Archive for May, 2010

May 26, 2010

The Shop Cozy

In 1972 my father opened a bike shop with his good friend Mike Brown in the center of Toronto named Bicyclesport. At the time, the bike shop was unique in a city of supermarket bikes as it catered to the serious cyclist. They built custom Mariposa frames in the frame shop, they repaired frames, there was a crew of top mechanics and the sales room was clean, crisp and colourful.

I grew up in the shop. From a newborn to a teenager I spent a significant portion of my life amongst the bikes.  The mechanics taught me how to fix my bike, I worked on my frames with my Dad as soon as I was old enough to hold a torch, and the new bikes, which lined the showroom walls were candy to my young eyes. The shop was a warm and welcoming environment in which to grow up. Being from the UK, my Dad always had the kettle on and the cookie tin full.

Almost four decades later, the shop is now closed and my Dad is retired. But, he still maintains a workshop, which has also become somewhat of a museum. He restores bikes from his significant collection and friends constantly drop by to have a cup of tea, chat about cycling, tinker with the bikes, or page through the old cycling volumes.

The teapot is still insulated by a cozy knitted by a mechanic’s mother. She gave it to the shop for the opening as her fifteen-year-old son Ted, who started out as ‘the shop boy’, had been given the job of making tea. Being from England she understood the importance of a good cup of tea and a good cozy to keep the pot warm. It is a simple woolen hat striped with the world championship bands. It has become a bit of symbol for the shop and has somehow weathered the years of use. Cycling brings unique people from all over the world together and many of those gathered in the shop around the teapot.

Attached are some photos of my father’s large collection of bikes, books and parts. The photos only capture a small part of the vast collection. The shop still feels like a home to me and, I think, to hundreds of people who share a common passion for the bike and have sat around the shop and talked over tea and a biscuit.

For more images of the bikes and shop see: www.bikespecialties.com, mariposabicycles.com and www.bicyclespecialties.blogspot.com

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May 26, 2010

A Trail of Pink Around the Boot

Lying on the hotel room bed with my legs stretched vertically against the wall, I stare at the ceiling. A spring breeze blows through the window cutting the stale odor of the hotel room. Beyond the window in the parking lot below, I can hear the intermittent buzz and splash the mechanics’ power washers. The air compressor that is used to fill our tires hisses and revs at intervals. Voices chatter in Italian, English and German. Their workday continues into the evening as they repair and prepare.

As gravity flushes the pain from my worn legs, I close my eyes and revisit the last kilometers of the race. A rider on my right bumps off my shoulder as he avoids a crash on his right. I look back. My teammates who follow in my draft are okay. Their grimaces are red from the effort. Sweat pours from their faces even though the spring air is cool. I don’t feel as worn as they look but I know I look the same — I have already seen the photographers’ shots of me. The directeur’s voice crackles over the radio as he tells us exactly how many kilometers and corners are left.

Snapshots of the finish are clear in my memory. The race is broken down into crucial moments, which are the only vivid mental snaps. Forming a film-like memory is impossible. A storm of color, the race rips through the countryside. We race through towns too quick to form clear impressions. Their names are targets for us. They are one point of reference in a race of hundreds. We are always pursuing something: the break, the wheel in front, the finish line, the top of the climb, the next town, the group in front. The peloton never truly relaxes long enough to absorb the environment. Yet, somehow, all those pieces come together to form a wonderful journey for us and for the spectators we whizz past.

In a trance within the bubble of the race, almost everything external is missed in those final frantic moments. I am focused solely on the goal and more precisely my exact position in that race and the requirements of my job. In those moments pain is overwhelmed by emotion and endorphin. My breathing increases and lactic acid seers my muscles. But, the intensity of the moment pushes me beyond what I could achieve in training. The race carries the rider.

As I lie in bed, the surges I pushed out hours earlier can still be felt in my aching legs. My mind is at ease but my body is still racing to recover from the effort. The muscles twitch.

Our bodies are becoming thin. We don’t recognize how we have morphed in the past few weeks but our families will. We have thinned from cyclists to grand tour riders.

In the third week of the Giro, the strain of the race is apparent in the peloton. We have rarely relented since the start in Amsterdam. Daily, from the drop of the flag the peloton is moving at over 50 kmh until the breakaway finally forms — often after over an hour of constant attacks and pursuits.

This Giro has been abnormal on every level. The unusual course has created unease in the peloton. That nervousness contributes to the intensity of the racing. When teams panic under pressure they can lose much more than those who ride with clarity and patience. That panic causes crashes, splits in the peloton, and incites mental and physical fatigue, which leads to breakdown.

Some riders who attacked with vigor in the first week now sit tight in the draft. Those who are ill ride at the back of the group and don’t even attempt to move up. They yo-yo in and out of the peloton as we climb and descend until the string finally breaks and they press on alone to the finish. Their days are long and their position is the one we all fear.

The Giro d’Italia is not only wearing on the peloton but also on the team staff. As we reach the last week everybody seems to be counting the days. Three weeks is a long time to be doing anything, even vacationing on a beach. The stages have been long and intense. Before and after each day’s race we sit on the bus driving to and from hotels. The driver has covered over 3000 kilometers since the start. For us, it isn’t too bad as we can sit back and relax. But for the staff hours of work are added to their already long days.

While we flew to Italy from the Netherlands, they drove. While we sleep, they’re preparing our mussettes and bottles for the following day. While we lie in bed, they’re cleaning the bus and working on the bikes. While we race, they’re in the feed zone or preparing the hotel rooms.

But we all persist because there is a common passion for cycling that envelopes the Giro’s circus. Spectators spend hours decorating their homes in pink for the race to pass by in minutes. They anticipate and celebrate the race’s arrival like a birthday or Christmas. The race has left a trail of pink through Italy and like any celebration it has incited fervent emotion in the people. Seeing that emotion makes all of the suffering worthwhile.

Lying on my hotel bed I envision the next stage. I can see the animated crowd cheering and children dressed in pink pounding the barriers. I can hear the MC at the finish announcing the winner’s name. Like all of them, I also feel inspired.

May 17, 2010

Giro d’Italia SRM Graphs

The Giro has taken us from the Netherlands to southern Italy. Up north, we battled the wind, fought for position on narrow farm roads, weaved through traffic islands and sprinted out of small towns. After a relentless first week of long days on the bike combined with hours in the bus, we are now racing through the hills and undulating Italian countryside. Attached are two SRM powerfiles from two stages during the first week of the Giro–the graphs show the distance, speed, power, and altitude ( I wasn’t wearing a heart rate strap).

The first graph is from the third stage in the Netherlands (Amsterdan-Middleburg), where the peloton blew to pieces and our team led the charge on the front until the final eight kilometres when our leader, Brad Wiggins, was caught up in a crash. We spent the final kilometres of the race chasing to limit his time loss. The second SRM file is from the first mountain top finish on Stage 8 (Chianciano Terme-Terminillo). The peloton rode like mad from the drop of the start flag and never really relented. My job for the day was to protect Brad and keep him out of the wind and in good position before the final climb. Once we reached the climb, I sat up and rode up the climb at a steady speed to save energy for the coming days while he hammered away with the leaders. The next six stages are all over 200 kilometres. Wednesday’s stage is 262 km. I’ll try to post a graph from one or two of those stages.

May 16, 2010

Brit Rocker

Our fearless leader rocking out last year. Photos by Camille McMillan.

May 13, 2010

Highs and Lows.

As the peloton of 198 riders crowded around the start line in Amsterdam there was an air of nervousness and excitement.

Crowds of people leaned over the steel barriers craning to see the peloton, Bradley Wiggins’ maglia rosa, and the under-dressed fashion models who pranced around the start line waiting to send us off.

As we stood on the cobbled street, anticipating the drop of the starter’s flag, some riders fidgeted, others slung their heads low on their bars and stared down at their front wheel, while others chatted inanely to avert their focus for a moment before the race began. The ambiance was as electric as that at the start of Paris-Roubaix.

First stages of grand tours are inevitably chaotic as every racer holds on to a thread of hope. Legs are fresh and every rider has a dream and a goal. As the race wears on those dreams evolve as some find a level of performance they hadn’t imagined while others come short of their goals and abandon their dreams.

With each passing stage, the nervousness in the group dissipates as the race progresses and riders find their place in the hierarchy. The race will become too hard to pretend or hide as the speed and course create a natural selection.

To professional cyclists Northern Europe is windy, flat, wet, and dangerous. The riders who thrive in the conditions are considered the hard men of cycling, as they seem to fear little but massive mountains. The Giro d’Italia is known for the scenery, nice weather, pleasant breezes, steep mountains, and coastal roads.

Riders who raced the Giro a decade ago speak of calm starts, where the peloton cruised along at leisurely speed, nobody attacking and everybody chatting. As the television audience tuned in the show began, and they attacked the last hour of racing with vigour.

Somehow, the descriptions of the race seem to mirror the Italian culture where people enjoy relaxing but also explode with passionate gusto at the right moment. With the globalization of the peloton the Italian way of racing has vanished and, like in every other race we ride, the peloton strikes the course from the first kilometer and doesn’t seem to relent until the finish. Having the Giro begin in Amsterdam was like mixing opera with Ska.

At the start in the Netherlands we all knew the racing would be physically and technically intense. From start to finish, we raced over dikes, roads barely wide enough for an SUV, and through tiny villages, which became a maze marked by traffic islands, poles, and roundabouts. There were few moments where we could relax or even take our eyes off the road ahead to glance over at the masses of people who lines the courses from start to finish. The Dutch, like the Italians, love cycling. In the Netherlands, like in Italy, the Giro brought a party of pink to each small town.

Our race began with a bang as my teammate Bradley stormed out of the gates in Amsterdam to convincingly win the first stage. Hearing him talk about the effort after the race provoked goose bumps on my neck. He was either going to win or crash. His focus and lucidity under pressure ensured he wouldn’t fail. He left everything on the eight-kilometer course and virtually collapsed at the finish.

The team was committed to defending his jersey. In the wind, we rode together in the front, split the peloton and made every selection until the final 10 km when we came crashing down. On both road stages in Holland, half of the team arrived at the bus scraped, bruised and bleeding but still in good spirits. The music blasted through the bus’ speakers, the boys sang along, we laughed at our bad luck and our focus changed to the future. We had fought a valiant battle, know we have the legs to continue the fight in the coming days and weeks, and realize that good morale will keep us buoyant and firing.

After racing a relentless 220 kilometers the peloton boarded buses for an hour-long drive to the airport where we then stepped onto planes to travel to Italy. Finally, at 11 PM the plane landed in Cuneo. Drummers and trumpeters greeted us and ushered the weary, worn and bandaged peloton into a massive tent where a thousand VIP’s waited for autographs and photographs. Starving after having not eaten since the finish we ate like animals as the VIP’s snapped photos. At 1 AM we boarded a bus with two other teams for the hour-long trip over tiny farm roads to our hotel. At 2:30 AM we were finally tucked into bed. We would be on our TT bikes in 12 hours.

May 10, 2010

Giro d’Italia TTT Training

In preparation for the Giro d’Italia Team Time Trial we were training as a team outside to find our fluidity as a team. After a few efforts we were moving well. The key to a TTT is that the speed is consistent without any hard surges as they will split the team. The strong riders need to pull longer and progressively bring the speed up while the weaker riders must do shorter turns on the front and get off before their speed drops. It was clear Brad is flying as his turns were long and quick. As the french would say, he has a ‘sacré coup de pédale’ at the moment. He looks good in pink, as well.

The footage captures the flat fields, the windmills, and the tulips. But, it doesn’t capture the howling wind we were battling.

The Team Sky Giro roster is: Bradley Wiggins, Steve Cummings, Chris Froome, Greg Henderson, CJ Sutton, Michael Barry, Dario Cioni, Mathew Hayman and Morris Possoni. Two cameras caught the footage–a GoPro on the hood of the team car which followed us, and a Flip camera which I taped to my handlebars. Notice the impatient driver who throws a water bottle at us. He hit Wiggo with the bottle. The rest of the drivers encouraged us and even stopped to take photos.

May 6, 2010

Cutting The Grass In The Flowing Peloton

Like a crowd of thousands surging for a door, which has just opened into a stadium the riders in the peloton push, shove and panic as we near the cobbles. We all know that our position will determine whether or not we make it through the race.

Riders use every inch of the four-lane road on which we ride as they race for the head of the peloton. Some jump up on the sidewalks at 50kph, weaving through the spectators, skipping ahead of the chaos on the somewhat clear sidewalk. After weeks of racing in Belgian and French Classics we become accustomed to the surge. Risk is calculated and accepted. We become immune to the shocking sound of riders crashing and carbon snapping with each race.

The cameras shooting us from the helicopters above, or the motorcycles up front, can’t capture the intensity of the peloton. From their perspectives we appear to be flowing as one, like stream down a canyon. Several directeurs sportif have told me that only in a team car following the peloton you can feel the speed and witness the technical madness.

As the European cities have grown, towns have become increasingly congested making bike races harder to orchestrate. Twenty years ago there were few roundabouts, speed bumps or traffic islands. Now, as we enter towns, policemen’s whistles blast to warn us of the concrete islands sticking into the road with their short concrete stumps. We swerve around the parked cars but occasionally hear the terrifying thud of a rider slamming into the metal.

The races in northern Europe have a different intensity to those ridden later in the season. In northern European Classics, the racing demands constant focus.

Sometimes we are like rally car drivers as we wind our way through narrow farm roads dodging sign posts, spectators and cars. While later in the year we’re like alpine touring cars, flying through the countryside at a steady speed.

The Giro d’Italia, which I will start this week, will perhaps be a hybrid of both types of racing. This year we begin in Amsterdam and race south towards Italy. In Italy, we’ll race on the white gravel roads, which lie like a ribbon on the lush green Tuscan hills. In the Netherlands the peloton will face similar wind swept maze-like courses to those we rode on during the Classics.

Every rider knows that the three week race could be lost in a short few kilometers and every team director will remind his riders to be in front as we near the dangerous bits of road. In the weeks prior to the race teams were already planning for those moments. Races are won or lost in the panicked surge.