Mid-Life Cycling

Mid-Life Cycling

29 July 2014

The Ezzard Charles of the Cycling World

Although I watched it only in bits and pieces, and on television screens more than 5000 km from the action, something about this year's Tour de France made me woozy with deja vu, as Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Breakfast of Champions.

In watching a few clips, again, I realized that it was the weather:  Almost every stage seemed overcast or rainy.  And they looked cold for summer.  From what I'm hearing, they were.

Such were the conditions of the 1980 Tour.  In fact, much of Europe seemed not to have a summer that year.  I know:  I was there.  That was when I did my first bike tour outside the US.  And it was the first time I saw the final stage of the Tour, along the Champs-Elysees.

That allowed me to witness the greatest performance of the cycling world's Ezzard Charles

Ezzard Charles is probably the greatest boxer you've never heard of.  I heard of him from a great-uncle of mine who was a prizefighter; I would later learn that no less than Muhammad Ali and Rocky Marciano considered him among the greatest boxers of all-time, and that The Ring magazine rated him among the top fifteen.

His counterpart in cycling, whose victory I witnessed in 1980, was none other than Joop Zoetemelk


If you've never heard of, or forgotten, him, I wouldn't be surprised.  Any time I've mentioned him, even to those who know a thing or two about the history of cycling and are, shall we say, of a certain age. I was met with furrowed brows.

His palmares includes, in addition to the 1980 Tour win, six second-place finishes in the great race.  He also won the Vuelta a Espana in 1979 and numerous one-day races.   

His almost preternaturally fair skin led to the joke that he never tanned because he was always riding in the shadow  of Eddy Mercx and, later, Bernard Hinault.  In fact, his detractors claimed that he won the 1980 Tour only because Hinault had to withdraw--while wearing the yellow jersey---midway through the race because the chilly, damp weather aggravated a knee injury.  

As much as I have always loved Hinault, I must say that such a criticism of Zoetemelk is unfair.  At least, I cannot concur with his detractors after seeing what I saw of him:  He rode with as much determination as power and technique.  And those who saw far more of him--his contemporaries in the peloton--always spoke of him in respectful, and even reverential, tones

Aside from being an "eternal second" (the label the European media also gave to Raymond Poulidor), I think there is another reason why Zoetemelk is not as well-remembered as Mercx or Hinault:  He was not a flashy or even a particularly stylish rider.  Marco Pantani, who had exactly as many Tour wins as Zoetemelk, is revered because "Il Parata" rode with a panache that bordered on hubris. (Also, he died only a few years after his Tour victory.) Zoetemelk, on the other hand,was often called "the perfect teammate", as much as a taunt as a compliment.

I think he would have done very well in, if not won, this year's Tour. And it wouldn't have been a result of Chris Froome and Alberto Contador withdrawing.

28 July 2014

Does Something Like This Turn You Into A "Retrogrouch"?

In just about every human endeavor, there are those who have to be the first on their block to have the newest and latest, and others who--whether they quote it or not--seem to be guided by Ecclesiastes:  "There is nothing new under the sun."

I guess I fall mostly, but not wholly, into the latter camp.  I ride steel frames, but I use threadless headsets and sealed-bearing hubs and bottom brackets.  And, while I ride dual pivot brakes and modern cassette hubs, I perch myself on Brooks saddles and slide, not snap, into my pedals.

I used to live with the hope that some completely ridiculous ideas that used to surface every decade or two would finally die off.  Alas, I have given up such hope that I will never see an electronic shifting system again.

I have even less reason for such hope after reading about a "smart bike" prototype Samsung has developed:

Now, a curved frame that would absorb the impact of potholes and such, I can understand, even if I wouldn't ride it myself.  But a rearview camera and a smartphone on the front?  And what do they mean by "laser beams that create an individual bike lane"?  That's a bad translation, I hope.

I have to admit, though, that I wouldn't mind seeing one of those bikes in person.  Still, I wonder what would happen if everyone rode one and had his or her individual bike lane.

The bike looks like it has a Brooks B-66 or -67 saddle.  I guess it can't be all bad.

27 July 2014

An Outsider Wears The Yellow Jersey

The Tour de France ended a few hours ago.  Vincenzo Nabali won.

That result doesn't seem so surprising now.  But, before the race began. I don't think very many people were picking him as anything more than a dark horse to ascend the podium at the end of the Champs-Elysees

He is a talented rider, but he had a bit of luck:  Chris Froome and Alberto Contador, two of the favorites, both pulled out of the race after crashing.    Also, this year's route played to his strenghts:  three of his four stage victories were in the mountains.  In fact, he won a stage in each of the ranges the Tour visited:  the Vosges, Alps and Pyrenees.  

Moreover, his other stage victory came on the Tour's second day, at the end of the 201km from York to Sheffield.  That made Nibali the first Tour winner since Eddy Mercx to win four non-time trial stages.  For the record, there was only one such stage in this year's race, which was a good thing for Nibali, as that is not one of his strenghts.

Although, as I mentioned in an earlier post, I was not rooting for anyone in particular, I am glad to see Nibali win.  He hails from Sicily, as some of my family does.  One of the reasons, I believe, that there haven't been--until recently--many Italian-American competitive cyclists is that most Italians who emigrated to the US came from Sicily or the southern part of the mainland (from places such as Naples).  Most of Italy's racing cmmunity and infrastructure (as well as most of its bicycle industry) is found in the northern part of the country.  There isn't even as much recreational cycling in, say, Palermo or Bari as there is in the Tuscan and Ligurian regions, or in some northern European countries.  

Nibali on the Champs-Elysees

So, congratulations to Vincenzo Nabali.

Jean-Christophe Peraud and Thibaut Pinod took the other two positions on the podium.  This is the best showing for French cyclists in three decades.  Next year will mark 30 years since Bernard Hinault took the most recent overall Tour victory for a French rider.  Could it be the time the French take back their own Tour?  Or will Nibali repeat--or will Froome or Contador return to form?