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Strava – Review

31 Oct

Strava LogoThe luxury of data in cycling—or any sport, really—was once the rarified domain of the rich or professionally supported. Sure, we commoners had cyclocomputers and heart-rate monitors, but they generally only delivered data to a postage stamp screen, and had to be reset between rides.

If you really felt like spending, you might get a blocky device with a usb cable and CD of poorly-written software (PC-only, of course) that turned your speed and HR into confusing looking graphs that you could compare against all your other confusing looking graphs from previous workouts, and not much else.

Thankfully, recent investor interest in social media, and the proliferation of GPS-enabled phones with reasonable amounts of processing power has resulted in a bloom of social fitness sites. The results aren’t universally good—my disdain for the unusable, boggy, UI carnage of MapMyHumanaRide is well documented—but generally speaking, the situation is a lot better than it was. And of all the options out there, I think Strava is the most thoughtfully crafted.

In the interests of full disclosure, I’ll note that back in 2010, Strava provided me a year of free membership and a Garmin 305 GPS unit to review their product. Lest you think I’ve been bought off, those of you who follow me on Twitter will note my repeated issues with the Edge 305 device, from broken buttons to fragile screens to DOA refurbs, and I currently pay full price for membership, and have been doing so since my trial offer expired.

As far as using the Strava site goes, your killer feature will depend on what you’re interested in as a rider. When I first began using it, the buzz was focused on a power-inferring algorithm, which made up watts for rides without power data, based on rider weight, speed, and road inclination. A cost-effective way of measuring power has long been a holy grail of the cycling world—remember the iBike?—but as intelligent readers probably knew going in, Strava isn’t going to take the place of a PowerTap or Quark anytime soon.

That said, while drafting, downhills, windspeed, and rolling resistance all play hell with Strava’s calculated wattage numbers, it does produce startlingly accurate results for any climb longer than a minute or so. Again, it’s not something you couldn’t do with your existing data, a well-crafted formula, and a calculator, but laid out alongside everything else, in a clean, smooth, web interface, you begin to think that this might be a feature worth paying for.

Strava comparison tool screenshot

Indeed, data analysis and presentation is really Strava’s strength—and nowhere is this more evident than in its comparative data segmentation feature. Clocking historical times for a popular climb or TT is nothing new, but being able to spotlight, second-by-second, the moment where the truly talented make the difference is pretty darn cool. And if analyzing your own crushing defeats isn’t your thing, there are (if you pay) age group, club, and weight class filters, so almost anyone can find a combination of criteria under which they are King of the Mountain.

This sort of “competition without a number” at first struck me as self-aggrandizing and self-indulgent. But as it turns out, it’s a pretty useful training tool. Sure, KOMs might as often be determined by wind direction as wattage, but knowing you’re in an understood race against an army of online competitors is a great way to motivate for the extended agony of simulated race effort, and being able to compare efforts against yourself is fantastic training feedback. Maybe it’s just because my idea of a training log has historically consisted of remembering the previous day’s workout, but I found the total climb and mileage stats almost invaluable.

Of course, it’s not all completely rosy. For some time the segment and ride search tools have been pretty iffy—tracking down segments from a previous year’s race, for example, can be tricky. A lot of this is really a cataloging and indexing problem, since people will refer to races in a variety of different ways (Green Mountain, GMSR Stage 2, Green Mountain Stage Race, etc), but timestamps/geolocation should be enough to link the listings. In a similar vein, every long climb seems to contain 3 or 4 segments, reflecting various start and finish points. I’d be great if these could be grouped as subsections of one primary listing.

Still, the site is under near-constant development, and their recently added “Segment Explore” addresses many of the old issues, laying out all the segments by climb category in a given region via map view. The consistent, steady evolution of the site is very encouraging for future development, though I might gripe a bit that a good deal of the recent work seems to have been aimed at running-specific features. I understand the business logic, but I miss the good old days of “Strava is for Cyclists”.

Strava Explore Screenshot

Finally, and despite pouring some time into creating an API, Strava doesn’t play particularly nicely with others. Their API seems to be focused on allowing other applications to make changes within Strava, without necessarily freeing up any of the data it uses for cool new tools or external analysis. After much user bellyaching, they finally introduced a GPX export feature, but it’s pretty rudimentary, lacking many of the data sets collected by the site, and without the ability to export segments or your performances across them.

So in the interests of interoperability and data liberation, I’ve built two web tools to get your data off Strava the way you want it. One, the GPX Exporter, is not new, but remains the only way to export data for segments and efforts alone, or to get a GPX containing heartrate, cadence, or temperature. The other, a Strava to TCX export tool, ports everything—yes, including power—into Garmin’s bloated, mangled, propriety TCX format.

I didn’t build these tools just for users. As a product, Strava needs export, and probably a route creation feature. After all, what good is a great Explore tool to find a new routes and climbs if users need to handwrite cue sheets to get themselves out there? The fear, I suppose, is user exodus, but at the end of the day the data is cheap, and usability—which Strava has in spades—is the best guarantee of user retention.

This is why I pay for Strava, even though I (and all users) get the site’s most useful features for free. Don’t get me wrong—the things you get for a paid membership are very cool, but what I really want is continued development of data analysis tools with the same eye toward cleanliness and ease of use that the site currently has. And the five-dollar-a-month user fee seems a pretty fair investment to make for pushing things in that direction.

Tour De Lance – Review

27 Jul

This is—to date—the fourth book I’ve read on Lance Armstrong, and as far as I can tell, the first written by an actual cycling fan. Dan Coyle seems to have gone into Lance Armstrong’s War without too deep an understanding of the sport, and after slogging through Every Second Counts, I’m fully convinced that Sally Jenkins regards the sport of cycling, and indeed the craft of writing, with utter contempt.

I begin my review with this note because Tour de Lance is most certainly written from the perspective of someone who knows the sport. The opening pages describe how inconceivable it is that Armstrong should be able to propel a bike at 38mph, with the technical intimacy that only repeated failure in attaining such speeds can provide. Another welcome angle is that Strickland’s involvement in cycling predates Armstrong’s. In a world where so many of us—“haters” and “fanboy$” alike—are only here because of Armstrong’s post-cancer media exposure, it’s refreshing to read something from someone with a longer-term perspective.

The book follows a reliable pattern of chapter alternation, first a stage of the 2009 Tour de France, then a period of the training and racing preceding it, with the intent of drawing parallels between Armstrong’s fight to regain top form, and the fights of the millions he inspires. It’s an effective technique, and (while I can only speak directly for one group) keeps a nice balance of content and storyline for both the audience reading the book because they like cycling, and the audience reading the book because they like Lance.

Despite the fact that I’m hardly the Texan’s biggest fan, I found it a pretty entertaining read. Sure, Strickland and I differ our interpretations of the events of the 2009 Tour—he sees an aging champion, satisfied enough with the effort of merely attempting a miracle; I see a hollow celebrity painfully and pointlessly trying to revive old glories.

But the narrative elements of Tour de Lance scarcely attempt to sway the reader to a favorable point-of-view; Armstrong, when popped off the pace at the Giro, mumbles into the radio about troubles with his shifting. When failing to win a stage against mere domestic American talent at the Tour of the Gila, it’s made clear Armstrong has gone all in—and come up short.

It’s no small challenge for a writer with a strongly-held opinion to present facts in a way that appears objective to those who disagree with him—and it’s all the more difficult on a topic as divisive as Armstrong. Still, Stickland rises to the task admirably, and hopefully a stroll through the pages of this book will prompt readers on either side of the issue to a thoughtful reconsideration their opinions.

As an aside, I’m not quite convinced of the totality of “unabashed fandom” that Strickland proclaims. Throughout the text are scattered what the careful observer will be hard-pressed not to consider hints about the ’99-’05 run. Unprovable “things I wished I’d never been told” about the inner workings of Bruyneel’s operation; mentioning an “unknowable past” while describing faith that at least Armstrong’s comeback was clean; and perhaps most surprisingly, in light of Armstrong’s frequently-referred-to-speech after the 2005 Tour, “I know there are no miracles at the Tour de France”.

If there’s a frustrating aspect to this book—and as any regular reader of this site can tell you, I’m hardly the one to be pointing this out—it’s the relatively lax attention to factual detail. Not sure if I received an advance copy not subject to full editorial rigor, but here’s a brief list of some not-quite-accurate points I found before I got tired of looking them up:

  • Page 14 – Fleche Wallonne erroneously included as a Monument in a summary of Eddy Merckx’s palmares.
  • Page 20 – Armstrong’s famous bluff against Ullrich on the Alpe d’Huez stage mentioned as taking place in 2002, a year in which Ullrich did not compete and Alpe was not raced.
  • Page 43 – “No one ever lucks into a Tour de France win”. Roger Walkowiak is widely regarded as having done so, as is Oscar Periero, to a lesser extent.
  • Page 44 – Armstrong domestiques described as not having opportunities for stage wins. In 2005, both Hincapie and Savoldelli took individual stages that didn’t directly benefit Armstrong (although their presence earlier on in those breakaways did).
  • Page 46 – Vuelta a Espana 2008 described as taking place in October. The Vuelta finished on 21 September of that year.
  • Page 57 – ‘Cross Vegas in 2008 described as Armstrong’s first cyclocross race. Armstrong won the Texas State Cyclocross Championships in 2002, as reported here, and in a Sports Illustrated feature on Armstrong.

While the above certainly don’t demand a rewrite, after the events of these past three months, I’d really like to see an updated version of Tour de Lance. In my mind, Armstrong’s story arc hinges so heavily on the results of this last Tour (and, longer term, on the Land Grenade) that, even though I finished reading it before the Tour began, I struggled to find an appropriate moment to publish this review. With the final word on Armstrong’s 2010 Tour changing on a near-daily basis, I just wasn’t comfortable presenting an assessment of this book until after the final lap in Paris.

Now that the Tour is over, and Armstrong has (as I see it) wasted the efforts of some teammates, failed to support others, and made an optimistic-to-the-point-of-folly effort to win an eight-up sprint to take home some positive from the race, Tour de Lance feels almost like a time capsule; a snapshot of unfounded optimism in the face of what were clearly overwhelming odds. Armstrong’s 3rd Place in ’09 feels like a near-miss at the end of this book, but after this year’s event, it might be the miraculous achievement of Armstrong’s career.

ReGen Recovery Drink – Review

13 Jul

reGen Recovery DrinkI suppose I should preface this by saying that I’m not particularly focused on diet as part of my training. Other than keeping an eye on total calories, I’m not a picky eater. I’ll eat some pasta the night before a longer race, drink a pint of skim milk after a hard workout, but for the most part, if it tastes good, I eat it.

That said, I ride with plenty of people who are far more serious (and in a lot of cases, faster) than I am. This group can be split roughly into two camps—those who swear chocolate milk is the greatest recovery drink of all time, and those who feel that a post-workout glass of cocoa might as well be a pack of cigarettes. ReGen muscle recovery beverage just might prove to be the bridge between them, providing the flavor and anti-oxidant effect of cocoa without the junk calories and limited nutrient value of most chocolate syrups.

Along with some other goodies (an 11oz sample of ReGen, a velcro-closure water bottle belt, and a 2GB flash drive, in the interests of full disclosure), ReGen sent me some data on studies assessing the drink’s effectiveness. While the conclusions support the product claims across the board, a lot of the science isn’t particularly compelling—all of it was funded at least in part by the Hershey’s corporation (which owns Apure, the maker of reGen), and relies heavily on objective reporting of muscle soreness in not-especially fit subjects (avg body fat 19.11% ± 4.97%) in exercise scenarios that may have tested caloric value as much as recovery aid.

Still, the research had some better points in the ReGen’s favor—one study took blood samples at .5, 1, 2 and 6 hours after exercise and found a statistically significant reduction in creatine kinase (a well-established indicator of muscle damage, including heart attacks) levels in test subjects who used cocoa-based recovery drinks, compared to subjects who drank water and regular sports drinks. But obviously, I wasn’t going to just take their word for it.

I tested the drink on a race weekend consisting of a 50 mile road race with some easy climbs on Saturday, followed by a pancake-flat criterium the day after. In the road race, I hung in with the group, made a few attacks but suffered some severe cramping on the last 10 mile lap and couldn’t contest the sprint. After some cool-down, I rolled back to my car to drink my ReGen and was pleasantly surprised to see the ingredient list contained relatively high amounts electrolytes.

I was impressed by the taste—sweet enough that it doesn’t have to be choked down, but not so sweet that you’d need a moment to recover between sips. The flavor is definitely chocolatey, and while it’s not quite velvety gourmet quality, it still tastes good. The drink is chuggable without meal-replacement effect, but still has the sort of substance you (or at least I) find myself craving after a longer race.

In Sunday’s crit, I’ll have to admit my legs did feel pretty good. My left calf was still sore and stiff from the cramps, but after a short warm-up and some embro, the legs were definitely there. I moved up in the pack at will, had no trouble closing gaps, spent a lap off the front, and sprinted well—by my standards, anyway—just missing a prime and not losing too many places in a group sprint to the line. I think it’d be an overstatement to attribute the performance entirely to ReGen, but at the same time, it clearly didn’t hurt.

In the future, I would really like to see a powdered version. There’s a variety of reasons for this: I don’t feel like paying Hershey to for water when it comes out of my tap essentially for free; it takes up a fair amount of space; it’s heavy; I can’t experiment with various concentrations or mix it with milk. A resealable container might also be useful for smaller-stomached riders—the 325ml container it currently ships in, once opened, can’t be reliably closed again.

The current TetraPak packaging does fit nicely in a jersey pocket, though, and has a fair amount of give to it—not so much that you’d have to worry about puncturing it, but enough that it won’t take five minutes of fiddling with your arm behind your back to slide a set of tire levers in next to it.

So, were I a pickier man in my choice of foods, I’d almost certainly make ReGen part of my training regimen. As it stands, I’ll probably pick up a four-pack or two for use in the tougher stage races, where there’s more of a premium on serious day-to-day recovery.

Kmeleon Compression Shorts & Tights – Review

24 Feb


Kmeleon is a new company that designs and manufactures compression athletic apparel in Montreal. They sent Cyclocosm a pair of their shorts and tights for testing and reveiw. Here’s how things shook out:

Style: 3. While not the most exciting look in the world, there’s something to be said for a plain pair of black shorts, especially ones without garish stitched seams and with a beautifully understated logo. Plus the compression material tends to give legs a nice shape.

Fit: 3. Even for bike shorts, they’re tight. But as I mentioned earlier, your less-toned areas tend to get shaped and stay put, rather then get mushed out and jiggle. A few beefs, though: the hemline of the short isn’t raised in the back, leading the unsightly lower back gap between short and jersey, and the knees of the tights aren’t articulated enough to comfortable accommodate the knee angle at the top of the pedal stroke.

Features: 4. I’ve always been skeptical about the benefits of compression garments, but there’s a clear and immediate difference between these and a standard pair of bike shorts. Kind of like a gentle pressure keeping everything lined up. It also really seems to reduce the jelly-legged sensation you tend to get at the end of a long, exhausting ride. Add to that the fact that these things wick better than any other short I’ve ever worn, and you’ve a pretty serious technical garment.

Comfort: 2. There is no chamois. Let me say that again: there is no chamois. That’s a huge issue. There is a soft, breathable, and flexible gusset between the legs, but it just doesn’t provide the cushion and friction reduction you need for plus rides. Maybe your backside is tougher than mine, maybe you stand up a lot, but for most, consensus is you’ve gotta have something down there.

Durability: 4. I haven’t put in the time I’d like to in these garments, but after a few months of commuting with the tights (and one rough tumble at the corner of Adams and Medford), there’s no fraying, scuffing, unravelling, or loss of elasticity. Plus their specially-treated fibers don’t pick up the stench most wicking garments gather after a few wears.

Final Thoughts: It’s really a shame about the chamois thing, because these garments perform fantastically, and the other glitches (non-articulated knees, low waistline in the back) are minor. But Kmeleon has assured me they’re developing a bike short with a fat 3mm of chamois to keep you cozy for long hours in the saddle. So as it stands, the shorts / tights are great for commuting, short mountain rides with lots of standing, or multi-sport use, but a definite miss for the high-milage guys.

Everki Pace Cycling Backpack – Review

7 Feb

The folks at Everki sent me their Pace backpack last fall. I’ve been abusing it solidly ever since. Does it still work?

Style: 2. The first thing you notice about this pack is its relative formlessness. Kinda just a big lump, with everything else tucked away inside. And, it’s uh, mostly black. With this kind of dull, non-reflective orange highlight. Not really my thing. But all the messengers seem to be into that.

Fit & Feel: 4. Man, if only this thing had a chest strap. It’s cycling designed, so it sits low on the back, allowing you to swing your head around without the back of your helmet smacking into it. It’s impressively light, too, with decent padding/airflow on the back. But jammed full, it’s just hard to shake the feeling that its about to slide off my shoulders. A chest strap (easy enough to DIY) would make it easy 5.

Features: 4. Lotta crap on this thing. Padded iPod pouch with a cool little portal for your earbuds. So if you feel like dying young in traffic, this could be the way. A ton of other pockets/pouches for keys, tubes, levers, jimmy hats, and all are quick access – especially the shoulder strap cell phone pocket. And a super-paded laptop slot that can fit a hydration pack in a pinch. Two things missing: reflectivity and a rainfly.

Capacity: 5. For its weight and size, very impressive. I can bike into work with a full set of clothes, street shoes, rain jacket, hat and gloves back there. Helmets and stiff-soled bike shoes are notorious space hogs, but it’ll eat a set of bike gear easy if you pack the soft stuff inside your lid, and stack the shoes carefully.

Durability: 5. I had my doubts with the weight, especially after a few threads splayed early, but they haven’t continued running. I’ve been rough with it, dragging it across pavement, yanking on straps, and jamming zippers, and still nothing worse to see than scuffs. Short of tying it to horses moving in opposite directions, I can’t imagine how to abuse it more.

Final Thoughts: Maybe its your style, maybe it isn’t. Regardless, it packs a lot of size and features into a light, compact, and tough case. The chest strap issue is minor, and probably localized to the more broad-chested. It’s a great pack for the day-tripper or cyclist-about-town, but really needs for-real water resistance and reflectivity to appeal to the hardcore commuter.

more info

Race Day DVD – Review

27 Apr

Ex-Postie Robbie Ventura and realRides deliver a crit-oriented intensity training DVD. 2004, Color, Approx 90min.

Originality: 5. I hate training videos. But calling this “just” a training video is a kind of like calling the Poggio “just” a hill. Its main training feature is an uncut, rider’s eye view recording of a race, complete with live commentary, heartrate, cadence and power statistics, plus some basic tips on racing and pack riding. Useful, unique and compelling stuff.

Watchability: 5. As soon as you get this DVD, throw it in the player and just sit down and watch the race sequence. If you don’t, you’ll never stay focused on your workout because you’ll be too drawn into the plot of the race. Once that’s out of the way, the DVD provides a great way to stay motivated for intensity work on that fiendish turbo trainer. It doesn’t hurt that Robbie “Mr Hollywood” Ventura has great screen presence (unlike some other training video personalities I could mention).

Variety: 3. Really, the lack of variety in the training material (only the “Warm-Up” and “Race” sections are training specific) was my only beef with this DVD. There’s plenty of different mini-features to play around with, and break up the monotony of trainer riding, but having only one actual race is kind of a let down. With 4.7 gigs of space on a DVD, and under 90 minutes of total footage in this video, it’s not like there’s no room to spare.

Style: 4. Training DVDs and style generally go together like Armstrong and Simeoni, but Race Day pulls it off pretty well. The music is entirely decent (reminds me of some of the tracks from Reasonable Doubt) and the camerawork finds a good middle ground between drearily slow and nauseatingly fast. Ventura knows how to talk to the camera, and little touches, like placing the “hero cam” just far enough the right that viewers can tell when Robbie is shifting, really keep it tight.

Bonus Features: 3. There are no bonus features in the traditional sense, but there’s certainly more on this DVD than just training footage. In addition to the teaser for the next realRides video (it apparently involves Floyd Landis wailing on Ventura in the hills), there’s an absolutely great course preview section, and a little cooldown mini-feature on just kind of enjoying the scene at a big bike race. Still, the lack of quantity hurts

Final Thoughts: If you like bike racing, this is a pretty freakin’ sweet video. You really have to experience training along to the race in this to appreciate how much better it is than riding the trainer, watching The Godfather, and pretending an attack goes every someone gets whacked. This DVD could be useful for a pretty wide range of riders, too: the more experienced will love trying to match Ventura’s accelerations (300% of 20k TT pace coming out of corners), while novice racers (especially that one guy who swears he’ll never race a crit) will gain a ton from Robbie’s knowledge and enthusiasm.

The Tour Baby! DVD – Review

14 Feb

Scott Coady’s behind the scenes look at the 2000 Tour de France. 2004, Color, Roughly 100min.

Originality: 3. This is a fairly unique film. It starts off as the messy, off-the-cuff sort of video any cycling nut would make at the Tour, but grows into something with style and direction as Scott gets more and more “behind the scenes”. Sure, there are a couple of moments where you’re reliving “The Cutters” or “The Lance Chronicles” but for the most part, it’s an entirely new diversion.

Watchability: 4. This was close to getting the full five points, but the first 15 minutes or so are a little tough to get into, with long takes and not enough meat. It’s exciting to see Scott’s first glimpse of a mass start peloton from the roof of a garage, but the distant shot the viewer gets after all that build-up is a bit weak. Still, once Scott finds himself with some media passes, it’s easy to get into.

Variety: 5. It’s just awesome. Pretty much anything you can name about the Tour de France is in the flick, in a way you’ve never seen it before. From betting with sourpuss German fans, to a spontaneous interview with Paul Sherwen at the mobile phone store, to getting a haircut with Jacky Durand, it’s tough to imagine a more comprehensive cross-section of the three-week circus that is the Tour de France.

Style: 4. The word “amateur” has negative connotations today, but the Latin geeks out there will tell you that it’s derived from the word “amare” meaning “to love”. It’s that kind of nervous, clueless, “I-can’t-believe-I’m-actually-here” excitement that really defines this piece. It’s occasionally grating, but it’s the little unscripted flubs, like drunkenly writing “ARMSTRO” on the road before running out of space, or realizing mid-interview that Salvatore Commesso has no clue how to speak English, that really set this DVD apart.

Bonus Features: 3. The commentary is insightful, and really lets the viewer know how the film got put together. There’s an interesting section of outtakes, as well as a few featurettes on later Tours de France and on visiting Europe in general. The filmmaker interview is somewhat self-important, and, in light of the commentary, redundant.

Final Thoughts: It’s a very rare view of the Tour, especially because it’s from 2000. Lance was still a caretaker Tour winner, terrorism was limited to the West Bank and Northern Ireland, and Cyclingnews, just recently sold to some Australians, had never before sent a reporter to the Tour. Thus, the security is light, the roadsides are not packed with clueless Texans, and the glimpses into the heart of the race still fresh to American eyes. The shots of the Lotto team car reveal no team radio system (only the general race radio that everyone gets), and the “gear porn” sequences flash nothing racier than a little Record 10. It’s a great, intimate look at the greatest show on wheels, and an even better portrait of what the Tour de France will never look like again.

Also, -1 point somewhere in there for not punctuating its title correctly. It should read “The Tour, Baby!”.

Overcoming – Review

25 Jan

A stylistic look at CSC’s 2004 season. Directed by Tomas Gislason. Color, 105 minutes. (My apologies, but I simply cannot properly express my thoughts on this film in my typical criteria-driven format. I’ve just got way too much to say for informational bursts.)

I knew I was in for disappointment when I couldn’t change the aspect ratio; the film has been crammed from its original letterbox format into the 4:3 used by most TV sets, and pro riders simply do not need to look any skinner. I forgot that soon enough, though, when it became apparent that Overcoming really lacked a solid editorial or organizational structure. In the first 15 minutes, the viewer is bounced roughly from the Paris-Nice podium presentation, to the TdF prologue, to some sort of pain montage, to Bjarne Riis looking at catalogues, to the title sequence, to Jacob Piil losing a Tour stage, to a visual recap of Riis’ career, to Ivan Basso learning to swim, to more talking with Bjarne, to CSC training camp, and finally to Carlos Sastre talking about how many kids he’s going to have.

Now, all this jumping around and pace-changing might still have come off as bold, aggressive filmmaking had everything not been chained down with constant voiceover from Riis, camera work that wavers somewhere between impatient and claustrophobic, and tacky-looking narrative phrases that pop-up onto the screen. The viewer is taken to a great number of different and interesting locations but is never allowed to sample them outside the strangulating, overt control of director Gislason. We always have to look at everything too closely, or from obstructed angles, and though this could have been an intentional stylistic choice, I found it really irritating. Certainly, this difference in visual presentation alone makes any parallel to A Sunday in Hell (like the one WCP makes here) extremely tenuous; you might as well be comparing it to Breaking Away.

Aggravating these faults is a real lack of arc or story development. I’m aware that Overcoming is a documentary, but the aegis of reality film does not absolve a filmmaking team from creating a product that involves the viewer in its struggle. The film opens by talking about nine men working together as a team, but it never makes clear what exactly they are working for. Victory? Personal fulfillment? Survival? It’s up to the viewer to decipher, and Gislason has left us precious little in the way of clues. I’ll be charitable and assume he meant to imply that the team is a goal unto itself (though even that sounds ridiculous, as few of the movie’s scenes or sub-stories involve more than two riders at a time).

In terms of characters, I felt like I came out of Overcoming knowing less about the riders of Team CSC. Only Carlos Sastre and Ivan Basso get any real cinematic attention outside the epilogue, and despite attempts to make Basso the protagonist, battling heroically against the myriad of enemies (weather, mountains, media, Lance Armstrong) the Tour de France can provide, his director Riis simply dominates the film. Gislason cannot seem to go three minutes without cutting back to the bald Dane as he contemplates some quandary or other with the pessimistic reserve of a stereotypical norseman. It’s a shame, too, because in a more limited, string-pulling role, like say, Vito Corleone in The Godfather or Dr. Xavier in X2, Riis would excel. But his detachment and unflappability make him a dull center indeed.

Though the film is trying constantly for visceral poignance, its overproduction (overlapping pain-faces fading in and out over American Beauty knock-off piano riffs, constant digital zooms, washouts, and slow-motion that speeds up at irregular intervals) hamstrings it at every turn. Only in the epilogue, as legendary Italian Classics rider Michele Bartoli contemplates his immanent retirement, does the movie establish a natural enough rhythm to achieve a brief moment of emotional significance. Add to this maelstrom the worst English translation subtitles since “All Your Base Are Belong To Us” (some examples: “the yellow t-shirt” in reference to the Maillot Jaune, “already before” as a response to a question, and the recurring flubs: “to” for “too”, “biddance” for “bidons”,”mike” for “mic” etc.) and you’ve got a film that is as exhausting to watch as it is uncompelling to sit through.

The real disappointment strikes, though, when you realize how good this picture could have been. Watching the bonus disk drives home the fact that, before some seriously questionable editorial decisions turned it into 105 minutes of celluloid mediocrity, there was some seriously astounding footage here. Presented simply, without the frustrating alternation between introspection and bombast that plagues the feature film, the bonus featurettes (particularly “Carlife” and “Alpe d’Huez”) absolutely glow. The viewer is taken aback when the irrepressibly upbeat Jens Voigt shows flashes of real anger and sadness after German fans heckle him, and when Riis and Bobby Julich each reflexively blame the other for a freak crash that breaks Julich’s wrist. It’s the sort of spontaneous and subtle reaction that only documentary film can deliver, and its appearance is a stark contrast to the largely conjured emotionality of the theatrical feature.

I’m hoping that on a hard drive in a Danish basement somewhere, someone still has a complete collection of the hundreds of hours of raw digital video footage that this film was made from. Because, despite is glaring and infuriating flaws, Overcoming is only a level-headed production team away from becoming a film with real impact. Maybe in twenty years, another group of filmmakers will come along and take the visual presentation levels down a couple notches, cut back on the Bjarne content, wrap the scenes around a more developed narrative structure, give the viewer something to invest their emotions in, and then let the sport tell its own story. It’s the formula that turned a dusty April weekend into an undeniable classic; Lord only knows what it could do to the to the ’04 Tour de France and CSC’s run-up to it.

Final Thoughts: All that having been said, it’s not a bad movie, just not a great one. And what makes it annoying to watch on the couch makes it easier to sweat through on the trainer. Still, if I were given the choice, I’d borrow it from a friend instead of buying it.

Modolo Morphos Shifters/Brake Levers – Review

10 Dec

Back in August, I was looking to throw together a passable ‘cross bike from an old Kona Lava Dome. I had a good, 8 speed XT drive train together, but wanted drop bars and the ease integrated shifters/brake levers. OEM Shimano was hard to come by, Sora was unaccebtably poor, and Campy wouldn’t be compatable. But then I stumbled across these weird Italian things. Alleged to be both Shimano and Campy compatable, 100g lighter and (most importantly, for me) $100 less than the competition, these oddballs seemed worth the chance.

Set-Up: 1. Good lord, this was difficult. And let’s keep in mind that I learned how to work on bikes by making parts work that were never intended to go together. Mechanically, these are pretty straight-forward, but very finicky to get right. Certainly the “English” section of the manual (which calls for a 5mm “Alien Wrench”, among other hideous mistranslations) is no help; best to find a patient, professional, and preferably Italian mechanic to get these guys going.

Weight: 4. 320g. Much lighter than Dura-Ace and Record. I feel guilty about using “weight” as one of my cateories, so I’ll add that they look nice, too, especially if you want every bike geek you meet to be like “crazy-lookin’ levers, man.” Up close, though, you can see they’re put together pretty cheaply.

Function: 3. Bottom line, they work. Once you dial the set up, they shift acceptably well. They come with pre-made settings for Shimano 7, 8 and 9 speed, Campy 8 and 9, and “index” for 5 and 6 speeds. I tried all the Shimano set-ups and the 6 speed index, and they worked well, just not perfectly. Like Deore-level mountain shifting, in that occasionally, you gotta feel around for the index click.

Durability: 4. So far, pretty dang good. After two months, function is as good as ever, and let’s not forget I used these on a ‘cross bike that I packed in a sand-pit as well on pavement. The only bad thing is the faux-carbon-weave paint job is scuffed up easily by each impact.

Ergonomics: 2. The brake pull is great. I love it, and might use these just as brakes someday. The body is also extremely comfortable to simply drape your hand over. And the “thumbs-only” shifting is marginally easier than anything else to use in the drops. But the good points end there. It’s technically impossible to shift from the hoods due to the shifter lever locations, and the action of the shifters does not match the natural movement of your thumb. This, combined with the hard plastic of the lever, can be quite painful if it’s cold.

Final Thoughts: It’s a niche part. If you’ve got a classic road bike and want the ease of integrated shifting without changing anything else, these will be perfect, provided you can get them set up right. They’re even really comfy for just cruising on. Beyond that, though, they’re a novelty. The smooth precision of an all-Campy or all-Shimano drivetrain far outweighs the handful of grams these guys save, not to mention that racing on them is unbelievably frustrating. Yes, I put in a half a ‘cross season on them, but I am cheap and weird. Trust me, you want your race-day shifting to be on reflex, and these shifters simply don’t let you do that.

Exte Ondo Onther Gloves – Review

25 Oct

No, that’s not a typo. I, cheapskate of all cheapskates, did in fact buy a high-end ($45 retail for a pair of short-finger gloves) cycling product. I just wanted to see if all this talk that spending big for a high-end product would really save you money in the long run. That, and I needed a new pair of gloves after my Cipo’ specials disintegrated in my most embarassing crash this summer.

Style: 5. Smooth and simple. At the end of the “Crash!” DVD, when Laurent Jalabert abandons the ’96 TdF (back when people thought he might win it), he buries his face in an ONCE pink pair of these. That’s classic. Name another style that’s been in the cycling world for a decade.

Construction: 2. Kind of a let-down. No hidden jabby parts, but tons of loose threads and bad stitches. I ripped a seam the first time I put them on. And the thumbs are way, way to small. Maybe Euros all have small thumbs (or I have fat ones?) It was weeks of struggling before I get them on and off smoothly.

Features: 4. Best snot rag section ever. Huge area, good shape. Plus it catches the goobers enough to pull them off your face, but not enough that they stay on and harden. The spandex backing stretches tight and keeps the hand cool, and the dual-mesh sections of the palm add toughness without water absorbancy. My only beef was with the extra padding, which, though tough, breathable and not at all bulky, didn’t extend to the base of the hand, where I like it most on the road (though it did extend to between the thumb and forefinger, so riding on the hoods on a bumpy road won’t hurt so much).

Durability: 3. It’s a tough call here, because these absolutely shrugged off a very, very fast crash a few days after I bought them. And none of those broken seams or stitchings have spread. In fact, most of the currently visible wear came in the like first week or two I had them. But still, after 2,000 miles of wear, they look as beat other gloves I’ve had. Longer term, I expect they’ll wear less annoyingly (the Cipo’ gloves had an awful habit of letting fingers combine as seams broke), and in the end, outlive my other pairs, but right now, gotta go with 3.

Cost: 1. $45 dollars for gloves? For freakin’ gloves? Without neoprene, or Thinsulate or Gore-Tex or anything? Without even having long fingers? $45 f-ing bucks? Take a hike, Jack. (Of course, if you can find them somewhere for, say $20, I’d give them a 4. For $10.98, a definite 5.)

Final Thoughts: I really like these gloves. The bad seams soured me on them early, but they’ve earned my respect throught being there when I need them (like on days when it’s really hot, or when I crash, or when my nose is really runny). And a simple Internet search should get you right around that obscene price tag. It’s just a bummer that I have to keep moving my hands because the base of the palm gets sore from no padding.

Where they really shine for me is XC mountain biking, where your hands get way sweatier, crashes are more common, and the mid-palm padding lines up better with where my hand rests on the bar. These gloves wick faster, resist falling apart better, and keep your hands not sore better than any light MTB glove around. The only psuedo-downside is now your gloves don’t look like they just came off the motocross cicruit, but with all the 14-year-olds using 8-inch travel machines to ride to school, then calling themselves “freeriders,” I see that as a major plus.