Monday, April 14, 2008

Fast shorts....

Written in the fall of 2004, not long ago but before $5,000 wheelsets and Rapha clothing. Hey, that stuff is really "fast."

Fast Shorts

At Christmastime, I’ll have been riding for 3 decades. Gosh. I learned so much the first two or three years – those years remain especially vivid in my memory. I was SO green. Everyone else had been riding forever - or so it seemed. They had class. I had no clue.

They had cool clothing and gear. I had tacky stuff I’d seen reviewed in bike magazines. They had virgin wool Sergal or MoaSport outfits from Italy. Titanium plates stiffened the soles of their Sidi shoes.

I had saggy shorts, mid-calf cotton socks and cheap Detto Pietro shoes, floppy as house slippers. They had Masis, Eisentrauts and Colnagos. My neo-pro (‘70s-speak for entry-level) Raleigh was undistinguished. The components were unremarkable.

I joined a club, rode, listened and watched, learning whatever I could. I tried to ride with good cyclists whenever possible. Most people were gracious, I’m happy to say, but a few guys looked down their noses at my Raleigh and me. Neither of us measured up.

The cool guys and women remembered that they’d been green too, perhaps not that long ago. They treated clumsy new riders like me well.

Others, guys who were trying to pass as classy, accomplished or seasoned, invariably pointed out my faults. And - you could not fail to notice – always bought conspicuously “fast” gear.

Note the quotation marks enclosing the word fast, indicating that all is not what it seems.

Those guys were sure the stuff they bought was fast, but it wasn’t. It was “fast.” The heavily hyped gear promised big performance but didn’t deliver. Despite the hype, that gear didn’t make them faster on hills or flats. It didn’t make them better bike-handlers.

They were good (but not great) riders before they bought it – and good (but not great) afterward. The engine remained the same: The same good but not great rider.

Trick cycling gear is fun but it isn’t fast, it’s “fast.” And merely owning it impresses no one. Guys still try, though. Just as they did in the ‘70s, some guys need to buy their way to superiority in specific, carefully chosen ways, ways so subtle the non-cyclist might never notice. Three decades have passed; nothing has changed…

In the ‘70s a few bucks-up guys bought Assos or Vittore Gianni clothing, good stuff. Both brands were upscale and classy, never flashy. So if you wore Assos or Gianni, only the local cycling “elite” noted the coolness of your “fast” team-embroidered shorts.

You’d succeeded: you impressed the group you longed to embrace as your peers.

That high-budget clothing, while no doubt durable and comfy, was disappointingly not all that fast. Often the very cyclists wearing those prestige pro-team shorts found their stylishly clad derrieres drifting off the back on Saturday mornings. Maybe those shorts were slow after all. Is that possible?

In the ‘70s most cool bikes and all the cool parts were Italian. There was only one brand of snob-approved “fast” parts, Campagnolo, familiarly called Campy but often referred to by affectionate nicknames like Cramp-and-go-slow, or Camp Granola.

Most US riders pronounced Campy, “Campy,” except for a few “elite” cyclists who’d been to the UK or met someone who had. They said “Campag.”

Those guys also knew how to say “toe clip” in Italian. They knew Campy part numbers and used them in conversations at parties. They left those parties early to get home to the dog-eared, grease-stained pages of their Campy catalogs.

Alas, none of that knowledge helped them up the hills. I watched many Campy aficionados struggle on steep sections. Many, coincidentally, also knew the Italian names for various wines, pastas and sauces. Perhaps there was a connection. Or maybe those Campag parts were (dare I say it?) slow…

There was an extra-elite, by the way, a tiny group of Campy-haters who would use any other (European) parts brand to avoid supporting the Wizard of Vicenza, as they called Mr. Campagnolo. They found immense satisfaction in having snubbed the snobs.

“We’re not fooled,” you could sense they were saying. “We see through the hype and cachet. We choose to use appallingly bad French parts rather than that solid, dependable, perfectly acceptable popular stuff. Anyone can ride bikes equipped with Campy, SunTour or Shimano parts. Even people working for blue-collar wages. Ugh.”

Often, you’d see those visibly superior folks stopped on the shoulder of the scenic route. They’d be trying to unlock severe kinks in their chains or they’d be whacking their chain rings back into flatness with roadside rocks.

You’d hear them braking on descents, their fine French center-pulls shrieking like a thousand Parisian fingernails on a thousand Parisian chalkboards.

When those French parts worked perfectly, (Bastille Day and maybe one other weekend day per year) they were rare and refined but not all that fast. Frenchified bicycles and their riders often slid noisily off the back as the Saturday ride proceeded – at what seemed to most of us to be a moderate pace. What a shame, no?

In the ‘70s, before indexing and eight, nine or ten-cog clusters, you could use any old chain with any chain-rings or cogs. Most of us used Regina or Sedis chains, as I recall. There were a few expensive lightweight chains, with hollow pins or holes in the side-plates. Some were made of exotic materials; titanium comes to mind.

And there were aluminum and later titanium cogs you could buy and use temporarily – until they wore out or broke. Oh, but they were “fast” while they lasted.

A style-less but thoroughly functional Sedis chain sold for about six dollars, a Regina maybe nine. A titanium chain weighed less but had a regrettably short life. It sold for $100, enough to buy tires, bananas and pancake mix to last the summer long.

Used (as they so often were) with quick-wearing, lightweight freewheel cogs, those naughty titanium chains skipped and jumped when they should’ve meshed. That had to be irritating.

Despite the expense, the agony and their brief service lives, trick chains did not appear to be successful (fast). Ti chains especially were expensive and exclusive, no doubt: “fast.”

Alas, they just weren’t fast. What a disappointment that must have been to guys who stepped up and bought them – instead of Michelins, bananas and Aunt Jemima mix.

Today the confusion is gone. Thanks to years of development, race-testing, advanced metallurgy and computer-generated designs, cyclists worldwide agree that certain brands and models of bikes, clothing and parts are genuinely superior. They’re for-sure fast, not merely “fast.” Fast.

There is no agreement, however, as to which brands and models they are. Sucks, huh?


Cecile said...


Obviously the memories from the 70's are still strong. Does the name Cecile ring a bell? White Condor with campy parts...long brown braid. The Condor is now red and the hair is short with distinguished gray temples.

I ran across your name in Road Bike magazine the other day. When I Googled your name your blog came up with this appropriate topic. I'm so glad, yet not surprised, to find you are still cycling!

Back in those days, when I worked in a bike shop, guys looked at me like I didn't know anything (about bikes) because I'm a woman. Now they think I don't know anything because I'm an "old lady" (in their minds not mine). Nothing changes.

I'm in the process of researching what new road bike to buy. This one Should last me for the next 35 years. So many good choices!

I hope all is well with you. Thanks for the trip down memory lane. I'm off for one of my urban loops in SF. The fog is starting to break up...

Maynard said...


Please write me if you see this at
The comments are blind and offer no way to respond.
Thanks! Maynard