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My Surrogate Belgium

– A week in Texas. The remotest reaches of Hill Country. Distant from San Antonio, from Austin, from phone, from TV, from internet. It was a week devoted, ascetic-like, to worship of the bike. Kerrville, Willow City, Fredricksburg: An unjustifiable thicket of roads shortening the distance from nowhere to nowhere -- potential journeys (based on the traffic) seemingly taken by no one.

Texas: You are my surrogate Belgium. Like Flanders it’s not just wind but a great, hardback thesaurus devoted to the language of wind. Shoving, heaving, bullying. To ride in Texas is an immersion in the lexicon of sailing and its way of seeing. To predict the impending sensation in your legs not just from the gradient of the road ahead, but in the prevailing twistedness of the scant greenery surrounding you. This hospice of a landscape, boulder-strewn broiled grassland, leaning as the windblasts have pushed it for time immemorial.

And then there’s Texas pavé, those cattleguards. They’re worrisome in the dry, and they provoke bar-clenching terror in the rain. Is any road adornment more cobblesque in its potential for instant havoc?

Lastly, it’s the fences. To ride in Hill Country is to master the myriad species of barbed wire, capped once and again with Lone Star-logoed ironwork. When the poets of the world got busy with making beautiful names for birds and flowers, Texans chose to do the same for fences. Snow Picket; Buckthorn Ribbon; Glidden Vicious; and, of course, Flemish Braid. Dagger-pointed to keep the deer out; to keep the cows and sheep in; to set the boundary between oneself and the rest of Texas, and, beyond that, the dreaded world yonder. The relentlessness of the Lone Star-emblazoned roadside fences: an expression of place and the pride thereof matched by only one other thing I’ve ever seen, the equally ubiquitous and razor-lavished Lion of Flanders.

The next time you and your pals are keen for a powerhouse training camp, set up shop in Fredricksburg and go pummel yourself. Every mile thank the heavens for Lyndon Baines Johnson and the web of unlined and untrafficked 1.5-lane-wide farm-to-market roads he bequeathed the Texas Hill Country. If ever there was a place for The Great American 1 Day Bike Race it’s there. Goodness gracious, why hasn’t anyone done that yet? I’m not talking a stage race chess match, I mean a 270km pointed lesson in brutality. The kind of race that causes boys to dream one day of becoming PRO. America needs to make a race like that -- one worthy of that word, Ronde, and Hill Country is the place. I will go back soon and some day, perhaps, I will go back forever.

– Additional revelations:

* It’s a nasty combo, a low water bridge + mid-section rims. When the water rushes over, nothing I’ve ever felt pushes you around harder.

* Barista boy chic. That’s my name for the signature look of Rapha’s models. Skinny, stringy-haired, wracked with cosmopolitan ennui. Sneer as they may, I know I could drop every last one of those fuckers (who doesn’t have the same thought?) Worst of all, methinks, is that Rapha clothing is a breed apart in many sweet ways and the fashionista marketing inadequately communicates the fact.

I can’t say I’ve ever worn bib shorts as much as I like Rapha’s. For a decade I’ve kitted up in Power Lycra-this and High Compression-that and it’s as though Rapha simply says NO. High performance lycra as we’ve come to know it is stiff, unpliable, and often struggles to conform to your body throughout the pedal stroke. While Rapha’s lycra might lack in the sort of high-denier fabric tension that ostensibly massages your muscles, it has an intrinsic softness whose skin-feel agrees with me at minute 1 of a ride and even more so at hour 4. If you’ve yet to find bib short nirvana in your life, Rapha should be your next stop. If you’re between sizes, go with the smaller one. And, also, beware putting them on in a dark room. The chamois is black (the first I’ve ever encountered) so you can’t discern short front-from-back by looking at the direction of the chamois. Putting them on in a poorly lit room made me feel dexterous as a tumbling drunk.

Another bit of Rapha I dug: The way the waistband works on their jerseys. Can I claim gel-gripper-waist fatigue? Gel grippers have only so much range. If I go with a Medium in most jerseys, I’m squeezed too tight at the waistline. With Large the floppy, billowing fit gets into my head and is there any worse word to obsess upon up a climb than voluptuous? Rapha makes their jerseys with a gel gripper on the rear half of the waist’s circumference, but around the front half there’s none. And since the front of the jersey as a whole has a nice tight cut with no wasted fabric, the flat feel you get from the chest down continues to the front of your waistline. It holds in place at the apex of your form with good snugness and zero pinching.

* The downshifting (i.e. 17t to 16t) with a SRAM Doubletap rear shifter is flat-out fantastic. Yes, the upshifting isn’t equally crisp & definitive. And, yes, the front derailleur shifting (especially the downshifting) has a Gen 1 brute feel nobody’s keen on. But the rear downshifting is ecstasy and, short of a battery-driven system, it’s the best shifting sensation I know.

One tweak I’m happy about was my use of a Shimano Ultegra CS-6600 cassette in place of the stock SRAM OG-1070. There are three upsides: (a) The upshifting is quicker and more certain. (b) The intermittent clicky-ticky noise between my chain and (SRAM) cassette completely stopped. It that church mass kind of silence so quiet it makes you want to wash your bike all the time to make the total muteness of your machine permanent. (c) It’s a 12-23, my favorite ratio. Sadly, SRAM doesn’t make a 12-23. I can’t remember the last time I got dropped because I didn’t have an 11t, and my all-time favorite gear is an 18t. There isn’t the least bit of shifting hesitation with my bastard drivetrain, and in fact if it weren’t so great as it is, I’d be tempted to try a Shimano chain to boot. It’s a mix n’ match I highly recommend.

– Three quick remarks about Flanders:

1) Based on the dozen or more excellent quality, free, live online feeds of the race aggregated at the outstanding, can we finally pronounce completely dead? If a race of Flanders’ immense importance isn’t imprisoned by now behind an iron curtain of geo-restricted feeds, what hope does have of selling subscriptions to North Americans?

2) I happened to watch the race on a feed from Spanish Eurosport and learned that Juan Antonio Flecha is referred to as ‘Tony.’

3) What’s more notable: The fact that Tyler Farrar got 5th place (the 2nd highest finish ever for an American, I think), or the fact that his group finished 2:35 down? The yawning time gap, methinks, indicates the true state of Farrar’s contender-hood for the upcoming Paris-Roubaix more so than his 5th place. When was the last time an April monument came down to a 20 or 30 man group? Look at many of the Classics greats -- they started as outstanding field sprinters who gave that up in exchange for a different kind of explosiveness, i.e. the sort that can single-handedly contend with vicious attacks in the final hour of a 6 hour race. Kelly, Jalabert, Museeuw, Boonen -- all former badass field sprinters who changed their make up to better themselves for the Classics. Maybe that’s Farrar’s next career step? He had an esteemable day at the Ronde, but judging on history, he’ll likely never have a chance to use his sprint for a V in one of the biggies. Green jersey in le Tour? That’s just a matter of time for him. But April glory? That’s a taller order.