Sunday, April 27, 2014

Biased Blow-By-Blow - Liège-Bastogne-Liège 2014


Sure, there are other real-time online feeds of great bike races, but they’re too mainstream, too shackled by the principles of fair, balanced, non-profane, and dead-serious reporting.  This report, being filed by an unpaid blogger with strong opinions, may be just the thing for you if you’re tired of commentators holding, or biting, their tongues.

Biased Blow-By-Blow - Liège-Bastogne-Liège

So, as I join the race they've got about 65km (40 miles) to go.  There's a breakaway with a little under five minutes on the peloton.  Europcar is on the front of the peloton chasing, probably working for Thomas Voeckler, who isn't a bad rider and, more importantly, looks just a little bit like a young Robin Williams.  Look closely at his face and you'll see what I mean.

The break, of course, is doomed, and not just because it's a bunch of nobodies.  I'll name them anyway because there isn't much else to report right now. You've got Pirmin Lang, riding for IAM Cycling, which I'm pretty sure is sponsored by a dog food company here in the US.  Speaking of pets, this is sad:  my cat is so old she's reluctant to try to jump up on my lap as I sit here at the computer.  Say, that reminds me ... is Jens Voigt in this race?  Nope ... though he'd have had a better shot than Andy Schleck who, true to form, has already dropped out.  (This happened earlier; I read it in another live feed.  If you think that's cheating, consider that from a journalistic perspective it's the most professional thing I do.)

While I'm on the subject of who isn't here, Chris Froome was supposed to ride Liège-Bastogne-Liège today, but announced yesterday that he would not be riding, due to a yeast infection.  I'm kind of relieved, actually.  I had no problem with Bradley Wiggins riding Paris-Roubaix a couple weeks back, because (other than being on Team Sky) he's a slightly credible rider, and anyway he wasn't a favorite and I knew he wouldn't win (though he did ride well).  But with Froome, nothing is impossible.  His greatest talent as an athlete is how beautifully he responds to drugs.  I mean, take a guy like Vaughters.  His hematocrit was naturally high, meaning there was only so much that EPO could do for him.  But Froome went from a nobody to dominating the Tour de France without seeming to break a sweat, so I wouldn't be surprised if he could win just about any race on the calendar as long as he gets enough of whatever he's getting.  He could probably win a marathon, or a pro wrestling match, or swim across the English Channel.  And I hate to see him win, not just because he's a cheating scumbag, but because he makes the race boring by accidentally dropping everybody.

Michael Koch, the grandson of the former NYC mayor, is in the break for Cannondale.  Jacobus Venter is there, riding for MTN- Qhubeka.  Does that team make you nervous?  Well, you had Gerald Ciolek on that team winning Milan-San Remo last year, but that's not what I'm talking about.  It's "Qhubeka."  Normally when we see a "Q" that is not followed immediately by a "u," we're looking at an extremist mideastern terrorist cell.  So I think that company, which makes gluten-free construction materials, should consider a spelling modification if it's to sell better in western markets.  By the way, I've guessed at some of the details of this paragraph.  If I get around to it I'll have my fact-checker go through it.

An online correspondent, hearing of this breakaway, writes in, "I'd totally be there if I was racing!"  This isn't as outlandish as it sounds, because this correspondent is a retired pro.  I replied, "In the break? I don't think so. They'd never let a rider of your caliber get a gap."  By the way, if you e-mail me, you too can participate in this report.  (Note:  if you're reading this after the race has ended, you are too late.)

The gap is down to 2:40 so I better finish profiling these poor doomed breakaway riders.  First, a final comment on Jacobus Venter:  his given name was Jacob, but that didn't sound Roman and badass enough for him, so he applied the "-us" himself.  This is not without precedent:  the writer Tobias Wolff was originally named Toby.

Matteo Bono (Lampre-Merida) is in the break, and no, I've never heard of him either, though his name sounds familiar for the wrong reason.  Rounding out the group is Pieter Jacobs, who could buy a vowel and follow Venter's lead, riding for Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise, a team so obscure I'm pretty sure it's made-up and this is just some fan who jumped in there.

My fact-checker has alerted me to a glaring error I made earlier.  Froomestrong is not out due to a yeast infection as I'd stated.  (I thought that sounded weird.)  Turns out it's just a chest infection.  This blog regrets the error.  Also, that thing about Jacobus Venter?  Yeah, I made it up.  It's true about Tobias Wolff though.

With 45 km to go, they've hit the most famous climb, La Redoute.  Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) is doing a lot of the work.  Here's an interesting bit of trivia from last year's race:  Tony Martin got a little bit of accidental publicity when, with less than 1 km to go, the Eurosport announcer was so excited describing Dan Martin's winning attack, he called him Tony Martin.  This wouldn't be any big deal if it were Phil Liggett or Paul Sherwin, who are famous for such glitches, but I was surprised to hear it from what's-his-name.  Check out the video if you don't believe me.

Wow!  A Giant-Shimano rider has totally attacked!  He looks really good.  I think it's Warren Barguil, a young Frenchman.  He's a tall guy though, so perhaps it's one of the Dutchmen on this team.  If he makes this stick, and the right riders bridge up, everybody will know his name.  Okay, he's been joined by an Omega Pharma guy, not sure who, and a Trek guy.

The break has completely disintegrated.  I mean, the guys still exist in the material world, but they're not working together anymore other than Venter and Bono.  Bono tells his director, over the race radio, "I'm not saying we're a better  breakaway than the Beatles, but we are more of a breakaway."  No, he didn't really say that.  That was the other, lamer Bono, and of course I paraphrased.

Barguil and the other two have been caught, which is a relief because I don't have to figure out all their names.

With 40K to go, the leading duo has 1:11.  A couple other breakaway-shrapnel guys, Lang and Jacobs I think, are floating halfway between the break and the peloton.  I can't imagine what motivates these guys to keep slogging away instead of letting the peloton catch them, and then curling up into a fetal position and sucking their thumbs like I would do in that situation.

Jan Bakelants (Omega Pharma) takes a stab at attacking but is brought back pretty quickly, before I could even report on it.  He has one of the most badass names in the peloton.  Bakelants ... sounds like what you'd build some giant industrial machine out of in the 1950s in some Iron Curtain country.  (He's Belgian though.)

La Redoute is over, without all the excitement we'd been led to expect.  The Côte des Forges is next.  It's not that long and not that steep, but then these guys have got to be pretty tired after 230 km (142 miles) of racing.

A Garmin rider, with nerdy handlebars, has attacked.  He's also rocking nerdy Micky-Mouse sunglasses.  The peloton needs to catch him pronto to avoid the shame of being bested by such a clownish figure.  God, they're like the bars on my mom's Univega touring bike in the '80s.

Bakelants needs a new bike but where's his team car?  He looks as frustrated as a guy in line at the DMV.  What a shame.  Ah, he's on a new bike now, but will have to chase like a mofo.  (Quick aside:  I once used the word "mofo" at the dinner table, and my dad, a professorial type, said, with an air of delighted curiosity, "What's a mofo?")

The Garmin rider, Alex Howes, has a pretty good gap.  I am left to ruminate on his chances while my Eurosport Internet feed goes to commercials for products with silly slogans like "made from sport."  Here's an ad for Turkey ... the tourist destination, not the meat.  Odd, isn't it, that we see ads for beef, but never turkey?

So, 26 km to go and still not a major move.  Fairly big bunch with a small breakaway with a smallish gap.  Looks like ... Jerome Baugnies of Wanty-Groupe Gobert which is such a silly team name, I'm glad I'm not a radio or TV commentator because I'd burst out laughing.  And it looks like they're caught anyway.

There are two climbs to go.  The Côte de la Roche-aux-Facons is next, about 1.5 km at 8 or 9% if I heard the announcer right.  Andy Schleck attacked on this climb in 2010, the year he won this race, back when he was a bike racer instead of a great, sad human mystery.

Speaking of past winners who doped like crazy, this race has a lot of them.  I've always liked Alexandre Vinokourov--I can't help it--but he obviously doped, and won this in 2005 and 2010.  The perennial doper Alejandro Valverde won here in 2006 and 2008.  The blantantly cheating scumbag Danilo Di Luca doped his way to a victory here in 2007.  And of course we'll never forget how the enthusiastic doper Tyler Hamilton won in ths race in 2003, the only American in history to win this (or any of the monuments).  Frankly, I can’t remember the last time an American contested a major Ardennes classic.  At least in 2003 we had two Americans—Lance and Tyler—bring their A-game, and their A-pharma, to this race.  It seems these days that the American’s can’t be bothered.  (There are five Americans racing today, but all in support roles.)

A flurry of activity as the peloton hits the Côte de la Roche-aux-Facons.  Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma) is right in the mix, and of course Valverde.  Samuel Sanchez, looking weird in the red and black BMC kit (I can only ever picture him in the orange of the dearly departed Euksaltel-Euskadi team), has attacked but is kind of floating around off the front without a clear plan of action.

Only 17 km to go and no huge attacks.  The main group seems to have all the big contenders still.  Some Saxo-Tinkoff guy has attacked and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) has gone with him.  Ah, and here's a Katusha rider joining them, so Valverde and Philippe Gilbert (BMC) have bridged up, dragging the others with them.  Not sure who the Katusha guy is ... it's not race favorite Joaquim Rodriguez because he dropped out earlier.

The Tinkoff-Saxo rider was Roman Kreuziger and he's still stabbing the field occasionally.  I think I'm the first commentator to use "stab" directly, not as part of the phrase "take a stab," so if it catches on, remember you heard it (well, read it) here first.

Still an oddly large peloton with 13km to go.  With so many climbs, it's kind of remarkable more guys haven't been shed.

The Côte de Saint Nicolas is still to come, in about 5 km.  It's kind of a beast, climbing about 200 meters (656 feet), with pitches of almost 11%.  That should separate the men from the boys, or at least the lubed from the clean.  I hate to say it, but these Ardennes classics aren't as exciting for me because drugs would seem to help more here, with all the climbing.  So far as I know there isn't a syringe payload that will help you on cobblestones.  Maybe that's why the history books of this race is so sullied in comparison.

I wonder if Frank Schleck can do anything without his brother by his side?  Those two do seem awfully emo when deprived of each other's company.  Maybe they should be doing doubles tennis instead.

Mathias Frank (IAM Cycling) launches a pretty sweet attack on the climb.  He looks really solid, no sign of strain.  Oh, and here's a big attack from Daniel Moreno (Katusha).  Somebody else is with him, I can't tell who.  They've got a decent gap, considering they're near the end of this climb.

Valverde launches a move!  Gilbert chases him down instantly.  Dang it, I can't tell who it is with Moreno.  Back in the group some Europcar guy attacks. 

I don't think it's Moreno in the break.  I think it's Giampaolo Caruso.  And with him is Domenico Pozzovivo (AG2R La  Mondiale) and they've got about 12 seconds.

Nibali is hammering on the front!  Man, he's just dragging this really long peloton, all strung out in a line.  A Belkin rider has attacked and has a small gap.  It's only 2.2K to go so Caruso and Pozzovivo might just make it ... the last kilo is slightly uphill.

The gap is down to 9 seconds.  If it doesn't open back up, I think these guys may be doomed.  Speaking of doomed I have big fears that my video feed will go away in the final 300 meters.  That's happened too often to be accidental.  I tried to get a backup feed going, from Sporzo, but it wouldn't launch.

Oh, these leaders are really suffering.  There's a sluggishness about them that doesn't bode well for them.

Dan Martin is leading the chase.  Kreuzinger on his wheel.  Man, Martin must either be feeling really great, or riding really stupid, because he's doing a ton of work.

Valverde is drilling it!  Gilbert is fighting to get his wheel.  Dan Martin crashes with 300 meters to go!  Valverde is going for it, but here comes Simon Gerrans!  He's got the win!  I'd never heard of Orica Greenedge until last year but they seem to be one of the best sprinting teams now.  I'll have to see the replay of that sprint because my video was freezing a bunch at the end.  Man, that two-man break very nearly made it.  Here's the super-slo-mo:  Gerrans came right off Valverde's wheel and just blew him away.  Now I've got my cat's ass in my face as she rubs her ear on my PC monitor.  Misha, get out of here!

So Valverde was second, looks like Kwiatoski third.  They're on the podium already with other riders still out on the road, dribbling over the line in large and small clots.

The big favorite, Gilbert, just never really seemed to do anything but a) react, and b) not react.  He'll be pretty bummed with eighth place today.  Caruso hung on for fourth place, which goes to show how close that break was making it.

Gerrans is being interviewed in French, which is fairly impressive because he's Australian.  Says he was feeling lousy with 30km to go but his team helped him out.  (He doesn’t say how.  What, did they give him some big pushes?)  I didn't catch much of the interview because my wife showed up and interrupted, saying, "He's kind of cute!"  She wasn't trying to make me jealous or anything ... more like throwing a conciliatory bone because between the doping and the gaunt physiques of pro cyclists, she's not exactly a fan.

Man, gobs of ads here.  I was hoping to see a super-slo-mo of the podium celebration but I guess this coverage is over!  Yup, Eurosport is on to snooker now.  (Snooker?  Are you kidding me?)

So, pretty exciting race, though I prefer big throw-down attacks to field sprints.  I particularly enjoy watching attacks on climbs, so things are slowed down a bit and you can savor the spectacle of miserable suffering.  And as one of my online correspondents points out, Liège-Bastogne-Liège should end in groups of ones and twos.  What I'd really like to see is a video of Bernard Hinault's amazing win here back in 1980.  I should search YouTube for that....

Thanks for tuning in, if you did, and if you didn't, how on earth are you reading this?

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Selecting Bicycle Wheels - Part II


In my last post I described how teenagers of my generation—at least, the bikeful ones—chose their racing wheels.  Well, with adulthood came money, and in the early aughts, after riding the tired old gear from my youth for many years, I decided to head out of the stone age.  (I got some momentum after buying my first non-steel road frame.)  This began an era of periodically throwing a whole lot of money at high-end equipment, which means cooler wheels than you read about last week.

If you read my last post you can skip this paragraph, which is an advisory to burglars.  Look here, burglars:  if you’ve found this blog in your Internet-scouring efforts to plan your next heist, think again.  No, I don’t have an attack dog trained to rip the zipper out of a pair of jeans, but the new wheels I recently bought were only $700.  Surely my neighbors have a lot of fancy electronics that are not only easier to stuff into your bag, but easier to fence.

How to select a modern wheelset

I hope I haven’t created any expectation that I’m a connoisseur of modern bicycle wheels.  Who is, besides the pro who gets the latest & greatest stuff every year, or the (somewhat rare) extremely wealthy guy who actually rides?  Besides, being a reluctant consumer in general, I can’t possibly keep up with the state of the art in high-end anything.  I occupy a precarious position as a person who a) is always reluctant to spend money, b) tends to buy pretty high end, cool shit when he does finally cave, c) has a soft spot for technology that was recently cutting edge but is now drifting into supposed obsolescence, and c) has trouble numbering his itemized lists.

Man, it used to be easy picking out wheels:  the hubs were seldom replaced, and the rims were mostly the same basic design, so the main thing you looked at was weight.  If you were a heavy rider, you picked a heavier rim.  If you thought black looked cool, you got hard-anodized (aka “heat treated”).  If you were weird and retro, you bought wood (though nobody really did this).  If a rim didn’t end up meeting your expectations, it was no big deal; they weren’t all that expensive (i.e., were usually cheaper than your hub, and sometimes cheaper than your tire).

These days the wheel-buying decision is harder than ever.  First of all, so many wheelsets look incredibly cool.  Gawking at them online, I felt like a Midwestern hayseed at a big-city strip club.  (If you thought the photos in my last post were kind of boring, well, that’s the 1980s bike industry’s fault, not mine.)  Carbon rims are common, many of them are super deep, lots have big, bold graphics along the side, and you see spokes of various materials & orientations.  (For an examination of the debate between modern factory-built wheelsets vs. old-school lace-your-own wheels, see Appendix A below.)

Why choosing is so hard

When you start to research modern wheels, you can get lost pretty fast.  Oddly, and in defiance of one of the most hard-and-fast rules of bicycle equipment, some of the more expensive wheels are heavier than the cheaper ones, and not just because some brands are cheaper than others.  Dura-Ace C35s are like $700 more than Dura-Ace C24s, despite being almost 100 grams heavier.  Why would I pay more for heavier wheels?  Ah, they’re more aerodynamic.  Will that help me, though, given that most of my riding is in the hills, where I’m going 6 mph up the hill and then (being a grandma) using the brakes on the way back down?

And then there’s the matter of carbon vs. aluminum.  Well, if carbon is lighter, and looks cooler, and has been proven many times over to be strong enough for just about anything, why is aluminum still here?  Is it just for cheap bastards like me?  Well, I’ve heard lots of complaints about poor braking and the need to use weird and expensive brake pads (e.g., “Try Black Prince pads and Basalt brake surfaces”), and also there’s this little matter of overheating.  Overheating, due to carbon fiber’s inefficiency at shedding heat during braking, can warp your rim.  A friend told me that carbon wheels were banned at Levi’s Granfondo at one point because so many riders had trouble with overheating rims on a particularly steep descent.  It’s an instance where technology trickling down from the pro teams may not be a great thing:  the pros probably brake far less than, say, rich dentists or even veteran former racers who have lost their mojo after a bad crash.  I recoil from the idea of wheels that require me to brake sparingly.

But that’s not all.  There’s a school of thought that brand names don’t mean anything anymore since just about everything is made in the same Chinese or Taiwanese factory.  So now there are impressive-on-paper wheels available for relatively little money.  Should I be tempted by the cheap route, or play it safe with a known brand?  One friend advised, “Open mold, Chinese carbon certainly sound like the best deal but your wife would surely kill you if they contributed even the slightest way to a crash.  From what I’ve read, ENVE and Zipp are the best, but your daughters will have crooked teeth.”  (That is, I wouldn’t have any money left over for their orthodontia.)

Of course, cyclists are fickle, so a used wheelset, ideally from somebody who got bored with his wheels despite not riding much, might be just the ticket.  One pal advised cheap Mavic Ksyriums on eBay:  “Buy ‘em.  Run ‘em.  Wreck ‘em.  Do it again.”

Not lost yet?  Well, there’s still the question of whether it’s time to go tubeless.  According to Dr. Tyre, this technology will either go the way of Biopace and the McDLT, or will become mainstream and thus much cheaper down the road—so either way, it’s too early to adopt it.  Of course, that column was over a year ago.  Still, almost all my pals use inner tubes, even a couple who bought the tubeless-style wheels.

Please … get help

As you’ve already gathered, I sought advice from my cycling pals, via our e-mail group.  I’ve already quoted a few responses above.  My favorite e-mail, sent to the group around this time, was titled, “23mm wide wheelset for sale – perfect for Dana if he loses some weight.”  (Can you imagine an e-mail with such a title going out to a women’s team?  A feud would break out, people would take sides, friendships would end….) 

I got lots of good advice, but of course not everybody had the same answer.  As I’ve described before, the problem with soliciting advice from a number of people is that ultimately you have to ignore a lot of people’s advice, which can be socially tricky.  But we’re a thick-skinned bunch (thick skin with a lot of scars, to be precise).

So here’s how it broke down.  Two guys recommended Easton, though two others said they’re garbage.  (One of the detractors said of one of the proponents, “Ken likes them, but he’s, what, a buck twenty wet?”  Indeed, I put more stock in input from heavier riders.)  Three guys recommended Zipp, but those are a bit too pricey for me.  Four heartily recommended the superlight Dura-Ace C24s, carbon with aluminum braking surfaces.  These became a front-runner, despite my bad experiences with Shimano wheels (see Appendix B for details).  Four people recommended cheap Chinese wheels.  Five recommended the HED Ardennes SL, which are wider than traditional rims, and three more recommended wide rims in general.

Not that I was thinking of these responses democratically.  The guys I ride the most with get extra attention because they know where I ride and how.  Since the HED Ardennes SL and the Dura-Ace C24s were the most widely and enthusiastically recommended, I was particularly interested in my pal Mark’s recommendations, as he a) owns both brands of wheels, and b) doesn’t weigh a buck twenty wet.  He recommended the HEDs for a rider like me.

The theory of wide, phat rims

So, the HED wheels aren’t made of carbon or any miracle alloy, don’t have the most radically deep cross section, and are no flashier than other wheels.  Their innovation, which they call “C2,” is remarkably simple:  their rims are wider than pretty much every road rim before them.  They’re wider, in fact, than the Wolber 58 rims on Full Slab, my commuting bike.  The idea is that this improves the profile of the tire, increasing its contact area on the road, allowing it to deflect more uniformly in cornering, and allowing you to run lower pressure in your tires without causing a pinch flat.  Supposedly, they also offer lower rolling resistance and greater comfort.

I like the idea of these rims:  instead of using ever more expensive materials, making the wheel both more expensive for the consumer and more expensive to make, these guys apparently asked a simple question—“Why are all road rims so narrow?”—and discovered that lack of imagination and rote imitation of an ancient design seem to be the only reasons.  So this C2 thing doesn’t really cost that much to do, since companies retool every few years anyway, and yet it seems to have been a game-changer.  (Lots of other wheel companies have copied the wide rim, further legitimizing the design or at least the marketing of it.)  

Best of all, HED themselves have gone from 23mm to 25mm with their latest wheels, so I was able to find the 23mm ones—no longer the cutting edge—on closeout for a mere $700.  This is chump change as modern wheels go.  (Mark approved of this strategy:  “500 bucks for 2mm seems unnecessary and contrary to your inner cheap bastard.”)  I love buying things right after they’ve become officially obsolete.  (I think I have the best tube-style TV ever made.  If you’re a burglar, good luck un-cabling everything from the back in time to make a getaway, and good luck trying to sell it.)

So how are the HEDs?

On paper (i.e., according to published weights) he HEDs should be about 50 grams heavier than my “old” (actually, dead at two years of age) Ksyrium SLs, but I weighed them and they’re exactly the same.  They look really, really cool because the lettering is giant and reflective (it catches the sunlight, not just my camera flash) and the fatness of the rim is just, well, phat.  

What’s more, the handwriting scrawled on the rim suggests that the wheels really did come from the HED factory in Minnesota.

I guess these wheels are kind of American.  I say “kind of” because the spokes are from Belgium and the rims from Taiwan.  The implication from this article is that they’re actually American-made.  (Even if they’re not, Belgian spokes is totally badass!)

Since my last wheels rode no better than the ones before them, which rode no better than the ones before them, I found it pleasantly surprising that these HEDs really do ride better.  Actually, they ride better than anything I’ve had before, since my old tubular wheels had too many spokes and weighed too much.  The ride is really plush.  Maybe it’s just the lower pressure (95 psi rear, 85 front), and I could get the same benefit from lower pressure on my other wheels.  If so, this is an impressive bit of marketing.

(Could I actually run my tires at lower pressure with standard-width rims?  Many times in the past I’ve forgotten to pump up my tires before riding, and the ride was poorer, not better.  HED claims that with these rims, the air volume is increased.  Intuitively I sense this is impossible, but then I’m just an English major.  Maybe I’ll do an experiment with my floor pump one of these days.)

Whatever the case, I now find the stretch of Wildcat Canyon Road between Summit Reservoir and the Brazil Building—which is so rough it’d be smoother if they just broke up and removed the rest of the asphalt—oddly fun to ride on.  My bike has never felt so sure-footed.  The newly configured tires just soak up the bumps.  And cornering on descents feels much better.  Braking seems smoother than with my Ksyriums.  So far (i.e., after 500 miles), the rims have stayed perfectly true.  If these last a good number of years, I think they could end up being the best wheels I’ve owned.  On the other hand, if these turn out to be frail over the long haul, I’ll update this post accordingly.

Update - July 2018

Well, I’ve had these wheels for about four years now, though I haven’t gotten four years of use out of them. How’s that, you may ask? Well, within the first year or so, the rear rim cracked. HED gave me some hassle about the warranty, making me go through a local dealer which was a problem because I bought them online. A local shop owner did me a solid by pretending to have sold me the wheels. But, I had to pay for shipping, which due to the usurious practices of UPS cost me like $80. HED did fix the wheel right up and even upgraded the rim, so I was satisfied by the end.

Alas, another year or so later, after the warranty was up, the rear hub and freewheel started binding. So I had to go back to my 2003 Ksyrium again until I (eventually) got around to taking the wheel to a shop. They discovered some broken part inside the hub, and ordered a replacement from HED. This wasn't terribly expensive but still a drag. Fast-forward less than a year, and the rear hub is making so much noise it’s hard to have a conversation while riding. So once again I’m back on the 2003 Ksyrium until I find the time to take this wheel to shop yet again.

So, overall I can’t say I’m thrilled with the durability of these wheels. Caveat: as I believe I mentioned above, I'm notoriously hard on my wheels, so take this with a grain of salt.


And now, in case you’ve actually been enjoying all this text, here are some appendices offering even more bike wheel lore.  Read them aloud while hanging out with friends, or driving motorcar, or boarding on snow.

Appendix A: the modern wheelset dilemma

In the good old days, when bike parts were cheaper, heavier, tougher, and simpler, you didn’t select a wheelset per se.  You selected some hubs (or stuck with whatever your gruppo came with), picked out some rims, and chose between DT and Wheelsmith spokes.  Everything was interoperable so long as your hubs had the same number of holes as your rims (unless you were being really sly and lacing a 36-hole hub to an 18-hole rim on your team time trial bike).  Colorado Cyclist—then a small enough outfit they’d recognize my voice when I phoned them—had a service where you sent them your old thrashed wheels, and they’d cut the spokes out, repack the hubs, and lace new rims to them.

Choosing rims was easier, too.  Your only criteria were weight, brand, and looks.  If you didn’t weigh much and thought you could get away with it, you chose something light.  Perhaps you had a brand loyalty, as I did, maybe tied to country of origin.  (Most of my friends agreed that Japanese rims just weren’t any good, even if post-1984 Dura-Ace components were the shizzle.)  And one rim looked about as cool as another, frankly.  Ambrosios had white letters on them which was pretty fly, but not really all that noticeable. 

Well, things either changed quickly in the aughts, or they evolved while I wasn’t looking.  In 2003, when I built up a new bike, suddenly it seemed like a whole lot of people were riding factory-built wheelsets made by a single manufacturer.  Maybe this seems unremarkable to you, but it sure threw me.  “What?  Shimano is making rims now?  And spokes?”  It seemed inconceivable to me that guys were going around on wheels that didn’t have DT or Wheelsmith spokes—and that were possibly even built by a robot.  To me that seemed as weird as getting my hair cut by a robot.  (In the good old days, only cheap, basic bikes came with robot-built wheels.)

So yeah, I had some catching up to do.  Needless to say, I stumbled into a ferocious debate (still raging in some circles) between those who favor the modern, light, stiff, factory-built wheels, with their higher spoke tension and (generally) lower spoke count, and the old-school types who not only favor hand-built wheels but this or that personal wheel builder (who in high-end bicycle circles command even more respect than a Hollywood hairstylist).  Among other factors, hand-built wheels could be trued easily and would last a good long time.  Factory-built wheels are very hard to true, and they’re great until they’re suddenly not.  And there’s just something cool about a person in a bike shop starting with a pile of spokes, a hub, and a rim and applying magic to turn them into a wheel.  (My brother Geoff, a great wheel builder, could always reach into a box of spokes and—without looking—grab exactly the right number of spokes.)

Appendix B:  My “great leap forward”

As I mentioned, in 2003 I got one of those (then) new-fangled aluminum frames and decided to modernize my wheels while I was at it.  Dazed by all my new options, I followed the prevailing advice, from guys on my bike team, to get the (then) cutting-edge Shimano wheels.  (Not that you’d find anybody now who would admit to having given such advice; the first generation of Shimano wheelsets went the way of lactose intolerance and bell-bottoms.)  I was impressed by these wheels because the spoke nipples were moved to the hub flange, a bold re-imagining of wheel design that seemed to make sense.  After all, spoke nipples were historically heavy, and rotating weight (I’m told) makes a bigger difference.  (Yeah, hub flanges rotate too, but closer in.)

So I broke my own rule, about only riding European (preferably French) rims, and got the high-end Shimano wheels (which, oddly, weren’t called Dura-Ace).  They were really light, really aero, and at the time struck me as really cool-looking.  They had only 16 spokes, front and rear, which did seem totally absurd.  After all, I had a history of being hard on my equipment, and weighed like 185 pounds, and normally rode on tough, no-nonsense equipment.  I felt like a construction worker switching from steel-toed boots to ballet slippers.  But I was giddy at getting a new bike that was at least five pounds lighter than my old one, and everything seemed possible.

Well, I got about a year on those wheels.  Then, during a training ride, I broke a spoke on the rear wheel.  I’d just done a U-turn at the bottom of a climb and was starting to ride back up, which was fortunate because the wheel locked up instantly.  It was as abrupt as being clotheslined.  Then, no matter what tricks I did with the rear wheel in the dropouts, I couldn’t get the wheel to spin without it hitting the frame.  My bike wasn’t even walkable, much less rideable.  I had to put it over my shoulder and start walking, and almost a whole minute went by before a friendly motorist offered me a ride home.

What if the spoke had broken when I was going fast?  I could have totally stacked!  And the idea that breaking a spoke makes your bike unrideable?  Completely stupid.  Those wheels eerily foreshadowed what Lance Armstrong taught us years later:  if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. 

(Nobody stayed on those early Shimano wheels for long.  A friend, knowing I had them, showed up at my place for a dinner party bearing his pair, which he donated to me to use for spare parts.  He announced this notion with a single word—“rubbish!”—which caused another partygoer, of the hand-built school, to burst out laughing.)

Appendix C:  The problem with brand loyalty

Needless to say, after my catastrophic early foray into Japanese rims, after gnashing my terrible teeth and roaring my terrible roar and rending my garments, I decided to go back to French rims … but what would I do for hubs?  It’s not like I could use those wacky Shimano ones that were designed for backwards (in fact, ass-backwards) spokes.  Besides, I’d had a taste of the performance of these modern wheels and couldn’t bear to go back.  (Maybe this is how a guy feels who has switched from caffeine to crack—he knows it’s the wrong path but can’t bring himself to care.)  So when my brother suggested Mavic—one of my few long-held brand loyalties—he got my interest right away.  But a factory-built wheelset meant Mavic—i.e., French!—hubs!  That went against my long-held belief that the French can only competently do rims (and, in one special case, shifters).

On the other hand, what did the Ksyrium SLs have to offer?  Were they light?  Yup.  Known for strength?  Yeah, people said so—I even heard of guys doing cyclocross on them.  Cool-looking?  Yeah, totally!  (The graphics of the Shimano wheels suddenly seemed so … eighties.)  Did I bite the bullet and buy the Ksyriums, and have my wife pick them up from the shop for me so she could have a sticker-shock-induced heart attack for a change?  Yes.  Did these wheels end up being a pain in the ass because I had to continually field-strip the rear cassette and lube it with mineral oil because the French did a crummy job of engineering it?  Yep.  Was the hassle worth it because the wheels really did seem bulletproof?  In fact, yes.

I got six or seven years out of those wheels, after which they were still totally true (though the bearings were shot).  During that time I broke a spoke on each wheel, without any catastrophic consequences.  But I decided to retire them, in accordance with my new policy of replacing my equipment before it wore out and failed.  (I adopted this policy after a high-speed crash on Mount Diablo— click here for details—caused by my Dura-Ace crank snapping in half.)

I didn’t feel like doing any research, and my love affair with Mavic had been rekindled, so I went right out and bought another pair of Ksyrium SLs.  These ones weren’t quite as cool.  They had red anodized bits that have nothing to do with the aesthetics of almost any bike.  And weirdly, as I discovered too late, they weren’t even French.  They were made in Romania.  Was this necessarily a bad thing?  Well, low-end Mavic wheels had been built in Romania for awhile, which didn’t bode well.  I’ve since read an article in which a Mavic guy is quoted as saying, “The Romanian factory is identical to the French factory; the French factory just has prettier people.”  

But wait, don’t people matter?  I would have to think that the French, who are notoriously unconcerned with meeting consumer demand, would be great at quality control.  They probably flunk every third pair of wheels on principle.  (“Cette roué?  C’est impossible!”)  What do we know about the Romanians?  Very little, in my case.

As it turned out, the Romanian wheels sucked.  I broke spoke after spoke.  The guy at my local shop said he’d seen a lot of problems with the late-model Ksyrium SLs.  Finally, the day after what would prove to be my last spoke replacement, the rear hub cracked.  (I’ve broken at least seven frames, and three forks, but I’ve never broken a hub before.)

As Murphy’s Law would have it, the wheels were about two months past the warranty period.  Romanian Rhapsody?  I think not!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Selecting Bicycle Wheels - Part I


It’s been said that the frame is the heart of a bicycle.  If so, the wheels are, like, the lungs.  This post describes my pleasure, and frustration, in purchasing bicycle wheels over the years, recounted on the occasion of a recent wheel purchase (a heady topic which I’ll get to next week).  For now, I think it’s important to lay the groundwork with a detailed character sketch of the athlete/consumer as a young man.  (I’m thinking here of all the expository stuff in “The Deer Hunter,” before the really gnarly Vietnam action.)  

More than anything, this post demonstrates my odd feeling of patriotism toward countries other than my own.  And it attempts to answer the question, “How do teenagers select a wheelset?”  (Or really, “How did the un-cool, iconoclastic, non-phone-addicted teen bike racers of yesteryear select a wheelset?”)

A quick note to burglars:  I’m well aware that you comb craigslist and even Strava looking for expensive merchandise to steal, and yes, I did allude just now to having bought some new wheels.  So I almost decided to tell a white lie about how I’m only borrowing these new wheels, just so you don’t figure out my address and come rob me.  But I don’t need to lie:  the fact is, my new wheels only cost me $700, and you could probably do better burglarizing any of my neighbors at random for their iPads, rare first-edition books, and objets d’art.  Heck, you’d have an easier time selling the stolen airbag out of one of their Priuses, or even their Priuses’ Clean Air Vehicle carpool-lane stickers.  Or better yet, just get one of us to hire you for some yard work, and overcharge us!

Rule #1:  Your wheels have to be cool (i.e., Euro)

Of course all consumers everywhere, or at least the male ones I can speak for, want their products to be cool.  But what is “cool”?  When I first became a consumer, cool meant Euro.  In the case of bicycle wheels in particular, cool meant French.

Naturally, I started out in cycling with cheap steel rims that must have been from Asia.  (I don’t remember much about the rims on my Fuji Junior except that they were 600C.)  The very virtue of affordability eventually made these wheels seem despicable to me.  My second bike started out with Araya rims that were probably fine, but which ultimately made me recoil.  Not only did they have the aura of sensible shoes, they weren’t even made very well.  The crooked decals visible in these easily googled photos attest to Araya rims’ haphazard construction.  Worst of all, Araya made BMX rims too!  ‘Nuff said.

Besides, as a budding bike racer I naturally looked to Europe as the standard bearer:  the glamour of their pelotons and famous races naturally slopped over to their bicycle manufacturing industry.  In fact, my lust for brands like Campagnolo and Cinelli easily preceded my interest in girls.  (And, given that cyclists in those days were pariahs, cycling ended up pre-empting dating altogether, to my eventual dismay.)

Getting back to the Arayas, and my need to rid my bike of them:  as soon as I’d saved up enough money, I bought some sweet new (well, used) wheels from my brother Geoff.  (Note how my limited options—i.e., my exactly one option—precluded endless research or agonizing indecision.)  These wheels had Phil Wood sealed hubs, Swiss DT spokes, and French Weinmann rims.  At least, I assumed they were French rims, because the crummy Weinmann brakes I saw around tended to be on French bikes, and I always equated crummy bike parts with France.  These brakes, in the flesh, were even uglier than they look in the picture.

I instinctively grasped that for the French to make good rims, while sucking at almost everything else, was just the exception proving the rule.  I’ve always thought of the French as the idiot-savants of manufacturing:  they can’t get anything right, except rims, at which they’re the best in the business.  (The other notable exception to their engineering ineptitude is the Simplex Retrofriction shifter, which I have discussed at length in these pages.)  So I loved those Weinmann rims, even if they were a step down from the Weinmann Concave model that I really wanted.

Have you been yelling at your computer monitor, telling me what an idiot I am?  Yes, of course you’re right, Weinmann rims aren’t French at all!  (Cut me some slack, I was just a kid!  At least I knew that “DT” stood for “Drahtwerke Tréfileries” which meant “wireworks.”  These modern kids don’t even know how to pronounce “derailleur” and wouldn’t know rim tape from bar tape, and—worst of all—wouldn’t even be ashamed of their ignorance.)

Indeed, Weinmann rims were actually Belgian.  Like Eddy Merckx!  Like the cobblestones!  Like Johan Museew!  Here I was, being only slightly arrogant about my supposedly French rims, when I was actually riding Belgian!  Man!  I was so money and I didn’t even know it!  (History has a way of repeating itself.  Years ago I bought a car that I thought was Swedish, but later learned it too was made in Belgium.  And French fries?  Yeah, they’re Belgian.)

My brother Geoff had laced these wheels himself, and did the front radial.  I was the first kid around (and one of the only people, period, in those days) with a radially laced front wheel.  I took a lot of flak for that from other kids; being insanely envious of how cool that looked, my peers felt it necessary to warn me that radially laced wheels tended to collapse during hard cornering.  I never knew what to say, so I just shrugged, which probably made me look French, and thus cool, though I didn’t realize it at the time.  (My self-esteem was slight in those days.  Maybe it’s because my mom’s pet name for me was “Lambchop.”)

On the other hand, those were the lower-end Weinmann rims, and my bike was a robot-built Japanese one (a Miyata 310), so of course I had to graduate to better things, which I did.  My next bike, a handmade English Mercian with full Campagnolo, had Super Champion Gentleman rims.

There was something mystical about the juxtaposition of the bold (and, being redundant, clearly European) brand “Super Champion” and the understated model name, “Gentleman.”  They were glorious rims.  High polish, like chrome, and I never broke a spoke or seriously damaged the rims.  (Of course, I weighed no more than Chris Froome in those days.)

Rule #2:  Your wheels have to be legit (i.e., tubulars)

Still, my constant craving to be more like the pros meant I had to eventually get some real racing wheels—that is, tubulars (aka “sew-ups,” or “soaps,” the nickname we used).  It’s not that I was sold on tubulars’ superiority (being lighter, stronger, much less prone to pinch-flats, and better in corners, than clinchers).  It was just that the pros rode tubulars, so for my friends and me to continue on clinchers was simply out of the question.

Not that buying tubulars was an easy goal to fulfill.  You’ve probably gotten the impression that I was some kind of rich kid.  Not so.  Yeah, I did have a full Campy Mercian, but I didn’t have any snow boots at all, and at home we drank powdered milk, and the burgers my mom fed us were ground turkey stretched with oatmeal.  My spending money came from making minimum wage ($3.35 an hour) working for Eco-Cycle, a grassroots recycling program using condemned garbage trucks and worn-out, donated school buses.  To get the job I had to lie about my age.  They only had me come work when they didn’t have enough adults to get the job done.  (Most of these were dirtbags doing court-ordered community service to work off their DUI convictions.)  So it took awhile to scrounge up the $100 I paid for my first tubular wheels, which had Campy hubs and Fiamme Ergal rims.

These were Italian rims, and they were garbage.  Man, they would just not stay in true.  It’s not like I was hard on my wheels, being so light.  On the other hand, I’d bought them used from my brothers’ friend Dave Towle, who even back then was a pretty big guy.  And he probably laced them himself in a dim garage, squinting at a book, and they were probably the first pair he ever built.  Teenagers couldn’t afford professional builds back then.

It was with these Ergals that I learned how to true wheels, which is a little like Frankenstein’s monster trying to train a Chihuahua.  Maybe I got those wheels looking straighter, but I knew nothing about spoke tension.  Those rims were so thin and malleable, it was like clubbing Claymation figures with a meat tenderizer.  I can’t remember what I finally did with those wheels but they didn’t last long. 

What came next?  I have a vague memory of a brief fling with some Super Champion Arc-En-Ciels.  Tight little mothers.  I don’t remember much about them, nor what became of them (and truth be told I don’t really know what “tight little mothers” even means in this context).

Did I glue my own tires?  Yeah, I did.  Not only could I not afford to pay a shop to do it, but naturally I wasn’t a real cyclist if I couldn’t master this difficult chore.  The first time I did it I used this clear Wolber glue, and after letting it dry overnight I tested the tires to see if I could roll them off the rims with my hands.  I could, easily.  Sigh.  So I switched to the “red death,” the chewy, bright red glue made by Clément or Vittoria.  That glue was brutally effective, but unless you really knew what you were doing—which I didn’t—you ended up with rims and tires that looked like a murder scene.

It’s funny:  my wife and I are trying to decide if our twelve-year-old is mature and trustworthy enough to even ride by herself (i.e., road rides in the Berkeley hills), whereas by age fourteen my friends and I were lacing our own wheels and gluing our own tires … in other words, building our own time bombs.  (That said, I’ve never rolled a tire, and I’ve only had one wheel disintegrate during a race and even then I managed not to crash, though I must have caused half a dozen near-heart-attacks.)

Rule #3:  Eventually, your wheels have to be tough

As a teenager, I really wasn’t a weight-weenie.  I mean, sure, I cared whether my bike was heavy or not, but I never had that Manifest Destiny experience of today’s dentists and stockbrokers, who simply seek out the lightest stuff and buy it.  I knew Reynolds 753 was lighter than 531, but I couldn’t afford it; ditto the Campy Super Record titanium bottom bracket and pedals.  On the way up, as I tricked out my Miyata 310, I only hoped that the secondhand stuff I was putting on would eventually make it a light bike.  For example, the MKS pedals had to be lighter than the original ones because the original ones had reflectors.  And the Stronglight crankset must be both strong and light, right?  Ending up with a light bike was just a hope, like the hope that one day I’d be a strong cyclist.

But eventually it wasn’t just money that determined which (cool, French) rims to buy.  After my bad experience with the Fiamme Ergals, and many friends’ bad experiences with light but cheap rims, and as my weight began to increase until I weighed more than most grown-up women, I started caring more and more about how tough my rims were.  (And my spokes:  I went to 14-gauge, not because I was breaking 15-gauge spokes, but because the 14-gauge were so totally masculine.)

So around 1985 I finally stopped screwing around and got my first set of Mavic GP4s.

I remember the first time I ever saw a pair of those, a pair taped together in a shop, labels gleaming.  I’m pretty sure I made a mess in my trousers.  Has any man-made product ever come so close to achieving the Platonic ideal of anything?  These rims were absolutely beyond reproach.  I never met a soul who didn’t respect them, not for being the flashiest or lightest thing out there (which they weren’t), but for being utterly reliable, a steadfast ally in our war on potholes, rocks, crashes, other riders, anything the world could throw at us.

Did I ever ruin a GP4?  Sure.  I crashed on a prime lap in a fast criterium in Denver and totally potato-chipped my rear wheel.  But then, in that same crash I bent my crankset, destroyed my saddle and seatpost, and even knocked the rear triangle of my frame out of alignment (and went to the ER for stitches).  No wheel is invulnerable.

That about finishes the history of my wheels as a teen.  The GP4, and its kid brother the MA40 (its clincher version) were so reliable, they carried me into adulthood, and even fatherhood, and I didn’t start grappling with the really complex questions—“What should I buy now that money is practically no object?” and “Is it cool to buy these new-fangled ‘factory-built’ wheels instead of choosing hubs, spokes, and rims?”—until later.  Tune in next time for a portrait of the consumer/athlete as an old man….