Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Interbike 2008 - Recalling The Chaos

Having recovered from my first Interbike experience, I am now emotionally ready to provide a personal account of the event. There are always a lot of tech reviews associated with Interbike but I have found very few descriptions of what it's actually like at the expo and events in Las Vegas. Well...now I know for myself. And it was way better than Vegas Vacation - which should have never happened.

First of all, it should be noted that Interbike attendees are rather conspicuous in Sin City. Generally speaking, it is rather easy to determine who is affiliated with the show from the regular Vegas folk. For example, I found myself getting a little lost after departing the shuttle at The Venetian and ended up finding a guy with expensive sunglasses and bright colored running shoes who kindly directed me through the secret Harrah's route. I was thinking about asking the elderly couple with matching velour sweat suits or the group of dangerously inebriated (at 10:30 in the morning) guys in tank tops and Tap Out shirts where Interbike was located...but I guess I made the right choice with the guy who dressed like me. Go figure.

So...after navigating the bowels of The Sands Expo Center and gathering my "media" pass from CZ at MissingSaddle.com, it was up the staircase to Ground Zero of the Biker Sensory Overload Zone. The lobby of the event had a number of pro bikes on display which only served as a brief teaser of the overwhelming two-wheeled coolness which would be experienced on the other side of the doors.

According to the event guide, Interbike had "over 1,000 brands" but it seemed like there were twice that many. Regardless, it was actually bigger than I had anticipated. There is a premium on marketing within the cycling industry and it was clear that many companies were making significant efforts to portray themselves well at his event - as were many of the other attendees with expensive glasses and bright shoes.

It was particularly interesting to note the unique charactersitics of the various factions within the industry. For example, the BMX and Downhill companies probably didn't use the same marketing consultant as Campagnolo or Cervelo. I also don't see a Campy trucker hat or line of punk-soundtracked crash videos coming anytime soon. I can't think of many sports that have such demographic diversity.

One of the cool things about Interbike is that it provides an opportunity to see not only sweet gear but also a number of high (and low) profile current and former riders as well. There are few sports which provide as many post-career possibilities for athletes as cycling. However, if the above photo of Maurizio Fondriest is any indication, he'd probably rather be riding that limited edition bike than conducting business in Las Vegas.

While there is certainly a focus on product, it is clear that Interbike serves largely as a business and networking opportunity. There were over 10,000 registered "buyers" at the event which makes for an interesting commercial dynamic between the exhibitors and most of the attendees. There is also a corresponding spectrum of activity ranging from the hustle and bustle of the Shimano Sector to the relative calm of the Taiwanese handlebar tassle and bell maker. It takes all kinds at Interbike.

Speaking of doing business, there are rumors that Rock Racing has begun talks with Johan Museeuw as a Director for 2009. I did not make that assumption when I took this photo of Fast Freddie and the Belgian but...somehow it seems to fit in an odd way. Regardless, I think Rodriguez scored himself a nice frame during the conversation.

I first saw Museeuw in the Media Center lounge and it actually took me a second to recognize him. It's interesting that I can pick out riders moving in a pack at 30 mph but can hardly recognize the same guys in street clothes. One would think that glasses and a helmet actually serve to diguise one's identity but it doesn't work that way in cycling. Combine that with the fact that most of the people in the road cycling industry actually look and dress like professional racers...and it becomes even harder to determine who people are in an off-the-bike setting like Interbike.

There were obviously a lot of amazing bikes on display but I found myself drawn to the "race-ridden" rigs such as Bradley Wiggins' Dolan pictured above. It is interesting to see how the bikes are set up and to get a better sense of how they are positioned. I was very surprised when looking at Santiago Botero's Rock Racing Fuji to see that he rides almost the same size bike as Tyler Hamilton.

One of the hardest things about Interbike is trying to stay focused. I kept trying to develop a plan, looking at the exhibitor list and map, picking out people or things I wanted to see. But I would inevitably get sidetracked by something bright or shiny, change directions and end up walking around like I was in a labyrinth. I know some of the exhibitors must have thought I was stalking them as I wandered past their booth over and over again, feebly attempting to make my way to another location without getting distracted. Easier said than done.

While wandering the isles, Interbike provides attendees with an opportunity to confirm or challenge some preconceived notions about style and technology. For example, in addition to determining that I like steel bikes more than anything, I was also able to verify that Valverde's "Don Alejandro" Pinarello may have been an admirable concept but is flat-out ugly in real life. I knew that from earlier photos and video but it was nice to have physical confirmation of its heinousness.

On a related side-note, I was disappointed in the amount of Italian steel frames on display. I understand that there is value in the development of carbon fiber, but there is simply nothing sweeter to my eye than an elaborately lugged steel racing bicycle. There were some token track bikes and stuff but the coolest steel frames are now being made by smaller builders and not the old Italian classics. In fact, the Anniversary edition, chrome-lugged Schwinn Paramount may have been my favorite bike in the whole place. Who knew?

Another pro bike on display was Damiano Cunego's Wilier shown above. Again, I was startled by how tiny it was but pleased that it was an understated black-and-white rig, thankfully devoid of any Lampre pink or blue. The rep saw me checking the bike out, walks over and goes, "Damiano Cunego's Control."

To which I laughed and responded, "Ms. Cunego if you're nasty."

After realizing that he was not as familiar with Janet Jackson as I had assumed, I politely thanked him for his time and walked away covering the name on my show badge. In retrospect, I should have kept that one on the inside. Maybe a Fresh Prince joke would have been better.

I could go on about what it was like to attend Interbike...so I guess I will. Just not right now. The next installment will hopefully include some video of the rather fascinating Mandalay Bay Parking Lot Criterium which took place on Thursday evening. Good times...unless you were racing.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Caution: Biker Behind The Wheel

Recently Recounted Random Tale You May Or May Not Find Interesting:

A couple weeks ago C-Mac and I decided to cruise up to Glenwood Springs to do a little canyon riding. As we’re heading west through the Rockies, this little, scraggly-haired guy in an Audi with two bikes in the back comes tearing up the slow lane on I-70 at about 100mph, only to maniacally swerve within 5 feet of my front bumper and back into the left lane when his path was cut by a truck going 50.

After a rare F-Bomb by yours truly, C-Mac (in an even rarer display of disgust) goes, "What a Bleep."

To which I immediately respond, "I think that was Roberto Gaggioli. I knew he was kind of crazy but...wow. I bet he gets pulled over. I guess he drives like he used to race."

After a couple more choice exchanges, I then educated C-Mac on R-Gag's career and how he was one of the first Italians I could recall that came over and feasted on American Crits back in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Rocking red shoes and looking more like the lead singer for RATT than a professional bike racer, R-Gag tore it up back in the day. No question about that.

I then recounted my memories of him winning in San Rafael when I was 12 years old, over the likes of Eric Heiden, Tom Schuler (the reigning USPRO Champ) and the rest of Team Slurpee and Team Tooth (Crest). On a side note, I recall Marianne Berglund winning the women’s event that day – and gaining many male fans in Marin along the way. I also remembered something about a rather shocking post-race assault later in Gag’s career as well. Oops. Dude, it’s all fun and games until someone gets assaulted with a wooden two-by-four.

Anyway, no more than a mile down after we got through the Eisenhower Tunnel, we see the Red and Blue Flash behind that very same Audi that nearly swept my front wheel back in Georgetown. NAILED.
I guess some people never stop shooting the gaps. Or getting involved with Five-O for being reckless. Or nearly killing me and my fiancĂ© by driving like there is a cash prime at the next exit. I clapped louder when I saw that cop than I did back in San Rafael twenty years ago. Risking lives to get ahead is not cool – in a bike race, after a bike race or on the highway.

Not to preach too much, but I believe that how you drive is a clear reflection of your respect for life. Your own and those of everyone else out there with you. It’s not Pole Position and the risks of driving like a moron always outweigh the benefits. There is rarely a prize for being the fastest guy on the highway. Just an increased probability of a speeding ticket at best and a vehicular manslaughter conviction at the worst. Thankfully, R-Gag only has to deal with the former and not the latter – this time.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Wayback Machine - 1999

Time is relative. For many, 1999 may seem like it was just yesterday. For others, such as myself, 1999 feels like ancient history. In an effort to place Lance Armstrong’s pending comeback in a context relative to his first Tour victory, let’s take a quick trip down memory lane and re-educate ourselves on what life was like before we all realized that Y2K was just a massive practical joke.

So…we all know that 1999 was the first year that Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France. But Prince’s favorite year also brought us a plethora of interesting headlines in both the Real World and the Cycling World.

Now let’s rev up the Flux Capacitor and look back at the following noteworthy events (at least for me) which took place in the year 1999:

- Gary Coleman filed for bankruptcy. Sadly, the primary reason I thought this was interesting was that I figured Arnold had been forced to do this much earlier. What you talkin’ ‘bout IRS?

1999 was just a bad year for the Diff’rent Strokes family altogether, as it marked the passing of Dana Plato as well. Generally remembered for her portrayal of Kimberly Drummond, I tend to recall her post-Strokes cameo on Growing Pains as the Madonna-esque, virginity-preying girlfriend of young Mike Seaver. But that’s just me…

- Ivan Gotti won the Giro d’Italia after Marco Pantani was disqualified for an excessive Hemocrit level prior to stage 21. Rumors that Ivan’s American cousin, notorious Mafioso John Gotti, was seen lurking in the Anti-Doping tent prior to the ejection have not been verified. I’m not sayin’…I’m just sayin’.

- The Denver Broncos won their second consecutive Super Bowl over the horrendous Atlanta Falcons and their unforgivable Dirty Bird routine. This event was important because it created a number of highly frustrating debates with Donkey fans about whether they were as good a franchise as my beloved San Francisco 49ers. Obviously I won all of these arguments with well-crafted (albeit obvious) statistical analysis but I generally just responded with, “Seriously? Please.”

- Andrea Tafi won Paris-Roubaix as the Mapei team swept the top three places. This was a watershed event as it provided the cycling world with some of the ugliest podium photos of all time.

- The Euro was introduced as a unifying form of European currency. Elsewhere the Dollar was quoted as saying, “Uh oh.”

- Jan Ullrich won the Vuelta a Espana. Many people overlook this result when reflecting on Ze German’s palmares but in retrospect, I believe this victory is best understood as irrefutable evidence of Spain’s sub-par pastry industry.

- The World population reached 6 Billion people. The U.N. reported that number 6,000,000,000 was born in Sarajevo then quietly asked, “We don’t actually have to prove that, do we?” Then they all had a good laugh.

- Jakob Piil won the USPRO Championship in Philly but Marty Jemison took the Stars and Stripes as the first American across the line. Despite recent events, it should be noted that Jemison did not punch any doctors in the face after the awards ceremony.

- Napster made its debut. I remember thinking that the whole MP3 thing was a fad as I tried to reconcile the many thousands of dollars I had already spent on crappy CD’s with one or two good songs on them.

- Oscar Freire won the first of his World Championships. Shortly after his victory officials requested verification of his nationality since many within the cycling community believed that a Spanish Sprinter was a mythological creature from the past – like Unicorns or a French Tour de France winner.

- Boris Yeltsin resigned as President of Russia. I don’t recall this being terribly important to me at the time but in retrospect, I find it curious that this event seems to make 1999 seem like a very long time ago. At least physically, Yeltsin always reminded me of Golden State Warriors coach Don Nelson. Okay, I’m starting to run out of events now…

- Frank Vandenbroucke won Liege-Bastogne-Liege. The Belgian hero then proceeded to fall victim to a number of scandals and catapulted himself into The Mike Tyson Zone, at which point nothing he did seemed too outrageous. How this guy is still making headlines in 2008 is beyond me, but then again, we still see Iron Mike in the news from time to time as well. When Frankie starts getting face tattoos and biting people’s ears during races, then it’s officially over.

Interestingly, when researching the events of 1999 I have come to find that a number of high profile deaths occurred. In addition to the aforementioned Ms. Plato, the passing of Walter Payton, John F. Kennedy Jr., Payne Stewart, Charlie Byrd, Grover Washington Jr., Curtis Mayfield and George C. Scott all took place that year. But perhaps most significantly, the legendary Wilt Chamberlain (the greatest record-holder ever) hung up his shorts for the last time in 1999 – thus putting the final touch on a lifetime of truly remarkable endurance which will never be matched. Not even if Lance wins number 8.

Man, 1999 seems like a long time ago…

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Act Like You Know - Or Don't

Knowledge is Power. Ignorance is Bliss.

Would you prefer to be powerful or blissful?

To be clear, I am not talking about wattage output or that first ride on a new race bike here. Although this is a good indication that the answer to the above question is obviously dependent on one’s definition of the terms involved.

To be more specific, would you rather have prestige and influence or complete happiness? See, now the question takes on a little different meaning.

“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” - Confucius

All beings have knowledge thrust upon them simply as a function of experience. What we choose to do with this knowledge varies but we all come to know the world in which we live through actions both willfully taken and begrudgingly endured. Therefore, we are all inherently ignorant (happy) and only come to obtain knowledge (prestige and influence) as a result of the overwhelmingly random circumstances by which our lives are dictated.

Well, yeah. No duh. What’s your point?

In keeping with this theme, I don’t know the answer to that question. But I have been thinking a lot lately about how “knowledge” and “ignorance” can radically influence our experience as sports fans. Unfortunately, the two qualities are not mutually exclusive and the followers of professional cycling, in particular, must often weigh the powerful benefits of knowing about the sport against the ignorant bliss of appreciation without skepticism or awareness of past transgressions.

For example, I have been fascinated by the response to Tyler Hamilton’s USPRO Championship victory and the resulting emotions it has stirred within the cycling community. All greater issues of penance and punishment aside, the uproar created by his recent success shows how the assumption of knowledge can cloud the possibility of ignorance and illustrates the depths to which people internalize their own subjective version of the truth. This is truly fascinating stuff from a perch on the Ivory Tower but not so pretty from road-level.

“Better to know nothing than half-know many things.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

It is clear that many will simply never forgive Hamilton for having tested positive and steadfastly proclaimed his innocence. These individuals have taken their “knowledge” of various events and have come to the conclusion that he is undeserving of their admiration as a human being, let alone as a bike racer. They are unable or unwilling to overcome the baggage of past headlines and are thus prevented from appreciating the value of current performances. This is not meant as a judgment on these people, it is simply a fact proven by comments and behavior in this context.

But if one were ignorant of Hamilton’s past and took his victory on face value alone, it would be a remarkable example of determination, strength and courage to overcome the odds. He was woefully outnumbered by the Garmin-Chipotle riders but was still able to find a way to win – despite the many challenges that he faced that day. He played his tactics to near-perfection and still had enough left in the tank to win the final sprint, despite having to do most of the work to stay away over the final kilometers. I would argue that if anyone but Hamilton had won the Stars and Stripes jersey in the same fashion, he would be universally praised. But unfortunately for Tyler, his Rock Racing kit will always be stained with the scarlet letter of a “convicted doper” for many within the cycling community.

“Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.” – Albert Einstein

Now, it is certainly not my intention to get into a debate about Hamilton’s past guilt or innocence. Regardless of the data presented by both sides, the reality is that very few people will ever know the full story. Perhaps thankfully, I am not one of those people. But the position I find myself in as a follower of cycling is one of choosing to find pleasure and value in the present or allowing my so-called “knowledge” of the sport to damage my appreciation of it. At this point it is impossible to be completely ignorant and blissful but sometimes I wish I could stop being so skeptical and critical as a result of my not-very powerful knowledge.

But then again…

“If knowledge can create problems, it is not through ignorance that we can solve them.” – Isaac Asimov

The reality of the situation – or at least what my experience allows me to assume – is that we are all fallible. Our actions are not always pure and our knowledge is not always correct. We go through life rationalizing our own decisions while criticizing those of others. Like all animals, we are often jealous and spiteful and unforgiving. Thankfully, as human beings we have been given the gift of self-reflection and have ample opportunities to prove that the human condition is not as nasty as history would lead us to believe.

“If you don’t read the newspaper, you are uninformed; if you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed.” – Mark Twain

Or perhaps it is even nastier. History clearly illustrates that Power is a corrupting force so maybe Ignorance isn’t so bad after all.