When Belgium Knee Warmers‘ Radio Freddy got in touch with me in the fall of ’06 his call and its contents were unexpected. “I’m starting a blog,” he said. “I’d like you to contribute.”
He wanted it to address his passions and to be a positive response to the sport. At the time, I couldn’t picture what he had in mind. The limitation was mine. Back then, cycling blogs mostly went something like this, “Yeah bro, we were like doing 25 in the Cat IV race and I was all like raaaar, and Dudenut was all gnarthrashed cuz he put his front wheel into a ref when he gave a victory salute in the second group. We spent all afternoon at the ER waiting for him. Sunday night we drank PBR and watched porn.”
Yawn. My conception of blogging was that it was so personal as to be codified and—worse—without insight. The lack of universality in experience made cycling blogs pointless, at least to me. It would be a few more months before I’d run across BSNYC and Fat Cyclist.
This wasn’t the first time Radio Freddy and I had considered a collaboration. I had attempted to recruit him to do advertising sales for my magazine Asphalt. While he was interested, his availability was modest.
Any opportunity for us to work together seemed doomed when Asphalt went under. Asphalt had been my dream, my life’s work and when my partner exited the operation she forced the magazine into a sort of bankruptcy. I’ll leave it at that as the ugliness of what transpired between us should remain private; I’ve nothing positive to say about the end of the magazine.
What I can tell you is that I was more than depressed. I wrote the post Thanksgiving II in reference to that chapter of my life. And whether the rest of the bike industry felt it or not, I believed I was persona non grata because I was the captain of the ship when it sank.
I hadn’t considered writing about cycling or how I might pursue it since Asphalt. It simply didn’t seem possible that I’d enjoy another opportunity to write about cycling. Even so, when Radio Freddy got in touch, I wasn’t sure that I had anything to say.
Let’s back up a sec. I began writing about cycling in 1991. I was interested to write about a sport in which I’d developed a consuming passion. And while I had this passion to write, I really didn’t have anything to say. Newbie writers frequently ask me where I get my ideas for the pieces I write. I’m more than familiar with their plight. The strange part is that I have no idea how to answer. Back then, I was casting about, looking for opportunities—subjects—to write. I had no idea how to share my passion. Despite this, I managed to get some bylines with Dirt Rag, The Ride and even VeloNews. Most of my stuff was pretty straight journalism.
I parlayed those limited credits into a gig with the magazine Bicycle Guide and moved to California, more specifically, Los Angeles, which my friend and former UMASS Cycling Team teammate, Bicycling contributing editor (and former Bicycle Guide contributing editor) Alan Coté pointed out was “the on-ramp to the apocalypse.” He stole that from a sit-com, but that didn’t make it less accurate. That I was willing to move there was a measure of my determination.
At Bicycle Guide I was assigned a broad range of stories. Bike reviews, newbie tip articles, first-person narratives, it was the perfect incubator for an ambitious writer. Despite the fact that I had already earned a Master’s in English, I consider that period another chapter in my education.
I love writing bike reviews and speaking with the different builders; they were stories that were far more interesting to write than race reports and rewarded creativity and determination. However, my greatest growth, what most inspired my ambition, were columns and those first-person narratives. Getting away from the office and putting myself in a landscape with a bike and writing about that adventure of the senses and the richness of the experience for both the exterior and interior was really everything I could have asked for as a writer. For me, it was heaven on earth. I realized that I had something to say.
When Bicycle Guide was shut down, it took only a couple of days for me to conceive of Asphalt, a magazine where presentation would match the quality of the experiences and equipment we presented. We had our hitches; there were color problems in the first issue and we ran almost as slow as another quarterly currently on the market, but readers and advertisers were signing up. When that went down the pipes, I figured my future in cycling had gone with it.
Ultimately, what drew me back in shouldn’t surprise me or anyone who’s ever read my work. It was a story. Specialized had inked a sponsorship deal with Quick Step and after only a few races on the Tarmac SL, Tom Boonen began appearing on a custom-made aluminum frame. Sure it was custom, but it wasn’t the flagship ride Specialized was featuring in all its ads. It was a PR black eye that had erupted on the Internet into a torrent of obscenity-laced insults aimed at the company for demeaning the finest Classics rider of the day with an aluminum ride.
I’d spent enough time writing about bike companies to know that there was more to the story at Specialized.
So I called them.
I began talking with PR beacon Nic Sims and told him straight up they were being murdered on blogs and forums and none of the magazines were helping them by setting the story straight. I admitted that BKW was a small blog, but maybe if we got the story right, others might pick it up.
Naturally, he talked to me. He told me that the aluminum bike was simply a tester, that they wanted to make sure they got Boonen’s fit exactly right before cutting a mold for him. That whole measure twice, cut once thing.
The post was fun enough that I did a follow-up and came up with a few others for Radio Freddy. The readership went from tiny to small to noticeable—i.e. more than a 1000 unique viewers per day—in a matter of months.
I’d chosen a nom de plume to publish under for a simple reason; I was afraid that my name could be a liability. Suddenly, I began to see the alias in a new light. It was a chance to see if we could build a following just on the quality of the work. Rather than try to trade on our bike industry experience, our knowledge of cycling would either inform our writing and appeal to readers, or it wouldn’t. There’d be no baggage of history.
In the summer of 2007 I was getting ready for the Markleeville Death Ride and had adopted a super-model diet in my quest to get back to my old race weight. One day I was thinking about how hungry I was and about how eloquent Lance Armstrong had been on the subject of weight loss. I recall him saying something to the effect of, ‘It’s simply a matter of suffering.’
I dashed off a post called “The Lance Feeling” in less than a half hour. That one post marked a turning point for me. It helped me conceive of blogging as a chance to write an editor’s column over and over and over. Without the constriction of a monthly, bi-monthly or even quarterly publication schedule or the need to address issue themes, I could muse on any subject that itched my fancy. And I could do it whenever the urge struck.
Ohmigod, this blogging thing has possibilities.
What unfolded on BKW over the next year is one of those occurrences in publishing that comes along maybe once or twice in a career.
Radio Freddy and I shared a common background in bicycle retailing. We’d spent serious time in the trenches. Additionally, we’d both turned wrenches for riders whose bikes had to work right. Him at a prominent Chicago pro shop and me, for a spell, for the US National Team’s juniors. Our time in shops had also taught us a love for routine and working in a consistent fashion. We both had a love of working efficiently, of knowing the über tricks and watching for the moves of the elders. We were fundamentally students of the sport.
Radio Freddy’s posts conveyed hard-won wisdom of the ages, techniques that were less tips than meditations on quality. An interplay began in our posts. While we could discuss the fact that it was happening when we spoke on the phone, neither of us had the ability to explain how it was happening. It’s hard, even now, to look back and put my finger on why one post of his sparked me to write a particular one of mine, but there was a kind of gestalt relationship.
The way the readership grew during this time was all the confirmation we needed that the chemistry was palpable. It was rare that I’d ever have chosen a subject that Radio Freddy selected, but his choices influenced mine and vice versa.
The way our ideas dovetailed could fire me up like few things ever have. One night, as my girlfriend (now wife) was watching TV, I wrote three different posts. They all ran.
It was around this time that I landed a gig to write a guidebook on Los Angeles. I was reinventing myself. Next came an op-ed I wrote for the LA Times that suggested the UCI should enact and truth and reconciliation commission to get to the bottom of cycling’s doping woes. I’ve heard many people take credit for the idea, but I can tell you my piece was the first into print and was read by some two million people. A friend gave the piece to the powers-that-be at the UCI. I hear there’s a price on my head. It’s not much, but you might be able to take your sweetie to dinner on it.
I’d never have written that piece had I not been composing analysis pieces about Floyd Landis’ CAS appeal. Say what you want about the particular breed of crazy Landis keeps in his pocket, his defense team did their work brilliantly and the outcome of that case was a travesty.
Where were we?
The LA Times piece led to offers for copywriting work for several industry companies, among them Felt.
I was back in.
For all the talk of electronic shifting at this year’s Interbike, the overwhelming winner was Shimano’s Ultegra group. My media contacts confessed a few weaknesses in the Dura-Ace system (such as the fact that it wasn’t 100 percent waterproof) and stressed that Ultegra Di2 corrected for any perceived issues, even if it was roughly one pound heavier.
It’s fair to ask how I define a winner. The answer is simple, really. Nearly every bike company of note had at least one bike spec’d with Ultegra Di2. From Bianchi to Specialized, the stuff was easy to find, which indicates it’s in real production. And despite its reported price tag, I happened to notice this bike below:
The German brand Focus is best known as the brand that Milram rode before the sun set on their sponsorship. What they are less known for is spec that kills at the bike’s given price point. This Cayo was equipped with Ultegra Di2.
Big fat hairy deal you say. Well, the bike has a suggested retail of $4300. I didn’t see a bike with Di2 carry a lower suggested retail while I was at the show. It’s possible that I missed something (I missed a lot, including—quite deliberately—the entire Taiwanese Pavillion), but almost every bike I saw that was spec’d with Ultegra Di2 had a suggested retail of $5000, so $4300 is a pretty big discount.
This Pashley display took the verisimilitude approach to marketing the brand. It caught me less for how evocative it was of the brand heritage than for its apparent authentic the appearance was. I found myself looking at details to judge just how correct they were. It was a fresh take on the use of booth space. Next year they should do a collaboration with Brooks. I’d pay an entry fee if they erected an English country manor inside the Sands Convention Center.
The best jersey I saw at Interbike. Full stop.
This is Mark Cavendish’s bike from the Tour de France, at least, it was his bike for those stages he raced following when he assumed leadership of the points competition. I see lots of bikes that were raced at the Tour, but this was interesting because unlike most bikes, it shed a little insight on the rider who raced it.
Cav’s Venge was interesting for the fact that he was actually running Dura-Ace Di2. You might be surprised how often I receive press releases about something a sponsored PRO is allegedly riding, only I don’t see it in any of the images of said rider I receive from John Pierce. Hmm. Cav’s bike featured the outboard shifters mounted high in the hooks of the bar and just protruding through the tape.
For all the talk we hear of Specialized lending its sponsored teams the genius of their in-house fit guru, Scott Holz (literally the best I’ve ever seen in action), it hasn’t been hard to guess that some riders reject objective knowledge in favor of old-school Euro fit stylings. Cav’s 52cm frame paired with this monster 14cm stem belongs in the hall of fame on Slam that Stem. Very PRO, though not particularly agile. It does, however, confirm something Chris D’Alusio told me he learned about Cavendish from riding with him: The rider does generates all his power and steering from below the waist.
Assos, in their inimitable Swiss style showed me a cornucopia of items I lusted for. Unfortunately, of the offerings I was most interested in (below) I never got a real look at.
I mean, what the hell is this? Why don’t I know more about it? I got sidetracked by a new offering I can’t discuss until mid-November; well, that and a gin and tonic.
The last day’s ride was from Mesquite, Nevada, to Boulder City to the Outdoor Demo. That is, for roughly 10 of the riders from our group, that was the plan. There were plenty of us who opted for something a bit shorter. By a bit shorter I mean an estimated 50 miles rather than an estimated 110 miles. In reality, we rode 58 miles while Chris D’Alusio’s entrourage rode more like 120 miles.
Western Spirit Cycling Adventures provided our food for the entire trip. I’ve traveled with a lot of tour companies and I’ve never traveled with one that provided all the food. Western Spirit not only made everything run on time, the food was stellar. Dinner was never less than exactly what a hungry cyclist needed. Their level of organization combined with their laid-back ease gave them the air of Zen masters running FedEx. It’s hard to be that chill and yet that on top of things.
Our transfer to the start of the final day’s ride kept us in the van for a bit and feeling some relief for not having to ride on I-15. That’s Rebecca Rusch at left and media guru Nic Sims in the center.
I went into this ride thinking of it as just a fun trip with a few big days thrown in; I really wasn’t comparing it to doing a stage race. My, how things can change.
Yesterday, our ride was to be roughly 60 miles, essentially up one big climb and down the other side. We rolled from Panguitch, Utah, and after less than 10 miles began a climb we believed was roughly 20 miles long and climbing 5000 feet—hors categorie. It’s frustrating to admit, but a pinched nerve in my neck is preventing me from riding as I’d like, and yesterday (this is a double post because the Interwebs were anemic yesterday in Cedar City) I had to stop every few miles to re-set the nerve. By the time I reached the top of the climb, rain had moved in and I began to hear that classic sound of sunflower seeds on glass—sleet.
When the climb topped out just shy of 10,600 feet I thought I’d have an immediate ride down. That wasn’t to be. The great surprise of Utah has been that there are always a series of saddles to roll over before the descent starts. After one really quick drop that took me to just below 10,000 I reached a brake check lane and new the drop was to begin in earnest. I pulled over to take inventory.
Specialized’s Kim Hughes and Cyclingnews editor Daniel Benson had ridden with me (and waited for me) though both chose to get in the van. Daniel even turned back from the top of the climb to check on me. Neither had any interest in that drop.
It was foggy, raining, had too much traffic on a narrow road, the temp was in the 40s, my fingers were going numb and it hurt to look up the road for long.
I can do fast descents. I can do rough pavement. I can do rain. I can do fog. I can do cold. I can do traffic with enormous trucks. I can do narrow roads. To do all of those at once seemed stupid.
With nothing other than pride riding on getting down the mountain, I turned around and went back to the van parked a mile back. As I climbed in I admitted to Daniel, “At a certain point doing that descent became a violation of my values.”
I can’t profess to love my wife and son and do something that sketchy. I’ve wondered about the guys who hit the Hillary Step on Everest at 2:00 o’clock in the afternoon—late enough that they should turn around—and still press for the summit. Dying for anything—including a dream—when you’ve got a family depending on you strikes me as supremely selfish. I’ve found transcendence in descents and will swear to their power in my life, but I’ve got people who depend on me.
When I woke this morning I really wasn’t sure how today’s ride would go. The menu included 118-, 100- and 75-mile options. I figured I was a question mark at best and went for the 75 option. The ride was mostly downhill, but had enough variety of terrain to keep me moving around on the bike and essentially pain-free.
As these things go, a little accidental detour makes the adventure complete. Four of us made our way downhill and into the town of Santa Clara. We passed “The Ranch” from the show The Biggest Loser. That I’ve heard of this place amazes me; this isn’t my brand of entertainment.
What I can tell you, aside from the fact that the complex is gorgeous and more construction is underway, is that this place is seriously in the middle of nowhere. There are no late-night walks to the Circle K or watering hole. If you’re off the res here, you’ll be easy to find.
Our ride took us through Veyo and its dormant volcanos. We saw giant slabs of black volcanic rock littering hillsides; it was hard to imagine what kept them from rolling down the slopes. There were red rock formations that conjured quintessential images of Utah. But the strangest, most surprising sight of the day was the orange soil we saw along the road before entering Arizona. This stuff was Crayola orange.
The descent off Utah Hill was 12 miles of letting the bike run with no need to hit the brakes for a turn. Apparently, Strava says I hit 54 in there somewhere. Who knew?
Patty, above, works for a Philly-area shop her brother owns, has since ’86. She’s lively, strong and knows her way around a bike and a paceline. She’s been great company all week. And when two yappy dogs came charging for us from a yard somewhere in the Arizona desert, she dressed them down with a voice of such trumpeted authority they turned around and ran back, and I nearly got dropped I was laughing so hard.
This ride has been win, lose and draw, depending on the hour of the day. But overall, it’s definitely been a win.
I’ve long respected the work of Specialized. They’ve had good products and even some bad ones, but more years than not, they’ve had a good product line. The big takeaway I’ve had from this ride is the incredible quality of their staff. This was my first chance to share time with people who I didn’t know at all (like Nancy LaRocque) and people who I knew largely through reputation (like Chris D’Alusio).
My conversation with D’Alusio, who is Specialized’s Director of Advanced R&D, on Saturday was off-the-record. We each spoke candidly of our experiences but what most struck me was his incredible insight. I need to sit down and interview him. I’ve talked with a lot of bike engineers. I haven’t spoken to any who have as much insight into what makes a particular bike do what it does as he. I’ll leave it at that for now.
It’s plain that Specialized does a ride like this as a way to convey their passion for their work. The cynical might see it as a way to serve up their brand of Kool-Aid. The trick here is that this setting is too intimate to fake passion, or competence. It’s the industry equivalent of a blood test. To me, it’s the corollary for why I like their bikes so much. They do a number of very good products, but the Prevail helmet doesn’t have the power to change the quality of a ride. The Tarmac has that power and has done it.
They are an impressive bunch, that crew. I enjoy spending time with them, in the saddle and out.