Friday, October 24, 2008
The World is in Color
There’s an insidious trend in cycling writing these days, and we need to put a stop to it right now. Namely, it seems many are trying to cast every minute element of the sport as some grand tradition, worthy of a handcrafted shrine decorated with Jesus candles and a weathered wooden box containing the second knuckle of Fausto Coppi’s pinkie. Yeah, I like the old Silca Pista floor pumps, too, but I’m not going to take a bunch of arty black-and-whites of one and wax poetic for 1,000 words about how the weight of the brass chuck in my hand psychically connects me to Eddy Merckx’s long-dead mechanic. But it’s not just the retro equipment genre that’s getting the sepia treatment, it’s every aspect of the sport – from pre-ride coffee to weekend training rides to naps. My fear is that, as we ease into winter and there’s less actual cycling news to chew on, we’re due for a spike in the sepia-toned writing market.
Look, Billy Joel sucks, but he had a point when he sang that “the good old days weren’t always good, and tomorrow’s not as bad as it seems.”
Why do people in 2008 so desperately want to cycle in black-and-white, and why now? I guess some of it is the allure of all those old pictures that the Internet has given us free access to. Yes, those old grainy black-and-whites of Coppi, Gino Bartali, and Rik Van Steenbergen are great, as are the washed out color ones of Merckx, Ocaña, and the rest. They provide a record of cycling back then – the races, the people, the equipment – that lets us feel a connection to the past. But before we get all teary-eyed, let’s remember that those guys, to the best of my knowledge, all saw the world in color, because they were living in it. For them, those pictured rides weren’t some jaunty wet-wool-and-lavender scented festival of self-indulgent nostalgia – they were just living their lives, mostly just trying to win some bike races, and probably not spending too much time reflecting on the lot of it. I’m betting they weren’t obsessing over just how much crema was on their pre-ride espresso, the near-painful authenticity of plain white socks just above the ankle, or whether their mechanics used just the right number of turns of finishing tape on their handlebars. And they sure as hell didn’t write heart-wrenching tributes to any of those subjects. Because all that shit just wasn’t that big a deal – then or now.
I’m not claiming that cycling doesn’t have some deservedly hallowed ground. It has plenty – Tom Simpson’s memorial on the Ventoux, the Madonna del Ghisallo chapel, and the cobbled climbs of Flanders spring to mind – and the sport certainly has some endearing traditions and little rituals handed down over generations. And maybe it’s O.K. to write about those with a goofy little tear in the corner of our eye every once in awhile. But your traditional Sunday ride piss break with the boys just doesn’t quite rise to that level, so let’s stop writing about it like it’s the goddamn bedrock on which the sport is built. Not every aspect of every ride has to be a spiritual awakening of some sort, and not every minor equipment choice enhances your street cred. Cycling’s true history and tradition is part of what makes the sport intriguing, but when you dilute it by taking overly frequent, overly reverent looks at mundane practices like wearing a cycling hat or repacking hubs, the original product just gets less tasty. It becomes cycling-flavored, rather than made with real cycling.
The recent turn towards black-and-white writing seems to me to be an accidental effort to try to create some sort of faux road racing culture, at least here in the States. In that imagined culture, we’re surrounded by sidewalk cafes, cozy bike shops with coverall-ed Belgian mechanics, empty roads, and acres of vineyards, instead of the strip malls, Starbucks, Performance Bicycle Stores, and traffic that many of us actually see when we roll out of the driveway. And I suppose that’s understandable – more and more people are searching for the simpler life these days, and that can take a lot of forms, including misplaced or invented nostalgia. Even this weird sort of nostalgia for the present.
The good news is that these often vain little introspections can provide some good writing, even if they’re about absolute bullshit, and it’s good to see that the blog world, where many of these occur, has helped get a lot of people writing again.
But the better news is that there’s already a real “cycling culture” here, so we really don’t need to replace it with an artificial one where we all act like we train, deep in philosophical thought, in northern Italy in 1976, but with a power meter and a carbon frame. You can see the genuine culture – surprise – at any amateur bike race around the country. Because the road cycling culture (or ‘cross, or track, or mountain biking) is what we make of it in the present, and we don’t have to give it a cheap makeover or over-examine every, single aspect of it to make it “authentic.” It’s authentic simply by being what we as cyclists do, here and now. And if that means you like an extra-large whipped cream monstrosity from Dunkin Donuts instead of espresso before your crit, and use pre-built wheels instead of building them in your basement while listening to grainy Edith Piaf records, so be it. Either way is valid, of course, and if you want to yell at each other in Italian on group rides, that’s O.K. too. But for god’s sake, just don’t think too hard about it.
So let’s stop PhotoShopping our million megapixel digital pictures into sepia tones and trying to dissect our lifestyle for the sake of self-validation, and live and enjoy life in the present. We can do it without losing our reverence for the more attention-worthy history and traditions of the sport, I swear. In the meantime, be on the lookout for our upcoming post, “My Silca Floor Pump: A Tribute in Words and Photos.”
Thursday, October 16, 2008
Remember those times, back before city governments saw building sports stadiums as a springboard to economic revitalization and an excuse to try out cookie-cutter residential-over-retail new urbanism principals, backed by generous tax breaks and zoning workarounds for team owners and developers? Back when baseball teams and football teams actually had to, gasp, share a single stadium for a few short weeks, leaving early-season running backs to tear up late-season baseball diamonds, and outfielders hustling across the 40 yard line? That little visual reminder that summer was turning to fall seems less common today, though I certainly don’t watch enough of the TV news sports reports to really know. So maybe I’m making it up. But I do follow cycling, and we have our own seasonal markers – namely those few weeks when the late-season classics overlap the early-season cyclocross races in Europe.
That time is upon us, evidenced by this past weekend’s multi-disciplinary smorgasbord of Paris-Tours and the first round of the SuperPrestige ‘cross series at Ruddervoorde, Belgium. Thanks to a combination of Versus coverage and the generous decision of Belgian TV to webcast the SuperPrestige ‘cross series worldwide, those of us in the United States were able to take in the changing of the seasons a bit more than usual.
The French season-closer marked a breakthrough of sorts, with Belgian Philippe Gilbert taking his first bonafide classics win. The Walloon has been a big classics threat for a few years now, netting a couple of Het Volk titles, more than a few great but unsuccessful rides, and a bunch of little stages here and there. But the word inside cycling was that he couldn’t perform much over the 200 kilometer mark – the invisible line that helps separate full-blown classics from semi-classics.
By picking up the win in the 252 kilometer Paris-Tours with one of his typical late-race attacks, Gilbert appears to have finally broken the 200k curse. Granted, 252 kilometers of pan-flat French countryside are a bit different from the Ronde Van Vlaanderen’s 264 kilometers of Flemish hills and cobbles, or the 261 kilometers of Ardennes hills that comprise Gilbert’s “home classic,” Liege-Bastogne-Liege. But Gilbert seems to be coming into his own at 26 years old, and next year he’s bidding adieu to Francaise des Jeux and going to Silence-Lotto, where he’ll have a stronger supporting cast of classics men at his side. If he can continue his current trajectory and avoid butting heads with perennial Ronde contender Leif Hoste, he’ll be a solid pick for a Flanders win in 2009.
But Gilbert’s ascendance isn’t the big stateside talking point about Paris-Tours now, is it? Here, it’s been all about Dave Zabriskie’s (Garmin-Chipotle) fashion sense. Always a time trial powerhouse, DZ decided to spice up his Paris-Tours wardrobe and equipment with some contre la montre touches, including a long-sleeve skinsuit, super-deep section wheels, rubberized booties, and a not-so-subtle rearrangement of stem spacers. Short of reviving Cinelli’s mid-1990s “Legalize Spinaci” campaign and wearing an alien helmet, it was just about as much time-trial crap as you could break out in a road race.
But why? Clearly, DZ was intending to go on a solo mission, which he sort of did when he bridged up to the early break and did more than his fair share in driving it out to a 12-minute gap. It was an impressive display, and together with teammate and breakaway companion Lucas Euser, he did a hell of a job protecting the team’s sprinter Tyler Farrar, who rewarded the efforts by winning the bunch sprint for fifth place.
All that said, was it worth it? After all, the other guys in the break did pretty much the same thing wearing and using pretty standard issue stuff. And that stuff is standard for a reason. I’d be interested in hearing about any tradeoffs DZ experienced from his choices, like diminished ability to carry food and the severly limited ability to make a graceful pee-stop in a skinsuit. The Garmin-Chipotle site has a few different posts mentioning the choices, but doesn’t go much beyond “he was planning to go fast.” Of course, in racing, that’s pretty much the point of most things, so there’s not too much of a point in examining things too closely.
One final thing I wonder about though: In its continual quest for style, modern professional cycling teams often have a specific skinsuit design goes beyond a welded-together version of their standard jersey/shorts combo. Such is the case with Garmin-Chipotle – the difference in the design was even more evident given the presence of both DZ and Euser (in standard jersey) in the break. Traditionally, having riders in different clothes is a rulebook no-no, and could potentially land you a fine payable in Swiss francs. But it’s a little different from the Cipollini clothing antics of old, in that Garmin has the skinsuit design in regular rotation, so it’s kind of a gray area. Any UCI rulebook geeks out there that can clarify?
And one, final, final question: With a fair number of Paris-Tours wins in the past decade coming in breakaways, can we stop calling Paris-Tours the sprinter’s classic yet?
Ruddervoorde, SuperPrestige #1
I didn’t really get to watch enough of this to be able to comment on the race proper, but I was struck by the difference in watching professional road cycling and professional cyclocross on television/internet. With road cycling, it’s often difficult to fully realize the speed, to see in some real sense just how different the professionals are from your Sunday road race. You know they’re faster, but just staring at the screen it’s hard to tell how much faster, since you’re only looking at the relative speeds of a bunch of very, very fast men. Not so with cyclocross.
Even though the webcast was pretty jumpy, and the full-screen feature wasn’t working for me, I was struck by how clearly different the professionals ride from weekend hackers like me, and even some of the top guys in the United States, and how clearly that difference comes across on-screen.
If you’ve raced a few cross races yourself, and then watch a televised SuperPrestige or World Cup, you can almost feel the points on the course where you would lose your momentum, ease off the pedals, or coast through a turn. Quite simply, where most of us would slow down from a lack of power or technical skill, the top pros don’t. It’s not surprising, but it is striking. Hairpins are pedaled through full tilt, and that all-too-familiar submarining effect never seems to materialize when they hit the deep sand. I’ve never seen the equivalent of Ruddervoorde’s pump-bump section on a U.S. ‘cross course, but while I’d visualize many riders more-or-less coasting through, the limiting factor for Sven Nys et al. seemed to be keeping the back wheel planted well enough over the top to keep applying full power the whole way through the section – up and down. And, of course, there’s the almost imperceptible transition from riding to running to riding.
With a couple of local ‘cross races done and gone now, watching that sort of skill live via internet was a little disarming. I realize now how my mother must have felt sitting in the passenger seat as I was learning to drive – as we’d approach each curve, she would instinctively and frantically stab at a brake pedal that wasn’t there, anticipating a seemingly inevitable trip into an adjacent lawn or privacy fence. I’m proud to report that never happened, but that ingrained “he’s never going to make it going that fast” feeling is the same. Without the threat of imminent bodily harm, of course.
Something Almost Completely Different
We all know that Belgium is the holy land of cyclocross. But just how far does that country’s support of the sport go? Pretty far, as it turns out. One of the byproducts of being in the Washington, DC metro area is the proliferation of embassies, and the Belgian Embassy has stepped up to sponsor the kid’s race at the upcoming DCCX race at the Armed Forces Retirement Home in DC. It’s not a big thing, by any means, but it’s pretty cool that they’re making the effort, and really cool that it’s coming in support for the junior-est of juniors.
Friday, October 10, 2008
Shotgun with Garmin, Part 2: Epic Race, Epic Post
[part 2 of a series started here]
With the rain came the flats – plenty in the first 20 kilometers or so as we headed out on the long lap. Race radio was plenty busy trying to keep up with the service calls as the peloton approached the first sprint point, but the Garmin name was absent, and speculation in the car began as to why. Tom the mechanic theorized that, with many amateur and lower-tier professional squads in attendance, many of the teams could be riding tires that would have been retired from Garmin bikes already. Or maybe it was the effect of clinchers, with their air pressure dropped a bit to handle the slick roads, hitting the inevitable slings and arrows of Pennsylvania road surfaces. Lim’s speculation was more ethereal, citing the fact that Garmin’s tires encountered only “pure, virgin racing roads,” thereby imparting them with mysterious yet appreciated flat-prevention qualities.
As the rain continued and the roads were seemingly washed off more thoroughly, the flat action tapered off. At least the actual flat action. Passing through one rural stretch of road with a strange cluster of houses built to subdivision spec, we spied a rider, who shall remain nameless, pulled 10 feet or so up the asphalt driveway, huddled over his handlebars and fiddling with the front presta valve. Judgment in the car was unanimous – somebody had had enough, and was looking for an easy way out.
I’d heard jokes about such exit strategies tossed around the amateur ranks since my junior days, like the idea of riding with a tack embedded in your glove, pointy end out. That way, if things got rough, a quick slap to the front tire could end all of your pain and suffering. But I’d never actually seen someone try to flat themselves out of a race. Lim, however, had seen it. He recounted the story of firing a rider (who again, shall remain nameless) on the Celestial Seasonings womens’ squad he managed circa 1999 for the same offense. Like our rider at the side of the road, she hadn’t considered the trail of evidence before committing the crime. Namely, the fact that if you just let the air out of your tire via the valve, your mechanic can simply re-inflate it and see that you’re full of shit. Guess they’d never heard of the tack.
The continued rain may have helped with road debris, but there was still enough accumulated oil, filth, and water on the road to make things more than a little glassy, and while Garmin avoided the flats, they couldn’t avoid the crashes. On the narrow, twisting descent following the day’s first KOM point, the team’s marquis attraction here, Tom Danielson, came off on a curve with two other riders.
By the time we’d screeched to a halt at the scene, Danielson was sitting in a folding chair surrounded by a small group of resident spectators. The houses are so close to the road that, had he missed the turn to a greater degree, he could have been lying in their living room instead of sitting in their lawn. As it was though, they were busy running inside to get him towels. The usual road rash marred his right leg, but a deep cut to his right forearm was generating quite a bit of blood.
Lim and Hopper were out of the car immediately, darting across the road to Danielson as the rest of the caravan eased through. One look at Danielson’s arm made it clear that continuing wasn’t an option – at least not in a minor, end-of-season UCI race in the middle of Pennsylvania. Lim flagged down the broom wagon to see if they could fit him in and give him a lift to the feed zone, where Garmin staff could have a closer look and transport him to the hospital if necessary.
There was a brief debate as to whether that could happen – a number of other sodden souls were already peering from the foggy windows of the minivan of broken dreams. Lim asked Danielson if he wants to jump in with us, and glancing back at the back seat full of equipment, I started thinking of how I was going to find my way to the finish when I got ejected from the passenger seat to make room for one of the squad’s bigger names. Word came back that either the broom wagon or the ambulance could transport Danielson as long as we could take his bike.
Hopper already had the Felt on the roof, so I breathed a sigh of relief and settled back into my seat. But only briefly, as I realized the car, of which I was currently the sole occupant, was moving down the hill. I grabbed at a thing that looked like a parking brake, but which in a Saab apparently is not a parking brake, before moving to the more awkward solution of leaning over the center console and depressing the foot brake long enough to put the car in park.
Leaving Danielson in the lawn chair with a jacket, Hopper and Lim jumped back in the car, and it was time for the rocket ride. Because of the crash, we were now far behind the caravan, and at the front end, a break had formed containing three Garmin riders – Tyler Farrar, Pat McCarty, and Lucas Euser. Their gap was pushing the minute mark, when team cars will be allowed to move into the gap to support their riders. The next 10 minutes were a blur -- driving at ass-puckering speeds down narrow backroads to catch the back of the caravan, Lim talking with the soigneurs on the phone about the incoming Danielson, weaving and honking our way through dropped riders and other team cars, and finally getting the nod from Comm 1 to pick our way through the peloton and rally our way to the back door of the break.
The break was working smoothly, and Lim soon received word that the team had collected Danielson and were taking him to the hospital for stitches, so things settled down a bit. If it weren’t said inside the twisted world of bike racing, Lim’s reaction to the Danielson’s situation would seem callous: he was relieved because the hospital visit was well-timed, early enough in the day that it wouldn’t delay the team’s departure for the Tour of Missouri.
With things calmed down a bit, we resumed the time-passing conversations we’d begun before things heated up. The testing of the team car passenger doesn’t stop with the initial response detailed in our first post. With Lim, it went on throughout the day. We talked about my history with VeloNews, how I got into bike racing, my educational background, common acquaintances, the usual stuff. Lim threw in some beauty contest style questions as well:
Q: Which presidential candidate will be better for cycling?
A: Neither, most cyclist issues are largely local, and the few “friends of cycling” in Congress are probably as much as we can expect on the national level, advocacy wise.
Q: What’s the future of cycling?
A: Over the next 10 years, cycling for transportation, not racing. Increases in fuel costs could put the clamps on racing on a number of levels, but as long as there are two guys with bikes anywhere near each other, there will always be bike racing in some form.
There were a few others, which I’ve forgotten now, but I chose to play the straight man no matter how absurd the question was intended to be. If I didn’t get to know exactly who I was dealing with, I figured they shouldn’t either.
So Lim and Hopper learned a little about me, and I learned a few things about me as well. Apparently, I’m not nearly as spastic as some reporters are when they’re in the team car. Lim remarked, “you have an air of calm about you,” noting that some others do not. Something I can’t recall cut the conversation short, so I’m left wondering now just what the hell other reporters are doing in the car. Fiddling with the CD player? Beatboxing over the team radio? Rifling through musettes? Don’t get me wrong, my apparent calm has nothing to do with my level of interest, excitement, or experience – I suspect it stems more from an anal-retentive attention to getting the details of the race right, which leaves me staring through the windshield and straining to hear the race radio a lot of the time.
I did get to learn a little bit about the team’s approach to this race, which, though a big deal for many involved, obviously pales in comparison to some of the others they’ve attended this year. The general take was that for the staff and the riders, it was a good chance to get some miles, keep a finger in the domestic pie, and generally hang out with each other and ride a race with far less pressure than usual. And Lim did note what many others have: at Univest, organizer John Eustice has assembled all the components of a European-style UCI race – TV coverage via helicopter, proper communication and caravan control, publicity, announcing, etc.
There may have been less pressure than at the Tour de France or the preceding weekend’s national championship, but Garmin wasn’t soft pedaling at Univest. I won’t recount all the race details here – that’s what this article was all about -- so I’ll just cut to the point where Garmin had Euser in the winning break with Frederik Eriksson (CykelCity), the defacto big Swede in the peloton since Garmin didn’t bring the peloton’s primary big Swede, Magnus Backstedt. By then, we were on the last couple of finishing circuits, and driving through a blinding downpour. Even with the windshield wipers going full tilt and the headlights on, it was getting harder to pick out Euser’s small body and now-grey jersey through the mess.
But we could hear him. Race radio chatter picked up significantly in those closing laps, with Farrar radioing in that the remnants of the break, where he and McCarty were playing guard dog, were demoralized, and questioning whether the organizers really needed them to ride all the circuits. Lim was urging Euser on with calm but forceful encouragement, breaking form with one slightly more colorful plea to Euser to attack the used-up Eriksson and leave him for dead – “Life’s not fair, Lucas, and right now you’re the one holding the machine gun!”
For his part, Euser was feeling confident, yelling back “tell [Farrar and McCarty] not to chase. I want this one” during one of the early finishing circuits. But several laps later, with Lim again urging him to drop Eriksson and avoid a sprint, Euser responded with a more modest “I don’t have too much left in the tank.” It wasn’t panic that ensued in the car, but there was certainly concern. The gap between Euser and Eriksson was enough that one of them was nearly assured of the win regardless of anything McCarty and Farrar could do in the chase. The team had committed to Euser’s move, but the last statement wasn’t inspiring confidence in the decision.
It didn’t matter. With a single attack about three kilometers from the line, Euser dutifully pulled away from Eriksson and soloed in for his first professional win. After the finish, I asked him about the “not much in the tank” remark and the consternation it caused in the car. The real story? He and Eriksson had already chatted – Eriksson was cramping with several laps to go, and just wanted to make it to the finish. Euser may not have had much in the tank, but he knew it was enough.
There’s a lot of hubbub that follows a bike race, at least for those who are involved in riding it or writing about it. Riders have to find soigneurs and directors, get changed, do podium presentations, go to dope control. Writers have to chase them down during all of that and interview them before they wander off. It’s a little bit like herding cats. As I staked out Euser, who was up on the podium, I chatted with his USADA escort, a woman of maybe 60 years old. “The poor thing really has to pee, he’s ready, and they keep dragging him away for more awards and things,” she told me.
Univest has more awards than your average one-day race – things like best team, best American rider, best haircut – to the point that Eriksson asked me if this is normal in the United States. They’ve cut back in recent years, but it’s still quite a few, so Euser, perhaps at that time the world’s most willing urine donor, was just going to have to hold it for awhile. After his appearance for the win, he was called back up for the team award, and then to receive a leader’s gold jersey. (Univest is technically a two-day omnium, though Garmin wasn’t sticking around to contest the next day’s criterium.) You could sense his disappointment when race organizers asked for the jersey back after he’d left the stage. “You keep podium jerseys?” the woman asked him. Though he argued that yes, people typically do, and that it was his first big win, he still came away with only his team jersey and promptly hustled off to the Univest bank building to pee in a cup. Though I doubt he’d trade a quicker trip to the urinal for the spoils of his first professional win, he seemed relieved to be headed that way.
In closing, I have to say that while it’s my job to be objective, I was happy for Garmin to win Univest. But it was for my own reasons. Since I starting doing this stuff, I’ve never, ever been in the car of the team that won the race. Not even with teams that were fairly dominant in their time, like Saturn, or Mercury, or Health Net. I was starting to feel like a curse, but now the burden has been lifted. People will be begging to give me a ride now, I tell you.