Sunday, January 18, 2015

New Book: Twisted Trails by Alex Hutchinson

From the first day I climbed on a mountain bike, I felt the need to write about the experience. Freedom, independence, self-propulsion and exploration are concepts so revealing of our nature that they beg for the loving embrace of short story fiction. These past six years have provided me with a wealth of interesting characters, intense races and natural beauty. All of which made it easy and fun to write these stories.

This is my first collection of short stories which is odd because people have always told me that it is my strongest format. I chose to publish via e-book because I firmly believe that digital media is the wave of the future. Almost all of my books have a version in e-book and they outsell my printed books 4 to 1. Releasing the book this way also allows me to keep a low price and market directly to the target audience - mountain bikers.

The genesis of this book came from the yearly Dirt Rag Literature Contest. I loved the idea of fictional tales about this sport and imagined what it might be like to publish a collection of such stories. I wrote my own over the years until it amounted to about 20 stories. Most were complete, some half done. For the sake of making Twisted Trails a book worthy of my audience, I picked the absolute best of the best and went to work on polishing them.

If I could compare it to any other book on the market, the closest example would be Rope Burns by F.X. Toole. Rope Burns was a small collection of short stories about the sport of boxing. The author worked in the sport and was able to give readers a deeper look at pugilism from many different angles. Some stories from his book were adapted to make the Oscar winning film Million Dollar Baby directed by Clint Eastwood.

The process of picking the right narratives was tricky. I didn't want to create any stories that would show mountain biking in a bad light or give rise to negative stereotypes. I did want to exaggerate the situations we sometimes find ourselves in - lost, exposed, in the heat of competition or in the debt of exhaustion. I wanted to write about what it feels like to be temporarily free from the false structures of societal expectations. In those rare moments of poetic happenstance, I believe that Twisted Trails has achieved that goal.

What are the stories about? I always thought that mountain biking provides a great platform for working out eternal truths. I wanted these morality tales to last the test of time. That is why many have a theme broader than just the subject matter. Moonscape is about a man who turns his back on nature and pays a price for it. Why We Race is an exploration of the cyclist as an identity. Riding Under the Influence is about taking responsibility for our mistakes even if it might cost us to do so. The Ballad of Queen V is the story of a girl trying to live up to a promise she made to her late father.

No one writes a book alone. I owe thanks to a trusty team who helped me through this process. My editors Heather Childress and Terri Brashear both took time from their busy schedules to comb through every detail correcting my grammatical adventurism. Illustrator and long time friend Rob Mackiewicz, co-creator of the Lil' Levi comic, was kind enough to do cover art.

This is my first book in seven years. During that time I've grown as a writer, learning so much about character development, drama and word play. The tales were inspired by my fellow riders and were written to entertain them. These people have become my surrogate family so I hope I have served them well. Hopefully we will have many more years together to enjoy these Twisted Trails.

Twisted Trails release date is Feb 15th, 2015

Don't have a Kindle? Luckily you don't need one. Anybody can read Kindle books - even without a Kindle device - with the FREE Kindle app for smartphones, tablets and computers.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Redemption in the Ruts! Piggy's Revenge 2015

It was the biggest event ever put on by the boys at SCORR. The 4th annual Piggy's Revenge attracted 161 riders (87 Pre-reg, 74 day of), twice the amount of last year's race. Online promotions created an ongoing conversation about the types of trails, the routes and the best bikes for the job. In the end, people chose a little bit of everything. There were roughly 50 riders for each distance and they were straddling the whole shebang from cross bikes to full suspension rigs to fatties.

In addition to individual riders there was more than 30 teams representing. Plus we saw a handful of photographers, reporters from the Herald-Tribune and a drone copter flying high above the trees. In the spirit of riding the wild, some people took it upon themselves to dress up for the occasion. There was a wolf and three piggy's, a mermaid, a pumpkin and a slice of pizza.

This was not the kind of event you could watch from the sidelines. For those doing the 20 mile route it was a master class in singletrack riding. For those in the 40 mile route you had to both slay BoldlyGo and enjoy a journey into the back country. For those doing the 60 mile route it was a quest so arduous that you had to conquer the outer reaches of the Carlton Reserve then leave Venice, circle through the trails of North Port and return via the Deer Prairie passage, a true trek if ever there was one.

After all of the riders had signed in and received their t-shirts, SCORR President Eric Claessens stood up before the crowd to give everyone their last minute instructions.


While anyone can write a race report from the sidelines, I prefer to get my feet wet so I signed up for the 60 and dove into the thick of the action. We left the parking lot at 8:15am in a neutral procession lead by SCORR member Steve Christian. Upon reaching the right turn onto the Red trail, Steve moved aside and let the big race begin.

The pace quickened as the riders, many of them on cross bikes, blasted through the trail taking a right at the halfway point and heading towards the wild unknown. As the next turn closed in, we already had a problem. A large group of riders had passed me but they missed the turn and were going in the wrong direction. I followed them hoping they would slow as the GPS suddenly didn't match the terrain. They finally stopped when it hit them. I led that group as well as ten other stragglers to the gate that empties out onto Border road. I waited on the road until everyone had passed, instructing them to watch for the next gate on the left.

When I inquired as to why they were going the wrong way, for some their GPS was off by a few meters and that meant the difference between two trails that ran parallel. For others, they didn't have a GPS! Having signed up at the last minute they missed that little detail.

"I'm gonna stick with you." Theron Miller, a local mechanic representing Real Bikes hadn't brought a GPS but after discovering that I had memorized the route decided he was going to follow me for the duration. Moments later the drama continued. Still on Border road we came upon members of the RND race team from Sarasota. One of them had a pinch flat. They had the tools and know how to fix it so we wished them luck and continued on. After sloshing through some muck on Doe Hammock, Theron and I hit the south powerline with the intention of making up time. Another rider had stopped near the Venice-Arcadia Grade turn off. He also didn't have a GPS, "Follow us."

Later on the south powerlines we saw the lead group for the 40 mile race. It was a pack of five riders in team time trial formation, one of which wore the distinct orange colors of Team Real Bikes. This is one of those redemption stories. Eric Latimer, a mechanic for Real Bikes Venice, was a serious contender for the 60 mile race last year but he was beat out by Team Cycle Logic. This year he chose to take on the 40 route and did so with friends. Aided by Russell Peelman of Saint Petersburg (Who had to endure tire issues), Eric maintained a furious pace and eventually took the win.

My trend of picking up stragglers continued until I had a small group of about 8 riders. Turning onto Stockade road I tried to keep up a solid pace, if only to appease the stronger riders who were following me. However, that pace caused us to shed a couple off the back. Bear Hammock trail was a mix of cruise and bounce where we saw 4 pigs inside the cage traps. We turned down Turpentine and fought through muddy ruts. This was where you wanted to have a mountain bike. Due to a mechanical, this was where we lost our cyclocross friends. Now we were back to three.

A quick jaunt down Wellfield road brought us to Tom's Oasis rest stop. A party to rival no other. There were riders from all three routes meeting together, eating, drinking and chatting on about what had happened so far. Between the cowbells, cameras, beer and the otter, you almost forgot that you were in the middle of a race. Tom and Jeff informed us that the "Fast" 60 mile riders didn't even stop, they whizzed by about an hour earlier.

With more than 30 competitors, the ladies were in full force at this year's race. While most took on the 20 mile challenge, a few made a play for the 40 mile title. Donna Davis (Connecticut), Sierra Stafford (Cape Coral) and others took on local rider Melody Vasbinder (Real Bikes Englewood) who turned on the afterburners and came away with the victory.

While at Tom's Oasis my group ran into Karen Franzen, another of our redemption stories. Karen traveled all the way down from Connecticut and took on the 60 mile challenge last year but she got lost on course. While she did receive the award last year, this time around she was determined to complete the task. Karen left the Oasis only 5 minutes before us but she must have been flying because we never saw her again. She finished the race and took the women's overall.

The rest of the journey for my 3 man group was filled with bumps and beautiful nature, smiles and sore muscles, cramps and craziness. For the next four hours we managed to stay together, through the tall grass, deep sand, over fences, across dams and eventually back to the pavillion. Due to the chaos at the beginning of the ride, which cost me about about 30 minutes, it took us roughly 6 hours to complete the 55 mile course. About 20 minutes later four members of Team RND Racing, having overcome their earlier flat, braved the beast and finished their journey.

It wasn't until I returned that I heard about the big win of the day. It came from the same team that has been dominating Piggy's for the past few years - Cycle Logic. A father/son duo named Scott and Justin Pfaff of Gainesville took the win with Kevin Greten of Sanibel coming in third. They managed to finish the pig epic in under 4 hours while leaving some serious gravel racers in their wake. It was an astonishing performance!

Finishing a race like Piggy's Revenge is a reward in itself. Rough on the body and hard on the mind, Piggy's tested our limits and pushed us to exceed them. I'll be attending many more races this year but in terms of sheer ruggedness this one will be hard to beat. And of course, nothing can beat the bratwurst and pig cookies.

Photos and videos of the event can be found on the SCORR Facebook page.

SCORR Trail Builders

Sunday, December 28, 2014

My Top 7 Favorite Rides/Races of 2014

I love favorites lists. They help me clarify what I enjoy doing, they help race promoters adjust their offerings and they spread the word about events you might not even know about. For me this was a year of firsts. I took on my first endurance race and my first cyclocross race. I bought my first singlespeed, tried fixies, recumbents and landed on the podium twice. As a transition year it was all about exploration and having fun. These are my top seven favorite rides/races of 2014.

Ever get your hands on a dream bike? Back in February I got to tame an S-Works Stumpjumper 29er taking it on a busy Tuesday night ride that sported no less than 40 bikers. There were some high speed banks that almost turned my hair white but in all it was a fun evening. Read the story of how I saddled this beast in the inky blackness of the Carlton Reserve - Dream Bike Review.

 Most good races are known for having a distinct feature. The term "sand trap" was never truly in my mountain bike vocabulary until I attempted this race back in March. Having the wrong tires didn't stop me from barreling into the competition. I faced terrain with names like "Rutty Roll" and "Super Log World." That day the course won but with the right tires I might be back - Fat Tires Rule!

Injured, sleep deprived and in the wrong gear, I still enjoyed my first cyclocross race. Promoters Josh and Kaleigh Thornton turned Stanley Park into a New England style climbers course that set the stage as the first race of the season. The supportive atmosphere and hand ups eased my pains just enough for a respectable finish - First CX Race.

I love trying new things and this represented a trio of boldness. I had been dying to get involved in the Real Bikes Englewood Saturday morning road ride but to do it I had to borrow a bike (a fixie). I worked to maintain speeds that averaged more than 18mph with a sprint that reached 28mph. The concentration and effort involved pushed my riding to another level - To Fixie or Not?

Josh and Kaleigh Thornton did it again by building a course at Burke Park that became known as the "Off-Camber Masterpiece." This race was special to me in part because only eight days earlier a Doctor had pulled a one inch long shard of wood out of my left foot. How I recovered in time to beat my closest rival and win a medal, I will never know. Sometimes miracles do happen - From the Grave to the Podium.

One of the few dedicated Cyclocross courses in the country sits in Palm Bay, Florida. With a newly built run-over, a BMX track and a steady stream of local riders to fill the ranks, Infinity Cross is the complete experience. From the Angus beef hot dogs to heckler's hill to the mud drenched second day of racing, this locale had it all. On a course that exposed my weaknesses and crippled my strengths, you can imagine my surprise when I landed on the podium - Infinity Wars.

I have a dream to someday race the infamous Leadville Trail 100 MTB race in Colorado. However, it was a pretty distant dream because I had no experience doing endurance races until I signed up for Piggy's Revenge. Despite having completed more than 100 bicycle races, completing the 40 mile route at Piggy's was the toughest thing I had ever done. After that day Leadville transformed from a dream into a goal. This year I have had the honor of being one of the promoters of the 2015 event - Thrills & Spills at Piggy's Revenge.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Surviving your First Gravel Grinder

Exploration is in the DNA of all human beings. It is the reason we braved the oceans, crossed the plains and climbed every mountain. It has been the pedestal for great men & women throughout the centuries. So the need to explore is within you but in modern America you don't need to risk life and limb to enjoy its benefits. You simply have to remember what it was like to let yourself get lost.

When I was in 3rd grade my parents moved to an apartment in Taunton, Massachusetts. Due to my age and unfamiliarity with the city, I wasn't supposed to travel far from home. Luckily, my parents had three younger kids to worry about so I was the one who often slipped away. One day while riding my BMX I found a trail that disappeared into a patch of woods. It curved down a hill into the gravel fields of a construction company. I was in heaven.

Surrounded by huge piles of rock and dirt of various kinds all I could picture was how fun it would be to ride them. I started pushing my bike up the nearest mound when a thunderous sound roared all around me. My young mind imagined a mechanical monster, a metal dinosaur living on the construction grounds like a junkyard dog protecting its home from intruders. Slowly I crept down the hill when a huge yellow payloader came rolling around the corner. It was raining dust as its giant bucket raised high in the air in a threatening manner.

I was too scared to scream but I didn't need to, a different instinct had kicked in. I jumped on the bike and pedaled like a demon. Swerving around the piles and sliding in the sand I was certain it was gaining on me. Then I saw an opening in the fence and squeezed through to the street outside. I had escaped the monster. While I might have been temporarily safe, now I had a whole new problem. For the first time in my young life, I was lost. At only 8 years old my ability to distinguish directions had not yet been formed. My house might only have been a mile away as the crow flies but I simply didn't know how to get there.

On that day I struggled with many lessons. I learned that time slows down when you are excited. I was certain that my parents were freaking out. I imagined them calling the police and organizing search parties but in reality the whole adventure only lasted an hour. They didn't even know I was gone. Secondly was that I had enjoyed the thrill of losing my way, exploring an unfamiliar place and then eventually finding my way home. It emboldened me with confidence, a sense of independence and new survival skills. After that day, getting lost in the woods became something of a hobby.

Many years later I would try the sport of mountain biking only to discover that my desire for exploration was still very much intact. Most mountain bike races focus on physical fitness but there is one type that focuses on the journey. Endurance races are fast becoming trendy in the cycling community for some of the same reasons that we used to wander as kids. It is a chance to scout new trails, to be adrift in the wild but with that knowledge that we are not truly alone. They are intentional sufferfests that take place over long distances but can be done at your own pace.

 Sure you might win a trophy or get an event t-shirt but bonding with your fellow riders is the real reward. These off-road events, often referred to as Gravel Grinders, have the benefit of being placed deep in the beautiful nestle of nature. This is especially true for a local yearly race that I have come to love known as Piggy's Revenge.

Started in 2011, Piggy's Revenge was originally a large group ride meant to introduce people to the little known beauty of the T. Mabry Carlton Reserve park in Venice, Florida. The reserve was being visited for hiking and bird watching but it was believed that it could be an ideal locale for building mountain bike trails. The Piggy's Revenge event was key to raising money and gathering support for such propositions.

Trail building began in 2012 with over 6 miles of flowing singletrack completed within 18 months. Attendance to the park quadrupled as people drove from miles around to visit the only dedicated mountain bike trails in Sarasota county. Success at the Carlton Reserve led other organizations to request that SCORR (Sarasota County Off Road Riders) build similar trails in their parks as well. As a result there is also 5 miles of singletrack in Myakka State Forrest.

Back to the grind. While the why is most important, the how will make for a more enjoyable adventure. Step 1: Sign up. You might think that you need special instructions or training or many miles on the bike but not in this case. With a little money at stake and a deadline looming you will be well motivated to get on that bike and ride. Gravel grinders are great learning experiences, this one has 20, 40 and 60 mile routes so there is a distance for everyone.

Step 2: Show up. Make sure to checklist all your gear - bike, helmet, gloves, shoes, food, water, appropriate clothing and emergency gear. Visit the registration desk to grab a map and pick up your event t-shirt (Proof that you competed). Once the gun fires, pedal at a moderate rate. On long rides you don't want to start too fast. Eat every 30 to 40 minutes. Make sure you have enough water for such a long time on the bike, at least 2 bottles. Bring a spare tube, a tire repair kit and a cell phone. You might get lost but remember, getting lost can be part of the fun.


Now for the psychological steps. 1. Adjust your expectations. Chances are that a professional rider will win the race so don't blow yourself up trying to keep pace. 2. Embrace the pain. This might be the single hardest physical exertion that you ever face. 3. Distract yourself. Bring an iPod, take in the scenery or better yet ride with a friend. 4. Relish the journey. You are in the wild exploring nature in a very visceral way. Out in the woods there are no bosses or employees, there are no car horns or alarm clocks, no blaring televisions or crying babies. It is all about you, your bike and the trail. Enjoy the serenity of exploring nature like you were meant to.

Piggy's Revenge is a yearly event but don't wait to sign up. This is not something that you can watch from the sidelines, it is something you must experience.

Are you ready for an Adventure?
Piggy's Revenge 2015

Monday, December 8, 2014

2 Serious 4 Singlespeed: Part 3

Introduction: It's known as the party class. In CXSS you might race a gorilla, battle with Batman or tangle with a triple tandem. Bacon, bananas and beer are acceptable hand-ups. You choose one chainring, one cog and seal your fate with burning lungs and acid filled thighs. There is no description of this class that doesn't include the word: Crazy. This made me wonder if my sullen disposition and oft poetic ruminations were simply too serious for singlespeed. Then I thought... screw it! I'm gonna write whatever I feel.

Stoopid Loop: Mileage is a measure of accomplishment in the world of cycling. A rider's confidence is often attached to the longest distance they have completed. I've heard it said that CX racers don't need more than 2 hours on the bike at a time to train for competition but that blanket has some holes in it. It's not the minutes that matter but rather what happens during those minutes. A Pro, hauling ass, could shred singletrack for twice the distance of an Amateur and do so with an intensity and ferocity that begets astonishing fitness.

My journey towards a defining century has been elusive. Cat 3 XC races in New England topped out at 15 miles. Training rides up north were cut short at around 22. The strength and fortitude required for more epic treks seemed beyond my grasp, until earlier this year. At a local gravel grinder known as Piggy's Revenge, I signed up for the 40 mile race and with no shortage of pain and ambition, completed it. Now I endeavor to take the next step forward.

The Stoopid Loop is just what it sounds like, an urban cross group ride for 90+ miles that shreds every available stretch of trail, dirt and gravel within reach. It is a test of torture that lasts for hours. Your legs, your bike and your will shall be tested. The Stoopid loop would be twice my longest ride and harder than anything I have ever attempted.

Could I prepare for such an endeavor? Apparently not. One week of give it my all, tires to the pavement added up to 3 rides which totaled only 78 miles. It was not enough to adjust my focus but it was enough to pull a muscle. For another week I limped, drank Mexican Mudslides and caught up on Redbox flicks. The whole time kicking myself about improper training methods. There are only so many times that you can whine about injuries before sounding like a cry-baby so I'll spare you the ice pack details.

Somehow during my unintended off time I did manage to make a promo video for an upcoming race. The desire for self-expression shuns any aches and pains. The next day I went back to limping. Doh!

The million little aches of this world never really end for an athlete. My leg/hip/lower back pain was joined by a pulled muscle on the upper left side of my back only days before the ride. Now I was truly frustrated. It was time for extreme measures.

The T-Burn Chemical Massage

Warning: This particular remedy is not recommended for sane, healthy human beings. If you are a reasonable person with a good sense of caution stay clear from anything that could cause more harm than good. Having said that, if you are straight up crazy then no one really cares what you do.

Step 1: Take a scolding hot bath with Epson salts in the water. Take several deep breaths. Make sure the bath lasts at least 15 minutes. This will relax your muscles and open up your pores.

Step 2: Lay face down on a bed and have your friend/significant other rub a sloppy amount of Bengay into your back muscles. It will start to burn almost immediately.

Step 3: Scream like a little girl. Your back is now on fire! Have your friend/significant other towel off as much of the BenGay as possible before you run back to the bathroom.

Step 4: Stand under a freezing cold shower for several minutes, the desire to jump off a high rooftop will pass. Then towel off and return to bed.

Step 5: Have your friend/significant other cover your chemically burned back with Aloe Vera of the sun burn variety. A thick coat over all affected areas is best.

Step 6: Promise yourself that you will never do that again!

Stoopid Day. This cool, cloudy morning gathered a flock of 18 riders, many overdressed for the task at hand. If ever my rebellious nature was evident, I was the only person dumb enough to bring a Cross build to a Mountain Bike ride. We left the parking lot on time and dove into the nooks and crannies of Englewood's back roads and grass trails. It was off road that my 41/17 gear immediately felt a little forced. If my legs were working hard at the beginning of the ride, where would I be 80 miles from now? We'll never know because things went sour rather quickly.

A squeaky bottom bracket grew louder and louder as the first 12 miles breezed by. Then the squeak turned into a wobble until I could feel the crank arm disconnecting from the bike. I stopped on the side of 776 near the Englewood event center and tried to fix the problem only to discover that I didn't have the right tool and neither did anyone else. It was time for an emergency call back.

My wife arrived with 10 minutes carrying the tool I needed. I tightened the crank arm and darted off to try and catch the group. They had a fifteen minute head start but I suspected that they were doing the southern loop in Myakka State Forrest, that gave me a window. I time-trialed up Winchester road against a headwind and banked right into the park entrance. Another mile down the gravel road towards the ranger station and there I saw the riders gathered, waiting for lost stragglers.

Now came the real challenge. What had been a tough churn on previous terrain became a brutal push through the Myakka mud bog. My 37cm tires sliced through the brackish water but the each pedal stroke felt like I was towing a camper behind me. Then it happened again, the crank arm came loose. Seriously? I wedged it against a post and tightened it with more muscle hoping that this time it would stay in place.

We took to the Palmetto trail and all went well, for a while. I was adjusting to the movement of bouncing through singletrack without suspension but as the trail got wetter my average speed slowed to a crawl. Then the crank arm started to wobble again. Each time I stopped to fix it, the line of riders snaked further and further away until finally I was alone. There was no way I could catch them in this muck, in this large of a gear and on a broken bike. I called my wife to designate a pick up at the North entrance. I was a wet and depressed pile of misery by the time it was over. My epic event had fallen apart on so many levels and there was nothing left to do but return home and lick my wounds.

Not every story has a happy ending. My next race is a gravel grinder but having lost faith in the durability of my CXSS, I'm thinking it is time to retire it for the winter and switch bikes. I really enjoyed my first season of Cyclocross and will be better prepared for next year but it was time to cut my losses. I can only afford to keep one running at a time. Was I too Serious for Singlespeed? Sure but the great thing about fanaticism is that it has a long shelf life. I will be back.

Support your local artist. Click on the link below to purchase one of Alex's novels.

Monday, November 10, 2014

2 Serious 4 Singlespeed: Part 2

Introduction: It's known as the party class. In CXSS you might race a gorilla, battle with Batman or tangle with a triple tandem. Bacon, bananas and beer are acceptable hand-ups. You choose one chainring, one cog and seal your fate with burning lungs and acid filled thighs. There is no description of this class that doesn't include the word: Crazy. This made me wonder if my sullen disposition and oft poetic ruminations were simply too serious for singlespeed. Then I thought... screw it! I'm gonna write whatever I feel.

First Mud: The Ego desires to be elevated, to be profound, to be Capitalized. Those obsessed with being in the headlines are never satisfied with a byline. They find their worth in a cauldron of sweat and tears, dust and agony. Stories are crafted in the alchemy of tempting human limitations. That is where drama percolates. Where bards become biographers as victors become vindicated.

So where would I end up this time? As the Victor or the Biographer? The journey to Palm Bay was 210 minutes of flat pavement and patience. Crossing the state is like driving backwards through the decades. Arcadia exists in the 90's, Okeechobee in the 80's and Yeehaw Junction the 70's. Even the CX course sits on the comfortable confines of a yesteryear BMX track. With the normal constraints of time and space warping around us, it was the perfect atmosphere for possibilities.

Our timing was hindered by a desire for sightseeing so we arrived only an hour before my class was to set out.  The crowd was a mixture of Facebook faces and hey I know that guy. I made more of an effort to be cordial and was greeted with grins of recognition. It is the blessing of niche sports that you make friends fast. The common affection of suffering for a passion bonds like super glue. It is quick, easy and can sometimes hold for years.

During the practice gap riders tore up the grass, testing sand filled corners and bumping down rut riddled back roads. The cameras flocked to two locations - the BMX track and the fly over. Both would provide climactic substance to an otherwise horizontal plane.

The effectiveness of training is hard to measure under race conditions. Real life is a terribly inaccurate laboratory. While many of the weekend's classes had twenty plus riders, singlespeed had only 4 to start and double that on Sunday. Since sunny Saturday was my best shot, it was time to rip the lid off. Starting in an all out sprint I grabbed the wheel of Michael Toth and held on for dear life. The grippy grass was welcoming but the dirt road was not. My big gear 41/18 wasn't nearly enough to match the friendly beardo and his well trained roadie legs.

Watching him walk away was disheartening. The gap was unbridgeable but I had to try. Every muscle shook and shuttered under the strain. Legs screaming on the straights, arms aching through the doubles, lungs gasping for a rhythm. Still I had enough to jump the barriers, climb the start hill and pump the track. After six laps I held on for second. Our reward was a labeled mason jar packed with sand from the course. In a room full of trophies this is the one people will ask about.

That night was nothing less than a celebration. Dinner, beer, a Big Hero movie and HBO boxing in our hotel room. Oh Hopkins. We awoke to the light tinkle of rain against the window. The forecast had been right. Today's race was going to be very different. After the atypical continental breakfast followed by a drive-thru at Starbucks, we returned to the track.

The sight before us was something out of a New England spring day. Overcast skies of gray over gray, drizzle blanketing every leafy green and a slow chill that made you want to keep moving so it could never catch up. It was a dank, wet, muddy mess. Perfect Cyclocross weather. This is where we would see if harsh conditions bring out the beast in us.

Lacking the appropriate attire led to improvisation. I slung the camera around my neck, a towel around my head and snapped the unabashed speed of the Pro class. Tic Bowen gave a clinic in viscosity as he seemed to gain traction as the conditions worsened. I suppose we should have checked his tires for velcro. Regardless, his gracious camaraderie at the finish line is a demonstration of what this sport is all about.

I stayed on to watch the vast field of Cat 4/5 riders as they snaked an unbroken line following the race tape. Cat 3 showed their wealth of talent with a similar size contingent. Both managed to capture the crowd's imagination especially when they neared one of the forewarned features. The deluge was taking its toll as evidenced by the kits and faces of dedicated puddle splashers.

As Singlespeed riders started to prepare, the rain drops grew larger. Michael took his earned position on the line and hinted that this was a tougher field. I appreciated the warning but it didn't matter, I never recovered from the day before. The pace stuck needles in my thighs and kicked sand in my eyes. By the time we reached the road I was already a dead battery.

Racing in mud is a different kind of torture. Squinting from the flecks of flying granules makes for a half-blind voyage. All the good lines have become mud ruts. The BMX clay turned tricks into traps. With no chance of placing I instead embraced the jeer of hecklers atop the hill. Ignoring the easy side, I attempted the steeper pitch lap after lap, comically failing each climb.

As the Infinity wars came to a close, I got a taste of both worlds - the Victor and the Biographer. I learned that the podium is not as gratifying without a horse race and a loss can be just as much fun if you toy with it. I learned that I like racing in mud, though the clean up afterwards can be detailed and tedious. I connected with a few more like minded people so if success can be measured in smiles and laughs, this weekend was a winner.

My wife and I took a couple hundred pictures, all posted on Facebook so feel free to explore:

Also check out our highlight video. Enjoy!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

2 Serious 4 Singlespeed: Part 1

Introduction: It's known as the party class. In CXSS you might race a gorilla, battle with Batman or tangle with a triple tandem. Bacon, bananas and beer are acceptable hand-ups. You choose one chainring, one cog and seal your fate with burning lungs and acid filled thighs. There is no description of this class that doesn't include the word: Crazy. This made me wonder if my sullen disposition and oft poetic ruminations were simply too serious for singlespeed. Then I thought... screw it! I'm gonna write whatever I feel.

The Perfect Gear: Perfection is an ideal developed for suckers. Striving to attain ultimate glory with calculated inches is akin to maximizing horsepower with a new transmission. The vehicle is a tool. Only operators can fail. Only riders can lose. When I asked my local bike shop about dropping to 41t in light of my struggle to conquer ascents, they said no. Build stronger legs, they said. Build stronger lungs.

When a retailer tells you not to buy, we assume it's a sign of honesty or in this case, a sign of insight. Previous starts had been handicapped by circumstance but this time I had no excuses. I wrote the calculation on my white board: Leg power + Cardio = Victory!

Hammer Hill is my test track. A bow ribbon layout with two small climbs per lap. I discovered it by accident on a driftless Wednesday afternoon. This pair of retention ponds is surrounded by thick grass and sits below a 9 foot dip from the bike trail above. Mount Snow it is not but for my purposes nothing could be better. No pedestrians, no traffic, all focus.

First attempt to complete 5 laps, 10 climbs was a half-success. Churning hard and desperate each round sapped my energy and stole my reason. Grinding up to daylight I could see the top, strain to balance then drop a boot, inches too short. By the 5th lap pain became comfort, coordination took shape. Like a jigsaw puzzle starting to make a picture, I suddenly knew where the pieces went.

Second attempt brimmed with eagerness. Same gear, same velcro infused monoculture, same unforgiving ascents, new technique. SS is unique in that it must flow. The tug of each stroke applies equal force requiring body adjustment to complete the motion. No brakes on the descents using every mph to accelerate with efficiency. Then loomed the climbs. Heavy feet pressed hard, must hit the hill with intent. Standing, angled off-camber and determined. One hill done then two, then three, then a knowing grin, secret gained, then ten.

If fitness is half toil, half confidence then I was already 20% stronger. Conquering a virtual mountain without the need for a technological upgrade stirs something primal. It brings forth the fierceness our ancestors relied on to hunt and kill. It brings forth a warrior state of mind.

And then I thought... screw it! Why not cover all my bases? I pinched a black MCS 41t from the recesses of Ebay and put it on the next day. All that primal nonsense is nice but I'm not taking any chances. That starting whistle is where the preparations end. Discarding an available advantage would be my bad. Eventually the face of expectation frowns on all of us. At my next race I plan on smiling.

If Alex is your kind of crazy, then you should really check out his books. Click on the link below.