Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Vive le Grand Tour! the best annual group ride that almost didn't happen 2016

Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything beautiful, for beauty is God's handwriting. - Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Grand Tour is an annual tradition in the little cycling community I call home. It has happened every Sunday after Mother's Day for decades. When the weather is fair I've seen 70 or more cyclists on the route. The riders come on a wide range of bikes & travel at equally divergent pace. In the best years we enjoy a group of a couple dozen sharing the work on the flat stretches. But this was not a fair weather year. Since Mother's Day was early this year, Sunday May 15th was the regular date. But with a forecast of 45F & 15 mph winds, the ride was postponed until May 22nd. Several of the regulars on the Wednesday night road ride were eager for the new date. Other cyclists who come up just for the ride called the shop to confirm the date in the week ahead. But the forecast for that Sunday got more dismal as the week dragged on. As all great traditions go, it can only be maintained by someone keeping it up.

I wasn't going to ride the Grand Tour this year. I planned to race the Eastern Grind on May 15th instead. But when the date was changed I thought, maybe I can do the short route of 80-90 miles. The Grand Tour is hard to resist when a good group makes for a fun day in the saddle. Then when the weather forecast shifted to rain in the afternoon I thought, perhaps I'll ride from home and stop at North Woodstock for 105 miles. That was the plan at least, ride hard for 5+ hours and finish by lunch time. That was the plan

I got up early Sunday morning and spotted a sheen of over night rain on the road. The forecast had improved a bit, but the sky was still overcast. I packed a rain jacket, booties, & extra chamois cream in the large saddle bag before heading out. I was 3 miles from home when I realized I forgot my phone & money. CRAP! I was beginning the day with a chase to catch the group that left from the bike shop with a 10 minute lead. Most years the group pace from the shop up to the North Woodstock parking lot is leisurely. But as the miles ticked by up Route 3 I was concerned that I saw no other cyclists. I upped my tempo, anxious I would miss the group entirely.

Thom took the first town line of the day
I rolled into the parking lot in North Woodstock just past 8:15. I was thrilled to see my team mates Jordan & Ryanne at their car. But no other cars with bike racks were in the lot and only 2 other cyclists near by. This was it? Where were the dozens of other riders who usually show up? From the lack of cars I could tell no one had likely started early either. The other 2 were Andy Havey & Thom Mitchel who had come up from Plymouth 10 minutes ahead of me. They too were surprised to be the only cyclists at the bike shop that morning. But the Grand Tour must go on, so we committed to stay together as a tight knit group.
Ryanne still all smiles after the first climb

We started through Lincoln to the Kancamagus Highway at a casual pace. At some point near the hair pin curve, 3 miles before the top, Thom & I separated from the others. We each started climbing a little harder to test our legs. With about a mile to go Thom upped the pace to one I could not match if I was going to ride another 90+ miles. He took the first town line of the day at the crest of the Kanc. We stopped at the look out to zip up our vests & wait for Andy, Jordan & Ryanne. The clouds began to break allowing some sky to peak through. It was gorgeous as always.
the view from the top of the Kanc

Like most years we ripped the descent down the east side of the Kanc, going over 40 mph in the straight stretches. After grouping up at the bottom of Bear Notch we began an equally casual pace up this climb as out of Lincoln. After I took the town line 1.5 miles up, Andy & Thom pulled away to climb at their quick rate. Down the back side of Bear Notch Andy spotted a black bear crossing the road, imagine the serendipity.

Following the well established pattern, we stopped to refuel at Bart's Deli in Bartlett. The giant pickle jar & breakfast sandwiches are institutions for New Hampshire cyclists. As we filled our bottles & sat in the parking lot an older gentleman asked how far we were riding. He was driving a car with Ontario plates & 2 little old ladies in the back seat. When we told him our route he replied in a thick English accent "well, that sounds brilliant, but you're quite mad. Yes absolutley mad." I took that as a high compliment.
Still feeling good at our first food stop in Bartlett

We resumed a steady pace out of Bartlett heading up to Crawford Notch. This stretch always feels longer than the 14 miles it measures. A little tailwind helped ease the strain of the constant upward tilt of the road. My problem was that my legs were flat. This was my last day of a hard 3 week training block. I did not have much power left at all. But I thought that once we got a little further up the road I might recover. Jordan kindly held back & pulled me to last roller before the start of Crawford Notch proper. Andy & Thom lit up the steep final pitch to the top of the Notch. I crawled my way up, it was one of my weakest rides up Crawford. We grouped up again past the AMC Highland center for the fast downhill stretch to Bretton Woods.
cycling to the top of Crawford Notch: photo by Nick Czerula
Andy after taking the sprint on Crawford Notch
The real attraction of the Grand Tour is the route. The views from the top of the Kanc are great & the site of Cannon & Mt Lafayette are beautiful. My favorite stretch though is coming up through Crawford notch. On a clear day traveling the at bicycle pace I have a chance to enjoy all the vistas along this 12 mile stretch: Arethusa Falls, Willey's Slide, the Cog railway meandering below Mt. Field, Elephant Head Rock, and all the peaks of the southern Presidentials. A bicycle is a much better way to take in these sights than from behind a windshield at 50 mph. I was a little jealous of the loaded touring cyclists we passed going half our pace up this beautiful road. Our small group meant we could see more of the views rather than concentrating on the pace line. Despite the weather forecast, this was turning out to be a good day.

Foster's Store our second food stop
Rolling out for the final 50 miles
Another advantage of a small group is that we could pick our stops instead of following the bunch to every store. We jetted by Fabian's Station, waving a greeting to the bikers parked at the Mount Washington hotel look out. We continued on to Twin Mountain. Thom pounded out 30 mph pulls that I felt compelled to match. Ryanne may or may not have expressed her discomfort at the pace with a finger gesture. We were all ready for another refuel stop at Foster's Corner. For a moment I worried that it had closed for business like so many of my favorite north country stores. But instead new owners are renovating the funky old spot, the debris of the construction was merely piled outside. While we sat at one end of the porch sharing a large bag of Cape Cod chips, a local elder gentleman was sitting in the rocking chair at the other end. He quizzed Jordan about our route & club kit. He had the thickest Yankee accent I've heard in years. He seemed much more accepting of our cycling exploits than the Canadian tourist at our first food stop.
Franconia Bike Path, narrow & slick with leaves

We resumed a steady pace up Route 3 to Franconia Notch. I had planned to head down to Easton Road and go over Kinsman Notch but the sky to the west looked stormy. We decided to follow the traditional route and ride down the Franconia Bike Path. I dislike the Franconia Bike Path. It is narrow, lumpy, frequently slick with wet leaves, & on many weekends littered with gawking tourists, who often serve as human pylons. Speeding down this treacherous strip of pavement is risky at best. But with rain in Kinsman Notch it was clear that this was the better choice. Despite the risks, we had a great time on the bike path. In a small group we could control our speed and until we reached the Basin passed only a few walkers. I admit, I had fun speeding down Franconia Notch for the first time in several years.

We might have broken the Bike Path speed limit (oops)
Thom & Jordan exit the Bike Path and enter the rain
The only poor weather we faced all day was 5 minutes of rain from the end of the bike path until we reached the North Woodstock town line. In truth that little burst of rain was refreshing. We were all wearied by the miles at that point. Once we reached the Cascade CafĂ© each of us ordered a coffee & some pastry. We sat enjoying this stop longer than I expected, longer than any of us thought we would. Jordan & Ryanne had finished their ride so wished us farewell.

Coffee break in North Woodstock, we are much less perky than in Bartlett
Thom, Andy, & I slowly got back up to speed for the final stretch down Route 3. Andy reminded us of the Grand Master's refrain for this stretch of the Grand Tour: only 7 hills back to Plymouth. This was a welcome thought since we were all suffering from fatigue. Our pulls each got shorter. Thom no longer hit the front so hard. We had a tail wind to help us along, but somehow it did not seem as much help as the one at Bartlett 60 miles earlier. But each mile brought us closer to home. So we pedaled as hard as we could sustain. We rotated a steady pace line & pushed each other up the last couple of hills. After taking the final town line (old habits die hard) Andy & Thom returned to the bike shop while I turned down Fairgrounds Road. Only 5 easy miles remained in my ride, but into a headwind. It was a slow spin home.

This ended up one of my favorite Grand Tours. The small group was very good company. The weather was far better than the forecast. The mountain views were as beautiful as ever. I'm certain this event will continue as long as people ride road bikes in central New Hampshire. The Grand Tour lives on, Vive le Grand Tour!

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Donkey Ride: some days speak for themselves

Dirty cyclists in New England had plenty of options last weekend. There was the Rhodekill Spring Classic on Saturday, both the inaugural Plymouth Gravel Grinder & the Dirt Roller Coaster in Vermont on Sunday, and just a bit further up I-89 was also the Kenda Cup Eastern Grind XC race. If you desired to ride the entire weekend Overland Base threw it's second Maneha, a 2 day 250 mile mixed terrain bike camping adventure. Lots of ways to run your knobbies on May 14th-15th

But I was having none of those. With 3 weeks left until the Dirty Kanza, fair weather forecast for Saturday, & a family day planned on Sunday, I chose to do my own thing. So I put together a pair of big dirt road loops on some favorite local terrain. I rode the first loop solo, the second with one team mate, Kat Zalenski. She noticed so many burrows out grazing at farms we passed that this became The Donkey Ride.

I could say many things about such a long day in the saddle, but I think these pictures say enough.

ready to roll for a 10 hour day in the saddle

some creative wood stacking on Atwell Hill
old barn in Piermont 

the view from the top of Indian Pond Road

cows will be watching me on the prairie too
grand old house on Canaan Lake, a place I should ride by more often

a beautiful farm house getting restored on Jersusalem Road

Huckleberry Hill, almost at the top

Kat Zalenski rode with me for the 2nd half

Roads like these, all day long

Hatch Pond

Mile 105, along way from home

Roxbury Road will wait for another day

Carleton Road, taking a rest before the last tough climb of the day

Kat & I saw donkey's at 4 different farms, not these donkeys, but the name stuck.

across Blair Bridge means I'm almost home.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Bitten by the Bear, Doubling Up at the Bear Brook Classic

...the great bear was like the mountains, unrivalled in the valleys as they were in the skies. With the mountains, he had come down out of the ages. He was part of them.  - The Grizzly King by James Oliver Curwood

photo from The Bear
When I was leading wilderness trips for kids I regularly showed them my favorite "man vs. beast" movie, The Bear. This film is not like most of it's type, both the man & Kodiak bear are complex characters in it. Both are hunters & the hunted in the drama, yet both are portrayed with empathy. Some times you hunt the bear, some times the bear hunts you, to survive either requires as much humility & luck as courage.

My original plan for this weekend was to ride a dirt road century. The Dirty Kanza 200 was exactly four weeks away, so long dirt miles & tempo efforts are the training recipe. But when State 9 Racing decided to revive a mountain bike race at Bear Brook State Park, I was intrigued. I was even more interested when they included an "endurance 'cross" event. I certainly would benefit from a couple more race efforts before the Kanza. By racing the xc category in the morning, riding some tempo laps between events, then racing the endurance cross in the afternoon I would get 6+ hours of saddle time. That would easily equal the effort of a long dirt road ride, perfect, right?  
Root 66 Series Start Line in full effect
I had never raced at Bear Brook. Indeed I've only ridden the trails there twice. The last time a mountain bike race was held at Bear Brook State Park was 12 years ago, just as I was getting interested in xc events. But back in the day it was an important venue on the New England mtb circuit. I imagined that the endurance cross course would be like the old Big Ring Rumpus, a 6 mile loop of wide open fire roads. I was terribly & painfully wrong about that.

I arrived at Bear Brook State park just as the overnight rain stopped. The trails were tacky but not muddy. The course was a long loop of 9 miles for the xc events. A few stretches of fire road broke up the technical single track sections. Since this was my first mountain bike race of the year I lined up on the front row, being the shameless hole shot hero I am. The field for my category was large too, 41 guys on the start line.  Many of them were targeting Kenda Cup or Root 66 series points: it was going to be all out from the gun.

The whistle blew & off we went. I had a weak start & drifted back to 5th place as we headed up to the opening rise. The first single track section was just 200 meters from the start, so we bunched up quickly. The pace was snappy but I felt comfortable following the leaders. As we hit the first fire road section a gap had opened to the front 3. I made a move to close on them but only got half way across before the next single track section. A couple of guys made aggressive passes to get by me. I kept reminding myself to ride an all day pace, but we were racing dang nabit! The rest of the first lap I continued to swap spots between 6th-8th place. I finished the first lap with plenty of confidence in my shot at a top 5 result. Oh my high hopes....

on the front at the start of the Cat 2 40-49 race.
The second lap began as the first lap had gone. I was gaining on the technical downhills, holding my own on the fire roads, and giving up a little ground on the climbs. Then it happened, the one big mistake. Coming down the last steep technical drop on Carr Ridge I slipped on the exit of a rocky choke point. I was over the bars before I knew what happened. I got up with only a scrapes to my elbow & knee. But my bike was in worse shape, the lockout cable was undone, the chain wrapped around my crank arm. Bike maintenance at trail side with adrenaline spiking through your system is never easy. For a moment I thought my derailleur was bent too. A few deep breaths & running through the gears confirmed that my drive train was intact.

After a few minutes I got the cranks turning again. In that time I heard James Hall endo at the same spot I had slipped. He went down hard and was groaning beside the trail. I called back & he claimed to be "alright" as a team mate of his checked him over. After the race he told me he feared he'd cracked a rib. That rocky slot claimed several other victims this day. I spotted John Moser after his race with 4 inches of gauze taped to his knee. The "bear trap" put a gash in his knee deep enough that he was off to get it sutured. All in all I was lucky.

tight racing on lap 1
But back to racing. I was eager to at least gain back a little ground before the end of the lap. I charged down the River Trail and pounded the pedals with all I had left on the fire road. I managed to catch a couple of guys before the finish, for 17th place. I had lost 10 spots in my fumbling with my bike on Carr Ridge. But I was not injured and got a solid hour & a half of race pace pedaling.

I got back to my car, changed kit, put together the cyclocross bike, & ate a little lunch. After the Cat. 1 race started I headed out to preview the "endurance cross" course. My initial thought was "they aren't going to make us ride the first sections of single track, are they?" Oh yes they were. In fact almost half of the cross course was single track, the same tough drops we had just raced mountain bikes on. This was going to be much harder than I expected. I spun around on the fire roads with my thoughts swirling about the level of risk in racing cx on this technical track.

But I had a training plan for this day and I was going to stick to it. I went out to the campground road for a tempo loop. As I began an interval my heart rate would not go up. I spun easy for 5 minutes then tried again, still not hitting my target. I went back to the car, maybe I just needed some more real food. It started to drizzle again, so I got into the front seat, just to wait for the rain to pass. Twenty minutes later I woke up from my own snoring. I now had less than an hour before the start of the endurance cross, & had serious doubts if I should race. But I was already kitted up, so I put the number plate on my bike, slathered on the embro & headed out to wake up my legs.

Funny thing about bike racers and start lines, once we're on one all the exhaustion & doubt sometimes melts away. I lined up on the front of the combined men's field, again. I got decent but not perfect position off the line, again. So I was chasing the leaders, 3 young guys, into the single track again. I was smoother on the first section of single track than I feared during pre-ride. The demanding track meant I had to pick razor sharp lines over the roots & between the rocks. As we exited onto the fire road my team mate Pierre came past & sprinted to join the leaders. He towed along another M35+ racer to the front, Doug Reid. I pushed as hard as I could to follow but I did not have much jump. I could ride hard tempo and hoped I would close on them in the next single track section.

Start of the Endurance Cross
But as I approached the entrance two other younger guys squirted past. This would have been fine except they both slowed down once we hit the roots & narrow sections of the track. Once we exited to the fire road Pierre & the lead group had a solid 20 second gap. I worked to close some of the gap before entering the woods again. But my lack of high end sprint meant Ben Kramer continued to beat me to the single track. In the middle of the lap the two younger guys I had been blocked by took a wrong turn through a gated fire road. I almost followed them but stopped, looked at the trail markers, and found the entrance to the single track just past it. My stop allowed a State 9 Racing guy to close within a few seconds as I got back up to speed. He looked definitely over 35, so now I had a chaser. Race on.

I was not gaining any ground on my chaser in the fire roads. But I realized in the next lap that I was increasing the gap by ripping the single track. I stayed in the drops to maximize control as I hopped over roots & down the rock ledges. My triceps began to scream for mercy at the strain. Narrow tires & a rigid fork meant that lines I could bull doze through on the mtb now had to be hit with extreme precision. Such narrow lines meant that I scraped my knuckles against a fat oak tree while trying to clear it's roots on the River Trail. At the end of lap 2 I could see Pierre come past me on the opposite side of the fire road. He had a solid gap over Doug & a 3 minute lead on me. But I could hold onto a podium position with a clean final lap.

Endurance Cross M35+ podium
On the initial section of fire road during the final lap I could see my chaser was only 5 seconds behind me. I put my head down and charged through the single track. I shuffled up the log run as fast as my cramping legs could go, bike over my shoulder. On the River Trail for the last time I bombed over the roots and hopped the rocks. Again I scraped by knuckles raw & tore my glove against the same oak tree. I poured out all my remaining energy down the fire road. But when I looked back with 1/2 a mile left I could still see a State 9 jersey closing in. I clicked down two gears and cranked it out to the finish line. I kept 3rd place by 2 seconds. After the finish I realized that the chaser was Craig Schaepe who I had raced with on the road over a decade ago. It was good to get reacquainted after a fierce duel. I was worn out from racing hard twice on the such demanding track in one day. I was still exhausted Tuesday morning.

The event itself was run extremely well. Andy Gould, Aaron Miller, & all the State 9 members did a tremendous job. The kids course was one of the best I've seen at a New England mtb race. More importantly each child got a coupon for the ice cream truck that was at the venue! State 9 Racing did us a great favor in bringing back a favorite venue for many NE mountain bike racers. I hope they host it again next year, though I'll probably only do one race in the future. Getting bitten by the bear once is enough.     

The State 9 bear and cub

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Dirty Truth: my devolution from road racer to off road cyclist

I'll start with a confession: I've been a leg shaving roadie for most of my cycling life. I found my passion for racing bikes in 1983 when Greg Lemond won the World Championships. I was 12 years old. The spectacle of road racing captured my imagination like no other individual sport. I knew a few boys who raced BMX. While I was impressed with their stunts I wanted to go faster & farther than one could on 20" wheels. So for me it was road racing I dreamed about until high school forced me to choose other pursuits.

There were precious few road races in Kansas when I was a teenager. It was easier to let those dreams go than to chase them. Still I never forgot the thrill of going fast on a road bike. A dozen years later I found myself at a desk job in New Hampshire. My change in career meant I gained almost 30 lbs in 2 years. I was miserable with stress & lack of exercise. I wandered into a bike shop one day after work and found a used celeste Bianchi in my size. I also found that the town I had located to has a community of devoted cyclists. Like many cycling communities it has a Wednesday Night "Worlds" ride. My first attempts at joining this ride were absurd. The extra weight and lack of miles in my legs meant I struggled to hold on through the warm up. I spent the better part of 2 seasons getting fit enough to make it the end of a Wednesday night ride.

Field Sprint at the Fitchburg Crit 2006
By the time I could ride with the group for the distance I figured I had worked hard enough that racing wouldn't be much more difficult. That spark rekindled my interest in road racing. Several elite mountain bike racers regularly lead the Wednesday night ride, but what they did on the weekends was a mystery to me. I began with a Thursday training race series put on by the New Hampshire Cycling Club at the speedway in Loudon. Winning sprints in the "C" group only whetted my appetite for more. I discovered my field sprint after a few races in New Hampshire like the Concord Criterium and the Sunapee Road Race. After a season I began racing throughout New England, from the Marblehead Road Race in the spring to the York Beach Criterium in the fall. By the end of 2005 I wanted to race as much as I could the following season. In 2006 I started over 50 road race days, including both the Fitchburg Stage Race and Green Mountain Stage Race. I ended up with 20 top 10 finishes that year and won a NEBRA jersey.

A funny thing happened in the course of my new road racing career. In 2001 Kerry Litka offered to take me to the CSI Verge Series cyclocross race in Amherst. It was my first exposure to cyclocross. I was immediately fascinated by the sport. Part of it was watching the pros up close, much closer than any road race. But part of the draw was the dynamic skills the discipline requires; sprint, corner, dismount, run, sprint again. I dabbled in cyclocross later that year and again the next season. I was so thrilled by the racing that I was soon traveling every autumn weekend. But by 2004 I knew that my lack of experience riding on dirt was a limitation to racing cyclocross well.

Sucker Brook Cyclocross

So I began to dabble in mountain bike racing in the summer too, just to improve my bike handling. Then I began to explore dirt roads on my cyclocross bike in the spring. Then I heard about a cult like ride called the Deerfield Dirt Road Randonnee, D2R2. I was soon as interested in riding on dirt as I was in road racing. I was still doing the Wednesday night ride & going to Loudon every Thursday. But by 2008 I was racing as many mountain bike events in the summer as road events. By 2010 I was targeting XC events in the same way I had once targeted road races. By 2012 I started riding mountain bikes every Thursday with my son & his friends instead of going to the Loudon track. I did not enter any road races that summer or since.

First time racing The Pinnacle XC
I am not alone in this transition. 15 years ago the New England schedule had over 70 road race days on it, now there are less than half that number. Many road races have fallen away due to falling attendance. Friends I used to see at road races I now find exclusively at dirt road events, such as Mike & Cathy Rowell and Peter Vollers.  In 2001 mountain bike races had dwindled from their peak days in the early 1990's. Some declared XC racing dead. But XC mountain bike racing is enjoying a strong resurgence in New England. This year there are more cross country mtb events scheduled than road races. Several of these events are national caliber at festival like venues, such as the Boston Rebellion US Cup and the Hampshire 100. The new element is the dozens of dirt road events in the region. Where D2R2 was the lone event of this type 15 years ago, there are more than 30 this year. The best of these events draw top racers across categories, offer great food both on course & at a post ride meal, regularly with local beer. The top dirt road races offer cyclists of all levels both a challenge and a rolling party with their friends.  Events like the Rasputitsa & the VT Overland are sold out hits. Simply put the dirt road events in New England are a fun time with good food & beer & friends. Who wouldn't enjoy that?

Sandwich Notch Road in the middle of a dirt road century 
Then there is cyclocross. The New England cyclocross circuit is arguably the best in the country. Certainly the best bike races in the region are the top cyclocross events: best in drawing world class pro's, best in production (food, family fun, spectating), & top competition in every category. I look forward to racing and spectating at Gloucester, Providence, and Northampton all year. Several "local" non series races have nearly as much production & competition as the big events, such as Sucker Brook, Orchard Cross, Putney, & Shedd Park. I have multiple mountain bike, dirt road, & cyclocross events to choose from every weekend from April to December. I choose events now based on how much fun my family will have at the venue. Dirt cycling always wins that contest over pavement these days.

In the beer garden at Gloucester cheering on Mo Bruno Roy
So is road racing "dead" in New England? In a word, no. Fallow perhaps, but certainly not dead. I think that with J.D. Bilodeau as NEBRA administrator and the new leadership at USA Cycling the seeds are being sown for a road racing revival in the region. I sometimes miss the thrill of winning a field sprint, or going all out when it counts for something on a climb. I may be tempted in the future to return to the tarmac. I still do almost every Wednesday night ride, and my club's Tuesday time trial too. But for now the dirty truth is that dirt cycling is awfully fun.