The Newcomer's Guide to the 2015 Tour de France

( Map from the TdF homepage)

France! Wine! Paris! Bikes!

The 2015 Tour de France starts this Saturday, meaning that anyone who you live with / work with / share a bed with, etc., that cares about cycling will be engrossed in cycling TV and blog coverage (steephill.tv) so deeply that they might as well be auditioning for the “A Beautiful Mind” sequel. They’re going to talk your ear off about yellow jerseys, cadence, breakaways, and “top GC contenders,” whatever that means. They’ll assume you know everything in this video (youtube.com), use foreign words that you don’t understand, and correctly pronounce names like “Zdenek Stybar.” 

You want to be excited with them, but you have a problem - you have no idea what goes on in the weird world of professional cycling beyond “isn’t that what Lance did?” How can you join in the conversation? How can you feel included in all of the chatter, speculation and excitement? How can you hope to pronounce everything correctly? 

That’s where I’m here to help! I want to give you some conversational shortcuts so you can appear to be (and hopefully really become) interested in what is going on, because, once you get the hang of it, pro cycling is really interesting. So this guide comes in two parts - but it won’t be a “casual cycling fan’s guide,” because there are already lots of good ones (freewheelingfrance.com) that do that. You can read those, too! 

This guide will take you through a crash course in what the Tour is about, and then give you a few questions to ask in casual conversation with your cycling fan friends so that you look like you know what you're talking about. 

Off we go!

Part 1 - Questions you may have about the Tour

Some of the legends of the Tour

Why is it called a “Tour,” and how do I know who wins?
You would think something called a “tour” would be about touring a place and seeing the sites - not so with the Tour. The Tour is a series of races through French (and sometimes not French) towns, countryside, and mountain passes. When you think of a “race” you usually think the winner is whoever gets from A to B the fastest, but the Tour isn’t like that. 

The winner of the Tour is the guy who has the fastest (so, shortest) average time across all 21 races, or “stages,” of the Tour.  This can be confusing for those new to watching the Tour, because it means that it’s possible for someone to win the Tour without winning even one of the 21 stages (like the American, Greg Lemond, did in 1990). The racer with the fastest average time during the tour wears the famous yellow jersey (or maillot jaune (pronounced “MAH-yo JAWn,” with a soft "j"), and the racer wearing yellow on the final day is the overall winner who wins bunches of cash and prizes and endorsement gigs.

Why is the Tour hyped so much?
Why is the Daytona 500 hyped so much when it’s just another auto race around an oval? Tradition. Legacy. Heritage. Story. The Tour is about the narrative of the race - the struggle and glory of individual efforts day after day. The Tour is more than a bike race - it’s a rolling parade, media extravaganza, and World Cup all rolled into one. Advertisers, journalists, fans, and the casual public all come out to both create and experience the spectacle. Crowds line the mountains to see the pain on the riders faces as they strain to breath and pedal at the same time. 

Cycling in France is sort of like baseball in the US - you don’t have to follow the sport, but it’s part of your national heritage that you get to participate in. The Tour is where legends are made.

It starts in the Netherlands?!
Yup! Sometimes the Tour starts in another country; last year it started in Britain. Don't worry, though, it always ends in Paris!

Is every man racing for himself?
Nope! Professional cycling, and especially stage racing, is a team sport. If you look at the backs of the racers, you’ll see numbers pinned onto their jerseys. These numbers stay constant throughout the Tour, and let you know what team each rider is on. There are usually 22 teams of 9 riders each, for a total of 198 riders. 

Numbers will then range from 1 to 219;  #1 will be worn by last year’s winner, Vincenzo Nibali (“veen-CHEN-zoe NEE-buh-lee”), and the rest of his team (Astana) will be numbered 2-9. So you have the winner’s team, and then you have teams 1-21; the “#1” of each team is assigned to the team leader, the strongest racer on the team, and means that they’re easier to identify - #11, 21, 31, 41, 51, 61, etc. are the respective leaders of teams 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. 

The other eight men on the team work for their leader - getting him food and water, pacing him up hills, providing a draft to shelter him from the wind, and offering their bike/wheel if he should crash or get a flat tire.  Racing for 21 days is really hard, even with a couple rest days sprinkled in, and quite a few of these support riders (called domestiques (doh-mess-TEEKS”), if you care) will drop out before the Tour is over. This is expected. 

Also, not all the team leaders are expected to be able to win the tour - most teams are just riding the tour because of the thrill and prestige of it, and for the high exposure it nets their sponsors.

What’s a “peloton”?
Pronounced “PELL-uh-ton,” it’s French for “small ball” and refers to the largest bunch of cyclists racing. Sometimes there are smaller groups who try and breakaway for a winning move (you can learn about breakaways in this video (youtube.com)), and you’ll hear the race announcers refer to “the breakaway” being chased down by “the main peloton.”  

Why do all the jerseys look so wild/dorky?
Let’s go back to the NASCAR analogy, because I think that’s really helpful. NASCAR exists to publicize sponsors, and so does the Tour. In fact, the Tour started as a marketing gimmick for a newspaper (the paper was printed on yellow sheets, hence the yellow jersey). 

Just like how NASCAR cars are painted with the the sponsors colors and graphics (called “livery,” after the clothing that old-timey rich people would provide for their servants), so too do the livery of sponsors show up on cycling jerseys and shorts. Such livery is usually brightly colored, both to highlight the sponsor and to easily tell teams apart on TV; cycling races are often filmed from a helicopter, and bright, obnoxious colors and patterns make it easier to tell who’s who. 

If you watch cycling year after year, it soon becomes really easy to identify riders at a glance because teams often use the same “kit” year after year; veteran fans will know that pink/blue is Lampre (“LAMP-ray”), red/black is BMC Racing, neon yellow/blue is Tinkoff Saxo (“tink-OFF SAH-kso”), white/red is Katusha (kah-TWO-sha), and blue/black is Team Sky (“sky”). 

Also like NASCAR, fans are more tied to individual riders than they are to title sponsors; Jeff Gordon fans root for him whether he’s in  #24 Dupont car or not, and likewise fans of Fabian “Spartacus” Cancellara don’t really care that he now rides for Trek Factory Racing instead of Team CSC. You can learn what each sponsor sells / does here (inrng.com).

Why are the bikes so ugly?
Hey, you noticed! The bikes are ugly because they are shaped to be aerodynamically efficient - to cut through the wind as smoothly as possible. Aerodynamics is a big deal in cycling, and so you see aerodynamic bikes, wheels (the thick rims and even solid discs sometimes seen), helmets, clothing and even shoe covers! For a pro racer, fighting the wind alone for even an extra two minutes can be the difference between winning or losing the Tour.

Who're the favorites to win, and how do I pronounce their names?
Vincenzo Nibali (Astana Pro Team, light blue kit), last year’s winner, is certainly a top choice. Other contenders are Chris Froome, the Brit on Team Sky who won in 2013, Alberto Contador (“KON-tah-door”), the Spaniard with Tinkoff Saxo, winner in 2007 and 2009, and Nairo Quintana (“NYE-row keen-TAH-nah”), the tiny Columbian riding for Movistar (“MOW-vee-star,” navy kit with neon green letters), the runner-up in 2013. 

If you want to wash the stale Lance taste out of your mouth by rooting for America, the hopeful is Tejay van Garderen (“TEE-jay van-GUARD-wren”) from BMC who was both 5th overall and the fastest rider under age 25 in the 2012 Tour.

Hopefully that gives you some idea of what is going on. More technical stuff can be found in this article (inrng.com). On now to Part 2 and questions you can ask your cycling friends during Tour season to keep from feeling left out!

Jerseys help you tell teams apart!

Part 2 - Questions to ask of the Tour

"Who's in yellow?"
This is just asking, “Who’s winning right now?” The yellow jersey can be worn by many different racers over the course of one Tour, depending on who’s fast on a particular day or who made a lucky move. The early stages of the Tour are usually flat and easy for the fast sprinters, so a sprinter might be in yellow for a few days. Once the race reaches the mountains, however, the sprinters usually lose the jersey, never to get it back. The yellow jersey can jump around a lot, like in the 1987 Tour when eight different riders wore it.

"Who's the top GC contender at the moment?"
GC stands for “general classification,” the fancy term for “overall winner.” Unlike the sprinters, GC contenders are the guys actually favored to win the whole Tour - Nibali, Froome, Contador, Quintana, etc. Top GC contenders are usually good in the time trials (the races against the clock) and the high mountain stages. Most TV news wrap-ups will include not just the winner for the day, but also the positions of the GC hopefuls.

"How is Romain Bardet and/or Thibaut Pinot doing?"
Remember what I said earlier about baseball? The Tour is a big deal for the national pride of France, and so as you would expect, there is a lot of pressure placed on the French riders. Ignore the fact that a Frenchman hasn’t won the Tour since 1985: just know that where the highest-placed French rider stands is a matter of some interest. 

The French hopefuls this year are Romain Bardet (“row-MAIN bar-DAY”), riding in the brown/white of Ag2r (“Ay-gee-two-are”), and Thibaut Pinot (“TEE-bow PEE-know”), who was third last year and rides in the blue/white for FDJ (“Eff-dee-jay,” sometimes referred to by the full name Fran├žaise des Jeux, or “frahn-SAY dey-JOOR”). 

"Who won on Bastille Day?" (If it is after July 14th)
Bastille (bas-TEEL) Day is the day of French Independence, and every French rider in the peloton wants to win on that day. Again, think back to the legend, the drama, the story of the race.

"What do you think about including cobbles again this year?"
Racing over cobbles is a cycling tradition going back like 100 years or so, but cobbles are usually reserved for the one-day, A-to-B races in the spring, called Classics. Hitting cobbled roads at 30mph+ is hard on cyclists, and the guys who train to win stage races can be fragile people. Last year, Chris Froome abandoned the whole Tour after crashing on a cobbled stage. With cobbles comes drama: Who will soldier through them? Will anyone crash out? Will the the GC contenders play it safe, or attack?!

"When's the next mountain day?"
The mountain stages are the days when the GC really gets shaken up and the potential for drama is high. These are the days to watch!

The 1998 race leaders, suffering up a mountain

"Has anyone's Di2 quit on them yet?"
Di2 (“dee-eye-two) is cycling shorthand for electronic gear shifting, first introduced by Shimano (“she-MAH-noh”) in 2009. Little, battery-pack-powered motors in the derailleurs shift the chain from gear to gear. It’s progress, sure, but sometimes the wires pop loose or something else bad happens, and when it does, the racer is stuck in one gear until their mechanic gives them a replacement bike. 

Sometimes you see replay footage of some poor chap struggling up a mountain in way too high a gear, and fans who can’t afford the $1500+ price of electronic shifting for their own bikes will poke a little fun.

"What do you think about doping in cycling?"
There’s lots of speculation about this, but no one really knows anything for sure. This is a good question to ask if you feel your cyclist friend needs to talk for a long time but you don’t want to listen, because they will go on and on.

"Did you know that Sean Kelly never won a Tour?"
Like most sports fans, cycling fans are not above being full of useless knowledge, stats, and facts, and this fact can be yours. The Irishman Sean Kelly (“Shawn” Kelly) raced from 1979-1994 through the heat, wind, and rain, and into the halls of cycling legends. 

Think of him as the “Iron Man” Cal Ripkin, Jr. of cycling. He often attacked with no teammates around him, eschewed using “clipless” pedals and shoes until one year before retirement (almost ten years after they were introduced), and yet won basically everything that was worth winning, except the Tour. 

I’ve never heard anything bad about him, which makes him a sure bet for a winning conversation topic with any cycling fan. If you’re watching any of the races on Eurosport, he’s the commentator with the thick Irish accent. Some of his legend-ness can be viewed here (youtube.com)!

The three weeks of the Tour doesn’t have to be intimidating for anyone. On the contrary, they can be a time of learning, cheering, speculating, and watching history be made. Who knows, you might even get into a heated argument over some trivial issue, like real sports fans do!

Any more questions? Things I didn't cover? 

Feel free to ask them in the comments below!

Sean Kelly, killing it in the 1988 Tour

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Chivalry on the Dodgeball Court

(From the Commons)

A few weekends ago, I played dodgeball for the first time in ten years. You know the game - where you get to throw rubber balls at high velocity towards unsuspecting faces - that is being phased out of elementary schools because of its violence. My Saturday morning was filled with a bunch of (mostly) twenty-something-year-old guys maintaining no-holds-barred chaos, and it reminded me of all the great elementary recesses on the playground spent hurling little green balls at friends and enemies alike. It was a time when accurate aim was as important as academic success. But as I was running around in my headband, tank-top and short shorts, frantically ducking, dodging, and counterattacking, now with fifteen more years of life experience, I was reflecting on how playground dodgeball taught me life lessons that I still rely on.

C.S. Lewis penned a great essay called “The Necessity of Chivalry”, in which he said that a knight was a man who was both “fierce to the nth” and “meek to the nth.” A good knight knew his manners while banqueting with the royal ladies, and yet could cooly dual-wield battle axes in the gate of his castle as the invaders approached, ready to cleave barbarian limb from torso. A properly chivalrous man - that is, a true knight - needed both fierceness and meekness. More than that, he needed to be able to embody the extremes of both at the appropriate times instead of straddle some Aristotelian Golden Mean (wiki); acting macho 24/7 makes one perpetually brutish, while erring the other way produces effete doormats. 

What does this have to do with dodgeball? 

Playground and PE dodgeball was invariably co-ed, and one of the qualities that a good game of dodgeball teaches young boys is the tact to treat others respectfully, according to their ability. Some unwritten rules kept everyone in line: 
  • Don’t throw hard at girls. 
  • Throw the softer balls at the girls if you have a choice. 
  • Girls who (hopefully accidentally) get hit in the head, stay in. 
  • If a girl throws a ball at you, work to dodge rather than catch it, because catching it will get her out. 
  • If you have two balls, give one to the girl next to you so she can defend herself. 
  • If some chump opposite dares to hide behind the girls on his side, it’s your whole team against him.

It was honorable for us boys to play like this, and the girls seemed to appreciate our efforts to include them while keeping them safe. Along with this code of meekness  - the “rules of the banquet hall” - was the code of the battlefield. Dodgeball is like war, after all, and it’s a great game for boys because it respects different skill levels. Is it fair to call it a playground equalizer? Being able to throw a ball hard was one thing; being accurate was another. Both of those skills were on par with being able to catch anything that came to close to you. Having a cannon of an arm wasn’t everything; if you could take a rocket to the chest and hold onto it, you were a god for the rest of the afternoon. 

(Another one from the Commons)

Size differences were equalized, too. Bigger boys might be forced to try to catch balls that the smaller and/or more flexible ones could dodge, and a team needed those different members, like how it says in the Bible, “the body does not consist of one member but of many...The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” Every knight needs a squire or two!

Dodgeball was also a lesson in humility. Lots of balls are all flying at once, coming from every direction, and there were times when I was so focused on heavy artillery that the most diminuitive effort from the shy guy in the corner would bounce off me! There’s no point in making a fuss over it - “all’s fair in war” and all that. The tough guys were naturally the most targeted, and it was the aim of every boy to guide his orb into the nose of the class powerhouse. This taught tact, too. Being an honest loser was as important as being a valiant attacker.

Tough guys or not, dodgeball illustrated that people of all different body types and abilities were valuable to a team. Attitude mattered more than ability. You could have the strongest arm on the playground, but if you had no discretion as to how hard you threw and at whom, you were a jerk. Girls and boys were different, and there was honor in treating boys and girls differently. As dodgeball games are increasingly discouraged or banned in school recesses across the country, I can’t help but wonder if we are losing something that teaches boys how to be chivalrous - how to be respectful when appropriate and fierce when appropriate. Lewis knew what he was talking about.

(As an aside, the recent Fallon Fox controversy highlights this loss well. There’s nothing honorable in how Fox is acting, but it’s generating publicity. Female opponents are hesitant to speak out because any publicity in professional fighting is good news for the viewing numbers. Someone needs to admonish Fox back into acting honorably, but that is isn’t the focus of this post.)

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Favorite Things in Life: Bookstores

I took a trip to my favorite bookstore today. I hope you have a favorite bookstore; life is too short to spend it browsing the stacks of mediocre establishments that only stock Haynes manuals, Steele novels, cookbooks, and old comics. You owe it to yourself to find a favorite bookstore near you, even if it has to be an antique store or something.

Mine is across the street from a park, wedged between a high-end vintage clothing store and a curio shop that fills its windows with hundreds of gaudy necklaces, brooches, earrings; all arranged to make a killer Instagram account, if only the owner could be bothered. You could almost miss it if it didn't have a book rack out front populated with books that no one would (or could) miss. All of the fraudulent scholarship and poor taste in Britain seems to have ended up in one place: titles like Subliminal Socialism in The Children's Television Workshop: 1980-1985, Windows ME for Dummies or The Ultimate Guide to Reiki - Vol. 2. Books useful, I suppose, for art projects, or a chuckle, but not much else.

A veil of incense parts as you walk through the door. If you close your eyes, it's easy to imagine the smoke coating the floor like dry ice on a stage. Of course, they stopped burning incense in the late 90s, but the bookshelves still ooze it. The shopkeeper peeks at you from behind a small hatch above a counter; underneath the counter is, of course, a bookshelf, and the wall above the hatch is plastered with dog-eared concert handbills in various fading colors. The counter itself is piled so high with books and papers that it could double as a professor's desk, which it very well could be.

The second thing you notice is the music pulsing throughout every floorboard and bookcase. A slow, pulsating wave that pervades your subconscious, drowning your emotions in a syrup of synthetic sounds. It's drug music, for sure, but not drug music in the flower-happy, "Everything"-begins-with-an-"E"-type of technoball, or the feedback-laden-stoner-sludge-metal variety. This is the "let's-take-our-homemade-instruments-and-herb-to-the-woods-for-a-weekend" flavor of organic beats and drones. Quivering mushrooms caps, overturned. This is the rhythmic reverberations and hull creakings of a wooden cargo hold floating on a dark sea . This is the music that ripples the glass of the display case that holds the rare books. On offer today is the two-volume Around the World on a Bicycle - first edition, published in 1887 and bound in a lovely, dusty military green. No doubt it houses the musty smells and memories of myriad armchair adventurers, and it can find a home in your collection for a mere four-hundred-pounds-sterling.

Bounce upstairs past the science fiction (there's only ever one guy in the science fiction room, but the room is never empty; I think they have a sign-up sheet), politics and sociology, and poetry sections (which I browse for haiku anthologies and works by Derek Walcott), and turn left once you reach the shelf filled with old technical and engineering manuals. The center island in this room is made out of four waist-high bookshelves arranged in pairs back-to-back; like magnets, they repel the bookshelves lining the walls into their places. Oh, don't trip over the stool with the store name carved and lacquered into it; instead, move it around if you need to reach the higher shelves, filled to the ceiling with tomes of military history, natural history, art and architecture, local history, and literature. Two laps around the room and I'm cradling a stack of books spanning multiple and seemingly mutually exclusive interests; an eclectic assortment covering Japanese package design, selective works of Gregory of Nyssa, the history of mechanical timepieces, and a hardback edition of Beowulf. Illustrated, too! I already have a paperback, of course, but this is such a good deal.

The stairs going back down are so narrow that two girls on their way up have to wait at the landing while I teeter down with my unearthed treasures. My stack only just fits on the counter, and the smiling man wraps up the books in discreet brown wax-paper bags, as he always does, meaning that I, again, leave the shop looking like I just bought pornography. I wander back across the street towards the park, on the lookout for a cozy bench that the sun has been warming all day, especially for me.

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Helmets, Freedom, and California Law

1980's track helmet
(Photo from whatisabicycle.tumblr.com)
Much commotion was raised on the Internet over the weekend about the proposed “mandatory helmet law” in California (source). Opinion, as always, is divided - they don’t call helmets a “wedge issue” for nothing! Bicycling magazine has given air to both sides so to maximize pageviews, while others have advocated to quietly concede this round. Snarky blogger have, of course written snarky blogs. Meanwhile, I think it’s important to point out that there should be a difference between helmets being a good idea, and helmets being required by law. As helmet makers know better than anyone, there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

That said, this finger-pointing and fear-mongering is not entirely unexpected, chiefly because safety is an emotionally touchy issue, but also because there’s an awful lot of money to be made by marketing a safety product. If cycling can be made to look dangerous, there is money to be made. Car companies and public transit benefit from reduced cycling ridership, helmet manufacturers benefit (slightly) from increased helmet sales, and the largely superfluous cycle of product “development” and output of “new” products from the cycling industry gets a booster shot. Everyone wins!

Well, everyone except the consumer. And bike-share programs. And people who rely on a bicycle for work commutes and general transportation. And anyone who wants to look like a normal person instead of an enthusiast who wants to look and perform like Lance minus the performance-enhancing drugs. Well, with the drugs, actually, but his drugs are called “aero helmets,” “bespoke wheel solutions,” and “carbon fiber.” Basically, whatever ($400 helmet) Neo-Lance can buy to give him an advantage over his poorer or less-dedicated neanderthal of a neighbor who still shifts with (ugh!) cables. 
"My coach showed me how to get more aero!"
(Photo from Cervelo)

But I digress. 

Of course, first Neo-Lance goes to his local bike shop to look at helmets before he buys one online. Bike shop employees don’t always want to push helmets, but for liability reasons they have to. Some customers are interested in helmets and want a good one that fits them well. Others just want something to keep them safe. But not everyone wants to spend the $30-60 for a helmet, and I don’t think that they need to. If they want one for personal comfort or need to meet race eligibility, shops stock them. What helmet law does is effectively tack a premium onto an already-expensive bike.

As some of the above linked-to articles have pointed out, helmet laws are particularly harmful to bike-share programs. New York’s CitiBike system, Minnesota’s NiceRide, and London’s Boris Bikes are brilliant and popular, and are possible partly because you don’t have to carry your helmet to the nearest bike kiosk. I used the NiceRide system for two seasons, and one of the things I really liked about it was that I didn’t have to carry the usual cycling combo of lights/lock/helmet with me. I could cycle downtown with just a small bag or backpack, and then cycle back home at the end of the day. I used NiceRide to commute, choosing to reduce the wear-and-tear on my own bikes. I even used it to plan dates!
NiceRide kiosk
(photo from TCDailyPlanet)
The issue at stake here is one of personal freedom. There are already several laws in place in various states that require bicycles to have reflectors, and certainly most bicycles sold in the US are required to have reflectors attached at point of sale. Some states go even further, requiring lights. Minnesota has already crossed that line, mandating front and rear lights on all bikes ridden at night. This is ostensibly in the name of “safety,” but how far can that argument be pushed? The “safety” argument is a favorite one for liberals because it is so elastic. A front and rear light on a bike increases safety - this is true. But surely two front lights and a rear one will increase safety more? What about three front lights, again all in the name of safety? Common sense revolts at the idea, yes, now, but common sense is a pliant opinion. Sooner or later the pliancy is tested, which brings us back to the California bill that sneaks in “reflective clothing” amidst its call for mandatory helmets. (Like helmets, I am all for riding with lights at night. Lights are awesome. Laws requiring lights are not.)

Give them an inch and they will take two inches, and when challenged will say that your yardstick is not the official one. If the government, any government, mandates helmet use today, what will they mandate next? Shin guards? Keirin body armor? The nature of a law is that it is enforceable, initially, in this case, by a modest fine, but ultimately, in all cases, by imprisonment, which is restriction of freedom. California, like Australia and New Zealand, wants to be in the position to potentially imprison people for not wearing a bicycle helmet.

Think about that. 
Looks pretty normal and law-abiding to me!
(Photo from Civia Cycles)
I’ll say here again that my argument is separate from the issue of whether or not wearing helmets is a good idea. It is, especially for children. When I was in elementary school, I had a head-on bike collision with one of my friends. I was wearing a helmet, but had a pretty bad headache nonetheless. Kids who lack basic bike-handling skills need protection. 

In addition to benefiting kids, helmets are also great idea for racers. I have crashed in multiple races, track and cyclocross, each time going over the bars, and each time wearing a helmet. The governing body of cycle racing, the UCI, made helmets mostly mandatory for the Tour de France in 2003 and fully mandatory in 2005. Before that, the Tour riders had the option to abstain, except when they ventured into Belgium, where helmets were legally required. And USA Cycling, the governing body in the US, includes this rule in their handbook:
1J1. Helmets.  At all times when participating in an event held under a USA Cycling event permit, including club rides, any rider on a bicycle or motorcycle shall wear a protective, securely fastened helmet that satisfies the standards specified in USA Cycling Policies. "Participating in an event" means riding a bicycle in the vicinity of a race at any time between the beginning of registration and the last awarding of prizes, but does not apply to riding rollers or stationary trainers in order to warm up. (Source, p.41)
Thank goodness that you can stay bare-headed on your rollers.

All this, I’m sure, is very lucrative for helmet manufacturers. When every racer needs a “regular” helmet (which, as I hinted at above, is a single-use item and must be replaced after a crash) for general riding and an “aero” one for time-trialling, that adds up quickly. As an aside, the mandatory use of an helmet for TTs and triathlons is an interesting issue because the risk of injury is, in theory, greatly reduced during a TT, since you are alone on the course. (I say “in theory” because no amount of helmet can compensate for the notoriously poor bike-handling skills of most triathletes.)

While it is true that an aero helmet has dramatic aerodynamic advantages over a regular helmet, we don’t know if it offers any advantage over a bare head or cloth cap, and we don’t know that because the official rules of any race now say that you must wear a helmet.  Since “not wearing a helmet” isn’t an option in competition, nobody cares if “not wearing a helmet” makes you faster. After all, no R&D lab will spend lots of money on wind tunnel testing to prove the superiority of something from which they profit exactly zero dollars.
Stephen Roche, c.1987 - Greg LeMond comes later (Photo from Wikipedia)
Advocates will point to pros like Greg LeMond and his aero helmet that he wore in his final winning 1989 Tour de France TT, but he was also using aerobars. Aerobars (debatably legal at the time) were a huge advantage, and everybody knew it. But in order to find out if the helmet gave any advantage, you would have to run the TT again without the helmet. Yes, later TT champions like Miguel Indurain also wore aero helmets, but we don’t know if that was because they provided a significant advantage (over, say, a backwards cycling cap) or because, as the top time trialist in the world, companies marketing aero helmets were paying him top dollar to use them.  I challenge anyone to find a picture (warning: NSF helmets) of Marco Pantani, the 1998 TdF winner though a notoriously poor time trialist, riding with an aero helmet. You’d think he’d want every advantage he could get. Before it was mandatory to wear helmets in time trials, not everyone did.

There's Lemond
So while helmets are now de rigueur in the racing peloton and the lonely time trial, they needn't be in daily life. The great thing about the bicycle is that it is so versatile: it can be raced at 30mph, ridden around town at 15mph, or used to haul kids and groceries at 7mph. These are different activities that deserve to be treated equally. To lump the commuter in with Neo-Lance and say that they both fit under the “recreation” umbrella is a gross confusion of categories, and when met with that confusion we should pause and give just reflection, as if our garage was about to charge us for Porsche-quality brakes on our Civic because “they both can go 100mph.” No. Most Civics will never brave those waters, just as most cyclists simply want to get from A to B in a sensible manner. And yes, I will continue to wear an helmet when riding at night, dicking around at Theo Wirth, or commuting in winter.

Racing in the winter so, yes, helmet is on.
By imposing helmets, through law, on the general cycling public and thus erecting unnecessary barriers to entry, we risk decreased ridership, a heavy-handed flattening of the wonderful diversity of the cycling populous, and an imposition on general freedom for lovers of freedom everywhere. If you never leave home without your helmets, great! If you make your kids wear theirs, even better! If you BMX or mountain bike, by all means have two helmets! Again, my point in all of this is that this is a freedom issue. Competitive cyclists submit to helmet requirements because they want and choose to compete. Those of us who spend most of our cycling time not wearing spandex should retain our freedoms. The less the government interferes with our commute, the better.

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The Inevitability of the Fifty Shades of Grey Movie

(via IMDB)

As the Fifty Shades... movie is set tempt teenagers everywhere this Valentine's Day, just over a month away, I want to share a passage from a novel I read recently, Michel Houellebecq's Platform, in which the plot revolves around the idea of mainstream European sex tourism to Asia. Here, the main character explains the attractiveness of the scheme, given the state of society nowadays. 

"Offering your body as an object of pleasure, giving pleasure unselfishly: that's what Westerners don't know how to do anymore. They've completely lost the sense of giving. Try as they might, they no longer feel sex as something natural. Not only are they ashamed of their own bodies, which aren't up to porn standards, but for the same reasons they no longer feel truly attached to the body of another. It's impossible to make love without a certain abandon, without accepting, at least temporarily, the state of being in a state of dependency, of weakness. 
"Sentimental adulation and sexual obsession have the same roots, both proceed from some degree of selflessness; it's not a domain in which you can find fulfilment without losing yourself. We have become cold, rational, acutely conscious of our individual existence and our rights; more than anything, we want to avoid alienation and dependence; on top of that we're obsessed with health and hygiene: these are hardly ideal conditions in which to make love. The way things stand, the commercialization of sexuality in [Asia] has become inevitable. Obviously there's S&M too. It's a purely cerebral world with clear-cut rules and a prior contract....Organized S&M with its rules could only exist among a cultured, cerebral people for whom sex has lost all attraction. For everyone else, there's only one possible solution: pornography featuring professionals; and if you want to have real sex, third-world countries."
- Michel Houellebecq, Platform, p.244

Platform was published in 2001, and this year Fifty Shades... is coming to the big screen, meaning that Houellebecq is something of a doomsday prophet. I don't agree with his "only possible solution," obviously, but I think his diagnosis is close to the mark. Unrelated to Platform but still on topic, Pastor Doug Wilson wrote an article a couple years back, when Fifty Shades... was first published, and he summarized the problems of the book like this:

Now someone might want to intervene in these our enlightened times and say that [sado-masochistic relationships] are all a matter of personal choice. Of course, he might hasten to add, bondage and degradation and torture are bad if you are not dealing with volunteers. But if such a course is mutually chosen... well, who's to say and all that? 
The first concern is that if you create a world defined by the excitement of breaking taboos, then how is an insistence upon "mutual agreement" anything but the creation of the final taboo? And if there is no standard outside the mutually-expressed desire to play this game of destroy-the-woman, then there is no standard that will condemn somebody who decides to start playing this game for reals. It is dangerous to play rape in a world with real rape. In short, don't start what you can't finish. 
But the second thing is that people do not arrive at the moment of such an emotional/relational choice with a clean slate. There are many women who accept men into their lives who treat them like dirt (and sure, they technically choose it), but they got to this point because their entire outlook and view of themselves was shaped by fathers who treated them like dirt, or that neighbor boy, or that leering uncle, and they most certainly didn't choose that. So do we seriously want to maintain that kicking a woman when she is down is not a problem provided she has previously been so battered and discouraged that she has stopped trying to get up? Of course not. And the fact that an abuse-prepping catechism like this one clearly appeals to millions of women is grand news for predatory (straight-toothed) men everywhere.
Is this the movie that some teens are going to watch to learn how to kiss+ ? The fact that society will tolerate a (notoriously poorly-written) book trilogy and accompanying movie, and that the producers of said movie once stood before potential financial backers and said, "Yes, we are confident that this movie will make money," is a scary thought.

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Highlights from Derek Walcott's Odysseus

I just finished reading Derek Walcott's stage adaptation of Odysseus, that he wrote back in 1990. Here are some highlights.

Her [Circe] music's pounding with the odours of rutting. 
Perfumes won't dispel it. 
Her rooms are grunting pens. 
Still, give it to our enchantress, she knows one thing. 
That brothels aren't just sailors' dreams, but all men's. 
Not mine. 
Don't yield, sir, you have a wife and son. 
At the back of all men's minds is a rented room.
Look at these puddles lying like shield in the sun 
Reflecting clouds and phantoms. Our passing travail. 
Aye. Our shadows slide over them, and then we're gone. 
The earth is still swaying.

For one glimpse of her [Penelope] my heart might lose all reason. 
But why her, man? Is her patience now a legend? 
Because I once held such a woman. And our son. 
There is only one thing that I can compare her to:
She is like a green pine that never sways on its hill, 
Whole leaves repeat the swaying of burly water
Rooted in its cleft, not sea-grape or forked myrtle 
Is as steadfast. Twenty years after Troy's slaughter,
As a green pine will make a castle of herself 
This pine will feed no man's fire with crackling boughs
Or nestle his vows, as other branches, swallows, 
But on her height, in a meadow of cold flowers,
She has weathered a siege even longer than Troy's.
O when this racked body slid down astounding seas... 
When I'd kneel down like an olive, rooted in prayer... 
When the spray blinded me, till I lost faith in tears... 
When no sail startled the olive tree, year by year. 
The sea still shakes in my body, can you hear it? 
The sea is quiet and all you trials are done. 
Keep me embayed in your arms, your harboring heart. 
Take root my pine, my shade, my patience's pardon.

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Haha, Haikus

I carry around a notebook with me in which I write down haikus. Most of them are pretty rubbish, but practice does help make them better. I find that, most of the time, I end up in rather whimsical territory, which means that, given the restrained and refined history of the haiku, where poets aim to convey a rich sentiment or experience as elegantly and with as few words possible, my contributions often feel something like a Mario Cipollini skinsuit amidst a peloton of people playing by the rules.

Here are a few from my notebook that I thought I would share with you.

sent from my iPhone
hence may contain some words that
unattended for
A reference to autocorrect shenanigans, obviously.

I wonder if I
can write a poem about
my black-and-white socks
Yes, I can.

softer hands holding
me, hopelessly beautiful
but I never asked
Somebody, somewhere.

we moved away from
solitary apartments
and threadbare towels
Upward mobility!

fat tires revolve
crushed rock harmonizes with
my contented sigh
The joys of riding on crushed limestone trails.

man is appointed
to die once and face judgement
so it goes, he says
Kerouac was hard-hearted?

silvery blue tones
gracious curves on the fretboard
fingers flying up
Devin Townsend used D'Addario strings because they sound "more silver and blue and less.....purple."

hands on a glass door
soft face weeping in sunlight
love stands on the porch 
Somewhere between the paintings of Hopper and Pearlstein.

drip drip drip drip drip
jazz gig in a urinal
thunderous applause
Admittedly juvenile, this one is redeemed by being able to read the first line in whatever meter you want. Jazz, man.

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Michel Foucault or Max Ernst?

There have been quite a few times when, while reading a book, I have no idea what I'm actually reading. The prose just doesn't make sense. This usually happens in either books filled with philosophy or art criticism. And so, here I present to you passages of prose, and you have to tell me if the author is writing about Foucault or Ernst. Enjoy.

"The educational folly of grown-ups was no match for the mind of the boy."

Foucault or Ernst?

His work is "a long exploration of transgression, of going beyond social limits, always inseparably linked to knowledge and power."

Foucault or Ernst?

"[He] employs highly specific and identifiable techniques of manipulation and combination. Because his work is the result of conscious thought, and yet allows chance to operate, it possesses a whole variety of meanings."

Foucault or Ernst?

"[In covering the development of his work,] it would be inappropriate in a study of this nature to engage in detailed analyses of individual works."

Foucault or Ernst?

One major work "was not a conventional work of history, making sweeping generalisations without sufficient particular argument, and that [he] clearly 'thinks in allegories.'"

Foucault or Ernst?

"'Shouting, swearing, spewing,' he wrote later, 'gets you nowhere. There's no point either in trying to wrap yourself up in contemplation.'"

Foucault or Ernst?

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