are sometimes smooth and silky, and other times tired and tight.

Monday, April 30, 2007

The long, and not so winding road

Cyclists are obsessed with numbers: speed, distance, gears, heart rate, watts, blah blah blah…

The one number that almost everyone can relate to is 100, aka “The Century”, aka 100 Miles. I suppose I can kind of understand, after all it’s a round number, a C-Note, which used to be worth something, awhile ago, like November 6th, 2000.

If truth be told, once you’ve been on a 100 mile ride, it’s not a big deal, it’s just another number, even if people who know nothing about cycling are always impressed when you mention, nonchalantly, that you’ve just been on a 100 mile ride.

OK, now that I’ve gone out f my way to make my feelings clear, I’d like to announce that I completed my first century of the year. I couldn’t care less that it was a century, but I’m happy that I can now say (or type as the case may be) that I rode a “Ronde Markermeer”.

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Riding towards Lelystad.

If one didn’t know better, that might almost sound exotic. Almost. The route is simple, it circles the Markermeer, a fresh water lake, that a little over 70 years ago was part of the Zuiderzee, an inlet of the North Sea. With the Zuiderzeewerken, the Dutch were protecting themselves from potential flooding from the North Sea, as well as developing additional land for farming. It’s worked a treat, even if the cities built on reclaimed land aren’t exactly the most stunning that you’d ever see (apologies to my readers in Lelystad, Almere, etcetera).

So, now that you know a little bit about the route, you'll understand why 'exotic' is not the word to describe a "Ronde Markermeer". Probably, no definitely, because half of the Ronde Markermeer is along roads that were built on reclaimed land, the word is relentless. Not necessarily relentless as in difficult, but relentlessly boring. I suppose it depends on the wind that day.

Fortunately for me, we only rode the first 70 long, straight, flat kilometers into the wind, then around 29 kilometers along the Markerwaarddijk, until you hit Enkhuizen. From there on it was tail and side winds, through towns that are older than your parents.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Race Report (April 28th)

I raced today.

The weather was fantastic.

That is all.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

It's like Vermont, but they speak French

Seeing as Flèche Wallonne takes place today, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège is on Sunday, I thought I'd share some snaps, taken last weekend.

The group that I ride with has an annual training weekend pilgrimage to the Ardennes. They more or less adopted me last year, but I was out of town for that trip, so I missed it. I made sure to be around this time.

Lucky me: the house we stayed in was a converted barn, with plenty of space; one of the group has been part of a "cook club" for 20 years, so the food was outstanding; another one of the guys is a Sommelier, so the wine was perfect; and last but not least - the weather was amazing.

On Friday, after a 4+ hour drive from Amsterdam (good ol' gridlock, I felt like I was back home on the I-95) a few of us went on a spin, to loosen then legs. Unfortunately one of the guys had his chain break on the first hill.

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Fortunately, help was close at hand - one of the guys was grocery shopping nearby and came to pick him up. Even better, it was an easy enough fix, so everything was on schedule for Saturday.

Around the Ardennes there's a variety of driving/cycling routes marked by signs. They vary in length and difficulty, and occasionally the signs are tough to follow, but it's still a great resource.

The plan for the day was to ride the "Route Buissoniere", which is +/-127km with 1,790 M of climbing. We had to ride a bit to find the route, so it was a tad longer.

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Some pics from the ride:

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Take a left to get your legs ground down to a stump.

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A light lunch.

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A faded sign marking the route for Fleche Wallonne.

And, here's some pics from the following day:

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The route de jour.

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Top of the Wanne. If you ever haul your butt up that climb, make sure you take it easy on the descent into Stavelot - it's white knuckle stuff.

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L-B-L rides over these cobbles in Stavelot. (which are nothing compared to the ones you get in Flanders).

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One of the many memorials for the US troops that fought in the Battle of the Bulge. This one was for the 82nd Airborne troops that held their ground here.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Bike Racing for Beginners: How to get started

  1. Find some group rides, fast group rides. Sit in the back.
  2. Don't get discouraged if/when you get dropped from those group rides.
  3. Go back the following week and do the fast group ride again.
  4. If you're dropped a 2nd time, repeat steps 2 & 3
  5. Once you're comfortable with the group and pace (and vice versa), take some pulls.
  6. Once you're comfortable taking pulls, try some attacks (if it's that kind of group ride).
  7. Once you're comfortable with steps 5 & 6, it's time to enter a race.
  8. At your first race, repeat steps 1-6, but substitute 'race' for 'group ride'.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Frites met pain

Today is the last of the Flemish Spring Classics takes place, the Scheldeprijs. To be honest, I find it the most boring Belgian race in April. Probably because it’s for all intents and purposes a sprinters race. The one catch with this criticism is that it’s actually the one Semi-Classic that I’ve actually raced.

Before you start thinking otherwise: obviously not as a pro, but as an amateur. Back in the beginning of 1993, while I was living in Scotland, I received a letter from Belgium, which left me a little confused. I didn’t know anyone there. It turns out that it was an indirect reply, to a letter that I sent to the Belgium Cycling Federation asking for info on racing there, which was then published in their newsletter.

Long story short, I ended up spending 3 weeks in a village outside of Antwerp. What a strange 3 weeks those were. The family that hosted me consisted of a husband and wife. Their children had moved out years before, all of the boys were, or had been racers. While Mrs V spoke some English, Mr. V didn’t speak a word, apart from “Oh Boy”.

I think they were expecting a talented racer, trying to take the next step, instead of a curious art student, who raced bikes on the side. In the beginning the drivesto the Kermesse I raced in lasted longer than my time with the peloton. A word of advice to those who want to race in Belgium: don’t spend the winter in Scotland, riding through Hills and Mountains, then racing non-technical road races if you want to survive the “Balls to the Wall” hammer-fest that is April Kermesse racing in Belgium. I felt like I was a Cat 4 all over again, what with the way I was getting dropped and crashing out (partly) thanks over-inflated tires in wet corners.

After watching me get dropped in every race that I entered, I think they gave up on me. I couldn’t really blame them. I gave up on myself a little. Then, one day I saw a sign, not a burning bush, or a ray of light, just a plain old offset print sign, with something about a race nearby. It turned out the race was in a few days, and seeing as it was close to where I was staying, I opted to ride over there by myself. No pressure from the hosts. No soul crushing looks of disappointment.

So, off I went that Wednesday, to ride what would be - if memory serves – a race of 120 km, around the circuit that the pros ride at the end of their race. While I have the tale of that day transcribed in minute detail an old training journal, said journal is packed away in a box, in an attic, on the other side of town. I remember picking up my number in a smokey café. In the back was a room where you could change, pin your number on, oil your legs, etc.

There’s not much that I can really recall about the race itself, apart from a 10-20 second period. I had learned my lesson it seemed, and managed not to get dropped at the gun. Actually, I felt pretty good that day, even as the 150+ field was stretched into one long line. Then it happened. Somewhere, about an hour in, I looked down at my computer. I saw that my average speed was something like 28 MPH. It occurred to me that I had never raced for an hour at that speed, and it dawned on me that we had at least another hour and a half to go. Just as these thoughts started spinning in my head, I realized that I had let a gap open up in front of me. Not good.

The riders behind me started shouting. I didn’t speak a word of Flemish, but I knew they were telling me to close the gap. It was obvious. Yet, for some reason I shouted back “I. Don’t. Speak. Dutch!” Not smart. Not smart at all. The next thing I knew, the guy behind me grabbed my jersey, and slungshot himself forward.

He closed the gap, and my race was over. There was no way I was ever going to catch back on. Game over.

The good news is that I was able to get back and change in time to grab myself some Belgian Frites with Tartar sauce, and watch Mario Cipollini win the pro race.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Those Stuyvesant Days of Summer

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Over this past Christmas I was rummaging through some boxes in the attic of my parents house. One of the boxes was full of old copies of bike magazines: VeloNews, Winning, Bicycling, and Cycling Weekly, from the early 90s. Wedged in-between a few magazines was an old Bottechia brochure. It was like finding a picture of an old girlfriend who you had completely forgotten.

When I first started riding in Central Park, I’d see a swarm of 40-50 cyclists fly past me, so I'd spin the one gear that I had on my rusty single speed messenger bike, with the bent frame, as fast as I could to try and catch up. I didn’t know any better, and fortunately for me, and the pack, I could never latch on. If I did I would have probably caused a crash, considering the fact that I had never ridden in a group, and only had a front brake.

After a few weeks of trying to catch the pack, I gave up. Then it dawned on me: a crappy single speed bike was probably not the best equipment to employ when you want to ride with a bunch of racers. So I started lusting after bikes, going into bike shops, staring at the wares, kicking tires, and reading magazines.

The bike that I fell in love with, that summer of 1990, was a Bottechia, the bike that Greg LeMond rode to victory on in the ’89 Tour de France. Whenever I had the chance, I found myself using any and every excuse to go over to west 14th street to Stuyvesant Bikes, to drool at the yellow and purple ADR-Agriel replica Bottechias, and the ultimate object of my desire: a red and white Bottechia SLX with full record, with those stunning, yet hopelessly inadequate Delta brakes. What a bike.

With that bike, anything was possible. Pack ride? No problem. Bike race? No problem. Who knew? Maybe I had some undiscovered talent, that had laid dormant throughout a youth spent in front of a TV, followed by many a sleepless night, sprinkled with four years of chain smoking in college. Who knew? All I knew was that I wanted it.

Well… I wish I could tell you that it eventually became mine. It didn’t. For some reason I changed my mind a few months later. I got a Pinarello instead, and I didn’t even get it at Stuyvesant.

The following summer, now that I had my fancy schmancy Italian racing bike, I decided to try the Central Park pack ride for real – kind of. I was too shy to show up at the meeting point, so I soft-pedaled a bit, somewhere between the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the reservoir. Waiting for the pack to pass.

I heard the revolutions of 50+ cranks, and 100+ wheels behind me, looked around, and saw them coming. This was it: I was finally going to ride in the Central Park pack ride!

I lasted about 2 miles. Lance Armstrong was right: it’s not about the bike.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Wuyts Watch: fun with flying water bottles

Michel and José called it, once again.

Today, on the descent of the Kemmelberg, at Gent-Wevelgem, bottles were flying out of their cages as the riders bounced down the cobbled road. Just when Michel and José were saying 'oohhhhh oi oi oi, dat is gevaarlik' (or 'ohhhhh oi oi oi, that's dangerous'), the little man in green, Jimmy Caspar, from the Bad News Bears of the Pro Tour, Unibet, rubbed wheels with a Gerolsteiner rider, and proceeded to do a face plant, with a chain reaction behind him.


One thing that strikes me as odd: the TV cameras were perfectly placed for the crashes on the descents of the Kemmelberg today. Coincidence, or planned? Hmmmmm...

Here's hoping Jimmy managed to keep a few of his teeth, and is back on the bike ASAP.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

A Holy day with Hellingen

Today is the day. No, I don’t mean Easter, and the celebration of the resurrection of our lord and savior, ol' JC. I mean today is the Ronde van Vlaanderen, aka Vlaanderen’s Mooiste, and perhaps today is the day that Tom Boonen shall have his own personal trinity, or not, as the case happened to be.

Yesterday, zapping channels, trying to find something to watch on TV, I found something worth watching for a few minutes. It was a short, public service program, called Kijk Uit (Look Out in Dutch), on the Belgian channel Sporza. The segment explained what to expect for the residents of the towns, and villages that would be affected by the Ronde van Vlaanderen: what to look for when the caravan is coming, when the race is coming, when it’s all clear, etc. They even went around and did a vox-pop session with drivers, giving them the opportunity to air their grievances. Now that’s service!

Wedstrijd, or Race, coming through...

Vox-Pop: So, what's it like having the Ronde block every road in town?

Nico Eeckhout expresses his appreciation.

After Kijk Uit, there was an hour long program, covering the tourists edition of the Ronde, with a sort of pre-game hype: live interviews by my man Michel Wuyts at Quickstep's hotel; various Flemish celebrities, waxing poetically about the race, and brief chats with the ever-day Joes, after they finished riding the course..

Moses is an Assos aficionado as well.

I think my favorite interview, was with an old Flemish guy, dubbed “Moses” by the interviewer, who instead of spending 40 years in the wilderness, had just finished his own Ronde, but had some problems along the way. Apparently Moses couldn’t part the Red Sea that is the Muur - Kapelmuur.

Hopefully Moses had a few Morte Subite’s last night, and has rised to ride another day today.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

It's not about the voice

I love soccer, but I hate watching it in the US. The commentators just don’t do it for me. The same thing goes with watching Baseball, or US Football, in Europe, with European commentators. I’m not sure if it’s something as simple as having to grow up with a sport to be able to describe it on TV, or the radio? Probably not. Most likely it’s a simple, but crucial, combination of knowledge and a way with words.

When it comes to cycling commentators, the best one can hope for in the English speaking world is Phil Ligget and Paul Sherwin. While Ligget has a sound knowledge of professional bike racing, articulate is not a word that comes to mind when describing him. Charming is probably a better word, with his “suitcases of courage”, and total inability to pronounce the last names of all but the Anglo-Saxon brigade of the European peloton.

It’s sad, but true: Phil and Paul are minor league compared to some of their European colleagues. I’ll admit that there’s worse out there. The German commentators are just as bad, and if not inferior to Ligget and Sherwin. The Dutch can be pretty boring, generally missing a tactical nuance, and the timbre of the voice tends to drone on and on, to the point where I fall asleep.

When I think of the World Champion of commentators, only one name comes to mind: Michel Wuyts. Wuyts’ depth of knowledge, his grasp of tactics, his ability to spot a move before it happens, his steady yet excitable baritone (providing the perfect counter pitch to his 'color commentator' the ever blasé José De Cauwer), working in harmony with the hum of the TV motorcycle in the background, he’s second to none.

And now, as we we’re in the midst of Vlaamse Wieler Week (Flemish Cyling Week), I’m already warming up the TV, and icing the beer, in anticipation for a nice Easter Sunday, to be spent sitting for 4+ hours in front of the TV, listening to Meneer Wuyts and De Cauwer. Lekker.

A clip, from the 2005 World Championships in Madrid, where the quality (or patent lack there of) of a French commentator compared to Wuyts' brilliance is exposed.

Pay attention: Wuyts coined a sentence that will never be forgotten by the Dutch/Flemish speaking cycling world.