21 May 2009

Ridin' It Old School

As anybody who follows pro cycling knows, the Giro d'Italia ("Italy's Tour de France," for those who don't care anything for cycling, or just want to piss off the Italians) is roughly half-way through its 3-week run. We've already seen a team time trial, several days in the mountains, and though much of the world is watching just to see Lance Armstrong return to Grand Tour racing, Mr. Armstrong isn't really in this thing to win it, whereas the American team Columbia-Highroad has won an amazing 5 of 12 stages (a win in the team time trial, 2 by their young gun sprinter Mark Cavendish, and wins by 2 other riders).

Today's stage was an individual time trial (TT). Breathlessly called the "race of truth" by anglophone announcers around the world, riders in a TT cover a set course, alone, at intervals of 30-sec to several minutes-- drafting is forbidden, so no teammates (or adversaries) to shelter you, encourage you, or drag you to the last climb where you can show off your awesome power. It's just you going as hard as you can for anywhere from 25 min to an hour and a half, depending on the length.

Used to be that TTs were ridden on regular bikes, but since the 1989 Tour de France, when Greg Lemond won the final TT (and by just 8 seconds, the whole Tour shootin' match) using aero extensions on his handlebars, the individual TT has become one of the techiest events in cycling. Whereas climbing well is about power-to-weight ratios, TTing, where the rider faces the full brunt of air resistance at quite high speeds, is about power-to-drag. And so bikes, helmets, wheels, rider positions, and even clothing have all been optimized for this event to reduce wind resistance. As such, the races are quite the visual spectacle, something you might expect to see in a 1950s science fiction movie. The governing body of professional cycling, the UCI, is generally suspicious of technology and has issued rules that limit how aero the bike can be. Like any game of cat and mouse, the bike manufacturers constantly look for loopholes and work-arounds, to give their riders whatever small advantage they can, and to differentiate their bikes for marketing purposes.

TT stud Fabian Cancellara in full regalia

Now, I likes me a TT. Of all of the cycling disciplines, it's the event I'm relatively best at, because it rewards ability to pace onself, flexibility (to get into a low, wind-cheating position), attention to detail, and the ability to motivate yourself (and not get bored) without external input. So I always overperform in flat TTs (where position trumps power) relative to my raw strength/power.

But this flatland-TT-lover was totally grooving on the Giro TT today. It was brutally long, at 60.6 km, which on paper seemed to offer the potential for huge gains in overall time by the TT specialists. Indeed, Mr Armstrong had asserted that teammate Levi Leipheimer would be in the leader's pink jersey at the end of the day. But it was also very technical, with a lot of high-speed twisty corners, and had a lot of elevation changes, notably 2 substantial climbs (with substantial descents after them). It was roughly 90 minutes of full-on pain over a diverse terrain.

As such, the prominence of the equipment was downplayed. The funny thing about TT bikes is that while they're really good at going fast, they're only really good when going in roughly a straight line-- they're definitely not the bike you want to be on for an 80 kph winding descent. They're also relatively heavy thanks to the large airfoil-shaped tubes and deep-section rims. As such, equipment choices were all over the board: full Spaceman aero kit, road bikes fitted with aero extensions (with or without aero helmet), or full man-style, with no special aero equipment at all (except the skinsuit-- gotta wear the skinsuit). The stage was won by Denis Menchov, who would never be called a TT specialist, and the time gains predicted for specialists like team Astana's Levi Leipheimer didn't quite materialize. It was a great stage.

If the UCI really wants to limit the influence of technology on racing, it should encourage (not mandate, for once, please) courses like today's. The riders' all-around skill sets were definitely on display.

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