Friday, November 20, 2015

Greg LeMond Introduction

I wrote this and read it from the podium at a pre-El Tour de Tucson dinner, probably in the early 2000's. Greg was the Guest of Honor, as he damned well should have been...

Twenty years ago in cycling, Americans were outside looking in. We could love cycling, but it could never be OURS. We'd never excel like Belgians, Dutch, French and Italians.

We were too soft. European racers were tough lads who saved themselves from the mill or mine by pedaling hard. We'd been sissified by indoor plumbing, power steering and too much TV.

We thought there could never be a Merckx from Illinois or a Gimondi from Arizona. We just didn't have it. We'd never produce a Tour de France star. No way.

After all, just finishing the Tour was hard enough, even if you were a stoic European pedaling machine. An American finisher? Unthinkable.  

So, as an American bike rider, you learned to pronounce European names and bought European bikes with European parts. You wore European clothes and read European magazines. You resigned yourself to living in a third-class cycling nation.

Unless, that is, you were Greg LeMond.

If LeMond ever picked up on that sense of unworthiness, he never bought into it. Never. He showed us what a load of rubbish it all was.

Even as a fresh-faced kid, LeMond was always competitive with the best seniors. He was never tactical or economical. He'd break away if he could, and often won alone. He'd grin, braces sparkling in the sun, and ride away from guys with famous names.

He just kept getting stronger. When he left to race on European teams, when he won the world's championship, we watched unprepared, unbelieving. He wasn't JUST American; he was SO American.

Suddenly, we were staring at photos of cycling superstar Bernard Hinault on a horse, Hinault with a cowboy hat and a Winchester rifle. Hinault, who had crossed the ocean to visit LeMond at his Nevada home, to welcome LeMond to his team. 
Still, we feared LeMond would win a few more races and then fade from the scene, merely a fluke, our fluke. We'd return to cycling obscurity.

That's not what happened, though, is it? Nearly everything a bike rider could do, Greg LeMond did, and in style, always in style. And drama? Too much drama.

All that drama kept what he did from looking too easy, as if he were simply born to win and nothing could stop him from doing so. It didn't look easy for LeMond to triumph; it looked hard, on the bike and often off it, too. He did it anyway.

He made us believe we could do it, too, or a few of us could. He made us believe that he could keep doing it, that he would keep doing it and would never become distant and difficult and too good for us.

He was the new American contender, the American world champion, the American Tour winner and a brave American shooting victim. Then he was the American comeback hero, the American winner of the closest Tour in history in 1989.

And what better guy to come from our ranks and go out to meet the world! Who's a better guy than Greg LeMond? Always willing to sign the autograph, always good for a thoughtful quote, always happy to meet fans, always patient with everyone, always Greg LeMond.

We knew he was a terrific guy, one of us, and we trusted him. We knew he was open-minded, curious and progressive about equipment so we paid close attention to his choices. We based purchases on his choices.

Do you wear sunglasses when you ride? Are they Oakleys? Do you own aero handlebars? Do you wear a Giro or some other sleek helmet? Do you ride clipless pedals? Got a cyclometer? Is your saddle pushed way back? Do you ride a LeMond?

Greg LeMond changed bike-racing forever everywhere, changed pay scales, attitudes and ambitions. He played on a world-size stage. At the same time, he was and will always be our guy, one of us: Our first genuine Eurostar, our three-time Tour winner, our trendsetter, our ambassador to sport, our champion.

Until Lance Armstrong arrived with his own style and his own drama, Greg LeMond was the only bike rider Joe Sixpack had ever heard of, ever cheered for. No other rider changed our lives the way Greg LeMond did.

Maybe, if you think about it, you're riding bikes or supporting El Tour today because of the glow Greg LeMond put on cycling. It's my feeling that we've never had a more appropriate guest of honor at El Tour...

Whatta guy! Ladies and gentlemen: Greg LeMond!

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

From 2004, more or less: The Sunnyside Women's Road Cycling Clinic

This piece ran in the Bicycle Paper, a free Pacific NW cycling newspaper. The clinic ran in the days before the Cascade Classic Stage Race in Bend, if memory serves.... What fun!

Every July for the past five or six years, Sunnyside Sports, a great bike shop in Bend, has promoted a weekend road cycling clinic for women. I’ve helped out at all but one of them and promoted two of my own in Tucson. My two followed Sunnyside’s model faithfully. Why fool with a successful formula?

You wonder why you’d need to educate cyclists. Can’t they learn all they need to know from books or magazines or their computers? I’m afraid they cannot. No diagram ever taught a new rider how a pace line rotates or how hard to pedal while at the front.

No series of photos or drawings ever made a safer, faster downhill bike-handler. No article has conveyed the feeling of drafting at 25mph or riding confidently elbow-to-elbow, chatting the miles away on some sun-dappled country road.

And it has become difficult to learn group skills on local group rides. Few want to teach and few seem happy to be taught. Perhaps our veterans are reluctant to act like self-appointed experts – and newer riders act as if they know all they need to know – especially, if you ask me, new guy riders.   

Whatever the reason, many club cyclists ride for years at the same scarcely adequate skill level. They don’t have the tools to enjoy road cycling fully.

So Sunnyside Sports initiated the Women’s Road Clinic. Here’s how it works – and how I organized my own clinics. No reason you couldn’t do a similar event where you live.

This year, in the weeks before the clinic, Sunnyside did bike fittings for each participant, making sure each woman was comfortable on her bike and in a position of control and power. At previous clinics, we’ve done that during the weekend, but it is time-consuming and depends on careful scheduling. Fittings are best done before the clinic weekend.

On Saturday morning, the staff divided the women into groups by estimated comfortable road speed. This year we had about 15 women total, divided into two groups. Each group enjoyed the attention of three instructors.

Our group rode a few miles out of Bend to a quiet road, where we stopped and got off our bikes. We talked about basic group riding, technique and etiquette, and about pace.

We talked about fear of following close and how to maintain a steady pace uphill and down. Staffers talked about delightful, often unexpected, conversations we’ve had on rides. We said we think of cycling as a social sport, and we’re thankful that it is.

The women formed into lines ON FOOT and walked through the motions of two common rotating pace lines, so everyone understood how they worked. I don’t know who came up with this training method, but gosh it’s effective – and safe. Try it at home.

Then we rolled out onto the lightly traveled road to practice our new skills. Raggedy at first, soon the women were riding like the USPS “blue train.” We’d stop a time or two to discuss what was happening and to listen to suggestions or questions.

By the time we’d ridden up and back, we were a pretty doggoned accomplished group. We rolled back down the highway into Bend looking red-hot. For many of the women, this was their first “sitting-in” experience, as it has been every year at the clinic. It’s amazing how fast the transition happens: cautious solo rider to polished pace-liner.

Makes even cynical, white-socks roadie instructors proud.

After lunch, each woman “fixed a flat” on her own bike. Each demonstrated that she could remove and replace her front wheel and her back one. Each indicated that she knew which brake lever operated which brake and how to properly apply them.

The students then listened to a presentation about turning a bicycle. Then they mounted up for cornering practice on a twisty course in a parking lot that sees only weekday use.

On the grass nearby, the women learned to ride close together. They bumped elbows. They jumped their bikes over (or reached down and picked up) dropped water bottles. They briefly touched the rear wheel of the rider in front of them with their own front wheel.

For many of the students, this was scary and adventurous beyond their expectations. They performed like veterans nevertheless, scarcely revealing what must have been wide-eyed fear. Bravo, says this old roadie!

Saturday evening after dinner, a grizzled magazine columnist read a few truly boring stories to an increasingly sleepy-eyed group.

“Could I have more coffee, please. Yes, caffeinated will do just fine.”

After dinner in Tucson, by the way, a woman staffer talked about woman-specific issues and a male staffer discussed riding safely and confidently in urban traffic.

Sunday morning, staff and students assembled at a wide spot in the road east of Alfalfa, Oregon, for a real road ride – with hills and wind and maybe a drop or two of rain. We talked about climbing, about standing up and sitting in the saddle, about gear selection and pacing oneself on the hill. We talked about descending, relaxing on the bike and remembering how to use the front and rear brakes.

Each staffer rode with only three women on that Sunday. As I watched my little flock, I could see lessons the women had learned at the clinic come to fruition.

On the way back, we split into two tiny, two-rider packs. We flew back to the cars, forming and splitting, forming and splitting again as our climbing or descending skills separated us. Again, I was proud of my students. I couldn’t have selected one of them as “most improved.” They were all “most improved.”

Please do put together a clinic like Sunnyside’s in your community. For your instructors, select four or five riders who are empathetic and enthusiastic about cycling, who are, to be frank, nice. Use Sunnyside’s model or design one of your own to meet your particular needs.

When I did my first one here in Tucson in 2001, I had no problem recruiting qualified, volunteer instructors. Afterward, several of them said they’d enjoyed the experience far more than they could have imagined. A few called the clinic weekend “life-changing.”

Sharing your love for cycling with excited riders is life-changing. It changes all those riders’ lives…and it changes yours.