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2009 Year End Awards, part 2

Our year-end review of 2009 started last week with all-important categories like Blog of the Year and Restaurant of the Year. This year we get a bit more focused on the bike itself.

Climb of the Year – East: Let’s start with a definition of terms. The geographic center of the United States is Lebanon, Kansas. More relevant here, though, is the concept of the psychological center. Places in the Eastern and Central time zones are (psychologically) considered ‘East’. Places in the Mountain and Pacific time zones are considered ‘West.’

The winner is the high point of South Carolina, sitting astride the SC/NC border -- Sassafras Mountain. Like any great climb (or ride) it possesses the all-important ingredient: Zero traffic. But what makes it so special is its unique cruelty. It’s built with stairstep pitches unlike anything else I’ve ever seen: 300 meters of 20%, then 300 meters dead flat. Again and again, punctuated by a descent in the middle of the climb. The net elevation gain is only 1,700ft over 9km or so, but the gross gain is surely loads more. The up/flat, up/flat, up/down, up/flat nature wrought an ever-increasing anticipatory terror the higher I climbed that, halfway up, made my fading summer fitness and undergeared state (39×25 was it; for your own sake, consider a 27 mandatory) lesser problems. Raw fear of stood around the corner. FWIW I spoke to plenty of locals afterwards who said the other nearby standard for alpine misery -- Brasstown Bald -- has nothing on Sassafras.

Climb of the Year – West: Our winner is the Boreas Pass in Breckenridge, CO. An irony of the Boreas is that it only appears in Breckenridge mountain bike guides, and nowhere is it mentioned as a road ride. I happened to stumble upon it during one of those morning rides when I told my wife ‘I’ll be back in a couple of hours’ and took Boreas Pass Road -- it literally starts near the heart of downtown -- and kept climbing and climbing. Soon enough it turns from pavement to dirt, hence the MTB designation.

The Boreas Pass ascends about 2,000 feet up to the Continental Divide (at 11,481 feet). In typical Colorado fashion, the gradient never gets steeper than that of a McDonald’s parking lot, so even though it’s dirt and the altitude makes it a pulmonary atrocity, it isn’t terribly tough if you keep your pace controlled and you can enjoy the amazing views of the Rockies. Most amusing was the occasional bizarre views of the Breckenridge ski resort in summertime (bizarre to this non-skier, anyway), where the slopes from so far away look like dogleg par 5′s in the distance -- green and chainsawed and angled on the mountainside at 40°, with pools of remnant snow sitting there like sand bunkers. Very strange indeed, and though I don’t get worked up about ‘environmental issues’ I do wonder if any sport (yes, including golf) is worse for the environment that what goes into the birth & raising of a ski resort. Not that I mind, since I plan on spending the bulk of my retirement years riding to the top of said resorts all across the globe. An academic question is all.

Tweet of the Year: Twitter is important in the realm of bikes because it, along with the emergence of blogs-focused-on-reportage (see: Podium Insight) and sites focused on live coverage and entertainment (see: cyclingfans.com and steephill.tv) -- sites like these have had the cumulative effective of emasculating and more-or-less eliminating the relevance of traditional news sites. We’ve previously documented the fatal self-inflicted wounds of cyclingnews.com, but an even greater threat to it (and its rival velonews.com) is that they are beaten to the punch on news reporting by this collection of sites. In addition, old guard news sites don’t provide features or photos or interviews as good as these sites. And, lastly, they don’t offer their personal flavor, since most of them are rooted passion.

So, back on track, the tweet of the year is courtesy of Team Type 1 PRO Michael Creed, immediately after the announcement of Allen Lim’s departure from Garmin to Radio Shack. So much behind-the-soap-operatic-scenery summarized in <140 characters…

Teammate of the Year: which could also be called worst race tactics of the year. It’s Stage 15 of the Giro where Serge Pauwels of the Cervélo Test Team gets called back from likely victory in his 2-man breakaway. His DS orders him to fall back to the splintered main group and nursemaid a clearly-never-in-real-contention Carlos Sastre. It’s stupidity like you rarely see on the global stage.

Component of the Year : It’s easy to dis’ Shimano because they’re the 64,000lb.bike industry gorilla, and behemoths make big (and easy) targets. That being said, omigod do they know how to engineer and manufacture bicycle parts. Their Dura Ace 7900 crankset is a piece of forged art with liquid lines (to see it) and unerring precision (to shift it.) The reason it stands out is that it proves the extent to which metal is still relevant in a marketplace oversaturated with carbon. It weighs as much as a Red crankset, but its front shifting compared to Red is incomparably better. And it weighs maybe an ounce more than a Campy Super Record crankset, but it costs 25% less and feels laterally stiff in a way that Campy doesn’t improve upon. The relevance of metal is big deal because Shimano is a forging company first, with carbon lingering in the background as a 2nd echelon priority at best. With this crankset they’re proving that their dedication to forging isn’t a thankless endeavor. And when you pair it to a Di2 electronic front shifter, it’s an unmatched use of technology in a way that isn’t showing off -- but rather it’s a functional dream. Imagine rediscovering woman or eggplant parmagiana: For those of us jaded in regards to high-end bike stuff, these cranks (especially in context of Di2) will light you up with a white-hot bliss of re-discovery.

Apparel of the Year : 2010 was the year where I purchased my first-ever tailored dress shirt. I didn’t need one (they don’t admit you into the American bike industry unless you’re an outright slob, or unless you pledge to spend $2,500/yr on Patagonia), but my main interest was the experience of a process which turned out to be almost as enjoyable as the finished product itself. I can’t imagine buying a shirt any other way now.

Somehow the Giordana Body Clone Dryarn Leg Warmers feel the same way, cut precisely for my body. It’s a pleasure to wear a warmer that isn’t yet another iteration of the Roubaix-fleeced mono-tube of Lycra. The custom fit comes from the near-half dozen panels used in each warmer, allowing them to articulate just right to the profile of a hinged leg. The lack of the traditional elastic (or liquid elastic) bands at the quads and ankles help too. There’s enough tension there to hold it firmly in place, but without strangling the muscles. They’re left & right-specific, too, which also helps with the fit somehow (I know this because I’ve gotten them reversed before.) This much function and fashion and fit for $70 -- it’s rare.

Accessory of the Year : The Park Patch Kit. Imagine being on a remote mountain -- dirt roads, maybe 2 cars pass by a day on this very stretch -- outside the boundaries of cell phone service. Imagine anything resembling civilization is over 20km away. Imagine riding Mavic Cosmic Carbone Ultimates on this ride because looking PRO is part of being PRO. Imagine that you get a flat and the only tubes anyone has on hand have valves that max out at 48mm. If you don’t have a $4 Park Patch Kit, you are so fucked. This photo is a portrait of that state of fucked-ness.

Bike of the Year : During my November sojourn to Europe I took a side trip in Girona, Spain where I put in good miles with serious PROs and we hit some nasty roads and these guys were on bikes with 26/28c tires and fenders and old wheels and old bars (with only one exception, see above) and there was no sense that using equipment like this was noteworthy in the least. These guys were on bikes of an aesthetic that would get laughed at on the typical local US training ride. They told me they ride these bikes almost exclusively from Oct-March. Seeing that in real life turned my concept of PRO upside down because it was full-blown, first-hand exposure to the notion that a bike is a tool for a job.

This sort of bike -- the racy-yet-not-racy, piggish-but-not-piggish road bike (not a repurposed CX frame), with room for 28′s and fenders, but somehow desirable for the fastest guys in the world -- THAT is the bike of the year. This is not Rivendell Reader spew. It’s about the lesser-known needs of a racing cyclist. Nothing beeswax and no godforsaken cloth bar tape!

No kinda-big company champions the bike-as-tool-for-a-job concept quite like Independent Fabrication. The Independent Fabrication Club Racer -- mine will be in the Titanium option so it’ll be rust-proofed, it’ll ride more sweetly, and it won’t be self-defeatingly heavy -- this is the bike of the year because it’s designed and marketed as a do-everything steed and possessing that quality is newly important to me. This is a man’s bike for a man’s life.

Indulgence of the Year : Handbuilt tubular wheels. I’m not talking carbon rims or wacky hubs here. Few thrills this year matched my maiden voyage on a set of wheels I was lucky enough to score from the old Team T-Mobile service course. Like any great recipe, it maxed out at four ingredients: Dura Ace 7800 hubs, Sapim spokes, non-existent-in-North America Pro tubular rims, and logoless Continental tubulars that to my eye look like Comp GP rubber (in orange, no less) mated to GP 4-Season sidewalls. When I bought them I was told these were leftovers from the classics season and given their overall stoutness (not to be mistaken with heaviness, which they are not), I could see why.

What is it about tubulars that are so sweet? There’s a surer marriage between rim and tire most evident when you’re cornering. Yes, Virginia, you can tell the difference between tubulars and clinchers when the road goes 90° left or right. But rolling down the road is an experience apart, too. Vittoria Pit Stop is my new buddy, allowing me to go BFF with my T-Mob handbuilts

We did our best to package up this magic with our own version of these wheels for sale. Ours were built with impossible-to-find Ambrosio Nemesis rims and some other cosmetic changes. It spawned a battle in our ‘product comments’ section, with no shortage of folks histrionic about how stupid the wheels were or how stupid the price was or how there’s an Ambrosio Nemesis vending machine down at their LBS, etc, etc -- comments parried in a ratio of 10:1 by people with refined taste in all things PRO, and I thank them for their lovely expressions of connoisseurship in defense of the unique, beautiful things we bring to market.

Crystal Ball of the Year : First, an anecdote: A PRO friend of mine was racing the Giro a few years back and his teammate (let’s call him Mr. Pink) was wearing the maglia rosa on a mountain stage in the final week. My friend’s job, as you might imagine, was to bodyguard Mr. Pink as long as he could before he (as humble domestique) cracked. On one of the closing climbs -- it was late enough that riders and team cars were spread all over creation -- the mechanical buckle on Mr. Pink’s Sidi shoe broke. It was a crisis. On the rivet as he was, my friend had to drop back to the team car to fetch Mr. Pink’s backup shoe, sprint back up to him and help him swap shoes (all of this on a mountain, mind you). He then had to reverse thrust back to the car again to get the bad shoe fixed, then haul ass back up to Mr. Pink to get him back his original shoe. This is a true story, and it confirms my long-held intuition that mechanical buckles are a purposeless complication for a job where Velcro is already perfect.

Here’s the problem: All-Velcro shoes are going the way of the dinosaur. All manners of ratchets and dials and monofilaments are invading our shoe shelves in an assault of stupidity and future heartbreak. In case you didn’t hear, the almighty artisan of Velcro, Rocket7, is now reportedly closed for business and all we have left in terms of high-end all-Velcro is the DMT Radial. I hereby announce the dire need for a counterattack!

So the Crystal Ball of the Year award goes to me. I hereby predict that in 2011 Competitive Cyclist will offer high-end all-velcro shoes that will fit beautifully, that will be light, that will look PRO, and that will be available at Competitive Cyclist and Competitive Cyclist ONLY because my crystal ball is pure and scintillating and few companies other than Competitive Cyclist can more capably serve as your personal jungle guide between the rare PRO/smart choices out there and the mind-boggling bullshit that clots the pages of most bike mags. I can’t divulge more details, but I can assure you that 2011 will be a better year because, just as all cycling clothes should always be all-black, all cycling shoes should be all-Velcro. Consider yourself briefed.