Cipollini, 52, dies from helmet-related illness

November 13, 2019 § 7 Comments

The cycling world was stunned to learn that superstar, doper, fashion criminal, tax dodge, race quitter, and flamboyant wife-beater Mario Cipollini, 52, died from an acute bicycle helmet-related illness yesterday in his hometown of Lucca, Italy.

We caught up with Super Mario after the interment to talk about his early demise.

Cycling in the South Bay: Dead at 52? Incredible. What happened?

Mario Cipollini: It is a rather uninteresting story. Can we talk about my 42 Giro wins? Binda only had 41.

CitSB: Sure. But first let’s talk about your death. How’d it happen?

MC: The doctors say it was helmet-related.

CitSB: How so?

MC: Before I turned pro I never raced with a helmet, and of course as a professional most of my career I raced without one until it became mandatory.

CitSB: I don’t get it.

MC: It’s cumulative. Sudden Helmetless-Induced Trauma hits you when you least expect it.

CitSB: Shit.

MC: Exactly. You never know when SHIT is going to hit the fan. In my case, I continued to not wear my helmet after I retired despite the advice of all the group ride participants and gran fondo riders. Not to mention hobby bicyclists who would pass me on the street and shout, “Where’s your helmet?”

CitSB: What did the doctors say?

MC: They said that SHIT is dangerous and that I could die without my helmet at any moment.

CitSB: Can you explain how SHIT works?

MC: The doctors don’t understand the mechanism exactly. They say it has to do with how helmets protect your brain from excessive wind flow outside of your skull. Once the helmet is removed for long periods of time, the molecules in the skin surrounding your skull degrade due to the wind, and then the skull itself degrades, imperceptibly, until finally the wind blows away your brain cells until there is nothing left but dust. And a little bit of cocaine residue, if that was your thing.

CitSB. Shit.

MC: For years the doctors thought that you could protect against SHIT, even if you didn’t have a helmet, with a large mane of rich, thick, luxurious, flowing hair.

CitSB: Which you have.

MC: Had.

CitSB: Right.

MC: But apparently over time even long, beautiful locks cannot protect against SHIT.

CitSB: That’s terrifying.

MC: So you can imagine how frightening it is for the average MAMIL, who doesn’t have much hair to begin with.

CitSB: Comb-overs?

MC: Those are the deadliest. The doctors say that a comb-over, or worse, a little round patch in back like St. Francisco Xavier give a false sense of security. Such people must wear helmets all the time or they will be in deep SHIT.

CitSB: Any regrets?

MC: None, except for that time I rode for Rock Racing. What a humiliating end to a magnificent career.

CitSB: Yes, that was rather shameful.

MC: But SHIT happens.

CitSB: Indeed.


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Mario Cipollini, Stage IV, Sudden Helmetless-Induced Trauma

Tales of the big ring

October 23, 2019 § 2 Comments

I got an email from some dude named Ramy Khalaf.

“Hey,” it went, “I found you on the Internet and I’m making a video about rides in SoCal can I come to your office and make a video?”

“Sure,” I said, knowing I’d never hear from him again.

A couple of weeks later Ramy showed up with a world of legit cameras and equipment. Thankfully, I’d bathed that morning. You can’t always count on that.

Ramy has a YouTube channel, Bar & Pedal, where he combines amazing video skills and a love of cycling into some fantastic stories.

I would tell you about the video, but then I’d be telling the tale twice.

Click on the link. It’s a goodie!


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The Greatest

October 21, 2019 Comments Off on The Greatest

Those who fail to remember their history are doomed to be bike racers.

Because bike racers, at least in the U.S., have zero knowledge of what went before them, to say nothing of the large public at large.

Did you know, for example, that the U.S.A.’s first world champion was an African-American bike racer named Marshall Taylor? Of course you did!

What you may not know is that Taylor’s bike, complete with original sew-up tires, was recently purchased by Hrach Gevrikyan. Hrach, in addition to running one of the finest bike stores in Southern California for decades, has also been a lifelong bicycle collector, so when the chance came to acquire Taylor’s “Pierce” bicycle, Hrach snapped it up and put it in his museum, Vintage Velo.

That’s right. Hrach has a museum, and on November 16 you can join the MVMNT Ride and pedal up to Pasadena to see the bike in person. I know I’ll be there.

The MVMNT Rides started two years ago when Ken Vinson got the idea that he was slow. This idea was confirmed every Tuesday/Thursday on the NPR. So Ken got to thinking, “If I’m slow, I bet a bunch of other people are, too!” Truer words were never thought.

As Ken looked around, he noticed that, fast or slow, cyclists had one thing in common: They didn’t talk much beyond saying, “How’s it going?” “Good, man, you?”

He also noticed that cyclists tend to do the same old rides over and over and over. The opportunities for experiencing new relationships and new communities were few.

As a result Ken created the MVMNT Rides. In addition to being slow, the rides take people all over L.A. at a leisurely pace and introduce them to parts of town they might otherwise not ride in at all, and the rides have been a huge success. It’s amazing how much people talk and laugh when they aren’t puking.

The next MVMNT Ride, on November 16, will be to see the Major Taylor racing bike acquired by Hrach and now installed in his museum. You can even learn your history beforehand by visiting the Major Taylor Association.

“The Pierce 28,” which is the name of the bike, was raced by Taylor in 1897, approximately five years before the invention of Strava. The Pierce 28, with its wooden rims, was designed, built, and given to Taylor by Burns Pierce, a close friend and competitor who was the son of George Pierce, a car manufacturer.

The ride departs in front of Sika’s in Leimert Park—retail.html and follows a route to Sycamore Grove Park, where more riders can join the MVMNT. From there the ride goes through South Pasadena to Trader Joe’s, picks up more riders, and then proceeds to Velo Pasadena. For riders who are wondering how slow this ride is going to be, the answer is “you could probably jog it.”

From Leimert Park the entire ride is 42 miles, and should be completed in 72 days or less.

Please visit the MVMNT Ride page on Facebag and indicate that you’re going so that Hrach doesn’t suddenly have to accommodate 10,000 riders, which, because he’s one of the kindest people earth, he probably would.

See you there!


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The Pierce 28

Suspendered in time

October 3, 2019 § 1 Comment

I still remember my first pair of cycling tights. I bought them at Freewheeling for $32, which was incredible because they were so expensive, incredible because they were made of some woolly-fuzzy material, and incredible because it was like I was back in Third Grade.

In Third Grade we had a Christmas program. Young folks won’t know or believe it, but that was when the entire school celebrated Jesus and sang Christmas songs and prayed to Santa, the dog of presents. We had Jewish students, non-Christian Chinese students, Indian students, and we lorded it over them, literally. Our dog was better than their dog because, presents.

No one cared about their sensibilities, either. No holy Jesus Present Day in your religion? Sucks to be you. The Jewish kids, especially my girlfriend Joy Silverstein, always tried to talk shit about Santa and Christmas. “We have eight Christmases, it’s called Hanukkah. We get a present every single day,” she’d say.

“That’s only eight presents,” I’d sneer. “Santajesus lets us have as many as we can get. Plus ours are all in one big pile.”

“Jesus was actually Jewish,” she’d retort.

“Why’d he leave and become a Christian, then, if it was so great?”

That always put an end to things until we got our math tests back and she’d be able to lord that over me, along with reading, spelling, and lunch.

In our Christmas program that year, I was an elf, one of Santajesus’s helpers. My mom had to make me an elf outfit out of green felt. Young folks will not believe it but parents were given homework like, “Make your kid an outfit. Here’s the pattern.” The parents, that is, mom, would then have to buy the fabric and sew it. Didn’t matter if you were a fucking M.D., which mom was. You still better be able to sew an elf suit if you was a lady in Texas.

Mom was a better doc than a seamstress, because the little felt onesie was a tad on the short side. But the weirdest thing about putting on girl’s clothes for a performance in front of the whole school and their parents were the green panty hose I had to wear to match the onesie. I still remember pulling them on and how they form fit over my skinny legs. It felt pretty good.

Anyway, on the night of the big program, all of us elves had to make a big circular huddle, lean in, and hubbub about the upcoming sleigh trip Santajesus was about to take. My back was to the crowd. I bent over, and the entire crowd roared with laughter.

“Man,” I thought, “us elves are killin’ it. We are funny AF.” The laughter got even more intense as I chuckled to myself. “Man, us elves are stealing the show. Santajesus ain’t got shit on us.”

The huddle ended but the laughter didn’t, and it wasn’t until afterwards that about 200 kids took the opportunity to come up to me after the program and tell me that I’d shown my ass to the whole crowd in my see-through pantyhose.

So buying those first cycling tights at Freewheeling brought back cross-dressing, exhibitionist memories of an ambivalent sort. I bought the tights anyway because Austin used to get cold in January, before we humans melted winter.

And the thing about those tights is that they wouldn’t stay up. You’d pedal a bit and pretty soon they’d be sagging in the back and bagging in the front. One day Fields, whose tights were Lycra and always perfectly snugged, saw me with my fuzzy droopy tights. “What’s up with the sag?” he asked. This was decades before people intentionally wore their pants around their ankles, something that never caught on in cycling.

“I dunno.”

“Aren’t you wearing suspenders?”


Fields rolled his steely blue eyes, sat up in his saddle, and hoisted his jersey to reveal a pair of world-champion-stripes suspenders with a Campagnolo motif clipped to his tights. I ran out and bought a pair, and immediately realized that you could now tell who was in the club and who wasn’t. The freddies were saggies, the roadies were suspendered; you knew it from the way their tights fit and from the faint outline of the straps under their winter clothing.

On my last trip to Austria I was walking all the time and stress dieting and my pants eventually began falling off. My belt was max cinched and even so, every few steps I’d have to hitch my jeans up by the back belt loop. It didn’t bother me much until I got to Innsbruck and started hiking in the Alps. The sweat quickly soaked my jeans, weighing them down and forcing me to walk with one hand on my pants.

After I got back down the mountain I stopped into a ski shop and bought some suspenders. Now I wear them almost every day, which is pretty proper for an old man. When the weather gets cold, I’ll miss not clipping those suspenders to my tights and pulling the straps over my shoulders and having one of those subtle markers of “roadie,” discernible only to those who know.

We have better equipment now, but like every improvement, with rainbow-stripe suspenders we had to give something up along the way.


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Old bikes

September 6, 2019 Comments Off on Old bikes

I’m not an old bike knower, and certainly not a collector, but I do notice old stuff when it pops up. Vienna has lots of old bikes roaming round, often latched to a tree or post while their masters study or work indoors.

I saw this one parked on MaHu, filthy; I spied the shifters first and then the derailleur. All original, including the Personal frame. I guess if it ain’t broke after 60 years of hard riding, don’t fix it.

Over by one of the universities I saw this gem. I love the model, “Tour Sieger” which means “Tour Victor.”

Which tour, though?

It was made in Vienna, bumping up the coolness factor considerably.

Just around the corner was this DeRosa. You see them seldom though they were once ubiquitous. Eddy Merckx made his first frames under the DeRosa mark. Can’t beat the frame pump and Campy head.

On the way back to Schwedenplatz I saw this Pinarello, horribly ugly and beautiful, dated to the 90’s by the neon. I love the mix and match, Campy cranks and front derailleur, random brakes, GP4 sew-ups, toe clips. Whatever works, man.

Parked next to it was a 90’s Moser, equally ugly, maybe they were dating? I love the garish colors and the bold padlock with chain.

This R. Beck from Marseilles I’ve never heard of, but love the colorful Shimano 600 rear derailleur. If I’ve never heard of it, it’s probably legendary.

For some reason Bottecchia is common in Vienna. I saw a guy on a pristine one and chased him for a bit but couldn’t get him despite heavy pedestrian traffic and his slow speed. But I got this one. The old Concor, original for sure. I was a Turbo man, myself …

This one caught my eye thanks to the chromed lugs. Such a pretty touch on an ordinary old thing.

Battaglin was another legendary mark. I think most of the brands have been sold and are on mass produced Chinese bikes now. I love the cut-outs and the “aero” chromed fork. Wolf bolted to the downtube shifter mounts extra, no doubt. Totally digging the Cinelli stem!

This may be Czech, or Slovak judging from the diacritical marks on the lettering. Crazy pretty frame when in-tube routing was all the rage because, aero.

Ok. Done!


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Payback bread

May 21, 2019 § 17 Comments

When I was 18, I had just bought my Nishiki International and was pedaling over to the business school on the UT campus to lock it up. The business school had the best railings, and even though I was a philosophy major I swallowed my disgust and kryptonited my love to the secure steel bars of finance rather than trust it to the honesty of philosophers.

I stood up in time to see Robert Doty unlocking his bike, a maroon Fuji.

“Hi, Robert,” I said.

“Hey, Seth.”

We eyed each others’ bikes like junkies eyeing the respective tracks on their forearms. “You’re one, too,” we thought.

Bob was fifteen months older but two years ahead of me in school. We’d gone to Jane Long Junior High School but didn’t really know each other; I knew his name because every week on the Monday announcements over the PA, Mr. Thompson would praise the football team for losing valiantly again and then in a hurried aside would add, “Jane Long’s Debate Team of Robert Doty and Thomas Chatoney won first place again in the xxx debate tournament.”

Mr. Thompson never learned how to pronounce Tom’s name, which rhymed with “flattony,” preferring instead the more redneck version that rhymed with “baloney.”

In high school I got to know Bob as the senior star of our nationally ranked debate squad, but I was still a lowly sophomore debater. Two years’ difference in high school is a lot.

Standing in front of the business school that day, standard social hierarchy crumbled as it often does when bikes are concerned. “You ride?” Bob asked. If there was gonna be a hierarchy, it was gonna be leg-based.

“Yes, but I’m new at it.” The last part was superfluous; my Nishiki glittered, still never having even been ridden in the rain.

“Let’s go for a ride sometime,” Bob said, and we did what people used to do, that is, took out pens and wrote down each other’s phone numbers and then a few days later made an actual telephone call on a thing wired into the wall.

Bob became my first riding partner, and he beat me down mercilessly. He was a distance runner as well, and terribly fit, whereas I was merely terrible. Our most epic route went out FM 2222 up Feedlot Hill, a mile-long grade of about six percent that you had to climb on the way out to Lake Travis. We could scarcely imagine a more imposing mountain to ascend on a bike. Each time Bob would drop me there, hard.

One day I made up my mind to hang no matter what. I hung on for as long as I could until he lowered the hammer about halfway up and kicked me out the back. I was blown physically, but emotionally, too. I started crying and cursing as he vanished up the road. Shortly before I crested the top, where Bob was waiting, I stopped trembling and swore that one day I’d beat him.

I think back on that moment a lot. Who breaks down in tears on a bike at getting shelled?

The following year I roomed with Bob and his older brother, Harold the Bad, in the rundown, roach-filled Villa Orleans on 38th Street. Harold was a redneck, duck-hunting Ph.D. student, and he thought the whole cycling thing was silly. Why couldn’t we just go out and kill shit like normal people? I was a pretty solid pain in the ass roommate, but Bob had never had a younger brother and he cut me a lot of slack that, hardass that he was, he’d have never tolerated in someone else.

One of those places where he cut me nothing but slack was the kitchen. Bob was the house cook and he baked whole wheat bread a couple of times a week. I’d never had fresh bread before and when it came out of the oven I had to be restrained from eating all of it at a single sitting. “It’s not just for you,” Bob would remind me, half pissed at my gluttony but also half pleased at seeing someone relish his bread so completely. Through all these decades I’ve felt guilty at having eaten all that bread and never so much as lifted a finger to help out, cf. The Little Red Hen and the Grain of Wheat.

Yesterday Bob was in town for a conference and he had brought his bike. He was staying right around the corner at Terranea, so we met up there. I handed him a paper bag. “Might want to go put it in your room. It’s not going to do well on a long bike ride.”

“What is it?” he asked, taking the bag. “Ummm,” he said, feeling the outside, “still warm.”

He opened the sack and tore off a piece of the bread. “Man,” he said, “this is good!” Bob would know.

He went off to his room to stow the goods.

It was a very sunny day.


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History lesson

April 28, 2019 § 9 Comments

I was standing on a crowded shop floor, cyclists milling as cyclists mill, awkwardly, not sure where to put legs that aren’t positioned on pedals, talking about things that cyclists talk about, falling off bicycle incidents, today’s ride, friendly and familiar but still Cyclist Awkward.

There was a knot of people standing around the burly man in the back and he was holding court; it was his day, he was the king, and surrounding him were the princes of the national amateur cycling scene. In a few minutes he was going to talk.

When Nelson Vails began to speak, everyone shut up and listened. But that doesn’t last long with Nelson because pretty soon he had us laughing, then clapping, then looking on in amazement as he trotted us through a highlight video of his extraordinary life.

It’s a story that anyone who knows anything at all about U.S. cycling has heard repeatedly, but this time it was with the commentary that only Nelson himself can provide. He may be old, he may be long retired, he may not ride more than 20 miles at a pop, but when he glares at you and jokingly says “Sit the wheel!” you stiffen up and only laugh a few seconds later. Passing Nelson in a tight bunch on a velodrome was not for the faint of heart.

The youngest of ten children from a Harlem family, he started racing bikes, became a bike messenger in NYC, attracted the attention of the national team, and rode his way to a silver medal in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Vails is the first and still the only African-American to have won an Olympic medal in any cycling event, and as he reminds anyone who cares to listen, that’s not going to change anytime soon because “there ain’t nobody in the hopper.”

It’s not a slight to the two dominant African-American racers Justin and Corey Williams, it’s a slight to what Vails still calls “the federation.”

But the point of the evening wasn’t to deliver a rant on the failings of USA Cycling, and Nelson didn’t make it one. The point was to roll out his new clothing line, produced by Rapha, the Nelson Vails Collection. And he was blunt: “The great memories of riding in this kit will remain long after the pain of the price tag has gone.” I bought a jersey and bibs, rode in them the next day, and although they are the best looking, most comfortable bike clothes I own, it’s going to take a few more memories.

What was striking about Nelson’s talk was what he said and what he didn’t say. He didn’t talk about racism and discrimination in cycling, about hurdles he’d had to overcome, about the prejudices baked into such a pristinely white sport as track cycling in the 70s and 80s. Instead, he started his speech with a code word, the invocation of Marshal “Major” Taylor, America’s first and greatest world champion in any sport, before or since.

When African-American cyclists mention Major Taylor, they are telling you something. It’s subtle, and you either get it or you don’t. What they are telling you is that this sport you love and idolize so much, studded with names like Merckx, Hinault, Bartali, Anquetil, and Coppi, was first dominated, controlled, and ruled with invincible legs and will by an African-American named Major Taylor. And he didn’t do it to the adulation of the masses in what was the world’s most popular sport, he did it in the face of hatred and racism that are our American legacy.

Whatever you think about the conquests of your heroes, they pale compared to the achievements of a slightly-built man born in 1878 who became world champion, multi-national champion, and crusher of foreign professionals on their home turf in the face of physical violence, constant abuse, overt racism of every conceivable sort, and, when none of that worked, rule changes that excluded African-Americans from the nation’s cycling organizing body.

Taylor retired at age 32, unable to withstand any longer the punishing racism that was heaped upon him wherever he raced. He died penniless.

What does any of this have to do with the unveiling of the Vails Collection by Rapha? A lot, in fact …

First, by invoking Taylor and saying plainly that as the only African-American to win an Olympic medal in cycling, Vails is continuing in his tradition, it invites us to examine the history of cycling without actually coming out and saying “racism.” What does it mean to continue in the tradition of Taylor? You can’t know that unless you know your history, and once you do, you have to ask yourself why Eddy is your hero instead of Major? And to continue the question, why is it that the most influential and accomplished athlete in what was at the time the biggest competitive sport on earth, cycling, is not part of every rider’s tradition? Why doesn’t every Cat 5 racer know the Taylor story? Why is he not celebrated a thousand times more than Vince Lombardi or Babe Ruth?

The answers are uncomfortable, for some more than others.

Second, by invoking Taylor, Nelson was also pointing to himself. He too had multiple national professional titles, a financially lucrative multi-year career as a keirin racer in Japan and 6-day racer in Europe, and broke ground as Nike’s first ever sponsored cyclist. Flamboyant, fast, and able to deliver the goods on a global stage, where was the enthusiasm in America’s national governing body to discover and develop more young boys and girls from poor communities into the next generation Nelson Vails? Why was the path blazed by Taylor, then re-blazed by Nelson, left so quickly to overgrow with the same weeds and thorns of preconception and prejudice that had matted it for decades?

Third, by invoking Taylor on the sales floor of a high-end clothing store in Santa Monica, Vails was calling attention to a history of a different sort: The first time that a clothing manufacturer with the global, Pro Tour, luxury cachet of Rapha was partnering with a legend of cycling to put African-American prowess in cycling where it belongs: Front and center.

And for me, it was in some ways this third thing that meant the most, simply because the cycling community is so quick to mouth support for diversity, yet often so embarrassingly slow to put its money where its mouth is. Because no amount of hand-holding and nodding in agreement can make up for the fact that the first part of equality has to do with sharing the money–to clap a retired hero like Nelson on the back and tell him how much you admire him? Meh. To partner with him over a year-long process to design and develop a beautiful, comfortable, luxury riding kit that exceeds every standard there is?

Now you’re talking.

I got mine. You should get yours. There are worse things in life than collecting memories.



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