Sunday, December 28, 2014

My Top 7 Favorite Rides/Races of 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Surviving your First Gravel Grinder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 8, 2014

2 Serious 4 Singlespeed: Part 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The T-Burn Chemical Massage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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