Archive for December, 2013

December 28, 2013

Six Days

In Ghent, Belgium, the low thunder of the cyclists racing into the wooden banking of the velodrome is unheard over the festivities in the track center. A   DJ spins a classic Flemish hit as the spectators, dressed in their best clothes, eat, dance and mingle. Few of the spectators hear the yells of the riders as they bump elbows and maneuver into position before the final sprint to the line. These events, the six-day track races, are orchestrated spectacles.

When the 19th century neared, cycling was America’s sport. The country’s sporting icons were track cyclists and the arenas now known for their hockey and basketball teams were packed with cycling fans cheering for the earlier sports heroes racing around steeply banked wooden tracks.

It was an era when endurance events intrigued the population. So the bicycle races ran for six days (races weren’t held on Sundays to avoid violating local religious laws) with the cycling continuing around the clock, 24 hours a day. The riders never stopped pedaling as the spectators witnessed the riders become gaunt, deluded and barely able to pedal. Like endurance dance competitions where the last couple standing won, riders were expected to ride until they fell over.

Time and the law brought some humanity. By 1898, the New York State legislature banned riding for more than 12 hours a day.

At the same time, new rules brought excitement to six day racing. The races now take place only in the late afternoon and continue late into the night. There are also a variety of events– some mass start and others individual timed races—to boost audience interest. But in contrast most Olympic track events, where sprinting strategies include the dead stop of the track stand, the action at a six-day relentless. Two man teams were also introduced to replace concoctions of drugs previously used to achieve the inhumane.

The Madison (known in France as “l’Amèricaine”) is now the main event of a modern six-day race. Named after Madison Square Gardens, where the first races took place in the 1900s, it is a mass start event in which 12 to 18 teams of two riders race each other for points through sprints on selected laps.

The riders take turns working. That is, one rider races while the other circles the top of the track, taking a break at a less strenuous pace, away from the action. When his teammate tires, a quick hand-sling brings the rested rider up to speed and into the race. Like a Nascar pit change, the exchange must be quick and efficient.

Six-day racing slowly died in the United States as cars replaced the bicycle as transport and the next sporting craze. But in Europe where bikes remain commonly used vehicles and bicycle racing is still part of the culture, track races draw crowds of spectators, are covered by the daily media and have their champions who are professionals. Crowds, it should be noted, pay to watch the action, unlike the fans at the Tour de France. In an arena, insulated from the wet and cold northern European winter, the velodrome provides a warm venue for the spectators and the cyclists.

The current series that takes place through the autumn and winter is 14 races long and is centered in Germany, Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands.  Cultural influences mold the ambiance in each venue where the bike race becomes and excuse to celebrate and, for some fans, to drink.

In Ghent, the tunnel under the track used to access the center becomes slick with deep pools of beer which have accumulated through the night from spilled cups in the grandstands.

The grand spectacle of the evening is often the motorpaced race. The crowd rises to its feet when the specially designed motorbikes roll onto the velodrome, their engines revving and spewing clouds of exhaust.

The slipstream created by the motorbikes allows the cyclists to achieve otherwise impossible speed. But the cyclists remain in charge. Yelling over the roar of the motor, they tell the motorcyclists when to accelerate and when to slow down. At any given time, there can be six to ten motorcycles roaring around the velodrome.

The motorpacing aside, track racing is the purest form of cycling. Its variables are limited to the rider, the track and the competition. As a young cyclist, on the track I learned how to pedal efficiently, keeping my upper body motionless while my legs turned in potent circles. The confined and controlled environment of the now defunct Montreal Olympic velodrome made mistakes more apparent and gave me confidence, bike handling skills and tactical knowledge. Continue reading. 

 

December 21, 2013

A Miserable Ride

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“This is the stupidest f*cking event I’ve ever been in. Mike, you are f*cking mad. I’ll never ride it again,” Keith said. His bike was coated in a thick layer of ice. The freezing rain was now turning to steady snow. There were still several kilometers to go on the dirt track when he rode by cursing. The track or “trench,” as it became known after a few years, was an old rail line that ran up from Toronto to the southern shore of Lake Simcoe. In the summer, it is used by ATVs and motorbikes, while in the winter, it’s a snowmobile route. In between, the cyclists came once a year.

The end of the track met the lake, where an icy northerly blew off of the water. Along the shoreline, the route took us east on a smoothly tarmacked road to The Irish House, a wooden inn that was painted white. It was well beyond its finest years, when the Toronto upper class would spend their weekends and summers on the lake. Now, it was little more than a pub, with dusty hurling sticks, mirrored ads for liquor, and neon beer signs hanging on the walls. Arcade games binged and chirped in the corner, while local farmers, motor bikers, and truckers sat at the bar or threw darts. Continue reading. 

December 13, 2013

The Pursuit

 

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Most races are formulaic, especially at the pro level. In the team buses before each race, the majority of the directeurs will be mapping the day out for their riders in a similar fashion. The team leaders will be told to wait in the slipstream of their teammates and the peloton until the final hour or less of racing, where they’ll attempt to burst ahead. Until then, their only goal is to conserve energy and stay fresh for the finale. The domestiques will be tasked with protecting the leaders, keeping them fed, fueled, and in position. Each of the domestiques has a distinct role: some will be told to follow the attacks to ensure a combination of the right riders is in the early breakaway that forms, some might be asked to attack early. Others, who will wait patiently with the leader in the slipstream, will be required to increase the tempo to thin the peloton before the leader’s final attacks. Each rider will work selflessly in the wind, so that the leader can execute the goal.

Broken down, the tactics are simple to an experienced team, but to the neophyte fan or racer, they can seem puzzling. Continue reading.

December 7, 2013

Mudguards

When pairing proper clothing with a bike fitted with mudguards or fenders, there are few weather conditions that can make a ride unpleasant. Their protection keeps water from soaking the chamois, and they prevent road grit from turning Lycra into sandpaper. Gone is the spray off of the front wheel that drenches feet along the freezing plume of water off of the back wheel. And on a club ride, everybody is more comfortable without a constant wheel-spray showering their face. While riding in the rain, the majority of the water comes off of the wheels. And once that spray is eliminated, a cyclist with a good rain jacket can stay quite dry for the duration of any ride.

There are few, if any, reasons to train without these items during inclement weather. Fausto Coppi rode with them. Phil Anderson used them, and many current pros fit them during the off-season. If I were to have one bike, it would be a bike with mudguards. Keeping you dryer and warmer, they allow you to ride comfortably for hours. After all, riding with a wet chamois and cold feet doesn’t toughen up a rider; it simply makes him or her miserable. Read on. SONY DSC

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