Monday, December 14, 2009

We are Not Portland! serious cyclocross and its rewards

New England cyclocross is serious competitive racing.

We do not indulge in the every weekend kegger-cross that is the staple of the pacific northwest. We do not believe that cyclocross events require special costumes beyond typical race team kit, or gearless bikes, or theme events, or hot tub run ups, or doggie cross.

No; cyclocross is a race, not a two-wheeled masquerade or a carnival freakshow.

That said, we do still like to have fun. Its just that making a race like a party, is like having waffles for dinner: if you do it every week, it stops being special, it becomes ordinary.

Once or twice a season is enough to let your freak flag fly,

like at Orchard Cross,

and of course at Ice Weasels.

These races had it all this year, hilarious costumes, beer hand ups galore, donut feeds, pitzone tail gating grills, and lots of noise.

My race at Ice Weasels was remarkably bad

after a very good start.

But I had fun, and I did hop the planks in the race!

Thanks to everyone who made the 2009 New England cyclocross season a blast. See you next year.

photos by Ryan Kelly

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

True Cross Conditions: bog skippers and mud suckers

Cyclocross fans relish the type of weather that makes others wince.
50 degrees and ankle deep mud? love it.
40 degrees and pouring rain? perfect.
30 degrees and blowing snow drifts? bring it on.
These are the types of weather where road racers climb on the trainer, and mtb racers slow to a walk. True cyclocrossers just grin and ride away.

This year we have more than our average share of "true" cyclocross conditions. From the start of the season monsoon at Palmer, to the hurricane at Gloucester, to the swamp in Maine, to the wind driven snow in Narragansett, every other week has had tough conditions. Plenty of New England racers now have neoprene gloves, portable spray washers, and tall rubber boots in their gear list.

photo by N. McKittrick
I've never excelled in heavy course conditions. I do fine racing in the cold and wet, but thick muddy courses have always thrown me. Earlier this year, though, I watched an interview with Mo Bruno-Roy, a.k.a. Ms. Mudluscious, the Mistress of Muck. She said that she does well in the slop, not because she is a high wattage power rider, but because she decides to enjoy the mud rather than let it get her down. I took that attitude into my races at Maine, and it made all the difference. I kept slogging away on the muddiest courses I've ever seen. I finished both days when 1/3 of my field dropped out. As Lance says, pain is temporary, quitting is forever.

NBX dished up two days of true cyclocross weather for us to enjoy this year. I had hoped that I would be able to race before the rain on Saturday, Nope. It went from drizzle to a steady light rain at 40 degrees for our race. I was dressed just well enough to keep warm, but not well enough to keep my energy levels high. I had a rotten start when Frank Mc jammed the start by running around me to the 2nd row at the whistle. I came off the pavement just about DFL. I was able to run past the stack up on the first hill and ride around a few other falls. By the time we reached the beach I was able to run my way into the top 30. 3 laps in, however, I started running low on gas. Each lap 1 or 2 guys would come past. I was not able to jump on wheels and keep my place. I kept driving as hard as I could without wrecking. I was bringing back Rob Kramer on the last lap and could see a few others ahead, but did not have enough to catch him by the line. I rode strong through all the mud sections without incident though. Immediately after the finish I raced to get dry clothes and then to the changing room before I started shivering uncontrollably. I was still cold an hour after the race.

Sunday was another set of challenges. Snow over night had left frozen crust in the corners. The wind had dried out most of the course, but there were still a few large mud holes, just enough to soak your feet. The wind was blowing at 15-20 mph with 35 degree temps. Fortunately there were 2 beach runs this day. I was able to move up or gain on the guys ahead of me each run. Unfortunately my hip flexors started to cramp with 2 to go. I had to soft pedal for half a lap, losing contact with Rob Kramer (again) and the chance to catch the next group. But I was able to keep rolling. I limited my losses to one more spot behind Rob; painfully to the big G himself. For the 2nd year in a row I was Gewillied at NBX on the last lap. Still, I ended the weekend with out frost bite or hypothermia. The wet and cold are hard on everyone, but true cyclocross racers just learn how to ride through it and recover.

Monday, November 30, 2009

It Ain't Tiddlywinks

When I started racing cyclocross in the elite masters event three years ago, I thought how much harder could it be than the killer B race. I learned very quickly that in New England, it is alot harder. Most all of the guys that line up every weekend know what they are doing, they come prepared mentally and physically, and they will not give up an inch, even for 50th place. If you let your focus wander, or have a mechanical, or are just a little bit off energy wise, you will lose 10 places in about a minute. A bad early lap and you will drop 20 places or more.

Sterling this year was a good race for a bad weekend, both days. I have a hard time getting good rest and nutrition at my in-laws. We spent Thanksgiving there this year, and I tried, but only somewhat succeeded in eating well, sleeping well, and staying healthy. So when I showed up to race Saturday I could tell I was fighting a stomache bug. Since Saturdays course was the old familiar one, I took 2 quick laps and went to the trainer. Had a decent warmup but kept pushing fluids to settle my bad belly. Got a very good start (for me) right outside of the top 20 through the first lap. Came past Jerry early in the 2nd lap and gassed it to keep him off my wheel, then I lost focus and dropped a dozen spots. In a matter of seconds I went from where I wanted to be in the race to a minute behind. I tried to stomp the pedals to get back to the next group of five. With the wind gusting up to 30+ mph, groups of 4-5 guys controlled the pace. My belly caught up to me then and I could not push to catch the groups that had just passed me. Dan Coady and Frank McCormack caught me and I grouped up with them for a few turns. I realized that Frank was soft pedaling around the course, so I attacked out of that group to go catch the next one. The last two laps I spent going back and forth with Kevin Buckley until he clipped a tree on the last lap and went down hard. I came through but got pipped at the line from failing to see a racer on my wheel. C'est la vie. I was thrilled to have beaten most of my nemesises and a few guys I have not before.

Sunday the belly was marginally worse. I hoped that a good warmup would take care of it. No such luck. I did a longer preview of the new course. On the 3rd time around, Jerry lead me down the one tricky descent and used his magnetic powers yet again to cause me to crash. I not only hit my right hip hard, but smashed my watch. So I head over to the trainer with no way to tell time and no heart rate info. Perfect. I did three openers in what I guessed was the right zone and for the proper lengths of time. Climb off to get to the start only to have my strap on my right shoe come apart, my pit bike develop a bad brake rub, and the 2nd call to stagging announced. I got to stagging just after everyone else was lined up losing my call up. Got to the back of the line and the official blows the whistle while I am still standing beside my bike. Start readiness FAIL. Managed to catch the tail end of the group by the first corner, then put all my energy into working up through the bunch. Pushed with everything I had to make up ground for the first two laps, wondering the whole time when I would blow up. I dabbed and jammed myself on corners a few times, but kept upright. Funny thing is after three laps I caught and passed Jerry, I caught a few more guys, and then instead of blowing up, I just started cruising along. Unfortunately I had no more gass to catch anyone else. So when Dan Coady and Frank McCormack came through, I tried to jump on their wheels, but had no more jump. I spent the last lap battling with GeWilli and Martin. I got around Martin but couldn't catch GeWilli before the sprint. I'm glad I made the best of an otherwise bad race day.

Still, I can say I beat a McCormack for the first time, sick or not. I was running up the hill and over the barriers as fast as ever.

I also have an even greater appreciation for the reality that in New England Cyclocross, you must come prepared in every way every time.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Down but not out.

One of my cyclocross mentors told me a few years ago "in racing sometimes you're the hammer, sometimes you're the nail". This weekend in Lowell I was the nail, and someone was swinging the 10lb. sledge. Going down in a race is never good. But getting my front wheel chopped 100 meters off the start line, sommersaulting onto the turf from a full sprint, and then getting run over by 2 or 3 guys, well lets just say I'm a bit sore right now. And that was the first 2 minutes of the race.

Yes, I did get up. And I chased like a man possessed. I even managed to work my way back to the top half of the field by mid race. But then I had a mechanical, and went down again, twice. I rode slowly around the back half of the course to get my pit bike. And I kept on racing. The best thing I've heard said about Tim Johnson was Richard Fries talking about his comeback at Gloucester in 2007, he said "its not the size of the dog in the fight, its the size of the fight in the dog" I try to remember this when I have a setback in a race. So I was not DFL (although close) and I did not DNF. Almost half of the 35+ field did drop out. No doubt because lots of guys were having trouble staying on the bike.

The trick is to realize that in cyclocross everyone goes down sometime,

flahutes get up and finish,

Champions get up & go faster than everyone else.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Gloucester; the really big show.

"I don't have a work ethic. I just have work... If I'm going to catch up to you." Capt. Billy Tyne "The Perfect Storm"

Gloucester has been everything I love and everything I fear about cyclocross over the past 5 years. It is like the mythological siren, sitting on the rocks singing so perfectly, until I wreck myself on the sandy shore. Gloucester is just hard enough to be a good cyclocross course, without being so technical that the roadies stay away. It is far enough into the season that there are few competing events, but early enough that everyone is still racing. And since it is the biggest race in the most intense cyclocross region in the nation, everyone shows up with their A game. The fields are large, the racing furious, and the fans are loud.

A few of my best cyclocross moments have been at Gloucester; like riding through 2 inch mud without a fall, or learning to ride the sand pit. Watching the pros masacre each other in 3 inches of slushy fresh snow. Most memorably, starting dead last in the C race (from a dropped chain on the line) and working my way up to 8th in 2 laps.

A few 0f my worst moments in bike racing have been at Gloucester; like three years ago when I caught my rear skewer on a course stake only to have the rear wheel fall completely out of the frame when I shouldered the bike to run the sand, or the first time I ran file treads and lost it going down the hill toward the pit on the first lap (nearly impaling myself on a course stake at 25 mph), or most of all, getting a face full of someones chainring in a first lap pile up the last time I did the killer B race (requiring 30+ stitches to close the cuts, the only time I've needed to leave a bike race in an ambulance).

Still, every time I dream of doing well in a cyclocross race, its winning the sprint up the pavement at Gloucester. Richard Fries calling out on the microphone, and the whole New England cross flock screaming at the barriers.

This year, Gloucester was o.k. race wise: one fall from some one elses error, a good race after I got going again, a result I can live with. Fan wise, it was phenomenal as always. Jonathan putting on a clinic in the slop, Laura VG and Mo Bruno gritting it out despite the setbacks, Lyne returning to race CX, Mosher vs. Gunsalus vs. Morse showing that they race as hard as ever.

I am certain Gloucester will call me back again next year. Can't stay away from the really big show.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Cyclocross and other disorders

Cyclocross, cyclocross; CX is simply the most masochistic of all the self loathing variants of bicycle racing. If bicycle racing is about the suffering, then cyclocross is beating yourself to a pulp and laughing at your own tears, repeatedly. It is completely draining physically, daunting technically, grinding mentally, brutally competitive and thoroughly addictive. Anyone who races bicycles for pleasure is a little bit mad. Everyone who races cyclocross is thoroughly psychotic. And Belgians are the most crazed of all. Check it out:

Superprestige overzicht 2008-2009 from jef cleemput on Vimeo.

Friday, June 5, 2009

A Typology of Freds: the man in the helmet mirror

Everyone who lines up week in and out for the fastest group ride around knows that "Fred" is a cycling insult. Of all the bicycle freaks, Freds are the most dorky. To be called Fred is to say that you are square among squares, its like being called a nerd by the chess club. You still belong, but you are on the bottom of the dog pile. There are several types of "Fred" as follows;

1) The Classic Fred: The O.F. or original fred shows up to the Wednesday Night Road World Championships with a Camelback, wearing an non-descript jersey, SPD touring shoes, a decade old helmet (with mirror) and riding a hopelessly slow bike. If he is a mountain biker at heart, he will have a rack and mini-pump attached to the seattube, if he is training for his first tri, clip on aero bars. The classic fred has no idea why everyone is going so slow for the first 3 miles or what is going on at a town line, even if he's been on this ride before. The one advantage that the classic fred has is that he does know how to ride a bike reasonably well. Which is a big improvement over the next type of Fred.

2) The Neo-Fred: The neo fred is the guy who gave up running or tennis and found cycling. While recovering from an arthroscopic procedure, he caught Le Tour on Versus and thought "hey, I bet I can do that!" So he read everything he can in a week on Velonews and PezCycling about being Pro. Next off he goes to the Local Bike Shop to buy a full Record or Dura Ace Pro team bike, orders the matching Pro team jersey/bibshorts/socks/& cap from the aptly named, finds some Pro eyewear, Pro team helmet, and lastly gets fitted footbeds for his Pro carbon soled shoes (white of course, to match the white saddle, white bar tape, and white shifter hoods). The neo-fred shows up on Wednesday night after asking the shop guys where he can ride hard (like a pro). He may even roll up with his i-pod ear buds dangling from under his helmet straps. Unfortunately neo-freds think the thousands and thousands of dollars they've spent entitle them to be on the fast ride and talk like they know something about cycling. (as opposed to the regulars who only have thousands and thousands of miles in their legs) Fortunately the neo-fred rarely hangs on past the first 10 miles. If one makes it through that first ride, they will likely drop off at the end of the month. But it is a common occurrence each summer, like fruit flies in the kitchen. Apparently, there are so many neo-freds that they are forming their own team:

3) The Proto-Fred: The proto-fred is always under 17 years old. He rides a hand me down bike, his only pair of plain black shorts, and a jersey that is too big (or sometimes a t-shirt). Proto-fred really doesn't know any better, because, they're like tadpoles. They are the most likely fred to ride in the wrong gear, wreck themselves on a sprint, and neglect to drink because they can't get the bottle out of the cage in a group. And like tadpoles, they don't stay that way very long. In a matter of weeks they are pedaling through corners, drafting tight in the pace line, and taking emails from team directors about racing next season. The proto-fred is good for cycling's future and is the most tolerable type of Fred.

4) The Super Fred: One should always be cautious about casually dismissing another rider as merely a Fred. The Super Fred looks just like the classic type. He has hairy legs and an old ugly bike. He might be sporting a Camelback or fenders on his road bike. But he can also ride you off his wheel without breathing hard. The Super Fred just got done with some monumental mileage tour, or was the state cross country champion, or both. The first Super Fred was Fred Birchmore of Athens GA, who criss-crossed the Giro route in 1935 on a 50lb touring bike. He did this in the midst of riding 25,000 miles around the globe over 2 years. He was remarkably out of place on the race route with his touring gear, but could ride like he was racing with the peloton. So much so that he was noted by the writers covering the race and his name is permanently in cycling lore. He was the origin of the term "Fred" in cycling. There are very few Super Freds, but when one shows up, just smile and get on his wheel. Some pro racers were Super Freds, like Svein Tuft. Many serious cyclists are jealous of the Super Fred.

5) The Uber-Fred: This the last, latest, and most annoying type of fred. The Uber-Fred is convinced that they alone understand the "essence of cycling". They are Serrotta riding, Rapha clad, embrocating, cafe ferrets. They are as interested in wearing the right reproduction wool jersey as they are riding hard. They will spend as much time over their cappucino after the ride as they did on the ride. They drool over glossy books and "journals" about steel bikes or races from 30 years ago. They may hold on for the whole distance, they may not. It matters less to them than if they look good in the new vintage trainer. While many of them can ride fast, the cloud of smugness that follows behind makes drafting difficult with out an inhaler.

Truth be told, I was a proto-fred, I dress like a classic fred when I commute, and I like the cafe' as much as any uber-fred. I think most cyclists have been a Fred at one time, and still have some Fred in them somewhere. I suggest we all embrace the Fred inside of us. So, don't be afraid of your own fred-liness, and try to be kind when a Fred rolls up on your favorite group ride. After all, that Fred may just be the man in the helmet mirror looking back.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Pedaling Squares

For racers, pedaling squares means something specific; pushing the pedals hard when you are already exhausted or undertrained. The cranks turn over in a stiff jerky motion instead of the smooth arc when one is riding strong. To everyone else, it potentially means something completely different. Most people look at us lycra clad, leg shaving, wheel obsessed skinny weenies and think one thing: bike geek. Despite the progress in the popularity of bike racing over the past 10 years, no matter the number of bicycles in garages, regardless of the joy every American kid gets from their first two wheels; Grown men who ride more 10 miles a year and own all the appropriate cycling gear are seen as dweebs, dorks, nerds, square pegs, i.e. pedaling squares.

I became a bike geek pretty early on. I could say it was when my best friend got a new Motebecone 10 speed with leather bar tape for his 11th birthday, or when I heard about a skinny kid from Reno winning the rainbow jersey, but it goes back further. I am sure it was when the training wheels came off my silver Schwinn Stingray. It was love at first ride, age 6. Most kids love the freedom their bike affords them at age 8 & 9. A few us just never loose the love affair. By jr. high I didn't care (much) that kids laughed at my goofy long black lycra shorts, or in highschool at the steel mountain bike I commuted on. I just pedaled fast to the first town line to escape the noise, to find some freedom. I read Bicycling magazine cover to cover every month (when it was more than 30 pages). And I still get a thrill from a long hard ride or a new bike. Once a bike geek, always a bike geek.

But we live in a strange age. First MC Hammer made "bike shorts" popular (though with out the bike). Then came the first wave of enviro chic and mountain bikes became popular (though typically for riding on pavement with knobby tires). Then came the age of Lance. Cycling became the new golf. Lots of 30-40ish professionals bought high end road machines, complete kit, and sunglasses. Then (perhaps to justify the thousands of dollars just spent) they jumped into the local fast group ride, only to discover that cycling is well, hard. It hurts to go fast. It hurts more to fall off the group pace. And it hurts alot more to fall down. Lance left the building, Tiger returned to the links, and now golf is the new golf.

And now we have hipsters; 20 something urban alt kids who like to play bike messenger. Fixed gear track bikes with riser bars are uber cool. Some of these kids even try to ride their bikes fast, or enter a local race or two. I can not describe or critique fixie culture properly, so I leave that to the Snob . I do know that I live over a 100 miles from the nearest metro area, yet even here I spy college kids sporting cobbled together retro fixies, wearing throw back punk band hoodies and Jack Spade bags. Eventually almost all of these hipster kids will get careers, loose the piercings, or laser off the knuckle tattoos. They'll trade PBR for Chardonay. The old fixie bike will end up on craigslist or in the garage behind the mini-van.

And that's O.K.; JFK was right on when he said "Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a bike ride" (even if he didn't likely mean it for himself). So I'll keep riding every day that I can; I'll commute to work on the clunker bike, or ride the local trails on the mtb, or race my buddies at the next town line on the group ride, or pin on a number on the weekend. My friends will still be the guys who can tell you in grams the weight of most of the parts on their bikes (and probably yours too). They'll still be willing to spend more on a new set of tubular tires than a new set snow tires. I'll still be fighting with the Mrs. over the good leg razor. Crusty, cranky, worn out, cycling obsessed fools that we are, we'll just keeping putting in the miles. Obliviously happy to be pedaling squares.