Thursday, September 25, 2014

Which Superhero Cycling Personality do you have?

There are a lot of distinct personalities in the sport of cycling. From BMX to MTB to Road to Cyclocross, I've noticed some archetypes that show up over and over. Since it can be hard to break down the specifics without a good metaphorical basis, I decided to use Marvel Comics characters. Below are several superheros with easily recognizable traits. You probably know people from your local group ride, at the races or at the track who match these descriptions. Who knows, maybe you have a superhero personality as well?


Matt Murdock, a young lawyer, was blinded by radioactive cargo during a truck accident. His other senses were enhanced and further aided by a blind martial arts master named Stick. Matt became a formidable fighter and the avenging angel of Hells Kitchen. He is known as the man without fear.

Red tights and a baton are not pre-requisites for this type of cyclist. In fact, you don't even have to be blind but you must have uncanny reflexes, a complete lack of fear and be a genuinely decent person. Winning is nice but you take on challenges for the thrill of it. The Daredevil personality is most commonly found in BMX doing tricks or flying high on a slopestype course. However, they can also be found doing trials on a mountain or road bike.

Danny MacAskill (MTB Trials), Matt Hunter (MTB Freeride)


Born with animal like senses and fast healing from almost any wound, Logan was captured by a secret Canadian organization and given an unbreakable skeleton and claws. Treated like an animal, it took years for him to control himself but sometimes he breaks loose to become the Wolverine.

Got a tough guy attitude, Bub? Maybe you ride an indestructible Adamantium bike? The Wolverine personality will crash terribly, wipe off the blood, hop back on the bike and still contend for the podium. Defined by raging tenacity, the Wolverine personality can be slowed down but cannot be stopped. They are most commonly found in the thick of battle often racing Cyclocross.

 Sven Nys (CX), Katie Compton (CX)


Anna Marie's mutant ability makes her unable to touch someone without absorbing their essence, personality, and in some cases, their powers. Rogue attacked Carol Danvers and permanently absorbed her tough skin, superhuman strength, and flight. Rogue tries to be part of a team but often goes solo because she fears the consequences of human intimacy.

The bigger the event, the better you are. You feed off the crowd, off your opponents, off the energy and anticipation of enormity. When everyone else is shivering in their boots, trying to keep their breakfast down, you are bristling with readiness. A little cockiness is expected and acceptable because you respect your own abilities and that of your rivals. The Rogue personality can be found in any discipline but they are easy to spot due to their tendency go it alone and go big.

Brandon Semenuk (MTB Slopestyle), Rachel Atherton (MTB DH)


Quicksilver is a mutant who can move at speeds far beyond the average human. He is the son of Magneto and twin brother of the Scarlet Witch. Although Quicksilver's loyalties and reliability have long been erratic, his love for his sister is very sincere. His velocity is such that he can practically move through time as the world appears in slow motion around him.

Fast and arrogant, no one is quicker than Quicksilver. Nimble, explosive and perhaps even ambidextrous, the Quicksilver personality couldn't slow down if he or she wanted to. While they appear to be the beneficiary of a never ending tailwind, they can suffer for their arrogance. When you crash at those speeds, you don't get back up.

Mark Cavendish (Road), Connor Fields (BMX SX)


Kitty Pryde's life was changed when she learned that she had the mutant power to phase through solid materials. She is the girl who can walk through walls. Eventually she was possessed by Ogun and learned the dark art of ninjitsu, that is when she settled on the codename Shadowcat.

Sweet, kind and soft spoken that's how people describe you. That is also why they underestimate you. Shadowcat is elusive and ethereal in a way that makes people ask, "Where did she come from?" You are the master of going unnoticed in a pack, squeezing through a tight fit and taking that come from behind win. The Shadowcat personality can be found in any cycling sport but there is a truck load of them in BMX racing.



Tony Masters has an ability known as "photographic reflexes." This enables him to watch another person's physical movements and duplicate them without any practice, no matter how complex. It was only limited by the fact that the memories he gained by watching others overwrote his personal memories. Taskmaster is driven by knowledge but tortured by a disappearing past.

You can ride anything! From BMX bikes to Road to Mountain, it doesn't matter the wheel size or terrain because you have got mad skillz! Better yet, you keep right on learning. You love to study the masters, copy their form and training techniques then hit the races. Adaptability is your middle name and you have no prejudices. So long as you are expanding your cycling knowledge, you are happy.

Brian Lopes (BMX, MTB), Caroline Buchanan (BMX, MTB)


Raven Darkholme is a shapeshifter whose natural appearance includes blue skin and yellow eyes. For most of her childhood she is ashamed of her appearance and hides her true self. In later years she uses her talent to become an assassin in favor of the brotherhood of evil mutants. Many people who lose their lives to Mystique are often unaware of her identity until it is too late.

Cunning and guile are your weapons of choice. The other riders give up their secrets to you, they admit their plans, they tell you their tactics. That misplaced trust is tucked in your back pocket for a moment when you can use it to your advantage. The Mystique personality is strategic and bold on the bike. They don't tell anyone what they are up to and often hide their best tricks until the last moment.


Iron Man

Wounded, captured and forced to build a weapon by terrorists, billionaire industrialist Tony Stark instead created an advanced suit of armor to save his life and escape captivity. With technological skills second to none, Tony uses his money and intelligence to make the world a safer place.

When you are not riding bikes, you are building them, perhaps even improving them with your own unique genius. You know more about your tech than the team mechanic. When a newbie breaks down on a group ride, they all turn to you and like MacGyver you whip out a paper clip and twist it into a modified derailleur. The Iron Man personality often works in or runs a bike shop and races on the weekends. His results are only stunted by the long hours he spends with his Allen wrench.

Tom Ritchey (MTB, Road), Joe Breeze (MTB, Road)


Jean Grey was 10 years old when her telepathic powers first manifested. Her parents took her to be treated by Professor Charles Xavier who used her to fine tune his Cerebro machine. When Xavier introduced young Jean to the astral plane a part of her mind manifested as a Phoenix. Later, Xavier erected psychic shields in Jean’s mind to prevent her from using her telepathic powers until she was mature enough to control them. Eventually those walls were broken down and the full might of Pheonix shined through.

Some people are born with overwhelming talent and one day they learn how to control their magnificent abilities. Those riders reach a point in their careers where they appear to be virtually unbeatable. Even when the odds turn against them, they find a way to win. You start to question if they are even human? Do they have engines in their bikes? How are they performing at such an astounding level? These are the cyclists who make history.

Alberto Contador (Road), Marianna Vos (Road, CX)

Sunday, September 21, 2014

My First Cyclocross Race

The first rule of racing is that things usually don't go as planned. I learned this during my maiden season of cross country mountain biking up in New England. Back then I was new to racing (of any kind) and so I was never fully prepared for the challenges to come. I took those lessons with me into the sport of BMX and became a better athlete. However doing laps only 50 seconds long always left me feeling unsatisfied. I needed to get back on a big bike and that is when I was introduced to Cyclocross.

I'm always up for trying something new so I bought a Nashbar CXSS and started training.

Fast forward six months and here I was about to enter my first CX race. The build up hadn't been ideal (See rule #1). My training had consisted of eight weeks of riding, 3 to 5 rides per week at about 30 to 80 miles or 3 to 7 hours in the saddle. I coupled this with 1 to 3 hours of strength training. The result? I felt fit and strong. The downside? I had a nagging foot injury that wasn't healing correctly so my dismount/remounting practice was close to nil. I fully expected my injured foot to be a hindrance on race day but there was no point complaining about it. I love racing, I need to compete.

Even the last week building up to the event had been unusual. My wife and I were pet sitting out of town and I let it throw off my schedule. So my final days before the race consisted of bad sleep, a lack of riding and on the day before the race - rain. My spirits were down. For the first time I was having trouble being optimistic. Regardless, on the eve I packed my gear - bike, clothes, tools, pump, lube, spare tube, drinks and snacks. I got in a small workout just to get the blood flowing and decided that I did all that could be done. Now it was up to fate.

I had heard someone say that the most important motivator for doing well in an event is to define your "Why?" This is your reason for racing, your reason for giving the ultimate effort. I've always been ambitious and never thought that I needed a why but recent mountain bikes races proved me wrong. If you don't have a why then when the sh*# hits the fan, you might give up. That was my worst fear. If you give up then the whole thing has been a waste of time. If nothing else I did not want to waste my time.

I had two reasons for competing. Number one, I was representing the Sarasota County Off Road Riders (SCORR), a trail building group who promote mountain biking in southwest Florida. I would be wearing the official SCORR jersey to help us get noticed, not only for our trail building efforts but also for our annual gravel race Piggy's Revenge. Piggy's had been mentioned in the recent issue of Cyclocross Magazine and I wanted to continue our bout of positive publicity. Reason number two, I'm a sports writer and there is no better way to understand a sport than to compete in it. When I remind myself of these two reasons it actually takes the pressure off and I can enjoy the experience.

A two and  half hour drive brought us to Stanley Park in Dade City, Florida for the first race of the year. The Wicked Awesome Race Series is put on by Cyclocross power couple Josh and Kaleigh Thornton. With a bare minimum of volunteers they managed to put on a well run event. The atmosphere was very welcoming and more laid back than any race I've ever been to in any sport. I think that says a lot for Florida Cyclocross. They really appreciate and encourage every rider who shows up and competitive bullying is no where to be seen.

We managed to get there early so we could see what the races were like and so I could test the course. Having never been to one of these races, I had little idea what to expect. Luckily it was my kind of terrain. They managed to use every single slope and off camber piece of grass they could find. This course was as hilly as some of the races I took on in New England. There was a swerving downhill that had riders white knuckling their brakes and a 15 foot high run up so steep you dare not miss a foothold. It almost goes without saying that even the practice laps could leave a rider gasping for breath.

My wife Terri and I photographed the early races and then went out for lunch. We returned in time to catch the exciting end of the Pro class which had race promoter Josh Thornton going toe to toe with the blazing fast Ryan Woodall. It was most exciting battle of the day with Josh holding a lead all the way until the final quarter mile where Woodall darted past him to take the victory.

Next came the Master's and Pro podiums where winners walked away with some impressive prizes. Even after all of that, I still had a lot of time before my start. On this day the singlespeed/mountain bike class was going last, at about 5:30pm. I took the extra time to make sure I was familiar with the full course and I wanted to get my heart rate up before the start. In some of my cross country races I didn't warm up properly and blew myself apart in the first half mile. I learned my lesson, I was going to make sure that did not happen again.

At 5:30pm the sky grew a little darker, a light sprinkle of rain cooled off the start line as nine of us rolled up at the ready. It was six singlespeed racers and three mountain bikers, I think. We all chatted at the start and assessed our competition. Some of these guys had done earlier races so they were either tired or warm-up depending on their fitness level. To my surprise one of the riders was none other than Pro race winner Ryan Woodall.

At the mark we took off in a blast. I fell back to the latter part of the group remembering my goal of maintaining only a moderate intensity. After the holeshot came the long, swerving downhill which saw one rider hit the deck. The group was still mostly together when we reached the sharp climb. The guy in front of me pulled wide to dismount so I cut tight to the hill, lifted my bike and passed him on the run up. Up top my lungs started to sing but it was still within my goal zone so I kept a solid pace latching onto the back wheel of a mountain biker.

As you can imagine Woodall took a commanding lead, we were never catching him. My focus was simply to stay on the bike, maintain speed and hug the rear wheel of this mountain biker. I was pretty sure I was ahead of two other SS riders so if I could hold this position then a solid placing was a possibility.

My first lap was painful but the pace was encouraging. Terri did a fantastic job handing up water in the pit just after I remounted from the sandtrap. On every hill the MTBer would move away from me but on every obstacle I would catch back up. That was the way it stayed for two and a half laps. I struggled mightily on the climbs (My 42/18 was too big a gear) and then I caught up running the obstacles. The CXer behind me was losing ground while I managed to pass the MTBer out of the sandtrap. I pushed on to cross the line and took a deeply satisfying 4th place.

My first experience at racing CX was exhilarating. The people were so nice, the weather worked out well and the course was praise worthy. Am I hooked? How could I not be? It has all the excitement of Mountain Biking with the short sprints you find in BMX and my background in running helped on the obstacles. I'm already planning my next race.

Check out our pics from the Wicked Awesome Racing series:

In addition the following video captures my preparation and has footage of the actual race. I made this story and video to encourage people who might also be interested in trying this sport. Enjoy!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Why Most Amateur Athletes Don't Win

Have you ever showed up to a race determined to win and despite giving it your best effort, you still got your ass handed to you? You might be happy to know that you're not alone. In the last 20 years there has been an explosion in the popularity of participation sports especially by people over the age of 30. Right now, all across America, there are older athletes putting in serious time and effort in order to make an impact on their next event. All that training, planning and recon of the race locations can provide you with multiple advantages over your opponents. However, most of the time most normal people don't have any advantages at all. Most of the time, the deck is stacked against them and they don't even know it.

The painful reality is that we live in a culture that values winning above all else. It's a shame but there are many people who will only put effort into an event if they have a chance at victory. In this mindset even a slim chance is better than none at all. But truly how hard is it to win? Unlike the professional ranks where time, money and preparation create an atmosphere of parity where anyone, on almost any day could have a chance to take the W, it is becoming way harder for those in the amateur ranks.

Let's talk about what it means to be dis-advantaged in sports. If your opponent has talent that gives them one point of advantage. If they have more appropriate genetics that's another point. If they have the home field advantage, superior coaching, a more stable training environment, top of the line equipment, those points can add up quickly. In the pro ranks (of most any sport) there is a tight division of talent, money, support and ambition. In order words, if the Pro gap represents a 20 point difference between the top elite and the lowest journeyman, then amateur ranks can represent something like a 200 point gap. Sounds crazy right? Why the huge chasm? There are many reasons. 

Athletes come from all walks of life, from poor to rich, from desperate to determined, from talented to tortured. While most Pros have some level of talent, the amateur ranks might have only a selected few who exhibit the signs. While most Pros have some level of support, most amateurs have very little. While most pros have expert knowledge of their sport, only financially stable or well connected amateurs benefit from such guidance. These differences create the "Gaps" between those who win on a regular basis and those who never see the podium. Granted there are more reasons to race than just the possibility of winning but first let's talk about why there are gaps in different participation sports.

I have competed in all of the following sports and these examples are from my own experiences. Not everyone's experience is going to be the same so take these with a grain of salt.

Running Races: Running races have grown wildly popular over the past 20 years with a peak of 15.5 million people finishing races in the year 2012. The top amateur runners are often former track stars or former high school/college cross country stars. They ran at a younger age, took a decade off from competition to do other things (While running for fun the whole while) and then returned to the sport. Had they stuck with their sport during the off years, they could very well have turned pro. Since running races are broken up into overall categories and age groups instead of skill levels, what often happens is you get former track stars wiping the floor with people who just started running a few months ago.

The fitness levels and skill gaps in amateur running are huge as is the sheer number of people who show up to a race. The 2013 Atlanta Journal-Constitution Peachtree 10K had 55,850 participants. Good luck winning your age group at that one. The good news is that everyone ages differently. Even a former running star can burn out or suffer injuries. Most often they get bored with the smaller races and start going for bigger prizes at longer or more well known events. Don't lose hope! The gap between newbie and star can be breached with 5 to 10 years of concentrated effort plus a little luck. If you love competitive running, stick with it and you'll get there.

Cross Country MTB: In the United States there are roughly 75,000 licensed cyclists but the vast majority of them (65%) are roadies. Mountain bike racing is the little brother that gets kicked around at parties. The sport of XC is broken up into age groups (10 year increments) and skill levels (Cat 3/2/1/Pro) but not enough so that it benefits anyone but the sandbaggers. For the uninitiated, a sandbagger is a person who has a much higher skill or fitness level than the class they are racing in. In XC there are only 3 amateur classes. Cat3 and Cat2, where most people compete, are chock full of sandbaggers. You can recognize them by their magical ability to race 15-25 miles on challenging off road terrain, win their class, take a nap, watch a movie and drink an IPA before anyone else even finds the finish line.

Where do XC sandbaggers come from? My guess is that they come from a special place in hell but they usually have a background as road cyclists, remember that 65%. Their endurance is the result of thousands of miles of riding road bikes for fun. Every once in a while they drop into an XC race and unfairly blow the doors off the competition. Will you ever catch them? No, sorry. You can only join them as a roadie to build up some powerful legs of your own and then return to the racing trails where you will now be considered a sandbagger as well. This is a no win scenario. If ever there was a sport with seriously flawed categories, this is it.

Downhill MTB: If you have no fear of death, decent bike handling skills and thousands of dollars to spend, then feel free to give downhill a try. DH is broken up into the same age groups and skill levels as XC except there are very few sandbaggers. In fact, the culture of DH encourages the opposite. In a sport where you race down a mountain on uber-challenging trails that can kill you, the riders have a closer bond to each other and have more respect for the sport itself.

DH is primarily a young person's sport with advantages going to those who spend the most time riding difficult trails and to those who can afford the best bikes. The difference between a low cost DH frankenstein that you assembled yourself and a brand new, high end, carbon frame with hydraulic brakes and 10 inches of supple suspension is like racing a Ford Escort against a Lamborghini Aventador. Having said that, there are very few people over 30 years old in this sport. If you have the money and the desire, just survive the mountain and you are likely to pick up a prize.

BMX Racing: With more than 50,000 members and 340 tracks across the country, BMX racing is long past its peak but it is still active. This niche sport has the benefit of separating riders into skill levels (Novice/Intermediate/Expert), age groups (5 year increments) and bike types (20 inch/Cruiser). While fitness, equipment and support can play a difference in one's level of success, the real deciding factor is bike handling skills. For this reason the best adult BMXers are often former racers who were experts as kids. The ability to maneuver a bike off the gate and over obstacles is apparently a set of skills that (like bike riding itself) never truly fades from muscle memory.

The gaps in this sport are smaller but the injuries are much more serious. Amateurs who pick up the sport for the first time as adults are often fodder for those who have returned after a decade hiatus. Adults who crash during a race can easily suffer broken bones, punctured lungs and concussions. This is a sport made up mostly of indestructible children so the adults (Often parents of racing kids) are usually there for the fun of participating. Should they choose to get good enough for the win, it's merely a matter of being able to dedicate enough time to learning and practicing the correct skills taught by a qualified expert. Of all the sports I've tried, BMX Racing has the widest array of opportunities for amateur success.

Like I said before, in many cases the deck is stacked against the older amateur athlete but do not despair because there are other ways to win. I'm not talking about cheating or steroids. I'm talking about other types of victories.

The Series Title: Instead of charging for the win in a single race, you can often go for an age group series win. These often reward attendance and consistency more than all out speed. Make sure you know the series rules and use them to your best advantage.

The Grudge Match: Got a friend or opponent whose abilities are near equal to yours? Ignore everyone else and just compete with that person. It can be very rewarding and you could compete beers at the restaurant afterwards.

The Personal Record: Forget chasing other people and just compete with yourself. This is especially helpful in the sport of running where set distances can have comparative times with other races. Beat your best time and you won't care what place you came in.

Be a Finisher: As challenges get longer and more arduous, sometimes just making it to the finish line is a victory in itself. This is especially true with marathons, mud runs or gravel grinders. Pick a challenge that is worthy of the effort and you'll be raising your arms when you hit that line, no matter how long it took to get there.

Before you jump on your soap box and slap me down for disparaging a sport that you love, remember this, I love all of these sports. I wrote these examples from my own personal experiences but I did so with one overarching point - even though there are gaps in advantages, winning is not all that matters! Returning to athletics gives you a fun, physical, goal oriented outlet for your energy. It's about making new friends, exploring new places and expanding your worldview. One of the biggest benefits of being an amateur is that your future income is not tied to your ability to win a race. Unlike the Pros, you get to enjoy every competition and every outcome. It's all determined by your efforts, expectations and luck.

Could steps be taken to create better rules and categories? Of course but that will always be true. No sport is perfect, no situation is perfect, improvement can always be made (Especially in XC). So to answer the question: Is it harder to be a successful amateur? Perhaps but what fun would it be if there was no challenge? The simple truth is that the rewards of taking part outweigh the rewards of crossing the line first. Most amateur athletes don't win because they don't need to.

See you at the races. Alex H