Sunday, December 27, 2009

Quality Speaks for Itself

Santa was extra good to me this week; maybe I actually managed to subvert/sublimate my naughty nature just often enough in 2009. I must have, since they say you can’t fool him.

First up was something I’ve been jonesing for since I asked my friend No One Line where he got his dapper cycling cap. He referred me to Walz Caps. When I first visited their Web site, it seemed as if someone had been designing headwear for me for years, but had mischievously kept it a secret from me. I had a very hard time choosing a cap. (I settled on the black and gray wool model pictured at the bottom.)

I’d been shopping for just the right one for months, but with no luck. I owned a mass-production cotton Castelli job already; I’d used it for countless rides. It’s okay, but I was looking for quality -- and here it was. You can tell at a glance that a Walz cap is special, but until you think about it, you can’t say exactly why. It just makes a person look more… I don’t know… stylish, but in a quiet, European way? Unself-consciously cool? Maybe just good? Yeah, that’s it: Walz caps just make you look, and feel, good.

You can pin this down to specific details, such as a better cutting pattern, better materials, better craftsmanship, better esthetic, and so on. You can compare their subtly different look to more “unique,” hand-made caps out there made from baroque, colorful fabrics that just scream, “Look at me! I‘m so artsy, I can‘t stand myself!” You can even sit down to write a blog post vainly attempting to define ephemeral notions like quality and craftsmanship.

Or you can throw down your coin (and not much of it, by the way), wait breathlessly by the mailbox -- and then wear the thing everywhere until it falls off your head in tatters.

I’ve tried both approaches, and, as of this moment, I’m sticking with the latter.

Once you lay eyes on it, there's no doubt.

Next up: The other quality wool gift.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Registration Open for Levi's Gran Fondo

Would I pay $130 for what basically amounts to a century ride? Hmm...

If it took place on the most remote and challenging roads in one of the most beautiful regions of California...

If I had the chance to meet and support my man Levi Leipheimer... (I harbor no illusions I'd be able to ride with him for more than the first 100 meters, along with 3,000 other folks)...

And if someone would go the cab-fare from Western Mass and put me up when I get there...

I'd be there.

Another one for the bucket list.

(True, the video below is a puff piece. But if it doesn't make you sigh with envy, I can't imagine what would.)

Monday, December 14, 2009 'Cross Nats Coverage

Well, the coverage of the 'Cross Nats over at this weekend ranged from the ridiculous (nearly all of one race was covered with the microphone battery dead -- no sound whatsoever) to the sublime (The Elite Men's was an exciting race and the boys had gotten most of the bugs out of the system by then). I encourage Colt and friends to keep up the good work.

Now, clearly there is room for improvement. I had to surf like crazy around cyclingdirt to find the actual page on which the live video was showing. Operating on a shoestring budget, the guys ran from vantage point to vantage point during the races. They were constantly out of breath, and the video ended up blurred and frozen. It looked like Blair Witch Project meets A Sunday in Hell. However, the core of the coverage was strong. Up-close views of the gaps and the run-ups were particularly enjoyable. And Colt's commentary was suprisingly taut and informative. For a young, inexperienced guy running around with a buddy holding a vid-cam, he was pretty eloquent and knowledgeable, and he kept me in the know. During the closing interviews after the Elite race, he asked a couple of unexpected, penetrating questions ("When the performance stats of the top five guys are so similar, what makes the difference on a day like today?"), and forced racers to think and be interesting on camera. Not a common phenomenon.

Finally, there was a charm to some of the rough edges, too. Walking up to riders' tents minutes before or after a race, and finding them in various states of preparedness for and disposition toward a live public appearance. Colt's moxie in butting to the front of any line, elbowing past journalists undoubtedly from media outlets more respected than his own. And just the general, jovial "Can you believe where I'm standing/who I'm talking to/what I'm doing??!" atmosphere was very refreshing. At the end of the day, I felt like I'd been hanging out at Bend -- not like I'd been watching slick coverage of a race that could have happened anywhere.

So, however fast your Web site and accompanying coverage grows, Colt, I hope you keep that good stuff. Keep it raw.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


Word from Bend is that there's snow on the ground there, so the 'Cross Nats live coverage coming your way this weekend (which I gave you a link to here) are probably going to be delightfully messy -- something, perhaps, like this:

[Thanks to Heidi at for the vid link.]

Streaming the 'Cross Nats

Those of you reading this while the snow is flying (most of you, I think), take heart! Cyclocross may have ended for us, but there's still a drop or two of fun to be extracted from the ever-lengthening outdoor cycling season., which I recently learned is a hub (pun intended) for 'cross information, videos, interviews, etc., will be streaming coverage of the National Championships in Bend, Oregon, this Saturday and Sunday. I can't vouch for the quality, but go here for the streaming schedule, and here for the Cyclingdirt overview of the event. And feel free to weigh in with other streaming opportunities coming up.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Truth, Justice and The Roadie Way!

Beware, Fixie Fashion Fools and Faux-Pros!
~~ Two-wheeled Terror of the Tarmac ~~

Sunday, December 6, 2009

So True

First snow of the season in the Pioneer Valley yesterday, and this a.m., the trees all glimmer and gleam against a cobalt sky. If it really does get up to 35 degrees, I’ll pop out for a ride to enjoy the beauty. Whether I’ll need the face-mask remains to be seen. (Don’t laugh, youngsters; as Mel Brooks, playing the Two-thousand Year-Old Man, said, “We mock the thing we are to become.”)

I’ve long since hauled out the winter bike, and have been enjoying giving it overdue TLC:

Stock photo of winter squeeze.

Some links in the chain were a bit stiff, but then, I guess you could say that about me, too. Also, the Giant and I took a fall a couple weeks ago, fooling around on the branch-strewn grass, and my wheels got out of true. That part actually made me happy, because I'd had real fun and suprising success truing the wheels on my main (cycling) squeeze this summer:

Decidedly non-stock photo of summer squeeze.

Of course, those are Ksyrium Equipes, with the low spoke-count; the Alexrims on my Giant have the traditional spoke-count and present a bigger challenge. Well… I did it, no problem, and on the bike, too. (I don’t own a truing stand.)

There’s something soothing about truing. It’s purely tactile, so different from the conceptual, high-pressure work I do day-to-day. I like the cold metal of the spoke wrench against my fingertips, the “ting-ting-ting” as I tighten and loosen, the zongg of the spokes when I pluck them to check the tension. Best of all, I love spinning the wheel and seeing the smooth, fractional gap between rim and brake pad when I’m done, and the reward of knowing, without doubt, that my task is complete. That's hard to find in this life, eh?

So here’s to trueness, freedom, and the cyclistic way.

And a warm winter.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

'Cross is...

This makes cyclocross look so stupid that it's just plain fun(ny):

And this just makes it look plain-ol' stupid:

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Inside my Cornucopia

For my great marriage, first and foremost. For better health than this time last year, and a rockin’ fast bike I didn’t have a year ago.

For stepping out to go to work and smelling trees and earth and air – not cement.

For a new gym membership, giving me something besides <> rollers to use for workouts during the winter. And for the terrific new feeling of cross-trained fitness.

Countless long rides in one of the most beautiful places in the country. And my big-climbing metrics this year, the furthest and highest I’ve ridden since the early ‘80s. And especially for the prospect of my first century ever next year.

For a greater acceptance of my puzzling new health limits since I reached my mid-40s.

For the first job in my fairly seasoned life in which my reservations are outweighed by my appreciation.

For this changeable, puzzling, thrilling thing they call Life.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

'Cross Funnies

Quick, before everyone in the world starts creating and posting their own one-button animations, go here and laugh your tuches off. It's about cycling, I promise.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Intensity and Immunity: New Research

As I've documented recently, I'm experimenting with my first real off-season, during these cool-to-cold months leading up to the Solstice. My body seems to be appreciating it. So far -- insert loud knock on nearby wooden furniture here -- I've been far stronger and healthier than last fall. Better sleep, better immune system (despite working in a community mental health center where 80% of my clients are children), better overall energy and mood.

One aspect of my program is workouts that are more frequent, but shorter and less intense. I would classify them as "light to moderate." Clearly, this fits in with the typical off-season/base-season thinking regarding building a cardiovascular fitness base. But I also have been doing it on the theory that light exercise improves overall health and immunity -- especially handy during this cold and flu season -- whereas intense exercise improves fitness (and, of course, fun), but at a cost to overall health, especially in the immune system.

This, too, is a pretty common idea. But I haven't tried it before. Too stubborn or dumb or something. Well, so far, it's been paying off. Well, today I read of some very interesting research that supports all of this, and takes it one step further: Heavy exercisers are more likely to get sick (in this case, contracting the flu) than even those who don't exercise at all. I have to admit, I'm feeling pretty good about my off-season plan today!

So, get out there and -- take it easy.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Last Word on Knees

LinkI've become something of a connoisseur of articles on knees. You know -- that concatenation of bone, ligament, muscle and tendon that separates your shins from your thighs? Endurance athletes tend to have a lot of trouble with 'em. I'm certainly no exception, as Velophoriacs know too well from early posts here, detailing part of my odyssey with knee issues.

In my Firefox bookmarks folder, I must have over forty articles on knees: Physiology, strengthening, stretching, self-massage, blah, blah, blah. But ever since I recently bought a nice pair of running shoes and started fooling around with trying to run again, I've done a bunch of research on knees in the running literature. That's when I found this gem. I was surprised; I'm disappointed by Runner's World's tendency to print quickie sidebars entitled something like, "Five Tips for Joint Health." Useless. Nonetheless, this full-length piece is the best (and most enjoyable) summary of all the thinking, past, present and cutting edge, about knees I have read so far.

If you have any good ones yourself, feel free to post in the comments section.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Crossing Paths and Cyclocross

Wonderful bike-related incidents in the last two days: A first in-the-flesh meeting with No One Line, who has moved to my part of Massachusetts (lucky me!) and a visit to the Cycle-Smart International cyclocross race in Look Park (in Northampton, MA) where local boys Jeremy Powers and Jamey Driscoll once again laid waste (as Sri Bobke would say) in the Elite division.

That last race was all I was able to make, but it was great fun, including an insane rock-and-root-strewn run-up, where I stood with No One Line and his friends, cheering and ringing a free cowbell from Mavic (score!). As fun as it is to watch, I never fail, within the first 30 seconds of attending a 'cross melee, to have the same reaction: "This isn't what bikes are built for!" All the more amazing then, no? As NOL put it, those guys are "lean and mean, but all fast-twitch." The wattage level they put out for a solid hour is amazing.

The whole retro-boho-beer-sippin'-facial-hair-and-handmade-cycling-cap-sportin' 'cross culture was on full display. With one foot firmly on the road to geezer-hood, I love being around the energy, creativity, haughty self-consciousness, and pure athleticism. A heady mix, delightful for short bursts of time. It was a lovely day for 'cross: 50 degrees and sunny. Well, okay, the wannabe Belgians probably would have preferred 40 degrees and raining, but it was sure a good day for standing around watching other people burn up glycogen like it was goin' out of style...

Stop by tomorrow -- a beautiful day predicted and more cycling insanity for those willing to pay the measly $5.00 parking fee. Me? I'll be out on a ride, inspired by the studs I saw today.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Giro Promoters Lose Collective Minds

First they move the Tour of California to May so it conflicts with the Giro (?!?#$%?), now this absurd proposal.

It's enough that winter is coming. Do they have to mock and torment us so?

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Indoors is Good

Ages since my last real post. Part of the reason for that is the weird experience of having an actual burn-out this fall.

Since my training for the first two years was constantly interrupted by injury or illness, I ended up effectively training for two straight years –when not actually riding, I was obsessing about recovery, how/whether to ride injured, and pining for the bike. Hence the full-on burn-out this fall.
The mental burn-out (accompanied by good physical health – a rare combination for me) has afforded me the luxury of cross-training, something I’ve been wanting to try since I (re-)started cycling. I’ve been enjoying fiddling around with running, to very mixed success. I love it, but my knees are rebelling and it looks like I’ll have to pull back a lot.

I’ve also been enjoying my new gym. Most folks complain about how boring the health club is; I have a long history as a gym rat. I spent a good portion of my very expensive liberal arts college career in the rather low-rent campus gym, pumping iron and talking technique with linebackers twice my size. Some of my fondest college memories.

What’s more, I don’t mind being on an elliptical machine for 45 minutes. I tend to thrive where others die of boredom. It allows me to get deep into a movement groove and get a serious, finely-tuned burn going. (I also am working on a theory that it is great cross-training for the bike, because it works hardest the muscles that I increasingly find useful for biking: the glutes and lower back). Road cycling is much more fun and stimulating, but it rarely allows that deep groove, what with all the hills, curves, potholes and scenery here in Western Mass.

Best of all, when I got on the bike last Sunday after a couple weeks of this, I rode harder, longer with more excitement and less fatigue than I have in weeks. So, for right now, I’m enjoying the cooler, wetter weather. I’m thrilled that I don’t have to despair when it’s crappy out. I have a powerful workout waiting for me seven minutes away in a warm, dry, inexpensive, stripped-down-but-totally-functional place.

Come January, I’ll probably be sick of it and dying for a road fix. For right now, though… I can watch college ball while I’m maintaining my VO2 max.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Back in Love Again

Out for a brisk one-hour-plus in with temps in the 30s/40s today. My first time on a bike in two full weeks, the longest voluntary break I've taken in the two-plus years since I got back in the saddle. I'm very, very happy to report I enjoyed myself. I was starting to feel... well, nothing, really... while riding in late September. Mind you, I had crazy fitness, zooming all over the place and motoring up hills, but I just wasn't enjoying it. At all. Guess I finally strung enough healthy months together this season to actually do a bona fide burn-out -- my first. Hey -- I'll call that much health a milestone!

Today, I found the corners of my mouth sneaking upward as I dashed down a local descent. It was a relief. I remember the years when I lived, breathed, ate and slept guitar. Every once in a while, I'd have a period when I just couldn't look at the instrument any more. I would take a few days off, then a week... and start to get paranoid. Had the magic jumped the last train for the coast? Would I ever find joy in the wood and strings again? It always came back around if I gave it enough breathing room. Hopefully, today proves the same dynamic true in my relationship with the bike.

I have been working out, though. I joined a gym for some aerobic and resistance work. I hope it will tide me over the icy months -- and delay the day I get on my @%#$ rollers until at least the new year. And I've been tentatively trying some running. I adored running as a young adult, but my knees are very, very finicky these days. Hope I can extend my jaunts to something worth suiting up for.

But today, I celebrate the velocipede!

Down to the Bone

Another article on the very important topic of bone density loss in cyclists. Informative and brief.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

My Passion and Profession Collide

It's often not pretty when I find that my profession -- mental health counseling -- has appeared in some other field of life I love.

Condolences to Franck Vandenbr0ucke's family. And a word to the wise: If you are in psychological pain, reach out. There are professionals everywhere.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Michael Barry Loves the Radio Ban

A very well-written and intelligent summary of one viewpoint on the UCI proposal to ban radios from racing.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Paris-Brest-Paris footage, 1948

If you don't enjoy this, I can't for the life of me imagine what you're doing reading this blog.

Andrew Ritchie's Major Taylor Bio

Just finished Andrew Ritchie’s Major Taylor: The Extraordinary Career of a Champion Bicycle Racer. There are various interesting Taylor bios out there, but, save for the Major's own, more obscure attempt, this was the first of the lot. When Ritchie started it, Taylor had been wiped from public memory for many decades. Ritchie quite rightly thought this was a crime, and it took him ten years to finish the book that would right this wrong.

If you are an avid cyclist and you live in New England, you’ve probably heard at least some of Taylor’s story, but the essentials bear repeating here. In a day when hyperbole has become so commonplace, there is no way to properly portray the scale his accomplishments – nor of his challenges. However, Ritchie tries to pare it down at one point: “He was almost certainly the first black athlete to be a member of an integrated professional team, the first to have a commercial sponsor, the first to establish world records. He was the second black world champion in any sport…”

Okay, good. On top of that, he was one of the the most dominant cyclists in history; so much so that, throughout most of his career, opponents were afraid they were simply competing for second.

But the kicker, the coup de grace, is that he achieved all this at a terrible handicap: he was the only black racer at his level of the most popular sport in America, at the turn of the Twentieth Century. At a time when lynchings were quite commonplace, Taylor traveled around the country to compete against people who literally wanted him dead. Nearly every time he raced in the United States, he was victim of the foulest play, vilest epithets, and even death threats and physical violence. Even competitors who admitted respect for him in one breath flatly rejected his right to compete in the next. Well, what can we expect? He was the only Black man who had the shocking boldness to challenge the white man in his own living room.

Of course, all the human rights-based objections were patent nonsense; I sincerely doubt the response to Taylor’s presence would have been so venomous had he lost every race. What the Southerners couldn’t stand (and it was mostly Southerners who hated Taylor) was being beaten by someone they considered less than human – and a dangerous example, to boot.

And yet, by all reports, Taylor was level-headed and even generous while dealing with all of this. He was a staunch Christian, refused to race on Sundays, and cotinually withstood waves of abuse. Yet he was not spineless. He had the strength to stand up and speak out against his treatment to referees, governing bodies, and in public newspapers, all in careful yet clear words.

* * *

In all, Ritchie’s writing is good enough to get across the mythic scale of Taylor's successes. As a cycling fan, he also manages to convey the drama of key races. The fact that Ritchie was, first and foremost, a photojournalist is obvious in his repetitiousness, clear progressive bias, and sometimes purple prose. And, like many amateur writers tackling historic subjects, Ritchie threw in every detail he could get his hands on. I skimmed large portions, but that worked fine; it was easy to find the important segments.

I barely need note the pleasure of reading about a time when cycling ruled the American sports world, drawing far more spectators (and paying far better) than even baseball. If you're a history buff, you'll find plenty of treats here.

* * *

There are annual Major Taylor rides in Massachusetts, his adoptive home state, one of them taking place next weekend. (I’m proud to say he came here for our tolerance, even in that day). There is also a memorial to him in Worcester. We are rightly encouraged not to forget this singular man (nor his interesting story). The comparisons to Jackie Robinson are inevitable and just, but the fact that Robinson had an equally hard journey integrating his sport a full fifty years after Taylor only underscores how courageous the Worcester Cyclone was. Few were able to follow his example until well after he had passed on.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Marvelous Metric

A terrific day yesterday. Completed my second metric century, 62 miles circumnavigating the Quabbin Reservoir, with nearly 4700 feet of climbing -- a personal record. (Well, I may have done more on one of my teenage bike trips, but that was nearly thirty years ago, so who remembers?) Scenery beautiful enough to rival any spot you care to name in the United States, especially with the fall colors beginning to emerge. Precious little ponds and swamps with fiery red trees illuminated from behind. Jewel-like farmhouses folded snugly into intimate, multicolored hills. Sun and blue skies everywhere.

A little twingey in one knee, but overall, the fitness was there. Though I won't lie; after hours of hills (the entire ride consists of giant rollers), the final stretch, including the Quabbin park loop -- a couple miles of climbing -- and the giant rollers between there and home on Route 9, with gangs of motorcycles roaring by my left shoulder... well, that was a bit sloggy.

Overall, extremely rewarding. After stretching, eating and napping, I went out on the deck and relaxed completely in the toasty September sun with a Diet Coke. It felt as if everything in the world was in its rightful place.

Now it's Monday, and I'm off to work!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Ode to Autumnal Brilliance

Hail to thee, oh Late-season Fitness!
Would that I had but one single witness
To the feats I accomplish in your sunlit realm
As my bike conquers mountains, with me at the helm

I fly down the flats like a Roubaix-bound Boonen
And dream I lay waste to my Pro-Tour opponents
No peak is too high, no town is too far
But then you recede like a 5 a.m. star...

How tragic! how young! how lamented you are!

Then I sit at my desk, just dreaming of spring
Oh, Late-season Fitness! You sweet, fickle thing!

~ Composed upon the boneshaker, 9/15/09

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Pee is for Performance

Well, the leaves are tinged with color and the mornings are starting to get misty and chilly. As the cycling season winds down, I find myself synthesizing lessons learned this year. Some are lessons I learned last year, too – obviously, not well enough. Perhaps I’ll post a series of them now, in no particular order. Well, except this one, which I think has become the One Overarching and Immutable Rule of Cycling for me:

Pee Last.

Better to walk around the house like something out of a male strip show gone horribly wrong, my white gauzy bib straps hanging down my legs and an unzipped jersey slung on to ward off the morning chill, risking the sarcasm of my loving spouse, than to hit mile eight of a forty-five mile ride and realize I have to stop already, secure the bike, waddle into a café under the glare of the the patrons’ bemused gazes, and do the chimpanzee dance in the bathroom tryng to remove all the layers so I can relieve myself. Waste of time and momentum. If I walk about the house before roll-out with everything undone, I remember that, after I put on the gloves, adjust the shades and the helmet, and yes, even and especially the shoes (if I wait til the shoes, I’m sure to be ready to go) I must stop in the bathroom as my very last step.

No slacking on this: I’ve discovered that if I push pee time up even so much as five minutes, wanting just to suit up so I don’t feel so floppy and ridiculous, I pay for it later. The wheel of Nature’s law grinds slow, but exceeding sure. If I pay heed, I can usually spend the remainder of the ride in that sweet balance between intake and output, never stopping unwillingly.

Monday, August 31, 2009


If you have done a century or a double century and are looking for the 'next' challenge, this may be it. You need not be fast to be successful; in fact, the best randonneurs are steady and consistent and know how to budget their energy. It doesn't hurt if you're a bit obsessive about riding and perhaps a wee bit eccentric.

Randonneuring is long-distance unsupported endurance cycling. This style of riding is characterized by various rules and traditions that date to the end of the 19th century in France. When one participates in brevet events, one is part of an ancient cycling tradition with a worldwide following and over 110 years of legend, history, myth, and lore. It is not racing and being first is never the paramount goal of brevets. Finishing is the most important goal and especially for those who do so self-sufficiently and without outside support.

~ Sammamish Valley Cycling Web site
Been thinking about randonneuring lately as a pursuit. In the two years since I started cycling again, I've been sort of wandering around the territory, wondering which discipline is going to fit me best. I definitely need more focused seasonal goals. Having ill-defined or inappropriate goals has contributed mightly to my tendency to injure myself or overtrain in my first seasons.

I wonder if distance riding is the ticket. I deeply enjoy the whole "ride deliberately/budget your energy" aspect of the long rides I do every week. And, as Velophoriacs know, I am in love with the mythopoetic Euro-roots underpinning the history of cycling. That figures largely in randonneuring (note the French word, natch), so that would be a match. I guess another part of that same trad-Euro aesthetic is that randos get to ride some unbelievably well-crafted bikes.

The distance people I've met tend to be a bit older and more intellectual, mellow and social than the majority of their racer cousins. I like the "Ride your own ride, but be part of our group anyway" ethos, the general de-emphasis of speed, power and finishing order (they say results are usually posted alphabetically, not by time. Fancy that!) To be honest, I'm pretty prone to the ravenous obsession racers have about speed and competition; the problem is, my body develops problems if I push that side too much. Overall, it seems to thrive best in a sort of "steady effort" state, neither hammering nor dawdling. (Though I do love both hammering and dawdling).

I'm really enjoying learning ever more about bike repair, too, an essential part of long-distance riding because there is no "neutral support." You on yo' own, baby. Break a spoke, mash up your derailleur in a crash? If you don't know how to fix it, you're likely going to DNF.

Sounds good so far. Wait -- what about being "obsessive" and "eccentric"?

Uh, yeah. I think I got those covered.

The more I think about it, the more the description appeals, and applies, to me. Well, except the little thing about riding a century. Working on that. Done two metrics with a fair amount of climbing, so I figure I'm pretty close. When I do my first imperial century, it'll tell me a lot more about whether I want to undertake true "long distance" events. Y'know -- the stuff behind all the pretty bikes and alluring lore. The suffering, the flats, the headwinds, the bonks, the rain, the 2:00 am depressions.

Hey -- that which does not kill me, makes me stranger, right?

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Only in My World?

Mrs. V. just started a terrific new job as the librarian at a local middle school. I went in with her Saturday morning to get a gander at her library and help her chip away at the gargantuan task of re-shelving the hundreds of dusty books piled randomly about the place. (The school hasn’t had an official librarian in many years.) We spent a nice morning listening to bouncy tunes from her iPod and perusing the various titles kids are reading nowadays – and were reading in, say, 1961, since there are innumerable dust-encrusted tomes that sorely need replacing. It was a geek’s paradise.

As a reward for my labors, the Missus bestowed upon me an important historical volume, reluctantly jettisoned from the collection due to its antiquity: Popular Mechanics Book of Bikes and Bicycling, by Dick Teresi. (Thanks, hon!)

Now, before you go smirking at the photo and the grandma’s-attic funk wafting from the typeface, just feast your little peepers on a random selection of topics covered in this baby, selected by simply flipping it open to various pages as I write this:
  • The bleeding-edge innovation of titanium frames, newly available from Teledyne, an aeronautics company. Much lighter than Reynolds 531 steel tubing, which was the coin of the realm when this book was published. (Insider’s tip: Titanium is expensive, kids! A fully equipped bike, including that newfangled Japanese componentry, costs $300! But hey, it weighs a mere 18 pounds – the lightest bike on the market…)
  • A suggestion that kids getting involved in those lunatic off-road cycling events that seem to be gaining popularity in wacky California, “use the ever-popular banana-seat, high-rise [handlebar] type of bike, sometimes called a ‘Sting Ray’ or a ‘Chopper’ (…) Some riders adapt their bikes with special studded tires, and handlebars with a special padded brace across the ‘Y’.” (Think full-travel suspension and disk brakes are recent? Look again. But careful of the stick shifter when jumping those stumps -- your future children are at stake.)
  • A delightful photo of a woman in welding glasses and a summery gingham smock, hard at work in the Schwinn factory. The caption reads, “A craftswoman hand-brazes a Schwinn Paramount frame at [low] temperature, which produces a stronger frame.”

If you think you detect a sardonic note in my worship of this book, think again. I’m loving it; the nostalgia, the history lessons the pix and all. Personally, I think discarding it from the library equates roughly with using one of the lost papyruses from Alexandria to light a cigar – but then, I’m not complaining. My gain, right?

But the best is yet to come, folks. For fun, I looked up Mr. Teresi on the Web. First, I have to mention that he turns out to be an accomplished author and editor. But better yet, where do you think he lives? Amherst, Massachusetts. That’s right, the next town over from me. I’ll have to look him up some time. My bet is I already know someone who knows him.

This kind of thing tends to happen to me. My passions tend to connect me with people in my midst. Arbitrary folks -- my doctor, a therapist I'm starting counseling with, the husband of a co-worker -- just "happen" to turn out to be enthusiasts, too. It's always a treat when it comes out of the blue, a little gift to brighten the day-to-day. It's part of the flavor of my sweet and weird little world.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Purest Expression of the Bike Mechanic

For professional advice, I relied on Taylor, who worked at South Mountain Cycles, a bike and espresso shop in the central triangle of our small town... Taylor was wild-haired and supernaturally lean, and festooned his face with goatees, handlebar moustaches, ironic mutton-chops, and other expressions of his mood. He was somewhere between eighteen and forty, had probably looked that age his whole life, and would continue on ageless, appearing ever in his prime until some magic day late in his life when he'd instantly transform into one of those ancient, crumpled mechanics who sit at the workstands in bike shops like gurus on mountaintops... He was, at least outwardly, enthusiastically living a life focused on a calling that, like a teacher or social worker or nursing-home caregiver, was important but doomed by market forces to a wage most Americans would find untenable, if not unlivable... He was a wrench—the purest expression of the bike mechanic.

Ten Points, Bill Strickland
I was reminded of this beautiful passage yesterday, as I am every time I stop by my first-choice local bike store and this one particular dude is tending the place. I won't mention his name, because I can't be sure he'd be flattered by the comparison. But I have to tell you, the excerpt above is an almost exact description of the fellow. He somehow manages to be surprisingly generous, slightly weird, utterly self-possessed and untouchably cool all at once. He has all the appealing qualities of those young, hip bike-shop employees—without all the annoying condescension and arrogance. I go there almost as much to be around him as I do for the good advice and fair prices.

Lucky me, huh?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

End-of-season Rides, Western New England

Back in May, I compiled a list of early-to-mid-season cycling events within a two-hour drive of Amherst, MA -- an area including most of Connecticut, Western Massachusetts, southern Vermont, and a thin strip of New York State along the borders of those previous states. Having moved here recently, I found precious little in the way of comprehensive resources for cyclists, so I posted the list on Velophoria.

Last week, I repeated the process, searching for the regional rides remaining in the '09 season, starting in late August and running through the end of the season in October. These are organized rides that are neither official races nor official brevets/long-distance events. Each generally offers a range of distances, anywhere between 25 and 100 miles, and proceeds usually go to a good cause.

I only found six, and the two posts together comprise a mere 18 rides, which in itself represented hours of work. I'm quite sure there are many I've missed so, in the spirit of fostering greater Western New England cycling community, I'm putting out the call for comments, corrections and additions.

Sat., 8/29 - Ride with the Champions - Topsfield, MA

Sun., 9/13 - Connecticut Valley Century - Hatfield, MA

Sun., 9/13 - Ride to Provide - Amherst, Ma

Sun., 10/4 - Ashford Metric Century (Plus...) - Ashford, CT

Sun., 10/4 - Major Taylor Century - Whitinsville, MA

Sat., 10/17 - Ride for a Reason/Livestrong - West Hartford, CT

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Public Has Spoken: No Yellow for Armstrong in 2010

Poll results are in! (See upper right corner of page.) Just to prove how wildly popular Velophoria is, we actually topped our previous number of poll participants, with a grand total of 13. I think the VeloNews people are starting to feel the heat, don't you? Probably thinking about firing their marketing guy about now.

Of course, some of the voters were twisted enough to go for my noise-filter question. No, Neil Armstrong has not been pondering a Michael Jordan-style comeback, slinging his leg over a Trek at age 79 and trying to ride his way into the history books for a second time. But I really do savor the perversity of Velophoriacs: Four of them voted for that. It's you guys that keep me a little bit twisted, y'know? Chapeau!

If we parse for the noise question, the popular opinion here in Velophoria-land is that Lance Armstrong could be wearing yellow in Paris in 2010 -- but also that it ain't likely. I have to say, I learned from the folks who voted that way; I originally voted "No way," because I couldn't shake the picture of Armstrong staring in exhausted despair at Alberto Contador's skinny butt disappearing over Verbier last month. Also, his dejected admission after the stage that AC was now The Man on Astana -- that no one could touch him. (He was obviously right. Armstrong can still sniff out the shifting truth of a race faster than almost anyone.)

On reflection, I have to admit that anything is possible, even a 38-year-old winning the toughest road race in the world. Racer Rob reminded me after this year's Tour that LA had a significant layoff in the spring due to his first-ever broken clavicle, and that, next year, he'll have much more real training and racing in his legs by July. This is all true.

But I still underscore the "long-shot" in the phrasing of that poll question. Next year, Armstrong will be a year older, and he looked none too young this year. The Schlecks will still be striplings, but this time with an extra year of experience behind them and a fresh commitment to breaking into yellow. And Contador will just be entering his prime (hard to believe, given all his palmares) and you can bet that his fiery Latin temperament won't have forgotten the catfights with LA during this year's race. He'll be gunning for El Brazo Fuerte.

* * *

When Jordan himself returned to basketball after that ill-advised, can't-hit-the-curveball fiasco in the minor leagues, he was -- no surprise -- still a great asset to his team, and still fun to watch. But that electric sense that anything was possible at any time was long gone. You no longer expected him to casually toss off at least one anti-Newtonian miracle per game. His godhood had run its course, but instead of retiring to the pantheon and quaffing mead with Aries and Thor, he took the harder road -- the hard fall to Earth and the feet of clay with which we all stumble along here in the land of gravity and time.

Feel about it how you may, I think we can expect about the same from now on from Armstrong. Personally, I like him just a little better now that he can't pretend his chamois doesn't stink like everyone else's.

Peformance, the Video

You might have seen this already. If you haven't, you must. I mean, you must -- no choice, it's required viewing.

You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll see yourself through a twisted mirror.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

ToC versus Giro? Hmm.

Did you hear about the Tour of California being moved to... wait for it... middle of May next year? In the excitement of the Giro, I missed news of this howler of a mistake. From a post on Podium Cafe, back in May of this year:
The 2010 edition of the Tour of California will take place May 16-23 next year instead of its usual Februrary slot. Organizer Andrew Messick says "We will be head-to-head with the Giro but frankly I don't think that will really affect us. The Giro is a great race, but very few cyclists who are serious about the Tour de France will also race the Giro."

Oh, of course! That's the way it worked this year, too! Armstrong, Leipheimer, Wiggins, Sastre, Cavendish (I'll stop there, just to limit the barrage of irony) -- all those guys weren't really planning on riding the Tour. It was like this: They finished the Giro and said to themselves, "Hey, the legs feel pretty fresh, maybe I'll line up in France, too. Lemme find out if there's still room."

No! Wait! What they were really thinking was, "That was a pretty good race, but if I could have done a one-week event over in California, now that would have been even better..."

The same AEG exec has also said, "There was just no appetite to stay a February race." I guess that would explain why all those superstars rode there this year. And why the race had the biggest live audience in U.S. cycling history. It's because everyone was too cold.

The Velophoria stock ticker currently lists my favorite U.S. race, about which I have unabashedly raved in numerous posts, at half the value it held back in February.

I won't even go into how bummed I am that the race won't be in February; it's been the light at the end of winter for me the last couple years, the inspiration that gets me out riding during the snowy pre-season. But okay, so the weather's a problem. How about April? How about June?

How about any week that doesn't conflict with a Grand Tour?


(Go here for more coverage of this story.)

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Two Days Left to Take the Poll

It's frivolous, meaningless, and self-indulgent. And you know you want to.

I really want to know what you think.

Upper-right corner of the page.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A Mid-summer Streak

Since Saturday, I’ve had four great rides in four days, and I’m writing today to give thanks for them.

1) Saturday morning, I took off early in order to sneak one in before friends Suitcase of Courage and Mrs. Suitcase came by for a visit. The Valley was supernal, the roads a latticework of warm sunshine sifting through the leaves, cool moist air in the shade, and wisps of mist creeping across the asphalt, artifacts of the previous night’s rain.

2) Saturday afternoon, Mrs. V. and I went for a friendly social-type ride with the Suitcases on the lovely Norwottuck Rail Trail. It was a classic hot summer's day, but the trail was mostly bathed in cooling shade, thanks to the long stands of trees and bodies of water lining the way. We had a great time socializing and coasting, the kind of gentle, communal ride I very rarely get to do.

3) Sunday, I awoke feeling dopey and out of it. After breakfast, I went back to sleep for almost two hours. Still not sure what that was all about. By early afternoon, I thought, “A ride will either perk me up or wear me out. Guess I’ll go find out.” There was a light rain falling and it was a blah day, but we’ve seen so much of that kind of weather around here that I’ve been considering building an ark and calling up two bike builders, two mechanics, two racing fans, and so on, and asking them to make open-ended travel plans with us. I just decided to go. It was warm enough outside that the rain was actually refreshing. I often find a different, really good zone in weather like that, kind of a private space, a personal tunnel through the drops. So it was on Sunday. After a few minutes out, I decided it would be an interval day, and even did one ascending a mile-long hill not too far from my house. With the speed I got going, I returned to the house before the predicted heavier rains arrived. I was exhilarated and energized. See? The better of the two options. There’s almost nothing a ride can’t cure.

4) I always work the late shift at my clinic on Tuesdays, meaning I have the morning off to ride. It’s been nearly a year since I rode more than an hour in that time slot, but this morning I took the longer route I used to do back then, including some lovely flat stretches where I could get my groove on. There are so many hills around here that I really relish the time-trial stretches. Clouds gave way to warm sun and dry air, always an inspring change. Both bodily energy and knees seemed to be in good shape, and, despite a detour from a road that has suddenly been completely torn up for (very badly needed) repairs, I arrived home feeling great. (Suitcase, it was the “road” we drove on Saturday; they're finally re-surfacing it.)

I’m hopeful that this streak of rides represents a return to greater overall health. I had a full phsyical last week, and the doc and I are now working as a team on the nagging problems I’ve been having. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned this year, it’s that, when I’ve had a good ride (much less four in a row), it’s best to sit back and savor it afterward, soak in the wonderful tired-yet-fully-alive feeling, and the sense of accomplishment, without holding on. I’ve come to appreciate these simple things a little more, because they’ve been unreachable so often.

I won’t kid you: I’d rather be riding full-throttle all the time, without concern. But I have to admit, it’s a pretty cool lesson to be learning instead.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Darwin in the Peloton

I watched a good BBC documentary last night about herd animals –bison, pronghorn, rams, and so on.

Why am I writing about this in a cycling blog? Having just watched a three-week endurance battle in the mountains of France, I was struck by the parallels between impalas and bison on the one hand, and cyclists in the peloton on the other.

Here's the case for cyclists as herd animals:

In early spring, after a long winter of rest, male impalas go out on the plains and seek out other males. They look like they’re socializing at first, but by sidling up alongside each other, they’re actually comparing their bodies and horns to those of the next guy to see how they size up.

Reminds me of those early-season rides in March when everyone’s loudly declaring how out of shape they are and pretending just to be socializing, when actually we’re all checking out the next guy to see if he’s breathing harder than us.

Eventually, the male impalas figure out who they can challenge with a reasonable hope of success. They face off – literally – and begin bashing their heads together. Once their horns are locked, they begin wrestling, to see who can topple who. This goes on for hours -- or even days.

The peloton has gotten serious here – the pace has picked up and real attacks have been launched. Just like a marked rider in a peloton, the strongest buck fights the most, because all the next-strongest ones fiercely believe they have a shot at being Number One.

Finally, after endless battles for dominance, all the males have staked out their territory (and the females that come with it). They’re lying around breathing heavily, literally unable to even get on their feet. And now the real drama begins: Hyenas emerge warily from the brush. Normally, they wouldn’t dare approach a herd so brazenly – they’d be chased off or killed easily. But with the males so depleted, a hyena will walk within a couple of feet of an impala, to see if he can even stand; this one somehow manages to rise and run. When the hyena catches up and tries to jump him, the impala bucks him right in the chops; the smaller animal backs off.

The verdict on this impala: Not worth it.

A parallel image: Alberto Contador on the Verbier last week. The last climb of a very long day, everyone’s cooked. The Shlecks (the hyenas) are attacking while the moment is ripe, but Contador just stands up and rides away like he’d suddenly found another gear on his bike. Survival of the fittest, pal: find a weaker impala, ‘cuz I'll kick you in the teeth if you keep after me.

Alberto crosses the line first. The buck keeps his furry harem and his patch of land.

And just how, exactly, is this different from a long stage, where the real fight starts about 80% of the way through? Only in that cyclists choose to put themselves through this absurd suffering.

Or do they? Are humans just as hard-wired as our animal cousins for this kind of competition? Have we really evolved so far that we don’t subtly run a weaker/stronger analysis of our cohorts at a pickup game, a business meeting, a group ride?

Nature, red in tooth and claw.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

I Think I Just Started a Bucket List

Vintage bikes and kits. A trip to Italy. A chance to play on the roads where cycling history was made. Is anyone surprised that this is the first item to go on my new bucket list?

It also happens to be a very well-written story, so don't miss it.
And don't forget to vote in the new, earth-shaking, world-changing poll -- upper right corner of the page.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Take the Poll!

In an obvious and pitiful attempt to stay too long at the party that was the 2009 Tour de France, I've created a meaningless (but fun) poll in the upper right corner of the Velophoria home page.

You know you miss the prima donna cat-fighting and the vast European scenery... Indulgence is only one click away.

Monday, July 27, 2009

A Bientot, le Tour!

Man, I saw it comin' just as plain as day, but I awoke this morning with that hollow feeling anyway. No more GC in-fighting? No more battles for justice in the Green Jersey fight? No more suffering on the mythic alpine landscapes?!

Waaah! I want my fix!

For a little morning-after pick-me-up, try going here. There are new installments since I last posted about this site, including a visit to Flanders, Roubiax and the Giro. Which is still my favorite race. And if that's true for you, too, you can go here for a pick-me-up, Bobke-style.

Finally, if you simply can't count yourself among the living if you aren't thinking about a Grand Tour, go here. A month to go is not at all too early to start thinking about it!

Meantime, get out there if you can. The best pick-me-up of all.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Throes of Tour Fever

Conversation with my friends and family this time of year goes something like this:

Friend: Well, I have to admit, the Tour de France is more interesting than I thought it would be.

Me: Are you KIDDING me? It’s ASTOUNDING! These guys grind away on their bicycles for five or six hours a DAY, for three solid WEEKS, over the biggest MOUNTAINS in Europe, in 90-degree HEAT! They don’t take breaks except to jump off and pee once in a blue moon! I complain when I have to sit in my office chair for a couple hours straight – can you imagine sitting on a hard sliver of a bicycle saddle ALL DAY and having to push your legs that entire time? There’s brutal competition, in-fighting, mind games, some team director yelling in their earpiece, constant eating and hydrating while riding – and then comes the hard part, the endless suffering up the mountains! Then, when they’re through for the day – for the 17th day in a row, let’s say – two tons of FANS want autographs and the media stick MICROPHONES AND CAMERAS in their faces and expect them to be friendly, intelligent and forthcoming!! And a lot of them ARE!!!! It’s unbelievable, it’s the most impressive, scenic, elegant, old-world sport in the WHOLE UNIVERSE!!!

Friend: [Eyes have rolled back in sockets…] Yeah, I’ll have to tune in… maybe next year…

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Spanish Grimpeur Re-emerges (Spoiler alert)

::Spoiler Alert/Stage 15::

There was so much ink and air time spent on speculation about who would reign once the Alps stages started, and it did seem like there were a handful of viable candidates. But tell the truth: When you saw Contador ride away from Armstrong and the others as if he'd casually decided to put some real effort into it now, didn't it seem like you knew it all along? He just turned it up -- and kept it there. We've seen him do this before; he's frightening in the mountains. Even Bob Roll said Armstrong had nothing by comparison. It was an exciting stage, as Verbier blew apart the peloton and the GC in classic Alpine fashion. World-class athletes ended up crossing the line in ones and twos.

I guess we know who's working for whom, now.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Alas, Big George


So sorry to see Big George Hincapie, so beloved by American fans and racers alike, lose the chance for yellow today. I think everyone would have been happy to see him in the leader's jersey one more time. I've yet to see an interview with him, but I'd be surprised if he has a negative word to say, because that's just how George is. That, despite the fact that his team prioritized Cavendish's green jersey points over Hincapie's shot at the yellow.

Then came the questionable referee's call of Cavendish's interference with Hushovd at the line, which obviates any points gained by Cav -- making the loss of yellow even more melancholy for George.

You know what they say: That's bike racing.

Meantime, the loss of Levi (sob!!) has made the Astana "Texas vs. Spain" drama more interesting. I guess we all are looking forward to the Alps!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Bastille Day

Can anyone beat Mark Cavendish in the sprint? Answer: Probably not, but in order to find out, they'd have to outmaneuver his lead-out men first. Renshaw and Hincapie? Wow. They've been throwing down some nasty blocks out there in the final 200. How can you know if you can beat a man if you can't even get on his wheel?

Not that I think anyone could beat him. I love watching him sprint; he's like a raving jungle cat. I've never seen that animal quality in a sprinter before. Fluid, powerful... scary.

Before watching today's finish, I went out on a sparkling morning -- warm in the sun, cool in the shade, my favorite weather -- and climbed Gulf Road, my little local Ventoux, in honor of my brothers in the peloton finishing up the Pyrenees. It was fun to think of them on their bikes as I was on mine.

I believe it was a fine way to mark Bastille Day. Chapeau, monsieurs!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Velophoria Incident Report -- Finally

30 miles around the Holyokes with Jacob this a.m., a bona fide, honest-to-goodness, real summer day, with blue skies, sun, rolling farm land, mountains...

I am whole again.

Health issues continue to prevent me from riding as long or hard as I feel I can, but I'll tell you what: I'm branding this a Velophoria Incident. It's been far too long since the last one, and a beautiful morning spent on two wheels with a good friend more than qualifies.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

July is About Bike Racing

... It blew right through me, then... instantly and decisively... At 37 mph, my elbow and handlebar tapping against a guy I knew little else about except that he was called Ray and he was fast, and both of us trusting our health and our $5,000 bikes to a guy in front of us with an avian nickname, I understood bicycle racing.

You were nothing without the pack. Alone, lacking context, you were neither strong nor weak, not stupid or savvy, not inexperienced or innocent or wobbly or feral or graceful or heavy like unfinished statuary. Two months ago, I was slow because the pack was faster. Tonight I was fast because my pack was slower. The pack created its own context and within the pack that was the only context that mattered. I had eaten sh*t. Paul Pearson, the legendary Animal, was pushing fifty and just a few weeks ago had been telling me how he was picking up cash by temping as a stonemason's assistant. Gibby the Bear, the beloved villain of an entire nation, who'd sown fear and awe into the best professional keirin racers in the world, found himself terrifying Cat 5s in a training race for a shot at a free pizza once a month. The pack didn't care. We were nothing to the pack except the things we did that day.

...For the first time in my life I belonged to something. I was ready to score points.

~ Bill Strickland, Ten Points

Saturday, July 4, 2009

July Fourth Addendum

While out for my ride this a.m., I went through South Amherst and saw a parade of about 80 or so kids (surrounded by hundreds of parents) on bikes, each decorated in a July Fourth theme -- streamers, balloons, and hats and such on the kids. Adorable! Wish I'd had a camera with me!

After the "parade" (which was about two blocks, catering to attention spans of the younger ones), the kids took turns reading the Declaration of Independence over the P.A., and then the adults handed out prizes for the nicest bike design. Turns out this tradition goes back 125 years in South Amherst (well, probably not the bike part), and was about to die until some good-hearted volunteer stepped up to organize this year's festivities.

I wholeheartedly support this kind of thing. Who wouldn't?

Made in the USA

Happy birthday, Americans.

Some thoughts on this day:

1) As much as I love the Euro-roots of this sport (see previous post, and many others), I'm really pleased I can ride today sportin' this on my bike:

One of the finest bikes made in our fine country (for all its flaws, blah, blah, blah. And yes, I know C-dale doesn't manufacture in the U.S. anymore. Shut UP, 'kay?! I'm trying to do the patriotic bit, here!).

2) Happy Tour de France day, too. Let's not knock the Frogs just 'cause it's our day! They love their cycling, and hey -- without them, we wouldn't have podiumed in the Revolutionary War.

First, I hope for an exciting and clean race. After that, if an American could stand atop the podium, that would be pretty darn fun.

3) It's sunny out for the first time in nearly a month. I'm closing the computer right now and getting out there!

Enjoy your friends, family, BBQ and/or whatever you have planned. Use the comments to update us as to your thoughts/activities.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Bill Strickland Still in Form

After a lengthy hiatus, I visited Bill Strickland's blog this morning, and, much to my delight, he still embodies more of what writing about cycling should be than any active writer I know. No one will ever top Paul Fournel in my book, but he published once on cycling and then bowed out. (A move that, in itself, reflects his Zen-like wisdom.)

Treat yourself to some sweet Strickland, here and here. He gets the whole Euro-roots thing like few Americans do.

By the way, these are delightful cycling pieces, but not on the topic he's known for. Strickland's purest talent is capturing the explosive action and emotional torments of bike racing. You can find plenty of that elsewhere on his blog, and also -- especially -- in a book that's a very tough but worthy read, Ten Points (currently at sale price at that linked page).

Alla salute!

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Prescription from the Spin Doctor

Y'all will have to excuse the extended absences from the blog these days. As you know from previous posts, I've been wrestling with issues both existential and physiological.

This week, I've been testing the new fit on my bike and my shoe inserts, trying to see if they make enough difference that my re-injured knees will recuperate as I continue to ride. So far, the evidence is tenatively encouraging. Out of the two years I've been back on the bike, there've been many months when I've been mostly or completely out of commision. So, for right now, I'm just trying to keep the chin up and focus on what I can do, even if it seems worlds below what I stubbornly feel I could do.

And, in that vein, I had a great, one-hour jaunt this morning, shooting up and down rollers not far from my house. I'm trying to re-learn riding at a higher cadence (should help the knees), and I think alternating between flats and big rollers might be a great way to do so. It's really interesting how much less tired I am overall at the end of each ride when I spin more. I think I have a muscle-structure fairly well-suited to the roleur style, pushing tough gears and moving ever faster over ever-greater distances. In each of the last two years, I've ended up in that groove at some point mid-season. Muscularly, it works great, but apparently, my knees just will not take it. (They're built a little off-center.) Especially not on the much more serious hills out in Western Mass (compared to the Boston area, where we lived until a year ago).

At the beginning of each season, I've been a serious spinner, because I spend months on the rollers during the winter (and, yes, I like it!). I'll average around 90-95 rpm on the road early on, and will often go higher. But once the meat of the season rolls around and I've built up some serious quad-acity in the hills, I get lulled into pushing harder and harder. Before the knee stuff set in a few weeks ago, I probably had a cadence in the low 80s (but I was moving much faster). Let's face it: It's fun to feel the power in your legs rocketing you over hill and dale. You feel invincible!

Well, it seems my knees are very "vincible." I'm going to try teaching my body to spin a little more and push a little less; not a dramatic change, just maybe get up to somewhere in the low-to-mid-90s. I've never been able to do that when riding really fast; most of my leg-speed drills happen at lower speeds. So this will be interesting, trying to find the balance between muscle and grace.

On top of that, I'm considering buying a compact double chainring for the CAAD 8. The combination of going from a hill-flattening triple chainring to a standard double, and trying to surpass last season's feats while on some very serious altitude out here in the Western part of the state, contributed mightily to the Chondromalacia and ITBS resurgence.I bought the bike as NOS on eBay, so I didn't have many options about components. Also, I was lured by the full-Ultegra set-up. But I have a feeling that breaking up the Ultegra will be worth it. (I know Shimano makes an Ultegra compact double, but come on: $250?!)

So if you see someone out there in a month or so, spinning fast on a bright red bike, it may well be me. Say "Hi"!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Bike – and the Shoe - Fits

At the end of yesterday's post about my Friday visit to Belmont Wheelworks, I mentioned having taking time to get to know staff I really vibed with. One of those people was Sean Brennan, head of the fit department.

The first time Sean fitted me, working on my previous bike, the Giant, I knew we'd be working together again. He's sharp, experienced, and he really listens. He also has that fine balance of training and intuition so important in a field that's as much art as science. I later ran into two separate people who'd been fitted by him and came away with just the same impression. I've been going to him ever since. Wheelworks is a great store and all, and I would have liked it even if I hadn't found Sean. But in those days, it was a no-brainer, because they were so close to me. Now consider this: When I realized last week that I couldn't solve my own fit problems with my new bike, I made an appointment, took time off from work, and drove two hours in Friday afternoon traffic to go see Sean for a mere 50 minute appointment. If you're within driving distance of Boston and you're looking for an affordable, expert fitting, I doubt you could do better.

As a bonus, you get to hang out in the middle of the fitting center of one of the busiest and most reputable shops in the region; you learn a lot just by keeping your eyes and ears open.

So, yeah, my left knee was still bothering me, and I thought Sean could help. He did his usual careful observation of my pedal stroke, we talked a bit about all the considerations, and then Sean raised my saddle a bit, lowered my bars, and gave me a tip about my pedal stroke that might relieve some of the strain. He also fitted me for Aline inserts for my cycling shoes. I'd been thinking about inserts for some time to address the knee problem, and the Aline fitting system made it ridiculously obvious how misaligned my ankles and knees were. I'll keep you posted about the effects.

Then I went shopping for a jersey, since I've been needing a new one for a while. Fitting is definitely exciting and fun, but jersey shopping... oh, yeah. Bring the bling. I have been looking for a stylish top for probably a year now, and just haven't had the dough for the ones I really like -- the super-expensive Euro fine wool deals. Short of that, the best I'd found was the Twin Six line. For an affordable, stylish and unique look, you just can't beat 'em. Better yet, I found a bunch of 'em on the discount rack Friday, and ended up paying less for the one I chose than I would have if I'd ordered on-line!

After trying on far too many of them, I ended up with the first Twin Six I ever laid eyes on, and have wanted ever since -- the '08 Deluxe. I had hesitated all this time, because I worried that black would be too hot in the summer. Once I tried it on, it was like, "Yeah... and?" It was all over:

All in all, a successful day, topped off with a great Thai meal next door to the shop and an iced coffee at a nearby sidewalk café, listening to three different groups of friends chattering away in three different languages. City life: I do miss the diversity, the sophistication -- and the bike fitters and jersey selection.

I drove home a happy fellow.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

My Local Bike Shop, 90 Miles Away

Fully stocked with Boston's own high-end Indy Fabs.

Took yesterday afternoon off for an enjoyable trip to Boston to visit my old local bike shop -- which just happens to be one of the more highly respected shops in the Northeast: Belmont Wheelworks.

Ever since we moved out to Western Massachusetts, I’ve missed this place. They have okay bike shops in the western half of the state, but the ones I've found are small, and there isn’t one that begins to match the selection and salespeople of Wheelworks.

There may be a better shop in Boston (and some say there are) but I used to live a 15-minute ride from Wheelworks, and it was plenty good enough for me. First, selection: Aisle upon aisle of bikes ranging from affordable to nose-bleedingly high-end; enough jerseys to kit out the Tour de France; seven or eight models of short-fingered gloves; tires, tires and more tires... on and on. And on.

Sung to the tune of "Tradition": "Selectioooon.... SELECTION!"

Then there are the people, probably even more important to me. There is an unusually high percentage of good ones there. When I used to go in for something trivial like an eight-dollar pair of mounts for my old frame pump (now defunct), I would be blessed with a 10-minute conversation about the merits of the different systems (and at least four systems to choose from). From someone who knew, because he'd tried all of them. And was friendly. I've never once gotten a whiff that haughty, “I’m an uber-hip bike shop wrench quite obviously wearing a $200, painfully fashionable wool jersey and sporting the latest facial hair trend; get away from me with your tiny questions” attitude. The staff there smile, and start conversations. Staff who are far, far more knowledgeable and experienced riders than me.

That’s a dreamworld LBS. I do miss 'em.

(Full disclosure: I’ve heard some pretty unhappy stories about their service department. The one time I used it, I had no problems or complaints. Also, if you go, choose your salespeople. There are one or two there who really rubbed me the wrong way, and, as a consequence, I ended up not buying my first bike there. That was before I took the time to get to know people I really vibed with, which ended up paying off in spades.)

Next: Exactly what I went there for yesterday. Yes!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

"Just" an Enthusiast?

Second week in a row of recovery from the big early June push. Loooong story short, I got greedy.

I thought I was still coming back from the missed months of training (due to illness and injury this winter) but I surprised myself with my good progress. Did two unexpectedly big rides; got psyched. Did a really epic ride. Felt good. Hey! I must have had some kind of miracle healing! Let’s go do some intervals and yet more killer hills! Yeah… that’s about the time I burned out. And the nagging ache in my knees became real pain. Not sure when I’ll be 100% again.

Yet, I’m not as discouraged as I’ve been in the past.

The 20 months since I’ve gotten back into cycling have been characterized by this yo-yo pattern. I ride too hard; I start to feel bad; I ease off and loudly commit to more reasonable ways; start to feel better, ride too hard; feel bad. Rinse & repeat.

So this week, I’ve done some navel-gazing in an attempt to get my hands on the psychological crossed wire that’s causing this self-destructive behavior. Turns out it’s the same pattern I’ve lived out in other parts of my life. When I was in college, having taught myself guitar for a total of two years, I decided I was going to be a “serious” jazz guitarist. Like, for a living. I talked the dean of the highly respected conservatory connected to my school into giving me a locker for my instrument and signing me up for theory classes, jazz improv classes, and, most laughable of all, a small combo seminar. I had no business being in that audition room, and the instructor told me so in no uncertain terms. Didn’t stop me, of course.

Since I was a kid, I couldn’t love doing something without trying to be a hotshot at it. It was never okay to be just okay. To do something just because I liked doing it. To be mediocre, just another enthusiast, a hacker, a duffer. I've missed out on a lot of healthy enjoyment because of this.

There are some first causes for it, events and relationships in my childhood, but this isn’t People magazine, and you don’t come here for tell-all confessions. Suffice it to say I’m 45 now, and it’s time to take yet one more step in that life-long process we call growing up. Basically, to accept that my body has limits. That it’s genetically destined for only a teaspoon of athletic talent. That it’s getting older (and I’m getting busier) and it won’t let me go off and act like a hero for a while without long-term repercussions. Most importantly, it’s time to find a way to ride within myself – something I’ve been writing about since the day I started this blog.

Shoot, staying within myself is something I’ve been trying to learn since I was old enough to think. Here’s to another step: Enjoying my time on the bike for what it is. Being neither hero nor zero, but rather that thing I just could not swallow before: One more enthusiast. I think allowing myself that luxury will open up a world of cycling enjoyment I haven't even touched yet.

As always, I'll keep you posted.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Ain't Dat Dope?

A very interesting item in VeloNews featuring an interview with nouveau celebrity bad-boy Bernard Kohl suits my mood today. It's a gray, drippy, cool day, and I'm feeling reflective at best. I'm also taking the week off riding in order to let my body and attitude do some regenerating. Time off training, as healthy as it is, tends make me a bit melancholy. But I had a much better spring than I expected, and it's time to pay the piper -- before he sends the collection boys with the brass knuckles around. I overtrained once, and I plan never to repeat that experience.

Which leaves me surfing the web for interesting reading like this interview. I've been slighly out of the loop with Kohl, but apparently he's been in a National-Enquirer-style tell-all mood for the better part of a year. I don't mind; I think the cycling world really need a dose of reality. As long-time Velophoriacs know, I take a realpolitik view of doping. I would love to have it eliminated from every sport, but I'm pretty sure it's never going to happen. And yet, we have to keep trying to rub it out... it's a slighly absurd co-dependent relationship that's probably never going to change. I posted on this almost exactly one year ago, and am sorry to say that I still feel very good about that post; it's one of my faves.

In VeloNews piece (which itself is about an interview in L'Equipe), Kohl lays out every detail of what he took, when and how. It's sobering (sorry; can't resist a bad pun). He says blood boosting was the only doping he took a chance on during last year's tour. Now, don't get the wrong idea: The caffeine, pseudo-ephedrine, painkillers, EPO, human growth hormones, and insulin -- that was all leading up to July. I mean, why take chances?

He also says that the new Biological Passport program is a farce. It has"...fallen short, and perhaps even aided the more nefarious members of the peloton.
'The top riders are so good at doping that they know what they need to do to keep their blood levels stable to escape targeting,' he said. 'In fact, the UCI has shown us the levels of riders who failed tests. We used that as a reference to follow. The passport has almost helped us.'"

This is exactly what I discuss in that original doping post, referred to above. If you haven't read it before, perhaps now -- a month before the biggest bike race in the world begins again -- would be a good moment to do a little reflecting. You don't need cool, rainy weather like we've got here -- that's just a starting point.

I'm no less a fan of cycling than I ever was. We just have to swallow the fact that life is messy, and then move on.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

A Two-wheeled Mikvah

Mrs. V and I paid a visit to my parents this weekend, at their small weekend home in the southern Catskill mountains of New York State. For one reason and another, I haven't been there in almost ten years. Beautiful weather, visits with family friends I haven't seen in ages, lovely little towns and scenery everywhere. And, on Saturday morning, I got to ride there for the first time.

My father, a dubious and cautious fellow, laid out a small route for me, warning me of dangers and dismissing my requests for more distance. As it turned out, I missed some turns anyway, and ended up adding ten or so miles, for a modest 33 total, though the 2500 feet of climbing was a nice challenge, including one hill of about three miles at seven to eight percent. (Of course, I was attacked by dogs about 70% of the way up, and had to "sprint" while I was heaving for breath... the authentic rural experience. I almost tossed my breakfast.)

By far the best part, though, was cycling through the land of my forebears. Well, okay, right... I wasn't riding in Israel, exactly. But the next best thing: the Catskills were a summer retreat for New York City Jews for most of the 20th Century, and there are still remnants of that culture everywhere.

First, I ran across an ancient, abandoned summer resort (called a "camp" in those days) that looked like a little like a ghost town. The first thing I noticed that set this abandoned resort apart from just any old abandoned resort was the tennis court, which featured a handball wall right beside it. If you're not Jewish, you might never have noticed it, but handball was a very popular sport with Jews of a few generations ago (one of my grandfathers was a pretty avid player). As I rolled a little further down the road, I saw the simple bunk buildings lined up, quietly dilapidating in the June sun:

Can you visualize the little kids in yarmulkes running about?

In my imagination, I could hear Yiddish being shouted back and forth, the laughter of little children, perhaps a ball game on a radio. Then I stopped still on the road: A genuine shul (synagogue) stood right out on the road, smack beside the very entrance to the camp.

Note the Star of David set in simple metalwork over the doors.

Now, Ulster County these days isn't nearly what it was back then; one gets used to seeing pretty mainstream American houses, maybe a flag flying in front, cars rotting in side yards, ATVs parked out there, and so on. The shul was a jolt back to another era, when this area literally crawled with Jews, many in traditional formal black clothing, and no one felt the need to set a temple back from the road to make it perhaps a little more unassuming. You took for granted that, if the person you saw walking down the road wasn't Jewish, he was at least comfortable with Jews. He had to be.

More evidence of this culture came throughout the ride, as I rode past street signs like "Synagogue Street" and "Abromowitz Road." You just don't get to see signs like that in rural places in the United States. It was a sweet reminder of another time, when my people had a stronger sense of identity and unity. Of course that came at the price of (and to some extent, as a result of) some pretty painful discrimination and oppression, even here in the good ol' Land of the Free.

All thoughts of lineage, identity, and history began to vanish as I worked my way up the seven-mile hill into Grahamsville, replaced by ragged breath and a burning in my quads. I like to think some of my ancestors would have understood my personal ritual of purification: Cycling, a mikvah of perspiration and fresh air.