I’ve ridden a great many bike events over the years. From charity rides that were as elaborately produced as a wedding to road races marshaled by a van with half a million miles on it and industrial park crits that were as nondescript as the buildings we rode by. In that time I’ve run across one event that I really feel has gotten the formula right for producing a memorable cycling event. And it’s no secret that I think that event is Levi’s Gran Fondo.
I first went up to ride the gran fondo just because I wanted to go for an organized ride in Sonoma County. That it was to be a gran fondo—that is, a century with a mass start and controlled intersections to make it a bit more like an actual race—was more interesting to me than the ride being attached to a big pro. What interested me was doing a 100-mile ride with loads of climbing and great descents and only putting down my foot when I got to a rest stop. Not having to stop every few miles for a red light was easily worth the entry fee.
I got that experience, but I also got plenty more. I was amazed at the hordes of volunteers. There were volunteers who knew what they were doing everywhere I went. Out on the course there were police and fire officers helping to direct us and families at the end of driveways applauded us. I’d never done an event where someone cheered for me nearly every mile.
Then there was the fact that the ride had attracted licensed racers, dedicated century riders, double-century types for whom an event like this is just a good start as well as families. It was the broadest cross section of riders I’d ever encountered at a single event.
I became curious how the guys at Bike Monkey had managed to run an event through at least half a dozen different towns, on roads that are popular with tourists. I can think of a half dozen event promoters who would have looked at the proposed route, and a start and finish in the city of Santa Rosa and have pronounced it impossible.
The reason I was curious was simple: To my eye, a couple of guys in Santa Rosa had figured out how to make a single grass roots cycling event attractive to nearly anyone, everyone. When was the last time law enforcement, city governments, homeowners and cyclists all agreed on the value of a cycling event? To be sure, not everyone is in love with Levi’s Gran Fondo, but there are enough of us that the event has been happening without problems for four years.
The question that nagged at me was how. How did they do it? As it turns out, the answer is neither a secret nor impossible. Their strategy is a simple one: direct a portion of proceeds to charities. The AIDS Rides did that, but operationally, those rides were very different. They paid a cast of hundreds to work for them and they directed a tiny percentage to the actual charities meant to benefit. That strategy backfired when people learned that Pallotta Teamworks, the organizers behind the AIDS Rides, were really just a rather profitable event planner.
Bike Monkey doesn’t bill Levi’s Gran Fondo as a charity event. But the charity they do is no accident. What’s remarkable is how when 7,500 people each pay upwards of $100 to participate in a cycling event, you have some horsepower to get things done. Bike Monkey took that horsepower to a number of local charities. Among the beneficiaries of the gran fondo’s largesse are schools and fire departments along the route that the gran fondo follows. Those underfunded outposts receive checks that can make a real difference in the service they provide each year.
I shot these photos on a ride that Bike Monkey puts on the day before the fondo. It’s a chance for the top fundraisers attending the event to go on a short ride with Leipheimer and select VIPs. In addition to Levi and his wife Odessa Gunn, the very important types this year included the Garmin-Sharp’s Andrew Talanksy and Peter Stetina, Rebecca Rusch, Elden “Fat Cyclist” Nelson, Alison Tetrick of Team Exergy Twenty16, United Health Care’s Lucas Euser, Jeff Castelaz of the Pablove Foundation and Bissell rider Julian Kyer.
The ride went to Forget Me Not Farm on the outskirts of Santa Rosa. For those of you who haven’t seen “The Levi Effect,” Levi’s wife, Odessa, is a serious animal person and she volunteers there. Forget Me Not Farm rescues farm animals and uses them in therapy with kids who have been abused. Of course, their story is a good deal richer and more life-affirming than that, but that’s the elevator pitch. The farm is among the charities that the ride helps to support.
Attendees were served food grown at the farm and I can attest that the strawberries were as good as any I’ve had. Frankly, I didn’t think you could grow good strawberries that far north. It was a chance for people who don’t often have a chance to meet a pro cyclist to interact with a few of them, not to mention an opportunity to get an additional guided tour in while visiting Sonoma.
I am aware that some people are still hot enough about Levi Leipheimer’s doping to boil water. At some point I’m hoping we can move beyond the rage and begin to see the riders as pawns (most, if not all) in a system that was of the UCI’s making. Levi has served his suspension and no longer races; I think that should be enough to quell the anger. I’ve heard a few people say that the charity work that the gran fondo does is a chance for Levi to give something back to the community now that he’s no longer a pro. The funny thing is, that was always his intent. Those who know him have told me he shies from the limelight, that he really doesn’t want the attention. What was evident from “The Levi Effect” was how he got behind the idea of the gran fondo as a way to give back to a community that had accepted him as one of their own.
It was that vision, that desire to bring attention to the community, rather than the rider, that I think makes Levi’s Gran Fondo so very different from other events I’ve ridden. Perhaps it’s not the only one; certainly, I’ve not ridden all the rides there are, but it’s notably superior to every other ride I’ve done in its ability to deliver a stellar experience without hitch. That experience wouldn’t be possible without the volunteers who are tied to the many charities to which the gran fondo donates. Think what you will of Levi for doping; whether you let go of your anger over that or not is beyond our control, but I hope you’ll bear this in mind: rather than using the event as a chance to bask in his fame, he turned the spot on the area, on something he loves and in that he gave Sonoma a boost it deserves, it needs.
We’re at an uneasy place with our heroes. Even without the benefit of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the landscape of our understanding of professional bike racing in the last 20 years has fundamentally changed. For most followers of bike racing, doping went from this little problem in uncommon instances to a pervasive culture common to all but the rarest riders. While we beg for the truth about what occurred, as sporting fans, we’ve yet to embrace a single rider who confesses. As a group, we’ve yet to confer forgiveness to a single prodigal son.
Some people would like to see Leipheimer and every other confessed doper shot by firing squad, or at least expunged from the collective memory of cycling. Truly, some of the vitriol is hard to fathom. But he hasn’t gone away, nor has his eponymous event. To evidence this drop in stock value, entries for Levi’s Gran Fondo sold at a slower rate this year than they did in previous years. But they did sell out.
I’ve heard speculation that Santa Rosa wasn’t bringing the Tour of California back for a stage visit because the town was angry at Leipheimer for the shame he brought on the city and that the gran fondo wouldn’t last much longer. Really? The fact is, the city simply didn’t want to bear that expense in 2014, and if anything, due to the charitable work that Bike Monkey does, the gran fondo is more beloved than ever. While the long route sold out more slowly than it did in years past, the ride did sell out all three routes.
The staging area is almost the exact opposite of Interbike. At the trade show, I see a great many friends from the industry, such as Road Bike Action’s Zap (left) or TRUE Communications’ Mark Riedy (right), but unless I have an appointment, we’re all usually walking so quickly we don’t have a chance to say anything more than hi. In the staging area at Levi’s Gran Fondo, you’re standing around, waiting for the start, so it’s a good deal easier to actually chat with friends.
Shane Bresnyan (left) and Glenn Fant (right) are two of the faster guys in town and Glenn is the owner of NorCal Bikesport and the Bike Peddler and a significant sponsor of the gran fondo.
It was nice to see the Fat Cyclist himself, Elden Nelson and his wife, aka the Hammer.
Austin McInerny is the executive director for the National Interscholastic Cycling Association and was there with a full gaggle of high school riders from the NorCal league.
Levi’s Gran Fondo always manages to pull in a number of bona fide cycling stars and at this year’s event, and this year Andrew Talansky, who finished 10th at this year’s Tour de France and lives nearby in Napa, came out to ride.
Luca Euser of United Healthcare chose to ride pretty far back in the group and could be seen pulling people from one rest stop to another. He’s got an event of his own coming up in Napa. I may need to attend that.
Saturday was one of those bluebird days that would have seemed like Indian Summer anywhere else, but because this was Sonoma County, you can get days like this late in the fall. And while the morning began down in the 40s and required riders to don arm warmers, vests or jackets and consider at least knee warmers or embrocation, most of the day carried conditions to make you wish for another week of days like this one.
The descent to the coast comes in two big drops. The first, Myers Grade, plummets with such abandon that I saw a few people walking it. I have to admit I went slower on it in past years, partly because of the people at the side of the road and partly because my confidence on fast steep terrain just hasn’t returned, even though it’s been a full year since my crash.
Just to do something a little different this year, I decided to do the climb up Willow Creek rather than the full run down the coast to Coleman Valley Road. Willow Creek starts with pavement that gives way to gravel and becomes a double-track ascent through the forest. On the climb the trees shaded the sun enough to drop the temperature more than five degrees.
It was only upon hitting the climb that I began to feel good. I’d spent the entire day, some 70 miles to this point with my legs effectively offline. My best guess is that while I had good fitness, the cold of the morning caused my lower back and left IT Band to tighten up like a suspension bridge. As a result, I found myself pedaling mile after mile at 17 mph. I felt fine otherwise, but I couldn’t generate any power and as a result, all the people I’d planned to ride with early on spun up the road as I watched group after group pass. The why of my pace wasn’t terribly important, other than it gave me something to consider for a while, but the pace itself did force me to confront a larger issue. How was I going to handle it? I’d been riding well and wanted to rip one that day.
I thought back on Tyler Hamilton’s crash at the 2004 Tour de France in which he injured his back and afterward said he left the race because while he could pedal the flats, his back wouldn’t allow him to generate any power for climbing. I didn’t understand what he meant, at least, not at the time. I fully get it now.
But the question was what I would do with my attitude. I could spend 100 miles pissed that I showed up but my legs didn’t. I could whine for 100 miles that I got a shitty hand of cards. Or I could simply go slow, check out the sights and maybe see some new things because I was going too fast in years past. All things considered, given that I was riding through some of the prettier country in Sonoma County, were I to do anything other than enjoy myself on such a superb day would mean I was as inelastic as a pane of glass, and not much brighter.
So I enjoyed myself. Which wasn’t hard to do. Having my legs finally come on line meant that my riding could be playful on the climb of Willow Creek. While most of it isn’t all that steep so that you can drill it through the gravel through long stretches, there are a couple of ultra steep sections—one was 30 percent while another hit 27 percent—that turned the riding into something more reminiscent of mountain biking.
Following the descent into Occidental the ride into Santa Rosa takes you past a few final vineyards, some farm fields and then suddenly you’re turning onto the bike path. It’s a surprisingly welcome turn and conveys the relief of being nearly finished even if you’re not across the line quite yet. Sorta like a red kite, I suppose. Rolling into the finish was a mix of relief to be finished and sadness that the day was coming to a close.
Before closing, I’d like to say thank you to Christina, Sami, Arjuno, Russell (hell, even Andrew Talansky reads RKP!) and the many other people who stopped me to say thanks for RKP. It’s difficult to put into words what it means to have people tell me personally how much they appreciate RKP. I’ve been unable to summon anything more articulate than, “No, thank you.”
If there’s a better way to spend a day, I can’t summon it. A long bike ride without a bunch of stop lights, terrain so beautiful you want to pull over just to stare, seeing old friends, making a few new ones and all on a day you wish would never end.
Bear with me here. I’ve got some things to say about this book and at some point I’ll render a verdict, but I’m not quite sure how we’ll get there.
Let’s begin with the obvious: comedy is hard. We’re not talking hard like conjugating verbs hard. We’re talking double cork 1080 hard. Nevermind how the latter involves off-axis spins that render most of us food-proof for the rest of the week, the point here is that comedy has a way of taking the smart right out of brilliant as quickly as opening the plug in a car’s oil pan. Glug glug.
There’s a famous story of the actor/writer/director Albert Brooks carrying on at a dinner party and so entertaining the guests that people nearly vomited up dinner due to their incessant laughter. Everyone was in tears. Embarrassed by the way he had derailed the evening, he excused himself from the table and left.
Albert Brooks was so embarrassed by his gift of comedy that he left a party where absolutely no one—including the women whose makeup was streaked down their faces—wanted him to leave.
Brooks has such a command of funny there are people who would teach the entire county of Los Angeles how to properly use an apostrophe just to be that funny for a weekend. I know this to be true. I’m one of them.
Elden “Fatty” Nelson has a similar gift for comedy. Funny comes to him the way money comes to Donald Trump. And while not all of his funny is victimless (the folks at Assos seem still to be a little sensitive about his open letter to them), most of his barbs catch no one so much as himself. Yes, self-deprecating humor. Does it get better?
Well, in fact, it does. Bill Cosby is my favorite example of a comic who can take a circumstance—say walking home from a scary movie when you’re 10—and then show you the humor in it without embarrassing you. Think of any of his routines about childhood or driving. We were all there. We all have the same foibles, the same weaknesses.
Thank God Bill Cosby wasn’t a cyclist. I’d have spent the last 25 years in tears laughing at myself. Nevermind. I’ve spent the last six years laughing at myself thanks to Fatty. One of my favorite recurring themes in his work is the way he (like me) thinks he must be the only person on the planet suffering from some failing of character. Of course, he isn’t and not only is he not the only person waging said private battle, I’m busy thinking I’m the only one as well.
Sting once noted his favorite example of irony was singing the song “So Lonely” and having thousands of people sing it along with him.
Oh hell, I can’t keep a secret. I love this book. I absolutely love this book.
Here’s why: Even though the volume encompasses just about three years of his work, from the beginning of the blog in 2005 up through 2007, and it leaves out what has become my all-time favorite post (That’s strictly for personal reasons—I had an editor quote his post about leg-shaving and say that there was no way to accept any rationale for leg-shaving as legitimate, not after reading Fatty’s post. Only she missed his joke, which was kind of like missing the yellow on the school bus.) yet the collection doesn’t seem remotely incomplete. There’s an easier way to say what I just wrote: It’s a surprisingly complete overview of his work.
In three years of work he mined enough to flesh out a 312-page book. That, dear reader, is the mark of a real writer.
The obvious thing to do would have been to simply collect a bunch of old posts and reprint them. Crap, it’s what I’d have done. But then Fatty is no hack. He went back and revisited each post. It’s one thing to re-read your old work; it’s quite another to re-immerse yourself enough to comment on the work and your frame of mind when you wrote it. And that’s just what he did. He wrote introductions for each post, giving readers a little behind-the-scenes look on the composition and then, in a stroke only someone familiar with literature in the late 20th century would do, he proceeded to footnote the text.
I can say I laughed out loud at some of the same jokes I laughed at six years ago. They were often as funny as the first time I read them. But some of my biggest laughs came from the footnotes. Sure, some only gave me a knowing smile, but others held the kind of insider wink that only a close friend can give. It’s an intimacy every writer dreams of and very few achieve.
As much as love BSNYC, I need to say that I think Fatty’s gift for comedy is greater. Believe me, I’ve dissolved into hopeless giggles at things BSNYC has written, but the thing about Fatty is that his is almost always a victimless comedy. No one gets offended and everyone gets a laugh. It’s the ultimate festival seating of humor. He could charge a nickel a laugh and had he done so he would have earned far more than the $19.95 cover price on this book.
It’s not a perfect collection, though. He’s dead wrong about the They Might Be Giants song “Birdhouse in Your Soul.” Having had an earworm of Iron Butterfly’s “Ina Gadda da Vida”, I can tell you there are lower rungs on the ladder of torture. Someday at some race, I plan to ride up to him and hum a bar of that heavy metal classic, then whisper the words, “Don’t you know I’m lovin’ you?” in his ear.
There won’t be a trace of irony in my voice.
You can pick up your own copy of “Comedian Mastermind” here.
UPDATE: Apparently, I’m a fair bit sicker than I thought. I wrote a second review of Fatty’s book. Not that it needed a second one, but I don’t see any point in not sharing it: http://redkiteprayer.com/?p=7790. Strange things like this happen when I’m sick.
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 began studying what is required to be a writer more than 20 years ago. The thing I heard from teachers was that I needed to do it daily. It needed to be as much a part of my life as eating. I developed the habit of writing daily, even if I wasn’t always certain where I was headed or even if I felt like I was truly in the mood. There came a point in my development where sitting down to write was as much a recreation to me as watching TV, reading a book or playing video games.
There comes a point as a professional when what you do is simply what you do. It’s beyond questions of how or why. You reach a point where what you do becomes so self-evident that the questions just fall away. So when aspiring writers ask me how I turn out so much work, where my ideas come from, how I edit my work or how I decided on my voice, I really am at a loss for how to answer. All I can say is that I write about cycling because I write about cycling.
I’m aware that anyone who says that deserves to be punched in the face.
Just be gentle when you do it, ‘kay?
So my colleague (?), friend (?), fellow blogger (!) Fatty over at Fat Cyclist has released a collection of his best work. “Comedian Matermind: The Best of FatCyclist.com” spans a three-year period with the beginning of the blog in 2005 and taking the reader up only to 2007. As a survey of the entire breadth of the blog, it’s a failure. But that’s because it was meant to focus on a far smaller slice of the blog’s history. At 312 pages, one might mistakenly think it represents that aforementioned overview of the entire blog. As I mentioned, it isn’t. Holy Gutenberg Bible, Batman! That works out to a bit more than mining 100 pages of usable prose per year. Now, the average blog post takes up three pages in the book, but that’s still a record of more than 30 memorable posts per year.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is what it means to be a writer. Most blogs I read don’t post 100 pages of material in a year, much less 100 pages worth saving.
It was fun revisiting posts that were making me laugh seven years ago. And I can tell you, I didn’t laugh a lot in 2005, but Fatty helped keep me sane. When you consider that there’s at least one good laugh per page, Fatty’s achievement becomes all the more apparent. The title of Comedian Mastermind may sound like a typical bit of comic hyperbole, but I hereby attest that it is exactly true. His ability to find comedy at every turn leaves me wondering why Bill Maher hasn’t hired him as one of his writers.
No, really. Why the hell not? He’s that good.
Fatty could have done the safe thing and just reprinted a bunch of old posts. That would have been understandable. And perfectly acceptable. Instead of just doing a cut and paste of the chosen posts, Fatty gives each one fresh consideration. The upshot? We get introductions and footnotes. As a man who has read his share of footnotes, I’m willing to assert that no other set of footnotes, in aggregate, is funny. These footnotes go back an annotate the text, revealing additional layers of information and meaning, making seven-year-old jokes morning-break fresh. They are a feast of hilarity unto themselves.
I’m desperate to quote my favorite moments in here. It would be the wrong thing to do. Years ago I attended a double bill of Richard Thompson and Crowded House. Thompson came on first and about mid-way through his set he began playing the opening bars to the big Crowded House hit, “Don’t Dream, It’s Over.” I dissolved into giggles. He then confessed that it’s always been his dream to do a show for an audience who doesn’t know him and to do all the songs of the act he’s opening for, hoping they all get up and leave after he’s finished. I thought I was going to pass out because I couldn’t breathe due to my uncontrollable laughter.
So that’s why I dare not quote him. To steal any of the wonderful moments in the book would be to play his songs. Fatty has also had some fun with the organization of the book. He’s organized the book into how-tos, fake news, epic rides, open letters and more. It’s an amazing reminder of Fatty’s incredible range as a writer. He has the capacity to be funny whether writing about the misadventures of pros as well as his own misadventures.
Here’s the part that infuriates me: He did all this while holding down a full-time job and being a family man. That’s just not right. You shouldn’t be able to write something funny after having delivered a full work day to your employer and then play husband and daddy before going on to turn out 1000 words on why floor pumps are a sign of how this is still a 19th century sport. I envy him that ability.
Comparing anything in the bike industry is a dangerous business. There’s a long history of manufacturers expecting—and getting—reviews of just their equipment without having the results muddled up by any comparison to the work of a competitor. There’s also a history of pissed-off companies withholding ad dollars, not just in the bike industry, but any industry you look at. If you never see an ad from Campagnolo, Shimano or SRAM, this series would probably be why. Most bike companies aren’t wild about reviews that don’t spit-shine their every effort. So I’ll try not to be surprised if none of them ever advertise with me. They’re each accustomed to kid glove treatment, but I can’t in good conscience claim to have written an in-depth appraisal and not note some of the weaker features—some intended, some not—that give these groups their real-world identities.
So which component group is best for you? After all, that’s the question. Judging from the comments these posts have received, very few readers were willing to accept the idea that there was a winner. And that’s okay. What I wanted to make people aware of was that there are objective features found in some of these groups that elevate that group in consideration. When someone tells me, “It’s just a matter of preference.” I bristle in the same way that I do when someone tries to tell me, “How can you say with certainty something is a good piece of writing? It’s all subjective.”
Um, nope. No, it’s not. You see, if I posted a piece of writing riddled with misspelled words, used no capital letters and included no punctuation, you’d stop reading after just a few minutes. I guarantee it. And that’s even if all the verb tenses are correct. No matter how excellent the ideas might be, without a sense of the rhythm and focus of a writer’s ideas, the work becomes just a jungle of words. Similarly, a group is just a bunch of bike parts until they are properly assembled and adjusted to the point of working according to factory spec.
Below are a number of considerations that help illustrate some of the stronger features each of the groups has to offer, while also highlighting some of the weaknesses to be found as well.
Foolproof shifting: Despite the input from some readers that (insert group name here) shifts like crap, my experience is that Dura-Ace and Red have been more foolproof than Campagnolo. Red gets a ding because if the chain is in the largest cog and you try to downshift again because, for instance, you believe the chain’s in the 21 when it’s actually in the 23, unless you’re paying attention and push a bit harder on the lever, you’ll end up upshifting, so you’ll get a higher gear when you were looking for a lower one. I’ve made that mistake, but I’ve also learned that if I go for the downshift and the cog’s not there, all I have to do is push a bit harder and the chain will stay put. Not so bad. Sure, it’s simpler the way Campagnolo and Dura-Ace let you know you’re out of cogs: the lever won’t move, but there’s more to this feature than that.
More impressive is that a Red group built with the included Gore cables I could ride through a hurricane’s storm surge and the shifting would continue to be butter-smooth.
I’ve missed dozens upon dozens of upshifts with Dura-Ace because I needed to rotate my wrist to get that last bit of lever travel and couldn’t because I was mid-sprint. And I’ve overshifted the Super Record thumb buttons just as many times. But I’ve never missed or over-shifted an upshift with Red, in part because I can pull the lever back to the bar, tucked beneath my index finger.
In downshifting, practically speaking, I never downshift more than two cogs at a time. I broke too many Shimano chains in the 1990s because I tried shifting three cogs (or maybe more).
There’s no clear victor, but I give the edge to Red.
Front derailleur trim: That Dura-Ace no longer features any trim is a fail. I don’t know a rider who doesn’t get at least a bit of front derailleur rub in some gear. That’s not to say perfect adjustment isn’t possible; the problem is that so few mechanics (me included) know exactly how to achieve it. Because Red only offers trim in the big chainring isn’t a fail, but it gets a B-. Super Record is the clear winner here because you can trim easily in either the big or little chainring.
Braking performance: With regard to modulation, I give the edge to Super Record. For absolute brake power, Super Record and Red have an edge over Dura-Ace, but not by a lot. That said, swapping out wheels often makes a bigger difference than going to different groups. I’ve ridden each of the groups with wheels that resulted in poorer than expected braking and with wheels that offered braking that was a bit more responsive than I wanted. Ultimately, they all offer terrific modulation. They are so good they beg the question: Who really needs hydraulics?
Sound: A full Red group is the noisiest group I’ve ever encountered. Full stop. Still, it’s not that terrible. Is it one of the group’s worst features? I don’t think so. I seem to have spent so much time on Dura-Ace that I’ve come to accept its noise level as the standard by which to judge. The upshot to that is when I get on Super Record the group is so quiet I relish the cut in noise. Win to Super Record.
Ease of shifting: For riders with small hands or relatively little hand strength it’s fair to note that the shifting systems require differing amounts of force to execute a shift. This difference is more pronounced with the front shifter. Since Dura-Ace changed to running the derailleur cables beneath the bar tape, the force required to execute a shift has gone up, and with the front derailleur it’s noticeably so. Red requires less force to execute a shift, but this is another occasion where the clear edge goes to Super-Record. It’s the system I recommend for women riders.
Crank options: Super Record is off the back on this one. Campagnolo offers the Ultra-Torque crank in either 53/39 or 50/34 configurations and only four lengths: 165, 170, 172.5 and 175mm. Red offers six chainring combinations and six lengths (165 to 177.5mm in 2.5mm increments). Dura-Ace gets the slight edge, for while they offer the same six choices in chainrings, they offer seven lengths, adding a 180mm option to the array.
Gearing choices: If we leave out non-group options such as pairing a Red group with an Apex rear derailleur and cassette and just stick to in-group options, Red doesn’t look so hot with its four choices. Dura-Ace offers more choices with eight different cassette options. However, though Super Record only offers five options, they take the V here because the 11-speed 11-23 offers everything a 10-speed 11-21 offers, plus it adds a little kindness for the odd hill. The 12-25 and 12-27 options make lots of sense where I live and for those folks who need a little extra help on longer climbs, the 12-29 cassette provides something the other groups don’t offer.
Ergonomics: Okay, Dura-Ace just plain loses on this. The current control lever body has all the design sense of a freeway accident. Sure, it’s functional, but looking at it doesn’t invoke any desire to hold it in my hand. The Super Record control lever is its tactile opposite. I can’t not want to touch one, to hold one in my hand when I see it. It simply looks made to fit my hand and if my hand belongs there, then I’m going to put it there. The Super Record brake levers also feel better on my fingers than either the Dura-Ace or Red levers. They aren’t really made for someone with big hands, but the included shims help with that. But as I noted for those of us with smaller hands I wish they offered the ability to adjust the lever throw. That’s a miss.
Red strikes an interesting balance by offering a lever body that is comfortable and natural to hold and giving the user the opportunity to adjust both the brake lever throw and the shifter paddle position. Edge to Red.
Weight: This one goes to Super Record with a weight of 1950 grams (4.3 lbs.). Red is an extra 30 grams, which is pretty darn close. Dura-Ace may be the heaviest of the bunch, but it wasn’t too many years ago that a 2 kilo group would have seemed like the stuff of killer tomato movies.
Cost: Recently, I was talking Campagnolo’s general manager for North America, Tom Kattus. We were talking about how people choose groups and he noted that Super Record isn’t a fair comparison to Dura-Ace or Red because it’s so much more expensive. The fair comparison is Chorus, he says. That’s a helpful consideration if your primary motivator is price. But I think anytime someone looks at Super Record they do it for a simple reason: They want their conception of what is best. People may shop for the best price on Super Record, but by the time they do that they’ve already decided that’s what they are buying. Super Record buyers don’t want better—they want best. The 7-series Beamer is an amazing sedan. However, the Maserati Quattroporte can reasonably be called the best four-door sedan on the market. Some people will argue Jaguar or Porsche, but you can’t count the Maserati out, and that’s the point. The best deals I see are for Red, so again, it takes the win.
Ease of repair: There are three criteria for this section. First is how quick is it to work on or replace a part. Little touches like the clearly marked and easy to reach derailleur set screws plus the easily accessible lever adjustment screws control lever nuts make Red my favorite to work on. Should I want a component worked on and some small part replaced, such as a component within a control lever, Super Record is the ticket. Just take it to an authorized Campagnolo service center. But if I’m away from home and need a replacement part due to a crash or other need (this happens), I’d rather have Dura-Ace. It’s better stocked, both here and abroad. Regardless, if I walk into my garage to work on a bike I’d rather work on Red than Super Record or Dura-Ace. I have the highest level of confidence that I’ll make the adjustment I need in the least amount of time if I’m working on Red.
Crash sensitivity: If you go down, it’s handy to be able to ride home. Super Record’s more liberal use of carbon fiber puts them at a distinct disadvantage here. Any time a friend who owns a Campagnolo Record or Super Record group has gone down we know to call for a pick-up. The components remind me of what a mentor from Arkansas once said of chickens: “They just look for reasons to die.” Unfortunately, Red levers seem to be rather susceptible to death by impact and abrasion as well. Even after going to carbon fiber brake levers I have to admit that Dura-Ace seems more likely to survive a misadventure.
Cool factor: Ah cool. What’s cool is (of course!) entirely in the eye of the beholder. I’ve got plenty of friends for whom cool can only be bestowed by something Italian. Other friends believe that if you’ve spent a dime more than necessary your purchase wasn’t cool. They go for Red. And there are plenty of folks for whom cool only comes by sticking close to the mainstream. No winner; this is a draw.
Overall appearance: The effect graphics can have on a part is easy to underestimate until you see something amazing. One of my favorite features about Red is its bold use of graphics and color. It makes a statement. And while I really like the overall look of Super Record, there are places where the look is more industrial than stylish. Maybe I’d like the look more if I didn’t expect so much from them. For God’s sake, they’re Italian. Their stuff ought, by right, to look so good that I should fantasize pretty girls will blow kisses to me when I ride by on Super Record. As to Dura-Ace, 7800 was a better looking group; 7900 recalls Apple products in the 1990s after Steve Jobs was forced out. I recall seeing one Apple computer and thinking, “They what?” The difference between average industrial design and great industrial design is the difference between Hyundai and Aston Martin. There’s so much I like about Super Record, but Red takes this by a wheel.
Ideal users: The best answer for one user is not the best answer for all users. I tend to steer women to Campagnolo groups for the ease of shifting if they don’t have great hand strength. I’ll recommend Red if it seems like they will have trouble with the reach to Campagnolo brake levers. For newbie racers or those who race ultra-technical courses where you might be hard on the brakes for a tight corner and then sprinting back up to speed, I think Dura-Ace is better than Mexican Coke, because you can brake and downshift at the same time. If you’ve got big hands, also Dura-Ace; the lever bodies are bigger and you’ll be less likely to notice the increased force required to shift to the big chainring. Like to maintain your equipment yourself? Red is the easiest to work on and achieve the desired result in my experience. And for you sprinters, it’s Red. Red Red Red Red Red. And everyone knows that if you hang your identity on Euro cool your bike will feature Campagnolo.
And the winner is …
As I tallied up the various considerations above, I suspected that what I was going to find was that I’d given more points to Red than the other groups. I was surprised to find that it was essentially a tie between Super Record and Red. When I think about the bikes I’ve had at my disposal recently, I realized that I chose which bike to ride according to the following criteria:
- If the bike absolutely had to work correctly at all times and I knew I couldn’t afford a missed shift due to drivetrain vagaries, I chose Red.
- If I wanted the perfect gearing for a hilly day and light shifting plus terrific progressive brake power for descending, I chose Super Record.
- I seem to wind up on Dura-Ace only when it’s the equipment on the bike that I want to ride.
My Super Record drivetrain has been so fussy that there have been rides where I’ve made a conscious choice not to take it. The more I think about it the more I realize that if the drivetrain had worked flawlessly all the time—instead of only recently—I probably wouldn’t be as enamored with Red as I am. All of the groups have issues that bug me. I’d like the Super Record brake lever throw to be adjustable. I hate the Super Record brake quick release. I’d like more cassette choices in Red. I’d like lighter shift action with Dura-Ace. All that said, that 11-speed 12-27 cassette paired with a compact crank will get me through any terrain when I’m fit. And if I’m not fit (which would include all of 2011 and every bit of 2012 so far), well maybe Fatty will let me contribute to Fat Cyclist again. In the meantime, I think I’m going to go lube my Campy chain; I’m riding it tomorrow. And the next day.
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 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.
I’ve made some mention here that I’ve got a book coming out in May. It’s called “The No Drop Zone: Everything You Need to Know About the Peloton, Your Gear and Riding Strong.” You can think of it as Road Cycling 101. As much as I (and others) here at RKP focus on aspects of the sport that only the dedicated care about, this book is exactly not that. It’s not meant for you. While I wrote it in a way that if any of you picked it up you’d probably find something interesting, and maybe even learn a thing or two, it’s meant to help new riders get up to speed and give us some new friends to ride with.
In an effort to reassure prospective readers, I’ve been reaching out to some of the best-respected names in the industry to secure endorsements for the book. They have come through in ways so generous I’m left mouth agape.
It’s hard to know how to thank people once they’ve said something nice about your work. When I saw that Fatty over at Fat Cyclist was taking a week’s hiatus to work on a side project and wanted folks to fill in for him, I immediately volunteered. Fatty was one of the nice people to write an endorsement for “No Drop Zone.” I couldn’t think of a better way to say thank you than to volunteer a bit of help.
I write this assuming that you’re already a reader of his; his is one of the best blogs in cycling, if not the outright best. It takes a special skill to deal with all the implications and concerns of cyclists and do it all with tongue plugged into cheek. I envy him that.
Make sure you stop by today, if for no other reason than to help me say thanks. Heck, make sure you read all of this week’s guest posts on Fat Cyclist.
On the evening before Levi Leipheimer’s King Ridge Gran Fondo the folks at SyCip Cycles hosted a little get-together they called the Gran La Fonda. It was one-quarter handbuilt bicycle show, one-quarter party, 3/16 mad inventor parade and 9/8 fun. The device above is a tricycle of sorts that is designed to traverse old railroad tracks, though it seemed to handle asphalt tolerably.
Here’s a look at its inner workings; it was utterly confusing and wonderful to my eye.
Noci is a gelato and sorbetto place in Mill Valley around the corner from Above Category. They were serving up some tasty creations scooped from their bakfiets.
The Whiskey Drome is modeled on the ramps motorcycle stunt riders used to ride. Roughly 20 feet in diameter watching riders negotiate its banking was large-scale fun.
At right is Scot “Chuck Ibis” Nicol of local fame and Ibis Cycles, though not necessarily in that order. At right is Eldon “Fatty” Nelson of Fat Cyclist fame. Incredibly low-key and gracious, I could have spent the evening hanging out with him and his wife, “The Runner.”
Sean Walling of Soulcraft was but one of a long list of builders in attendance. Also present with bikes were SyCip (duh), Inglis/Retrotec, Rebolledo, Steve Rex, Rick Hunter, Cielo, DeSalvo, Black Cat, Caletti, Bruce Gordon and Ira Ryan.
It’s not every day you see a high-end carbon fiber road bike locked to a metal pole. I really dug seeing a road bike being used for basic transportation. Passing the lock through the helmet straps was a nice touch.
Builders in consultation: At left, Paul Sadoff of Rock Lobster, a man without whom the Santa Cruz ‘cross scene would die and at right, Ira Ryan of the Portland Bike Mafia, and a man with a soft spot for touring.
That cute little button of a girl is Zoie, the daughter of Carlos Perez, the publisher of Bike Monkey, and the driving force behind Levi’s Gran Fondo. She’s hugging RKP’s pint-sized climber, Philip, who is squealing in delight at the attention from yet another adoring woman. We think we heard wedding bells that night.