Monday, July 25, 2005

Long Time Coming

I've been slacking off a little on the posting front. What can I say? What with the Tour de France and my own recurring bicycle problems (four flats in the same number of days, and now, to boot, a broken rear wheel), I've been kept busy.

I can't ignore the obvious news: Lance Armstrong won his seventh consecutive Tour de France, his last race as a professional cyclist. I managed to watch most of the Tour, which was filled with all the requisite drama, excitement, and heartbreak. Ivan Basso came in second, and Jan Ullrich, third. The man is a cycling tour de force, no doubt, but I'll leave the fawning to everyone else. Ullrich is still my man, after all, and even though he again played second fiddle to Armstrong, he fought the whole way. He is a world class cyclist, and I am excited to see how he performs next year.

And in closing, an interesting thought: Armstrong, the politician?

Monday, July 18, 2005

Tour de France, Rest Day

It's the second and last Rest Day for the cyclists of the Tour de France -- well, the 158 of them that are left after 15 grueling stages. As was expected, both the Alps and Pyrenees sorted out the contenders -- the strongest riders surged to the front of the standings after a first week of flat stages that favored the last-minutes sprints for the finish line, often the province of the very riders that falter in the mountains. And as everyone expected but I hoped against, Lance Armstrong sits atop the standings, over two minutes ahead of his closest rival, Ivan Basso, and seven stages short of his seventh consecutive Tour de France victory.

Jan Ullrich, T-Mobile's team leader, perpetual Tour contender, and my favorite stands in fourth place, almost six minutes behind Armstrong and three minutes behind Danish racer Mikael Rasmussen. While I am disappointed that Ullrich hasn't fared better, he can still make it to the podium come July 24th. There is one mountain stage left, and considering Ullrich's solid performance thus far, it's safe to guess he'll hold his position at the top of the standings through until the penultimate stage, a 55-kilometer individual time trial. This is where he can best challenge Rasmussen, an able climber whose lackluster time trialing left him in 174th place after Stage 1, a short individual time trial. Should Ullrich maintain his position and do well in the time trial, as many expect, I would dare to guess that he'll place third overall (which, all told, must be torture, given that he has won once, placed second five times, and fourth last year).

This leads into my thoughts of the day, today focused on Ullrich. The German is a proven cyclist who even when in bad shape tends to finish in the Top Ten of some of the circuit's toughest races. But he just can't seem to break into the top spot, no matter how hard he tries. I don't know if it's bad luck, poor form, or a lack of mental preparation -- he seems to be condemned to being second best.

Watching Stage 15 yesterday was instructive -- Ullrich hung at the front of the pack over the course of the entire stage, surging forward to challenge both Basso and Armstrong. The three raced up the steep climbs of the Pyrenees together, trading turns at the front and preparing for what could have been a spectacular finish. But then Basso attacked, Armstrong responded, and Ullrich stayed put, settling for a finish over a minute after the two top contenders. I can't say exactly what it was I was feeling as I saw the gap increase, but it was a mix of confusion and disappointment. Both Basso and Armstrong attacked gracefully, standing on their pedals and surging forward, digging as far as they could to push themselves faster and faster up the mountain. Ullrich, an impressively strong rider, didn't respond -- he simply maintained his cadence as he worked his way up. I don't know if Ullrich was already at his limit or if yesterday simply confirmed his cycling style -- steady and consistent. This isn't to say Ullrich is a bad cyclist -- after all, he finishes every mountain stage towards the front of the group -- but rather to highlight that he doesn't seem to possess the same ability to stand in the staddle and take off, much like Armstrong and Basso do. They are more artistic in their style, exhibiting a certain flare and dynamism that Ullrich lacks. The man is about as powerful as a truck, but doesn't seem to possess those higher gears needed to really attack on the mountains.

He's still a magnificent cyclist, and best yet, fully aware of his shortcomings and not willing to make excuses for himself. He's still my favorite, though I will remain disappointed that he will always be known as second best to Lance. Always.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Well, This Won't Be Fun At All!

It's not that its thunderstorming already -- it's that the weather folks have no other word other than "drenching" to describe it. And by the look of it, they're right. It's coming down by the bucket-fulls.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Stage 11, Completed

Stage 11 just wrapped up, and Alexandre Vinokourov of T-Mobile took first and Santiago Botero of Phonak took second, with the usual cast of characters coming in one minute later. The general standings haven't changed much since yesterday, though.

My gripe today comes, again, with Sheryl Crow. The picture at right was featured on Yahoo! Sports, and as with the Sheryl Cam that OLN resorted to during the individual time trial last week, annoyed the hell out of me. Why? Because she's not a cyclist. Because pictures of her gripping herself in suspense, smiling, or hugging Lance are uninteresting and unimportant to the progress or result of the race. Because short of her busting out a guitar and singing "Strong Enough" while hanging out of a team car, nothing she does during the Tour will be mildly interesting or newsworthy. Yes, she's a celebrity. And yes, she is dating Lance Armstrong. Do cycling fans need to know much more, let along express any sense that they care about her? No.

I'd much rather have pictures of cyclists barreling down hills and ungodly speeds, of faces contorted in pain, of real cycling fans that set up camp along steep mountain passes for days prior to a stage just to see their favorite riders and team pass by for mere seconds. Sheryl Crow just doesn't cut it.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Stage 10, Completed


The things a mountain or two can do to the Tour de France. Armstrong came in second, reclaiming the yellow jersey. Ivan Basso, Andres Kloden, Jan Ullrich, and Floyd Landis all finished anywhere from one to two minutes back, but within the Top 15. Alexandre Vinokourov finished 24th, but his 5 minute deficit dropped him out of the Top 10, where he had been since Stage 1. Iban Mayo, thought to be one of the sport's best climbers, finished nowhere near the front -- in fact, he finished somewhere near the back. The pack has really started to splinter, and it is apparent that the sprinters that ruled the roost during the first week are not similarly able to do so in the mountains.

This looks like a whole other race. The question remains: Can Armstrong keep up the frenetic pace, or will he be challenged by other strong climbers? There are 11 stages left to go, after all, and being two or ten minutes back doesn't yet mean much.

Stage 10, In Progress

This is why the Tour de France, once it hits the mountains, is so exciting. There are but a few miles left to go in the mountainous Stage 10, and the group at right is chasing after a sole-rider breakaway. Just look at the names -- Armstrong, Rasmussen, Basso, Ullrich, Vinokourov. These are some of professional cycling's best climbers, and they are sure to challenge each other even further as they close in on the summit finish. I cannot wait to see this on TV, instead of the gripping yet wholly uninspiring updates I am constantly reading.

A Flat, Part Deux

Damn it.

After struggling with two flats on my rear wheel yesterday, I finally thought I would have a painless commute to work today. Instead, I had no commute at all. My front wheel is flat.

Did I piss off the bicycling gods by noting yesterday that my front wheel has gone 2000 miles with no problems? Did they really have to strike down what seemed to be the indestructible inner tube to taunt me, to make a point as to who's really in charge? Well, they've won this round.


Monday, July 11, 2005

On Flats, Stationary Bikes, and the Big Ring

Random thoughts for the day...

Flats: I got a flat today. In fact, I got two flats, the second coming right after I replaced the first. Flats are the cycling equivalent of running out of beer in the middle of a party -- it just sucks. Unless you carry a spare tube and pump, which I don't, your ride is officially over, and if you don't tend to the flat right away or get a second flat in a row, your bike is put out of commission. So as soon as work lets out I am off to a local bike store for the second time today. Ughh. To be fair, my front tire has gone 2000 miles without needing much more than the usual pumping up every few days or so. That's pretty damn good.

Stationary Bikes: This weekend I had a chance, for the first time in years, to try a stationary bike. This bike had all the bells and whistles -- you could tailor your workout to burn fat or focus on your cardiovascular system, you could ride up hills or stick to the flatlands, you could even find out how many calories you were burning in the process. I was excited, until about three minutes in. I'd guess that roughly 80 percent of the joy of riding a bike is in the scenery, the very thing that a stationary bike denies you. Watching TV while you ride just isn't the same, and counting the calories you lose is frustrating and much slower than you'd hope. By the time I'd burned 100 calories I was ready to call it quits. I like the challenge of riding up hills, but it isn't nearly as satisfying or challenging when the resistance on the stationary bike increases to mimick a real hill. I lasted a little over 15 minutes, and gave up.

The Big Ring: Most road and mountain bikes feature 7 or 10 chainrings in the back and 2 or 3 in the front, allowing for anywhere from 18-30 gears and a variety of combinations for any type of terrain. Most riders, myself included, change gears exclusively in the back, leaving the front chainring in a default position (on a three-ring bike, probably the second ring; on a two-ring bike, probably the first). Just last week, though, I switched into my second, bigger ring in the front (my Bianchi Axis only has two rings in the front, though later models have three), and instantly noticed that I was riding faster and accelarating more quickly. It was a whole new side of my bike, and resulted in an extremely satisfying and an extremely fast ride home. My cadence was lower (I pedaled less over the same amount of time), but I felt like I got more out of legs and my bike. I'm surprised I never thought to do this before -- most competitive cyclists, Jan Ullrich especially, are known for jumping onto their biggest ring and powering away at a low cadence. Lance Armstrong, though, bucks the trend by staying on the smaller rings and pedaling faster than other cyclists (it seems to work best with his physique, or so I have read). Either way, I have found myself a new, more satisfying way to ride.

Stupid Factoid for the Day: Courtesy of OLN, I found out yesterday that until 1937, riders in the Tour were not allowed to use rear derailleurs. The rear derailleur is essentially the mechanism that runs the chain up and down the rear chainrings, allowing you to handle hills and flatlands easily. Until that year, riders would come to the foot of a hill, get off their bikes, manually change gears, and ride on. Wow.

Drama at the Tour

No updates to be had for today -- the riders at the Tour de France are enjoying the first of their two days of rest during the 21 stages of racing. And this day could come at no better time for most riders.

After keeping a blistering pace through the flatter early stages, most riders clearly showed signs of fatigue in both Stage 8 and Stage 9, both of which featured the first serious climbs of the Tour. During Stage 8 the previously unthinkable happened -- Lance Armstrong's Discovery Channel Team, that which I have described as a "machine" in the early stages, fell apart. Armstrong was left to fend for himself at the head of the pack, chasing down riders from T-Mobile who clearly sought to profit from the situation. Jan Ullrich, Andreas Kloden, and Alexander Vinokourov -- T-Mobile's trifecta -- took turns challenging Armstrong, a sure sign of what's to come later in the Tour. When the contenders -- the Armstrongs, Ullrichs, and Bassos -- hit the serious climbs, they usually do so surrounded by their teams, which are used to shield the team leader from the wind, chase down the break aways, and create the sort of opportunities the leader looks for to mount his own attack. When Armstrong's team failed to keep pace, they left him to both defend his position and reel in those trying to attack it -- both of which could put a strain on the energy Armstrong has so faithfully been trying to reserve for the serious climbing stages.

During Stage 9 the usually organized and consistent peloton started to splinter, dividing into smaller groups while the strongest climbers set a furious pace at the front of the pack. Armstrong lost the yellow jersey to Jen Voight from Team CSC, yet the standings have remained roughly the same relative to his time -- Ivan Basso and Ullrich are just over a minute back, Floyd Landis is hot on their heels, and T-Mobile, CSC, and Discovery still populate the upper rankings of the race. It is also around this time that riders start dropping out of the race, be it for injury or just utter exhaustion. Team CSC's David Zabriskie, who took first in the individual time trial but crashed in spectacular fashion towards the end of the team time trial, abandoned yesterday, citing the injury as the cause. Hell, had I fallen that hard that fast, I would have dropped way sooner.

As for my favorite, Ullrich, I can only say this -- I am both happy with his performance so far and looking forward to what he has yet to offer. He's comfortably rotating in the Top 15, riding intelligently while saving much-needed energy for the mountains to come. The story on him has been the lack of a story -- he hasn't done anything all too spectacular, preferring to remain anonymous and yet positioning himself as a serious contender ready to face the terrain where he tends to ride best. His strength and determination were proven yesterday, when a crash was serious enough to warrant x-rays (his trainers feared broken ribs) yet he managed to finish 29th. Just looking at the picture above you can see how powerful a rider he really is (his legs are huge, and in car-speak, he has been compared to a powerful Audi A8), and surrounded by the team he has, I am the sparks will fly between him and Armstrong soon enough.

As for what to expect, tomorrow's stage in the Alps is looking to be one of the most exciting of the race so far, the one that may well determine how strong Armstrong and his team really are and who the real challengers will be. Interestingly enough, riders and trainers from almost every other team spare no effort to praise Armstrong, knowing full well that he excels when challenged or faced with opponents convinced that he is, finally, beatable. I think the state of his team will determine how well he'll end up doing. I'm still rooting for Ullrich, though.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

More on the Bikes of the Tour

Today's New York Times featured an interesting article on the growing prevalence of American-made bikes and their use in the Tour de France, territory that only years ago was dominated by European manufacturers. The article highlighted Cannondale, a Connecticut-based bicycle manufacturer who since 1995 has been producing bicycles for Tour de France teams, first Team Saeco, and now Team Lampre-Caffita.

Cannondale's Six13 has a carbon/aluminum frame, weighs a pinch more than 15 pounds, and retails for $8000. I've always been a fan of Cannondale bikes, though, as the price of this particular model might indicate, they're not often priced for people with my salary. This bike is especially interesting because -- heads up, dorky bike-related tech talk coming -- it blends both aluminum and carbon in the frame. This isn't anything new, really, but considering that most bicycles for competitive cycling are made completely of carbon, it is different. Carbon is well known for being the lightest material around, and dampens road vibrations better than aluminum, titanium, or steel. Of course, carbon is less stiff than the other materials, which means that it works less well in transfering a rider's power directly into the pedals and onto the road -- hence Cannondale's use of aluminum for the bike's down tube, seat stays, chain stays, bottom bracket, and headset (I would bother explaining what each of these parts are, but I'll just assume that most people either don't really care or already know).

These are the days I really wish I had actually studied engineering in college.