The Great Vermouth Taste-Off: Championships

Semi-Finals: The Reds

top reds

Dolin v. Boissiere

The contest between Dolin, the best Top Shelf Red, and Boissiere, the best inexpensive Red, for championship of the Red conference was our tightest yet. We both changed our mind several times. They’re very similar in taste, perhaps the most similar overall, in a category that actually had a lot of interesting variety. Both of them are sweet but complex, good for sipping and for cocktails. Finally, gun to the head, we decided …

The Red championship goes to Dolin!

dolin

It was a very close thing, though, and I still wonder which one will really end up in our bar. The $4 price difference between the two could go either way. I could imagine us saying, ‘Well, it’s only $4 more for our favorite,’ or, ‘Why would we spend $4 more for a vermouth we had such a hard time deciding was better?’

I think the overall lesson we learned through the Great Vermouth Taste-Off was in vermouth drinking to stick to the middle path. Consistently, the mid-priced brands of Boissiere, Dolin, and Noilly Prat rated highly with us. We didn’t find cheaper white ones even palatable, and while there were interesting reds all along the price continuum, the mid-priced ones were still our favorites. The more expensive brands generally didn’t offer extra value for the money, and often weren’t our favorites even in a price-blind comparison. There is, of course, one exception to the rule: our white winner, and finalist for overall champion, Cocchi Americano.

The Utterly Silly Championship: Cocchi v. Dolin

There is no sensible reason to have a White v. Red championship round. It’s not like anyone is ever going to choose between dry vermouth and sweet vermouth in their bar, or in their drink. Both of these bottles are going to stay on our shelves, regardless of who wins. But, I’m a completist. Vermouth must be drunk, and a winner must be declared. So, here goes.

finals

And the winner is Cocchi Americano!

We immensely enjoyed sipping both of these great drinks, but in the end we just couldn’t say no to the delightfully balanced flavor and palate of Cocchi Americano.

As a final toast to all the contestants, let’s have the two finalist work together in our recipe of the day:

Recipe of the Day: The Champions’ Half-Sinner Half-Saint

  • 1.5 oz Dolin Sweet Vermouth
  • 1.5 oz Cocchi Americano
  • 1 oz Pernod

Mix the Dolin and the Cocchi in an ice-filled old-fashioned glass, and then carefully pour the Pernod on top so that it floats at the top of the drink. Sip the drink through a straw, so that it gradually shifts from Vermouth-heavy to Pernod-heavy over the course of the drinking experience.

halfsinner

How to Successfully Invite Too Many People Over

 

making margarita

Steph and I love to throw big parties. I don’t think I can clearly express to you just how true that is. Actually, maybe I can: we were at a wedding a couple of weeks ago, and Steph turned to me and said, ‘Remember how fun it was to plan our wedding. We should do that again,’ and instead of saying, ‘Are you crazy?’ I said, ‘I know, right? How do we manage that?’
I’m figuring that, seeing as we got married about a year and a half ago, it’s about 23.5 years before we can do something on the scale of a wedding. But we’re biding our time by finding whatever opportunities we can for smaller big parties.
For example, a few weeks ago we invited Steph’s classmates over for drinks–all 200 of them. A number of people asked us if we’re crazy, and they had a point. Our 950 sq. ft. apartment isn’t exactly ideal for 200-person parties. But we’ve done this a few times. We knew 200 people wouldn’t come. Considering the rainy weather, the distance from campus, and the lack of a nearby T stop, we figured we’d get something like 30. We underestimated. The Kennedy School MPA students are champion partiers; about 50 of them made it to a strange neighborhood on a rainy Wednesday.

At the party's height, we had about 40 people crammed in our urban-apartment-sized living room.

At the party’s height, we had about 40 people crammed in our urban-apartment-sized living room.

No worries. Our motto is the more the merrier. We’ve done this a few times, and we’ve learned how to successfully host (perhaps overly) large numbers of people, and to have fun doing it. Our key is to keep it simple, but with touches of elegance. Here are a few of our tricks.

Pitchers

pitchers

Good cocktails are a non-negotiable element to any party we throw, but we learned early on that it just doesn’t work to mix cocktails individually. We ended up spending the entire party behind the bar, and still had people waiting far too long before a drink was in their hands. The solution: mix a few featured drinks ahead of time in pitchers. That’s, of course, what has made the margarita a tried-and-true party cocktail. But we found that we could stretch the boundaries of pitcher-ready cocktails a bit to give our guests something a little unexpected. That could be by putting a little twist on the typical pitcher drinks, like swapping out the standard margarita for a Watermelon Mint Margarita, our all-time most popular party cocktail.

Taking it a little further, we found we found that two small tweaks allowed us to serve pitchers of cocktails that you’d normally never find in a pitcher:

1. Ditch the Solo cups

We keep a rather large amount of actual glasses, but even our extra supplies aren’t enough when the parties get this big. We have to resort to plastic. But we found out right away that we couldn’t use the standard solo cups. People just aren’t used to the idea of full potency cocktails in pitchers, and had a tendency to over-pour; pitchers full of high-quality cocktails disappeared too quickly, and the quality of conversation went downhill a little too quickly too, if you know what I mean. So, we replaced the solo cups with pricier, but classier and more appropriately sized disposable cocktail cups.

2. Add soda water

Our tastes run in the direction of cocktails that are served straight up, but that just wasn’t practical in pitcher volumes. So, we gravitate for our parties toward cocktails that call for a soda float, like the Negroni or the Southside. For this party, we even mixed a variant of a cocktail that doesn’t usually call for a soda float: a Reverse Black Manhattan. It seemed to come off well. We mix the other elements of the cocktail ahead of time, chill for a while, and then add the soda as the guests start to arrive; it keeps the cocktails fresh and a little bubbly. The cocktails end up lighter than if we were mixing them individually, but still taste like a genuine cocktail with some interest to them and some thought behind them.

Popcorn

popcorn

We learned this trick from the amazing Manhattan speakeasy Raines Law Room. It’s basically a drinks-only establishment, but they know that even at a place that’s all about the cocktails their guests might need a little sustenance with their drinks; so they bring a bowl of Parmesan-Herb popcorn to the table. It’s perfect. Popcorn is quick and easy to make and to eat. And it’s shockingly easy to make popcorn interesting by adding some fun flavors. Cinnamon-Spice has proven to be an especially popular variant. Just toss the popcorn with salt, butter, cinnamon sugar, and a little bit of hot sauce, and you have the perfect salty, sweet, and starchy companion for your cocktails.

Labels

label

This is a little touch that makes a big difference. We make custom labels for our food and drink. We’ve used miniature chalkboards, gift tags, postcards, and more. For this party, Steph used her new Silhouette cutting machine (like a printer but it uses cutters instead of ink) to create a sort of stencil effect for the tags. It’s a small way to create a design theme for the party. It’s practical: people like to know what they’re eating and drinking. And it expresses planning and forethought: we knew enough ahead of time what we were going to serve to make custom labels for it.

 

And there you have it. When we put these few things together with an overly large invitation list of fun people, we end up with a great evening.

Watermelon Mint Margarita

The key to this recipe is the frozen watermelon. Using watermelon instead of ice makes for a remarkably flavorful frozen beverage.

  • 4 cups watermelon, frozen in one-inch chunks.
  • 1/2 cup tequila
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup lime juice
  • 1 teaspoon lime zest
  • 2 teaspoons fresh mint

Simply blend it all in a blender and serve!

The Great Vermouth Taste-Off: Top Shelf Reds

 

Having proclaimed Cocchi Americano the champion on the dry side of our vermouth bracket, and having finally consumed or given away the contenders from the inexpensive sweet quarter, it’s now time for us to move on to top shelf sweet vermouths.

Let me introduce you to the contestants:

expensive reds

As I mentioned in the Top Shelf Whites post, Lillet is not technically a vermouth; but as a cousin to vermouth which serves much the same function in a cocktail, I thought it appropriate to allow it to compete. The small bottle is Carpano Antica, the oldest and priciest vermouth in our entire contest; the half-bottle, at $15.99, cost more than the full bottle of Dolin. Carpano Antica is quite famous and well-regarded; so I really wanted to try it. But I couldn’t really bring myself to shell out for the full bottle until I knew how it compared. Good thing too. Here’s how the four fared in our taste test:

red in order

The Winner: Dolin

I mentioned in the Top Shelf White post that money mattered with the whites. Less so with the reds. Our favorite, Dolin, was the cheapest among the Top Shelf reds; and the expensive old guy Carpano was our least favorite. That’s not to say that Carpano was by any means bad. In fact, we genuinely enjoyed every single sweet vermouth we tasted, cheap to expensive. We simply enjoyed Dolin most.

Here’s what we’d say about these four tasty beverages:

  • Dolin was sweet, spicy, complex, and well-balanced;
  • Lillet was the sweetest of the bunch. It’s a pleasant sweetness, but in the end we enjoyed the well-roundedness of the true vermouths more. Lillet seems nice to have around for specialty purposes (and we’ll probably do just that), but can’t really serve as a general alternative to vermouth. We liked sipping Lillet (though we liked sipping Dolin just as much), but think it has narrow utility in mixing;
  • Punt e Mes was the bitterest of them. I thought it was bitter in a good way, but Steph preferred the less bitter options;
  • Carpano Antica was the least complex of the set. It had strong vanilla notes, tasting rather similar to Cinzano. The big strike against it was its cost. At four times the price of Cinzano, it just didn’t seem worth it.

Recipe of the Day: White Negroni

Here’s the recipe that brought red Lillet into our bar.

  • 1 oz. gin;
  • 1 oz. Cocchi Americano;
  • 1 oz. dry vermouth;
  • Red Lillet wash.

Swish a sip or so of red Lillet around the inside of a martini glass. Technically, you’re supposed to dump out the remnants, but I let them gather at the bottom of the glass for just a little more red Lillet in the final product. Add gin, Cocchi, and dry vermouth to a shaker with ice and shake. Pour into the Lillet-washed glass. Enjoy!

10,000 Miles: August Report

Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at 1.55.59 PM

 

I was back to work this month. After piling up the miles during my three-month sabbatical (5380 of them between Easter and August 4th), I was wondering just how precipitous the drop would be once I was back in the office.

As it turns out, I was very pleasantly surprised. Sure, August’s 915 miles is a lot less than July’s 1700. But I think it was a pretty impressive accumulation for a fully employed person, and far more than the 600 I needed to average for the rest of the year to hit 10,000. It almost makes me think I should have been doing more than the sabbatical.

Besides the (less than) expected decrease in miles, here’s how going back to work has affected me:

  • My rides were shorter–my longest day was 69 miles, whereas hitting 100 in a day was a fairly common occurrence during the sabbatical months;
  • I rode more days–commuting made me get on the bike every day, rain or shine, except Tuesday the 19th. Rain, plus multiple errands to run, made me take the car to work that day;
  • I was slower–my average went down to 15.5 mph for the month. That’s due to my slower pace while commuting. On my rides for exercise, I actually went faster than during the sabbatical months, a benefit, perhaps, of more rest for the legs.

Through 67% of the year, I’m now 79% of the way to my goal. 2074 miles to go.

The Great Vermouth Taste-off: Top Shelf Whites and White Championship

Well, I’ve finally worked through the bottles of inexpensive white vermouth, one way or another (our favoring this summer of the Jump for Joy having helped out quite a bit, as well as using the Gallo as a cooking wine). So, it’s time to move on to the next bracket: expensive whites.

It should be noted that in talking about vermouth ‘expensive’ is a relative term. I didn’t spend over $20 on any of them. It is possible to buy  more expensive ‘vermouth’–a new breed of American producers is happy to charge you $40 or so per bottle–but I decided to exclude these high-priced new kids on the block. As the quotation marks probably indicate, these aren’t exactly vermouths by the classic standards. American standards for what counts as Vermouth are more lax then European ones, basically coming down to, ‘Does it smell and taste kind of vermouthy?’ While I don’t mind a bit of an experimental spirit, I think if you’re going to use a name that already exists, you should fit the qualifications of the name. I’d be more amenable to these American liqueurs if they simply called themselves ‘aromatic aperitifs‘ rather than confusing things by appropriating the label ‘vermouth.’ Also, I think you should have to prove your mettle a little before doubling or quadrupling the price point. If these American ‘vermouths’ still exist ten years from now, maybe I’ll add a bracket for them, at whatever price they’re selling at by then. In the meantime, I’ve stuck with the classic vermouths, produced in their native land, the borderland between France’s Savoy and Italy’s Piedmont.

Actually, that’s not entirely true, because while I’ll excluded the American pseudo-vermouths, I did allow for one French and one Italian aromatized wine that aren’t vermouths and don’t call themselves ‘vermouth.’ These are quinquinas. They are made by the same process as vermouth, and play the same role in cocktails, but the cinchona root, rather than wormwood, is their defining ingredient. The only way to fill out the bracket was to include these quinquina cousins.

Having gotten that out of the way, let me introduce you to our contestants:

20140819-080235-28955247.jpg

Dolin and Noilly Prat are the proper vermouths. The quinquinas are Cocchi Americano and Lillet Blanc (in the flask). I borrowed the flask worth of Lillet from my friend Dan because I’d earlier done a Cocchi v. Lillet taste test and landed on Cocchi; so I didn’t want to put out the cash for a whole new bottle of Lillet when I knew it would be just for this taste-off. I should also note that Noilly Prat is actually the same price, at $11, as the winner of the Inexpensive White bracket, Boissiere. I thought it was a little unfair to make Noilly Prat punch above its weight, while letting Boissiere contend against cheaper competition. But a) I couldn’t find Carpano Bianco, which is the other vermouth I really wanted to try, b) I need a fourth contestant for this bracket, and c) I really wanted to add Noilly Prat into the competition. So, we’re calling Noilly Prat expensive for our purposes.

The first thing that stuck out  is that price does matter with dry vermouth–and that $10 seems to be the magic number. Whereas Boissiere was really the only one in the inexpensive bracket which we truly liked, in this bracket all four were quite enjoyable, both straight and in a cocktail. The Cocchi and the Lillet were sweeter and had more body, whereas the two vermouths were lighter, crisper, and drier. But all four were well worth drinking.

Curious how Boissiere compared to all four of this bracket’s offering, and not just the round’s winner, I decided spur of the moment to move immediately on to the championship. Here are the five drinks in my order of preference:

20140819-105308-39188201.jpg

The Cocchi Americano took the prize because of its exceptional balance. It was sweet, and sour, and herbal in the right proportions, and it’s neither too light nor too heavy. Second place goes to last round’s winner, Boissiere; though it was a pretty tight race among all four of the non-Cocchi contestants, Boissiere gets a podium finish because of its high value for price. I plan on stocking both Cocchi and Boissiere in my bar, using Cocchi for a more luxurious flavor and for more vermouth-heavy recipes and keeping Boissiere on hand for workaday mixing purposes.

20140819-105309-39189905.jpg

If you’d like to celebrate Cocchi Americano’s victory, may I suggest a simple Cocchi on the rocks?

Cocchi on the Rocks

  • 4 oz. Cocchi Americano
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
  • lemon twist

Pour the Cocchi over ice in an old-fashioned glass. Add the bitters, garnish with the lemon, and enjoy!

20140819-105309-39189155.jpg

 

 

10,000 miles: July Report

july

And July is the big winner!

I beat May’s mileage record by 54 miles, beat June’s speed record–up from 15.8 to 16.6 mph–, and came oh-so-close to 1700 miles. I rode a lot of great miles this month. Some of the highlights:

  • Shortest Day: July 11th, at 11 miles (with 4 days of no riding at all);
  • Slowest Ride: July 20th, I did my .3 mi ride to breakfast at 8.8 mph;
  • Fastest Ride: also July 20th, when I rode the 75 miles after breakfast at 20.1 mph;
  • Longest Day: July 19th I rode 102.8 miles, also at 20mph. It was a good weekend.
  • Average miles per day: 54.5. Or 62.5, if you don’t count the days I didn’t ride.

I’m afraid July will be my high point during this 10,000 mile journey. Since I return to work in August, 1600 mile months will be a thing of the past. But I think I’ll be alright with this 10,000 mile goal, because while I just missed 1700 miles for the month, I did hit a big milestone:

Screen Shot 2014-08-02 at 10.35.52 AM

Seven thousand miles in seven months has a nice ring to it. Five months–and a mere 3000 miles–to go.

It’s a nice thought, Cambridge

bike lane

The City of Cambridge tries really hard to be bike-friendly. I mean really, really hard. It seems like they’re constantly asking cyclists for feedback and for ideas. And, you know what, they actually listen to what we say.

We said we would feel safer if we had more room to maneuver in the midst of busy traffic. Obligingly, Cambridge put in all sorts of bike lanes. That’s very nice of them. I mean that seriously. But it didn’t quite work out the way they imagined. Here’s what happened:

car in bike lane

And this:

other bus in bike lane

And this:

open door

  • Are all of the parking spots on your street taken? Well, that’s okay; there’s this 3-foot wide lane just to the left of those occupied parking spots. Just park there. Sure, there’s a bicycle symbol painted in it, but it’s hard to know what that means.
  • Is the car in front of you turning left? Just swerve into the bike lane to go around them. Whatever you do, don’t stop to wait for them to make their turn. The cyclists in the bike lane should know that would be unreasonable.
  • Are you a taxi driver looking for someplace to chat with your fellow cabbies while you wait for your  next fare? How about the bike lane?
  • Does pulling your bus all the way over into the bus stop take too long? Just edge over into the bike lane instead; you want to make sure you get out of the way of traffic, after all.
bus in bike lane

Every lane is a bike lane. And every bike lane is a place for a bus to stop.

It turns out that the addition of the bike lanes did indeed create valuable breathing room. But for drivers, not cyclists.

Well, that didn’t stop the good people of Cambridge. They went back to the drawing board, redesigning the bike lanes to give cyclists maximum protection from the incursion of cars. They took it about as far as they possibly could. They moved the bike lanes to the outside of parked cars, and even raised them above street level. At great cost in time and money, they put the bike lane completely out of reach of cars. Here’s the finished product:

walking in lane

That black patch, where the guy is walking, is the bike lane.

Yep, that new raised bike lane is a mighty fine place to walk.

To be fair, our friend in the black t-shirt isn’t most to blame for this. He’s walking in the bike lane because, seeing all of the extra space that all of a sudden appeared outside their door, his neighbors decided to turn the sidewalk into a rummage sale. The bike lane is, in fact, the easiest place for him to walk.

yard sale

Seeing this yard sale blocking the sidewalk spawned the idea for this post. I went back several days later to take a photo of the bike lane, regretting I’d missed the yard sale. No worries; it was still there!

The trash collectors, on the other hand, finally figured out how to avoid blocking the sidewalk with empty trash barrels. You guessed it: block the bike lane instead.

trash cans

 

Here I am, mocking the earnestness and efforts of the Cambridge Bicycle Committee, and they don’t really deserve it. They are, in fact, good people, who mean well, and are working very hard. I might not sound it, but I’m really appreciative. I’m just trying to say that it hasn’t quite worked out.

I wonder if this, in the end, is the essence of the problem: efforts at creating dedicated space for bicycles are pretty much doomed not to work out. I hear of cycling paradises like Amsterdam and Minneapolis where they seem to have somehow solved this problem. And having experienced for a few hours the glory of sharing the road only with other bicycles, I understand the impulse to aspire to such an ideal. In fact, I’m glad that the City of Cambridge and others are, indeed, trying to work toward that ideal. And, yet, I think that those of us dwell in merely mortal cycling lands have to be prepared for a foreseeable future of sharing space with other forms of transportation.

Cyclists are similar enough to cars and to pedestrians that we’re bound to end up sharing space with one or the other of them, or both. And we’re different enough from each of them that there’s bound to be friction. Cyclists travel on wheels like cars, but we’re about the size and weight of pedestrians. In terms of speed and maneuverability, we’re about halfway between the two. Because of the similarities, the surfaces we travel on are going to be attractive to either cars or pedestrians. And because of the differences, it has to take some flexibility and adjustment for us to co-exist well with either.

So, I’ve decided that, for my own sanity, I have to accommodate myself to the reality of sharing. I have some thoughts on what it would take for all of us to share the roads, sidewalks, and bike paths well; I’ll probably save most of them for a future post. For now, though, in conclusion, I’ll share with you two new directions of thought to which my shift of emphasis from resenting having to share to sharing well has  brought me:

  1. Can we shift the rules a little? If cyclists aren’t exactly like either cars or pedestrians, and are never going to be, and yet are going to share transportation systems with them both, wouldn’t it make sense to have traffic rules that are cycling-specific? Why treat bikes as if they’re just like cars or walkers? I think Idaho’s stop laws are an intriguing starting point for this;
  2. Good pavement is more valuable than anything else. Bad pavement is responsible for 64% of the time I end up unpleasantly tangled up with car traffic (The remainder: 9% something other than a bike is in a bike lane, of course; 12% a driver isn’t looking for me or doesn’t know what to do with me; 10% I do something stupid or unexpected; 5% a driver is just plain irrationally angry at my very existence)*. I promise you that I don’t like riding farther into the middle of the street than I have to. But I have to move to the left much more often than you’d think, with the bike lane and/or the right side of the road being more a collection of potholes and half-heartedly repaired trenches than an actual road surface. Give me a nice, smooth, paved surface, and, believe me, I won’t notice the absence of a bike lane–and I’ll stay out of your way. And, yes, I’m talking to you, East Arlington.
*Percentages are totally arbitrary, and subject to change based on my most recent ride, but nonetheless reliable for all practical purposes.

Drink of the House: Chartreuse

chartreuse

There’s a wonderful green liqueur called Chartreuse. It has an inimitable, complex herbal flavor. It somehow manages also to be both sweet and strong. And you can’t overlook the color. It’s such a marvelous color that we’ve named a color after it. Chartreuse is a genuine, multi-sensory pleasure to consume.

color code

With a minimal number of changes, varieties, and interruptions (things like the French Revolution, a landslide, and WWII caused small and brief disruptions), Chartreuse has been made according to a secret recipe by the same house of French monks since 1737. They actually started trying to make it in 1605, but didn’t feel like they’d really nailed the recipe for another 100 years. Four hundred years of practice makes perfect.

To this day, only two living monks are permitted to know the secret recipe at any given time. Since a total of two men oversee the entire global production of Chartreuse, it’s a rather rare and expensive bottle of liquor. There’s a VEP version which is quite expensive indeed: about $170 per bottle (I once tasted a sip of that VEP version at a cocktail lounge. It was sublime). Even the standard version is pricey enough, at about $60, to make it the most expensive bottle in my bar.

Because of its steep price, I tried for a while to avoid stocking it in my bar at all. I knew from my experience of Chartreuse that I enjoy strongly flavored herbal liqueurs, but for a while I tried to be satisfied with somewhat less exclusive herbals, like the Italian digestifs Galliano and Strega.

liquore-strega-vintage-ad galliano

These are quite pleasant liqueurs in and of themselves. But they’re not Chartreuse. Eventually, I broke down and bought a bottle. To be precise, I bought a bottle of Green Chartreuse. There’s also a yellow version, which is sweeter and somewhat lighter on the palate. I deal only in yellow. I think Strega and Galliano do a fine job of approximating Yellow Chartreuse.

I think Chartreuse is meant to be consumed straight or with a little ice, but to make the bottle last, I’ve gravitated toward using it in cocktails instead. Here are my top three.The first was a very pleasant surprise I ran across in the new Cambridge restaurant Puritan and Co. I was introduced to the next two by the eminent Boston cocktail lounge Drink.

Jump for Joy

This is a great drink for your friend who says that cocktails always taste too strong for them; using Vermouth as a base gives it a much lighter touch than a spirit-based cocktail. Don’t think of it as a drink for lightweights, though. It’s also simply a great drink, both smooth and complex at the same time. It particularly goes down well on a hot summer day; don’t tell anyone, but Steph and I have made a habit of bringing a thermos of it along with us on our trips to the beach.

  • 2 oz. dry Vermouth (I use Boissiere)
  • 1/2 oz. Green Chartreuse (though this is one where you can sub in Strega for a somewhat different, but still refreshing, flavor)
  • Club soda to taste

Pour Vermouth and Chartreuse over ice in a glass. Stir. Float club soda on top.

The Diamondback

This one is at the opposite end of the spectrum from Jump for Joy. It’s for your friend who really likes their cocktail to kick them.  All of the ingredients have higher than average alcohol contents.

  • 1.5 oz. Rittenhouse Rye
  • 3/4 oz. Laird’s Bonded Apple Brandy
  • 1/2 oz. Green Chartreuse

Stir with ice in a mixing glass and strain.

The Bijou

A Chartreuse variation on the Negroni. 

  • 1 oz. gin
  • 1 oz. sweet Vermouth
  • 1 oz. Green Chartreuse

Shake with ice in a mixing glass. Strain into a cocktail glass. Top with a cherry, but not one of those bright red ones you find in ice cream shops; use a genuine Luxardo cherry (or the far cheaper than Luxardo but far better than the bright red ones from Filthy Foods).

Enjoy!

Tour de France: the great individual team sport

The two or three of you who’ve stuck with me through this series on the Tour de France might have noticed that I have tended to talk about the competition in team terms, but the prizes in individual terms. Yep, that’s really how it works. Pro cycling is either the most individualistic of team sports, or the most team-oriented of individual sports; it’s kind of hard to tell which one. There is a prize for the team with the lowest combined time for the Tour, but that prize gets so little attention that I didn’t even bother mentioning it in my ‘How to Win’ post. All of the top prizes in the Tour go to individuals; but those individuals couldn’t possibly win without an entire retinue working its hardest to put them in a place to succeed.

Twenty-two nine-person teams start the Tour de France (when I talk about 200 riders, I’m rounding. There are 198 riders on the starting line the first day). I say ‘start’ because if a rider is forced to abandon the race due to injury or faces a time elimination, they aren’t replaced. The team simply has to do with less for the rest of the Tour. Sky, for example, is now down to seven riders.

astana

These teams are built on two different basic models:

  1. GC Teams–these teams are built around great all-around riders. The ultimate goal for any cycling team is, of course, to have one of their members win the GC. Going into the Tour, Sky, Tinkoff-Saxo, and Astana were the leading GC teams this year; with the injuries to Froome and Contador, only Astana remains as a top GC team. We’ll see if anyone rises up to fill the gap. But many teams go into the Tour knowing that the odds of ending it with a teammate in a yellow jersey are slim to none. They just don’t have the personnel for it. Some of those teams therefore form around a completely different strategy, #2 below. Other teams take what I might call a ‘GC lite’ approach.
    1. GC lite–the best all-around rider on these teams is still developing, or is on the downward slope of their career, or is simply good but not great. For them, a GC win is realistically out of reach, but they choose intermediate goals on the GC spectrum. They might aim for a podium finish (top 3), or a top 10 finish, or maybe to wear the yellow for just one stage. I’d say Tejay Van Garderen’s team, BMC, went into the Tour with a GC lite strategy; they overtly stated that they’re looking for a top 5 finish. They’re kind of a heavy GC lite, and with those Froome and Contador injuries they could be setting their sights higher now.
  2. Sprint teams–these teams don’t have an all-around rider who is ready to compete for yellow, but they do have someone who can go very, very, very fast over short distances. These teams aim for stage wins, green points, or both. Marcel Kittel’s Giant-Shimano team, Andrei Greipel’s Lotto-Belisol, and Peter Sagan’s Cannondale team are the big sprint teams this year. Omega Pharma-Quickstep would have been as well, except that their leader Mark Cavendish was injured on stage 1. There’s also something of a ‘Green lite’ strategy, in which a team might focus on grabbing a stage win or two.

Both of these types of teams has riders in three basic positions. It gets way more complicated than this, but I’m drawing the lines crudely.

The Top Man

This is the guy you think can actually take the prize, whether that’s the yellow jersey, the green jersey, or a stage win. You build your whole team and its strategy around this rider. In the final moment of the contest, it’s all up to him.

greipel

The Lead Out Men

It’s the job of the lead out men to safely deliver the top man into proper position to compete at the crucial moment. They do this in two ways:

  1. They protect–when things get sort of skittish in the peloton, the lead out men will actually surround the top man, to minimize the chance of accident or injury;
  2. They pull–pulling is allowing someone else to draft off of you, which–as I mentioned yesterday–keeps up their speed with a minimum expenditure of energy on their part. When it gets down to the business of the day, the lead out men will form a line in front of the top man, each taking their turn at totally blowing out their own legs to get their top man to the front or keep him there. Ideally, when the last lead out man uses his last gasp of energy, the top man is pretty close to the front with pretty fresh legs.

lead out

Team Sky is my favorite team because they are particularly good at developing and giving proper respect to stellar lead out men. Chris Froome was Wiggin’s lead out man. Richie Porte is Froome’s. And with Froome out, Geraint Thomas is rising into Porte’s place.

richie porte

Domestiques

Domestique is French for ‘servant,’ which pretty much captures the role of these guys on a team. They spend most of their time making deliveries: picking up water bottles for the rest of the team, shuttling rain jackets back and forth between the team car, sometimes passing messages along if there’s a problem with the radio. But it doesn’t stop at deliveries. Absolutely anything that would be helpful is within the scope of a domestique’s job. They will even hand over their bike to the top man or a key lead out man, if there’s a mechanical problem at a crucial moment without a mechanic nearby.

domestique

The lead out men and, even more so, the domestiques work very hard, often invisibly, knowing full well that they’re working to get the top prize for someone else. In exchange, they get the satisfaction of a job well done–oh, and the chance to make a living riding a bike. And occasionally, if not much looks like it’s happening among the top GC riders on a given day or there’s no sprint finish for your team to compete in, the lead out men and domestiques might get the day off from the normal duties. Those days, they have a little fun by going out in the break, or trying to win a sprint–or maybe even a stage win–themselves.

Tour de France: Anatomy of a Stage

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What we have above is a diagram of the placement of riders on any given stage of the Tour de France (except for the time trial, a completely different animal we will have to cover some other time). To be more precise, I’ve pictured a mountain stage. A flat stage will typically only have a break and a peloton; chases are rare, and no one really goes off the back unless they crash. On a mountain stage, we’ll definitely have a break, a peloton, and riders off the back; there will probably also be at least one chase.

Let’s look at each of these components of the stage in a bit more detail:

The Peloton

Peloton is French for ‘little ball.’ But don’t let ‘little’ fool you. The Peloton is the main body of riders; the vast majority of the Tour’s 200 riders spend most of their time in the peloton. They call it a ‘little’ ball because of how tightly packed together all of those riders are: dozens of riders all riding wheel to wheel at 30 miles an hour. Typically, the yellow jersey’s team will be at the front of the peloton, establishing the pace. Sometimes, another team will attempt to take over the front and change that pace. On a flat stage, toward the very end of the stage, the yellow jersey’s team will fade to the back of the peloton, making room for the sprinters’ teams to move up. We may have three or four teams lining up side-by-side, each trying to get their sprinters into position for their furious burst of speed in the last hundred meters.

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Kittel is in the lead in this sprint. Not so much when they’re climbing. See diagram above.

The Break

At some point in the first few miles of every stage, a handful of riders will take off in front of the peloton. This is a strategy that’s almost certainly doomed to failure, if you count success as winning the stage. Almost always, the break eventually gets caught by the peloton. That’s because of the wonder of drafting: if you ride directly behind another cyclist, it’s more aerodynamic, taking about 30% less energy to maintain your speed. If a bunch of cyclists ride in a straight line, the person up front makes it much easier on everyone behind them. A break only has four or five people among whom to share the harder work of being in front. The peloton theoretically has a hundred people to share the load. More realistically, the peloton ends up with about 15 people who take turns up front; that’s still three times as many people as the break. The peloton thus actually works less hard per person to go faster than the break; at some point over the 100 miles from the break to the finish, the peloton catches up, often without even having to work very hard.
Given the near inevitability of being caught, why do riders insist on breaking away in every single stage of every single bike race? There are actually a few reasons:

  • Almost never is not the same thing as never–every once in a while, a break produces a stage win. Maybe the members of the break are all so far behind in the overall standings that the peloton doesn’t even bother to catch up. Maybe infighting among the peloton slows down the peloton’s pace enough that the break can keep ahead. Maybe it’s a larger than average break who works together better than usual. The margins are slim, but sometimes just wide enough to work. We’ve actually had two successful breaks already this Tour; like I said it’s been a wild Tour.
  • Sprint and mountain points–the members of the break may fully expect to get caught, but they figure that they will scoop up as many sprint and mountain points as they can before that happens. Why not win a small prize or two and a little bit of glory while you can?
  • Attention–at the very least, if you’re in the break, you get your fifteen minutes–maybe even an hour or two–of fame. Your name is scrolling on the screen with the other members of the break, and every few minutes the announcers mention you, your team, and your country of origin. If you stayed safely in the peloton, you’d be invisible and anonymous. Even if you’re a professional cyclist, it’s kind of exciting to see yourself on TV.
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That blurry mass in the background is the peloton, licking at the heels of the break.

The Chase

Maybe you’re a green or polka dot jersey contender, and you get impatient as you watch the break take some of your points while the peloton takes its own sweet time catching up. Or maybe you sense that this is one of those days when the peloton will let the break take the stage, and you realize a little too late that you wish you’d gone with the break. In this case, you’d join or form a chase group, a small group of riders who tries to get across the gap between the peloton and the break. Frequently, the chase just forces action on the peloton’s part, getting quickly regathered by the peloton and, in fact, causing the break an earlier demise than would otherwise be the case. Almost as frequently, the chase simply fails to catch up to the break, admits defeat, and falls back into the peloton. Sometimes, the chase makes it across and joins the break; that could be one of those times when the break ends up with enough strength in numbers to hold off the peloton.

Off the Back

Toward the end of a mountain stage or on a particularly long or steep climb earlier in a stage, the pace of the peloton will all of a sudden become more aggressive, as the yellow jersey contenders use the difficulty of the climb to test their rivals’ strength and to try to gain some time on them. When that starts to happen, the sprinters essentially concede the stage, fall off the back end of the peloton, and ride in to the finish at their own pace. Others too, as their strength runs out, start to fall off the back. It’s when you lose touch with the peloton that you start to lose serious time, putting whatever yellow or white jersey aspirations you have in real jeopardy. Yesterday, this happened to Andrew Talansky. He went into the day as a white and yellow contender and ended the day almost fifteen minutes back–an insurmountable gap. Even the sprinters, who, like I said, aren’t particularly trying to keep time on a climbing stage, have to be careful about dropping off the back. If you don’t finish the stage in a certain percentage of the leader’s time, you are cut from the race–not just the stage, but the race; your Tour is over.