Monday, March 2, 2015

The Benefits of Small Events

Often times I'll come home from an event and comment that while it was fun, it wasn't worthy of an article. However, after a good night's sleep the meaningfulness of that day would slowly sneak up on my consciousness and tap me on the shoulder. The truth is that there is always something to write about. There is always a story. You just have to look for it.

On March 1st, 2015 there was a unique event held at the T. Mabry Carlton Reserve in Venice, Florida. As many of my regular readers know, this is the park where I have worked with the Sarasota County Off Road Riders (SCORR) to build mountain bike trails over the last few years. Previous to this day, there had only been one race event held at the Carlton. Piggy's Revenge is our annual ride/race which raises money for SCORR and introduces people to the park. This year we had our biggest turnout with 160 riders. The elevated level of publicity sparked the desire for yet another event to be held on those same trails. This bring us to the Sasquatch 15K.

The Sasquatch 15K is the brainchild of lifelong runner and Sarasota resident Thierry Rouillard. Thierry greatly enjoyed Piggy's Revenge and thought it would be equally fun to have a trail run in the same location. Just to make it interesting he also included a mountain bike race. Having promoted other similar events like the Community Haven 10K and the Sun-n-Fun 5K, he was well prepared with excellent sponsors. The date was set.

Everything seemed to be ready, except for one important thing, the oxygen. Allow me to explain. Florida has become a Mecca for outdoor athletic events, especially in the winter months. On any given weekend there might be as many as 150 different competitions across the state. When too many of those events take place in the same region, on the same weekend it can shut the window on new developments. It is like sucking all of the oxygen out of the room.

I had signed up for the Sasquatch as soon as I saw the flyer online. Competing in a MTB race on the trails I helped build? Yes please! I thought it was a great idea so I shared the flyer on Facebook. Then I got caught up in my own projects and basically put it in the back of my mind until the night before the event. That evening I was talking to a new friend named Lisa who was looking for somewhere to train on Sunday. I told her about the Sasquatch and she agreed to come. That turned out to be a great decision.

Upon arriving at the pavilion there was only a smattering of runners and no riders except for me and Lisa. I immediately knew what had happened - no oxygen. Still, it didn't sour anyone's spirits. There were about 12 runners ready to go. This included a well known couple of local ultra-runners, Sally and John Libonati. The group was a bunch of happy, energetic people who were thrilled to get out there and explore the park. Their excitement was infectious. The weather was fantastic. This race was on!

Thierry gathered us together, placing myself and Lisa at the front as he started the clock. We took off at a high rate of speed. It was important for the riders to get some distance on the lead runners so they would have room to maneuver. Some of the trails can be narrow in areas and they were a little wet making it harder to keep a high cadence. Luckily adrenaline assisted in accomplishing that goal. We blazed up the red trail and took a left onto the south power lines.

One benefit of being in the front of a trail race is that you get to see the animals. There were 2 deer wandering on the first section of power lines and then 2 more after we crossed the road. On the second lap there was a bald eagle sitting atop the wires watching us pass by. The big attraction in this park is the animals. Very rarely do you miss out on seeing something beautiful.

I have to give praise to my riding partner. I had prepared for this event as if it were going to be epic so my desired speed was a bit high for Lisa. Halfway through the first lap she informed me that this was her first time riding off road. In addition she had a heavy Walmart bike. Plus, the gears didn't work so it was essentially a singlespeed. All of these disadvantages conspired to make her push really hard. When I finally realized what she was up against, we slowed down and started enjoying the sights a little more.

Another benefit of small races is that Lisa and I didn't have any pressure to perform. She was going to win overall female and I was going to win overall male just for being there. The ride became a tour of the Reserve. This included the first section of our singletrack trail - BoldlyGo. We slowed down enough so that the fastest runners, including Sally, could pass us on the way to the end. There was even one runner going the wrong way, on purpose. I understand that she went exploring and had a little adventure of her own.

While it didn't attract a big crowd this year the event was otherwise very organized. Due to flooding the day before, Thierry (With the help of SCORR Member Tim Reifschneider), put together a last minute race route that fixed the problem. In addition, there were water/Gatorade stops at two locations. The inflatable finish line was complete with a digital clock. The swag bags had fantastic gear including a summer hat and tech shirt. There was plenty of food and drinks for all. You got your money's worth plus all of the proceeds went to charity.

Back at the pavilion everyone raised their arms as they came through the finish line. We were all talking, laughing and cheering for the runners who were still pushing on. At an event this small you get to know everyone a little easier. You make jokes, you make friends. It's almost like your shared experience was heightened due to the unusual circumstances. At an event this small everyone walks away with an award, a smile and a story. The thing about events like this is that they never stay small for long.

Keep an eye out for Thierry's other events at his website:

If you enjoyed this article be sure to check out my new book Twisted Trails.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

CST Patrol MTB Tire Review

I've always been a sucker for cheap tires. In part because I'm a starving artist but also because riders tend to pay too much when it comes to upgrading their bikes. For example: How often have you seen a recreational rider purchase top of the line tires because they save him a few grams in weight? In most cases, if you really want to cut a few grams put down the cheeseburger.

When it comes to mountain bike tires my measurement of quality sits at the apex between cost and consistency. For this reason I'm a huge fan of Schwalbe's Rapid Rob tires (Read that review here). While I'm still running a Rapid Rob on the front of my bike, I decided to try something new on the rear. Something even cheaper. Introducing the CST Patrol.

For about $26. the 26" by 2.25" version of the CST Patrol is uber cheap. You get a wire bead, a weight of 780 grams with a single rubber compound but no EPS (Exceptional Puncture Safety) which can be found on other versions of the tire. The Patrol was easy to seat on the rim. It has medium length knobs which are placed in a balanced pattern to allow for smooth rolling and moderate bite. Now let's see how it works.

The first test of the Patrol was a big one. I brought my bike to the Croom 35/50 Off Road Challenge which takes place annually at Withlacooche State Forest in Brooksville, Florida. These trails had a good variety of terrain that was both wet and dry with climbs and descents. Some trails were taken at a crawl while others were blitzed at top speed. I went with a group of fast friends who really pushed the pace. This meant that my new tires were under pressure to perform.

Hardpack: This was the majority of the ride. A single line of narrow trail with long slight climbs and fast twisting downhills. This is also where the tire excels. The grip never slipped on the way up and I was able to bounce down at the fastest speeds without ever missing my lines.

Pine Needles: We jokingly call this brown ice. Layers of pine needles are easy to slide on especially around corners. The tire had enough flex so as to compensate for this condition. Despite miles of brown ice I never slid out, not even a little.

Sand: Small sections of trail, including fire roads that crossed the path were made up of medium depth sand. Again, it was easy to steer or surf through with no slippage. Are you starting to see a trend?

Roots & Climbs: I put these together because they present a similar challenge. On technical sections where the dirt was interrupted by roots - guess what? No slippage, perfect grip.

Above are the conditions that the tire was made for and it certainly held up to its part of the bargain. Next we'll check out some grounds that it was not made for.

I took to the streets for some commuting. My philosophy group is held at the local library only five miles away but I filled that middle ground with every silly obstacle that you might typically face on a road based ride. The winter traffic and ill timed road construction assisted with my creative line choices. To and fro I jumped curbs, crossed medians, swirled around caution barrels and avoided aggressive snow birds.

The Patrols have a max tire fill of 65psi. I was running them at about 55 and enjoyed a nice flexible bounce on the road. They easily absorbed the hard drops and stuck to the cement giving the kind of grip that you can count on. It made this normally boring ride rather fun. There was no sense of drag and the tire weight is too minor to notice. I was looking hard for a flaw but so far nothing has stood out. In fact, the Patrol is outperforming my Rapid Rob front tire by being more supple and thereby more appropriate to the type of terrain I typically ride.

Mud! You know it. You hate it. It's dark and sticky and cold. Plus it really slows us down. I took the Patrol out on my local trails which have suffered from a couple surprise storms. The mud was everywhere. Rutted, thick, gooey and surrounded by large areas of standing water. It was a perfect test for a new tire.

The 2.25 felt a whole lot wider when it hit the ruts. Daring the singletrack with 50psi was a blessing. The full volume of the tire compressed the mud making it easier to ride atop the mess. In fact, not once on the ride did I rip out, get bogged down or stop cold. Better yet, as I exited the muck there was nothing sticking to the treads. The spaces are wide enough to allow for even the clingy stuff to fall away. Clean up afterwards was quick and easy.

Finally I took the bike out on a 20 mile group night ride which was largely made up of gravel roads. It was a fast group so the pressure was on but once again I could count on perfect grip, smooth rolling and easy mud shedding. I'm so confident in its performance that I will be using this tire combo for an upcoming race.

It is probably too early for a solid conclusion but I can say that so far the CST Patrol has passed every test I threw at it. While this tire has shown itself to perform beyond expectations, I suspect that it might not have that long of a shelf life. Usually this kind of rubber fails after a few months of hard riding. I will keep a close eye on tread wear and I will update this review.

If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out Twisted Trails, my book of mountain bike short stories. Now available in paperback and on the Kindle.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

How do you Measure Progress?

They say hindsight is 20/20 but when does it kick in? When do you stop assuming that you have progressed as a rider and start knowing? I'm of the old school (Or poor school) that doesn't use fancy electronic tools to mark the output of my body. Instead I use three indicators to determine my progress. They are: 1. Personal Records (PR), 2. Repetitions per Exertion (RPE), and Oh My God, Did I just do that? (OMG). None of them are very scientific. In the short term all of them are subjective and can be prone to slights. In the long term, to get a clearer picture of where you are coming from, they can work very well.

On Feb 7th, 2015 the boys from SCORR gathered together to take on the Croom 35/50 Off Road Challenge. This is an annual endurance ride held at Withlacoochee State Forest in Brooksville, Florida. It is hosted by the SWAMP club who holds the event to raise money for their trail building efforts. It is a self guided ride of either 35 or 50 miles depending on your preference. My SCORR buddies had all done it before but this year was to be my introduction.

It was a chilly morning. As our car shuttered down the dusty road known as Croom Rital, I watched the temperature gauge drop lower and lower, bottoming out at 38 degrees. That was a tad cooler than I had planned for. We reached the very end of the road where we were directed to a parking space. The event was to start between 8 & 9am and even though it was only 7:45, we felt late. I got in line to sign in but didn't see any of my friends. I was handed a parking pass and they fixed me with an orange wristband in case I was inclined toward breakfast which was self-serve at an adjacent tent.

The SCORR guys arrived a few minutes later. Four of them crammed into an SUV like it was a clown car with all of their bikes dangling off the back. In short time we returned to registration so they could sign in, take a group photo and then we were off.

Progress rolls on. I'm sure you've heard it said that if you want to get faster, just ride with faster people. That is exactly what I do. My friends have been riding many years more than I have. They all do endurance rides on a regular basis both on the road and trails. In contrast I have only completed one race that was longer than 50 miles (Piggy's Revenge). Being the newbie of the group when it comes to distance I spend much of my time trying to keep up. Today would be no different.

The first mile was a bit technical with random roots, small drops and a high pace. I appreciated the quick start simply because it was so cold. At the one mile mark we stopped only to find we had already lost someone. I was just glad it wasn't me. We waited to no avail and then continued on with the snappy pace reaffirmed. Squeezing into the middle of the pack allowed for a better chance to hang on.

In places Croom's narrow singletrack is a combination of two minute long ascents followed by swift twenty second descents. The hills are either long and mellow or short and sharp. The terrain is variable but mostly smooth and smartly crafted. It has the feel of a young growth New England park.

As I chased my SCORR buddies through the pine needles, I was waging another war. It was an internal war against my own body. For the ten days building up to this event I had been sick. It was the same bug everyone had been catching and I was coming through mostly unscathed. All that remained was the congestion in my lungs which was making it just a little harder to breathe.

The first Sag stop was a welcome reprieve. Nestled at around the 14 mile mark was a colorful tent surrounded by happy people. A lady tied a tiny plastic Piranha to my handlebars while I ate one of their Oreo/peanut butter/banana treats. My coughing was still at a minimum but I wasn't socializing much. A lack of personality is usually the first sign that my system is slowly shutting down. I drank some water, took a couple Endurolytes and when the guys were ready we continued forward.

Progress rolls on. It takes a long time to learn how to stay out of the red. You want to push your body. You want to get the most of the highest gear you can manage without breaking momentum but discipline is tantamount. The guys were not slowing down so neither was I. For the next four miles I stayed very close to that red line but somewhere around mile 18, I crossed it. They slowly rode away and there wasn't anything I could do to catch them.

The center section of Croom is what I call 'The Dark Country.' The wide open rolling hills are gone, replaced with narrow ledges overlooking drops that fall away into shady valley's. This is where it gets very technical. This is where you slow down to a crawl and concentrate on your balance. Features like Heartbreak Hill and Volcano Rim, live up to their names. This is where people start to walk their bikes or short cut around the hard stuff. If only to avoid getting lost, I rode it all. Granted I was hacking up my lungs and stopping every hundred feet to drink water but I was still moving.

I struggled into the second Sag stop to the sound of applause. The guys were nice enough to wait. I drank some Gatorade and had a slice of PB & J. This was the first they knew of my cold and promised to start slow on the way out but it didn't matter. Their slowest pace was still too much for me. I stayed with them for about a mile and then I was on my own.

At a certain point into exhaustion your mind starts playing tricks on you. You get frustrated with your lack of strength. You are teased by fluctuating energy levels. Then you simply get tired of having so many people pass you. I was done, completely cooked. I was ready to bail but I also wasn't thinking straight so coming up to a split in the path I took the wrong way. Instead of short cutting myself closer to the end, I struggled all the way through the Sugar Mountain loop. With no legs or lungs left, I pushed my bike up that climb and decided it was finally time to look at a map.

Progress rolls on. While my trek might sound a little disconcerting, the truth is that I'm glad I went. Remember about hindsight being 20/20? Well, lets take a look at what I accomplished compared to rides in the past. For starters I was basically able to stay with my SCORR buddies for about 18 miles before they lost me. That's not bad considering my chest cold. Also, I rated the RPE at level 8 for four hours of riding, which adds up to 1920 points. That is an epic effort making this one of the hardest rides I have ever endured.

Even the distance was impressive. I bailed with about 30 miles under my belt. Thirty miles under any conditions is a long ride for me. Finally, there was one sharp climb that was blocked by a protruding root. I had to haul up the hill, lift my front tire over the root and keep pedaling to breach the peak. That was uber-tricky and thus qualifies as an OMG! Did I just do that?

There is another kind of progress that needs to be mentioned here, trail progress. The Swamp Club started the Florida tradition of making the most out of every feature. Inside Croom there were so many dips and rolls that were spaced and timed to perfection. There were high ridges that banked into picturesque moss walled valleys. There were options for people to choose harder or easier routes. There were signs and arrows everywhere so that you would never get lost. It is quite simply amazing how many hours of creative trail building went into developing this park.

Despite my miserable cold and despite losing track of my friends on course, I'm very happy that I made an attempt at the Croom Challenge. Now that I know how much fun it can be, I'll have to mark my calender for another attempt next year.


If you like my writing be sure to get your hands on my new book Twisted Trails.

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