The Service Course has had a difficult time summoning much enthusiasm for professional cycling lately, an affliction I gather is not uncommon these days. After all, the sport is beset by maladies at every level, from frame stickers to radios to doping to poor governance to outright corruption.

Distasteful as the whole mess seems at times, that's not the reason I've skipped more than two months here. Anyone who thinks I can't find material in the pettiness and stupidity of this fine sport need only check the archives. No, the lull, I assure you, has more to do with real work and other commitments, including a brutal and ongoing springtime war with my back yard.

None of that is over by a longshot -- not pro cycling's tiresome ailments nor the necessity of paying work nor the seasonal encroachment of my neighbor's bamboo crop. But I did just watch the finale of Dwars Door Vlaanderen, and for the first time in months, I felt the pangs.

For the damp dirt smell that tells you're finally west of Brussels.

For the synchronized beat of car tires on stones and rotors on air.

For the batshit crazy old woman who runs the Charles Inn outside of Gent.

For kids in Lotto hats with autograph books four inches thick and old men in anoraks with cigars.

For the spot on the Molenberg where Nardello buried himself for Bartoli's Het Volk win.

For the cigarette smoke haze of the Kuurne sporthalle at sign-in.

For the backslaps and guttural exhortations of the Flemish pressroom.

For the bar at the top of the Kemmelberg and the restaurant halfway up the Oude Kwaremont.

For buckets of Leffe at midnight on the Bruges square after the Ronde.

For the cough-inducing ammonia-and-piss olfactory punch of the Wevelgem press room lavatory and the unguarded phone lines in the back room.

For the amateur crit in Compiegne the evening before Roubaix.

For the cobblestones and tractors and five-car freight trains crisscrossing the Department du Nord.

For the right turn into the velodrome.

For the faux Swiss alpine villages of Wallonia.

For the howling claustrophobia of the Mur de Huy and the Cauberg.

For high-ceiling opulence and shiny faces at the Palace Liege and trash and filthy legs in a parking lot in Ans.

For the dead, empty quiet when it's all packed and gone by sunset.

And none of that has goddamn thing to do with Pat McQuaid or Johan Bruyneel or TV rights or bodily fluids or an alphabet soup of warring tribes in blue collared shirts. It's just bike racing as I've known it, and as it continues to be when you get past the pencil-pushers and get down to it. And it's beautiful.


I’ve raced the old Durango downhill course on a cross-country bike.
I’ve ridden the Arenberg Forest without a helmet.
I’ve raced in Cat 4 office park criteriums.
I’ve ridden on the Virginia Beach boardwalk in summer.

I say these things not to indicate that I am a daredevil (I am not), nor that I possess any special talents in riding a bicycle (I don’t). I state them only to illustrate that in my years of bicycling life, I have managed to do some things that carried a good possibility of injury, yet through luck and ignorance have managed to emerge unscathed.

Despite surviving intact these instances of questionable judgment, I’ve finally received my first serious cycling injury, and I’ve done it in the most embarrassing way possible – falling from my bicycle on my way to work. For the record, I was not wearing a neon windbreaker nor a pants-cuff retaining device, and I do not have a beard or panniers, so it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Even so, what hurts the most is that this landmark injury will not carry with it a story of swashbuckling competitive derring-do or hilarious drunken antics, but rather a tale of not paying attention while trying to get to a 10:00am conference call. I think the call was about acid rain, but that’s not important right now.

In medical terms, what I have is called a superior labrum anterior to posterior (or SLAP) tear. In human terms, that means I tore the ring of shoulder cartilage that forms most of the socket that the upper arm sits in, and which anchors the bicep. In personal terms, it comes down to “it hurts when I do this” and some serious loss of range of motion. The orthopedist figures I likely dislocated my shoulder and popped it back in while I was flailing my way to the tarmac, tearing the labrum in the process.

Just for fun, I did three more ‘cross races on it, then ignorantly hoped for another month that some rest would clear it up. It didn’t, so finally my nocturnal screams of agony forced my wife to force me to make a doctor’s appointment. Since that initial visit, though, I’ve gotten to spend an hour in the MRI tube, get a couple of cortisone shots, and do 16 pre-op physical therapy sessions to restore lost motion. This evening I get to have surgery, which may or may not involve some anchors in the bone. Then it’s drugs, lots of Tivo-ed Tour of California, 3 weeks in an immobilizer sling, and a few more months of physical therapy.

So, if things seem a bit slow here at the Service Course, that’s why. But if anyone asks you, tell them I did it descending the Kemmelberg. In the rain. Drunk.

Not to worry, though. The Service Course will not become one of those whiney, introspective blogs wherein my personal experiences are magnified, embellished, thoroughly dissected, and fortified with ersatz emotional angst and reflection. No, this little gig is about professional and/or competitive cycling -- and as we’ve already discussed, I’m neither a professional nor competitive.

So, we’ll just have to leave me out of it, and play a bit of catch-up on what’s been going on in cycling since that stale last edition of the Service Course. The recent release of Campagnolo Super Record has illuminated the fact that 10 is no longer enough of anything, so in honor of that group’s release, we present:

11 Things That Have Happened Since the Last Post

1. Niels Albert crashes during a pre-ride and ruptures his spleen; Sven Nys augers into a barrier and suffers a black eye. B category ‘cross racers worldwide feel better about themselves.

2. Belgian elite men’s team bucks years of tradition and works together to deliver the ‘cross world championship to Niels Albert. Holy shit.

3. The U.S. women’s elite ‘cross team puts in some fantastic rides at ‘cross worlds. Said rides go unnoticed as the world is distracted by the squad’s saggy, baggy legwarmers. USAC to retain crappy skinsuits, invest heavily in safety pins.

4. Frank Vandenbrouke announces comeback with new Cinelli team headed by Nico Mattan. Team fails to gain UCI license, delaying VDB’s comeback du jour. Nobody is remotely surprised. Mattan declares, “Frank will ride Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.” Nobody believes him.

5. Lance Armstrong returns to professional cycling at the Tour Down Under. Prices for yellow textiles, paint, and chalk soar as dormant fanboys drowsily reengage in a festival of yellow-hued man love. Hours later, the Service Course wakes up, scratches, and urinates yellow in a coincidental show of ambivalence and dehydration.

6. Floyd Landis returns to racing. Doping religious right takes to the message boards; Tyler Hamilton overheard emitting heavy sigh of relief.

7. Bjorn Leukemans also returns to racing, world fails to notice.

8. Die-hard Gerard Vroomen fans weep quietly as Fabian Cancellara wins Tour of California prologue on a Specialized; mindlessly mutter Carlos Sastre’s name through tears.

9. Columbia team adopts white shorts; Mark Cavendish debuts signature “look at my junk” victory salute at the Tour of California.

10. Alejandro Valverde finds himself re-embroiled in Operacion Puerto, courtesy of CONI and some DNA. Valverde rumored to be rumored to sign with Rock Racing in 2011; team owner Michael Ball planning to not sign contract, wear stupid hat.

11. Maynard Hershon longs for the good old days and asserts that anyone newer to cycling than he is just doesn’t get it – for the 50th time – on the back page of the new VeloNews. In honor of golden anniversary, adds new “you kids get off my lawn!” tag line.

The World is in Color

There’s an insidious trend in cycling writing these days, and we need to put a stop to it right now. Namely, it seems many are trying to cast every minute element of the sport as some grand tradition, worthy of a handcrafted shrine decorated with Jesus candles and a weathered wooden box containing the second knuckle of Fausto Coppi’s pinkie. Yeah, I like the old Silca Pista floor pumps, too, but I’m not going to take a bunch of arty black-and-whites of one and wax poetic for 1,000 words about how the weight of the brass chuck in my hand psychically connects me to Eddy Merckx’s long-dead mechanic. But it’s not just the retro equipment genre that’s getting the sepia treatment, it’s every aspect of the sport – from pre-ride coffee to weekend training rides to naps. My fear is that, as we ease into winter and there’s less actual cycling news to chew on, we’re due for a spike in the sepia-toned writing market.

Look, Billy Joel sucks, but he had a point when he sang that “the good old days weren’t always good, and tomorrow’s not as bad as it seems.”

Why do people in 2008 so desperately want to cycle in black-and-white, and why now? I guess some of it is the allure of all those old pictures that the Internet has given us free access to. Yes, those old grainy black-and-whites of Coppi, Gino Bartali, and Rik Van Steenbergen are great, as are the washed out color ones of Merckx, Ocaña, and the rest. They provide a record of cycling back then – the races, the people, the equipment – that lets us feel a connection to the past. But before we get all teary-eyed, let’s remember that those guys, to the best of my knowledge, all saw the world in color, because they were living in it. For them, those pictured rides weren’t some jaunty wet-wool-and-lavender scented festival of self-indulgent nostalgia – they were just living their lives, mostly just trying to win some bike races, and probably not spending too much time reflecting on the lot of it. I’m betting they weren’t obsessing over just how much crema was on their pre-ride espresso, the near-painful authenticity of plain white socks just above the ankle, or whether their mechanics used just the right number of turns of finishing tape on their handlebars. And they sure as hell didn’t write heart-wrenching tributes to any of those subjects. Because all that shit just wasn’t that big a deal – then or now.

I’m not claiming that cycling doesn’t have some deservedly hallowed ground. It has plenty – Tom Simpson’s memorial on the Ventoux, the Madonna del Ghisallo chapel, and the cobbled climbs of Flanders spring to mind – and the sport certainly has some endearing traditions and little rituals handed down over generations. And maybe it’s O.K. to write about those with a goofy little tear in the corner of our eye every once in awhile. But your traditional Sunday ride piss break with the boys just doesn’t quite rise to that level, so let’s stop writing about it like it’s the goddamn bedrock on which the sport is built. Not every aspect of every ride has to be a spiritual awakening of some sort, and not every minor equipment choice enhances your street cred. Cycling’s true history and tradition is part of what makes the sport intriguing, but when you dilute it by taking overly frequent, overly reverent looks at mundane practices like wearing a cycling hat or repacking hubs, the original product just gets less tasty. It becomes cycling-flavored, rather than made with real cycling.

The recent turn towards black-and-white writing seems to me to be an accidental effort to try to create some sort of faux road racing culture, at least here in the States. In that imagined culture, we’re surrounded by sidewalk cafes, cozy bike shops with coverall-ed Belgian mechanics, empty roads, and acres of vineyards, instead of the strip malls, Starbucks, Performance Bicycle Stores, and traffic that many of us actually see when we roll out of the driveway. And I suppose that’s understandable – more and more people are searching for the simpler life these days, and that can take a lot of forms, including misplaced or invented nostalgia. Even this weird sort of nostalgia for the present.

The good news is that these often vain little introspections can provide some good writing, even if they’re about absolute bullshit, and it’s good to see that the blog world, where many of these occur, has helped get a lot of people writing again.

But the better news is that there’s already a real “cycling culture” here, so we really don’t need to replace it with an artificial one where we all act like we train, deep in philosophical thought, in northern Italy in 1976, but with a power meter and a carbon frame. You can see the genuine culture – surprise – at any amateur bike race around the country. Because the road cycling culture (or ‘cross, or track, or mountain biking) is what we make of it in the present, and we don’t have to give it a cheap makeover or over-examine every, single aspect of it to make it “authentic.” It’s authentic simply by being what we as cyclists do, here and now. And if that means you like an extra-large whipped cream monstrosity from Dunkin Donuts instead of espresso before your crit, and use pre-built wheels instead of building them in your basement while listening to grainy Edith Piaf records, so be it. Either way is valid, of course, and if you want to yell at each other in Italian on group rides, that’s O.K. too. But for god’s sake, just don’t think too hard about it.

So let’s stop PhotoShopping our million megapixel digital pictures into sepia tones and trying to dissect our lifestyle for the sake of self-validation, and live and enjoy life in the present. We can do it without losing our reverence for the more attention-worthy history and traditions of the sport, I swear. In the meantime, be on the lookout for our upcoming post, “My Silca Floor Pump: A Tribute in Words and Photos.”