We love cycling for the transformative suffering on display ascending amid the majestic ski stations in France. The searing, soul-stealing pain that surely marks each lap of the track during a 60-minute bid for glory occupies a different place in our consciousness. This hour-long contest is the essence of man’s competition against himself.
For many of us, our hardest hour is not on the bike.
It is a dark place we know better than we think even if we will never, ever wind up a 54×14 on a velodrome with a shot at fame.
The hardest hour started minutes ago when you should have gone to bed.
Instead you’re reading this essay. Or sitting on the couch with someone warm and loving. Drinking Scotch with a television on.
The hardest hour kicks off around 10 p.m., without fanfare or a starting gun, when you know you should go to bed in order to rest tired legs and weary eyes.
Getting an extra hour of sleep for an entire week is akin to an extra night for most of us. Maybe more. Some cyclists pay hundreds of dollars a year to ensure they are topped up on electrolytes and the right kinds of sugars all in order to get a performance edge over their friends on a group ride. That pales in comparison to the edge an extra hour of sleep gives you.
The hardest hour begins at 5:00 a.m. when against all odds you awoke at 4:55 and turned off the alarm five minutes away from your reckoning. The tender nudge from a warm leg was all it took.
The hardest hour almost kept you from driving to go for a ride with a friend you haven’t talked with face to face in over a year. Or was it two years? Three? Is an hour to drive for each year of absence really too much? All it took was a few white-knuckle, 53×12-powered descents to be back at the elemental togetherness that transcends separation and defines true camaraderie.
You push. You fight. Our hardest hours are seeded with what writer Steven Pressfield calls “Resistance,” a slow leeching of the sack of poison that we all carry inside. That we have the bike means we’ve stitched it up as best we can. Pity those whose veins run thick with it. You at least know you have the tools to overcome.
We can also use the preparation and execution of an hour record as a window into the professional’s life. What amateurs don’t see is that every day of a professional’s life is made up of a progression of hard hours. They chain them together like cigarettes. For a professional cyclist, worth is accounted for by the watt, nourishment is measured to the gram, love is meted out by the minute and recovery is scheduled to the hour.
For the rest of us, the true measure of our success and failure is revealed by our performance during the hardest hour.
What is your hardest hour?
So last week the Wall Street Journal published a piece on the death of Lycra cycling clothing. As if the use of man-made fibers, clipless pedals and shaved legs was one elaborate fad. Or fraud. The Journal doesn’t mind wooing controversy, and this was one of those occasions. The piece, “Cycling’s Spandez Coup d’Etat,” is a piece of work I honestly would have thought was beneath the publication. Why? Well, it confuses correlation with causation in that there has been an increase of riders not wearing Lycra and Lance Armstrong has fallen from grace. However, Armstrong’s fall did not cause people to huck their Lycra in the trash can anymore than he caused the rise of the hipsters. Then there’s the fact that while the writer cites Rapha as one of the brands selling clothing that subscribes to this new ethos. Nevermind the fact that most of what Rapha sells is, uh, Lycra. Pesky details. Similarly, Giro’s New Road line is an intriguing take on what cycling clothing can be. But it hasn’t exactly achieved the sort of penetration that merits the suggestion that Lycra is on its way out. Ditto for Levi’s.
While Giro’s new line has taken some flack, it’s truly an innovative take on what cycling clothing can be. Will it replace my RKP kit? Um, no. Do I think I could find a place for it in my wardrobe? Absolutely. It’s the sort of stuff I could see me wearing for a coffee ride or for running a bunch of errands by bike, or when heading out for a ride with my son.
The reader relatively unfamiliar with cycling will probably miss the fact that the only magazine editor quoted—Mia Kohut of Momentum—works for a lovely but tiny publication well out of the mainstream of cycling. Why not talk to Bill Strickland or Peter Flax of Bicycling? Similarly, my friend Josh Horowitz of Broken Bones Bicycle Co. was quoted, rather than anyone from Trek, Specialized or Giant. Josh is a good guy and has a fun take on the bike biz, but if you want to talk to someone who is actually influencing the industry, you’d be well-served to talk to John Burke.
Let me be ultra-clear about this: Using the shallow end of the bell curve as a bellwether for a new norm is just shoddy journalism.
Did Armstrong’s fall make it less fashionable to wear Lycra cycling clothing? Well that begs the question of whether or not it was ever fashionable, to which I have to answer only maybe. There’s no doubt, though, that the water has receded from whatever high-water mark wearing cycling clothing reached in relative hipitude. But what reporter Kevin Helliker misses is the simple fact that for 90 percent of us, Armstrong was never the reason we wore Lycra. We wear it because it works. What would have served both cycling and the reader better is if he’d chased the real story, not the sensationalist BS of projecting the demise of Lycra (which he prefers to refer to as Spandex).
There is a real story here in how cycling’s numbers are growing, thanks almost entirely to the hipster fixie movement. And it is a movement; we can no longer call it a fad. I’ll admit that you’ll never find me riding a fixed-gear bike in traffic. Why? I want to survive a while yet. You’ll never find me wearing skinny jeans. Why? I’m not skinny. You’ll also never find me growing facial hair for ironic reasons. Why? I’m not funny enough.
That said, I dig anything that gets more of us—and by “us” I don’t mean the us of cyclists, but the us of homo sapiens—out there. And that’s really the bottom line: More cyclists is better for anyone who rides a bike. An increased presence means more facilities, greater awareness on the part of drivers (at least, the ones who aren’t drunk), and more cyclists mean more livable communities. So while Giro has taken some heat for their New Road line, I honestly welcome it. People will ride more and longer if they are comfortable. For new cyclists, the idea that the price of admission means looking like a shrink-wrapped pro bass fisherman is too high for most people who self-select as normal. What Giro is doing has the ability to gradually integrate less-casual cyclists into die-hards of the sport.
And while we’re on the subject of Giro taking heat, last week also saw the arrival of a new ad campaign by the folks who brought back the lace-up shoe. In response to criticisms that the new Air Attack helmet looks like a skateboard helmet, they went to a skatepark with a road bike, a photographer and, well, let’s call him an acrobat. I’ll be honest and say that I don’t think it does anything to further the stated mission of the helmet—improved aerodynamic performance while still protecting your head—but it shows that they have a sense of humor and can laugh at themselves. Far too many people and companies in the bike industry lack this ability, and while there’s no requirement that you need to laugh at yourself, Giro’s perspective is refreshing. This ability to sit back and look at something critically, objectively is at the heart of the New Road line of clothing. Little wonder that they are responsible for both.
I’ve yet to wear the new helmet, but I’ve been wearing a few of the New Road pieces, a Merino top and the bib shorts and baggy-ish outer short. The fit is good and it’s comfortable. How much more than that is necessary is up for discussion. I’ve had a fair number of friends who understood adventure and a good time, but they’d never ride a bike because in their minds putting on Lycra meant surrendering their manhood at the garage door. I wish stuff like this had been available 20 years ago. It would have made my job at bike shops more interesting, more successful. Had there been a middle ground clothing-wise, I think we could have turned more bike buyers into committed cyclists.
Ultimately, my willingness to welcome Giro’s New Road line, or Club Ride or any of the other forays into this territory comes back to a point I made earlier. Even if they never wear Lycra, more cyclists on the road is good for those of us who choose to wear it. We’re less “other” once we’re both cyclists. More cyclists means better awareness that we’re out there and more acceptance that we have a right to be out there.
We’re more than a third of the way through the racing season and only last week did we experience what I consider to be a truly important day of bike racing, one worth remembering. The race in question was stage 5 of the Amgen Tour of California. A few different things happened that day, notable things, things that might teach us a lesson or two.
The first detail from the stage worth recalling was that a group of riders went to the front and waited, waited for a stiff headwind to shift to a crosswind. And when the turn came that shifted the wind 90 degrees or so, they hit the afterburners. The mayhem that caused further back in the pack held me breathless the way the last 5k of any Paris-Roubaix does. I kept waiting for someone to take over, some team to get organized, someone to make an effort that causes us to evoke all those phrases of machine-assisted work: drilled it, laid down the wood, gunned it, hit the jets. You get the idea.
And the move, the move we expected to come from race leader Janier Acevedo’s Jamis-Hagens Berman team—we certainly didn’t expect the bantam-weight climber to do the work himself—well, it never came. There’s been a lot of speculation that the lack of race radios and the resulting choke on extra-peloton communication was the deciding factor. Had Acevedo been on a Colombian team surrounded by like-abilitied teammates, the more likely answer would be that they simply didn’t have the fire power necessary to close the gap. But considering the number of first-rate domestic pros on the squad which includes guys like Ben Jacques-Maynes, you begin to wonder if perhaps they weren’t hiding in the pack and saving their matches for bigger fireworks to come. It’s the rare team that can police the front of a race for five or six days.
Would have a race radio changed matters? Very likely. The commissars will report who is at the front of the peloton and the fact that BMC was massing at the front is the sort of thing that usually gets communicated. Had they had race radios, the Jamis-Hagens Berman team would likely have made their way forward in the pack before the split occurred, or at least before the situation became completely irreversible. The result? We got real racing that day and the GC changed some place other than a time trial or mountain.
That group that got away included the oldest guy in the race, the oldest on a big team, easily the fastest guy over 40, Jens Voigt. His attack and subsequent solo effort were terrific fun to watch. It gave us a storyline we like: Guy everyone likes wins bike race. Bike fans go home or turn off the TV feeling satisfied.
Jens Voigt is the Chuck Norris of cycling. He’s old enough to be the father of some neo-pros; he’s tougher than gristle; he’s fast as email; and he’s fertile as the Mississippi delta. Who wouldn’t want to be all that?
But Voigt is also an East German who rode for Bjarne Riis at CSC in the mid 2000s and won some notable races; it’s hard to conclude that he’s always been a clean rider. Did he dope his entire career? I doubt it. I’d be willing to believe that he was clean in ’97 while he raced for the Australian Institute for Sport. Was he clean while on GAN from ’98 to ’03? That seems a little less likely. He won the Criterium Internationale in ’99. The problem we’ve had with doping is that while not everyone did it, those who won with any regularity have mostly been demonstrated to have doped.
What about his years at CSC—’04 to ’10? He won the Deutschland Tour twice, the Tour Mediterranean once and the Criterium Internationale four (4!) more times.
Do I think he has always ridden clean? No. Is Voigt clean today? Maybe. Maybe even probably. It’s worth adding that Voigt is a great example of how liking a rider may blind us to unsettling questions about a rider’s success during a particularly dirty period in the sport’s history. Voigt is the perfect example of a rider whose likely former doping we would prefer not to contemplate. It’s too messy, too ugly a thing to unpack. It’s perhaps the best argument for why all the riders from that generation should retire. It’s easier not to deal with it. We like him and if he retires with no confession in place, we can keep one of the final, remaining façades up.
I put that idea forward because what ought to happen—a full, unexpurgated history of who used what, when—grows increasingly unlikely with the prospect of McQuaid continuing as UCI president. And because the UCI is too compromised to be trusted, Voigt remains a nagging question mark. This is where a truth and reconciliation commission could really help, but I don’t think we’re going to get that unless McQuaid stipulates that anything revealed about Hein Verbruggen and him includes amnesty. And McQuaid doesn’t deserve it.
I believe that riders who have doped ought to afford the same opportunity for rehabilitation as other professionals who have broken rules. They do their time and then they return to their profession. We may not like it, but we’ve put a system of justice in place we profess to support. I’ll also add that I don’t have a problem with a four-year suspension for a first offense, but I think societies need to be able to show compassion and forgiveness and lifetime bans should only be warranted in extreme circumstances.
But this not knowing gnaws at me. It eats at my enjoyment of the sport.
Which brings me to the ultimate winner of the Amgen Tour of California, Tejay van Garderen. Van Garderen is of a generation of American cyclists who have been outspoken about drug-free racing. They speak in a way that suggests credibility and ethical behavior.
Here again, the UCI’s credibility is so undermined that it’s hard to celebrate van Garderen to the degree he deserves. I believe he’s a clean rider, but I don’t trust the system and that leaves a mild stain on him. I’d like a report issued once a month by Michael Ashenden in which he spells out who he has every confidence is clean and which riders are under suspicion. Van Garderen deserves better than what he’s getting. He’s a once-in-a-generation talent, and likely the next guy who could induce another bike boom in the U.S. But the moment people suggest he’s the next big thing for American cycling, he’ll be compared to Armstrong, which will cause him to be painted with the same doper brush, which is why it’s so important that if this guy is as clean as I think he is, we need solid proof to convince what will be a rightfully skeptical world.
Pat McQuaid has secured nomination for a third term as the president of the UCI. It is McQuaid’s most selfish, telling act since Floyd Landis elected to detonate the façade of legitimacy laid over the U.S. Postal Service Cycling Team. We’ve seen clearly in the past that McQuaid has really only cared about the truth when it serves to protect his role as UCI president. I had held out the hope that maybe if the Irish cycling federation listened to the worldwide cry to give McQuaid a retirement watch and chose not to nominate him for a third term, that maybe he would respect the wishes of his federation and go with some class.
I must have been smoking crack.
No, instead McQuaid made an end-run on the process and went to the Swiss federation and asked them to nominate him. Because McQuaid resides in Switzerland while he serves as UCI president, he is eligible to request nomination from them.
Let’s think about that for a second. The sitting president can be nominated by either his home federation or by the Swiss federation. No one else who might choose to run for president has that ability. No rider can simultaneously carry licenses from two federations. In the American political process, you can’t be nominated for president by more than one party. No one can vote in more than one community.
It’s a great illustration of just how broken the UCI is.
Of his decision to request nomination by the Swiss federation McQuaid said, “It has become clear that my nomination in Ireland has been politicised by a small group of people. However, I have received a wealth of letters from national federations all around the world urging me to stand for President again and I strongly believe that it should be for our national federations around the world to decide democratically on their next president.”
Pardon me, but it sounds like a reelection for McQuaid will be less about democracy than an understanding of how to game the system.
The problem with McQuaid remaining in power is a simple one. The entire peloton can clean up of its own accord, refusing everything from oxygen-vector doping to caffeine, and that really wouldn’t solve the doping problem. Why not? Well, without credible leadership that allows anti-doping efforts to be conducted without interference and—more importantly—with the assurance that a full battery of testing is being conducted at all races every year, we will have no reason to believe that the sport is clean. We’re way past the point of taking anyone at their word. What we need is a manager who gets the bottom line, someone who can make sure WADA is free reign to do their job without turning the process into an occasion for political grandstanding. It’s hard to say where we might find a candidate for that role, but of this much we can be certain: Pat McQuaid isn’t it.
My choice for doing GFNY was heavy on novelty, light on challenge. No idea what to expect, would it seem like a race, a group ride, a tour, an ‘athon? There was the challenge component to it. Of course, doing well is something, and winning would be nice, but it wasn’t a reason for participating.
Looking at the numbers, it seems that novelty and tourism were high on the list of reasons to come. According to the promoter, there were 5,000 registered riders. Of that, 20% were from outside the United States, and 50% of the foreigners, or 10% of the total, were from Italy. Of the remaining 4,000 riders, about 2,000 were locals and the remaining 2,000 were from outside the NY-Metro area.
Indeed, getting to the start demonstrated the importance of tourism and novelty. To get to the start line, participants rode onto the highway access ramps to the George Washington Bridge, part of Interstate 95. Many riders stopped to capture cyclists riding on the ramps. The payoff was standing still on the bridge; looking south you see Manhattan’s skyline beginning to shimmer, looking north you see the beginning of the Hudson Valley through a gauzy fog.
When the Fondo started at 6:59am, it was suddenly a race. Speeding off the bridge was great, but hitting the first park road along the Hudson, eight miles of hills, curves, and potholes, perched between a cliff wall and a stone wall, with a pack of people who didn’t know where they were going reminded me to back off. If I had some external confidence, like licensing requirements, I think I would have been more comfortable riding along. I saw someone execute a cyclocross dismount while his rear rim was riding on a completely flat tire. Hearing people go into the red on the first five-minute hill told me to back off, climb comfortably and create my own group rather than fighting for wheels on a pockmarked road when overall time didn’t count. I let what seemed to be a big group go over the hill and hoped to form another.
Got a small group, of sufficiently friendly folk, and continued at a good, but conversational pace. Met some folks but still able to roll nicely and enjoy the views. Passed through the towns of Hudson towns Piermont and Nyack with police letting cyclists pass through the intersections without stopping. Completed the first hour at around 21mph. The group grew from behind to be huge. Eventually, we came to the first timed climb, 35 miles in, right after a rest stop, where many pulled off. The Passo Del Daino as it was dubbed by the organizers, Buckberg Mountain to the locals. It was steep enough that drafting wasn’t an issue. I figured it was roughly a five-minute hill and I gave my best five-minute effort, yo-yoing with another rider much of the way up. I took him in the final 30 seconds.
The effort led me away from the group I had been in. Then the route quickly turned onto a narrow, somewhat technical descent I knew well. Loving the curves, I bridged up to another group, something I wanted for the Montagna dell’Orso (Bear Mountain) climb; it’s shallow enough for most of the length that drafting can help. But my new companions, too, thought drilling it over a non-timed climb was the smart play. I let them go and did Bear on my own. Strikingly, the timed climb began right after another rest stop. At least this one I’d be able to visit on the way back.
For Bear, the drill was ride the four miles at my limit and then ease all the way back down, and noodle to the next appointment. I passed a few of my former companions on the way up, and only a minute or so over my goal time for the hill. It’s a climb where the end takes forever to get to, but you’re at the top before you know it. Easing down the first few miles of Bear was a bummer; the dead-end road can be good for at least the mid-40s mph and was paved relatively recently, but the fear of hitting an ascending cyclist was too great. After leaving the access road and railing the open road descent past the second rest stop, another group came from behind to join me on the next ascent. This gang was none too friendly. Arguments ensued over small things like gear selection; some definitely saw this as a 110-mile race. Why they needed to argue about what kind of cadence was appropriate was beyond me. These guys were too angry to be around. Fun, this group wasn’t, so when they attacked the next untimed climb, I let them go.
Cimb three, the Colle Andrea Pinarello, was shallow enough and long enough that drafting mattered. I started it alone, and couldn’t find a rhythm. Three guys passed me on the way up. It felt like a climb too far.
There was a promise of well-stocked rest areas throughout the ride. I finally stopped at one two miles before the final timed climb. It was devoid of riders and well-stocked. A cup of Coke, a gel, some Gator and I was off again. Didn’t want to be weighed down for the climb.
On the last timed climb, Colle Formaggio, on the only roads of the day I didn’t already know—a neighborhood of McMansions built during the housing boom, an odd sight in the New York region, and weird to ride through a treeless landscape after being in the woods all day–I caught a rider at the summit and we started chatting. First person I chatted up in 68 miles. 42 miles to go and nothing left to do other than roll in.
His story was rather different. My partner of the moment had been recruited to help someone do well at the event. He and, I believe, two other guys were supposed to pace their leader through the fondo, but the leader was too antsy and had them drilling the pace so hard that one rider dropped the others and didn’t realize it. The others stayed back, but without their third rider, the other two blew up, and their leader forged ahead. As we were chatting about eats, that temporary teammate who had ridden ahead caught us from behind: he had waited at a rest stop and the group passed him without him awares. He was feeling good and had an itch to chase down the leader to help him through the rest of the ride.
My partner told him that the leader was at least five minutes ahead. The guy ramped up the pace and I decided to go with, and within five or six miles, we saw his leader. He asked that I ride to the front, keep the pace high and stay away from the back, “because it’s going to be ugly.” I recognized the leader. He was a foul-tempered guy I had been with on the road from Bear Mountain and let him go rather than dealing with his anger.
I respected my new partner’s wishes, dutifully rolled to the front of the new group, just as his leader accelerated. He eventually fell back, and I kept the pace high. After a minute or two, the berating began, “Oh, the Judas!” and it went on for some time. Thankfully, it was right before the last rest area. I peeled off as they went ahead.
At the stop, I saw a riding acquaintance, asked him to wait for me to fill up my bottles. He declined; something was moving him to get going rather than waiting a minute. But as I was filling my bottles, another riding acquaintance asked the same of me. I complied. We finished up together.
We rolled south on roads we had raced north earlier in the day. At the end of these quiet roads, we were led onto a busy street, the only road that leads to the finish, and we sped up as we battled cars for position over the final miles, an anti-climatic way to end the Fondo.
At the finish in Weehawken, there was a chicane to slow everyone down, and the circuitous finish also made it possible for riders to get a finish-line pic with the New York City skyline in the background. Folks were also waiting at the finish to bestow medals upon the finishers, and give them a traditional Italian finish line kiss. The last one turned out not to be part of the official package; an old acquaintance, an Italian journalist who was covering the event for an Italian paper, was there.
The finish area was a repurposed parking lot. Windy and somewhat desolate, with a big tent and a stage set up for a party, but as an early finisher, few were there. I only wanted to eat and go, but with the promise of prizes, and the time needed to find and scarf a meal, it made sense to stick around to see how the scene built up as the afternoon went on.
It was a ride. It was a day. It would not have been the same as riding alone, or with a gaggle of friends. I don’t know if I should have done it, but I was glad to have. This year? The entry fee makes me feel as if I should try other such events, on roads I know less well. I can still ride these roads with friends and Strava the climbs.
In retrospect, I had done myself wrong. The “competition” aspect of it led me to not follow my bliss of just hammering the Fondo until I could hammer no more. Crazy as I didn’t win anything and many of the fastest finishers where from out of the country. Dumb.
This GFNY gained some accidental notoriety in the month following the event. Two riders from the day were busted for doping. Two positives out of ten tests. One was a New York City rider who seemed to be an up and comer, and the other was an Italian in town for the Fondo. That the organizers decided to have drug testing will forever keep GFNY in my good graces. Some scoffed at the thought that people would dope for a gran fondo, but it demonstrates that the event is real racing. In contrast, the real racing at Battenkill was not subject to any drug testing.
As regulated group rides go, it was a decent time. If I had treated it the way I imagined a Gran Fondo should be run, I would have had a great time.
I’ve been fit by more alleged “masters” of the bicycle fitting process than I care to remember. What I’m even less interested in recalling are the specifics of some of those fits. I’d prefer not to have had the journey, but along the way, I’ve seen—and learned—a lot.
One Italian frame builder took three measurements of me while I was in a cotton shirt and chinos as I stood in his booth at a trade show. Net result: The bike was gorgeous, handled like water flowing through a pipe and was at least one centimeter too big, and that left me too stretched out. The measurements of my “custom” frame also coincided with his stock 60cm size. I’d committed to buying that frame set; the day I admitted to myself that I needed to sell it, that it would never really fit me, was a sad one.
Another fit master, one who is known as an LA fit guru wanted to put me on the smallest frame anyone had ever suggested for me, a 53. That was perhaps the biggest (smallest?) bullet I ever dodged. I tried riding the bike around his parking lot. All the while he was beaming, commenting on how flat my back was. He had the largest supply of 14cm stems I’d ever seen. Little wonder.
I’ve had other fits that looked more or less right to most folks. One recent one resulted in a saddle height that was more than a centimeter too high; it looks ridiculous to me to write that, so I respect it must look even more ridiculous to read that. I got into that pickle because of a decision I’d made years before, that I would fully commit to whatever fit I was placed in and not begin monkeying with it a week later.
It would be easy to look in from the outside and pronounce these machinations silly, for someone to conclude that they’d never get caught in such a trap. There were times when I’d look at a change and think, “Okay, that last fit was definitely off; this one is what I need.” But the fits I had were never so far off as to be glaring errors—a fish in a Coke bottle.
What was interesting to me was that over the years. almost all the fits I gave myself over to were never far from that first fit my boss at The Peddler Bike Shop gave me with the Fit Kit in 1989. Later, I attended the New England Cycling Academy, where I was certified in the Fit Kit. In 1992, that was the most thorough course going in fit. Later, I went through Serotta’s early program, and even had the first generation of the Serotta Fit Cycle in my garage for the better part of a year. I’ve been around a number of different fit methodologies for a long time. There have been times when I was bombarded with so many different fit ideologies that it felt like rush week at a big university.
Despite the variances in my own fit and the conclusion I drew, which was that none of the fits I’d received over the previous 10 years were quite right, I do think the state of bicycle fit is vastly better than it once was. The worst fits I see on the road (and on mountain bikes) are invariably riders on bikes that were sold more than 10 years ago, often closer to 20 years ago.
I’m preparing to write about at least two custom bikes in the next year. As a result, I decided I wanted to get my fit reviewed and for that I decided to go to Steven Carre of Bike Effect in Santa Monica. There are a bunch of very talented fitters in the LA metropolis, so making the choice wasn’t easy. I selected Steve in part because I respect the fits I’ve seen coming out of there and in part because of the number of custom bikes they are selling.
Steven’s approach intrigued me in part because he’s spent time learning most of the major approaches to fit. He is certified by the Serotta International Cycling Institute, Retül and Specialized’s SBCU. Of course, you can have all the fancy gadgetry that drug money can buy, but still not know what you’re seeing. That’s what made my experience with Steven different.
I’m not as fast as I was in 2003, but my flexibility hasn’t changed significantly in that time, which is what makes his results so significant. In many regards, I’m the same cyclist, but not all. I’ve lost height because my spine has shrunk. Those details are easy enough to diagnose. It’s the other details he caught that everyone else had missed: a slight leg-length discrepancy, but one that is not skeletal in nature; a pelvis twist that causes me to sit on the saddle not quite perfectly straight; and unusual back flexibility that allows me to ride fairly low even though my hamstrings aren’t all that flexible.
Steven diagnosed the changes to my fit he thought would be most helpful in short order, but he took me through a couple of extra steps in an effort to be super-thorough. He set up the latest generation of the Serotta size cycle with my current fit. This latest version of the size cycle, if you haven’t seen it, looks some ultra-advanced spin bike, like BMW had entered the exercise-equipment market.
Honestly, when I first saw it, it looked over-thought, the proverbial better mousetrap. And then Steven did something simple, something amazing, something simply amazing. He took an electric driver and began moving the handlebar away from me. With the original Serotta size cycle, you could set it up in nearly any fit you could imagine, but to do so, the rider had to dismount the bike and then remount it. With the new version, you’re able to make adjustments as the rider is pedaling and the electric driver gives the fitter the ability to make smooth, gradual changes.
With that electric driver Steven was able to move the bar forward and backward, from Obree Superman to kid’s bike. He did the same thing with bar height, taking the bar from English 3-speed to pursuit bike. We took a couple of passes in each direction and I’d tell him how I felt periodically, doing my best to indicate when the bar’s reach and height felt most comfortable. In an effort not to influence the process with any opinions of my own I looked forward as he made changes.
Steven told me that with each pass I was consistent in where I indicated the bar was most comfortable. Not only that, Steven noted how my upper body was less tense in the new position than it had been in the old position. More relaxed means more miles without discomfort while riding in the drops.
Before I went into the fit my fear was that he would move the bar up. Part of my concern was that I would need to add spacers on forks that had already been cut to length, and on top of that was the challenge of making sure my fit didn’t conflict with manufacturers’ guidelines for the maximum length of spacers between the headset and the stem. As it turns out, Steven moved the bar back 1cm and down 2cm. That was a surprise.
Because my saddle came down a centimeter as well, on a great many production bikes I’ll be moving from something in the 58cm top tube range to options in the 56.5 to 57cm range. That will prevent me from having to run 10cm stems, which make the bike a bit more twitchy than I’d like.
We made the changes in stages, moving the stem by a centimeter every two weeks and the saddle by a half centimeter. I’ve been riding with this new fit on two road bikes (I changed my mountain bike fit as well) for four months now. I can say that I’ve got more power in the saddle now and have enjoyed greater comfort in my shoulders on long rides.
I’ve had several different offers to be fit with various systems lately. While I’m curious to know more about the processes, I’m reluctant to let anyone else work on my fit. Reluctant the way I’d feel were I to face a firing squad. I played along for a long time, but as I age my body has become fussy. I may not be the old cat laying in the sun just yet, but experimenting with my fit has the potential to reduce how fun riding is, and in that I just don’t see the point.
Al Fritz, the Schwinn employee who invented the Stringray, has died. It was Fritz who noticed in the early 1960s the rise of the muscle-car culture and how that began to bleed into bicycling with kids customizing their bikes. The Stingray was less a bike than a hot rod with two wheels and pedals. And for kids like me who were born in the 1950s and ’60s, the Stringray was one of the first status symbols we ever encountered. It wasn’t just a toy. No, the Stingray was rolling style. It was Beach Boys-hip and as indestructible as a Chevy Bel Air, that is, until you took it off a five-brick-high ramp (in my neighborhood we measured ramp height by the number of bricks we stacked at the high end). Turns out, nothing could stand up to that.
To say that Fritz was the inventor of the Stringray isn’t overstating his achievement. Prior to the Stringray, kids’ bikes had all the flash and style of a turnip. With the Stingray, Fritz gave kids a chance to reflect their personality with a production product. Ask anyone involved in branding and marketing today and they’ll tell you that only the truly transcendent products do that.
How influential was Fritz? Here’s one way to measure it: Who didn’t want a Stingray? Hell, I still want one. The Orange Krate was the first product I can recall coveting, of seeing someone else with something that I actively, passionately wanted. My mom, being the closeted hippy that she was, bought me a Raleigh Chopper. Thought it was Union Jack cool, it was poison oak on an open wound. Yeah, it was orange, but still … so close and yet…. The Orange Krate taught me the value of the feature. It wasn’t just a Stingray. No, it had a five-speed gear shifter, hand brakes and the banana seat sat on shock absorbers—shock absorbers! Those gears, those brakes, that suspension—the machine was the very expression of aspiration. I’d look at one and dream of all the riding I could do, if only.
The effect Fritz had on me and so many other people—Schwinn sold more than a million Stingrays—was to plant the seed of making the bike itself cool. Here at RKP we like to say that cycling isn’t just one hobby, it’s at least four or five of them. That love of the thing itself, of the synergy that arises from our appreciation of both what the bicycle can do and our fascination with a machine made beautiful can keep cycling exciting even when we’re unable to ride. Fritz wasn’t the first to make the bike beautiful, not by a longshot. What made the Stringray different was that he captured so many of us when we were blank canvases to passion. There came a point for most of us when we gave up the bike for a while. Those of us who found our way back to the sport owe him a debt. Turns out, the Stingray was as durable as a dream.
Those childhood loves are rarely shaken. Thank God.
With all due apologies to Frank Zappa, it seemed appropriate to note that what I’m about to announce isn’t exactly new news.
We blew through most of this year’s run of Roubaix shirts in fairly short order, so I did a second run and in an effort to respond to those who have requested non-black T-shirts, we did a run of the Roubaix shirts in gray. We looked at what could be done to try to do this shirt in white, but there was no way to work the graphic that didn’t make it look like a photo negative. So gray it is. This is but one of the terrific designs Joe Yule of StageOne Sports has done for us. Stay tuned for more of his work.
And this first day of the Giro marks the return of the Eddy ’72 T-shirt with the amazing illustration by Bill Cass. It’s back in black and Belgian blue. No apologies to AC/DC will be forthcoming. Or necessary. Just give it a second.
After a year of alternately surprising and unseemly revelations, truths that are unsettling or perhaps only half-so, we finally seem to have arrived at our great test. The recent nomination of Pat McQuaid to another term as UCI President by the governing board of Cycling Ireland is the great denouement of this era in cycling. Should he succeed in achieving another term as the president of the UCI, McQuaid will be the unassailable impediment to cleaning up cycling. Having shut down the investigation into his organization’s past and derailed what could have been a transparent exposure of the sport’s true nature with a truth and reconciliation commission, McQuaid has demonstrated nothing so much as how much more he prizes his ass than our sport.
Fortunately, Cycling Ireland has put his nomination on hold and will reconsider its vote. But holding my breath isn’t a variety of hope I’ll permit myself.
McQuaid’s tenure has left me with the feeling I had a few weeks ago when the opportunity to increase background checks for prospective gun buyers was shot down in Washington. It may be that only 90-percent of the American people want to see a change in gun laws. I have, however, yet to meet a single cyclist who believes that meaningful change in cycling is possible while McQuaid heads the UCI. Somehow, after a shocking torrent of new details that have disappointed every serious fan the sport has, we are poised to enter yet another grand tour with the status quo not only intact, but inviolate.
This isn’t just disappointment. This is the ache of depression, that deep resignation to futility that leeches color from life.
While I oppose McQuaid’s involvement in cycling down to my last fingernail, I’m unable to summon any more outrage for doped riders. With or without the man behind the curtain, we must address the future of the riders themselves. I suppose I might be able to ferret out some moldy snark should Riccardo Ricco choose to infest a two-wheeled conveyance in public, but that Al Pacino-style bellowing apoplexy found on the Interwebs eludes me at this point. A great many years ago a wise person told me that resentment is a cup of poison you pour for someone else, but drink yourself. I repeated those words to myself for nearly 20 years before I was able to put them into action by pouring out the metaphoric glass of hemlock. And it’s not that I lack compassion for what guys like Tilford suffered at the legs of a doped peloton—I get it. But now I have to ask, where is all this anger getting us?
Lest you think I simply wish to sweep all this dishonesty under the rug so that we can just jump into some new chapter of cycling, the way BP has tried to tell the people of Louisiana and Mississippi, “Bygones …” I must point out that I don’t see a simple reset button. There was a time when, emotions aside, I calculated that once a rider has served a suspension—even ones we believe to be to woefully inadequate to fit the infraction committed—they ought to be permitted to ride again, period.
This spring I went for a ride with a friend who works in the tech sector, one of the smartest guys I know, and arguably the most impressive self-made success I have ever encountered, a guy who also happens to be an ex pro. It was he who re-framed the problem of the “recovering” doper for me. Suppose for a second that every cyclist ever popped for doping was suspended for long enough to return them to their pre-doping form. It was his contention that was not sufficient discipline. It is his belief that the form gained from doping is actually less important than how once you have achieved that form once, in knowing that it is possible it redefines what the doping rider believes is possible about him or herself. The logic here is that once you’ve broken that psychological barrier once, it’s easier to do the second time.
The flip side to this argument is that riders who have doped often develop a psychological dependence on the stuff, coming to believe that they can’t achieve the form they had without it. It’s easy to see the logic behind this: I wasn’t that fit before the dope, so how can I reach that fitness without it?
Corollaries to both arguments abound. Skateboarding shows how once one guy figures out a move others learn it quickly because they know it’s possible. Once something enters the realm of the possible the challenge is merely learning, not invention. On the other side, the arts are full of talents who clung to drugs long after they had become self-destructive, because they believed the dope was braided into their talent, that one could not survive without the other. The tragedies of Marco Pantani and José Maria Jimenez remind us to what dark road doping may lead.
So this is my acknowledgement that there are no easy answers to what sort of riding careers ex-dopers should lead. However, the riding careers, that is the actual racing, of these riders isn’t nearly the source of irritation as the recent announcement of side projects by some of these riders. The outrage I’ve seen on Facebook and Twitter in response to the release of a strength training book by Tom Danielson and the announcement of George Hincapie’s new bed and breakfast could send a nuclear sub around the seven seas at least until we solve climate change.
The rub is, of course, that they wouldn’t be famous enough to be authors, clothing company or hotel owners had they not doped their way to success. Surprisingly, the solution to this issue might be the simplest of all. Newton’s third law of motion states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Backlash is the force opposite what the Lance Effect was. Sure, Danielson got an advance for the book, but if it doesn’t sell, he won’t see any royalties. And if it doesn’t sell, there won’t be another book. The market isn’t moral, but it can be absolute.
I’ve got friends out there, reasonable people whose intelligence is beyond question, but because they are cyclists are men of passion, men for whom the ex-doper dilemma has riled them to bulging-eyed, steam-eared fulminants. It’s hard to say whether their principles or their passions have led them to conclude that no ban short of lifetime is enough for these riders.
I can’t tell people not to be angry. Well, I can try, but it won’t work, so there’s no point. But I think it’s time we begin thinking about how to move forward, with or without Pat McQuaid. Every justice system on Earth makes some attempt to match the punishment to the crime. Bernie Madoff is the only person I can think of who has effectively received a death sentence—both professional and personal—for crimes he committed in his profession. Does anyone out there really think that the offenses committed by Tyler Hamilton, Christian Vande Velde, Levi Leipheimer, et al, merit professional death sentences? Actually, I know the answer to that question is yes, but what I’m asking is for people to really consider the question in a rational way. In the grand scheme, considering the number of Wall Street villains who did their country-club stints and are now plying their trade once again, do these guys really deserve lifetime suspensions or is this just our passion quitting the game and taking the ball home?
Finally, while I suspect that there are guys like Ricco who have the recidivist streak of skid-row addicts, I submit that there is merit to looking for acts of repentance, that in allowing a rider to make amends and in accepting that apology we both heal. I think accepting Tyler Hamilton as repentant is more about my growth than his. I don’t think every former doper deserves forgiveness, but Hamilton strikes me as worthy a candidate as we might find.
Forgiveness isn’t something that can be ladled out to the masses, like sunshine, but in this regard, maybe we can take a page from skateboarding and show one another what’s possible.
Cycling is a sport in which I’ve learned a great many lessons about life. As a life philosophy, it will fall short of what I want to teach my sons if it can’t include forgiveness, reconciliation. The mythology of cycling is better for me if I can point to Hamilton as cycling’s prodigal son.
It’s time to find a way to move on. Forgiveness is less a gift you give the person who hurt you than a peace you give yourself.
This is likely to be one of the shortest posts of my entire writing career.
There’s not much to say other than thank you. Of course, this is an epic thank you. You’ve pledged not just enough to fund my Kickstarter project, but together you pledged enough for me to publish an expanded collection of my work.
It’s difficult to articulate the elation I felt on Monday when the project funded and I got the confirmation email from Amazong. Even though I was always confident we could achieve the goal, crossing that finish line provided a sense of accomplishment that was particularly sweet. This is the work I’m proudest of, the work I think most deserves to be collected in book form. Of the three books I’ve published, this is the one I hope will endure, staying in circulation long after I’m gone.
Like I said, there’s not much to say other than thank you. I thank you. My wife thanks you. Philip thanks you. And, of course, if the Deuce could speak, he’d thank you as well.
And if you had the misfortune to miss the Kickstarter campaign, don’t worry. I’ll soon have each of the items up on the RKP store.