2010 Cyclocross race 1: Travis Cycle, Brockton

Yep, cross is here! After my planned trip to Quad on Sunday got pre-empted, I dithered a while between racing Brockton and attending the Wheelworks cyclocross clinic. Thursday afternoon I decided I just couldn’t stand myself if I didn’t get out and race, so I dropped my RSVP for Wheelworks and signed up for Travis. Then I went down to Duxbury and put up a personal-best time at the 20K time trial, good enough for 3rd place in M35+. Hey, it’s September, so my fitness hasn’t evaporated yet.
According to my records, I last raced in Brockton way back in 2006. It was my 3rd-ever cyclocross race. It came in November that year, and we had a cold, wet day. I had no confidence on the course, and rode accordingly. My name doesn’t appear in the bikereg.com results, and everybody’s favorite results site has no record of the race at all, but I swear I was there. Maybe I DNF’ed. Honestly, I don’t recall. I did remember that the course was a little on the jungle side, featuring stretches of rocky, narrow path decorated with the occasional log.
I left the house a little later than I wanted on Saturday, but with plenty of time to arrive and ride the course before the first race group. Except, well, guess what else I didn’t remember? I didn’t remember exactly where the park was. The flyer didn’t get more specific than “turn on Oak Street and look for the bike race signs,” and the park doesn’t have much frontage, so I blew right past it the first time. I pulled over at a McDonald’s and fiddled with maps on my phone for a while before reversing course and eventually spotting the hand-lettered poster board that marked the race entrance. I jumped out of the car, assembled the bike and hit the course before registering.
This year’s course ran the opposite direction of what I remember from 2006, but otherwise stuck with the jungle-cross theme. Pavement start with an immediate 120-degree turn around a tree, back across the road, through a left-right combo and into a barriered run-up, with a couple of logs for good measure. Then it got interesting – a long stretch of bumpy but paved path, followed with a downhill approach into a sharp left-hand turn at the base of another run-up, lots of rocky pond path, some grassy hairpins, and probably some other stuff that I’m blocking out right now. Here’s the obligatory GPS view of the course:
Travis Cycle Cyclocross 2010 course
I went slow for the first lap, just getting a feel for what was around each corner, then tried to pick up the pace on the 2nd. Going into the grassy hairpins I felt the front end get really darty, and nearly took myself out leaning over into a corner. Yup, I managed to pinch-flat somewhere along the way. Dangit. I cut the lap short and headed back to the car, where I had a spare tube. A road tube, as it turned out. Double dangit. I left my file tread tubies at home, since I noticed some base-tape separation on the rear wheel on Friday night. I bummed a tube off another racer (thanks, Phil, I owe you) but by the time I got the wheel back together, the women were on the course. So much for the pre-ride.
Hey, we’re six paragraphs into the race report and haven’t gotten to the actual race yet! I accidentally wound up with a front-row position, but pooched it when I missed the clip-in and the guys to either side got in front of me. I was halfway back going into that first turn, and wound up on a slow inside line. More places lost. I got off the bike early and passed a couple guys on the run-up, but was in traffic on the path and didn’t get around to try to close the gap I saw opening. So, there goes the race. I managed to pass a few guys on subsequent laps but didn’t really make ground on the main group, such as it was. I ended up 24th of 37 finishers. Brian McInnis was following me around on the last lap, heckling me, so I figured I was pretty far back.
Lessons learned, some not for the first time: pack spares. Leave earlier than I think I should, and know where the heck I’m going. Oh, and specifically for Brockton, practice hopping logs. On the bright side, flat tire notwithstanding, the Shinytouch worked well. Next up, Sucker Brook. My Wednesday mornings at Larz are most likely over, now that Elise is back to work, so I need to find a way to get some start practice in. That seems to be my weakest spot right now.

Tour of the Hilltowns race report

Four years ago, I drove down to the Housatonic Hills road race by myself, a 3-hour trip into deepest, darkest central Connecticut. I did that brutally hilly race without teammates, got dropped early, and groveled to the finish. Then drove 3 hours back home, ruminating on my weaknesses and mistakes. I made myself a promise on the way back: if I ever got the itch to drive to a long, hilly road race, I for sure wasn’t going to go by myself. This weekend, I got to make good on that promise in Windsor, MA at the Tour of the Hilltowns. After inital arrangements fell through, I met up with my 50+ clubmates Brian and Anthony, loaded them up in the man-van, and made for Windsor.
I took the start and immediately felt like I was on the defensive, hanging onto the tail end of the field. We turned onto 8A and my eyes lingered on a rider from an earlier field, now laying motionless on the shoulder with two or three people attending to him. We managed to make it through the first stint on 8A safely, and 116 also passed without incident, but when we turned onto the second part of 8A and began the big descent, we had two crashes. The second came just as we hit the rough pavement about halfway down, and was fairly big – riders all over the road. I went from about 40 miles an hour to 12 in a couple of seconds, locked up my rear wheel, and then picked my way through the carnage. Of course, the front of the field never slowed down, so I had a good gap I had to make up…if I had the legs to do so. Which I didn’t. I kept them in view for a while, but never got back up.
After that, things get a little hazy. I was with a small group at the foot of East Hawley Road, but we didn’t stay together. I died a dozen times on that 4-mile climb, which naturally coincided with the sunniest 20 minutes of the race. I just kept grinding away, with dull legs and hoping for a double flat or cracked seatpost or some excuse to hang it up and figure out how I’d get back to the car. But, no such luck. Eventually the entire 50+ field came past me, and even the leading group of Cat 5s went by before I finally found the finish. At least I kept the green monster at bay.
Did I learn anything? Well, maybe tackling a 90K road race on limited sleep and reduced training volume the two weeks prior isn’t such a hot idea. Or, maybe my training volume isn’t up to 2+-hour races, or hey, maybe I’m just not good enough for anything longer than a local circuit race. And I knew hanging out in the back of a big field is asking for trouble…but I was in trouble from the start. My body was there, but my legs sure weren’t.
Is it cross season yet?

Pan-Mass Challenge 2010: Please sponsor me

It’s that time again: for the 5th consecutive year, I’m riding the Pan-Mass Challenge to raise funds for cancer research and treatment at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute here in Boston. I plan to raise $7000, and, well…I’m not there yet. I need your help.
Once again this year I’m riding with Pedals for Pediatrics. The money we raise goes directly to support the families of children with cancer. That’s one special thing about P4P. The other special thing is that we, the P4P members, meet, consider grant applications and decide where the donations go. Some projects sound mundane, but ease the burden families carry when their children are in treatment – parking vouchers, lodging and housing assistance, and food and entertainment for inpatients may not sound like a big deal, but help alleviate day-to-day concerns and let parents focus on supporting their sick kids. Other projects are more aspirational: we’ve purchased lab equipment that allow researchers to do more experiments in less time, and video teleconferencing equipment to help Dana-Farber staff collaborate and support their colleagues across the world.
This is truly inspirational stuff, and I’d love for you to be a part of it. You can donate online here, or, if you know where to find me out in real life, you can make out a check to “Pan-Mass Challenge” and give it to me.
Thanks for reading, and thanks for your support.

The Big Ring Rumpus

Word came across the NE Cyclocross mailing list a couple of weeks ago that this weekend’s EFTA MTB race, the Big Ring Rumpus, offered a flat, non-technical course well suited to cross bikes. In fact, the organizers went so far as to add a cross-bike category, as well as allowing cross bikes in the MTB races. Well, I suppose cross bikes are always allowed in MTB races, they’re just hardly ever the right tool for the job. The cross-bike category didn’t mesh with my schedule, but the month-long hole in my road racing made me desperate for some hot laps. With a little trepidation, I signed up for the Novice race at 9am. While I’m not exactly a hot-shot bike racer, I’m not new to it, but I’d never done an MTB race.
I have an MTB now, so I packed it up along with the cross bike. Bike prep consisted mainly of throwing the tubie wheelset on the Redline and making sure they still held air. I split for Auburn with the thermometer reading 72 degrees, but watched the temp drop steadily on the drive, making me regret not packing more than a pair of bibs and a short-sleeve jersey. OK, I had a skinsuit, too, but…seriously? Skinsuit in a novice MTB race? That might be poor form.
Rain began to fall soon after I parked, but the course wasn’t all that wet on my pre-ride. As advertised, it was four miles of pan-flat fire roads with the occasional rock or root. The MTB stayed in the van and I decided to keep the file treads on, running about 30psi, despite the developing rain. I got two laps in, enough to get a feel for where the few dangerous holes and corners were. Then I stood around in the rain for almost half an hour waiting for the pre-race brief. I guess when you’re not closing roads or paying cops, starting on time becomes a little less important.
Muddy rumpus!
I was almost shivering by the time we made the start, with a a half-mile dash down a straight fire road to the first turn, a loose right-hander into a slightly rutted gravel wash. I made it to the corner with company, went wide into the gravel, and slowed way down trying to make it back onto the line. That let a gap open to a couple of guys on MTBs, plus a couple of cross-bike drivers ahead of them. By the end of the first lap I had made it around the MTBers, but the crossers still dangled in front of me. I could see the lead rider, who turned out to be Jim White, looking back quite a bit. I didn’t know his name until after the race, so I dubbed him Skinsuit Guy, since he did have the guts to roll to the start of a novice MTB race wearing a skinsuit. And now he was riding away from us, if a bit slowly. Hey, I thought, that’s probably the head of the race, if you can get up there you can WIN THIS THING!. Afterburner time!
Sometime on lap two I made it up to the 2nd crosser, who I learned later was Terry Cowman. I stayed on his wheel for a while, then moved around him on one of the flat, grassy sections. He stayed on my wheel, and we raced together around an increasingly greasy course. The rain persisted through the 2nd lap, with more mud holes appearing by the minute. I started to regret my tire choice, especially as I heard my front rim whang off rocks a couple of times. No flats, though – those cotton FMBs must be tougher than they look!
Terry and I stayed together until about halfway through the third lap, when I got sideways through a muddy right-hander and lost most of my speed trying to stay upright. He blasted off, and I suddenly discovered that pedaling hard makes me tired. Skinsuit Guy was already out of sight, so I cruised through the finish chicane and then got back in the big ring for the last lap. I dodged a few lapped riders while trying to catch up to Terry, but ended up finishing about a minute down from Jim, who was just a few seconds ahead of Terry. Turns out Terry is an old guy, though, so that put me in 2nd place in the Novice Veterans I Born On Tuesday With Dark Hair category. I think we were the only three to finish the race in under an hour, all on cross bikes. Higher gearing and skinnier tires definitely made the cross bike the proverbial gun at a knife fight.
So that was good, muddy fun but I think I can still say I’ve never done an MTB race, since I didn’t even bother pulling the MTB out of the car. It wasn’t really a cross race, either. Four mile lap? No barriers? No beer? I don’t know what to call that, but it’s not cyclocross, no matter what I was riding. Just fun. Bikes are fun, folks. Have you ridden yours today?

Just name a hero and I’ll prove he’s a bum.

“Just name a hero and I’ll prove he’s a bum.”

That’s the call-out quote on the back cover of my tattered copy of Baa Baa Black Sheep, Greg Boyington’s memoir. For those of you didn’t grow up watching the TV show loosely based on his exploits, Boyington was a Marine fighter pilot in the Pacific theater of WWII, awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions as commanding officer of squadron VMF-214. He also drank heavily, divorced more than once and largely abandoned his children. Clearly, he knew his subject when he penned that line.
All this came to mind, again, with today’s news of Floyd Landis confessing to sustained doping during his pro cycling career. In a somewhat surprising move, he also implicated just about everybody he ever rode with or worked for in the European peloton. Bitterness might underlie that decision, or perhaps he’s trying to encourage other riders to rise up and overthrow the corrupt money machine that is the Pro Tour. I don’t know and, like the fate of Amelia Earhart or the whereabouts of half my socks, I’ll probably never know for sure. No matter, he’s a hero for finally confessing, and a bum for buying into the system in the first place and stringing us along for years.

We want to believe that people who achieve great things are equally admirable in all aspects of their lives. We basically decent people see ourselves as the same as these high achievers, just not quite as athletically or politically or musically gifted. We want to believe that by hearing interviews and reading articles and watching games or races or speeches or whatnot, we truly know these people who have risen to prominence, and can admire them for what they are. But we’re deluding ourselves.

Even in the Facebook age, we’re like icebergs. We show tiny peaks of our selves to a broad audience, with the rest concealed to all but a few we let dive beneath the surface. That’s not to say that every person is equally rotten; it’s just that we barely get to know the people we work or play or live with every day. How can think we know someone we’ve never met?

My lesson from this, short of plumbing the depths of cynicism, is to strive to melt the iceberg. I don’t mean that I intend to abandon all boundaries and start posting about my toenail clippings or dirty underwear – unless you think it would drive traffic, in which case I’ll get right on it. No, I mean being unashamed of my shortcomings, weaknesses and failures, while taking perhaps a bit less pride in my strengths. Likewise, I need to recognize the heroes around me. I don’t need to look far to find people worth admiring. Yes, if I could see the whole person I would probably find some bum-like attributes. But that’s part of being human. If we all came to terms with that, maybe some of us would feel less compelled to cheat to get ahead.

Go Maggie, it’s your birthday…

Kid #2 has made it to age 4 with no fatalities in the household. It was a close-run thing, though. For the last week or so, wakeup went like this:
Me: Maggie, time to get up!
Maggie: Is today my birthday?
Me: No, Mags, it’s not for another few days.
Maggie (screaming): NO! BIRTHDAY NOW!
For Thursday’s in-school celebration we delivered exactly 31 devil’s food cupcakes, with pink strawberry icing and sprinkles, to her class. One of her friends reported that they were the “best cupcakes ever,” which made me feel better about the late night Elise and I put in to get them ready. The highlight of yesterday’s party was the 20′ high bouncy castle parked in the front yard, which the guests enjoyed before, during and after refreshments. Remarkably, the whole day remained vomit-free.
As per our custom around here, we have a few pictures over in the gallery.

Mt Washington Race Report

My much-delayed writeup of my first encounter with the 2008 Mt Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hillclimb a couple of weekends ago.
First, a brief description of this race: it’s a mere 7.6 miles from the base of Mt. Washington to the top. However, it’s steep. The course record stands at just under 50 minutes (or not quite 10 mph), and that was set by a guy who has been teammate to the likes of Lance Armstrong. Winning times usually come in the neighborhood of 55 minutes. A sub-60-minute finish puts you in some very elite company. Finish in under 80 minutes and your reward is a red number plate and a place in the first wave of riders (known as the Top Notch) the next year. Also, Mt W has the worlds worst weather. Last year’s race was canceled – twice – due to summit conditions that included freezing rain and 70 mph wind gusts. In August.
So back on February 1st, I felt a little knot in my stomach after I clicked submit on the registration form. Just what was I trying to prove? Unfortunately, that’s not a rhetorical question. Through other venues, I had already proved that I’m a below-average road racer, a poor crit racer, and that I suck out loud at cyclocross. I felt a need to demonstrate that I do, in fact, have some skills on the bike. Well, maybe I have just one skill: I can go uphill fairly well. After playing with a few online calculators, I figured that a Top Notch finish might be within reach.
At this point you might be saying to yourself, “that’s silly!” And I’d agree with you. It doesn’t mean much to anybody but me. But setting goals does keep me motivated on those lonely, early-morning training rides.
I didn’t really set any other racing goals for myself this year. Since February I’ve had Washington on the brain. I spent hours obsessing over equipment. Weight normally doesn’t matter all that much, but in this race, I figured every pound lighter would get me up the mountain about 30 seconds faster. I managed to keep my body weight as low as it’s been since I was 17. I found some relatively cheap ways to shave some weight from the bike. It’s all uphill, right? So who needs a rear brake? And it’s really steep…who needs a front derailleur or big chainring? There’s nothing cheaper than taking stuff off the bike. We mere mortals also need much-lower-than-normal gearing to get up the Rockpile. In my case, I went from a 34×23 low gear (~1.48 ratio) to a 22×25 (0.88).
Of course, I also trained. Following some good advice, I did a lot of structured interval work this year: 1 minute, 2.5-minute, and 5-minute blocks formed the majority of my training time. Some of those workouts weren’t fun. But I managed to find more fitness with less training time than in previous years. I did a few races along the way, and wrangled a family trip up to the Mt W practice race last month. The auto road isn’t normally open to cyclists, but racers can do a practice ride on a designated day in July. My practice ride validated my model. If I kept training and didn’t gain weight, I just might make it.
August 16th was the big day. This time I made the 4-hour drive by myself, meeting a couple of friends at the mountain. We stayed near the mountain Friday night, then set up early on Saturday morning. Light rain fell as we warmed up at the base, but by the time we staged for the race, the rain gave way to broken clouds. A weather report from the summit gave us light winds and 50 degrees F. I lined up near the front of my wave, and 5 minutes after the canon’s boom sent the Top Notch starters up the mountain, we were off.
The auto road features about 200 meters of flat before the climb starts, and my legs spun the tiny gear crazily as I made my way towards the slope. As soon as we hit, I downshifted and hunted for my pace, while what felt like the entire wave surged around me. I could tell I was going pretty hard as it was, so I didn’t try to keep pace. I settled into something like a rhythm and tried to enjoy the scenery a bit. By the second mile marker, I had worked my way past most of my wave and had some clear road.
A bit after the fourth mile marker, I hit a pair of steep switchbacks known as “The Horn” and started to doubt myself. My time looked OK so far, but my legs, back and lungs ached, and I had almost half the race left. I had crossed the treeline and the sun beat down. Contrary to my worst fears, we had no wind at all. Sweat dripped off my nose and chin, and I regretted wearing an undershirt beneath my jersey. I tried to hold my pace but resisted pushing any harder. I feared the mile-long dirt section that would start soon.
I feared it not because of the road surface (it’s well-packed) but because the grade is one of the steepest sustained sections on the course, it’s inevitably slower than riding on pavement…and I couldn’t quite remember where it ended. I went around one hairpin, then another, hoping that I’d finally reached the end, only to be disappointed. My left calf tightened up with what felt like a cramp but turned out to be a strained muscle. Finally, I reached more pavement. The six-mile marker came up with just under an hour on the clock. My pace remained on target, but I felt dangerously close to collapse.
Just after the seven-mile marker the grade eases a bit as we pass the Cow Pasture. Sitting here in the comfort of my house I can ponder what possible advantage a dairy farmer might find in grazing his herd at that altitude, but as I cranked past the pasture, my entire world consisted of keeping my legs turning over. My head drooped and my bike handling went to hell. I had trouble holding a straight line, and hoped that my unpredictable zags wouldn’t take out any passing riders. The spectator density increased as I approached the summit. The last hundred meters were packed with people, and it’s just as well. That is the steepest part of the course, at 22% grade. I didn’t even notice the flash when a photographer snapped this picture of me.
I didn’t have energy to sprint, just enough to throw my bike over the line, unclip, and rest my head on my handlebars. I have suffered on the bike before, but I have never suffered like I suffered on Mt. Washington. A volunteer threw a blanket over my shoulders, helped me off the bike and sat me down on a rock. I needed 15 minutes or so before I had the energy to get up and find my friends.
I also failed to notice my finishing time as I crossed the line. Based on what I saw on my bike computer I figured it was “good enough,” but I didn’t learn my official time until much later in the day: 1:16:45. That, and $3.50 gets me a cappucino…and a place in the Top Notch next year.
Though I’m happy I made my goal, I am not entirely convinced that I will put myself and the family through this again. I’m bitten by the hillclimb bug, though. New England offers several similar races, and I will definitely try to put more of them on my calendar.