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There’s math, then there’s madness

– When I opened the champagne it was for no good reason. The off-season, when it’s new like this, maybe it’s a celebration in itself. If I don’t want to ride today I won’t.

A half-bottle later I walked alone to pick up some takeout. I floated through a parking lot, my easygoing wooze making me a sucker for the accidental ballet in the Camry there. If the buzz in my brain could last so long, I’d watch her -- the beauty of it -- putting on the seatbelt 100 times more. She shifted into reverse, and in the slow roll backward our eyes caught. Instead of the automatic look-away of respectable adults they locked long, way too long.

Her glasses, if they were ever fashionable, surely they weren’t now. Too much lipstick, or the color was too dark. But her almost-olive Mediterranean skin and night black hair made up for it and the whole of my 20’s passed right before my eyes -- every bed I’d ended up finding myself in. 95 degrees of Arkansas August pulsed from the blacktop beneath me and I felt a shiver. It was a decade of methodical debauchery. How does anyone survive their 20’s?

That was the question I asked myself as I finished ‘From Lance to Landis’ by David Walsh. How does anyone survive their 20’s? Mortals like me slog through college and their first few jobs and looking back at the softcore depravity of the age is like trying to stare through a fog machine. What I did to my body. What I did with my body. It’s funny only because I survived.

Why would it be any different for the young bike racing savants that fill up the pro ranks? The stars of the late 90’s -- an era Walsh paints in great detail, the best part of the book really -- how were they any different from me? Sure, they’re coddled, their egos are endlessly stroked, and they lives equally itinerant and monk-like. But an eagerness for bodily experimentation and a self-certain sense of immortality. Does any word better define your young 20’s than hunger? In that, we were the same.

Walsh makes it clear that the peloton of the late 90’s was rampant with EPO. The evidence overwhelms. He could’ve focused his book on any of the 500 young pros whose choices, in their intemperance, were no different than mine. He chooses to narrow on Lance Armstrong, but the same book could’ve been written about any of them.

I was expecting a mouth-foamy indictment of Lance, a la the ravings of Paul Kimmage, but mostly it’s calm journalism and if there’s condemnation there it’s partly of an era that Lance did not cause, one that he resisted at first and then finally purportedly became victim of. The more cutting theme, I think, is the book’s portrayal of a stage of life -- the dissolute Less Than Zero shit that plagues every year’s new crop of 20-somethings. More than anything else Walsh’s story of Lance, et al. is an indictment of youth itself. Who doesn’t see some of themselves there? Who doesn’t thank God that no one’s taking investigative interest in their 20’s? Who amongst us could withstand judgment?

– Chechu Rubiera slogging away in the Asturias. Why do I take such joy in seeing pros train with fenders? Someday the American bike racer marketplace will wake up and see that fenders are as PRO as SRM’s and there’ll be a run on SKS we can’t possibly prepare for. BTW, nice house Chechu!

More Contador.

– Other than fenders, the off-season opens up other opportunity for equipment experimentation. Before you know it we’ll start up cold, long rides on dodgy roads, perfect for the 25c tires I plan on installing for the very first time in my life. Can’t wait. And I’m curious to dip my toe into mathematics: 52×36 anyone? As I recall, Tom Steels -- even in his sprint-winning, bottle-throwing heyday -- never used a 53. Always a 52 for easier acceleration. And if you raced in the Indurain era you almost certainly rode a 52×42. I didn’t mind the 52 then, so I’m game to check it out now.

And the 36, why? It’s hilly here and my sense of vanity aches every time I see that 25t cog on my cassette. Beyond that, with SRAM you can’t get an 18t cog, and that is the bestest gear of them all. 53×18 is a killer cruising gear. And, somehow, 39×18 is the same. I love my SRAM but I miss my 18. 53×17/19 and 39×17/19 are never-ending dissatisfactions of too-big/small. So maybe at heart I’m just trying to replicate them via other math. (Info below assumes 700×23 tires & 172.5mm cranks, BTW.)

53 39 52 36
11 x x 124.0 85.8
12 115.8 85.2 113.6 78.7
13 106.9 78.7 104.9 72.6
14 99.3 73.0 97.4 67.4
15 92.6 68.2 90.9 62.9
16 86.9 63.9 85.2 59.0
17 81.7 60.2 80.2 55.5
19 73.1 53.8 71.8 49.7
21 66.2 48.7 64.9 44.9
23 60.4 44.5 59.3 41.0
25 55.6 40.9 x x

My gameplan is to give it a shot this fall, and I’m enthusiastic for a few reasons: (1) I’ve never sprinted in a 53×12 (115.8′), but I’ve certainly spent plenty of race miles in it (downhills, tailwinds, etc). The 52×11 (124.0′) is, in fact, bigger, and the 52×12 (113.6′) nearly matches the 53×12. In short, I’m giving up nothing whatsoever on the high end.

(2) When the climbs get steep a 39×25 (40.9′) is my BFF, and 36×23 (41.0′) is all-but identical. Ditto here -- I’m giving up nothing on the hills.

(3) In trying to replicate my most beloved gears -- 53×18 (77.2′) and 39×18 (56.2′) -- I’ll doing fairly well with a 52×17 (80.2′) and it’ll be mathematical near-nirvana with a 36×17′ (55.5′).

(4) A 52t outer ring looks no different than a 53t. And the 36t inner ring is hidden. I’ll swap out our 12×25 for an 11×23. My bike will look pleasantly PRO from further than, um, 2 or 3 feet away.

If I had my druthers, SRAM would make a 12×23 cassette. If they did that I’d gladly give up the 52×11 in exchange for an 18t cog. The fact they don’t make a 12×23 is shortsighted. They already offer 7 ratios in their PG-1070 cassette, so it doesn’t seem like an unreasonable request. That would be the ideal combo -- 52/36 with a 12×23.

Maybe the cure is just to switch to Campy 11, even though there’s no 12×23 cassette there. With that 11th gear, though, a 11×23 gives you the 18. Hmmmm….maybe we won’t switch chainrings after all. And, if being devil’s advocate is in order, another reason not to switch to 52/36 with our SRAM is that it doesn’t do what many purport a 16t chainring spread accomplishes, namely, giving you less redundancy in your gears. With a 53/39 & 12×25 you get a total of 18 unique gears, while a 52/36 & 11×23 limits you to 17 unique gears. Dammit SRAM, save me from going Campy-11: Make a 12×23! Now I’m thinking I won’t go 52/36 after all…

The Tour of Poland punched into our top-3 list of most-exciting stage races in 2009.. Alessandro Ballan’s attack on the final climb of Stage 5 was awe-inspiring, but way more noteworthy is how he shredded the descent at 90kph in a cataclysmic thunderstorm. Guts, balls, insanity -- whatever you want to call it. I never tire of how pros so eagerly risk their lives to win a race that a month from now will seem like a throwaway on the calendar. And this is why pro bike racing kicks the ass of every other sport out there -- in even the most forgettable race the pros put their necks fully on the guillotine (read: reputation, self-regard) to win. Kobe in Milwaukee in February -- does he care? Does anyone care? My heart was in my throat watching Stage 5, and I have a respect now for Ballan I didn’t even have after he won the rainbow jersey last year. Chapeau.

– Gossip, anyone? Kirk O’Bee : What’s the story behind the story??

– We give Team Garm*n no shortage of hell here because, well, they so often deserve it. But we’ve gotta extend credit where it’s due -- so hats off to Tom Danielson for fighting his own personal Battle of the Alamo on the final climb of the final stage of the Vuelta a Burgos on Sunday. He was wearing the purple leader’s jersey and held a slim margin over umpteen climbing specialists, all of whom had their crosshairs targeted straight on him. He had to cope with a breakaway up the road (the members of which were all just one minute down), plus Alejandro Valverde (5 seconds down) escorted by his band of merry Spaniards.

Tom’s Garm*n teammates gutted themselves defending the lead over the 4 rated climbs that came in the 50km prior to the final climb. So he had to fight solo over the last 6km. To his credit he shredded all-but-the-strongest, and he even threw down with an out-of-the-saddle attack with just 3 or 4km to go, in an attempt to reel back the break and flick Valverde. It was panache from a race leader like I haven’t seen all year, and I’ll admit my surprise and express in no uncertain terms my respect for it.

With 1km to go the inevitable happened: Valverde put in a crushing attack and took 20 seconds out of Tom. I read somewhere early last week that Tom was a 50-1 shot to win the Vuelta. I’d still rate him as a long shot, but perhaps it gives him a new relevance in the Euro peloton -- something he’s been lacking for a few years now. So props to Tommy D for a manly weekend.

– I resisted Twitter for too long. There’s a ton of juicy stuff there. Our current faves: @slctbird, @eurohoody, @craiglewis85. Please tell us your faves. Bike-related-only please!

– The loneliest I’ve ever been as a bike racer: In a dumpy Appalachian hotel room. Mid-afternoon after getting dropped halfway through the Highland Rim Classic Road Race in east Tennessee. It was a full 24 hours ’til the crit and all I wanted to do was go home -- 8 long, sleep-inducing hours behind the wheel on I-40. I dreaded the wait ’til the crit. I dreaded the idea of the drive home.

I haven’t thought about that weekend in ages. But hearing the phrase ‘broken collarbone in Bialystok’ this week tuned me right back into the misery. Bike racing trips are mostly a blast. But when they go wrong, they burst open the floodgates of isolation like nothing else.

– It’s not just New Jersey. Anywhere there’s government, there’s graft.

– Bike-industry related story of the week is the drama going on at wholesale distributor Veltec Sports. There was a time when they were loaded with top-tier brands -- Look frames, Look pedals, Colnago frames, Easton components, Sidi shoes. Over the last 4 years they’ve been losing their marquee brands as these companies chose to self-distribute.

We’ve long believed that Veltec’s prominence was assured provided that they kept their exclusive deal to wholesale Sidi. Even though companies like Specialized and Shimano might be gobbling up shoe marketshare, Sidi always had a luxury-goods vibe & a presence in the peloton that kept it atop the heap prestige-wise and mindshare-wise. And then this story came out in Bicycle Retailer and we about fell out of our chair. It’s remarkable for two things:

(1) Who knew that Veltec was investing in Lake Shoes? We didn’t, but we probably should have. You might recall that several months ago Veltec put out a press-release that longtime General Manager (and public face of Veltec) Josh Greenberg was leaving the company. A fact: nobody was more responsible for the sustained success of Sidi in the US marketplace than Josh. And then not too much later another press release announced Josh’s re-emergence as the head honcho of Lake shoes -- a move we interpreted at the time as being a sizeable FU to Veltec and Sidi. How wrong we were. Apparently they were in bed all along. Or at least maybe they were.

(2) It’s becoming apparent that Veltec is making a strategic shift away from their reliance on distributing 3rd-party brands. They acquired Shebeest a couple of years back. Then they bought Descente. Now they own Lake Shoes. We admire their pluck for taking this approach: Buying the companies they distribute. We wonder, then, what the future holds for the brands they currently sell, but don’t own. Enervit and Vredestein come to mind. While we don’t know really know the story behind Enervit, we do know that Vredestein is a massive corporation. But there are plenty of niche bike tire manufacturers out there. Why not buy Challenge or Veloflex?

Is there a bike manufacturer acquisition in their future? We’d love to be a fly on the wall in those meetings. Don’t neglect to remember that Veltec’s main HQ is in Benelux, where they’re a massive powerhouse in European bicycle distribution. They’re hugely successful and respected in Europe, and this gives them a scale that wouldn’t be possible if their operations were limited to the US alone. A bike manufacturer? Why not. Our vote is for them to buy Concorde. As far as we’re concerned, the more Sean Kelly the better. More Conchords, please!