November 26, 2019 § 12 Comments
Last night I switched on the ol’ YouTube and watched A Sunday in Hell.
It’s good to remind myself sometimes about why I fell in love with bike racing.
If you’ve never watched this movie, please do. It contains everything you need to know about bike racing, the real kind.
I watch this movie every four or five years and each time I note how radically bike racing has changed since 1976. It would be a 10,000-word essay to chronicle all the changes. And as I age the movie’s hard reality is even more awesome, brutal, unforgiving, unrepentant, immobile as the giant paving stones along the cobbled sectors to Roubaix.
But the biggest changes? Muttonchop sideburns. In 1976 everyone had ’em. They were the coolest of the cool.
The other big change? Huge, floppy collars. Ordinary people who wanted to be fashionable had big, floppy collars.
Maybe the last, and the biggest change of all, is this:
Back then bike racers were tough.
e-Tap and Wanky Tech Review
June 24, 2017 § 24 Comments
In the overall scheme of things, “scheme” being “since time began,” I haven’t seen all that much. In cycling I have seen exactly three technical changes since 1982 that were really significant, things that changed cycling a lot for the better. I’m sure you will disagree with my Big Three, but here they are:
What they replaced: Toe cages, toe straps, and heavy alloy pedals.
How they made cycling better: They got rid of purple toes and dead toenails and hotspots a mile wide unless you happen to wear Bonts, in which case you pay extra for those things. Instead of falling over at lights because you couldn’t reach down and undo the strap in time, now you fall over because you can’t twist out in time. They eliminated the constant repurchase of worn out Alfredo Binda straps ($25/each), and now require the replacement of worn out cleats ($35/each), and highly specialized and technical shoes ($435/pair). But seriously, clipless pedals made pedaling easier, less painful, and more efficient. Game changer.
What I miss about the old stuff: Nothing, except not having old straps lying around to strap stuff under my seat with, and being able to buy a pair of Dettos for $39.
What it replaced: Friction shifting.
How it made cycling better: It eliminated wing-and-a-prayer shifting. It eliminated the 12-year apprenticeship required to learn how to find the right cog. It led to handlebar shift levers, which made shifting faster, safer, and more efficient, especially since the number of cogs climbed in a few short years from six to eleven. Now it goes to eleven.
What I miss about the old stuff: Simplex friction shifters were silent and perfect once you learned how to use them. Index shifting killed downtube shifting, which was good, but at the expense of heavier, clunkier hoods and bars. That’s pretty much it.
What it replaced: Mechanical shifting done with wires.
How it made cycling better: It eliminated the “shifting penalty” that kept you in the wrong gear a lot of the time. Before wireless shifting you had to always consider the effort it was going to take to shift plus the fact that you might put it in the wrong gear, mistakenly thinking, for example, that you needed to be in the 11 rather than the 28. With the mechanical stuff, when you shifted into an inappropriate gear, you then had to shift again to get into the right one, which meant at least one wasted shift effort, more if you were a complete goober. Since all cyclists are lazy, even when it comes to something as effortless as modern mechanical index shifting, which basically requires the effort of pushing around a warm stick of butter, most cyclists would rather pedal along in a gear that’s slightly too hard or slightly too easy than shift twice, or, dog forbid, go up and down several cogs to find the right gear. This inherent laziness caused by the effort required to mechanically shift is the “shifting penalty” that keeps you in the wrong gear a lot of the time. However, with e-Tap and its ilk you just clickety-clickety-click and it doesn’t fuggin’ matter how wrong your gear selection is. You can mis-shift entering a turn and be in the right gear before you’re even through it. You can mis-shift on a climb when someone is attacking and be in the right gear even after being in a couple of wrong ones.
What I miss about the old stuff: Nothing. I hated those fat hoods with a passion, to say nothing of the droopy tentacle-design favored by Shimano’s earlier versions, where the wires came out of bar tape like bug guts.
Of course, along with the three best improvements ever, there are also the three worst things ever to happen to cycling. In order of repulsiveness:
TT BIKES AND EQUIPMENT
What they replaced: Regular bikes, good looks, common sense.
How they made cycling worse: You look like an idiot on one; they make really slow people think they are fast; they discourage thousands and thousands of people from ever getting into TTs; they are twitchy and crash easier than drunk unicyclists; they add exponentially to the cost of what is already a fake sport even on a good day; they make terrible clothes hangers, which is what they end up as. Or the world’s ugliest wall art and/or garage filler. Also, an old TT bike ages about as well as an old ass tattoo.
What I miss about the old stuff: Everything. One bike no matter what kind of race; affordability of one bike versus two; knowing that apples were being compared to apples; sharing the lineage of Eddy.
ONBOARD COMPUTERS AND POWER METERS
What they replaced: Brains. Fun.
How they made cycling worse: No one knows anything anymore. People just read and memorize data. Cyclists, who are already the world’s most boring people, when armed with ride data become duller than a year-old razor blade.
What I miss about the old stuff: I liked my brain a lot. It was soft in spots but worked pretty well in others.
STRAVA, PHONES, AND ANYTHING CONNECTED TO THE INTERNET
What they replaced: Freedom.
How they made cycling worse: You have no more excuses for escaping from the drudgery of work, family, or life. Cycling, especially when combined with “data” items above, becomes just more drudgery.
What I miss about the old stuff: Freedom. Duh.
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Hired Guns: Introduction
March 21, 2017 § 16 Comments
The city of Palos Verdes Estates, or part of it, is battling for the survival of its municipal police force. Opponents want to demolish it and replace it by contracting for law enforcement services with the monolithic Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. It sounds like pedestrian city politics, unless you happen to be a bicyclist. In that case, it isn’t pedestrian at all.
This issue affects a lot more than the pedal pushers who often run stop signs as they breeze through one of the most scenic and challenging bike routes in the United States. Class war, surfing localism, contempt of outsiders, hate speech, enraged small town racists, the California Vehicle Code, murder, Wall Street predators, regressive taxation, and the complex act of understanding and enforcing the law all turn up when this topic is spaded over, like wriggling earthworms in a cool mound of leafy compost.
I got involved in this whole thing backwards, simply by riding my steel Eddy Merckx with down-tube shifters on the way to work one day. I had been in California for a couple of months and was renting a house in Palos Verdes Estates, a place I ended up in entirely by accident. The law office I was working at was in San Pedro, and when I arrived in California I told the realtor, an avid cyclist nicknamed “the Badger,” that I wanted to rent in San Pedro because it was close to my office.
“Dude,” he said. “You don’t want to live in Pedro unless you like lung cancer or want to hang out at Godmother’s. Let me show you some places in PV Estates.”
To my unsophisticated eye it looked like a lot of other suburbs I’d seen throughout my life. Nice homes, affluent people in nice cars, white people everywhere, and, oh yeah, the most stunning scenery imaginable stuck right in the heart of Los Angeles. I traced the road on a map and saw that my commute to San Pedro would be along PV Drive South, a twenty-minute drive with three stoplights, no traffic, and postcard views of the Pacific Ocean and Catalina Island from start to finish.
Did I mention that this was in the heart of Los Angeles? Because when I told my family back in Texas that I had a twenty-minute, no traffic, sprawling ocean view commute in the middle of LA, they thought I was lying through my teeth and everywhere else.
One morning as I rode to work, because it didn’t take long to figure out that the most beautiful, car-free road in California was also the most beautiful car-free bike commute in California, I blew through a red light at the intersection of Hawthorne and Via Vicente. There was no traffic in any direction, but I hadn’t gotten through the intersection before I heard the siren of the guy I would later get to know as the dreaded Deputy Knox.
By 2007 I had been riding competitively and racing for thirty-five years. I had run tens of thousands of red lights and hundreds of thousands of stop signs, and I had done it in Texas, Japan Germany, Pennsylvania, and Colorado. I’d never been ticketed, not once, and had never been hit by a car. Deputy Knox of the LA Sheriff’s Department pulled me over and wrote me a ticket. I knew enough not to argue with a 6’4” dude carrying a gun, handcuffs, and a radio, but even so I was surprised at his glowering anger. He was prodding and pushing me to react, but I’d experienced that in plenty of other venues with cops, so the more he pushed the meeker I got. I wanted to get to work, not star in a new chapter on civil rights.
Knox wrote the citation, gave me a nasty lecture, and sped away. That encounter, between a meek, bony guy on a bike endangering no one in a victimless crime, and an angry cop trying to prod him into a confrontation, made a huge impression on me. “What if I’d been black?” I wondered, scared. Knox was lean but he was muscular, he was big, and he was ready to arrest me and haul me off to jail if I had given him any guff. My instinct, by the way, proved dead-on the following year when my friend and fellow riding partner Jeff Konsmo was pulled over and cited by Knox. However, unlike my red light violation, Jeff was pulled over because Knox didn’t understand – or chose not to understand – vehicle code section 21202a and its exceptions. When Jeff objected to the grounds of the citation, Knox slapped on the stainless steel jewelry and shoved him in the back of the patrol car.
This was my first and lasting impression of bikes and law enforcement on the peninsula. They hated your guts. You didn’t belong. Get the hell out.
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Upcoming Belgian star uncertain about Paris-Roubaix
April 10, 2015 § 26 Comments
Phenom Tiesj Benoot, the 21-year-old speedster with Lotto-Soudal who pulled off an amazing fifth place in the Ronde van Vlaanderen was allowed to speak with the press yesterday about his expectations for Paris-Roubaix. Benoot, who is clearly on form after a string of strong early-season performances, sat down with CitSB to discuss the big day on Sunday.
CitSB: So you’re unsure of what to expect in your first professional Paris-Roubaix?
TB: Yes. I’ve ridden it as an amateur, but as a professional it will be completely different. I really don’t know what to expect.
CitSB: You don’t?
CitSB: Can I help you out with that?
TB: Well, sure.
CitSB: It’s going to be really fucking hard.
TB: Yes, but …
CitSB: There is no “but.” You’re going to get your ass handed to you on a plate.
TB: The Belgian press believes I may be Tommeke’s successor, of course that’s ridiculous, but still …
CitSB: The Belgian press believed that the Kaiser was going to invade France through Nigeria. You are gonna get stomped.
TB: Since it’s my first professional P-R, I’m unsure how it will play out. My director sportif says …
CitSB: Your director sportif will be sitting in a leather chair behind the wheel of a Mercedes sipping espresso from a spill-proof cup while The Wiggster has your nuts in a vise and holds them out for the rest of the peloton to jump on. You will get your fucking head staved in.
TB: That’s kind of negative.
CitSB: And what the nut-crushing doesn’t accomplish, the jagged paving stones will. Expect a complete beatdown.
TB: If you say so.
CitSB: I do.
*Note: After this interview, CitSB reached out to several past winners of P-R to ask them what they thought Tiesj should expect. Here is a sampling of their responses.
Eddy Merckx: It will be very difficult and hard. And long.
Roger De Vlaeminck: De Paris-Roubaix, it has a hard day. Very hard. Difficulty and hardness.
Tom Boonen: What can he expect? A hard day in the saddle, much pain, difficulty, struggle, unpleasantness, misery, dust, perhaps rain and mud, bone-jarring exhausting. Perhaps a few crashes. Hard day, for sure.
Fabian Cancellara: He can expect the hard.
Francesco Moser: Itsa hard carrera. He will have the hard day.
Frederic Guesdon: Tres dur. Dur, et difficile, sans doute.
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America’s first sporting superstar
March 1, 2014 § 21 Comments
I was pedaling along, talking to a pair of Cat 5’s about racing. A dude on a fancy bike passed us like we were tied to a stump. “Damn,” I said, “who does he think he is? Major Taylor?”
Stringbean looked at me. “Who’s Major Taylor?” he asked.
I didn’t know what to say, so I thought about it. “Ever heard of Eddy Merckx?” I asked.
Stringbean laughed. “Uh, yeah.”
Stumpy chipped in. “Merckx was the greatest ever. The Cannibal.”
“Why do you think he was the greatest ever?” I asked.
“Dude,” said Stumpy. “He fuggin won it all. He was The Cannibal.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I heard you the first time. So you reckon he was better than Major Taylor?”
“Who’s he?” Stringbean repeated. “Was he better than Merckx?”
“Couldn’t have been,” said Stumpy. “Merckx was The Cannibal.”
“Yeah,” said Stringbean. “Who was Major Taylor? I bet he wasn’t no cannibal.”
Der Sieger schreibt die Geschichte
Among black cyclists, Major Taylor needs no introduction. But for many whites, he’s an ancient name at best, a blank at worst. This is weird because you don’t have to race bikes for long before you hear his name. Although I knew, or thought I knew, the rough outlines of his story, it wasn’t until I read “Major” by Todd Balf that I got an appreciation for the man who was unquestionably America’s first sporting superstar and who, judged by his accomplishments, remains one of the greatest American athletes ever.
Had Taylor been white, his palmares would have been incredible. But dominating the domestic and international competition as a black man in the late 1800’s who faced threats of violence, blatant discrimination, and machinations to keep him from even entering races testifies to a stony will and indomitable competitive lust that makes the accomplishments of Eddy Merckx pale in comparison.
In his prime, Merckx was the undisputed patron of the peloton with a powerful team that protected him and worked tirelessly for his victories. Just as crucially, very little happened without Merckx’s consent. In his prime, Taylor had to fight for every position in every single race, and could look forward to racial epithets and overt discrimination wherever he traveled in the United States.
I thought about all this as I pedaled along with Stumpy and Stringbean. “Boys,” I said, “if you want to know what it means to be a champion, a real one, get yourself a bio of Major Taylor. He wasn’t The Cannibal. He was far tougher than that.”
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All pro cyclists everywhere admit doping
November 5, 2013 § 19 Comments
The latest stick-and-tell exposé about drugs and cycling by Michael Rasmussen, “Charging While Charged,” has unexpectedly caused all pro cyclists, past and present, to admit to the use of performance enhancing drugs.
“When I read that Chicken had implicated everyone on the entire Rabobank team, my first reaction, you know, was to demand a retraction and a public apology and threaten litigation,” said three-time world road champion Oscar Freire. “But then I was like, fuck it. Who am I fuggin kidding?”
When asked if this was an admission to doping, Freire said, “Only when I cycled.”
Ryder Hesjedal, winner of the Giro d’Italia who had never stood on a grand tour podium in fifteen attempts, concurred. “Drugs, brah. Every fuggin day.”
The next domino to fall was Chris Horner, the first 75-year-old to win a grand tour, and the first winner of a grand tour to ever be booted off his team for winning one. “Yeah, man,” said Horner. “Only so long you can keep up the ‘cheeseburgers complete me’ bullshit. I fuggin doped from Monday to Sunday.”
But it wasn’t until the greatest cyclist of all time, Eddy Merckx, confessed to a life of cheating that the rest of the peloton also confessed. “Look,” said Merckx. “It’s just not my fault that everyone is stupid. I did what I had to do.”
When asked what he “had to do,” Merckx said this: “Drugs. A merde-load of drugs. Drugs up my ass. Drugs up my nose. Drugs in my coffee. Drugs down the pie-hole. Drugs in my drugs. Drugs in the baby food. Why you fuggin think Axel turned into a top Belgian pro? Wasn’t the fuggin famous Belgian food.”
When asked about his lifelong denial of drug use, Merckx said this: “I was lying.”
Cascade of confessions
With Merckx’s public confession, the rest of the pro peloton quickly fell into line. First to step up was 2013 Tour winner Chrissy Froome. “Volcano doping. Like Eddy, up the ass.”
Retired pro Greg LeMond, long a champion of the anti-doping movement, likewise threw in the towel. “I’m tired of this fuggin charade,” he said. “Yeah, I doped. Now can I have a beer and will you please go away?”
Jonathan Vaughters, owner of Team Garmin and Prancing Pricks Who are Holier Than Everyone, Especially Thou, gave up the ghost as well. “Yeah, we’re fuggin filthy,” he confessed. “Drugs. It’s what’s for fuggin dinner. Not to mention breakfast, lunch, and afternoon tea.”
David Brailsford, another proponent of clean cycling through Team Sky, hung his head in shame, frustration, and disgust. “We. Fuggin. Dope. What about that do you not understand?”
Bryan Cookson, UCI president and sponsor of the “Can’t We Just Get Along Reconciliation and Handholding Mission to Restore Faith and Trust in Something That Never Had Either,” convened a meeting in which all cyclists in the history of the sport attended and confessed their sins. In a gigantic auditorium they all chanted in unison, “We fuggin doped. We are fuggin dopers. Now leave us the fugg alone, especially Steve Tilford you whiny little bitch.”
Time for change
At a press conference following the mass confession, which was presided over by the Pope and Pat McQuaid, who was forced to additionally confess that he was “a doper AND an asshole,” Cookson explained the reason for the unified admission.
“The whole thing became undeniable. ‘Breaking the Chain,’ by Voet, ‘Rough Ride,’ by Kimmage, ‘We Were Young and Carefree,’ by Fignon, ‘Seven Deadly Sins,’ ‘Cycle of Lies,’ ‘Wheelmen,’ ‘The Secret Race,’ ‘Dog in a Hat,’ ‘From Lance to Landis,’ ‘L.A. Confidential,’ and of course everything ever written about Coppi, Bartali, Anquetil, or anyone who’s ever set foot in Belgium … we all just decided to say ‘Enough. We’re a bunch of lousy, doped up, cheatfuggs.’
In order to make the confessions as thorough as possible, numerous deceased cycling stars were exhumed and had placards hung on their remains. “Dopey Coppi,” and “Tranqui-til” were two of the most popular exhibits set up around the bones of Fausto Coppi and Jacques Anquetil.
Cookson was optimistic that a corner had been turned. “Now that we’ve admitted what everyone knows, there’s no one left to punish, except, of course the fans. We’re going to be asking fans to voluntarily confess to drug use as well, and masturbation. We will clean this sport up once and for all.”
The ugliest sport
August 18, 2013 § 30 Comments
I am an ugly rider. I bob up and down. I weave back and forth. I make unpleasant gasping sounds when going hard. My thin arms stick out at odd angles like a praying mantis. I have been called “Twigman,” “Mantis,” “The Human Loom,” and of course plain old “Wanker.”
But you know what? I’m an amateur, and not a particularly good one. My ugly riding style is just one more check-mark in the long list of qualities that define me as a weekend hacker.
What’s more than passing strange, though, is the ugliness of the professionals. Because you know, it didn’t always used to be that way.
The most beautiful sport
If you look at any of the classic cycling videos — A Sunday in Hell, or the 1973 World Championships in Spain — it’s impossible not to be struck with the smoothness of the riders. Of course each one is idiosyncratic; funny motions and unique pedaling styles make each rider as distinct as a thumbprint. But despite each rider’s individual style, the grace and smoothness of the riding is incredible, even over the rough and ragged paving stones to Roubaix.
Then, to see how far we’ve fallen, look at the Tour of 2013.
The winner is perhaps the worst example of ugly cycling to ever appear in the pro peloton. Froome’s ungainly, awkward, uncomfortable, and erratic pedaling make his riding ugly beyond belief, and the hilarious photo essay of “Chris Froome Looking at Stems” only proves the point: The head-droop that causes experienced racers to shout, “Keep your head up, dumbshit!” is emblematic of a man who just won the Tour de France. Yet he’s hardly alone. Jerky, forced, unnatural, uncomfortable riding styles abound. How did the beauty of 1973 become the unbearable ugliness of 2013?
The biggest difference between then and now is that pro cyclists don’t race their bikes very much. In 1975, the year that Eddy Merckx lost the tour, he entered a staggering 195 races, everything from classics to grand tours to local criteriums. Nor was he the exception, because in those days pro riders made their money at the smaller events. Merckx has said that if he had been paid better, he would have raced less.
Chris Froome’s racing schedule in 2013 was comprised of the Tour of Oman (6 races), Tirreno-Adriatico (7 stages), Criterium Internationale (3 stages), Tour of Romandie (6 races), Criterium du Dauphine (8 races), and the Tour de France (21 races). His total race calendar for the year was a meager 51 races, and when you lop out the time trials and prologues it was even less.
From the perspective of developing good riding skills, the generation of racers who became professionals by racing their bikes rather than by doing specific lab, heart rate, or power-based workouts had countless more racing miles than modern Pro Tour racers. It’s my opinion that the huge number of races over so much different terrain — riders would often do track and cyclocross after the road season ended, in addition to muddy spring classics and summertime tours — made them smoother, more fluid, more skilled, and better riders.
Equipment and training miles
In addition to huge miles in training and racing, Ol’ Backintheday rode equipment that required skills. You had to reach the down tube to shift. You had fewer gears to choose from. Your bike was heavier. Your wheels were slower. Your feet weren’t very firmly bound to your pedals. Your shoe soles were soft.
Professionals had to be able to pedal and operate machinery that was more finicky than today’s push-button, wrist-flicking technology. The best example I can think of that shows how degenerate the pro peloton’s skills generally are is by comparing them with modern track racers, who still have the same bike handling limitations that they had fifty years ago.
The track is narrow and unforgiving. The speeds are high. The equipment tolerates little if any jerky, quirky, ugly riding, especially at the level of world class competition. The result? Elite track racers remain beautiful to watch, their efficient, measured, and controlled movements in complete harmony with the bike.
I’ll always ride ugly. But Chris Frooome and his cohorts could stand for a beauty makeover. It might make me forget about their volcano doping, if only for a little while.