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....