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.