Men are from Larz

A fortuitous set of circumstances gave me a rare treat this week – Tuesday and Wednesday without the need to wrangle kids in the morning, as well as cyclocross practice sessions scheduled for both mornings. The catch? Getting up at 5:00 to leave the house by 6:30 so I could scoot up to Larz Anderson park in Brookline in time to meet the group.Oh, and then figuring out how to clean up enough for work without the benefit of a shower in the office.
No problem, I’ll trade sleep for the chance to ride with folks who are way faster than I am on the grass. I set off at 5am yesterday (in the car, unfortunately), baby wipes and deodorant tucked in my bag. I must admit, I was a bit intimidated by Larz. Last year, I had one opportunity to get up there, about two weeks before Gloucester. I got about three minutes into the warm-up lap, dismounted for the stairs, and my calf went “pop.” Major calf strain, no Gloucester for me. That injury dogged me through December, actually. I sure didn’t want that again.
Rosey and company have come up with a different course that crams about 10 km of bike driving into a 1.5 km lap. We just have a few cones to mark the course, but a simple rule helped me stay with it: if you see a tree, turn 180 clockwise around it. Go 180 counterclockwise around the next tree. Repeat until you come back to the barriers. The big set of stairs has been replaced with a grassy slope. The weather also ran about 30 degrees warmer and a million percent humidity higher than last year, too, all conspiring to keep my muscles nice and loose. No calf pops. I ran the slope on all the hot laps on Tuesday, but other guys were riding it (and passing me in the process).
I thought about heading down to Wrentham today for the evening training race, but I decided I needed to get back to Larz and ride that slope. I showed up a little early this morning so I could practice before practice. As I was setting up the bike, a woman rode up, introduced herself and said it was her first time there. She followed me over to the slope, and while I circled at the bottom, she cleaned it on the first try. Turns out that women are from Larz, too. I attacked it, found a patch of loose dirt and fell over. Then I had to ride back to the car to get my wrenches and straighten out my handlebars. But after that, I found the line. Hey, maybe I can do this after all…
As we did yesterday, we started with a set of 3 laps, rested for a bit and then did 2 more. 3 laps took me just under 20 minutes, and I was ready to puke by the end of lap 2. We had a much bigger crowd today, though, and I seemed to be in pretty good company with the pukitude. Riding the slope (which I managed to do on all the hot laps) rather than running helped me keep things under control, but there’s a lot of climbing on that lap no matter how you do it. And oh, the turns! A tight chicane, fast downhill corner, a short but tricky double set of stairs, and more tree turns than I can remember. I have lots of ideas for setting up my own practice now, but I don’t have access to terrain like Larz.
This may have been my last chance at Larz for the year – I want to hit the Wrentham race next week, because I’ve never done it, and after that I’m back to wrangling kids on Wednesday mornings. But even just these two sessions helped me out. I’m loving the feel of the new bike, and I can’t wait for the first race. Just 10 more days…

Viva la Shinytouch

This isn’t an equipment blog. I spend too much time thinking about the stuff of biking as it is, I don’t need to indulge myself by writing about it, too. And besides, every bike has a story, usually interesting only to its owner.
I got a new cross bike. This one has been six months coming, and I’m so glad I got to ride it this week that I just gotta share.
Late last fall, I became aware of the reincarnation of Spooky bikes. Apparently the original company came and went during the ten-year period starting in the mid-90s when I really wasn’t paying attention to cycling. Now, Mickey Denoncourt, a self-described “underachieving overachiever” out in western Mass, is bringing it back. His commitment to domestic manufacturing really caught my attention. He wants to bring production jobs back to Massachusetts. As a guy who pushes bits for a living, that somehow struck home.
In January he announced that he had 2009 team framesets for sale, so I called him up and we talked a little bit. He made me an offer I couldn’t refuse on a frame, fork and headset. I paid right then, but didn’t take possession of the parts until early May. On the bright side, I did get to talk to Mickey once a week for status updates. I kinda miss that.
While I was waiting, I had the idea of getting the frame polished. I’ve been easily distracted by shiny objects since I was a kid, staring at pictures of P-38s and B-29s in books, so “shiny” means “speed” to me. In fact, it wasn’t so much an idea as a vision – polished frame, blacked-out fork, wheel sand other parts. I hate it when I get an image like that, because it usually causes me all kinds of trouble and a pile of cash. But making it real is the only way to get it out of my head.
I poked around the Internet a bit and came up with Mirror Finish Polishing. He had a picture of an MTB frame he had done, so I figured he knew what he was getting into. He quoted me a six-week lead time. I sent the frame off in the third week of May, figuring I’d get it back toward the end of June and would have plenty of time to get it built up. Well, estimates being estimates, I actually got it back while I was away at the PMC. But Tony did shine it up quite nicely.
Once I had the frame squared away I could focus my compulsive behavior on components. I recycled levers, derailleurs and crank from my road bike, but I needed to scrounge chainrings. Cyclocross-appropriate chainrings for Campagnolo cranks are hard to come by. After a few evenings of searching, I ended up calling Zank and getting a set of 36/46 PMP with the Campy-specific not-quite-110-BCD-drilling rings from him. He also saved my bacon when I hesitated on buying another Record/Reflex wheelset and suddenly couldn’t find hubs in stock anywhere in the US.
A few late nights of bolt turning and cable cutting, and, behold, the Shinytouch!
Spooky Supertouch
Click through for a few more pictures.
Best of all, while lots of other riders are still getting their race rigs together (sorry guys), I got to ride mine twice this week! One nighttime park-and-neighborhood session on Thursday night, and a full-on cross practice Saturday morning. Cross newbie Scott K brought his new Major Jake down to the local middle school and we stomped down the wet grass for a couple hours. The bike did pretty well. I got the front brakes squeal-free on the first try, even. The front end might be a little light, so I may need to find a bit more drop or reach, but the drivetrain is race-ready and the saddle position is just right.
Less than two weeks to Quad Cross now. The first and last time I did that race, 2006, I didn’t do well with the backside of the run-up in the woods. I’m much better with the skills now, we’ll soon find out if I’m good enough.

D2R2 – 100 Km of Vitamin Dirt

Yesterday’s ride: the 100Km “lite” version of the Deerfield Dirt Road Randonee, aka D2R2. A 1000-word entry on this beautiful and brutal ride would do it justice. But the bike-build time is encroaching on the bike-writing time, so I’m going to have to just hit the highlights tonight.

  • In addition to meeting various folks I know online, I bumped into a guy I used to work with and haven’t seen in about 9 years. He told me what he was doing now, and I thought he said something about running a “meatery.” Well, not quite.
  • I ran out of traction and bike-handling halfway up the first dirt climb, Old Albany Road. This road was extremely loose and gravelly, and there were basically no good lines. The organizers started riders in small groups, which meant less congestion in the early miles. Still, my so-so low-speed skills and 28mm Paselas weren’t enough, and I fell right over, bashing my knee on a rock. Guys on cross bikes with 32mm tires did fine. But I sure did like the long-reach caliper brakes later on in the day.
  • To the bearded gent playing bagpipes on Cooper Lane – thanks. The pipes always give me chills.
  • Checkpoint 1, at 12.9 miles, came up in about 1:05 of ride time. Fortunately, things got a little faster after that. Aside: it’s a 100 Km ride, but the cue sheet is marked in miles?
  • The Franklin Hill Road climb was probably my favorite. Hard-packed dirt hairpins. 34×29 was definitely low enough for the 100 Km ride.
  • We ate lunch in a little riverside clearing near a covered bridge. I could have stayed there all day. In fact, I should have stayed there all day, since I flatted on Green River Road just a couple miles after the stop, losing my spot in the BikeBarn paceline. I had 2 tubes and 2 CO2 cartridges. The contents of the first CO2 went straight out the vent hole in the inflator. Fortunately, the second one did its job and I got rolling again.
  • The 180 K and 100 Km routes join briefly after the lunch stop, and I got to ride with Doug Jansen for a little while. I said “hi” and asked how he was doing, knowing he probably didn’t know who the heck I was. He was looking pretty good, coming back from a broken ankle. At that point I think he was a little ahead of his group, since when we turned on Nelson Road he lagged behind a little, checking on a guy who was having some kind of mechanical issue, and I climbed on.
  • I rode most of the third section solo and made it to the 50-mile checkpoint before the BikeBarners left, but again lost my spot when I stayed behind to have a couple more of the best peaches I’ve ever tasted. Apex Orchards, wow. I need to go back.
  • After that I played a little leapfrog with gruppo Zanconato, catching up to them right about the time we hit the Hawk Road climb. The descent down the other side of that gravel track lived up to the “gnarly” description on the cue sheet. Washouts and wheel-eating potholes everywhere. I was thinking about my soft rear tire and having to drive myself home, so I went slow.
  • We finished in about 5 hours of ride time, with maybe 6000 feet of climbing. I didn’t exactly attack the ride, but it’s plenty challenging, and not at lame, as some (who, as far as I know, haven’t done the 100 K or the 180 K) might have you think.
  • Alas, I had to skip the beer-drinking and storytelling portions of the agenda and scoot home. Maybe next year.

I took a few pictures, but Darren’s are better.
Anyway, the scenery and good company make that a high priority for me to return to next year. And Ge, if you sign up for the 180K I will do my best to ride every pedal stroke alongside you.

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?

Health care: why is it so expensive, anyway?

For various reasons, health care issues are seldom far from the front of my mind these days. There’s some good stuff in the “Affordable Care Act” that was passed earlier this year, but implementation takes place from now until 2014, and I’m skeptical that the measures will do much for cost control. Even if they do, ACA doesn’t do much of anything to fix some of the fundamental flaws in our health care system.
So why the heck are insurance premiums rising so much? The problem, as some medical types would put it, is multi-factorial. This isn’t really my area of expertise, either, but I’m trying to piece together some understanding. As I run across info, I’ll post here and ruminate a bit.
This article on the Washington Monthly’s website caught my attention this week. It describes the workings of Group Purchase Organizations (GPOs), and how the unintended consequences of some well-intentioned changes in regulation resulted in GPOs raising the cost of hospital supplies and reducing competition among suppliers. I suspect that at least one of the 2.5 people who will read this might know a whole lot more about GPOs than I do, so I invite comments with counterpoint.
I don’t mean to imply that GPOs are the biggest problem in health care. This is just a reminder that health care is a business and the profit motive is as alive here as it is in any other industry. That’s not necessarily all bad, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves that health care as a business has some moral imperative that insulates it from selfish behavior.

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.

Teaching kids to ride

Not that anybody asked, but I’m getting dangerously close to blog abandonment again. So, here’s a short description of how I taught my two kids to ride bikes, one at age 6, the other at 5:
0. Don’t push too hard! They’ll get it. If they’re not interested, don’t force it. Eventually they’ll want to. You don’t get any upgrade points for getting your 4-year-old onto a two-wheeler.
1. Both of mine rode training wheels for about a year first. I don’t think training wheels are all that great, and in the unlikely event I get to do this again, I might try a like-a-bike or weebike instead of a 12″ or 16″ bike with training wheels. I’m not sure it would make a whole lot of difference, though. In the end, the kid has to learn to pedal and balance. Learning them one at a time simplifies things. I’m not sure the order is all that important.
2. Make sure the bike fits, but realize that even the little bikes are heavy relative to the kid. A 12″ or 16″ bike might weigh almost half as much as the typical 5-year-old, making balance that much more difficult. Imagine riding a bike that weighed 50% of what you did. You’d steer like Harvey Wallbanger, too.
2. Initial balance sessions should be short, and on grass. I found that the kid has a “whoa” feeling the first time out and won’t want to practice too much the first time out.
3. For real balance practice, find a park with a gentle grassy slope. We’re fortunate to have one not a block from our house. Soft surfaces and no curbs let the kid focus on keeping the eyes up and the bike going straight, with low penalties for deviating from the intended path. The slope counteracts the higher rolling resistance of riding on grass.
4. To help the kid balance, grab the back of the saddle, not the handlebars. It’s uncomfortable to reach that far down, and I’m not all that tall. Pick out a landmark for the kid to focus on (the bike will go where the eyes go), give a little push, steady the bike from the saddle, and gradually let go as the kid picks up speed.
Both of mine only needed a couple of 15-minute sessions to get the hang of balancing. Starting and stopping takes a little longer, as does turning. And the 5-year-old is OK in the park but not ready for the sidewalk yet. She might be by next week, though.
I wish I could still pick stuff up that fast…