Cyclocross and You: The Bike

Charm City Cross 2014 (470).JPGYou’ve heard about cross, learned about cross, been to some cross races and have decided you want to join in the madness! But… where to start? It’s all so overwhelming! How do you know what kind of bike to get? How do you learn the skills needed? What are even the skills you need to learn?? Not to mention, how do you even find races in your area to sign up for?? Never fear, Anna is here! There is a lot to learn, but I’ve broken it down to make it easy to digest. The first step is The Bike. In subsequent articles, I’ll address cyclocross skills are needed (and how/where to practice them!), how to sign up for races, and what you should do on race day.

The Bike

Do I *need* to buy a new bike?

A cyclocross bike is designed to perform best in cyclocross races, but if you’re just starting out and you want to jump into some practices and into some races to try cyclocross, the answer is: No! There are lots of advantages to cyclocross bikes, but there is no need to buy one when you’re just testing the waters. Mountain bikes fit the bill, and some hybrids. BUT knobby tires are essential, because you’ll never get the traction you need off road to ride well/safely without them.

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Mountain bikes: Mountain bikes are often HEAVY, which is their main drawback in a cyclocross race where you may need to get off your bike and run, or pick up your bike over barriers or other obstacles on course. That said, they are made to go off road! The only potential modification you may need to make before jumping into a race or practice is to remove the bar-ends from your handlebars.

Hybrids: Hybrid bikes can be used on a cyclocross course. Most can accommodate cyclocross tires, and the brakes have enough clearance for wider, potentially mud-caked rims. Just head down to your local bike shop and ask them to set you up with some all/mixed condition ‘cross tires! The disadvantage of a hybrid bike is that it isn’t made to go off-road, and you might feel a bit less steady in some corners because the bike is meant to be stable, not turn quickly off-road!

Road bikes: Road bikes do not have fork clearance necessary for cyclocross tires, which are wider than road bike tires (32-35 mm versus 23-28 mm) and often get packed with mud. The brake set-up on road bikes also do not have sufficient clearance for the wider rims that would support cyclocross tires. There are other important differences between the geometry of cyclocross and road bikes, but fork and brake clearance are probably the key points. I found, however, that you can practice some basic ‘cross skills on a road bike. This is what I did initially, and I was able to practice the basic ‘cross skills (dismounting/remounting and barriers) enough to realize I wanted to invest in a proper ‘cross bike!  If you do practice on your road bike, you should make sure that you have appropriate pedals on your bike (SPD or Crank Brothers clipless pedals or flat pedals) and the right shoes on your feet before attempting dismounts or remounts. Road pedals and cleats are likely to get ruined quickly if you’re hopping on and off your bike! Your LBS can help you with this as well!

If you decide to invest in a new bike, the nice thing about a ‘cross bike is that it isn’t a “one trick pony.” Cyclocross bikes are excellent for all kinds of riding beyond just racing! They make excellent bikes for gravel adventures, and because they are setup to withstand the weather typically encountered in a cyclocross season, they make for excellent all weather commuting bikes (with proper maintenance). From being able to accept wider tires, to being equipped with disc brakes, to sealed bottom brackets, and more – they can make excellent commuter bikes!

How do I choose a new ‘cross bike?

Through lots of legwork and research! You must be willing to spend some time researching what you might want in a bike, so you can make an informed decision. If you want to buy a brand new bike, be prepared to spend around $1,200 for a entry level ‘cross bike or between $1,500 and $1,600 for mid-level ‘cross bike (at least at the time of writing!). You can find used ‘cross bike for less, depending on the year/model. Try Craigslist, eBay, or any local used bike Facebook groups.

I personally find bike buying to be overwhelming and intimidating! There are SO many great bikes out there, plus shops can be intimidating if you feel like a newbie. If this describes you, below are my suggestions for overcoming choice paralysis.

  • Make a list of what YOU want: be complete, be honest, and understand that there are trade-offs:
    • What do you want your bike to do? Does your ideal bike live in your house until race day, or do you need or want to use it for commuting? Bikes are like people: they can’t do everything equally well, and a bike that’s ideal for commuting is going to have rivets to accommodate brackets and may have a “less aggressive” geometry than a bike specifically designed for racing. Trade-offs between a race bike and a more all-around bike may include geometry, weight, and components. There’s no right answer, just know before you go what you want your bike to be for you.
    • How much maintenance are you willing to do? In general, higher-end components are really nice but they also require a higher level of maintenance in order to continue to perform as designed. If you’re going to to take your bike out in wet or muddy conditions on the ‘cross course or on your commute, be honest in your assessment of the time and energy you can devote to taking care of your equipment, as it may impact your decision and also what your LBS recommends.
  • Make a list of all the local bike shops in your area
    • Each bike shop will carry their own specific mix of brands – no bike shop carries all brands!
  • Visit or call each shop on your list, and say you’re looking into getting a ‘cross bike, give them a quick synopsis of what you’re looking for your bike to do, and ask what they have offer.
    • Note models they have in your price range, their price and sizing. Sometimes sizing on cycloross bikes is, well, like shopping for clothing: the numbers don’t mean what you think they might mean. Different bikes of the same size can fit very differently. Shops will usually write down what you looked and the price, if you ask.
    • Don’t be discouraged if a shop doesn’t seem to carry any bikes that fit what you’re looking for. Keep calling. And don’t be afraid to call a shop back, if what you are looking for changes.
    • It is important to know what you want, but as you are looking, it is also important to have honest conversations with folks at bike shops to make sure that your “ideal bike” is out there, or if you may need to reconsider some of features on your list to find a bike in your price range that does what you need it to do.
  • Once home, make a chart where you can compare the different bikes, based on criteria important to you
    • It could be price, size, geometry, looks…!
    • I was looking for an upgrade from my entry level road bike, so components (derailleurs and shifters) were important to me. If that is also important to you, this article by BikeRadar was invaluable in helping me learn about the different components and groupsets!
  • Test ride the bikes that you are most interested in purchasing if possible.
    An LBS may not have a bike in your size in the store, but they can sometimes transfer bikes from other locations. Be sure to ask about this option if you are seriously considering a bike purchase.
  • Because ‘cross bikes are a bit of a niche bike, and they may not have your size available a test ride. You can work with your LBS to either find a comparable bike to test ride for the purpose of determining your size, or they can work with you off the bike to determine the size you should order.

Once you’ve decided on The Bike for you, schedule with your LBS to pick up the bike and ride on! If the bike you want is not in stock in the store, and the shop needs to order the bike, your LBS might require a deposit before placing the order, and this deposit may or may not be refundable. That said, it’s part of the benefit of working with an LBS, that if the bike doesn’t fit or you don’t like it, you can likely transfer the deposit to a new bike from that shop, which was my experience.

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Do I need any special accessories?

Accessories are anything you might want to purchase in addition to your bike, just to get started. What you have on-hand is likely to change as you develop, change, learn as a rider. For the purpose of getting into cyclocross the accessories I would suggest purchasing (if you don’t have them already) are:

  • Chain Lube
    • Be. Nice. To. Your. Drivetrain.
    • This may be something you have on hand, but be sure to talk to your LBS about a good chain lube that you can use, particularly in wet or muddy conditions. You’re going to want to make a habit of wiping down your bike and re-lubing the chain. Talk to your LBS about this also – it’s a good habit, and it will keep your drive train happy.
  • Tire Levers
    • There are all kinds out there. But you’re going to want a set of your own so that you can change out tires in case you puncture a tube or because you love cyclocross so much you want to change tires depending on conditions!
      One brand I have personal experience with are Pedro’s tire levers, which are very heavy duty.
  • Extra appropriately sized tubes (28-32 or larger, depending on the size of your tire)
    • There are a whole lot of different types of tubes out there. You don’t need latex tubes to start out, standard tubes are just fine. Make sure that if you have any questions about valve stem length or sizing of the tubes you talk to your LBS folks to ensure your tubes are compatible with your cyclocross tires.
  • A good floor pump
    • You may have one, but these are always important.
  • Mountain bike cycling shoes and pedals
    • Mountain bike shoes and pedals: you’ll be doing a lot of hopping on and off your bike, as well as running through a variety of conditions, so you’ll need shoes and pedals that make it easy to run off bike, plus they need to be able to withstand the mud/dust/dirt! That being said, clipless SPD pedals/shoes are not required to race cyclocross. While I strongly recommend racing while clipped in, as it gives you more control over the bike, you can start on flat pedals and sneakers.

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And that’s it! Once you’ve figured out what bike you’re going to use/buy, the next step is The Skillz, which I will cover in a subsequent post.

Buried In Choices: Bikes

Flickr user DaveZahrobsky

This is another entry in my series to help get more women on bikes. I previously talked about intimidation!

Once you’ve worked up the nerve to walk into a bike shop, you face your next challenge- actually making a decision. Some decisions are small- bike lights, saddle bags, gloves. Others are big- bikes, bike shorts, pedals, shoes. If you’re starting out from scratch, then you’re faced with the biggest decision of all- which bike to buy! First, it is important to understand that you can’t buy a bike online. I mean, you can, but I would imagine that only the most experienced cyclists can order a bike online and  get exactly what they want. If you’re just starting out, you need to touch, feel, ride the bike. In my opinion, there’s not really even a reason to research bike brands online, because you don’t know what your bike shop is going to have. That’s not to say you shouldn’t do research on different bike brands, but it’s so easy to get overwhelmed with the choices and varieties- and if you’re like me, all those choices will make you want to give up. Most bike shops only carry certain brands anyway, but if you know what brands your store carries, you can do some  research on those. However, I suggest just going into the store and seeing what they have. Bike stores don’t carry bad bike brands. Any bike shop worth it’s salt is only going to have bikes it’s proud to sell, which means no matter what you buy, you’re getting a good bike. Hopefully the shop will have a few choices in your size for you to ride, because I do think you should ride more than one bike before you decide.

Before you go into the store, though, you do need to decide why you want a bike, so you can get the right style.

There are quite a few sub categories of bikes, but I think most of them can be put into 4 categories: road bikes, mountain bikes, hybrids, and cruiser.

Road Bikes

Best for: going fast, racing, paved roads, charity rides, fitness riding

If you want to go fast or race, if you plan on doing most of your riding on paved roads, if you want to do longer charity or century rides, if you’re riding for fitness, then a road bike is a good choice. It will go fast on smooth road, but it’s thin frame and thin tires aren’t ideal for anything less than a smooth road or path. They’re usually very light, which means faster riding and climbing, but that means they can’t really take a beating. A road bike can be too much bike for many people and the bent over, forward position can be uncomfortable and intimidating at first. These feelings quickly fad, however, and even road bikes come in simple designs and it’s easy to find one that is just enough bike for you. And, in my opinion, they look sexy as hell. One thing to keep in mind- there is very little reason for you to buy an all carbon bike unless you plan to race or if money is no object. An all carbon frame can offer more comfort on really long rides, as it absorbs road noise better than other materials, and it’s lighter weight might help you go a bit faster, but generally it is not worth the extra money for casual cyclists.

A subset of road bikes that is also very popular are touring bikes. They look very similar to a road bike, but usually have a less extreme position, wheels that are a bit wider and places to attach bags to the bike. They are designed to carry heavy loads, over long distances, with a slow and steady pace. They’re great if you want to do long, multi-day rides, and rides where you carry everything you need with you on your bike or for commuting.

Mountain bikes

Best for: off road riding, rugged terrain, really crappy street riding

Mountain bikes are pretty self explanatory. They have big, fat tires, so they’re awesome at helping you avoid flats and giving a cushier ride on rough terrain. But those fat tires really slow you down on smooth roads. In my opinion, unless you plan on doing some serious off roading, a mountain bike isn’t very practical for everyday life.

Hybrids

Best for: commuting, casual city riding, running errands, those who prefer a more upright riding position, light off roading

Hybrids offer a bit of both worlds- with fatter tires than road bikes, they’re better able handle unpaved trails and with skinner tires than mountain bikes, they allow for more speed on the roads. The fatter tires are better at avoiding flats than a road bike. They also have the more upright position of the mountain bike. A hybrid is another commuting alternative for those who prefer a more upright position to the touring/road bike forward position. However, because it’s a bit of both worlds, it’s not great at either. But it’s great for running errands, moderate trail riding, and commuting. If you plan to do long rides, train intensively, or get really serious about cycling, then a hybrid is probably not the best choice.

Cruisers

Best for: beach rides, flat trails, basic errands, cruisin’

With it’s oversized tires, totally upright position and single gear, a cruiser is perfect for those who just want to ride short distances in comfort. Because cruisers usually only have one gear, they’re best on flat, smooth roads (paved trails). They’re heavy bikes, but that means they’re durable and can handle a beating. Don’t expect to go fast or far on these bikes, but they make riding on the beach very fashionable.

So, that’s a very basic overview of the types of bikes out there. Once you can narrow down what type of riding you want to do, then you can narrow down what type of bike you’re looking for. If you just want a bike to run to the grocery store or take weekend picnics on the trails, a cruiser or a hybrid is probably the right choice. If you want to commute, a hybrid, touring or road bike is best. It’s important to think about the future as well. If you imagine yourself doing century rides, a road or touring bike is best, even if the drop handle bars and more forward position scare you. If you seriously want to loose weight, a road bike is also a better beat than a cruiser or hybrid. But if you don’t imagine yourself doing anything more strenuous that getting groceries or riding to work, a hybrid or mountain bike will work for you! Even though I was a beginner cyclist, I decided I wanted a road bike because I planned to do RAGBRAI and I was going to ride for fitness and fun. And I liked how road bikes looked😉

Now you gotta get into that shop, talk to the sales person about what you want, ride a bunch of bikes and see what works for you. If you’re just getting back into cycling after an absence, don’t let the drop bars and more aggressive position of the road bikes scare you off- you quickly get over that and learn to love it.

Follow me on Twitter for other spectacular insights to cycling: @bloomingcyclist

The Intimidation Factor

Intimidating? Yes! Photo: Flickr user Becky E

This is the first part of a three part series where I share what my experiences and observations have been in the bike world.

Bike shops are intimidating. They seem more exclusive than regular stores, where you are only welcome with open arms if you speak the secret bike language. Someone less prone to intimidation than me would have no problem walking into a bike shop cold turkey and walk out with what they needed. Not me. I really have to work up courage to walk into a shop! It can only take one rude or condescending sales person to make the trip miserable. In addition, the people who work at bike shops are often very passionate about what they do (because with they kind of money they (don’t) make, they’re the only one’s who will work there). And sometimes that zeal can be seen as condescension, or it can make it hard to relate to a person who is not an expert like them. In general, I think those in bike shops are awesome people, but it doesn’t always seem that way at first glance.

So the key is to find a shop that you can be comfortable in. And that can be difficult. If you’re lucky, the local bike shop (LBS) near you will be able to offer that comfort. I can’t tell you what will make you comfortable- it’s a gut instinct you’ll have once you get inside and talk to someone. If you’re fortunate to live in an area with more than one LBS, hopefully you can find one that speaks to your needs and has a staff that can make you feel comfortable. Don’t be afraid to admit you have no idea what you’re doing! I’m terrible at taking my own advice in this area- I hate admitting a knowledge gap. But admitting when you have no idea what the shop person is talking about is better than buying something you’re not comfortable with! In that vein, don’t feel pressured to buy anything. Many people (me!) like to research purchases before committing, especially if it’s a lot of money. Do that if it makes you feel better! Get prices, brands, their recommendations, then go home and sit on it if you feel like it. Go online and compare prices and look at reviews, but I would recommend buying directly from the LBS if at all possible- unless there is a huge price difference or there is something specific you want that the shop doesn’t carry, spending a few extra dollars at your local LBS is totally worth it. Plus, instant gratification!

Photo: Flickr user - TC -

Now, for the second type of intimidation: other cyclists! It’s so easy to be intimidated by other cyclists, especially those consider themselves to be serious cyclists. I suffer from severe intimidation from other cyclists. I’m always worried that my gear will not “fit in” or will be looked down upon by others. BUT, that’s mostly because of my personality, more than actual reality. Yes, there are some who will judge you for not having the highest end, most expensive gear. But you probably won’t end up riding with those types much anyway. If riding RAGBRAI taught me one thing, it was that there is no wrong way to be a cyclist- if you’re comfortable and having fun, then it doesn’t matter what you wear or what you ride. I’m a huge fan of group rides and think those are a great way to have this point illustrated. I encounter so many different types of cyclists on those rides.Overall, on those rides, and elsewhere, I’ve found other cyclist to be friendly and accepting. I enthusiastically encourage group ride participation- it’s a great motivator and a great way to meet like minded folks. However, most groups rides tend to be heavily populated with males, and for women, that thought can be scary- for myself, when there are males around, I usually feel as though I’m trying to prove myself. Plus, I’m easily intimidated by cute boys😉 If you are like me, then I would suggest searching out all female group rides. I find I am more at ease going into an all female group rides, as I know there won’t be any cute boys. Even besides that, many women’s groups offer introductions to group rides, introductions to bike maintenance, etc. So, if you’re new to cycling, women’s groups can offer a lot of resources. Meetup.com and your local bike shops are great places to start to find group rides. In addition, there is probably a local cycling scene forum online where you could ask for recommendations and find suggestions.

I think the intimidation factor exists in everyone and it’s up to you to overcome those barriers. Hopefully, I’ve given you a few tools and enough information to help get you started!

I often dispense advice on twitter, so follow me at @bloomingcyclist.

How Cycling Works, Part 3: Living on the Bike

Lunch time! Photo: MissingMaine.wordpress.com

Now that we’ve covered all the basics of racing a grand tour, what about how the riders “live” on the bikes? There is food that needs to be eaten, nature that needs answering, water that needs to be refilled, plus clothes layered on and off as the weather changes throughout a race day. All of these things have to happen while riding a bike at speeds many sane people would consider insane. But, for pro cyclists, it’s just part of the game.

Food

Cyclists eat a lot. A lot, a lot. Especially cyclists that are riding in a three week race. They are constantly shoving food in their face to replace all the calories lost through racing. While 3,000 calories a day is recommended for an average man, a pro cyclist can burn up to 5,000 calories a day. To consume enough calories to replenish those lost calories and supplement of the next day’s racing, a racer has to be eating all the time. This means eating on the bike as well as off of it. To replenish a rider in the middle of a long stage, riders pass through a feed zone. In the feed zones, team soigneurs (French for “care giver”) stand by the side of the road with musettes full of food and water bottles. The bag is called a musette because it resembles the type of small bag with a shoulder strap often carried by soldiers or travelers. The soigneur stands at the side of the road with a musette in his/her outstretched arm and as the peloton comes barreling down the road at top speeds, a rider from his/her team will snatch the musette out of the soigneur’s hand. They’ll quickly hold up another bag, and the process is repeated. When the rider gets the bag, he’ll loop it around his neck and carry across his chest and proceed to empty the bag into his jersey pockets. He might not take everything, depending on what he likes to eat when he’s riding. Whatever is specifically in the bag, it will be something that contains lots of carbohydrates, the most magical of all the organic compounds when it comes to refueling the body.

Here’s a good video that Garmin-Transitions (now Garmin-Cervelo) did about how they feed their riders:

They’re allowed to take food outside of feed zones, from team cars.

An assisted pee break. Photo: IG Markets Cycling Facebook

When nature calls…

Now that we know how they feed themselves on the bike, what about bathroom breaks? They’re on their bikes for 4 or 5 hours a day, drinking tons of water- nature is going to call eventually. There are two options- on the bike or off the bike. Often, after the break has been established and the pace in the peloton has settled down, the leader or another higher placed GC rider will go to the front and indicate that it’s pee break time! Then, anyone with a need pulls over to the side and takes care of business. Those that don’t, continue riding, but at a sedate pace which allows those stopped to catch back up easily. A rider can just stop at the side for a pee break any time, if the pace is sedate enough that it will be easy to catch back up. However, often it is not possible to take the time to stop. So this means peeing on the fly. This usually involves moving to the back of the group and off to the side, usually with a teammate. The teammate will help stabilize the rider in need of a pee break and the rider will do his business. It ain’t easy, and requires some serious bike handling skills, but these guys are pros for a reason.

In general, pee breaks (or “nature breaks” or “comfort breaks” if you’re a Eurosport commentator) are respected as a time when no one attacks or pushes the pace, and if it’s perceived that this is not respected, people can get angry. While it is considered very bad form for the TV crews and photographers to take pictures of these events, it is sometimes caught inadvertently by the TV cameras. This is more likely on Eurosport than any US channel, as Eurosport spends more time on the race and less time on commercials. The strange twist to these pee breaks is that it’s technically against the rules to pee in public. There is at least one or two riders a day that get fined for “public urination.” I’m sure this is very subjective, as urinating in public is really the only option during races. However, I suspect it has something to do with how close to spectators the rider chooses to have his comfort break.

Water

While food is mostly delivered to the peloton during specific points, water is something that needs to be consumed throughout the race, especially on hot days. The riders are surely drinking more than the two bottles that fit on their bikes- this means they need someone to get water for them. During a race, if a rider wants water, he’ll usually go back to the team car and collect some bottles. A team leader will rarely go back for his own bottles- usually a domestique will collect as many bottles as he can carry to distribute to his team leader and teammates. Mostly this involves stuffing as many bottles as possible down his jersey!

So, now you’ve had a three part introduction to how cycling works (Parts 1 and 2: The Teams and The Jerseys) plus learned how The Race Convoy works! Let me know in the comments if there’s something about cycling that still baffles you…

How Cycling Works, Part 2: The Jerseys

Jersey wearers from the 2010 Tour- Young rider, Overall, Points, KOM

Now that we’ve covered how teams work, let’s look at how exactly one wins a stage race. In most stage races, it’s not just the guy who comes in first at the end of the stage who gets honors. The fastest guy, the best climber, the best young rider, the best team, etc, all get prizes as well.

The highest honor of the race, of course, goes to the one who finishes first. But what does it mean to finish “first” when a race lasts multiple days? In the end, the guy on the top step of the podium is the one with the lowest cumulative race time- the one who rides the course the fastest. It’s not the guy who wins the most stages. In fact, often the race winner wins no stages! The rider with the lowest cumulative time wears the leader’s jersey. In the Tour, this jersey is yellow, and the color most often associated with a leader’s jersey, but it can be any color. For the Giro d’Italia (Tour of Italy), it is pink, and for the Vuelta a Espana (Tour of Spain), it is red.

 

It is a lot of work to keep and defend the leader’s jersey. There are many tactics employed to make sure the yellow jersey stays in the team, but the bottom line is that the rider in leader’s jersey must keep a close eye on those finishing the the stage ahead of him. If there is a someone who is only 30 seconds behind him, the leader must not let that rider finish 31 seconds in front of him or else he will lose the leader’s jersey. This is why it is hard to be in the leader’s jersey- that team must constantly be monitoring who’s attacking, who’s in the break, who’s at the head of the peloton, etc, and often the pressure is on them to chase back any escapees.

In the stage races, there are more jerseys to be won than just the leader’s jersey. Most stage races will have a points jersey, a climbing jersey, and a best young rider jersey.

The points jersey is worn by the rider with the most points. To accumulate points, a rider must one of the first, usually, 15-20 riders through certain lines on the course, with one of those lines being the finish line. Points are awarded in descending value, based on when the rider crosses the line- so the first rider gets the most points and the 20th rider gets the least. This jersey is most commonly known as the sprinter’s jersey, as traditionally the majority of the points are given out at the finish line and the flatter stages (which favors sprinters) have more points available to win at the finish. So, the rider who can win the most flat stages often has the best chance at wearing the sprinter’s jersey. This isn’t always the case, as points awarded at the intermediate sprints in the middle of the route can play an important role in deciding who wears the jersey. But in the end, the sprinter’s jersey (the green jersey at the Tour) is meant to go to the fastest rider.

The climbing jersey is commonly called the King of the Mountains jersey, or KOM. It’s awarded the same way the sprinter’s jersey is, with points awarded to those crossing the summit of different climbs. Climbs are ranked from 4 (easiest) to 1 (hardest), but some are SO HARD that they receive a Hors Categorie (HC, or outside category) distinction. Obviously, the highest ranked climbs will have the most points available for the taking.

The young rider’s jersey is pretty self-explanatory- it goes to the rider under 26 with the lowest cumulative race time, signified by a white jersey.

There are also a couple of prizes awarded that don’t have a special jersey. Each stage a rider is awarded the most aggressive rider prize- this could be someone who worked hard in the break, made a last ditch attack, powered through the worst crash, etc. They get a special red race number for the day. At the end of the race, one rider is awarded the overall  most aggressive rider prize.

Juan Antonia Flecha and his most aggressive rider special number. Photo: Team Sky

The other prize awarded is the team classification. This award goes to the team with the overall lowest cumulative time. There is no special jersey, but they get yellow race numbers.

Team RadioShack received the team classification award at the 2010 Tour

So there you have it- the collection of jerseys and prizes up for grabs at the Tour! Check out parts 1 and 3 for more information on The Team and Living on the Bike.

The Race Convoy

I just wanted to draw your attention to a cool diagram the Cycling Tips blog did, which explains how a race caravan works- what sort of vehicles are in the race caravan, what order they go in, rules the caravan has to follow, etc.

Image from CyclingTipsBlog.com

Go here  or click on the image to get more details!

How Cycling Works, Part 1: The Teams

A team is more than just its riders

The Tour de France is an exciting time in the cycling world, but for someone who is just discovering cycling, it can be a bit overwhelming. While cycling seems simple enough (they’re just riding their bikes down the road, for crying out loud!), it’s actually quite a complex sport. While the Tour can be enjoyed at any level, it helps to understand the basics of cycling and how racing works. For the next few days, I’ll be posting some “primers” to help those new to the Tour understand what’s going on!

First up, the essence of cycling: the teams. Cycling is a strange mix of team and individual sport. Only one racer wins the stage/race, but that one racer cannot win without the support of a team. Teams are usually built around a few “stars,” who usually gets the most attention/stage wins/press. But those “stars” wouldn’t be able to win any races if they didn’t have a team around them. A team usually has 20-30 some riders (at least the ones with a nice budget do!), so a team will have various riders at various races at any time. The B teams often to the “lesser” races, while the A teams are usually sent to the higher profile races. This was something I definitely did not understand when I started watching. When I watched the Eneco Tour after the Tour, I couldn’t understand why Andy et al., who I just watched ride the Tour, weren’t riding for Saxo Bank at this race!

At each race, within a squad of 6-9 riders (depending on the size of the race), a team leader is usually designated who the other riders support. These domestiques (French for servants) do things like shepherd things back and forth to the team car (including water, cold/warm weather gear, instructions, etc.), take pulls on the front of the peloton to chase down breaks, draft the leaders back to the peloton if they get dropped for some reason, or even give up a bike or wheel if the situation calls for it. The domestiques rarely win, often riding hard until they pop, then limping to the finish line. All of this is done to help preserve the strength and legs of team leaders- keeping them out of the wind, towards the front of the peloton to try and avoid the crashes that often happen in the bunch. There are exceptions, such as when Garmin-Cervelo super domestique Johan Van Summeren won Paris-Roubaix in 2011, but they are the exception and not the rule. However, just because you’re domestique doesn’t mean you’re not famous- Jens Voigt being a perfect example. He’s one of the hardest working and best liked domestiques of the peloton. He got a love letter from me.

Of course the teams aren’t just the riders. Other important members include soigneurs, the mechanics, the cooks, the directeur sportifs (DS), etc. Soigneurs (French for “care givers”) do a variety of jobs, from doing laundry, clean up, driving team cars, organizing team cars, restocking supplies, etc- anything and everything that might be required to run a team. Sometimes soigneurs will also be masseurs, an important job in helping riders recover. I’ve heard it compared to being a roadie for a rock band- lots of work, little pay, late nights, etc. Only the passionate need apply!

Mechanics are self explanatory- they’re the guys that keep the bikes running! Often a mechanic will ride in the team cars, to help with wheel and bike changes, and help with any bike repairs that need to happen on the go. Again, late nights, as after each race, they must get the bikes ready for the next day- washing and cleaning the bike, making sure all the parts are working like they should, etc. And that’s not just the bikes the 9 riders use, but all the spare bikes as well.

Most teams have cooks there to make sure the riders are getting the right food in the right amounts. Some of the bigger teams have their own “kitchen” bus, but the smaller teams often cook out of the hotel kitchens.

The DS is probably the most important member of the team, when it comes to racing and tactics. They’re usually sitting in the cars, “coaching” the riders. If the race has radios, they’ll give breakaway updates, crash updates, road updates through the radio, as well as give guidance on when to attack or chase. If the race has no radios, they’ll wait for riders (usually the domestiques) to come back to the car for instructions or updates. Most DSs are former riders.

Hopefully that clears up the complicated dynamics of how teams work! See parts 2 and 3 to learn about The Jerseys and Living on the Bike.

The man, the myth, the domestique

I would like to take a moment to talk about a life-changing event that happened to me yesterday. It happened during the latter part of the first stage of Paris-Nice. It was a mythical moment that I had heard much about, but wasn’t sure if it actually existed. I feared I would never witness this magical event. But yesterday, friends, I was privy to one of cycling’s greatest gifts: an attack by Jens Voigt. Ever since I entered into the realm of cycling I had heard mention of this sacred event: the unrelenting power, the pain dished out to fellow breakaway riders, the famous Jens grimace. And yesterday I got to witness it first hand.

Now, let me let you in on a little secret of pro cycling: if you want to be loved and accepted by your fellow cycling fans, all you have to say is “I love Jens Voigt.” To which everyone will respond with open arms and an exclamation of “Oh I love Jensi! Isn’t he the best?!” The phrase is almost akin to a secret password. And in a way it is. To proclaim your love for Jens is to demonstrate that you truly understand cycling and that it is not just about the stage winners or even the race winners. One of the coolest things about cycling is how the work horses, the diesels, the domestiques get just as much respect in the peloton as the protected team leaders. A Chris Horner, a Michael Berry, a Mark Renshaw are just as much of a cycling celebrity as a Wiggins, a Cavendish, or a Schleck. And in the true cycling world, the domestiques probably get MORE respect than the protected riders! To ride yourself into the ground chasing a breakaway or to put the hurt on the peloton for your team earns you big props in the cycling world, even if you have to limp to the finish line. A perfect example of this appreciation for hard work was seen today, when Geraint Thomas got just as many shout outs on Twitter for Greg Henderson’s win on stage 2 of Paris-Nice as Henderson did.

Not only is Jens a super domestique, but he’s a ridiculously nice guy. He’s got 6 kids, been a pro cyclist since 1997, and is always good for a quote or joke. His “Shut up, Legs!” is probably his most iconic quote and it perfectly illustrates his hard man status: this is what his brain tells his legs when they want to stop pedaling. This quote has inspired t-shirts galore, posters, comparisons, etc. The other iconic Jensism? His pain cave grimace. To wit:

Whenever Jens is taking a pull on the front, he’s going deep into his pain cave, where this face comes out to play. So now not only are the other riders terrified of his pace he’ll set when he goes to the front, but they’re also terrified he’s actually going tear their legs off and eat them. This face was in out in full force during yesterday’s Paris-Nice stage:

Isn’t it a beaut?

Jens has been in some pretty bad accidents, the worst of which happened during the 2009 Tour. A bump on a downhill descent resulted in him literally kissing the pavement. He survived with only a broken cheekbone, a concussion and some serious road rash on his face, which is miraculous when you look at the footage of the crash! He again crashed on a downhill descent during the 2010 Tour, this time because of a blown tire and with much less serious injuries- road rash, broken ribs, 5 stitches in his elbow. His bike was totalled, but he refused to abandon the race and instead took a bike from the neutral support service car, which, as a junior sized bike, was much too small for him! His interview with the Saxo Bank media people reveals his positive attitude and hard man mentality- a little downhill crash isn’t going to stop him!

It’s possible this year will be Jens’ last and the day he leaves will be a sad day. But there will always be domestiques to keep the peloton rolling!

Almost forgot the best part! For some reason, Jens has become the Chuck Norris of cycling. Which means people come up with “facts” about Jens and his mythical, magical powers. So I present you with a list of “Little Known Jens Voigt Facts,” all culled from the Texas Tailwind blog.

  • Jens Voigt doesn’t read books. He simply attacks until the books relent and tell him everything he wants to know.
  • Jens doesn’t spin or mash the pedals… he kicks them into submission.
  • Jens Voigt puts the “laughter” in “Manslaughter.”
  • Jens once had a heart attack on the Tourmalet. Jens counterattacked repeatedly until he kicked its ass.
  • If Jens Voigt was a country, his principle exports would be Pain, Suffering, and Agony.
  • If Jens Voigt was a planet, he’d be the World of Hurt.
  • Jens Voigt doesn’t know where you live, but he knows exactly where you will die.
  • When you open a can of whoop-ass, Jens Voigt jumps out and attacks.
  • Jens Voigt can start a fire by rubbing two mud puddles together.
  • Guns kill a couple dozen people every day. Jens Voigt kills 150.

Got any Jens facts of your own?

 

Unpacking Race Radios

Brad Wiggins via BikeRadar.com

There has been a lot of chatter on the interwebs lately about race radios- more specifically, the banning of race radios by the UCI. But why exactly is this such a big deal? Why are riders spouting off on Twitter, bloggers blogging, and articles being written about this topic? While on the surface, it might seem to be just about riders and teams not wanting to give up their race radios, it’s really about much more than that. It’s also about where exactly the riders and teams fit into the cycling hierarchy, how much say they get in decisions which affect them, and who really wears the pants in the UCI-cyclist relationship. Let’s break it down.

History

For those of us (me) who’ve only just discovered the joys of pro cycling, we’ve only known cycling with race radios. However, they are relatively new addition to the peloton. Radios only became commonplace in the mid-90s, but it didn’t take long for them to become an integral part of racing. Race radios connect riders to their directeur sportifs (DS- essentially race coaches who guide the riders through the race) following in team cars through two way radios. Through these radios, riders can hear about breakaways-who’s in them, their gap on the group-crashes, dangers on the road, riders who’ve blown, riders who’ve attacked, etc, and can also let the team car know when they’ve had a flat, if they need help, or ask questions.

Radios were being used at all levels until the UCI decided it didn’t like the changes radios were bringing to the sport and started making changes to limit their use. They knew they couldn’t get rid of radios outright, so they decided to implement a gradual ban, starting with amateur, Junior and U23 races. In July of 2009, the UCI decided to test a radio ban at the Tour on stages 10 and 13. However, after stage 10, 14 out of the 20 teams lodged a protest against the radio ban and radios were reinstated for stage 13.  In September 2009, the UCI management committee voted to ban radios at all events except *.1 and *.HC (see note).  USA Cycling  soon followed suite and banned radios at their events also. In 2010, it banned radios again at the World Championships in Australia (which they could do, as the UCI owns this race). There was nothing the riders could do about this except complain, as to not race here wasn’t an option- it’s one thing to neutralize a stage of a 3 week race, it’s another to refuse to race in a winner take all competition to possess the rainbow jersey. So the riders complained all the way to the start line and raced without radios. This year, the UCI continued with it’s mission to rid the sport of radios and banned radios at all events which are not part of the World Tour calendar- so if it’s not one of the 26 races which are part of that calendar which include all the Grand Tours, the Historical races (the Classics of early spring), and various other major one day and week long stage races, there are no radios allowed.

Note: Elite racing has several levels: World Tour at the top; 2.HC for stage races, 1.HC for one-day races; and 2.1/1.1 and 2.2/1.2 on the bottom two rungs.

Reasoning

But why is the UCI so determined to get rid of race radios? According to them, it’s to get back to racing’s roots. They feel the sport has become uninspired and predictable and radios are to blame for this. They claim riders have become robots under the command of their DS, unable to race without someone telling them what to do. They long for the days when riders rode on instinct and guts. To ensure the future of the sport, it is important not only keep current fans, but to attract new ones. Banning race radios would make cycling spontaneous and interesting again, and thus more attractive to viewers, as “cycling with ear-pieces is not very spectacular any more”.

Rebuttal

However, riders and teams say none of this is true. Radios do not make a race interesting or not- riders do. Tactics are usually decided before the race even starts and “the radios aren’t here to get riders information that they have to breathe, to pedal, to push the pedals.” I once heard it compared to going into battle- the commander can lay out a strategy and give direction once in battle, but it’s up to the troops to put the plan into motion and often things happen which can’t be predicted, requiring the men to act on their feet. Besides, there’s the matter of security and safety. Radios are an imperative part of keeping the peloton safe- they can help warn of crashes, particularly hazardous road furniture, emergency vehicles which need to pass through the peloton, dangerous road conditions, etc. There are some who question the need to go back to the “dark ages-” we’re in the 21st century, they argue, embrace the technology and how it can improve the sport. As Tyler Farrar said, “Are we going to have a day where we race in wool jerseys, or a day when we race with a single speed? The future of the sport is technology, and radios make the race safer.”

There are some riders who do support the ban. Phillipe Gilbert, for one, agrees with the UCI that racing is more exciting without radios, as does David Miller, Stephen Roche, Steve Cozza etc. Then there are those like Cadel Evans who don’t care one one way or the other.

The real issue

The real issue here is not so much that the UCI wants to ban the radios, but that they did so without really consulting any of the people who a ban really affects- the riders. There was a poll conducted which indicated that 60% of riders were in favor of keeping radios unrestricted, however the ban was voted on without actually consulting riders and teams. A meeting was scheduled between the two groups in January 2010, but the UCI voted on the ban back in 2009- a meeting between the two groups should have happened before the UCI voted on the ban. And when the ban actually went into place at the beginning of this year, riders and teams realized exactly what this vote and ban meant. Now the riders and teams are facing off against the UCI- not just to get the radios back, but to demand for more representation in decisions that affect them. Protests over the race radio decision at this year’s Mallorca Challenge saw riders delay the start for 20 minutes, the UCI withdraw their officials, and Tyler Ferrar’s win be annulled. Riders maintain that these protests are more about the lack of representation and consultation in the governing of cycling than the banning of the radios.

This issue is still ongoing and an important part of this situation is the lack of representation riders and the lack of teeth International Association of Professional Cycling teams (AIGCP) have with the UCI. The AIGCP does what it can, but it represents the teams, not the riders. There is a union for cyclists, the CPA (Coureurs Professionnels Associés, French for Associated Pro Riders), but it has virtually no voice the in the cycling world. And even if they did, if the UCI refuses to listen to anyone but themselves, it doesn’t matter.

Update: The gauntlet has been thrown! Jens Voigt has suggested a boycott of the 2011 World Championship if the UCI refuses to negotiate/retract the radio ban. His reasoning? Pain is remembered. If the riders do something to hurt the UCI, they’re more likely to avoid being hurt again in the future! If enough riders would pledge to not ride Worlds if the ban is not retracted, the UCI might rethink not consulting the riders. This would be a bold move indeed, because if the UCI decided the radio ban was more important than the World Championship and go on without them, they would not be able to compete to wear the rainbow jersey. But something like that could just scare the UCI into behaving!

A version of this article appears on US Pro Cycling News. Find me on Twitter!

Races and their Radios

Argh, okay I know I said I wouldn’t write about the race radio ban (at least on Twitter I did!), but having just read this article on VeloNews, I now can’t help myself! (For background, catch up with this, this, and this.)

I genuinely do not care whether or not the peloton uses radios. I’m writing this post because I think both sides are being ridiculous and want to call them out on it.

Firstly, yeesh, has no one ever heard of compromise? Both sides are of the “my way or the highway” mentality, with neither side willing to back down. This doesn’t seem like the best way to solve this situation!

The UCI seems to have decided to implement their decision for no other reason than because they want to. While they say they “analyzed” all the arguments, I’m interested to know what all the arguments were. In addition, they also site “scientific data” which shows the dangers of using two-way radios. I’d also be interested to know what that scientific data is. And I’m not really sure I believe it when they claim to have listened to everyone in the sport, including “riders, organizers, national federations, media, fans and sponsors,” as they chose to vote on the ban before even having a meeting with many of those they claim to have listened to (article here). So really, they just seem like a bunch of grumpy old men whining about “kids these days.”

As for those who want to keep the radios in their current format, let’s not kid ourselves-you want to keep the radios because it gives you tactical advantage. Yes, there is a safety issue and it helps protect riders. But if you were really interested in keeping the radios for the riders’ safety, you’d be open and proposing a limited use radio.

As someone who’s only started to watch racing this year, I’ve never known racing without radios. However, I wouldn’t say radios made those races boring! For me, in the end, racing is about those on the bike- their endurance and strength. The DS can say whatever he wants on the radio, but if the rider doesn’t have the strength or legs, it’s not gonna matter. There is also the matter of the things beyond human control. Sure, people like Jonathan Vaughters want the race to be “fair” and won by the strongest rider or team, and see radios as the way to do that. But when has cycling ever been fair? On stage 2 of the Tour this year, when a moto slide out on an oil slick in Spa, causing a huge pile up, was that fair? Or when Fränk Schleck crashed on the cobbles, could that have been prevented by radios? And we certainly can’t forget (or at least I can’t!) Andy’s dropped chain, Alberto’s attack, and a road too small to allow a close following support car. Those things certainly weren’t prevented by radios, and they certainly all affected the outcome of the race.

And another thing- I don’t feel like the “test” days in the 2009 Tour, or even the 2010 Worlds are a good litmus test as to how it would work without radios. Most of these guys have spent the last 15 years or so using race radios. You can’t just go from radios to no radios in one day and expect everything to be the same! They need to re-learn how to ride without radios. So don’t use a couple of one-off days to judge whether or not going radio-less is a good idea.

I understand the desire to “go back to the way things were”- I’m a historian, I get it! But you can’t make a 180 degree turn back to the past after being in the very technical present for ages. You can maybe make a 90 degree turn, but you can never go back to exactly the way it was. This is why I think, like others, a good compromise would be to have an open channel, one-way radio. This way riders can be made aware of dangers/accidents/obstacles ahead on the road, gives the DS’s a purpose in their cars, and forces the riders to use their heads AND their feet.

Both sides are acting irrational, not offering any sort of feasible solutions to the problem, and are only hurting the riders who get caught in the middle. The fate of cycling is not in the hand of the race radios- let’s spend more time focusing on how to deal with dopers.

I don’t use radios, but I do use Twitter. Follow me here.