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James Olsen recounts his Tour Divide adventure

Editor’s note: We were tipped off to this story by Jeff Jones, creator and namesake of the Jones mountain bikes. Olsen rode his Jones 2,858.75 miles to finish fifth in the 2013 Tour Divide from Banff, Alberta, to Antelope Wells, N.M.

I didn’t ride quite as far, but you can read my first impressions of the Jones bike here, and a long-term review from our sister magazine Dirt Rag here. – Adam, online editor.

Words and photos by James Olsen.

Just over a week ago I arrived at Antelope Wells after 17 days and about 5 hours of the most intense riding experience of my life. I’m back at home now, I’ve been meaning to get something written down for a few days and it’s only now I’m starting to accept that it’s in the past, no longer waking in the night feeling that it’s time to get up and roll along the trail for a while, warming up before settling in for another long day in the saddle. The Tour Divide was everything I went out there for, it was beautiful, intense and at times almost crushingly hard and it got the best out of me.

Firstly, my bike and kit. I bought a Jones Titanium Spaceframe a couple of years ago and it changed my riding. Really, this wasn’t just new-bike love. Longer rides went by in comfort, the handling was addictive and motivated me to ride almost every day and the comfort meant my rides got longer and my fitness improved noticeably.

I bought a steel diamond frame with truss fork for holidays and bikepacking trips and found it was the perfect tool for the job. Comfy and efficient but also a huge amount of fun downhill—a bike-packer ride that wasn’t ever dull or a compromise when we found unexpected gems of trails. Not once did I think “If only I had my susser here…” on those trips. For the Divide there really isn’t a bike I’d have felt so confident in.

I used my steel diamond frame for the frame-bag space and the Ti truss fork for less weight–it all counted. The Velocity P35 rims let me use my tires at maybe 17-18 psi at times when the washboard roads were beating me up, or simply when I wanted to roll more easily along the rougher trails. Others were sticking to 40+ psi and thinner, lighter rims and I think I had an advantage there. I’m certain I was getting less beat up than other riders.

I used Geax Saguaro 2.2 tires that do roll very well and work well on both loose or hard ground but I think a bigger tyre would have been a wiser choice. Fast-rolling 2.4 tires aren’t so widely available but perhaps the tread is less important at lower pressures. On the roads an Ardent 2.4 at 40psi would’ve been slower than the Saguaro, but on balance it may have been faster or comfier over the rougher sections. I saw a couple of Surly 29×3.0 Knard-equipped bikes on the route and eyed up their tires enviously.

A Ti Loop H-bar was the perfect bar for this kind of ride, plenty of space for lights, computer, route maps etc as well as the grip options. A good number of racers were using them this year.

I used a single 34t oval chainring and a 12-28 six-speed modified cassette on a Hope singlespeed hub, using three single-speed cogs and three Shimano cassette cogs stacked up. This was a really hard-wearing combo in the gears I used 80 percent of the time (16, 19 and 22 rear) and I was confident 2,800 miles wouldn’t put too much wear on them. The shifting wasn’t as slick as a normal cassette but it was ok, like a singlespeed with a few options either side of my usual 34-19 ratio.

The straight chain line and front single ring would have been a benefit in the infamous Divide mud, but it was my downfall on a fast road section at the end. A triple may have been a wiser move, certainly if I’d known it was going to be generally so fast and dry I would have fitted one. Shifting was done by a bar-end shifter with a Paul Component mount and I used XTR v-brake levers on BB7 brakes with 160mm and 180mm rotors. Pre-greased cables were a little sticky at first but ran smooth the whole way and I only used one set of pads. My wheel set uses the same spokes throughout so I only carried 2 spare spokes. All my kit came to around 11 lbs., just under 2 lbs. for my sleeping kit on the bars, 3 to 4 lbs. of clothes and waterproofs in the seat pack, the rest was a camelback for food and water and in my frame bag that had extra space for a full 2-liter water bladder if needed.

As for the ride, the Tour Divide isn’t that well known outside mountain bike circles but the number of entrants has increased sharply the last few years and blue-dot watching (trackleaders.com) has added a new spectator dimension to races like this. This year there were 140 or more of us, mostly gathered at the YMCA Lodge in Banff on the morning of June 14, heading south.

I guess most of us had discovered bikepacking in recent years, seen “Ride the Divide” or read Jill Homer or Paul Howard’s books and been hooked on the idea. Some had been planning the race for a couple of years, others for less time. I fell into the “less time” group. At New Year’s I decided I wanted to do something committing on the bike and the Tour Divide was big and exciting enough to really motivate me (fear is a good motivator I found).

Multiple-race-winner Matthew Lee’s posts on Divide racing attitudes and ethics on a forum clinched it for me, it was a race that seemed to appeal when racing rarely does so. For five months my spare time was focussed on little else. There was no race experience in my past to base any confidence on but I had done plenty of reasonably long rides and bivi trips in the past. I feel at home when alone and outdoors and I love sleeping under the stars. I felt confident in my self-sufficiency and felt that I could answer a reasonably confident “yes” to the “Are you up to this?” check-list on the Tour Divide site. Or at least, ‘yes, after some preparation’.

I also had found the perfect bike for my long rides and overseas trips in my Jones bike. What I needed to do was get myself in shape for the demands of the race, finalize my kit and decide on some kind of strategy.

I wanted to race in a certain style, influenced by what I’d read about the original Great Divide race and Matthew Lee’s approach to Divide racing. I really wanted the Divide to be a tunnel that I entered into with the only way back to home comforts being the finish line, or retirement from the race. That meant (to me) racing without a phone or GPS, being 100 percent reliant on myself for bike servicing or repairs and I wanted to sleep out trail-side every night and find a rhythm that worked with daylight hours and my body clock to maximize rest or minimize physical and mental disruption.

The Divide route was to be an open-air experience and roofs were off-limits between start and finish. I think a few more storms would have tested that aim towards the end, but I’m happy that the stormy nights were times when I pushed on out of town in the evenings, set up camp in the dark downpour and lay safe under my small tarp as the lightning lit up the fabric every few moments. Other nights, the storm threatened, tested my resolve then backed down and let me rest with only a light drizzle that couldn’t disturb my coma-like sleep.

Before the race I said that these ideals or ethics may cost me a few places but racing style was important to me, I had some kind of “clean, onsight” kind of climbing ethics in mind that could only really be done once as a rookie on the route. Ask me about ethics after I mis-read my cues again or rode miles past a turn and spent a stressful time uncertain whether it was the right one and you’d have got a different angle on Divide racing! GPS is a good thing if you want to go fast and phones are a faster way to find out about fire diversions, but adventure and uncertainty is also part of the experience.

I think I had a couple of advantages in the race that made up for a lack of race experience and helped keep me in the top five most of the race. One was being happy to sleep trail-side anywhere and in almost any weather which saved me time, the other was having reliable equipment. I was confident in my bike and gear as I’d used it in roughly a Divide’s worth of distance of bikepacking and touring trips before without a single issue. Some of my kit was fairly new but simply a lighter or simpler version of what I’d used before. Some other things I’d do differently next time having completed the race, but that’s always the case with an experience of that magnitude.

The training went well and I enjoyed the long overnight and weekend rides I did in preparation. By the time the race came around I was nervous, scared almost, but raring to go. If you love long rides and existing with the minimum of possessions the Great Divide is a wonderful place to be. Remote in places but rarely dauntingly so, it’s a route where you’ll often feel very small under dramatic skies and expansive views. The feeling of open space is simply huge. If it wasn’t a race there would have been times when I would have got off my bike and just sat or stood in the middle of these great spaces, trying to take it all in. But it was a race and that added a pressure I never predicted.

I’d ended up in the top 10 on day two; when Billy Rice (a northbound rider nearing Banff, who would then turn around to ride south, completing the first TDR double last week) stopped to say hi and tell me there weren’t many ahead of me I realized I was making my way towards the front of the field. After that there was no letting up, I wanted to do well. If I was going to be happier at a slower speed I could tour the route another time.

Naturally I found myself close to other riders on different strategies and with different strengths but the Divide evens things out soon enough. Racing so closely with Alex Harris for over 2,000 miles taught me a lot as well as stretched my ability and my mental strength, I found I could pedal longer and harder than I expected but the lack of sleep and need to compete with a very experienced racer/adventurer was tough, it wore my nerves down at times but it also stopped me slipping into default tourer mode when I felt tired or close to being beaten by the scale of the route.

I don’t think we were ever more than a few hours apart and all I could go on were tire tracks. If there weren’t any signs of Alex’s tire tracks ahead of me, every time I stopped for any reason I was looking behind me and the pressure built. I learned soon after riding with Alex for the first time that he had experience and a source of strength that I would find it hard to compete with when things got difficult, and it was simply a case of when that happened, not if it would.

Things got difficult after La Manga pass, going into New Mexico. Alex and I were low on food but had eaten well in Platoro, 30 miles or so earlier. We were headed into the first of New Mexico’s wilderness stretches, the Cruces Basin, a very beautiful area that we first saw through rain and a fog of hypoglycaemia as we separately tried to make 800 or so calories each last well over a hundred miles of mixed ground. At times it was among the hardest terrain of the route and all of it was at high altitude.

We both knew it’d be hard as we went in, we’d briefly debated the wisdom of going off-route for 30 miles for food or the ethics of hitching off-route. I didn’t want to hitch or delay but I also wanted food. I remembered Aidan Harding’s comments about considering how a racer-to-be would feel when much-needed resupply points were closed, leaving another half-day’s ride to the next point. I thought it was something I could cope with.

Bravado was called out as Alex decided to head into the wilderness. I think the racer in him knew it could be a pivotal moment in our two-man race. Maybe he was just calling my bluff, I don’t know. But I had to follow. As I pushed uphill in the rain to save what little energy I had only ten miles in, he slowly rode away and I felt alone for the first time in the race. I’d enjoyed riding alone for so many miles before that and at times I wanted to break away from Alex simply to ride alone again, but after the first week’s fatigue I wasn’t up to putting more than relatively brief, almost futile gaps between us and I also enjoyed his company.

The Divide racers’ dilemma perhaps, you need a strong head to race the entire route solo, refusing any company. Further up the trail I found half of the small bag of trail mix that a couple on quad bikes had given us earlier. Alex had split it and left it clearly on the trail… “This really was half, honest! : ) ” it said on the bag. Riding alone was losing its appeal, tough times are better faced as a team but this was a solo race and more so now than before it really felt like a serious, solo race for me.

Dark, irrational thoughts closed in and I thought I may end up losing a few places as I walked, then stumbled, for miles and miles to the next potential food supply but my decision had been made and only I could affect the outcome or take the blame.

It turns out that years of long rides and often-poor pace management had taught me a lot about managing “the bonk” and by eating a tiny amount every twenty minutes I eventually stabilized and perhaps much of my lethargy was due to altitude, or caution-induced. I then had a reckless moment when I ate more than half of my only cliff bar in one go and as the sun went down my energy returned. I caught Alex shortly after turning my lights on and we rode together until we emerged onto a five-mile road climb between the wilderness/forest park areas at around 11 p.m.

It felt like a fairly lucky escape but there were still 50 or more miles to go before any hope of resupply. I was pretty sure that the first possible source of food would be shut anyway, as often had been the way. “Don’t get your hopes up”. I chose to bivi there and rest despite saying earlier that pushing on through the night was a good plan, since by then it was a clear night and getting colder and shivering costs calories. My thin but cosy down bag and cushy Neo-air mat was calling again. Alex had only a bivi bag and down jacket so he pushed on to the next shelter which turned out to be only six miles away. We remained within an hour or less of each other but all I knew the next morning was that I was following his tracks again.

The next day in the town of Abiqui I bought the Divider’s breakfast of two double cheeseburgers each with fries, a large milkshake and large Coke but only after being unable to get any cash at a post office and riding past two cash-only shops over the previous 30 miles. I was also caught at the post office by Liam Crowley who may not have got the friendly hello he deserved from this tired, run-down rider. Sorry Liam… He then gave me a spare bar in a generous offer that I won’t forget.

From that point on, I saw a lot more of Liam. He’d been behind us for almost a week but something had lit his fire and he was riding well, he’d closed a half-day or more gap with what must have been a tough all-nighter across the Cruces Basin from Platoro, a big effort that didn’t seem to cost him in the long term.

In the final miles of our Tour Divide we passed each other as we napped separately for an hour or so or paused at food or water points within 125 miles of the finish. I wanted to ride right through to the finish but sleep deprivation was building and mild, continual hallucinations affected me and falling asleep on the bike for brief moments happened too regularly. Waking and swerving across the road without crashing showed how in tune you can get with your bike after 17 days of almost continual riding but there was a real risk that I’d crash out of the race within sight of the finish.

I had an hour and a half’s sleep under a tree as light rain continued to fall and was back on the bike soon after 4:30 a.m. As dawn broke across the beautiful final desert stretch I was riding strongly but following in Alex and Liam’s tire tracks. Passed Separ, I saw no tracks and got my head down for the last 65 miles of road to Antelope Wells. Tears welled in my eyes as I realized I really was going to finish the Tour Divide, relief that it was almost over was mixed with sadness of a journey’s end, something magical grasped.

I thought I may be about to finish third, unthinkable to me really despite having spent a number of days between third and fourth position and as good as that thought felt, I tried not to dwell on it. It just didn’t seem possible. When I saw two dots behind me on the horizon I upped my pace to my limit, I felt good that morning and thought I could hold the pace for another 35 miles to the finish but whether I actually could, I’m not sure.

My 34×12 top gear was good for a speed that was about as high as a rider with 2,800 miles in their legs could maintain, but Alex slowly reeled me in. I sat up and we regrouped as Liam joined us. For a few miles the pace dwindled and we joked about all of us being caught again as we slowed up – half seriously, as we knew Brian Pal (top US rider that year) had been riding strongly and gaining ground in the last few days.

A truck drove past and pulled into the road side. A big guy in a checked shirt, Texan hat and suspenders got out and stood in the center of the road. His pose was pure wild-west, ready to draw. As we rolled up to him he smiled and held out cans of cold condensation-dripping Coke. Lloyd and Roger Payne, thank you for the best welcome committee possible. Racing was off the cards as we drank two cold Cokes each, then it went back on the agenda as a final sprint was mentioned.

From the one mile out roadside marker.

Potentially painful.

We were at mile three and I was itching to go. I did feel good, but I was tired enough not to realize that my 34×12 top gear wasn’t going to get me past either Liam or Alex on a flat road. But finishing as racers was the only fitting way to finish, there wasn’t to be any joint-placings among us.

By the time we wound up the sprint, I was back in 5th spot watching the others ride away over the last few hundred yards. It wasn’t a welcome sight yet somehow places mattered less to me then. In the early days I was elated to be top 10, as I moved up the field the only place that mattered was the one I held then and the racing had motivated the best riding I’d done. Ranking mattered less to me than how we’d ridden and coped with the challenges, racing all the way yet happy to ride together when our timing and pace matched.

I’d stuck to my no outside-influence bike service and sleep-out-every-night plans and had nothing but pride and satisfaction for how the race had gone. I’d finished, after all. As much as I’d have turned myself inside out to have got third place, Alex truly deserved his podium spot and at the time I’d have traded that cliff bar with Liam for a place any day. The 17 days had gone by in a blur of huge vistas and wide-eyed discovery, tiredness and endorphins and massive appetites. I’d ridden in sublime places with great people and seen how welcoming small-town American people could be toward tired, smelly bike racers with accents they rarely could place. I’d met Kirsten at Brush Mountain Lodge and Megan and Clay at the Toaster house for not much more than an hour or two and it had felt like I’d known them for years. All the fatigue and pain that was to follow as my body went into a minor breakdown a few hours after finishing were worth it.

And I’m looking forward to tomorrow – unboxing my Jones, simply lubing the chain and riding my local trails again.

More photos

See more of James’ photos from his trip in his Flickr gallery.


On the (bumpy) road of Trans Iowa

By Jeremy Kershaw

The Trans Iowa is many different things. Speaking for myself, but I think many would agree, the race is a once-a-season phenomenon. It is a marker by which the rest of the year is gauged. You are either preparing for the T.I. or recovering from it… physically and emotionally. The high that I received from finishing last year endured many months afterward. This year, I will try to roll away optimistic, philosophical, but also more than a little disappointed. To me, that shows the gravity of this wild gravel race across Iowa farmland.

The wonder of the T.I. lies in the many different parts that build the whole of the event. There are the obvious: months and miles of base hopefully laid down beforehand. In the Northland, that means hours spent riding cold, wet and often snowy conditions in order to gain a little spring time endurance fitness, or worse, more-than-I-can-remember spins on the indoor trainer watching cartoons so that I could pretend I was kind of parenting and training at the same time.

Then there is the bike prep. This year, that meant endless emails to fellow singlespeed racers trying to guess as to what would be the best gear ratio for such a long race and exceptionally hilly one at that. Going singlespeed represented to me an analogy similar to mountain climbing high peaks without oxygen. Why not up it a notch, the already crazy challenge, into the just plain insane? I chose a 40×19 gear this year. It was probably as near to perfect as I could hope for.

There is the palpable sense of togetherness at the dinner the night before the race. So many genuinely good people about to share in an adventure that will test everyone of them to their limits.

Laying in the hotel bed the night before, watching the Weather Channel or The Simpsons, knowing full well that you have to be awake and ready to go by 2 a.m. That mix of fear and excitement makes for an extremely fitful few hours of rest.

Then, 90 riders, all with their white headlights and red flashing taillights on, huddle together at the start line in downtown Grinnell. Guitar Ted informs us of last minute changes. Confident handshakes and words of encouragement as brakes are tested, computers zeroed-out and tired eyes look blankly ahead into the darkness.

For about a mile, even the slowest rider can be up front, leading the pack through the first few turns out of town. You feel like a real bike racer. Hell, I can win this thing if I really had a good day!

The first crunch of limestone rock under the tires. A few unsecured water bottles already fly into the ditch. Many riders are very experienced with the jolt that riding "gravel" induces on the bike and the body. A few are already suffering the cruel facts of life on these rough farm roads. Too much air pressure in the tires equals exceptionally squirrely handling. Too little, and you risk suffering a pinch flat. Just right means a compromise between some form of air comfort and a rim dinged from tennis ball sized rock.

A quick look back and you realize that the race is on. A long string of lights rattling through the predawn darkness. In only minutes, though, I find myself in my own little pocket of speed. How is it possible that no one else is going the same pace as me? I know this will change as the day goes on. Alliances will be forged. New friendships made. But for now, quiet time, alone and many many miles to go.

Frogs. Lots and lots of frogs doing their spring chorus from the roadside ditches and marshes. If there is one thing I love about riding in the wee hours of the morning and night it is the sounds of birds and frogs. I never feel lonely when I hear them. I remember two years ago walking along a ditch of a "B" road ("unmaintained"), shoes filled with mud, grass and water, bike caked with ten pounds of Iowa’s finest black dirt, headlamps turned on trying to see through the foggy darkness of predawn. And the chorus of frogs was the only soundtrack supporting this scene of chaos. Millions of them. I wonder if anyone else noticed. How lucky we all were to be out there covered in shit, serenaded by amphibian music.

 

This year, we are graced by a nearly full moon preparing to set, sheets of early morning fog hanging over the low-lands, and a sun just dying to rise on a rare, clear Iowa countryside. I have my small camera along, tucked in my jersey pocket. I nearly die from the missed opportunities of images that I could have captured only if I had stopped and taken the time to shoot. It is a dream landscape. A scene where a thousand pictures could be made, ready for local bank calenders, chamber of commerce flyers, and stock photo galleries to showcase the pastoral beauty of rural Iowa. It was one of those mornings that I will remember for the rest of my life.

Huh…I’m still by myself. That’s OK. I don’t want to have to worry about going too fast right now anyway.

The first checkpoint. On these long races, you have to force yourself to ride checkpoint to checkpoint. It’s just too long otherwise. The T.I. racers are lucky to have some of the best volunteers in cycling. After my first 50 miles of alone time, it’s nice to see people again. Shed layers. Remove gravel from socks. Stretch. Swap out a fresh bag of cue cards. Clip in and go again.

Cue cards. An icon for these gravel races. Count them. Make sure they are all there. Without them, you are one turned around fool in farmland. I race to checkpoints, but I really race to the bottom of a cue card. A small victory every time you get to the last turn of the card and flip a new on top. A huge victory when you see you are on your last one.

Convenience stores. In this edition of the T.I., that meant Casey’s General Stores. Now, I love the science of sports nutrition and endurance physiology, and there have been tremendous strides taken in educating the average cyclist about what to eat and when, but I am seriously waiting for someone to write a manual on how real gravel endurance cyclists eat. It ain’t by the book.

Pizza slices? No problem. Coca Cola? Sure. Cinnamon rolls, Cheeze-it’s, Hot Tomales, chocolate milk, Peanut Nut Rolls…if you can keep it down then you win the game of ultra nutrition. A convenient store on course is like a little Christmas every 60 miles. A time to eat, socialize, stare blankly out into space while stuffing a bag of chips in your face. And lots of very friendly old farmers wondering where you are going and why you are going by gravel road instead of by Pontiac.

Back on the road, after a stop, there is a small period of re-acclimation. There is never the ability to replace what you are burning in calories. But for about 15 minutes, you have a vague feeling that you should not have eaten that last fruit pie. 

Time to think. About important life decisions. Hours to re-plan your life and make mental check lists of things you are going to change when you get home. Actually, that’s kind of bullshit. Really, it’s some damn cartoon song that is stuck on repeat in your head. Dora the Explorer must DIE!

At mile 120 my butt begins to feel a bit chafed. Nothing serious. I wonder about about other rider’s butts. Does anyone really escape this thing without undercarriage damage? Does anyone really have the perfect saddle? Except for those fools riding their precious Brooks antiques. (I actually covet one and I think they may be the ONLY ones with intact butts at the end of the T.I.)

At mile 160 I feel the first and maybe the most ominous sign of bodily frailty. Rather out of nowhere, my left knee feels weak while standing on a climb. Then, a few miles down the road, both my knees feel weak while riding the flats. I think it will go away. But deep down I know this is not good—especially with no other lower gears to fall into.

Really? Still alone? I could have sworn there were other riders this year…

If I were a mathematician, I would probably win the Nobel Prize. Why? For naming the phenomenon that exists when you realize that your diminishing speed, coupled with a distance less than 10 miles, will always mean that it will take a half hour to reach the final checkpoint. I think there are probably still a few riders trapped out there in this black hole of time-space-cornfield.

The call of shame. It is both a curse and a blessing to have a Casey’s store only a couple of miles from the last checkpoint. For sure it represents an oasis in which to re-fuel and warm up. (This one looked like a cross between a bike swap and a homeless shelter. I think I watched a man fully change kits at the end of the candy aisle) It is also a spider web of defeat to those that get trapped within the sticky grasp of more pizza, bright lights and a place where your support crew might be able to find you.

I called Guitar Ted and informed him that I was done. I paced the sidewalk for a good 20 minutes before dialing the number. There followed an acute feeling of disappointment. Failure. A general sense of "what does it all mean". And a fleeting wave of relief.

This year I stopped riding at mile mark 180. I had ridden alone for nearly all of the 15 hours I was in the saddle. I chose to go singlespeed this year. The muscles surrounding both my knees, ten miles before the last checkpoint at mile 170, simply started to fatigue to the point that I couldn’t stand and pedal without a sense of impending buckling. I just couldn’t see making another 150 miles. So I called in and ended my bid for a second T.I. finish.

The importance of races of this grandeur can not be minimized. The Trans Iowa is a study in perseverance. Endurance. Cycling community. Hope. Breakdown. And a dusty stage to act out one’s own dreams of being a gravel god(ess).

Thank you, Guitar Ted, for creating and producing the Trans Iowa.


‘Brews, Bikes & Bucks’ brings out cycling royalty to support Trips For Kids

By Gary J. Boulanger.

The sky was blue, the sidewalks were bustling, and the IPA was flowing on a warm, 62-degree Sunday afternoon in Marin County as a gaggle of Mountain Bike Hall of Famers gathered in San Rafael, California on February 10 to raise a pint and funds for Marilyn Price’s Trips For Kids organization, which takes underprivileged youth out on the trails.

The 15th Annual ‘Brews, Bikes & Bucks’ attracted local riders, supporters, and bike industry personalities to the Broken Drum Brewery where the owner, Noah Berry, donates all proceeds of the day to Trips For Kids, based just down the street. The non-profit receives the bulk of its funding from the Re-Cyclery Thrift Shop at 610 4th Street, with inventory donated from local supporters and several bicycle companies.

The nice weather brought out several pioneers, many of whom rode in on bikes, including Joe Breeze, Otis Guy, Gary Fisher, Scot Nicol, Charlie Kelly, Chris Lang, Dave Garoutte, James McLean, Jacquie Phelan, Mert Lawwill, Bruce Gordon, Sky Yaeger, Dave Koski, and our own fearless publisher, Maurice Tierney.

From left: Chris Chance, Joe Breeze and Mert Lawwill. Chance and Breeze are legends with the torch, and Lawwill was the star of "On Any Sunday", plus a talented mountain bike suspension designer.

From left: Chris Chance, Scot Nicol and Otis Guy. Chance ran Fat Chance Cycles out of Boston, once called the Ibis of the East. Nicol founded Ibis Cycles, called the Fat Chance of the West? Either way, Guy is always smiling, and is fitter than you’ll ever be.

Charlie Kelly and Gary Fisher started a little home-brewed company called "Mountainbikes" in Marin County back in 1979, and Charlie still flies the flag in Fairfax with this more modern machine.

 

Above left: Trips For Kids founder and director Marilyn Price enjoys gathering the tribe together every year, and Joe Breeze seems pleased as a schoolboy. Above right: Mert Lawwill raced motorcycles with Steve McQueen, designed full suspension bikes with Gary Fisher, and still cuts a mean figure in black leather. Son Joe handles marketing for Shimano America.

Maurice Tierney with Gary Fisher and his wife Alex.

Local gal Sky Yaeger designed many Bianchi, Swobo, and Spot bikes you see in your neighborhood. Now she’s whipping up something really special for Shinola, a new company based in Detroit.

Like several Marin County-based Mountain Bike Hall of Famers, Joe Breeze has his name on the down tube, and lives within riding distance of the Broken Drum Brewery in San Rafael.

Bruce Gordon was a key figure in the development of the 29er tire in the 1980s, and this 2013 model shows off his updated Rock N Road tires, featured in the latest issue of Bicycle Times.

After some socializing and bench racing with old pals, Gary Fisher and his wife rolled out to catch the Larkspur ferry back to their flat in San Francisco.

The 15th Annual Trips For Kids fundraiser, "Brews, Bikes & Bucks" gathered at the Broken Drum Brewery in San Rafael, California. Among the mountain bike pioneers were Chris Chance, Joe Breeze, Gary Fisher, Jacquie Phelan, Mert Lawwill, Otis Guy, Chris Lang, Dave Garoutte, Maurice Tierney, Sky Yaeger, James McLean, Dave Koski and Broken Drum owner Noah Berry. Not pictured: Charlie Kelly, Bruce Gordon, and Scot Nicol.


Book Review: Merckx 525

By Gary J. Boulanger,

 

Belgian road racer Eddy Merckx packed the athletic power of Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth, and Walter Payton into his 6’1”, 180-pound frame, demolishing his rivals consistently between 1965 and 1978, where many raced for second against the one they called ‘The Cannibal’.

 

Merckx, who first tasted victory as an amateur on October 1, 1961, continued his victorious ways throughout his professional career, eventually tallying 525 wins, for which a new book has been named.

Merckx 525, published by VeloPress (222 pages, $60), is a hefty book, befitting the hefty career the now 67-year-old Belgian. After all, he won the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia five times, the world road championships three times, Milan-San Remo seven times, and Paris-Roubaix three times, and set the hour record in 1972, which stood for 12 years. His first Tour victory in 1969 included winning the general classification (yellow jersey), points classification (green ‘sprinter’s’ jersey) and the mountains classification (now polka dot).

Despite Merckx’s vise-like grip on the podium, his adversaries were formidable; many, including Joop Zoetemelk, Felice Gimondi, Luis Ocana, Raymond Poulidor, and Roger De Vlaeminck, would’ve been ultra superstars if Merckx hadn’t lined up in their era. Many dared to go toe-to-toe with Merckx, and many beat him, but not regularly. Merckx 525 does an excellent job chronicling Merckx’s career in words and pictures, providing the wonderful minutiae and insight behind his greatest achievements.

Several books on Merckx have been published since his retirement, but Merckx 525 gives the reader an intimate view of the Belgian’s life on and off the bike during his prime years, sideburns and all. Vintage bicycle aficionados will appreciate the lugged steel bikes, leather saddles, wool shorts and jerseys, metal toe clips and leather shoes.

What I found most interesting was the quick metamorphosis of Merckx’s physical appearance on the bike as he won the Classics and Grand Tours; his round-cheeked face became more chiseled, as did his thighs and chest. He morphed into a machine of sorts, pounding out the RPMs like a metronome clarion as a reminder to his adversaries of who was in charge. The burden climaxed by March 19, 1978, Merckx’s final race. He came in 12th at the Tour of Waaland, which finished in Kemzeke, just 100km from his birthplace of Tielt-Winge, Belgium.

Merckx 525 captures the raw effort of bike racing, with the backdrop of Europe as Merckx’s canvas. His life, both private and professional, is laid out for the world to witness. I can picture a slight Flemish smirk creasing his face as he reads it, and a familiar frown of resignation on the faces of his adversaries, at least those who care to relive their glory years.

 


A first-time racer’s tough introduction to cyclocross

Editor’s note: We’re happy to share this great submission by reader Dave Hodgson about his first attempt at racing ‘cross. Have a story you’d like to share with readers? Send it to web@bicycletimesmag.com.

By Dave Hodgson.

I have read some great race reports over the last year of heroic deeds by ‘cross riders. This, my friends, will not be one such report. This is on the other end of the racing spectrum.

After spending all year training to ride long road races, I thought I would try my hand at cross this fall. High intensity sprints in field— a natural choice for a roadie. I mean, it’s only 40 minutes long. How tough could it be? That idea would come back to haunt me.

My first cross race was at New Brighton Park in Vancouver, B.C. Along with the usual obstacles of barriers and small hillocks there was a 25 foot sand pit—not bad the first time you rode through, but decidedly dodgy after 30 people had been practicing on it for 45 minutes.

I thought I would go to the very back at the first race, so my inexperience would not cause any mayhem. There I meet a girl in a pink tutu, a fit looking 20-year-male and, I believe, a blind guy.

“I got the blind guy," I thought.

Well the race started, and someone promptly fell at the first corner in the leading group, leading to a bit of a pile-up.

“I could have done that!” I chuckled.

I was happily hanging on at the back until we reached the sand pit. I figured I would run the pit, as it might be quicker. What I didn’t figure on, was putting the bike on my shoulder, immediately falling over and having the big cog take out a chunk of my right ear. Picking myself up, and dripping blood, I thought “Great, a smaller ear will make me more aerodynamic for the second lap.”

Already the transformation to cross racer had started.

Passing the pits, some bloke yelled, "Pick it up, you’re getting beat by a girl in a tutu!” and you know, he had a point.

The second lap involved another fall against a tree stump, but at least I negotiated the sand pit without the need of a surgeon.

On passing the start/finish line, I must have looked a bit of a sight because a marshal asked me if I wanted some bacon. I grabbed it most heartily and shoved it in my throat. Unfortunately, in my throat it stayed, as I spent the rest of the lap choking and praying maybe someone might know the Heimlich maneuver.

By the 4th lap I was completely shagged and not very impressed with the lady who cheerily told me there were still 2 laps to go. By this stage I was looking for a friendly face, and I spotted one of my club riders on the sidelines. I was just about to acknowledge him, when he shouted “Come on Jason, don’t get stuck there," and with that, Jason promptly overtook me, although he at least had the decency to say sorry when he passed.

By now the finish line couldn’t come fast enough, but on the last lap I was able to get by the tutu girl in what I thought was sprint, but was more accurately a crawl.

As I was dry heaving at the finish, she came over to me and said “Nice stamina, how long have you been training?" That was when I realized that maybe a bit of training might not have been a bad idea.

She looked me in the eye and said, "There’s race a tomorrow at Vanier park, are you going?” And before I could help myself I said, "Hell yeah, that was fun!”

And really, that is what cross is all about—the winners and losers all suffer in their own way, but in the end, everyone has a bunch of fun. I would thoroughly recommend it to those of you thinking about giving it a try.

I think the only way I can accurately describe the new fever I have for ‘cross, is the look of total political incorrectness and horror on my wife and daughter’s face a few weeks later when the results were posted and I jumped on top of my chair and screamed out loud "Yeah baby! I beat the blind guy!"


The rebirth of Bogota as a cycling city

A Ciclovia day in Bogota. Every Sunday and holiday, the city closes 75 miles of streets to car traffic from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. In all, 1.3 million people attend the weekly event. 

By Klaus. Photos courtesy of Gil Peñalosa and the author. 

By the mid-1990s, Bogotá, Colombia, was an incredibly difficult place in which to live. As the city’s population grew closer to the 10 million mark, its endless neighborhoods continued to spread into the Andean peaks that surround it and the quality of life in the city dropped precipitously. Crime was rampant, as an overall sense of disdain grew within Bogotá’s population.

It was around that time, however, that several key changes took place in Bogotá, changes that would positively alter the course of the city’s history in ways that no one imagined. In a matter of years, the city changed dramatically. Through the work of several visionary leaders, Bogotá lowered its crime rate significantly, delivered much-needed services to its poorest citizens, and improved congestion through an innovative mass-transit system. The bicycle also emerged as a centerpiece in the city’s renaissance. As this happened, Bogotá’s citizens began to take pride in a city they previously loathed.

A key visionary in Bogotá’s rebirth during that time was Gil Peñalosa, who worked as Commissioner of Parks, Sport and Recreation. Under Peñalosa’s leadership, the city designed and developed over 200 parks, as well as the “new Ciclovía,” in which 1.3 million people enjoy over 75 miles of car-free streets throughout the city every single Sunday and holiday. Additionally, it was during this time that Bogotá built over 185 miles of sheltered bikeways, and instituted a once-a-year event known as Car Free Day, in which no privately owned vehicles are allowed on city streets.

Gil Peñalosa, on the streets of Bogotá, Columbia. 

Today, Gil Peñalosa is the executive director of the Canadian non-profit organization 8-80 Cities, which seeks to create vibrant and healthy communities by focusing on the needs of cyclists and pedestrians through the design of public spaces. In that role, Peñalosa has helped numerous cities around the world learn some very valuable lessons from a seemingly unlikely place: Bogotá, Colombia.

Klaus for Bicycle Times: Growing up in Bogotá during the 1980s, the city was a disorganized and often frightening place. Do you see the city’s willingness to accept the bike as a viable method of transportation—and in doing so respecting cyclists—as proof that there’s been a fundamental change in how the city operates, and how its citizens think about one another?

Gil Penñaloza: I do, without a doubt. I say that because the bicycle is a very egalitarian tool. Yes, one bike can cost fifty dollars while another can cost five thousand. But when you are riding through the city, and people are going places, that doesn’t really matter. Riding a bike becomes a common ground, and the person is very visible. The bike can become secondary. You engage with people face to face, you see their eyes, and the interaction becomes very real and very human. Things happen at a human scale.

Cars, on the other hand, are differentiators. They are large, and are not merely used as transportation. If people used cars to get from A to B, and had no other reason for owning one, they would all own Honda Civics. But that’s not the case. Cars are status symbols, and they are used to differentiate the owners from one another. By and large, that’s just not the case with a bike.

Another powerful aspect of riding a bike is that public spaces are safer the more they are used. Bikes play a big role in this, but cars don’t. This is certainly true for roads where bikes are ridden because they instantly become safer as more and more people use them. Parks become safer if people ride their bikes and walk in them, but not if cars go by them at forty miles an hour. Cars are unable to have that kind of positive effect on their environment because they remove humanity from the equation. Bikes put it back in.

BT: Would you say that applies to Bogotá? That more bike use, and thus more people at a human scale and at a slower pace, have made the city safer and thus better for its citizens?

GP: I would. Absolutely. It’s far from ideal, but more people walking and cycling and using public spaces have improved safety and quality of life.

BT: How did you first become aware of the value of the bicycle, not only as an ideal method of transportation, but also as one that could have a valuable democratizing effect upon cities?

GP: This is something I always thought about, because I’ve always seen bikes as part of a bigger suite of solutions, which includes the needs of pedestrians, as well as city parks and gathering places. As such, today I am clear about the fact that bikes are not the end, but rather a medium. Bikes are not the end result of any of these initiatives, but they are a way of making cities more equitable and livable. There’s some general confusion about bike initiatives, because people see them merely as transportation, something to take people from point A to point B. A goal is to make cities more human and more equitable, and the use of bicycles plays a role in the process.

BT: Large cities in wealthy, industrialized nations have had great difficulties in implementing initiatives that Bogotá has not only put in place, but also invented. Things like the Ciclovía, sheltered bikeways, and a car-free day are all impressive undertakings for any city, particularly one in a place that many see as undeveloped and potentially dangerous, like Colombia. How did Bogotá come to be a leader in these initiatives?

GP: My sentimental side would like to believe that things—changes that are worthwhile—must grow from the bottom up. But the reality is that cities are often transformed by leaders who are able to change things from the top down, simply because that’s where the power lies. That’s been the case in New York City, where they have a great commissioner who is willing to lead these changes.

BT: Within the context of a city like Bogotá, that mentality certainly makes sense. It takes a great deal of vision, and the power to implement it, when you’re talking about launching something like a car-free day.

GP: It does. When my brother Enrique Peñalosa [Mayor of Bogotá, 1998-2001] first introduced the idea of having a car-free day, no one was talking about the topic of cars, or alternatives in transportation. He introduced that theme by talking about having a car-free day. It got people talking about the problems that the city was facing.

Similarly, when I worked with Antanas Mockus [Mayor, 1995-1997], the topic of the Ciclovía was not discussed. We had about 10 kilometers, and only a few thousand people using the Ciclovía. I have to admit that I became obsessed with the subject, and within two years I had over 62 miles (121 kilometers) of Ciclovía in the city. We went from having a few thousand users, to having over a million users every Sunday, and every holiday. We built an infrastructure, and a reproducible model that can be used all over the world.

So this idea of a Ciclovía, of letting people use the street for fun and fitness, became something that cities all over the world took up, and it all came out of Bogotá. But it wasn’t anything that the city was talking about; it was introduced into the discourse.

I was speaking with some students from the Andes University in Bogotá not long ago. They asked me what the socio-political climate was that gave birth to the growth in the Ciclovía, and the growth in bike paths in Bogotá. I told them there wasn’t one. Really. I challenged them to look at the newspapers in Bogotá from the two years leading up to the growth in the Ciclovía. They can even make it three or four years. They won’t find a single article where anyone voiced an interest in increasing the program or even concern about this topic. So, I have to put modesty aside and tell you that this happened and came to the forefront because I became obsessed with the objective and surrounded myself with a great team of people. That’s why I believe that change can happen from the top down, because I’ve seen it happen.

BT: As part of the changes you put into place, the Ciclovía finally arrived to poor neighborhoods in Bogotá, which had never been the case before.

GP: Right. We not only grew the system of the Ciclovía, but we did so in a way that would integrate the city in a system. That’s what the Ciclovía does; it integrates and unites the city and its citizens. It takes you to vastly different neighborhoods; it brings the young and the old, the poor and the rich together. This is no small feat, when you consider how often we engage and spend time with those who are unlike us. In Bogotá, you will find the wealthiest owners and presidents of the most prestigious companies with their families, running into their workers who make minimum wage, who will also be with their families at the Ciclovía.

In Bogotá, the gap between these people is great, but that’s the case in other cities as well. But through the Ciclovía, they are in the same place, doing the same thing. These are people who don’t live in the same neighborhoods, their kids don’t attend the same schools, they don’t shop in the same stores, and they don’t eat in the same restaurants. But they are in the Ciclovía together. One can have an imported bike that is three thousand dollars, while the other has one that is 30 dollars…so be it. They are both having the same fun with their family, and they stop and chat. It’s a rare activity that can allow this integration to happen. The Ciclovía becomes an exercise in social integration; it is much more than cycling, walking and skating.

BT: When you talk about the social value of the Ciclovía, I can’t help but think about the bike trails that are common in North American cities. These are often in suburban neighborhoods. They go from nowhere to nowhere, and are not inclusive in any way, nor do they serve the purpose of potentially getting their users to any place in particular. Similarly, many cities seem selective about which neighborhoods get to have bike lanes or sheltered bike routes. The needs of poor, and often minority populations, are very seldom taken into account.

GP: This is certainly a problem. You’ll often find that the best places for recreation and the amenities that allow for best transportation are in the wealthiest neighborhoods, but not in the places where they are most needed—that usually means poorer neighborhoods. People start to make excuses, and I’ve encountered this. They may not want a route, for example, to be connected to an area because it’s poor, or because it’s a primarily Black neighborhood. The reality is that these bike routes, parks, and things like the Ciclovía should connect people, but also connect places that people want and need to go to.

So as much as I like small neighborhood parks, they are usually limited to people in that immediate area. But if you have a long bike path, it can start to cut through numerous neighborhoods, and all kinds of city areas. It can also get you to a destination. This is a big part of making something like this useful, and helping to bring people together. Connecting people and places.

BT: In Bogotá, the poorest neighborhoods are serviced by the bike routes that were put into place during your time working there. This is hugely important, since people in poor neighborhoods need bikes not only as a form of entertainment and fitness, but also as a way of getting around, while wealthier populations may have more options. Was this taken into consideration when planning out these routes?

GP: Certainly, but this is something that could be said of all cities in all countries. Similarly, keep in mind that it costs thousands of dollars to maintain a car, and it only costs more the longer you own a car. There are people in wealthy nations who barely have enough to feed a whole family, not enough to take a small vacation, but they have one or more cars. They end up working just to pay for their car. So these concerns are universal. BT: Sadly, many cities seem to be wasting time and effort into putting single bike lanes here and there, where there is room for it, rather than where they are needed.

GP: Right, and that’s because people talk about a bike lane, or a bikeway. No. They should speak about a network, a system of bikeways and bike lanes. Plural. You can’t have a bike lane that goes from nowhere to nowhere. It won’t be used. Imagine if the mayor of a city put up one goal post and one end zone, and then complained that it wasn’t being used by the football team. Two years later, they could put in the first few yards, and then some more yards. Of course it won’t work, and it won’t get used—it’s not complete or usable for the activity. So cities will put in two bike lanes, which are one mile each. Then they’ll stop putting more in, because they’ll simply say that they don’t have a “bike culture,” and that no one is using them. Well, you didn’t build a system that people could use—of course it wasn’t used. Connectivity is critical in order to have positive results.

In Bogotá, we created a network of bike routes. We were a city that lacked the “bike culture” that many talk about. But when we built a network that people could use, that connected them to the places they had to go to, we went from having 28,000 people using a bike as a way of getting around, to over 350,000. So today, for every four cars in Bogota, we have one riding a bike. That becomes a substantial and important part of the population that has to be accounted for, and cared for. This has happened in other cities as well. In Seville, Spain, four years ago almost no one used a bike as their method of transportation. It was 0.2%. They built 100 miles of bikeways, separate from car traffic and separate from pedestrians, in three years. As a result, they now have 6.6% of the people using bikes. Now they want to get to 15% by 2015. And a big part of this is connected points where people originate from, to places they are going to. It’s that simple.

BT: It’s worth mentioning that in many North American cities, “bike lanes” are nothing more than a white stripe of paint on the road. That’s vastly different from the fully sheltered bikeways that are the norm in Bogotá. Do you think that bike lanes as they are implemented in the United States are of some value as a first step, or should they be rejected in hopes that we’ll get proper solutions from the start?

GP: You have to get the real solution, and not settle for paint on the road. The reality is that if you paint a line on the road, you’ll only get a few more people using that route. So again, you’ll fall into the same problem that I mentioned before. Few people will use it, and the city will say that they don’t have a “bike culture,” that no one is using it, so they won’t invest in more bike lanes.

I saw this exact thing happen in Orlando, Florida. They put in a bike lane, which was nothing more than paint on the road, along a six-lane road. The cars there were going 45 to 50 miles an hour. Those who fought to have that line of paint put in told the city that the number of users would go from 100 to 1,000. The reality is that it went up to only 150, and the politicians said, “It didn’t work.” But of course it didn’t! All that was separating people on their bikes from cars going 50 miles per hour was a line on the ground. So better solutions are needed. And in residential neighborhoods, we need to lower the speed limits. All streets in neighborhoods should have a maximum speed of 20mph; 20 is plenty. This allows people to safely exit their cars when they park, people can cross the street with their babies and their dogs. But in larger routes, we need bike lanes that have a physical border separating cyclists from traffic and from pedestrians. These three modes of transportation differ in speed, and can’t be expected to work seamlessly together in the exact same environment. The idea of a bike lane that is nothing more than white paint on the road is disrespectful to cyclists and to all citizens.

BT: Then I must ask you, what is your opinion regarding the lack of sidewalks in so many American neighborhoods? Is this not a statement that the city is making about the value of certain citizens who can’t afford a car, those who take public transportation, or maybe even the elderly who can no longer drive?

GP: Absolutely. In the last ten years, 47,700 pedestrians have been killed in the United States by cars and 679,000 pedestrians have been injured. These are numbers from the Department of Transportation. So one has to ask, how is it possible that neighborhoods are still being planned out without sidewalks? BT: So the message to those who walk, be it for pleasure or need, is clear.

GP: It is. And at the same time, the United States has an obesity problem that is costing taxpayers billions and billions, along with environmental issues that are now becoming more known. But all this aside, how can cities not care for their citizens, and allow pedestrians to be killed and injured?

BT: Keeping in mind that change often comes from the top down, what can we as citizens do in order to bring solutions to those obstacles to the forefront?

GP: The biggest obstacle is a political matter. It’s not a financial problem. It’s also not a technical problem. The budgets that cities have for roadways, and to make things better for cars, are huge. It takes very little money to improve things for cyclists. If a city doesn’t know how to build appropriate bikeways, it’s very simple and easy to find someone who does. So, as a citizen, you have to speak about this subject if no one in your city has put this topic on the table. You have to write newspapers, you have to start blogs, you have to call in to radio stations, and you have to go to public meetings.

Politicians are sometimes afraid to lead, but if they see that the public wants and needs something, they’ll listen. Similarly, these things have now been tried out in numerous cities of all sizes around the world. So, politicians can be shown that these initiatives work, and that will help ease their fear about change.

But really, at the end of the day, citizens have to become involved. They have to understand that a spaceship from Mars won’t magically land in their city, and build this infrastructure overnight. It just won’t happen.


Bike Overnights: An overnight commute

By Giles Snyder.

I had hoped that a nice, sunny day and cool spring temperatures would combine to help make my first-ever bike overnight memorable. While my companions and I did get a remarkable trip up the C&O Canal Towpath from Washington, D.C., the weather we got was far less than remarkable.

It started raining the moment we left our starting point in downtown D.C. It rained as we cycled through trendy Georgetown, got a little lost, and almost got mowed down by a big delivery truck in rush-hour traffic. And it rained long past the time we shivered ourselves to sleep. Sometimes it came down as a bearable drizzle. Other times, it splashed down on our heads in big pregnant drops. It rained despite assurances from one of my companions that the day we planned to go is always “a beautiful day.”

Except, apparently, when you plan to spend it on a bike. I often cycle portions of the C&O Canal Towpath. It’s easily accessed from where I live in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle. But, like many who make their homes in this region, I work in D.C. From my driveway to where I park my car downtown, it’s about 90 miles. That’s a lot of ground to cover each workday. I wanted to slow down and see what I’d been missing.

The towpath snakes its way alongside the Potomac River for more than 184 miles from Washington, D.C. to Cumberland, Maryland. If you have time, you can go on for another 141 miles via The Great Alleghany Passage Rail-Trail all the way to Pittsburgh. (Read about our trip along the GAP and C&O. – Ed.)

The idea for the canal dates back to the earliest days of our nation. George Washington himself championed it as a way to connect the western frontier with the more populated east. Workers started building the C&O in the 1820s and canal boats used it to bring lumber and coal to market into the early 20th century. The canal was a lifeline for communities up and down the river, but it couldn’t compete with railroads. It would have fallen into obscurity if not for Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who led efforts to convince Congress to turn the canal into a National Park. Today it’s a haven, not only for cyclists, but for hikers and others who want to take in its natural beauty and gaze at history first-hand.

On our trip up the towpath, though, we had to work hard to find the bright future that Douglas saw. It was not only wet; all that rain made it seem much colder than it was. When we stopped from time to time my teeth started to chatter. One fellow who briefly rode along with us suggested he just might spend the night in one of the towpath’s port-a-johns. From then on, every time we passed a port-a-john, I seriously considered curling up in it, but I couldn’t get past the heat source. Besides, our goal was a lockhouse near Point of Rocks, Maryland.

According to the C&O Canal Trust’s website, there used to be 57 such houses. Lockmasters lived in them with their families, helping boats deal with the elevation change as the canal made its way into the Maryland mountains. Less than half remain, but the Trust has made a few available for overnight stays. They’ve been restored to reflect separate time periods in the life of the canal.

The lockhouses are rustic by modern standards. Ours had no heat, no electricity, and no running water. But it was well-appointed with period furniture, and a welcome sight after a full day of cycling in the rain. If you are looking to unplug from the hustle and bustle of city life, this is it. It’s also a great way to experience how life was lived along the canal in bygone days.

After spending the night snug in period beds, we got up the next day in relatively good humor. The morning sunshine renewed us and it wasn’t long before we were back on our bikes.

Two of my companions went back the way we’d come, leaving me and another to move on to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, where abolitionist John Brown staged his famous raid aimed at sparking a slave revolt. My remaining companion lives there, so that’s where we parted ways and I cycled the final dozen miles or so by myself, ending my trip at Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Confederate forces retreated through there after the nearby Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest one-day battle in American history.

While the second day’s sunshine was reinvigorating, the constant rain of the previous day should have made my first overnight cycling trip a miserable failure.

It didn’t.

In fact, the adversity only whetted my appetite for more, if only to see what a cycling trip is like in a dry pair of shorts.

We left more than 100 miles of the towpath undone. I’m hoping to tackle the Shepherdstown to Cumberland stretch later this summer. Once our plans come together, it’s a good bet I’ll be keeping an eye on the weather. But since I’ve already cycled through one deluge, a little more rain won’t be enough to scare me off.

Learn more

Check out Adventure Cycling Association’s new website, Bike Overnights, aimed at providing inspiration, resources, and tools for short bicycle tours (one to two nights). You’ll find stories, tips, and how-tos about embarking on short overnight cycling adventures, whether you’re traveling to a beautiful state park solo, lounging at a B&B with friends and family, taking your child on their first overnight bike adventure, or anything in between. Plus, you can submit your own trip report for possible publication; Adventure Cycling hopes to collect bike overnight tales from all 50 states!
 


Scenery and celebrity meet at King Ridge GranFondo

Words and photos by Gary J. Boulanger

The fourth annual Levi’s King Ridge GranFondo attracted an estimated 7,500 riders and 20,000 festival attendees to Santa Rosa, the charming northern California town chosen by both Alfred Hitchcock and the Tour of California.

While Hitch had murder on his mind filming “Shadow Of A Doubt” in 1943, event organizers VeloStreet/Bike Monkey hoped to expose cyclists of all stripes and types to the unlimited riding opportunities on the roads streaming out of their town of 167,000. The economic impact of the King Ridge GranFondo has brought more than $6 million to the area since 3,500 riders first clipped on and rolled out of Finley Park in 2009.

The event, based on the popular gran fondos (big rides) of Italy and Spain, was hatched by professional road racer and multiple Tour of California winner Levi Leipheimer, who lives and trains in Santa Rosa most of the year. Instead of making it an event for advanced riders only, Leipheimer and VeloStreet decided to make it a family affair, with a huge festival coinciding with the ride options of 35 (piccolo), 65 (medio) or 103 (gran) miles. All three routes use the same roads raced by the pros during the Tour of California. This year, medio and gran riders could choose a dirt road alternative route up Willow Creek Road, off Highway 1 near the Russian River, bypassing the infamously steep Coleman Valley Road.

As with most gran fondos, a dose of celebrity participation is de rigueur in these parts. This year, Grey’s Anatomy star and avid cyclist Patrick Dempsey joined 2008/2012 Olympic gold medalist Kristin Armstrong, 2000 Olympic medalist Mari Holden, Garmin-Sharp pro Tom Danielson, multiple World Champion mountain biker Brian Lopes, Team Exergy pro Freddie Rodriquez, current world downhill champion Greg Minnaar, and former San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds, a recent convert to cycling who’s lost more than 20 pounds in two years.

“My doctor told me to choose cycling and swimming after a series of surgeries two years ago,” the 48-year-old told me at lunch following the ride. “I bought a road bike and was passed by an old dude the first day. After several tries, I figured things out and now I’m hooked.” Bonds rode the 65-mile route with Holden and Specialized Bicycles owner Mike Sinyard.

With an average age of 45 and a healthy male/female ratio of 70/30, the King Ridge GranFondo caters to each rider as if they were the celebrity. Nearly 2,000 volunteers prepare, set up, and provide rest-stop nourishment with a smile, and dozens of course marshals are on the bike, clad in easily identifiable jerseys to lend a hand and keep it safe. Official number plates with timing chips, a Tyvek number for pinning on the back of one’s jersey, and a seatpost sticker number ups the pro look of everyone’s bike, whether it’s a sleek racer, hybrid, or in some cases, recumbent. Several young families enjoyed the ideal 80-degree weather.

I hopped on the NorCal bicycle builder train of Jeremy Sycip, Curtis Inglis, and Steve Rex where the medio and gran routes diverged. Our small peloton of 10 riders zipped along the Sonoma County roads two-by-two when possible, and we made sure to enjoy the rest stops, bumping into Dempsey, who posed with excitable middle-aged women and the local Girl Scout troop, enjoying the day like everyone else.

We opted to climb Willow Creek Road, an ideal mix of beat-up asphalt, gravel and sand, which rises to the top of Coleman Valley Road. After answering the call of nature, a member of our peloton thought he’d impress a recumbent rider by passing him riding a wheelie, losing his balance (and a bit of his pride) and falling over. Dusting himself off, he rejoined our laughing crew (the recumbent rider was good natured, thankfully, and a beast up the dirt climb), as we snaked our way to the top.

Despite the large volume of cyclists sharing the road, it never felt like 7,500 people were getting in anyone’s way the entire ride. There’s plenty to notice in 65 miles, and I was impressed by the number of people visiting from Vancouver, Colorado, Idaho, and other locales. Several riders told me they look forward to riding the King Ridge GranFondo every year because they never tire of the scenery.

Leipheimer and his wife Odessa Gunn are highly visible within the Santa Rosa and Sonoma County communities. In addition to supporting the regional Humane Society’s Forget Me Not Farm with proceeds from the King Ridge GranFondo each year, more than $400,000 has been raised for charities and cycling support programs.

As the 38-year-old Leipheimer enters the twilight of his racing career, it appears his commitment to the community and his passion for cycling has laid a strong foundation for generation of cyclists to come, whether they’re local or visiting from another part of the world, just like those I met in Santa Rosa on September 29.


Bike overnights: Going big close to home

By Sarah Raz, photos by Josh Tack.

Whenever I think of bike tours, I think of months on the road. I think of cross-country excursions and miles and miles of pedaling and so much time on the saddle that the days run into one another and time is measured in peanut butter sandwiches. I picture tents growing weathered, tires being swapped out, calf muscles becoming staggeringly large and powerful.

My boyfriend, Josh, and I are lucky enough to work at the Adventure Cycling Association, so we can usually swing one long-ish bike trip a year. We love to take trips abroad and spend weeks on end investigating a foreign countryside by bike. The rest of the year, however, we have this thing called work to consider, so long bike tours are out of the question. But since we still love to get out and explore, we’ll often spend a weekend on a mini-bike tour or a bike overnight.

We live in Missoula, Montana, a sweet, laid-back college town just a hop, skip and a jump from the border of Canada. It’s a wonderful place; it’s surrounded by snow-covered peaks and has a long growing season (for Montana) that earned it the nickname “The Garden City.” On the three-day weekend of July 4th, we decided to check out the Rattlesnake Recreation Area. We’d pedal up the 15-mile dirt road corridor to the wilderness boundary with our backpacks in tow. From there, we’d make yet a deeper hike to visit the still snowed-in lakes of the pristine backcountry.

We started out with a technical difficulty. We were using trailers to pull our backpacks and my trailer had been having problems ever since I’d had the bright idea to pull my 180lb. friend home from a party (the weight limit is 80lbs.). We’d made it home all right, but the left back wheel hadn’t been the same since. Before we hit the trail, we had to abandon my broken trailer at the Adventure Cycling office. “Don’t worry, Josh, you’re so strong!” I said. “You can just pull both of our backpacks!” Josh is a good sport, but he didn’t look too convinced. The corridor up the Rattlesnake gets extremely steep, and our packs, loaded with food and camping equipment, were heavy.

Finally, we were off. Montana summers can be hot, but it got nice and cool as we started to climb away from town and into the mountains. The creek was bubbling next to us, and the air smelled good and fresh. At first we saw some other cyclists and hikers, but as we headed up there was just Josh and me and the flutter of birds and insects in the air. The pathway opened before us and the landscape became more rugged and high alpine. I noticed a waterfall from snowmelt to our right. I thought about how easy the riding felt and then remembered that  wasn’t carrying anything. I looked over at Josh and he just laughed. “Next time,” he said, “you’re carrying everything!”

Before I knew it, we’d reached the wilderness boundary. We stashed our bikes and trailer, strapped on our backpacks and hiked upwards a few more miles. I wished for boots instead of my light trail runners—although it was still warm, there was snow everywhere and within minutes my shoes were soaked through. Before dark, we found a place that met our three requirements to camp (flat, with a view, bear-hang tree readily available) and promptly conked out.

How much snow is there in the mountains in Montana in July? More than I’d ever imagined! The next morning after we packed up and started walking, it wasn’t long before we couldn’t locate the trail any longer due to heavy snowpack. “I think we go this way,” I said, pointing to the right. “I can just feel it!” Josh studied the map.

“Actually, I’m pretty sure we go in the other direction,” he said. “It doesn’t have anything to do with feelings, but that’s what it looks like on the map.” We headed off with just the hush-hush of snow all around us.

Suddenly, I sensed a bit of movement in the woods and turned my head. An animal, smaller than a deer, was running along the ridgeline in near-silence and with incredible grace. Was it really a wolf? I almost couldn’t believe it. His silver-gray hair glistened and his legs seemed longer than I would have expected, almost gangly. He padded along, not really in a hurry, but not lingering either. Then he was gone. I realized I’d been holding my breath for a solid minute. I let out all the air in a giant rush.

There we were, not twenty miles from our back door, surrounded by snow and wilderness and a magnificent wild animal. I suddenly felt small and very humble. When we camped next to a frozen lake that night, I lay awake in my sleeping bag for a while, looking at the stars through the bug net. None of my worries seemed of consequence anymore, and I felt grateful for the shift in perspective.

The way home was all downhill. We crunched our way through the snow, then pulled our bikes out of their hiding spot and hooked up the trailer. “Hooray!” I said, piling my pack on Josh’s trailer, then zooming away, unencumbered. But I think it was more than the freedom from the packs that made us feel lighter. It hadn’t taken a grueling airplane ride and a month away from work to discover some remote backcountry. All we needed was a long weekend.

Check out Adventure Cycling’s new website: www.Bikeovernights.org, aimed at providing inspiration, resources, and tools for short bicycle tours (one to two nights). You’ll find stories, tips, and how-tos about embarking on short overnight cycling adventures, whether you’re traveling to a state park solo, lounging at a B&B, or taking your child on their first overnight bike adventure. Plus, you can submit your own trip report for possible publication; Adventure Cycling hopes to collect bike overnight tales from all 50 states!


D2R2: Learning what it means to be tough

By Molly Hurford,

When I was down in Georgia back in February, I raced Southern Cross: 54 miles of some road, some dirt, some gravel, some fast descents, some wicked slow hills. It was a grind, and when I finished that race, I was exhausted. THAT, I thought, was a hard race.

Then, I did D2R2, which, consequently, is not even technically a race. It is a "fun ride" where even the shortest distance is longer than the Southern Cross distance, with more climbing and infinitely more dirt. And while it is billed as a "fun" ride, I don’t think my heart rate went under 150 the whole time, mainly because even on the screaming downhills, I was fervently hoping that I wasn’t about to eat it and roll off the edge into the woods or streams below. I’m sure there is a way to ride with “easy,” but I have yet to meet a New England cyclist that believes in riding anything easy, let alone roads where there are “competitors” out ahead of you.

Moral of the story: New Englanders don’t mess around. I know this because, in Georgia, the racers were all fit, tough-looking hard-core riders. D2R2? There were people of every age, shape and size on every type of bike taking to the start line. The casual way that the racers approached what was — for all parties, no matter how fast you chose to ride — going to be a hard day was nothing short of incredible.

The Deerfield Dirt Road Randonnee, or D2R2 to those who know it, was started in the ’90s as just a fun ride through the heart of Western Massachusetts. Maybe because it came at the end of road season when racers were ready to shift to knobby tires, or maybe it was just the fun-loving vibe of a race where you can camp on site the night before, but whatever the reason, its popularity has grown considerably. Now, with four different distances to choose from (100K, 115K, 150K and the hard one, a 180K for the masochist crowd), it has become part of the legend that is New England cycling.

The course is spectacular: back roads in New England showcasing the entire Pioneer Valley, complete with rivers, streams, cliffs, mountains, fields, meadows, quaint New England towns, covered bridges… It’s like someone took a set of a Disney movie and plunked it down on the Massachusetts/Vermont border. I very nearly expected to have birds start singing in chorus with me as I toiled along. A llama even stuck his tongue out at me, which is literally a scene out of The Emperor’s New Groove (Anyone? Anyone?). Of course, this fairy tale beauty does have a caveat: it’s flipping’ hard. Even on the shortest of the loop options, there is 7,000 feet of climbing, mostly up dirt roads.

So, I admit: there were dark times: the first grinding hill, the second grinding hill, the third grinding hill; the moment when I asked "how far along are we?" and got the answer of, "11 miles"; and the moment when I was triumphantly thinking that I was digging deep, really reaching into myself and shredding, only to have my ride buddy blaze by me while chatting with another rider.

But of course there were good times too: the sandwich I wolfed down at the lunch stop while admiring the beautiful view of the covered bridge; the last screaming dirt descent, even though I thought my hands were about to fly off of the hoods where I was feathering (clutching) the brakes for dear life; the beer I got to drink after pulling through the finish line.

It was, in short, fabulous. And anyone that finishes it — from the father-daughter tandem team to the speediness that is the Boston crew to the woman who was at least three times my age and on a mountain bike — is one seriously tough cyclist.


A Ruota Libera: Pizza + bikes + music in San Francisco

By Gary J. Boulanger,

Take a pinch of steel, add a dash of jazz guitar, throw in a few hundred bicycle lovers, and mix it all with wood-fired Neapolitan pizza and you have a party, San Francisco style.

Una Pizza Napoletana owner and avid cyclist Anthony Mangieri teamed with Soulcraft Bikes’s Sean Walling to throw the second annual A Ruota Libera, an officially unofficial NorCal Handmade Bike Show at Mangieri’s South of Market pizzeria on Sunday, August 12.

The industrial retail space was alive with conversation, centering around bicycles on display from several regional frame builders and designers, including Ahrens, Black Cat, Black Mountain, Blue Collar, Bruce Gordon, Caletti, Falconer, Frances, Hunter, Inglis/Retrotec, Rebolledo, Rock Lobster, Soulcraft Steve Potts and Steelman. Local component makers Paul Components, Pass and Stow, and White Industries balanced off the exhibits. Santa Cruz filmmaker and photographer Brian Vernor’s work lined the walls, while Mangieri and his crew served authentic Neapolitan pizza with Italian beer and wine all day long.

For Walling, the small venue and low-key atmosphere is a nice change of pace compared to the North American Handmade Bicycle Show that pops up around the country each late winter. Plus, Mangieri has befriended several of the framebuilders, and enjoys throwing a party. Several local enthusiasts showed up on bikes, which were tended to by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition’s free valet parking service.

Former Bridgestone Cycles icon, cyclo-cross legend and longtime Rivendell employee Pineapple Bob rubbed shoulders with another East Bay legend, Bob Roll, in town on vacation with his family. Bobke, as he’s called, was tipped about the event by former endurance mountain bike racer and current popular chef Chris Cosentino, who spent the afternoon at Una with his family as well.

Mangieri relocated his popular pizzeria from New York’s East Village in late 2010, after spending several vacations riding mountain bikes in the Bay Area. His friend, filmmaker Mike Evans who’s also a New Jersey native, helped organize the event. Evans debuted a short film about Walling at last year’s A Routa:

Former professional skateboarder Tommy Guerrero provided the event’s music, a solo fusion of looped jazz guitar mixed with his own take on several classic obscure rock songs. He also provided the soundtrack for Mangieri’s documentary by Evans:


Bike infrastructure booming in Indianapolis

By Robert Annis, photos by Jeremy Albert.

After decades of little or no attention paid to cyclists, Indianapolis has made massive strides over the past three years to encourage two-wheeled transportation, thanks in large part to a bike-friendly mayor and a small but dedicated group of advocates.

Before Greg Ballard was elected mayor in 2007, the Hoosier capitol had less than one mile of bike lanes within the city. During Ballard’s first term, road crews painted nearly 64 miles of bike lanes, and shortly after his November 2011 re-election, the mayor pledged $20 million to create an additional 75 miles of trails and lanes by 2015. Once completed, Indianapolis will have more than 200 miles of trails, greenways, and bike lanes, allowing commuter and recreational cyclists to travel nearly anywhere in the city almost entirely via the bike network.

A jaded observer might call the Republican Ballard’s courting of area cyclists an attempt to grab votes in a Democratic-leaning city, but it’s obvious after spending any time at all with him that he truly loves bicycling. Unlike many mayors who dust off their rusty Schwinn for the annual Bike to Work Day, Ballard rides as often as he can before heading into work in the morning. He’s also a fixture at organized rides, bike races, and trail openings, and even rode in the legendary Little 500, the race made famous by the movie Breaking Away. Ballard also sponsored the city’s first Polar Bear Pedal last January, which attracted nearly 500 riders on a snowy, sub-freezing day.

Ballard is already thinking past 2020 and beyond Indianapolis’ city limits. He and other mayors and leaders from the surrounding counties have been working on a proposal that would expand the trails to the suburbs and legions of potential bed- room community commuters.

Ballard’s Democratic predecessor Bart Peterson didn’t do much to encourage bike commuting, but he did help shepherd the 10-mile Monon Trail, which stretches north from Indianapolis to Westfield, to completion in 2003. Not only did the trail increase cycling’s visibility, but it also serves as the primary spine for the city’s northbound bike network.

“Anytime you create cycling infrastructure, it feeds upon itself,” said local advocate Tom McCain. “Trails lead to more cyclists which leads to the need for more bike lanes which again leads to more cyclists…the Monon has become more than just a piece of transportation infrastructure, it’s become a way of life for a lot of residents. It was an important first step that laid the groundwork for expansion.”

Part of that expansion is the eight-mile Indianapolis Cultural Trail, which, when completed later this year, will weave through several of the city’s hip neighborhoods, including Broad Ripple and Fountain Square. It also includes the new $1 million Indy Bike Hub, which opened to much fanfare last fall.

The Hub is located in City Market, a historic, city-owned building that had been struggling to keep tenants for much of the last decade. Officials had toyed with the idea of building a fitness center in the building’s east wing, but the idea quickly gained momentum after the bike proponent was added. In addition to showers and a locker room, the bike hub includes a full- service repair and retail shop, operated by Bicycle Garage Indianapolis.

“The Bike Hub sends a pretty strong signal we want people to ride to work, to have a place where they can get cleaned up and hit the gym if they want,” Ballard said. “We’re putting the pieces together to make bike commuting as easy as possible.”

Ballard claims he’s not a micromanager, but admits he was insistent on at least one aspect of the Bike Hub—lockers large enough for several days’ worth of work clothes and toiletries. The largest lockers available for monthly rental were reserved within weeks.

Ballard sees the infrastructure improvements as a much-needed form of alternative transportation in the growing city, and as another enticement for the young, creative class most regions are trying to at- tract. “There’s a cultural change going on in the city,” Ballard said. “As we see more physical changes [to the city and its residents], we’re going to continue seeing young and middle-aged people really respond to what we’re doing. By offering lots of activities and options, people are going to change the way they move around town.”

The hard work is getting noticed. In 2010, the League of American Bicyclists named Indianapolis a Bicycle-Friendly Community.

The city doesn’t yet have a solid grasp of exactly how many people are using the lanes, but the League of American Bicyclists estimates a 62 percent increase in commuter cyclists from 2008 to 2009. City Planner Jamison Hutchins said the city plans to hire an outside contractor to create a count sometime this year. McCain, who heads the local Pedal and Park non-profit, claims all-time highs last year for events worked and the number of bikes stored.

“A few years ago, demand for the program really took off,” McCain said. “We’re seeing a huge increase in the non-traditional cycling crowd, mostly young families who want to go to an art festival (or other event) and want to have fun and exercise at the same time.”

That’s not to say there haven’t been any hiccups. Some critics believe the city’s efforts on bike lanes are actually making commuters less safe. Local attorney and blogger Paul Ogden argues the design of some of the bike lanes leave cyclists open to getting hit by motorists opening their car doors, while other lane markings are too confusing for many drivers. Ogden also criticized the lack of upkeep of many of the lanes, saying they’re frequently covered in glass and road debris.

“These bike lanes are giving riders a false sense of security,” said Ogden, himself a frequent bicycle commuter. “They think they’re safe, but it’s only a strip of paint separating them from vehicle traffic. I wouldn’t want my son or daughter riding them.”

Although Ogden claims they’re dangerous, city officials aren’t aware of any motorist-cyclist accidents involving the bike lanes. By contrast, elsewhere in the city, there were 160 vehicle-bike collisions between January 1 and October 1 of last year.

Ogden and others prefer a greater emphasis on greenways or segregated bike lanes, both of which are more expensive than traditional bike lanes and not as financially practical for the cash-strapped city. Hutchins understands their desires, but believes they’re missing the point, arguing that most cyclists realize that just because they’re in a bike lane, they’re not magically protected from traffic.

Hutchins acknowledges some of the earliest bike lanes aren’t perfect, but claims city engineers are learning from previous mistakes. Local advocacy group Indy Cog recently created a list of suggestions for the city to help improve the existing lanes, many of which the city were already implementing.

City planners have gone out of their way to avoid controversies, declining to move forward with at least one bike lane project that would take away on-street parking for surrounding businesses. In- stead, the city went with sharrows.

“There’s still a bit of confusion every now and then,” Hutchins acknowledged. “But typically traffic continues to roll smoothly. There’s just one or two lane shifts; it really doesn’t change the way people drive.”

Ballard has heard complaints about the lanes from constituents, particularly those who are a little older, but is quick to point out the designs were created according to federal standards.

Education efforts are underway as well. Over three weeks last summer, Indianapolis police held a special enforcement campaign, issuing warnings to both drivers and cyclists they noticed breaking the law. As the bike network continues to expand, city officials hope to do more of the campaigns.

“Drivers were driving partially in the bike lane or not giving three feet to the riders; cyclists were riding on the wrong side of the road or running stop signals or signs,” Hutchins said. “Cyclists have the right to be on the road, but they also share the same responsibilities as a car. No one’s immune to the law.”

League of American Bicyclists spokeswoman Meghan Cahill says the best thing cyclists can do to promote safer riding conditions is multiply: “The more cyclists you have on the road, the more awareness you’re going to have.”

Bicycles will likely never outnumber pick-up trucks on Indy’s streets, but the city will continue the last three years of amazing progress. City officials and bike advocates admit Indianapolis still has a way to go before it can join the pantheon of bike-friendly cities like Portland or Minneapolis, but with Ballard leading the way, don’t bet against it.


We met our maker – our bike’s maker, that is

By Gary J. Boulanger

Northern California has been the epicenter of bicycle innovation and manufacturing for decades, with the surrounding terrain and ideal climate providing a near-perfect fusion for saddle time with friends and strangers. As a result, Soulcraft Cycles owner Sean Walling organized the ‘Meet Your Maker’ Tour, a series of Saturday group rides designed to bring frame builders and parts makers together with friends, customers, and like-minded riders.

“Sometimes we lose sight of what our industry is all about,” Walling, pictured above, said. “Handbuilt bike shows are good, but sharing a ride with friends and customers brings it all together. The Meet Your Maker Tour is about providing access to the people who make great bikes and parts. This Tour makes it easy for riders to meet the NorCal builders who they hope to do business with locally. Our goal is to see as many local brands under riders as possible.”

The second MYM Tour was hosted and organized by Mark Norstad, owner of Paragon Machine Works in Richmond, Calif., on July 21. Paragon designs and manufactures dropouts, bottom bracket shells, seat stay caps and other components used by Walling and his manufacturing brethren.

The 26-mile ride route was designed as a historic tour of a region known for its World War II manufacturing output, with several stops planned by Norstad, including one at the Rosie the Riveter museum in Richmond, Calif.

By 9:15 a.m., 36 people had assembled in Paragon’s parking lot. Framebuilders joining Walling and Norstad included Steve Rex (Rex Cycles – Sacramento), Josh Muir (Frances Cycles – Santa Cruz), Mauricio Rebolledo (Rebolledo Cycles – Sonoma), Bruce Gordon (Bruce Gordon Cycles – Petaluma), and Robert Ives (Blue Collar Bikes – Sacramento). 

The sky was a crisp blue and the wind was minimal, with temperatures in the high 60s when we rolled out of the Paragon Machine Works parking lot. Riders came from Sacramento, Santa Cruz, Mountain View, Oakland, San Francisco, Sonoma, Petaluma, and San Bruno, and the collection of bikes included Soulcraft, Hunter, Retrotec, Rex, Bruce Gordon, Charlie Cunningham, Gianni Motta, Frances, Engin, Peugeot, Rivendell, Ibis, Bianchi, Pashley, Blue Collar, and Rebolledo. The tribe was almost equally split male and female, with Walling’s young daughter Lucy keeping us company in her dad’s Burley trailer.

Richmond is an industrial, gritty town of 93,000-plus, with brightly colored homes with low fences and cars galore lining the streets. Norstad designed a route using the Bay Trail and connector bike paths, linking us to Shimada Park, Vincent Park, and Marina Bay Park, home of the Rosie the Riveter memorial. Richmond’s ‘Rosies’ played a significant and nationally recognized part in the World War II home front. The four Richmond shipyards, with their combined 27 shipways, produced 747 ships, more than any other shipyard complex in the country. Richmond was home to 56 different war industries, more than any other city of its size in the United States.

From there, we pedaled to the former Ford Motor Company Assembly plant, a 500,000-square-foot architectural marvel of Albert Kahn’s ‘daylight factory’ design. President Franklin D. Roosevelt banned the production of civilian automobiles during World War II, so the Richmond Ford Assembly Plant switched to assembling jeeps and putting the finishing touches on tanks, half-tracked armored personnel carriers, armored cars, and other military vehicles destined for the Pacific Theater. By July of 1942, military combat vehicles began flowing into the Richmond Ford plant to get final processing before being transported out the deep-water channel to the war zones. The adjacent Craneway Pavilion hosts the Bay Area Derby Girls Championships on August 4.

Cruising through the port, we made our way to the S.S. Red Oak Victory shipyard, where Walling’s grandparents met decades ago.

We continued along Highway 580, then dropped onto Western Drive for nearly four miles, rising past a rifle range that paralleled the San Pablo Bay north of the San Rafael-Richmond Bridge before climbing the uber-steep Point San Pablo Marina Road, which Norstad referred to simply as a ‘grunt’. The more than 20-percent grade had several in the group grunting…

Norstad’s plan was the reward of ripe blackberries on the backside of the hill near the marina, which several in our posse enjoyed before we reversed course and returned to Paragon, passing brightly-painted graffiti and more industrial building along the bike path.

Highlights of the ride include:

  • Watching Josh Muir coast down a steep grade no-handed on his custom cargo bike as he made adjustments to his helmet, then climb the grunt while most of us walked.
  • Chatting with Bruce Gordon about his relaunch of the popular Rock ‘N’ Road tires.
  • Getting to know folks from the Bay Area who are relatively new to the area and are excited to talk bikes with professionals.
  • Drinking in the antics of Stevil Smith.
  • Listening to Sean Walling, Steve Rex, and Bruce Gordon talk casually about their craft – they have nearly 90 years combined experience.
  • Watching the guy with the full-face helmet pilot his 40-year-old Peugeot through dirt, gravel, and grass, with one cargo pant leg unzipped.
  • Sweating one-third my body weight on the grunt.
  • Watching Bruce Gordon patiently answer ‘no’ to a well-intentioned older woman in a car ask if we were part of a club, Meet Up, or race.
  • Riding down the bumpy backside of Point San Pablo Marina Road, the second worst road in the world after the one in front of Steve Jobs’ Palo Alto house, which looks like it came from the “Lord of the Rings” movie set.
  • Laughing with Stevil and his cohorts while Lanie Walling tried her best to calm a rather unhappy Lucy after Sean scarred her for life riding down Point San Pablo Marina Road.

Want to get in on the action? The 3rd Meet Your Maker Ride is scheduled for early October, hosted by Paul Components in Chico, CA.

 


First look: Felt FX3 carbon cyclocross with disc brakes

 

By Gary J. Boulanger,

The governing body for international bicycle racing gave the nod for disc brakes to be used on cyclocross bikes a couple years ago, but the development process to bring a carbon machine to market takes a while. Felt responded quickly, and now offers two carbon models, the F1X and F3X, to compliment its aluminum F65X model, carried over from 2012.

Frame and fork technology

  

The 2013 Felt FX3 frame is made with Ultra Hybrid Carbon (UHC) Performance Modular Monocoque Construction (MMC) carbon fiber with a 3K protective weave for added durability against errant rocks and chain slap. According to Felt engineers, the UHC Performance carbon has a tensile strength 7.9 times greater than 3Al/2.5V titanium, with a stiffness rating 3.34 times greater than 6061 aluminum.

Using the same InsideOut internal molding process as the Z2 road bike I test rode in Irvine, Felt still feels strongly about using an aluminum insert for its BB30 bottom bracket shell for a more precise fit and less squeaking, and provides an electronic or mechanical cable routing option. Carbon dropouts with IS-mount disc tabs and a smart replaceable dérailleur hanger come standard.

The fork also is made with the same UHC Advanced material and process as the Z2 fork I tested, with 100 percent monocoque construction and full co-molded carbon fiber dropouts, also with disc tabs. Felt’s Control Taper design improves front-end stiffness and steering precision without adding weight, relying on a tapered carbon steer from 1.125 inches down to a 1.5-inch lower. Reliable handling isn’t just for roadies; control is paramount on the dirt and sand, especially in sketchy, technical sections where adventure riders are likely to tread on a bike like this.

Components

The affordable performance SRAM Force gruppo handles drivetrain and shifters duties, while custom Ashima stainless rotors (140mm rear/160mm front) and Avid BB-7 mechanical disc brakes handle speed modulation. Felt’s engineers cooked up several house-brand components, including stem, bars, seat post and wheels, all labelled CxR. A Prologo Nago Evo saddle rounds out the cockpit. The 46/36-tooth BB30 crankset is matched with an 11-to-26 tooth, 10-speed cassette for all terrain use, with an emphasis on ‘cross racing.

 

“We found areas for improvement on our ‘cross bikes for 2013, especially mud clearance,” Felt road manager Dave Koesel told me. “Disc brakes make this attainable without sacrificing performance. We designed our own road tubeless wheelset, with a sub 300g rear hub, and 135g front hub. We chose the Geax tubeless-ready ‘cross tires so riders could use lower tire pressure.”

The 2013 Felt F3X will be available in matte carbon with lime green highlights, in 47, 50, 53, 55, 57, 60 and 63cm sizes for a targeted retail price of $3,829. According to Koesel, a 57cm F3X weighs a shade over 18lbs with inner tubes and uncut steerer tube. "The bike is tubeless ready which would save nearly 100g once set up with sealant," he added.

The flagship F1X carbon disc ‘cross frame is made with Felt’s UHC Advanced MMC carbon fiber with 1.5K protective weave, and upspecced with the latest SRAM Red with custom WickWërks chainrings. A custom 3T carbon fork, handlebars and seat post, plus Mavic CrossMax SLR wheels, round out the component spec, with a target retail price of $7,249. The frame is made with Felt’s UHC Advanced MMC carbon fiber with 1.5K protective weave. 


First ride: Felt’s new Z2 carbon road bike with Di2

By Gary J. Boulanger,

Felt pioneered the aerodynamic road bike concept in 2007, and while that category is expanding across the bike industry, the non-racers seeking high performance in gran fondos and other long distance rides will be excited to try Felt’s revamped Z2 model. A longer wheelbase, slightly taller head tube, more efficient carbon layups, and improved tube shapes have all been addressed for 2013, which, according to Felt’s engineers, have shed 50g and stiffened the ride 25 percent over last year.

Sounds like my kind of bike. I also had the advantage of attending the recent Felt media launch in Irvine, California, so I decided to find out if the actual ride matched the paper spec. It helped that the roads around Irvine rise mightily, providing our group with some 20-percent climbs and ripping descents to put the Z2 through its paces to see if the weight savings and subtle stiffening would be noticed.

The tech

The frame material is made from Felt’s Endurance Road Ultra Hybrid Carbon (UHC) Advanced Modular Monocoque Construction (MMC) carbon fiber with a 3K protective weave, which Felt says is 20 percent lighter than its UHC Performance carbon. Felt says its InsideOut internally optimized molding process eliminates excess material. How? Felt achieves this by placing polyurethane inserts inside the frame during the molding process, especially at the head tube and bottom bracket areas, then applies a precise amount of pressure and heat, resulting in the desired tube shapes and diameters.

 

Felt also modified the seat stays with smaller and rounder constant-diameter cross sections that intersect low on the seat tube to increase comfort and dampen ride quality without sacrificing torsional stiffness or vertical compliance, the usual performance-robbing suspects. The new Z frame also has a "kick-up" in the chain stay, a subtle modification to smoothen out the ride.

The components

My 56cm tester was built with Shimano Ultegra Di2 electronic shifting, with a secondary climbing shifter pod on the top of the handlebars. Felt has specced a 3T Ergonova Team HM carbon handlebar, 3T AR Team 7075 aluminum stem, 3T Dorico Team UD carbon seatpost and Prologo Scratch pro titanium railed saddle. Shimano RS20 wheels rounded out the component selection.

I began the ride a novice on the Shimano Ultegra Di2 shifting. Already having ridden the Campagnolo Record EPS a month ago, my learning curve was short and sweet. Shifting was crisp and immediate, and I was also thankful for the 28-tooth cassette cog on the climbs. I was able to stay in the 50-tooth large chainring while cross-chaining up the cassette on the gradual climbs without any interference, and the 34-tooth small chainring was low enough to tackle Koesel’s lung-bursting ascent of Modjeska Grade.

The ride

Our small band of journalists clipped in to our demo bikes, following Felt road product manager Dave Koesel and engineer Nick Ducharme for a 90-minute jaunt. They led us on part of the section of a famous Sunday morning group ride called “Como Street”. We started up El Toro Road past Live Oak Canyon onto Santiago Canyon Road, and onto the motorcyclist hot-spot “Cooks’ Corner”.

The gradual climb was interrupted with a right turn onto Modjeska Grade, which Koesel refers to as the “mini L’Alpe” of Southern Orange County, where thousands of cyclists test their legs (and lungs and machines) up the nearly 20-percent grades.

The twisting descent allowed me to test out the stability of the Z2. With my hands in the drops and my butt shoved back in the saddle, I carved the turns with confidence, skirting a few busted rocks and sand strewn across parts of the road. Riding with strangers on strange roads is usually a little unsettling, but the company I kept was reliable and smooth, just like the Z2.

Our quick descent back to Santiago Canyon Road and back through Foothill Ranch (past Oakley) to Felt headquarters in Irvine was slightly wind-aided and blistering. We strung out in a single line to let ‘er rip, pro peloton style, and I was actually wishing I had a more pro 53-tooth large chainring to keep up. The 10-speed cassette starts with a 12 tooth, so I was spinning out a bit in the 50/12 gear combination. Ducharme saw to it that I was brought back to the paceline.

The verdict

At a hair under 16.8lbs for my 56cm tester with bottle cage without pedals, the Felt Z2 is competitively light, considering the Ultegra Di2 gruppo with remote buttons. I never felt nervous or skittish on the ride, and was impressed by the handling and responsiveness compared to other similar models I’ve tested from other companies. The sloping top tube allowed for some welcome flex in the longer seat post, but nothing that inhibited performance. This is an ideal machine for the performance-seeking unracer.

Available in matte carbon with red highlights, the Felt Z2 will be available in 51, 54, 56, 58 and 61cm sizes, and will retail for $5,999.


First look: Felt York, a Frenchie-inspired townie

By Gary J. Boulanger

Most grab-and-go townie bikes are over-designed and over burdened with frilly extras to cater to the beginner crowd, but Felt decided to develop something inspired from the 1950s French delivery bikes. Starting with a TIG-welded chromoly steel frame with traditional double-diamond design, the Felt York features a Sturmey-Archer 2-speed kickback hub, based on the old Bendix design used by millions of American paperboys.

The kickback hub allows the rider to shift gears with a slight rearward push of the cranks, engaging the internal mechanism without the use of a handlebar-mounted gear shifter. It looks like a coaster brake because it is; the guts of the rear hub are just designed to accommodate another cruising gear, keeping the lines of the frame clean without the need for cable guides. This is more like your grandfather’s fixed gear bike, but one with practicality, thanks to the swept-back bars, full fenders, and front rack.

Complimenting the custom-butted frame is a steel tapered fork with a windowed fork crown, a nice touch for an affordable bike. Compared to Felt’s other fixed-gear models, the York’s wheelbase is 18-plus millimeters longer, with a 47 versus a 43mm fork rake for more stable handling. Open-ended track dropouts are wisely used to allow simply chain tensioning; remember to loosen, then tighten, the non-drive clamp band when adjusting.

Component spec includes a Campagnolo-inspired cold forged polished crankset, Tektro front brake caliper, riveted vintage-shaped saddle, and polished steel fenders. The shiny, high-flange, sealed-bearing front hub looks nice with the Sturmey-Archer rear.

Available in Duke Blue, the Felt York comes in 51, 54, 56, 58 and 61cm sizes. Weight is TBA, and retail will be $829.


A beginners guide to randonneuring

By Paul Rozelle

Randonneuring is long-distance, unsupported, noncompetitive cycling within prescribed time limits. The events—called brevets—are 200km (13.5 hour time cut-off ), 300km (20 hours), 400km (27 hours), 600km (40 hours), and 1000km (75 hours). Grand Randonnées are 1200km and riders must finish in 90 hours or less. The original Grand Randonnée, Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP), was first held in 1891 and inspired the modern Olympic Games and the Tour de France. There are also populaires, rides longer than 100km but less than 200km, and the flèche, a 24-hour team event.

Brevets are sometimes called randonnées, a word that has no precise English translation, but which is evocative of touring, adventuring, and wandering or rambling. One may also see the word audax in reference to randonneuring. Technically, audax rides are commonpace events where cyclists ride, rest, and finish together at a pace established by a route captain. Audax is roughly translated as “audacious,” which certainly describes riding a bicycle 750 miles!

Randonneuring began in Italy and flourished in France at the end of the 19th century. Professional road racing, cycle touring, and equipment trials trace their early roots to randonneuring.

Randonneurs (women, who participate on equal footing with men, are called randonneusses) are hardy, resourceful cyclists. Once a brevet begins, the clock runs until the rider crosses the finish line. There are no allowances for inclement weather or mechanical or bodily breakdowns. Eating, resting, navigation, bike repairs, and of course, cycling, must be done efficiently enough that the rider finishes within the time limit. In keeping with the noncompetitive nature of randonneuring, official finishers are listed alphabetically, without reference to or recognition of finishing time or order.

Self-reliance is critical to a randonneur’s success. Non-neutral support may only be taken at a contrôle (“control” in English), or checkpoint, which are typically about 50km apart and are designed to keep riders on the prescribed route, which must be followed exactly. At a control, some of which may be secret, the rider has his or her brevet card stamped to show passage though the control within the prescribed time limit. In addition to a cut-off time for the event, each control has an “opening” and “closing” time and a rider must pass through the control between those times.

The route

Brevets typically use tertiary roads through rural areas. Routes are hillier than most club rides or centuries. For example, PBP has about 30,000 feet of climbing on it and is considered to be of average difficulty for a 1200K. The ominously named Endless Mountains 1200K in eastern Pennsylvania has twice as much climbing.

Preparation

There are as many approaches to train- ing for brevets as there are randonneurs. Most randonneurs do not ride huge volume, nor do they do great numbers of long rides. Rather, each brevet helps build the fitness and experience necessary to undertake the next one: i.e., the “training” for a 300K is completing a 200K.

Although the time limits are generous (a rider must maintain about 8mph to finish within time), training to improve rolling speed will enable a randonneur to obtain more rest, deal with the unexpected, or just finish a brevet more quickly. That said, randonneuring favors the efficient, determined, steady rider more than the “fast” one. Using time off the bicycle wisely, figuring out and maintaining an appropriate pace, and maximizing comfort, both on the bike and off it, are at least as critical to success as fitness.

Equipment

Cyclists considering a brevet should not be deterred from participating by thinking that they need specialized equipment or a “randonneuring bicycle.” For a 200K, most riders travel pretty light. Supplies necessary to fix basic problems (a flat repair kit and good multi-tool), a variety of clothing items if the temperature might vary widely or rain is expected, and a couple of bottles are the basics. I don’t carry much more for a 200K than I would for a club ride and I can fit it all in jersey pockets and a small seatpost bag.

For rides longer than 200km, lights are required. Riders also must wear reflective ankle bands and a vest when riding at night. Some of my most memorable randonneuring moments are from night riding, especially climbing the Feather River Canyon in the Sierra Nevada by the light of a full moon on the Gold Rush 1200K. Whether to use a hub generator lighting system or a battery-powered light is as personal as the wool/ synthetics clothing debate. Both have zealous advocates, but no one approach offers any substantial performance benefit over the other. I use a battery-powered system to enable easy transfer between bicycles, but many prefer generator systems for their aesthetics and to avoid charging or replacing batteries en route.

The bike

A “good randonneuring bicycle” is any bicycle that fits and on which the rider is comfortable. On Paris-Brest-Paris, one will find every conceivable human-powered machine on the road. I have completed brevets on bicycles as diverse as a full-carbon racing bike, a cyclocross bike with 32mm knobby tires, a tandem, a fixed-gear pursuit bike, and a fixed-gear bicycle designed for urban riding. While many randonneurs gravitate to classic bicycles in the tradition of René Herse or other constructeurs with steel frames, relaxed geometry, and ample clearances for racks, fenders, and wide tires, such a bicycle is by no means a requirement nor is there any evidence that riders on “randonneuring” bicycles achieve any better results or somehow have more fun. Randonneurs describe their sport as a “big tent,” and one will find riders of every age and ability—and bicycles of every age and design—under the roof.

Rest

The 600K and longer events present randonneurs with the issue of how to manage sleep and rest. Some ride without sleep. Some take catnaps where and when the need arises. Park benches, churches, post offices, and 24- hour convenience stores are havens for the tired randonneur. I even saw a rider on PBP ’07 stuffed into a phone booth, fast asleep. On the other comfort extreme, some will check into a hotel and shower up, change clothing, and get a full night’s sleep before setting off the next day. If you tend toward roughing it, carry a bivy sack or foil emergency blanket. If you like your beauty sleep, remember your credit card.

Sustinance

Randonneurs also need to address nutrition and hydration. Some riders carry all their own food, but most will provision themselves along the route. Many brevets provide food at the contrôles, included in the entry fee. Riders who require particular sport drinks or gels, or have dietary needs that might not be addressed in the countryside, will carry those items with them.

Try to enjoy the trial-and-error process of figuring out what you like to eat and drink on long rides. I’ve fueled brevets with homemade GORP and surf-and-turf and just about everything edible in between. What tastes good in your kitchen may be unappealing after you’ve been riding all day. Many find sport drinks to be too sweet later in rides. Ibuprofen and acidic foods can upset even the most iron stomachs on Day 2 of a 1200K.

Getting started

By now you may be thinking, “What’s this PBP thing all about, and how do I go about doing it?” You’ve got time to plan: the 18th Paris-Brest-Paris will not occur until August 2015. Originally, PBP was held only once a decade because the thinking at the time was that to ride it more frequently would be too harmful to one’s health. Today, some randonneurs do several 1200Ks in a season, but PBP remains a quadrennial offering to permit planning a quality event (moving 5,000 riders and organizing volunteers across rural northern France is no simple task) and, perhaps, to add to its allure and mystique.

To ride PBP (and most other 1200Ks), one must first qualify by completing a full brevet series (200K, 300K, 400K, and 600K) in the same calendar year as PBP. Qualifying helps to ensure that randonneurs are prepared to meet the challenge and that their experience will be not only successful, but enjoyable. Historically, between 70 percent and 90 percent of those who start PBP finish within time. RBAs—regional brevet administrators—design their brevets to ensure that their riders have the greatest preparation and chance for success on PBP. Complete PBP, and you’ll forever be known as an ancien (ancienne, for the ladies), a distinction bestowed by the French with pride, gravity, and honor.

Resources and links

  • Randonneurs USA (RUSA) organizes brevets in the United States. RUSA’s website, www.rusa.org, contains a wealth of information on upcoming events, advice, and history of the sport.
  • PBP is put on by l’Audax Club Parisien. See www. paris-brest-paris.org for more information.
  • There are many excellent randonneuring blogs. Among my favorites is The Daily Randonneur (thedailyrandonneur.wordpress.com), which contains diverse stories, interviews and information from the randonneuring world.
  • - There is a randonneuring list-serv, groups.google.com/group/randon, covering all things randonneuring including ride reports, advice and information on events.
  • Perhaps the best way to learn more about randonneuring is to participate. Register for the next local 100km populaire or 200K and chat up someone with an interesting bike or ride jersey. You’ll find we’re a friendly bunch, and especially eager to help new riders avoid the many mistakes we made when starting out. Bon route!

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Readers Write: ‘Chasing my mother and the Tour de France’

By Robin Jenkins,

I thought that chasing the Tour de France might be a challenge but I was very sure I might not survive the chasing of my mother, a fan of all things Tour related.

When I told my mother, Karen, I was invited to the wedding of a college roommate in the south of France early in July 2010, it did not escape her that the wedding would occur just after the start of the Tour. She suggested joining me after the wedding in a city where we could see either the start or finish of a stage and then spend time in Paris. 

Memories of recent summers started to surface: daily phone calls relating endless Tour information about stage locations, updates on specific riders, and requests to join silly, fruitless, online contests. All of this information came from one Tour de France fan – my mother – and it came whether I wanted to hear it or not. So being an adventurous person and a thoughtful daughter, I agreed to her suggestion. This would be her chance to see a Tour stage in person and I always enjoy spending time with her, especially when travelling. During Thanksgiving, we got a large Michelin map of France and started to plan.

As it turns out the Tour routes are not made public until about six months before the race, so we definitely needed help with picking a city, finding a hotel, renting bikes, and general Tour information. Fortunately and not surprisingly, my mother worked her contacts to find someone who specializes in bike tours for cyclists to follow portions of the Tour. Joe Tonon, owner of Destination Cycling, offered generous and invaluable advice and assistance. By March, Joe helped us confirm our destination to be Reims, in the Champagne region of Northern France for the end of Stage 4. We got our airline and French train tickets and Joe made our hotel and bicycle reservations in Reims. The rest was up to patience and fate.

My mother arrived in Reims a day before I did and was standing in front of the Grand Hotel des Templiers, our charming and affordable hotel, when I alighted from the cab from the train station. Getting advice from Joe to rent bicycles in Reims was one of the best decisions—that plus the hotel he booked for us which was two blocks from the Tour route into Reims and six blocks from the finish line and the center of downtown.

The next morning we had a pleasant 15-minute walk to the bike rental agency at the train station that also rented cars. When my mother asked about renting bike helmets, the agent insisted no one wears helmets, that we would look silly. My mother, who is a League Cycling Instructor, and never without a helmet when riding a bike, sighed along with the agent as he dolefully said it was better that we did not look like “helmet heads”. We quickly learned that in Reims, bike riders are expected to be on the sidewalks. After several motorists stopped to yell at us for riding in the streets, my mother sighed again as we pulled the bikes onto the sidewalk to ride.

A beautiful city, Reims proved to be a splendid size to explore by bicycle while waiting several days for the arrival of the Tour. We visited majestic townhouses, fascinating museums, interesting historical sites, and enjoyed delicious inexpensive meals. Surprising was the role of Reims in World War II as the headquarters for General Dwight Eisenhower and the Allied Command.

We were awed by the exquisite public library built with a donation from Andrew Carnegie after World War I and still lending books. Perhaps most memorable was the chapel of Our Lady of Peace which was the work of Japanese artist Tsuguharu Foujita who painted the stunning and mystical interior frescos. The spectacular Cathedral of Notre Dame, which looks beautiful at all times of the day, but especially at sunset, was breath-taking every time we crossed the large cathedral square. While my being in Reims to see the end of a Tour stage was very much for my mother, I found myself enjoying sightseeing and spending time together. Soon, I too was getting excited about the coming of the Tour de France.

Amazingly, the day before the Tour, we could only get a whisper of the route – nobody really knew for sure which roads it would take into Reims. The owner of our hotel did not know and neither did anyone at the local tourist office across the square from the Cathedral.

To Americans, this seemed very strange—shouldn’t the whole town be turned upside down for such a world- class event? None of the shops were selling Tour paraphernalia—T-shirts, postcards, caps, jerseys—anything to indicate that within a day, the Tour de France would roar into Reims. We took the little information we had and hopped on our bikes, intent on finding a good location from which to watch the cyclists pass by. Our criteria was very simple—a cafe along the route far enough from the crowds at the finish line and, most importantly, easy access to restrooms.

We decided to ride our bikes away from Reims and use as markers the handful of barriers along the way, which we figured would be set up to hold back the crowds. We found a small cafe where we had lunch and became acquainted with the owners. They too thought the Tour would go past their establishment and assured us we would be very welcome to return the next day. Everything was set. Or so we thought!

Early on the morning Stage 4 was to finish in Reims there was not a cloud in the sky. The weather was hot but fortunately, not humid. As we left our hotel, we were surprised that overnight the nearby streets had been transformed into a long stretch of barriers with police stationed every 20 feet. We decided to ride first to the finish line about six blocks away and then follow the barriers out of the center of town to our carefully chosen cafe.

The area for the finish had a great energy and excitement. Souvenir stands had appeared in the same streets where the night before we strolled and had dinner. Most impressive were the large gleaming double decker broadcast booths. We could look down the street past the VIP stand and see the finish line being painted. By 9 a.m. the crowd was growing. We spoke to a number of dedicated fans that had claimed their spots while holding large national flags. They would be waiting for six or seven hours for a chance to see their heroes finish—true dedication.

We started to ride away from Reims, following the barriers, to get to the cafe we had chosen the day before… and surprise… the route was different than we anticipated. Our cafe was now an eighth of a mile away from the route into Reims putting our view and access to restrooms in jeopardy.

Fortunately, my ears heard a wonderful sound—American Soul music coming from a cafe with empty tables right on the route just at a corner. Fate had intervened and helped us find an even better location. We would be able to see the cyclists as they approached the corner and as they made the turn to race into Reims. Since this was France relaxing at a cafe for many hours at a table is never an issue, it’s a requirement. So we introduced ourselves to the owners and settled in to wait. My mother was thrilled and the music was rocking!

By about 1 p.m., it seemed the entire neighbourhood was going to turn out for the passing of the Tour De France and we were among them—families, teenagers, seniors, shop owners, postal workers, delivery people—all filling the sidewalks with children pressed against the barriers for the long wait, while chatting with each other and the police.

We spent the next few hours talking to our fellow onlookers while drinking sodas and water, eating lunch, reading newspapers, taking turns sitting in the chairs, and being part of the growing excitement. At one point, I was even able to apply a fresh coat of nail polish. Then the long parade began. There were local groups that rode their bikes or marched past. It was not a typical parade, but rather many community groups that went past in no particular order, some had one or two instruments to accompany them and great gaps of time between each.

In between were small vendor trucks with all the Tour souvenirs unavailable in the shops. People would jump off the trucks and dash to the barriers to sell t-shirts, musettes, caps, balloons, pens and other assorted Tour items. We joined in the shouting for the desired items, quickly shoving euros at the vendors and miraculously getting back the correct change.

Then, the Tour de France caravan (or parade of floats) slowly passed by. Sponsored by French banks, businesses, and bicycle-related companies, the floats were colorful but small in comparison to floats in American parades. People on the floats and walking along the sides energetically threw free merchandise to the crowd—everything from candy, small toys, packets of laundry detergent, cycling caps, small bagged desserts, and the prized large green foam hands.

Kids scrambled to grab candy and toys while the police and adults obligingly moved out the way or gave away what they had caught. Caps were generously given to the elderly who did not have hats to shield them from the sun. We happily gave away the laundry detergent we grabbed in the scramble. I gave away one of the two polka dot (King of the Mountain) hats I caught while my mother clutched the big green hand she managed to secure. Amazingly, it seemed that everyone got something.

Meanwhile markers for the benefit of the cyclists were being put in place. A large white and red polka dot balloon jersey was blown up and secured at the corner where we were positioned to indicate it was 3km to the finish line. Then, a different kind of caravan rolled past, this time the huge brightly painted team busses; the equally colorful cars, each loaded with bikes on top; and a small army of support vehicles and photographers sitting precariously on the back of countless motorcycles. The crowd clapped, waved and shouted as the parade of busses, cars, and support vehicles went past. But after nearly six hours of waiting, where were the cyclists?

All of a sudden my mother shouted she could hear a helicopter, which soon was overhead. The cyclists must be near. We joined in the cheering with the crowd. The air was electric—and then it was over in less than 15 seconds, maybe 20! We knew it would be over fast, and I must admit it is still a blur of color and movement, but one of the greatest blurs I have experienced. I thought I had joined my mother so she could see the end of a stage of the most famous bicycle race in the world. Instead, we both found ourselves in the middle of long, boisterous, colourful, and generous community party to which everyone was welcome!

I’m sure some of you have been lucky enough to participate in something after dreaming and perhaps seeing it for so long on television. If so, you might appreciate and understand the happiness and enjoyment of my mother. Because I came to the adventure with no agenda and ready to absorb whatever craziness might occur, I had a great time and can now easily report that if it is your dream, it is very possible to see part of the Tour de France up close and personal.

My mother wants to see a stage of the Tour de France next year, but she wants to be a Podium Girl—one of the lovely women who each day hand awards and offer kisses to the stage winners. PLEASE drop me a line if you have any ideas on how to pull this one off… anything is possible, right?

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Readers Write: ‘I have never ridden my bicycle so hard or for so long’

Editor’s note: Riders Write is an occasional column where we feature reader-submitted stories. This edition tells the story of the Trans-Iowa, a 330-mile gravel race that traverses some of the most difficult terrain imaginable. Author Jeremy Kershaw knows his gravel, too. He is the creator and director of the Heck of the North, a similar event in Minnesota. 

By Jeremy Kershaw

Jay Barre and I looked back 100 yards at the figure of Bill Graves hunched over his bike. He waves us on. His front rack had broken. Jay and I spoke almost incoherently about what we should do. We had to go. We had another 50 miles to go. Time was all of a sudden a very valuable commodity. Our hearts sank leaving a very strong rider on the side of the road. We both hoped that he would just kick the damn thing off his bike and keep going. Just keep riding damnit!

Twenty miles to go. Eighty. 130 miles to go still. It just never seemed to end. The last 60 miles were without a doubt the most difficult miles of my life. Jay kept crunching the numbers and we had no time to waste. But the roads just went from bad to worse. Yes, we all "love to ride gravel" and all that, but fresh limestone (golf to tennis ball size rock) with no packed track made us almost sick to our stomachs. And the hills just kept coming. One after another.

There were so many times that we just asked, "how do my legs keep going?!" Ironically, our legs felt OK. But hands, lower backs and butts were all just wasted. Jay didn’t want to look down south any more in fear of what he might see. I was chafed for sure, but what concerned me the most was just the pure soreness, the pain of trauma on my inner butt cheeks. It felt better to stand and pedal. I worried I had ulcers forming. I worried I would turn into one of my patients that you have to turn every two hours. I shut out the thought and took two more ibu’s.

I had a second of doubt trying to follow Jay’s wheel toward the end. He was a pure motor. I mean he just didn’t seem to falter. Youth? Maybe. Natural toughness. Yes.

Somewhere I found another store of energy. How? How does the body keep going? This is what I came for at the Trans Iowa. This is the marrow of these endurance events. I needed another pure dose of this insanity. Another swim in the deep end. I put my head down and passed Jay so that I could take another pull at the front. He had done a lion’s share of the work this morning. But I scraped together a few more watts and broke the relentless headwind for him. At least for a couple of minutes.

Up ahead, we saw riders that had let us go earlier in the day. All were strong, great gravel cyclists. Good guys. But I stood and attacked and wanted them behind us. We slowly bridged to the five and just kept riding. I seriously felt like Jay and I were riding to the storied velodrome in Roubaix, France. Overcast, windy, rain threatening. Bodies absolutely hammered. For only maybe the second time in my cycling life, I found a reserve of energy that allowed me to go faster than I thought I could. It was a highlight of the race. Not passing those guys. But just feeling that strong when it mattered most.

I usually pride myself in my navigational skills. I love to lead and I swore that I would follow my cue cards religiously. I always do. I have done many solo nights successfully. But the sleep monsters were particularly mean this race. I don’t know how many times I looked down at my cue sheet only to go blurry eyed and feign some knowledge of our current where-abouts. I was lucky to be with a savvy and generous bunch of guys through the dark times of the T.I. I don’t think they missed a beat all night. So impressive.

And never will I go with such a miserable lighting system again. It was anemic at best. But again, lucky to be with guys who had enough combined lumins to do major surgery by. Thank you gentleman for your firepower, both brain and headlamp.

There must have been a legislative mandate to make all farm dogs in Iowa under 20 pounds. I have never been chased by so many Yorkies, Korgies, and other yippers. Where were the big, mean old guys of yore? In their place were the new Mig fighter planes. By the time you saw them it was too late. So much yipping. So many ankle biters.

And no, this is not RAGBRAI. We were not just riding out in the ditch. We are not lost, which is what must we look like to any rational Iowa rural resident.

Three AM. Raining hard and windy. Farmer hears their dog barking and happens to look out his window. A string of guys riding their damn bikes on a dirt road in the middle of the night. All wearing headlamps. Damn fools. Same pack of guys shows up at convenient store in absolutely the darkest part of the night. Guy at register stands there with dumb founded look. Headlamps still on. Click clack and muddied cycling shoes slipping on polished floor. Dumbly and I mean dumbly looking for something salty to eat. How hard is it to pick out something to eat after 230 miles? Really hard. Guy at register must think we are insane. But a curious question? Not one. Not one comment from register guy.

I slump down on floor by the cash machine and numbly eat a very white looking ham and cheese sandwich. I spill Chex Mix on the floor and sweep it up with my muddy, gloved fingers. I feel like a homeless guy at a Grey Hound station. Someone says we gotta roll. I say something like "thanks" to the guy at the register. Not a peep. We saddle up and head back into the darkness.

I feel pretty good. It’s dark but I know it will be getting light soon. I’ve lucked out and hooked onto a group of guys riding the pace I want to go. We are making miles into the headwind. I think I have a good chance of actually making the first checkpoint this year. I know I’m not going to give up this year. I hear the first robins chirping their morning song. The kildeer are barking their usual orders as they glide by right in front of our bikes. I love riding these rural roads.

I have never ridden my bicycle so hard or for so long.

Jay and I ride down the paved block to the park and finish line. It is just how I imagine it. Farrow is there. So are Ari and Giggles. We stop riding after 33 hours and 330 miles. Someone takes our bikes. I hug Jay. Guitar Ted and others congratulate us. I sit down and feel absolute and total relief. Someone gives me a Budweiser and it is the best beer I have ever tasted.

It is finally over.

I can finally stop pedaling.

 

 


Book Review: ‘Just Ride’ by Grant Petersen

By Gary Boulanger,

Grant Petersen is a hard man to define. His views on bicycling have run counter to conventional industry wisdom for nearly 30 years, which shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who really knows the California native. Call it survival, cunning or instinct; either way, his latest book, ‘Just Ride: A Radically Practical Guide to Riding Your Bike’ (Workman Publishing, 212 pages, $13.95) is consistent with the belief system of a man I’ve known since digesting the indelible prose from the Bridgestone Cycles catalogs he developed during his 10 years as both marketing director and product manager for the small but influential company, located a mere 26 miles from Petersen’s Walnut Creek homebase.

Bridgestone Cycles closed its doors permanently for multiple reasons in late 1994, but only after Petersen developed a fiercely loyal customer base with his Bridgestone Owners Bunch (B.O.B.). Club membership was open to Bridgestone bicycle owners, and discounts were playfully offered to members with "Bob" derivatives (Robert, Rob, Roberta, Roberto, Robin, etc.). The B.O.B. Gazette was an extension of the well-written Bridgestone catalogs, where Petersen and other contributors openly communicated their views on what made cycling wonderful. Much of what the gang wrote about focused on fun and health, with a light dose of technical jargon about bicycle design, componentry, and competition. He was (and is) transparent about every aspect of bicycle development, sourcing, marketing and racing, and it struck a chord with many.

A page from the 1993 Bridgestone catalog.

Petersen discovered his voice at Bridgestone, and his style of sprinkling opinion with experience often planted seeds of joyous discovery for those seeking a unique and sublime cycling experience. At the same time, though, his writing confounded and angered some journalists, Bridgestone salespeople, and independent bicycle dealers who didn’t appreciate Petersen’s upstream swimming approach to get more people riding bikes. The B.O.B. Gazette allowed him to speak directly to a devoted audience, which formed the foundation of Petersen’s new company in late 1994, Rivendell Bicycle Works, and whose database he was able to inherit after Bridgestone shuttered for good.

Rivendell was the perfect transition for Petersen, which allowed him to publish catalogs in his own style and voice, plus continue to offer the unique products he felt strongly about at Bridgestone, with no corporate strings attached. He pioneered many things in the early Rivendell days: consumer-direct sales, membership and its privileges, and diaries/blogs (in small print form in his Rivendell Reader, an offshoot of the B.O.B. Gazette). Some say he kept Brooks leather saddles afloat, and ushered in the current handmade bicycle movement by keeping the home fires burning with his singular focus on lugged steel bikes during the steel-to-aluminum-to-carbon phase. Ditto saddle bags and wool clothing.

Northern California has been a hotbed for road racing for decades, and Petersen was part of that scene. There’s a photo of him beating former 7-Eleven/Motorola pro Norm Alvis up the popular Mt. Diablo hill climb event, proving he was no slouch on the bike. But Petersen understood early on that for a company like Bridgestone to survive and thrive in the United States against Schwinn, Trek and Specialized, a different approach was necessary, and it was a battle not be be won on the podium. This meant a focus on the rider and his or her needs. In other words, Petersen was quick to key in on the ‘why’ factor for Bridgestone (then Rivendell), providing compelling reasons why consumers would choose his products over the multiple competitors on the market. His straight-talk approach cut to the heart of what makes cycling so attractive to kids in the first place: adventure and freedom.

In many ways, Petersen has been peddling adventure and freedom since his early days working at REI in Berkeley before hitching a ride with Bridgestone in 1984. His new book encapsulates a lifetime of what that adventure and freedom has meant to him and the thousands of people he’s influenced through his writing, marketing and product development.

The 212 pages include counter-intuitive advice culled from years of practical use (leather saddles versus gel, lugged steel frames versus carbon, larger tires versus skinny, wool and cotton clothing versus Lycra, platform versus clipless pedals, etc.). He provides advice on proper diet, riding techniques, clothing, gear for bike camping, and bike fit and positioning. He practices what he preaches, and there’s plenty in the book that might prove unpopular with conventional thinkers (helmet use, blinky lights, charity rides, etc.).

Mind you, the nearly 58-year-old Petersen has been working with bicycles and bicyclists his entire adult life, so he’s perched solidly on a legitimate platform. Some dismiss him as a retro-grouch and a Luddite, but my observation has been that Petersen is more of a romantic, harkening back to the days when fendered British three-speeds with waxed-cotton saddle bags ruled the land. He’s an encourager, and he astutely debunks many misconceptions fostered by an industry quick to hitch its marketing wagon to racing, only to repeatedly see its heroes crash and burn amid this month’s doping scandals.

‘Just Ride: A Radically Practical Guide to Riding Your Bike’ is refreshing in its content and belongs in every library and school across the country, to be discovered by young cyclists looking for an alternative view. Buy it if you need a reminder of what it felt like the first time you rode a bike, or buy it for a friend who’s been blinded by the carnal racerboy tendency to tear his pedals off with every ride. Either way, Petersen offers a peek into a different insight that’s worth digesting. He’s the Pied Piper for the Un-racer. 


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