Truth and Reconciliation and Motors and Katusha

When I look back over the last ten or so years of cycling’s less savoury side – I am talking, of course, about doping – a couple of things stand out, and they make me slap my forehead in frustration.  I’m fully aware my view isn’t the universal one, but bear with me.

There have been days in history when you see someone, or a people, grasping something, and writing a new chapter for themselves, in spite of huge opposition, and flying in the face of universal truths that say the status quo is the way it’ll be: the day the Berlin Wall fell, the end of the Ceausescus, Rosa Parks riding the bus.  Days made possible by a few brave people – and yes, many of whom had blood on their hands – determining to do something. 

Sometimes of course, it all goes horribly to shit.  After the dawns of the Arab Spring has come Syria’s long dark.  Hopefully, that story will have a better ending – or even any ending.

That critical time for cycling came years ago.  Yes, we’re in a better place now, but I can’t help but wonder at the opportunities missed to make it a better better place.

Who remembers, for example, when Bjaarne Riis and Erik Zabel held a tearful press conference, at a time when there was no hand of the law on their shoulders, they called it quite unbidden, to admit that they’d taken drugs, that they’d cheated, and they wanted to get it out of the way and help cycling move forward, to come to terms with its dark past?  If you do you’ll remember the thanks they got for it – Riis got asked for his jerseys back, and Zabel got kicked in the nuts.

Then the UCI’s independent doping commission fell over because the UCI kept interfering to tell them what they could and couldn’t look at.  This was of course, the days of the Hein and Pat show, long may they be forgotten to rot in mediocrity, and there’s been more than a wisp of smoke for those looking for fire in that direction – covered up tests, and so forth.  The perception has been that Aigle was always more interested in Aigle than in cycling and cyclists.

Yes, some truths have come out.  Cycling is indisputably in a better place than it was.  But has it reconciled?  Has cycling answered the question: why did we dope?

And the answer is, no, we haven’t.  We haven’t got it out there that cycling was, in the sixties, a place where doping was legal – where to dope was to be nothing more than to be good professional.  We haven’t got it out there that the directeurs in the eighties and nineties were those same pros who’d raced in that era, and who prepared their riders in the same way, believing that the anti-doping regulations were sops to the marketing menand that no-one cared.  When Pedro Delgado got busted for Probenecid – a steroid masking agent – at the ’88 tour, he was allowed to continue racing, no questions asked.  Gert Jan Theunisse wasn’t so lucky at that tour though – he got busted for testosterone and received the eye-watering punishment of a ten minute penalty.  Those directeurs were right, and it would take the Festina affair and the police to spell it out to them that times had changed.

And so what did we do to change the culture?

We tested, and we increased the penalties, and there were a couple or three repentant dopers who showed that it was possible to win or not clean or not and we sort of believed them but not really because really who knew?  And there was Armstrong, and phantom pregnancies, and shit you couldn’t make up.  Our struggle was long, public, and in the world of public relations, well – we pretty much lost.  There’s plenty of evidence that other professional sports were doped up to the eyeballs, but they’ve got around it by taking the simple path of largely ignoring it.  Reading Joey Barton’s blog a couple of years ago was an eye-opener:  in a professional football career at the highest level he’d been piss-tested twice, and blood tested never.

So credit where it’s due – no sport’s gone as far as cycling in tracking down the cheats or working with the testers.  When it comes to the catch, we’re the best. I’d actually take less fright at my son declaring he wanted to be a pro cyclist than a footballer or a rugby player. He could do it clean.

If he didn’t, then there’s a well-worn path for him and any other cheating pro, and I think the reality is that the chances are pretty high now that if he did cheat he’d be taking it: two-year ban, fired from the team.  If it’s a WorldTour team or an MPCC member the team might even get suspended, if there’s a couple of positives within a specified time frame.   In all likelihood, his career would be over and his bank account emptied.  Why would you take that risk?

So we’ve done OK, but you think…it could all just be better.   Cycling is cleaner than it was.  It is, demonstrably, working, on some levels.

But on others it is failing miserably.

What future, for example, does Femke Van den Driessche have in cycling now?  After the witch-hunts of the Armstrong era who’s going to listen to someone who may or may not be a willing, knowing cheat?  The media’s too full of David Walsh wannabes and vessels anxious to prove themselves as damning and unforgiving as a Kimmage to ever let that happen.  What’s going to happen to this young woman, not even a full-fledged senior yet, who apparently comes from a home intent on winning the Bizarre Criminal Tendencies award at the Odd Belgians annual dinner?  (I’m referring to her father and EPO-suspended brother’s upcoming trial on budgie-rustling charges…)  Who, from cycling, is going to reach out and try and help her?

What of Luca Paolini, who tested positive for Cocaine and then confessed to an addiction to painkillers?  As loud a cry for help as it gets from a man who has bought pleasure to millions and who is quite clearly struggling.  But instead of asking itself why, the cycling media’s more worried about whether a team-mates positive test should or shouldn’t mean Katusha get suspended.  Have we really forgotten Pantani that quickly?  Frank VDB mean nothing to you?  Read Thierry Claveyrolat’s obituary.  Too many ex-cyclists die alone and abandoned by their sport.  Paolini’s not even an ex-cyclist, not yet, but we’re abandoning him already.

We’ve led the charge for cleanliness and truth, now we should lead the charge for rehabiliation and help, just as we always should have done.

 

Bontrager Serano SL review

A few months ago I took myself down the forgotten highway and ended up in arse-searing pain.  My bottom, for so long happy atop a Specialized Romin, demanded attention.  I couldn’t see or feel anything wrong with the Romin, but it seems strange that a partner who for so long was a happy bedfellow was so summarily rejected.  Perhaps it was broken somewhere invisible or perhaps the tectonic plates of my arse had shifted – whatever.  I would quite happily have rolled the dice on that score and bought another, but sometimes it’s good to cast the net a bit wider and see what one can see, not least for the reason that I think it’s also fair to say that whatever little affection I had for the big S has almost entirely disappeared.

I’m not alone in my contempt for some of their litigious and anti-competitive behaviour of recent years.  And as for their effect on local bike shops, don’t get me started.  I mean, I get it that you want me to buy your bikes and shoes, I really do.  It’s all good stuff and all and everything else being equal I’d probably buy some of it, but I quite like my bike shops to offer a choice.   I used to like seeing old French and Italian brands that didn’t have the first clue about marketing and brand-awareness except for tradition, and excellence, and craftsmanship, and that kind of thing. Now I like seeing the survivors from then, American brands and British brands and Taiwanese and Chinese brands too.  It’s a rich landscape for the bike-porn addict out there.  Just about the only thing I don’t like is egomaniacal monopolies.  Rant almost over.

I took myself into the local non-S shop about what they had to offer, which was, to labour a point, MORE THAN ONE BRAND but the Bontragers looked nice and they fitted them there, so I went that way.

I was fitted to something just a little wider to my old Romin (I was fitted for that, too, and I don’t think I’d buy a saddle unfitted these days.  Not at $220 a pop.) and looked through their options.  The Bontrager Affinity looked the most similar in concept to the Romin, but I ended up settling on the Serano.  I seem to have been spending more time on the nose of late, and the shape seemed to my eye to offer the promise of a perch more receptive to moving around on.  I’ve got to say too, I quite liked the look of the classic, Concor-like curves.

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Getting technical, there’s some different padding-y stuff going on on top which you might or might not notice from time to time.  Bontrager have got some flashy name for it but really, this kind of concept has been around since before forever, so I’m not going to dwell on it.  I’d say it’s almost traditional, but then the shell’s carbon fibre and the rails are hollow ti, so the weight is distinctly modern.   Bontrager say the Serano shape is for flexible athletes, but I wouldn’t really count myself as flexible.  I’m not quite a sack of spuds, but some mornings I can barely touch my knees.

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A couple of thousand k later and I have no regrets.  It’s not exactly plush, but it’s mostly out-of-mind, which is just about all that I ask.  A strange side effect of changing saddle is that one pair of shorts that were favourites on my old saddle are now instruments of torture, whereas another pair that I never thought were up to that much are now soft billowing clouds of loveliness.  The nose is comfortable, and it’s an easy perch to shift around on, if not quite the park bench that the Fizik Arione is – a saddle, by the way, which my arse detests.

The Serano comes in three widths, and as a final observation, feels very nicely constructed indeed.  Bontrager offer a 30-day replacement guarantee if you don’t get on with one of their saddles.  If nothing else, that alone led me to take the chance of trying out a perch a little different than the one that went before.

Of course, that I got to wander around in a bike shop that offered stuff I got to choose between didn’t hurt either.

 

 

Back into the frying pan

But without oil, because that’s fattening,  but then again I read something on the internet the other day about how oil really isn’t and besides it’s good for your knees and one of mine hurts so maybe I should drink a pint of it before breakfast, like when Viv from the Young Ones necked a bottle of Mazola.

The wheels have slowly started to spin up again.  Work beckons me back, and I was treated for my conscientiousness in turning up by a beautiful ride to work.  Cotton wool clouds flanked the slopes of the mountain, the air so still that warm air pooled below overhanging trees.  True, there was nothing to blow the occasional stench of cow shit away, but I suppose you can’t have everything.

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Oddly, I don’t seem to have lost too much in the way of fitness.  I attribute this to several things.

Firstly, by the end of last season I had the upper body strength of a three-year old.  Surfing, swimming, running and even the odd bit of swiss ball work have filled the bike-free days, and I’ve found to my amazement that I can climb out of the saddle at a high cadence relatively effortlessly.  I think this now means that a remark that I once read on the internet from a respected coach (who was respected because he put something on the internet) to the effect that any kind of exercise except for cycling is never going to make you quicker at cycling than just going cycling would is total BALLS.  I wrote this on the internet, so that means I’m respected, too, and this is now the new word and I may as a result start my own cult.

The swimming, running and surfing things:  all good ways of raising the heartbeat.  It’s pretty easy to coast on a bike when your heart’s not really in it.  Bit harder to coast when you’re running where everyone can see you, even harder not to push it when there’s a six-foot wave bearing down on you head and you arms already feel like noodles.  And the inevitable bit without breathing that comes shortly after that.  That probably helps too, in the way that oxygen starvation helps suppress conscious thought. Given that most athletes are, no matter how intelligent they might pretend to be in real life, demonstrably fundamentally as thick as pig shit because there’s really no other excuse for it, this is probably a good thing.  Stupidity wins races, after all.

I wrote about letting the off-season do its thing last time, and among the occasional bouts of excess, I’ve eaten really good quality food.  The garden’s bursting with leafy vegetables, fresh fruit is easy to find.  I haven’t watched what I’ve eaten – far from it – but I haven’t filled up with shit.  Some wise man once said that the best way to determine good food was to answer three questions:  one, is it from Greggs the Bakers*?  Two, does it look like anything sold in Greggs the Bakers*?  Three, is it the same colour as anything sold in Greggs the Bakers*?

You can figure out how this works, by the way, even if you are an athlete.

Happy eating.

*Greggs the Bakers may have turned into a health food emporium since I was last in the UK.  They’d have alienated their existing customers, but I’m prepared to be corrected.  Insert white flour, refined sugar and cholesterol peddler of shit of your choice.

 

A cyclist’s guide to surviving christmas and the off-season

Since the end of the season I haven’t blogged at all, mostly because to be blogging about something you’re not doing seems fraudulent: as someone once said, I’m a writer only when I write, and it’s the same with the bike.  I climbed off at the end of October and more or less threw it into the dark recesses of the garage.  On average I’ve done 70k a week, if I’m lucky.  Once or twice I’ve gone for a gentlemanly 40-50k with no thought other than to listen to the birds or atone for the dietary sins which seem welded to this time of year, regardless of whichever hemisphere you happen to be in.

The off-season is tradition, and it  comes with a whole heap of downsides.  Some of my trousers are a little tighter than they were a month or two ago.  The hiatus from racing brings with it a whole being-available-for-DIY issue.  Last, but not least, it takes 21 days to make a habit, apparently, and after six weeks of quite frankly absolutely taking the piss it’s going to be doubly hard to get back on track.  No wonder there’s a slew of tinterweb articles preaching caution and temperance.

However, there are huge upsides which are, by my reckoning, severely under-promoted.  By the end of the year my body was screaming at me, fed up with hunching over bars.  Who, after all, does a yoga session or a swim instead of a ride – which one really makes you faster?  Riding does.  Yoga and swimming make you faster for longer, but that’s tomorrow’s problem, and as such they always seem to wait until then.

So my tip for surviving the off season?  Embrace it.  Take the time to make your body hurt less.  Catch up with friends, remember your children’s names, make that pudding you saw on TV and slobbered at back when you could only eat raw carrots because there was a climb that week, and eat it with them.  Take a surf trip or head for the snow.  Pay the debt of gratitude and attention you owe the rest of humanity after opting out of it to ride your bike.

Bike racing at its best verges on the inhuman.   The real point of a well-spent off-season is to remember how to be human.

Happy Christmas, and a peaceful New Year.

 

End of season blue skies, challenges ahead.

I’ve pretty much finished for the year.  The big race got cancelled, and I was in shit shape for it anyway.  I’ve had a season of sore legs, big efforts, and zero results to show for it.   Anyone who’s raced for more than ten minutes knows that a good ride isn’t always measured by results, but sometimes…aaarrgh!   Anyway, a break is due.  I’ve also come to a point of fatigue where I’m sure that a change of focus next year is what’s needed.

I don’t do weights.  This is for a couple of reasons:  One, I did loads in my teens and twenties.  I reached peak gym boredom, and never recovered from the exposure to all that pent-up testosterone and sexual frustration.   Two,  twenty-something years of surfing hasn’t exactly left me like a pipe cleaner in the upper body.  I’ve been trying to lose muscle, not put it on, for the last few years.  And Three: I have a screwed back, and on the three or four occasions I’ve set foot in a gym over the last decade or so I’ve limped out.

I’ve been pretty dedicated to the cause for the last few years, and over the last few weeks I’ve realised a couple of things.  Firstly, my biking fitness might be good, but my general, athletic fitness frankly sucks more than it ever has.  With my back injury, a strong core and good posture is key to a life without pain and, incidentally, to turning pedals quicker.  Of course, on a day-to-day basis, how do you think this works out?  I’ll take another lap of the block, do another interval, rather than stretch and dig the stability ball out.  The work ethic in that direction’s been…absent.  And secondly, I’m bored.  I’ve essentially done the same calendar of events for four years, and I need a change.

Last week, I did my first run in years.  ITB pain did for me a few years ago, and I’d always assumed it’d flare up instantly if I pulled on a pair of running shoes.  It didn’t.

I hit the pool, too.  Yeah, you can see where this is going.

I’m going to do a few tri’s this summer.  Get some pool miles in, get running.  It’s sufficiently different, and it’ll be great for my general fitness.   It might even be good for my personality to get in a headspace of getting-round-and-doing-my-best, as opposed to being a competitive shithead.

And of course, I’ll be needing a new bike.

The slump before the … what?

The last couple of weeks have been tough.  I did an 80k race, which is one bottle more than I’m used to carrying,  and demanding too, of eating at least something.  I felt good though, and went off the front.  These were roads I know well, so I was able to set myself goals knowing how far I had to go, where the tough bits were, and where I had to get to with a decent gap before I could think about looking for chickens to count.  I never made it, but it was close enough to give me hope:  I was hovered up perhaps 2k before that point.   After 25k out front on my own I was toast and slid out of the peloton willingly, happy with my day’s work, but just a little sad I hadn’t quite had the goods to seal the deal.

So hope sprung eternal, and with a good performance to motivate me I took a day off work and told the kids not to get into trouble while I went to set about some serious miles.  The figures are meh:  130-odd k in just under 5 hours, with 2,900m of climbing.  It’s a tough ride, but perhaps not as tough as I made it feel.  The last hour and a half’s suffering was dante-esque.  What was supposed to be an enjoyable romp on the bike, a confidence-builder for the hundred miler at the end of the month has had quite the reverse effect.  My legs are heavy and – to be brutally honest about this – my arse is killing me.

It would be stupid to read too much into this.  Often,  my best form comes after my worst.  I’m not going to expect too much from this weekend’s racing, but I’ll be listening to my body with interest.  And it’s finally pushed me into trying a new saddle to replace the Specialized Romin which sort-of-but-not-quite suits me.  I’ve gone for a Bontrager Serano, which is an entirely different concept to the Romin, much more akin to the old Concors and Cinelli SLX’s of my youth.  We’ll see how it goes.  I’ll be reviewing it in the future, well after I’ve given my arse time to get used to it.

In the meantime,  I suspect I’m going to be trying to rack up k’s as painlessly as possible, keeping up the training stress with consistency rather than big days.  It probably won’t be enough to get me to the business end of the Round the Mountain in the right position, but there’s … just enough buts there to keep me hoping.

Not just the one I sit on.  See what I did there?

Chinese carbon wheels – which way to go?

If you’re like me – and judging from the length of the related threads on weightweenies plenty are – you will, at some point, have looked at getting a set of carbon wheels from China.  Providers like FarSports, CarbonSpeedCycle, and Yeoleo offer a bedazzling variety of products.  Wide, U-shaped rims, apparently everything the big boys are offering, and at a fraction of the price.  What’s the catch?

The bike industry is not transparent.  The inrng post who makes what offers a small insight into the bewildering world of cycling brand names.  What gets outsourced to where and who is even more nebulous.

Taiwan’s Gigantex, for example, are known to make carbon rims for plenty of brands with cachet and credibility.   All the Chinese providers listed above offer badge-engineering services.  If you want to start your own wheel label it’s never been easier.  A quick read through the open-mold carbon clinchers thread on weightweenies reveals plenty of satisfied customers.  It also reveals more than a few horror stories.

I’m not going to go into the carbon clincher safety debate here, and I am certainly not going to take the point of view that only the biggest and most moneyed purveyors of carbon hard-on material can get it right.

I know Zipp and ENVE etc spend a huge amount on R & D, and I know too, that Chinese companies are damn good at reverse-engineering (read: stealing) carbon tech in the blink of an eye.  (Your morality on buying copied stuff is your own. You might think there’s more than one big brand got it coming to ’em.  I won’t argue.) And you and I both know there’s lots of cheap knock-off crap out there along with the good copies, and that if your Chinese wheel fails – well, good luck with that warranty.

There is, however, a reason that China has come to dominate the world’s manufacturing base:  more often than not they get it right enough, for the right price, which is what most of us want.  You can get a serviceable wheel from China.

But does it make sense?

I am no expert on carbon fiber, but I’m perfectly capable of adding a few figures together.  A pair of Chinese carbon clinchers with basic but serviceable Novatec hubs runs, near as dammit, $700 NZD delivered to your door.  A quick read of the weightweenie thread I’ve linked to above tells me you should allow too, for the possibility of returning at least one of the wheels for something flawless.  Let’s call that another $100, because it will be.  If it gets lost or damaged, look forward to a week or two of fun with your carrier.

If that equation puts you off, what then?  Do you really have no other choice?

Of course you do. Go secondhand.

For $500, to my door, I got a pair of Reynolds DV46 tubulars with less than a thousand k on them, essentially unmarked.  1315g, 46mm profile.  No weight limit.

$500, all up.
$500, all up.

OK, they’re a couple of years old.  OK, they’re not 11-speed compatible, but I won’t be there myself for a couple of years. How long were you expecting those Chinese wheels to last, anyway?

So far so good.  Then chuck in the almost-brand new Dura-Ace cassette, the brand-new Vittoria Corsa tub on the back wheel, then half-worn Schwalbe on the front with plenty more life in it.  The valve extensions.  The wheel bags.  The nice hope skewers. The envelope with the four barely worn SwissStop yellow pads in it.

I rode these for the first time in a race a couple of weeks ago.  It was pissing down and windy.  Modern wisdom says that these older wheels don’t stop, they fly like a kite and want to do nothing so much as pitch you into a hedge at the first breath of wind.

I’ve got nothing against modern wisdom.  It makes good stuff cheap.

If you disagree, if you’ve had great (or bad) experiences with Chinese carbon, or if you’ve snagged a great secondhand deal – I’d love to hear about it…

 

 

 

 

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