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Dispatch from Italy: Part II

F4:13: The Maiden Voyage

While we’ve had tremendously good fortune selling F4:13 frames since their introduction in May, I still hadn’t ridden one for one simple reason: Only a small handful had made it to the US before the Granfondo, and our allocation of those frames barely put a dent into our backorders. We’ve yet to put an F4:13 into open inventory. Rather, each one we receive is already spoken for, so we ship them out the same day we get them. Of all of the things I had to look forward to during my trip to Italy, getting some meaningful miles on an F4:13 was high on the list. Pinarello was kind enough to loan me a Chorus-equipped F4:13 for the week, and it was waiting for me when I arrived at the hotel.

I did some tinkering to the bike during the Tour de France coverage on Eurosport. I’m not sure what was more alien — the idea of a Tour stage ending at 5 in the afternoon, or the fact that Eurosport shows only 2 minutes of commercials per hour during the coverage. Given that most of the US audience must believe the title sponsor of the Tour de France is the TV show Survivor, not Credit Lyonnais, it was a joyful way to spend a couple of hours. I watched Chris Horner combine tenacity and tactics to an extent I’ve never before seen in a flat Tour stage, and like most Americans was bummed to watch him miss out on what would’ve been an epic victory. The excitement of the finish energized me to take a quick ride around the back roads of Treviso.

It’s a professional obligation for me to ride a lot of different bikes. It seems like I get a new one about every 2 or 3 months, but it’s never that big of a deal because I know my measurements by heart, and I always transfer the same parts over from bike to bike — the same Aliante saddle, the same Record Ergolevers in the same spot on the same shallow drop Newton bar, the same Neutron wheels, etc, etc. My position, in other words, is always all-but-identical. The familiarity of these touch points is such a constant that I’ve never consciously thought how it allows me to focus exclusively on the frameset alone as I evaluate a bike. But at the outset the F4:13 was a more thorny affair. Why? Two reasons:

  1. It came with a Selle Italia SLR XP saddle. Many of you know the SLR — it’s a startingly sleek saddle, ideal only for riders under 150 lbs. It’s narrow, sparsely padded, and weighs as much as a square of toilet paper. Selle Italia introduced the XP version of the saddle in an attempt to allure the beefier cyclists of the world (meaning yours truly, weighing in at 175 lbs) with slightly thicker padding. I’ve only ridden two saddles in my adult life — the muscular Selle San Marco Regal, and more recently the Fizik Aliante. In comparison, the SLR XP felt like a thin brick with sharp edges. For the first mile or so my seat was too high, and it felt like someone lit my perineum ablaze. I lowered the seat, and that helped some. But for someone accustomed to more support and padding, it was hardly ideal. I shuddered to think of what the standard SLR would feel like.
  2. It came with anatomic (and wide) handlebars. I can understand how skinny guys would like an SLR, but I absolutely, positively cannot understand how people can ride with these. In the drops my hands feel like they’re barely above the front axle, and the anatomic section is too long and too flat to feel natural in the least (the choice of the word ‘anatomic’ is rather ironic, actually.) My saddle-to-bar drop felt like it increased by about 2 feet when I was in the drops. Their depth and the reach were so overwhelming that I wanted to shorten my stem by at least a centimeter whenever I was in them, and if I had to sprint I’d be screwed because my weight was totally over my front wheels and my elbows were all-but-locked to get my hands in place. Throwing the bars back and forth mid-sprint would never be an option — in the drops I could only hang on for dear life. There’s a reason why tractors have big steering wheels and F1 cars have tiny ones. Especially when you’re riding in a group, being able to nuance the front end of your bike is elemental. Subtle input is all that separates good bike handling from bad, and wide, deep bars make subtlety an impossibility.

These details aside, I never lost sight of the fact that the point was to get some quality miles on the F4:13. Once I adjusted my position in the hotel parking lot I headed out. I made my way through a small neighborhood and traffic thinned nicely before I came to a fork in the road — to the right was what appeared to be a continuation of the road I was on, seemingly lightly traveled with beautiful pavement. To the left was a 1.25-lane wide gravel road. The choice was an easy one — one mile in the big ring on the gravel delivered me to paradise. I found myself in a web of narrow chip-and-seal roads lined on both sides by 10-foot tall rows of corn, broken up only by the sight of the same sorts of villas and farmhouses that dotted the landscape on my way in from the Venice airport.

My first impressions of the F4:13 were superb. Perhaps it was due to the rough nature of the roads on which I was riding, but the frame was effective just in the way I needed: It beautifully quieted the steady flow of high frequency vibrations coming from the chip-and-seal surface. I’ve never before been perfectly satisfied with the shock-absorbing characteristics of carbon frames. There’s a distinction to be made between the neutralization of shock and the general deadness of many carbon frames. Most test rides on carbon are identical: They provide a mellow ride on lousy roads, but they’re so proficient at attenuating vibration that they feel lifeless on smooth pavement. In car magazines they talk about the ‘road feel’ of a vehicle — the feedback a driver gets from the road itself that allows him to accelerate and corner with confident aggression. Most carbon frames are totally lacking in this. In the pursuit of shock absorbency they lose the ability to transmit sensations altogether. It’s as though the bike is under anesthesia. This deadness is perhaps desirable for riders who never plan to ride aggressively. But for riders whose hope is to better manage the demands of lengthy descents or tight, serpentine criterium courses, ‘road feel’ is mandatory.

I spent about 45 minutes big-ringing it through flat, rural roads, and was completely convinced that the F4:13 matched the best carbon bikes I’d ever ridden in its ability to provide a smooth ride on a sub-par surface. With this in mind, I was looking forward to the long drags of good pavement sure to be present during the Granfondo. On the way back to hotel I rode through a couple of traffic circles in the middle of town. Each time, I accelerated hard as I carved the same line as the cars in front of me, and in both instances the bike arced around the rotunda with precise ease. It had the same agreeable handling as the Pinarello Dogma I rode for the better part of the year in 2004 — a good sign, especially given that the F4:13 and the Dogma have different geometry. I was hungry for my next chance to ride it, since these key moments showed its potential for defying carbon’s ‘dead ride’ paradigm.

Coffee Ride

When I awoke the morning before the Granfondo, jet lag had sunk its teeth into me. I’d been told that Fausto Pinarello was leading a 60km ride from my hotel at 9am, and when I opened my eyes the clock read ’9:15′. I’m a bit obsessive when it comes to punctuality on training rides at home — to me 9am means we leave at 9am, not that we gather and begin getting dressed at 9am. Thinking the opportunity was likely lost, I nearly rolled over in bed for more sleep. But then I figured there might be a few stragglers like me, so instead I hopped out of bed and ran cyclocross-style with bike-on-shoulder down the hotel stairs to the lobby. It was there that I was introduced to the concept of ‘Italian Time’. Italians are fashionable in everything, especially in being late. There must’ve been 75 people astride their bikes in the parking lot, and it was clear that not only had the ride not left, but that it wouldn’t be anytime soon. At 9:40 we finally rolled out, led by Fausto in a dapper orange Assos outfit — what appeared to be an orange Team jersey, orange FI Mille shorts, orange helmet, and an orange Paris Carbon painted identically to the one I’d seen in the factory yesterday. His name was sublimated baseball player-style on the back of his jersey, and in his bike clothes he had the sick sort of thinness you typically see in pros at peak fitness. It was clear he rides a whole heck of a lot.

We cruised two-abreast through the center of town, past the factory, and towards the mountains. From the conversations I could overhear, our ride would basically take us over the first and last 30km of tomorrow’s Granfondo, but more importantly it served as my introduction to the way in which Italians drive around cyclists. To say they’re accommodating is a understatement. Perhaps it’s because our group was so big, but oncoming traffic regularly slowed and pulled onto their shoulder to ensure ample room as we passed. Cars passing from the rear showed patience before coming around us, making certain they had adequate space ahead before accelerating past. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that Italy has been the mythical home of bike racing for a century, or maybe it’s because so many non-racer types rely on the bicycle for transportation, or maybe it’s due to the less hectic tone of Italian life — retail stores are open from 10am-1pm, then 4pm-7pm, everything in the country closes down for vacation for the entire month of August, etc. — but I felt safer than ever before on my bike on a busy road. I mentioned this to the rider alongside me at one point, an American who’d spent several years riding in Italy. His reply was illuminating: ‘Drivers here don’t mind cyclists because cyclists ride predictably. A 70-year old Grandma with a basket full of groceries can hold a straighter line than your average American Cat. 3. It makes things safer for everybody.’

We were doing moderate tempo through the countryside when I came across a rider in the pack coasting with only one foot clipped in. His other foot was on top of his shoe, and in his right hand he held an insole. The toe area of the insole appeared to have been clipped off, and he was fiddling with his right shoe with a fair bit of obsessiveness. He couldn’t really pedal, so I did the gentlemanly thing and pushed him by the hip so he could keep his place in the pack. He stuffed the insole in his pocket, got his foot back in his shoe, and then thanked me for the moment of assistance. His accent was unmistakably British, and he complained about the heat of Italy in July and what havoc it plays on his feet — they swell up, he said, and no shoe is comfortable. We chatted for a bit longer, and I couldn’t help but admire how fit he looked and how fluidly he pedaled. He was clearly something more than a weekend warrior, and after a few minutes of chat he confirmed this by introducing himself to me — it was Malcolm Elliot. I remember him from the late 80′s as a phenomenal field sprinter, with some fine Euro victories and even an overall sprinter’s jersey from the Tour of Spain. In the early 90′s, as I recall, he came to the US to clean up on the prize money here and he did quite the job. After retiring in the late 90′s he made a comeback a couple of years ago and has had some decent success.

Nearly an hour into the ride we pulled into a café where, en masse, we stopped for coffee. 75 espressos were served up in what had to be world-record time. This was followed up by caseloads of frizzante — bottled sparkling water. We were in a small village called Nervesa della Battaglia, at the foot of what would be the first climb tomorrow, the San Croce del Montello. I gazed at it in a brief moment of reconnaissance. It was neither particularly steep nor long, and what impressed me more than anything else was the house-sized stone monument that sat atop the hill. I was told that we were just a few km’s from the Piave river valley, where Austria-Hungary attempted to breakthrough the Italian front lines in the closing months of World War I. The Austrian goal was to reach Treviso, and in prototypical Great War-style, the battle was catastrophic for both sides, including 90,000 Italian dead and wounded, and 200,000 Austrians dead, wounded, or captured in the span of one week. The Italians repelled the Austrians, and the battle is considered by most historians to be the key event in the final disintegration of Austria-Hungary’s nationhood. The somber monument atop the hill apparently contains the remains of 10,000 Italian soldiers. (Incidentally, the Piave River is where Ernest Hemingway was wounded by Austrian mortar fire, and his experience of battle there inspired his book ‘A Farewell to Arms.’) It was the first of what would turn out to be countless memorials to World War I I’d see in Italy. I was constantly reminded of a trip I look through rural England and Scotland a few years earlier — every village there had heartbreaking memorials to the war, listing the names of the dead one by one. The list was so long on the memorial in Southampton, I remember, that they couldn’t contain it in one city block — to view the whole thing you have to cross a street. I recall thinking that an entire generation of British men (sometimes it seemed like two generations) was lost. It doesn’t appear that Italy fared much better.

I wandered inside to pay my tab, but was told that Fausto was buying for everyone — a generous gesture, and probably the fastest 200 or 300 Euro he’s ever spent. My hope was to tell him thanks. As I made my way towards him (from across the parking lot I couldn’t see him, but his incandescent orange Paris was easy to spot) I got confirmation that no good deed goes unpunished: He had a rear wheel flat on his Campy Hyperon Ultra, and even worse he had to inflate the new tube with a mini-pump.

Once Fausto fixed his flat he led us through the foothills of Montello. Perhaps it’s because we were within a stone’s throw of Bassano del Grappa (where 38 year old (!) Dutchman Joop Zoetemelk out-smarted Greg Lemond for the World Championship Road Race title in 1985) that our previously lazy pace gained a bit of steam. Riders searched for their comfort zone in the pack as the more experienced ones darted forward and the less fit dropped back. The game of musical chairs being played caused us to consume the whole width of the one-lane back road we traveled. Thankfully, the oncoming cars gently pulled off the road as we approached — no cursing or hollering or pitching of the floorboard trash at us. The ever-present tolerance of the drivers was unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and the same is true about the incomparably intense beauty of Montello itself. Everywhere vineyards were anchored to steep hillsides with crisp symmetry. Orchards bisected humble stucco farmhouses. The sun and the enormous mountains oversaw the scene with weighty permanency. The thought might’ve passed through my mind to tune into the F4:13 to assess how it felt on the undulating roads, but our surroundings were paradise and I had little interest other than trying to burn images of this serene and lovely place in my brain.