Okay, let’s get something out there between us right away: Los Angeles and winter are as well acquainted Pat McQuaid and common sense. It’s not that one is hostile to the other, they’ve just never been introduced. It gets colder in Los Angeles during the months of December, January and February, but that doesn’t make it winter. Similarly, women race bicycles, but that doesn’t mean they deserve a minimum wage.
Wait … what?
Let’s move on. Winter. I’ve had this stuff for nearly a year. Why? Friends who had tried the Rapha Winter Embrocation told me is was spicy. Around these parts that’s code for “too much heat for the South Bay.” So I waited out our mild spring. And our unambitious summer. Even our tame fall.
I wasn’t presented an opportunity to even try this stuff until December. That was the first time temperatures dropped below 50 degrees. And this stuff proved to be warm. It did just the trick out on the road, keeping the legs both warm and shiny and smelling like a medicine cabinet from 1964. Heavy on the wintergreen with hints of lavender, cypress and juniper berry.
So how hot is this stuff? I’d give it a 6. It’s about the same as a Mad Alchemy medium, which is a good, all-pupose heat for most places that actually experience something like four seasons. The more I type, the more I destroy my own street cred. Step away from the keyboard, sir.
Frankly, all that stuff is just data. Here’s what makes the Winter Embrocation amazing. It’s a self-contained experience. Consider a time capsule in a cream. From the metal canister with the embossed screw top (which reminds me of the old metal film canisters from my youth) to the rich perfume, the embro evokes a bygone time. But that’s only part of the attraction of this concoction. While I respect that not everyone loves Rapha stuff (usually because it’s more expensive than a Fabergé egg), they do a remarkable job of conveying their obsession with cycling.
I couldn’t tell you the last time I saved packaging from something, but the box the embro arrived in is so cool I’ve been unable to throw it out so far. The pink seal on the box let’s you know unequivocally that you are beholding a Rapha product. But the seal bears a short note about Mont Ventoux, just as two of the four sides of the box are splashed with a photo of Mont Ventoux shot near the Simpson Memorial. On another side they reveal the connection of Mont Ventoux to the embro: The scent is taken from native flora in the area. All of the Rapha skincare products share this association with the flora of Provençe. You should try the soap. It’s like bathing in lavender itself.
Texture and consistency in embrocations doesn’t get discussed enough. I have to say that the consistency and feel of the Winter Embrocation is spot-on. It’s creamy enough to spread easily without having a watery feel. Unlike some embros, this one will travel well.
A 4.2 oz.tin goes for $27. While that’s a bit more expensive than some embrocations, it’s not so expensive as to continue to cultivate Rapha’s reputation as more expensive than everything else, save Assos. You can find out more here.
I’m going to let you in on a depressing little secret: Most people don’t read. It has it’s upside, though. I don’t think it’s possible to publish too many books on cycling, the Tour de France, indeed, even on Eddy Merckx. Those of us who actually read will swim in enjoyment while those who don’t read won’t threaten us with the sudden influx in interest in, say, Eddy Merckx’ stellar 1972 season (though you’ll be able to read more about that in the upcoming issue of peloton magazine).
I say that because I’d like Jean-Paul Vespini to write a whole set of books on the major climbs of the Tour de France. In addition to The Tour Is Won on the Alpe—which is about l’Alpe d’Huez—I’d like to see one on Mont Ventoux, and others on the Ballon d’Alsace, the Col du Galibier, the Col du Tourmalet and the Col de la Croix de Fer.
Of course, I don’t think Vespini would want to do that. The thesis of The Tour Is Won on the Alpe is that no single mountain has been more pivotal in the Tour de France than l’Alpe d’Huez. It’s a line-in-the-sand thesis. It really doesn’t leave any room for nuance.
Vespini uses the very facts of history to lay out how each time l’Alpe d’Huez was included in the Tour de France, it’s role wasn’t just important, it was downright pivotal. He shows how winning the stage won’t ensure victory in Paris; rather, pulling on yellow in the town of Huez is a sign of things to come.
It’s a charge not without its romance. If you are a Tour hopeful, you had better be prepared to deliver greatness on the Alpe. If you can’t muster there, history has shown your hopes are just fantasies.
Of course, history will show Vespini’s theory isn’t bulletproof. Laurent Fignon’s first two ascents of l’Alpe d’Huez ended with him pulling on the maillot jaune and keeping it straight to Paris, though in ’89 he only kept it until Paris. Greg LeMond losing the jersey on l’Alpe d’Huez only to take it back in Paris doesn’t follow the script.
It is that single fact more than any other that makes me want to see Vespini take his ability to connect dots and form theories and apply his considerable intellect to the Col du Tourmalet. How many other climbs have appeared in the Tour de France more often than the Tourmalet? After all, there are a million routes through the Alps, but any route through the Pyrenees that doesn’t include the Tourmalet seems incomplete.
What would Vespini say of other mountains? What would he discover?
Beyond refreshing our memories of the stages up l’Alpe d’Huez, Vespini does much to show how behind-the-scenes maneuvering made l’Alpe d’Huez a fairly regular part of the Tour. These are lively characters in a fascinating town. The stats he amasses over the years are a who’s who of greatness; that Laurent Fignon holds the record for the most high-placed finishes (five) is yet another indication of just how great le professeur really was.
As winter reading goes for cyclists, I think it’s only fair that prose should conjure the July sun to remind you of the sting of sweat in your eyes. Vespini’s book is a veritable greatest hits collection from epic days of the Tour de France.
The withdrawal of Levi Leipheimer from the 2009 Tour de France due to a broken wrist is a sad twist for the race. It’s a loss on a number of levels, though it doesn’t change the race in the way some may think.
The first, biggest loss is that to Leipheimer himself. He was on stellar form and would possibly have had his second podium finish at the Tour. But this is yet another year where Leipheimer’s potential remains a question mark. Just what can he do as a leader?
The second is obviously to Astana. Only one other team in history has been able to use a guy sitting in the top five on GC to help control the race. When you think of legendary watchdogs, it is hard to find one more capable than Leipheimer.
Psychologically, Lance Armstrong has experienced a setback. Armstrong places a premium on riders’ whose loyalty is beyond question. That said, still has plenty of support in the form of Andreas Kloden and Yaroslav Popovych for when the race hits the high Alps and Mont Ventoux.
Unless Armstrong completely detonates on Mont Ventoux, the 2009 Tour de France will recalibrate our ideas about what a cyclist can achieve as he ages. Even if Contador wins the race, fewer people will think a guy who has had his 35th birthday is incapable of winning a Grand Tour. The question in Leipheimer’s case is will he ever be presented with an opportunity to arrive at the start of a Grand Tour properly trained and supported for unquestioned leadership.
The best thing that could happen for Leipheimer is to take his time healing up and then build back up for a run at the Vuelta a Espana. Of course, should Contador not win the Tour de France—and Armstrong doesn’t have to win, Contador just has to lose—he will likely want his own shot at the Vuelta which would resign Leipheimer yet again to the roll of World’s Finest Domestique.
But what does Leipheimer’s absence really do to the Tour? It means very little to the competition between Armstrong and Contador on a direct basis. Though it is true that Andy Hampsten was forced to chase Bernard Hinault on one occasion in the Alps at the ’86 Tour, it is almost impossible to conceive of a situation in which Leipheimer would have been asked (and Bruyneel would have allowed) to chase down his own teammate. In short, Leipheimer’s greatest threat to Contador was psychological; knowing Leipheimer was loyal to Amstrong may have made him something of a deterrent to Contador.
Leipheimer’s greatest use was always in controlling the attacks of other teams. As a result, his absence will make it harder for Astana to neutralize other teams late in a stage. While that fact may strike many of you as obvious to the point of stupidity, the upshot is truly interesting.
Late-stage attacks from the likes of Carlos Sastre, Andy Schleck or Christian Vande Velde (it seems a little unlikely that Bradley Wiggins or Tony Martin will mount a stunning attack) will give both Armstrong and Contador an opportunity to follow and counterattack. A less neutralized competition should actually increase the fireworks between Astana’s two leaders.
And what of Leipheimer’s post-recovery future? It simply can’t be guessed. Had anyone suggested Leipheimer would return to Bruyneel’s fold to both achieve his best-ever form and be reduced to a support role at Grand Tours, most observant cycling fans would have scoffed. It’s a new take on irony, huh?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International