Friday, October 2, 2015

Here's an old story that ran in Winning Magazine back in the Reconstruction Era, shortly after the War Between the States...

The Sweater

I threw away my old blue cycling sweater yesterday. I’d had the thing so long I can’t remember being without it. It wasn’t the first jersey I owned. The first was a light-blue and white one I thought looked like Felice Gimondi’s Bianchi team jersey. I gave that one away years ago without a second thought. The sweater though, was tougher.

I think that sweater was made as the top half of an old-fashioned Italian warm-up suit, one of the ones with pants that looked like pajama bottoms. No one bought those pants; if I think about them I can feel sorry for all those rejected baggy warm-up bottoms. I wonder what became of them and hope they’re doing all right, wherever they are.

The shop where I bought that sweater closed not much later. I remember it as a kind of unfocused shop, one you’d seldom find a reason to visit. My girlfriend had bought one of the sweaters there for $15, a bargain even in those days. I stepped right up.

The label, printed in Italian, couldn’t be decoded. You couldn’t tell if it was wool or synthetic or a blend. I treated it like wool for 10 years.

The full-length front zipper made that sweater easy to put on and take off. If the day got warm you could unzip it part or all the way. Or you could take it off and twirl it by the sleeves and tie it around your waist. Perfect.

That girlfriend and I rode together a lot. I see us in my mind in matching blue sweaters, riding side by side (only when safe, of course) down foggy, wooded country roads. We looked alike and I think we thought alike, then.

She and I rode centuries and group training rides. We took moderate-length tours together. She liked to wear a railroad engineer’s hat. I was learning to wear a cycling cap Saronni-style, down over the eyes in the front, perched impossibly high in back. Saronni, that year, was still being driven to races by his mommy.

Eventually, though I learned to wear the cap perfectly, the girlfriend departed. The sweater stayed on.

I recall once on a late fall ride I got caught in a cold rainstorm. I got soaked but the sweater kept me warm. I remember wringing water out of it in a restaurant bathroom and having to drop it on the john floor for lack of a place to hang it while I dressed. It was still so wet, even after the wringing, that it flopped loudly when I dropped it on the tile. That’s a warm sweater.

I remember it covered in frost down the arms and across the chest on those painfully chilly, clear mornings there are never enough of. I remember how the cuffs frayed after the first couple years but never got worse. I can remember the blue of it bright and the new smell still in it. That sweater was new then and so was cycling. I had yet to discover I had limits.

In those days I felt it was important to wear clean, newish cycling clothes. I saw that some people who’d been at it long enough to own old bike clothing wore their mended, tattered stuff with no embarrassment. Not me though; no patched tights for me.

I thought that if I wore less-than-perfect jerseys or shorts or whatever, I would be considered casual or uncommitted to the sport.

Years passed and I was still riding. I got less impressed by emblems of dedication one could merely buy. I became more aware of subtle signals, like class on the bike, that earlier I might have missed while looking at some turkey’s jersey.

I won’t say I’ve let myself go completely and ride in rags. I did begin to lose interest in woollen (later Lycra) perfection. I came to find certain articles of clothing (and equipment) pleasantly familiar and effective. I didn’t want a new whatever, thank you. I liked the old one just fine.

I liked that blue sweater especially fine as you may have perceived. My new girlfriend found the hole in the twice-mended left shoulder too shabby. She asked me repeatedly not to wear it.

I explained to her about the old girlfriend and the rainstorm and the frosty mornings. I tried to recreate the sound my sweater made slapping the bathroom floor. She was relentless.

I was too classy a guy, she said, to wear a sweater as ratty as that. It was giving a bad impression. So I threw it away. Hey, it was for my own good.


Comparative Drafting, pt 2

Last week, I posted about drafting in cycling, and why some riders are so much easier to follow than others. It’s not subtle. You can follow some people with a tiny gap between your front tire and their rear tire. Others cause you to drop back a foot or more for safety’s sake, and make you nervous even then.
It seems to me on further reflection that those of us who have spent many, many miles trying to hang on in fast groups or behind one stronger rider, develop a sense of pace...that riders who have done loose group rides or club centuries do not learn. 
We had to learn to draft...or we were riding home alone with a terrible defeated feeling.
So we slowly developed a feeling...for a pace that keeps the level of effort steady. We learned that legs that are about to scream NO can sustain a consistent effort, but are pushed over their limit by spikes of demand. We learn to moderate our pace, to keep those sudden demands from hitting the legs of those behind us. 
Over the miles and years, we get incrementally better at doing that, at sensing what is best for those behind us. We learn to appreciate people who provide that same consistent pace. 
But I don’t believe that most of us can explain what it is that we do. We just do it. We’re bike riders after all.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Why are some riders so good to draft?

I don't know if I fully understand what makes one rider so easy to follow that it's like drafting a locomotive, steady and safe and luxurious. And another rider, equally strong and equally adept at bike handling, may be far more difficult to follow, so that he or she makes you uneasy and frustrated at the changes of pace.

We can't talk about speed here, because speed is relative to all sorts of conditions. We mean pace. We mean something like perceived level of effort. The good rider to follow keeps a consistent level of effort, and following that person is almost restful. It's deluxe.

The rider who appears to be steady and solid but whose pace rises and falls even just slightly will have you riding with your fingers on your brake levers and dropping back so you have a space, a cushion, against his or her slight changes of pace.

You can ride around the equator on one PowerBar and a half full bottle behind the first rider. You can hardly stand to ride a mile behind the second.

Maybe it's the gear chosen by the good leader. I think that a slightly higher gear smooths out the pace changes over slight rises and dips in the road, and perhaps pace changes from shifts in wind direction or velocity. Like riding on rough surfaces, a higher gear will lend itself to a steadier pace. Not a giant gear, a slightly higher gear. A tooth or two.

Maybe the good leader senses the effort that the drafting rider is exerting, and tries to make it steady, not spiky, not pedal-coast, pedal-coast. Maybe that leader understands the drafting dynamic on some level that he or she can't explain.

I have thought about it and can't come up with a solid oh-THAT's-why kinda answer. If you have ideas about this, about why one person is a delight to follow and another is a nightmare, please comment here on my blog page. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Rest of the Ride

As I said a post or two ago, I did not walk any more descents, but I walked a few climbs, some of them long, meaning I may have walked for 10 or 15 minutes. I could have ridden them had I had a clear road in front of me but often I did not. There were thousands of riders doing l'Eroica, and many clustered in front of me.

I told you that I had (and have) a 39-tooth inner chainring and a 26-tooth largest rear cog. That was enough for l'Erioca's hills, but it was just enough. Because the roads were dirt and traction somewhat limited, I had to sit on the climbs. A few lower gears, meaning a triple crankset, would have been helpful, if not period or appropriate on a mid-'80s Gios "racing" bicycle.

On the descents, many of which were long, steep and winding, I had a death-grip on the brake levers. My forearms grew tired and began to hurt from the strain. I have old but lovely Dura-Ace sidepull brakes with the appropriate levers. They are good brakes, but not nearly as good as today's double-pivot road brakes.

I wished for more powerful brakes on those descents, but remember: I had limited traction. If I'd had more powerful brakes, I might have locked a wheel and scared myself or crashed. Remarkably, I saw very few crashed riders during the event. I think most people thought of l'Eroica as a ride, not a race.

It was up one dirt hill after another with dirt descents in between. All the stuff I thought was so crucial: my shoes and padded bar tape and my choice of shorts and jersey, none of it mattered at all. I just tried to keep the 39-26 turning on the climbs and tried to keep the speed under something like control on the descents.

I saw Larry and Heather a few times out on the course. I could climb a bit better than either of them, but they just flew by me on the descents. Many times on the descents, there were crosswise ridges in the dirt road. The ridges tried to take the bars out of your hands. My handlebars had been in place in the stem for a year of riding, I believe, but those bumps caused the bars to rotate in the stem.

At a rest stop, all a blur in my mind, we asked an Italian mechanic to tighten the stem's pinch bolt. The bars have never moved again.

I remember eating something at a rest stop. I remember drinking something, probably water, but I can't recall if I drank from my bottle while underway or drank at the rest stop. I suppose I was in some state of distorted reality. Too much planning, too much money spent, too much uncomfortable flying, too much worry.

Perhaps I used to be lighter-hearted about trips like this one. In those days, because I was a cycling media hotshot, someone else made all those decisions and picked up the tab for airfare, lodging, bike rental, even meals. I could afford to be relaxed. I wasn't going to be any more broke when I got home than I was before the trip.

I could say that if I decided to ride some event like l'Eroica again...or to go to the Isle of Man for the TT motorcycle races, Tamar and I would try not to make the same mistakes in planning. We'd be wiser.

But who knows? We might make just as many mistakes, but they'd be different mistakes. My presence has been requested by California friends at l'Eroica California next spring. Probably a two-hour flight. Friends in San Luis Obispo who might put me up. Sounds great. See you there?

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Last night, Tamar and I visited our friend Jim Mohle, whom I've known since we were Marin Cyclists in the '70s. Jim and I were chatting in his Airstream, parked for 10 days in a facility in nearby Golden, Colorado. Tamar sneaked outside with her camera and got this shot. For you Airstream enthusiasts, his unit is 23'8", very nicely appointed. He tows it behind a V-8 SUV. It was fun having dinner in the Airstream! Cosy!

Monday, September 21, 2015

l'Eroica, part 3, the ride itself

I'd like to preface this third l'Eroica post by saying that I fear that my frame of mind was not ideal for the ride. We had been preparing for the l'Eroica trip for a year. I'd built up the sweet old Gios the previous year, then realized that I had a suitable mount for vintage events. And in the fall of 2013, there were many magazine articles about l'Eroica, the coolest vintage ride.

The planning of the trip and the many, many decisions involved were mostly Tamar's work, but the dozens of decisions were scary and we had to make choices about places and timing about which we knew nothing. I had been learning Italian via Duolingo, but that smattering of it helped not at all, not at home nor in Italy.

I worried and worried about my bike. That's the thing about taking your beloved vintage bike to an overseas event: Getting it there and getting it home without injuring it or losing it in transit. I really do like my somewhat battered old Gios Torino. I hated the thought of entrusting it to some baggage handler -- not once, but many times: Denver-Chicago, Chicago-Munich, Munich-Pisa and back home again.

When I unpacked the bike in Colle, it was fine. You knew it would be. I had to straighten one brake lever on the handlebar, that's all. The soft case had protected it. I was truly relieved. On Sunday morning, we loaded Larry's and Heather's and my bike into the CycleItalia van, and the three of us and Tamar took off for Gaiole and the start. The plan was for the three of us to ride and Tamar to hang out with Tena during the event.

At the start, you saw things you'd never imagined. There were guys in WWI uniforms, Italian Army I guess, riding WWI Italian army bikes, single speeders that must've weighed 50 pounds. The uniforms were heavy wool, absolutely unsuited to the lovely sunny day in Gaiole...let alone the endless hills on the route.

There were men and women on old pro bikes in full team kit from the era of their bikes. There were what looked like casual riders. There were gimmick riders, looking like some character from legend or literature.

It was not at all like a rolling concours, not a showcase for museum-quality bikes. There were many of them, but there were also ride-to-work bikes and fixed-gear bikes (shudder) and ancient bikes that looked ancient.

Old bikes in Italy are not merely prestige items. They are celebrated but they are not paraded around, they are ridden. And the atmosphere at l'Eroica is inclusive: Everyone is happy to be there and happy that you are there too. There was no scent of snobbery.

I rode the 80 kilometer version. So did Larry and Heather of CycleItalia, not their first time there. John, from Contra Costa County, CA, rode the long version, 120K if my memory is correct. I was glad I'd chosen the shorter route. I was toast at the end, overjoyed to see the finish line and Tamar waiting and cheering for me.

We rolled out of Gaiole on paved road, but I can scarcely remember any paved road after that. I'm sure there was some, but it was a fleeting mile here and another there. Almost all the l'Eroica I remember was "white road," gravel road that in Tuscany is sacred, as I understand it, for l'Eroica and the Strade Bianche pro race early in the season.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, there is no flat road in Tuscany, or none that Tamar and I saw. So the gravel roads of l'Eroica go up and back down, up and back down. The climbs are long and steep...and the descents are long and steep.

I should tell you bike riders that I had 53-39 chain rings and a 13-26 cluster. I used the 39-26 a lot. Really a lot. I was pretty fit for an old guy at that point. Tired from the trip, probably, emotionally a little upset, I'll bet, but I felt okay, or thought I did. My friend John had a triple on his old Masi, probably a good idea.

After the first climb, on which I did fine, thank you very much, I reached the summit and looked down the descent and freaked a little. It was dirt and gravel and bumpy and steep. I thought: I can't ride down that hill. I'll crash and get hurt here far from home. I could smell that hospital smell.

I got off and walked down the first descent. I'm sorry if I've disappointed you but that is what happened.

I was wearing my ancient Adidas Eddy Merckx plastic-soled shoes - and using old Dura-Ace clip-'n'-strap pedals, given to me by my old friend Jim F of Berkeley. I'll just say at this point that I walked maybe two, maybe three l'Eroica miles in those shoes. Luckily I had new cleats; I'd have worn an old pair to nothing.

I hardly ever walk any distance in my cycling shoes, so I walked ten years' worth that day.

I did not walk any more descents, I'm happy to say, but I did walk uphill. If you got stuck behind another bike or bikes at the start of a climb, you were walking. I will say that - at l'Eroica - you never walk alone.

More about the ride tomorrow.... I thought I'd tell the whole story today, but.... Sorry.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

l'Eroica Pt 2, the scene and the ride

We reached Colle, the town we'd be staying in for the first week in Italy, on Friday evening. The big day was Sunday, but we'd be driving to Gaiole on Saturday to register, see the swap meet and get together with our Bay Area friends John and Tena.

Our connection in Italy was our friends Larry and Heather from CycleItalia. I met them years ago when they worked for another tour outfit, and we've stayed friends all along. I edit their CycleItalia newsletter. They're professional tour leaders, and Heather is a university philosophy professor. Larry and Heather took us in the CycleItalia van to Gaiole, an hour or so away on Saturday.

Registration was easy. You didn't need to speak Italian. By the way, there's a lottery for entry -- unless you are over 65 or you are female. If you fit either of those categories, you're in!

At registration, you could see and hear that there were riders and their friends there from all over the world. There was a sort of museum of old Italian bikes; Roger deVlaeminck's Gios was there, gorgeous, his name on the top tube and engraved on the sides of the stem. The swap booths were nearly unbelievable. You could buy just ANYthing. Want an old Euro jersey from a team or club you've never heard of? A like-new set of Campagnolo Delta brakes? Any bicycle part, lots of complete old bicycles...

If the swap had been a few days earlier, I feel sure you could have bought an old bike, spent a few hours and a few Euros renewing it, and ridden your swap meet bike in l'Eroica. The bikes ridden in l'Eroica were by no means all gleaming 30-year-old Colnagos and Bianchis. Lotsa rats for sure. Lotsa everything!

I had a lovely feeling at that swap meet. Once in a great while, you feel mysteriously that you are where you belong, just exactly where you belong. I got that feeling walking around the old cranks and wheels and bits of this and that. Did we buy anything? I bought a sporty stingy-brim straw hat, a hipster hat maybe. Tamar and I did not buy much at all in Italy, although walking past the shops in Florence was tempting every day. 

Knowing what I know now, I think that if we did l'Eroica again, I'd try to: 1. rent a bike from a rental outfit or from l'Eroica, 2. buy a good old bike and try to sell it after the event or give it away, 3. find a way, any way, not to travel with a bicycle, especially if you plan to move around within Italy with (but not ON) the bicycle.

We used a soft case, an Italian-made Sci-Con, to transport the Gios. You took off the brake cables (exposed you'll remember), turned the bars to one side. You could leave the seat in place. You removed pedals and stashed the wheels, minus quick-release skewers, in pockets in the sides of the case. You could roll the case on its wheels.Great case, borrowed from CycleItalia Larry.

If we'd had one of those huge, black plastic cases...or two bicycles.... I don't want to think about it.

If you rented a car and kept the car for the duration of your stay, you could put the bike in the back and not think about it. We wanted to use public transportation as much as possible. Except for the ancient Fiat we rented in Florence, we did not drive at all, car, scooter or motorcycle. We walked and took buses.

Tamar rented a bike, thinking that we would go for rides around Colle, but the rides were not pleasant and the logistics of bike rental were complex. Had we stayed in just one place, had we not gone to Florence for the second week, life would have been far easier. Or had we immediately gotten out of touristy Tuscany and headed, say, for somewhere with quieter roads, we could have done lots of rides.

All this is easy to say, a year later. We did not understand how exhausting the flying would be. We certainly did not imagine that the roads of Tuscany would be so endlessly hilly. If you are not really fit, I'd suggest you ride elsewhere in Italy. And because we looked at maps and saw that Colle was in the "country," we thought that traffic would be minimal. We didn't imagine that Florence would be so dense with tourists and shoppers and who knows who else. A week there, sneezing and wheezing? Too long.

I thought that today I would describe the l'Eroica ride but there's just too much about our trip to tell you. I'll write a post about the event tomorrow. I'm sorry....