Generally speaking, we try not to violate the fourth wall and directly acknowledge our work by shining a light on the fact that what we do here is write about, analyze about, obsess about cycling. That’s as obvious as sunlight. But this is one of those days. The cycling world has gone pure red state/blue state in its outrage/relief/shock/dissatisfaction with the announcement that Lance Armstrong has decided to concede game, set and match to USADA and Travis Tygart. No matter what you think of Armstrong, it’s unlikely that the outcome has left you feeling better about the sport of cycling. And that’s the real tragedy of the situation. It’s as if someone took the blue out of the sky.
Which is why the current racing in Colorado is so great. Forgetting for a moment that the event has the misfortune to have been given the generically anonymous USA Pro Cycling Challenge (they really couldn’t do better than that?), it is the perfect antidote to what ails cycling.
For starters, the event is showcasing the new generation of American riders, a crop of talent that seems united in their repudiation of a previous generation’s doping. Sure, they could be lying, but for now, there’s something in the attitude of guys like Tejay Van Garderen and Joe Dombrowski that makes the idea that they are clean easy to swallow. That Van Garderen is leading the race is perhaps the best thing to happen in American cycling this year, other than his near-podium finish at the Tour de France.
It wasn’t so many years ago that guys like Bobby Julich were racing for the U.S. National Team and telling stories of how they got into cycling as a result of seeing the Coors’ Classic pass through their town. Each generation has drawn inspiration from its homegrown riders as if passing a fledgling passion from one kid to another was as easy as handing off a torch. But inspiration has no baggage, so maybe it is.
That Van Garderen is leading the race (if only by a fraction of a second) confirms what we saw at the Tour. This kid is the real deal and we can expect to be cheering for him, getting autographs from him and thumbtacking posters of him for years to come. And honestly, one of my favorite story lines about him is how cycling was passed down to him by his father; cycling is a family sport.
Day after day we’ve seen stages result in the kinds of victories that satisfy our sense of what winning ought to be. In 1996, Chris Horner was riding for a tiny pro team that barely got invited to the Tour DuPont. Horner managed to get into a two-man breakaway with the comparative veteran Nate Reiss, riding for the U.S. Postal Service Team. In what was then seen as a total upset, Horner bested Reiss, and in doing so gave us a new champion to cheer for. Van Garderen’s win over Christian Vande Velde on stage two may not have had the surprise that Horner’s win did, but carried the same storyline of the new generation overtaking the old guard.
But if ever there was a time or a place for a wily old dog to enjoy a day in the sun, Jens Voigt’s solo breakaway on stage 4 into Beaver Creek. How it is that this German rider has become so beloved by American fans is at once obvious as the love of your mother and yet mysterious as a question from the Sphinx. To have him execute the longest solo breakaway of the race, indeed one of the longest successful breakaways of the whole season seems scripted by Hollywood. Even so, we’re as satisfied as when Luke Skywalker blew up the Death Star. Whew.
The talent of the riders aside, and our belief that we’re viewing a remarkably clean peloton aside, the real star of this race is the state of Colorado. California boasts more bike companies, more bike races, factors more of cyclists and roads than Colorado. But the Rocky Mountain State is to bike racing in North America what the Louvre is to art—its spiritual home. It would be easy to attribute this in its entirety to the Coors’ Classic, but there’s more to it than that. Colorado is full of big spaces. Roads can run for miles with little direction change. The Rocky Mountains are photogenic in the instinctive way teenage girls are—every new view is untrained, yet memorable. And to see those roads in person … one needn’t be a cyclist to want to ride them.
But there’s more to a great race than a bunch of skinny guys turning the cranks with the speed of an electric motor. Once you’ve got the right racers and the right course, then you need fans. Colorado has turned out its populace (and borrowed from elsewhere) in a way that has impressed even the racers. No less a booster of California than Levi Leipheimer praised the fans on the Boulder stage for turning out in a manner even greater than what he’s seen at the Tour of California. I’ve noted on several occasions that huge crowds have been present, crowds easily as big as some that I’ve seen at the Tour of California, but in places that had a fraction of the warm bodies. There’s the feeling that this race is drawing out a bigger chunk of people present.
Finally, there’s a certain chemistry that seems to make the entire business heady, like a beguiling perfume radiating off your date. Watching the riders ride backward on the course and high-five the fans gave me chills. It was a kind of gratitude witnessed too rarely in sports, as much a payback as a benediction for all those fans whose cheers gave the riders a bump in wattage in those final kilometers. Even for the fans at home, ads like the campaign from New Belgium Brewing showing the guy riding the old cruiser and touting the line, “Enjoy the ride,” eschew transaction for bliss, an anti-consumption pitch, a reminder that we should get out there while the sun is still up.
Images: Doug Pensinger and Garrett Ellwood, Getty Images
The seven-day, 600-mile long Quizno’s Pro Challenge has already landed the honorific of “the greatest bike race ever held on American soil from August 22-28, 2011.” True enough. After all, the 1996 edition of the Tour DuPont, which was 1225-miles long, was held in May. Nevermind about the 18-stage edition of the Coor’s Classic held in 1986 which was won by Bernard Hinault and was held in … August, though obviously not running from August 22-28.
We don’t know a lot about the Quizno’s Pro Challenge just yet. Aside from seven stages encompassing 600 miles of racing, we’ve been told it will feature a prologue and one individual time trial plus several mountainous stages, and just one stage suited to sprinters.
If the 2011 Giro d’Italia is any indication, stage race organizers may be starting to think about what makes for exciting racing to the viewing public. Mountain racing is exciting, whether you are watching in person or on TV. And whether you’re at the top of the climb or 5km from the top, it’s still exciting to watch. Contrast that with watching a crit two corners from the finish. Yes, watching a pack fly by at 36 mph is pretty cool, but you almost never have the feeling that you’ve watched a win in the happening. Worse, watching a crit on TV is rarely as good as a trailer-park fight on an episode of COPS.
The chance to watch 120 PROs tackle the mountains of Colorado is a siren call to any roadie. As sure bets go, it seems likely that some folks who would have traveled to see the Amgen Tour of California will, instead, head to Denver to take in some stages of this new race.
And that, dear friends, begs the question: What gets you out to watch bike racing? Have you ever built a vacation around going to watch a bike race, be it the Tour de France, the Amgen Tour of California or the Hell of the North? Further, to the degree that you would consider attending either the Amgen or Quizno’s races, which would you go to … and why?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Last week cycling lost yet another home to the peloton. The Tour of Missouri which had quickly risen in the continental ranks as second only to the Tour of California, was found beaten to death this past week, pummeled by some dirty politics and back room dealings. Word on the street unfortunately has it that there are either links to the mafia or a sheep-lovers cult and the murder rises to that of a crime of the highest order. Tour organizers found the lifeless body of the Tour of Missouri outside the steps of the hill on the capitol steps, just west of the Governor’s mansion and immediately put her on life support. Diligent efforts were made to save her life, but after courageous efforts, she passed this past week on May 27.
After a seven-month negotiation with State Tourism, which included a bi-partisan state senate and house approval of $1 million in support for the Tour of Missouri sponsorship, the United States’ second biggest professional cycling event and one of the top stage races outside of Europe, will be officially cancelled should earmarked funds not be released by Tourism and the Governor, according to the board of directors of Tour of Missouri, Inc.
“This may be a win for the Missouri Tourism Commission and the Governor, but a huge loss for the state of Missouri and its citizens,” said Mike Weiss, chairman of the Tour of Missouri, Inc. “It has been an insanely complicated battle for something so beneficial, and it’s left all of us absolutely baffled.
—Tour of Missouri press release May 27, 2010
So, OK, I’m indeed bitter, pissed and sarcastic here. It seems like yet another continental racing effort that just seems to come and go. The sad reality is I can go on with a list of them that I have came to love, like loved ones in my family. The Tour DuPont, Coors Classic, Red Zinger, Tour of Georgia, and now the Tour of Missouri. What does it take to develop a race w/tradition and a heritage that is set in stone?
Can we blame the opposition? As cyclists, we sometimes are not even unified ourselves in something we love. Some work and negotiate to make these races happen. Sometimes it may mean negotiating and developing what appears to be odd relationships. However, working with others to gain support that is more in our interest than theirs is to our benefit, i.e. Amgen and the Tour of California. Despite these benefits however, there are those who despise the corporate support of our racing ventures and cannot understand why we have such odd relationships. Others are indifferent and do nothing in support nor otherwise.
The sad reality is that it takes money and a lot of it in order to support races and events of this magnitude. Private sponsorships, mutual relationships and negotiations have got to be delicately balanced in order for us to have and enjoy something so central to us, that of big cycling events and races.
So our opposition uses this against us. They exploit this weakness and use it as an advantage. They use those who say nothing and point to them as examples that ‘most don’t really care’. The vocal opponents would rather see money used elsewhere.
The key is this: I hope for our sakes that we can unify our divergent ideas, respect our differences and recognize the single thing we have in common. The bike. Sure, we can have interesting discussions like we have here at RKP, we can even heat it up at times, we can correct one another, challenge one another, but when it comes to the outside circles that we congregate ourselves we should represent cycling well and always help it become elevated to the ranks it deserves.
As far as the Tour of Missouri goes, rest in peace my friend, it was a great ride wasn’t it?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
When Felt Bicycles came back from the brink of extinction a few years back I took note. Jim Felt had been a motorcycle race mechanic for a great many big names in motocross, names like Johnny “O-show” O’Mara. He was a good fabricator and had a creative mind.
And then he got interested in triathlon.
It turns out, some of the riders he worked with were starting to do tri’s to stay fit. He started doing them as well and noticed a funny thing. He couldn’t get the triathlon bars low enough to get a truly flat back while riding a properly sized frame.
So he built a few bike frames. They were notable for quick handling and very, very short head tubes. Head tubes that in some instances measured less than 10cm. Riding a Felt was the only way to guarantee your position was as aerodynamic as possible, relative to the time. And the proof was, as they say, in the puddin’. Big names, names like Paula Newby-Fraser began to win on Felts.
In 1996 I spent a week on a Felt. Manufactured by Answer Products in Valencia, Calif., through a licensing agreement with Jim Felt, the frame was TIG-welded from 7000-series aluminum, which needed no heat-treating, thereby dropping manufacturing costs dramatically and increasing the chances that the frame was properly aligned. Back then, Answer employed a number of manufacturing staffers who were part of the ‘90s aerospace diaspora. At the time, I lived in Valencia and rode on a regular basis with a half dozen of them. A few of them told me that if they couldn’t make $60k working in aerospace, then working on bikes was at least cool.
The aerospace bit wouldn’t be important were it not for the fact that their experience made the bikes damn good. The welding was exquisite and alignment superior to any other aluminum bike I’d seen at the time.
Back to that Felt I rode in ’96. This was the same bike Chris Horner won Athens Twilight on and a career making stage at the Tour DuPont in a two-up sprint against the more experienced U.S. Postal rider, Nate Reiss; ’96 would prove to be Reiss’ last season with Postal. Oops.
The bike I rode was unlike any bike I had ever ridden. It was unusually lively for aluminum, as stiff as any Klein I had ever ridden and carried exquisite grace of a filet knife. It scared the shit out of me.
Then Answer went through what we’ll term a transition. In 2000 the new management decided to get out of the business of road bikes and cut Felt loose.
It turns out this was the best thing that could have happened to Jim Felt and his brand.
Bill Duehring, a former VP with GT and all-around industry lifer, had partnered with Michael Müllmann, the owner of one of Europe’s most successful distributors, Sport Import, and the two wanted to start a bike company. The three decided to team up and together they forged a formidable partnership. Felt was known for his ideas about frame and tubing design. Duehring was known for impeccably spec’d bikes at great price points and Müllmann had access to capital and distribution channels.
It was this incarnation of Felt that loaned me a road bike to review when I published Asphalt. Ron Peterson, the editor who reviewed the bike, lauded it for the feel of the butted Easton Scandium tubing and the handling which he adored for crit racing.
At the next Interbike the company showed off its first carbon bike, the F1. A quick look at the tube shapes told me it wasn’t an open-mold design with their decals. It was their own design, engineered in-house. The F1 was essentially the company’s long-admired road bike geometry in carbon form.
In 2007 the company introduced a new road bike model, the Z1. Like the F, the Z was offered at a number of price points, but the Z1 was notable because it used the same blend of ultra-high, high and intermediate modulus carbon fibers as the F1. The similarities ended there.
The Z-series bikes are grand touring bikes. Compared to the F-series bikes, they are built around longer head tubes (not hard to do), slacker head tube angles and more fork rake. They also get longer chainstays. The slackish head tube angle, generous fork rake and longish chainstays gave the bike a longer wheelbase while maintaining the same weight distribution between front and rear wheels as the F-series bikes.
It’s easy to be cynical and just say Felt was aping what Specialized did with the Roubaix, but there are a few differences worth noting. First, the bottom bracket is a bit higher on the Z than on the Roubaix. Next, the Z doesn’t use the Zertz vibration dampers—Felt’s head of engineering, Jeff Soucek, says he doesn’t believe they do anything to help the ride quality of the bike; I’ve argued the point with him, but that’s a different story. Third, as mentioned previously, Felt specs exactly the same blend of carbon fibers in the Z1 that goes into the flagship F1 model. My 56cm Z1 frame weighed in at 906 grams (g).
Lots of companies will talk a good sub-kilo game, but far fewer are doing it than you might think. I watched a 52cm Trek Madone—minus seat mast—tip the scales at 1133g. I haven’t had a chance to weigh a Specialized Roubaix SL2, which would be the frame analogous to the Z1, but when I asked a Specialized representative what it weighed I was told “around a kilo.” I take that to mean north of a kilo, because if it was consistently less than a kilo, that feature would be touted like the cup size of a porn star, I expect.
Let’s talk competitive models for a moment. I have to volunteer that I have some trouble taking a bike company seriously if they don’t offer a grand touring model. Now, in the case of a company such as Seven Cycles that builds bikes to suit the rider, there’s no need to offer a specific model for one geometry, but production-oriented companies are another story. Trek’s got the Pilot, Cannondale the Synapse, Cervelo the RS, Bianchi the Infinito and Giant the Defy. Interestingly, Scott claims to offer two “performance” oriented models “more relaxed geometry. Those two models, the CR1 and the Speedster are more relaxed in marketing copy alone. They have the same BB drop (6.7cm) same chainstay length (40.5cm) and same head tube angle (73 degrees for the large size) as their racing model, the Addict. Indeed, the CR1 became “relaxed” when they introduced the Addict. Perhaps they were referring to the fact that the head tube is a massive 2cm longer on the CR1 and Speedster than on the Addict. Whatever.
The vast majority of these bikes feature a watered-down carbon fiber blend (compared to flagship models) and a component spec that says century riders won’t notice an extra three or four pounds. Anyone who thinks only fast racer types will spend big bucks on a bike have completely misread the bike market. Completely.
Next: Part II
One of my all-time favorite science fiction novels is Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. It takes a very provocative look at aspects of Western Civilization that are critical to how we function, such as our notion of citizenship and what entitles us to suffrage. Mind you, I don’t read a lot of science fiction because it has so much in common with the banana—when a banana is good, it’s really good, and when it’s bad, it’s terrible and I toss it in the trash with all possible haste.
Forgetting for a moment Paul Verhoeven’s awful film depiction of Heinlein’s meisterwerk, I still marvel at how Heinlein took ordinary characters, some of them certainly not as bright as the author and placed them in extraordinary circumstances to create a futuristic society. It’s the same basic device that creates farce, which is normal people in odd circumstances—think “Gilligan’s Island”—as opposed to comedy, which is funny people in normal circumstances—think “Seinfeld.” Yet, in Heinlein’s hands, we get a fresh take on Western Civilization, complete with its own slang.
Of these, my clear favorite is “on the bounce,” the phrase used by the starship troopers to allude to both how the soldiers move in their powered armor space suits and when they do things, a kind of “on the move” for the 22nd century.
Recently, I’ve taken to paraphrasing the saying into a cycling-specific version: on the drop. It entered my angst-ridden head recently while I was on a climb and because I wasn’t climbing particularly well (the legs had gone into shutdown mode with 2k left to climb) and I was concerned that the boys wouldn’t be waiting for me at the top. I thought to myself, “I’ll get them on the drop.”
Without time to sit around at the top and finish a bottle, eat a bite or two, pull my armwarmers up and take my glasses off my helmet and put them back on my face, I knew I’d have to do them all on the drop. But that was the beauty of the road turning down; with gravity on my side, I had the opportunity to eat and make up ground at the same time.
Sure, you can drink on a climb. You can pull down armwarmers on a climb. Some riders can even sit up, no hands, and take off a vest or jacket. And sure, there are climbs that are so long you’ve got to keep fueling as you move just to keep the bonk at bay, but the question I often ask myself is when the best time is to GSD*.
Racing has taught me there is a simple answer: the best time to do anything that isn’t in and of racing, is on the drop. Even if the opportunity is only slightly downhill, I know I can relax my pedaling a bit and gravity’s finite pull will do the rest and allow me to ditch a vest, pull food from my pockets, empty a bottle or stuff armwarmers into my jersey pockets.
There was a long period when I thought that descending was descending and downhill was too serious a concern to gum it up with something so frivolous as eating. Then I remembered something I saw while in a Mavic neutral vehicle on a mountain stage of the 1996 Tour DuPont.
Near the top of the biggest climb of the day, a Category 1 mafia-style enforcer, Frankie Andreu lost contact with the second group. Over the final kilometer up to the pass, he lost more than 20 seconds; the group was out of sight. Group three wasn’t far behind and that was as much a concern for us in a Taurus wagon as it was for him.
On the drop, Frankie got into a head-over-stem, butt-in-air full tuck, not one of those crazy Marco Pantani rodeo-style tucks. He grabbed his bottle and tipped it into his mouth with his fingertips while resting the heel of his hand against the handlebar. And he dropped down an intestinal stretch of asphalt through turns I thought surely would require brakes.
We were doing 50 mph just to keep up with him. Those turns I thought would require brakes we were drifting through with all four tires grabbing the pavement with the stunned desperation of a child’s hand for the string of a balloon.
At one point, hearing the car engine race and the roar of rubber on asphalt, Frankie sat up and turned around to look at us. (I asked him about it the next morning and he said he was afraid we were going over the cliff.) Then he put his head back down and before the bottom of the descent, he rejoined group two. Might as well have been the stage win I was so impressed.
Joe Parkin told me a story he has since blogged about a bit. After returning to the United States and joining Coors Light, Joe was at a race and his team leader told him he wanted a Coke. He got the Coke from the team car. Easy enough, right?
The rider wanted it in a water bottle.
Joe sat up, opened the Coke, opened the bottle and while descending he poured the Coke into the bottle. Even Joe was impressed with the move.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of doing things on the drop is what it says of your knowledge of the bike and the degree to which you can control it with just your hips if necessary. So much of cycling comes down to trust—trusting our bodies, our fellow riders, traffic and, yes, the bike—and few of us really trust our bike to do what it is most inclined. Once above 15 mph, it wants to stay upright and the imperative of physics only increases with speed.
Yet, for all its beautiful utility, and any tool properly used is beautiful, what I most love isn’t the GSD*, it’s knowing that anything you might need to accomplish during your ride or race you really needn’t stop, that riding can be as seamless as breathing.
*Get shit done