Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Gap Ride

This weekend it was my turn to tackle to legendary Gap Ride. After a sleepless and apprehensive night, Linnea and I were on the road at 5 AM from Boston to meet my dad in Rochester for an 8 AM departure. Thanks to the miracle of the human body, the fact that I got like 3 hours of sleep Saturday night held off on kicking my ass until Monday morning.

We rolled out at 8:15 and hit the first gap, Brandon Gap. 8 miles at 4.5% sounds really easy, but of course the first 3 miles are really like 2%, so you get some nice 8/9% stuff near the top. Cresting the top at 9 miles (124 to go!) was really easy. I didn't even touch my 38x27 the whole way up. One gap down, five to go. This ride is no problem!

After Brandon Gap the road heads up the valley for 10 or 15 miles, winding along Lake Dunmore and generally being quite scenic. Just before the turn to Middlebury gap, however, there's a section of Rt 7 you have to ride that's very unprotected from the wind, just open fields. On this section we discovered a nice 15-20 mph breeze out of the north, which was going to nag us off and on for the next 80 miles.

Middlebury gap starts with a steeper pitch than anything Brandon Gap has to offer, crossing over the brook and climbing around a bend. I quickly found out that even the 38x27 wasn't magic, and had to stand to climb this section. There was a dude on a cross bike who had passed us earlier, and was still in sight -- he was spinning like 80rpm up it. I can only assume that he had some kind of ridiculous nancy-boy gearing that would be totally impractical for a cross race, like the 30x34 low gear on a Specialized Tricross Triple. I knew I would be wishing I had that kind of ratio come Lincoln Gap, but that didn't stop me from scorning him.

Middlebury Gap quickly flattened out to a beautiful, shady ride along a rushing stream. This was probably the most picturesque section of the ride, possibly because I was still fresh enough to appreciate that kind of thing. Near the top it kicks up to 10% again for the last mile, but all in all Middlebury Gap was very easy. Two gaps down, four to go, things were lookin good.

After 50 mph down Middlebury Gap (this one can be run safely with no brakes) we headed north into the wind on Rt 100 for 15 or so miles, over Granville Gulf up to Warren, VT and the beginning of the dreaded Lincoln gap. I spent a lot of time pulling us at 15 miles per hour into the headwind, and this is when my legs first started to confirm that this was, in fact, going to be a hard day. 50 miles down, 80 to go.

The climb over Granville Gulf was one of those things that would've been really painful, except that it gets mentioned so much I was expecting worse. Every trip report calls it a "mini-gap" so I knew the ride up to Warren wasn't easy. But it was shallow, only reaching 8% in a few places, so it was really a non-event. At least, in retrospect, any hill that didn't get me out of the saddle in the 27 barely merits recognition.

Warren turned out to be our lunch stop, because we were out of water (I'd already gone through 3 bottles) and low on fuel. We detoured into town and found a yuppie-tastic store (wine tasting? Seriously??) that made expensive but nice sandwiches. I promptly overate a large turkey sandwich and then regretted it. After all, I had to carry that quarter-pound of bird over Lincoln Gap in just a few miles...

The dude at the store told us that Lincoln Gap was the "steepest mile in America." This information, coupled with all the ride reports I'd read in advance that prominently featured people with triples walking, convinced me that the real contest was going to be see who lasted the longest before getting off.

There really isn't much of a run-in to Lincoln Gap. The road climbs sharply off Rt 100 and then levels out for a mile or two on gravel. When the gravel ends, things get super hard. Just before leaving the gravel a car passed us going the other direction reeking of smoked brakes, so I knew danger was imminent. We turned the corner, and there it was -- blacktop going straight up the hill at a truly ridiculous pitch. I checked my computer so I'd know where the mile of pain was going to end and got to work.

Linnea and Dad using the whole road on the lower slopes of Lincoln Gap

For the second time I was helped significantly by the hype surrounding a climb. I knew it was going to be super hard and I knew that many people have failed to ride it. I even knew, thanks to Alex's report, that there was one super-steep long section when you turn a corner that was especially daunting, so I was ready to have my spirit crushed on every corner. One thing many people report that I had no problem with was lifting their front wheel -- 38x27 is waaay to big a gear to get wheel-lifting torque out of, plus it was almost impossible to sit down. I decided that I would go straight up until it killed me.

The hardest thing about it was managing the suffering. It's easy, when you see a corner coming, to think that it's going level out after that and try to up pace. It's not. Just keep turning the easiest gear you have a slow as you can. For me, this was about 4 mph. I still had to pull up on the bars with every pedal stroke -- the road is so steep even when you drop your fully body weight from the top of the cranks to the bottom, your center of mass still moves up the hill, so you have to actively pull on every. single. stroke. or you stop.

About five minutes in I started to really have problems. My biceps were actually becoming the limiting factor, as they were completely lacking the endurance to pull for 15 minutes. I had to change my rhythm to sitting down once a minute for a few strokes to rest my arms, and when I did sit my legs instantly would inform me that there was no way they could get uphill in the position. It was the absolute edge of what I could mantain, but it was still doable.

The whole climb kind of blurs together. If I was traveling 4 mph, I guess it would have taken 15 minutes. All I was doing was worrying about how much longer I could maintain the suffering when suddenly I saw cars parked up the road. I had made it. 38x27 straight up. I don't need no steeekin compact.

Linnea was a few minutes behind me, using the whole road to keep turning her 32x26. Shortly behind her came my dad, also zigzagging from shoulder to shoulder using a 39x34. The final climb report, for future gap riders:

Me: 38x27, no zigzags
Linnea: 32x26, zigzags
Dad: 39x34, zigzags, two stops but no walking uphill.

The mandatory top of Lincoln Gap photo. Note comically large XT cassette on Dad's bike

We were all thinking we'd have to walk the "steepest mile in America," so we were all feeling pretty victorious. We did the required photo-op next to the 2424 sign at the top and headed down the disgustingly bad descent to Lincoln.

This was where things got really bad for me. My front brake pads have some kind of hard pieces on them where, if you squeeze them hard, they start to grind and lose some power. Typically when this happens I let up on the brake for a second and it goes away -- unfortunately on Lincoln Gap this is a terrible idea, since you start descending at 20% and getting off the brakes for even a split second will put you up near 25 mph on terrible, winding pavement. Coming into a blind right-hander my brakes were grinding something awful so I let off for a second -- instantly I rocketed downhill and was suddenly having trouble making the corner. Thing should still be ok, as long as I use the whole road.... OH HELLO MR. TRUCK COMING UPHILL. The truck honked at me and moved as far over as it could, which meant I ended up missing its rear bumper by a few feet on the exit.

That was a nasty reality check, but I wasn't done making mistakes. More steep descending and I was trying to keep my brakes from grinding through my rim, so I was letting off intermittently. I looked ahead and saw what I thought was an uphill, but it turns out that it was just a flat (when you're going down 15%+, your perspective gets skewed) so I let 'em run. Then a bad combination of events happened --

1) I passed Linnea on the left without warning her, so she drifted left, meaning I went way into the oncoming lane
2) A vehicle came into sight coming up the hill
3) The road turned left and turned to gravel

What this meant was that I had to turn right, hard, to get back in my lane, but then also turn left hard to stay on the road. The right turn happened. The left turn didn't, and I went mountain-biking into the rocky ditch. I hung on long enough that by the time the bike endo'ed, I got a leg over the bars and stayed on my feet.

After that I slowed down.

At the bottom, it seemed like it had been ages since the end of Middlebury gap, and yet we were only halfway through. The ride had officially gotten hard.

There's not much flat between Lincoln and App Gap. We were quickly going back uphill, and the only motivating factor was seeing things like "GMSR 10k" printed on the road. Baby gap is a climb, sure, but after 20% on Lincoln it seemed trivial. Hell, I was sitting not even in my easiest gear. No problems. Unfortunately, the last 3k of App Gap is very much the real deal. It's the second steepest pitch of the ride and since you're 80+ in, it hurts just as much as Lincoln. The top of the gap is the best view of the day, but unfortunately when you near the top you can see the last 500m of 18% climb as part of the view.

Linnea near the top of App Gap. For some reason she's riding directly toward the camera even though the road goes right to left, I wonder what it could be??

We regrouped at the top of App Gap and talked to some motorcyclists, who were of course very impressed with how stupid we were to ride our bikes over this thing. There was no shade and no services at the top so we headed down pretty fast, on the best downhill of the trip.

The App gap descent isn't the best because of speed, it's the best because of the corners. There are multiple sharp corners with good pavement on the way down that are a blast. Lean your bike and pretend it's the Alps.

Of course, you could get totally messed up if you overcooked one of these, but there's plenty of signs warning you. A good rule of thumb is not to exceed a posted corner by 10mph -- there's one right hander before the Mad River Glen parking lot that's posted at 25, and I got through there around 35 just barely staying on my side of the line.

We refueled again at the bottom (5 bottles down) and were quickly climbing Roxbury Gap. I had this funny idea that we could just tough out the last 45 miles now, but of course that's nonsense. Roxbury gap is another 5 mile climb that teases you around 5-7% for the first 3 miles, and then just when you think things aren't that bad it goes up to 10% and turns to dirt. I was nearing 100 miles, the sun was beating down, and I hadn't eaten anything since my monster turkey sandwich in Warren 4 hours prior. I was definitely headed into bonky-land by the time I crested the top.
Climbing Roxbury Gap. Note moto coming up to give me a time check against that turtle that passed me a mile back.

The descent from Roxbury gap is pure dirt. With cross tires on it would probably be awesome, but not knowing it and having 23mm tires on, it wasn't really fun. Too many washboarded corners really kept you from feeling good about letting the bike run. At the bottom we refueled yet again, and I discovered that those "Monster" energy drinks are as terrible as you might assume. I can't believe what people will consume in the hope of getting some caffeine. Just drink some coffee, you lightweights.

Now we had a "quick" 20mph run over to Rochester Gap and we were almost done, which is good because it was now 6pm at night. We'd been out here for 10 hours. We were finally heading downwind, so I tried to push the pace a bit since I was pretty sick of the saddle. I didn't really have much to give after 100 miles, so I mainly just hurt myself while allowing us to ride 22 instead of 20, but after 3 straight gaps the miles just flew by, and next thing I knew we were at the beginning of Rochester Gap.

We drove over this in the morning, and as other people have mentioned, it doesn't seem that bad. Yeah. You know why it doesn't seem that bad? You were in a car, moron!

Rochester Gap starts innocuously and stays that way until the last 1.5 miles, just like every other gap. Then you turn a corner and see a 12% pitch. Beyond that is a flat, then a corner that's probably 14% on the inside, then a flat, and then a consistent 9-10% grind to the top. My legs had 125 miles on them so it was, of course, murder, although at this point I was totally accustomed to suffering at 6 mph for 10 minutes at a time.

One last quick regrouping at the top, then bombing the descent (no brakes needed except for the stop sign in the middle, and stop sign at the bottom) and we were done. 134 miles thanks to the detour for food in Warren. 14.5 average, 9:15 in the saddle for me.

I'm not sure where it would rank on the "hard things I have done" list. In terms of calories burned, it might take the cake. I would compare it most closely with doing a 24 hour race on a two man team -- in the morning, your body is just destroyed, but you have to keep pushing into the red over and over again to get around the course. The last two gaps were just like that, any exertion was painful but I could still get a reasonable effort out of my legs as long as I kept eating.

If I had to give advice to any future gap riders, it would be this -- the first two gaps are nothing. The last 4 gaps are the real ride, and every single one will kick your ass something fierce for the last 1.5 miles. Don't even waste your time looking at your computer and congratulating yourself on how close you are to the top of a climb until it's well under a mile to go.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Training, impending gaps, goals

This weekend coming up will be my second in a row not racing. Theoretically I'm building some kind of base fitness so that I go fast later. More realistically, I'm hoping to build enough base fitness so that I can actually train harder and more often in future without becoming overtrained and cooked, like seemed to happen last year.

In the spirit of that, this weekend is THE GAP RIDE which is just your average Vermont trip -- 130 miles and 12,000 feet. Alex did it a few months back and survived, and I made the mistake of telling my insane long-distance-cycling-specialist dad about it, so here we are. The big question of the day is whether or not I can turn a 38x27 over Lincoln Gap -- the steepest climb in the Northeast US. The last 1.2 miles average 17.1%, with an extended section above 20%! I've looked at some ride reports and there are many, many accounts of people with triple cranks walking. Alex got over with a 34x27 earlier this year, so I think I can do it -- but on the other hand, I have yet to see a single ride report mention someone with a gear bigger than 36x27 riding it.

Linnea is rocking the triple (32x28) and my Dad is currently scrambling to find something lower than a 39x27.

I've been doing a lot of 3-hour solo rides, mainly because I have no friends, but also because it's nice to kick back and think about stuff for a few hours. I'm always surprised by how fast time passes when I ride alone and how slow it passes when I ride with a group. Anyway, out of all my time thinking I've formulated some "goals" for the next few months.

1) Descend harder on my mountain bike. I realized that I haven't crashed descending in over a year now. I do tend to make up time on technical downhills, but I think I could be getting more -- I must be riding well within my limits if I'm staying upright for so long. Watching the super-tough descending at Mount Snow, I was astonished by the number of expert level riders who descend slowly on full-suspension bikes. If you're gonna pay the 4-lb weight and pedal-bob penalty, you really should make the most of the descending advantage. Just stay loose and let the bike run, you'd be amazed at what you'll roll through.

2) Learn to cross mount correctly. Yep, I still have to stutter-step to get on my bike. There's some kind of mental block that prevents me from hurtling my crotch at my seat while running -- I think it might be an evolutionary reflex, but everyone else seems to do it, so at least we'll be sterile together. More importantly it's probably worth a few seconds and looks far more pro, so I have to learn eventually.

3) Win a non-Verge B race. The race season is long. I race a lot. Just last year, I was 6th and 10th in the two non-Verge B races I did. There's no reason I can't win one if I ride a bit faster and get a bit lucky (aka no Thom P). So every time I line up with the 3/4 group, I should be thinking about making the front group and trying to win.

4) Top 15 at a Verge B Race. I was running 25th last year before I crashed and hyperextended my knee. If I'm as much faster as I want to be this year, should be no problem. Lynn Bessette, look out!

5) Upgrade to Cat 2 Cross. A season of consistent top-5s at non-Verge B races should get me enough points to move up to Cat 2, which would mean I could join the crowd of guys that ride A's most of the time and B at Verge races, because they are terrified of Tim Johnson. This is definitely a stretch goal, but possible if I can be consistent. And being able to say I'm Cat 2 would make me all warm inside, which is pretty much all a guy can ask for.

6) Beat Josh more than he beats me. Ok, that's not really a sensible goal. But I will definitely be trying for it :)

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

This is why we can't have nice things

Less than a mile into a night ride tonight with Alex I tore my derailleur off my bike. It would have been understandable if I had crashed, or shifted, or it had been muddy, but all I did was bunny hop while in the 3rd biggest cog. Somehow this sent my derailleur into the spokes which of course led to a broken dropout and the end of my ride. Incredibly lame.

Also, I haven't seen this mentioned elsewhere, so I'll put the word out -- USA Cycling did the expert short track fields a massive disservice with their overzealous pulling of riders on Sunday at Mount Snow, and I think they'll realize their mistake next year when those classes are nearly empty. Entertain, for a moment, the following scenario --

1) You put down $49 to race short track at nationals
2) 15 minutes into the race, you're in 6th place, 45 seconds off the leader.
3) The officials wave you off the course

Sounds implausible, but it happened to Stephen Petersen. Expert Men 19-29 short track had 23 starters and 5 finishers. Stephen was the guy in 6th who got pulled, and no, I don't know him, I just recognize that he got screwed.

The short track rules have a clause that is something like this:

Riders shall be pulled when they are in danger of being lapped or otherwise considered out of contention

The officials at Mount Snow decided to take the second part of that, "otherwise considered out of contention" far too seriously. They basically pulled anyone who was more than 20 seconds out of 5th place, regardless of how close to being lapped they were. Why did they do this? I have no idea. I can only assume that instead of applying common sense (people paid to race, they want to race, let them race until they are nearly lapped) they were slaves to the letter of the rulebook, not the spirit of it.

Because of this, a lot of people got their $50 races cut short for extremely dubious reasons. Laps were being run in the 1:40-1:45 range, so when you're 45 seconds down you're nowhere near being lapped. The 30+ race had similar issues, 26 starters and 10 finishers, with 10th place finishing a whopping 36 seconds out of 1st place. Open women? 22 starters, 7 finshers, with 7th place 42 seconds off the pace.

So this wasn't a fluke error, this was a systematic destruction of people's racing experiences that went throughout the entire morning. Initially I thought it was the work of some clueless volunteers, but upon closer examination it was a very official-looking guy in a red USA cycling shirt at the finish line who was actually cutting people. So I don't think was a communication error, someone just decided that this is how short track's should be run. It was applied consistently, but it's just... stupid. Let people race until they actually create a problem, not until they are out of contention. If you're going to pull people just because they can't make the podium, then why even start them? Just pull me before the gun goes off, because I'm not making a national champs podium unless there's about 3 starters.

Alright, I think I've made my point. I think this is a self-correcting injustice, however -- next year the expert short track fields are going to be TINY, and USA Cycling should have no trouble figuring out why. Will anyone pay $50 to race 11 minutes and get pulled for being 45 seconds down? I hope not.

Monday, July 23, 2007

MTB Nationals: Junior Expert Short Track

I watched a lot of racing over the course of three days up at Mt Snow and this was the best race I saw. Hordes of juniors were absolutely flying, the crowd and Richard Fries were going nuts, and it was half the length and 1/3rd the course of a cross race so it was even more intense. Linnea and I were pulling for Nick Keough since he was rocking the fully rigid ride like a true cross racer, until he crashed on the last lap, snapping his bars in half and ruining what would have been a crazy 10-up mountain bike sprint. I quickly picked a new suitor for my heart, Greg Carpenter, only to have him lose the sprint for third by less than a wheel. Anyway, it rocked. Short track MTB is definitely up near cross racing in terms of spectating potential. If they'd had a super-technical downhill on the course (Nick Keough was competitive on a rigid!) then it might have jumped over cross nats for the title of "coolest race I've attended."

Without further ado, here is the video!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Morning rides, other stuff

I got up and rode 50 miles today before work. It wasn't supposed to be 50 miles, but there's not much you can do when the name of the road on your directions doesn't match the name on the sign. Anyway, I didn't eat anything before or during, so I was fueled purely by my fat reserves. Luckily, they are enormous.

I was also witness to a variety of motorist stupidity. Nothing unique, but I did identify two particularly aggravating things people in cars do.

1) The too-wide-when-it's-blind pass.
I realize you're trying to be nice to me here, but you can't just go in the other lane on a corner. Seriously, I'm fine over here with 2 feet of space. You can get even closer if you slow down. But for the love of god, don't kill yourself or someone else trying to be nice to me!

It's like seeing a bike on the shoulder makes people forget, I dunno, every other safe thing about driving. I had one especially close call with a van going completely into the other lane on a corner and then meeting and oncoming car, leading to much swerving and honking. Freakin idiots.

2) The refuse-to-pass-unless-it's-a-giant-straightaway car.
The flip side of #1 is of course the car that won't squeeze through the massive 15-foot wide space you've left it. So it waits and waits until it can cross the yellow line (to avoid an incident like #1) which makes you feel like you're holding up traffic and annoys everyone behind it. Just go through slowly! Once I know you're there I really have no problem with being passed closely.

I like to think that people who do this are actually incompetent drivers and know it. They have no concept of how wide their vehicle is, so they won't go through any space smaller than an entire, well-marked lane. I guess if that's the reason, ok, at least you're not killing anyone with your incompetence. But the other explanation is that they think I can't handle a car anywhere near me, and that implication offends me. I'm not that squirrely.

Also of note, that race at Pat's Peak was kind of muddy:

I've decided to skip racing at Mount Snow entirely. I ended up training a lot this week and I'm going to run around all weekend. I don't feel like trying to eat right, rest and stay hydrated, and I also don't feel like paying $50 for a race I know I won't really be prepared for.

I'll try to make up for the lack of race report-age with some sweet video from nats.

In fact, I'm not racing again until August 12 (24 hours of GG), so I may have to fall back on blogging about training. I apologize in advance, but I'm hoping that a few weeks off + some quality training will lead to an absurd cyclocross peak that ends with me consuming Tim Johnson's liver in front of a horrified crowd at New Gloucester.

Key word there is Hoping.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Pat's Peak XC Race Report

Driving up to Pat's Peak on Sunday, things were looking scary. Sure, when we left Boston it was heading into the upper 80s and hot, which is scary enough, but when we turned onto I-89 in Concord the sky had turned into the ominous black that can only signal heavy thunderstorms. And sure enough, just a few miles up I-89 we hit rain bad enough that people were pulling off the road. Like most thunderstorms this one stopped as abruptly as it began, and I arrived at Pat's Peak feeling good about things.

The Pat's Peak course had 850 feet of climbing per five mile lap. This was pretty bad news for me, since my legs have only occasionally shown up at races this year, and I upgraded to a class where everyone is freaking strong. The only good thing about 850 feet up is 850 feet down -- so I'll take a quick downpour to grease things up. I needed that trails as technical as possible to make up for 3400 feet of climbing.

What I didn't need, nor did anyone else, was for the heavens to open up again five minutes before the start in any icy downpour. I'd be preparing all morning to fight the heat and now I was shivering, lined up in the rain.

As is my custom now, I went straight to the back at the start, because I was cold, and not exactly stoked about the prospect of examining my stem closely for the next two hours. But, we got into the singletrack and I was pretty quickly blocked by some guy. I guess that would be why everyone else sprints out of the start.

So the course had been slicked up a little by the earlier rain, but now that it was pouring down, things went to hell pretty fast. Each lap had a lengthy singletrack downhill from the high point on the course that wound back and forth through pine trees -- it was so dark I was actually holding up people because I couldn't see a damn thing. I pulled over, took off my sunglasses (they have amber lenses, I've never had to take them off before) and got back into it, which of course meant 3 laps of squinting through flying water and mud.

On the way down one of the 30+ guys who had caught me was doing some dirty riding, and I don't mean dirty in a good way. On multiple occasions he cut complete sections of singletrack -- like, the course would be turning left around a tree, and he'd just go inside the tree. It's one thing to do this if you end up out of control or something, but he was definitely just taking a very liberal definition of "trail." Sadly since his number was on the front of his bike I never caught it, he was some guy in a red/white Kenda jersey if anyone knows him. In any case, bad form, dude. Just because every corner doesn't have tape on it doesn't mean you can cut it.

Coming through after one lap the rain had stopped, giving all of us hope that somehow the course might hold up -- but that dream died quickly when I hit the singletrack. It was one thing on lap one, when I was the 30th person to hit it -- since then 80 or so riders had gone through and now everything had a nice inch-thick layer of greasy mud on it. Every pedal stroke the mud consumed like 20% of your precious watts, unless you made the mistake of standing up and leaning forward, in which case it was more like 80%. The climbs became, at least for me, a horrible granny ring deathmarch up stuff I'd ordinarily stand up in the middle ring for.

Then the thunderstorms came back, just as hard if not worse. Traction, even for me with 25 psi, became a complete joke.

I was, of course, not alone in my suffering. I was hemorrhaging minutes on the climbs to some of the other guys in my category (Nick Barstow, Mitchell Clement, Miles Ericson, probably some other dudes) and they were hemorrhaging it right back to me on the descents, which were basically a slightly controlled crash down the side of a mountain. I've never slid a bike that hard or often in my life, but every time I got on terms at the bottom only to see them ride away on the hill again.

Somewhere around the 3rd or 4th lap, Miles blew up, which is to say that he didn't drop me climbing, so I got away on the next downhill.

This madness took place over 2 hours of continual thunderstorms, and I had a problem -- I started the race with about an inch or two of travel left on my brakes, and by the third lap I was hitting the bar with both of them. I tried to loosen the barrel adjusters while climbing, but my brain was as fried as my legs, so it was embarrassingly difficult. I basically turned them in random directions, which only made things worse. In retrospect, I've been aware of the "lefty-loosey, righty-tighty" mnemonic since I was about 5, but apparently was unable to apply it here.

Hitting the big and final climb on lap 4, I suddenly came across PvB from Hup, who I think had some kind of mechanical, since he disappeared behind me (on a climb, no less) just as fast as I'd caught him descending. It's also possible that he didn't want to ride his metal contraption up onto a ridge in the middle of a thunderstorm -- I counted one lightning strike at 0.6 miles away as I neared the top of the ridge on the last lap.

I knew what I needed to do -- one last freefalling descent, legs hanging out, brakes on the bars, both wheels sliding, to make amends for my pitiful climbing and get back up to Nick and Mitchell in time for a sprint to the line. Unfortunately, just before cresting the hill my mud-encrusted drivetrain finally bit the dust -- I'd been putting serious torque on my chain while shifting all day, and eventually a bent master link ended any chance of powering home and nipping someone at the line. I quickly compared how much trail was left versus my ability to use a chain tool in this condition, and decided that I had better just start running.

The first 30 seconds of running felt good, but quickly the lactic acid built up in my calves and I slowed to a spirited walk. The descent was an interesting combination of brakeless bike-sliding and scootering the flat sections -- after four laps the mud was providing massive rolling resistance and many things that looked downhill I ended up having to scooter across.

I didn't lose any places on the descent, but I wasn't in the clear just yet -- I still had 3 to 5 minutes of uphill and flat running with my bike. I gave it everything I had, scootering on the flats and running on the hills, but up the final dirt road climb I could see behind me the fate I was trying to avoid. A guy had come out of the woods, seen me pathetically jogging with my bike, and was suddenly motivated to hammer in to the finish. I tried to pick the pace up, but running is just useless against someone on a bike. He closed the gap with shocking speed and got past me to take a spot, 11 seconds ahead at the line.

In the end I was 11th out 19, which isn't terrible. The climbing parts of the course were terrible for me, since my legs basically no-showed. Last week I didn't see my HR below 182, this week I rarely saw it above that. On the other hand, the technical riding was as beneficial for me as it will ever be, so I would've liked to capitalize on that. Had I not broke my chain I might've had a shot at as high as 7th place, which is where Nick finished. But mechanicals are part of the race, and I put that chain together very recently, so I'm probably as much to blame as SRAM.

Stupid legs.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Rolling in the Urban Jungle

Recently I wrote a post about "how to blog" and enjoyed pretending people might actually listen to my advice. It was such a power trip, I'm coming right back this week with "How to ride your bike in the city."

I've ridden my bike to work every single day for about 11 months now. I also do a fair number of road rides starting in "the city" and also run other errands on my bike. I ride primarily in Cambridge/Somerville, although I've done some time in most other parts of Boston as well, including downtown. I've noticed how much my riding behavior has changed over time, so I think there's a legitimate learning curve here -- which isn't to say I'm not going to keep learning. I've seen a lot of people out there who could benefit from some advice, so here it is -- and some of the worst offenders are roadies in full kits heading out on training rides, so don't think this doesn't apply to you, average-blog-reader!

Misconceptions about city riding

"I'm a better rider than 99% of the clowns out here so I'll be fine"
This was one of my favorite things to tell myself when I started. I can keep up with traffic, I can bunny hop, I'm pretty darn agile on a bike. If the fat guy with the too-low seat can ride in the city without getting killed, this should be a breeze, right?

Wrong. Fat guy has two things going for him -- he rides slow as death, and he sees commuting on a bike as a purely utilitarian act. Biking is not a sport to him, and he's not doing this for fun. You, on the other hand, probably want to ride 20 miles per hour, and you're going to take a lot more risks than him -- because you're having fun, and because it's a rush. These facts at least cancel out your bike handling advantage.

"Cars and pedestrians have to respect me because there's lots of bikers and we have legal protection"
No, no, no. The sense of entitlement some riders have is appalling. One second they're running a red light, the next second they're giving some driver the finger for blocking half the bike lane. So you're mad at that car for blocking your lane, huh? That guy really is a selfish, law-breaking bastard, isn't he? It's a good thing you didn't just also commit a selfish and illegal act, so you have the moral authority to yell at him.

As a cyclist, you should not waste any brain cells worrying about the legality of anything. First, and most importantly, you should never elevate the importance of being "in the right" above the importance of "not dying." It doesn't matter if you had the right of way when you're in the hospital. Secondly, you probably break all kinds of laws every time you ride. Holding vehicular traffic to a standard you yourself ignore is hypocritical at best, suicidal at worst. Getting mad at cars for illegal/risky behavior is a pointless activity, and the sooner you get over it the better.

"Taking risks riding in the city makes me the envy of other riders/drivers"
I know I have been guilty of this one. The truth is, risky riding in the city is fun. If you want to do that, I don't hold it against you. I've raced my share of cars and shot more than my share of closing gaps. But the vast majority of people don't think you're cool when they see this, they think you're a hyper-aggressive idiot. Car drivers see you as a cocky menace likely to get in an accident that will end up on their insurance. You're no better than the guy in the riced-out Civic cutting them off on 93. Pedestrian see you as a cocky menace likely to create a hit-n-run when you crush someone who stepped off the curb without looking. And other riders? The slow commuters don't care. The serious commuters know you're playing russian routette. The only people you're possibly impressing are the bike messengers, and unless you're really crazy, they've probably done something crazier.

So take all the risks you want, but don't delude yourself into thinking you're doing anything but digging the hole of ill will toward cyclists deeper.

Recognizing Dangerous Situations

As mentioned above, the law will not take care of you. The bike lane, assuming it exists, does not create a magical force field to protect you on your commute. You need to be alert at all times for other cyclists, pedestrians and cars that can (and will) cross your path without checking for you. However, it's impossible to be 100% vigilant all the time -- it's just too mentally tiring. After a while, you get used to the routine, and unless you've crashed recently you just won't be motivated to constantly scan your surroundings like a soldier in enemy territory. This is ok -- but you have to recognize the situations that do offer a severe reduction in risk if you are being as vigilant as possible.

Situation #1: Crossing an intersection with the flow of traffic
You're going through an intersection on the right side of a stream of traffic. Where are your hands?

If the answer is anything other than "somewhere they can grab the brakes without moving" then you're playing with fire. Why? Cars turning right. This is probably the most common bike-car altercation, and it's completely avoidable to you as a rider. Yes, it's a car's responsibility to not do this to you. Yes, most drivers in Cambridge actually check for bikes before turning right. Most drivers even warn you they're turning with a blinker. These things don't matter.

Second question -- Is there a car directly to your left?

If there is, you had better be at even with or ahead of the driver's side mirror, so that the driver sees you. Otherwise, he can turn and even with your hands on the brakes you'll get taken down. If you're entering and intersection even with the back wheel of a car, you absolutely have to speed up or slow down relative to the car.

Third question -- Where are you looking?

The best cars will put their blinker on to let you know they're turning. But this doesn't mean to watch their blinkers. The vast majority of right-turning cars will start to drift right well before the turn, so watch their tires. If a car is moving across the lane to the right at all, expect a turn. Even if they aren't turning, they may be drifting right to go around a left-turner, which for you is just about as bad as them actually turning. Even so, some people out there will just turn right with no warning. You have to watch the car right in front of you any time a right turn is possible.

Situation #2: Passing stopped traffic on the right
This actually more dangerous than the first one, because there's a large difference in speed involved. Let's say you have a long line of cars stopped for a light, and you're cruising past on the shoulder/bike lane at 20 mph -- that's awesome, right? You're totally smoking all those idiots in their rolling coffins!

Well, yes, but a lone biker passing stopped cars is really hard to see. If there are tall vehicles involved (vans, SUVs, trucks) you may be completely blocked AND have large areas of your vision obscured as well. I used to tell myself it was ok that I was flying up the side of the road partially blind because I was in the sacred bike lane -- but that's ridiculous. You can get totally rocked in two ways in this situation...
1) An oncoming car turns left through a small gap in the stopped traffic and never sees the biker. This is even worse if the traffic is rolling slowly, because the turning car will often floor it to shoot the narrow gap, giving it even less chance of noticing a cyclist.
2) A pedestrian walks between stopped cars and steps into the bike lane without looking. To a person, if traffic is stopped, it's safe to cross. People are just as unaware as drivers, walking around, talking to their friends, making phone calls. They've been conditioned over the years to assume that stationary traffic is safe to cross.

In this situation, you have to slow down based on how much you can see. A bunch of low sedans on the left plus a clear view of the sidewalk mean you can speed on through. Anything else and you need to slow down and ride with your hands on the brakes. I know it sucks to not be able to let it rip when it's clear in front of you, but you have to recognize that in this situation people are not going to expect your presence.

Stupid Riding Tricks

Running red lights at full speed
Yeah, I'm talking to you, Mr. Full-Quad-Cycles-Kit-Commuter-Whom-I-See-Regularly. First of all, this is obviously risky, although at some intersections you might be able to see well enough that it's somewhat safe. But most of the time you can't really see well enough to know it's clear in time to stop in anything less than a panic stop if it isn't. If your braking distance is 25 feet and you can't confirm the intersection is clear until you're 30 feet away from it... just slow the hell down. Don't make a fool of yourself by locking them up at the last second when you see a car.
Secondly, this infuriates motorists to no end. It's one thing if you slow down and make sure it's clear, then roll across. People in their cars can respect that you're breaking the letter of the law, but taking care to be safe and considerate about it. It goes along way toward them not hating you, which is actually worth quite a lot in the long run.

Edging out into intersections because you're impatient or can't trackstand
This is just terrible, and I see it far too often. Some guy really, really wants to run a light, so he tries to stay on his pedals and roll at 1 mph while he waits for traffic to clear. But of course, traffic doesn't clear, so he ends up further and further out until people driving through the intersection have to start actively avoiding him.

This is pretty much the least considerate thing you can do on a bike. You look like a fool and you're pissing off motorists. Just learn to trackstand, or chill out. Once again, this type of action is terrible from the bike advocacy point of view.

Half-crossing larger roads
Some four-lane roads have a pretty large "dead area" in between the lanes at an intersection. Often times there is a traffic island in the middle, and it's tempting to dart across to the safety of this island if only the near lane is clear (assuming you're looking at a red light and cross traffic has a green). DON'T DO THIS! First of all, it's just one of those conspicuous law-breaking activities that hurts bike advocacy, and unlike most red-light running it doesn't actually get you anywhere . You still need to far lane to clear, and at least half the time it probably won't before the light changes. Secondly, you present traffic crossing the far lane with a predicament they should not have to worry about -- "is that biker going to stop?" They're already drinking a coffee while talking on their cell phone while driving in Boston's 6-foot-wide lanes -- seeing a bike coming into their lane out of the corner of their eye is going to startle them, which means they're at best pissed off and at worst causing an accident.

Just chill out and wait for the green. I promise it's not that long.

Riding at night without a rear light
If you do this, the police report is going to say "he was asking for it," and I'm going to agree with them.

Dude, you're invisible in the dark. 80% of car/bike accidents happen at night and involve unlit riders. There's no excuse to not have a $5 blinker on your seatpost, helmet, or jersey.

Riding without a front light is kind of in the gray area. Front lights are bulkier and handlebar mounted, so I can see the aversion to that stuff on your bike. Additionally, anyone who could see a front light is in your field of view, so you have a chance to take evasive action. Still though, if you're a night rider you really should get a front light, for one reason -- oncoming cars turning left.

At night, any car will go left on you, because they can't see you, at all. Since you can see them, you have a reasonable chance to not get killed, so from a safety point it's not that bad. What is bad is when they SUDDENLY see you when they're about to turn left. All of the sudden, a bike pops into a streetlight and the driver is startled. Holy crap, I didn't even see that guy! I didn't even see that... selfish idiot biker who expects me to protect him from his own stupidity.

Just like a lot of other things here -- if you're pissing drivers off, you're doing it wrong

In summary, don't annoy drivers with your antics, don't take stupid risks, and recognize when you're most likely to get hit. Simple as a 2200 word blog post!

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Winsted Woods Race Report

There's something about the noon start time that lulls me into a false sense of security. Noon is the middle of the day, so surely I can do lots of things before the freakin' halfway point of the day right? So there's no reason I can't drive 125 miles AND preride a lap before a noon start.

Well, it would be easy, if I was one of those old guys who wakes up at 5 AM without an alarm. Then noon really would be the middle of my day, and I would probably be able to get in a nice hearty breakfast, preride, warmup, and the 13 trips to the bathroom that seem to be required before racing.

As you may have figured out, we didn't really get there with much time to spare. I think I parked the car at 11:25. I ran around and bumped into things for twenty minutes until I was ready to roll, and I only spilled about half a cup of energy drink powder in the back of my car in the process. I "warmed up" for a frantic ten minutes and rolled up to staging late, along with 21 other 19-29 Expert Men. It was a big field.

The astute reader will remember that there was no Putney race report -- at least not one with any sort of depth. Putney was a dismal failure, I think I rode to something like 16th/19 in my category with absolutely no problems except my body completely refusing to move quickly. I rationalized my poor result as the symptom of starting too fast, on a too hot day, with not enough warmup -- and here I was on the starting line on a day about 10 degrees hotter than Putney, with a shorter warmup. So there was only one thing left to do... ride off the line like I stole it, right?

Nope. I did at least learn one lesson. My start could only be described as leisurely, so I went straight to the back of 22 guys. If this was a cross race, I might give a damn, but come on, 2 hours in 85 degrees? You guys go ahead with that.

The first lap was also my first time seeing the course, so it was nice to have some dudes to follow. Or all the dudes to follow, I suppose. The course was basically 4 miles of rough singletrack and ATV trail strewn over a much bigger hill than I would have guessed existed in Connecticut. There were really 2 major climbs with a bunch of other small climbs thrown in. The descending was the beat-you-up type of 4-wheeler trail that is pretty much the only mountain biking that exists in northern Maine, wide packed dirt with washboard and rocks and sticks and crap everywhere. As with any good mountain bike course there was really nowhere to rest, so my heart rate was basically above 180 for 2 hours.

Anyway, while I was figuring out the course I quickly started pulling back some of the guys from my class. By the top of the first climb, around the halfway point, I was ahead of two people who both looked to be already headed for the hurt box, so it was nice to get that DFL thing taken care of.

I motored around to finish up the lap, picking off a few more guys, and getting ridiculously and horribly smoked by the 30-39 leaders when they came through. The course actually finished with a really tricky descent -- it started in a big, sunny field, going straight, but for some reason there were these triple-down-arrow signs out. You know, the ones that usually mean "get ready to take a soil sample, sucker." But these were out in a field, so I was just confused. There were more sets of them as I screamed down out of the field around 25 mph, headed straight for the comparatively pitch-black woods, so I slowed down... a little.

The second I hit the woods I almost went over the bars at twenty miles an hour, which would have ended my race and possibly my collarbone. What happened was the trail takes a sharp left and then a sharp right -- so when you come in way too hot (as I did) you end up pinned to the right side coming out of the left, which means you have to go over a very decent-size rock and then turn right, except of course you can't turn right when you're in the air, so then you basically get to hit a tree if you can't get it turned right away when you land. Luckily my front wheel does the steering, because that's the only wheel that was on the ground when I narrowly missed said tree and went riding a nose wheelie off into the woods.

So next lap I slowed down there a bit more.

Lap two and three were the typical hard-to-remember middle section of the race. I remember being hot, and getting chills, but I think that's just what my body does when it's hot. I was really riding pretty steadily, if not fast, and it was paying off as I kept coming up on guys from my class that were suffering a lot more than I was. On the other hand, Kevin Hines, who is approximately quadruple my age, passed me so fast he had to call "on your right" from about 30 yards back so my dawdling butt could get out of the way before he stormed past. He ended up beating me by 17 minutes, which means he was about 20% faster, which is TOTALLY INSANE.

I had another near-death experience at the beginning of lap four. There was a long, rough, fast downhill section with a deep washout in the middle that only got bigger and bigger, until you had to be right on the left edge of the trail to stay out of it. And if you did go in, your choices (assuming you stayed up) were to either slow down a ton to get under control and then ride up the side, or go crashing into what appeared to be a vertical wall where the washout turned right and the trail was suddenly whole again. This thing was insidious. Linnea crashed here on lap one, sprained her wrist, and was out. One of the sport women crashed here and broke her helment, which meant she got an ambulance ride, and a lot of paramedics talking about a head injury. Fun stuff.

So I'm cranking down the hill on lap four, thinking about how I'm actually hanging in there pretty well, when my focus lapses for a moment and suddenly it's got me, right at the very end when the rideable trail is narrowest. I'm moving fast and the "vertical" wall is right in front of me -- I had just enough time to yell something that surely would have gotten me DQ'ed if the right people had heard ("Oh [fiddlesticks] me," if you must know) -- before slamming into the vertical wall/extremely steep exit ramp at the end of washout. I bottomed out my fork (ka-chunk) and rode another sweet nose wheelie for a bit, and got the back end down in time to apologize for swearing and hit the next bridge. It was either amazing bike handling or I just overreacted with the profanity. Possibly both.

(What I thought was going to happen)

On the biggest climb on lap four I could see several guys in front of me, including one chap who had the audacity to race in baggy shorts -- nice cycling-specific baggy shorts, but baggy shorts nonetheless! He had to be mine -- No one is going to beat me while wearing an ensemble that wouldn't get him laughed out of a biker bar, fraternity, or any other establishment frequented by manly-men.

I caught him at the high point after working the hardest I'd worked all race on the climb, and my HR monitor confirmed it -- 192. I got ahead of him and tried to hang on for just 12 more minutes. It's a good thing all I had to do was put him behind me to make him magically disappear (that's how it works, right?) or I might've been in trouble.

I looked back on the last climb and baggy shorts looked to be safely put away, but headed across the field at the top he somehow came cranking past me in big ring, flailing with disturbing effectiveness. I was caught totally flatfooted, and also feeling pretty cooked, so by the time I got the adrenaline going he had dropped me and put a masters rider between us. I was going to have to get it back on the twisting, rocky downhill to the finish.

There was one problem. Do you think a guy rocking the baggy shorts is a poor descender? You think he rides expert because he's in really good shape but can't handle his bike? Yeah, right. This guy was tearing down the hill with serious speed. I quickly got past the masters rider between us (who wisely decided he didn't need to be anywhere near this recklessness) and slammed it in the big ring. Down and down we went, sliding through corners, screaming around berms, and I wasn't losing ground but I couldn't get on his wheel. There was a short climb with two lines in the middle of the downhill, but I was too far back to really challenge on the alternate line. We had a nice split-pass of another 40+ guy ("on your right" "on your left") and hit the steepest part of the downhill, an off-camber, washboarded 25% pitch with a sharp right at the bottom, and here is where I finally closed the gap.

I made one mistake though, and it proved to be my undoing -- I got so close my front wheel got chopped by his rear on the corner and I had to put a foot down. That was pretty much all she wrote -- I was out of momentum with one last rocky pitch to go and my HR was still probably almost 190 after descending for 2 minutes. Suddenly, I just couldn't go any more.

My baggy-shorted foe was actually on such a tear he got another pass on, on a guy in our category even, before shooting out of the woods and up the finish straight for 8th place. I pedaled in 9 seconds later for 10th with my head hung in shame.

But on the bright side -- 9 seconds out of 8th place in an Expert field of 22? I will TOTALLY take that.

I slumped over my bike trying to catch my breath, and suddenly, when the adrenaline subsided I came the closest to peeing my pants I have ever come in my adult years. I barely made it out of the officials' sight before relieving myself in the most literal sense possible. I guess I stayed hydrated this time.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Colin's guide to writing a blog worth reading

I've been a proud member of the "blogosphere" for a whopping seven months now, so I figured it's about time I lay down the law. I've perused many a biker-blog in my day, so I thought it would be interesting to try to figure out what exactly goes into writing a blog that I like. I've actually been working on this post for quite a while now, so hopefully it's not just off-the-cuff hogwash that I have to edit tomorrow.

I'd like to think that I'm a fairly typical biker-blog writer/reader, so maybe sharing what makes a blog good to me is something that could be generalized from. On the other hand, if the amount of time I spend on cross results is any indication, maybe I'm not that typical.

Disclaimer: There are, of course, many reasons to write a blog other than having me read it -- so the only way anyone should feel slighted by this is if your main goal with blogging was to get me to read it. And there are literally thousands of cycling blogs out there, (which makes me even sadder that there are so few nordic skiing blogs) so I have no intention of referencing everything that is good enough to make my RSS feed.

Things That Really Matter

  • English Style
    Or possibly, "having a decent vocabulary." This isn't the same thing as writing proper English, but it's just boring to read a giant paragraph of sentences that are totally lame. The vast majority of us lead lives that are not that special when reduced to their summary -- the best version of a story is rarely the shortest. Break out your thesaurus and give me some interesting details. And if there aren't any interesting details, why are you writing about it?

    Be funny. Invent new metaphors. Have some freakin' style about how you lay down the prose. If you can turn a decent phrase it will probably get you ahead in life -- and it will definitely get me to read your blog, even when you're writing about your watts (WATTS!!).

    exit17.net has some of the best examples of this in the Race Reports section, but sadly it seems to have fallen into disrepair.

  • Race Reports
    I was introduced to the biker-blog world from roadbikereview.com race reports, and they're still my favorite thing to read about. If I quit racing I'd stop blogging, because I wouldn't have interesting things to write about (see previous bullet point!).

    Racing vicariously through other people's race reports is something I enjoy, so I'll read just about any race report -- I've never even turned a crank racing on the road, but I love reading about it. And I'm 3000 miles away from the west coast, but I'll still read a well-written race report that takes place there. So for me, the vicarious enjoyment is enough.

    But the best race reports, of course, are from events I was at featuring folks that I know. People like to read things that they can relate to, and what's a stronger shared experience than a race? Cyclists everywhere come together for races, so if you write about races, there's a lot more people that can fully relate to the event than say, if you write about your wattage on a training ride.

    Some of the funniest race reports, often from races I was at, come from Thom P.

  • Passion
    This seems like a kind of cheesy thing, but it's absolutely required for long term blog-awesomeness. And don't think for a second I mean "passion for riding your bike." I mean passion for writing, and storytelling. If you aren't really into writing, then it's only a matter of time before your quality suffers, because you're doing it "because you should" not "because you want to."

    The flip side is that, if you're passionate about writing about cycling, then it comes through in your posts and can mask a lot of other flaws with your blog. Because you're excited, that excitement carries over to the reader, assuming you have a decent command of the english language (see bullet point #1!).

    gewilli loves bikes and writing and always has something to say.

Things That Kind Of Matter

  • Update Frequency
    Before I started using an RSS reader to read blogs, I would've put told you this was essential, but now that I got my act together and don't have manually check for updates it's no longer a deal breaker. However, it's pretty hard to be passionate about writing if you never do it, so if I love your blog you probably do update a lot.

    bikesnobnyc updates with truly insane frequency, given the narrow subject matter.

  • Opinions
    We all know that controversy sells, and blogs are no different. Second to race reports on my list of "favorite things to read" is the classic "blog flame" post. Product reviews? Race organization "critiquing?" Promoting something? Assuming you can actually turn a persuasive phrase (see first bullet point), then I'd love to hear you argue a position about anything bike-related. This also has the side effect of sometimes lighting up your comments section, which often becomes unsavory, but is still fun for everyone else.

    Once again, this one kind of ties into passion -- if you're really into what you're writing about, you're probably going to have strong opinions about it.

    There's no shortage of full-size opinions and snark (the bastard child of an opinion) over at the cyclocosm.

  • Educational Value
    This one only "kinda matters" because not everyone has something educational to say, and it's unreasonable to expect that kind of insight out of everyone, especially young and naive people like myself.

    But, if I finish reading your post and say to myself, "wow, I never knew that," then I'll come back for months hoping to for another "Eureka"-type reading experience.

    sprinter della casa's video race reports have taught me so much I occasionally think I actually know how to road race.

Things that don't matter

  • Site Design
    I do enough web design that I am somewhat horrified by Kerry Litka's vintage 1995-esque blog, but I still read it religiously, so the only conclusion I can draw is that site design absolutely doesn't matter.

  • Pictures
    I feel like this one might be personal -- while I am drawn to visuals just like any other seeing creature, I'm also quickly put off by posts that try to make up for empty prose with pictures (for example, the post before this one). In the long run, it doesn't matter to me -- telling a story with just pictures isn't descriptive enough, and a lot of the blogs I love are mostly picture-free.

I don't need no steeekin bike rack

Two road bikes, five wheels, suitcases in the back...

Two mountain bikes, three wheels, more gear in the trunk.

My car's slightly less impractical than you might think! What do I win?

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