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.

1 comment:

  1. Great write up Carl. It could just as easily of been me you were talking about. Keep turning the pedals.