Slammed bars, sad bulldogs and the suitcase of painful paychecks.

The tour rolls around once a year and makes everyone who isn’t a pro Euro racer look like a slouch. The rolling soap opera that is the Tour speeds around France, with super fit riders riding tiny bikes in impossible aero positions.  John S., who works here, told me that Cadel Evans’ saddle to bars drop on his time trial bike was 23 centimeters.

Cadel’s position is crafted in a wind tunnel. How does it feel? See below.

That’s 9 inches, or 7.5 inches more than we would recommend to anyone in our fitting process.  He wears a skin suit so tight that riders often complain of difficulty breathing, like Victorian ladies on warm summer days.  He uses a water bottle that just has enough liquid in it so that it can be counted as a water bottle, not a liquid aero faring.  Read that again.  It’s not for drinking, its just there to make him go faster.  The man is paid to suffer.  That’s why he looks like a sad bulldog all the time.

Sad Bulldog Cadel Evans

Pros are not paid to look at the view, or to talk with their friends, or really to do anything that makes cycling enjoyable.  Often, to get more aero, they look at their front hubs, not even the road in front of them!  They are paid to go as fast as they can, no matter what.  If they go numb, or suffer tendonitus or have horrible hand pain at the end of a tour, but they won, that is what matters.  Saddle sores and foot pain are nothing compared to a paycheck and glory.

Don’t discount peer pressure.  When racing, even stateside, there is a desire to copy the fastest guys, and if they have an ultra agressive position, everyone else wants it too.  The fastest guy might do 300% more yoga, and have a lower back that is ‘strong like bear’, but there is also a copy cat environment in the peloton.  If rider A is riding a really aggressive bike, and wins, other riders will copy the position, even if it isn’t right for them.  They want to look the part, even if it means being less biomechanically efficient.  This of course makes no sense, except from a psychology standpoint. It’s all about feeling fast, apparently, not actually going fast.  There is a good amount of solid data showing that fatter tires are faster than skinnies, but loads of people still reach for the narrow tires, citing personal weight concerns, or just saying ‘it’s what i am used to’, which is like saying I am used to riding bricks around, and wish to continue, even if its less comfortable, less safe, not as fast, and harder on my race wheels.  Skinnies look fast.

So do slammed bars, and stiff aero wheels, and tons of exposed seatpost.  There are tons of blog posts and articles and comments in forums on how bad *** it looks.  Case in point, SLAM THAT STEM, a blog devoted to destroying your Ulnar Nerve.

Tom Boonen’s Spring Classics rig, taken from SLAM THAT STEM*. Do you think he won because of the position or the huge 30mm custom tires at 60psi? I’m guessing the latter. *caps lock from the blog’s title, repeated to illustrate the mentality of the author of said blog.

The sad thing with this phenomenon is how it shuts down a great place to ride: in the handlebar drops.  The vast majority of pro riders spend most of their time on the ramps and top of the bar, or hanging over the front, in a fake time trial position (needed because their bikes are too small).  When bikes are sized correctly, a few things happen.  One: you can breath better.  If you are in a horrible, crunched up position, with your diaphram completely compressed, breathing becomes a chore.  Two: the bike handles better.  Bikes are designed around certain stem lengths, and 140mm-150mm stems are outside of the projected range of what the manufacturer designed the bike around.  Wanna know why there are so many crashes in the tour?  They are going really fast and their bikes handle like a scared rabbit on crystal meth.  This does not make the bike faster, in fact, fighting the bike to keep it stable saps critical energy.

Eddy lays it out in Mexico with some long chainstays, aero Brylcreem and hand knit white socks. Gloves? Not Aero!

Eddy Merckx’s hour record bike had long, touring bike length chain stays, so he could go as fast as possible without fighting the bike, thereby putting all his energy in to going fast.  Three: you have less pressure on your soft bits. If you are crunched over, you hips are rotated and you are barely sitting on your sit bones.  We need to sit on our sit bones, not soft tissue, so that we can use our bone structure to put power to the pedals.  Soft bits are soft, and they squirm around, hardly a solid foundation to lay down some speed.  Lastly, Four: Little bikes and big riders make riders look like they are on clown bikes.  Like their parents couldn’t afford to get them the next size up.  Do we really want our heros riding circus bikes?

All of this of course relates to fitting, and if you are a regular reader of the blog, you know I don’t often plug stuff here at the shop, mainly because I am bad at it.  We do fits at the shop, we’re pretty good at it, Brian and I having done literally hundreds of them.  If you think your bike fits well, but could be a little more comfortable, or more aero, or you have an injury you are working through and want to adapt the fit, we can help you with that.  Check out our article on fitting, which is 87% complete, basically lacking in pictures and scientific looking diagrams.

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Shop rides:

It’s a huge summer o’ shop rides!

Riding thru the Wtfacolfsville valley, often visited by the Wednesday nite crew, and the Sunday nite crew.

Sunday evenings:  If it isn’t raining horribly, meet at the shop at 5pm.  We’ll hit the road around 5.30 for a 30-45 mile road ride at a decidedly casual pace.  We occasionally hit dirt roads, but it’s a road ride so you can bring a road bike, we promise.  The terrain will be hilly to downright mountainous, but done at a pace that won’t leave you gasping for air.  We even take breaks.  Bring these things with you:  Bright Lights (front and rear), spare tube (at least one), pump/co2, some food, some money for soda or whatever along the way. 

Tuesdays:  8am road ride from Starbucks on 7th street.  45 miles or so right now, by the end of the summer we will be doing 80ish.  This is a long ride, with no fixed schedule, and ridden at ‘James touring pace’ which is to say slow.  Climbing, back roads, stuff you maybe haven’t seen. Bring: food, money, tubes.

Wednesdays:  Hill ride with Brian.  Meet at the shop around 5, wheels down at 5.30 in the evening.  Fast (but not insane fast) road ride up into the mountains, back down again, back up again, and down again.  Back before dark but bring a rear blinkie in case of mechanicals.

Thursdays:  Mountain ride with Brian and Team Flying Dog.  Meet at 5.30 at the foot of the dirt section of Mountaindale Road, by that big maintenance shed.  Hilly, technical watershed mountain biking, but a relaxed pace. Back before dark.

Sunday Mornings: Women’s beginner road rides from the Starbucks in the Westview Shopping center.  8AM 12-18 miles on low traffic roads.  Rides will be led by Tracy, who works here, and know the roads well, and all that good stuff.  These rides are starting to get a good turn out, but the mileage will go up soon, so get in on it before it does, so you can start easy.

The women’s ride is geared toward most ages and most abilities.  It’s still a road ride, not a casual family saunter though, so bring a road bike, please!

The Tour de France vs Everything Else

The Tour is in its 99th year.  The summer race around France, with pastoral country side and towering mountains, through pouring rain and tire melting heat, draws 15 million viewers every July.  It spawns the sales of thousands of road bikes to people who would otherwise never even consider a bicycle at all.  It makes lycra ok.  Well.  Sort of.

Cipollini takes it to the limit, one more time.

Since the first edition of the Tour, raced on steel fixed gear bikes from sun up until long past dusk, riders have racked up mileage in excess of 220,000 miles, greater than the distance from the earth to the moon.  The tour has changed shape over the years, from the early days of zero support, where riders rode exclusively for themselves with no outside help allowed, to today’s team cars, radios, and group tactics.  The daily speeds have gone up while the distances have gone down.  Road surfaces have drastically improved, from goat tracks and cobbles to smooth, fresh tarmac.  The 1970’s saw a decreasing popularity in the tour amongst the municipalities the Tour went though.  Towns, embarrassed at the rustic state of their roads, saw fit to pave the country byways before the tour came through, gutting budgets and causing resentment.  It was not until recent times that Tour organizers were able to convince towns that the rustic roads were the raison d’etre, and that fans loved to see the riders suffering on historic roads.

Eddy Merckx and a founding member of The Specials wonder what’s around the bend.

Technology and science have changed the face of the tour.  Mandatory helmets, the move away from traditional clothing and frame materials, the increased, overbearing presence of science and power monitoring have all taken some of the guts from the sport and replaced it with logic, forgone conclusions, and a seeming inability to just ‘go for it’.  But there is still romance, pain, suffering, and victory against overwhelming odds in the Tour.  There are still surprises, breakaways that actually work, huge solo efforts against mountains that harken to the days before we knew what a Lactic Threshold was.  There are still bad guys and good guys, scandals and stories of redemption, winners and the ones you wish would win…

I don’t follow sports.  I fail to see the appeal of soccer, or football, or baseball, or car racing.  I don’t understand how poker is sport, or pool.  I love swimming, but only in a lake, with the possibility of ice cream afterward.  I don’t understand huge paychecks for tossing a ball around, or wacking one with a stick.  When I was a kid playing soccer, I never could remember which goal was ours, because I was so bored that I was constantly day dreaming.  My main concern was sliding through the grass and missing the ball, mainly so I could collect impressive grass stains and or scabs.  Our team always got some sort of pitiful trophy that looked like it had been microwaved, the fake gold soccer player sagging and possibly crying atop his faux marble stand.  It seemed to me like these were activities you partook in when there was literally nothing else better you could be doing.  Poking a mud puddle with a stick for instance, or filling model airplanes with firecrackers and tossing them out the bedroom window.  Important things, things with meaning.

“We’ll put the firecracker right here…”

My first real bike was a beautiful grey mountain bike with matching grey tires.  It was steel, and rode like a dream.  Every summer I spent hours climbing the mountain at the end of my street, a long, grueling dirt climb that ended in beautiful meadows, followed by a harrowing descent down the otherside, and a slow cruise back home next to a glacial lake.  This suffering was fun!  It had meaning! Views! Adventure!  Possible ice cream endings!  I was hooked, for life.  But I didn’t know about bike racing.  I wasn’t ready for the soap opera drama of it, the weird euro names, the impossible to memorize team monikers, the tactics, the length and depth.  I collected baseball cards for the stale gum, not the players, whom I knew nothing about.  Stats were something akin to IRS tax code, irrelevant, confusing, and pointless. Then I went to college.  Had free cable TV.  My future wife and I fell into the Tour De France because of the Controversial Texan.  He was a symbol, a story, a reason to watch.

Lance shows his math skills

Everyone has their own reasons to watch the tour, or not.  It takes time, lots of it.  The tour lasts for hours everyday.  If you were to actually watch the whole thing, you would have no life.  If you just watch the highlights, you might as well not watch.  It is within the daily struggle that the story unravels like a spider spinning a long lycra thread.  The commentary on the background of each rider, the suffering on the faces of the breakaway group and their inevitable demise, the riders who die small deaths off the back of the peloton, the disorientation of those who crash, the anger of those who suffer mechanicals, the passion of the sprint and the heroism of the climbers.  The nuance of the sport is lost in the highlight reel.  There is no history in the reel, no peeks into psychology, no lessons on the country side, stories about this Chateau or the upcoming climb.  There is just racing, at its most distilled.  Sometimes, as with good bourbon, you have to add a bit of water, so it can breathe.

Subscribe to the tour online at NBC.  It’s 30 bucks for a month of racing, and there is excellent, highly biased commentary that is occasionally really funny.  It’s like a book on tape.  Think of it as summer reading for cyclists.  Think of me as Oprah, and this is my book club assignment to you.  I don’t make any money off it, unless you come in and buy a road bike from me!

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Shop Rides:

Tuesday and Wednesday’s rides are cancelled. Look for them next week though!

Sunday evenings:  If it isn’t raining horribly, meet at the shop at 5pm.  We’ll hit the road around 5.30 for a 30-45 mile road ride at a decidedly casual pace.  We occasionally hit dirt roads, but it’s a road ride so you can bring a road bike, we promise.  The terrain will be hilly to downright mountainous, but done at a pace that won’t leave you gasping for air.  We even take breaks.  Bring these things with you:  Bright Lights (front and rear), spare tube (at least one), pump/co2, some food, some money for soda or whatever along the way.

Thursdays:  Mountain ride with Brian and Team Flying Dog.  Meet at 5.30 at the foot of the dirt section of Mountaindale Road, by that big maintenance shed.  Hilly, technical watershed mountain biking, but a relaxed pace. Back before dark.

Sunday Mornings:   Women’s beginner road rides from the Starbucks in the Westview Shopping center.  8AM 12-18 miles on low traffic roads.  Rides will be led by Tracy, who works here, and know the roads well, and all that good stuff.

The Cycling Cap: a Statement of Intent

Goggles not Included

The rain has begun.  Drops fall fat on steaming forearms.  Tires on the pavement sounding like lost AM radio signals.  Dial it in.  Face drawn, eyes up, flip the brim of your cap down.  The connection is made.  Bikes are time machines.  Moving not like the reenactment of some Civil War battle, but like Marty McFly through the past.  They are direct conduits to times past, hardships endured, battles fought, won and lost.  A rider, subconsciously or not, moves with the same motions and facial expressions of the rider 100 years ago.  Sits in the same position, fears the same hills.  The hunger is deep at the end of a ride, the legs have the same feeling of day old room temp jello.  And the cycling cap is there, perched Belgian style, high atop the head, or pulled down low against the rain, or backward on a steep decent, or rakishly canted, a ship tossing on a storm writhed sea.  The colors and the pattern and even the origin of the hat are cues: teams supported, races ridden, swaps attended.  We learn the origin story through visual cues.  Is the hat dirty?  The brim sweat stained? Holes burned in it from campfire sparks?  Is it crushed? Threadbare? Perfect and crisp?  Not this authors.  The hat must come from a place to go to a place.  In other words, the cap must be procured for a reason, so that it may exist with reason.  Sometimes you are what you own.

Aero Tassle

The cycling cap has humble origins.  Original cycling caps where just appropriated from other walks of life.  Baker’s brimless skull caps, the chicken and egg problem of the Welder’s cap, knit alpine beanies for mountain stages.  The first caps were just whatever would get the job done.  There is validity still in the found cap concept: it’s hot, out, you need to get the sun off your face, almost anything will do, even a Redsox hat.  But the quiet grace of the cap, its packable construction, its minimalist fit, the telegraphed poise, these attributes elevate the cap to the level of gestalt.  Nothing can be added.  Nothing removed.

The casquette is in trouble.  How does perfect design fall onto hard times?  Progress means forward movement towards a greater goal.  In the case of professional cycling, this greater goal is the ability to plaster more sponsor names on any given garment.  So the small, quiet grace of the cycling cap is being supplanted by the gaudy Nascar-esque fitted baseball cap.

Andy, Al, and Lance wait for the 3rd inning

The podium is now mounted three men who look like rejects from the Class A Short Season Minor Leagues.  The compulsory helmet laws of the past decade in pro racing have also helped with the demise of the ubiquitous cycling cap.

Coppi and Bartali, on their way to a Gnocchi eating contest

The racers’ abandonment of the caps has caused a vacuum in the universe.  The universe, abhorring vacuums, (and house hold cleaning in general) gave us the hipster, who has appropriated the cycling cap.  The hipster, his world clouded by pastiche, wears the cap as a statement of fixed gear solidarity. Perhaps they don’t actually own a fixed gear, or, owning one, know how to properly ride one.

Having just bought a Dokken album, Larry remembers his record player is still in his mom’s basement. Then he realizes: that’s perfect, I live in my mom’s basement.

It is time for real cyclists to reclaim the cap.  Pull it low, hide the suffering, and destroy the mountain.  Dip it in a silty drainage ditch and let the muddy water cool your broiling head. If you race, take the podium in a cap, not a hat.  If you race in the rain, wear it under your helmet.  If you go out to eat, wear something decidedly unhip, and a cycling cap, to undermine those who wear it with senseless irony.

what podium winners should look like

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Shop rides:

We’re about to embark on a huge summer o’ shop rides. Join us for a few, maybe you will get hooked.

Sunday evenings:  If it isn’t raining horribly, meet at the shop at 5pm.  We’ll hit the road around 5.30 for a 30-45 mile road ride at a decidedly casual pace.  We occasionally hit dirt roads, but it’s a road ride so you can bring a road bike, we promise.  The terrain will be hilly to downright mountainous, but done at a pace that won’t leave you gasping for air.  We even take breaks.  Bring these things with you:  Lights (front and rear), spare tube (at least one), pump/co2, some food, some money for soda or whatever along the way. 

Tuesdays:  8am road ride from Starbucks on 7th street.  45 miles or so right now, by the end of the summer we will be doing 80ish.  This is a long ride, with no fixed schedule, and ridden at ‘James touring pace’ which is to say slow.  Climbing, back roads, stuff you maybe haven’t seen. Bring: food, money, tubes

Wednesdays:  Hill ride with Brian.  Meet at the shop around 5, wheels down at 5.30 in the evening.  Fast (but not insane fast) road ride up into the mountains, back down again, back up again, and down again.  Back before dark but bring a rear blinkie in case of mechanicals.

Thursdays:  Mountain ride with Brian and Team Flying Dog.  Meet at 5.30 at the foot of the dirt section of Mountaindale Road, by that big maintenance shed.  Hilly, technical watershed mountain biking, but a relaxed pace. Back before dark.

Sunday Mornings:  (starting June 10th) Women’s beginner road rides from the Starbucks in the Westview Shopping center.  10am (I think, check Facebook for details) 12-18 miles on low traffic roads.  Rides will be led by Tracy, who works here, and know the roads well, and all that good stuff.  She’ll have more details in next week’s post, so stay tuned for that.

Esperanto, Pocahontas, & The Rebirth of Brandon as the Don Bran Don.

Fishing Creek Ford - Brandon

Crossing a mountain ford, somewhere, over the rainbow. Photo by John aka Mr.Dr.

Brandon had not yet transmigrated into the Don Bran Don when we came down a narrow dirt track on Catoctin Mountain.  His legs were worn pistons, eyes scared, glazed with pain and glossy with adrenaline.  His 23mm tires, pumped to some ungodly track specific pressure, bounced over the tailings and pot holes with an appearance of abject abandon.  Fibrous strands from his aging sidewalls twisted in the air, suggesting a beautiful impeding doom. I warned him of the upcoming hair pin, strewn with gravel.  He needed to scrub speed fast.  As he applied furious back pressure to his pedals, his chain popped off, and suddenly his only method of controlling the bike was disposed of.  Well, almost the only method.

“I still feel that variable gears are only for people over forty-five. Isn’t it better to triumph by the strength of your muscles than by the artifice of a derailer? We are getting soft… As for me, give me a fixed gear!”  So spoke Henri Desgrange,  Tour de France founder and publisher of Le Auto, a sport magazine.  An ex pro cyclist, Desgrange raced in the time before advanced technology like “brakes” and “gears” were accepted or widely available.

Octave Lapize trudges up the Pyrenees.

Desgrange made his name on flat courses and in the velodrome, not places typically associated with a need to slow down, and say, not fall off a cliff.  When founding the Tour in 1903, he was adamant about the type of bike to be ridden: generic, fixed gear machines, to keep the playing field as level as possible. When the Tour headed into the mountains for the first time, he allowed brakes, but no gears.  Riders who sought a lower gear either dismounted and flipped the rear wheel to an easier ratio, or got off and pushed.  Given that many of the roads were muddy goat herding tracks through mountain passes, sometimes pushing was the only viable choice.

Paul de Vivie, aka Velocio, published Le Cycliste, chief competition to Desgrange’s Le Auto.  Velocio was a staunch supporter of derailleurs, good brakes, and lightweight repairable bikes.   The so called patron saint of Cyclo-Touring, Velocio, a fluent Esperanto speaker, was also a strict vegetarian.  His riding style, adopted by many as a virtual religion, was to go long, go just fast enough, and to see the country.  The Randoneuring style of riding is still practiced today, with riders doing unsupported rides ranging from 200 to 1200 kilometers, without significant rest breaks.

Paul De Vivie aka Velocio with one of his bi-chain cyclo-touring bikes. Velocio, who spoke Esperanto, was often quoted as saying: "donu al mi rapidumojn aŭ donu al mi lifton." Actually, I just made that up, but if you can translate it, 10 points to you!

He believed the only sustainable way to ride, and still get up into the mountains, was with gears.  He thought it foolish that anyone would walk when they could be riding, a concept only possible with the use of variable gears.  The division between the riding styles of Desgrange and Velocio were born at the turn the century and continued until Velocio’s untimely death in 1930, when he moved out of the way of an oncoming truck, he moved into the way of an oncoming tram… Desgrange eventually allowed derailleurs in the tour, but his minimalist credo continued well past his death.

Brandon tried to jam his shoe against his tire, but it quickly melted the Lorica.  The road pitched forward, and his velocity hastened.  His chain flopped around, useless and taunting, like a Sesame Street character you just want to smack.  His only remaining option: jam his hand against his tire and the rear brake bridge, letting it get slightly sucked in the the gap.  Instant agony, the leather smoking under the intense heat, burning a hole through his gloves.  Enough friction to slow down, jump clear and remount the chain.  The rest of the ride was spent playing down just how close to death he had walked.  His chain jumped ship twice more before the pass spat us out in a tiny log cabin village.  The mountain roads had exposed the weakness in the less is more plan.  Brandon renounced his fixed gear that day, and started to envision his ideal Frederick road bike, a many geared touring bike.  With brakes.  Soon Brandon would become the Don Bran Don.  Soon, a nondescript vintage Trek road bike would become Pocahontas, and they would ride together, to the dusty forgotten roads of Frederick… ___________________________________________________________________

A quick reminder:  This Tuesday, we’ll be hanging out at the Frederick Bicycle Coalition fundraiser, down at Brewer’s Alley in beautiful downtown Frederick.  The Don himself, and this writer, both of whom are on the Board of the Coalition, will be there around lunch time, and again, in the evening.  It’s the most painless way ever to support Frederick bike advocacy. You just come, drink beer, eat food, any time of the day (as long as it’s this Tuesday!) and Brewer’s hands the Coalition over a chunk of that money.  We’ll use it help put in bike lanes, bike racks, and put in a City Pump Track.  We also, for what its worth, work to keep the tiny country roads that we love riding on, small and slow, so people don’t drive like nutter butters on them.  So all in all, a good reason to come out and drink lots.  We’ll be in the lobby, with shirts, which you should buy, because I designed them, and they are cheap.  Also, we’ll have water bottles, stickers (free!) and newsletter sign up sheets, because you need more things in your inbox.

You know this, hopefully, but if you join the FBC (it’s cheap) you’ll get 15% off on almost all the accessories we sell.  Not on bikes, not on service, but that’s a helluva a deal, nonetheless.

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Lastly, the ride schedule:

Tuesday: No ride.  We’ll be at Brewer’s, kicking out the Jams.  You should be, too.

Thursday:  7 am ride.  We will be there, with bells on.  Usual place: 7th street Starbucks.  40ish miles.  Relaxed post new years Christmas spare tire pace.  We’ll go somewhere interesting, back before lunch.