Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Opening weekend

This upcoming weekend is opening weekend for the cycling season. It is marked by two races, the first, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, formerly known as Omloop Het Volk (both are newspapers and Het Nieuwsblad bought Het Volk recently and renamed the race), and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne.

Unfortunately, although I will be in Belgium, I probably won't be able to see either one of these. The reason for my visit is the somber task of attending the funeral of my brother in law, who recently died of cancer.

I read today that two teams, Het Landbouwkrediet and Quickstep were out on the course of the Omloop to see what conditions were like. Belgium suffered through a long harsh winter and the roads are in poor shape. Het Landbouwkrediet team apparently suffered 11 flats, although Quickstep -a more experienced team one could say- suffered none.

Quickstep's big guns were not present, preferring to stay in Spain until the weekend, something management did not object too. Clearly Tom Boonen is familiar with the course and even though there were minor changes, and lots of new potholes, Boonen will have the support of his team to take care of that.

Meanwhile here in Northern California, it is raining too, albeit a bit warmer than in Belgium. Thursday I rode on rollers for 45 minutes. Friday I ran 9.5 miles in the hills. Saturday I again rode on rollers for 45 minutes, going quite hard for about 30, and on Sunday I drove Alistair to the Ronde van Brisbeen crit, where he rode in the rain. Afterwards I went running in the rain. I ran a 10K and I was soaked. Yesterday was sunny and warm and I rode 31 miles on Alistair's new bike, just to check it out. It feels great although I need to become more familiar with the SRAM shifting.

Today I rode 1:03 minutes on rollers. Now I have to get ready for my trip to the home country and the sad task of burying my sister's husband.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Natour criteriums, a solution for US cycling's woes?

In my previous post I highlighted some of the problems facing US cycling. Membership in USA Cycling, though growing, is aging fast. There is a lack of enthusiasm among younger people. Cycling is not taken seriously. Schools and colleges do not support it. There is little or no upward mobility or career opportunities.

The sport has gotten tons of bad press due to doping scandals. While nobody complains of baseball players or football players using steroids and other performance enhancing drugs, cyclists are subjected to a real life witch hunt with overly eager officials and the press in tow. While steroid-using baseball players are entered in the hall of fame, cyclists who commit even the smallest misstep are labeled cheaters and their livelihood is threatened or taken away. The anti-doping crowd has muscled its way into their lives with no respect for privacy, let alone civility.

Bike races attract few if any spectators. Races are hidden from view to the extent possible. They happen in remote locations, preferably at the crack of dawn, before anyone hits the street. They present a confusing array of skill levels and age groups, all intermingled on the same road. The various groups often interfere with one another in competition. Scoring is stuck in the 19th century and errors are the rule rather than the exception.

Yet there are some hopeful signs. Lance Armstrong has attained a star status that transcends cycling. Wherever he shows up, impromptu rides materialize and thousands of enthusiasts crowd the streets and bring traffic to a virtual standstill. At the Boston marathon a few years ago, Lance attracted more spectators than race favorites and the rest of the field combined.

The Lance example shows a way forward. What do you do when you want people to follow your lead? You bring out the star power. When the Navy tries to recruit people, they bring out the Blue Angels. They don't show the grunt work or tedium associated with service. They have a simple and straightforward message. Show the excitement and the glory.

US cycling could do the same thing. Even in the crowded (European) calendar there is room for short star-studded races in mid-summer. Mid-summer happens to be the time kids are off from school. Families are on vacation, so every day is a holiday. People crowd scenic venues such as the Sierra's, the wine country, and gold rush towns, ideal locations for afternoon and evening bike races.

US Cycling should help organize natour criteriums (natour is Flemish for "after-tour"). These types of races are held all over Europe right after the Tour de France. They take place in early August, at a time when cycling is front page news but the race calendar is empty. The criteriums are a way for people to see and meet the Tour stars in a smaller and more intimate setting. A way to watch a short but intense race followed by autograph signing and parties. The events are also the best way for professional cyclists to cater to their fan base.

Natour criteriums would be a bonus to US professional teams on their return from Europe. Lance, Levi, Tyler, and others could woe the crowds instead of hiding in the Bahamas or at home. These races would also attract extra crowds to smaller towns in tourist spots, while presenting only a minor inconvenience to local residents. But most importantly, the criteriums would expose children and adolescents to the excitement and glamour of the sport. What better recruiting tool is there?

Tuesday, 9.25 mile loop in the hills
Wednesday, 10.25 mile run to Redwood and back.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Bike racing in America

Every year I am told, USA Cycling adds more members. Every year, optimistic messages touting the growth of cycling in America arrive in my mailbox. Yet, I have a hard time shaking the feeling that -if anything- bike racing in America is in serious retreat. I remember the days of Greg LeMond, quite possibly the height of cycling over here and I can see that things are worse today.

That wasn't due to Greg's retirement, or to Lance, who certainly inspired many more to join and whose dominance prevented a total meltdown. No, those great numbers were due to the wave of baby boomers who happened to be at the right age. Now those baby boomers are getting old. Many are still racing -at least those 55 and under- but they are not being replaced by new blood.

The hard numbers don't tell a good story. Look at the 2008 membership of USA Cycling.

Roughly 63,000 people are licensed to race in the US. For a population of 300 million that is a shockingly small number. Belgium with only 11 million citizens has more racers than that. But it doesn't end there: take a look at the make-up of this membership. More than half are masters. Barely 7% fall into the 10-18 category; 11% in the 19-24; 21% in the 25-34 group, for a grand total of 39%. That amounts to less than 25,000 cyclists in the open category. That is not good news.

Or here is another example. Last weekend I traveled with a team to the Valley of the Sun stage race in Arizona. VOS is a major race. People travel from all over the country to attend it. We traveled 1,740 miles (2,800 km) for a total of 3.5 hours of racing. The field size in what would be called the nieuwelingen group (15-16 yr olds) was 27 racers. Few if any nieuwelingen races in Belgium are that small.

During the season, on any given weekend day, you may find 2-4 races with over 100 participants within a 60 mile radius, in Flanders alone. These guys will race for over an hour per event. And most important of all, there will be plenty of spectators because the races are held in the center of town at a convenient time during the afternoon. To avoid confusion there will be only one event (one category) and in most instances, a rolling road closure will accommodate the needs of both the racers and the local population.

Don't get me wrong. I am not faulting VOS or the White Mountain Race Club. Those guys do a terrific job putting on the race. It is a well-organized event and everyone is doing the best they can. But the realities cannot be ignored. Field sizes are small, individual events are short, and there are no spectators other than direct family members of the racers. Most of those leave as soon as their racers finish.

In the West, individual events are held in remote areas that are not spectator friendly. There is barely any parking, let alone food, drink or entertainment. Many races start early in the morning and the whole event is a seemingly never ending string of different age and performance categories that can last from dawn until dusk. Even a dedicated spectator would soon lose track of who's who and where the individual participants are at any given time, let alone how many laps they have gone or need to go.

The individual groups will meet each other on the road, resulting in confusion and forcing neutralization of the race, often at critical times. I have witnessed many instances -not just at VOS- where one group finishing up ran into a slower, earlier group just before hitting the finish line. The chaos results in botched sprints, crashes and placement errors. Contesting one's results is routine in such events.

Scoring is primitive and one often has to wait days before results -that are often wrong in many places- appear on the internet. Whereas my wife can get my splits in the Boston marathon on her cell phone in real time, some cycling races held in 2009 in Northern California only post results after two weeks!

Cycling clubs and districts stubbornly refuse to use chips or access internet technologies, claiming it is too expensive for their members (who, ironically enough do not seem to mind spending lots of cash on gas, and many hours driving to events). Officials claims chips do not work well. Given how poorly the current system works, it is hard to see what could be worse!

Tuesday, 20 miles mountain biking
Wednesday, 10K run in the hills
Thursday a 20 mile ride in Palm Springs on the way to Phoenix
Friday, a 25 mi bike ride in Buckeye Arizona. I rode the TT course (14 miles) fast.
Saturday, a 16.25 mile run in Casa Grande, AZ (one loop of the road race)
Sunday, rest and travel
Monday, 10.5 mile run (the Shepherd loop)

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


Tom Boonen scored his first victory of the year at the Tour of Qatar. Not a big surprise really and Tom has been winning there for several years now. Besides, the season isn't open yet, at least not in Belgium. Still Qatar has a special significance in Belgium because of what happened to Frederiek Nolf last year.

Speaking of Qatar, Sporza intercepted Eddy Merckx there, who was furious some journalist had written that "he (Merckx) no longer drinks champagne since his bout with colon cancer." Although cancer seems to be the cyclists' scourge -if you are in good cardio health then cancer is your only option so to speak- Eddy vehemently denied he had ever had cancer.

And speaking of cancer, our friend Lance was pretty ticked off at Jonathan Vaughters, manager of Bradley Wiggins, who said in a Times interview, that in the 2009 Tour "Astana was soft-pedaling it so as not to embarrass Lance."

Meanwhile here in Northern California, racing season started with a rather busy Cherry Pie criterium in Napa. The weather cooperated and it was nice and sunny and pretty warm to boot. I did not race, but I managed to get in a great ride while Alistair rode the Cat. 3's. Team Specialized scored big in several of the races, and brought in lots of pies so we ended up eating cherry pie for lunch. In the afternoon, we did some time trial bike trials (how is that for an expression) on Skyline Blvd. Although it was warm in Oakland too, the only dark cloud this side of the Mississippi hung right over the road at all times.

On Saturday I rested. On Sunday I rode 25 miles in Napa and then another 20 on Skyline with Alistair. On Monday I ran 8.25 miles in the hills and today I rode 20 mi on my mountain bike, getting very muddy in the process. Although most days have been great with only occasional rain during the daytime hours, the hills are now well saturated with water, and mud-slides are once again legion.

Now we are getting ready to go to Phoenix for the Valley of the Sun stage race.

Friday, February 5, 2010


If you are tired of sunglasses, Nike has just the thing for you: sun-contacts. Nike calls these scary looking things, MaxSight and says they "are distortion-free optics that eliminate glare and enhance contrast."
The advantages are many: "no nosepiece or frame obstruction, and no fogging" after that hard climb. The contraptions block specific wavelengths, so details "pop" off the background. If that sounds scary to you, never mind how scary you will look to your fellow riders.

But if you really want to look cycling-cool and scary, I recommend the following: for less than $150, 9 mm special effects will provide you with these cool looking Trauma A lenses. Now that is worth every penny. Imagine your friends' horror when you tell them you just went on a ride without sunglasses! I am not sure whether these fine optics will eliminate glare and enhance contrast

but I am pretty sure you will get plenty of glares from all the bystanders to make up for it.

If $150 -$149.99 actually- sounds like too much money, or if you feel Trauma A is so 2009, you can always spring $100 for Trauma B. Granted the effect is more subtle, hence the discount no doubt, but I am sure Trauma B will do its part to impress your friends. And all that without any nosepiece
or frame obstruction.

That just reminds me. Apart from looking cool, and reducing glare, sunglasses also provide protection to prevent things like Trauma A and Trauma B. To say nothing of the fact that contacts do predispose to infection and so if you have no real reason for wearing them, maybe you should just stick with the good old-fashioned shades. How's that for a novel idea?

On Monday I rode 2 hours on my mountain bike. On Tuesday, I ran 8.25 in the hills. On Wednesday I dropped off my car for some service in preparation for our trip to Arizona for the Valley of the Sun race. I rode my bike to Walnut Creek in the afternoon to pick up the car for a good 20 mi ride and some stares at the dealership.

Yesterday I rode 40 minutes on rollers and today I rode 35 mi through Orinda and Moraga, just missing the rain.