It’s 9pm on a Thursday night, and I’m shopping for a set of disc wheels. There’s not a bike shop open in the metro-Boston area, but that doesn’t matter anymore because any wheel maker worth their salt has a website that will tell me everything I need to know about each of their products including the price. I can either buy direct from the builder, or I can buy from any one of dozens of online distributors. If I was desperate for human interaction, as an absolute last resort, like if the zombie apocalypse happened and I was riding around looking for human survivors (and disc wheels) I could even wait for a bike shop to open, walk in and buy wheels there, assuming money was still even a thing.
OK. OK. OK. Simmer down.
It’s not the zombie apocalypse, and I actually love bike shops. I have a ton of friends who own and operate them, and I can’t go by one without wanting to go in, if only to hide from a marauding zombie horde. Despite all that, it seems very fashionable to hate on the LBS. Bike shop employees are surly and rude. They never have the part you need, and anyway you can get whatever you want cheaper on line, and cheaper is better. Always.
Everybody knows that bike shop employees are surly and rude because they’re young, iconoclastic or underpaid, sometimes all three. And we want them to be that way, because that’s what gives cycling its edge…even if it makes buying a WiFli derailleur and a handful of Gu’s a little more painful.
Also, they don’t have the part you need because of the proliferation of parts and their haphazard distribution. The cost of a functional shop inventory has gone through the roof over the last decade, and the manufacturers have all shifted a large part of the risk burden for their own sales forecasting onto the shops with large minimum orders and the lure of increased margin.
And the reason you can get it cheaper online is because simultaneously the manufacturers don’t manage their distributors well enough, with parts finding their way to giant, international etailers only too happy to ship into domestic markets otherwise protected by dealer agreements. Oh, and etailers don’t have to pay retail rents.
Within the industry there is a palpable and growing tension between e-tailers and their bricks-and-mortar competitors. How many times have I heard the story about the customer who spent two hours in the shop going over a parts spec for a new bike, only to go home and buy it all online. How many times have I heard about riders eager to show up for shop-sponsored rides, but unwilling to so much as buy lubes and tubes from their hosts?
A lot. A lot of times.
This week’s Group Ride asks, do you shop at your LBS or online, or some combination thereof? And if you don’t do business locally, why not? Do you worry about the disappearance of the LBS? Or the big-boxing of cycling retail? Or do you consider yourself an expert, beyond the level of the snarky sales clerk, fully independent and only in need of product to sustain your cycling lifestyle?
Faulkner said, “I never know what I think about something until I read what I’ve written on it,” which is another way of saying that writing is less about a pen scratching against a piece of paper or fingers dancing on a keyboard than it is about thinking. The process of putting into print the ideas in your head forces you to confront and evaluate them in a concrete way that can often lead to quite surprising changes of view.
Cycling, I think it can be argued, is another metier that facilitates deep thought and truth seeking. A long solo ride can be meditative. It can help you strip away your fears and insecurities. It can help you see what’s happening in your life for what it really is.
Padraig and I have been working on his new book, and in it, this idea comes up again and again, that the bike brings clarity, that many of us make our life’s biggest decisions while in the saddle. To get married or not. To have children or not. To go back to school or break up with our boy/girlfriend. To quit our job or ride cross country.
I have yet to tell my wife, when she asks if I think we should adopt a baby elephant, “I don’t know. Let me ride on it,” but something like that thought does occur to me. Let me write about it. Let me ride about it. We’ll see.
This week’s Group Ride asks, what is the biggest decision you’ve made on your bike? How did it turn out? Is there a certain place you ride to do your best thinking? Or will anywhere do? Do you need to be alone, or can you get to the same place even in a group? Or with a friend?
Image: Matt O’Keefe
It’s an excuse-making time of year. With apologies to our friends in the southern hemisphere, we are just thawing out of a challenging winter here in New England. At no other time of year is the gulf between my form and the form of my co-riders so evident.
Some of us have persevered, ridden through the snow and slush and ice, and still have our legs under us. Others of us (ahem!), were not so stout and imperious. Some of us still need miles like Europe needs solvent banks. Some of us need to do some sand-bagging.
Now let me be 100% clear. You should not be a sand-bagger. We here at RKP do not condone sand-bagging. What you really ought to do is show up for any ride you can, ride as hard as you can, and keep the excuses to yourself. That’s how you ride a bike.
No matter how many times I’ve told myself to shut my mouth and take what I have coming to me, for some reason, when I’m out of shape, I am constitutionally incapable of not sand-bagging, not uttering some pathetic non-excuse excuse before I roll out with a friend or group.
I will say, “Go easy on me. I didn’t sleep last night,” or “Don’t expect much, I played soccer last week (last year) and did something to one of my hips,” or “I think one of my rims is rubbing.” Of course, the last think I would want my companions to think was that I was actually just slow, or worse, lazy.
This week’s Group Ride is looking for your best excuses, your best sand-bagging. I am not saying that I want to put all your best ideas to use (I do), but just that I want to find like-minded souls, the folks who haven’t been keeping after it, to commiserate with, if not to ride with, a laughing group, if you will.
Charles Dube’s driveway. A stout piece of plywood and a stack of cinder blocks. We had jumped our bikes at nearly every house in the neighborhood, but his was the longest driveway and the best paved. We pooled at the back, next to his mother’s parked car and waited our turn to hurtle ourselves off the teetering ramp. The last jumper would linger by the takeoff to mark the distance.
As the day progressed we got bolder and began jumping over one another’s prone bodies, the bravery of the jump turning into the bravery of the jumped. It was that fearless time of youth when getting the lift of the front wheel just right seemed easy and power skidding into the gravel at the edge of the road is what you did, because you could. It was all effortless.
Perhaps not coincidentally Charles was the best jumper. A year younger than most of us, he was nonetheless the fastest both on and off the bike, that natural athlete letting us know, even at that age, that we were only average.
These days of jumping our dirt bikes seemed to go on and on. How many hours did we spend there daring each other to do ever more audacious and stupid things? How much blood did we shed from knees and elbows and sometimes heads? None of us had ever even seen a bike helmet.
I recall too sprinting down the sidewalk one day in the pouring rain, my friend Sean and I hustling to get to his house before we were soaked to our skins. And he just failed to lift his front tire to ford a curb and over he went, face first onto the sidewalk, the rain splashing angrily around him and his front teeth broken. I remember the blood streaming down his chin and the look on his mother’s face when we finally got there and the jagged smile he wore for months after.
I have had countless good and bad times on bicycles throughout my life. The intensity of the ones in my childhood seems to have imprinted the bicycle on my psyche, and I wonder if I had been a different kind of kid in a different kind of neighborhood if I’d ever have become the cyclist and person I am today. It’s a thing that is pleasantly impossible to know.
This week’s Group Ride asks what your cycling childhood was like. Did you ride BMX like I did? Were you the best jumper? Or was your path into this life different? What do you remember? And what, from that time, still inspires you now?
Image: Matt O’Keefe
I’m not sure how many times I’ve watched the end of 1992′s Milan-San Remo. Sean Kelly chasing down Moreno Argentin in the closing kilometers, in the rain, is the stuff of legend, and the advent of massively multi-player online networking, i.e. the internet, has increased our access to these sorts of motivational moving pictures in a way that previous decades only promised in half-baked sci-fi films.
The internet is a magical place, where each of us can be a star/hero/goat for +/- 15 minutes if the prevailing winds are right, and we’ve done something sufficiently attention grabbing. Cheap, helmet-mounted cameras are the great equalizer, a technology of the people that takes super-rad video production out of the hands of the professionals and straps it to your head. So what if 99% of this proletarian cinema is vomit-inducingly hard to watch?
My own interest in the larger video genre we might call “action sports” has me regularly disdaining the offerings of network television for the attention deficit stoking media of the high speed interweb. I have watched strangers shred gnarly singletrack, climb boulders in South Africa, France and Australia, and descend the world’s great descents on bikes just like the ones I ride.
As an aside, how did anyone make an action sports video before dubstep came along?
This week’s Group Ride wants to know what YOUR 3 minute ride video looks like. Imagine a friend of yours is recording your exploits, or perhaps that you are motivated (and narcissistic) enough to do the job yourself. Where would you be? What would you be riding? And, what music would accompany your heroic efforts?
Image: Sean Kelly at the 1991 Nissan Classic - John Pierce, Photosport International
At work, we are putting together our marketing plan for the year, and yesterday I sat for an hour with a guy who sells ads for one of the major cycling rags. When you buy advertising, either with a magazine or a website, typically you get a demographic breakdown of the audience they offer access to. Almost invariably the gender breakdown is something north of 90% male. The median age is almost always north of 40. Income is high. Graduate degrees are not at all uncommon.
I see these breakdowns enough that I shouldn’t be surprised by them, but I always am.
Our sport is male-dominated and wealth-driven. Despite a recent uptick in the profiles of some female pros, the industry, as a whole, is still trying to figure out how to attract more women and more young people. The classic “pink it and shrink it” approach to women’s bikes and apparel isn’t working. Whatever urban styling that’s been applied to lower price point bikes isn’t drawing in the youth.
I am told that the median price for a bike purchased last year by subscribers to the major magazines is somewhere between $3200 and $3900 dollars, and that close to 50% of readers will buy a new bike this year, despite having bought their most recent bike in the last three. (Please don’t quote these numbers as hard data. I am only summarizing the information I have received from many outlets to form a composite picture).
The point is that all us upper-middle class and wealthy men buy early and often and dominate the consumption side of the industry. It doesn’t not necessarily stand to reason that these numbers correlate directly to the participation of women and the less affluent, who may simply not read magazines and/or ride used bikes that don’t make it into anyone’s data, but given what I see out on the road, I don’t think they’re far off.
Regardless, this week’s Group Ride asks the question: How do we change our sport to be more inclusive? What are the prejudices built into both pro racing and bike building that turn off those outside the core demographic? Is change and growth even necessary? Given the recent retirement tirade by Nicole Cooke and the disturbing derth of stock bike options for smaller women, the answer seems obvious, but solutions to the problems range from similarly obvious to vanishingly obscure. Your ideas greatly appreciated.
The deleterious effects of Hurricane Sandy notwithstanding, fall is normally my favorite riding season of the year. The cooler temperatures mean I can go farther, faster than I do in the oppressive summer months. I seem to be particularly susceptible to the heat, sweating like a cold coke on a summer dashboard. I dehydrate like astronaut ice cream, like the sand at the edge of the tide line.
Winter is under-rated. The snowy season has given me some of my coolest riding experiences and most challenging circumstances. From the pure joy of a cold, bright morning ride, to testing yourself against driving wind and sleet, I would never call winter my favorite, but, like an old girlfriend, we’ve had some good times together.
Spring, at least where I live, is a pretty blessed time. Exiting the cave of winter, you get that first taste of warmth, the expanding light of lengthening days. Again, you are doing more than the bare minimum. Your cycling pops like a daffodil from the frozen soil.
And let me not completely disparage summer. The salad days run long and give rise to improbable after-work rambles with friends. I struggle with hydration and the challenges of being soaked with sweat for hours on end, but it is all worth it, returning home with road grime pasted to your ankles and your helmet straps white and distended.
This week’s Group Ride asks the simple question: What is your favorite season to ride and why? Our Southern Hemispheric friends are all exiting winter now, not plunging into Autumn. I wonder how they feel about it. I wonder if anyone else suffers the summer quite the way I do.
What a week it’s been. Since USADA released its reasoned decision on the US Postal doping conspiracy, the flood of confessions that followed and the various spin off conflicts and conflagrations, my head has been a mess. My urge is always to find the way forward, to stay positive, but I have not found a good way to wrap my mind about what’s happened to our sport.
Then, of course, Padraig crashed his bike, which put a lot of the stuff on my mind into much better perspective. What a cadre of deluded pro athletes did in hotel rooms and shady medical clinics over the last decade-and-a-half is fascinating and depressing in equal measure, but I am part of something larger than that, something that starts with my closest friends and family and extends out to the larger cycling community. We launched the Beer Face Crash Relief effort to try to help Padraig out with medical expenses, and that just reinforced for me how massively positive cycling and the cycling community are for my life. I stopped thinking about doping and the dopes who doped.
When the idea of raising money first came up, my initial reaction was fear. Padraig and I are close. What if I couldn’t do it? What if I failed? And then, within 24 hours of the first conversation we’d raised every dime we needed. All we did was ask for the price of a beer, and you, our readers, drowned us in it.
This might be the single, biggest surprise of my cycling life, following closely behind being asked to write for RKP in the first place. That was like having my favorite band ask me to be their new guitar player. If you’d ever heard me play guitar, you’d know what a long shot that analogy really represents.
Of course, there have been other great surprises, finding out I could ride 100 miles in a day, finding out I could clear a section of single-track I’d failed to ride 100 times before, meeting people on steep hills and forming instant bonds simply by dint of our shared effort.
If you ride, it will come. That has been my experience.
This week’s Group Ride asks: What have been your biggest (and best) surprises from cycling? What have you learned about the world that you wouldn’t have dared hope was true before? What have been the gifts and how would you have gotten them, if not for the bike?
One of the things about the bicycle that always astounds me is how prone it is to staying upright. I mean, this was the big hurdle when I was a kid on training wheels, believing that a thing balanced on two narrow wheels could stand with nothing more to balance it than forward motion and a small dose of corrective steering.
You should see my friend Mike ghost ride his bike down a hill, through the woods, on a morning trail ride. The damn thing even counter steers itself!
And so, despite the shit storm raging in the pro peloton right now, I know the bikes will roll on. The consequences will be far-ranging and there are surely still shoes to drop, a veritable downpour of shoes I would bet.
But you’ve got to have hope.
I have hope because I have seen Tejay van Garderen ride top pros off his wheel. I have hope because I have read Taylor Phinney’s public denunciations of pill-poppers and caffeine hounds. I have hope because I saw the women’s road race in the Olympics. I have hope because I know the younger generation of riders is pissed off by the mess their elders have left them, and I believe they will use that anger to fuel a new, cleaner cycling.
Pro racing won’t be the same as it has been, and that is a good thing. Many (possibly most) of us have wanted this change to come for a long time. What seemed obvious, maybe even easy in our minds, won’t be.
The change will be hard. Sponsors will be harder to come by. Teams will be harder to fill with riders not tarred by the wide brush of past doping. But there are always young racers raring to go. For once, perhaps, their paths won’t be blocked by athletes willing to cheat to get ahead. You may not know the names of quite so many of next year’s pros, but you will trust them more than you have trusted the pack in more than a decade.
Because the bike will keep rolling. It will just go and go and go, if you let it.
This week’s Group Ride asks, what do you hope to see on the roads of Belgium and France and Spain and Italy next year? Who do you believe in? And what will be the benefits of this darkest time in our sport?
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
As you may have heard, our friend and host Padraig, had a chance meeting with the ground the other day, a meeting that didn’t go so well, except that there happened to be a good plastic surgeon at the ER who put his face back together with some considerable skill. Oh, and of course, there were friends at the crash scene who made sure the ER happened and called the wife and did the things that friends do, which are simultaneously exactly what they’re supposed to do and yet also heroic and amazing.
The last time I was on the ground, I was mountain biking. The great irony is that I ended up sprawled across pavement. The trail left the woods, crossed a road and dove back into the woods. The catch was that the road edge had a slight lip on it that I quite inconveniently got my front wheel sideways to without making the subtle lift that would have made it the non-event it should have been. So there I was instead, laying in the road, windless from landing on my back. I rode on, but it hurt.
The time before that, I was riding a trail and saw a water bottle on the ground. I rolled up to it, leaned down low and plucked it off the ground. It was a brilliant maneuver until I jerked the handlebars trying to get back up straight and then of course I jackknifed the bike and catapulted myself face down into the dirt. No injury, except my pride.
When I heard about Padraig’s crash, I had a moment of visceral empathy. My last two crashes have been fairly innocuous, but I know from a lifetime on the bike what that moment is like. You are rolling along doing fine. There is no reason to expect anything but more of the same, but then you are on the ground. Sometimes it is a long, slow careening. Sometimes it is a sudden violent slam. Either way, there is that crystalline moment where all the important elements of control disappear.
Even before I heard the full story of Padraig’s crash, I knew what had happened, and it hurt me.
This week’s Group Ride asks the question: What was your last meeting with the ground like? Good, bad, indifferent? Did it change you or just make your friends laugh? Do you worry about crashing? Or do you just call it the price of admission? Spare a thought for Padraig as he sips at his smoothie (liquid diet only) and waits for his face to reassemble itself.