Swiss Livin’ – My Life as a Roadie
Becoming a roadie made me a better mountain biker. There. I said it. And I’m not even ashamed. Actually I kind of miss being fast on skinny tires and the life that went with it. It didn’t happen easily, though.
In the mid-2000s, I lived in Switzerland for five years. I moved there to work for Ritchey in the International office which handled Europe as well as markets like Australia, NZ, and Japan. The Switzerland you’re imagining is a great place to live: sophisticated cities full of incredible architecture, a cosmopolitan population, great food, alpine villages with world class everything…but where I lived was even better. That’s because the office was based in Lugano, which is a small city in the Italian canton of Ticino in the Southernmost part of the country. It was a dream job, but more importantly, I was living a dream. Not surprisingly, the experience was formative for me in personal and professional ways, but it also left a mark on me as a rider.
Ritchey’s Lugano office employed about 15 people, half of whom were Swiss, and half Italian. A few sales reps worked from their territories and dropped in occasionally: a Dutchman, a German, and an Italian (all walk into a bar…). With few exceptions, the guys in the office rode pretty seriously. Without exception, they were road riders. A few of them dabbled off-road (actually two of them had raced XC in the past) but despite living in the shadow of the Alps, that is road biking territory. Cadel Evans was my colleague’s neighbor, and among the many groups you would encounter on every ride, it would be rare not to see at least one or two recognizable pros, even in the middle of the race season, because it is so long over there.
Of course I was the only Canadian in the office and I was keen to fit in, and there was only one way that was going to happen: pull on the tight shorts and become a roadie.
At first it was easy to avoid my fate. It was winter when I started my job and I was busy chasing down snow on the weekends. I could drive 5 hours in one direction and be in St Moritz or St Anton, or 5 hours in the other direction and slash turns in places like Zermatt or Chamonix. But as Spring came – and it comes early South of the Alps – the inevitable transition loomed. I hadn’t been on a road bike for at least 15 years, and even then it might have happened five times. I dug up an old steel Ritchey that was used as an office loaner for out-of-towners (probably welded by Tom himself), gave it a once over, put my MTB pedals on it, and went for a few solo lunch rides to see how it felt. I vividly remember that first ride. It was a fairly warm day in March and it felt great to be wearing short sleeves. Everything smelled like Spring. And it was so quiet – the only noise was the hum of the tires on perfect Swiss pavement.
Sounds pretty idyllic. Except I sucked.
For some reason I thought it would be easy to just get on a road bike and kick some ass. Bigger wheels, skinny tires, light bike – it’ll feel fast as hell compared to a shore-worthy mountain bike. Easy, right? No. Not right. On the flats, it felt like flying and that I loved. But anytime the road pointed down I was astonished by how quickly I got to a speed that felt uncomfortable on those pinner tires and measly rim brakes, with my nose sticking out over the stem. Which, for someone who had done a lot of downhilling on a mountain bike, was completely demoralizing. Then I came upon my first hill, and tried to stand on the pedals and rock the bike back and forth as I climbed. I almost fell straight over the front of the bike. Blaming overconfidence, I settled down a bit and reigned it in. Much better. Still, that was my first clue that becoming a roadie wouldn’t be as simple as throwing a leg over a bike and pedaling.
So I avoided joining the guys in the office on the daily lunch ride and the thrashing that was surely coming. I had heard some stories about the way they liked to beat up on each other, and the last thing I wanted was to hold them up or worse, get left behind to limp back in 10 or 20 minutes later, bike in one hand, limp ego in the other. It was easy to pretend I had work that was more important, or wimp out if the weather wasn’t perfect. I went out on a few more rides on my own and was getting more comfortable on the road bike, but as the weather improved I was heading out on my mountain bike as well. I figured that as long as I was pedaling, my fitness was coming along. That was simply delusional. This all came after a 6 month period of living in Holland where I rode a lot, but on a city bike on pan-flat bike paths, and then a winter when I hardly rode at all. The truth was that my days were numbered and I knew it. Initiation loomed.
The rest of my tale of becoming a roadie may or may not be of interest here, so I’m going to change gears and recount a few ways that becoming a roadie helped me to be a better mountain biker.
Most people would think that pain and suffering on a road bike usually happens during long, steep climbs. Those people are right, but it isn’t the whole story. Although 2,000+ meter climbs in the Alps introduced me to new kinds of misery, I often suffered just as badly on the flats. As a bigger guy relative to the guys I rode with, I was expected to do the work on the flats (also because I was the ‘rookie’). But as I got my legs, I realized I was pretty good at carrying speed, so I began to enjoy that pain – mostly because I knew the other guys were hurting even more. Learning to suffer and knowing it will end eventually is important for all kinds of riders, but I got my education in masochism on a road bike in the hills and lakeside flats of Lugano.
Everyone has good days and bad days. Our little peloton didn’t have a pecking order per se, but after a few years (it took me that long to be as fit as those skinny Italian jerks) it became obvious that if I had a good day on Tuesday, they were going to haze the shit out of me on Wednesday. For months it felt unfair, but it was a happy day when I learned how to be part of the cabal and dish out punishment to someone who tried to break away from the group two days in a row. It was all in good fun. Sort of. What did I learn?
Reading the Signs
Or in my case, learning Italian. Before I spoke it, my rivals (aka my ride buddies!) would talk amongst themselves in Italian about how badly they were going to make me suffer on the next climb or demoralize me at the top of it. Once I learned Italian, they resorted to other tactics, like switching to dialect (they were lovable jerks). Usually they would spot me a lead on a climb until we were 500m from the top, letting me think it was mine to win. Sure enough I would hear “click, click, whirrr” from behind me as they up-shifted and started the sprint. Then they would ride right by as we summited.
Every. Damn. Time. Until I learned to watch how they were riding as we approached a climb and figure out who was good on that day and who wasn’t. Or, if I couldn't be sure, I would launch a mini attack on the flats and pay attention to who did the chasing. Yep, even a 50 km lunch ride could be like a mini Tour stage. Strategy, tactics, gamesmanship. But mostly pain and suffering.
Has that helped me as a mountain biker? Well, messing with your riding pals is a time-honored tradition. Everybody does it differently, whether it’s grabbing someone’s front brake lever as you scoot past or deliberately slowing down right at the top of a technical climb. If you can’t enjoy being messed with, you don’t deserve to be on the fun end of doing the messing.
Road bikes require so much less maintenance than mountain bikes, it’s almost hard to believe. But you can’t let a wheel get out of true, or you’ll shit bricks on the next 60+ km/h descent. That little brake rub will crush you after 2 hours. A rubbing chain will demoralize you, and make you a pariah in the group. And always, always make sure your cleats are tight.
Casual Rides Always End in Sprints
Friday rides in the Summer were the best. We would cruise about 15 kms down one road or another, along Lago di Lugano, and stop in at a beachside bar. After peeling off our jerseys and jumping in the lake, we’d have a beer or two in the sun. Inevitably we’d realize it was time to get back to the office, and that ride back in the 30-35 degree heat was amazing, especially if your shorts were still damp from your swim, so they would keep you cool. Riding with a beer buzz feels great for 10 or 15 minutes, but then you just start thinking about the last 20 minutes of riding, and your bladder makes its presence known. On that ride back, there was a public bathroom, and once we got within 3 kilometers of it, the shuffling and posturing would begin. All of a sudden that sprint was the most important one of the whole week. Being third or fourth guy into the pisser was a special kind of pain.
Always be ready for shit to get serious. On a mountain bike ride, a bursting bladder is a lot easier to relieve, but first one back to the truck gets their choice of beers out of the cooler. Casual rides are never 100% casual.
It took five years in Europe to consider myself a roadie – and I was still learning when I left. What lessons have you learned from other types of riding?