Wednesday, April 7, 2021

From the Archives - Punish Me, Young Man!

Introduction

Today’s post is a story I originally wrote for Daily Peloton. (Their servers crashed a couple years ago and all their content was lost, so I’m gradually re-posting my dp articles here.) Enjoy please enjoy.

Punish Me, Young Man – October 14, 2007

On my ride today I got crushed by a guy whose bike had a front reflector. And yet, it was a glorious ride. (If that grabs your attention, read on, but if you’re looking for pro race results, you won’t find them in this story.)

I got off to a late start on my ride this morning, tired and feeling vaguely demoralized. I’d been caught in the rain on the previous day’s ride and was having that standard existential crisis of “Why do I train so much, and so hard, in October no less, when I don’t even race anymore?” So I was dragging to begin with, and then on my second climb, South Park Road, I really started to bog down. I was not feeling any of those “positive sensations” the pro racers are always talking about. And I kept seeing these squashed newts on the road.


These endangered newts are protected half the year by a road closure, but it doesn’t begin until November and I guess they got a head start on their seasonal migration because of the early rain. It was depressing: I saw like two dozen of them, smashed completely flat. Okay, this really shouldn’t have affected my morale, but that’s the kind of morning I was having. I almost turned around and went home.

Fortunately, the night before I’d watched the violent Western “3:10 to Yuma” and was still feeling the effects of second-hand testosterone on the baser part of my nature—the lizard brain that doesn’t make excuses. I decided to push on, taking the steep, long descent of Claremont Road so I could drag myself back up it. Toward the bottom I saw this guy coming up. He waved, and I gave a little nod before realizing, wait, that was a really big wave, maybe he needs some help. I sat up, looked back, and (being basically at the bottom already) turned around and rode toward him. He slowed down so I could ride up alongside him. “Hi, I’m new here and don’t know any rides,” he said.

Now, before I commit to sharing my ride with a stranger, especially if I’m grumpy, I’ll usually try to figure out what kind of rider he is. You can’t really go by how nice his bike is, at least in the Bay Area, where a newcomer to the sport will happily drop three or four grand on a bike. But you can get clues: how well does the bike fit him? Double or triple crankset? And does his gear look suspiciously new, or well used?

This guy was on a spanking new ride, an Ultegra-equipped LeMond, with not only a triple crankset but a front reflector. I think I first recognized the stigma of a front reflector when I was about eleven. In all the shops I’ve worked at, that was the one reflector we always left off on new bikes, even the cheap ones. Getting the risk-averse shop management to approve this was never hard: front reflectors only serve those who ride on the wrong side of the road at night without a light.

And yet, this guy somehow didn’t seem like a novice. (I used to hear the term “Fred” applied to beginners, but one of our local heroes, Fred Rodriguez, has pretty much put that name to rest.) This guy’s position was good—he didn’t have his handlebars jacked up Mary Poppins style, which seems an epidemic among novice cyclists. And he was lean. He also had this European accent, which I couldn’t place. He was medium height, with very dark skin. His clothing looked great (but of course this is something money can buy). I asked him how long he was looking to go, and he said four hours. Four hours!

I told him I wasn’t going that long, but if he wanted I’d take him up the steepest climb in the area. I’m always trying get my friends to do this climb, called Lomas Cantadas, which gains 1,240 feet in about 2½ miles at an average grade of 11%. My friends’ responses usually range from “Yeah, right” to “I did that once and I’ll never do it again as long as I live.” How refreshing that this guy was so willing. Of course, he not only had no idea where else to ride, but didn’t know what he was getting into.

But first there was Claremont to get over. We began the climb—about 1.5 miles averaging 10%—and he started half-wheeling me right away. That can be annoying, but then I know how instinctive this is when you’re riding with someone you don’t know and want to make a good impression. But man, the harder I went, the faster he went, without ever seeming to strain. “New bike?” I asked him. He told me he was borrowing it from a local shop: he’d just moved here from Austria and would be trying out for the Health Net team on Monday. Had I heard of Health Net? Uh … yeah. Wow. Suddenly I realized that, as ambassador for Bay Area cycling to a serious European racer, I was going to have to dig deep to make sure this ride wasn’t a total waste of his time.

Dang, he was strong. Had this climb gotten steeper? I’m known on my bike club for having the strange (and annoying) ability to chatter away merrily right up to my anaerobic threshold, but here I found myself gasping for breath. I asked him how old he was: twenty. I’d been thinking we were more or less the same age, but only because I always forget how damn old I am. He asked, and I admitted I’m thirty-eight. (Going on fifty, I didn’t add.) I asked what his specialty was, and he said he’s an all-rounder. Yeah, he looked it, but he could sure climb. Toward the top of Claremont, he said, “Hey, you ride good.” He paused, then continued, “For thirty-eight.”

I rested a bit descending to Orinda and along the flat section before the dreaded Lomas Cantadas. As soon as we hit the climb I felt its wrath. (At least there’s no traffic—the narrow road winds around through a sparse residential area that eventually gives way to ranchland at the summit.) Within a quarter mile I was in my lowest gear and bogging down, but the Austrian never slowed. I dug deeper and deeper, looking for some sign that he was feeling anything. No sign. I asked him if he raced pro or amateur. “Professional,” said, and quickly added, “but only on a Continental team.” He pointed at his jersey: this past season he raced for Swiag Pro Cycling Team, and for the Austrian national team. I asked if he got to ride Worlds, and he said that the federation screwed up and didn’t submit their results to the UCI, and ended up only getting to send one rider instead of three. He’d been among the original three, but wasn’t the one guy who got to go.

So here I was, riding with an honest-to-God European pro! I wished I’d had better legs, though the difference between my best and worst day probably wouldn’t have been perceptible to him. Boy did I suffer. Somewhere along the line I hit my highest heart rate of the year, 181. I asked him at one point what his was: 150. 150! When I was his age, I would hit 150 riding to class … he must have really been loafing. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the difference between a local boy and a real pro. He’s basically a different species.

On the hardest part of the climb, a couple miles in, I came completely apart. I was fricking rendered. The center could not hold. The infrastructure was crumbling. The fountains no longer worked in my plazas. Goats grazed in the shell of my capitol building. I weaved, my form was shot, my legs howled (albeit silently) like spoiled children, I wheezed like a leaf stuck in the blower. And yet, it was fun! I was taking on all comers: Man Against Man, Man Against Nature, Man Against Himself. I way dying, yes, but I had that wimp in my brain up against the turnbuckles at last. Oh yeah? Feeling lousy? Feeling weak and worthless? Well, let’s head out with this guy, lets offer him up my skinny legs to snap like twigs, let’s let my male ego trounce the rational mind once and for all, let’s see just how low I can go, how much pain I can pile on. I doubted the pro even noticed what I was going through, as he always stayed half a bike length ahead.

Ages ago, when my brother Geoff was an up-and-coming eighteen-year-old racer, he often rode with a thirty-something ex-racer named Bob, a crusty old veteran who’d been pretty good in his day. One day, as they duked it out on an epic Colorado climb, Geoff tried to keep a poker-face despite terrible, terrible suffering. Finally, he sneaked a glance at his opponent. Bob turned to him, grinned, and said, “Punish me, young man!” Ever since I heard that story, I’ve longed to use that line, and this here was almost the perfect opportunity. But the Austrian pro’s English wasn’t perfect, and I’d hate for the language barrier to distort the joke into something embarrassing. I was sure thinking it, though.

My motor control gone, I fumbled and dropped my water bottle. “Oh, I’ll get it,” the pro said. Normally I’d have tried to impress him by circling back and snatching it up without stopping, but I was in no condition to do it, and welcomed a brief respite. Besides, I wanted to see how long it took him to catch back up. He took his time circling back, stopped, stashed the bottle in his jersey pocket, and then smoothly but unhurriedly cruised back up as I kept myself redlined. I was reminded of the time I watched piranhas hunting goldfish in an aquarium: they’re so much faster than their prey, they simply don’t have to hurry. “No rush, I’ll take out the fish whenever I feel like it … okay—now.”

Finally the awful, beautiful climb was over, and we cruised the rest of my ride (he still had two and a half hours to go), chatting. He told me his name, Robel Tedros, and I figured out how to remember the name of his team, Swiag (“I will get lots of swag”). I gave him the URL of the bike club I’m on, and he said he might look me up. He described his plan: if his audition with Health Net goes well and he gets a good offer, he’ll race in the U.S.; otherwise he’ll move to Italy and race there. (I’m not sure why he’s leaving Austria, though he did mention the weather is lousy there.) I described some other roads he could check out, wished him luck on Monday, and we parted ways. I can’t imagine he won’t shred the Health Net boys, but who am I to say?

When I got home I googled his name and found him all over the race results websites, lots of top twenties. His profile on his team’s website, roughly translated by my browser (I don’t speak a word of German), reads thus: “Successes: winner total valuation of the UNIQA junior Trophy 2006, 6 victories in the junior class 2006, 6 further Top three placements in the junior class 2006, Viennese master in the junior class/road 2006, summoning into the Austrian junior national team 2006, 1 victory in the junior class 2005, 3 further Top three placements in the junior class 2005. Qualities: very good mountain driver, good individual time driver, good Sprinter, very good Allrounder, my nerve strength, openness, tolerance, loyalty, ambition.”

[Here’s a photo of Robel from around the time I encountered him.]


So, next time you see a guy with a front reflector on his bike, don’t jump to any hasty conclusions. He might be one of those mountain drivers!

—~—~—~—~—~—~—~—~—
Email me here. For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Monday, March 29, 2021

All I Need to Know About Corporate America I Learned in Team Time Trials - Part 2

Vlog

What could be more embarrassing to my teenage daughters than my blogging? Well, vlogging is probably on the list. For that reason alone I’m providing this post in both text and video formats. If you want to laugh with me, at me, or at my kids for having such a dorky dad, click the Play button below. Otherwise, just scroll down for the text.

Introduction

This post continues my discussion of how lessons learned in cycling team time trials (TTTs) can apply to survival in corporate America. If you haven’t read my previous post, go back and start there.


Lesson 2: Pace yourself

On the face of it, pacing in a TTT is pretty straightforward: you just go flat out the whole time, right? Well, yes and no. When you’re on the front, sure—you go all out (or, more precisely, at your anaerobic threshold). But how long do you stay on the front? That’s the tricky part. If everybody’s pulls are too short, there are too many transitions, too many efforts spent latching on to the back of the line, too many opportunities for tiny losses of efficiency. But pulls that are too long don’t allow enough recovery and riders will grind themselves down. There’s no pre-established pattern, such as everybody leading for 20 seconds. It’s up to each rider to decide how long to be on the front each time before dropping back.

This will vary by rider, by race, and by how the rider is feeling at any point in the TTT. The only rule is, if the team is going, say, 30 mph on a flat road, you better keep up 30 mph when you’re on the front. If your pulls are only half as long as the next guy’s, that’s fine—but don’t you dare take a slow pull. Your team will never get that time back, and what’s more you screw up the rhythm and thus the morale of the whole team. When you take the front, everything and everyone depends on you. To pace yourself accurately means being completely honest with yourself about how long you can pull, per rotation, at the group’s speed. This isn’t a one-time assessment, of course; you must always be ready to adjust the length of your pulls (because your stamina erodes, or conversely if you start poorly but begin to feel better). In short, you are on high alert the entire time (which is part of why I always found these races terrifying).

Needless to say, pacing is important in the workplace too. And yet, I have known plenty of people (over my decades in the working world) who don’t seem attuned to this. They take on too much responsibility and let their workdays drag out too long—which is like taking too long a pull. Eventually they start to get overwhelmed and, for all their workaholism, start dropping this or that ball, or turning out poor quality work—which is like taking a slow pull. Of course it’s hard to admit you took on too much, which can lead to blaming others, making excuses, and so on.

So what does pacing look like in the workplace? Sometimes it’s not always putting your hand up to lead a big project, but more often it’s pushing back a bit on your boss if you’re getting overloaded. I’m routinely surprised how few people do this—they’ll volunteer to work on something over the weekend, for example. (I would never do this; I figure once you’ve demonstrated that your personal time isn’t sacred, a boss would have to be crazy not to take advantage of that. Today’s stretch becomes tomorrow’s job description.)

Another corporate equivalent of a shorter pull is delegation. I’m talking about handing off a task not because you’re too slammed to do it, but because it might be a nice challenge for a colleague, who may appreciate the opportunity. I used to think delegation was just for managers, but it’s not. If you’ve coached a colleague a number of times and thus built up goodwill, why not offer him or her an interesting task? In my experience, a manager won’t fault you for this, as long as the work gets done.

In a TTT, if you pace yourself poorly, you could slow down the team by taking slow pulls or blowing up and going off the back, unable to contribute anymore. This can ruin the race for your whole team. When we consider what’s at stake in the workplace, the analogy falls down a bit because if you don’t pace yourself well in your job, it’s not just a project or campaign that suffers. It’s your whole career.

Lesson 3: Get help when you need it

We can’t all be “on” 100% of the time, but we’re taught not to make excuses, and to deliver on time, every time. Individual ambition drives us to just dig deeper when we’re struggling. This is fine here and there, but if it becomes a habit, it stops being sustainable. Our mental health suffers, probably our work/life balance, and the collateral damage to our personal lives can eventually become a serious distraction. (My father was a hopeless workaholic, and during his divorce, he couldn’t sleep at night and would often fall asleep on the job—the workplace equivalent of crashing out of a TTT.)

Why don’t we ask for help? Surely somebody could pitch in on a project, revise the scope, or relax a deadline, if we ask? I think the problem is often lack of humility … it’s hard to admit you’re not up to the demand. This is easier to spot in a TTT than the workplace because a rider who doesn’t ask for help is just suddenly gone. It’s a disaster and I’ve seen it too many times, usually in the first few miles of a TTT. In the photo below, we lost two guys in the first mile or so … and needless to say didn’t go on to have a great race.


What does asking for help look like? In a TTT, it’s yelling like crazy if you get gapped, or sitting out a pull if you’re feeling crappy. When you’re on the back and a teammate finishes his pull and drops back, you wait until he’s just ahead of you and tell him, “Take it.” You let a gap open for him and joins the line early. Granted, he won’t be stoked about this, as it gives him less time to recover before his next pull, but tagging him in like this is way better than slowing down the group or getting dropped, thus abruptly leaving the team without your services. I’ve had TTTs where I started badly, got some help, and then went on to fully contribute.

So how do we ask for help in our corporate jobs? That’s more complicated, of course, but it starts with humility, trust that your colleagues won’t resent you for reaching out, and a focus on team results vs. worrying about your reputation.

Lesson 4: be grateful you’re in the race

The team time trial was definitely my best event as a bike racer. I recover quickly from deep efforts so the repeated hard pulls on the front, followed by rest periods in the line, suited me perfectly. Unluckily for me, the team time trial is a somewhat rare event. I did my first one in 1982, but didn’t have another opportunity until 1985 when a TTT featured in the Red Zinger Mini Classic stage race. My next chance wasn’t until 1988 when I started collegiate racing. Happily, in college there were several of these races during each season, followed by the conference championship TTT and—since my teams qualified—the national championship. I was so grateful to ride so many of these TTTS during my college racing years, and bummed that there hasn’t been an opportunity for me since.

Meanwhile, I was blessed to be on that UC Santa Barbara team that was loaded with amazing talent. It has certainly helped shape my worldview that my greatest success in the sport came not so much from my own ability, but from having been on the right team at the right time. I can never forget how lucky I was just to get to race those TTTs when I did, so I am always grateful for the opportunities I have in my career, even if it can be difficult and frustrating trying to make the most of them.

Moreover, to even have a career in corporate America requires a lot of luck. You were born in this country; you had the educational opportunities needed to be qualified for a white collar job; and, you had enough opportunity to secure a position. This is a really big deal. There are something like 65 million Americans employed in the professional and technical workforce, and while this is about 41% of US workers, it’s only about 1.4% of the world’s adult population. Think of all the things that had to be true for you even to have your job.

Why does this matter? It’s because being talented and educated enough to get and keep a job isn’t the whole battle. You have your own contentment to deal with, and I suspect lots of corporate employees have a bloated sense of entitlement—which can make them disgruntled, or bored, or restless. This in turn can a) affect their performance such that they don’t survive the next round of layoffs, or b) cause them to job-hop too often (like hitting the Hyperspace button on their careers) because they blame their employer for a dissatisfaction that has its roots in lack of gratitude.

I’ve outlasted colleagues who spent far too much energy fretting over the golden parachutes the executives get, or the fact of younger people passing them up on the way up the ladder, or the apparent lack of advancement opportunities given to them. I find it a shame when someone lacks the humility to just knuckle down, do their job, and be happy to be there. In this country we are all pressured to pursue and gratify our individual ambitions, but I’d like to point out that where life balance is concerned, contentment isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Instead of worrying about your rise through the ranks, just be glad you’re on a team.


—~—~—~—~—~—~—~—~—
Email me here. For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Monday, March 22, 2021

All I Need to Know About Corporate America I Learned in Team Time Trials

Vlog

Ear hair. It’s becoming a real problem for me, but I don’t always get around to trimming it. Nothing motivates me to groom myself like posting a video to the Internet. For that reason (and because I’m told some people prefer watching videos to reading a lot of text), below is a vlog version of this post. Close your eyes and you’ve got a podcast. Scroll down and it’s a blog post. Enjoy please enjoy.

Introduction

I have worked for the same employer for over 25 years, and have made it through three acquisitions, a bankruptcy, and countless reorgs. Along the way I’ve had thirteen different bosses. How have I lasted this long? I joke that my spirit animal is the cockroach. But actually, I’d say my longevity is a combination of the right attitude and the right practices.

Of course it would be a stretch to say that the team time trial, a type of bicycle race, taught me how to survive in corporate America. However, as I will explain here, the same attitude and practices apply to each. The team time trial is a great metaphor.


What is a team time trial?

In road racing, the individual time trial—often called the “race of truth”—consists of each rider racing alone, against the clock  (typically sent off at 1- to 3-minute intervals). A team time trial, aka TTT, is the same thing but with teammates racing together to try to put up the best time. Crucially, it’s not the time of the first rider that’s taken. If it’s a five-person team, the third rider’s time is what counts. For nine riders, it’s the fifth or sixth. To be competitive, a team needs all (or at least most) of its riders contributing to the effort of taking turns breaking the wind for the others. They must cooperate perfectly.

Lesson 1: Work for the team

“Be a team player” is obviously a cliché. It’s something management routinely tells us, and they might even mean it, but it often doesn’t pack much punch in a culture like America’s where individualism, and individual success, are promoted so universally. So it is in sport, and in cycling in particular, with Lance Armstrong being perhaps the greatest example of the self-focused sportsman—a bully obsessed with individual domination, fearful of any personal ambition among his teammates.

The team time trial is ideally the purest antithesis of all this. A TTT team that works well together is a thing of beauty. Every rider is acutely aware of how every other rider is doing. If you’re totally on fire, you carefully channel this by increasing your output gradually, without disrupting the smooth functioning of the formation. You may take a bit longer pull, and you can even slightly increase the speed of the group while you’re on the front … but harmony is your first priority.

This is harder than it sounds. It’s almost automatic to accelerate when you start your turn at the front, because this is right after you’ve recovered in the line. But, if you’re a good team time trialist, you never forget how hard it is to latch on to the back of the group, after having slowed down to let the other riders past. This is the hardest part of a TTT because at the back, you’ve just finished your pull, aren’t yet in the slipstream, and need to accelerate slightly. If the guy on the front increases the pace at all as you’re latching on, he practically breaks your legs.

Let’s think for a moment about teamwork in corporate America. In your workplace, how much energy do you think people devote to helping their colleagues? Is much attention paid to buoying up those who are struggling? Other than managers, do people even care?

It’s amazing how many seasoned bike racers screw up the team time trial by kind of missing the “team” part. In fact, it’s often the team leaders that cause the most  problems—because their drive and talent and alpha-dog-ness is what made them leaders in the first place. Returning to my Lance Armstrong example, to watch him in a TTT was like agony for those of us who understand this event. He pulled too hard when taking the front, screwed up the rhythm, sometimes dropped his entire team, and—as came out later—would terrorize his teammates over the race radios for not going fast enough.

Not that Lance was the only team leader to do TTTs poorly. In the 1993 Tour de France, the Gatorade team was selected, in part, to support their leader, Gianni Bugno, in the TTT stage. This was supposed to be an opportunity for Bugno to take serious time out of the race favorite, Miguel Indurain, whose Banesto team was better suited to helping their leader in the mountain stages. But Bugno apparently couldn’t keep it in his pants and his team floundered in the TTT, actually losing 12 seconds to Banesto. How was this possible? Well, Indurain—though he was hands-down the strongest individual time trialist in the race—matched his team’s pace perfectly. As reported in Winning magazine, “When asked how it was that Banesto stayed more or less together while Gatorade were all over the place in the TTT, [Banesto team director] Jose Miguel Echavarri responded that ‘it was necessary that the king went with the people, rather than that the people try to follow the king.’”


(Ironically, pro cycling teams are run like companies, and yet all too often the prima donna behavior of riders like Armstrong and Bugno has been allowed, perhaps encouraged, by management … hence the revolving door of talent on US Postal, which can’t have been good for long-term team morale.)

When I was at UC Santa Barbara, our TTT was a perfect case study in selflessness. We were all completely devoted to the team’s success, despite the fact that our two best riders really didn’t get along. This didn’t affect how they rode—they unfailingly set their grievances aside and worked together flawlessly in races. Our reward for perfect teamwork was a TTT victory at the collegiate National Championships.

The next year, I’d transferred to UC Berkeley, and though on paper we had a more talented overall roster, we never got such good results. The reason, as all but one of our riders would happily explain to you passionately and at length, was our team leader. He was headstrong, self-absorbed, and a terrible team time trialist. The way he started his pulls, you’d think he was deliberately trying to saw his teammates off the back, like this event was about him showing us how dominant he was. Spiritually, a good team time trialist is almost like a Girl Scout den mother; this guy was more like Ahab—and every other living human was Moby Dick to him. (For a more complete case study of this strong, successful, but flawed individual, click here and do a page search for “Ace.”)

Okay, so how does this relate to the corporate world? Beyond being an obvious object lesson in the downside of selfishness, I think it points to the need for wider awareness than your personal ambition will give you. A TTT isn’t about you being fast; it’s about your team being fast, which requires a whole lot more than your own strong pedaling. In my experience of the workplace, revenue and earnings are the measure of victory, and maximizing them is extraordinarily complicated. Creating the right products and services, building them right, marketing and selling them effectively, and providing good support cannot be achieved by the smartest guy in the room performing brilliantly.

Yes, you need smart—but also patient, careful, and generous—people in countless rooms working together. Those who rise in the ranks by “promoting their personal brand” and striving to stand out may naturally have a hard time leading their teams toward the results that matter. A company will only thrive if it promotes those with a sensitivity to how well everyone is rowing together. A sales director at my company once joked to me, “I’m good at this stuff because I’m pretty stupid, so it’s impossible for me to overcomplicate things for my reps.” His humility, and his focus on collective results, have apparently served him well.

In all my years of bike racing, I was never the team leader. This isn’t because there’s anything wrong with me, some fundamental lack of ambition or fear of success. It’s that I’ve been lucky enough to be on teams with better riders than myself, and selflessly supporting them was the obvious and correct thing to do. Bringing my support (aka domestique’s) perspective to the TTT was a natural fit, and nice insurance against instinctively trying to show dominance and messing up the flow. Steeped in the art of looking after my team leader, I was a natural at looking after my team as we fought the wind together.

Similarly, in my work life I’ve never been the alpha dog, and my humble approach—i.e., helping others in the background vs. showing off—has worked out well. I sincerely believe it hasn’t held me back; if anything, I’ve been given all the responsibility and growth opportunities I can handle. Even if my approach isn’t the ticket to rising through the ranks at work, it does seem to help with career longevity. Maybe I’ve missed out on some promotions and the income growth that can bring, but I’ve also avoided the pitfalls of the kind of self-serving behavior that hampers the results an employer cares about. I believe there are certain risks in clawing one’s way up the corporate ladder too swiftly; whether or not I’m right, I can say that I’ve never been unemployed. For the last 26 years I’ve had continuous income, and that adds up.

I chalk all this up to my TTT mindset. Recently I had my annual review and my boss told me I “need more swagger.” I took this as a compliment.

To be continued

Dang, this has taken me more words than I expected. Tune in next week for three more (shorter) lessons gleaned from the tarmac crucible of team time trialing.


—~—~—~—~—~—~—~—~—

Email me here. For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Biased Blow-By-Blow - 2021 Paris-Nice Stage 7

Introduction

It has become harder and harder to watch bike races online for free. Meanwhile, Europe is six to nine hours ahead of the US, and getting up early is hard. Plus, it’s rare to get find interesting (i.e., snarky, honest, judgmental) commentary that can breathe life into a race. That’s why I rise before dawn to provide no-tongue-bitten blow-by-blow reports in (near) real time.

Today I cover the key stage of this year’s Paris-Nice stage race. The race concludes tomorrow, unless (as happened last year) they cancel the final stage due to the pandemic. But they probably won’t, as I’ll get into shortly.


Paris-Nice Stage 7 – Le Broc to Valdeblore la Colmiane

As I join the action, the riders are just over the … crap, I really have no idea where they are. The course profile map means nothing because the course was changed up at the last minute due to COVID concerns. They should call it the Paris-Levens because the race will not actually ever reach Nice. As detailed here, a few days ago the mayor of Nice said, “What? A bike race? In my town?! During lockdown? C’est impossible!” Why he couldn’t have said this weeks or months ago, I have no idea. But I’m good and pissed off because today’s shortened stage—which still finishes atop the Category 1 Valdeblore la Colmiane—will wrap up at about 6:00 a.m. my time. So I had to get up at 4:30 to give this blow-by-blow. You’re welcome.

So the riders are on some unnamed climb. They’ve got 34 kilometers to go. My coffee hasn’t kicked in so it took 6km for me to write that last paragraph. My brain is barely working. The announcer, some Australian guy who always sounds kind of lugubrious, and who is working solo because NBC couldn’t pony up enough money for a second commentator, was just talking about Julian Alaphilippe, who isn’t even in this race, and is now talking about how well sprinters can climb, which of course is completely untrue. So he’s making no sense which isn’t helping me get oriented.

There’s an intermediate sprint and Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-QuickStep) takes it, to pad his lead in the green jersey competition.


Bennett didn’t have to sprint very hard because he’s in a 15-man breakaway that evidently doesn’t feature any other sprinters. He kind of looked back at the others as he easily crushed them, perhaps with an annoyed look like, “Why are you even making me sprint? You know you can’t beat me. Why don’t we all agree those points are mine and skip the sprint, so as not to mess up our rhythm?” Or maybe he thought nothing of the kind, or indeed nothing at all, or something more like “Hulk kill!” because maybe that’s how sprinters’ brains work. I sure as hell wouldn’t know.

The announcer is talking about kits, as in team costumes. He’s using the word over and over again, kit kit kit, as if to deliberately annoy me since (as detailed here) I’m not fond of that term. God, he won’t shut up about it. Kit, kit, kit. I’m going to take a little break here (the coffee is kicking in) and when I get back here, he better be on to another subject!

The breakaway has a little over a minute on the main bunch, and is .pppppppppppppppppppppp87oeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee dang it, my cat is walking across the keyboard. She doesn’t understand why I’m up in what must seem to her like the middle of the night, and it’s got her all stirred up.

So anyway, it’s like a dozen guys in this break. I won’t give their names because a minute six just isn’t enough with 16 km still to go. Here’s what lies ahead … check out this great little road snaking its way up the climb.


The break is starting to fall apart … look at this UAE Team Emirates dude going off the back. It’s David de la Cruz.


Wow, Bennett has totally given up, and just pulls over and stops to let the peloton go by! Yesterday his team was working for him toward the end of the stage and he was in great position until just a few kilometers to go when he just completely detonated and went straight out the back.

It’s 15km to go and the gap to what’s left of the break is down to 47 seconds.

Here’s what’s happened in this stage race so far. In the time trial, some young French guy I’ve never heard of named Stefan Bissegger took the win, wearing a totally ridiculous helmet that is an embarrassment to this—and in fact, all—sport.


Perennial favorite Primoz Roglic (Team Jumbo-Visma) took third in the TT, putting him in striking distance of the GC lead, and right behind him was a young American, Brandon McNulty (UAE Team Emirates)—who handily beat the bizarre, probably sociopathic prima donna Rohan Dennis (Ineos Grenadiers), by the way—and moved into third overall. Alas, McNulty crashed out yesterday.

Then Roglic won stage 4, took the yellow jersey, kept it for stage 5 (which Bennett won, his second stage win), and then triumphed again in stage 6 to pad his lead. He came into this stage with 41 seconds over Max Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe), last year’s GC winner. In third is Ion Izagirre (Astana-Premier Tech) at 0:50, with Aleksander Vlasov (also Astana-Premier Tech) in fourth at 0:51. Fifth is an American, Matteo Jorgenson (Movistar Team) at 1:08.

Simon Geschke (Cofidis) attacks the field. Pretty sweet attack—he’s got a big gap right away.


I know that’s a pretty lousy photo I managed to get—I’m doing my best—but at least you can see Geschke’s beard. You might think a beard would slow a rider down due to the poor aerodynamics, but I’ve actually found through firsthand experience that a beard makes you faster. Probably my best ride at the Everest Challenge was when I was rocking a beard (though not as sweet as Geschke’s).

Up at the front, the break is down to three riders: Neilson Powless (EF Education-Nippo), Kenny Elissonde (Trek-Segafredo), and Gino Mäder (Bahrain Victorious). Note how I put Powless first, even though he’s sitting third and not really working. That’s because I’m an American, born American, and these colors don’t run!


(You can’t really see Powless in that photo but trust me, he’s there, trying to close the gap to Mäder.)

The break’s lead is going back up, now 57 seconds with just under 10km to go. They might just have a chance! Back in the field, Jumbo-Visma is setting tempo, swallowing up the human shrapnel from the breakaway.

Cofidis has been doing a lot of work for their leader, Guillame Martin (Cofidis) who launched an early and doomed sprint yesterday, and sits 1:41 down on GC. It’s kind of cute how they still have faith in him.

Geschke is riding well and scoops up a breakaway orphan.


The break is still kicking ass, now up to 1:07 ahead, with Mäder doing all the work.


This climb is very long but not that steep, only 6.2% average. It occurs to me that you, gentle reader, may or may not have a visceral sense of what 6.2% feels like. I have long felt that I did, but as I ponder this more deeply, I realize that these pro riders are essentially a different species and whatever I think of 6.2%, it would feel totally different to them, like a false flat or something.

Mäder attacks! Instantly Elissonde detonates. (He was in a doomed breakaway yesterday and is surely pretty fried from that.) Now it’s just Mäder vs. Powless.


Wow, Powless reels Mäder back pretty easily. He’s had his Wheaties today.


These dudes need to pick it up though, as their lead is down to just 49 seconds. Powless better think about doing some work.

Mäder takes the final intermediate sprint. These two riders are no real threat to the GC, about 2:30 down, so maybe Jumbo-Visma won’t chase too hard.

Mäder attacks again but it’ a tentative testing-the-waters type move.


With 5km to go, they’re at 35 seconds. Powless grimaces and suddenly, he’s off the back!


The mournful-sounding announcer is talking about Mäders awesome attack but really, Powless simply died and Mäder sped up a bit in response. His lead has gone out to 37 seconds. If Mäder pulls this off, it’ll be his first-ever World Tour victory…

Back in the peloton, Fabian Aru (Qhubeka Assos) goes off the back. He officially sucks now. Funny that he was once thought to be a Tour de France contender.

Jumbo-Visma is no longer at the front of the GC group. I don’t know who all these guys are, it’s like amateur hour. I mean, they’re all pros obviously, but no clear leadership.


Okay, I stand corrected. The rider on the front is George Bennett, riding for Jumbo-Visma as Roglic’s super-domestique. He’s rocking the New Zealand national champion’s jersey. (As discussed here the New Zealand federation rejected the original design for this jersey, in a bureaucratic dustup worthy of Flight of the Conchords.)

This race just isn’t that exciting. Maybe I’m just not awake enough. There should be stirring background music. Could I scrounge up a radio at this point? Too much work. And who still has a radio, anyway?

Bennett is still on the front, setting too high a pace to allow any GC hopefuls to attack. With Roglic so dominant in this year’s race, would it kill Jumbo-Visma to toy with the peloton a bit, just to make things more interesting? By doing a great job, Bennett is actually making the race a bit boring.


Mäder looks impressive at the front despite his terrible sunglasses.


He’s still got 38 seconds, with just under 3km to go. This dude is putting the pussy on the chain wax!

Crap, Microsoft Word has frozen! I’ve lost my report! And now Roglic starts hammering at the front! I’m stuck with Notepad and nowhere to paste screen shots! Damn Microsoft to Hell!

As I fight with my software, the race is coming to a head! I’m running to and fro like Mary Macgregor in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie during the hotel fire! If you remember that! This is the wrong kind of excitement! Mäder’s lead is coming down as the much-diminished lead group throttles up! The GC hopefuls are running out of road to take time out of Roglic!

OMG, it’s a real nail-biter! Mäder might have just enough road to keep his lead and win! But now in the group Roglic attacks again! He’s insatiable!


It’s a blistering attack and only Schachmann can respond!


OMG, it’s coming down to the wire! Roglic is absolutely flying just as Mäder bogs down! Can he hang on? This would be the biggest win of Mäder’s career, and he has ridden so well today … he’s so near the finish … could Roglic run out of road? Crap, here he comes, with Schachmann in tow!


Roglic drops Schachmann and thus has the GC pretty much in the bag, but still he keeps coming! Poor Mäder is hanging on for dear life, the finish line just a couple dozen meters away!


Roglic passes Mäder, ruthlessly and needlessly! Mäder looks back to see what’s going on, surely puzzled as to why Roglic would do such a thing, with all his GC foes clearly vanquished!


And Roglic has the stage win, as if he needed it! Look at him celebrating like this was anything but a dick move!


As they show a super-slo-mo replay of the finish, we can see Mäder make a very small gesture: he just kind of raises a hand halfway up like a non-psycho cyclist does when a car cuts him off, kind of a “what the hell” thing.


I totally get Mäder’s gesture. The cool thing for Roglic to have done would have been to be content with taking a few more seconds out of the other GC riders, and let Mäder win while making it look realistic. Roglic could have put on a face of anguish and suffering while falling just short of overtaking the young Swiss rider, who could then enjoy his victory. It would be literally a win-win. Instead this seems never to have occurred to the yellow-clad dumbass.

(You might think that’s an unrealistic scenario, and that any athlete would have instinctively taken the win if he could. Not so. I have personal experience with this: in the 1985 Red Zinger Mini Classic, it was obvious that Peter Stubenrauch was not only the best rider in the race, but by far the best sprinter, yet he routinely let me win primes so as to not be too greedy. The first time he inexplicably eased up at the line to let me take a prime, I looked over like “WTF?!” and he just grinned. And this wasn’t because we were friends, as we weren’t—yet. Now, over 35 years later, we still are. I’m guessing Mäder and Roglic won’t be friends in the year 2056.)

Roglic is being interviewed. “You have to win everything, don’t you,” the interviewer sneers. Roglic responds, “Yes, I wanted to win, because ... why not?” He trails off now because he can’t think of a single other thing to say. The announcer prods him further: “Take me through the last 100 meters. You know you’d stomped out the other GC hopefuls, and you were in a position to be gracious and elevate your profile among the fans, which must be important to you because you generally come off as some sort of robot and surely you can grasp that your career depends not just on your palmarès but on your connecting to people, which can lead to all kinds of lucrative endorsements and so forth. And yet you not only cruelly passed up Mäder, but also did this great big alpha-male victory salute as if this were the most impressive victory of your career when really it doesn’t matter much, your dominance here actually making the race look bad, like it’s unimportant, like your main rivals had  bigger ambitions and hadn’t trained specifically for it because it’s only Paris-Nice. The way you punched the sky, it was just so tone-deaf, bringing to mind the smarty-pants kid in the classroom who’s constantly putting his hand up and, when the teacher ignores him, raises it higher, higher, higher, so his shoulder is raised, half his butt is lifting off the chair, and he’s going ‘Ooh, ooh, ooh’ and can’t figure out why the teacher won’t call at him yet again. What was going through your mind, if anything, at that moment?” Roglic seems dumbfounded and finally replies, “It was really tight at the end so I was really happy to [crush out this young rider’s dream and notch another unimportant victory because obviously I’m riding the best right now but it’s only Paris-Nice and nobody so maybe I should reflect that this isn’t good for my image but I’m too stupid].”


That’s a really poor photo I’ve managed to get but you know what? Roglic doesn’t deserve better because he’s just an asshole. (Oh, by the way … that interview? I’m not sure I got it verbatim. My mind wandered a bit during Roglic’s protracted speechless interval and it’s possible I made some shit up. Okay, I totally did. But I think I stayed true to the spirit of the dialogue the interviewer would have liked to have had.)

Here is the stage result.


And here is the new GC.


Our top American, Matteo Jorgenson, slipped from fifth to tenth. Too bad. (No, I’m not a rabid patriot or anything, but my poor country has taken such a beating with COVID, it’d be nice to see us do well at something.)

Now Roglic takes the podium. I have little to say here. Haven’t we seen enough of this?


At least Mäder wins the combativity award for today. Poor guy … he really doesn’t look very happy.


Tomorrow is the final stage and though it features four Cat 2 climbs and one Cat 1, the last summit is over 30km from the end, so the GC is not likely to change much. That said, as the master strategist Roglic said in his (actual) interview, “It’s not really finished until you reach the finish line.” Damn. He’s practically a poet.

—~—~—~—~—~—~—~—~—
Email me here. For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

From the Archives - It IS About the Bike: Part 2

Introduction

Last week I ran the first half of a story I originally published in the Daily Peloton back in 2015. Well, to be more accurate I wrote it for some other magazine honoring the bicycle frame company Serotta, which was going out of business. As you shall see, my literary scruples prevented this from being a useful article to the Serotta people, which is why Daily Peloton got it. Since DP’s servers crashed a couple years back and all their content was lost, I’m serving the story up here.

Speaking of being lost, if you didn’t read the first half of this, go back here and do that now. Or not … you’ll figure out what’s going on eventually.

It Is About the Bike – Part II – January 2015

So, as I was saying last week, having wrecked my beautiful Mercian, I was getting by with an old Cinelli frameset on loan from my friend Nico. For months I’d been waiting in vain for news about getting my bent Mercian repaired. I waited and waited, and pestered and pestered Dave Whittingham, the manager of The Spoke, but to no avail. Eventually Nico wanted his Cinelli back and I still needed a bike. Thus, was time to buy a new frame but I had no money. (I’d spent it all on the Mercian and in fact still owed my dad at least $100 on it.) My brother Geoff, who had earned a fortune washing dishes at  the Flagstaff House restaurant, said he’d loan me the money for a frame if and only if I bought another Miyata. What was I to do?

I bit the bullet and bought a Pro Miyata, 57 cm, light blue with gold panels, for something like $300 (frame and fork). It looked pretty cool, but wasn’t as flashy as that Cinelli and rode just as bad. Of course I was happy to have a bike, but it was still a letdown.


At least it had proper lettering on the head tube, instead of the cheesy badge pictured above. And obviously it didn’t have any damn reflectors.



Nico worked at The Spoke, and I used to hang around with him there, chewing the fat. Not surprisingly, what we talked about was bikes. And what we talked about when we talked about bikes was The Perfect Bike. That it would be a Mercian was a given. The only question was, what color? Those frames came in like 60 different colors and if they didn’t have the color you wanted, you could send them a sample and they’d match it. We decided the ultimate Mercian would be the Colorado model (exclusive to the U.S., with Reynolds 531 tubing, racing geometry, an all-important lack of rack eyelets, and a 531 SL fork), with white pearl paint, red panels and a red head tube. But the red, we agreed, couldn’t be a candy-apple red because that was taken, being the iconic color of Colnagos like the Russian team had in the Coors Classic. So this would have to a slightly different shade: slightly on the plum or burgundy side, or a Moroccan leather red perhaps. We talked endlessly about this.


As time went on, it became increasingly obvious there would be no repair for my poor old Mercian, and eventually this became irrelevant: at fifteen, I’d outgrown my Pro Miyata and was therefore too big for the old Mercian anyway. Fortunately, at the same time I came into some money. An uncle had died three years before and left my brothers and me a grand each. My mom had wisely locked our money up in CDs earning a whopping 16%, and now, the term being up, she agreed to let me buy a new frame with some of my earnings.

So my mom drove me over to The Spoke, and I marched right up to the counter, where Dave Whittingham happened to be standing. I’d have liked to say something amazing and bold, like “I’m here to buy a new frame and I’ve got shit-stacks of money,” but of course I was too shy and polite. In fact, before I could even open my mouth, Dave said something apologetic like, “Look, I know what you’re going to ask, but I just have to tell you: Mercian can’t repair your frame. I’m sorry I got your hopes up.”

Before I could think of how to respond, he went on, “So because I feel bad, and because you’re good kid, I’m going to let you buy any frame I have in stock at wholesale.” As he said these words his glance drifted toward a row of frames hanging from the wall. Maybe he even gestured, ever so slightly, with his chin. And there, hanging right in front, was a pearl white Mercian Colorado with red panels and a red head tube, 60 cm ... just my size.

I couldn’t believe it. There it was, the frameset of my dreams. I asked Dave to take it down off the wall. The red of the panels is hard to describe. It was lustrous, deep, and unique. It was a beautiful frameset. I looked up at Dave. He had an amused expression, much like the one I’d have years later when, in the Red Light district of Amsterdam, I watched hayseeds from Oklahoma ogling the whores in the display windows.

But before making that frameset mine, I paused and reflected. I was in the catbird seat: a kid with many hundreds of dollars to spend, a sweetheart deal, and several bike brands to choose from. For the first time ever, I got to choose my frameset.

“Wait!” you might be thinking. “This Mercian, it was meant to be! You dreamed of this frame! It’s exactly what you’d already identified as the perfect bike! And clearly it had been made to order, just for you ... a leap of faith by this shop manager! Another brand?! That’s insane!”

And you’d have a point. But remember, I was a teenaged kid. All day every day my friends and I compared bike brands, watched bikes going by, drooled over bike magazines and catalogs, and debated the pros and cons of every make and model under the sun. Which was better, the Colnago Super or the Colnago Mexico? Were Olmos as good as Pogliaghis? Were Californian Masis as good as Italian Masis? Was it sacrilege for a high-end Italian Bianchi to be painted anything but Celeste #227, that milky washed-out green color? And was it even worse for a lower-end Japanese Bianchi—a totally new phenomenon in those days—to be painted Celeste #227? Who made better tubing—Reynolds or Columbus? And where did Bob Jacksons fit in this bicycle pantheon?

And keep in mind, this wasn’t just any purchase. What do teenagers blow their money on these days? Mostly hi-tech stuff, right? Playstations and smartphones? Those are guaranteed to be obsolete in a couple of years anyway. Not so with a bike, now that I was basically full-grown. I might have this bike for years and years, for thousands and thousands of miles. It could be the bike of my life. This wasn’t like buying a consumer good; it was more like buying a horse.

My friends and I loved our bikes like they were family. After a great ride, you’d lean your bike against the wall, gaze at it, and actually sigh with pleasure. I’d even go give it a little pat on the saddle. My bike meant more to me then than a modern teenager could possibly understand. A bike was freedom. My parents never worried about me, so I could ride as far as I want. My pals and I did 80 miles at a shot, day after day (having nothing better to do). Our suntans were asymmetrical from slowly climbing north to Estes Park and quickly descending back south. A friend and I capped off the summer by doing a 130-mile trek over the highest pass in North America. Only a bike could make such an adventure possible. Our bikes were our lifestyle, our identity, our everything.

So: what bike to get? The Spoke carried Olmos, but my brother Max was buying one on layaway and I couldn’t appear to be copying him. I’d never cared for Motobecanes (which all my brothers had had) and the Prolight, Motobecane’s flagship, was rumored to be flex-y. The Specialized Allez was high-end, but it wasn’t Euro. Ah, but The Spoke had Serottas. They sold lots of Serottas.

Timidly, I asked to look at one. Timid? Well, yeah. Obviously it was the Mercian that ought to be my destiny, after all. But Dave had said “any frame.” He graciously took me over to a bright metallic violet Serotta Nova in my size, built up with Campy Super Record. (Back in those days, when all good bikes were road bikes, and when the sales floor didn’t have to accommodate today’s menagerie of mountain bikes, commuting bikes, cyclocross bikes, lifestyle bikes, beach cruisers, and fixies, you wouldn’t believe the deep inventory of kickass road bikes shops could carry, especially in Boulder.)

The deck was stacked against the Serotta, of course, but I had to admit it looked great. Nico, who’d either gone to the shop with me or was there working that day, had to agree. So I took it out.

I hammered away on that bike, taking the corners hard, following the course of The Hill Criterium, one of the big Boulder races. I really put the Serotta through its paces, shoving on the pedals with everything I had. And with a strange mixture of delight and consternation, I realized this bike rode amazingly well ... in fact, possibly better than my Mercian had. It just felt so lively, so quick. I was astonished, and was overcome with the turmoil of deciding what to do.

Maybe, I reasoned, I was just comparing this to the Pro Miyata it was replacing. That Miyata was oddly back-heavy, like the rear triangle had solid tubes or something. From day one I hadn’t much liked it. So I rode back to the shop, borrowed Nico’s Mercian, gave it a good hard test ride, then switched back to the Serotta, then back to the Mercian, etc. I didn’t dare say this out loud, but if anything the Serotta rode better. Could it be the pins the Mercian was built with, that my brothers had taunted me about? No, that’s a dumb gag I just made up. That idea never crossed my mind at the time, and I didn’t kid myself that the difference was a matter of workmanship. Probably the Serotta’s Columbus SL tubeset was lighter than the Mercian’s Reynolds 531. Or maybe the Serotta’s geometry was more aggressive. Maybe it was something else about the bike (lighter wheels?), or maybe I just had a deep-seated, perverse impulse to make trouble for myself.

Quietly, I placed the Serotta back in its stand on the sales floor, next to several other Serottas much like it. And there was the Mercian, up on the counter, standing proud, propped on its bottom bracket and fork tips. And suddenly I had this strange feeling: my tension subsided as it dawned on me what a good problem this was to have. I had money, and I was about to have a new frameset, and whichever I picked, it was going to ride like a dream.

My mom was patiently waiting. I had to make up my mind. I hadn’t ordered that Mercian myself, but it had obviously been ordered according to my specifications. To reiterate, its existence was an act of faith. Teenagers are known for their pure id, but now my nascent superego actually asserted itself: I bought the Mercian. Maybe that was the first truly grown-up thing I ever did.

So did I always regret not buying the Serotta? Did I managed to love the new bike? Of course I loved it. In fact, it ended up becoming, of all the steel frames I ever owned, my second favorite. (And what was my very favorite? Well, that’s another story.)

—~—~—~—~—~—~—~—~—
Email me here. For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

From the Archives - It IS About the Bike

Introduction

Seven or eight years ago, the iconic American bicycle frame company Serotta went out of business, and there was some journalistic buzz about its legacy. A friend suggested I write a tribute based on my own love of these bikes. The problem is, I’d owned only one Serotta, and very briefly at that. I’d bought it used, and it had been a broken frame repaired by a guy who was just learning how to braze steel framesets. His novice status was emphasized when his repair failed on literally my first or second ride. So my time with the Serotta wasn’t exactly a love affair … not even a fling, really.


Could I have written about Serottas from some other perspective? Like, the reputation the brand had among my racer friends and me? Well, we did affectionately call them “Scrotums” but that wouldn’t really do for a retrospective piece. So I wrote the sprawling story that follows, which is far from the concise, zippy, fawning paean that was called for. I knew my essay was a doomed effort, almost an f-you to the editor, who didn’t even bother to formally reject it. He just ignored it, perhaps rightly so. (In the event, this eulogy would have been a misstep anyway, as Serotta is back in business.)

Not knowing what else to do with my story, I sent it to the Daily Peloton who ran it in two installments. Oddly enough, their new(-ish?) editor assumed—based on my name—that I was female. That was a bit embarrassing … look:


(I describe the lifelong indignity of having a girl’s name here.)

Anyway, since Daily Peloton’s servers crashed a few years ago and all my articles there were lost, I’m gradually reposting them on albertnet. Read on for my not-really-about-a-Serotta article.

It Is About the Bike – January 2015

It was the bicycle equivalent of sensible shoes: a Miyata 310, the second bike I ever owned. I first saw it in a catalog, upstaged by the Team Miyata and Pro Miyata that were obviously out of my league. The 912, Miyata’s entry-level race bike, was almost within my reach, which gave me pangs. But I was resigned right off to the 310, which I only dared hope I’d get for my 12th birthday. I still remember the catalog description: “Offers the looks and the handling ease of the 912, with a price to fit most budgets.” It cost $265, in 1981. Since my choices were effectively limited to the one bike my mom would pay for, it was really she who chose it. And it was just the beginning.


When I outgrew that bike I sold it, ponied up my life savings, borrowed $250 more from my dad, and bought my first real racing bike. This was my friend Nico’s Mercian. It was practically new. He’d just gotten picked up by a team that gave its riders bikes. Imagine! Mere teenagers getting free bikes! Never mind that these were used bikes (also Mercians) that the senior team had ridden the year before and handed down to the juniors; the cachet of a free bike surely overcame that. Of course, Nico’s old Mercian being the only pro-quality road bike I had the chance to get cheap, I didn’t exactly choose it, either ... no more than I had that Miyata.

The Mercian—my Mercian—was a beautiful bike, possibly the most beautiful I’ve ever owned. (That’s saying a lot: I’ve had over 20 road bikes.) The color was officially called “champagne pearl,” but it was more like—what? Ginger ale? Not exactly. It was the color of a young gazelle, but sparkly. The lettering was pure white, whiter than snow, whiter than the cleavage of a Shakespeare heroine. I loved that bike. Here’s the best photo I have of it. See the guy with the Shaversport jersey and no number? That’s Nico, in the Red Zinger Mini Classic race leader jersey, on the Mercian before I owned it. I’m two guys to his right (#62) on the blue Miyata 310 with the clamped-on water bottle cage.


I’d had the Mercian for only a couple of months when, one night out with Nico, enjoying the warm and the dark and the freedom of riding bikes, we swung into a parking lot that ended up being a lot smaller than expected. I rammed that poor bike right into a curb. I flipped over the bars and landed on grass and was unfortunately totally unhurt. I say “unfortunately” because when I saw that I’d bent my frame—so that the paint on the top tube cracked, and the downtube crinkled—I wished I was dead.

Did my brothers comfort me? Of course not. There were three of them: the twins, Geoff and Bryan (three years older than I) and Max (a year and a half older). They taunted me about my wrecked bike: “Those MUR-shans”—my brothers mispronounced it just to piss me off—“are made with pins, which puts a strain on the tubes and weakens them. The right way to hold the tubes in place is with a jig, but at the MUR-shan factory they use pins because they’re lazy. Any other frame would have handled that crash just fine.” I got so sick of hearing this explanation ... they wouldn’t shut up about it.

Looking back, I can see why my brothers gave me a hard time: it’s because I had a cooler bike than they did. Never mind that I paid for it myself. I’d earned the money through one odd job after another: working for Eco-Cycle (the curbside recycling pickup program); cleaning Laundromats; standing in front of a grocery store handing out flyers for Fiske Planetarium; blanketing the neighborhoods with flyers for Save Home Heat, a solar energy company; installing pipe insulation; timing sailboat races at the Boulder Reservoir; and helping my friend’s mom deliver newspapers. This mattered nothing to my brothers. I had the cool handmade English racing bike that they didn’t, and this was an act of insubordination.

(Would my brothers agree, today, with that last paragraph? Who cares! This is my story ... if they don’t like it they can write their own.)

Finally, to shut them up, I wrote a letter to Frank Berto, the head gearhead at Bicycling magazine. (Among bike nerds, he was something of a celebrity.) I described my size and weight, the speed of the crash, the fact that I hit the curb head-on, and so forth, and asked if the pins caused the frame failure. My brothers swiped the letter and played keep-away with it, reading snatches as they went. Of course they preferred paraphrasing what I’d written: “As I hit the curb, my slight but highly-muscled build holding the bike in a perfectly perpendicularly fashion, a grimace spreading over my face,” etc. It wasn’t enough to mock my bike. They had to mock my prose as well, by resorting to the cheap trick of pointing out absurd descriptions and grammatical errors that didn’t actually exist in my letter.

Well, they could laugh all they wanted because I knew that letter would eventually ensure my vindication. Perhaps they fantasized that I’d get some cheap form letter apologizing that due to the high volume of letters received, not all could be published, etc.

Instead, I got a letter back from Frank Berto himself! I can’t remember exactly how he put it, but his letter conveyed that of course my brothers were full of shit, and that pins are perfectly fine, and that any bike with a light tubeset like that would have bent just like mine did. As an extra bonus, the secretary at “Bicycling” added a little note saying, “Our editor was very impressed that someone your age could write so well. He said, ‘Sign that boy up!’”

Well, I really rubbed my brothers’ noses in it, which felt great. But antagonizing my brothers may have been a poor strategy long-term, as I’ll get to in a bit. The immediate problem was: I had no bike to ride. Dave Whittingham, the manager of The Spoke—the bike shop that imported Mercians into the U.S.—told me Mercian might be able to fix my frame for a couple hundred bucks. Thus began an interminable cycle of my asking him about it every time I went into the shop, which was a lot, and him responding with a hangdog look and an apology. I still can’t figure out why he kept stringing me along with false hope.

Short term, I borrowed another frame from Nico. This was a rose-colored Cinelli. I can’t remember where he got it or why he had it. Looking back, it was probably the coolest, most iconic frameset I ever possessed. It was very old school—and in fact, just plain old. The head tube logo wasn’t the winged “c” they use now, but an elaborate coat-of-arms deal. The lettering was ornate and blocky and vaguely Roman, like something engraved on the tympanum of a coliseum.


The frame was heavy: probably made of primitive Columbus straight-gauge tubing, from the days before butted tubes. This frame may have even dated from the early days when Cino Cinelli himself was in charge and his company produced only 350 frames a year. I had worshipped these bikes for years … in fact, two or three years before, I’d worn a Cinelli cycling cap 24x7. Check it out:


Alas, all the old-world class and pedigree in the world couldn’t make that Cinelli ride as well as my old Mercian. I hate to say it, but the Cinelli was sluggish.

After a few months Nico wanted his frame back and there was still no progress on the fool’s errand of getting the Mercian repaired. It was time to buy a new frame. So my brother Geoff, who had earned a fortune washing dishes at the Flagstaff House restaurant, said he’d loan me the money for a frame if and only if I bought another Miyata. What was I to do, having sassed him with the Frank Berto letter, thus putting myself at his mercy? Tune in next week for the tragicomic denouement of this tale.

—~—~—~—~—~—~—~—~—
Email me here. For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.