The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Biking

“Fight Club” for Mountain Bikers

Every Wednesday night throughout the summer, the parking lot at Valmont Bike Park in Boulder, Colorado, starts to fill up around 4:30 p.m. Over 150 mountain bikers—forget those reports about the death of mountain biking—will ditch the office early, don their spandex armor, and roll up to the start line on their battle-ready carbon and aluminum steeds. Over a handheld loudspeaker, a college kid holding a clipboard will count them down.

“30 seconds. 10 seconds. Three, two, one. GO.”

They’ll be off, skidding through tight, sandy corners, and cutting each other off around rock drops. They’ll hammer. They’ll taste blood. They’ll want to puke. And they’ll do it all for nothing but the pure joy of kicking someone’s ass on a weeknight.

Welcome to “Fight Club” for mountain bikers—a midweek short track cross-country race. In short track, which has also been called “dirt criterium,” riders race elbow-to-elbow on a 1- to 2-mile closed course for 20 to 30 minutes. The first to finish the predetermined number of laps, wins.

Whereas the race duration goes down, intensity and competition go way up. Compared to the strung-out nature of cross-country and endurance racing, where most amateurs won’t see each other after the first couple of miles, the close quarters and constant jostling for position in short track give average Joe’s the rare opportunity for a real race from start to finish.

Besides being one of mountain biking’s most exciting race formats, short track is also the most underground. Most races are low-key, unsanctioned, weeknight series run by local clubs and promoted through social media or word of mouth. “With short track you either have elite races like the US Cup or you have these local weeknight series,” says Bryan Alders, professional mountain biker and former race organizer for CU Cycling Short Track in Boulder. “You don’t really have anything in between.”

But short track’s grassroots nature is part of its appeal. Despite reports that USA Cycling sanctioned cross-country mountain bike racing and 24-hour racing is struggling for growth, short track series like Boulder and Portland Short Track continue to report record attendance year after year. Portland has averaged nearly 18 percent annual growth from 2010 to 2013, and had 426 racers show up for a race last year—on a Monday night.

In terms of value for money and time, short track is hard to beat. $10 to $20 buys your entry into the fray, and race venues are down the street rather than a 2-hour drive away. Warm-up to finish takes less than an hour. And you don’t have to dedicate your life to training.

“Even more so than cyclocross, short track is the perfect gateway into bike racing,” says Kris Schamp, Portland Short Track race organizer. “The short duration of the races and the relatively flat course make it totally doable and fun for all types of riders, including those with less endurance or fitness.” Schamp estimates that about a fifth of the riders who show up to his races each year are totally new to short track.

The comparison to cyclocross is apt, as the two disciplines share similar characteristics: short duration, spectator-friendly, and surrounded by a fun and inclusive atmosphere. In Portland, participants race in cut-off jeans and t-shirts at the annual “casual night”. At New Belgium Short Track in Fort Collins, Colorado, spectators drink $3 beers behind the brewery while they heckle riders. Boulder short track organizers think they’ve gotten an attendance boost in the past year from those looking for a summer alternative to cyclocross.

For serious racers, short track also provides a high-quality, midweek workout at and above lactate threshold. In Boulder, short track is informally called “Wednesday Night Worlds” for the number of world championship-caliber cyclists that have shown up to race for nothing more than bragging rights, six-packs, and donated prizes like a watermelon. Outside the jurisdiction of governing bodies, most short track series like Boulder simply run “A”, “B”, and “C” races instead of formal categories. This means anyone can test their mettle against the pros... if they’re up for the punishment.

As mountain bike racing evolves to attract new audiences, the continued popularity of grassroots short track racing serves as proof that big fun doesn’t have to be a big production, or a big time suck. When it all boils down, people don’t race bikes for upgrade points, prize money, or schwag. They’re just looking for a good old-fashioned scrap.

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The 7 Best Road Bikes of 2014

Back in January, while you were skiing (or praying for snow), our test team lugged 64 bicycles from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Tucson, Arizona, for a week of riding. It was our biggest year ever, with 73 riders logging 7,917 miles and 266,000 feet of elevation over six days. At the end of it, we deemed these seven road bikes (and the half-dozen mountain bikes you’ll see in the July issue) the finest and most exciting of 2014.

Scott Addict Team Issue ($7,900)

Editors’ choice
Scott phased out its superbike, the Addict (pictured above), two years ago to make room for the Foil, which has become one of the best aero models on the road. Now the Addict returns, and though the overhauled tubes echo the wind-cheating Foil, they are leaner and subtler to save weight. Our size 56 Team Issue weighed in at just 13.7 pounds, meaning that the Australian racing team Orica–Green Edge has to add weight to make this bike race-legal.

Naturally, the Addict ascended the steep pitches of Tucson’s Gates Pass like a helium balloon, but it also carved up the sinuous descent with the sureness of a bike many pounds heavier. With low-profile Syncros carbon rims, this is a climber’s bike—willowy and explosive when you so much as twitch a toe. And it’s finished with Shimano Dura-Ace, giving you featherlight shifting action and unsurpassed braking power. There is one problem, however. Unless you ride for Orica, you now must choose: Foil or Addict? 13.7 lbs.

Fezzari Foré CR5 Team ($4,800)

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Best For: Deal Hunters
The Foré was the most talked-about bike in our test, and not only because of its sophisticated, Belgian Classics–inspired color scheme. Much of the chatter was about Fezzari’s direct-to-consumer structure, which cuts out bike shops—as well as a lot of the cost. Opinions varied, but everyone agreed that the Foré looked and rode like a bike priced many thousands more. (Fezzari places standard retail at $8,800.)

It’s an outstanding all-rounder, blending racing quickness and all-day comfort in a package that excelled on every test course we tried. And with a Shimano Dura-Ace group set and sexy Reynolds Assault wheels, there’s no denying the value. Fezzari promises a 23-point custom fitting, delivers its bikes ready to ride, and teams with local shops for follow-up and service. 15.1 lbs.

Diamondback Century 4 Carbon ($2,300)

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Best For: Going Long
Everyone laughed when the erstwhile BMX brand made a concerted push into the road market in 2012, until they tried the excellent Podium race bike. The Century Carbon, Diamondback’s endurance offering, with a taller head tube and easier angles, proves that the Podium was no one-hit wonder. “This is a bike you can ride all day long,” said one tester.

It felt stable at 50 miles per hour on a long descent down Mount Lemmon. And unlike some budget carbon bikes, the Century feels chipper, not dead. With a mix of Shimano 105 and Ultegra parts and hard-wearing, if slightly uninspiring, Shimano RS-11 wheels, there isn’t much to complain about here, especially for the price. 18.4 lbs.

Felt AR2 ($6,200)

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Best For: Speed Freaks
If you are an old-school curmudgeon wary of aerodynamic frames, take note: the AR2 is 30 percent faster than a standard round-tube road bike. The massive oval-shaped tubes hissed through the wind like the wings of a stealth fighter, and fast-shifting Ultegra Di2 components are all routed internally, further dodging drag.

The 40-millimeter-deep 3T wheels buzzed with speed, though a few testers said they felt a bit harsh and were too easily bossed around by the wind. Not so the frame itself, which, compared with the sharpness of many aero bikes, was as plush as a massage chair. Our only gripe: the AR2 is pricey compared with other bikes in its category. 16.3 lbs.

Argonaut Spacebike 2.0 ($13,720)

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Best For: Connoisseurs
It costs as much as a Toyota Yaris. But Portland, Oregon, frame builder Ben Farver’s bikes, which are made to order—including carbon layup patterns optimized for weight and riding style—actually cost the same or less than many high-end stock bikes. Some testers thought the Spacebike verged on harsh, and it’s definitely a quick-steering, hard-riding steed. But testers whose weights matched the buyer profile said the ride approached perfection.

The Enve cockpit matched the understated class, and everyone agreed that the SES 3.4 wheels were the fastest and sharpest of any we tried. Shimano Dura-Ace Di2 is probably the best you can buy, especially with the climbing and sprinting shifters that allow gear changes from any hand position. “There’s only one question after riding it,” said one tester. “How can I afford it?” 14.2 lbs.

Volagi Viaje Ti ($6,295 as tested)

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Best For: The Adventurous
This might be the most versatile road bike you can buy. The frame pairs two longbow-style seat stays that bypass the seat tube and merge directly with the top tube. That may seem eccentric, but it allows for vertical flex in the saddle, smoothing out rough roads like a softtail mountain bike. The titanium build keeps things light and cuts down on chatter, as does the oversize carbon fork.

But our favorite features are the huge tire clearance, with cushy 28 millimeters spec’d and room for plenty more, and powerful TRP disc brakes. When asphalt turned to fire road, we kept slamming along. “It’s like a 4x4 road bike,” said one tester. 18.3 lbs.

Bianchi Infinito CV Ultegra Compact ($4,600)

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Best For: Technophiles
Bianchi infused its proven endurance frame with an aerospace technology called Countervail, a viscoelastic material injected into the carbon layup. It’s said to mellow vibration like the suspension of a Rolls-Royce, and indeed, the bike was unfazed by the rutted asphalt in Saguaro National Park West. “Brutal roads and no hands? No problem!” enthused one tester.

The Infinito’s taller head tube and longer wheelbase added to the sense of security, though most agreed that the slick paint job made the bike look sexier than its endurance moniker suggests. As always, Shimano Ultegra parts offer the best performance for the price. 16.9 lbs.

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Whistler's Backyard Mountain Biking

When people think of of mountain biking in British Columbia, the first thing that often comes to mind is the Whistler Bike Park. Famous as it is, the park tends to cast a shadow over the valley's wide network of singletrack, which bring you even closer to nature. On this particular day, Paul Stevens catches a glimpse of the Cheakamus River while riding just outside of town.

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Lance Armstrong's Most Trusted Teammate

Editors' Note: In George Hincapie's new memoir, The Loyal Lieutenant: Leading Out Lance and Pushing Through Pain on the Rocky Road to Paris, the popular rider delves into his past, examining his longtime relationship with Lance Armstrong, his own involvement with performance-enhancing drugs, and the pressure that led him to testify against his teammates.

During his career, Hincapie completed the Tour de France a record-tying 16 times, won the Gent-Wevelgem spring classic, took home the National Road Race Championship title on three occasions (one later stripped), and was a perennial contender at Paris-Roubaix. He retired from racing professionally at the end of 2012, and now plays an active role in Hincapie Sportswear and the professional Hincapie Sportswear Development Team.

In the following exclusive excerpt from his book, Hincapie is confronted by Travis Tygart, the CEO of USADA, who pressures him to testify.

From: The Loyal Lieutenant

It came down to a choice, or really an ultimatum. Either I agreed to talk to USADA or my racing days were over.

I spent the week in between the Tour of California and the National Championships on the phone with my lawyer as he negotiated how and when I'd testify. Throughout those days, I vacillated constantly as to what was the right decision.

I didn't have to talk to USADA, but because they governed my sport, if I wanted to keep riding professionally, they held all the power. We finally agreed that I would talk to them right after Nationals. I almost told them to fuck off, and decided to retire. I called my brother and told him that was my plan. I was tired of fighting. I just wanted it over. But then I realized if I did do that—if I thumbed my nose at them, issued a press release, admitted my doping past, and said my sorrys—nobody would have believed I cared about the sport or tried to change anything.

If I stayed in, as painful as it would be, I could still race and still be part of the change. I would send a message—I'm still here doing what I've always done, and that's help the best. 

Christian Vande Velde
I feel the biggest change was from the inside, and it happened long before 2012—which is a compliment to teams like Slipstream and Highroad. The hardest pill to swallow is that we'd done a majority of the work to clean up the sport before the investigation.

Roughly forty-eight hours after crossing the finish line in Greenville [at the National Championships], I was on a conference call with Travis Tygart and his USADA team. With that call, I felt I went against everything I had stood for my whole career. I had been the "loyal lieutenant," the one guy people could count on. It's what had defined me, and now I was being forced to turn on my teammates, friends, and associates.

After that phone call, I struggled. I knew that I was the last pawn they needed. Once they got me, it was all over. They'd promised a reduced suspension and a statement saying I was part of the change in the sport. Their validation counted for nothing. I'd already been part of the change way before they'd come along.

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