Regular RKP readers will remember Rob Discher who shared the story of his first tilt at Leadville in 2012. For those who’d like the refresher, you can read it here.
18 hours before the race, written in the parking lot at Colorado Mountain College just outside Leadville…
[Friday. August 10, 2013]
I’m not even supposed to be here, in Leadville.
I was just getting over my pity party about not coming up this year when the call came from First Descents that they needed a guy….someone who could ride this race on a week’s notice. Last year I wrapped my whole season around Leadville. This year I chased other goals, but that big belt buckle stayed in the back of my mind.
I have no idea how tomorrow will go. I don’t feel great. I have this lingering headache from two days ago that won’t go away, but I’ve got a decent nutrition plan and race strategy that I hope works.
There is the potential for something awesome though. Something big. Everyone says the course is riding fast. They graded a bunch of the roads and it’s been wet lately, which tamps down this high desert earth. I’ve been riding like a monster back in Austin all summer, winning crits, mixing it up on hard group rides, maintaining a steady diet of riding and recovery for months.
Maybe this is the payout for all that due diligence. Maybe the reward for enjoying the bike so much…a reward in and of itself….and for riding as much as I have…is that I get to come up here at the last minute and tie up some loose ends from last year.
It was easy in 2012. I’d never seriously raced before and my first big goal was the Leadville 100, a grueling 104 mile race above 10,500 feet of altitude that has become wildly popular over the past decade. My primary objective last year was to beat 9 hours there, the marker under which you get the coveted “big” gold belt buckle.
I killed myself trying to clear that time, coming up just short at 9:02, and while I was proud of my effort and all that I’d done in year one on the bike, it ate at me. I knew that with a slightly different race strategy I could have beaten nine hours. A piss break here. A slower pace there. An extra stop for food and drink I didn’t need.
I thought about it all fall and came into this season focused on getting back into Leadville. I trained like hell all winter. Cold rides on lonely roads in the Texas Hill Country. Long hilly days with my buddy Justin, pushing 29 inch wheels on the Austin chip seal. Spin sessions. Core work.
That plan fell on its face in two separate acts – the first when I didn’t get in through the Leadville lottery and the second when I missed the cut at the Austin Rattler qualifying race by less than a minute. There would be no Leadville this year.
What do you do with a whole off-season of training when that happens? Somewhat out of spite, I turned to road racing. I started watching the grand tours and hanging out with guys who didn’t know a berm from a rock garden. I shaved my legs. I came out for the weekly crits. I set new goals after the old goals fell through.
I’d trained on the road bike the previous year, but never seriously considered racing. Missing Leadville changed that. My first races on the road showed I was strong but dumb. So I raced more, and got smarter. Road racing was fun.
I moved from a CAT 5 to CAT 3 roadie in about three months, and the more time I spent racing in the drops, the more I thought THAT was my home. On the road.
All of this made it that much more complicated when I learned, completely out of the blue, that I had a last-second shot to go back to Leadville. For the previous six months I hadn’t spent more than six hours on my mountain bike.
On Monday, August 5th, I took two strangers out to lunch who had read my post here on RKP last year and wanted to learn more about the race. They were putting the finishing touches on their Leadville training and were eager to hear about course conditions, nutrition plans, pacing and expectations.
That Wednesday, one of them emailed me to say the nonprofit he was riding with, First Descents, needed someone who could fill a last-minute race slot.
I came home that night, took my fiancée out for dinner and talked it over. The same woman who told me to make a run at Leadville last year gave me another firm kick in the ass and urged me to jump on the opportunity.
From there, things moved quickly. A local nutrition company, Thunderbird Energetica, offered to haul my bike to Colorado with their race team. Work was nice enough to let me divert the return trip from my meetings in New York through Vail. My old boss, Morris, a Leadville veteran, found me a bed at Colorado Mountain College for the weekend, two miles from the starting line.
My 2012 race prep included specific training, arriving early in Colorado to acclimate and pre-ride the course, and working with my support crew, all family, to understand my detailed race plan.
This year, there would be no acclimation period. There would be no pre-rides. There wouldn’t even be much mountain biking at all. My plan was to get off the plane from New York, pick up my bike, make sure the wheels were still round and the brakes weren’t rubbing, and let it rip on race day.
It was Saturday morning before I knew it.
I rested against my top tube, kitted up and shivering at 6th and Harrison in downtown Leadville. Sun coming up. Thin mountain air. Pre-recorded National Anthem streaming out the PA. Five minutes until the corrals close, then three, then none. Two minutes until the gun goes off. Everyone looking around. Faces betraying that sense of confidence racers try to put on, attempting to look calm when they’d spent months getting ready for what was about to happen.
In 2012, I started the race slowly, built my tempo through the end and spent most of the last four hours passing people. It was an awesome feeling, but that easy, early pace made it incredibly tough to clear 9 hours. This year, instead of going out easy, I planned to push it from the gun, gain time through the first two checkpoints, and hold on through the end.
On-plan, I came out fast and moved my way up in the mass of 1,500 riders. We hit the first climb, St. Kevin’s, and I tapped out a strong pace…passing a number of people and eventually realizing that I was going way too hard. When you overextend at 11,000 feet and get short of breath, there’s this small moment of panic where you catch yourself, back off the pace, and pray your heart rate will come down.
Mine did, thankfully.
I held position through the climb up Sugarloaf and tried to stay loose through the Powerline decent. It’s the most technical part of a non-technical course, but one you have to respect. I pushed hard in a group through the rolling hills into Twin Lakes aid station around hour three and hit my first scheduled pit stop of the day. Three bottles, rice cake, gels, a proverbial slap on the ass and I was off.
Twin Lakes sits at the bottom of the Columbine climb, the most famous of the course because it takes you over the tree line at 12,500 feet. The climb up Columbine was nasty, as predicted, but instead of pressing I made the calculated move to sit up, take in fluids and eat. It’s around an hour and a half to two hours to get to the top, and I reasoned I’d be better off finishing the climb in 1:45 with a full stomach and hydrated than wringing myself out clearing it in 1:30. This ended up paying off…big time…about three hours later. At 4 hours and 36 minutes, I hit the turnaround. I was roughly 20 minutes ahead of last year.
The next two hours were painful but relatively uneventful. I could feel my mental state starting to deteriorate, which I rationalized as standard issue protocol for endurance racing at elevation. At the Pipeline aid station, about 75 miles into the race, things started to get interesting.
The first sign of wheels detaching from the proverbial wagon was that I completely missed my Pipeline aid crew. Just flat-out didn’t see them as I was going through the crowded line of support staff. I only planned to stop twice this race (compared to five times the previous year) and I was already crashing, so missing half my on-course nutrition was a massive fail.
In a perfect world, five-plus hours in, with on-schedule nutrition, I’d be in some mindless, thoughtless, sugar induced rage…kind of like the Berserker tribesmen back in the Viking days when they’d feed those monsters crazy juice and have them destroy entire villages. Instead, I had to go into full-on MacGyver mode in my search of calories, snagging gels, oranges and drinks from random people on the side of the road. Most of the time I had no idea what they were handing me. One time I grabbed a clean’ish looking half-done bottle off a stack of trash and drank it.
Results were mixed. Cramping got worse. Bike started moving slower.
The next bit of “fun” came on the decent down Sugarloaf Pass, just after I’d suffered up Powerline climb for an hour. I hammered the downhill in full cowboy mode, letting off the brakes and bouncing through rocks the whole descent. When I got to the bottom, I saw something that made my heart sink – my rear derailleur had come off the bike. It was just dangling there by the cabling.
Over the next 10 minutes, I figured out how to hold tension on the cable and push the gears around, but I could only do that on sections I could ride one-handed, and sometimes it just flat-out didn’t work. That meant walking hills I couldn’t see coming, head on the handlebars, calves cramping from the uphill slog.
With two hours to go I didn’t see any way I was clearing 9 hours. I started doing the math, trying to figure out how many miles were left, what pace I was holding, and how much time I needed to get to specific checkpoints. The dream was slipping away. My nutrition was in shambles, my bike in pieces. I was suffering badly.
I got passed constantly. Everything hurt. I thought a lot about quitting, but I recalled race founder Ken Chlouber’s words at the previous day’s meeting. He drew a picture of what it would be like telling people you quit after all the effort to get there. That image stuck with me.
I pushed ahead.
With about 45 minutes remaining, the lights started coming back on. It was a complete blur – scrambling for the shifter, which was flying all around the bike and “ghost shifting” on its own, grabbing whatever hydration I could from strangers, trying to force down a rainbow of gels I’d collected since my second aid station fail. It was the first time all day I didn’t feel horrendous. I battled a monster headwind into the finish, elbows on the handlebars, head down, getting as “small” as possible. It worked. I was getting stronger, picking up speed, crunching the numbers in a feverish attempt to see if sub-9 was within reach.
With five miles left, for the first time, it dawned on me that I might make it. At two miles left I was pretty sure. In the last mile, as I came up 6th Street past the high school…the same place I saw the clock turn 9 hours last year…I knew I had it in the bag. I laid it on, crossing the line at 8:51 and letting out what Whitman would have called a “barbaric yawp” of total catharsis and supreme relief, completely drained.
The medical staff gave me one look, grabbed my bike, pulled me over to the tent and nursed me back to health for the next hour, checking my vitals and feeding me salt. That cot was the most amazing bed I’ve ever laid on and the medical staff couldn’t have been nicer. I finally got up, got out of my kit, and walked around the town center barefoot, soaking it all in.
This wasn’t supposed to happen, but that just seems to be how it goes with cycling. You dream dreams. You make plans. Fate and circumstance collide. I have been so fortunate to have been given all these experiences just in the last two years.
Just from throwing my leg over the top tube.
Just from doing something I love.
One of the ongoing themes of the infinite email thread between Padraig and me is how strange life can be. The older we get and the more our families grow, the more we find ourselves in unexpected situations, both positive and negative, an ongoing confluence of circumstance that serves up surreality like Dali on amphetamines.
And so it was that I found myself rolling through this New England countryside alongside Hennie Kuiper, on a bike I’d loaned him, and me somewhat dumbstruck as he spun tales of his many, many victories. 1972 Olympic road race winner, 1975 World Champion, winner of Paris Roubaix, Ronde van Vlaanderen, Milan-San Remo and the Giro d’Lombardia. Twice second in the Tour de France. Rival of Bernard Hinault, and part of a dominating ’70s Dutch team. Directeur Sportif to Team Telekom and Motorola. One of the true Giants of the Road.
At 64, he is still every bit the physical marvel he was in his prime. Chiseled calves. Barrel thighs. A style on the bike that comes from living there. He could clearly have dropped any of the motley crew we’d assembled for our little tour of farms and orchards. But he didn’t. He just rolled along and chatted.
How we had come to be here is still a little mysterious to me. One of Hennie’s sons lives here, in the States. His son is not a cyclist. He works, tangentially, with my neighbor, that is to say, they are not co-workers, but they are somehow professionally affiliated. This part of the connection I don’t really understand, but when I was asked if I’d like to go for a spin with a former World Champion I thought, “Yeah. I’ll do that.”
Four weeks later, I show up in Concord center to meet Hennie Kuiper.
After riding with him, I understand more clearly what it is that separates schlubs like me from legends like him. His physiognomy marks him out, even at retirement age, as something of an outlier. His musculature is just not something you see at the grocery store, or even at your local crit.
Add on top of that his own statement, made later in the day, that his talent was to be able to attack one more time, after 150km, after 200km, always one more time, a thing few of his generation, or any generation could do.
Having said all that, what most impressed me was his generosity. He never failed to answer a question, and he patiently listened to every opinion offered. He didn’t once mention how badly wrenched his loaner bike was, nor that I’d forgotten to put water bottle cages on it. His best trick was simply being just one of the guys, albeit the one who had taken gold in Munich in 1972 after a 40km solo breakaway.
So there I was on a Saturday morning, having the tale of Paris-Roubaix 1983 spun out for me, not by some historian or commentator, not by someone who’d sat in the velodrome waiting for the riders to emerge from hell, but by the guy who won the race. As a cycling fan, I found it dizzying.
He laughed as he explained how hard a grand tour is, and why he’d finished twice in the Tour but never won, how angry one of his domestiques was with him one day when he’d ridden at the back and been caught behind a crash, the seconds slipping away and the yellow jersey with them.
He said that the hardest day of his career was a long time trial early on. He knew how to go hard before that, but he suffered so much that day that something inside him changed and afterwards he could always go harder than he’d ever thought possible.
Throughout the day I drifted in and out of earshot, and each time I got close I found myself in the middle of another story. He talked about being in the car behind Andy Hampsten in the Giro, about battling with Hinault in breakaways, and all the while he asked little questions about us, our jobs, our families.
We met up with the families at a folk festival north of the city, racked the bikes and shook hands. The ride dissolved into hand shakes and kids running in circles. It could have been any group ride anywhere, ending. We had ridden with a world champion, and it was just like riding with a friend, which was extraordinary to me and that little bit surreal.
And then, a week later, just when I’d finished boring people with the story, the autographed picture above appeared at my house. I am not one for autographs. I don’t ask for them, and I don’t really understand their value. But in this instance, I took it for what it was, a sincere thanks for a ride shared, from a fellow rider. And that meant a lot to me, as I’m sure you can imagine.
Vélobici is a small company that designs and makes cycle wear in the UK. Chris Puttnam and his partner, Tara Love, grew up in knitwear factories, their fathers both running some of the last generation of British mills to produce domestically before it all went to Asia. They started Vélobici a few short years ago, driven by a desire to make stylish cycling clothes, but also to do it locally, to be part of the resurgence of British manufacturing.
Chris told me, by email, “We are very proud of the fact that all we produce is manufactured within a 20 mile radius of our homeland. And the performance fabric, including the Van-Dapper is knitted in Nottingham 25 miles from us. As a kid, I just enjoyed the whole environment of the factories and the girls fussing over you, fond memories. So when we created this thing it was always going to be produced in the UK.”
This particular review came about because Vélobici were advertising with us, which is how I became aware of them in the first place, and after looking at their clothing and hearing some of their story, I requested a kit to try out. Two things piqued my curiosity, 1) the slick, muted style of their clothing, and 2) just what the quality difference might be between their garments, produced in the UK, and other cycling clothing, produced in the Far East.
It should be clear. Vélobici did not request a review.
So a few weeks after I made initial contact, with New England still in the throes of winter, a package arrived. First impressions were very good. Pulling the bibs from the padded mailer, I was immediately struck by their weight and softness. Even coming out of a flat package, tossed and trampled in the international mail, they sprung immediately into shape, as if I’d just taken them off.
Turning to the jersey, I immediately discovered the two zippered, water-proof pockets, one at each hip, and thought, “Huh, those will be handy.” Of course, the top had the same heft and texture, too. It was cold the day the Van-Dapper arrived, but I layered it into my ensemble for the next morning’s ride, anxious to see if it was as nice as it seemed. I have worn it, on average, twice a week for the last 6 months, and it is the first kit I reach for unless the day promises to be scorchingly hot. More on that in a bit.
Vélobici’s design aesthetic is not so much retro, as it might appear at first, but rather minimalist. Their designer, Tara, clearly has the confidence that the garments speak for themselves more than any logo might. The Van-Dapper features some tasteful, sublimated logos, subtle fabric effects, on the legs of the bib and across the back of the jersey, and a small crest on the chest. Otherwise, it is stealth itself, all black with a single yellow accent across the rear pocket line and in a small notch at the top of the zipper.
I really appreciate a brand that doesn’t feel compelled to scream its logo at you from half-a-mile away. You won’t feel like a billboard in this kit, and you can mix and match it with any other clothing you like.
It is a functional garment as well, the meryl/lycra blend offers UVA and UVB protection. The full zip has that small yellow guard at the top to prevent chafing. The fully-lined collar makes it snug but comfortable at the neck. The piping is reflective, and in addition to the standard three vertical pockets, the jersey also features those two readily-accessible, zippered, water-proof pockets, one to keep your phone dry, one for cash, allowing you to forgo the classic phone in a baggie pre-ride prep. Finally, the jersey has a handy swatch of cloth beneath the hem for cleaning glasses.
All of these small things make the Van-Dapper the easiest kit to ride in that I own. The level of functionality easily surpasses the standard jersey fare. Vélobici have thought through the business of daily riding and offered solutions where most of us had simply accepted adaptations to other kits. The upshot is that I prep less and remain more comfortable during the ride when I am in the Van-Dapper.
I like this kit best for rides in the middle temperature ranges. It is not as light as some others, but its luxurious comfort make it perfect on its own for any ride with an average temp between 50-70F. Sleeves and legs have seamless silicone grippers that play well with warmers, too, so it layers up to extend its use into winter quite nicely.
Some will take issue with it’s non-race cut. It doesn’t purport to offer aerodynamic advantages, but it is as comfortable and attractive a kit as I’ve ridden in.
The Van-Dapper set (bib and jersey) is well-made, under-stated, classic and durable. It has not faded under my heavy use, nor wilted under my less-than-on-label washing regimen. Take it from its package, hold it up, feel its weight, its softness. The differences between this and most of what’s out there are palpable, and hold up over time and use. At $360 (£230) the Van-Dapper set is as affordable (or not) as any high-end kit, but to my mind offers much more in functionality and quality.
Get it at Vélobici on-line.
A couple of years ago a friend forwarded a video of a NorCal road race, one of those early-season shindigs where everyone hopes to blow the cobwebs out of the legs and get the first indications of how the season might shake out. The video in question was shot from the finish line and showed the bunch screaming into the finish over rollers when suddenly—as you guessed—there was a crash. This wasn’t one of those one guy goes down and takes two others with him. No, this was one of those body shrapnel explosions wherein the crash gets bigger and bigger, taking down ever more bicycles and guys escape one bit of carnage by running off the road only to go over the bar when their front wheel augers into a gopher hole. The crash lasted more than 30 seconds.
You’ll pardon me if I summon that image as a means of comparison for what’s been happening with Serotta over the last year. Or depending on your outlook, for the last 24 years. If you’re wondering just what I’m talking about (and I respect that not everyone reads Bicycle Retailer and Industry News or spends all their waking hours on the Serotta forum), Ben Serotta has been fired from Serotta.
No, that wasn’t a massive, gravity-generating typo.
Ben Serotta, the man with one of the most admired names in bicycle construction, has been fired from the company he has led for 41 years. It’s probably fair to say that things aren’t so heavenly at Divine Cycling Group, the latest owners of Serotta. It’s also worth noting that while Serotta says he and CEO Bill Watkins were fired, Brian Case, the chairman of Serotta and one of the directors of Divine, says the pair left the company.
The way I keep score is that any time there are competing narratives I award the point to ugly back-room dialog. This one ain’t pretty.
By “this one” I mean this version of Serotta. Serotta was sold back in ’89 to Archibald Cox, Jr. who went on to purchase Fat City Cycles in ’94. He consolidated the whole thing in Serotta’s factory in South Glens Falls, New York, only to learn that there were going to be few, if any, economies of scale. The Serotta/Fat City, LLC, merger became a classic money pit and management flail-fest. The company went through five CEOs in six years. Ben Serotta was able to buy the company back in ’97, while Fat City would survive on life support for three more years. The experience so demoralized Chris Chance, he left the industry.
Things seemed to be going well for Serotta post buy-back. He seemed to have climbed out of the problem that consumes so many businesses: the founder’s trap. Simply put, founder’s trap is where the entrepreneurial zeal of a founder cannot match the necessary management skills needed to grow a company. The Pon Holdings purchase of Cervelo suggests that they might have suffered a dollop of that as well. But Serotta had been running well for nearly 15 years when word began filtering through the industry that delivery on bikes was getting slow and erratic. Events escalated quickly.
I think it’s worth going over the timeline of what’s taken place:
- June 2012, Serotta sells building tooling and brand to Bradway Capital
- Mar. 28, 2013, Serotta lowered prices
- June 2013, consolidated under Divine Cycling Group with Mad Fiber and Blue Competition Cycles
- July 31, 2013, Serotta lays of 40 percent of workforce
- August 6, 2013, Serotta fired
As I mentioned, there was some disagreement between Divine’s announcement and Ben Serotta’s version of events. Bicycle Retailer and Industry News ran a letter he penned in the wake of his departure. While the entire letter is fascinating, I think his version of events is worth reprinting:
“Early last Sunday evening while stopped at the side of the road looking at a paper map with Marcie, thinking about where we should head to enjoy the remaining hours of a beautiful sunny, mid-summer evening, my cell phone rang and I instinctively answered it. One of the current company owners was on the other end and he coldly started, ‘I am terminating you. Your email password has been changed and your building access code has been deleted. You can arrange to get your personal things on Tuesday.’ And with that (no cause was given, aka terminated without cause) my life at Serotta the company, came to an abrupt end.”
Serotta’s letter revealed that Bill Watkins, Serotta’s CEO, had received the same treatment. Of Watkins Serotta wrote, “I’ve viewed as the company’s long missing link—someone who had the skills to lead the business end of the business, while I focused on brand and product.” It was a telling comment less for Watkins treatment than for Serotta’s explicit acknowledgement of where his strengths are and the company’s recurring issues with management.
CEOs get replaced in company purchases the way people put gas in cars. That Watkins might be tossed aside, despite having the confidence of the founder, is more surprising than it ought to be. However, tossing Ben Serotta aside strikes me as being as silly as the Dave Matthews Band touring … without Dave Matthews.
Divine’s Case says that Serotta should be back in full production shortly. The press release did contain a second bombshell, though. Case revealed plans to open Serotta to contract work.
Here’s where it’s useful to go back over the facts at hand. Serotta has had trouble delivering bicycles on time. Before waiting to get the company back on a firm foundation in capital and production, they announce they are going to … make even more bikes. That alone was pretty silly, but when you really consider his statement, it seems a bit ludicrous. How many companies are out there that need American-made frames produced on contract? The only name that comes to mind currently is Rivendell, and I think Grant Peterson has his thing running pretty well. Likely candidates aside, just which bikes are we talking about? Well, it would seem that we’re talking about steel, titanium and hybrid ti/carbon bikes. I don’t think anyone would want to stick another company’s decal on a Meivici, due to its distinctive look.
Case may have had what he believes are good reasons to jettison Serotta. A portion of his statement, which was obtained like the previous quotes from Bicycle Retailer and Industry News, suggests that he has some awareness of the importance of Ben Serotta to Serotta.
Who wants a Serotta with which Ben was not affiliated?
It would be different if he were dead and the staff was carrying on his legacy. That’s not the case. It would also be different if Serotta had been a serial entrepreneur and his departure was just him moving on to his next thing. But the name Serotta conjures high-quality bicycle frames, and his departure comes at the end of some ugly dealings, the PR battle over which Serotta has taken a decisive lead. The trouble for Divine is that Serotta’s personal DNA and the company’s are nearly impossible to tell apart. That’s part of what has given the company its caché. This isn’t Pete Best being dumped for Ringo Starr, this is Apple firing Steve Jobs.
So what of Divine Cycling Group’s other properties, Mad Fiber and Blue Competition Cycles? Well, Mad Fiber reports that all is well, nothing to see here. Maybe things are fine, but it’s hard to take that statement on face value once you read what Steven Harad, CEO of Blue, wrote in the comments following Serotta’s letter to the cycling community.
“Here’s hoping we aren’t next but it looks like we are. Lets catch up Ben Serotta.”
Word in the industry is that Blue has a shipping container full of bikes that they can’t pay for, which brings us back to one of the initial reports about just how bad things were at Serotta. Serotta said he had no operating capital for the company. An injection of capital which was to have materialized, did not.
My money says that customer interest will track in line with Ben Serotta’s location. If he extricates the name, people will be happy to continue buying Serottas, but if not, I suspect there will be far more interest in a line called “BEN” than one we all used to lust after. I’ll go a step further and say that I think Divine has badly miscalculated Ben Serotta’s value and the likelihood of this ugly breakdown to go public and not just tarnish, but ruin Serotta’s reputation. I’m aware that several of Serotta’s competitors have received a number of new orders because dealers lost faith that they will receive the custom bikes currently on order.
In almost any other circumstance, I’d be arguing for all life-support measures for Serotta, but this time I say leave the paddles in the crash cart.
Image: pilfered from Ben Serotta’s Facebook page.
I’m in Medford, Oregon, about to embark on a mountain bike tour with the good folks from Western Spirit. What I know of my schedule for the next five days you could fit in the coin holder of a subcompact, after a freight train has been parked on top. I know we leave tomorrow morning. I know I’ll be riding the epic singletrack of the Umpqua Trail. I also know that I will get back on Friday afternoon.
Oh yeah, and I’ll be sleeping in a tent.
There you have it. I know more about my son’s preschool schedule.
Not that I mind, mind you.
I drove up here and made a couple of stops for brief rides on my way, taking in a pretty killer descent off Mt. Pinos in Kern County and then some stunning singletrack in the shadow of Mount Shasta, captured above.
The real point of this post is to say that while I have a cellular modem, I’m not sure if/when/whether I’ll ever be able to post updates while we’re out. This will be the most literally off-grid I’ve been since we started calling it the grid.
I’m hoping that when I’m not on the bike or setting up a tent I’m unfamiliar with, I will be able to get some serious reading and writing done. And if I can’t get posts uploaded while I’m gone, then they’ll go up once I’m plugged back into the Matrix, er, grid.
Sometimes, late on a Friday, when I’m plotting a course across a digital map, seeking out roads I haven’t ridden, trees and lakes and towns I haven’t seen already, I get the Pogues’ Navigator stuck on repeat in my head. Though I am not certain, at this point, I would assign route-finding responsibilities to Shane MacGowan, the song’s story of British railway building gets me thinking about the history and tools of navigation.
Some of my favorite novels are travel epics (this, this and this, for example). There is a dramatic tension inherent in not knowing where you’re going, of having a goal and not being entirely sure you’re going to make it. Sometimes, as when you’ve bonked, it’s a question of survival. Sometimes, as when you’re meeting someone out on the road, it’s a matter of connection.
As I sit comfortably in my spot at the end of the couch, the dog at my feet, and the computer slowly warming my lap, I cut a far different profile than the million or so sailors who have worried at the treacherous rounding of Cape Horn or the foolhardy adventurers who made for magnetic north.
Of course, my own efforts at navigation have evolved rapidly in recent years. There was a time when you just needed to know your way around. You got lost a lot, so that later you could not get lost.
I have employed the strategy of inviting myself on group rides with older, more experienced riders, people who know how to get to Lost Lake, who know the back way out through Carlisle and Chelmsford, the little nothing turns that yield long rambles through farm country.
And then, of course, I spent time studying maps, both paper and digital, committing turns to memory and hoping the street signs would be enough to get me around the loop. This was an incremental approach, branching off of roads I knew, slowly growing my ride territory.
And finally, Global Positioning Systems (GPS) came on line with practicable cycling applications and devices. I have the Garmin Edge 200. I am a minimalist, but even this entry-level computer frees me from many of the mental and logistical constraints I have been fumbling with for years.
I like it, but sometimes I also wonder if I am removing too much of the experience of riding. Would the Aeneid still be in circulation, if Aeneas had been equipped with a digital Italy-finder?
This week’s Group Ride asks how you get around? Do you Garmin? Do you use some other magic box-like device? Do you tuck cue sheets in the leg of your bibs and cut for sign? How has what you do changed, and do you like the way it’s changed? What have you gained or lost?
On Tuesday I went to Felt Bicycles’ headquarters in Irvine for the introduction of their 2014 line. Of all the bike companies I know, they are the most intensely product-focused. By that I mean they devote a disproportionate amount of their resources to product. It’s a double-edged sword; no other company this small (they have fewer than 50 full-time employees in the U.S.) produces such a vast range of bikes, but I’m also reasonably certain that no other company producing product at the quality level and value they do spends less on marketing and advertising. There again, another double-edged sword. By spending a fraction of what Specialized does on marketing, Felt’s bikes are noticeably more value-packed at a given price-point. I’ve encountered riders for whom the effect induced suspicion, as if there must be a man behind a curtain somewhere.
Maybe that will change for 2014. Felt is coming off its most successful appearance at the Tour de France in the company’s history. Marcel Kittel of Argos-Shimano won four stages and wore the yellow jersey for a day. And let’s be honest, Argos-Shimano is a team that doesn’t get the props, attention or respect that Garmin-Sharp does, yet they gave Felt a far better return on investment. Also, while this isn’t exactly germane to the point at hand, I don’t mind adding that with four very evenly matched sprinters (Kittel, Mark Cavendish, Peter Sagan and Andre Greipel), the sprint stages at this year’s Tour were the most thrilling the race has seen in decades.
Before I go any further, I need to clarify what I meant in the headline. There are bikes that we saw that are currently under embargo. I’ll report on them shortly.
The other thing worth noting about Felt’s line is that they offer road bikes at some nearly unheard-of values. Case in point: the Z5, which retails for $1699. While it’s possible to find a carbon fiber bike in this price range, most of Felt’s competitors are spec’ing a Shimano Sora group. Felt specs a mostly 105 group. That’s a big step up in quality.
The other really interesting development I can talk about for now is the new Virtue Nine. Pictured here is the Virtue Nine One, the top-of-the-line. The Virtue has been Felt’s trail offering, fitting in that 120mm to 140mm-travel range (it’s 130mm front and rear). Thanks to a newly designed seat tube and (for those models that use a front derailleur) a new front derailleur mount, Felt’s engineers were able to revise the rear suspension to keep the rear wheel in tight enough that you can pick up the front end when you need to. The challenge they faced was Felt’s patented Equilink design, which is actually a six-bar linkage.
The bar running vertically behind the seat tube minimizes pedal-induced bobbing and helps control the path of the rear wheel. Of all the new mountain bikes I’ve seen announced for 2014, this is one of the ones I’m most excited about.
I continue to marvel at the quality of the layup work on Felt’s bikes. Little touches like the one above, which are cosmetic rather than structural, are a great chance to showcase just how good the work is. So far, I’ve only seen work like this showing up on bikes from Alchemy.
Felt also offers an astounding number of cruisers, fixies and other assorted city bikes. Give them a frame and they’ll come up with five ways to spec it. The bike above is the York, which features a steel frame, aluminum fenders, that carrier and a two-speed kickback hub and carries a suggested retail of $829.
The ever-popular (and nearly impossible to get) New Belgium Fat Tire cruisers have been produced by Felt for the entire run of the offering. Each year they change them up a bit. This year they head in a new direction with the addition of 29″ wheels and a new Felt tire.
The embargo will run out on … other stuff in about 10 days. Check back for more revelations then.
Since my decision to start writing about mountain biking again, I’ve been doing all I can to log miles on different equipment, though I admit I’ve skewed things in the 29er direction. I’m not a downhiller, never really was, and that’s even if you count me competing as one of the final two riders to attack the Mount Snow Downhill on a fully rigid bike. I swear.
It was 1991 and I got huge cheers all the way down. People were screaming, “Go rigid! Go riiiigiiiiid!” I was fourth from last, which means I not only beat the other guy on a rigid bike, I also beat two guys with suspension. Given that the field was nearly 100 riders, it was a victory roughly as hollow as a politician’s promise.
So like I said, I was never really a downhiller, which would be my justification for not really going after any 26″ bikes. Were I still riding in Memphis, or some places in New England, I’d be open to it, but around here, with all these fire road climbs, it seems silly to do a long, nontechnical climb on 26″ wheels. However, I’ve been known to swear by 26″ wheels at the apex of any switchback. It’s a bit like how there are no atheists in foxholes, though not nearly so dire.
In talking with a product manager friend recently he noted that for a mountain bike product manager to spec the most universally useful tire on a mountain bike, that is, the tire that will work on as many different environments as possible, the effort will result in lousy reviews because those most adaptable of tires tend to be heavy. Spec a race tire and you can shave a half pound off a bike, even though it might make the bike handle like a Fiat 500 in a quarry.
So while the difference in road tires can seem dramatic, when compared to the wide differences in mountain bike tires, road tires differ by a matter of degrees. I’ve been using the Panaracer Driver 29 Pro as my primary tire this year. I’ll ride it for a while, take it off, ride something else, then give it another try. Inevitably, the scenario is less thorough than that might read. I get fed up with how easily this marathon tire breaks loose in turns, only to end up dismayed at how slow another tire climbs, and I put it back on. Because the tire is 2.2″ wide, there is some meat there to grab the ground, and while it can float nicely on sand, it really does break loose the moment the bike is leaned more than a few degrees. These tires could have been called the Rogue for all they choose to do despite your input.
There are plenty of knobs on this tire. That’s not the problem. The trouble is that they are smaller than the average income of a self-employed writer. No names mentioned. And while those side blocks look like they’d catch once you get the bike leaned over, the tires break away too much for me to trust that they’ll eventually hook up. I’m not saying that they won’t hook up, just that I chicken out before I can get there.
But oh, how they roll! I don’t care what the surface is, if you’re riding in a straight line, I suspect the only tire that would be faster would be an 0ld-school slick. It’s absolutely the fastest tire I’ve ever ridden. The challenge of matching tire to conditions is both this tire’s promise and Achilles heel. It’s never going to be at its best in loose and often sandy conditions. However, I’ve ridden places where conditions do tend to be a good deal firmer. There were places I rode in the Berkshires where this tire would be star geek in calculus class.
Panaracer claims the tire weighs 590g; mine was a bit closer to 600, but that’s close enough for a non-racer. What surprised me is that the tire could be so light despite being only 66 tpi. I’d have expected anything this light to be 120 tpi. The upshot is that even though it’s a reasonably light tire, it has proven to be exceptionally durable. I’ve yet to experience a flat with this tire, though my record of flats on 120 tpi tires is dismal. The Driver 29 Pro comes in only one size, the 29″ x 2.2″ and carries a suggested retail of $56.
What I wish I could manage to do is revive my former ability to drift. If I could just get a feel for when these would break away and by how much, I might not have much interest in running other tires. Alas, that muscle memory seems destined, currently, to remain just that—a memory.
Final thought: It’s not you, it’s me.
I’d like to get one thing out of the way now, just so we’re clear, and because I don’t see drama as an option.
These are the finest bib shorts available. It’s not really up for discussion.
Some will complain about the price, and at $369, that’s a bunch of greenbacks out of your wallet in exchange for a single garment. I once spent roughly that for two jerseys, two bib shorts, arm warmers, a vest and a skinsuit. But that was 14 years ago and those bibs could do things to my undercarriage worthy of scenes in “50 Shades of Gray.” The rest of the pieces were all, at some level, rudimentary pieces no one would mention in a postcard home. Some will observe that at that price, they simply couldn’t afford even one new kit per year.
This is a crazy amount of money for a single pair of bibs; I know that.
I’m not going to suggest these are the bibs for you. If you have anything like a middle-class income and a marriage you want to last at least through the next presidency, ordering a pair of these could be a bad idea. Which is a shame, really.
Were this any one of the millions of gear-centric sites on the web, I could probably have concluded the review following the third sentence. But readers of RKP know I can’t shut up after only 50 words. Reviewing a piece of gear like this is half the fun of my job. This little exercise, which may seem like a paid-for advertisement for Assos, is really just an excuse for me to write about craft and the pursuit of excellence. I have a thing for folks who really walk the walk, especially when they are the CEO of the company. The Fi.13 bibs are the shorts that Roche Maier, Assos’ resident Don Quixote, wanted for himself.
I dig that.
So even if you know you’re not going to plunk down your lettuce on a pair of these bibs, here’s why you should keep reading: These bibs have a host of features you’d do well to look for in other, less expensive, bibs. You won’t find exactly the same features anywhere, but there are elements of these bibs that are going to gradually show up in other bibs as time does that little marchy thingy.
The crux of these bibs really comes down to the chamois. If there were only one feature that I were to focus on for Assos bibs as a whole, it would be their pads. The Uno pad is is amazing, better than most companies’ top-of-the-line units. But that’s only Assos’ entry-level product. The chamois in the Mille (say Mee-lay) is a rose among weeds, an Eames among toilets. It’s so fine that you can be forgiven for thinking no one could top it.
So what makes the Fi.13 chamois so special? Were I an employee of Assos, I’d give my patented, exasperated eye-roll. It’s the same eye roll that Aston Martin salesmen give. Where to begin…?
Well, now that I’ve danced around it a bit, I should mention the elephant in the room. Yes, that name. If you can call it that. The folks at Assos just refer to these as the eff-aye-dot-thirteen. Even they concede that to say tee-eff-aye-dot-thirteen-underscore-ess-five is in the next orbit beyond mouthful. It’s not even a term of art. It’s computer code, just minus the machine language. Now that I’ve dealt with what to call them (I mean, other than expensive), let’s consider the product itself.
Permit me a moment to talk about what you see at Interbike. That is, what you see at Interbike when you’re not at the Colnago booth, or the Campagnolo booth, or getting Mario Cipollini’s autograph or chatting up the models pouring espresso at the Marzocchi booth. There are apparel contractors at Interbike. These aren’t the apparel companies whose names appear on the tags of your team kit. These are the companies supplying textiles to the factories that actually make the clothing for companies like Hincapie, Capo and Sugoi. They usually occupy nondescript 10×10 booths and they’ll have a whole range of pads that you can select. One of the things I’ve seen repeatedly are pads that have been designed with little darts and tucks to make them conform to the shape of the shorts. The idea is that these adjustment will make them better follow the legs of the shorts, wrapping around the saddle more.
It’s not a bad line of thinking, but it is a wrong line of thinking.
Let’s think about what a pad really needs to do. It doesn’t need to conform to the saddle. It needs to conform to you. It needs to curve front to rear, effectively cradling you and your faucet. So what Assos did was start molding a pad not as a single, flat piece of padding, but in 3D, building the cradle into the pad. I’ve seen the Fi.13 pad on its own and it won’t lay flat. This curved construction has another excellent effect. The bunching up of material that can happen when a thick pad gets sewn into a curvy pair of cycling shorts doesn’t happen with these bibs. As a matter of fact, you can tell the Fi.13 bibs from anything else on the market because they hang weird. Unlike top bibs from every other company I can think of, the legs of the Fi.13s are held apart by the pad, like a ref between two angry ball players. This pad doesn’t have a crease to make the shorts lie flat on the drying rack.
That brings us to another point about this pad: It does not follow the example of so many other pads that use multiple thicknesses to create channels of reduced pressure. The interesting thing is how often these various channels end up working like hinge points, meaning the pad is more likely to bend there than at other points. The dimpled surface of the pad maintains a mostly uniform thickness across its surface, though it’s not perfectly consistent due to the aforementioned dimpling. That dimpling is meant to help with ventilation, to keep you drier on long days.
Back to the Mille pad for a second. That pad is designed specifically for riders who are apt to sit up a bit more and have more of their weight rest on their sit bones. That’s why the Mille pad is 10mm thick. If you’ve ever thought that maybe the Mille pad was a bit too thick, that might be why. The Fi.13 pad, by comparison, is meant for riders who rotate their hips and as a result have their weight spread over a broader area, and as a result is only 8mm thick.
Lest I give you the impression that the pad in the Fi.13s has a single, form-following curve, that’s not quite right. There’s actually a second curve to the front of the pad. Call it a pocket, if you will. The idea here is that it will cut pressure on your groceries. So while you don’t look so indelicate as a ballet dancer, there is definitely a pronounced bulge at the front of the bibs. It’s a sight that, in the mirror, is reassuring. I’ve always found it disconcerting the way so many shorts make a man look like a Ken doll below the waist.
So when I donned a pair of Fi.13s for the first time, I was immediately aware that I was wearing a garment meant for a specific duty. The molding of the pad is such that the bibs are pre-shaped to sit on a saddle. The very first time I pushed off, took a couple of pedal strokes and sat down I was struck by that extra ease I experienced in sitting down on exactly the right spot on the saddle. It wasn’t huge, but it was tangible.
Because these are Assos’ ne-plus-ultra shorts, they decided to spec a fabric on the inside of the thighs that stretches less than the material used elsewhere in the shorts, in order to move more naturally with you, while also offering increased durability as your legs rub that fabric against your saddle. That unusual stitching at the back of the pad is intended to allow more more independent cheek movement; it works. But don’t let little stitching touches throw you. This is a six-panel short. Stitching is kept to a minimum in order to keep you as comfortable as possible. The fact that this is a six-panel short makes me chuckle. I spent years in bike shops steering everyone to eight-panel shorts because they fit better than six-panel shorts. That was the pitch. Tonight, I fully expect to have a nightmare in which a pair of six-panel shorts walk up to me says, “How you like me now, bitch?!”
Compared to its predecessor (the S2), these bibs are supposed to be 20 percent lighter and offer 20 percent more muscle compression. I don’t know about you, but I’ve worn plenty of compression shorts that use materials like Power Lycra. While support seems like a really good idea, if a pair of shorts is too tight, I begin avoiding them. I’ve had the experience of looking into a drawer, seeing a particular pair of compression shorts and thinking, “Oh, no, I can’t wear the corset shorts today.”
I am quite definitely a freak, but I can’t be the only person who has ever thought that.
With the Fi.13 I get a certain amount of compression without feeling like I’m wearing the two-headed bastard sire of a tourniquet and a diaper. I mean, really, where’s the fun in that? A great pair of bibs shouldn’t require chamois cream for installation and ought to feel comfortable when you pull them on; medical devices are for the injured, right? Right.
Assos claims that these bibs are also 35 percent more breathable than their predecessors. Part of how they attempt to achieve that is by running the mesh used in the bibs right down into the crotch. I’ve no way to verify that number, but what I can tell you is this: In the hottest, sunniest weather I’ve experienced this year the Fi.13 has proven to be the pair of bibs that keep me driest. Maybe not perfectly dry, but drier than even some of the allegedly summer-leaning clothing I’ve tried this year. I’ll take it.
The Fi.13s are available in two colors, black and unforgivable—I mean black and white. I’ve yet to see anyone wear the white. If I had half the charisma of Mario Cipollini, I’d give ‘em a try, but I don’t, so like all the intelligent people I know, I’ll stick with black. They also come in six sizes: small, medium, large XL, XXL and TIR. (For folks who haven’t been to Switzerland, that’s a little joke; “TIR” is what the Swiss put on the back of a truck to indicate a wide load.) I’m about 160 lbs. and wear the large.
I’m going to add a little testimonial to this review. This spring I decided it was time to make sure that my family of four remained a family of four, if you get my drift. There was a consultation, a needle, some tugging, a bit of smoke and some time off the bike. In my first attempts to return to the bike I noticed a curious affinity. Those first rides demanded everything be situated just-s0. On my first three rides, the only shorts that made riding possible were the Fi.13s. Mind you, this was following a 12-day wait. I took my time. There was one day where I wanted to ride, but the Fi.13s were on the drying rack, so I pulled out every other pair of bibs I owned and kept trying to see if something else could provide not the same comfort, but just adequate comfort. I was only seeking enough comfort to enable me to ride for an hour. It didn’t happen. I didn’t comfort. I didn’t ride. I didn’t happy.
Group riding is one of the cornerstones of our sport, two people, two-hundred people, single-file or in a long lumpen mass strung out down the road. I know of many local rides that have been together and going off like clockwork for decades, groups with their own custom jerseys, and others who organize and sponsor organized events for themselves and outsiders alike.
Equally, there are a million ephemeral little groups, folks pooling in parking lots, shaking hands perfunctorily before rolling out, temporary alliances that pass Saturdays and centuries together.
All of these rides operate under their own guidelines, some rigid, some quite loose, and I find it eternally interesting which rules folks think are universal, often things they’ve brought from another group or were taught when they first started out.
I will confess that I don’t like to ride in groups larger than five. That seems to be the tipping point for human organization, though I am sure your results vary. None of the groups I ride with are so regular or so long-established that order has had time to impose itself on a larger scale.
Some of the things that will push me away from a group ride include: guys “soloing” off the front to prove they’re stronger when the tacit purpose of the ride is to log some miles, talk some shit and generally escape responsibilities; big messy groups that block traffic, put people in danger and exhibit a general lack of concern about same; groups who drop weaker riders on non-training efforts.
I’m a pretty easy going guy, willing to go along and get along with almost any bunch of riders at least once. I have this idea that, once you show up to a group, you stay with that group unless there is an agreement to split up that makes sense for the safety and goals of all involved. There is a social contract involved. Isn’t there?
I have a tendency, as do most, to ride with the same people over and over again, but I also feel inclined to engage new routes and new experiences, so I end up saying yes to ride invites as much as I can. It’s a good way to keep it fresh and meet like-minded souls, even if you only ever roll with them the one time.
This week’s Group Ride asks about your group rides. Are they big? Are they small? Are there a lot of rules or only a few? What should the universal rules be? What do you like about the groups you ride with and what sets your teeth on edge?
Image: Matt O’Keefe