Friday, October 8, 2010

'Crossed Out: its too early to feel this beat.

photo by Zoo

The greatest part of New England cyclocross is there are so many good races. The toughest part of New England cyclocross is that there are so many good races & racers.

Last weekend was the biggest event of them all, Gloucester. The course is not the toughest, but the competition is, and so I am always at my limit racing Gloucester. But more on that later.

The season has started fast and furious this year. Quad CX was intense. Then I raced three doubles in a row; Catamount 1&2, Loon/SBX, and Gloucester. Loon was hard both for the course, and that I ran around helping out all day. Sucker Brook is just a shoulder to shoulder speed fest, seemingly more so every year.

And this year we add to the mix a mid-week night race, Nacht von Weasel. This race is scheduled in between Gloucester and Providence to make NECX Superweek. I wanted to rock the Weasel. But I couldn't rock the Weasel. Family commitments take precedence during the week. I had a commitment on Columbus Day weekend before the season started, so no Providence Cup either.

I'm o.k. with this, really. I felt like I had been dropped from the top of the rock the day after Gloucester. My poor old aching left knee needs some rest. Especially since there are 9 weeks left in the cyclocross season AFTER Columbus Day. I expect that some guys are going to be burnt to a crisp next Monday. I don't want to be one of them.

Back to Gloucester. I had a startlingly similar weekend as last year, only this year it was dry and fast. I started much better on day 1, up in the top 30 where I hoped to stay. But my knee blew up after 2 laps. After going backward about 20 places, I decided it was better to live for another day. So I stepped off the course and went to find an ice pack for the knee.

photo by Zoo

Day 2 also started very well. I moved up 20+ spots coming off the pavement to the top 40. Then the whole bunch compacted on the run-up off the sea wall. At the top the guy ahead of me tripped and I ran into him. I knocked myself off course and my chain off the bike. I got back on at the very back of the bunch. So I lost about 30 spots in 30 seconds. I chased hard up the group for the next lap getting back 20 of those spots. I was closing in on the top half of the field, but could not push my knee any harder. I pedaled as easy as I could without slowing down too much for a lap. In that lap, the 4 guys chasing me bridged up, including my arch nemesis G-Ride. As we drafted along the far straight away he flatted, so it was just me and the other two guys. I attacked hard with 2 to go into the hillside chicane. I opened up a quick 10 second gap. I kept pressing on the bell lap. I could now see two of the guys ahead of me that I let go on lap 4. But I could not get to them before the finish. I did manage to keep my spot. 50th. Not what I had hoped for, but a wee bit better than last year, and a minute closer to the leaders.

photo by Todd Prekaski

The best part of Gloucester this year was that the party afterward was bigger & better than ever. G-Ride is correct, club tent row made for a better party. Chip Baker throws one premier 'cross party (Hup Hup Hup) Plus they had more good beers at the sponsor tent. To top it off, I got to meet the man behind THE blog, monsieur metro critique himself, BSNYC.

So I had a good Gloucester, and 5 days afterward I feel almost recovered. Plenty of more racing left in this season. I'd rather enjoy it all, than be 'crossed out.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Merry CX-Mas & Happy 'Cross Chanukah

Bike racing is a gear intensive sport. Once I started racing I also started wanting multiple wheelsets, tubular tires, cassettes, saddles, and new kit every year. I end up getting a whole lot of stuff all at once before the season begins, so that everything is ready when needed. Once when I was at my sponsoring LBS picking up the pre-season big box of parts and tires, a customer looked over at my haul and said it looked like Christmas morning. Getting spiffy new gear is a bit like being a kid on Christmas. But when I get my road or mtb parts, I usually have to wait a few months to enjoy them; I don't get to play with all the new toys right away. So its just not as exciting as Christmas

Cyclocross season is different. I get parts and clothes specifically for cyclocross in September. Its a second round of new gear excitement for the year. Plus, the cyclocross season is right on top of us, so close I can almost smell it. Its like getting gifts on Christmas Eve!

I know I am not alone;

I read the excited FB and twitter posts from my 'cross racing buddies about their new gear.

Whether it's just stocking stuffers like new pedals, brakepads, or hoods.

or if you've been pretty good, fancy tires and new team kit

or if you've been really good St. Niklaas brings you zippy new wheels or a whole new bike!

even the best masters and pro racers get excited for their pre-season presents;

So I'm calling this season of new toys and childlike excitement CX-Mas

or as Maestro Myerson suggested, 'Cross Chanukah

regardless of which you prefer, I hope you get all you wished for. See you at the big race.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

You need the Skills

photo by Janice Checchio

The variety of skills needed to race cyclocross is under-appreciated. Cyclocross is not always a criterium on grass, it is not usually a mtb cross country race on narrow tires. The skills are more than just hopping off the bike and over a set of planks. Going fast in cyclocross takes a long list of techniques for the various challenges.

photo by Janice Checchio

Nor'Easter Cyclocross at Loon has to be the most challenging course I've raced in New England. In Europe near impossible descents on cyclocross courses are more common than in the U.S. In the early days of cyclocross, courses would include "death drops" that today seem like mtb gravity stunts. I've watched Belgian races on the inter tubes where some downhills are better to run than to ride. Loon was challenging because the descents were HARD, white knuckle full brake grip hard. Anyone who could carve down the loose steep twisty descents got plenty of free speed to help them win. I was pushed to my limit in transitioning from tough climb, to tougher descent. But I made it down everything without touching the dirt, at least in the race. I would have liked to go down it faster, but I made it clean. Of course you still had to run, sprint, and dismount, but it was descending that made the race.

photo by Rob Bauer

Sucker Brook CX required other skills than just hopping barriers. SBX is a flat course with few features that experienced cyclocross racers would find challenging. The only places you can get into trouble is cornering too fast on the grass or in the loose section on the fire road. So I went back on word to myself, and signed up for the Killer B race. The only time I've left a bike race in an ambulance was the last Killer B (cat 3) race I did 6 years ago. I needed to be at the front early to avoid the carnage. I figured that top 15 coming off the start would be good enough. I was wrong.

I got to the start a little late and was on the 3rd row. I popped the start hard and moved up to 10th coming through the grassy turns, so I figured I was golden. But as we came over a set of dusty little whoop-de-dos, the guys in front of me stacked it. Anyone who pre-road the course would expect to just roll over these. It was hard to see in the dust, but no need to STOP. From going 20 mph to complete stop shot me off course. I jumped back on the course from behind the pile-up, only to be blocked and forced off the bike again 100 meters further up. And I drop my chain too. To add actual insult to injury G-Ride heckles me as he comes past. (like Nelson going Ha-haw, "kryptonite") So from 10th to DFL in under a minute, just because kids these days don't know how to ride their bikes in the dust! I jumped back on full of fury, racing in anger. I managed to ride everything clean the rest of race, hopping the log feature every lap, chasing back up to the front half of the group. I even cut under G-Ride in a loose corner as revenge, but without taking anyone out. I could make all the turns, but I could not keep my head together enough to move up to the top 20. I was mentally exhausted from my rage over the first 3 laps. The skills are not just bike handling. I needed to keep a grip on my anger.

A completely clean race and a top 10 result would have been nice. I should apologize now to all the cat. 3 racers I yelled at as I tore past in laps 1&2. I was loud, I was angry, I wasn't nice. And everyone has to learn their skills somehow. The cat. 3 race is the place for guys who have more speed than experience. I realize that I did not get the nick-name "CCR" by accident, but by lots of accidents, and slips, spills, splash downs, generally poor bike driving. Yet, each incident taught me something to improve my CX skills. Everyone falls down sometimes, good racers develop the skills to go faster and fall less. To race cyclocross, you need the Skills.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Deep End of the Pool: swimming with New England CX sharks

photo by Janice Checchio

New England does not have the highest turnout for cyclocross races, I think that goes to Chicago area 'cross or to Seattle. Nor does it always have the nastiest weather, that definitely goes to Portland. But it does have a very deep field in most every field.
Last weekend was the New England Championship Series #1-2. And it was the second week of the season. About 400 total racers each day lined up in northern Vermont, half the draw that will come to Gloucester or NoHo. The turnout was light partially because there is still road racing going on, partially because the course at the Catamount Center is hard; really really hard. Day 1 had 486 feet of climbing each lap. The masters 35+ did 5 laps in 42 minutes to the leaders for almost 2500 feet of climb. Day 2 was not much easier since there is no coasting on this course, it was all grass power sections, turns, and short steep climbing.
But the biggest factor in making the races tough, is the competition. I counted 5 current national champions, 9 former national champions (in juniors or masters or collegiate), and 1 former and 1 current worlds masters champion, including the current pro/elite U.S. champion, the guy pictured above. Every field had deep talent. Everyone was racing for their best result.
And that is the lesson that I learned last week; in New England cyclocross, victories are rare for most. Even podiums or top 10's are hard to come by. If you're going to be a cyclocross racer, you have to race for the love of it. There are much less demanding ways to win trophies and medals. Bike racing in these parts is about the love of going as fast as you can, and trying to do a bit better each time. It helps to keep your sense of humor and humility packed with your race kit. Those things help salvage a badly bruised ego after a tough race.
It also helps that we are friendly, if often sarcastic, bunch. I love the camaraderie of the NE cyclocross regulars almost as much as the racing, almost. Because I do love to race cyclocross first and most of all.
I think everything you need to understand about the depth of cyclocross around here, is summed up in 1:40 sec of video shot by the uber cyclocross nut, Henry Jurenka. Note the first shot, 2 current, and one former master's national champion. Everybody, though, giving it their all. Enjoy.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Not Dead Yet....

Yes, dear blog, I've been away for a long time. But I have not forgotten you. Its just, well, I've been distracted for a few months, by training, and racing, and being injured, and getting over a chronic injury, and starting to train/race/recover again.

A few things I've re-learned along the way:

Training is not racing. No matter how hard the group ride or the intervals, they are not like a race. There is not the same level of effort, fear, or thrill as in a hard race.

Racing is not training. Maybe for the pro's it can be, but there are too few chances to race, and too many guys trying to smack me down to treat any race as just a training event. If I am going to suit up for a race, than I better come prepared to give it a wee bit more than group ride.

The most important race to win, is the one between your ears. The old maxim "I am my own worst enemy" is true for racing bikes as well. We all can underperform when we think "I can't", whether it is closing a gap, positioning for a sprint, or climbing a hill. We also wreck our chances at peak performance by failing to sleep enough, eat the right food, stay hydrated, or get to the race fully equiped. Daily focus and good habits help race day performance. The most stunning fact I've learned this week is that mental stress can lower hematocrit levels! So just by being an anxious stressed out mess, I am reducing my blood values and thereby ability to perform.

The converse is true too, the more mentally & emotionally together I can become, the better I will train, the better I will race. It takes more than just having your head in the game, its keeping it together as much as you can, every day. Racing is not like life, it is life. It is not all of my life, but it is an intregal day in day out part of my life, like it is for all racers.

Fortunately, we all have been taught how to win the race between our ears since kindergarten:
Just keep turning over the wheels, you'll get to the top faster than you imagine.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Riding is Not Racing; cycling for honor or keeps.

I love riding my bicycle, I love a good group ride, but that is not racing. Let me begin by stating that everyone starts out riding a bicycle. You have to walk before you can run, ride before you can race.

A fast group ride can seem like a race. The group rolls out, there may be a neutral section for a few miles, or the group may sprint out of the parking lot. Regardless the pace, the last few town lines may be sprints. A new rider maybe clinging onto to the back of the bunch by the end, just like racing. Veteran riders may be worn out from the pace and the sprints. The beauty of the fast group ride is that the training ride can include the dynamics of a road race.

But it is not a race. No one has a bib number, there is no pace car or officials, there is no finish line, there are no prizes. Everyone rides for honor, not for keeps. That fact makes the dynamic different. Sprints may go 4 wide, but not 10 deep. Attacks are as likely to be met with indifference as with counter moves. The pace may be high, but the intensity is not the same.

Racing is a different game. This weekend I failed horribly at my first race of the year. The race was a short time trial that I came to over geared, under rested, and not mentally prepared. I have plenty of legitimate reasons for my poor performance; among them an injured hip from hitting the deck last week, a cold that preoccupied my sinuses, & early season under training. But it is never fun to produce a mediocre performance. At some level I planned it this way. I had low expectations for the first race of the season. If anything it was a chance to practice my pre-race routine. I did manage to get all my gear together and arrive on time to the event. But that was my only very small accomplishment of this event.

I had been doing well in the early group rides, until a slipped pedal vaulted me to the tarmac. But even before that incident, I knew that I was lacking in race fitness. The ability to dig deep into your reserves and then hit the pace hard again & again is what seperates riding from racing.

This week, I will recover, and hit the intervals harder, so that when we are racing, i.e. riding for keeps, I can perserve my honor.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The successful solo break; winning with grand panache

There are many ways to win bike races; from a high octane lead out train, with a well timed sprint out of group, grinding it out when the weather forces most everyone else into the car, even the dumb luck of the chase group going off route. But the most satisfying and most difficult way to win, is the solo break away. Rarely do these moves work. You are setting yourself up for a spartan like battle. It is you against the rest of the pack, or atleast against a motivated chase group, and they all want to steal your glory. It is a fight of one against a dozen.

But every so often, a racer has the talent, the tenacity, and the luck to pull it off. Some guys just seem to have the legs and the guts for this kind of win. A week ago, Fabian Cancellara reminded me of how beautiful that sort of victory is, twice. Joe Parkin described winning this way as the most beautiful victory. When a racer has so much gap coming to the line that he can sit up and enjoy the moment from 100 meters out, he calls it "no one else in the picture".

Another racer a generation ago had the same knack for hard solo victories at Roubaix and Milan-San Remo, Francesco Moser. Cancellara may be his sucessor in race style. Moser was also a tremendously powerful time trialist and attacking racer. He was fluid on the pedals and a mentally tough racer like Cancellara. I hope Spartacus goes on to win many more classics and breaks the hour record too.

I have never won a race this way, perhaps someday I'll find the courage and the opportunity to pull it off.

P.S. Congratulations SoloBreak on a long awaited solo victory.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Ronde van Vlaaderen: flahute pain and glory

The cobbled classics start this week with the E3 Prijs and conclude with the Paris-Roubaix on April 11th. These are all great races. It takes the utmost endurance, strength, skill, and confidence to win any of the hardman races. The brute force of each route combined with the weather make it daunting to ride much less race.

All bike racers are sado-masochists. The only way to win a long hard race, especially if you are going to win solo, is to wear out your competition. You have to attack when the other guys are suffering so much, that they can not even conceive of matching the effort. Cyclists have to be masochists because the only way to develop that strength is torture yourself in training so that you relish that pain. Sometimes in races, the one who can suffer the most wins. Longtime fans of bike racing recognize and appreciate this fact.

It is the level of suffering that makes the Ronde the greatest one day race. Sure, la Primavera is a beautiful race, Liege is the Queen of the Classics, and Roubaix is greatest of the cobbled races. But the intensity, the relentless & steep bergs, the narrow broken roads all make the Ronde the most brutal one day race. It is the only road race where riders frequently have to walk up climbs. It is the only race with its own museum.

Every boy who wants to be tough racer dreams of racing the Ronde.

I can't wait for Sunday!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Personal Progress in Cycling; getting faster and faster

Cycling is a painfully simple sport; ride your bike faster than everyone else. Every cyclist at some point wants to be faster. No matter how accomplished, when a racer stops wanting to become faster, they start losing ground to their competitors. This is true regardless of the number of years a cyclist has been riding. No matter how much faster you are now compared to when you started, it always hard to get that little bit faster yet. My 2nd favorite bike racing quote is from my 1st cycling champion, Greg Lemond:
"It never gets easier, you just go faster"

But cyclists are people, so we want to find the short cut. In seeking that short cut, we make cycling horribly complicated. As the season begins, cyclists eagerly want the magic formula that will make them faster with out the pain and suffering of more hard miles. The three ways I see my buddies trying to defy nature to become faster without effort are in potions, lotions, and notions.

Potions: Cyclists have taken all manners of substances to try to gain an advantage for a century. Without dabling in very very effective but illegal drugs, bike racers can still find a chest full of other "preparations". Whether its amino acid supplements, collodial minerals, mega vitamins, chinese herbal mushrooms, or snake oil, someone will spend hundreds of dollars this month at the "health" food store to boost their energy/recovery/power. Most of the time, these treatments turn out to be worthless. At best they give you the jitters and make your breath bad. If any of these substances really worked well, they'd be banned already.

Lotions: There is a perverse joy to rubbing embrocation on your legs. It hurts so good. While there are many reasons why road racers say that they shave their legs, for all non-pros, there is only one good reason: because we rub lots of lotions on them. The real reason why I think amatuer cyclists shave? Vanity. We all want to look pro. Having said that, shaved legs make embrocation feel SO much better. Hair on the legs just goops up the balm, keeping it from the skin. The secret hot sauce may not make me faster, but it makes me feel like a racer. It makes me think I'll be more comfortable in the race (even if it only helps for the first 10 minutes). Does that largely psychological edge actually help? Maybe

Notions: Just like you, I got plenty of emails every week flogging the latest revolution in training techniques, whether its periodization, power analysis, cycling specific yoga, core conditioning, visualization (I think I can, I think I can), or bike devices. Of course each of these notions takes time away from riding your bike, and/or takes money out of your wallet.

My latest favorite is the crankset & chain ring devices. The more technical cyclists seem obsessed with the "dead spot" in the pedal stroke. So inventors come up with all sorts of devices to "eliminate the dead spot". The simplest is the ovalized chainring set. The more complicated are ratcheting bottom bracket set ups. None of these devices do more than what one-leg drills will, they only do the same thing for longer. The basic way to avoid the dead spot, pull up and push through your pedal stroke faster.

In short, no potion, lotion, or notion can overcome the simple truth: if you want to ride a bike faster you have to push the pedals harder. The super special preparations may make you believe that you can, but you still have to put the power into the pedals. That is all there is to getting faster. Push the pedals harder for longer periods of time; up hills, in sprints, over rollers, in time trials, just Pedal Harder.

Then recover, repeat, rest.

Which brings me to my 1st favorite bike racing quote:

"Don't buy upgrades, ride up grades". Eddy Merckx

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Getting Along to Get Along: the problems of multi vehicle roadways and cycling.

Easily the biggest problem in cycling is safe roadways to ride on. I am not talking about the problems of bike racing, but of cycling in general. And the biggest issue in roadway safety, is driver error. Likely 90% of cycling deaths are caused by dangerous cyclists or more likely, inattentive and dangerous drivers.

This past week two events forced me to think long and hard about this topic, the rant by Tony Kornheiser and the reaction to it by Lance, and the death of Adam Little. The topic is not new. Cyclists have fought for their share of the road for a century. Distracted drivers are dangerous enough, but the risk is compounded by the "get off the road" attitude of many toward cyclists. Every few months someone in the media publicly expresses the bitter animosity that many motorists feel for all cyclists. Frustrated behind the wheel, some motorists (perhaps more than we want to acknowledge) think of all cyclists as pests, even as vermin of the road. When delayed for even a few seconds, they rage. This is true even if their neighbors or family members are cyclists. The rage can easily turn into violent confrontation with serious, even deadly, consequences. Unfortunately this has been true several times in the past few years, whether the road rage ER Doc in L.A. or the firefighter in North Carolina who brandished a pistol at cyclist riding with his son in a childseat?!?.

While there is no justification for assualting another person in a fit of road rage, cyclists do themselves harm if we fail to understand why drivers hate bicycles. I believe it is because most people in this country see driving a car, bus, or tractor as a necessity, and bicycles as merely frivolous recreation. The great challenge we face is to turn this attitude to where everyone views the car and the bicycle as equal choices in transportation. While we may have the law on our side in the case of an accident, that matters little if the law is not enforced. Motorists and the authorities reinforce their negative view by stating that cycling is dangerous because of auto traffic, and therefore not appropriate on the road. I agree with my friend Richard Fries, that the best solution to creating a different attitude amongst drivers, is to be humane, and be on the road. The more frequently cyclists are part of traffic, the more motorists will come to accept our presence.

However, there are good ways to go about this, and not so good ways. The biggest sore spot in many communities is the out of control group ride. I love a good fast group ride, they can be some of the best training and terrific fun. But they are not races, and should be not conducted like a race. My little town has alot of group rides, usually 8-9 a week during the season. most of the time, these rides are very responsible; everyone stops at lights, people ride in 2's, and we single up for passing traffic. Occassionally, one of these rides gets out of control; some one from out of town starts riding across the lane, or ignoring traffic, or shooting the shaft at drivers. When this happens, we hear about it very quickly. The local PD knows to call the owners of the local bike shop, who know everyone that runs the various group rides. One advantage of living in a small town is that we are accountable to each other. But that doesn't stop problems entirely. I've had angry conversations about cyclists and group rides, even with my neighbors. In larger areas, where rides are more anonymous, and traffic more congested, I imagine the problems can be impossible. But as cyclists, I believe that we are responsible for riding without causing needless conflict with auto traffic. When group rides regularly show blatant disregard for motorists, we are all put in greater danger.

The second group of cyclists that I have mixed opinions about is Critical Mass. On the one hand, I appreciate the attempt to make cycling in urban areas more accepted/visible. I admire their activism. On the other hand, I am not sure that sometimes obnoxiously stopping traffic is the best way to accomplish the goal. Critical mass rides can quickly devolve into mob rule, complete with taunting cars and throwing things. The reality is that if we allow mob rule to govern the roadways, cyclists will loose. We are a vulnerable minority on the road. Cars and motorists outnumber us by every measure. If it came to vote, I believe some communities would restrict cycling to the bike path only. It is easy for people who have never ridden a bicycle faster than 12 mph, or haven't ridden in decades, to vote for such a measure. We need to remember we have both rights and responsibilities for safe cycling. Our ability to enjoy our sport may depend on it. We only improve our position if we ride in a way that motorists can respect us. We have to share the road too.

This is not to say that motorists are justified in their negative attitudes. Or, that cyclists are treated fairly on the road. Typically, we are not. But we can only control our own behavior, and seek to have a positive effect on the attitudes of the community at large through our positive actions. I believe that it is only through extending respect that we will slowly, but surely, win more people's respect for cyclists.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The pre-season itch: A cyclists spring fever

Part of the the "joy" of going without comfortable outdoor bike riding for 10-12 weeks, is the long delayed gratification of the first spring ride. Once the snow starts to melt enough that the skiing is poor, and the temperature is 10 degrees above freezing, cyclists in the New England get anxious to ride on the road. Of course the trails will be covered with snow and slop for several weeks, but its time to get cracking on those base miles. The excitement and yearning for those first few long fast rides is intense. Its opening day, the last day of school, and getting out for early recess all at once. It is Cycling Spring Fever, temp. 104 degrees.

There are several problems with Spring Fever for cyclists. First and foremost is that up North, the weather rarely cooperates with the calendar. We may want to abandon the heavy gloves and booties, leave the wool helmet liner at home, but you may get a good case of frost bite that way. We all want to ride like this:

But typical March weather in New Hampshire is 40 degrees with 10-20 mph winds and a chance of snow. So we almost always have to ride dressed like this:

Even when the weather is nice, the roads are not. 4 months of rain, freeze, snow, ice, thaw, re-freeze makes the pavement look like it was carpet bombed. I never knew that frost heaves existed until I moved to New Hampshire. Now I appreciate them for the axel breaking, lower back pulverizing, teeth rattling, force of nature that they are. But if you're going to ride in the spring, you just have learn to bounce and weave over them. Much as you may want smooth flat pavement, you get this:

The third problem with early spring cycling in New England is the "Spring Classics". Since the pro calendar in Europe includes major races in March and early April, all the fans of pro cycling are geared up for the great events. This encourages amateur cyclists to attempt truly stupid training rides. Each time I watch the Milan-San Remo, or Tour of Flanders, or worst of all the Paris-Roubaix I am tempted to go ride 120 miles, in 40 degree weather, with hills, at race speed. Never mind that the pros have 5-6,000 miles in their legs already, and my longest ride of the year is about 30. The thrill of watching the hard races added to spring cycling fever is a lethal combination.

The weather has been better than average so far this March. Riding each day in knickers and a light jacket has been pleasant. But I know better than to get comfortable. I've seen road races in May cancelled due to snow storms. We could have 6-8 more weeks of hard sledding. But I'll take what I can get for riding in March. Every ride this time of year is a good ride. Anything to remedy the pre-season itch.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Dopes: lying, cheating, and stealing your victories in cycling

"Psst, Do you think they'll catch us Jacper?"

This week the cyclocross community is disappointed to find out that the "too good to be true" performance of the Szczepaniak brothers at the Worlds Championships, was too good to be true. The only thing harder in Tabor than the pronunciation of their names, was understanding how these not usually great racers, rode Meeusen and Jouffroy into the ground. It turns out the answer is simple, they took EPO. They joined the long ugly history of drug cheats in bike races.

Doping in cycling is far from a new story. Some cyclists have been using every conceivable substance to gain an edge since bike races were first organized. As far back as 1896, racers would use cocaine, strychnine, and even ether to keep turning the cranks. The opinion that bike racers are no more than junkies on two wheels nearly killed fan interest as long ago as the 1920s. As the years have gone by, the substances have changed, from cocaine to amphetamines and cortisone, to the current stuff. The attitude amongst managers, sponsors, and racers has remained the same: as long as every one is doing the same stuff, and no one talks, it is a fair race. Most other sports still operate under this very assumption.

But something significant changed in cycling during the 1990's. The old atitude held that the drugs could only help so much. The saying was "you can't turn a donkey into a thoroughbred". Certainly amphetamines and cortisone would not improve a cyclists base level of power, and therefore only marginally improve performance. But when blood boosters started to be used in 1989-1990, the game changed. Suddenly guys who were also-rans, became contenders. The effects of increasing blood levels were so significant, that clean cyclists could barely keep up with their prior year's results. This forced every professional cyclist to either take EPO, accept a diminished role (and paycheck), or quit.

The abuse of blood boosters also had a huge cost to the peloton. Unlike coritsone or amphetimines, EPO abuse for long periods of time will kill, either from heart attack or stroke. I believe the real turning point for cycling, was the sponsors realization that there would be a Tom Simpson every week if pro racers kept abusing blood bosters. So the UCI and ASO got very serious in a relatively short period of time about catching the dopers. They really had no choice; if your racers keep dropping dead, eventually you have no sponsors, no fans, and no races.

Still, a decade after the Festina affair, the doping continues. Besides the Polish wonders, in the past year alone we have had Thomas Dekker, Davide Rebellin, Stephan Schumacher, Antonio Colom, Mikel Astaraloza, and Danilo Di Luca all busted after signifacant race results. Earlier this year we were treated to act 2 of the Ricardo Ricco show. In this episode he throws the mother of his child under the bus after she is popped for the same dope he took. He makes Raimondas Rumšas look like the husband of the decade.
il sposo malissimo, in happier times

To some degree, I believe that the temptation to dope is a basic flaw in human character. I do not believe that cheating in more prevelant in cycling than other sports, perhaps less in this era of strict testing. I also believe that cheating in sport is less consequential than in business, politics, education or any other human endeavor. The sad truth is that where ever money or glory is on the line, some people will cheat to win.

This is not to say that we should do nothing, or give up the sport in disgust. I do believe that cycling is heading in the right direction. I am encouraged by every young pro, like Jeremy Powers or Peter Stetina or Coryn Rivera as examples, or old pro like Steve Tilford or Adam Myerson or Todd Wells, who has the courage to race clean. All of these racers have expressed the same idea; they know that they race against others who are doping, and that may cost them results, and therefore money. But their only real choices are to quit, or keep racing the best way that they know how. So they continue to race, clean and proud of it.
Ultimatley, the dopers are cheating themselves. Once caught, they lose their results and at least some of their opportunities. Cyclcross and mountain bike racing have been less forgiving of dopers than road racing, just ask Ben Berden or Roland Green. Even if dopers are never caught, they have lost something irretrievable, their honor & pride. Much as that sounds trite, it is true. Cycling, just like life as a whole, is about how you play the game as much as whether you win. After each racer hangs up the wheels, they alone can answer the question "did I race the best way?" I imagine that for the doping cheats, there is less joy in any of their accomplishments. Those nagging doubts would, for me atleast, wipe away any victory.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Off-Season Activities: fun with winter weight gain.

The price of having spectacular cycling weather from July-October in New England is that we endure 3 months of no outdoor cycling at all. From December to the beginning of March only the most intrepid bike idiot can be found riding the roads. It is simply too cold, too icy, too pot holed to ride at all for most. Sure, if you dress like the michelin man and mount up studded tires you might be able to ride 5 miles. But it is hardly fun for more than a few rides.

Winter is the off season for northern New England cyclists. So we have to figure out what to do with 10-12 hours of free time each week (besides drink beer and get fat, which I'll discuss in a moment.) Most of us just want to get out of the house and do something aerobic. Winter sports come first to mind, namely skiing. New Hampshire and Vermont are wonderful places to ski, whether alpine or nordic or backcountry. I switched to nordic skiing several years ago since most of my cycling friends were doing that. The only problems with skiing are the time spent getting to somewhere to ski, and the weather. Unlike cycling, I can not just hop out the back door and ski. The weather is a much greater limiter in skiing than cycling. Too much snow, too wet snow, too dry snow, or as is the case this year, not enough snow and good skiing is but a distant memory.

With a month of snowless weather and cold temps, we did get good ice on the lakes. That meant we could ice skate the big lakes with out risk of drowning. Ice skating on touring style speed skates is a blast. Nordic skates mean that snow-less winters no longer depress me. Cruising around bob houses on stretches of open ice is wonderful for the quads, if less aerobic than a good hard ski.

But, I never avoid putting on some weight in the winter. I am too tempted by holiday goodies and weak after a season of self denial to avoid the treats. The good beers come out at Christmas and usually hang around until Valentines Day. By then, I have put on 5-7 pounds, am thoroughly disgusted with my condition, and vow to have more self control next year. Fortunately, by the end of February, the start to the cycling season is in sight.
I am glad to we are forced to take 10-12 weeks off the bike in New England. My friends in the warm parts of the country sometimes complain that they never get a break. When cycling is as easy in January as it is in June, why stop? The real problem is that they never reach peak fitness. The training is all plateau since there is no real rest. I fear that I would be the same if I lived in San Diego. So winter here forces us to actually take a rest period.
Now just keep me out of the cookie jar, please.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Flahute Aspirations: how to become a hardman

Coming back from a week of group rides in Florida I am reminded of how tough we have it racing bikes in New England, and how good that is. I enjoy getting away from lobster mitts and booties for a week in the sunshine. But the road racing culture is very different in Florida, and its very apparent on the group rides. On Monday it was drizzling & 50 degrees at the start time of the morning ride, but with blue sky on the horizon, so no one showed up to ride. No one rides when its wet in Naples. On Friday it was 40 degrees at the start time, so half the normal number showed, and they had full thermal tights on. On every ride, each time some one sees a twig, leaf, or gum wrapper in the road, the object is called out multiple times. I am more used to riding with a group that thinks bouncing over frost heaves in a cold drizzle in just good fun. Group rides in New Hampshire are a little like Belgium in that way; if you only ride on sunny days and on perfect pavement, you'll never ride enough to get strong. So you have to harden up, you have to try to become a flahute.

"Flahute" is a french term for the hard as granite, dumb as rocks Flemish farm boys that would race in any weather, over all roads. When more delicate french and italian racers would sit in the cafe or climb into the team car, these big belgies would be grinding away for hours in poor weather over poorer roads. The southern racers assume that it was because the Flemish boys were too stupid to know when to quit.

In truth, I believe their tenacity is from something different. A flahute keeps racing out of combination of pride and opportunity. The pride is simple to understand, if you are a bike racer, you finish races. Only the weak or worn out quit a race in Belgium. Only the soft refuse to train when it is cold, or wet, or the pavement is bad. If you do not train today, you will not be prepared to race when its cold tomorrow.

The opportunity part is a little more nuanced. Few flahutes have a chance to win in the high hills of the grand tours (there are exceptions like Mercx and Hinault). So the hard men have to look for victories in the cold tough races, when whippet thin climbers can not make it to the finish line intact. The more guys that drop out due to conditions, the better chances of victory for those who keep racing. More over, even if you don't win, the career of a cyclist can be a short as your last race. Quit now and you may be back at the farm or factory for harder/dirtier work tomorrow. Every day you get to pull on your bibs to ride is better than a day shoveling anything for a living.

Ultimately, becoming a hard man is simple; ride alot in every type of weather, learn to ride fast & straight in a hail storm, race to the finish when 80% of the field drops out. Just fix a grimace on your face and tell yourself "its a fine day to ride."

photo by Mike Whitfield

But the most difficult things in life are sometimes just that simple. No one likes to be cold and wet, no one wants to get rattled over broken roads, no one enjoys shivering uncontrolably for an hour after a race.

No one likes the tough things in life, some people simply deal with them better.

So, if you want to be a flahute, then you slather on the embrocation, adjust your cap, and keep riding through the rain.

Bobbie Traksel wins the 2010 Kuurne-Bruxells-Kuurne ahead of 26 finishers

You might win that way someday!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Pedaling in the Sticks: the joy of rural cycling

Lately there has been a deluge of writing on urban cycling. In part I believe it is due to the upswing of riding bikes for transportation in cities, in part due to the fashion choices of hipsters, in part due to the fact that everyone with a keyboard and wifi can now publish their musings. (Yeah, interwebs)

I have nothing against urban cycling. I like to commute on my bike, I like to be stylish when I ride, I even like cities. I just don't want to live or ride in one anymore.

I read David Byrne's "Bicycle Diaries" this December. It turned out to be less about cycling, than about musings on the architecture, cultural attitudes, and arts scenes in various cities around the world. One biographical comment of Mr. Brynes struck me; he notes that as a teenager he "...grew to disdain the suburbs, their artificialness and sterlility." (page 9). So he sought to escape the place he grew up in by going to the big city, as many creative thoughtful kids still do. By the 9th grade, I also wanted to flee from the superficiality of American suburban life, and was thrilled with the mere thought of the great cities in the world. But I also understood that where I was best able to think, to breathe, to truly live was in quiet open places. I wanted to live in rural America, i.e. in the sticks.

What does this have to do with cycling? I will let you in on my most cherished secret, the best cycling in America usually starts 40-100 miles outside of urban centers. Even if you do live in the 'burbs, you've got to drive before the riding really gets good. You see, this is where the traffic starts to fade away, the roads are still paved, but are more designed for slow going, and you can begin to hear yourself think. Add to this the fact that the chances for single track are infinitely greater, and you have the best options for all types of cycling.

This fact is more true in New England than other corners of the nation, if only because we have so many paved little country lanes. The reason it is a secret, is that few rural communities are as cycling centric as the urban centers. But there are some very bike friendly rural towns. I am very very fortunate to live in exactly such a community. I have a group ride that I can go out on every day of the week in summer, and we ride a different route every week for months. We don't have to deal with being constantly buzzed by traffic, or risk our skin by blowing through stop signs. And if the roads are full of tourists for a week, there are always the miles and miles of single track.

I just won't tell anyone where, I might take you there sometime, maybe.

And since we have broadband now, and HD Public Television, I feel like I am missing less culture from the big city. I still like to visit every few months,

But for cycling? Week in and week out? Give me my country lane every day.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

New Bike Fever: objects of desire

Cycling is not just about fitness. Part of the joy/madness of cycling is an obsession with bicycles. I know of no one who is as passionate about running shoes or tennis racquets as cyclists are about their bikes. It is an instant obession as well. As soon as a boy falls in love with cycling, he falls in love with bicycles. And as soon as he falls in love with his first bicycle, it can lead to a lifelong passion for cycling.

Unfortunately, this passion is sometimes like puppy love. It comes on fast, and fades just as quickly. The new bike eventually becomes familar and faded. But, it is also like being a perpetual teenager, there is always another object of obsession right a round the corner, the next new bike, and the condition known as "New Bike Fever"

The biggest lie every cyclists tells his spouse is "this is the last bike I'll ever need/want/buy". It assumes that the bike companies will never come up with a new faster, lighter, stiffer, more aero, longer travel, better geared, more comfortable, bike again. Each and every year the great bicycle making companies put out exactly those new bikes. And every year they make sure we have glossy pictures to drool over like kids at the candy store window.

So the lie of "this is the last..." also assumes that you'll never fall in mad obsessive love with a new bike again. The day I can not fall in love with a new bicycle is the day I should sell them all and take up golf, since it will mean that I no longer have the desire for riding better than I have before now.

Falling in love with a new bicycle is also like puppy love in that is as much about the wanting as the getting. Right now, around the globe, cyclists are planning, plotting, and dreaming about their next new bike. It is February, so much of the cycling world is still confined to the rollers or short rides in tights and booties. The beautiful new bicycle is not meant for harsh conditions like this. No, no. In fact, it probably is not even available yet, or it is on order to be delivered late in the spring, or it is still in boxes. But the anticipation of that new bicycle, the sheer tingly anticipation, is exciting of itself. The fever sets your heart racing. You think of all the wonderful new features, and the places you'll ride, and how fast you'll be able to go. It is always a thrilling fantasy.

But once the buds have bloomed, and the sand has been swept from the streets, and the new bike has been built up, then, then we will ride and ride. And the fever will break. For now.