I think it was 1979, hard to recall exactly, but we were riding the Tour de l’Avenir in France as the first ever American national team there. This particular Tour was (and to some degree still is) regarded as the “amateur” version of the big Tour in France, only cut out the first 10 days of flat stages, shorten the remaining ones to about 100 miles each, and just run it up and down the mountains in the Alps. Oh, they also used it to “test” new climbs in this race before adding them to the big Tour. This meant some mean gradients and rough roads from sadistic promoters.
We were a few months into the season in Europe so it wasn’t like we got thrown in to the mix with no legs. Long races in Italy and Switzerland had us ready for this race, one of the biggest and most watched events for those wanting a pro contract, and well-staffed with every Eastern European team one could have. Back then there was a semi-pro class of riders that all came from the Soviet Union and Iron Curtain countries. These guys were really good but they were not allowed to turn pro. Without those teams an amateur event was not considered world class. Most of the riders were more mature and experienced than western riders. Some of these countries kept the riders there with a combination of “security”—team personal who looked like Boris Badenoff from Rocky and Bullwinkle complete with ill-fitting suits—as well as not being allowed to race internationally until they had a wife and kid back home. They were also paid very well, likely a lot more than a neo-pro could expect to make.
Like many of the riders in Europe these guys were tough to crack and you really had to get respect from them before they would even speak with you. Once they saw you could dish it back at them you earned their respect, and you could see a clear split between the Soviet riders and riders who were not really happy winding up on the other side of that Iron Curtain. Sometimes you could even use their not so much love for the Soviet riders as a tactic in a race.
Now it’s important to understand that standard gearing for ones bike at this level was 42 by 53 in the front and at the MOST 13 – 21 in the rear. 7 speed freewheels. 13 x 19 was normal and the 21 was reserved for really big climbs. That is not only what was available, that was all a real rider needed. Anything else was for touring on a bike with saddlebags and no racer would be caught with anything easier than the 42 x 21. it just wasn’t needed. Feel free to go ride for a few weeks with this gearing in the Alps and report back on how your legs feel!
We were about a week into the race and near the border of Switzerland, and for some reason we had a guy helping out in our camp who had tips for us. He sold me my first pair of Lycra shorts from a new company called Assos. Wowsy wousers! I’ve never gone back to wool shorts after that but that’s another story. He had coach Mike Neel’s approval so we didn’t ask too many questions.
Anyway, he shows up one day and hands me a 26 tooth freewheel cog that looks like to me like it’s the size of a dinner plate. Freewheels back then could easily be disassembled to replace a worn cog or rebuild it with a different setup. I laugh. He laughs. “What the hell is that for?” says I. In his broken English and heavy accent “Buy this from me and use it tomorrow.” says he. “You will not be sorry.” So far he had not steered us wrong with any advice and he explained that tomorrow’s stage had never been raced and it’s much harder than the promoters were letting on. They want a spectacle he said and it was going to hurt. A 21 wouldn’t cut it for this climb. The cog was aluminum so it weighed next to nothing, but had a limited lifespan. Since I was likely never to use it again, that was not a problem.
“What could it hurt?” I thought to myself. “Heck, we’ve got one more cog these days than we did a few years ago, so there’s that.” Well, I gave the cogs (you needed a couple of intermediate cogs as well to make it all work right) to the skeptical mechanic who set the bike up, which was not simple but it was doable even if pushing the limits of the bike tech at the time. I test rode it—all OK.
At the next morning’s sign-in I got ready to go. At the start, I pulled up next to some Polish riders and in whatever mixed mongrel of languages that served us for conversation in the peloton, they point at my gearing and laugh heartily. One says, “Not feeling good today.” We all laugh and I agree with them. “King of Sports” by Peter Ward is the best book I’ve ever read on race tactics and psychology, and it was published in 1968. In it he is clear that you should never let on how you really feel, so I just agreed that I was not feeling well that day.
Later, on the insane part of stage, as the same riders were paperboy-ing up the climb and I twiddled past them I yelled out “Not feeling good today.” I think I used those cogs once or twice after that and they sit in the garage today in a bin of cogs next to my bikes sporting 32 tooth cogs in the rear.
For an extremely, very major media organization, the Cycling Independent has relatively low overhead. We try to keep our contributors in burritos and inner tubes so they can continue to pursue the two-wheeled truth on our behalf and yours. Please consider subscribing to TCI, so we can keep them, and this whole crazy thing, rolling. Thanks.