Wednesday, October 17, 2012

For Goodness Sake: Charities and Cycling

Today Lance Armstrong resigned from the charity he founded, LiveStrong. I am not distressed for Lance. I think he has made his own bed. For many years, people suspicious of Lance have thrown stones at the charity. His most ardent defenders are usually supporters of LiveStrong first, fans of cycling second. I confess I have raised money for and personally contributed to LiveStrong since my brother is a testicular cancer survivor. I rode with him at the "Ride for the Roses" in 2004 & 2005

One of the most vocal supporters of LiveStrong is Elden Nelson, i.e. the blogger famous as Fat Cyclist. His recent post on the USADA case refined some of my thoughts on cycling and charities. Cycling as a sport can be very selfish. The sport requires gobs of time, energy, and money. In my view, it is more important for cyclists to contribute to their communities than participants of other sports, if for no other reason than to remind our neighbors that we are good folks, rather than lycra clad road pylons.

I understand how many cyclists would not want to contribute to LiveStrong anymore. Fatties point in this post, and mine here is that you, fellow cyclist, should Do Good any way, at very least in some way.  Here are some ways to Do Good if you hate cancer, love cycling, or want to fight cancer while cycling.

1) Fight Cancer: Cancer is a terrible disease. In truth it is a range of terrible diseases. Most everyone you know has a relative or close friend that has been afflicted with cancer. I've lost 2 close friends, and seen my brother survive cancer, all before reaching age 35. Contribute to the following groups with either money or time to fight cancer:

The V Foundation: founded in 1993 by Jimmy Valvano before he died of cancer. The foundation is dedicated to awarding research grants in the search for cures to multiple types of cancer.

Lung Cancer Alliance: dedicated to research and patient support for lung cancer

National Breast Cancer Foundation: ditto for breast cancer.

Hole in the Wall Gang Camp This is a camp founded in 1988 by Paul Newman, for kids with cancer to have place to be kids. It now serves thousands of kids each summer on site, and tens of thousands through hospital outreach.

2) Promote Cycling: The sport is going through a dark time. But we ultimately are the sport. Cyclists can work together to improve our communities through the thing we love, riding bikes.

IMBA or NEMBA build a trail, improve an existing one, or take a kid mountain biking.

Bikes Belong: advocate for improved bike paths, routes, and safe cycling.

Bikes Not Bombs: recycle bikes, send them to people who need them more than we do, help people learn to build and love bikes like we do.

The Mud Fund: help a young racer take their cyclocross ambitions to the next level.

3) Fight Cancer while Cycling: I understand that you really just want to ride your bike, but a good cause is the best excuse to do it.

Prouty Century: supporting the Norris Cotton Cancer Center at Dartmouth-Hitchcock. Also a very scenic century with fantastic community support.

Harpoon Brewery to Brewery Ride: many New England cyclists know that the B2B is a long tough ride, many don't know that half the proceeds go to the Kenary Brain Tumor Research Fund at Dana Farber Institute. Still 150 miles and a pint of Harpoon at the finish.

Pan Mass Challenge: the grand daddy of all New England charity bike rides supports the Dana Farber Institute through the Jimmy Fund. Take the challenge, at least once.

Get Your Pink On, Meredith Miller. Meredith is an awesome racer, and supports an awesome breast cancer support foundation.

There are lots and lots of other charities & charity rides, many that support cancer foundations, many that support other good causes. I imagine Fatty is going to continue to support LiveStrong. I don't think that I will. But that's o.k. Much good should be done in different organizations. We may disagree on the specific group, but I'm sure that Fatty and I agree that you should Do some Good too, if only for goodness sake.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Sunday, Muddy Sunday: reflections from Gloucester Grand Prix

The New England cyclocross season is 4 weeks done, 11 weeks to go.  The Grand Prix of Gloucester comes very early in the season considering it is the biggest race weekend on the calendar. But that provides a good dividing line. The 'cross dabblers will race little, if at all, and train even less post Gloucester. The cyclocross focussed racers will only get more fit through October and November. This year, Gloucester gave us the first taste of true 'cross conditions too, providing another dividing line. While the first three weekends were dry and warm, we enjoyed cool wet weather for 3 days. The steady rain on the morning of day 2 meant the Gloucester GP would be a muddy Sunday, further separating out the true cyclocrossers. As usual, I had several thoughts on my drive home from the big race.

1) Its All About Traction, Toe Spikes & Tire Selection:
Racing well in the mud takes four things; power, skill, attitude, and proper equipment. I can barely improve my own power numbers on the bike, much less yours. A good attitude toward racing in the mud is easy for a very few racers, such as Mo Bruno-Roy. For most of us it only comes with a ton of gritty experience. That experience also develops the slippery slope side riding skills needed for true cyclocross. Today I am going to write about equipment, specifically toe spikes and tires.

A slick course means traction is at a premium to keep control and make forward progress. This is true both on foot and on the bike. Since a muddy course can mean a geometric increase in the amount of running, traction on your shoes is critical. Bike shoes have horrible traction. Some euro pro's will glue a strip of mud tire tread to the bottom of their shoes for extra grip. But for most of us, mountain bike shoes with toe spikes are enough. For a really slick race like this past Sunday, forget the light weight cleats that come with your shoes. Get a pair of the longer all steel spikes available from Also make to put lock-tight on the threads to prevent losing them in the race.

Tire traction not only keeps you from falling off, but helps keep you moving forward, and keeps you from sliding into things while braking. Good mud tires are more available now than ever. Challenge introduced the Limus and Clement the PDX last year. Vittoria now puts its XM tractor tread on a high thread count casing. But the best mud tire I've ever ridden in the FMB Super Mud. It has great grip and rolls surprising well on fast sections, plus has the superior FMB casing. The Super Mud is even Mo Bruno-Roy approved. Since we do not race in slop almost every weekend like in Belgium or Portland a dedicated set of mud tires & wheels may be tough to buy. In conditions like we saw last Sunday they were worth every cent.

2) The Kids Are Alright Again, Mad Skills:
Racing "with" the elite juniors this season I have a new appreciation for their talent. It isn't just that Curtis White, Nate Morse, and Peter Gougen are fast. They were also riding the mud better than some of the elites on Sunday. These boys have been riping around on 'cross bikes since they were 4 feet tall, and it shows in their confidence in the mud. (see #4)

3) A Bad Day to have a Bad Day, Except it Isn't!
Gloucester will expose any & all of your weaknesses. Just because of the sheer size and depth of each field, any mistake will cost you 6 spots, per lap. Drop a chain and 3 guys go by, blow a corner and 4 more charge past, miss a remount and two more slip by. Racing at Gloucester can be very tough if you face some set backs. Until it isn't. If you've been put so far back by a mechanical or spill that a good race is not possible, Gloucester is the best race to be at the tail end of the field. The crowd is so large & supportive that it can be fun just to keep on pedaling (a beer hand up or two helps). Sunday Colin Reuter lost his rear deraileur and showed how to have a bad day of cyclocross like a boss.
photo by Jen Audia
4) Raising'em Right, impressive Cub Juniors.
I was waiting at the bike wash for the start of the cub juniors race. 30 kids ready to give it their all in the mud. Greg Gunsalus touched wheels and dropped his chain off the line. But rather than throwing a fit when it took over a minute to get things together, he charged after the field, and ended up 5th place. Chapeau to him for his poise and grit. The enthusiasm of the girls in this group has been impressive this year. Each event this season Leah Carlson, Gabrielle Czerula, and the Girls First crew have raced, cleaned up, and then cheered on every other category on course. They can be found ringing cowbells and handing out Twizzlers with as much energy as they race.These kids love cyclocross, both in their race and on the other side of the course tape. I hope they keep that love until they themselves are racing elite.
photo by Tod Prekaski

5) The Top Step of US Cyclocross: Rapha vs. Cannondale:
There are only so many racers that will rise to the top of any race discipline. This season we saw the surprising migration of Ryan Trebon to Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld. Last season we witnessed to rise of Jeremy Powers to team leader of Rapha-Focus and national champion. It is clear already that Ryan is back and Jeremy is even stronger than last year. Throw into that mix Tim Johnson getting onto the podium almost every race, and Zach McDonald's continued growth. I'm certain that Ben Berden, Jamey Driscol, and Todd Wells will make the front end of races. But largely this season, barring injuries, it looks like a contest between the leaders of Rapha-Focus & Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld for the wins.

7) How Big is Big Enough:
The Grand Prix of Gloucester is he biggest cyclocross on the east coast. Providence and NoHo are great events, and getting bigger every year. But Gloucester is still the really big show. I was surprised to see that racer count was up "only" 5% over last year. Paul Boudreau was hoping to have a few hundred more spectators for the weekend, but the rain conspired to make great racing, and poor spectating. I can not imagine more racer getting into Gloucester. All of the fields except for the elites were full. But I do think that NECX should start a "bring a friend to cyclocross" campaign. Sure the best way to understand cyclocross is to race it, but its a whole lot of fun to watch too. We should work at bumping up the spectating for all the big events in NECX. From a spectator count stand point, we're not nearly big enough, yet.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

A Tale of Two Courses: New Hampshire Cyclocross Weekend

The past weekend I enjoyed my shortest drive to a cyclocross race of the season, Concord NH and Auburn NH. Two playgrounds, 20 miles apart, same elements, same weather, radically different cyclocross courses. Racing both was like tasting the results an of Iron Chef episode, same ingredients with surprisingly different dishes. The courses each had a sand feature, barriers on flat ground, a forced run up into a wooded section, and some flowing turns. But there the resemblance ends.

Lets begin with White Park Cyclocross on Saturday. This is a second year event sponsored by my friend Nick Czerula. It is one of the few "in town" cyclocross courses in New England. White Park is located in the middle of the city of Concord, which means random "non-cyclist" spectators can get a taste of cyclocross. It also meant that Nick had to re-stake the course on Saturday morning since vandals wrecked half his set up. But White Park is great for young kids with a large playground and a scenic pond.

The course Nick laid out was quite technical. The start went across a grass field to a ridable sand pit, then hooked around a thick grass ball field to the barriers. After that the course got challenging. A sharp up hill to an off camber traverse, then a button hook around tree on a steep slope to an even steeper paved climb meant that no easy pedaling after the barriers. The top side of the course was an out & back on a paved street, a sweeping fast down hill turn leading across the pit, and then an up hill run into the woods. The woods section was classic lumpy, rocky, rooty New England track. Each trip through the woods was a jack hammer like effort to keep the wheels on the ground with out breaking a rim. After exiting the woods, a few tight corners on hard packed dirt lead to a series of fast grass turns and back through the sand pit before the finish. The course offered little recovery since each section required either hard pedaling or high finesse. The lap was a short 1.5 miles but seemed much longer.

We started with a small master 35+ field of 14. Both White Park and Suckerbrook had small numbers for the masters 35+ 1-3 event. I think both suffered from offering a combination of other categories that siphoned away the usual M35+ guys. When an event offers a 3/4 35+ category, an non-UCI elite race, and a single speed race there are plenty of options for a Cat. 3 masters racer. Field sizes will shrink naturally as a result. I imagine promoters will adjust schedules in the future to make full fields.

White Park would also be a de facto Alpine Clinic intra-squad race since Matt Wilson, Doug Jansen, and former team member Dave Penney lined up with me for the masters 35+ event. The only tougher contest would be the age 3-7 kids race (with 5 of the Alpine Clinic Racing kids taking the start). Naturally that meant I blew my clip in off the start line. It took me three pedal strokes to get connected. By then the front pair (Ryan LaRocque and Johs Husbey) were blazing off the front. Four other guys were strung out between me and the front, and I was stuck behind GeWilli. By the end of the first lap I had edged around GeWilli in the turns and closed the gap to 4th spot. Nick had complained before the race that he had no legs, no warm up, and no sleep the night before. He was sand bagging me. I rode his wheel for a quarter lap. He made a small cornering mistake half way into lap 2 and I sprinted around him. But he was back on to my wheel straight away. On lap 3 I made the same mistake coming around the big tree and Nick charged up the hill. He would hold a 10 second gap through that lap and add to the gap every lap for the rest of the race.

That mistake also allowed Doug Jansen to catch my wheel. Doug followed me around the course for a lap. Then on the steepest hill, Doug did what Doug does, he went up it with tremendous speed. Doug got a gap to me and began to gain on Nick. I would keep the two of them in sight until the last lap, but never gain ground on pulling them back. But I did put time into the guys chasing me for the rest of the race, enough so that a spill & dropped chain did not cost me on the last lap.

Sunday's course at Sucker Brook had the same course features in a polar opposite composition. SBX is known for being flat and fast. This year was no exception. The course had twice the number of dismounts as White Park (4 at SBX compared to 2). But all of the the dismounts were fast. If you had the skill to hop the horse jump, or ride the sand pit, one could cut the dismounts at SBX in half. But few had those skills. I thought about hoping the horse jump, but decided not to risk cracking my front rim. I managed to ride most of the sand box during course preview, but the final 30 meters were so slow, that running seemed more efficient. I did see a few sub-90 pound cub juniors float through the sand box in the earlier race. We don't get enough long sand sections in New England courses for my taste.

photo by Frank Silas
I also had the opposite start to SBX than I did to White Park. I hit my pedal on the first stroke, managed to be in third wheel off the pavement. Immediately into the grass a CCB racer jumped in front of my wheel. I followed him close as he managed to botch two turns before the stairs. I braked to avoid hitting him each time, which allowed John Mosher to sprint ahead toward the leaders. I kept looking for an opening to get around, but found none until we were into the woods. Apparently the CCB rider (Kurt Schmid) did not pre-ride the course much, but by the third lap he had all the corners dialed in. We would trade attacks for a couple of laps. By that point the front end of the 45+ group was coming through in 2's and 3's. When Alec Petro and Tyler Munroe (also CCB) caught us, we both latched on. Kurt and Tyler put a gap on me in the woods with 2 to go. For the last lap I chased them about 15 seconds back, without making up ground.
photo by Mike McCabe

The biggest differences in the two courses was how the similar features played out in opposite ways; where the grass and barriers were fast at SBX, they were thick and power draining at White Park. Where the sand was fast and straight at White Park, it was deep and curved at SBX, forcing most racers to run. Where the woods section was smooth and quick at SBX, it was lumpy, twisted, and long at White Park. Two great contrasting courses. I was glad to race them both

Friday, September 21, 2012

Bike Riding, Racing, and Cycling: intersections and distinctions

Why do we ride bikes, why do some of us race? The questions are both frequently asked, and near impossible to answer. This week I've been pondering the questions again. In my wandering around the world of cycling sites I've tripped over a few new insights.

But let me begin at the beginning. Almost everyone in America begins with simply learning to ride bikes. Unless you have cyclists for parents or neighbors, very few children here have any notion of bike racing. So few adults are cyclists in America that children here frequently think of bikes only as toys. But most children in America do learn to ride, and most children love it for a while. Usually around 6th grade bikes get put aside for more mature interests. Some of us, however, stay entralled with bicycles. I think for me it was the discovery of bike racing at that age.

Bike racing is a simple sport. The cyclist that covers the course (long or short, paved or dirt) in the least amount of time wins, everyone else loses. Of course the process of racing becomes extremely addictive. The feelings of anticipation for the race, the physical effort, the thrill of speed, the sharp mental focus, the elation of finishing well, these feelings are intoxicating. Yet people race bikes for many different reasons and with different expectations. Since only one person wins any given race, what do the rest of the racers achieve? If a racer expects to finish in the top half, and finishes top 10, he's happy. If a racer just hopes to finish and she makes the front group, she's elated. If some one expects to win, and finishes 3rd, he's disappointed. Bike racing is a very frustrating sport, since any one thing going wrong can mean failure, and everything going just right for a win is a rare event. Steve Tilford, one of my boyhood cycling icons, wrote on his blog this week about expectations in bike races. Some times we know we can only achieve a small amount in a race, so do you quit before the start, or do you race anyway? True cyclists join the race and achieve what they can.

The Bike Toss. Racing bicycles is an obsessively consuming sport. Elite racers must push themselves to the very limit of their concentration both on the bike and off. If a series of setbacks occurs, sometimes over a whole season or several years, the frustraion will drive them mad. Once in a while a racer will have the peak of frustration hit due to a mechanical in a race, and then that racer will hurl their bike into the weeds. Bjarne Riis famously sent his time trial bike flying in the 1997 Tour de France.

But he is not unique. Other top pro's, collegiate racers, even juniors have been seen turning their race bikes into frisbees out of bitter frustration. Some times after this the racer quits not only the race but the sport. Since bike racing is so consuming, the frustrations can leave one hollow. With out the joy of expectations met, racing leaves one very cold. So why continue? Whether its the psychological toll, or an njury, or life changes, many people stop racing every season. Sometimes they just stop riding too. Why ride so much if there is no goal, no race to win?

But as Le Grimpeur wrote about this week, there is much more to cycling than bike racing. While bike racing, especially pro racing can consume all the public's attention for cycling, it is a hard and fickle sport at the top. Even in the past era's the sport of bike racing was hard on the racers, perhaps too hard.

Yet cycling is much more than racing bikes. Most of the guys who got me back into the sport a dozen years ago don't race anymore. Why drive 3-4 hours round trip to ride your bike hard for only an hour? Why not ride for 4 hours at home?, they would ask. So they ride thousands of miles a year. These guys ride year round, on every type of bike & terrain. They used to race years ago. They compete now only for town lines and hill tops, but the compeition is usually fierce. They are cyclists.

In Italy cycling is like baseball is in America, it is the national pastime. Cycling also has a history, a romance, a popularity in Italy like baseball does here. Understandably then, there are many more cyclists in Italy than in the US. The Gran Fondo circuit there has thousands of participants for each event. While a handful of former pros racers ride to "win" the gran fondo's, most riders are simply testing thier own limits. They ride because they love the sport itself. I was re-acquainted this week with a unique gran fondo, L'Eroica, a 200km course in Tuscany, over "la strada bianche" (white gravel roads). L'Eroica means "the heroic" and the route is the grand father of all dirt road randonee's. 4000 people will ride it two weeks from tomorrow; stopping every so often for fresh figs, panini, prosciuto, and a little chianti. Some will ride it on old steel bikes, with tubular tires, and in vintage wool jersey's. Not so much out of nostalgia, but to enjoy the past simplicity and ardour of the sport. They ride not to win, but to test themselves, to overcome personal as well as random obstacles, to find the beauty in their shared challenge.
They are cyclists.

I started riding bikes 35 years ago. I fell in love with bike racing almost 30 years, and began to race a regular calendar 12 years ago, but I only became a cyclist a few years ago. I would now still ride even if I never raced again. I now believe that the simple joy of riding a bike is as important to me as racing. I believe that is what defines a cyclist.

"Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race." - H.G. Wells

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

What Goes Up, Will Go Up Again Next Lap: Rolling with BOB, Rolling Tires at GMCX

The New England Cyclocross season is off to a flying start. I should instead say a careening downhill start. The first race of the official season (cyclocross before Labor Day is pre-season) was a new event, Roll in the Hay with BOB. I decided to give the fresh course in West Newbury a go. Since it was a BOB race on the north shore, I assumed it would be flat and fast. I was wrong, so very wrong.

photo by Nick Czerula
The obvious feature of the course was that it started at the bottom of hill and wound slowly to the top. This could not be a BOB course, after all, don't they all have an allergy to races with hills? Apparently not since the elevation gain per lap was almost the same as Green Mountain! Regardless, at the top the course cut to a fast off camber ridge to a faster descent, some dirt road, even a slight up hill with a groove in the grass, to a loose set of turns before the finish. All together it was a miniature Green Mountain CX course. A good way to prepare for the brutality of the next weekend.

18 guys showed to race the masters 35+ event. National champion Brian Willichoski came screeching to a stop at staging with 30 seconds to the whistle. The small field was a good representation of the usual suspects; Al Starret, Kurt Perham, Ryan Larocque, Andy Gould, and a couple of fast 45+ racers (John Mosher and Paul Ricard) made for a hard start. Since it was a hot day too, I backed off from the lead group just before the top of the hill. Brian was tearing a monstrous pace off the front, 5 guys grouped up to chase a few seconds back. I was concerned about blowing up on the first lap. I ended up chasing John Mosher for the first two laps. When it was clear I wasn't catching him, and another guy was about to catch me, I sat up. I rode around on a wheel for two laps, attacked hard at the start of the final lap, and charged around the course for a 9th place finish.

With a decent result on a hilly course at West Newburry I had hopes for a good result at Green Mountain CX. It was not to be. My first clue should have been the weather on Saturday morning. The forecast was for a clear dry day. Yet I was a driving up to Williston Vermont, a light rain started to fall. Then it became a down pour, and it didn't let up until I was 5 miles from the Catamount Center. Mother Nature seemed to say "school's in session kids, remember your rain jackets and boots!" which of course I had forgotten.

The course at Green Mountain was the same for the first day as it's been for the past several years; start up the west hill, wrap around the stairs, sweep down the hill to the barriers, repeat on the east side of the hill. The difference this year was the addition of the elite juniors to our field. I blame that on this guy, the donkey boy.

photo by Todd Prekaski

Chandler complained so frequently last year about racing against these mighty mites, that when he changed categories, they followed him. Damn you Chandler, those kids are really fast. Curtis White, Cooper Willsey and Peter Gougen are blazing. If they keep it up, they will be the future of New England elite cyclocross.

So after working my way through traffic to mid pack on the first lap, 2 Bikers Edge guy lay down in a fast corner. I locked up my brakes to avoid hitting them, and in doing so, I skidded my rear tire sideways, rolling the tubular tire. After a very slow ride to the pit, I found my pit bike was not in the pit, it was out side the pit, which was the pits. To complete the trifecta of misery, once I got my B bike I went out the wrong exit. I was called back to correct my error by a kindly official, and allowed to continue on my merry way, now 3+ minutes behind the tail end of the field. But I kept racing, and even managed to catch a few stragglers, and finish on the lap.

photo by Todd Prekaski
Given how easily the rest of the rolled tire pulled off the rim, I decided to test my B wheels hard in the pre-ride on Sunday. Sure enough, I rolled a rear tire on the first hard fast down hill while braking. I think my error was using old glue for the base layers on the rim, that and neglecting to use belgie tape. (pro tip from Jonathan Page, always use belgie tape on carbon rims). I was close to bagging the whole race on Sunday when John McGrath from NEBC offers me his B set of carbon wheels. I was dumbfounded and thankful. The wheels happened to be the Shimano 7801 model I had run a couple years ago. They were glued (with belgie tape) to Fango tires. I could make these work. I tested them out for a few laps and decided to line up.

In testing out the new wheels I left myself all of 10 minutes to warmup. So I was not really prepared to race at the start. But race I did. For the first lap things seemed to be going alright. I was closing in on Garry David, and feeling good. Then my front shifting jammed. Now in most cyclocross races, I wouldn't be bothered by being stuck in the big ring, but Green Mountain CX, is well on a mountain. Several spots really require using the inner ring. I ended up running the bmx whoop-de-do section the rest of the laps because I could only use half my gears. Frustrated and flailing, I ended up having a poor race, including the final disgrace of losing a sprint to G-Ride. But again, I finished, I wasn't lapped, I wasn't last. Yeah! bike racing!

photo by Nick Czerula

In other events, Crystal Anthony revealed that her phenomenal winning streak from this summer continues in cyclocross season. It seams that whatever type of race she enters this year (time trial, mountain bike, ultra cross, road race) she is taking home the flowers. I'm curious to see how she'll perform at Gloucester against national competition in front of her home town crowd.

photo by Todd Prekaski
Jamie "the dangler" Driscol was dangling no more. He was the last American to hold onto Bazin's wheel on Saturday. Jamie did one better on Sunday by taking a hard fought win. Congrats to him. Perhaps he can repeat his performance of two years ago at Cross Vegas, only this time make it all the way to the finish.

I certainly enjoyed seeing most of the New England cyclocross crew at the first series race. Mo and Matt Roy, Mike and Cathy Rowell, the Wilcox, Justine Lindine, Ellen Noble, the Keoughs, the Gougens, and even the CyclocrossRacing boys were good to spend time with. Here's hoping for a better a weekend of racing next weekend. One of the beauties of cyclocross, there's another chance, another race, another lap just around that next painful corner.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Which comes first, the Clinic or the Race? pre-season cyclocross

Cyclocross has a sharp learning curve. I don't believe you can understand it with out doing it; and who would want to do it with out some understanding of it? When I heard about cyclocross for the first time it sounded like a cruel joke on bikes. Then out of sheer curiosity I went to a race. I was hooked immediately. But there were very few clinics ten years ago. To see cyclocross one had to go to a race. Now clinics are sprouting up all over. The 'cross curious can find many events around New England to get a taste of cycling insanity.

On Labor Day weekend, Blue Steel Cyclery held its first cyclocross clinic on the Sucker Brook CX course. The course around the Auburn School is ideal for newbies to try cyclocross. The field is wide open for easy viewing, there is plenty of off camber turns, a built in set of stairs, and just enough pavement for some quick transitions. The flat terrain gives a chance to practice basic technique with out spending alot of energy around the course. I realized that this would be a great chance to blow the cob webs off my 'cross skills.

Moreover, when a multiple time world masters champion (Kathy Savary) and the dean of New England course designers (Tom Stevens) are putting on a clinic, everyone can learn a thing or two. The clinic was limited to 70 participants. I barely got in to the afternoon session. The group appeared to be 90% brand new or near new 'cross racers. 18 or so of the group were juniors under age 14. Seeing kids on 'cross bikes makes me happy.

After a brief pre-ride of the course, we divided into 3 groups to discuss technique. My group basically rode with Tom around the course discussing cornering and transitions. After that we went straight into the practice race. I had hoped for a little warm up, but no such luck. Moreover, because of a some what chaotic rush to line, I slotted into the second row. The course start was short and narrow. After clipping in, I found myself behind a dozen others cutting through tight off camber corners. I had Tom's advise from moments earlier in my head, be patient, wait for an open stretch to gain ground. The wide range of abilities in the bunch, and hence speeds, meant that big gaps opened ahead to the leaders. At the end of the first lap I had made it through the traffic to be the sole chaser of the leaders. The group had 4 guys in it, the strongest of which was Tim Young. They had about 20 seconds lead on me.

Tim and I have raced each other many times, and often on a similar level of fitness. No warm up, however, meant that pushing up past threshold was tough. I dug as deep as I could go to gain a few seconds each straight section. Unfortunately there were few open sections on this short course. Tom had set up the course to practice turning at various angles, not for powering down straight sections.We were turning in sub 4 minute laps for the race. By the start of lap 3 I had just caught the leaders. The Nor'East guy in the group wiped out in a corner half way into the lap, so we were down to 3. During lap 4 Tim put a little more force into his jumps, and we lost Roger from Blue Steel.

Before the bell lap I realized I would need to get a head of Tim well prior to the last corner. We were coming through a bunch of lapped riders since this was a mostly newbie training race. Tim was the good teacher and had a word of encouragement for most everyone we passed. I took the lead for a brief time at the start of the last lap. By the back half, I was riding too cautiously around lapped riders, and Tim retook the lead. Coming over the barriers for the final time I caught my toe and stumbled. The last barriers were only 200 meters from the finish. so that was the race, Tim cruised over the line a few seconds ahead of me. I can't say I was disappointed. We pushed each other for a good 20 minute race effort.

The last event of the day was my favorite, barrel racing. Kathy set us up in groups of 6-7, racing head to head around a simple oval. Each barrel race was 5 complete circuits. That worked out to be ten 180 degree corner sprints in about a minute. This is a cyclocross drill I do alot. In the first match I jumped off the line and maintained a lead on Tim all the way through the finish. The second set was harder. I entered the first corner half a length behind the Nor'East guy. But I dove hard around the inside corner and took the lead from the second turn to the finish. The last was my downfall, I missed my pedal twice off the start, and never got closer than 3rd wheel through the turns.

The clinic was well attended and well run. Definitely a good way to get the rust off before the real racing begins. I hope Kathy and Tom put in on again next year.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

La Passion du Velo: childhood dreams & adult realizations,

I first loved bikes when I first rode with out training wheels at age 6. It took me a week to learn how to ride, and then I was unstoppable. I only knew that I loved the feeling of freedom and discovery that my bike brought me, practically every day. I discovered cycling, however, at age 12. I began to explore the local bike shop to find my first 10 speed bike. I quickly discovered both race bikes, and bike racing. The guys who ran the shop were amateur racers. They carried Bicycling and Winning magazine. I devoured every issue of those magazines. In them I found a whole new world of speed & glory. I became enthralled when Greg Lemond won the world championships in 1983, the first American to win a Rainbow Jersey on the road. Watching Greg win the Tour de France 3 years later meant everything to me. Only a couple of my friends and my father had any notion of the Tour de France. I didn't care, it was spectacular just to dream about.

But living in Kansas in the 1980's meant that bike racing was much more a dream than a reality. I got a Fuji Club racer for my 14th birthday, my first race bike. I rode it as hard as I could. I went on training rides sometimes with the local college club. Mostly I rode by myself planning to race someday. I spent hours in the winter riding a Vetta wind trainer in the garage. But as I got into high school I had to make some choices. Bike racing was not practical since it was hardly available to me. So my dreams of bike racing were put aside.

After I took a desk job in my mid 20's I began putting on weight. Funny how riding an office chair will add 20 pounds to one's waist in 2 years. I bought a used Bianchi race bike to try to shed a few of those pounds. I immediately rediscovered the thrill of going fast on two wheels. I soon realized I needed to loose more than a few pounds, and discovered that my little town in New Hampshire had a community of cyclists. Like most cycling communities, some racers & ex-racers gathered every Wednesday night for the fast group ride. (the Wednesday Night Worlds Championships). I quickly understood how out of race shape I was. I spent two years trying to get fast enough to hold on for a full forty miles at their pace. I thought that if I had to work so hard just to sit in on Wednesday night, I might as well race on the weekend. The following summer I started racing Cat 5 criteriums and road races. I was thrilled to finally be able to race on any weekend I wanted, like I had hoped to when I was young. I didn't care whether I was last or dropped, I still got a chance to race.

My rediscovered love of cycling also rekindled my interest in following pro road racing. It was 1998, Bobby Julich made the podium of the Tour de France. An American team was more than just competing in Europe, they were winning too. The next year began the phoenix like rise of Lance Armstrong from terminal cancer to champion of Le Tour. It was a spectacular time to be a long time American fan of cycling

But it was also a troubling time. The Festina affair brought pro cycling's long time doping problem out into the open. Rumors about abuse of EPO, cortisone, and pot Belge were now facts. The only questions were "just how bad is the problem?" and "what is it going to take to clean it up?" Over the next 12 years we would learn that the problem was extremely bad and it would take enormous efforts to clean up cycling.

The hope during this period was that Lance represented a new sort of champion. His practical resurrection from cancer meant he wouldn't risk his health with dope, right? He publicly proclaimed his virtue by always testing clean and declaring his righteousness. The LiveStrong foundation burnished his image as one of the hero's of all sport. Yet there were always nagging questions about his performance and methods. Early on it was easy to dismiss the inuendos as sour grapes, or the conspiracy theories of a few cranks. While Lance was winning in spectacular ways, other pro cyclists were getting caught for doping. The last decade has seen more pro cyclists booted from the sport for cheating than any other era, and perhaps more than any other sport in any period. Many times I have been so disgusted that I wanted to find a different sport to follow. (You tell me there's a a tour in France in July? But its really a race?, yet they call it a tour? crazy)

But Lance was still clean, even as the rumors of his doping increased, even as half of his former top team mates tested positive. The best summary of the case against Lance is found in the Science of Sport. I agree with most of it, though I do not know whether Lance used dope or not. No one outside his team members truly knows. But the reality is that a whole generation of pro cyclists have been wasted by a system of doping and denial. Scanning the top ten results of the Tour de France from the last decade, it is harder to find a reputedly clean rider than an accused doper. Some of the most talented racers ultimately paid for the system of dope in the most tragic ways, such as Marco Pantani and Frank Van den Broucke. Greg Lemond was right about Lance in 2001 when he said,  "If Lance is clean, it is the greatest comeback in the history of sport. If he isn't, it would be the greatest fraud." Ultimately I forecast that Lance will go down in history as the only cyclist to win 7 Tour de France titles, and the only to throw his titles away.
World cycling champion Lance Armstrong, left, stretches out as he rides with Greg Lemond of Medina, Minn., during the fifth stage of the 81st Tour de France cycling race around Portsmouth, southern England, Thursday, July 7, 1994.
the great American champions in a more innocent time

I am at a point in life were I could easily abandon my interest in pro road racing. I have so little time or energy for the drama. I have enough activity in my own racing, riding with friends, building trails, organizing cycling events, as well as a career, family, and community roles, that watching pro road races seems a waste. It seems especially wasteful in the era of big dopes.

But I would be dishonest to suggest that pro road racing did not lead me to "la passion du velo". It was that part of the sport that ignited my desire to ride when I was young. I can do with out pro road racing now, but  should it be diminished will that weaken the sport for new cyclists? I wonder if my young son will  have the same chance to love the sport if he is less aware of racing's highest level. Is riding in the woods with friends enough to create a passion for cycling? Then again, if my son shows any talent in cycling, I wouldn't want him to get anywhere near the doping that has corrupted the sport to its core. Perhaps Adam Myerson is right, pro racing has to be burned to the ground to be rebuilt. For the sake of guys like Gavin Mannion and Danny Summerhill, and Taylor Phinney, I hope it is now a clean sport. I only know that my love of cycling will continue, but my original passion for Euro road racing has faded, perhaps permanently, perhaps not. I will continue to ride and continue to race cyclocross, mountain bikes, and even on the road. My hopes and joy now rest in the friends I ride with and the kids who may learn to love cycling.

Just as there is more to road racing than the Tour de France, there is much more to cycling than pro road racing. My childhood dream of road racing glory has transformed into a wonderful life of riding and racing with a strong community of cyclists. I thank my friends and competitors for granting me the chance to be a cyclist. I realize that regardless of the latest scandal, my passion for cycling will remain.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Lost in the Pioneer Valley: first time at D2R2

The Deerfield Dirt Road Randonnee is just one big long hard day in the saddle, if you need the dirty truth. In the past 7 years it has become THE ride to do in the summer, the course is now the stuff of legends. I have always had a reason to avoid the D2R2 (too far away, too expensive, too close the cyclocross season, too long, blah, blah, blah). In truth I was just worried about covering 90-112 miles of dirt roads with serious climbs and be able to drive home afterward. But since I broke my mountain bike a few weeks ago, the choice was stay home and train alone, or go to Deerfield for a long pre-cx training camp with 600 or so others.

Dirt road ronde's are becoming a thing in New England. While the mid-Atlantic states have developed "Monster 'cross" and the mid-West has gravel grinders, we have the dirt road ronde. The dirt road ronde covers 60 or more miles with 50% or more dirt track, but in a intensely non-competitive way and with a big dose of post ride camaraderie. By intensely non-competitive I mean that none of these events officially post results, but everyone wants to ride as hard as they can. None of the rondes have winners, but a lot of people are riding just short of race effort. Between the Jam Foundation Gran Fundo, the Ronde de Rosey, and the new Kersarge Klassic we may have enough events for a New England series. Imagine that, a whole summer of cyclocross rides before cyclocross season! But I digress.

The night before this year's D2R2 turned to a hard thunderstorm driven rain. I hoped that all would be clear by day break, but it was not. I was glad that I had not registered for the 180km route with a 6 a.m. start. At 7:00 it was still raining lightly in Deerfield. Fortunately by 8:00 the rain had stopped but the roads were damp. I contacted Doug Aspinwall to have some one to ride with for the event. We both signed up for the 115km route. I figured 72 miles of dirt roads and climbs was more than enough riding for 4 weeks before cyclocross season. I also figured Doug had ridden this before since he lives a mere 20 miles away, but I was wrong. No worries, though, he had plenty of local buddies that we would ride with, at least for a while.

We rolled out at 8:10 over the timing mat. (this is the only charity ride I've done with timing chips, but likely they were worth while to account for all the riders if nothing else). Doug and I slotted in with 6 of his friends and/or team mates who had ridden this route before. We covered about 9 miles of tarmac before the first gradual dirt road section. After the first water stop at mile 14 the hard riding began. The first few dirt hills were relatively short (all under a mile long) and not horribly steep. I found that Doug and I were gaping most of the others in our group on these punchy climbs. But we waited at the appropriate spots to re-group. Doug certainly had a better idea of what was coming than I did. The last hill before the lunch stop was a long slog, about 3 miles to the ultimate top. I started a little too hard at the bottom and had to grind my way slowly for the last half mile. We grouped up and descended quickly to the covered bridge.

The spread at the Green River lunch stop was marvelous. I clearly had not eaten enough in the first 3 hours of riding, because two sandwiches, a bag of chips, some pasta salad, and a few pickles all looked good to me. I did refrain from the second sandwich in the end, but by the time I was finished, most of the group had already left. Doug was waiting for me, but we had been ditched. I figured we'd catch them after 10 miles or so. But the too large sandwich I ate was sitting in my gut like a rock. I was climbing like a lethargic bowling ball. We had second thoughts about the route as 100km and 180km riders kept coming toward us on the opposite side of the road. We then took a wrong turn onto the 100km route. After a very fast and frightening descent we realized we would need to go back to the Green River lunch stop. We saw multiple flats and one broken collar bone on the descent down Deer Park Road. Dodging the road debris and riders fixing flats was harrowing.

After reviewing the map and various coarse options, Doug and I decided to finish the 100 km route. We would have put in 78 miles for the day on that course. Cruising down Green River Road at 24 mph with Doug was a blast. We quickly over took several small groups of 100km riders. I enjoyed seeing the wide variety of cyclists who came out for the event. But I then made a wrong turn up a paved climb and we find our selves at another juncture with the 180km route. Rather than back track, we decided to follow the 180km route for the final 27 miles of that course. By luck we crossed paths with Dave Penney, Doug Jansen, and the Wilcox among others on the long route.

We started the one hill I knew of before the ride just behind Dave Penney, Patten Hill Road. Dave and his buddy quickly gaped me on the 14% paved section. I kept a steady tempo standing to stomp the gears until the hill flatten a bit. Once the road turned to dirt I had no choice but to sit and grind it out. The last mile stayed at a 9% grade, so spinning was not possible. At the top of the hill, a wedding party was gathered in the adjacent field. It was a lovely day, and a beautiful view. I passed just as the bride was starting her procession. I wondered how many random cyclists would make the wedding photos. C'est la vie.

At the rest stop just past the top of Patten Hill Doug and I stopped. I was very glad to see a tray of dill pickles, as well as pretzels, watermelon, and bananas. The day was not very hot, but it was sunny, and six hours of saddle time was wringing me out. Several friends of ours on the 180km course were also stopping for their last rest. Doug and I started off again just behind a group lead by Dave Wilcox. I had to concentrate very hard to maintain control at the speed we was descending on dirt roads. I fought to stick with his group over the first few rolling climbs. But eventually my elastic snapped, I was a drift from the group for good. Doug and I attached to another group of riders with about 5 miles to go. Once we hit the flat pavement back to Old Deerfield I got a last burst of energy. We traded tempo pulls in the group until the last few hundred meters.

After the ride finished, I got a newly minted copy of Molly Hurford's book on US Cyclocross. I gathered my free pint of Berkshire Brewing beer and plate of food. I got to catch up with Steve Weller, Sara Foulkes, and several of my cyclocross buddies over dinner. It was a swell party.

While it was fun to sample some of each route on the D2R2, I wouldn't necessarily recommend it. The confusion and stress were not worth the effort of sampling each route. But with nice weather and finishing the ride with friends, I had a great time. Every New England cyclist should consider riding the D2R2 at least once. It is a great grand ride.

Monday, July 23, 2012

'A Pois, Si Je Puis! To French go the Dots

The Tour de France is the greatest bike race in the world. But the French have enjoyed very little success in their national tour for the past twenty years. The exception to francophone failure in le Tour is the Maillot 'a Pois, the mountains jersey.

The French have certainly had their share of GC winners. I was surprised to find that 36 of the 98 overall winners were French, twice as many as any other nation. But most of these victories occurred before 1960. No Frenchmen has won the yellow jersey since Hinault in 1985, 27 years ago.

In fact the last French green jersey winner was exactly 20 years ago. In those two decades a French rider has won the white jersey only two times. Stage victories aside, very few Frenchmen have stood on the final podium in Paris, the Arc d'Triomphe looming behind.

The one category in which Gaelic pride has been preserved is the mountains jersey, the polka dots. The french have won the polka dot jersey 12 times in the last 20 years. Those wins are not just due to Ricky "pretty boy" Virenque's exploits; four other frenchmen have won the polka dots in those decades. Laurent Jalabert won that jersey twice with great panache.

Most years the mountains jersey, however, seems like a second rate prize. It's typically won in the middle of the high mountain stages. The GC battles occur behind the KOM leaders, or at the end of a stage, ahead of the fight for the polka dots. The jersey when matched with a polka dot bicycle looks silly. The poor podium girls who present the maillot pois always have the most hideous outfits, like they're wearing Mini Mouse's castoffs. The polka dot jersey contest frequently is a sideshow to the yellow and green jersey's.

But this year, with Sky dominating the GC after the first time trial, and Peter Sagan achieving a hulk like margin in the points tally, the KOM contest was actually, a contest. Where there was little drama in the final week of the tour, Fredrik Kessiakoff and Thomas Voekler made a stiff battle of the KOM prize. Voekler, the frenchmen, won. He fought for every point, and won the queen stage of the race as well. While he is not every fan's favorite racer, he impressed me. While other racers of his ability seem content with minor victories, when Tommy Voekler has a chance he grabs a hold like a junkyard dog on a bone. His tenacity elevates him from a good racer to a memorable one. Whether he is clinging to the yellow jersey for a handful of days, or battling for a stage win in a breakaway, or going for the KOM points this year, he seems to enjoy pouring himself all out.

I have no idea whether Voekler will target the polka dot jersey again. But recent history would suggest that some frenchmen will. To the French go the polka dots!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Rock Me Mama Like a Wagon Wheel: 29er's for the vertically challenged.

29er's have overtaken mountain bike racing. Where a few years ago they were the new odd duck, now wagon wheeled bikes rule everything from the world cup circuit to the local xc series. But just how tall does a rider need to be in order to race on a 29er? Some expert bike fitters state that 29er's won't fit anyone under 5'8", others suggest that 5'10" is the minimum height to make the geometry work. My experience suggests otherwise.  

Lets begin with some personal background; I am 5'5" with short legs and a long relative reach. My cyclocross and road bikes have 53.5cm top tube length. I come from a road sprinting background (crits and up hill field finishes were my forte). My technical skills in singletrack have been my biggest limiter in 7 years of occasional mountain bike races. My last mountain bike was a Trek Top Fuel, a super light 4" travel dual suspension 26" wheel bike. I was happy with the Top Fuel. It was comfortable and light. It was stiffer and faster than the few other mountain bikes I had ridden.

For the past 2 years my much more experienced mtb racer friends have praised 29ers. They hyped the better climbing, the faster descending, and the improved clearance over obstacles on singletrack. I was dubious. I didn't like the idea of pushing heavier wheels. I was intrigued though by the talk of better handling in singletrack. Could it be true? And what about my,eh-hem, short stature?

My decision to try a 29er was influenced by Emily Batty's equipment from 2011 and 2012. Emily is 3" shorter and 30 lbs lighter than me. When she raced for Trek World she raced a 26" hardtail, but when she was signed by Trek-Subaru (and when Gary Fischer & Trek fully merged) she had the option of the 26" hardtail, a Top Fuel dualie, or the 29er. She has exclusively raced on the 29er for two seasons, including to a world cup podium.

But she is a pro and rides with an extreme set up to make the geometry fit. So would I be able make a 29er work? I borrowed a 15.5" Gary Fischer Genesis for a week to try it out. I found from the first ride that I could climb and clear obstacles much better. Riding over roots and rocks was  now fun instead of frustrating. I had to adjust my body position on fast descents, but it was not an extreme adjustment. 

I bought a 15.5" Trek Superfly in the beginning of May. I immediately swapped to a zero set back seat post. After a few weeks I also switched to a longer 9mm -10 degree stem and zero rise bars. The bar drop is 1 cm higher than my cyclocross position while the reach to the bar flats is the same as my CX bikes. (despite the angle in the picture there is a 1.5cm drop from the saddle to the bars)

I kept the G2 geometry fork and ride 2.25" tires most of the time. I have no issues with toe overlap. I have adjusted my turns when the angle is greater than 90 degrees, but I believe that is true of all 29ers. The wheel base on the Superfly is only 1.5cm longer than the Top Fuel. I also find that I can climb out of the saddle regularly where I could not on any 26" bike. With my reach and upper body strength I like to be able to push more on the front end of the bike while maintaining balance. So far I can descend just as fast, climb a little faster, and bomb through lumpy rocky rooty singletrack like I never could before. I'm still working on tight turns, but I do not find that to be much of an issue.

Is a 29er for everyone 5'4" to 5'7" tall? Probably not. If you have a shorter reach and like to spin rather than mash gears, a 29er will be a difficult fit. If you have great technical skills and like sharp turning bikes, a 29er will feel mushy. If you can already climb like a goat, the heavier wheels might feel sluggish. But if you're a hard sprinting, big quad, bomb down the hill, meatball like me, a 29er may change your mountain bike riding for good.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Jumping Rope on a Razor Blade: the precarious lives of sprinters

"It's like walking barefoot over broken glass,
It's like jumping rope on a razor blade,
all lightning quick decisions are made."
Ice-T, High Roller

Sprinters are a different sort of bike racer. The first of week of the Tour de France 2012 has shown the fleeting and dangerous aspects of sprinters careers. Thrilling, surprising, and intense, but gone in a moment.

Some of that is the nature of sprinting. Turning over a 140 rpm cadence, drop the chain to the 11 cog, kick it up to 50+ miles per hour, throw for the line: it's all done in seconds. No long grinding effort like a 50 minute 40km time trial. Neither a tango up a 12% Hor's Categorie climb over half an hour. Not the all day drama of a Spring classic. Sprints are won in the last kilometers, the final minutes of a race; blink and you'll miss it.

Some of the danger is from the size and intensity of Grand Tour field sprints. 200 racers are pushing themselves through twisting narrow roads to get to the 3km mark. Then the front 50 guys are working to set up 10-12 sprinters. Sprinters don't get the pleasure of whittling the bunch down to a mere dozen racers like the climbers do. Each sprinter is trying to thread a needle with their heart rate at 200 bpm while moving at 45 mph. One wrong move or slight touch and everyone could hit the pavement.

And sometimes they do. This year all but one "sprinters stage" has seen a crash effect the finish. All of the sprinters have hit the deck once, some several times. Tyler Farrar has been taken out of every sprint stage save for one. Certainly sprinters need to be lucky, and Peter Sagan seems to have the most luck this year.

Sagan also has the speed to match his luck. He has not won 3 stages by accident. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of his tally is the competition he is defeating. Ale-Jet and Oscar Friere have been no where. Cavendish has only won a single stage. Andre Greipel has shown his strength, but he was beaten too by Sagan, twice. Matty Goss has been close, but always a bridesmaid. Which reminds me how fleeting success in sprints can be. Last year's champion is this year's also ran. Yesterday's victory fades before the podium flowers loose their bloom. 

Which is why sprinters keep on sprinting. Winning a race out of a field sprint is an incredible rush, whether it's a Grand Tour or a local club criterium. The adrenaline spike, the intense focus, the whirling legs, it is an intoxicating experience. When I watch a field sprint all those sensations re-awaken. I miss those feelings.

I don't miss scraping myself off the pavement. I can live without the fear of clipping a pedal through a turn, or some one sweeping out my front wheel. So I have no plans to race a bunch of criteriums this year. But I won't say never again. The rush of racing on the razors edge is impossible to forget.

Monday, July 2, 2012

VT 6 Gaps: hot, haggard, and humbled

Sometimes a stupid idea captures my imagination and won't let go. My most masochistic friend Dana is moving back out west. Before he leaves at the end of the month he had to tackle the most grueling set of climbs in New England, the Vermont 6 Gap route. Our team mate Doug has chronicled every detail of this monstrous route on his website: 132 miles 12,000 feet of climbing over 6 major climbs, including the steepest mile in the north east . Of course, Doug's not the "hill junkie" for no reason.

Dana: our crazed leader
In my stupidity, I agreed to ride this route with Dana last Saturday. I had other rides/races in mind, but the weather looked good, and Dana is leaving for who knows how long, so...6 other friends (Big Brett, John J, Melody, Andy Harvey, Lou, and Mike Blouin) were equally silly. After a 4 a.m. wake up, one wrong turn, and two coffees, we arrived in Rochester, Vermont. We got rolling at quarter past 7 for a leisurely warm up on Brandon Gap. To my delight, I was climbing well and feeling good. Lou and I crossed the top together, the rest of the group about a minute behind. It is easy to feel good on the first 30 miles of a long day.

The last time I felt good on the ride, start of the last mile on Lincoln Gap

We caught a couple of groups who started ahead of us on Middlebury Gap. I was inspired to push a little harder to the top of this 7 mile pass. I've been climbing well (for my bowling bowl like shape) this season, so I didn't feel over worked, yet. The temperature had risen to near 80 degrees. But I was drinking regularly, or so I thought. At the route 100 junction we took a long break to refuel and change Lou's flat tire. I was eager to start up Lincoln Gap. I read Doug's blog about how steep and relentless Lincoln Gap is for the last mile. Yet I did not imagine just how severe it could be. The first 3 miles lulled me into a false sense of accomplishment. I was able to ride a steady tempo and lead the group upto that point. The last mile was the real cruelty. It is twice as steep as anything I had climbed before. I installed a 36 inner ring to go with a 28 rear cog. It was not enough gear. First Lou passed me and I was not surprised. Then Dana stomped past is a 34x32 gear. For half a mile I stood and forced the pedals over at 50 rpm. Then both quads started to cramp. With a quarter mile to go, I could not push my quads anymore, so I had to get off and walk. Oh the shame, the shame. I watched the gradient on my bike computer vary from 22-26%. In trying to remount the bike, my left hamstring seized up. I slowly rolled up the short finish pitch and flopped over into the ditch. 3 of our group, Dana, Lou and Andy managed to ride the whole climb. The rest of us stopped or walked part of it. The heat did not help our effort. After several minutes of stretching and recovering, I felt good enough to descend. We were all abit ragged at that point.

Hamstring stretches at the top of Lincoln Gap.
I would have lots of time to recover before App Gap, since John had 3 flats before we got to the top of Baby Gap. The only trouble was that the day was getting hotter. By the time we hit the last two miles of exposed road on App Gap the temperature was near 90. Cresting the pass, a cool stiff breeze quickly gave us some relief. But the damage was done, we were all tired, salt streaked, and dehydrated. I felt more pain climbing App Gap that day than any time I have climbed it in a race. We were also running an hour behind my estimated timeline. Yet smiles took over as we grouped up for a photo on top of the pass. We had made it over the toughest of the climbs.

Top of App Gap, we made it,
 so far.
We stopped for a late lunch in Warren. As we ate I began to realize just how shattered my legs were. Melody was in worse shape with heat sickness. Since she could not keep any food down, she decided to bail out down Route 100. Since John drove her to the start, he would bail too. I was happy to help them spin back down to Rochester. I had promised my wife I would be home by 7, and I knew it would be close even with skipping the last two gaps. The "spin" back over Granville Gulf and down Route 100 was hard, but not a death march. Andy decided to call it a day too, so he and I traded pulls for most of the distance. A chocolate milk, a large coconut water, and a clean set of clothes gave me just enough energy to get home.

In retrospect, I would attempt this again. But I plan to use more gears, and take more time. I would also avoid attempting all six gaps on a 90 degree day. Any two of these climbs in a row are hard. Tackling 4 or more in a day is monumental. All six? We'll see if I can do them all next year.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The beauty of new trails: Westhill-Grafton Ponds XC

Every mountain biker has favorite home trails. We ride these trails again and again, to the point where we can rip them at fantastic speed. We can also get a little bored riding them by the middle of the season. Racing  at different venues offers the opportunity to try something new. Sometimes it's not so good, sometimes it is better.

photo by Thom Parsons

The Grafton Pond XC trails are great. The Grafton Ponds center is a nordic ski area in the winter. (I have never skied there either, but I may make a trip this winter.) The start was in a large open field next to the pond. The pond is big enough for a swim raft and canoeing, so families had plenty to do while dad or mom was racing. The first section of the race course was a long double track uphill. The distance from the line to the first singletrack was almost half a mile!. The trail started level but progressively got steeper until just before entering the single track.

Once the single track started, the fun was at hand. Grafton Ponds has some gorgeous manicured single track trails. Lots of well built bridges, nicely placed rock crossings, and even linked bermed turns. I had fun racing just for the great sections of singletrack. Between the trails were enough flat double track sections to grab a drink or punch up some speed. Two tough double track climbs at the end of the lap gave us a chance to crawl  into the pain cave for a few minutes. I love this course.
photo by Thom Parsons

With a preview lap as my warm up I hoped I could turn out a podium result for the first time this year. I slotted into the front row and went for the long long hole shot. I was third wheel coming off the line trailing Carl Smith and Will Raymond. He and I had the same idea and attacked up the steep part of the hill leading into the singletrack. I followed Carl through the first trail section with most of our group stacked up behind us. At the next double track section, I attacked around Carl. I took the lead and created some separation from the bunch. Heading into the next singletrack section I drop my chain off the middle ring. My shifting had been touchy during the pre-ride, but I had hoped to have tweaked it enough for the race. I had not. I would drop chains three more times during the race. I quickly remounted in third wheel and pounded the pedals to catch back up to the leaders.

I caught Carl Smith at the end of the next singletrack section. The guy who was in the lead had attacked through the singletrack and was out of sight. The rest of the race Carl and I would trade attacks, each getting a 10-20 second gap, then the other pulling back. In the middle of the last lap I dropped my chain for the third time, this time off the inside of the cog, while I was leading Carl by 30 seconds. I yelled, swore, and got to re-setting my chain. Carl cruised passed me as I was fixing the gears. He realized his chance and pushed the pace. I tried to pull back the gap, but felt demoralized by the mechanicals. I lost a minute to Carl in the last mile of the race.

My effort was good enough for 3rd place. I was on the podium at a mtb race for the first time in 2 years. I clearly did not have the legs for the win, but I was happy to execute my race plan. I hope to find more great trails at the new Stonewall Farm XC race in July. Until then, go check out Grafton Pond's trails if you have a chance.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Domnarski Farm XC: the good, the bad, and the muddy

Domnarski Farm XC is an old timey mountain bikey course. I only suppose this is so, since I've been racing mtb for 6 years. The guys I train with used to race mtb "back in the day" on narrow long loops of mixed dirt road/jeep trail/single track courses that sound just like this one. So I imagine this course appeals to racers who fondly remember Onza pedals, Suntour XC group, and Oakley pilots.

I found the course really challenging to ride and more challenging to race. The course is a ten mile loop starting and ending on a narrow strip of farm trail. I came early to do a preview lap since I had never ridden at Domnarski Farm, and my category was racing only one lap. Immediately I saw that the narrow start track heading quickly into uphill single track would mean a front row start would be vital. After the first single track climb the course meandered around the woods, in and out of wide dirt roads. The challenge was that every so often a hub deep pool of murky water covered the track, both in the single track and on the dirt roads. These mystery bogs could be fast, could be slow, and could hide wheel breaking obstacles; sometimes in the same mud hole. There must have been two dozen of these death traps around the course from the monsoon like rains of the prior week. No one could avoid them. A few times I wished for a snorkel and mask.

I finished my preview lap muddy and a little beat up. I had just enough time to change jerseys, clean the mud off my glasses, and hustle for my front row spot. I kept my elbows wide as we rolled up to the line so as not to get shuffled back, but all for not. Off the line I missed my pedal twice and faded back to 6th wheel. I kept driving into the single track and picked off a couple of guys as they fell on slippery roots. Once we got to the flatter single track, Will Raymond caught my wheel and cruised past. No worries, I figured I could catch him in the double track and pass him on the hill. No such luck.

Once into the double track I kept pushing the speed. I found the mystery bogs easier to ride at race speed with a little bit (alot) of dumb luck. At the end of the race I saw broken bikes eaten by the monsters in the bogs littering the field. Once at the power line hill I could see Will about 30 seconds ahead. Unfortunately he was hoofing fast, and worse John Allen rode up to my wheel. John and I traded positions back and forth up the steepest hill on the course. Once we got down into the boggy single track I realized we only had 1.5 miles left to race. Another guy in our category was closing on John as well. Being the good cyclocross racer I am, I started running every deep mud section. I put a solid gap into John and his chaser. Then coming into the last wide mud bog my bad luck caught up to me. I picked the wrong line, endo'd on a submerged log, and splashed down in the murky muck. John and the chaser passed me as I was remounting. I had half a mile of down hill single track to try and catch them. It was not enough course to close the gap. I rolled across the finish line a few seconds behind them and pounded my handlebars in frustration.

Solid effort, lack luster result. But on the bright side, I've never raced a muddy mtb course better. I supposed that if I close my eyes and imagine the muck monsters just aren't there, they go away; at least for a little while.

P.S. Thank you to Matt Domnarski and his family for putting on a mountain bike race at their beautiful farm. Worth the trip.