Monday, June 23, 2014

R.I.P., My Faithful Riding Partners

As far as loss in real life is concerned, all this is nothing. As a Cyclist, however, I found two emails waiting together in my inbox one recent morning hard to take. The first, from my brother over in Holland, reported that I was about to lose the storage shed I've had across the street from our apartment—it had to be empty by the end of the month. It is where I've kept my older bikes, and now the only feasible solution—given that I'm still in the U.S. and someone else has to deal with this on my behalf—was to get rid of these bikes. The second email was from a frame builder, also in Holland, whom I'd asked to look into some small fractures at the top of the seat tube on my titanium Colnago Lux Oval Master frame. His report was that the damage was more serious than revealed by a cursory examination; that he would be unable to repair everything; and that, given the risks, I should not ride this frame anymore.

That's four bikes, together representing countless rides, races, memories going back to the 1980s. In recent years I did not use these bikes much, except for the Colnago, but the memories alone would have caused me to keep them around. But there was also the knowledge that eventually a new purpose, however infrequently pursued, will always present itself for a bicycle. The purposes had become fewer and farther in between, but about once a year I rode each bike up and down the dead-end road bordering the shed, just to confirm they were still in working order.

The oldest of the four was a steel Dutch-made Koga Miyata Roadwinner. I got it in 1986 or 1987 for 700 guilders as a student in Amsterdam from Cycles Brands, a reputable place back then, since gone out of business. The bike was only one year old. It had toe-clips, down-tube shifters, ten gears, one bidon cage, and I loved riding it. I had been a runner, but knee trouble forced me into cycling—such a drag. I actually did my first race on this bike: the 1988 Dutch championship for journalists, a flat crit where I got 12th in a 90+ rider field. I suppose that's also when I discovered I can't sprint: I came out of the final turn in second place but then watched all these intense people (sprinters) pass me left and right. This being my first real road bike, there were many other firsts: first mountain pass (Simplon, Switzerland, 1987; the next day, I had to dismount and catch my breath five times tackling the much tougher Nufenen); first cycling shorts and jersey (but initially I'd still wear cotton t-shirts underneath); first town line sprints (on evening rides north of Amsterdam); first time around the Liège-Bastogne-Liège course; first Rule #9 rides, coming home through blowing snow or freezing-cold rain with summer gloves and not enough fuel in the system on what in the morning had looked like a pretty good March day. This bike also provided the first brush with disaster on a self-organized week of racing in the Cevennes and Alpes Maritimes in 1992. As I lifted by my bike out of the van in Saint-Étienne-de-Tinée on the final day, preparing to race my friends up the Cime de la Bonnette, half of my fork stayed behind on the floor. That was the same fork I had used the day before, when we logged 160 kilometers, including up and down the Col de la Couillole and the Col d'Andrion. The last ride I remember doing on the Koga Miyata was in 2008, on an early spring visit to my mom in Holland, when I still lived in the U.S. Just a flat little windy and damp loop close to home--but it was a bike, and you could take it for a ride.

In 1994, living in Athens, Ohio, I bought the second bike I have owned in the U.S.: a 1992 lime green/yellow carbon Trek 2300. A friend urged me to consider buying it from him. It had been left behind by a guy who still owed him the rent for one of two months. The seat stays on my 1987 Fuji Team had just separated from the seat tube, so I was in the market. 800 bucks did the trick, and I think that over twenty years of ownership I got my money's worth. The first time I showed up on it on our Sunday ride, one of the guys asked: "is it as fast as it is ugly?" Even though in hindsight I could have done with a smaller size, I think I was pretty fast on it. This was my main bike for seven years, and I used it as I became a licensed racer living in New Mexico, started getting into breaks as a Cat. 3 at the weekly crits in Pittsburgh, and hung on in the Master's races during Superweek after we moved to Milwaukee. By then, the technology had become quite dated. I remember a guy at the starting line at Alpine Valley waxing nostalgically over his own, long since deceased Trek 2300. This did not put me in the right frame of mind for this tough road race. But I won my first prize money on this bike (not that day), and also recorded the highest speed ever to appear on any of my bike computers (57 m/h, coming down Pajarito Rd in Los Alamos one day after work). After replacing it in 2001 with what is now the good old Klein Quatum Race, it became my winter bike, decked out with a seat-post rack for 50 minute rides bookending 90 minute speedskating work outs at the Pettit National Ice Center (warning: this is too much exercise all at once, at least if you have to go to work the next day). Over in Amsterdam, I used the bike for four years to commute an hour each way to Amsterdam, until one dark and stormy night in 2012—it was my birthday—I took a left turn without looking back and another rider rode straight into my rear wheel. While, unlike him, I stayed upright, I had to open the brake all the way (unscrewing the nut) in order to be able to ride home, and the rim still rubbed up against the fork in two places. This particular night also happened to see the most intense rain showers in six years of doing this commute. But I made it. In these conditions, on what has turned out to be its final ride, the badly maimed Trek got me home, as it always had.

In Pittsburgh our first winter, it started to snow. And so it became impossible—certainly irresponsible—to ride my old Atala beater around town. Alan at the old Pro Bikes shop on Murray sold me a nice red Trek 930 mountain bike, used, which through the years has been a pretty good winter bike. When it became impossible to do our Sunday rides on the road, I would actually use it the way a mountain bike is supposed to be ridden. We'd go off-road starting in Schenley Park, also exploring the trails in Frick before finishing on the slag heaps overlooking the Monongahela river (now reportedly a classy new housing development) for our own triple crown. Spending the fall semester of 1997 in Leipzig, Germany, I brought this bike with me (slick tires replacing the original knobby ones) and not only rode it all over town, but also used it for my own solitary Sunday rides southeast of the city. In Milwaukee, every winter provided more than enough snow for the bike to get its work outs on the short commute to campus. The rust, thanks to road salt and sub-par maintenance, took its toll, however. Still, after the move to Holland the bike always got me to the train station or to area lake ice when called upon. And now it too is in the dumpster.

Finally the Colnago, with its beautiful Mapei paint job, showing tumbling colored cubes on a white background. I'd like to think that this is not the end of the line for it, but the guy who examined it knows what he's talking about. So here we go, for a fourth obituary: I was so pleased with this frame and the way we built it up in 2006. "We" were Mike Weber, the owner of the IS Corp Cycling Team, and I. The team was still riding Colnagos, and Mike thought I should have one too. We found this particular frame among the many that the team owned, and for the time being I would rent it, building it up with my own stuff. I especially liked the Ksyrium SL wheels we got for it, and even more exciting was that I had chosen, for the first time in my life, to ride sew-ups. They were very fancy Vittorias. It only took a week for me to learn my first sew-up lesson: you do not warm up on them, certainly not outside the course. The learning happened during the Waukesha Superweek criterium, when my rear tire began deflating slowly, almost taking me out a few times before I realized what was going on; the next morning, the front tire was flat too. I had picked up several pieces of glass, warming up in Waukesha traffic. The tires had been expertly glued to the new rims by the team mechanic, and I spent an agonizing hour trying to pull them off. But I'll never forget that first week racing on the new bike with the supple, brand-new, and firmly attached Vittorias—so maybe in the end they were worth the money. For the next six years, the Colnago would be my racing or summer bike, usually not brought out until some time in April and retired for the winter in late October. The Ksyriums I'd only use for racing until, living in Holland, I asked myself why on earth I would not ride my nice stuff, given that there seemed to be no racing in my foreseeable future. In 2009, it was the Colnago I used for my first ride up Mt. Ventoux. Did I look fantastic on it, wearing my IS Corp kit? You bet I did! Still, in 2012 it became time for a lighter and, I have to admit, slightly more comfortable carbon frame (the "Nikor"/Bonetti that helped shave almost nine minutes off my personal best on the Ventoux). Now the Colnago spent its time stored away, though still in sight. Almost every day I’d look up at it, admiring the paint job and feeling uneasy about never riding it any more. Late last summer I broke down: I should just use it and look fantastic. Because if you look fantastic, you'll feel fantastic, and then that's how your ride will be. I rode it all winter (now using a set of old clincher wheels), with as the final highlight—We Now Know—the first Dutch Midwinter Velominati Cogal on December 21 (sun-up to sun-down in wind and rain and good company; espresso prior, apple pie during, triple brew after!). More and more, however, I was aware of the creaking sounds emanating from underneath my seat. They had persisted after I took the seat apart to clean it and grease it up a little, which should have been an omen. The inside of the tube feeling perfectly smooth, however, I kept riding. I always thought that I'd keep the Colnago forever, as one of those beautiful classic bikes you take on a coffee ride on a sunny Saturday morning in the early spring. I suppose there will be new ways to look and feel fantastic. After all, it still is, and always will be, cycling.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Living Like a Cyclist: Haute Route Alps, 2013

When you are a cyclist with a day job, there are several ways in which you can be serious about that non-professional part of your life. Of course, you shave your guns, keep your material in proper working order, and generally demonstrate an awareness of the Rules, but ultimately it comes down to the quality of the riding that you do. Maintaining your license and racing a full schedule from week-to-week remains the standard. But if for one reason or another (lack of time on the weekends, not willing to risk a crash) that's not happening, it is not only important to get out three or more times a week and, as my own cycling mentor once put it, make sure that come May 100 kilometers doesn't take you much longer than three hours, you also look for opportunities to test yourself, preferably against others.
            It is hard to think of a better way to do this, even when you do race regularly, than participation in Haute Route. A relatively new phenomenon, Haute Route is perhaps the logical latest development in the growth of semi-competitive cycling events (cyclos, granfondos, and the like). They're competitive because they are timed; semi because entry is open to almost anyone. There are plenty of hairy legs, European posterior man satchels, and burly upper bodies in these events, but you'd better be a very good amateur if you want to ride at the front. Where most of these are one-day races, Haute Route takes a whole week, crossing the Alps all the way from Geneva to Nice. This seven-day stage race is the closest anyone not racing for a living can get to the real thing.  
            One reason that's is not just a hollow phrase, I can report from personal experience, is how they run the event. Haute Route Alps 2013 was the third edition (this year the organizers, OC Sport, have added an Haute Route Pyrenees, and for next year they're also working on a Dolomites version), and they make it all about the rider. It is actually a slightly disorienting experience if you don't go through life thinking it's all about you, because at every moment of every day, every aspect of the event, every staff person or volunteer you run into, is there to let you ride as well as you can. And when that's done, everything is geared toward helping you recover as efficiently and completely as possible and focus on the next day's stage. You're able to be in your own little world, worrying only about the riding (or racing)--everything else, all the logistics, anything that could possibly come up, is taken care of.
            This is not just very nice, it's also important because the stages are hard enough to require your constant and full attention, which must be another definition of a full-time cyclist's life. "Take lots of pictures," a friend urged me. Pictures? I barely had time to look around (honestly!), let alone stop and pull out a camera. The same with the famous towns where we finished (Megève, Val d'Isère, Serre Chevalier, Pra Loup, Auron). One of the selling points of this event is the beauty of the terrain covered, but if you want to see the beauty of the Alps, I suggest you take a vacation there. I'm usually one to look at several newspapers or news sites a day, but for the entire week of Haute Route, I never even wondered what might be going on outside of our little cocoon. The same with email or Facebook: no interest in reading or writing anything. The other riders? It would have been nice to talk to them longer, but I just did not have the required interest or energy. When you're in a tough stage race--and I suppose we were--the world becomes a narrow place, and for a week, it's great. Much longer, and alienation may set in, if race-related pressures don't get to you first.
            Part of the pressure is self-created, but the race has a way of reinforcing it. One of the many fine aspects of Haute Route's organization, for example, is the speed with which race results become public. People following the race at home can see how you got over the first and second climbs of the day well before you cross the finish line, but once you've arrived you can see your own placing and your position in the general classification within a few hours. Your sense of how you did on the bike gets matched with the reality at the finish line (to say nothing of your awareness of the excitement and expectations at the home front), and this immediately becomes part of how you approach the next stage.
            But we always approached Haute Route as a race. It wasn't a race we thought we could win, but in a way it was one we had prepared for all of our cycling lives. Cees, Gerard, and I have been going to the mountains to ride our bikes since the 1980s. As part of the full Team Cacolac we have organized our own races up the cols year in and year out, and in most years we organize our family vacations around cycling in the mountains. All this on top of trying hard to live like Cyclists in our daily lives. Well into middle age, we weren't going to waste a unique opportunity to see where we really stood.
            This does not mean that we all showed up as fully prepared as possible. Gerard injured himself twice in the run-up, losing precious weeks of training time, most debilitatingly when he bruised his shoulder in a crash three weeks before the start of the race. Grinding it out every day in his condition, he made the competition for the hard man award a very one-sided affair. Aside from having found it necessary to become a triathlete in recent years, Cees also undermined his otherwise solid preparation by choosing an extreme form of tapering by way of a three-week, bikeless family vacation to the United States shortly before the race. I myself had done less training, certainly of the uphill kind, than I would have liked prior to July, but was fortunate to make up a lot of ground during our vacation near Mont Ventoux and north of Verona.
            And so we arrived in Geneva the day before the start of the race--getting away with parking the car on the promenade alongside Lake Geneva, right at the entrance of the Haute Route village--to get our bikes checked, drop off our bike bags, and pick up our race numbers, Haute Route cycling kit, and Haute Route travel bag and back pack. The big bag would hold all our stuff and would be transported by the organization from one lodging place to the next; the backpack we were to leave at the start packed with a towel and a set of clean clothes, so that the organizers could have it available for us at the finish line. There, every day we would also find showers, massages, and a hot lunch--all (and much more) included with the 1,500 Euro entry fee. Ahead of the event, the entry fee seemed steep, also because the lodging/breakfast package came in separately at another few hundred Euros, but after just a few days in Haute Route we felt we were getting more than our money's worth.
            Having chosen the basic lodging package, we spent the night at an underground bomb shelter in a Geneva park, where we found clean sheets, plenty of room in the bunk-style sleeping areas, and several Haute Route staff guiding things along. Breakfast the next morning began at 5am at the starting line next to the lake. The 7am start itself, as always with everything the entire week, occurred on time. We rode the first hour in convoy formation, guided by cars and motorcycles, something we'd repeat from time to time in the following days. With more than 500 riders, some portions of the route simply were not suited for racing, and sometimes riders stayed at different locations and had to be brought together at the start line first. It wasn't a fun way to ride, but the organizers made sure to keep these neutralized, non-timed sections to a minimum.
            In the town of Taninges--France now--we were finally let off the leash to tackle the first climb of the week, the Col de l'Encrenaz. It's a nice climb, but it takes work, probably more so that day because most of us were still looking to find our climbing legs. I rode up carefully, reminding myself that this was a three-climb, 153k day, the first one of seven tough ones. Cees crested about twenty meters ahead of me, and after grabbing a few things off the refreshment table, we started the descent together. I felt good on the next climb that followed quickly, the Joux Plane (up from Morzine, of which I saw nothing), but waited for Cees at the top, only to leave him behind again on the exciting way down. Eventually we both became part of a group that collaborated reasonably well down in the valley riding back to Taninges for a left turn toward Araches. This led to one of the week's infamous connecting climbs: visible on the daily graphs as climbs but not categorized as such, even though they were just as hard, if not harder, than some of the named cols. By this time, the day had turned warm, with temperatures reaching 30 Celsius. We needed the feed stop in Araches. After desending into the next valley, the one connecting to the final climb of the day, we were unexpectedly joined by two local riders out for their Sunday ride, and suddenly we found ourselves rotating at 40 k/h where we should have been preserving our energy for the climb to Megève. But who is going to pass up such an opportunity? Not us. Suppressing oncoming cramps (they stayed away) we began what turned out to be a nasty few kilometers to the run-in toward the finish. At the bottom, Cees declared that if "he was riding easy" he might just bypass the final feedzone, halfway up the climb. But once there, he took off his shoes and told me to go ahead. This I did, eventually using the final nearly flat 5k as a kind of cool down section (unlike the pros we would not have our trainers at the ready next to our team buses). It had been a pretty tough first day, and, it would turn out, we had been pretty cautious, finishing between 250th and 260th place. Gerard got through the first stage too, but his face afterwards showed that the day had been a lot harder for him than for us. He looked like he had been to a very bad place and back, clinging to Rule #5 all day like a castaway to a piece of driftwood.
            On day two it became clear that where Cees and I had been cautious on the first day, others had not. We finished about 100 places higher, and this is roughly where we remained the rest of the week. Our advance must have been due mainly to the retreat of others, because our basic approach ("it's still a long way to Nice") did not change too much. We did decide to spend less time at the feed stops, but those gains can only have been marginal (after all: at some point one needs to pee, and one certainly needs to pick up food and keep one's bottles filled). Perhaps we pushed the pace a little more, but we both also backed off consciously several times when the pace of a group we had joined seemed too ambitious. Starting near the back again we spent most of the first climb, the pleasant Col de Saisies, passing people, next held our places on the rather long and cumbersome Cormet de Roselend, and at the end of the day had our hands full with the climb toward Val d'Isère. That climb is actually part of the Col de l'Iseran, formally on the program (its final 16k) for the next day. The organizers steered us off the main road as much as possible, but those side roads usually are steeper. Mercifully, due to road construction on the way into town, the timed part of the stage ended well before Val d'Isère--at the big dam at Tinee-1800 to be precise. That left us with just over 100 timed kilometers, notably easier than stage one.
            What's Val d'Isère like? Well, there's a big parking garage where you can (had to) leave your bike until the next morning; there's an athletic center where you can shower, get a massage, and eat your hot lunch; and there's also a grocery store where you can get some food to eat when you get to your hostel after the daily briefing. There's probably other stuff, but we didn't look for it, then or at the 7am start of the marathon stage (164k) the next morning. At almost 1800m altitude, that early start was a bit chilly: 5C in town, and a little less at the top (2770m) of the Iseran, which we got to enjoy immediately. I saw enough on the way up to know that it's an absolutely beautiful pass, and I'd say I've never done a prettier descent than going down on the other side. I was worried about cold hands, but the main challenge came when my sunglasses fogged up riding through some clouds a few kilometers past the summit. Next I rumbled solo into the valley leading to the second climb, the Col du Mont Cenis. I had good momentum for a while, but no company, and therefore sat up briefly when I saw a group coming up from behind. Our group shattered the moment we hit the climb, with me dropping some guys and letting others ride ahead.
            The fun in this stage really started on the way down from the Col du Mont Cenis, however. On the pretty section by the lake at the top of the climb, Canadian ex-mountain biker and third woman in the race, Marg Fedyna (read her report, with pictures, here), caught up with me, stating that she could "use a buddy" for this windy, rolling section, which we next did together on the way to the long, curvy descent into the Italian town of Susa. About that descent, let's just say that with Marg on my wheel I made very good progress. Suddenly, for example, a few kilometers before Susa there was Cees at the back of a group. I just had enough time to recognize him as we blew by before squeezing past the race ambulance assisting some unfortunate rider in a tight, steep corner. There was lots of momentum left when we reached Susa proper. The right turn into the town center having been completely cleared by several carabinieri, and with quite a few locals watching behind the barriers, I decided we might as well just dive into that turn. It was Italy, after all, where they know a thing or two about cycling. And so we dove, and it was great. Susa had not been completely cleared of traffic, but we worked our way through it very quickly anyway, and then the road started going up again for the first of several connecting climbs on a long and tough stretch to Bardonecchia. Marg let me go here because she wanted to stop and take off some of her warm clothing. I chose to continue, putting my vest into a pocket of the second jersey I was wearing on top, now fully unzipped. The descent had put me in the neighborhood of stronger riders than I had seen all week. One of them, Christian "Spartacus" Lengyel, a big strong Austrian in his thirties, had shared a room with us the previous two nights. He had finished in the top 100, he had told us, and we had been much impressed. I was in a small group chasing down another small group on the big, ugly connecting climb everybody had forgotten about when I suddenly pulled up next to him: "hi Christian."
            But even though the highpoints came in quick succession that day, I soon began to wonder if I wasn't overdoing it a little. I mean, this group that formed on the way to Bardonecchia wasn't wasting any time, they were most definitely racing. I could hold my own in the rotation, but for me, this was more a pace for when the finish line would actually be fifteen kilometers up the road. Or maybe it would still have been a responsible thing to do if this stage had been the final one. But the stage finish would not be in Bardonecchia--the third climb of the day would begin there. And Haute Route was not scheduled to wrap up that evening in Serre Chevalier--instead, there were four hard days still to come. So about five kilometers outside of Bardonecchia, as I was following Christian during one of his Cancellara pulls, I let myself drift out of the group, wishing them well. Some were still at the feed station in Bardonecchia when I arrived (just about out of water), but then soon Cees also arrived in a group of his own. And as I started up the last climb, Col de l'Echelle, Marg was back too. Again she was going to let me go, because she needed a sanitary stop. But Marg is tough, and so she caught me again on the other side, where I had just joined forces with two new guys. "Well, you guys weren't racing," was her response to my incredulous look. In Briançon, just ten kilometers before the finish, I also dropped out of this group, again choosing to play it safe. The damage remained limited. In the final 5k a local rider suddenly came by and positioned herself directly in front of me before starting to ride tempo for a kilometer or two. Then she pulled off, yelling that it now was only one more kilometer to the line, and “allez!” I finished in 131st, my highest placing so far, and again: no cramps, and a good appetite afterwards.
            The question of whether I could have done more, if I perhaps should have stayed with one of these groups, received a partial answer the next, 119k day, and the answer was: probably not. After riding down convoy-style to Briançon (another early and cold start), the first climb of stage four was the Col d'Izoard. This went alright, but on the next one, the lovely 20k-long Col de Vars, the legs started to feel a little stiff--as if they were tired. The feeling persisted after the descent (where we registered the top speed for the week) when again I was fortunate to find a good group of riders to collaborate on the way to the final climb, the ascent to Pra Loup. Cees was there, and so were some other guys I knew a little by now, and I told everyone that I was going to ride up very carefully so as to avoid cramping up. Cees got a little ahead of me, and so did Gerald O'Donoghue of Ireland and Francois Le Maut of France (the only 60+ rider to finish the week ahead of me—by half an hour, no less). But then the cramps didn't come and a good amount of power did, allowing me to pass all these guys again and get through the annoyingly long and steep final kilometer in decent shape. Showers came in the form of Port-a-Johns, cold, but they worked; my massage was so stellar it almost put me to sleep; the local lunch crew was kind as ever, and eating lunch outdoors was simply wonderful. But I was tired and looking forward to lying down on my bed, down at the boarding school in Barcelonnette. It would take a little while before we got there, because Gerard, who was having an easier time of it, (at least, we never saw that death mask of the first day again), broke three spokes in his rear wheel on the ride down the hill. Eventually we limped into Barcelonnette, where the local bike shop could not help him. A little later we finally reached our boarding school, only to learn that our room was on the fourth floor, our overloaded Haute Route bags on the floor in the lobby, and the elevator out of service.
            But then relaxation began--aside from those wicked stairs. Stage five the next day would be a time trial to the Cime de la Bonnette from the nearby town of Jausiers. Just one climb, only 23k for the day, albeit to 2802m. This meant we'd be in Barcelonnette for two nights, and it meant a late start the next day, at least for Cees and me. It might as well have been a rest day. Suddenly we found ourselves eating dinner at an outdoor restaurant in the center of town. What was this, vacation or something? Gerard left for Jausiers early in the morning to make sure he could borrow a wheel from the Mavic support crew (and get his cassette transferred). It was a beautiful day (we were lucky to have nothing but beautiful weather all week) and I rode well. As I was finding my legs in the early part of the time trial, I realized that the reason this felt familiar was that during several vacations near Mont Ventoux in recent years, I had done this kind of ride many times. Hey, this was my thing! Fortunately, the legs no longer had the stiffness of the previous day and I was able to push it a little. Even though riders started (from a podium) twenty seconds apart with the higher-ranked people leaving later, nobody passed me on the way up, and I finished 122nd, my best placing of the week. I was now in 158th place overall and it looked like I might be able to finish the week higher than my race number (156).
            Things initially looked up the next day, when Cees and I did a pretty good ascent of the awesome Col de Cayolle, cresting in 120th and 121st place respectively. For safety reasons the organizers had decided to interrupt the timing at the top (the same measure was in force for the rough and tricky descent later in the day of the Col de Couillole), and so everyone did the non-timed portions differently. Some took long breaks, others basically kept riding, everyone lost sight of how everyone else was doing. I felt I was doing o.k., but did not push it too hard on the second climb of the day, the Valberg. We had all talked about how tough the final, slightly uphill, 30k section through the valley of the Tinee was going to be, and that it would be followed by the eight kilometer climb up to the finish in Auron. Then on the short descent from Valberg one of the security people riding along on a motorbike pointed at my rear wheel, which indeed was wobbly. Loose spoke, the second time after this Ambrosio wheel had been rebuilt by the factory in June. Not supposed to happen, but what can you do? Would he call the Mavic guys? “Non.” I suppose this wasn't serious enough, because when I opened my brake, it was possible to continue riding.
            This I did, but without conviction. I would just ride it home if the wheel held up, that would be good enough for the day. It had been a good week, and if this was the worst mishap, it would still be a good week. So for the remainder of the timed section to the top of the third climb of the day, the Col de Couillole, I lost a good amount of time. Thinking I’d fill my bottles one more time at Isola, in the valley, I rode by the feed station at the top, carefully made my way down the other side, and crossed the timing mat at the bottom all alone. It was getting warm. Up ahead in the distance I saw a small group ride away, but there was no way I was going to bridge up. It was one of these situations where you have to tell yourself (and I did): “so you like to ride your bike and put in a little effort? well, it’s all here, so do quick review of Rule #5 and pursue your passion.” Ticking off the hectometers one-by-one, I was suddenly passed by, as his race number said, David from New Zealand. As he rode by he gestured to his rear wheel indicating I should grab it. David was going well, and all I could do for a few kilometers was hang on. Even that got to be too hard, and I did the last couple of kilometers to Isola—about halfway to the final climb—solo again. Then, just before Isola, it was back to racing. A group including Marg caught up to me, and again I was told, by her, to pick it up. It was a good group, and with another 15k or so to go in the valley I would have been foolish to let them ride. I checked my bottles and decided I could probably just make it to the line with what was left in them.
            We all rode by that last feedzone, and people kept it going as if we didn’t have to do a fourth climb. All I could do was hold my position in the rotation, pulling off almost immediately when getting to the front. The group was going so well that as we approached the start of the climb, David from New Zealand came into view again. I was worried we would pass him with me in the lead (what would I say?), but then we were on the climb. Whether it was because this was a 143k stage on day six, the extra energy spent due to the broken spoke, the pace in the group, or the fact that after Isola I had put myself on a miserly ration of one sip of water every mile (it was probably a combination of all of these), that ascent to Auron was the toughest stretch of the week for me. It’s a real climb, kicking up to 7-9% in the middle, but it’s relatively short and on the whole nothing too special. But I did long parts of it in my lightest gear, 39x28, and was glad just to get there. I was also just about out of water and therefore extremely happy, though not immediately able to express that happiness, to find the daily post-race refreshment table right at the finish line. From the faces of the people around me, I don’t think I was the only one who had suffered. Also right near the finish line was the Mavic crew, and they had my wheel fixed in ten minutes (as I told them, my next wheels, like my previous, will be a set of trouble-free Mavics). How badly did I suffer? Not enough to kill my appetite for either my daily scientific chocolate recovery bar or the hot lunch. In fact, I ate the latter prior to my massage because I worried that otherwise I’d get too hungry. So hard day shmart day. I had dropped back to 165th place, however, and the plan of matching or beating my race number would have to wait until another year. Further studying the results later that day, we saw that Cees had done the Valberg one minute faster than me. Proving that had he not hurt his shoulder prior to the race he would have been right up there with us, Gerard turned out to have covered the final section through the valley and up to Auron the quickest of Team Cacolac.
            After spending a remarkably restful, albeit short night on a thick gymnastics mat in the middle of the Saint Etienne-sur-Tinee gymnasium (along with a few dozen other riders), and a 5:30 breakfast in the stands, all that was left was the shortened final stage. The forecast called for major thunderstorms in the afternoon for the area north of Nice. This--at the Col de Vence, to be precise--was where we were supposed to complete Haute Route and be escorted by local police to our victory lap down the Boulevard des Anglais. But the police wanted us in Nice by one o'clock, and so the race organizers had decided to cut out the Col de Saint Martin, the first of two climbs planned for stage seven. What was left was a long ride down the valley, convoy-style: 60+ kilometers of being bunched up behind the motorcycles to the final climb of the week. This was made worse by the early hour, 7am, and the fact that until the very end of this stretch we rode in the shade, tucked away deep down between the mountains. It was, in short, another two-jersey, plus vest, plus arm warmers start of the day. When we finally crossed the timing mat for our ride to the Col de Vence, a lot of pent-up energy went looking for an outlet. The fact that these were the final 40k of the week further encouraged people just to lay it all out there, and the modest grade made it all the easier to turn the grand finale into a genuine hammerfest. It was something different, but it was fun, and it made missing the Col de Saint Martin a little easier to take. Naturally, I saw Marg several times during these 90 minutes: she, being paced by one or two riders, first caught up with me in the early part; then she fell back when the pace went up; next, with less than 10k to go, she caught me again, being paced by some dude in a big hurry; and finally I got ahead of her slightly on some short hills in the annoyingly long final kilometer. She could afford to give a little ground, because the day before she had eliminated her entire time deficit with me, and then some. I made a real effort in this final stage, but still lost one place in the overall standings, finishing the week in 166th place.
            Getting off our bikes in Nice, we were very pleased—and not just because once more there were people to watch our stuff while we swam in the Mediterranean and wandered around town for hours until it was time to get on the bus back to Geneva. This had been a pretty tough stage race where we had been able to live like full-time cyclists for a week. And in a field of pretty good riders, many younger than us, we had held our own. Whether this had been the hardest thing we had ever done in our lives, or if Haute Route ranked among our top-three best life experiences ever (characterizations found on the Haute Route website), is less important than that the week was everything we hoped it would be, and more. For most of our cycling lives, there had never been anything like this, although subconsiciously we always wished there would. This explains the excitement we felt, last year, when we discovered the existence of Haute Route. And now we had done it, and the whole thing had exceeded our expectations. In my book, that’s a pretty good definition of bliss.

left to right: Mediterranean, Gerard, Ruud, Cees, Mediterranean

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Cold War and Cycling--Together Again

It has been a long time since I've had anything to report about my own riding, and the kind of riding I've done is partly to blame. Yet, every time I begin to tell someone that this year I've just not done the kind of rides one would like to do (hilly rides, century rides, all-day-there's-nothing-else-that-really-matters-rides--no Sardinia!), I realize that, of course, I did do the Grandfondo Val di Cecina last March. Come to think of it, I had two weeks, in two different regions, in France with my bike in the summer. Furthermore, just this month, thanks to a nuclear history workshop held in nearby Prato, I did two very nice loops south of Florence (that would be Florence, Italy, not Florence, Kansas--although I would not mind at all doing a Flint Hills ride again). So what's my problem? I don't know either. The Granfondo was spring training (although, with a good friend of mine, one might rightly ask: training what for, mr. "I-don't-race-anymore"?), France was summer vacation (but with beautiful roads in the Tarn region, and this, this, and this climb, among others, in the Alps), and this month, Cold War (the workshop) and cycling (the couple of extra days we took in Florence) came back together again. Why not take a few extra days if you have to travel to a place like Tuscany? Especially if there's an institution such as Florence By Bike? I was able to rent a full carbon Bianchi from them for two days, and not only that, they also went out of their way to help me find my way around. How many kilometers was I thinking of? Did I like to climb? And so they mapped out a 105 km loop with lots of up-and-down on quiet little roads. Given that all this was south of Florence (in the direction of Siena), there's no need to dwell on the fact that it was also a beautiful loop. I was surprised, however, how quickly after leaving town the roads already got quiet (almost the whole way to Impruneta, with its metally-tasting water). After Impruneta, I had the roads almost to myself (or so it felt): Strada in Chianti, Dudda to Radda in Chianti, and back up via Lucarelli, Panzana, Mercatale, to San Casciano. The last twenty kilometers back into the city (by way of Galluzzo) were a little busier, but it was still rolling, it was still Tuscany, so nobody heard me complain. The loop was so nice, I did it twice, also because the second time around I would not have to stop so often to double-check my map. I'd certainly recommend it, but not to a beginner. On the way out, there are some nice, longer, steady climbs, maxing out around 6%; between Panzana and Mercatale you get treated to steeper up-and-down stuff, where on the short 10-12% uphill sections it's hard to find a rhythm. On the whole, an excellent loop if you'd like to get a real ride that still leaves you with a little energy for strolling around Florence later in the day. About that nuclear history business, I'll write something later.

Friday, October 14, 2011

America, the Economizing Power

My friend and colleague Jeremi Suri, he of the new Liberty's Surest Guardian, has an op-ed in the New York Times today in which he argues that the United States rigorously should set priorities--and shed responsibilities and ambitions--in foreign policy. This goes beyond the Obama administration's national security strategy of last year (although it echoes it), and it also goes beyond the Libya "leading from behind" mantra. I like the article but wonder whether it doesn't expect too much of the president, who, of course, should still lead, and too little of others, especially the Republican opposition. Suri's first national priority, after all, is to preserve the dollar's global reserve currency status, and if there's anything we've learned this year is that getting America's financial house in order requires bi-partisan decisions. There's more to be said about this piece, which does get us into the specifics of how a declining hegemon like the U.S. ought to reorder its priorities, but I have to go read about the Cold War now.

Friday, September 23, 2011

It's More Than a Political Crisis, It's an Existential One

It's hard not to think all the time about the crisis that Europe is wading into ever more deeply. Reading the papers these days really reminds of the stories from the early years of the Great Depression: lots of trouble, availability of certain effective responses, but inability of leaders to implement them, individually or collectively, and often even measures that exacerbate the problems. I'm not an expert on international finance or economics, but there are many people writing who are, and if you try to interpret what they're really saying, the picture is grim. Greece won't be able to pay its debts (ever) or even meet Europe's requirements for the next transfer of aid money, but European leaders can't recognize this, even though to some observers (for example my trusty Economist) it's been clear for close to two years. The consequences of a restructuring of the Greek debt would hurt, especially in better-off European countries, like France and Germany, but it would hurt far less than continued uncertainty--uncertainty about what will happen to Greece (stay within the Euro, or not? go bankrupt, and if so, in what way?), but uncertainty especially about whether "Europe" is capable of addressing its most fundamental problems in an effective way. This particular kind of uncertainty also makes it more likely that other European countries become more vulnerable to falling market confidence. Some, we've all seen their names mentioned regularly, do have structural weaknesses in their economies and large budget deficits, but the biggest problem seems to be lack of confidence in "Europe's" ability to contain the real crisis to the weakest link--Greece--and protect the others.

The past day or two, we hear a lot more talk of a likely Greek debt restructuring, but this doesn't mean that the Euro zone's political leaders have accepted its inevitability, let alone their respective public opinions. So we still need to get leaders, Merkel, Sarkozy, to accept the inevitable. Once we get there, however, the next step is reaching a concrete European agreement on this new course, which for its part will then have to be cleared by the many national parliaments. (And as of today, September 23, we're still waiting for the ratification of Europe's last major plan for Greece and the Euro zone, dating back to July 21. You read that right: it's crisis time, but Europe takes more than two months to ratify essential and urgent plans to deal with the situation. Democracy is messy, but this looks more like self-mutulation).

Time is of the essence here, and the way "Europe" operates therefore virtually assures failure. "Europe" has always operated this way through its half-century of integration: very incrementally, often acrimoniously, certainly not always logically, let alone efficiently. (In hindsight, it really wasn't such a good idea to launch a common currency before having the concomitant common fiscal and economic policies in place). According to Angela Merkel recently (probably the one person who could, if she wanted to take the political risk, enforce a different modus operandi) it's still the way things get done, and her implication was that we'll just have to accept this. The scary thing is: she may be right: "Europe" as it exists right now--its institutions, its political leadership, its peoples--really may not be able to act swiftly and decisively, not even when the future of its currency, its standard of living, perhaps its many accomplishments since the 1950s are at stake. Measures that on the merits would make the most sense are politically unreachable, and so leaders don't want to go there, or they go there so slowly as to make the whole process virtually irrelevant.

And so too little gets done too late. That's irritating, but not lethal, in good times. In a dangerous financial situation such as ours today, it may well lead, not just to a new major global financial and economic downturn, it could also end "Europe" as we know it. Of course, if "Europe" can't, won't reach for available, constructive measures to save itself, by definition it cannot be saved, doesn't deserve to be. We'll be sorry in a few years, because for all of "Europe's" significant flaws, life without it is likely to be more chaotic and less prosperous, for Europeans, but also others. It's not that long ago that, in an disorderly post-Cold War or post 9/11 world, we thought that at least Europe had figured out how to work together on an ever-growing number of subjects--a model for other regions, really. Boy, were we all wrong.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Froome Watch: Stage Winner

Our man attacked, got reeled back in, and attacked again for the stage win. For a minute, it looked as if his attack on today's final climb would take him to the overall lead, but Juan Jose Cobo didn't really crack but instead fought himself back to Chris's wheel and even passed him. You could see how both racers were each giving the absolute maximum. But after being passed, Chris found it within himself to get to the finish, and the 20 seconds bonification, first. He was, however, just one second ahead of Cobo, who himself receives 12 extra seconds, and so the total gain was only nine seconds, which still leaves Chris 13 seconds short of the race lead. But it was the most exciting couple of minutes of bike racing I've watched all year. Chris just did his post-race interview and called today perhaps his hardest day ever on the bike. It showed, and what more can one expect? He's on the podium now, and actually looks the women in the eye (all around nice guy!). There aren't too many opportunities left, but Madrid is still a couple of days away (he's happily spraying the champagne around now), so who knows. It won't be the fans who will keep him from winning, if we go by today's conduct. When Chris was on the attack, and Cobo appeared to be cracking, I worried about some person interfering with the race, but even though (as usual on these steep climbs) the fans were all over the road, people cheered Chris just about as enthusiastically as Cobo. So there's probably some battle left, although Cobo seems very strong (and he has a good team). But it's awfully close, especially with these bonification bonuses at the finish every day. Of course, second in the Vuelta is more than anyone, including this Froome fan, expected at the outset. Chris himself seems very pleased too, and why not? It's his big breakthrough: grand tour contender--how many people can say that?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Froome Watch: Live

I am taking a break to watch the last hour of today's stage in the Vuelta, and who's mixing it up in the last intermediate sprint, coming away with two seconds time gain? Yes indeed. On Sunday, Chris also left his leader, Wiggins, behind on the horribly steep Angrilu, and now he's the best-placed rider on his team with a shot at the final victory. My Flemish commentators, Michel Wuyts and Jose de Cauwer, have been in awe of Chris for days now, and who can blame them?