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A Ride With Team CSC: What We Learned In LA

Zipp wheelsAmongst our varied joys, chores, and responsibilities here at Competitive Cyclist, we serve on Zipp’s Dealer Advisory Board. We provide input on both future product development and current product performance. Despite their wonky, engineering-fixated exterior, the guys behind Zipp are in fact really cool. So our most recent board meeting was quite fun, especially thanks to the fact that it coincided with Team CSC’s pre-Tour of California training camp.

The venue was Agoura Hills, CA, and other than serving as CSC’s first full-team gathering for 2008, it would be the proving grounds from which Bjarne Riis would choose CSC’s Tour of California squad. 30 riders flew in from 3 continents -- the group that just finished the Tour Down Under, the group that cleaned up at the Tour of Argentina, and nearly 20 riders from Europe with a zillion training miles, but no race miles, in their legs for 2008.

We hate to start with an aside, but we must: The general area around Agoura Hills -- our understanding is that it basically straddles the Ventura/Los Angeles County line -- might possibly hold the best riding in America. In previous years we’ve logged big miles around Encinitas, Santa Barbara, and San Francisco, and we’re fond of all those places. But none of them matches the mix of savage climbing, spectacular scenery, and lack of traffic we found around Agoura Hills. We’ve always avoided riding in LA for the simple reason that we’d assumed it’d bring all the pleasure of riding in Queens or metro Dallas -- gobs of traffic, gobs of assholes. Never have we been more wrong. You’ll hear us whistling Randy Newman songs for days to come. LA, we love it.

The venue was thrilling, yes, but riding as one of only four hangers-on in a pack otherwise comprised of 30 members of the world’s #1 team was a thrill, even for a jaded industry veteran. We did a solid 4 hours with the team on the longest day, including 3 different ~6 mile climbs, with dizzying descents to match. In that all-too-brief span we learned a lesson a minute, the most important of which we’d like to share here --

1. Do not call Fränk Schleck a faggot. Fränk Schleck is one of the great riders of the last 5 years. His palmares include solo victories in the Amstel Gold Race and the Alpe d’Huez stage of the Tour de France. Beyond that he is one of the purest specimens of athleticism we’ve ever seen. He’s reportedly 6’1′ and 130lbs, and when you sit on his wheel his silent, fluid spin is mesmerizing. His physique hypnotizes: No woman in LA older than 14 is as slender. In his grace and his delicate muscularity, it was like setting eyes on a ballerina. No, not a ballet dude, but an impossibly lithe, sinewy ballerina bottled up with explosive rage -- what makes a dancer beautiful is what allows Schleck to slaughter a field on race day. We feel nothing but pity for the poor souls of the ProTour tasked with out-climbing him.

Did I call Schleck a faggot? Lord, no. But as we wrapped up our ride -- literally with less than a mile to go -- his Dura Ace rear derailleur blew up. It was a slight downhill all the way to the hotel, so he slowly coasted/drifted back to the 2 team cars that followed us. It was barely a minute later when he rode back up beside me, then we braked at a red light. You could tell he was pissed. It’s only the kindness of fate that blows up your bike a mile from the end of a training ride and not a mile short of a mountain top finish at le Tour. He was manhandling his STI at the traffic light, trying to glean the cause of the mechanical.

We had a lead car and two follow cars. There were ~35 of us riding in the group. Not an unimpressive armada. But nonetheless, a pair of fat jackasses in a late model Chevy peeled out of the gas station to our left. ‘Get off the road you faggots…!’ they screamed. ‘You pusssssssies!’

CSC riders hail from 19 countries. Some speak no English. Some speak it as a 3rd or 4th language. Maybe, just maybe, it was the language barrier that made nearly everyone ignore them completely. But Schleck is fluent in English, and he was already enraged with his bike. ‘Did you hear that?’ he hollered to no one in particular. ‘Did you hear that? They called us faggots!’ He said it two more times, his furor hotter and louder each time. He spoke in flawless English, and as the rest of started rolling straight through the now-green light -- the Chevy took a left at the intersection -- Schleck hit his brakes in an attempt to turn. ‘I’m gonna kick their fucking ass…’

I couldn’t tell which teammate grabbed Schleck by the jersey and kept him from turning, but it was a revealing snapshot of what’s under his hood. Sure, much of his success on the bike is thanks to his freakish physiology. But it showed how much anger he had pent up, and how easily accessible it is to him. Does any other sport require its participants to hate so? Bitter anger is the bedrock of bicycle racing, and Schleck showed us his talent for rage. We suspect it’s a barometer of great things to come for him in 2008.

2. Do not make idle chit-chat on the climbs. Before we left for the ride in the first place, Bjarne had a quick speech for the team. Since an important purpose of the camp was to select the Tour of California squad, a certain amount of intra-squad competitiveness was sure to bubble up. Likewise, almost every rider present stepped off a 12-hour trans-continental flight the previous evening.

‘We will go easy today,’ commanded Bjarne. ‘Not hard. Not medium. Easy.’ His use of repetition amused us. Proof that a team of mid-20’s bike racers has the friskiness and imperfect obedience of a classroom of 7 year olds. ‘No sprint lines, nothing. Do all of you understand?’

It goes without saying, of course, that a pro’s definition of easy is nothing like a mortal’s. Easy doesn’t mean slow, it means steady. The effort -- to them -- was never strenuous. But the dosing of that effort had no disruption for 4 hours. Uphill, downhill, flat. No matter the terrain or the wind direction, current and average wattage were constant identical twins.

Early on in the 2nd of our 3 climbs the group stopped for a piss break. The brief rest plus the fact that we were barely halfway through the ride meant that the mortals’ legs were still doing OK. Even as the climb ground on, we kept up a decent level of conversation -- a small act of defiance, perhaps, to let the CSC boys know that we weren’t dying back there.

Bjarne cruised up and down the group, time and time again. His van took up the entire oncoming lane, and as he leaned out the passenger window his head was only inches away from the bodies of his riders. What was he looking for? Was he trying to discern the slightest bit of labored breathing? A hiccup of unsuppleness in a cadence? The faint jiggle of ass fat? It had to be unnerving for the riders -- he was a poker-faced meat inspector, and in no small part their race schedule for the next year hung in the balance.

JJ Haedo and Fabian Cancellara rode two abreast in front of us. Chit-chat amongst us mortals kept up. Bjarne cruised up and back, up and back, up and back. The noise pollution, plus the irritating experience of being silently judged -- it must’ve been too many simultaneous annoyances for Haedo, because he slowly drifted back to us. In what felt like a half-joke, he said just one thing to us: ‘Do much more talking like that on the climb, the guys at the front will go harder -- you know?’ And with that advice came much silence -- silence that would’ve naturally overcome us quite soon, anyways, since the slow burn of the climb got ever-hotter for the remaining 30 minutes it took us to reach the top.

3. Do not make believe you’re a pro, no matter how badly you want to fake it. Someday we’ll ask our LA-based customers to help us figure it out -- we think maybe it was the descent of Encinal Canyon. Whatever its name, it was the steepest, scariest, most corkscrewy thing I’d ever ridden a bike down. The sporadic use of guardrails got me wondering -- what’s worse when you overshoot a 120° turn? A guardrail or no?

It was just at the outset of this hairy descent that I got a rear flat. Thankfully it was in a straightaway, not an apex. I skidded and thumped to a stop, thankful that no CSC riders had to slalom by me. I was fully expecting to fix the flat myself, and as soon as I unclipped and reached for my spare tube, a team car locked up its brakes and parked alongside me, making no effort to park anywhere other than the middle of the lane. A mechanic swapped out my wheel for something deep and Zipp in no less than 15 seconds. I barely got one foot clipped in when he gave me a Michael Strahan-like shove (mind you, the road was already pointed precipitously downward) which nearly catapulted me over the bars.

So there I was, instantly an eternity off the back of the group on the most petrifying descent I’ve ever ridden. Only one thing was blocking 2 Team CSC cars from their entire team: A solitary, brake-happy Cat 3 in Competitive Cyclist kit on a pimped-out Cervélo twice the cost of any CSC rider’s bike that day. Fleeting images of my children flashed through my consciousness as I absurdly tried to make up time on CSC. Getting the cars up to their charges felt like a moral obligation. That, plus the notion of being mocked in the least -- it spurred me to tuck deeper and brake much, much less. I’ve raced at varying levels of seriousness over 20 years, but this was my first ever true combat jump. No race I’ve ever done felt so important, and none pitted courage and fear to such an excruciating extreme. Getting to the bottom was more exhausting than climbing to the top. I could probably never do that again.

4. Do not make believe you’re a pro, no matter how badly others coax you to do so. At the bottom of said descent was the Pacific Coast Highway. Before we reached the intersection, the team took a left and started up a long false flat. We were already off the back, then had to wait an additional minute for a slight break in traffic. A team car kindly eased into the middle of the highway, waiting for me to cross, which took perilously long since I forgot to shift out of my 53×11 -- not an ideal gear for punching across a major 4-lane highway as diesel Ford F-250s came barreling broadside.

So, in review, I’d just escaped death on my furious descent. Moments later I evaded it again in my slow-motion struggle to pedal one-legged in a 53×11 to cross the PCH. We all know the rule: Things come in threes. And erstwhile #3 came in the voice of a young CSC mechanic. He was in the passenger-side backseat of the 2nd team car. ‘Grab the car,’ he said in halting English. ‘We will pull you up to the team.’

I nodded and reached for the car. Since the window was rolled halfway up, I wasn’t sure what to grab -- The window? The door frame? (I had just enough sense to not grab the door handle.) In trying to process my choices, I placed my left palm flat on the window behind the passenger door, with the intent of walking my fingers up to the door frame. But as soon as I made contact, the driver floored it. All of my body weight was leaned against the car, but I held onto nothing. The force of acceleration turned my front wheel a good 30° to the right -- not a good idea when you’re already big-ringing it. I whipsawed into the car, with my left forearm and shoulder smacking it so hard that I literally bounced back off the car with my rear wheel shooting upward rodeo-like. My scream was primal and mighty -- no time to fuss with the language barrier! The violence of my collision with the car had the remarkable effect of throwing me back onto my original line. How I didn’t end up pinned under the rear wheels of the team car, I’ll never know. The car decelerated, unaware of what just transpired. We came up with a brilliant compromise -- uphill motorpacing.

After nearly 5 minutes of motorpacing at 30+ mph on a false flat we finally caught the group, just in time for them to start freewheeling, then turn around. Sisyphus comes to LA. The most frightful 20 minutes of my life was over. A hot shower, a cocktail, a long (but temporary) nap -- God, I needed it. But the ride was hardly halfway done.

5. Do not lose your sense of humor. After doubling back on the PCH, we immediately starting climbing again -- a 6 or 7 mile grind called Mullholland. I was mentally shaken, and the brief spell of motorpacing power washed my legs with lactic acid. Looking at the front of the group brought a humbling sight -- guys were stretching, or nibbling on snacks, or riding no-handed, or whistling. They were killing time, while we mortals at the back were sad sacks. The steadiness of the pace was slow-motion torture. Not two miles into the climb I sat behind Spring Classics monster Karsten Kroon and Kurt Asle Arveson.

Karsten turned Kurt, ‘Goddamit, 4 hours of this pace is like 8 hours in my bed. Total bullshit. What a bullshit ride.’

For a second I thought he was just saying it for effect -- he knew he was right in front of the mortals, right? I was in no condition to request clarification on this point, though. I just took it yet another exhibit of damning evidence: When we race back at home, it’s an entirely different sport from what these guys do.

Kurt turned to him, and once he got done swallowing the pastry he’d been enjoying, he said ‘Are you serious?’ Then he paused. ‘What kind of training have you been doing this winter?’ I was desperately clinging to Karsten’s wheel, with my desperation redoubled because I had to hear his answer. What sort of cruelty comprised his winter training program?

Karsten sat up no-handed, broke a banana in two, then let out a big laugh. ‘I’m keeeeeeding,’ he said. He patted Kurt on the back before reaching for his handlebars again. ‘Where’s your sense of humor?’

6. Do not think a group ride of Cat 3’s is anything like a pack of pros. There are both little things and glaring things that prove this. Little thing? When pros ride two abreast on a flat road and chit-chat, they constantly bump arms (not the tippy-tip of their elbows -- we’re talking foreams, shoulders, everything) and handlebars. European men are effusive and conversational. They aren’t afraid of men touching men. It’s a phenomenon that lives & breathes on the bike, too. They want to be close so they can hear each other. We’ve spent countless hours in Category 1,2,3 races all across America, and it’s simply not a contact sport like that here. If we saw this sort of thing in a race here, we’d be locking up brakes to miss the impending crash.

Glaring thing? They are fast. Stupidly fast. If they get a flat and a wheel change it takes them about 90 seconds to catch back to a big-ringing group, and that’s with no motorpacing assistance. If they stop at a traffic light, they accelerate up to 28mph before settling back down to cruising pace. Fast is their natural state of matter. Clearly they’re less comfortable going slow than fast.

These examples we cite above are likely old news to some of you, so let us provide one other anecdote to illustrate the gap between us and them. Cat 3’s spend no small time bitching about getting half-wheeled. That’s when you ride two abreast, and the guy next to you rides just a bit harder for a few moments, thereby putting himself the distance of one half-wheel in front of you. Like stepping on someone’s line on a putting green -- the resulting uproar is rooted mostly in the breach of etiquette, not in the actuality of the real damage being done.

We’ve spent nearly two decades laying down massive verbal abuse upon the half-wheelers of our lives. But during our ride with CSC we saw a form of it we simply couldn’t believe: If two CSC riders were in mid-conversation when we came upon a descent -- regardless of the descent’s length, degree of difficulty, or technical merit -- the conversation went uninterrupted. With the elegance of the Blue Angels, one rider would drift back the distance of one half-wheel. He’d then scoot nearer his interlocutor. They’d be so close that the left drop of one rider’s bar would overlap the right drop of the other’s. The rearward rider would tuck his head over, nearly into the armpit of the other. To repeat: Effusive. Conversational. Close-as-lovers. But now at 30+ mph. The elegance of their bike handling and the trust in each other was remarkable -- all for the sake of good conversation. Bravo!

We’d very much like to thank our friends at Zipp for putting together such a tremendous weekend. Two truths emerged from our time in LA: 1) Zipp’s dominance of the high-end wheel marketplace has done nothing to deter their eagerness to develop tantalizing new products. 2) Based on the crisp organization and the esprit d’corps we saw in Team CSC, 2008 should be another banner year of big time results.