I’m at home. On the couch. The kids are in bed. The wife is watching TV. I’m combing through eBay’s endless stupidity for things I don’t need and probably won’t buy. I find something amazing, an old, Italian, pantographed stem. I turn the lap top, present it to the wife like a cat bringing a dead mouse to its owner. She snickers and shakes her head. “What is wrong with you?” she laughs.
This happens more than I’d like to admit.
The other day I was reading about the French classical pianist Hélène Grimaud. Among today’s classical musicians, Grimaud is known as one “who does not fetishize refinement.” The phrase stuck with me.
How often do we do this on Planet Bicycle? I spend half my life devoted to gazing longingly at pictures of finely honed machinery and/or debating the merits of a thing that varies by millimeters from another thing. If you’ve ever uttered the phrase, even quietly to yourself, “Oooh, annodized!” you’re guilty, too. If you’ve ever justified your component preferences with the phrase, “…but, it’s Italian!” you’re guilty, too.
Oh, face it. You read RKP. You’re guilty.
This level of fawning gawpery requires a cognitive leap I don’t all the way understand even though I do it every day. Rather than appreciating a thing for what it can and will do out on the road or trail, I somehow divorce the thing from its use, shine it up bright and then place it high on a pedestal.
When we imbue inanimate objects with mystical qualities, a Mavic derailleur, Campy Delta Brakes, an old steel Merckx, is it because those things are particularly good at their jobs, or because we need something to pour our excess passion into? Is it because we can’t always be pedaling? Do we just need a totem, something to carry the meaning of cycling for us?
This is fetishizing refinement.
Andy Goldsworthy makes sculptures out of things he finds out in the world. Leaves, branches, stone, water. The books that document his various projects are among my prized possessions. There are also documentaries that feature his work and include commentary by the man himself, describing his motivations and approach. They are awful. They ruin it for me. The first rule of Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club.
Once a thing becomes too precious, in my mind, the soul runs right out of it, like a pretty piano piece executed with machine-like precision, a pile of stone, precariously balanced against a steady wind, or an intricately carved lug that won’t hold a tube. At some point, cycling stops being cycling. It becomes so self-reflective, so fetishized, it’s inert.
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Maybe Greg LeMond had it right all along. He lived in Europe. He learned French. He immersed himself, but he retained his American-ness. He adapted, but never compromised.
This past weekend, I was at the Grand Prix of Gloucester, and Padraig was at Levi’s King Ridge Grand Fondo, two singular American cycling events, their origins in European riding/racing, but their executions fully-yankeefied. Neither of us was logged into an illicit web-feed of a pro race with commentary in Flemish, French or Italian. Neither of us was reading about a far off mountain or daydreaming about being someplace else. We were both on home soil, physically AND mentally.
There was the smell of wet grass and diesel exhaust in Stage Fort Park in Gloucester on Saturday (this was before the sanitary facilities were overwhelmed and another distinct odor took the air). A schooner sailed into the bay, and a light mist fell. The feel was decidedly New England, though I didn’t see anyone whaling.
First run in 1999, the GP of Gloucester is known locally as “New England Nationals,” but it has grown into a quality, international event with riders from the UK and Switzerland standing on this year’s podium. They’re coming to us now.
The King Ridge Grand Fondo is just three-years-old, but as Padraig’s report will tell you, it is already a massive, well-organized ride. In fact, our calendar is now dotted with races and rides like these, events that enjoy massive support from sponsors and riders alike. Some are even taking on a cultish mystique despite their youth. D2R2 anyone?
For too long, our cycling culture has been imported. How many of us have read hagiographic accounts of Belgian kermisses and swooned a quiet swoon of wanna-be-ness? I know I have. There are probably more riders in the Belgian colors in the United States than there are in all of Belgium, population 11 million. Is there such a thing as velo-envy? If so, we’ve had a bad case.
How many of us have lusted for a steel Merckx? How many of us have pulled on an orange Molteni top despite looking awful in that autumnal hue (everyone does) and not ever having laid eyes on one of Molteni’s stoves.
Is Coppi your man? Formulate the parallel questions in Italian. The answers are all the same. We have been more than Europhilic. We are perhaps lucky our brethren across the ocean haven’t filed a cultural restraining order.
But, there is no longer a need to hitch our bikes to that particular sag wagon.
We have a new American cycling made up of legions of top pros not named Lance Armstrong. That we’ve outgrown the controversial Texan says as much as anything about our growth.
American bicycles, for better and for worse, dominate the modern peloton. Our cycling events reach back into the past when they can, as with the Major Taylor Hill Climb in Worcester, but they also maintain a very contemporary outlook as with our unique take on Grand Fondos and Randonees.
We have magazines like peloton and Embrocation Cycling Journal and Bike, as well as the usual suspects like Bicycling, Velo(News) and Road Bike Action, who are telling our stories back to us in colors more crisp and vivid than we first imagined them in. They write about domestic makers of embro, American beers, events, and custom bike builders. They ride our epic (yes, epic) rides and document them for posterity. Mt. Baldy. The Texas hill country. The Maine seacoast.
I can’t help but feel excited by what is happening in our new American cycling. That doesn’t mean I eschew the spring classics or the grand tours, or that I no longer covet my neighbor’s Italian steel (even though I already own an Italian steel bike). It just means that we also have our own thing. I don’t have to rue the fact that I’ve never seen a kermiss, because I’m too busy yelling at my buddies as they hurdle the barriers in Gloucester, or checking in with Padraig to see how he did at King’s Ridge.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m sitting too close to the television, and what I perceive as a blossoming cycling culture, is really just a pixelated reflection of what’s going on in the old world. But it feels like more. Everytime peloton comes in the mail, or some one of my non-cycling friends asks me if I can help them find their first road bike, I think, “It’s happening. It’s really happening.”
And I smile.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
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Any time a shop breaks the routine of business as usual, I get curious. It’s easy to put your head down and spend your days concerned with inventory turn, how many bikes were built and how fast those repairs get picked up. So when someone takes the time to bring in a representative from one of the brands they carry, I like to check those events out.
Bike Effect, the studio in Santa Monica, brought in Eric Sakalowsky, one of the owners of the French bike manufacturer Cyfac. I’ve been hearing about Cyfac and reading about them for years, but have never written about them, mostly because until I’ve had a chance to talk with someone at the company, I don’t feel like I have a proper feel for what they do. There’s nothing like getting the story from the horse’s mouth.
Bike Effect has invested in Cyfac in a big way, making them one of their marquee lines, along with Serotta. I spent some time with Eric, learning about how his involvement came about (he had been their North American distributor and dumped his other lines to buy into the company), just how intimate an operation it is (they have 15 production staff) and how they manage to produce custom carbon fiber frames (more on that later).
To woo prospective clients Bike Effect owners Steve and Allison served up fruit, cheese, cracks and wine. It made for a relaxed atmosphere and it wasn’t long before I heard people talking specifics about sizing and colors.
Eric (left) and Steve discuss what makes Cyfac, well, Cyfac. Eric and I are working on an interview that will run as part of the Artisans series at peloton. Though the company offers a number of different models (I lost count as I studied their web site), the ones I’m most interested in are the top-of-the-line carbon models, the Absolu in particular. Though the tubes are produced in Taiwan, every other aspect of fabrication occurs at Cyfac’s Loire Valley headquarters. The only reason the tubes are produced overseas is because they haven’t been able to source a French producer capable of meeting their needs and they aren’t yet in a position to do it in-house, though from my conversation with Eric, it sounds like they may be headed that direction.
Each customer who purchases an Absolu gets a book documenting the creation of their frame, from the mitering of the tubes, to the masking for the paint job—Cyfac uses no decals. Honestly, I was stunned to learn that they often have more hours invested in a paint job than many manufacturers put into the building of a frame. And while you’d think such devotion would make such a bike unaffordable, they are competitive with other top shelf brands.
Cyfac’s custom work offers incredible flexibility to the client. Not only can they vary the sizing, they can vary the geometry, so that if you want something that fits like your beloved Seven, but descends like your old Moser, you can have that in custom carbon. And say you want it as stiff as your old Merckx built from Columbus Max tubes, you can have that as well as they can vary just how stiff the tubes are. It’s a level of customization some companies said we would never see.
I look forward to learning more and reporting more. I’ll try to present some reviews as well.
Fausto Coppi had a big schnoz. I like to think it helped him cut through the wind. His hair was notoriously neat, Brylcreemed left and right, with a razor sharp part. No wind would take purchase there. He had a strange barrel chest that housed steam engine lungs, a narrow, almost feminine waist, and a pair of bird legs you would hardly believe could generate the power that made Coppi ‘il campionissimo,’ nearly untouchable on the road between 1949 and 1952, and the unquestioned top cyclist on this big blue marble in many of the preceding and successive years as well.
If one were to take the palmares of the top five or six riders in history and set them side-by-side, it would be hard not to conclude that Eddy Merckx is number one. In this exercise, Coppi would drift down the standings somwhere between Hinault and Anquetil. But this is the stuff of paper and statistics and apples and oranges and oddly colored fish on impossible bicycles. It’s nonsense.
Coppi won the Giro d’ Italia in 1940 and set the Hour Record in ’42. He then went off to war in North Africa where he was taken prisoner and lived in a POW camp. He didn’t race again, properly, until ’46, three seasons later. That year he won Milan – San Remo, the Giro di Lombardia, the Grand Prix des Nations, the Giro della Romagna and three stages of the Giro d’Italia. He won the overall again in ’47. Thereafter, he won everything in front of him, Spring Classics, Grand Tours, a World Championship. He was a climber of legendary ability, his signature move being to attack on a hard climb, distance the field and finish minutes before the next rider, alone, as they say, in photo.
It is difficult to separate Coppi from the history of Italy at that time or, for that matter, from the history of professional bicycling. While he, along with great rival Gino Bartali, gave Italians something to cheer about in the bleak post-war years, he also revolutionized bike racing, developing new standards for nutrition, rest, recovery, and preparation. He was a great contributor to modern team tactics at a time when the Grand Tours were just beginning to embrace the notion of competing teams rather than individual cyclists.
I would argue that, given back those three seasons during WWII, and without the toll of disease and ill-nutrition that POW camps and wartime rationing imposed on him, he would have set a standard that Merckx would have strained to see, even from his lofty perch.
For these reasons and many others, Coppi is my favorite cyclist of all time. Though I never saw him race, perhaps even BECAUSE I never saw him race, Coppi represents the absolute apex of what it means to be a PRO cyclist. He is a man who really did transcend himself, both athletically and culturally. With Coppi there are myths and legends, because we don’t always have the concrete language to describe the things he achieved.
I could go on and on, but you’ve read all this before by other people’s hands.
This week’s Group Ride seeks to leave behind the troubling times of our current top cyclists and would-be legends. What we want to know is: Who is your favorite cyclist of all time, and why?
Rhapsodize, my friends. Wax poetic.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Joop Zoetemelk finished on the second step of the Tour de France podium six times. He won once, in 1980. And like Raymond Poulidor, who is known as the Eternal Second, many believe he could have won more races if he’d attacked more, if he’d been more ruthless, but Zoetemelk wasn’t an aggressive rider. He didn’t choose to win. When the race was on the line, he was as likely to let the moment pass as riders like Hinault and Merckx were to attack.
Today, in Boston, it was as hot as the devil’s undercarriage. I pushed away from the office into the murky swamp of the city and made the crucial mistake of jumping onto the wheel of a fellow apparently in a big rush to get someplace else. We rode fast. I thought, “It’s too hot to be riding this fast,” but then I kept pedaling until I washed up on the shore of the steep hill that leads to my house, mostly spent, soaked in sweat, and unable to pull any more air out of the air.
Sometimes, the indecision that might have cost Zoetemelk greater success is the same indecision that keeps a rider in a race he ought to abandon. Think of Cadel Evans, with a broken elbow, hauling the world champion’s rainbow jersey over cols and up monts at this years Tour, or Tyler Farrar sprinting on a broken wrist. Maybe even remember Tyler Hamilton finishing the 2003 Tour in 4th place after cracking his collarbone on stage one. These guys haven’t decided to finish the race. They’ve just put off deciding to quit until the finish line slides past.
Zoetemelk was a classy rider. In the high mountains he floated, his wispy form disappearing up around the next switchback as lesser men toiled away below. Despite his lack of aggression, he still won Fleche Wallone, Paris-Tours, Paris-Nice, the Dutch national road race championship twice, the world championship at the age of 38, Amstel Gold at 39. He’s a legend. Indecision may have cost him some wins, but he still managed.
I arrived in my driveway completely spent, sweating from every pore, absolutely gasping, but still trying not to look too pathetic in case the neighbors were watching. After dismounting, I sat next to my bike, in the garage, trying to compose myself before entering the house. It took a while. And then when I did go inside, it took another twenty minutes before I was convinced I wasn’t maybe having heat stroke.
They say the only reason Zoetemelk ever won the Tour is that his DS told him he had to. There was no one else. He would never have forced himself on the race. He was under orders.
When Louison Bobet finally hung up his Tour hopes, after a series of miserable stages in 1959, he was asked why he kept riding when he knew he couldn’t win. He said, “I’d never climbed the Col de l’Iseran. It’s the highest road in Europe. I wanted to ride up there.” He quit on the descent of the Iseran, on his terms. What looked like indecision was actually a declaration of intent.
It’s only supposed to get hotter here in Beantown. This was the second day of our heat wave. The humidity will get worse. The mercury will rise. It’s supposed to break on Friday, when Hurricane Earl arrives with torrential rain. When I was finally convinced I wasn’t dying, I thought, “Screw that. I’m done riding for the week. It’s only going to be more misery.” But we’ll see what happens. Sometimes he who hesitates is lost. Sometimes he who hesitates is simply enduring, until better days come.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
In every bike race there is a race, and there is a performance, a narrative of sorts that plays itself out over 130 or 150 or 212 kilometers. On occasion, the race and the performance are the same, which is to say that the driving force of the narrative is the winner of the race and the manner in which he or she has won. But then, much of the time the race and its result are distinct from the performance. In fact, sometimes the two diverge later, as when a rider wins a big race, but is later separated from the result by a doping conviction. Reading the order of finish or scanning the standings of the general classification don’t usually tell you, in any compelling way, what happened on the road.
It is this dichotomy that crept into my brain as I continued to ponder the enduring value, the legacy, of Marco Pantani, or, for that matter, Johan Museeuw, Bjarne Riis, Frank Vandenbroucke, Floyd Landis, Richard Virenque, Tom Simpson, or even riders not tainted by allegations of doping like Raymond Poulidor or Gino Bartali. The comments on my last piece here, É Andato da Solo, sent me back to the proverbial drawing board.
The thing is, it is easy to look up a rider’s palmares and think you know what his or her career was like. I do it all the time, especially for those legends of the sport I never got to see race. But then how do you explain why some riders, indeed some individual performances, remain in memory, while others do not?
Bike racing is hard. No other statement, perhaps, has been written so often, by so many, about our sport. It’s hard. Its conflicts and denouement play out at the ragged end of human capacity. It is epic, operatic and internecine.
And this narrative quality explains a lot about the way we see our past as well as our present. For example, on paper, there is no qualitative difference between the Giro, Tour and Vuelta. They are three-week stage races that include difficult climbs, time trials, beautiful scenery, etc. They all attract the very best riders in the peloton. And yet, the Tour remains the most important, I would posit, because it spins the best narrative about itself. Call it history. Call it marketing. The Tour captures the imagination more completely than the other two Grand Tours.
And though Pantani, Museeuw, VDB, Landis, Riis, Virenque, Simpson, et. al. all cheated (either by conviction or by their own admission), they also told us these amazing stories about cycling, about what happens out there at the ragged edge of things, where most of us will never get to go, and so we hang onto them.
You might even argue that the performance is more important than the result. For this reason, we can elevate a rider like Pantani above a rider like Andy Hampsten, though Hampsten is likely more worthy of our reverence. Hampsten was a great champion, but Pantani told better stories. Alfredo Binda and Felice Gimondi both won five Grand Tours, but we don’t talk about them as much as we talk about other riders of that caliber. Why?
Among those who are ostensibly more pure than the Pantanis and Virenques, Poulidor or Bartali for example, it is still the performance that matters. Poulidor is revered because of the efforts he made and the grace with which he lost, first to Anquetil, and then to Merckx. Bartali’s rivalry with Coppi was itself a great story, but further, the character of Bartali, the devout, working class hero, always plays well, regardless of results, though his were pretty good.
If we tell ourselves that only the results obtained in perfect honesty matter, we retain only a few threadbare icons. Many of us will, however, choose to perform the complex calculus of weighting the manner of cheating against the quality of the performance. Merckx is legend, perhaps, because his use of amphetamines is gauged less egregious than blood-doping AND his performances were bravura, dominating, crushing and relentless. The recently deceased Frank Vandenbroucke was a blatant cheater, but his brilliance on the stage was, perhaps, equally blatant.
It is difficult to express the creation of a legend mathematically. Each of us gives different weight to the performance versus the result, but we all most certainly do it. We have to. In cycling, because of the evolving manner of cheating, a simple asterisk won’t serve to differentiate the pure from the chaste. Our cheating exists on a continuum that starts with a bidon full of brandy and spans the illicit universe to include, in the present day, bags full of oxygenated blood. Shall we create a code to denote all the forms of illegality to which a rider has prescribed? Their names might trail strings of alphanumeric characters, like pscyho-pharmaceutical periodontists with legal degrees.
It is good and right to acknowledge those who have done things the right way, the aforementioned Andy Hampsten, for one. Riders like him deserve a special reverence. Greg LeMond too. But we can’t factor out the quality of the performance either. The opera is full of overblown characters, usually heavyset men and women with lungs like…well…like cyclists. Some of them are good and some are villains.
I love them both.
Valentine’s Day marked the 6th anniversary of Marco Pantani’s death. And in light of Padraig’s recent post “Reclaiming Our Past” and a tweet forwarded by Joe Parkin questioning why some idolize Pantani while reviling other dopers, I wanted to do a little writing. That’s how I think through a question like that. It is interesting how we process our cycling idols (not just their performances) after we know they were cheaters, and Pantani occupies a particularly soft spot in my heart, so…
First of all, let’s be entirely clear. Marco Pantani cheated. He did it systematically, repeatedly and seemingly without remorse. As cheaters go, Pantani laid the blueprint for how not to do it. Through this prism, perhaps David Millar lends the best example of how to cheat well, i.e. with subsequent apology, outspokenness and openness, but that’s another post. Not only did Pantani dope, but he also led a rider’s strike at the ’98 Tour to protest police raids on team hotels aimed at rooting out the dope. Bold. Brazen. Shameful. Full stop.
So, on some level, Pantani was a bad guy. He dazzled on the bicycle, thrilling us with monster mountain breakaways executed with panache and merciless cruelty toward fellow racers, but it was all a lie. Here was this improbable, little guy with a pirate’s beard and kerchief crushing the legs of all comers. He was a star, if an awkward one, that would eventually burn out.
We all know the story by now. Pantani was broken by the revelations of his cheating. He retreated into drug-use and the resulting paranoia. He isolated himself, one last breakaway, in a hotel room, and did cocaine until his heart refused to go on.
How do you idolize a man like that?
The answer is: I don’t. I think making heroes of people is cruel. It puts them up on a pedestal they will eventually fall from. Pantani fell hard. He died, and don’t think the fame and shame didn’t play a part. I think it’s fair to ask: Did Pantani kill cycling, or did cycling kill Pantani? The answer, to both questions, is probably yes.
So then, backing away from idol worship, what is it that endears a rider and a person like Pantani to a rider and a person like me?
Well, like me, Marco Pantani was an addict. I empathize with that trajectory of self-importance to deep shame to self-destructiveness. His highs were high (winning the Giro and the Tour), and his lows were low (six-feet below sea level to be exact). He did amazing things, but remained all too human. He could never win enough or do enough coke to quite escape that doomed trajectory. Here was a master of the sport to whom I could relate directly.
As I climbed in the mountains of Southern Vermont, I thought of Pantani. I tried (and failed) to dance in the pedals like the little Italian. When I got off the bike, I had nothing further to live up to. To me, Pantani is and was just a man, with all the frailty and failings attendant thereto. Unlike the untouchable idols of pelotons past, Coppi, Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault, and LeMond, Marco Pantani didn’t ever demand more of me than I could provide. He let me ride and be who I am, not more, not less.
I believe there is a flawed genius in each of us. If you tick back through that list of bike racing heroes, you will be able to hang faults on each of them. Coppi and Anquetil doped. So did Merckx. Hinault is an asshole, a graceless winner, a poor loser, and a lout. LeMond, for all his charm in victory, has been an unhappy legend, a dour presence in the cycling universe. None of this makes them unworthy winners in my mind. It just makes them men. Like you. Like me.
When we talk about the legacy of our sport, doping is one of the unavoidable subjects. It may be the one thing that keeps us from getting too carried away with idol worship, and that is, in my humble judgement, probably a good thing. I don’t mean that as an absolution for dopers or an acceptance that doping goes on and is ok. Each of us is responsible for our own actions, and where riders are systematically cheating and by extension tearing the sport down, that is clearly a bad thing. But, and this is important to me, it is just a sport, and we are just riders.
Image: Spray paint on canvas board by the author, inspired by this AP photo.