I am no one and nothing. This is as much a statistical expression of my importance as it is an exercise in humility. One of roughly four billion of my species, alive for a picosecond of geologic time, my individual identity, diluted still further by a pseudonym and the ephemeral nature of this pixelated medium, is vague and fleeting to the point of comedy. The ‘I’ I refer to may not really exist, may just be a whorl of dust in infinity, is at the very most a product, a projection, of all those other whorls around me, all of us sheltering under an angry sky, capering across our lives in flight from predators both real and imagined.
I sometimes get all caught up in what people think of me, as if that matters, as if I know what they really think, and if I knew, as if I could change myself. I am, in no small measure, what I’ve been made by everyone else. Put me in a line of cyclists, and I will pedal. Put me in the grocery store, and I will shop.
Identity is a funny thing, how we perceive ourselves, how we define our “true selves.” I have mostly ceased to believe in such a thing. And while that may seem sad, the idea that there is no true me, nothing unique or special or abiding about my existence, it is also enormously freeing. It gives me less to maintain, less ego to coddle and stroke.
In looking at myself, I can break down almost completely what I am trying to express by putting on these shoes, this shirt, getting my hair cut just this way. It’s fun to paint that picture. It’s what we do, as humans. In fact, it may even be a reaction to our insignificance that we set so much store by our individual identities, tilting at the windmill of our comical sameness.
We love constructing identities so much that we even anthropomorphize objects. We name our cars, our bikes. We ascribe them genders and describe their personalities.
And while I’m not one to name my bikes, if I squint, I can just about see who they are. My road bike is a Frenchman, more of a swashbuckler than I am, a little more buttoned up, a little more confident. My mountain bike is a harried surgeon, very particular about his lines, very deliberate in all his decisions. I wish sometimes he’d let loose, but it’s not in his nature. I have another road bike who is clearly a college student with tastes which surpass his means. He’s that guy who will never properly grow up, but will wrinkle pre-maturely, maybe even color his hair and then pretend he hasn’t. He’s vain, with no real cause to be.
It is ridiculous to talk about bikes this way, but for me, it seems no more ridiculous than to talk about myself this way, and it’s more fun, less freighted, less (un)important.
This week’s Group Ride asks not who you are, but who is your bike? How did he/she/it get that way? Do bike identities change? How? Who do you wish your bike really was? I suspect my bike is better than me. Is yours better than you?
I recently experienced a surprising and unexpected musical performance, one that begged more questions than it answered. But before I get to the existential quandary that performance imposed on me, I should back up and talk a bit about what I saw.
There’s a tribute band called The Musical Box. They have devoted themselves to Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. It’s like devoting your career as a film historian to the movies of Marlon Brando made prior to the death of James Dean. I need to get on record immediately with the admission that I’ve thought tribute acts, as a category, were silly, like hunting for Mexican Diet Coke, as if that were a thing. Look, I was in plenty of bands that did a more than adequate job of playing other peoples’ material, but the idea of going to see a bunch of guys perform nothing but songs from one band seemed weak at some elemental level. While I can’t say exactly why, the more cynical bones in my body thought it was a special lack of imagination. Let me be clear, I thought of tribute bands as a kind of glorified cover band, a self-absorbed frat party act.
I’m fortunate that I have friends who can point out when I’m being a pinhead and ought to remain more open-minded. I’m also fortunate that these same friends are easily as devoted to the early Genesis material as I am and had actually seen The Musical Box, so they could actively advocate for the superlative quality of their performances.
So on a recent Sunday night my wife, friends and I went to see these five Quebecois musicians perform a selection of songs from Genesis’ 1972 album “Foxtrot.” In addition to those songs they did three songs from earlier albums that appear on the album “Genesis Live.” This is stuff that serves as a textbook example for Progressive Rock, capital P, capital R, for better or worse, depending on your personal view. I know plenty of people who detest this stuff. It appeals to me on a multitude of levels, from the visceral fun of the music, to the technical dexterity required to play it, to the themes contained within the lyrics, right down to the production values and even the cover art. Early Genesis was, for me, the whole package.
What unfolded on stage that night was an event so unlikely as to be surreal. It was very nearly an elaborate joke. The performance wasn’t just an accurate performance of some material that was terribly difficult to perform correctly (I can report this from personal experience), it was a note-for-note replication of the performances contained on those two albums. Not only was every note replicated, they were played on the same period instruments (save the famously wonky mellotron), with the same tone, dynamics and demeanor. Hell, they wore the same clothing and the costumes that Peter Gabriel made to use during those performances. Peter Gabriel actually gave them his old costumes. And the between-song banter and song introductions? Nailed ‘em.
So thoroughly did these guys capture the essence of Genesis that there were times when as I watched them, I simply forgot that I was watching an ensemble other than Genesis. I’d blink my eyes and remember that the vocalist’s first language was French. Interviews with the members of Genesis reveal long-simmering tensions about the challenge of performing their material correctly night after night. The performance by The Musical Box was flawless, and that points to a Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not! moment: those guys are actually better than the original.
Not only did Peter Gabriel give them his old costumes, their web site features testimonials by the members of Genesis on just how good they are. Gabriel says he took his kids to see them so they “could see what their father did back then.” But Phil Collins’ testimonial is perhaps the most effective. Collins says, “They are not a tribute band, they are taking a period and faithfully reproducing it in the same way that someone would do a theater production.”
As I walked out I told my wife that what we’d just seen was, from a musical standpoint, the best performance I’d seen in years. It wasn’t just that what they played was technically accurate; rather, what they did honored the original intent of the music. It reminded me of a recording I have of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. The conductor worked with the record label to go back through Tchaikovsky’s original score and look at the parts for the cannons at the end of the piece. They noted the rhythms and dynamic markings and then went out to a field and had someone fire period-correct cannons that they recorded and integrated into the final recording. The first time the final mix of that recording was playing in the studio was the first time in history that Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece was heard as it was intended. How’s that for mind-blowing?
The Musical Box’s performance came from a place of such deep respect that they could be called a tribute band in the truest sense of the word. Still, I had trouble articulating to her and to myself why I’d found the performance so rousing. A religious experience this was not, but it reached something in me that almost no other musical performance I’ve seen in the last 20 years has managed.
As I struggled with the question of why I was so wowed, I considered how I’ve passed on going to see the Rolling Stones (and a number of other aging acts) over the last 20, maybe even 30 years; it was for exactly the opposite reason. If you watch a live performance by the Stones, you see that the underlying fire to their music is largely gone. Mick Jagger’s voice is more gravel than tone and the loose rhythm to Keith Richards’ guitar work, which was once stylish seems now just to be sloppy. There’s little left to them other than Jaggers’ swagger, which is something to marvel at, but isn’t enough to command me to spend upwards of $100 for an opportunity to sit in the next area code.
That—now that—begs the question of just what we are looking for in a live performance. I’ve realized that it’s not enough for me to be in the same room with performers who were once great. I want to hear music. Shouldn’t that really be the first priority? It’s the music that got me interested in the first place. If you play great and can shake your ass, then great, but I’m not showing up just to see you shake your ass. If your priority is the dancing there’s this thing called ballet, or you can go see a tango recital.
And so I’m back around to why that performance was so affecting that four days later another friend and I drove 100 miles to go see these guys again. Same bunch of songs. No matter. At root, it was a chance to witness someone being very, very good at something, something that was damn difficult. Nothing against AC/DC, but “Back in Black” this ain’t. This material is difficult the way quantum mechanics is difficult. I also recognized a special regard for the audience. Anyone going to this trouble really cares about the people buying tickets, really wants them to have a memorable experience. Given the number of acts I’ve seen that barely phoned in their performances, this is a kind of commerce the world needs more of.
There was no obvious need for me to relate my reaction to those performances back to larger issues in my life, but I’m much too introspective to let something like this go. Within the collective urge by these guys to honor Genesis’ music I see a parallel in the bike industry. I find it in the people who toil somewhat anonymously in building for a name like Waterford or Seven, cutting fabric for Assos and Castelli. Those names are an implicit mark of quality and demand a level of precision difficult to achieve without a commensurate passion for the work itself. Does anything really need to be that difficult, that precise? No, but excellence is rarely found without bucketfuls of passion. Being witness to such an intense replication of that music was first-kiss heady. I’m awed to say that these play-actors performed with such faithfulness that my connection to that material is stronger than ever. I came to appreciate nuances—playfulness and irony—of songs I’d missed by only listening to the albums.
All-in is a favorite descriptor of mine. It speaks to a commitment that isn’t possible without an underlying fire. Those five guys reminded me why I’ve been writing about bicycles for 20 years. Quality matters. It always matters.
All this fucking snow. Excuse the f-bomb, but as I tell my kids, if the context demands it there is nothing at all wrong with the word. It’s not all the snow’s fault, either. Its enabler, the cold, is lingering at 30-year-lows.
The snow is so nice, so beautiful, as it falls, limning the leafless branches of the trees. The road disappears into the neighbor’s lawn, all of it paper white, a giant blank canvas to imagine the summer against. Cognitive dissonance creeps in here, looking out the window, trying to hold the winter stillness in mind, contemplating warmer weather, less clothing, more riding. Snow storms more or less demand you stand in windows, staring vacantly, thinking these thoughts.
Once the plows come rumbling, dropping their blades concussively to the pavement to scrape away what they can, and once the salt trucks visit, broadcasting sand and calcium chloride across the resulting mess, you are left with something that looks not unlike the bark of the white birch, mottled and rough, dark in patches. The main roads are the trunk, the side roads the branches. The white birch is also sometimes called the canoe birch, because some native tribes used it to skin their canoes.
During every storm, a great levy rises at the edge of the plow line where the snow piles, churned by the broad plow blades into a sort of cement. The shoveling can be easy until you reach this levy, and then you need dynamite and a crew of metal shovels to break through, to reconnect yourself to the world.
This snow bank, which shrinks the useable asphalt to a narrow strip, will look like the tide as it recedes, melting, all froth and sand pulling back, dwindling, going away. Bits of garbage melt out like fetid time capsules.
While it’s not true that Eskimos have a hundred words for snow, there is a period in the life of each flake during which it is rideable. One of my very favorite times to ride is between the first dusting and the fall of the third inch. There are complicating factors, of course. If the snow is too cold, and there is a frozen under-layer, then you can’t ride it. The meteorological dominoes have to fall the right way. When they do, and the temperature remains cold and stable, this magic snow can remain tacky for as many as two or even three days. Once the first melt comes on, even a momentary thaw, the whole surface turns to ice again, and you’re lost. It’s over.
I like it best when the snow is actively falling.
My first snow ride this season featured 12F temperatures and a stiff wind. I set out at night, the flakes swirling in my headlights, and the cars idling in stand-still traffic like little huts of misery, their drivers watching me pass, thinking I was crazy but wishing they could be moving, too.
The next weekend it snowed again, and with more time on my hands, I headed for the woods. Alone there except for a few cross country skiers, I struggled to remember all the features of the trails I’ve ridden hundreds of times before, like going to your favorite restaurant only to discover they’ve changed the menu, and the cuisine, and the decor.
All that fucking snow. It gets hard to know what to do with it. By the driveway it got high enough that I struggled to throw more over the top of the bank. On the bike, some kids with sleds pointed and laughed as I churned through the fresh snow in the park by the house, on my way where exactly? I have been off the bike more than I have been on it, but I have stood in the window thinking hard on it. It’s so lovely, as it falls.
Image: Matt O’Keefe
When I was at Press Camp in 2012, I got my first look at products from Kali Protectives. Founder Brad Waldron is a former aerospace engineer who found his way into cycling for the same reason most of us working in the industry do—he had a passion for it. Following a stint with the heavyweights in Morgan Hill, he went on to found Kali Protectives. At the root of his desire to start Kali was his interest in pursuing the conehead technology invented by Australian Institute of Physics member Don Morgan.
In broad strokes, Morgan’s conehead technology uses high density foam for the majority of material at the outside of the helmet while placing lower density foam near the head to help dissipate impact energy. Rather than simply slapping one layer on top of the other, Morgan’s idea was to create a number of small cones of lower density material penetrating into the higher density material. Were you to see just the low-density portion of the helmet, it would look like something out of Mad Max. Spray paint it black and splash come fake blood on it and you’d have an ideal post-apocalyptic film prop.
More important is how this technology has been shown to decrease the G-forces experienced in an impact. I’m always careful to say that I review products; I don’t test them. It might be a semantic point to some, but I think testing would, in this case, mean submitting my head to an uncomfortable impact while ensconced in this device. And to do a proper job, I’d probably have to submit my head to yet another, though not covered by anything than my silver fox mane. Nothankyou. The chart above tells me all I really need to know about this technology. It compares the difference between traditional EPS foam helmets with Kali’s early Composite Fusion Construction helmets and their newer Composite Fusion Plus Construction, which is found in the Maraka and Phenom helmets.
Above is one of the sections of the Maraka mountain bike helmet, prior to integration with the other sections. The concept of using different densities of foam to build a helmet that further reduces the possibility of a traumatic brain injury has been gaining interest and acceptance, and now the technology and design are beginning to catch up.
I began wearing the Maraka when mountain biking last year for one very simple reason: it was more comfortable than the other mountain bike helmets I’ve tried. It doesn’t provide quite as much rear coverage as some of the newer enduro-style helmets, but in a move that I’ve yet to encounter in another helmet, Kali uses sections of memory foam molded into the shell to further cushion the head. I get how everyone wants a light helmet and an ultra-ventilated helmet, but I really don’t see the point in having bare EPS sit directly on the head, even if you’re like me and still have plenty of hair.
The yellow sections in the shot above are the memory foam elements molded into the helmet and the black dots are the velcro dots the pads attach to, which is to say those locations are places meant to make contact with your head.
I liked the look of the Maraka well enough for mountain biking, but the road version, which was simply this helmet without the visor, didn’t wow me. Fast forward a year and Kali has introduced the Phenom, a road-specific helmet that really gets the look right, while keeping the conehead technology.
The look is rakish and aggressive, like you took one of the crazier Euro helmets and allowed a student from Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design (where BMW gets all their new recruits) to fix it. Ventilation seems on par with the other helmets I’m wearing, though I have to admit this time of year that on most of my rides, I’ve got a cycling cap beneath the helmet to actually reduce air flow due to cool (certainly not cold) air.
Kali is offering Phenom in just two sizes (small/medium and medium/large) while the Maraka comes in three sizes (extra small/small, small/medium and medium/large). There are two white vents at the temples (you can just see one of them in the image above) and they are the only opportunity for perching eyewear on my small/medium size helmet. I was able to fit Smith Pivlocks, Giro Havik IIs, Shimano Equinox and Spy Screws in the vents without too much difficulty. Oakley Radar frames have larger earpieces and don’t like to stretch much, so they didn’t fit. And the wrap of the Assos Zeghos is so great that not only did they not fit this helmet, they really don’t fit in anything.
The occipital retention device, called the Microfit System at the back of the Phenom features the largest opening I’ve encountered in any such mechanism. It is absolutely the best such device for anyone with long hair that needs to be pulled back in a ponytail. There is one small downside to this. Unlike the systems found in helmets from Giro and Specialized, this thing can’t be adjusted much; there are but two positions. Even with it set in the upper position, I’d like to adjust it upward half a centimeter to a centimeter because the straps that reach forward to the temples sit very close to my ears. It’s not uncomfortable when I first put the helmet on, but I do notice a bit of discomfort after two or three hours if I’m not wearing a cycling cap beneath the helmet. The device would be a bit more comfortable if I could move it up just a touch. It seems designed for a helmet larger than this one, though the folks at Kali tell me this helmet is intended to have a very deep fit.
My one other issue with these helmets is that they haven’t moved to the lighter weight webbing I’ve encountered in helmets like the Aeon and Prevail. I’m less concerned with helmet weight than I am with how the thinner material absorbs less sweat and feels more supple against my skin. Now, on the subject of weight, while the Maraka is reasonably light for a helmet with a visor, at only 259 grams, the Phenom weighs a fair bit more at 310g.
There are those who complain that a single-serve device such as a helmet is just too expensive, and given that many of them run to nearly $300, I can see some resistance to that. However, the Maraka and Phenom will be a welcome switch. The Phenom is only $159, while the Maraka is only $189.
As someone who’s had two concussions, I can say I’d really like to avoid them in the future. Any company willing to pursue technology that might reduce the impact my brain experiences has my attention.
One of my favorite features of the bike industry is its low threshold to entry. If you want to manufacture something in the bike industry, depending on just what you want produce, the fixed costs to launch your company can be relatively low. On the downside, it means we get some undercapitalized operations that wink out of existence even before most people are aware of their existence, crushed by the weight of their own promise. Asphalt, anyone? On the upside, surprising talents can launch reputations from a garage, Witness Chris Bishop.
For those with more industry savvy, relationships that span the globe and an actual credit line, you can launch a brand-new bike company. Volagi has been around for three years now and if the name of the company seems more familiar than the bike itself, it probably has to do with the lawsuit the fledgling brand found itself embroiled in with Specialized. Our man Charles Pelkey covered it in one of his Explainer columns. Technically, Specialized won one piece of the case and lost a few others, while the pricipals at Volagi claimed victory because they won the PR verdict with the public. Given all the money that went to “guys in pinstriped Italian suits,” as Charles put it, he was right in assessing there were no winners for the case.
Had Specialized limited their suit to the alleged Volagi owners Robert Choi’s and Barley Forsman’s alleged breach of their employment contracts—the jury did find that Choi violated the therms of his contract—this might have played out differently and less expensively for everyone involved. However, Specialized chose to sue Choi and Forsman for the Liscio’s patented “longbow” design. This might also have played differently had Choi and Forsman not chosen to patent their design; you have to figure that really got the attention of some folks in Morgan Hill. Specialized’s contention was that Volagi’s decision to join the seatstays to the top tube, rather than at the more typical location of the seat cluster, was an idea they’d lifted from the Roubaix. On this point, Specialized lost.
I don’t wish to retry the case here, but I knew there was a need to address the event that has resulted in the majority of the media coverage Volagi has received since its launch. Having ridden both bikes, including every iteration of the Roubaix, I can report that while the two bikes both belong to that class of grand touring bikes, they ride quite differently. I’ll get into the specifics of the ride of the Liscio a bit later in this review.
Animal or vegetable?
So just what is the Liscio? it deserves to be defined on its own merits, on the designers’ intent, rather than in relation to another bicycle. The company’s tag line reveals some of the bike’s purpose: “By endurance, we discover.” It’s an elegant line, one that I wouldn’t mind seeing in Latin on the seat tube or head tube. It also lays out a purpose too broad to be just another racing bike. And I’ll admit, the line contains enough regard for wonder that I felt an immediate soft spot for it when I read it.
If the lines of the longbow frame didn’t immediately betray the bike’s aim, then two other features about the bike should help establish the objectives open to the rider. First is the immediately apparent use of disc brakes. I can’t think of another component that can be spec’d on a road bike that will more immediately announce that you’re looking at a bike of a different feather than disc brakes. The appearance of two discs says nothing so much as, “This ain’t your buddy’s racing bike.” In addition to the disc brakes are the 25mm-wide tires. Now, a cynical product manager can use a wide tire to cover for a harsh-riding bike, but to do that with a frame design you’re trying to convince people is more comfortable—not less so—would really undercut the bike’s sales pitch unless your larger statement is that the Liscio is a go-anywhere road bike.
It is, and I really put that aspect of its design to the test. I’ll get to that in a bit.
For all the talk that gravel-grinder rides have been getting in the last year, there’s been surprisingly little talk of bikes designed specifically for those with an adventurous spirit. Some of that lack of talk is due to lots of riders just using ‘cross bikes, while others have used it as a chance to advocate for custom steel. Nothing wrong with either of those options, right? But what of producing a top-shelf road bike from carbon fiber just for the go-anywhere-with-drop-bars set?
This bike was, if I may, ahead of its time by just a couple of years. Volagi launched with this bike in 2010, but the idea of gravel grinders didn’t really start to catch on until 2012. Now, before any of you go to the comments section to tell us just how long you’ve been doing these rides, my purpose isn’t to argue about how far back any of you were cool. I’m simply talking about when enough of us were doing this sort of thing that it began to get the industry’s attention in a serious way. It’s fair to suggest that Volagi had their ear to the ground far sooner than most of the industry. The downside to this is that this bike might have enoyed greater acclaim had it been introduced last year.
So why a carbon fiber gravel grinder bike? For all the frustrations that carbon fiber has presented us—let’s see, there’s easily broken frames, expensive repairs, even more expensive frames and components and the general anxiety caused by the threat of damage any time you want to travel with your carbon fiber bike—the material has also given us some irrefutable advances. Road bikes have never been more diverse in appearance, fit range and ride quality. Those are all selling points. Quite simply, if you want to build the ideal gravel grinder, you’d do it from carbon fiber for the simple reason that you have the opportunity to start with the broadest palette.
Having just made the case that this is a gravel grinder par excellence, I want to put the brakes on that perception and say that this bike is a plain-old, straight-up road bike. I’ve done a fair number of group rides on this bike. There’s nothing in its handling, fit or layup that handicaps it for everyday use. This is a road bike that simply isn’t limited by road surface. That’s an important distinction. Where I live, I have to ride for at least a half hour to get to any dirt roads, and to get to the interesting ones I have to ride for more than an hour. For the groups I ride with, just what bike you choose for our dirtier excursions becomes a real point of conversation. It may not be of the order of conversation of whether you choose a ‘cross bike or a mountain bike for The Crushar in the Tushar, but rolling a knobby 32mm tire pumped to 60psi while other guys are pushing the pace on 23mm slicks pumped to 110psi (and destined to get flats later) can leave you suffering all the way to the start of the dirt.
I rode the Liscio on several asphalt/dirt combo rides this winter and it was the perfect bike for those days. Due to, uh, personal limitations, I wasn’t the first to the top of any of the climbs, but I was able to descend every bit as well as anyone on a ‘cross bike.
What I’m noticing in moving between different bikes is that some of them simply don’t impart as much shock when I hit bumps. I’ve had engineers talk to me about just how little movement is taking place when the frame is loaded. The numbers are so small any reasonable person would conclude that frame flex is a figment of our collective imagination. However, in the last month I’ve ridden five different road bikes and even when I’ve made an effort to minimize variables I’ve come to an inescapable conclusion. Those tiny amounts of flex matter. The Volagi Liscio, courtesy of its patented longbow design, simply doesn’t jar me as much when I hit bumps.
It’s been a hard winter. I won’t elaborate too much here (because I’ll do it elsewhere), but suffice it to say it’s been hard to get rides in. Even when you summon the will to leave in sub-20F temperatures, ice and snow make the proposition tricky. The roadway is much smaller, and utilizing main roads to connect more bucolic sections gets more tense. The level of planning necessary to pull off a good ride in this weather is often more than I can manage, given the other requirements of my middle class existence, chief among them youth hockey.
My wife said, “What makes this time of year so hard is that you can’t pin your hopes on spring. It’s too far off still. So you don’t have anything to look forward to.” It was that sentiment that led us to purchase four plane tickets to visit family in Wales. Something to look forward to. Whether we can afford it or not.
Then, this morning, Dan said, “You know what’s good for the winter blahs? A bike project.”
Yes. Something to look forward to. I can’t ride, but I can build a new bike to ride when the ice pulls back from the asphalt, when the mud starts harden on the trail. Again, whether I can afford it or not, this makes good sense.
The riding I have been enjoying the most over the last few seasons is this sort of mixed terrain stuff sometimes called gravel grinding, which, while alliterative, makes me cringe every time I hear it. Because I live on the fringe of the city, the trails and dirt patches we ride are often tucked behind people’s houses or stuck on the back of public parks. It feels like poaching on someone else’s land. For me it has, a little bit, the same vibe as the So Cal kids of the ’70s and ’80s skating people’s empty pools while they were away at work during the day. It stokes the coals of (extremely) latent teen rebellion that still churn in my over-stimulated brain.
So I’m building a bike. I am piecing together a parts spec. I am making up my mind, then changing it, making not very much progress, but achieving my chief aim, which is to think about something other than the 6 inches of snow still sitting heavily on the roof of my house, melting out into stalactites of ice during the day, building itself into ice dams and tearing at the shingles.
This week’s Group Ride is about projects, about the things we’re looking forward to. What are you working on? What is the point? Is it a new bike or a new training program? Is it a trip or just cleaning your chain and getting back on the road? Cyclists are very seldom still. We are always plotting and planning. Maybe it’s just cleaning the garage. What is your plan?
Images: Matt O’Keefe
The inexorable march of technology can be as infuriating as it is fun. I didn’t buy the first iPhone. I swore I didn’t need to be able to send email with my phone or surf the Interwebs. Then one day, 400 miles from home and busy trying to figure out an itinerary change, I suddenly realized that real-time access to Google Maps would make my life much easier. Either that, or I needed to travel with a filing cabinet full of maps. I went with technology. Ever since buying that first iPhone I’ve wondered how I got along without it. So elemental to my life is the iPhone that I can compare it to the bicycle in terms of its genius, its necessity, and I can do that with a straight face. No mock sarcasm or irony. Still, with each new introduction I wonder just how much better it could be.
And every single time I catch myself going, “Oh. Wow. Cool.” Imagine how I’d feel if I used Siri regularly.
I wasn’t thinking of the iPhone when Assos announced last fall that they were introducing a new series of bibs. Four pairs total, the S7 line replaces the S5 with four different models, as compared to three. No, what I was thinking of was just who I was going to have to kill for discontinuing the finest pair of bibs on the market. I had heart palpitations when I considered the possibility that the Fi.13 bibs would cease to exist. It’s like no more Grade B maple syrup. No, I’m sorry; that’s not workable. We’re going to have to find an alternative. I didn’t have a problem with them adding new models, but when your top-of-the-line bibs are easily twice as good as everything else on the market (and I swear, nothing comes close to the Fi.13s), what on earth must you be possessed by to think, “Okay, nix those”?
Who does that?
Of course, all my gnashing of teeth happened before I rode anything from the new S7 lineup.
Then I pulled on a pair of the Équipe bibs. It’s a good thing I didn’t speak ill of them before their introduction.
So the S7 lineup has four bibs. The NeoPros are the entry level. The Équipes are next in the lineup. The Cento is third and then Campionissimo is the new top-of-the-line bib. Assos has set up a microsite devoted just to the S7 bibs. There’s a great interview with Tony Maier Moussa, the company founder, there.
With a suggested retail of $270, the Équipe bibs accomplish an unusual feat by turning a nearly entry-level product into a magnitude of premium most manufacturers would find unthinkable. A quick survey online shows that there are a fair number of brands whose best bibs cost less than the Équipes. For some brands, that disparity would be alarming, a signal that they misunderstood the market. But not Assos.
I recall reading an interview with East Coast mountain bike pioneer Chris Chance back in 1987 or ’88. I believe the interview ran in Mountain Bike Action and the interviewer may have been my friend Dan Koeppel. One of the questions he put to Chance was, “What would you tell someone who only had $600 to spend on a mountain bike?” Now, back in ’88, $600 was a helluva lot of sawbucks to spend on a bicycle, doubly so for a mountain bike, but a Wicked Fat Chance ran more than $1000. So how did Chance respond?
“I’d tell them to save their money.”
I was a nearly destitute graduate student. Saving money was as impractical a goal for me as growing gills. Yet, I loved that answer. I liked the man’s principles, and I made a point to tell him so when I met him a few months later—even as I rode an $800 GT Avalanche.
Placing principles ahead of all other concerns is a stance that appeals to me at a very elemental, even visceral, level. If I may, I’m of the belief that too much is done with an eye on cost. Chasing a commodity seems a pointless endeavor, and the pursuit of producing something for the lowest possible cost seems a kind of cancer. I’m reminded of astronaut Alan Shepard, and what he had to say about his Mercury rocket.
“It’s a very sobering feeling to be up in space and realize that one’s safety factor was determined by the lowest bidder on a government contract.”
That’s always unnerved me. It’s offensive to my sensibility, as well.
But back to Assos. I’m using their images for the overall shots of the bibs because I don’t look cool enough to model anything, certainly not with my shirt off. I’m doing you a kind of service.
What I find so mind boggling is the way this company dustbinned their entire S5 line of bibs. I went on record calling the Fi.13_S5 bibs the finest on the market. Yes, at $369 they were nearly as expensive as the last set of tires I purchased for my car, but they were more comfortable than anything else on the market by order of magnitude. But they are no more.
So I tried on the Équipe bibs and even before I’d managed to pull the strap up I noticed an unusual feature. That same feeling that the Fi.13 bibs gave of cupping my package and getting it out of the way of my leg movement was present in the Équipe, although at only 75 percent of the cost. This feature is the Kukupenthouse, a term that has gotten more than a touch of derisive laughter. However, this is Assos at their most Assos. Sure, it’s a ridiculous name, but it’s a feature that has a distinct benefit and isn’t duplicated by any other bibs on the market; it’s truly unique to Assos.
The pad in the Équipe bibs enjoys an unusual relationship to the shorts. It is sewn in at five points. This is Assos’ new feature called Goldengate. There’s stitching along the very front of the pad, then two wing points that help form the Kukupenthouse, and then in two sections along the back of the pad—but they don’t join at the middle. The purpose is to allow the pad more natural movement, more freedom to stay with you by allowing it to slide along the short. Think of the stitching as an anchor, not glue, for three-dimensional freedom of movement.
You may have noticed that the bib straps are spaced in an unusually wide stance. Previous attempts to space the bibs wide like this really haven’t worked out. The bibs I’ve worn that tried this either tried to slip off my shoulders or the bunched up around my neck. Assos’ Bibstabilizer is a small piece of fairly rubbery plastic sewn on to the straps to make sure they lie flat along the chest and don’t bunch up. They work; they also doubles as a place to hang your eyewear, as they are sewn only at the ends. Just hook an ear piece through.
Helping to keep those bib straps wide is the (wait for it) Y7 Frame Carrier Bibtech. By using less spandex in the bibs the material bunches less and lays flat to keep the straps set wide. The upshot of the bib straps running wide is that your chest feels more open. Do other bibs restrict my breathing? I wouldn’t suggest that, but my chest feels more open with these.
You may also have noticed that the front of the short is cut pretty low, lower than most bibs. I’ll say that every time I pull these on (and it’s been several times per week since I received my pair) I want a bit more material covering my belly. I hate to have to keep talking about this, but I don’t have the flat belly of a racer boy anymore. And I don’t want my bibs to remind me of that. This is why I’ve never reviewed the Castelli Body Paint bibs; they are cut so low my belly … oh hell, you get the idea. What is both remarkable and frustrating is that the Équipe bibs seem to be cut just barely high enough to keep me from going muffin top. Still, I’d like it if the front was cut just a bit higher, but given that the Équipe is meant to be Assos’ most race-ready bibs, that’s not going to happen.
My friend Steve Carre at Bike Effect has already had the misfortune to crash in a set of the Équipes. My heart sank when he told me this. But because these are are meant for racers, Assos used an unusual blend of fibers in the shorts. They are constructed from fabric that is 70 percent polyamide, 18 percent elastane and 12 percent polyester. The intent was to create a fabric that was more abrasion resistant. Steve told me his bibs were fine despite the distance he slid and they even reduced the amount of road rash he got. Had these been out when I was still racing as a Cat III, this would have been enough to get me to purchase a pair, or two. Assos claims its Abrasionprotec increases abrasion resistance by 18 to 43 percent.
Other features include Assos Icecolor, which is their version of Coldblack, to keep you cooler on hot days, and the new Superflat Grippers which somewhat thicker leg bands to secure the shorts but they aren’t as restrictive as some out there. But these aren’t the big deal.
What’s more important is that Assos has been using memory foam since the S2 generation of shorts—one of only a small handful of companies to employ it. They also improved the Waffle and Superair features, which are the perforations in the pad that increase breathability to cut down on monkeybutt (that’s a motocross term) at the end of a long, sweaty ride. The pad is, of course, an Elastic Interface, made for them by Cytech and is proprietary to Assos. When I consider all these features plus the Kukupenthouse and the Goldengate, I realize that the Équipe bibs are every bit as good as the Fi.13 bibs.
I don’t like writing that.
I’ve got some minor quibbles, like how I prefer the way the way the front of the Fi.13s come up a bit higher and all the sublimation on the webbing in the back of the bibs. They aren’t a deal breaker. What I do think may have some impact on sales for these bibs is the purple stripe that encircles the left gripper that denotes these as the Équipe. What on Earth possessed them to do that? I know plenty of riders who color coordinate every piece of their wardrobe and getting that purple stripe to match everything you wear isn’t going to happen for every ride.
Whatever. These bibs are so good I’ll probably wear them with any jersey I own because they are so comfortable. I’ve worn nothing from another brand that comes close to how comfortable these bibs are—at any price. I was about to write about how these bibs are a game changer and then caught myself when I recalled how Assos’ ads for these bibs used exactly that phrase. Damn. They’re right.
I knew this day was coming. I was even looking forward to it, for marking a year is how we celebrate endurance. Still, as I typed the title, I found myself getting choked up. Those words, “Enter the Deuce,” take me back to a place scarier than the underside of any car, harder to fathom than any prose written in the Middle Ages. But they are also a reminder of how thousands upon thousands of people I don’t know, not to mention hundreds that I do know read with rapt attention Matthews difficult entry to this world.
And the reason those days are still so difficult, the reason that despite our relief at his blossoming is both simple and yet inverted. Fifty years ago he wouldn’t have survived his first hour, but now, a year later, he’s so much more than he was that morning. He’s got a personality that is happy, sunny enough to engage even people who don’t like babies and an appetite that seems to be a rebellion against all that time on a feeding tube. This. This is what we almost didn’t get. The more he is, the more I see what we would have lost.
And so how is he? He’s fine, in broad strokes. He has no lingering issues from the chylothorax effusion—that leaky doohicky that collapsed his right lung and forced the NICU to recommend what was ultimately a very successful surgery. That said, all that time in the NICU on his back in the incubator meant that he was starved for human interaction and he became very proficient at turning his head right and looking up so he could see his nurses when we weren’t there, which was a hell of a lot of time given the best we could do was usually only 10, maybe 11 hours per day. And there were days I missed. That still hurts.
So our little Deuce was really good at turning his head to the right and looking up. Turning his head left? Well, on that his performance was lackluster. We couldn’t fault him; all the incentive was at his right. It also meant that his head was a bit misshapen. A bit flat on the back and to the right and his right ear was forward of his left ear and stuck out a bit, in comparison. So there has been some physical therapy and a bunch of exercises and any time I hold him I try to position him so that he will have to turn to his left to see what’s going on. We visited with a doctor for a helmet evaluation and she said he was on the bubble, diagnosis-wise. She recommended against it, telling us that by the time he enters kindergarten he’ll be fine. Honestly, we’ve seen such an improvement just in the last two months, I have to really look to find the issues. He looks like a normal baby.
All that time in the incubator had another effect on him; he started moving around much later than most babies and the fact that he’d picked up a fair amount of weight with no corresponding increase in strength meant that he was really behind in learning how to roll over, sit up and crawl. As a matter of fact, he’s only managed to start getting his knees under himself in the last week. So he’s a bit behind developmentally. That could have happened even without the NICU, so I’m not worried.
In my last post about Matthew I shared that he had a couple of visible scars and my hopes for how they might fade over time. I’m pleased to say that the last time I made an effort to look, all I could find was the biggest of them, at the incision site for the tube that drained the fluid from his chest.
Of the many goals I had for RKP when I launched it, posting highly personal stories wasn’t on the list. The circumstances that took us down this road continue to amaze me. Had there not been such an outpouring of support following my crash, I could never have published the “Enter the Deuce” series. But there’s no question I would have written it, so I can’t help but wonder how RKP would have suffered as a result. There were some slightly awkward meetings with potential sponsors at the Sea Otter Classic. Wayne, our ad sales director would try to explain, delicately, that we had deviated a bit from our usual content for a few weeks. Eventually, I just started volunteering, “Look, I didn’t do my job for six weeks. But it didn’t hurt the readership.”
There are rules against that, you know?
So here again, I have to say thank you. Your support bolstered me through what was a nightmare existence in which the stress got so bad it compromised my balance on the bike. I had to stick to flat rides for more than a month. You also bolstered a site that might not have survived had you not been willing to tune in to read about a baby you had no reason to care for. That continues to make me wonder.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I don’t understand the reasons the bunch of you continued to read, but at root there is a simple and mysterious human act. You bestowed on me a kindness. I’ll be grateful for it to the end of my life.
So we’re going to have a bit of a birthday party His Tininess the Deuce this Saturday, February 22—the Deuce’s actual birthday. I am compelled to invite each of you reading this. If you’re in the greater LA metropolis, you’re welcome to join me for a ride Saturday morning. Saturday afternoon, we’ll have a little picnic at a local park complete with food and beverages (some benign, others less so). If you’re interested in joining us and raising a glass to the Deuce, drop us a note or friend me on Facebook and I’ll add you to our invitation list.
Again, thank you for your support. Now, if I can just get him to sleep through the night.
Let’s start with the obvious, shall we? The large self-propelled device in the image above these words isn’t a bicycle, is it? And yet this is a site that is allegedly devoted to cycling, right? Well, there are times when I’d like to think that this is a site that just uses the bicycle to get at larger, more human issues like community, culture and happiness.
It’s impossible to hid the fact that I like cool machines. Writing about cycling is a pretty terrific excuse to play with fascinating machines. Being a cyclist predisposes one to digging big, fascinating machines. As it happens, Los Angeles is the site to a new construction project worthy of at least minor media attention. Construction crews are working on the new Wilshire Grand hotel in downtown. By the time it is complete, it will be the tallest building west of the Mississippi River.
In a big city like Los Angeles, something is under construction at almost all times. One new building ain’t no biggie. Except, this one is. Because the ground here is prone to movement, the architect behind the new hotel wanted the foundation to be one single piece of concrete. To do that, the entire foundation had to be poured in one continuous movement. My wife and I figured that at least one of the boys would find it amazing, though I’m thinking she wasn’t referring to the four-year-old still lodged deep within me.
What sold us on going was the pitch that this was promised to be the largest continuous pouring of a foundation in history. Agents of that most hallowed institution of the extreme, the Guiness Book of World Records, were on-hand to verify that this was more concrete poured at once than anywhere else in the world. Beginning at 5:00 pm on Saturday crews began pumping concrete into the huge whole in a process that was to take 20 continuous hours of pouring.
The new Wilshire Grand promises to be some 73-stories, 1100-feet high, containing shopping and more than 900 hotel rooms. It sounded big, really big. And when is big not cool?
Those large crane-looking trucks are the concrete pumps. The construction crew used 19 of them in pouring the concrete for the foundation which is 330 by 440 feet, and lies 106 feet below street level. Mini-Shred was pretty fascinated so long as something either moved or made loud machine sounds. A good belch of diesel exhaust was enough to get his attention.
Given the number of very large vehicles moving around the restricted confines of dense urban landscape, the need for coordination was higher than any game of Twister you ever played.
I had a chance to speak with someone from the project and the details he rattled off were mind-boggling. It was like talking to an astrophysicist. The numbers were mind-stunningly huge. So each cement mixer carries 10 cubic yards of concrete. The foundation required 120 to 150 concrete trucks per hour. Each of those pumps had two trucks parked next to them at all times. As soon as one was empty, they’d switch to the one next to it, and the empty would pull out and another would be directed into position.
Here’s where the math starts to get interesting: One cubic yard of concrete weighs about 4000 lbs. So the payload for each truck was roughly 40,000 lbs. or 20 tons. Those pumps were directing between 2400 and 3000 tons of concrete into that hole, per hour. That’s a total of between 48,000 and 60,000 tons of concrete for the foundation, which when translated back into a measure of mass we have a visceral appreciation results in this figure: between 1,920,000,000 and 2,4000,000,000 lbs.
The Deuce, if he could talk, would tell you that Mini-Shred is by far the coolest person he’s ever met. Mini-Shred has yet to develop a taste for adulation, so scenes like the one above are about as good as it gets.
After the family outing on Saturday, I decided to get up early Sunday and head back to downtown by bike and see if I couldn’t gain a vantage of the hole. What I saw was staggering; it reminded me of something out of the War of the Worlds.
I’m amazed by just how small the shipping containers are. In the far right corner there’s a bucket loader that looks like a Tonka toy. I haven’t seen anything so fascinating since I stopped reading Richard Scarry books. For a brief moment, the world was new and I could be anything I wanted when I grew up.
No matter what your interest in cycling is, the last year has been one disappointment after another. The fallout from the USADA investigation and the Reasoned Decision made a mockery of cycling’s favorite rags-to-riches story. The implosion of Divine Cycling Group shuttered three brands—Serotta, Mad Fiber and Blue (though Blue has recently returned)—and stiffed more contractors than an auto-industry bailout. And how can we forget the Café Roubaix debacle? Independent of what we know for sure, people have used this as an example of all they find most reprehensible in American business.
As spectators to all of this, none of these events have really affected us in any personal way. Even the masters doping fiascos involving riders like Rich Meeker and David LeDuc haven’t harmed anyone in any significant way. But what these events have in common is that they have each, at some level, violated what many of us believe to be the social contract of a community we hold dear. We want cycling to be free of cheating, free of bullying, free of the kinds of business deals that make us long for nothing so much a bike ride to get away from the bullshit of business. I write this as someone who’s just been through the wringer with someone I once thought was a friend.
Perhaps we’re naive to think that cycling could be as pure as the joy of a bike ride itself, but because most people don’t work in the bike industry, cycling is meant to be an escape, a way to get away from the rest of the garbage that can make a day a disappointment. That desire is perfectly human. We each need at least one safe harbor, one place where we can turn to be free of the rest of our frustrations, and for those of us who have fallen for the bike, a ride shouldn’t be a reminder that some MBA is driving small brands under so he can make a mint on real estate.
My recent frustration with a business deal in which I think no one really got what they wanted got me to thinking about what could have been done differently, what I could have done differently, what the other side could have done differently, how at the end, we could all have wanted to get a beer together rather than me wanting a shot of whiskey—alone.
Clearly, cycling is in a state of transition. Mom and pop shops are being replaced by bigger, and in some ways more professional, bike shops. Pro racing seems to be the cleanest it has ever been, but at what cost? The rate of innovation on the product side is staggering and while some of those changes have been embraced (who doesn’t love GPS?), others have left some us of wary and suspicious (hydraulic disc brakes on road bikes). The ten-speed boom this ain’t.
So here’s this week’s question: Suppose for an instant you were the president of the UCI or WADA or the new CEO for some big bike company or maybe a brilliant engineer being courted by a bunch of VC money. Better yet, suppose you were some all-powerful god-like being, but just for 15 minutes. Suppose you had the power to change some fundamental piece of cycling for the better, what would you choose? What would you devote your energy to, how would you improve our world?