Ardennes Week 04/25/2012


Last week I went back to the races in the Ardennes as a fan. No passes and no privileges, just someone else trying to get a look at the pros, the bikes and to soak up the atmosphere. The ambient story around a race and how it changes from country-to-country is something I was hoping to capture. The more races you attend, a cadence and pattern emerges that seems to be present in all of them no matter where you are, although each will present its own unique personality. Amstel, the Dutch classic, was organized chaos from the start village to the finish. Flèche Wallonne is one of those races that make cycling such a unique sport; how we can get so much access to the stars stuns me. It is the working class race of the Ardennes, the start village sandwiched between a factory and a football stadium. Liege-Bastogne-Liege is ASO getting reading for the Tour. Planned, controlled and everyone kept at arm’s length, at least at the start village. This didn’t seem to stop the riders reaching out to fans, and the course—well that is a whole other story. I pulled a selection of the shots that I got here, but I have enough that I hope to do a book, so that is the plan. Not sure how long it will take, but it is now in the works. More to come on that; in the meantime I would love to hear what you think of the shots.

That bottom right-hand corner of Belgium has a very unique feel, very different to the rest of the country. Let me dispel any myths that Belgium is flat, bar a few bergs. The climbs of the Ardennes are hard enough to test the legs of any of the mountain goats, and the races are long and hard enough to make most race strategies go out the window. In these races, the strongest usually win—they basically wear you down. Their personality carved out of being sandwiched between France, Luxembourg and Belgium has created some not so subtle cycling rivalries. This was demonstrated best when the Nissan/Trek car containing Bruyneel got “bathed” in beer coming up La Redoute, and one drunk young fan removed a nice deep section Bontrager wheel from the roof of the car as a souvenir. Gilbert was born on La Redoute, so the local support is somewhat opinionated, especially about the two brothers from just over the border in Luxembourg.

The weather, not usually a cyclist’s friend in the Ardennes, adds a whole other dimension to riding there. Usually when the drive into a region is marked by a large number of wind turbines, it is a pretty good pointer as to what conditions to expect. This year the low temperatures added to the mix. Standing on La Redoute, the weather was changing so much I started to fear the race would get cut short. We ran into Chris Horner in Brussels airport, on his way back for the Tour of California, who described L-B-L as one of his most epic days on a bike. He abandoned with hands so frozen he couldn’t use his brakes and shifters. Chris Horner is no soft lad. Planning for the weather there is near to impossible. The starts were marked by riders signing on in the sun, then rushing back to the buses to get shells and layers before the neutral rollout. In the space of one 15-minute section at Flèche Wallonne we saw sun – rain – hail – sun. There were numerous stories of riders stranded in the hail too far from team cars on the narrow roads to get shells to cover up, leaving them wet, cold and hungry on some of the hardest parcours in Europe. The site of a cold and bonking Nibali seizing up in the last KMs of L-B-L was hard to watch.

 

Categories: Races / Riders / Routes

The Fabulous Exploits Of Eddy Merckx 04/06/2012


It is 7 days and counting before we head to Belgium for the Ardennes week. Watching racing, photographing racing, and drinking beer while watching racing is how I plan on spending my days. As you can see despite the lack of bike, racing still features quite highly. In honor of returning to this corner of the world where cycling rules, I dusted off my “Fabulous Exploits Of Eddy Merckx” comic book. It basically chronicles Eddy’s palmares and career in wonderfully illustrated watercolors, along with some interesting commentary.

Categories: Classic / Design / Riders

Kit Spotting 03/27/2012


Nice to see our kit get some air-time post SXSW in Austin. Proud to have it out on the Sunday morning shop ride from Mellow Johnny’s, taken out by the “tallest cyclist outside of Holland” – Super Dom Russell. Check out the height of that head tube on his Land Shark. Did I mention that he is tall? Also nice to run in to Don Vanderslice when I was down there, another follower of the blog and kit owner. Sorry we didn’t get to ride together, next time. Some great roads down there. No doubt we will be back.

 

Categories: Kit / Riders / Rides

A Mellow Ride In Austin with Super Dom Russell 03/15/2012


I just returned from my first trip to Austin Texas, and it is no coincidence that I spent at least one hour of each day I was there in Mellow Johnny’s. It might be one of the best shops I have ever been to. They have the right balance of product, space and coffee (they serve Stumptown our favorite), all rounded out with some of the best and most helpful staff you could hope for. The space is in the old warehouse district and used to be a beer warehouse if I remember right. They have rides pretty much leaving the shop every morning with a mixture of levels. We were lucky enough to have our very own personal Mellow Johnny’s guide in Russell, who may well be the tallest cyclist outside of Holland (he is 6′ 7″ and his custome Land Shark has the largest headtube I have ever seen). He took us out into the Austin farmlands onto the “Flemish Loop” on a damp and hazy moring. Sitting behind Russell on a 25mph wind in your back return leg, is like sitting behind a Vespa motorpacing. There is no wind. Nothing. Just a hole that pulls you along with minimal effort. He is a “Super Dom” of pure quality, who to quote him “loves being second in command“. I wish I could have spent more time there, the riding seems great, plus I met two riders proudly sporting Elcyclista kit. That brought a smile to my face. It is so nice to see the kit out there and meet fellow riders who love design.

Categories: Riders / Rides / Routes

This Picture Makes Me Happy 02/08/2012


Back where he belongs, on the top step. It looks like Tornado Tom has put personal and injury issues behind him and is getting back to deliver on the talent we all know he has. Best of luck in the classics fella!

Categories: Riders

A Report From The Ardennes 04/17/2012


No matter how many times I see Pro riders I am always amazed at how skinny they are. Standing in a cold and damp Markt Square in Maastricht at the start of Amstel Gold, it doesn’t take much to imagine how illness and chest infections can take hold. The young riders on the teams, this maybe their first “big” race, look scared and fiddle with their bikes much to the annoyance of their mechanics. Others (the workers) look resigned to the 265 km of pain that lies ahead. The favorites don’t reveal themselves to the last minute, and bustle their way up to sign-on with their game-faces on (apart from Chris Horner who was riding around smiling and saying hello to everyone, the gent that he is).

There were a few nice moments before the off. Seeing Thomas Dekker welcomed back amongst the Dutch fans, a young guy on a second chance and looking glad to have it. Seeing how Oscar Freire, after leaving Rabobank, is still held in the hearts of the Dutch fans. It is hard to stop cheering for a guy after he’s been doing it for 8 years, and this was before he launched himself off the front in the finale in what is probably his last time up the Cauberg. And lastly, how a shiny new bike never gets old. A Pro build with a slammed stem just looks good. Ten of them lined up against each other, looks even better.

It has been talked about before how accessible the stars of this sport are. Maybe more surprising is how accessible the tools of the trade are. Bikes are touched, lifted and left exposed until the riders throw their leg over. Yesterday we drove around a lot of the Flèche and Liege courses, my first time in this part of the racing world. The Ardennes are hilly, very hilly, and the wind blows a lot, and seems to always be in your face. One down, two to go. I am going to have a lot of photo editing to do….

 

Categories: Races / Riders

One Tough Spaniard 04/04/2012


Luis Ocaña, a rider more famous for crashing out of yellow in the 1971 Tour, after he crashed into the back of Merckx and while lying trapped under his bike had a fast approaching Joop Zoetemelk ram into him. The incident was famous because it took him out of yellow and the race, giving it to Merckx, who refused to wear yellow the next day. The picture above shows just how unfair the Tour was to him. He had four abandons, but this one was probably the worst. He was so incapacitated from the crash and streaming in blood, that two team mates had to hold him up on his bike and push and pull him to the finish. All in the hope he could start the next day, which unfortunately he didn’t.

Categories: Classic / Riders

An Italian Legend And A Dutch Legend 03/15/2012


Hennie Kuiper winning Milan San Remo in 1985.

This Saturday is one of my favorite races, Milan San Remo. Last year I was lucky enough be there in Milan and on the Poggio with the kind hospitality of Specialized, which made me fall in love with the race and the Tifosi even more. Growing up it was one of the few races that we got live on Irish television, in the glory days of Kelly and Roche. I have memories of Kelly literally bouncing of the walls on the decent of the Poggio in hot pursuit of a desperate Argentin. In that period there were not many riders that could get my support beyond “King Kelly” – but Hennie Kuiper was one. This type of rider comes along about once every 50 years (actually in these times of “saving your matches” I am not sure we will ever see them again). He could ride cross in the winter, finsh on the podium in the Tour, win on Alp D’Huez, win a hilly classic like Milan San Remo and Lombardia, win a flat classic like Paris-Roubaix, oh and he also won the Olympic road race and the World Championships. He could win solo or he could win in a sprint. A true Dutch legend, who when he decided to retire went home to Holland to a small cyclo-cross race at Oldenzall near his home, and rode for his own one last time.

Categories: Races / Riders

We Are Off In March With Strade Bianche 03/04/2012


There has already been some great racing this season, but despite the “off-season” getting shorter and shorter, March and this weekend is where I really tune in. Although I did really enjoy K-B-K last weekend, and watching SKY click. It looks like they have already got their act together in their 3 weeks down in Mallorca. Business as usual for Cav? This weekend there is a race like no other, Strade Bianche. A race unique in character, and a serious test of fitness and mental strength, as it rolls through and over the stunning Tuscan hills. I selfishly almost pray for rain before this race making it a visually spectacular event, one better suited to maybe mountain bike skills than road.

As it happened they got a dry and perfect day for racing, and a lot of the classic stars showed their form. Cancellara, although not looking as dominant as days gone by, rode away when from the break when it mattered. I feel the “quickening“. One of my favorite riders, Van Avermaet, was animated and in the break, looking like he is setting himself up for another great MSR. Ballan, despite looking like he was riding someone else’s bike (what is it with that guys position? He looks awkward as hell) seemed to have good legs, and Roman “Christian Bale look-alike“Kreuziger seems to have come out of the winter with good legs. This time last year was the start of Gilbert’s romp of a season as he set the the pattern for many of the great one day races. This year, it is a bit early yet to start questioning his form and team move, but it is certainly different. Maybe the biggest stat of all from yesterday, that is either testament to the quality of the race (or riders not wanting to “go too deep, too early) is that out of 112 starters, only 52 finished.

Today the Paris-Nice “mini tour” kicks off, and despite wet conditions and riding conservatively, Wiggins delivered a smoking time trial. So far this season Sky and Omega/Quickstep seem to be the teams most settled and ready to race early.

Categories: Races / Riders