Monday, September 18, 2023

Thoughts on La Vuelta 2023

 A Cinderella story?

Stolen from HERE so maybe ASO won't get mad?

La Vuelta 2023 is in the record books though Zio guesses there's still some damp clothes soaked with cava today? BRAVO to the organizers for letting the spray of bubbly back into the ceremonies!

Back in 2021 our friends at BikeRaceInfo published Zio's Vuelta review. Click on the link to read it. In 2022 it was here.

For 2023 we had a post HERE after La Vuelta's rocky (or should it say soggy?) start but now it's time to review the whole thing.

Congratulations to Sepp Kuss! It's been a looong time since we've heard an anthem that starts with "Oh say can you see..." at the end of a big-time pro cycling race. Nobody can say he didn't deserve the win, especially as his only real challengers were teammates. Enjoy yourself Sepp! If your salary contract didn't include a big bonus for something like this, make 'em cough it up before you sign any new ones. You earned it! A real Cinderella story that looked for a few days like the ugly stepsisters were going to send you back into the kitchen, but instead you won.

But about those stepsisters - was it them or the management who flipped from "One for all, all for one" to what seemed like "every man for himself" once your Danish teammate recovered from his stomach issues? Lots of PR-speak kind of covered it all up, but on a team noted for team orders (ask WVA) the question is still out there.

Other questions remain unanswered as well: How does a team win all three Grand Tours in one year with three different riders? How does a team go 1-2-3 in the GC ((and a few stages) with the winners of the other two Grand Tours? How does a guy who raced in-service of those winners in both Giro and Tour still have what it takes to win the Vuelta?

And what is going-on in a team where a week prior to the Vuelta, one of their riders tested positive and was suspended?  A guy who raced the Giro along with Kuss and winner Roglic.  Meanwhile, during the Vuelta, another Jumbo-Visma rider (one who rode with Kuss and Vingegaard at the Tour) collapses behind the wheel of his car at a stoplight*

Zio doesn't think you need to wear a tinfoil hat to wonder what is going on. For now he thinks there's a scent of chicanery here. Will it become an odor like the one wafting around the last American winner of La Vuelta?
 Or worse, a stench like the one emanating to this day from BigTex or the last nice-guy, boy-next-door who seemed just-too-nice to cheat?

Sadly, all we can do is wait and see.

Another view here from David Stanley who is far less rah-rah than I expected.

* Update - a heart issue like Sonny Colbrelli so perhaps nothing to do with anything unseemly?

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Four wheeled fun

 F1 Grand Prix Monza 2023

WTF you ask? Zio Lorenzo's a two-wheeled guy, whether motorized or pedaled. But he used to like watching car racing, only bailing-out on F1 back when they made 'em race on those awful grooved "tractor" tires many years ago.

He watched a time or two on free-to-air TV here in Italy but the races seemed to be boring parades with final placings determined more by tire management and ticky-tack penalties than actual racing skills. He didn't bother with the "mock-u-series" Drive to Survive but did have some interest in seeing the iconic Monza circuit at some point. And why not combine it with an actual race? WSBK races there but Heather has zero interest in motor sports so who can he scare-up to go with him?

How 'bout some Sicilian friends? Like Sergio and son Lorenzo, the two guys in the back of this photo? They talk about F1 a lot when Zio visits with them but never have seen a race live, in-person. When he proposed the Monza idea they said "You'll never get tickets" but when general admission tix were available their bluff was called and plans were made.

We met at the tour operator's hotel on Friday afternoon and made plans for Saturday. Zio wanted to walk around to see the modern and historic track, especially in places the drivers were slowing or turning, same as he did back-in-the-day at Long Beach, CA in the early 1980's when it was Andretti and Lauda putting on the show.

THIS is what Zio came for (above) and after Saturday his dreams were fulfilled and he let Sunday be for his friends - wherever they chose as a venue to watch the race was OK with him.

Sunday was race day! With Imola cancelled because of flooding in the area, this was THE F1 GP in Italy for 2023 and it seemed everyone was there, including a bunch of Italian govt. bigshots.

The boys chose this venue for the day, a spot along the back straightaway with a big-screen visible (sort of, due to sun glare) across the track. While it was difficult to see any real racing action or follow what was going-on, the "being there" part was unforgettable. While someone watching TV at home is probably more comfortable and knows a lot more about how the race is unfolding, they don't get the sounds, the smells or any part of the atmosphere of events like these.

It that worth the travel, expense, the walking from the bus to the track (and back) the broiling in the sun, waiting-in-line for overpriced food and beverages (though of course being in Italy the food was pretty good...and the beer was cold!) while never really seeing all-that-much, unless you coughed up the stratospheric price for a reserved grandstand seat?

Hell yes! Now Zio can say he was there when Verstappen made history with 10 wins in-a-row. Does he have to go back next year? Hell no! As they say - "Been there! Done that!"

Zio ended his adventure with a classic risotto milanese and cotoletta for dinner on Sunday evening before flying back to Sicily on Monday morning. 

Mille grazie to Sergio and Lorenzo (and Mauro Mondonico - that's him in front of Sergio meeting us for drinks on Friday evening) for a great weekend!


Monday, August 28, 2023

Slip sliding away..

 Slippery When Wet
Been following the season's last grand tour?  Our friend at BikeRaceInfo was pretty excited: "This year, 2023, will go down as one of the finest seasons in cycling history. This year’s Vuelta will be equal to the task, that’s a stone cold lock, I promise. Keep the fino sherry and tapas at hand, put the cava on ice, this will be a superb GT."

Based on the first two stages, you might want to wait on icing-down that cava? WTF? This thing is already hinting at the farcical scenes from this year's Giro. Zio's already asked some of these questions but did he miss something?

What really is going on? Can modern bicycles no longer be ridden on wet roads? Are wet roads somehow wetter now? La Vuelta 2023 started with a stage that should never have happened as it did. That CPA guy should have seen the "twilight team time trial" noted on the stage list and sent someone down there to make damn sure the street lighting was adequate. But he seems a lot more about CYA than CPA, reacting angrily post-incident rather than doing anything when problems could have been avoided.

Rain doesn't care who is out there when it falls. Bike races not held on velodromes have traditionally been run rain-or-shine, despite what our friend Mr. Stanley says he'd like to see. Why/how has this become such a contentious issue? What has changed?

Are carbon bikes with stiff wheels unrideable on wet roads? They've been around awhile so how could that be the problem? Disc brakes? Perhaps, as they seem rather touchy and certainly more powerful than old-time rim brakes, so perhaps it's much easier to lock-up a wheel and hit the deck? What about the more recent "improvement" tubeless tires? Lower pressure in wider tires is hyped as a "game-changer" but does that mean the game has changed to where wet descents must be neutralized or avoided? Why doesn't a tire maker/marketer come up with a sticky rain tire ala MOTOGP?

And why the go-slows? Zio thought of Cancellara slowing the Tour when his teammates (the Schlecks) couldn't ride down the hill without crashing. Roglic hits-the-deck so J-V neutralizes the race? Fair play? But when the race leader crashes J-V doesn't seem to care. Looked really bad on TV and unlikely to impress anyone new to the sport.

Then there's the issue of where the finish-line is. Zio thinks a bad precedent was created with the "two kilometer" rule, which is now three kilometers? In the bad-old-daze the GC contenders could all just sit up at the end of a sprint stage and roll-in together while the fast-men barreled-in to the finish. But somehow this was codified and nowadays you see a sort of mini-race to get to the spot where if you crash later you don't lose any time.

The result has been the "finish-line" has become subject to whim as was demonstrated on Vuelta Stage 2. A real farce!

But don't get Zio wrong, there's plenty of blame to go around! A lot of it should rest at the feet (wheels?) of the riders as perhaps was the thought of the clown who threw tacks on the road yesterday? The riders certainly need to look out for themselves as they are traditionally expendable while teams, sponsors and race-organizers roll-on year after year. But instead of whining ( that now xing?) before/after on social media they should vote-in a strong leader or just have someone take over and speak for the riders as Bernard Hinault used to do in those bad-old-daze.

Organize your labor and go on strike! Put your money where your tweets are! That's how two stages in the same day and other things riders hated were eliminated. There are some women in Spain who say they're not gonna take it anymore and will not play until things are changed - do they have bigger cojones than you? 

Otherwise, as they say -

Buy that t-shirt HERE.

Someone asked about the title "Slip sliding away.." Zio used that to imply where the credibility of pro cycling is going if episodes like these continue...

Update: The hits just keep coming! Here's the latest episode of this farce.


Thursday, August 17, 2023

The Triumph of Marketing

 The Triumph of Marketing?

Perhaps it's a case of getting old? Is it just Zio Lorenzo who sees marketing prowess overcoming pretty much everything else when it comes to selling consumer products?

Is Apple stuff really superior to the competitors? I-this and I-that have cult followings with premium prices paid for stuff that's made in the same Asian factories as the competitors. VHS killed Betamax not because of superior technology, but because the VHS folks managed to get more stuff to watch on their technically inferior format than was available on Beta.

In the world of cycling, this is playing out all over, perhaps the best example is SRAM. Zio was reminded of this when a popular and respected online video maker said, "SRAM is evil" the other day. Another listed SRAM's mechanical "Double-Tap" mechanical shifting as one of his most hated products as a pro mechanic. Zio has had little experience with it, notably when a CycleItalia client showed up with it on his personal bicycle.

The client bragged about these components from an "American" company, seemingly oblivious to the fact the stuff is actually made in low-wage Asian factories. Zio clicked through the gears on the workstand and then rode with the client a time or two. The quality (or lack) of the shifting on the workstand combined with the clunky noises it made had him wondering how long this company would remain in business? In his opinion it was junk!

The same kind of junk he remembered from his early bike shop days. SRAM (a made-up name that some say should have been SCAM) began with cheap, plastic "Grip-shift" shifters. You can read their history here.

These cheap shifters came on low-priced MTB's in the late 1980's. Their plastic teeth sort of/kind of made index shifting work on these "department-store" quality bicycles, none of which were sold at the shop Zio worked in. The shop owner shared his low opinion of these parts, which was reinforced whenever we tried to work on them.

It became clear that bicycle company product-managers spec'd these parts for one reason - they were cheap. They could spec a Shimano rear derailleur and then slap "Shimano-equipped" stickers on the bike without being accused of fraud, even if that rear derailleur was the only Shimano part on the bike. But using Grip-shift instead of Shimano's much more expensive shift/brake levers these cheap plastic shifters could be combined with really cheap, low-quality brake (Chang-star anyone?) components and save the bike companies a ton of money! And since so few of these bikes were likely to be ridden much, the terrible quality of the parts would never be noticed. But some did get ridden only to fail and be rolled into our shop for repairs. It wasn't long before we not only didn't sell bikes like these, we also stopped working on them. "Trying to make chicken soup out of chicken s__t" wasn't worth it.

The part in the photo at the top of this post retails for barely $10 in 2023! How much can it cost to make? But if you sell millions of them to equip all the department-store MTB's in the world, you're talking some real profits and saving the bike makers a boatload of money! Profits flowed-in. SRAM soon set their sights on replacing those Shimano rear derailleurs too. Again the bike makers saved a ton of dough and SRAM made a ton of money,

Soon the buying started - why develop your own stuff if you can just buy other companies and slap your name on their stuff? Sachs components and Sedis chains were soon acquired and their products re-branded. Did quality improve? Most mechanics Zio knew said no. Same for Rockshox and later Zipp, in these cases quality went way down, perhaps due to having the stuff made in low-cost Asian factories?

SRAM also bought a brake company called AVID which many bike shop wrenches Zio knew described as needing an "O" after the "V". Soon SRAM was offering complete component groups. With all or most of it made in Asia it was perfect to slap onto all the bicycles made there, undercutting Shimano. Sales soared.

Quality however, didn't. Bike shop techs Zio would talk to hated this stuff! They said it took way too much fiddling around to set-up and wouldn't stay adjusted for long. Hydro brakes that worked OK after fiddling in the shop squeaked or rubbed if the customer took a wheel off or left the bike in a hot car for a few hours. Cheaply molded parts simply broke.

But when the parts failed SRAM replaced 'em with a no-questions-asked warranty, shipping-out replacement parts overnight! With the cost of these low-quality parts vs the retail price they could afford it! They could also afford to pay (bribe?) pro teams to use their components. With endorsements like this, it was clear marketing was driving the entire enterprise rather than engineering or manufacturing excellence.

This was crystal clear in the tech seminars Zio attended over the years. He'd love to have back the hours wasted in SRAM's conference rooms listening to sales flacks pretending to be engineers extolling the virtues of poorly-made, poorly engineered "designed-to-sell" components. The more he "learned" the less he thought of SRAM and their products.

Zio notes when SRAM cut back on sponsoring pro teams awhile ago the ones no longer getting paid switched to other suppliers even if they had to buy the parts out of their own budget. Recently they've ramped-up the spending again, becoming supplier to Jumbo-Visma. You might remember the scenes of Sepp Kuss swapping dead batteries while on his bike in the race or Primoz Roglic's chain falling off this season?

But marketing (aided by bribery) triumphs over all it seems. Campagnolo used to pay teams to use his products back-in-the-day, before they became the world-standard used by almost everyone. Shimano copied (and improved upon) them, but had to pay to get teams to use their stuff too until it replaced their Italian rival to become the current world-standard. But unlike SRAM these components were generally well-engineered and high-quality.

Zio bets as soon as SRAM stops writing the fat checks teams will return to Shimano but we could see another VHS killing Betamax if SRAM's marketing prowess reigns supreme. Will marketing triumph or not?

Monday, July 31, 2023

LeTour 2023

 Thoughts on LeTour 2023

Photo copied from here.

Zio waited awhile for this post. Watching highlights on Italian TV finally got him going on it.

Najlepsa hvala (many thanks) to Tadej Pogacar! (in white above) Without him how dull would this edition of Le Grand Boucle have been? A boring Danish cyborg (in yellow above) would have wiped-the-floor with everyone, especially as two contenders crashed out on the first day. At least UAE attacked and tried to make a race out of it while J-V mostly defended. We'll probably never know what caused Pogacar to blow-up on Stage 17 but that was the end of what was at least an interesting two-way battle. 

BRAVO to Giulio Ciccone (in polka dots above) first Italian king of the mountains at LeTour since Claudio Chiappucci in 1992.

Well done to Jasper Philipsen though while nobody really wanted to see another Tashkent Terror or Cannonball out there you still proved you were the fastest with or without your famous lead-out man.

Not so well done to Tour security. Francophones love to criticize the Giro d'Italia for what they claim is poor crowd control but when was the last time an attack by a contender was thwarted by crowds narrowing the road or riders knocked off by spectators like we saw this year at LeTour?

Not so well done either to the equipment suppliers, especially the neutral support team that couldn't get Nils Politt a bike he could ride!! How many chains did we see break or somehow malfunction? The marketing-mavens tell us modern 12-speed electronic drivetrains are accurate, efficient and foolproof, but....

Zio had his usual anger at the TV director who too often seemed to miss a move while showing us a way-too-long scenery shot. Zio wonders if the "picture breakup" critics of Italian RAI TV go on about (RAI's director used to default to a fixed camera view of the finish when this happened) happens to EMG just as often but the director switches over to scenery shots rather than a static image from the finish to hide it?

Congratulations Jonas Vingegaard on another TdF win. It's not your fault you don't have much panache. If it wasn't for cycling you'd be working in that fish market where no panache is required either.

Vive LeTour!

Friday, July 21, 2023

Haven't we heard/read this before?

 "Sherman, set the wayback machine to...."

Zio generally likes what David Stanley writes for our friends at BikeRaceInfo. But THIS is pushing it:

"Where does that leave us with Jonas Vingegaard? He keeps  passing the tests, and yes, we’ve all heard that before. For me, if he is using some gear, all the top riders have access to the same pharmacy. My advice?  Enjoy the racing, raise an eyebrow or two, and withhold judgement and  condemnation until we have any substantive evidence. Because doped or not, this  last week of the Tour should be incredible."

Readers old enough to remember the original "Mr. Peabody" cartoon show can set their wayback machine to 1999 and replace Jonas Vingegaard with....Lance Armstrong.

Have we learned nothing in more than two decades? Zio hates to think Mr. Stanley has not. The idea that any dope Vingegaard might be using is available to all is pathetic! Isn't that the same "But Mommy, the others did it too." argument BigTex made? Stanley's last word above might be the best description of the situation.

Saturday, July 15, 2023

More fun with two wheels

 Museo Agusta

As regular blog readers know Zio Lorenzo's a fan of most things on two wheels. Back-in-the-day he had a sponsor for his brief Superbike roadracing effort, a guy maybe as crazy about Italian motos as he was...but he also had more money. 

Zio helped him buy and transport an MV Agusta 750 America from northern California and got to ride it a time or two, most famously for a Cycle News cover story as shown above.

The Museo Agusta's not far from the Malpensa airport but Zio had never found the time to visit until recently. His flight back to Sicily (and Heather had already flown off to Greece) was in the afternoon so why not stop by?

Their website said they'd be open at 2 PM so off Zio went with a plan to have some lunch on the way or perhaps there was a cool osteria full of MV memorabilia nearby? No luck on that count, the so-called trattoria in the tiny village of Cascina Costa could only come up with a sandwich or salad. Oh well, he had time to kill and an appetite.

2 PM finally rolled around and the doors were opened. Maurizio (shown above) is a volunteer here. He took a liking to Zio right away, perhaps after seeing a photo of him aboard his old sponsor's MV? Or maybe the one of him at Laguna Seca's famous corkscrew on a superbike? He suggested I look around as much as I wanted and if I had any questions (in my still-terrible Italian) to ask away. He reminded me not to touch any of the motos and for sure not to sit on any!

I DID ask a question. "Would it be OK if I climbed up onto the display to get a better photo?" "Ma certo!" (but of course) was the reply as he came over, then insisted I not only touch, but sit on this one while he snapped the photo! Probably didn't hurt that I was the only visitor in the place?

The displays aren't super fancy compared to the Ducati museum, but someone cares about these motorcycles! You can feel the passion here and almost hear Agostini's 500-4 GP moto revving up.

After snapping my photo on the bike Maurizio says "Come with me" and takes me into a locked room. Inside (above) he shows me what he says is the last-ever MV racing machine!

Next to it is what he claims is the last MV street machine ever made, just back "home" from a collector in Japan. Looks a lot like the one Zio rode back-in-the-day. WOW!

There are a lot of panels like these honoring the riders, mechanics, engineers, etc.involved with the famous machines along with a few other things like...helicopters.

WTF? Agusta started making helicopters in the 1950's under license from the American Bell Helicopter company. The motos became not much more than a passion thing eventually as road-going moto sales were nothing compared to the money being made with the 'copters, especially when Agusta started making their own design. Their now-iconic A109 model really put them on the map when it came to success in the 'copter biz.

Those things sticking up behind the museum sign (top photo) are rotor blades from the various 'copter models made nearby.

Zio asked Maurizio to pose with this one that brought back memories of when he worked for his father part-time during high-school.. Dad's American Rotorcraft refinished the rotor blades on these Korean War era Bell 'copters used for spraying agricultural crops and Zio's job was to strip off the paint, fiberglass cover, etc. so the wooden structure inside the blade could be inspected for cracks or other damage. Maybe a topic for a future blog post?

Grazie mille Maurizio & Co!