Monday, June 30, 2014

Florida Prepares for Cyclocross National

For a brief moment I thought I was lost. Maybe it was the early morning wake-up, maybe it was a lack of caffeine. My two hour drive north was mostly on the highway but after snaking through a couple small, hilly towns I ended up on a narrow dirt road. There were trees on my left, a pasture on my right but not a person in sight. Even my dashboard Garmin had given up, an Australian female voice named Sheila announced, "You have arrived at your destination." I was parked at a stop sign in front of working railroad tracks wondering where I went wrong?

When I crossed the tracks it was like a magical haze faded away revealing the green rolling hills and meadows of a new world. I took it as a sign, well, there actually was a sign. It said Cyclocross and had an arrow that pointed the way. Little Everglades Ranch in Dade City, Florida is a well hidden slice of heaven. This 2,000 acre working ranch breeds Hanoverian horses, Thoroughbreds and Belted Galloway Cattle. Noted for its expansive beauty, these meticulously groomed fields also host some the area's most exciting athletic events including Savage Race, Rugged Maniac and the Great Bull Run.

On August 30th & 31st, 2014 the ranch will be home to the first Cyclocross National of the season. No doubt it was a combination of competence and determination that encouraged USA Cycling to accept this bid. The ranch has seen series races and the state championship coordinated with precision and professionalism. This chance to step up to the next level of racing is a welcome opportunity.

Kicking things off was a get together on July 29th called "Ride the Ranch." This was where potential racers, especially new ones, could get a feel for the terrain they would be up against. It was here that I found myself testing a new bike and my cyclo-virgin legs against rolling dirt roads, cow-pies and miles of Florida's most scenic inland beauty.

Photo by RND Racing
A group of more than sixty riders gathered at the main pavilion then set forth on a quest deep into the expanse of the ranch. Event organizer Dan Millstead led the procession on a four wheeled metal mule. Over the course of the next hour we encountered several sandy stretches, grassy meadowlands and passed by a few swamps. The animal onlookers were many and varied. From the peeking alligators to the curious horses to the stampeding cattle, they all took note of our presence on their property.

Who showed up for this ride? Every type of rider on every size of tire. Some Village Idiots came up from Sarasota, RND Racing showed pack pride from Lakewood Ranch, there were riders from Pinnacle Wheel Works, SWAMP, Tampa Bay Cyclocross, myself representing SCORR and many more.

Photo by Dan Millstead
After being introduced to the land most riders took a short beer break but quickly returned to practice. One very experienced coach named Zoltan Tisza broke into an impromptu CX clinic. Twenty or so riders gathered in the shade to listen to his technique tips and then followed him onto the trail to practice. After a few laps of dismounting/remounting and lifting my bike, the heat became very apparent. It was time for another cold beer.

By the noon the BBQ had arrived and the crowd gathered one last time for food and drinks. It was a relaxed yet festive atmosphere with everyone talking about the coming season but especially excited for the National race that will kick it off.

Click to Enlarge
So the build up has begun for what will be a prolific event. The Florida CX National will take place August 30th & 31st, 2014. There will be a clinic day with the Pros, cash prizes for Pro men and Women plus many hours of racing action. Click the link below or the picture above for further details. Plus stay updated by joining the Florida Cyclocross Series Group on Facebook.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Rise of the Recumbents

Did you know that the human powered land speed record is 83.13 miles per hour? The record came from a specially designed recumbent bike. Dutch cyclist Sebastiaan Bowier pedaled a streamliner up to that incredible speed for 660 feet in Battle Mountain, Nevada. I remember watching his narrow rocketship like ride on television and thinking, what made his bike go so fast? It was a mystery I had to explore.

Terri and I visited Vite Bikes & Trikes, a relatively new shop on Venice Island, Florida. The owners are John and Jacquie Schlitter. John is an ultraendurance record holder who has been in the recumbent industry for 35 years. He is the first person to complete the Race Across America (RAAM) on a recumbent. His wife Jacquie has also competed in RAAM and holds several records of her own. They were the experts who introduced us to this unusual style of riding.

We had never even seen a recumbent until we started riding in Florida. Here you witness packs of them cruising along in the early morning sun. The riders are laying back, feet in the air and they are making good time with what appears to be little effort. They ride fast and look comfortable.

"Recumbents have lots of benefits," Explained John who cited many examples. "They are more aerodynamic, they are faster, they use different muscles, they are closer to the ground and thus safer in many ways." The aero argument is indisputable, you are laying back so you have less of a surface for the wind to hit. The more swept-back a bike is, the smoother it slices through the air. The muscles used are more than just your quadriceps. You also use your hamstrings, hip flexors, glutes and more of your core. As for safety, well, you are closer to the ground but most bad bike accidents include a car or truck so we'll leave that one alone.

So let's talk styles. Unlike upright bikes, recumbents have a wide selection of styles that employ a lot of creative adjustments. They are known as non-standard designs. There are long and short wheels bases, different wheel sizes, over, under and center seat steering. They have front wheel drive, rear wheel drive, low racers, high racers and mountain bikes. There are tandem recumbents, trikes and even bikes that fold up to fit in your car. There are so many designs from all over the world, you will likely never even find them all.

My wife and I just wanted to try a few of the basics. Many people are nervous about how to begin but rest reassured, they won't put you on something scary. We hopped on the least intimidating starter - the trike. Terri and I were fitted to two Catrike three wheeled hot rods and we took off down the road. With a lever on each side, brakes and shifters only a finger flick away, these were super easy to learn. Terri and I started racing almost immediately. They felt like an adult version of the big wheels we had as kids.

Next up were the two wheeled versions. Jacquie started me on a Bachetta Giro which had a 26" back tire and 20" front. After an explanation about how best to balance and turn, it only took me a few seconds to get it up and rolling. A few figure eights later, I was right at home. Then I stepped up to a model with two 26" wheels. It sat a little higher but worked using the same basic principles.

Jacquie was impressed with my ability to keep these bikes balanced so she pulled out a truly challenging creation - a front wheel drive Cruz Bike. This was awkward to get started. Each pedal stroke nudges the front wheel in the direction of its push. I was shaky but got it up and running like all the others, sort of. Once we had overcome the initial hesitation and actually started riding these funky machines, a whole new world of possibilities was opened to us. 

Let's talk history. Recumbents have been around since bicycles began but most people leaned towards the easier to build diamond frame design. However, they never could have known where cycling was heading as personal transportation or as a sport. If individuals back in the day could have seen the difference between a  modern top of the line upright bike and a similar level recumbent, they might have changed their minds. The recumbent is smoother, faster, does less physical damage to the body (Especially in the long term) and requires less effort.

Let me clarify the biggest difference. The standard upright bike is built on pain. They didn't intend it but there is now an entire industry that creates one product after another meant to lessen our discomfort. We wear padded shorts, padded gloves and cover our skin in Chamois cream. We get professionally fitted to our bikes to lessen the likelihood of repetitive stress injuries. It hardly helps though. On an upright our bodyweight is resting precariously on our sit bones, our feet and our hands. Every bump that shakes the frame rattles through our bones causing further unease. Overcoming that pain, for whatever amount of time is required, is what makes you a bike rider.

What if you didn't have to suffer in quite the same way? What if your pain came not from the seating position and grip but rather only from your effort? That is a pretty strong pitch for a better creation. If it hurt to drive cars, you can bet someone would have changed that game very quickly. So wouldn't you also think that people would clamor for a bike that hurts less? Due to the expense and difficulties of innovation plus the stubbornness of cyclists, recumbents represent only a tiny fraction of the bike market. This is also partly about tradition. Uprights won the initial popularity contests and are so well established that anything new will suffer a long and difficult path to prove itself as an equal if not superior product.

Drawbacks: Don't get me wrong, while these bikes have come a long way they are still far from perfect. Recumbents require a lot of balance, most have a huge turning radius and each bike demands a distinct set of skills. They are more difficult to transport, they are more difficult to start from a dead stop and some types have visibility issues. The big problem for most people is the price. Currently they are very costly, usually 50% higher than a similar level upright. However, the Schiller's are promoting their own brand of bike which is considerably less expensive while maintaining a high standard of quality.

I won't attempt to tackle the full battle between uprights and recumbents but I will say this, if you asked me to commit to a 70 mile road ride and I had to choose between a traditional upright or a recumbent, it would be no contest. I'm not sure I have what it takes to complete a trek like that on an upright but I would love to try it on a recumbent. The sleek comfort alone would encourage me that it was possible. The number one thing that stops most people from trying such long rides is the physical pain. Take that away and you have more bikes on the road.

Terri and I had a blast playing with the trikes and I drew great confidence from riding the two wheeled versions. These bikes are way too expensive for me but my mind has been opened. Considering how often I switch sports, this experience might turn out to be very valuable in the future.

Visit Vite Bikes & Trikes for your own test ride:

Watch the video below to see how Terri and I got along on our rides and check out our photo gallery here:

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Fires Rage in Englewood Parks

It was my usual ride through Ann Dever park testing the gearing on my new Cyclocross bike when I passed a frazzled jogger. He was decked out in a running suit, shorts and a sleeveless shirt with earplugs attached to a smart phone. He halted me with a warning, "There's a fire up ahead. I called 911 but I don't think you can get through that way." I was heading north on the Conservancy trail and continued on until I saw the smoke. The wind was blowing north so I decided to turn south on the Orange trail and take a right on Purple trail coming up behind the fire.

Before me was a blackened wall of char and smoke that completely blocked the trail. Flames rose high on both sides, climbing up the trees and crackling away at the palmetto bushes. I surveyed the area but decided there wasn't anything I could do. It was far from water and I didn't have a phone. The shifting smoke presented a mild threat so with the wail of sirens coming in, I rode out before things got too hot.

A couple hours later, as the thunder beckoned and the rain thudded down, I got in my car to drive north on Placida road toward Englewood High School. The street ahead was blocked by emergency vehicles and they were routing drivers into the adjacent neighborhood. In the distance I could see a combination of heavy rain and smoke that made the road impassable. The Englewood Fire Department was battling a blaze but it didn't seem like the same one I been at earlier. The diverted traffic created a jam on San Casa so I decided to delay my trip for another day.

The next day I grabbed my camera and headed back to the trails to observe the damage. There was a smoky smell as I got closer and you could see the wide tracks where vehicles had been on the trail. The burnt section was surprisingly small. In fact, it wasn't much larger than when I had watched it burning the day before. Considering how far away this was from the High School, I couldn't imagine that it could be responsible for them shutting down the road.

Through the woods I saw a white pick-up truck pull down the Yellow trail, away from an area where they had dug up dirt used to throw on the fire. I assume they were the last crew to finish up. However, they left a few minutes too soon.

You might think that the heavy rains from the night before would drench the ground with enough water to ensure that the fire was complete extinguished but you would be wrong. Even a day later there were pockets of smoke still drifting up in the woods.

While I was taking pictures I noticed that one pocket had re-ignited into flame. I left my bike on the trail, carefully walked into the woods and grabbed a large branch. I used it to brush dirt and ashes onto the flames until they went out. As for damage, there were no downed trees or obstructions of any kind so the Conservancy and Yellow trails are clear for running, walking or biking.

Thinking that the drama was over I rode away to put in some miles. On my way back I came through the same area and saw that the last of the smoke was fading out. Heading back I decided to follow the trail under Placida Road and up the other side where there was a second burnt area. This had to be the reason that they shut down the road. It was right next to the street at the entrance of the Cedar Point Environmental Park. Inside the char there was a distinctively large pile of beer cans and magazines suggesting that someone hung out in that area on regular occasion. The Sarasota-Herald Tribune reported that three "Hot Spots" had been found in Cedar Point but no suspects have been mentioned. 

Unfortunately I didn't see anyone (Other than the jogger) during my ride on the day of the fires. However, if you saw anyone suspicious please call the Charlotte County Sheriff's Office at (941) 475-9005.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Zen of Single-Speed

"Bikes have gears for a reason," said a friend of mine who is a very accomplished off road rider and while I usually respect his opinion, the phrase struck me as odd. If you can go faster on a geared bike then why would someone choose to limit themselves? What is it about riding with a single chain ring that attracts such a passionate following? Having recently bought a Nashbar Single-Speed CX, I was now a new member of this unusual tribe and I was determined to understand their pathos.

The first place to start was on my new bike. Let me give you a little history. I rode bikes as kid, like most people but it wasn't until I was 35 that my interest was re-ignited by a newly blooming bicycle culture. I started on mountain bikes, dived right into XC racing, Downhill and later BMX racing. Now I've decided to try Cyclocross, hence the new SS. Why does all this matter? My history suggests that I ride a lot but that's not entirely true. My riding history has been pot marked by inconsistency, that is until recently. Ever since I got my SS, I have started riding every day. Instead of reminding myself to get on the bike, I have to force myself to take a rest. Something inside me has changed. I have been bitten by the SS bug.

"It takes me back to when I was a kid on a 20" SS banana seat Huffy riding gravel.
Simple, clean lines, just ride!"
- Jamie Lynn Hruby Granquist

The SS bug secretes a focused toxin directly into the bloodstream. Its symptoms are easy to spot. They include but are not limited to - elation, adrenaline, quirkiness, badassitude and a zen like clarity. I checked Facebook for a support group to see how others have handled these symptoms and still managed to go on with their lives. The group Single Speed or Death offers help to those who have been stung. Their self-description is an excellent summary of the SS philosophy.

"Single Speeding is all about simplicity and low maintenance. The love of the RIDE. For others, it represents a lot more. It may be about rejecting (often high-priced) technological advancements that promise to make us better cyclists. It might simply be boredom, and the need for a new challenge. For whatever reason you have chosen to Ride with just "1 on it", WE RIDE.... SINGLE SPEED OR DEATH!"

I'll admit the "Or Death" part is a bit extreme but I can certainly relate to the rest of it and so could the other 320+ members and counting.

"Rebuilding forks and drivetrains every couple months blows, especially on multiple bikes.
Plus rigid SS'ing is about as pure as the sport gets."
- Stewart Miller

Okay, so we get the philosophy of it. Single Speed is about simplicity, durability, identity and affordability salted with a little protest. We could also focus on lighter weights or performance issues but those come secondary to mindset. Let's dive into the psychology of SS. How can a person with limited options (One gear) be happier than a person who has more options? The answer might be found in the book 'The Paradox of Choice' by Barry Schwartz. In it he argues that we as consumers have too many choices and suffer anxiety over making the right picks. Often times we are unhappy with our decision even if all reasoning concluded it to be the best option.

It appears single-speed riders have found a way out of that paradox by using a method known as voluntary simplicity. This is where a person intentionally reduces their number of choices. This relieves their anxiety and increases the happiness in their lives. Sounds crazy right? Apparently it is very sane. Psychologist Dan Gilbert explains it this way, "The psychological immune system works best when we are trapped." He refers to it as "The unanticipated joy of being totally stuck."

"With each passing year, I find myself descending more and more into minimalism, and it extends to my bicycle as well. The simplicity of a single speed, the honesty of it, compels me to ride this way." - Michael Jones

Perhaps you've seen the TED video about the difference between authentic happiness and synthetic happiness. Authentic happiness is what you feel when your goals are achieved because you got what you wanted. Synthetic happiness is what you feel when you produce a result that you did not anticipate. In both scenarios you end up happy. The great thing is that your brain can't tell the difference between authentic happiness and synthetic happiness.

Why do we have this? Our brain wants us to be happy so it adjusts our worldview to suit the reality we find ourselves in. This happens more quickly when we have less options. This isn't to say that the guy with 30 gears isn't going to be happy but in a strange way, it might take him longer.

So there you have it. That sense of euphoria you feel when pedaling a SS is very real. You can only go so fast because you have voluntarily limited yourself. Thus you are now free to enjoy the journey.

"I'm of an age where I like what I like."
- Jeffrey L. McKasson

I want to thank everyone who provided feedback for this story. I had put up a poll on the Facebook group and within minutes the stories came pouring in. I quoted some of these riders in the above article but there were so many that I had to pick only a few. If you would like to read the rest and learn more about this single-speed community, check out the link below.

Single-Speed or Death!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

2014 Nashbar SingleSpeed CX

It's not easy to compete on a budget but there are ways. The online retailer Nashbar has thrown a bone to cyclocross enthusiasts with an entry level single-speed bike meant to stand up to the rigors of a rugged sport. I snagged one during a Memorial Day sale for only $425. after taxes and shipping. It came right on schedule in about five business days, shipped in a box and hugged lovingly with bubble wrap.

Right from the start I was happy with the attractiveness of the parts. The Chromoly frame is a beautiful dark blue covered in clear coat. Chrome fixtures made it shine and everything clicked into place so easily. I'm a pretty terrible mechanic so if I can put this bike together, anyone can.

As for the pieces and parts, it's a mixed bag of you get what you pay for. I've read in other reviews that people immediately swapped out the pedals. Once I saw what they were, I didn't even unwrap them. The Velo VL-1205 seat is usually the next to go but I was surprised how easily I was able to slide around on it. Two rides later I had changed my mind. I pulled the seat post/saddle out of my Trek 4 Series but it was too large. However, I was able to pull the seat post/saddle out of my Felt BMX bike and it fit perfectly.

The tires are a conundrum. The 700 by 32 Kenda Small Block Eights do seem a little thin but the grip is fine. I will probably want a more aggressive tread on a wider tire but I want to see what they can endure before I trade up. They do provide a quiet ride, just don't jump off any curbs.

I kicked the pavement with a half dozen short rides of under five miles. The bike does not inspire confidence from the start, it has to be earned. This is probably a good policy with most entry level bikes. You never know where the manufacturer might have skimped in order to make a profit so be cautious.

My fourth ride was 10 miles long including road, sand, grass and gravel. The dismounts were easy, the frame is light even for chromoly steel. Running and jumping with the bike were almost an afterthought. Perhaps I'm just so used to hefting my 30 pound Trek that everything else feels like a paperweight.

Now let's talk gears. I'm new to riding a single speed and I don't want to get all philosophical about the experience, not in this article anyway (Stay tuned). The Nashbar single-speed comes equipped with a 46 tooth chain ring and 17 tooth freewheel. This is a huge gear to wrestle with. Once I get used to pushing it, I'll be able to use this gear for street riding but little else. This will be my be next fix. Update: I traded the 46 tooth for a 42 and now I can ride off road. It still might need a change depending on the racecourse.

Acceptable parts include Tektro alloy brakes which work adequately, though are a little on the weak side. The Velo Ergo grip handlebar wrapping is tight and comfortable. It's a keeper.

I think that is beyond dispute that this bike is worth the money. It's inexpensive, easy to assemble and has become a fun ride. I will be cutting my review short because I have yet to take this bike on any real adventures. In the future I will update this article (And future articles) with my exploits. As I enter my first season of cyclocross racing you can bet I'll be putting it through hell so be sure to check back.

Update: After putting the original seat/post back on, I took the bike on some longer rides. It proved surprisingly nimble on my local mountain bike trails including an off road crit, plus I stayed with the lead group on a large casual off road ride at Little Everglades Ranch. On road I came within 1 minute of my personal record at a time trial plus I took it out on a 22 mile road ride that was very comfortable.

Update: This bike was used for my first CX race. The weight was no problem, the handling remained true and I was able to compete against riders with $$$$ bikes. I completed 4 races with 2 podiums. However, the bottom bracket took a beating so when I later tried a gravel grinder ride it finally came loose and needed to be replaced. 

Friday, June 6, 2014

2014 Foundry Harrow Cross Race

You never know what you might be riding at the end of the day. I had taken a short break from the trails (About a month) in order to hit the weights, strengthen my core and save money. My goal for next season is to try the sport of Cyclocross but first I have to purchase a bike. One morning I got a Facebook message from a SCORR friend named Steve who was going on a two week trip and he was willing to let me borrow his CX steed so I could see what it was like.

The bike was a Foundry Harrow. Foundry is an American cycle producer based in Bloomington, Minnesota but with dealers in 30 states. They seem to pride themselves on sturdy, no nonsense designs meant for continuous use and high performance. Which is appropriate because Steve knows how to take a bike to its limits. He is a local legend in our MTB community having completed numerous distance races including the Leadville Trail 100 (As seen in the movie Race Across the Sky). In fact, this recent two week trip was going to include the Dirty Kanza, a 200 mile gravel grinder race in Kansas.

CX bikes are often used for gravel grinder races so I asked him why he wasn't bringing the Harrow? "It's good for a 100 mile race (Like the Big Cypress Fakahatchee Grind 100 that he had just completed) but with no shocks it would be brutal for 200 miles." So there it was, I had a CX bike to test ride for the next two weeks. I loaded the Harrow in my car and drove directly to the first challenge.

I have raced the Tempo & Timmy's Time Trial a handful of times on my mountain bike but never on anything resembling a road bike. I was so out of sorts that I had to learn how to shift on the ride to the race start. Even on the street, the Harrow is fast. I was riding a 57cm frame which was too tall and it needed adjustments but  it was too late, I was already at the starting line. Once on course my hips rocked side to side, the awkwardness was throwing off my timing but still I pushed on, hard! I came close to the red line several times and crossed the finish shouting out my number - lucky 13. Even on an unfamiliar bike I easily matched my fastest time.

The Harrow is stunningly stable, normally with Clement PDX 700 by 33 tires but this one had a pair of Bontrager CXO 38's which I understand are wide even for a CX build. I was riding a Harrow Gen 2, B2 which uses the Shimano Ultegra drive train so the shifting is effective if not subtle. It's the middle of three set-up options. The first thing that I enjoyed was the weight or lack thereof. The Carbon Fiber frame took the pressure off the rest of my body allowing the power transfer from my legs to go directly into acceleration with little wasted effort.

My second ride was on mixed terrain. It was time to shake and rumble in the dirt. One early morning I hit the Ann Dever trails which is made up of hard pack crushed shells. While whipping around the circle I added in 10 dismount/remounts to simulate race movements. These hop-ons were made easier by a well placed internal cable routing. I never had to worry about scraping the inside of my leg on a brake brake wire. On the Foundry Harrow these easy trails felt no different than riding my mountain bike.

A couple days later I decided to work on mapping out my own local cross course. This involved a circular ride mostly though grass, sand and I toyed with a spot where I would heft the bike on my shoulder. The laps were fun to pedal despite the tough conditions and hot sun. Shifting gears while in shifting sands was pretty easy going. Only once did I slide sideways and still somehow I managed to stay on two wheels.

When it came to shouldering the Harrow, it is light as a road bike. When I threw it on my shoulder and scrambled up a dirt pile, I forgot the bike was with me. It was also effortless to ride down the the other side with perfect stopping power from the 160mm disc brakes. It's probably not too far fetched to say that in the Harrow, Foundry has built a dream bike for cross riders. All the benefits of an MTB with all the speed of a road bike.

I had planned on doing a group ride but once on the street that morning found that the front tire had gone flat. There was still a little air pressure so I assumed it to be a slow leak. Since I didn't know what kind of set up he had (Many people go tubeless) I instead brought the whole wheel in to my friends at Real Bikes Englewood. The owner swapped the tube out for a new one and I was back in progress.

The reason I mention the flat tire was that I had to take off the front wheel. This was my first experience with a 15mm thru axle. It was surprisingly easy to use. More importantly, when putting the tire back on there was no question that it slotted into perfect alignment. This system keeps the tire straight, stable and avoids any rubbing issues with the disc brakes. I agree with the experts who say the thru axle deserves to be the industry standard.

Riding the Harrow got me into the spirit of Cyclocross, as evidenced in this picture by my dazzling tutu. Before I had even finished my time with it, I had been inspired to order a CX bike of my own. The only downside of testing such a great ride is that whatever I throw a leg over next will be a big step down from what I had gotten used to.

I only got in 68 miles on the Harrow but enough is never enough. The more you churn, the more you learn. If you want to enjoy the endless fun of one of these Carbon creations, check out their website.