Thursday, August 10, 2017

My Own Little KOM

I saw a post recently on BikeSnobNYC about how he recently set up a Strava account (actually, it was a guest post on Outside Online). I'm sure most readers know what Strava is, but just in case someone out there doesn't, let me briefly explain that it is a social-media type of service where riders and runners can track their performance using their smart phone and/or GPS. It also lets users compare their performance with other Strava users.

It might come as a shock, but I actually set up a Strava account over a year ago. Not exactly a Retro-grouchy thing to do, but let me explain a little about it.

For a long while I had doggedly resisted getting a smart phone for various reasons, and was more than content to keep using my old flip phone as long as possible. My old phone made calls, and took calls, and that was all I needed or wanted it for. I suppose it also could take really low-quality photos, but I had no idea how to get them off the phone, so I never bothered with it. Well, it finally got to where technology and phone services had moved on so much my old phone was no longer supported and couldn't even be updated to work properly anymore. So I grudgingly got a new phone, and joined the current era by getting a smart phone. I did download some apps for it, and I do like the fact that I can take decent pictures with it in the event that I don't happen to have my better camera with me, but mostly I still just use it as a phone.

Not long after I got the phone, I downloaded the Strava app. Not because I was interested in tracking performance, or comparing my results to anyone else, but because I thought it might be a good way to verify the distance of some of my rides. I always knew roughly how long my commute to/from work was, but not exactly. So I set up Strava and tracked my commute (both ways, since I take different routes in the morning and afternoon). It turned out that my daily commuting mileage was about a half-mile longer overall than I'd realized, so that was useful info. But while checking on my mileage, I also spotted something that surprised me. There are a number of hills on my commuting ride, and many of them are ranked segments on Strava where you can compare your speed to anyone else using the service. The top ranked rider on the segment is the KOM or "King of the Mountain." Okay, that much I already knew about - but what surprised me was that on one of these hills I was ranked 2nd, only a couple of seconds slower than the KOM. The hill in question is a short but steep one that I have to climb on my way home every day. It hadn't even occurred to me that it might be a ranked Strava segment.

Being so close to the KOM on this little hill (without even really trying) got me thinking I should pick up my pace a little next time and try to take the top spot. The next day I did it. When I approached the foot of the hill, I shifted up instead of down, got up out of the saddle, and sprinted to the top. Checking the results when I got home, I was the new KOM! I mentioned the accomplishment to a couple of my cycling coworkers, more out of surprise than anything else.

Another day or two later I got a message from Strava. Someone had beaten my time by several seconds. Not only that, but a second rider had exactly matched my best time (and I mean matched the time and speed exactly! unbelievable!). As it turned out, the person who had matched my time was one of my female coworkers, who took the title Queen of the Mountain as a result. She was one of the people whom I had told about my little accomplishment, and I guess she took it as a challenge. The man who'd beaten me was her boyfriend, a guy who is pretty competitive with one of the local racing clubs. Both of them ride the latest in carbon fiber wünderbikes.

Suddenly I had gotten a taste of that Strava-induced competitive urge I'd heard about and possibly even mocked. I decided I'd have to get my KOM back. The next day, I took my most modern "raciest" bike ("raciest" being a relative term in my case - it's still a lugged steel frame, but has modern shifting, clipless pedals, and has no racks, fenders, or bags). I got to "my" hill and hammered my way up. Checking later, I found that it wasn't enough. In fact, I hadn't even beaten my previous best. Sheesh.

The next day I decided I was going to let it go and try not to care. I wasn't even going to turn on Strava to track the ride home, because what was the point (remember that I'd only done it in the first place to check the distance). So what if some guy I don't even know was a little faster than me going up the hill. There are plenty of other hills along my route where I'm not even close to being the fastest, so why should this one be any different? The fact that I had been the fastest, even just briefly, was what made it different I suppose.

On the way home from work that day, I was feeling pretty good. As a last minute decision, I turned on Strava again. One more try wouldn't hurt, right? On the approach to my hill, a bit before the actual climbing began, I wound up some good speed in a high gear and tried like hell to keep it going all the way to the top. When I crested the hill, I knew I'd had a great run. Checking it later on the site, I saw I had done it. I was the KOM again.

What bike had I been riding? This one:

The Rivendell weighs just shy of 28 pounds as shown.
Pretty much the opposite of a racer, but I got my one and only KOM on Strava with it. That's my favorite part of this story.

More than a year later, the accomplishment still stands (shockingly). I still have the Strava account, but I haven't actually used or logged into it since. I don't know what I'll do if/when I get that inevitable message that someone has beaten me. I'd like to think that I'll ignore it for the same reasons that I threw out my old ride computer. That stuff just isn't all that important to me. But I do have a sense of the way it can become almost an obsession with some people.

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Latest in Doping - P. EWW

The latest thing in doping for racing cyclists is not a drug that boosts red blood cells, or increases oxygen levels. It's not a drug that builds muscle mass or speeds up muscle recovery. It's not even a tiny motor hidden somewhere in the bike. Nope - it is not any of those things. In fact, when I first heard about it, I was certain it was a joke. But it's real. The latest thing in doping for athletes may be something called a "fecal transplant" which is exactly what you think it is, but in case it isn't clear, I'll break it down more simply. Basically it's a "poop transplant," but it will absolutely come to be known as "poop doping."

What is driving people to borrow someone else's feces (hmmm. . . "borrow" probably isn't the right word, since they aren't likely to give it back when they're done) and place it inside their own colon? According to a recent article in Bicycling magazine, elite athletes - for reasons that aren't exactly made clear - are more likely than non-athletes to have a microorganism called Prevotella in their intestines, along with another microorganism called Methanobrevibacter Smithii, or M. Smithii. Lauren Petersen, a scientist at The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine in Farmington, Connecticut, has been studying the effects of these gut bacteria and believes that they are connected to better/faster recovery after exertion, and better use of calories from the digestion of foods. Both are good benefits for competitive athletes.
You know, as I understand it, this is actually supposed to
represent soft-serve chocolate ice cream, but . . .

How did Petersen get involved in this study? As she says in the article, she apparently battled for years with the effects of Lyme disease which she had contracted as a child. Fecal transplanting, which is a fairly rare treatment for extreme cases of an uncommon disease (Clostridium Difficile -- I had to look it up. It causes chronic diarrhea) seemed like it might be worth a try, but no doctor would perform one for her. So . . . she decided to do it herself. Apparently she found a person who was a competitive cyclist who was willing to donate his own feces. Bing, bang, boom (boom boom) and she's put his feces into her own colon (With what, I wonder. An enema? A turkey baster?). Now, did she seek him out because he was a competitive cyclist, or was he simply a willing donor who happened to be a cyclist, I don't really know.

Forgive me, but I do have to digress for a moment. How exactly does one even broach this subject with someone? Does someone place an ad somewhere? (Casual encounters. Must be disease-free. Athletic. Willing to donate poop.) How well do you have to know somebody before you feel comfortable enough to ask if you can borrow their scat? I've been married 25 years and I don't think I could ask my wife such a question.

Anyhow - so she gets this guy's poop into her colon and Guess What? Miracle cure. Suddenly she's got energy she didn't know she had, she's riding more, training more. Entering races and winning them. So of course she starts wondering what it is about this guy's caca that has boosted her endurance so much? Through her research, she finds out about those microorganisms mentioned above, and how ordinary schlubs generally don't have them, but high-level athletes do. So today, researchers like Petersen are studying the effects and benefits of gut bacteria. They expect that at some point they will find a way to make these microbes ingestible so that all one needs to do to get the benefits of an elite racer's gut is take a pill. But in the meantime, rectal doodie transplants are the reliable/preferred method.

Okay - nowhere in the Bicycling article does it say that there are known instances of athletes swapping poo. They aren't passing brown bags to each other under the stall dividers -- yet. But given what we've seen over the past decades, and what we know racers are willing to do, and the depths to which they're willing to stoop (squat?) to get any kind of advantage, it's really only a matter of time before poop doping takes off. As if the sport isn't smelly enough already.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Old Is Good: Is It Really Just Nostalgia?

There hasn't been much here on the Retrogrouch this summer - sorry about that folks. Who'dathought there'd be less time to write, rant, and grouch during a summer break than when I'm at work full-time? Actually, being a full-time dad is even more time consuming. People who don't know that must not have kids. Most moms already know that, but they probably don't have time to read bike blogs.

Anyhow, earlier this summer I saw an article on PezCycling News that got me thinking a bit: Equipment Nostalgia - Fact of Fiction? I finally have a quiet morning to respond.

Using the popularity of vintage-themed cycling events such as L'Eroica as a launching pad, the article goes on to rail against old componentry and to decry the love for all that old equipment as a bunch of misplaced nostalgia. Granted, the author doesn't give his age or the specific time period when he began riding/racing - but there are some hints that he's a fair bit older than I am. Even I don't have much experience with some of the stuff he ridicules. Still, on the whole, the rant seems awfully over-generalized. A lot of his rant seems to focus on stuff that was probably long in the tooth by 1970, or was bottom-of-the-ladder equipment even when it was new.

Take tires, for instance. The guy goes on to complain about how crappy tubular tires were back in his day (clinchers weren't really a "thing" on racing bikes until the '80s). But what tires does he rant against? Bottom-dwelling garbage from "behind the Iron Curtain." Barum and Wankerbar. I've heard of Barum tires - maybe even seen a few in my day (picture a cluttered old bike shop, and the grizzled old owner coming out of the basement with a pair of ancient-looking tires in his hands, saying, "If money's really tight for ya', I can let ya' have these for next-to-nuthin' but I ain't makin' no promises about 'em.") But Wankerbar? They must not have even bothered exporting them to the U.S. I even googled the brand, but came up with barely a mention.

Anyhow - this is my point - because you rode the crappiest stuff available "back in the day," all the stuff from that era is crap? Nonsense. Then, as now, there was cheap equipment, and there was expensive equipment, and everything in-between. Not everyone could afford the Clement Criterium Setas (wonderful old silk-casing tires) -- I sure as hell couldn't -- but even on my painfully limited budget (I was 18 years old when I got my first tubular wheels and tires) I was able to get some damned nice tires, and if I could still get the same tires today (and if they weren't rotted to dust) they'd rival a lot of high-end tires costing $100 or more (each!). The article mentions Dugast tires, which are the cream of the crop today - made by hand and painfully expensive - but the materials and methods used in those wonderful (and way out of my budget) tires are the same as those used in most decent tubulars of the past -- including a lot of the lower-budget ones.

The article also goes on about wheels and wheelgoods: rims, spokes, and hubs. On rims, the guy writes: "Sprint rims too were either brilliant or so soft you had to be careful when truing them or you’d pull flats in them – this was remedied by hard core wheel builders with a mallet. . . and had my buddies briefed that if they saw me with a spoke key in my hand then they should get it off me, pronto."

Ok, so were the rims bad, or did this guy simply have no skills as a wheel builder?

Again, there were some lousy rims back in the day (spokes and hubs, too) but better ones were available and didn't necessarily cost much more. The writer mentions the Mavic S.S.C. Paris-Roubaix rims as some of the good ones, and I remember those as well - so our respective timeframes must overlap a bit. The S.S.C. rims (that stood for "Special Service du Courses") were among the best rims available in the '80s and were made specially for professional racing, hence the name. They were hard anodized and stout at around 400 grams. They were also terribly expensive (if you can find them on eBay, they still are!). Thing was, however, that Mavic at the same time also offered a rim called the GP4 which was almost identical and sold for significantly less money because they didn't have that "pro peloton" marketing hype to go with them. If one were a bit more savvy and less driven by fashions, they could have saved even more money by selecting a rim called the Monthlery Pro which was basically the same rim minus the hard anodizing treatment. Yes, in the advertising they liked to tout how the hard anodizing increased the strength of the rims by however much percent - but in reality, I'm skeptical about how much actual difference it made in a completed (and properly built) wheel. Also, after only a couple of rides the hard anodizing started wearing off the sidewalls, never evenly, and ended up looking like crap. Non-anodized aluminum could always be brought back to "like new" with some fine steel wool or a bit of aluminum polish. For a few more grams and a lot fewer bucks, one could have gotten a model called the Monthlery Route, which was tough, reliable, and priced for mere mortals.

I will concede that spokes today are indeed better. Up until the '80s, one often found spokes that were chrome-plated, or galvanized (at least, I think they were galvanized - they were kind of a dull gray color), or stainless steel. Chrome ones looked nice when new, but were prone to breakage. The dull gray ones weren't pretty but may have lasted a little longer. And the stainless ones back then were a bit soft and weren't as strong as they are now. I guess the metallurgy has improved, or maybe it's the manufacturing method. But again, then or now, a properly built wheel would be a lot less likely to suffer from broken spokes.

Regarding cranks, the writer goes on to ridicule old cottered steel cranks. Again, when was he riding?  I have only limited experience with cottered cranks, and I can believe reports they could be a bit of a pain to work on (when the standard removal method involves a hammer, you do have to cringe a little) but I also have it from what I consider to be pretty reliable sources that the attachment method was at least sound and secure. In any case, there were plenty of cotterless options out there at least by the '70s, and it wasn't necessary to pay Campagnolo prices to get them.

On bottom brackets: "Bottom brackets were a nightmare, if you ventured out in the rain you had to strip them out immediately after it or the bearings and axle would be ruined – no sealed bearings back then." I'll simply say that I disagree with this as a disingenuous exaggeration.

Okay - I won't quite stop there. I do see the appeal of sealed cartridge bottom brackets (easy installation and no maintenance), but when it comes to smoothness and longevity, I'll still choose a traditional bottom bracket. Every time.

For derailleurs, the guy picks on old pull-chain, plunger-action units like this Benelux:


Now I know this writer has to be a lot older than I am because things like that have been obsolete since the '50s (even if some were still being made a decade later). As far back as the '60s, inexpensive derailleurs from Japan might not have had the drool factor of Campagnolo, or even the less expensive European brands like Huret or Simplex, but they worked quite well for their day.

The article continues to bash freewheels, leather saddles, center pull brakes, traditional toe-clip pedals, and more. I'm not going to address all of it except to say that I disagree, and that most of the complaints focus on the worst of what was available "back then" and apply it to everything from the era.

To sum it all up, it seems to me that a lot of this rant is based on overgeneralizations about low-budget components, second-hand junk, and an inability (or at least a dis-inclination) to perform proper maintenance.

In a half-hearted defense of the anti-nostalgia position, I'd point out that if there is something about the modern era that is better than the days-gone-by, it's that most low-budget equipment today works comparatively better than a lot of the low-budget equipment "back then." What I mean (and using ubiquitous Shimano as an example) is that most road bike shoppers today may not be able to afford Dura-Ace or even Ultegra-level components, but they can rest assured that the Tiagra or Sora-level stuff will still work pretty nicely even if it doesn't boast the same finish quality or top-tier materials. That's a good thing. "Cheap" doesn't necessarily mean "junk." That's always been true, but a buyer today need not be as savvy to distinguish the good from the bad.

On the other hand, the big downside to the modern state of bicycle components is that the constant quest to "innovate" and "improve" means that if someone is interested in keeping their bike for more than a few years (and given the cost of a bicycle today that's not a minor thing) it can be almost impossible because of the built-in obsolescence factor. With all the new "standards" and rapidly changing technology constantly being introduced, it can often be cheaper and easier to just buy a new bike than try to replace a worn out component. And of course, that's what the industry today wants you to do anyhow.

The article in PezCycling finishes by saying: "So all you ‘Vintage/Eroica/Nostalgia dudes’ out there, if it’s your thing then that’s cool – just don’t ask me to join in your enthusiasm for equipment which should belong in a landfill site."  To that I just say "fine by me." But while we "Vintage/Eroica/Nostalgia dudes" are still able to ride bikes that 30, 40, or even 50 years old - I wonder if the "Nostalgia dudes" of 2047 will still be able to ride bikes being made today.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Tour de France Coverage, Retrogrouch Style: 1987

I have a hard time taking professional bike racing seriously these days. I find it only slightly more credible than pro wrestling. So even though the Tour de France is going on as we speak (or read, or write), I'm only half paying attention. Here's what I know: Peter Sagan is out - disqualified for supposedly pushing Mark Cavendish into the barriers in a messy final sprint on Stage 4. I also know that there was a renewed round of criticism and debate about whether the rest of the peloton should have to stop racing when the racer in Yellow has a mechanical problem - a debate that seems to repeat every year nowadays. There were penalties for slapping (yes, slapping). And Chris Froome is in good position to win his fourth tour, though he's in no position to get overly confident about it. Oh - and today is a rest day.

Anyhow, rather than get too engrossed in this year's big bicycle race in France, let's do the Retro-groucy thing and go back 30 years to re-live a great one from the past.

1987 was a year without any clear favorite. It should have been Greg LeMond's year to defend his '86 Tour title, but that was not to be. His near-fatal hunting accident earlier that year kept him sidelined. The great Bernard Hinault had retired at the end of the previous season, so that generation-defining racer was gone. One could say it was "anybody's Tour." Two-time champion Laurent Fignon was a likely contender -- he was showing improvement after knee surgery, but was still not quite at the same level he'd been a few years earlier. Among the other likely possibilities were Stephen Roche, who had won that year's Giro d'Italia, the Spanish climber Pedro Delgado of the powerful PDM team, and Hinault's heir-apparent Jean François Bernard. Andy Hampsten, who had finished 4th in '86, was something of a wildcard, having won that year's Tour of Switzerland. Hampsten was riding with the 7-Eleven team for '87 - back for their second TdF. And Luis Herrera, the strong climber from Colombia, could not be discounted either.

The '87 Tour was exceptionally tough - a climber's tour for certain - and extra long at 26 stages. The race started that year in West Berlin (Remember that? Re-unification was still a couple of years away) with a short 6.1km Prologue time trial. All the serious contenders finished it within about 13 seconds of one another. As often happens, the first week's stages found the main GC contenders holding back and staying safe while sprinters led the standings. The Yellow Jersey changed hands a couple of times among riders who in all likelihood would not be wearing it after the race reached the mountains.

The first real standings-shaking stage was a difficult 87.5km time trial in Stage 10. Stephen Roche won the stage but Laurent Fignon's Systeme U teammate Charly Mottet came in second and took the Yellow Jersey. Roche had moved up to 6th overall, up from 26th.

Davis Phinney takes a stage win in Bordeaux.
The 7-Eleven team saw a welcome stage win with Davis Phinney on the road to Bordeaux in stage 12. A crash in that stage forced Sean Kelly to abandon due to injuries. A grand tour win would continue to remain out of his grasp.

Stage 13 was the first mountain test in the Pyrenees with four big climbs, and Jean François Bernard rode strong - finishing a close 2nd in the stage behind Panasonic's Erik Breukink, and moving up to 2nd overall. Roche was up to 3rd place, and Charly Mottet managed to hold on to Yellow. On Stage 14, a difficult race from Pau to Luz-Ardiden, 7-Eleven's Dag-Otto Lauritzen brought the American team their second stage win, and all the real contenders were starting to move to the fore. Bernard was in 2nd, Roche 3rd, Delgado 4th, Herrera 9th, and Hampsten 10th in the GC. A fun surprise was the young climber from Mexico, Raul Alcala with 7-Eleven, who had moved up to 8th place overall.

Jean François Bernard, briefly in Yellow.
The next shakeup would come in Stage 18 with an individual time trial up Mount Ventoux. Jean François Bernard rode powerfully - winning the stage by 1:39 over the Colombian Luis Herrera. Pedro Delgado was 3rd in the stage at 1:51, and Roche was 5th at 2:19 (Roche was a strong time-triallist, but only a "good" not "great" climber). In the overall standings, Bernard took the Yellow Jersey away from Mottet, while Roche moved up to 2nd.

Bernard's time in Yellow would be short-lived, as Stage 19 was another big test in the mountains. Attacks by Delgado and Roche kept Bernard on the defensive - along with some bad luck. Bernard suffered a flat at the top of the first big climb, and by the time he was able to get it changed, the other leaders were out of sight. Later, an attack by Mottet and the Systeme U team in the feed zone kept Bernard bottled up behind the slow-down of riders grabbing their lunches. Delgado and Roche were able to join in with the attackers and take more time out of Bernard - and the pair later managed to drop Mottet as well. Delgado won the stage and moved up to 3rd overall, while Roche pulled on the Yellow Jersey. Mottet was in 2nd in the GC, and Bernard dropped to 4th.

Pedro Delgado takes a turn in Yellow.
Stage 20 featured the famed climb up Alpe d'Huez and saw Delgado take the lead from Roche. By the end of the stage at the summit, riders were coming in one at a time. Spanish climber Federico Echave won the stage, but the first GC contenders to finish were Herrera in 5th, Laurent Fignon (finally finding his legs) in 6th, and Delgado right behind in 7th. Roche finished 15th that day, 1:46 after Delgado. So the overall standings had another shakeup. Delgado had the Yellow, followed by Roche at 0:25, and Bernard in 3rd at 2:02. Fignon broke into the top 10 for the first time, taking 8th overall. Raul Alcala was 7-Eleven's best-placed rider in 7th, while Hampsten dropped down to 13th.

Stephen Roche turned himself inside out on La Plagne.
Stage 21 was another crazy-intense race with three major climbs including the Galibier, the Madeleine, and the uphill finish to La Plagne -- it would be a pivotal stage for the Tour. Fignon would win the stage, and Delgado would climb strongly as expected, but it was Roche who would become the legend of the '87 Tour. Roche was trying hard to limit his losses to Delgado, believing that if he could keep the overall time gap between them to under a minute, he would be able to make it up in the final time trial. Roche attacked on the descent from the Galibier to the Madeleine to get some distance on Delgado but couldn't stay away to the end. At the foot of the final climb to La Plagne he was caught and passed by Delgado and his PDM team. Roche knew he was not as good of a climber as Delgado and feared that he was seeing his chance of winning the Tour ride off in the distance up the mountain. When Delgado opened up a gap of more than a minute or perhaps a minute-and-a-half on the road, Roche got desperate and dug as deep as possible - he shifted up to his big ring. Yep. The Big Ring. It took a helluva lot of effort to get it turning on the third Hors Categorie climb of the day, but he got it going and rode himself inside out. As he neared the finish line, he could see Delgado crossing the line just a few seconds ahead of him. Roche's efforts were so extraordinary that he had to be helped off the bike and laid out on the ground while medics gave him oxygen. He was taken away in an ambulance, but returned the next day to put in another powerful ride.

After Roche's heroic effort, Delgado still wore Yellow, but Roche was well within closing distance. The last Alpine stage saw Roche come back from his hospital visit as strong as if his collapse on the top of La Plagne never happened. He finished second in the stage and took more time out of his gap to Delgado.

At that point, it all came down to a 38km time trial on the penultimate day of the Tour. Roche trailed Delgado by 21 seconds, while Bernard was in 3rd overall, more than four minutes back. Bernard won the time trial in Dijon by 1:44 over 2nd place Roche (which makes a person wonder what the race might have looked like had Bernard not had such lousy luck back in Stage 19) - but just as Roche had predicted, he was able to beat 3rd place Delgado by a minute, putting him back into the Yellow Jersey with 40 seconds over the Spaniard.

The final stage into Paris was not a showdown for the Yellow Jersey (as is usually the case - 1989 being a rare exception), but it did have another surprise for the 7-Eleven team's excellent second Tour -- Jeff Pierce, who'd gone out on a breakaway, managed to hold off the peloton for a rare solo win on the Champs Élysées. Not only that, but Raul Alcala came into Paris in 9th place overall, getting the White Jersey for Best Young Rider.


In the end, Stephen Roche pulled on the final Yellow Jersey - the first Irishman (and 2nd English-speaker) to win the Tour de France. Pedro Delgado was 2nd at 40 seconds, and Jean François Bernard was 3rd at 2:13 back. Roche entered the history books as only the fifth rider to win the Tour de France and the Giro d'Italia in the same year (after Coppi, Anquetil, Merckx, and Hinault). Later that year, he would become the only rider apart from Eddy Merckx to pull off the "Triple Crown" by also winning the World Championships in the same season.

1987 was good example of what happens when there is a field of strong talent but no clear favorite. The Yellow Jersey went back and forth between eight different men, at least half of whom probably could have worn it into Paris had certain key moments gone just a little differently.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Tour de France 1967: The Tragedy of Tom Simpson

Today is the 50th anniversary of the tragic death of Tom Simpson.

Simpson was the first British rider to wear the rainbow stripes of the World Champion (1965) and a Yellow Jersey in the Tour de France, and on July 13, 1967, he died on the side of the road about a kilometer from the summit of Mount Ventoux.

People often describe the barren upper slopes of Mount Ventoux as a "lunar landscape." At just over 1,900 meters, it is not the highest peak ridden in the Tour, but the ascent starts near sea level, so it's a long one with no relief - and it's an unforgiving climb as the last six kilometers have no shelter from the sun or the wind.

As that TdF began, Simpson was the leader of the British team (in 1967, the Tour was being raced with national teams) and leading up to the 13th stage he was in a respectable 7th place overall. He had been as high as 6th in the GC, but as the race hit the Alps, Simpson began battling stomach ailments. Unable to keep food down, he was running down his reserves.

For the 13th stage, on July 13th, Simpson was under pressure for a strong result as the race climbed up Mount Ventoux. In the first part of the stage, Simpson kept himself with the leaders, but in the heat and as the road neared the summit, he began to lose contact with the lead group. Witnesses saw him weaving back and forth across the road, and about a kilometer or two from the summit, he fell off the bike. At that point, his team manager Alec Taylor and mechanic Harry Hall were prepared to help Simpson into the team car and call it quits, but reportedly Simpson insisted on continuing. Regrettably, they helped him back on the bike, but he collapsed again within the kilometer, with his hands gripped tightly to the bars. He could not be revived. Flown by helicopter to a hospital in Avignon, he was pronounced dead soon after.

Mechanic Harry Hall and a Tour nurse took turns administering
mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but Simpson could not be revived.
Sadly, a post mortem exam showed that Simpson had a combination of amphetamines and alcohol in his system - the combination probably allowing the racer to ride well beyond his physical limits and shutting off the normal "warning signs." Ultimately, he rode deep into exhaustion under the hot sun and his body simply shut down.

The memorial to Tom Simpson, a kilometer from the summit, was first erected in 1968 and has become something of a pilgrimage site for many cyclists -  especially British and English-speakers.
Simpson's death was a wake-up call to the sport as far as doping is concerned - or at least it should have been - but unfortunately it was a call that has been ignored again and again. Yes, race organizers would begin instituting doping controls, but such efforts have never been as intense as the efforts to thwart them.

This year's Tour de France does not pass the memorial to Tom Simpson, and it's a sad thing that the organizers chose to ignore an opportunity to fully honor not only the memory of Simpson but also acknowledge the tragic legacy he left behind.

There is a BBC documentary on the life of Tom Simpson ready for viewing on YouTube - but I have linked here to the final segment which focuses on that fateful day that happened 50 years ago today:


Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Thule Raceway Pro Rack

Not too long ago, the subject of bike racks came up with some of my riding friends, and someone asked what I use for transporting my bikes. The discussion might be of interest to some readers, so let me share. In general, I like the security of roof racks, but there can be issues with those. The most serious one is that it's important to remember that there are bikes on the roof when pulling into a garage or other place where height clearance may be low (easier to forget than you'd imagine!). Bikes on the roof can create a lot of wind drag on the highway. Also, some people have trouble lifting bikes up onto a vehicle's roof. Lastly, befendered bikes can present extra problems with the fork-mounted rooftop carriers because of interference between the fenders and the carrier mounts. I have a home-made solution to that particular issue in an older post (you can check that out HERE if you're interested).
The Raceway Pro comes in a 2-bike and 3-bike version. $350 for the
2-bike, and $380 for the 3-bike. Expensive but solid and secure.

In addition to the old Yakima roof rack I've been using for years (it's on its third car!) for the past year or so I've also been using a trunk-mounted rack from Thule that I think just might be one of the best of its type. It's the Thule Raceway Pro (also known as the 9002PRO - 3 bike). It's incredibly solid, secure, and easily installed and adjusted. It's an expensive rack at about $380, but it's a good one that I assume should last a long time.

One of the first things to mention is the rack's construction and ease of use. It's a substantial and fairly heavy piece of equipment - much heavier than a lot of the tubular steel or aluminum racks that are more common. The upper and lower support arms are wrapped in a soft, paint-friendly rubber. There are numerous positions available for the upper and lower supports and for the bike cradle arms, and a fit guide (included with the instructions) makes finding the proper position for a particular make/model of car pretty straightforward. On that note, I'll mention that my car was a newly re-designed model when I got the rack, so the fit guide that was included in the box didn't list my exact car - but I went online to the Thule website and managed to find a more recently-updated version of the guide, so I assume that they must update it on a regular basis. It's possible that there may be some vehicles that the rack will not fit, but that can be true of any rack, and there are so many possible positions available with the Raceway Pro that I can only imagine that such a list of incompatible vehicles would have to be shorter with this rack than with most others.

Installing the rack is easier than most racks of its type. Instead of the usual nylon straps that affix most trunk racks to the vehicle, the Thule uses steel cables that wind up inside the base and are tightened/adjusted with a simple ratcheting mechanism via a set of large knobs on the sides. I find that it's much easier to get the rack securely fastened than with the nylon straps. Once in place, this thing does not move. Even with two or three bikes installed, it seems very solid.

Instead of the usual nylon straps, the Thule Raceway Pro attaches with 
steel cables which are easily adjusted via large ratcheting knobs on the sides of the rack.

The cradle arms can be raised or lowered easily with a couple of locking levers, and the width/spacing can be altered for different bikes (like for carrying children's bikes, for example). The cradles are padded with soft rubber, and there are removable lower pieces to help minimize swaying back and forth. I read where another reviewer complained that he lost one of the anti-sway pieces when it apparently fell off while driving somewhere without bikes. I could see how that could happen, so I usually detach them and toss them in a storage compartment in the car when I don't have a bike on the rack for that very reason. Or they can be secured with one of the rubber retention straps instead of being left to dangle freely. Just something to be aware of.
One downside on the rack is that its weight makes it difficult to open a trunk or rear hatch when it's installed. I've read some comments where people complained about their car's trunk or hatch slamming down on them while they were stowing or retrieving items from the back of the car. Thing is, the weight is so obvious when trying to open the trunk or hatch, that I can't imagine forgetting about it. Nevertheless, I recommend caution in that regard.

Security is always something to consider when transporting bikes, and it's another area where the Thule is probably one of the better options out there. Understand that when talking security with a trunk-mounted rack, I don't think any of them could be considered "high security." If somebody really wants to steal a bike off of an unattended car's rack, they're going to be able to thwart any rack's built-in locking features. The built-in security is really more about stopping the opportunistic thieves. With that caveat in mind, the Raceway Pro's steel cables almost certainly provide more security than nylon straps when it comes to keeping the rack locked to the car. Anybody with a pocket knife can cut through nylon straps in seconds, but the steel cables would probably take a decent pair of bolt cutters to get through. And the cable winding ratchet mechanisms have locking covers to keep someone from easily loosening them. There is also a locking cable that secures the outermost bike to the rack. Why only the outermost bike? I suppose the thinking is that if the outermost bike is locked to the rack, it would be impossible to get the other bikes off. However, that does mean that when carrying only one bike, it has to be carried on the outermost cradle or it can't be locked. Still, locks on the other cradles would be handy.

Having said all that about security, I'd still add that if someone is really serious about it, or their bikes are going to be unattended for more than few minutes (or in a higher crime area) I'd still recommend locking them to the rack with a good U-lock or a heavy duty cable, or both. Besides, the built-in cable lock only stops someone from taking the frame off the rack, but doesn't stop anyone from stealing wheels or other components. It's just common sense to make the same considerations that you might take anytime you leave a bike unattended.

One more thing to mention about the Thule is that spare parts are available for it, and their service for spares is very good. As mentioned, I've been using the Raceway Pro for over a year now and recently discovered that I lost the keys for the locking features. Ordering spares from their website was easy and took only a few minutes - and the replacement keys arrived within 2-3 days. Excellent.

Although the Raceway Pro is probably one of the more expensive racks of its type, I've gotten quite a lot of use out of it and expect to be able to for a long time to come. It's sturdiness, ease of use, and security features make it a good choice.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Retrogrouch Reads: The Hardmen

I just finished reading a fun book that might appeal to Retrogrouch readers: The Hardmen: Legends of the Cycling Gods, by The Velominati (2017, Pursuit Books). The book was just released this month in the U.K., but it will not be released in the U.S. until November (the U.S. edition will be under Pegasus Books). If my fellow 'Muricans don't want to wait until November, it may be possible to get a U.K. edition through the internet shipped to the U.S., but I haven't tried so I honestly don't know.

Readers may be familiar already with The Velominati (AKA Frank Strack, John Andrews, and Brett Kennedy) who call themselves "The Keepers of the Cog" and are known for publishing "The Rules" which is a perhaps-not-entirely-serious list of rules to which all cyclists should adhere -- or at least attempt to. The basic premise of The Hardmen focuses mostly on rule #5 (or "The V") which is this: "Harden The F### Up." The book then goes on to share the legends of about 35 racers who really lived up to "The V." Of those 35, Eddy Merckx and Sean Kelly get mentioned twice (and why not?), and one entry is dedicated to an entire team (the Mapei team of the late '90s) instead of just an individual.

Overall, the book is divided up into five sections, each for a different category of rider: Les Rouleurs. Les Grimpeurs, De Klassiekers, Les Domestiques, and I Velocisti. For those unfamiliar with French, Dutch, or Italian, those translate (at least roughly) to All-Arounders, Climbers, Classics Specialists, Support Riders, and Sprinters. Read the book if you want/need explanation for why The Velominati use the languages the way they do.

The Hardmen is not a complete "tell-all" biography on each of its subjects, but rather tells a story or relates a particular legend of some defining moment (or moments) that reveal how that rider embodies "The V" -- how their ability to suffer and to endure makes them stand out above all others. One such story is that of Eddy Merckx, who on the day before the 1971 Liége-Bastogne-Liége Classic rode his bike the hundred kilometers from Brussels to Liége in a miserable rainy/snowy mix, as if almost to punish himself for not winning Fléche Wallonne earlier that week - and went on to win the race the next day. Not only did he embody rule #5, but also rule #9 -- the one that says "If you are out riding in bad weather, it means you are a badass. Period."

As the book's subtitle "Legends of the Cycling Gods" would seem to imply, there is quite a bit in The Hardmen that delves into the mythology of bicycle racing, but the style seems to walk a line between Reverence and Irreverence - often skipping back and forth over that line as if in a game of hopscotch. It's fun and enjoyable reading that, just like "The Rules," you know The Velominati want you to take seriously, but not too seriously. For instance, the authors explain in the Prologue how they came to their list of 35 Hardmen:

"The Keepers fell in love with Cycling during the '70s, '80s, '90s and beyond, and have become ever more obsessed with its history and legends. Thus our frame of reference leans towards the riders who inspired us during that time and the myths about them that we discovered as we dug ever deeper into the sport. Also, we're more interested in riding our bikes than we are in doing things like 'research', so this book is written in true Velominati style: (ir)reverently and subjectively. We imagine that if it feels true, it probably is true. And if it happens to be wrong, then maybe being wrong makes it right. When we convened our Hardmen Selection Jury, we quickly came to the realization that we had many more subjects than we had room for, and we knew we couldn't spend the rest of our lives sitting in the Velominati bunker arguing, pint in hand, about which riders should be included. So we went with our favorite stories. And we certainly didn't worry about who was or wasn't allegedly doping."

The particular list of racers selected is by no means all-encompassing. There are likely lots of racers over the years whom some might be inclined to include, or even feel very passionate about, but who did not make the list. For instance, Andy Hampsten is included, but not Greg LeMond. Lance Armstrong is not included, despite being mentioned numerous times throughout the book (usually adjacent to such colorful words "@$$hole" "D#ckhead" and others that I'll leave to your imagination. The Velominati don't pull punches, and they don't censor themselves like I do).

By the way, I can't explain how happy it makes me to see that several of the book's Hardmen are actually women. Yep, among the ranks of such racing greats as Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Sean Kelly, Roger De Vlaeminck and many more are listed great women like Marianne Vos, Rebecca Twigg, Lizzie Deignan (née Armitstead), and Beryl Burton. I could wholeheartedly agree with the writers' assessment that the 2012 Olympic Women's Road Race (where Vos took Gold while Deignan took Silver) was a much more exciting race to watch than the Men's Road Race of the previous day. The women battled it out in a miserable rainstorm, and I don't know how else to describe it except to say that it was absolutely evident they were giving it their hearts and souls, while the Men's race seemed like a bunch of high-paid pros making a publicity appearance (which in a way is probably accurate).

I should mention that anybody who tries to faithfully live up the The Velominati's Rules could find it difficult to find time to read The Hardmen. After all, it's difficult to "harden the F### up" if you're kicking back and reading a book. And if you're thinking about reading on a rainy day, then you're not exactly a badass living up to rule #9. In that regard, the structure of the book actually makes it such that a person can always read a chapter or two (each is fairly brief) in a short time, and could if they were so inclined skip back and forth without feeling the need to read cover-to-cover in any particular order. Even the Velominati themselves point out humorously that when you finish reading, put the the book away and "go for a ride."

Whether you try to procure a copy from the U.K., or wait for the U.S. edition, I think many Retrogrouch readers would enjoy The Hardmen.