The following piece was awarded silver from the Society of American Travel Writers for best special-purpose travel story. The SATW awards are the oldest and most prestigious awards for travel writing in the U.S. They are effectively the Oscars for Americans writing about far-flung places. This piece originally ran in Peloton Magazine, Issue 15. To my knowledge, it’s the first time a piece on cycling has garnered an award from the SATW—Padraig
A dozen friendly locals, three Russian motorcycles with sidecars and two liters of homemade wine add up to one bewildered writer
When I heard the motorcycle’s engine begin to wind out third gear, I realized that my driver, Ilya, meant to shift the thing into fourth. That realization made me nervous. No, not just nervous, but scared. And frankly, I had a half-dozen reasons to be scared. First was the fact that I was riding in the sidecar of a World War II-era Russian motorcycle. It had broken, expose wires protruding from components that suggested the last time this thing was in proper working order John F. Kennedy had yet to deliver his, “ich bin ein Berliner,” speech, which is just a fancy way of saying it was older than me, perhaps older than its driver. The sidecar featured a seat so worn it had been covered with shag carpet. And my companions in the sidecar? Two two-liter bottles, one of beer and another of wine.
Second was the fact that we were zooming away from my bicycle—which I’d left leaning against a tree. Third was the fact that that tree was outside a bar and though it was only 11 o’clock in the morning, that bar had plenty of patrons who might possess larcenous ideas; the bike was probably worth more than most of the town’s cars. Fourth. Whew. Fourth was that we were now going more than 40 mph over roads that were difficult to ride on my bike at 20 mph—Ilya was showing off. Fifth, I had no idea where we were headed and you can’t really get the magnitude of that until I tell you about my sixth reason to be scared. Number six was: I was in Moldova. Moldova. I was ten time zones from home going for the first motorcycle ride of my life (I swear it was the first time I’d ever ridden any sort of motorcycle) with a guy who spoke—actually I’m not even sure what language Ilya spoke. It occurred to me that if anything happened to me there would be no sympathy; those who knew me would exclaim, “He was in Moldova. What the hell was he thinking?” Yeah, I had a reason or two to be scared.
So you know what I did? I grabbed on to the sidecar for dear life and laughed like a toddler being tickled.
I can tell you that I’ve had a lot of very unusual, very unexpected and very interesting experiences on bike tours, experiences that wouldn’t have happened had I stuck to the normal touristy stuff, experiences that required being on a bicycle out, away from the usual commerce of the city. Unscripted is the word my friends who work in TV would use. But my experience with Ilya was so beyond anything I anticipated I think they would say I was off-set.
It all started when I pulled over to take a picture. I just wanted a shot of the cool, old motorcycle with the sidecar. After all, you don’t see a motorcycle with a sidecar every day. Something about it looked really familiar, though. I couldn’t recall all the details, but my memory said the design dated from WWII; once I looked it up I realized I was right. Ilya was driving a Ural M72, a design the Russians either stole from or were given by the Germans on the eve of WWII, depending on which version of the history you buy into. This one had the front-wheel drum brake original to the design.
I am, fundamentally, an introvert. Left to my own devices, I’ll head out for the day’s ride, stick to the route as planned, stop at little stores and cafés to refuel when the van isn’t around and finish off the ride with as few surprises as possible. You might say I take the path of least resistance. Bridging the gap between my silence and the engaging world around me is an inexact science. As much as I like finding those unusual experiences, I tell people I’m really not very good at it.
On this occasion the simple act of pulling the camera out and smiling at the bar’s patrons was enough to initiate an epic détente. The moment I snapped the first image Ilya rose from his chair and strode over to his ride. He pantomimed a throttle-twist with his wrist and went, “Vroom vroom”, which is the universal charade for a motorcycle ride.
I’m still not sure which gesture I made in return, but as it turns out I was able to capably communicate the equally universal, “Dude, I so want to go for a ride with you on your cool moto.” Not that I meant to, mind you.
As it turns out, Ilya’s town was lousy with Russian M72s. I know this because I saw two more as he took me for a tour of his town’s war memorials. I shouldn’t have been surprised; by 1950 the factory in Moscow had produced 30,000 of them. We visited two different monuments to his town’s war dead as well as a graveyard. I’m assuming these were soldiers who gave their lives in World War II, if only because up to this point all monuments I’d seen were either to commemorate lives lost in WWII or to promote the superiority of the great Soviet Union.
The steps of the monuments were carpeted with broken glass. Either the townspeople did a lot of drinking here, or a very few people had been drinking here for a very long time and no one owned a broom. There was no way to tell which theory was more accurate.
At each of our stops Ilya took the big bottle of what I was to learn was Cabernet and at the foot of the monument he would pour out wine in the figure of a cross. Even though he had mugged for some touristy photos with me, I took this as a sign of great respect, reverence even. Honestly, I thought pouring beer on a grave was strictly something gangstas did for homeez. Noted.
On our way back to the bar (where my bike was sitting, untouched), we passed a couple from our trip and while they got a good laugh seeing me sitting in the sidecar, that was nothing compared to the shock and wonder Ilya’s friends felt as they saw their friend with a guy covered in Lycra, wearing a spaceman helmet and glasses like the petals of some hybrid flower covering his eyes.
The moment we pulled up back at the bar his cell phone began ringing. I thought nothing of it at first, but what had been five friends was suddenly 11. The phone would ring and someone else would arrive. But I didn’t piece that together until later. No, the first order of business—I thought I was just going to get on my bike, say thanks and be on my way—was for me to sit down and drink with them. Someone handed me a plastic cup, roughly 6 oz. (whatever that works out to in liters) and then poured something deep ruby to the brim. I had no idea what it was. Only after I was into my second cup did a teenage boy I am guessing was 16 at best, but was hanging out smoking and drinking with the others guys, manage to convey that I was drinking Cabernet.
I looked at the bottle. I took some Russian in college. So while I can remember fewer than a dozen words, I can still read the Cyrillic alphabet. A great many words are just transliterated from other languages—their word, funky alphabet. It helps me know when I’m standing in front of a restaurant. But the bottle in question was a beer bottle.
I was drinking someone’s homemade rotgut. Yeah bitches! These guys know how to party! I began trying to find out who made it. No dice. But one guy pestered the kid for something.
The kid asked me, “You like this?”
“Yeah, I like it,” I told him. Then I added, “Eto horosho,” which is Russian for “It is good.”
So then the guy who had pestered the kid leaned forward and asked, “You like?”
I nodded. “Yeah, I like.”
Mind you, it wasn’t a good wine, per se. But there was plenty of bright fruit and a lingering sweetness that demonstrated they knew a thing or two about growing wine grapes to maturity, though maybe they could benefit from some non-native yeasts. It wasn’t terribly different from a non-fizzy wine cooler. I could drink this stuff all day.
Somewhere between the end of the first cup and the beginning of the second, someone handed me a slice of bread with a homemade sausage aboard it. If there was anything ground up in the sausage I didn’t want to know about, I was never going to find out; it was spicy as a sailor’s tongue.
Around that time some of the guys began checking out my bike, which by this time amused me, rather than concerned me. And I don’t think that was just the wine working its magic. One of the guys tapped my Garmin unit and then drew an imaginary line up to the sky and then back down to the Garmin.
With the raised eyebrows of someone about to ask a question he inquired, “Spootnik?”
As in Sputnik, the very first satellite to be launched into Earth’s orbit.
“Da! Da! Spootnik, GPS,” I said, as I nodded emphatically. Hey, this communication thing is going okay, I thought.
As each new comrade arrived at our table, we’d shake hands, we’d toast and then they’d kill their glasses, while I took a few obligatory sips. The toasting thing was difficult to catch on to. I tried “na zdorovje”, which is supposed to be “to your health” but they looked at me a bit quizzically. I also tried “skål”, which was no more successful. Someone said “budmo” which, upon some research, I’ve found means “shall we live forever” and suggests I was hanging out with a bunch guys of Ukrainian blood, which makes sense, given I was less than 10k from the Ukrainian border.
We all said “budmo” a bunch.
As each guy shook my hand I couldn’t help but notice that every one of them, to a man, had the hands of someone who did manual labor. Ilya had mechanic’s version of the French manicure—black under the nails. His and his friends’ grips were firm and steady and their hands were tough as untreated leather. I can hardly imagine what they thought of mine. Remember when Quint rails at Hooper in “Jaws” and says, “You’ve been handling money your whole life”? I’m not rich, but I know my hands are that kind of soft.
What I couldn’t figure out, and this was something that had been nagging at me for the whole of my trip, was how these folks had the constitutions of people who had worked very hard labor over long days for years and yet here they were hanging out drinking at a bar even before it was lunch time. It was a setting I’d seen several times daily for more than a week. I could find no formula to parse its least-common denominator. It just didn’t make sense.
The master plan
After finishing my sausage sandwich and polishing off another cup of wine, I made mention of my need to be on my way. Ilya had a better idea. All his friends thought it was a terrific plan. Instead of leaving, I would stick around, drinking with them until some as-yet-undetermined time; maybe dinnertime, maybe midnight—I couldn’t tell. Then, once we had finished off every fermented beverage this side of the Ukraine (this part is a guess, but their progress suggests I’m not far off), Ilya would put me back in the sidecar. Either I would hold my bike or they would tie it to the side of the sidecar (I couldn’t tell) and then we would use Spootnik to guide us to our end-of-day rally point for the tour.
It was a genius plan. All except for the fact that something in me said that I had gotten off lucky the first time but the combination of a lot more wine, me, that motorcycle and a precarious perch for my bicycle was less a recipe for disaster than a paint-by-numbers map straight to its heart.
Saying goodbye took 15 minutes, maybe more. There were the photos with my new comrades and attempts to sway my will, some with smiling entreaties, some with offers to pour more wine. My final goodbye was with Ilya. We shook hands and then he struck his breast. That move needed no translation. I echoed his gesture by striking mine and nodded in ascent. This had been something special; we had shared something neither of us had expected, something neither of us will ever forget.
As I walked—with something approaching a sway—over to my bicycle, I thought of the event that started it all. I’d been on my way up a hill to leave this little town I hadn’t even bothered to stop to check out, when I spied the motorcycle with the sidecar sitting beneath a tree and behind it some guys hanging out before the day’s heat arrived.
I can’t say there is any rhyme or reason to the events that precipitate these experiences; I put myself out there and they just seem to happen from time to time. Isn’t that the way it usually works? But I figured I should capture an image of that motorcycle. What I took was so much more.
When I launched RKP on July 2, 2009, I was apprehensive. I knew it was the right thing for me to do, but I wasn’t certain that many readers would follow me from Belgium Knee Warmers. I’d been working behind the scenes to develop a logo, design the site, court a few advertisers and start amassing content.
In another, concurrent, life my wife was pregnant with our son, who was born later that month. I look back on that time with a certain amount of amazement, like I wonder what the hell I was thinking trying to do both those things at the same time.
Seemed like a good idea at the time. And the funny thing is, because you’re reading this now, it must have been. I’ve been pretty honest about my goals in the past, but given the events of the last eight months or so, they warrant some repeating, especially as a fair number of you are new(ish) here.
My ambition, modest as it was, was to have the ability to write about cycling without the influence of a publisher or advertisers who think that good editorial can be purchased. I also thought that I could manage to get paid something for this work by selling some advertising to builders and companies who trusted me enough not to interfere with my work. I never thought RKP would be particularly sizable, traffic-wise, so in my mind, the reasonable hope was that it might provide a portion of my income, along with the work I was doing for Road Bike Action and a few others.
Fast forward three years and almost all the work I do is for RKP and peloton magazine, a publication that didn’t even exist when I launched RKP. It’s been a strange turn of events. Stranger still is that RKP is publishing work by John Wilcockson, Charles Pelkey and other talented contributors like Whit Yost. I swear to you, I didn’t see that coming. To have dreamt such a development would have been the height of hubris in my book. It’s worth mentioning that companies that realize new success often forget the people who helped them get there. It means a lot to me that Robot continues to be my most trusted confidant (aside from my wife) and one of the most important voices here at RKP.
Our growth hasn’t been without some ripped jeans. We still haven’t sold a single ad for Pelkey’s live updates; that he shakes the tip jar during his coverage is something I’m actively encouraging. I aim to do right by him (and Patrick O’Grady as well). And our reception by various bike companies is pretty varied. Specialized trusts our work enough to invite us to the rather exclusive intro of their new TT helmet; meanwhile I can’t get Trek to return a phone call (it’s not an uncommon problem, I’m told). I’m not offended, but I hate the appearance that we’re showing Specialized a certain favoritism; I actively want to do content on Trek, and many others. The fact is, you can only date the girls who will actually go to the movies with you.
We’ve gotten a few nods; some public—the Outside mention—some less so. On the way to the airport as I was leaving Press Camp, one of the event’s directors, Chris Zigmont, told me that he doesn’t really think of RKP as a blog, that he views us as a mainstream cycling media outlet. While I maintained that we will remain a blog because we value the interactivity with our readers, I was really gratified by what he said.
So it is that on our third birthday I have to acknowledge that RKP is both exactly what I wanted and something entirely other than I envisioned. I set out to publish a blog that valued quality writing about cycling. We are absolutely that to this day. I just never considered that we’d be bringing you so many stellar voices. That they trust me enough to see their work published here, and that you readers keep coming back, gratifies me every day.
Thanks for reading.
In 2008, Radio Freddy arranged for the two of us to meet Brad Roe, then the editor of Hi-Torque’s Road Bike Action. While Radio Freddy was in town for the Tour of California, we met Brad and took a tour of the offices that had produced countless issues of magazines we did a better job of memorizing than the algebra texts found in our book bags during our school days.
From that one meeting a relationship with Brad and RBA grew. I’d admired the work those guys were doing and the chance to begin freelancing for them was a dream come true. I began freelancing for VeloNews once again, following a more than 10-year hiatus. And when Paved was launched, I was thrilled to hear from Joe Parkin requesting a contribution.
That I chose to launch Red Kite Prayer is an event I believe some BKW readers misunderstood. Comments in response to my post announcing RKP got snarky and suggested I was disloyal to Radio Freddy and I wasn’t showing proper appreciation for the “sponsorship” I received. Just what that sponsorship was, I’ll never know.
I really hadn’t wanted to turn my back on BKW and it wasn’t a slight to Radio Freddy. Facts were facts, though. His day job was busy and he didn’t have the time to put into a blog that I did. And it wasn’t really practical for me to assume the helm of a ship that wasn’t mine. He encouraged me to launch a new blog and even suggested he’d contribute to it, turning the tables in an unusual twist. For me, it came down to a matter of practicality: To make a living as a freelancer, I needed to make something off of all my work, whether it came from T-shirt sales, advertising or (preferably) both. RKP hasn’t made me rich, nor do I expect it to, but it’s added an important additional revenue stream (to use a technical term) to my business model. Ahem.
When Brad left RBA I was equal parts surprised and depressed. I loved working with him and feared that a terrific relationship was going to go down the drain. I knew we’d stay in touch, but I feared we’d never work together again. It’s not often you work with an editor who challenges you and then gives you enough leash to go do good work. Mere months later he decided he missed publishing and announced a new road bike magazine, peloton. When he called to ask me to be a part of the magazine and even offered me a column I didn’t need time to think before saying yes.
Unfortunately, once I began freelancing for peloton, my days at Road Bike Action were numbered, even though the writing I did for the two couldn’t have been more different. I’d never have written the analysis pieces or columns that have appeared in peloton for Road Bike Action. Conversely, the overview features that I typically did for RBA would never suffice for peloton. I really enjoyed the diversity. However, Hi-Torque hasn’t taken kindly to having an ex-employee (Brad) start a new magazine. Getting caught in the middle was zero fun, but then no one ever enjoys being collateral damage. For a period of time I put the Swiss Cross up as my profile pic on Facebook. That didn’t seem to phase anyone, so when RBA’s ad sales director pulled me aside at Interbike and told me, “You can’t freelance for four magazines,” I responded, “I’m not; I’m freelancing for three.” I added, “Look, I’m a freelancer, which means I’m a hooker. If you want me to spend the night, marry me.”
I admit, I was impressed when they offered me a full-time position. They offered to create a special status for me, so that while they didn’t want to see most of their editors more than four or five times in a month, they expressed a strong desire to have me in the office all five days a week. I’d have the opportunity to brainstorm ideas on the hour-and-a-half drive each way to and from work and I’d be liberated of the need to care for my year-old son on a daily basis. Though the allure of the position was strong—especially because their urgency was so great they never put an offer in writing—I realized that as a lowly blogger publishing a new piece five days a week probably hadn’t prepared me for the rigor of their publication schedule. I decided the best thing I could do was allow them to hire someone more qualified.
It used to be that in working as staff for a magazine you exchanged the freedom to freelance for a steady paycheck. It was a Faustian trade, I tell you. Today, though, we have a much better arrangement, thanks to 1099s. The good news in this is writers like me who are unencumbered by the strictures of employment used to face a dizzying array of possible homes for our freelance work. It was utterly confusing to get up each morning and wonder who I should pitch for which story. That needless task has been solved for me, though. The more my name has become associated with peloton, the less other magazines have been willing to work with me. I’m pretty introverted, so having the phone ring less with offers of work has lifted a tremendous burden from me.
Of course, I still query other magazines from time to time, but I really do it just to keep appearances up. I really don’t want my name getting around too much; that might get confusing for readers.
Though my involvement with peloton has been strictly freelance, the assignments I’ve tackled have been some of the most challenging and rewarding of my entire career. The chance to have my analysis of greats like Eddy Merckx, Fausto Coppi and Claudio Chiappucci appear alongside never-before-seen photos from some of the finest photographers in the biz puts a smile on my face while helping to pay the rent. Life is good.
So what’s the point of this story? First, it’s to say thanks (again) to Radio Freddy for giving me a chance to reinvent myself as a writer. That I’ve carved out a niche for myself as an author in the bike industry is both incredibly rare and something that came about as a direct result of my involvement in BKW. What has also been truly gratifying are the people who have come forward to tell me how much they enjoyed BKW and even some instances where other writers have noted how it influenced their desire to write or what to write about. That there are other blogs out there that owe some of their inspiration to BKW is something I’d never have guessed would happen.
But I’m not the only person who re-entered the bike biz due to BKW. Radio Freddy is back among us. I guess this sport is a bit like some viruses—once in your system it’s there for good. His re-entry has created an opportunity for us to collaborate again, though our involvement will be found at another web address.
To find out his real identity and see what he’s up to, pick up Issue 10 of peloton.
Image: Brad Roe
By now you’re aware that there’s a relatively new kid on the block in terms of bike magazines. Peloton magazine is entering its second year of publication and is growing like an adolescent with an overactive pituitary. Which is a good thing in this case as we don’t have to buy it any clothes. I’m grateful to every one of you who has already subscribed to the magazine. You lot can drop back by later when the real post for today is finished.
This is a sales pitch pure and simple.
There’s always some fine print, so let’s get that out of the way. I do a lot of work for peloton. Most months, they are my single biggest source of income. They purchased that ad at the right. I’ve been bought and paid for. (Hey FTC: Are you happy now?) That said, no one asked me to write this post. As per usual, it’s from the heart.
You may notice that the ad mentions a discounted subscription. While you don’t have to be an RKP reader to get this deal, currently this blog is the only place outside of peloton that this is being advertised. That should tell you something about highly regarded the RKP readership is.
If you haven’t already subscribed to peloton, please tell a loved one to get you this for the holidays. One of ‘em; we don’t care which holiday.
Brad Roe, Tim Schamber, Ben Edwards, Adam Reek and the rest of the team are doing something truly different. This isn’t just a great bike magazine, it’s a great magazine, full stop. They are a great media company. They are doing something to show that artful photography and prose printed on paper still matters, that there’s a place for quality in this world, that we don’t need another commodity focus-grouped into existence.
And here’s the other trick: If you think they’ve been adventurous so far (and they have), with more readers, their budget grows to do even more surprising things. Years from now, I suspect one night you’ll finish an issue and as you set it down you’re going to wonder, “How did we ever get along before there was peloton?”
I ask myself the same thing every damn day.
And if that wasn’t enough, check out this preview of Issue 08.
Fuel for the ride. Indeed.
When I review a bike, I tend to hit the “road feel” aspect of a bike’s ride pretty hard. I’ve done it enough and gotten enough subsequent questions about just what I mean and what I value that it seems high time I spend devoted some pixels just to the subject of road feel.
It used to be that road feel or “ride quality” was an indispensable dimension of any bike review. Even Bicycling Magazine would address it in their famously brief reviews. Those publications that devoted more than a couple hundred words to a review tended to spend more time defining not only a given bike’s ride quality but also made an effort to assign some sort of value to the quality. I’m not seeing much conversation on the subject these days, save the reviews Ben Edwards pens for peloton magazine.
While it may seem that ride quality and road feel may be essentially two different phrases for the same phenomenon, I do see them differently and I believe historically that “ride quality” was often used to define not just the feel of the frame material, but the interplay of that material with the bike’s geometry. In a nutshell, I use road feel to address the sense of road I get based on the frame material alone. It has nothing to do with the frame’s overall stiffness.
So any discussion of road feel is limited to the sense of road the bicycle’s frame imparts to the rider. Many of the bike’s components can affect just what you experience. Ride a bike with 100 psi in the tires and then ride it again with 140 psi in the tires and you could be forgiven for believing you were on a different bike.
Bar, bar tape, seatpost, seat and tires will all affect road feel, but none of these will usually have the effect that a significant change in tire pressure will bring. Additionally, different shorts and different shoes will affect what you experience as well. When reviewing a bike, I never get the chance to normalize for more than wheels and tires. I’ve got a set of wheels I know intimately and have some trusted open tubulars on them. That will zero out the wheel/tire combo. Ride a bike long enough and you’ll even see through differences in shorts. All that aside, the most important feedback you get comes through your feet and butt.
Okay, so all those factors can skew what you feel, but that doesn’t answer the central question of why road feel matters.
I’m fascinated by road feel because it is one of a handful of the dimensions of a bike’s overall composition that can affect how I descend and corner. When a bike is pushed to its performance limit, road feel can have a profound influence on just how far I’m willing to go.
People will use descriptors such as “lively,” “dead,” “springy,” and even “razor-sharp” to discuss the way the bike feels as they ride it. That feel is road feedback. Think of your frame as a pair of glasses and the road as the sky. The frame you ride is essentially the lens color of your glasses. You can ride a frame that blots out most of the sunlight to tame a sunny day. Or it can be a high-contrast yellow lens for the low-light situations you find on early morning fall rides. And whether you choose a dark or light lens, the quality of that lens will determine the clarity with which you see.
While this may be obvious almost to redundant, the road surface has a huge influence on just what you experience. The smoother the road, the less input you get and the deader the bike will feel. Some amount of texture is helpful for descending and cornering.
When I first started reviewing bikes, my sense was that the changes I experienced in road feel related almost entirely to frame material, that all bikes created from a frame material were sort of static in feel. However, the market was being flooded with new steels and I quickly learned that some of the new oversize steel tube sets (such as Columbus EL-OS Nivacrom) felt different from older stuff (such as Columbus SL). Even though the material density was the same, the bikes felt different.
So why was that? The best information I have from engineers is that it was related to wall thickness. If density remains consistent, a thinner wall will transmit more vibration. Increase wall thickness or decrease density and the feel changes. Titanium is half as dense as steel; aluminum is a third as dense as steel.
But the vibration transmission is affected by other factors. Butting makes a huge impact on road feel. No matter what material is used, if the tubes are straight gauge, the bike will have a harsher feel; more vibration will radiate through the frame.
So what constitutes good road feel and how much vibration should a frame transmit? Well, there are a variety of opinions on this. The French manufacturer Time does all it can to eliminate as much road vibration as possible; they include materials like Kevlar to make the frames mute to vibration. There are other manufacturers, such as Specialized, Cannondale, Felt, Look, BH, Parlee and even Bottecchia that offer bikes with a nude finish; that is, decals and no paint. No paint means an absence of 80 to 100 grams of material that contributes nothing structural to the bike. When you’re talking about a potentially 800g frame, that means 10-12 percent of the bike’s weight does nothing to contribute to strength or stiffness. You might as well just wrap the frame with electrical tape.
While 80g of paint is a liability in the weight department, the presence of paint does an interesting thing to a bike’s road feel. It deadens the frame. Not terribly, but it does fundamentally change just how the bike feels.
I’ve had the opportunity to ride bikes from a couple of manufacturers with paint and then with a decal-only finish. The difference in feel has to do with high-frequency road vibration. It’s that high-frequency stuff that gives you the greatest sensitivity to the road conditions. And though Trek doesn’t offer (so far as I’ve seen) a single nude-finished frame, it’s absence suggests less that they aren’t concerned with road feel and more that they aren’t confident in the cosmetics of their unpainted frames.
While I could try to illustrate the point of sensitivity with the analogy of a condom, let’s go with a stereo instead. On a traditional stereo with volume, bass and treble controls, if you turn up the bass and then turn down the treble, you wind up with gangsta rap—a pumping sound that has little definition. Carbon fiber frames with nude finishes feature a little less volume overall (because the frames feature an incredible amount of internal butting at junctions) but offer clarity that can only come from keeping the treble cranked up. Think of top-40 radio and the way those melodies can carry even when played on a lousy department store PA.
The Trouble With Color
Painted carbon can look amazing. It can also give a manufacturer the opportunity to cover blemishes in substandard work. It even offers a very minor degree of impact resistance. But it does nothing for road feel.
Bikes like the Specialized Tarmac, Cannondale SuperSix EVO, Felt F-series and BH Ultralight feature next-generation carbon fiber construction that has eliminated the use of foam in junctions where compaction has traditionally been a problem. Internal forms help make sure the bike achieves optimal material compaction. I suppose there are others using these techniques, but these are the bikes I’m aware of so far. Tap a fingernail on the down tube of one of these bikes and you’ll hear a distinctly metallic sound. The greater the material density, the higher frequency the sound. Both frame strength and road feel benefit.
It’s easy to conclude that greater high-frequency sensitivity is strictly an aesthetic preference and that one can make a strong case for a frame that stamps out vibration like ants in a kitchen. Unfortunately, there are objective reasons to seek out a frame with less vibration damping.
If your goal is a frame that maximizes strength while still achieving a competitive ~800g weight, you have to go with a nude finish. I’ve yet to come across a bike that offers the strength and weight equal to the world’s top frames that also feels dead. I’m so glad. But, God, how I wish Cervelos were available in a paint-free scheme.
A final note: One needn’t ride on the roller coaster roads of Malibu to make use of the benefits of superior road feel. I try not to push bikes to the point of breaking the tires loose (at least, on the road), but when the roads are wet, a bike that gives me great feedback will help me get down a descent faster. And as a rider, the greatest challenge I ever face on two wheels is riding in the rain. Descending in the rain? Nearly guaranteed flow state, and it’s times like that I want all the data I can get, even if it’s 100 percent right-brained.
You may be aware that Pablove is a charity that works to fight childhood cancer. You may also be aware that Jeff Castelaz, one of the founders of Pablove—and the father of Pablo Thrailkill Castelaz for whom the charity is named—is an avid cyclist and has raised awareness for the work the charity does through rides he and others do.
What you may not know is that as one of the founders of Dangerbird Records, Jeff has a lot of musician friends and they have come together to do an auction on behalf of Pablove. There are a number of amazing items (one or two of which you may need to outbid me on) up for grabs, and among them is the painting artist Geoff McFetridge did for the cover of peloton magazine‘s latest issue, pictured above.
Brad Roe, the publisher of peloton, had one request: “Let it rain money.”
Let it rain, indeed.
It was a Thursday in April. The spring had been spectacular. I’d been piling on the miles and getting stronger by the week. I’d scheduled the day to work from home, which gave me the chance to take in a four-hour ride in the morning; a great loop in the mountains north of home was the recipe. I’d just finished a 2000-foot climb and rolled over some gentle terrain followed by a brief 45 mph descent. I thought I felt great.
The moment the road turned back up, and by up I mean an extended false flat, one that would last the next 10 miles, I found out that I was not okay. My legs felt as if they’d been hollowed out. It was an emptiness I’d never known.
Things didn’t really improve when I finished the false flat. I was still 25 miles from home and the steepest climb of the day lay ahead. Inside the convenience store I purchased a Mountain Dew and a Snickers bar. It was more a prayer than a calculated gambit to find energy. The word woozy doesn’t begin to illustrate the way my head reeled.
I sat on the sidewalk chewing and sipping my way through the refined-sugar equivalent of rocket fuel. I took no notice of the neon flavors.
The irony of crossing the top of Spunky Canyon in my condition escaped me. I descended for more than a half hour, pedaling only when mandatory.
In the shower, I slumped against the wall. I wondered if I was getting sick. I ate everything in the kitchen that didn’t require cooking. That afternoon I napped and managed only one email that could be construed as “work-related.”
I dashed off a note to a coach I frequently used as a pundit for all things cycling. By this time, my despair was Orwellian. My body had betrayed me, abandoned me. “What happened?” Honestly, I was less concerned with what went wrong than what was required to fix the situation. I needed a solution STAT because I couldn’t abide feeling like the flicker of a dead florescent tube.
You already know the answer: I was overtrained. So overtrained it took me three weeks to get back on track. This was my first season of consistent 15-18-hour weeks and my rest weeks had been, well, they hadn’t been rest weeks, had they?
And just like John Cleese’s character in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who claims a witch turned him into a newt, I got better. We all do.
Friends, I’m overtrained. For the first time ever in my life as a writer, I’m tapped. In the last 12 weeks, between posts for RKP, features for peloton and Bike Monkey, reviews for Map My Ride and copy for several industry clients, I’ve written roughly 50,000 words—half a novel.
I’ve tried to limp along for the last two weeks, but I’ve done a lousy job and RKP has suffered for it. While the desire is there, the feeling is similar to how Beethoven described being deaf—it’s not a silence, but a roar. I sit down ready to write but all I hear is static.
I am going to put the keyboard away for the next week. Following a trip to Chicago to promote my book The No-Drop Zone at Velosmith Bicycle Studio, I’m heading up to the Sierra Nevada to take in as many hors categorie climbs as I can manage in a week. As I empty one battery, I plan to charge another. I’ll be back by Labor Day.
Thanks for reading.
There’s an arc to birthdays. When you’re young, they’re a sign of progress and increasing freedom. In your twenties and thirties they are a time of benchmarks, milestones reached. When your my age, they are a sign that the body is in retreat and that, provided you’re not an athlete—and I’m not—your professional fortunes may still be on the rise. When you reach my parents’ age, birthdays are a reminder of the fleeting nature of life.
It’s this last function of birthdays that’s on my mind. These days, commercial ventures wink in and out of existence with the speed of fruit flies. Commitment seems no more than a pledge to stick around for as long as the sticking’s good, so for a blog to reach the mark of two years of consistent publication, it’s practically like reaching old age.
In the two years that RKP has published my life has undergone a transformation. My son was born and celebrated his first birthday. My wife let me start sleeping in the bedroom again. Last year, as RKP celebrated its first anniversary I turned in the manuscript for my second book, the recently published The No-Drop Zone: Everything You Need to Know About the Peloton, Your Gear and Riding Strong.
Behind the scenes, I’ve gained not just a friend, but a virtual brother in Robot. He’s inspired me and my work and brought a fresh outlook and helped RKP to fulfill my pledge to give you something different, something worthwhile. Without him and his contributions, this would be a duller site.
The comments you write in response to our posts—both positive and negative—have been an important form of guidance. That interplay is a key part of what makes RKP a special site. You’re a bright, experienced and informed readership. It’s not something you can buy. That your numbers have grown to some 40,000 each month is the best confirmation that we must be doing something worthwhile.
The industry has taken note as well. From peloton magazine to the pages of the Giro catalog, our work has been in demand. Yes, the Giro catalog. You’ll find pieces by both yours truly and Robot in the upcoming Giro catalog. Robot also recently penned (keyboarded?) an item for Pavé. I’m sure you’ll be seeing his byline around more and more. It’s a crime to hide talent.
That cycling has changed each of our lives is beyond question. That we can find the opportunity to put into words those ineffable experiences and explore the reasons why the sport can inspire us in ways that aren’t just athletic but are often spiritual is perhaps more than we have a right to expect. On behalf of each of RKP‘s contributors, thanks for reading.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
I’ve seen and reported on a lot of bike races over the years. Next to the Tour de France, the event I’ve most wanted to witness in person was the Giro. The reasons why are simple in my mind.
First, Italians are the masterminds of la dolce vita. No culture could be better suited to watching a bike race than the very people who invented passion. Second, the Giro, unlike Paris-Roubaix, takes place at a time well-suited to standing around outside. Watching a bike race in cold weather just isn’t quite as chummy as it is when the sun is out. Trust me on this. Third, in a world full of nationalistic pride, Italy sets the bar high and the Giro is less a celebration of bike racing than what Italians think bike racing ought to be. Ask an Italian what the Giro is and he’ll tell you it is bike racing, perfected.
I was in Italy to check out Cannondale’s new SuperSix EVO on behalf of peloton magazine. I’ll circle back to my impressions of that bike in another post on its way. The nature of press events is always one in which the host company wishes to wow the journalists as much as possible. The invites are coveted because, well, other than the workload (which is considerable in the age of the Interwebs), these shindigs are fun.
The upshot here is that we were guests of Team Liquigas in their specially cordoned-off area at the start of the team time trial beginning this year’s Giro. The protected space the team had was easily double that of any other team I saw and involved a convoy of vehicles large enough to convey most of the press corps. They had, in fact, not one, but two buses, the second being a rolling kitchen that fed, so far as I could tell, every VIP within the city and not one of the team’s riders. Understandable, really, as what they fed us was too laden with cheese to have been ideal for a pre-race meal.
Similarly, the 9.5 (say “nine dot five”) Cold Wine (a low-alcohol Prosecco) wasn’t really suitable for water bottles if you get my drift. ‘Twas delightful stuff, even if I was served my first flute of it at 11:00 in the morning. And for the record, while it may seem kinda cutesy to have an official pasta sponsor, it’s ultra-cool to have the owner of the company show up to your party with his product.
The self-propelled kitchen was fascinating, but my personal interest went to the mechanics and the gear truck. Theirs was stunningly well-stocked. However, gear is only so interesting; more interesting is how the mechanics set up the bikes.
The big thing I noticed on the Liquigas TT bikes, which I saw on no other bikes (thought it’s possible I missed it) was, truly, a very small thing. Each of the bikes had an in-line brake lever mounted on one of the aero bar extensions. The lever was connected to the front brake, giving the riders the ability to scrub speed without leaving the aero position. If you’ve ever tried to ride a paceline in aero bars then you know just how difficult it is, and just how PRO that little touch is.
Because the team is sponsored by Italian saddle manufacturer Fi’zi:k, the mechanics had every shape of Fi’zi:k saddle in the team’s signature white and lime green color scheme. The entire team could go down for a week and they’d still have saddles to spare. Ditto for Vittoria tubulars. There were enough tires to get the average Belgian team through the first half of any cobbled classic.
As I wandered the streets near the start ramp, every single team used rope, cellophane tape or those stands with the retractable polyester webbing (like you see in banks) to keep the fans back from the riders. Even so, Italian fans would slip under and plead “Che passione!” to see if they would be allowed to hang out.
No matter. The riders had to leave and the most popular among them (e.g. Danilo DiLuca) would have a train of fans chasing them down the street, paparazzi style. See what I mean? The Italians have a word for the crazed fans that chase stars with their cameras.
It was a day to celebrate cycling and the singular achievement that is bike racing. Simple times. A simpler day.
Philippe Gilbert has done what was truly the unthinkable. In sweeping the four races of the Ardennes Week—Brabantse Pijl, Amstel Gold, Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege—Gilbert has taken a quartet of victories no other rider has ever achieved. Even the triple of Amstel Gold, Fleche Wallonne and L-B-L seemed too much to reasonably hope for, yet he went hope one further. How many riders can tell Roger De Vlaeminck, Rik Van Looy and Eddy Merckx to go suck it?
In the current issue (#3) of peloton magazine I put forward the suggestion that Gilbert is a rider cut in the mold of Rik Van Looy, the only rider to win each of the major classics. In the course of his career, Van Looy won each of the Monuments at least once, resulting in eight total wins of our greatest one-day races. What is interesting is that Gilbert’s victories in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Amstel Gold set him apart from Van Looy. The Emperor of Herentals, as he was known, never won Amstel or the Omloop Het Volk, as it was called in his day.
Liege-Bastogne-Liege marks only Gilbert’s third Monument, following his two wins at the Tour of Lombardy. Like Roger De Vlaeminck he has shown the ability to climb with the very best Grand Tour riders in a one-day race, and yet can sprint with Classics riders like Boonen. And that’s the trick.
Unlike his Belgian forebears Johan Museeuw and Peter Van Petegem, whose sole wins in the Monuments came in the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, Gilbert has shown he can win south of Paris. Only a handful of riders, including De Vlaeminck and Michele Bartoli have won both the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and the Tour of Lombardy during their careers. Of course, Merckx did that, too.
What’s most interesting about Gilbert isn’t his ability to win on any terrain, though that is certainly part of his strength and his appeal. And it isn’t the fact that he is well-poised to become the greatest one-day rider of his generation, with the potential to win a greater range of races than Fabian Cancellara or Tom Boonen. No, what makes Gilbert so interesting is his capacity to surprise, his sheer wily-ness.
For us, the question isn’t so much if he’ll win the Tour of Flanders, it’s which year and on which muur he’ll launch his attack. His combination of incredible strength and tactical sensibility were on full display during Liege-Bastogne-Liege. In fact, the greatest move of the race wasn’t the attack that separated Gilbert and the Schleck brothers from, well, from anything that might have mattered. The greatest move was after dumping Andy Schleck on the Côte de Saint-Nicholas; rather than try to drag brother Frank to the finish, Gilbert backed off, allowing Andy to chase back on. The effort kept Schleck the younger on the rivet and prevented him from being much of a factor in the sprint.
Had Gilbert continued, Frank wouldn’t have taken a single pull, and while it was unlikely he could have taken Gilbert in the sprint, there was no point in towing him to the finish and taking that risk. Once Andy returned to the duo, with both Schlecks present and accounted for, they were obligated to take their pulls. Tactically, Gilbert could have sat on them, yet he continued to take strong pulls to make the break work, but it was obvious from his positioning on the road that he was ever-mindful of the risk of an attack from one of the Schlecks.
With four consecutive wins, questions about the source of Gilbert’s strength threaten to spoil our enjoyment of a simple bike race. We’ve no reason to doubt he’s clean other than success and if we are to doubt a rider who wins, we are to doubt all of racing. The sport is too good for that. Let’s enjoy the day.
We’re seeing a rare rider emerge, one with the potential to win on any day. We had better keep our eyes peeled.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International