A bit more than six months ago I had an idea. This happens to me all the time and usually no one gets hurt. Normally, I have ideas that are best executed in prose and then I sit down and bang away at little pieces of plastic until my creative urge subsides. It works out well for nearly all involved nearly all the time. But every now and then I have an idea that requires enlisting the help of people with talents in my distinctive areas of deficit. The artist Bill Cass is one such victim. Bill, as you may recall, was responsible for our Eddy T-shirt based on my Peloton Magazine feature about his 1972 season. My history with Bill goes back to Asphalt Magazine and Bicycle Guide. I’ve not seen another artist who can capture the kinetic sense of cycling as accurately as Bill can.
I realized that we were closing in on the 25th anniversary of Andy Hampsten’s 1988 victory at the Giro d’Italia, a mark unequaled by another American rider, clean or otherwise. That’s worth celebrating, right?
So I approached Andy with my suggestion and asked him what we could do for him. A royalty on this sort of thing isn’t unusual. He suggested that instead, we make a donation to the Colorado league of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA). I was thrilled by the idea and welcomed the chance to do something to help NICA’s larger mission.
As Bill and I discussed when he might have the bandwidth to do the art and what it should depict, we kept returning to an underplayed reality of stage 14, the stage that took in the Gavia on the way into Bormio. Hampsten’s ability as a climber is what separated him from the pack, what allowed him to get his gap. However, what virtually no photos or video document from that day is how he kept that lead—by descending like a BASE jumper. Only Panasonic’s Erik Breukink was able to catch him before the finish, and even so did that only after the descent was effectively complete. We’ve long celebrated Hampsten’s ability to ascend like an eagle into the clouds, but it’s time to remind everyone that he was no one-trick pony, that this guy knows how to let a bike roll.
Bill’s eye for the details that can make a static illustration visceral is in full force here. When I first looked at the illustration and saw the lean angle, my heart skipped a beat as I thought about the road wet from snow. It’s just the effect he wanted; there is no drama without danger.
So while it’s well past June and Christmas is practically upon us, I’m pleased to announce that Bill has completed the art and it’s off to our screen printer. We’re doing all we can to have these back and shipping out so that you can have them in time for Christmas.
To order the Gavia shirt for you and your loved ones, click here.
Finally, on a related note, we recently received a new order of the RKP jersey in medium and large, so if you’ve been wanting one, now’s your chance.
Red light. My brakes howl, openly challenging my timidity. Right foot down as the bike stops. Penned up cars and trucks inches from my front wheel tremble and roar, waiting to pounce. The light remains red. I could sit and bask in it, feeling the cool dampness of the light rain along the river. I wait. And wait.
Right foot clicks back into the pedal before I realize it and I’m inching into the intersection. Red light then turns green without preview. My brain picks up the snort and growl from a lurching pickup on my left and I am through the intersection with a primal burst of speed that carries me to safety before I am cognizant of the danger.
It was a moment when one foot could be measured by an eternity. An instant after which all riding could reasonably stop.
These reminders of how fragile our bikes and bodies are can come during the most mundane trips to the grocery store or an evening trek across towns to hear new stories from an old friend. They force reflection of the most serious kind about what we mean to our families and friends, and what we ought to expect from our own short lives.
There is nothing so spirit-crushing as the fear of a big snarling beast being within a few inches of causing you great harm. It carves out a void in your gut that takes hours to fill. Recent articles and op-eds in The New York Times, among other publications, have driven this home to our loved ones. They have plenty of ammunition should they decide to ambush us with cycling’s dangers as we don a colorfully clownish array of kit in the early morning hours.
What defense is there? As cyclists we have come to understand awful things. We know bad things happen to good people, even the best and most responsible of us.
Yet we believe something else, and it is beautiful. Each of those hulking machines, so at odds with the freedom of pedaling our confines away, is a reminder that we control far less in our lives than we think we do. Their ability to rob us of our very breath is also what gives life to something as potentially mundane as riding a bike.
Every one of us has the potential for their world to change for the worse in an instant. Diagnosis. Betrayal. Loss. It’s just that most people we see on the road in our daily lives do not realize it. They are alongside us, in a sense, yet they cannot see what we see, or feel what we feel. What we have is an understanding that to live a life fully means accepting a lack of control.
What enriches us and our loved ones should define us, not what we fear. In that light, each day, and each ride, becomes a gift. Such freedom also means accepting great responsibility and weight, perhaps more than some of us are capable of.
Consider the opposite, a life of emotional and physical paralysis that comes from the imprisonment of the false certainty of the overconfident and the fearful. Such an existence is made up of defeat and surrender.
There is no room for riding in that world. There is no room for bikes at all.
I’ve ridden in my fair share of charity events over the years. From the original AIDS Ride to rides for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) and a couple of MS150s, I’ve participated in all manner of feel-good events. The recent discussion here regarding charity events overlapped with my effort to pull together a post on a ride I did a few weeks ago with friends.
Called the Tour de Turtle, the ride was meant to raise funds for a charity called the Painted Turtle. I was struggling with the post because initially, I wasn’t clear on just why I felt so compelled to write about it. It couldn’t boast the prettiest course. Or the most difficult course. Or even the most fun.
The ride began in Lake Elizabeth at the far northern reach of Los Angeles County. It’s easily a half hour from LA’s most northern suburbs. The roads out there aren’t terrific, and last year a fire passed within 100 yards of the facility, burning acre upon acre of scrub, chaparral and trees. Imagine leafless wrought iron trees on the moon and you’ll have the general idea.
It is also impossible to argue that there was anything more inherently rewarding about helping this charity as opposed to any other. All it takes is meeting one person with cystic fibrosis, juvenile diabetes or multiple sclerosis to be moved by impact these rides can have. Sure, there have been plenty of examples exposed of so-called charity rides that delivered more profit to the organizer than it did assistance to charities—Palotta Teamworks, the organization behind the AIDS Rides, suffered terribly when it was revealed that only a few percent of what riders raised went to the benefitting charities—but on the whole, rides tend to be more transparent in the work they do these days.
The Painted Turtle is unusual among charities I’ve encountered in that it is a summer camp for kids who are too ill to attend traditional summer camps. They have the ability to look after the medical needs of kids with 30 different life-threatening conditions while giving them a pretty normal summer camp experience.
When some friends asked me to join them for the ride, one of the first things a buddy of mine said to me was that the camp was started, in part, by Paul Newman, Lou Adler and Herb Alpert. Famous people aside, I’ve always respected the things Paul Newman has lent his name. It didn’t take long for me to decide I’d join in.
What made the ride so different wasn’t the fact that they served us breakfast, though the fruit and oatmeal were terrific. It wasn’t that the post-ride lunch was even more delicious than the breakfast. It wasn’t the crazily dressed and upbeat volunteers at the rest stops.
What made the Tour de Turtle so different was the simple fact that we started and finished at the facility. We got to see where the kids play. We got to see the musical instruments donated by families, sometimes showing a plaque in memory of a former camper.
Maybe I’m just a sap, but it was pretty easy for me to project my son’s circumstance 10 years into the future, supposing for a moment that he’d spent that time bedridden and too developmentally stunted to go to a traditional summer camp.
The poignancy of the freedom that children and their families must feel while there was palpable to me. Thinking about the relief that would come from leaving the hospital behind if for only a week took me back to our time in the NICU. The Deuce’s stay was only 37 days. These kids have been in and out of hospitals their whole lives.
Prior to the beginning of the ride, we watched a brief video that showed the camp in action. It became clear that for the staff, this isn’t a job, but a calling.
I began to appreciate that this was a vacation not just for the kids, but for the whole family. I only wished we could have gotten to meet some of the kids, see them enjoy themselves.
There’s a value and connection for me that came from seeing the actual place where the fundraising would benefit. While I didn’t need to feel satisfaction, rolling back into the camp at the end of the ride gave me a very tangible reminder of just what the ride was about and who would benefit.
For more information, visit The Painted Turtle.
When I first heard of the Meet Your Maker ride series earlier this year I did everything I could to try to find an excuse to get to Northern California to participate in any of the rides. I was a good deal less successful than I would like to have been, that is, until this weekend. On Sunday the fourth edition of the ride took place in Marin County. Upon rolling up to the start in Railroad Square in Mill Valley, I spotted Jeremy SyCip of SyCip and Mark Norstadt or Paragon Machine Works.
The guy who deserves the credit for starting the series and making sure everyone who shows up feels welcome is Sean Walling of Soulcraft bikes, based in nearby Petaluma.
At some point I should probably ask Sean and the other builders how often they actually meet one of their bike’s owners. I had the sense that the incidence rate was low, that most riders there on a handmade frame had already met their maker, so to speak. So even though the ride’s most obvious appeal is to meet the guy who built your bicycle, the greater truth of the ride is that you get a chance to go for a ride with him, talk bikes, meet other customers of his and then meet other builders who probably haven’t made a bicycle for you.
Santa Cruz builder John Caletti is known for his immaculate TIG-welding. The ti bike above featured TRP’s cable-actuated hydraulic discs with 160mm (front) and 140mm (rear) discs and Kenda Small Block tires (35mm front and 32mm rear) tires.
The quality of the welds is high enough to make his work look like that of a veteran of Seven or Moots.
Sacramento builder Steve Rex turned out with this disc-equipped rig sporting 43mm-wide Bruce Gordon Rock ‘n’ Road tires.
As is typical of most of Rex’ work, this bike featured his Ultimate Fillet work, but also showed some very tasteful internal cable routing.
Left to right: Curtis Inglis of Retrotec, Steve Rex, John Caletti and Sean Walling.
Sean, thanking everyone for showing up, and by everyone I mean a 40-plus-strong group, the biggest for the Meet Your Maker rides so far. He also informed those assembled that there is some interest in holding even more of the rides next year.
Paul of Paul Components made the trek from Chico to join the ride. He made a point to fuel up before we rolled out.
It was nice to begin a ride without having to hit the afterburners. I honestly can’t recall the last time I did a ride where people were more excited to get into the ride and yet didn’t completely kill the pace. I could get used to this.
We regrouped. A lot.
Eric Richter, marketing director for Giro, joined us for the ride. Based on what I know of Eric, dude doesn’t own a non-ferrous bicycle.
The ride took in both fire roads and singletrack on Mount Tam, and eventually dropped us down to Muir Beach. Once there, a number of riders decided that the proper course of action included hoppy beverages. They were right, of course, but there were those of us who needed to stick to a timeline. The rider in the Santa Cruz Spokesman kit is Sean Morrissey, part of my ad sales team. He and I joined a group making a more direct effort to reach Mill Valley.
The day was not without its hitches. There were flats by the bushel, dropped tools, lost keys and at least a few near bonks. I’d do rides like this once a week if given the chance.
My first 50 mile ride was a fund raiser for the Brain Tumor Society. I was new to proper road cycling. Up to that point I’d contented myself with riding the city or knocking around my local trails, but after one of my close friends began dating a woman who was both a former top-level racer and a brain tumor survivor, I began to embrace the idea of doing more with the bike.
Doing more meant riding longer, faster and better under the tutelage of this new friend, and also learning how the bike could help other people with just a little effort and organization. And of course that first 50-miler opened my mind to the idea that I could explore new vistas of endurance and freedom from the saddle.
I don’t recall how much we raised on that first ride. I remember the weather being beautiful, having a lot of fun, and meeting a lot of cyclists more experienced than I was. It drew me deeper into my infatuation with the bike.
I did that ride a few times, and then later I managed part of a cross-country bike trip for brain tumor survivors. By then I was what I would consider a serious cyclist, and driving the van, making the sandwiches and cleaning the water bottles cut against my pure desire to be out on the road with them, riding. Despite that, I learned even more about our sport in the context of what it takes to support a team of riders, and I saw some beautiful parts of our country in the slow, purposeful way of a group traveling one mile at a time.
You might classify all of that as charity work, but in dozens of very real ways, I was the one benefiting. The work, and the riding, were simply the means by which I learned and explored facets of cycling I had been unaware of previously. That money and awareness were raised for a very good cause made the thing karmically whole.
This week’s Group Ride asks, how often do you do charity rides? How often do you raise money for charity rides or give money to riders planning to do charity rides? And if it’s not part of your cycling life, what prevents that from becoming a part of it?
Image – Riders at the start of the Pan Mass Challenge
Let’s keep this one simple: Builders in Northern California have been holding a series of rides called the “Meet Your Maker Tour.” It’s a chance to meet and ride with some of NorCal’s finest builders.
There’s another edition coming up, this Sunday, November 10.
This will be a cyclocross ride in and around Mount Tam, some 37 miles worth.
Let’s consider this for a moment: frame builders, road bikes on unpaved surfaces, Mount Tam. It’s a win-win-win.
I’m going to be there. I don’t mention that as a selling point; I’ve got an ex-wife who can attest it’s not. I only mention as a testament to just how cool I think the event is.
But back to the selling points: the frame builders and manufacturers include: Black Cat, Blue Collar, Bruce Gordon, Caletti, Calfee, Falconer, Frances, Hunter, Paragon Machine Works, Pass and Stow, Paul Components, Rebolledo, Retrotec, Rex Cycles, Rock Lobster, Souldcraft, Sycip and White Industries.
I shot these images at the Gran La Fonda before Levi’s Gran Fondo. Meant to do a post about it … and got busy with other stuff.
To partake, all you have to do is show up to Railroad Square in Mill Valley, Granolia, at 10 am, on Sunday. To learn more, go here.
Now that Pat McQuaid has been voted out of the UCI presidency and the troubled institution is being led by Brian Cookson, there is some reasonable hope that a Truth and Reconciliation Commission will be formed and testimony will take place. Given how cycling has been governed since the UCI was formed, this is a turn of events so surprising and unlikely it is befitting an Aaron Sorkin screenplay.
Let’s imagine it for a second: Someone will be willing to pay attention as Jesus Manzano speaks.
Consider that Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton will have an opportunity to sit down in the same room as members of the UCI, tell everything they saw and took part in while members of U.S. Postal and Phonak, and when finished Pat McQuaid won’t be there to call them “scumbags.”
Now that we have the faith that the UCI has a president who will actually do what he says, and that a Truth and Reconciliation Commission will convene, we have a question to consider: How far back should the TRC look? Technically, the choice of how far to look back belongs to Cookson or whoever he charges with running the TRC, but that Cookson is president now owes much to public outcry. We do have a voice and the success of a TRC will rest on public satisfaction.
So who should testify? The TRC should do more than just listen to riders and team personnel. We should hear from as many doctors, pharmacists and lab techs as possible. Let’s include the odd motorcycle driver or two. This testimony will be key in corroborating what the riders say. Anyone watching social media has noticed that there’s some suspicion about whether George Hincapie, Christian Vande Velde, David Zabriskie, Tom Danielson and Levi Leipheimer confessed all of their doping to USADA or not. Testimony from medical professionals and coaches will have the ability to confirm their previous testimony or demonstrate that they withheld some activity. It will also show just how fearful riders were of Travis Tygart, or not.
However, if the TRC only looks back as far as 1999, it won’t be far enough. We will have little reason to be satisfied. The TRC needs the freedom, resources and time necessary to take testimony from anyone with a heartbeat. That means we should listen to Belgian soigneurs from the 1950s. We should listen to guys like Lucien Aimar, who was a domestique for Jacques Anquetil. And yes, we should listen to Eddy Merckx.
Why go so far back? Because it will educate the sport’s governing body, riders, team staff, the public and sponsors—in short every stakeholder the sport has—on how entrenched doping and attitudes toward doping have been. Because it was ingrained at an institutional level, it will show that cycling takes doping not just more seriously than any other sport, but as seriously as one may take it. That is what will be necessary to win back sponsor and audience confidence.
The reality is that we won’t hear from everyone we would like to. We must also accept that the UCI is unlikely to allow the TRC to run for five years. They need to focus their effort, concentrate on the biggest part of the problem. To that end, I suggest that we do what we can to encourage testimony from as far back as 1990.
Based on everything I’ve learned about the rise of oxygen-vector doping, I think we can put a date on when doping fundamentally change in pro cycling. That date? May 18,1990. With it comes a specific location: Bari, Italy. That was the day and the location of the prologue for the 1990 Giro d’Italia, which was won by Gianni Bugno. Bugno went on to wear the pink jersey for the 19 days, all the way to the finish in Milan. It was the first time a rider had led the Giro from start to finish since Eddy Merckx did it in 1973. Because we know Bugno worked with Francesco Conconi and testing revealed a high hematocrit—for which he was sanctioned—I think it’s fair to mark this as the date when racing grand tours changed. Fair enough, that is, until we get testimony through a TRC.
Simply put, the 1990 Giro was the first grand tour won with the aid of EPO.
While EPO use changed the whole of racing, it had the greatest effect on the grand tours, where being able to stay out of the red zone thanks to extra red blood cells paid dividends as the race wore on. It was during the 1990 season that Bugno and Claudio Chiappucci stormed to prominence. A year later Miguel Indurain won his first Tour de France, and like Chiappucci and Bugno, Big Mig counted Conconi among his advisors.
The 1990 season was a turning point in that not only did it see the first grand tour won with the aid of EPO (the Giro), it also saw the last clean win in the Tour de France prior to two generations of wins tainted by oxygen-vector doping. Has there been a clean winner of the Tour since Greg LeMond’s 1990 win? Very probably, but certainly not between 1991 and 2006. The possibility of a clean winner seems to have grown more convincing with each year since 2007.
A TRC has the ability to settle this question.
Now, regarding LeMond, it’s easy enough to find comments on Facebook or Twitter from people willing to accuse him of having doped. Even without a TRC, the evidence suggests that in 1989 each of the grand tours was won without oxygen-vector doping. The Vuelta was won by Pedro Delgado, the Giro by Laurent Fignon and the Tour by LeMond. Each of those guys had won a grand tour prior to the availability of EPO. While we know that both Delgado and Fignon doped, we have reason to believe they weren’t using EPO in ’89. What’s interesting about ’89 is that this is the year Chiappucci, Bugno and Indurain began to threaten the GC. In ’89 Chiappucci finished 46th and 81st in the Giro and Tour, respectively. A year later? A remarkable 12th and 2nd. In ’88, Bugno withdrew from the Giro and finished the Tour in 62nd. In ’89 he went 23rd and 11th. In ’90, of course, he won the Giro and finished the Tour in 7th. Indurain’s rise was more gradual, less outwardly suspicious; he finished 97th in the ’87 Tour, but gradually climbed the ranks up to 47th, 17th and 10th before winning.
What makes all three of these riders of a piece is the fact that they started anonymously before rising to prominence. LeMond, Fignon, Merckx and Bernard Hinault all share in common the fact that their brilliance and potential shown early on. LeMond differs only in that he didn’t win his first Tour—he was third.
Lance Armstrong is accused of being at the center of the greatest doping program in history, the greatest sporting fraud ever perpetrated. It’s a charge we can’t really resolve. If there was a greater sporting fraud, it hasn’t been exposed. Ultimately, this isn’t a terribly important question. What the Armstrong fall has done, however, is to open the public’s eyes to the breadth of doping that has taken place. It has introduced suspicion into the cycling fan’s vocabulary. The problem before us is how to put this behind us. We may never put the genie back in the bottle, but a TRC has the ability to educate us on more than just who doped; it has the ability to clear those who did not dope.
Aside from simply dispensing the truth, a TRC will freshly frame the achievement of riders like LeMond, riders who would have accomplished more were it not for the rise of EPO. A TRC that reaches back to 1990 will give us a new way to define courage.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
The following piece was awarded silver from the Society of American Travel Writers for best special-purpose travel story. The SATW awards are the oldest and most prestigious awards for travel writing in the U.S. They are effectively the Oscars for Americans writing about far-flung places. This piece originally ran in Peloton Magazine, Issue 15. To my knowledge, it’s the first time a piece on cycling has garnered an award from the SATW—Padraig
A dozen friendly locals, three Russian motorcycles with sidecars and two liters of homemade wine add up to one bewildered writer
When I heard the motorcycle’s engine begin to wind out third gear, I realized that my driver, Ilya, meant to shift the thing into fourth. That realization made me nervous. No, not just nervous, but scared. And frankly, I had a half-dozen reasons to be scared. First was the fact that I was riding in the sidecar of a World War II-era Russian motorcycle. It had broken, expose wires protruding from components that suggested the last time this thing was in proper working order John F. Kennedy had yet to deliver his, “ich bin ein Berliner,” speech, which is just a fancy way of saying it was older than me, perhaps older than its driver. The sidecar featured a seat so worn it had been covered with shag carpet. And my companions in the sidecar? Two two-liter bottles, one of beer and another of wine.
Second was the fact that we were zooming away from my bicycle—which I’d left leaning against a tree. Third was the fact that that tree was outside a bar and though it was only 11 o’clock in the morning, that bar had plenty of patrons who might possess larcenous ideas; the bike was probably worth more than most of the town’s cars. Fourth. Whew. Fourth was that we were now going more than 40 mph over roads that were difficult to ride on my bike at 20 mph—Ilya was showing off. Fifth, I had no idea where we were headed and you can’t really get the magnitude of that until I tell you about my sixth reason to be scared. Number six was: I was in Moldova. Moldova. I was ten time zones from home going for the first motorcycle ride of my life (I swear it was the first time I’d ever ridden any sort of motorcycle) with a guy who spoke—actually I’m not even sure what language Ilya spoke. It occurred to me that if anything happened to me there would be no sympathy; those who knew me would exclaim, “He was in Moldova. What the hell was he thinking?” Yeah, I had a reason or two to be scared.
So you know what I did? I grabbed on to the sidecar for dear life and laughed like a toddler being tickled.
I can tell you that I’ve had a lot of very unusual, very unexpected and very interesting experiences on bike tours, experiences that wouldn’t have happened had I stuck to the normal touristy stuff, experiences that required being on a bicycle out, away from the usual commerce of the city. Unscripted is the word my friends who work in TV would use. But my experience with Ilya was so beyond anything I anticipated I think they would say I was off-set.
It all started when I pulled over to take a picture. I just wanted a shot of the cool, old motorcycle with the sidecar. After all, you don’t see a motorcycle with a sidecar every day. Something about it looked really familiar, though. I couldn’t recall all the details, but my memory said the design dated from WWII; once I looked it up I realized I was right. Ilya was driving a Ural M72, a design the Russians either stole from or were given by the Germans on the eve of WWII, depending on which version of the history you buy into. This one had the front-wheel drum brake original to the design.
I am, fundamentally, an introvert. Left to my own devices, I’ll head out for the day’s ride, stick to the route as planned, stop at little stores and cafés to refuel when the van isn’t around and finish off the ride with as few surprises as possible. You might say I take the path of least resistance. Bridging the gap between my silence and the engaging world around me is an inexact science. As much as I like finding those unusual experiences, I tell people I’m really not very good at it.
On this occasion the simple act of pulling the camera out and smiling at the bar’s patrons was enough to initiate an epic détente. The moment I snapped the first image Ilya rose from his chair and strode over to his ride. He pantomimed a throttle-twist with his wrist and went, “Vroom vroom”, which is the universal charade for a motorcycle ride.
I’m still not sure which gesture I made in return, but as it turns out I was able to capably communicate the equally universal, “Dude, I so want to go for a ride with you on your cool moto.” Not that I meant to, mind you.
As it turns out, Ilya’s town was lousy with Russian M72s. I know this because I saw two more as he took me for a tour of his town’s war memorials. I shouldn’t have been surprised; by 1950 the factory in Moscow had produced 30,000 of them. We visited two different monuments to his town’s war dead as well as a graveyard. I’m assuming these were soldiers who gave their lives in World War II, if only because up to this point all monuments I’d seen were either to commemorate lives lost in WWII or to promote the superiority of the great Soviet Union.
The steps of the monuments were carpeted with broken glass. Either the townspeople did a lot of drinking here, or a very few people had been drinking here for a very long time and no one owned a broom. There was no way to tell which theory was more accurate.
At each of our stops Ilya took the big bottle of what I was to learn was Cabernet and at the foot of the monument he would pour out wine in the figure of a cross. Even though he had mugged for some touristy photos with me, I took this as a sign of great respect, reverence even. Honestly, I thought pouring beer on a grave was strictly something gangstas did for homeez. Noted.
On our way back to the bar (where my bike was sitting, untouched), we passed a couple from our trip and while they got a good laugh seeing me sitting in the sidecar, that was nothing compared to the shock and wonder Ilya’s friends felt as they saw their friend with a guy covered in Lycra, wearing a spaceman helmet and glasses like the petals of some hybrid flower covering his eyes.
The moment we pulled up back at the bar his cell phone began ringing. I thought nothing of it at first, but what had been five friends was suddenly 11. The phone would ring and someone else would arrive. But I didn’t piece that together until later. No, the first order of business—I thought I was just going to get on my bike, say thanks and be on my way—was for me to sit down and drink with them. Someone handed me a plastic cup, roughly 6 oz. (whatever that works out to in liters) and then poured something deep ruby to the brim. I had no idea what it was. Only after I was into my second cup did a teenage boy I am guessing was 16 at best, but was hanging out smoking and drinking with the others guys, manage to convey that I was drinking Cabernet.
I looked at the bottle. I took some Russian in college. So while I can remember fewer than a dozen words, I can still read the Cyrillic alphabet. A great many words are just transliterated from other languages—their word, funky alphabet. It helps me know when I’m standing in front of a restaurant. But the bottle in question was a beer bottle.
I was drinking someone’s homemade rotgut. Yeah bitches! These guys know how to party! I began trying to find out who made it. No dice. But one guy pestered the kid for something.
The kid asked me, “You like this?”
“Yeah, I like it,” I told him. Then I added, “Eto horosho,” which is Russian for “It is good.”
So then the guy who had pestered the kid leaned forward and asked, “You like?”
I nodded. “Yeah, I like.”
Mind you, it wasn’t a good wine, per se. But there was plenty of bright fruit and a lingering sweetness that demonstrated they knew a thing or two about growing wine grapes to maturity, though maybe they could benefit from some non-native yeasts. It wasn’t terribly different from a non-fizzy wine cooler. I could drink this stuff all day.
Somewhere between the end of the first cup and the beginning of the second, someone handed me a slice of bread with a homemade sausage aboard it. If there was anything ground up in the sausage I didn’t want to know about, I was never going to find out; it was spicy as a sailor’s tongue.
Around that time some of the guys began checking out my bike, which by this time amused me, rather than concerned me. And I don’t think that was just the wine working its magic. One of the guys tapped my Garmin unit and then drew an imaginary line up to the sky and then back down to the Garmin.
With the raised eyebrows of someone about to ask a question he inquired, “Spootnik?”
As in Sputnik, the very first satellite to be launched into Earth’s orbit.
“Da! Da! Spootnik, GPS,” I said, as I nodded emphatically. Hey, this communication thing is going okay, I thought.
As each new comrade arrived at our table, we’d shake hands, we’d toast and then they’d kill their glasses, while I took a few obligatory sips. The toasting thing was difficult to catch on to. I tried “na zdorovje”, which is supposed to be “to your health” but they looked at me a bit quizzically. I also tried “skål”, which was no more successful. Someone said “budmo” which, upon some research, I’ve found means “shall we live forever” and suggests I was hanging out with a bunch guys of Ukrainian blood, which makes sense, given I was less than 10k from the Ukrainian border.
We all said “budmo” a bunch.
As each guy shook my hand I couldn’t help but notice that every one of them, to a man, had the hands of someone who did manual labor. Ilya had mechanic’s version of the French manicure—black under the nails. His and his friends’ grips were firm and steady and their hands were tough as untreated leather. I can hardly imagine what they thought of mine. Remember when Quint rails at Hooper in “Jaws” and says, “You’ve been handling money your whole life”? I’m not rich, but I know my hands are that kind of soft.
What I couldn’t figure out, and this was something that had been nagging at me for the whole of my trip, was how these folks had the constitutions of people who had worked very hard labor over long days for years and yet here they were hanging out drinking at a bar even before it was lunch time. It was a setting I’d seen several times daily for more than a week. I could find no formula to parse its least-common denominator. It just didn’t make sense.
The master plan
After finishing my sausage sandwich and polishing off another cup of wine, I made mention of my need to be on my way. Ilya had a better idea. All his friends thought it was a terrific plan. Instead of leaving, I would stick around, drinking with them until some as-yet-undetermined time; maybe dinnertime, maybe midnight—I couldn’t tell. Then, once we had finished off every fermented beverage this side of the Ukraine (this part is a guess, but their progress suggests I’m not far off), Ilya would put me back in the sidecar. Either I would hold my bike or they would tie it to the side of the sidecar (I couldn’t tell) and then we would use Spootnik to guide us to our end-of-day rally point for the tour.
It was a genius plan. All except for the fact that something in me said that I had gotten off lucky the first time but the combination of a lot more wine, me, that motorcycle and a precarious perch for my bicycle was less a recipe for disaster than a paint-by-numbers map straight to its heart.
Saying goodbye took 15 minutes, maybe more. There were the photos with my new comrades and attempts to sway my will, some with smiling entreaties, some with offers to pour more wine. My final goodbye was with Ilya. We shook hands and then he struck his breast. That move needed no translation. I echoed his gesture by striking mine and nodded in ascent. This had been something special; we had shared something neither of us had expected, something neither of us will ever forget.
As I walked—with something approaching a sway—over to my bicycle, I thought of the event that started it all. I’d been on my way up a hill to leave this little town I hadn’t even bothered to stop to check out, when I spied the motorcycle with the sidecar sitting beneath a tree and behind it some guys hanging out before the day’s heat arrived.
I can’t say there is any rhyme or reason to the events that precipitate these experiences; I put myself out there and they just seem to happen from time to time. Isn’t that the way it usually works? But I figured I should capture an image of that motorcycle. What I took was so much more.
I don’t know why I woke up. Maybe one of the kids called out in his sleep. Maybe my wife shifted in the bed. It was raining. That could have been it.
The alarm was set for 5:30, the coffee maker locked and loaded, and my kit laid out on the dining room table. I had mounted lights before turning in for the evening, affixed a fender.
The rain was forecast, those little drizzle icons slotted into the hours 5 through 7, but we were resolved to ride anyway. With the temperature hovering around 60F a little rain wasn’t going to kill us. And sleeping in…well that just might.
As it turned out, the real precipitation had long since fallen when we rolled out. The roads were all puddle and shine, but the sun, as it rose, burned off the low-lying fog and dried the asphalt in short order. It turned into a gorgeous morning.
I commented on just how perfect it was to my riding companion, and he smiled and said yes, and that it was almost disappointing how much better it turned out than anticipated. We’d have to put off feeling tough for another day.
This time of year (Fall in New England), consistency and rhythm and that pure, pig-headed, Yankee perseverance become the valuable currency of winter riding. Nary a flake has fallen. The wind hasn’t yet drawn its daggers, but if you’re not riding now, you’re probably not riding later.
Just like any Grand Tour, if you miss the transition, you don’t ride the next stage.
So I wake up in the night, hear rain and instead of mentally cancelling a planned ride, I lay my head down and sleep lightly, anticipating the alarm. It’s only October, but it might as well be January 1st. It’s time to locate warmers of every shape and application, to begin devising layering strategies, and above all, to keep riding.
This week’s Group Ride asks, how do you manage the fall/winter transition? Do you pack it in or gear up? How do you maintain motivation as the going gets tough? Can you take time off and get back on when the weather is inclement?
The one positive recurring theme I heard during this year’s Tour de France was how stunningly beautiful Corsica is. It was as if the entire world of cycling collectively gasped and wondered aloud, “Who knew?” While the Tour de France has long served as France’s most powerful and enduring postcard to its pastoral beauty, it’s not as if everywhere the race goes is attractive enough to merit a Facebook selfie. And that is what makes the visual aspect of the race’s geography such a marvel. It unearths (ha ha) places that force us to tell the TV our dream travel plans. For those of us lucky enough to watch the event with our better halves, it sometimes affords us the chance to say something novel, something that might not get the rebuke a crazy cyclist richly deserves.
“Hey hon, what do you think about vacationing in Corsica?”
I mention this because I, like many of you, saw those mountain roads and cerulean sea and sat, slack-jawed, unable to finish a simple, “Wow!” I just slurred a “wah,” as I watched. Unlike some urges I have, though, I resolved to act on this one. I knew just what to do.
My friend Julie Gildred owns, runs and generally dreams up all that is RideStrong Bike Tours. She and I have been in a sort of dance for more than a year, trying to come up with the right opportunity to work together. Why not collaborate on a tour of Corsica? As it happens, Julie is the perfect person to work with on this as RideStrong ran a tour on Corsica some years back. The destination has been one she’d been thinking of returning to and after this year’s Tour, there seemed like the perfect occasion.
Julie and I have been talking over the itinerary, co-scheming to present a tour that will be as enjoyable off the bike as on. She’s put the itinerary up here.
Here’s the basic outline for the trip: it’ll be seven days and six nights, beginning May 24, 2014, and ending May 30. The trip will start and finish in Ajaccio so that we won’t have to move the bike cases. The price for the trip is $3979; the single supplement is an extra $700, which would alleviate you of the need to share a room with me. Which means, yes, I’ll be along on the trip as a special guest, which mostly means I’ll be sweeping the course and arriving late to water stops with spare gels for everyone. I hope you’ll consider joining us. We will be teasing out additional details of the trip in the coming weeks and months.
In addition to the Corsica tour, we have a couple of other things cooking.
For some time I’ve been wanting to hold a ride to meet and pedal with as many of you as possible. I’m in the preliminary stages of planning a ride, also for next spring, probably late April or early May. I should be nailing down the date in the next week or two. The ride will take place in Paso Robles, half way between Los Angeles and San Francisco. I can also say that it won’t be epic in length because we will be taking in some roads that lack any asphalt. And the first person to call it Paso Roubaix or a gravel grinder will be uninvited. I”m not sure what to call it, other than fun.
Finally, for all those of you who won’t be in a position to travel, there will be a couple of additions to our store soon. First up will be a T-shirt to commemorate a guy and a ride that were unimpeachably epic. I’d hoped to have the shirt ready way back in June, when it would have been more occasion appropriate, but sometimes this stuff just takes more time than you think it should. Shortly after the T-shirt begins to ship we will begin offering prints of it, as well as of the artwork from the Eddy ’72 T-shirt. As it happens, both pieces of art are by the same artist, Bill Cass. The prints, I’ve been assured, will be ready to ship in time for Christmas. The shirt will also mark the first effort on our part to contribute to the success of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association.
Thanks for reading and I hope I’ll get to cross paths with you this next year.