Paved Perceptions

In A Moveable Feast, his memoir of his génération perdue days in inter-war Paris, Ernest Hemingway suggests to a talentless, advice-seeking writer that he become a literary critic instead of foisting his own questionable prose on an innocent public. While I hope criticism never becomes my primary written product (at least not for that reason), I thought a quick review of Paved, the newest U.S. road cycling magazine, might be a good way to shake off the cobwebs that have gathered here at the Service Course.

Created by the editors and publisher of the venerable Bike magazine, Paved was something to look forward to from the outset. High production values, pursuit of offbeat topics, and good, thoughtful writing had always been hallmarks of the organization’s fat-tired publication, and there was every reason to believe those qualities would carry over to its skinny-tire venture. That initial anticipation was bolstered when ex-pro-turned-Bike-editor Joe Parkin revealed on his (defunct?) blog that he was venturing back to his old Flemish stomping grounds to gather material for the debut issue.

So how did the reality line up with the early, lofty expectations? I’d say pretty well for a first effort. As expected, the photography was terrific, and it’s printed on paper that feels substantial in your hand – a nice, affordable compromise between mainstream magazines and more boutique offerings like Embrocation and Rouleur. The writing is up to snuff, and, in an unfortunately significant step for a cycling publication, it’s been thoroughly copyedited. (By contrast, the first issue of the now-capable Road was a festival of misspellings, run-ons, and incomplete sentences, most notably in then-editor Esteban Cortina’s opening column.)

In terms of content selection, Paved was a bit of a mixed bag. Parkin’s photo-saturated return to Belgium sets the tone for the magazine, with photographer Stephan Vanfleteren’s subsequent black-and-white photo spreads continuing the bleak-skies-and-hardmen theme. For riders wanting to mimic the high-kilometer or high-mountain challenges their heroes face, cycling journalism veterans Patrick Brady and Bruce Hildenbrand contribute solid pieces on gran fondos and the Dolomites, respectively. Short photoessays on the bootleg Red Hook criterium and other topics bring in some of Bike’s sense of both the grassroots and universal aspects of the sport.

Given the tone of those pieces and the target demographic they hint at, Vernon Felton’s article on doping in the pro peloton seemed a bit off the mark. I’d expect that most of those picking up an issue of Paved would be familiar with the reality of doping in cycling, and that they wouldn’t require an explanation of what EPO is and what it does. While the piece is well-written, it is a survey course where I would have expected at least a 200-level class or an insider view.

Similarly, I have to admit I was a little surprised and put off by the Lance Armstrong cover. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an understandable choice, probably even the right one for a new publication. No matter what the current tide of public opinion may be, Armstrong pulls the layman eyes on the newsstand. And it’s a great photo – one that captures the grit-and-pavé feel I think Paved was aiming for while still drawing on Armstrong’s transcendent marketability. But, as a new publication, I can’t help but feel that Paved squandered a rare opportunity to not be that magazine. If I’m reading it right, Paved’s intended audience isn’t one that’s desperately searching for one more picture of Armstrong.

The feeling the cover gave me was reinforced when I read Gary Boulanger’s American pioneers piece inside. Of the five profiles – Ben Serotta, Steve Hed, Gary Erickson, Chris Carmichael, and Jim Ochowitz – three stray into discussions of Armstrong. It’s not that I’m inherently against any Armstrong content. I’m not. Regardless of how you feel about the guy, he’s a central figure in American cycling, and pointedly ignoring him is as obviously skewed as featuring him on every other page. That said, if you’re trying to create something new, exploring some less travelled stories and figures might be preferable to highlighting the same social circle that’s dominated the literature for 15 years. Anyone have a number for Mike Neel or Jock Boyer?

(Others will undoubtedly point out that, with the debatable exception of Ochowitz, all of the “pioneers” interviewees are trying to sell you something, be it frames, wheels, food, or training plans. And then they’ll speculate on how that choice of subject matter jives with the nascent magazine’s advertising sales. To that, I’d say: People, it’s cycling. Everyone’s trying to sell you something. Cut out anyone with a brand to push, and you’d be hard pressed to find an interview.)

Lastly, following an entire issue of racing, hardman, and big-ride content, the unintroduced {showcase: bikes} section on “street bikes” like the Electra Ticino is a non sequitur. Paved ("celebrating the raw passion of riding on the road") has positioned itself to feature those sorts of bikes and the urban riding they’re intended for, but the piece would have been better placed with a more extensive package of city riding content. If the bike showcase is a regular section, this particular issue cried out for road machines from brands like Merckx, Ridley, Colnago, and DeRosa.

All of that might seem like quite a bit of criticism, but in the context of a first outing, they’re pretty minor quibbles. And make no mistake, I’ll be grabbing issue #2 when it hits the shelf. The contributing writers are top notch, the photography is excellent, and the editorial vision will solidify as time goes on. That’s a strong foundation, and I think it’s still reasonable to expect great things.

NOTE: These are boom times for the cycling magazine aficionado. The flock of cycling magazines at my local Barnes & Noble is now nearly as large as the neighboring gaggle of women’s beauty pubs and is getting almost as pretty as the surfing journals. Paved is already on shelves there, and another publication, Peloton, is set to debut on November 16. I’ll do a writeup on that one too when it’s available. Or, if they’d like, they could, you know, just send me one…

Lance: The Making of the World’s Greatest Champion

A Book Review

When Da Capo Press first contacted the Service Course about reviewing John Wilcockson’s new Lance Armstrong biography, Lance: The Making of the World’s Greatest Champion, I was both flattered and hesitant. I’ve been fortunate to have encountered John personally through my work with VeloNews and have been a longtime consumer of his work, so I already knew at least two relevant things about the author. The first is that he possesses an absolutely incredible knowledge of cycling and has more experience writing about it than most anyone in North America. The second thing I know is that he has a great deal of admiration for Lance Armstrong. The first bit of knowledge was what made me feel flattered by the offer to review the work; the second was what made me hesitant.

In the lead-up to the 2009 Tour de France and during the Tour itself, Wilcockson’s personal fondness for Armstrong was becoming apparent in his VeloNews coverage to an extent that made me uncomfortable. And if I found that reporting to be less objective than I would have hoped, what would I find in a biography whose title made it abundantly clear that its very intent was to glorify Armstrong? I have an extraordinary tolerance for excruciatingly detailed examination of cycling and its stars; I have far less for hero worship and media complicity in it.

What I found in Lance was a bit of both. As an athlete biography, the book succeeds stunningly. Through extensive firsthand interviews with a wide-net sampling of characters, Wilcockson adds a degree of granular detail and outside perspective to Armstrong’s life that has been sorely lacking in previous, more stage-managed efforts to chronicle it. As an objective view into the life of one of the sport’s most controversial figures, however, Lance has considerable failings.

The source of those failings becomes apparent in the opening paragraphs of the preface, which recount Armstrong’s reliance on Wilcockson as a media sounding board prior to his 2009 comeback. The long-term symbiotic relationship between author and subject emerges repeatedly in the narrative – from Armstrong summoning Wilcockson to the U.S. Postal camper to release his own version of his conflict with Christophe Bassons to Wilcockson defending Armstrong’s honor to other journalists in the Tour pressroom, the book seems to trumpet the very personal closeness that, at times, undermines its credibility.

From the outset, Wilcockson seems intent on building a case for the legitimacy of Armstrong, not so much as the “world’s greatest champion,” but rather as a credible champion in the face of a decade of doping allegations. It may be a worthy cause with truth at its root, but at times, the defenses presented to those years of accusations seem somewhat faithful and starry eyed; at other times, they seem intentionally skewed. For instance, presenting a win in the pro-am Settimana Bergamasca and a ninth place in his first Paris-Nice as evidence that even a pre-cancer Armstrong seemed to be cut out to excel in grand tours seems an innocent if overambitious rebuttal to those who argue that Armstrong’s 1999 transformation was chemically enhanced. But more troubling is the distortion of the facts surrounding the famed 2005 retesting of Armstrong’s 1999 Tour samples for EPO. Wilcockson dismissively refers to those samples as “the B versions of samples that had already tested negative.” While it is true that those samples had already tested negative for various banned substances, they had not previously been tested, and thus never tested negative, for EPO (as no test existed for EPO in 1999). But EPO was the matter at hand in 2005, not the other substances the sample had been previously tested for, so the statement, while not technically false, strikes me as at least intellectually dishonest.

That willful parsing of the facts extends to this year’s comeback as well in the treatment of the intensive drug testing regime Armstrong was to pursue with Don Catlin, mentioned prominently in both the preface and the closing chapters. That plan was scrapped by February of 2009, well before the April 2009 date printed on the book’s Acknowledgements page, yet no mention is made of its abandonment. In both of these instances, there exist legitimate rebuttals and reasons that could have been used to defend Armstrong if one so desired. The 2005 retesting and subsequent exposure by L’Equipe were fraught with a number of legitimate scientific and ethical problems. The Catlin testing program, in the end, proved so overambitious as to be nearly impossible to execute. But these arguments are never used – instead, the simple obfuscation that is used breeds distrust.

Though it is unwaveringly supportive of Armstrong, there are some notable departures from the approved Armstrong media playbook. The preface wastes no time in meeting one aspect of the prevailing Armstrong media position head on, flatly stating that Armstrong’s motivations for returning to competition this year were far more personal than the “raising cancer awareness” reasoning that was ultimately developed for public consumption. (This preface, by the way, is also where Armstrong’s famously scathing appraisal of the 2008 Tour de France first appeared.) This and several other observances – among them a pointed correction to the account of the Championship of Zurich given in Armstrong's autobio It’s Not About the Bike and a frank rebuke of the popular myth that Armstrong was the youngest world champion in cycling – while worthwhile, feel like token defiances undertaken to feign objectivity rather than substantive efforts to achieve it.

While I believe all of the aforementioned to be important flaws in the book that warrant discussion, I also recognize fully that such criticisms may be somewhat unfair. Lance is, after all, sports biography, clearly targeted by its title and content to die-hard Armstrong fans. It is not journalism, and maybe it’s unfair to test it according to those standards of evidence and objectivity. So how does it hold up in the sports bio genre? Wonderfully.

Through fresh interviews, Wilcockson fleshes out Armstrong’s early family, social, and sporting life, expanding it well beyond the trite “no father, scrappy single mother, talent fueled by anger” bullet-point summary it has become over the last decade. While those elements are certainly present throughout, the book digs deeper to create a less black-and-white telling of the story. For instance, various sources reveal that Armstrong’s adoptive father, Terry Armstrong, was, if not an ideal father figure, at least a very-much present and engaged one for a significant portion of Armstrong’s adolescence. Indeed, from step fathers, to coaches, to bike shop owners, to confidants, Lance highlights the contributions of many of those who helped Armstrong along his road to stardom, including several who have previously remained out of the spotlight.

Beyond those expanded views of Armstrong’s early life, the book can be clearly divided into two obvious and almost unavoidable sections: pre-cancer diagnosis and post-cancer diagnosis. It is in the pre-cancer segment where the book truly excels and potentially broadens its audience beyond dedicated Armstrong fans, if anyone else can make it past the title.

In those pre-cancer years, Wilcockson uses Armstrong’s experiences as a conduit to explore the terrain of late 1980's and early 1990's American cycling. Though Armstrong’s journey, we meet many of the driving personalities of the day, including Connie Carpenter, Len Pettyjohn, Jim Ochowicz, Eddy Borysewicz, and a veritable who’s-who of American cyclists. We also get to relive some of the iconic yet extinct American events that defined the era – the K-Mart Classic, the Thrift Drug Classic, the Tour DuPont, and the Philadelphia USPRO Championships. Just as they did for Armstrong, these bits of cycling Americana serve as segues into the larger world of international cycling. We first meet Viatcheslav Ekimov, now a mainstay of the Armstrong circle, as a Tour DuPont and classics rival, while Armstrong’s years at the American Motorola squad pave the way for some insight into his early Anglophone mentors – Canadian Steve Bauer, Englishman Sean Yates, and Australian Phil Anderson. For anyone who missed that era of cycling and needs to catch up, or who was there to enjoy it and wants to play it back, this hefty section of the book alone makes Lance worthwhile.

The post-cancer diagnosis material will be well-traveled terrain to anyone versed in the complete Armstrong library, including It’s Not About the Bike, the Every Second Counts sequel, Daniel Coyle’s Lance Armstrong’s War, and a slew of other works recounting each Tour de France victory. Like most of those tomes, Lance acknowledges the various doping accusations leveled against Armstrong since his 1999 Tour de France win, but has little patience for them. In this section of the book, the defensive posture we alluded to above hits its full stride. To do the heavy lifting, the book relies on a somewhat repetitive mixture of the “uncommon physical gifts and hard work” argument, supportive quotes from Armstrong insiders, opinions stated as fact, the arguably exculpatory verdict of the UCI-commissioned Vrijman report, and the eventual overturn of Armstrong trainer Michele Ferrari’s sporting fraud conviction. For those who keep up with cycling year round, and have for some years, the familiarity of the information in this section can make it drag somewhat, though the detail and alternate angles provided by Wilcockson’s interviews helps to liven up even the most well-trodden portions of the story.

In the end, Lance is hardly the no-holds-barred tell-all that many dream of, but again, the title itself should repel anyone expecting that sort of book. However, with Lance, Wilcockson has arguably created something of broad interest. Hardcore Armstrong fans will appreciate the no-way-he-doped stance and the added detail and perspective on Armstrong’s life that Wilcockson’s legwork provides. Broader students of cycling can enjoy the lens on 1990s professional cycling found in the telling of Armstrong’s pre-cancer career. And grumpy, picky reviewers can complain that, like most biographies that aren’t about war criminals or serial killers, this one interprets the facts in a manner that is decidedly favorable to its subject.

Lance: The Making of the World’s Greatest Champion
John Wilcockson
Da Capo Press, 2009.

Gam Jams Reviews: Car Racks – Yakima*

My qualifications to review bicycle-toting car racks are based entirely, though somewhat paradoxically, on my near total lack of qualifications on the subject. That is, I bought a roof rack 15 years ago, and have not purchased one since. And when I did buy mine, a Yakima, it was not based at all on comparison shopping, features, reviews, or price. I was a bike shop rat at the time, Yakima was what we carried, so that’s what I got. That said, it’s proven to be the right non-choice ever since.

Now, you have to understand that my “15 year old rack” is a little like old tale about the woodsman’s favorite axe. You know, “I’ve had this old axe for 15 years. I’ve replaced the head three times and the handle five times, but she just keeps on going...”

My rack’s evolution isn’t quite that bad, but it’s close – the crossbars are still original, and most of the system survived intact from about 1992-2002. It was originally purchased for a ’78 Chevy Impala station wagon, a formidable vehicle, and as such the crossbars are Yakima’s “holy crap!” length. From there, the same rack passed with some adjustment to a much narrower ’86 Subaru wagon, where they menaced sidewalk pedestrians until that car met an unfortunate head-on demise outside of Wilkes-Barre, PA. The only thing salvaged from that little incident, the racks were adjusted again and clamped to the gutters of an ’83 Jeep Grand Wagoneer, where they served me well until that vehicle’s engine caught fire near Scranton, PA. At that point, I believe I swore off driving that particular stretch of I-81, but the racks were rescued again and fitted to a 1986 Volvo sedan.

During the Volvo years, a slow evolution to the rack setup began. I’d moved to the fringes of Capitol Hill in DC, where I installed some of those newfangled “locking” bike mounts (though still the split-mount style rather than full trays, because I’m cheap). If you’ve ever lived there, you know why. Then, bypassing 1990’s vehicles altogether, I bought a 2002 Volkswagen, and to my surprise, vehicles no longer came with enormous chrome rain gutters. That forced a switch to the more modern Q-towers and clips instead of the gutter mounts, but the crossbars, bike mounts, and wheel hooks remained.

Over the years, the crossbars have grown a bit shorter than they were. They’ve been trimmed off a centimeter or so at a time as the ends have rusted from the rain, salty air, and salty roads of time spent in Virginia Beach, upstate New York, and Boulder before landing in the DC area. But trim them a bit with a sawzall, pop some new end caps in, and they’re set to go for another few years. All in all, the durability, the ability to adapt most of the same parts to different vehicles, the wide availability of even small replacement parts, and never having to worry about incompatibility with newer parts is what’s kept me with the Yakima’s for so long. That, and the fact that they’ve always stayed on the roof and held the bikes securely, which is nice. Maybe all of that’s the same with the other options – I’ve just never had to find out.

So until I have this guy build me a set of custom ProTour racks, complete with the hydraulic fold down wheel rack and a loudspeaker mount so I can shout “Venga! Venga! Venga!” from the driver’s seat of my black-market Skoda, I’ll stick with Yakima.

* Some of my regular readers might be wondering what this entry is about, since it has only a fragile and passing relationship to professional cycling, and a strange title. is a Mid-Atlantic (U.S.) regional bike racing site, and one of the better examples of the breed, I’d add. In addition to dishing out regional amateur racing news, maintaining an event calendar, and providing lists of resources, coaches, and beloved club sponsors, GamJams also periodically calls on its wide-ranging affiliate network to do honest reviews the equipment they use. Usually, I’m ineligible, because the stuff I ride is typically too old to be available anymore. And it’s not that cool “vintage” old, either – just that awkward 10-12 years old. But this time, that sort of durability seemed like a good selling point.