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.
I am still not quite sure I believe that Brian Cookson has been elected president of the UCI. In my mind, there is still room for a CAS appeal or some other evil legal machination to reseat Pat McQuaid, returning us to the dark ages from which are only just now stumbling, blinking, into the half-light of the modern day.
If however it is true, and Cookson is the man, then we can begin to ask the very serious question, who is Brian Cookson really? Up to this point, it has been sufficient for him only to be Not Pat McQuaid. Not Pat McQuaid is enormously popular as it turns out. That guy has global appeal.
But this Brian Cookson could be anybody. I don’t think I’m alone in adjudging his campaign statements as nothing but anodyne crap aimed at not offending anyone. His was the sort of promise-rich, plan-poor presentation that would almost certainly never earn my vote, even for a seat on the local garden committee. If I’m honest though, in this case I would have supported the guy even if I thought he was incompetent. At least, we’d have had a different incompetent to talk about.
But defying my skepticism, there is already good stuff happening, right things being said. There is this, and then there is this. In fact, the very first thing the new man did was this, which was probably a good idea and shows just how low the incumbent had sunk in reasonable people’s estimation.
Who knows if any of the stuff on that laptop will see the light of day, but the simple act of seizing it shows where Cookson’s head is at. Stay tuned for the next story where all of the office furniture in the UCI’s Aigle headquarters gets dragged out onto the front lawn and burned. Stay tuned for pictures of the Bishop of Lausanne getting invited down for an exorcism. This could get fun.
This week’s Group Ride asks, now that Cookson is elected, what ought to be his top priority to move the sport forward? I am guessing that many will want a Truth & Reconciliation process first, but the sport has so many pressing challenges. There is the ongoing effort to drive doping from the sport through proper testing and maintenance of the Biological Passport program. There is the alarming exodus of sponsorship money at the top of the sport. There is the promotion of women’s cycling, and the reorganization of the UCI World Tour. Do we look forward, to borrow a phrase, or do we look back? What is most important now? What are your top three items for Brian Cookson’s to-do list?
I don’t know why I woke up. Maybe one of the kids called out in his sleep. Maybe my wife shifted in the bed. It was raining. That could have been it.
The alarm was set for 5:30, the coffee maker locked and loaded, and my kit laid out on the dining room table. I had mounted lights before turning in for the evening, affixed a fender.
The rain was forecast, those little drizzle icons slotted into the hours 5 through 7, but we were resolved to ride anyway. With the temperature hovering around 60F a little rain wasn’t going to kill us. And sleeping in…well that just might.
As it turned out, the real precipitation had long since fallen when we rolled out. The roads were all puddle and shine, but the sun, as it rose, burned off the low-lying fog and dried the asphalt in short order. It turned into a gorgeous morning.
I commented on just how perfect it was to my riding companion, and he smiled and said yes, and that it was almost disappointing how much better it turned out than anticipated. We’d have to put off feeling tough for another day.
This time of year (Fall in New England), consistency and rhythm and that pure, pig-headed, Yankee perseverance become the valuable currency of winter riding. Nary a flake has fallen. The wind hasn’t yet drawn its daggers, but if you’re not riding now, you’re probably not riding later.
Just like any Grand Tour, if you miss the transition, you don’t ride the next stage.
So I wake up in the night, hear rain and instead of mentally cancelling a planned ride, I lay my head down and sleep lightly, anticipating the alarm. It’s only October, but it might as well be January 1st. It’s time to locate warmers of every shape and application, to begin devising layering strategies, and above all, to keep riding.
This week’s Group Ride asks, how do you manage the fall/winter transition? Do you pack it in or gear up? How do you maintain motivation as the going gets tough? Can you take time off and get back on when the weather is inclement?
When the trail you’re riding ends in the ocean, literally in the ocean, you have done something right, especially if that trail also ribbons left along a cliff that hugs the shoreline. Clumps of goldenrod and sea grass hem you in. An increasingly rare Monarch butterfly dances across your path.
Block Island is part of a coastal archipelago. It sits 13 miles off the south coast of Rhode Island, and almost the same distance from Montauk Point on Long Island. 40% of it is conservation land. One main road rings the interior, linking houses to the sole, small town, New Shoreham, and, as it turns out, a small spider’s web of jeep track and sandy trails reaches even further, out to the perimeter and into the ocean.
The dudes I was there with all surf and fish. I am the only cyclist, so I was fortunate to escape for much of a Saturday to explore on my own. I had been to the island once before, but contented myself then with a soft spin of the main loop, pretty but unremarkable. This time, resolved to see more of what was there, I plotted a route on a crude map, only to have the ten minutes invested there deliver me to one of the most beautiful twisting, winding solo rides I’ve done in a long time.
Honestly, it’s hard to weigh the awesomeness of a ride like this. How does it compare to D2R2, for example? Was it more beautiful? No, just different. Did I have more fun? No, but it was a solo ride. It was more about me and less about connecting with friends. Honestly, there were a few times on this ride, where I caught myself laughing out loud at how good the route was, or because a pair of pheasants scurried across the way.
What is clear is that I am undeservedly lucky to get to ride when and where I do. I will bemoan how busy I am, how much time I spend sitting in ice rinks watching youth hockey, how most of my substantive riding begins in the pre-dawn, but that is all just the bullshit ranting of a guy with no clue he’s won life’s lottery.
When I got back to the house, perched there on the edge of the salt marsh, to shower and begin cramming my face with food, I had a peace of mind and a strong sense of having learned a great secret, the feelings we’re all hunting out there on the road and/or trail. Then I took a nap. Yeah. It was like that.
This week’s Group Ride asks the question, what has been your most awesome ride this year? And what made it that way? Was it the location? The company? Or some alchemical combination thereof? Maybe you had some sort of great form and won a race? Or maybe, like me, you discovered a beautiful place that you might have known was there, but still couldn’t believe once you’d arrived.
I imagine it drives engineers nuts. They spend all their hours trying to understand how the interaction of material and shape can produce an objectively better ride, doing hard stuff like math and testing, and then a designer comes along and slaps an eye-popper of a paint scheme on a competitor’s bike and suddenly they’re getting outsold 2-to-1. For all our talk about what makes one bike better than another, we all want to look good.
In the ’80s that meant splatter schemes and sparkle, neons and contrast. These days everything is either matte black or some permutation of the classic black/white/red. Bicycle aesthetics work in these small spirals, everyone seeming to riff on one color-way or one basic pattern, until some brave bastard dares to do something both different and repeatable.
I like geometrical shapes. I don’t care for splatter. Diagonals bother me. The Pegoretti above floats my boat. I don’t necessarily want to grab your attention with my bike, but if you do happen to look, I want my bike to be both sharp and unusual. I don’t want it to look like yours, but I don’t want it to look like a Ferrari Testarossa either.
Coming up with the next big thing is tough. I’ve been involved in projects like picking a season’s new colors. What you discover quickly is that, to do it right, you can borrow from no one. You have push out into the new and hope your idea of new somehow resonates with the masses.
It is possible that features and benefits are important, that engineering is, for some people, the thing that inspires their want, but I have been told for years that people buy things emotionally rather than rationally. And, my experience suggests that nothing inspires that emotional buy-in quite like a slick paint job or an elegantly crafted line. It is hard to feel compelling emotions about a bike’s stiffness, not impossible, but hard. Of course, in the best examples, engineering and design converge, but these are rare and precious, and usually very expensive.
This week’s Group Ride asks, how important are looks to you? Have you ever convinced yourself you wanted a bike based on a rational analysis of your needs, only to be swayed by a pretty paint job on another ride? What do you think looks good? How much will you pay for it? And have you ever bought a great ugly bike, only to watch it sit in the garage, because you just didn’t feel inspired to ride it?
I was JRA (just riding along), my legs rising with the pedals and then falling again, letting the circles be circles without adding or subtracting anything. Sometimes it blows my mind that I can do this, just let the bike roll beneath me.
Momentum is mass in motion, a rider on a bike, just rolling along. It is a function of mass and velocity, but metaphorically also a measure of what we are moving toward or away from in our larger lives. In some ways, ‘Can I pedal harder up this hill?’ is a similar question to ‘Can I sneak in one more day on the bike this week?’ which is only a tactical permutation of ‘Am I getting better at what I’m doing?’ or ‘Am I moving forward in my life?’
I find that when I am moving well in the literal way, I am probably moving well in the other way as well.
I also think of momentum as what is happening in the moment. What forces are at play? Am I moving with them or against them? Sometimes just being present in the moment is a challenge, external forces rag-dolling me through like a kid caught in a too tall wave. We wait around for something magic to happen, maybe we put ourselves in magic’s way, ride a tall mountain, shoot a twisting descent, ramble over miles of dirt and gravel. We are only trying to force ourselves into the moment, gathering the circumstances that will focus our attention, if only briefly.
It is tempting to bring inertia into the discussion, but there we are talking about bodies at rest. Inertia is a measure of a body’s resistance to momentum. Even in a track stand the bike yearns to move. Sometimes it yearns hard enough to deposit you on the asphalt. That we control that movement is only our temporary mastery of momentum, the asphalt a measure of our hubris.
My form on the bike is more than just fitness. It is also my ability to work with whatever momentum I’ve got. Can I keep my fingers off the brake as I lean against a turn, dropping my knee as counterweight, edging the volume of my tire against the broad surface of the road? Can I find the will to drop down the cassette at the crest of a steep rise, to pound into those tall gears that will spit me out the bottom at something approaching terminal velocity? Can I wed concentration to that force, dance with it, bend it to my will, and accept its own thoughts on the subject? This is souplesse.
Off the bike, wiser heads ask me whether I want to be right or happy, and I smile and think this is really a decision about whether I want to squander the momentum I have to prove a point, to stop in the road to admire my own paint job. Do I want to swap momentum for inertia? Mostly not. Life is hard enough without riding the brakes all the time. I’d rather go smooth than fast.
I don’t know about you, but I capture very little of the momentum I receive. Mostly my ego revolts, pulls back hard on the brake levers, and I shake my head, over and over, at my own stupidity, the past welling up to overwhelm the present. Or else I am afraid. What will come around the next corner? What horrors await in the wreckage of the future?
The bike is like this, both teacher and blackboard, serving up lessons and giving us a place to practice. As ever, I struggle to pay attention in class, but I believe the answers are there, on the bike, in the moment, somewhere just beyond my front wheel.
Image: Matt O’Keefe
I didn’t pass him. That would have been a dick move, so just as I was about to make the catch I sat up a little and coasted onto his wheel. As far as I could tell he never even turned his head to notice I was there, but I was trying to get my lungs back in my mouth and keep my brain from bursting out my temples, so maybe he did.
I don’t know why I did it. It was just one of those stupid commuter games you play. “Can I catch that guy?” you think. “I probably can’t. Maybe I can. Well, screw it.” And you go.
He was probably 50 meters out in front of me on the long climb that leads up to my house, but I could see he wasn’t going very fast. He had a bag on, like me. He wasn’t rushing. He was just going home.
I closed half the distance pretty quickly, as you do on a climb, but my heart was red-lining, so I had to back off. That’s where it gets challenging, right? It’s hard to know how much to slow. Your brain is telling you to let the pedals go slack, to coast until the engine room gets the fire under control. You have to find that middle point, fast but not heart attack fast. You have to maintain enough progress to continue the chase, to maintain motivation, but not go all in like a poker player with a pair of nothing.
Like much of what I do on the bike, there was no real point. I was commuting. He was commuting. Why race someone who isn’t racing you? Why go so hard on the way home? It was stupid, but I needed something to ride for. I hadn’t realized that until I was getting close enough to believe I would make the catch.
The pros calculate their every effort by whether they have something to ride for or not. A chance to put a teammate in the winning break? They ride. A chance to save a podium place? They ride. A chance to set up for the sprint? They ride.
I can’t be so discerning. I don’t stand on many (any) podiums, but I need to ride. I need that something to motivate me, or I let the pedals go slack. I coast.
After D2R2 this year, I swore I would take my fitness and plow it into trail riding, that I’d double down by running on days I couldn’t fit a ride in, that I’d play more soccer, that I’d keep it going. Instead, I gave myself a week off. I slept. I drove. I ate stuff. One week became two became three.
I needed to ride. That poor bastard didn’t ask me to chase him. He was just the right challenge in the right moment. By the time I turned off his wheel my breath rasped in my chest painfully, that bronchial ache made of effort and car exhaust. I didn’t pass him, because it would have been the wrong thing to do.
As I stood in the kitchen after, sweating like a summer soda can, I wondered aloud, “WtF was that?” But it felt good. It focused my mind. I thought, “I’m going to ride every day this week.”
Image: Matt O’Keefe
Maybe we’re spoiled for choice. Classics season gives way to Grand Tour time. In between there are a veritable panoply of small, interesting races that drag the world’s fastest cyclists all over the globe. Our sport is steeped in history and tradition, and yet remains ripe for innovation, for new races like the Strade Bianche to take hold of our collective imagination.
Increasingly lost in the churn of the season is the World Championship.
Born on the track in the 1890s, cycling’s World Championships have taken myriad forms, been run by multiple governing bodies and been slotted into the calendar haphazardly for more than a century. At times, the race has been the pinnacle of the season, at others it has been what it seems to be now, an afterthought.
This is not to say there is no prestige to wearing the rainbow jersey, nor that some of the best riders of this generation will make it one of their primary objectives for the season. Despite the relative truth that the World Champ almost always has a crap season in the multi-colored top (see this bit from Philippe Gilbert), it’s hard for a bunch of go-fast lunatics not to want to be crowned World Champion.
But sitting where it does in the schedule, stuck on the end like a spare tire, it doesn’t lend itself to high prestige or fan excitement or even the intrigue of the world’s best going at it in their mid-season form. Instead, the top contenders have dragged themselves to the four corners, looking for competitive races to tune up their finishing speed rather than springing off the back of some more logical and high profile one-day racing earlier in the year.
Of course, this is also a marketing problem, and the UCI has shown itself to be mediocre at race promotion, at least when compared to the 800-pound gorilla in the cycloverse, the Amaury Sports Organtization, owner of the Tour de France among many, many others, or even an upstart sports agitator like Red Bull. Maybe the diminution of the World Championships is one more reason to change leadership atop the UCI.
The whole circus starts this weekend with the team time trial and carries on through the week, culminating in next weekend’s individual time trials and road races.
This week’s Group Ride asks, are these races important to YOU? If not, why not? Has your attention wandered since the Vuelta? Or even before that? Do you hope your favorite rider wins in Florence, or do you hope they avoid the rainbow stripes, the better to compete in the coming season’s more important races? Predictions are allowed, too, but no one gets any credit for picking Marianne Vos for anything.
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
As a kid, I could never quite wrap my head around a visit to the toy store. On the one hand, everything I could ever want was there. On the other, I knew I couldn’t have it all, and so an ontological crisis ensued any time my parents asked me what ONE thing I’d like to take home with me.
Interbike is like that.
Even my jaded adult self has trouble quelling the rip tides of gear lust that drag me down every aisle of the show until I’m standing in front of some booth at the outer reaches of the convention center staring at glittery, fluttery grips for kids’ bikes. There, in that comical space, I can take a breath and do some not-wanting.
Last year, Padraig and I walked the floor together, shaking hands with friends old and new and trying not to let on how badly we wanted at least four of the things in their booths. I will confess now that the things that grabbed me last year were, in no particular order, Giro’s Empire shoes, Pegoretti‘s paint jobs, and the Chrome backpacks they were customizing on-site. This is the short list, the stuff I wanted to grab and make a break for the exit with.
My natural aversion to Las Vegas, or more specifically the Vegas strip, where America spills its banks so ostentatiously, does little to dampen my interest in the latest and greatest cycling finery. It is only fortunate that most of what’s on display is not for sale, and I am, by and large, able to drag my weary bones back out to the airport and doze quietly while some poor soul who didn’t get quite enough, deposits the last of his cash into a slot machine in the departure lounge.
This week’s Group Ride wonders what YOU are most interested in seeing from Interbike. What new products are on your horizon? What should we be looking for, bringing back pictures of, reviewing for the upcoming season? What toy would you pluck from the shelf, if you could only pick one?