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.