Thursday, June 28, 2012

A Little Perspective

This Saturday is the day that many cyclists look forward to all year.  What comes before is just a warm-up for the main event.  Though it is not my favorite race on the calendar, I can’t deny that the Tour de France is the main event of cycling.  It has more prestige than any other race and the absolute cream of the crop design their entire year around it.  Nowhere is the competition more fierce.  No one is saving anything, hedging their bets, or just trying to get miles in their legs.  No one is using the Tour as a training race.  So it’s understandable that everyone puts this race on a pedestal.  

But do we really appreciate what these guys are doing over there in France?  Is it even really possible to comprehend exactly what goes into riding a grand tour?  Many of us avid cyclists like to think that we dedicate ourselves to this sport.  Putting all of our spare time towards getting in more miles, more climbs, more everything.  The more I learn about professional cycling, however, the more I realize just how impossibly far off we are from what pros do on a daily basis.  Sure, it is easy to say, “Of course pros are faster than us, they ride more, and they climb more.  It’s their job!”  But I don’t think that really illuminates just how difficult it is to complete a grand tour—let alone be competitive.  So today I’m gonna break it down for you.  I want to put this massive feat in perspective—as much for me as for you—so that we can really appreciate what we are seeing these athletes do over the coming month. 


Let’s start with the low hanging fruit.  Putting the mileage into perspective is fairly easy:  it’s a lot.  The total distance covered is 3,497 Km or 2,173 miles.  Sounds reasonable right?  I mean I know that I have ridden at least a couple thousand miles this year…Oh wait.  This happens over the course of just 23 days, with only two days off.  That changes the equation doesn’t it?  I just busted out my trusty calculator, and in case you haven’t already done the same that is roughly 103.5 miles a day.  

Some of you are probably saying, “Well I’ve ridden 100 miles in a day before.”  Maybe you have even done 100 miles a few days in a row—which you should be proud of, by the way.  But it simply doesn’t compare.  100+ miles every day for 21 days.  The two rest days are almost insulting, just thrown in there for media purposes.  

Just stop and think about that.  Think about how destroyed you were when you did your last century.  Now think about climbing on a bus as soon as you’ve finished that century, sleeping in a place you have never been before, then getting up the following morning to do it again…and again…and again.  21 times over! 
Most avid cyclists ride about 100 miles a week—200 if you’re really good about getting in those miles.  At that pace you’re looking at between (just under) three to (just over) five months to complete that kind of mileage.  Let’s say you get really ambitious and decide you want to step up your game and ride 50 miles a day.  That still puts you at 44 days to cover that ground.  Incredible.

This doesn’t even start to scratch the surface though.  We haven’t even talked about the terrain, or the speed.


I’ve heard many pros and racing insiders say, “It’s not the course that makes a race hard, it is the speed at which it is raced.”  It’s true.  It is possible for an average Joe to cover the same ground as the Tour does, but what is not possible is for us to do it at the same speed.  Last year, Cadel Evans’ winning time was 86h 12’22”.  That breaks down to an average speed of just under 40km per hour or roughly 24 miles an hour.  Philadelphia’s gold standard for training rides, The Drives, averages around the same speed.  “So what?” you say, “I can hang on the drives ride.”  Except these guys are doing this over mountains.  Over mountains the likes of which don’t even exist within 1,000 miles of Philadelphia, for 21 days, at an average of 24 mph.  It’s kind of sickening.  


Most average cyclists can average 16-18 mph on any given ride.  At that speed (this is assuming you would make it over the mountains we are about to discuss) your finishing time would be 127h 50’—a mere couple days (41h 38’) off the pace. 


So what about these mountains that keep coming up?  In this case I have saved the best for last my friends.  The amount of vertical feet this race ascends is absolutely staggering.  This year’s edition—one that is said to “not be too bad in the mountains” and favors strong time trialists—has a total of 41,882 meters climbed.  That breaks down to 137,373 ft of climbing!  I just checked my Strava account, and my running total for the entire year since January is only 84,000 ft.  I’m no climbing freak, but I do ride a fair bit.  At this pace I’m due to reach the Tour’s total in only another 4 months.  So 10 months for me, 21 days for the pros—seems reasonable.  

Stage 18 is where the tour could be won or lost.

The worst, or maybe the best, part about the climbing is that it is concentrated.  Only four stages (11, 12, 17, and 18) account for over half of the climbing.  Stages 17 and 18 are the worst one-two punch in the race, covering 22,573 ft over 197 km, followed the very next day by 18,060 ft  over 144 km.  The worst single stage of the 2012 Tour is stage 12, where the riders will climb a staggering 24,282 ft in a single stage!
Stage 12


So how exactly do these guys accomplish this? I mean how is it even possible for the human body to accomplish this?  Well it’s not, kind of.  Riders burn so many calories during the race that it is almost impossible not to operate at a bit of an unhealthy caloric deficit.  By the end of the three weeks of racing, the riders bodies are emaciated and on the verge of breaking.  

Riders burn on average between 3,500 and 4,500 calories a day—not including the 1,500-2,000 that it takes for your body to function.  Harder stages will burn more.  Team chefs produce menus that will force the riders to take in between 5,000 and 6,000 calories a day, sometimes more.  This pushes the limit of what the human body can even absorb.  While a racer may burn 700-1,000 calories an hour while racing, their bodies can only metabolize about 250-300.  This leaves them with a lot of calories to replenish between stages.  Just as staggering as the ground they cover is the amount they have to eat to do it.   Even after all of those calories, the riders will struggle to take in enough, likely losing a decent amount of weight during the race. 

You want to finish the tour?  You better eat!

So what do we take from all of this?  Well for one, I take from it that I will never be a professional cyclist.  But more importantly, it gives me a sense of awe and respect for anyone who has ridden a bike at this level.  We don’t even have to talk about watts, LT heart rates, or Vo2 capacities.  Just look at the raw numbers of what these guys are doing.  It’s incredible.  There may be sports out there that require more skill and technique, but no one can say that any other sport is harder than cycling on the human body.   No where are the limits of human fitness tested over such an extended period of time.  Not marathons, not Triathlons, not Ironmans.  I’m not trying to knock these sports.  These are great athletes in their own right, doing things that I could never dream of doing—and I’m sure most professional cyclists couldn’t do quite as well either.  I’m not aware, however, of any event that asks you to run a marathon every day for three weeks straight.  It’s almost laughable that someone would conceive of such a thing and expect that someone would be able to actually complete it.  Not only complete it, but race it.  Race it at speeds that even accomplished amateurs can only touch on their very best days. 

It’s no wonder then that the cycling world stops and stares when the grand tours are happening.  They are truly worth beholding. 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Viva l'Italia liberata e redenta: The Story of Wilier Triestina

There are plenty of bike brands in the world today.  In the age of mass manufacturing, pretty much anyone can buy a ticket to Taiwan, pick a mold out of a catalog, and have a brand created in their likeness.  Brands are fleeting, coming and going like the tide.  I suppose it is the nature of business these days.  Many of the large brands that dominate the market these days have lost personality.  A brand’s sense of self used to be tied to its history, its home.  In today’s “what have you done for me lately” culture, brands’ identities are subject to their marketing and engineering budget.  

It’s not all apocalyptic Sturm und Drang though.  There are still brands out there that tout a history as impressive as their design credentials—championing an old country idea of cycling and its roots.  Wilier Triestina is one of those brands.  Over 100 years of cycling history roll with these bikes—the brand surviving two world wars and scoring big wins in almost every major cycling event, from the Classics to Worlds.  But Wilier is more than just an old brand.  They didn’t simply live through this history.  The history is a part of them, woven into every bike they make.  The greatest part is, though, that Wilier does not let their brand be defined by their history.  They don’t honor their proud past by becoming trapped under it, producing outdated bikes with outdated technology.  Despite having more tradition than just about any brand out there, Wilier Triestina produces decidedly forward looking machines.  

The Factory at the base of the Monte Grappa

Da Capo

Wilier Triestina (pronounced Vee’-lee-air Tree-es-tee’-na, more on the name later) started under the moniker of Ciclomeccanica Dal Molin in 1906, which if you remember my Giro d’Italia post, was three years before the first Giro.  At the base of the Monte Grappa climb, about 60 miles from Venice, Pietro Dal Molin began producing bicycles.  This continued, as you would expect it to, until World War I, when Pietro’s son, Mario, took over the business.

Mario Dal Molin grew the brand considerably, using chrome and nickel plating—not something common place among bike builders back then—to expand the brand’s renown.  This growth continued until World War II, which the company was able to weather relatively unabated.  

A classic Wilier build done by Cadence.
The old head badge
Wilier collaborated with Campagnolo to produce special Wilier branded components.  Wilier still does this today with FSA.
The build featured custom hand built wheels and complete Wilier branded Campagnolo group--even the hubs!

Il Nome

So how did Ciclomeccanica Dal Molin become Wilier Triestina?  The name is a tribute to the Italian city of Trieste on the Adriatic Sea.  The city and its surrounding coastal area had been a controversial land since the Austro-Hungarian Empire dissolved after World War I.  Post World War II the area remained occupied.  Dal Molin created a cycling team and named it Wilier Triestina, inspired by the Italian patriotism of those living in the occupied area of Trieste.

The Trieste Coat of Arms.  Similar to a Fleur de Lis, this would later become Wilier's logo.

The first half of the name, Wilier, is actually an acronym.  The “W” stands for the Italian double V (there is no “W” in the Italian alphabet)—or an abbreviation of the Italian word “viva”.   The whole of the phrase goes something like this: Viva l’Italia liberata e redenta—Long live Italy, liberated and redeemed.

When Dal Molin created the Wilier Triestina team he picked a Trieste native, Giordano Cottur—a three-time Giro d’Italia winner himself—to lead the team.  After great racing success with the team, the company adopted the name.

Cottur solos to victory in the Giro d'Italia

The company grew along with its racing pedigree—racking up countless victories in major races—until the Italian reconstruction of the early 1950s brought an economic boom along with motorized and industrial progress.  Italian bicycle companies suffered the consequences of affordable motorized transportation, and Wilier was forced to close its doors in 1952.

The name Wilier Triestina was a great inspiration for all Italians following World War II.

Don’t worry though, the story doesn’t end there.  In 1969 Lino Gastaldello resurrected the brand, building it to the brand you see today.  As before with Dal Molin, Lino built the brand around racing.  The first sponsorship of the Gastaldello era was of the Mecap Hoonved team in 1979 and the result was a Giro d’Italia stage win by Mario Beccia.  They haven’t looked back since.  Recent results include Rebellin winning the historic triple crown of the Ardennes Classics, winning Amstel Gold, Fleche Wallone, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 2004.  Ballan won The Tour of Flanders in 2007 and followed the next year with the World Championship Road Race.  Scarponi and his Lampre counterparts have found the new Zero.7 to their liking in recent Giro d’Italias—Scarponi being named the official winner of the 2011 Giro after Contador’s doping suspension. 

The new Twin Blade TT bike. 

So what does all this mean for you though?  Why should you care about a brand’s history?  Why should you want a Wilier?  Ride one.  I don’t even have to try to sell them to you.  Ride one and you will see what 100 years of cycling tradition gets you.  Wilier’s current models push the envelope just as much, if not more so, than other manufacturers that brag of their engineering prowess.  They were one of the first brands around to really invest in aerodynamics—both on their road model, the Imperiale, and their wild looking Cento Crono and the new Twin Blade.  Their Cento1 SL has for years been one of the most impressive bikes on the market, and the new Zero.7 pushes the limits of how light carbon can really get (we built a size 54 in the shop that tipped the scales at around 12 lbs!)

Innovation is not everything though.  Wilier executes their bikes with a flair that is rare in today's engineering driven market.  They understand that a bike should not only be fast, but it should be sexy.  It should make you want to ride it.  That type of panache carries over to the rider--giving you a real sense of pride when you are riding.  The craftsmanship is beautiful, the bikes look beautiful, and the ride is beautiful.  What more can you ask for?

It’s pretty clear they are not resting on their laurels.  They’re not resting on anything.  Wilier is a brand built of national pride, a classic racing pedigree, and technical innovation.  I don’t see them stopping anytime soon.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Tricks of the Trade

There are a lot of bike mechanics in the world.  It’s often a field that is shrouded in a bit of mystery and a whole mess of grumpy dudes.  There seems to be two ways to break into this industry—although I’m not sure “break in” is the right way to say it.  You can either buck up and pay the money to go to a reputable mechanics school, or you can start at the very bottom—sweeping floors—and learn little by little.  I was lucky, in a sense, to happily fall into an invaluable 6+ years of working in shops starting at the ripe old age of 14.  I worked in shops throughout my high school and college years learning bit by bit on all types of two wheeled contraptions.  Twelve years later, I’ve learned the secret signs of an attentive bike mechanic. 

The old-school rules of the bicycle mechanic.  Photo Credit: Philip Gale

Whether you see them or not, I take great care in getting even the smallest of details right—every time.  Now I’m not trying to say that I’m perfect—I know it’s hard to believe, but even I occasionally make a mistake.  These details are often small or even insignificant, but they create a type of secret language between wrenches.  I look at your bike and can tell a great deal about the last mechanic (whether professional or just you in your garage) who last tweaked your ride. 

I’m not trying to indict your local bike shop’s mechanic.  I’m just about to let you in on the secret—show you what pro mechanics look for in other pro mechanics’ work.  Because at a certain point, just getting the gears to shift correctly isn’t enough.  There has to be some extra art to it, an extra challenge to keep you engaged after you have adjusted your 1,000th front derailleur (although I have to admit that there are still plenty of mechanics out there who have yet to figure out that pesky front derailleur). 

So here is a short list of secret (or not so secret) industry secrets that many pro mechanics religiously adhere to for no good performance reason:

Cables and Housing:

Cables and housing are ripe for detail work—and not difficult to make look good, but so many people just leave them long and sloppy.  It often rather time consuming to shorten cables to their correct and proper length, and outside of aesthetics there is no major functional reason to cut them down—except for the fact that it is not pro. 

Cables should be short and neat.  
Cable ends should be short, but not too short (two finger widths is a good guide) and should be neatly crimped with the correct size cable end.

An unfiled brake housing
Filed brake housing

All brake housing should be filed to a flush end.  This makes braking feel more crisp—or at least that’s what I tell myself when I question why I do it.  It is a detail that is literally buried inside your shifter or a cable ferrule, so pretty much nobody knows or cares whether or not I do it (except me, of course), so I do it every time.  

For really special builds, matching the labels on the cable housing is a nice aesthetic touch.  I don’t do this for everyone though, so if you notice that I did it on your build: consider yourself special. 


Matching labels with the valve: it's pro.

Wheels are another detail that often gets overlooked.  One of the most common pointless mechanical rules is lining up the label of your tire with the valve of the tube.  This is literally the first thing you learn when you start working in a shop—and I have no idea why.  I have heard several far-fetched ideas why, but I don’t buy any of them.  You should do it for the same reason you shave your legs: just because.

Make sure you can read your hub label through your valve hole.
The pointless mechanical rule of wheelbuilding:  You should lace a wheel such that you can read the label on the hub through the valve hole of the rim.  Again, no practical value, but this is how pretty much every professional builds wheels.  It was one of the first tips I received when building my first wheelset. 


Of all the things a mechanic can do to a bike, wrapping bars is my favorite.  It’s not complicated, but it actually takes a fair bit of practice and focus to do exactly right.  Each successive wrap should be even and parallel.  Throw those extra little strips of tape that come in the box away.  If you wrap a tight figure eight pattern around the hoods, they are totally unnecessary and only get in the way.  Finish with neatly done black electrical tape.  A well taped bar should stay tightly wrapped for as long as you need it to. 

A well wrapped bar.

These are just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.  Being a good wrench is more than simply lining up labels.  And I also want to be clear that I’m not trying to say these are sure fire signifiers of quality.  I’m sure there are some pretty great mechanics out there that don’t file their brake housing, and some pretty terrible ones that do, but isn’t it just so much easier to make overly simplified generalizations?  Yeah, I think I’ll stick with that.  So beware.  Next time you see a pro mechanic break one of these sometimes non-sensical rules, grab your bike and run.  They are assuredly about to break it. 

To be fair, these are details that most mechanics are aware of, but occasionally neglect for whatever reason.  Whether these small details are the actual signifiers of a quality mechanic is besides the point.  They are a sign of someone who takes pride in their work.  Taking the extra time to make sure the details are right maybe doesn't gain you any time in a time trial, but it should give you a real sense of pride in the machine you are riding, and surely that is an advantage that is hard to quantify.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Lather, Rinse, Repeat

Several days ago, while driving downtown with my wife in the car, we passed a Septa bus, wrapped in a Vitamin Water ad.  The ad featured some male model riding a brakeless track bike—fully equipped with male model pony tail, jewelry, and sunglasses, but rather conspicuously sans helmet.  Oh, and I nearly forgot—he was naked.  Strategically covered, of course, by Vitamin Water’s slogan “You’re up,” whatever that means.  

“Eww, gross,” my wife said.

“What? I didn’t see it…” I replied, not know what had caused her such offense.  

“That guy, in that ad, was riding a bike naked…and his legs weren’t shaved.  It was so gross looking.”

I just smiled.  I knew that the transformation—which had been over a year in the making—was complete. 
The Vitamin Water ad
About 18 months earlier, to my wife’s embarrassment, I, as a cyclist subject to peer pressure, had begun shaving my legs in order to fall in line with my pedal pushing brethren.   It’s a perfectly normal reaction to have—her embarrassment, that is—to a practice that has puzzled many people on the outside of our culture.  There is no real slam dunk reason that we can give as to why we shave, which leaves people even more puzzled.  It is such a conundrum that it dominates many “normal” peoples’ misconceptions about cyclists.  Check out what happens when you type “why do cy” into Google:

So why exactly do cyclists shave their legs?  And if you are a cyclist who doesn’t (which, by the way, there is nothing wrong with), should you?  These answers are oft debated, but I’m about to cover shaving from bottom to top, or from top to bottom—depending on whether you go with or against the grain. 

Photo Credit: © Ken Redding/CORBIS

Pros actually have a legit reason for shaving.  When racing over 100 miles on a daily basis in a grand tour, pros get massages every single day.  Hairy legs might make that painful—or at least require a messy abundance of oil.  But what can we say for us amateurs?  I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a team soigneur following me around giving my legs a rubdown on a regular basis.  So what’s my excuse?

Photo Credit:

Cyclists—amateur cyclists specifically—like to cite all kinds of ridiculous reasons for shaving when they are confronted about their smooth legs.  It’s more aerodynamic.  It’s better for road rash.  It’s more comfortable.  It’s not as hot.  HOGWASH! That’s what I say.  Maybe those things are true, but anyone who goes through all the trouble of shaving their legs doesn’t do it for the aerodynamic advantages.  Road rash?  How often are you crashing?  Maybe you should rethink your hobby if you are crashing enough to shave just for this reason—not to mention you should also shave your arms.  They are equally likely to incur damage in a crash.  C’mon.  I will make this easy.  There is really only one reason that any amateur cyclist shaves their legs: We want to be like the pros.  We want to fit in.  We want to feel like we are part of the culture.  And it’s nothing to be embarrassed about! 
Why do people tuck in their shirts, or wear neck ties?  Why do people eat hot dogs at baseball games? Why do you hang a circle of dead pine tree branches on your front door around the holidays?  Because.  It is what everyone does.  It’s tradition.  There are no practical reasons for these things.  If there was, they surely became irrelevant many years ago.  I’m a cyclist so I shave my legs. 

It is a daunting thing: the first time.  So where do you start if you want to make the leap?  Well there are many different kinds of shavers out there (and by “shavers” I mean people who shave, not devices with which to shave).  Some shavers enjoy the Zen of it all, taking their time and enjoying more involved shaving processes that require practice and dedication.  Others are more results orientated, they want it done quick, not matter the method.  You have to decide where you fall on that spectrum.  I suggest starting in the middle and seeing how you feel about the whole situation.  Consult a woman, preferably one that you know.  They tend to know what they are doing.  Lather up and jump right in, although not too enthusiastically.  No one likes an unplanned trip to the ER. 

Maybe one of the best scenes in Breaking Away. 
Shaving can make you feel faster.  It makes you feel pro, like you belong.  Like fresh white bar tape, it will lift your spirits and will boost your confidence.  It just looks good.  Trust me, once you jump in, you’ll never go back.

These are local courier "Franky" Delafuente's legs.  Aspire to be more like them.  Photo Credit:

It becomes a signal.  It’s a signal to those you encounter on the bike that you are a cyclist—and a dedicated one at that.  Maybe it’s a bogus signal, because shaving your legs is not mutually inclusive of being a good cyclist—just as not shaving doesn’t make you a bad one (I know some pretty amazing cyclists who don’t shave).  It is, however, a non-verbal way of communicating to those with whom you are riding:  

“Hey, check me out.  I’m in the club.”

Some people—nay, many people—probably think that is silly.  It is a bit silly.  But sooner or later, after you have shaved for a while, you will see a bus passing by, with some pony-tailed model riding a fixie naked and say to yourself, “Eww, look at that guy’s hairy legs.”