Archive | June, 2009

The Four Impossibilities of Radio-Free Racing

30 Jun

395030425_b566d38978_oIt’s not like I haven’t covered this before, but I feel I ought to touch again on the radio issue. With two stages of this year’s Tour de France to be run radio-free, there’s a significant groundswell of support for the out-and-out prohibition of radios in professional cycling.

I’ve characterized this group—largely for comic effect—as retro-grouch luddites, and for the most part, that’s not true. The No-Radio crowd comes from across the sport, and bases its argument on well-meaning but misguided notions that banning radios will somehow lead to “more exciting” racing.

Case in point—Bernard Hinault, who’s said that radios make cyclists “just a ‘Game Boy’ that has a gigolo attached at the end telling the racer when to take a piss”. Big words from a man who won his final Tour de France by having his DS to drive up the road and call off Greg Lemond.

Hinault’s oversight is typical of radiophobes. The fact remains that even after radios are eliminated, Four Impossibilities will still have to be overcome to arrive at the Utopian racing ideal most of the anti-radio faction seems to strive for:

  • No Race Vehicles—Cars and motorcycles can report on distance and time to breakaways with a fair degree of accuracy—every time a domestique goes back for bottles, information is exchanged, and even in the age of radios, drivers still drive up to talk to riders when necessary.

  • No Broadcast Signals—Making sure no one has an earpiece in is easy. But you cannot possibly monitor the staggering array of portable electronic devices now available to riders. Updates via text, or based on GPS data would be essentially impossible to block without shutting down *all* communication in the caravan. That means no race radio and no live TV broadcast, either.

  • No Politics—Do you think it was coincedence that this break succeeded? Or that it was just stronger than the entire peloton? Or do you think it was because Postal didn’t want to defend yellow for the week leading into the mountains, and waited for a group with no serious threats that would give a Frenchman a solid GC lead? Like it or not, in a three-week race, watts and radios are generally the last factor in determining who stays away and who gets reeled back.

  • No Targeting Races—Even without the guidance of radio communication, it’s more than apparent that today’s peloton is strong enough to reel in the break in the overwhelming majority of races. Only when legs are tired and when saving energy is a priority can a break reliably succeed, and unless the entire peloton is putting in 75+ days of racing a year, the domestiques will continue to do their job with devastating efficiency.

Despite this, I continue to assert that the deepest flaw in the arguments against race radios is that today’s cycling is somehow “boring”. Would Cancellara’s epic win in 2007 have happened without the peloton’s seemingly inevitable catch? Did radios stop Kanstantsin Sivtsov or Danilo DiLuca from seizing the initiative and snatching stage wins and seconds at this years’ Giro?

Even on the “routine” days, when the peloton makes their usual catch, the run-up to a group sprint is one of the most exciting aspects of a cycling race. The high-speed battle for position, the line switching as one lead-out peels off and another begins, the sweeping, high-risk corners—you could spend hours pouring over the same 3 minutes of footage and see something new every time.

Those who have no appreciation for the group gallop would be far better served by attempting to deepen their appreciation and understanding of the sport, rather than shoehorning it into their own narrow set of tastes and whims.

A Different Kind of Retrospective

29 Jun

3308938869_460dbfbe01Velonews has started posting video retrospectives in recognition of the 10th anniversary of Lance Armstrong’s first Tour win.

They’ve still got some work to do on page layout, and the voiceover isn’t quite synced, nor up to How The Race Was Won standards, but it’s good to see they’ve taken my advice and begun embedding the videos in HTML pages so Google can see them.

Anyway, I thought I’d post my own retrospective here. Since Livestrong.com now posts Armstrong’s test results (BTW, charts should be saved as PNGs, not JPGs), I figured I’d try to compare it to some older data on Lance’s blood work.
I wish I had some actual numbers, but “fit to start” was apparently all the vampires recorded during their hematocrit tests.

Now, this isn’t a particularly significant finding. As I’ve mentioned before, hematocrit is variable to the point of being useless; prone to deviating upward, and easy to manipulate in the other direction. Lance himself was quite sensitive to the possibility of misinterpretation of hematocrit figures when he began releasing his test data.

That having been said, it sure is tempting to watch how Armstrong rode in the Giro and think that it might just be how’d you’d expect an athlete of Lance’s size and relatively pedestrian hematocrit to ride. I certainly think, given that Lance has been racing since January, it’s more likely than the Astana party line of Armstrong being slow following his collarbone injury in Spain.

Guess it’s just another question we’ll hopefully get an answer to this July.

Astana's Tour Selection is a Ticking Bomb

28 Jun

lance_johanI like Johan Bruyneel. I think he’s a savvy, solid DS, knows how to play out a good hand as well as anyone, and can handle the occasional a curveball. He even has a book, and apparently, it’s a decent read.

But I think, some years down the road, if anyone ever writes book about him, this year’s Tour selection could be the moment they single out when everything—the aura of invincibility, the unshakeable confidence, the entire Cult of Johan—came rattling apart.

There’s no question that Astana’s Tour roster is stacked—and that should be the first sign of trouble ahead. Bruyneel has always been an active buyer of talent in the off-season—José Acevedo and Triki Beltran each had huge performances in assisting Armstrong to Tour wins—but they were never serious TdF contenders in their own right. Roberto Heras, Tyler Hamilton, and Floyd Landis each went on to become top-tier candidates for Tour victory, but only after their work for the Texan highlighted their potential.

Bruyneel’s high-level approach to the Tour has always been to assemble riders of talent around a single, pre-determined contender. After Discovery’s utterly average performance at the 2006 Tour, Bruyneel went after the best available riders in an attempt to return to this strategy, and in a race more notable for its absences, came away with a win thanks to the expulsion of Michael Rasmussen. However, Astana’s exclusion from the 2008 edition due to questions over Alberto Contador kept Bruyneel from re-employing his one-man, one-mission strategy.

This year, however, Bruyneel is back, and has a Tour squad with more contenders than there are steps on the podium (Kloeden, Leipheimer, Contador and Armstrong), and not one of those names has ever played a meaningful Grand Tour support role. Contador, Leipheimer, and Kloeden have ridden with other contenders as teammates, but their interactions could be better described as detente than teamwork.

Mark my words: this will be a problem. In 2003, the only time Lance was ever under pressure at the Tour, the presence of Triki Beltran in a strategic breakaway was instrumental in Armstrong’s win. You think that if Contador is under pressure with Leipheimer is 15 minutes up in a break, the Spaniard’s hand-picked domestique Paulinho will play along and not chase? Conversely, will the American not drive the breakaway to further his own chances?

Another scenario: Condator’s in yellow, with Armstrong near the top of the GC, and the Spaniard starts suffering on the climb. Do you you think the 7-time Tour winner is going to sit back and help pace the struggling favorite? Or will he jet off Bernard Hinault-style to further secure his place in the history books? And, if Lance goes off the reservation, can his long-time protege Yaroslav Popovych really be counted upon bring the Texan back?

kloedenThen there’s Andreas Kloeden—the rider who seems incapable of finishing anywhere between the podium and the broomwagon. He didn’t help Ullrich in 2004, and he didn’t help Vino’ in 2007; why call up an unreliable, individual actor with a checkered past over a solid company man like Horner—especially considering the German was on the receiving end of Armstrong’s crushing “no gifts” win in 2004.

There’s only one way this works out well for Bruyneel. Armstrong—as I mentioned in one of my first tweets—remains irrelevant, riding well but out of the top 20. Levi cracks on a climb early, and Andreas Kloeden forgets his good legs while packing for France. Contador doesn’t do anything stupid, and the whole team rides for him. Any turn of events other than that, and there will be drama.

The rebuttal to all this has been “Johan will keep them in line, just like he always does.” I say that’s BS. Johan’s never had to manage a team with more than two contenders, and even then, it wasn’t exactly a stirring example of teamwork. Getting Victor Hugo-Pena to ride back for bottles in the maillot jaune is a far cry from getting three top-ten riders to fall on their swords for a fourth. Astana may be stacked, but in my opinion, it’s a perfect storm for a dark horse like Roman Kreuziger to come away with the win.

$300 on eBay: Your $4000 Frame

26 Jun

If there’s a bike company that exemplifies everything I find ludicrous about the industry, it would be Kuota. From their rococo frame designs, paint jobs (or lack thereof), and high price tags, right down to the .it URL (even Campy isn’t that brand-obsessed), you’d be hard pressed to find a bike trying harder to draw attention away the shortcomings of its rider’s pe…personality.

Kredoframe

Even worse, of course, was having to endure the masturbatory, scienceless prose of Charles Manantan at Pez every time he got set up with another bike (“…the vibration that does make it’s[sic] way up all the curves doesn’t get focused directly toward your butt via the seat tube, but rather skirts around it and goes to the top tube!”). His Kuota reviews always aroused particular ire in me, probably because I’m the sort of guy who enjoys spending a few minutes Googling things. Consider the following passage from his Khan review:

I don’t mean to get boring here, but I have to speak about the build quality. It is the logical result when the factory is an ISO 9002 approved facility. That means they have to live up to top flight standards not generally associated with the cycling industry.

ISO 9002, in case you’re wondering, has nothing to do with bikes. It’s a now-obsolete set of standards for running a quality management system. Here it is at a fish wholesaler in Japan. The China Bicycle Corporation, makers of this awesome ride and thousands more like it, is among this apparently select fraternity of manufacturers able to boast ISO 9000 certification as part of their press kit.

56

Anyway, I mention this because something interesting came up in eBay’s automatically generated “we think you’ll like” widget today. I don’t want (and shouldn’t have) to tell you it’s a Kuota Kredo—mostly because of the flood of “OMG weave angle is *totally* different” comments—but I will say that eBay is chock full of them, and at very reasonable prices, too.

So the next time a salesman, or some douchey Fred of a rider gets uppity about his bike, feel free to redirect him (they are almost invariably male) this post. Because while it’s especially satisfying to see a Kuota sold like this, the fact remains that this sort of thing happens to nearly every brand—and many end up back on the market, often wearing someone else’s paint.

By now, it should be common knowledge world’s bike frames are all produced in the same handful of East Asian factories—and for the most part, those factories do an awesome job. Certainly, outside the realm of custom-fit rigs from Serotta and Indy Fab, you will never notice the difference between the finest stuff Shenzhen churns out, and factory-built rides from Euro brands like Time.

If you’re in the market for a new rig, focus on fit, parts, cost, and service (in that order) and do your best to forget that any of that other stuff even exists.

When it Rains…

25 Jun

rainsYeah, so as if WordPress nuking every file on my server wasn’t bad enough, there was a brief mix-up with DNS records that temporarily bumped Cyclocosm.com to a GoDaddy parked URL page.

The whole rigamarole would have been fixed much sooner—and possibly avoided entirely—if Verizon, my grundle of an ISP, hadn’t spent hours redirecting me to Bangalore, where a series of phone-mashers pretended that they had fake Anglo-Saxon names and that disconnecting my router from the phone jack would magically fix everything.

Long story short, I’m still sitting in my shoe box apartment, watching the simple-minded prattle of no-radio retro-grouches trickle onto my screen at 0.05Mbps—and knowing my bandwidth issues will only harden their fervor. No doubt we can expect petitions demanding a return to cup-and-cone bottom brackets as they continue to advance their Byzantine agenda.

For as anyone with half a brain knows, all cycling’s ills are a result of technological advances, and the racing was far better when race tactics involved dropping tacks, hopping trains, and carrying 2 spare tubulars and a large spanner over 400k-long stages. Truly, the second Tullio Campagnolo invented the quick-release, the sport was set on its inevitable track to the Festina Affair.

And then there’s the ASO, the transparent, level-headed, and above all, equitable body in charge of cycling’s biggest event. They’re a pillar of truth and honesty in a sport clouded by unscrupulous hard chargers like the Quick.Step team. Couldn’t those stupid Belgians just be like Caisse d’Epargne and have the social grace to simply leave controversial riders off the Tour roster?

Or, better yet, be like Team Katusha, and cover up a string of positive tests with a comically draconian anti-doping policy. While I suppose Russians might intuitively have a better grasp on overcompensation than the people of Flanders, Quick.Step should have at least inferred from the caravan vehicles of middling French squads that a some token distraction is the best way to make up for a shortcoming where it actually matters.

New Ag2r Jersey: Corrected

19 Jun

So Ag2r, perennial also-ran at the Tour de France, has announced a new jersey for this year’s edition of the Grand Bouclé. Unfortunately, there was a mix-up at the printers, but through my European contacts, I’ve managed to get a copy of the actual jersey the team will be using this June:
Ag2r_corrected

If you’re curious, the font is Proxima Sans Medium, but Gill Sans MT Bold is a passable (and free) stand-in.

And June Slogs Slowly Onward

16 Jun

So I’ve told you, many a time, that smaller stage races don’t do it for me. Don’t get me wrong, its awesome to see a dude like Sylvester Szmyd, who turned himself inside out feeding the whims of the schizophrenic helper monkey driving the Liquigas team car last month, take a stage on storied climb like Mount Ventoux.

But with Valverde almost certainly out of next month’s Tour, it’s just an evil tease to watch him race well. It’s like seeing a baseball hitter go on a nasty run when his team has already been eliminated from the playoffs.

Likewise, it’s great to see Cancellara back on form at the Tour de Suisse. But as awesome as 19 seconds over 8k is, it’s a niche accomplishment. No one is going to look back in 30 years and say “man, remember that time Cancellara went way fast in the Tour de Suisse prologue?” Even if this had happened at the Tour, it’d be a footnote.

Speaking of footnotes, let me a send a big Pavel Tonkov to the kids at Cyclingnews.com. Their recent redesign eliminated years of reporting that exists essentially no where else on the Internet (daily, in-depth updates of the 1998 Tour de France, for example). Not only that, but your 404 page is utterly useless—no search, no related results, no “hey, try this”.

Even worse, pages that are less than a month old also fail to resolve (try Googling “Sylvester Szmyd axe man”), and instead redirect users to your main index page, without so much as a peep that the link is now dead.

How is it that I can nuke my entire server and be back in a matter of days, while Cyclingnews can spend months planning a redesign, and still manage to decimate their functionality? I blame the meddling of know-nothing print publishers on my beloved Internet—and would be glad to provide reasonably-priced consulting services to any websites about to make a similar mistake.

Technical Difficulties

16 Jun

cat-internet-failure
On top of a week-long hiatus for some girlfriend- and day job-related travel, I managed to nuke my server while trying to install WordPress 2.8. I would highly recommend backing up and turning off all widgets before attempting an update.

Anyway, the images are all missing and likely gone forever. Text, comments, formatting, etc. were all stored in databases and should be fine. Some small template changes have also been lost, but I can restore most of them from the Google cache.

We’re going to have the widgets off for a few days while we figure out what works and what doesn’t, but for the most part, things are back to normal.

Component Review Fail

11 Jun

“…it won’t snap, either.”

-Lennard Zinn, on Mavic’s r-sys spokes, May. 8, 2009

I had a definite sensation that Lennard Zinn would end up ruing this tech story on Mavic’s “improved” R-Sys wheel design. I know Zinn’s got a heck of a reach, but at a beefy 190, I still wouldn’t put money against fellow VeloNewsie Ben Delaney kicking his ass—once the shoulder has healed, of course.


But seriously, I have to wonder what any domestic amateur rider is doing on a set of carbon-spoked rims. “Spinergy” has been a punch line in the cycling community for years. Other than the still hand-assembled, still ridiculously expensive Lightweights, all the wheels in wide use in the peloton have steel spokes. Badass, expensive steel spokes, but steel, none the less. So why would domestic amateurs think carbon fiber spokes were an awesome idea? Why, I simply have no clue.

The Zircal aluminum spokes that were the centerpiece of Mavic’s formerly awesome Ksyrium wheels held up pretty well, but for the most part, stainless steel is the only reasonable material for the vast majority of spoking applications. It’s not like regular old steel spokes, or any other “outdated” tech is a heinous performance hit—in my favorite pro races, box rims and 3-cross, 32 spokes are de rigueur. George Hincapie tried some fancy Bonti Aeolus wheels (still with steel spokes, though) back in ’06, but even before his crash, he didn’t exactly tear away from the peloton.

However, the point of this rant is not that steel spokes and retro-grouchery are awesome. It’s that bike publications put readers at serious risk when they publish reviews, test rides or other “news” features that are essentially promotional puff-pieces for the manufacturers whose advertisements line their pages. It may be this attitude that keeps component manufacturers from sending me stuff, but, in light of this incident, it seems like a small price to pay.

I’m truly bummed that Ben Delaney got banged up. Hard crashes suck, and doubly so when your riding had nothing to do with them. But I can’t help but feel like his tumble was a few long overdue chickens come home to roost in Boulder. Certainly, if I wrote for Pez, I might do my next few workouts on the trainer, just to be safe.

Giro Win Elevates Menchov to Tour Favorite

2 Jun

For all the entertainment and (hopefully drug-free) drama of this year’s Giro, I think the biggest revelation to come out of it was that Denis Menchov now has to be the favorite for this years Tour de France.

Sure, Menchov has won Grand Tours before, but the Vuelta is different. I’ve poetically referred to it as The Dreamers’ Race, since Laurent Jalabert, Tony Rominger, Sean Kelly and a host of other would-be Tour contenders wrapped up titles in Spain during their fruitless quest for victory on Cycling’s biggest stage.

Plus, Menchov’s Vuelta wins weren’t anything like this year’s Giro. in 2005, he claimed he title through a doping positive (as the race wrapped up in Madrid, he was five minutes down). 2007’s victory was a more conventional affair, but still, the lanky Russian had a sizable cushion over the rest of the field, and was essentially unchallenged from the 9th stage onward.

This is significant, because to this point, the Russian’s Grand Tour MO has been to keep it close in the mountains and and TT, before fading toward the end. But in this Giro, Menchov stayed strong and maintained a hair-thin lead through a rotating, non-stop series of assaults from 4 former Giro winners and the reigning TdF champ. Granted, no one with the recent palmares of an Alberto Contador—but then again, what has the reigning Giro/Vuelta champ done for us lately?

Then there was the fact that this Giro had but a single long TT. The course wasn’t textbook, but Menchov still put 20 seconds into Levi Leipheimer—the same Levi Leipheimer that put more than two minutes into Contador in his last TdF time trial. Though the ’09 Tour only has a single 44k TT, it comes toward the end, leaving only a short Ventoux stage for any potential time reclamation from the climbers.

While Menchov’s Giro win wasn’t dominant, it was remarkably consistent. Other than a few final-meter time losses, he ceded no real time in the mountains. He claimed to feel fresh at the end of it, and given his stage-winning pace when he hit a slippery section of cobbles inside the final kilometer, I’m inclined to believe him. It’s not world beating stuff, but it’s better than anything we’ve seen from the other contenders so far.