Here in New Zealand – or my part of it, anyway – we have two seasons a year. Basically, we have a back-to-front system that apes the Euro calendar but for a mid year break, enforced by the general bollock-coldness of this time of year. Our season end – traditionally marked in the northern hemisphere by getting fat and staying indoors getting drunk round the fire – is here marked by getting fat and going to the beach, then getting drunk round the barbeque. The true beginning of the year – the base miles of December and January – are really rather civilised. Long, slow social rides in the height of summer, followed by early morning intervals in warm dawn light, all washed down with isotonic replacement summer ales. My excuse for a core workout involves going surfing in bathwater temperature, friendly blue waves. Bliss.
But this, the middle of the year, is a little different. An eight-week lay off presages winter – not really long enough to get horribly out of condition and give up entirely, short enough to push through. Cue storms from the deep south, weeks of forty knot winds. Roads slick with cow shit and forest debris.
Against this backdrop I’ve taken a week’s leave, time to catch up on life, a few household chores (not if I have my way), hang with the kids, and pack a bit of saddle time in. The next goal is our local classic, a hundred miler that happens in the jaws of spring, and it is, in every sense, a classic. It’s the oldest road race in NZ, there’s books written about it, and it’s always, always, bollock-shatteringly hard.
Last year I spent the five minutes before the start huddled under no shelter whatsoever being pelted with hailstones the size of my thumbnail, before setting off on the forty miles to the first turn into the teeth of a spring storm of rare ferocity. It’s a handicap, so basically a team time trial until it all blows to shit, and so there was no poncing about, no gentle neutral section, just balls out and go. After thirty miles I punctured, picked up a spare wheel, then chased for three to get back, arriving with my eyeballs hanging out on my cheeks. Two turns in the group and I was done: spat out of the back faster’n’a thruppeny whore getting rid of the taste of the village idiot. I turned round, rode back to the start in record time with the wind behind me, and chastened, applauded the finishers in, and they deserved that. The field was – well, as decimated means one in ten, that won’t do. Half-ated. Fully half the field abandoned. Another hailstorm got the remnants before the finish, and to a man they were hollow-eyed, empty, shells. I envied each of them bitterly. They had seen the worst that this race has chucked at the peloton in living memory, whereas I had quit.
And so this year, I have vowed, is to be different. I will not be on the start line this year wondering where I’ll come off: so to work. I’ll laugh at headwinds, and look forward to the final climb where it all comes apart with relish. It begins now, as it should, in the shit weather, on the rubble-strewn roads, and I’m only lying a little bit when I say that I’m looking forward to every single minute.
The Round the Mountain’s been running since 1911. It’s a great race under threat from the cost of complying to NZTA rules about racing on state highways and it needs all the support it can get. You can enter here. You won’t get the thousand-strong fields of the summer jolly – you’ll get seventy-ish riders, among who will be some of the toughest nuts in the country, legs that you’ll think will never walk again, and a memory that’ll last a lifetime. If of course, you don’t DNF.
Let’s be clear. If you’re a cyclist in the bottom 85% of our size distribution as a species you don’t need this wheelset. Unless that is, you’ve got room in the garage and you love cobbles, gravel, and paying reverence to the best part of the year, the spring classics. If you’re over a hundred and something kg, if you’re sick of breaking wheels and you want a nice sunday best that’s not going to explode in showers of expensive, overstressed carbon, these could be your friend. Read this, then beg or borrow a set from somewhere and tell me if I’m right. I have more than a sneaking suspicion I am.
Because lots and lots of us revere the Nemesis. Just go check out Weight Weenies, or have a peek on Velominati. Admirers are many, fervent, and constant. This last soldier of the box-section, handbuilt days has not gone quietly into the night – the last rites might have been read in the media, right next to another full column ad for something carbon and temporary, but not out here in the trenches. It has a special place in our collective heart, and it shows no sign of letting go just yet.
Mine are 32 hole laced to Dura Ace 7900 hubs, in a 3x pattern, using double-butted DT competition spokes. There are many valid reasons for using alternative spoking patterns, but none of them apply to the Nemesis. 3x is the law here.
Hub choice for the Nemesis seems to be, by convention, limited to a fairly narrow range. Admittedly there isn’t the choice of high spoke count hubs there once was but wheelsets made with the Nemesis seem to draw from an even more select pool consisting of Dura Ace, Record, Chris King, and Ambrosio’s own (PMP sourced) hubs, notably on those sets built by Harry Rowland. These wheels get built for the toughest of tough lives, even if only a vanishingly small percentage of them will ever get to see the Arenberg or the Carrefour l’Abre.
Similarly, the choice of tyres seems to be bound to a select few classics from the cobbles. Handmade FMB’s for the well heeled, Veloflex’s, and the Vittoria Pave’s, which are what I’m rolling at the moment. I always have, actually, on these rims – this is the third tyre on the rear, the second on the front. I have nothing bad to say about the Paves, except for the set I bought off TradeMe that had mangled base tapes that refused to stay glued unless they were kept up to pressure. They haven’t cut up any worse than any other tyre I’ve ever had, I’ve never punctured a set, and the ride is just…special. That doesn’t mean though, I won’t allow for the possibility of there being other dance partners. When these go I’m going to try a set of Conti Gatorskins, just because they’re cheap, and that means I can use them even more, presuming they’re not altogether horrible. (I’ve never tried a conti tub, and I’ll do so with a little trepidation. Butyl inner tubes and a reputation for riding like lengths of hosepipe, apparently. But I’ll never know until I try, so I’m keeping an open mind, for now.)
So what do they weigh, and how do they ride? If you’re asking the weight question you’re missing the point. Mine come out at a fanny under1700g for the pair, since you ask, sans skewers tyres and glue.
To the ride. As you’d expect the handling in foul weather is just what you want. but to regard these wheels as an anachronistic, one trick slug is a mistake: I have a 40k loop near home that climbs from sea level to a little under 500m, then plunges and twists and turns through a greasy rainforest-covered lane into an 8k nuts-out descent, then another 7k of flat time trialling to the finish. It’s my barometer loop, because it measures everything, and out of all my wheelsets I’ve gone round fastest on the Nemesis. The braking on them is better than on any rim I’ve ever ridden and the Paves inspire confidence like no clincher ever has when the surface is 90% shit and pothole.
Alright, they don’t get pulled out for that many races. Yes, there’s faster wheels in the garage for most days. I won’t be humming and ahh-ing between these and the Reynolds or even the Zondas. Aero was a chocolate bar when these were born, and shit as the roads around here may be, they’re still well within the everyday capabilities of more youthful, faster models.
But none of them will ever, and I mean ever, feel as special as these. Get your best grimace on, find a muddy puddle, and pretend you’re on King Kelly’s wheel or that Boonen’s choking in your dust.
Before I start, let me add a couple of disclaimers: one: I am not now or never have been a professional bike journalist, tester, and it’s been twenty-something years since I worked in a bike shop. Two: I like handbuilt wheels. I like building them, I like selecting my hubs and my rims, and I particularly like the bit where you pay any bike shop in your path a buck – maybe a buck-fifty – for a replacement spoke, right off the shelf. My number one wheels are a set of Ambrosio Nemesis laced to a pair of Dura Ace 7900 hubs. I shall extol their virtues in a future post (edit: I did), but I will pause to qualify their greatness – and that of all tubulars – by pointing out that I have a wife and two children, and just about enough of a conscience to feel more than a pang of remorse every time I ride over a shard of glass and chuck another hundred-buck Vittoria in the bin. Racing, Sunday best rides, solo epics – days you live for – yes. Intervals and hill repeats at six in the morning, snatched ten milers in fading light – no. I have a couple of pairs of tough-as-nails training anchors (36 hole Ambrosio Excellences with the Ultegra hubs which are excellent enough to really deserve their own blog post but will probably, as in life, be sadly overlooked) but at knocking on 2 kilos a pair, plus a pair of fat, armoured conti armchairs on them, they really aren’t something you leave on for an evening crit, or chuck in the wheel van at a big race.
So that was what I wanted: something tough enough to train on, fly enough to race. Something that feels high rent, yet cheap enough to sneak past the purchasing committee. Various handbuilt options were weighed up and discarded, mostly because at this price point you’re playing with things like Novatec hubs and a selection of rims which some people have luck with, others don’t. I could have gone the chinese carbon clincher option, but well…no. I’m sure there’s some folks who’ve wound up with excellent wheels that way, and I’m definitely not one of those people with an axe to grind about manufacturing quality in Asia. I did enough reading though, to leave me uneasy at the likely QC that goes on at the better known outlets, and enough perusing of the scale of charges for return postage to figure that one small fuck-up would wipe away any savings whatsoever and I might as well have bought those 2nd hand 404’s that I really wanted when all of this started.
And in such roundabout fashion I arrived at the Zondas, via a couple of other safe options (Shimano RS81 – a bit heavier, allegedly a bit noodly, according to some reviews I read, and considerably more coin – and the Fulcrum 3, pretty much identical to the Zonda except for the spokes and … well … looking like they fell off a Specialized. Too boring.) The Zondas, I read, were pretty much the equal of the Shamals and higher offerings in Campy’s line, Robbie McEwan raced them lots (whether actually he did or not I have no idea) and there seemed to be a general consensus that they were good, solid, fast wheels a lot cheaper than they had any right to be. So I bought some.
First impressions were good. I like the way the rim bed’s been made, so you don’t need a rim strip. Mounting the tyres I’d chosen (Michelin Pro Race 4’s in 23’s – more on that in a minute) wasn’t too much of a struggle. The supplied spacer for fitting my 10 speed cassette to the hub – they’re 11 speed compatible, unlike my DA7900’s, a fact which leaves me wanting to find a shimano executive to kick – unsurprisingly, that was fine too. I wasn’t overly in love with the quick releases at first glance, but then I compared their weight with the Dura Ace ones and found them a few grams lighter, and I can’t fault the closing action, so that shows you what my first glances are worth. The freewheel sounds a little funky on the first spin out of the box, but after a couple of hundred yards, even, it settled in and sounds like a campagnolo freehub should. So far, so good.
Wheels and tyres go together, so in some ways it’s pointless to try and compare this pair of wheels to my others because my tubs run – well, tubs, and my training anchors run 25c contis that weigh a ton. The pair of wheels the zondas are replacing are a 38mm carbon faired alloy clincher that I ran 25’s on too, and that was fine for them, but I approached the zondas with a different rationale, because:
1. They’re a little aero, but not a lot. They’re also a traditional width – not the new-fangled wide stuff.
2. They’re stiff.
3. They’re light at the rim, where it matters for acceleration and climbing.
That’s why it made sense to me to stick a lighter tyre on – to play to the zonda’s strengths. I did, and this is what I found:
They accelerate and sprint brilliantly, and for climbing – they’re pretty damn good at that, too. The braking is great – a major reason I went with alloy over a cheap carbon, because as much as anything else there’s no f*cking around with brake pads. The braking surface is very nicely finished, right out of the box. The hubs roll great, and looking close up, you can see these are actually really nice units. They’re not the polished chorus hubs of fifteen years ago, but they do the job well.
Like I said before, they’re stiff: my longest ride on these so far has been a shade under five hours, and I don’t mind admitting that I felt a little beaten up afterwards, in a sort of driving a jackhammer-with-my-scranus type of a way. Hours afterwards, the poor old chap felt like he’d been frozen in liquid nitrogen as part of a suspended animation project that involved thawing it out with boiling meths.
I’ve also done a few evening rides up our local mountain, a crit, and a 50 k road race – things I did buy them to do. They’ve been fine with all of it, and so has my scranus. They feel like they’ll last for years, and I think that I’ll mostly be racing on these from now on when the course suits – there’s plenty enough races around here on shitty surfaces and belgian-type courses to keep the nemesis’s busy between times. So no, they’re not really a total do-it-all wheelset – the stiffness and resulting lack of comfort rules them out if what you’re really after is a cushy, slightly racy number for a summer of sportives – but for a diet of shortish road races and crits for the man who can’t be arsed to swap his posh wheels out between times, I think they’re a solid choice.
By the numbers:
Campagnolo Zonda clincher wheelset.
26mm semi aero front, 30mm rear, 21.5 mm width
16 spokes front, 21 at the rear
Weight: 1595 g the pair.
Mine are the Shimano freehub, 10 + 11 speed compatible, and I paid $438 from Wiggle + New Zealand import taxes, taking the total damage up to about $600 NZD.
There’s some interesting stuff over on the weightweenies wheel forum about truing G3 laced wheels and their construction in general. The rims are out of round before they’re built. Suffice to say, spoke replacement is not straightforward, but it seems to be something which is mercifully rare. Bet they cost more than a buck-fifty, though.
Watts produced, oxygen sucked, skinfold numbers (I only have the one gut, personally), time to the break, distance to the finish, grade of the next climb. You can spend an entire ride glued to a four-inch screen measuring how high you pissed up the toilet wall compared to last week, then hook it up to Strava and compare tidelines with the pros. You can be weighed and measured by whatever computerized Gradgrind you choose, safe in the knowledge that when it finds you wanting, it’ll be almost as dispassionate. And then, if you like, it’ll tell all your friends.
The lack of ready access to a huge wad of cash prevents me joining in – by the time you’ve hooked up a Garmin to a Powertap or whatever, you’re in for more money than I’d spend on a bike, being as I am something of an ebay Prince. Jealousy of the better-heeled and coveting Another Man’s Wheels are sometime sins which I’ll freely admit to, but here – nah. I just don’t get it.
I raced this weekend, first after a break. A Garmin might have told me that it was fifteen degrees and dry, but it would have missed the cotton tailed clouds that bunny-hopped off the peak of the mountain into a blue, blue sky. It would have missed too, the gravel on the corners that spoke of washouts recently passed, of winter roads that we rode on and through, of what a lucky day this was.
It would though, have told me my heart rate was somewhere near the end when the bloke who no-one had seen before tried to go on the last part of a ramping climb, but I knew that anyway. It would have missed how I got onto his wheel though – just enough to not have let him go.
Maybe they’re thinking of something that would have told me before I cramped, five miles from home, but I don’t know what you’d do with that because when there’s five of you out front you just do until you really, really, can’t, and the computer don’t know that.
I lay on my back in the verge, trying not to kick myself in the back of the head as my hamstring threatened to snap, then repeated the performance a mile down the road. Groups rolled past, friends laughed. I rolled home, didn’t DNF. Sore as hell the day after.
Find me a computer that’ll tell you the real story of your ride.
Back in the old country, I lost my way. Starting a career and a family pushed the bike out of my life for a while. Things became scrambled, so that when eventually it found its way back in it did so sandwiched between a swim and a run.
For a long time, I was in denial. A new challenge, and all that. But the truth is, deep down, I knew I’d never be able to be as good as I was before. Pounds had been piled on, and with swimming in the mix I could kid myself that gee, all those laps were really piling on the muscle.
But there was, really, no getting away from it.
I flat out suck at running, very nearly as much as I find it hatefully boring.
Surfing since forever means I’m comfortable in the water and a fair swimmer: it also means that if I’m in the water, I’d rather there be a board involved. Swimming is for rehabilitation. (Besides, they shave their chests, and that’s just weird.)
Whenever I staggered in, mid-pack fodder, my thoughts turned to the results sheet. And I knew that on that results sheet I’d see a story that no-one else would: passed you in the first transition. Passed you after a k or two on the bike. Passed the next ten on the first hill. I’d check my bike split. The other two – meh. I was racing a bike, in disguise.
I thought of my short and unstoried triathlon history today, because I set out for a training session and then glanced over my shoulder to see, bearing down on me, a cloud that not only housed the four horsemen of the apocalypse, but more than likely their stables too. Being a gentleman of mostly sound mind and judgement, I pussied out on the spot, although not before the fucker hit me like a lorry load of de-icing freezers, slamming me into the verge. I picked my way home via braille, sheets of freezing sleet keeping me virtually blind.
(I should mention here that I live on the west coast of New Zealand, and a quick glance at any map will reveal the absence of anything except a large expanse of watery bugger-all between here, Antarctica, or Chile – squalls have room to build up steam, is all I’m saying.)
One of the things that Triathlon does terrifically is act as a confessional for the be-problemed, There are reams of stuff online about how Joe or Cynthia finally came out of a loveless marriage or had a leg removed from their other leg, or recovered from years of bad haircuts, and kinda thought they might try this triathlon thing, and how they nervously went along to a swimming pool and lost nine hundred pounds and one day looked in a mirror and you know what? They didn’t know the guy who was there but they kinda liked him. Which is brilliant and all that stuff. Way better than cycling does it, but then cycling is filled with people like me.
Anyway, one of the articles I read was some aspiring ironman who hunkered away from the weather on his turbo trainer, and how his daughter came into the garage or the cellar or wherever he was doing it, and asked him if the weather was bad on race day would they let him ride his bike indoors, and lo and behold our hero…yadayadaya. You know how it finishes. Headwind heroics. Snow conquered. Frost fought.
And so today as I rode home, chilled face as red as a prostitute’s back door, wrestling with the wind, canted over to silly angles just to ride straight, I thought of this hero, and wondered what he was up to now. I wondered if he’d have turned around. What the story of his ride would have been.
Then I remembered.
Triathlete. He’d have fallen off ages ago.
I took my clothes off in the hall, let them lie in a puddle, and then settled down to a second breakfast involving croissants, milky coffee, and a large helping of self-satisfaction. And I resolved to get up later tomorrow, and spend an hour on the trainer instead.
As far as I’m concerned, the phrase “base period” is – to put it kindly – disingenuous. It conjures up visions of an off-season of forced athletic abstention, smugly smirking over beetroot salads and yogic retreats. There are few glimpses of a more accurate truth – the orgies of drinking and pie-eating that inevitably follow the end of my seasons. Muscles get shorter, bikes go unwashed. The first couple of weeks back should be more accurately referred to as “rehab”, and like any rehabilitation, the effort here is primarily a mental one.
Sure, there’ll be a couple of rides. More likely I’ll be dodging weather, and a few twenty minute sessions on the trainer will yield enough sweat that, for a while at least, I can languish under the misapprehension that foundations are being laid, house is being built.
This is of course, a lie. The habits of post-ride beers, a quart a week of chocolate milk – for recovery, cakes to fuel the afternoon ride – these are for later in the season – these are relics clung to, treasured. The will to discard them must needs be strong, and strength of anything is something in short supply at this time of year.
Eventually though, rehab finishes, the latter parts of which are taken up with generally avoiding domestic turmoil by doing all the shit jobs I thought I’d got out of last season, and the second part of base period begins, known as “panic”.
In an effort to get as much mileage in as possible, I cram in five or six rides a week, but none of them are long enough, none of them are fast enough, and I know, deep down, that I still haven’t resigned myself to the pain that has to come. Starving myself might help on the hills, but after so long as a glutton, even resuming a normal diet feels like unbearable flagellation. A week without beer looms ahead like an iceberg to the Titanic. Doubts haven’t just crept in -they’ve kicked down the front door and climbed into bed with the wife. I’m this far from taking up competitive pipe smoking, or popping into town for some elasticated slacks to get fat in.
Maybe, a voice says, this could be your big year. In the garden.
Somehow, I keep going. Some undead and unkillable streak of blind optimism pushes past the cold logic of age, fatherhood, and financial responsibility, tells me the career will always be there – and besides, I’m probably even worse at that than I am at this. It pushes me through the humiliations of crawling up hills I stomped two months ago, tells me that the spare roll in my bib shorts’ll go if I just do one more lap.
Somehow though, just before I give up, I’ll be ready for the Day, the ride that heralds the end of the beginning. The day when I’ll feel like a cyclist again.
A hard, hilly century-plus, ridden on my own, in the rain and wind, that might be it.
It could be a twenty minute time trial preceded by too much coffee, or an hour’s breathless, dying slog up the local alp.
Or it might be as it was this week: I got home from work early, fussed about my bike for a while, fought myself into my gear, which combined took enough time for the clouds the weatherman promised would be the day’s due to materialise, remnants of the blue skies that had reigned while I was office-bound scudded down the coast. With the correct level of rage for this inevitable confluence of circumstance I warmed up and went full gas, resolving that once the rain hit I’d pull on a jacket and twiddle home, figuring I had perhaps ten or twenty minutes to wrestle my inner five-year old into submission.
The rain never came. I rode a fifty-k time trial, caffeine and rage fuelling me to the point some way around when I realised I was on a ride that could be, if I let it, become the Day.
When I realise this, the only course of action is to press harder, to crouch lower. To change up, not down, To not worry about the mess you’ll be tomorrow. Right now, there is only the road, and the top of the next hill, and the wind to be beaten. It’s the first victory of the year, and the taste is sweet.
Today I fixed the Rain Bike, and I got to thinking about how it became the rain bike and what would happen to it next.
When I was a junior there was an old guy in my club who wore mid-length socks ten years before Lance did. He had calves the thickness of my torso hewn from teak and forearms so hairy they threatened to eat his watch. He rolled around in the middle of the pack come race time, happily opening gaps for me, calling the race, telling me this would be where it’d go in a lap or three’s time and he’d be right nine times out of ten, and then some time around ten miles he’d gracefully slide out back and meander to the finish on a beautiful pearlescent off-white Daccordi with blue Benotto tape and a matching Rolls saddle. The sound it made is what I remember the most…it ticked, like the kind of Swiss watch that thinks a Rolex is nothing more than a Casio for a rich man’s blind son.
Later, although still back when Pinarello still made metal frames – still made anything, actually, before they became a design house for an identikit factory in Taiwan, back when you could send them back you twenty-year old frame and the craftsmen who’d made it would renovate and paint it just as you want as nobody else could or ever will again – back then, right at the end of back then to put a time on it, I stumbled upon the frame of the Rain Bike.
It wasn’t the Rain Bike back then, obviously.
In the pantheon of Pinarellos, it was a relatively humble model – the Galileo, although not so humble that Alex Zulle wouldn’t ride one in the tour that year. It was pearlescent white, with an electric blue fade just the same shade as that Benotto tape. The amount of money that changed hands was significant enough to ensure that I committed a cardinal sin right off the bat – then, and ever since, it’s worn Shimano rather than the campy which should have been its birthright – one of the last generations of the polished chorus or records – that would have suited it to a tee.
But it never mattered then, and doesn’t now. It’s always felt special. I still look at it and see beauty, although these days too, there’s also a wry humour that something so – old, for want of a better word – should still be part of my life, and I question whether that must mean that I’m clinging onto something far surpassed, an anchor, and I wonder just how much longer it’ll be before it dies, or the current number one slides down a step and it sits in the corner, forlorn and unridden, and what will happen to it then.
I could strip it down and wax it, hang it on the wall, and watch visitors to my house edge away as I start to bore the arse off them with meaningless anecdotes of the insignificant and generally unremarkable life of a bicycle. They might realize just how sad I really am.
I could do the same, but hang it in the garage – a private shrine. But then it’d be in the company of all the other bikes, and it’d feel bad because they all had parts and it didn’t, and then I’d feel that and put some on it and then we’d be right back to square one.
I could turn it into garden art, or an interesting lamp, and that’d be a crime akin to turning a classic Aston Martin into a potting shed, or wiring up a turntable to listen to all the vinyl you’ve still got stored away that was never quite good enough to beg, steal or borrow in digital form, that never gets played on the radio, because they just don’t make ’em like they used to, and the reason they don’t do that is because the way they used to make ’em was … shit.
Inevitably, the best course of action seems to me to be the one that answers most calls in my life: do nothing. Let it have that corner. Maybe one day there’ll be a l’eroica for nineties alloy, or something more fitting for the period – a ride of some sort preceded by a group jacking up of horse steroids round the back of a public toilet. Then one day I’ll die, and someone’ll come to clean out the shed and find it under a layer of dust and grime, and the scratches and the nicks and the wear and the little things that speak of love once lavished will tell the story of our lives and trials together more eloquently than I could ever manage – and maybe they’ll wonder at the heroics that must have taken place right here, opine about how if these things could speak what stories they could tell, perhaps recollect Grandad having one that looked kinda similar.
Then, and only then, will they pronounce it worn beyond all hope of reasonable salvage, then chuck it in the skip right next to the record player and the Vanilla Ice b-sides box set.