Filed under: the cycling world
A mountain bike is not an ideal cyclocross bike. That’s why it’s not called a cyclocross bike. It’s heavy and the small triangle is difficult to hoist over barriers. The fat tires deform unpredictably in difficult, off-camber corners. This particular bike has a particularly crappy drivetrain, which resulted in a tossed chain halfway through the race that sent me from having fun midpack to the shame of loneliness in a hot second.
But I’m riding it, for several reasons that tell a story about where my life is right now.
First: cyclocross is fun. Fun tends to mean pleasant people. Pleasant people means social interaction, which I need, because I’ve relocated from New York City to Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Second: because I don’t have a cyclocross bike, because my cross bike recently went from this (or, more recently, this) to this in the amount of time it takes a driver to make an impulsive left turn without signaling or, it seems, looking.
And so, without a cyclocross bike, I moved to Minneapolis.
Here I am. Let’s find out what adventures are in front of me – even if what’s under me is a mountain bike.
Here in Massachusetts, we’ve been snowed in since early last week. Not snow-piled-up-to-the-windows snowed in, but rather, a cold wetness and steady precipitation that’s a pretty good argument against going outside for any kind of serious training. It’s alternated between snow and rain, and it looks like we might have another several days of similar conditions in the hopper.
No matter – there are other ways to work the legs. Rollers, plyometrics, and a bit of time in the gym suffice for a little while. On Friday, though, I got antsy, and with stiff legs needing an honest spin to loosen them up, I took my fendered all-arounder cyclocross hybrid out for a spin. The town was wet and snow was falling hard, but not accumulating. I bundled up. My glasses got covered in big wet flakes; my legwarmers were soon wet. Snow collected at the seams.
On Saturday morning I headed out to a breakfast engagement several towns over (and a happy birthday to you!). The world was white, the trees covered with wet snow, the mountains obscured by the clouds. Cold and wet, yes, but a beautiful morning for riding.
Those days of flahute training, though, pale in comparison to the conditions at Kurne-Brussels-Kurne yesterday. One report was that the lead group of three were crawling into a 90kph headwind at only 26kph – that’s about 17mph. A snail’s pace in the world of professional cycling. One rider, Hunt of Cervelo, in a three-person chase-group (looking at, at worst, a sixth place finish if the chase stayed away; better if it caught the leaders) simply abandoned. Sat up, stopped, and got into his team car, apparently too wrecked from the wind, rain, cold, and distance to continue.
Our opening weekend calls for 40 degrees and sunny, racing around an industrial park. I’ll take it.
Theirs saw a “relative unknown” take the podium in a race that had an 85% rate of attrition, and Bobby Traksel, the victor, seemed too pleased to win to care about the weather.
Today is the second anniversary of the death of Sheldon Brown.
It seems strange that a bicycle mechanic from Boston would gain international attention to the point that “Sheldon Brown” would become a verb in internet lingo. Its meaning is simple: look it up on Sheldon Brown’s website, because he has the complete information and concise instructions.
What length bottom bracket spindle do I need? Sheldon Brown it. I want to build my first wheel – how? Sheldon Brown. How do I measure chainline or BCD? Sheldon Brown. Always.
His popularity grew in part because of his article Fixed Gear Bicycles For The Road, which was a portal into fixed-gear cycling for many novices. His article had it all: explanations of fixed gears from soup to nuts that managed to be both basic and thorough. No better portal to cycling could be found: the combination of a knowledgeable wrench with a flair for archival and arcane memory, skilled at clear communication; and the fixed gear bicycle, which in its simplicity and unique, unusual ride experience got countless people back into the saddle after long absences, reigniting passion for the bike the world over. Forget rants about hipsters. When I started riding one, I knew that riding a fixed gear was fun and unusual and it was the start of an ongoing love affair with cycling. The gateway to much more.
For that, I have Mr. Brown to thank.
I’ve always tried to approach death and grieving in combination with thanksgiving, and while Mr Brown died before we met (though after several email exchanges, during which he was friendly, open to persistent questions, and informative), I regretted never meeting him and appraising his eccentricity in person. But I’m thankful that when my curiousity was roused and I googled “fixed gear” lo these many years ago, his website was there to greet me and to provide both enthusiasm and a rich volume of information.
What an introduction to the cycling world.
Thank you, Sheldon Brown.
Last spring, at the Trexlertown Velodrome Swap Meet, I came across an unusal score – a Selle Italia Flite embroidered with a cartoon Marco Pantani’s face. It read, “The Pirate.” What was remarkable was not necessarily the rarity of this item, but the fact that my pal and colleague, Ethan (of the fine clothing company Laek House) had told me, just a day or two earlier, how long and hard he had looked for this odd end of the bike part spectrum. I, feeling generous, called him from in front of the busy vendor’s table at the swap meet and told him that I was bringing him back a present.
Today I stumbled upon a cyclingnews feature on Marco Pantani’s 1998 Bianchi race bike, the adjective-stricken “Mega Pro XL Reparto Corse” (custom, of course). That year, Pantani won the Giro d’Italia, and put nine minutes into Jan Ullrich in one stage of the Tour de France on his way to becoming the first Italian in thirtyfour years to wear the Yellow Jersey on his way into Paris.
Twelve years doesn’t seem like a particularly long time, but the article reads like a piece of paleontology – “Look at what we unearthed, signs of a forgotten people and their strange customs: alloy rear derailleurs, Campagnolo 9 speed, 1″ nonintegrated forks!” The author seems to forget that Campagnolo used square-tapered crank interfaces until only a few years ago, that a twelve-year old bike would be competitive even today, and that the thousands of dollars a rider might spend on aerodynamics wanders deep into the terrain of diminishing returns. Bikes, even racing bikes, can still be fairly simple machines.
There are unusual parts to the bike. In an era when compact geometry crept into bike design for reasons varying from “stiffer and lighter” to “fewer stock sizes, cheaper to produce,” Pantani’s bike had a remarkably traditional geometry, with a handlebar height from the era of downtube shifting. And, though you’d imagine a climbing specialist to have gears for climbing, his bike was outfitted with an 11-23 and, stunningly, a 54/44 up front. It’s easy to forget the superhuman attributes of world class athletes – even ones tattooed with track marks.
Pantani was a tragic hero – tangled up in EPO use behind the Lycra Wall of Silence (if I am the first to use this term, please, cite me), a national hero stuck between between celebrity and depression. His last great win was arguably spoiled by some big dumb Texan running his mouth about ‘giving’ Pantani the win on top of Mt Ventoux. I prefer to think that Armstrong was spent from his attack that bridged up to Pantani, and had nothing left at the end.
He died of a cocaine overdose five years ago.
He is, perhaps, a tragic example of the difficult transition that cycling has been making through levels of acceptance of doping: from open acknowledgement, to pervasive but hushed, to a peloton that grimly defended its practices by shunning anybody who exposed them, through doping convictions and bans, to clean teams, and on its way to a hopefully cleaner peloton. In the intermediate stages, when everything was torn asunder, it’s no wonder that the upheaval has caused collateral damage, and it’s no great stretch to speculate that Pantani’s overdose, his depression, was linked to his controversy-stunted career. He was known as a quiet, private person; in his diary, he wrote,
For four years I’ve been in every court, I just lost my desire to be like all the other sportsmen, but cycling has paid and many youngsters have lost their faith in justice. All my colleagues have been humiliated, with TV cameras hidden in their hotel rooms to try and ruin families. How could you not hurt yourself after that?
Here’s hoping that cycling has moved past leaving victims in its wake as it pursues cleaner, more honorable competition. When I consider the need to keep heroes despite condemning doping practices (Anquetil’s comment on “mineral water” and Coppi’s crack about only doping when necessary come to mind), I wonder if perhaps what cycling needs is an amnesty, a time of truth and reconciliation that will allow former dopers to admit to past practices without shame, guilt, or punishment, before the whole sport moves forward.
Pantani’s bike, above, is from the year of the Festina Scandal.
As we bundle up in the winter and click newslinks with daydreams of spring classics still months away, here’s hoping that the pursuit of clean racing doesn’t ruin more lives.
This post started being about the odd, foreign tone of the Cyclingnews bit, but morphed into what will be, I hope, my last comments on doping for a while.
When I wrote that cyclists “need to acknowledge that there are gracious and honorable ways” for Pros to deal with doping allegations – a quote plucked and quoted by the subject of that post – I left unclear the ways that professionals might accomplish that feat, or the standards by which us, the deskchair jury, might decently judge their conduct.
I think that coming up with such things might be very difficult. However, in light of Ricardo Ricco being back in the news (for something that his partner, not he, did – a fine display of Italian and American newsmedia), it’s fairly easy to start pulling together a list of don’ts – by relying only on what Ricco managed to say about his girlfriend’s positive test:
“People know I don’t like her racing, you can imagine what I think about her taking anything. Cycling isn’t for women, it hurts too much.”
As if that weren’t eye-bugging enough, he went on to say, “The thing that bothers me is what people will think.” Yeah, Ricco, your partner was using PEDs. Whatever will they think about you now? Recall that this is the guy who was popped for doping at the 2008 Tour de France when he tried to flee doping control but was caught in traffic… and then went on to win a hilltop stage anyway. If you’re going to go out, go out grand, boy – with rumors that you’ve been doping since you were a junior racer following you all the way out.
I’m loathe to write a post that can be grouped with the out-and-out condemnation of dopers – I simply don’t buy that that is a useful contribution to dialogue. But this is helpful. We all can look on future cases and think, Well, damn. At least they weren’t being all Ricco about things: petty, dishonorable, and outright idiotic.
With winter providing the time and necessity for tidying my affairs around the house, I bought a small netbook to replace my dead-and-gone laptop from years past, thus freeing up my sweetheart’s computer more frequently – no more secret fights about who would check their email first when we get home. I also set about updating my RSS feeds and organizing my info streams, which led me to be reading Cozy Beehive for a while as I stumbled across some interesting posts.
Most notable is a guest post from Joe Papp, on how pros defeat doping controls. Papp, years after his doping bust, seems willing to openly discuss his history and the issues and practices of doping in professional cycling.
I’ve written about doping before. Like talking about religion or politics (or worse, both) during family reunion, doping is a sticky topic. Make sure they’re your friends, not just your riding buddies, before the conversation becomes heated.
I remain somewhat agnostic, fiercely ambivalent, and I harbor a compassion for dopers. I can easily envision an all-encompassing, brutally demanding, utterly competitive culture of few rewards for the low-paid hardworking pro, where cheating is seen as the only way to stay afloat – and indeed, where the same holds true for team management of middling teams, with jobs and sponsorship constantly on the line, struggling to produce results.
Despite the fact that Papp was an experienced doper, he was dumbfounded by his initiation at Whistle. Soon after his arrival, he claims, Whistle personnel started him on a serious drug regimen, passing out a potent type of EPO. “I suspected doping would be part of the program, but I didn’t know how profound it would be,” says Papp.
Papp’s story tells of a long, dark rabbit hole, filled with damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don’t choices. This does not waive the role of individual responsibility, but it also informs the need for institutional responsibility, a doping control that does more than bust riders. And so we’ve seen Astana banned from recent Tours de France for institutional doping support, and we’ve seen teams like Garmin and Columbia take avowed, organizational-level anti-doping standpoints. Meanwhile, Shimano, drivetrain parts supplier to many teams, has publicly announced that it would demand the return of its parts from teams embroiled in structural or institutional doping allegations.
These recent steps are, I believe, far superior than the Salem Witch Trial approach of the past decade. However, more is needed. Cyclists, as a broad community, need to acknowledge paths of redemption for accused or convicted dopers, and they need to acknowledge that there are gracious and honorable ways for cyclists to admit their fault. To fire invectives and ruthlessly and bitterly cast aside dopers runs the risk of damaging the spirit of cycling as much as cheating. Most importantly, anybody willing to armchair-judge anybody caught up in scandal needs to acknowledge that were their roles reversed, they’d have no damn clue what to do or how to behave honorably.
This is nothing new. There’s no news here, but as we settle into the winter and face boring news when nothing is happening, as we settle into anticipating the spring classics and the grand tours, it’s worth keeping in mind.
When I first started discovering New York City’s myriad nooks and crannies as an adult, one of the first things that captured my attention was the mural of Joe Strummer on the corner of Avenue A and 8th St. I had heard the stories of the neighborhood – the squats, the riots – and saw the punks still hanging out with their packs of dogs in Tompkin’s Square Park, saw the food handouts and the line of folks in need.
This photo, by Fred Askew, grabs the attention and the imagination all over again.
Sidewalk bike repairmen are all over those neighborhoods. They remind me that “bike culture” isn’t made up exclusively of things that bloggers rant about. Across the city, country, and world, people use bikes as tools and as toys, without the same level of competition, consumption, and festering need to improve or upgrade.
The Velosopher and I recently talked about the importance of smiling while riding your bike, to remind yourself that it’s fun, to break through the ice and scowls that can too-easily accidentally result from a number of things on the bike – those small, anonymous competitions, or the isolating nature of riding alone.
That picture made me smile, and I had to share it. It was taken by one off the heads behind Continuum Cycles, a fine small shop in New York City. Thanks, Fritz.