There’s some scary shit in there. But it’s all part of the history and tradition of the race, whether you come in first or 40 minutes behind, like my first time. You get into the velodrome and go into the showers, and De Vlaeminck, Merckx, Hinault—all these legends have been in there before you, and you’re scrubbing mud out of your ears. It’s all part of the adventure.
In 1966, Paris–Roubaix became Chantilly–Roubaix, at least on the map. It moved out of Paris and off to the east to include cobbles that mayors hadn’t seen the need to resurface. And in 1968 it took in Jean Stablinski’s road through the Arenberg forest.
The Arenberg created a sensation. The British journalist, Jock Wadley, arrived in France to find newspapers predicting “only 30 at most will finish this race. Even fewer if it rains.” Another suggested riders would need a sprung saddle, padded bars and fat wired-on tires to finish in the first 10. One official said nobody would finish at all if it rained.
There were now 57 kilometers of cobbles. The 15 kilometers between Templeuve and Bachy had almost no tar at all.
Pascal Sergent wrote: “The press announced that the 1968 edition would be, without doubt, the most difficult and the most extraordinary in history and that the Queen of Classics would see a legendary winner in the style of cycling’s heroic period.”
It remained to see who it would be, for the order was changing. Where Rik van Steenbergen had had to succumb to Rik van Looy, now van Looy was also threatened. Eddy Merckx had won “his” world championship. Van Looy’s not inconsiderable pride was dented.
In 1965 Merckx had been in van Looy’s Solo-Superia team, sponsored by a margarine company and a bike maker. But he had committed the crime of threatening his boss and he moved to the French team, Peugeot. There he won Milan–San Remo for the first of seven times. But Peugeot was skinflint and its riders had to buy their own wheels and tires. It wasn’t hard to move to a new team supported by Faema, an Italian maker of coffee machines returning to the sport. And there, 1967, he became world champion.
Van Looy was grudging. When Merckx started 1968 badly, losing Milan–San Remo and abandoning Paris–Nice, he scoffed: “If Merckx is the boss, let him prove it.” The two were so wary of each other in the break in the GP E3 in Belgium that Jacques de Boever won instead. De Boever had never won a decent race in his life and never did again.
Before Paris–Roubaix, van Looy, now 35, said he was delighted by the tougher route. “It will make the legs of the young hurt,” he said pointedly.
Nerves in the peloton made the first break go at 17 kilometers. It had four minutes by Solesmes. There, riders seemed almost surprised to find cobbles. They got going just as the break began flagging. News of their weakening came back via the blackboard man and Merckx attacked, taking 13 others with him. The notable exception was van Looy.
At Coutiches, Merckx looked over his shoulder and counted. There were too many. He attacked. Only Ward Sels and Willy Bocklandt stayed with him. Of those, Sels was the greater worry. He was a sprinter of Rik van Looy’s level and sometimes his lead-out man. A little later things grew worse with the arrival of the mournful-looking Herman van Springel, whom any film director would cast perfectly as a pall-bearer. Van Springel didn’t have the same talent but Merckx was now fighting on two fronts.
Imagine, then, his relief when Sels punctured 26 kilometers from the finish. Merckx hunched his shoulders and spread his elbows in a style that was just becoming familiar and attacked. Van Springel had to sprint out of every corner to hold his back wheel. Merckx swooped past his rival at the finish by rising to the top of the banking at the finish and accelerating down and past him. He won, his right arm raised, by a wheel.
It was the beginning of the end for van Looy. Three punctures had done nothing to help his chances but the eclipse was starting. It’s not even sure what happened to him. Pascal Sergent says he was in a group sprinting for ninth place, eight minutes down. The result shows the sprint was for eighth, but that matters less than that van Looy’s name isn’t there at all. He rode just once more, in 1969, came 22nd and never rode it again.
And the Arenberg? An anticlimax. Merckx finished with barely a splash of mud on his white jersey.
There had never been a talent like Eddy Merckx’s. He is the only rider to have sent the sport into recession through his own success. Riders became disillusioned because they rarely raced for anything better than second place. Their salaries fell because sponsors saw little value in backing a team they knew would be beaten. And contract fees for village races tumbled because promoters had to pay so much for Merckx, whose simple presence guaranteed a crowd and advertisers, that there was less left for the rest. And this continued for season after season.
For him, Paris–Roubaix was just one classic among many. “I took a particular interest in my equipment,” he said, “especially if the forecast was for rain but, for me, it was a classic like the rest, with its own demands and a particular character.”
In 1970 he won Paris–Roubaix by more than five minutes. The rain fell, lightning was forecast over the northern plains, and riders fell and tore skin. Jean-Marie Leblanc, who went on to organize the Tour de France, broke his frame. Merckx left the Arenberg forest with six riders behind him. He punctured at Bouvignies, 56 kilometers from the finish, changed a wheel, re-caught the leaders and went straight back to the front. And, before long, off the front. He won by 5 minutes 20 seconds.
In second place that day—and fifth the year before—was a dark-haired, gypsy-looking man with long sideburns: Roger De Vlaeminck.
“In a country in love with Eddy Merckx to the point of servitude,” said the writer Olivier Dazat, “literally dead drunk on his repeated exploits, the showers of stones and thorns from the Gypsy constituted, along with the Mannequin Pis [the statue in Brussels of a small boy peeing], the last bastion of independence and humor, a refusal of uniformity in a conquered land.”
De Vlaeminck—it’s pronounced Roshay De Vlah-mink—won 16 classics and 22 stages of major Tours. He rode Paris–Roubaix 10 times and always finished, four times in first place. The only laurels he lacked were a world road championship and, because he was only a moderate climber, a big stage race.
He had a characteristic position. He crouched low across the top tube, his hands on the brake hoods, his elbows lower than his wrists. It provided bounce, springing against the shocks. When he got going seriously, he lowered his hands to the bends of his bars and pushed his body horizontal, a cyclo-cross man turned track pursuiter. He gave, said Olivier Dazat, “the impression of gliding, of being in a perpetual search for speed, like a skier perfecting his schluss.”
The weather in 1972 was apocalyptic. It drizzled throughout the race. Water lay between the cobbles and, more treacherously, on the irregular sides of the roads, hiding missing stones, displacing others under the weight of the cars and motorbikes that preceded the riders. There could be no worse setting for the Arenberg. The break entered it at full speed as usual, riders trying to get there first to avoid piling into fallen riders.
Their speed in the rain brought down a heap of riders, including Merckx. De Vlaeminck rode on and feinted an attack where the old mining road rejoins the tar. The others matched him and he sat up. It allowed Merckx to catch them.
There was a brief hope that a local would win when Alain Santy, a northerner, got clear with Willy van Malderghem, winner of the previous year’s Quatre Jours de Dunkerque. His moment lasted until 35 kilometers from the end, when his weakness showed. Van Malderghem pushed on alone with more than a minute and half in hand.
De Vlaeminck waited. The lead stayed unchanged. Then he set off and caught van Malderghem at Cysoing, dangerously close to the end. He pressed on and crossed the line, his left hand raised, a fraction less than two minutes ahead of André Dierickx and 2 minutes 13 seconds before Barry Hoban. Merckx was seventh at 2 minutes 39 seconds.
De Vlaeminck said: “When you’re really fit, you rarely get a flat tire because you’re more lucid. I had a puncture once, in 1970, and then never again in 10 years. The other secret is confidence. I often started with the idea that I was going to win. I missed my chance once or twice but no more than that. I knew how to get ready for Paris–Roubaix. I used to ride three days of 350 kilometers a day in the week before. I used to ride Gent–Wevelgem and then ride another 130 kilometers having just changed my jersey. One year I rode 430 kilometers in a day. I needed that, that sort of training, to start the race in a good frame of mind.”
He’d got it right. In 1974 he won by 57 seconds, ahead of Francesco Moser, who had crashed.
De Vlaeminck rode now for Brooklyn, a team sponsored by a chewing gum maker owned by brothers named Perfetti. The team—he rode there with his brother Erik and with Patrick Sercu—wore a garish jersey based on the American flag. The curious thing was that for all the American connections in the name and jersey, and the image of the Brooklyn bridge, the chewing gum sold in the USA only three decades after the team folded.
And why did it fold? Because a member of the Perfetti family was kidnapped and there was no money left for a team after paying the ransom.
By now, De Vlaeminck had started training in secret. His technique was straightforward if arduous: “I used to get up at 5am. When it was good weather I went out behind a Derny with my lights on. I used to meet Godefroot to go training and I’d already ridden 120 kilometers. I used to pretend that I was tired because I’d just got out of bed and try to persuade him we should have a shorter ride together. I don’t know if I took him in but I needed to bluff the others to raise my own morale.”
Godefroot trained with De Vlaeminck because the schisms in Belgium cycling meant he never spoke to Merckx. He said of De Vlaeminck: “In the evening he’d call me to ask me if we could go out later than we’d agreed. ‘It’s not worth doing too much,’ he used to say to me. The next day, he’d get up at six, train for two hours behind a Derny, and then he’d turn up at the rendezvous as though nothing had happened. That was Roger.”
In 1975, April 13 started dull with an occasional beam of sun. It had rained the previous days, though, and the race hit a bog of wet mud when it reached the first cobbles at Neuvilly. Chaos followed. Cars got stuck in the swamp at the side of the road and motorcyclists came sliding off. Riders who stayed upright picked their way through and the field shattered. By the time the cobbles ended there were just six in the lead. De Vlaeminck wasn’t there but he came up a little later with Merckx, and then at the approach to Valenciennes, they were joined by a group including Francesco Moser.
There were four by Roubaix, all Belgian. Merckx began the sprint on the back straight. De Vlaeminck looked beaten but struggled back. He passed Merckx just before the line and won with his pedals opposite Merckx’s front tire. He didn’t even have time to lift his arm.
“It’s nice to win,” he said, “especially when Merckx is beaten.”
André Dierickx was third and Marc Demeyer came fourth.
It was the following year that Demeyer both won and started promoting another brand of chewing gum, Stimorol, from Denmark. The success that caused such an exciting advertisement on Radio Mi Amigo wasn’t a surprise; in 1975 he had ridden alone in the lead for 50 kilometers. He was a gentle giant, Demeyer. He turned professional in 1972 with almost casual disregard, spreading his contract on the roof of a car just before a race. And, equally casually he then won the race, the Dwars door België.
Demeyer spent most of his short life as lead-out man for Freddy Maertens. He could win races for himself, as Paris–Roubaix proved in 1976, but he was self-effacing by nature and happy to ride as Maertens’ knecht, closing gaps and opening sprints.
There was no greater bitterness than between Maertens and his fans and the Eddy Merckx camp. They were opposites, Maertens the near-unbeatable sprinter and Merckx the rouleur.
Philippe Brunel of L’Équipe asked Merckx if it was true what journalists wrote, that there was an anti-Merckx brigade.
“And how!” he answered. “You’ve only got to remember the names of the riders there were at Flandria: Godefroot, the De Vlaeminck brothers, Dierickx, Leman, and then later on, Maertens. They all rode against me.”
De Vlaeminck’s response was: “It’s simple: we were all against him. Even my wife! During meals with the Flandria team, Merckx was all we spoke about, from morning to evening, to work out what we were going to do to beat him.”
That was the atmosphere when Paris–Roubaix set off for the 74th time, delayed by a protest which blocked the start. It got away only after the demonstrators had deflated all the tires on the car which Félix Lévitan, the co-organizer, had been expecting to drive. He considered the situation with a mixture of anger and puzzled offense. What had he done to upset the demonstrators, beyond giving them a piece of his mind?
The Belgian civil war between Merckx and Maertens reached an armistice when both fell off at Neuvilly. Maertens abandoned the race and Merckx finished sixth at 1 minute 36 seconds. Freed from his duty to Maertens, Demeyer had a free hand.
De Vlaeminck wanted the race, of course, and tried to split it by sending away two teammates. Johann Demuynck and Marcello Osler stayed away through the Arenberg cobbles but impressed few into chasing. Guy Sibille rode alone in the lead for 35 kilometers but that threatened nobody. Who on earth was this Sibille man, anyway? He’d come third in Milan–San Remo the previous year but he’d never won better than stages in regional tours. He did, in fact, win the 1976 French national championship, but that came after rather than before Paris–Roubaix. The others could ignore him, and they did—for three-quarters of an hour.
In the end, De Vlaeminck sorted things out for himself. There were still 30 kilometers to go. He went so decisively that Merckx couldn’t go with him, his legs and will hurt by having to change bikes five times and chase back to the leaders each time. Francesco Moser was there, though, and so were Godefroot and the lightly stammering Hennie Kuiper—and Marc Demeyer.
But De Vlaeminck was overconfident. He mastered Moser’s efforts to dislodge him and no longer had to worry about Godefroot, who had flatted a tire. He led on to the track, sure he had the best sprint. But he’d ridden too hard in the last 30 minutes and he’d gambled too much on the final dash for the line. Moser came past him and then Demeyer came by them both.
“They just sat on my wheel for the last 20 kilometers,” De Vlaeminck said miserably.
On January 20, 1982, Marc Demeyer went training for 100 kilometers in the morning, then went to collect new equipment from his team manager, Bert De Kimpe, boss of a team supported by Splendor, a bike company whose sponsorship went back to 1936.
That evening he was sitting at home, doing a crossword. He never finished it. He had a heart attack and died. He was 31. He is buried in the Outrijve churchyard at Alveringem, 40 kilometers east of Ypres in West Flanders.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
In the time I’ve been penning these personal thoughts about cycling’s problems with doping, starting with the 1960s, I’ve become more conscious of how the cycle of revelations and reactions keeps on repeating itself. And how true breakthroughs in the fight against doping only happen when there’s a combination of scientific advancement and unscripted events.
The death of Danish amateur cyclist Knud Jensen, who was on amphetamines, at the Rome Olympics in 1960 initially woke up the sports world to the need for drug testing. France was the first to enact anti-doping legislation, in 1963, but its implementation was erratic and resulted in a riders’ strike when the gendarmerie descended on a Bordeaux hotel at the 1966 Tour de France and inexpertly took urine samples from a number of athletes, including French star Raymond Poulidor.
But it was only after Professor Arnold Beckett, head of London’s Chelsea School of Pharmacy, finalized a rock-solid test for amphetamines that the UCI became the first sports governing body to introduce testing. The first experimental tests at the 1965 Tour of Britain were so successful that the race leader and two others tested positive and were thrown out of the race. Encouraged, the UCI extended the program, including its own world championships the following year. But, because of those problems with the heavy-handed French government testing, the Tour de France didn’t get any UCI-approved controls until 1968—the year after Tom Simpson died on Mont Ventoux with amphetamines in his system.
Simpson’s death triggered the International Olympic Committee to set up a medical commission, which Beckett joined, and the first list of banned substances was drawn up before testing began at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. As I wrote in a previous column, the early anti-doping controls were not always conducted according to the rules, with pro cyclists finding ways to avoid testing positive (as illustrated by Michel Pollentier at the 1978 Tour). Also, it didn’t help that there was no definitive test for steroids until 1974 (also pioneered by a London laboratory), and even then the riders and their soigneurs learned how to use masking agents, such as diuretics, to beat the system, before they were banned too.
It was widely known in the 1970s and early-’80s that long-distance runners and cross-country skiers from Scandinavia were using blood-boosting methods (by re-infusing their previously stored blood) to improve their performances. In Italy, its Olympic Committee CONI even sponsored sports doctor Professor Francesco Conconi (inventor of the Conconi test for establishing an athlete’s anaerobic threshold) and his biomedical research center at the University of Ferrara to prepare athletes from several sports, including skiing and cycling, using blood-boosting methods. And it’s widely accepted that Conconi and his assistant Michele Ferrari helped Francesco Moser break Eddy Merckx’s world hour record at Mexico City in January 1984.
Blood doping was undetectable and even encouraged until members of the 1984 U.S. Olympic cycling team (track and road), under the supervision of the U.S. Cycling Federation coaching staff, blood-boosted in Los Angeles. Some intra-federation memos (this happened before e-mails existed) were leaked to Rolling Stone magazine, which published a salacious article on the affair in its February 1985 issue. The result was several USCF officials being reprimanded. It was regarded as a huge scandal in the United States and resulted in blood doping finally being prohibited, first by the USCF, then the UCI, and eventually by the IOC in 1986.
It was ironic that just as blood doping was being banned a team of scientists at biotech company Amgen in California was researching an artificial, or recombinant, form of human erythropoietin for boosting the red-blood-cell count of anemic cancer patients. FDA approval for the new drug Epogen (EPO) came in 1989, but it was already on the black market in Europe, and EPO eventually became the most widely used doping product in cycling, cross-country skiing and long-distance running.
There was no way EPO could be detected in blood tests because it was a genetic hormone that helped athletes create their own new red blood cells. Scientists in Europe and Australia began research on methods to identify the use of EPO by athletes, but it was a long, difficult (and expensive!) process. In the early-1990s, dozens of athletes, including cyclists, allegedly died because of their hematocrit (percentage of red blood cells) reached levels as high as 60 or even 70 percent. In Italy, CONI again gave money to Professor Conconi, this time to research an EPO test, but this merely led to Italian athletes and Italian cycling teams becoming the leaders in the use of EPO.
That was confirmed when the Gewiss team placed three riders in the first three places at the Flèche Wallonne classic in April 1994, after which their team doctor, Ferrari, told Italian and French journalists in an interview that only the abuse of EPO was dangerous, not the drug itself, and that he wasn’t scandalized by riders using it.
That unscripted incident in 1994 was one that didn’t get the reaction it merited, either from the media or the UCI. It gave Verbruggen an opening to condemn the apparent abuse of EPO in Italy, but he played down Ferrari’s remarks and said that the other teams should work and train harder to challenge the Italians. The press criticized Verbruggen but no real investigative journalism was set in motion, and it should be noted that the publications with the biggest resources, L’Équipe in France and La Gazzetta dello Sport in Italy, also happened to be the organizers of the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia respectively. Conflicts of interest were an obvious factor in the lack of action.
With no detailed investigations by the media or the UCI and no definitive test for EPO on the horizon, the blood-boosting drug became more and more predominant in the European pro peloton. Finally, both the UCI and the international ski federation (FIS) looked at ways of deterring athletes from using EPO. The result was that the UCI, after discussions with sports doctor and the pro teams themselves, implemented a 50-percent hematocrit limit in January 1997. Several medical experts questioned the UCI limit as being too stringent, especially as the FIS limit was much higher (equivalent to some 53 percent before a tested athlete was stopped from competing). UCI president Hein Verbruggen was criticized for saying that the new limit was a “health check” and it did not imply use of EPO, but with no foolproof test yet available he was just stating the facts.
The new blood testing had an immediate effect. In the very first tests before the March 1997 Paris-Nice, three of the 20 riders tested, tested over the 50-percent limit. They were all domestiques: Frenchman Erwan Menthéour (who would write a book detailing his use of EPO and other performance-enhancing products, including so-called Pot-Belge, a mixture of amphetamines, cocaine and heroin that riders, and even some French journalists, got high on at parties); and the Italians Mauro Santaromita (later named on a list of athletes implicated in a police investigation into doping), and Luca Colombo. But the penalties of being excluded from the race, along with a fine and a two-week suspension of their racing licenses, was not a huge deterrent.
It was only after the Festina Affair in July 1998 and the various entities (the IOC, sports federations and federal; governments) came together that the World Anti-Doping Agency was formed in December 1999 and the sports world started to take the modern doping problem far more seriously, with the extra funding needed to institute more testing and to enable more research into definitive drug tests. I’ll conclude this story and comment on other more recent revelations in my column next week.
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Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
The Giro d’Italia-sponsored Gran Fondo Pasadena happens this coming weekend and the big star the organizers have recruited to ride the even is none other than Francesco Moser. Winner of the 1984 Giro; the ’78, ’79 and ’80 editions of Paris-Roubaix, the ’77 world champion and victor in scores of other great races, not to mention the hour record, Moser is a true badass.
Most cycling fans may not be aware of two other little details about this legend of Italian cycling. He is still exceptionally fit; he raced as recently as 2008, winning the journalist world championship. And for more than 80 years his family has farmed a vineyard and produced their own wines. In the run-up to the gran fondo, Moser and his con Carlo are hosting some tastings of the Moser family wines.
I had the good fortune to receive an invitation to a tasting that was hosted last night at Bike Effect in Santa Monica.
I should mention that I’ve known about the wines for a good 10 years. However, what I heard from friends was that you’d only buy them for the name; they weren’t good enough to write home about. But given the push that Soilair, Moser’s importer, is making to market the wines in conjunction with this visit, it would be suicide to host tastings at some of LA’s most exclusive wine stores and serve the Italian equivalent of Two Buck Chuck.
I’m pleased to report that either the wines have come a long way or my sources were wrong. We had the opportunity to taste three whites and one red and while I suspect the red needs more time to age, the three whites were ready to go. First was a Müller-Thurgau, which was a light, crisp white, perfect for a hot summer afternoon. Second was a Riesling, and while many Rieslings are made with a bit of sweetness, this was dry as British wit with clear flavors like pineapple and grapefruit and just a bit of tang. The final white was a Moscato Giallo, which is another wine that is often made sweet and is favored by drunk people spilling out of tour vans. Some wine makers, if you prod them, will tell you they make a sweet Moscato only reluctantly, that it is the wine equivalent of Coca-Cola—sweet, but not serious. But it can be an easy sell to those who won’t normally spend more than six bucks on a bottle of wine. I mention this to put in perspective the fact the Moscato was, like the Riesling, Arizona dry. These aren’t the wines of a dilettante. The red was from a grape that is native to Trentino, where Moser lives. It’s a medium-bodied red that, given the region’s mountains, probably struggles to fully ripen in most vintages. Nonetheless it is a very food-friendly wine. His importer is also due to begin carrying a sparkling white called 51.151, named in honor of the distance he covered in his hour record.
Moser speaks as much English as I speak Italian, which is to say negligible, but he was enthusiastic about pouring the wines. When images of some of the Rapha Gentlemen’s Rides came up in a slide show on a big-screen monitor in Bike Effect, he turned to me and asked, “California?” I said yes and there was a flicker of appreciation in his eyes. He then conveyed that he’d been following the Tour of California back in May and had been wowed by Peter Sagan. His respect and admiration for the youngster was apparent.
The real high point of the evening came when wine importer and avid cyclist Jeff Morgenthal (at right above in the sport coat) briefly interviewed Moser. Morgenthal raced in Europe and knows cycling the way he knows wine—in depth. He asked a few questions about Moser’s victory over Laurent Fignon in the ’84 Giro and which races he most loved. Moser’s son Carlo translated the responses. As it turns out, Paris-Roubaix doesn’t need any translation; the race remains both his favorite and a source of pain he’s happy to be free of. But hearing him tell how he knew he could win the ’84 Giro because he was consistently taking 3 seconds per kilometer out of Fignon in the time trials seemed every bit as exciting for him now as it was then. In describing his experience of winning the cycling journalist world championship (he rode in the television presenter category), he seemed a bit embarrassed and it admitted it wasn’t very competitive; of the other riders he said, “piano” which is to say, in his mind, they didn’t pedal so hard.
I envy those who will get to ride with him in the gran fondo, but by the look of it, he appears to be fit enough that he won’t have much company.
We decided to do some year-end awards here at RKP, but because we don’t see much point in awarding someone “best Danish single-speed cyclocrosser with no ink”, we figured we’d give some nods to those people, events and moments most memorable. And to add to the fun, we invited Whit Yost and Jeremy Rauch from Pavé to join in the fun.
So here we go:
Rider of the Year—Despite not notching a win another monument this spring, by virtue of the fact that Fabian Cancellara finished on the podium in Milan-San Remo (2nd), Ronde van Vlaanderen (3rd) and Paris-Roubaix (2nd), he proved to be the strongest rider in this year’s spring campaign. That Cancellara was chased as if an attack from him was everyone else’s ticket to glory was unseemly. It appeared—given those who latched onto his wheel—he was chased less to prevent him winning than as a springboard to anyone else’s.
Most Valuable (Non) Player—This has to go to Francesco Moser for doing more to liven up this year’s Tour de France short of any rider other than Thomas Voeckler. By instructing the Schlecks on how to win at bike racing, Moser inspired Andy Schleck to take the single most interesting flyer at this year’s Tour. Frankly, it did much to illustrate the criticism that due to radios riders no longer know how to ride tactically. The greater lesson is just how the greats were. How about a mentoring program for today’s GC riders? The racing might get more interesting if we dusted off more GC champions from the ‘70s and ‘80s.
The We-Don’t-Know-What-to-Call-It Award—Thor Hushovd has easily been the peloton’s biggest crybaby for the last two seasons. Of his seemingly endless skills—honestly, has anyone else delivered more unexpected and surprising wins?—diplomacy isn’t one. He may be the only guy who could teach Bradley Wiggins a thing or two about badmouthing a previous team. That said, his cunning has proven he is more than worthy of both protection and a free hand. Maybe we should call this one the Wild Card Award. You just never know with this guy.
The Mad Ambition Award—This goes to Jim Ochowicz and the rest of the management at Team BMC. On one hand, they are geniuses for vaulting BMC to the top of the pops in just two years. Their ability to sign riders of real quality was confirmed in a royal flush back in July when Cadel Evans finally won the Tour de France. So how they managed to court and sign both Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd can’t simply be magic; it’s more like sorcery. Evans was on record saying anyone on his Tour team (and it is his Tour team) won’t freelance, won’t go for stage wins and will bury himself for the team. Somehow Gilbert and Hushovd—who between them took three stages of this year’s Tour—claimed they were okay with that. We also give this the Most Likely to End in Tears Award.
The Most Coveted Award—This has to go to Zipp for the new Firecrest 303. There’s not another set of wheels I’ve heard spoken of with a more covetous tone than the redesigned Firecrest 303. Lighter than a supermodel’s brain, more aerodynamic than a Cessna and more durable than any aluminum rim you’re riding, the only question is who doesn’t want this wheel.
The Relief Award—Bike fans breathed a collective sigh of relief with the announcement that Campagnolo will finally begin selling its long-awaited electronic group, EPS. Though we heard that the Italian maker was working on this group back in 2002, Shimano came to market with Di2 a full two years ahead of Campagnolo. This is quite a contrast from the introduction of index shifting and integrated control levers. Shimano’s stuff may have worked better in both instances, but at least Campy had a ready response. The good news is that EPS seems to be kink-free, so this year you’ll be able to enjoy electronic shifting and 11-speeds all in the same group.
Worst News of the Year Award—The demise of HTC-Highroad. To have Bob Stapleton depart cycling is the worst news the sport will get for a long, long time.
The Textbook Courage Award—If you needed any proof of the talent at Andy Schleck’s disposal, his attack on Stage 18 from Pinerolo to the Galibier in this year’s Tour de France showed exactly what the young and often hapless Luxembourger is capable of. Down on GC and running out of road, Schleck had to do SOMETHING. What he did was one of the most courageous and awe-inspiring attacks we’ve seen this decade. First, Leopard – Trek put Joost Posthuma and Maxime Monfort into the break. Then, Schleck attacked with 60km to go, took a gap, stretched it to two minutes and then latched onto Posthuma and Monfort to stretch his lead, ending just 15 seconds out of yellow, as Tommy Voekler buried himself on the imposing slopes of the Galibier. This is the racing fans have always wanted from Schleck, but he has seldom delivered. Cautious to a fault, on this day Schleck was a legend.
The Have No Cake and Fail to Eat It Either Award—I, for one, thought it was a good idea for Zdenek Stybar to try his luck on the road, especially with a Classics-oriented squad like QuickStep. Unfortunately, Stybie flopped in his first season and has now relinquished his dominance of the Euro Cyclocross World Cup Series to Kevin Pauwels. What’s the Flemish for “Oops?”
The Straight Face Award—It’s been 18 months since Alberto Contador tested positive at the Tour de France. The saga of inaction since then is well-documented. Under WADA guidelines, it doesn’t matter how or why the “adverse analytical finding” came about, the rider should be suspended, and yet Contador has argued, with a straight face, that he deserves to ride, and UCI head Pat McQuaid has gone on as if the fleet Spaniard isn’t receiving preferential treatment. If we say up is down long enough, will we all learn to fly?
The Ricco Suave Award—This award is reserved for dopers who approach the rank stupidity of Ricardo Ricco in their efforts to cover their tracks and/or protest their innocence. This year’s award goes to Ezequiel Mosquera. After a positive test for hydroxyethyl starch at the 2010 Vuelta, at which he was runner-up, Mosquera cried foul. But the test for hydroxyethyl starch has been around a long time, and that substance’s use as a masking agent for doping products is well-documented. Compounding Mosquera’s guilt, one of his Xacobeo-Galicia teammates, David Garcia, also tested positive for the same substance at the same race. The Spanish cycling federation (RFEC) rewarded Mosquera’s cheating with a two year ban ON TOP of the 14 months he’s already been off the bike. The rider has said he’ll retire. Don’t do us any favors Ezequiel.
Cyclist of the year—All new cyclists. They may be annoyances right now. They might reduce our cool, bad-boy cred. They may do stupid things in the road, at lights, on the trail, etc. But they’re making the world a better place for us. Growing the sport makes the roads safer, will eventually make the public more sympathetic, and some day, some of them will be giving us their draft as they pummel us in their wake. Cycling is growing so much that some places, like New York City, are experiencing a backlash. I think the backlash will be shortlived. We’re going to win and all new cyclists are helping.
The “Why Would Anyone Need X” award:
This year saw a number of new technical innovations: some good, some bad, but all the victim of some variant of the pace-line putdown “Why would anyone need <insert component here>”. The list of what would surely be past winners is long and filled with the things we take for granted today, and would surely include clipless pedals (“Too dangerous in a crash!”), index shifting (“I don’t need click-shifting to find my gear!”), Di2 (“If I wanted to play video games, I’d just stay home and play Nintendo!”) and 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 and yes, 12 speed rear clusters (“Why would anyone need more than 5/6/7/8/9/10/11 speeds?”).
2011′s award, based on the seemingly never discussions on the topic, goes to disc brakes in cyclocross. With a battle cry of “if they were good enough for De Vlaeminck*, they’re good enough to me”, the canti-devoted dismissed the disc as unnecessary – too heavy, too powerful, not hydraulic, and just plain pointless. It’s true that the disc options when using brifters are incomplete; quality cable actuated brakes like those from Avid aren’t quite as effortless as hydraulics, and the mechanical/hydraulic adapters look like a mechanical in the making. That said, any mountain biker will tell you there’s no denying the performance of discs in the muck. Wet or dry, discs just work. It’ll take a few years for vendors to come up with ideal, rather than adapted solutions to discs in cyclocross. But when they do, I suspect the naysayers will see their benefits and at the very least, wish they were on discs too. Hey, give me hydraulic brifters, and I just might be willing to move off this 9 speed setup – because really, more than 9 speeds is silly, but disc brakes are awesome.
The shut-up and ride award—By now, we’ve all seen the video of Juan Antonio Flecha and Johnny Hoogerland getting whacked by the errant media car in Stage 9 of this year’s Tour de France. Both men suffered injuries that would have sent most of us crawling into an ambulance or at least the broom wagon. What was impressive, though, is that both of them got up, finished the stage and then made it all the way to Paris nearly two weeks later. It’s a story worth bringing up next time one of your non-cycling friends tries to tell you that American football players are the toughest athletes on the planet.
The great French hope—It was fun to watch Thomas Voeckler reprise his 2004 role as the beloved – but doomed – defender of the yellow jersey. (Voeckler actually earned the jersey as part of the aforementioned break from which Hoogerland and Flecha were taken out.) Voeckler is now 32 and his years may be numbered. It was inspiring to see the entire Europcar squad rise to the occasion and protect the jersey for 10 stages … all the way up to stage 19 when another member of the team earned the spotlight and maybe even signaled the start of what would be a welcomed renaissance in French cycling. Pierre Rolland showed more than a flash of brilliance on the slopes of l’Alpe d’Huez, out-classing Samuel Sánchez and Alberto Contador atop that storied climb. Not only did he win the stage, he grabbed the best young rider’s white jersey for good and finished the Tour in 11th on GC. Like another promising young rider in the season’s final grand tour, you have to wonder what this guy could have accomplished had he not been saddled with domestique duties for most of the race.
Maybe, just maybe, we will see an end to the French drought at the Tour, a race the hosts haven’t won since 1985.
Out of Africa―Having grown up in in Kenya and South Africa, Chris Froome showed he was more than able to meet the challenges of the European peloton in this year’s Vuelta a España. Froome finished second in the Vuelta and one can only imagine how the 26-year-old Team Sky rider would have fared had he not been obligated to ride in support of Bradley Wiggins at critical moments in that grand tour. As is the case with Rolland, I’m looking forward to seeing Froome ride without other obligations holding him back.
The No-Man-Is-an-Island Award―This last one is purely personal. Not to beat a dead horse, but I’ve hit a few rough spots over the past few months. Had you told me in January that things would have taken the turn they did in July, I would have predicted that I would just curl up in a ball and stay in bed. The darn thing, though, is that there are folks out there who just wouldn’t let that happen. Anything that I’ve accomplished or anything positive that has happened to me over the past months is purely due to the fact that people have been generous and spectacular. I have to extend my thanks to a host of people, including the gang over at NYVeloCity.com, their readers, the folks who follow me at LiveUpdateGuy.com, countless friends and family and, of course, those responsible for my new home here at Red Kite Prayer. I can’t even begin to count the ways that I have reason to be thankful. All of you gave real meaning to the words “cycling community.”
Most Disappointingly Successful Stage Race-Winning Strategy—Thanks to victories by Alberto Contador, Cadel Evans, and Juan José Cobo in this season’s grand tours, it was easy to overlook a rather unexciting “trend” in the art of winning stage races. Of the eleven non-grand tour stage races on the 2011 World Tour, eight had at least one time trial. Of those eight, seven were won by men who took either only the time trial or no stage wins at all, a race-winning strategy calling to mind Miguel Indurain.
Take Bradley Wiggins for example. The Brit from Team Sky won the Criterium du Dauphiné—without winning a single stage. The same can be said of RadioShack’s Levi Leipheimer at the Tour de Suisse. Both riders used top rides in individual time trials as the foundations of their victories then simply hung-on for dear life in the mountains. Of course, both victories were well deserved—after all, consistency goes a long way—but race fans can’t be blamed for wanting to see a bit more aggression from their champions. At least Germany’s Tony Martin actually won stages (both time trials, though) at Paris-Nice and the Tour of Beijing for HTC-HighRoad on his way to taking both overall victories.
What does it all mean? Not much, perhaps. But it could inspire more time trialists to find some climbing legs for a week every now and again. Or maybe a few of the sport’s aggressive riders might find themselves spending some time in the wind tunnel or behind a motor scooter, doing their best to defeat the sport’s Martin’s, Wiggo’s, and Leipheimer’s at their own game.
Then again, this is professional cycling—there are no style points. Victories bring contracts and unless your name is Thomas Voeckler, no one cares about how much excitement you generate in losing. We need to give credit where credit is due, but that doesn’t mean we have to like it.
Over the weekend, Andrew Hood of VeloNews posited that the upcoming year could be the one for Fabian Cancellara to win the Tour de France. Hood’s logic is that with the emphasis on the individual time trial and the de-emphasis of summit finishes, Cancellara, the best time trialist of our generation (ever?), who can be a fairly effective climber, could, in the fashion of Miguel Indurain, vanquish a Grande Boucle of the kind we shall see in 2012. Of course, being teammates to the brothers Schleck makes this line of reasoning a non-starter; however, Hood is not the only one who thinks that Cancellara could contend for the final malliot jaune.
For what little it’s worth, I wholly agree with Mr. Hood’s assessment and nominate Cancellara as the most compete rider of the last 10 years, may be more.
He can win on most any terrain and type of race. The diversity of his wins is unmatched by any rider in the current pro peloton. His time trial ability is unquestionable, despite Tony Martin having the upper hand this year. He can win one-day classics on cobbles and gravel (Roubaix, Flanders, E3, Eroica). He can win where sprinters typically prevail (Milan-San Remo, flat Tour stages), and in 2011, nearly beat the sprinters on their own terms with a second at MSR, a fourth (third??) at this year’s Copenhagen Worlds, and fourth on the Champs Elysee. He can win in the one week stage races with significant climbing (Tour de Suisse, Tirreno-Adriatico).
On Monday, Bernard Hinault celebrated his 57th birthday, and Cyclingnews paid tribute by asking if “The Badger” was the greatest of them all. Hinault is the last rider to win in a Grand Tour, a Cobbled Classic, an Ardennes Classic and a World Championship, laying the foundation for his claim to greatness. It also makes him the last of the complete riders, who could ride, and win, from late winter through the spring and summer into the fall in any kind of race.
Arguably, only Cancellara has come closest to matching Hinault’s swath of victories, and even he falls well short, at least so far. Why is it that in the past 25 years since Hinault’s retirement no other rider has been able to truly take on the complete rider mantle?
The answer may lie in a strange irony. Fitness.
Specifically, the idea that today’s pro cyclist is a fitter, stronger, more precisely honed machine than ever before.
When Francesco Moser took on the Hour record in 1984 he opened the flood gates to whole new method of scientific based training that was elevated by Greg LeMond and made the indispensable standard by Lance Armstrong. Riders today, and not just the pros, but even we weekend warriors, can train to such specific peaks in ultimate fitness so as to time them for pre-determined goals. To be competitive at any race on the calendar requires riders to be within one of their peak fitness windows.
The science behind this training also tells us that humans can only achieve these sustained performance peaks for a few weeks at time only two, may be three times a year at most.
While sports medicine was around in Hinault’s day, it was rudimentary by today’s standard. It would be fascinating to look back and know whether Hinault and his cohorts raced in a perpetual state of over training or under training. Ignorance being bliss, they raced on for nine months of the year simply because they had no reason to do otherwise.
Today, Cancellara and every other rider in the pro peloton, knows from the outset that defining specific goals necessarily requires sacrificing others. With riders so specialized in a particular style of racing, the odds simply don’t encourage Cancellara to sacrifice the spring for the summer.
Much ballyhoo has been made on both sides of the argument for and against banning radios to improve racing. But, if what we yearn for is a return to the halcyon days of the complete rider, then instead of banning radios, we should ban practitioners of sports medicine, nutritionists, physiotherapists and osteopaths, along with power meters, heart rate monitors and the rest.
Or, we can simply accept progress for what it is and revel in the moment that we are in, and look forward to what the future has in store, while we recall the greatness of what once was.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.
And we thought we’d seen surprising riding.
To this point in my life, today’s stage 18 is the single most thrilling single stage of what has already been the single most surprising and dramatic Tour de France in memory.
Lest anyone have harbored any doubts that this was the most exciting and unpredictable Tour de France in a generation, today served as the incontrovertible evidence that we haven’t seen a Tour this wide-open since most of the audience started school. To quantify the number of variables still in play that could determine the final podium of the Tour de France hardly seems possible. I’ll put it in perspective this way: Were this a Hollywood script, the Schleck brothers would be condensed into a single character and Basso and Cunego would have been written out of the storyline in the Pyrenees, along with Contador. Voeckler, Evans and just one Schleck is about the maximum that the average Hollywood script doctor will accept. Tinseltown prefers its conflicts binary, just like football.
Those many storylines are what make stage 18 superior to Greg LeMond’s victory in the final time trial of the ’89 Tour de France (or any other stage of that year’s Tour), Floyd Landis’ reversal-of-fortune ride to Morzine, dare I say, even Lance Armstrong’s 2003 win atop Luz Ardiden on a broken bike.
Armstrong went into that stage with only 15 seconds on Jan Ullrich and 18 seconds on Alexandre Vinokourov. However, The Euskaltel duo of Haimar Zubeldia and Iban Mayo were more than four minutes back and guaranteed to lose boatloads of time in the final time trial, so everyone watching knew there were only three guys who could win the Tour.
Going into today’s stage less than four minutes separated the top eight on GC. By this point in the race, we don’t ordinarily have so many riders seemingly in contention.
Here was the GC this morning before the start:
|Thomas Voeckler (Fra) Team Europcar||
|Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC Racing Team||
|Fränk Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek||
|Andy Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek||
|Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi||
|Alberto Contador (Spa) Saxo Bank Sungard||
|Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre – ISD||
|Ivan Basso (Ita) Liquigas-Cannondale||
|Tom Danielson (USA) Team Garmin-Cervelo||
|Rigoberto Uran (Col) Sky Procycling||
Of the top eight, only Cunego and Basso really had ceased to be spoken of with the reverent tones reserved for potential victors. Each of the top six were a storyline unto themselves. Voeckler was defying the odds. Evans was riding like a potential winner. Fränk Schleck was the one of Leopard-Trek’s one-two punch. Brother Andy was the whiny but gifted climber who made the threat of his brother so dangerous. Sammy Sanchez was strong, courageous, unpredictable and … willing to work for Contador. And Contador, though he seemed not to be his usual self, was still too strong to be disregarded.
The younger Schleck’s attack may have worked for one simple reason: Contador didn’t have the legs to respond. Had he been stronger, it seems likely he wouldn’t have allowed last year’s bridesmaid to ride up the road, so strong is the rivalry between the two. Following his terrible descending in the rain on stage 15, Schleck did a fair drop down the Col d’Izoard on his way to catching teammate Maxime Monfort; that alone made his attack redemptive.
For years, the GC race at the Tour has been derided because the players wait for the final climb and then attack with everything they have. At last, with Schleck’s attack, we saw an act of courage, where in his own words he was “all in.” Schleck even admitted that the ride could have gone either way
We’ve entered an era where the afterburner attacks must be used rarely and late in the stage, if at all. The question of what we’re left with as options was answered less by Schleck than the old fox, Francesco Moser, who we are told spent some time with the brothers last night. Though Moser never triumphed at the Tour, he knows a thing or two about wily victories.
Can we give Moser some sort of prize for helping to animate the race? In truth, he did little more than remind the Schlecks of how Grand Tours were won during the age of Merckx. Tonight, all the contenders will go to bed seeing this race with new eyes.
It took guts and determination for Evans to tow the shrinking peloton the way he did. It’s an inglorious path to victory, but he has proven he won’t go surrender to anyone. And for those who wonder why he allowed Andy to ride up the road, when he was clearly such a threat, it was the smartest thing he could do with brother Fränk sitting on his wheel. A counterattack by Fränk could have destroyed Evans’ ambitions, which are only currently wounded.
Both Voeckler and Contador have conceded defeat, the latter just this afternoon, the former every day since he donned the jersey. What’s comical here is how we have every reason to believe Contador and zero reason to believe Voeckler. Never in the Tour de France has a rider spoken more derisively of his chances while riding with such determined ferocity. He’s not giving up and the only thing coming out of his mouth that we can trust is carbon dioxide.
Perhaps the most mysterious ride of the day was delivered by Voeckler’s teammate, Pierre Rolland. As the one teammate left in the lead group on the Galibier, he would have been an obvious choice to help Evans with pace making. Based on his one trip to the front, it seemed that he didn’t have the horsepower to help much, but I suspect there was an additional force at work. Should an additional attack have come (that one didn’t says a lot about how infernal Evans’ pace was), Rolland was there to help pace Voeckler back to the leaders. He was the proverbial ace up the sleeve, as proven by the fact that he finished sixth on the stage.
Only 1:12 separates four riders with a classic Alpine stage to go. Unfortunately for Thomas Voeckler, even if he doesn’t lose a second to either Schleck on l’Alpe d’Huez, he is likely to lose at least a minute to Andy in the time trial. Last year Voeckler—with no pride or classification on the line—gave up almost three minutes to Schleck in the final, 52km, ITT. Even if he rides out of his skin on this 41km test, preserving his lead seems unlikely.
That’s a shame. A spot on the podium is an inadequate reward for Voeckler’s revelatory ride, his tenacity, his poker, his leap of faith in himself.
But the real man of the day is Andy Schleck, who presented himself to us today as a man of real courage, a man of daring. Of course, Schleck’s daring is minor when compared to what Contador attempted. If Alberto-freakin’-Contador can’t pull off the Giro-Tour double at the age of 28, with six consecutive Grand Tour wins under his belt, then I say we are unlikely to see it accomplished again. Armstrong knew not to attempt such a sweep. Will this chasten Contador from trying again? And what does this spell for his relationship with Riis?
With three days to go, only one thing seems certain: Whoever stands atop the podium in Paris will have earned our respect on their way to a deserved win.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
The end of the season is well and truly here with tomorrow’s Tour of Lombardy. As the fifth and final Monument of the season, this is a PRO’s last real chance to score a win of note and either capitalize on a great season or hope to rescue a lousy one.
Unlike Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, the winner of Lombardy, the race of the falling leaves, is often a man of the Grand Tours, but not in the way you think. It’s true that the roll of winners included Fausto Coppi, Felice Gimondi, Eddy Merckx, Francesco Moser, Bernard Hinault, Sean Kelly and Tony Rominger, but the majority of winners have been riders who aspired to do well at the Grand Tours, but rarely put together the form for a win. What more of them have in common is a win at Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
Indeed, in the last 20 years, only two riders have put together a Grand Tour win and success at Lombardy in the same year. Three-time winner Damiano Cunego did it back in 2004 when he won the Giro d’Italia, and sustained his form all the way from May to October. Prior to that Tony Rominger did it in ’92 following his win in the Vuelta a Espana when it was still held in April.
And while it may seem that a rider should be able to capitalize on great form from World’s, so far, only Paolo Bettini has been able to cross the finish line at Lombardy in the arc-en-ciel.
Clearly, Lombardy is not a race for Thor Hushovd, but Cadel Evans seems to be both hungry and going well. However, following his win in the Tour of the Piedmont, Philippe Gilbert seems to be on track to repeat in Lombardy. Clearly, Matti Breschel and Filippo Pozzato will have something to say about who wins.
I say Gilbert will be too heavily marked to win. I’m going with Evans.
What say you?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
The ongoing parade of new bike and gear reviews have, at times, had the ability to overwhelm the reviews written on those products we ought to remember. I began thinking about the cycling experiences that profoundly changed my perception of bicycles, shaping what I believed a bicycle could be, and the experiences one could enjoy on one.
I’ve assembled a series of vignettes of different experiences and recounted the bike I was riding at the time. Many of these moments have in common the fact that I was descending, but that isn’t the story for each of these experiences, which is why this is more than a compendium of going downhill.
1. Test ride, Miele Team
I bought a used Miele Team based on a single test ride. I wore Teva sandles and my mechanic’s apron, but by the time I made the second right turn on my brief (five minutes—tops) test ride, my brain was screaming ‘holy cow.’ Relative to the experiences I’d had on road bikes up to that time this was more lively and electric. It was as if I’d spent a lifetime eating tree bark and had just been introduced to M&Ms.
It’s still hard to say exactly what was so special about the bike, but I can share the following details. The frame was handbuilt by Miele’s expat builder, Giuseppe Ferrara (Miele was a Canadian company). It was equipped with Campy Super Record and that was my first ride on Super Record. The wheels were tubulars and though I was familiar with the ride of tuburlars, the wheels were lightweight and easy to accelerate. The bike was part of a limited run produced in 1984 identical to the bikes made for the Canadian National Team that competed at the ’84 Olympics in Los Angeles. Steve Bauer would go on to win a Silver Medal on just such a bike.
2. Mont Ventoux, Seven Cycles Axiom
In 2001, after riding the Seven for some four years, that I had an experience that was nearly religious. I was descending the north side of Mont Ventoux toward the town of Malaucene. There’s a long—5k—section of road that features only the slightest of bends and averages more than eight percent. During that drop, my speed never dropped below 51 mph. I know that you can go faster on a bike, that many people have gone a good deal faster on a bike. What I found remarkable on this ride was how calm the bike remained at this speed. Because I was at such a high speed for such a long time, I had time to think about the lethality of any screw-up I might commit, about how relaxed the bike was—specifically how the front end wasn’t getting loose—and how the bike’s relaxed demeanor allowed me to stay loose and even enjoy an existential meditation about cycling at armor piercing speeds.
As I began entering the sharper turns, switchbacks and even steeper drops, I was able to stay focused and enjoy the ride. It was a thrilling descent I would love to have repeated the moment I reached bottom.
3. Sierra, Moser Leader AX
Early every spring there is a road race in the western Sierra called the Pine Flat Road Race. In 1998 conditions were cold and wet. Cold to the tune of not quite 50 degrees at the start and wet on the order of light rain that became driving within the hour. That day I made the mistake of wearing knee warmers rather than using embrocation and the knee warmers soaked up enough water that they tried to scoot down my leg. The leg grippers ended up chafing my skin so badly I was raw to the point of bleeding at the end of the race. The howls from the shower caused my roommate to ask if I was okay.
Late in the race is a significant climb followed by a bombs-away descent. The bike I brought to race was the Moser Leader AX I was reviewing. It had an insanely low bottom bracket—26.2mm—and was built from a steep tube set that was as stiff as Al Gore. I made it over the top of the climb a few minutes off the leaders and with three riders hot on the chase. I picked off two riders on the descent which I conducted with no brakes in driving rain. I couldn’t see anyone chasing me by the time I reached the bottom.
4. Los Angeles, Merlin Extralight ‘Cross
I spent one season riding a Merlin Extralight ‘Cross bike in the Urban Cyclocross series. The tubing was not particularly large in diameter and the wall thickness was miniscule. There were times when riding the bike felt a bit like I was pedaling a hammock.
What I came to realize was that it was possible to become accustomed to riding an especially flexible frame without the experience being alarming. You simply get used to it. I’m sure Sean Kelly could share a thing or two about this experience. For all that its handling wasn’t, pedaling in the saddle over rough ground was noticeably less jarring than on the steel bike I’d been riding.
5. Vercors, Eddy Merckx Alu Road
The Eddy Merckx Alu Road is far from my favorite bike. Out of the saddle, hands on the hoods, the bike was great fun. On rough roads, I got rattled like I was a maraca in the hands of Carlos Santana’s percussionist. It was despite this quality that I learned an important lesson: Trust the bike.
I was on an Erickson Cycle Tours trip through the Alps. We were on the southernmost portion of the trip, riding through a mountainous area that wasn’t technically the Alps. Just south of Grenoble is an area called the Vercors. Several thousand feet above Grenoble is the town of Villard de Lans, which has hosted the starts and finishes of several Tour de France stages. I was engaged in chasing James, a former Cat. 1 racer, and Stella, a Masters’ World Record Holder in speed skiing. She had managed to control a set of skis at better than 145 mph.
They would sprint down descents, accelerating toward switchbacks long after I thought braking was the reasonable choice. Unlike Formula 1, where they tell you not to let the driver ahead of you drive your car, I didn’t brake until I saw either Stella or James get closer to me. Very often I was braking after the braking bumps had begun. The sensation of braking so late was adrenal and I would arrive at the bottom of descents close on their wheels and with my heart rate knocking on my threshold. To this day I’m not sure I’ve descended with as much abandon.
6. Pyrenees, Serotta Ottrott
Reader lobbying encouraged Serotta to loan me an Ottrott for a review at Asphalt. I quickly grew to love the bike and valued its calm demeanor on twisty descents in Malibu and Palos Verdes. I attributed its character to a few important details. First, the bottom bracket was the lowest of any bike I’d ever ridden, some 26.0cm. The wheelbase was on the longish side relative to most bikes that size and then there was the fork. The Serotta F1 fork may not have been light and may have used intermediate modulus carbon fiber by the pound, but they managed to build a fork that felt so smooth you’d swear it featured suspension. My one and only criticism of that bike was its weight. My 58.5cm top tube frame weighed 3 lbs., 6 oz. By comparison, my all-ti Seven Cycles Axiom was built six years earlier and weighed 3 oz. less. If this bike had been even the slightest nick under 3 lbs., I would have called it the greatest frame of all time.
I called the folks at Serotta to see if they’d allow me to take it with me on a trip to the Pyrenees; they agreed. On descents that undulated, heaved, bumped and knocked, the Ottrot performed like a Swiss banker—with calm, unperturbed assurance. That’s not to say I didn’t encounter some descents that made me nervous. The west side of the Col de Marie Blanque made me wonder how bantamweight Spanish climbers on the ONCE team made it down that descent on aluminum Giants. I just couldn’t fathom how they managed, not without the benefit of daily training on a mechanical bull.
The Ottrott confirmed to me beyond doubt that bikes with lower bottom brackets perform better on descents. That’s not to say you can’t get downhill on a bike with a high-ish bottom bracket, such as that of the 27.2cm-high Specialized Tarmac, but if you want a bike that is as Braman bull relaxed and Olympic gymnast nimble, a bike with a low bottom bracket will give you what you seek. And so far as I know, Serotta is the only builder doing anything approximating production work with a bottom bracket that low.
It’s an interesting grab-bag of bikes. Some are favorites, some not, but each was memorable for one reason or another. I think most bikes give us teachable moments; it’s up to us to pay attention.
Anyone who’s married or has been in a serious, long term relationship knows that there are ups, and there are downs. Sometimes you’re in love, and sometimes you’re not. In successful relationships, the good times more than make up for the not-so-good. The highs are always higher than the lows are low.
And so it is with me and my bike.
During the spring, when the days are growing longer and arm warmers give way to short sleeves, we are in love, and we do what any couple in love does, we pine for one another. We struggle and strain and juggle our schedules to try to find more time to spend in one another’s company. Inspired by the cobbled classics and other of the pro peleton’s one day flings, I find myself dashing down the basement steps in the morning, pulling my beautiful, two-wheeled transport from the wall and whooshing out the door to introduce rubber to road. As we whiz along together I envision myself bumping over the pavé of the Flandrian countryside. I am Francesco Moser on his way to an office job. You can tell, because it says so on my down tube.
Then spring turns to sweaty summer. We enjoy one another’s company, but the passion of the spring cools in the escalating temperatures. I’m caught up in my work and in watching Grand Tours play themselves out, slowly, on my television. We are together everyday. We are on each other’s minds, but we have settled into a steady companionship. The miles pass comfortingly beneath our wheels.
Then one morning the fall falls, that subtle, breezy coolness that begins to pluck leaves from unsuspecting trees. There is a new wind at our backs. The pro season goes all autumnal. Everyone is scrambling for results. The smell of embrocation follows me into the kitchen at work, where I stand, steam rising from my shoulders, to pile coffee on top of endorphins in an intoxicating brew. Love is rekindled. The riding is effortless. We’re fast for the hell of it, because it feels good.
The Vuelta reminds us that time is passing. The Worlds reinforce the message. Paris – Tours. Lombardia. Cyclocross. And it’s over.
Now it’s cold. Rainy. December is on us. I love my bike, but the fire is burning low. I’ve ridden thousands of miles to this point, only to arrive at winter’s doorstep, gaping into the maw of a windy, snowy, frigid season.
How to maintain inspiration? How to keep the fire burning? In years past, I’ve sustained myself on the ego aggrandizing feeling of being a hard man. My bike and I, we brave the punishing weather of this Northeastern burg. We are tough. Robots, after all, don’t get cold. Thus are nicknames made, and a shocking need to live up to such a name drives me out into the wind more often than you would think.
More motivation is derived from frequent visits to YouTube to gee up the morale with scenes of Sean Kelly’s gutsy triumphs, the sprinting exploits of Steve Bauer, the bone-jarring heroics of the aforementioned Moser. This sort of thing almost always rallies my flagging energies, but as I’ve seen just about every bit of digitized racing in the YouTube vault, I am rapidly approaching the point of diminishing returns.
Faith becomes important, faith that, if I continue to push the pedals, we’ll be able to continue on together, faith that winter will eventually give way to spring and that our love will return if only we keep on. The indoor trainer does not help. The rollers do not help. They’re phone calls, when a visit was what was needed.
I honestly don’t know what sustains my marriage. My wife and I fall in and out of love. The periodicity of the thing is unpredictable. We’ll be together 18 years in the spring. Communication is important. Everyone says that, but that too is a sort of alchemical enterprise, Rumpelstiltskin spinning the straw of the mundane into the gold of persistence.
The bike and I are on a similar trajectory. Will this be the winter that breaks us up? Will the ice freeze thick on the streets and force us apart? Will that enforced absence cause our hearts to grow fonder, or will we lose the will to flog each other over hill and dale for another year? Don’t know. Hard to say.
I wonder what you and your bike will be doing this winter.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International