On money and identity

Pro cycling has a somewhat unique challenge compared to other sports. Teams have limited means to raise finance themselves (no stadiums and gate receipts) and so are reliant completely on their sponsors. They are even named after their sponsors, which can often mean a name change for the team every year, or with even greater frequency. It also means that the teams are largely beholden to the whims of their sponsor, and every insider account of the sport talks about the pressure applied to managers from the sponsors, and the pressure applied to riders to get results for the sponsor. Not exactly a stable performance model.

Crisis may be too strong of a word to use in respect to the finances of pro cycling at present, and it is difficult – if not impossible – to comment with great accuracy on the situation as an outsider. But teams are struggling to find sponsors, many minor races are struggling for financing, and – despite solid fan support – securing the sport’s financial future appears perilous. The UCI seems convinced that once the doping problem is solved, the money will come back. It also thinks that expanding to the New World is key and, in the lingo of modern finance, has tipped its hat to the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and wants races in all four. China is already in the bag with Russia shortly to follow. Critics of this approach argue that cycling in these countries has no heritage and that the UCI should focus on the heartland of cycling – Europe – and get the local races in order before trying to expand.

As well, team managers are trying to find ways of putting their teams on more secure footings, such as the idea of franchises where the team can have more of a fixed identity and access to other revenue sources such as television rights. The system of UCI points that ‘values’ riders does not help the teams, particularly for World Tour rankings. The big money that some teams are able to bring into play, whether from wealthy individuals (BMC) to Russian oligarchs (Katusha) to state funding (Astana), his led to distortions. Yet cycling has always attracted a particular type of sponsor, like Bernard Tapie, often with out-size personalities and extra-deep pockets that bankroll the stars for a few years before moving on. The longer stayers, like Quick Step or Francaise des Jeux for example, tend to be more modest contributors. The original pro teams in cycling were sponsored by bicycle manufacturers, so teams have always been subordinate to those that held the purse strings.

It is difficult to speculate what the future may hold. Pro cycling may find itself, as it often has, struggling for sponsors and will remain a second-rate sport that simply cannot turn its popularity into solid financial returns. Fans don’t want to pay to watch races (cycling remains a sport of the people for the people). The entrenched powers-that-be don’t seem to want to change the current balance of power, which is in their favour; the largest players, the ASO and the UCI, seem content with the status quo – although the ASO holds most of the good cards and the UCI must be fearful that it will be lured away to a new professional league.


But, despite its precarious existence, and decades of doping disasters that have constantly threatened to implode the sport entirely, pro cycling remains totally captivating; the legions of fans that turn out to the races, and the passion they show, is testament to the powerful pull that it has. The latest book from VeloPress, Argyle Armada: Behind the Scenes of the Pro Cycling Life by Mark Johnson, is a reminder of how sublime cycling can be. The author (a PhD in English literature no less as well as a Cat 2 racer) followed the (then) Garmin-Cervélo team for its entire 2011 season, delivering “an unprecedented look at America’s most celebrated cycling team”.

But of course there’s plenty of suffering behind the scenes. For manager Jonathan Vaughters, part of the suffering is budgetary. The team has a budget of around 30% of some of the better financed pro teams, according to the book. Salaries take up 74 per cent of the budget. Vaughters needs results that will keep the sponsors interested, but can’t afford the big names that require the biggest money. He has to get maximum ‘bang for his buck’ with solid performances across the season that get World Tour points (to guarantee the team’s World Tour status); the team is built around a number of riders who can produce these performances, rather than one star who will guarantee the team’s position (the sort of scenario that backfired for Bjarne Riis when he hired Alberto Contador).

One of the money raising methods used by the team (and now adopted by most others) is relentless merchandising. This is apparently now worth around $1.5 million annually. A glance at the team shop shows the array of goods on offer, and even team bikes are put on sale at the end of the season. It raises, though, an interesting question for us amateurs riders who are supportive fans: is is cool to wear a pro team jersey?

According to the biologist E.O. Wilson, “everyone, no exception, must have a tribe”. Tribes give us identity and “social meaning in a chaotic world”. We are social creatures and like to be surrounded by others of a like mind. For many of us, cycling is one of our ‘tribes’. Belonging to the tribe has certain requirements and we like to fit in; we like to associate ourselves with one of the sub-tribes in cycling and our appearance is part of this process. This sense of belonging, or buying in, is a powerful branding tool used by the makers of cycling gear – we can by into a ready-made identity that has been carefully prepared for us (how else to explain Rapha?). Indeed, this kind of cultural vacuity has been criticized (stand up Mr. Matt Rendell), particularly as us Anglophones try to buy our way into a European, or other, cycling culture that is not our own.

Such criticism can be valid but also misplaced. Here in Vancouver, for example, there is a long history of road racing and many well-established clubs. It might be inspired by outside influences but is a work in progress in developing its own cycling culture (which makes, for example, the Rapha Continental tagline for North America of “rediscovering the lost spirit of cycling” – it used to be something about the ‘lost art’ – somewhat galling; what do they think was happening before they came along?). As such, local team jerseys are numerous on the local scene, whether from local race clubs or the increasing popularity of Gran Fondo or more social teams (often built around charity endeavours). Pro team kit can be scarce.

It used to be the case that wearing pro team kit was déclassé in most cases. Current kit was definitely out, unless you were an actual team member (with a number of pro riders from the Vancouver area, that would not be an impossibility). An obscure European team might be okay, providing that you had some connection to the team, as might retro kit from years (preferably decades) past, but the line was fuzzy. Plus, pro team kit was a risk if the team was hit by a doping scandal (think of all the Phonak jerseys that disappeared after Floyd Landis was busted), which has not left many teams unscathed in recent years. Finally, given the liberal use of sponsor logos in branding a team, wearing a jersey is essentially giving free advertising to companies that have given the wearer nothing in return (making them pay for the privilege, no less), other than the sense of being part of the team effort and supporting them financially.

An interesting dilemma. In the future, teams are going to be asking fans to put their hands in their wallets more and more. Perhaps GreenEDGE, lacking a title sponsor and mainly funded by Australian businessman Gerry Ryan, is the model with its various membership packages for fans. At the high end, $990 will get you the team kit, supporter pack, and a day spent with the team including breakfast, training ride and team dinner. Euskatel-Euskadi is also perhaps another model, with the team jointly funded by the local Basque supporters (it’s difficult to know what membership gets you, but the chance to wear an orange shirt and a beret as well as imbibe copious amounts of beer and dubious sausages atop a picturesque mountain watching Le Tour should not be underrated). At races, it seems like VIP access will become more prevalent and access will have its privileges.

The sport needs a better structure to manage the money it has already for the benefit of the riders, and it probably needs more funds overall to make improvements. How we as fans contribute is a difficult situation. Socks, caps and gloves for sure, but somehow pulling on the full team kit is, for many old traditionalists, uncomfortably close to being part of one of the misguided fan sects or anorak wearing brigades. That said, having one of the original Slipstream jerseys, resplendent in its argyle, would probably be okay and be past the statute of limitations.

“Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure,” said philosopher Jeremy Bentham in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. This blog has already discussed suffering and glory, but what of passion? David Hume said that reason was the slave of the passions, which – along with tribalism – goes a long way to explaining why we follow sport so ardently. Passion will keep the fans on the roadside in the pouring rain, or hunched over their computers watching a grainy Flemish internet feed; passion will keep the racers churning out the miles, day after day, for their sport; passion will keep the money flowing in some form or another from the business community. But when passions are directed elsewhere, or become less ardent with time, what will be left? In Argyle Armada, which is a beautiful book well worth owning, Vaughters laments that European cycling is still driven by personalities; he contrasts the situation to American sport, which has regressed to the mean of simply making money. A mercenary observation, perhaps. But on balance, the model to date of pro cycling has not served the majority of riders particularly well. Perhaps a new model, the result of the current evolution or perhaps an actual revolution, will do better.

BC's own Ryder Hesjedal at the 2008 Giro in the original argyle kit (Slipstream pic)

Ultimate climbing guide, part 2: aerodynamics

If there is one non-cycling book worth reading this year, it should probably be Thinking, Fast and Slow by the Nobel Prize-winning behavioural psychologist Daniel Kahneman. To paraphrase the product description from the publisher: “Two systems drive the way we think and make choices, Kahneman explains: System One is fast, intuitive, and emotional; System Two is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. Examining how both systems function within the mind, Kahneman exposes the extraordinary capabilities as well as the biases of fast thinking and the pervasive influence of intuitive impressions on our thoughts and our choices.” Why this is interesting in the context of this blog post will be returned to below.

Talking of books, VeloPress is publishing in North America the fantastic Slaying the Badger by Richard Moore, who argues, eloquently if not entirely convincingly, that 1986 was the “greatest Tour de France”. The obvious rival Tour to this claim is 1989. As we know, Greg LeMond beat Laurent Fignon at this edition because of aerodynamics. In an article in issue 10 of Peloton magazine, John Wilcockson goes into this in some detail. Interestingly, wind tunnel tests after LeMond’s win revealed that his aero bars were only worth an 8 second gain as LeMond’s position on the bike (which he had spent much time perfecting) was already highly aerodynamic. But the bars were not the reason for his narrow win, as his helmet was actually acting like a “sort of parachute” and cost him 12 seconds. Therefore, it was more LeMond himself, not his bike and gear, who beat the ailing Fignon. This is worth keeping in mind as this discussion progresses.

Retarding forces

Going faster on a bicycle involves overcoming resistance: wind resistance, rolling resistance from the tyres, bearing friction, and gravity. At speeds below 13 kph, the dominant forces are rolling resistance and bearing friction. But once these are overcome, they increase only slightly with speed – once you’ve gotten rolling there’s not much to hold you back. Gravity is a constant and only changes depending on the gradient of the climb; you can out sprint gravity. Wind resistance, however, increases as the square of speed over 13 kph – it gets harder to go faster (refer to Ed Burke, High-Tech Cycling, for much of the technical information here). The higher your speed, therefore, the greater importance of increasing aerodynamics but the less absolute benefit you will gain.

Weight, so important in climbing, is much less of a factor on flat roads (although it does have some role in acceleration). For example, reducing the drag of a bike by having its cables inside the handlebars and frame (reducing drag by about 10 grams) is equivalent to dropping over 2 lbs in weight over a 40 km time trial, but even then it is only a handful of seconds. For climbing, the key point is that aerodynamics can play a role, but it is going to be a minor one because of the relatively low speeds. On a 10 km climb, the best you might hope for is around 1 minute in time gain in theory: if you can reach speeds of 20-24 kph in some sections and you can maintain an aero position (and still get the same power output) for the duration. Aero equipment, such as wheels, will give you a time advantage somewhere south of this figure. If these are not the conditions then the gains from aerodynamics are going to be much less. But still, because air resistance is lower at lower speeds, there are decent absolute gains to be made relative to your speed. Any time a long climb levels off a little for a decent distance and you can kick it over 20 kph, ‘getting aero’ will be a handful of seconds of advantage (for more on this, see part 3 – coming soon).

Pantani getting aero in the drops while climbing.

One example of the important of aerodynamics in cycling in general is the hour record. In one study, the researchers charted the power outputs of the hour record holders, based in some cases on power meter readings where available but on calculation in others. They were equalized for comparison, which was a difficult process given the difficulty in calculating wind resistance for different shaped riders (the outsize Miguel Indurain, for example, was a problem). When Eddy Merckx posted 49.431 kms, his corrected power was 429 watts on average for the duration. Moser, Obree and Boardman all bested this record but they did so by producing less power – aerodynamics was their advantage. It was not until Indurain that power levels were higher than Merckx; Indurain recorded 436 watts in 1994. Tony Rominger (infamously coached by Michel Ferrari, whatever that might mean) produced 460 watts when he pushed the record over 55 kms, with a standard bike but aero wheels and an aero bar. Chris Boardman’s record of 56.375 km was achieved with less watts than Rominger (but more than Merckx) using an aero bike and the ‘superman’ position.

When Boardman beat Merckx’s traditional record (and only just: 49.441 km) in 2000, on a standard track bike following the UCI regulation change, he produced less power so must have had a slightly better position (not that it was easy – he couldn’t walk for four days afterwards). Overall, since the 1960s, the study estimated that the gains in the record were 40% attributable to riders producing more power and 60% due to aerodynamics. The takeaway message is that aerodynamics matters quite a bit, at least in the rarefied world of adding just a few more metres to the hour record, but so does wattage – and the latter is up to the rider to produce.

Position versus equipment

The drag of your bike is around 25-35% of the total. In other words, you the rider are 65-75% of the drag (some studies suggest that it might be slightly higher). The rider’s position on the bike is the key factor in reducing drag, and studies have concluded that gains can be up to 5-6 minutes over a 40 km flat course. The difference made by aero wheels, in contrast, is only around 1.5 minutes, according to one study; this is with all other factors being equal – if you cannot hold an aero position, for example, you might offset any benefit from the wheels. As well, because your body makes up the majority of the drag, even wearing a skinsuit and riding standard wheels can be as much of an advantage as regular kit and aero wheels.

So, the first step to reducing your drag and overcoming wind resistance is going immediately to your LBS and getting them to set you up correctly on your bike so you can get your back as flat as possible on the hoods and comfortably reach the drops to get even more streamlined. You should then watch Fabio Cancellara and spend time working on it until you can mimic his position on the hoods (refer to 2012’s Milano-Sanremo, for example). You may also wish to include his simulated aero bar position where he rests his forearms on the flat of the bar and emulates an aero bar position (it’s harder to do than it looks, while not weaving from side-to-side and thus negating the drag reducing effect; Cancellara is of course not the only pro to use this position – Tom Boonen did pretty well at Paris-Roubaix this year using it). It all stems from Roger de Vlaeminck, the king of the ‘on the hoods’ aero position. Let the following picture be your guide.

The current focus on aerodynamics means that there are lots of misconceptions about the scope of the gains to be made. For example, in the same issue of Peloton magazine, in a review of the $2,700 Bontrager Aeolus 5 D3 wheels, reviewer Ben Edwards writes: “It’s speed you will feel palpably, on your first ride.” (In the same review, Edwards notes that the 1,550 grams weight of the wheels excludes them from being “a dedicated climbing wheel”, another sort of myth that the next part of this ultimate climbing guide will address.) There are figures of 10 grams of reduced drag over other aero wheels used in the article, which, as Edwards notes, equates to less than 1 watt of energy at 40 kph (or, as is noted in High-Tech Cycling, the drag produced by holding a pencil up in a 30 mile-per-hour wind). Yet Edwards is apparently able to notice this difference, in particular whilst coming out of corners on a fast ride as “they corner as if on proverbial rails… and you will be rewarded with a gap… you will go farther, faster with less energy.” To be able to notice such a performance difference, just 1 watt, is indeed very impressive. But it is entirely fanciful. The limit of aerodynamic gain in a cornering situation, according to a rough calculation at Analytic Cycling, is at most half a wheel length or about 0.02 seconds. Are we really to believe that someone can discern this difference whilst on their bike and attribute it solely to the wheels?

Perception v reality

Let us then see where Kahneman fits into all of this. Our System One way of thinking is basically our instincts. This system, which is active all the time, is constantly making assessments and judgements about all manner of things in our environment. It is very good at its job, but it is also easily distracted. It is particularly bad at complex problems involving numbers, statistics and probabilities. It is also easily fooled by optical illusions (the famous ‘which line is longer’ test) and prone to biases, particularly when there is ‘anchoring’ or ‘framing’ involved. The vulnerabilities of System One is why we have System Two, our considered mode of analytic thinking where we carefully consider a problem before reaching a conclusion, to balance the impulsiveness of System One. This is why Kahneman’s book references fast and slowing thinking – System One and System Two, respectively.

The main conclusion we should be aware of is that our instincts, perceptions and snap judgements can be wrong. They are highly subjective and easily influenced by other factors. It would be very difficult, in an objective sense, to measure the speed difference between two wheel sets on the open road. In a cornering situation, for example, you as the test rider would have to mimic the exact wattage, riding position, and line through the corner on each set of wheels to control the major variables. Given that riding position is the most important aerodynamic factor, it would be nearly impossible to keep it uniform in a meaningful way. But this apparently does not stop reviewers’ instincts from taking over and proclaiming that one set of wheels is noticeably faster than another.

One of the particular biases that influences System One is the so-called anchoring effect, where we place an over reliance on a particular piece of information in making our judgement. In this context, if we are told that a very expensive wheelset is more aerodynamic than another, and that this has been proved by wind tunnel testing, we are – one would argue – more likely to conclude by riding said wheelset that it is faster than a more modest set of wheels. In fact, we might conclude that it is even faster than the tests showed and say that it is worth a bike length in a sprint when the actual objective laws of physics will show that this is not possible (all other factors being equal). This would be a good case of System One (our instincts) versus System Two (the objective application of the laws of nature). The anchoring effect will be stronger if the information comes from an authority source (like a respected bike magazine, for example) or if it confirms strongly-held beliefs or conventional wisdom (aerodynamic wheels make bikes go lots faster, for example).

In all manner of situations, people will often say, “Yes, but what about in the real world” as if there are different rules for how things work in different environments. In the real world, people often pride themselves on their instincts and how good they are at making snap judgements. This is particularly the case if those judgements confirm strongly-held beliefs. In many cases, psychologists in experiments have found that subjects will cling to their beliefs with even more tenacity when they are exposed to contrary evidence. They simply refuse to believe that their judgements are wrong.  Our System Two mode of thinking is a powerful analytical tool, but we are prone to ignoring it, under-utilizing it, or refusing to believe its conclusions.

It is extremely improbable, if not impossible, for anyone to be able to perceive the drag difference between different wheelsets coming out of a single corner. Sure, they may feel different or even faster, but that does not mean they are noticeably faster in an objective sense at a specific point in time. The speed gains will be cumulative over time, but not immediately discernible. But how do you refute someone who claims that they “feel palpably” faster or that they got a gap riding the wheels? (Although you could say, “Wow, you can feel the <0.02 seconds in time difference coming out of the corner – that’s incredible!”) Paying $2,700 is a lot of money to “feel palpably” faster. One could almost guarantee that buying a pair of handmade Rapha shoes and drinking two negronis would make you feel faster, too; still a bit pricey, but you’d have change left over.

What it means

Aerodynamics matters. Reducing the drag of the rider matters a lot more than reducing the drag caused by wheels. At least Bicycling magazine, in a test of aero wheels that included the Aeolus 5, says that “measurable differences are pretty small” and includes a quote from Steve Hed: “Early on, our comparison was to a box-section Mavic rim; we’re not saving anyone a minute over 40 km anymore. Now it’s more like seconds.”

So, according to Hed, the drag gain was 60 seconds over 40 km, or 1.5 seconds per kilometre (0r 0.0015 seconds per metre). That is pretty consistent with the figure cited in the study noted above. They are little gains that add up the longer you ride. If you are a pro cyclist, seconds matter. Just one second might be the difference between first and second in a long race, or small aerodynamic gains add up over time – like on Boonen’s Paris-Roubaix breakaway (although how much was down to aerodynamics, particularly as he is a big rider, and how much was his incredible form is a big question). When it is your livelihood, it matters; you will do anything to get a possible advantage. For amateurs, though, should we be obsessing as much over a handful of seconds? Furthermore, as has been argued previously on this blog, controlling all the variables so that a tiny reduction in wheel drag that is measured under controlled conditions does make a quantifiable difference on the open road is very difficult, if not impossible. Does that make $2,700 for a set of wheels worthwhile?

When reading bike and component reviews, we usually have our System Two modes of thinking in full function. We understand that reviewers have to write something about their riding experience and that a simple account of facts and figures would be extremely boring. We ignore highly subjective performance claims and we know that if Freddy Maertens circa 1976 on his bike of that day was transported forward in time to our local crit, he would easily out ride each and every other competitor on their 13.6-pound bikes with aero wheels. We know that it is the rider that matters most. We know that phrases like “cornering on rails” have no objective meaning because there is nothing that can be quantified and compared. We also know from our own experience that cornering has more to do with a rider’s line and ability than equipment – although upgrades can give us more confidence in our our abilities.

So why does it matter what gets written? Because our System Two is lazy, we might fall into the thrall of System One thinking and trust our instincts, particularly if it confirms our biases, especially if that bias is a mantra in the bike industry: that spending a lot more money will make you go a lot faster. We might start thinking that the gains from equipment are more than they actually are. And this is a sloppy way to approach a sport and a pastime. An alternative review, therefore, could read like this:

In controlled conditions these wheels will save you 1 minute in a 40 km time trial over a standard set of wheels. In most cases on the road, you would only save this amount of time if you kept all other drag factors constant, something that is difficult but not impossible to achieve. These wheels may not feel immediately faster when you ride them as their initial speed advantage is small and only accumulates over time. You might find they give you, all other factors being equal, a bike length or so of advantage at your mid-week crit, but the young gun on a borrowed cross bike will still beat you to the line. Conversely, however, you may feel quite a bit faster on these wheels – even if the speed difference is tiny – simply because they are superbly made and presented and appear to be really fast. The thrill of new wheels may prompt you to push yourself a bit harder. If a potential gain of 1 minute over 40 km is important enough to you to spend $2,700 (if you are not a pro rider already, in which case your sponsor has given you these wheels) and replace the $500 wheels you already have, then go for it. However, you may wish to first attend to a number of other factors – such as your ability to ride in the drops or an even more aerodynamic position for long periods of time. In fact, you should do this right now – and throw in some intervals – instead of reading this review and obsessing over carbon wheels. Your abilities as a rider will have more of an impact than your equipment.

The review in Peloton magazine, an otherwise fine and excellent publication well worth reading, has been singled out in this blog post but it is not the exception in the supposedly objective product reviews that we get in bicycling publications. We should be mindful as to how biases influence subjective judgements. We should understand that objective comparisons are not possible outside of controlled situations. And it matters because the cost of bicycles and components are – at the top end – skyrocketing, even while we enjoy the great benefits of trickle-down to the lower end. It matters because at some point we might start believing that $2,700 aero wheels are essential for going faster. And to go faster is what everyone wants, right?

There are a number of good reasons to buy high-end bikes and components. Performance is one of them, and the potential benefits are (mostly) very real. But they are not as much as you will be led to believe by reading magazine reviews.* It is not honesty that is needed but rigour (or rigor, for US readers) in review writing. The facts and figures are all there for anyone to access, and a little System Two thinking will go a long way to confirming or disproving what our System One instincts might be telling us. So, get into your drops more, or do some intervals, or buy a cross bike from your LBS for extra training and give the change to support junior cycling or donate a kids bike to a worthy cause. Do all these things. Think more. Think harder. Ride more. Ride harder.

Freddy Maertens won 13 stages at the Vuelta a Espana in 1977 (AFP photo).

* Rouleur is a very expensive magazine, relative to its competitors, but the interesting editorial choice is that don’t do reviews. The focus is mostly on rides and riders. Whatever you might think of Rouleur’s generally breathless and hagiographic approach, they should be given some credit for their stance on equipment. It’s refreshing.

On hardness

At the top of the Ghisallo climb, in Bellagio on Lake Como in Italy, and outside the Madonna del Ghisallo chapel is a statue of two riders. The first is raising an arm in triumph, alongside the second rider who has fallen. Glory and suffering. Cycling epitomized, so much so that ‘glory and suffering’ is the motto of that luxury cycling apparel company, which has appropriated the message of the statue for its branding (along with a popular Italian cocktail) – “…an online emporium of performance roadwear, accessories, publications and events, all celebrating the glory and suffering of road riding.”

All pro races contain suffering, much more than us mere mortals can appreciate or experience. But some are tougher than others, and we are entering the spring classics season in Belgium (and nearby) where the races involve a particular type of suffering. This is the realm of the hard men, the toughest of the tough who succeed against the odds, and the wind and the rain and the pain-soaked cobbles, all the while being tormented by rabid fans in heightened states of hysteria and frenzy (likely augmented by strong beer and calorifically-frightening local delicacies).

As fans, we appreciate and respect hardness. We want to see suffering and to see it overcome. Suffering and glory. But suffering is a dead end street. There is an end point to suffering, after which it simply becomes masochistic. Beyond this point, we as fans become party to – dare it be said- simple exploitation for our own amusement and edification.

At the Tour de France in 2011, we were witness to a particularly cruel incident of suffering – the crash by Johnny Hoogerland where he was knocked off his bike by a French TV car and catapulted into a barbed wire fence. His injuries were horrific, but Hoogerland got back on his bike and struggled through to the finish, a genuine hard man and a hero. But what does it say about cycling that this incident did not result in immediate medical attention for Hoogerland and special dispensation so that he did not need to finish the stage and could be allowed to start again the next day? These are the same rules that dictate that if riders do crash, if they cannot continue then the race proceeds without them. If they can make the finish, somehow, in pain and agony, then they can start again the next day in a stage race. As well, the riding conditions faced by the pro riders have in many cases been well over the border of responsibility as race organizers have pressed on despite the weather. There have been many cases similar to Hoogerland’s in pro cycling’s history but they are typically celebrated as ‘epic’ rides.

Pro sports are struggling with how to deal with the suffering of their participants. American football is probably facing a crisis with the peak of legitimized violence that it has reached. Hockey is also having to deal with the immediate implications to players from concussions as well as the long-term results of such injuries, particularly from the – frankly bizarre – practice of fighting that has yet to be banned, despite the weight of the arguments against it.

Many sports are resistant to change because of long histories of the ‘rules of the game’ and the traditions involved. Such sports betray their working-class roots. In cycling, for example, before the 1970s it was a chance for the working class to escape the routine of manual labour; for many the rigours of a professional athlete were less than the conditions they might face on a farm or in a factory. But this is no longer the case with the rise of the middle class as well as the improvement of working conditions for the betterment of all. Exploitation of the working class, in the classical sense, has diminished significantly in recent decades, but exploitation in sport (despite many changes for the betterment of players, not least in the increase in remuneration) has not always kept pace.

In cycling, it is not immediately clear what changes should take place to put some sort of limit on suffering, although focusing on the conditions out on the road, whether due to weather or route choice, would be a good place to start (in the latest brouhaha over tabs on forks and saddle positions, the UCI, unfortunately, seems more interested in its stated goal of “the preservation of the culture and image of the bicycle.”). But the broader point of this post is to suggest that there should be an end point that prompts changes to be made. ‘HTFU’ and other such slogans are all well and good for bragging (and blogging) about with your riding buddies, but we should recognize that there is a limit line – and that we may not be entirely aware when that limit line has been crossed. Other sports, like football and hockey, may indeed have crossed that line and are struggling to find their way back. If there are no limits, then we are guilty of not respecting the long-term well being of those athletes who provide our short-term gratification. We might think that being cyclists ourselves means that we are somehow tapping into a grand narrative of suffering and glory with our own meager efforts. We are not.

As we ponder the current state of cycling today, it is still worthwhile to look back at cases of epic suffering and the hard men who put themselves into the deepest and darkest of pain caves for our entertainment. One such hard man was the Italian racer Fiorenzo Magni and you can read all about his three consecutive victories at the Tour of Flanders by following this link to Pez.

If this post sounds a bit over-wrought, it is probably because its author is still disappointed to hear of Julian Dean crashing out of his entire season in extreme weather in Catalonia and perhaps having to end his career despite having just signed with GreenEdge (CN pic).

Winning La Primavera

The spring classics start this weekend with Milano-Sanremo on Saturday, March 17th. Your author has already tipped Daniele Bennati as a surprise winner from a bunch of possible Italian contenders. To which one might add Peter Sagan, not quite an Italian but riding for an Italian team. We shall see.

There have been numerous famous editions of the race. Perhaps the most well known from the history books is the 1946 edition, which came to symbolize not only Italy’s rebirth from war and fascism but also the founding of the Fausto Coppi myth. John Foot’s excellent book Pedalare! Pedalare!, a history of Italian cycling, covers much of the ground on Coppi already given extensive treatment by William Fotheringham in Fallen Angel. Foot is able to draw on a number of Italian sources, which add colour to his story.

For example, Coppi’s physical appearance was much remarked upon. Gino Bartali said that he looked like a ‘bald cat’. Others said he was like uno scorfano, the scorpionfish to which less comely people in Italy are apparently often compared to. “Off the bike, he seems a scorpionfish,” said one Italian cycling author. “On the bike, he is simply divine.”

In 1946, Coppi won Milano-Sanremo by 14 minutes, an impossible margin. He attacked early and rode most of the race alone. “We saw him go at Binasco,” Foot quotes one fellow rider as saying. “And then I next bumped into him at dinner.” You can read more about how Coppi did it on Pez Cycling News.

Peter Sagan has already practiced his victory salute (Liquigas-Cannondale pic)

Gearing for climbing: An afterthought

Paul Fournel’s book Need For The Bike has perhaps the worst cover ever to grace a book on cycling. This nearly pocket-sized tome has some absolutely fantastic writing from the “avant-garde writer” (who also makes regular contributions in Rouleur magazine). One can only lament that the University of Nebraska Press, who published the book in 2003, did not see fit to update or redesign the cover to something more modern. Rouleur – or someone – should immediately acquire the publishing rights, or commission a new translation, and turn this essential read into a true pocket book with a bit of, need it be said, savoir-faire. The style of the Penguin paperback, mentioned here, would be a good place to start.

The subject of gearing for climbing has already been recently discussed here. At the 1996 Tour de France, Fournel approached one of the racers to ascertain what gearing he was using for a particular mountains stage. One might keep the reply in mind when selecting one’s gears. “I just use race gearing. If the race is in a big gear, so am I. If it’s in a small one, I’m in one too. Ask the race what gear it’ll be in on the climbs, and I’ll be in it.” Quite.

You may have noticed, dear reader, the loss of the Gazzetta dello Sport pink hue to this blog [since restored…]. Your author’s endeavours to restore the functionality of the categories and tags remains fruitless. Perhaps all will be ‘fixed’ in due course, but this may prove not to be the case. Your patience is, as always, much appreciated.

Spring, Italian style

Unlike other Grand Tour contenders, Bradley Wiggins being the obvious example, Ivan Basso seems content to keep a low profile in this spring’s edition of Paris-Nice. We will no doubt be seeing more of Basso at the Tour (perhaps the Giro as well) where he will perhaps put in a more spirited performance than last year. One suspects, though, that the podium is out of his reach.

Still, whatever awaits for the rest of the season, Basso was taking no chances with his health and the weather. Viruses seem to be dropping riders without mercy and if the weather was a factor in the early stages of the race to the sun, Basso was having none of it – bundled up in tights, wind vest, arm warmers, winter gloves, and plenty of head-warming coverage.

Basso staying bundled up (Bettini pic)

In contrast, Tom Boonen seemed determined to remind all who cared that Belgium has tougher weather than France, Belgians are tougher than Italians, and that a little cold can only fortify one’s resolve and spirit. On at least one early stage, Boonen thus elected to go without even knee warmers (no doubt electing for the Belgian ’embrocative’ type). He did concede to arm warmers, but eschewed gloves all together. This lack of hand coverage seems to be an emerging trend in the pro peloton, for reasons unknown (no sponsor logo to flash during the victory salute?). Is it fashion, folly, or simply hardness?

Boonen is all business (Getty pic)

Climbing culture, Italian style

One of the pleasures of following European pro cycling, albeit from afar, is the exposure one gets to different cultural norms. Bike ‘culture’ is an ongoing debate and one might usefully divide it into three areas: hardware, software, and programming. Under hardware, we might as an example reference the debate over what constitutes a ‘race’ bike or a set of ‘race wheels’. This debate, mostly confined to the pages of Bicycling magazine, is largely sterile but interesting for the outside observer. The correct answer, of course, is that your race bike (or wheels) is whatever you front up to a race on. We should not judge anyone’s choices in this regard, but simply congratulate them for supporting local racing.

Under software are the various debates over correct appearance and attire for road cycling, such as whether white socks are acceptable with black shoes, whether shorts should be rolled up to show the underside of the leg gripper, and the correct colour of helmets. For some, the trend is to make cycling even more exclusive and elitist, while most others take a much broader view. Again, we should of course not be too quick to judge others and instead welcome their participation in the sport.

Programming, though, or what we might call cultural differences, runs much deeper and is more difficult to overcome. Which is why following European cycling is an important way to broaden one’s horizons. A recent post of Gage+Desoto outlined eight reasons you know you’re an Italian pro. To which might be added a ninth: you post pictures of yourself in your Euro trunks on your website.


Eros Capecchi is an exciting young Italian climbing talent. Aged 25, the Liquigas-Cannondale rider has a rangy build for a climber at 6 feet tall, but light enough at 141 lbs to have little holding him back on the climbs. In the 2011 Giro d’Italia, Capecchi grabbed victory from a three-man break on stage 18 on the roads around Lake Como more familiar to the Giro di Lombardia and which featured 2,500 metres of climbing. (He was DNF at Lombardia later in the year, although so was a large proportion of the field.)

He opened his account this year with a clear win at the GP Citta di Lugano where he attacked on the final climb with 4 kms to ride and was able to hold on to the finish, besting the likes of Damiano Cunego and Michele Scarponi. We might see Capecchi in action not just at the Giro this year (supporting either Nibali or Basso but perhaps allowed to go for a stage win) but also at L-B-L and Lombardia. For now, he will line up at Tirreno-Adriatico in number 135.*

But what to make of his hobbies, Xbox and ‘fashion’, not to mention the pictures in his website gallery section. Yup, that’s Italian pro cycling…


* Actually, he’s riding Paris-Nice instead, wearing number 182, and finished with the leaders in the uphill sprint finish on stage 2.

Ultimate climbing guide, part 1: gearing

Andy Hampsten’s ride over the Gavia at the 1988 Giro d’Italia is the stuff of legend (read more about it here). Once he’d claimed the maglia rosa, however, there were still eight days of racing to go and Erik Breukink – the winner of the Gavia stage – was just 15 seconds behind. Urs Zimmerman, later to ride for 7-Eleven, was also snapping at his heels.

One of the key tests before Milan was the 18-kilometre hill climb time trial from Levico Terme to Vetriolo. But Hampsten was ready and had already inspected the course. Based on his observations, he swapped out his 39 chainring for a 42 and fitted an 8-speed cassette starting from a 21 and dropping 19-18-17 [etc] rather than the usual 23-21-19-17 [etc] to make his gearing higher again and to also keep the ratios closer together.

Hampsten won the stage and pushed Breukink out of contention. “I hurt so bad it was like a meditation,” Hampsten said, according to journalist John Wilcockson. “I knew I was winning… but I wasn’t conscious of the fact.” He survived a scare from Zimmerman in the last mountain stage in the Dolomites, saved by exemplary team tactics, and after the final time trial in Milan the Giro was his.


Hampsten’s story is interesting because of the attention he paid to his gearing for the uphill time trial. To climb faster, a rider has two choices: spin the pedals faster; or push a harder gear – or the correct combination of the two. Finding the optimal gear and spin can be a detailed business.

Your author is fascinated with the process of gear choice, given his interest in climbing and his particular enjoyment of the hill climb race (for which, it must be noted, his performances are decidedly modest). At present his preferred lowest gear is a 36×25. This gives a metres development of 3.1 (the distance moved with one crank turn, a different measurement to the usual gear inches), which is slightly easier than a 39×26 (or equivalent to a 34×23 for a compact crank) but noticeably tougher than a 34×25 (and a full kilometre per hour (kph) faster at 80 rpm).  Also, having a 25-23-21 [etc] ratio on the cassette instead of, say, 26-23-21 [etc] means that there is not a big jump between the lowest gear and the next cog on the cassette – keeping the ratios not too far apart.

A compact crankset, or nearly so, makes a lot of sense for a lot of serious climbing but it can be limiting to have a 34 for flatter riding instead of a 39 (hence why your author swapped out the 34 for a 36). SRAM compact cranks have a variety of after-market chainrings and a 38 (paired with a 52) is an option. To get a 3.1 metres development ratio would require a 26 cog but the 13% change in ratio from a 26 to a 23, instead of 9% between the 25 and the 23, can be disconcerting when riding – it feels too wide. At 3.3 metres development, a 38×25 – or 3.4 metres for a 39×25 – might be too tough to spin effectively. Each 0.1 metre change is about a 3% difference, so switching to a 39 would be nearly a 10% harder gear to push.

According to many experts, the optimal cadence is around 80 rpm, although for climbing some argue that it is closer to 70 rpm. This balances both efficiency and fatigue, apparently. So, ideally, you want a gear that you can spin at this rate for the climb that you want to go fastest on (the rest of the time, we make do with the gears we have and adapt). This is an interesting exercise to do if you have a cadence monitor and don’t mind staring at your screen during a hill climb. Simply sit at 75 rpm and shift gears to keep your cadence constant. It is a particularly methodical way to approach the problem of how to gauge your efforts but can yield useful results.

Over time, you will want to be able to push a larger gear at the same cadence on the same part of the climb. For example, being able to spin the 36×23 at 75 rpm instead of the 36×25 gives a speed increase of 1.3 kph – a noticeable increase on a long, steep climb.

Keeping your cadence constant is one approach. The other, of course, is to fit a harder gear and just tough it out. Fight to find your spin and force yourself to ride faster. Forget about the cadence monitor. If your legs are burning, choose an easier gear; if your lungs are crying out for relief, choose a harder gear. If both are at their limit, and you’ve run out of gearing options, there’s not much you can do…

Ratios versus cadence

Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France in 2001 provides an interesting study in the issue of gear ratios versus cadence. As is well known, Armstrong developed a high cadence climbing style, spinning at 90 rpm and over. “It takes better aerobic conditioning to pedal at a higher cadence,” according to his coach Chris Carmichael. “And you have to train a lot at high cadence to develop efficiency. Most people are more efficient at 80 rpm than they are at 90 rpm.”

Armstrong’s spin was easy to see in action, but it was certainly not the case that he was using ridiculously lower gears. His cassettes in 20o1 typically ran 23-21-19 [etc] like most other riders. So it was a case of spinning a slightly easier gear slightly faster. For example, if Jan Ullrich, known for his ‘big gear’ style was in his 39×19 at 75 rpm he would be at nearly 20 kph. If Armstrong was spinning at 90 rpm in a 39×25 he would be at about the same speed; to drop Ullrich he would need to spin up to 95 rpm (21 kph) or drop into his 23 (21.5 kph). Better still, spin the 21 at 95 rpm for 23 kph, which is what he did for part of the climb of Alpe d’Huez in 2001 (he averaged 22.1 kph for the 14 kilometres) when he won the stage by two minutes from Ullrich, famously giving him ‘The Look’ as he left him behind.

Interestingly, the next day, in the hill climb time trial to Chamrousse, Armstrong adjusted his gearing to suit the conditions, like Hampsten did in the example at the start of this post. According to John Wilcockson, Armstrong felt that the 23 on Alpe d’Huez had been too low (oh to have that feeling!) but the 21 a bit high. So for the time trial he fitted a 12-22 cassette so that his lowest gears were 22-21-20-19, thus keeping the ratio difference at around 5% between each gear. Whether it was this gear change, his high cadence style, or the familiarity he had with the course after scouting it out before the Tour, he won the stage and took another minute out of Ullrich. He would, of course, go on to win his third Tour in a row that year.

Part 2…

Climbing faster is not just about the gear you can push and how fast you can spin it (and the methods you use to achieve that), but it is in practical terms the primary route. As you develop more strength, endurance, power, conditioning or whatever, you need a practical way to translate that into performance. And taking on a harder gear, or a faster spin, or a combination of the two is how you put it into practice. For most of us, developing a high-cadence style much more than 80-85 rpm is not a possibility, so keeping a constant spin at around this level but graduating to bigger gears is the route to more speed.

Other than our own mediocrity, the principal impediment to more speed is gravity, which will be the subject of part 2 to this ultimate climbing guide, coming soon.

Ullrich concedes to the superior climbing of Armstrong

This post was modified from the original following reference to sources. Also, your author has just noted that the tags on this blog are apparently not working. Hopefully this will prove to be an easy fix (one suspects not) but please bear with for the duration of this problem.

A new Italian renaissance?

There has been much written in the mainstream press on Italy’s current (and supposed) malaise. You can read some of the articles here, here, and here. Indeed, this very blog commented last year on the state of Italian cycling. There are good reasons to believe that these things are cyclical. In the spirit of the current Italian focus of this blog, your author would like to predict an excellent year for Italian cycling, starting with Milano-Sanremo.

Milano-Sanremo has always been a stalking ground for foreign riders. It took three years before an Italian rider won the race, with Lucien Petit-Breton from France winning the first edition in 1907, then Cyrille van Hauwaert of Belgium taking the second in 1908 before Luigi Ganna took a victory for the host nation the following year. Despite plenty of subsequent Italian victories, the top step of the podium from around the mid-1950s hosted an increasingly foreign cast of riders. Ahead of the 1970 race, no Italian had won since 1953.

That year, Eddy Merckx had just won Paris-Nice in fine style but, according to John Wilcockson’s reporting in his book World of Cycling, was suffering from a saddle sore and his form was uncertain. He had won the year before, as well as the editions in 1966 and 1967. There were a number of other favourites, “nearly all of them Dutch and Belgian,” according to Wilcockson. But it was Michele Dancelli  who slipped away from an 18-man breakaway group to take the win for his Molteni team and Italy.

It was a masterful application of tactics. At a prime sprint point (at Loano, with 70 kilometres still to race), Dancelli asked his teammate in the break, Chiappano, to lead him out. The rest of the breakaway was strung out single file and only saw part of what unfolded. Chiappano took the sprint with Dancelli on his wheel, then drifted back and Dancelli continued up the road. Some in the breakaway only saw Chiappano go and did not realize that Dancelli had gotten away.

Unfortunately for the main breakaway, the news of Dancelli’s break was not broadcast on race radio until some 40 minutes after he had slipped away, “the sort of thing that could only happen in Italy,” Wilcockson notes. So by the time a chase got organized, led by Roger de Vlaeminck ,Dancelli had enough of a gap to hold on until the finish. Wilcockson again: “The noise was deafening as he came freewheeling down that famous street, his arms raised in pleasure, honor and emotion, with his rascally face a mass of smiles and joyful tears.”

He was 2 minutes ahead of his chasers, some of whom were still in the dark as to his victory. Sprinting hard for second place, Gerben Karstens thought he had won the race. As Heinrich Haussler knows, second place in Milano-Sanremo can be a bigger disappointment than even a more minor place; to come so close to victory must engender a particular frustration. Roger de Vlaeminck no doubt understood this sentiment; he placed second to Merckx in 1969 before having to wait until 1973 to win (although he would go on to win the race twice more). But pity even more Giuseppe Saronni, placing second three years in a row (1978-80) before two years in the wilderness and finally his win in 1983.

Danelli wins alone in Sanremo (Guy Didieu pic)

Italians to watch in 2012

This year, your author’s pick for victory is Daniele Bennati. The Italian sprinter from Arezzo has had numerous sprint victories in his (to date) ten-year professional career. Having switched from Liquigas to RadioShack-Nissan (then Leopard Trek) in 2011, he has already shown some good form this season at the Tour Down Under. An outside chance for La Primavera, not particularly renowned for getting over the hills, this could well be Bennati’s year.

Liquigas now has room for its younger Italian sprinters to come to the fore. Watch out for Elia Viviani, just 23 years old and with a solid background on the track. Two victories so far this season, at the Tour de San Luis and at the GP Costa degli Etruschi. Less a pure sprinter, Daniel Oss also has a solid track background although is more favoured for the Spring Classics. He is even more of an outsider than Viviani for Milano-Sanremo but will be well worth following as racing shifts shortly to Flanders.

Outside of the Italian teams, Italy also has sprinter Davide Appollonio riding for Team Sky. Another youngster, just 22, Appollonio has had some good results, including a stage win and the overall points jersey at the Tour of Luxembourg in 2011. These are the young riders that will hopefully be doing Italy proud in the season ahead, putting some controversial years behind them. If it hadn’t been co-opted by Silvio Berlusconi as the name of his political party, now might have been the time to say, Forza Italia!

Will this be the victory salute at MSR this year? (AAP pic)


The good life

I hope you will, dear reader, indulge your author somewhat for a slightly introspective and wide-ranging post. Last month, your author turned 40, which is somewhat of a milestone in popular reckoning and traditionally a time for a pause and reflection. Aside from looking forward to racing in a new age category for the local Masters races, there is not too much to report; a few threads of recent considerations may, however, be woven together as follows.

To step back for a moment, introspective pondering inevitably leads to the most basic questions that science, philosophy and religion have tried to answer: how did we get here, where are we going, and what do we do while we’re here? The answer to the latter is inevitably another question: what is the good life? The philosopher G.E. Moore contributed one answer, which was used as one of the guiding principles of the Bloomsbury Group: “One’s prime objects in life [are] love, the creation and enjoyment of aesthetic experience, and the pursuit of knowledge.”

Interestingly, modern neuroscience has done much to corroborate Moore’s philosophical position, particularly on experience and learning. Shimon Edelman, professor of psychology at Cornell University, suggests that our contentment is boosted by being in a ‘flow’ state. “Flow is the enjoyment derived from being engaged in an activity that is challenging, but not frustratingly so. You’re not challenged if you’re not tested, so I think we have this drive that pushes us to maybe overstep the boundary every now and then. And for success, we get rewarded incredibly with this feeling of well-being and excitement.” There’s certainly a corroboration with cycling there, particularly if we push ourselves in challenging situations but not beyond our immediate capabilities. It’s not so much the goal that matters – getting to the top of a climb, say, but the experience of getting there.

We might also conclude that knowledge does not have to be pursued solely by the experiences of ‘getting out there’. We can all relate to the pleasure of a good book and the insights it might offer through prompting us to think about the world around us. As Harvard English professor Helen Vendler has written, corroborating Moore and Edelman: “Without reading, there can be no learning; without learning, there can be no sense of a larger world; without the sense of a larger world, there can be no ardor to find it; without ardor, where is joy?”

Moore and the Bloomsbury Group were interested in the creation and enjoyment of the aesthetic experience, or – simply – art: its creation and appreciation. It’s not such a leap to think that ‘art’ can have a broad definition. Without making any claims to its quality, one might regard this blog as art, hence your author’s enjoyment in creating it (and appreciating the art of other cycling bloggers). Interestingly, though, there is no mention of the acquisition of art. Indeed, Edelman cautions against consumption: “If you have some money to spend and you spend it on buying goods that’s not nearly as effective in making you happy in the long run as buying experiences. If you buy an experience, you can basically revisit it and enjoy it over and over again, whereas with material goods, the fun goes away.” It’s a useful caution. Even economists agree on the law of diminishing returns as one consumes more; are we any more happy despite being surrounded by easy opportunities for consumption?

Yet such a caution might be unduly limiting. What is a bicycle if not a means to experience? Some goods are ‘necessary’, therefore, to achieve the experiences that make us happy. And what if the goods themselves are ‘art’, that the experience of appreciating them can be revisited and that they can be enjoyed over and over again? One might argue, therefore, that buying certain things can achieve two purposes that contribute to the good life – they allow gratifying experiences, and they are works of art in themselves and can be appreciate aesthetically.

Turning to the latter, we might see that design and luxury can contribute to an aesthetic experience beyond the limitations of consumption. A well-designed bike can be used for riding but can also give pleasure to its owner from the appeal of its attractive form and ingenious function. And this can be highly subjective and personal. Many of us do not need the latest ‘halo’ bike to be aesthetically engaged with our steed. Some do, and we should not judge what gives enjoyment to others, but simpler pleasures can be just as satisfying to a particular individual.

On this basis, your author must confess to some indulgences, what might be called small luxuries. To this list might be added Moleskine notebooks, Waterman pens, G. Lalo writing paper, cycling books, merino base layers from Icebreaker in New Zealand, and North American – especially Canadian – whisky (which is very affordable and highly underrated versus expensive Scottish varieties; see here, for example). Some of these are means to other enjoyable experiences – letter writing to distant friends (pens and paper), expanding one’s knowledge (cycling books), conquering climbs in comfort (merino base layers) – but do have an aesthetic appeal in themselves. One can always appreciate good ‘art’.

To this list has been added a recent acquisition (to celebrate the milestone noted above): a Rapha silk scarf. Your author has been mildly obsessed with said item for some time, defying all good reason. (In his defence, as David Hume said, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”) One must confess some mixed views of this luxury cycling goods company (more on that in a later post) but one can certainly not argue with its fine aesthetics. The scarf has not disappointed and can be appreciated in itself, as well as having some functionality in its wearing as an enhancement of one’s riding experience (it would also certainly be a fine choice for wiping down hand-stitched tubulars). And, purchased as part of the winter sale, it was certainly cheaper than the usual cyclist’s mid-life purchase of Super Record.

This post, therefore, might be construed as a plea for some philosophizing on your next ride. You might, on your next ride, wonder as to the utility of a particular set of carbon wheels on another rider’s bike, or their particular choice of attire (a silk scarf, for example). But we should not be so quick to judge. If we give it some thought, we are all in our own way pursuing our individual conceptions of the good life – and indulgences small and large are part of that. As riders, though, we are all ultimately united in our pursuit of the experiences that cycling can give us (including the relationships that it can foster). It gives us the immediate satisfaction of being in the ‘flow’ and those experiences – big and small – become lodged in our memories for revisiting later for our enjoyment. As one popular philosopher has said, “The point of departure, is not to arrive.” Now that’s the good life!

This hirsute gentleman has a particular conception of the good life (Rapha pic)


For me, France is a country of provincial banality, a land where patriotism flowers only to hide the bloodied earth of revolution, where history was begun at the Bastille by a horde of peasants running amok with pitchforks, decapitating their betters because they were just that. Before the Revolution, the French insist in their clipped accent, with a Gallic shrug of the shoulders meant to disarm contradiction, there was only poverty and aristocracy. Now…the shoulders shrug again and a jutting chin points to the dubious grandeur of France. The truth is they have now a poverty of spirit and an aristocracy of politicians. Italy is different. Italy is romance.

— Signor Farfalla in ‘A Very Private Gentleman’ by Martin Booth.

This year's Milano-Sanremo is March 27

The commandments of winter riding

It must assumed, dear reader, that at least one of the commandments of winter riding reads something like as follows: Thou shalt not brag about having ‘solved’ the problem of rear tyre punctures lest one be struck down by said puncture on the first ride of the New Year.

Surely there is an expression in Italian for this as well.

Perhaps one of the other commandments could be: Thou shalt not worry over the expense (minimal relative to other cycling purchases) or waste (again minimal relative to other waste) of CO2 canisters and enjoy their rapid inflation benefits instead of fumbling with a pump in the cold.

Just a thought.

Reading Italian cycling

Yes, sharp-eyed reader, you eyes are not deceiving you. The background to le grimpeur is now a shade of pink. This minor cosmetic change is to signify that 2012 will be the year of Italian cycling, your author’s attempt to better understand the subject (and perhaps to balance the critical perspective already offered here).

With such a sweeping brief, one is always tempted to revert to generalizations or even analogies to make sense of such a large topic. By way of introduction, we will start with a quote from the author Umberto Eco comparing Apple and Microsoft to Catholicism and Protestantism:

I am firmly of the opinion that the Macintosh is Catholic and that DOS is Protestant. Indeed, the Macintosh is counterreformist and has been influenced by the “ratio studiorum” of the Jesuits. It is cheerful, friendly, conciliatory, it tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step to reach – if not the Kingdom of Heaven – the moment in which their document is printed. It is catechistic: the essence of revelation is dealt with via simple formulae and sumptuous icons. Everyone has a right to salvation.

DOS is Protestant, or even Calvinistic. It allows free interpretation of scripture, demands difficult personal decisions, imposes a subtle hermeneutics upon the user, and takes for granted the idea that not all can reach salvation. To make the system work you need to interpret the program yourself: a long way from the baroque community of revelers, the user is closed within the loneliness of his own inner torment.

Now, bear with me dear reader, as I attempt to circle back to this starting point through a brief, but perhaps torturous, exploration of European cycling.

What cycling means

Cycling in different countries says much about their national character. Or to look at it another way, the national character sets the agenda for cycling. In Belgium, for example, cycling is a test of hardness. The races are abominably long, unnecessarily technical, and usually run in the toughest part of the season (spring). They are grim affairs. To win one of these races you need to embrace Belgian-style riding: big-ring hammerfests in the rain and crosswinds, up and down treacherous bergs, where only the hardest of the hard can triumph. There is little room for flair and style; results come from fortitude and hard work.

There are tough races in France, too, where they love their cycling and their competition. Here, racing has a grandeur that Belgium lacks. The French can give their races some panache, while at the same time investing them with near mythological status. The mountains, for example, are more than just tests of conditioning, they are a challenge to man’s place in the world. Yet at the same time, there is the air of Gallic insouciance. At some level, there is a skepticism that perhaps cycling is just a bourgeois conspiracy to exploit the working class. At any moment, the French look like they could shrug their shoulders and walk away. C’est la vie.

In Spain, cycling is a celebration. The country is larger and more diverse than others in Europe, and divisions bubble under the surface. So racing becomes an expression of joy; the Vuelta is a carnival of cycle racing. It can be a statement of nationalism (see the Basques) but also a buoyant expression of identity. The riders express themselves in this context, showing their character as well as using cycling as a philosophical learning process about themselves. Results are less important than the personal development of the rider.

Cycling as religion

In Italy, cycling is a religion. It is perhaps no coincidence, then, that Italy is also the home of Catholicism. Cycling has its own church, and its own saints. At its roots, cycling is a tragedy (see: Coppi, Pantani) where racers seek glory and salvation on earth, as a prelude to higher judgement later on. The tifosi worship at the altar of cycling, throwing themselves wholeheartedly and without reservation into its pursuit, a “community of revelers”. Rules and regulations (see: doping) are secondary to the higher purpose that cycling has – the expression of the human condition, of competition and of daring, of the revelations it offers. Cycling will save us all, so long as we worship it unreservedly. And if we succumb to it, we are martyrs.

To the victor the spoils, but how the race was won is important; it must be won just as the fans support it, with reverence and devotion and with total commitment to the glory of suffering. But it must also, like Catholicism in Eco’s terms, be a sumptuous victory; not the plodding Calvinistic inner torment of the time trial win, but the flashy showmanship of the sprint win, the reverence of the long breakaway, or the splendor of crossing the line alone in the high mountains. It should be like religion itself: the transcending of the ordinary in pursuit of the sublime or even the miraculous.

To stretch the analogy even further, one might seen parallels between Eco’s characterization and Italy’s most prominent contribution to modern cycling, Campagnolo. Is it too much to suggest that Campagnolo is the Apple of groupsets? It has its patron saint (Tullio Campagnolo), and an inception founded in myth. It components stress the purity of design, and might even be described as sumptuous. They are presented as a complete package, each groupset stands on its own, and there is no compatibility elsewhere. Devotees stress its history, its essence and its form over functionality, and maintenance is best performed by high priests with special chain tools at your local bike shop. Shimano, by contrast, makes no such lofty claims and presents components that are functional, interchangeable and open to free interpretation (Ultegra here, 105 there, and add a FSA crankset and a SRAM cluster). Its hermeneutics is the user poring over instruction manuals to make adjustments and to perform maintenance.

Reading Italian cycling

But perhaps your author has gone too far, stretching the analogies to their breaking point, offering up sweeping generalizations in place of detailed analysis. There is undoubtedly much to learn about the subtleties being glossed over here.

Despite the centrality of Italian cycling in any history of pro racing, there are surprisingly few books on the Giro d’Italia, particularly when compared to the Tour de France. There are, however, several titles available. One, The Giro d’Italia: Coppi versus Bartali at the 1949 Tour of Italy by Dino Buzzati, has already been reviewed on this blog in reference to the Giro d’Italia as epic. Two other books are quite recent: Bill & Carol McGann – The Story of the Giro d’Italia (volume 1, 1909-1970; Herbie Sykes – Maglia Rosa: Triumph and Tragedy at the Giro d’Italia. Sykes is also the author of The Eagle of the Canavese: Franco Balmamion and the Giro d’Italia.

There is also Matt Rendell’s biography of Marco Pantani, which was published in 2006. It perhaps speaks volumes about the book that it was never published in Italy, the publishers warned over the outcry that challenging the ‘official’ narrative of Pantani’s life would prompt from the public. This book was a fantastic read at the time; in light of subsequent revelations about doping in European cycling it will be useful to return to its in-depth analysis. (You can read two interviews with Rendell on Pantani and other topics here and here.)

One might question, of course, the epistemological challenges inherent in discovering the ontology of Italian cycling: how might one understand it without living, breathing or experiencing it fully. But one must start somewhere, with the resources at hand. We can never be certain that the outcome will be successful, but perhaps the journey will be illuminating. We might indeed see the process in religious terms, and salvation might be possible (your author may purchase a Campagnolo product, for example). Will it serve a higher purpose? To paraphrase Buzzati, Italian cycling is “one of the last meccas of the imagination, a stronghold of romanticism, besieged by the gloomy forces of progress, and it refuses to surrender.” We shall perhaps see if it remains that stronghold today.

Giuseppe Saronni showcasing his personal style in the maglia rosa

A winter reprieve

Blue sky has been a relatively frequent visitor to these parts recently, which is unusual given the season. This has enabled riding in a bright and clear sky, despite temperatures only just around 5 degrees C above freezing. Winter riding in the sun can be a deeply, deeply satisfying outing; but a recent ride, when the sun was hiding behind the clouds like a chastised child, was a reminder that it can also be profoundly cold and miserable.

Three factors have made riding at this time of year bearable for your author. The first has been an absolutely essential winter riding cap from Gal Studio. The Flemish model is all wool, has generous but not overdone ear protection, and looks stylish to boot. You could wear it on the Schelde canal bike path in Belgium, or anywhere, really. Essential.

The second has been that the problem of rear flat tyres (why is it never the front?) seems to have been solved. The solution is a something-or-other model from Specialized that features their ‘flak jacket’ protection. This is basically a tread that is rubber several millimetres thick stuck on top of the tyre casing. You probably couldn’t hammer a nail through it. The tyre also has a bizarre minimum inflation recommendation of 115 psi, but it’ll run just fine closer to 100, which should rule out pinch flats. It has a wire bead, probably weighs twice as much as a Michelin Pro 3, and it cost $25. But who wants to be pulling off two pairs of gloves and struggling with frozen tools for the sake of a few grams.

The third has been a new variation on your author’s interest in tipples & tonics. It being too cold to get thirsty on a ride, and warm drinks never staying warm in the bottle for long, recourse has been to the mid-ride coffee stop to warm up. Now, your author drinks two kinds of coffee: single espressos or double espressos. Everything else is just a variation – like a macchiato, where an espresso is ‘marked’ with foam. The new variation is the caffè corretto, where the espresso is ‘corrected’ with the addition of an appropriate liqueur (brandy or Drambuie is a good choice). Given the state of the North American café, ordering such a drink is not possible here, but this can be, er, corrected by carrying a hip flask with the required tonic in a jersey pocket. Pulling out a flask, along with a Moleskine notebook or a small George Orwell novel, also adds a touch of savoir-faire (or dangerous eccentricity, take your pick) to any café visit.

The drawbacks

It has not been all bucolic winter riding, however. A tricky schedule has meant last minute, truncated rides, often without the opportunity to organize the riding partners to help to while away the cold kilometres. A quick scan of the ride diary for 2011, as well, has revealed distances down a minimum of 25% from previous years – such is the challenge of keeping up appearances with a busy job, plans on the side, and a new addition to the family. Sometimes, getting out at all seems like a miracle.

Some recent wheel maintenance also depressingly revealed small cracks around several of the spoke holes in the rear wheel of your author’s much-treasured (and sub-1500 gram) HED Bastogne wheels. The cause is not immediately clear, but may be related to the challenges of building long-lasting and lightweight Al clinchers with minimal spoke counts and high tensions. But who can say? HED is known for their attention to customer service, even offering rebuilds at discount rates for wheels that have been damaged during crashes (not this scenario, unfortunately). It remains to be seen, however, whether they will respond at all to your author’s inquiry for advice via their website.

If repair is not possible, replacement is not an option (try adding daycare costs to your budget – yikes!), so there seems to be two ways forward. First, ride the wheels until there is some sort of failure. The cracks are very small, and may not get any larger. There may be much life left in the rear wheel yet. Or, second, keep the wheels for ‘hillclimb TTs’ and baby them for as long as possible, and ride one’s winter wheels on the race bike instead. Decisions.

A festive break

Stop! Have you taken the de Vlaeminck test yet? Good. Onward. This will be the last post on this blog for 2011. Thanks to all those who took the time to read the articles presented here, and extra thanks to those who gave feedback. To the many, many folks who spammed the comments section (always on the same post, strangely), my apologies for not replying to you all individually, or taking you up on the (surely) excellent product offers that you were advertising. Perhaps next year.

In a previous post, your author foreshadowed some upcoming posts on the meaning of cycling. So far, there has been ‘Sport as spectacle’ as well as numerous recent interludes on diverse topics, all of which you have hopefully enjoyed. To paraphrase the writer and critic John Updike, the problem with blogging is that it is “almost impossible… to avoid the tone of being wonderfully right.” It is a problem, indeed! One can therefore hope, dear reader, that you have found the opinions presented here to be thought provoking. Your author bears no riders any ill will, no matter their riding choices (okay, with the possible exception of anyone who sits on your wheel in races and yells “pull through” –  if you’ve breath left in your lungs, pull through yourself…). Cycling is a big enough tent for everyone. But that still doesn’t mean we can’t have – often quite strong – opinions and we should hear them out.

Looking ahead, 2012 presents some uncertainties for this blog, as a fresh year always does. There are a number of posts in the ‘meaning of cycling’ series still to complete: the anti-hero, Mont Ventoux and memory, and the sociology of the peloton. One hopes to be able to complete those in short order in the New Year. Subsequently, your author would like to return to a series of posts on the essence of le grimpeur – climbing. There has been an absence of focused articles on said topic here recently, so there should be some correctives offered. Finally, having discussed the decline of Italian cycling, there is going to be some effort on your author’s part to better understand Italian cycling. Despite having one ostensibly Italian-named bike (Marinoni, although it’s really a Quebec bike), your author has to profess having little real understanding of Italian cycling; one can know its history but not its passions. Some research will be required, and the fruits – such as they are – will be presented here in due course. And, with the opening of a new, authentic Italian café (Tre Galli – Three Roosters) nearby, your author is feeling inspired. So now it’s skipping past the French creperie (“Salut! Ça va?”) to the hone of fine espresso (“Ciao!”). We’ll have to have a talk about caffè corretto…

Finally, don’t forget Rule #58 from the Velominati. Even if your budget has been blown by daycare costs or the like, support your local bike shop when you can this festive season. They’re doing more to keep cycling going in your community than you realize. Merry Christmas, Joyeux Noël and, er, Buon Natale until the New Year.

Why we love cycling: spectacle; suffering. Humanity.

On form versus function

The bicycle is a splendid thing. Or so says Bartolomeo Aymo in Ernest Hemingway’s book, A Farewell to Arms (Hemingway based his character on the real-life Italian racer, see more here). Many have expressed similar sentiments about the wonders of the bicycle. Indeed, contemporary writer Graeme Fife has a book-long paean to the bicycle entitled, The Beautiful Machine. Fife reflects early in the book on the qualities of the bicycle, even if a particular bike is less than a paragon of high-performance. “[The bicycle] has imbued me with a pleasure that was, is and, I trust, ever will be, as firm as the treads of that first very far from beautiful machine…”

What is it about the bicycle (and in this entire post I’m referring to the road ‘racing’ model) in particular that captivates us so? There is the liberation that it can provide, but there is also something about its appearance – its form – than can also captivate us: the beauty, yet simplicity, of its design; the elegant way that its tubing flows and intersects, the curve of the handlebars; its seemingly timeless mechanical components, not radically different from a model 100 years its junior. In choosing a bicycle, good design is highly valued – hence the attention to form as well as function of everything from the frame to the wheels to the cranks to the bars and to the saddle.

Bob Roll calls the Tour de France the “race of the common people” but also notes that we understand that “no person will ever go faster, more beautifully on a bicycle than in the Tour de France.” So, as amateur roadies ourselves, we look to the professional peloton for our inspiration, so that we perhaps might in some small way go as beautifully on a bike as they. But there is a danger in this approach. For the professional rider, their bike is a tool. It is the primary tool of their profession. In that way, it also has a specific function – to go as fast as possible.

As amateurs, we also value speed. But speed is not important for our livelihood (unless we are working our way up the ranks). For us, the bicycle is a tool of liberation, of self-realization and discovery, of camaraderie. And because we think that the bicycle is a beautiful thing, we often value form more highly than function. Going as fast as is technologically possible is not always our highest priority.


This attention to form is what often sets roadies apart from other bicycling disciplines. The triathlete, for example, places a priority on function. A triathlon bike (or a TT bike) is not a beautiful machine. There is nothing elegant about aero bars, curved seat tubes, deep-dish or tri-spoke wheels, or the various accoutrements that flourish on tri bikes – large drink bottles with straws, and behind-the-seat portage trees that with CO2 canisters attached resemble ‘devices’ from a Frank Zappa song. There is no form, only function.

On your own bike, the value you place on form versus function can be ascertained from a quick scan over its composition (or by taking the test at the end of this post). The ideal form of the racing bicycle is one that has been stripped back to its essentials, with priority given to simplicity and tried-and-true design and components that speak to us of their rich origins more than their utilitarianism. It is all about traditional materials and classic design, as opposed to drag coefficients and weight differences measured in grams. Traditionalists with this view like their accessories to be absolutely minimized and remain deeply suspicious of carbon, despite appreciating its properties. But a bicycle also has a job to do, and must be equipped to do so – it must also be functional. So there must be compromise.

This search for form is why there are debates that rage over the proper number and use of bottle cages, for example. If one is interested in form, the ideal number of cages is either zero or possibly one. A single, small bottle is the classic racing bike accessory. But sometimes more than one bottle is necessary (very long rides, hot days), so what to do? And how to carry tools and other required items?

The purest will argue that for the vast majority of rides, an absolute minimum of extras are required, particularly if you ride in mostly urban settings where food and drink are never far away (and an excellent excuse for a coffee shop stop). Tools can be easily minimized: a spare tube (the chances of getting a flat are around 5%, one might surmise, so the chances of two are just 0.25% – leave the other spare tube at home and take a few contact patches instead), levers if you need them, and a means of inflation; a multi-tool is simply a substitute for poor bike maintenance (although your author carries a very small one anyway). With three jersey pockets, all these things should go in there. If you are already carrying other items (phone, money, keys, a small novel, notebook, hip flask), consider a second bottle cage on your bike with a container – always fashioned from two old bidons – to hold them, or a minimally-sized bag or roll-up under your saddle. A so-called Bento Box, or a large saddle bag, are surely signs that function is being valued over form.

If you have eschewed power meters and cadence monitors and GPS computers from your bike, then you are also valuing form over function. For you, these tools have little to offer in value and simply clutter the clean lines of your bike. Of what importance is one’s power, speed or distance anyway (they’re never enough)? These devices simply produce numbers to be tabulated and crunched and analyzed but tell us little about our riding experience and give little succor to our mediocrity.

Electronic shifting

The development of electronic shifting is the epitome of function over form. The bicycle’s origins are from the mechanical era; it operates by a series of cables, chains, sprockets, cogs, pulley and levers. Engineers endlessly tinker and refine these moving parts but the whole operation of the machine remains a mechanical one. And it all works remarkably well. Such is the bicycle.

Electronic shifting was designed by Shimano not to overcome an inherent limitation in mechanical shifting but because they could. It exists at the far end of the functionality scale, extending that scale because there was never a shifting ‘issue’ to resolve to begin with. It might seem curious, therefore, that the readers of Cycling News rated it as the “best new product” (although choosing from a select list). The excellent review by Jered Gruber of the new Ultegra Di2 gets it right; small flaws in mechanical shifting are now only brought into relief by the remarkable efficiency of electronic shifting.

But why can’t electronic shifting be both form and function? Indeed, if electronic shifting is the Bicycle 2.0 then we can likely expect some elegant products, the new Campagnolo brake hoods giving an iPhone-esque thrill of impeccable design perhaps. If you are of this view, you may be in the thrall of progress itself with an Enlightenment faith in science and technology to make life (in this case, cycling) a never-ending series of advancements and improvements. There will be no end point to the stiffness, lightness, and smoothness that can be achieved in the cycling world. And by simply being better, these products have a natural beauty all to themselves. As visitors to the 1939 World Fair in New York were advised: “We will welcome the new, test it thoroughly, and accept it joyously, in truly scientific fashion.”

On philosophy

The philosopher Bertrand Russell once wrote that philosophy occupied the space between religion and science. If form versus function were a religious question, we would simply resolve the debate by recourse to a higher authority. In this case, our bikes would be restricted to anything that Eddy Merckx rode (or perhaps built – an interesting doctrinal issue); or there might be a competing faith: anything built by Tullio Campagnolo and his successors.

If it were a science, we would need to be objective, in which case the debate would never be resolved. For in the form versus function discussion, our only recourse is to the subjective, to our own hard-and-fast opinions and points of view, where we vociferously argue the relative merits of the carbon versus the forged crank, 10 speed versus 11 speed, aluminum versus carbon rims (and exactly how deep they should be). We would surrender, as philosopher David Hume suggested, not to reason (and science) but to our passions. And despite our passions, we might be stuck in a kind of relativism that early Greek philosophers like Protagoras argued: if there is no objective reality, just things that we individually perceive, and perceive differently, then all of us are always right.

So where does that leave us? With our treasured bicycles, but differing over just exactly where we strike the balance between form and function (and exactly what those terms mean). Still, as committed but decidedly amateur riders, in looking for guidance we might take inspiration from the recently-deceased Brazilian soccer legend Socrates (yes, named after the philosopher of the same name), who said, in describing the game: “Beauty comes first. Victory is secondary. What matters is joy.” As such, we can pay homage to the rich heritage of cycling with our attention to the form of the bicycle, the intrinsic qualities and simplicity of the machine that make it a splendid and indeed joyous thing. It is in this way that we define ourselves as roadies.

The de Vlaeminck test

The above picture, taken from Pez Cycling News, shows the Belgian racer Roger de Vlaeminck (RdV) adjusting his rear wheel. Before technology allowed frame builders greater precision, rear dropouts required adjuster screws to centre the wheel, a good example of how technology has benefited the bicycle – we now give perfectly aligned dropouts barely a second thought.

RdV was one of the true classics legends, his number of wins putting him in third place in the all time stakes behind Eddy Merckx and Rick van Looy. He was known for his aerodynamic riding position and impeccable bike handling skills, riding the regional cobbles “as if he were on asphalt”, according to Italian directeur sportif Franco Cribiori. As well, his training schedule was legendary. He won his first Paris-Roubaix in 1972 having ridden 1,000 kilometres in four days as part of his preparation. It was this sort of attention to his legs that gave him the record for the number of Paris-Roubaix wins that still stands today. He also cut quite the dashing figure in the 1970s, a kind of Belgian James Bond, circa Live And Let Die.

As such, RdV has been chosen by your author to lend his moniker to the form versus function test presented below. Take the test, add up your points, and see what your score means. And there’s a bonus question, too!

1. It’s all about the bike! What sort of frame do you ride? carbon aero (-5); carbon, aluminum (Al), or titanium (0); steel (+5); steel, and built before 1990 (+10).

2. Wheels? Deep dish carbon (-5); medium profile Al or carbon (0); 32h box section (+5); tubular tyres, self glued (+5).

3. Frame accessories? bottle holder behind the seat (-10); 2 bottle cages and seat bag (-5); 2 bottle cages (0); 1 bottle cage (+5).

4. Gruppo? electronic (-10); 11 speed (-5); 10 speed (0); 9 speed or less (+5); downtube shifters (+10, but you should really get an upgrade); Campagnolo anything (+5).

5. Hardware? aerobars (-5); full carbon bars, stem, post, cranks (0); anything aluminum or steel (+5); quill stem (+10).

6. Anything else? power meter or GPS (-5); wireless computer (0); original Avocet or nothing at all (+5); gear ratio chart taped to your stem (+10).

7. Add 5 points if you know the number of times that RdV won Paris-Roubaix.*

How did you score? If your result was a negative number, you are a rider who gives priority on your bike to function over form and you like to sport the latest and greatest (and maybe also believe that technology has its own appealing form). The larger that negative number, there’s a good chance you’re an aspiring pro or a triathlete.

If your score was an even zero, you have found a balance between form and function. You embrace new technology but like to nod your head to the traditional, believing that you can have too much of the latest gear on your bike. Be like Roger and go immediately for a 200+ kilometre training ride.

If your score was a positive number, you are a traditionalist who thinks that the natural form of the bike is to pay homage to the old school. The 1970s or the 1980s was your favourite race era and you might still be rocking a traditional steel frame. If you still have downtube shifters, the test was serious about it being time for an upgrade. Really.

* To save you having to check elsewhere, dear reader, RdV won Paris-Roubaix four times. He also did the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix double in 1977. He had a host of other victories, including 22 Giro stages, mostly in the early part of the season. Holding on to that great form for the whole year always seemed to be a challenge – just one stage victory at the Tour de France, for example – although he did win the Giro di Lombardia twice.