Over the course of the SRAM 22 launch, we went for three rides. Because the product intro was being held in Westlake Village, just north of the eastern-most portion of the Santa Monica Mountains, I’d either know the roads we were riding intimately, or at least be familiar with them. While I was pleased not to be terribly far from my family, I was trying to figure out if the marketing team were geniuses or gamblers for picking this location. That I had that reaction surprised me; I’ve written on several occasions that if you really want to prove that a road product works, you ought to spend some time testing it in the Santa Monicas. I have been serious about that. However, there’s a big difference between doing testing and having the worldwide launch for your product over those roads.
On our first ride, I rode a Specialized S-Words Roubaix SL4 equipped with Red 22 and mechanical brakes. What I’ve noticed about 11-speed groups is that you lose track of just how many cogs you have; you lose track of your place in the cassette. Why 11 cogs is harder to keep track of than 10, I can’t say, but I’ve noticed for myself that there’s rarely an occasion when I don’t have at least one more cog in either direction. There is nothing else to report about this group. Doing the ride was, for me, simply an opportunity to have an immediate reminder of what braking is like with the mechanical Red brakes. The reminder was mostly superfluous for me; I’d ridden the group (with 10 speeds, mind you) just the day before.
On our second ride I had the opportunity to ride the Cannondale SuperSix EVO with the Hydro R—hydraulic rim brakes. I expect you’ll see steel builders making bikes to accommodate this before the week is out. The brake has gobs of clearance (that’s a technical term meaning so much more than your typical dual-pivot caliper that it’s visually noticeable); think ‘cross tire clearance. It’s worth mentioning that the bike was equipped with Zipp 202 Firecrest Carbon Clinchers. Anyone who has ever held the sweeping belief that you can’t achieve enough braking force with carbon wheels will be amazed by what’s possible with these brakes and carbon wheels. Rolling around the parking lot to make sure my saddle height and reach were more or less correct, I hit the brakes a few times just to get a feel for how quickly the power ramped up and how the bike would react to a panic-y grab. With my hands only on the hoods, I felt more power than on any other road bike I’d ever ridden.
I actually said, “Wow.”
As company for our rides SRAM brought in Tim Johnson and Allison Tetrick as ride leaders. Tim was terrific at keeping the group orderly—unsurprising given his work in advocacy, while Allison proved to be even funnier in person than she was on the Road I.D. commercials with cycling’s favorite buffoon, Bob Roll. Having them along for our rides was a nice touch.
Out on the road, in braking for stop signs and lights, I noticed nothing unusual. The experience of the new brake wasn’t so startling that I needed to recalibrate my grip. Honestly, that was my biggest concern, that all braking on this bike would be like trying to slice an apple with a meat cleaver. That delicate ability to scrub speed to maintain a two- or three-foot distance from the rider in front of me remained intact.
There’s a descent into Westlake Village that is among the diciest in the Santa Monicas. It’s called Westlake Road and to my knowledge it has the single steepest pitch in all of the Santa Monicas. The road pitches downward at an incredible 20 percent. But because the road in that spot twists like some ridiculous gag in a Road Runner cartoon, riders don’t have a chance to build up lethal speed like you can on, say, Tuna Canyon. Our return for the second and third rides was down that road.
Here’s where I need to admit that my descending skills are still in reboot. I’m pretty much back to normal on the easy stuff, stuff in Palos Verdes I know well. But I still wear a skirt to all the descents in the Santa Monicas. I’d been down Westlake a couple of times in the past. Due to its location and the fact that I generally ride from the South Bay, descending that road puts the Santa Monicas between me and 50-some miles to home. All this is to say that I knew the road just well enough to know it required caution. Hell, the first time I ever descended it I managed to brake just hard enough to cause my rear wheel slide a bit. And so when I dropped into that descent, I did so with nearly all the trepidation of someone with a shellfish allergy about to chow down on a bucket of shrimp. That I was on a bike with even more powerful brakes than the one I was on during my first trip down that road was like adding interest to my tax bill.
Insert giant, sarcastic, “Hooray!”
Nothing against the folks at SRAM, mind you. I felt I had an obligation to show up with my faculties new-pencil sharp, and I was embarrassed not to be there yet. There was an upshot, though; my reticence to dive into each turn meant that I was braking with the deliberate “Whoa!” of a camper emerging from a tent who sees a bear. And that is kinda what this product was all about—the whoa.
There’s no denying that the Hydro rim brake had more power than any brake on a road bike I’d ever encountered. While I was diving into turns with thrill-inducing speed, I still tried to wait as late as possible to do my braking and then brake with a brief, firm arrest. Never once did I break a tire free.
For our final ride I moved to the new Specialized S-Works Roubaix SL4 with the Hyrdo disc brakes. This was the bike of which I was most skeptical, because it was the bike that had required more re-engineering than just a new routing of a rear brake line. The Roubaix featured an all-new fork and rear triangle in order to accommodate the disc clearance and the change in the distribution of braking forces. Rolling those discs was a pair of the new Zipp 303 Firecrest Carbon Clinchers and they were shod with some 25mm-wide Continentals. On the already wide rims of the 303s, the tires looked like they were 28mm wide.
My first concern when I climbed on was pad retraction. There was no rubbing of pads. My next concern as I rolled around the parking lot was whether I would be able to brake lightly enough to scrub speed the way I sometimes need to in the pack without applying too much power. With a feathery touch of the levers, I was able to take the sharp edge off any velocity. And the rest of those concerns?
“Oh, the hell with them,” I thought. “Let’s just go ride the damn thing.”
I did my best to forget about the bike and just ride it. Admittedly, that wasn’t exactly easy to do. The control lever has an oddly square shape to the bottom of the body; it’s not as comfortable to hold as the lever hoods on the mechanical Red and, worse in my mind, there’s no adjustment for lever throw, so I had to adjust to reaching a bit further to the brake levers. Not my fave. These are two features that need improving in the future, but are by no means deal-breakers.
Our first real descent was down Potrero Canyon. I braked a bit at the top to let the group go. That gave me a chance to read the road better and not feel like my uncertainty with the bike was going to mess with anyone else’s ride. The more I concentrated on the terrain and my line, the better able I was to forget about the brakes, but there were any number of turns (I’m guessing we’re talking at least a dozen) where the brake power was just too conspicuous to Ninja past. These are the most powerful brakes I’ve ever encountered on a road bike. No contest. Period. Full stop. End of discussion.
By the time I’d reached the bottom of the descent, the question on my mind wasn’t whether or not this stuff worked, it was how much re-learning was going to be required to make optimal use of the brakes. My concern for more braking power than is necessary was dismissed with the flip of a hand you reserve for a bad waiter. The guys at SRAM tried to sell me on the idea that my hands wouldn’t fatigue as much on descents. That didn’t sell me. The only times my hands have gotten tired from braking I was on a mountain bike. That said, I can recall occasions on certain descents in the Santa Monicas where I had had concerns for being able to sufficiently slow the bike from 40+ miles per hour to make it through the next turn. But that memory and how these brakes would affect that situation didn’t come to me until after I’d finished the ride on the Roubaix and made it down the intestinal Westlake where I would brake once with the determined grip required to squeeze a lime over an al pastor taco. Mmm. Where were we?
It was after I was down Westlake and back to the hotel that I began to appreciate just what’s possible with those brakes. I never once broke a tire loose and believe me, I was often braking harder than was necessary. The lesson here for me is that there is a wide delta between how much braking power our bikes have and what is truly required to break a tire loose—provided your bike is under proper control. There’s a fair learning curve between my brief experience with these brakes and really making optimal use of them. And anyone who purchases a bike with these brakes will need two skill sets, the first being how to make full use of their remarkable abilities and the second being understanding how to apply them as if they were using mechanical brakes so that when they are riding in a group they don’t wear another rider like a cape because they over-braked in a turn. A half-dozen of these in a group of 30 riders could spell mayhem.
I don’t see the need for these brakes for anyone who lives someplace flat and never takes in dirt roads. There’s just no need. But for anyone in the mountains, I have to admit these brakes will increase a rider’s control. I’m not yet sure how hard it will be to transition from a bike with mechanical brakes to hydraulic discs and back again, but I suspect it won’t be as simple as moving from SRAM shifting to Dura-Ace and back again, but that’s a skill set anyone with multiple bikes would need to work on.
I didn’t expect to say this, but I want more time on a Roubaix with Hydro D. A lot more time.
Saturday morning on Rapha’s Gentleman’s ride in Santa Monica rider Robert Hyndman died. Robert was descending Las Flores Canyon Road when he crashed. There’s been a fair amount of hand-wringing and Monday-morning quarterbacking about this tragedy and as a result, I’ve decided to weigh in, if for no other reason than my years of experience with those canyon roads.
Let me begin by saying that I consider Slate, Jeremy, Derrick and Gerben at Rapha all friends. Double for Alison and Steven at Bike Effect, the studio at which the ride originated. What I’m about to write is as much for them as it is for anyone who has never ridden the canyon roads of the Santa Monicas.
Of the many mountain ranges around the world graced with roads suitable to cycling, the Santa Monicas are unusual in that no other range of mountains has more magazine editors within 50 miles and had less written about them. I penned the only survey of those mountains I know to have been published by a bike magazine. A few years ago I wrote “Malibu: Heaven has mountains” for Road Bike Action. And yes, I declared that the Santa Monicas were my idea of heaven. I also declared that riding the canyon roads above Malibu is far more challenging than riding in the Alps or even the Pyrenees. I believe if you can descend those canyons, you can ride anywhere, even the roads of the Chartreuse and Vercors, which are themselves more difficult than the actual Alps.
Every year the event promoter Planet Ultra puts on a ride called the Mulholland Challenge. At roughly 110 miles and 12,000 feet of climbing it is one of the hardest rides I’ve ever completed. Say what you want about La Marmotte or The Tour of the California Alps (Death Ride), hitting a kilometer-long pitch of 17 percent at the base of a 7km climb once you’ve got 75 miles in your legs can humble almost anyone. Each year more than 700 riders enter the Mulholland Challenge. The event (it sits somewhere between a gran fondo and a century) has had its share of crashes, particularly on the descent of Deer Creek Road, but no one has ever died.
My sense of empathy suggests that Steven, Alison, Slate and co. may feel some guilt over Robert’s death. It’s hard to have a heart and not feel some burden of responsibility. However, the Gentleman’s Ride was not a bad route. It was not a dangerous route, though it contained some risk.
If we conclude that the day’s route was dangerous, the logical outcome of that is all future Rapha rides in Los Angeles will head north on Pacific Coast Highway and then turn around at some pre-arranged spot for the trip south. Believe me, it can be good riding, but it’s not the same as being in the canyons.
To be a cyclist is to live the balance between risk and danger. I define danger as something likely to end in a bad outcome. Mount Washington averages 12 percent; as a result, no one is allowed to descend it. Were you to try, the odds are that you’d crash from too much speed or blow a tire off the rim from too much braking; there’s no real room for a middle ground on that road. Risk, on the other hand, is what we face every time we go out for a ride. There’s always a chance that we could be hit by a car, wash out in a corner or encounter some other bad event. The difference is that with reasonable care we can avoid a rotten outcome most of the time.
Think of every road you’ve heard a cyclist has died on. It would be ridiculous to conclude that in each instance in which a rider encountered a mishap—nothing involving a car—that the road was too dangerous to ride on. It’s true that Las Flores is a challenging descent. It’s also true that Robert had considerable skill; the point at which he crashed he could not have reached without having previously exercised both skill and judgment. Corollary: Last year’s Gentleman’s Ride descended Tuna Canyon, easily the most difficult descent in the Santa Monicas, the most difficult descent I’ve ever encountered, the only paved descent that has ever scared me. We got down that without an inch of lost skin last year.
In criticizing the course of the Rapha Gentleman’s Ride as too difficult, as dangerous, two injustices are committed. First, we dishonor the memory of a strong and skilled cyclist. Accidents happen. I can’t say exactly what took place that day as I wasn’t there, but I’ve dropped down that road dozens of times and I can attest that there were days when I couldn’t have gone wrong and other days when I just didn’t have it and wished I was taking another route down.
The second injustice is the denigration of a spectacular land formation. If I were to define my idea of heaven with the terrain of one spot on earth, there’s no doubt that I’d choose Malibu. The views from atop its vistas rival anything I’ve seen. Better yet, I can ride there year-round. I’d hate to think that people would avoid the roads above Malibu because of one cyclist’s misfortune.
What I’ve learned of Robert’s family and friends is that they are taking solace knowing that he was engaged in the world, riding with family and friends that day, that he died doing one of his favorite things in the world. Though I never met him, the simple fact that he drove up from Orange County to do a Rapha Gentleman’s Ride means he was on the lookout for new adventures. This guy was certainly one of my peeps.
For each of us there came a point when cycling ceased to be just a way to have fun and became an expression of challenge, a way to embrace new difficulties and to elevate both skill and fitness.
A good friend of mine wrote that while people have lionized Robert for dying while doing what he loved, he thought dying on his bike was “a shit way to die.” I can’t disagree. I’m sure his parents ache for not having a chance to say goodbye. When I go, I don’t want to be on my bike; I want to be surrounded by my family. Ultimately, I think what resonates with people is that in dying while doing what he loved, his death illustrates that he tried to live his life on his terms, that he wasn’t some couch potato. The danger is that romanticizing this accident is no better than letting a fear of that road prevent us from riding it.
I’ve made mistakes before and crashed. I’ll make mistakes again. The last thing in the world I’d want my error to do is cause people to avoid exciting roads. I can’t speak for Robert or his family, but the example of his life suggests that he would endorse getting on with the business of living by putting ourselves out there and we achieve that electric thrill no one will ever get from the TV.
The greatest service we can do our fellow riders is to remember them accurately, to ride with the care that will keep us out there, to remain clear on the difference between danger and risk, and to keep that sense of adventure alive.
The promise of winning an athletic competition is the potential to live a little piece of life perfected. A win is an objective confirmation that you were correct on enough, if not all, counts to take the day. For many riders, there’s no better place to polish life’s meaning than in a bike race. There was a time when that was the case for me, but it didn’t last long.
Much of the problem could be summed up in the simple fact that the rides I most like to do are rarely run as races. Give me a 70- to 80-mile course with 5000 or so feet of climbing and I’m a happy boy. Most of the races within three hours of me don’t fit this bill. There came a point when I realized I’d rather just be doing the group ride in Malibu on Sundays than getting up to drive to the hinterlands for some flat, four-corner, industrial-park crit. There was almost nothing about the experience that fit my definition of fun. A top-three could short-circuit that, but those didn’t come with any sort of regularity you’d call routine.
The rise of the gran fondo here in the U.S. has given me a second lease on organized events. You get a mass-start, the nervousness as the pack sorts itself out and early selection accelerations. In other words, it’s a century without the helmet mirrors.
Gran Fondo USA has staked its reputation on doing lavish productions that leave from splashy locations. The organization’s most recent event was the Gran Fondo Los Angeles. By Los Angeles, they meant Beverly Hills. If there’s a tonier place on the west coast to start a cycling event, I can’t think of what it might be. That the city fathers of Beverly Hills even deigned to allow the event to happen must have had much to do with the event’s 7 am start. Seeing bikes fill Rodeo Drive was an unqualified stunner.
Most of the event took place in the Santa Monica Mountains above Malibu, my wheelhouse, so to speak. I adore riding in these mountains and don’t miss many chances to spend as many weekend rides there as possible.
The 72-mile course took in two Cat. 2 climbs and five Cat. 4 climbs. The second big descent of the day, down the aptly named Stunt Road is the stuff of drugs. Hit it right and you’ll never touch your brakes. The experience bathes your brain in more dopamine than a psychiatrist can prescribe. If your nerves get the better of you, it’ll be a slow and harrowing escape. People fleeing zombies should know such fear.
Nearly everything about this ride was superb. It ran on time, had a great announcer, a few select VIPs (no one expected Andy Garcia—yes, that Andy Garcia—to be that tall), well-equipped sag stops, lovely food at the finish, not to mention a fun expo area. And, as I mentioned, the Santa Monica Mountains. What could be better?
Well, that’s the rub. If you’ve ever been to Beverly Hills, then you know it’s nowhere near Malibu. Or the ocean. Our ride, upon leaving the BH headed down Wilshire Boulevard, which is tantamount to taking a group down Park Avenue in Manhattan. Neat concept. In practice, notsomuch.
The Sheriff’s Department, which controlled the intersections for us, held the front of the group to 20 miles per hour. That was fine as we went up a few rolling hills in Century City and Westwood. However, it was no bueno on the downside. I commented to a friend how I was glad I wasn’t running tubulars. Riders further back in staging rushed the front of the group and soon we were 10 abreast across three lanes.
Late in the ride, as we headed for the finish we infected traffic in a residential area of Sunset Boulevard; this a road that serpentines over undulating terrain, and as this is a ritzy zip code, infinitely successful people do 60 over these roads in their AMG Mercedes; it’s just not a place for bikes. With some riders jumping red lights I was uneasy that someone would get hit. We needed some amount of marshaling. Even if the intersections weren’t controlled, we needed someone to alert traffic and pedestrians to the fact that an actual event was taking place. Upon making our way to Wilshire for the last few miles we had to fight traffic for a lane and dodge potholes. For what?
From the right turn onto Topanga Canyon Boulevard and until the route returns down Topanga and reaches Pacific Coast Highway, this ride is one of the great jewels of California riding. I’ll take Malibu over anyplace else in the United States. Full freakin’ stop. Riding on Wilshire and Sunset? I don’t need that kind of hostility from drivers, not without some sort of posse to protect me.
If the guys from Bike Monkey had organized this, they’d have convinced the Brentwood homeowners themselves to stop traffic as we passed. And they’d have cheered us. How do you explain that 55 miles of this course was heaven itself, but the rest was hell? Well, I guess that’s how you do it.
I promise you, the first time you begin to drop down the south side of Piuma Road and see the Pacific spread below you, you’ll wonder what you’ve been doing with your life.