I love sports. If you give me a choice between watching a sitcom on TV and watching a sporting event, I will choose the sport every time. If you ask me to choose between going to a play or going to a race, I will choose the race. I have a degree in philosophy, and I was reared on public radio, opera and frequent trips to the museum, but really, I’m a fan.
So the last two pro cycling seasons have been strange. As riders both past and present got more transparent (or were made more transparent), it became harder and harder to tell who to root for.
Let me back up a moment. Let me outline some of my basic ideas about sport. First, while I love the game or the race, my enjoyment, my true passion, depends on having an interest in the outcome. Pro wrestling has understood this from the beginning. As much as we love the physical exploit, the subtext of good guys vs. bad guys is an equally compelling part of the entertainment. Even if we are only watching one rider hurling him or herself against a steep European col, we want to know that rider is pure of effort and will.
As I sit on a Saturday afternoon to watch football (soccer) with my sons, they will invariably ask who we are rooting for. They want to know who the good guys are. This comes before understanding the nuance of tactic and skill for them, and I believe it is elemental to the enjoyment of sport, even when your rooting interest is only nominal, even if you are not fully invested, a card carrying member of some metaphorical tribe.
So part of the problem for me, in continuing to follow pro cycling, is that I don’t know who the good guys are anymore. I think I know, but whatever willful ignorance I had cultivated has long since fermented, leaving only a surfeit of skepticism and a dull hangover.
But as I said, I love sport.
And it’s true, at least for me, that watching the pros inspires me. Motivation can be hard to maintain on the 24/7/365 plan. I need to draw on as many sources as I possibly can.
So I plan to renew my effort to follow the races in 2014, to read deeply about the good sensations of the Italians and the stoic perseverance of the Belgians, the tragic second-bestness of the French and the imperious, even hubristic temerity of the Spanish. We’ll leave aside the British for now. I’m half-British myself, and it gets complicated, so much easier to hate family than friend.
This week’s Group Ride asks the question, who to root for? Who to support? Who are the good guys/gals with legitimate chances to win races? Are you ready to turn this corner with me? Or will you sit out another season, content to watch Breaking Bad reruns or sit silently in the museum courtyard? Is your own riding enough now? Was it ever not?
Image: AFP/AFP/Getty Images
A friend I don’t get to ride with very often came into town and joined us for our Wednesday ride today. At some point, after we’d done the chit-chat about our riding lives, he asked, “So how’s the rest of your life, the part I can’t read about on RKP?”
It was then that I resorted to what has become my standard line regarding 2013; “I won’t lie. It’s been a hard year.” Not counting checkups for the kids, I’ve spent close to 60 days of the last 13 months inside hospitals. I’m aware there are times when I behave with a shell-shocked detachment. In that yin/yang cycle of riding between discharge and recharge, I’ve been in months of recharge. I haven’t been doing many group rides and the ones I’ve been doing haven’t been the fastest ones; I choose groups that are small. I’ve ridden less than half the miles this year that I rode last year.
Most days, the Deuce’s stay in the NICU is less a memory than a memory of a dream. It doesn’t seem real, but all I need to prove just how real it was—and remains—is to look at one of his scars. I still struggle with the words, “We nearly lost him.” Of course, “lost” is but a euphemism, a soft-soap way to waltz with the concept of death and maybe shield our eyes from the full view of what that experience was.
And we’re still dodging bullets. While I was at Interbike I received a text message from my wife informing me that Matthew would need physical therapy because his neck had a limited range of motion. The nurses who tended to him were always at his right, so while in the incubator he looked up and to his right to see them. He is paying a price for it now; he has trouble turning his head left. His head is also slightly misshapen due to all that time in the incubator and the doctors were concerned that he might need a helmet to put things right. Fortunately, they say he’s not so bad that it’s required. Sure, he’d improve more quickly, but we’re told that by the time he enters kindergarten he’ll be as normal as you or me.
There’s a greater truth to what these challenges mean, what they add up to. When I look at the Deuce, I see a miracle. Not in the crazy violation-of-physics way, or even the modern-medicine way, but in a much smaller way, simply staggered by the sheer unlikeliness of the outcome, of his continued presence and ongoing growth. Now nine months old, he’s 30 inches and 21 pounds, all of it against the odds.
So, yes, I’ve got much to be thankful for, plenty to be thankful for and my gratitude is something I have the good sense to note, to breathe in every day.
But that’s not all I want to express my thanks for today. I need to thank you readers. I’ve got at least a half dozen different reasons to be grateful for this readership, but the one that’s on my mind right now is your indulgence. When I launched RKP I really didn’t intend for it to veer into such personal material to the degree it has at times. In the case of the Enter the Deuce series I didn’t have much choice. I did what I needed to in order to get through. I wrote my way through the experience and I suppose part of the reason the events seem so dreamlike is that I spent dozens of ours typing as I sat in the hospital. I may have taken in events primarily through my eyes, but they were processed through my fingers.
The degree to which you indulged me is yet another miracle to me; this time miraculous not because it couldn’t happen, but because life just doesn’t work this way. Allow me to explain; two or three days before we were able to bring the Deuce home I decided to finally check Google Analytics see what the damage was—that is, just how much our readership had fallen while I’d abdicated my seat.
Our numbers held steady. It was unlikely the way a nine point earthquake is unlikely. While it can happen, it just doesn’t. A couple of weeks later at the Sea Otter Classic our ad sales director, Wayne, tried to explain what I’d been up to and I finally cut him off and simply said, “For more than a month, I wasn’t really doing my job, but our readers stuck by us.”
You did me a kindness I’ll never forget.
Padraig: Is that where you grew up?
David Wages: No, actually I grew up in upstate New York. It was a big move for me to come out here. I got started at Serotta before coming out here. I worked in a bunch of shops before starting there.
Padraig: What’s the riding like in Waterford?
David Wages: You know, it’s actually really good. I was a little skeptical when I moved out here. There are lots and lots of little back roads. They call them rustic roads. They cut a lot of roads to connect all these dairy farms. You can do tons and tons of road riding without coming across a lot of traffic
There are not a lot of big hills—no mountains at all. I’m terrible at a short sprinters’ hills; I’m much better when I can get on a long hill and get a rhythm going.
Padraig: How did you get your start at Serotta?
David Wages: It’s funny because I had been obsessed with bikes as a kid. When I got the job at Serotta it was just a job. I was initially working packing and shipping bikes. I didn’t think I’d be a builder. Kelly Bedford was the one who showed me the basics.
I left Serotta for a year and worked for a bike shop. When Ben bought the company back he knew I was interested in brazing and he called me and asked me to come back.
I was there about two-and-a-half years before I left for Waterford. I got in and learned the whole process. There were a couple of people who came back after Ben bought the company back. After a few years I started asking myself what I was going to be doing long-term. I realized that if I stayed at Serotta I’d be doing the same thing for a number of years. I was looking for a way to break out. I called Waterford and asked if they had any needs. They were and when told them my credentials and asked if they’d be interested in talking they decided to fly me out.
Even though the interview was January I still moved out here. I spent almost exactly eight years there. When I moved to Waterford I didn’t think I’d be here in Waterford this long or even be at Waterford Cycles for that long. I kind of thought I’d keep moving west. I didn’t have a dream of Ellis yet, really wasn’t thinking of starting my own business.
The realization that I wanted my own business came when I realized that even if I do the very best work I can do, it doesn’t guarantee success. Everyone in the company has to be just as successful as me for the whole company to be successful. As an individual builder, now I have control over whether I do well or not.
It’s a one-man shop, totally. It does require more discipline, though. Especially working at home, it’s a lot harder than people think. It’s different than going to work at Waterford, where I would go in and do my eight hours and then head home. It has a lot of upsides, too. If I’m looking at a design and think, ‘Gee, it seems like this frame ought to have a pump peg,’ now I just pick up the phone and call the customer and talk to them about it.
Padraig: Where does the name Ellis come from?
David Wages: Ellis is my middle name. It’s also my great-grandmother’s maiden name. Sort of a family name that’s been passed down. I like that it’s an homage to my family.
Padraig: Do you ever work in a material other than steel?
David Wages: I did a little bit of welding at Serotta, but it was such a right brain/left brain thing for me, it just didn’t come naturally to me. I decided I’m just gonna stick with brazing. When you braze you move the heat around—you move the torch around a lot. When you weld you hold the welder still but move the rod. It’s the exact opposite for me in terms of technique.
Padraig: Who makes the tubing and lugs you like to use?
David Wages: You know, I probably, the biggest percentage of tubing I use is True Temper. I got really used to using it at Waterford. I like being able to purchase a la carte, tube by tube. I also buy a fair amount of Reynolds. I’m looking for specific tubes for a specific use. It really depends on the bike. I’m trying to find specific tubes of specific diameter and wall thickness.
Some bikes that are called custom are not as custom as people think. The builder may use a single tube set. It’s not terrible, but it’s not being tailored to an individual rider. There’s so much subtlety, such as what the rider is going to use the bike for. Choosing each tube one-by-one for the frame gives me more control in achieving the customer’s goals. That’s what separates stock from custom.
I get asked about what I think of carbon a lot. People expect that I don’t like the material. I’m not against carbon. I tell people, ‘This is what I offer and I think there’s a value to it.’
I’m fundamentally a form-follows-function person. That’s not to say that I think that clothing, buildings and home furnishings all need to be austere to the point of Bauhausian sterility, but I think that style should never trump substance. Having said that, I accept the reality that such an outlook makes me a candidate for both the worst home decorator and least romantic male of the 21st century, even though it’s early in this 100-year span.
That preference is borne of a hopelessly strategic approach to most dimensions of my life. Practically, that has translated to an affinity for technical fibers (including wool). Show me two jackets; if one of them, thanks to the use of a special fabrics, happens to be both lighter and warmer, I’m inclined to go with it, even if it doesn’t look quite as workaday. On the contrary, many years ago, when I was living in New England, I realized that I enjoyed having people note my preference for specialized garments. I didn’t really care what they thought of my choice; back then I just like that they noticed I wasn’t wearing some cotton coat that would lose it’s ability to keep you warm or dry the moment it started raining or snowing, and during the cold months of the fall, winter and spring, that could happen a couple of times each week.
That said, there are plenty of people who try to use their outerwear to project something they are not. I’m thinking of lawyers with Carhartt barn coats and urban yuppies who’ve never seen a ski left, let alone a mountain, decorated in the finest down from The North Face. My urge is to make a statement more authentic, not less so. And while anyone is entitled to wear what they want, I appreciate pieces that confirm I’m active. That means my outerwear is cut for my cyclist’s physique and I prefer items that offer as much warmth as possible while simultaneously throwing overboard the homogenized style of Old Navy. In short, I like pieces that don’t necessarily scream “cyclist” while still conveying that my wardrobe didn’t come from Macy’s. RKP T-shirts are handy in this regard, but they aren’t all that warm.
There are two pieces in my wardrobe I’ve decided are worth mentioning; one, a piece from Giro’s New Road line, is a recent addition, while the other has been a part of my cool weather rotation for a couple of years. That piece is the Assos DB.4 kickTop. Again with the crazy names. Around the house, when I can’t find it, I just refer to it as my Assos pullover, to which my wife will respond, “Your black one?”
Compared to a couple of similar (though cotton-constructed) pullovers I have from Ralph Lauren, the DB.4 kickTop is lighter, warmer and includes two zippered pockets. Both zip to the neck in the event of a chill breeze. Unlike the pullovers from Ralph Lauren, the Assos device won’t wrinkle, packs into a backpack like a dime in a pocket and in the event of rain dries as quickly as a toddler’s tears.
The bad news is that Assos has decided not to carry this piece in the U.S. anymore. You can still find some around, but it’s not easy. Ah, the power of Google.
Giro has been adding new pieces to its apparel line and easily my favorite piece from the fall line is the new Soft Shell Jacket. It’s cut from medium-weight polyester (304 gm/m²), which makes it heavy enough to keep you comfortable down into the 40s yet light enough that I never overheated in around-town trips and could jam it in a small bag when traveling. Despite the fact that it is cut from polyester, the jacket doesn’t have that shiny finish that makes you look like a square. Part of its ability to help regulate temperature comes via two small chest zips that open vents right at your collarbones. Given how small they are I wondered just how much they could do; I was surprised to realize that they offered just enough ventilation to keep me from breaking a sweat when chasing Mini-Shred around the neighborhood.
Inside the jacket, it’s got two chest pockets big enough for a pair of sunglasses in their case, while there are two zippered pockets for hands or keys. There is a fifth pocket at the small of the back, zippered on both sized with the capacity to carry a loaf of bread or a couple of water bottles, it’s that big. I didn’t discover it until reading about the jacket’s features because it was so well cut that it is completely concealed when not in use. Kinda makes it the perfect jacket for riding to a party without worrying about how to bring a bottle of wine.
To keep the jacket form fitting both on and off the bike, it is cut with raglan sleeves. While the zipper starts at the center of the bottom hem, but then sweeps to the right at the neck to keep soft fabric at your chin. When zipped up, this feature is terrific, but when the jacket is unzipped, there are times when the collar will rub against my chin and it can be hard to keep it out of the way. The cuffs stretch to keep the wind from running up the sleeves while elasticized drawstrings at the hem allow you to gather the jacket around you a bit more when riding.
The Giro Soft Shell Jacket goes for $250 and comes in five sizes (S-XXL). It comes in but one color, dark heather gray, which has proven to be as versatile as gray flannel. Noteworthy is how Giro positions its return policy alongside the garment’s features. In a sense, their commitment to your satisfaction could be said to be one of the jacket’s features. I just can’t imagine anyone returning one of these things. Wearing this both on and off the bike is a chance to wear a garment that suits me and my lifestyle.
Our species likes stories to be relatively straightforward and with a minimum of characters. Just think of how many movies you’ve seen with half a dozen or so speaking parts. Off the top of my head I came up with Rear Window, Castaway, Gravity, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, The Shining, My Dinner With André, The Sixth Sense and No Country for Old Men. Those are all great stories, but they are just stories.
History is different. The real world is crawling with hordes of people all with their own agendas, generally central only to one story—their own. It’s why so many films that we describe as epics—think Ben Hur, the Godfather films—are histories.
Such is Wheelmen by Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O’Connell. Simply put, it is a history of doping in U.S. professional cycling, which is to say it is much more than just an account of Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace. I’ve heard a fair number of friends of mine say they plan to pass on the book, that they know everything contained within it. I can say with some confidence that this book will contain plenty of surprises for nearly any reader.
There are questions this book doesn’t answer, such as the mechanism that caused the Justice Department to shut down its investigation into Armstrong and Tailwinds, and while it’s a question I’m desperate to have answered, the book cannot be faulted for what it didn’t do. Too often, books are criticized for not anticipating a reader’s every desire instead of attacking only what they did poorly.
Sharp-eyed readers will notice some factual inaccuracies. In defense of the authors, I’ll note that the errors I caught were minor points and not ones that ultimately skew the narrative. They’re on the order of writing that Trek is based in Minnesota, not Wisconsin.
This is a sweeping narrative, one that in film form would benefit from Cecil B. DeMille or Francis Ford Coppola. It’s that most American of stories—rags to riches—and then because we can’t abide anyone staying on a pedestal for too long, a tipping of that pedestal—with prejudice. We’ve been reading this story in bits and pieces, one small episode at a time, but now, with “Wheelmen” we get a chance to read it as one flowing epic, and because the writers know an active verb from a passive one, the book is a compelling read, difficult to put down until either nature or dinner calls.
To their credit, Albergotti and O’Connell stick with the rule not to editorialize. Believe me, this is a book with culprits by the bushel, but you’re left to decide how to apportion the blame. While there’s been plenty of ire for Trek because how how Greg LeMond was treated, I think the authors show what a no-win situation John Burke was in, or at least what a no-win situation he believed he was in. They also do much to bolster Julien Devries’ credibility as a witness to the internal workings of Tailwinds with respect to both doping and illicit payments. As a result, Nike comes off looking much worse than Trek in that they are alleged to have been actively involved in the coverup of one of Armstrong’s alleged positives. It is Oakley that comes off worst for having taken a very active role in discrediting the Andreus. To the degree that any company who protected Armstrong might be in for some backlash, Oakley is the most deserving of the bunch. (Guess they won’t be advertising with us….)
There seems to be a fair amount of lingering ire for the riders who confessed to doping while on U.S. Postal/Discovery. Now that we have a single narrative that paints a much more complete history of the top echelon of pro cycling here in the U.S., it is my hope that Thom Weisel, Steve Johnson and Jim Ochowicz receive the scrutiny they deserve. When I think of the harm done to cycling by the doping of the last 20 years, guys like George Hincapie and Levi Leipheimer seem like small potatoes compared to the disservice done the sport by Weisel, Johnson and Ochowicz, and yet there’s no discussion of banning them from the sport. Justice is rarely just, huh?
The single most surprising detail contained within the book concerned not Lance Armstrong, but Jan Ullrich. To say any more would make for an epic plot spoiler, one on the order of an obscenity spewing anger that I’d richly deserve if I broke the drama by revealing it here. That one page of the book deserves a post of its own.
Because we know this story in broad strokes, it would be easy to skip this book. Don’t make that mistake. This will stand as the definitive account for American cycling during the EPO era, a documentary of how cycling’s power brokers lacked the moral compass to do that right thing, ever.
I try not to write about weather too much, even though, as a cyclist, I am fairly obsessed with what is happening outside. I monitor a variety of meteorological services more than once a day to stay up to the minute, to glean every possible detail before I step out the door.
Is it a problem? I don’t know. I think I could quit if I really wanted to.
And in bringing up winter (again), I am only too aware that many of our regular readers are in Australia, not to mention the other cycling nations who cling steadfastly to the underside of the planet. So bear with me.
Yesterday, the local department of public works carted 15 bags of leaves away from my house. This event marks, in my mind, the true beginning of winter. With all the leaves down, there is nothing left but for the snow to fly. Of course, in true New England fashion we marked the passing of the leaves with a bracing round of icy rain showers that made my regular Friday morning ride into something of a survival event.
I find myself wondering when the winter is going to winter on us. I know my friends in Minnesota are no longer wondering. It’s already wintering there.
This week’s Group Ride asks a few weather-related questions. First, how heavy a winter is coming our way? And who do you believe when they tell you what it will be like? Second, how deep into it will you ride? What are your criteria for staying off the bike? If you ride straight through, what is your key to surviving the worst days? For our friends in the Southern Hemisphere, you will be coming into summer now. How did you do this past cold season?
I’ve ridden in my fair share of charity events over the years. From the original AIDS Ride to rides for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) and a couple of MS150s, I’ve participated in all manner of feel-good events. The recent discussion here regarding charity events overlapped with my effort to pull together a post on a ride I did a few weeks ago with friends.
Called the Tour de Turtle, the ride was meant to raise funds for a charity called the Painted Turtle. I was struggling with the post because initially, I wasn’t clear on just why I felt so compelled to write about it. It couldn’t boast the prettiest course. Or the most difficult course. Or even the most fun.
The ride began in Lake Elizabeth at the far northern reach of Los Angeles County. It’s easily a half hour from LA’s most northern suburbs. The roads out there aren’t terrific, and last year a fire passed within 100 yards of the facility, burning acre upon acre of scrub, chaparral and trees. Imagine leafless wrought iron trees on the moon and you’ll have the general idea.
It is also impossible to argue that there was anything more inherently rewarding about helping this charity as opposed to any other. All it takes is meeting one person with cystic fibrosis, juvenile diabetes or multiple sclerosis to be moved by impact these rides can have. Sure, there have been plenty of examples exposed of so-called charity rides that delivered more profit to the organizer than it did assistance to charities—Palotta Teamworks, the organization behind the AIDS Rides, suffered terribly when it was revealed that only a few percent of what riders raised went to the benefitting charities—but on the whole, rides tend to be more transparent in the work they do these days.
The Painted Turtle is unusual among charities I’ve encountered in that it is a summer camp for kids who are too ill to attend traditional summer camps. They have the ability to look after the medical needs of kids with 30 different life-threatening conditions while giving them a pretty normal summer camp experience.
When some friends asked me to join them for the ride, one of the first things a buddy of mine said to me was that the camp was started, in part, by Paul Newman, Lou Adler and Herb Alpert. Famous people aside, I’ve always respected the things Paul Newman has lent his name. It didn’t take long for me to decide I’d join in.
What made the ride so different wasn’t the fact that they served us breakfast, though the fruit and oatmeal were terrific. It wasn’t that the post-ride lunch was even more delicious than the breakfast. It wasn’t the crazily dressed and upbeat volunteers at the rest stops.
What made the Tour de Turtle so different was the simple fact that we started and finished at the facility. We got to see where the kids play. We got to see the musical instruments donated by families, sometimes showing a plaque in memory of a former camper.
Maybe I’m just a sap, but it was pretty easy for me to project my son’s circumstance 10 years into the future, supposing for a moment that he’d spent that time bedridden and too developmentally stunted to go to a traditional summer camp.
The poignancy of the freedom that children and their families must feel while there was palpable to me. Thinking about the relief that would come from leaving the hospital behind if for only a week took me back to our time in the NICU. The Deuce’s stay was only 37 days. These kids have been in and out of hospitals their whole lives.
Prior to the beginning of the ride, we watched a brief video that showed the camp in action. It became clear that for the staff, this isn’t a job, but a calling.
I began to appreciate that this was a vacation not just for the kids, but for the whole family. I only wished we could have gotten to meet some of the kids, see them enjoy themselves.
There’s a value and connection for me that came from seeing the actual place where the fundraising would benefit. While I didn’t need to feel satisfaction, rolling back into the camp at the end of the ride gave me a very tangible reminder of just what the ride was about and who would benefit.
For more information, visit The Painted Turtle.
The line shifts from left to right and back again beneath my wheel, the shoulder of the road marked by a thin strip of white paint, its surface reflective where it hasn’t been worn away by tire tread and time. I spend a lot of time looking at that line, staying to its safe side when there is room, wondering how safe the line really makes me as my fellow travelers sit in their driver’s seats noodling with the stereo or texting their friends a fresh LOL.
When my bike was being built I had the opportunity to sit with the painter to talk about finish ideas. I knew I wanted a matte, battleship gray color to feature, but didn’t know quite what to do with it. He pulled out a gray tube, and told me to follow him. Into the drying booth we went, where he located a matte red sample and held them together. I knew in that instant what my bike would look like.
In steep stretches of pavement, on Pyrennean climbs and throughout the Alps, you will find the fractured scrawling of so many cycling fans who, over the years, have urged their favorite riders on with painted benedictions or sometimes cursed certain other characters with fierce imprecations, too. Most of these amount simply to the repeated statement of a rider’s name. The lengths of road anointed with these markings have always reminded me of the altars and memorials humankind has maintained since time distant, all cluttered with the well-wishing and magical thinking we allow ourselves to believe will have some influence on events.
The charm of these locales has only been diminished, in my opinion, by the invention of the Nike Chalkbot, a corporate-sponsored (albeit charity-inspired) robotic cycling fan, made to channel the fervor of fans who might not have the wherewithal to make it to the site of the race to paint the road themselves. But what are those words worth, chalked mechanically on the route, if not imbued with the sacrifice of travel, the pilgrimage, or the real human effort of applying paint to asphalt?
How your bike is painted makes a difference. Whether you have the opportunity to speak with the painter beforehand or are simply choosing a set colorway and scheme from what’s available at your shop, you are still expressing something about yourself with your choice. You want something understated, or you want something that looks fast, or you want something that won’t look like any other bike on the road. These are all personal expressions, and they are all important. Even if you say you don’t care, your not caring says something about you.
I used to think a time would come when all the roads here in Boston would be lined with bike lanes, that the proliferation of paint would make us safer. I’ve since abandoned that idea. I was riding in a bike lane the first time I got hit by a car. I’m not sure who said it, but someone smart, someone deep in our cycling community said, “Paint is not infrastructure.”
Paint has this way of telling you which way to go, of drawing your attention and letting you express yourself. The bike isn’t made of paint, but sometimes paint makes the bike. So I ride the white line and try to stay on its right side, and I tell myself I’m safe, that paint is important. To cyclists, it always has been.
Image: Matt O’Keefe
Sometimes I find myself thinking about stuff I want, and I think, ‘yeah, I’m gonna get that stuff. It’s going to be great.’ And then I catch myself. I remember that getting stuff very seldom makes my life better. It’s doing stuff that makes me happy, and for sure, there is some relationship between the two, for example you have to have a bike to ride a bike, but at this stage in my life I’ve got so much stuff that a lack thereof is not what’s holding me back.
Last night a new helmet arrived at my house, sent to me by a company to review here on RKP. It’s a cool helmet, and I was impressed with it right away. I’m looking forward to trying it out. Stay tuned for more on that, but as I took it out of its box and formed first impressions, I also thought, well it’s heavier than my current helmet (they all are), so I began the process of putting it into context.
For most products, context is everything. I have yet to receive a review product that didn’t excel at some part of its intended function, and I think a good review highlights what a thing is good at, while acknowledging the ways it might fall short.
A good review should keep you from getting a thing and being disappointed by it. A good review should help you spend your money with a reasonable knowledge of what problem the product will solve for you. It’s harder to write that review than it might seem.
In truth, there are relatively few real revelatory products out there. There is a lot of pretty good stuff, a smaller, but not insignificant amount of very good stuff, and then this small, select number of game-changer items. One example of a game changer is a particular, thermal under-layer made by Exte Ondo that Padraig sent me a few winters back. It is the warmest, non-bulky, perfect-fitting winter riding thing I own. When I put it on, I know I’ll be warm enough. And comfortable. I can’t think of any way to make that thing better. I can’t think of any way it comes up short.
I am extremely fortunate to get regular exposure to new cycling stuff, and I take an active interest in hearing from my legion of riding friends what they like and don’t like. Despite knowing that it’s the doing not the having that matters, I am still very interested in having. But as I get older, I’m really only interested in having those best things, the game changers. I don’t have the time or room for stuff that just sorta works.
So this week’s Group Ride asks, what one thing do you have in your cycling life that you think is perfect? How did it change the game for you? And how many other things did you try before you settled on it?
In riding the Xpedo Thrust SL I experienced an odd and surprising epiphany, one only tangentially related to my own preferences in cycling gear. With one possible exception, it is possible I’ve never ridden a a Look-compatible pedal at full tension. The one possible exception occurred years and years ago; I took a friend’s bike for a quick spin and his bike was equipped with the first-gen Dura-Ace pedal. I’d been riding the just-released Ultegra pedal, and that pedal’s major difference from the Dura-Ace was that it didn’t feature adjustable release tension. I went around the block on my buddy’s bike and when I pulled back into the parking lot at the shop where I worked, I twisted my heel—or rather, I attempted to twist my heel.
Nothing happened. I fell over.
In the intervening time whole music styles have come and gone, so I hope you’ll pardon me when I tell you I no longer recall whether he told me he had the release tension maxed out or not. Regardless, the release tension on those pedals was set so high that I had to hold the bike still while I wrestled my foot free from my unintentionally prone position.
I mention that as a way of framing my first mile on the Xpedo Thrust SL pedals. I rolled up to a light at an intersection only slightly less busy than O’Hare Airport. I twisted my heel, and when nothing happened, I made a quick right turn and rode up the handicapped ramp and on to the sidewalk and then gave it a second try, this one with a fair dollop more determination. Second time, charm, blah, blah, blah.
That experience wouldn’t be worth mentioning were it not for one significant detail: the Thrust SL does not feature release tension adjustability. Just why that isn’t a complete knock against it I’ll get to in a sec.
So how to to frame the release tension against what’s out there? I could tell you the Thrust SL is the exact opposite of the original Speedplay X pedal, but that doesn’t really tell you much. More helpful is to say that the Thrust SL’s release tension is set higher than any adjustable Look-compatible pedal I’ve tried straight out of the box. Most companies set their pedals right in the mid-range of release tension. The Thrust SL, I’m informed, features an elastomer spring set at about 80 percent of maximum release tension of Xpedo’s other adjustable pedals in the Thrust series. One does not clip out of the pedal unless one fully intends to.
So here’s where I tell you that I don’t flail. Years ago I was diagnosed (if you want to call it that, and I do) as having a biomechanically precise pedal stroke. My pedal stroke features no heel swing and used to feature no side-to-side knee movement. I can ride the black cleat. I mention this not as a brag, but to put in perspective why I’ve tended to ride with my pedals set to very low release tension. I don’t flail. I’ve never unintentionally clipped out during a spring (well, I did once, but that was because the cleat was worn out).
All this is to say make damn sure you want a pedal with high release tension before buying this pedal. So why such a cautionary message? Well, the next two features are why there might otherwise be a run on this pedal. If you run the red cleat, it features the smoothest, most unrestricted float of any Look-compatible pedal I’ve ridden. That’s helpful to any aging cyclist.
Construction features a carbon injection-molded body and a either a chrome-moly or titanium spindle. The chrome-moly pedals retail for $169, while the ti version goes for $249. My pair of the chrome-moly pedals weighed a but 202 grams. That’s not easy to do. That’s also 8gm less than they advertise. If you want to go lightweight, be aware the ti spindle does mean that this pedal has a 180-lb. rider-weight limit. The pedals use three cartridge bearings, so these pedals should last a very long time.
It’s a terrific pedal, but the release tension took some acclimation. They’re ideal for anyone who fancies himself a sprinter and still wants a light pedal that’s practically impossible to scrape when pedaling through corners.