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2009 Year End Awards, part 1

– I’ll always remember 2009 for the unalloyed terror in which it started. The economy threatened with a mysterious future violence, like a blood-lustful army on the outskirts of town. What was uncertain was its exact size and swiftness. What was sure was its intent of pillage and revenge. Being in the retail sector (and being in the off-season, to boot) made January and February 60 days of panic. But then the season kicked in, and just as we saw one of the most beautiful 1-day victories of the year, the cyclists of the world re-opened their wallets and opened them wider and wider throughout the year. It turned out that 2009 wasn’t a year of mere survival. Even accounting for the sorrows of January and February it was a year of sales growth and new heights of profitability and customer satisfaction. We have an optimism for 2010 and onward we would’ve never thought conceivable back then. So even though I hand out some year-end awards below, none of them outshine the pleasure of being part of a business that defied such pervasive economic horror. I’d like to proclaim a big chapeau to our staff and to our customers. It was an extraordinary and miraculous year, though I’d never want to live through it again.

– Blog of the year

It’s indisputable that we’re in the post-literate age, but it’s still possible to find lovely & interesting writing if you seek it out. One of our finalists for blog of the year stands in proof of this, the Fishing Report at the San Francisco Chronicle. ‘Fishing?’ you might ask. In fact I don’t fish at all, but Brian Hoffman’s writing is often beautiful, and at times (such as here) I’d put it up against any of the short fiction in the New Yorker or the Paris Review. The ocean is akin to the big mountains of Europe -- timeless as a source of inspiration; and ripe as a tableau for whatever expression you choose to foist onto it. It’s about the awe of facing reality bigger than yourself and the loneliness it evokes: Fishermen see it in the water; we see it on the climbs.

Another finalist is the Cycling Art Blog. It purports to be about both cycling and art, but mercifully it sticks mostly to cycling and it’s a sure daily (or so) fix of photos you’ve never seen before with just enough narration to teach you a postcard-length history lesson. It’s not just vintage stuff, either. It covers all eras. The Cycling Art Blog does perhaps the most noble thing a blog can do: Every day giving you 30 seconds of complete escape.

There are others I read and like and think you should follow too, though for reasons of inconsistent posting (6 Years in a Rain Cape) or occasional horrible product shilling (Red Kite Prayer as well as the Boulder Report) keep it from a finalist spot.

The winner of Blog of the Year is a slam dunk. It’s La Gazzetta Della Bici. No, please don’t mistake it for the Italian pink newspaper. It has nothing to do with it. Rather, it’s similar to what the Cycling Art Blog does, but in a heightened and more frequent way. The photos and videos are extraordinary and you’ll find them there first before anywhere else. A bonus is its refined appreciation of style (what many refer to as PRO). It is pure pleasure, an often twice-daily piece of chocolate for the mind. RSS it and enjoy.

– Interview of the year

The 7th circle of Hell in Dante’s Inferno is a desert of flaming sand with flakes of fire pouring blizzard-like from the sky. The poor soul tasked with transcribing the 10,000 words of NY Velocity’s interview with David Walsh -- he resides someplace worse. More often than not I’d like to rename NY Velocity as NY Prolixity. But after reading its recent interview with David Millar part of me wished it was 2x as long. It’s a fascinating look inside the peloton’s most frustrating team through the mouth of (blessedly) somebody other than the almighty Windsor-knotted one; it puts heightened perspective on the recent Bradley Wiggins transfer to Team Sky; and it’s a first-person account of the exact effects of EPO and the collective psychology of the peloton back in the era when doping had the same stigma as eating a mid-race Power Bar. All that and a whole lot more. In the circa-2009 media environment where PR agency-sanitized press releases and Twitter utterances pass as cycling news, this interview stands alone as a jewel of unfiltered fact, opinion, and insight, which is why it’s our winner of Interview of the Year.

– Restaurant of the year

As cyclists we suffer from chronic wanderlust. New roads, new vistas, new climbs & challenges: It’s at the heart of what makes our sport so alluring. Travel isn’t optional. Not unlike surfers and rock climbers, a comfort with being itinerant is what triggers the depth of our love for the sport. Travel means new venues, new people, and (of course) new food --

Louisville, KY is becoming more & more of regular stop for the racers amongst us. It’s the home of the USA Cycling Masters Nat’l Championships. It’s home to a weekend of USGP Cyclocross racing. And it also holds an Ironman Tri. If you go you must check out Ramsi’s Café. The menu is a pan-African-Euro-Cuban book of bliss. It’s in a pedestrian-friendly shopping-type neighborhood with damn good coffee next door. My visit was for lunch, immediately after the Master’s Nats RR. The food was quite good, as was the ambiance, the service, and the price. I recognize, however, that was made it so glorious was the fact that my A-race of the year was done and I’d finished up well enough to feel OK about it. I was drunk with release. Besotted with relief. The absence of what had been a summer of escalating anxiety was like feeling cured of a disease.

Another finalist is from the home of the US Pro Road Race, Greenville, SC. Stax’s Original is the sort of quaint southern outpost non-southerners dream about when they subscribe to the Oxford American or make a pilgrimage to the Delta for a blues festival. Waitresses call you ‘hon’; the biscuits are pucks of salty silk that (in a different shape in a different place) could pass muster at a boulangerie; and the gravy is a magical potion made from flour, grease, pepper, and a heaping tablespoon of caloric guilt, coating your insides with an ecstatic warmth you feel as much as you taste. Whether you’re racing US Pro or doing a big training day to Caesar’s Head and back, get your day started at Stax.

The 3rd finalist is El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain. The best road riding in the world begins in Girona, so it’s a nice coincidence that Can Roca is something similar in the foodie scene. ‘Eating dinner’ inadequately describes what transpires there. It’s a place where the subtleties of life come to the fore. Like a monastery, a yoga studio, or a classroom mid-exam, distraction is so absent that you don’t even notice its non-presence.

Walking into the dining room, blades of color-dappled light steer you through the shadows, giving you an acute awareness of light and dark perhaps only ordinarily sensed by the dying -- an early clue as to the acute sensuality of the experience to come The silence of the room overwhelms, only disrupted by the occasional clink of silverware or the lightly squeaking wheel of the cart that bears the hard-backed volumes of the Dostoevskian-length wine list. An occasional voice murmurs, but not often.

The reason for the high-intensity silence became clear as the first courses were served: It’s as though tasting wasn’t enough, but an essential part of the experience was an involuntary, desperate urge to memorize it. My sense of taste delivered a whole-body electricity matched only by the existential-gustatory terror I felt to never forget the moments too-quickly passing by. The ecstasy of the flavors, the panic spawned by my inability to halt time -- it was a dizzying intensity of a type I hadn’t felt since my college years when, for the very first time, I found myself with my head between my date’s slender legs. Perfume. Memory. The totality of existence comprised of what touches the tongue.

The great restaurant lesson of 2009, though, had nothing to do with a place, but rather it was about timing. No meal, no matter how fine, can beat the 4pm lunch, which wins the award. Its origin is in the universal departure time of PRO training rides: 10am. The rides are invariably 5-ish hours. Add the time for a post-ride shower and account for the stoner pace of a tired PRO’s stroll to the restaurant, the clock will surely be striking 4 as food is being served.

The beauty of the meal stems from the pleasure of the day’s accomplishments on the bike; from the awareness that by virtue of the fact that you (as a non-PRO) find yourself in an exotic land training with PROs, you’re most certainly not at the office; and that regardless of how much you devour you’re not spoiling your 8pm dinner plans. In light of all the easy way to access the PRO essence (pre-ride embrocation, mid-ride littering, disgust at the sight of headset spacers, etc), the 4pm lunch is one of the hardest, and thereby truest, way to tap into the PRO state of being.

– Part 2 of the year end awards are in the queue for next week. Bike product of the year, article of the year, tweet of the year, climb of the year, and maybe more.