Friday, June 20, 2014

Just a few miles more: the week in New England Dirt Road Cycling

New England is enjoying an explosion of dirt road cycling in 2014. A few new and an old favorite event are now on the calendar for this year. But before I mention upcoming rides, there was a little race in the Adirondacks last weekend that deserves mention.

The Black Fly Challenge bills as a mountain bike race, but since it's beginning 20 years ago, most winners have been on cyclocross bikes. Indeed the organizers now divide out the categories between cyclocross, expert mtb, sport mtb, ect. The race draws over 700 cyclists to the start line for 40 miles of upstate New York gravel road. Most notably several of New England's top masters & junior cyclocross racers made the trek to the Adirondacks. Colin Reuter chose to "sandbag" the expert mtb field, with predictably hilarious results. You can read about his race here. Meanwhile, Al Donahue (coach of the NECX all stars) won the cyclcross category & set the course record.

Back here in New England proper, 2 more events have popped up for September 27th. Actually one new event and the confirmation of an old event.

The new event is the Hills & Hollows 50. It's listed as a 50 mile race or a 25 mile tour in Poultney VT. The course is described as mostly dirt with some class IV roads & 4000ft climbing. Vermont is truly the center of New England dirt road cycling as of now. Information on the event is linked on the calendar page or you can find it here

The old event is the New England Randonneurs Fall Classic. Staring in Burlington VT this course heads east to Stowe and Jeffersonville then back. Two routes at 114km and 200km. The routes are approximately half on dirt road. Full brevet rules with control stops & timing. Find out more or register here

That's this week in New England dirt. Go out and ride somewhere less traveled.


Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Prairie Monumental: the 2014 Dirty Kanza 200

The Start, photo by TBL Photography
"only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go"  - T.S. Eliot

The Dirty Kanza 200 is a huge endeavor. Racing a bike on the 202 miles of gravel track through open prairie is as overwhelming as a clear blue Kansas sky. If I wasn't born & raised in Lawrence KS I would never have seriously considered attempting it. But I am a Jayhawk, an idealistic, & stubborn Kansas native. The chance of spending a day riding through the tall grass prairie was part of the draw. I also understood how severe the heat, the hills, and the wind could make this race. The other draw is the simple question "can I do it"? Yet this is no fevered hallucination, no Oz story, it all happened just as I recall.

Last year was my first attempt at the Dirty Kanza. I barely had enough time to train properly. I broke my foot in early March. I was forced to play catch up on my training in April & May. I was also woefully naive as to the mental challenge of a race this long & hard. I finished last year, but well into the night. When I finally got back to Emporia I was emotionally empty, mentally crushed. My early mistakes cascaded into further delays from mile 75 to the end. My poor hydration in the first 50 miles lead to extreme cramps, which lead to an hour stopped at the 2nd check point, which lead to a missed turn and another hour off course, which lead to riding slowly in the dark & getting lost again. I decided to return if only to prove to myself that I was capable of learning from those mistakes and finish in the daylight.

This year I made an ambitious training plan, but again it was postponed by a long New Hampshire winter. We enjoyed some of the best skiing in a decade, but I was not able to ride on the road until April. Dirt road riding would wait until mid May. During our long cold spring (or "still damn winter" some days) I was able to nordic ski & do strength work. The whole time I kept in mind that I needed to hit my weight goal, endurance goals, & power numbers more than ride a bike on dirt.

The plan seemed to work. I was lighter & more fit by May than last year. More importantly my old climbing partner Jamie agreed to crew for me. His expedition planning experience & attention to detail gave me a big boost of confidence preparing for my second Dirty Kanza.

my DK200 race ready rig

We arrived in Lawrence on Thursday with bags & bike intact. After a quick gear check, we went downtown to the Free State Brewery for dinner. We dropped in on the Sunflower Bike shop event, Rebecca's Rendezvous. Rebecca Rusch gave a lecture on preparing for ultra distance events including her mental strength tips. Her advice that "there will be good times & bad times in a race like this, neither will last" would prove valuable. Sunflower Bike is where as a boy I drooled over celeste green Bianchi's. The shop is now owned by Dan Hughes, the 4 time winner, a.k.a. King of the Kanza. Rubbing elbows with Dan, Rebecca, & some of the other heavy hitters already in town got me excited for the race ahead. The vibe in the room was Lawrence casual but there was an under current of nervous tension. We all understood that the Kanza is a serious event for every rider.

Friday Jamie & I gathered groceries at the Merc, Lawrence's great natural food co-op, then high tailed it to Emporia. After registering I went out for a preview spin of the first 25 miles. The track was dry & dusty, much more so than last year. I was a little concerned that my Clement MSO 32's would not corner well enough in the tight racing in the first 20 miles. On the other hand, I remembered how much I had to adjust my cornering speed a year ago on different tires. We just don't have the loose gravel roads in New England that are frequent in the Midwest. I decided to try to corner smoothly rather than change tires.

lined up, photo by Dustin Michelson

Race day started at 4:30 a.m. after a fitful night of sleep. Jamie had the bike running well, the gear sorted out. I had the route loaded onto my Garmin & a back up map in my pocket. The Garmin 800 routing worked perfectly. I was thankfully able to avoid any wrong turns this year. I lined up on the third row at the far right, next to a couple of local shop guys. I hoped for a clean start through the first 15 miles; no wheel touches, no slide outs, & most of all no crashes ahead of me.

The race started a little faster than last year, but considering the top contenders top speeds, it was a controlled pace. While people were riding 3-4 wide into corners, I noticed less shaky bike handling than 2013. One guy asked me as I maneuvered into the middle slot on a turn if I was going to wipe out on him. No sir, not this New England cyclocross racer. By the time we crested the first real climb the front group was still 60 or more strong. I rode next to Rebecca for much of the first 15 miles. The low mist & cool temperature made for a beautiful start to the day. I shuffled to the back in order to eat at mile 21. That turned out to be a minor mistake. Just before the Olpe Tower climb the front group split. I moved up at the base of the climb, but the leaders were pounding up the hill. Rather than burn several matches to bridge up I decided to race my own pace. I did not want bury myself in the first 50 miles only to be empty in the last 50 miles.

riding with Rebecca Rusch, photo by Eric Benjamin
I got into Madison a few minutes behind the leaders. Jamie had me refueled & chain lubed in seconds. I left confident I could ride strong to Cassoday. Unfortunately my belly had other ideas. Only 5 miles into this leg my gut started to rebel against the buffalo jerky I had eaten just before Madison. I had to make a quick stop to relieve myself, but felt good afterwards. Nutrition, it turns out, would be my downfall all day long. Yet I remembered to avoid my big mistake from last year, I drank plenty & rode a steady pace in the second section. I was riding with a good group of 5 when I made another little mistake. While crossing a cattle guard in the pace line, I failed to bunny hop high enough, thus pinch flatted my rear tire. I got it changed quickly but the speedy group was long gone. I was surprised that more than a dozen racers passed in the few minutes I took to change the flat. Compounding that mistake, I also under inflated the new tube, so flatted again 8 miles up the road. Another quick change, this time with more air in the rear tire. On the Kanza course there are good hard packed gravel roads, and there are bad chunky tire detroying gravel roads, neither will last.

Important for my frame of mind, I passed the point where a year ago doubled over with cramps I nearly tossed my bike into the weeds. I cheerfully shouted out "better than last year!" and upped my pace. I caught up to the lead tandem about 7 miles outside of Cassoday. I jumped into their draft with one other rider. We cruised in at 23+ mph to the mile 100 check point. Jamie & I spent extra time getting the saddle pack reloaded, checking tire pressure, & fueling up. I had lost 30 minutes or more between the flats & my "bio-mechanical" on the 2nd section. But it was still in much better shape than in 2013. I knew the leaders were out of reach after my 3 stops, but also felt I could make a run at a sub 14 hour ride. Jamie urged me to eat & then eat some more. After a sandwich, bag of chips, a few pickles, a handful of M&M's & a ginger ale I was plenty fueled.

Shawn Omara earlier in the race
I left Cassoday into a steady head wind on the long straight road out of town. I rolled out with a local rider in an Adventure Monkey jersey, Shawn Omara. We were soon trading even pulls on the 8 miles of rolling road. Once we hit the first hill I found that my legs were dead. I had eaten too much at lunch. All the blood that should have been in legs was working to digest that meal. Nutrition lesson number 2, you can't eat too much when you're racing for 12 hours, but you can eat too much at once. As Shawn  and others eased away up the hills I soft pedaled & kept in mind what Rebecca said on Thursday, "there will be good times, there will be bad times, neither will last". I hoped that by the time we turned north into the bigger hills on Madison Road my belly would no longer be an anchor. In fact with a little tail wind I did start to pick up the pace. The cross breeze had kept us cool, but now the sun was on our backs, it started to feel hot. But I was finding my race legs. I started picking off guys heading toward Matfield Green.

riding out of Cassoday, photo by Neil Shirley
Then I felt the familiar twinge of hamstring cramps. My left leg started to seize every time I pushed on a seated climb. I drank as much as I could stomach, soft pedaled for a while then tried to ramp up the pace again. A few miles later the hamstring cramped again. I un-clipped my left foot & shook the leg out. That helped for a few more miles, but as I came to the lumpy climbs outside of Cottonwood Falls, the cramps came back. This is my favorite section of the course. I enjoy the twisting roads and hills south of Cottonwood Falls. But I was nervous that each push would lead to more cramps. Eventually I had to get off the bike to stretch. I hoped that some rest & more intense stretching at the 3rd check point would alleviate the issue. The mental battle now was holding off the frustration of only riding my race pace half of the time.

I pulled into Cottonwood Falls more worried than tired. I felt like I had pedaled hard for only 20 of the prior 50 miles. I was consumed by the mental calculations of time & speed & distance to Emporia: what pace could I maintain? was it enough to make the finish by sunset? Jamie got to work straight away getting fluids into my system. But it wasn't dehydration that thwarted me, I needed salt. I ate chips, I took electrolyte tablets, I asked for more sea salt in my drink mix, and finished the jar of pickles. Yet I was already depleted and cramping. I could only remedy the situation so much.

With earbuds in & agro music on high, I charged into the last section hoping I could make up time and keep the cramps at bay. At very least I expected to beat the sunset & finish in the top 100. The first 10 miles I felt so amped I almost sprinted up the road. After 30 minutes both of my hamstrings decided they had enough of that pace. For the next 35 miles I could ride hard tempo for 10-15 minutes then I would need to soft pedal, shake my legs out, or stop & stretch. I played leap frog with a dozen riders in the last section. I would fly past 5-6 guys, only to stop then watch them cruise past me again. My cyclocross skills proved useful in finding "free speed" on the bigger downhills. By 5 miles outside of Americus I was in the middle of a solid 6 rider pace line when cramps hit my legs again. I had to sit up & wave the rest of the group on. When I could pedal hard, I did. When I had to stop I stopped. I  focused on making as much speed out of what my legs would give me. I kept up my positive attitude by saying "better than last year" each time I passed another challenge.

After Americus I had the giddy confidence that I was close to finishing before sunset. A cool water bottle handed to me by a local family on the road side boosted my spirits too. Several houses outside of Americus had free water bottles set out for desperate racers; the oasis of the Dirty Kanza.  I began to catch a few stragglers from the pace line I had waved on before town. The rush of being close to Emporia gave me new energy. Still, I was afraid my hamstrings might seize up & I'd flop over like a turtle in the road. I pushed carefully to the finish, a little faster each mile. The cheers of the crowd in Emporia were overwhelming, humbling really. I finished in 14 hours 17 minutes, good for 155th place overall out of 469 finishers.  Jamie quickly shepherded me to a seat for water & rest. The organizers had recovery tents set out with couches, water, food & ice packs. I saw dozens of weary dusty salt streaked bodies in different depths of exhaustion. Several blocks of Emporia's main street were closed off for the race. I was even more humbled by the number of local residents who congratulated me and asked with genuine interest about my race .

Downtown Emporia blocked off, photo by Dustin Michelson
As much as the distance & terrain, the energy in Emporia makes the Dirty Kanza an extraordinary event. Jim Cummins runs a great show, but the participation of the whole town makes this race very special. Personally I think I can ride a better race at the Kanza. I figure I lost an hour or more working through hamstring cramps. I realize that good nutrition for a 10 hour bike ride in cool New England weather is very different than the demands of a 13 hour race in the Kansas sun. That is my critical lesson for next time. I imagine that the Dirty Kanza will always have new lessons to teach, new challenges to overcome. Whether a racer is at the front, wringing themselves out to win, or another grinding away in the dark to finish before midnight,
the big Kansas horizon, photo by Eric Benjamin
this course tests each person that lines up. Everyone struggles sometime, whether it's the heat or the wind or another blown tire or just pedaling hard after 12 hours. It is the hundreds of cyclists racing their bikes toward the far off prairie horizon, hours from the start, hours away from the finish, that makes the Dirty Kanza monumental.