Friday, May 25, 2012

Unsolicited Product Endorsement #1: Praxis Chainrings

I love SRAM double tap rear shifting and the Red group. I loved the the SRAM road components from the first time I tried them, except for one important part, the front deraileur shifting. Know that I relied on crisp accurate Shimano Dura Ace shifting for 7 years. It never failed me, but a pivoting brake lever never felt secure. That feature always seemed too loose in a tight crit corner. I have not used Campy 9 or 10 speed shifters enough to get the feel of them. The SRAM shifitng was intuitive to me from the 2nd ride. The crisp down shift and sweeping up shift just seemed natural. The total group is lighter than Dura Ace, reliable (for me) and good looking too.

The SRAM Red drivetrain had one big draw back, the front end shifting was poor to say the least. When I first used a Red front derailuer it would throw the chain over the outer chainring when upshifting for a sprint. This only ocurred at the top of a climb when I was slamming the chain up to the big ring for a hard sprint, but that is a critical time to have a chain drop. Moreover, because the chain was completely off and wrapped around the crank arm, I had to stop, dismount, and reset the chain on the outer ring. Not Good, not good at all. This happened a dozen times in a season and a half.

I tried to solve this problem with improved new SRAM Red outer rings, a stiffer Force front deraileur, and even going to a super stiff SRAM Time Trial outer ring. None of these solutions worked well. At best I would get hesitant up shifting on the front. Oddly, I never had this issue on my cyclocross bikes, perhaps because the front shifting only goes 10 teeth from 36 to 46, perhaps because I use different after market rings, perhaps because I just don't get out of the big ring than much on my cyclocross bike.

This spring I was encouraged to learn that SRAM was revamping its Red group specifically to improve the front end shifting. I was a little crest fallen when I understood that I would have to buy a front deraileur, shifters, and crankset, at over $1000 for the whole works for improved front shifts. I was even more disappointed to find out that the parts were as rare as hens teeth. I could be waiting until fall before they were shipped to my Local Bike Shop.

Then I read about Praxis Works chainrings in Pez Cycling and Bike Rumor. My first reaction was "these are only chainrings, how much difference could they make?" Yes, they are cold forged like Shimao Dura Ace rings, but that can't make so much improvement in shifting, can it? Frustrated at the delay in shipping the new SRAM Red parts, and after another botched town line sprint, I decided to give them a try. This was not an easy decision since they cost $160 a set. I followed the Praxis recommendation and also installed a new KMC chain with the new chainrings. To my surprise the front shifting was dramatically improved from the first ride. No more hesitation in up shifts, no more clunky drops in down shifts, and most important to me, no more over thrown chain during hard accelerations. For once the hype about an aftermarket bike part was true. These rings are delightful if you use a SRAM drivetrain. Get them and you'll never again look wistfully at a Dura Ace crankset or front deraileur, promise.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Digging Deep: the Grand Tour weekend.

I am a short twitch guy in a long twitch sport. I know that I have limited endurance for an endurance athlete. My best performance tends to be in races that last about an hour. After two hours I tend to fade. After three hours in the saddle I'm riding for survival. I hope that as I get older my endurance will increase, but I never see myself as a randoneur or mtb marathon racer. I love cyclocross for just this reason.

Yet I am very aware of the benefit from logging mega mileage rides before an intense racing season. I see the results that some racers get from doing stupid long rides like the 200 on 100 or the New Hampshire 100 or the D2R2. My plan for this past weekend was to race Crank the Kanc TT, 60 +/- miles with warmup & ride back, then the Grand Tour short route on Sunday, 80-90 miles with 5,000 feet of climbing. I was also planning to train my usual 100 miles during the week. All together it would be 4 race level efforts in 5 days for a total of 250 miles, 10,000 feet of climbing. A one day piece of cake if you're the Wilcox, or Matt Roy, which I am not.

grunting out the finish on the Kanc TT
I was not entirely looking forward to Crank the Kanc. I was defying the old maxim by "racing my weaknesses" rather than just training them. I am a mediocre time trialist and I climb long hills like a bowling bowl. So putting a 4.7 mile 7% grade climb at the end of a 21.2 mile time trial is just wrong for me. Yet I wanted the training benefits of the race and the early season focus for xc races in June.

Despite my lack of talent for a time trial + hill climb, I do still have some pride. I had a time target and average power goal for Crank the Kanc. Justin Spinelli of Luxe Wheelworks built a beautiful powertap race wheelset for me this winter. I would be able to know my exact  power output through out the event. Unfortunately that meant I knew I was 15% below my target just 2 miles into the race. My legs were blocked. I would push, they would cramp. All I could do was ride tempo and hope my legs would feel better in a few miles. They never did. I kept pushing to the end, squeezing out a threshold effort for the last mile. I had a fair result at 7th in the M35-44 group, but I was a little disappointed. Riding back to the start with my team mate Lou, my legs were still crampy & now sore.

Sunday was a gorgeous morning for the Grand Tour. I was tired but not burried. This ride brings out every type rider in the region; racers, ex-racers, fitness riders, randoneurs, even some of the mtb crowd. Normally the grand tour breaks up into dozens of clusters of similarly matched cyclists. This year was different. I admit I felt horrible at the start. I let my group go ahead up the west side of Kanc because my stomach was doing cartwheels. I thought I would suffer to the top and return back to the car. By the time I got to the peak, I felt a little better. An hour of spinning and burping up the hill had warmed me up. A group of 30 or so had congregated at the top. I thought that if this larger group stayed together, I might make it over Bear Notch and up Crawford with out collapsing. So on we went.

We had a group of 25 going over Bear Notch Road, and by the time we were half way up, I actually felt good. The pace was moderate, the company was pleasant, the weather was sunny. When we got to the lunch break in Bartlet, about 10 more cyclists joined our group. We took a nice partial group photo and started up to Crawford Notch together. A peloton of 35 or so rolled up Route 302 in double pace line. Unlike past years, no one wanted to drop the hammer. We rode a nice steady group pace until the base of Crawford Notch climb. Then things got punchy

part of the lunch stop bunch

The real climb on Crawford Notch is only 2 miles long, but it's a 12% wall for a third of that distance. The group shattered as the fast kids sprang ahead. I paced at the back of the first chase group of 4. Up the steepest section I stood up to lead the chasers. Just after we crested the Notch I got a puncture on my front tire. Fortunately there were plenty of friends behind me ready for a little rest. I was starting to feel the accumulated effort of two long hot days, and I had 30-40 miles to go.

Before the ride I told everyone that I was not going down the Franconia bike path. I detest the bike path. It is always narrow, bumpy, and covered with kuck. On a warm spring day I imagined it would be swarming with gawking tourists too. In short, it is an accident waiting to happen at 30 mph. Instead, I planned to ride over Kinsman Notch, adding 12 miles and 1000 feet of climbing to the route. But by the time we got out of Twin Mountain I was salt streaked and worn. I was drinking a liter of fluids every 20 miles. The cool shade of the bike path seemed like an oasis in this desert of open sun baked road. I certainly did not feel like fighting a cross wind solo up Kinsman Notch.

I lead down the bike path just to be ahead of any incidents. Fortunately very few tourists were out despite the weather. Unfortunately, I got another puncture. By this time every one was riding their own casual pace. I yelled out for a tube. My good friend/ team mate Dana stopped to lend one. 7 miles later, and one botched town line sprint, and we were back to North Woodstock. The time in the saddle was 4:20 minutes with 3,500 calories burned. I've never downed a coconut water or devoured a bag of chips so fast.

Will the long weekend of hard riding yield race fitness results? Time will tell. I only know that this years Grand Tour was truly grand.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

On Becoming a Dirty Old Man

I confess. I've become a dirty old man, in my bike racing at least. I probably should have seen this coming, yet the transformation has snuck up on me.

Please understand, I was a roadie at the start. I've always thought of myself as a road racer. My first love was road racing because in 1983, that's all there was. I was never a bmx kid. Yes, early mountain bike races existed then, but they were very rare and very remote for a boy in eastern Kansas. NORBA was the odd new kid on the bike racing block, and mountain bikes looked more like burly touring rigs than todays carbon dual suspension xc race bikes. When I got my first Schwinn mountain bike in 1990, I used it for touring and commuting exclusively (suntour xc group and big bear trap pedals, 28 lbs of steel rigid fork fun). Cyclocross only existed for me in training books, sort of like fantasy fiction, or fairy tales.

So 10 years ago when I started racing bikes in New England, I only thought of road racing. With so many good road races around, why do anything else?

Then I was introduced cyclocross. I went to my first cyclocross race 8 and a half years ago, the CycleSmart Amherst Campus 'Cross. Gina Hall and Carmen D'Alussio battled it out against Mary McConneloug. Todd Wells and Marc Gullickson flew in to take on Tim Johnson and Mark McCormack (both racing for Saturn at the time). I was overwhelmed. Who knew racing bikes on dirt could be so spectacular? That winter I bought a Lemond Poprad and a set of Tufo tubulars.

The following cyclocross season my lack of technical skill was a huge limiter. Turns out if you don't ride on dirt much, you don't have much finese on dirt. I bought a proper mountain bike, a Trek Top Fuel, and started to race it, but only to be better at cyclocross. In the novice category I did well for a few races. Once I tried a few Sport category races I found out just how bad my technical skills were. I was finishing xc races completely shattered, from falling, flailing, and failing.

So like a good roadie, I went back to road racing exclusively in 2006. That year I accomplished alot of road racing goals. But I was exhausted for most of the cyclocross season. The next couple of years I was having more fun at cyclocross than at road races. I still only raced a handfull of mtb races each summer. Yet cyclocross became my primary bike racing interest. Racing on dirt was as important now as the tarmac.

I decided to commit myself to eight mtb xc races in 2010 inorder to improve my dirt riding skills once and for all, just for cyclocross. I bought a new re-designed Trek Top Fuel and started riding it once a week, every week. I managed to actually get some results in xc races and have the same sort of fun as in cyclocross. I began to target summer mtb races more than road races. I still wouldn't wear baggy shorts, even on trail rides. And I still thought of myself as a roadie dabbling in xc, for the sake of cyclocross.

The final shift from happened this past Sunday. I watched the XC World Cup race live and then the last 30km of the Giro stage. To my shock, I found the mountain bike race more thrilling. World Cup XC races have gotten punchier and the coverage much better than even a few years ago. I was motivated to go ride single track after watching that XC race; while the Giro, was just another day at the Giro.

Yesterday I spent two hours riding wet technical single track, grinning the whole time. Today, as I look at my summer race plan, I have three times the mountain bike races scheduled as road races. I still love a good hard road race, but yesterday I came home covered from knees to toes in mud, and smiling.

I've become another dirty old (cx/xc bike) man.