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