The kids started school this week. Backpacks. Lines. Small desks. New teachers and friends. New subjects to daunt and dazzle. They are both, of course, complete geniuses, my boys, masters of all they survey, and I am constantly amazed, both by what they know and also by what they don’t know, which is the inspiration for this week’s Group Ride.
As a card-carrying, check-drawing member of the bike industry, I am, to the average person on the street, an expert in this field. Neighbors come to me to fix small problems or for advice about how to tackle a big ride. I am regularly asked to help with the acquisition of a new bike. Conversations with acquaintances often begin with, “Hey, you’re the bike guy, right?” And I listen and give the best information I can.
And yet, as the years tick by I find that I know both more and less about bicycles and their use. As much as I am adding to my knowledge-base, I am also constantly discarding misinformation, received wisdom, and preconceived notions. I unlearn as much as I learn.
The bike seems to be bottomless. You can’t know it all. Even if you were able to convince yourself that you knew everything there was to know about frame geometry for example, the ride resulting from a given geometry would still be massively affected by materials and construction method. Fork rake, tire width (and volume) and brake style would all intrude on the party. Is there a graduate degree in Cycology? There should be.
As a rider too, I am no great shakes. I am neither very fast, nor very slow. My handling skills are good, but not remarkable. And I have been riding thousands of miles every year for the last twenty or so. I see so much room to be a better bike rider that I almost want to jump out of this chair, shove aside the keyboard and run for the door now.
I read books and magazines. I talk all the time with bike designers, bike builders, and riders of exceptional ability. But I have so much to learn. I’m still a beginner in so many ways.
This week’s Group Ride asks, what is it you can learn about cycling? What can you be better at? What fascinates you about the bike or riding it? At the same time, what did you once believe that you no longer hold true? What have you unlearned?
Image: Matt O’Keefe
As a latecomer to both the industry and riding at 28, I dove in during the spring of 2010 with the unbridled enthusiasm of a five year old at Disney Land. I wanted to learn everything about everything, immediately. My first lesson?
Lighter is better, carbon is lighter, therefore, carbon is better.
Cycling also turned me into a fierce competitor; someone who was obsessed with going faster and getting stronger—than other people. That was key. Going faster and getting stronger than other people. And to do that, I needed the best bike. I needed carbon.
And I did get faster, and I did get stronger, and eventually, I started to become the rider I wanted to be.
Very soon, I scored a job at an amazing bike shop in North Carolina, owned by a man renowned in the biz as The Vintage Expert. When he talked about the old racers and the old bikes, his eyes became brighter, his gestures grander. We sold carbon, but his first love was steel, and so the shop burst with his personal collection. An all original Masi Gran Criterium hung next to a 1950s Hetchins track bike that hung next to a Schwinn Paramount. I spent slow winter Tuesday afternoons studying them, honing my eye and discerning what made each one unique. I came to appreciate an even weld and a well-executed lug.
I even dabbled in vintage steel myself, scoring a beautiful red Gios with SLX tubing. I painstakingly pieced together an entire Dura Ace Black drillium grouppo for it, hubs and all. I found a Nitto Pearl stem and Sakae bars. I felt a true connection to that bike, but I still never rode it. I didn’t see the practical point, since it wouldn’t make me faster, stronger, or the rider I wanted to be. Eventually, I sold it to get money for a new carbon rig, sad at the loss but knowing it was for a greater good.
After moving to California in 2011, I found the state played the game at a whole new level. In my opinion, I had become a pretty good rider, but as soon as I saddled up on the West coast, not a single group ride went by that I wasn’t shot off the back. And so I had to up my game. I rode more and rode harder. I bought a newer, lighter carbon bike so I could benefit from every advantage and stay on track to become the rider I wanted to be.
But steel never went away. I bought a purple vintage Rossin off ebay. I loved the way it rode and preferred it to the feel of my race rig, but still treated it just a nice lark to play around with on rest days, an eccentricity. It wasn’t carbon, so how could it possibly help me be faster and stronger?
Because I was sure the carbon bike had a large part to play in my progression as the cyclist I wanted to be, and as such, I continuously looked for ways make it lighter and faster. Last year’s bike became disposable and next year’s bike became coveted in an endless cycle of discarding and wanting. It felt empty, but also necessary.
Then, my crusher friends Steve and Jason invited me on what would be my first cyclocross/road ride in the Santa Cruz mountains. I accepted, excited to be included on a ride with such strong company. Still, I felt that I needed every advantage possible, and so borrowed the lightest carbon cross rig I could for the occasion.
We started riding.
Two hours later, completely cooked, I looked up at my friends riding 10 meters in front of me, side by side, their hands resting lightly on the tops of their bars and a conversation clearly on their lips. We were one mile into the three mile Empire Grade Road, a name synonymous in that area with steep, unrelenting stair step climbs.
I looked up at their bikes, now 12 meters in front of me. Jason rode an emerald Gunnar, a bike he had for ten years and rebuilt several times, the parts a mash up of forethought and whatever he happened to have in the garage. Steve rode his all-time favorite bike, a red Rock Lobster built for him by his good friend Paul. He painstakingly chose each component, making sure the overall picture was simultaneously beautiful and utilitarian. You could tell that each bike had a relationship with its rider, and you could tell that both bikes were loved.
Then I looked down at my bike. High modulus carbon, lightest of light, stiffest of stiff. But it wasn’t a bike I chose because I loved it. It was a bike I chose because I thought it would make me faster and better. Except it wasn’t. Jason and Steve rode away from me, while talking, because no bike could hide the truth: they were simply stronger riders than I.
But as their relaxed, upright backs disappeared around a switchback 15 meters ahead of me, that fact was suddenly OK. They were just enjoying their ride, and it was OK to not be as strong or as fast they were. It was OK to simply be the rider I was at that given moment, and to enjoy the ride with them.
With that realization came a sense of freedom. I could finally choose whichever bike I wanted to ride, simply because I wanted to ride it. I didn’t have to rely on a bike to try and turn me into something more, or better, of faster. I didn’t have to constantly strive to be the rider I wanted to be; being a rider was enough.
And my God, did I want to ride steel.
Today, I have two metal whips. A Caletti Cycles custom adventure road bike that will double as a cyclocross bike this fall, and the vintage Rossin. The Caletti is a light blue with black decals, and built with great attention to every detail. When I ride it, I feel like it’s a friend who will be with me for the rest of my life. The Rossin is a no nonsense, what you see is what you get sort of partner. It was a solid bike when made in 1989, and it’s still a solid bike today. I built it up with a mix of modern Frankenbike components. When I ride it, I feel like it says to me, “All right, ready to play?” I always answer yes.
Some days I’m strong. Some days I’m tired. But I’m always a rider. And these are my bikes.
I summon that famous, nay iconic, line from Monty Python and the Holy Grail as a means of framing a certain perspective on Pat McQuaid and the election for the office of UCI President that looms a few weeks away. I’ve avoided writing about McQuaid for some weeks in part because my stomach and central nervous system couldn’t take me thinking about him any more than the weekly story that would pop up on him. However, since my last missive on cycling’s resident ebola case, there have been just too many surprising and twisted turns not to revisit this particular fever.
When last I devoted the bulk of a post to the McQuaid problem he had just been jilted by his own Irish federation, wherein votes were cast largely along generational lines. The old guard’s defense of McQuaid consisted almost exclusively of a half apology, summed up as, ‘Sure, he’s got his faults, but look how much he’s done.’ Fortunately, the young bucks held the day and McQuaid’s nomination went the way of a great many cockroaches—one down, several more to go.
Next up was the Swiss nomination. On deck was the question of whether McQuaid deserved to be nominated by the Swiss federation by virtue of the fact that McQuaid was a resident of the country. Fortunately for us, that question doesn’t need to be resolved and will never be resolved. Here’s why: in nominating McQuaid, the Swiss federation had circumvented its own rules in order to prevent members who disagreed with the nomination from shutting it down. When the Swiss federation president refused to withdraw McQuaid’s nomination, one board member of the federation, Mattia Galli, resigned and then joined a coalition including Skins CEO Jaimie Fuller to challenge the nomination. It’s worth noting here that McQuaid “joined” the Swiss federation even prior to the fiery crash of his Ireland-based nomination.
Civil cases such as the one brought by the Galli/Fuller group carry a prohibitive bar in Swiss courts. To bring a case, a payment to the courts of 100,000 Swiss francs must be paid. The claimant (Fuller, et al) must pony up 50,000, while the respondent (Swiss cycling) must cough up the other 50,000 in order for the case to go forward. To my American eye, it seems a silly system. To kill the case, all the respondent has to do is not pay his 50,000 CHF share and hope that the gambit deters the claimant from proceeding. However, the claimant, if he believes his case is of solid merit and this isn’t just a spurious claim, can advance the respondent’s share. Certainly, such a system will cut down on frivolous actions, but it seems destined to chill legitimate actions. After all, how many people have the resources to part with 100,000 CHF (roughly $107,000) for months, maybe years?
Fortunately, Fuller has proven that he’s more than willing to put his company’s resources to use in his pursuit of McQuaid, so he advanced not just the first 50,000, but also the other 50,000, calling their bluff. The lawsuit was a go. That put the Swiss federation in a losing position. Because they had violated their own governance rules in putting forward McQuaid’s nomination, they would lose the case, and once they lost the case, they’d have to pay their lawyers, the opposition’s lawyers and that full 100,000-franc bond. Those with knowledge of the federation’s finances said it would be a ruinous amount, a Great White Shark at their leg. There seemed to be a few days in which it seemed the Swiss might be considering proceeding, but McQuaid proved to be worth a good deal less than 100,000 CHF. So they withdrew his nomination and saved themselves the equivalent of a luxury car.
Even after the Swiss federation announced that they had withdrawn his nomination, McQuaid’s spokesman was telling the world they hadn’t. But they had. As folks nearly say, saying it ain’t so doesn’t make it not so.
Here’s where the story gets comical. McQuaid declared that he was a member of “six or seven federations.”
Really? Why stop there? Why isn’t he a member of all of them? Weirder still, why is it six or seven? How is it he’s not certain just how many federations he’s a member of? Is he joining them drunk? Has he invented blackout governance?
What. The. Hell.
But that’s not even the part that’s funny. He went to the Malaysian federation and cajoled them into proposing a retroactive revision to the UCI’s constitution that would allow him to be nominated by any two federations, and he has now secured a nomination of that variety from the federations of Morocco and Thailand. For this nomination to be valid, Article 51 of the UCI’s constitution, which defines how a member may be nominated, must be changed. But it’s not enough just to change it now; it must be changed retroactively, meaning that to keep the office of president, McQuaid needs a time machine.
In an interview on Irish radio McQuaid claimed he was not only not breaking the rules, he was “not even bending the rules.”
Okay, so when I write it like that, it’s not that funny. Maybe we should cue a laugh track. I’m sure Monty Python could have made a better joke of it, provided we weren’t talking about Pat McQuaid, but something humorous, like the Spanish Inquisition.
For some weeks I have been entertaining the thought that the world of cycling should allow one or more of McQuaid’s latest nominations to stand. Let an election go forward. Surely Brian Cookson would trounce McQuaid in any election where reasonable people cast the votes, right? I haven’t even bothered to endorse Cookson because the need to acquit ourselves of McQuaid is so great that I’d vote for Attila the Hun before I’d vote for McQuaid, providing I had a vote and all. Which I don’t. The point here is that losing the election would be the final, irrefutable verdict on McQuaid’s tenure, the outcome that would send him packing, publicly.
But then I remembered that McQuaid had managed enough arm twisting to secure the following:
- The Swiss federation to nominate him (even if only briefly)
- The Malaysian federation to propose a change to the constitution
- The Moroccan federation to nominate him
- The Thai federation to nominate him
If he can get four different federations, at least one of which should know better than to participate in shady politics, to take a public stance in support of him, then securing a vote is, scarily, probably infinitely easier. So far, Australia is the only nation to go on record saying they will definitely vote for Cookson. Representatives from Cycling Australia have intimated that all the nations of Oceania are likely to vote with them, but that’s still only a handful of votes. Consider just how many nations there are in Africa and Asia alone. Every nation in Europe and North America could vote against McQuaid and he could still win.
That’s when I realized that we can’t leave this outcome to something as easily manipulated as a democratic election. An election is worse than a game of chance.
That the presidents of so many federations have remained completely silent on McQuaid mystified me for some months. Then I realized they knew something I didn’t. You have to figure that in the awful event that McQuaid should be re-elected to the presidency, anyone who has taken a public stand against him will feel painful retribution and it’s safe to assume that retribution will extend to the whole of the federation and its licensed riders.
Is it too much to think that there would suddenly be a rash of positive tests from riders of that country? No, I don’t think so.
For that reason, I’m enormously heartened by the emergence of the Gang of Five (as they are being called). The federation presidents for the U.S., Russia, Canada, Finland and Algeria have collectively signed a letter sent to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) asking them to rule on the validity of McQuaid’s rule changes. Before we get to the meat of their request, let’s consider this collection of nations: the U.S., Russia, Canada, Finland and Algeria. Not France, not Germany, not the Netherlands, not Belgium, not Spain, not Italy—hell, not even Ireland. I take this collection as a corollary to my previous point.
In their letter, the signatories described their reaction to the rule changes as, “amusement to outrage, from bewilderment to astonishment.” They are asking CAS to rule on the validity of these rule changes because they fear a protracted legal battle over the presidency should McQuaid win the election. Yet another corollary to my previous point. The UCI is in enough of a mess that a legal battle over who is the rightful president would only further damage cycling, but because we understand that what drives McQuaid isn’t the good of the sport, he’d be willing to fight by any means at his disposal in order to keep power. I have to imagine that he’d spend the UCI into bankruptcy because I simply can’t foresee a circumstance in which he’d relinquish power for the good of the sport.
It seems likely that CAS will rule against the rule change, but this will only come swiftly if the UCI voluntarily agrees to the hearing. Can someone find me a Vegas bookie to take that bet?
It also seems likely that the UCI, as an instrument of McQuaid’s arrogance and desperation, will fight this hearing from happening. If they do, the election will be delayed, probably for months. Of course, that will keep McQuaid in power just that much longer. But that’s his endgame; every additional day of power is a day of survival.
Given the way the whole of cycling has suffered here in the U.S. in the wake of the Armstrong scandal, I’m heartened that Steve Johnson has taken this step as the president of USA Cycling. Johnson, it’s worth noting, he was installed as president in the wake of the near-bankruptcy of USA Cycling, which was rescued by none other than Tom Weisel. Johnson’s ties and relationship to Weisel (which could merit a post of its own) has made him one of the targets of criticism that doping is endemic less to the riders than it is to the leadership of cycling itself. No other federation has suffered as great a loss in reputation thanks to the USADA Reasoned Decision as the U.S. has. Johnson and the the other signatories to the request for the CAS hearing isn’t exactly a rebuke of McQuaid, but it could be construed as a shot across his bow. Asking for a speedy resolution to a thorny question suggests you don’t have a dog in the fight, and that ought to give McQuaid pause, but it doesn’t seem like anything penetrates that thick exterior.
McQuaid aside, that Johnson and USA Cycling would finally take a public stand in support of good governance is the first indication I’ve seen that things might change at USA Cycling, that there could be a way out of this morass.
Last year, as I was wrapping up my coverage of the North American Handmade Bicycle Show I went to some length in describing my newfound love for the builder Chris Bishop. He runs a classic one-man shop, Bishop Bikes. Simple, straightforward, right? Not at all. Other than the fact that his business model is simple, nothing else he does is simple. Every bike he brought to the 2012 show wowed me on multiple levels. His eye for the line of a point was exquisite. His tendency to fill in the hard transitions of some lugs with brass fillets is an old-school California thing favored by guys like Brian Baylis, Tom Ritchey and Peter Johnson. And then there’s the fact that he never takes the easy way out. I’ve seen a number of builders do what was essentially a paint-by-numbers thing where they simply played plumber with a box of lugs and a bunch of tubes. What they did seemed an insult to the term “craft.” They certainly didn’t merit the title “frame builder,” not the way Bishop does.
I was scarecely back home before I’d sent him a deposit. I can’t tell you the last time I fell that hard for a builder. Good thing he’s not as cute as my wife.
And, no, Virginia, this doesn’t mean he has an 18-month wait. It means that we waited until I’d recovered from my crash and had a thorough fitting (that session with Steven Carre at Bike Effect), and then gotten through the crisis that was my second son’s birth before we even began talking about the bike and what size frame would be the appropriate response to the fitting I’d had. From first drawing to now, scarcely a month has passed. And we went from final drawing to the shots contained here in about a week.
We talked a fair amount about the bike I desired. The big thing for me, aside from being stiff enough to stand up to hard, out-of-the-saddle efforts, was that I wanted lug work that was gorgeous but didn’t call attention to itself. That meant no fancy windows, but points thinned enough to draw blood and brass fillets to make them curve to the gentle contours of an industrial designer’s eye. I wanted a bike that would be pretty to anyone, but would contain an extra layer of special for those who knew a thing or two about frame building.
I also wanted this to be a signature build for Chris, something that would stand as a calling card even without paint. That he cut the Bishop icon into the bottom bracket shell is too cool for words, says the word guy.
That he’s taken the time to not just show completed work but also place it alongside untreated pieces really helps show just how remarkable and subtle his work can be.
I told him, flat-out, “Go crazy.” I’ve sold off a few bikes that no longer fit, so to get one frame that should fit me for at least the next 10 to 15 years … well, I can make an investment in his time.
I don’t really want to imagine the amount of effort it took to remove the seat binder from that seat lug. But it sure looks cool.
An internally routed brake cable? Hell yes!
I really wish he didn’t have to paint the bike.
Those fillets at the dropouts are more than just beautiful; they’re harder to do than a quadratic equation.
Hiding the seat binder in the fastback seatstays is full-on ninja design.
When I saw this shot, all I could think was, “I’m going to get to ride that?”
An Anvil jig.
I’ve seen a lot of bikes over the years. I’ve seen a lot of great work. I’ve met plenty of builders who were capable of doing work of this quality. I’ve met maybe a half dozen who had the confidence/chutzpah/balls to do something like this. And until now, I was reasonably sure that all but one of them were California cats.
Learn more about Chris Bishop here. Do it! Click on that link. Srsly.
It is late to run a prediction thread for the Vuelta. Things have happened in Spain. Dramatic things. The stuff that makes Grand Tours so Grand. And yet, we haven’t discussed the Spanish race in this forum. All week our good friends Charles and Patrick have been stoking the flames of the thing like Eugene Christophe’s young assistant. If you have not “tuned” in, then you have missed the craic, the part of watching a race that makes it a socially constructive and celebratory event. If you HAVE been following by LiveUpdate, then please do the right thing.
And so, here we are. Astana won the opening team time trial (TTT). On Stage 2, Nicholas Roche reminded us that he is still riding bikes professionally and is still, on his day, really good at it. Then Chris Horner became the oldest ever Grand Tour stage winner when he crossed the line at Mirador de Lobeira in Stage 3. Katusha’s Daniel Moreno attacked and won on the final climb in Stage 4, before Michael “Bling” Matthews of Orica-GreenEdge opened the sprint battle with a win in Stage 5. Stage 6 saw Tony Martin perpetrate the most brilliant, gutsy, painful solo break that most of us will ever see/remember, only to see it end in tragic failure a few meters from the line. Michael Morkov was the horrible jerk who stole the win from him.
Finally, today, Zdenek Stybar continued to prove that he has something very real to offer on the road by besting World Champ Philippe Gilbert in Stage 7 to Mairena de Aljafare.
Vincenzo Nibali is in the leader’s jersey, maybe too early. Michael Matthews is in the sprinter’s shirt, with not a lot of sprint having happened. And Nick Roche is in the climber’s kit. The top of the GC is clustered closely with 18 riders within a minute of the lead.
There, now you’re caught up.
This week’s Group Ride asks, who’s going to win? How’s it going to happen? If Nibali wins, it will be his third Grand Tour win. Will it make him a contender for a race like the Tour? Or is the gap between what he’s done in Italy and Spain larger than it looks from the top step of the podium?
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
At 5:45am, heavy fog sits in all the hollows and rolls up to the roadside and leaves everything beneath it wet. We park in the fresh-cut field and walk over to the registration tent where all is moving along in the proper subdued, pre-dawn manner.
During this, my third year at D2R2 (Deerfield Dirt Road Randonee), I realized how much I love this tent. The volunteers who staff it are uniformly cheerful and kind. There is never a time when someone isn’t having a friendly conversation there or warm food isn’t being spooned onto a plate. It feels like a good launching point for what will be my biggest day on the bike all year, and I hold it in my head throughout as an oasis at the end, those conversations multiplying exponentially, the smell of pulled pork heavy on the evening breeze. If I can just get back to that still, happy place, all will be well.
Soon we are at the business of nervously pinning on numbers and pulling on gloves. Everyone in the field is in some state of undress, bib straps dangling, shoes being buckled and re-buckled. The long route, the 180km (14,777 ft vertical) , leaves first, and so those who have camped in the adjacent field are still only just stirring in their sleeping bags or stumbling over to the main area for coffee and a bagel.
We roll out later than we intend to, as we always do, but there are enough miles in front of us that we can’t spend too much time caring about timeliness. D2R2 is not a ride you bang out and then head home to mow the lawn. D2R2 is your day, and the nature of the riding, mostly up and down in alternately daunting and thrilling bursts, defies your ability to over-plan it.
The morning is cool, verging on cold, just at the edge of arm-warmer range, but I resolve to go without so as to have less to carry throughout the day. My over-sized seat bag has multiple tubes, CO2 cartridges and tools in it; my jersey pockets are stuffed with food. I feel ready, in as much as you can ever be ready for a thing like D2R2.
Almost straight away we are climbing and we are on dirt. These are the event’s two main characteristics. If you are coming here to ride this course, any of the courses, you will be climbing and you will be on dirt.
Another primary characteristic is creaking. Chain ring bolts. Bottom brackets. Spokes. All of them straining and lurching against the grade. Torque making itself heard. Dozens of wheezing machines, off key, out of time. And then the whole mess popping and cracking down the descents. Rocks pinging off aluminum rims. Chains slapping stays. The occasional WHOOP of a rider whose rear wheel has momentarily lost traction in the sand.
After the first water break the riding goes from serious to extremely serious. We are only ever going up or coming down. It fatigues the body, but also the mind as it requires close and constant concentration. I force myself to run back down the cassette on the descents, to milk every ounce of gravity for what it’s worth. Up over 40 miles, over 50, we are just grinding them out, stroke-by-stroke.
And then, at last, there is a long, twisting descent that careens into the lunch stop at a grassy area by an idyllic covered bridge. Smiling faces pile in. Sandy, the svengali of this particular brand of suffering, is there, as he always is, stalking about in his heavy boots and shorts, making sure everyone is ok, but more importantly that everyone is having fun. The morning’s stories are already tumbling out. Minor crashes. Mechanicals. A general sense of disbelief at the scenery and the effort it takes to reach it.
If I am honest, I have been riding with a stomach full of doubt all morning. I have done the thing you must not do, which is to think too much about the miles to come rather than focusing on the road beneath your wheels. At lunch, that doubt lifts. I still feel good. I have seen the sun rise through the pines and haven’t put a tire wrong yet. We are past the halfway point.
I stuff my face with food, a sandwich, a handful of cookies, a banana, a bag of chips. I down three ibuprofen with a soda, and I’m ready to go. I know I can do the rest. My companions are going well, and in the early afternoon we crest four steep rises in a row with little effort. Then the course eases up, gives us some long stretches of smooth, easy travel. My Garmin, naively, reins in its estimate of our arrival time.
Free of the constraints of self-doubt and full of calories, the afternoon at D2R2 becomes a sort of spiritual experience. All year, as I ride my local hills and trails, as I incorporate dirt roads into as many road rides as I can, as I sit at my desk day-dreaming of my best moments on the bike, I am thinking of this part of D2R2. This is the part where I am finally inured to the suffering. This is the part where I am able to pick my head up from the bars and see the sweeping vistas, to smile at everyone on the road, knowing that we are all in that same magical place.
We roll inexorably to the finish, anxious to be done, to be back under that tent, but also savoring each mile. Of course, Sandy and his wide grin never allow it to be easy. There is a wall called Archambo, 27% of impossibility, loose and stupid in its difficulty. Of the 40 riders I see there, one makes it up. All others walk.
Then, somewhere past the 90th mile, the road pitches up vertiginously again. Patten Hill Road is a long, dusty, stair-step climb that pushes my heart rate dangerously close to its maximum. I have to find that point between blowing up and falling over, and somehow, just as I suspect I will put a foot down, the angles all tilt in my favor again. Then we are into the last rest station, water melon juice dripping off our chins.
We feel done and begin, at least mentally, to congratulate ourselves. We are not done.
At mile 105 we begin a serpentine downhill through deep sand and large stone. This is, perhaps, the worst road of the day, and it pushes each of us to the brink. Our forearms burn from the effort of steering and braking. Our legs go heavy from pushing through the soft surface. We are crawling again, so close to the finish, so close to finished.
Perhaps the final distinguishing characteristic of D2R2 is that it is relentless. You will need to ride hard all the way to the end.
By the time we spill back onto pavement, adrenaline has taken over the controls and we barrel into Deerfield at 20mph, headed for the salvation of the tent. We finish through the timing corral, which is, in our case, really just a way for the organizers to know we’re not still out there, dead in a ditch somewhere. And then we’re back at the car, half-dressed again, just trying to get some of the way back to clean and comfortable before attacking the buffet line.
I am not a high-fiver, by nature, but back in the tent I high-five Jesse, who I met on the 115km route two years ago. He lives just off the course himself, and seems to know everybody. We had ridden together throughout the day. He has the misfortune of being as
slow fast as I am.
I also high-five the guys from Brooklyn who I suffered through the 150km route with last year. They wonder why they only ever see me when they’re at the very end of their rope. I high-five this guy and this guy. I might be delirious with fatigue.
I down a pile of mac n’ cheese and another of barbecue. I stuff down a roll. Sodas disappear like singles at the craps table. Everything settles. Someone mentions that there is hot coffee.
It’s just getting dark when I leave the comfort of the tent. I don’t want to leave. I want to bask in the warm glow a bit longer, but the ibuprofen I gobbled at lunch have long since quit and my back is starting to complain about the folding chair I’m in. Still, it’s hard to walk away from D2R2. I spend so much of my year idealizing it, visualizing it, looking forward to it. It has a strange hold on me.
And now I find myself in the same predicament I did in 2011 and 2012, sitting in front of a keyboard, trying to get my head around something larger than myself. There is the scale of it, 180km, nearly 15,000ft of climbing, a whole day on the bike. There is the scenery, picture book New England, technicolor and high-res. There are the people, the ones I only see at D2R2, the ones I meet every year (Hi, Dave Kraus!), and the ones who ride with me. And then there’s what happens in my head.
I never believe, despite the evidence, that I can have a day like this on my bike, this big, this beautiful. But year after year, D2R2 delivers. Whether that’s by design or by accident (or both), I can’t really tell you. This ride will push me forward all year, and maybe a piece of inspiration that size is worth whatever price and whatever effort it takes to get.
This morning, as I climbed up the gentle gradient to Scott’s Valley from Santa Cruz, one sentence resonated in my head:
“Krabbé’s 20 was clean as a whistle.”
It is a line from Tim Krabbé’s The Rider, which a friend lent me the week before and I subsequently devoured. The book is without question one of the most iconic narratives about riding bikes ever produced. You feel the torment he’s going through on each climb. You relate to the shortcomings in his own riding, and you experience each of his emotions as he takes you from Km 1 to Km 150. You put it down knowing at least a little of what it meant to race in Europe at the amateur level in the mid 1970s. A time when nutrition equaled fruit, hydration equaled water, and gear selection occurred cog by cog.
So when Krabbé referred to his 20, he meant the teeth in his gear ratio. As in 43/20. But he wasn’t even in his 20, he was climbing in his 43/19. Probably on a gradient of at least 6%. At race pace. He was truly suffering.
I thought about my own gear ratio on the easy, 3% ascent out of town. 34/24 probably. I wasn’t in my 28, but I was sure before the road ended it would get used. I was not suffering. Truly.
And it hit me that cycling today is infinitely easier than it used to be. And that probably sounds like the understatement of the century to some riders out there. A better way to put it is this: cycling used to be prohibitively difficult. Cassettes maybe went up to 23, compacts weren’t even a twinkle in Campagnolo’s eye, and wheel technology has come a long, long, (long) way. Because of these facts and more, riding bikes used to be inescapably agonizing.
Even if I weren’t a woman, it’s safe to say that it would have been impossible for me to enjoy the sport even 30 years ago. I’m simply not that strong on my own. To get that strong would have taken hours and hours of punishment to a degree I simply can’t bear. I love to cycle, yes, but what initially turned me on to riding? The fact that I initially was pretty good right off the bat sans pain. Modern technology, as compared to what Krabbé rode, allowed me to be pretty good right off the bat sans pain. In his day, that was nonsense. Nobody was good right off the bat sans pain, because it was an impossibility.
Upon finishing The Rider, I finally understood what the Golden Age of cycling represented: an age when every man was a hardman, and the level of passion required to even be a recreational cyclist pinnacled anything that’s needed today. The suffering of riding bikes couldn’t be separated from the act itself, so if you did ride bikes, you had to whole heartedly love said suffering. I mean, love it with every pore of your body. If you didn’t love it, you didn’t ride bikes.
Today, we cheat. We have super light bikes and super easy gearing, allowing virtually anyone to get on a bike one day and climb a mountain the next. You don’t have to suffer. You don’t have to experience discomfort in order to participate in the sport. Modern technology has given us a choice which wasn’t available in the Golden Age. You can sort of like to ride bikes and still ride them. You can take it seriously, or not seriously, as the spirit moves you.
Do I believe that my love of cycling is in some way tarnished because I side stepped that particular learning curve? Hell no. I plan my Saturdays around long rides and can’t imagine going a week without swinging my leg over the top tube. I whole heartedly love to ride my bike with every inch of my body. It’s not less than Krabbé’s love, it’s just different.
To those who feel sad about the passing of the Golden Age, I say that’s OK. Romanticizing the past is a universal human tendency. But to those who believe cycling has diminished since the Golden Age, I say open your eyes. Take a look at the wonderful diversity of the cyclists in your community. I promise you, every single person who rides has a unique story describing how and why they fell in love with the bike, full of just as much nuance as yours or Krabbé’s. Many of them have stories like mine, where cycling took away suffering instead of inflicted it. Ultimately, the power of the bicycle to relieve inner turmoil, or calm a frenzied mind, or soothe a broken heart, trumps any power it has to deliver physical pain.
And I think even Krabbé would agree.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Regular RKP readers will remember Rob Discher who shared the story of his first tilt at Leadville in 2012. For those who’d like the refresher, you can read it here.
18 hours before the race, written in the parking lot at Colorado Mountain College just outside Leadville…
[Friday. August 10, 2013]
I’m not even supposed to be here, in Leadville.
I was just getting over my pity party about not coming up this year when the call came from First Descents that they needed a guy….someone who could ride this race on a week’s notice. Last year I wrapped my whole season around Leadville. This year I chased other goals, but that big belt buckle stayed in the back of my mind.
I have no idea how tomorrow will go. I don’t feel great. I have this lingering headache from two days ago that won’t go away, but I’ve got a decent nutrition plan and race strategy that I hope works.
There is the potential for something awesome though. Something big. Everyone says the course is riding fast. They graded a bunch of the roads and it’s been wet lately, which tamps down this high desert earth. I’ve been riding like a monster back in Austin all summer, winning crits, mixing it up on hard group rides, maintaining a steady diet of riding and recovery for months.
Maybe this is the payout for all that due diligence. Maybe the reward for enjoying the bike so much…a reward in and of itself….and for riding as much as I have…is that I get to come up here at the last minute and tie up some loose ends from last year.
It was easy in 2012. I’d never seriously raced before and my first big goal was the Leadville 100, a grueling 104 mile race above 10,500 feet of altitude that has become wildly popular over the past decade. My primary objective last year was to beat 9 hours there, the marker under which you get the coveted “big” gold belt buckle.
I killed myself trying to clear that time, coming up just short at 9:02, and while I was proud of my effort and all that I’d done in year one on the bike, it ate at me. I knew that with a slightly different race strategy I could have beaten nine hours. A piss break here. A slower pace there. An extra stop for food and drink I didn’t need.
I thought about it all fall and came into this season focused on getting back into Leadville. I trained like hell all winter. Cold rides on lonely roads in the Texas Hill Country. Long hilly days with my buddy Justin, pushing 29 inch wheels on the Austin chip seal. Spin sessions. Core work.
That plan fell on its face in two separate acts – the first when I didn’t get in through the Leadville lottery and the second when I missed the cut at the Austin Rattler qualifying race by less than a minute. There would be no Leadville this year.
What do you do with a whole off-season of training when that happens? Somewhat out of spite, I turned to road racing. I started watching the grand tours and hanging out with guys who didn’t know a berm from a rock garden. I shaved my legs. I came out for the weekly crits. I set new goals after the old goals fell through.
I’d trained on the road bike the previous year, but never seriously considered racing. Missing Leadville changed that. My first races on the road showed I was strong but dumb. So I raced more, and got smarter. Road racing was fun.
I moved from a CAT 5 to CAT 3 roadie in about three months, and the more time I spent racing in the drops, the more I thought THAT was my home. On the road.
All of this made it that much more complicated when I learned, completely out of the blue, that I had a last-second shot to go back to Leadville. For the previous six months I hadn’t spent more than six hours on my mountain bike.
On Monday, August 5th, I took two strangers out to lunch who had read my post here on RKP last year and wanted to learn more about the race. They were putting the finishing touches on their Leadville training and were eager to hear about course conditions, nutrition plans, pacing and expectations.
That Wednesday, one of them emailed me to say the nonprofit he was riding with, First Descents, needed someone who could fill a last-minute race slot.
I came home that night, took my fiancée out for dinner and talked it over. The same woman who told me to make a run at Leadville last year gave me another firm kick in the ass and urged me to jump on the opportunity.
From there, things moved quickly. A local nutrition company, Thunderbird Energetica, offered to haul my bike to Colorado with their race team. Work was nice enough to let me divert the return trip from my meetings in New York through Vail. My old boss, Morris, a Leadville veteran, found me a bed at Colorado Mountain College for the weekend, two miles from the starting line.
My 2012 race prep included specific training, arriving early in Colorado to acclimate and pre-ride the course, and working with my support crew, all family, to understand my detailed race plan.
This year, there would be no acclimation period. There would be no pre-rides. There wouldn’t even be much mountain biking at all. My plan was to get off the plane from New York, pick up my bike, make sure the wheels were still round and the brakes weren’t rubbing, and let it rip on race day.
It was Saturday morning before I knew it.
I rested against my top tube, kitted up and shivering at 6th and Harrison in downtown Leadville. Sun coming up. Thin mountain air. Pre-recorded National Anthem streaming out the PA. Five minutes until the corrals close, then three, then none. Two minutes until the gun goes off. Everyone looking around. Faces betraying that sense of confidence racers try to put on, attempting to look calm when they’d spent months getting ready for what was about to happen.
In 2012, I started the race slowly, built my tempo through the end and spent most of the last four hours passing people. It was an awesome feeling, but that easy, early pace made it incredibly tough to clear 9 hours. This year, instead of going out easy, I planned to push it from the gun, gain time through the first two checkpoints, and hold on through the end.
On-plan, I came out fast and moved my way up in the mass of 1,500 riders. We hit the first climb, St. Kevin’s, and I tapped out a strong pace…passing a number of people and eventually realizing that I was going way too hard. When you overextend at 11,000 feet and get short of breath, there’s this small moment of panic where you catch yourself, back off the pace, and pray your heart rate will come down.
Mine did, thankfully.
I held position through the climb up Sugarloaf and tried to stay loose through the Powerline decent. It’s the most technical part of a non-technical course, but one you have to respect. I pushed hard in a group through the rolling hills into Twin Lakes aid station around hour three and hit my first scheduled pit stop of the day. Three bottles, rice cake, gels, a proverbial slap on the ass and I was off.
Twin Lakes sits at the bottom of the Columbine climb, the most famous of the course because it takes you over the tree line at 12,500 feet. The climb up Columbine was nasty, as predicted, but instead of pressing I made the calculated move to sit up, take in fluids and eat. It’s around an hour and a half to two hours to get to the top, and I reasoned I’d be better off finishing the climb in 1:45 with a full stomach and hydrated than wringing myself out clearing it in 1:30. This ended up paying off…big time…about three hours later. At 4 hours and 36 minutes, I hit the turnaround. I was roughly 20 minutes ahead of last year.
The next two hours were painful but relatively uneventful. I could feel my mental state starting to deteriorate, which I rationalized as standard issue protocol for endurance racing at elevation. At the Pipeline aid station, about 75 miles into the race, things started to get interesting.
The first sign of wheels detaching from the proverbial wagon was that I completely missed my Pipeline aid crew. Just flat-out didn’t see them as I was going through the crowded line of support staff. I only planned to stop twice this race (compared to five times the previous year) and I was already crashing, so missing half my on-course nutrition was a massive fail.
In a perfect world, five-plus hours in, with on-schedule nutrition, I’d be in some mindless, thoughtless, sugar induced rage…kind of like the Berserker tribesmen back in the Viking days when they’d feed those monsters crazy juice and have them destroy entire villages. Instead, I had to go into full-on MacGyver mode in my search of calories, snagging gels, oranges and drinks from random people on the side of the road. Most of the time I had no idea what they were handing me. One time I grabbed a clean’ish looking half-done bottle off a stack of trash and drank it.
Results were mixed. Cramping got worse. Bike started moving slower.
The next bit of “fun” came on the decent down Sugarloaf Pass, just after I’d suffered up Powerline climb for an hour. I hammered the downhill in full cowboy mode, letting off the brakes and bouncing through rocks the whole descent. When I got to the bottom, I saw something that made my heart sink – my rear derailleur had come off the bike. It was just dangling there by the cabling.
Over the next 10 minutes, I figured out how to hold tension on the cable and push the gears around, but I could only do that on sections I could ride one-handed, and sometimes it just flat-out didn’t work. That meant walking hills I couldn’t see coming, head on the handlebars, calves cramping from the uphill slog.
With two hours to go I didn’t see any way I was clearing 9 hours. I started doing the math, trying to figure out how many miles were left, what pace I was holding, and how much time I needed to get to specific checkpoints. The dream was slipping away. My nutrition was in shambles, my bike in pieces. I was suffering badly.
I got passed constantly. Everything hurt. I thought a lot about quitting, but I recalled race founder Ken Chlouber’s words at the previous day’s meeting. He drew a picture of what it would be like telling people you quit after all the effort to get there. That image stuck with me.
I pushed ahead.
With about 45 minutes remaining, the lights started coming back on. It was a complete blur – scrambling for the shifter, which was flying all around the bike and “ghost shifting” on its own, grabbing whatever hydration I could from strangers, trying to force down a rainbow of gels I’d collected since my second aid station fail. It was the first time all day I didn’t feel horrendous. I battled a monster headwind into the finish, elbows on the handlebars, head down, getting as “small” as possible. It worked. I was getting stronger, picking up speed, crunching the numbers in a feverish attempt to see if sub-9 was within reach.
With five miles left, for the first time, it dawned on me that I might make it. At two miles left I was pretty sure. In the last mile, as I came up 6th Street past the high school…the same place I saw the clock turn 9 hours last year…I knew I had it in the bag. I laid it on, crossing the line at 8:51 and letting out what Whitman would have called a “barbaric yawp” of total catharsis and supreme relief, completely drained.
The medical staff gave me one look, grabbed my bike, pulled me over to the tent and nursed me back to health for the next hour, checking my vitals and feeding me salt. That cot was the most amazing bed I’ve ever laid on and the medical staff couldn’t have been nicer. I finally got up, got out of my kit, and walked around the town center barefoot, soaking it all in.
This wasn’t supposed to happen, but that just seems to be how it goes with cycling. You dream dreams. You make plans. Fate and circumstance collide. I have been so fortunate to have been given all these experiences just in the last two years.
Just from throwing my leg over the top tube.
Just from doing something I love.
I’m in Medford, Oregon, about to embark on a mountain bike tour with the good folks from Western Spirit. What I know of my schedule for the next five days you could fit in the coin holder of a subcompact, after a freight train has been parked on top. I know we leave tomorrow morning. I know I’ll be riding the epic singletrack of the Umpqua Trail. I also know that I will get back on Friday afternoon.
Oh yeah, and I’ll be sleeping in a tent.
There you have it. I know more about my son’s preschool schedule.
Not that I mind, mind you.
I drove up here and made a couple of stops for brief rides on my way, taking in a pretty killer descent off Mt. Pinos in Kern County and then some stunning singletrack in the shadow of Mount Shasta, captured above.
The real point of this post is to say that while I have a cellular modem, I’m not sure if/when/whether I’ll ever be able to post updates while we’re out. This will be the most literally off-grid I’ve been since we started calling it the grid.
I’m hoping that when I’m not on the bike or setting up a tent I’m unfamiliar with, I will be able to get some serious reading and writing done. And if I can’t get posts uploaded while I’m gone, then they’ll go up once I’m plugged back into the Matrix, er, grid.
My first serious road bike was a Specialized Expedition. It was a take-n0-prisoners touring bike meant for people disinclined to leave a forwarding address. It was a bike for people with ambition. On that bike I crossed the Continental Divide seven times in a single trip.
Like I said, it was meant for people with ambition. I didn’t say anything about brains.
In addition to the one big tour I did through the Rockies, I also did several shorter trips through New England. I commuted on that bike, raced ‘cross on it and bombed more than a few gravel roads. That bike helped me learn how fun touring can be. My disposition is such, though, that the bike may not have been necessary. I seem to be partial to touring, whether I have the touring bike or not.
Bike touring, though, isn’t the hip end of cycling. The touring bike is the pocket protector of the bike world. It’s not fast, and as a result lacks the sexy je ne c’est quoi that we automatically attribute to racing bikes. I get the attraction of the racing bike, but I must confess that I also get the attraction of the fully-loaded touring bike. It’s a bike with possibilities, a bike that’s prepared and maybe it’s just the Eagle Scout in me, but I resonate any time someone suggests that I should be prepared.
All this is to say, I have a very soft spot for bike touring.
It is with that in mind that I point your attention to the ad at the top of the home page, the one for Blackburn. Recently, they came to me and told me about a promotion they were doing. They were sponsoring a bunch of riders to go out and tackle ambitious tours. These weren’t two-day trips from Boston to the end of the Cape, no these were doozies. Canada to Mexico on the Pacific Coast Highway, and the Great Divide Route.
Can we just go over that again? Blackburn is SPONSORING riders to go on long tours. How amazing is that?
They call them the Blackburn Rangers. Little sheriff’s stars seem in order. The idea is a simple one: If you make touring gear, what better way to test your products than with people who will really put them through their paces. Lots of companies have a select roster of riders who comprise their torture chamber. What’s different about Blackburn Rangers is that they are riding completed products, so their role is less to test the product and make sure it works than to demonstrate proof of concept.
All that sounds nice, but then I got an email from Blackburn asking me if I wanted to intercept one of their riders coming down the Pacific Coast Highway and ride a bit.
Is Amanda Bynes cray-cray? Hellz yeah!
I met up with Jennifer at the Manhattan Beach Pier. She was actually on a rest day, which meant that she was likely to ride less than 30 miles that day and with less than her full load on the bike. She’d started her journey back in mid-June and as you read this she’s probably boarding a plane to head home to Seattle. She’d had the good sense to allow herself plenty of rest days, something on the order of every fourth or fifth day she took as a rest day.
Jennifer has been riding that Voodoo for more than 10 years, mostly as a bike commuter, but she’s also done some supported rides like STP, the Seattle to Portland ride. The rig, while serviceable, was nothing fancy: steel frame and fork, nine-speed drivetrain, double chainrings (not compact, no triple) and only a rear rack. No computer. I’m not sure I’ve met a more capable cyclist less concerned about equipment. What a trip.
Of course, that wasn’t where our conversation began. My first question was how she managed to find six weeks to ride her bike. Did she have a really understanding boss? Was she a freelancer? Trust fund?
Nope. She quit her job and her husband was chill about it.
She also left behind a chihuahua and when we stopped for chai in Venice, she was easily distracted by one just a few tables over.
When I asked her what the biggest surprise of the trip was she told me it was the people that she met. From other cyclists she encountered on the road to the folks she met off the bike, she was continually amazed by the kindness, warmth and generosity of the people she encountered. What she’d expected to get out of the trip was beautiful scenery, but it was in meeting people that she’d had her must pleasant and surprising encounters.
When I asked her about her favorite stretch she had ridden, she mentioned when she first rode into a Redwood forest, which would have been Del Norte State Forest, on the Pacific Coast a bit south of Crescent City, in far northern California. She talked about how she marveled not just at their massive presence, but how, from the saddle of a bike, she was able to take in the full effect of their size, that she didn’t have car windows letter boxing her view, how the scent of the forest washed over her as she rode and how she could feel the damp air of the forest on her skin.
Given the chance to be plucked out of Southern California and returned to any spot on her tour via helicopter, she said that was the spot.
Most of us don’t carpe that diem often enough. I’ll admit that I did more than just covet Jennifer’s adventure, I envied it. And while envy may be one of the seven deadly sins, in this instance I think it may have served a useful purpose in reminding me that it’s a big world. I need to get out and see more.