Saturday, August 31, 2013

Race Report - Everest Challenge 2013 (Stage 2)


NOTE:  This post is rated PG-13 for coarse humor and mild strong language.

Introduction

A few days ago, when my lips were still too sunburned for me to smile comfortably, I regaled you, or somebody like you, with the exploits of my bike pals and me as we tackled Stage 1 of the 2013 Everest Challenge stage race.  I’ve forgotten half of what happened during Stage 2 already so I better get to it or I’ll be reduced to the classic one-line race report, “There was a race and somebody must have won but it sure wasn’t me,” which could be used for just about any athletic endeavor, come to think of it.

Pre-race

I slept pretty well until about 2:00 a.m.  Anybody with such a daunting race ahead of him, and one just as daunting already behind him, could be forgiven for having night terrors.  But I didn’t have night terrors—I had night bowels.  I suppose we should all be grateful that our bowels shut down and night … when they do.  But to whom much has been fed, much is to be expected.  I was up again around 4 a.m. for another round, and then somebody’s smartphone alarm—something between a purr and a growl—went off at 4:45 and we were all up and about with our pre-race preparations, which consisted mainly of groaning, committing brazen acts of flatulence, and making sophomoric jokes of the very highest (and lowest) order.


Halfway through my bowl of GoLean Crunch (which I pronounce “Goal-ee-an Crunch” and pretend is the food they ate in “Star Trek”) I began to hear murmurs from below.  They were the non-verbal equivalent of “never send to know for whom the bowels move; they move for thee.”  It was time, once again.

Needless to say, with four nervous bike racers sharing a motel room, there was no chance of the toilet being free.  I puckered and squirmed and waited and finally heard the happy gurgle of the toilet flushing.  I was already on my feet when I heard a cry from the bathroom and one of the guys came staggering out, looking (as another described it later) as though he’d just witnessed a murder.  And in a sense he had:  he’d killed the toilet.  Totally overwhelmed it.  Kicked its ass, you might say.  The water level had risen to the rim and beyond, carrying his fecal offspring with it.  This couldn’t be happening!  I needed that toilet!  I needed it now!  I was already crowning!

Fortunately, Paul’s friend Rich had another room just a few doors down, or this report might move from daytime TV territory into another “Silence of the Lambs” installment.  I won’t dwell on the devastating effect this overflow had on our group other than to say that a) I plunged that bad boy myself once the maintenance guy dropped off the plunger; b) we tipped the maid very well, and c) when we got to the race I still wasn’t caught up from that giant dinner the night before.  So I had to brave the trailer-mounted San-O-Let near the start line. 

The line wasn’t too bad, but the tiny trailer’s suspension was shot and/or its tires were low, because being in there was like being in a ship during a storm, or maybe being in a NASA flight simulator.  There was nothing to hold onto and I couldn’t shake the thought that some mistake might be made and the trailer driven off toward some far-flung rest stop with me still in there.

Stage 2 – 73 miles, 14,030 feet of climbing

During the race, I had seven bottles of Cytomax, one bottle of water, one bottle of Heed, one foil pouch of Capri-Sun, half a banana, and five gels.  I thought of the Capri-Sun as a Capri-Sonne; I first became aware of this beverage in 1981 because they sponsored a pro cycling team in Europe that rode kickass Koga-Miyata bicycles.  (That was, incidentally, the first year Capri-Sun was sold in the U.S., and the year I got my first Miyata.)  During the race, the prospect of a) a drink associated with a cool pro team, b) a drink that wasn’t Cytomax or Gatorade or Heed, and c) a drink that might actually be cold, was thrilling to contemplate.  This was at a brutal part of the race when the temperature was 96 degrees and … wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.


Imagine this.  It’s the summit of the first climb, to Glacier Lodge, and I’ve crested it with the leaders!  In fact, as they slow to take water bottles, I cruise right past to take the lead.  As we begin the blazing descent, I look back and yell, “OKAY DUDES!  ARE YOU READY TO SHRED THIS GNAR’?!

Now forget that whole vignette because it’s absurd.  Of course that’s not what happened.  In reality I hung with the leaders only until a good number of riders had fallen off, and then I backed off my pace, hoping not to waste all my energy early and then utterly crack on the final climb as I had the previous two years.  I think seven or eight guys dropped me.  I counted two of them whom I’d beaten the day before, when I’d placed sixth, so I figured if I didn’t see them again, I’d slip down in the overall standings.  My hope, of course, is that they were foolishly going out too hard and would pay later.

On the second climb, Waucoba Canyon, I was totally alone, and it started to get hot.  Traditionally it hasn’t been such a bad climb, except that last year they lengthened it (for complicated reasons you don’t care about).  Look, and zoom in:  Waucoba is almost as high as the first climb now (original course is on the left):


I kept my pace ridiculously mellow, my heart rate in the 130s.  It was just a slog.  It was the bike racing equivalent of Traffic School, except more boring.  I’ll tell you the highlight:  I was pedaling along, the air dead still, not a rider in sight, even my breathing so quiet the whole world around me was one huge hush, and then this giant and very loudly buzzing fly, probably a horsefly, flew by, from my left side past my face before flying off to the right, and I got a pitch-perfect example of the Doppler effect.  It was as perfect as an animated short showcasing the THX sound system before a Pixar movie.  And then it was over and things got boring again.

The third pass, to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, has been accurately described as a ░░░░.  That’s right, a word I can’t even put in this blog.  The climb starts at just under 4,000 feet and finishes at over 10,000 feet (with a demoralizing little screw-you descent along the way).  It’s always hottest at the lower sections, where there’s usually a bit of tailwind.  It’s a sauna, in short.  This is the place where you know whether or not you’ve saved enough:  if you start crying, you’ve squandered your strength too early.  I felt okay and only wished it didn’t go on so long.  Sometimes I’d see somebody up in the distance and, over a period of five or ten minutes, overtake him.  Sometimes somebody would pass me, and ride away just as gradually.  It was like one of those car race video games, except in super-slo-mo.  (I could be blasé about any rider passing me whose bib number didn’t start with a 4—that is, any rider who wasn’t in my category.)  It was along this section I got the Capri-Sun.  Somebody had brought it specially for his son, but the son rejected it, the little ingrate, so:  my gain.  Dang it was good.

So, did you notice that just now?  How I started the tale of this race by telling about the Capri-Sun, and then backed up and started the story from the beginning, and then caught up to the Capri-Sun bit again?  That’s a very sophisticated literary technique called in medias res and it’s generally considered a privilege of the élite to get to enjoy such masterfully constructed narratives.  I’d like to thank my mom and dad for paying for a good bit of the English degree that makes such things possible.

I had some trouble with allergies and blew some giant snot comets out my nose.  Twice they refused to detach, and flew out behind me like some grotesque narrow scarf, and I had to pinch them off with my forefinger and thumb and fling them away.  I pretended I was finally expelling the tapeworms that I (and others) have long suspected are living in my stomach.

I just kept pacing myself, going no harder than I needed to, which meant hardly working except for the really steep sections, which were kind of a treat because I could just plow over them by digging a bit deeper.  This went on until I got to around 7,000 feet and passed a guy in my category.  I recognized him from the day before when I’d introduced myself to him.  I remembered distinctly that he was either 5th or 7th place the day before.  (Okay, I guess that’s not actually remembering it distinctly.)  It was one or the other, meaning one of us could pass up the other in the GC based on this stage.  It had taken me awhile to overtake him and I was level with him long enough to exchange looks.  Who knows what my look really said, but to my mind it was something like “Sorry about this, but sometimes a man’s gotta do what he’s gotta do.”  His look was less inscrutable; it said something like “Damn you all to hell you soulless life-ruiner.”

I pulled away only gradually, and occasionally I looked back to see where he was, and he was never very far behind.  I feared that he’d been loafing and only needed a little extra motivation to dig into his reserves.  No matter how long the climb lasted—and any EC veteran can tell you it’s seemingly endless—this guy was never far back.  He was starting to really stress me out.  I lifted my pace to where I was starting to suffer properly, and thus to doubt how long I could keep it up.  But he just stayed there like some Masters 35+ doppelgänger.  And then, horribly, he started to close in.  Suddenly my dream of “touring” the EC was over, and I was actually racing.

Oh, I did what I could, my heart rate well into the (gasp!) 140s, the memory returning of how cruel this climb could be, but there was really nothing I could do to defy fate.  Soon my opponent had teamed up with some other guy and they were trading pulls in the headwind sections.  (Yes, of course there were headwind sections.)  And finally, after maybe twenty minutes of this mutual struggle, he had me.  I was trying to figure out what to say.  “Chapeau” seemed a bit twee, but “Hey, nice job, way to dig deep” would give him too much encouragement and help seal my doom.  Of course, there was always “Damn you all to hell you soulless life-ruiner,” but that wouldn’t capture the cowardly relief I got by giving up.

But to my sudden amazement, as he pulled up alongside, I realized this wasn’t my Masters 35+ opponent at all—it was one of his teammates from another category!  Somehow, the two had traded places on the road.  I’d been chased up the mountain by a phantom rival!  I could have laughed, except that this would probably have started a coughing fit.

Now it dawned on me that I didn’t have to slow down just because I wasn’t being pursued; I was close enough to the finish to stop saving my legs.  It’s kind of like when I ran out of money in college and thought, “Could I use the Uncle John inheritance?  No, I’m saving that for college … wait, I’m in college!  I can use it!”  So I kept up the higher pace, and hung with the two guys who’d just caught me.  As we gradually neared the finish we caught a couple more guys. 

And then, in the last quarter-mile, I saw another Masters 35+ rider a ways up the road.  How cool would it be, I thought, to pass him with like fifty meters to go?  He’d be morally shattered, of course.  A real sucker-punch, after all that suffering.  Yeah, I figured, I had to do it.  Now, normally a quarter mile wouldn’t have been enough to overhaul anybody, but the last quarter mile of this race is special.  It’s over 10,000 feet elevation and you’ve got almost 170 miles of racing in your legs.  A quarter mile is a vast distance in this case, especially when the guy you’re chasing is totally blown.

So I dug deep and started completely drilling it.  I was surprised—pleasantly or not, I couldn’t say—that I could get enough air to make my legs burn.  But burn they did, and gradually I closed the gap.  I realized maybe I’d actually catch him too soon, and he’d have a chance to react, but once I was upon him this fear was stamped out because once again I’d hallucinated—this wasn’t a fellow Masters 35+, just another innocent bystander in another category.  I felt like the dog who finally caught the mailman.  But a minute later it was all over and the race was finished.

A guy I’d beaten the day before took second on the day, so I slipped to 7th in the overall.  This stage had seemed to take at least an hour less than it had the year before, but looking back it turns out I was only like four minutes faster.  And since I went so much faster on Stage 1 last year than this year, my overall GC time was slower this year.  Lesson learned:  suffering works!  Next year I’m going way harder.

For the nerds out there, here are some power and heart rate stats:

 - 259 watts at 143 bpm on the first climb (vs. 248 watts at 142 bpm last year);
 - 221 watts at 135 bpm on the second climb (vs. 220 watts at 133 bpm last year);
 - 232 watts at 136 bpm on the final climb (vs. 220 watts at 136 bpm last year).

Before you get all smug about being way stronger than I, consider that those are “dog-watts”—that is, they’re based on my rate of vertical gain and my weight (from the formula f=mgh) without considering wind resistance, etc.  A real power meter would’ve read higher.

Presently Mike arrived, and before long he started digging through his bag.  He pulled out a large shiny foil-wrapped thing that ended up being leftover pizza.  Amazingly, he had enough to share with Craig and me.  Because Mike’s initials are MC, he gets lots of ad hoc nicknames (e.g., MC Everest, MC Hammer) and through this gesture he earned the moniker “MC Genius” which seems to have stuck.  Here are some photos of us at the top.  Paul, Mike, Jamie, Lee, and Craig ... if you don’t know who these guys are, check out my Stage 1 report.





Post-race

For lunch we went to Erick Schat’s Bakkery in Bishop, a tradition we somehow didn’t follow last year.  In the report I filed two years ago I called it a Bakery but it’s actually a Bakkery, as Ian pointed out, or maybe it was Lee.  (I was tired and those British accents all meld together, especially when they’re saying non-English words like “Bakkery.”)  Lee was all excited about the pastrami sandwich until I pointed out the placard that says “Note:  our pastrami is not lean.”  Amazingly, this turned him off to it. Obviously he’s got a lot to learn about food, but give him time … he’s still young.

While we stood in line at Schat’s, Craig challenged me to a sandwich-eating race.  Over dinner the previous night I’d bragged about my Burrito World Championship victory and I guess he thought it was time for my comeuppance.  He also decided that for some reason it would be fair for him to get a head start on me and start eating as soon as he got to the table.  Well, I was delayed finding a fork for my potato salad, and moreover forget all about the race, and he beat me.  Man, was he stoked.  He gloated like he’d just won Everest.  To quote Lermontov, “I feel that one day he and I will meet on a narrow path, and one of us shall fare ill.”

Note that it was impossible to get everybody to pose for this photo.  They were all too into their food.  My pastrami sandwich was not lean, and I mean that in the best possible way.


During the drive we stopped at Bridgeport again, at a little shack where we got milkshakes and whatnot.  Look at MC Genius here, two-fisting it with a shake and curly fries:


The smoke was just as bad on the drive home.  Man, it stunk.  It all but blotted out the sun—check it out.


In the grim town of Escalon (at least, it was grim when we rolled through) Paul badly needed some dinner.  I was a bit hungry myself.  We stopped at Taco bell, a good 15 minutes before closing time, but the good-for-nothing staff had decided to close early.  We could see them in there, cleaning up.  I’m sure Paul considered driving the Intimidation Van through the glass doors at high speed, but was just too tired.  So we did a driving tour of Escalon, growing increasingly despondent as place after greasy place was closed.  A little cat was lapping water from a puddle in a parking lot and we slowed to a crawl, considering its plight.  We passed a supermarket.  “You could just stop there and buy a big bag of frozen shrimp,” I offered.  Finally we found a McDonald’s that was open.  My fries came from a totally fresh batch—the fry cook seemed pretty proud of them—but they were oddly disgusting, even to my starvation-softened palate.  Paul ate some damn thing, I don’t remember, and everybody else just kept up the post-Everest patter, words that drifted away instantly, like smoke.

MC Genius loaned me his truck to drive home.  Along the way, I noticed an ominous dashboard light:  Tailgate Open.  I could lose my bike right out the back!  That would be a disaster, of course, but as I pondered the bruised state of my respiratory system, and suppressed a coughing fit, I reflected that there would be a silver lining to such a mishap.  I’ve had enough cycling for awhile....

Postscript

It turns out that, although I was indeed 7th place in the second stage, I maintained my 6th place overall.  That does it, I’m going to race again next year!  (Actually, this was never in question.)

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Race Report - Everest Challenge 2013 (Stage 1)


NOTE:  This post is rated PG-13 for mild strong language and coarse humor.

Introduction

I decided to do something different with this year’s Everest Challenge report and turn it into a performance art piece with mimes acting it out for a group of homeless people down at the Civic Center, but I’m running low on time.  So I’m going with text and photos for the fifth year in a row.

I hope that, like me, you don’t really care who won or how.  All that chess-game-on-wheels stuff happened way up the road from where I was.  But you know what?  You can line up the guys who beat me—let’s make it a line at a buffet in a Vegas casino—and I’ll eat those motherfrockles under the table.  In fact I’ll bet you money I could destroy them in a beer chugging competition, the birdlike climber bastards!  And now that the EC is over I’m going to catch up on lost beer, believe me.

Pre-race

This year we met at Mike C’s place in Oakland because we’re born competitors and enjoy duking it out for parking there.  Paul had brought the Intimidation Van again this year and was already loading bikes on its ass-kicking roof rack when I arrived with my wife and my daughter Lindsay, who almost certainly has developed some grudging respect for me after seeing that van and grasping my association with it.  She begged to be allowed up on the roof.  She was so stoked.  Ten years from now she’ll probably be our soigneur, and by then (if Chris Horner’s example teaches us anything) we’ll all be top pro racers with giant salaries and will give her a Rolex for Christmas.


Next Ian and Craig showed up, and this new guy named Lee.  By “new” I mean not just new to our group, but freshly minted.  I think he said he was like 28.  I’m not even sure his fontanel has closed up yet.  Basically he’s like that new Death Star that was still under construction and we’re all Millenium Falcons.  He came all the way from London for the race, with no plan for getting from San Francisco to Bishop.  He mentioned his situation on some social media platform, which caught Ian’s notice.  (These Brits look out for each other.)  To sum up:  we EC veterans, when we’re not riding bikes, are all dithering with our 401(k)s and living wills, while this guy is just winging it, pointing himself blithely and vaguely at unknown distant couches … and yet he still lands a spot in the coveted Intimidation Van.  Well played!

A week ago Paul e-mailed the group recommending that everybody bring something to supplement the chocolate chip cookies his girlfriend would be baking (for the second year in a row).  I mumbled something aloud when I read this, knowing my daughter Alexa might be in earshot if the word “cookie” was involved.  That was as close as I came to issuing an edict, but on Thursday morning I was working from home, my wife gone somewhere, and Alexa and Lindsay started crashing around in the kitchen.  A couple hours, some loud disputes about chocolate chips, and three sticks of butter later we had a bunch of banana bread.  Actually, it was kind of chocolate chip cake with banana added.  Glorious. 

I thought this banana bread would make me a hero among the guys, but they’d also stepped up their game.  Craig’s kids had made like three kinds of cookies including soft ginger snaps and spicy chocolate cookies, Paul had a massive supply of chocolate chip cookies and Mike had styled us out with oatmeal cookies and auxiliary chocolate chip ones.  I just realized that the sheer number of instances of the word “cookie” in this post will draw unprecedented traffic to this blog.  Sweet.

That’s the good news.  The bad news is the terrible fire raging just west of Yosemite that required us to detour north through Sonora.  The smoke was terrible.  We stopped at a visitor’s center due to Mike’s micro-bladder and the air outside the van was really unpleasant to breathe.  The stuffy van air, filtered through our respiratory/flatulatory systems, was actually preferable.

Lunch was at J’s Place in the tiny town of Bridgeport.  The air was a bit better in Bridgeport, and the temperature quite pleasant, but the air conditioning in J’s place was jacked way up.  We all went back to the van for sweatshirts, and that’s when I realized just how fit and awesome we all were.  I’ll bet anybody with double-digit body fat would have been perfectly comfortable in there but not us elite über-athletes.  Speaking of temperature, in the endless race-planning e-mail string Mike had written, “High temps look lovely:  92 degrees in the valleys, and high 70s on the peaks.  I don’t know the conversion to Kelvin or whatever it is folks use in the UK.”  I followed up with some more advice for Lee:  “At the Everest Challenge the vertical gain isn’t measured in meters, but in shitloads.  You should calibrate your Garmin accordingly.”

My Philly cheesesteak was way better than the grey-meat, Velveeta-clad, white-spongiform-roll atrocities I’ve had in Philly, but not as good as that place in North Beach.  The fries were pretty sturdy.  Mike sort of out-ate me by supplementing his animal flesh sandwich with a salad, but I let this roll off my back.  I mean, salad?  As in, what chicks eat?  How about a nice glass of Crystal Lite while you’re at it?

I’ll get to the dinner report, but first check out this photo.  Zoom in.  See all those little white specks on this bike?  No, not some new spatter-paint bike finish; that’s ash from the fire.  I’d also like you to check out how new the tire is on this bike.  More on that later.


After checking into the motel we went for our traditional spin-the-legs ride, joined by Jamie and another guy from the UK.  I can’t remember who was forcing the pace at the front—I was sitting in as usual—but it was ridiculous.  (Craig would mention later that this was the hardest he went all weekend.)  This was on one of those grades that are common in Bishop that are much steeper than they look.  Plus, we had a headwind.  My legs felt terrible.  I finally had to go up to the front just to slow it down.  Then we stopped for a photo-op and headed back to Bishop.



We’d got to the registration early this year, and the pasta feed wasn’t really going yet.  Having the race a year early shrunk the size of the fields, and the overall operation was scaled back appropriately.  So we decided to skip the free meal and tank up at Astorga’s, the Mexican place our teammate Marybeth recommended last year.  Just about everybody ordered the Twelve, their three-item combo platter (chile relleno, enchilada, taco, rice, beans, garnish).  I got mine with a side of flour tortillas so I wouldn’t have to tinker with a fork while eating all my platter-shrapnel.  It’s much better to pack it into a burrito that I can guide into my mouth like a branch through a wood-chipper.  Oh, I just remembered that Mike got steak fajitas, because I got one of his tortillas, some of the steak, and most of his shrapnel.  Glorious.  I’d say we each ate at least 3,000 calories there, but we didn’t get any guacamole because, you know, we had to stay fit and trim for the race.

Stage 1 – 88.5 miles, 14,965 feet of climbing

We had two suites this year in the motel.  I was in the MegaSüite which had four beds, and it was a hive of pre-race jitters on Saturday morning.  There was only one bathroom, which meant the toilet was busier than a Model-T assembly line.  The Bishop water table probably still hasn’t recovered.  The bearings in the bathroom fan are probably shot. 

Breakfast was Crisp Lice, which is what I call house-brand Rice Krispies to make my kids laugh.  (If you didn’t laugh, or at least chuckle, how did you get so bitter?  You didn’t even race!)  Mike had some highfalutin home-cooked meal with quinoa and a low glycemic index.  I’d have thought he was trying to intimidate me, but we were racing different categories!

“You’re putting on deodorant?  Before a bike race!?” I heard Paul ask.  “Yes,” Lee replied.  “I have to smell nice for the ladies!”  A  moment later he added:  “Because I’m going to be riding with them!”  Laughs all around.

During the race I drank eight bottles of Cytomax, one bottle of Heed, and a bottle or two of water.  Ian was working support for us again, though he started the support role a bit later so he could ride the first mountain pass.  (I know, so selfish, right?)  Mike, an EC newcomer, had given Ian very clear but complicated instructions, I think even in writing, but somehow for the second year in a row I simply neglected to do this.  I guess I don’t learn because every time I do this race I destroy another few billion brain cells, plus the desire to race it indicates that a certain amount of memory has been repressed from the previous year.

My strategy for the race this year was a peculiar mix of fatalism and a desperate, groping embrace of my radical free will.  You see, last year I had my fastest-ever time on Stage 1, only to completely crack on Stage 2.  I was determined not to repeat this, and thus to go easier on Stage 1.  This meant willingly letting other riders go on climbs, even when I could simply choose to ride faster.  This takes a lot of discipline because it means descending solo, which is slow.  A group is so much faster because you can all slingshot off each other (really, one of the most exhilarating aspects of this sport).  The fatalism comes in when you remind yourself that the time gaps between places are pretty big, and dinking around on a downhill or stopping to get fresh bottles at the van won’t make much difference in the overall placing.

Still, that crucial moment of letting myself get dropped by the leaders, maybe 2/3 of the way of the first climb, didn’t go quite like I’d planned.  I was sitting in sixth and saw that the grade was only getting steeper.  We’d all been absolutely hammering for a good while and it was time for a gel.  I’d have liked to wait for a lull in the action but that clearly wasn’t going to happen.  The problem was, I ripped the top off the gel package too high up, and couldn’t get the bleb to break (i.e., I couldn’t get any gel out).  I thought of putting it away, but figured it would burst in my jersey pocket and soil everything.  Plus, I needed those calories.  So I tore at the plastic with my teeth, getting more and more panicked and violent, my breathing more labored, and I imagine I was thrashing my head around like a bull terrier trying to rip the bull’s nose off.  I kept catching little bits of plastic with my other hand and stuffing them into my jersey pocket to assuage my liberal guilt for expelling so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere while cycling.  Finally I got the damn thing open and the gel down my throat, but I was breathing so hard I actually kind of inhaled it, and by this point I was completely anaerobic.  I backed off my pace and moved to the side to let the rest of the pack pass me, hoping that by the time I hit the back of the group I’d be recovered enough to latch on.  (As always, we had a stiff headwind for most of this first climb.)

Well, imagine my surprise at discovering the pack was no longer there!  I’d been the last rider in this front group without even realizing it.  Of course I’d have loved to glom back on the first five guys but it was simply impossible.  I drifted back to what was left of the group (it had pretty much shattered by this point and had been a small group to begin with).  By the way, I’m not trying to imply that the gel mishap cost me the race.  My plan had always been to release myself from the race leaders on my own recognizance; this just forced the issue.  You cannot imagine the amount of grief the guys gave me when I told this little gel story.  You’d think I started out by saying, “I had the race in the bag until….”

I found a few guys to ride with until very near the first summit, when I decided I was bound to detonate if I kept it up.  So, I did the first descent solo, and in fact for most of the race I was all alone, fighting the wind.  By the way, my compact crank certainly cost me some time because I only have a 50x12 top gear, and spent a lot of time coasting when pedaling a 53x12 would have been faster.  But then, I’m kind of a grandma on the descents these days anyway, after a big crash in 2011.  I’m not going to run out and buy an 11-25 9-speed cassette (if I could even find one) because I just don’t care.  I get major points with the wife for being such a wussy descender.

Still, things went pretty well for most of the first stage.  On the second climb I was able to dial in the pace I wanted, vs. struggling to turn over my lowest gear.  I kept my heart rate around 150, my cadence around 70, and was comfortable.  Sure, I had the impulse to say “Screw this!” and start hammering, but my memory of destroying myself on the final Stage 2 climb the year before kept me in line.

I only had one moment of difficulty.  I was pedaling along into the wind on a straight section where the grade had eased off a bit, and having gotten a bottle of water from the neutral support decided to mix up some energy drink.  I had a Ziploc baggie of the mix, but when I pulled it out of my pocket I realized it had ripped.  I desperately tried to guide the powder into my bottle but the wind was blowing it everywhere, especially right into my face.  (This was Cytomax, which has such fine granules it makes baby powder seem as course as gravel by comparison.)  With one hand I held the bottle, with the other tried to increase the size of the rip in the bag, and the cap of the bottle was in my teeth, and my precious drink mix was literally slipping between my fingers.  Then I hit a bump and my bottle splashed all over my hands, making them a magnet for the drink powder which quickly formed a sticky pink candy on everything.  It was like one of those disasters at the Willy Wonka factory.

On the flat section leading toward the Paradise climb (a nasty little bonus grade on the way to the final of the three main climbs) I caught two guys who had dropped me earlier.  One of them was a pretty tough-looking dude with his arms completely covered in tattoos, and biceps so big he’d had to slice the cuffs on his jersey’s sleeves.  He was leading at the base of the Paradise climb and suddenly veered left and started swinging his head around as if looking for something.  “I keep hearing voices,” he said (soberly).  I joked that if the voices told him to do anything violent, to please ignore them.  He didn’t chuckle or anything, just kept looking around.  I took this as my cue to exercise my radical freedom and get the hell away from him.  In the process I dropped the other guy too, and was all alone again.

On the final climb I passed two fellow Masters 35+ racers who had dropped me at least three hours before.  I don’t mind admitting I enjoyed that.  And, due mainly to the smaller field, I got my best result ever in an EC stage:  sixth place.  For the nerds out there, here are some power and heart rate stats:

 - 281 watts at 155 bpm on the first climb (vs. 285 watts at 154 bpm last year);
 - 253 watts at 152 bpm on the second climb (vs. 260 watts at 153 bpm last year);
 - 233 watts at 147 bpm on the final climb (vs. 240 watts at 148 bpm last year).

Before you get all smug about being way stronger than I, consider that those are “dog-watts”—that is, they’re based on my rate of vertical gain and my weight (from the formula f=mgh) without considering wind resistance, etc.  A real power meter would’ve read higher.  Being solo for more of the first climb is surely why I put out less power than last year but at a higher average heart rate.  (No, I wasn’t fitter last year.  I’m fitter this year.)

Food was a bit more sparse at the top, though they had burgers, leftover pasta, some ad hoc soup, Coke, and granola bars.  I had something better:  my kids’ banana bread.  Man, that was good.  Jamie was already there, having placed a stellar third in the Masters 55+, and the other guys rolled in before long, one at a time according to their start times.  (Oddly, no two of us raced the same category this year; because of the August heat, Craig was doing the Clydesdales so he could start earlier.)

My legs felt fine after the race, but my gut was roiling.  I had had to resort to one bottle of the race-provided energy drink.  I’m sure it works just fine for a great many riders, but EBVC lore is full of horror stories and now I’ve lived one.  I figured a trip to the outhouse would settle everything, but I couldn’t find one.  Some joe said there was one around the other side of the parking lot, but he was probably just making me waste energy and wear down my cleats because he has a teammate in my category or something.  Fortunately, during my walk I had two of the most amazing bursts of flatulence of my life.  The second one actually lifted me off the ground I think.  After those I was golden.  Needless to say I described this to the others, and Paul and Craig have both had exactly the same experience.

Here we are maxin’ out at the top.  Note the sweat on Craig’s sleeve.  Mike’s too, for that matter.  By the way, that bike in the background of the second photo isn’t one of ours.  I assume that its owner wandered off into the woods, curled up into the fetal position, and died (which is what Mike was fantasizing about doing). 




Ian had driven the Intimidator Van to the base of the final climb, and we all rolled down there to sit around in the heat and wait for Lee to arrive.  His category started over an hour after the rest of us, but still it seemed to take forever for him to show up.  He’d kept us waiting a bit after the shake-the-legs ride too, due to his advanced hair styling regimen and other sartorial niceties long abandoned by our ageing set, so we were less than patient.  Craig even managed to recruit a replacement—a guy who would call himself Lee and fake a British accent, so we could pretend we made good in driving Lee the twenty miles or so back to the motel—but finally the real Lee showed up.  He’d ridden well, with a respectable rolling time, but had punctured twice.  He only had one tube, so he had to bum a tube off another rider, but its valve was too short, etc.  He ended up spending forty minutes battling this. 

Post-race

Remember that photo above, of the bike with the Willier-branded SRAM brake caliper and the ash, and the brand-spanking-new Continental 4000S tyre?  (It’s a tyre because it’s on a Brit’s bike; click here for details.)  Well, the quality and newness of those tires deprived me of the opportunity to play my favorite game, Blame The Victim.  Lee just had some bad luck.  The shard of glass responsible for both punctures stayed in the tire and he didn’t find it within the tire tread until we were back at the motel.  Here it is now:


The maid had neglected to replace our shampoo, but it worked out for the best because I borrowed some English shampoo from Lee that is designed specifically for men.  Not only that, but it’s a revitalizing formula, as well as a sport formula.  (If there were a doping control at EC, I’d probably have washed my hair and man-parts with mere soap, just to be on the safe side.)  Did this shampoo actually revitalize me?  Damn right it did.


Dinner was magnificent.  We went to the Upper Crust Pizza Company for the fifth year in a row.  Last year I vowed to get my own pizza for an appetizer, because it was so painful not eating more than my fair share last time.  (Ian said this restraint was also painful to watch.)  But Craig offered to split a pizza with me, and then Ian said we could all three share one if we got the XL “Giganticus” size (as Ian called it).  So we did that, and refused to share with the others.  This didn’t bother Mike or Jamie, who also ordered appetizer pizzas.  Plus our entrées came with soup or salad.  This year they didn’t have the curiously spicy cream of mushroom, but instead potato-leek that was so good I discreetly licked my bowl.  I hope nobody saw me.  Actually, I don’t even care who saw me.  And I’d do it again.


My entrée was the spaghetti Bolognese.  It was very good, though the sauce was not so rich that it would be a solid at room temperature, which is my gold standard.  Not the hugest portion either, but the pizza helped and I also inherited some steak.  This steak was very rare, which I really dug.  It awakened something primal in me, in fact, and I’m thinking of having some rare steak in the cooler during next year’s EC, just to prime me for an attack.  I don’t know who I’ll attack or why, but it’s going to be glorious.

To be continued…

You probably feel sorry for yourself because this story has been so long.  Gosh, I feel really bad.  But don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of time to rest and recover, maybe put a cool washcloth over your tired eyes and get a manicure on your mouse hand, before I get around to writing the second and final installment.  Check back, because something disastrous happened on day two that’s almost daytime talk show material.  You won’t want to miss it.


Friday, August 16, 2013

Blogger Eats Crow Over Compact Crank!


NOTE:  This post is rated PG-13 for mature themes.

Introduction

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog post called “Man vs. Compact” explaining how the relatively new, smaller bicycle chainwheels (aka chainrings) figure in the manliness equation.  If you’re not familiar with what gearing says about one’s manhood, here’s a very brief primer:  a high gear helps you go fast on the flats and downhills, while a low gear gets you up the hills—that is, it makes up for lack of brute strength.  Thus, large chainrings and small rear cogs are macho, while small chainrings and large rear cogs are embarrassing.  As I wrote in my original post, I’m aware that some males are so secure in themselves, or so ignorant, that they aren’t even beholden to this chainring/machismo link—and I pity those males.  I concluded my post by saying that “at least in this one tiny realm—compact vs. standard crank—I can hold my head up high.”

Well, you can guess the rest.  This post is about me being a hypocrite, and incurring the ruthless and well-deserved ridicule of my cycling pals.  If you’ve ever felt kind of bummed to miss out on watching the gladiatorial battles in the coliseums of Rome, you may well enjoy my friends’ barbs.  Meanwhile, if you yourself ride a compact crank, or are on the fence about giving in to one, take heart because I’ll also discuss, in nerdy mathematical terms, the tangible benefits a compact crank can offer.  (No, this isn’t actually for your edification; it’s so you can pity me all the more, for offering up a weak argument that any real man would simply dismiss as surely as he would a statement like “This pink shirt actually goes with my skin tone rather well.”)


Why’d you do it, man?!

If my bold earlier post wasn’t a setup for eating crow later, I don’t know what is.  Yes, that’s my compact crank you see above.  Here’s how it came about.  Recently, I bought a new bike frame which required a new bottom bracket, which in turn required a new crankset.  This stuff isn’t cheap.  I decided that so long as I was shelling out all this money, I wanted the new crankset to offer some material distinction over my old one (besides its basic compatibility with the new frame).  Switching to a compact did provide a functional difference.  (It’s a lot like the rationale I applied when my dining room ceiling caved in and, after having it sheetrocked, I had to have the whole room repainted even though the old paint had been perfectly good.  I went with a different color because I couldn’t bear to shell out all that dough just to get back to where things were.)

That was one of the reasons, anyway.  On top of this, my 12-27 rear gear cluster recently wore out.  I’d bought myself this cassette for my 40th birthday as a concession to ageing, and I’m lucky it lasted as long as it did.  Alas, given the brutal climbs I like to do, like South Park Drive and its even harder big brother, Lomas Cantadas, I can no longer get by in a 39x25.  And yet, because I’m cheap and thus still riding 9-speed cassettes, I can no longer find top-end Dura-Ace cassettes in 12-27.  To twist the knife even harder, I have a stockpile of Dura-Ace 12-25 cassettes just gathering dust, waiting for a fountain of youth I’ll never find.  With a compact, a 25 is once again large enough, so I’ll have plenty of Dura-Ace cassettes to last me through to my adult-diaper years.

Preemptive invective

Some twenty years ago, I went to my first-ever corporate job interview.  This was at a headhunting agency.  In those days men wore suits and women wore skirts.  The headhunter interviewing me started off by saying, “Before we begin, I want to point out this run in my nylons.  Better that we just acknowledge it now, and move on, than have it distracting us the whole time.”  I respected that, and perhaps it has influenced my behavior because I decided that, rather than have my cycling pals discover my compact crank one by one and excoriate me for it in dribs and drabs over the rest of the summer, I’d just come clean and preemptively bring the onslaught.  So I sent out a group  e-mail announcing my switch and inviting my pals’ invective.  “Those of you still rocking 39s should have no problem casting aspersions on my manhood,” I wrote, “while those of you with compacts can castigate me for my hypocrisy.  That’s just a start, of course ... I’m sure there are all kinds of angles you could come at me from.”  This they did.

My just deserts

The first response, though not vicious, was decidedly firm.  Jan wrote, “With a compact crankset, the term BigRingRiding is nothing.  NOTHING!”  He’s referring, of course, to the website “Big Ring Riding,” a celebration of the manlier side of cycling (you know, the aspect of cycling that Christopher Froome is ruining forever).  This feedback stung, because at UCSB I was the self-appointed captain of the Big Ring Club, whose main activity was riding bikes while using the little chainring as seldom as possible.  If I remember correctly, I was the one who coined the terms “good ring” and “bad ring” to describe the big and small chainrings, respectively—a usage that became ubiquitous among our members.  In a way, I’ve gotten myself kicked out of my own club.

The next response, from former UCSB and current EBVC teammate Trevor, was exactly what I deserve: 
        The compact crank is the cycling equivalent of the old man’s walker. Don’t forget the tennis balls or, instead, you might as well dangle your own off the back of your saddle, like little fuzzy dice and a St. Christopher medallion, since you’re apparently not using them anymore. Display them like the now useless withered tokens they’ve become.
        It’s brave of you Dana, to embrace defeat out in the open. I would say it’s like ripping the band-aid right off, but rather than suffering a few pulled hairs to let a healing wound breathe, you’re laying naked in your decrepitude and impotence, in your willingness to disengage from the good of cycling. The “good” ring, if you recall, is no more for you.
        It’s okay Dana, go easy big guy. Getting old and weak is tough stuff, not to mention losing your ‘nads like that. How awful. Right out in public, too. You deserve a rest and that compact should do nicely.
(As you may have guessed, Trevor still rides a 39.  In fact, he only recently went to a 25-tooth rear cog, and is working through his own shame issues over that.)

The shriveled gonad theme appeared again in Paul’s response:  “My original ‘shrinking genitals’ comment still holds true but now that it’s a reality for you (or will be soon—shrinkage times vary from rider to rider), please consider that it impacts others ... of most note, your wife.  I consulted with [my girlfriend] before I made the switch.  After buying her a bunch of expensive jewelry she caved.”

Ceely suggested corrective measures:  “I’m picturing a new episode of 'Intervention.'  Dana shows up at Cole [the coffee shop where our group rides meet]; conversation abruptly stops.  Two bouncers pull Dana off of his bike while Trevor says, ‘This is for your own good, Dana.’  Cameras zoom in on Dana while he is spouting off expletives.  A couple of mechanics pull off his compact crank while Dana sobs, saying ‘I’m sorry, I’ve let you all down!’  Mechanics put on a proper crankset, and for good measure install a 11-23 cluster on the back.  Everybody hugs, Dana is still weeping, and Dr. Phil appears and says to Dana, ‘This ain’t my first rodeo, son.  A man’s got to have manly gearing.’”

You may be surprised to know that the next comment, from Ian, stung me as much as any of the others:  “When will you be buying an electric group then?”  This is a subtle dig at my hypocrisy, as in addition to bagging on compact cranks I’ve blogged quite frankly about how stupid I think electronic shifting is.

Constructive criticism

Among the jabs were some more instructive comments.  Lucas alerted me to a blog explaining how larger chainrings provide a tangible mechanical benefit.  The blog cites  a “New Scientist” article:  “Tests by Burgess have shown that larger sprocket wheels are more efficient than smaller ones, because larger wheels reduce friction in the chain drive, which is more important than the marginal increase in weight….  In his tests, Burgess showed that doubling the sprocket size increased the efficiency of the chain drive from 98.8 per cent to 99.4 per cent.”

Of course, it’s not feasible to double the size of our chainrings and cogs, because 24-tooth small cogs and 100-tooth chainrings simply aren’t widely available.  However, that bit of arcana from Lucas led to a great photo from Muzzy:


As you can plainly see, the springs on that saddle bring to mind the tennis balls, fuzzy dice, and shrunken testicles that Trevor had mentioned.  Muzzy also offered up a real-world suggestion of getting a T.A. Cyclotourist crankset with an inner chainring so small as to be almost invisible:  “Dana, you’ll psychologically destroy your competition on the starting line of Everest Challenge with a setup like this.  They’ll look over at your  11-20 cassette and just give up before starting!”


Surprisingly, I also got some encouragement about my compact.  It came from Jamie, one of the best climbers on our club:  “You’ll love your compact, especially for the Everest Challenge.  More power, less fatigue—a winning combo.”  I appreciate the spirit of this message, but the problem is, Jamie is more than fifty-five years old.  To get this kind of advice from someone his age is the wrong kind of rite-of-passage; it’s about as gratifying to my male ego as getting a gift subscription to “Prevention” magazine.  Nothing against Jamie, of course—he could crush me on any climb, any day—but in the peculiar logic of maleness I’m far more receptive to statements like “Don’t be a wanker!” from young pups like Jan.  Note that I’m not the only guy who’s loathe to take advice from his elders; Gary wrote, “A few of the older guys I ride with up here in Santa Rosa have compacts and tell me often that I really need to get one. I just can’t do it as I’m afraid I may actually use it.”

(Trevor’s response to Jamie’s prediction:  “He’ll love it? Oh no he won’t. He might use it, but he won't love it. Not by a long shot. Because he knows the truth of it all.”  Perhaps if I were a bigger man, Trevor’s statement wouldn’t be so true.  Of course, if I were a bigger man, I’d climb even worse than I already do.)

Waxing nerdy

Some of the responses (you can see how raw a nerve this topic hit, eh?) were technical in nature.  Ken wrote, “Does the mid-compact [i.e., 36/52 instead of 34/50] create a less severe shrinkage than a full compact? Should one worry about an asymmetric shrinkage effect? And for that matter, what exactly defines the ‘compactness’? Is the deleterious effect tied to lower BCD, thus damning all users of the new Shimano DA11 cranksets (which have only one spider that handles everything from compact to cajones grandes), or is it strictly chainring tooth count?”

If “BCD” threw you, rest assured it threw me too, though only for a second.  It means bolt circle diameter, which is the characteristic of a crankset that determines how small an inner chainring you can use.  (For example, the Campagnolo cranksets that were the norm in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s peloton would take nothing smaller than a 42-tooth inner ring.)  In fact, BCD is a matter of mere trivia; all that matters in terms of machismo is the tooth count, as it alone produces your effective gearing.

Why does tooth count matter, but not BCD?  Well, because the teeth of the chainrings and rear cogs are (obviously) the same size, the tooth count is representative of their effective outer diameter.  Ultimately, the ratio of the number of teeth in front to the number of teeth in back is directly proportional to how far you’ll go with each pedal stroke.  Think of it this way:  with the bike in a given gear, if you pedaled it forward exactly one pedal revolution, measured in inches the distance traveled, and then divided by Pi, you’d get the all-important “gear inches” value.  This value is a very handy way of expressing exactly how high or low a gear is.  Fortunately, we don’t actually have to measure anything; we can calculate gear inches using the following formula:


The equation above only holds for road bikes with 700C wheels (which measure roughly 27 inches).  One benefit to the 27-tooth cog is that it makes it really easy to calculate the gear inches:  the gear inch number is simply the number of teeth on the chainwheel, because the two 27s cancel out. 


I tried to explain this to Craig on a recent ride up Mount Diablo.  He didn’t grasp it, because this was our second trip up the mountain and he was too hypoxic to process new ideas.  (I was too, but for me this was pre-digested lore that I spouted off as easily as running a macro.  [“Karma police, arrest this man, he talks in maths, he buzzes like a fridge.”])  The benefit to this chatter was that Craig’s rhythm got all screwed up so his pace slackened, which was a great relief to me. 

You may be asking, “Why do gear inches matter?” or even “Why the hell do gear inches even matter?”  Well, they’re front and center in deciding if a compact crank can offer a silver lining now that it’s destroyed my male credibility.  As it turns out, if we examine—in gear-inch terms—the overall range of gearing created by a 39/53, 12-27 setup and compare it to a 34/50, 12-25 setup, we can actually find tangible evidence that—masculinity aside—a compact actually kind of makes some sense, in a very finite revenge-of-the-nerds kind of way.

The myth of 18, 20, or 22 “speeds”

Even back when I actually had what was known as a 10-speed bike, I knew that it didn’t really have ten speeds.  This is because I come from a family of science-y types (my mom was a hospital laboratory technologist and my dad a bona-fide rocket scientist).  I understood that you shouldn’t ride with your chain in a “crossover” gear (i.e., small chainring and smallest rear cog, or large chainring and largest rear cog) because it flexes the chain sideways too much, causing it to wear out early.  So that knocks off two speeds right there.  Moreover, I understood that in terms of gear inches, certain combinations of chainring and cog produced duplicate gears.  That’s right:  with almost every gear combination, a small chainring and smallish cog ended up being exactly the same gear as the big chainring and a largish cog.

My brother Bryan, at age fourteen, was a computer whiz.  I don’t mean in the modern sense of a kid who knows how to install programs or set up a printer and is thought to be a whiz because his benighted parent somehow can’t figure out these things.  No, Bryan was a computer whiz in that he could make the pre-Apple, pre-IBM-PC computers (and teletypes) of the day do anything at all.  He programmed our dad’s HP-85 to produce gear charts plotting each of our bikes’ gear-inch profiles on a logarithmic scale.  We taped these charts to our handlebar stems, so we could always know what gear to shift into next—that is, the next highest or next lowest gear.  While our pals were guessing wildly about how to shift (and dropping us, I might add, being physically superior), we smugly had the real answers.

The silver lining of compacts:  one more speed

So, just because you have two chainrings up front and ten cogs in the back doesn’t mean you have a 20-speed bike.  You can knock off two “speeds” for the crossover gears, and another three or four for the duplicated gear-inch combinations, making your bike a 14- or 15-speed.  Now I’m going to provide my real-life examples of gearing duplication, using my 9-speed traditional and compact setups, to show why the compact offers some technical superiority.  In short:  the compact gives me 13 actual discrete useable gears, while the traditional 39/53 crankset gave me only 12.  Look:


On the left is my old 39/53 12-27 setup.  I’ve shown duplicate gear combos in red, and aligned things so you can see the overlap in gear-inch values between the two chainrings.  There are 12 useable gear combinations with this setup. 

Why not 13, you ask?  Well, let’s think about how people actually shift when they ride.  Say you’re on a hill and it’s either flattening out, or you’ve decided to accelerate over the top.  So when you’re in the little ring and you’ve gone through the first (i.e., largest) four cogs, your next move is to throw the chain into the big ring and then shift to the second-largest cog in back (so you’re in the 53x24).  This is just a slightly higher gear than you were in, which is exactly what you want.  Moreover, your next two shifts are also reasonably small increments, and easy to make—just shift again on the back, down to the 21 and then the 19.  Now say you’ve maxed out your useful cadence in the 75-inch 53x19.  The next highest gear is the 81-inch 39x13.  But are you really going to shift back to the small chainring and then from the fourth-largest cog to the second-smallest to get this gear?  Yeah, it’d be a nice gear to be in, but when you max that out you’ll have to go right back to the big ring, and back up three more cogs in the back.  Nobody would actually do this.  It’s just too much shifting (and probably most riders—myself included—never realized that was actually the next highest gear to begin with).  So in actual practice, that 39x13 is a totally wasted gear.  You’ll never use it.  With 9 cogs in the back and a double up front, you’ve really only got a 12-speed bike.

With the compact, marching through the gears from lowest to highest is a much simpler affair.  After maxing out in fifth gear (the 34x15), you throw her in the big ring and shift to the 2nd cog in back (the 23), and then (as you continue to accelerate) you just drop down in the back, one cog at a time, the whole rest of the way down the stack.  So you get 13 useable gears instead of just 12.  For those of you who are “more visual,” here is a pictorial representation of what I’m getting at:



One more thing:  with a compact, because you don’t need that (embarrassing!) 27 anymore, you get a tighter gear range in the largest cogs (21-23-25 instead of 21-24-27).  Look at that chart again.  With a compact, the gear-inch difference among these cogs is only 3 to 4 inches, whereas the 39 chainring gives you larger steps:  5 to 6 inches.  The size of these steps makes a big difference when you’re in these low gears, because that’s when your cadence tends to be the lowest  as you slog up some brutal grade.  With a 39, you might be turning the 27 pretty well but not quite up for the 24, whereas with a 34, going from the 25 to the 23 is a reasonable upgrade to your effort.

Conclusion

So, do I put enough stock in all this technical arcana to want to vindicate the compact?  Am I drunk enough on my own bathwater to rescind my earlier position and declare the compact superior?  Of course not.  The compact, whatever its practical benefits may be, is a humiliation.  It’s a bit like if you discovered somehow that your toddler would actually nap so long as he got to snuggle with a stuffed Barney.  Sure, you might resort to this, but you’d sure be a lot happier if your toddler had chosen something cooler, like a Totoro.

The Barney analogy actually fits this compact crank discussion perfectly.  The writer Adam Gopnik wrote an essay in “The New Yorker” years ago complaining about how, though he was raising his kids in Paris, the insidious purple dinosaur somehow managed to find them—and, worse, his two-year-old son Luke not only declared that he liked Barney, but upon seeing the effect this had on his father, tended to announce this pretty often, just to taunt him.  But finally Luke saw the light:
“At breakfast, Luke made an announcement.  ‘Daddy,’ he said, ‘I don’t like Barney.’
‘You don’t like Barney?’ I asked, incredulous, delighted.
‘No, I don’t like Barney.’  He paused.  ‘I like to watch Barney.’”
So:  do I like my compact?  Well, at least on the uphills, I do like riding with the compact.  But no, I don’t like the compact.  How could I?

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

From the Archives - the Panache of Italian Bicycles

Introduction

I have a new road bike. The frame is from Taiwan. This is a first for me (other than my rain/backup bike, which doesn’t count). I’ve been told, and I believe, that the Taiwanese are now the best in the world at making carbon fiber bike frames. Taiwan has come a long way … not so long ago, I wouldn’t have even settled for a Taiwanese mountain bike.


Caring where my bike came from goes back to my very first one, a Fuji I got for my ninth birthday. I loved the bike but my brothers teased me constantly about how, being Japanese, it lacked the flair and panache of their French bikes. (For details click here.) My next bike was also Japanese, a Miyata, because my parents were still buying. But at the young age of thirteen I borrowed some money from my dad and bought an English Mercian frame with all Italian components. I was absolutely besotted with it, and then tragedy struck: I crashed it into a curb and ruined it. I was still paying it off years after this. Worse, my dad wouldn’t loan me any more money, so to replace the frame I had to borrow from my brother Geoff. Oddly, Geoff would only loan me the money if I bought a Pro Miyata. So I did. Going back down to a robot-built Japanese frame really chafed, after that gorgeous hand-built Mercian. Perhaps that experience predisposed me to take extra pleasure in my first Italian bike frame, a hand-built Guerciotti, which inspired the following essay.

(A quick note on this essay: it suffers from a lack of clarity about what is real and what is made-up. Though I can’t prove this, the old Campagnolo slogan is real; perhaps some of you will remember it.)

Italian Bikes - September 18, 1990

I don’t claim to fully understand what’s going on in Kuwait right now, but I gather Iraq is getting too big for its britches. But you know who else is getting too big for its britches, at least economically? Japan. Back in the early- to mid-‘80s, the yen was really weak against our dollar, which mattered to me because it meant bike stuff was really pretty cheap. (The Italians had to lower their prices to compete, I think.) In 1985, simply because I was jaded after years of devotion to Campagnolo and could afford to, I bought a full Dura-Ace gruppo. I mean, why not, when it was only $400 mail-order? Of course, in those days, Japanese bike stuff was always considered second-rate, the bargain alternative to Italian. But now Dura-Ace is considered as good as Campy, and Japanese bikes are everywhere, even at the high end, and everything is expensive. There are no more good deals in cycling. So, after five years of Team Miyatas, I’m going back to Italian. I might as well.

The best thing about Italian frames is that they’re the only ones left that sport a large ornamental hole cut in the bottom bracket shell. Sure, the hole may jeopardize the structural integrity of the frameset, but can you say style? And check out this quote from “Bicycling” magazine:  
We could detect no structural improvement in the “cut” frame; in fact, this model flexed between .5 and .6 microns more than other frames under a load of 150,000 foot‑pounds on our Tarantula frame-stressing machine. However, our test riders all agreed that the “cut” frame “just felt faster.” Time trial times were typically 5 to 10 seconds faster over a 20 kilometer course.

The tradition-bound, mystique-rich flair of the Italian bike industry is widely respected. Consider the reverent tone of this excerpt from an article in “Bicycle Guide” about Petruccio Cycles, a tiny operation in Milan:
Everything about the shop is typically Italian. A half-full bottle of Cinzano and some bread sticks lie on the front table. A faded black-and-white poster of Alfredo Binda hangs on the cracking plaster wall, and an old grey cat (whose name we found out is, of course, Fellini) sleeps in a patch of sunlight. The frame jigs and mitering tools are old, black, and in fact barely visible under the single dangling bulb lighting the shop area. But there is one thing completely unique about this one‑man operation: the master framebuilder Giuseppe Petruccio is blind.
Even the marketing is beautifully absurd; take this actual slogan, for example: “Campagnolo Technology to Love Bicycle. Even Only on Sundays.” What does that mean? But then who really cares? A Clément tire ad features a woman, whose appearance falls halfway between Italian allure and brazen smuttiness, engaged in a tug‑of‑war over a tire with her male equivalent; oddly, her expression is blank. A well-dressed gentleman in the background looks on. It’s as though the struggle over the tire continues only because of inertia; everybody involved has mostly lost interest.


The point is, you’re not supposed to choose Italian products based on features and technology and other rational criteria. It’s more of a feeling, man. So you can do one of two things: you can be a fitness-minded sport tourist who studies product catalog spec sheets to decide what Japanese robot-built, shrink-wrapped component or accessory to buy for his peacock-pastel colored bicycle, or you can be Euro and ride a classy bike built by a starving-artist type who, thirty years ago, inadvertently settled on a frame design that seemed to work so he’s passed it on to his apprentice, or his cousin, or any of his bambinos who needed a job. The choice is yours.