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!