Saturday, September 30, 2023

Epic France Trans Alps Cycling Trip - Part II


If you’ve been on albertnet lately, you’ll have learned that I recently did a week-long, fully supported bicycle tour through southeast France, tackling most of the Alpine climbs that are included in Tour de France routes. You’ll also have learned that I tend to get sidetracked by culinary matters, which is great news for those who tire of cycling lore. Well, I’m back, and this time promise to focus more on the suffering—mine in particular (your favorite!). As before, this report doesn’t have a very specific structure … it’s more like a highlights reel, because there were just too many rides, too many climbs, and too many meals to worry about sequencing them properly.


I’m really bad at navigation. I don’t have much of an explorer’s curiosity, and am happy to keep riding the same training routes over and over again. Even when I did a nine-month bike tour with my wife, we made literally zero effort to plot any kind of route—we just started by heading south along the California coast almost to Mexico, then went randomly east or north until we got to Maine. Let’s be clear though: It’s not just that I’m not interested in navigation, it’s that I lack the mental faculty for it. So my biggest fear with this French Alps tour was that I’d get dropped and then get lost, in this strange foreign land where you can’t even get a normal cup of coffee.

Hoping to have my fears assuaged, I asked K, our supported-tour veteran, if getting dropped would necessarily mean getting lost. His reply was emphatic: “If you don’t download the GPX files, you will definitely get lost.” D’oh!

This is kind of a classic pitfall of modern society: you’re expected to be an expert in the latest technology whether you like it or not. Events and itineraries are now communicated via social media—never mind that these vanity platforms were originally designed solely to increase teenagers’ insecurity. Case in point: the bike tour organizers took to sending important schedule updates via WhatsApp, a platform I do not, and shall not, use. On top of all this, I’m suddenly supposed to know what a GPX file is …. presumably it runs on a Garmin (i.e., one of the expensive gizmos I don’t own).

Well, I found the email with all the routes, downloaded a GPX file, tried to open it on my phone, and was offered two apps to try. One of them I hadn’t heard of, but the other was (surprise!) an app I actually use. It’s Sigma Ride, the workout tracking app for my cheap, weird bike computer that nobody else in America has. Well, the GPX file opened right up, which was a pleasant surprise but not that helpful. After all, it’s not like I want to ride around the Alps peering into my phone the whole time. On a whim, I clicked a three-dot icon and saw an option to beam the route into my bike computer via Bluetooth. And, voilà! There it was, the route loaded in my bike computer so it could give me step-by-step directions … a feature I was vaguely aware it might have but had never before investigated. Sweet! Now I could totally get dropped and all I had to worry about was everyone snickering at my frailty behind my back! (You know, the devil I know…)

Col de Joux Plane and Col de la Columbière

I don’t remember much about our first climb of the day, Cat 1 Col de Joux Plane, other than we started up it immediately, with like zero warm-up. That’s okay, because I was raring to go after a great night’s sleep. Ha. Ha ha ha. Ha ha ha ha ha. Actually I hadn’t slept for shit, between jet lag, the room being too warm, anxiety about the big day of riding, etc. Plus, my older daughter phoned me in the middle of the night. Why? Well, my phone had gone berserk and had been texting and re-texting her my Wordle result and some trip photos almost continuously, all night, creating the illusion I was awake and insane and already on my phone. At least, that’s what led my daughter to forget the time zone difference. My roommate was oddly gracious about the whole thing; turns out he was wide awake at the time anyway. I’m not the only one having trouble sleeping.

Anyway, the pace on the Joux Plane was fine. The photo above is from early in the climb. The first descent was beautiful and fast and fun, and my rented Felt FR road bike handled very well—so if you stumbled on this blog by searching on “Felt FR,” and are this close to buying that bike, and don’t mind a 73-degree seat tube angle instead of 72, well, shoot, just go ahead and buy it. It’s a good bike that does not hesitate to dive right into the curves.

Near the base of the Hors Categorie (i.e., “too difficult to even categorize”) Col de la Columbière, as if in some kind of harmonic convergence, my East Bay Velo Club teammates Craig and Ian and I all had to pee at the same moment. (As far as you know, we dutifully used a public restroom and any photo you may have seen of any less responsible behavior was surely Photoshopped.) Following this stop we found ourselves off the back of the group, which by this point had pretty much split apart into tiny clumps, pairs, and individuals. We passed them all, like in one of those car race video games. It was super fun. Craig paced Ian and me, which is bog standard for all the rides we do, as though Craig were our super-domestique … except that in the end he always sails off into the sunset instead of us.

Sure enough, about three kilometers from the Columbière summit, where the climb gets particularly hard, Craig accidentally dropped me. He would never, ever attack; it’s just that he forgets how limited my endurance truly is, and after all he doesn’t have eyes in the back of his head. Sometimes he realizes I’m gapped and he holds up, but other times I’m too far back and just does his own thing. It’s kind of like a cat playing with a snake, and not realizing he’s actually killed it, and then he wonders why the snake isn’t very much fun anymore.


Did you notice something just now? Something very odd for albertnet? Like, how I used the metric system to specify the distance from the summit? Nice catch. As you know from this post, I’m a proponent of the imperial system of measurement, even if this puts me at odds with the entire scientific community. Well, I haven’t renounced those views; it’s just that in the very specific context of Alpine mountain passes, kilometers have their place. It’s because of these cool guideposts you’ll see on every major climb:

If you click to zoom on the above image you’ll note that that sign gives all kinds of info. It gives the name of the climb (which, believe it or not, you can forget if you’ve targeted several in a day and are severely oxygen-deprived); the distance to the summit in kilometers; the current altitude (alas, in meters, which is still not so useful to me since I can’t do simple arithmetic under physical duress); and the average percent grade for the next kilometer. This info is generally very useful (though at times it can seem to be taunting me, like when the end of a climb seems to never come). Do I wish all this info were in imperial units? Well, almost, except that, kilometers being shorter than miles, this arrangement obviously gives me more signs to look at, and a better sense of progress. So I’ll accept this use of kilometer as the exception that proves the rule.

On the final climb, the Category 1 Col de la Croix Fry, Craig and I encountered some lovely cows, bells a-jangling:

I still had great legs on this final climb of the day, which was so satisfying, I cannot tell you. As I said, I’d worried about not keeping up, and embarrassing myself, and trying the patience of my pals and other Epic A riders, but this is not at all what was happening. My legs were totally up to the job. This surprised me because I knew I hadn’t trained enough for this trip. I just can’t seem to carve out enough time, and I’m getting too old to simply wing it—at least, that’s what I’d assumed, only to end up riding just fine. But this satisfaction with my fitness wasn’t only about ageing well. Let’s just say the last couple of years have been hard on me, so to be doing something bloody difficult, but with aplomb, gave me renewed faith in my whole self (even if my competence is in the largely useless realm of amateur cycling). The scenery was pretty glorious, too.

After a sweet, sweeping descent to our next hotel, and a giant snack there involving cured meats, we wandered around the little town of La Clusaz and noted their brilliant open-air market. Check out what you can get from this little vender:

Not to be unpatriotic or anything, but this sight reinforced my growing sense that farmers’ markets in America are a joke. I think that, as with factory outlet stores, farmers’ markets started off well—an actual farmer could sell truly local, fresh produce directly to consumers—but then morphed into a sham when deeply cynical minds realized that once people had latched on to an idea, they’d pursue it indefinitely regardless of whether there was any value in it. So we have people setting up tables at these farmers’ markets with produce they just bought somewhere (which is sometimes still in someone else’s packaging!) and then they actually mark it up because the farmers’ market seems like a “premium” experience that is worth paying extra for. Sheesh.

Bad weather!

Oh, man, the forecast for the third day was not promising: a 93% chance of rain from 5 a.m. through late afternoon. Sure enough, it was already raining when we woke up, and raining when we rolled out. What a grind. I don’t have a good rain jacket, for the simple reason that—as documented here—I don’t ride in the rain. What I do have is this big puffy thing that doesn’t breathe very well, doesn’t wad up small enough to easily fit in a jersey pocket, and isn’t really waterproof. I think of it as the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Jacket.

Perhaps halfway up the Cat 3 Col des Aravis the rain let up somewhat, and I had a nice time riding by a lot of cows, their standard-issue bells making the usual pleasant racket.

The respite didn’t last, and on the Cat 2 Col des Saisies, K and I rode through a downpour of biblical proportions, the rain drumming on our helmets and jackets, the road completely flooding. You know how when you’re in a car wash, you sometimes get the sensation of the car rolling forward though you know it isn’t? Same deal: the water rushing past my wheels gave me the illusion of hauling ass up the mountain until I lifted my gaze again. I wish I had photos and videos of this, but of course you can never get that footage … you’re too busy suffering and shivering. There was thunder and lightning, and K wisecracked about opportunistically riding next to me so he’d never be the tallest object.

Here’s a photo of the summit, where the rain had finally let up. K and I are offering our gratitude, or at least a photo op, to Saint Anne, whom we took from this shrine to be the patron saint of travelers. Turns out (based on some very light research) she’s actually the patron saint of unmarried women, housewives, and women in labor. Whatever.

We warmed up at the van, scarfing Cokes, cookies, fruit, chocolate milk, and of course cured meats. We had a decently dry descent and, during a brief stop at one of those darling French villages, stashed our rain gear in the van for the climb.

We began the final climb up the Hors Categorie Col du Pré. Halfway up, the skies got darker again, and Craig and Ian fetched their (slim, scrunch-able, actually waterproof) jackets from the van to have on hand. I decided to take my chances (which gave me the opportunity to noodle on ahead). The climb was a lot of fun. It’s a gorgeous road with a lot of super steep pitches.

The sky grew increasingly tenebrous as we climbed.

The climb went on and on.

This could have been a great photo if the smartphone camera software weren’t so janky:

I mean, look at how small Ian looks compared to Craig—like a dwarf or something! Craig’s head looks as tall as Ian’s torso! And Craig’s front wheel looks way larger than his rear. What is this nonsense? This is why you want a real camera.

With 4km to go, I got my last photo from the Col de Pré … after this, the skies opened up and the rain just absolutely pummeled us. I was soaked to the skin. At the summit, we piled into the van and went through our backpacks of warm gear. Ian had an extra jersey for me, and after some discussion four of us, plus the guide, decided to forge ahead on the descent while the rest of the crew went down in the van. It was a frigid descent, rain flowing over the road like a water slide at a theme park. A road construction crew, decked out like stormtroopers, stared at us dumbfounded. Ian, riding a bike with rim brakes, eventually thought better of the whole enterprise and pulled off to the side to be picked up. When we reached the town down in the valley, the rain showed no signs of letting up, and Craig reported, with fascination, that my lips were completely blue. With only a relatively unexciting flat run-in to the hotel ahead, we bagged it and climbed in the van. The heater was blasting in there. By the time we got to the hotel we’d all been basically poached alive in our wet gear. I hope there are no pets in the cargo hold of this aircraft, proximate to my luggage, as I make my way home. I have never before encountered such stinky cycling gear, and that’s saying something.


We lodged at a strange health spa type hotel in Brides-les-Bains. This is where unhealthy people with unhealthy lifestyles go to get cured by the special waters and various spa treatments, so that they can enjoy robust health going forward without changing any of their unhealthy behaviors. Several of these guests regarded us with a bit of the ol’ stink-eye, as if deeply suspicious of our very presence at their spa.

This place had those fancy outward-facing elevators that are like glass cylinders so you can watch the world go by during your vertical trip. They were also among the slowest elevators I’ve ever encountered, with disconcerting juddering at times. Most interesting of all was the sound they made: think of a giant, like the one atop Jack’s beanstalk, groaning, combined with the sound of a whale calling out across the ocean. The noise was nearly constant. At the request of my wife I’ve attempted to recreate the sound:

Dinner got off to a good start, with a salad that was like 70% Serrano ham.

The entrée, though, was a bit on the small and non-starchy side:

The menu described this as “Veal nut with its juice.” Needless to say, this led to all kinds of sophomoric humor (“testicle of a young bull, with…”). The dessert, or “desert” as the menu called it, was a peach clafoutis, which I guess was supposed to be like a cobbler but was practically frozen. We’d have starved except the very good bread was plentiful (though still bereft of butter or olive oil). But then, breakfast the next morning featured the excellent pastries we’d come to rely on, so no harm done.

At every breakfast I had a croissant and a pain au chocolat, sometimes two, along with a big bowl of cereal, some eggs, cured meats, cheeses, and yogurt. This is how I managed to gain four pounds in a week—the same week I rode almost 400 miles and climbed almost 60,000 feet. God bless these Alpine cows and all the butter they make possible.

To be continued…

Well, that seems like enough for this round. I’m getting cold just remembering all this. Check back soon because I’ll be reporting on the Col de la Loze, which is considered the hardest climb in the entire Alps; the famous Col de la Madeleine; and the absolutely brutal Col du Glandon. And of course I’ll describe our caloric intake as well, to include one of the weirdest and French-est dinners I’ve ever had.

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Monday, September 25, 2023

Epic France Trans Alps Cycling Trip - Part I


I did a week-long fully-supported bike trip through the French Alps with three friends. We hopscotched from one fancy hotel to another, with a full staff in vans supporting us the whole way. The trip was called the Epic France Trans Alps, and basically took us over every major Alpine mountain pass featured in the Tour de France. Not just this year’s Tour, but all of them. That’s 18 categorized climbs, half of them “Hors Categorie,” aka HC, which means “so difficult they cannot be classified.”

If you think this sounds hard, you’re right, though I’m suffering worse now that I’m on an airplane, in coach, headed back to my worldly responsibilities, and the person in the seat next to me has really bad breath. I’m about to start looking for a parachute…

This ride report will dispense with my usual formula of recounting the food and then the riding. There’s just too much to report, and I doubt you overmuch care what order we did anything in. This is just a highlights reel, and every couple thousand words I’ll cut it off and call it a post. (Readers complain I go on too long….)

Rental bike

The airlines are apparently cooler these days about not charging for bicycles, but they don’t take liability for any damage. Plus, I’m lazy, so I rented a bike. On the first day, we supplied the staff mechanic with pedals, saddles, bike computers, etc. and made sure the fit was right. We’d sent in our measurements in advance, and sure enough, the bike fit me pretty darn well. The tires looked really fat, and seemed awfully soft, but I’m told that’s the modern style. I asked three different randos if the tires felt too squishy to them, and they all said naw, it’s fine.

In case you’re a tech weenie, here’s the bike. I’m not going to geek out on the details other than to say it has a carbon frame, hella aero wheels, disc brakes, 12 cogs in the back, a compact double up front, and SRAM electronic shifting. The shifting hasn’t changed much since I first reported on it, here. Over the course of the week, I threw my chain three times, but in each case I was able to shift it back on via lever-taps, without needing to stop. (I did have to restart my heart each time.)

Wine with lunch?!

Since the first ride would just be an hour or so (to shake down the bikes), we had lunch in the hotel restaurant instead of having a picnic on the road. I’ve never done one of these supported tours before, so I kind of go with the flow and just play along like I know the drill. (I know—story of my life, right?) So when the waitress opened a bottle of wine for the table, and my pals elected to partake (“We wouldn’t want to waste it,” Ian said), I went along. I know drinking before hard exercise is absurd (even a small amount that wouldn’t affect motor skills), but I figured what the hell, I’m eating all this great bread anyway, it’ll sop it up. I was a couple sips in when we noticed waitresses rushing around removing wine bottles from the tables. “A mistake was made,” one explained to us, though she stopped short of removing our bottle since we’d started in on it. I guess the wine was only for the staff, not the riders. Oops.

When dessert arrived—crème brûlée—the others turned it down, not wanting to still be digesting as we tackled the Montée d’Avoriaz. I said screw it—I paid for this dessert, and it’s gonna be tasty. I’d muddle through the ride somehow, I figured.

Col des Égos

I knew this first ride would bring out the egos. There were two week-long tours running simultaneously, with the same staff and hotels, but different routes. The Epic one I signed up for has longer days and more climbs than the Trans group would do. Then, within each tour there was an A group and a B group. (My old scoutmaster would have called them “the kickass group and the pick-ass group,” bless his twisted, deeply suspect heart.) I was surprised that fully 15 of the Epic riders declared themselves Group A. Some of these guys looked a little old to me. Sure, they were fit and trim, but come on … it won’t be long before they’ll be offered wheelchairs at airports. I’d assumed going into this tour that I’d be bringing up the rear, hopefully not making everyone wait too long, but now I wasn’t so sure. One thing I did know: everyone was going to go super hard on this opening ride, to strut their stuff. It’s just how the male ego works. Except mine: I vowed (silently) to behave.

In the event, there was little temptation for me to hammer. My (albeit world class) stomach was working pretty hard on all that bread and crème brûlée, and surely the wine didn’t help. Meanwhile, I’d discovered that riding out of the saddle was tricky because my tires were, I now realized, severely underinflated. As I rocked the bike, there was a slight handling latency, the front tire buckling just a bit. It was like trying to sleep on a downy airbed, one of those weirdly thick ones, that when they invariably lose air start to sway a bit, like you’re onboard ship. In fact, my bike and I both felt a bit woozy in general. It was like some foggy, slow-motion dream, rider after rider rolling by me. This one guy passed me in a switchback and said, in a Mr. Rogers voice, “Coming through!” There was something so politely triumphant about it, it kind of rankled, especially since he was so damn old. He looked like he could be 40-something from the neck down, though looking at his face you’d think late sixties at least. But I wasn’t about to mount any resistance to his bold move. I just watched him pedal away and thought: enjoy yourself. Enjoy stomping me. Enjoy your $9K bike. I’ll be back here practicing my resignation skills, being the shit one once again.

As slow as I was going, continental drift was in my favor and I eventually made the summit. Here we are doing a photo op: the East Bay Velo Club 4, plus a couple of new pals, both (conveniently) named Michael. (I thought of not using any names here, but everyone is on Strava and if some serial killer wants to stalk wealthy cyclists he could easily do it without this blog.)

See the Michael on the right, in the neon? We chatted with him at lunch. He’s recently retired, does a fair number of these tours, and rides an old bike with a steel frame that can be disassembled like a sniper’s rifle. He was nipping at my heels all the way up the climb. I figured him for about 60 but came to learn he’s 71 years old, and still tough as nails.

I figured if I tried to descend back to the hotel with such squishy tires I’d probably roll one, so I found the van and asked the mechanic to take a look. Each tire had just 40 PSI! Boy did I feel like an idiot. Once I got those bad boys topped up at 80, my rented Felt felt like an actual road bike, no longer like a beach cruiser. The descent was glorious. Smooth, flow-y road, amazing scenery, an expert guide with perfect lines to follow. Comparing notes, Craig and I were just giddy.


The format of this tour makes a lot of sense, for the ride and my report: if you’re sick of cycling, either because you’re knackered from a hard day in the saddle or from reading too much tedious text on the topic, suddenly there’s this great meal in front of you. We started with this:

France has clearly not (okay, has only recently) gotten the memo about cured meats being carcinogenic. (Then again, they’ve never taken the tobacco threat seriously either.) We ate cured meats roughly three times a day throughout the week, even K who is otherwise a vegetarian. It’s just so good, you never say no to all manner of charcuterie, ham, bacon, you name it. Perhaps it’s a regional specialty. That’s what I decided, anyway; I can’t be bothered to look it up now.

Here is the entrée, some kind of amazing roast pork. I must confess I’ll probably never feel perfectly natural sitting at a table and having something like this set in front of me. That’s just not how I was raised. Don’t get me wrong, my mom is an amazing cook, but our pantry always had different stuff. When was a kid, Mom would use oatmeal to stretch a pound of ground turkey to make burgers for six. Once my patty squirted out of the back of the bun and I didn’t even notice. The only beef we ever got was liver because serving it was considered a mother’s duty back in those days. We got pretty cool cheeses from some co-op, but they were all the melting, cooking kind—not like these soft French ones. Hell, we grew up drinking powdered milk. So when I had this incredible roast pork dish on my plate there was a small part of me that feared someone would suddenly rush out from the kitchen and say, “Stop! A mistake has been made! You must give that back!”

Here’s the dessert, a little cake doodad, possibly flourless, with flawless ice cream. Since we’re on the topic, here is my recipe for flourless chocolate cake.


Wait, you’re thinking: this report has so far delivered only 16 miles of actual cycling action, but at least 6,000 calories of food lore, and now you’re gonna talk about breakfast? Seriously?

Well, yeah. This is kind of what travel is for. As different as the Alps are from the Sierra Nevadas and the Rockies (and don’t worry, I will eventually get into these differences), the French terrain is far more similar to the American than their food is to ours. I can only imagine that a European traveler to the U.S. would be endlessly appalled by the garbage we serve up. A grocery store baguette? Forget it, it’d go straight into the garbage. And a croissant? Spongy, insipid, indestructible, ageless. Eat an American motel breakfast pastry and you’ll end up with a gross film on the roof of your mouth. And don’t you dare eat scrambled eggs from a steam tray … they’ll be soggy or dried-out or somehow both, and won’t taste a thing like an egg, which they’re not—they’re surely poured from a carton. That’s the US hospitality industry for you. Meanwhile, I stayed at an airport Holiday Inn Express in Geneva and had an entirely serviceable continental breakfast. Sure, the croissant wasn’t brilliant, but on the balance was quite worth eating. So I’m going to spend some time on the food in these posts.

This is the croissant I had at my first official tour hotel breakfast. Light, airy, buttery, and flaky enough to make a mess on my plate.

Bread in general can be intolerable in the U.S. Anything you’d get with a so-called continental breakfast in most places would just make you want to cry. Sure, we have great one-off bakeries in the Bay Area, but the quality control if you randomly toured the country would be abysmal. In contrast, you really can’t go wrong in Europe, in my experience. I fearlessly had a pre-made sandwich at the Geneva airport and another at the Zurich airport, both on rather good bread. And it wasn’t just the bread: one of these sandwiches was a Caprese. Can you imagine ordering a Caprese sandwich at an airport in America? The tomatoes would be pink and mushy, the bread like cardboard, the basil flavorless, the fresh Mozzarella soggy and limp. You’d probably start crying. I certainly would.

On the flip side, my pals and I observed something really bizarre at every French hotel we ate at: as good as the bread was, there was never any butter. WTF? Doesn’t everybody love good butter for their great bread? (Exception: I did find one little block of Président brand butter at one breakfast, which I’d thought was cheese. Maybe the hotel did, too.) Even olive oil was never offered, and if the bread hadn’t been so good we’d surely have complained (I mean, other than to each other). At our last dinner there was one little oil/vinegar dispenser going around, but literally just one, and the absolutely world class waitstaff seemed really flummoxed: perhaps not by not having more of these dispensers, but by this one having shown up out of nowhere seeding discontent at neighboring tables.

Meanwhile, I cannot understand the French hotel industry’s inability to cater to Americans’ coffee tastes. Every coffee shop in America has some version of a basic house coffee. Isn’t Starbucks showcasing this globally now? Plus, the archetypal large mug of coffee is featured in countless Hollywood movies that are exported around the world. The concept is not complicated: we drink a dark brown beverage, brewed from coffee beans, in quantities of 12 to 24 ounces, and we call it, simply, “coffee.” It is not cappuccino or espresso or any other kid-size micro-beverage that you drink like it’s a shot of booze. I thought we had this coffee mismatch solved after World War II when Europeans saw our American soldiers watering down their dinky coffee-bean-freebasing drinks and took to calling this larger beverage an Americano, but nobody in the Rhône-Alpes region seems to have heard of this. The machines have all these buttons with weird names like “Café Long” which doesn’t mean anything in any language, or “Café Noisette” which sounds like it would be “noisy” but actually literally translates “hazelnut” which the ensuing beverage did not have the slightest flavor of. Over the course of the trip I tried six or eight different fancy digital coffee machines and a few humans and never did get a normal cup of coffee, not even an Americano. Most of what I drank tasted mainly like foamed milk and at no point did I manage to get the simple black coffee I was looking for. It’s like some vast conspiracy to deliberately fail to understand this simple concept of what non-fussy, non-micro, basic-ground-coffee-bean-based beverages are supposed to be. I never even saw a normal mug, except this one in my hotel room (the purpose of which was not clear, but which I liked due to the cyclist pattern):

To be continued…

Well, I see I’ve pretty much run out of room here, or more to the point you’ve run out of patience. Tune in next time when I promise to get as far as the Col de Joux Plane, the Col de la Columbière, the Col de Croix Fry, and surely another meal or two.

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Friday, September 15, 2023

2023 Vuelta - Jumbo Visma & the Kuss Conundrum


It’s been a hell of a Vuelta a España. Not since Vuelta del Taco Truck have I been so enthralled. Not that it’s a particularly close race lately—Team Jumbo Visma is dominating—but there’s some intrigue within the team. As I write this, the American Sepp Kuss is still leading the GC, but with just a handful of seconds over his teammate, recent Tour de France winner Jonas Vingegaard. Kuss is only another minute ahead of another teammate, recent Giro d’Italia winner Primoz Roglic.

The really weird thing is, Kuss’s lead has been dropping a bit, stage after stage, because his own teammates have been attacking. A member of my bike club emailed the group, “Can one of you armchair directors sportif explain today’s stage of the Vuelta in which 2 guys on the GC leader’s team attack him on the final climb? I’m struggling to find a charitable explanation.” By the time you read this, things may have changed, but I want to follow my pal’s prompt and investigate this weirdness from this particular moment in time, right after the Angliru stage, when the team still has the opportunity to decide how to conduct itself, with Kuss still in the red jersey. I have developed some theories.

Theory #1: it’s just the hierarchy

It could be that Team Jumbo Visma is simply too risk-averse to shake up the established hierarchy for no good reason. Not that they don’t have good reason, from my perspective as a fan. I mean, I think rewarding a very loyal domestique, who some commentators are saying may be the best mountain domestique in the history of the sport, is actually a good reason to challenge the established pecking order. But this team is about winning races, not just being cool. Roglic has won the Vuelta three times, Vingegaard has won two Tours de France, and the team can be confident these guys won’t falter in the final week, or buckle under the responsibility of finishing out the job. As a GC leader, Kuss is an unknown entity.

Beyond tactics, this hierarchy could extend into the messier realm of unconscious bias, like an unofficial caste system in the sport. Consider the label domestique. It wasn’t until I was talking about bike racing with some recovering journalists recently that I thought much about this term. I was just trying to tell the story of Kuss pounding champagne after his brilliant stage win (more on this later), but—with the curiosity befitting journalists—my friends backed me up and said wait, wait, wait. … support riders are actually called domestiques? It really is an ungenerous term, like calling your teammates “the help.” In this light, the sport really does promote elitism. Meanwhile, it surely takes a massive ego to be a Grand Tour winner and perhaps guys like Vingegaard and Roglic take it as an article of faith that they’re simply superior to their staff, occupying a more rarified realm. (“Kuss?! That motherscratcher? He’s never even made the final podium!”) If that’s their feeling, the idea of this (albeit strong) domestique becoming a GC winner is just preposterous and cannot be allowed.

From this hierarchical viewpoint, even letting Kuss ride hard in the Stage 10 time trial was actually charitable.  Don’t forget that Floyd Landis, while in his last year of service to Lance Armstrong, was severely punished for riding too fast in a Tour time trial (instead of saving his energy for his support role in the later stages). Although Floyd professed his innocence—“I was going easy, I’m just really strong!”—Lance threw a fit and flushed Floyd’s blood bag down the toilet, right in front of him, to remind him who was boss. (No, I did not make that up. It really happened. It’s in Tyler Hamilton’s book.)

By the way, Kuss was a good sport after the Angliru stage, congratulating his two teammates on, well, beating him.

Theory #2: no gifts

During one of his Tour “victories,” Lance let Marco Pantani win the Mount Ventoux stage, which was an unpopular move with everyone. In the press conference post-race, Lance casually mentioned he’d only cared about the GC, basically announcing the gift, and Pantani was offended and said so. There was more backlash because Lance could have just been making an excuse instead of admitting Pantani was stronger, and for this reason Lance himself came to regret his professed generosity. Many Pantani fans felt ripped off, too, like there was an unnecessary asterisk next to their hero’s win. Well, the next time Lance had the opportunity to win a stage, when he already had the GC in the bag, he took that opportunity, and during the podium celebration the former five-time Tour champ Bernard Hinault said to him, “That’s right: no gifts.”

Hinault lived by this ethos himself. Prior to the 1986 Tour de France, he announced that he would be working for his teammate, Greg LeMond, to reward him for his past support. It would be like passing the baton. But in the actual race, Hinault totally attacked LeMond, several times, leading to a big dustup in the media, a real soap opera. When questioned about breaking his word, Hinault shrugged and said something like, “I wanted to make him earn it.” And wasn’t it a better story in the end, that LeMond had to beat everyone, even his friend and teammate, to prove he deserved the Tour title?

Applying this to the current Vuelta is admittedly a bit of a stretch, but perhaps this “make him earn it” notion is a clever story Vingegaard and Roglic are telling themselves because it’s more palatable to them than, say, theory #1.

Theory #3: Plan B

It’s also possible that according to some convoluted tactical logic, to have Vingegaard and Roglic attack is just a way to make sure Jumbo Visma has a plan B for winning the GC if Kuss should happen to falter. Since the time Kuss took the red jersey, Vingegaard has soloed twice. The first time, at least, the Dane wasn’t in great position on GC, having had a poor stage or two. His attack bought him some needed time on his rivals, and after all nothing was preventing Kuss from also attacking and defending his own position (which he did). Such tactics aren’t very nice, of course, but if the overall team directive is to win the GC at all costs, and if Vingegaard and Roglic have the legs, why not?

This wouldn’t be the first time a team put a GC leader’s bid at risk to support a Plan B. In one of the Tours that Lance “won,” his teammate Víctor Hugo Peña crashed in the team time trial, and the team waited for him. I was astonished … Lance was not known for his dedication to the team, to put it lightly. A pal explained to me that Peña was the team leadership’s Plan B for the GC if something happened to Lance, so they needed to keep him from losing time in the TTT.

Jumbo Visma themselves have some experience with Plan B: last year, when Roglic crashed in the Tour and couldn’t perform at his normal level, his support rider Vingegaard had been kept close enough on GC to take over and get the win.

Theory #4: envy

It could be that Vingegaard and Roglic are nursing petty jealousies when it comes to Kuss. I mean, let’s not kid ourselves: Kuss is better looking, has more charisma, is more of a crowd favorite, and as the tireless, loyal domestique is more relatable than these past heroes … and now he gets to lead the Vuelta on top of it all. A real Cinderella story.

In case you don’t take all these claims for granted, let’s look at a couple of Kuss’s endearing exploits. When he won his first Vuelta stage a few years back (and again when he won a stage this year), he did something that American mountain bike racers have done for years: as he headed for the finish line he rode near the fencing at the side of the road and held out his hand to high-five scores of fans. I don’t think these European fans had ever seen anything like it. To see him doing that, a big shit-eating grin on his face … I had tears in my eyes.

And then let’s consider Kuss’s podium celebration after this year’s stage win. He took the standard jumbo-sized bottle of champagne and sprayed the crowd with it, as is customary, but the he went completely off-script. Most cyclists, especially climbers, can barely lift that magnum to their lips, and take a prim little sip. Kuss hefted that bad boy above his head and started just pounding it. Check this out:

It’s kind of amazing how long he went and how much he drank … that would be impressive even for a non-bike-racer. The commentator Christian Vande Velde said admiringly, “You go, boy!”

It’s not just any cyclist who could do this to such good effect. Roglic, who to me looks like a bit of a thug with his swarthiness and amateurish tattoos, might have looked kind of scary pounding the booze. And Vingegaard … God forgive me, but everything about that guy seems a bit weird, so to see him guzzling the champagne might have just seemed, I dunno, a little creepy. But Kuss, with his apple-pie face and boyish charm, and his unassuming persona, and that little surprised, half-suppressed burp at the end, all wrapped up with an exuberant grin ... well, it’s the very epitome of charisma.

Roglic in particular might envy Kuss’s situation enough to want to spoil it. In the 2020 Vuelta, during the last mountain stage, Roglic had a narrow GC lead that was challenged when Richard Carapaz made a sweet solo move. Carapaz needed only like 40 or 45 seconds to unseat Roglic, and things looked dicey for a bit. Uncharacteristically, Kuss was dropped, and another Jumbo Visma domestique had to make his way up and slay himself for Roglic. In this situation, Kuss—though he’d let down his leader in a key moment—didn’t get a lot of attention; his lapse wasn’t that visible because the cameras weren’t on him. Compare this to the one Tour de France that Roglic probably felt he had in the bag, only to spectacularly lose it in the final time trial to the upstart Tadej Pogacar. Roglic will never live that down. And now Kuss, who is leading the Vuelta seemingly by accident, could go on to lose it without any particular disgrace because after all, he didn’t come into the race with any ambition other than to do his normal job of domestique. To Roglic, that might rankle enough to incite an attack or two.

Theory #5: the business people

It’s possible that Vingegaard and Roglic didn’t launch those attacks on their own initiative. The big brass of the team might have ordered them to do it, for financial reasons. After all, if Kuss were to win the Vuelta, he’d be in high demand from other teams and Jumbo Visma might have to raise his salary. If all they care about is one of their members winning the GC, why not make it one of the guys who’s already at the top of the salary scale?

Theory #6: the business people, continued

It’s also possible that the team’s business leaders didn’t like Kuss’s champagne-swilling antics. Perhaps, they feel, this sent the wrong message about the Jumbo Visma team culture. They may have decided his behavior was unprofessional and glamorized the uninhibited consumption of an alcoholic beverage. “Think of the kids! Those poor impressionable youth!” they might be thinking. Perhaps they determined that the less attention Kuss gets from here on out, the better … so he shouldn’t be allowed to win the Vuelta. So they deploy their henchman, Vingegaard and Roglic, to stop him.

Theory #7: nationalism

Ever since the Dubya years, and particularly since the Trump years, the United States hasn’t exactly been the darling of Europe. It also doesn’t help our cause when American tourists like me go around saying things like, “World War II: you’re welcome.” (No, of course I don’t actually say this, but you get the point.) It also didn’t help that Lance took his don’t-mess-with-Texas ethos over there and messed with Europe, handing the Tour (and the sport) its biggest scandal in history. For Vingegaard and Roglic, as helpful as Kuss has been to his team, maybe they’re nursing some unconscious anti-American grudge such that they can’t bring themselves to promote him to the protected rider.

If you’re skeptical about this theory, and haven’t felt like Kuss wears his nationality on his sleeve, consider Exhibit A, his bike travel case:

That really does smack of unbridled patriotism, doesn’t it? I mean, would you use such a loud, brazen product? I sure wouldn’t. With all this in mind, you’ll surely be relieved to learn that (at least to my knowledge) Kuss’s bike case actually looks nothing like this.  I was just messing with you.

Theory #8: it’s not about Kuss

It could be that these attacks actually have nothing to do with Kuss. For all I know, Roglic and Vingegaard are bitter rivals, and their attacks are simply on one another, with Kuss and the rest of the peloton being collateral damage. Or even if the two get along, Roglic could be lashing out at having been kept off the Tour team this year, and wants to show everyone he was wronged, and/or Vingegaard wants to demonstrate that only he could have won the last two Tours.

Theory #9: irrational exuberance

Maybe these riders have been trying to do the right thing and work for Kuss, but they just can’t help themselves. When you’ve got the legs, it’s hard to resist using them. Look at LeMond in the 1985 Tour, attacking Hinault, his team leader. I already mentioned Hinault returning the favor in the 1986 Tour. Then there was Marc Soler up in the breakaway throwing a tantrum during the 2019 Vuelta when his Movistar team called him back to help his leader (i.e., do his fricking job). Sport in general is riddled with reckless, impulsive behavior. Chalk it up to testosterone poisoning.

Theory #10: none of the above

Of course it’s entirely possible there’s a perfectly good reason for these attacks that just isn’t apparent to an armchair directeur sportif like me. For example, Roglic and Vingegaard could be space aliens driven by forces utterly foreign to us humans. That would explain a lot, actually.

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Friday, September 8, 2023

From the Archives - Bits & Bobs Volume IX


This is the ninth installment in the “From the Archives – Bits & Bobs” series. Volume I is here, Volume II is here, Volume III is here, Volume IV is here, Volume V is here, Volume VI is here, Volume VII is here, and Volume XIII is here. (The different volumes have little or nothing to do with one another.)

As with other installments, these are taken from emails to various friends and family members, back when I archived them as simple text files for posterity. Who know that posterity would come in the form of a blog? I sure didn’t, as the Internet was (almost) entirely unknown in those days…

January 15, 1995

I filled out a W-2 the other day and was about to check “Single” as I’ve been doing for about 15 years, and then realized, “Wait a second—I’m married!” Then, I had to look at all the worksheets to see how many deductions to claim. I was shocked to realize that as far as the IRS is concerned, I do not qualify as the Head of the Household. Just what in the hell is going on here when a man doesn’t automatically qualify as head of the household?

July 6, 1995

We have some houseguests from Holland. In their honor we just ate “Gourmet,” a Dutch culinary tradition (you might even say celebration). I got the Gourmet set from my brother. You have these little burners, that burn Sterno, with little 4-inch non-stick pans on a cage above them, and you throw in little pieces of meat and vegetables, kind of like fajitas. It takes forever, and it’s a lot of fun, like a great movie that you don’t want to end. You get to try all kinds of different combinations—I ate at least ten different pans of food. It’s great. The only problem is that the flame goes out every so often and it’s kind of scary relighting it. I’m sure after doing this dozens of times I’ll get overconfident, squirt Sterno right into the dying flame, and blow up my kitchen.

July 30, 1995

I had an epiphany recently. I was going to brush my teeth and I noticed that E—’s toothpaste tube wasn’t rolled neatly from the end, but was squeezed in the middle. This shouldn’t have bothered me too much, since we have separate toothpastes (not really by design, but because I accidentally bought tartar control, which she doesn’t like). But I figure I’d roll her tube up for her. Well, not really for her, since she doesn’t give a damn, but for me. I can’t stand to see the toothpaste tube disfigured like that. Well, when I rolled it up, I realized the cap was open. I realized this because toothpaste squirted out. It was a big mess, all over the cap. This is the kind of stupid modern cap that has a little flip-top. The top was all coated in goo. I reflected meanly that it was probably pretty gooey even before my little mishap. I removed the cap and rinsed it carefully in the sink, which is when I had my epiphany that I’m really a totally absurd person. Actually, it’s not really an epiphany, because this fact has been dawning on me frequently, possibly due to the tendency one has to compare his behavior to that of his spouse. E—’s lack of attention to such details amazes me. “Amazement” perhaps don’t cover her responses to my own quirky pedanticism, and to the obvious torture that entropy inflicts on my life. We’ve had a certain amount of marital friction along these lines.

So, are you the same way? (I think I’ve seen signs that you are.) If so, does [your wife] mind? Only moments ago, I halted my train of thought, noticing a bit of lint on my keyboard, and plunged into my desk drawer to retrieve a little nylon brush, perfectly suited for cleaning out a keyboard. It’s the brush that came with the Norelco electric razor I bought in 1985 to shave my legs with. The razor wore out in six months, and the replacement blades cost more than a new razor. I sure wasn’t going to buy new blades, on general principle, but I couldn’t bring myself to replace the whole razor and throw away the almost perfectly good old one. So I took the only possible remaining option: I began using a Bic. Before retiring the electric razor to some special burying place (or perhaps I still have it somewhere), I inspected the nylon brush that came with it, and determined that it would be excellent for cleaning the keyboard of my typewriter. Well, that little brush has lasted me four keyboards since then, and I always know where to find it instantly. I even brought it on the bike tour. Does that make me ridiculous? [2023 update: I still have, and use, that little brush.]

September 12, 1995

[Trigger warning: the following anecdote involves heavy drinking. Let me just say, before you proceed, that these days, as a responsible salary man, husband, and father, I appreciate quality beverages and enjoy them responsibly. I haven’t drunk recklessly in ages, and my kids can vouch for me in that regard.]

We went down to Ventura to participate in D—’s blowout 30th birthday party. P— drove us down there, with [his wife] L—, and even got us a motel. (I’d envisioned just passing out on a sofa or something at the party, but a motel was entirely welcome.) The only problem was, once we got to the party, P—, who is a very starchy sort, given to extreme temperance, seemed determined not to have a good time. He and L— sat by themselves on a sofa and watched—and in fact judged—the mêlée unfolding around them. It was one hell of a party. All kinds of people were there whom I hadn’t seen in ages, such as B—. Well, the more fun everybody else began to have, the more visibly annoyed P— seemed to become. By 9:30 he had his jacket on and was making noises about saying our goodbyes and heading to the motel.

The next piece of this story requires some background. At your wedding, I became somewhat inebriated, perhaps as the result of obliging half a dozen old friends who wanted to drink a shot with me. (I’m not sure what the origin is of this strange custom.) Well, I began talking to S—’s sister. She asked me what I did for a living. My response, as I began, threatened to ramble out of control, since I really didn’t have a good answer. So I backed up and started over by telling her the highlights of my day: getting home, changing my shoes, and hanging up my suit jacket. From here my logical faculties completely broke down and I circumnavigated, in tedious spirals, what would have been the point of my story if there had been one. My shoes featured prominently, for reasons I cannot recall. I do not believe that my story was very interesting. However, I believe S—’s sister was at least somewhat amused, because she giggled through my little monologue. It’s always at least somewhat amusing, in a voyeuristic sort of way, to watch a drunk person trying to make sense, his rhetoric completely disintegrating and being replaced by loud, doggerel emphasis. If nothing else, my rambling was benign.

Anyway, the next time I saw P— he recounted at length the foolishness of my drunken oration, which he’d witnessed at the wedding. (I had actually half forgotten it, until he mentioned it to me, at which point I remembered every detail with complete clarity.) P— expounded with much emphasis on what an absolute idiot I had been, and how glad he was that he wasn’t me and doesn’t have to live anything down. I didn’t (and don’t) quite get his point, though he took pains to make it.

Okay, that’s the background. Now we’ll return to D—’s party. P— grew increasingly vexed with me, since I was ruining everything by having a good time and enjoying the company of not just my friends but of complete strangers. For example, I got to chat with M—, a former star rider on the cycling team I’d never before met, whom I gather P— was kind of intimidated by. Well, while I was chatting with M—, about who knows what, P— came up to us and said, “Hey Dana, why don’t you tell him about your job, and your shoes.” This annoyed me, encapsulating as it did his general piss-poor attitude, and I am curt even when sober as you well know. I responded, as one does, “Why don’t you blow me.” Well, M— was drunk enough to find this the funniest damn thing he’d ever heard. This annoyed P— further, and he decided it was time to leave.

It wasn’t even 10:00 yet, and D— and I hadn’t even yet shared the sophomoric delight of travelling naked. To this day I regret having squandered the opportunity to bike naked through Isla Vista with D— years ago (having chosen instead to do something else with R—, which only seemed like the better idea at the time). This time I wasn’t about to leave before accomplishing that, so with the clock running out, D—, B—, and I ran out of the house, out the back door, as if escaping. As we abandoned our clothing and ran across the beach, mooning the moon as it were, I could hear L— and P— harmonizing: “We’re leaving!”

Now, the ocean was a good 200 meters from the beach house, and we aren’t great runners, and it seemed to take an eternity to make it to the surf. Then, for some reason the water felt merely cool, not icy cold as it truly must have been, and hence our swim was not rushed. Nor was the ensuing sand fight. To make matters worse, by the time we returned to the house, our clothing had been stolen. By now it was going on 10:30 and P— was livid (in the silent, tense, purple style that is so much more annoying than if he’d spewed profanity or something). It should be noted that nobody else had even thought of leaving the party. In fact, there was a cake fight in full swing. By the time I had recovered my clothing and put it back on, P— himself had become an innocent civilian caught in the crossfire: he’d had a giant wedge of brown/blue/pink birthday cake ground into his jacket by one of the blessed Dionysians. P—, the party atheist, dragged me out to the car, our wives following along, and we left behind a party that was still in full swing. Fortunately, once we got to the motel P— treated us to a live reading from a book of fine literature by Laurence Sterne. This seemed to revive his good spirits and was a nice way to wind down the night.

December 10, 1995

My new job begins tomorrow. I gave my old employer  a whole month’s notice, so that I would have time to tie up all the loose ends and train my replacement. We hired a good guy, looks like Uncle David did as a young man. Good academic credentials, including a law degree. Made it kind of odd training him: “Well, I’ve no use for this job anymore, but I’m sure you’ll be great!”

The new job is about five blocks closer to home than the old one. It’s on the edge of the Financial District near Chinatown. The building is a newer one than my old one, but slightly less spacious. If my old building was a giant Buick, this one is more like a nice new Nissan Sentra. The furniture is more modern (Star Trek ballistic nylon, coated steel) than the stuff at my old building (opulent leather, cherry wood). And this is the kicker: a cubicle rather than an office. Did you ever see my old office? Probably not. Well, it was sweet. Great view, great chairs (high back, ergonomic chair for me, a sumptuous black leather chair for my guest), great lighting. A door I could close. Vertical blinds. Framed Ansel Adams print on the wall. Now I’ll have a cubicle. I haven’t seen it yet, but I envision the kind of fabric-covered partitions I can stick notes to with thumbtacks. Surely buzzing fluorescent lights overhead. It’ll be an unimpressive task chair (like the dumb-looking webbed chair Spock had to sit on in the Star Trek movies). These are my fears. The reality could be nicer, but still . . . a cubicle. O, what I’ll sacrifice for job security, unlimited growth potential, stock options, vision benefits, and cool people to work with!

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