Friday, August 29, 2008


In February of 1998 I drove to Ramona, California, the home of the famed Eddie B. and the location of the spring training camp for the wet-behind-the-ears U.S. Postal Service Cycling Team. Two years in and they were still finding their way in leadership and management. I was down to interview the team’s new signing, a hopefully renewed Lance Armstrong. My instructions were to interview Armstrong and during the interim while I was waiting to get time with him I was to interview any other Americans capable of delivering the goods in Europe.

I got an hour with Armstrong, one-on-one, but while I was waiting for that, I spent nearly two hours with Jonathan Vaughters and his roommate, this kid, a prodigy barely out of the junior ranks and Project 96. He was the son of a former Olympian and I was being told he was, with one possible exception, the next big thing.

Christian Vande Velde struck me as goofy, dislocated and awe-struck. I’d been steered to interviewing him by Dan Osipow of the team’s management. Osipow told me they were expecting big things from the rangy kid.

Vaughters and I had had a rocky first meeting. In an interview during the team presentation for Comptel/Colorado Cyclist (John Wordin’s first imploded team), I’d asked about racing tactics and how he might handle tactical mistakes. When I gave examples I’d seen in collegiate racing his response was laced with a tone of seething indignation. It was rather reinforced by his unequivocal, “This is pro racing, not college.” Oops, my bad.

So when I was unsuccessful at hiding my skepticism that this goofy kid whose suitcase was more yard sale than traveling tool, Vaughters immediately stepped in with a litany of notable pursuiters and team pursuiters who had gone on to stage racing greatness. He began with Viatcheslav Ekimov and threw in Eddy Merckx just for good measure.

What transpired in the next moment was a bit much to handle. I realized that:

1) Vaughters was a man of strongly held beliefs.
2) He was a smart guy.
3) He believed in Vande Velde’s potential more than team management did.
4) Vande Velde had the gee-whiz air of a kid told he’s the second coming.

To be fair, the poor guy couldn’t have been more disoriented. As part of Project 96 he hadn’t done massive mileage and his ’97 training schedule had been handed to him in a binder on January 1—for the entire year. Every day had been planned to a T, right down to the last BPM. Since joining Postal his direction had been to ride. Just ride lots and keep it easy. Truly, his training couldn’t have changed more. And given that Project 96 hadn’t really delivered a slew of medals for the U.S., his wonder was well-matched to my skepticism. The true believer, the skeptic and the kid—we were quite the trio.

So when Vaughters announced that he had signed Vande Velde to his team this winter, I was curious to see how it might play out. This spring I heard the first mentions of Vande Velde’s name in conjunction with Tour de France GC. And if you recall, for much of the world there was a collective gasp when Vaughters announced that Vande Velde would lead Garmin/Chipotle at the Tour.

Fifth place is, unfortunately, forgettable. Name one other fifth place performance in Tour de France GC that you can remember. We’ll remember this for no reason other than the fact that Vande Velde is American; it’s okay, we’re supposed to be jingoistic. It’s a very fine performance for an American. By cracking the top 10, Vande Velde can be counted as a peer to Lance Armstrong, Greg LeMond, Levi Leipheimer, Bobby Julich, Andy Hampsten and Tyler Hamilton.

To the degree that you may be wondering how Vande Velde rode like a real contender in the mountains, consider the following: John Pierce said that when Vande Velde got to the Tour he had to, “Look twice. He has lost a tremendous amount of weight.” This is backed up by a contact at Pearl Izumi who said that each of the riders who went to the Tour had to have their clothing resized relative to what they were wearing at the Spring Classics. Pearl was so surprised by the changes and had so little time to deal with the resizing that rather than custom sizing all the clothing they had to go with their semi-custom sizing—six sizes, each in three lengths.

So fifth place is fourth among losers. Big deal, right? It is. Vaughters has been proven right on a few fronts. First, that he could field a team worthy of the Tour and not be an embarrassment. Second, he did it in as conspicuously clean a manner as has been done, proving you can race the Tour clean. And finally, he has proven a belief he has held for some 10 years, that Christian Vande Velde is the real deal. I’m almost happier for Vaughters than I am for his old roommate.

Photos courtesy John Pierce, Photosport International

Monday, August 25, 2008


“You’re addicted!” The only way you’ve avoided hearing that phrase is by either not telling people you ride most days of the week or by not actually riding most days of the week. Such sins of omission are entirely understandable. Keeping the peace, or a low profile can be difficult enough when you’ve got a tan like a panda bear and legs as hairless as Michael Jordan’s head. The full story has been known to cause non-cyclists to think your last known address was Area 51.

But addicted? It’s not like any of us would ever say, “I can stop this any time.” We don’t pretend our lives could go on without cycling and remain fulfilled, enjoyable. And shouldn’t that be the definition of addicted? Shouldn’t a true addiction be something we are honest about, the thing without which our lives would lose some luster?

We, ourselves, can joke about being addicted to cycling. About how when we miss our riding we get the DTs. How we get neurotic without that outlet.

No matter how we joke, most people simply don’t understand our devotion. From following the racing, to structured workouts and, of course, the numbers of hours we spend in the saddle each week, our love for the sport can seem unnatural, even unhealthy. And anything done to excess must be unhealthy, right?

But here is where I find the difference remarkable. True addictions narrow one’s world. Whether drugs, alcohol or compulsive disorders, addictions define a person’s world into necessary and unnecessary and as the disease progresses, less and less is necessary. Meals, jobs and eventually even loved ones can be determined expendable by the brain hijacked by the disease.

What cycling has done for my life is anything but. I don’t think anything else in my life taught me the value of hard work the way training has. My interest in cycling has led to learning about physics, metallurgy, physiology, GPS technology, blood chemistry, metabolism, diet, European cultures and cuisine, Hannibal, and wine, not to mention expanding my knowledge of other subjects I was already interested in including geography and photography.

My experience can’t possibly be unique. But universality is no standard by which to judge. The epiphany I came to in defending my love of and devotion to cycling is that the sport has made my world bigger. What it has done for me is nothing short of miraculous. It has exposed my weaknesses and foibles like no shrink could. I give nearly everything in my life greater effort thanks to cycling and there’s a chance that I’m a more tolerable person to friends and family.

I doubt very much the definition of addiction includes feeling better about yourself.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Junk Miles

Even if your training isn’t regulated with Swiss train precision, chances are you ride some base miles in the early season, do something approximating intervals in the spring and whenever the mood strikes you, really, really hard efforts once you start to feel fit, and recovery rides any time you can talk yourself (and your friends) into it. It’s a form of discipline that balances the enjoyment of riding against the desire to get fit without making it, well, work.

Any sort of periodized training plan, aside from being PRO, suggests an understanding of junk miles. Junk miles are the purgatory of the cycling world: Neither hard enough to be true training that will result in the coveted faster you … and not slow enough to allow you to gain any recovery at all. For most of us, the concept of junk miles was a little difficult to grasp at first. Worse yet, even when we thought we understood it, our bodies were usually slow to follow. I was lucky to have a friend who was a Cat. II to my Cat. Nothing.

“When I say easy, I mean easy,” he would say to me. My body understood “easy” the way a cat understands “heel.”

Ultimately, what we learn is that riding is a binary system. When you go hard, you go really hard, whether a three-minute interval, a full-on sprint or the half-hour climb. And when you go easy, it’s really easy. Frankly, it reminds me of a dog I had. When he was on he had the energy of a top-fuel dragster on Red Bull and anger. And when he was resting he slept the sleep of a bank vault, only with his tongue hanging out.

But there comes a point in the season when you’ve accomplished what you set out to do. Wins, upgrade points, epic rides, by late summer only the most dedicated riders still have unfinished business. The resulting mix is a once-a-year bouillabaisse of sustained fitness, great weather and waning motivation. So what is there to do?

Junk miles. Let’s hear it for going out and riding 80 percent with friends. Putting in an attack hard enough to send a message, but not so hard to leave you (or them) crippled for the rest of the afternoon. Let’s hear it for turning off the wattage meter, leaving the heart rate monitor at home and riding your priciest wheels after work. Going someplace pretty just for a change of scene.

Sometimes, pretty hard is just right.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


When the sh*t goes down and the screws are turned, we all wage the war against the ingress of doubt. Like cold, salty ocean water, doubt will find its way inside a breach and then... it's only a matter of time before the ship goes down.

Following an effort so hard that it leaves the eyes bloodshot and your feet fried, a rider tries to sort out the race's details. How can one's fitness vary so greatly on back-to-back days? All things being equal, one can point to doubt.

At times, denying doubt is harder than any of the physical efforts doled out. When the group is strung out into a razor sharp point and riders begin popping, doubt becomes tough to ignore. At that moment, the difference between a good day and a bad day is determined by the mind's willingness to ignore the persistant whisper of that f*#ker doubt.

Image courtesy John Pierce, Photosport International

Monday, August 18, 2008

A Group Effort

The season begins the same way every year. Like moles emerging from the earth, cyclists crawl out from the confines of their basements, spinning classes, and lone winter workouts. Everyone has the same intention: get out, join the group ride, and connect with fellow riders. For some, it's another season, picking up right where they left off with the last. For others, it's their first season riding with a group; they struggled through the last season, building form and fitness and a comfort that comes from long hours on the bike. For newbies, there may be apprehension to join the mix, especially the bubbling, swirling brew that makes up the group at higher speeds. Novel to them are the rules of group etiquette, how to ride in a paceline, how to move about in the field, and how to play nicely with others.

Here are a few rules I like to follow when out with 65 of my closest friends:

A paceline is an effort to save energy - When riding in a paceline, remember the effort is intended to benefit the group; to ride faster than you would as an individual at a reduced effort and provide you time to recover immediately following a hard effort. When it is your turn to pull through, stay consistent in speed and take your pull smoothly. Once you pull through to the front of the return line, ease up the effort every so slightly to allow the next rider an easy merge in front of you. This helps to keep the flow of the group smooth and eliminates the need to chase down the rider in front. Again, the whole purpose of the paceline is to work as a group.

Avoid surges - Surges are short, abrupt increases in speed. They waste everyone's energy and require the group to constantly reestablish the rotation.

Be a good wheel - This is a broad statement, but apply it as you will. To me, this means, keep a steady flow when riding with others, no herky-jerky, yo-yo moves. Keep the power distribution smooth, and soft pedal to control your speed and time yourself so you don't have to use your brakes unless it's absolutely necessary. Avoid bumps and holes in the road by giving the riders behind you fair warning. In some cases this means a subtle point or a verbal cue "hole," but try to reduce the amount of shouting, it creates confusion and no-one likes the startle effect it can produce. When you're at the front and responsible for the group behind you, look ahead, and when an obstacle approaches, give the group the benefit of a smooth lateral movement that begins 10 seconds in advance. This way there is a smooth avoidance. As a rider behind, watch the riders in front of you and mimic their line if you trust the wheel in front of you. A trusted wheel is sure to avoid obstacles.

Shoulder check - As you pull through to the front of the pace line know where your back wheel ends. Coming in too close to the rider behind you can spell the end of half of the group's season. Pulling in a bike length ahead at the front of the group means everyone has to chase to close the gap you have just created and this creates undue work.

Euphoria strikes when the speeds are high and a group of riders synchronizes their efforts (especially when the effort is difficult and the oxygen flow is strained). If you want to witness the perfect paceline, watch a Tour when the team time trial is the order of the day. A properly executed paceline can be a magical experience.

Photo Courtesy: Graham Watson

Thursday, August 14, 2008


Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V

Part VI

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Road to Roubaix - Masterlink Films

“You must have the will, you must have Paris-Roubaix in your head…”
- Jean-Marie Leblanc

As August begins to catch its stride, the crew at Masterlink Films prepares to release its documentary, Road to Roubaix. If you caught the film at one of the Bicycle Film Festivals, then you are one of the lucky to witness Roubaix and all its glory on the big screen. Back in the 70s, A Sunday in Hell debuted in the same fashion, and like its predecessor, Road to Roubaix takes an in-depth look above and beyond the race itself, highlighting the people and the landscape that gives L’Enfur Du Nord its mystique. Masterlink Films steps behind the façade of the race and digs in deep, interviewing riders and capturing the essence of the event through pre- and post-race moments.

Although Masterlink Films is new to the cycling film genre, they have chosen to partner with some heavy hitters. Road to Roubaix is comprised of three distinct components: Footage from the 2007 Paris-Roubaix, Discovery Channel’s spring camp in Solvang, CA, and post-race interviews shot in London. Each segment is beautifully captured through the eyes of the Masterlink Film team. Artfully edited to create an authentic and compelling account of what Roubiax means to cycling and the world at large. The film captures the modern day Roubaix while black-and-white photos expose the history of the race; each component masterfully sewn together with poignant narratives. I recognize stills from my favorite book Paris Roubaix: A Journey Through Hell, as well as some from Rouleur’s powerhouse photo talent, Camille Mc Millan and Tim Kölln. The sum of these elements paints the beauty of Roubaix in vivid reality and delivers the sting of the cobbles and the taste of the nervous energy mixed with historically rich French sand. Paris-Roubaix is without question the star of this film, not the well-paid PROs.

The content of this film is deep, and if you (like BKW) are drawn to behind-the-scenes footage, this film should be on your to-do list. The perspective is not from an individual team or rider, but the event itself. One thing is very clear right from the start: the filmmakers and the individuals interviewed have a very healthy respect for the Queen of the Classics; at times, the level of respect displayed makes the hairs on your arms stand up. The raw emotion of those who love Roubaix is endless and it's conveyed with a succinct clarity that, at times, you'll shake your head in agreement and, others, you'll be reaching for the phone to call everyone who has ever bared witness to your stumbling explaination of Roubaix's power.

There are a few standout moments of this film, moments that I found myself repeatedly returning to watch. One is former Clash road manager and cycling fanatic, Johnny Green, who's passion is both enlightening and highly contagious.

Ask any Australian cycling fan to comment on O'Grady's win and it becomes obvious that Stuart's performance in 2007 went well beyond another CSC win. O'Grady ground himself into the record books as the first Aussie to capture the title and, for those who have enjoyed watching his career unfold, Paris Roubaix was the ultimate win for a rider who has put in the effort year after year. Masterlink Films captures this historical moment in PROfessional cycling with a vividness previously not seen.

Road to Roubaix continues to make the rounds in select theaters and hits the Boulder Theater on August 13, 2008.

Put your name on the list and pre-order Road to Roubaix. There’s eight months to go before the 2009 Roubaix and Masterlink has created the ultimate tool for those who are suffering from Classics withdrawal or who are planning ahead for the countless trainer hours.

Monday, August 11, 2008


The sticker may be the single most valuable form of currency in the bike world. On the surface, stickers are created equal, but upon closer inspection, stickers, like currencies, have differing values. Don't get me wrong, all stickers are important, but like teaching the value of money to a child, five singles are not as valuable as a twenty dollar bill. Here is a brief tutorial on the denominations of the sticker world.

Loose change - Loose change stickers have the lowest value and are often affixed to common, daily items such as travel mugs, the backs of your MP3 player and, on occasion, they are used to make minor repairs in place of tape. In the bike retail world, these are the stickers that find their way to garbage cans, parts bins, and new guy's tool box.

Singles - Singles have a bit higher value than loose change. Like the dollar bill, you would step off the curb to grab one of these. Singles are often a bit larger or offer a cool die-cut shape. Singles are also good for daily items (see above), but their value makes them good for the bumper of your car, the window in the service area, or maybe to cover a rust spot on the trusty '85 Ford shop van.

Fivers and the Ten Spot - Close in relation to one another, the value of the Fiver and the Ten spot is often determined by your love and personal investment in the message delivered by the sticker. A Sun Records decal carries more weight than a Sidi sticker that came with your shoes. Both are cool, but until Elvis records a historically relevant tune at Sidi HQ, the Sun sticker trumps. Fivers and tens are perfect for your tool box, even if you are a clean aesthetics kind of cyclist. One of these babies would make the clean lines of your roller cabinet that much tighter.

Twenty and the Five-0 - Now we are talking about some serious booh-kooh. If lost, the twenty and the Five-0 are the type of decals that are mourned and even warrant a bit of eBay time to try and find a replacement. Stickers like these are never wasted on short term items like cars, computers, or rental apartment refrigerators. The battle over where to place these gems is sure to be waged in your mind. Like your retirement savings strategy, think long-term.

Hundos - The largest of the folders, hundos represent the top of the sticker heap. These stickers can be any size, any vintage, and any area of interest. The value of the hundo is so great that often you hang on to it for years, waiting for the right place to affix such a valuable commodity.

Rare and Precious - Some adhesive-backed images were never meant to be adhered, plain and simple. The rare and precious are worthy of a designation greater than sticker, they are elevated to the designation of decal. Decals are coveted, they are the reason you have a sticker drawer, or special plastic bag in which all decals are stored. Some decals may be twenty plus years old and have only seen the light of day on very rare occasions; they may even have a home inside a bag inside the bag. Decals may never have their backs peeled off and their stickiness may never be realized. But like a collectable postage stamp, or an antique pistol, their worth is not measured by their functionality but rather by their pure essence.

As long as I have been a cyclist, stickers have always brought a simple joy. As a kid, I would run from booth to booth at the bike shows collecting stickers. Later in life, as I walk the isles, I still find myself pulled to booths, which among other things, has a pile of cool stickers on their table. Like cycling itself, the hunt for the perfect sticker keeps me young at heart.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Belgian Knee Warmers

Real, big-time bike racing was descending on my town. Barriers lined the sidewalks and minivans festooned with roof racks filled the available parking. A door slid open and there were the two stars of the Panasonic-Sportlife team: Viatcheslav Ekimov and Olaf Ludwig, both Olympic Gold Medalists.

While crowds mobbed Greg LeMond just 100 feet away, just a few people stood around the Panasonic-Sportlife van—bike racers and Winning subscribers all. The Panasonic-Sportlife team was to our select audience the ultimate Belgian PRO team. Ekimov and Ludwig signed a few autographs before sitting down on the tail of the van. What happened next was a revelation to me.

I had read that pro cyclists got their legs massaged and had even seen a short clip of a post-race massage on Tour de France coverage, but the pre-race massage was news to me. Further, the experience was my first with a warming embrocation. I watched as the soigneur applied the cream to the pros legs, watched as his thumbs and fingers moved through their hamstrings as if he were pushing through pudding; bread doesn’t knead this easily.

Suddenly, the aroma hit me. It was distinctly European, heady and exotic, as if it were the smell of bicycle racing itself. I had no idea that the massage was helping to warm their muscles in anticipation of the day’s stage. It took talking to a Cat. II teammate of mine to explain how a proper pre-race massage with a warming “liniment,” as he called it, could help prepare a cyclist for the day’s demands.

That I’d been exposed to something I hadn’t read about in any of the magazines made me feel like I had been let in on a secret. I was hooked. That there could be a wealth of hidden knowledge not even hinted at in the magazines gave the sport a new depth for me. As much as I loved the straightforward simplicity of my impression of bike racing, the idea that your success might depend on your pre-race knowledge and ability to prepare made bike racing alluringly complicated.

Before my next race I went out and bought a tub of Icy Hot. It didn’t have the impressive Euro scent but I was amazed at its ability to shut out the cold. More than anything, what stayed with me from that day was the smell of the embrocation and the way their muscles, especially their hamstrings, drooped from their legs as if they were wet cloth. I couldn’t yet reconcile how something so relaxed, so without tension, could contain such explosive and controlled power.