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.