Monday, April 25, 2011

A Taste of the Two-Wheeled Life in Italy

Elegant cyclists abound. Note shoes!
Mrs. V. and I just returned last night from Italy, the Valhalla of cycling, the Aasgard of Coppi and Bartali (which would make them the Thor and Loki of the Earth plane...?) cradle of Cippolini, etc., etc. 12 hours of sleep and a couple espressos have taken the edge off the jet lag, but it's not nearly gone yet, so I'm just checking in to record just a few impressions. I hope to immortalize a lot of pictures and thoughts in a more detailed post later.
  1. Yes, there are cyclists everywhere. Everywhere. I was hoping for this and was not disappointed. Even the day we arrived, as we made our way from the Florence airport over the mythic Highway 222 (the skyline drive of Chianti country,  a sub-region of Tuscany) toward Siena, we saw fully-kitted ciclisti in ones, twos and even sixes wending their way over very serious hills with broad, green-and-brown vistas that spark the imagination of stage-race tifosi. I feared that would be the end of my exposure, but indeed, everywhere in Toscana, on weekdays, too, I witnessed the same. On a side-note, the old-school devotees in Italy do not wear helmets.
  2. The cyclists, of course, are not all in full kit. Most of them there, as here, are casual, everyday riders, running errands, going to see a friend. In the tiny seaside village of Levanto, our final destination, quite a lot of people used bikes instead of cars to navigate the winding, needle-thin roads, always busy with the famously headlong Italian drivers. They rode to the beach, to the bars, to dinner; everywhere. Italians on bikes, whether outfitted for a stage race or a coffee run, look startlingly elegant to American eyes. Like they were born to it -- surprise, surprise. Young ladies in glamorous outfits sailed elegantly through the streets of Florence, full purses dangling, cell phone pressed to one ear, cigarette gracefully floating in their handlebar hand. Old men, white-haired and bent, pedaled glacially down the footpaths of old Siena, on their implacable way to the next part of their day, presumably by the same means and on the same streets they've used all their years.
  3. In the States, the folks in full kit are usually competitive in spirit, and often fit in body. In Italy, the more sporty guys (I saw no women on bikes in cycling kits, for what it's worth) were going 12 mph with a striking cadence of about 100 rpm. This was true whether they rode alone or in groups. Not having had the chance to ride with them, I can only guess at the psychology behind this rule, which was universally applicable. As closely as I could surmise in eight days, the Tao of Life in Italy can be summed up in one phrase: Piano, piano. Slow and easy. Why push? The same task can be done with effort or with grace. Grace is infinitely more beautiful, and beauty, when all is said and done, is the spiritual life-blood of the Italian world-view. (Which, in turn, clarifies the lack of helmets.) It is far more important to enjoy oneself -- and to look stylish while doing so -- than to get there quickly. Regular readers can imagine how much this aspect of the country and its cycling community appealed to the Velosopher in me.
Allora, eccole! So, there you go! A taste of the two-wheeled life in the mother country. More to come.

View from the castle in Tuscan town of Vinci, birthplace of Leonardo and cycling heaven.

Friday, April 15, 2011

To the Ancestral Home of the Sport!

Mrs. V and I are off tomorrow to the land of Coppi and Bartali (and Bianchi and Moser and Giordana and Castelli and...) for a week, so Velophoria will be on hiatus. Send up a prayer to the ancient Tuscan gods that I can get a little two-wheeled time in on those famous strade -- perhaps even the bianche ones, where my dream cycling event takes place every year (WHY can't there be school vacation in October??? Or an Eroica in April???).

Day after we return, I stop by the LBS to pick up the Vaya! One great way to soften the return from an amazing vacation.

Ciao, amici!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Call of the Wild

Why would a died-in-the-wool-jersey roadie, who rode this racing bike in 1980 (the royal blue version in the box)...

and this racing bike in 2010....

... be spending the last two weeks obsessing about a heavy, fat-tired bike, with geometry so relaxed it can handle pavement, dirt, gravel, and even single-track? Oh, yes! And featuring -- shudder -- disc brakes??

It's a long story.

I went to my LBS -- Hampshire Bicycle Exchange, a great shop and a subject for another post -- a few weeks ago looking for the fattest tires that would fit my Giant OCR 3, so I could turn it into a little more of a dirt-road bike. No luck; the best I could fit were 25 mm tires, barely wider than road racing tires.

While I was there, the owner, Chris, planted a seed. He's a enthusiastic fan (and dealer) of the fun, unique bikes Salsa have been making out in Minnesota for a number of years, and he personally owns one of the earliest examples of their Vaya, the roughneck bike described above. He suggested that perhaps I was trying to make an orange out of an apple, and should consider purchasing a more rugged rig.

I went home, looked up the Salsa, and it turns out there is a small legion of passionate fans out there. They ride for fun -- to get out in the woods or the fields, to spontaneously turn off on to a gravel road just to see what's down there. The kind of fun I'd been dreaming of, only half-aware, since Mrs. V. and I moved out to this beautiful rural area replete with farm fields, hidden mountain bike trails only vaguely hinted at in oblique conversations, and tons of intriguing roads too sketchy for my thoroughbred, skinny-tired CAAD 8.

I gobbled up every post and page I could get get my virtual hands on. One beautiful and inspiring site (created by an employee of Salsa) was especially instrumental in whetting my appetite for some Salsa, with many lyrical posts like this one.

Finally, I returned to the Exchange on Friday afternoon, hoping to have a conversation with Chris about how we could make a Vaya affordable to me. Guess what? He'd ridden his in that morning, so I could test-ride one right away. Guess what? He's exactly my bike size.

And guess what? He had just recently decided to sell the very bike I was about to test.

No!  Yup.

After a quick and encouraging ride in the parking lot, he generously offered to let me ride it as long as I wanted on Saturday. I sped over there eagerly yesterday morning on my Cannondale, jumped on his bike, and headed off for a true adventure. He'd told me about some trails a few miles south of his store, and I was itching to try them.

Woah... this riding-bikes-in-the-forest thing is really cool! Wow, the trees are really close, they're practically hugging me as I ride! Wow, smell the pine on the breeze! Woah!!! Downhill on roots and piles of leaves is scary! But FUN! WOAH, speeding over big humps is like being on a rollercoaster!! Let's do that one again!  And again! Wow... look at that beautiful pond! I've ridden near here hundreds of times and never even knew it was here! Hey, I'm learning how to pick a line, how to steer with my hips like I've always heard you should, how to trust the back wheel to steer the front! This is GREAT!!!

Many, many wows and woahs later, I headed back to the shop. I'd stayed out far longer than I expected, because I was having so much fun I couldn't make myself leave. On the way back, I even pulled off the main road onto a couple of dirt and gravel "roads" -- one of them just some muddy double-track, calling to mind Salsa's verbiage about the Vaya: "... designed to take on any surface that someone might consider a ‘road’."

It's been a long, long time since I've been that excited just to be on a bicycle. It looks pretty likely that this one is coming home with me soon. (Update, 4/13/11: I just returned from putting half down on it, and will be picking it up in about 11 days. Can't wait!! Thanks, Chris!!)

As an homage to the lovely posts on gnatlikesbikes, here are some more shots from the wilds yesterday:

Beauty and the Bridge

"I took the one less traveled by..."

Double-track and the Holyokes in the distance


The four elements: Earth, Water, Steel and Rubber

Monday, April 4, 2011

In Flanders Fields the Flahutes Grow

Did I lie? Did I even exaggerate? Was the 2011 Ronde van Vlaanderen not an epic? The last 40 kilometers were among the most exciting racing I've watched. What fun!

If you merely glanced at the picture above, you'd be forgiven for thinking  it was from last year's edition, especially when compared to the shot from that race I posted this weekend. Same spot. Same cobbles. Same rider. Same "smile" on Cance's face. Even the same kid screaming in his ear! But wait -- who's that insane guy clinging to Cancellara's wheel? Could the Swiss legend have been pedaling with feet of clay? Ah! Therein lies the tale.

Here's hoping Paris-Roubaix, the Queen of the Classics, is at least as much fun next week!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The *King* of the Classics

If you're a racing fan (and a traditionalist), you're supposed to light on fire every year for Paris-Roubaix. I like Paris-Roubaix; I've seen a few of them, and they're fun. I even have the documentary, a great piece of work. But the races I've seen don't hold a candle to those fabled, mud-spattered, gore-fests of yore. And the terrain... it's too wide-open, somehow inaccessible.

As far as I'm concerned, you're not a classics fan unless you know by heart how to spell the Tour of Flanders in Flemish.

The Ronde van Vlaanderen is intimate, intense, fast; more small-town Belgium than epic France. The hills are bite-sized; maybe it's because they're like the terrain here in Massachusetts that I can feel the quad-burn of the climbing in this race more vicariously. And, then there's what the younger set, the illiterati, call an "added bonus:" smaller hills means witnessing tough climbs happen at a ridiculous pace.

And while the Queen of the Classics is known for its cobblestones, don't you miss the pavé sections tomorrow -- they're juicy, jolty and jumbled, every bit the real thing.

Finally. There are. The. Fans.

It would be hard to name one country the most rabid cycling nation in the world, but if Belgium ain't the most feared contender, I'll eat Eddy Merckx' 1970 bike shorts (don't forget: made of wool and real leather chamois). A peek at last year's edition bears sufficient witness:

Cancellara soaks in the Flandrian atmosphere

Need I say more?

Just pray that the Internet gods allow 1) a decent feed site, and 2) sufficient bandwidth tomorrow morning, or you'll hear my scream of pain from one end of the state to the other.

For extra-genuine flavor, throw a paper cone of pomme frittes in the air when Cancellara breaks the tape -- again.