Wednesday, January 28, 2009

On Snow and Rollers


I was going to write a post about track bike orthodoxy and why it's silly, using my own bike as an example. This morning I put cyclocross tires on it. When I woke up around 6 AM it was snowing heavily and the street in front of my apartment barely had any tire tracks in it. Cyclocross tires, I thought, would be useful for a day of working in those conditions. At 10 AM, a few hours after mounting cyclocross tires on that trusty workhorse, I looked out the window again. Freezing rain. Slush as far as the eye could see, and not enough time to put slicks back on before I had to leave for work. Damn.

There is nothing worse than 33 degrees and raining, especially if it's combined with thick slush all over the roads. Plastic bags over my socks kept my soggy shoes from freezing my toes off - barely. A reminder from your friendly local bicycle delivery person: tipping 10% is a good start. Increase with generosity for longer distances, worse weather, walk-ups, and any additional hassles, complications, or waiting. Four or five additional bucks means more to the bike delivery person than it does the person warm in their apartment.

Anyway, since the weather was miserable, upon coming home from work I rode rollers for a little over an hour. Speaking of rollers: last night's roller races (a fundraiser for Recycle-A-Bicycle and featuring Bike Works' fabulous Competition Rollers) saw my buddy and teammate Al defeat this guy, who has a couple of noteworthy palmares. A velodrome rematch will have to wait until Al upgrades (a few times).

Good job, Al!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

On Losing

This morning I was thinking about cycling and losing - two ways in which Steve Bauer lost big races. One was the 1984 Olympic Road Race. It came down to a sprint between Bauer and Alexi Grewal. Bauer was the superior sprinter but didn't jump early enough to drop Grewal, who stayed with Bauer and came around him at the line to become the first American to win an Olympic gold in the road race.

Four years later, at the World Championship road race, Bauer was in the final sprint when Claude Criquielion came around in the tight alley between Bauer and the barriers as Bauer was reaching to his downtube to upshift. Up came Bauer's elbow, Criquielion swerved into the barriers, and Bauer sat up, letting Maurizio Fondriest take the stripes (and providing fodder for jokes about hockey and the Canadian Bauer). For Bauer, they are two notable ways to lose big races by playing them wrong at the wrong moment.

The flip side of losing is doing it on purpose, for other people. I wrote a piece on Wim Vansevenant, a Silence-Lotto domestique and Lanterne Rouge in the 2008 Tour de France. The notion of working for teammates is a blow at Bikesnob's take on pass/fail racing: finishing in the pack might not be such a sign of mediocrity if you're helping somebody out. Here's a clip from Overcoming - Jens Voigt in a breakaway chooses to pull back to wait for the pack so that he can assist his captain, Ivan Basso.

The many dynamics of "losing" is one of the very appealing things about cycling for me. It's so different than conventional team sports. A football game isn't won by the person with the most touchdowns - the whole team gets big rings for winning the big game and their faces all over the newspaper or whatever, but the team element of cycling is more understated - at least, to outsiders. Knowing full well that you can "lose" a race but maybe give a strong leadout to your buddy for the final sprint, or attack a field over and over until it's your buddy's break that sticks and you're completely worn out, barely able to cling to the back of the field... that's what makes cycling exciting for me.

I'm not sure I'm concluding anything particularly different than my other post on this subject, but that's okay, it's a blog and the internet and there's no shortage of space. It's the dead of winter and it's easier to stay inside, daydreaming and writing, than it is to train. But yesterday I went out in search of one of Brooklyn's steep, sharp hills and attacked it over and over again, ramping up the intensity and making a fifteen mile midday ride feel like a lot more. When I think about the amount of time until racing starts I feel as though there is very little time to get as fast as I want to be. When I think about how much winter there is left, though, it feels interminable.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The smell of Campagnolo grease

I took a recent visit to a buddy's new bike workshop. He's getting started building lugged-steel frames, and in an old loft in Bushwick has a neat, well-organized, well-lit workshop. Tools hung in the corner below wheels and frames, a drafting table, and a couple big steel filing cabinets filled with parts. The walls are hung with classic racing posters featuring toned men with backwards cycling caps, or sitting at a restaurant still wearing wool jerseys. It's a lovely room that feels like a library in a certain way. That you're stepping into a space that takes care to preserve stories from the past.

My buddy pulled out a box of parts to show me what he's going to hang on the first frame he build - chromed Campagnolo clamp-on cable stops, Nuovo Record. Everything polished to a shine in a way that would stand out beautifully against the inky black paintjob on his frame. He has a taste for style, and I told him that as we were going over a Colnago Super that he's been working on, restoring and putting together as a period-correct crit bike. I told him that the accurate shifting setup for a crit-bike from that generation would have been to remove the left-side barcon and use a downtube shifter instead, and to trim the right end of the drop bars and mount the barcon closer to the curve of the drop. This led us to a conversation about bar-end shifting. His story was this: "Apparently, bar-end shifters were developed because the Italians were notorious cheats, and had a reputation for swatting other riders' downtube shifters during climbs." "Team Cinzano style," I said. "Exactly. So bar-end shifters were made so that riders could shield their shifting with their hands, to prevent that."

He also showed me a curious set of Campagnolo Record track hubs, laced to some polished tubulars. Between each spoke hole there's another, larger spoke hole. For a moment I thought he had used tandem hubs, doing a skipped-hole lacing. "These were drilled in the Paramount factory. Campagnolo used to send out undrilled hubs to manufacturers, and in one year in the 1970s, Paramount had all these overdrilled hubs. The story is that some machinist maybe used a drill bit that was slightly too wide - maybe it was just the countersinking guage, or whatever - and spent maybe a week or so just drilling out all these hubs. And then when somebody tried to lace them up, the spokes just fell right through. So they sent them all back to Campagnolo, who drilled correctly-sized spoke holes between the holes, and then back to Paramount who sold them as special Paramount-drilled hubs. Good thing it was the 70s, and everybody was crazy about drillium."

I enjoy people who mine the deep parts of cycling history and produce these anecdotes. My grandparents had a curio cabinet in their house, a glass-paned cabinet where they kept some trinkets, odds and ends, ceramic statues. I enjoy people who become curio cabinets for cycling, storing away unique curiousities and anecdotes. Hearing and sharing these stories with friends increases my love for the sport, and it's particularly important in such a mass-marketed and mass-produced cycling world ("This one goes to eleven") where there's a danger of overlooking the personal stories, the hand-made charm, and all of the important bits and pieces that make us community-minded, archivists, physically and mentally active, not just consumers in a market of planned obselescence.

Stories will never be obsolete.

I can't in my right mind finish this post without including a link to Ray Dobbins' website. He is a meticulous restorer and period-corrector of bikes that would make anybody from Classic Rendezvous swoon a little bit. And his studio-style photographs, while a little bit sterile, are top-notch (the photo at the top of this post is an example - a replica of a Merckx Molteni).

Saturday, January 17, 2009

On Doping / Millar's Story

Everybody knows that there's doping in cycling. There always was, and while there may not always be, it's not just some modern evil. After all, Tom Simpson died on the road up Mt Ventoux (partially) because of amphetamines and alcohol.

Via VeloGoGo I stumbled on this short video bit on David Millar. As contemplative music strums in the background, he tells the story of his entry into professional cycling as a 19-year-old, of rapidly fulfilling his dream of not only riding in the Tour de France, but winning a 16k time trial - beating Lance Armstrong by 2 seconds and getting to don the yellow jersey.

He then tells of burnout, being underconditioned (perhaps overtrained, I wonder?), and having his team take his hand and lead him toward doping. He is regretful.

It's obviously a marketing piece for Slipstream, but I really enjoyed it. It personalizes doping in the context of an extremely demanding sport. One of the things that bothers me most about doping is the witch-hunt element of it. I could barely stand the Tours de France of the past two years - I wondered if, by the time the race got to Paris, there would be any riders left after the organizers' purges. Doping may not be right but it seemed that the cure was worst than the disease. Even worse are those in the peanut gallery who take the opportunity to scream "Doper!" at the slightest provocation. I watched with dismay as a talented local racer was given a 2-year suspension last year - an ingredient in a supplement he took had just been added to the list of banned substances. Regretable, and then came the jerks sitting at their computers, firing off invectives, and generally acting as if taking supplements is worse for the spirit of the sport than being an out-and-out asshole.

"Millar's Story" is a bit of humanity in the circus. Watch it for yourself - Part 1 and Part 2 - and let me know what you think.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Three-up Underdog Sprinting

A curiousity in track racing is the 3-person or 4-person match sprint. Elite level match sprints have only two riders - that's the point. One of the best match sprints I've seen while sitting in front of a computer is Huebner vs. Golinelli in the 1990 World Champsionships. In a match sprint, two riders will stalk each other slowly, using track stands and feints in order to gain what seem like slight advantages - being behind the other at walking speed. Getting to jump from a preferred spot on the banking. But these slight advantages are huge where the entire race takes place at top speed in the last 200m. Take a look:



At Kissena we occasionally ride in 3- or 4-up match sprints. When you jam an unexpectedly large number of racers into a tight omnium, the official's task is to make everything proceed as smoothly and quickly as possible, and so 3- or 4-up match sprints are organized during elimination rounds. They are undeniably amateur. And they are fascinating, because they introduce some unforseen elements into the racing.

I was reminded of it while watching the finish to the 2008 Paris-Roubaix. Cancellara, Boonen, and Ballan were alone at the front with plenty of room. The commentators told us that Ballan was the underdog, Cancellara was the strong man, and Boonen is the big sprinter. As they got within a few kilometers I kept waiting for attacks that would pit Boonen and Cancellara against each other and leave Ballan struggling to hold on. Nothing.

As they passed under the 1K to go banner, I knew something was about to happen... but it didn't.

If I were Ballan I would have attacked just before entering the Roubaix Velodrome. The best way to defeat two stronger riders is to pit them against each other, and if they're in the position where they are threatened with dragging the other up to the leader, then that favors the attacking underdog. Sure, they might be fresher, stronger, and faster, but if they both hesitate for a second, waiting for the other to carry them up - well, a second or two is all you'd need. And you might be lucky enough to get three or four seconds.

I learned this by getting absolutely hosed by an avowed nonsprinter in a 4-up match sprint this past summer. We were cruising, watching and waiting, and Niki broke from high on the banking in Turn 3. None of us wanted to burn for 300 meters to give the race to the people on our wheel, and by the time we realized that, Niki had 50 meters on us. And then 75.

Other useful reading material on this subject: Sprinter Della Casa's How To Beat A Sprinter.

Now if you'll excuse me I have to go do some squats.

EDIT: So, apparently Sprinting for Signs removed the post with the video in it; it was taken off of Youtube. However, at Belgium Knee Warmers (on the same day!) is video of the 2008 World Champsionship Road Race, featuring Alessandro Ballan going on the attack with 2K to go. What an attack! Wow!

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Hipster Trickster Idiocy


John Prolly wrote a pretty good piece for Urban Velo magazine about fixed gear freestyling, here. John is one of the more public figures in the FIX/MX (or 700CMX) trend - using full-sized fixed gear bikes for BMX-derived trick riding.

I've been impressed at how how skill throw-downs have evolved in the past few years. When I started racing alleycat races, side events featured track bike skid competitions. There was nothing cooler than a smoothly executed one-leg-over-the-handlebar, 360-degree skid, as a legion of sweaty bike kids clutching brown-bagged beers cheer on. But the a few people started to barspin and do wheelies, and all of a sudden there was another level of grace, coordination, and control on the bike.

And, in a just over two short years, it's booming. Companies are producing barspin-able bikes and beefy components made for slamming around. John himself is adamant that he doesn't ride a track bike - this is a different monster altogether. It's not a bike repossessed for a new purpose, like a track bike ridden on the street is. It's a fixed-gear trick bike - something tough, reliable, and, most importantly, ridable. It's a new kind of bike.

There's a lot of scorn for this field, as there always is for a developing niche. "Just get a BMX bike" kind of contrasts with the track-bike orthodoxy ("death before derailleurs!") that occasionally develops. But one of the things I admire about John is that he embraces the fact that it's not about track bikes. It's about riding and being able to ride to new places, and the fact that he's so willing to experiment with new pieces of gear - some of which are god-awfully ugly according to the conventional aesthetics - says that he's more interested in the function than the form. I mean, come on! Unicrown forks are hideous, 40 spoke wheels are ridiculous, 28mm wide tires are overkill for a 125-pound weakling like myself, who can't bunnyhop something higher than a curb. Riser bars... the list goes on. I hate all those bits and pieces. And yet they make perfect sense for these new bikes, and, well, that's okay. That's just fine. In fact, it's right-on. Exactly where it needs to be, with form following function.

Considering the way that cycling scenes tend to play out, abandoning form-first mentality means abandoning silly orthodoxies, more-authentic-than-thou idiocy, and general interdisciplinary trash-talking. John just likes to go ride his bike and do wacky shit on it. In collaboration with a couple companies and a bunch of other riders they've been identifying parts and designs that can survive this (ab)use. They're not perverting any old stock of riding history, they're creating a new one, and that's a lot of fun to watch. Not just because I've always been interested in the dynamics of temporal emergence (to borrow a term from my University days, but because some of the shit that they do on bikes is really cool.

BikesnobNYC can't stop giving John a hard time, but whatever. I like what John's doing, even if can't help but roll my eyes every time I see pictures posted on bikeforums featuring a super-short stem, riser bars reaching for the sky, and a 650 wheel in a fork meant for 700s... or, in other ways, just using the wrong tool for the job. Some of this stuff makes for nonsense bikes but it doesn't mean that the whole discipline is nonsense.

I mean hey, BMX was an Olympic sport in 2008. Things change.

That's the point.

I know I've got at least a couple readers who aren't quite so familiar with the city fixed gear scene, so, I welcome your reactions. Here is a little bit more data for your research (youtube).