Three paras: Cavendish, heroes, Millar

One must confess, dear reader, to being confused as to the motivation behind Mark Cavendish’s book ‘At Speed: My Life in the Fast Lane’ (a big thanks to VeloPress for the review copy). It is a compelling read – as far as cycling autobiographies go – that moves along as swiftly as its author, but still with an engaging narrative (perhaps helped in this department by the ghost writer, the excellent Daniel Friebe). It is not Cavendish’s flouting of tradition where the autobiography comes after retirement, to shine a light behind the scenes of the author’s career (see Charlie Wegelius, for example), or to offer a counter narrative for someone returning to the sport (see David Millar, for example), or to build an epic mythology for blatant self-aggrandizement (see Lance Armstrong, for example). No, there’s nothing wrong with writing the story as it unfolds; and Cavendish is a man in a hurry. What gives rise to confusion is the level of intimacy he’s prepared to share, his own emotional ups-and-downs for starters, but also his unvarnished views of everyone else in the sport. Perhaps it is testament to his talent that he does not need to ‘make nice’ with everyone in cycling while he is still active in the sport. It is hard not to read the book accompanied by the smoke from bridges being burned. We fans are not deserving of such intimate revelations, so why make them? It is possible that Cavendish wishes to control the narrative of his career right here and now, while he has the opportunity. But whether he actually needs to do so, or to do so in this way (even if we as readers get to enjoy all the details), is another question indeed. Continue reading

On the big ring and carbon clinchers

Reader feedback is always satisfying to receive. A recent email posed two questions: how to put into practice the advice put down here to use the big ring at least once on every climb; and your author’s view on carbon clinchers for climbing. Firstly, then, the big ring. Climbing in the big ring is more of a state of mind. As noted here, your author recently swapped in new cassettes with a taller range to allow more big ring climbing (30-12 previously and now a 28-12). This was largely a redundant move as similar ratios to, say, a 50×25 combo can be achieved by staying in the small ring and clicking down the cassette. But there is something satisfying about being able to tackle a climb in the big ring; if you start the climb in a big gear it forces you to do something a bit more interesting on the climb than just sitting and spinning. You might even find yourself at the top of the climb still in the big ring, having even dropped it farther down the cassette. Continue reading

Armstrong 3.0 – part 3 (in 3 paras)

1.

Imagine if you will, dear reader, that Armstrong stepped off his bike early in 1998, having successfully recovered from his cancer and returned to pro bike racing, and announced his retirement. Mission accomplished. No Vuelta that year, and certainly no Tour wins from 1999 to 2005. Imagine that he instead turned to establishing his cancer foundation, which did not become the ubiquitous yellow-armband wielding entity it became with his Tour fame but a smaller, no less dedicated, institution focusing on men’s health. Perhaps he returned to triathlon, competing successfully and winning several high-profile events. As a result, the profile of triathlons was boosted and Trek abandoned its road bike line (keeping LeMond on instead) to focus on the growth of the sport. Road cycling remained a strictly continental endeavour, still a mystery to most North Americans, and with doping scandal after doping scandal involving dodgy Spanish and Italian doctors, and mysterious Austrian clinics, it stayed as a fringe sport for Euro wannabees. For those not buying into triathlons, cyclocross started to emerge from the remnants of mountain biking and frustrated hipster roadies who wanted a new sport they could make their own. That one single individual could have such a dramatic impact on the direction of sport in North America does not seem an entirely absurd proposition. Continue reading

Armstrong 3.0 – part 2

“They don’t like me saying that in 2009 I was clean but these things are the truth. But I also understand the people who say they don’t believe me… What I’m saying is that the day there’s a test of a transfusion I’ll be the first guy to put that sample [from after the Mont Ventoux stage in 2009] on the line. And I’ll bet everything on that.” – Lance Armstrong.

I’ll bet everything on that. Continue reading

Armstrong 3.0 – part 1

Comeback 2.0 is a curious addition to one’s cycling book collection. Gorgeously presented, in the spirit of Rouleur, the book is “Lance Armstrong’s first-person photo journal of his 2009 comeback season with the goal of taking the Livestrong message around the world.” With sumptuous cycling photography, as well as intimate portraits of Armstrong and his family, the book – probably more intended for a general rather than a hardcore cycling audience – is a seemingly rare glimpse into the behind-the-scenes of the whole endeavour. RadioShack, Armstrong’s team sponsor for 2010, was also involved, and $10 from each book sale was donated to Livestrong “to inspire and empower those affected by cancer.” The Special Collector’s Edition (only $5 secondhand – they don’t hold much value these days) features a removable dust jacket with “keepsake poster” and 16 additional pages of photos. Continue reading

Meanings revisted

I like the bike for the usual reasons – exploration, freedom, camaraderie, the rush of endorphins – but also the possibility it holds out, when I can admit to feeling more competitive than I like to think, that an exploit of some sort, ill-conceived and irrational, based on the flimsiest of training base, might be undertaken and, with luck, fortitude and a dose of the unforeseen, possibly yield bragging rights for a limited time despite, in the greater context of exploits and achievements, making a rather minute impression on those with greater reserves of power and endurance, of which there are many. I like that possibility.

One must confess to a certain skepticism of professional team sports, particularly the dangerous aspects of mass hysteria, rivalry and nationalism, but pro cycling is different as its fan support is more a celebration of the spectacle – beautiful, brutal – than the competitive aspect, or a celebration of an ideal: even if that ideal, glory through suffering, might be more a construct of the myth makers than a genuine value worth supporting (especially as ideals are often either promulgated by the powerful in their own interests or mask the agendas of others seeking to seize that power for their own ends), which shouldn’t prevent us, however, from sympathizing with those – the riders – who flog themselves for their own rewards, such as they are, and for our own entertainment. Which I like, too.

Thévenet's secret? Gallic tenacity and very stylish kit (L'Equipe)

The mountains await… (L’Equipe)

Three paragraphs on LeMond and winter training

Greg LeMond says that without doping Lance Armstrong would have been top 30 at best in the Tour and certainly not top 5. LeMond knows more about the physiology required to win the Tour than most, but is he correct? Maybe. One could argue, though, that we just don’t have enough information to reach a solid conclusion. Aside from VO2 maxes and wattages and weights, what about dedicated team support, focused training, motivation and luck? There have been some transformations in recent history to win the Tour – Cadel Evans, Bradley Wiggins. Even Carlos Sastre seems an ‘unlikely’ winner. Why not Armstrong? There was never a level playing field to make comparisons; when Armstrong rode the Tour in the 90s, doping was rampant so his performances then are not much of guide. A clean rider has not been competitive until very recently. Armstrong swears he was not doping in 2009, while doping blood profile experts say he was, so whether he was third in a ‘clean’ Tour in 2009 is highly contentious. Overall, LeMond’s opinion should be highly respected, but he may not be right. Some claim Armstrong would have won seven Tours anyway, in a clean peloton, but that’s a counter-factual position as well. One suspects that Armstrong’s true abilities are overrated by some and underrated by others (LeMond included). But we will never know for sure. And does it matter? As philosopher Isiah Berlin said, “There is no… reason for believing that the truth, when it is discovered, will necessarily prove interesting.”

Your author’s copy of ‘Greg LeMond’s Complete Book of Bicycling’ is tattered and worn. It’s a secondhand copy, another copy having been given away to a friend who didn’t return it, or perhaps it was the author who moved away. Difficult to say. Some passages have been highlighted in this one: “Do the more intense workout before the less intense workout.”; “For every week you take off you should train three weeks.”; “Much more important than how many miles you’ve done is duration, how many hours you’ve done.” Whoever did the highlighting had some specific training in mind. Perhaps they, too, were considering how to approach their winter riding time? Elsewhere, the book – first published in 1988 – looks impossibly dated. LeMond warns against the 7-speed ‘freewheel’ as requiring a special chain and a re-dishing of the rear wheel. “The best compromise, and a common choice, is the six-speed unit.” Now a 10-speed cassette is standard, with perhaps 11-speed the exotic choice requiring special modification. On the front, LeMond advises that he usually uses a 53-42 combination. The final line of the book reads, “And I think the next chapter of cycling’s history should belong to America.” LeMond won the Tour two more times, just before Armstrong burst onto the scene. The next chapter did indeed belong to America, but not quite in the way LeMond would have expected.

LeMond overturns the myth of gear size, and that winter training should be limited to spinning. He discusses the importance of managing intensity in training. Elsewhere, the general advice is that winter is a good time for strength building, on and off the bike, which is particularly important for more ‘mature’ riders who naturally suffer from a decline in strength over time even though endurance can still be maintained. Your author has mentioned previously his new Contador-inspired approach to climbing (pas de boeuf). Winter seems the ideal time to keep focusing on the big ring, on strength development when rides must of necessity be short duration. Whether this will translate into appreciable gains for 2014 remains to be seen. And whether two rides a week maximum in the off season actually constitutes ‘training’ is another question indeed. “As a young rider,” LeMond writes, “it’s relatively easy to put off training and whip yourself into shape in a few weeks. But as an older rider that’s nearly impossible. You need to train consistently to stay in good condition, especially through the winter. You simply can’t put off training as you could as a youngster.” Bugger.

A slightly goofy expression is a prerequisite for winning the Tour.

A slightly goofy expression is a prerequisite for winning the Tour.

[Here's an interesting interview that Bill McGann did with LeMond that you may not have seen with some discussion of VO2 maxes and wattages and climbing...]