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Cyclocross: Cycling's George W. Bush

19 Dec

Man drinking beer on bikeAh, Cyclocross—scruffy, fun-loving younger brother of road cycling. None of the endless training and expense, all of the fun, dirt, and beer handups, right? Surely this is the most populist of all sports, is it not?

No, actually—not even close. Not since a third-generation Yalie picked up a Texas accent and ran for President as a Washington Outsider has a brand been so obviously out of sync with its own reality. Cyclocross, while thrilling and fantastically enjoyable, is also the most expensive cycling discipline for those with an actual desire to be competitive, and the least friendly to the common racer stepping up to give it a shot.

On the road, race-able bikes start at around $1000 and, without swapping a single part, can be trained on and raced competitively for at least one season. That’s certainly how I got started, and I remember the winning selections of collegiate B and C races stocked with Dura-Ace and Sora in roughly equal proportions. All due respect to the high-gloss fields I currently run with, but thanks to some impressive raw talents and a general lack of any tactical know-how, those collegiate events remain some of the fastest, hardest-fought races I’ve ever had the pleasure of contesting.

Manufacturers can wage nerd war til the cows come home, but road races aren’t won and lost at the bike shop. Zipp and Cervelo will remind you of Cancellara’s amazing charge at the ’07 Tour, but his on-the-hoods, out-of-the-saddle position on that particular rampage more than negated any aerodynamic advantage of his wheelset. Road cycling isn’t contested by torso-less robots on trainers in wind tunnels; it’s a game of canny, back-biting, and subterfuge, and 99 times out of 100, you’ll do better to poach another rider’s aerodynamic advantage than to invest in your own.

By comparison, gear in cyclocross actually matters—specifically, tires. While entry-level CX bikes often offer a lower price, what you get for the money is also drastically reduced. I’ll overlook the downgrade from Ultegra to Tiagra (as I mentioned above, if the gears shift, you’re good to go); I’m complaining about the “cyclocross” tube and tire setup that has no place on any respectable race course.

After a few seasons of attempting to race ‘cross on clinchers, I’ve arrived at the conclusion—one that ought to be plastered in bold-face at the beginning of any article on cyclocross—that attempting to actually race cyclocross with clinchers and innerubes is an often pointless endeavor. Maybe if you’ve got the mad handling skillz and mimized downforce of, say, Rudy, you can venture out past the fringe of the greens on your local golf course. Otherwise, the tire pressures you need to run come with a DNF rate (via pinch flat) of about 1 in 4.

Tubulars fix this problem, of course, but they’re astronomically expensive. The tires start at 70 dollars, and even Williams Cycling’s much heralded “affordable” $369 cross wheelset represents an outlay as large as I’ve ever made on a pair of road wheels. To me, “affordable” applies to <$150 wheelsets, like the Maddux F20 I put 6000 miles into over the past two years.

Another reason competitive cyclocross all but requires tubulars is that, without free laps or follow trucks, you’ve got to be able to get to the pit on your own—much tougher on a flat clincher than a flat tubular. And once you get to the pit, you’ll need something to put on your bike; tack on another $470 for a second wheelset. And patching that tubular tire back up after the race…let’s just hope your puncture solution is a simple as an injection of Caffelatex.

But as anyone who’s been to a muddy Verge Series race knows, the only really competitive support is to have a second cyclocross bike at the ready in the pits. ($800 + $470) x 2 = $2,540, or better than twice the up-front investment of a raceable road bike. And keep in mind, these ‘cross figures are still for Tiagra level parts, while a similar road rig ships with Ultegra gear that’s good for at least few seasons to come. Much as I appreciate the functionality of Shimano’s low end parts, an ill-timed spill in the sand pit might be all she wrote for that budget shifter.

And of course, no detonation of this populist facade would be complete without pointing out how thoroughly cyclocross kowtows to the elite. A sponsored rider has to worry about almost none of the things I’ve listed above—no entry fees, a guaranteed spot on the line, free pit bikes, boatloads of swag, and a retirement account’s worth of wheelsets, making an unexpected snowstorm as manageable as a wheel swap.

Zdenek Stybar racing I hasten to add that there’s nothing “wrong” with this—good riders are fantastic marketing exposure, and with the salaries (or lack thereof) offered to the pros, the people who are actually good at ‘cross need as much help as they can get (see #livingthedream).

At the end of the day, though, what road racing does that cyclocross doesn’t is routinely turn out Frederick Vuechelens, Bobbie Traksels, Frederic Guesdons and host of other one-off winners who saw an opening, read a race, or were otherwise crazy enough to pull off the unlikeliest of upsets over the most elite of fields.

In road racing, there’s a sense that any rider with the skills to hold position, the watts the get free, and the stones to give it shot is guaranteed an opportunity to make a race-winning move. Most times, it doesn’t work—heck, sometimes it doesn’t even get attempted—but the option is there for any rider who would lay claim to it. Drop Zdneck Stybar into the first lottery spot at a World Cup and I don’t think he’d enjoy that same opportunity.

The point of all this isn’t that cyclocross needs to be somehow “fixed”. Obviously, I wouldn’t mind if the industry turned out more ~$1000 CX bikes that weren’t built to sit in the garage, but ‘cross racing is just fine in its current incarnation. Adam Myerson’s fantastic piece on CX racing rings as true for the guy in first as it does for the guy in 101st—I would know, having found myself riding in both positions at various moments over the past three years.

What bothers me is this position cyclocross seems to enjoy in the popular imagination of cycling fans as a, blue-collar, working (wo)man’s sport, as if mud, beer, tents, and Belgian country music were proof positive that it’s a somehow purer competition, geared to the common rider. Make no mistake about it, cyclocross rewards privilege—both in terms of income and talent—above almost anything else.

The Pistolero Steakhouse T-Shirt

12 Nov

Pistolero Steakhouse T-Shirt DetailI don’t know about you, but I’m tired of Norwegians telling me what to think.

Take Thor Hushovd getting his knickers in a twist because of the local support Alberto Contador has received since his positive dope test. Just because most of his fans are too busy being employed to flood into the streets is no reason for the reigning world champion to be bitter.

And then there’s the head of the Norwegian cycling federation saying that his counterparts in Spain won’t give Contador proper scrutiny. First, other nations haven’t exactly been stringent, and second, hasn’t dumping the blame for the world’s cycling problems on Spain gone out of style yet? McQuaid’s been on that gripe for almost four years now.

Well, now’s your time to fight back against over-reaching “Anglo-Saxons” (to borrow McQuaid’s terminology). As you may or may not know, Contador is turning the media attention surrounding his misfortune into positive marketing by opening chain of upscale restaurants, and Cyclocosm has been chosen as the exclusive US distributor of their promotional apparel.

So this morning, I am proud to offer you your first opportunity at buying the official Pistolero Steakhouse t-shirt. It’s printed on an American Apparel tee, and I’ve switched printing methods to something a little more flexible and breathable than the previous designs.

The (Go) "Jens!" Shirt

16 Apr

UPDATE: Also available: Jens! coffee mug and Jens! beer stein.

I was looking at the Amstel Gold start list this morning and noticed that dossard #178 would be worn be a certain indefatigable German on the SaxoBank roster. It reminded me of a few reader requests that came in shortly after I added the “Stop Lance” shirt to the Cyclocosm shop.

However, the idea presented a few design problems. The whole “Stop Pre” thing doesn’t really work on Jens. Sure, he’s got a bit of the cockiness and knee-jerk reactivity that made Pre such a polarizing figure, but under normal circumstances Jens just seems way too goofy and enthusiastic to evoke an antagonistic response

My next instinct was obviously “Go Jens!”, but it didn’t fit well in anything but a triangular shape, and frankly, it seemed entirely redundant. When Voigt charges off the front of the field, the comments at the Podium Café live chat don’t read “Go Jens” or “Jens breaks away”; what other rider is so established among the fan base that a first name and punctuation is sufficient as both a description of race action and enthusiastic display of support?

And so, the shirt reads simply “Jens!”, set in the DIN typeface used on German road signs. Currently, available in various combinations of green/white, custom colors or other apparel available on request.

Is It Possible To Be Too Pro

24 Mar

While I’ve made occasional reference to the concept of “pro”-ness on this blog, that fact is that it’s never been something of special concern to me.

I have neither the income to assemble my own housing-level pro build, nor the free time to aggregate links directing my readers to the same. But recent events have got me wondering if being too pro can be detrimental, if not to one’s riding, then certainly to one’s image.

Case in point: Alberto Contador. It’s tough to argue that he’s anything but the best stage racer in the world right now. But (and I’m probably the last person to get around to mentioning this) the “fingerbang” branded equipment and apparel is starting to weird people out. According to the link, it’s so pro that no one’s selling it—though I’d imagine most riders would think twice before throwing their leg over that saddle.

Now let’s look at Oscar Freire. While he takes flack for his “here-today-gone-tomorrow” track record, I think three Worlds and three Sanremos speak for themselves. And how does Oscarito roll? With a minipump attached with duct tape, making his own adjustments to his infuriating cut-to-fit seatpost, and wearing a stock helmet with his initials Sharpied onto it.

Quite the contrast to the diamond-studded lid once worn by MSR first-loser, Tom Boonen. In fact, Boonen’s casque-to-cleat Belgian tricolor kit missed another win today at Dwars door Vlaanderen.

Despite getting into the race-making selection at 40km to go, Boonen found himself bested by Danish champ Matti Breschel in his split-kit—which, depending on who you ask, is either totally bush league, or the epitome of retro-cool (the mostly-black shorts help).

And I don’t want to say anything against Vacansoleil, since they’ve both animated and delivered (another podium today) throughout this classics this season, but those kits, while not completely ugly, aren’t exactly pro—further evidence of a correlation.

So what’s the take-away from all this? Hedge your bets on Condator, and put the big money on Footon at the Grio.

The State of Modern Kit Design

5 Jan

Back before the Internet, bike nerds must have had to crowd around well-thumbed copies of under-the-radar bike ‘zines at the LBS, squinting fitfully at blurry, black-and-white photos pirated out of Gazzetta dello Sport before coming up with clever things to say about how freakin’ ugly the new season’s kits were.

Can you imagine? Do you think fine details like the fake rivets and pockets on the notorious Carrera kits were even visible? Could they even tell that the Castorama kit was supposed to be a grocer’s Home Depot-style apron, and not hip waders or overalls? I shudder to even consider it.

At any rate, I think kit design has improved quite a bit since the early 90s—certainly if people are nominating the comparatively staid Kelme kit for worst of all time in any sport, we’re doing OK. Riskier designs like Highroad and Garmin have taken some heat, but being distinctive and having single concept that drives the design aren’t bad things.

That was my main complaint about the Radio Shack kits—aimlessness and safe, corporate sterility—and for the most part, I think Sky’s admittedly understated kit avoids that. I don’t like it as much as Quick.Step’s reprise of last season’s underused design (which has a nice retro feel while remaining immediately recognizable) but it’s certainly better than Astana (red S on yellow sleeve looks a bit ketchup and mustard, doesn’t it?).

While I’ll readily admit that some of my favorite designs are simple patterns from the 1970s and early 80s, I think it’s a good thing that kit designers still try to innovate: good, new designs sell more apparel and drive interest to the sport, and the total flops make everyone else look better.

The Raphxis of Evil

22 Dec

Right off the bat, the title should give you a hint that you might want to take this one with a grain of salt. Or several.


That said, despite regularly producing some of the most original, creative, highest quality work in the cycling world for the past four years, there’s a fair amount of respect I’m not getting. I don’t think there’s anyone out there doing what I do or even coming close to it—certainly not the people collecting redirects from the parties targeted above.

So I think it’s time to start aggressively calling out the the motivations behind this industry’s self-appointed arbiters of good taste. My last naming of names got a fairly good response—and, really, what do I have to lose? The respect referrals I’m already not receiving?

Of course, the suggestion of an “axis of evil” in the cycling industry is obviously and intentionally bombastic, so if you find yourself on the receiving end of this, just consider it a friendly nudge—but one that leads with an elbow nonetheless.

December Kit Report

8 Dec

rs_kitDude, are you serious?

Pop artists and savvy, successful designers from Shepard Fairey to Marc Newson to pretty much everyone short of friggin’ Banksy have styled custom bikes for you and this—this—is the kit you get to ride in every day? I cannot imagine a more artless and uninspired piece of lycra.

It’s like someone took an overworked, underpaid corporate designer and told them to re-imagine a cubicle as a bicycle kit, employing three necessary elements:

  1. RadioShack Logo (w/ company name in Frutiger Black)
  2. Livestrong Armband
  3. RadioShack approved red (#C70E0E)

If Inintech had a cycling team, this would be their kit. Seriously, it ought to come with its own TPS report.

To be fair, Armstrong himself has commented that it still needs “some tweaking“, but plenty of other teams have brought strong entries to market. Cervelo’s new kit—along with some shiny new SRAM shifters—seems to be a done deal for next season, with the potential for another summer changeover to white.

Omega-Pharma’s new duds (via @Gematkinson) look a bit Christmasy, but the design should hold up throughout the season—though a glut of white-ish kits among the lower-tier squads (recently snared doper Eliado Jimenez shows off a good example) may make the Belgian squad tough to pick out until the final kilometers.

As for me, I continue to favor the classic, ugly/hip lines of Skil-Shimano’s distinctive kit. If the squad has kept pace with the rest of the peloton, and @KennyVanHummel is a reliable photo source, they’ll be sticking with the design for 2010.

Then again, as Cipo’ reminded us time and time again, there’s no telling what the riders will wear until they roll off the line.

Fashion Police: The Sleeveless Jersey

22 Oct

A sleeveless jersey made an appearance in @CadelOfficial’s twitpic on the ’09 Vuelta rest day:
sleeveless

There’s so much that caught me off-balance in this photo. Guess I should start off by saying that this is the most team support I’ve seen Evans get at Grand Tour since he started riding for Lotto.

Secondly, it’s not even that sunny out—I can see a preening Euro pro wanting to even out the tan lines but given the flat light, I’d have to say this choice is purely for style, not function.

Third, why on earth does Lotto even have a sleeveless jersey in their kit? Does the squad have some secret triathlon team I’m not aware of? Does the Belgian cycling federation allow sleeveless jerseys at a level at which Lotto could potentially be racing?

The only explanation is that the sleeveless look is so hot in Europe that Lotto’s kitmaker can turn a profit selling these things to freds on the Continent. Even then, I’m still amazed that this rider would a) request them from the sponsor, and b) bring at least one along on a Grand Tour specifically for the rest days.

For the sake of cycling, I’m hoping it’s a vest he put on by mistake.

JV Ponders Some New Garmin Graphics

23 Sep

Also, is it just me, or do all Jon Vaughters’ shirts look the same?

bus

bus2

bus3

(via Matthew Koschara’s Facebook feed)

Philippe Gilbert's Superhero Saddle

3 Sep

I can’t recall whether we came to a consensus over whether Vino’ was the Hulk or The Thing. Frankly, he’s been laying low so far this Vuelta, so I’d like to focus more on another, definitely not half-hearted race animator: Philippe Gilbert.

green_gilbert
(Gilbert source) (Goblin source)

I think this one is a no-brainer. Both Gilbert and the Green Goblin show a frenzied disdain for the pre-orchestrated decorum of the peloton/society, and both have their faces frozen into the same maniacal expression for a near-entirety of their screen time.

This is especially good fortune for saddle manufacturers, since Gilbert—at least as recently as last year—seems to favor a cut-out saddle design, which, coincidently, integrates perfectly with his comic book alter-ego:

new-gilbert-saddle
(source image)