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We check out Greenville, SC

The sport of cycling is one that lends itself to territorial rivalries. Tour vs. Giro; Italy vs. Asia; Portland vs. Indianapolis. You needn’t look hard to find how geography breeds enmity. And the table was set in late 2005 for new hostilities to erupt when -- for the first time in time immemorial -- the US Pro Road Racing Championships wasn’t slated for Philadelphia, but instead it was awarded to the humble southern city of Greenville, SC.

Philadelphia is a glorious place. And I don’t say that just because I went to college there, or because the best piece of fiction of my generation revolves around it, or because it’s the home of the most underappreciated museum in America. Rather, there’s something stately about it. Unlike, say, Boston’s irrepressible expressions of inadequacy in the shadow of New York City, Philadelphia instead exudes quiet confidence. To be handsome and born to old money: It brings easy access to self-esteem. That’s what Philadelphia has, and perhaps that’s why, after losing the USPro, nary a jealous word was seemingly uttered. Instead of slinging mud, Philly stuck to its guns and stuck to its support of the finest bike race tradition in America, Philly Week. Look at the graveyard of defunct American races: The Coors Classic, The T-Mobile Inernational, The Tour Dupont/Trump, Tour de Georgia. It’s so easy to let tradition die. When it comes to big-money bike races, it’s the American way. But Philly is a stalwart, and as bike racing fans our gratitude runs deep. Which means for Greenville to take over the USPro, it’d best be a special place. I went there in December in part to find out.

Greenville

Take an evening stroll through downtown Greenville and you’ll quickly come under the impression that it’s not your typical southern town. You’ll see an unusual density of luxury European cars; countless women distract with their sophisticated beauty and dress -- and it’s not just the proliferation of Christian Louboutin pumps, but it’s the fact that every other conversation you hear is the melody of a foreign tongue; the wine lists bring blessed relief from the typical flood of California Pinot Noir; and college football might be on TV, but no one seems to watch. And right about the time you put these clues together, that’s when someone -- bartender, waiter, stranger-next-to-you-on-the-street -- tells you that Greenville is home to BMW’s largest manufacturing plant in the US, and that Michelin’s North American HQ is right there too. Hence the Euro vibe, and hence the utter distinction in what connections bring you in Greenville. In the rest of the south it means maybe a round of golf at Augusta National or a seat in a luxury box at a Crimson Tide game. But in Greenville it nets some laps screaming around the BMW test track, or -- in my case -- 4 days of a mountain training camp with Greenville residents and Team Columbia pros George Hincapie and Craig Lewis.

The Riding

December was an opportune time to do some big miles with two of the world’s best pro bike racers. After New Year’s, February racing looms large. Motorpacing, explosive speedwork, hill intervals -- that brute ditch-digging labor of a pro’s life becomes inevitable. An attempt to train with them then would be guaranteed slaughter. But December is dedicated to endurance. Every day they train, it’s a 5-hour cruise.

What’s an 85 mile coffee ride with the pros like? It’s akin to a 20 minute threshold interval. You know that cockiness you feel at the outset -- I could do this all day? And you know how the same wattage, only later, brings you to the precipice of collapse? It’s the same experience: A steady state grind, unremarkable in every way except for its unchanging tempo. 5 hours where slow and social eventually morphs into slow and savaged.

It’s not just the distance that took a toll. The terrain around Greenville is ferocious. Each day we wandered towards North Carolina, and the further north we went, the longer the climbs became. It was there that I learned the secret handshake of being a pro: Never leave the big chainring. Crosschaining was the rule, not the exception. George and Craig chatted their way up 30min long climbs. I turned myself inside out to keep their wheel for maybe the first third. 53×21, 53×23 -- they stayed seated, they stayed fluid. Me? 39×23, 39×25. I was public art: Art of the dead spot. I pedaled in squares, guesstimating time gaps and hoping, for the sake of pride, to keep them within sight for just a few moments longer.

One climb of significance was called Gap Creek. 4 relentless miles made harsher for the fact that while the first half is done in sleepy rural beauty, the second half came on Hwy 25 -- the main road that leads from Greenville to Hendersonville. In our 15 hours on the bike that weekend, it was the only spell with teeth-clenching traffic. Euro as Greenville felt in many ways, the ~10min climb up 25 was all too American: Deafening semis ached to approach the 65mph speed limit, while pickups screamed by, seemingly in preparation for take off. If I’d only still been on George’s wheel I would’ve asked him what’s more motivating -- riding through fans 10-deep on the Muur, in an escape to win the Ronde; or riding within inches of warp-speed truck traffic, in an attempt to escape with his life? But I’d been flicked by then, so in solitude I rode up the shoulder, slaloming through the roadside detritus -- dirty diapers, shattered glass, huge-and-mysterious bolts, rain-wrinkled porn. Soon enough we reached the NC state line and the climb was over, and soon enough we turned off 25 and resumed peace, quiet, and again I witnessed the staple of a pro’s life -- texting-while-riding. All was well and 25 was forgotten.

The best climb of the weekend was a beautiful place called Caesar’s Head. It’s 12km, and except for a minute-long flat section halfway up, it was a perfect grind. Too steep, and climbs that huge suit pure climbers alone. Instead, Caesar’s Head combines duration, gradient variations, and just the right amount of steepness. Ride up it enough times, and commit yourself to a hell of a diet -- it’s the kind of climb that could turn a rouleur into a real climber. The old saying is that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. Remember George’s stunning victory on the mountaintop stage of Pla d’Adet at the 2005 Tour de France? From what I can tell, it was won on the long climb up Caesar’s Head.

And while the laws of physics & physiology kept me from reaching the top of Caesar’s Head with George and Craig, it was a different story on the descent. Perhaps exhaustion prevented me from making good life decisions, or perhaps it was because I was someplace unknown. But I felt liberated from my normal instinct for self-preservation. At 70kph+ I hung to their wheels with a primal desperation I normally only know going up climbs. No doubt they’d bombed down Caesar’s Head a thousand times, but that fact didn’t faze me. Each switchback -- and it’s easy to lose count of them there -- was like a math problem. One where solving it correctly was no more important than solving it fast.

There’s an army base I often ride through at home called Camp Robinson. There’s a roadside sign there for the soldiers that reads ‘Safety first in training. Mission first in combat.’ The eeriness of that sign awes me every time I ride past. I wonder if the descent of Caesar’s Head gave me a little taste of it? Normally life’s responsibilities -- a wife & 3 kids I love, 30 employees & 2 business partners who expect me to work -- cause me to err on the side of caution when I ride. Safety. Always. But for a blissful few minutes it was like an exorcism. That awareness of everyone else, it vanished. It wasn’t just mission first. It was mission only. No way was I gonna lose their wheel. And I didn’t. The descent itself wasn’t the highlight of the weekend -- the state of being that permitted such a descent, that was the highlight.

The Bikes

George and Craig were riding their 2009 team-issue bikes, the Scott Addict with Dura Ace 7900. A few quick comments on those:

- My favorite detail on the bike was the sponsor stickers on the seatstays. You’ll find the logomarks of the usual suspects -- Continental, Fizik, Elite, SRM, Pro. But at the top, in arguably the most prime piece of seatstay real estate, is the logo of ‘Ten Tech Composites’. Ten Tech isn’t a stranger to us by any means. If they’re not the most respected Taiwanese frame manufacturer, they’re certainly super-high on the list. They make Scott’s frames, in addition to Cervélo, Ridley, and some Trek as well. They’re an incredible outfit. We don’t recall ever seeing a pure Taiwanese manufacturing company serve in the role of supporting sponsor like this. (No, Giant doesn’t count to us, because they have successful global operations with sales offices all over the world). To us, it’s a statement of Taiwanese pride in their manufacturing -- a sentiment historically only made by Italian frame manufacturers, who’d have us believe that ‘Made in Italy’ is synonymous with peerless quality. The worst-kept secret in the bike industry is that the best composites manufacturing is done in Taiwan. Ten Tech’s decal suggests that Taiwan is ready to come out of closet. They want brands to promote Taiwanese manufacturing. It’s an elimination of smoke-and-mirrors. It’s truth-in-advertising. As far as we’re concerned, it ‘s awesome.

- Columbia is sponsored by Fizik, and both George and Craig ride the Aliante saddle. Craig said that the Fizik people sang the praises of the new Antares saddle at their first training camp for ’09 in Mallorca (the Antares is longer than the Aliante, but shorter than the Arione), and that they were strangely silent about the Aliante. Nonetheless, the pros vote with their rears, and the favorite was the Aliante. It’s an interesting situation because manufacturers in the bike biz feel a self-imposed pressure to push new products on an annual basis. It’s as though they depend on novelty -- not timeless quality -- to drive sales. It’s that way with helmets, shoes, apparel, and no small amount of componentry. It forces retailers to liquidate inventory at year’s end in order to buy the new stuff (which is why, for example, you see ’08 Giro Ionos helmets and ’08 Sidi Ergo 2 shoes on sale -- even though they vary so little from the ’09 equivalents). If the world acted like Team Columbia and showed a universal preference for the Aliante over the new Antares, would that be a bad thing? We think not, except for Fizik dealers & Fizik itself if they’re loaded up on Antares inventory they can’t move. Hedging against this possibility, perhaps, is the reason for Fizik’s lack of enthusiasm for the Aliante at Columbia’s camp?

- 2008 will be remembered as the year SRM made the transition from wired to wireless systems. And while that might be a good thing, it’ll also be remembered for the pain of ANT+ Sport integration. It’s a wireless protocol that allows, in theory, for the SRM wireless crankset to work with a Garmin 705 GPS. The problems of this integration are well known by now. Given that Garmin literally owns the rights to the ANT protocol, any questions SRM got about integration headaches rightfully got met with the same answer: Call Garmin. And Garmin, unfortunately, was ill-equipped to cope with the esoteric questions of SRM customers. It was a total mess. So much so, in fact, that when SRM finally released their wireless Powercontol VI, we discontinued sales of the SRM/Garmin combo here. It was a match made in Hades, and we’d gotten our fill.

We’ve sold our share of full-on wireless SRM systems since the PC VI became available, and we’ve been pleased with how well they work in comparison to the Garmin. What we learned in Greenville, though, is that for a pro, bombproof reliability trumps all. George’s bike? Still equipped with a wired system and a PC V. By choice. And Craig? He had a wireless VI equipped to his Scott, but after each day’s ride we spent no small time disabling the ‘enhancements’ specific to the VI, e.g. its automatic mid-ride zero-offset recalibration. And, in what I viewed as a vote of dubious confidence from Columbia’s mechanics, their team-issue Scotts came with downtubes drilled for interal SRM sensor cable routing, and Craig’s bike -- though equipped with a wireless system -- nonetheless had a wired sensor cable installed. In other words, he was armed for both a wired PC V, and the wireless sensor units for a PC VI.

Things are complicated further for the fact that the PC VI won’t accept a PC V sensor cable. Jumping between wireless and wired is hardly a piece of cake -- you need both heads, and at $1,000 per, that’s hardly an impulse decision. I’ll be interested to watch the race season unfold in 2009, and to see how many pros are running wireless systems on race day. Watch Columbia, Astana, and the other SRM-sponsored teams. Should be revealing.

- Couple of quick comments the new Dura Ace: Craig and George echoed the near-universal sentiment about 7900. The new lever ergonomics are awesome. The braking power is noticeably improved over 7800. Other than that, it looks, feels, and smells like 7800. And George mentioned that he’s been using 7900 since June (he rode the Tour on it), so it’s hard not put a lot of stock into his appraisal. And one other thing: Both of them do all of their training on the Dura Ace WH-7850 24mm carbon clincher. Given the mileage their wheels get -- and given the watts-per-mile they get -- that’s a hell of a statement of confidence about how tough those wheels are. They use standard tubes, none of the tubeless shenanigans. When we think about training wheels for 2009, we’re gonna give the 7850 carbon’s another look.

Conclusion

Go to Greenville. Bring your bike. The weekend club rides there are, by reputation, high-quality both in terms of turnout & talent level. Stay at the Hampton Inn downtown on the Reedy River. Eat at the Lazy Goat or one of the other Soby’s restaurants. Talk a long stroll through Falls Park and freak out a bit as you walk across the gorgeous Liberty Bridge. Outside of Europe, I’ve never seen such a cosmopolitan small city. It’s a gem -- it’s worthy of your vacation time, and it’s certainly worthy of the USPro.