Two time Ronde van Vlaanderen winner Judith Arndt has retired. That leaves former winner Annemiek van Vleuten (Rabobank) as a firm favorite in a race in which experience is so crucial to success. German veteran Ina Teutenberg’s Classics season was derailed by a bad crash and concussion a few weeks back, and that will leave Rabobank, where van Vleuten races alongside Marianne Vos in the driver’s seat. Vos has to be considered a contender for any race (in any discipline) she enters. Having said that, the Classics are always packed with chaos and anything can happen. The list of potential winners from the rest of the peloton is long.
On the men’s side, the favorites have to be Fabian Cancellara, Tom Boonen and Peter Sagan, not necessarily in that order. It is always amusing to hear the pre-race interviews as each of them explains in detail why the others are more likely winners. This is sandbagging at the PRO level.
In year’s past we have done a straight ahead prediction thread for the pre-Flanders Group Ride. This year, let’s try something slightly different.
For the women’s race, it would be cool to have someone with greater expertise than I have, explain what’s going to happen and who the dark horses are (Where is Whit Yost when you need him?).
For the men’s race, let’s do two things. First, let’s predict the full podium. Then, per my friend Dan’s suggestion, let’s figure out what the winner will say to the other two guys on the lower steps.
Here’s an example: Sagan to win, Cancellara second, Boonen third, and Sagan says, “This is fun, huh? How long have you guys been riding bikes?”
Anyone who correctly picks a podium that does NOT contain all three of those guys will get a pair of RKP wool socks and my unreserved respect. If you also correctly name the women’s winner, I’ll spring for an Eddie ’72 shirt from the RKP store.
Image: PhotoSport International
They never even looked back. Two fellow travelers, grinding and swinging up the hill in front of me. As I turned the corner into the climb’s lower ramp I glanced up and saw them there. I thought, “can I catch them?” and put my head back down.
My wife had been emailing with some friends about summer plans. Summer. As if that’s a thing now. And their calendars were filling up, and there I was in my tired desk chair shaking my head and wondering at people who were thinking about more than what was in front of them at the moment.
I have not been too hard at the pedals for these last few moons, succumbing to winter like dry leaves to a campfire. Still, those two riders on the hill weren’t drilling it. They were trading off the front like they were serious, but I was making up ground. “Oh, I’ll just go hard in this first section and see how much gap I close,” I told myself. Them swiveling their way into the middle, flatter part of the climb.
“I’m sorry,” I typed back to my wife. “I’m OTB as far as the summer goes.” And she to me, “OTB?” And me back, “Off the back.” And her, “Oh.” And then nothing.
When I reached the flat after the first rise, that blessed point where you can get a real gear back under you, I gauged my progress and saw that I was, in fact, reeling them in. What was 40 meters had shrunk to 20. The swish and roar of traffic made the whole thing something of a pantomime, them fleeing, me pursuing. I clicked twice down the cassette, stood into the work.
I suppose if you know you’re going to be OTB you do something to mitigate the consequences. You seek help. You delegate what tasks you can to willing collaborators. You let folks know you might not be getting back to them with the alacrity they’ve come to expect.
With the gap cut to 15 meters, maybe 12 really, my sonar or dead reckoning or powers of estimation now being swept into the dustpan of oxygen debt, I thought to do the right thing. I eased off. Not to give up. Not to back off. Not to concede defeat. But rather to pace myself. Too anxious am I usually to hurtle across a gap, this the recipe for blowing up, so that just as I make contact, I lose the ability to hold myself steady on the bike. I go all knees and elbows, power draining out the acute angles of my flailing.
Work is busy, and I have placed my attention there, perhaps to a fault. It is not so much that I am behind with my work, but rather that I feel a sudden quickening of results there. The momentum is with me (us) and I am hell bent on holding it and keeping it and stoking it, taking what the road will give me, riding the lightning. You get my point.
And so, with maybe 10 meters to go, 10 striding paces to close the gap and kiss in relief the rear wheel of a rider I’ve never met, I saw that I wouldn’t make it. Nearing the top of the climb, the whole thing only about a mile long, we were flattening out. They were pressing tentatively at their own shifters. Having not gone full gas, they were able to exploit their improved terms with gravity to an extent that I was not.
I never know when I’m going to be OTB. At some point, I lift my head to see what’s coming and realize I’m not close to where I ought to be. I’m out of shape. I haven’t thought of the summer. There are things outside work that need my attention. What have I been doing? Why? Are my priorities all out of whack? Usually, yes.
I had not gone that deep yet this year. Rolling up to the top of the climb, watching my friends, total strangers still, take the corner that leads away from the up. My lungs burned. I was disappointed in myself for not catching them, but also happy that I had convinced myself to try.
When you’re OTB, you find out who your friends are. My wife has planned our summer. She knows I’m not a great planner of leisure time activities. I’m task oriented. I clean the bathroom. I pick up after the dog. Equally, on the bike, the guys I ride with will spin along next to me, chatting, because that’s what I need, that’s what they need, and we all know we’re OTB, but we’re working on it. It’s not so bad.
We’ll catch on. Just give us some time.
Image: Matt O’Keefe
It’s an excuse-making time of year. With apologies to our friends in the southern hemisphere, we are just thawing out of a challenging winter here in New England. At no other time of year is the gulf between my form and the form of my co-riders so evident.
Some of us have persevered, ridden through the snow and slush and ice, and still have our legs under us. Others of us (ahem!), were not so stout and imperious. Some of us still need miles like Europe needs solvent banks. Some of us need to do some sand-bagging.
Now let me be 100% clear. You should not be a sand-bagger. We here at RKP do not condone sand-bagging. What you really ought to do is show up for any ride you can, ride as hard as you can, and keep the excuses to yourself. That’s how you ride a bike.
No matter how many times I’ve told myself to shut my mouth and take what I have coming to me, for some reason, when I’m out of shape, I am constitutionally incapable of not sand-bagging, not uttering some pathetic non-excuse excuse before I roll out with a friend or group.
I will say, “Go easy on me. I didn’t sleep last night,” or “Don’t expect much, I played soccer last week (last year) and did something to one of my hips,” or “I think one of my rims is rubbing.” Of course, the last think I would want my companions to think was that I was actually just slow, or worse, lazy.
This week’s Group Ride is looking for your best excuses, your best sand-bagging. I am not saying that I want to put all your best ideas to use (I do), but just that I want to find like-minded souls, the folks who haven’t been keeping after it, to commiserate with, if not to ride with, a laughing group, if you will.
I don’t know whether my belief that only Peter Sagan can win this weekend’s Milan -San Remo comes from my unabashed admiration for his swashbuckling style, or from an accurate analysis of the race and the current form of the top favorites. The guys here at the office pointed out for me that completely writing off Mark Cavendish, Fabian Cancellara and Philippe Gilbert, not to mention Matt Goss, is the work of a fan boy, not a commentator.
So sue me.
Let me tell you what I think. Mark Cavendish is still the fastest man on two wheels, despite Sagan beating him to the line in Stage 3 at Tirreno-Adriatico just last week. But the Cipressa and the Poggio will put paid to Cavendish’s hopes of sprinting for this one. Sagan and his Liquigas cohort are too smart not to push the pace high enough to eliminate the Manxman early.
Fabian Cancellara is the fast man in the world on any stretch of flat road, and he’s got a good sprint on him. But he doesn’t have Sagan’s top end speed. If the two come to the line together, the Slovak wins every time.
Philippe Gilbert, current World Champion, shares Sagan’s love of punchy uphill racing, but like Cancellara, who both Sagan and Gilbert can drop on the Poggio, Gilbert won’t beat Sagan in a sprint. He’ll have to get away earlier…but won’t.
That leaves Matt Goss. Matt Goss is maybe the third fastest guy mentioned in this post. He’s a canny racer and a worthy contender, but he doesn’t have the team to manage the end of this race successfully.
Sagan will win this race because he can climb with anyone and sprint with the best, but also because he has a great team, who could, if Sagan falters or is over-marked, put Moreno Moser on the top step of the podium instead.
This week’s Group Ride dares you to disagree with me. If not Sagan, then who will win 2013 Milan – San Remo? Explain your reasoning. How will they win? Or why will Sagan lose?
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
On a good day, you will find no reason to ride up Stella Road. It bends serpentine up and away from Pleasant Street, the top invisible from the bottom. It is steep enough as it twists up toward the tree line, that you need to go straight for your small ring rather than trying to work back up your cassette, short and sharp, like a punch in the nose.
At the top, you take a hard right onto Ernest Road, which is deeply rutted and potholed and only partially paved. Ernest also rises sharply before tipping over into a wide muddy free-for-all of a descent that requires staying back off the saddle, lest you find yourself burying a front wheel in a deep mud puddle and testing the more extreme effects of gravity on your fragile physiognomy.
Most days I choose Stella and Ernest as part of my way home.
In winter, our New England roadways get constricted by snow. Even with lights visible from outer space, I feel vulnerable in the heavy darkness. The headlights shear the night in two with a Dopplering whisper from behind. Safe cycling, or at least safe-feeling cycling, requires finding other ways home. Stella and Ernest are the other way, a crooked, rutted path that takes me out of harms way, if I can manage the climb and plunge with my meager handling skills.
I didn’t always do this, choose other ways. I used to just bull through by the most direct route. I was proud of my ability to take just enough lane to let cars know when not to pass me. I was pushy and fast, slaloming traffic when there wasn’t enough room on the right, pushing at the pedals to keep pace with traffic, taking chances when the reward didn’t justify the risk. Naturally, this led to some confrontation, some frank exchanges of views, some frantic hand gesturing, and in the end, a lot of anxiety I didn’t need.
I needed to find other ways of getting where I wanted to be.
It should not be a revelation to anyone that the bike is an ideal tool for exploring alternate routes. Stella and Ernest are but one way to traverse the relatively short distance between my home and office. There is another route that goes by an Audubon sanctuary. There is one that takes in two brief sections of rail trail. There is one that doubles my vertical gain.
Other ways are increasingly important to me. Between my way and the highway, there are a lot of other choices.
I seem to be out of that pig-headed young man part of my life, children and responsibilities and simple experience burring off my edges. I can accept a lot more bullshit than I used to. I can even, in the right light, appreciate some bullshit. This last represents, I think, some not insignificant personal growth.
Stella Road is bullshit, but suggests to me that there are many parts of my life in which finding other ways might make sense, other paths that, while initially steeper and more challenging, do a better job of getting me where I want to be.
Both Hinault and Hoogerland start with the letter H, and that’s pretty close to where the similarities end. We have, only recently, discussed the need not to make heroes of athletes, and if there is any lesson from the events of the last year (or decade) that must be it. Having said that, I cling to the idea that I can admire certain titans of the sport despite their human failings. In fact, there is little I appreciate more than the tragic tale of a flawed genius.
As a football (soccer) fan, two of my favorite ever players are Diego Maradona and Zinedine Zidane, a couple of characters who struggled with demons that almost always threatened to overcome their natural brilliance.
As we evaluate and reevaluate our sporting icons, there are two qualities that always seem to spark my passion, bravery and audacity. Bernard Hinault, a deeply flawed genius in his own right, is, to me, cycling’s very best example of audacity. Always looking to turn a race on its head, always willing to attack, Hinault could rightly be called an asshole, but it was his naked audacity that lit up the racing of the late ’70s and early ’80s, a time I was just becoming aware of the sport.
Johnny Hoogerland on the other hand is not much as a cyclist. Oh, he’s good, a cagey climber and opportunist, but he is not the dominating persona that we normally turn into a hero. What everyone remembers about Johnny Hoogerland is his crash from the 2011 Tour de France, a television car pinching sideways into a group of riders, Hoogerland spinning skyward and then bouncing into a barbed wire fence. He got up and rode out the end of the stage despite serious lacerations. Later, he cried on worldwide television as blood streamed down his legs and the polka-dot jersey pulled tight across his chest. Instant legend.
Forget the fact that, just a few months after being struck by another car during a training session, bruising his liver and cracking his ribs, Hoogerland is clawing his way back into the pro peloton. The guy is unstoppable, and I don’t know if he’s a hero of mine, but I certainly admire him his courage and wish him well.
We are in a different place now with our cycling. We see the riders differently, but maybe we can still have some heroes, some people whose audacity and bravery we can appreciate, even as we pass the opportunity to place them on pedestals. This week’s Group Ride asks who your new cycling heroes might be? What do you like about them? And how do you see them differently now, in light of all that’s come out about the sport over the last year?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
I think about the bike a lot. Too much. I think about my bike. I think about your bike. I think about the next bike. I sell bikes, and I tell stories about bikes. I reminisce about bikes I used to have, and I try to convince my wife that the next bike is important, more important in whatever very specific way than all the ones that came before, the ones still crowding the garage and spilling into the basement, leaning against the cedar chest, blocking access to the laundry room.
The bike, however, is incidental.
I will pore over the details of the build, wondering if 12-32 isn’t maybe a better choice than 11-28 for where I want to go. I will consider 28mm vs. 32mm, because of the particular ruts that mark graded New England dirt roads and the washboards that develop during the latter stages of mud season, the ones that shudder through your whole body as you plummet off the top of some nowhere hill. I will consider lighter wheels.
I don’t want another bike. I think I do, but I don’t. I want to get to the places the next bike might take me, long fire roads that connect high lookouts to hidden ponds, ropey dirt paths that lead past people’s other homes or the retreats of those who no longer wish to live so close to the flame of peopled lunacy, simple sand and gravel throughways that ring farms and bisect primordial forests. I want to feel the gravel and hard pack beneath the tires of that next bike, and I want to fall off it and scrape my elbow, lay in the road laughing.
The bike is no more necessary to that experience than the elbow.
I want to ride with people who have that sort of bike, because those are cool people. They’ll give you a bottle when you’ve underestimated the day, the weather, or your own capacity for suffering, because really, suffering you can seek and tolerate is no suffering at all, but only a gilding for your flowery ego. The people who ride bikes are the best sorts of people, because they’re all kinds of people, and the bike only gives you a reason to speak to them, that and the sand and the gravel and your desperate need for water.
I will call Padraig on the phone and wander the parking lot at work while we plot and plan the stories we will write about riding our bikes up and down geological formations, places where glaciers scraped up against granite, and we will try to piece together a second living from our efforts, all of it wrapped around bikes and cycling, all of it combing through the details, panning for gold.
We have this friendship, he and I, that seems to have started in a correspondence about cycling, but later found us standing face to face in a casino, hugging each other in incredulous first meeting bemusement. We drove out past the strip malls in the Las Vegas hinterland to crowd around a greasy grass track and watch a bike race, all of an industry swirling around in the spotlit darkness. On the way back he bought a Mountain Dew and a bag of Peanut M&Ms, so he could stay up and write more stories about bikes.
I don’t know if any of this, the farm roads, the casino, the people, if any of it happens without the bike. I don’t know. I am under the impression that you can skate, surf, climb, hike, run to the same sorts of salvation the bike has brought me. I can take the thing itself too seriously. I can focus all my attention there, when it is only really a cipher for life’s cluttered bucket of fun and misery, a pivot point.
The bike is incidental, deeply important, but only incidental. I think.
Charles Dube’s driveway. A stout piece of plywood and a stack of cinder blocks. We had jumped our bikes at nearly every house in the neighborhood, but his was the longest driveway and the best paved. We pooled at the back, next to his mother’s parked car and waited our turn to hurtle ourselves off the teetering ramp. The last jumper would linger by the takeoff to mark the distance.
As the day progressed we got bolder and began jumping over one another’s prone bodies, the bravery of the jump turning into the bravery of the jumped. It was that fearless time of youth when getting the lift of the front wheel just right seemed easy and power skidding into the gravel at the edge of the road is what you did, because you could. It was all effortless.
Perhaps not coincidentally Charles was the best jumper. A year younger than most of us, he was nonetheless the fastest both on and off the bike, that natural athlete letting us know, even at that age, that we were only average.
These days of jumping our dirt bikes seemed to go on and on. How many hours did we spend there daring each other to do ever more audacious and stupid things? How much blood did we shed from knees and elbows and sometimes heads? None of us had ever even seen a bike helmet.
I recall too sprinting down the sidewalk one day in the pouring rain, my friend Sean and I hustling to get to his house before we were soaked to our skins. And he just failed to lift his front tire to ford a curb and over he went, face first onto the sidewalk, the rain splashing angrily around him and his front teeth broken. I remember the blood streaming down his chin and the look on his mother’s face when we finally got there and the jagged smile he wore for months after.
I have had countless good and bad times on bicycles throughout my life. The intensity of the ones in my childhood seems to have imprinted the bicycle on my psyche, and I wonder if I had been a different kind of kid in a different kind of neighborhood if I’d ever have become the cyclist and person I am today. It’s a thing that is pleasantly impossible to know.
This week’s Group Ride asks what your cycling childhood was like. Did you ride BMX like I did? Were you the best jumper? Or was your path into this life different? What do you remember? And what, from that time, still inspires you now?
Image: Matt O’Keefe
Is it wrong to view cycling as a protracted struggle against hard edges? Whether it is the blurred, black curve of a front tire spinning its mass into the sharp point of a headwind or our own minds urging us onward against the angularity of stress and fatigue, everything about the bike and riding decries limits, takes the fight to edges.
Hard edges are insidious. They tell us what we can and can not do. They are borders. They are institutions. They are ‘the man.’ Though they masquerade as clean lines delineating spaces, hemming boundaries or giving the cold comfort of black/white contrast, in reality they are only there to break our bones or divide us, one from another, in our meandering grayness.
Against those edges we array rounded tubes, sleek helmet, butter smooth pedal strokes, every piece of our equipment and every nuance of our movement an attempt to be curved, to slip through life with minimal resistance. Freedom and independence aren’t enhanced by lines and angles.
Riding burrs off the edges of our moods and blunts our character defects. We turn emotion into action, the brain rattle of anger and worry, or hope and joy, converted to watts, an EKG into a sine curve, a boat’s sloppy wake becoming the ocean’s gentle swell.
When we put our noses into the wind, the rolling momentum of that front wheel joining the roundness of the headtube cutting the air, or our backs hunched and canted forward, roundnesses meant to break the will of the wind, we are earning our freedom, our fun. Even the metaphorical knives in our back pockets, the triangles of our frames, are flopped on their sides and arranged for aerodynamic effect.
We push at our limits, and what is a limit but a hard edge? Those edges will fill our lungs to bursting and dull our wits when all we want is a slow roll with some friends, a little weekend fun. Is it so much to ask? Of course, the harder we push against all of these resistances the more easily we slip through. We let them erode and abrade us, but only to a better, simpler form, one that catches no wind, engages no conflict, recognizes fewer limits.
The way forward is round. If you find yourself caught up, caught out, frustrated or stifled, find the nearest roundness and bear down on the pedals. It is the only way.
Image: Matt O’Keefe
I’m not sure how many times I’ve watched the end of 1992′s Milan-San Remo. Sean Kelly chasing down Moreno Argentin in the closing kilometers, in the rain, is the stuff of legend, and the advent of massively multi-player online networking, i.e. the internet, has increased our access to these sorts of motivational moving pictures in a way that previous decades only promised in half-baked sci-fi films.
The internet is a magical place, where each of us can be a star/hero/goat for +/- 15 minutes if the prevailing winds are right, and we’ve done something sufficiently attention grabbing. Cheap, helmet-mounted cameras are the great equalizer, a technology of the people that takes super-rad video production out of the hands of the professionals and straps it to your head. So what if 99% of this proletarian cinema is vomit-inducingly hard to watch?
My own interest in the larger video genre we might call “action sports” has me regularly disdaining the offerings of network television for the attention deficit stoking media of the high speed interweb. I have watched strangers shred gnarly singletrack, climb boulders in South Africa, France and Australia, and descend the world’s great descents on bikes just like the ones I ride.
As an aside, how did anyone make an action sports video before dubstep came along?
This week’s Group Ride wants to know what YOUR 3 minute ride video looks like. Imagine a friend of yours is recording your exploits, or perhaps that you are motivated (and narcissistic) enough to do the job yourself. Where would you be? What would you be riding? And, what music would accompany your heroic efforts?
Image: Sean Kelly at the 1991 Nissan Classic - John Pierce, Photosport International