Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Seven Redsky Pro: the myth of the Forever Bike

A proper forever bike requires a real head badge
Let me begin by stating that there is no "Forever Bike". I know the myth well. This is the favorite fairy tale of certain cyclists. It is the object of supreme desire among MAMILs (Middle Aged Men in Lycra). The formula for the Forever Bike is N(x)+1nx, where N is all the bicycles the enraptured cyclist owns and x is their retail price. The Forever Bike is dear enough to compel said cyclist to repeat the greatest bicycle fib to his spouse: "This is the last bike I'll ever want..."

Lemond at his best on a Bottecchia
Understand the power of the "Forever Bike" myth. Most cyclists begin their love of bicycles somewhere in childhood. The first type of bicycle that captures their interest is where the myth begins. The allure of THE bicycle one always wanted but never had is fantastic. For me my first love was road racing. I went from liking bikes to a passion for cycling by following a young Greg Lemond. I dreamed of racing on a brightly painted Bottecchia like his. To this day my favorite bikes are mostly road race bikes. Those are also the bikes I've ridden on for the bulk of my miles in the past 20 years. But in recent years my interests have changed. I spend as much time riding on dirt roads now as on pavement. So a bike with greater range for tires yet road race qualities would be the dream bike.
my Seven Cycles Red Sky Pro fitted out as the daily driver

I concede that pursuing the Forever Bike is like searching for leprechauns or chasing unicorns. Yet once in a while a new bicycle is so designed that I'm tempted to believe the myth. When Seven Cycles announced project Redsky I was intrigued. A road bike that could run 32mm tires, and fenders, with rim brakes? Impossible, unbelievable, yet mesmerizing. If any builder could make that real it would be my friends in Watertown, MA. When I contacted them about the Redsky project I gave them a tough order: I wanted a bike that would sprint & corner like a Trek Madone, climb like a Cannondale SuperSix, and be as comfortable as the latest Trek Domane all while being able to run 28mm tires with fenders. No problem they said. We discussed the design parameters, made some adjustments, and in 6 weeks a dream bike was born.
plenty of room for a frame pump, a key feature for a brevet racer or retro grouch

I took possession of my Seven Cycles Redsky Pro in September 2016. I built it out with the SRAM Red drivetrain. I chose to use TRP's RG957 medium reach caliper brakes with Jagwire compression less housing. After trying a few shapes and sizes I settled on a Zipp Contour SL handlebar for the width & flare. I also switched from a Selle Flite to a Bontrager Serano saddle. Of course all these bits are a matter of personal preference. I took a long time to ride & adjust the bike in order to find my best set up. I am writing this so far after initially building the bike since I wanted ride it all conditions. I've ridden the Redsky for approximately 8 months total broken up by a pair of long ski winters. I've had enough ride time now to test it in most every way I plan to use it.

room for 31mm gravel tires
The bike does everything I hoped it would. I've ridden it to personal best times up steep 5 mile climbs. I've kicked it up at over 1000 watts for town line sprints. I've been comfortable on it for a 150 mile all day tour through the White Mountains. I've ridden it in the rain with fenders and felt solid through every corner. The tires I've run range from 24mm race tubulars to 30mm gravel tires to 32mm cyclocross file treads to my regular training 28mm clinchers. All have fit the frame fine. Honestly I can not find significant difference in brake power between the TRP's and the SRAM Red calipers I used prior. I could certainly race this bike, but would likely not in a technical criterium for fear of wrecking it. I would ride it in some gravel events, but likely on smooth dirt roads rather than rocky & rutted jeep track. In summary I would happily ride the Redsky in a rolling road race or D2R2 or a fast Wednesday night group ride or a 400 km brevet. It is just that versatile with the right tires for the course.

room for 33mm file treads under TRP mid reach brakes
Is this my "forever bike"? I can not say I will always ride the way I do now. I hope to, but no one knows how interests might change in another decade. I might want a disc brake road bike some day, but so far good calipers work fine for me on the road. I still know that the forever bike is a myth, there is always a next bike, a N+1 bike, being crafted somewhere. But the Seven Redsky may be as close as I get to making that beautiful myth real.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Gravel Grinder Growing Pains, it's just stupid bike racing

Most Americans are at best indifferent about bike racing as a sport. When I was young road racing was almost entirely a European sport. Yes they were a handful of long standing criteriums in US cities, but they were few & far between.  Mountain bike racing has a brief flurry of interest when it was new, but has faded into the realm of niche sport as well. Including all disciplines the total number of licensed American bike racers could likely fit into the University of Texas football stadium. Viewership of bike races on TV goes up when an American is winning the Tour de France, but that is about the only time. Even mountain bike racing, a sport we invented, is dominated by Europeans & Australians now. Bike racing is a niche sport in the USA with little fan interest.

start of the Dirty Kanza 200, gravel has grown up
photo by Dave Leiker
That is not to say nobody in America races bikes, or takes bike racing somewhat seriously. I resumed bike racing at age 30 in New England. The road racing circuit here as always been strong here (for the US). It is also very very serious in every category. I began racing cyclocross too and quickly found that New England takes that even more seriously. Between training plans, coaching, gluing tires to tubular wheels, inspecting courses, chasing series points, and arguing about tactics, racing bikes here can be exhausting before I even get to the start. Because America as a whole doesn't view bike racing as serious sport, some cyclists come to it with a more casual attitude. They want to ride bikes fast and have fun. For them the super seriousness of more competitive racers wrecks the vibe of a bike event. So why bother racing, why not just ride hard then have a beer with your buddies? asks the more fun minded cyclist.

Which brings me to gravel racing. Gravel racing is considered the more open, less serious, run what you brung type of cycling. Gravel as a separate discipline is relatively new. Because it is new & often unsanctioned the rules are highly variable at different events. Yet unlike sanctioned road/mtb/cyclocross races, most gravel races have mixed gender & category mass starts. Gravel races are great because many of them have routes that are a challenge just to finish. Gravel races are great because they are often scenic and adventurous. Gravel races are great because of the fellowship on the ride. A fellowship forms with whomever you are struggling alongside no matter their age & gender. That fellowship extends to the festivities afterward which are sometimes the best part of the event.

skinsuit, aerobars, and racing to win. Mat Stephens at DK200
photo by Team Panaracer 

But as gravel races get more exposure & cache more competitive cyclists have started racing them, including recently retired or aspiring pro racers. And then the issues begin: is drafting a younger or stronger team mate to the finish breaking the unwritten rules? what if a team rides in a pace line to create a lead group? is giving a wheel to a faster or "featured" team mate after a flat violating the "spirit of gravel", is wearing a skinsuit & aero helmet gauche for gravel? Arguing about these "issues" make the fun oriented cyclist want to go away & find the next sub niche of cycling.

In truth these are issues only for those who care about standing on the podium or think that those racers change the character of the event. I imagine that for 90-99% of finishers at the Dirty Kanza last Saturday none of those issues matter much. The experience of finishing that course is so astounding that it leaves little energy for such concerns. It may come down to expectations. I'd estimate 80% of those starting a DK200 just hope to finish at all, they aren't truly concerned with whether they have a shot at the podium much less a fancy belt buckle. The folks that are struggling to finish before dark or before midnight are happy to have anyone help them through the painful middle miles. It seems these issues matter little to most veteran pro's either. They seem to understand that gravel races while competitive & challenging don't have any money or UCI points on the line. They've known what racing for a paycheck, for a professional team, as a job is about. Gravel grinders are not really like that sort of racing.

But some racers are concerned with these issues & ethics. A few cyclists have lit up online comments sections with their opinions, whether they've raced the Kanza or any big gravel event or not. Promoters will need to deal with the controversies and reactions. As a new discipline promoters will both decide what the common rules are and how they will be enforced. For some this will diminish the openness and therefore "fun" of these events. But one cannot deny that the largest gravel races are becoming very competitive. Where there is competition some will push the limits to gain an advantage. With that level of seriousness, lack of clear rules/ethics will only lead to needless conflicts. Excess drama is no fun for anyone.
start of the Paris-Brest Paris 1895

When the Tour de France was in it's early years over a century ago similar controversies cropped up. Originally no neutral support was allowed and team work was frowned upon. After the 1904 Tour de France the original winner Maurice Garin was disqualified for taking food from an official during stage 1, which was then against the rules. But as the event grew, first national teams, then dedicated support vehicles, then road closures, then professional sponsored teams, then tv coverage, then rider radios all changed the nature of the race. Meanwhile the other branch of bicycle road racing went in the opposite direction. Randonneuring began at the same time as the Tour and the Giro. But unlike professional road racing, brevet racing has remained small, amateur, & quirky. The only support in a brevet is what you bring or can buy along the way. Results are often posted by name, not by finish time. The only awards are for completing a route under the time limit or a brevet series. Even long time bike racers often know nothing about randonneuring. Brevets are not on TV, they have no corporate sponsors or professional teams. Frankly I think randonneurs prefer it that way. Leave them alone with their handlebar bags, generator hubs, and 4-600 km routes they'll be just fine.
Randonneurs are their own breed

Yet in randonneuring there are rules too, and I imagine some cyclists have bent them to get a result. Where there is competition there is ego, and where there is ego invested emotions can run hot. As Adam Myerson said best "it's just stupid bike racing, but it means everything." So will gravel racing go the way of Le Tour or stick to it's more brevet like origins? I honestly don't know. I cannot imagine gravel grinders becoming like the old NORBA mountain bike circuit much less UCI pro road races. I trust they will always have an amateur & achievement focus. But I cannot say which way the front end of gravel racing will go. And to some degree I don't care. I still just enjoy riding as hard as I can. I like riding gravel events because they're demanding yet inclusive. I know many promoters have the same attitude I do, make cycling a fun challenge for everyone & we'll all have a great ride.
the chaise lounge at mile 180
photo by Salsa Cycles

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Home on the Range Sickness: Missing the Dirty Kanza

I finally kept a promise to my wife. Each of the past 3 years I told her in June that I would not race the Dirty Kanza next year. At long last I've kept my word. I will not be in Emporia this week, after 5 years in a row.

Gravel City 2017

Truth be told I'm in no condition to race this year. A very long delightful ski season meant that I did not start riding my bike outside until the 3rd week in April. When I did I started too hard and pulled a back muscle. I also tore my left rotator cuff falling on a tricky descent. The shoulder pain has made riding on dirt roads difficult. As a final twist of fate I came down with bronchitis last week. It is a very good thing I did not plan on racing 200+ miles this Saturday.

Shake Down Ride with the King, Dan Hughes
And yet I know plenty of folks who are. Some are veterans (Ted King, Amanda Nauman, Kristi Mohn, Jayson O'Mahoney), some are racing the Kanza for the first time (Kaitie Keough, Jason Ebberts). Some are taking on a new challenge (DKXL for Yuri Hauswald, Rebecca Rusch, Dan Hughes, Don Buttram). They are all giddy with excitement. I am excited for them. I might have checked the Chase County weather forecast a few times this week.  A part of me wants to be there, just in Emporia, surrounded by the thousands of fellow gravel racers. The collective energy in the days before the race is electric. The DK festival grows bigger each year. I can only imagine all the sights & chatter on Commercial street this week.
Good Advice Always, but especially at 2 miles to Go

But I am not there. I will spend this weekend painting my house, patching window screens, and rehabbing my rotator cuff. I'll watch the social media posts about DK200 slowly drip in on Saturday afternoon. I will eagerly search for my friends in the results, wondering what adventures & misfortunes they endured. The leftover Kanza excitement might propel me on a long dirt road ride Sunday. I figure 80-90 miles of New Hampshire dirt roads is plenty for me right now. Still it's not the same as being back home on the prairie.

I expect that I will race the Kanza again, next year if I'm lucky, but certainly another year soon. Perhaps skipping a year is a good thing, like leaving a field fallow for a season so that it can revive. Yet something about the deep blue Kansas sky and the vast stretches of tall grass haunts my dreams. When I close my eyes I see a narrow strip of gravel cutting through endless rolling hills. The cows look bemused as I ride by under the bright sapphire dome. You can take the boy off the prairie, but you can't take the prairie out of the boy. Kansas winds drive the grit under your skin and the sun bakes it in. No amount of scrubbing ever gets it all out. So I'll likely always have that itch, the notion that I ought to be out riding the Flint Hills this time of year. Maybe next year I'll get another scratch at it.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Pedaling Full Circles

"I watch the ripples change their size
But never leave the stream
Of warm impermanence..."
Changes - David Bowie

It's the end of May and I have not lined up at a bike race this year. I do not have any real plans to race in the next few weeks either. Sure I have been recovering from a minor rotator cuff tear, and my fitness is less than top shape. But neither of those factors would have stopped me from racing in the past. After 17 years of planning all my Spring, Summer, & Fall weekends around racing I'm just not there this year. Something has changed, for now at least.

So what gives? I still love riding bikes. I've been riding 5-6 days a week since the middle of April. Which is itself a very late date to start regular riding, even for the middle of New Hampshire. We had an extraordinarily long ski season this year. I had my first day on snow December 10th, and my last Nordic day on April 21st (when I skipped the Rasputitsa to ski 25km on 4" of beautiful fresh snow). Sure we had some warm rainy weeks this winter. But the snow fell consistently and late enough for me to ski 85 days. This was also my son's first season of Middle School Nordic Ski team. So we both had incentive to ski whenever we could. Add to that the excitement of the Olympics & the US Nordic Team's first gold medal. We were both racing on skis until the end of March, which was spectacular, but meant April was good time to take a break from hard training & racing.

meeting Jessie Diggins at Craftsbury VT Super Tour Nordic races
So why not race in May? Well, I've been injured and behind in fitness (see above). And when I started to train hard on the bike a few weeks ago I aggravated an old back issue. So I have not felt like spending the time & money to race poorly. But again in the past that would not have stopped me. Also my son is more interested in backpacking this summer than in racing mountain bikes. He has been eagerly researching the Appalachian Trail since February. All he wanted for his birthday was a new pack & sleeping bag. As a former guide I want to help him & hike with him as much as possible. We've been plotting more weekends for backpacking this summer than any other activity. I know as a father I may only get this chance once.

Me and the boy on top of the local 4000 footer
I also know that the all of US bike racing is in decline, in almost every discipline & region. While high school mountain bike racing is growing, senior & masters racing mtb races seem static. New England road racing appears to be making a resurgence, but it is still half of what it was a decade ago. Even my local Wednesday Night Worlds ride has shrunk. It seems more like a gentlemen's cruise now than the cut throat pace it once was. Yet there are still races every weekend. So if I still wanted to drive 2-3 hours to get my adrenaline topped up I could. But I haven't felt that need, not yet this year.

Perhaps skipping the Dirty Kanza this year has also taken a toll on my motivation. I have no need to ride 300 mile training weeks, so I've been trying to catch up on a long list of house projects. Yet as the Kanza draws near I realize I'm far from the form I was in 12 months ago. Part of me wishes I was going to Emporia next week, at least for the atmosphere and to see far flung friends. After 5 in a row part of me is glad for the rest. I'll race the Kanza again someday, perhaps next year, but certainly again, someday.

heading out on the Sunflower Outdoor Shakedown Ride before the Kanza
None of this is to say I won't race bikes before the snow falls. As my injuries heal and the weather warms up I'm finding some fitness. Though my other interests, hiking, kayaking, summer music festivals, are taking my attention too. After all I moved to New Hampshire originally to ski & hike, not to race bikes. Yet the social media posts about the events I've missed are giving me the itch. I still love riding hard. I enjoy the rush of pushing yourself to the limit, if only to see where that limit lays. Bike racing is a spectacular way of doing just that. So I'm certain I'll show up on start line soon.

The more things change, the more they stay the same....

Friday, October 13, 2017

MRC CX: Debacalypse Now

"I was victim of a series of accidents, as are we all" Kurt Vonnegut

I like the cyclocross race that the Minuteman Road Club puts on at the Bolton Fairgrounds. I like the course, I like the local race #NECX vibe, I like getting cider donuts at the Bolton Market. I've had some good results there in the past 4 years too. But this year was not to be a good race for yours truly. I made mistakes that I haven't made in years. It was a debacle born out of my errors. Last Sunday I was only capable of getting in my own way, in every possible way. Rather than a race report I present a list of lessons (re) learned.

one of my few good moments at MRC CX
photo by Katie Busick

#1) Come fully charged. Sleep as a critical element of performance has gotten much deserved attention lately. Elite racers are tracking their sleep, scheduling 9 hours a night, setting an early bed time, and taking mid day naps. For working masters racers with kids/families good sleep is more elusive. While my sleep the week before MRC CX wasn't bad for me, it wasn't enough. I over slept the alarm by 40 minutes. Which meant I got to the venue 30 minutes later than I planned. But the biggest little error was I forgot to charge my Garmin Forerunner watch. The watch start flashing low battery as I drove down I-495. Of course race data is not vital to race success, but I like having the data. So I kept my Garmin Edge on the handlebars, no biggy unless I had to switch bikes (foreshadowing)

the rain coming hard before the M40/50+ race
#2) Prepare for the Worst case scenario in the Weather forecast. All week the forecast called for sunny breezy conditions on Sunday. Then on Friday the forecast changed to a chance of rain, possibility of a downpour mid morning. Knowing how variable New England weather is, I chose to be optimistic, I left the mud tires at home. I chose wrong. I was half way into my preview ride when light rain started to fall. When I got back to my car to finish my warm up the rain became a down pour. I switched to alloy brake pads on my race bike & put on the best wheels I had for slick conditions, alloy rims with Dugast small birds. The ground was still somewhat dry & firm, but the rain was falling fast. Small birds have plenty of grip when the mud is slick over hard pack, but not when mud gets deep. (foreshadowing, again)

here goes nothing
photo by Katie Busick
#3) Show up for Staging with Everything you need to Race. The promoters of MRC CX make improvements every year, as every good NECX promoter does. This year they added chip timing for fast results & lap count. But chip timing is still a rarity in New England cyclocross. A few minutes after I rolled up to staging I realized I did not have my ankle tag chip on. I sprinted back to the car where it was resting on the dashboard. I returned to staging to see the last row line up. The guys in my field were kind enough to let me wedge in only a row or 2 behind my regular staging position. I had ground to make up before the race even started.

on my long trot to the pit
photo by Andy Copper

#4) Advance Position with Clean Passes. When the whistle blew I was anxious to make up ground as quickly as possible. I had a good start, quick clip in, and a clean line to the front 25 guys. By half way into the lap Eiric Marro caught me from behind. We jockeyed back & forth and gained more positions through the field. As we started up the hill we were gaining on 3 guys. We caught them at the top. Coming down the slick turns at the end of the lap Eiric made the pass. I followed through the outside of the turn but the guy just passed by Eiric moved into my front wheel. I went down fast & hard. Upon getting up my stem had shifted so the handlebars were turned 45 degrees. I had a long jog to the pits ahead of me. Plenty of time for every single racer on course to pass me, and for Richard Fries to call out my misfortune on the PA several times.
just trying to make it to the finish without another fall

#5) Be Focused & Efficient in the Pit. In the substantial amount of time it took to run half the course I decided to keep racing. I had a pit bike after all, and at least I could get a hard training effort done. But I would need to switch my Garmin head unit to have the data. I grabbed the pit bike with the Garmin in my left hand. Then fumbled & slipped as I twisted it into the bracket. Unsure of whether it was secure I ran into a course stake exiting the pit. I was on my ass again, wishing I had charged up my GPS watch (see above).
looking for the rut, must commit to the rut
photo by Cathy Rowell

#6) Lines Change on Muddy Courses after Several Laps. For the next 2 laps I ripped around the course catching the back markers of the 50+ race. One advantage of being DFL was getting to choose the best lines. But with 90 guys on course and rain still falling those lines were getting deeper, sloppier. On the 4th lap around the course I was going fast at a sweeping turn on the far end that was now mud across the entire track. As I set up for the outside line my rear wheel slipped out from under me. I slid 20 feet down the course toward John Mosher spectating on the other side of the tape. But did I learn my lesson? Of course not, the next lap I set up for the outside line on that corner again, and slid out again, but with an outrigger to save a little dignity. Soft courses change quickly when the rain falls fast, even lap to lap.
trying to hang on with the leaders on the last lap

#7) Ride your Own Race. By the 2 to go lap I could see the leaders gaining on me. I had a vain hope of not getting lapped when I got my pit bike. That hope was now gone. But when Brant Hornberger came past me chasing the lone leader, I figured I would try to ride his pace for a the final lap. But I was not able to shift from tempo pace to full on race pace quickly enough. Then Mike Rowell came past leading the 50+ group. I pulled aside to let him have a clean line and tried to get back up to his pace. Pushing my speed to the pace I thought I "should" be riding lead to making mistakes in the loose corners. The woodchips in the barns & the gravel exiting the shed were deep enough to make a rut. Getting out of the rut meant sliding out, which of course is what I did on the last lap.

So I drove home with plenty of lessons to turn over in my mind. But there are always lessons to learn, even from successful races. When we stop learning we stop growing, just like life as a whole. When we stop growing we stop living fully. I hope to remember these lessons next weekend, and for every race after.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Getting Back to my Grass Roots

New England cyclocross has become a really big show almost every weekend. A few years ago there were 14 UCI races in the region, more than any where outside of Belgium. Then the UCI commission began requiring more of UCI listed events, so now we have "only" 8 (not counting the Supercross races in NY). But each UCI event has a bigger budget, larger venues, and more polished production to meet those requirements. That fact has pushed "local" races to step up their production too. The best non UCI races in NECX still have great announcers, food trucks, well laid out wide courses, and full fields. Even these races draw a larger crowd than the UCI races did 15 years ago. it is wonderful but also expensive & exhausting to make all the "big" races. For some, it is too much of a good thing.

This past weekend we had 2 options in NECX, the UCI races in Thompson CT (where most the top national pros would be racing) or a pair of new little local cross races in western Maine & the eastern edge of New Hampshire. Since Thompson CT is almost 3 hours away and I would've needed to take Friday afternoon off to watch the pro's race, I decided to stay closer to home. I chose to get back to grass roots cross.
Both the Deer Farm CX in Newfield Maine & the King Pine CX the following day were put on by Greg Dolbec. He is new to me, but as a first time promoter he did a fine job. The laps were a touch short, yet very spectator friendly. Both venues had food/beverage on site (including free beer at Deer Park) The courses had some similar elements, a rock wall hop up, a run up that was tempting to ride, and a steep switch back descent on loose dirt. But the venues, weather, & terrain were almost polar opposites.

I always *try* to arrive at a new to me cyclocross venue 3 hours before I race. Saturday I almost failed spectacularly. I was thankfully saved by a parking spot close to the start, registration was quick, and the course was open. Light rain was falling most of the drive to Newfield Maine, but was tapering off as I started to ride the course. The venue was actually a working venison farm so one needed to be aware of deer manure in the pasture sections. That added to the Flemish feel of the course.
at an actual working farm for the real feel of Flanders
The course started on a tractor path heading up into the pastures. After a few swooping turns the course double back to a sand pit with a little run/ride up then back through the pit to another hop up a stone lined lip. Then the course headed into the woods for a lumpy off camber trail section. The toughest feature was a steep short run up with a log at the bottom, a short traverse, then the switch back down hill on loose dirt & tall grass. Alan Starret & I made several passes figuring out how to hop the log to ride the hill. During the race however this was not an advantage over running it. Some swooping turns through sticky mud, then a high speed set of barriers, and a narrow sandy trail section finished the lap. The course reminded me a little of the Pinelands and a little of White Park, both on the more technical side of NECX courses.
I finished my preview ride just in time to watch the women's race start. I had a good vantage point from the car to cheer on my team mate Ryanne. She had a very strong ride to finish 2nd behind Roni Vetter. After quick warm up on the road I squeezed into my skinsuit & brought my b bike to the pit. I make no secret of how poor my condition was coming into cyclocross season. For that reason alone I registered for the Cat 3/4 race. I rolled over to the start uncertain as to my form or the group I'd be racing with, but it was just another bike race, right.
One advantage of the new local grass roots race is small fields. The 1/2/3 field had 12 guys lined up, including a few old friends like Don Seib & Mike Rowell. They started 3 minutes ahead of the 3/4 field. I lined up with a couple dozen racers hoping not to get lapped. The whistle blew, I got a mediocre start, but quickly moved up through the first few turns to 3rd wheel. A slight gap opened to the front 2 but no one was coming around me to take up the chase. I closed the gap through the first lap and moved up to 2nd wheel. Then I started making mistakes. First I babbled on the stone step ride up. Then coming down the steep switch backs I lost my front wheel and hit the turf. Both cost me a couple of spots. The problem with limited fitness is that I can not make up gaps after a mistake without blowing up. So in trying to overcome a mistake, I made more mistakes. I didn't make any spectacular stumbles, but just enough to put me in a battle for 7th place with Tim Young instead of fighting for a podium spot. That was a battle Tim won due to being cut short a lap, and my poor concentration in the corners.
the ball field front half the course
the ski hill back half of King Pine CX
Sunday was another and very different day. The sun was out, the air was warm, and breeze was up. The course at King Pine CX was also very different. It was in truth like 2 separate courses. The front half was a typical playground course was flat sections of thick grass interrupted by a couple of short park side climbs. The second half of the course was all ski hill alpine cross. A long access road climb lead us up to the top of the bunny slope, then down around the chair lift drop off, a traverse to the next ski slope, and a winding 4 turn off camber slalom run to the finish. This track looked very demanding based on the size of the hill.

Again the fields were small, but competitive. The 1/2/3 field was give a 4 minute lead this time, assuring that the 3/4 field would be lapped. Considering how the ski hill climb hung over my head, I did not mind that. The whistle blew, again I had a mediocre clip in, but sprinted through the 1st few turns to 2nd wheel. I charged up the slope the first lap to maintain my spot. Coming down the slope at the end of the lap I was conservative and let a gap open to the front 2. In closing the gap through the ball field I lost focus and slid out on a 180 corner. Mistake number 1. Again I got up to chase for the front group. For the next lap I held them at about 10 seconds. But then I started tumbling down the ski slope descent. First on my left hip then on my knee. Free speed isn't always free. A younger Sunapee came past me as I was falling down the hill. I chased him for 2 laps, gaining on the hills, loosing ground on the descent. I realized my chance to take him was on the final ascent of the ski hill. I caught his wheel a third of the way into the final lap. Then came around him at the start of the access road. The advantage of being an old man bike racer is knowing how to go all in on an attack. I went to the limit up the climb. But around the ski lift he was still only a few meters behind me. I dropped into the final slalom praying for one clean run to the finish. I saved myself with an out rigger through the next to last corner and a quick clip in to sprint out of the last one.

And just like that another race weekend done. I missed seeing the pros mix it up, sure. But the racing at both Deer Farm and King Pine was good, the venues everything we've become spoiled with in NECX. So next year, I just may be back for more good old grass roots cross

Friday, September 29, 2017

Too Hot for 'Cross! Cyclocross at White Park

The cyclocross season has to start some time, ready or not, and this year I'm certainly on the not side of that continuum. The Dirty Kanza took absolutely everything out of me this year. I raced exactly twice since the beginning of June. I have not actually felt like doing intervals until a week ago. But having skipped Quad Cross and not eager to wait longer I decided to stuff myself into my skinsuit for Cyclocross at White Park.

White Park was a cozy little local race when I first line up at it 5 years ago. No more. The Masters 45+ had 47 starters, including some of the better New England competitors. The M55+ lined up another 32 guys right behind us. Truth is every good "local" cyclocross race in New England gathers a following after a year or two, Orchard Cross, MRC CX, Shedd Park, all get 300-500+ racers out.
We are very blessed with the abundance of great events in NECX.

The weather on Saturday felt nothing like cyclocross season. Heavy warm air smothered the park. By the time a thin morning mist lifted the temperature was already warmer than comfortable. I hoped that a 9:30 a.m. race start would save me from the heat. While it did help, I was still in for a steamy race. I decided to race in a short sleeve jersey & bibs rather than the skin suit. I was very glad to unzip the jersey down to my sternum during the race. By the 2nd lap I was dripping sweat from my helmet. It was definitely too hot for cross by the afternoon.

But Cyclocross doesn't wait. All of NECX was eager to start the season not matter how hot the weather. I raced a good first 2 laps. I was chasing the top 10 & riding well with the guys I want to compete against. But then I made a couple of small mistakes and had no snap to recover. I made my only big mistake washing out on the gravel transition into the off camber by the soccer field. 3 guys squirted past as I got up. Those were 3 places that I could not gain back in the final 2 laps of the race.

And that was OK for my first race of the season. It was if nothing else a reminder of how much fitness I need to race the way I'd like, and therefore how much work I have to do. I also was reminded that cyclocross in New England is a family affair. My wife & son came down to watch my race. I rode with him a little bit of the course before his. Dozens of other families were doing the same. I cheered on the cub juniors with Kate Northcot who is nursing a knee injury. My wife and I got to cuddle the new babies of our old friends & team mates.

me & the Mrs after the race
photo by Russ Campbell
Cyclocross is NECX is something special because it is a big extended misfit family. Every weekend is like Thanksgiving until Thanksgiving and beyond.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Dirty Kanza Collective: disciples of gravel city

Emporia rolls out the red carpet for Kanza racers
photo by Jim Jewell
The Dirty Kanza is a magnificent beast of a race. Jim Cummins make no promises except to organize the "world's premier gravel grinder". There are no guarantees except that the race will test the limits of your physical, mental, & emotional endurance. Each year the race grows more popular. Twice as many people tried to register the minute it opened in January than slots were available for the 200. The most special part of the Kanza is how the community has embraced the event. The town of Emporia has become Gravel City, the Mecca of gravel grinding each Kanza week. Thousands of disciples of dirt road bike racing converge & are warmly welcomed by all of Emporia. It is the one bike race that I'm certain to enter again, not next year, but someday.

But let's begin at the beginning, dear reader. I made my 5th consecutive trip to race the Kanza this year. I have learned an enormous amount about the event and about myself in each prior DK200. I hoped for a chance to improve on my high placing from 2016. Indeed my training this spring was better than any of the past 4 years. I had no significant injuries, no illnesses to interrupt my preparation. But there was another goal, to join the 1000 mile club. A few years ago Dan Hughes offered an engraved chalice to every racer who finishes 5 DK200's. With that my quest was clear, to seek the Gravel Grail.

Jim & I after awards, still smiling somehow

Another year meant another new crew. Somehow I end up needing to assemble a new support crew each time. This year that would be Jim Jewell. Jim was very qualified to the role, he had crewed at Leadville, traveled a large amount of Lyon & Chase counties, and is an Eagle Scout. His attention to my long emails of preparation notes gave me high confidence. He asked me early on what my goals for the race were. I told him that the first goal is always to finish, that most years only half of racers make it to the finish line at all. I had other goals too. The second goal is always to beat the sun, to finish by sunset. But I also wanted to crack the top 10 in my age group. I was 11th in 2016 despite 4 flat tires & 2 additional slow leaks. To make a perfect run at the Kanza one needs few/no mechanicals, fast crew support, & great legs. I hoped for all three, but the Kanza has a way of dashing the highest hopes.

Saddling Up

Part of my Kanza pilgrimage is a stop in Lawrence, my true hometown. Yes, dear reader, I am a born & raised Jayhawk. It was the hours I spent in Sunflower Outdoor Shop as a boy that sparked my interest in hiking, climbing, & skiing. By the time I graduated from KU I was so fixated on adventure sports I decided to live in the mountains, New Hampshire's White Mountains specifically.

Sunflower Shakedown Ride heading out
photo by Linda Guerette
Dan Hughes, the Sunflower Outdoor boss & Gravel King, organizes a Thursday afternoon shakedown ride. This is not to be missed by yours truly. Besides a test to ensure I've put my bike together correctly, & a chance to harass Dan, it's also a ride with friends I only see at the Kanza. I rode some easy miles with Kris & Amber Auer, Janeen McCrae, Colin Earhardt, & Ted King. I teased Ted that I have to fly half way across country now to ride with him, unlike when he was a new pro and would go for training rides right past my office in New Hampshire. I also had the pleasure of meeting Ted's very special guest from California, Laura Spencer. As always the pace was LFK casual until we got to the one climb, the Wells Overlook access road. A quick stop for the view, a group photo, & we cruised back to Lawrence proper. A nervous energy filled Sunflower Bike Shop when we returned. All were anxious to dial in every equipment detail for the Kanza adventure ahead.

Ted King & I descend from Wells Overlook
photo by Linda Guerete
After meeting up with Jim Jewell & packing his car we drove down to Emporia. Friday morning meant an early start to preview the course conditions on my tune up ride. I spun down Commercial Street just as the barricades were being delivered for the finish chute. As I made the first turn onto the course several other racers were snapping photo's before starting their preview rides. The disciples of the Kanza had converged on Gravel City. The track was dry & firm. If the weather forecast held true the race would be blazing fast.
welcome to Gravel City aka Emporia Kansas

I turned off course at Mile 10 to ride a straight line back to Emporia. I had hope to catch Yuri Hauswald for his Stroop Waffle/Coffee ride. But alas I was 5 minutes late & they started 5 minutes early. So I headed north of town to preview the final 5 miles of the course. By now dozens of other Kanza racers were following the route. I passed numerous groups riding those same finishing miles. I have never seen as many racers taking their Kanza preview so seriously. My fellow devotees prepared very very well.

meeting up with Rebecca Rusch on Commercial St. Emporia KS
Jim and I spent the afternoon with the final preparation chores. I kept interrupting our efforts with greeting Kanza friends as we crossed paths in Emporia. I stopped to talk tires with Jayson O'Mahoney aka Gravel Cyclist. I crossed paths again with the Auers. I also got a warm welcome from the man himself, Jim Cummins. We just got everything done in time to see the 4 p.m. screening of "Blood Road", the movie about Rebecca Rusch's mountain bike journey down the Ho Chi Mihn Trail & to her father's burial site. It is a moving & remarkable film. See it if you can, or better, donate to Rebecca's fund to help the effort to remove the hundreds of thousands remaining unexploded bombs from Laos, Cambodia & Vietnam.

All that lay ahead after a quick dinner was a nervous night of sleep, a 4:15 a.m. wake up, and the Dirty Kanza 200 would be a go.

Race Day, The Good

I cruised down to Commercial Street at 5:30 a.m., anxious to get rolling & warm up my legs. Since few people had already lined up I slotted into the front row behind the barriers. Jim found me easily for last instructions & well wishes. As he snapped a photo, my dear Kanza friend April Morgan popped over for a quick hug. Her thousand watt smile was all the encouragement I needed before the start. The featured racers were called up to the front, the start line tape removed, we were ready to rollout, over a thousand Dirty Kanza pilgrims eager for the 206 mile journey.
April Morgan wishing me well at the start

I stayed in the front group as we turned off Commercial Street and onto gravel. As expected the pace was fast. The group averaged 22 mph for the first 10 miles, with 27-29 mph surges. Quickly gaps opened in the double pace line. I kept moving up to stay in contact with the lead group. I noticed familiar jerseys as I surfed the good lines forward. I shared a word with Garth Prosser before he pushed  ahead. At the I-35 underpass I caught Kerry Duggan (K-Dog) last years 60+ winner. I spotted Amanda Nauman, the defending Queen of the Kanza, two bike lengths ahead of me. I kept her in sight comfortable that her wheel was a good one to follow.

Then at mile 11 I realized that I could feel my rear rim. I must have burped the tire somewhere in the pace line. Nervous that I would shred the tire in chunkier gravel ahead I stopped to air it up. Because it was so early in the race dozens & dozens of riders passed me in the 2 minutes I took to fill the tire. I felt woefully behind.

Knowing that 194 miles is a long way to go, I rode a high tempo pace to recover lost ground. I would catch a group, ride with them for a minute, then move ahead on the next hill. I came into Madison with a group of a 15 or so. We were stunned to see that the course climbed the steep brick paved 3rd St. hill before the 1st check point, it is the Muur of Madison. I rolled through the check point, Jim had my bottles, food, & thoughtfully set out the floor pump. A quick check of my rear tire pressure & I was going again in under 2 minutes.

As I was leaving Check Point #1 I caught Garth Prosser. He had been delayed by a flat tire in the first section. We shared a joke as we rode together. He reminded me that we should ride tempo rather than blow up trying to catch the flying front group. As he set pace we caught & gathered almost 20 other racers. I spotted Amber Auer in the group. Last year Garth & I lead a smaller bunch over Texaco Hill. I figured we would do so again. But as we started the climb my legs would not respond. I drifted to the back of the group. My Dirty Kanza was about to get very very hard.

Race Day: The Bad

As I descended Texaco hill I caught some stragglers from the group, but never the front of it. I calmed myself thinking "you just need a few easy miles to open your legs back up". But the start of Teeter Hill 3 miles latter was no better. Then they struck, hamstring cramps. After Teeter Hill we climbed a no name quarter mile grinder with a steep pitch in the middle. There both of my hamstrings cramped hard. No warning flutters, just full seizure in both legs. The cramps were bad enough that I unclipped from my pedals to shake my legs out. I took my first swig of pickle juice for the day. I had fought through persistent hamstring cramps 3 years ago, but since then I had them beat. All the training, stretching, hydration & nutrition plan I learned had kept them away for the past 2 Kanza's. They were back now with a vengeance.
hiking up the BeYotch
photo by Jason O'Mahoney
I hoped for a moment that the cramps would subside. Yet in my heart I knew better. I took another swig of pickle juice and rode an easy pace toward Eureka. I tried to save my legs for the dozens of hills yet to come. At the bottom of the BeYotch I got off to walk the hill in shame. Last year I pounded up this 8% steep pitch with authority. This year my legs would not even attempt it. Jayson O'Mahoney was on the Kanza ride of his life. He caught and passed me as I hiked the hill. Frustration had set in and was taking a toll on my psyche.

I pedaled a controlled pace for the remaining 15 miles to Eureka, watching my average speed dip lower. I wished that a some time off the bike, a few pickles, & some deep stretching would be enough to bring my cramps under control. "My legs are trash" I confessed to Jim as I rolled in. I quickly apprised him of my dire state. He got my drinks & food in order, lubed my chain & checked the air in the tires just as the check list required. I drank an extra ginger ale, ate half the jar of pickles, & refilled my empty pickle juice flask. Jim took in upon himself to help massage my calves while I stretched. He did all he could to help me get going. As I was rolling out Tom Morgan ran over to give me a high five, which made me smile. I called back "I need your legs Tom"

Last year the first 25 miles of the third section was one of the best of my race. With good legs & a little tail wind I flew through that stretch. This year I was crawling through it while other racers streamed past me. I was aware that several more steep hills lay just ahead. My frustration had reached a breaking point. I feared my legs would completely seize on some slope in the remaining 80 miles. That I would flop over like a crushed turtle on the road. I was in as much anguish mentally as physically. I wanted to quit the Kanza more than I ever have. I reached back for my cell phone then forced my hand to return to the handlebars.

I was in the middle of my A race for the season, a race I had trained for the past four months. An event I had devoted myself to for four years. So what would you do, dear reader? What do you do when your legs quit on your most important race day of the year? I soon realized that all my angst, my enormous frustration at the continual cramps was only making the ride harder. I did not know if my legs would make the distance, but I did not need my head getting in the way. I started to talk to myself positively:

"When you find yourself going through Hell, keep going" Winston Churcill
"Just Keep Spinning, Just Keep Spinning"
"There will be good times & bad times, neither will last forever" Rebecca Rusch
"That hill was o.k., the next hill will be o.k. too"
"It's just a flesh wound, I've had worse" Monty Python The Holy Grail
"You must Race with the legs you have, not the legs you want, make the most of them"
"Every day above the ground is better than one below it" my Grandma Maud
"Only 25, 20, 15 more miles to Madison"
"Pedal when you can, spin when need to, get off & stretch if you have to, it's ok"
"Keep your Eyes on the Prize, the Quest for the Gravel Grail!"

All of these phrases helped some, none of them helped enough to end my misery. I've enjoyed meeting new friends in the 2nd half of the Kanza each of the past few years. But I was so deep in my pain cave that I could barely see daylight. Every hill hurt. Most forced me to shake my legs out, or get off to stretch, or walk. I did cross paths with a new friend I had met in the 1st hundred miles, Mike Tam from North Carolina. We had introduced ourselves while riding in Garth's big group before Texaco Hill. Now he was suffering as much as I was both physically & from multiple mechanicals. When he caught up to me around mile 140 we shared some words of encouragement. I was glad to have a partner in this struggle. But soon the cramps returned & I drifted off his wheel.

Just like last year, I was counting down every mile to the oasis of the last check point. I prayed that I would be able to rally for the final section after a short rest. I found Jim near the middle of Madison's Main Street. I told him that my legs were no better but that I would finish one way or another. I drank deeply from the pickle jar. I lay down on the pavement and put my legs up on the tailgate of his car to massage out the lactic acid. Jim meanwhile got my bike lubed for the final section & my bottles switched. He told me after the race that he questioned whether I could finish but he did not show it at the time. I rolled away from the car toward the exit. Spotting a pair of EMT's I called out "do you have any spare legs in the ambulance? These legs are broken! I need a new set!"

Despite my slow pace through the third section somehow I left Madison before 5:30 p.m. With some luck I could still beat the sun. That thought kept me focused for the first few miles of the last section. But those were not easy miles. I gritted my teeth on every rocky incline. I caught Mike Tam, he had suffered a mechanical again. This time he drifted off my wheel as we churned through the hills. I tried to ride in small groups to save some energy. I met a Sunflower Bike racer in one of them, Paul Heimbach. But as the leg cramps came back I dropped out of the rotation & watched his group continue up the road.

As the course approached Olpe the roads got smoother, I was feeling a little better, and my pace picked up. I knew I would beat the sun if I could just ride steady. My legs kept cramping but not as severely. Unfortunately my pickle juice swigs seemed to be less & less effective with each hour. I would have to rely on grit alone to finish the race
As Emporia grew closer, I started catching a few others. I could not pedal very hard, but I could keep pedaling. I tried a stronger effort on the rise before Camp Alexander. My legs screamed in pain. I backed down to steady pedaling for the rest of the run into the ESU campus. Exiting the tunnel I caught up to Paul Heimbach. I called out to him to push for the finish, but he was running on fumes. I pressed on to catch the wheel of a younger guy up Highland Hill. As we came down into campus I was on his tail. Somehow I came around him in the finish sprint to the line.

Finish Line: the Beautiful

I made it, despite all the physical & mental anguish of the past 120 miles. I won't deny that I buried my head on LeLan's shoulder and sobbed for a minute. I was completely spent from the struggle of the past 8 hours. But it was done. Slowly, very slowly, the elation of finishing the Dirt Kanza began to wash over me. The continual cheers of the crowd for every Kanza finisher are magical that way. I stumbled out of the finish chute to find Jim waiting for me. He took my bike to the car while I sat for a long stretch in the recovery tent. I saw Kris & Amber Auer who had both finished earlier with top results. As I told the story of my race, complaining of my bad legs, the guy setting up the compression leg sleeves admonished me. He said "stop complaining, you just finished one of the hardest races in the country, that is something to be proud of regardless of your placing" He was right. Hundreds of other DK racers were still trying to make it to the finish. Just as many would not be able to do so that day. Some how I managed to do it again, before sunset even. I had completed the quest.
completely wrung out in the finish chute
I hobbled over to the Free State Brewery tent for my first beer in over a month. Jim returned as I was sipping it. I spotted Dan Hughes on the other side of the alley. He congratulated me on finishing and we swapped stories of our misfortunes on this year's course. We were both crusty & tired, but happy to be at the finish line of another Kanza.
Dan Hughes after the finish
The awards ceremony the next morning was almost as electric as Commercial Street the night before. Both the men's & women's races came down to tight finishes. In fact the women's overall had never before been decided in a sprint. I gave Amanda Nauman a hug as she passed me & told her that she is a true champion. I was all smiles to join the other new 1000 mile club members on stage.

Garth Prosser & I meet again  at awards for the 1000 mile club
What did I gain from this year, besides a new cup too fancy to drink from? I learned that Greg Lemond was correct, it never gets easier. In fact sometimes it gets a whole lot harder. I know that I still need to find the perfect formula to prevent my leg cramps. Was it not enough magnesium or skipping an amino acid supplement on race day? Not enough race miles before the big event or enough deep stretching & massage? I will get this right before my next Kanza. Mostly I learned that I am mentally tougher than I ever knew. I managed to keep pedaling through severe pain to reach my primary goal, simply to finish. I can do harder things than I thought I could. The best part of the Kanza this year was the collective, the many friends old or new I shared smiles & struggles with.

I will be back to race the Dirty Kanza again. I made a promise to my wife to skip next year, but I will return. Honestly I think I need the break. That only means I have 102 weeks to plan, plot, and train for another chance to realize the dream: a perfect run at the Dirty Kanza. Long Live the Quest for the Gravel Grail & good luck in your next adventures, fellow DK disciples.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

How hard is hard, how cold is cold? All weather cycling

I do not actually ride in all conditions. I like to take the winter off from regular cycling so that I can enjoy skiing & hiking. It is very hard to be a year round cyclist in northern New England, but I am a great admirer of the few who are, the Rowell's most notably.

That said, to ride enough to be ready to race once Spring comes takes a commitment to train through every type of weather. From April until the beginning of June in my corner of New Hampshire we will get rain, wind, snow, 40F days & 85F days. I hate to ride the rollers once the skis are put away, so I must gear up physically & mentally to ride in whatever conditions the day brings. Here is what I've learned about that in the past 12 years.

1) There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing:

The first & key element to cycling in New England spring conditions is having lots of good clothing options. Jackets, tights, thermal jerseys, wind proof base layers, caps, booties, & all sorts of gloves are requisite. Multiples of each for different temperatures, rain conditions, & wind speed (yes there's a difference between riding into a 5 mph wind & a 15+ mph wind). Everyone has different levels of comfort in conditions, so you will have to experiment to find what works best in terms of clothing. I don't want to estimate how much I've invested in having enough clothes to meet the range the conditions. But I wouldn't be able to ride every day without my collection either.

While it is deadly to under dress, once can be overdressed on a cool spring ride too. When you are over heated you will get wet from the inside out. To avoid this adjust your layers when you can. Also, use your zipper, meaning un-zip your jacket or vest going up hill, zip up at the top to avoid getting chilled on the descent.

2) Keep the fire burning, fuel up.
Riding in the cold takes more out of you, literally. I am never more hungry than after several hours of riding in the cold. Fuel up ahead of the ride, i.e. a nice big breakfast. Stay fueled on the ride, make sure to eat something every 30-45 minutes of any ride longer than 3 hours. An old school tip is to take a baked potato right out of the oven for your center back pocket, keeps you warm on the outside & it will keep you warm from the inside if you eat it mid ride.

3) Attitude is everything. "It's a fine day to ride", "WWSKD?, What would Sean Kelly Do?", "Shut Up Legs". What ever phrase or incentive you need to get out & ride, use it. Sometimes I plan a cold hard ride to finish at a favorite bakery so that a good pastry & a double cappuccino is the incentive. Sometimes I promise myself a sauna. Sometimes I plan to make steak & frites for dinner. Any thing that gets you out to ride on the cold wet days is worthwhile.