Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Why Track?

There's a thread over in the Road Racing forum at bikeforums asking what Category 5 criteriums are like. It's largely some banter about Cat 5 racing. In cycling, listening to people talk about Cat 5 racing is kind of like listening to high school sophomores talk about freshman. There are a couple of convenient put-downs and it makes people feel like they're a bit more advanced. I mean, come on - calling Cat 5 the "Crash 5" isn't even a good play on words!

I read this thread and I sat back, wondering why I felt a little bit defensive. I'm currently a Cat 5 - I spent my first racing season focusing on track racing, with a handful of road races thrown in here and there, mostly for fun. Now I've got some racing experience under my belt and I'm gearing up for a full season of road racing, but still a Cat 5. I guess that I'm proof of something - hey, I know what I'm doing when I'm racing! Not all Cat 5's have no idea how to attack a field or sprint or...

Where'd I learn that racing stuff?

Hint: it's a bumpy banked oval out in Queens (side note: I recently learned that "Kissena" means "It Is Cold" in Algonquin - which fits all too well VeloCity '08, mentioned in this post (video at the end)).

Which brings me to my advice: want to learn how to race? Race at the track. The logic is simple. You can hop in a road race and spend some time groveling at the tail end of things and not even see how races develop. Or you can straddle your bike at the velodrome during an omnium, hop on to the banking, race in a smaller pack where the race happens faster, right in front of you, over and over. And when you get off, spent and exhausted, coughing and grabbing for your waterbottles, you can watch the other fields - specifically, the more experienced riders - do the same races.

And you can learn: oh, that person made a move stick on a faster field because of how he came off the banking on turn 4 (lesson: attacks have to be fast). If he would have done it on turn 2 he would have been going into the wind (lesson: be aware of the environment and terrain). And those riders two work together (lesson: make secret teammates). And that guy's a sprinter who can turn it up on the last 200m, so in this race format they're wearing him down, fast (lesson: just because somebody's faster than you, doesn't mean you can't beat them).

I'm entering the road season feeling like I know what I'm doing. I'm planning to be consistent at some early-season criteriums with a friend or two (Plainville and Bethel), and I'm already developing a couple of different plans on what to try when in different races.

Of course, plans will only take you so far. Time to get out the rollers.

And a parting word of advice - if there's a velodrome within a few hours of where you live, borrow a track bike or buy a cheap one, and go hit the banking.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Hey, why not? It worked in Blazing Saddles.

My secret source of shame is that I'm a fairly poor bike mechanic. I cut my teeth at a bike co-op that I cofounded, which means that I was tinkering with junkers. It was the "hammer-and-duct-tape" school of bike repair.

Then I started riding fixed gear bikes. Fixed gear bikes are a small step above the hammer-and-duct-tape school of bike repair. It's very easy to wrench on fixed gears, and very hard to mess anything up. No finesse is required. No special tools are required. In fact, if you don't have a chainwhip for changing cogs, you can make do with your frame and the chain that's already on it.

I'm tenacious, though, so have thrown myself headfirst into a few challenging tasks. I've built a handful of wheels, and I also built up my roadbike from a bucket's worth of parts. I measured each length of cable and housing a dozen times before cutting it (I still need to re-trim since I changed stems and handlebars). I fiddled with the alignment and tension of each derailleur about a hundred times in the first week or two. Practice makes perfect, and I got a lot of chance to practice on this one bike. Not quite at perfection yet, but I'll attribute that to Ergo levers that need to new G-springs.

Casting shame on my clumsy hands is a mechanic in a bike shop in Bloomfield, New Jersey who is blind. Apparently the tasks that I muddle through can indeed be mastered through persistence and experience, but also can be done without sight.

I'd love to be a fly on the wall in that shop, seeing what tasks Mr. Tinsley does and doesn't do, and how. Does he measure lengths of chain? Does he feel the alignment of a stem to the front wheel?

I just read an interview with Roger Aspholm, a dominant local racer. He talks about experienced riders training by feel rather than by science: knowing what your body is capable of, how to push your limits, how your body responds to duress. It's neat to think that the love for the bike could lead to similar feel for tools and bikes, not just one's body.

Several years back, as a grimey mechanic was putting cranks onto my bike while I hung around asking questions about everything that I could, I asked him how he knew when the square-tapered cranks were on snug enough. He had just leaned into the wrench, bringing it and the crank together, smoothly and forcefully installing the crank onto the spindle. He shrugged and mumbled, "Been doing it for fifteen years."

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Accidental Tendencies Toward Underdog Stories

I have an excel spreadsheet - my training outline. It's got all the dates for the next several months on it, and for the past six weeks or so I've been recording what riding and other exercises I've done. It helps me look back on the last week, and on to the next week, and think, Okay, did so many miles. I should plan for another longer ride on Thursday; and I should make sure to do leg workouts on these three days. And ride rollers for an hour tomorrow morning.

I'm really just starting my commitment to training - my season of racing in '08 was largely based on my fitness and strength as a commuter. One of the things that's regularly on my excel spreadsheet is an entry - "15C." Many days- 15 miles, commuting pace. It's a conservative estimate of the ride in to my delivery job, a few nonsense miles during my shift, and the ride back. A busy day is probably more like 20 miles - nothing to brag about. Getting the blood flowing in my legs. Spinning quickly up 10th Avenue, back down 9th. Bikerattling romps over cobblestones in the meat packing district. And, in weather like last week, slipping and sliding around a fair amount.

It's not much of training. It's not endurance, I don't do intervals, and though I do put effort into my accelerations it's not like I'm launching Monster Sprints in my low-geared fixed workbike. So what good is it? Well, it keeps me on the bike. It keeps my legs supple. It lets me feel my progress, my fatigue and my strength, as I work out indoors.

I think that it also fertilizes a useful stubbornness - a willingness to ride as far as it takes for as long as it takes, in as much discomfort as it takes. The cranky commuter mentality just might be a lot closer to the classic definition of the cycling "hard man" than your average road racer. Those of us who are out on the streets day in and day out, whether commuting or working on our bikes, have a different relationship with the bike. It's not a toy, not a hobby, not a beloved exercise machine. An integral part of every day life - no choice, but simple fact. It's a prosthesis, and with it we are coordinated, adept, as smooth as if it were a part of us. Last week, I stubbornly pulled on a pair of pants over my tights and two pairs of socks as I set out in temperatures touching down at 15F. I snarled at the weather and launched myself head first in to it. I had to get to work. It's not like in New York City we've got a whole lot of room indoors in which to train, anyway. I set up my rollers in the kitchen doorway, with just enough clearance from the refrigerator (behind me) and the couch (in front of me).

I never trained for my first season racing - I just commuted every day, about 24 miles round trip from the Bronx, through the cold months, the rain and the snow, the traffic, the darkness, and into the spring and summer, into the insistent heat and humidity, the perpetual sweat. Fatigued? Saddle up - you've got another forty minutes of riding before you get home.

Maybe it will make me stronger, more bullheaded. Maybe just provide that chip on the shoulder, that motivation to work hard, to train with my body, to race hard on used bicycles, to prove to myself and anybody who might listen that a scrappy punk-rock underdog with a slim budget can race with the big boys. It's a story I play out largely in my head, the old trope about the outsider.

Maybe it's a little bit silly since I've never been made to feel like an outsider while racing.

But there it is.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

There's Always More To Learn

My brain has a tendency to store somewhat useless data. As a child I would sit down and read the Encyclopedia when bored; memorize Hardy Boys novels; accidentally imprint long monologues from Brian Jacques novels into my brain (usually sections dealing with feasts and food). It makes being a bike dork fun, because somehow, a bunch of information that I find interesting just gets stored away, and when I lest expect it, my homunculus will rummage through those cerebral filing cabinets and pull out some esoteric factoid (much to the delight, no doubt, of my conversational companions).

So, when it comes to bikes, I really like seeing new things that I just plain-old haven't been exposed to yet. Last week it was Cantiflex Tubing, used by Bates in the 1930s as a way to make oversized tubing work with conventional lugs. It's a curious little corner of frame construction.

Even more so comes from this Casati pursuit frame currently on eBay, with the photo above. The 1980s and 1990s saw revelations about the importance of aerodynamics in cycling (see, for example, 1989's Lemond v. Fignon, and some more details here) - time trial bikes got lower front ends, Greg Lemond introduced aero bars to much controversy, and disc wheels - brought to the sport by Moser's hour attempt gained more widespread use. I always enjoyed this video of a 1987 Tour de France team time trial - you can see different aerodynamic developments being employed by different teams.

But I've never seen a bike with such design as that Casati. It seems to me to be a flawed frame design, , sacrificing front end stiffness (admittedly not of paramount importance in a pursuit) for - well, I'm not exactly sure what for.

Conversations about experimental frame design almost inevitably turn toward somebody saying, "There's a reason that the double-triangle frame design has been used regularly for a hundred and fifty years." It's true - it's a good design. But there's something about all the experiments, the attempts to create something new and revolutionary, that makes the standard classic racing bicycle even more beautiful. I suppose that's part of why I love the stories behind the Hour Record - it's got experimentation, that unusual combination of engineering and athleticism, and the story ultimately forks, reigning in one element in order to let the other blossom.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Recycled Content #1

When I started No One Line a few months ago, I made a point not just to repost photos found on other blogs. No offense meant to bike bloggers who do, but I take inspiration from blogs like Belgium Knee Warmers and Sprinter Della Casa - I want this to be writing about cycling, not just snapshots.

However, this post is going to focus on recycled content. In the last few days I've been sitting around, thinking about my winter training, poking around on bike blogs, watching race videos while riding rollers, and just generally immersing myself in the excitement of waiting for the 09 season to start. Here are a few of what I've been spending my daydreaming with:

Hipster Nascar has some photos of a new indoor velodrome being build in Boulder, Colorado (website; image above). Track dimensions: 143 meters, 45 degree banking. I'm used to riding on the Kissena Velodrome - 400 meters, 17 degree banking. The thought of an extremely short, extremely steep 'drome... it's a bit of a sphincter-clencher.

I usually forget to check VeloGoGo with any kind of frequency (and I don't use an RSS feed anymore), but when I do, I'm rewarded with lush imagery and insane componentry (if you want to spend $1200 on your brakeset...).

Meanwhile, when Belgium Knee Warmers takes a break from writing about embrocation, they offer some stunning race clips. Their short commentary says it all: Attacking on a descent in the rain and drifting both wheels on your way to catching '86 World Champion Moreno Argentin and beating him in the sprint is stunningly PRO.

And, bringing it all back home, Kissena Track Racing has photos from last month's 150 lap end-of-season ride at the Velodrome. As much as I love Kissena I'd be hard pressed to keep my brain stimulated during such a period of around-and-around. I love the cold, windswept look of the velodrome in the autumn. It reminds me of Cyclehawk's VeloCity 2008 tournament from this past March - the dead and browned infield grass, the 31-degree temperatures, the painfully clear blue cold sky. Video is here:

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Kissena regular Gabby Allong in the Daily News

The NY Daily News has a nice piece on Kissena regular Gabriella Allong, which Kissena Track Racing also posted. And it includes an extremely bad-ass picture.

Gabby's a great racer to watch - she attacks viciously, tearing apart the race field with strong solo efforts. When she enters races where she's the only woman in the field, she does exactly the same thing - makes daring attacks early in the race to break it up and be competitive in a field full of big, powerful men, many of whom are more than twice her age.

The article mentions racism in cycling - or, at the very least, white-dominance, calling Gabby "
an anomaly in the sport of cycling: an African-American girl, competing in a sport that's marked by a prevalence of white participants." The upper levels of cycling might be dominated by white people, but to call the grassroots level white-dominated is to ignore a lot of people and perpetuate the very problem that the Daily News takes pains to point out. Reality is created by what we acknowledge and discuss.

Two interesting things to consider about cycling being white dominated: one, an essay by Malcolm Gladwell on expertise:
Sport, too, is supposed to be just such a pure meritocracy. But is it? Take ice hockey in Canada: look at any team and you will find that a disproportionate number of players will have been born in the first three months of the year. This, it turns out, is because the cut-off date for children eligible for the nine-year-old, 10-year-old, 11-year-old league and so on is January 1. Boys who are oldest and biggest at the beginning of the hockey season are inevitably the best. And so they get the most coaching and practice, and they get chosen for the all-star team, and so their advantage increases - on into the professional game. A similar pattern applies to other sports. What we think of as talent is actually a complicated combination of ability, opportunity and utterly arbitrary advantage.

And, two: an organization called The African Cyclist, training Kenyan athletes with the goal of making one of them the first black man to compete in international professional road racing. It's turned out impressive results, with two cyclists - who have been riding for less than a year - clocking times of 46 minutes up the Tour de France's legendary Alpe D'Huez. A week after their first attempt, one of them raced again and finished with a time of 42 minutes (video here, which would have placed him 11th in the 2004 Alpe D'Huez time trial in the Tour de France.

My point is that not only is cycling far less white-dominated than the Daily News might have assumed, but that it also has the capacity to be much less monoracial at the upper echelons of the sport.

It's not like I expect excellent racial politics from the Daily News, but come on, this is New York City. Cycling is only dominated by white people when all the forty year old men drive in from Long Island and New Jersey for Sunday morning Prospect Park races.

And getting back to what started this post - Congratulations to Gabby. Having an article about you in the newspaper is such an awesome thing. Best of luck in the 2009 season!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Cycling Tactics

To the layperson, bike racing can be pretty confusing. What strategy and tactics can there be about a clump of riders spending hours in the saddle waiting to sprint to the finish? Why do they ride together if they all can be going faster?

Okay, there's something involving air and slipstreams or something. That much is clear. But how do you win, and what teamwork can there be when it comes down to what is left in a rider's legs?

And, so, a brief initiation:

Take yourself to four minutes and twenty seconds in the video above, which comes from the 2001 Paris-Roubaix. One of the famous "Spring Classics," the grueling Paris-Roubaix involves stretches of atrocious cobblestones which break up the pack and greatly complicate the race. A rider from the Domo team had been in the lead, several minutes up the road from the main group of riders (the peloton). George Hincapie, the tall man in the muddy blue kit, makes a strong effort to join the leaders, but two other men on the Domo team are with him. In order for Hincapie to reach the leader, he's got to ride fast. If he does, he pulls two Domo riders to the front as they conserve energy, riding in his slipstream. If they stay on his wheel without "taking a pull" - riding in the front, breaking the wind for the others - they are being dead weight, uncooperative opportunists. It sounds dishonorable in a sport where cooperation is the name of the game, but it's exactly the right strategy at this point in the race. If your teammate is in front, you mark the attacks but don't do the hard work. They put Hincapie in a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation. He could hand the race to Domo by dropping back. Or he could hand the race to Domo by towing their riders to the front.

George Hincapie is a great rider but in this race, he got absolutely shelled. Being in the lead group against four riders on the same team is like being a football quarterback without an offensive line. And, in the way that a football player's performance can't be judged by the number of touchdowns scored, a cyclist's performance can't be judged just by whether or not she or he won the race. An article in the Wall Street Journal (of all places) about the Tour de France's top Lanterne Rouge - the last rider to finish any given stage - points out a somewhat counterintuitive characteristic of those at the back of the pack: [Wim] Vansevenant's team director, Marc Sergeant, credited his rider's low placing to a combination of physical prowess and race savvy.

An outsider to the sport wouldn't expect that one could praise the physical prowess and the race savvy of a rider who finishes dead last, but the curious role of the domestique in cycling means that winning isn't the goal for many members of a team. Their strategy is to set up their team leader for the touchdown, for the win. They do this by pushing the pace faster, by making a breakaway, by reeling in breakaways - whatever is necessary to create the race conditions that will favor their ringer. If their ringer is a top sprinter the domestiques will want to keep the pack together - chase down breakaways, control the pace in hilly terrain to prevent the field from being split, so that it will come down to a high-speed mass sprint to the finish, where speeds in the last 100 meters can hit well over 40 miles per hour.

It's a little bit more than "who can get on their bike and pedal the fastest," which is reassuring to folks like me at the lower levels of the sport. I don't need to feel pressure to win every race I enter - the possibilities for success are much broader than that. I can do well by leading out a teammate, by chasing down breakaways, or by controlling the pace if a teammate is in the breakaway. It's one of many reasons why I'll be glad to pull on the orange, white, and blue of the Kissena Cycling Club in 2009. Winning is nice, but since I'm rarely the fastest guy on the asphalt, I'll be glad to know that I can improve my own chances for being fulfilled by racing by getting involved in team tactics. And I'll automatically be racing at a higher level.

Staten CX

On Sunday, I got to learn firsthand why so many cyclocross riders are amiably insane. The conditions on the morning of Staten CX were miserable - grey, cold, and wet. The sky was spitting and it was only a matter of time before it turned into a steady drizzle that turned Wolfe's Pond Park to muck, making a mess of the tight 180-degree turns, the mud pits, and the already treacherously slick and tight "Circle of Death."

I jury-rigged a cyclocross bike that I hoped would withstand the course: put front and rear brakes on my everyday bike, put a freewheel on it, geared at 42x18, and squeezed some 'cross tires into the frame. The clearances were tight - I hoped that caked mud wouldn't slow me down too much.

When the whistle blew, forty riders surged forward, each hoping to get toward the front and avoid being subjected to other riders' mistakes. The rough, sandy sound of wet, muddy brakes hitting rim came too often as riders slowed into turns - I realized I'd have to get clear if I wanted to ride my own race. So I powered along the flats and took kamikazi lines through tight turns, picking off the riders in front of me one by one. The course was great - hairpins, a set of two barricades, nice twisty bits mixes with some fast flats, a beach run, and a long section through the woods that tested bike handling skills. Used to riding this very bike over curbs and through the awful cobblestones of Manhattan's Meatpacking District I was able to plow through the technical sections, passing riders before the steep, root-ridden runup.

For fortyfive minutes I had some of the most fun I've ever had on a bike, and rolled into the finish line in 4th place, coughing, wet, muddy, and fatigued. Not only that, but though I was cold and wet watching the 2/3/4 race and the Women's Open, there was hot chocolate, veggie burgers, and Belgian waffles to fill my stomach and warm my core while I stayed shivering in the rain.

This could become fairly addictive. I'm an idiot for waiting till the end of the season.

Monday, November 24, 2008

H Plus Son rim failure

Do you know what that is? That's a picture of a bad component going badly. The story is here, but the abridged version is: some kids were riding on poorly made rims, and one failed impressively.

A few months ago, an unheard-of company called H Plus Son started making deep dish aluminum rims marketed toward the fixed gear crowd. The rims are an even Deeper V for the crowd who enjoys matching accessories on their street-fixes.

Since H Plus Son's rims were only made in 32 and 36 holes, I speculated that they weren't made to be aerodynamic, but rather that they were just made to be a bigger rolling surface to match to your toestraps or grips or saddle - or whatever. Had they made rims with 20, 24, or 28 holes, I would have considered lacing up one to a front wheel for track use.

H Plus Son also boasted that they're lighter than Velocity's Deep V, which is known to be something of an anchor. But what happens when you make aluminum thinner, longer, and lighter? Stories of rim sidewall failure are surfacing already, which actually doesn't surprise me as much as the fact that internet forums are somehow already calling these rims "durable" - presumably because they're riding the coattails of the Deep V's only arguably deserved reputation.

The lesson here is that companies with no reputation who surf trend waves into style scenes should be viewed with skepticism until they prove otherwise. Admirable performance over prolonged use is the proper vetting process when new bits and pieces hit the market. To jump to claims of durability and performance is, well, a bad choice.

Photo and inspiration from Flickr user ganring, with thanks to John Prolly for the link.

EDIT: Update - more information from the event; generous skepticism from Prolly; words of warning at Bike Albany. If I hear more stories about other manufacturers' rims failing like this because a tube blows, well, I would back off a bit. But I haven't. That's not to say that it doesn't happen - I'd be learning something.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Staten Island Cross!

If you keep up with Bike Snob NYC - which you shouldn't, as he's ran out of witticisms and his blog posts serve only as a medium for a surprising volume of spectator idiocy - then you'd know that next Sunday, November 30th, New York City will see its first cyclocross race in over ten years.

Those of us who've never raced 'cross know it as a sport where in order to qualify for the post-race beer-drinking, you've got to spend about an hour getting cold, wet, dirty, and exhausted running, pushing, fouling, and occasionally riding a bike that's only marginally suited for the terrain at hand.

And we've also learned that everyone who rides cyclocross absolutely loves it.

The organizers of Nov 30th's Staten Island Cyclocross, however, seem to have missed last spring's Sludgement Day, a 'cross-inspired mudfest on the curiously out-of-the-way playground/construction site Randall's Island.

But, that aside, Staten Island Cross looks like it will be a blast. I'm going to race it on what may prove to be a wholely inappropriate bicycle.

Photos as I put together a semifunctional cyclocross bike and sack up and register to race will be forthcoming.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Route 9W

Those of us in New York City who feel the frustration of dealing with red lights every tenth of a mile and a world-class levels of automobile congestion, there is always Rt 9W, and Nyack.

It's easy to get to. Ride up Manhattan in a leisurely warm-up pace via the West Side Bike Path or Central Park, and cross the George Washington Bridge. If you're sentimental, take a moment to appreciate the feeling of being hundreds of feet over a mile-wide river.

There, in New Jersey, is the ride for area cyclists. Oh, there are other rides and other routes of course, but Nyack is the quick and easy choice. It's as close as you can get. The road is well-paved with a generous shoulder. There are lengthy flats, a few rolling hills with short climbs and quick descents that make for enjoyable terrain.

When out there you will see other cyclists. Hordes of them. Impromptu pacelines may form amongst strangers - we exchange a few words of greeting and rely on our common language: a flick of an elbow, a sweep of the hand. If you flat, whether or not you're alone, somebody will slow and ask if you've got everything you need.

And I'm quite certain that car drivers are used to seeing so many cyclists, in groups, gaily dressed in our tight, colorful finery, that it's generally safer to ride there - even while cars fly by at 55+ mph - than it is in many other places.

So it comes with discomfort to hear the news of a terrible crash a few days ago, that left a cyclist being treated while in a medically-induced coma. Details are scarce; several days ago I had heard the rider's description in an effort to identify him.

Best wishes to Camille Savoy, and to everybody else on the road. And a reminder - carry identification and emergency contact numbers. And, among the thrill of 29 mph pacelines and 50mph descents, ride with a healthy sense of self-preservation. The fewer ghost bikes that are installed, the better.

And it should go without saying that those of you who are bi-curious in your transportation choices: when you get behind the wheel of a car, take care. Your sense of safety is dulled by your steel armor and the ease with which pressure on the pedal translates to acceleration. The people on the outside - in our neighborhoods, on our streets - are at risk.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The autumn winds blow chilly and cold.

Recently I spent a little while during a long, lazy autumn morning trying to plan when I would pull on my kit and go for a low-intensity, get-the-legs-moving ride in Prospect Park. In the bathroom, brushing the coffee out of my teeth, I looked down at my legs and realized that as much as underemployment might give me plenty of time to ride, I'm not making the most of it. My legs are unshaven. My excuse or reason is that there is no need to keep up appearances when race season is over. The reality that struck me, however, was that I haven't done a whole lot of riding in recent weeks.

I did squeeze in a really wonderful Century a few weeks ago, out to Montauk. Al and I put our heads into the wind and ground along for five hours, then stopped for a bunch of pizza, to watch the cold wind and the waves on the abandoned dunes, then climbed on the LIRR for a lazy train ride back. Six days later I did sixty or seventy miles through the city, up toward Nyack, and then down into New Jersey for family reasons, and the fatigue in my legs suggested that I had been lazy with my recovery - I hadn't ridden between those two long rides, and my recovery is best when I'm riding almost constantly. When I'm not tiring myself but always keeping my legs going.

In order to better be able to evaluate myself and keep myself on a schedule, I put together an excel spreadsheet that will let me track my riding and make plans and changes where I need to. One of the downsides of no longer living up in the Bronx means that everything I do no longer has a twenty to thirty mile round trip associated with it. This eats into my base miles.

However, this week I'm starting part-time work on my bicycle, which will get me on the bike every day and putting in some miles. That, combined with my excel spreadsheet, should keep me moving, thoughtful, and motivated.

It's been rainy a lot in the past couple of weeks. As November starts to get dark and grey it will be harder to really want to ride, and despite the fact that I welcomed autumn with open arms this year, it won't be long before I long for those warm spring days when you take the first opportunity to dress lightly and go out for long rides under the new sun. I plan to be well-prepared for next season's racing, though, and that will require me gritting my teeth and getting the miles in throughout the winter.

We'll see how I do.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Wine, cheese, and bearing grease.

Cycling is on the rise. To hear about greying locals talk about the sport twenty, thirty, or forty years ago, it was a blue-collar sport. Al Toefield was a cop who managed Olympic Teams, got the Kissena Velodrome built, and founded the Kissena Cycle Club; David Walker was a cop too, working in community relations, who started one of New York City's biggest and most enduring races, the Harlem Skyscraper Classic Criterium. Pete Senia, it seems, organized most of the races in the 70s and 80s that laid the foundation for the cycling scene. I hear stories of these men driving vans full of young, aspiring racers - just kids - to the races in the pre-dawn hours of the morning. The scene consisted of a lot of dedicated, working-class men, a lot of immigrants. Circling Prospect Park on a Saturday afternoon, there are still groups of older Caribean men, and mustachioed Latino men, riding bikes from the 70s and 80s - Nuovo Record, downtube shifters - wearing faded colors, muted kits from bygone days.

The working-class flair that local bicycle racing had matches the technology from the time - when you're talking about a lugged steel bike with 32-spoked wheels and downtube shifters, there's really not a huge technological gap between entry level and high-end (leaving out, of course, the 1970s era Bike Boom's drive to create cheaper and cheaper frames and components). Sure, there were ways to ramp up the cost of a bike - get the frame custom made, rely on Cinelli and Campagnolo parts - but at the end of the day, the manufacturing process and the final product between basic and bling were going to look a lot alike.

These days, the price-to-quality graph looks a lot more exponential - the higher you climb, the faster the prices increase, and the less you get for these increases. Campagnolo's new Super Record 11 groupset - cranks, cogs, front and rear derailleurs, brake/shifter levers, and brakes - cost upwards of $2,000, while last year's midlevel groupset, Veloce, sells for around $600. One can get a great frameset for well under a thousand dollars - indeed, just several hundred if you're looking for somethins used - but high-end, specialty carbon fiber framesets can readily run to several thousand dollars, even climbing over the $10,000 mark. The higher up on the scale you go, you pay more and more for smaller and smaller improvements in performance, quality, or manufacturing - a rapidly declining value system.

Ironically, the growing popularity of cycling is turning it into a more exclusive sport. Case in point - I was recently at an event featuring one of the world's greatest cyclists. As the event's attendants inconspicuously crowded around and waited for a pin-sized gap in the conversation so that they could speak to (to, not with) a consistent high finisher in the Paris-Roubaix, the conversation somehow turned to high finance, and almost everybody in this circle - barring myself, a journalist, and Big George Hincapie - chimed in. Not just everybody bearing an opinion about the collapse and the bailout - instead, it seemed that everybody present was in the industry. "Oh, so you must know so-and-so at Big Firm, then." These are the consumers in the new cycling industry, an industry of "it goes to eleven," of this year's model, of custom carbon fiber, of powermeters and high-end aero wheels for the casual racer.

Threads on the internet asking when you know your frame is obsolete. Though people know that while the industry churns out "improvements" each year, the bike that you bought two, four, or ten years ago is still just going to rely on the juice that's in your legs - and yet, the industry plows on and people buy the bikes with the newest graphics. Friends, it's an economy of wine, cheese, and bearing grease, but unlike wine and cheese, I fully plan to turn this to our advantage by looking at the resale markets of so-called "obsolete" components.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Ken Harris, holder of World Hour Record (40-45) and the Kissena Velodrome Hour Record

Over at Velocity Nation, there's a nice interview with Ken Harris; there's another one on CRCA's website. Ken recently set the World Hour Record for his Master's age category, (40-45). He shares some interesting tidbits about his training, his aerodynamics, and his gearing, so it's an interview that satisfies the nerd in each fan.

Harris set the record by riding 45.6 km (28.3 miles) in one hour on September 23rd, 2008, at the Trexlertown Velodrome, a few weeks after setting the Kissena Hour Record here in New York City by riding 44.17 km, or 27.45 miles. Those of us who are Kissena regulars know Ken as the tall guy in the Adler kit who punishes the 1/2/3 field on a regular basis. The '08 Twilight Series Results will testify to this.

The Hour Record is a holy grail of sorts in the cycling world. Eddy Merckx considered his 49.431 Hour Record the hardest ride he'd ever done; attempts to challenge his record led to riders and their coaches designing increasingly bizarre bicycles in attempts to gain aerodynamic advantages. Merckx, on the other hand, rode what was state-of-the-art for his 1972 record effort - a lugged-steel track bike with drop bars and traditionally spoked wheels. The developments being made in cycling technology led the UCI to seperate the Hour Record and the Best Human Effort, in order to distinguish between athletes riding "traditional bicycles" like Merckx's, and those riding some of the more unique creations that the sport has seen.

And so, notables like Francesco Moser, Graeme O'bree, Michael Indurain, and Chris Boardman assaulted Merckx's legacy with disc wheels, unique positioning, and curiously-shaped carbon fiber frames, but the UCI retroactively bumped their otherwise record-breaking attempts into the Best Human Effort category. Think of it as being similar to Major League Baseball's requirement that all players use wooden bats - a somewhat arbitrary line that requires traditional tools in an attempt to keep the playing field even, hoping to ensure that the event remains about the athlete, not the equipment (this bears a certain similarity to Japanese Keirin racing). Meanwhile, Merckx's record stood until 2000, when Chris Boardman managed to ride only about 30 feet further than Merckx had. The current record holder, Ondrej Sosenka, improved on Boardman's effort by 260 meters, or .16 mile. The fact that so little progress has been made in this area, though athletic records in so many sports regularly get shattered is a testament not only to Merckx's dominance of the sport but of the unique challenges, both mental and physical, of the Hour Record: get on the bike, affix your shoes to the pedals, grab the bars, put your head down, and go. For an hour. At about thirty miles an hour.

It's the stuff of legends, and of good stories, pretty thoroughly intertwined in the history of racing and technology in recent decades. Thanks to the efforts of, and rivalry between Graeme O'Bree and Chris Boardman in the 1990s, the field of cycling aerodynamics grew rapidly.

It's nice to know that somebody in our little corner of the cycling world, dominated by the same old park circuits and bumpy velodrome, holds a corner of a record that is imbued with such history, held by such cycling greats.

Good job, Ken.

Friday, October 3, 2008

The Finest Gear That Money Can Buy

It's been interesting reading reportbacks from Interbike, the cycling industry's annual convention. I wasn't there, as I'm just a lowly enthusiast - in the world, not of it, as the saying goes. But the messageboards and blogs get all fired up with reactions to the new lines of gear, the new aerodynamic improvements of this and that, everybody gushes about the photos of the new technological bit or piece... and then some people buy some stuff, some people forget about stuff, everybody goes about their business. I go back to searching eBay for "Campagnolo 9 speed;" occasionally I might see somebody out in the park, or up on 9W, with a fancy bit of new gear. I saw Campagnolo's 2009 brake/shifter lever bodies a few weeks ago, and they do look and feel lovely. Of course, for a while I've been seeing SRAM Red make the rounds (there's a big display in the window of the bike shop across the street from the building I work in). I wonder how long until I see a Campy-rigged bike with those new shifters and realize that that rear end goes to eleven; or until I see the SRAM-esque hoods of Shimano's electric group, Di-2.

It's an interesting time for the cutting edge. Though the importance of aerodynamics in cycling has been acknowledged by manufacturers since the 80s, aerodynamics seem to be on the rise again - I'm seeing more and more deep-dish carbon fiber rims , even underneath people who seem to be somewhat casual riders. SRAM's entry into the transmission market a few years ago has obviously prompted Shimano and Campagnolo to change the direction of their improvements. Shimano went toward electronics, and Campagnolo, seeking ways to make shifting even faster, wound up with eleven cogs on the rear.

And so, as others have noted, bicycles are getting more expensive. "Cycling is the new golf," say some, noting a rise in boutique, custom bicycles for wealthy amateurs. Meanwhile, bike shops this summer had a hard time keeping anything on their shelves as everyday citizens bought bikes, possibly in response to rising fuel prices.

The surge in the popularity of bicycles, be they for racing or for transportation, is not surprising. It coincides with rising cost of automobile use and a revitalization of American cities, factors which contribute to an argument that bicycles can be used as reliable transportation in many of the country's densest areas. Many of the major companies are making more and more commuter-oriented models, all-purpose bikes, or simple and affordable single-speed/fixed gear bikes. Worldwide, bicycle sales are through the roof, far outpacing the declining automobile sales. Locally and even nationally, cities are in a position to encourage, incentivize, and plan and prepare for transportation choices of the upcoming generations that could dramatically address issues of public health, air pollution, and city traffic congestion. By making dedicated bike facilities - racks, bike lanes, greenways, and traffic enforcement that doesn't just try to keep cars moving as fast as possible - cities can ensure that with increasing the safety of city cycling, they'll increase the number of citizens traveling by bike, therefor decreasing reliance on automobiles.

I can't help but wonder if all the glitz and glamor of the high-end racing market helps or hurts this need for policymakers, urban planners, and the population at large to consider the bicycle as an important part of the transportation network. Is it a sign of misplaced priorities, focusing so much glamor on the wealthiest elements of a sport that so few people understand, anyway? To so many, bikes are just flimsy-looking things ridden by pale, skinny guys on the side of the road wearing tight and ridiculous clothing. On the other hand, generating an economy of wealthy amateurs buying high-priced goods enables these corporations to engage in philanthropic efforts that can indeed support the cause - Trek has supported some significant innovations here in New York City that help raise the visibility and priority of bicycles in the transportation network. Furthermore, these huge companies probably need the credibility that comes with being competitive at the top of the market in order to be able to produce reliable midrange gear, especially considering the technological developments that, in the course of a couple of years, trickle down from the high-end lines to the mid-range equipment.

There are pressing needs around the world that are being addressed by some significant players in the cycling industry. Craig Calfee has done interesting work developing bamboo bicycles that can be used in rural African areas; Kona's BikeTown project has designed and built bikes that can be used by African health care workers to visit more patients - a unique intersection of transportation and public health, which has been addressed by smaller organizations in the past.

The bicycle is as inherently political as anything else in this world and I urge riders to make the leap from love of the bicycle to an evangelism of sorts. Use what you love to change the world for the better. Support efforts to provide bicycles - a reliable, sustainable, transportation method - to areas and societies that most desperately need them. Support companies engaged in philanthropic work. Support local nonprofit organizations that seek to improve the quality of life in our cities in this area where transportation, public health, and public space policy intersect.

We know how much bikes can change us. Let's find out how much bikes can change the world.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Racing and Renaissance - the Kissena Velodrome

The Kissena Velodrome was built in 1962, a project of the infamous Robert Moses - he also gave us some pretty terrific public pools, some pretty terrible public housing, some pretty terrific public parks, and highways that block generations of New Yorkers from accessing New York City's significant and beautiful waterfront. Thanks, Mr. Moses.

Kissena was built out in Flushing, Queens. In order to unite cyclists from around the tri-state region, it's close to the Long Island Expressway and the Whitestone and Throg's Neck Bridges, making it pretty accessible by car from New Jersey, Connecticut, and Long Island; of course, it's also only a half-hour bike ride from Midtown Manhattan or North Brooklyn, where many of today's Kissena riders live.

The 1964 Olympic Trials were held at the Kissena Velodrome, and for a while, it occupied a very special place in this country's track racing world - five of eight riders on the '64 Olympic team were from the Kissena Velodrome. Over the years, though, it fell into disrepair, until in 2002 Bicycle Magazine called it the worst track in the country. Unfenced, bumpy and ridden with weeds and cracks, it was occasionally refered to as the Paris-Roubaix of velodromes (after a famous grueling French cycling race that partially takes place along thin, muddy, wretched cobblestone roads).

In 2004, however, much-needed renovations were completed and a renaissance of sorts began. Figureheads in the messenger community organized and promoted races to messengers; track director John Campo recruited racers, youths, and other athletes with his trademark big grin and contagiously friendly nature. Attendance grew; in the 2008 season, anticipated ridership was so great that track officials decided to split the weeknight Twilight Series into two nights - Juniors, Women, and Masters on Monday nights and open fields (Categories 1/2/3, 4, and 5) on Wednesday nights. Highlights include 60 people for Super Sprint Sunday, and 99 people for the State Championships.

The renovations and rider renaissance have not made a perfect velodrome, however. There are still bumps in the surface low in turns 2 and 4 that can leave you a bit wide-eyed as you pull your rear wheel back underneath you and back off of your sprint; other park users occasionally hop the fence, unaware that there is a bike race being conducted at over 30mph; the only facility is a port-a-potty and there's precious little shade. During weekend track meets in the summer, everybody fights for shade, huddling under rickety canopies erected in the infield. Wind gusts from the west can blow you almost to a standstill when you're coming around turn 2 and heading on to the back stretch.

My July trip to the Trexlertown Velodrome in Pennsylvania showed me how beautiful an outdoor velodrome could be - big bleachers, bathrooms and changing rooms with lockers and showers; an overhead pass so nobody has to scramble across the track. Smooth, steep banking so that you can tear around the track at higher and higher speeds; lights so that the races never have to end earlier and earlier as the summer's evenings grow shorter.

But Kissena's imperfections inspire love and devotion, and camaraderie amongst racers. It's low-key, down-home environment doesn't take away from the competition. Rather, it welcomes burgeoning racers, inspires them to work their way up the ranks of the amateur categories, and sends them off into the wider world of cycling. Kissena's racers have won National Championships. Among those who cut their teeth at Kissena is Nelson Vails, a NYC messenger turned world-class racer. More recently, one of Kissena's current top riders, Ken Harris, set the World Hour Record for age group 40-44, riding 28.5 miles in one hour.

Kissena is a track where there's frequently barbecuing during events, where riders greet each others with high-fives while they unsling messenger bags containing their work clothes and water for the evening's races. The older men from Long Island roll out their track bikes from their cars while the younger racers, riders in their twenties who've ridden here on a Wednesday evening from day jobs in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx pull 15mm wrenches, lockring wrenches, and chainwhips out of their bags to transition from their street-riding gearing to their track-racing gearing. Alan Atwood, the friendly and boisterous official, greets almost everybody by name, and to run the races he needs nothing more complicated or expensive than a whistle, a pencil and clipboard, and his sturdy lungs. "Two thirty-three, you're out!" he booms across the track during a Miss-and-Out, where the last rider across the line each lap is pulled from the race. "Two thirty-three!" On Thursday, pictures of the races will be posted on Kissena Track Racing blog, maintained by Mike Mahesh. Occasionally, he also posts pictures from Kissena in the 1980s - when Mahesh himself started racing there.

The Kissena Cycling Club takes its name from the tri-state area's only velodrome. As I look toward a busy 2009 racing season, I'll be excited to don the Kissena kit as a member of the club.

On her blog with Bicycling Magazine, Olympic hopeful Liz Reap-Carlson wrote fondly of her trip to Kissena, relaying the view of a friend of hers that "it would be great if someone took the money it takes to build one ADT Center and made 10 Kissenas here in the US."

I couldn't agree more. Three cheers for down-home velodromes.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Bicycle Consumption

I have a friend from my more torn-clothes punk-rock past; I fear her reproach. She lives half in my head and half in the real world - which to say it's entirely possible that I'm imagining the things that she would say, engaging in too much speculation. That I'm using her as a way to externalize my conscience.

We discovered bikes together at the university bike coop, taught each other the hammer-and-duct-tape method of bike mechanics, rode mountain bike beaters around and locked up to street signs and dumpstered miscellaneous parts and frames and pieced together our first fixed gears and, above all, reveled in our bike culture of putting to use the cast-offs from a recklessly wasteful society and building a means of affordable, egalitarian, and secretly subversive transportation. Yes, what I'm trying to say was that those first bikes were indeed pipe bombs.

What would she say now? What would she say to my pretty-but-beat-up classic Italian track bike (with Campy 151 cranks and vintage Zeus hubs)? And what would she say about my aluminum-and-carbon frame that I use exclusively for racing at the track?

There is an inherent strain of consumerism underlying much of cycling culture. This came as a surprise to me, as my main exposure to bike culture was noting that every poor kid in that faded industrial city in New England where I lived after college had a beat-up BMX bike that they'd ride around town, popping and holding huge wheelies. But in New York City, I had easy access to just-out-of-college kids spending whatever didn't go to their student loans on a new frame here, a new wheelset there. NJS this, Italian that. And meanwhile we've got the cyclists who live proximal to Central Park and trot out their Colnagos, Cervelos, and Litespeeds (oh my!) on the weekends, meandering the loop at 18 mph only semi-aerodynamically tucked onto their HED aerobars, looking for all the world like that kid you knew in high school who decided he wanted to learn guitar so went out and got a way-sweet Les Paul and a 50-watt tube amp and struggled to contort his fingers into a bar chord. Or the middle-aged, masters-level racers who show up to Kissena for the first time - "I'm just trying out track racing since I've been having a hard time not getting dropped at Floyd Bennet Field" - with their bikes wearing a new set of Zipp 808s.

Why, my friend would be asking me, would you even step close to that? Why do you have three fixed-gear bikes? (But I don't! One fixed, one track bike, and one extra track frameset...) You can really stick to your ideals and pare down your stable to one or two bikes, can't you?

Oh, right. This isn't her telling me this, it's me telling me this.

I have answers, and they're answers about how to resist consumerism while still being a bike geek. In these uncertain times, in this uncertain country, everybody spends money and everyone has their priorities. While everything is relative, having a hobby isn't indicative of conspicuous consumption (having several hobbies on the purchase scale of bikes might be, however). You work for your money and you spend it on things you like. Some people buy nicer food and some people rely on six meals a week of rice and beans. Some pay rent, some squat. Some pay off their student loans faster. Some people drink a lot. Some people give everything they don't need to people who need it a lot more.

Some people buy right to the top, buy the fanciest wheels for their new toy, go through framesets like they're trying on clothes for the high school dance. Some amateurs buy professional-level gear. I think that's ridiculous but can't say I wouldn't mind owning some of that gear.

Of the six frames I've owned in the past three years, one was bought new - my first, a tough steel all-around commuter fixed gear which I still own and ride. The others have all been used - very well used, in fact, without exception. I think hard about what bike bits I want and need, I consider alternatives, I make plans and I drop them. I buy used; I patiently wait for good deals, and sometimes I impulsively buy things I don't really need. I sell stuff from my parts bin - usually to friends, with prices falling between "good" and "I'm doing you a favor."

So I'm not part of it all - not entirely. Or I'm as much not a part of it as I am a part of it. Or, there's no such thing as being part of it or not being part of it.

Look: don't buy the best thing you can get. You might not need it. Don't buy everything you want - you might have some redundant bike issues. Buy smart and buy restrained and make good financial decisions. Buy used, for goodness sake - I'm not too confident in the environmental effects of all that carbon production, that aluminum production, the chroming and painting processes. Buy things that will last you. I think the measure of unhealthy consumption might not be what you have, but what you go through.

If I were living somewhere else, with different habits, I might have one bike - some steel cyclocross bike with a carbon fork (and a steel one in the closet), that I could put some slick tires on and use in the occasional road race, or throw a rack on and go for a light tour.

No doubt that day will come eventually, but it's not here right now.

Until then, I'm going to enjoy my hobby, and spend less on my bikes than so many people do on electronics, clothes, rent in ugly gentrified neighborhoods, drugs and alcohol, cars and other shitty forms of transportation, and so forth.

The "If It Ain't Fixed It's Broken" Phase

Occasionally I hit upon some witticism that I just can't let go of. Two or three years ago, in conversations about my bike habits, it was correcting somebody: "Oh, I'm not a cyclist. I'm a biker." "What's the difference?" they'd ask, leading me perfectly. I'd pause. "I think it's spandex."

I was an avowed utilitarianist - my one bicycle was meant for all-purpose use, for getting me around, for going fast and being comfortable and wearing sneakers and not looking like a cyclist. Never mind that that one all-purpose bicycle was a fixed gear, frequently without a handbrake, with no accommodations for racks or fenders. And never mind that with rolled-up pants, a messenger-style shoulderbag, and lock wrapped around my waist, I did look like a cyclist. Just a certain sort of cyclist, and that was fine by me.

But, as I've found in a wide variety of ways, orthodoxy fades in favor of embracing complexity. I realized that clipless shoes are excellent innovations. I realized that I loved going fast, and that I could get even better at alleycat races - those messenger-inspired city races that take place between red lights and midtown taxicabs - if I embraced some more regular long rides. Which required a more suitable handlebar setup, and, eventually, gears. A regular browsing of craigslist and a trip to Westchester County with cash in hand brought home a used road bike. So much for the "if it ain't fixed it's broken" phase. And eyerolling about lycra-clad roadies struggling up the Central Park "hill" turned into, well, being one of them - sort of - on my way to work.

There are ways to stick to pride - riding a recreational-level steel racing bike with traditionally spoked wheels (but no downtube shifters - it came with Campy Veloce) and a midrange transmission. I was still wearing a mess bag, and, at first, riding mountain pedals (Time ATACS) on the road bike, on that lovely scrappy little Bianchi. I wasn't one of those ostentatious spenders in the park loop riding their Latest Bike Fad (how quickly Ti has dropped from favor, replaced by carbon fiber!). I was still a rough-and-tumble bike kid.

Thank goodness for - and be careful of - the changing of original intentions. I love my road bike and I am starting to love road racing. But I have to smack myself when I start wondering how I can cheaply acquire some deep-dish carbon aero wheels.

Welcome to No One Line #1

Hello and welcome to No One Line. This weekend, I raced a hybrid road-race-meets-alleycat, going up 9W, the iconic proximal-to-New-York-City straight-shot roadie training ride, finishing in 9 miles of mad traffic navigations in Manhattan. I had a teammate, a plan for the race, and an eagerness rooted in my desire to get some more experience comparable to road racing under my belt. I didn't plan on the weather being wretched, on being soaked and shivering at the starting line, on having to wear Diva Glasses to keep grit out of my eyes. I didn't plan on descending that fast in the rain, didn't expect to drop one or two people who did get dropped; I didn't expect to stick with my teammate, a stronger climber, up some of the steep sections or expect my final place to rely on the resultsof a sprint between my teammate and I.

There is no one line that separates plan and accident (thanks, Cat and Girl, for providing the quip that inspired this blog's title); I planned to race and see how my new bike performs, to have fun and test the waters, suck wheel, go fast. I didn't plan to finish highly, and one of the biggest lessons in amateur bike racing is that victory and failure can both be very much accidental. You make your plans - you pick your line and you hold it until you have to correct it. I don't think I've ever made plans without including "Reassess your plans" in the plan. I upgraded to Cat 4 on the track, expecting to continue my improvement, and somehow turned myself into pack fodder, struggling to hold wheels, unable to hold a lead in a final sprint. I went to a fancier velodrome for a race day, expecting to just ride fast, be a bit of fodder in a big pack, and have fun on some steeper banking. I found myself placing in the omnium and taking 3rd place in the feature race thanks to a 3-lap flier during an snowball.

When he muses about handlebar positioning and the differences between pro and amateur racers, Aki of Sprinter Della Casa points out that pros just put their heads down and hammer at the 12 tooth cog for long periods of time, whereas amateurs launch wayward attacks, get stymied, and try something new. My life on a bicycle has taught me two united and contradictory things - the surprising ability of my body to ride fast and far, for me to use my bike for transportation to friends, family, and other loved ones; and on the flip side, despite increases in speed and fitness, the enormous gap between an amateur who rides every day and keeps getting fitter, and the ridiculous levels of fitness of world class riders. My limitlessness; my limits. Those pros can pick a line and stick with it, but we down here at the enthusiast level are still going to be changing course with wanton disregard for original intentions.

After all, life is what happens when you're making other plans - the race happens when you alter your line. Hold your line. Never plan without anticipating changing your plans.

Welcome to No One Line.