Friday, September 29, 2017

From the Archives - Pushing the Envelope


Here’s a little something I wrote back in college. Looking back, I find it laughable that I’d thought the movie “Gleaming the Cube” would give society a lasting new cliché (i.e., its title). I never saw the movie, but people must have been talking about it and tossing around the phrase “gleaming the cube.” Boy does this movie look stupid. “Brian’s skateboard became his weapon,” the trailer declares, “in a deadly game of international smuggling, murder, and revenge.... When getting even means risking it all: gleaming the cube.”

Pushing the Envelope - January 26, 1989

Modern cinema has popularized several great terms: “pushing the envelope,” “walking a tightrope,” and most recently, “gleaming the cube.” The latter has a specific skateboarding reference, but they all relate to one basic theme: living on the edge. Going to the very limit of safety. In short, pushing your luck.

I enjoy living my life according to this bold notion. No, I don’t climb mountains, or swim across channels, or jump in almost-frozen lakes bare naked. And I certainly don’t often push the envelope in a bicycle race. While many a criterium was won by the rider with the biggest balls, I’m not about to risk a handlebar in the ribs. However, I do enjoy taking risks that involve less physically debilitating consequences.

Here’s an example. Recently, I felt really lousy while on a training ride. So lousy, in fact, that the boredom of meager speeds was threatening to drive me stark raving mad. This was along US 101, a highway not offering any particularly interesting terrain. I thought about cutting my ride short, but that just didn’t make any sense. I mean, being out of shape was the problem here, and nobody ever got into better shape by slacking off. So, I pedaled on, and out of desperate listlessness, I decided to collect every single unbroken Botts Dot I saw. I’d bring them home, I decided, and figure out something useful to do with them.

[Note: my brother Geoff also collected Botts Dots, or, more specifically, Raised Pavement Markers, which are those cool road bumps that have built-in reflectors. We didn’t have these growing up in Colorado, because the snowplows would rip them up, but while in California we collected enough to line our basement floor with them back home. We glued them down, one long strip down the middle, and boy did it look cool. I cannot now remember whether, on this Santa Barbara bike ride, I was gathering plain old Botts Dots or Raised Pavement Markers. –Ed.]

The project became more of a hassle than I had ever imagined, because I managed to find an amazing number of Botts Dots. What’s more, I was wearing an old-school wool jersey that didn’t ensconce the Dots very snugly. When the total number of Dots per pocket reached five or six, my jersey sagged badly enough that it threatened to drag on my rear wheel. Plus, I was trapped in the saddle because my jersey would snag on it if I tried to stand up.

Soon I found a cardboard box in a ditch, and carried the Botts Dots in that. It was slightly wet, very old, and the bottom threatened to give out at any time under the crushing weight. I knew that I would have to be crazy to trust the box, which is precisely why I chose to do so. Granted, the risk factor wasn’t as high as that of hang gliding, but if the box gave out I’d probably run over its contents and face-plant. In the end, I managed to avoid mishap.

Carrying groceries on bicycle handlebars is a favorite way, in my family, to gleam the cube. Geoff and I, when we lived in San Luis Obispo, used to compete: who could carry home the largest amount of groceries in one trip? (I believe I still hold the record: $80 worth.) Recently, while on a massive fridge-stocking mission in Goleta, about four miles from home across a freeway overpass, I discovered a shocking new challenge to bike-grocery-schlepping: the plastic bags, which have always been the sketchiest part of this activity, have become even thinner and flimsier.

I noticed this mere seconds after leaving the store. When I was only halfway across the parking lot, two bags burst simultaneously, sending tuna cans, apples, tomatoes, and onions rolling across the asphalt while I attempted in vain to stabilize the load. After bystanders (touchingly) ran to my aid from every corner of the lot, I took out the two spare bags I had brought along.

I assessed the situation: if those first bags didn’t even last fifty yards, how could I expect these backups to last for four miles? I decided if I had any brain at all, I’d go back into the store and get plenty of extra bags. But then that perverse envelope-pushing impulse crept into my mind, and I knew there was no way to stop it. A grin spread across my foolish face, and I mounted up and set off for Isla Vista with no extra bags.

Throughout the trip, I dodged every pebble in the road, every squashed bug, and every oil spot. When I reached the UCSB bike path, I knew I was in trouble. The path is wrinkled in some places, probably because of some really bad bike accidents. These wrinkles have the effect of a jackhammer on a fully loaded mountain bike with like 90 PSI in its tires. Almost instantly, two bags gave way simultaneously (they tend to go in twos, probably because of Murphy’s Law). The familiar produce dispersal ensued, and this time nobody rushed to my assistance. (I should mention that it was dark by now; naturally, I didn’t have a light.)

After collecting the goods, I put some of them into other already-full bags, and held one ripped bag together with my right hand. The left hand wasn’t free for steering either, because it was clutching the tiny top of a ten-pound bag of potatoes. So I could barely steer, and braking and shifting gears were out of the question. I guided my overburdened machine with my palms on the ends of the handlebars, each finger straining to the limit under with the tremendous weight it bore.

I kept reminding myself of what was at stake: I’d just paid dearly for that food; a lot of it was in jars; the produce would be crushed messily; and the dry spaghetti would be broken. Besides, one more bag failure would leave me with no means of carrying the surviving groceries. Somehow, I managed to keep it together until I was speeding through the bombed-out La Loma parking lot. Then, everything started failing at once. I flew towards my apartment, a ball of boy, bike, and groceries. It seemed my load was staying together only through sheer force of will. No sooner did I get the front door open, but everything rolled onto the floor of my apartment, miraculously unharmed. Not only had I pushed the envelope, but I had held it together after breaking it.

Yesterday, I engaged in this self‑inflicted phenomenon once again. My roommate had been whining hysterically about the four bags of empty jars which had accumulated in the kitchen as part of my recycling project. We also had a bag of crushed aluminum cans, and one of mixed paper. Alas, this whining roommate was the only one with a car, and also the only one unwilling to help recycle. The old bug bit and I had to prove to myself that I could get it all down to the recycling center in Goleta by bike. This being a tedious activity, I decided I had to do it in one trip. On my ride over there, I would be literally encased in glass.

I imagined the outcome of failure: “A 19‑year‑old UCSB student was killed today in a bizarre accident as yet unexplained by law enforcement officials. He was found buried in a mound of broken glass, with the bumper of an AMC Gremlin clenched in his teeth.” Or, “A UCSB student was arrested today by law enforcement officials for vandalizing Hollister Road. The youth was found breaking bottles there, and unsuccessfully tried to pass off his bizarre actions as mere accident.”

Okay, I’m exaggerating. The worst‑case scenario probably wouldn’t involve death or dismemberment, or even arrest, but it would surely involve a great deal of broken glass. But what alternative did I have? I filled my duffle bag and my big backpack completely with jars and bottles, and carried the cans and papers in bags hanging from the handlebars of my Miyata beast of burden.

To keep the duffel bag from swinging down into my rotating legs, I had to sit bolt upright and secure the bag with my right arm, leaving just the left hand to steer and brake. I comforted myself with the knowledge that in a panic situation I could dive for the right side of the handlebar. After about ten seconds of biking, the pain set in. My shoulders, arms, back, and even my toes began to ache. Soon, I was audibly groaning, moaning, and even whining. It seemed as though I’d never make it to Goleta. But as always, I somehow pulled it off ... which means I need to set my goal even higher next time.

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Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Colorado Mountain Road Test - SRAM eTap Electronic Shifting


So, this post will be a bit unusual. I did a Colorado mountain ride with my friend Pete recently that wasn’t quite epic or disastrous enough to warrant its own post. (For epic click here; for disastrous click here.) Meanwhile, I’ve long wanted to blog about electronic shifting, but I’m not sure I care enough about it to devote a whole post to that, either. So here’s a combo: while telling you about a not-quite-epic ride, I’ll share my firsthand experience with top-end electronic shifting. If you care about neither, read on anyway, because I’ll cover food and booze too.

Executive summary

Fun ride, even though my rental bike’s SRAM Red eTap bit the wax tadpole.

Short version

Our pre-ride carbo-load dinner was exquisite. I rented a very high-end bicycle from a good shop. This bike had electronic shifting, which I was hoping to have some trouble with so I could bag on it, which I’m predisposed to do anyway. I did have some trouble, which proves that at least this brand of top-end electronic shifting is still a pointless expenditure. The ride was fun, hard, and involved a gorgeous dirt road. It wasn’t that epic, though, which is my friend Pete’s fault.

Long version

If you know me well, you know I’ll all about fast cars, fly women, and gold chains. Hmmm. Maybe that’s not quite right. I guess more accurately I’m all about fast bikes, fine literature, and saving money.  And when I go to Boulder, I’m all about time-honored traditions like eating pasta at The Gondolier and suffering through long bike rides. Here’s my plate at the Gondo:

Look, I know some wiseguy among you is going to say, “Those noodles are too thick and ropey and don’t appear to be made of semolina flour.” That may be true, but damn it, that’s not the point. These were good enough for me as a teenager when I went every week for all-u-can-eat, and they’re good enough now. Trust me, I know from good pasta.

And look at that beer! Dogfish Head 90-Minute IPA, one of my very favorite beers. (Before I conceived of this post, I snapped this photo for Beck’sting purposes, to make my pals jealous.)

That’s Pete in the background. He’s my favorite biking pal because he’s way faster than I am but doesn’t seem to hold it against me. He also susses out all the cool routes that invariably feature gobs of climbing and remote dirt roads.

For my rental bike I went to University Bicycles, affectionately known as UBikes, which is arguably the best shop in Boulder (though I also like Vecchio’s Bicicletteria quite a lot). Now, you might not know this, but Boulder is considered a very bike-y place. “Best shop in Boulder” is kind of like being “best brothel in Amsterdam.” (I’m actually not that wild about the comparison I just made, but I don’t have time to go fix it.) Anyway, one cool thing about UBikes is their collection of very cool old bikes like this one.

When I was 13 my friend Nico (also 13) loaned me, for about a year, a Cinelli road frame of similar vintage.  When I think back to how advanced Nico and I were, compared to the current crop of ho-hum teens, I start to sound like an old person.

Last time I rented a bike from UBikes for an epic ride, I waited too long and got a real pile of crap. This time I planned ahead and, almost two hours before the shop opened, reserved a Specialized Tarmac via their website. I got to the shop about ten minutes after they opened and they’d already put on the Look pedals I requested. As the salesman helped adjust the saddle for me, he sent another guy upstairs to “get the batteries.” Batteries? Huh? Oh, wow, this bike sported SRAM eTap electronic shifting! It works like this: there are only two buttons, one per lever. To get a smaller rear cog you tap the right. For a bigger cog you tap the left. To change chainrings you tap both buttons at once.

Is electronic shifting cool? No. I can say that now that I’ve tried it. I have always been tempted to say that without even trying it (kind of like how I can confidently say heroin isn’t cool even though I haven’t tried it, either), but until now I figured I better hold my tongue. Now I’ve tried it and, as I’ll get into later, it’s not foolproof (which of course it needs to be to have any benefit over traditional shifting).

Empirical arguments aside, I will now walk you through why electronic shifting is lame in principle. First, let’s ask the question, what makes a racing bike good? Number one, the bike has got to look cool. Number two, the bike has to go fast. Let’s evaluate eTap on that basis.

Does it look cool? No. Here’s proof.

That Cinelli I showed you a bit ago? That looked cool. Those SRAM derailleurs? With the big hunks of plastic-y material sticking off of them? Those don’t look cool. They look really bad. Now, I know aesthetics are a matter of personal taste, but that doesn’t mean there’s no right or wrong. If you like the look of these derailleurs you are either delusional or have no taste, and I no more respect your opinion than if you said plastic ketchup bottles look better than glass.

Now, speed is another matter. My Giant road bike might not look better than that old Cinelli I had, but overall the Giant is better because it’s faster. That is, the Giant will get me up hills faster, given the same power applied to the pedals, because it’s lighter than the late ‘60s Cinelli. Now, here’s how the whole “is it faster?” question applies to electronic shifting.

(The SRAM Red eTap rear derailleur weighs 239 grams; the SRAM Red traditional weighs 178 grams. The levers weigh about the same between the two types. Etc.)

I guess it could be argued that eTap is better because it’s more foolproof and/or more pleasurable to use. I’ll get to that later.

Just in case you give a shit, here’s the bike I rented.

Great bike. It rode really well … stiff, comfortable, handled well. My only complaint is that it seemed a bit heavier than my Giant. Hmm, I wonder why.

The saddle was pretty comfortable too, which was a relief. You just never know with a rental bike.

I have to question Specialized’s normally spot-on branding here, though. I mean, Toupé? Are you kidding me? Look, marketing guys: since you evidently didn’t grasp this, “Toupé” is one letter away from, and pronounced exactly the same as, toupée, the artificial hairpiece that insecure men wear, which is a front-runner for the most embarrassing product a man could buy. There’s a reason slapstick comedies so often feature a man’s humiliation at having his toupée  blow away or getting it snatched off his head. Given the prevalence of baldness amoung MAMILs (hardly the most glamorous ambassadors of the sport), this is astonishingly reckless branding. If they came out with a women’s version, would they call it the Merkin?

Since I seem to be finding fault with everything, I might as well complain that the helmet UBikes loaned me didn’t have a vent setup that gave me any way to stash my sunglasses. This really surprised me, since every helmet I’ve had in the last 20 years has had sunglasses-friendly vents. But thanks to the Toupé saddle, problem solved!

I finally understand why so many modern saddles have that giant hole in them. (By the way, the above picture provides the only photo evidence that I was actually on this ride. Look closely and you can almost tell what club I ride for.)

But enough about the gear and culture. It’s time to hit the open road! Here’s where we rode, starting from Pete’s house in Golden.

The reason this ride was so short is that although Pete and I both had the day off, he had a noon conference call. I already gave him a hard time about this, but you should pile on. E-mail me your scathing gibes and I’ll pass them along.

We started out by riding up Lookout Road, featured in the US Pro Challenge and, more recently, Phil Gaimon’s successful bid for the new Strava record. We didn’t end up going as fast as Phil. I guess we forgot to hammer. Oh well. We ride Lookout in less than twice Phil’s time, which isn’t bad.

If you’re looking for an open road, Colorado is a good place to start.

I don’t have a whole lot of photos of this ride because I forgot to bring my camera. Fortunately—check this out!—my phone has a camera built in! That sure came in handy.

There was a wonderful section of brand-new bike path for a ways. Then, after another climb, I helped Pete get a new personal record on the Floyd Hill descent. (Actually, we weren’t even thinking about trying to go fast, much less doing anything on Strava. And lest you think we’re daredevils, this was only good for 144th place.)

Alongside the road were some buffalo, or “buffler” in mountain-man parlance. I’m sure these creatures are more majestic when they’re not all fenced in.

The pedaling was hard. After Lookout we braved another Category 2 climb a bit over 7 miles long, taking us to about 8,700 feet above sea level.  That may not sound like much, but I donated blood recently. Also, I’m not very strong to begin with.

Okay, let’s get back to that shifting. First impression? Kind of nifty. It didn’t take long to get used to it (though a couple times, near intersections, I tapped the wrong button.) Once I got used to it, and the novelty wore off, I realized it’s not as fun as traditional shifting. I enjoy mechanisms. After all, we’re messing about with PCs, tablets, phones, and other electronic interfaces all day long. As more and more technologies are designed to be idiot-proof and as automated as possible, what’s left for us to do? I miss the stick shift on my old Volvo. Driving a stick is more fun than letting the car decide when to shift. (And operating the clutch of my old car was more fun than using Geartronic, the so-called “manumatic” transmission of my current Volvo.)

What’s wrong with today’s wealthy cyclists that they don’t want cable-type shifters, especially considering how good they’ve gotten? Why do all these dentists and stockbrokers enjoy being coddled with pushbuttons?

So much for eTap being more fun. So does it shift faster? No. Rear shifting has been practically instantaneous for many years so there is scant room for improvement there. And when shifting the front with eTap, there’s a tiny delay when you tap both buttons before you hear this little whirring noise and the motorized front derailleur moves the chain. Granted, this delay is unimportant; the main factor in response time was never in the lever to begin with—it’s dragging that chain up to the big ring, or nudging it to the little one without letting it fall. The SRAM red front derailleur does just fine, but no better than high-end cable-type front derailleurs.

The last chance for eTap to prove itself superior would be in the “foolproof” department. This is hard to test, of course.  I will concede that cable-type front shifting isn’t perfect; everybody throws his chain once in a while. That being said, one ride on eTap without a missed front shift wouldn’t mean anything. I might go weeks or months, maybe a year or more, without my bike’s front derailleur screwing up. So my only hope for hitting the trifecta—ugly, heavy, non-foolproof—would be eTap happening to screw up within the narrow timespan of my four-hour ride.

About 2/3 of the way into the ride, all the planets lined up. Pete and I reached a point where a steep downhill led right into a steep climb, and I wanted to keep as much momentum as possible. This meant big-ringing it until the very last second and then going for the little chainring. What a perfect testing ground for electronic shifting! You can see where we were, about 43 miles into the ride:

I bombed the downhill (leaving a bit of a gap between me and Pete so maybe I could surge by him triumphantly) and tapped the two buttons at just the right moment. And guess what? The fricking chain fell off! And here’s the really weird part: it came off the right side, as if it had overshot the big ring (which it had already been in) instead of the little one. WTF!?

Now, a defender of this eTap technology might be tempted to blame the rider. But that’s silly; there should be no way to get it to mis-shift. But wait, you might say, what if I had accidentally hit the two buttons twice instead of once? Well, I suppose it’s possible I did that, but electronics should be “smart” enough  to handle this kind of user error. That is, the system should ignore a second click if it comes a fraction of a second after the first one, since obviously nobody would want to shift onto the small chainring and right back to the large. Besides, I’m not a klutz—on an old Schwinn I had with no front derailleur (it had broken off) I used to shift by hand—so I’m 99.9% sure I tapped those buttons just once.

I will continue to play the devil’s advocate and entertain the possibility that the derailleur was poorly adjusted. But remember, this was a ~$6000 rental bike that gets tuned up after every ride. It was built and maintained by arguably the top bike shop in a bicycle mecca. If UBikes can’t get it right, clearly the tolerances of this system are too tight—i.e., it’s literally too high-maintenance—to be practical. I for one would not want to own a bike with such finicky shifting (if adjustment is indeed the problem).

Pete, looking back and seeing that I’d thrown my chain, said, “See you back in Golden,” and rode off. Now, when you throw you chain off the big ring on cable-type drivetrains, it’s easy enough to get it back going again—you click the little lever on the left side to move the front derailleur left, then lift up the back of the bike so the rear wheel is off the ground, give the cranks a turn or two, and you’re back in business. It is the same process every  time so you do it without having to really think. But what would I do here? I had no idea why the bike had mis-shifted, and therefore no idea what chainring the front derailleur thought it was in. I had to look closely at the derailleur before double-tapping again, so the failure of eTap was compounded.

In the final analysis, eTap absolutely does not shift faster, nor is it easier or more enjoyable to shift, nor is it (more) foolproof. To my great delight, electronic shifting turns out to be even shittier than I’d imagined.

To those of you who shelled out a lot of money for electronic shifting: don’t feel bad. I’m not trying to bag on you. It’s your bike and your business and you can still feel good about choosing electronic, and I would never expect you to second-guess your choice based on my brief experience with it. But your derailleurs are butt-ugly and your bike is heavy.

Our third major climb, Douglas Mountain Drive, is a Category 2, mostly dirt, with an average pitch of 9%. Very scenic as well.

Some of the sights were more amusing than beautiful. For example, this one:

What’s amusing about that, you ask? Well, look a little closer:

There are grills on both the upper and lower decks! Why would that be? Maybe it’s in case members of the family can’t get along. “Just for that, I’m going to barbecue tonight, and you’re not invited!” / “Okay, fine, I’ll go downstairs and have my own barbecue! I don’t need you!”

What a glorious early evening climb this was. Being dirt, and steep, it didn’t let us climb out of the saddle much. We settled in for some really nice suffering and an even nicer view.

Of course I couldn’t snap any more photos once the descending began. With the exception of a mile-long climb I don’t even remember, it was all downhill, for 15 miles, back to Pete’s place. Fittingly, my tale ends as it began: with a beer.


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Saturday, September 9, 2017

Biased Blow-By-Blow - 2017 Vuelta a España Stage 20


If you don’t have the time or inclination to watch the Vuelta a España live, but are tired of typical recaps such as tongue-biting professionals write, perhaps you’ll welcome the opportunity to laugh at an account by an amateur whose cynicism about this supposedly clean sport sometimes creates a bias. Today I give a biased blow-by-blow of the all-important Stage 20 of this Vuelta, which is surely the hardest stage of all and will decide the overall winner ahead of tomorrow’s boring, flat sprinters’ stage.

2017 Vuelta a España Stage 20 – Corvera de Asturias to Alto de l’Angliru

I’m not going to waste your time … we join the action of the final climb of the Vuelta, the Angliru, a 12km monster, beyond category.  Sure, there has been plenty of action already today but it hasn’t amounted to anything.

What you may have missed over the last few days—as I had—are two important developments.  First, in a 40km time trial, race leader Christopher Froome (Team Sky) took a minute out of Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) who sits 2nd overall on GC.  This put Froomestrong, who dopes (yes, he does, anybody can see it) in the overall lead by a seemingly insurmountable 2 minutes. But then, in a subsequent mountain stage, Nibali and the Spanish champ Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) managed to drop Punky Froomester and take like a minute out of him. This almost never happens so I really wish I’d watched.

The result is that, going into today, Froome still has like a minute on Nibali, but now seems on the back foot. Maybe Nibali and Contador will tag-team this so Contador can get a stage win (about all he can hope for, being way back on GC) and Nibali can pull off the GC victory. I for one would love to see it. Not that Contador is clean or anything, but for some reason he’s my favorite doper of the modern era. I guess this is because Contador has style, doesn’t look bad on the bike, and loses a lot. I’m mainly sore at Froome because he’s a ghastly gaunt ungainly guy, and he and his team make the sport boring by being too dominant.

Hmm, it looks like Condator isn’t even in the lead group. So he’s not necessarily going to end his career with a grand tour stage win. Oh well.

Now here’s something interesting. Team Sunweb is working really hard on the front, which duty is normally left for Team Sky. What’s Sunweb’s purpose? The announcer says, “Blah blah blah Kelderman blah blah podium blah blah blah.” It’s hard to hear because I’m on the back patio of a coffee shop with a bunch of people who are having really interesting conversations. It’s also hard to see my screen because it’s a sunny morning. Also, my brother Max is like this incredible magnet who draws all his friends to the table, so I get introduced to each of them in turn. Then I feel I should apologize in advance for being a dick by tuning them out in favor of my laptop. Why do I do this? Why would I rather write this silly report than socialize with cool people? I don’t know. I just can’t help it.

Sunweb actually has several guys on the front. They look pretty badass. This team seemed to bob up out of nowhere this year—I first encountered them in the Giro d’Italia—and I guess I’ll have to read up on them at some point.

Looks like Contador is like 54 seconds behind somebody. Maybe 54 seconds behind the GC group? Or a breakaway? I’m starting to think he’s ahead of the GC group. So, 54 seconds isn’t a ton, with 10km to go, but I’m wondering why nobody is talking about (or showing) Nibali. I mean, he’s the guy who has a chance in the GC. Who cares about a stage win, in this GC-deciding stage?

I was really groggy before and now I’ve had a cup of strong, black coffee. I don’t brew it this strong at home. I’m starting to tremble, and I think I’m at risk of having to run to the loo. I might miss an all-important attack! Maybe I should seek sponsorship from the good folks over at Depends.

All they’re talking about is if Contador can catch up!  Who cares!? He can’t overtake Froome in the GC, so he’s dead to me!

I can see Froome (you could recognize his gawky, poor form from space) tucked in there behind Sunweb and Sky.

Contador is with an Orica-Scott rider, Yates (which of the Yates brothers I don’t know or care) and some guy named Mas. Mas used to have a longer name, but he cut it down to save weight.

You know how modern action and horror movies have that shaky-camera, cinema verité thing going? I’m hoping the lack of detail and precision in this coverage is creating the same effect. Is it working? Are you on the edge of your seat, creeped out by a general sense of bewilderment?

The big Sunweb guy is still forcing the pace. You can see that Froome is struggling because his neck is all bent. I wonder … does his head always dip to the right, or does it sometimes go left? His entire body is rigid. I guess it’s possible that he’s not a doper, but an actual automaton with a hyper-alloy combat chassis, like The Terminator.

I guess they’re just showing the Contador drama because the pace is too high in the lead group for Nibali (or anyone) to attack. The cameramen have probably stopped bothering to check very often because they know how this thing works.

Some Sky guy just took off his jacket and threw it on the road, but my brother, looking over my shoulder, couldn’t see very well and said, “Wait, did he just wipe his ass with a spectator’s flag?” I confirmed this, just to keep him entertained.

I missed a couple of kilometers just now because I got caught up in a conversation. Let me figure out what I missed. Looks like Sky is still on the front, no change. Surprise, surprise. I would just love to see Nibali launch some blistering attack and just obliterate this GC group. Maybe his victory salute would be flipping the bird with both hands, or maybe some cool Italian equivalent of that.

Looks like Contador’s in a small group of guys that is like 40 seconds behind. Actually, wait! I think they’re actually ahead! Probably they were behind some nobody, whom they’ve overhauled and left behind. Look, I’m really sorry for how screwed up this coverage is. I thought it would be fun, that you’d feel like you were watching from a sports bar, but of course that’s absurd.

Nibali’s team has taken up the lead of the GC group. It seems like pedaling hard on the front could never work against Sky, though. Maybe they should take Nibali off the back a bit, and then give him like a full lead-out sprint so that when they come past the front of the group they’re going like twice as fast. And then the domestiques could all crash in the road to create a physical barrier, to slow down the chase. I mean, how is going hard at the front going to soften up Sky? Sky was on the front breaking the wind, and now they’re getting a draft! How does this leading thing help?

Oh no! My feed has frozen! And it was working so well! Maybe Sky management is on to me! Or maybe I’m delusional about anybody, even you, noticing or caring what I have to say!

So Sunweb is chasing to protect Kelderman’s podium spot, apparently. And Contador wants a stage win. And Bahrain-Merida is training for next season by working really hard.

Woah, Contador seems to be dropped! Soler, I think, has dropped him! It’s only 5km to go and Bahrain-Merida is still grinding away on the front. Nibali is doing nothing. He’s just a passenger. He must have used up all his strength earlier in the week. This GC group is small, with Tiger Woods, Poels, Zakarin, Kruijswijk, and some other bike racers. Wait, not Tiger Woods. Just Woods, whoever that is. Mr. Woods.

So Contador has 55 seconds on the GC group , and might even be leading the race. This would be more exciting if I actually knew. I refuse to say he’s dancing on the pedals like the announcer just said. That is so hackneyed. Contador is prancing on the pedals. His feet are spinning beautiful pirouettes. He’s boinging on the bike. He’s pogo-ing. He’s pistoning. He’s pedaling.

Okay, a vaguely familiar tall guy on that one team is attacking the GC group. If this attack comes to anything I’ll figure out who he is.

Contador is just macking it on the front! Let’s just say he is in the lead, and not worry about what happened to Soler. For the ageing champ in his last grand tour to be solo off the front, in his homeland, makes a good narrative and might even be true. In fact, with the doping problem so totally unresolved in this sport, making shit up seems as reasonable as reporting only what is truly believed.

So, here’s what’s happening. Contador is in the lead! It’s not a fairy tale, like the announcer is saying; I mean, that would imply this is just too good to be true.  But is it? I mean, it’s not like Contador never wins. And it’s not like a GC hopeful who has a bad day early and is no longer a GC threat couldn’t just save up some energy and then count on the GC guys to let him go. Is that really too good to be true? No, actually, it’s not uncommon!

Hey, guess what? I just noticed the caption says “Cabeza!” No, that’s not Spanish for “caboose,” it means “head,” as in the beef brains you can get on your burrito at a really authentic taqueria. Mystery solved! This is the head of the race! Contador truly is off the front! It’s a fairy tale romance!

There’s that big guy again! It’s Steven Kruijswijk! Of Lotto NL – Jumbo! This is really exciting as evidenced by all my exclamation points! I almost never use exclamation points unless I’m really excited, or have had too much strong coffee! This is crazy! I’m sweating like a pig! I’m sweating more than these bikers! Man this grade is steep! And Contador is practically weaving!

He’s got 58 seconds and 3.5km to go. Maybe he’ll pull it off. Behind, Kruisjwijk is plowing on, with a somewhat decent lead on the guys behind him. Where is this guy on GC? I can’t remember. I guess he either stands to climb onto the podium for the GC, or fall off it. Maybe he’s trying to take time out of Kelderman? I’m sorry. It’s been a hard week. I probably should have just slept in this morning.

There’s this teammate of Nibali’s who is super strong and has been on the front for ages and ages upon ages. His expression never changes. I think he’s one of these guinea pigs for the new alternative to doping, which is to surgically destroy certain parts of the brain as a way to shut down inhibitory nerve centers. This allows the athlete to literally push past the normal limitations that the brain imposes by prioritizing its own oxygen supply. Note: I totally just made this up and there’s not a scrap of truth to it (that I know of).

It’s under 3km to go and Nibali still hasn’t attacked. His mother and I are really disappointed. If he is the father of a small child, perhaps later today that child will start crying and say, “Daddy, you never win!” That happened to me once. True story.

Wow, the security on this course is terrible. Nobody will get out of Contador’s way. Assuming most of these are Spanish fans, don’t they understand they could ruin the big fairy tale? Is that any tale to tell their grandkids? “Our national hero, Alberto Contador, was on his way to a glorious victory on the hardest mountain stage of his final grand tour, right here on home soil, but I got in his way and he crashed into me and lost. That’s how I got this big scar on my face. Not from the crash, mind you, but the hoodlum fans afterward. I guess I should have stayed out of the way. Tee-hee!”

Kruijswijk is riding really well. I’m still not sure what he’ll have to show for it other than knowing he’s a badass. That must feel really good, thinking, “Those Sky guys are lubed to the gills, but I’m still breaking their legs! Look how fast I’m going! How did I ever get this fast? This is amazing! Outta my way, motherfrockles!”

Krijswijkiny! (To coin a new exclamation.) Look at this crowd!

Uh oh, my brother Max is telling a really funny story and I’m getting distracted! He’s talking about something I actually care about! My concentration is shot!

And now my Internet feed has evaporated! Again! I’m really sorry!

Oh no! One of Froomie’s teammates seems to be dragging him away from the rest of the GC group! It’s curtains for Nibali! I guess he was tilting at windmills all along. How Spanish of him.

Zakarin has dropped Kelderman … I guess he has a shot at the podium now? Remind me not to tune out of the Vuelta for days at a time and then not do my homework before presuming to explain a bike race to you people.

Less than 1km to go, and here’s what the race looks like:

I take it back, it’s 1.2 km to go.

Here’s Froomie’s teammate practically dropping him.

Oh no, Froome is only 30 seconds behind Contador!

Contador is dying! But the road flattens out a bit. I think he’ll be able to hold off Froomestrong.

Froome is clearly not as strong as his teammate. I should really learn this teammate’s name. And forget Froome’s.

And here’s the final moment of drama!

My online correspondent keeps telling me to buy the CBS Sports channel. But that coverage is commentated by a couple of drunken Aussies, always rambling about throwing a couple more shrimp on the barbee. I really like Sean Kelly’s commentary, which consists mainly of saying, “Yes.”

My correspondent says, “No, they’re not drunk … they’ve only had seven beers!” (Full disclosure: I’ve never heard these Aussies and have no credible reason to assume they’re drunks. But they’re not Sean Kelly.)

Hey, look, my feed is back!

Looks like I missed the grand finale. Oh well. Let’s assume that Contador won, and that Nibali didn’t take a minute out of Froome in the last kilometer. Okay, here’s the instant replay.

I give Contador a lot of credit for not doing that stupid “pistolero” victory salute where he pantomimes shooting a handgun. I got really tired of that act back when Contador was winning a lot.

Froome comes in third. He had some help.

His teammate helped too, of course, but by “help” I was of course talking about whatever high-test PEDs seem to enable him to crush everybody despite having all the finesse and grace of a child’s crayon drawing. Of a zombie.

I’m not going to bother with the podiums or interviews or making fun of Juan Antonio Flecha. Let’s just assume he’s wearing a Pepto-Bismol colored shirt and saying, “Contador won because he rode faster, which seems to happen a lot in this sport.”

Note: I will be crowdsourcing the funds needed to buy the CBS channel, or Fubio, or whatever the hell that stupid new extortion network is that has smothered all the good free feeds. Yes, of course I’m joking! I would never ask for money. This blog will always be free, and I hope you appreciate that, even if you get what you pay for.

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Sunday, September 3, 2017

Biased Blow-By-Blow - 2017 Vuelta a España Stage 15


Why watch the Vuelta a España? Good question. It’s the least prestigious of the grand tours, not even a little brother but more like the Cousin Oliver of the Tour de France. On the other hand, the Tour is usually pretty boring thanks to Chris Froome and his US Postal team. Oops, did I say US Postal? I meant Sky. Same diff. The Vuelta can actually be considerably more exciting than the Tour, particularly when the Tour riders are too tired to dominate.

Well, this year Froome isn’t too tired for anything, and already has the race pretty much locked up. The only hope for a close contest is if something dramatic happens, like he crashes and forgets to bring his bike along when he chases back on. Whatever happens today, I’ll be reporting it candidly, without pulling any punches or leaving any accusation, fair or not, unhurled.

2017 Vuelta a España Stage 15 – Alcala la Real to Sierra Nevada

Common wisdom is that this race’s final summit, Sierra Nevada, is named after the famous mountain range in California. What a typically ignorant assumption. Of course it’s named after the brewery in Chico (slogan: “Marinating college kids’ livers since 1979!).

Today’s route is brutal. It’s only 129 kilometers (80 miles), but goes over the 1st category Alto de Hazallanas, does a long descent, then finishes atop the beyond-category Sierra Nevada. Look:

“I wouldn’t be surprised if Chris Froome won it. There, I said it,” says the Eurosport announcer annoyingly. Look pal, it’s bad enough that the result is practically predetermined … do you have to rub it in?

As I join the action, we’ve got about 70 kilometers to go, or more accurately the racers do. There’s a breakaway a couple minutes of the road. It’s so cute how they pretend they have a chance of staying away! Or perhaps they’re just cynically grabbing some airtime.

This climb is 7km at 15%!  Wow! These guys are just dying, their upper bodies seesawing like crazy, all form just plain gone! There are pitches of over 20% here.

There’s some Cofidis guy leading the race.

He’s somehow suddenly got 1:12 over the shrapnel of the breakaway, which of course has detonated. This is Stéphane Rossetto, who looks pretty good for a guy who’s completely doomed. I hope I look that good when I’m doomed. Of course, maybe I’m doomed already and just don’t know it. Maybe Rossetto doesn’t know it either. Naw, he knows it.

Maybe Rossetto didn’t read the race bible, and thinks this is the final climb? I raced with a guy once who mistook the final prime for the finish, and threw his arms up in the air. Okay, it was me. In my defense, the race organizers didn’t know that you’re not supposed to have a prime on the penultimate lap. Or maybe they read that in the rules but didn’t know what “penultimate” meant. They probably thought it had something to do with Bic.

Back in the peloton, Team Sky is swarming on the front making sure everything stays boring.

The peloton is getting stretched out and frayed and won’t be long for this race. It’s been a brutal Vuelta and I’m sure everybody is tired. Since the coverage is suspended right now for a bunch of ads, I’ll fill you in on what’s been going on. Froome immediately showed his dominance on the first mountain stage, took the leader’s jersey, and has been strangling the race ever since. Nobody else has a chance, so the rest of the peloton is just showing up and collecting their paycheck. The most exciting part so far has been Froome crashing twice the other day. The second crash, on a descent, was weird … I watched it again and again, mystified. What happened? It wasn’t like he overcooked a curve, or hit a patch of something slippery, or anything like that. It looks like he just literally fell off his bike. Really weird. Here’s a snapshot, or you can watch it here (watch from about 21 seconds in).

Froome is pretty far back in the pack right now. He has so many teammates in this group he’s flanked on either side, despite nothing but Sky guys on the front.

The Eurosport commentator thinks Froome doesn’t look so good, on the basis of him standing, then sitting, etc. This means nothing, of course. And Froome looks awful all the time anyway. Now Sean Kelly (the other commentator) points out that Froome is eating a gel. “If you can eat a gel on a climb like this, you can’t be hurting too bad,” he says. He must really hate this other commentator. Perhaps it’s mutual. Or who knows, maybe the first guy deliberately says stupid stuff, just to act like a foil, a straight man.

Oh, I forgot to mention, Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) is riding his last grand tour (possibly his last race?) and has been riding really well, except for one early disastrous day when he supposedly had the flu. So he’s got no prayer in this race other than to put on a good show here and there.

They’re 2.4km from the summit. There’s a chase group with Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) and Steven Kruijswijk (Lotto NL – Jumbo) and a couple others.

See those two white dots in the middle? That’s how my feed shows me it’s frozen, as if I couldn’t tell.

Bardet had a great Tour de France, but has been nowhere in this Vuelta. How could he, though? How could anybody? How is it that Froome magically has great form? All good questions.

Wow, this road is really narrow, and in really shape. I’d love to ride it somebody, perhaps by myself I can go as slowly as I need to.

Could Tejay van Gardaren (BMC Racing Team) win a stage this year? Well, certainly no GC teams would chase him down. That’s a polite way of saying he’s not in contention. He was, for a while there, until suddenly he wasn’t.

Some guy named Sander Armee (pronounced are-MAY) is leading the climb, having dropped the other breakaway riders. Armee is on Lotto Soudal. I don’t know what happened to Rose or Rosa or Rosie or whatever that other guy was called. Armee must have a really ugly face, because the cameramen refuse to show it. Either that or the motorcycle can’t manage to pass him.

Back in the peloton, Sky still has things well in hand.

Everybody is over the summit now, and then they’ll descend for about 25km (~15 miles) before the final climb, which is a beast of about 28km (~17 miles).

Froome is up toward the front of the peloton for the descent, so that if he inexplicably falls off his bike again, at least he’ll take down some of the other contenders with him. Okay, that was a cheap shot. He’s actually a very good descender. Mostly.

Rossetto has just been passed by the 4-man chase group.

Okay, here’s a head-shot of Armee. Turns out he’s a real looker.

The other two in the chase group are Nelson Oliveira (Movistar Team) and Adam Yates (Orica-Scott). Not that it matters. The peloton isn’t far behind these guys and on the final climb, when the GC guys hit the gas, that gap will vanish.

So, I’m keeping a close eye on Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida). He skipped the Tour de France this year, after failing to win the Giro d’Italia, so in theory he should be fresher than Froomestrong. Nibali sits second on the GC, just 55 seconds behind. Nobody else has a prayer. Nibali did outsprint Froome for third recently, picking up a 4-second time bonus.

Astana has been on the front a fair bit today, which is kind of weird. Their highest-placed guy, Fabio Aru, is down in sixth, over 3 minutes down. So I guess their strategy is to wear down Team Sky, including Froome, so they can launch Aru on the final climb and he can take like 4 minutes? Good luck with that, guys.

The chase group have hit the final climb and now they saw off Oliveira and Rossetto. They’re bearing down on Armee. He’s got 30km to go, all of it uphill.

The racers are about 20 minutes ahead of schedule. Kelly says it’s because the breakaway took so long to form. I think it’s because the producer of the coverage has a party to get to or something, and gave strict orders to wrap up early. It’s like that pro wrestling match where the producer needed to be somewhere, gave the command, and the winning wrestler didn’t even bother to take off his jacket before getting into the ring. What, you’ve never watched pro wrestling? Don’t give me that.

It’s still Astana on the front. I really don’t get that.

And now the chasers have reeled in Armee.

Kruijswijk is looking really good in the breakaway. I am totally going to use his name next time I play Hangman. You know who used to be really good at Hangman? My kids. I could never guess their words when they were younger, because they couldn’t spell. It’s really hard to guess a misspelled word. Now they can spell better and have lost their edge.

Armee has blown and is going backwards. So has one of the Astana guys who pointlessly did so much work earlier. There’s probably a story behind that. “Chernetski, I don’t like you,” directeur sportif Alexandre Vinokourov must have said before the race. “I want you on the front today, setting the tempo until you blow. Do it or you’re fired.”

Contador attacks!

Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) is with him! It’s an all-or-nothing Hail Mary type move! Of course it’s doomed, but I love the idea of a bold move like the days of yore before race radios turned the sport into Moneyball.

At the front, Bardet and Yates have dropped the other two.

So, Lopez is 3:48 down on GC, in 10th. Who knows, maybe Astana has been working on the front to set him up (not Aru). But Sky doesn’t look rattled and they’ve still got plenty of guys.

Yates has now dropped Bardet. I guess he sees no point in having a breakaway companion, since the whole rest of the stage is uphill and there probably isn’t that much benefit from drafting. Besides, Yates must figure this is a shot in the dark anyway, with only a couple of minutes on the peloton and 25km more to race.

The peloton has under 30 riders in it, and five of them are Sky. No other team is this well represented, as usual.

Did you know that when Will Smith played Muhammad Ali, he had his ears pinned so they wouldn’t stick out so much? Maybe they could do that with Froome’s elbows. Just a suggestion.

Lopez and Contador are 45 seconds behind Yates. “He’s suffering majorly,” Kelly says of—who? Yates, Lopez, or Contador? But does it matter? Kelly says this about everybody. It’s just filler. It would be fun to be at a dinner party with Kelly. Asked a difficult question by his mother-in-law, he’d say, “He’s suffering majorly,” just to buy some time, before answering her actual question: “I can’t remember for sure but I think we have a Roth IRA.”

Contador and Lopez catch Bardet. He looks pretty blown, but manages to latch on. And now the peloton is catching up to Armee.

Yates is doing really well, having increased his lead to 50 seconds. Maybe he has a side bet going with somebody about how long he can stay in the lead. Maybe side bets are how these non-Sky riders motivate themselves given that all traditional goals are hopeless to achieve.

Bardet is now leading Contador and Lopez. Who knows, maybe he sat up a bit after Yates dropped him, so he’d have somebody to work with. Perhaps Yates is an introvert and Bardet is an extrovert. I’ll bet that’s it.

So:  Yates is riding a Scott bicycle, and in my last race I also rode a Scott bicycle. Coincidence? Yes.

After a commercial intermission, Yates’s lead has gone up to 1:05. Pretty impressive, really.

Perhaps Lopez is just getting ready to set up Aru later. It doesn’t look like the long-bomb move is going to achieve a whole lot, because the gap to the GC group is not really going up much. Lopez is virtually ahead of Aru on GC at the moment, but Aru is the team leader. I’d rather see Lopez do well today, myself. That’s because Aru is basically wearing tube socks, which is a fashion trend I’m really getting sick of. And anyone who beats the odds by depriving Froome of a stage win on a mountaintop finish is a hero to me.

Contador, Lopez, and Bardet have caught Kruijswijk.

The GC group is down to about 20 riders, and Sky still has 4.

Nibali attacks!

With 12km to go, he better have good legs. I would love to see Nibali spank Froome, frankly, ever since that 2015 Tour stage when Nibali soloed to victory and Froome cried foul like a little bitch.

Wow, Yates’s lead is up to 1:17.

Nibali has 20 seconds on the Froome group. Of course, whatever time he might manage to take today won’t guarantee him anything … there’s a 40km time trial coming, which clearly favors Froome who is an eerily fast time trialist.

Well, in the time I took to type that, Nibali got caught by the GC group. Man, what a waste of keystrokes.

Yates is still looking really good, and with 10km to go, maybe he’s got a chance!

Man, what an animal! Yates is climbing this bad boy in the big ring!

Froome looks as bad as ever.

With 8km to go, Yates’s lead is starting to drop. He’s at just over a minute now (on the chase group) and he looks a bit saggy. Perhaps if the four chasers catch him, Contador can get a stage win. That would be a nice consolation prize since his GC hopes were dashed so early.

Thomas de Gendt (Lotto Soudal) is somewhere between groups, having attacked yet again. I haven’t reported on it thus far because he tries to solo in every race he does and it never comes to anything. Why does he do it? Nobody knows. At least, no spectator knows. Maybe the other racers know. Maybe they tease him and he can’t stand to be in their company.

Lopez is really driving the pace of the chase group. The gap is down to 57 seconds. And suddenly Kruijswijk has been shelled! Both Contador and Bardet are out of the saddle to keep up with Lopez! Now they settle in.

And Lopez goes again and drops Contador, then Bardet!

Contador and Bardet regroup. Man, Lopez is gone! He just straight-up vacated! I don’t think there’s any question of him catching Yates now.

Sure enough, the gap to Yates is down to 33 seconds. Lopez looks really, really strong. I’m not sure how much leash the GC group will give him, but he could move into the top 5 on GC at this rate. I guess everything could change if a GC contender (say, Nibali) actually attacked Froome, I mean for real, none of this silly testing-the-waters stuff, but that’s almost impossible in the modern era, as we all know.

Lopez is only 11 seconds behind Yates. And he’s macking it! And just like that, he’s got him.

Man, he closed that gap like nothing! But Yates has jumped right on … maybe he was saving something up there.

Oh, man. I sure got that wrong. Yates detonates!

Uh oh. Yates isn’t the only one having problems.

Looks like I’ll have to settle for a Spanish-language feed from here on out. And a spotty one at that. It freezes constantly.

With under 3km to go, Lopez has 57 seconds on … well, could be the chasers, or the peloton. I can’t tell. Okay, looks like the chase group got caught. So now it’s Lopez off the front, and Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha Alpecin) has attacked ahead of the GC group.

Wow, Zakarin is really motoring! I guess he is looking to increase or protect his GC position.

Contador has been dropped from the GC group. Wow, Aru is getting dropped, too!

Lopez is on the final switchback! And he’s got the win!

Zakarin crosses the line 35 seconds behind. Maybe with this he will make into the top 3 on GC.

The GC group, in tatters, blathers over the line. Can a group blather? Yes, though I guess you’ll have to take my word for it. No, they weren’t talking. But it was a blather. Straight-up blather.

“It was a big day, and lived up to its billing, don’t you think?” the other announcer asks Kelly. “Yes, well, it was a big day, but [because Sky is too dominant, it was actually totally fricking boring],” Kelly replies. No, that’s not verbatim but you get the gist.

Why do I watch this sport? It’s pretty futile hoping something unexpected will happen. It’s always the same … either Froome wins the stage outright, or Sky lets some GC no-hoper have a bit of stage glory while locking down the group of contenders to make sure Froome has no problem hanging on to the GC lead. About the most I could really hope for is a freak accident that disrupts the essentially fated outcome.

It’s kind of like how, back when I got the newspaper, I’d read all the comics, even the really stupid ones like “Family Circus.” I knew it was pointless, that I was just wasting my time, but somehow I held out hope that one day, one of these comics would actually be funny. And they never were. At least the grand tours have a bit better track record; after all, this year’s Giro was actually quite exciting, particularly because the race lead changed hands due to a mid-race toilet emergency. We were all on pins and needles wondering if Dumoulin could make up the minute or so he lost trying to take a dump. Maybe somebody needs to slip Team Sky some powerful laxatives at some point. Maybe then we’d have a real bike race.

Well, they’re interviewing Juan Antonio Flecha now, so I’ve officially lost my patience. You know what, Vuelta a España? Just shove it.

Okay, I guess I’ll sit through Lopez’s interview. “My team was amazing. The route was really hard. I am happy.” Funny… he sure doesn’t look happy. Maybe that’s because he’s just realized how totally hackneyed his interview responses have been. “What would my speech teacher say?” he might be thinking. “I’m a total failure as a public speaker!”

Here is the stage result.

And here’s the new GC. Sure enough, Zakarin has made the (virtual) podium.

If Froomie doesn’t dominate Tuesday’s time trial too badly, I might be back to cover the final mountain stage, up the Angliru, on September 9. So stay tuned. Or not. Whatever.

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