Strange but true. The North American Handmade Bicycle Show will celebrate its tenth anniversary with next week’s gathering in Charlotte, North Carolina. Has it really been ten years? How cool is that? Though I haven’t attended each edition (I missed last year’s because of the birth of His Tininess the Deuce), I’ve managed to visit about half of them and I’ve never failed to be wowed by the artistry and skill on display.
In the late 1990s tubing supplier Reynolds and tubing distributor Nova Cycle Supply used to host the work of builders in their Interbike booths. It was a pretty genius idea. After all, looking at a completed frame is way more interesting than looking at a bunch of uncut tubes. It’s been long enough that I can now confess to showing up late for more than a few appointments because I spent too much time gawking at all the amazing frames in those booths. A similar thing happened at the LA Bike show circa 2003 when Hank Folson of Henry James Bicycles took out a large-ish space and gave builders who were purchasing tubing, lugs and jigs from him an opportunity to display their work.
NAHBS far exceeds what these fora were, but I mention them because it helps to frame just how impressive NAHBS is. If a dozen, maybe two, frames of variable workmanship could carbonate the pea-sized gray matter locked between my ears, I hope you’ll understand when I say that NAHBS has every right to claim that it is the bike industry’s closest event to the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. The funny thing is, I don’t think Don has ever made that claim. He ought to.
One detail I think that escapes many NAHBS attendees is the way the combination of the event and digital media has elevated the quality of framebuilding. Even in the late ’90s, I routinely saw frames that, to be polite, had issues. I saw it all: paint drips, accidentally asymetric lugs, windows overflowing with brass, alignment issues obvious to the naked eye and work that was so rudimentary and without creativity you’d think they were using the metalworkers’ equivalent to a paint-by-numbers set.
While not all work at NAHBS is created equal, I’ve yet to see a frame or bike there as questionable as the stuff I was seeing a mere 15 years ago. The combination of peer interaction thanks to the show and the ability to look closely at detail shots of the very best work on display has lifted the quality of framebuilding, not just in the U.S., but throughout the world. Show organizer Don Walker deserves a
beer Mexican Coke (he stopped drinking) from each of us.
For those of you who follow Bicycle Retailer and Industry News (or the NAHBS newsletter), you may have caught that I was recently named chief judge for the awards. I was really honored by Don’s decision to do this and I hope the awards will carry the full weight of recognition the work deserves. I am by no means the most qualified for this mission. As it turns out, one of the more important qualifications is simply being able to spare the time to do the work. And you can’t spare the time if you didn’t make the trip, so there’s that, too.
NAHBS is an event that has had more than a reasonable share of controversy blow through its halls. Don is a man of strong convictions; that much no one will argue. But he’s also the guy who put his entire career on the line to give framebuilders an annual shindig. My personal belief is that when the definitive history of the craft of framebuilding is written, Don will be remembered less as a framebuilder than for his work in bringing framebuilders together, for helping to elevate the quality of the work done, in part, by giving awards to the best work out there.
While it’s true that NAHBS has endured some dissention within the ranks, and more than a few bridges have been burned, the irony here is that prior to NAHBS, framebuilders were not known for socializing with each other. Framebuilding, because it is such a personal expression, results in some deeply held ideologies. NAHBS can be credited for bringing lots of these artists together and fostering a degree of brotherhood, through shared techniques and mutual admiration, that didn’t really exist before the event.
If you make your way to Charlotte, I’m confident you’ll see plenty to drool on. While you won’t see me on the floor Friday (I’ll be in another room doing judging with fellow judges Nic Legan and Jeff Archer), I’ll be cruising the show floor taking photos and talking metal filings with builders on Saturday and Sunday. And if I can find a place to have it, there will be a small gathering for RKP-types on Saturday night. Otherwise, I might just be in the nearest BBQ joint. Additionally, provided the forecast holds, I’ll be going for rides Saturday and Sunday morning. I hope to see/meet you there.
Since USADA released its Reasoned Decision in October of 2012, cycling fans have turned on riders it once revered. Most hardcore riders I know had tired of Lance Armstrong long before Travis Tygart served him like a calf, fatted, but George Hincapie, David Zabriskie, Christian Vande Velde and Levi Leipheimer had remained popular riders among the cognoscenti. Once their doping was a matter of public record, though, the public turned on them.
It’s a state of affairs fueled by emotions running higher than the audience at a Grateful Dead concert. At a certain level it’s easy to understand. There were a few events in my adolescence in which my father said, “Just tell me what happened and I won’t get mad.” Of course, when I told him, he got mad. The upshot was that I never wanted to level with him when I got into trouble. If he was going to get mad either way, I figured I might as well keep my misdeeds to myself.
Pros who have doped are in a similar no-win situation.
As a result of the revelations regarding Leipheimer’s doping, Levi’s GranFondo has come under fire to some degree. Given the event sold out last year, though more slowly than usual, whatever hits it will take don’t seem to be that bad. I’ve also taken a certain amount of criticism, mostly in social media, for my support of Levi’s GranFondo. I can write most of it off to trolls, but because I’ve encountered some misperceptions out there about the event, I figured a post to help set the record straight was warranted. The guys at Bike Monkey signed on as an advertiser here at RKP and while I don’t owe them anything more than the advertising space they purchased, because I respect the work they do, I want to do them a solid by helping correct any misunderstandings about the event.
I’ve never pandered to RKP’s readership; I won’t write something just to try to attract eyeballs, nor will I allow anyone to tell me what to write. There have always been people who don’t read this site, and maybe even don’t like this site. That’s fine. If people choose to turn their backs on this site because I ride Levi’s GranFondo, that seems silly, but lose sleep I will not.
The single most frequent criticism I’ve heard is that the GranFondo is how Levi makes his living. I’ve asked the guys at Bike Monkey the question, and while I knew the answer, I just wanted to hear the response. Levi doesn’t make a dime from the event. I heard one person suggest that Forget-Me-Not Farms, which is a recipient of some of the GranFondo’s charitable giving, employs Odessa Gunn, Levi’s wife. Not true. She’s a volunteer and recently undertook a drive to Redding to help rescue a bunch (61) of diseased dogs from the home of an animal hoarder. Her vehicle, her gas, no reimbursement. You might say that’s just how she, uh, rolls.
So why not just pull Levi’s name off the event? First and foremost, Greg Fisher, marketing director for Bike Monkey, told me that the ride is Levi’s. It’s his event in that it was his idea, so even though Bike Monkey makes the event happen, it’s not theirs to rename.
Fisher put it this way: “Aside from the fact that he came up with the whole thing, we weren’t comfortable with renaming it. Our feeling was that we needed to stand by him, the history of the event to date, and his commitment to Sonoma County. We’ve taken hits for that, but long-term we think it’s the right thing to do. It’s different if you’re selling a widget; we’re trying to give people the best possible experience on a bike in our home county. We are tied to a place; we can’t just turn our backs on that part of it.”
Fisher’s larger point bears repeating: Levi is a local guy and this is a local event. It wouldn’t have happened without him.
Then he posed the question to me—what if they did rename it? “What’s the difference? (Levi’s vs. King Ridge). We would like see a short term gain on a semantic point. People are entitled to be angry about what happened with the doping scandal. We can’t control that. But we can remind people of the simple magic of a great day out on their bikes. For that reason alone, it’s probably not a good idea to be mad a long time.”
It’s fair to wonder just how long people will remain bitter about this generation of riders.
“These guys’ fame is very fleeting. Some kid in 10 years is gonna be on the line and turn to his dad and say, ‘Who’s Levi?’”
It occurred to me that could easily be me with my son Philip. I like that idea. A lot. It goes to the larger point I’ve tried to make to critics; this event is not just bigger than Levi’s sins; it’s bigger than Levi himself.
That there’s curiosity surrounding what the event does with its proceeds is understandable. The event has revenues from rider registration and sponsorship that runs roughly $1 million. For the armchair critics, this can only mean that Levi continues to inject EPO daily at a rate that exceeds my consumption of Mountain Dew. The truth is, unfortunately far less sexy. It is, as is typical of most things in life, easier to criticize an event you’ve never attended. But as someone who has ridden each edition and as a former racer who has heard event promoters complain about the incredible expense of securing the California Highway Patrol for road closures, I knew that having controlled intersections over a 100-mile course was probably worth what a down payment on a nice home in Sonoma County runs. I’m not wrong on that.
Fisher told me how in order to have enough officers to cover their needs they have to recruit from as far as four hours away. He clarified the need thusly, “There would be dope, guns and fucking in the streets if we took it all from the Bay Area.”
He stressed how much larger the GranFondo is than the other events the company produces. Numbers-wise, it is larger than their other events combined.
To frame the size of the event he told me, “We need 15,000 gels. We go through five five-gallon buckets of peanut butter. We go through a wall of bread 100 feet wide and 800 feet tall. We spend thousands in tents—not the pop-ups. There are so many buckets of water to hold down tents that’s one whole water truck.”
They marshall 1000 volunteers. And while they are called volunteers, the greater truth is that the bulk of them come from the various charities that receive the GranFondo’s largesse. In 2011 and 2012 that was roughly $250k, while for 2013 it was closer to $263k.
Fisher stressed that for Bike Monkey the sun rises and sets on the simple idea of Sonoma County as a great place to ride a bike. “This is the kind of event we would want to participate in. It doesn’t have an end date. It doesn’t leave Sonoma County. We’re here for the long haul.
Leipheimer himself expanded on the connection the event has to Sonoma County. “The strength of this event is in the connection it has to this community and how this community, in turn, supports the event. We wouldn’t be able to duplicate that by rolling into someone else’s town, taking up resources and trying to set up a business on the backs of a community in which we’re not deeply involved. This is about our home and wanting other people to know it and love it like we do.”
I’ve traditionally viewed the GranFondo as an outward-looking event, a way to showcase cycling in Sonoma County to the rest of the world. It’s a very real part of the mission of Levi’s GranFondo. Media about the event has often mentioned how the first edition was meant to help the City of Santa Rosa meet the financial obligation of bringing the Amgen Tour of California back to Santa Rosa. But Fisher clarified that the fundamental drive for Levi was simpler.
Perhaps the easiest way to clarify why the ride exists is to let Leipheimer himself say it. “Every bit of this was about putting on a truly spectacular bike ride, one that could only happen here.”
Toward the end of our conversation Fisher said something that completely surprised me. Bike Monkey had an additional motive for putting on the GranFondo. They wanted to show the City of Santa Rosa and the County of Sonoma the economic power of cycling. Because Bike Monkey is a local operation and needs as many friends in high places as possible to put on their events that showcase the incredible riding in Sonoma, they wanted to have an event that could swing a big bat, an event that would make the entire town wake up to cycling as a vehicle to drive tourism.
The upshot imparts a surprising debt. Businesses in Sonoma County have proven to be exceedingly friendly to cyclists, based on my experience. Next time you go clickety-clack through a hotel lobby and the staff asks you how your ride was, you have Levi Leipheimer to thank for that. Even I didn’t see that coming.
People have a right to be upset about the Generation EPO. I am. Have any of these guys been punished sufficiently? It’s not a point I really want to devote my time to because there are no easy answers. Any reasonable person can have dozens of reasons for not traveling to Sonoma County in October for a bike ride. The distance, the expense and the time of year are all perfectly valid reasons for not going. Not leaving your sweetie alone in a hotel room for eight hours is another fine one. However, if you don’t go to Levi’s GranFondo in order to punish him—because you don’t want your actions to support the life of an ex-pro—your punishment will miss its mark. I’d understand a boycott if the event was his new paycheck, but he’s not going to make a dime off you and in the end, all you’d really do is punish yourself by missing out on what is arguably the best cycling event produced in North America. The people supported by the ride will never be famous. They’re just residents of Sonoma.
Rest assured, if I’m not on the start line on October 4, it’ll be because I or one of my family members is in the hospital.
For part I, click here.
One of my favorite features about the Volagi Liscio was its handling. On descents and in corners the bike was predictable and left me relaxed and confident. In the especially tight twists of the canyon roads of Malibu I needed to give the bike a bit more English than some others, but I didn’t mind that because at higher speeds the bike kept that relaxed manner.
For a bike so calm in handling, it didn’t really have a lot of trail. Thanks to my 57cm review bike’s 72.75-degree head tube angle and 48mm of fork rake, the trail plotted out at 5.53cm, which was somewhat surprising given how calm the bike was. The actual, effective, top tube length of my review bike was 56.7cm. The bottom bracket was a rather surprising 68mm; that’s 2mm less drop than I would have guessed. Those numbers tell why the bike doesn’t turn like a school bus, but it still doesn’t help tell why it can inspire such confidence. The wheelbase is where that aspect of its personality comes through, which is especially long at 100.8cm—that’s longer than found on most bikes a centimeter or more larger. Similarly, because this isn’t meant to be a race bike, the head tube was refreshingly long at 19.2cm.
Volagi deserves some credit for cutting molds for six different sizes. It’s not uncommon to see new companies cut only four or five molds and then try to use a single rear triangle across the set. Each main triangle got its own mold and then the there are three sets of chainstays and seatstays (one set for every two sizes). The approach speaks of the company’s commitment to quality, and standing behind its design. The seat tube angle for my bike was 73.25 degrees which was a hair steeper than I expect to see on a bike of this size, and for me and my fit, it was a welcome switch. In absolute terms, the bike’s stack and reach were 59.8cm and 38.7cm respectively.
The sizing run starts on the small end with a 48cm frame with a 50.5cm top tube. The 53 has a 51.6cm top tube. The 55 has a 54.9cm top tube. Then, on to the 56.7cm top tube of my 57 and ending with the 59.6cm top tube found on the 60cm frame. They manage to cover a pretty broad range for only six sizes. As a result, there are two notable holes in the sizing run, between the 53 and the 55 and then between the 57 and the 60. Anyone looking for a top tube in the 53 to 54cm range will have some trouble, as will anyone looking for a top tube in the 58 to 59cm range.
Honestly, while this bike fully qualifies as a grand touring design, I need to be clear that the handling on this bike, due to its modest amount of trail and higher-than-usual BB for this variety of bike, is a flavor of its own. Anyone seeking something slightly different than a Roubaix or a Cannondale Synapse, without going for a sport bike like the Tarmac or SuperSix EVO, would do well to at least try riding a Liscio.
In trading email with Robert Choi, I’ve learned that Volagi set its sights incredibly high for this bike, almost unreasonably so. Choi said they wanted a comfortable bike, hence the longbow stays, but they also wanted something that had the neutral handling of a race bike, even despite the long wheelbase, which explains the trail figures. What surprised me is how they also wanted to give the bike an aerodynamic edge; the top tube, down tube, seat tube and seatpost all carry an airfoil shape. The quickest way to reduce a bike’s comfort is to make it more aerodynamic. I don’t know of another bike on the market that tried to tackle the comfort issue and aerodynamics while simultaneously making a bike that offered responsive handling on unpaved surfaces. Ambitious much?
Volagi offers but one version of the Liscio frame. That means anyone who plunks down their cash for a Liscio gets the same high-modulus carbon fiber frame as the next guy, no matter what build you select. I stripped the bike down as much as I dared (internal cable routing) and concluded my 57cm frame weighed in the neighborhood of 1150g, which is pretty heavy by today’s standards; I can name a half dozen companies producing frames around that size that weigh 300g less. Volagi claims a frame weight of roughly 1100 grams (+/- 100g) for the frame and another 400g for the fork. I’ve noticed a fair amount of consumer confusion out there about carbon fiber bikes from some manufacturers. A lack of clarity in marketing materials can lead people to think that, for instance, all Madone frames are the same. (I’m not saying Trek does this; that’s merely an example.) While I doubt that this misperception is prevalent, there’s no doubt it happens, and on some occasions I think it could be more readily clarified by some marketing departments. But with Volagi, you can go for the least expensive of all the builds and you still get a very nice frame.
My bike was built up with a Shimano Ultegra 6700 10-speed group, TRP Spyre mechanical disc brakes, FSA SL-K carbon fiber BB30 compact crank, an FSA Energy bar and FSA Gossamer stem. The seatpost and wheels both come from Volagi. The Volagi E7 Ignite wheels are proprietary in that they use a rim with no brake track. Unfortunately, that doesn’t result in a lighter wheel, due to the disc-brake hubs, though at 1850g, they aren’t total pigs. For reasons that I simply can’t fathom, the seatpost is made with an aero cross section. Marketing materials for the Liscio mention its aero design, but I have my doubts about just how aero this frame is and don’t really understand why a designer attempting to make a bike more comfortable would saddle it with the extra challenge of giving aero benefits. Were the seatpost round, I think this bike would probably offer even greater comfort.
I’m not going to go into any great depth on the disc-brake question. My personal feeling is the mechanical discs aren’t a great way to advocate for disc brakes. It’s like trying to use the example of the Hummer as a model of vehicular efficiency. It may be against a Packard, but in an absolute sense, not a chance. What I can say is that the TRP Spyre brakes offered an incredible degree of modulation. However, initially, many riders interpret the longer lever travel as reduced braking force. My sense was that I didn’t need to pull the lever any harder to reach brake lock-up, I just needed to pull the lever further.
As built, my bike was 17.5 lbs. and retailed for $3500. As they no longer offer the 6700 I rode, the build using Ultegra 6800 adds another $100. Were you to build it up with a SRAM Red 22 group, carbon bar and stem and some high-zoot wheels, like a set of the disc-ready Enve 3.4s, I expect you could shave close to three pounds off this bike—and add another $4000 to the price tag. While it’s true that we’re reaching a point of diminishing returns on weight, moving from a 14-lb. bike to a 17.5-lb. one, you can’t help but notice the difference in acceleration. Jumping off a light is, for both better and worse, the place where a difference in weight is most apparent. The question becomes, how important is acceleration from a standing start? Were you racing this bike, it wouldn’t really be a big deal, but for a rider in more urban conditions, every bit of help making starts easier is going to be welcome. I speak from some familiarity on this. There is, however, another side to the weight issue. Sure, an 1100g frame isn’t exactly marketing gold, but in producing a bike meant to offer comfort while balancing the rigors of post-mount disc brakes, Choi takes some pride in reporting that Volagi has yet to see a single frame (out of more than 1000 on the market) that has cracked at the fork or stays due to braking forces. Surely, reliability is a selling point to a skeptical
Years ago, when I was working in a bike shop, any time I opened a bike box and pulled out the machine within, one of the first things I would do, aside from locating the seatpost so I could insert it and then clamp it into the Park workstand, was to look at the rear dropouts. The shops I worked at sold a fair number of road bikes in the $200 to $1500 range. In looking at the rear dropouts I could identify whether the bike was meant as a more casual ride thanks to eyelets, or if it was a true racing bike because it possessed no eyelets. Any time I didn’t see eyelets I got excited. However, every now and then I’d find myself building a true touring rig and then I’d find myself intrigued by the thought that went into all the various braze-ons.
The Liscio is one of a very few carbon fiber bikes I’ve seen that sports eyelets on the rear dropouts. It’s possible that they could support a rack, but I suspect their real intention is to help mount fenders, which brings up another curious detail about this bike. It has a surprising amount of tire clearance, enough to allow a rider to run 25mm tires and fenders. I managed to slip one of my ‘cross wheels in the dropouts just to see if a knobby 32mm tire would fit. It did, but I’d be wary of trying anything larger than a 35mm tire—knobby or smooth.
When I think about the bell curve of the roadie population, how most of us aren’t actually racing and if the surveys have anything right, most of us have had our 35th birthday and are now in a battle against Kronos to lose as little fitness, balance, flexibility and mental acuity as possible with each passing year, I keep concluding that the bike most people need isn’t the sport bike with 15cm of drop from the saddle to the bar. A bike like the Liscio recognizes the real gains that carbon fiber construction provides. Compared to most steel bikes I’ve ever ridden, the Liscio provides more torsional stiffness, greater steering precision and a higher degree of comfort on rough surfaces. Once you do away with the part of the ego that tells you your position on the bike should reflect what we see in the pages of Cycle Sport, we can get on with the business of providing people a fit based on their flexibility, not some arbitrary angle based on our ideas of what cool is. And why not make a bike with geometry for people who aren’t in the saddle for 30 hours each week? Volagi is a company with something worthwhile to contribute to the evolution of road bikes.
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.
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.
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?