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.