Monday, July 17, 2017

Tour de France Coverage, Retrogrouch Style: 1987

I have a hard time taking professional bike racing seriously these days. I find it only slightly more credible than pro wrestling. So even though the Tour de France is going on as we speak (or read, or write), I'm only half paying attention. Here's what I know: Peter Sagan is out - disqualified for supposedly pushing Mark Cavendish into the barriers in a messy final sprint on Stage 4. I also know that there was a renewed round of criticism and debate about whether the rest of the peloton should have to stop racing when the racer in Yellow has a mechanical problem - a debate that seems to repeat every year nowadays. There were penalties for slapping (yes, slapping). And Chris Froome is in good position to win his fourth tour, though he's in no position to get overly confident about it. Oh - and today is a rest day.

Anyhow, rather than get too engrossed in this year's big bicycle race in France, let's do the Retro-groucy thing and go back 30 years to re-live a great one from the past.

1987 was a year without any clear favorite. It should have been Greg LeMond's year to defend his '86 Tour title, but that was not to be. His near-fatal hunting accident earlier that year kept him sidelined. The great Bernard Hinault had retired at the end of the previous season, so that generation-defining racer was gone. One could say it was "anybody's Tour." Two-time champion Laurent Fignon was a likely contender -- he was showing improvement after knee surgery, but was still not quite at the same level he'd been a few years earlier. Among the other likely possibilities were Stephen Roche, who had won that year's Giro d'Italia, the Spanish climber Pedro Delgado of the powerful PDM team, and Hinault's heir-apparent Jean François Bernard. Andy Hampsten, who had finished 4th in '86, was something of a wildcard, having won that year's Tour of Switzerland. Hampsten was riding with the 7-Eleven team for '87 - back for their second TdF. And Luis Herrera, the strong climber from Colombia, could not be discounted either.

The '87 Tour was exceptionally tough - a climber's tour for certain - and extra long at 26 stages. The race started that year in West Berlin (Remember that? Re-unification was still a couple of years away) with a short 6.1km Prologue time trial. All the serious contenders finished it within about 13 seconds of one another. As often happens, the first week's stages found the main GC contenders holding back and staying safe while sprinters led the standings. The Yellow Jersey changed hands a couple of times among riders who in all likelihood would not be wearing it after the race reached the mountains.

The first real standings-shaking stage was a difficult 87.5km time trial in Stage 10. Stephen Roche won the stage but Laurent Fignon's Systeme U teammate Charly Mottet came in second and took the Yellow Jersey. Roche had moved up to 6th overall, up from 26th.

Davis Phinney takes a stage win in Bordeaux.
The 7-Eleven team saw a welcome stage win with Davis Phinney on the road to Bordeaux in stage 12. A crash in that stage forced Sean Kelly to abandon due to injuries. A grand tour win would continue to remain out of his grasp.

Stage 13 was the first mountain test in the Pyrenees with four big climbs, and Jean François Bernard rode strong - finishing a close 2nd in the stage behind Panasonic's Erik Breukink, and moving up to 2nd overall. Roche was up to 3rd place, and Charly Mottet managed to hold on to Yellow. On Stage 14, a difficult race from Pau to Luz-Ardiden, 7-Eleven's Dag-Otto Lauritzen brought the American team their second stage win, and all the real contenders were starting to move to the fore. Bernard was in 2nd, Roche 3rd, Delgado 4th, Herrera 9th, and Hampsten 10th in the GC. A fun surprise was the young climber from Mexico, Raul Alcala with 7-Eleven, who had moved up to 8th place overall.

Jean François Bernard, briefly in Yellow.
The next shakeup would come in Stage 18 with an individual time trial up Mount Ventoux. Jean François Bernard rode powerfully - winning the stage by 1:39 over the Colombian Luis Herrera. Pedro Delgado was 3rd in the stage at 1:51, and Roche was 5th at 2:19 (Roche was a strong time-triallist, but only a "good" not "great" climber). In the overall standings, Bernard took the Yellow Jersey away from Mottet, while Roche moved up to 2nd.

Bernard's time in Yellow would be short-lived, as Stage 19 was another big test in the mountains. Attacks by Delgado and Roche kept Bernard on the defensive - along with some bad luck. Bernard suffered a flat at the top of the first big climb, and by the time he was able to get it changed, the other leaders were out of sight. Later, an attack by Mottet and the Systeme U team in the feed zone kept Bernard bottled up behind the slow-down of riders grabbing their lunches. Delgado and Roche were able to join in with the attackers and take more time out of Bernard - and the pair later managed to drop Mottet as well. Delgado won the stage and moved up to 3rd overall, while Roche pulled on the Yellow Jersey. Mottet was in 2nd in the GC, and Bernard dropped to 4th.

Pedro Delgado takes a turn in Yellow.
Stage 20 featured the famed climb up Alpe d'Huez and saw Delgado take the lead from Roche. By the end of the stage at the summit, riders were coming in one at a time. Spanish climber Federico Echave won the stage, but the first GC contenders to finish were Herrera in 5th, Laurent Fignon (finally finding his legs) in 6th, and Delgado right behind in 7th. Roche finished 15th that day, 1:46 after Delgado. So the overall standings had another shakeup. Delgado had the Yellow, followed by Roche at 0:25, and Bernard in 3rd at 2:02. Fignon broke into the top 10 for the first time, taking 8th overall. Raul Alcala was 7-Eleven's best-placed rider in 7th, while Hampsten dropped down to 13th.

Stephen Roche turned himself inside out on La Plagne.
Stage 21 was another crazy-intense race with three major climbs including the Galibier, the Madeleine, and the uphill finish to La Plagne -- it would be a pivotal stage for the Tour. Fignon would win the stage, and Delgado would climb strongly as expected, but it was Roche who would become the legend of the '87 Tour. Roche was trying hard to limit his losses to Delgado, believing that if he could keep the overall time gap between them to under a minute, he would be able to make it up in the final time trial. Roche attacked on the descent from the Galibier to the Madeleine to get some distance on Delgado but couldn't stay away to the end. At the foot of the final climb to La Plagne he was caught and passed by Delgado and his PDM team. Roche knew he was not as good of a climber as Delgado and feared that he was seeing his chance of winning the Tour ride off in the distance up the mountain. When Delgado opened up a gap of more than a minute or perhaps a minute-and-a-half on the road, Roche got desperate and dug as deep as possible - he shifted up to his big ring. Yep. The Big Ring. It took a helluva lot of effort to get it turning on the third Hors Categorie climb of the day, but he got it going and rode himself inside out. As he neared the finish line, he could see Delgado crossing the line just a few seconds ahead of him. Roche's efforts were so extraordinary that he had to be helped off the bike and laid out on the ground while medics gave him oxygen. He was taken away in an ambulance, but returned the next day to put in another powerful ride.

After Roche's heroic effort, Delgado still wore Yellow, but Roche was well within closing distance. The last Alpine stage saw Roche come back from his hospital visit as strong as if his collapse on the top of La Plagne never happened. He finished second in the stage and took more time out of his gap to Delgado.

At that point, it all came down to a 38km time trial on the penultimate day of the Tour. Roche trailed Delgado by 21 seconds, while Bernard was in 3rd overall, more than four minutes back. Bernard won the time trial in Dijon by 1:44 over 2nd place Roche (which makes a person wonder what the race might have looked like had Bernard not had such lousy luck back in Stage 19) - but just as Roche had predicted, he was able to beat 3rd place Delgado by a minute, putting him back into the Yellow Jersey with 40 seconds over the Spaniard.

The final stage into Paris was not a showdown for the Yellow Jersey (as is usually the case - 1989 being a rare exception), but it did have another surprise for the 7-Eleven team's excellent second Tour -- Jeff Pierce, who'd gone out on a breakaway, managed to hold off the peloton for a rare solo win on the Champs Élysées. Not only that, but Raul Alcala came into Paris in 9th place overall, getting the White Jersey for Best Young Rider.


In the end, Stephen Roche pulled on the final Yellow Jersey - the first Irishman (and 2nd English-speaker) to win the Tour de France. Pedro Delgado was 2nd at 40 seconds, and Jean François Bernard was 3rd at 2:13 back. Roche entered the history books as only the fifth rider to win the Tour de France and the Giro d'Italia in the same year (after Coppi, Anquetil, Merckx, and Hinault). Later that year, he would become the only rider apart from Eddy Merckx to pull off the "Triple Crown" by also winning the World Championships in the same season.

1987 was good example of what happens when there is a field of strong talent but no clear favorite. The Yellow Jersey went back and forth between eight different men, at least half of whom probably could have worn it into Paris had certain key moments gone just a little differently.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Tour de France 1967: The Tragedy of Tom Simpson

Today is the 50th anniversary of the tragic death of Tom Simpson.

Simpson was the first British rider to wear the rainbow stripes of the World Champion (1965) and a Yellow Jersey in the Tour de France, and on July 13, 1967, he died on the side of the road about a kilometer from the summit of Mount Ventoux.

People often describe the barren upper slopes of Mount Ventoux as a "lunar landscape." At just over 1,900 meters, it is not the highest peak ridden in the Tour, but the ascent starts near sea level, so it's a long one with no relief - and it's an unforgiving climb as the last six kilometers have no shelter from the sun or the wind.

As that TdF began, Simpson was the leader of the British team (in 1967, the Tour was being raced with national teams) and leading up to the 13th stage he was in a respectable 7th place overall. He had been as high as 6th in the GC, but as the race hit the Alps, Simpson began battling stomach ailments. Unable to keep food down, he was running down his reserves.

For the 13th stage, on July 13th, Simpson was under pressure for a strong result as the race climbed up Mount Ventoux. In the first part of the stage, Simpson kept himself with the leaders, but in the heat and as the road neared the summit, he began to lose contact with the lead group. Witnesses saw him weaving back and forth across the road, and about a kilometer or two from the summit, he fell off the bike. At that point, his team manager Alec Taylor and mechanic Harry Hall were prepared to help Simpson into the team car and call it quits, but reportedly Simpson insisted on continuing. Regrettably, they helped him back on the bike, but he collapsed again within the kilometer, with his hands gripped tightly to the bars. He could not be revived. Flown by helicopter to a hospital in Avignon, he was pronounced dead soon after.

Mechanic Harry Hall and a Tour nurse took turns administering
mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but Simpson could not be revived.
Sadly, a post mortem exam showed that Simpson had a combination of amphetamines and alcohol in his system - the combination probably allowing the racer to ride well beyond his physical limits and shutting off the normal "warning signs." Ultimately, he rode deep into exhaustion under the hot sun and his body simply shut down.

The memorial to Tom Simpson, a kilometer from the summit, was first erected in 1968 and has become something of a pilgrimage site for many cyclists -  especially British and English-speakers.
Simpson's death was a wake-up call to the sport as far as doping is concerned - or at least it should have been - but unfortunately it was a call that has been ignored again and again. Yes, race organizers would begin instituting doping controls, but such efforts have never been as intense as the efforts to thwart them.

This year's Tour de France does not pass the memorial to Tom Simpson, and it's a sad thing that the organizers chose to ignore an opportunity to fully honor not only the memory of Simpson but also acknowledge the tragic legacy he left behind.

There is a BBC documentary on the life of Tom Simpson ready for viewing on YouTube - but I have linked here to the final segment which focuses on that fateful day that happened 50 years ago today:


Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Thule Raceway Pro Rack

Not too long ago, the subject of bike racks came up with some of my riding friends, and someone asked what I use for transporting my bikes. The discussion might be of interest to some readers, so let me share. In general, I like the security of roof racks, but there can be issues with those. The most serious one is that it's important to remember that there are bikes on the roof when pulling into a garage or other place where height clearance may be low (easier to forget than you'd imagine!). Bikes on the roof can create a lot of wind drag on the highway. Also, some people have trouble lifting bikes up onto a vehicle's roof. Lastly, befendered bikes can present extra problems with the fork-mounted rooftop carriers because of interference between the fenders and the carrier mounts. I have a home-made solution to that particular issue in an older post (you can check that out HERE if you're interested).
The Raceway Pro comes in a 2-bike and 3-bike version. $350 for the
2-bike, and $380 for the 3-bike. Expensive but solid and secure.

In addition to the old Yakima roof rack I've been using for years (it's on its third car!) for the past year or so I've also been using a trunk-mounted rack from Thule that I think just might be one of the best of its type. It's the Thule Raceway Pro (also known as the 9002PRO - 3 bike). It's incredibly solid, secure, and easily installed and adjusted. It's an expensive rack at about $380, but it's a good one that I assume should last a long time.

One of the first things to mention is the rack's construction and ease of use. It's a substantial and fairly heavy piece of equipment - much heavier than a lot of the tubular steel or aluminum racks that are more common. The upper and lower support arms are wrapped in a soft, paint-friendly rubber. There are numerous positions available for the upper and lower supports and for the bike cradle arms, and a fit guide (included with the instructions) makes finding the proper position for a particular make/model of car pretty straightforward. On that note, I'll mention that my car was a newly re-designed model when I got the rack, so the fit guide that was included in the box didn't list my exact car - but I went online to the Thule website and managed to find a more recently-updated version of the guide, so I assume that they must update it on a regular basis. It's possible that there may be some vehicles that the rack will not fit, but that can be true of any rack, and there are so many possible positions available with the Raceway Pro that I can only imagine that such a list of incompatible vehicles would have to be shorter with this rack than with most others.

Installing the rack is easier than most racks of its type. Instead of the usual nylon straps that affix most trunk racks to the vehicle, the Thule uses steel cables that wind up inside the base and are tightened/adjusted with a simple ratcheting mechanism via a set of large knobs on the sides. I find that it's much easier to get the rack securely fastened than with the nylon straps. Once in place, this thing does not move. Even with two or three bikes installed, it seems very solid.

Instead of the usual nylon straps, the Thule Raceway Pro attaches with 
steel cables which are easily adjusted via large ratcheting knobs on the sides of the rack.

The cradle arms can be raised or lowered easily with a couple of locking levers, and the width/spacing can be altered for different bikes (like for carrying children's bikes, for example). The cradles are padded with soft rubber, and there are removable lower pieces to help minimize swaying back and forth. I read where another reviewer complained that he lost one of the anti-sway pieces when it apparently fell off while driving somewhere without bikes. I could see how that could happen, so I usually detach them and toss them in a storage compartment in the car when I don't have a bike on the rack for that very reason. Or they can be secured with one of the rubber retention straps instead of being left to dangle freely. Just something to be aware of.
One downside on the rack is that its weight makes it difficult to open a trunk or rear hatch when it's installed. I've read some comments where people complained about their car's trunk or hatch slamming down on them while they were stowing or retrieving items from the back of the car. Thing is, the weight is so obvious when trying to open the trunk or hatch, that I can't imagine forgetting about it. Nevertheless, I recommend caution in that regard.

Security is always something to consider when transporting bikes, and it's another area where the Thule is probably one of the better options out there. Understand that when talking security with a trunk-mounted rack, I don't think any of them could be considered "high security." If somebody really wants to steal a bike off of an unattended car's rack, they're going to be able to thwart any rack's built-in locking features. The built-in security is really more about stopping the opportunistic thieves. With that caveat in mind, the Raceway Pro's steel cables almost certainly provide more security than nylon straps when it comes to keeping the rack locked to the car. Anybody with a pocket knife can cut through nylon straps in seconds, but the steel cables would probably take a decent pair of bolt cutters to get through. And the cable winding ratchet mechanisms have locking covers to keep someone from easily loosening them. There is also a locking cable that secures the outermost bike to the rack. Why only the outermost bike? I suppose the thinking is that if the outermost bike is locked to the rack, it would be impossible to get the other bikes off. However, that does mean that when carrying only one bike, it has to be carried on the outermost cradle or it can't be locked. Still, locks on the other cradles would be handy.

Having said all that about security, I'd still add that if someone is really serious about it, or their bikes are going to be unattended for more than few minutes (or in a higher crime area) I'd still recommend locking them to the rack with a good U-lock or a heavy duty cable, or both. Besides, the built-in cable lock only stops someone from taking the frame off the rack, but doesn't stop anyone from stealing wheels or other components. It's just common sense to make the same considerations that you might take anytime you leave a bike unattended.

One more thing to mention about the Thule is that spare parts are available for it, and their service for spares is very good. As mentioned, I've been using the Raceway Pro for over a year now and recently discovered that I lost the keys for the locking features. Ordering spares from their website was easy and took only a few minutes - and the replacement keys arrived within 2-3 days. Excellent.

Although the Raceway Pro is probably one of the more expensive racks of its type, I've gotten quite a lot of use out of it and expect to be able to for a long time to come. It's sturdiness, ease of use, and security features make it a good choice.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Retrogrouch Reads: The Hardmen

I just finished reading a fun book that might appeal to Retrogrouch readers: The Hardmen: Legends of the Cycling Gods, by The Velominati (2017, Pursuit Books). The book was just released this month in the U.K., but it will not be released in the U.S. until November (the U.S. edition will be under Pegasus Books). If my fellow 'Muricans don't want to wait until November, it may be possible to get a U.K. edition through the internet shipped to the U.S., but I haven't tried so I honestly don't know.

Readers may be familiar already with The Velominati (AKA Frank Strack, John Andrews, and Brett Kennedy) who call themselves "The Keepers of the Cog" and are known for publishing "The Rules" which is a perhaps-not-entirely-serious list of rules to which all cyclists should adhere -- or at least attempt to. The basic premise of The Hardmen focuses mostly on rule #5 (or "The V") which is this: "Harden The F### Up." The book then goes on to share the legends of about 35 racers who really lived up to "The V." Of those 35, Eddy Merckx and Sean Kelly get mentioned twice (and why not?), and one entry is dedicated to an entire team (the Mapei team of the late '90s) instead of just an individual.

Overall, the book is divided up into five sections, each for a different category of rider: Les Rouleurs. Les Grimpeurs, De Klassiekers, Les Domestiques, and I Velocisti. For those unfamiliar with French, Dutch, or Italian, those translate (at least roughly) to All-Arounders, Climbers, Classics Specialists, Support Riders, and Sprinters. Read the book if you want/need explanation for why The Velominati use the languages the way they do.

The Hardmen is not a complete "tell-all" biography on each of its subjects, but rather tells a story or relates a particular legend of some defining moment (or moments) that reveal how that rider embodies "The V" -- how their ability to suffer and to endure makes them stand out above all others. One such story is that of Eddy Merckx, who on the day before the 1971 Liége-Bastogne-Liége Classic rode his bike the hundred kilometers from Brussels to Liége in a miserable rainy/snowy mix, as if almost to punish himself for not winning Fléche Wallonne earlier that week - and went on to win the race the next day. Not only did he embody rule #5, but also rule #9 -- the one that says "If you are out riding in bad weather, it means you are a badass. Period."

As the book's subtitle "Legends of the Cycling Gods" would seem to imply, there is quite a bit in The Hardmen that delves into the mythology of bicycle racing, but the style seems to walk a line between Reverence and Irreverence - often skipping back and forth over that line as if in a game of hopscotch. It's fun and enjoyable reading that, just like "The Rules," you know The Velominati want you to take seriously, but not too seriously. For instance, the authors explain in the Prologue how they came to their list of 35 Hardmen:

"The Keepers fell in love with Cycling during the '70s, '80s, '90s and beyond, and have become ever more obsessed with its history and legends. Thus our frame of reference leans towards the riders who inspired us during that time and the myths about them that we discovered as we dug ever deeper into the sport. Also, we're more interested in riding our bikes than we are in doing things like 'research', so this book is written in true Velominati style: (ir)reverently and subjectively. We imagine that if it feels true, it probably is true. And if it happens to be wrong, then maybe being wrong makes it right. When we convened our Hardmen Selection Jury, we quickly came to the realization that we had many more subjects than we had room for, and we knew we couldn't spend the rest of our lives sitting in the Velominati bunker arguing, pint in hand, about which riders should be included. So we went with our favorite stories. And we certainly didn't worry about who was or wasn't allegedly doping."

The particular list of racers selected is by no means all-encompassing. There are likely lots of racers over the years whom some might be inclined to include, or even feel very passionate about, but who did not make the list. For instance, Andy Hampsten is included, but not Greg LeMond. Lance Armstrong is not included, despite being mentioned numerous times throughout the book (usually adjacent to such colorful words "@$$hole" "D#ckhead" and others that I'll leave to your imagination. The Velominati don't pull punches, and they don't censor themselves like I do).

By the way, I can't explain how happy it makes me to see that several of the book's Hardmen are actually women. Yep, among the ranks of such racing greats as Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Sean Kelly, Roger De Vlaeminck and many more are listed great women like Marianne Vos, Rebecca Twigg, Lizzie Deignan (née Armitstead), and Beryl Burton. I could wholeheartedly agree with the writers' assessment that the 2012 Olympic Women's Road Race (where Vos took Gold while Deignan took Silver) was a much more exciting race to watch than the Men's Road Race of the previous day. The women battled it out in a miserable rainstorm, and I don't know how else to describe it except to say that it was absolutely evident they were giving it their hearts and souls, while the Men's race seemed like a bunch of high-paid pros making a publicity appearance (which in a way is probably accurate).

I should mention that anybody who tries to faithfully live up the The Velominati's Rules could find it difficult to find time to read The Hardmen. After all, it's difficult to "harden the F### up" if you're kicking back and reading a book. And if you're thinking about reading on a rainy day, then you're not exactly a badass living up to rule #9. In that regard, the structure of the book actually makes it such that a person can always read a chapter or two (each is fairly brief) in a short time, and could if they were so inclined skip back and forth without feeling the need to read cover-to-cover in any particular order. Even the Velominati themselves point out humorously that when you finish reading, put the the book away and "go for a ride."

Whether you try to procure a copy from the U.K., or wait for the U.S. edition, I think many Retrogrouch readers would enjoy The Hardmen.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Retrogrouch in Texas

Welcome to Texas, Y'all.

The RetroWife had a conference for work in Austin and I literally tagged along for the ride. I've heard that Austin is a very progressive, bike-friendly city so I brought my Bike Friday travel bike so I could explore the city in the best way I know how - without having to take my chances with whatever rental bikes might be available.

The conference and our hotel were right smack in the heart of downtown Austin which is an incredibly active and vibrant city. We didn't bother renting a car, since there was so much to do within waking distance of the hotel. For me, with my bike, there was no part of the city that was beyond my reach, and while my wife was at her meetings during the day, I was out exploring on my bike.

Austin is a great music city - and the theater where they do Austin City Limits was just a block away from our hotel. There's a great statue of Willie Nelson out front. 
I packed a bike for the trip, but forgot to pack a water bottle - and it was freakin' hot and dry outside - so on my first day in the city I found Mellow Johnny's Bike Shop - AKA Lance Armstrong's bike shop. I stopped there and got myself a water bottle and a t-shirt. 
Mellow Johnny's is more than just a bike shop - as it's kind of a gathering place, with a cafe and a training center, and they have a lot of Armstrong's bikes and memorabilia on display. 
I rode up to the state capitol building. There's a lot of history here - and it's one of the more "grand" capitol buildings in the nation. Construction started in 1885 and it is all clad in red granite (which looks decidedly pink).
All around the capitol grounds are monuments to depict and honor the state's history. 
Of course there is a large monument to the Confederacy. As a Yankee with a strong interest in history, I can't help but chafe a bit at the wording on this monument: 

"DIED for state rights guaranteed under the constitution. The people of the South animated by the spirt of 1776, to preserve their rights, withdrew from the Federal compact in 1861. The North resorted to coercion. The South, against overwhelming numbers and resources, fought until exhausted. . . " Don't even get me started. 
At least there was a (more recent) African American History Memorial about a hundred feet away. 

I then rode up to the University of Texas.

I saw this gorgeous old Victorian-era home - the Littlefield home - on the edge of the UT campus.  Littlefield was apparently a regent and major contributor for the university, and his home was bequeathed to the school.

There's the university's famous (or infamous?) clock tower. In 1966, Charles Whitman, a former Marine sharpshooter, went to the tower's observation deck and started shooting people indiscriminately for about an hour and a half before police shot and killed him. 
All along the Colorado River, which flows through the city, there is a bike and hike trail that runs along both banks of the river. I'll admit it wasn't the best trail for cycling since it was incredibly crowded with walkers and joggers. Maybe that was because I was out there on a beautiful Sunday morning, I don't know. Some of it was paved (like this section that stretches out over the water), and some of it was hard-packed dirt and gravel. The little 20" wheels of the Bike Friday actually handled the gravel sections just fine.
I saw this really bizarre bike-themed sculpture by the river bank and the bike/hike trail. The bikes almost seem to go on for infinity. Looking at it too long could do freaky things with your vision.

There are so many fantastic restaurants in Austin, which is famous for Texas barbecue and Tex-Mex. There are all kinds of upscale places, as well as lots of cheap-eats, food truck kinds of places - and everything in-between. But while I was out exploring a grittier side of the city looking for a good and relatively cheap lunch, I spotted Juan in a Million with a line of people stretched around the building. I took that as a good sign.
You can't quite tell from this picture, but the tables are packed so closely together inside Juan in a Million that it almost gives the impression of being filled with long cafeteria-style tables. Everybody is elbow-to-elbow - like a big family. The salsa was extra spicy, and I had some really good steak fajitas.

OK, wrong kind of bikes, but bear with me. Outside the restaurant, there was this row of custom Harleys and choppers. A couple of these bikes had lowrider-style hydraulic lift kits in them. No kidding. When the guys went to start the bikes, you could hear the hydraulic systems start up first, then the ear-splitting roar from the engines (I'm not kidding - my ears wouldn't stop ringing for several minutes after these guys started their engines) and then the bikes lifted up from ground-dragging-level to not-quite scraping the pavement before they rode off.

Back at the capitol building, there was a huge protest and equality march to protest the Texas legislation's "bathroom bill." I joined in because these so-called "bathroom bills" really piss me off. I listened to the speakers and met some cool people. The subsequent march extended for several city blocks. 
As a reminder that this is a bike-blog, I kept my eyes open for interesting bicycles in and around the protest. This pink Atala city bike was a fun one.
I have to say that the Bike Friday is a joy to ride. It looks really weird - like clown-bike weird. I caught a full image of myself on the bike reflected in a big shop window at one point and couldn't help but think it looks goofy as hell. But despite the weird look, in terms of fit, it really feels like a well-designed full-size bike. In ordering it, I gave the folks at Bike Friday the measurements from my Rivendell and asked them to use that as a guide. It offers all-day comfort and feels totally natural.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

And Summer Begins

School has ended for the summer - I finished the year having ridden to work 108 days, which was just three days shy of my record. I had a 61% bike-to-work average for the year. Now that I'm done, the first couple of days off have been about as ideal as can be for biking for pleasure.

I got up early this morning and took the younger of the Retrokids to school (yep - they still have a few days left - our schedules never line up). She was excited because she'd get to ride her bike to school. We rode over together, locked up her bike, said goodbye for the day, and then I decided to get out for a nice ride on my own.

The Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath is a fantastic resource for cycling. I've mentioned more than a few times here on the blog about riding it with my kids. Normally when we cycle the Towpath, we take it north from Akron, through the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. But the Towpath not only runs from Cleveland to Akron, but continues through downtown Akron and south towards the city of Canton. I decided to take a ride on the southbound stretch of the path today.

Getting into the city via the Towpath, one crosses this bridge over the Martin Luther King Freeway. The Canalway Coalition recently put up these metalwork archways over the path where it enters/exits downtown Akron. I'm not sure what the crows represent - they're cool but a little ominous.
Coming into downtown Akron, one circles around the Akron Civic Theater which interestingly was built directly over the O&E Canal. That's right. The canal literally flows beneath the grand old theater. Then the path comes up behind Canal Park, the minor league baseball stadium and home of the Akron Rubber Ducks (still an awful name for a team), a Double-A affiliate team for the Cleveland Indians.
There's a nice view of the old canal, and one of the old rubber company buildings in the distance.
One of the cool things about the Akron sections of the Towpath is that it passes through the post-industrial wastes of the city. Cool? Hell yeah. It's beautiful in its own way. This recently-completed section of the path (well, completed within the last couple of years anyhow) passes right behind the former B.F. Goodrich plant. One of the smokestacks was partly taken down, so it now only says "Rich." Indeed.
Here's a plaza built around one of the old canal locks. Looking northward is one of the more prominent or noticeable buildings in Akron's "skyline."
When you exit downtown, say goodbye to the crows.
Just a little south of downtown Akron sits Summit Lake which once featured a resort for swimming, a big dance hall, and even an amusement park.
It was known as "Akron's Coney Island."
Then somebody figured out that the city's sewers emptied directly into the lake. Not kidding. I'm sure it's much better now (thank you EPA) but there are still signs around the lake warning "no swimming" and I don't think it's because there are no lifeguards. People fish in the lake, but I can't say I'd eat anything caught in it.

By the way, the Towpath crosses over Summit Lake by way of a floating boardwalk. Even back in the canal days, the mules towed canal boats over the lake via a similar wooden path.
As you can see, I took the Mercian path racer for the ride today. The bike was literally built for the Towpath. Single speed, fixed gear drivetrain, cushy 32 mm tires (Challenge Grifo XS tires, made for hard-pack surfaces), full coverage fenders, and small bags that are perfect for carrying tools, spares, maybe a rain jacket, and a lunch. Much of the path through downtown is paved, but most of the path elsewhere is hard-packed limestone. When it's dry, that stuff turns into a dust that works its way into every part of a bike. I've seen it coat chains, foul up derailleurs, and cause freewheels to seize up. Fixed gear is the way to go because there's less to get fouled up, and since the path is relatively flat (one of the steepest inclines on the whole thing is the section heading south into downtown Akron where it's marked as 5% grade) a single speed is all you need.

South of downtown, the Towpath passes by more old industrial sites, as well as numerous scrapyards. Admittedly, less pretty even for a post-industrial wasteland.
Blue herons still abound, though.
One thing about this southbound section of the Towpath is that there are a lot more geese for some reason. It's not unusual to get stopped by a gaggle of them, and right now they've got lots of goslings. Got to be careful, 'cause they get mean when the babies are around. The other thing is that the path south of Akron is generally a lot quieter - it's not as popular a destination for families as the sections that span the national park, though it also helps that it was a weekday morning.

Anyhow - as you can see, we had stunningly blue skies today, and temperatures only got up to the mid 70s. It was as perfect a kick-off for the summer as a person could ask for.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Bike Commuting - End of Year Wrapup

It's the end of another school year and time to tally up my bike commuting numbers for the year.

For those who aren't regular readers, I'm a full-time teacher so when I talk about a year, I'm referring to a "school year," or the time from late August through May. That time frame obviously includes the winter months, which here in Northeast Ohio can often be pretty miserable for cycling, and does not include the summer months. This past year we had another relatively mild winter and although I didn't have the record-breaking numbers I had last year, I did get close. Last year I set a new personal record of 111 days, for an average of nearly 63%. This year I rode 107 days for an average of 61%. As of right now, there are still a couple of days left, so there's always the possibility of adding a couple more to my total.

Keeping my average over 60% means that I exceeded my primary goal for the year (to bike to work at least 50% or more). But by exceeding it by so much, I also improved on my long-term average and met my secondary goal. Since I began bike commuting in earnest, I've had a couple of years where I made it to 50%, and a couple of years where I fell short. (Actually, the winter of 2014-15 was so miserable that I only finished that year at 35%). Until just recently, my multi-year average was still trailing the 50% mark, but once I passed 100 days for this year, I moved my long-term average up to 50% over the course of the past five years.

A sunny morning in May
All totalled up, my commuting miles work out to more than 3000 miles over 9 months. Over the past five years, that number is more than 12,600 miles that I did not put on my car. Based on my car's 30 mpg average fuel economy, I figure that I've used about 420 fewer gallons of gasoline and probably saved roughly $1000. I don't even know how much my carbon footprint has been reduced, but it feels pretty significant.

Sunrise through layers of mist on a morning in August.
Type II Fun: That's the kind of fun that's only fun afterwards. Being determined to ride even in the winter means putting up with some frigid temperatures. As long as the roads are clear, I try not to let it stop me. I have my limits, but the coldest morning I rode this year was somewhere around 13° F. That said, I had what might charitably be called some "Type II fun" one morning in January. Since I'm recapping my year, allow me to share the story of my craziest commute from the past 9 months.

On this particular morning, it was cold, but there was no snow on the ground, and the roads were clear. The weather forecast said we had a chance of some snow early in the morning (around 35% chance if I recall), but clearing and a little warmer by afternoon. I decided to ride. Even if it did start to snow before I'd arrive at work, I remember thinking "how bad can it get?" In hindsight, that's a question that never has a good answer.

About 15 minutes into my nearly hour-long ride, a very light flurry started to fall -- so light that it was barely noticeable, and I thought "this is not too bad" and I kept riding.

OK - obviously NOT me (and if you don't recognize Andy
Hampsten from the '88 Giro d'Italia, then shame on you!) but
there were many similarities on that January morning.
About 30 minutes in, the light flurry had turned into a full snow shower. Snow began sticking to my glasses and fogging them up, so I removed them. Then I had snow going straight into my eyes and I realized I was going to end up being blinded with or without. At this point, I was already half-way to work, so turning back would have been pointless -- I'd have still been riding through the same blinding snow for just as long, and I wouldn't have been getting any closer to work. I kept riding.

Another 10 minutes, and the snow shower became a full-out blizzard. Snow was covering the road, accumulating everywhere, and sticking to every surface. I was starting to lose traction, especially on the hills, but I just kept plugging along, albeit slowly. Even though I could sometimes feel my tires slip, somehow I managed to stay upright.

At this point, I knew I only had a few more miles to go, but it just got worse and worse with every pedal stroke. Gradually, so much snow was sticking to my bike and my wheels, clogging up my derailleurs and brakes, and packing in around my tires and fenders that I felt like I was dragging an extra ten pounds. Turning the pedals kept getting harder, and shifting gears became impossible. I wasn't even sure if my brakes would work, and if they did, I probably would have ended up wiping out and hitting the deck anyhow. At this point, stopping didn't even feel like an option. What else could I do? I kept riding.

Though it felt incredibly slow, I finally pulled in at work, still 25 minutes before first bell. Surprisingly, the ordeal had added no more than about 10 minutes to my commute, and I was still there well before most of my colleagues in their cars, and long before most buses, too. Every inch of my bike was covered with snow, especially packed in around the wheels and fenders. I had so much snow covering my body that I looked like some kind of snowman. That freakish storm dumped almost 6 inches of snow in about an hour, then stopped. Just as predicted, the day cleared, and by afternoon most roads were plowed and I had a completely uneventful ride home. I was miserable through the ride that morning, but after it was over, I couldn't help looking back at on it and laughing. I still don't know if I earned people's respect or their ridicule, but that's what Type II fun is all about.

Tailwinds to all.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Why Do You Ride?

I got that question from a student the other day. Why do you ride?

Specifically, the question was why do I ride to work - commuting to work by bicycle year-round.

I keep a visible tally of every day that I ride to work -
my students know how close I am to meeting my goals.
There are a lot of reasons. Ultimately I only need one: I enjoy it.

All the rest are a bonus, but let me lay them out in some detail.

1. I enjoy it. I love to ride, but between working full time and raising two kids, it's difficult to find quality riding time. By combining my work commute with riding, I get roughly two hours of riding time a day, several days a week -- all while taking only a small amount of time out of my day. Got to get to and from work, right? I leave about a half hour earlier than I would if I were driving (not a problem since I'm an early riser anyhow), and get home only about a half hour later, so I still have plenty of time to do all the other things that fill my afternoons. It really works to my advantage.

2. Health/Fitness. Considering the widespread problems associated with obesity and inactivity, there can't be too many people who can honestly say they don't need to get more exercise. Riding to and from work regularly has kept me fit - and setting goals has kept me riding even through the winter months when getting on a bike doesn't seem like the natural choice. Recently I had to undergo minor surgery and in that process I had a virtual parade of doctors and nurses checking my heart rate and blood pressure. And each time, whoever was checking would see the numbers and remark with surprise at how good they were. Not just good heart rate and blood pressure for a guy my age - but good for a guy 10 or 20 years younger. "You must be really active," each one would say. I'd tell them I commute by bike, and they'd all say "that's got to be why."

I mentioned once in an older post about how commuting by bike has affected my weight too. Prior to the time when I started commuting by bike, I had reached my all-time maximum weight of 185 lbs. That might not sound like a lot for a guy 6' tall, but it was a lot on me and my frame, and I was even suffering from weight-related health issues such as sleep apnea and frequent acid reflux. Since I started bike commuting, I've been holding steady between 150 - 155 lbs, and those related health issues have vanished.

The next few reasons all have kind of a common thread:

3. Fuel savings. I hate buying gas and I always have. I really feel as though spending money on gas is not terribly different from taking money out of my wallet and burning it - it's just that it's being burned inside an engine instead of out in the open. Yes, that combustion is converted into motion/transportation - but if I can get where I need to go without spending that money on gasoline, and I get to ride my bike at the same time, then why would I drive?

Branching off of that reason is the fact that not only am I saving money by not buying gas, but in the bigger picture, I'm using less gasoline -- something that as a nation I firmly believe we all need to do.

4. Reducing emissions. Despite what certain politicians and millionaires who've made their fortunes from fossil fuels would have us believe, there really is no scientific debate about global warming. It's happening, and cars/trucks are a major culprit. For many of us (myself included) it isn't very practical to completely get rid of our cars. But most people aren't truly as dependent on their cars as they lead themselves to believe, and there's a lot we can do to reduce our dependence, and by extension, our emissions. Some people could reduce their personal carbon footprint significantly by simply trading in a huge truck or SUV for a smaller, more fuel-efficient car, but no car is as clean as a bicycle. I already drive a pretty fuel-efficient car - but by leaving it parked and riding my bike for commuting/transportation whenever possible, I'm both using less fuel (as already mentioned), but I'm also reducing my carbon footprint significantly. Just imagine the impact if everyone could routinely reduce their dependence by even just a few dozen miles per month. My own commuting to work has been reducing my driving by 2,000 - 3,000 miles per year.

5. Sticking it to Big Oil. Using less gas means giving less money to Big Oil, and though it might make me sound like a Socialist to say it (actually, I kind of am a Socialist) I figure that oil companies have been sticking it to us all for years, and I'm all for sticking it back to them in the only way that matters to them - in their wallets. Remember what I said about global warming? Oil companies have been studying the problem as thoroughly as anyone can, and probably before most people even knew what it was. Their findings? That it's real, and it's happening, and fossil fuels are a major contributor. So armed with that knowledge, they've spent years and millions of dollars trying to neutralize other independent studies that would confirm what they already knew, and lobbying congressmen, and pushing a "climate change denial" narrative to convince people that the science is unclear -- all in the name of making sure we don't do anything to cut down on their profits.

And as if I need to add to this line, I see what's been happening in North Dakota where the oil companies are pushing for the Dakota Access Pipeline, while Native Americans have been protesting the pipeline which is supposed to be built through their land. With funding from the oil producers, they've built what practically amounts to a private army to counter the protesters. The suppression tactics became what can best described as increasingly warlike, with not only pepper spray or tear gas being used, but also concussion grenades being launched at protesters.

Riding a bike and driving less is just one way to say "I don't support this."

Not that anyone NEEDS a reason beyond "I enjoy riding my bike" - but it begs the question: Why do YOU ride?