Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Brooks Saddles and Levi's Denim

Some people would never consider riding in jeans. As someone who isn't hung up on the notion that I always have to wear cycling clothes when on a bike, I'll ride in jeans now and then as long as I'm not riding too far -- like pedaling around the neighborhood, riding with my kids, or running some errands. But the thickness of the seams, and their location, means I don't want to ride in jeans for more than a few miles. But now there is a way to ride in jeans in complete comfort.

Brooks Saddles' new Cambium saddles have been making fans since their introduction last year. The vulcanized rubber saddles have a canvas top bonded to them and reviewers have praised them for good comfort, durability, and classic good looks. I'm still waiting for Brooks to send me one to try out for review, but my requests must be getting lost. (I'm sure that's it -- I mean, we share a name for cryin' out loud). I've long been a fan of their natural leather saddles (see HERE), but the new rubber saddle seems worth a try. Now, the latest addition to the line is a collaboration between Brooks and Levi's -- a Cambium saddle topped with recycled Levi's denim.

For the time being, the limited edition saddles are exclusively available at Levi's Commuter Workspaces in Brooklyn, Los Angeles, and London. In October they will be available from the Brooks online shop. One interesting twist on the recycled denim idea is that Brooks and Levi's are inviting people to bring clean used denim to one of the three Workspaces so it can be re-used to make "as many saddles as possible." People who do so would get 20% off from Levi's and from Brooks, along with a chance to win one of the saddles (the collection began earlier in July). I think it would be pretty cool to get the saddle made with your own vintage jeans, but I doubt there's any provision to make that likely. (Think about it, Brooks!)

To my eye, the saddles look pretty classy, and due to the way that every pair of jeans wears and fades a little differently from every other, each saddle would be slightly different. No two alike. Between the looks and the reported comfort, I think the saddles would be a complement to a lot of classic-styled bikes, new or old. The one thing I can't seem to find out anywhere is the price. The regular Cambium C-17 sells for around $140 (online prices vary a little -- shop around), so that's at least a frame of reference. By the way, the classic Brooks B-17 sells for roughly the same price nowadays, depending on the options -- titanium rails push the price near $200!

Learn more at Brooks Saddles website.

Just a short post today -- get out and ride!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Expensive And Ugly

I recently spotted these new cranks from FSA, the K-Force Light -- which have the distinction of being not only eye-wateringly expensive, but also, eye-wateringly ugly. In fact, they probably incorporate everything that a Retrogrouch could possibly loathe.

According to articles I've seen, the crank is listed at £599, or $750, which is obviously a lot of dough, particularly considering its Taiwanese origins. But also, it raises a question about component and bicycle pricing that I've wondered about before -- whenever I see prices listed in £British and $U.S., they never bear any relationship to exchange rates. Currently, £599 should be over $1000. I don't get how that works, but I suspect someone's getting screwed. But I'm digressing. . .

Like Shimano, and now Campagnolo, the new FSA crank goes to an asymmetrical 4-arm spider, but of course (because this is the bicycle industry we're talking about) the chainrings are not compatible with either Shimano or Campy. In fact, they aren't really a 4-bolt chainring, as there is a 5th bolt hidden behind the arm (which is nestled between the more closely-spaced spider arms, making the 5th bolt pretty superfluous). The 4-arm spider gets touted by Shimano and their converted disciples as a "major improvement" in crank design, and I've read blog and forum comments from the converts proclaiming improved stiffness and "unprecedented power transfer" -- which just proves to me that a lot of people are completely full of s#!%. It also means everyone has to copy it -- but not copy it so much as to make any part of it interchangeable.

The new K-Force Light is made from carbon fiber with hollow arms, so you know it will stand up to hard use. It also has the huge, bloated look of many of today's components, along with graphics that look like something out of Japanese animé cartoons.

As another bonus, the crank comes with the BB386EVO bottom bracket -- which is another of the multiple new bottom bracket standards to be released in the last few years, and requires spacers and adapters in order to fit into frames that aren't designed specifically for it (which, of course, is probably most of them). And like most of these new press-fit bottom bracket "standards," the only thing that's actually "standard" is the creaking that comes when the various spacers and adapters don't really fit right.

So, what do we have here? A stupid-light carbon fiber crank that's incredibly expensive, obnoxiously ugly, with yet another proprietary chainring pattern, that will probably creak when it's installed in any frame that can be adapted to accept it. It's enough to make any Retrogrouch need a Proofide inhaler.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Tour de France 2014

By now, anyone reading this already knows that Vincenzo Nibali won the Tour de France yesterday, the first Italian winner since Marco Pantani in '98. Nibali was just a kid when that happened.

Nibali was strong from start to finish.
Some people will say he only won because the favorites, like Chris Froome and Alberto Contador, were unable to finish. Given the performance I saw, I think Nibali just might have won anyhow. Besides, I'm not the first one to say that in order to finish first, one must first finish. The best way I can describe Nibali's riding in the Tour is "Smart." He stayed safe when he needed to, and made moves (good moves) when it was necessary. It's like he did everything right, and nothing wrong. Not only that, but he really surprised people with the depth of his riding -- like his strong performance on the cobblestones, for instance. His team, also, was up to the task of defending a Tour leader, and all nine Astana team members finished the race.

Nibali won four stages on his way to the overall victory. The hilly 2nd stage from York to Sheffield got him the Yellow Jersey, which he held until the 9th stage. He won the 10th stage in the mountains, getting the Yellow Jersey back again -- and held it to the end of the Tour. He also won stage 13, Saint Étienne - Chamrousse, and stage 18 with an impressive acceleration on the Hautacam. His performance in the mountains was so good that Nibali almost won the King-of-the-Mountains Polka Dot Jersey in addition to the Yellow.
Not known as a "classics" rider, Nibali was surprisingly
strong on the cobbles.

In the 2014 Tour's only time trial, on the penultimate stage, Nibali was faster through the 54 km course than everyone but World TT Champion Tony Martin, thereby adding more to his lead in the overall standings. In the end, he had a 7:52 margin of victory when he crossed the line in Paris -- the widest margin in 17 years. Only two other people wore the leader's Yellow Jersey during the whole 3,664 km Tour -- Marcel Kittel, winner of stage 1, and Tony Gallopin, who wore it one day after stage 9. It was impressive.

It's a shame that, in the "Post Armstrong" era, people will question (are questioning) if Nibali raced clean. Chris Froome was pressed with the same questions after his win in 2013, and Bradley Wiggins faced the same skepticism in 2012. I say it's a shame because on one hand, people deserve the benefit of the doubt. On the other hand, I think it's an unfortunate fact of life for racers, at least for the time being, that they're going to end up paying for the crimes of others. We've all seen the fairy tales, and we've seen how too many of them turned out. I want to believe it was a clean victory, (and Froome's and Wiggins's, too) but part of me waits for the other shoe to drop. It doesn't help that Nibali's team, Astana, and their director, Alexander Vinokourov, have a "troubled" past in that regard. I'm not bringing that up to cast doubts. I truly hope it really is a new era.

I should also point out that Nibali's strong TdF win shouldn't be a surprise. He never exhibited some kind of inexplicable meteoric rise in performance -- but has been building, developing, and improving over the last few years. He won the Vuelta a España in 2010; finished 2nd in the Giro d'Italia in 2011; finished 3rd in the 2012 TdF behind Wiggins and Froome; and he won the Giro and finished 2nd in the Vuelta in 2013. He is now in an elite group of racers to win all three "grand tours" and it will be great to see what he continues to achieve in the future.

The Tour de Selfie

If the 2014 Tour de France is remembered for anything besides the impressive win by Nibali, it might also be as the "Tour de Selfie." Fans have always been a factor in bicycle racing -- more than in most other sports. There really aren't many sports where the fans can get so close to the athletes as in bicycle racing. On mountain stages, particularly, fans often crowd on the ascents to cheer (or jeer) the riders -- often crowding in so close that it's remarkable that the riders can get through at all.

This year, the latest phenomenon is the "selfie" -- where ignorant, self-centered, self-obsessed people think nothing of stepping out into the road (usually with their back turned to the racers) to get that picture of themselves in the midst of the action. It got so bad this year that crashes and many near-misses were a regular occurrence -- the ripple effect of one such crash took Andy Schleck out of the Tour. And in some stages, the riders took to smacking smart phones out of the hands of the fans.

I've said before that people have an unfortunate tendency toward self-centeredness, and I believe so-called smart phones (I prefer smart people to smart phones) and social media like twitter, snapchat, and so many others, do a lot to enable, intensify -- even reward -- that self-centered behavior. The word "selfie" is a new one in our language, but it's awfully appropriate. Self-centered, self-obsessed, selfish . . . selfie.

Carbon Bikes in the NYT

Saw this article about carbon fiber bikes in the New York Times this weekend:

Notice that the bike on the left sheared off at the fork. Yeah,
it was a crash, but that'll never make it into the ads.
I often take issue with what I read about bicycles, bicycling, and bicyclists when regular media covers the subject, but I couldn't help but agree with most of the points brought up about carbon bikes in the NYT. Okay, the article is not exactly hard-hitting journalism (can't spare the hard-hitters for bicycle stories, I guess). There's not a lot of supported data, and if anyone involved in the industry in any way spoke to Times, they aren't named. But it confirms what I've been saying for a while now, so I'll take what I can get.

The article starts out by mentioning Greg LeMond's use of carbon fiber back in his Tour de France victories -- something I mentioned in a recent post -- then talks about how the material has completely supplanted steel and aluminum in the pro peloton since then, not only for frames, but also rims and most other components.

And they're right when they point out the advantages, which are the whole reason the CF dominates racing bike construction today. Carbon fiber can be moulded and manipulated in all kinds of ways while still being considerably lighter than metals like steel or aluminum. But rather than act as the cheerleader like most bicycling publications do, hyping the benefits at though there were no downsides, the article quickly looks at the tradeoffs.

"But there has been a catch," the NYT says. "Unlike steel or aluminum, carbon fiber does not bend in crashes. Rather the bikes and wheels frequently shatter, often hurling riders to the road and, many fear, increasing the severity of injuries." Nothing new there to Retrogrouches, but I think many others are in denial.

I liked this quote:

"Anyone in a team who's being honest with you will tell you how frequently their bikes are breaking; everybody knows," said Mark Greve, a physician and assistant professor of sports medicine at Brown University who studied injuries to 3,500 competitive cyclists. "Few people in the public appreciate how many bikes a pro team will go through in a season, because they break for one reason or another. The bikes, they completely explode."

Something the article touches on that I've long believed but couldn't find much corroboration for, is the sense that there's almost a "code of silence" when it comes to the fragility of carbon bikes. "The teams and riders exist, in part, to act as powerful marketing tools for bike makers. . . When they spoke on the condition they not be identified, their stories emerged."

The thing is, racers will continue to use CF -- and why wouldn't they? In racing, every second counts (sometimes even fractions of a second), and racers at the top levels of the sport want any and every advantage they can get. They get paid to ride, and they ride what the sponsors give them. They have few, if any, concerns about durability, since anything that breaks will be replaced for them. As long as the bikes will make it through the season (or at least 'till the end of the next race) they're fine with it. And even though there is a bigger risk of something breaking, I'm sure they feel the odds are at least in their favor as long as they don't crash -- and who ever plans on crashing?

There was a telling quote in there from Robert Millar, a former teammate of LeMond's, and another early racer on carbon fiber frames. "Would I be happy to use a carbon bike if I was still racing? Yes, but that would be a custom product designed to be as light, fast and strong enough to withstand the demands of racing. The cost would be irrelevant."

But what about the rest of us? People who don't race? Or people who race on their own dime without the budget of a big pro team? Of course, anyone reading this knows what a Retrogrouch would say. The benefits don't outweigh the durability issues. And for most of us, the cost isn't, as Millar said, irrelevant. Mark Greve, from Brown University, said, "The performance gains from super light frames reached the point of diminishing returns long ago," and he "questions the wisdom of consumers' buying what are, in effect, very costly throwaway items if they crash." Agreed.

I've written before about the UCI and their weight limit rules (limiting bikes in the pro peloton to 6.8 kilograms, or about 15 pounds) and how they are now looking into changing the rules that were put in place back in 2000. The NYT article also mentions that restriction, and how it hasn't really had the intended effect. And that is demonstrably true. The point of the rule was to keep a measure of safety in racing bike construction for competition, adhering to the belief that a bike under the weight limit might have too many compromises in safety. But the manufacturers have continued to cut weight on frames and critical components, well below UCI restrictions -- then the racing teams just stick some extra weight back onto the bikes to bring them up the the limit. Obviously, throwing a little extra weight onto a bike might conform to the letter of the rule, but not the spirit or intent. Not only that, but it's a great marketing tool when the manufacturers can tell weight weenies about how they can buy bikes even lighter than what the pros use.

And when it comes to the fragility of carbon fiber -- well, that's taken care of with a wink and a nod. The stories are out there. The photos and videos are out there. But carbon pushers will always make excuses, or say things like "steel breaks, too." Sure -- steel breaks too. But steel at least gives some warnings before it fails. Steel usually wears its damage out in the open, and if it's not safe to ride, one will usually be able to tell. Carbon can hide flaws or damage until it's too late.

Another pro-carbon argument I've heard/read is how the manufacturers would never stay in business if carbon bikes failed as often as the stories and pictures would indicate. Warranty claims would bankrupt them. That could be true, except that the warranties have enough restrictions in them to pretty much leave anything but the most egregious breakage uncovered. It's right there in the owners manuals, like this one from Specialized. Here's a quote from the disclaimers for road bikes:

"You must understand that (1) these types of bikes are intended to give an aggressive racer or competitive cyclist a performance advantage over a relatively short product life, (2) a less aggressive rider will enjoy longer frame life, (3) you are choosing light weight (shorter frame life) over more frame weight and a longer frame life, (4) you are choosing light weight over more dent resistant or rugged frames that weigh more. All frames that are very light need frequent inspection. These frames are likely to be damaged or broken in a crash."

So, is that just a case of "cover your ass," or brutal honesty? And how many people who buy these things actually read the manufacturer's disclaimers?

Wrapping it up, even though the NYT article is a bit light on sources (named ones, anyhow) and more supportable data, it jives pretty well with what I've been saying for a while now. At the end of the article, they mention how steel is now "a niche element most commonly used by artisanal frame builders." Sadly, that's mostly true -- but for my money and my riding, it's an easy choice.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Tour de France Bikes 1989

Many people look at the 1989 Tour de France as being significant not only for the high drama of the battle between Greg LeMond and Laurent Fignon, but also for ushering in an era of new technologies for the bicycles used in the Tour. Nevertheless, I think people sometimes overstate the importance of the technology, and I don't completely accept that the technology used by LeMond in the '89 Tour was necessarily new, though one could say that it was improved. For instance, aero helmets and the use of aerodynamic designs for time trial bikes had been around for several years by '89.

Most, if not all, of the time trial bikes in the '89 Tour were designed with aerodynamics in mind -- with disc wheels, and smaller diameter front wheels, and handlebars that put the riders into a deep drop. It's just that the aerodynamic position gained by the Scott "triathlon" bars used by LeMond was better. Not only that, but the Scott bars, and similar versions, had been used in other races before the '89 Tour. For example, the 7-Eleven team had used them in that year's Tour de Trump. Likewise, LeMond was hardly the first to wear an aerodynamic helmet. Many racers, including Laurent Fignon, had used them for years. If he believed it could make a difference, why Fignon chose to forgo a helmet in the final time trial of the '89 Tour is a mystery.

Anyhow, having said that . . . let's look at some bikes.

Both LeMond and Fignon (and most competitors in the TdF for that matter) used multiple bikes throughout the race, depending on the terrain and type of racing. Here are some of the bikes they used:

Here's a pretty good drive-side picture of one of the most important bikes used in the '89 TdF, LeMond's Bottechia time trial machine. From the tubing diameters and profiles (and the Columbus tubing stickers), it is almost certainly built from Columbus aero-profile steel tubing, with some aero-profile gussets at the main triangle joints. Mavic Comete disc rear wheel, and a smaller-diameter 650C spoked front wheel (spoked front wheels are easier to handle than discs). The components are mainly Mavic SSC. The Mavic rear derailleur is a traditional parallelogram design, modeled extensively on the Campagnolo Nuovo Record, but with more industrial, erector-set aesthetics. The crank is the aero-design Mavic 631, which came to be known by some as the "starfish" crank for its large smooth spider and hidden chainring bolts. The brakes are Mavic SSC, made by Modolo. The shift levers look to be Simplex retrofriction, mounted on top of the down tube. One of the notable features is the addition of the Scott aero bar bolted onto the bullhorn handlebars. The real benefit of the Scott bar was that it placed the rider's forearms out in front of the body, with the elbows tucked in, which has been proven to be more aerodynamic than having the arms out wide at the ends of the bullhorns. For gearing, he had a high-gear combination of 55 x 12.
For many stages, especially in the mountains, LeMond rode this carbon fiber tubed bike built by TVT, re-branded as Bottechia for the sponsor. The TVT was similar in construction to the aluminum and carbon fiber bikes built at the time by Alan and Vitus in that it used "normal" diameter tubing (that is, comparable to traditional steel frames of the time) bonded into aluminum lugs. Like the time trial machine shown above, the road bike used Mavic SSC components. The crank, in this case, is the standard SSC, not the heavier, aero-design 631. Rims and hubs are also Mavic. The bars and stem are Mavic-branded as well. The brakes are dark-gray anodized Mavic units, made by Modolo. Shift levers are down-tube mounted Simplex retrofriction shifters (a Retrogrouch favorite). As a side note, TVT also built TdF bikes for Pedro Delgado.
LeMond also used this lugged steel Bottechia in some stages. Like the other bikes he rode in the Tour, it was equipped with Mavic SSC components throughout. This bike used the same 631 "starfish" crank and SSC brakes as were used on the time trial machine. Also, like his other bikes, it had down tube retrofriction shifters. All of LeMond's '89 Tour bikes were also equipped with clipless pedals from Time.
The red and white Bottechia road bike shown above is on display at the Three Oaks Bicycle Museum in Three Oaks, Michigan. See more pictures HERE.
Here is Laurent Fignon's time trial machine, built by Cyfac in France, but labeled Raleigh. The frame is Reynolds steel, with aerodynamic gussets at the joints. It has a smaller-diameter 650C front wheel, and disc wheels front and rear. The bike is fully equipped with Campagnolo's C-Record group, including the aerodynamic Delta brakes. Aerodynamically, the bike itself isn't that much different from LeMond's time trial machine, and the disc front wheel probably cut drag more than LeMond's spoked wheel, but might have been harder to handle in crosswinds. The biggest aero difference was the more "tucked-in" rider position that LeMond got with the Scott clip-on bars -- that, and the fact that any helmet, aero or otherwise, would probably have been an improvement over the ponytail-flapping-in-the-wind sported by Fignon.
See, he did know what an aero helmet was.
For road stages, Fignon used this lugged-steel Raleigh-labled bike, again built by Cyfac. The frame was built with Reynolds 753 (there is a tubing sticker on the down tube just above the shift levers, and I think I see a purplish "3" there), and like the time trial bike, it was fully equipped with Campagnolo C-Record throughout. Note the cyclometer mounted down low on the fork instead of on the handlebars -- I would think a bar mount would be easier to see and use. Looking through photos from the '89 Tour, it would appear that Fignon sometimes used another bike apart from this one in road stages. The bars on this bike are wrapped white and red (the pearly look of the wrap would suggest Benotto cello tape -- very popular in the 80s), while one can see another bike with bars wrapped only in white. Otherwise the bikes appear to be the same, though there may have been differences in geometry, tubing gauge, or something else not discernible from photos.
I'm pretty sure these are the frame tubing stickers I'm seeing on Fignon's bike above.
Though carbon fiber was starting to show up in pro racing, and aluminum would gain in popularity, lugged steel still had a few more years in the TdF before it would disappear completely from the professional ranks.

One last thought on the impact of aerodynamics and technology. People often talk about how much of LeMond's time gain in the final time trial was due to the handlebars and aero helmet, etc. Experts would point to wind tunnel data to pin down an exact number of seconds saved (even LeMond himself said it might have saved him 10 to 20 seconds). But I think it would be wrong to imply that LeMond's win was mainly due to aerodynamic or technological advancements, and thereby downplay his physical achievement. Think about this: LeMond rode one of the fastest time trials in history at 54.55 km/h. Most pro-level time trials since then have been run with equipment equal to or better than what LeMond used in the '89 Tour -- bike weight has dropped, and wind-tunnel testing has become a huge part of the sport, yet his record still stands. It's worth noting that Dave Zabriske's 54.676 km/h record set in 2005 was over a shorter distance, and in the first stage, not after more than 3,200 miles and three weeks of racing. No, I think when it comes to the impact of technology on race results, it's a little harder to quantify than some people would like to think. Just sayin'.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Retrogrouch TdF Coverage: 1989

It was 25 years ago . . .

At 3285 km, the '89 Tour was one of the shorter races in history
-- but the competition made it one of the most dramatic.
From the very beginning the 1989 Tour de France promised to be a serious competition. Four previous Tour winners lined up for the opening prologue: Laurent Fignon, winner in '83 and '84; Greg LeMond, winner in '86; Stephen Roche, winner in '87; and Pedro Delgado, winner in '88.

The '89 TdF marked the tremendous return-to-form for Fignon who had faltered due to tendonitis for the previous several seasons. Winning the Giro d'Italia the previous month, he was eager to join the very exclusive club of riders to win both the Giro and the Tour in the same year. Future Tour winner, Bjarne Riis, was a strong supporting member of Fignon's Super U team that year.

Defending champion Pedro Delgado had placed 2nd in the TdF in '87 before winning it in '88. With his Tour victory overshadowed by a drug testing scandal (he was cleared on a technicality), he was certainly eager to prove himself a deserving champion. Early in the 1989 season, he had shown he was still in good form by winning the Vuelta a España. Also on Delgado's Reynolds/Banesto team was future 5-time Tour champion Miguel Indurain who would prove to be an important ally.

Stephen Roche had won the "Triple Crown" of cycling in '87, the Giro, Tour, and World Championships, though he did not appear to be performing at the same level in '89. Still, it would have been foolish to count him out.

Greg LeMond had lost most of the previous two racing seasons due largely to the shotgun wounds that nearly killed him in the Spring of '87. His relatively weak ADR team, and a mostly lackluster performance in the '89 Giro, meant long odds for a second LeMond TdF victory. People were wrong to underestimate him.

Delgado missed his time and left the start house 2:40 late.
When the opening prologue time trial began in Luxembourg, the Tour was already off to an unusual start. Defending champion Delgado, who had reportedly ridden off to warm up before his scheduled time as the last man to leave the start house, apparently got lost - or lost track of time - but arrived at the start house 2:40 late. He would end the day in last place. It was the first indication that the Tour could be entirely unpredictable.

On the other hand, Fignon finished the prologue in second place, just 6 seconds slower than winner Erik Breukink. Surprisingly, LeMond was fourth following Sean Kelly, and just a fraction of a fraction of a second slower than Fignon (they were all three credited with the same time). If not for the terrible mistake with the starting time, Delgado might have started the first stage only about 10 seconds behind Fignon and LeMond.

The first two stages, a normal road stage and a team time trial, were held on the same day. Fignon's Super U team won the time trial, though the ADR team with LeMond would manage a respectable 5th overall, 51 seconds slower. Delgado lost more time to the leaders as he was dropped by his Reynolds/Banesto team and finished last, well over 4 minutes behind. It was a stunning thing to see the defending champion wallowing in last place -- perhaps the worst case of being choked by nerves in the history of sports.

Fignon would later call LeMond's "tri-bars" illegal,
and regretted not raising a formal challenge.
The next big showcase in the '89 Tour would be the stage 5 individual time trial. Using the then-new aerodynamic "triathlon" bars, LeMond scorched to a stage win, catching five riders on the road who had started ahead of him. Delgado took 2nd in the stage, 24 seconds after LeMond, with Fignon coming in 3rd, 56 seconds down. With that win, LeMond captured the Yellow Jersey for the first time since 1986, leading Fignon by just 5 seconds. From that point forward, the battle for Yellow would be primarily challenged by LeMond and Fignon, with Delgado turning himself inside-out to make amends for his inauspicious start.

When the Tour got to the Pyrenees, Delgado used the mountains to try to make up for his previous miserable performances. In stage 9, Miguel Indurain won his first-ever TdF stage while leading teammate Delgado to a 3rd place finish. With that, Delgado took 29 seconds back from Fignon and LeMond. Stephen Roche, who had been hampered by knee problems, withdrew after the stage.

LeMond's ADR team wasn't much help in the mountains.
Fignon would express frustration with LeMond, calling him
a wheelsucker.
With four major climbs, stage 10, from Cauterets to Superbagnères, saw Delgado catch a breakaway with Robert Millar and Charly Mottet. Though Millar won the stage, Delgado won back another 3:26 from Fignon. LeMond finished another 12 seconds back, meaning that the Yellow Jersey would go to the Frenchman, now leading the Tour by just 7 seconds. Delgado leaped up to 4th overall.

The stage 15 mountain time trial at Gap in the Alps was won by Dutch rider Stephen Rooks, of the powerful PDM team. Delgado finished strong in 4th place, 12 seconds ahead of 5th place LeMond. Fignon finished in 10th, another 47 seconds back. Result: the Yellow would go back to LeMond, with a lead of 40 seconds. LeMond would gain another 13 seconds in stage 16, from Gap to Briançon. The 53-second gap between the those two challengers was the widest it would be for the entire Tour.

The climb to Alpe d'Huez in stage 17 would prove to be another turning point in the closely-matched Tour. Mountains leader Gert-Jan Theunisse of the PDM team went with an early break and eventually won the stage alone, locking in his hold on the Polka Dot Jersey. The pace of the climb was wearing out both LeMond and Fignon, and LeMond's teammates were nowhere to be found as the final climb heated up. Exhausted, but sensing weakness, Fignon attacked his rivals with 4 km to go, and only Delgado could stay with him, moving into 3rd place overall. LeMond finished more than a minute after Fignon, giving back the Yellow Jersey and a 26-sec. lead. Fignon extended the lead to 50 seconds the next day with a solo stage victory at Villard de Lans. Many people believed that the Tour had been decided at Alpe d'Huez.

LeMond's spirits were bolstered with a stage 19 win at Aix-les-Bains, but Fignon was right behind and credited with the same finishing time. The 50 second gap still held, and LeMond's best and only hope was the final time trial -- the final stage -- from Versailles to Paris.

LeMond had beaten, or at least matched, Fignon in each of the Tour's individual time trials that year. Still, with only 24.5 km, it was going to take an unprecedented performance to get back more than 50 seconds in that kind of distance. Fignon was confident it couldn't be done. LeMond held on to the belief that it was possible.

LeMond was second-to-last to leave the start house, equipped with his aero helmet and triathlon bars. He was so intent on his mental performance that he refused to hear any split times along the course. He rode flat-out as hard as he could, making his own odds, and turning in one of the fastest time trial results in history.

Watching the clock, LeMond
realizes he's won.
Like many great, historic events -- whether uplifting, or tragic -- people who witnessed the event never forget where they were or what they were doing when it happened. I was with my then-girlfriend/now-wife, clinging to the edge of my seat, eyes glued to the television, ears tuned to the note of excitement in the voice of Phil Liggett, ready to burst, and forgetting to breathe. I believe anyone watching knew they were seeing something special that day -- something they'd never forget. When LeMond crossed the finish line, there was nothing left to do but wait and watch the clocks. The ride was spectacular, but would it be enough? When Fignon finally crossed the line 58 seconds slower it was pandemonium. LeMond had won by just 8 seconds -- the narrowest result in the history of the Tour.
"You never stop grieving," Fignon would
later write.

I remember watching Fignon collapse at the finish, both from exhaustion and disbelief. Likewise, I'll never forget the disconsolate look on his face as he stood on the podium beside LeMond -- his one-time teammate, and now rival -- spoiler of fortunes. LeMond, Fignon, Delgado. Three TdF champions, stood on the podium First, Second, and Third.

Though overshadowed by the Yellow Jersey competition, it should also be noted that Irish rider, Sean Kelly, won his fourth Green Jersey for Points Leader in the '89 Tour, and also won the Red Jersey for Intermediate Sprints -- a category and jersey that are no longer awarded ('89 was the last year). Kelly's four Green Jerseys were a record that would only be broken by Eric Zabel, who would earn six between 1996 - 2001. It's also worth pointing out that Kelly's PDM team (which had very briefly been LeMond's team) took four stages and won the Team Competition with one of the most dominant team performances ever. Gert-Jan Theunisse took the previously mentioned Polka Dot Jersey, and Steven Rooks took the multi-color "Combination" jersey -- the last year that category was awarded. One could say they won everything except everything.

Many people still talk about the 1989 Tour for its importance in changing bike racing technology. Old vs. new. Consider the use of aerodynamics -- LeMond with his triathlon bars, goggles, and aero helmet versus Fignon with his thinning hair pulled into a ponytail, his wire-rimmed spectacles perched on his nose. Though basically the same age, it was almost as though they represented different generations. Fignon would later write in his autobiography, We Were Young and Carefree, that he regretted not raising a formal challenge to LeMond's tri-bars, which he believed violated the rules. "The idle commissaries shut their eyes. The rules were being bent, and the consequences would be way beyond anything I could have imagined." Of course, the bars were not struck down, and one never sees a time-trial bike in the Tour today without some kind of modern descendent of them. As a Retrogrouch, I can understand and sympathize with Fignon, who died of cancer in 2010. Then again, I don't race for a living. If my job was racing bikes, and my main job requirement was to win races, and my competition was getting an advantage over me by using a wind tunnel, then I'd probably think it was important enough for my job security to consider it. In any case, it was reported in Winning magazine (Oct. '89) that Fignon was seen at the Tour trying out a similar set of aero bars, but for whatever reason, chose not to use them. Not only that, but aero helmets were in use before '89 -- and any helmet, aero or not, would have to have been better than a head of hair and a trailing ponytail flipping around. So, who knows why Fignon made the choices he did?

A disconsolate Fignon. A podium of Champions.
If you ask bicycle racing fans and journalists to rank the best, most exciting Tours de France over the race's 100+ year history, the 1989 edition often comes in at the top of the list. With the epic battle between former Tour champions, closely matched and trading the Yellow Jersey back and forth throughout the race, and culminating in the spectacular time trial on the Champs Elysées, the race was unpredictable and suspenseful to the last seconds. Eight seconds, to be exact.

And it all concluded 25 years ago. . . Today.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Eddy Merckx's '69 TdF Bike

After putting an incomparable stamp of authority on his first Tour de France in 1969, Eddy Merckx would become a legend. During that Tour debut, a French rider named Christian Raymond, dubbed Merckx "The Cannibal" and the name stuck. Eddy's bicycles, too, would become the model on which most racers and racer want-to-be's would aspire. Soon after the Tour was finished, renowned bicycle illustrator Daniel Rebour would complete a detailed study of the bike Merckx rode to victory.

My French is terrible, but what I do know from the description on this picture, as well as from other sources, is that Merckx's bike for the '69 Tour was built from Reynolds tubing by Kessels in Belgium. The components are primarily Campagnolo and Cinelli. I also recognize T.A. for the clamp-on bottle cage (and the bottle, presumably) and Sedis for the chain. The bike was painted in Faema team colors of white with red contrasts. Note the "Eddy Merckx" name on the down tube, with the photo of Eddy in a diamond surrounded by World Champion colors on the head tube and seat tube.
For a lot of riders, this was the inspiration for the drillium craze. Note that Merckx used the "full Campy" along with Cinelli bars and stem (I'm certain the saddle was Cinelli, too). The derailleurs are standard Nuovo Record pieces, and the bars are Cinelli Campione del Mondo. Note that the chainrings on the crank have been modified -- the reinforcing rings/webs have been removed, and the large ring drilled out. The brakes have been lightened with partial holes, and the wheel guides have been removed from the brake pad holders. The brake levers also have been drilled -- 5 holes each. Lastly, the Campagnolo seat post (lower left) has been fluted. The fluted areas were painted red to coordinate with the Faema colors, and I've also read that the seat tube was plugged to keep water from getting inside through the flutes in the post. Some of the Campy lore (hype?) of the time said that the pedal cages were made from a special lightweight "black alloy," which in reality was simply normal black-anodized aluminum.
The Cannibal and his bike, in full-color glory.