Mid-Life Cycling

Mid-Life Cycling

28 July 2015

Going In Circles From Ovals To Rectangles

When I heard that Chris Froome won this year's Tour de France with an elliptical chainring, I thought of the immortal words of Yogi Berra, "It's deja vu all over again!"

There was something of a minor fad for them when I first became a dedicated cyclist, in the mid-1970s.  At that point, I think there were so few experienced cyclists (at least here in the US) that I think people were willing to try just about anything.  Sometimes that worked for the better, as with the case of SunTour derailleurs.  (I don't know anyone who went back to Simplex or Huret derailleurs after trying SunTour.)  In other cases, the new product didn't work well or, as in the case of elliptical chainrings, most riders didn't notice any difference.


Durham "Camel" chainring, circa 1975. Photo by Chuck Kichline.


Interestingly, oval-shaped rings enjoyed something of a renaissance a decade later, when Shimano resurrected the idea in its Biopace chainrings. It shape wasn't as exaggerated as that of the "Camel" ring in the above photo, but it looked noticeably different from round rings. It seemed that most people who rode them were in the then-emerging field of mountain or off-road riding.  Shimano offered Biopace road rings, but they weren't nearly as popular as the mountain versions.  The reason for that is, I believe, that mountain riding, being a relatively new sport, had younger riders who weren't as fixed in their habits as the older road cyclists and cyclotourists--who seemed to be a dying breed, at least here in the US, by the late 1980s.   Also, as someone explained to me at one of the trade shows, mountain riders tended to rely more on raw power than road cyclists, who prized a smooth, symmetrical stroke more. 


Shimano Biopace --loved and hated by more cyclists (who may or may not have used them)  than, possibly, any other chainring-- on 1985 Ritchey Annapurna.  From Mombat.org


Whether that person's theory holds any water, I'll never know.  I have never used any chainring that wasn't round--except for a couple of times when I fell or crashed and turned my chainring into a taco or a crepe, depending on whether I was on my Dakota or my Motobecane.  Let me tell you, neither of those shapes does much for your pedaling efficiency!

Given this history, I was skeptical when I heard that Froome rode an oval chainring.  I didn't doubt that he rode it:  Riders on professional teams usually ride whatever their sponsors give them, and I suspected that whoever made the ring kicked some money into Team SKY.  That suspicion turned out to be correct, though the identity of the sponsor--and his product--were not quite what I expected.

Turns out, Jean-Louis Talo invented the Osymetric rings Froome and some of his teammates were riding.  The mechanical engineer, who hails from Menton (right next to the Italian border), developed his design in 1993 and has been trying to convince riders and teams to use it ever since.  Bradley Wiggins won the 2012 Tour with an Osymetric ring, and Froome won the following year's Tour with an "O".  After that, orders flooded into Talo's Nice-based Biosquat S.R.L., especially from the UK (no surprise, as Wiggins and Froome are British) and China. 


Chris Froome's bike. 


Now, some of those orders surely came from folks who had more money than cycling skill and want to ride whatever Tour winners ride. But others no doubt came from racers who are looking for an edge.  According to some riders, Talo isn't blowing smoke when he says that his rings are actually very different from other non-round chainrings like the Rotor rings--as well as Shimano's BioPace and earlier elliptical chainrings.

Whether or not Talo's creation actually imparts an advantage, it does seem different in at least one way.  Although much of the press has called it "oval" or "elliptical", it actually looks--to me, anyway--more like a rectangle with rounded corners.  Perhaps that is helpful to certain kinds of cyclists--like Froome, who pedals at a faster pace uphill than most people can maintain on flats or downhills.


Osymetric chainring on Dura-Ace crank.  No, it's not Froome's bike--or Sir Wiggo's.


Whatever its advantages, I can't help but to think of one disadvantage Osymetrics share with other non-round rings:  compromised front shifting.  Although I never rode BioPace or other elliptical rings myself, I set up and adjusted bikes with them.  With round chainrings, you set up the front derailleur so that the outer cage is a couple of millimeters above the teeth on the largest chainring.  But doing so on the ellipsis or "corner" of a chainring means that the gap between the cage and other parts of the ring is wider, which can cause mis-shifts as well as other problems.

Then again, most riders don't shift as frequently on the front as on the rear, and usually make front shifts while pedaling at lower RPMs than when making rear shifts. Plus, mechanics for SKY and other teams have probably worked out compromises of one kind or another.

If there is to be a vogue for Osymetric or other non-round rings, it will be interesting to see how long it lasts.  While it seems that Froome and other SKY team cyclists will continue riding them, Sir Bradley Wiggins has gone back to riding round chainrings.

Now, which do you prefer:  Equipment that used by someone who won the Tour de France--or someone who was knighted?  Whose guitar would you rather have: Jimi Hendrix's or Sir Eric Clapton's? 

 

27 July 2015

They've Gotta Start 'Em Young

Yesterday, Chris Froome won the Tour de France two years after he won it for the first time.  He deserves all of the accolades he receives.  Anyone who can finish the Tour is at least a world-class rider; anyone who can win it is among the sport’s greats.  And when a cyclist wins the Tour more than once, it’s hard not to compare him with the sport’s immortals.




He is 30  years old.  When Bradley Wiggins won three years ago, he was 32.  And, even though Lance Armstrong’s wins have been vacated, I will include him in this comparison:  He was a few weeks short of 28 when he wore the maillot jaune in Paris for the first time.

Now, every woman of a certain age has said, “Age is just a number!”  (I’m guilty as charged!)  In some contexts, it’s true.  However, the age at which a cyclist wins his first Tour—or, for that matter, at which he or she achieves his or her first victories or high placements—seems to have a lot to do with whether said cyclists becomes one of the dominant riders of an era—or of the history of the sport.
I couldn’t help but to notice that Bernard Hinault was 23 when he won his first Tour in 1978.  Eddy Mercx’s first victory in the race came at age 24 in 1969.  Other cyclists won major stage races and classics when they were in their early 20’s, and were winning (or at least finishing among the top riders) in professional and amateur races before that.

 
Eddy Mercx in 1969


 
Actually, riders like Mercx, Hinault, Coppi and other greats from the past were competing in lots of races at such early ages.  (As great as they were, they won about one out of every five races they entered during their careers.)  That gave them the opportunity to learn how to ride a variety of different races.  When they won, it helped them to build their reputations, which would lead to contracts with major teams that had the resources to help them elevate their riding.
 
By the time Coppi, Jacques Anquetil Mercx and Hinault won their first major races, they had already entered more races than most, if not any, of today’s riders will participate in during their entire careers.  And, as I’ve said in my earlier post, in riding (and sometimes winning) a variety of races, they developed a range of skills—mental as well as physical—on which they could draw throughout their careers.  As a writer, I liken them to a writer who reads and writes in a variety of different genres when he or she is young and develops a diverse repertoire before entering the apex of his or her career.




Bernard Hinault in 1978


To be fair, cyclists today can’t be blamed for starting later than their counterparts in earlier generations.  When Anquetil and even Hinault were competing, it wasn’t unusual for a young man to leave school at 14 or 16, depending on which country he called home, and start working.  Part of the reason was that jobs and apprenticeships were available; another reason was that those young men were working to help support their families, whether in a factory or on the farm.

Cyclists of the past usually came from the class of young men I’ve just described:  one that is disappearing.  Young people in western European countries, like their counterparts in North America and Asia, are staying in school longer.  Given that few colleges and universities have cycling programs, many would-be racers find it difficult to keep up their training—especially in the absence of support from a team or club—at the same time they’re studying.

That means that cyclists aren’t starting or resuming their careers until they’re just about the age at which Hinault and Mercx won the Tour for the first time.  They therefore have fewer years in which to compete, let alone amass victories, never mind to test their mettle in a variety of different kinds of races.  Mercx retired from the sport at 33, which is actually fairly late for an elite cyclists.  At that time, he’d been racing professionally for 17 years: more than half of his life.  (In contrast, Froome didn't turn professional until he was 22.)Few, if any, of today’s cyclists will have such long careers—and thus less of an opportunity to become the dominant rider Mercx was.  

26 July 2015

A Path Of Learning




 No, it’s not rust:





and it’s not a “fade” paint job







(although, if I do say so myself, it goes rather nicely with the toestraps, saddle and straps and trim on the bags)












and it’s not an attempt to out-hipster the hipsters 





That reddish-brown “mist” you see is dirt.  Not sooty, dirty city dirt.  No, it comes from soil:







Specifically, it’s the residue of a trail—one I hadn’t ridden in more than thirty years.


When I was a Rutgers student, I used to pedal along the Delaware and Raritan Canal towpath.  Connecting the two rivers in its name, it opened in 1834.



The trail wasn’t, of course, wasn’t used for cycling, running or hiking in those days.  If someone had the leisure time for such things, he or she wasn’t doing them:  Aerobic fitness wasn’t, shall we say, terribly fashionable among the gentry.  And anyone who worked along the canal, or in the industries that sent barges down its waters, didn’t have the time or energy for such things at the end of the day.



In fact, people didn’t use the path.  Rather, horses and mules trod it when they pulled the barges and boats that carried coal from Pennsylvania to New York City.



Believe it or not, there were actually industries, including manufacturing and bottling, along the canal’s shores.  They have long ceased operations, as the canal itself did in 1932, forty years after it last turned a profit.



Today the only watercraft one sees are canoes and kayaks, which can be rented at several points along the way.  On the path itself, people walk dogs and themselves—and pedal bicycles.



Before yesterday, I hadn’t ridden the towpath in more than thirty years.  When I was riding it fairly regularly, I barreled along on ten-speeds that are now considered “retro” or “classic”.  Sometimes I’d ride my racing bike on the road—one lane in each direction, no shoulder-- that skirted the canal’s shore.



The towpath and its surroundings don’t seem to have changed much since then.  The only difference I could see between yesterday and those long-ago rides (when I was a Rutgers student) were the canoes and kayaks, and the stations that rented them.  Back in the day, most people in the area hadn’t heard of kayaks and anyone who paddled a canoe was plying his (just about all were male) craft elsewhere.



All right, I noticed a couple of differences.  Somehow it seemed more even more relaxing—in a Zen sort of way—than I remembered it.  Perhaps that has as much to do with me, if I do say so myself, as it does with the path. 



Also, I think I saw more cyclists on the towpath than I saw in all of the rides I did along it back in the day.  They were all riding mountain bikes:  a genre of velocipedes unknown outside of northern California, northern New England and parts of Colorado when I was living and studying “on the banks of the ol’ Raritan”. 






I had to get off my bike and tiptoe over this part, just like I did back in the day.  Everyone else—even those who rode extra-wide tire as well as full-suspension—did the same.  They also hopped and skipped across a couple of other stretches, where stone slopes were constructed to conduct water between the canal and the river. 






Riding the towpath wasn’t part of my original plan, if I had any.  I rode to Liberty Tower, took the PATH train to Newark and started pedaling as soon as I emerged from that city’s Penn Station.  I headed south and west, more or less on the route I took to Somerville on past rides.  I wasn’t thinking about Somerville, but in Cranford (about twenty kilometers from Newark), the sun opened its face and the breeze whispered as thin clouds stuttered across the sky:





How can anyone not ride in such conditions?  So I kept going and I found myself floating on the bow of a ship from which I heard a the call to ride and ride some more:





As I pedaled up the inclines and down the slopes, I though of boats raised and lowered in locks.  Maybe that’s the reason I rode toward the canal.







Whatever I exerted in pedaling along the towpath and  on it, It was more effortless, I’m sure, than any voyage taken by those barges and boats that plied the canal—or the steps taken by the animals that towed them, or the men who raised and lowered the barges and boats. 



One reason is that Vera—my twenty one-year-old Miss Mercian—seemed to just glide over everything.  I mentioned the part where everyone had to dismount.  Well, on two other stretches, cyclists on mountain bikes dismounted—and I didn’t.  Vera—shod with 700X32 Continental Gator Skin tires—stood her ground, skipped or glided, as necessary, over red dirt, gravel and cobblestones.  In fact, she seemed even more comfortable—even happy—on this trail than in or on any other place or surface on which I’d ridden her. Perhaps I’ve found her true niche.





As for me:  I was able to experience a ride from my youth without any of the anger, frustration or sorrow (much of it for myself) I carried in my youth.  Even with two bags—and, lets say, the weight and hormones my body didn’t have in my youth, the ride seemed even more effortless than it did when I was in better physical condition.



On my way back, a dog crossed into my path.  Back in the days, I would have cursed the dog—and the woman who walked her.  But I stopped and stroked the dog, who licked my hand.  The woman apologized.  “It’s OK,” I demurred. 

 

A man—her husband, I presume--followed with another dog. He echoed her apology;  I repeated my deflection of it.  He stretched out his hand.  “Can I offer these as penance?”



He had just picked the blackberries.  I don’t remember anything that tasted so good.