Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Slip Sliding Away: The challenge of Baystate CX & "true 'cross"

The penultimate round of the Verge New England Cyclocross Championship Series often gets short shrift. Sure it falls on the weekend after Thanksgiving. Some racers will take that as an excuse to skip the race. But those are the same folks that have had enough racing by the first of November. The diehards, the true cyclocrosser's are eager for this event. This year the course and conditions made it a true 'cross in every sense.
Jeremy Powers riding the steep hill
Tom Stevens is the maestro of course designers in New England. He has had a part of putting together every long standing event in the region. While others have taken over laying out the courses in Providence and else where, Sterling remains Tom's signature event. In the BTB-TV weekend preview Colt stated that the one key element at Sterling is the horse jump. He could not have been more wrong. Only a handful of riders ever attempt to hop the horse jump. So the jump is not a decisive element. Even smoothly hoping it only gains a second or so. I think there are two key elements. The first is the steep run up. A very small number of racers can ride the whole thing, likely not many more than can hop the horse jump. The difference is that the remount at the horse jump is fast, at the top of the run up the remount is slow. Curtis White, Austin Vincent, Jeremy Powers, & Peter Gougen took full advantage of riding up the steep hill on Saturday, gaining 4-5 seconds each time they could clear it. Any weakness in running is amplified by that hill. I watched Mo Bruno-Roy gain precious seconds each lap on Laura Van Gilder & Arley Kemmerer on that section. Unfortunately for Mo, both LVG & Arley have the speed to close down that advantage in the flats.

the first tough off camber section
The second key element is the off cambers. And there are plenty of off cambers at Bay State CX. The difficulty of these sections was amplified Saturday by slippery frozen conditions & on Sunday by mud over frozen ground super slick conditions. Finesse was critical to simply ride the off cambers, much less race on them. With 5 tricky off camber sections, the racers with the best technique gained valuable time every lap. Tire choice & tire pressure were also critical decisions on the slick off cambers. I tried my FMB Griffo's for a test lap & felt they had too little grip. The FMB Gripo XL were much better, but I should have dropped the pressure another couple of psi. I spotted Alan Starrett on the new Challenge Chicane tubular. When the course was still hard frozen I thought this would be a great tire. As we started to race the track began to soften. I was glad at that point to have more center tread than the Chicane. I'm convinced the Tom is the Picasso of cyclocross course designers. While there do not seem to be any spectacular elements, the flow and less obvious challenges of the Sterling course makes for very tough racing. Add the slippery conditions on both days and Bay State was the most demanding race of the season in New England cyclocross.

As for my own race, I started well. I was moving up into mid field through the first two laps. I got caught behind a falling junior on the steep ride up on lap 1 and bobbled after the barriers on lap 2. But I was well positioned attacking my old friends Dan Coady & Scott Livingston. Then the wheels came off. Specifically, I  went down on the stairs when my feet slid out. I fell on top of my bike and jammed my right shoulder. After I got on my bike again I could barely hold the bars with my right arm. Shifting was difficult for a lap too. I gritted through the pain, but lost ground on the group I was racing with plus another few spots. I was relieved to finish, but only to be done. At least I had a big shoulder to rest on afterward.

Still, a tough day of racing in New England cyclocross is better than an easy day on the couch. I was happy to watch Peter Gougen & Austin Vincent crush our field. Curtis White & his younger sister Emma showed their immense talent in each getting on the podium of the elite races. The youngsters of NECX are very fun to watch as they develop into top racers. Racing in challenging conditions on a demanding course can only make anyone better next time. I did not get to Sterling for the super challenging conditions & course on Sunday. Both my wrenched shoulder and the wrecks on the highways around Fitchburg meant there was no chance of me making the start. I wish I could have. Each time I push myself in the cold, wet, muddy conditions of a true 'cross I gain knowledge & skill. I'm confident that all who did were improved by racing in the toughest course NECX has seen in a few years. We only get so many difficult mud courses each year. Each one should be savored as an chance to enjoy "true 'cross".

All photo's by the incomparable Russ Campbell. Full gallery available here:

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Grassroots Grow Up, Shedd Park CX

I almost did not race at all this season. I've been injured, then sick, then overwhelmed at work. I had resigned myself to just riding for fun since I have so little fitness. I thought it might be better to prepare for next year. I was getting cranky to the point that my wife almost insisted I race at least once. So I figured Shedd Park would be the best choice: a course I like, not far away, local grass roots type event.

Except Shedd Park CX isn't a "little grass roots" event anymore. When I first raced the Boston Road Club event in 2005 it drew just about 200 racers. The flyer included a caveat that the elite men's race would be cancelled if less than 10 guys pre-registered. The course had a bare minimum of tape, a handful of spectators, & no call up or staging grid, results were on a handwritten sheet tacked up. Over the years New England cyclocross has improved each year for good reasons: the racing is intense, the crowds friendly, the courses high quality. More than double the number of racers now show up for Shedd Park CX as did 8 years ago. This year the count was 548. That is a number larger than most Verge Series races had in 2005. The increased attendance has forced the promoters to use a professional timing service, dutifully provided by Alan Atwood. We now stage on a grid based on crossresults points. This is much better than the year we staged 20 wide & where I got my front wheel chopped then run over  by a dozen or so at the first turn. All of the features that once were found only in Verge series races are now also at Shedd Park. The race is one of the best non-series events in New England cyclocross and the numbers reflect that fact.

Now the only "issues" are finding a place to park and crowd control. A few years ago Shedd Park was the race where the officials cracked down on hand ups, for good reason, since 4-Loco was offered on the run up (which soon became an up-chuck). Shedd Park introduced the "spiral of death" feature in New England cyclocross which has thankfully gone away too (since those usually become a spiral of boredom). Sure, this event has had growing pains, but it has worked through them well. Since the park is in the middle of Lowell sometimes non-cyclists from the neighborhood will come to spectate. This adds a tiny bit of Euro feel to the event, where in town races & spectators walking to the race are common.

Much of what makes New England cyclocross strong has always been part of this race. Some really fast guys & girls show up for the elite race, the ones that get points at UCI events. The masters go hard but cheer on every one else after their own race. Everyone encourages the juniors and new racers. The course provides a mix of speed, technical skill, and power. And the NECX juniors are still some of the fastest kids in the nation.

My own race? Well I got off to a poor start, missing my pedal on the first & second stroke. Though once I was in the race I negotiated the course well. I steadily moved up through the field, avoiding the early lap crashes in the technical turns on the descent. I pushed myself without going into the red (not knowing how much I really had in the tank). I watched Tom Francis pull past me on lap 2, which was a mistake since I should have worked a little harder to follow his wheel. With a lap and half to go I was racing comfortably in a loose group of 6. I started to attack & steadily gain ground. Then at the bottom of the descent by the backstop I dropped my chain. I lost the 5 spots I had just worked to gain. With half a lap to go I caught the tail end of the group, but failed to sprint around anyone at the finish. Yet for a race I almost didn't start, I was more than happy with the result.

More importantly, I felt better than I have in weeks after the race. I almost forgot how good I feel after a good race, both mentally & physically. New England cyclocross, it's good for what ails me.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Why I ride bicycles: the short story long

The inevitable question asked of a cyclist is "Why do you ride?" I've had a difficult time forming an answer. I had wanted to ride a bicycle for almost as long as I can remember. My first bike was a silver Schwinn Stingray. I was so enthralled with it that I was excited to get out of bed every morning the summer I learned to ride. Since age 6 I've rarely gone more than a few weeks without a bike. Why I rode bicycles when I was a boy is different than the reason I ride now, but not as much as you might suppose.

Then and now, I ride for adventure. When I was 7 the adventure was simple; it was the fresh freedom of discovering the next neighborhood down the street. The flight of moving twice as fast as I could run was an awesome thrill. The unrestrained ability to travel around my small town meant I could (and did) explore each field & corner. Discovery is the basic aim of any adventure. I still find new places on my bike. In fact, since I've transitioned from road racer to a dirt road brevet rider & mtb/cyclocross racer, I find new places regularly. Even in riding familiar roads I find new vistas, people, & oddities. Riding at a pace one third as fast as a car with no filter to the view lends a radically different perspective. Much is overlooked when traveling behind a windshield that is revealed on a bicycle.

Adventures are not only the discovery of new geography. Adventures often require attaining new skills. No one calls a journey an "adventure" if it is routine. Whether going to uncharted places or attempting a route in a new way, an adventure is defined by the challenges of the endeavor. Those challenges can be technical, mental, or emotional. Cycling adventures have presented me with all of those, sometimes at once. The technical challenges of cycling may be obvious: the bike itself, repairs, tire selection, the proper kit, or route finding. The less obvious challenge is learning to ride well; not the simple act of balancing on two wheels, but to learn the subtle skills of holding a line, riding in a close pack, standing to climb without throwing your bike backwards, or flowing through a corner takes time & attention. In a tense situation such as a race you draw on all your experience & discover what more you have yet to learn.

The mental & emotional challenges come from the attempt to go farther &/or faster. Whether its just to keep up with the fast kids on the group ride or to win races, cyclists push to extend their limits. This is where the suffering comes in, this is where cycling gets hard. I maintain that the suffering in cycling is more emotional & mental than physical. We all hurt sometimes on the bike, the challenge is to follow Jens Voight's method & say "Shut up legs". The physical pain on the bike is never difficult to stop, just quit pedaling hard. But then comes the anguish of falling behind. Pushing through pain to a next level is about mental focus & conquering emotions. This is the internal adventure; discovering your emotional peaks & valleys on the bike and through a season. As I ride farther I find whole new sources of mental & emotional strength.

In truth though, the adventure of cycling, whether it is new vistas, new skills, or new accomplishments, is secondary to why I ride now. I ride my bike to ride my bike. Most of my rides are routine. They are varied, but they fall in a fairly predictable pattern from the early spring to start of winter based on what I'm training for & when I'm recovering. Each year I seek a new challenge of some sort, but most of my cycling goes in a familiar direction. I am a cyclist because I must ride my bike, I ride my bike because I am a cyclist.

An old Zen question asks "why do you wash the dishes?". The answers differ, "to have clean dishes" or "to serve others" or "to do my chores", but the ultimate Zen answer is always "wash the dishes to wash the dishes". I am blessed to have good roads, nice trails, & beautiful bikes to ride. A good ride is relaxing, cleansing, healing as often as it is a challenge. For many years as a boy I only wanted to ride nice bikes, as a young man I only wanted to ride fast, later I only want to be a good cyclist, now I just want to keep riding.

I ride my bike because I ride my bike

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

How to lose a bike race in 30 seconds: the Pinnacle Debacle

Coming off a massive amount of training for the Dirty Kanza 200, and a little more than a week of rest, I thought I could just jump into a mountain bike race and get a result. Of course I could count the number of times I had ridden my mountain bike this year on one hand before the Pinnacle. But I had all this fitness, and I was light, and fit, and skinny, right? Plus I've had good races at the Pinnacle, well one good race, when I was a novice mtb racer.

I filled up my car with mountain bike gear for the first time 2013 with great hopes of arriving early enough to ride a full lap. Yet I neglected to account for enough set up time. I did manage to ride a half lap. I got warmed up just enough, and saw both the beginning & end of the full lap. I did a couple of quick jump efforts after my pre-ride to finish my warm up.

A bunch of friends & Plymouth area riders showed up to race. I was great to see the Boobars, The Foulkes, the Lehmanns, and a full compliment of Sampsons. Andy Harvey also brought his four freshman mtb club members to get their first weekend race starts. I didn't feel any more pressure to perform, but I also did not want to under perform.

I slot into the narrow front row, managed to take the hole shot rather easily, and punch through the first section of woods to fire road. I backed off the pace and let a Biker's Edge racer come around. My thought was to ride wheels through the first lap & perhaps even the second lap to get a sense of the course. I felt comfortable following the Biker's Edge racer for a mile. Then he stumbled & a Bikeman racer came around. He was riding smooth of the single track, but slowing down on the open up hills. We traded pulls for a while until he stumbled. I was at the front for the second half of the lap. I pressed the speed a little bit with out going all out. But I was in front, so I was not able to see how the guys behind me were riding.

I bombed down the old ski hill that is "the pinnalce" and made the sweeping right had turn to start lap two. I saw that my gap was a few seconds, but a gap none the less. I pressed the front a little harder, but made a couple of dabs in the single track allowing the group behind me to close. In the middle of the lap a racer who I had not seen before gracefully edged around me into the tightest section of single track. He did not look like he was racing at all, just riding with flow & finesse. I tried to keep him close figuring I could close on him in the long down hill section. But he was riding so smooth that I had to work hard to pull him back on the hills. But I continued to work my plan. I went down the long technical descent as fast I could. Just before exiting the single track to head toward the top of "the pinnacle" I heard some argie bargie behind me. I recognized the voice, it was my nemesis Rich Blair. He is an ex-downhill racer, so I knew better than to let him pass easily, or hold his wheel once he did. Sure enough, he eventually squirted around & flew down the slope. He was in sight though as I crossed the start/finish. I surely would be able to pass him on the first hill.

And that's where I made my mistake. Rather than watch the bridge entrance across the big creek, I was looking up the track at Rich. So I missed the bridge. I went over the bars into the creek as my saddle slammed into my lower back. When I crawled out of the creek, the three guys I had been leading zipped up the trail ahead of me. When I got back on the bike (after resetting the dropped chain) I had no power on my right side. I had bruised my back & hip enough to block the muscles. So all I could do was spin, and hope to lose no more position.

The third lap was long, and painful, and frustrating. But I ground my way through it. I was surprised, even pleased, to finish 5th. I was disappointed that I had not held it together to race for the win. But all it takes is one big mistake.

I was happy to see Seth Warner win his first xc race (chip off the old block) and the other Plymouth/Rhino boys come in 3rd & 4th. Andy was his age group, Tom Sampson won the Elite race. So for club as a whole, it was a very good day. And to be honest, any day racing bikes is better than a day in a cubicle.

Friday, June 28, 2013

A Chasing After the Wind: learning the Dirty Kanza 200

At the Start photo by Celeste Hanson-Weller

...that which does not kill me, makes me stronger
F. Nietzsche - Twilight of the Idols

Old "uber-man" Friedrich was sort of wrong about this one: that which does not kill you can still hurt you very very badly, scar you, or cripple you. But sometimes he was right, you do get stronger, sometimes.

I did not plan on racing the Dirty Kanza 200 this year. I had never ridden a bike, much less raced, 200 miles in a day. When I started thinking last year about attempting the DK200 I figured I should do some ultra endurance events in 2013. Perhaps I would race a 12 hour mtb event, do the 114 mile D2R2 route, and ride a double century on the road. All this would be build up to entering the Dirty Kanza in 2014 or '15

Then this winter, the organizer added a 100 mile option, which was intriguing. I've ridden over that distance on a cyclocross bike before, so I knew could make a go of the DK Lite. But when I emailed the race director, Jim Cummings, he politely replied that the DK Lite 100 miler was not for experienced racers, hence no prizes, no glory. Basically he goaded me to go for it, do the whole thing, in a for a penny....

My ambitions stoked, I formed a training plan. I put aside all other spring race objectives to focus on becoming an ultra endurance dirt racer. I also became obsessed about the gear & the logistics for success at the Dirty Kanza.  My training plan got radically altered by a broken foot in March. Yet I still managed to put in enough endurance work to feel capable of taking the start.

Moreover, I had secured a crew in February. A childhood friend Celeste has agreed to drive out from Colorado to support me. She is an ER nurse by night and a ultra trail runner by day. I couldn't let her down. So I reworked my training, got all my gear together, and bought the tickets to make it a go. I arrived in Kansas a day & a half before the start. I was as ready as I could be this year. At the racer meeting I got acquainted with Mark Lowe, my Seven Cycles team mate & accomplished ultra cyclist. He and I shared crew support, since his friend Phil is an expert mechanic that would be most valuable. I also ran into the Wilcox & John Bayley on their brand new Seven Cycles bikes on Friday. They both looked fit & ready to race. Celeste & I prepped plenty of food, gallons of fluids, & all the gear by Friday night. Just one nervous night of sleep before the race. The following is an account of my comedy of errors in four parts.

Section One: the beginning of the end

The secret of the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment of existence is: to live dangerously!
F. Nietzsche - The Joyful Wisdom

In truth I had high hopes of a good placing at the Dirty Kanza 200. Yes it was my first 200 mile race, yes it was my first gravel grinder. But I had been putting up solid numbers in long endurance training rides. I was rested, I felt ready. So I slotted into the self seeded front group at the start, the 12 hour racers. I was just behind last year's winners Dan Hughes & Rebecca Rusch. I thought that if I could just hold close to this group for the first half I might have a good race, maybe even a great one.

Rolling Out of Emporia - photo by Corey Godfred

And the start confirmed my strengths. After we negotiated the first 90 degree turn onto the gravel road, the fun began. The front group was about 50 strong in a double pace line at 20+ mph. Stones were pinging off bike frames. A few sketchy passes and moves were made to gain position. Rather than get caught behind a fall, I moved up to the front dozen. I felt good, so good that I joked with the Bayley & Alby King. All was going by plan until we hit the one section of mud on the course. I rode into it a little too deep. The front runners ran through the grass beside the road while I was picking mud out of my brakes. Still once I remounted I was in the first chase group with Rebecca and a dozen other quick riders. The race was breaking into to smaller groups quickly.

Soon I was surfing between groups of 3-4 riders. I found that I was descending the loose gravel track faster than the folks I was riding with. Dan Hughes suggested that being cautious on the fast descents can prevent flats. Of course I did not hear his advice until after the race. I was racing my strengths & bombing down the backside of every hill. At mile 40 while I was still only a few minutes behind the lead group. Then I met my doom. On a 30 mph descent I hit a gravel filled hole at the end of bridge. My front tire immediately pinch flatted. After I changed the tube I also found that the front rim had a dent. The wheel would spin between the brake pads, but rubbed a little. I was concerned about wheel failure, so I rode at a cautious pace the final 10 mile of section one. I had enjoyed diving down those hills, living dangerously, but I paid a price.

 Section Two: the big mistake:
Only where there are graves are there resurrections 
F. Nietzsche - Thus Spoke Zarathustra

I rolled into the first check point still ready to race. I quickly changed the front wheel, got new food & fluids, and told Phil of the wheel failure. I took about 5 minutes, longer than I'd wanted, but quick enough. More importantly, my crew said I was still only 15 minutes behind the leaders. I figured I could pull some of that back in the next 50 miles.  So I chased, into a 15 mph headwind, for the next two hours, without drinking enough.

Mark had a sidewall cut at about mile 70. He was in the middle of a fast downhill, so I could not stop to help. He caught up to me a few miles later. At that point I started to feel dry. When I got off for my first nature stop I saw that my urine was safety orange; not clear, not mustard yellow, orange. This was bad. Immediately I drank as much as I could stomach. I got on the bike and started pedaling easy, but trying to keep pace. I was too late at hydrating. 5 miles later both of my hamstrings locked up with cramps. I was unable to pedal a single stroke. I hobbled off, stretched, I drank some more, I got back on again.

The next 20 miles were one of the most physically painful rides of my life. It was definitely my most mentally painful ride. I watched Mark grow more & more distant across the open terrain. I struggled to keep a steady but reasonable pace. I had to get off the bike again to stretch out cramps a few miles later. The headwind continued to batter us at 12-15 mph. At mile 90 a group of 7 caught me from behind. They were riding in a well formed echelon. I slotted into the tail end, happy for some relief from the wind. I did my turn at the front & struggled onto the back end. We rotated through a few more times. Then suddenly I could not hold their pace. I felt utterly dejected as I was spit out the back. Riding alone now I wanted nothing more than to get off the bike, fling it into the prairie, and be done.

Yet I was a mere 5 miles from lunch. The promise of a cold drink, chips, coconut water, cookies, and most of all pickles kept me on the bike, still pedaling, still in it somehow. I was near dead, but I hoped I could rise.

I arrived at Cassoday completely cracked. The bike was shifting poorly. I was wrung out physically & emotionally. Yet somehow, I knew I could regroup with some help from Celeste & Phil.

Section Three: Turned Around
Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies
F. Nietzsche - Human, All Too Human

Immediately Celeste went to work on getting fluids into me as Phil went to work on getting my bike working properly. I sat on the cool grass drank, stretched, ate, & drank some more. At some point a reporter from the NY Times started to ask me questions about the race. I told him I was having a hard time with a mechanical, cramps, & the headwind, but not much more than what I expected. I spent an inordinate amount of time in Madison. I changed both my shorts & jersey. I drank some more. I needed the recovery time or else I would have quit. After over 45 minutes, a ginger ale, a few coconut waters, & a Red Bull in me, I saddled up. I left with the hope that I could still finish before sundown, then 7 hours & 101 miles away.

photo by Celeste Hanson Weller

The first 5 miles out of Cassoday the wind was at my back and the road flat. I flew down that stretch before turning north, into the wind again, & up a climb. Another 8 miles through rolling prairie pastures I was chasing a rider a mile or so ahead. I followed him past an unmarked turn, certain he was on course. I had the map clipped to my bars, but failed to notice that turn until the road seemed to be heading the wrong direction. Eventually I caught him. We rode together to the next corner. Now clearly we were off the map. We rode back to the previous corner certain that this must be the correct direction since it had arrow markers pointing down the road. But it was not. It was part of an earlier section. I was certain the map must be miss marked, it was not. My conviction that we should just go a little farther got us only more lost. Eventually we hailed a car of guys who had just abandoned. With their prior section map in hand we found our error. Yet we still had 4 miles uphill to retrace in order to get on course. 

I learned in that moment  the Dirty Kanza is an orienteering challenge wrapped around an eating contest within a bike race. Lesson: follow the map, not your convictions or assumptions.

As we crested the ridge back on course, I saw a dozen riders inching their way across the hills. They looked like ants marching onto a tree limb. All I could do was join the slow parade for the next 30 miles to Cottonwood Falls. My hope, the chance of finishing in the daylight, was growing dim.

Section Four: Into the Darkness

One has attained mastery when one neither goes wrong nor hesitates in the performance.
F. Nietzche - Daybreak

I rolled into Cottonwood Falls with one eye on the clock and another on the map. My diversion off course had tacked 14 miles onto my total distance and taken over an hour. The turns into the check point were not marked well, but fortunately I only had to go around the block once to find the crew. Again I was going to need more time off the bike than planned. I need to get prepared to ride in the dark. It was now a little past 6 p.m. With the prospect of riding another 50 miles, half of it into a headwind meant that finishing before sundown was impossible.

Last Section ahead photo by Celeste Hanson-Weller

Phil again worked on my shifting and pedals to get the bike as ready as possible. I sat down to re-fuel, hydrate, and get mentally prepared for a longer day than I had planned. I got my few lights prepared for a couple of hours of night riding. I was nervous since I had not tested my light set up much. Lesson: never assume you will finish the DK200 in daylight, bring good lights & test them before hand.

The next couple of hours I rode into the dusk. I passed a few guys who were sitting at the side of the road, phone in hand. I called out to offer help to each one, every time I was waved off. Clearly these riders had enough, they were calling to get picked up.  The sun was setting over the hills to my left. It was peaceful but I was frustrated at the late hour. I started moping on the bike, & slowing down. Two riders who I had passed earlier caught back up to me. I realized I was in a dark place inside my head before night even began. So I started singing to myself, shifted down 2 gears, and increased my pace.

As it started to get truly dark I realized how poor my lights were. I could see the road enough, but reading signs required me to come to a stop. I kept going mindful to double check each turn & road. Unfortunately, I still missed a turn. I ended up another 3 miles off course. I stood a the corner looking at my map by head lamp trying desperately to figure it out. A couple of local riders walked their bikes my direction. They were dropping out due to a mechanical & arranged to get picked up at that corner. They offered me a ride back to town, which I refused. I wanted to finish one way or another. They offered to take me back to the spot I left the course. That seemed like a good idea to me. So I loaded my bike into their truck & took a ride back to the last corner.

The rest of the night I rolled slowly, carefully following the lights ahead of me. I made it back to Emporia past 11 p.m. A crowd was still assembled at the finish line. I hustled through the finish chute needing to find Celeste for some food, warm clothes, and to get off my feet. She was thrilled for me, but I felt deflated & defeated. I was glad I had pushed through, but humbled by the effort it took.

In retrospect I realize I disqualified myself by taking the ride in the truck. Reading back through the rules taking any car ride is a dq. Still, I rode well over 210 miles that day, and every section of the course. I had finished, but not in the way I had hoped or planned.

Aftermath: Lessons Learned

"round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns"
Ecclesiastes: 1:6 

While my ride was more challenging than I expected, I was not crushed by it, & so I learned much:

1) Be focused. A few moments of wavering attention is all that it took for a few mishaps to reshape my ride. In retrospect keeping closer to the leaders, slowing down a little on the descents, and keeping track of each corner would have improved my day substantially.

2) Be quick at refueling. I had planned on spending a combined 45 minutes at the check points. I ended up spending over 2 hours due to my mishaps & mistakes. But the leaders spent less than 20 minutes total. I learned that having a plan for quick pit stops is necessary for success.

3) Be resilliant: The challenge of an event this long is as much mental & emotional as it is physical. I thought I had prepared for that, but clearly not enough. When I got tired & frustrated I started making poor decisions. My poor decisions lead to more frustration. Shaking off that frustration quicker would have helped me go faster. Racing for 200 miles is far different than simply riding 200 miles.

I did accomplish some of what I had hoped. I was able to ride my bike for over 17 hours. I kept going through setbacks & self doubt. I had my equipment & nutrition well prepared. I will do a few things differently in the future to improve my race, both in training & on race day. I will attempt the Dirty Kanza 200 again, hopefully with more focuss and less wind. I would like to finish in the daylight, someday.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The delightful eccentricity of bicycle history

I do not have anything like this man's collection. I'm much more interested in bicycles of today that I will ride tomorrow. In fact I have only one bicycle that could be called collectible. I ride that one too on sunny summer days.

But I knew much of the history he cites before watching the video. I know he is correct. He's eccentric indeed, but entirely correct. I hope to preach the gospel of cycling as well when I'm his age. Enjoy:

The Spokesman from dean saffron on Vimeo.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

MudHoney Metamorphosis! turning a Seven cyclocross race bike into a gravel grinder

I never planned on doing this. Sure, when I got my Seven Cycles MudHoney the thought of riding it on dirt roads in the summer crossed my mind. I do train quite a bit on gravel roads & dirt farm track during cyclocross season. For that sort of riding adding a bottle cage & a seat pack is all the adjustment necessary. But the requirements of racing a gravel grinder, especially a 200 mile one, are entirely different.

A substantial part of preparing for the Dirty Kanza 200 has been figuring how to turn this bike:

Into this bike:

Cyclocross races are short in cool weather. Gravel grinders are long & Kansas in June is hot. Rarely do I need a water bottle in a cyclocross race. I expect to go through 25-30 oz an hour at the Dirty Kanza 200. After trying triathlon seat rockets, handlebar mounted cages, camelbak's, I finally tripped across the idea of putting a hydro bladder in a frame bag. Perfect! One water bottle plus the bladder gives me over 100 oz. of re-hydration on board.

Did I mention that there is no crew support on course between check points. If you have a flat, break a chain, ect, ect, ect, you're the one fixing it. So an extra large saddle bag is needed to carry the fixings

 That's two tubes, tools, patch kit, a bit of chain, and other fixing things in there.

Bonk is the killer of dreams at these type of events. In any bike race it's easy to forget to eat often enough. In a race that will last 12 or more hours, that is a recipe for doom. It is easier for me to remember to eat when my feed bag is strapped to the bar in front of me.

Yes, those are mini-aero bars on a cyclocross bike. Imagine chasing into a 15 mph head wind for 40 miles. Now imagine nothing, no hills, no buildings, not a single tree that will provide you shelter from that merciless wind. That's Kansas weather on an average day. So I'm rocking the aero bars no matter what anyone says.

Beyond that, the tires are Bontrager CXO file treads, the gearing is a 50x34 up front & a 11-27 cassette. I trust that my tires will hold up to the Flint Hills, but I'm bringing plenty of spares just in case. So far this bike set up has worked exceeding well on 130-150 mile training rides. The 38c tires have enough traction and float on New England's rough dirt roads & jeep trails. Bontrager grippy gel tape with extra gel pads have kept my hands comfortable. I like Fizik Gobi saddles for every bike. We'll know come June 1st how it all held together.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Racing Dirt Roads in New England Part 2.

Since my post last week about dirt road ronde's in New England, two more events have come to my attention. Unlike the more casual touring style of some of the other events, both of these are races.

Morning miles at the GMDC

First, the Green Mountain Double Century. June 15-16th. Technically this event is a race, but in the brevet ultra challenge sort of way. Sandy Whittlesey designed this event to be an uber D2R2. He sets the course, the date, and the rules. I do not think he hands out bib numbers, but honestly, that's not needed. The course covers 208 miles in southern Vermont, 24,000 feet of climbing, almost all on dirt roads. The time limit is 40 hours. The Ride Studio Cafe team of David Wilcox, Matt Roy, & John Bayley hold the record at 16+ hours. Natalia Boltukhova did a great job of documenting their record setting ride. Sandy requires each participant to complete a 300km brevet or a double century before entering the GMDC. Some folks attempt this course in two long days by sleeping over night at a B&B mid route. If I thrive at the Dirty Kanza 200, this may go on the bucket list of races. Email Sandy for info or an entry application.

the beauty of North East Kingdom dirt roads
Second, the Dirty 40 Race, August 31st. This is a new event. I believe something like it was organized last year or the year before, but not as a race. The race starts and ends in Newport, VT. The course is 60 miles with 40 miles of dirt road. The promoter is putting up a bunch of pictures on his page but other than that, the event is a complete unknown to me. So of course I already registered for it!  The Kingdom Trails is sponsoring it, so it has to be legit, right?

BTW: it looks like the dirt road ronde-gravel grinder scene is getting something like main stream press. Pretty soon this type of riding might even be as popular as cyclocross. So there goes the neighborhood.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A Weekend on the Kancamagus: revenge of the knee

from either side, a high hill
Many of you know the saga of my left knee. 5 plus years ago I dislocated my knee cap. That incident lead to 3 seasons of increasing pain leading to surgery 2 years ago. So far this year, I had no new knee issuesl This past weekend was my last for hard training before the long hard race. Originally I planned to do a 180-200 mile road ride. But when my friend Dana said he would be back in town, and harassed me into one more team try at Crank the Kanc, I agreed. The new plan meant climbing the east side of the Kancamagus Pass on Saturday and climbing the west side of the pass on Sunday as the first climb on the Grand Tour. I would use Saturday's race as a tempo day, Sunday as an endurance race pace test, but the knee had other ideas

Saturday would remarkably be my first bike race of the year. I've been so focused on long distance training that I haven't pinned on a number in 2013. In fact my wife was surprised at my typical pre-race mania on Friday night since its been that long ago. I arrived as registration opened, but still I only had time for 20 minutes on the trainer. I did not get a proper warm up for an hour plus time trial, but since I planned to use this as a training event I was not distressed. In deed, we did this time trial practically cannibal style. We had regular shallow rim wheels, helmets, 2 of 3 rode without bar extensions, only one of us even wore a skin suit. This was quite a contrast to the full TT bikes, disc wheels, & aero booties that the individual winners used. 

Dana, Andy Havey, & I lined up with no ambitions other than a good hard ride. I planned to do extra long pulls on the flats for my training plan. Dana had been sick with the flu all week, so was uncertain as to his fitness. Andy had been climbing well, but hadn't raced in years. I had the start of a chest cold, but tried to put that out of mind. 

Crank the Kanc is a tricky event to race. The first 16 miles are a gentle up slope and flat run in. The last 4.7 miles are an average 6% grade. You need to be aero for the first 2/3rd's, light and lithe for the last 1/3rd.
We got a solid start, my tempo for the first couple of 5 minute pulls seemed manageable. Dana and Andy were taking 3 minute turns allowing me enough recovery. In the second half of the flattish part of the course, my tempo was pushing Andy a little too far into the red. But once we started the climb the rolls were reversed, my chest congestion caught up with me, and we climbed at 80% of my goal pace. None the less, we held a steady tempo up the climb, finished together strong, and did just enough to win 3rd place. My legs felt loaded, but not over strained by the effort. My right achilles tendon was sore, but no worries, right?

Moreover, I won a JetBoil in the raffle. This is the one prize I have wanted for the past 3 years of doing this entirely unsuited to my strengths race. Now I never have to go back again! 

Sunday I woke up feeling a little tired, but not particularly sore. I planned my last long day in the saddle before the really long race on June 1st. Sunday was Grand Tour Day, the big Plymouth area ride of 120 miles over the Kanc, Bear Notch, Crawford Notch and Franconia Notch. Since 120 miles was not enough for my training needs, I planned to do a dawn pre-ride loop of 25-30 miles. I also planned to extend the last part of the ride by 30 miles. Since I hate riding down the Franconia Notch Bike Path with it's narrow lumpy pavement & obstacle course of gawking tourists, I intended to head down to Easton Road, west on Rte 112 to French's Pond, south to Pike, and finally down Rte 25 to home. All in all this would give me a 170 mile day with over 9,000 feet of climbing.

The day started perfectly. It was cool, but not cold enough that I needed a thermal hat or long gloves. I rode a steady 18 mph tempo for 21 miles before stopping in town. Breakfast was a stuffed croissant & a double espresso, la dolce vita! The nice weather brought out a solid group of 17 riders for the long route at 7 a.m. from Rhino. We rode an easy pace of 19 mph up to North Woodstock. About another dozen riders joined up in Woodstock to do the petite route. The Sampson boys even rolled in after racing a UCI mtb event the day before.

We started up the Kanc out of Lincoln at a casual pace. I dropped back to shed my cap, and quickly found it hard to keep pace. Just before the hair pin turn, with 3 miles to go in the climb, my left knee started to bother me. I was feeling a weakness in my right ankle that was causing my left quad to over work my knee. My left interior knee tendons were now inflamed & crying in pain. I struggled to the top at 70% power. I knew that I had 105 miles to go and 3 large climbs. I begged a couple of ibuprofen from Dominik and hoped that spinning down the back side of the pass would help calm my knee. 
assessing my knee problems on top of the Kanc

My left knee was only a little better on Bear Notch. I was well behind the group by half way up the climb. I kept going though at the pace I could manage, knowing that the group would stop for lunch in Bartlet. The past years gave me lots of experience riding through knee pain. Once at the lunch spot, I bought a bottle of ibuprofen & downed 4. I tried to keep panic in check as I ate my lunch. I wondered, however, how much longer I could push my knee, and whether my wife would pick me up in Bretton Woods if I called, and what this might mean for a major race 13 days away. 

The group split in two rolling out of Bartlet to climb Crawford Notch. The easier pace folks left a full 20 minutes ahead of the speedier group. Since I got a late start on lunch, I was with the speedy group. I struggled to sit in on the steeper rollers heading up to Notchland. I grunted, strained, & pushed. I was able to do just enough to stick with the group until Wiley's Slide, the last big roller before the steep part of Crawford. I slowly climbed the Notch alone, but rolled over the top to meet up the group. I took 2 more ibuprofen and hoped to hold on until Twin Mountain at least. My struggle was so obvious that several guys kept asking me if I was going to make it. I appreciated the concern, but needed to try to press onward.
double pace line up Crawford Notch

Once we got going again, my knee started to feel better. Even as the Sampson boys pushed the pace up to 30 mph I was able to hold on. Finally I was feeling like myself again. No longer was every pedal stroke a trial. After a leisurely stop at Fosters General Store, we rode steady tempo up Route 3 to Franconia Notch. I even felt good enough to contest a town line (imagine that). Some of the guys seemed surprised when I said that I was going ahead with the extended finish of the ride. So at the top of Cannon, I rolled on solo for the final 60 miles of the day.
Fosters Store re-fueling

The last sections were uneventful. The descent from Cannon down to Franconia was harrowing only because the road was in poor shape. A head wind made progress on Easton Road slow. The cumulative fatigue of two hard days, plus the swollen knee meant that I was not pushing the pace I had planned. But I did keep spinning. I felt like the mental struggle, the worry of whether I could finish, was over. Now I could just ride. Once down to Pike I sat at the spring after refilling my water bottles a little longer than I had planned. Yet I was still on schedule to be home for dinner. I found my groove again on Route 25, pushed a 18 mph tempo into a head wind for the last section of hard riding, and did a few miles of cool down before pulling into home after just under 12 hours.

It was a long day, a challenging day, but in the end a good day on the bike. I kept spinning when it got tough, I kept trying even though it hurt. While I did not make the average watts or speed I had hoped, I found the calm I need to push through a bigger challenge, how to conquer my pain & fear with many miles to go.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Roads Less Cycled By: New England's Dirt Road Randonnee's

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear...
Robt. Frost

Last year in writing about the Deerfield Dirt Road Randonnee (D2R2), I wondered if New England cyclists would form a full schedule of dirt road ronde's. I realize now that we already have. While we do not have the formal organization of the Mid-Atlantic's ultra-cross series, or the range of events that comprise the Mid-West gravel grinders, but we do have enough events from April to September to fill the summer season.

First, I define a dirt road ronde as an event of at least 50 miles and 50% dirt track, but suitable for a rigid drop bar bike. Sure some folks will ride such events on a suspension mtb bike. Last year I saw Thom Parsons ride his 29er at the Ronde de Rosey. I even spied a guy on a fat bike at the D2R2. But most of the riders at these events can & will ride cyclocross bikes or even road bikes with extra wide tires.

While the events in New England are not typically races (unlike ultra-cross & gravel grinders), they are intensely competitive. In the era of Strava, it is easy to see who was fastest on a given day at a given course. Moreover, most of these events are designed to test a rider at the level they desire, the competition is really with yourself.

Here is the list of New England Dirt Road Ronde's to the best of my knowledge. I have not attempted all of them, but I hope to in the years to come. Some are new, some are old, some are big open charity rides, some are small word of mouth challenge rides, all will get your dirt miles under your belt before cyclocross season:

1) The Ride Diverged, April 6th: the earliest and newest of these events is also the shortest. Sponsored by Ride Studio Cafe so it has to be both fun & serious. Almost a terrain tune up for the Ronde de Rosey, but completely different in vibe.

2) The Ronde de Rosey April 14th: This is the team time trial, and perhaps most competitive of the New England dirt road ronde's. Who knew so many dirt trails exist in the suburbs of Boston? Apparently Rosey does. Form up a team and apply for a slot. Beers & raffle at the end supports a great charity: Bikes Not Bombs.

3) Detour de Connecticut April 27th (last Saturday in April). At 118 miles this is the longest event, and one that I have not ridden. The course & the companions sound intriguing.

4) Tour de Heifer, June 9th: At 60 miles, it is on the petite side, but it covers the more challenging dirt roads that the D2R2 does. Plus you get fed by the small farms of southern Vermont. 

5) Central Vermont Cycling Tour, June 16th: 59 miles, 90% on dirt, on Father's Day with a b-b-que at the finish. What's not to like?

6) Irreverent Road Ride (IRR) or roads of questionable character & substance. June 29th. Adam has reportedly put together a mild route of 60 miles, an adventurers route of 80 miles, and an ultra-mega-supah route of 115 miles. All of which are 80%+ on choice VT dirt roads. He swears he's going to ride this on his road bike with 25mm tires. I suspect he has questionable character & substance between his ears.

7) Deerfield Dirt Road Randonnee August 24th. The grand daddy, the original, the biggest most celebrated of these rides in the region. Last year over 700 people did one of the 4 routes. I rode some of each route (not by design). There is something for every cyclist at this event.

8) Kearsarge Klassic Dirt Road Randonnee September 7th. New Hampshire has fine dirt roads too. Last year was the first time for this ride. It got a very good reaction from seasoned dirt road cyclists. 85 miles for the long route with some substantial climbs around Mt. Kearsarge & Mt. Cardigan.

9) New England Randonneurs Fall Classic September 29th. Two routes, both randonnee length and half on dirt road. Subject to RUSA rules as well.

While that should be enough time on dirt roads to get ready for cyclocross, there is certainly room for more of these events. No dirt road ronde's are calendared for May or July. New Hampshire and Maine have plenty more dirt roads that can make good routes. I look forward to riding the events I have neglected and to see what new routes come about.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

How to become an ultra endurance bike nut: things I've learned about riding too many miles

It is pretty simple to become an ultra endurance bike nut: Figure out the longest ride you've ever done, then go ride it again twice, in one day.

Since this stupid itch got under my skin to attempt 200 miles of Kansas dirt road, I have tried to go about preparing for it with some sense. Fortunately I do know a few successful ultra endurance cyclists. I'm happy that Matt Roy has been my mentor, John Jurczynski my counsel, & David Wilcox my guru. All of them encouraged me to do a one of the New England brevet series. Both the Boston Brevet's & the VT Brevet series have some great rides. But neither series worked well for my needs this spring. So I decided to create my own brevet/ dirt road ronde training series. I planned out six progressively longer mixed paved/dirt road routes, one every other week from mid March to mid May.

Then I broke my foot. A week & day before I planned to do my first 6 hour, 95 mile ride of the year, I trip down my office stairs cracking two bones in my right foot. Best laid plans of mice & men.....
Photo: So you know when you're planning to do a big bike race early in the season, and are about to train really hard for a couple of months. That's when I trip down the stairs and break my foot.
yep, it's broken!
Thankfully the good orthopedist advised that I could still ride my bike if I didn't go too hard (he did not say how long I could ride). So I reworked the plan, clipped out one of the long rides, and now would need to ride long two of three weeks from the end of March to mid May. No room for error.

So far I've been able to do all the rides. Each has had its own challenges. From an every type of weather lumpy 7 hour ride.

To the wrong tires, bad brakes, and worse soft trail conditions for the middle quarter of a 9 hour day.

To the solitude of spending all day on the bike by myself.

Three of the things I've learned about doing stupid long bike rides:

1) Eat before I'm hungry. Thirst is a pretty good indicator of when you should drink. Unless it is super hot,  you can drink when you think it's time. But by the time you're hungry, its too late to eat, particularly if you're burning up 700 calories an hour all day. Every 30-40 minutes I must eat something. Otherwise my body will go into conservation/survival mode, figuring that we are starving, and riding a bike is a superfluous activity compared to staying alive. When I eat every half hour I can ride much longer than I thought possible.

2) Change your shorts! Chamois cream does wonders, but only for so long. Saddles sores & general hiney irritation will curtail anyone's ability to ride a bicycle, much less race one. Just ask Ivan Basso about his Giro this year. I've found that I can ride in the same shorts for about 6-7 hours at the upper limit. Anything longer requires a fresh pair of pants for my backside to remain compliant. Getting into a crisp clean set of drawers mid ride is also rather invigorating. Ready for the next 90 miles!

3) Just keep spinning. After I've already been riding a bike for 6 hours, sometimes getting off is not a good choice. While I may not be able to go hard, I can still spin. Spinning along easy, sitting up, taking some extra drink and food will do more to restore my drive than stopping. Especially when I am trying to make time, stopping & getting going again can be more difficult than riding at an easy pace for 5-10 miles. I do need to stop once in a while, but not as often I once thought. When I do get off the bike, I must be focused on taking care of business so I can get back to it with out wasting time. I can recover as much on the bike as off.

I'm certain I have many more lessons to learn. I'm still new to ultra endurance riding. But so far, so good.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Changing Gears: new directions

"turn & face the strain" Changes: D. Bowie

Hello? Hello? Check? Is this thing still on? Oh, yes, I suppose it is. It's been over 6 months, dear reader, since I've written anything about cycling. Worry not, I'm well. I still ride a bicycle. I've actually been riding quite a few miles this year. But my purpose, my focus in cycling has changed. I've taken on new challenges which has forced me to put aside old obsessions. 

Through the end of last year, my focus was mountain bike racing in the summer & cyclocross in fall. I mixed in a few road races in the summer for old time sake. My training plan was the same as the past several years as well. For the first time in five years I was neither sick nor injured for most of the season. Yet I still felt stale. My results were mediocre as well. I felt as flat emotionally about bike racing as I did physically.

I've seen other people hit this emotional plateau in the sport & leave it. Plenty of good racers abandon the bike for other pursuits every year. Few ever come back. Bike racing is a demanding sport in both money & time. When I was a boy I dreamed of racing bikes. I never appreciated just how consuming a sport it is. After last year I did not want to abandon bike racing, but needed to find a new enthusiasm, a fresh challenge.

Until last year I considered myself a short event racer. Indeed my best results had come in criteriums, cyclocross, and mountain bike races under an hour & a half. Even in training I was better at town line sprints than mega-mileage rides. Yet last year every long distance ride I did was easier than any I had done before. I went out on 5 hour hilly training rides and felt recovered the next day. I did the Ronde de Rosey and was fresh at the finish. I rode my first dirt road century without cracking. I did 4 gaps of the 6 gap ride in Vermont (though I cracked a little) Either I awakened an inner ultra endurance dude, or now north of 40, I had realized my "old man power". 
top of App Gap during our 4/6 Gap ride
Suddenly events that I once put out of mind as too long for me, were at least conceivable. I also discovered gravel grinders: the mid-west series of long dirt road races. I should say I discovered one gravel grinder, the Dirty Kanza 200 and then some others too. The DK200 is two hundred miles of dirt road & farm track back home in Kansas. In reading more about this event, I developed a new obsession, finishing the DK200 by sunset.

New England doesn't have any gravel grinders. But it does have several dirt road randonee's, which are essentially gravel grinders without the results sheet. And New England also has plenty of endurance mountain bike races, including the New Hampshire 100. Moreover, I can put together a dozen 100km dirt road rides from my doorstep. Last year I rode for the first time the grand daddy of dirt road randonnee's, the D2R2, and liked it.
into the woods on a dirt road century
So perhaps, ultra endurance dirt racing will become my thing. I believe the sport of cycling goes through life stages. Many BMX kids become mtb racers in their teens, become road racers in their twenties, and become cyclocross racers in their thirties, or some other progression. For me this evolution has lead to 100+ mile rides almost every weekend, and focusing on a handful for 6-12 hour races on dirt. We'll see after this season how I hold up.