Dan said, “You just know one of these young guys is going to break our hearts,” and I nodded and had to concede that he was probably right. Dan and I still love pro racing, and we talk about it regularly, but it’s hard to deny the shine has come off. We’re looking forward to the Spring one-day races, but it’s different now.
Neither of us was naive. We’d both known the scale of the doping problem in the pro peloton, but the collective confessions that came down in the wake of the USADA reasoned decision filled in details that made what we already knew hurt just that little bit more. It’s like finding out you didn’t get a job and being disappointed, and then finding out the boss’s kid got it instead, that twist of the knife that comes from knowing too much.
I won’t say which young pro rider we were talking about, because it would be deeply unfair, given the problem of guilt by Google, to even mention a rider’s name in conjunction with a problem he or she didn’t cause and haven’t yet even been suspected of. But we’re at that point, the point where you expect more shoes to drop, even if you simultaneously believe things are better now. There is no one in the new generation of pros that I think is obviously cheating, but I’d feel like an idiot if one of them got caught and I was surprised.
I find myself holding back from falling in love with any of them.
And it’s just so deeply unfair, but I’m afraid it’s the reality. What the last generation of riders taught us, over and over again, was not to trust, to stay detached. I am not looking to give up on pro cycling. I enjoy the races too much, and it almost doesn’t matter to me who is racing, men, women, sprinters, climbers, all-rounders. I enjoy the tactics and the spectacle, even if the personal side of the show is more problematic.
Is this what it’s like when you get cheated on by a boy/girlfriend, but try to save the relationship? Some feeling remains. You’re still attracted, but the trust only creeps back very slowly. In public you can smile and laugh, but behind closed doors, in your mind and in your heart, you play it much cooler. You stay angry much longer than you knew you could.
For now, I will go on watching. Look at the image above. How can you not be attracted to a thing like that. Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is just two days away. But things are different now. Things are different.
Image: Photosport International
I laughed out loud, and it was one of those moments when I was alone, walking back from dropping the kids at school, and I hoped that none of my neighbors had seen me, walking along by myself, laughing like an idiot. I had been thinking about my “season,” i.e. that time of the year where I ride without the sorts of interruptions that keep me off the bike for weeks at a time, things like two feet of snow dropping in a single evening and shrinking all the road ways to high-speed hallways for impatient motorists.
When, I wondered to myself, would my season start?
And really, even thinking of what I do as having a season made me laugh out loud. I mean, who am I? I don’t race, so I don’t train except in that masochistic way that yields some level of spirit-illuminating suffering. I ride hill repeats occasionally, but only the way a penitent wears a hair shirt, to know better what a clean soul feels like.
It was just two weeks ago, as I was riding home in falling snow, that I even realized what’s good about the off-season, that yearly hiatus that comes unbidden in either December or January or February, or whenever the capriciousness of nature turns the endeavor of riding into a survival exercise. I was cursing the snow and thinking of Padraig wheeling along in the Southern California sun and thinking some not-altogether charitable thoughts, when suddenly I realized that being forced off the bike periodically is a good thing.
It keeps me from exacerbating repetitive use injuries to my knees. It allows my body to recover in myriad ways, some of which I’m sure I don’t even realize, and it forces me to pursue other activities that I enjoy but often eschew in favor of riding.
Despite our recent meteorological travails, some friends are riding 40 miles tomorrow in honor of someone’s 40th birthday. Given my current condition, and the current conditions, 40 miles would be a good ride, but family duties have me standing in a hockey instead, watching my boys excel at a sport I don’t even really understand.
I was thinking about missing that ride when I started laughing to myself like an idiot. “When,” I thought, “does my season get to start? And what even does it look like?”
This week’s Group Ride asks when YOUR season starts. Do you even think of your riding as having seasons? And what do those season’s consist of? Club rides? Races? Grand fondos? Or just a long series of solo rides, away from family and responsibilities and the cold, darkness of hockey rinks?
Image: Matt O’Keefe
Just once recently I reached out and touched the third rail of cycling discourse with a post about a rider whose name I shall not mention here. The results ought to have been predictable enough, a chain of comments, some supportive, many critical, some baldly dismissive, that let me know that I had missed my mark. I have tried over the last year to leave certain topics for smarter, better-informed, less sensitive souls, but sometimes I become too enamored with my own ideas and keyboard blast something out into the universe better left rattling around the echo-y outer ramparts of my brain.
The great benefit of making mistakes, of course, is in the lessons imparted. Pain motivates change, as my old counselor often told me. And so the past weeks have been good as I have refocused on the good things in my cycling life, minding my own business, turning over the pedals, tuning up the machine, planning the next project, riding thoughtfully and using the sport to connect with the like-minded.
RKP is an important part of that equation. Here I try to write about my personal experiences in a way that readers can identify with, to share something even if we’ve not met, not ridden together. To me, RKP is another saddle to sit in, a coffee shop, church basement or veterans hall, a humble place to gather with those trying to live the same, better life. I come here for connection not conflict.
Is there a point to conflict? I ask that sincerely, not sarcastically. Does conflict enrich our lives? Is there some process whereby it draws us together, a joining by fire, or is that only true if we take the time to resolve our conflicts in some meaningful way?
I have very (self)consciously here mentioned church basements and veteran’s halls. Though I count myself an atheist, I retain a belief that the quality of my life is directly proportional to the strength of my spiritual connection to the world around me. In this context, spiritual just means unseen, the bonds between friends, the connection we feel to our physical and natural surroundings. Where I forge those connections can vary, but their strength and quality is usually the arbiter of my happiness.
I try to avoid conflict without being a doormat, to accept the things I can not change, as the saying goes, and to forgive as readily as I can, not because this behavior comes easily, but because it seems to produce the best results. Rather than argue, rather than swear and threaten and complicate, it is usually better just to ride away, to choose a different route next time.
For some, these might be trying times in the cycling world, far away events stirring emotions, emotions coming out every which way. It is always tempting to express my opinion, to make a particularly pointy point, but invariably I only exacerbate a conflict that isn’t mine to begin with. I don’t have to do that. I can change.
It is useful to remind myself that, both through riding my bike and writing about it, I am trying to connect with my world. Neither activity, much as I love it, has any real resonance without that connection. When I court conflict on the bike or at the keyboard, I am failing in my basic mission. I am missing the point.
I am not a religious person, but I retain a faith that, by doing these simple things, I can move forward, pedal over pedal, inch-by-inch into each day, in the saddle, at the coffee shop, in a church basement or in a veteran’s hall. And that is what I mean to do.
Image: Matt O’Keefe
I need a favor. As I type, the leading edge of a winter storm that local meteorologists are calling “significant,” “historic,” “potentially dangerous,” “severe,” and the subtle but chastening “non-trivial,” is showering us with small, angry flakes. Predictions for final accumulations are being made in feet, rather than inches.
So I’m off the bike today.
Instead of converting glycogen to watts, I’ll be converting wood to smoke. Any exercise I get today and probably tomorrow will best be measured in shovel/inches, a unit that captures the density and weight of the snow rather poorly, but does give some representation of gross work done. The small, plug-in snow blower I went halfsies on with my neighbor a few months back must surely be cowering back in the corner of his garage, worrying about its worthiness to do battle with a blizzard.
But enough about me, and on to you.
You are riding today. It may be winter, but you are a hearty soul. Or, you live in a place where this storm is only an obscure news story. Perhaps it’s even summer where you are. Hello, Southern Hemisphere! You’re in the thick of it. You’re living the dream.
Today’s Group Ride just wants to hear about your ride. Is it warm? Is it dry? How far are you going? Who are you riding with? Are you fit? Are you psyched? Or are you just spinning out the minutes on the trainer, cursing the winter weather warnings and trying to build some base? Give me something to think about while I shovel and curse and then dry my feet by the fire.
Your bike is always ready. Even in states of disrepair and wanton filthiness, last night’s off-road tryst still clinging dirtily to down tube and chain stay, your bike is prepared to do its level best for you. Hung neatly in the garage or stowed carefully by the door, slung carelessly against a pile of similar machines or in pride of place in the front entry-way or even the living room, your bike is not thinking of not being ready.
While you are assessing the suitability of the weather, checking the hourly forecast, considering the wind, your bike stands stoically by, ever-willing. You pick a base-layer, discard it for another, assemble a pile to be donned at dawn, arm warmers, shoe covers, your phone in a baggy and your heart in your throat, all in anticipation of an effort your bike will make unstintingly, autonomically, like a knee jerking under a hammer blow. Your bike will never use the word ‘epic,’ doesn’t feel cold, doesn’t feel hot, doesn’t dehydrate or bonk or worry about either.
Later, as you work it over with cloth and degreaser, with wrench and lube, it does not care. It bears spraying at the garden hose with its dignity intact. You are not taking care of your bike. You are taking care of yourself. Don’t be deluded. Your bike isn’t thinking about being cleaned and tuned. It is not considering itself as an instrument of joy or torture.
Pull up and preen. Stand gaudily at the meet-up, ass on top tube, making small talk. Your bike is immune to the temptations of vanity. Its shininess or ornateness or elegant simplicity are not a thing that it considers. It feels neither humble nor proud. The worst seeming bike, rusty at bottom bracket and drop out, is fully prepared to go toe-to-toe with whatever carbon monstrosity it encounters. It never feels not-aero enough.
Your bike isn’t thinking about losing or winning. It doesn’t care that you shot off the front or out the back. It cares not one whit for its place in any order. It travels good roads and bad without comment or complaint.
Your bike is not thinking. It is only doing, mainly because it is unconscious. In this way it is even freer than we are when we pedal it away into our daily adventures. It is built with the truth that doing is almost always better than thinking. We would all do well to be so ready, so unburdened by doubt, so insusceptible to shame or pride or the urge to do more or less than is asked of us. Your bike isn’t thinking any of the thoughts that keep it from going. Why would you?
Image: Matt O’Keefe
Is it completely gauche, in the midst of the Cross Worlds, the Lancepocalypse and all manner of other deeply important events, to pause for the half minute it takes to point you toward some of the wares in the RKP store? Our overhead here in this corner of the cycling omniverse is low but persistent, and the warehouse is full to bursting with products of unparalleled quality and soul-nurturing goodness.
Our Cream of Courage embrocation is just the thing to slather over freshly-shaved legs. It’ll make you the best smelling rider in the paceline. Pete Smith at Mad Alchemy mixed this stuff up just for us, so it’s got a pedigree to go along with its complex herbal bouquet. Think of it as the perfect addition to your pre-ride routine, or an acceptable cologne substitute for last minute cycling dates.
And as long as you’re dressing to impress, why not kit up in the latest RKP bibs and jersey? Nothing says ‘wo/man about town’ quite like a sharp kit, and you’d be hard pressed to find one sharper than this. Designed by Joe Yule of StageOne Sports and made by Panache, we guarantee you’ll be 20% more impressively attractive while wearing it (if not any faster). We have all sizes still in stock, including yours.
And for off the bike, how about an RKP ball cap? I have always been uncomfortable with companies who call their ball cap a “podium cap.” It makes me feel unworthy. This cap is just a cap. You can wear it on podiums, if you’re one of those people who wins things, but you can also wear it to the grocery store if your hair’s a mess, like mine is, every day.
I hope you will understand that these sort of shameless appeals to your base consumerist instincts are not the reason we set up our stall here on the internet. But the staff accountant, comptroller and operations team have all recommended we sell more stuff, if only so we can continue to pay their handsome and well-justified salaries. This, it seems, is how the world goes round.
And thank you for your support.
At work, we are putting together our marketing plan for the year, and yesterday I sat for an hour with a guy who sells ads for one of the major cycling rags. When you buy advertising, either with a magazine or a website, typically you get a demographic breakdown of the audience they offer access to. Almost invariably the gender breakdown is something north of 90% male. The median age is almost always north of 40. Income is high. Graduate degrees are not at all uncommon.
I see these breakdowns enough that I shouldn’t be surprised by them, but I always am.
Our sport is male-dominated and wealth-driven. Despite a recent uptick in the profiles of some female pros, the industry, as a whole, is still trying to figure out how to attract more women and more young people. The classic “pink it and shrink it” approach to women’s bikes and apparel isn’t working. Whatever urban styling that’s been applied to lower price point bikes isn’t drawing in the youth.
I am told that the median price for a bike purchased last year by subscribers to the major magazines is somewhere between $3200 and $3900 dollars, and that close to 50% of readers will buy a new bike this year, despite having bought their most recent bike in the last three. (Please don’t quote these numbers as hard data. I am only summarizing the information I have received from many outlets to form a composite picture).
The point is that all us upper-middle class and wealthy men buy early and often and dominate the consumption side of the industry. It doesn’t not necessarily stand to reason that these numbers correlate directly to the participation of women and the less affluent, who may simply not read magazines and/or ride used bikes that don’t make it into anyone’s data, but given what I see out on the road, I don’t think they’re far off.
Regardless, this week’s Group Ride asks the question: How do we change our sport to be more inclusive? What are the prejudices built into both pro racing and bike building that turn off those outside the core demographic? Is change and growth even necessary? Given the recent retirement tirade by Nicole Cooke and the disturbing derth of stock bike options for smaller women, the answer seems obvious, but solutions to the problems range from similarly obvious to vanishingly obscure. Your ideas greatly appreciated.
My wheels traced black ribbons in the snow and my breath was a great billowing gust and the flakes swirled in my headlight like a million darting, cold mosquitoes. All up and down the road, lights blazed in living rooms and kitchens, people arriving home to get dinner started, to be safe and warm and whole and well. And I felt my place in the world, in the saddle, keenly, the weather shutting out thoughts of anything other than my work at the pedals and the promise of the embracing warmth of my own home.
I labored up the hill and wondered at the heaviness of my legs in their winter form, but was glad for the struggle, heat rising in my chest and pushing out at my temples. The world seemed ordered and perfect, as it often does when I’m on my bike and the traffic hasn’t followed me up some obscure back road. Somewhere near the crest, I glanced to my left and saw a squirrel laying dead in the middle of the road, his lifeless form a silhouette in the white dusting.
For some reason I pulled up and stopped.
The neighborhood was winter quiet, darkness heavy as a stone, and my breath quickly fogged my glasses, turning the street lights to Van Gogh haze. I pulled them off and felt the cold in the moisture at the corners of my eyes. I stood there in the road peering down at my small dead friend and thought about what had brought him there. The poor guy, grown to fatness but unlucky on an out-of-the-way lane, beyond saving, beyond comfort. There but for the grace…
I stayed with him for another minute, thought to take a picture to remember how perfect and still he seemed, but my double-gloved hands wouldn’t find my phone and a moment’s reflection told me it was a creepy idea. And then a snow flake snuck in at my collar, landed on my neck, and reminded me that I was still among the living, standing tragi-comically on the centerline with a deceased rodent.
Is this the feeling Frost was trying to capture in Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening? My 8-year-old had recited it to me just a few nights earlier. I remember memorizing it when I was his age, or just a bit older, another assignment I didn’t understand in a long string of rote efforts, not unlike riding a bicycle, that would later yield inspiration.
I get it now, even if the horse is a bike and the woods are a catacomb of neighborhood streets, a recent roadkill the thing that brings me up short. It’s about savoring these transcendent moments of twinkling beauty, the brief pauses that crowd out life’s persistent pestering. And they can only be brief, cold creeping into your bones, time grinding its way forward, the Earth and its never ceasing rotation/revolution/hurtling through space.
Frost knew in his winter reverie that he had miles still to go. His poems are always tinged with melancholia. There is a nearly audible sigh at the end of Stopping by Woods. I pushed off and clicked back into my pedals, steadied myself against the slight slipperiness of the new fallen snow and made for the warm place where I had promises to keep. They are, after all, good promises.
Image: Matt O’Keefe
This week we have learned that Brad Wiggins won’t lead Team Sky at the 2013 Tour de France, that he’ll focus his energy on a Giro course more suited to his skills. Instead, Team Sky will give Chris Froome the leash his talents scream for, empowering him to power up the Grand Boucle’s litany of climbs.
Last year, this intra-squad conflict looked a bit different. Froome was so strong he had to be made to wait for Wiggins on one occasion, lest he strip the jersey from his captain’s shoulders. There was a real feeling he might have won the race himself, instead of finishing second. That he only managed fourth place at the Vuelta was surprising, but it’s hard to say how the miles pile up closer to the end of a season, and Sky didn’t give him anything like their best grand tour team for that race.
Now we get to see what the Kenyan/South African/Brit can do with all the prettiest horses harnessed to his ambitions at the Tour. Given the return of Alberto Contador, there are no foregone conclusions, as would be the case even if Wiggins were returning to defend his title.
Team Sky got off to a slow start in the pro peloton in 2010, Juan Antonio Flecha’s win at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad highlighting their 22 wins, but they have risen to the top in the intervening seasons, and, especially now that Mark Cavendish has moved on to a team (OPQS) more inclined to stage wins than overalls, must be seen as the pre-eminent grand tour squad in the world.
This weeks’ Group Ride asks: Can they do the double? Can Wiggins win the Giro while Froome sweeps the Tour? Is the blueprint that worked last summer, the one that saw Sky sitting on the front of the peloton day after day to grind down the pure climbers with a brazen outpouring of watts, still a winning strategy? Or is six weeks of high intensity racing too much for a team, even of Sky’s clever construction? Bonus question, now wearing Rapha, will there be any team more handsomely turned out? If so, who?
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
In certain latitudes, if you mean to ride through the winter, you need to put some time into clothing strategy. One approach is simply to wear more stuff. Long sleeve baselayer, wool jersey, windproof jacket. Sometimes two jerseys. Sometimes with a vest. Two pairs of gloves. Etc. Etc. This can be an effective, if scatter shot, strategy that almost always means you are wearing or carrying more clothing than you actually need. It also takes a lot of laundry cycles to maintain.
The Pearl Izumi P.R.O. 3×1 takes a different tack, an integrated garment that is very serious about riding in very cold weather. It combines a top-of-the-line windproof soft-shell with a snap-in quilted Primaloft mid-layer and balaclava. When it arrived at my home, I took about half-an-hour to pick through it, understand its various connections, evaluate its fabrics and to appreciate the amount of design that went into its creation. I slipped it on in front of the mirror and was impressed. Immediately, I could tell it would be the single warmest thing I had every worn on the bike, and I was anxious (and a little fearful) to test it in some difficult conditions.
Over time, I wore all three components, both together and on their own, in a variety of cold weather riding conditions to get a sense for each piece, as well as the whole. It is important to note that this is not a commuter piece. It’s designed for long rides in tough conditions, and I found that it served that purpose well.
My first ride was winter warm, 39F degrees, so I donned just the outer soft-shell with a long sleeve base layer, and it was impressively warm, all on its own, too warm, in fact, for my relatively short commute. I should mention, at this point, that I run pretty warm, probably 10F degrees warmer than the average rider, so warmth is almost never my problem, heat transfer is.
Heat transfer is actually the whole ballgame for winter riding apparel in my estimation. If simply staying warm were the challenge, there are any number of thin, light, insulated jackets that would do the job. The problem with those garments is that, though they hold warmth extremely well, they don’t dissipate it when it becomes too much. The great challenge for any winter riding gear is to build and store the right amount of heat without becoming a mobile steam bath.
My second ride in the PI 3×1 was at 32F, and again I used only the outer shell. Over the same short distance, I was still too warm, and I began to think that I was going to have to pan the whole jacket as poor at its job, but in reality, I only needed to find the right conditions to make the 3×1 shine.
The next day the mercury settled in at a more wintry 23F, and I donned the complete system to test its mettle in what I imagined was its more natural climate. If you can push out from the driveway on a day like that and not feel a whiff of cold, you are wearing a formidable garment. The balaclava is nice in that it is designed to come up over your nose, but the way the nose section is cut allows it to nestle securely on your chin as well. There are vents at the ears, so you still get enough sound from your surroundings to keep from being flattened by approaching trucks. I warmed quickly, was briefly too warm, and then settled in at a comfortable temperature for the rest of my trip.
The 3×1 doesn’t transfer heat quickly. It doesn’t just cool down with a zipper adjustment or a loosening of vents, but it does settle to a nice, comfortable temp over time. This is probably the right strategy for riding in more extreme temperatures, when you don’t want to worry about dumping too much heat too quickly and going hypothermic.
In succeeding rides I had the opportunity to test the shell in a frosty rain/snow mix, and found that I stayed warm and dry in a way that made what is perhaps my least favorite weather, fairly comfortable. I can’t tell you the point at which the shell no longer tolerates moisture and leaks, because I didn’t find it.
It’s windproofness is also excellent. 27F with a 20mph wind? No problem. Even in that scenario familiar to anyone who rides in these conditions, whipping down a hill with the wind in your face, the bridge of your nose stinging from the cold, the jacket and balaclava insulated me completely from suffering.
Initially, I had a hard time envisioning the market for this product. Minneapolis, Green Bay, Alaska? But over time I could see that the ability to mix and match the three pieces, on top of being able to use the whole system for the worst winter days, make it an exceptional value (at $375 MSRP), to anyone who rides through a real winter.
The fit is true to size and what I’d call race cut, slim, longer in back, long in the arms, meant to be stretched out over a top tube. I am normally a solid medium, but was able to squeeze into a small. If you are on the small side of medium, I would consider sizing down to maintain close body fit.
The sleeves are articulated. It has a nice single rear pocket that is subdivided internally to keep your stuff organize as well as two easy-access chest pockets for phone and/or small foods.
What I return to, over and over, when I talk about this jacket, is its seriousness. I have owned jackets and liners and mid-layers and balaclavas and ear warmers and any number of winter accessories all of which was meant to be cobbled together to achieve some level of winter riding comfort. I have not, in my time on the bike, ever encountered as integrated and thoughtful a winter riding piece as this. If you want to do long miles while the rest of the world is having their winter off-season, the Pearl Izumi P.R.O. 3×1 is a worthy piece of equipement, the difference between cobbling it together and dialing it in.