Clearing the Decks

The fear, anticipation, and difficulty of doing things – no matter how benign those things may be – tends to increase the longer you put them off. As a lifelong procrastinator, I’ve learned this lesson well, though it’s worth noting that I have not adjusted my habits much as a result of that knowledge.

Over the holiday break (judging by the timestamp on the last post, I’ve generously defined that as “from Halloween through New Year’s”), there have been quite a few things I’ve thought to write, would have liked to write, but didn’t, for any number of mundane and uninteresting reasons. Usually though, it was a matter of not having, or not thinking I had, the time to write them properly. If you’re not an experienced procrastinator, let me tell you that weasel words like “properly” are incredibly handy for putting things off. They allow you to table action nearly indefinitely – after all, there’s always a better angle in the offing, a better phrase just around the corner, maybe a bit more research you could do, and then really, shouldn’t you track down a photograph to go with all that careful writing? All in the name of doing it “properly.” And so it goes, or doesn’t go, as the case may be.

Anyway, I refuse to call it a resolution, but one goal for 2011 here at the Service Course is to push on through all that and just post some stuff. That’s not to say I intend to just throw up any passing, poorly written crap that flies through my head – that’s what Twitter is for. But I am going to try for shorter but more frequent posts here. You know, if I get around to it.

With that in mind, I thought a good starting point would be to knock out some things I’ve been thinking about and be done with them so I can move on. Maybe they’re not presented in the expansive, eloquent, and meticulously hand-illustrated format I’d prefer, but I suppose it’ll have to do.

Bienvenidos a Calpe

A while back on Twitter, I wondered about the peloton’s current fascination with Calpe, Spain. This year, it’s played host to training camps for, offhand, RadioShack, Katusha, and Quick Step, and probably some others I’m forgetting. Katusha, I believe, is headed back for a second visit. The sudden, intense interest in one fairly small, fairly random Spanish coastal town sparked my interest, mostly because of Michele Ferrari’s documented fondness for working the shores of Tenerife, which has a fairly similar description. So I cracked that Calpe must have either a pretty good tourism board, or a great damn doctor.

In all seriousness, though, the answer to “why Calpe?” is probably pretty simple. It’s a beach town, with a beach climate, close to the highway, with flat roads along the coast for easy days and a big mountain a few kilometers inland that’s covered with switchbacks for the hard days (go to the Google Earth view, it's better but slow), and there are plenty of differing routes for a little variety. I’m guessing there’s also at least one decent hotel there (and probably many less than decent ones). Add all those up, throw in the fact that like anything in cycling, training camp locales can be very much a me-too thing, and all of a sudden, it's a hot spot. The other reason I'm thinking Calpe craze is fairly innocent is that, while folks did seem to enjoy Tenerife for the services of the good doctor, they mostly made their furtive trips there as individuals. Hauling complete squads somewhere – be it to Tenerife or Calpe – to get on the program would be idiocy laid bare.

Stybar to the Road

For the duration of the current cyclocross season, one looming question has been whether or not Quick Step would sign 24-year-old Czech ‘cross world champion Zdenek Stybar and put him on skinny tires. As of now, the issue is still outstanding, and Patrick Lefevere seems to have left the ball firmly in the hands of Stybar and his current employer, the specialist Fidea cyclocross team. I expect further silence until after the World Championships on January 30, at least.

The move to Quick Step would theoretically give Stybar a path to try his hand at the classics, something he’s expressed a keen interest in doing. The question is, is it worth it? Back when he rode for Rabobank, Sven Nys had the same inklings and emitted the same sense of classics potential. But Nys never quite made his name in the races everyone assumed he would – races like Roubaix and Flanders. While I can’t recall his specific performances, the reasons Nys’s irrefutable greatness on a ‘cross bike didn’t transfer to the classics should be easy enough to spot. Classics are 6 hours long, not one, and though the cobbles are difficult, the classics are still road races, won through strength (individual and team), endurance, knowledge, and tactics, not on bike handling. If he chooses to attempt the transition, Stybar will face the same challenges and the same inherently elevated expectations Nys did. Stybar, though, will face a few additional challenges that Nys didn’t have back when he gave the cobbles his shot.

Nys’s Rabobank deal (prior to the ProTour rejiggering that put him on the Rabo continental team) allowed him to easily float back and forth between the team’s top flight road formation and its top flight cyclocross program. Quick Step has no such dual presence. Presumably, Stybar would have a clause with Quick Step that would allow him to continue to race 'cross in some capacity, but signing for the team would leave him without the dedicated ‘cross support he receives from Fidea and without a management whose primary interest is off-road. In contrast, wherever Nys found his calling, road or fields, Rabobank could be happy – starting him at Roubaix was a low-risk, potentially high-reward venture, both for the team and Nys.

The nature of Stybar’s road attempt, on the other hand, requires a substantial, longterm, and potentially costly change in program, with a good chance that neither side will be quite happy with the result. If the road doesn’t pan out, Quick Step may well be happy to have a top ‘cross rider on its roster, but they really haven’t shown any interest in the discipline in the past. For his part, Stybar would be left without the support he’s enjoyed for ‘cross seasons past and would have to start negotiating contracts to get back into the ‘cross world full time, and would likely have to negotiate one that started mid-cross season due to the road-cross misalignment. He’ll find one, of course -- he's very good at what he does -- but that doesn’t make it a fun process.

Finally, when Nys took his shot at the road with Rabobank, he truly had a shot. At least in the cobbled classics, Rabobank was not a particularly heavy hitter (no offense to Michael Boogerd, Marc Wauters, and Eric Dekker). At the cobbled departs, at least, Nys was probably as likely a shot as anyone, and that comes with a certain freedom. Should he sign with Lefevere, Stybar is entering a formation that already features Tom Boonen, Sylvain Chavanel, and Geert Steegmans. Don’t get me wrong, Quick Step is not as crowded as it once was, and it’s a far more unpredictable animal than it was in its heyday, but Stybar will still have to do some clawing for his chance. When you’re already a world champion in another discipline, that can be a tough hurdle.

Ah that's all well and good, you say, but Lars Boom has made the switch far more recently than Nys, and it’s going swimmingly for him. But who does Boom ride for again?

What Might Have Been

Big thanks to the folks at, who gave me links to streaming coverage of big ‘cross races all season, and to the folks at all the Belgian stations who provided the feeds. It was awesome to be able to really follow the GvA, SuperPrestige, and World Cup series, reliably, all season long. The only depressing thing about it? Access to those feeds reminded me of how good we could have it during the classics season if people would stop buying the U.S. rights to air the races and then screwing it up. If you’re going to do it, do it right, or let my people watch Sporza.

Peloton Magazine

Back when I did a little review of the first issue of the new Paved magazine, I promised I’d do a review of the other then-looming release, Peloton magazine, when it hit the Barnes and Noble. I did indeed get a copy of Issue 1, but I haven’t done the review yet. So what gives? I did read it, and while it has the best cover for a cycling magazine in recent memory, overall I was underwhelmed. That said, the vast, vast, vast (that's three vasts) majority of feedback I’ve seen about Issue 1 indicates that people think it’s fantastic, so I have to wonder whether I’m (a) just missing something or (b) just being a dick. I’m willing to admit that either one is completely within the realm of possibility, so I’ve decided to wait until I can read Issue 2 before I weigh in.

Damn, Watson.

Did we all catch the latest Graham Watson Twitter kerfuffle? Everyone’s favorite Anglophone pro cycling photographer found himself on the outs again this week, this time for stating that he just couldn’t see 80 women taking on the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix. Many observers took that to be a disparaging remark about women’s racing, which in turn was taken as an indicator that Watson is a sexist jerk. Watson subsequently did a pretty poor job refuting that impression.

I have to think that at least some of the vocal reaction to his comments wasn’t entirely due to the current dustup, but rather with what's becoming his greater body of work. Simply put, Watson has a pretty broad public presence between Twitter, his own site/blog, and his writing engagements for various magazines, and lately he’s using the first two to tickle his tonsils with his toes at every opportunity. Let’s review:

Late last year, there was the incident in which photos on Watson’s site were discovered to have labeled Greg LeMond “fool” where every other rider was listed by name. Outcry ensued, and the response from Watson was a fairly unconvincing “Huh, I’ll look into it.” That, inexplicably, was followed up by an even more damaging pseudo-apology from Watson, in which he stated that, sure, Lemond was a great champion, but one who should learn to keep his mouth shut. Presumably that was a comment regarding Lemond’s very public anti-doping stance, and people didn't take terribly kindly to it.

Also late last year, Watson mused that he’d like to dump all his images of Alberto Contador in response to the Spaniard’s pending doping case, and then PhotoShop a yellow jersey onto Andy Schleck in the pictures of the 2010 Tour de France. Some took issue with the dumping idea, complaining that Watson was passing judgment on Contador before he’s been given his proverbial day in court. I really don’t have a problem with that – we all have inklings as to Contador’s guilt or innocence, ones that very likely won’t be changed by the verdict one way or another, so I can’t fault Watson for his. If Watson worked for CAS, expressing that view would be a problem, but he doesn’t. But I found the idea – however lighthearted – of painting yellow onto Schleck more disconcerting. A bent towards revisionist history is not a desirable trait in the chroniclers of our times.

So, add those two flaps to the women/cobbles issue, as well as his sycophantic slobbering over Lance Armstrong’s every move, and it seems Watson is suffering a bit of an image problem these days, at least among people who care in the U.S. That, granted, may not be a large enough population to worry about, but Watson’s image here certainly seems to be travelling from pioneer and bon vivant to oblivious, arse-kissing, sexist, omerta-endorser mighty quick. That’s not to say the trend is irreversible, and Watson has a lot of built-up goodwill as the guy who provided many of our first impressions of the sport through his work in English-language pubs like Winning, Bicycle Guide, VeloNews, and CycleSport. Maybe that’s good for something. Also in his favor is the deep-seated but conveniently unspoken knowledge that we all probably have some thought, belief, or inkling that if expressed in its raw and unadorned form, would render us fairly unpopular with swaths of the population. The catch is that most of us have the common sense to not express whatever that potentially distasteful thing is, at least not to an undefined audience. But Watson doesn’t seem to have that sense, or the ability to stay off the hot-button issues on Twitter, and in the social media days, you only get so many strikes.

And Away We Go

Lots of folks are heralding the coming Tour Down Under, the big season opener for international cycling. That’s understandable. But – and this is nothing against the event, an important one for a nation that will be a prime player in the next decade of cycling – I’m just not feeling it. And I’m guessing the Tour of Oman and the Tour of Qatar won’t do it for me either. I’m not old, but maybe I’m getting there, because for me, it takes news of the GP Marseilles, Het Nieuwsblad/it’ll-always-be-Het Volk-to-me, and Milan-San Remo to really feel like we’re moving again. Like I said above, every one of us probably has some non-politically correct inkling, and that’s mine. It’s backwards looking, provincial, and mired in my personal experience versus irrefutable facts at hand – like the calendar, for instance. But there you go.

New Screws and White Shoes

It will surprise approximately none of my readers to learn that I'm not what you'd call an “early adopter” of cycling technologies. It’s not any sort of distaste or distrust of new equipment that makes that so, nor is it due to some studiously cultivated and tediously repeated longing for the largely mythical, more technologically quaint days-gone-by. I just tend to use things for a long time, buy things that will allow for that, and have a hard time replacing things that don’t need to be replaced. Maybe that means I’m just cheap, I don’t know, but the result is that much of my cycling equipment would fall into the “proven” category if you’re being kind, or the “old” category if you’re not. Most people are not.

Anyway, those tendencies are how I recently came to be shopping for a new set of Look Delta cleats – the kind that fit nearly every Look pedal made from the time the company debuted its clipless systems in 1983 until they introduced the Keo platform in 2004. Shimano also licensed the Look pedal design for a number of years, which means that a set of $20 Deltas every few years allows me to keep using both the Shimano pedals I bought around 1989 and the Look pedals that came on an early 1990s Trek on my fixed gear and road bike, respectively.

Like most cyclists, I don’t really give a lot of thought to cleats unless something goes drastically wrong with them, but my recent cleat replacement awoke me to few things about Look that I hadn’t really considered. First, the fact that you can still easily walk into a bike shop and buy Delta cleats speaks volumes about the sheer number of pedals they must have sold on that platform over the years. But a closer look at the cleats themselves reveals a bit about the company’s almost bizarre commitment to product support. Why bizarre? Because not only is Look still making Delta cleats – they’ve actually continued to improve them despite no longer making pedals that use them.

The company has actually tinkered with the Delta design throughout its existence. Early Delta cleats were black and held your foot in a fixed position, without the slightest nod to the “float” that became a near obsession for cyclists by the early 2000s. That float issue was the catalyst for the earliest change to the cleat, when Look introduced a red version that allowed for the desired movement rather than sending customers to the shop for new pedals. Even better, even after float became all the rage, Look kept making both the red float and black fixed versions.

From there, subsequent revisions were more modest. What started as pretty basic molded blocks of hard plastic first sprouted rubber inserts to give a modest bit of traction on slick coffee shop floors. A few years later, the Deltas got a white layer of plastic molded into their middle, designed to both reduce the infamous "Look squeak" and make it more evident to the user when cleat wear had become excessive. My most recent purchase of Deltas last week, long after Look stopped producing compatible pedals, revealed two more recent tweaks. The three bolts used to hold each cleat to the shoe, which originally used a slotted head and then a combo slot/phillips head, now feature a hex head fitting at the center of the slot, freeing us at last from the last remaining use for a slotted screwdriver in the bicycle world. Even better though, Look also incorporated their “memory clip,” a feature of its newer Keo cleat, into the Delta cleat. Once mounted to the shoe, the clip allows you to replace the cleat itself in an identical position without having to check the position repeatedly. Just remove the old cleat, slap the new one into position over the clip, bolt it down, and you’re done.

All of those improvements, of course, add not a lick of actual function to the cleat itself, and you could argue that the white plastic layer and the easy-replacement widget are just blatant ploys to convince people to buy new cleats more often. And you’d probably be right. But those features are also pretty useful to the consumer, because, speaking from experience, I always avoid replacing cleats until they’re dangerously worn because (1) I don’t pay attention; and (2) it was a pain to get the new ones in an identical position. So Look probably will sell a few more cleats by removing those barriers to replacement, but the move is hardly indicative of heartless corporate greed. In fact, I’d argue it’s the opposite.

You see, Look could have just as easily reserved those improvements for their current Keo line, where they also appear, leaving people who wanted those features to buy a whole new set of pedals. Or, they could have gotten away with ceasing Delta production altogether, forcing riders with Delta-compatible pedals back into the pedal-buying market, arguably a more shrewd financial move. But they didn’t. Instead, they offer new features and continued support, for $20, to people like me, who still ride pedals over a decade and a half old. I like that.

The funny thing is, when you first see a set of Deltas hanging on the slatwall at the bike shop, you wouldn’t suspect they’d changed at all in 20 years. While Look has improved the product, they seem to be banking on product recognition over style by continuing to use the same Tron-meets-Mondrian packaging design they used back when Greg Lemond was better known as a puncheur than a punch line. Along with the techie grey-on-grey grid pattern and late-80s hi-tech fonts on the cardboard backer, Look has managed to source a special type of plastic shrink wrap that manages to look dusty and shopworn even when it's brand new out of the box. One look at that package is enough to give me instant flashbacks to Wilfried Nilissen and Laurent Jalabert bleeding on the tarmac in Armentières. Chapeau.

I have to admit, my purchase of another set of Delta cleats wasn’t just because my current ones are ridiculously worn, though they certainly are. No, it was because after 10 years or so with my current shoes, I finally got a new pair, even before the old ones had holes in them. Doesn’t that sort of replacement without need run counter to everything I was rambling about way back at the beginning of this post? Normally, yes, but I won the new pair in a writing contest Sidi’s new American arm held a few months ago, so I don’t think it should count against me. For sending in a 350-word-or-less “Sidi story” and landing in the top 50 submissions – a forgivingly low bar for victory – I got to pick the Sidis of my choice.

Obviously I opted for the top-of-the-line Ergo 2s, which feature roughly 100 percent more buckles, adjusters, colors, bells, and whistles than any shoes and most cars I’ve ever owned. And though every fiber of my “these will need to last awhile” being was screaming at me to go with my usual unaffected-by-fashion black color choice, I finally decided that reason and practicality should have no role when selecting the free schwag fruits of minimal labor. So on the next sunny day I actually get to ride my bike, I’ll be rolling out for the first time on something utterly and impractically fashionable, at least in cycling – shiny white shoes. I’m not sure yet how I feel about it. Like the episode of Seinfeld when Jerry wonders if participating in an orgy will mean he has to get all new orgy clothes, a selection of lotions and oils, and new orgy friends, I wonder if I’ll have to get a whole new set of white shoe friends, the kind who apply hair gel before rides, roll up their jersey sleeves when it’s sunny, and seem to somehow repel road dirt.

Frankly, the whole thing is a little frightening, but at least I’ll still have those black Delta cleats to comfort me.


  • Did I just write about 1,000 words about cleats? Damn. Don't worry, with the Giro d'Italia and the Tour of California coming up, I'm sure we'll be back to writing about racing soon enough. Post-Liege just felt like a good time to take a break.

  • Cadel Evans (BMC) is being touted, at least in the English language cycling press, as a big favorite for the Giro win. No doubt he's on good form, but as much as I like BMC, I'm not seeing a very strong supporting cast. That said, the choppier nature of the Giro seems to make the team much less of a factor than it is in the Tour. Paolo Salvoldelli's winning Discovery Channel team, for instance, was certainly no barn burner. But team or no team, with no Contadors or Schlecks in the mix at this Giro, Evans better sieze this chance to bag that elusive grand tour win.

  • If people were sawed off by Alexander Vinokourov's (Astana) Liege win, how irate will they be if he wins the Giro? Especially when they've had Alejandro Valverde's (Caisse d'Epargne) Tour de Romandie win to keep them frothing in the interim. Like it or not, Vinokourov is certainly back, and he'll have some decent riders supporting him in Italy. He is old, though, so it will be interesting to see how he recovers day-to-day as the Giro wears on.

  • Regardless of who wins, or how you feel about riders coming back from suspensions or doping in general, let's hope we can get through the next year without 2/3 of the Giro podium getting popped one way or another. I know it's a tall order, but what the hell, let's aim high.

  • I'm going to try to make some visual changes to the site sometime soon, so if you stop by and see something different, or the layout is even more screwed up than usual, that's what's going on.

Branding Iron

As the native son of an affordably priced beach resort town, I appreciate the thought and craftsmanship that goes into a good screen-printed t-shirt. It starts with the basic graphic design elements like the colors and style of the design, which have to mesh with broader branding elements like an attractive, easily recognizable logo and a clever, catchy, and commercially desirable motto or catch phrase. Laid over (or underneath) all of that, there are the considerations of shirt colors, fabric weights, cuts, and quality. Between the art itself and the cotton canvas that hosts it, there’s plenty to appreciate for a true enthusiast of the medium. So, you could imagine my delight at the variety and volume of stunning shirt-craft on offer at the Shimano North American Handbuilt Bicycle Show, where seemingly every booth had something delightful in ink and cotton for sale. But this was no ordinary t-shirt show – there were some bicycles scattered about, too.

I'm kidding, of course. Fantastic handbuilt bikes were obviously and overwhelmingly the centerpiece of NAHBS, and if you’re interested in that sort of thing, you’ve probably already combed through a dizzying number of web sites and Flickr galleries to get your fix. But there were a hell of a lot of shirts on offer, too, and a good number of socks and hats as well. And though it might have created confusion as to what the real product was at times, the swift soft goods trade made sense for several reasons.

First, compared to selling the merits of marginally different $1,200+ custom frames, moving $20 t-shirts is easy money, and they pretty much sell themselves. Hang one up or throw a stack on the table, and if people like it enough, they’ll buy it. You’d don’t have to take the time to explain why your just-so seatstay treatment is better, or why getting just the right axle-to-crown length is crucial to executing your creative vision. It’s a t-shirt. People get it. And if you have a good design and sell enough of them, you can help mitigate the cost of getting to the show, at least.

Second, every good luxury brand – and most of the exhibitors at NAHBS could be considered luxury brands in cycling – knows that while most people can’t afford a $2,500 purse, they can afford a $40 t-shirt bearing the logo of a brand whose goods they admire. Most shirts at the show seemed to slot in at around $20, but the aspirational aspects of the marketing are the same.

Finally, if you have a reasonably attractive t-shirt design, people will actually pay you for a chance to advertise your brand. What could be better if you’re a small company looking to raise your profile? This concept is already well-trodden ground in cycling, though, so I won’t go any farther than that. (Except to point out that just because I’m noting that t-shirts give companies cheaper-than-free advertising doesn’t mean I’m one of those people who hangs around cycling message boards harrumphing about how I stripped all the logos from my frame and ride in a plain blue jersey because those bastards don’t pay me to advertise their stuff dontchaknowit. Who has the time?)

The Bicycle Trend Report

But enough about t-shirts -- you're probably wondering what was notable about the show for non-shirt enthusiasts. I’d say it was the move away from the over-the-top commuter/utility bikes of the past few years, and back towards what I’ll call sport bikes. By sport bikes, I mean road bikes designed for lively riding, but which will accommodate a greater range of fitness and flexibility levels than racing bikes, accept a 28c tire, fenders, and maybe a rack, and hopefully handle a bit of abuse without complaint. If you’re over 40, you probably call them sport-tourers, and if you’re over 40 and particularly crotchety you’ll probably rattle on about how Nishiki used to build a perfectly fine one and it didn’t cost two grand.

Given the emphasis on that genre, it was also refreshing to see that the interpretations of sport bikes were not radical, stylized overreactions to the exaggerated deficiencies people like to broadly assign to racing bikes. By and large, they didn’t have 700x98c tires to “smooth out rough roads”, or disc brakes, or handlebars so high that they would gently nuzzle your bearded chin, or self-consciously retro builds. They were just very nice bikes for people to take their normal rides on, without trying to oversell the buyer on some underlying, all-encompassing riding philosophy. And that’s progress, people. (So what's the next step on the road to universal cycling enlightenment? People who should and do know better will stop crowing about how racing bikes are uncomfortable in their marketing materials. Horses for courses, and for people who race, who ride long and fast, and who are used to them, racing bikes are shockingly comfortable.)

Anyway, from a market perspective, the move to sport bikes from uber-commuters makes sense. Almost too much sense for the bike industry. I’d venture there are far more people looking for a fine, pricey, handbuilt bicycle for recreation -- something comfortable and fun to ride with friends or on a Backroads tour of the Sonoma wine country -- than there are people looking for a fine, pricey, handbuilt bicycle to ride to the Safeway for deodorant and cheese and then lock to the parking meter outside the office. And since they’re already fighting for a tiny segment of overall bicycle consumption, builders are well served in providing what the greatest number of consumers want to buy, not what builders wish they wanted to buy. In the interest of full disclosure, I don’t have statistics to back any of that last part up.

The whole commuter-centric feel that pervaded the past few years’ shows gave off a bit of a racing-is-passé vibe, at least for someone reading the coverage from a distance. But while it would be foolish for NAHBS-type builders to focus heavily on a racing market dominated by big production, big marketing, and high margins, there was still a lot for someone involved in competitive cycling to like at the show. For instance, two of the last great European shadow-builders were present – Dario Pegorretti and Cyfac. Together, those two outfits account for quite a few high-profile professional racing results – it’s just that their frames were buried under someone else’s name at the time. With uniquely sculpted and easily identifiable (read: branded) carbon now the universal norm at the professional level, it’s tougher to pull off a good rebadging, so both companies have had to build their own brands in recent years, both to considerable success.

Further highlighting the changes in how bike builders and pro cycling teams interact was Italian builder Tiziano Zullo, based in Castelnuovo del Garda. Under its own name, Zullo sponsored the powerful Dutch TVM squad in the early 1990s, netting the final stage of the 1991 Tour de France under Dmitri Konyshev for the brand. Zullo’s production? About 200 frames per year. Compare that with the financial and production capacity needed to sponsor a top team today, and you see why there’s less diversity on the downtubes of the pro peloton these days.

The Cultural Trend Report

The success of the NAHBS over the past several years fits with what I see as a trend that goes beyond cycling. In a nation that traded its ability to manufacture much of anything for cheap product and the vaunted service economy (which is, in turn, being outsourced), there had been growing acceptance that material goods are things that are made by machines somewhere overseas, not by people here with ideas and families and houses. But in response to that alienation from the goods we consume, there now seems to be a growing fascination with people who can actually MAKE things – quality things – using knowledge, skill, and their own two hands. You can see it at NAHBS, of course, where I ran into people who already had bikes on order with builders, but who made the trip down just to meet the person making their bike face-to-face. But maybe more importantly for culture at large, you can see returned interest in production and origin in more moneyed industries than cycling. On television, there are any number of cable shows highlight the work of carpenters doing home remodels; show how, where, and by whom consumer items are made; and espouse the benefits of cooking real food. Grocery stores that note where, how, and by whom the food you’re buying was produced are doing better than ever, despite their higher prices. Foreign car manufacturers trumpet the fact that many of their cars are actually made in the United States by American workers. In short, people are starting to care again about where things came from and how they’re made, and that’s important. Beats not giving a damn, anyway.

  • Did I really just refer to it as the Shimano North American Handbuilt Bicycle Show up there? Yes, I did. Sponsors keep cycling’s collective show on the air, so when it’s reasonable, I try to keep their names associated with the events and teams they’re bankrolling. When is it not reasonable? When people name their team something like “ShipCrap International Logistics Company Professional Cycling Team presented by Stinky Puppy Coffee Company – Put Some Pup in Your Cup.” In print, that sort of branding diarrhea eats up your word count. Online, it just annoys me.

  • Sports – particularly the vaguely defined category of “outdoor sports” like cycling, running, surfing, and skateboarding – have always been a t-shirt rich environment. We’ve been over brand shirts already, but then you’ve got your participant shirts, your souvenir shirts, your one-off novelty shirts, your cause shirts, your tribute shirts, you name it. For godssake, you’d think cyclists didn’t know how to use buttons.

  • Several of the display booth designs at NAHBS really stood out. Vanilla’s booth, with a series of large crates depicting phases of frame production and others housing bike-display dioramas, was well done down to the last detail, as was Bilenky's full-scale reproduction of its workshop. I also liked Rapha’s mini-mart themed booth, since it reminded me of a travelling companion from my junior days who used long drives to expound at length on the virtues of well-stocked marts and their undeniable value to cyclists.

  • The big-time booths were nice, but one of the most intriguing areas of the show was the back right corner, where the ultra-small builders had their space. One man, one bike, and a folding table. It doesn’t get more grassroots than that.

  • No, I didn’t buy any t-shirts.

Paris-Roubaix Tech MadLibs

This time of year, cycling magazines and web sites turn their considerable attentions to cranking out article after article about the myriad little equipment changes that teams make for tomorrow’s Paris-Roubaix classic. But why should credentialed journalists have all the fun? Thanks to modern MadLib and internet technologies, we can now give you all the opportunity to create your very own Paris-Roubaix tech article the same way the the pros do.

Though MadLibs are usually a free-form exercise, we’ve inserted a few multiple choice selections (separated by an "/"), since we can’t have every team riding “Boob” wheels and “Farty” forks. You know the drill – when you see the underlined sections, insert the appropriate words of your choice, or pick your favorite selection from the list of options.

Team Name Verbs New Solution to Roubaix’s Unique Challenges
Your Name
Compeigne, France

Scanning the team trucks as the squads do their pre-Roubaix reconnaissance always yields some interesting equipment choices, and this year has been no different. Many teams rolled out under sunny / threatening skies to survey the cobbles, revealing special touches for star riders and domestiques alike, all in hopes of improving their chance at glory in the storied / infamous / epic Hell of the North / Queen of Classics.

Team name has benched the team bike model they usually ride in favor of something a little more suitable for the treacherous cobbled farm roads of northern France. And with wet and slippery / dry and dusty weather forecasted, they’re likely to need all the help they can get. This year, most riders will roll out on bike sponsor’s new cyclocross / “Roubaix” / “all road” / “geriatric dentist” frames. In addition to substituting ­aluminum / carbon / a different carbon layup in key areas, the frames also feature extra rear wheel clearance along with ­long reach caliper / cantilever brakes. Out back, the chainstays are 1 centimeter longer than the team’s standard bikes and have been reshaped to provide more tire clearance / room for the 44 tooth inner chainrings. The seatstays have also been given the Roubaix treatment – bike sponsor team liason sponsor press flack name points out that the usual seatstay shape has been flattened / curved / fitted with elastomers to increase vertical compliance over the jarring pave.

All that extra clearance allows the team to squeeze in boutique maker’s / Vittoria’s beefy / plush / cushy 25c tubulars, which allow riders to drop the pressures a bit and provide a little extra comfort / relief / solace over the course’s 50+ kilometers of stones. And while they’re made by boutique maker / Vittoria, they’ve been relabeled with wheel sponsor’s logo using a Sharpie marker / thermal transfer.

Those tires are wrapped around / mounted / glued to the old school / classic / bulletproof combination of Dura-Ace / Record hubs and Ambrosio Nemesis / Mavic Reflex tubular rims. Leaving the low spoke count and carbon hoops for the more forgiving classics, team name opts for 32 spokes and brass nipples, tied and soldered by hand to give a bit of extra strength and keep everything in place should a spoke break.

Steering duties are handled by bike sponsor’s cyclocross / second tier fork. While the fork weighs more that the squad’s usual setup, it offers a steel steerer / an aluminum steerer / more tire clearance for a little extra insurance on rough roads. Team’s star rider will maneuver that fork from gutter to pothole with handlebars bolstered by a layer of extra bar tape / rubber under the tape / sponsor’s gushy tape product. While well known domestique forgoes the extra padding on the bars, he does use a ‘cross top lever for quick braking from the tops should the need arise. Domestique's bike also sports a handwritten / typed piece of paper taped to the stem / top tube with the location and length of each cobbled sector, as well as an extra seat clamp to ensure the seatpost stays put when the impacts come.

While team name spares no detail in it’s Roubaix setup, not everyone is going with such tried and true techniques. Bucking the trend, other team name rolled out on wheel sponsor’s new carbon hoops. It's hard to tell by looking, but team mechanics tell publication name that the wheels have more carbon / a modified carbon layup where it matters to give the squad a bit more forgiving ride / better strength over the cobbles, while still providing the aero advantage for a solo ride to the velodrome. The brake surface on the new wheels is carbon / aluminum, which should be a decided advantage / disadvantage if the weather turns wet / dry.

Which strategy will prove to be the right one? That might just depend on Sunday’s forecast.


So, kidding aside, who is going to win Roubaix? Hell if I know, but there are plenty of places to read the list of favorites, and those guys are favorites for a reason. But outsider-wise, I’m looking to Liquigas. They don’t have a marquis Roubaix rider, but Manuel Quinziato and Aleksandr Kuschynski have been riding above their heads all week.

For a way-long shot, I’ll look for Kevin Ista from Agritubel. At 24, he’s way too young, and he’s mostly a sprinter at this point, but why not? The 5th year pro from Auvelais, Belgium (about 16k northwest of Charleroi) has had good showings all spring. He was there in a few long breaks in the semi-classics, and bagged a shocking second place at Het Nieuwsblad/Het Volk behind Thor Hushovd. He was also second overall at the Dreidaagse van West-Vlaanderen, and won the points, sprints, and best young rider titles in the process. He also took Stage 3 of the Med Tour over former French sprint hope Jimmy Engoulvent. Agritubel wasn’t on the guest list for Flanders and Gent-Wevelgem, so his form’s a bit of a mystery at this point, and there’s no telling how he’ll hold up against ProTour competition, but you have to jump in sometime.

Hope everyone enjoys the race.

Chain Reactions

Or, The Downside of Sponsorship

On Monday, I wrote a little bit about how Fabian Cancellara’s (Saxo Bank) showmanship over his broken chain during the Tour of Flanders might impact new team sponsor SRAM, which manufactures chains. Lest you think that these little incidents fail to make an impression on the viewing (and buying) public, we bring you the Top 15 search terms used to reach one very, very small cycling web site:

1. Cancellara koppenberg
2. koppenberg cancellara
3. cancellara broken chain
4. broken chain on the koppenberg
5. cancellara chain break
6. cancellara chain flanders
7. cancellara fabian chain break
8. cancellara koppenberg 2009
9. cancellara koppenberg chain
10. cancellara sram chain around neck
11. course gent wevelgem
12. fabian cancellara broken chain
13. koppenberg cancellara chain
14. koppenberg chain race
15. koppenberg sram

As you can see, not all publicity really is good publicity, and if people are reaching this site using those terms, chances are they’re reading accounts of it on every major cycling site and more than a few minor ones as well. So while it’s still just a single broken chain, the story is bound to take on greater weight due to sheer exposure, repetition, and drama.

There’s plenty of precedent for high-visibility product failures haunting companies, of course. And within cycling, there’s even plenty of precedent for high-profile broken chains. Julio Perez Cuapio (then with Panaria) famously broke his chain during a promising breakaway in the 2001 Giro. I can still see him in that orange jersey by the side of the road, but I can’t for the life of me remember what kind of chain it was. I did look it up, though - Shimano, 9-speed. (Remarkably, Perez Cuapio smashed his teeth in on a guard rail a couple days later, then won a stage a few days after that. Tough guy.)

Compared with Perez Cuapio’s high-profile but relatively brand-anonymous failure, the intriguing thing about Cancellara’s is its close association with the SRAM name. In this case, it seems that the PR fallout was likely made much worse by the temporal proximity of the sponsorship announcement to the failure. Saxo Bank – a formidable team that famously resisted component sponsors because they wanted the freedom to use what they wanted – is a big get for SRAM, and the company talked it up accordingly. Given how persnickety director Bjarne Riis has been about equipment, signing SRAM as a sponsor registered as a bigger product endorsement than pay-to-play sponsorship deals usually do. Then, hot on the heels of that well-received press release, advertising that the team is riding their products, one of their new star riders suffers a race-ending failure of one of their core products in the first major event since the announcement. You could almost feel the sales and marketing guys cringing. Imagine if Colnago took over sponsorship of Astana, and Levi Leipheimer snapped a frame on the first day of the Giro.

Maybe I’m too soft, but what I’ve seen of the reaction feels a little strong to me. Yes, you certainly don’t want a chain snapping on you, and it does seem to be becoming a more common failure with thinner chains. But this tempest seems to have taken on more significance than it deserves due to an unfortunate pair of conditions – bad timing regarding the sponsorship announcement, and the fact that it occurred on the Koppenberg. The breakage probably wouldn’t have even been race-ending had it not occurred on that famous 600 meter stretch of cobbles, where team car access is restricted and poor position over the top is punished severely. And had it occurred nearly anywhere but the Koppenberg or the Muur van Geraardsbergen it surely wouldn’t have been subject to so much photography. As I noted Monday, Cancellara’s histrionics sure didn’t help things, but after the season the guy’s had, I also can’t begrudge him a little in-the-moment frustration.

As a result of all that, articles mentioning the breakage abound, but really, we’re still talking about one failure, for one very strong guy, on one very brutal hill. As much as I love you all, let’s not kid ourselves about our ability to replicate those conditions in our own riding. Even if we could all crank out the watts like Cancellara, anecdotal information indicates that most chain failures can be attributed to faulty installation – very few people actually break a sideplate or pull out a previously untouched pin. In other words, a failure of your mechanic's head and hands is far more likely to break your chain than the strength of your thighs. Or a manufacturing error, for that matter.

How many of those keyword searches above are SRAM looking to assess the damage, and how many are consumers trying to find out what happened? I have no idea. But I have to say, I haven’t seen that much keyword consistency since I wrote something a year ago that included the name of Specialized’s HR maven, Shannon Sakamoto. I don’t know what else she has going on, but someone Googles that woman at least once or twice a week. If SRAM has any luck at all, their little hubbub will die out a little more quickly than that.

In other news, you may have noticed that sneaking in up there at number 11 on the list is “course gent wevelgem.” That fine semi-classic was run this morning, of course, and we’ll try to get to that later.

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.

Hey, That’s My Bike

At the Tour of California this year, one of the big little stories – by which I mean not important to the race, but heavily reported – was the shenanigans surrounding Columbia-High Road’s time trial bikes. The issue, at its most basic, was that the squad looked to still be riding the distinctive Giant bikes they debuted last year under that sponsorship, rather than the Scott Plasma people assumed they’d be riding under their current one.

Team owner Bob Stapleton insisted that the bike in question was in fact not a Giant, but merely Giant-looking, telling’s James Huang, “As you know, Giant was our bike manufacturer last year and the Giant TT bike that we raced last year was developed in conjunction with Giant, some external experts, as well as engineers within our own team. So this year we're racing a bike made by a company that I can't disclose that's had engineering input from many of those same people and is a different bike. As you can see it's branded ‘Highroad Techdev'.”

Ah, the "in sticker veritas" defense. Clever.

Basically, it sounds like High Road is claiming at least partial ownership of the design developed during the Giant sponsorship, and from either actual documentation or memory had a different factory recreate the bike. Whether that’s really the case or they just had last year’s Giant bikes repainted is sort of inconsequential, since the serious ownership issues reside in the design and not the actual plastic. (Though there is a certain irony to having a Giant design built at another factory, given how many brands Giant builds bikes for.)

The quote continues, but in fairness to James, you should really just read his article, since he did the legwork. I will reveal that Giant’s response to Stapleton’s claims, in both that article and from a source of our own is, in summary, “bullshit.”

Various forms of rebranding, from actual manufacturing contracts to plain old sticker engineering are nothing new in cycling, of course, but this particular instance raises some important underlying questions about the sponsor-team relationship. Yes, I’m sure Columbia-High Road did help Giant develop the bike last year – by making suggestions, testing prototypes, providing feedback, and serving as wind tunnel test subjects. But access to those services is one reason industry sponsors sign on to sponsor teams in the first place (the other reason being pure, unadulterated advertising). It’s part of the deal, and when those relationships end, as they inevitably do, I can’t think of another team ownership that has dared to try to lay claim to the intellectual property created during the sponsorship. If that’s the way things are going to work, all those Cervelo Test Team co-sponsors better watch themselves, or at the end of the year, Gerard Vroomen is going to own the rights to all their shit.

Who knows, maybe whatever “High Road TechDev” is did exist before the Tour of California. Maybe High Road’s people did work long, lonely hours with the Giant boys, analyzing the properties of different carbon layups, conducing airflow modeling, rethinking steering component design, and, in the nascent half-light hours of early morn, secretly engaging in inter-corporate romantic dalliances straight out of late night Cinemax. When High Road can produce a single engineer then on their payroll with the credentials to help design that bike, or even better, enough of them to warrant the annoyingly nerdy “TechDev” name and sticker set, I’ll be more willing to buy into their claim on the design. That said, it’s probably unfair to assume that Stapleton is stretching the truth when he says that he has a team of engineers working directly for his cycling team – I certainly don’t have any evidence either way. It’s just that, if he does, it's very, very strange.

But until more facts come to light, which seems unlikely now that there’s real racing going on, I don’t know why we’re even discussing the implications of this slap fight, since nobody seemed to be buying Stapleton’s story. The real question is, why even put this ridiculous scenario out there in the public? Teams riding poorly camouflaged, non-sponsor equipment doesn’t surprise many people anymore, and with designs becoming more distinctive and recognizable in recent years, its not even as fun a game to try to spot them as it was in the olden days, when all the bikes pretty much looked alike except for the lug points and seatstay treatment. In effect, every manufacturer has some version of the Hetchins curly stays now, some little do-dad that will identify their work regardless of stickers and paint. So now, spotting rebranded equipment isn't a major ah-ha moment, and usually just results in a little sidebar, a quotable if hollow denial from the team, and a sense of Where’s Waldo satisfaction for the spotter. Then everyone moves on.

In this case, though, all the claims and counterclaims have blown it way out of proportion, and the most remarkable thing is that the party with the most at stake in this dustup has been the most forthcoming. Scott, which currently sponsors Columbia and whose bike the team should theoretically be riding (and, therefore, advertising and selling) had no problem relaying where they stand on the issue in this VeloNews article. In it, the Scott rep simply states that they didn’t have a ProTour quality TT bike ready, and that they’re working on it. (Note to Scott: Be explicit about who owns the resulting design. Maybe write it down and get it signed and notarized.) Scott also provides a perfectly good business justification for not having a TT bike to hand over – nobody buys them, a fact Giant also notes in its telling of their bike’s story. Sensibly, Scott designed their Plasma model for the triathlon market, where people love talking about and actually purchasing aero bikes, so it has some design choices that are less than optimal for regular cycling time trials – the kind where you’re not sandy and overexposed.

That still may not be the whole story, though, since Scott produced a custom version of the Plasma for David Miller in 2007 when he rode for Saunier Duval – a design that corrected some of the bike’s tri-specific foibles. Why not just do that again? The easy speculation is that, even if they correct the angles and such, the reworked Plasma might not be as aerodynamically slippery as the Giant design, or might be deficient in some other way, and Columbia just wants to use the best tools to win races. Only problem is, pro cycling’s financial model is built on sponsorship, not prize money, and winning on a bike that is blatantly and publicly not your sponsor’s isn’t doing that sponsor much good. That could lead to some sour aftertastes and bad reputations down the road, though I’m sure their other sponsors don’t mind at all. Of course, Scott admittedly is not trying to sell TT bikes to cyclists right now, so they might really not give a damn, or maybe everyone’s decided it’s just best for pro cyclists not to ride around on something called “Plasma” these days. I don’t know.

Anyway, that’s all kind of old news, and I probably wouldn’t have dragged it back up if I hadn’t come across this strangely timed (for most sites, anyway) Pez story. It’s not notable for providing any new information (kind of like this post) – it’s mostly just photos of Columbia’s Addict road bikes and Plasma TT bikes from the team’s press shindig in Mallorca a few months ago. It is remarkable for noting that they saw the bikes again at the Tour of California (where, indeed, nearly every team showed up with bicycles), while failing to note any of the TT bike flap at that event, or the fact that some Columbia riders are still using the Giant design at Paris-Nice. But, like everything in cycling, sometimes it’s just better to please the sponsors, even if it means ignoring the obvious.


There have been a couple of notable insights into our namesake, the service course, on the internet lately, both of which are enlightening in their own way.

The first is a nice little video on the Garmin-Slipstream site featuring Ryder Hesjedal giving a tour of the team’s service course in Girona, Spain. Even if you’re not a fan of the particular equipment the team rides, it would be hard to claim that Garmin’s facility is anything less than a racing cyclist’s candy store. In fact, it makes your garage’s lack of a custom 40 foot bus, dedicated staff, stock of carbon wheels, and an espresso machine seem downright criminal. Add to that the fact that some of the most prized training grounds in Europe lie just outside those giant rollup doors, and there’s some pretty good fodder for envy there. But please, look, admire, but don’t get caught up in some sort of wild-eyed equipment frenzy, wondering if you’ll really be able to get through this season with just the six wheelsets you have. It’s not good for you, and it annoys the crap out of your friends.

Other than providing one of the best looks I’ve seen inside the inner sanctum, how else is this post from Garmin enlightening? Well, if you’ve ever read the year-old “About” blurb over there on the left side of your screen, then Garmin’s word choice in defining what a service course is may look familiar. Of course, that makes me wonder if the guys have actually looked at this site, and, if they have, if Allen Lim will ever give me a ride again.

The second service course-related piece comes courtesy of the Belgium Knee Warmers site, which certainly doesn’t need any traffic help from me, but what the hell. At the Tour of California, BKW seized the opportunity to have a look inside BMC’s equipment truck and grab a few words from veteran team mechanic Vincent Gee. Granted, a truck is not a service course, but it’s close enough for now. The article doesn’t get into too many specifics about the truck (which is not a criticism – I mean, it’s a truck), but I found the interview revealing in an unexpected way. Specifically, this series of questions regarding stage race routine caught my eye:

-Do you change the [handlebar] tape daily?
-Do you replace chains on a scheduled interval?
-Any special equipment for AToC?
-39/53 chainrings?
-Any special tires for the rain?
-Are you gluing tires on a schedule?

For a site that is centered on digging into the details of the pro experience, they’re perfectly reasonable questions to ask. But they made me wonder how much people's notions of team operations have been affected by the image projected by a few superteams – particularly the Postal/Discovery and Astana operations headed by Johan Bruyneel and Lance Armstrong. That is, have those teams’ highly publicized methods and procedures – microscopic attention to detail; constant not-so-secret testing of double-secret new crap; stage-specific tires, bikes, gears, and wheels; decades-long tire gluing procedures – skewed our view of how most professional cycling teams really operate?

The quick answer, I’d argue, is yes. In the United States, the tightly focused media blitz that surrounds those Bruyneel/Armstrong collaborations has made it seem like the resource-intensive way they handle things for the Tour de France is just the way most cycling teams operate all the time. Which is ironic, because the teams put all of that information out there in the press in an attempt to look unique.

(It would be unfair to Bruyneel and co. to not mention that Garmin-Slipstream, with all of its much-discussed “protocols” and Blackberry-love has also emerged as a standard bearer for this image.)

But in reality, there are very few teams, maybe five or six in any given year, with the sort of budget, sponsors, and organization to support that lifestyle – teams like ONCE, Mapei, CSC, Quick.Step, and T-Mobile for instance – but beyond that top tier things get a leaner pretty quickly. Yes, changing chains and bar tape frequently, for example, doesn’t seem likely to break any team’s budget, but the fact is, you’re paying folks to do that work when they could be attending to more pressing things, and you’re chewing through a limited number of units the sponsor has provided. And that’s all money going out the door.

But all of the media attention on those superteam habits – on Versus, in magazines, on the web – has created a mindset in which it's perfectly normal to ask if a second division team is changing bar tape daily during a week-long February stage race, if they have rigid protocols for changing chains and gluing tires, and if they’re using special chainrings for pretty ordinary climbs.

That’s what made Gee’s answers so refreshing, and valuable to readers. At a time when a lot of people are fascinated with the more wasteful aspects of professional cycling – the one-race-and-replace-it, bigger-bus-is-a-better-team image – Gee revealed that no, they just don’t do all that stuff. Despite the years he spent as a wrench with Discovery, at BMC Gee changes the tape when it needs to be changed, replaces chains when they’re worn, and glues tires when the old ones are worn or flat.

That all seems too reasonable, though, and gluing up tires as needed just doesn’t create that same no-detail-too-small pro image that Julien Devries’ legendary 90-step tire gluing process does. And using bike shop-available equipment doesn’t lend that Formula 1, money sport image like talking casually about the ridculously expensive narrow BB time trail bike Armstrong decided he didn’t like. Most of all, though, the conservative approach just does't make for flashy copy or video. But, for the vast majority of teams – even good, well-funded ones like BMC – that’s the reality: conserving what you can, when you can, without unnecessarily risking a good result. In fact, I’d wager that a lot of fans who have watched every episode of Road to Paris and worn the ink off of four year’s worth of Procycling would be surprised at just how much use even the wealthiest teams get out of equipment before they toss it. Remember that Garmin video way back up at the top? Yeah, those cobbled classic bikes Hesjedal pointed out are stored in there for a reason – reuse.

Letter from Philadelphia

I went up to the Philadelphia International Cycling Championship on Sunday, more to look for feature story inspiration and catch up with some contacts than to do any on-the-scene reporting, though I did grab some quotes here and there for use by other parties. But by far my most surprising and sort of scary contact came well away from the press tent.

A couple of laps in, I decided to pay a visit to Strawberry Hill, the course’s neglected hill, which sits between the ascents of the Manayunk Wall, the party hill, and Lemon Hill, the race connoisseurs’ hill. Trying to stay in the shade as much as possible, I was having a look at the long, wide-open descent that takes riders off Strawberry and back down to Kelly Drive, the main artery of the course. I was the only person there until a middle-aged man and his two young sons came from the opposite direction. The kids were water bottle hunting, so I tossed them a couple from my side of the road. The father thanked me in a thick Australian accent and, spotting the badge around my neck, asked me my affiliation. I told him, and we fell into talking about where we were from, the race, the heat, and assorted other pleasantries.

He explained that he lives in the area, and that through various twists and turns he’d become familiar with High Road assistant director Andrzej Bek. We talked about the team being a class act, and he noted how Bek was so friendly he had just called him during the race to try to arrange a meet-up. And then he dropped the bomb: “And they’ve rented my RV from me for the week.

Here I was, in an isolated area, with no witnesses, face-to-face with a man whose recreational vehicle I’d openly mocked on this site for my own self-glorification just days ago. A hundred thousand people at this race, and this is who I run into? I wasn’t sure whether to scream and run away or go buy a lottery ticket. Being a pretty good distance from anywhere, and neither a runner nor a gambler, I decided to just act casual.

But Philly is a long race, and that was just one of any number of semi-notable things. Here are a few more.


Perusing the full results back in the comfort and air-conditioning of my own home, the final accounting was striking in two ways. The first was the number of finishers – 81 out of 180 starters. Yes, that’s less than half of the starters making it to the far end, but given temperatures that started around 80 degrees at the 9:00am start and rose to over 95 degrees by the finish, coupled with high humidity, I went in expecting maybe 40 or so finishers. Granted, it was one of the slowest editions of the race, with plenty of riders being more cautious than usual with their efforts due to the heat, but that’s still a hell of a crowd after 156 miles, however you cut it. Remember when Manayunk was a race-shattering climb? Now, not so much.

The second striking aspect of the results came in the less auspicious section below the final finisher (for the record, David Guttenplan of Time at 14:41 back) in the DNF section. Every team was represented down there, and the guys watching the finish from the sidelines included notable names like former winner Henk Vogels (Toyota-United), Paris-Roubaix champions Servais Knaven (High Road) and Magnus Backstedt (Slipstream), and Giro points jersey winner Danielle Bennati (Liquigas). But that wasn’t the interesting part – after all, everybody has a job to do, and anyone can have an off day.

The interesting part was that two teams – Jittery Joe’s and Rite Aid – managed to lose their entire 8-man squads. With 81 guys making it to the finish, it has to be pretty hard to explain why not-a-one of yours could get there, heat or no heat. It also has to make you wonder about next year’s invitation – without the Philadelphia race serving as the USPRO championship, a spot in the lineup isn’t as safe as it used to be.

Coping Strategies

Who can blame those Rite Aid and Jittery Joe’s boys for packing it in, though? It was hot out there. Damn hot. Africa hot. So teams were making a special effort to make sure their riders kept cool enough to go for the win, or at least not die. For water bottle and musette hunters, it was a banner day, and thank god for them, because if it hadn’t been for the scavengers, we’d have been wading knee-deep in bottles by the midpoint.

But giving more liquids is basic, and this sort of heat and humidity called for a bit more effort. Soigneurs in the team tents were busy all day, stuffing ice in ziplock bags and team socks to hand up to riders, who would stuff them down the back of their jersies. It seems to me there are upsides and downsides to that method – on one hand, you’ve got a bag of ice down your back. On the other, you have to zip up the front of your jersey to hold it there.

I don’t know if it’s because they didn’t pack any spare socks or plastic baggies, or just a preference, but the Symmetrics riders seem to disproportionately prefer the full chest unzip in comparison to the rest of the peloton, and if you paid attention you could see why. Those Canadians are damn hairy.

Another minor notable was that Toyota-United and some other squads were using oversized water bottles. They’re commonplace in amateur racing, of course, where you’re more-or-less on your own for your feeding needs, but in the pro ranks they’re rarely seen. At that level, caravan vehicles passing up bottles and competent feed zone help eliminate some of the need, and the small bottles weigh less are less apt to bounce out of the cages. But on a day like Sunday, those few ounces of extra capacity were likely well worth any associated negatives.

Still other teams were handing up ice-water soaked kitchen sponges, which now cover a colorful 5 mile stretch of Philly riverfront. So be on the lookout for extra-clean homeless people storing their urine in Slipstream-Chipotle bottles in the coming weeks. If any of the teams had gone truly retro and used damp cabbage leaves under their helmets, they could have had a meal as well.

Get it Right

At the finish of the Liberty Classic, the women’s race that does four laps of the full course, the announcers were going apeshit about the late solo move by U.S. champion Mara Abbott (High Road) on Lemon Hill. She held her small gap all the way to the line for the win. I must have heard her name at 100 decibels at least 10 times in the seconds it took the race to pass the press tent, loop around Logan Circle, and get back to the line, including a great big “MARA ABBOTT WINS THE LIBERTY CLASSIC!” as she crossed the line with arms raised.

The only problem was it wasn’t Mara Abbott. And everyone who knew a bit about bike racing knew it wasn’t. The announcers apologized to Chantal Beltman, the young Dutchwoman who’d actually delivered High Road the win, several minutes later. They blamed the mix-up on a last minute switch in numbering within the team that wasn’t noted on their start sheet.

Is it easy to innocently misidentify riders in bike racing? Yes, it is. Just ask Phil Liggett. Does the press occasionally get a start sheet that’s less than accurate? Absolutely. But a few things make this incident especially troublesome. First and foremost, it’s pretty easy to pick Abbott out from her teammates – as the announcers noted, she’s the U.S. road champion. Meaning she has a different kit from the rest of the team, including Beltman. Second, I picked up my start sheet a good hour and a half before the start, and Beltman was number 4, plain as day, just as she was at the finish, so somebody wasn’t doing their due diligence. Furthermore, this was no tight bunch sprint – Beltman’s number was clearly visible at the head of the race from Lemon Hill onward, ample time to figure things out. And even if their start sheet was actually wrong, they should have known it wasn’t Abbott by the jersey alone. It’s just sloppy, and this race is better than that.

It’s Not A Car Show

Finally, a safety note. Every year, the organizers find a way to let some Philly gearheads drive whatever overpowered creation they happen to own at the tail end of the race caravan. This year, it was one guy in whatever the new version of the Porsche 911 body style is, and a guy in an Acura NSX. The organizer, Threshold Sports, should give some real consideration to whether this is in everyone’s best interests, including their own.

Both vehicles were covered in some slipshod vinyl graphics, so I have to believe Threshold got some relatively small amount of money or in-kind services from those represented companies in exchange for the relatively minor logo placement. Even without knowing the value of those ads, I’m going to go ahead and tell Threshold it’s not worth it.

Race caravans themselves are dangerous, but they’re also loud, spend most of their time at 25 miles per hour, and due to generally good organization at Philly, you damn well know when its coming towards you. And the guys driving in the caravan are typically experienced and know the patterns and implied rules of the road during a bike race.

Not so with the gold-chain and wife-beater crowd piloting these extra vehicles. These guys were occasionally dropping well off the back of the race, then goosing it to about 60 mph up Kelly Drive. It would be bad enough if they hit a rider, a moto, or a mechanic stopped for service or a crash. But it will be even worse when they run over some kid who, with the peloton and caravan well past, steps out in the road to retrieve that High Road musette they’d been eyeballing since it left the rider's hand.

In addition to the primary concern of injury or death, trust me, after that happens, there will be no more Philly race, 24 years of history or no, and anyone trying to run any other race on public roads will face a lot of questions. Whatever they’re getting from the companies plastered on those cars – whether it’s money or services – the mighty Threshold Sports can acquire it some other way, or find a safer way to provide the same exposure value. A few hundred bucks saved won’t mean much if the scenario above comes to pass.

Haves and Have Nots

Here in the United States, we’re one race into what’s affectionately known as “Philly Week.” I believe it’s officially dubbed the “Pro Cycling Tour” by promoter Threshold Sports, because there aren’t already enough permutations of “pro,” “cycling,” and “tour” in circulation. (Interestingly, I was going to link to the UCI ProTour rankings back there, but mentions of the allegedly prestigious series and its snazzy logo seem to have gone missing from their site. But that’s another story.)

The Philly Week races are sponsored by Commerce Bank, so some people – mostly from the Commerce Bank PR department – call it the "Commerce Bank Triple Crown of Cycling." Long before Commerce took over the sponsorship, no doubt encouraged by irritating spokesperson and deadly lead-out man Regis Philbin, the races were sponsored by CoreStates, another bank. Those were long and memorable years, so some people still call it the CoreStates series as well. But they’re usually old, and still wearing stretched-out lycra from that era, so they’re easy to spot. Wachovia took over for a few years there in the middle, but I don’t think anyone calls it the Wachovia series. At some point, Thrift Drug was in there as a sponsor as well, but at this point, that seems like a poor pairing with the sport. Anyway, that’s all confusing and a bit obtuse, so let’s just go with Philly Week. I’m sure that’s what the sponsors would want.

One of the big selling points for Philly Week has always been that a number of European squads make the trip over to race, which was far more rare before the rise of the Tour of California and Tour de Georgia. Sometimes the trip is for sponsorship reasons – Bjarne Riis’s CSC team has been a mainstay over the past several years, feting bigwigs from the government contractor in huge hospitality tents, and Liquigas is making the trip this year, likely at the behest of bike sponsor Cannondale. (Saeco also made several appearances during their long Cannondale tenure, with Stefano Zanini winning in 2003.) Suanier-Duval has made a few trips recently as well, giving then-cosponsor Prodir pens top billing on some special jerseys as they made a push in the U.S. market. (Full disclosure: All us media hacks got free pens that year. Ah, the perks.) Back when Philly was the USPRO championship race, some of the Euros came to support a U.S. title contender in their ranks, as Mapei, Domo and various Lotto permutations did for Fred Rodriguez over the years, while for U.S.-registered but European-focused squads, it’s a good chance to stoke the affections of the home crowd. Still other teams just come for the appearance money, a free stay in a nice Philly hotel, shopping, and maybe some prize money if they’re feeling frisky.

The arrival of the overseas teams, particularly the big budget ones, can lead to a bit of role reversal. Suddenly, it’s the traditionally hardscrabble domestic continental teams that are better equipped and on their home turf, while the usually pampered ProTour teams have to work out of rented Ryder box trucks instead of the custom-built DAF rigs they’re used to. Sure, Ryder can arrange to get you shipping blankets and a dolly, but they’re sure as hell not going to install a washer/dryer and a mini-fridge for you. And just try to find good muesli and Extran in Fishtown.

But between those extremes – the suddenly posh-looking continental squads and the rental-car driving European ProTour teams – there is some middle ground. The U.S.-registered squads like ProTour High Road and pro continental Slipstream-Chipotle keep a bit of heavy equipment over in the states, enough to look professional when they hit the bigger domestic races, but still lacking all the comforts of a safe European home. Slipstream has a nicely appointed and appropriately Euro Sprinter van, as well as a nice BMW wagon to terrorize the caravan with. But when you’re ProTour, like High Road, people expect a bit more, and you can’t just go turning up to the races without a team bus.

As evidenced by these (poor) shots taken at the CSC Invitational in Arlington, VA on Sunday, the High Road lads are a resourceful bunch. Shipping buses overseas is apparently crazy expensive, so they’ve suckered some Florida-bound Pennsylvania retirees into lending them one heavily armed recreational vehicle for the week, including an inspirational airbrushed mural on the back.

“Rocking Years” indeed. I mean, have you seen the number of wins these guys have racked up this season? Little do Bob and Janet Kowalski (retired and loving it!) of Phoenixville, PA, know, but that thing is going to reek of embrocation and ham when they get it back.

Though they’re one scant stop short of an “I’m Spending My Kid’s Inheritance” bumper sticker on the team bus side of the equation, the High Road boys pull it all back home with the caravan vehicles. While most stateside teams are content to piece together a suitable Yakima or Thule system for hauling bikes, High Road goes for the pure Euro solution – custom welding and hydraulics. No, not the kind of hydraulics that probably grace the undercarriage of the Rock Racing Escalades, allowing a range of suspension motion that would make the late Tupac blush, but roof rack hydraulics, which let everything fold down nice and tidy and flat when you want it to:

After all, if you think gas is expensive here, you should go to Europe. What’s more, they have the extra-special Y-shaped spare wheel mounts that let you hang nearly twice as many spare wheels off the back of a Passat (or a Skoda, or an Audi, or any other VAG product). Given the choice of vehicles, the fact that it’s U-bolted to the factory rack, and the limited supply of such fixtures in the U.S., I have to wonder if this is the exact same system that used to grace the roof of the VWs that Discovery Channel used stateside during their tenure.

Recycling of that sort is actually pretty common, both in Europe and here in the United States. For instance, Team Type 1’s flashy equipment truck was originally purchased by Tom Schuler for the powerhouse domestic Saturn squad of the day. When Saturn shut it’s doors, it was sold to Discovery Channel for domestic use during their tenure. With Discovery out, and Schuler back in the sport and managing Team Type 1, he repurchased the idle rig and, $6,000 worth of vinyl graphics later, she’s back. I’m headed up to Philadelphia on Sunday, so we’ll see what else we see there, on these and other life-and-death, thrill-of-victory-or-agony-of-defeat issues. In the meantime, I’ll try to throw out some other cutting-room floor material from CSC last weekend.

Unsolicited Advice

Every April, the cycling press unleashes a slew of Paris-Roubaix tech articles in a barrage so heavy, so relentless, it makes the shelling that northern France received during World War I look like a passing shower. These articles became all the rage in the early 1990s, when pro teams got the wild hair to start throwing mountain bike parts on their rigs for a few days a year in search of some relief from the cobbles. Apparently, deep down, even the most effete Euro-pro in the disco had a soft spot in his heart for purple anodized, CNC machined parts. And RockShox.

Things have calmed down a bit equipment-wise since those heady days, but the relentless pounding of tech articles from Roubaix hasn’t slowed a bit. And that’s OK. They discuss an always-interesting mix of new technology, like making a carbon fiber bike that’s a centimeter longer with a higher rake carbon fork to smooth out the ride, and old tried-and-true technology, like making a bike that’s a centimeter longer with a higher rake fork to smooth out the ride. Hey, wait a minute…

Despite the plethora of articles meticulously detailing longer bikes, brand new forms of Zertz-No-More-Hurtz-Insertz, tied-and-soldered wheels, and hand-made tubulars aged with more care than vintage Bordeaux, it seems to me that while they fawn over the more high-profile modifications, most amateur racers overlook the one little Paris-Roubaix tweak that could actually make a significant difference in their own racing.

Probably because it costs about $16, required virtually no “R&D time,” and doesn’t have that sepia-toned, Rapha-catalog charm of beekeeper’s wire and a soldering iron.

So what is this divine secret of the Hell of the North? And why bring it up now, some weeks after closing the book on that event? Well, racing-wise, this past weekend wasn’t just the Tour of Romandie. In the MABRA zone, it was time for the local incarnation of that annual mainstay of amateur racing circuits nationwide: the race with a token stretch of rough, potholed gravel road. It’s a nice course all around, and we give the organizing club a lot of credit not just for a great course, but also for steadfastly resisting the urge to put “Roubaix” in the name. Because that’s lame. Anyway, as the race’s numerous tales of glory have circulated via the Internet (which is now apparently about 20% cycling, 78% pornography, and 2% other) and group ride chit-chat, a single common theme has emerged: racers’ fundamental inability to keep their water bottles attached to their bicycles when the road gets rough.

Numerous tales of woe – of desperation, dehydration, and surrender – resulted from this malady. As did inspiring stories of redemption, the kindness of strangers, the brotherhood of the road, and angelic saviors in the feed zone. I’d imagine similar recounts haunt every district to have such a race, but really, it’s all kind of unnecessary.

The solution, as we hinted above, is simple, and cheap. Cheap enough that you, too, can live like a pro, hoarding a special technology in your service course until that one time per year you break it out for that special race. You can even take pictures of it and write an article, if you want. Send it to, or They’ll eat it up.

Here’s how to do it: Go to almost any bike shop and buy two of the most inexpensive, bog standard stainless steel bottle cages you can find (no, not carbon, not resin, not aluminum, not scandium, not magnesium – Steel). They should run you maybe $10 a piece, or about $40 less per cage than the sexy carbon ones that sent your bottles into the woods on the first lap. Before mounting, squeeze the upper and lower portions of each cage together, far enough that the steel sets in the “farther closed” position when you let go. Now put them on your bike. Does the bottle feel tight? If not, take them off and bend them farther until it is. If you go too far, bend it back the other way. And if you want to be really obsessive, wrap the top part of the cage with a few turns of hockey tape for grip. Then put them back on the bike. I can’t stress enough how important that last step is.

Done properly, your bottle should stay put as much as you’d want, unless you do something ridiculous that you shouldn’t really be doing anyway, like falling over or running broadside into livestock. The tradeoff, of course, is that it’s a little harder to get the bottles in, but compared to riding in the dust and heat with no water, that’s the least of your problems. Sure, keeping your water bottles for the whole race might take a certain element of drama out of your race report, and the steel (and the water bottle) will add those couple of grams to your bike for those rollers just after the gravel. But on the other hand, you might get a good result if you have something to drink, and you won’t become known as the peloton beggar.

So there you go, trickle down technology straight from Paris-Roubaix to you. It’s not glamorous or new, but it’s far more useful than overpriced tied and soldered wheels, far quicker and less smelly than gluing on special tires, and far less frustrating than trying to convince your girlfriend to stand beside a hot, dusty road in your ratty wind vest with a cooler full of water bottles. Pure, simple, and utilitarian. What could be more pro than that?