“Like riding a bicycle,” they say. This quip is meant for anything that is easy, or any skill that, once acquired, remains embedded in your animal brain for the remainder of your days among the upright. The simplicity of the machine and the elegance of the physical act of riding are touchstones for our human experience.
Once we get off the bike however, things get complicated. As cyclists, we are bombarded with information about products, accessories and services. What is good? What is bad? What might be better? What is a big lie? What are the hidden secrets? Once you have been jumped into the velo-gang, you will ask all yourself all of these questions and be subjected to all the other gang members’ opinions, as long as you’re willing to sit still long enough to listen to them.
Our friends are obviously a big influence. Here is a group of people with whom we identify, who are participating in the same activity and spending their own money to field test an array of products for us. We ought to listen to them.
Then there are magazines and websites, staffed by experts (a subset of the industry that does not include this writer). These people have access to a stunning panoply of bits and bobs. They’ve seen and done it all. We wonder. They know. We ought to read what they’ve written.
There are also the great unwashed hordes (by far my favorite), who, by virtue of internet connectivity and a ready wit, will tell you exactly what you need, why you need it, and why everyone else is wrong. Think of website forums, the lawless Wild West of cyclo-expertise. There amongst the naivete and vitriol you can find real pearls of wisdom, true insight.
If, like me, you are un/fortunate enough (this is subjective) to work in the bike industry, you will also sit cheek-and-jowl with people who are doing the actual work of dragging this great stinking beast of a pastime forward, the folks designing the stuff or marketing the stuff or dealing with all the stuff that breaks. Here too you can find genuine expertise, in addition to cynicism, optimism, sarcasm, sincerity, inspiration and coffee.
This week’s Group Ride asks the question: Who are YOUR influencers? Do they produce reliable information or too much noise? What are the best sources of information? Who really does have your best cycling interests at heart?
When I think of my hardest ever days on the bike, I can’t help but feeling I’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg, even now. I’ve bonked twenty miles from home. I’ve crashed in the rain, in the dark, and still had to haul my bloody corpse home. I’ve been dehydrated and injured, and I’ve just straight up ridden every last ounce of energy out of my body.
And yet, every time have one of these experiences, I look back on it after, and I think, “Well, that could have been much harder, much worse.” And I envision what could have made it that way (usually more distance), and I just wonder what another 20 miles would have felt like in the condition I was in. Could I have handled it? Where would I have quit?
I had one of those days recently, a 70 mile cross ride on one of Spring’s hotter days. I only brought one bottle, and an early crash left me dealing with some unwanted pain later in the ride. You wouldn’t have looked in from the outside and said it was going to be a super hard day, but the combination of hubris (seriously, one bottle?) and stiffening muscles (I’m not as resilient as I used to be) turned it into a suffer-fest.
Ted King, the American on Liquigas-Cannondale, had a similar day last week. Reading about it made me feel much better about my own travails.
It’s one thing to challenge yourself with a big ride. Ask anyone who raced Battenkill, or Paris-Roubaix for that matter. It’s another thing to inadvertently impose those challenges on yourself by failing to anticipate all the things that can go wrong.
Mostly, when I sign up for what will obviously be a hard effort, I do so with an idealized vision of the conditions and how I will perform. Seldom do I project reality with any accuracy, and, in return, reality usually treats me to a hearty dose of humility. Go figure.
This week’s Group Ride asks the question: What was your hardest day on the bike? And why? Weather? Road/trail conditions? Poor planning? Lack of fitness? Tell us your tale.
I’m sure it is a sacrilege to take up any time, this close to Paris-Roubaix, discussing anything other than who will win over the cobbles of Northern France, but sacrilege is kinda my thing, so today we’re going to talk about a conundrum I recently faced while riding my mountain bike with some friends.
The morning was pretty perfect for a trail ride, cool and crisp. I showed up a few minutes early and scared some deer in a meadow near the trail head. All seemed right with the world.
Then the guys showed up, and I realized I must have left my legs at home. I was immediately and for no obvious reason in the red. I’d ridden a fast gravel ride with them a few nights before, and my legs were dead. Sure, I’d failed to spin it out the following day, but I figured I’d had enough time to recover.
I did my best to follow a wheel, but pretty quickly I was off the back (OTB) and just trying to limit the damage, i.e. not lose them in the woods and/or throw up.
I kept it together reasonably well, and pretty quickly the time to head to work came upon us. The guys wanted to do one last loop up a steep climb before heading out. In my head I was thinking, “You’ll never make it up that climb,” and then, “It’s not a tragedy if you bail on the climb,” and then, “It’s so lame if you bail on the climb,” those three thoughts running in series, over and over as we wound our way back toward the foot of the hill.
I should add, at this point, that the climb itself is not that hard. I’ve ridden it a thousand times. Sometimes I’ve even ridden it just to see how fast I could do it. It’s probably 2-3 minutes of hard work, and the reward on the other side is a twisty, fast descent that most would term, “fun.”
It would also be overly dramatic to call this some sort of ontological crisis, but I found myself wondering immediately what you guys would think. What should I have done? Swallowed hard at the bile creeping up the back of my throat and willed myself up the incline? Or made an excuse and ridden off on my merry, shattered way? Never mind what I actually did. What would YOU have done?
Oh, and since it is actually the Friday before Roubaix, you can go ahead and pick a winner, too. We’ll have an FGR two-fer!
Follow me on Twitter @thebicyclerobot.
Photo courtesy of Matt O’Keefe.
There is nothing actually very special about the end of the year. The moon has completed yet another revolution of our green planet, true, but it does that all the time. We humans who track our whereabouts in time by the movement of the celestial bodies have simply decided this is the end. We’ve come around the sun again. We made it! Except, quite where the beginning and end of that orbit are is pretty subjective.
Nonetheless, in our tiny, human way we mark the passage with all sorts of big talk. We do year-end awards (look for ours soon), stories-of-the-year stories. We make lists. Even though time marches on, and the borders are arbitrary, we do this.
And so you have been reading all sorts of retrospectives of 2011, many of which mention names like Gilbert, Cavendish, Evans, Contador and Schleck. Those guys all had big years. I know. I watched. On TV.
Too some extent, the riders in the pro peloton are no more real than the characters in my wife’s favorite television programs. Our paths don’t cross. I don’t know them in anything more than a two-dimensional way.
What is far more tangible for me is MY cycling year, not theirs. This year I rode D2R2 for the first time, bought my first new mountain bike in 15 years, started a new Saturday morning group ride, showed my son proper wheelie technique, bought my wife her first road bike, and took a job, a full-time job, in the cycling industry.
Those were the top stories of 2011 for me. This week’s Group Ride, the last ride of the year, asks the question: What were the top stories of YOUR cycling year?
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Bernard Hinault hated Paris-Roubaix. He called it “nonsense.” He raced it until he won, and then he quit showing up each year. Fabian Cancellara and Thor Hushovd and Tom Boonen all get paid to race it. They say they love it, but if they weren’t being paid, do you think they’d subject themselves to that torture. Of course, if you want to ride the route, you can sign up for the Paris-Roubaix Cyclo, which takes place every other year, and shell out your hard earned cash for a perineum pulverizing promenade over the pavé.
Such is our love for cyclo-suffering that we will actually pay for the privilege of experiencing the same pain as our heroes.
You can ride the Êtape du Tour, l’Eroica or the Flanders sportive. Each ride gives you a chance to challenge yourself over difficult terrain in a legendary locale. People are already doing these by the thousand, sometimes on vintage bicycles. Our sport is anything if not perpetually nostalgic, right?
Or, you can ride Paris-Brest-Paris, Boston-Montreal-Boston or even the Race Across America (RAAM). Go big and then go home. Why not?
Just the other day I met some gentlemen who are racing RAAM this year, and what struck me about them, beyond the passion for cycling they exuded, was just how like ordinary cyclists they looked. Any of them could be on your next group ride, and you’d never know what they were capable of. But they’re daring to do something extraordinary.
This week’s Group Ride asks: If you could ride one of the big events in cycling, not as a pro, but as an amateur, which would it be? This is not fantasy time. This is time to think about a challenge you might actually take on and ride. Tell us what you’d do, why you’d do it, and when you think it’ll happen.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
I must admit, begrudgingly, that Colorado makes a pretty spectacular backdrop for a stage race. From the mammoth climbs, to the sprawling vistas, to the dedicated outdoor community who line the roads to cheer the riders, the US ProCycling Challenge has looked really great. And adding altitude to the test of extreme climbing gives the race a wrinkle that few others can offer.
As I’ve watched it, along with the Vuelta, it has struck me that, if the Vuelta is basically the Spanish climbing championship, then the USPCC is just the US climbing championship. They have nice symmetry that way.
But while one is a storied, if slightly under-appreciated, grand tour, first run in 1935, the other is a complete upstart. Perhaps the USPCC is merely a sign of the times. The balance of cycling power has been shifting over the last two decades. North Americans are making up a larger and larger share of both pro riders and big sponsors. The USPCC may be the culmination of that shift.
Still, if history is any sort of lesson, the likelihood that this race will still be going in ten years is low. The Coors Classic, the primogenitor of the USPCC, was a great big race that attracted top riders from the European peloton. It ran as a three day event (under the sponsorship of Celestial Seasonings) from 1975 to 1980, when Coors took over as primary sponsor and expanded it to a two week race.
By all outward indications the Coors Classic was a highly successful endeavor, generating millions in TV, merchandising and advertising revenue. But the beer company pulled out after 1988 and race organizers were unable to secure a new sponsor. This is, in brief, the story of stage races in the US (e.g. Tour of Missouri, Tour of Georgia).
USPCC has given itself a further challenge, running its inaugural event in a recession, with sponsorship dollars fleeing the sport (HTC anyone?). So there is this tremendous incongruity playing itself out on my TV screen, great racing, beautiful scenery, top talent, but little hope of long term survival. I can’t convince myself to invest in it emotionally, and I can’t convince myself to turn away.
This week’s Group Ride asks: What do you think of the US ProCycling Challenge?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
We’re still two weeks away, but screw it, let’s start talking about the Tour de France. Of course, the easiest topic to blab about would be Alberto Contador’s presence in the race thanks entirely to delays in his doping appeal at the Court of Arbitration for Sport. BORING!!!!!!!!!!!
The next most obvious subject would be the reprisal of the Contador v. Schleck rivalry. As I type these words, A. Schleck is storming up a hillside in Switzerland in desperate pursuit of climbing form for the Tour. BUT…since every website and magazine even tangentially related to cycling is going to be thrashing this story like an original Vision Gator skateboard, let’s leave it to them.
No, what we have in mind this week is surprises. Like Pieter Weening in the Giro, or 2006 Thomas Voekler. Like the end of the Wizard of Oz (spoiler: it was all just a crazy dream). Or like Mark Cavendish giving a measured, reasonable response to an interview question. What we want to talk about is who we think has a surprise in store at this season’s Grand Boucle.
Allow me to inch (centimeter) my way out onto the proverbial limb. I believe Cadel Evans will win the Tour de France. More than one French rider will finish in the top ten.
See how easy that was. Bold (read: stupid) predictions. That’s what we want.
It might be important to recognize that predictions are usually born of wishes, but then that might not be important at all. For instance, I pull for Cadel Evans, not because he looks like an elf/troll hybrid or because he, like me, loves his dog, but because his name (first and family) is as Welsh as male voice choirs or high quality coal, and my forebears are Welsh, too.
Thus am I able to draw a straight line between my tribal fealties and cycling nerdery. As for the French riders approaching the podium, this is simply a wish on my part for France not to get too discouraged about cycling. They had the decency to invent bicycles and then set up all these races for people from virtually everywhere else to win. We should at least let them sniff the podium, right?
Now let’s see you do the trick. Tell us which bit of unexpected we should expect to transpire and why you think it will happen.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
It was a touch cold to start, but I like it cold. This robot runs firmly on the hot side. We met up at the crack of the crack and rolled out in a Westerly direction as we always do, eventually reaching the more rural bits of the metro-burbs. The places where the farm houses have been gutted and the interior replaced by mansion, where the sweet tang of cow shit hangs in the air and the breeze has room to blow.
Our group ride is of a more casual nature. We start slowly. We chat. We chat more. Occasionally a pace line breaks out, but that’s usually just when we’ve run out of things to talk about.
Because we leave early, we get to watch the day bloom. The sun warms the verges of the road. The volume on humanity increases slowly, tolerably.
It is entirely mundane, entirely accidental, and yet also something of a dream ride. When I think of what I love about cycling, it’s all there: friends, scenery, sun, distance, adventure, comedy, speed. I am, there in the saddle, wholly at my ease.
This week’s Group Ride asks about your dream ride. What is it? Does it include Alps? Does it run down the coastline? Who is there? What time of year? What can you smell? How does it feel?
Make like the Staples Singers and take us there.
There is a long bike path at the bottom of the hill I live on. It serves as a sort of summer super-highway for the recreationally inclined. Joggers. Strollers. Roller bladers. Cyclists. They’re all there.
Yesterday, I took the day off and went for a ride with my wife. We dropped the kids off at school and then flew down the hill, jumped on the bike path and headed west.
Almost immediately, we encountered a pair of women on a tandem, rolling along, enjoying the beautiful weather.
I hate tandems. To me, tandems represent the opposite of what I love about cycling, the independence. Who would want to have someone else doing the steering? Ugh. I can’t even imagine it.
My wife, having listened to me express this opinion before, just smiled and said, “But aren’t you glad they’re out on a bike?” And of course the answer is yes. I fully support and encourage cycling, even when it doesn’t match up with my vision of cycling.
A guy on a recumbent rolled past going the other way. OMG. He could barely hold his line. I often wonder if they actually ask to see your engineering degree when they sell you one of those things. And they’re expensive. Don’t get me started on the slack chain lines and the dopey flags bobbing behind them.
I also dislike hybrids, mixte frames and high end Italian road frames that have been “converted” to fixed gear. I also don’t much care for cantilever brakes, time trials or criteriums (criteria?).
Again though, these are just my prejudices, my petty judgments. They don’t mean anything about cycling or the people who embody them. All good people. All good cyclists. They just expose me for the judgmental, closed-minded zealot I can be when I am taking myself too seriously, which is almost always.
This week’s Group Ride is about prejudices. What are yours? And why do you hold onto them? What, if any, value do they have, and what do they mean about you?
A year ago, I was as against race radios in the pro peloton as a French television executive. To me, the saddest moment in any race is that moment, within sight of the finish line, when the poor bastards who have been fighting into the wind all day long, their jerseys unzipped to the waist, salt caking at the corners of the their mouths, get swallowed up by the chasing horde, a pack of cackling hyenas who have spent the previous hours calculating with their director the exact amount of effort it might take to ruin the breakaway’s day.
It is not by any particular guile that this moment is effected. It is merely a matter of having your DS tell you what the time gap is and then ratcheting up the speed on your on-board cyclocomputer to the exact number which will cause the train from Clarksville to overtake the train from Cityville. It’s a math problem more than a race.
And yet, even without radios and computers, this is a fairly standard scene in bike racing. It is the cruelty of the catch, which makes the joy of the successful breakaway such honey-sweet nectar. How much effect the radio has on these outcomes is the subject of no small debate.
Regardless, this week UCI president Pat McQuaid made it entirely clear that the international governing body would press forward with a plan to phase out radios, the latest bout of brinksmanship in a conflict with the team’s union, the AIGCP, who wish the retain the use of the ear piece in all pro races. The AIGCP represents of the Pro and ProContinental Teams, not, just to be clear, the riders themselves.
And now I must confess that, having read a fairly compelling missive on the subject from AIGCP head Jonathan Vaughters, as well as a passionate defense of the technology by Jens Voigt, I find myself in a much more ambivalent place as regards radios.
I have not fully abandoned the notion that races would be better without them, but nor do I feel best qualified to tell the riders what will or won’t make them more safe. They don’t ride down to my office and throw things at me while I type, why should I, in my capacity as a fan, deign to tell them the best way to do their jobs? It is less about whether or not radios have a place in cycling than it is about how those decisions get made. Who makes them? Who has a voice and who doesn’t?
This week’s Group Ride asks the question: Given recent developments in the debate over race radios, are you for or against, and why?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International