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The art of loitering

– The art of loitering. It’s a pre-requisite for advanced studies in How to Win a Bike Race. Pack-shattering brute strength is rare and it gets even rarer as you climb into loftier race categories. Loitering near the front of the main group, but not at the front, in search of that sacred-yet-profane sweet spot. Sacred because the origin of victory is there. Profane because profanity is what you get in buckets as you stay close, close, close but never nose into the wind.

A veteran ProTour rider once said that on the best days you get one chance to win and you count yourself lucky for it. So many forces conspire to marginalize you. If it’s not a crash or a mechanical or bad positioning or bad legs or unusual tactics -- all bullets to dodge on race day -- then you get one chance. Why just one? Because in the single-day slugfests it takes all your reserves of anger and power for any hope of getting a gap at all.

Except for winning -- the sex x10, money x100, life-affirmation of endless training hours invested -- the next-best euphoria is getting that gap. Primal feelings of hunting vs. hunted flood your body high-octane-like and electrify the ability, no, the need to make the gap bigger. Inevitably, 2 or 3 guys are with you and you’re glad because finding a Blue Angels coherence at that moment -- at the kill -- seems so easy and natural. Why, then, why so often do you get slackjawed know-nothing looks instead? Every 2-minute margin of victory got it first fragile threads of life as a 5-second gap. Please oh please PULL through. Save me from screaming things that in no other realm I’d dare put to words. Save my soul from the flood of hatred I’ve never felt anywhere else.

– The SRM wireless Powercontrol VI was introduced just a few months back. Is this a spy shot of a forthcoming Powercontrol VII? A whole new look from SRM.

– Final ’09 Tour de France clean-up before we move on:

#1 . In the matter of Armstong v. Contador, it’s interesting to ponder how each perceives the value of a team. In terms of Contador, he seemingly places too little weight on teamwork. If, as rumored, Contador is off to a Spanish team like Caisse d’Epargne, he’s in for a not-insignificant time deficit if there’s a TTT in the 2010 Tour. And, to boot, there’s not a Spanish team out there that can effectively police the peloton on the non-mountain stages for days unending. Grinding away at the front for a couple thousand K’s takes its toll. Contador would be ill-advised to underestimate the value of a heavy-hitting team.

In terms of Armstrong, he’ll surely assemble a squadra extraordinaire for the 2010 Tour, ensuring a TTT win and endless (and unquestioned) support no matter the terrain. But fall-on-your-sword loyalty only goes so far. There’s a nakedness to time trialing and even more so to the mountaintop finishes like Ventoux this year where it seemed as though Contador, if he had Hinault-like panache, could’ve grabbed another 3 minutes from Armstrong and the brothers Schleck. Armstrong would be ill-advised to overestimate the value of a heavy-hitting team.

#2. Insulting to the Schlecks. Insulting to the great city of Chicago. Somewhere a graphic artist is getting fired or worse. The horror. The horror.

#3. More quizzical graphic art. Is it just me, or is Contador’s pistolara logo just a bit too copycat-ish for comfort?

#4. In watching the Clasica San Sebastian on Saturday it dawned on me how much I love the 1-day classics. The Tour de France is wonderful, yes, but the best part of the Tour by a country mile is the marathon TV coverage. As a bike race it’s often a bore. The tactical (and practical) necessity to constantly hedge and conserve energy at all costs makes whole stages akin to a sleepwalk. It’s almost as though out of appreciation for the 3-hours-of-TV-time-per-day we’re anesthetized from judging the quality of the racing itself.

By contrast, nothing is held back in the 1-day classics. The rainy descent of the Jaizkibel in San Sebastian was a battleground where the riders were trying like hell to annihilate each other -- purposefully with their terrifying speeds, and then inadvertently by the dazed & confused duck walk they’d do in the apex of a turn after they’d crashed. Unlike the Tour, the blows come time and time again, and in the last 40km’s everyone left standing is scheming for victory. Cruising home to fight another day is a non-option, which is why the 1-day races are so superior to the Grand Tours.

#5. I didn’t dig into the archives to compare results, but it seems that Franco Pelozotti was the most worthy KOM winner since Laurent Jalabert. Rather than sitting in the pack all day and doing dainty little climber sprints to grab KOM points, it was as though he won the jersey by virtue of his day-in-day-out efforts to win stages. How many winning breaks was he in? In what variety of terrain? He put on a display of the manly way to earn the polka dots: By making it a priority to win stages.

– Brought to you by the Dept. of Universal Pre-race Rituals.

These guys have made it onto my list of must-bookmark sites. There’s serious depth here nearly every day.

– More San Sebastian: For some reason we’ve always followed Evgeni Petrov. Maybe it was his notably good fortune in doing the double in 2000 by winning both the U23 World Championship RR and TT. Maybe it was his luck in getting blamelessly flicked from the ’05 Tour for an ‘abnormal’ hematocrit just one day before Dario Frigo’s wife was arrested at the French border for trafficking EPO. Maybe it’s because with all of his early promise and periodic drama we kinda expected more from him as a pro and when he made a do-or-die breakaway in San Sebastian and then avoided the crash that took out his breakaway companion Marco Marzano of Lampre it seemed that maybe-oh-maybe he’d finally score his first-ever big win -- signifying, perhaps, a new beginning for a rider we can’t help but like. Then he got caught near the top of the day’s final climb, the alto Arkale, with 16km to go. So we’ll keep waiting and wondering if he’ll break through someday.

– In our part of the world the race season is over. Master’s Nationals: Done. State Crit: Done. Downieville Classic: Done. Granfondo Pinarello: Done. The big motivators are wrapped up and suddenly eating and drinking in ways unfathomable back in May seem like a reward. The heat and humidity are oppressive, so ‘training’ now takes the form of 90-minute jaunts and already the chronic aches have vanished. The legs, finally fully rested, feel super-charged. It’s been over 2 weeks without pounding the red zone on a ride, and power -- on the rare occasions when I choose to summon it -- comes with an ease that was missing in June. It’s a lesson, one that I re-learn every year and never heed -- it’s a lesson on the importance of rest. Next year: A little less obsession with speedwork. A little more obsession with real rest.

– San Sebastian again: What’s the story with Valverde’s watch? Looks like something from Nixon, no? I dig it.

There was a time when the word ‘robust’ was never used at all and now its abuse is so vast it’s like a terrifying and unstoppable and very robust grammatical tsunami exploding the hitherto agreed-upon convention to only use words when they communicate what they mean. But pay attention now to the modern media -- ‘robust’ is a raucous party of free association, and everybody’s invited! A bottle of shiraz, the demand for copper in the commodities market, a simmering pot of marinara, quarterly earning reports, a bottom bracket design -- all robust. There’s been an obnoxious meaning-creep with the R-word. It was once a never-used synonym for ‘healthy.’ Now it means…something so much more, and so much more of the time. Please stop!

– Nobody loves Graham Watson more than me and his book ‘Road to Hell’ was no less formative to me in my youth than JD Salinger. His fame came from his access to the races and the motos and his relationship with VeloNews and he’s earned the fortune he’s surely accumulated. That being said, I think I like it better in 2009, though, with the democracy of Flickr where you see that lots of great photographers exist and many have a deep love for bike racing. The catalog of amazing photos there is vast. My most recent fave is dotcycling but goodness gracious in about 5 minutes you can put together a top-10 list of all-time favorite bike race photos and then replace the whole list 5 minutes later. The vastness of Flickr is amazing.

The irresistible temptation to attack.