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
Lately, keeping up with all my cycling interests (the former pro whose name I dare not mention notwithstanding) feels like drinking from the fire hose. There is so much to read, watch, ride and think about. Was there ever a time when I was on top of it all? Or was I previously just unaware of how much was out there?
I’m a race fan, so I watch races. If I can’t watch, then I read the reports and the commentaries. Then I review the standings looking for riders and teams I like. Right now, that means trying to follow Live Update Guy’s Vuelta feed while I work in the morning. If anyone can instruct me in the proper method for both following the feed AND getting work done, I will pay you for the lesson. Mostly, I can do one or the other.
By the afternoon, the USA Pro Cycling Challenge is on. Oh, and I have a morning’s incomplete work to catch up on. Meanwhile, the various cycling sites are pumping out things I want to read. I want to read Stevil Kinevil’s blog, and that leads to about a dozen other blogs. I can save those for the evening after the kids are in bed and the wife is watching So You Think You Can Dance? I know I can’t dance.
If I spend my whole night reading blogs, then I haven’t read any of the three books, all cycling biographies, that are weighing down my nightstand. I also haven’t spent an hour at the stand in the garage, tuning a current ride or building up a project bike. I’m a crappy wrench, so a portion of that time is actually invested in watching videos of more capable hands doing the job I’m attempting.
Wait, a new magazine came. Most of these get relegated to the back of the toilet if I’m honest, but a few come up to the bedroom, the good ones. I want to devour them right away, but there is no more ‘right away’ available to me.
This week’s Group Ride asks the question: What do you pay attention to? With so much information, meditation, review, instruction, inspiration, etc. flying at you from every corner of the velo-verse, what takes priority? What is worth looking at? And why?
Imagine that the Olympic Games happened—or next week’s USA Pro Cycling Challenge took place—and no one came to watch. There’d be no applause as the racers came through the towns, no camper vans massed on the climbs, and no one banging the billboards along the finish straight. You might say, so what? Ninety percent of the world’s racers don’t have crowds watching them; they just ride for fun. But at the elite pro level, it’s the synergy between the riders and the spectators that creates the event. Without the fans, a race would lack the energy and excitement that we tend to take for granted.
Take the Olympic men’s cross-country race last Sunday at Hadleigh Farm in the Essex countryside east of London. A capacity crowd of some 20,000 spectators lined the challenging course that gave rise to one of the best mountain-bike races in the sport’s history. As with every other event at the London games, the home fans were hoping that a British athlete would be on the podium, but when their best hope, Liam Killeen, crashed out with a broken ankle they warmed to a superb race between pre-race favorite Nico Schurter of Switzerland, world champion Jaroslav Kulhavy of the Czech Republic and Italian dark horse Marco Fonda.
The roar of the crowds all around the course undoubtedly inspired the three Europeans to ride harder than they’ve ever ridden before. The faster they raced, the louder the cheers. And the louder the cheers, the faster they raced. Without such great support, Fonda may not have been so doggedly brave, after he lost his seatpost, to ride the whole final lap out of the saddle to hang on to the bronze medal. And Kulhavy may not have kept chasing back when Schurter kept on accelerating and the Czech may not have been ready to jump past the Swiss in the dying seconds to take gold.
That was the perfect example of how a crowd can both make racing more thrilling and influence an event’s outcome. Other crowds, including the wall-to-wall mob that lined the barriers from start to finish of the Olympic time trial two weeks ago, can add tremendous enthusiasm to an event and increase the enjoyment level for both themselves and the riders. Top time trialists normally operate in a world of their own, focusing totally on their pedal cadence and power output, the next bend in the road and the rider they’re catching. But having crowds urging you on adds a major element to your performance.
Around the Hampton Court Palace course on August 1, the constant encouragement of the hundreds of thousands spectators was an element that transcended a rider’s internal forces. Gold medalist Brad Wiggins said, “The noise was incredible. I’m never, ever going to experience anything like that again in my sporting career.” And his British teammate Chris Froome, who claimed the bronze medal, said the crowds “weren’t just cheering, they were screaming our names.”
There was an informal comparison of sound levels at the various Olympic venues. Not surprisingly, the decibel counts were loudest at the indoor arenas, with one or two bouts at the 10,000-capacity boxing arena just out-scoring the most exciting races at the 6,000-seat Olympic Velodrome. Judging by the huge popularity of the track cycling in London—despite the lack of the individual pursuit and the often harsh application of arcane sprinting rules—this branch of the sport is making a strong comeback. Indeed, world road champion Mark Cavendish, who was on the BBC television commentary team at the velodrome, was so enthused by the racing that he said he will make an actual comeback to the track with a view to contesting the team pursuit and six-race omnium for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
It was instructive that the track racing in London lasted for six days, the same as traditional six-day races, which may have lost much of their luster in recent decades but remain one the most potentially popular branches of bike racing. Anyone who has attended a European six-day race (including London’s Skol Six that introduced many British fans to track racing during the 1980s) knows that a well-staged “six” that’s contested by a variety of two-man teams, including sprinters and stars of the Tour de France, can be more entertaining than any other form of racing.
Today, few remember that road riders such as Eddy Merckx gained a lot of their finishing speed by racing on the six-day velodromes, while both Wiggins and Cavendish won Belgium’s prestigious Ghent Six in an early phase of the pro careers. So, following the track’s massive popularity at the Olympics, six-day races could be added to the track racers’ still-limited annual schedule of World Cup races, world and continental championships, and the occasional specialty events such as the Revolution races held at British velodromes.
The interplay between the racers and the fans is a vital part of track racing—no one would want to race in any empty arena! Everyone wants the crowds to be as big as those that watched the London Olympic road races and the ones that we’ll likely see on Boulder’s Flagstaff Mountain and Denver’s time-trial circuit at the USA Pro Challenge in a few days’ time.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Most cyclists set some sort of challenge each year to give them an incentive to get into shape. For many years, my challenge has been a long ride in the Rockies west of my adopted hometown of Boulder, Colorado, on my May 5 birthday. I began this now annual rite of springtime at age 50, when I mapped out a 50-mile route to ride with a couple-dozen colleagues from the office. It was a day of strong southerly winds and only half the group made it to the final loop through the foothills. I’ve been adding a mile to the ride every year since then, and now most of it is in the mountains rather than on the plains.
That’s probably the wrong way to go about this venture. Friends say, “You should be riding on flat roads.” And they ask, “What are going to do when you’re in your 80s or 90s?” So I remind them of the 100-year-old French cyclist, Robert Marchand, who set a world hour record of 24.25 kilometers for his age group on the UCI Velodrome in Switzerland back in February. My sister tells me that I should switch my ride to kilometers, and that’s a choice I do think about … but not for long. I grew up with miles, so miles it remains.
I did have a few concerns in the lead-up to this year’s birthday ride last Saturday. Although I run three times a week to stay in shape, I didn’t take my first 2012 bike ride until late March — mainly because of some hectic traveling and new work schedules. However, I did manage to get in 10 short rides before May 5, including a longest one of 30 miles that went over a climb destined for this August’s USA Pro Cycling Challenge. That gave me the confidence I could again tackle my birthday ride and its 6,000 feet of climbing.
My bike, I have to admit, was in far worse shape than I was. Fortunately, I managed to get a booking with Vecchio’s Bicicletteria, the iconic Boulder bike shop, whose owner Peter Chisholm worked his magic, fitting new pedals, chain, hub bearings and cone, cable housings, inner tubes, brake pads and a bar-end stop. When I took it for a spin the night before the ride, I couldn’t believe how smoothly everything was working. Thanks, Peter!
So my bike was ready, I was ready, and I knew the two (younger) friends coming with me had been riding a lot. Even the weather was looking good: a forecast for partly cloudy skies, high-50s early in the day, high-60s in the high country and high-70s back in Boulder. As for the ride itself, I’d modified the course to include an initial loop on some of the dirt roads used in this year’s Boulder-Roubaix race.
Because cell-phone coverage is spotty in the deep canyons of the Rockies and up on the high-altitude Peak-to-Peak Highway, I knew I wouldn’t get any live coverage of Saturday’s opening time trial at the Giro d’Italia — but I was looking forward to watching the Gazzetta dello Sport video of the stage when I got home. I was of course hoping that local hero Taylor Phinney, who has trained on these Colorado roads for years, would have the form to take the 2012 Giro’s first pink jersey on this Cinco de Mayo.
Besides sharing a birthday with such diverse characters as “Monty Python” comic Michael Palin and singers Adele, Chris Brown and Tammy Wynette, I expect unusual things tend to happen on my birthday. When I did the May 5 ride in 2000 — already a dozen years ago! — I learned that morning that Gino Bartali had died at 85. Later in the day, I heard that Lance Armstrong, on a Tour de France scouting trip, crashed heavily descending a mountain pass in the Pyrenees. And, in the heavens that night 12 years ago, there was a very rare conjunction of the Sun, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and the Moon. Some day!
This year, besides the start of the Giro in Denmark, May 5 would see a “supermoon” and a meteor shower from Halley’s comet. That would come later. First, there were birthday cards to open, Facebook greetings to read and phone calls to take before I set off on another challenging ride.
My watch read 7:30 when I spotted Steve circling the road near the end of his street. We reached across to shake hands and he wished me “Happy Birthday.” We were soon on our way, heading east, when we were passed (with a quick greeting) by two spin-class coaches from Steve’s gym who were out training on their full triathlon rigs. Seeing dozens of other riders (and generally being passed by them!) became a pattern of the day. That’s because it was a Saturday. When my birthday is on a weekday, I usually ride alone and rarely see another cyclist.
This time, I wasn’t alone. Steve’s a lawyer with the Native American Rights Fund and a recreational cyclist. He was wearing his Triple Bypass jersey, reminding me that every July he does the infamous 120-mile mass ride over the 11,000-foot Juniper, Loveland and Vail Passes. It helps to have a strong riding companion! And his wife Martha, who oversees my weight training most weeks, would join us where our route entered the canyons.
But first we pounded along the dirt roads through a springtime paradise of infinite green, riding past rushing creeks, open meadows and an organic farm called “Pastures of Plenty” — which seemed to sum it all up. After a brief connection with Highway 36, busy with groups of cyclists heading north in the bright sunshine, we joined Martha and started up the 16-mile climb toward the Gold Rush-era village of Ward at 9,000 feet elevation.
As my weights coach followed me up the long, long climb’s culminating double-digit grade, with me feeling like a sagging Vincenzo Nibali muscling his way up the Côte de Saint-Nicolas in last month’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège, I was happy to hear her tell me: “Good job!” Usually, I have the deck at the Ward village store to myself. But on this pleasantly warm Saturday morning, there was a never-ending stream of riders, most of them stopping to eat homemade cookies, pump black coffee from a Thermos and guzzle 99-cent cans of Coke. We joined them.
The three of us then climbed the last little drag up to Peak-to-Peak. I told Martha that this scenic byway was built by “unemployed” workers during the Great Depression, and it was originally planned to link Long’s Peak with Pike’s Peak, but only its northern half was completed before the war started. I’m glad this half was built, because riding the always-curving, roller-coaster road, with close-up views of snow-covered peaks and distant views of the plains, is always the highlight of my ride. Back in the 1980s, I saw the likes of Andy Hampsten and Greg LeMond doing battle on Peak-to-Peak in the Coors Classic, and this coming August their successors Tom Danielson, Tejay Van Garderen, Levi Leipheimer and Christian Vande Velde will be racing up and down these hills in the USA Pro Challenge.
Martha, Steve and I flew down the last long downhill into Nederland, and continued on, riding against the wind up the dead-end valley to Eldora before returning to Ned and a leisurely al-fresco lunch at the Whistler’s Café. All that remained was a 20-mile dash back to base, descending 3,000 feet in the canyon alongside the fast-flowing Boulder Creek. It was an exhilarating ending to our ride, followed by the excitement of learning that, after two other onetime Boulder residents, Hampsten and Vande Velde, Boulder native Phinney had become only the third American to don the Giro’s maglia rosa.
Thanks, Taylor. Thanks, Peter. Thanks, Steve. Thanks Martha. Good job!
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti