Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Seven Redsky Pro: the myth of the Forever Bike

A proper forever bike requires a real head badge
Let me begin by stating that there is no "Forever Bike". I know the myth well. This is the favorite fairy tale of certain cyclists. It is the object of supreme desire among MAMILs (Middle Aged Men in Lycra). The formula for the Forever Bike is N(x)+1nx, where N is all the bicycles the enraptured cyclist owns and x is their retail price. The Forever Bike is dear enough to compel said cyclist to repeat the greatest bicycle fib to his spouse: "This is the last bike I'll ever want..."

Lemond at his best on a Bottecchia
Understand the power of the "Forever Bike" myth. Most cyclists begin their love of bicycles somewhere in childhood. The first type of bicycle that captures their interest is where the myth begins. The allure of THE bicycle one always wanted but never had is fantastic. For me my first love was road racing. I went from liking bikes to a passion for cycling by following a young Greg Lemond. I dreamed of racing on a brightly painted Bottecchia like his. To this day my favorite bikes are mostly road race bikes. Those are also the bikes I've ridden on for the bulk of my miles in the past 20 years. But in recent years my interests have changed. I spend as much time riding on dirt roads now as on pavement. So a bike with greater range for tires yet road race qualities would be the dream bike.
my Seven Cycles Red Sky Pro fitted out as the daily driver

I concede that pursuing the Forever Bike is like searching for leprechauns or chasing unicorns. Yet once in a while a new bicycle is so designed that I'm tempted to believe the myth. When Seven Cycles announced project Redsky I was intrigued. A road bike that could run 32mm tires, and fenders, with rim brakes? Impossible, unbelievable, yet mesmerizing. If any builder could make that real it would be my friends in Watertown, MA. When I contacted them about the Redsky project I gave them a tough order: I wanted a bike that would sprint & corner like a Trek Madone, climb like a Cannondale SuperSix, and be as comfortable as the latest Trek Domane all while being able to run 28mm tires with fenders. No problem they said. We discussed the design parameters, made some adjustments, and in 6 weeks a dream bike was born.
plenty of room for a frame pump, a key feature for a brevet racer or retro grouch

I took possession of my Seven Cycles Redsky Pro in September 2016. I built it out with the SRAM Red drivetrain. I chose to use TRP's RG957 medium reach caliper brakes with Jagwire compression less housing. After trying a few shapes and sizes I settled on a Zipp Contour SL handlebar for the width & flare. I also switched from a Selle Flite to a Bontrager Serano saddle. Of course all these bits are a matter of personal preference. I took a long time to ride & adjust the bike in order to find my best set up. I am writing this so far after initially building the bike since I wanted ride it all conditions. I've ridden the Redsky for approximately 8 months total broken up by a pair of long ski winters. I've had enough ride time now to test it in most every way I plan to use it.

room for 31mm gravel tires
The bike does everything I hoped it would. I've ridden it to personal best times up steep 5 mile climbs. I've kicked it up at over 1000 watts for town line sprints. I've been comfortable on it for a 150 mile all day tour through the White Mountains. I've ridden it in the rain with fenders and felt solid through every corner. The tires I've run range from 24mm race tubulars to 30mm gravel tires to 32mm cyclocross file treads to my regular training 28mm clinchers. All have fit the frame fine. Honestly I can not find significant difference in brake power between the TRP's and the SRAM Red calipers I used prior. I could certainly race this bike, but would likely not in a technical criterium for fear of wrecking it. I would ride it in some gravel events, but likely on smooth dirt roads rather than rocky & rutted jeep track. In summary I would happily ride the Redsky in a rolling road race or D2R2 or a fast Wednesday night group ride or a 400 km brevet. It is just that versatile with the right tires for the course.

room for 33mm file treads under TRP mid reach brakes
Is this my "forever bike"? I can not say I will always ride the way I do now. I hope to, but no one knows how interests might change in another decade. I might want a disc brake road bike some day, but so far good calipers work fine for me on the road. I still know that the forever bike is a myth, there is always a next bike, a N+1 bike, being crafted somewhere. But the Seven Redsky may be as close as I get to making that beautiful myth real.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Gravel Grinder Growing Pains, it's just stupid bike racing

Most Americans are at best indifferent about bike racing as a sport. When I was young road racing was almost entirely a European sport. Yes they were a handful of long standing criteriums in US cities, but they were few & far between.  Mountain bike racing has a brief flurry of interest when it was new, but has faded into the realm of niche sport as well. Including all disciplines the total number of licensed American bike racers could likely fit into the University of Texas football stadium. Viewership of bike races on TV goes up when an American is winning the Tour de France, but that is about the only time. Even mountain bike racing, a sport we invented, is dominated by Europeans & Australians now. Bike racing is a niche sport in the USA with little fan interest.

start of the Dirty Kanza 200, gravel has grown up
photo by Dave Leiker
That is not to say nobody in America races bikes, or takes bike racing somewhat seriously. I resumed bike racing at age 30 in New England. The road racing circuit here as always been strong here (for the US). It is also very very serious in every category. I began racing cyclocross too and quickly found that New England takes that even more seriously. Between training plans, coaching, gluing tires to tubular wheels, inspecting courses, chasing series points, and arguing about tactics, racing bikes here can be exhausting before I even get to the start. Because America as a whole doesn't view bike racing as serious sport, some cyclists come to it with a more casual attitude. They want to ride bikes fast and have fun. For them the super seriousness of more competitive racers wrecks the vibe of a bike event. So why bother racing, why not just ride hard then have a beer with your buddies? asks the more fun minded cyclist.

Which brings me to gravel racing. Gravel racing is considered the more open, less serious, run what you brung type of cycling. Gravel as a separate discipline is relatively new. Because it is new & often unsanctioned the rules are highly variable at different events. Yet unlike sanctioned road/mtb/cyclocross races, most gravel races have mixed gender & category mass starts. Gravel races are great because many of them have routes that are a challenge just to finish. Gravel races are great because they are often scenic and adventurous. Gravel races are great because of the fellowship on the ride. A fellowship forms with whomever you are struggling alongside no matter their age & gender. That fellowship extends to the festivities afterward which are sometimes the best part of the event.

skinsuit, aerobars, and racing to win. Mat Stephens at DK200
photo by Team Panaracer 

But as gravel races get more exposure & cache more competitive cyclists have started racing them, including recently retired or aspiring pro racers. And then the issues begin: is drafting a younger or stronger team mate to the finish breaking the unwritten rules? what if a team rides in a pace line to create a lead group? is giving a wheel to a faster or "featured" team mate after a flat violating the "spirit of gravel", is wearing a skinsuit & aero helmet gauche for gravel? Arguing about these "issues" make the fun oriented cyclist want to go away & find the next sub niche of cycling.

In truth these are issues only for those who care about standing on the podium or think that those racers change the character of the event. I imagine that for 90-99% of finishers at the Dirty Kanza last Saturday none of those issues matter much. The experience of finishing that course is so astounding that it leaves little energy for such concerns. It may come down to expectations. I'd estimate 80% of those starting a DK200 just hope to finish at all, they aren't truly concerned with whether they have a shot at the podium much less a fancy belt buckle. The folks that are struggling to finish before dark or before midnight are happy to have anyone help them through the painful middle miles. It seems these issues matter little to most veteran pro's either. They seem to understand that gravel races while competitive & challenging don't have any money or UCI points on the line. They've known what racing for a paycheck, for a professional team, as a job is about. Gravel grinders are not really like that sort of racing.

But some racers are concerned with these issues & ethics. A few cyclists have lit up online comments sections with their opinions, whether they've raced the Kanza or any big gravel event or not. Promoters will need to deal with the controversies and reactions. As a new discipline promoters will both decide what the common rules are and how they will be enforced. For some this will diminish the openness and therefore "fun" of these events. But one cannot deny that the largest gravel races are becoming very competitive. Where there is competition some will push the limits to gain an advantage. With that level of seriousness, lack of clear rules/ethics will only lead to needless conflicts. Excess drama is no fun for anyone.
start of the Paris-Brest Paris 1895

When the Tour de France was in it's early years over a century ago similar controversies cropped up. Originally no neutral support was allowed and team work was frowned upon. After the 1904 Tour de France the original winner Maurice Garin was disqualified for taking food from an official during stage 1, which was then against the rules. But as the event grew, first national teams, then dedicated support vehicles, then road closures, then professional sponsored teams, then tv coverage, then rider radios all changed the nature of the race. Meanwhile the other branch of bicycle road racing went in the opposite direction. Randonneuring began at the same time as the Tour and the Giro. But unlike professional road racing, brevet racing has remained small, amateur, & quirky. The only support in a brevet is what you bring or can buy along the way. Results are often posted by name, not by finish time. The only awards are for completing a route under the time limit or a brevet series. Even long time bike racers often know nothing about randonneuring. Brevets are not on TV, they have no corporate sponsors or professional teams. Frankly I think randonneurs prefer it that way. Leave them alone with their handlebar bags, generator hubs, and 4-600 km routes they'll be just fine.
Randonneurs are their own breed

Yet in randonneuring there are rules too, and I imagine some cyclists have bent them to get a result. Where there is competition there is ego, and where there is ego invested emotions can run hot. As Adam Myerson said best "it's just stupid bike racing, but it means everything." So will gravel racing go the way of Le Tour or stick to it's more brevet like origins? I honestly don't know. I cannot imagine gravel grinders becoming like the old NORBA mountain bike circuit much less UCI pro road races. I trust they will always have an amateur & achievement focus. But I cannot say which way the front end of gravel racing will go. And to some degree I don't care. I still just enjoy riding as hard as I can. I like riding gravel events because they're demanding yet inclusive. I know many promoters have the same attitude I do, make cycling a fun challenge for everyone & we'll all have a great ride.
the chaise lounge at mile 180
photo by Salsa Cycles

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Home on the Range Sickness: Missing the Dirty Kanza

I finally kept a promise to my wife. Each of the past 3 years I told her in June that I would not race the Dirty Kanza next year. At long last I've kept my word. I will not be in Emporia this week, after 5 years in a row.

Gravel City 2017

Truth be told I'm in no condition to race this year. A very long delightful ski season meant that I did not start riding my bike outside until the 3rd week in April. When I did I started too hard and pulled a back muscle. I also tore my left rotator cuff falling on a tricky descent. The shoulder pain has made riding on dirt roads difficult. As a final twist of fate I came down with bronchitis last week. It is a very good thing I did not plan on racing 200+ miles this Saturday.

Shake Down Ride with the King, Dan Hughes
And yet I know plenty of folks who are. Some are veterans (Ted King, Amanda Nauman, Kristi Mohn, Jayson O'Mahoney), some are racing the Kanza for the first time (Kaitie Keough, Jason Ebberts). Some are taking on a new challenge (DKXL for Yuri Hauswald, Rebecca Rusch, Dan Hughes, Don Buttram). They are all giddy with excitement. I am excited for them. I might have checked the Chase County weather forecast a few times this week.  A part of me wants to be there, just in Emporia, surrounded by the thousands of fellow gravel racers. The collective energy in the days before the race is electric. The DK festival grows bigger each year. I can only imagine all the sights & chatter on Commercial street this week.
Good Advice Always, but especially at 2 miles to Go

But I am not there. I will spend this weekend painting my house, patching window screens, and rehabbing my rotator cuff. I'll watch the social media posts about DK200 slowly drip in on Saturday afternoon. I will eagerly search for my friends in the results, wondering what adventures & misfortunes they endured. The leftover Kanza excitement might propel me on a long dirt road ride Sunday. I figure 80-90 miles of New Hampshire dirt roads is plenty for me right now. Still it's not the same as being back home on the prairie.

I expect that I will race the Kanza again, next year if I'm lucky, but certainly another year soon. Perhaps skipping a year is a good thing, like leaving a field fallow for a season so that it can revive. Yet something about the deep blue Kansas sky and the vast stretches of tall grass haunts my dreams. When I close my eyes I see a narrow strip of gravel cutting through endless rolling hills. The cows look bemused as I ride by under the bright sapphire dome. You can take the boy off the prairie, but you can't take the prairie out of the boy. Kansas winds drive the grit under your skin and the sun bakes it in. No amount of scrubbing ever gets it all out. So I'll likely always have that itch, the notion that I ought to be out riding the Flint Hills this time of year. Maybe next year I'll get another scratch at it.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Pedaling Full Circles

"I watch the ripples change their size
But never leave the stream
Of warm impermanence..."
Changes - David Bowie

It's the end of May and I have not lined up at a bike race this year. I do not have any real plans to race in the next few weeks either. Sure I have been recovering from a minor rotator cuff tear, and my fitness is less than top shape. But neither of those factors would have stopped me from racing in the past. After 17 years of planning all my Spring, Summer, & Fall weekends around racing I'm just not there this year. Something has changed, for now at least.

So what gives? I still love riding bikes. I've been riding 5-6 days a week since the middle of April. Which is itself a very late date to start regular riding, even for the middle of New Hampshire. We had an extraordinarily long ski season this year. I had my first day on snow December 10th, and my last Nordic day on April 21st (when I skipped the Rasputitsa to ski 25km on 4" of beautiful fresh snow). Sure we had some warm rainy weeks this winter. But the snow fell consistently and late enough for me to ski 85 days. This was also my son's first season of Middle School Nordic Ski team. So we both had incentive to ski whenever we could. Add to that the excitement of the Olympics & the US Nordic Team's first gold medal. We were both racing on skis until the end of March, which was spectacular, but meant April was good time to take a break from hard training & racing.

meeting Jessie Diggins at Craftsbury VT Super Tour Nordic races
So why not race in May? Well, I've been injured and behind in fitness (see above). And when I started to train hard on the bike a few weeks ago I aggravated an old back issue. So I have not felt like spending the time & money to race poorly. But again in the past that would not have stopped me. Also my son is more interested in backpacking this summer than in racing mountain bikes. He has been eagerly researching the Appalachian Trail since February. All he wanted for his birthday was a new pack & sleeping bag. As a former guide I want to help him & hike with him as much as possible. We've been plotting more weekends for backpacking this summer than any other activity. I know as a father I may only get this chance once.

Me and the boy on top of the local 4000 footer
I also know that the all of US bike racing is in decline, in almost every discipline & region. While high school mountain bike racing is growing, senior & masters racing mtb races seem static. New England road racing appears to be making a resurgence, but it is still half of what it was a decade ago. Even my local Wednesday Night Worlds ride has shrunk. It seems more like a gentlemen's cruise now than the cut throat pace it once was. Yet there are still races every weekend. So if I still wanted to drive 2-3 hours to get my adrenaline topped up I could. But I haven't felt that need, not yet this year.

Perhaps skipping the Dirty Kanza this year has also taken a toll on my motivation. I have no need to ride 300 mile training weeks, so I've been trying to catch up on a long list of house projects. Yet as the Kanza draws near I realize I'm far from the form I was in 12 months ago. Part of me wishes I was going to Emporia next week, at least for the atmosphere and to see far flung friends. After 5 in a row part of me is glad for the rest. I'll race the Kanza again someday, perhaps next year, but certainly again, someday.

heading out on the Sunflower Outdoor Shakedown Ride before the Kanza
None of this is to say I won't race bikes before the snow falls. As my injuries heal and the weather warms up I'm finding some fitness. Though my other interests, hiking, kayaking, summer music festivals, are taking my attention too. After all I moved to New Hampshire originally to ski & hike, not to race bikes. Yet the social media posts about the events I've missed are giving me the itch. I still love riding hard. I enjoy the rush of pushing yourself to the limit, if only to see where that limit lays. Bike racing is a spectacular way of doing just that. So I'm certain I'll show up on start line soon.

The more things change, the more they stay the same....