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....

Saturday, September 19, 2015

l'Eroica and the travel to and from

In a few weeks, it'll be a year since Tamar and I flew to Italy for l'Eroica, the famous mostly dirt-road bicycle ride in Tuscany. I'll tell you about the trip today and then tomorrow about l'Eroica.

We flew to Chicago, Munich and finally Pisa. We spent the entire two weeks in Tuscany, a week in a hotel in Colle val d'Elsa, and a week in Florence, in a hotel maybe two blocks from the celebrated "old bridge," the Ponte Vecchio.

In the days after l'Eroica, we tried to ride out of Colle but found that our years of riding in the States made us afraid on the narrow Tuscan roads. If you haven't visited there, I will say that we never saw any straight or flat roads in Tuscany, except perhaps the motorways. We never saw any road shoulders.

We were sharing a narrow lane with cars, trucks and those huge European buses. We have learned over the years not to trust drivers. We know that European drivers are better able to deal with cyclists on the road, but I especially could not get over being afraid. We tried to ride twice and both times cut the rides short.

Tamar, on her rented bike, would be riding behind me. I'd get further ahead of her on the grades than I wanted to be. I could not look back for fear of weaving even a bit and being hit by a gigantic tour bus. I hated it.

On our first ride, my Gios was still dusty from the "white roads" as they're called, the unpaved country roads of l'Eroica. We passed by a gas station and I saw that they had a water hose outside. We stopped and in our halting Italian, tried to ask the guys if we could rinse the dust off the bike.

They uncoiled the hose and rinsed my bike for me. When they heard that I'd ridden l'Eroica, they were excited and thrilled to be able to wash actual l'Eroica dirt off my bicycle.

We found the people to be lovely, but the riding was too scary. After the second abortive attempt, I packed my Gios back into its soft travel case. Enough was enough.

The rest of our stay in Colle was fun and restful. We went for walks and for two or three trips on local buses. We visited Sienna and Volterra, an old Roman mountain town. We ate great food and even discovered a vegetarian restaurant in Colle that Tamar says is her favorite ever.

We took a cab to Florence, direct to our hotel. If you are traveling with a bicycle as we were, you have to find a taxi with room to carry the travel-cased bike. Our transportation costs within Italy were daunting...but what could you do?

Florence was so dense with people, people from all over the world, that it was a bit intimidating, at least for the first few days. You could not open the door of our hotel and just step out onto the sidewalk; you'd step into someone. You had to peek out and time your escape.

Both of us felt ill with sinus or cold-type problems. Tamar was off every day to museums and galleries, but I felt crummy and ill-at-ease. I was in Florence, where thousands had paid big money to visit, but I really wanted to go home. I would've rather been riding on some bike path in Denver.

After a few days in Florence, we found areas away from the tourists that we enjoyed. I began to like being there, but I still yearned to be home. I know how that sounds, but it's the truth.

One afternoon we rented a vintage Fiat 500, a Cinquecento, and I drove it from central Florence to the country near town. Another Cinquecento followed us with our guide driving. Driving a 17-horsepower car with unsynchronized gears and tiny pedals was big fun, if a bit frightening in downtown Florence traffic. If you like old cars even a little bit, please rent an old Fiat when you're in Italy.

The trip home, when it finally came, was nightmarish. We flew from Pisa to Munich and almost missed our flight to Chicago. In Chicago, tired and feeling as if we'd been beaten in our coach seats, we had to reclaim our luggage, including the bike case, and re-check it all, then stand in line to go through security again.

It's been a year, as I said, but neither of us has contemplated another overseas flight. I used to be able to tolerate those journeys, but maybe I can no longer do it. I seldom wish we had more money, but if we could have flown business might have been more like a trip and less like a mugging.

Tomorrow - the event!

Thursday, September 17, 2015

I'm excited to tell you that I'm promoting a "retro" bicycle ride next year with Denver's Turin Bikes. As it stands, the ride will be on July 10th, 2016. You will not have to have toeclips and straps or exposed brake cables to ride, although we hope to attract lots of old-school bikes.

We plan to start and finish the ride on country roads east of Denver. We'll ride 50 miles, give or take, on wide, rolling roads with very little weekend traffic. We envision a conversational, social ride, not a training ride. Perhaps I should have capitalized NOT. Thank you.

We also plan to invite women riders associated with the three shops on the Front Range that are doing rides somewhat like this one: Creekside Cyclery in Parker, south of Denver; Vecchio's in Boulder, and Turin.

We encourage riders of "modern" bikes to ride if they have a friend on a retro bike. We ask that riders of current bikes refrain from sitting at the front of our ride. That's not the idea.

Please, if you think you might want to do a ride like this one, put July 10th on your calendar. The details in this note are no-way finalized. But as of this morning, I believe it'll happen!

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Funny first column by Matthew Allen on

A Stelbel!

Stelio Belletti started TIG-welding bicycle frames in 1968, more than two decades before what is considered the start of TIG-welded bicycles. He closed his Stelbel company in 1990, but collectors of his bicycles have brought it back. Belletti himself, now 84 years old, rides three times a week and still advises Stelbel’s new owners. Photo: Lennard Zinn |

This photo is from a gallery of shots of stylish Italian bikes in VeloNews. Shown is a tig-welded road frame from Italy called a Stelbel.

In the '80s, an Italian refrigeration engineer visited Berkeley for a few weeks. He rode a bike called a Stelbel, a tig-welded bike in an era when Italian steel bikes were lugged and brazed. He loved his Stelbel.

When he heard that I was a bigshot cycling journalist, cough, cough, he arranged for Stelbel back home to send me a frame, so that I too could experience the magic. I'm not exaggerating much here. I rode the bike for a year or so, enjoyed it and its fade paint, then probably wanted something else I couldn't afford without selling it. I wonder where it is now.

I never saw another Stelbel until this morning....

Monday, September 14, 2015

How they look and how they are....

A few years ago I called the VA Hospital here in Denver to ask a health question. The guy answering those calls turned out to be a longtime reader of my motorcycle stories in CityBike, a San Francisco Bay Area monthly newspaper. He is a member of a "patch-club," one of those clubs in which the riders wear vests, usually black leather, with the club insignia sewn or embroidered on.

He invited us to attend the club's anniversary party, and Tamar and I did. I've gone to several now. My Kawasaki is always the only four-cylinder Japanese motorcycle in the clubhouse parking lot, surrounded primarily by Harley-Davidsons plus a few Gold Wings and smaller Japanese cruisers.

This past Saturday night was anniversary night. I got in line for food and saw that there was plenty of it, but I could not find the plates. The guy in front of me was wearing an Iron Order vest, black denim. In the middle of the Iron Order emblem was the number 8. What does that number stand for, I asked him.

That's for the eight original members, he said, in Louisville, Kentucky. He busied himself filling a plate with food, and dammit I still couldn't see the plates.

Where'd you find that plate?, I asked him. He put his own plate down, reached over and got me one and a cellophane-wrapped pack of picnic plastic-ware and a napkin. Thanks, I said, realizing as I did that I was the only person in a sea of black leather, black denim and black cotton wearing a white t-shirt with a BMW shop's logo on it. Honest to god, no one cared.

I know the papers and TV news broadcasts are full of stories about gang violence and motorcycle clubs that have turned to drug crime and mob-style enforcement. I've read those stories. I know how these guys look, alien and menacing.

Nonetheless, I've hardly ever felt safer than I did at that patch-club anniversary party. Must be something soothing about all that black leather....
As I'm sure you have noticed, the practice of riding no-hands has increased rapidly. More and more people seem unable to resist looking so un-self-consciously cool. We have all seen people riding hands-free while chatting on their phones, and people texting while riding hands-free on busy bike paths.

Just last week as I was riding south on the South Platte Trail, I saw a young man riding north toward me, no-hands. Not very remarkable, you say? He was riding no-hands because he was playing his guitar.

I did not see it but I assume he had a strap on that guitar. Otherwise, if he were surprised (pretty far-fetched, I know) and had to reach quickly for his brake levers, he'd drop the guitar. Maybe into his front wheel.

I told that story to four or five guys on a Sunday morning road-training ride. Their facial expressions did not change, telling me that they wanted me to know that they were not surprised to hear about a guy riding and playing a guitar. One guy did say, quietly, "They're out there."

The question? Who's cooler? Is it the young man with the guitar? Or the roadies who can't be surprised?


As of late last week, I am informed that the Bicycle Paper, a fine free monthly cycling newspaper distributed in the Pacific NW, is for sale and may not continue in its present form. That means I am out of a job in a cycling publication for the first time since the spring of 1983, when I went to work for Winning Magazine.

For more than 30 years I've been responsible for a cycling-related story or two each month, in California Bicyclist, Winning, Velo-News, the Rivendell Reader and the Bicycle Paper. So I continue to watch what's happening in cycling and thinking: There's an article there!

This blog has been dormant for some years, I'm afraid. But if ideas continue to occur to me, and I continue not to have a place to sell them, I'll post them here. If you do visit my blog and as time passes you do see posts about this and that related to cycling and motorcycling...or any damn thing, it means that I'm out the income from that Bicycle Paper gig, but I'm still writing about cycling.

I'm still contributing to CityBike, a motorcycle newspaper in the SF Bay Area, and to Motorcycle Sport and Leisure, a really fine slick monthly magazine from the UK. Thanks for reading!