Saturday, March 31, 2012


Monumental Shift?

If we put aside the hand-wringing over the loss of the Muur and Bosberg, there’s a more significant change evident in this year’s Ronde van Vlaanderen parcours.

Hilltops and cobbled sectors have always come and gone, and come back again: witness the legendary Koppenberg’s lengthy layoff and eventual return. The Muur and the Bosberg will be back someday, too, maybe not in the crucial final hour where they’ve sat for decades now, but somewhere. Like the Koppenberg (or the Arenberg forest, or the Cote de Stockeau), they’re ultimately irresistible to route planners. Over the Ronde's 96 editions, plenty has changed, even start and finish towns, and despite it all it's always remained the Ronde, the serpentine tour of some of cycling’s most hallowed ground.

So I don’t weep for the Muur. Not yet, anyway. The momentary absence of a few hills is not a profound change against the accumulated weight of 99 years. But with this year’s route, the Ronde breaks strongly from its already malleable mold, and from the traditional format of the super-classics. This year’s Ronde route will make it the only one of cycling's five monuments – Milan-San Remo, the Ronde, Paris-Roubaix, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and the Giro di Lombardia – to repeat a significant course feature during the race.

Gent-Wevelgem scales its signature Monteberg/Kemmelberg combination twice, Fleche Wallonne does a recon pass of the mighty Mur de Huy before the final showdown on its slopes, and the Amstel Gold Race grinds up the Cauberg twice before returning again to finish on its crest. All are formidable races, career-makers by some standards. But they are not monuments.

Monuments are, by tradition if not definition, point-to-point, through-and-gone affairs. Paris-Roubaix doesn't spin the compass needle to traverse the same cobbles twice on its way to the velodrome, and Lombardia makes only one annual pilgrimage to the Ghisallo. Liege makes a single yearly pass at La Redoute, despite the opportunities for repetition its more or less out-and-back route presents.

In contrast, this year’s Ronde has adopted, if not a literal circuit-race format, something similar in spirit. During a series of three progressively tightening loops through the Flemish Ardennes, riders will climb the Oude Kwaremont/Paterberg tandem three times at ever-closer intervals before centrifugal force spins them out towards the finish in Oudenaarde.

The reasons for the route changes are no secret, and organizers of circuit races on both sides of the Atlantic can recite the advantages of looped courses in their sleep. Multiple passes through the same location invite spectators to gather en masse, where they’re more easily exposed to event sponsors and contracted vending. Through readily accessible on-site food and beverage service, porta-johns, and jumbotrons, organizers can keep fans engaged for an entire day, all while they're esconced in a sea of vendor and sponsor banners, premes, and product. Those gathered crowds look great on the TV coverage, too, moreso since the TV stations can position multiple stationary cameras there all day.

All of that is just for the average spectator. There’s more revenue to be generated offering the hospitality services Americans typically associate with the corporate suites of large stadiums. For the VIP crowd – think race sponsors, team sponsors, corporations looking to entertain clients – there are tents to be rented, catering, wifi, and television service to be contracted and paid for. Champagne in a heated tent just feet from the storied stones of the Kwaremont, and a guaranteed spot on the fence when you hear the rotors overhead. Three times. As VIP services go, it beats sitting on metal bleachers on main street Meerbeke watching 99.9% of the race on a blurry jumbotron.

More fan engagement, increased sponsor exposure and value, better TV images, and – since we haven’t mentioned it – potentially amazing racing in the final. Aside from concerns that the brutal last hour will stifle aggression for the first 220 kilometers, it’s hard to see the downside of multiple loops over the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg. And unfortunately, I can’t articulate that downside very well, even though I know it's there.

The feeling isn’t rational, certainly no more rational than feeling like it’s not really the Ronde without the Muur de Geraardsbergen. But in my inner, non-objective estimation of what should and shouldn’t be in professional cycling, monuments don’t loop, don’t backtrack. They can meander, criss-cross, intersect, and even overlap a bit to get from here to there. But they don’t take a key course feature and run laps around it. Not in a monument. As I wrote in 2008, despite the name, the monuments are living organisms, not time capsules, and they've have always changed with cycling and the world around them. New hills and roads are added, others are lost to time, and some rotate in and out. But that basic, root-level format, from-A-to-B, full speed ahead? That's always been a steady undercurrent, an enduring connection to a century of road racing. It's a holdover from a time when transport and communication weren't so easy as they are now, and the races had to be taken to the people, even if only for a few minutes. That element might be missing from a lot of other races that were created in different eras or that were forced to modernize for sporting or commercial reasons, but it's always been there in the monuments. And for some reason, I’m afraid of losing that.

Don’t get me wrong. This year’s Ronde will be fine, maybe even great. The riders will always make or break the race, and there’s a showdown brewing. What I fear, I suppose, is that the Ronde's new formula may prove successful, and soon there will be finishing laps on the Via Roma and two passes of the Carrefour de l’Arbre. If, down the road, that’s what it takes to save one or all of the monuments from a financial or sporting perspective, I’m OK with that. But I don’t think we’re there yet.


  • I have to admit that the aversion to the circuit-izing of the monuments might be partially out of empathy for the folks doing race coverage. Writing play-by-play of circuit races, especially those like Philadelphia International or the Univest Grand Prix in the United States, which have long laps followed by short laps composed of parts of the long lap, can be brutal. The fourth ascent of this, the fifth long lap, the eighth ascent of the same hill but on the third short lap…painful. A nice point-to-point, though? Every action has a specific place connected to it.

  • The big question for Sunday, of course, is where Fabian Cancellara (RadioSchack) will make his first bike change. I think he’s averaging .76 bike swaps per classic for the last few years. Another year of that and he’ll have a smoother remount than Sven Nys.

  • Want a real outside pick? Niki Terpstra (Omega Pharma-Quick Step). You have to figure Quick Step will try to make it a team battle – it’s Cancellara’s weakness, and the course cries out for it. If you figure Chavanel goes long as usual and gets brought back at the start of the finale, Terpstra’s a logical next card to play. If he’s brought back, its Boonen’s turn, if not, Terpstra has the chops to take it to the line. Lefevere’s no stranger to that sort of finale – have a look in Servais Knaven's or Stijn Devolder's trophy cabinets.

  • I know a lot of you will be following the race with a Belgian ale and maybe a waffle or frites in hand. But if you lack the time, cooking skills, and/or budget for that, remember, a room temperature ham sandwich and a cold, cheap Pilsner from a can is every bit as authentic. But I covered all this in 2008. Vicarious Spectator’s Guide, Part 1 (Beer) and Part II (Frites).

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Wednesday, March 28, 2012


UCI Leaves Women’s Cycling Unsupported

But Not in the Usual Way

Much has been made of the UCI’s artfully titled “Check of the equipment and position in competition,” the recent set of new rules, reiterations, and clarifications that, among other things, famously requires professional teams to
retain the factory lawyer tabs on their forks and limits the height of riders’ socks.

Most observers seem to agree that the latter rule, which limits sock height to half the distance between ankle and knee, is aimed at discouraging use of compression socks in competition. It’s a benevolent gesture if ever the UCI has made one: it saves cyclists from feeling compelled to don knee-highs for competitive purposes, thereby paying the considerable price of looking like either a triathlete or my Uncle Ned on a day at the beach. But while the wailings of sock-height fashionistas have focused attention on the sock aspect of the compression issue, the UCI’s battle against cyclists squeezing themselves is much broader than that.

Slide 36 of the UCI’s masterwork, Clothing Material, expressly forbids wearing clothing “designed to influence the performances of a rider such as reducing air resistance or modifying the body of the rider (compression, stretching, support).” I’m with them on the aerodynamics part and on the spirit of the modifying the body part. Since the document also forbids Frank Schleck’s belly-mounted hydration system (Slide 40), we can’t have him showing up in a skinsuit that squeezes his emaciated pectorals into some sort of aerodynamically advantageous bird chest.

But let’s read that particular edict again, this time thinking more of Marianne Vos and Emma Johansson, and less of Schleck(s), Boonen, Cancellara and the rest of the boys. That’s right, the UCI has forbidden any garment worn exclusively to change the shape of the body or provide support, and in doing so, has apparently outlawed…the sports bra. Really, does nobody at the UCI think to explore the potential unintended ramifications of their rules before they release them?

I would hope a formal exception or more precise language will be forthcoming from the UCI to allow women cyclists to continue to wear what I’m sure most would argue is an essential piece of athletic equipment. Otherwise, there could be some pretty uncomfortable pre-race checks for the pro women’s peloton this year. Though I suppose once we crossed the Rubicon of appointing people to watch other people pee, pre-race underwear checks were sort of inevitable.



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Friday, March 23, 2012


There Was An Old Lady

There was an old lady who swallowed a dog,
Oh what a hog, to swallow a dog!
She swallowed the dog to catch the cat,
She swallowed the cat to catch the bird,
She swallowed the bird to catch the spider,
That wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her,
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly,
I don't know why she swallowed the fly. Perhaps she'll die.
-Traditional Children’s Song

In the wake of the UCI’s proclamation on lawyer tabs, one compliance solution suggested is to develop long-throw quick releases. By tweaking the cam action, you can make a quick release that opens wide enough to clear the lawyer tabs and closes farther when the lever is thrown, cutting down on any adjustment of the quick release nut. With it, pro teams could be in compliance with the fork tab rule, but still preserve quick, safe front wheel changes. Leaving aside questions of leverage and clamping force, etc., it seems a logical enough solution. But I like a good rhetorical rabbit hole, so let’s jump down this one…

Since teams cannot modify equipment, per the UCI, they wouldn’t be able to take a file to the cams or otherwise modify their existing quick releases to achieve a longer throw. Someone would have to manufacture a new lever. The manufacturer of that new lever may or may not be a team’s wheel or component sponsor. Given the situation, a little non-sponsor-correct equipment might not be the end of the world, but it’s not terribly comfortable, either. It’s one thing for a Campagnolo team to be seen using a boutique manufacturer’s quick releases to solve a problem in the near term, it’s another if they have to use Shimano.

But what manufacturer, boutique or not, is going to develop and manufacture a new, presumably high-end lever solely for a market that very much prefers to either get its equipment for free or be paid to use it? The world is rife with bad business models, but it doesn’t take much to spot that this one is not a winner. So you have to assume that whoever goes through the trouble of making long-throw levers for the pros will put them on the consumer market – capitalizing, of course, on their use in the pro peloton. Meanwhile, in response to sponsorship discomfort and be-like-the-pros consumer market pressure, Campagnolo and Shimano and SRAM and whoever else will have tweaked the throw on their quick releases, and, since making two versions of something as mundane as a quick release for pros and consumers makes little sense, long-throw quick releases will become the high-end consumer industry standard.

So, through a minor feat of engineering, we’ll have widely available quick releases that, when open, clear the lawyer tabs currently found on pro and consumer bikes alike. Problem solved. Until someone in the Reflector & Fork Tab division of some consumer protection agency realizes that the lawyer tabs on forks no longer even remotely retain the wheel when one of the new, now-standard long-throw quick releases is left open. Know what happens then?

Lawyer tabs get bigger. And then we'll need longer-throw quick releases.

I don’t know why we swallowed the fly. Perhaps we'll die.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2012


Lawyer Lips Sink Ships

I apparently missed a rash of front wheels falling from the forks of the pro peloton lately. I don’t really understand how. I read the news, and though I admit being a little dismissive of the tech-related yammering, I'd surely have noticed the individual and collective rider whining over this apparent epidemic. It wouldn’t be the first problem I’ve been ignorant of, though, and apparently unscheduled front wheel departures are such an issue that the
UCI has handed down a new edict from on high requiring that professional riders’ forks retain their consumer-protection-agency-mandated safety tabs. Or lawyer tabs, or lawyer lips, as they’re known to shop rats on this side of the Atlantic. Improved safety is the reason given by the UCI. Not surprisingly for anyone who follows the UCI, the net safety effect will actually be the opposite.

During the overcast European winters, lawyer lips on new team forks have long fallen victim to file and rasp in service courses from Lombardy to Limburg, Girona to Geraardsbergen. Why wouldn’t they? Not only are professional cyclists exceptionally unlikely to sue a bike manufacturer should their wheel escape the comfort of its dropouts, the insidious bumps make a smooth front wheel change much more difficult.

Today, as for about the previous 60 years or so, when a mechanic hurdles from team car to tarmac, the wheels in his hand are already gapped – adjusted for the width of the dropouts on the team bikes. Ideally, the rider has already leaned out over the fork and flipped the front wheel off while still clipped in – right hand on the bars to hold the front end up, left hand on the quick release lever. Simple. Fast. When the mechanic arrives, there’s little to no twiddling with the quick release to set tension during the change. Bang it in, flip the lever, and start pushing. It’s a little luxury most amateurs, who don’t share standardized equipment with teammates and who suffer the indignities of slow, indiscriminate, wheels-in/wheels-out support, will never know. But the pros are different from you and me.

With lawyer tabs, the wheel change process becomes slightly but significantly more complex. Riders won’t be able to get the wheel off as easily -- they’ll need two hands on the quick release and an awkward posture over the bars to do so, and it’s less likely the wheel will already be off when the mechanic arrives. Slower. More importantly, once the lawyer tab rule goes into effect, mechanics will have to gap front wheels to clear the tabs and the quick release will need to be adjusted for tension on the bike during the change. Slower. By both design and pure repetition, I’m guessing mechanics will quickly memorize the number of turns it takes to get the quick release from tab-clearing width to proper tension. But regardless of the speed issue, the UCI is asking for one more step and increased adjustment on a vital component in a potentially high-stress situation. Wheel changes might be relatively relaxed in the first meandering 100k of a classic, but they’re less so 4k before the Carrefour de l’Arbre, regardless of the experience of all involved.

If you think gapping wheels is just a small touch to yield a second or two’s savings, you’re right. If you think it’s not important, though, you haven’t had to listen to the clacking as a mechanic fiddles with gapping tools in the back seat, checking and rechecking, for hours on end. Having everything set ahead of time saves time, but it also helps prevent accidents in the heat of the moment. I suppose you could argue that in the event of improper installation, the rider will have the lawyer tabs to save them, but if you think a couple little carbon nubs are going to retain a loose wheel as a rider bunnyhops his way through a Flemish traffic circle, I have some disturbing news for you.

Beyond the immediate safety concerns, slower, more finicky wheel changes as a result of lawyer lips could have ripple effects on peloton safety. Slower changes mean longer, more frantic chases back through the race caravan, which is not the safest place in the best of times. Further, in crucial situations, riders and teams might be more likely to opt for a bike change, which takes a bit longer to get the rider away, but ensures a ready-to-go machine. But bike changes can take their toll on the back end – it takes longer to put the discarded bike back on the roof than it does to toss a flat wheel in the back of a station wagon. Not much more time, but some. That means cars returning to position a from service call will be working their way back into position from farther behind – more passing, more hurry, more danger. All in response to that most notorious of battle cries: It’s for your own safety.

Do I think amateurs should go out and file the tabs off their forks? No, though that’s more because most amateurs shouldn’t be within 5 feet of a carbon dropout, much less with cutting tools in hand, than because the tabs are really likely to save them from themselves. But for pros? It’s a ridiculous notion. The sum total of safety considerations – in the context of pro racing – indicates that removing the tabs is safer than leaving them in place.

If you’ve ever seen the TV program Ice Road Truckers, there’s a good parallel to cycling’s lawyer tab issue. When the trucks leave the land road and enter the seasonal road across the floating icepack, the drivers remove their seatbelts. For almost every other automotive application, it’s commonly accepted that wearing a seatbelt is safer than not. But when you’re likely to slide off the road, break through a sheet of ice, and plunge into arctic waters, it’s better to be able to get out of the truck as fast as humanly possible. For most cycling situations, from childhood cycling to recreational cycling to amateur racing, lawyer tabs might have some safety advantage. But for professional cycling, the situation is different. Recreational and amateur racing cyclists, for the most part, don’t deal with high-speed wheel changes, caravans, and a livelihood based on getting back to the front as quickly as possible. They also don’t have the support of the best bike mechanics in the world. To subject a professional racing the world’s biggest events to the same equipment standards as a five-year-old is absurd.

Does this post overstate the safety implications of the lawyer tab rule? Probably so. As always, pro cycling teams will adapt to whatever oddities their governing body throws at them. But the lawyer tab issue highlights an increasing UCI tendency to make decisions without regard to the various contexts of pro cycling. And that's ultimately more dangerous to the sport.


So why is the UCI doing it? They’ll cry safety, and note that the tab removal ban is consistent with their prior edict that equipment used in pro cycling should not be modified from its factory condition. Again, for safety’s sake. All of that, of course, ties into the UCI’s much ballyhooed certification program for bikes and wheels, widely recognized more as a shakedown of the industry than a genuine effort to protect riders. Where’s it all going? If I don my long-neglected tinfoil hat for a moment, I can imagine the UCI trying to gradually force pro racing toward a “showroom stock” model, where any and all equipment used would have to be consumer available, all while setting itself up as the authority on what’s in and what’s out. The more they can push things that direction, the stronger the shakedown of the industry becomes. No UCI sticker on your pedal spindle, on your jersey collar, on your tires, no pro race exposure. Want a competitive advantage in the marketplace? Maybe your product is approved, but your competitor’s isn’t, for a price. But, as an increasingly money-grubbing UCI should see, if they did that they’d be effectively lessening the value of pro team sponsorship for bike and equipment companies by removing the R&D component, as well as the marketing glory of “spy shots” and teasing new, soon-to-be-released equipment in the pro ranks. Pure hands-in-the-air shots still have value for endemic sponsors, but it ain’t what it used to be with the rise of the internet. Sure, the UCI and the sport could hope that non-endemic sponsors would step in and fill any financing gap, but how’s that sponsor hunt been going lately?



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