contemplate the logistics (and expense) of assembling so many people at a ski resort; it’s just too overwhelming. But for a big bike company like Specialized, such a gathering makes a lot of sense. Rather than try to introduce all the new products in a noisy trade show booth, they can make a deliberate (and rehearsed) presentation in a function room, complete with projector and sound system to make sure everyone follows along.
I attended presentations on the new road line, the mountain line, the women’s line and what they are now calling the “core” line. Core refers to all those bread-and-butter items in a product line—aluminum road bikes, entry level mountain bikes, including some oddball stuff like a go-anywhere touring bike and even, yes, a fat bike.
I’ve not been invited to this event for some years. Previously, when I attended I focused exclusively on the products I was most likely to review in the coming year. This time I decided to do things in a different way. Because I tend to get to ride the S-Works and Pro level bikes, I figured I’d branch out and ride some of the bikes I’m less likely to review. Well, mostly.
My first ride after the presentations were over was on a Venge Pro Race Force, which is to say a frame one step down from S-Works equipped with SRAM Force components; it retails for $5800. I’ve been meaning to ride a Venge for ages, but circumstances just haven’t lined up. Until now. We rolled out from Copper Mountain and headed downhill to Frisco, where we did a loop on the bike path around Dillon Reservoir, a place that gave my colleague Dillon Clapp of ROAD endless opportunities for self-referential jokes. I concede, he set them up well, even when I saw them coming.
Under ordinary circumstances, I can learn 80 percent of what I’m going to find out about a bike in the first five or ten miles … provided I can make some efforts. Given my current state of fitness, which can easily be described as one in which a 12-year-old paper boy with a full load of papers and one leg tied behind his back could drop me, being at 9700 feet of elevation (the height of the village at Copper Mountain) left me with as much operating bandwidth as someone trying to watch a YouTube video over a dial-up modem. I could stand up long enough to make five or six pedal strokes (okay, maybe it was a dozen), but then I’d have to sit back down and stop pedaling and pant like a dog stranded in the Mojave.
What I can say for sure is that I’d happily do more miles on the Venge. It’s not nearly as harsh a ride as the Cervelo S5 and it was stiffer in torsion than some of the other aero bikes I’ve ridden. Specialized likes to say the Venge is more bike than aero, and I get what they are claiming. Just how aero it is when compared to other aero road bikes is what would require some research.
It was during the “Core” presentation that I was introduced to the latest iteration of the Specialized Allez. The bike has been around in its current form for a year, but it completely escaped me. I don’t have any notes or photos of it from the last Interbike, which is a shame because I was suitably impressed by the presentation to feel that riding it was warranted.
What makes the bike remarkable is the aluminum tube set. Yes, you read that last sentence correctly. Specialized’s Chris D’Aluisio invented a new process, now patented, called Smartweld that increases the strength and stiffness of the front end of the bike. The top and down tubes curl inward, like the bottom of a soda can, and meet a hydroformed (and size-specific) head tube with similar inward-curled sockets for the top and down tubes. This creates a kind of 360-degree trough for the weld bead, making it easier for a less-than-expert welder to perform the weld correctly. Afterward, there’s less grinding away of material.
The frame is anodized to keep weight down while giving the bike a stylish finish. You can see the Smartweld as a vertical stripe in the top and down tubes. While the Smartweld is ground smooth, the other welds on the frame, such as those at the bottom bracket, have the traditional look of a Dynafiled weld bead.
Specialized is offering an S-Works edition of the Allez and the frame, rather incredibly, bears a claimed weight of only 1060g for a 56cm frame. I rode both the S-Works version as well as the Comp. The Comp has a mostly 105 drivetrain with an FSA crank and retails for $1350. The S-Works version featured the 11-sp. Dura-Ace group, and while last year’s bike was $7k, there’s no word yet on what this year’s version will go for. And yes, Virginia, that is a lot of money for an aluminum bike.
What I can say about the ride quality of the two bikes is that they are impressive. The Comp was as good as anything I’ve ridden in the past, while the S-Works was easily the finest-riding aluminum frame I’ve encountered. Because there are multiple price points for this bike, the tube sets vary some as well. I’ll go as far as to say that I preferred the ride of the S-Works Allez to some carbon frames I’ve been on. What I can’t really speak to is just how stiff the bike is in torsion. While I made some efforts, they were so compromised by the altitude I doubt I generated 200 watts on any of them. It’s possible this bike won’t be quite as impressive if I take it on a sea level group ride.
My first day-and-a-half of riding left me with the desire to spend more time on the Venge and the Allez. I’ll be honest and say that I find S-Works stuff far more interesting (and satisfying) to ride. The pricier bikes simple feel better as I ride them and that has nothing to do with how much better a Dura-Ace shifter functions as compared to a 105 (and the difference is dramatic).
That said, I’m aware that not everyone has enjoyed the benefits of President Reagan’s trickle-down economics (maybe because it didn’t work), meaning not everyone is going to spend $5k (or more) on a bicycle. Most folks have the good sense to own a home and have a college fund for their kids, which means a $14,000 bike is a recipe for nothing so much as a divorce. I anticipate I’m going to revisit both the Venge and the Allez in a longer review, even though the rides I did at the press intro were supposed to cure me of that urge. Go figure. My sense is that if I was still racing, rather than risk killing an expensive carbon frame in a crash during a crit, I’d purchase something like an Allez or a Cannondale CAAD10.