I was going to writing something witty and trenchant about the smaller Tours that dot the UCI calendar, but everything I came up with was too obscure, cruel or unfunny to waste your taxed eyesight on. The Tour of Romandie is on now. Then comes the Giro (and Tour of California). The Dauphiné and Switzerland are after that. Then le Tour. Tour of Poland and the Eneco countries are in there next. Then the Vuelta, and then it’s fall, and we’re back to watching Phillipe Gilbert write his legend.
For me, Tour season is tiring. There is a lot to keep up with, lot’s of racing, with very few results. The calculus of controversy becomes more abstruse. We go from reading the novellas of the Spring Classics to the Russian Epics of the Grand Tours. Oodles of characters to remember. Someone always going “mad.”
I am a Classics man myself. The races are smaller, easier to digest, like comic books…um…excuse me…graphic novels. They appeal to my sense of drama and brutality, my impatience. Four hours (roughly) to watch, four weeks to digest and debate.
Padraig is a Tour-a-holic. This is his season (quite literally) in the sun, and these are the races that quicken his pulse from its normally zombie-like cadence. The man loves an epic. Ask him how many Yes albums he owns. King Crimson. Pynchon novels. You get my drift.
This week’s Group Ride asks the question: Which are you, Classics or Tours? Perhaps there is a sub-species of one-week tour lovers, but I have not met one of these. Perhaps you love any and all racing. You’re poly-velo-amorous. You freak me out, but it takes all kinds. Tell us about it.
Say what you are, and why you are that way. Solve the problem, but show your work. Open our eyes to your unique and very valuable point-of-view.
Paris-Roubaix is the Angelina Jolie of bike racing. It stunning. It’s mythically proportioned. Everyone wants to win it.
And it’s batshitcrazy.
Liege-Bastogn-Liege is your spouse. It is gorgeous, smart, presentable to your family and sane enough to live with for the rest of your life.
At least, that’s my view of the races. I adore Paris-Roubaix. You don’t have to explain what makes Paris-Roubaix amazing, like you don’t have to explain why Brad Pitt left Jennifer Anniston; you just show a picture of Jolie. Liege-Bastogne-Liege is a race you have to get to know. Some folks may never get it, and that’s okay.
Paris-Roubaix is the fling. The weekend you’d like to have once a year, provided you were the sort of person who had flings.
Liege-Bastogne-Liege is what makes daily life rich and worth living. Truly, it’s a tough race, tougher than most people really understand, even most devout cyclists.
For starters, L-B-L is modest. Fewer than half the climbs are noted by name. No official record of the race lists its total climbing, which I’ve estimated at more than 8000 feet. There are mountain stages of the Tour de France that don’t climb that much. Not bad for a country many people think of as flat. At 258km (160 miles), it isn’t the longest race going, not by a longshot, but it is a race that very fine climbers can have trouble finishing.
When I think of the sort of riding I like to do on a routine basis, the kind of riding I can do day after day, rides that feed the soul, it’s terrain like that found at L-B-L that I want. Unlike Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders and the Tour of Lombardy, there isn’t a flat spot to be found in L-B-L. Each of the other three races has long stretches of flat punctuated by climbs. L-B-L features a profile that looks as if it were constructed from the climbs of the other three races.
Below are the notable climbs of Liege-Bastogne-Liege. You are probably familiar with the stats on their length and average gradient. What you may never have seen is their elevation gain. It helps to put the climbs in a fresh light.
Cote de la Roche-en-Ardenne: 2.8 km climb, average grade of 4.9%; 449 feet
Cote de Saint Roch: 0.8 km climb, average grade of 12%; 314 ft.
Cote de Wanne: 2.7 km climb, average grade of 7%; 618 ft.
Cote de Stockeu: 1.1 km climb, average grade of 10.5%; 378 ft.
Col du Rosier: 6.4 km climb, average grade of 4%; 838 ft.
Col du Maquisard: 2.8 km climb, average grade of 4.5%; 412 ft.
Mont-Theux: 2.7 km climb, average grade of 5.2%; 460 ft.
Cote de la Redoute: 2.1 km climb, average grade of 8.4%; 577 ft.
Cote de la Roche aux Faucons: 1.5 km climb, average grade of 9.9%; 486 ft.
Cote de Saint-Nicholas: 1.0 km climb, average grade of 11.1%; 363 ft.
Elevation gain: 4895 ft.
As I previously mentioned, those 10 climbs are fewer than half the climbs your legs will note, though they do account for more than half the total altitude gain.
You’ll frequently hear riders say that Milan-San Remo is the easiest of the Monuments to finish, yet the hardest to win. You’ll also hear riders talk about how the pavé makes Paris-Roubaix the hardest race. What you don’t hear frequently, though it is said consistently, is that L-B-L is the most difficult race run over decent roads.
What I love about these John Pierce images is that as you look off in the background behind the riders, you see towns far below the riders.
These are no ordinary hills.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
One of two things is true. Either the heavy hitters of the Ardennes portion of the season have completely failed to grasp Philipe Gilbert’s best trick, springing an early break on the would-be sprinters, OR Gilbert is deceptively powerful at the ragged end of the race. Ah, but then both could be true, right?
Someone pointed out to me that Mr. Gilbert, the less-imposing of the Belgian Classics contenders (Mr. Boonen is the other, obviously), has won three of the last seven Classics he’s contested. That’s pretty good, really. I’ve tried and not even come close to that.
The winner of the prediction contest was Michael, who not only correctly predicted Gilbert’s top finish, but also got Ryder Hesjedal’s second place. So, he’s won well, with style, like Gilbert. Bravo, Michael. Shoot me an email (robot at redkiteprayer dot com) with your own personal address, and we’ll hook you up with an RKP sticker pack that you can use to deface the fine frames that carry you over hill and dale. Or a car. Whatever. Your choice. I hang out at donut shops and stick ‘em on police cruisers, cause I’m edgy.
Bravo also to each of you for spinning your tough guy yarns. I read them in slack-jawed awe. Some of you have pedaled the road to Painsville and come out better for it. Others of you have just done some really stupid stuff and lived to share the cautionary tales. Some of you live in that murky space between the two. You should be proud.
The main thing I learned from reading them all is that I’m not that tough, and that’s a valuable lesson. There are whole vistas of pain and suffering still waiting out there for me to explore. So much to look forward to. So thanks for that.
This week continues the fun with Fleche Wallone on Wednesday and Liege-Bastogne-Liege on Sunday. Let the suffering continue!
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
When I was introduced to my first arm warmers, they seemed like the punchline to a lousy joke. At the time, I lived in a place where temperatures at the start of a ride weren’t often terribly different from those at the finish. A cool day that deserved a long-sleeve jersey for even a minute, almost always did so for the whole of the day.
Those armwarmers I saw friends wear on late spring and early fall days did little to sell the concept, either. All black and usually made from Lycra with a bit too much stretch. Safety pins did the job of gripper elastic. Who in their right mind would choose armwarmers over a long-sleeve jersey that carried a design down each sleeve?
In the twenty-plus years since our introduction, I’ve moved, learned a thing or two and armwarmers have come a long, long way. They are now an indispensable part of my wardrobe and the reasons why are almost innumerable.
The first, biggest, reason is that I live in a place where your arms must be covered during morning rides at least eight months of the year. Many days, if you are on the bike long enough, the temperature can be counted on to rise 10 degrees or more, making clothing adjustments more than necessary.
Thermal Lycra with sublimated designs, improved fit (and less stretch) and gripper elastic have vastly improved the garments’ usability. And I love the look of an asymetric jersey design carried through long sleeves; who can forget the look of the red and blue Motorola jersey? The practicality and flexibility of armwarmers may have made them a necessary part of my wardrobe, but it doesn’t account for my affection for them.
To me, they are the visible embodiment of hard-man style. Their form-following fit befits the hardened physiques of the PROs and the aerodynamic requirement for speed. When I see a bulky long sleeve it makes me think of the countless base miles Euro PROs will accumulate in thermal jackets.
They are to arms what Belgian knee warmers are to the legs. It telegraphs the cold, the early start to the day, the hope for rising temperatures during spring and fall days. For reasons I don’t understand, they are rarely used on mountain stages in Grand Tours, so their appearance to me always spells a Classic.
I took my cues on how to wear armwarmers from the PROs I saw in photos from John Pierce and Graham Watson. Studying photos, I learned to put them on before my jersey so the sleeve came down over the cuff of the armwarmer, rather than pulling them over the sleeves.
Properly fitted armwarmers don’t budge, so when I see the exposed skin of an arm, what I see is a day with changing conditions—fresh rain, a cold wind blowing in. The best, though, are the shots that come from races like Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Tour of Lombardy, where the riders have pushed the armwarmers down to their wrists. As it’s not hard to take an armwarmer off, what I see in such shots is an indicator of just how hard the day is, how tactical the racing is and how other than for drinking an eating, the race hangs in too precarious a balance to take a hand off the bar for anything else.
I’m noticing a nip in the air on those early morning rides. It won’t be long now.
Images: John Pierce, Photosport International
The final kilometer of Classics and Grand Tour stages is marked with an archway from which hangs the flamme rouge—the red kite. Its passage marks the greatest drama of the race, a ratcheting up of tension and anticipation that culminates in the winner’s celebration.
Of course, the red kite holds different meanings for each rider. For the time trialists, it’s the last chance to attack and beat the sprinters at their own game. For the leadout men, there’s a final dig before pulling off to the let sprinter shine. For the sprinters, that red kite is a signal that their moment is less than two minutes to come. For much of the field, it’s simply the signal that the pain is nearly at an end.
What unites each of them is a moment that inevitably comes after passing under the red kite. Each rider will bow his head as he summons the last of his strength for the finish. It’s the same bowing of the head that recreational riders will make before rolling to the finish of a century.
Summoning the strength to make a final surge to the finish is as universal as the urge to finish; no one wants to roll across the line in defeat and that final effort is the chance to accelerate to a personal victory that comes from the satisfaction of knowing you left everything on the course.
The psychology of riders can rarely be guessed, but the red kite prayer is a moment we all share, a search for our remaining strength as we summon the will to leave it on the road.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International.