Of all the vehicles I’ve tested this year, from Lamborghinis to electric cars, the one I’m most obsessed with is a bicycle.
A $3,200, carbon-fiber Cannondale road bike to be exact.
The extent of the obsession became clear several Sundays ago. I got out bed at 6 a.m. to cycle 52 miles in torrential rain. I’d been training for this bike rally for months. So what if the gutters were running like the Nile?
It all began in June. I’ve long driven mountain roads in Porsches, sharing the twisties with cyclists steaming up hills under their own power. Misery or ecstasy? I had to find out.
We’re all good drivers and we all know how to ride a bike, right? Not so fast. Similarities between cycling and driving sports cars were quickly apparent. You’ve got to pick the right car or bike for you, then learn to properly use it.
Road bikes run into five figures, and walking into a bike shop is intimidating. I chose Sid’s Bikes in New York’s Chelsea and explained my quest in car terms.
If a steel-body road bike was a Ford Mustang and a $20,000- plus Eddy Merckx EMX-7 was a Ferrari 458, I was looking for a Cadillac CTS-V. An emphasis on smart design and nimble power, but without the European markup.
I was pointed to a carbon-fiber Cannondale Synapse, from $1,800 up to $6,400. Weighing 16.5 pounds with an integrated rear suspension, it was quick but not twitchy. Looked cool, too.
Components like wheels and gears come in different levels, from the inexpensive to pricy electronic shifters. After a pre- and post-purchase “fitting,” not unlike a tailored suit, I rode out on a 54-centimeter frame with midlevel components.
My first ride around Manhattan left me feeling like Bambi: all wobbly legs. It’s difficult to clip into foot pedals while avoiding taxis. Out-of-city rides in Harriman State Park were a better idea. Fewer cars and less humiliation. Also, big hills and fun descents.
I’m a runner, so my fitness level was good. Bike handling skills were another thing altogether.
I couldn’t look over my left shoulder without wobbling into traffic (bad), and taking a hand off the handlebars for a sip of water was next to impossible.
In July, I had a breakthrough while driving Jaguars on the racetrack. Everything I knew about driving translated to the bicycle. Fundamentals like finishing braking before a turn, understanding how handling is affected by transferring weight and looking where you want to go rather than at the objects you want to avoid.
But I had had years of instruction from professional racecar drivers. I needed some cycling help. I’d signed up for the 52-mile Ramapo Rally in Mahwah, New Jersey, in a month’s time, and I’d be riding in tight groups. It wasn’t a race, but it would be competitive. I had visions of knocking everybody over.
Cannondale Bicycle Corp., which was acquired in 2008 by Dorel Industries Inc., has its headquarters in Bethel, Connecticut, so I reached out. Michael De Leon, senior public relations manager, invited me on an employee group ride. “Anything to help a new enthusiast,” he said.
Cannondale is the kind of place where employee bikes outnumber cars and lunchtime rides are expected. De Leon introduced me to Murray Washburn, the technical marketing manager, who’s a bit of a bike whisperer. Washburn made me practice basics like emergency braking.
He also coached me in the etiquette of group riding, where mere inches separate cyclists biking in single file or two or more abreast. This “drafting” creates a shield from the wind, but also encourages crashes.
Washburn and De Leon took me on a 20-mile ride where we practiced drafting. Since I didn’t knock anyone over, De Leon volunteered to join my New Jersey rally in mid August. During the next month I joined several group rides and trounced more experienced riders on steep hills. Confidence bloomed — perhaps overmuch so.
So it was that De Leon and I started our rally in hard rain. We began with a slow pack but soon left them behind, powering through group after group. I was feeling strong, especially on the hills.
With 15 miles to go, we rode into a swift group of a dozen. I looked over at De Leon. Should we pass? He shook his head. “Patience,” he counseled.
We fell in instead. Three riders on my left, two on my right, many front and back. We zinged down the streets, shedding stragglers.
It was just like driving on a racetrack, inches off another Porsche’s bumper. Exhilarating. I loved cycling.
Then, on the last big hill, my energy buckled. My legs slowed and I sucked wind and the group slowly pulled away. In biking parlance, I’d been “dropped.”
“Great job,” De Leon said when I limped into the parking lot, a wet, muddy mess. “You were really strong. You just need to learn to pace, so you have enough power at the end.” Pace to retain power? One thing I never had to worry about while driving a Porsche.