Descent

Adam Yates is a professional bike racer for the Mitchelton-Scott team.  A climbing specialist, he’s participating in his third Tour de France.  On Tuesday, Stage 16 took the riders 218 km (135.5 miles)  through southern France and into the Pyrenees, from the medieval walled town of Carcassonne to Bagneres-de-Luchon on the Spanish border, winding over three high mountains (one 2nd category and two first category), and finishing with a twisty, highly technical descent into town.  The first riders over the last summit would stand a good chance of winning the stage, especially if they were good descenders, as the race leaders would probably wait until the next day to duke it out on a wicked uphill finish rather than risking a fall at 50 kmh or more.  Earlier in the stage the race would traverse a descent on which the Italian rider Fabio Casartelli had fallen and died in 1995, a crash that greatly influenced the mandatory wearing of helmets in professional racing.

Descending is a special skill, one that many climbers do have, though not all.  It requires an ability to “read” the turns correctly as one approaches each one, so that one can go through them on the best line, with a minimum need to brake and a minimum chance of demonstrating Newton’s Laws of Motion by careening off the road.  The less force needed to change the direction of the bike, the better.  And any hard braking risks locking up the wheel so that it doesn’t revolve for a moment, resulting almost certainly in a skid and a crash.  Along with those skills, the rider needs a sure and delicate touch in bike handling–no over- or understeering,and just enough lean to keep the center of gravity in a stable spot.

Yates falls

Adam Yates falls on the descent of the Col du Portillon

Going up the Col du Portillon, the last climb of the stage on Tuesday, Yates attacked out of a group of seven riders who were leading the race by a wide margin over the more cautious peloton.  He was 2 km from the summit, and he got a 30-second gap quickly.  The others couldn’t respond, except for the Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe.  No slouch himself, Alaphilippe wore the polka-dot jersey (red on white) as the best climber in the race to that point.

Cresting the summit, Alaphilippe was 18 seconds behind Yates, the others badly distanced.  As the cyclingnews website narrator put it: “Here we go then. One white-knuckle descent to the finish line. . . . Yates begins his descent and takes it aggressively. He . . . can’t afford a single error.”   Two minutes later, on a simple and moderate left-handed bend, that single error came.

Yates crashed.

He was in the middle of the road, whose surface was dry.  The sun was out, the air was dry and clear.  But he crashed.  Alaphillipe went by him in a flash, and though Yates remounted, he was visibly shaken.  He took the next few curves at very moderate speed, compared to the hell-for-leather intensity he exhibited before.  By the end, Alaphilippe was all by himself, 15 seconds ahead of Yates, who was caught by two other riders from the lead group and was the third overall across the line.

In a flash Yates’ fate was reversed.  He and Alaphilippe are both 26.  They’ll have more descents together.  But Adam Yates will have to wait for for another day to get another great opportunity for a stage win at the Tour, and who knows when, or even if, that will be?

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2018

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Cherchez le Tour

Yesterday I was about ready to quit watching this year’s Tour de France, as the cold, ruthless hand of Team Sky fell on the peloton in a fashion eerily similar to the way the hand of US Postal would fall on it, in the first serious mountain stage each year.  Four-time Tour winner Chris Froome and his chief lieutenant, a Welshman named Geraint Thomas, took the field by the throat.  Froome almost seemed willing to gift the stage to Thomas, who attacked from the leader’s group with 5km left to go after the two stage leaders.  Froome did not counter until another overall contender, Roman Bardet, also tried to bridge the gap to the leaders.  In the end, Thomas made the final strong move

and it appeared nobody else could counter, even the favorite, Froome.  But Froome still finished third and put time into all his serious rivals except his own teammate.

skysports-geraint-thomas-tour-de-france-cycling_3991360

Geraint Thomas in yellow.

But today showed that the unexpected is always lurking. Team Sky may still be dominant, yet now the question is whether Froome has it in him to win the Tour again.  Today’s stage ended with a much, much steeper climb than yesterday, up the legendary L’Alpe d’Huez, with its twenty-one switchbacks over 13 km, average gradient of 8%, and 1700 meter (5570 foot) elevation.  As the end approached, one rider (Steven Kruijswijk) remained ahead; the leaders were in a fairly large group, led by another Sky rider (Colombian climber Egan Bernal), then Froome and Thomas (the two Sky teammates), then most of the other contenders.  After various feints and charges, as many as five or six were together across the road with just 4 km left.  Then attacks began, and in the last fairly sharp corner Thomas was took the best line and had the most strength.  Froome finished 4th, only three seconds back.  But his lieutenant has now beaten him two days in a row on terrain suited to Froome.  Thomas is the better time trialer, but there’s only one ITT in the Tour, on the next-to-last day.
Finally the booing.  Near the end the crowd was booing some or all of the contending riders.  Perhaps it was that they did not wait when contender Vincenzo Nibali fell with less than 4 km to go.  But the fall was too close to the finish line to establish a “level playing field” for all to contend.  The contenders had to contend, and they did.  Or was the booing directed at Froome, who was allowed to race only at the last minute because of an unresolved doping finding.  The Tour crowds didn’t show much love for Lance Armstrong in his last race up L’Alpe d’Huez either; he has booed and spat on because of suspected doping, which the crowd believed long before the eventual investigation, findings, and fall from grace.
Bradly Wiggins, former Team Sky Tour champion, said Sky would have a problem on its hands if Thomas won.  And he knows, because he was the victim of Froome, his then-young teammate who outpaced him and ultimately replaced him as team leader.
Stay tuned!  The Tour has more feats of derring-do and behind-the-scenes drama to offer in the next eleven days.
© Arnold Bradford, 2018.

Day One

Spring finally arrived in northern Virginia today.  It was in the mid-80s by late afternoon, breezy and wonderful, the first entire day that was truly like spring is supposed to be.  Nature was completely undaunted by any ominous omens of the calendar, which made it Friday the 13th.

Just three years ago yesterday I began my cancer treatment, quite a different spring regimen.  The aftereffects of the successful treatment have left me with less stamina and less determination to subject myself to discomfort.  So since 2015 I have not ridden my bike on the relatively more temperate days of midwinter or early spring.  All of the first three months of the year were on the exercise bike, or walking, and even these activities did not have the compelling allure they’ve had in years past.  But I was whipped into better shape by the visit of my daughter and granddaughter, who wanted to see the sights of our nation’s capital.  I was tested by Capitol Hill, challenged by the stairs of numerous subways, government buildings and museums, and generally called to consider that I was not too old to “use it” lest I “lose it.”

So this morning I was eager to get out on the W&OD Trail in the belated warmth of the season.  Couldn’t just pick up and go, of course.  I first discovered that we had no 2032 batteries to replace the dead one in my bike computer.  So off I went to CVS, returned and then sought out the manual that would allow me to reprogram the gadget.  After a mere 40 minutes from start to finish I had my electronic source of statistics back.  I’d carried over the mileage tally for 9 or 10 years, outlasting several batteries, but today I started over again at zero, because I think this is the beginning of a new era in my cycling life.

Coda

Jamis Coda Comp, my basic ride these days. That is a 52-tooth chainring.

Out in the garage my next challenge awaited.  Since the Jamis Coda had not been ridden since late September 2017, its tires were low despite my pumping them up once over the winter.  And sitting idle in the garage is not good for the drive train, particularly the chain.  Though I had oiled it in September, it was stiffened with rust and dirt.  Luckily the tires held air, and about ten minutes with a rag and chain oil got the drive train workable.  More oil for the cables, a readjustment of the rear brakes (new brake shoes needed soon!), and I was ready to suit up and go.  I decided on my trusty Kelme / Costa Bianca jersey, the colors of a European pro team of the Lance Armstrong era.  Sandro Botero rode for them, as did a couple of riders—Chechu Rubiera and Roberto Heras—who switched to Lance’s US Postal team and helped him win several of his seven straight Tours de France almost as much as PEDs helped him.

I took off with a lurking trepidation—would my body be up for this?  The plan was to ride just 11 miles, out to Hunter Mill Road and back.  No overkill on the first ride of the season.  I felt good on the bike, and going up Jackson Parkway and onto the right-of-way over to the Trail, I passed a couple of neighbors planting new bushes along the 50 or 60 foot paved link.  Everybody’s loving the warm air.  Once on the Trail, I found my strength and stamina were OK.  I was passing the really slow riders, was being passed by the strong ones, and dodging a number of walkers.  As always, I marveled at the convergence of roadblock groups, like the two moms pushing strollers side-by-side, and the walker passing them, spread out across the whole trail just when I wanted to go by.  My cheery “on the left” was not met with any rush on the walker’s part to get over quickly.  Cheeky!  I knew I had missed the Spring Peepers in the marshes of Difficult Run by about a month, and the bullfrogs too.   But on the way home some kind of froggy noises were emanating from Eudora Park, where Piney Branch flows.

I was feeling good as I approached my turnaround.  Inside my head something whispered “go ahead, you can do a few more miles.”  But I said “get thee behind me, Lance,” recognizing the voice of the temptation to do more than one is naturally capable of, whatever the price.  By about halfway home I realized how smart I had been to keep to my plan.  I was riding into a brisk quartering headwind, and all the muscles that were doing things unfamiliar to them were starting to ache: quads, shoulders, arm and hand muscles, knee joints.

Back at my desk, the computer said that my numbers for time and speed were in the same range I had reached near the end of last year.  So now it’s nothing but onward and upward.  I well may be out there again tomorrow because it’s supposed to be another warm day.

“The Sweet and Merry Month of May”

This has been an unusually cool and rainy month in northern Virginia, as recorded in the average air temperature and the rainfall total, which should surpass 8” for the month before the end of the day.  Nights have been cool, many afternoons so chilly that I’ve worn a sweater over long sleeves.  The cats have had little sun to loll in, neither on the screen porch in the early morning or late afternoon, nor by the storm door in the front.

When we got home from recent travels we had long grass, encouraged by the cold and wet, and hard to mow because it was wet.  But we attacked it and got it done.  Not, however, without the mower leaving big clumps all over the lawn like an incontinent cow.

I was working clean-up duty, raking the clumps before they matted and spot-killed the lawn, on a rare sunny afternoon when I realized the other day that May, which Elizabethan composer William Byrd called the “sweet and merry month,” is truly just that.  Hot, and sweaty in the sticky air, I stopped to rest on the porch steps for ten minutes.  First, a tiny butterfly, looking for all the world as if it had commandeered a piece of sky to color its wings, fluttered leisurely across the patio, exploring random small weeds, leaves, clumps of dirt.  It was almost certainly a Spring Azure, though different butterfly sites provide very different structures of classification.  Next, a fox kit trotted nonchalantly into the yard from the back hedge, angled over into the neighbors’ azaleas, and was on his way.  He saw me, but neither paused in surprise nor hurried away in fear.  Then there was the “wild rose tree,” actually an ornamental holly tree that is now full of rose vines and looked simply splendid in the bright sunshine.  This simple wild plant is a free bounty, just eager to express its own beauty with its deep pink blossoms and yellow center, and with its gentle rose scent.

roses in bloom

Our wild roses in full bloom

Finally, sometime after my rest, I found a small bird’s nest in the arbor vitae.  It was a shallow concave thing, woven together with grass and pliable twigs, neatly and securely.  It evidently had served its purpose, but was a symbol of the simplicity of the needs of songbirds, the care with which they use what nature provides, and the procreational urges of the season.  Much to be thankful for in the “sweet and merry” miracles of nature, right in my own back yard.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2017

Riding to Win in the Tour de France

On Tuesday, July 16, 2013, the Tour de France peloton raced from Vaison-le-Romaine to Gap. It was Stage 16, one I witnessed afresh only yesterday while riding my exercise bike. This familiar Tour route is famed for the Lance Armstrong exploit in 2003 on the last descent, when Josebo Beloki’s rear tire came unglued in the heat approaching a sharp curve, Beloki crashed in front of Lance (sustaining injuries that effectively ended his career), and Armstrong avoided the fallen rider by riding across a hayfield, dismounting and leaping with his bike across a deep ditch cyclocross style, and rejoining the leading group for the last 3 kilometers into town. That was the year Armstrong ended with the yellow jersey on his back but officially didn’t win the race for the fifth time. Here’s a video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gr89ku-K2WU

In 2013 there wasn’t quite so much drama. Going into the stage Chris Froome, coming off a victory at Mont Ventoux, had a 4’14” lead over Bauke Mollema and 4’ 25” over Alberto Contador. With only five stages after this one, the race was already for second place behind Froome.   Contador, a two-time Tour winner (with a third title stripped for doping in 2010), was desperate to solidify his third-place spot on the podium (he finished fourth). He attacked several times on the third and last climb of the day, the category 2 Col de Manse, and though he got a couple of gaps on Froome, the race leader was able to close them down with the help of able teammate Richie Porte. On that last descent, so costly to Beloki a decade earlier, Contador took all kinds of chances to gain a few precious seconds. Froome, with a safe overall lead, nevertheless tried to stay with Contador, mostly to symbolize that he was in control of the race, and that further attempts by Contador to gain time would fail as certainly as the earlier ones had.

Froome and Contador

Froome (yellow jersey) clips in after avoiding Contador (on left).

On a fast, tight turn about halfway down, Contador overcooked it. The video is unclear, but it appears that Contador had to unclip, put a foot down, and come almost completely off his bike. This sudden slowdown from a speed that was probably about 40 mph threw the trailing Froome off. (Remember that in professional bike racing they are only inches away from one another). He veered, had to go off the road onto the narrow gravel shoulder, and put his foot down before re-clipping and recovering his control and direction. As the two were getting back up to speed, side by side, Froome said something to Contador.

They finished the race together in their small group of leaders, 11’08” off the pace, trailing 26 other riders, including a breakaway of several cyclists that in turn trailed the stage winner Rui Costa by 42 seconds. Afterwards Froome complained that Contador “was actually taking a few too many risks there.” He thought Contador “was pushing a little bit too fast” on the downhill curves, putting Froome “in danger.” Froome’s attitude is quite traditional for the yellow jersey holder, especially one who is dominating the race. Others should respect the race leader, and not challenge him except on his own terms.

The skeptical viewer might well see Froome as putting himself at risk. He didn’t need every second the way Contador did; he was shadowing Contador to symbolize his own dominance. That was his choice, and he ended up putting himself in danger. It’s a mentality that I see quite often in bike racing. Froome was essentially accusing Contador of trying too hard to win. In most sports winning, as the late great football coach Vince Lombardi said, “isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” But not in the minds of all cyclists. Poor Chris Froome actually had to maneuver his bike suddenly because Alberto Contador was going all out. How disrespectful! Chris, you poor baby.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2016.

Déjà Vu

Today Chris Froome pretty much wrapped up the 2015 Tour de France.

Realistically speaking, everybody else is now fighting for the second and third spots on the podium. The second place rider is currently Tejay Van Garderen, who started the day only 24 seconds behind Froome’s yellow jersey, but is now a whopping 2:52 back. Froome took similar time out of his other main rivals, Nairo Quintana (now 3:09 in arrears), Alberto Contador (4:04), and Vincenzo Nibali (6:57). Froome got the huge lead by blowing everybody off his wheel on the very tough final uphill climb on the Col du Soudet. It is 15 kilometers long, and the first 10 kilometers have an average gradient of 8.1 %. This is the first serious mountain climb of the Tour, and most riders’ legs need time to adjust from the demands of flat and rolling daily stage routes to the sudden crunch of a long, steep, uphill chase.

Froome crosses the line

Froome Crosses the Line

But Froome had no such problems, thanks in part to his particular skill set, to lots of high altitude experience from training in his native South Africa, and to his very strong team, which has been selected solely on the basis of how effectively each rider can play a specified role in assuring that he is in position to maximize his opportunities to gain time on his rivals.   After today’s stage, in fact, Froome explicitly praised his team, crediting them with making his victory possible.

In some ways Froome is an unlikely hero. He was Sir Bradley Wiggins’ main domestique (support rider) when Wiggo won the Tour three or four years back. And he won the Tour himself two years ago. Still, Froome (now 30 years old) won very few major events until the age of 25. At that point he was diagnosed with bilharzia, a debilitating parasitic disease that he may have had for some time. Once it was treated and cured, his career took off, with numerous major victories in professional stage races.

Big gaps like the one Froome holds now in the Tour are not impossible to overcome. Several tough mountain stages still lie ahead, and he could lose the yellow jersey for good with a bad day, a crash, or an outstanding series of performances by a rival. But history shows that a rider in Froome’s position usually prevails, extends his lead, crushes any tenuous lingering dreams held by rivals. In fact, from 1999 to 2005 the pattern of victory was almost identical to Froome’s. A dominant rider with a strong, disciplined team working for him routinely crushed his opponents on the first day the Tour hit the mountains. His demoralized foes fought for second and third, while the team and its leader hammered on day after day. The rider’s surprising prowess was attributed to his excellent skill set and his strength following the diagnosis and cure of a debilitating disease. That rider is a Phantom today. Despite ample evidence in the form of film, videos, and human memory, he is said never to have won a stage of the Tour, never to have stood on the top step of the podium in Paris. At the time his victories were called “unbelievable” and “incredible.” These same terms are used to describe Froome’s performance today, even by Froome himself. But the Phatom Rider’s legacy was dematerialized by drug use. And that’s the difference, because we know today that no rider, however much his performance resembles the Phantom’s, can possibly be on drugs. Don’t we?

Kerry on the Colombiere (complete version)

John Kerry, U. S. Secretary of State, broke his femur today as he rode out on his bike for a little exercise jaunt.  He was headed for the Col de Colombiere, a mountain pass in the Savoy Alps that ascends more than 5,200 feet above sea level.  Kerry had an entourage of support vehicles, American security and Secret Service (rousted no doubt from the beds where they and their lady friends were “sleeping”), that put to shame even the famous Tour de France motorcade in terms of firepower if not tourist kitsch.

Kerry fell off hitting a curb at low speed.  It’s a surprisingly dangerous maneuver.  The curb does not have any “give,” so essentially what happens is that the bike stops very abruptly.  The rider, who did not see this coming, takes no evasive action.  His body, which was not directly acted upon by an outside force, follows the dictates of that famous law first propounded by Sir Isaac Newton, and keeps on going, propelled by momentum.  Ah, but that other Newtonian force, namely gravity, does come into play, and so the cyclist first catapults and then hits the tarmac.  The Secretary’s femur did not withstand the blow.

Most likely Kerry was preoccupied by thoughts of how he might feel halfway up the climb.  The Colombiere is formidable, offering a climb of about 16 km at an average gradient of about 6.8%, and an ascent of 1100 meters (over 3600 feet).  There is a 10.2% gradient section near the top.  I can avow that for most recreational cyclists, that kind of a gradient requires distinct effort.  The climb has been featured 20 times in the last 65 years of Tour de France racing.  Heroes from Luis Herrera to Richard Virenque to Marco Pantani have led the racers over the top in years past.  But the most infamous leader over the top is the American rider Floyd Landis.  Landis went on a literally incredible escape on the 17th stage of the  2006 Tour.  He had been dropped on the previous day, losing almost 10 minutes to his main competitors on a mountaintop finish, to trail the race leader by 8 minutes and 8 seconds.  But on July 21 he took off on a 130 km solo ride, finishing by going up and over the Col du Colombiere and down into the finishing town of Morzine.  At the end of the day he trailed the overall race leader by only 30 seconds.  He then won the Tour with a powerful Time Trial performance a couple of days later.  But as the Tour ended in Paris, word got out that a high placed finisher had tested positive for Performance Enhancing Drugs.  Landis’ tests revealed that he had an 11:1 T/E ratio (testosterone to epitestosterone) at the end of stage 17.  The normal ratio is 1:1.  The highest permissible in the Tour is 4:1.  Incredible, unbelievable, indeed!  But that’s not the only dark American cycling parable in which Kerry’s ride was caught up.

Kerrybike

John Kerry rounds a corner on his Serotta.

John Kerry was riding a Serotta bike up the Colombiere, if newspaper photos of him reflect yesterday’s outing.  Serotta bikes are of many sorts, but they include high-end titanium/carbon road bikes which sell for over $6800, and it appears Kerry is riding one of these.  Serottas are American made, in a small entrepreneurial operation run by designer Ben Serotta.  Or I should say “were” made, because last year Ben Serotta was bought out by Blue Competition Cycles and Mad Fiber Wheels to form Divine Cycling Group.  The Group withdrew funding and now Ben Serotta is not making Serotta bikes.  He owns neither the company nor the brand that he formed 41 years ago.  His bikes were at the heart of the American move into international bike racing in the late 1970s, used by such  teams as 7-Eleven under the “Huffy” brand name.  Andy Hampsten won his epic Giro d’Italia stage on the Gavia riding a Serotta-made bike, and Davis Phinney won Tour de France stages on them.  But the modern business climate of corporate control has poisoned the well for many an American small business.  Kerry’s patriotic choice to ride a Serotta symbolizes both the achievement of American small business and its precarious health.  Kerry could have ridden a Trek but I’m glad he chose otherwise.  I love Treks, but that’s another story.

So John Kerry’s fractured femur carries the weight of American parables, echoes of triumph and tragedy, appearance and reality, success and failure, all in the same moment. Quite a load for a broken bone.  And it hurts more when you put pressure on it.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2015.