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:

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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:

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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.

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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!

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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:

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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.

 

Tour de France: How to win on the Tour

In a way, both of you are winners. In a more real way, Barney is the winner.‘–the Head of NASA to Homer Simpson in ‘Deep Space Homer.’

 

***SPOILER ALERT. This post contains information from Monday’s Tour stage***

There are several different ways to win the Tour, some of them more real than others. The most real of them all is the Yellow Jersey.

yellow jersey

The Yellow Jersey

Also known as the General Classification–or simply GC–competition, this is the big, classic, overall win. The GC winner is the rider who finishes all 21 stages with the lowest total time. From day 2 on, whoever leads in overall time at the beginning of the day wears–you guessed it–a special yellow jersey.

The Tour’s 21 stages take a rider over many different kinds of roads: flat ones, mountainous ones, straight ones, curvy ones, cobblestone-paved ones. The contenders for the yellow jersey are not necessarily the best at riding on any particular terrain; rather, they have to be very good at all of them.

The moment Chris Froome stepped into the team car and abandoned the race, all eyes turned to Alberto Contador.

contador

Contador displaying his trademark proof of obnoxiousness: the fingerbang.

Imagine an action movie franchise in which the villain, rather than the hero, stayed the same from movie to movie. Instead of James Bond facing Dr. No, then Goldfinger, then Jaws, what if Dr. Evil faced Austin Powers, then James Bond, then Jason Bourne? That’s what professional cycling has been like the past several years. Just about every year, there’s a new fan favorite in contention for the yellow jersey; and every year–except the year when he was banned for using banned substances, which still follows the theme–Contador has been that fan favorite’s main nemesis.  He’s cocky, and opportunistic, and above all very, very good. It looked like this was a year the villain would take the day.

Then, in a second major shock of the early stages of the Tour, yesterday, Contador stepped into his own team car. He crashed hard, and his frame snapped underneath him with a couple of mountains ahead of him, and with several minutes disadvantage. Despite a broken leg(!), he got on a new bike and tried to catch back up, but couldn’t do it.

Suddenly, we find ourselves with no clear hero or villain in the hunt for the yellow jersey.

The Other Jerseys

Because 21 days is an awful long time to wait for a winner, and to give riders with no hope at the yellow jersey a reason to keep on riding day after day, a few other competitions have been added to the Tour. Not only do these competitions make sure there is something of interest in every day’s stage, but they sometimes bring a wildcard element into the yellow jersey competition itself. GC contenders tend toward conservatism; to stay within shot of the yellow jersey, it’s more important to avoid catastrophe then to be especially bold. So, if there were just a yellow competition, it might get a little plodding. The other competitions keep that from happening by sometimes having ripple effects on the GC guys, forcing them to act more aggressively than they might otherwise choose.

The Green Jersey

Also known as the Points competition, the green jersey is awarded for sprinting–that is, for very fast speeds over very short distances. There are designated sprint lines on the course (always the stage’s finish line, and usually one other) at which riders gain points for winning or placing.  A GC contender might not care that much about crossing a stage’s finish line first, as long as they don’t lose much time to their closest rivals. The green jersey riders always make sure that there’s some excitement at the finish line. Since Mark Cavendish crashed and abandoned the race in stage 1, the big German (he weighs 190 lbs, while the typical GC contender weighs 140) Marcel Kittel has been the dominant pure sprinter; he’s won three sprints for stage wins. Interestingly, though, he’s a long way back in the green jersey standings. Peter Sagan is wearing the green jersey. Kittel and his main rival Andrei Greipel are boom or bust guys; they may very well win the sprint, but there’s also a very good chance that they won’t even be close enough to the front to try. Peter Sagan hasn’t won a sprint yet, but he always places; and that strategy has put him pretty far ahead in the green jersey competition.

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The Polka Dot Jersey

The Polka Dot Jersey is worn by the best mountain climber, known as King of the Mountains. Similarly to the green jersey, certain points are awarded for being among the first riders to get to the top of a mountain; the longer and steeper the climb, the more points are given. Just like the green jersey ensures excitement at the finish line, the mountain jersey makes the top of every mountain an event. We’ve just hit the first set of mountain stages in the tour; so the mountain jersey is very topsy-turvy right now. It’s changed hands every day.

The White Jersey

The White Jersey is a like a junior version of the yellow. It’s worn by the best rider under 25 years of age. It’s a way to give a little bit of exposure to lesser-known, up-and-coming riders. Often the wearer of the white jersey is near the top of the standings, though not usually in first place, for yellow as well. In fact last year, one of my favorite pro riders, Nairo Quintana, ended the Tour with the White, the Polka Dot, and second in Yellow. He’s not racing in this year’s tour, but let’s not talk about that.

In protest for him being held out, I show you Quintana's 2013 jersey

In protest of him being held out, I show you Quintana’s 2013 jersey

Stage Wins

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Maybe all four of the jerseys are out of reach for you; there’s still one more way to win at the Tour de France. If the conditions are right–terrain that suits you, the GC contenders all too worried about one another to pay you much notice, a good break–you could win a single day of the Tour. Crossing that finish line first on any given day wins you a bit of cash, and quite a considerable amount of glory. Teams will base their entire race strategy on getting a stage win for one of their guys. It may sound small compared to the transcendent glory of being the GC champion, but winning just one stage of the Tour–even better, somehow managing to wear yellow for just one day–brings with it enough bragging rights to last someone an entire professional cycling career.

So, let’s hear it for all of this year’s Tour de France winners!

Tour de France: an introduction

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Do you suddenly find yourself looking for an international sports spectacle to fill that major-sporting-event–of-which-Americans-are-usually-oblivious shaped hole? May I suggest the Tour de France?

You’d be joining in a week late, but there are still 2 weeks to go. There are plenty of exciting finishes, soap opera story lines, interesting characters, grueling mountain climbs, sudden crashes, and pretty shots of abbeys, cathedrals, fields of flowers to come.

What, exactly, is the Tour de France?

The Tour de France takes arguably the most physically demanding major sporting event in the world and places it in perhaps the most picturesque setting available.

Looking at it one way, the Tour de France is just that: a tour of France. You spend 3 weeks following bicyclists as they gradually take a tour of all of the best parts of an obviously lovely country. You take in medieval walled towns, snowcapped Alps, famous vineyards, and world heritage sites. You hear about what happened in this town or that field during Napoleon’s time, or the French Revolution, or one or another of the World Wars. And then you end your time in France with a procession down the Champs-Élysées. The Tour de France is a leisurely travelog.

But while you’re admiring a field of lavender or the red tile roofs of Provence, the 200 cyclists are pushing themselves to their utter physical limit, as they travel 2300 miles in 21 stages in 23 days. They’re climbing those Alps, bouncing along cobblestone streets, and zipping through those medieval villages at 35 mph. And then the next morning they get up and do it again.

Do you like beautiful travel locations? Extreme endurance sports? Both? If so, the Tour de France is for you.

Why is this year a good year to jump in?

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The past two years of the Tour have been dominated by Team Sky, a relentlessly disciplined team with a winning strategy that they’ve executed to perfection. Sky’s Chris Froome, in particular, had two flawless Tours. In 2012, he safely delivered his team leader Bradley Wiggins to a Tour win, while incidentally winning second himself–an unheard of feat. In 2013, with Wiggins injured, Froome took charge himself, not just of Sky but of the entire Tour; through a combination of skill, strength, endurance, smarts, and luck, Froome smoothly rode to a championship.

This year, Froome’s luck, at the very least, ran out. He crashed 3 times in 2 days. With one hand and the other wrist broken, try as he might, Froome just couldn’t control his bike anymore on the rain-slick cobblestones. He abandoned the race in the 5th stage.

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It was a singularly sad moment when he limped to the team car, closed the door, and ended his Tour.

And yet, it’s led to a very interesting Tour for everyone else.

While Sky’s dominance the past few years has been quite impressive, it’s also been a little dull. It’s like they’ve written a script, showed everyone the script, and then performed exactly what’s in the script. There have been absolutely no surprises, and everyone–not just on Sky, but in the entire Tour–has known their parts. Now, without Froome to anchor the team, Sky can no longer impose its will on the Tour. All of a sudden, no one knows their part. Challengers are wondering if they’re now the favorites. Also-rans wonder if perhaps they’re contenders. And now that it’s no longer Team Sky versus Everyone Else, people can’t really figure out who their friends and enemies are. Suddenly, the Tour is wildly open. It’s even possible that an American will win–something that hasn’t happened very often or very recently (since Lance Armstrong has been struck from the record books). Sure, they’re long shots, and it’s likely that they will fall just short at the crucial moment. But Tejay Van Garderen and Andrew Talansky both have puncher’s chances; that’s something that definitely wasn’t in the Sky script.

Don’t you want to see what happens?

Coming up: How to Win the Tour, Notable Riders, and Anatomy of a Stage.

What to Wear

During my sabbatical, this is my primary clothing outfit most days:

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With how little I have planned for my days besides riding my bike, and with how informal those other things tend to be, I could easily spend the rest of the time wearing this:

I think the TV on in the background is apropos.

I think the TV on in the background is apropos.

I know that spending three months wearing nothing but sweatpants and t-shirts sounds like a dream to many people. Sadly, I’m not one of those people. I’m sorry to complain–and I should be clear that in the main I’m enjoying my sabbatical very much–but my least favorite part of my time off is that I have no reason to ever get dressed.

First of all, not getting dressed makes me feel too much like I’m an outcast. I’m so far out of the normal rhythms of society that I’ve lost touch with the usual conventions, like what to wear in public. I’m a strange sort of hermit who, instead of a brown habit, wears blue and green lycra. I don’t want to be a hermit. Getting dressed makes me feel like I’m entering back into civilization.

Furthermore, I’m the kind of person who prefers dressing up to dressing down. I look for excuses to wear a sport coat, and I’m thrilled by the opportunity to wear a suit. I wore a tie to high school–a public school with no dress code. My current office dress code is also firmly on the casual end, but whenever I can somehow justify it I put on a tie or jacket. I consider the triumph of business casual a complete disaster. I still remember a quote from the ’80s detective show Remington Steele, which featured a foppish Pierce Brosnan: ‘Respect, Ms. Holt. Respect is all I ask for. Well, respect and a good Italian suit every now and again.’ I’ve often used these as words to live by. So, spending my time in cycling kit or sweatpants is pretty much unbearable.

At first, I addressed this problem by getting dressed even if there was no real occasion to do so. But even I felt a little silly wearing a tie or even a buttoned shirt just to sit around the house, knowing full well that that’s all I would do all day. It felt a little bit like playing dress-up; I was just pretending to be the kind of person who needs to get dressed.

In the end, I’ve learned that the key to my sartorial happiness is scheduling at least one thing in the day–apart from a bike ride–that requires me to get out of the house. Maybe it’s going to a coffee shop, or doing some shopping, or just picking up the dry cleaning. And perhaps I go beyond the bounds of necessity in terms of what I wear for the occasion. So, if I meet you for coffee looking something like this,

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you can guess that you’re my reason for getting dressed that day.

10,000 miles: June Report

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June was another great month for riding. I didn’t get quite as many miles in as May (about 50 short). But the weather was fantastic, the riding was great, and my tan is very dark.

Here are some of my facts, figures, and thoughts on the month:

  • Total miles for the month–1568.82;
  • Average speed of the month–15.8mph, a slight uptick from last month’s 15.7;
  • Fastest ride of the year–18.8mph, on the very last day of the month. A beautiful ride on Cape Cod;
  • Slowest ride of the month–9.7mph, on a very short commute;
  • Milestone of the month–on the 21st, the first day of summer and the longest day of the year, I went over 5000 miles. More than halfway there, with a handful of days to spare before the mid-point of the year;
  • Most miles in a day this month–A little more than 200 kilometers. That’s 124.78 in miles;
  • Least miles in a day–3.56. There were also 4 days I didn’t ride at all;
  • Feet of climbing this month–27,111;
  • Ideal miles per week–400. I discovered that if I go more than 400 miles in a week, I start to get tired legs, and it feels too much like work.  Right up to that 400 mile mark, though, it’s a ton of fun. There were a couple of weeks when I didn’t pace myself well; I had 300 miles by Wednesday, and had to take it easy the second half of the week.

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