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Countdown to Lombardy

– Autumn is more than a season -- it’s a state of being. The sharpness of July legs has vanished but in exchange you get a fresh brain. Power is not the operative word, rather it’s pleasure in spinning whatever gear feels right, with thoughts permitted to meander as they may. Slow, weak climbing isn’t a cause for panic, rather it’s the reward for the 9 previous months of neurotic self-punishment. October is made for playful lazing, so it’s with outirght pity that I check in on the late season pro race scene.

Ask yourself: Could you imagine summoning July-like focus in October? I know I couldn’t, and I feel bummed for the guys whose seasons come down to the wire like this. The pros, surely they hate riding so late in the year. The support folks desperate for home time -- soigneurs, mechanics -- I can’t imagine how much they resent the late-year slogs.

There’s some history going in the favor of the late season -- Did you know that the Giro dell’Emilia is the 3rd-biggest 1-day race in Italy (behind Milan-San Remo and Tour of Lombardy)? Isn’t Paris-Tours the 2nd biggest 1-day race in France after Paris-Roubaix? Bookend these with the absurdly-calendared World Championships and the Tour of Lombardy and it’s seemingly an interval of great significance, no? Reality, however, suggests otherwise. The collective distaste for October racing is illustrated in the cancellation of the Giro del Lazio -- a once-legendary late-season Italian semi-classic now perished due to a lack of sponsorship. And don’t get fooled by presence of Cuddles and his Silence-Lotto teammates in Coppa Sabatini -- the organizers didn’t have the funding to pay any other ProTour team (besides Katusha) the requisite start money so the field was girlish by PRO standards. October racing is a struggle for everyone -- for the riders to find motivation; for the staff to show up; for the organizers to find money to make it work.

All this to say -- feel for the guys who line up for Lombardy on Sunday. The sacrifices they’ve made to be competitive in October is the sort of thing the rest of us summon in early summer. And while a victory in the ‘Race of the Falling Leaves’ is monumental, the worst part is that as a rider you probably have the fitness of your life to crack the top-10, but there are no more races left to make use of it afterwards. Feel for them indeed.

– Craig Gaulzetti cracks my top-5 list for Best Cycling Article of 2009 over at the Embrocation blog. And bonus points if you can ID the Steve Albini reference.

– When I’m mentally weak I go cynical and at times like that it’s easy to train the critical crosshairs on Rapha for their Ansel-Adams-meets-Anthropologie aesthetic and their seeming refusal to let a ride just be a ride and instead represent every day in the saddle as ‘epic’ -- either an emotional epiphany or an I’m-auditioning-to-move-to-Portland fashion show. But, as mentioned above, October puts me in a happy place so I get open-minded and it’s getting cool to boot, so I needed some new clothes and I invested in a Rapha Merino Wool base layer and a Rapha Winter Hat and even if I’d been in a chokehold of cynicism I would’ve busted out of it because this stuff is unexpectedly dreamy. Like most things in the bike business on a surface level nothing here seems different. There are n wool base layers and Belgie-style winter hats to choose from in the marketplace. In this case, however, the substance of these garments puts them in a class of their own. In terms of the base layer, there’s a soft pliability to Rapha’s wool that makes it a joy to wear as layer #1 against the skin. Virtually every other high-end Merino we’ve tried has a least a hint of scratchiness to it. Not here. In addition, the wicking prowess is outstanding. It’s the best base layer I’ve ever worn -- and so far I’ve worn it in both the 40’s and the 70’s. It was equally pleasurable in both ends of the temp spectrum.

And their Belgie winter hat won me over at ‘hello’. The exterior shares the same softness as the base layer. The interior has a silky, ventilated lining that feels great against my shaved head. The ear flaps are built with an ideal extent of elasticity so they stay down over my ears when it’s cold, but I can easily flip them up and they stay perfectly in place. The elasticity isn’t so great that the flaps creep down (and high-tension elasticity at the ears is a surefire ingredient for a mid-ride headache, to boot.) The final bonus is the attention paid to the bill. It works in either a flipped-up or flipped-down position. Even though the bill is thick like the rest of the hat, your helmet won’t push the bill downward when you’re riding flipped-up. This hat is soft, warm, and perfectly conforming. This sucker is an essential.

So, in short, huge props to Rapha. Don’t get turned off by the pouty hipsters in the catalogs. The reality is the quality of the clothing: It’s remarkable and it’s distinct. If you’re ready for an indulgence that won’t disappoint, treat yourself to some Rapha.

– Faithful readers of What’s New might recall that we’ve banned usage of the word ‘robust’ at Competitive Cyclist because (a) The word has had a meaning-creep unlike any word we can ever remember. I’ve never seen an instance of its use when 10 other words wouldn’t have expressed the intended meaning better; (b) Its over-use is just crazy. Make a note to look for it a you’ll see it everywhere. It’s the new ‘the’. Everywhere.

So, in another dispatch from the Dept. of Banned Words comes ‘artisan’. I imagine easels and berets and see artists. I think of amazing cabins I know in the deep woods of the Ozarks and I think craftsmen. Within this continuum -- artist-to-craftsman -- where does the ‘artisan’ fall? Based on the context of its usage I’d define it thus: ‘Artisan: A laborer with a Twitter account.’ I’ve seen ‘artisan’ labeled to cookies and bread and wine and cheese to such an extent that I see Whole Foods re-naming itself Artisan Foods and I daydream about how Gary Fisher summoned teams of assassins to deep-six the non-believers to his title of ‘Father of the Mountain Bike’ and I wonder which member of the current Portland Salon will tap into a similar vein of hubris by titling himself ‘Father of the Artisan Bike.’ It’s no longer sculpting or welding or building but soon it will be something that transcends labor. It is coming -- the artisan bicycle is coming. If I’m footnoted for nothing else in life, let it be this. Until then, I swear to you the word ‘artisan’ will never be uttered here.

Yumeya: It’s not a James Clavell novel. It’s Japanese for ‘Dream Workshop staffed by artisans.’ Now available for Dura Ace 7900.

Kona bike count. The guys racing there are serious bike riders who mostly have to pay for their own stuff. If year-on-year growth is an indicator of ongoing brand interest, the big winners were Cervélo, Specialized, and Argon 18. The losers appear to be Litespeed, QR, Look, and Kuota. Cervélo’s sustained dominance of the tri market is nothing short of mind blowing. And Zipp -- WOW.

Bont shoes: Maybe the most thought-provoking piece of equipment from this year’s Interbike. Bont was nice enough to give a pair to a fellow employee to try, and they’re reportedly stiff as beast (as in stiffer than anything available from Sidi) and the footbed is built more like a human foot than any other shoe out there (many of which, interestingly, are shaped more like a hand), so the fit has the potential to be amazing. Beyond this, they’re light, light, light, as in Rocket 7 light. And with the disappearance of Rocket 7 from the shoe marketplace, we’re actively looking for something just like this to slot in as our go-to super-high-performance shoe. A bonus is that they’re nice folks to deal with and that they’re actively doing R&D with the pros to make their next generation(s) of shoes that much better.

That being said, it’s not looking like we’ll carry them. Why? Two practical reasons: (1) They’re heat-moldable, and based on our testing 1 go-round in the oven isn’t enough. To really get these fit right, you need 2 or 3 turns in the oven. From a business standpoint, we just don’t see our customers taking the time to do bake/form/cool 3 times, since there’s a brick wall of skepticism about fit you’d surely hit after baking it the 1st time and having them not feel ideal. Our fear is massive return rates because people won’t be patient with Bont’s fit process. (2) Sizing. This is the bigger issue. Their sizing is unfathomable. That co-worker I mentioned above? He wears a 45 in Sidi, and 44.5 in DMT. His size in Bont? 42.5. When we asked Bont why their sizing chart was so far askance from the rest of the world’s their answer was, in essence, ‘that’s just how we do it.’ Again, sugar-plum visions of massive return rates for us. No matter how clear we might make a Bont size chart, we don’t doubt people will find a way to not see it. And we’re bummed, because these are sweet shoes. Tell us now before we make our decision final: Should we give them a shot?

– And a final note, following up on last week’s comments about Bradley Wiggins’ mechanical at the World’s TT: Apparently he was on Di2, but he was using elliptical chanrings. That was the fatal front shifting combo that effectively ended his race. Thanks to everyone who contributed ideas and gossip.