Friday, June 27, 2008

Cascade Bicycle Studio

As most readers know, we here at BKW are intrigued by shops that focus on the passionate cyclist. We have noticed a trend that's forming in the bicycle industry. There is a push for bike shops which are smaller in size and narrower in focus. A shop specific to tandem riders, one aimed at the hucking crowd and of course, shops aimed at road cyclists. This specific approach offers cyclists a concentrated dose of their passion, free from both the physical and mental distractions of a traditional bike shop.

Our latest shop visit lands BKW in the Pacific Northwest with a visit to Cascade Bicycle Studio (CBS), a one man, one-on-one bicycle studio that operates by "appointment only". Given the nature of the studio and the individualistic approach, we'd fall short if we didn't mention its proprietor and founder, long-time bike industry guy, cyclocross fanatic, and Hup United founder, Zac Daab.

Zac's background is very similar to most bike industry folks: he began working at a bike shop at a very early age, sweeping the floors, building bikes for inventory, and picking up lunch for the mechanics and sales team. It was during these years that Zac became hooked on cycling and it became his full-time obsession and, in one form or another, his vocation for the next 12 years. Prior to his launch of CBS, Zac worked at Seven Cycles as Senior Fit Expert, recommending more than 7,000 frame specifications for a variety of clients, including olympians, professional athletes, weekend warriors, and cycling enthusiasts. Zac's broad industry experience equips him to offer an expert opinion as it relates to bicycle fitting, custom bicycle design and geometry, and material selection based on the rider's intended use of the bike and previous riding experience. Zac's education at Seven and his years of retail experience provided him with a perfect segue to the "studio" approach to bicycle retail.

CBS is located in Seattle's Fremont neighborhood. The studio space is set just off the main street, resting literally below the hustle of North 36th Street. Stepping through the doorway and into the Studio was a sensory experience. The warm glow of the wood floors paired with the beautiful, neatly aligned machines created a sensation that was part awakening and part flash bulb memory. Much in the same way that small shop in Redding, California did when I visited it after more than 22 years: the smell and feel of the space marked a first. For CBS, it was the first time I entered a "studio" bike shop, and for the latter shop, the first time I walked into an honest-to-goodness California bike shop. The first impressions of CBS remains etched into my mind's eye.

My initial thoughts were "where is all the stuff?" The streamlined nature of the shop and simple lack of the superfluous was, at first, disorienting. I mean, where are the boxes? the bright colors? the racks of clothes? the kids bikes? the tire inventories? the big service area? Where is all the stuff? Ahhh..., but this is the essence of CBS...streamlined and clutter-free. With these components missing, CBS is free to focus on the aspects that a passionate cyclist is seeking. Great advice, empowerment and top-level service.
The atmosphere at the studio is relaxed, professional, and rich in bicycle culture. Clients of all abilities and goals are welcome at the studio and a strong emphasis is placed on uncovering client needs and goals, rather than quizzing client’s knowledge, skill set, and accolades. At CBS, one does not need to “earn” the right to be a part of the studio culture. - CBS website
To some, CBS's product and service offerings may seem too narrow, too single-minded, but for others who seek their dream bike or relief from pain on the bicycle, CBS provides the right blend of offerings and non-exclusivity. A comparison could be drawn between cycling and motorsports. If you own an older model BMW, a car dedicated for use at the track, and you are seeking advice and mechanical expertise to make your car faster on track days, the dealer is probably the last place you would seek info. The focus of the dealer is different than a small shop who specializes in track cars (maybe even your generation BMW). Add a mechanic whose former experience was building BMW's race engines and now you have a shop whose focus aligns with your very specific needs and has the background to offer a level of support that few others do.

When you break down the Studio approach into its simplest form, it becomes apparent why it appeals to cyclists seeking top-level service and advice on the purchase of their next machine. Today's bikes are more technical and more expensive than ever before. CBS distills all components of a traditional shop leaving the services and products that are of interest and benefit to the serious cyclist. CBS aims not to sell a cyclist their first bike, but rather to sell them their second or third bike or fourth.

CBS's offerings are not limited to solely bikes. While visiting, Zac was wrapping up the installation of two SRMs for different customers. Having spent a season riding the SRM, I see the benefit of purchasing such a complex instrument from a retailer who has the time to explain the functions of the training tool and to address the enivitable flood of questions I will have in the future.

The cycling population at large is slowly adjusting to the new kid on the block, and for those who have a "studio" in their community, the acceptance of this approach to bicycle retail has already begun. In the same way the "corporate store" has rewritten the retail landscape, the studio approach is next. Bicycle retail is undergoing another transition in an effort to keep up with its customers and their needs.

If you find yourself in the Pacific Northwest, schedule a visit with Zac and drop by CBS. You won't be disappointed.

CBS is hosting an open house this weekend (June 27th - June 28th) to welcome representatives from Seven Cycles. Three days of Seven demo rides will be held. Please email or call CBS if you would like to attend the open house or to schedule a Seven Cycles test ride.

Cascade Bicycle Studio
473 North 36th Street #C
Seattle, WA 98103

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Seeing the Changing World

I wrote this in 2001 in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The piece never found a home but the attacks and the piece came to mind recently as I watched a preview of M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening. As this is the season for vacations, I thought it might be an appropriate time to see the light.

It's no secret that I believe time off from work spent away from home isn't a vacation unless you have a bike with you. I'm realizing that I just don't believe it's a good idea to travel without a bike. By day I write for a trade publication that covers the electronic security industry. I spend my time interviewing the people you pay to make your home and your business safe. As I write this it is the 24th of September, 2001 and most of America is trying to come to grips with the aftermath of what are now being termed the Sept. 11th attacks. Less than two weeks prior to the attacks I was in New York city for a trade show at the Jacob Javits center. Using one of those great little passes you get from the USCF for travel on United, I loaded up my bike carrier and headed for the city that never sleeps (and trust me, it doesn't).

I had but two specific goals for my bike while in NYC. I wanted to go for a ride with writer J.P. Partland, and I wanted to ride in Central Park, the latter being a quintessentially New York-roadie activity in my imagination.

My Times Square hotel gave me close proximity to the park and I rose early to go spin around the loop. Years of VeloNews reading gave me an appreciation of the course's few features, so when I rounded the loop's north end and hit the road's one real hill—a hill insignificant to racers at 20 mph, but known for breaking big men when hit at 30 miles per hour—I felt like I was walking from the desert into Mecca.

For those of you who remember the name Jackson Lynch, former PR honch for Polo Sports and Trek, and before that an editor for Mountain Biker and Bicycle Guide, he was the one guy on a road bike I saw that morning. You might think that mention to be an aside, but it is part of my point: The bicycle has the ability to make the big world seem small.

After my ride the next day with J.P., I got brave. I decided to take my bike downtown and play in traffic. I figured if I was going to go on record and claim that the best way to see the world was from the seat of a bicycle, I better back it up by riding in a less idyllic setting. I headed straight down Broadway for the financial center. Once, a few years back, a girlfriend completely enamored of America's financial center had driven me through the district late at night. Even at two in the morning it seemed to pulse with an unseen ingenuity.

I rode several loops around the World Trade Center. At the time, the event seemed significant only on a personal level: I was in the presence of one of the world's most significant structures. I knew most of my friends would think me crazy. Maybe not now. On the same ride I made sure to pass the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings. I marveled at each of those landmarks, ever in awe of the New York commerce machine.

Sitting here, those buildings, and the people who worked in them, are present tense for me. The smells of the diesel, the deli I passed, the way my eyes teared at the exhaust, the angle I craned my neck to peer through the shadows cast on everyone below, and the reverberations of the trucks, buses, cars and honking taxis off the surrounding concrete captivated me with its raw energy. I'd leap off the line, dodge the traffic, only to pause for the light and a look at the changing skyline.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Big Easy

I was visiting the folks at Specialized for a writing project unrelated to BKW last fall when I got the invitation to join Mike Sinyard and some Specialized staffers for Mike’s weekly abuse session called the Big Easy. To the degree that one can reasonably expect truth in advertising I think the Big Easy strikes the right balance. It was certainly “big” but it was anything but “easy.” Starting in Morgan Hill at Sinyard’s home, the ride takes in a clockwise loop that heads over the mountains for the coast through Aptos and Soquel, and then back over the mountains before dropping back into Morgan Hill.

No one had a GPS unit on their bike, so my route notes are limited to estimations by those present. I’m told the loop was 80-85 miles and had 10,000-11,000 feet of climbing. We were gone roughly five hours.

I’ve been hearing about this ride for some years and have been very curious about it. I knew if I ever had the chance I would move heaven and earth to attend. Sinyard rides a Roubaix exclusively; I suspected that the roads used in this ride might have something to do with it.

Our route took us over three significant climbs and by significant I mean they were all long enough to make a Cat. V cry. The first climb turned to dirt less than half way up and demanded steady power, careful steering and a light touch through the loosest of the gravel. The descent down the other side was steep, narrow, occasionally rutted and as twisty as the plot of a Hollywood thriller. It was, in short, hairy enough to take the edge off the fun.

We rolled into the hamlet of Corralitos and stopped at the tiny market to refill on water. Sinyard has an utterly charming habit of referring to everything that’s not water as juice. It reminds me of something my dad would say, but his habit of looking after all those present had a warmth and caring that was more maternal than paternal. Andrew Hammond, one of the instructors for SBCU (and a very strong rider) said with forboding tone of finality, “Well, that’s it; no matter which way we go, we have to climb to get home.” His voice rang with horror picture doom. I was delighted.

Our route took us through Aptos, Capitola and to a small market on the old San Jose-Santa Cruz Highway that Sinyard said he’d been visiting on his rides for 30 years. He told me of how the market recently sold and the new owners had taken down the old sign; he was genuinely sad about the loss of the little piece of local history. Leaving the market we ground our way up a long, shallow grade toward our rendezvous with Los Gatos. After topping out on the climb we had a short descent to a detour that forced onto a gravel path descent.

On the edge of town the group faced a decision. Or rather, it would have been a decision any other day, but this time, with a guest present, there was no choice. We would do Hicks, a road that skirts Almaden Quicksilver Park and an ascent of such ferocity that Andrew told me he had no idea how long or steep it was, only that after the first 100 meters he goes to his personal happy place and waits for the torture to end. Turns out, I went to my happy place as well, which was a bit back down the road from his.

As we spun back to our start point, Sinyard’s home, I played back the day’s events as much as I could in my head. I wanted to make permanent as many of the day’s features as I could. The upshot of my mental replay was that I was filled with a sense of mortal envy. I couldn’t believe how lucky these folks were to have such extraordinary riding so close to home.

Leadership works best when it is credible and has the ability to inspire. Sinyard wasn’t the fastest on each of the climbs, but he was rather conspicuously not last, either. It was evident from attitudes of the employees present that each had brought his A-game that day. Perhaps what was most impressive is what didn’t happen: Sinyard didn’t race the course. He rode at his own pace, enjoying himself and didn’t try to prove that he was still alpha dog at the top of each climb or in getting to the bottom of each descent.

Sinyard has a peculiar habit whenever he flies back from Asia; he meets a van driver at the airport who has his bike and a change of clothes for him. He then, despite the jet lag, rides the nearly 100 miles home.

It would be foolhardy and inaccurate to suggest that for a bike company to find success its CEO should be a serious cyclist. But it was evident in talking with Sinyard that being a rider and having products that made each ride more enjoyable was clearly no less a priority in 2008 than they were in 1974. He rides a Roubaix; that’s his road bike of choice, rather than the company’s flagship Tarmac SL2, which bolsters the argument that the bike isn’t just a hybrid with drop bar.

Back at his home at the end of the ride he made us smoothies, salad and spaghetti. It would be easy to take the cynical view and chalk his hospitality to a CEO turning on the charm for the media, but I can’t accept that idea. His charm was too natural, his hospitality too genuine, his love of hard roads too real to improvise.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Mid-Week Classic

The Mid-Week Classic (MWC) gets its name because it's held every Wednesday. Both the route and intensity are much akin to a one-day Classic. It starts early in the Spring, which often means temps are cold and conditions vary from sunny and warm to instantaneous downpours and the race has little time for pleasantries. The MWC is a bare-knuckle, fisticuffs event complete a "no-rules" policy, which basically states that it's "game-on" at exactly 5:30 p.m. The course is 40 miles out and back and the terrain varies from rolling hills and false flats to a nasty criterium section complete with multiple chicanes and a rutted series of back roads punctuated with potholes, off-camber turns and some spontaneous gravel in sections.

The MWC makes no apologies and takes no prisoners, which is why it's a favorite for the local Category ones and twos. I incorporated the MWC into my weekly schedule two seasons ago and feel that it has drastically improved my fitness. I guess if I'm not going to pay a coach to train me, the next best thing is to make sure I show up on the important training rides.

The MWC is an epic event, but one ride in particular was so over the top, that I'll never forget it.

Last July we experienced a two-week period where the temps were relentless and hovered in the 32°-34°C range. The wicked humidity so common with July helped to create a recipe for a complete and utter cracker! At 5:15 p.m. the ride began taking shape; the usuals showed along with some new faces. At 5:30 p.m. the group was complete (25 of us in all) and we rolled in the familiar fashion up and out of town. Just as we passed the last of the tall buildings, the unofficial gun sounded and it was "game-on". The attacks began and they were relentless, one followed another and pretty soon, the group was strung out into a single file line, forced into a thin ribbon by the intense pace and strong head wind. Despite the 37°C degree temps the ride was like so many before it: fast, serious, and requiring the A-game.

As we rounded the halfway point and turned to the benefit of the wind, the skies began to cloud over and turn an eerie, greenish black, appearing bruised and angry. As the wind began to increase, so did the dust and debris, unleashed by 14 days of scorching temps and a relentless sun. As the darkest portion of the sky took hold of the MWC's route, the wind began gusting and the sky began to unleash its fury on the group. First the rain drops were few but large, when they hit your face or legs they stung and they were cold. Very cold. Then came the full brunt of the storm, the sky opened and released all the emotions it had been holding back for two weeks, the rain was so heavy that glasses were a hindrance. The rider in front of you was only a faint silhouette and the cars passing just feet from our shoulders were reduced to a series of red streaks.

The rain quickly overpowered the storm sewers, collecting on the tarmac and puddling in the low spots. The rain absorbed the heat from the pavement and, in turn, felt like tepid bath water as it soaked your clothes and filled your shoes. It remains one of the most visceral sensations I have ever felt while riding bike. The cold front that carried the rain quickly rolled in behind bringing with it an incredible drop in temperature and creating zones of temps varying enough to be felt by your skin. Despite the rain, wind, cold, and zero visibility we continued in a style typical of Wagner, maintaining the aggression and speed of a normal MWC but it was elevated to epic by the rains and the chaos they brought. As quickly was the rain came it receded, pulling with it the heat and humidity, laying waste to weeks of dust and debris and leaving all of us, wet and cold and and even more motivated to keep the pace high and the action strong. As we positioned ourselves for the final sprint of the ride, the sun began to reappear and temps had plummeted to a chilly 21°C, we all knew that we were part of a ride that was truly epic, a day where a line was drawn among the local cyclists. A line that delineated those who were there, and those who were not.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The PRO Life

Suffering is the glamorous part of being a PRO. The visage of a PRO is never more dramatic or memorable than when juxtaposed against his immaculate PRO kit and state-of-the-art carbon machine with complementarily colored saddle, pristine white tape and gleaming chain. With his face twisted in a sweat dripping, snot slathered, lactic grimace, he is the epitome of effort.

We acknowledge the training the PROs do to reach their fitness, but rarely do we speak of the sacrifices they make beyond the restrictive diet. Sure, we know they can’t eat donuts and drink beer with every meal, but pedaling a bicycle at 40 mph to win in front of thousands and in front of television cameras that will broadcast your exploits into tens of millions of homes around the world requires sacrifices most of us are unwilling to make.

After all, the training is only part of the equation. Rest is equally important; under a 30-hour-per-week workload, PROs nap daily and sleep hours of which we can only dream. The routines of a PRO are simple, monastic: Eat, train, sleep. Repeat.

Strolling through shops in the afternoon: not PRO. Hiking in the woods with the girlfriend: not PRO. Driking margaritas on the beach at sunset: not PRO. Dancing at discos at midnight: not PRO. Taking recreational drugs: not PRO.

These are the basic, the elemental refusals a PRO must make his peace with if he wishes to reach the top. It is not so different from getting married: marriage means not playing the field, not if you wish to do marriage well.

What the riders want is not at issue. The crisis the sport faces is one of perception. The specter of performance enhancing drugs makes the athlete look like a cheat and cheating is unacceptable to the vast majority of fans and sponsors. Cheating is uncovered often enough that it is unpalatable to most sponsors.

If, indeed, all that was at stake was bicycle riding, no one would care. Pedro Delgado, Frank Vandenbroucke and Bjarne Riis would all have stayed at home were that the case. But this isn’t just bicycle riding; that’s what we, the television audience do. While we may race, for whatever reason we chose not to pursue the PRO life and its many sacrifices.

No, Delgado, Vandenbroucke, Riis, etc. were in pursuit of the age-old draw: fame and fortune. It may be that cheating doesn’t upset everyone, but most folks like to know that an athlete’s glory was achieved without outside assistance.

It is true that big money sponsorship has brought increased scrutiny to cycling. But no one has complained about the increased television exposure and salaries that came with those sponsorships. Were cycling still the sport of peasants sponsored 100 francs at a time, few would care. However, multinational corporations have an image (whether accurate or honed by the PR machine) they wish to protect. A company like Nike has enough problems with accusations of slave-wage labor not to want to battle the added image problem brought on by the scandal of a doped-up athlete.

Back when dope was an individual affair, which is to say, before science and organization entered the picture, stimulants and analgesics were the name of the game. “Pot Belge” has usually been described as a mixture of amphetamines, cocaine, heroine and caffeine. Recreational drugs, all. There’s been some speculation about just how much Pot Belge can help one’s performance, but whether it really helps or not, isn’t the point. The riders believed it helped and that’s enough to cast it in the dark light of performance enhancing.

With the advent of the biological passport and longitudinal testing as tools to verify that riders who race (that is, all riders, not just the ones who win) are clean, there are no vacations from the PRO life. That’s the deal.

There’s an implicit understanding when you get married: no hookers, no ex-girlfriends (or boyfriends). The same thing goes for cycling: no drugs. It’s a simple formula, really. The audience and the sponsors don’t want to ask questions about the nature of the win. If you have to ask which drugs, you don’t quite get the picture.

Longitudinal testing is intended to show that riders know the difference, that they understand the definition of cheating from the fans’ view. With fans and sponsors leaving the sport, there are no small infractions. There are no acceptable drugs. If drug testing profiles the substance, chances are it shouldn’t be in you, not if you want to be a PRO.

How Tom Boonen might be penalized for his transgression is pretty unimportant. He’s not going to the Tour de France. The green jersey will not be at the Tour de France. That’s a big deal. Would a two-year suspension teach him something more than missing the Tour de France? It seems unlikely.

Boonen needs to get a clue. Every time one rider tests positive, the whole of the peloton is cast in suspicion. It may not be fair, and the dedicated fan might be able to see through it, but big-dollar sponsorships and television coverage demand that price be paid.

Morality is not the subject here. We sit not in judgement. If you need to party like Lindsay Lohan, that’s for you to decide, but because a PRO’s body can be tested 24/7/365, a PRO is on duty for the duration. Those are the stakes of the game. Play it well and adulation and riches will be yours. Play it poorly and embarrassment will be thy middle name.

Image courtesy John Pierce, Photosport International

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Tornado Tom ... Indeed

If outrage or incomprehension was your reaction to news of Tom Boonen's positive test for cocaine, then you get the situation better than he does. To be fair, a cyclist of Boonen's stature in Belgium is a rock star, which is a sort of demi-god, and like other figures of mythical status can generally get away with acts that would be criminal by mortal standards. Think Apollo.

A Belgian King of the Classics. Yes, he's supposed to drive a Porsche. And yes, he's supposed to get stopped for speeding; he's a bike racer! But cocaine? That rock star comment was supposed to be metaphoric. Oops.

The situation seems no different than when Jan Ullrich was caught for taking ecstasy. It seems likely it was a "just this once" sort of mistake. Only Boonen had Ullrich's example to show what can go wrong. Imagine yourself in a club and you're the most popular guy there. I know, but try to imagine it. You're going to be offered everything in that club. Everything. There are at least a few of those things to which, as one of the world's great bike racers, you need to have the cojones to say , "No."

The problem here is that cycling is in such a tenuous state of credibility that the only way this situation could be worse was if Boonen had been riding for a team such as High Road, CSC or Slipstream that has taken great public steps to demonstrate it's riders are clean.

Drunk driving would be understandable; irresponsible, but understandable. Alcohol is an acceptable (at minimum) part of a meal. A fourth (or fifth) glass of wine or beer before getting in the car is a mistake that some folks make. But cocaine comes with the taint of party boy, which implies a different sort of recklessness. And because cocaine is a stimulant par excellence, if you didn't think, "Boy, I could make my bike go a million kilometers per hour on this stuff," we'd have to question your sanity, not your judgement. And there's the rub. For the bike racer, anything that can be construed as a drug ought to be seen as off-limits.

Perhaps Tom didn't get the memo. The memo came from the viewing audience. It was brief. It said, "Don't embarrass our sport anymore."

Under other circumstances, his apology would have been acceptable, applaudable even. He said, "Lately, my name has appeared several times in the news in a negative manner. I realise that with this I have hurt my family, my friends, my team and my fans. I wish to apologise for that. But I am not perfect. I will accept the consequences. You will understand that in spite of everything that has been written, rightfully or wrongly, I am not here to defend my conduct."

That wasn't good enough. Frankly, it smacks of Johann Museeuw's apology for not being "100 percent honest" during his days as a racer. Now, more than ever, we need someone caught red-handed to step up and say, "Yes, I did (insert name of drug here), and I apologize. I don't know what I was thinking."

Don't let the fact that his team is standing behind him obscure the gravity of the situation. Lefevre can be credibly accused of being one of the better architects of systemic doping in the peloton. To expect exemplary leadership from him is like asking a fifth grader to teach calculus; it's not fair because he just doesn't get it.

Which, is exactly Tornado Tom's problem. He can't possibly be seeing the issue through our eyes, otherwise such a gaff would never have occurred. And now that we have a clear illustration that his view of the "doping problem" isn't our view of the "doping problem" it calls into question his judgement as a whole. It hurts, because he's one of the last guys in the peloton we wanted this from.

Now we are faced with the ugly question of wondering what else Boonen may find acceptable on a "just this once" basis.

Photo courtesy John Pierce, Photosport International

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

1987 Tour de France - La Plagne

John Pierce: Revisiting Roche's Triple Crown

I was there.

Following many years in the 1970s as the event photographer for the Raleigh Dunlop Tour of Ireland, I became friendly with many of the Irish race organisers and riders. In the 1979 season, one of the organisers from the Tour of Ireland— Noel Hammond invited me to his Dublin home. It was here that the winner of that year’s Ras Taileann, Dubliner Stephen Roche showed me a small letter from AC-BB France, signed by Mickey Wiegants. The letter invited him to join the club in the western suburb of Paris; unusually it came direct from the club’s owner/president in the South of France.

He had been invited to join the French club, designated to accept English, speaking riders. The list is enviable and included some riders from my own club, and thus considered a confidant on the possibilities. I asked the 20-year-old Roche some straight questions, regarding home, job, languages and of course girlfriends.

At that time the answers were favourable for living abroad for a while. He was at the end of an apprenticeship as a diesel vehicle fitter. We decided that first he should finish the apprenticeship so he had something to fall back on. Over the coming winter he should take French lessons, then he should pack his handlebars and saddle for a spell in France.

He went to Paris to meet with Claude Escalon, the manager of the AC-BB. Escalon was a hard taskmaster; in training riders were given points, not just for being on the front, but also for related efforts. Roche had an unusual talent as a rider—he simply ‘floated,’ such was his smooth pedalling action. He hardly ever fought the bike. In his first season at AC-BB in 1980 he found success as winner of the amateur Paris-Roubaix. He turned pro for Peugeot—a sponsor of the AC-BB—and won 10 races in the 1981 season, including Paris Nice.

In 1987 Roche achieved an amazing triple, becoming only the second rider in history to win the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and the World Championship Road Race in the same season.

The Tour de France was a special landmark moment for myself. Firstly, it started in the centre of Berlin, two years before the wall came down. It was also my 21st Tour, a moment not overlooked by the Tour’s then owner, Jacques Goddet, who made a personal presentation to me. In his speech he talked about how he had been educated in Britain where Cricket and Football were more important than cycling. In his presentation he noted that I was the first to take images of their beautiful sport outside of France. He also noted that the race leader was also an English speaker, and indeed shared the same path.

There were some great moments, but two incidents were the foundations of a fantastic Tour de France victory by Roche. Some would say tactically brilliant, others would say he made his own luck; I wonder if there is a difference.

On the stage to La Plagne, won by Laurent Fignon, Pedro Delgado was in yellow, and second on GC was Roche, but Roche couldn’t climb as fast a Delgado. Instead of fighting to stay in contact, Roche ‘regrouped’ and set his own pace. On the 15km-long climb, Roche lost 1 minute in the first 5km; if this continued the race for him would be over. Then a strange thing happened, and was realised by Roche, and this is the clever bit. Delgado was of course receiving time checks, via motorcycle as there were no radios in 1987, and had been told that Roche was at 1:40, so the race was his, as Fignon was not a danger. In Roche’s head he had to make a big effort to contain Delgado, so at 5kms he let go with his biggest effort of the Tour.

At this point Delgado would have been at 4kms to go, much too late to receive any more time checks on the whereabouts of Roche. I was at the 1km banner making pictures—it was my chosen place. I made a time check for Stephen; he was 40 seconds down on Delgado. The final 600m of La Plagne is a false flat; Roche caught former teammate Denis Rous and as he passed him Roche threw the chain onto the big ring, and his bike stopped. Rous went back past him, wondering what on earth he was doing. Then Roche got his momentum back and sprinted past Rous for the second time, this time to within sight of the cars
behind Delgado. Minus 5 seconds. Incredible.

The other stage that comes to mind where Roche deployed superb tactics, or simply got lucky was into Morzine-Avoriaz, a stage won by Edouardo Chozas. Delgado—the better climber—had to drop Roche on the climb of the Joux Plane before the descent into Morzine; he didn’t, either because he was tactically unsavvy or because he simply couldn’t. Additionally, Roche knew that Delgado had crashed out of the Tour on the descent of the Joux-Plane in a previous year, breaking his collarbone. So, when it came to the descent, a long and sinuous 16kms, Roche attacked and Delgado faltered. Roche descended so fast that he caught the red Race Director’s advance vehicle that precedes the battle for the Yellow Jersey. That had never happened in the Tour de France before and was quite outrageous—Roche took the Yellow.

Roche was a huge natural talent, but to win the Giro d’Italia he was assisted by Careera teammate Eddy Schepers and also to a great extent by his former AC-BB and Peugeot teammate and friend Robert Millar, who in Italy won the mountains classification. Schepers was again there for him in France, as was Sean Kelly. Kelly would later sacrifice his own chances in the World Championships at Villach, when in the last kilometers Roche streaked away to victory, robbing either Kelly or Moreno Argentin of victory. It would be prudent to note that these performances were achieved when the performance booster EPO did not exist.

John Pierce
Covered 41 editions Tour de France

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Tom Danielson: Ready for the Tour

If there’s a PRO with worse luck than Tom Danielson, it could only have been Jonathan Vaughters. Seemingly the only team director able to capitalize on the rider’s phenomenal talent to date has been Tom Schuler for whom the trio of Danielson, Chris Horner and Nathan O’Neil won nearly every race that mattered in 2003. Danielson won Mt. Washington along the way, showing his incredible gift for climbing.

Then he signed for Fassa Bortolo; the move seemed smart because US Postal seemed to have so much talent (and a clear leader) that Danielson wouldn’t have been able to contest the GC at any stage races where his obvious talent lies. So Giancarlo Feretti sent him to one-day races, which is a little like driving nails with a screwdriver.

Danielson has, unfortunately, proven rather fragile. Between injury and illness he probably hasn’t had more than a few weeks at better than 90% since 2003.

But he’s healthy now. Thanks in no small part to the understanding guidance of Jonathan Vaughters, Danielson has been glued back together in a way that would turn Humpty Dumpty green with envy.

Below is a redacted video of Danielson climbing the Mount Montseny southwest of Girona. And yes, the whole thing is in the big ring.

Monday, June 9, 2008


Rooted in the complication of Western society, our daily lives lack the now of our ancestors. Days pass into weeks of restrained existence; days spent where our most definitive stroke may be command-S. Tens of thousands of years of descent with modification in our sapient brains tell us this isn’t what life is meant to be. So we go on vacation. And what do we do? We look for the defining moment. Something to restore life to our life.

In interviews with race car drivers, big wave surfers and overweight corporate raiders climbing Mount Everest, one hears a common refrain: that in their moment of greatest difficulty the rest of their lives ceased to matter. And it’s not that they didn’t care about the job, the family, the dog, the bills, it’s that if only for a moment, they could see life stripped of its complications, they could see themselves in an unencumbered way so that they were no more and no less than a person doing.

In the grand scheme, I believe that each time a person takes a timeout to reset their minds and bodies back to now something good is achieved. The more we pile layer and layer of mortgage, car payment, market fluctuations, long commutes, disconnected job roles as well as the awkward negotiation of family roles at home, the more we struggle to keep straight our life’s priorities. And as our priorities and roles abuse our sense of self each day, we struggle to find happiness or even peace. But such vacations can clear the smoke of a day’s stress by rooting us to a moment.

That said, I mistrust the urge to drive ever harder in our off-time, as if the trite, “work hard, play hard” makes anyone a better, more balanced person. What I find more problematic is the need for the Ordinary Joe to climb Mount Everest or undertake any activity that possesses what could be called “a statistically significant rate of death.” There’s something supremely selfish about fathers walking a knife’s edge between success and death.

As cyclists, you are already aware that mortal peril is not a prerequisite to stripping away the demands of the day. Obviously, you don’t need the sales pitch for why cycling is an ideal path to self-discovery. Rather, what encourages and mystifies me are the multitude ways that cycling can strip the day away.

I’ve gone so hard on climbs I couldn’t have told you my name at the top. Most of the greatest descents I’ve undertaken I recall as silent films—sound ceased to exist during those moments. Whole races have gone by where what remains etched is the sound of 100 chains playing over gears. The sound of rubber sliding, spokes breaking and metal gnashing can refocus your eyesight before you are even aware, causing you to look not for the line to follow, but for the hole, the escape route to safety. Any time I see a gap open there is nothing else on my mind other than putting a finger in that dike.

We can find those moments even when there isn’t effort involved. Who can take a leisurely spin at dusk and not be glued to the sunset? That we can strip the complications away so easily (not to mention inexpensively) can keep even the most type-A sort on a more even keel for all four seasons. We needn’t risk life to figure out that our families matter.

For those who manage a morning ride before work, there’s a benefit beyond the camaraderie and effort we show up for. As we spin the small chainring home we compile the day’s priorities: shower, family, work, oh—a few bills. Following a first hour spent rooted in now, the others seem much easier to understand.

Friday, June 6, 2008

The Brethren

We roadies are bonded. To be roadies, to emulate the PROs, to have a day where PRO Is Program Go! has come following education, supplication, surrender, even the odd humiliation. When on a ride, it’s easy to tell friend from Fred. There’s a difference, and it matters.

But unlike other bands of brothers, it’s difficult to pinpoint the rite of passage. Was it the first time we pulled on lycra? As if. Was it our first century? Probably not. Was it our first bonk? Not even close. What about the first time we slathered our legs with a smelly Belgian Knee Warmer? Maybe. What about when we started to look forward to the smell? Getting close.

Unlike Roman Catholicism’s confirmation, Judaism’s Bar Mitzvah or losing one’s virginity, there is no obvious rite of passage, no clear graduation into the ranks of riders accepted in the peloton. Yet we all had that epiphany. At some point we had been out enough that we were accepted. One day we were no longer alien and we no longer set off the xenophobe’s alarms. We had friends. The nervousness of having riders to left and right had passed and we could relax enough to have a conversation. Life inside the bubble ceased to be stressful and became a special treat, kinda like a secret stash of chocolate.

The trust we must earn from fellow members of the peloton is a special distinction. Fraternities wish they knew this brotherhood. At 35 mph every turn the group makes has the potential to go wrong the way freeway crashes do. The endgame can be fatal. I’ve spent years being an apologist for the standoffish ways of the pack, but the fact is, none of us wants to be on the wheel of a guy astride a Schwinn Varsity with tube socks pulled up to his knees. That’s not snobbery, that’s self-preservation.

Each act of the dedicated roadie is part of the system of PRO. We’ve done so many of these for so long, we’ve ceased to think about the rationale for each act. From the fact that sweat evaporates more quickly off shaved legs—keeping the cyclist cooler—to the knowledge that to be considerate of the rider behind, you pedal as you sit down, each act is part of the elaborate logic of the PROs. The guy who shows up in sneakers is telling you his education is incomplete. And the rider with a current helmet (cares about his brain), the armwarmers (the day may change), the shoe covers (an unhappy foot is a weak foot), the bare and glistening legs (no muscle fires like a warm muscle) is a wheel you can trust. He’s studied the magazines, has a series recording set for the Cyclysm, can tell you who won the Tour in ’88 and knows the Lance Feeling. He talks not of how fast he went, but of how he suffered.

We’re not cool. None of us are hip. We are, however, a brethren with a respect for each other paid each time we follow a wheel, each time we tell the story of another rider’s attack that sent us into debt. Suffering, in the end, is the thing that unites us, the grand equals sign that differentiates the accepted from the stranger. Suffering and surviving is our rite of passage.

One day over coffee a friend commented, “Bike friends aren’t real friends.” I disagreed, but kept my tongue at bay. The fact is I couldn’t disagree more strenuously; he couldn’t have been more wrong.

Our bike friends know the sacrifices we’ve made just to keep up. They know the money we spend on equipment. They know the calories we must refuse, the skipped desserts, the recorked wines, the early mornings, the aching legs, the skinny jokes, the close calls with cars, and the unparalleled exhilaration of following a group of trusted friends down a twisty descent. Bike friends? They are the truest friends we have.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Oh the Drama!

In the ongoing and rather melodramatic death match between the Amaury Sport Organization (ASO) and the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), the two organizations took steps this week further ratcheting up the conflict. Recently, the ASO made an overture to the UCI to return the Tour de France to the UCI’s sanctioning if, in return, the UCI would drop its threat to engage disciplinary proceedings against all riders and teams that participated in Paris-Nice. Smart move. While that seems a reasonable quid pro quo, the UCI declined the offer. The ASO, needing a sanctioning body for the Tour de France (one must have rules … especially in France) turned to the French Cycling Federation (FFC).

If this is beginning to seem more Tom and Jerry than Israel and Palestine to you, that’s okay, the situation is as ridiculous as it seems. Easily the greatest failing in judgment belongs to the UCI. What Pat McQuaid and the rest of the UCI staff have lost sight of is that there would be no need for the UCI without the races that make up its calendar. Had bike races such as the Tour de France (and for that matter, the ASO’s other events including Paris-Roubaix and Liege-Bastogne-Liege) not been founded, there would be no need for the UCI. The UCI gets to exist because there are bike races. This is not a chicken or egg issue.

In legal proceedings, this relationship is referred to as sine qua non: “Without which it could not be.” It is fair to wonder what bicycle racing would be had Liege-Bastogne-Liege not been first run in 1892. Another 8 years would pass before the UCI was founded in Paris.

Okay, so the ASO turned to the FFC to sanction the 2008 Tour de France. It seems unthinkable that the Tour won’t be run under the guidance of the UCI, but there it is. Weirder yet is that the UCI has called the ASO’s actions “deeply regrettable.”

In the annals of passive-aggressive memos, this deserves to go down as a doozy. One does not regret the actions of another. One regrets one’s own actions. For anyone to consider an action on the part of another as regrettable what they are suggesting is that the other party will come to regret their actions. That is a classic passive-aggressive challenge. We expect this sort of language to be used in mafia movies: You can just hear Marlon Brando saying, "I find your actions deeply regrettable."

The UCI’s response to this “deeply regrettable” act was to assert that teams and racers that participate in the Tour will face as yet-to-be-determined disciplinary measures.

The UCI’s threat is utterly absurd. It issued the same threat before an important, though not monumental race when it threatened the teams and riders that raced Paris-Nice. In theory, it was possible to skip Paris-Nice without any great consequence to a rider’s season. The Tour is another matter. Riders and teams plan their whole season around the Tour. Under ordinary circumstance the only things that will keep a rider from the Tour are injury and non-selection. And now the UCI thinks that the threat that was utterly ineffective for Paris-Nice will somehow generate the fear of God when used against the Tour.

Bill Cosby had a routine about the high jump and his inability to clear 6’ 0”—his height. One day he decided, “If I can’t jump my height, why can’t I jump one inch more than my height?” This is precisely the absurd line of reasoning the UCI is using, which is why it’s okay to laugh in response to the UCI’s threat—it’s as hollow as a gymnasium, not to mention hilarious.

Simply put, if you were a PRO, what do you think would be more harmful to your career, the UCI or not showing up to the Tour?

Image courtesy John Pierce, Photosport International

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Feed Angel

If the course is the star and the racers the drama, then the chain lube that keeps the whole shebang moving is provided by the volunteer. In the annals of thankless jobs, the race volunteer ranks just behind Congressional Paige and just ahead of Poet Laureate. The tasks are rarely fun (unless you get your jollies from telling the locals that they can’t drive home right now) and the contribution is quickly forgotten (unless something goes wrong).

It’s little wonder they are so hard to recruit.

Tougher still to find are those who volunteer on behalf of the teams. They are to soigneurs what amateurs are to PROs. It’s all the passion, a fraction of the know-how and none of the compensation. How anyone can be recruited week after week to help a team’s racers survive under the acetylene torch rays of the sun, pinning numbers, handing up feeds, tending to the wounded and very often driving vanquisher or vanquished home to bed.

They don’t make a sunscreen strong enough to make those days comfortable.

In the Old Country, when numbers were made of silk and saved after each race, the mamas would come out to sew them onto the jerseys for the riders before the start. Such local town support is more than we can hope to experience in community races, but it’s an accurate reflection of how bike racing is received by most towns, even those in New Belgium.

While course marshals and registration volunteers are as necessary as the course, it’s the feed angel who gets tapped week after week and without whom the complexion of a long road race or hot crit can change utterly. Unlike the registration table where an extra five minutes won’t kill anyone, feeds have no margin of error; miss one and the race is effectively over unless it’s a crit. Combine that stress—imagine being on the receiving end of all the yelling that happens when a bottle is dropped—with the week after week need of a team in the middle of its season and it's a miracle that any team can keep its racers from bonking.

From time to time you’ll find the nonpartisan feed angel who will hold bottles for anyone wearing a number. It’s a special person who understands the race should be decided on legs, not on the level of support the riders can recruit.

Over the years I’ve seen feed angels who handle their duties with the brutal efficiency of a gas station attendant. Others seem overwhelmed by the rush of bikes and grabbing hands. But the best are those who can turn four or five hours into a barbecue at the beach. They can make you crack a grin when joy or humor seem as remote as $1 gas.

Racers have but one task when in the heat of competition. However, it’s the small kindnesses that can show our real gratitude. It’s a topsy turvy world where the racers cheer for the volunteers, but showing gratitude when it should be hardest to conjure could be the best thanks of all.

Of course, there’s nothing like a gift card to a day spa. We may not get treated like PROs, but that’s no reason to neglect them.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Neuvation C50 Carbon Tubular Wheels

Neuvation’s reputation for wheels is at the inexpensive end of the market. Known for wheels that can rival the performance of costly imports, Neuvation seems more memorable for the cost of its wheels rather than the quality.

Anecdotally, there are reports of spoke breakage among riders, but to be fair, there are similar reports for Mavic and American Classic. At a certain point, all wheels fail.

Let’s be honest, that you can get a set of wheels with skewers for $350 may be the most remarkable thing you remember about Neuvation wheels. Were you to ride some, that would change.

In addition to receiving a set of the R28 Aero4s to review, we also received a set of C50 tubulars to review. These are the wheels on which Neuvation’s reputation should be based. Our test wheels weighed in a measly 5g over the advertised weight of 1480g. They were easy to prep for gluing and with a low spoke count (20 front and 24 rear) it was easy to hook my toes over the rim for that last bit of stretching the tire on.

The 50mm carbon rims come from the same mold as another high profile rim maker. The hubs use precision cartridge bearings and stainless steel Sapim double-butted spokes are used to lace the wheels up. Brass nipples are used on the drive side rear while everywhere else alloy nipples are used. And while everyone knows carbon is fragile, Neuvation takes the unusually proactive stance of offering replacement rims for only $250. Not a bad deal, especially considering that these wheels list for an unbelievable $1000. Better yet, it seems like they are always on special on the Neuvation web site for only $668 per set, not per wheel.

The rotational mass of these wheels when paired with a lightweight tubular is very low, making them very easy to accelerate. And while the wheels were very stiff, my favorite ride quality they exhibited was the ability to lend a feeling of greater responsiveness when accelerating out-of-the-saddle.

Honestly, the wheel offers one of the best combinations of all-around performance that I’ve ever run across. They lend an aerodynamic advantage on the flats once your speed is above about 26 mph—as you near 30 mph, it is even more pronounced. Due to their light weight and low rotational mass they still climb well and are a real asset on climbs with a changing gradient. Finally, in hard cornering they help transmit enough road feedback to give you a good sense of the road conditions and your traction even when you choose to run lower tire pressures.

My only issues with these wheels are issues I’ve had with all similar wheels: The carbon brake track is somewhat uneven in braking response, so braking can give a funny pulsating sensation which can be of some concern under fairly hard braking. The other issue is in strong crosswinds. Deep section wheels in a crosswind can be as hard to handle as a bear on jet fuel. As both of those issues are category concerns and not brand concerns, I won’t penalize them for that.

I’ve often heard cutting remarks about guys who ride $2000 wheelsets on training rides. It may seem silly to drive a Ferrari to the market, but when you’ve got great equipment, shouldn’t it get ridden? Conversely, I certainly wouldn’t take a $6000 bike to a criterium. The C50s completely sidestep the issue of what the proper use of spendy wheelsets is. At less than $700, you can ride these any time you want and your only concern is flatting a tubular tire. And for those who won’t even consider tubular wheels (you just don’t know what you’re missing), a clincher is offered for another $340.

When it comes to wheels in the $500-$1000 range—a category I used to consider dangerous territory because I always considered wheels consumables—the C50s are simply unbeatable. If another set of wheels exists that offer the same aerodynamic benefit on the flat, the low weight for the hills and don’t cost a mint, I’d love to know what they are. I haven’t found one and I’ve been looking. Put another way, the performance is PRO, even if the pricetag isn't.

Neuvation Cycling