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!