Every Christmas my mother buys me a book. We are book people, and the gift is a great way to reconnect with each other over the words that have knit us together since I was a kid raiding her shelves to stoke a literary curiosity which, thankfully, burns on.
In recent years, this book has been a cycling tomb. The Death of Marco Pantani, Merkx: Half Man, Half Bike and Laurent Fignon’s We Were Young and Carefree have all appeared beneath my tree, and so I have come to associate the holiday with cycling books, if only because it’s the one time of year I get a few days to read in (mostly) uninterrupted stretches.
If cycling literature is part of your holiday as well, you might consider Andrew Homan’s Life in the Slipstream: The Legend of Bobby Walthour, Sr. Walthour was a leading light in the turn-of-the-century racing scene in America, an Atlanta bicycle messenger turned velodrome sprinter and pace-following pioneer.
For those who have read and enjoyed Todd Balf’s Major Taylor biography, Homan’s Walthour treatment fills in that history with sketches of still more of the characters who populated early pro cycling in this country. While the mercurial Georgia boy serves as main character, the really compelling thing about the book is the way Homan conjures the passions of rapidly evolving sports entertainment.
Part endurance sport, part daredevil show, the cycling of those times was big business and the nation was in thrall to its drama and personalities. Much the way Balf’s book shone the light on an era when cycling was king, Homan’s book reinforces the idea that sport as entertainment was born of the same forces that gave us, by turns, baseball, basketball and football, a reminder that any sport’s time in the limelight can be generationally fleeting.
Homan writes in the McPhee style, the story moving forward on a tide of well-researched details brought vividly to life with the odd, well-chosen adjective. The author knows that, in Walthour, he has all the character he needs, so he dutifully stays out of the way to let the story tell itself. It makes for a thoroughly enjoyable and easy read. You might finish it in a few sittings, maybe off to the side of the holiday proceedings, with a cup of coffee or a (small) glass of egg nog.
When you just stand there in the basement or garage admiring your bike as it hangs clean and tuned in the stand.
When you hammer over the top and drop down the cassette and hit the front side of the next climb and crest that rise without slowing.
When you’ve got all the motivation in the world, but injuries keep you from doing anything with it.
When you’re finally so wet that you can’t be more wet, so you settle in and just ride, even though the sky has fallen and everybody else is running for cover.
When you find yourself right on top of the gear, zipping along, perfect tension in the pedals and the road smooth under your tires.
When your favorite fades in the last kilometer, just pops and shoots backwards, and the whole damn race is lost, and you really believed he/she could do it, and now you have to think about the race differently and pray for a miracle, though we’ve come to suspect miracles…sadly.
When you lay out your clothes the night before, and fill your bottles, and adjust the pressure in your tires, and point your front wheel at the door and go to bed, sure you’ve forgotten something.
When you’re unconsciously good and you keep pulling inadvertently off the front and then sitting up to wait for your friends, and they all seem to be working hard and you can’t make it compute, but there it is, form.
When you feel fast and congratulate yourself for being so fit, and then it suddenly dawns on you that you have a stiff tailwind.
When you know you’ve waited too long to eat, and your head starts to feel thick and your legs go wooden, and you cram everything you’ve got in your jersey pocket into your mouth and empty your bottles, but you know it won’t help, and you just have to limp home and try to be smarter the next time.
When you descend the stairs all wobbly-legged and smile knowing you went hard.
This week’s Group Ride just asks the simple question: When?
I love sports. If you give me a choice between watching a sitcom on TV and watching a sporting event, I will choose the sport every time. If you ask me to choose between going to a play or going to a race, I will choose the race. I have a degree in philosophy, and I was reared on public radio, opera and frequent trips to the museum, but really, I’m a fan.
So the last two pro cycling seasons have been strange. As riders both past and present got more transparent (or were made more transparent), it became harder and harder to tell who to root for.
Let me back up a moment. Let me outline some of my basic ideas about sport. First, while I love the game or the race, my enjoyment, my true passion, depends on having an interest in the outcome. Pro wrestling has understood this from the beginning. As much as we love the physical exploit, the subtext of good guys vs. bad guys is an equally compelling part of the entertainment. Even if we are only watching one rider hurling him or herself against a steep European col, we want to know that rider is pure of effort and will.
As I sit on a Saturday afternoon to watch football (soccer) with my sons, they will invariably ask who we are rooting for. They want to know who the good guys are. This comes before understanding the nuance of tactic and skill for them, and I believe it is elemental to the enjoyment of sport, even when your rooting interest is only nominal, even if you are not fully invested, a card carrying member of some metaphorical tribe.
So part of the problem for me, in continuing to follow pro cycling, is that I don’t know who the good guys are anymore. I think I know, but whatever willful ignorance I had cultivated has long since fermented, leaving only a surfeit of skepticism and a dull hangover.
But as I said, I love sport.
And it’s true, at least for me, that watching the pros inspires me. Motivation can be hard to maintain on the 24/7/365 plan. I need to draw on as many sources as I possibly can.
So I plan to renew my effort to follow the races in 2014, to read deeply about the good sensations of the Italians and the stoic perseverance of the Belgians, the tragic second-bestness of the French and the imperious, even hubristic temerity of the Spanish. We’ll leave aside the British for now. I’m half-British myself, and it gets complicated, so much easier to hate family than friend.
This week’s Group Ride asks the question, who to root for? Who to support? Who are the good guys/gals with legitimate chances to win races? Are you ready to turn this corner with me? Or will you sit out another season, content to watch Breaking Bad reruns or sit silently in the museum courtyard? Is your own riding enough now? Was it ever not?
Image: AFP/AFP/Getty Images
I try not to write about weather too much, even though, as a cyclist, I am fairly obsessed with what is happening outside. I monitor a variety of meteorological services more than once a day to stay up to the minute, to glean every possible detail before I step out the door.
Is it a problem? I don’t know. I think I could quit if I really wanted to.
And in bringing up winter (again), I am only too aware that many of our regular readers are in Australia, not to mention the other cycling nations who cling steadfastly to the underside of the planet. So bear with me.
Yesterday, the local department of public works carted 15 bags of leaves away from my house. This event marks, in my mind, the true beginning of winter. With all the leaves down, there is nothing left but for the snow to fly. Of course, in true New England fashion we marked the passing of the leaves with a bracing round of icy rain showers that made my regular Friday morning ride into something of a survival event.
I find myself wondering when the winter is going to winter on us. I know my friends in Minnesota are no longer wondering. It’s already wintering there.
This week’s Group Ride asks a few weather-related questions. First, how heavy a winter is coming our way? And who do you believe when they tell you what it will be like? Second, how deep into it will you ride? What are your criteria for staying off the bike? If you ride straight through, what is your key to surviving the worst days? For our friends in the Southern Hemisphere, you will be coming into summer now. How did you do this past cold season?
The line shifts from left to right and back again beneath my wheel, the shoulder of the road marked by a thin strip of white paint, its surface reflective where it hasn’t been worn away by tire tread and time. I spend a lot of time looking at that line, staying to its safe side when there is room, wondering how safe the line really makes me as my fellow travelers sit in their driver’s seats noodling with the stereo or texting their friends a fresh LOL.
When my bike was being built I had the opportunity to sit with the painter to talk about finish ideas. I knew I wanted a matte, battleship gray color to feature, but didn’t know quite what to do with it. He pulled out a gray tube, and told me to follow him. Into the drying booth we went, where he located a matte red sample and held them together. I knew in that instant what my bike would look like.
In steep stretches of pavement, on Pyrennean climbs and throughout the Alps, you will find the fractured scrawling of so many cycling fans who, over the years, have urged their favorite riders on with painted benedictions or sometimes cursed certain other characters with fierce imprecations, too. Most of these amount simply to the repeated statement of a rider’s name. The lengths of road anointed with these markings have always reminded me of the altars and memorials humankind has maintained since time distant, all cluttered with the well-wishing and magical thinking we allow ourselves to believe will have some influence on events.
The charm of these locales has only been diminished, in my opinion, by the invention of the Nike Chalkbot, a corporate-sponsored (albeit charity-inspired) robotic cycling fan, made to channel the fervor of fans who might not have the wherewithal to make it to the site of the race to paint the road themselves. But what are those words worth, chalked mechanically on the route, if not imbued with the sacrifice of travel, the pilgrimage, or the real human effort of applying paint to asphalt?
How your bike is painted makes a difference. Whether you have the opportunity to speak with the painter beforehand or are simply choosing a set colorway and scheme from what’s available at your shop, you are still expressing something about yourself with your choice. You want something understated, or you want something that looks fast, or you want something that won’t look like any other bike on the road. These are all personal expressions, and they are all important. Even if you say you don’t care, your not caring says something about you.
I used to think a time would come when all the roads here in Boston would be lined with bike lanes, that the proliferation of paint would make us safer. I’ve since abandoned that idea. I was riding in a bike lane the first time I got hit by a car. I’m not sure who said it, but someone smart, someone deep in our cycling community said, “Paint is not infrastructure.”
Paint has this way of telling you which way to go, of drawing your attention and letting you express yourself. The bike isn’t made of paint, but sometimes paint makes the bike. So I ride the white line and try to stay on its right side, and I tell myself I’m safe, that paint is important. To cyclists, it always has been.
Image: Matt O’Keefe
Sometimes I find myself thinking about stuff I want, and I think, ‘yeah, I’m gonna get that stuff. It’s going to be great.’ And then I catch myself. I remember that getting stuff very seldom makes my life better. It’s doing stuff that makes me happy, and for sure, there is some relationship between the two, for example you have to have a bike to ride a bike, but at this stage in my life I’ve got so much stuff that a lack thereof is not what’s holding me back.
Last night a new helmet arrived at my house, sent to me by a company to review here on RKP. It’s a cool helmet, and I was impressed with it right away. I’m looking forward to trying it out. Stay tuned for more on that, but as I took it out of its box and formed first impressions, I also thought, well it’s heavier than my current helmet (they all are), so I began the process of putting it into context.
For most products, context is everything. I have yet to receive a review product that didn’t excel at some part of its intended function, and I think a good review highlights what a thing is good at, while acknowledging the ways it might fall short.
A good review should keep you from getting a thing and being disappointed by it. A good review should help you spend your money with a reasonable knowledge of what problem the product will solve for you. It’s harder to write that review than it might seem.
In truth, there are relatively few real revelatory products out there. There is a lot of pretty good stuff, a smaller, but not insignificant amount of very good stuff, and then this small, select number of game-changer items. One example of a game changer is a particular, thermal under-layer made by Exte Ondo that Padraig sent me a few winters back. It is the warmest, non-bulky, perfect-fitting winter riding thing I own. When I put it on, I know I’ll be warm enough. And comfortable. I can’t think of any way to make that thing better. I can’t think of any way it comes up short.
I am extremely fortunate to get regular exposure to new cycling stuff, and I take an active interest in hearing from my legion of riding friends what they like and don’t like. Despite knowing that it’s the doing not the having that matters, I am still very interested in having. But as I get older, I’m really only interested in having those best things, the game changers. I don’t have the time or room for stuff that just sorta works.
So this week’s Group Ride asks, what one thing do you have in your cycling life that you think is perfect? How did it change the game for you? And how many other things did you try before you settled on it?
My first 50 mile ride was a fund raiser for the Brain Tumor Society. I was new to proper road cycling. Up to that point I’d contented myself with riding the city or knocking around my local trails, but after one of my close friends began dating a woman who was both a former top-level racer and a brain tumor survivor, I began to embrace the idea of doing more with the bike.
Doing more meant riding longer, faster and better under the tutelage of this new friend, and also learning how the bike could help other people with just a little effort and organization. And of course that first 50-miler opened my mind to the idea that I could explore new vistas of endurance and freedom from the saddle.
I don’t recall how much we raised on that first ride. I remember the weather being beautiful, having a lot of fun, and meeting a lot of cyclists more experienced than I was. It drew me deeper into my infatuation with the bike.
I did that ride a few times, and then later I managed part of a cross-country bike trip for brain tumor survivors. By then I was what I would consider a serious cyclist, and driving the van, making the sandwiches and cleaning the water bottles cut against my pure desire to be out on the road with them, riding. Despite that, I learned even more about our sport in the context of what it takes to support a team of riders, and I saw some beautiful parts of our country in the slow, purposeful way of a group traveling one mile at a time.
You might classify all of that as charity work, but in dozens of very real ways, I was the one benefiting. The work, and the riding, were simply the means by which I learned and explored facets of cycling I had been unaware of previously. That money and awareness were raised for a very good cause made the thing karmically whole.
This week’s Group Ride asks, how often do you do charity rides? How often do you raise money for charity rides or give money to riders planning to do charity rides? And if it’s not part of your cycling life, what prevents that from becoming a part of it?
Image – Riders at the start of the Pan Mass Challenge
The night slips in quietly, coldly, gray to black. Streetlights flicker and ignite, and headlights maraud across town swooping and swerving while we, in our fluorescent offices, stare out into the darkness and think about riding home.
Like most little kids, I was afraid of the dark. My six-year-old reminds me of this. He clings close if we have cause to walk through the nighttime neighborhood, not sure what he’s afraid of but sure it’s out there. And I can relate as I sift through my layers, base, middle and top, thinking about the ride home.
It is scary, especially in this early part of winter when the clocks fall back, and the drivers are still getting accustomed to driving by halogen. The darkness magnifies sound, cars sloughing through the thin air, tires jabbering against the sandy roadways. You feel isolated, strapped to the wing of the plane, while everyone else sits in coach, munching peanuts and watching the free movie.
Preparation is central to success. Cables connect lights to USB ports, and laundry needs attention to make sure all the necessary layers can be ready. Warmers and booties and gloves and hats. Jackets and vests and clear-lensed glasses. Lumens spill onto the pavement, limning the potholes and patches of ice. Tires get wider.
The transition we were talking about only very recently is here. The need to keep pedaling has grown acute. This is not the hardest part, but the hardest part is coming. We will need some momentum, now that it is dark.
We can talk about the cold with its tingling extremities and its runny nose, but the cold is always manageable. Mostly, riding generates the warmth you need to go on riding. But the darkness oppresses. The darkness discourages. The darkness is the real challenge. Just ride to the solstice and hang on as we roll out again into the light of spring.
I have a very real sense of commitment being tested. It is not how many days I can set out from home, but how many nights I can throw my leg back over the top tube and return. And all those adventure days, when snow swirls across the road and the street lights make bright puddles to leap through, they are all made of a commitment to setting out in the dark now, as the sun falls in the middle of the afternoon.
Image: Matt O’Keefe
It’s 9pm on a Thursday night, and I’m shopping for a set of disc wheels. There’s not a bike shop open in the metro-Boston area, but that doesn’t matter anymore because any wheel maker worth their salt has a website that will tell me everything I need to know about each of their products including the price. I can either buy direct from the builder, or I can buy from any one of dozens of online distributors. If I was desperate for human interaction, as an absolute last resort, like if the zombie apocalypse happened and I was riding around looking for human survivors (and disc wheels) I could even wait for a bike shop to open, walk in and buy wheels there, assuming money was still even a thing.
OK. OK. OK. Simmer down.
It’s not the zombie apocalypse, and I actually love bike shops. I have a ton of friends who own and operate them, and I can’t go by one without wanting to go in, if only to hide from a marauding zombie horde. Despite all that, it seems very fashionable to hate on the LBS. Bike shop employees are surly and rude. They never have the part you need, and anyway you can get whatever you want cheaper on line, and cheaper is better. Always.
Everybody knows that bike shop employees are surly and rude because they’re young, iconoclastic or underpaid, sometimes all three. And we want them to be that way, because that’s what gives cycling its edge…even if it makes buying a WiFli derailleur and a handful of Gu’s a little more painful.
Also, they don’t have the part you need because of the proliferation of parts and their haphazard distribution. The cost of a functional shop inventory has gone through the roof over the last decade, and the manufacturers have all shifted a large part of the risk burden for their own sales forecasting onto the shops with large minimum orders and the lure of increased margin.
And the reason you can get it cheaper online is because simultaneously the manufacturers don’t manage their distributors well enough, with parts finding their way to giant, international etailers only too happy to ship into domestic markets otherwise protected by dealer agreements. Oh, and etailers don’t have to pay retail rents.
Within the industry there is a palpable and growing tension between e-tailers and their bricks-and-mortar competitors. How many times have I heard the story about the customer who spent two hours in the shop going over a parts spec for a new bike, only to go home and buy it all online. How many times have I heard about riders eager to show up for shop-sponsored rides, but unwilling to so much as buy lubes and tubes from their hosts?
A lot. A lot of times.
This week’s Group Ride asks, do you shop at your LBS or online, or some combination thereof? And if you don’t do business locally, why not? Do you worry about the disappearance of the LBS? Or the big-boxing of cycling retail? Or do you consider yourself an expert, beyond the level of the snarky sales clerk, fully independent and only in need of product to sustain your cycling lifestyle?
I was a middle-class kid, as tormented by boredom as by the peer pressure of my preppy cohort. Bound for college and an easy passage to comfortable adulthood, nonetheless I acted out in all sorts of ways. I listened to punk rock bands and drank too much and did all the drugs I could. I grew my hair, and then I shaved my head. I rode a bike.
There is power in alienation, in embracing otherness and using it as a motivator. There is power in the anger that comes from being treated differently, even when the difference is small or manufactured. The greatest conformists among us still want to be rebels. It’s an attractive image, rebels in our minds, if not in our realities.
Our twenty-year-old selves were self-styled iconoclasts. We wrote bad, angry songs and reveled in having no money. The bike was an integral and functional part of that manufactured poverty, an expression of the freedom we wanted, mainly from other people’s reasonable expectations.
The truth is that, even with our tattoos and ardent devotion to the most unlistenable music, we were never so unique. In a country of 300 million people, even being one-in-300 makes you part of a counter-culture, one-million strong. Maybe none of the old punk bands we idolized made a lot of money from selling records to willfully poor kids after their shows, but that doesn’t mean a million or more people didn’t find a way to know and love their songs.
Cycling is that same brand of marginal, at least here in the States. We the be-lycra’d few, with our too-thin bodies (sometimes) and our shaved legs often hold ourselves apart, a smug counterpoint to the football-loving masses. Cars and bikes might as well be sharks and minnows. Are you with the sharks? Of course not.
Cyclists are different. We wear small funny hats and shoes we can’t walk in. We obsess over races that take place in France and Belgium and Italy and Spain, races with strategies as transparent as pond water. We are worldly, thoughtful, nuanced.
More than 70,000 of us took out race licenses with USA Cycling last year. According to the League of American Bicyclists there are about 57 million of us in total, cyclists. We are not minnows. We are not marginal. These are not sexy truths. This is not fist in the air stuff.
I’m older now, and though the music in my headphones is still loud and inaccessible to most of my peers, I’m turning out spreadsheets, booking orders, and plotting marketing strategies like a grown up. I am usually planning my next tattoo, but the ink never runs because I spend the money on hockey skates and summer camp for my kids.
I’m not dangerous. I’m not weird.
Still, rebellion is motivation. Every time I pull on layers of wool topped with Gore-Tex I rebel against the weather. Every time I cut the corner of someone’s backyard to get to a trail some kids have thrashed into the woods, I push back against the constraints of adulthood. It’s bullshit, small stuff, but it works for me.
Motivation is priceless, and sometimes you have to get some flavor of aggro with yourself, with society, or with the laws of physics, just to get out the door. I sometimes shudder to think of the poses I struck as a young, angry man, except they brought me this far. They put me on my bike.
And thank god for that.