So last week the Wall Street Journal published a piece on the death of Lycra cycling clothing. As if the use of man-made fibers, clipless pedals and shaved legs was one elaborate fad. Or fraud. The Journal doesn’t mind wooing controversy, and this was one of those occasions. The piece, “Cycling’s Spandez Coup d’Etat,” is a piece of work I honestly would have thought was beneath the publication. Why? Well, it confuses correlation with causation in that there has been an increase of riders not wearing Lycra and Lance Armstrong has fallen from grace. However, Armstrong’s fall did not cause people to huck their Lycra in the trash can anymore than he caused the rise of the hipsters. Then there’s the fact that while the writer cites Rapha as one of the brands selling clothing that subscribes to this new ethos. Nevermind the fact that most of what Rapha sells is, uh, Lycra. Pesky details. Similarly, Giro’s New Road line is an intriguing take on what cycling clothing can be. But it hasn’t exactly achieved the sort of penetration that merits the suggestion that Lycra is on its way out. Ditto for Levi’s.
While Giro’s new line has taken some flack, it’s truly an innovative take on what cycling clothing can be. Will it replace my RKP kit? Um, no. Do I think I could find a place for it in my wardrobe? Absolutely. It’s the sort of stuff I could see me wearing for a coffee ride or for running a bunch of errands by bike, or when heading out for a ride with my son.
The reader relatively unfamiliar with cycling will probably miss the fact that the only magazine editor quoted—Mia Kohut of Momentum—works for a lovely but tiny publication well out of the mainstream of cycling. Why not talk to Bill Strickland or Peter Flax of Bicycling? Similarly, my friend Josh Horowitz of Broken Bones Bicycle Co. was quoted, rather than anyone from Trek, Specialized or Giant. Josh is a good guy and has a fun take on the bike biz, but if you want to talk to someone who is actually influencing the industry, you’d be well-served to talk to John Burke.
Let me be ultra-clear about this: Using the shallow end of the bell curve as a bellwether for a new norm is just shoddy journalism.
Did Armstrong’s fall make it less fashionable to wear Lycra cycling clothing? Well that begs the question of whether or not it was ever fashionable, to which I have to answer only maybe. There’s no doubt, though, that the water has receded from whatever high-water mark wearing cycling clothing reached in relative hipitude. But what reporter Kevin Helliker misses is the simple fact that for 90 percent of us, Armstrong was never the reason we wore Lycra. We wear it because it works. What would have served both cycling and the reader better is if he’d chased the real story, not the sensationalist BS of projecting the demise of Lycra (which he prefers to refer to as Spandex).
There is a real story here in how cycling’s numbers are growing, thanks almost entirely to the hipster fixie movement. And it is a movement; we can no longer call it a fad. I’ll admit that you’ll never find me riding a fixed-gear bike in traffic. Why? I want to survive a while yet. You’ll never find me wearing skinny jeans. Why? I’m not skinny. You’ll also never find me growing facial hair for ironic reasons. Why? I’m not funny enough.
That said, I dig anything that gets more of us—and by “us” I don’t mean the us of cyclists, but the us of homo sapiens—out there. And that’s really the bottom line: More cyclists is better for anyone who rides a bike. An increased presence means more facilities, greater awareness on the part of drivers (at least, the ones who aren’t drunk), and more cyclists mean more livable communities. So while Giro has taken some heat for their New Road line, I honestly welcome it. People will ride more and longer if they are comfortable. For new cyclists, the idea that the price of admission means looking like a shrink-wrapped pro bass fisherman is too high for most people who self-select as normal. What Giro is doing has the ability to gradually integrate less-casual cyclists into die-hards of the sport.
And while we’re on the subject of Giro taking heat, last week also saw the arrival of a new ad campaign by the folks who brought back the lace-up shoe. In response to criticisms that the new Air Attack helmet looks like a skateboard helmet, they went to a skatepark with a road bike, a photographer and, well, let’s call him an acrobat. I’ll be honest and say that I don’t think it does anything to further the stated mission of the helmet—improved aerodynamic performance while still protecting your head—but it shows that they have a sense of humor and can laugh at themselves. Far too many people and companies in the bike industry lack this ability, and while there’s no requirement that you need to laugh at yourself, Giro’s perspective is refreshing. This ability to sit back and look at something critically, objectively is at the heart of the New Road line of clothing. Little wonder that they are responsible for both.
I’ve yet to wear the new helmet, but I’ve been wearing a few of the New Road pieces, a Merino top and the bib shorts and baggy-ish outer short. The fit is good and it’s comfortable. How much more than that is necessary is up for discussion. I’ve had a fair number of friends who understood adventure and a good time, but they’d never ride a bike because in their minds putting on Lycra meant surrendering their manhood at the garage door. I wish stuff like this had been available 20 years ago. It would have made my job at bike shops more interesting, more successful. Had there been a middle ground clothing-wise, I think we could have turned more bike buyers into committed cyclists.
Ultimately, my willingness to welcome Giro’s New Road line, or Club Ride or any of the other forays into this territory comes back to a point I made earlier. Even if they never wear Lycra, more cyclists on the road is good for those of us who choose to wear it. We’re less “other” once we’re both cyclists. More cyclists means better awareness that we’re out there and more acceptance that we have a right to be out there.
It’s a term used to connote belonging to a particular population. It has been said that doping was endemic to grand tour riders of the 1990s and 2000s. It is also used to describe those publications that serve a particular niche, such as cycling publications. Finally, advertisers who are courted by these enthusiast magazines are also called endemics.
Accuracy notwithstanding, the term carries with it a certain connotation, one that suggests inbreeding. It is, however, a term that defines both the relationships and editorial scope of all cycling publications.
There has been a fair amount of criticism in our comments section, on Facebook and the various Internet fora about how the Lance problem was allowed to go for so long.
I finally got a bee in my bonnet when I encountered criticism of Bicycling’s former editor, Steve Madden, for the piece he wrote for the site he manages, Sports on Earth. A buddy wrote to me, “Please don’t ever, EVER forget that you cats serve the public first.”
On this point almost all of us can agree. Believe me, I can find any number of publishers and MBAs who will argue that publications are meant to serve their owners or their shareholders or even their advertisers. I call bullshit. It’s my firm belief that a publication (whether in paper or on the Internet) is meant to serve a readership, first and foremost. Without readers, the rest is academic. It’s not the chicken-or-egg question that some folks in publishing would have you think.
So while everyone can agree that a publication is meant to serve readers, we may differ on just what constitutes service. In my mind, the way you serve your readership is borne out in the publication you deliver. TIME is journalism at its best: diverse, analytical, probing. Sports Illustrated is consistently the best photography and writing being done in sports. Similarly, Outside is a sports magazine that runs incredible writing and photography, but it is different from SI in that its reader is the doer, not the watcher.
In other words, not all publications have the same orientation, the same duty. Yes, we all serve the reader, but we serve the reader in different ways. Bicycling has never been about investigative journalism. I liken it to People, but for the bike industry. And I mean that as no put-down; editor Peter Flax has a terribly difficult job—sure, it’s not brain surgery, but pulling together the disparate threads of that magazine is harder than most folks think. It’s not a job I want. To put a finer point on the distinction, my sense is that (and I write this with the admission that I haven’t sold them a piece since 1993) like People they surf trends, trying to drop in at the perfect moment, then riding them until they die out at the beach. Expecting solid investigative journalism into doping from Bicycling is rather like expecting them to cover your local industrial park crit. It’s just now what they do.
You may ask why they don’t do investigative journalism, and the answer is simple: They are endemic. You can look at any bike magazine around the world, apply the same test and get the same answer.
So how does advertising play on this? For an endemic magazine, there really is only one pool of advertisers: bike companies. Sure, every now and then Gatorade will throw you a bone, but the really big advertisers like Coca-Cola and GM (the non-endemics) don’t advertise in magazines with less than a half million readers, which is to say they don’t advertise in any bike magazines. Rodale, Bicycling’s publisher, is able to put together network deals where a company like Ford will appear in several (if not most) of Rodale’s titles because in aggregate they present a large and broad readership.
The upshot is that bike magazines have a far cozier relationship with their advertisers than is helpful. Write something truly negative about a bike company, and they’ll pull their ads. Without the Cokes, the Chevys, the Oreos bolstering your advertising to weather the storm, many publishers simply choose not to write anything critical. At all. So cowed are most endemic publishers (and this is true for magazines outside the bike industry as well), they won’t even mention obvious flaws in a product they are reviewing, which is truly a reader disservice, but it helps illustrate the confusion some publishers experience as to just whom they serve.
L’Equipe led the charge on exposing Armstrong, and if you recall, there was quite a bit of resistance to what they had to say, stateside. Sometimes, investigative journalism is a thankless task. Woodward and Bernstein came under heavy fire as they reported Watergate. Nearly lost their jobs at one point. It takes more than integrity to report true investigative journalism. It takes cojones cut from billet titanium and an army of lawyers on retainer.
Which brings us to the other, maybe greater, truth to why none of the endemic bike mags in the U.S. led the charge against Armstrong—lawsuits. Forget for a moment that bailing advertisers could cripple a magazine for a while.The real issue is the opposition any magazine would have faced had they tried to indict Armstrong and co.
Let’s suppose for a second that Madden had commissioned a Bicycling contributor with the impartiality of Solomon and the dogged determination of Sisyphus to chase Armstrong, and he uncovered everything contained in USADA’s report. The first lawsuit would have come from Armstrong himself. The second would have come from Bruyneel. The third would have come from Tailwind Sports. The fourth would have come from the UCI. The fifth would likely have come from USADA itself and for good measure, USA Cycling might have contributed a sixth lawsuit.
There’s not a bike magazine on the planet with the kind of reserves to make that defense worthwhile. There’s not a story a bike magazine can run that’s worth as much as the value of the publication itself. Forget the fallout over publishing that piece for a moment and let’s go to the internal fight that would have taken place to try to put that piece in the magazine. I believe the publisher during most of Madden’s tenure was Chris Lambiase. I can’t promise that Lambiase would have vetoed the story, but I can assure you I’ve worked for plenty of publishers who would have.
How about yet another scenario? Let’s pretend that Bicycling did run that story. It’s possible to run extraordinary allegations, allegations that go against everything the public believes about someone, allegations so at odds with what the public wants to see they just choose not to believe it. Just ask David Walsh and Pierre Ballester, the authors of “L.A. Confidentiel.” As RKP contributor Charles Pelkey noted in his most recent Explainer column, Walsh and Ballester wrote a book that covers most of the allegations against Armstrong contained in USADA’s report. Only they did it in 2004.
This points to another fundamental truth: For a long time there was a tide against the truth where Armstrong was concerned. Most people really didn’t want to know the truth. They wanted to believe in Santa Claus.
Any number of magazines reported on the broad strokes of “L.A. Confidential” and the public didn’t just turn deaf ears to the song, they covered their ears and changed the station. Heck, USADA could have begun an investigation then, but didn’t. It’s fair to ask why. If you want to be upset about inaction, press USADA for why they didn’t charge before Armstrong won his seventh.
What I’m driving at is the reality that real investigative journalism is the domain of non-endemic publications. It takes newspapers like The Times and l’Equipe to have both the staff necessary to allow someone to chase a story of this magnitude and the resources necessary to defend against the blowback when they publish a truly negative story. The corollary to this is the UCI’s lawsuit against Paul Kimmage and the fact they didn’t name any of the publications that ran Kimmage’s work (though NYVelocity would have been an easy target).
Which brings us to cycling’s incredible Catch-22. Cycling is a small sport here in the U.S. It receives the attention of big media as often as the fat kid gets the cute girl on a date—almost never. Unless the sport grows, drawing more eyeballs, it will never command the attention of non-endemic publishers here in the U.S. And unless cycling can get clear of doping scandals, it won’t ever grow again like it did during Armstrong’s reign.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
When Belgium Knee Warmers‘ Radio Freddy got in touch with me in the fall of ’06 his call and its contents were unexpected. “I’m starting a blog,” he said. “I’d like you to contribute.”
He wanted it to address his passions and to be a positive response to the sport. At the time, I couldn’t picture what he had in mind. The limitation was mine. Back then, cycling blogs mostly went something like this, “Yeah bro, we were like doing 25 in the Cat IV race and I was all like raaaar, and Dudenut was all gnarthrashed cuz he put his front wheel into a ref when he gave a victory salute in the second group. We spent all afternoon at the ER waiting for him. Sunday night we drank PBR and watched porn.”
Yawn. My conception of blogging was that it was so personal as to be codified and—worse—without insight. The lack of universality in experience made cycling blogs pointless, at least to me. It would be a few more months before I’d run across BSNYC and Fat Cyclist.
This wasn’t the first time Radio Freddy and I had considered a collaboration. I had attempted to recruit him to do advertising sales for my magazine Asphalt. While he was interested, his availability was modest.
Any opportunity for us to work together seemed doomed when Asphalt went under. Asphalt had been my dream, my life’s work and when my partner exited the operation she forced the magazine into a sort of bankruptcy. I’ll leave it at that as the ugliness of what transpired between us should remain private; I’ve nothing positive to say about the end of the magazine.
What I can tell you is that I was more than depressed. I wrote the post Thanksgiving II in reference to that chapter of my life. And whether the rest of the bike industry felt it or not, I believed I was persona non grata because I was the captain of the ship when it sank.
I hadn’t considered writing about cycling or how I might pursue it since Asphalt. It simply didn’t seem possible that I’d enjoy another opportunity to write about cycling. Even so, when Radio Freddy got in touch, I wasn’t sure that I had anything to say.
Let’s back up a sec. I began writing about cycling in 1991. I was interested to write about a sport in which I’d developed a consuming passion. And while I had this passion to write, I really didn’t have anything to say. Newbie writers frequently ask me where I get my ideas for the pieces I write. I’m more than familiar with their plight. The strange part is that I have no idea how to answer. Back then, I was casting about, looking for opportunities—subjects—to write. I had no idea how to share my passion. Despite this, I managed to get some bylines with Dirt Rag, The Ride and even VeloNews. Most of my stuff was pretty straight journalism.
I parlayed those limited credits into a gig with the magazine Bicycle Guide and moved to California, more specifically, Los Angeles, which my friend and former UMASS Cycling Team teammate, Bicycling contributing editor (and former Bicycle Guide contributing editor) Alan Coté pointed out was “the on-ramp to the apocalypse.” He stole that from a sit-com, but that didn’t make it less accurate. That I was willing to move there was a measure of my determination.
At Bicycle Guide I was assigned a broad range of stories. Bike reviews, newbie tip articles, first-person narratives, it was the perfect incubator for an ambitious writer. Despite the fact that I had already earned a Master’s in English, I consider that period another chapter in my education.
I love writing bike reviews and speaking with the different builders; they were stories that were far more interesting to write than race reports and rewarded creativity and determination. However, my greatest growth, what most inspired my ambition, were columns and those first-person narratives. Getting away from the office and putting myself in a landscape with a bike and writing about that adventure of the senses and the richness of the experience for both the exterior and interior was really everything I could have asked for as a writer. For me, it was heaven on earth. I realized that I had something to say.
When Bicycle Guide was shut down, it took only a couple of days for me to conceive of Asphalt, a magazine where presentation would match the quality of the experiences and equipment we presented. We had our hitches; there were color problems in the first issue and we ran almost as slow as another quarterly currently on the market, but readers and advertisers were signing up. When that went down the pipes, I figured my future in cycling had gone with it.
Ultimately, what drew me back in shouldn’t surprise me or anyone who’s ever read my work. It was a story. Specialized had inked a sponsorship deal with Quick Step and after only a few races on the Tarmac SL, Tom Boonen began appearing on a custom-made aluminum frame. Sure it was custom, but it wasn’t the flagship ride Specialized was featuring in all its ads. It was a PR black eye that had erupted on the Internet into a torrent of obscenity-laced insults aimed at the company for demeaning the finest Classics rider of the day with an aluminum ride.
I’d spent enough time writing about bike companies to know that there was more to the story at Specialized.
So I called them.
I began talking with PR beacon Nic Sims and told him straight up they were being murdered on blogs and forums and none of the magazines were helping them by setting the story straight. I admitted that BKW was a small blog, but maybe if we got the story right, others might pick it up.
Naturally, he talked to me. He told me that the aluminum bike was simply a tester, that they wanted to make sure they got Boonen’s fit exactly right before cutting a mold for him. That whole measure twice, cut once thing.
The post was fun enough that I did a follow-up and came up with a few others for Radio Freddy. The readership went from tiny to small to noticeable—i.e. more than a 1000 unique viewers per day—in a matter of months.
I’d chosen a nom de plume to publish under for a simple reason; I was afraid that my name could be a liability. Suddenly, I began to see the alias in a new light. It was a chance to see if we could build a following just on the quality of the work. Rather than try to trade on our bike industry experience, our knowledge of cycling would either inform our writing and appeal to readers, or it wouldn’t. There’d be no baggage of history.
In the summer of 2007 I was getting ready for the Markleeville Death Ride and had adopted a super-model diet in my quest to get back to my old race weight. One day I was thinking about how hungry I was and about how eloquent Lance Armstrong had been on the subject of weight loss. I recall him saying something to the effect of, ‘It’s simply a matter of suffering.’
I dashed off a post called “The Lance Feeling” in less than a half hour. That one post marked a turning point for me. It helped me conceive of blogging as a chance to write an editor’s column over and over and over. Without the constriction of a monthly, bi-monthly or even quarterly publication schedule or the need to address issue themes, I could muse on any subject that itched my fancy. And I could do it whenever the urge struck.
Ohmigod, this blogging thing has possibilities.
What unfolded on BKW over the next year is one of those occurrences in publishing that comes along maybe once or twice in a career.
Radio Freddy and I shared a common background in bicycle retailing. We’d spent serious time in the trenches. Additionally, we’d both turned wrenches for riders whose bikes had to work right. Him at a prominent Chicago pro shop and me, for a spell, for the US National Team’s juniors. Our time in shops had also taught us a love for routine and working in a consistent fashion. We both had a love of working efficiently, of knowing the über tricks and watching for the moves of the elders. We were fundamentally students of the sport.
Radio Freddy’s posts conveyed hard-won wisdom of the ages, techniques that were less tips than meditations on quality. An interplay began in our posts. While we could discuss the fact that it was happening when we spoke on the phone, neither of us had the ability to explain how it was happening. It’s hard, even now, to look back and put my finger on why one post of his sparked me to write a particular one of mine, but there was a kind of gestalt relationship.
The way the readership grew during this time was all the confirmation we needed that the chemistry was palpable. It was rare that I’d ever have chosen a subject that Radio Freddy selected, but his choices influenced mine and vice versa.
The way our ideas dovetailed could fire me up like few things ever have. One night, as my girlfriend (now wife) was watching TV, I wrote three different posts. They all ran.
It was around this time that I landed a gig to write a guidebook on Los Angeles. I was reinventing myself. Next came an op-ed I wrote for the LA Times that suggested the UCI should enact and truth and reconciliation commission to get to the bottom of cycling’s doping woes. I’ve heard many people take credit for the idea, but I can tell you my piece was the first into print and was read by some two million people. A friend gave the piece to the powers-that-be at the UCI. I hear there’s a price on my head. It’s not much, but you might be able to take your sweetie to dinner on it.
I’d never have written that piece had I not been composing analysis pieces about Floyd Landis’ CAS appeal. Say what you want about the particular breed of crazy Landis keeps in his pocket, his defense team did their work brilliantly and the outcome of that case was a travesty.
Where were we?
The LA Times piece led to offers for copywriting work for several industry companies, among them Felt.
I was back in.
I’ve visited what feels like a hundred different cycling blogs. I love seeing what else is out there. Unfortunately, there aren’t that many I find myself visiting a third, fourth, fifth time. It’s once they become something that is part of my regular rotation that I really take note. Honestly, I’m surprised to learn what I find myself drawn back to repeatedly, those blogs that I need a fix of.
There’s a definite A-list. Competitive Cyclist’s “What’s New,” by Brendan Quirk, my old coworker Joe Lindsey’s “Boulder Report” and Bill Strickland’s “The Selection” are three that I wouldn’t want to live without. Fat Cyclist is my first-choice fix for humor and heart. But when it comes to European racing, I head to Pavé and The Inner Ring.
Bombshell alert: If you haven’t heard, Whit Yost has decided to cease publishing Pavé.
If ever I have experienced ambivalence, I’m having it right now. The thought that Pavé is going away is a lot like having a friend move away. I want a beer … or three. But by most definitions, there’s a silver lining. Two of the shining stars that made Pavé so great, Whit and Jeremy Rauch have agreed to contribute to RKP. I should be over the moon that two more stellar writers are joining RKP, but I can’t help be disappointed to see the blog go. And the thought that someone might think I was profiting off its demise would pain me. Worse, I see it through the lens of my own failures; as a result I understand it as the end of someone’s dream and that makes me really sad.
Whit and I have been in touch from time to time, sharing ideas and the requisite passion. How can you not? So when he informed me that he was going to wind Pavé down, I insisted that the cycling world shouldn’t lose his voice. The same, at minimum, for Jeremy. The truth is, there have been a number of great contributors at Pavé. I’m taking the biggest bite I can right now.
As if you need any justification for how good Whit’s work is, you’ll also be seeing his byline in Bicycling, both in print and online.
I’m going to level with you: I was never the guy who threw the party that everyone had to attend. That RKP—okay—that I have managed to recruit and attract so much extraordinary talent in just a few months time leaves me as pleasantly surprised as you. I’d have been okay if RKP was doing tomorrow exactly what it was doing last July. Not the same exact posts, mind you, but being based primarily on my and Robot’s work. Traffic was growing, the audience was happy and we were having fun doing work that we enjoyed doing. I swear to you, more than that was not necessary.
RKP has afforded me the opportunity to be the editor I always wanted to have. That is, to be encouraged to do good work and not worry about whether or not there was a ready audience or how the audience might benefit. Good prose is a benefit enough. But something’s happening here. RKP is becoming a repository for an alternative take on cycling writing. Richer, deeper, personal, it doesn’t qualify as journalism in the strictest sense.
In speaking to a few trusted friends about RKP’s growth they expressed some concern that RKP might end up focusing less on what our primary strength has been. In Competitive Cyclist’s End of the Year Awards Brendan Quirk wrote: “In reading RKP I’m often reminded of the days of yore when Campagnolo coined the phrase Quando La Tecnologia Diventa Emozione – ‘Where Technology Becomes Emotion.’ RKP is at its best when it focuses there — at that magical place in cycling where what we feel is inseparable from what we’re riding.”
I was as complimented by that as anything anyone has written about us. I don’t want four more contributors to do what Robot and I do. I want to see our bag of tricks grow. I want us to do more of the things we only occasionally do and I want to do it at the level of quality that our readers have come to expect. In adding Charles Pelkey, John Wilcockson, Whit Yost and Jeremy Rauch to RKP’s masthead, I’m certain that what you will find here will be broader editorially, but still in keeping with what you’ve come to expect from us. Our core mission of analysis, insight and inspiration will be well-served by these talented writers. And there’s a chance that such a great cast of characters will result in a prosodic critical mass, inspiring each of us to even better work in a verb-fueled synergy. Just maybe.
I hope you’re as excited for our future as I am.
When I review a bike, I tend to hit the “road feel” aspect of a bike’s ride pretty hard. I’ve done it enough and gotten enough subsequent questions about just what I mean and what I value that it seems high time I spend devoted some pixels just to the subject of road feel.
It used to be that road feel or “ride quality” was an indispensable dimension of any bike review. Even Bicycling Magazine would address it in their famously brief reviews. Those publications that devoted more than a couple hundred words to a review tended to spend more time defining not only a given bike’s ride quality but also made an effort to assign some sort of value to the quality. I’m not seeing much conversation on the subject these days, save the reviews Ben Edwards pens for peloton magazine.
While it may seem that ride quality and road feel may be essentially two different phrases for the same phenomenon, I do see them differently and I believe historically that “ride quality” was often used to define not just the feel of the frame material, but the interplay of that material with the bike’s geometry. In a nutshell, I use road feel to address the sense of road I get based on the frame material alone. It has nothing to do with the frame’s overall stiffness.
So any discussion of road feel is limited to the sense of road the bicycle’s frame imparts to the rider. Many of the bike’s components can affect just what you experience. Ride a bike with 100 psi in the tires and then ride it again with 140 psi in the tires and you could be forgiven for believing you were on a different bike.
Bar, bar tape, seatpost, seat and tires will all affect road feel, but none of these will usually have the effect that a significant change in tire pressure will bring. Additionally, different shorts and different shoes will affect what you experience as well. When reviewing a bike, I never get the chance to normalize for more than wheels and tires. I’ve got a set of wheels I know intimately and have some trusted open tubulars on them. That will zero out the wheel/tire combo. Ride a bike long enough and you’ll even see through differences in shorts. All that aside, the most important feedback you get comes through your feet and butt.
Okay, so all those factors can skew what you feel, but that doesn’t answer the central question of why road feel matters.
I’m fascinated by road feel because it is one of a handful of the dimensions of a bike’s overall composition that can affect how I descend and corner. When a bike is pushed to its performance limit, road feel can have a profound influence on just how far I’m willing to go.
People will use descriptors such as “lively,” “dead,” “springy,” and even “razor-sharp” to discuss the way the bike feels as they ride it. That feel is road feedback. Think of your frame as a pair of glasses and the road as the sky. The frame you ride is essentially the lens color of your glasses. You can ride a frame that blots out most of the sunlight to tame a sunny day. Or it can be a high-contrast yellow lens for the low-light situations you find on early morning fall rides. And whether you choose a dark or light lens, the quality of that lens will determine the clarity with which you see.
While this may be obvious almost to redundant, the road surface has a huge influence on just what you experience. The smoother the road, the less input you get and the deader the bike will feel. Some amount of texture is helpful for descending and cornering.
When I first started reviewing bikes, my sense was that the changes I experienced in road feel related almost entirely to frame material, that all bikes created from a frame material were sort of static in feel. However, the market was being flooded with new steels and I quickly learned that some of the new oversize steel tube sets (such as Columbus EL-OS Nivacrom) felt different from older stuff (such as Columbus SL). Even though the material density was the same, the bikes felt different.
So why was that? The best information I have from engineers is that it was related to wall thickness. If density remains consistent, a thinner wall will transmit more vibration. Increase wall thickness or decrease density and the feel changes. Titanium is half as dense as steel; aluminum is a third as dense as steel.
But the vibration transmission is affected by other factors. Butting makes a huge impact on road feel. No matter what material is used, if the tubes are straight gauge, the bike will have a harsher feel; more vibration will radiate through the frame.
So what constitutes good road feel and how much vibration should a frame transmit? Well, there are a variety of opinions on this. The French manufacturer Time does all it can to eliminate as much road vibration as possible; they include materials like Kevlar to make the frames mute to vibration. There are other manufacturers, such as Specialized, Cannondale, Felt, Look, BH, Parlee and even Bottecchia that offer bikes with a nude finish; that is, decals and no paint. No paint means an absence of 80 to 100 grams of material that contributes nothing structural to the bike. When you’re talking about a potentially 800g frame, that means 10-12 percent of the bike’s weight does nothing to contribute to strength or stiffness. You might as well just wrap the frame with electrical tape.
While 80g of paint is a liability in the weight department, the presence of paint does an interesting thing to a bike’s road feel. It deadens the frame. Not terribly, but it does fundamentally change just how the bike feels.
I’ve had the opportunity to ride bikes from a couple of manufacturers with paint and then with a decal-only finish. The difference in feel has to do with high-frequency road vibration. It’s that high-frequency stuff that gives you the greatest sensitivity to the road conditions. And though Trek doesn’t offer (so far as I’ve seen) a single nude-finished frame, it’s absence suggests less that they aren’t concerned with road feel and more that they aren’t confident in the cosmetics of their unpainted frames.
While I could try to illustrate the point of sensitivity with the analogy of a condom, let’s go with a stereo instead. On a traditional stereo with volume, bass and treble controls, if you turn up the bass and then turn down the treble, you wind up with gangsta rap—a pumping sound that has little definition. Carbon fiber frames with nude finishes feature a little less volume overall (because the frames feature an incredible amount of internal butting at junctions) but offer clarity that can only come from keeping the treble cranked up. Think of top-40 radio and the way those melodies can carry even when played on a lousy department store PA.
The Trouble With Color
Painted carbon can look amazing. It can also give a manufacturer the opportunity to cover blemishes in substandard work. It even offers a very minor degree of impact resistance. But it does nothing for road feel.
Bikes like the Specialized Tarmac, Cannondale SuperSix EVO, Felt F-series and BH Ultralight feature next-generation carbon fiber construction that has eliminated the use of foam in junctions where compaction has traditionally been a problem. Internal forms help make sure the bike achieves optimal material compaction. I suppose there are others using these techniques, but these are the bikes I’m aware of so far. Tap a fingernail on the down tube of one of these bikes and you’ll hear a distinctly metallic sound. The greater the material density, the higher frequency the sound. Both frame strength and road feel benefit.
It’s easy to conclude that greater high-frequency sensitivity is strictly an aesthetic preference and that one can make a strong case for a frame that stamps out vibration like ants in a kitchen. Unfortunately, there are objective reasons to seek out a frame with less vibration damping.
If your goal is a frame that maximizes strength while still achieving a competitive ~800g weight, you have to go with a nude finish. I’ve yet to come across a bike that offers the strength and weight equal to the world’s top frames that also feels dead. I’m so glad. But, God, how I wish Cervelos were available in a paint-free scheme.
A final note: One needn’t ride on the roller coaster roads of Malibu to make use of the benefits of superior road feel. I try not to push bikes to the point of breaking the tires loose (at least, on the road), but when the roads are wet, a bike that gives me great feedback will help me get down a descent faster. And as a rider, the greatest challenge I ever face on two wheels is riding in the rain. Descending in the rain? Nearly guaranteed flow state, and it’s times like that I want all the data I can get, even if it’s 100 percent right-brained.
One of cycling’s more prolific writers, Bicycling Magazine‘s Bill Strickland, is taking a break from his online duties to work on stuff for the print magazine; what exactly, I have no idea. What I can tell you is this: In their desperation for content, any content, they turned to RKP. To make matters worse, they asked me to be funny.
It seems they can both tell a joke as well as take one.
It’s a bit different from what I typically do here. The best I way I can think of to thank them for the opportunity is by suggesting you folks stop on by. You can either click on the picture of this really dirty Campy brake as seen on Bicycling‘s home page or just go here.
When I first interviewed for a position at Bicycle Guide part of my screening hinged on my interest in writing how-to articles aimed at beginners. The powers-that-be had determined that the magazine needed to do more to embrace entry level riders, though there was no move afoot to turn the magazine entirely mainstream, a la Bicycling.
Some months later Joe Lindsey (these days of Bicycling and “The Boulder Report”) and I commented to each other that those article should be collected in a book. After all, once each issue went off the newsstand, there was no way for a new rider to find that material. It was gone. Imagine text books that self-destructed like those tapes on Mission Impossible.
It was then that I began concocting the idea of a reference text to roadies. It’s obvious purpose would be to educate new riders, but done right, I thought it could have the ability to offer rich background material that would interest even the dedicated roadie.
Creating an outline for a book isn’t that hard. Putting together a proposal that will interest a publisher is another matter entirely. Because my idea fell outside of the traditional how-to manuals that teach riders either how to be fast or how to fix a bike many people I talked to didn’t see the need for it. Of course, none of those people I talked to had ever joined in a group ride. Fortunately for me, the people at Menasha Ridge Press saw the value in taking a total newbie through what is essentially Road Cycling 101.
Between writing the proposal, then the text, and, later, the editing, I’ve devoted a fair chunk of the last five years of my life to this book. Greg Page, the photographer responsible for most of the photos illustrating the text is the only man I know with the knowledge of the sport, the skill as a shooter and the patience necessary to work with me to have made the book as visually instructive as it is. His contribution cannot be overstated. Greg and I spent the better part of a year just on the photo shoots the book required. Honestly, writing this book was tougher than finishing graduate school.
For dedicated readers of RKP, there is, admittedly, a fair amount of information that will be rudimentary to the point of obvious. It’s likely that in chapters like the ones on group riding, advanced skills, materials and construction and geometry (as well as others) that you’ll find information that will be novel to you. The chapter on professional racing can serve you as a handy cheat sheet—’Wait, did Merckx win 525 or 535 times?’ ‘Did Bernard Hinault win more Grand Tours than Lance?’
I’ve written The No-Drop Zone not as a reflection of my experiences and beliefs, but rather as a compendium of all those who taught me over the years. I am hopeful that even the most experienced would find it an enjoyable and even illuminating read.
The bike industry has been extremely supportive of this book. Andy Hampsten lent his insight to the foreword, and authorities no less auspicious than Mike Sinyard of Specialized, Fatty of Fat Cyclist, Brad Roe of peloton and Joe Parkin at Paved have lent their expertise and endorsements. Heck, recent silver medalist at the World Championships, Dotsie Bausch, gave me considerable assistance with the chapter devoted to women’s issues.
I’m hoping that each of you will pick up a copy of The No-Drop Zone for the simple reason that nothing will sell this book as well as a recommendation from an experienced cyclist, like you, the readers of RKP.
I’m learning that pre-orders for a book online can have a profound effect if bricks-and-mortar stores stock a given book. Naturally, having this book in every Barnes & Noble around the country would do me a world of good and provide more availability to cyclists who like to shop retail. If you’re interested in this book, I hope you’ll go to the bn.com site and place an order for it. We’re probably five or six weeks from shipping the books out, but your pre-orders could have a powerful role in that chain’s decision to stock it in all of their locations. You can find the book here.
A new publisher is entering the market and is about to launch a new road bike magazine, called peloton. Let’s ask the question: Do we really need another road bike magazine? After all, in English we have Bicycling, Road Bike Action, Road, Cycle Sport, VeloNews, Pro Cycling and will soon have Paved.
Magazine aficionados will argue that Bicycling and Cycle Sport are meant for entirely different readers. One is obsessed with European professional racing while the other doesn’t yet know who Bjarne Riis is.
It’s the same way for writers. The story you would write for one editor isn’t remotely like the story you’d write for another. It’s a big reason why Red Kite Prayer exists and why I’ve been working freelance for a number of different outlets; to do the same sort of story for the same outlet month after month is a challenge. At a certainly point it becomes difficult to get up in the morning and make the donuts yet again.
What little I know of peloton so far is that it will be a pretty fresh take on what a bike magazine can be. It reminds me of what I was trying to do when I launched Asphalt. In my limited interaction with the publisher so far, I’ve been impressed. Rarely—if ever—has anyone ever asked me for “more honesty.”
I’m told the big reveal will come at Interbike. Until then, we’ll have to dig on the teaser film.
Image courtesy www.michaelcrook.com.
The Tour de France first controlled for drugs in its 1966 edition. It has taken the better part of 40 years for the UCI to convince both the riders and the public that they mean business about making the sport clean.
Truly, that rather inauspicious day back in 1966 was a turning point. Without the Tour de France being controlled, the sport was essentially uncontrolled because by the 1960s, it was the one event other than the World Championships that was virtually guaranteed to feature a truly international field.
Interestingly, the first test—Raymond Poulidor’s famously lax urine sample that resulted in a protest the next day—didn’t occur during the prologue or even stage 1, it was taken following stage 8. That Poulidor was the first controlled rider demonstrates that officials had some sense impartiality. Through those first eight stages German rider Rudi Altig wore the yellow jersey following his victory in the prologue and not a single French rider had won a stage. Or were they afraid to catch a real doper?
Until fairly recently, doping control has been a fairly hit or miss affair. Due to the rate at which riders who have been known to dope have evaded detection, even targeting a particular rider for additional tests often didn’t result in a positive test. But there has been enough of a correlation between positive tests following great performances that we now associate success with the specter of doping. It’s unfortunate, but that is the promise of doping: You go faster and win races.
But with that understanding comes a dangerous corollary: We have begun to suspect that any rider who wins is probably—if not certainly—doped. Bicycling Magazine’s Joe Lindsey put forth an idea a few years ago that uses a sort of Keatsian negative capability to make sense of the pro peloton and help put a lid on overactive suspicion. In effect, Lindsey said, we must accept the peloton is doped to the gills. However, each of the riders deserves the presumption of innocence.
This is where the principles of American jurisprudence can inform the rest of the world. Without actual proof of an infraction, we should presume each individual to be innocent.
The average cycling fan can say what he or she wants about any pro and the slight is, well, slight. But once members of the media, even ones as fringe as bloggers, start couching their concerns as actual allegations, at that point a racer’s reputation can be harmed.
There’s been a perception by some readers that I have it in for Greg LeMond and that the only altar I kneel at has a picture of Lance Armstrong hanging above it. My personal feelings for both riders aren’t really important. I have a duty, however, to be very careful what I publish about Lance Armstrong’s alleged doping—or any other rider’s alleged doping. Yes, there is some very incriminating evidence that would suggest he engaged in tactics common to riders of his generation. But he has the presumption of innocence on the side of his reputation as he hasn’t been convicted of an infraction. Open, shut.
As a writer and cycling fan, my opposition to LeMond pursuing Armstrong as a doper is simple. It’s simply not his job. He’s overstepping bounds in a big way and unfortunately, to many people who follow cycling, his single-mindedness about Armstrong eliminates the even-handed justice that would be on his side if he offered to work with the UCI to use his incredible knowledge to help them refine the profile for suspicious riders. In short, LeMond is not an enforcement apparatus and needs to understand that.
That said, if it is true that Armstrong said to LeMond, ‘I could find 10 people that will say you took EPO,’ it is one of the uglier statements he is reported to have made. I’ve got no place in any mudslinging that takes place between these two, but because Armstrong’s statement seems to have raised questions about LeMond using EPO, I’m going on the record to say that I don’t believe we have any reason to suspect LeMond took EPO.
There is much to suggest that the spread of EPO at the Tour in 1991 was LeMond’s downfall. LeMond has said of ’91 that the racing was faster and attacks more frequent than in previous years. We know Claudio Chiappucci, who finished third that year, was on EPO. It’s easy to be suspicious and just say that from 1991 on, everyone was on EPO, but the situation isn’t that simple.
Conspiracy theorists like to point to how LeMond managed to get in shape just in time for the Tour as evidence that he must have been on EPO. While LeMond and Ullrich might have had getting fat over the winter in common, the only other thing they had in common was phenomenal talent. The real mark of EPO is better evidenced by the example of Bjarne Riis who raced both with and without EPO.
Bjarne Riis finished the 1991 Tour in 107th place, more than two hours down on the yellow jersey; he had yet to discover the miracle elixir. Back then, he was riding for Castorama in support of Laurent Fignon. Only two years later he finished in fifth place while riding for Gewiss-Ballan, a team that was later revealed to have had an organized program. In his press release in which he admitted his “mistakes,” Riis pointed to the years ’93-’98 as the years in which used EPO, human growth hormone and corticosteroids. His results seem to bear this out.
LeMond and Fignon (who finished sixth in ’91) were Grand Tour riders who won the Tour prior to the advent of EPO. Had LeMond been on EPO in 1991, he would likely have won the Tour that year. However, he was riding for the French team Z and the spread of EPO as administered by teams started with Italian and Dutch formations; the French teams didn’t catch on to “the program” for a few years.
As a writer, I’m unwilling to point a finger at a rider who hasn’t been convicted of doping and call him out; there are basic ethical rules against this. The flipside is different. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that LeMond was an unusually clean racer for his time.
Image by John Pierce, Photosport International
To the degree that this site might struggle to find a broad readership within cycling, I take full responsibility. I can geek out on aspects of equipment that some cyclists couldn’t care less about. I read geometry charts the way some folks read biographies. If they could examine geometry charts on Mythbusters, I’d record it and watch it daily.
I’d apologize, but the reality is, I enjoy it and from time to time I write something that actually turns out to help other cyclists.
One of RKP’s readers, Sophrosune, commented on the “Road Feel” post and asked me for my take on the Colnago E1’s geometry and to respond to Bicycling’s assertion that the bike was squirrelly on descents, something our reader claimed to experience as well.
I’ve talked a lot about geometry in theory, but this is a great chance to look specifically at one bike and just what information you generally get and what information you ought to get. So let’s start with the basics.
The Basics: If you really want to know a bike’s personality on paper, there are a handful of dimensions you absolutely need. They are:
Top tube length: this is the single greatest determiner of a bicycle’s size. Simply put, bigger people need longer top tubes.
Seat tube angle: this will have a huge effect on saddle setback and can change the effective top tube length by more than a centimeter on small size bikes and more than two centimeters on larger frames. The longer your femur, the slacker the seat tube angle you need to achieve knee-over-pedal spindle, but that’s only meaningful if you believe in that standard.
Trail: steering geometry is defined by the interplay of head tube angle and fork rake; if a chart lacks one or the other, there’s no telling how the bike will handle. More trail means the bike is more resistant to steering input; less trail means the bike is more reactive to steering input.
Bottom bracket height (or drop): these two numbers are virtually interchangeable, though one, BB drop, is absolute because it defines the distance the BB is below a line that bisects both axles. BB height is influenced by the tires used and any given BB height is dependent on a specific tire. A lower BB (a drop of 7.5cm or more) makes the bike easier to lean into a turn; while it makes a bike more responsive, many riders report that a bike with a lower BB feels unusually sure-footed. A bike with a higher BB (a drop of less than 7cm) requires a bit more countersteering to execute a sharp turn but feels more stable when out of the saddle.
Wheelbase: changes in front-center distance (center of the BB to center of the front axle) and chainstay length can have a big effect on wheelbase length, even though the difference between many road bikes at a given size may only be 1cm, which translates to roughly a one percent difference. Ultimately, most bike designers will tell you wheelbase isn’t as important as BB drop, but not everyone agrees.
The Colnago E1: Colnago is one of a teaspoons-full of European manufacturers that didn’t completely abdicate its manufacturing in favor of a factory in Asia. This is significant.
Let me try to make a tedious story short.
The first Asian production of carbon fiber frames was largely set up in conjunction with American companies producing bikes for the United States market. The frame designs were based on a CPSC requirement for pedal clearance; most manufacturers comply with this requirement by designing their road bikes with a 7cm of bottom bracket drop.
Italian companies don’t have this same restriction. Italy also contains the Dolomite mountains. That last detail may or may not have a lot to do with why most Italian bikes had a BB drop of 7.5cm or more. I can’t say for certain because most Italian companies treat their geometry charts like state secrets. They will, on occasion, say something like, ‘We want our bicycles to descend with proper confidence.’
Any bike designs available from Asian factories through what are termed “open molds”—our engineering (reverse engineered from one of our clients with a great engineering team), your decals—were all built around 7cm of BB drop (not to mention a shorter wheelbase and less trail).
Suddenly, a great many Italian bike companies had bikes with a BB a half centimeter (or more) higher than they traditionally were.
If you were someone who had just purchased your first Taiwanese- or Chinese-made Italian bike, you might not notice the change in handling. However, if you’d been with that brand since the 1970s, you’d notice the difference.
However, that’s not the case with Colnago. In the case of the E1, the BB is a millimeter or two higher than it was in the steel bikes I’ve ridden; same for the chainstays and front center, a millimeter or two shorter.
The one shortfall in the geometry is in the fork. The fork rake for each frame size is 43mm. The head tube angle, though not given here, gets steeper as the sizes go from smaller to larger. As a result, the trail decreases (handling gets faster) as the frames increase in size. Each size will handle a bit differently due to the variance in trail.
An aside: I’ve wondered from time to time if more trail in a small frame would be useful in overcoming the decrease in wheelbase length and lower center of gravity that comes with a smaller frame. I’ve talked to women who have ridden a variety of bikes in smaller frame sizes and those bikes with the slackest head tube angles (72.5 degrees or less) and relatively little fork rake (some had 40mm of rake) did what was expected—they didn’t want to turn. Scratch that idea.
So many builders will tell you they build a given model around a given trail. While a custom builder can build a fork to any rake, at best, bike companies will offer two different fork rakes for their size range.
Okay, so what about the question? Is this a squirrelly bike as Bicycling suggested? There are two problems with our data set: We have no wheelbase length and no head tube angle. Despite that, a quick comparison of this bike with a few other frames I’m familiar with shows the BB is 3-4mm lower (as it should be) and the chainstays on average a half centimeter lower than typical American bikes. The front center is pretty typical for a given size.
But is it squirrelly? Based on what I see on paper, my gut says it’s great on fast descents. For anyone not already accustomed to Italian bikes, out of the saddle, this bike is a bit more maneuverable than might be comfortable. I could see how someone might drift off their line on their first few out-of-the-saddle sprints.
The are other unknowns that will make a huge difference in how this bike handles, and two of the most significant are the combination of stem length and handlebar height. Suppose you set up one 56cm frame with a short (say 10cm) stem with 4cm of headset spacers and another with a longer (12cm) stem and no headset spacers will handle so differently as to seem like a completely different bike.
I’d expect this bike to seem rather maneuverable out-of-the-saddle, but great on descents, unless, of course, it had a short stem and a high handlebar, and then it would seem squirrelly all day, every day.
Moving beyond the specifics of this bike, this geometry chart shows how leaving out one or two key details can render the rest of the geometry chart almost useless. For me, the question is why so many European bike manufacturers treat head tube angles as trade secrets. Changing stem length and height will make a much bigger difference in handling than even a full degree of head tube angle. In a way, we’ve brought it on ourselves. So few riders look at geometry charts the manufacturers aren’t motivated to offer more; if they aren’t going to give a complete set of information, then they ought to just give top tube and head tube length and stop there.