Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Disc Brake Trial to Resume in June

Last month, after professional racer Francisco Ventoso of the Movistar team had his leg sliced badly - reportedly because of contact with another rider's disc brake rotor in a collision at Paris-Roubaix - the usually glacial-paced UCI shocked all by immediately banning disc brakes from the pro peloton. The move put an end to the long-awaited (by the bike and component industry) disc brake adoption for professional racing.

"Disc brakes are like giant knives - machetes" -- Francisco Ventoso
Apparently, after concluding that Ventoso's injuries were actually caused by a deli-slicer mishap during an unauthorized stop for a pastrami sandwich at a deli along the race route, the UCI is preparing to reverse course next month, letting the disc brake trial period continue.

Ventoso at the Roubaix Deli. Yes, they're being sued by Specialized.
When the trial period resumes in June, it is unclear at this time exactly how teams and riders will receive the news. The Association of Professional Cyclists (CPA) was heavily critical of the UCI for allowing disc brakes amid their concerns, and the concerns of at least some of the riders. Will those riders refuse to ride with discs when the trial resumes? Will they be allowed to refuse? One thing for sure is that the manufacturers aren't about to let up on the issue.

It is likely that we may see some changes to the brakes, though, to improve the safety - whether it is rotors with more rounded edges, or the incorporation of some kind of guard or covers for the discs.

The new rules for road disc brakes mean these Hydro "Machete Discs" will no longer be permitted on pro race bikes. Too bad - they were pretty cool.
Now if they can only do something to prevent riders from being killed or maimed by cars and motorcycles in the middle of the races. . .

Monday, May 2, 2016

Retrogrouchy Cycle Clothing

Eroica California wrapped up its second run a couple of weeks ago, and Eroica Britannia will be coming up soon. After the California edition, there was much discussion (and much griping) about the rules requiring vintage-style bicycles with "old-tech" equipment -- you'd never believe just how worked up some people can get at having to use non-aero brake levers and toe-clip pedals in order to participate in a group ride that celebrates cycling's past.

Seriously - some of the complainers would probably go to a Civil War re-enactment and complain because they can't carry their AR-15. (Yes, Clem, we know weapons technology has moved way beyond muzzle-loading muskets. Now will you please go put your Bushmaster back in your trunk?).

I don't know if there will be the same level of "controversy" at Eroica Britannia, in a country where people are a little more immersed in tradition, but I'm guessing it won't be an issue. I mean, have you ever seen their judges? Or the House of Lords?

They're gonna party like it's 1799.
Although I did not see or hear as much complaining about the clothing requirements, Eroica rules do encourage people to dress consistently with the period:

"Participants must be dressed in period cycling clothing, in particular they should wear wool jerseys and shorts. Reissued wool or non-wool vintage-looking jerseys and shorts are allowed as long as they look proper."

That is a disappointment, because if I ever get to participate in Eroica, it means I won't be able to ride in my all-time favorite riding kit:
"No, really. Just take the damn picture." 
The watermelon suit comes from Attaquer Cycling. And if you must know, the thing that really sold me on it was the description on their website:

"Watermelon is a vine-like flowering plant originally from southern Africa. It is a large, sprawling annual plant with coarse, hairy pinnately-lobed leaves and white to yellow flowers. It is grown for its edible fruit, also known as a watermelon, which is a special kind of berry botanically called a pepo. The fruit has a smooth hard rind, usually green with dark green stripes or yellow spots, and a juicy, sweet interior flesh, usually deep red to pink, but sometimes orange, yellow, or white, with many seeds."

See? Not only can you buy this spectacular matching cycling suit, but get a nice botanical lesson as well. And if the watermelon suit isn't to your liking, you might be interested in my second favorite skinsuit:

If I smiled for the picture, people might not take me seriously.
From the Attaquer website (again): "Peafowl include two Asiatic species and one African species of bird in the genera Pavo and Afropavo of the Phasianidae family, the pheasants and their allies, known for the male's piercing call and, among the Asiatic species, his extravagant eye-spotted tail covert feathers which he displays as part of a courtship ritual. The term peacock is properly reserved for the male; the female is known as a peahen, and the immature offspring are sometimes called peachicks."

You are now ready for polite dinner conversation or drinks with an ornithologist.

Like the peafowl on which it is modeled, I like to wear this one for courtship rituals. But again, it is not appropriate for Eroica. So what is a person to do?

I recently found a couple of places where one can get traditional wool jerseys that are not only Eroica-compliant, but really cool for retrogrouches no matter where they ride.

One company is Tiralento in Italy, which offers traditional-looking wool jerseys and shorts, classic leather cycling shoes, and even leather hairnet helmets (Eroica allows/encourages modern helmet use. Leather hairnets are more about "looks" than "safety"). They also have some vintage team replica jerseys that might interest some out there.

Tiralento offers some vintage-look national team jerseys, as well as some traditional styled jerseys which can be purchased plain, or with custom-embroidered names or logos. Jersey prices range from about $140 - $210 (based on current exchange rates) depending on embroidery and logo options.
Traditional cycling shoes, all leather, with slotted cleats, 3-hole drilling, or smooth soled. (Prices shown in Euros. Expect $200 - $225 in U.S. Dollars)
A selection of vintage team replica jerseys (about $200).
Another company turning out traditional wool goods is Magliamo in Belgium:

Like Tiralento, Magliamo are producing fine merino-wool replica jerseys from classic era teams, in short or long-sleeve versions. Here are a few samples:

Again, prices shown in Euros. Expect $125 - 130 in U.S. Dollars.
Magliamo also has t-shirts and traditional wool winter cycling caps (about $55).

One other source for traditional wool has been around for a while now. That's Vintage Velos, which offers super nice merino wool jerseys and shorts from Woolistic.

I actually own a couple of the Woolistic jerseys from Vintage Velos and can attest that they are very soft and are well made. Here are some samples:

Team jersey prices range from $148 - $169, depending on the design.
But Vintage Velos also offers a pretty simple, traditional design like this one for $129. I have one of these (long sleeve) and love it. These ones were also available for a time from Rivendell, but not anymore it seems.
I've heard good things about the Woolistic wool shorts, which are mostly wool, but also blended with nylon and elastic, so they don't get saggy - unlike the old wool shorts of the past. They are $145.

Yes - it's all very pricey stuff -- but that seems more or less in line with the cost of most traditionally made wool and leather goods these days. And at least in the case with the Woolistic jerseys which I've personally tried, they are actually softer and nicer in a lot of ways than many of the vintage examples from the past. Want some classic wool cycling clothes for less? You can always check for actual vintage jerseys on eBay, but be prepared for some disappointment - like moth holes, or really scratchy blends, etc. Used and vintage wool can be really hit-or-miss.

Oh - and as long as we're talking about prices, I should mention that the lycra watermelon suit shown above sells for about $350. You can't buy the peacock one anymore, as they're all sold out. No. I'm not joking. Sold out. That puts the price of these traditional wool goods into perspective, doesn't it?

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Bike Safety 101: Never Ride A Bike

Don't want to end up looking like one of those zombies from Walking Dead? Then always wear a helmet when you ride -- or better yet, never ride a bike.

At least that's the message I think any reasonable person would take from a series of bicycle safety "comics" put out by the City of Phoenix Dept. of Transportation.

In the series of "graphic novels" (emphasis on the word graphic) created for "youth age 9+" one kid sits dazed on the pavement with his brains practically falling out of his head. GA-GUSH! Another crashes through plate glass and has gory wounds oozing from his arms and legs. KAKRACK! A third is impaled on his own handlebar -- a gaping, bloody hole in his gut. YEE-ARGH!

The City of Phoenix commissioned the comics and has been distributing them to the city's schoolchildren at safety programs put on in the schools, and at other safety events around the community. They were paid for by grants, and illustrated by Rob Osborne who claims that the goal in the project was to be "over the top" and that he has heard little negative feedback.

I don't know what to make of that, but maybe the parents of children who receive the books don't know who to complain to, which might explain why Osborne never hears the feedback. As far as the car-centric officials who commissioned the comics, I'm sure they send exactly the message they intended. Riding a bike is dangerous. And when cyclists get injured or killed, it's entirely their own fault.

What are we saying? Victim blaming?

Every dead or injured kid -- all of them teen or pre-teen boys -- ends up getting maimed or killed due to his own stupidity or negligence. There are no distracted, impatient, or negligent drivers -- because as we all know, "accidents" are never caused by bad drivers. That's why we call them "accidents."

Of course, there's the usual helmet sensationalism - right there in Episode 1.
Shoulda worn a helmet, kid.
Yes, kids should wear helmets. Even experienced cyclists should recognize that it's a bad idea to assume they'll never crash or hit their head. On the other hand, it's an inconvenient fact that if a cyclist gets nailed by a 3-ton SUV, that 6-oz. foam hat isn't likely to make a big difference. There are a lot of things that contribute to riding safety, but a helmet is only a small part of the picture.

The "lesson" on avoiding the blind spot (Episode 4) has a kid get totally flattened trying to pass on the right of a truck -- complete with lots of comic-book "sound effects": CRACK! CRITCH! CRUNCH! GUSH! KRA-KRACK! AAARRGH!
Don't pass on the right, kid, or trucks will run you over. He'll never play soccer again.
Just prior to getting his legs crushed under that truck, the kid is shown doing wheelies in the street and yells to his friend "Don't try to hold me back. I know what I'm doing!"

Yes, it's dangerous to pass a vehicle on the right -- but what's more common in this type of collision? That the cyclist is passing on the right? Or that the cyclist is jeopardized because the cars and trucks are the ones passing the cyclist then turning carelessly? And there are defensive measures one can try to take to avoid getting the dreaded "right hook" -- but instead of presenting it that way, they present in a way that fits with the car-centric view -- another wise-ass cocky kid getting a painful lesson.

Then there's the kid in Episode 3, who rides with bad brakes, skimming alongside cars in the door zone:

YARGH indeed.
As if taking a header through some glass isn't bad enough, he gets impaled on his uncovered bar end:
Shoulda maintained that bike, kid.
Another episode has a kid riding against traffic - despite warnings from his friend:

"'Danger' is my middle name." 
No, really. It's on his birth certificate. Maybe his parents should share some blame here.
He then inexplicably rides right through some panes of plate glass on a moving glass truck.
Don't ride against traffic, kid, or you'll crash right through plate glass windows. (How fast would a person have to be going to make it all the way through the glass on both sides of this truck? Criminy)
Nobody should ride against traffic, but honestly, I can't see how this particular crash is due to riding on the wrong side of the road. If either the kid or the truck ran a red light - maybe - but the scenario here is pretty unrealistic.

Then there's the kid in Episode 6  who runs away from home (Why? It doesn't give us a clue. Must be due to unresolved rage and a resentment toward authority) and as long as he's running, decides to run a stop sign. . .
Resentment toward authority -- that's what that is.
"He's dead, Jim."
I'm a parent with two young kids, and we love to ride together. Some of our riding is on a local bike path, and some of it is riding around the neighborhood streets, going to the library, or out for dinner, or the grocery store. When I ride with my girls in town, I stay close by them and keep a watchful eye for hazards and point things out to them that they should watch for. I emphasize following rules, using common sense, and predicting what other people might or could do. I make sure they understand that there are dangers, but would never want to leave them with the impression that they should be scared of riding a bike -- which is exactly what "comics" like this do. They are just more propaganda designed by a car-centric culture to brainwash kids (and their parents, too) that riding a bicycle is dangerous. If someone came to my daughters' schools handing out sensationalist anti-cycling propaganda-posing-as-educational-material like this, someone would get a real ear-full from me.

Instead of putting real effort into educating drivers about how to share the streets with cyclists and pedestrians - instead of working on infrastructure and policies that might help make cycling safer - instead of taking real measures to reduce the threats posed by inattentive drivers -- transportation officials continue to propagate the idea that cyclists are the problem. These "comics" don't do much of anything to teach kids about the very real dangers that are presented by drivers of cars and trucks - and they totally leave drivers off the hook for the things they do that put cyclists at risk. And these comics are nothing new. The Automotive-Industrial-Complex has a long history of using scare tactics like these to place the blame of deaths squarely on the non-motoring victims - the cyclists and pedestrians.
Ever seen these old bike safety manuals created by groups like AAA?
Cycling safety is important. Proper education about safe riding AND driving is needed - but not more scare-tactic propaganda like this.

By the way - thanks to Retrogrouch readers Brian I. and Rick B. for drawing my attention to these!

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

New Old Bike Project - Finished

I don't know if a bike project is ever truly finished, but this one's about there.

Those who have been following the blog know that I've been working on an early '80s Specialized Expedition touring bike. I had earlier reported that it was probably a 1984 model, but now I'm inclined to think it might actually be from '83. I was hoping I could find a rosetta stone for deciphering the serial number on the frame, but learned that there is no such thing for old Specialized bikes. Sometimes a number is just a number, and I suppose it doesn't really matter either way. One clue is that I found a spec sheet from 1984 that lists braze-on downtube shift levers, whereas mine was built for clamp-on levers, which were listed in '83. Otherwise, I don't know if there's a way to tell the difference.

As mentioned in earlier posts, the bike was originally a charcoal gray, but as it came to me, it seemed it would benefit from a repaint. I sent it to Jack Trumbull at Franklin Frames in Newark, Ohio. As long as it was being resprayed, I took the liberty of selecting a different color, and chose this metallic burgundy. My replacement decals came from VeloCals, which were of the peel-and-stick vinyl variety, which is exactly what the originals were as well, so they seemed like a fine choice.

I've had detailed posts about some of the components I selected for the bike, including the saddle, wheels, headset, the brakes, rear derailleur, crank, and pedals. (those are all linked, so you can go back and check them if you missed them).

Here's the bike, in ready-to-ride condition:

Photo taken on a footbridge behind the school where I teach. This was after completing 2 or 3 coats of shellac on the bars. I later did a couple more coats of shellac to get the color closer to that of the Brooks B17. The bike has fenders, front and rear racks, and a generator light system.

I think that the metallic burgundy paint makes the bike look about as nice as any bike can look. Not that there was anything wrong with charcoal gray, but it makes me wonder why the bike wasn't available in this color from the beginning. The color is a great complement to the honey color of the saddle and bars, and looks especially good with all the gleaming silver aluminum and stainless steel components and accessories.
I used SKS Longboard plastic fenders on this build. I do really like aluminum fenders, but I have no problem with plastic fenders IF one makes sure to get the fender-lines nice and even all the way around. That's true of aluminum fenders, too, I suppose - but it takes a lot of conscientious effort to make it happen, and I've seen a lot of plastic fenders installed very badly, with "kinks" where there should have been "curves." The longboards have built-in mud flaps, and give tremendous coverage. On the front fender, the mudflap comes within a couple inches from the ground. One thing about plastic fenders is that they do offer a safety advantage over aluminum and steel versions. Should something get wedged between the front tire and the fender, the plastic fenders will break free and prevent a header. Ultimately, it's hard to fault the SKS fenders, and I think they look great.
Here's my lighting system. The Expedition came pre-wired through the frame for a Sanyo bottom-bracket generator (the generators were sold separately, so it isn't unusual to find these with a wire sticking out behind the fork crown but no headlight or generator connected). I'm pretty certain those generators are no longer made, but I found a NOS one for about $50. They're usually a good bit more expensive, assuming one can find them, so I think I got a pretty good deal. The headlight is a 3-watt Schmidt E6 halogen. A few years ago, those were about the best dynamo-powered lights one could find. Nowadays, with most people wanting LED lights, any shop that still has the E6 halogen lights has them on major closeout prices. I should pick up a few spare bulbs, though. I have a Nitto M-12 cantilever-mount front rack which has an eyelet for attaching a light bracket. I made my own light bracket out of an old brake caliper arm that I found in a discard pile. I cut it off around the center bolt hole, then filed and sanded it smooth.

The lugwork on the Expedition is very nicely done -- long-point lugs, and really smooth and even, gap-free shorelines. By the 1980s the Japanese had really figured out how to make excellent frames on a mass-production scale. I'd mentioned in an earlier post that I believe the frame might have been built for Specialized by Miyata.
The drivetrain consists of the Specialized "flag" crank - changed over from triple to 48/34 double.  With a 13-30 freewheel on the back, I still get a good gear range, and the lows are more than low enough for any riding I'm doing. Bottom bracket is a Shimano UN-52. Front derailleur is a mid-'80s Shimano Light Action that is visually a good match for the Deore at the rear. Specialized Touring pedals complete the picture.
There's the Deore MT-60 rear derailleur and the 13-30 Shimano freewheel on Specialized sealed-bearing hubs. The bike would have originally been equipped with SunTour Mountech derailleurs, which unfortunately proved to be trouble-prone -- the rear derailleur's upper guide pulley also served as an extra spring pivot that got gunked up and wore out and could not be serviced (this was exacerbated in off-road use, which as the name implies the unit was designed for). Assuming that someone got a couple of years of use out of the Mountech before it self-destructed, I imagine that this '87 Deore would have been a logical choice for replacement. Simple, durable, reliable, and good-looking, too.
Close up of the Specialized touring pedals. I buffed these up to nearly-new looking condition on my buffing wheel. Specialized brand toeclips with Christophe leather toe straps finish the package.

Brooks B-17 honey leather saddle - mounted onto a Specialized single-bolt micro-adjust seat post. I like 2-bolt seat posts, but this single-bolt post has a nice, simple look to it, and offers a lot of set-back. The bar wrap, after several coats of shellac, is a good match for the saddle.
My rear rack is an inexpensive no-name stainless steel model - sold under a couple of different brand names, but some people might recognize it as one of the less-expensive racks available from Velo-Orange (Dajia, for $95). I actually found mine from a seller on eBay for about $60. The design reminds me a little of the racks made by Tubus, but at a fraction of the price. The rack only comes in a dull sandblasted finish, which did not match up well with the Nitto rack on the front. I spent a bunch of time with some wet-sanding, using increasingly finer grit paper, then put it on my buffing wheel so it gleams like chrome. It has good adjustability for a lot of different bikes, and I also like the tubular seat-stay struts, as opposed to the flat steel strips used on a lot of other racks.
About racks - I do have a nice pair of early '80s vintage Jim Blackburn aluminum racks, for the front and the rear, that I thought about using. In the end, I chose not to use them because they have no attachment points for lights, which would have left me trying to rig something that works as well as the light mounts on these steel racks. And though the aluminum racks are definitely lighter, steel ones tend to be more durable. I'm hanging on to the Blackburns, though, in case I ever change my mind.

Complete Build Details:

Frame: Specialized Special Series Touring double-butted chrome-moly tubing by Tange in Japan. Size 60 cm. frame, center-to-center. 58 cm top tube. 106.7 cm wheelbase, with 45 cm chainstays. 73-deg. parallel angles. 51 mm fork rake.

Crank: Specialized "Flag" Triple (converted to 48/34 double)
Pedals: Specialized Touring pedals, with Specialized steel toe-clips, and Christophe straps.
Bottom Bracket: Shimano UN-52 square taper cartridge unit.
Derailleurs: Shimano Deore MT-60 rear derailleur, Shimano Light Action (FD-Z206) front derailleur.
Shift levers: SunTour Power Ratchet Bar Cons.
Brakes: Shimano Deore MT-62 cantilever brakes with Dia Compe AGC-250 spring-loaded levers.
Wheels: Specialized sealed bearing hubs with Mavic Module 4 rims. 40 spokes rear, 36 spokes front.
Seatpost: Specialized single-bolt micro-adjust.
Saddle: Brooks B17
Headset: Specialized Channel-Seal, steel.
Stem: Nitto Technomic, 10 cm.
Bars: Nitto mod. 176 "Dream Bars," 42 cm width.

Accessories: Nitto M-12 front rack, Taiwanese stainless steel rear rack, SKS Longboard fenders, Sanyo bottom-bracket generator, Schmidt E6 halogen headlight.

It's apparent that I selected a few more Specialized-brand components than what the bike would have been equipped with originally. I consider them upgrades. According to various spec-sheets I've seen for the '83 Expedition, the bars, stem, hubs, and headset would have been from Specialized. The original crank would have been a Sugino AT-triple, with MKS Sylvan touring pedals, while the seatpost would have been a ubiquitous-in-the-'80s SR Laprade. Derailleurs would have been the previously-mentioned SunTour Mountech. In 1983, the shift levers were SunTour "Symmetric" downtube levers, which were supposed to trim the front derailleur automatically when one shifted at the rear. Those also, from what I've read, had some durability issues. I see my Power-ratcheting BarCons as a period-correct upgrade. When I got it, my bike still had the original Specialized-brand (made by Nitto) bars, but not the original stem. But the bars were badly gouged by a previous owner who must have tried to fit them into an ill-fitting stem. The Nitto bar and stem I chose are good replacements.

I could always do some fiddling with the bike, making small changes and adjustments, but on the whole I think this is fulfilling my vision for a classic '80s grand touring machine. Hope you've enjoyed following the project.

Monday, April 25, 2016

New Old Bike Project: Wrapping Bars

Putting together the New/Old Expedition has been taking longer than I'd expected - no problems really, other than a shortage of that most valuable commodity: time. But it's nearly done, and the other day I had a chance to wrap the bars.

I'm using Nitto mod. 176 bars and a Technomic stem. The 176 bars are sometimes called "Dream Bars" because that was what Rivendell called the bars when they offered them (they don't seem to sell them anymore) -- deep drop, but not too deep -- long reach, but not too long, etc. In my view, they're a very good all-around road bar, and have a great look, too (I particularly like the coat-of-arms crest which reminds me of the old Cinelli logo). I have an old set of SunTour power ratchet bar-con shifters, and some spring-loaded Dia Compe AGC brake levers which I like for their size, shape, and feel. Yes, the "aero" cable routing means I won't be able to ride this at Eroica.

Here's a little step-by-step:

Using some electrical tape, I've got the cables secured to the bars prior to wrapping. The red tape is just what I happened to have on hand. Some people use little strips of silver duct tape. Just about anything works, though. I've never noticed tape of any color to show through cotton bar wrap.
I'll be using classic, traditional cotton bar tape from Tressostar. Newbaum's cotton bar tape is also really nice stuff. I already had a couple of rolls of the Tressostar on hand. Not only that, but any time I wrap bars, if there's a little bit of tape left -- if it's more than a couple of inches -- I save it for future wrappings.

I roll the brake lever hoods up and out of the way. Then I use some small pieces of bar tape around the base of the levers to make sure I'll have good coverage when wrapping around that difficult area -- I hate having little glimpses of silver peeking through the tape. This is why I always save those little bits of leftover tape. Because I've got cables running under the bar wrap, I also put a couple of small pieces of bar tape at the points where the brake and shifter cables will "emerge" from under the tape. Again, I don't want any gaps in the coverage.
Not that it matters, but I wrap from the "inside" to the "outside." Over-to-the-right on the right side, over-to-the-left on the left side, so the overlapping lines have a mirror-image symmetry. As you can see, I start wrapping at the bar end and finish up near the stem, where I'll finish up the loose tape ends with some twine. Some people start at the top/center and work their way to the ends. I've also seen where people start at both the bar end and the top/center and work their way to the brake levers. The tape ends then get tucked in under the brake lever hoods, requiring no final finishing step. Personally, I don't like the way the overlapping works when starting at the top of the bar -- it seems to me that edges of the tape can get pushed apart or rolled by the constant pressure of hands on the bars. That's not as much of an issue when the tape gets shellacked (as this tape will) but I have seen that happen. When wrapping with the cotton tape, it helps a lot to pull and stretch the tape tightly while wrapping so that it stays flat, overlaps well, and doesn't ripple in the bends.
Here, the bars are fully wrapped, and the tape ends finished with a bit of natural hemp twine. Once the brake hoods are rolled back into place, the coverage is complete and gap-free.
Just a stylistic touch. I like when the cables appear to emerge from between layers of wrapping.
Next, I'll be using some natural shellac on the cotton tape. I've mixed up my own using denatured alcohol and amber shellac flakes that I purchased some time back from Velo-Orange. I tend to mix it on the thin side, and the first coats really soak into the tape.

That's one coat of shellac on the right side of the bar, contrasting with the un-coated yellow tape on the left side. When coating with shellac, I once again keep the brake hoods rolled out of the way so I can fully coat the tape, even where it won't be seen.
Another contrast photo: Two coats of shellac on one side, with one coat on the other. Each coat of shellac darkens the yellow tape to more and more of a honey leather color -- eventually to match the honey leather of the Brooks saddle. Because my shellac is mixed fairly thin, it will take more coats to get the color right.
That's two coats. I'll let it dry and will still need a couple more coats to get the color right. If you're not after a particular shade of color, 2 or 3 thin coats like this can be really nice in terms of grip - it's more of a matte-look, and has a slightly rougher texture. Having said that, I've got bars that are shellacked to a glossy finish, and I don't really notice any problems with the grip.
That's all for now. Stay tuned. . .

Friday, April 22, 2016

Bike Racing is Dead

All attempts at resuscitation have failed. The patient cannot be saved. Somebody call it: Time of death . . . ?

The problem of doping in its various forms, with systematic sophistication, left the sport in critical condition, clinging to life support. Officials with the UCI and various anti-doping agencies would have liked to convince us that once they stripped "He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named" of his 7 Tour de France titles, that the illness was cured -- they had exorcised the demons, purged the poisons, and the sport could live on. But I doubt that many believed that doping began or ended with Lance Armstrong.

Even now, with suspicion of drug use still hanging like a sword over the head of anyone capable of winning a major bicycle race, a new cancer seems ready to end it for good: "Mechanical doping."

Yes, there are other possible explanations -
but one has to wonder, especially now.
Rumors have been flying around for several years now about racers using hidden motors. Videos capturing suspicious bikes and behaviors in pro races have gone viral, but it was all just speculation until earlier this year when bicycle racing had its first confirmed case of "mechanical doping." Femke Van den Driessche was caught using a motorized bike in the Cyclocross World Championships and was disgraced. Soon afterwards, the Italian sports newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport reported that the type of motor hidden in Femke's bike was already "old stuff . . . poor man's doping." The un-named source claimed electromagnetic wheels are the "new frontier."

The rear hub on this bike glows almost as brightly
as the racer's thighs. Most other hubs in the thermal
photos barely show up at all. One racer insists that
the hub just needs more lubrication.
Some may still have had their doubts, and many would have liked to think that the Van den Driessche case was an aberration, and that it was still highly unlikely that any professional road racers (or even wealthy amateurs and gran fondo riders) would actually attempt to cheat so blatantly. Whatever rationalizations people might be willing to make for performance enhancing drugs, actually hiding a motor inside a bicycle is just so obviously cheating and it's impossible to see it any other way. No professional would stoop so low, right? In fact, one French professional racer, Romain Feillu, has recently made the claim that such blatant cheating would require such a "huge level of complicity" between riders, mechanics, and the like that it would be "impossible." Nevermind that the same level of complicity allowed rampant drug use to sweep up entire teams, so why should this be any different?

Regardless of complicity, another recent report makes the case that it is almost certainly happening. The French television network Stade 2, in cooperation with the Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera, conducted a pretty damning investigation into the use of hidden motors in high-level bicycle racing. Using a thermal imaging camera at the Strade Bianche race in Italy, as well as the Coppi e Bartali race, the reporters claim to have found as many as seven bikes that were likely using some type of motor, as definite heat sources glowed in seat tubes, bottom brackets, and hubs.

A pretty damning image here shows a glowing seat tube. I'll be honest - I can't think of anything else that would make a seat-tube glow like that other than something with a power source.

If your French or Italian aren't up to snuff, there's a pretty good summary of the Stade 2 and Corriere Della Sera reports in the New York Times.

Officials wave their iPads around some team bikes before a race
looking for "disruptions" in a magnetic field. 
One might ask, isn't the UCI checking bikes for motors? Well, yes, but the checks are haphazard and, according to the investigation, quite possibly flawed. Using handheld tablets (like iPads) with an app that detects disruptions in an electromagnetic field, officials wave the tablets around team bikes randomly - and if they get a suspicious "hit" they may or may not pull the bike for closer inspection. But how much of an electromagnetic field does a motor give off when it's not actually running? How well do the iPad apps work when being waved around bikes up on a roof rack? And why would I say "may or may not" pull the bike for inspection? I just read where at least one UCI commissaire isn't sure they have the legal authority to confiscate a bike.

In Cyclingnews, commissaire Philippe Mariën was quoted saying, "If the UCI wanted me to check bikes at the Amstel Gold Race on Sunday morning, and let's say I discovered a bike there that was, let's call it, imbalanced, and I would like to take it with me. Do I have the power, as a UCI commissaire, to confiscate the bike? I don't think so. Honestly, I don't think so."

In the meantime, the UCI is adamant that their current testing protocol is sound. In response to criticism after the Stade 2/Corriere Della Sera report, professional cycling's governing body said, "We have looked at thermal imaging, x-ray and ultrasonic testing but by far the most cost effective, reliable and accurate method has proved to be magnetic resonance testing using software we have created in partnership with a company of specialist developers. The scanning is done with a tablet and enables an operator to test the frame and wheels of a bike in less than a minute."

UCI President Brian Cookson
is shown some incriminating
thermal images.
From my view, I have no doubt that the tablets are "cost effective" but considering they've only flagged one bike (with an "old stuff . . . poor man's doping" motor), I'd have to question the "reliable and accurate" part of that statement. The Corriere report specifically dismisses the tablets and their software as unreliable.

I also saw in Cyclingnews that, despite claims by the UCI, many bikes are not tested prior to racing. Sometimes bikes aren't tested until after the races are completed, but it wasn't clear to me whether or not mechanics would have time and opportunity to make necessary changes to the bikes, such as disabling motors -- something that can reportedly be done with a simple bluetooth device, including wristwatches. A scene in the Stade 2 report shows a mechanic working on one of Alberto Contador's bikes, spinning the rear wheel repeatedly while fiddling with his watch, before taking the bike into a tent to make some changes. In the context of the report, it seems unusually suspicious.

In the Stade 2 program, there's a pretty tense scene where the reporter shows some of their thermal imaging photos and videos to UCI President Brian Cookson. The man's facial expression says a lot - at one point it seems he can't stop blinking, as if he can't look any longer. Does he still think their testing is reliable?

Just like performance drug dopers have their Dr. Michele Ferrari, the "doctor" of mechanical doping may be a Hungarian engineer named Stefano Varjas, whom I suspect is probably the "unnamed source" from the earlier Gazzetta dello Sport article. In the Stade 2 investigation, he shows how small the motors have gotten, making them even easier to fit into bike frames, hubs, and bottom brackets. He also displays a cutaway of one of the electromagnetic wheels that were mentioned in the Gazzetta article earlier this year, and the report shows an explanation of how it works.

According to Varjas, the little motors, which can drive a bottom bracket, can produce up to 250 watts. The electromagnetic wheels produce about 60 watts, which may not sound like a lot, but can make a big difference when used at the right moments in a race, such as on a climb.

Like a lot of people, I figured it was just too hard to believe that motorized bikes would make their way into professional bike racing. It seemed too stupid. Too blatant. I'd hear the rumors, and see the suspicious videos on the internet, but assumed there was nothing to the claims. But after following all these reports about the motors -- how small they've gotten, how easily they are concealed, combined with the thermal images, and other suspicious actions in racing -- it just gets harder and harder to deny that there are some pros who may be using them - at least in some races or stages. As if the sport had any credibility to lose.

In a lot of ways I feel like I've gone through this whole thing before. It wasn't all that long ago I would read the stories about EPO use, and I remember wanting to believe that my favorite racers weren't actually doping. And then there'd be a positive test, followed by denials, accusations, and counter-accusations, until the evidence was so overwhelming that it wasn't possible to deny any more. Sometimes people would use the defense that they had never failed any drug tests -- but then others would come forward to tell just how easy it was to keep a step ahead of the testing protocols to avoid detection.

And now with the motors, it all sounds so familiar. Only one bad, bad person was caught doing it. Everyone else is honest. Unfortunately, it appears "passing" the tests may not be so much proof that people aren't cheating as it is that they maybe just aren't getting caught.

So, will I be watching the Giro d'Italia this May? Or the Tour de France in July? I just don't know -- I really don't know if I'll be able to stomach it. If I do, I won't be able to take it any more seriously than I would a WWE wrestling match. Next time I see someone power away from the group, putting in a heroic effort, I'll probably be listening carefully for the sound of a little whirring motor.

I don't know if I'm the best person to call it. But I think professional bike racing is dead.