The term he used was “expectation differential.” I was speaking with a custom bike builder about how people react to his bikes, TIG-welded, steel creations, beautifully painted, and he said that the biggest shock for most people was how well a steel bike could ride. He said there was a huge “expectation differential” between what they think steel is like, and what it is actually like here in the 21st century.
To be clear, expectation differential is the difference between how you expect something to be and how it actually is.
Most folks last rode steel in the ’80s. They’ve been riding aluminum and carbon (sometimes Ti), and now they expect today’s steel to be heavy and clunky. Then they get on a modern steel bike and they can’t believe how well it rides. It’s not that they can’t have their socks knocked off by a new carbon fiber bike. It’s that they expect to have their socks knocked off. The differential is smaller.
Another example from my own experience is the modern suspension fork. I am a very occasional, if enthusiastic, mountain biker, so I went something like a decade (it was more actually) without updating my trail bike. When finally I did it, it was really to get to a different wheel size, rather than feeling I was going to get great benefit from a new bike.
I was wrong. Suspension forks have come a long way. First time out on my new bike, my mind was veritably blown as I floated over rock and root. I was faster, more confident, and finished the ride feeling less beaten. Huge expectation differential.
This week’s Group Ride asks, what cycling product or experience has provided you the greatest expectation differential? Where were you coming from, and where did you get to? Was it a bike? A shoe? A tire lever?
When you just stand there in the basement or garage admiring your bike as it hangs clean and tuned in the stand.
When you hammer over the top and drop down the cassette and hit the front side of the next climb and crest that rise without slowing.
When you’ve got all the motivation in the world, but injuries keep you from doing anything with it.
When you’re finally so wet that you can’t be more wet, so you settle in and just ride, even though the sky has fallen and everybody else is running for cover.
When you find yourself right on top of the gear, zipping along, perfect tension in the pedals and the road smooth under your tires.
When your favorite fades in the last kilometer, just pops and shoots backwards, and the whole damn race is lost, and you really believed he/she could do it, and now you have to think about the race differently and pray for a miracle, though we’ve come to suspect miracles…sadly.
When you lay out your clothes the night before, and fill your bottles, and adjust the pressure in your tires, and point your front wheel at the door and go to bed, sure you’ve forgotten something.
When you’re unconsciously good and you keep pulling inadvertently off the front and then sitting up to wait for your friends, and they all seem to be working hard and you can’t make it compute, but there it is, form.
When you feel fast and congratulate yourself for being so fit, and then it suddenly dawns on you that you have a stiff tailwind.
When you know you’ve waited too long to eat, and your head starts to feel thick and your legs go wooden, and you cram everything you’ve got in your jersey pocket into your mouth and empty your bottles, but you know it won’t help, and you just have to limp home and try to be smarter the next time.
When you descend the stairs all wobbly-legged and smile knowing you went hard.
This week’s Group Ride just asks the simple question: When?
I love sports. If you give me a choice between watching a sitcom on TV and watching a sporting event, I will choose the sport every time. If you ask me to choose between going to a play or going to a race, I will choose the race. I have a degree in philosophy, and I was reared on public radio, opera and frequent trips to the museum, but really, I’m a fan.
So the last two pro cycling seasons have been strange. As riders both past and present got more transparent (or were made more transparent), it became harder and harder to tell who to root for.
Let me back up a moment. Let me outline some of my basic ideas about sport. First, while I love the game or the race, my enjoyment, my true passion, depends on having an interest in the outcome. Pro wrestling has understood this from the beginning. As much as we love the physical exploit, the subtext of good guys vs. bad guys is an equally compelling part of the entertainment. Even if we are only watching one rider hurling him or herself against a steep European col, we want to know that rider is pure of effort and will.
As I sit on a Saturday afternoon to watch football (soccer) with my sons, they will invariably ask who we are rooting for. They want to know who the good guys are. This comes before understanding the nuance of tactic and skill for them, and I believe it is elemental to the enjoyment of sport, even when your rooting interest is only nominal, even if you are not fully invested, a card carrying member of some metaphorical tribe.
So part of the problem for me, in continuing to follow pro cycling, is that I don’t know who the good guys are anymore. I think I know, but whatever willful ignorance I had cultivated has long since fermented, leaving only a surfeit of skepticism and a dull hangover.
But as I said, I love sport.
And it’s true, at least for me, that watching the pros inspires me. Motivation can be hard to maintain on the 24/7/365 plan. I need to draw on as many sources as I possibly can.
So I plan to renew my effort to follow the races in 2014, to read deeply about the good sensations of the Italians and the stoic perseverance of the Belgians, the tragic second-bestness of the French and the imperious, even hubristic temerity of the Spanish. We’ll leave aside the British for now. I’m half-British myself, and it gets complicated, so much easier to hate family than friend.
This week’s Group Ride asks the question, who to root for? Who to support? Who are the good guys/gals with legitimate chances to win races? Are you ready to turn this corner with me? Or will you sit out another season, content to watch Breaking Bad reruns or sit silently in the museum courtyard? Is your own riding enough now? Was it ever not?
Image: AFP/AFP/Getty Images
I try not to write about weather too much, even though, as a cyclist, I am fairly obsessed with what is happening outside. I monitor a variety of meteorological services more than once a day to stay up to the minute, to glean every possible detail before I step out the door.
Is it a problem? I don’t know. I think I could quit if I really wanted to.
And in bringing up winter (again), I am only too aware that many of our regular readers are in Australia, not to mention the other cycling nations who cling steadfastly to the underside of the planet. So bear with me.
Yesterday, the local department of public works carted 15 bags of leaves away from my house. This event marks, in my mind, the true beginning of winter. With all the leaves down, there is nothing left but for the snow to fly. Of course, in true New England fashion we marked the passing of the leaves with a bracing round of icy rain showers that made my regular Friday morning ride into something of a survival event.
I find myself wondering when the winter is going to winter on us. I know my friends in Minnesota are no longer wondering. It’s already wintering there.
This week’s Group Ride asks a few weather-related questions. First, how heavy a winter is coming our way? And who do you believe when they tell you what it will be like? Second, how deep into it will you ride? What are your criteria for staying off the bike? If you ride straight through, what is your key to surviving the worst days? For our friends in the Southern Hemisphere, you will be coming into summer now. How did you do this past cold season?
I don’t know why I woke up. Maybe one of the kids called out in his sleep. Maybe my wife shifted in the bed. It was raining. That could have been it.
The alarm was set for 5:30, the coffee maker locked and loaded, and my kit laid out on the dining room table. I had mounted lights before turning in for the evening, affixed a fender.
The rain was forecast, those little drizzle icons slotted into the hours 5 through 7, but we were resolved to ride anyway. With the temperature hovering around 60F a little rain wasn’t going to kill us. And sleeping in…well that just might.
As it turned out, the real precipitation had long since fallen when we rolled out. The roads were all puddle and shine, but the sun, as it rose, burned off the low-lying fog and dried the asphalt in short order. It turned into a gorgeous morning.
I commented on just how perfect it was to my riding companion, and he smiled and said yes, and that it was almost disappointing how much better it turned out than anticipated. We’d have to put off feeling tough for another day.
This time of year (Fall in New England), consistency and rhythm and that pure, pig-headed, Yankee perseverance become the valuable currency of winter riding. Nary a flake has fallen. The wind hasn’t yet drawn its daggers, but if you’re not riding now, you’re probably not riding later.
Just like any Grand Tour, if you miss the transition, you don’t ride the next stage.
So I wake up in the night, hear rain and instead of mentally cancelling a planned ride, I lay my head down and sleep lightly, anticipating the alarm. It’s only October, but it might as well be January 1st. It’s time to locate warmers of every shape and application, to begin devising layering strategies, and above all, to keep riding.
This week’s Group Ride asks, how do you manage the fall/winter transition? Do you pack it in or gear up? How do you maintain motivation as the going gets tough? Can you take time off and get back on when the weather is inclement?
When the trail you’re riding ends in the ocean, literally in the ocean, you have done something right, especially if that trail also ribbons left along a cliff that hugs the shoreline. Clumps of goldenrod and sea grass hem you in. An increasingly rare Monarch butterfly dances across your path.
Block Island is part of a coastal archipelago. It sits 13 miles off the south coast of Rhode Island, and almost the same distance from Montauk Point on Long Island. 40% of it is conservation land. One main road rings the interior, linking houses to the sole, small town, New Shoreham, and, as it turns out, a small spider’s web of jeep track and sandy trails reaches even further, out to the perimeter and into the ocean.
The dudes I was there with all surf and fish. I am the only cyclist, so I was fortunate to escape for much of a Saturday to explore on my own. I had been to the island once before, but contented myself then with a soft spin of the main loop, pretty but unremarkable. This time, resolved to see more of what was there, I plotted a route on a crude map, only to have the ten minutes invested there deliver me to one of the most beautiful twisting, winding solo rides I’ve done in a long time.
Honestly, it’s hard to weigh the awesomeness of a ride like this. How does it compare to D2R2, for example? Was it more beautiful? No, just different. Did I have more fun? No, but it was a solo ride. It was more about me and less about connecting with friends. Honestly, there were a few times on this ride, where I caught myself laughing out loud at how good the route was, or because a pair of pheasants scurried across the way.
What is clear is that I am undeservedly lucky to get to ride when and where I do. I will bemoan how busy I am, how much time I spend sitting in ice rinks watching youth hockey, how most of my substantive riding begins in the pre-dawn, but that is all just the bullshit ranting of a guy with no clue he’s won life’s lottery.
When I got back to the house, perched there on the edge of the salt marsh, to shower and begin cramming my face with food, I had a peace of mind and a strong sense of having learned a great secret, the feelings we’re all hunting out there on the road and/or trail. Then I took a nap. Yeah. It was like that.
This week’s Group Ride asks the question, what has been your most awesome ride this year? And what made it that way? Was it the location? The company? Or some alchemical combination thereof? Maybe you had some sort of great form and won a race? Or maybe, like me, you discovered a beautiful place that you might have known was there, but still couldn’t believe once you’d arrived.
I imagine it drives engineers nuts. They spend all their hours trying to understand how the interaction of material and shape can produce an objectively better ride, doing hard stuff like math and testing, and then a designer comes along and slaps an eye-popper of a paint scheme on a competitor’s bike and suddenly they’re getting outsold 2-to-1. For all our talk about what makes one bike better than another, we all want to look good.
In the ’80s that meant splatter schemes and sparkle, neons and contrast. These days everything is either matte black or some permutation of the classic black/white/red. Bicycle aesthetics work in these small spirals, everyone seeming to riff on one color-way or one basic pattern, until some brave bastard dares to do something both different and repeatable.
I like geometrical shapes. I don’t care for splatter. Diagonals bother me. The Pegoretti above floats my boat. I don’t necessarily want to grab your attention with my bike, but if you do happen to look, I want my bike to be both sharp and unusual. I don’t want it to look like yours, but I don’t want it to look like a Ferrari Testarossa either.
Coming up with the next big thing is tough. I’ve been involved in projects like picking a season’s new colors. What you discover quickly is that, to do it right, you can borrow from no one. You have push out into the new and hope your idea of new somehow resonates with the masses.
It is possible that features and benefits are important, that engineering is, for some people, the thing that inspires their want, but I have been told for years that people buy things emotionally rather than rationally. And, my experience suggests that nothing inspires that emotional buy-in quite like a slick paint job or an elegantly crafted line. It is hard to feel compelling emotions about a bike’s stiffness, not impossible, but hard. Of course, in the best examples, engineering and design converge, but these are rare and precious, and usually very expensive.
This week’s Group Ride asks, how important are looks to you? Have you ever convinced yourself you wanted a bike based on a rational analysis of your needs, only to be swayed by a pretty paint job on another ride? What do you think looks good? How much will you pay for it? And have you ever bought a great ugly bike, only to watch it sit in the garage, because you just didn’t feel inspired to ride it?
As a kid, I could never quite wrap my head around a visit to the toy store. On the one hand, everything I could ever want was there. On the other, I knew I couldn’t have it all, and so an ontological crisis ensued any time my parents asked me what ONE thing I’d like to take home with me.
Interbike is like that.
Even my jaded adult self has trouble quelling the rip tides of gear lust that drag me down every aisle of the show until I’m standing in front of some booth at the outer reaches of the convention center staring at glittery, fluttery grips for kids’ bikes. There, in that comical space, I can take a breath and do some not-wanting.
Last year, Padraig and I walked the floor together, shaking hands with friends old and new and trying not to let on how badly we wanted at least four of the things in their booths. I will confess now that the things that grabbed me last year were, in no particular order, Giro’s Empire shoes, Pegoretti‘s paint jobs, and the Chrome backpacks they were customizing on-site. This is the short list, the stuff I wanted to grab and make a break for the exit with.
My natural aversion to Las Vegas, or more specifically the Vegas strip, where America spills its banks so ostentatiously, does little to dampen my interest in the latest and greatest cycling finery. It is only fortunate that most of what’s on display is not for sale, and I am, by and large, able to drag my weary bones back out to the airport and doze quietly while some poor soul who didn’t get quite enough, deposits the last of his cash into a slot machine in the departure lounge.
This week’s Group Ride wonders what YOU are most interested in seeing from Interbike. What new products are on your horizon? What should we be looking for, bringing back pictures of, reviewing for the upcoming season? What toy would you pluck from the shelf, if you could only pick one?
The kids started school this week. Backpacks. Lines. Small desks. New teachers and friends. New subjects to daunt and dazzle. They are both, of course, complete geniuses, my boys, masters of all they survey, and I am constantly amazed, both by what they know and also by what they don’t know, which is the inspiration for this week’s Group Ride.
As a card-carrying, check-drawing member of the bike industry, I am, to the average person on the street, an expert in this field. Neighbors come to me to fix small problems or for advice about how to tackle a big ride. I am regularly asked to help with the acquisition of a new bike. Conversations with acquaintances often begin with, “Hey, you’re the bike guy, right?” And I listen and give the best information I can.
And yet, as the years tick by I find that I know both more and less about bicycles and their use. As much as I am adding to my knowledge-base, I am also constantly discarding misinformation, received wisdom, and preconceived notions. I unlearn as much as I learn.
The bike seems to be bottomless. You can’t know it all. Even if you were able to convince yourself that you knew everything there was to know about frame geometry for example, the ride resulting from a given geometry would still be massively affected by materials and construction method. Fork rake, tire width (and volume) and brake style would all intrude on the party. Is there a graduate degree in Cycology? There should be.
As a rider too, I am no great shakes. I am neither very fast, nor very slow. My handling skills are good, but not remarkable. And I have been riding thousands of miles every year for the last twenty or so. I see so much room to be a better bike rider that I almost want to jump out of this chair, shove aside the keyboard and run for the door now.
I read books and magazines. I talk all the time with bike designers, bike builders, and riders of exceptional ability. But I have so much to learn. I’m still a beginner in so many ways.
This week’s Group Ride asks, what is it you can learn about cycling? What can you be better at? What fascinates you about the bike or riding it? At the same time, what did you once believe that you no longer hold true? What have you unlearned?
Image: Matt O’Keefe
Group riding is one of the cornerstones of our sport, two people, two-hundred people, single-file or in a long lumpen mass strung out down the road. I know of many local rides that have been together and going off like clockwork for decades, groups with their own custom jerseys, and others who organize and sponsor organized events for themselves and outsiders alike.
Equally, there are a million ephemeral little groups, folks pooling in parking lots, shaking hands perfunctorily before rolling out, temporary alliances that pass Saturdays and centuries together.
All of these rides operate under their own guidelines, some rigid, some quite loose, and I find it eternally interesting which rules folks think are universal, often things they’ve brought from another group or were taught when they first started out.
I will confess that I don’t like to ride in groups larger than five. That seems to be the tipping point for human organization, though I am sure your results vary. None of the groups I ride with are so regular or so long-established that order has had time to impose itself on a larger scale.
Some of the things that will push me away from a group ride include: guys “soloing” off the front to prove they’re stronger when the tacit purpose of the ride is to log some miles, talk some shit and generally escape responsibilities; big messy groups that block traffic, put people in danger and exhibit a general lack of concern about same; groups who drop weaker riders on non-training efforts.
I’m a pretty easy going guy, willing to go along and get along with almost any bunch of riders at least once. I have this idea that, once you show up to a group, you stay with that group unless there is an agreement to split up that makes sense for the safety and goals of all involved. There is a social contract involved. Isn’t there?
I have a tendency, as do most, to ride with the same people over and over again, but I also feel inclined to engage new routes and new experiences, so I end up saying yes to ride invites as much as I can. It’s a good way to keep it fresh and meet like-minded souls, even if you only ever roll with them the one time.
This week’s Group Ride asks about your group rides. Are they big? Are they small? Are there a lot of rules or only a few? What should the universal rules be? What do you like about the groups you ride with and what sets your teeth on edge?
Image: Matt O’Keefe