Big Boy Power

By: Gustavo Cinci May 1

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Many eons ago, while warming up on rollers for a sub-freezing crit in the Boston area, I thought I had it all figured out. But I didn’t. You see, I had that distinct feeling, correc, confidence that the race was going to be mine. I had won on that course before under worse conditions and this time around, in spite of the bitter awful cold, it was a matter of formality: hold the wheels, be smart, stay at the front on the last few laps and the checkered flag will have my name on it. I am not, and never was a sprinter. But I know how to handle my bike, I was fit, and at the time I really fancied racing tricky, twisty crits. What’s not to like about them as a young buck? Short, aggressive, pushy, and in your face, I enjoyed the Joe Pesci characteristics just fine (imagine him on the sidelines yelling, “YOU’RE HURTING? I’LL SHOW YOU HURTING!”). I had a few good teammates, excellent and experienced riders with good skills who knew what to do.

Then I saw a portly fellow at the line up. I wasn’t sure if the cold was fogging my glasses, or if he was wearing extra clothing (which was merited), so I let it be and never paid any mind. Well, that one rider in particular went on to cross the finish line first. Yes he was on the “robust” side, and most intriguingly, as he got better throughout the season he got thicker, replacing the pillow under his jersey with a bigger one after every notch on his license upgrades. How is that possible? How could he move so fast, in such a gear, and navigate the 6-corner, 1km course (with hills no less) and leave us scrambling? The rest of the day was a painful lesson in humility: the husky guy rode away at some point, winning the race, and I wiped out on a mossy grate in one of the turns. I still finished the event, battered, bloodied, bruised, ego crushed under the heft of my unforgiving lesson in prejudice.

As riders we like to model ourselves after our heroes at the top of the sport. It’s double true if you engage in competition, and quadruple true if you’re an amateur of the middle category variety, aka a Joe Racer. It makes sense. The general rule that heavy-duty endurance sports result in weight loss is a well-accepted truth. But therein lies the plot sneakiness, for it wasn’t really the trouble of being beaten by a corpulent foe – the dude was just better. It was the surprise factor, as it’s not every day you have your behind handed to you by a competitor with a much bigger behind. I wonder if that’s how some pros felt when, say, Dario Pieri schooled them back in the early 2000s with a string of podium finishes at the classics, plus a well deserved win at E3 Harelbeke. I can imagine the riders distracted by his bike creaking, twisting and begging for mercy as he pounded his close to 90kg carcass around World Tour events, scaring children, smaller pros, and flattening cobblestones. Maybe that was the trick after all, his opponents downplaying his might till it was too late and he was gone, high on BBP (Big Boy Power), leaving the competition scratching their heads, trying to make sense of what has just happened.

Clearly this misconception is our own fallibility. Ignoring BBP and its appetite for dishing pain may result in a tummy ache when you find yourself on rolling terrain with a big fellow in tow. Because it will be your fault if/when you get beaten to the line by someone whose natural power and momentum will just steam roll through you, John Degenkolb-style. You may scoff when staring at the XL (or XXL) bibs while you wait for the best spot to attack, but in reality you wish you had such a clever decoy; you wish folks would drop their guard while you make minced-meat of their victory plans. Or perhaps we’re just jealous that some large gents are better at it than we are, extra kilos notwithstanding, subverting the sport’s aesthetic conventions. And believe me, I threw all I had into the quest of thickening my limbs: weight training, pork rinds, thick beer, cheese, ice cream, and all that I got were a hangover and a crappy nickname (Gustarving).

So next time you’re lining up for a crit or rolling race and you see a fellow racer bursting from his kit, think again: watch him carefully, jump on his wheel in case he attacks, and save the jokes for after the event. You may make a new friend, and who knows, maybe even have a nice meal together.

 

And Bicycles, Too

By: Gustavo Cinci Apr 15

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You’re standing there, with everyone else, before the start. It smells funny to the untrained nose; body odor and what seems like bad cologne, or an unfortunate mix of both. You’re a bit too close to your neighbors, and although you’re somewhat used to it, it still doesn’t feel good – at least when you’re just there, waiting. Heads surround you as you look back; you glance at the stage as someone says something through a speaker, or a bullhorn, but you don’t really pay attention because you’re busy with your thoughts, trying to hush the rush so you can devote all of your attention to the next few moments. Even if you did pay attention to the words spoken, you can’t hear anything because everyone around you is talking and fussing and eager to begin with the procedures. The quiet impulse to stay close to the front before the start forces your elbows, arms and legs forward, someone presses back on you, you relent. Then you do it again. It has been a while since the last event, and you wonder what it will feel like this time. You check your pockets, patting yourself lightly, making sure you have everything with you, that nothing was forgotten or left unaccounted for. The lights go out, intro score goes on, and the crowd goes crazy in a collective and deafening-loud cheer as your favorite band stomps on stage.


What, you thought I was referring to a bike race?

Music and bicycles, for me, have so much in common that they overlap in many feverish layers, keys and notes and spokes striking and whirring and singing just the same. In other words, both activities spark chemical reactions that work independently of my will. They just happen. They have always just happened. And when that feeling hits again, I want more of it. Unlike an addiction, the perceptions alone, gutsome in their essence, aren’t originated as a hedonistic streak that must be satisfied at all costs. Hedonism is not in the saddle, driving the break. Rather, as with the guitar, bicycles are an iconic instrument of freedom and beauty whose seductive call is impossible to ignore. I am specifically referring to road riding and a not so popular (in the US) type of, ahem, rock-and-roll. A sure fire conversation-ender, folks react to metal as if I had just emerged in scuba diving gear from a frothy septic tank: surprise, incredulity, and scowl-worthy disgust. “Oh, you’re into hair-bands?” I confess that it is very challenging to recover from this line of questioning, mostly because the equivalence is just not there. I don’t ever remember anyone placing “speed-metal” side by side with any hair-band and painting them in the same color. Comparing them both is basically comparing apples to oranges (my bands being the oranges, just so you know).


So what is the appeal anyway? Well, there’s the gear: If bikes are shiny, instruments are shinier, some made with specific purposes, like the beveled frets on Malmsteen’s Fender, or the extremely cool white Paiste cymbals Nicko McBrain rocked during The Clairvoyant Tour. It’s physically demanding, too. Imagine how spent you’d be if you were these guys, playing every night for an average of 2hrs30mins, for weeks or months at a time (World Tour does mean Tour of the World for those pros). The metrically precise, high-frequency dugga-dugga is nothing short of hypnotic, simultaneously mesmerizing and enthralling, ensnaring the listener in a synergistic, sonic trap. You hear it, feel it and it clicks just right. Multi-day festivals, surgically-accurate timing, stamina, collaboration, courage and strength: some of the many poignantly positive, forward-looking characteristics that are predominant in both cycling and metal. Fans wait for days, sleeping outside in order to get a good place during a mountain stage at a Grand Tour, sharing a similar dynamic with those who stage from dawn to dark a few times over to purchase a ticket for that long-awaited festival spot. And as both activities touch the core of millions of fans, we address our idols with familiar irreverence, granting them nicknames as we would with close friends; after all, we have welcomed them long ago in our lives, into our homes. We have The Eagle of Toledo, The Professor, The Octopus, The Air Raid Siren, to name a few.


We stand far away from the stage, singing along with old songs that are dear to us, as loud as we can, as if we were at a bar together. We see them grimace in pain, and we know how it feels because we have just ridden up that mountain to see them pass by, a flickering rush of spokes, so physically close, looking exactly how we expected them to. They have stories, drama, ups and downs and myth-like redemption that are so human and so amazing yet so mundane, so like us. We rejoice when they win, and we tear up when they play our favorite track. It’s a beautiful thing to join throngs of others who feel just like you; a leveler that works universally and ignores age, country or context. For a few precious moments we’re boys again, enjoying a great time without getting in (too much) trouble.

And when this all ends, we relish the fact that, luckily, we like bikes too.

 

I Feel Ya

By: Gustavo Cinci Mar 26

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“Hey, how ya doin’?”

If you’re familiar with the colloquial vernacular of this part of the country (The Northeast—Ed.), you’ll find that this is but one of myriad varieties of mutual acknowledgment. Most are short, to the point. Some are legitimate; in most cases they’re manifested as a reflex, and can generally translate as, “I live in a social environment whereby announcing your acquaintance is a display of mandatory civil imperative.” And folks carry on, never really minding the level of interaction. Even daily associations, say, at work, where office manners are often observed and regulated with semi-military rigidity, never really get past the formality of generic colloquialisms. So you get to know how people are, or at least, they let you know how they wish they’d be.

Dave and his boys. Bonding. “Breaking Away”. Note trophy.

But this is not the office is it?

One of the many unique quirks of our sport, and this applies on a universal level, is the way fellow athletes address each other. Of course you can start a conversation with whatever greeting you see fit: you can nod, quick blink your eyes, high five, flash complex gang signs, unfold your pinky to engage with another pinky, blow kisses, do a little dance, it doesn’t matter. But once you spend a few kilometers shoulder to shoulder with your companion, the outdoors soundtrack of whishing tires on pavement and the wind in your ears induce you to a slightly deeper level of communal understanding. Then, invariably, you hear: “How are you feeling?” That’s a question that condenses all sorts of scenarios into one single moment. If you know your bud well, you’ll get the gist in a second. A look, a snarl, a grunt (if you’re our James), a side to side tilt with a slight scowl may provide all you need to know. But those are small indicatives of something bigger. The context is so inextricably wrapped to every single nerve of the rider’s existence that little means a lot, and language barriers mean nothing. This struck me decades ago, when I had to cede my race registration to a friend. I was giving him info about the course while lamenting my default, when I asked how he felt. Over the phone there was a micro pause; in a few short sentences I knew enough. It was not about the words used. Rather, the tone he employed expressed accurately how he felt at the time.

Explanation is unnecessary to detail how many stars one sees during a huge effort, or how sour the mouth gets, followed by goose bumps (not the good kind), or that the stomach and entrails hurt. Meaning, you don’t need to be a multi-thousand watts, thick World Tour super hero to get it when Cancellara says, “I had lactic acid coming out of my ears”. That’s the beauty of it: the tangibility is such that it levels and resonates with all.

On the positive side, there is a paragon of truth that can never be questioned, for we know exactly what it means when a pro (any pro) utters those magic words: “…I had good sensations…” That alone puts us precisely in the realm of magnificent feelings regarding going fast. You may be hurting, but you’re moving. You try not to show your cards too much during a paceline or up a hill, lest your foes might bust your poker face. The good sensations, as quirky as it sounds when translated to English, are a rider’s last and best friend. How do you measure good sensations? It’s part magic, part fitness mixed with laser-guided mental acuity and a heavy dose of fearlessness. In other words, you just know. It’s all feet and drive, hunger and revenge, bike lunging forward with each pedal stroke, face covered in spit and salt, but you relish knowing your mates are suffering a tad more as their sensations don’t match yours. Notice that the actual guys with the right sensations are usually the ones giving the post victory interview. There’s a strong distinction between feeling good and the sensations being good. A racer may start the event overcome with nervousness, sick, not wanting to be there; stiff, puffy from that extra beer the previous night. He/She can claim to feel good, ok even, but that’s static, a still snapshot of the moment before the action starts. Once the flag goes down and the system gets going, you’ll find out. On the other hand, a good sensations’ worst enemy is that oldest excuse known to racers. Who hasn’t (mentally) booed when a certain pro says, after the finish, “yeah, I had great legs and was really confident, but didn’t have it in the end/missed the break/was on the wrong side of the group” ?. Exactly.

Well, all this talk of “feelings” gets me in the mood for riding. Wanna come with? Gotta warn you, I feel great.

 

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