Part of what I do in my work is to make sense of the world around us, given our cycling-centric view. Giving a great review to a product that’s been on the market since Fausto Coppi last won the Tour de France is just me sticking up for reliability and serviceability, ideals I believe in. Regarding other ideals, I have spoken out a lot against doping and the problems with both the dopers and the enforcement; the riders and the UCI both need to know that we are paying attention.
Every now and then someone outside of cycling throws us a bone. Jet Blue, as part of a joint promotion with Versus, is waiving its $50 fee on checked bikes for the month of July. We can take the cynical route and say, “Yeah, but they’ll absorb the loss as a marketing expense.” Let’s not.
The fees airlines charge cyclists wouldn’t seem such an outrage if we new that all other sporting equipment are hit with the same fees. Knowing we pay fees unheard of to golfers triggers my insult-to-injury response. The airline industry may be hurting, but gouging one user group won’t win any loyalty and can alienate people in a hurry.
Fares are all over the place right now, but saving $100 can make any trip more affordable. If you’re flying this month, give Jet Blue a look.
From Jet Blue’s press release:
“We continue to find ways to make the trip on JetBlue as enjoyable as the destination for our customers, and that means giving them more than the other guys — whether it’s a free checked bike to celebrate the race, more legroom, more free snacks and drinks, better customer service or more access to the most-talked about sporting events of the season,” said Sam Kline, senior analyst of Product Development for JetBlue Airways. “A lot can happen in the world of cycling on a six-hour long haul flight, but thanks to our live satellite TV programming and our dedicated channel for VERSUS this July, our customers won’t miss a minute of the action.”
“Once again VERSUS will air wall-to-wall and in-depth coverage of the Tour de France in July both super-serving hardcore cycling fans and big event viewers. We’re proud to partner with JetBlue for the sixth straight year so that sports fans can have access to one of the greatest competitions in all of sports even when they’re in the air,” said Marc Fein, Executive Vice President of Programming, Production and Business Operations for VERSUS.
In addition to its home town of New York City, JetBlue jets to some of the biggest cycling cities in the country, including: Austin, Texas; Chicago, Ill.; Denver, Colo.; Portland, Ore.; Richmond, Va.;Rochester, N.Y.; San Diego, Calif.; San Francisco, Calif.; and Seattle, Wash.
I spent the 1980s working toward a career in music. I planned to make my living as a drummer and the thought of playing one stale beer-smelling club after another sounded to me like job security. Just as the band I was playing in began venturing out to clubs beyond our immediate area code, the percussionist Gary Burton published a book called “A Musician’s Guide to the Road.”
Burton’s book was a Godsend musicians all over the world. It was filled with brilliant strategies for flying with musical instruments (arrive very early) and finding clubs in cities you don’t know (put one guy in a cab and follow him).
As important as Burton’s book was to me at the time, I can say without reservation Graham Watson has created a book that is vastly superior. I predict English-language Michelin Green Guide sales will plummet in the wake of the release of this new VeloPress volume.
Watson has been covering the Tour de France for more than 30 years. It’s not a record, but it does give him serious street cred when giving advice about following the world’s most popular annual sporting event. After all, whose advice do you want on the Tour de France—the race promoter? A team director? One of the racers? Or a guy who sees every single day from the seat of a motorcycle for the soul purpose of getting great photographs to document the exploits of men we have on occasion confused with gods.
The book is broken into six chapters, one each devoted to planning your trip, following the race, a primer on France, the geography, the great climbs and getting your own photographs. It includes a great many maps and they display exactly the information cyclists will find most useful.
I tell you this: Watson has just broadcast a great many bicycle tour operators’ most guarded secrets. Fishing guides have killed for less.
Honestly, given that Michelin published a guide to the wine regions of France, I can’t fathom why the venerable caretaker of travel never undertook a guide to le Tour. But on reading Watson’s guide, his expert insight into hotel availability (like trying to get tickets to a Springsteen concert), the great riders who hail from the various towns and his ability to translate the French sensibility for the foreign tourist means that Michelin’s effort could never match this.
Of course, no book by Watson would be complete without his stunning images. You’ve seen many of these before, but his crowd and leisure shots are lip-smackingly evocative. He reveals how he gets some of his shots, the competition to get unique shots and the challenge of trying to do stellar work in less than stellar conditions. No one will read this book and contemplate the life of race photographer. At least no one with a proper sense of comfort.
The writing is surprisingly fresh and immediate. He’s even funny at times; in all, the writing is better than I expected. However, what most impresses me about the book isn’t the quality of the prose, it’s that he really captures the reality of following the race. A book of random details could easily miss the bigger picture, the enormity of the event. His in-between-the-lines insights are what make this book a gem.
I’ve used a great many books in following the Tour on the occasions I’ve been there. And while I enjoy doing the research, there’s no doubt that Watson’s book could have made my research less time-consuming … and even more enjoyable.
But I don’t care.
I’ll admit the first time I saw the K-Wing it looked as ridiculous as Kiss’ stage outfits do today. I mean, a riser bar for the road? What gives?
Then one day its beauty clicked. I realized the K-Wing is a deep-drop bar that isn’t. The mistake I commonly see in setting up the K-Wing is by positioning it so the bar top is at the same height as the previous bar. Wrong!
What makes the K-Wing so great is the ability to position the drops at the same height as other bars (thus making the levers the same height) which ultimately places the bar top a full centimeter higher than it would be otherwise. The result: You sit up higher while climbing while needing fewer spacers below the stem. Your bike looks more PRO in profile.
I’m not one to get too hung up on the look of a bike; I’ll flip a stem upside down if it’ll give me the fit I seek, but there is much to be said for a bike that looks elegant.
I will admit I’ve struggled to reconcile the fact that the switch from aluminum to carbon fiber as the raw material caused prices to quadruple while cutting lifespan to strictly single-serve. Crash it: Replace it. So yes, I struggle with more expensive and greater fragility. But then I get back on a bike with an aluminum bar and even with cork tape I wonder who turned off the comfort. I don’t have carpal tunnel, but I don’t want to get it either. The vibration damping that comes with carbon fiber increases comfort so noticeably it’s a wonder we didn’t make the switch sooner.
The first time I rode a carbon fiber bar I felt like a soon-to-be addict trying crack for the first time: “Where have you been all my life?”
The internal cable routing is—I won’t lie—a pain in the kiester to deal with and the tight bends can reduce braking and shifting performance if you’re not careful. I keep a special cable around to aid with the routing when I replace housings. But the liability posed by price ($229) and limited lifespan are more than overcome in my opinion by the deep drop that doesn’t require increased flexibility.
I hope this bar is never discontinued.
Of all the tools I have purchased for bike maintenance, my Silca Pista is the single oldest item I own. It’s reliable like a good dog. Like a dog, it’s not free, and it requires some work, but its operation is so familiar as to provide comfort.
Between all the different bikes I’ve owned, reviewed or wrenched on plus those bikes of teammates I’ve raced with, I estimate I’ve used it to take tires up to 8 bar more than 15,000 times.
I’ve had it so long, were it human it would be emancipated. At this point, it’s a bit like a commercial aircraft; The only parts I haven’t replaced are the base, barrel, handle and chuck. Hoses, grommets, gaskets, plungers and more, I’ve replaced everything else on this pump at least once. The miracle is that I have at times purchased new parts before actually needing them and then—after a year or three—have been able to find them to install.
There are pumps with bigger bases, bigger handles, larger diameter barrels, bigger gauges, but the Silca Pista remains my standard. Give me a smooth valve stem and a little shoulder room and I think I could run a kids’ balloon party.
Companies keep trying to top this baby but a quick lesson in physics taught me why larger diameter barrels don’t improve pumps; they actually increase the amount of force necessary to reach a given pressure. Not so bueno for cyclists who have the upper bodies of a T-Rex minus the green and the scales. That Columbus tube is laudable not for its pedigreed manufacturer, but rather its small diameter.
I’ll put it this way: If you ever enter my garage and can’t find my Silca Pista, call 911, because it’s been stolen.
As riders there are rules we obey without even thinking. No tube socks. No spitting into the wind. No bare knees when it’s cold. We make our Saturday rides and find ways to get our miles in even with the pressures of work and family. Some weeks are better than others, but we are defined not by the deviation, rather the aspiration. It is the rule that tells who we are.
Does anyone really need more rules in life? The reasonable answer would seem to be no, but the rules we use can reveal a lot about our ability to judge the situations in which we find ourselves.
Are all Saturdays created equal? Must Saturday mean at least 75 miles and a few thousand feet of climbing, or is every fourth Saturday dialed back for rest?
If there is a break off the front, do we chase? Is there a teammate in the break? Is the 11 the right choice on a wet descent? Do we ride injured or sick because we can’t give up the miles?
Our constant reassessment of road conditions, the group, our own legs are—no matter how much we aim to impose our will on the bike, on the ride—a sign of humility. I once heard on the news a political analyst who specialized in the Middle East. He said, “Well the first thing you have to understand about the region is that every statement you make begins with, ‘it depends.’” To me, it was a sign of true insight.
Every new lesson I learn results in a new rule. Maybe it’s a sign of aging—that I don’t have the strength of will I used to possess—but I think my riding is more a test of my knowledge and experience now. My own wisdom has overcome my loss of youth.
But there is one riding rule I’ve come to value, even to cherish, and it’s not about riding at all, even though I learned it from the Grand Tour riders. It’s about saving. For them, it was saving something for tomorrow, next week. For me, yes, it means saving something for tomorrow, but more importantly, it means saving time for my family, saving some energy for the rest of the day, saving myself so I can be fully present for those who love me. We’re not much different from soda: That first sip is sweet, but no one wants the empty can.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International.
The final kilometer of Classics and Grand Tour stages is marked with an archway from which hangs the flamme rouge—the red kite. Its passage marks the greatest drama of the race, a ratcheting up of tension and anticipation that culminates in the winner’s celebration.
Of course, the red kite holds different meanings for each rider. For the time trialists, it’s the last chance to attack and beat the sprinters at their own game. For the leadout men, there’s a final dig before pulling off to the let sprinter shine. For the sprinters, that red kite is a signal that their moment is less than two minutes to come. For much of the field, it’s simply the signal that the pain is nearly at an end.
What unites each of them is a moment that inevitably comes after passing under the red kite. Each rider will bow his head as he summons the last of his strength for the finish. It’s the same bowing of the head that recreational riders will make before rolling to the finish of a century.
Summoning the strength to make a final surge to the finish is as universal as the urge to finish; no one wants to roll across the line in defeat and that final effort is the chance to accelerate to a personal victory that comes from the satisfaction of knowing you left everything on the course.
The psychology of riders can rarely be guessed, but the red kite prayer is a moment we all share, a search for our remaining strength as we summon the will to leave it on the road.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International.