Thursday, 24 January 2013

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

I wanted to share this...

Lance's appearance on Oprah summed up in poetry.

Reasons To Be Cheerful

It's been a little bit rotten for cycling fans lately. Lance Armstrong's self-serving and not particularly revealing appearance on Oprah has once again focussed all the attention on the bad old days when cycling wasn't even trying to clean up its act and, as usual, people who have no interest in cycling at its best are eager to ask all sorts of questions about it at its worst. Its tiring enough for fans to answer all those questions, but for professionals whose answers will be subjected to extra scrutiny and suspicion it must be even tougher, so you can understand why Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins have made some fairly sweary and outrageous statements on the matter.

It would be quite easy to get sweary and downbeat myself, but actually, two things have happened in the last couple of days that have made me feel better about cycling. They aren't great big enormous events, just little things, but they've cheered me up a great deal.

Firstly, CTC has announced that it's sponsoring a womens cycling team. Good old CTC. I've never encountered a more helpful bunch, they always go the extra mile. A quick phonecall to their office will pretty much result in them planning a cycling holiday for you, a visit to their forums will produce a library's worth of advice, and they know the location of every piece of decent coffee cake in the British Isles. Hardly surprising then, that they're stepping up to tackle one of cycling's looming problems, the under-representation of women.

A couple of days ago I was lamenting the fact that Cyclist magazine had deemed Marianne Vos worthy of appearing on the cover of their subscriber copy, but had chickened out of putting her on the newsstand edition, presumably in case illiterate shoppers saw a woman on the cover and assumed it was the latest Marie-Claire. Mid-rant, however, it occurred to me that I almost never mention women's cycling on this blog, and I immediately decided to rectify the matter. No sooner had I mentioned this decision in a post than it also occurred to me that there's usually a fortnight delay between women's races happening and them being broadcast, and very little pirate coverage either. It might actually be a bit tough to find timely stuff to talk about, so the CTC's announcement has at least given me a head start. More importantly, of course, we'll get to see Team CTC's riders competing in the National Women's Championship and a number of UCI races.

It's a small team, and a small thing, but it cheers me to see as solid a bunch as the CTC taking such a direct route to tackling the problem.

The other thing that has cheered me up is the Greg LeMond's interview in the latest Cycle Sport. It's mostly a bleak re-cap of the bad years when Armstrong and his sponsors were aggressively arrayed against him, but it ends happily.

In  my back room, in a big chest full of old VHS tapes, there's a Tour De France highlights video in which LeMond gives an interview a few years after his retirement, and it's incredibly sad. He talks about feeling blocked,  about leaving the sport feeling unfulfilled and about being unable to keep up with riders he'd previously been able to beat. He never mentions doping, in fact he seems bewildered by his inability to keep up, but from today's perspective its very difficult to watch the interview and not think that LeMond's career decline looked far more precipitous than it should have (no major wins after the 1990 TDF at the age of 29) thanks to the illegal boost enjoyed by so many other riders in the peloton.

For years, that video has been what I picture when I think of Greg LeMond. A disappointed man, unhappy with the way his career ended, and not quite sure if he'd been cheated. It's incredibly refreshing to read this latest interview and see him described as enthusiastic, charming and sparkling, and to see him say that he still loves the sport.

I often say that cycling won't completely clean itself up until all the old guard have retired. By old guard, I mean the Directeur Sportifs from the days before EPO, the guys from an era when doping couldn't win you a race, but could help you finish it. These guys tend to regard an attack on doping as an attack on the sports bottle carriers. With cycling's traditional heartlands being Northern France and Spain, Southern Belgium and Italy, anti-doping efforts were seen by some of these older riders and directeurs as a sort of class warfare, an attack on boys from poor, rural areas who worked hard for their team leaders. EPO and Blood Doping made a fallacy of that opinion, but there are still managers and riders who were raised in that environment, and the sport won't really be clean until the last of these guys have retired and taken with them the outdated belief that doping is a minor crime and anti-doping activities a major one.

Now, having read that interview with LeMond, and been reminded of his willingness to speak out against Armstrong's involvement with Michele Ferrari, it occurs to me that there are some members of the old guard that it's very nice to have around.

Oh, and as I type this, there's another reason to be cheerful as well:

Nice one Cav.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

London Bike Show Photos

The London Bike Show felt a bit less hands-on this year. I guess it's the boom in cycling, but the show seemed to be geared even more towards selling bikes than last year. Nothing wrong with that, as there were some beautiful bikes to look at, but it wasn't quite as much fun as 2012, where I spent the whole day trying bikes out on turbo trainers, having ultra-light ceramic chainrings thrust at me, and being given free vodka and a go at Di2.

It was pretty much the London Wattbike Show. You could have ridden a century just taking part in all the Wattbike competitions at the show.

Four of us had a go at the Lee  Valley Park Wattbike Challenge. I finished last. I also spent the next fifteen minutes trying to pretend I wasn't exhausted.

When I said the  show was full of striking gear, it wasn't actually this that I had in mind.

Another retro stunner.

As usual, Foffa had  the best looking bikes at the show. I'm not sure if I'd want to ride one, but I'd love to have one on the wall.

See what I mean? It's practically modern art.

Ok, this pisses me off a bit. I like Cyclist. Issue by issue it's found its feet, and I 've gone from giving it a cursory glance to devouring each issue. Despite all that, I'm really hacked off that the subscriber copy has Marianne Vos on the cover, while the newstand edition has a generic Muro di Sormano pic. Weak. Either throw your weight behind women's cycling or don't, but don't publicly vacillate on the matter.

Hmm...belated New Years Resolution. I enjoy watching women's cycling as much as men's, but I never blog about it. That'll change this year.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Coming Soon: The Ride Journal Issue 7

Issue 7 of The Ride goes on sale on February 7th, and I've got a rather nice piece in there about Tour climbs and sprinters.

You can visit The Ride Journal's website to find a local dealer, order a back issue, or download  PDFs of earlier issues for  free.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Halfords to sell Pinarello Bikes in the UK

Somewhere in Halfords' Marketing Department, there is a Venn diagram with one circle labelled "spends £8000 on a bike " and the other labelled "doesn't google dealer reputations", and the overlap on those circles is apparently huge.

To be honest, I think Halfords perhaps get the wrong end of a lot of bike snobbery. The general perception is that the Carrera brand is overweight, and they'll build it badly, and that the Boardman brand is pretty good, but they'll build it badly. But you know what? If you're on an inexpensive bike (and I think the majority of cyclists in the UK are still pretty much commuting/leisure cyclists rather than club riders or sportive junkies) and you need a seatpost, or a cable or an inner tube, the chances are Halfords has sorted you out without rifling your wallet. Fair play to them.

Becoming a Pinarello dealer though? That's a sizeable step in the other direction. The idea that anyone who cares enough about bikes to buy a Pinarello is going to be willing to have it assembled by the Saturday kid from the Bass Tubes and Stereos department is ridiculous.

These are kids doing part-time work. It's not their career, or their life's passion; they aren't working in an independent bike shop in the hope of becoming a famous wheelbuilder. They're working in a high street shop that sells more Castrol GTX and Richard Hammond videos than it does bikes.

They're 17 years old and they've got things on their mind other than figuring out which way round the wobbly carbon forks go on your new Dogma 2.0, or adequately wiring up its Di2 Electric shifter. That's as it should be, frankly, if you want disposable labour. Let's not pretend that the £3.68 minimum wage paid to an under-18 is somehow buying you their enthusiastic fealty. When I was 17 I worked for minimum wage at a Happy Eater and you should have seen the blasé fashion in which I cooked your dinner. Sorry, I was busy thinking about Heavy Metal, white cider and cheap grass. You really wouldn't have wanted me fitting the brakes that are going to stop you on your way down the Cat and Fiddle.

I know that cycling is at an all-time high in popularity, and I understand that for young city types it has replaced poker as the willy-bashing pastime du jour, but I still don't believe there are many people out there who care enough about cycling to buy bikes that start at £3,000 but don't care enough to buy them from a place that will put them together properly.

The saddest prediction of all, and one that feels painfully likely, is that Halfords' will be able to undercut smaller Pinarello dealers and will flog a shedload of Italian beauties with shifters positioned at 45 degrees and  saddles run forward on their rails. Then those dealers who should have had a £3,000 sale will have to be grateful for the chance to charge 25 quid here and there to repair and reassemble badly-built bikes that they would have built properly in the first place.

Some people are probably grumbling that this is only what you should expect when Italian frame builders start putting Japanese components on their bikes. The cycling equivalent of red skies and a rain of frogs, that is. If only they'd gone with Campag.

Friday, 11 January 2013

More of The Same, Please.

We’re eleven days away from the start of the 2013 season, and soon there will be a whole new bunch of cycling memories taking up residence in my mind.  One last chance then, to dust off the best memories of 2012.

This isn’t a "Greatest Moments of 2012", as such. If it were, there would be a lot more of Hoy, Trott, Storey and Armitstead.  Boonen would get more than one mention, and Cav’s Tour stages would get a lengthy write up. This is a more subjective list; the things that come unbidden to my mind when I relax and think of cycling in 2012, the moments from the season that effortlessly imprinted themselves on my brain.

I’ve tried hard to keep it to those first few moments, and to cut it off at the point where I feel I’m actively remembering things rather than just have memories wash over me. Sadly, that means I’ve excluded Nibali on Green Mountain (that point where I thought he was going to have great season-not my finest prediction ever). There’s also only room for Millar’s stage win at the Tour to be an honourable mention, which is a terrible shame, as it was as fine an example of why “winningest” should be a real word as you’ll ever see. Not the youngest, not the fastest, and not the best climber in his breakaway group, Millar marked the right moves and timed his own attack perfectly. That’s not even just down to experience: there are plenty of savvy, grizzled veterans in the bunch who couldn’t have pulled it off, but Millar won because not because he knows more about racing, but because he knows more about winning. He also gave a brave and timely victory speech.

Mirador de Ezaro

When the 2012 Vuelta’s vertiginous route was announced last January, most people gave the Mirador de Ezaro a passing glance, said “That’s got Rodriguez written all over it”  and then went into raptures about Cuitu Negru and Bola del Mundo. At 2Km, Mirador de Ezaro didn’t seem long enough to be decisive in the race, and couldn’t help but be overshadowed by the many, many mountains on the rest of the route. But for some reason it sank its hooks into me. I blogged about it, I put it in my race preview, I posted links to ascent videos on forums and maintained it would be a key battleground in the race. I was going to look a right plonker if they sailed over it effortlessly.

As it turned out, the key battleground of the race turned out to be a tarmacked pimple a few kilometres into a stage that barely qualified as a medium mountains day. Having failed to dislodge each other on any of the real climbs, the battle between Purito and Pistolero was settled by a crafty Contador attack when Rodriguez wasn't looking, so early in a nothing stage that the TV coverage hadn’t even started. The Vuelta organisers are attempting to rectify this for the next edition by apparently having not so much as a single flat kilometre in the race.

So, all the hills and all the mountains turned out to be entertaining rather than decisive battlegrounds, true, but my little Mirador de Ezaro was one of them. Anyone who thought stage 12 would be a short, uncontested dash to the finish by Joaquim Rodriguez was way off, as the Ezaro’s mix of steep ramps, hairpins and false flats packed into just two or three Km of road was host to one of the Vuelta’s many agonising battles, as Rodriguez and Contador distanced the field and caught the escapees on the 24% sections of the climb, chugged painfully over the middle sections of the hill, before Rodriguez nipped out of Contador’s wheel to attack of the last fifty yards or so and take the victory. I suppose it did have his name all over it, but it wasn’t the sort of mad, unopposed dash we saw in his Giro stage win at Assisi, it was a fight.

Cavendish after La Manie

Not one of the happier memories of the year, but certainly one of the most telling. Everyone knows that Milan-San Remo doesn’t get going until the Cipressa and the Poggio, right? The chancers dash away hoping to exploit the old saw that seven seconds of advantage at the top of the Poggio will be enough to get you to the finish, while sprinters who fancy their chances on the broad finishing boulevard will do their tenacious best to control the climb and set things up for a gallop.

It was a shock to turn on the Eurosport coverage and see the Liquigas team in their fetching jersey (I know, I know, I am the only person in all of Europe who liked their kit) hooning it over La Manie in the middle of the race. Even in a 300Km leg sapper like M-SR its not uncommon to see a little bit of exploratory leg stretching, but this wasn’t a probe or feint, this was one of the best-drilled squads in the bunch pushing hard at the font loooooong before you’d expect anything decisive to happen. And there was Cav, in his World Championship bands, dropping out of the back of the bunch.

With hindsight, his particular brand of Kryptonite was every bit as obvious as a glowing green rock. Isolate him early, as it’s in no other team's interest to pitch in to the effort to bring him back to the front. All of a sudden, you could see the seeds of the negative riding that the Germans and Australians would adopt in the Olympic road race.

Boonen’s Roubaix

When Boonen had his usual early season successes in the Middle-East, it seemed like business as usual. Three or four wins at the start of the season, followed by a gradual slide away from the sharp end of the races and another disappointing season for Tornado Tom. Except, at the time, I said I thought there might be something different going on this time-at one point, Boonen reeled back in a full-blooded attack by Fabian Cancellara, which not many people can claim to have done. There seemed to be a physical strength and a hunger that had been absent for a several years. By early February, I was starting to wonder if we were about to see a Tornado season as good as we got in '05 and '06.

Turns out, it would be better than that. Second in Het Nieuwsblad, followed by wins at E3 Harelbeke, Ghent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders were impressive enough, but Boonen wasn’t going to settle for one monument when he could have two. A 50Km solo effort over the cobbles, with Sky's best efforts unable to bring him back, and Boonen had clinched Paris-Roubaix in a fashion that stands alongside the legends of the event. I had to watch a recording of it in the early hours of the morning, which added a strange extra frisson of excitement, like staying up to watch boxing from Vegas, only better.

A Tale of Two Time Trials
I’m cheating a bit by putting these two together, but I’ve got good reason. I saw Wiggo on his way to TT victory in the Tour De France from the foot of a hill near Abbans Dessous, barely a kilometre from the first time check at the not-at-all-confusingly-named Abbans Dessus. I saw him on his way to victory in the Olympic Time Trial in Bushy Park, 200 metres from the finish line, and in both cases there was a beautiful certainty in seeing him pass.

At Abbans Dessous, the time check was atop a hill, shortly before a left hander into a short, twisting descent. The hedgerow at the top of the hill was broken, and you could see riders flashing between the gaps in the privet a minute or so before they’d pass us on the descent. Cadel Evans passing through was exciting enough, but almost as soon as he’d passed the foot of the hill, there was a flash of yellow blurring through the hedges at the top, less than a minute behind. There was no need for timing chips, transponders or tenths of seconds, the difference was visible: having started two minutes apart, Wiggo had closed up over a minute on the defending champion  in the first third of the time trial. I’d still spend the next two weeks trying not to jinx it, but at that moment, a little bit of me started to believe.

In Bushy Park, it was an equally perfect moment - we already knew that defending champion Fabian Cancellara was well off the pace, a season’s worth of injuries and a crash in the road race having scuppered his preparations. Wiggo may have been the second to last man to pass us, but for all intents and purposes, he was already on his victory lap, and had been since he started to pull into the lead over Tony Martin at the second time check, and then extend that lead at the third. By the time he came in to Bushy Park, we knew he’d won-there was no delayed gratification, the celebrations started as soon as we caught a glimpse of him. Sport would be rubbish if it always lacked tension, but every once in a while it’s nice to have a Hollywood victory.

Pozzovivo on Punta Veleno
Before the Giro del Trentino I think I’d seen Domenico Pozzovivo’s name in print a few times, but I couldn’t have told you much about him. The same goes for Punta Veleno, the “poisonous sting”. One afternoon in April changed that, as Pozzovivo took the lead in the Giro del Trentino with climb of this small but feisty mountain. The road twists and turns, blending long steep drags with shorter, steeper ramps, and each tree shielded  corner has the potential to reveal  another unexpected and heartbreakingly cruel pitch.

Pozzovivo led a slow motion dash up this brute, with  Astana’s Roman Kreuziger, Liquigas’ Sylvester Szmyd and Lampre’s Damiano Cunego notable among the pursuers. For most of the bizarre chase, Pozzovivo was unable to drag the gap out to much more than four or five bike lengths, but equally, the chasers were unable to close it. For long, long minutes it looked impossible that an attack which had so little effect could succeed, yet equally impossible that it could be reeled back in. The riders maintained their respective paces through the worst of the climb until finally, painfully, the elastic snapped and Pozzovivo surged ahead onto the muddy plateau atop Punta Veleno, fog filling the steep drop into the valley beside the road, and stayed away to take the lead in the race, despite his supposedly timorous descending.

It’s strange, given that this was the year of Wiggo’s Tour and Olympic wins, but when I think of cycling in 2012, Pozzovivo grinding up Punta Veleno with his rivals only a few uncloseable feet behind him is what I picture.

Monday, 7 January 2013

New Bike Joy: Sensa Umbria Tiagra

I've just bought a Sensa Umbria Tiagra Special. As you can imagine, I’m very excited. I love the Purple Peril, but it has put in 16 years of dependable service and it just isn't holding up very well anymore. I'm pretty sure the frame itself could put in another 16 years if need be, but everything else is old enough to require replacement or time consuming maintenance after even the shortest of rides. The point at which the bottom bracket started to make a combined grind-creak-click noise with every turn of the pedals made me think it was time for a new bike. These days it would cost me more to replace all the Peril's ruined bits than than the Peril itself cost 16 years ago. I suppose that's inflation for you.

Like a lot of people, I’ve had my eye on the Sensa range, and particularly the Sensa Umbria Tiagra Special, since they first popped up on Merlin’s website about five or six months ago. The Sensa range hung around quietly for a while, selling at a discount to riders who were prepared to join a product feedback scheme. The feedback must have been positive, as the range then received a proper fanfare last November by way of announcements in Cycling Weekly and on numerous websites, after which the Umbria Tiagra Special quickly became the “most popular bike we’ve ever had” in the words of one Merlin employee. They sold two others during the forty five minutes I was in the shop.

The reason why it took me a while to actually commit to buying one was simple: every time I googled the words “Sensa Umbria Tiagra Review”, I’d get nothing. Sure, there were plenty of cycling forums in which people were asking if they were any good, but precious few people replying who could claim to have ridden one, and not a single professional review.

When mine arrives in a fortnight’s time, I’ll be posting a review. I won’t call it a "professional" review, as I’ll own the bike, which is a pretty unprofessional basis to start from. Having been a hardware reviewer for the last twelve years, however, I can promise that it will be a carefully considered opinion, weighed up in comparison to other entry level rides, and assessed using relevant criteria.

Edit: Ok, I've posted the review at the following link. . Sensa Umbria Tiagra Review

In the meantime, I can tell you what actually clinched it for me when I finally got my hands on one in the shop.

For starters, the price really isn’t too good to be true, which had been my original worry. The first things most people ask when assessing a full bike are: what's it made of, and what group does it have? The Umbria Tiagra is an aluminium frame with a full Tiagra groupset.  Given that the next nearest full Tiagra aluminium bikes are the Peugeot CR22 the Trek 1.5, which are a disconcerting £90-150 more expensive, it was easy to wonder why Sensa's offering was so much the cheaper of superficially similar bikes.

(A quick addition, it turns out that TheBicycleMan is also selling the Sensa Umbria Tiagra, but for £799, much nearer the cost of the Trek 1.5. I reckon you call that London Weighting.)

It turns out there are some pretty clear differences between them. Having ridden both the Trek 1.5 and Sensa Umbria in the last year, it’s clear that the Umbria is heavier. Not a lot heavier, but heavier nonetheless. If you look beyond the two big signposts of frame and groupset, there are also a fair few differences in finishing kit: the 1.5 comes with pedals (not good pedals mind you, but even basic nylon clips-and-straps are two pedals more than the Umbria). The 1.5 is adorned with Bontrager goodies-Trek's own brand, granted, but a name that stands on its own feet, while the Umbria comes with Sensa’s lesser known Supra own-brand components. Then there’s the fork: an all-carbon jobby on the Trek, compared to a carbon blades/alloy steerer combo on the Sensa. So yes, there is a £150 price difference between the Sensa and the next nearest alu/Tiagra ride, but it’s a fairly easily explained difference, not a hint that there’s something underhanded going on. There's also the simple difference that Sensa are a comparatively young and obscure Dutch manufacturer, while people have heard of Trek due to the seven high-profile Tour de France victories they had under Lance Armstrong's cheating, needle-riddled arse.

Given the Umbria’s old-school construction (straight lines and big, round alu tubes) it’s unlikely that swapping all its finishing kit for that of the Trek would actually make it as light as the 1.5. It’s also about half a kilo heavier than the similarly priced Specialized Allez with 2300 group. On the other hand, it’s by no means a heavy bike, and it weighs in at about half a kilo less than the other hot entry-level road bike of the last six months (BTwin’s Triban 3). Given that I’m moving from steel to aluminium, it’s all featherlight to me anyway, and I’ll happily take clean good looks over modern sloping tubes and kinked stays.

Those last two points are obviously very personal, as is the Umbria Tiagra's big selling point for me: geometry. I’m six foot two, with lanky legs and a long back. I’ve previously ridden a 59cm frame that never seemed to have enough reach. First I bought a raked seatpost, then I ran the saddle to the front of its rails, then I put a longer stem on it. Despite aggregating all these marginal gains, the end result didn’t do much to stop me feeling like I could rest my chest on the bars of my old Peugeot. As soon as I jumped on the Sensa Umbria, I could feel a big difference: my back was sloped rather than curled, and the bars felt much further forward. I’ve loved my purple Peugeot for 16 years, but even with all my tweaking I’m not sure it’s ever been as good a fit as the 58cm Umbria was straight from the box.

Obviously an advantageous spec, noticeable weight reduction compared to steel, and a better fit are all very subjective things: if you dislike the idea of having to gradually upgrade house-brand wheels, post, fork etc, or if you’re not making a such a sizeable switch from steel to aluminium, or if you’re not a lolloping beanpole of a rider, then the Umbria Tiagra might not sing to you the way it sings to me. Personally, I can’t wait to take it out onto Clandon Hill, Richmond Park and anything else fun I can ride on round here. Once I’ve got the miles in, I’ll put up an in-depth review. 

Edit: This post is now far and away the most visited one on the blog, which is nice, but hey, doesn't anyone want to read about Mont Ventoux or the charity ride I'm doing with the Sensa Umbria?

Edit: Ok, I've posted the review at the following link. . Sensa Umbria Tiagra Review