Jun 27, 2011

Three-race weekend: CCCX and Burlingame race reports

This was a hard week of training and racing, as I decided to return to my three-day-block system of training and finish the week off with three races in two days. On Saturday, I raced twice at CCCX #5 and less than 24 hours later at the Burlingame crit. Here’s how it all went down.

CCCX #5 – the E4 race

I’ve heard much about how hard and fun this course is, so I decided to try it out for myself, even if it meant getting up at 4:30 in the morning and driving two hours to Monterey.

The course is a 4.3-mile loop that goes flat for approximately one mile, then starts to gradually climb and turns into stair-step rollers that eventually lead to a bombing descent. The descent is followed by a sweeping turn and after the turn, there are about 200 meters to the finish.

We had about 23 riders in the E4 field and the pace started off brisk, but subsided by the second lap and we were all moving at a pretty constant speed. I never felt under any pressure on any of the climbs and was usually toward the front. My goal for the first few of the five laps was to figure out the best position in the field for the finish. Cresting the final roller among the first few riders wasn’t proving to be too productive as the group would swarm on the descent and then swell wide before the turn, creating a mess leading to the ultimate finish line.

There were a couple solo attacks that never ended up going anywhere. Then, there was a 4-man break up the road and I thought that in this field, a 4-man break could stay away. I attacked from about three or four wheels back and made a very fast 200 meter bridge. I looked back once and noticed I had about 20 yards, the next time I looked back there was a guy on my wheel, who brought the entire peloton with him, and I then brought them to the break. There were no serious attacks for the remainder of the race.

As the bell rang for last lap, I still had no clue what to do as far as that descent and the final turn to position myself well for the final sprint. I knew that being the first on the descent didn’t pay, so I decided to sit about 5th wheel out over the last roller and see what happens. As on previous laps, people were bombing on all sides and there was a bunch of us in the final turn and then all of a sudden we were on the finishing straight headed for the line. Already, in the sweeper turn, I knew I was out of position for the win, but was in good position for a high placing in the top ten. That is until one of the riders who was sprinting alongside me and clearly hasn’t read my last blog post decided to body-check me into the cones on the left (they were set up so riders who finish could go back to the staging area). No one went down, but maneuvering myself through the cones and back to the race and across the finish definitely cost me a few places. Ended up 13th.

I did have a few choice words for that rider after we crossed the finish line. His excuse for almost running me into the gutter was that there was someone in front of him and he needed to go around. I hope he doesn’t drive the same way.

CCCX #5 – E3/4 race

This one will be short. During the warmup for this race, which was 4.5 hour after the first one, I already felt that my legs were exhausted from spending too much time in the wind earlier in the day. I lined up with a mixed field of another 25 riders or so and we were off at a blazing speed. We were going so fast on lap one that before I could even understand how much pain my legs were in, we were all bombing it down the descent. The brief recovery is all I would have as we picked it up once again for lap two of seven.

On lap two there was a 5 man break and I figured that in this race, it might survive, so I bridged. But alas, so did the rest of the field. At that point, I went to the back of the field and decided to hang out for a few and recover. At the end of two laps, we were moving almost two miles per hour faster than in the E4 race earlier. Lap three comes around and Metromint working with Spokesman riders set up a very masterful break. I’m usually very diligent about monitoring the front of the field, but I got distracted by something (probably the pain in my legs) and when I looked up, there were probably 50 yards separating us from the front of the group with Metromint and Spokesman riders blocking.

The field began to chase, but the group was split in two with the stronger riders in the front of the field. As the pace picked up, I got popped about two-thirds of the way through lap three. Under normal circumstances, I would have finished the race, but I had to be on the bike and in a race at 7 a.m. the next morning, and decided to wrap things up on that lap. I wasn’t alone, as the field was getting shattered, and by the end of it, I think only about 10 riders stayed in the game.

Burlingame Crit

Despite getting into compression tights immediately after my last CCCX race, stretching, Ibuprophen and a massage, my legs still felt barely functional at 4:45 a.m. on Sunday when I got up for the Burlingame Crit. For a second there, I seriously considered staying in bed, but I didn’t.

The course was very technical with some varying degrees of pavement quality. None of it was horrible, but there were definitely places to pinch a tire if you weren’t paying attention and riding light. It was a six-corner crit, with the first four corners being sharp 90-degree turns and corners five and six were sweepers that you could sprint through if you felt like sprinting for the line from 500 meters out – the map doesn’t do them justice.

I had only time for a short (sub 20-minute) warmup, but I did spend about 10 minutes keeping my legs loose by going around the course – the only benefit of being the first field on the road at 7:00 a.m. By the time I finished the last lap, the nearly empty start line was now full of riders and I took a place near the back of the field.

After the regular instructions, we were off. The pace started off really high and I was super lactic – my legs were in absolute agony right from the whistle. After what seemed like quite a few times around the course, I was starting to wonder when those lap cards are going to start turning, as I was ready to be done with this thing. I looked down at my Garmin to be disappointed by the fact that we were only 14 minutes into the crit. The only delight I took in that information was that I could continue hanging out in the back for a bit before starting to move up for a potential move. Five to seven minutes later, my legs started feeling much better and I started to crawl my way through the field. The turns came too quickly to make any real progress in the field in the first four corners, but I was gaining a lot of room in the last two corners and was soon near the front.

At some point, I got pinched in corner three and narrowly escaped a crash as guys behind me were not so lucky and I heard people hitting the ground and then the railing. Luckily, I don’t believe anyone was seriously injured. With six laps to go, I found myself about 15 back on the finishing straight with a clear path on the left and a solo rider in the break. “What the hell,” I thought. I attacked, got a gap and bridged to the solo San Jose Bike Club rider. We stayed away for an entire four-fifth of a lap as the field came around on the next lap and I was getting swarmed, and I found myself about 30 back from the front.

Now I had about 5 laps to recover, crawl through the field and put myself in position to make a move. With three laps to go, I was still in the recovery phase of that plan and figured I’d just have a crappy back-of-the-pack finish. As the second lap drew to a close, I found a straight line in the sweeper turns and made up quite a bit of ground. The luck would turn once more as the inside line opened up on the bell lap and I made up a ton of ground in the finishing straight. As we sprinted for the line, there were probably at least five or six of us across, so I wasn’t sure where I placed, but I thought I was in the top 10. When the results were posted, I saw that I was 11th, grrrr. I also realized that from my point of view in the race, I had misjudged the location of the sprint line by about 10 yards (I thought it was farther out), so my timing was probably not at its best. However, I was happy with 11th, considering how my legs felt the first few laps.

With family in town and Death Ride on the horizon, no racing for me until Colavita Grand Prix on July 16, but there will be other interesting things to write about, I'm sure.

Jun 23, 2011

Pack racing 101

I was fortunate. My experience as a roadie and my experience riding in a pack began almost contemporaneously. I didn’t get involved in cycling on my own accord. I was dragged into it (and I use “dragged” in the nicest sense) by my friends, who had already gotten me into mountain biking and thought I would enjoy road cycling with them as well. If I remember correctly, my third or fourth ride was with the Chicago chapter of Colavita – my first group ride.

My first group ride consisted of everything a first group ride should: I hung out in the back, got dropped, got a bit lost, got into a rotating paceline not knowing what the hell I was doing and was asked to once again assume my position in the back of the group. Thereafter, I would return to the same parking lot nearly every Sunday of the riding season to join the same group for our club ride for several years to come, and even now on occasions.

Now, my former teammates can joke with me about what a horrible wheel I was to follow when I first started riding, and we laugh about it, but at the same time, I was glad to have been a member of a club where safe pack-riding was emphasized, discussed and mentored. I still remember Pat riding next to me and getting our bars within an inch of each other as we were moving 20+mph just to get me used to riding in close proximity. Not only was this important for safe group-riding, but on some narrow roads in northern Illinois it was necessary not to get run over. 

As a result of several years of riding in a tight pack (figuratively and literally), I feel very comfortable in a crowd. I feel at home surrounded by cyclists. I don’t mind if I have wheels on all sides of me – it feels normal. I know that there are many cyclists out there, racers even, to whom this concept is foreign, and because I really don’t like to tell people how to ride their bikes, I figured I’d offer some practical advice for safe pack riding and mass-start racing that some of you might benefit from, or in the alternative, forward to your friends whom you consider the squiggliest wheel in the bunch (and hopefully they will read past this paragraph). Here are some concepts to keep in mind and skills to learn.

Awareness. This might seem obvious, but you have to be at all times aware of who is around you – most importantly, who’s in front of you and who is to the sides. Yes, it’s important to know if there is a guy behind you, but he should be focused on the rider ahead of him (you) so the responsibility for his safety is shared. You might think that’s a no brainer, just look around and see what’s happening, but it’s not always as easy. When the peloton is moving slowly on a long straight road, you can take the time to see who’s next to you. When you’re taking a corner 4-wide at 30mph, that task becomes much more difficult and you have to train yourself to use virtually all of your senses (maybe the guy riding next to you put on some very strong cologne in the morning) to figure out what’s going on around you as you are focused on not letting more than inches come between you and the wheel in front of you while holding your line.

A good way to practice being aware is during casual rides with friends, when the pace isn’t too fast and you’re not trying to outsprint each other for the next city limit sign. As you’re riding along, quiz yourself once in a while on whether you know (without turning your head at that moment) who’s to the sides of you and who is behind you. If you don’t know, you weren’t being as aware as you should have been.

Smoothness. A group ride usually travels two abreast, but a mass-start race can vary from a single strung out line to a 10-abreast bunch. In either case, any move you make to change your position in the peloton should be smooth and not jerky or erratic. There are at least two reasons for this: First, if you want to shift right and do it quickly as another guy moves left and also does it in a jerky way, you’ll just collide in the middle. On the other hand, if you both start moving smoothly, you’ll have time to react and hopefully avoid the collision. Second, it will give those around you time to react to your movement. Maybe as you decide to shift, your teammate is drafting you in a cross-wind, with a slightly overlapped wheel. If you jerk to the side, you’ll take him out (and maybe yourself too), but if you start moving slowly, it will give your teammate time to react and either back off your wheel or move with you. You do not want to set off a chain reaction of movement in a peloton that’s riding together as a tight bunch – nothing good will come of it.

Look first! Another obvious one, but I’m constantly surprised when someone starts moving into me in a race without looking, as if I’m not there. Turning your head before starting to shift sideways is key, regardless of your speed. Moving smoothly and looking will avoid many unnecessary crashes. You wouldn’t change lanes on a busy highway without looking, why do so in a bike race?

Learn how to stand. When climbing hills solo, or with just a couple of people and not tightly together, the thought that we may have poor standing form never occurs to us, but in a tightly packed peloton, heading uphill, this skill is key, as I’ve personally been held up by two slow-speed, uphill crashes in races. There are two things to keep in mind when standing on a climb.

First, practice keeping a straight line as you get out of your saddle. A good way to do this is to hug the white line (or imagine one) on the side of the road on a hill, get out of the saddle, pedal a few strokes and see if your bike shifted sideways. If it has, you may have just caused a crash. This is a learned skill that takes practice and some balance, that’s all.

Second, you need a basic understanding of Newton’s third law of motion – for every action, there is an opposite and equal reaction. When you get out of your saddle, you are pushing off the pedals and propelling your body forward (up). The reaction is your bike slows down or moves slightly backwards. If you are pacing a teammate up a hill in a race, that could mean your rear wheel going into his front wheel. And I’m not trying to say that it is okay to do this to someone who’s not your teammate. Learn to get out of the saddle without breaking pace by following these steps: (1) unless you are getting out of the saddle because the pitch changed greatly, like in a switchback, shift down a few gears before standing up so you’re not pedaling air when you do; (2) use your upper body to throw the bike forward a bit as you are standing up to counteract the forces driving your bike back; and (3) when sitting down, don’t sit back on the saddle, but rather throw your bike forward under you with your upper body.

Get used to contact. If you plan on racing criteriums or road races, there will be times when guys will come in contact with you. They’ll rub shoulders with you as they go past; wind may blow them sideways and your hands or handlebars may touch (hopefully you’re not half-wheeling and won’t get locked up); or someone may touch your side as a way to ask you to shift. I’ve actually had one guy in a race put his forearm in my hip and try to move me sideways so he could get behind the guy I was drafting. If your heart rate goes through the roof each time someone touches you in a race, you need to practice riding in close proximity in non-race settings. When riding with friends, practice riding close together, with only about an inch separating your bars. Focus on keeping your bars even (not half wheeling) and once in a while, take turns moving into each other and making gentle contact with your wrists, then separate again. Call this out the first few times so your riding partner and you are ready. As you get more advanced, i.e., contact in pack riding doesn’t startle you anymore, do it at random times, like it would happen in a race.

These are the basic skills you should learn to be a safe rider in a tight pack. Contrary to popular belief, practice doesn’t make things perfect, it makes things permanent, so don’t be shy about asking for critique from one of your riding partners. Some of the best bike-handling tips I’ve gotten were from friends who watched me ride. 

Jun 21, 2011

Pescadero Road Race report

A bit overdue, but here it is. The E4 field got the whistle at 7:45 and we were off. By this time in the season, most of the faces in the peloton were familiar, and I could tell this was a very strong field. The course is no picnic either.

The race starts through the town of Pescadero and upon exiting the town, there is a preme sprint, which in hindsight I should have contested, but I’m not terribly upset for not doing so. The road then begins to undulate with two hills on Stage Road – one just over a mile and one just under. From there, the course hits Rt. 84 into La Honda followed by a right turn on Alpine and another right soon after onto Haskins Hill. We would do 1.7 laps of the course, finishing on top of Haskins the second time through.

I didn’t have any issues on Stage Road the first time as we all made it over as a group, and most importantly, we made it down without any crashes. However, the day before the race, I put on new brake pads and forgot to go over them with some fine sandpaper, as I usually do. As a result, any braking I was doing before the turns produced an incredibly high-pitched noise. I felt very non-PRO.

In any event, so we made it down the two twisty descents with no problems. A few miles into the flat section on Rt. 84, I heard a crash behind me. I’ve trained myself to focus on only that which can immediately affect me, so I never turn my head to see crashes that are behind me, but I think everyone was okay. Few miles down the same road, Michael goes past me on the left, I turn to see a gap behind him, so I get right on his wheel and we make some forward progress in the peloton. I’m sitting an inch from his wheel, no gaps, no spaces and I have maybe a couple inches off the double yellow line.

As we’re moving forward, a guy on the right tries to move into my spot. If I had more room on the left, I would have moved left, then pushed him back after he realized that was not an empty space he was moving into. Hell, he would have known that had he bothered to turn his head. I yelled out, “watch out.” Instead of smoothly returning back to his spot (after turning his head to make sure it was still empty), the guy jerked right, then bounced back into me and we locked bars. At that point, there were two possible options, both of us go down (or more), or one of us goes down – I did not want to be that one – so I pushed off with my hips, turned my bars slightly left and accelerated to unlock the bars. Sounds of carbon hitting the ground were left behind me. I don’t believe anyone was seriously hurt in that incident either.

As we were approaching Haskins, I was in the top five hitting the climb and felt great through about half of it. At some point, I saw myself sinking back to about 15th position and didn’t have any difficulty moving back up to about fourth or fifth. But around the 1k to go mark, my juice ran out and I watched the field slowly pass me by. I figured that perhaps if I can just catch the tail end of the group, I would be able to hand on with the field, but that was not the case. Bummer!

Oh well, they were not that far ahead, there was a chance to catch back on. I worked with Ryan from Davis Bike Club on the descent – meaning I took his lines. And as we hit the bottom, we joined up with a few more guys.

By the time we hit Stage Rd. the second time, there were 10 of us working in a rotation to catch back on. Then Dom spotted the field about .5K ahead of us and set a very hard pace up the first bump on Stage. As we crested, it was only Dom and I, but a few others from our group caught up on the descent. By the time we crested the second bump on Stage, it was just five of us and the field was again out of sight.

We continued to work together and saw the field once more, as they apparently slowed down before tackling the final climb, but again were not able to bridge. Another time up Haskins and I was done. I ended up 38th out of 64 guys in the field, catching the tail end of the main field about 200m from the finish line – this just shows how close we were.

It’s not the performance I was expecting out of myself, but other than the not-so-great finish, the race had a lot of positives and a very important lesson learned. Oh, and I had fun!

First, I felt 10 times better on this course this year than the last. My times on all the climbs were better (Note: my Stage 1 climb time from the race last year is still better, but this year I did them both with the same speed of 16.1 mph, last year I slowed down to 11 the second time) and I felt stronger going up Haskins and I was about 2mph faster. So as far as tracking fitness progress over the last year, there’s definitely a lot.

Second, my descents this year were also much better than last and I didn’t lose any time on those as I did last year.

Finally, I was able to figure out what I really need to work on (in addition to everything else) to be a better climber on hills like Haskins. I don’t have issues with power climbs like Stage Road, where the pitch is gradual and low (under 6 percent) and I can mash out a lot of watts for a long time at a low cadence. But when the time comes to hit something that’s 8+ percent, the same lower cadence ends up costing me a lot of matches and I just pop, like I did on Haskins. So now I’ll be making a strong effort to incorporate high cadence drills into my hill repeats, to hopefully train my body to become more of a spinner than a masher when it comes to hill climbs. I’ll see you next year, Pescadero!

Jun 13, 2011

Crit racing weekend: Joe Mendes and Taleo race reports

I think this weekend will go down in my racing history as the weekend I started enjoying racing criteriums. I didn’t race any last year in an effort of avoiding crashes – something I found to be a common excuse/reason among cyclists who don’t do them. When this season rolled around, I was intent on also avoiding all but a couple of crits, but after doing a few, I found out that they weren’t really as bad as I thought, though I can’t say that I was enjoying them as much as I’ve enjoyed racing. All of that changed this weekend. I can’t say that I now like crits more than road races, in fact that’s probably not the case, but what I can say with certainty is that I now like them a lot.

This weekend I raced two courses that couldn’t be any more different. The Joe Mendes crit on Saturday was pancake flat, with perfect road surface and two wide sweeping turns, which in essence made it a two corner crit. A bit of banking and smoothing out the corners and it could have been a track race.

The Taleo crit on Sunday was the complete opposite. There were eight 90 degree turns, about 50ft of elevation gain per lap and potholes on the road with drainage ditches in the turns. (Click on the map below for the detailed map. For some reason it appears as a kite figure when it was really a figure 8)

The differences in the courses, however, didn’t stop me from enjoying both courses very much. Here’s how it all went down.

Joseph Mendes Criterium

The E4 field was the first to the line on the day at 8:00a.m., and it was really cold for June, and very windy as well, with the wind changing directions every five minutes, or so it seemed. I started in the last third of the field and slowly was making my way up to the front. I had no teammates in the race, no one to work for, nor anyone working for me, so there was really no urgency for me to be in the wind early in the race.

The bell rang for the first preme at about 10 minutes into the race and the acceleration strung the field out a bit, and of course, after the preme winner crossed the line, like an accordion, the field folded in, and I effortlessly found myself in the top third where I was intent on staying for the remainder of the race. About 10 minutes later, another preme bell rang and once again the field did the same routine. This time I found myself third or fourth wheel off the front.

With about seven laps to go, a Tri-Valley guy went into a break and I decided, for whatever reason, that I was going to bridge up to him and we got a gap. Once I saw the gap was established, I got to the front and took a pull. When the time came for me to take the second pull, I noticed that I was gapping my breakaway partner, so I eased off to make sure we were both together. We were off the front for maybe two or three laps, I don’t recall, but we never got much time on the field and I recall that with four laps to go it was back together.

After rolling back into the field, I had to work very hard to stay in the top five spots as the guys with much fresher legs (read: those who didn’t work very hard in an ill-fated break) were now coming to the front and putting in attacks. I did my best to both stay near the front and out of the wind. Fast forward to bell lap.

I’m sitting third wheel going into the second corner (i.e., the first of two 90 degree turns) and all of a sudden the pace picks up and I’m swarmed with other riders. I did my best to hang on to the tail end of that group, but the legs had nothing in them to contest the sprint or to move up places before hitting the final corner. I ended up 26th out of about 45 riders.

The result wasn’t anything special, but a lot of lessons were learned. I felt more comfortable than ever before moving around in a crit field – I would say I felt almost as comfortable as I do in a road race – and the high speed certainly made it exciting. Especially when Oscar from Dolce Vita decided to strum my rear spokes with his wheel, but we both handled that well – so no harm no foul.

Taleo Criterium

It was another early start, but with the sun shining brightly, it was much warmer than the day before. We came to the line and I lined up in the front row. Because the course was so technical, the officials let us take a neutral lap before starting us off. As I was taking the neutral lap, I knew this was going to be a rollercoaster of a crit, and it didn’t disappoint.

The course starts climbing gradually from the start line, then there is a left hand turn into a drainage ditch and the climb continues for maybe another 50 yards, followed by a short downhill into a right-hander and another uphill followed by another right onto flat road. Then a right going into a down hill, followed by a left into a steeper downhill and another right into a ditch coming in at probably over 30mph. Then the course runs flat for a couple blocks and the final two right-handers are a gradual uphill into the finish.

The whistle blows and we’re off. I literally felt as if I was on a horse and someone just branded it, as the first lap was at a blistering pace right from the start and my legs were immediately in pain going up the hill for the first time, even after a good warmup. My initial thought was, “what the hell is this?!?” The next thought was, “This is an E4 field, this can’t possibly be sustainable.” I was right, as by the end of lap two, the pace had subsided and while the field was nearly always strung out because of the challenging and technical nature of the course, I really didn’t have any issues with the pace.

I made sure to stay up in the front half of the field and stay out of the wind. The plan was to sit in, be patient, start moving up with five laps to go and see what I could do in the sprint. About half way to two-thirds through the race, a group of four riders broke away and got about 12 seconds on the field. I figured that there is no way this was going to stay away (it never does in E4, right?), so I waited until someone would start chasing, but no one did. A team (which shall remain nameless because I have come to learn that more people read this drivel than I originally imagined) had eight racers in the field and not only didn’t get anyone in the break, but also didn’t do any chasing. WTF?

Maybe I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about here, but I think if your team is one-fifth of the race field, you should put someone on the podium. Someone needed to burn their matches to give their teammates a chance. Someone could have blocked in corners to make sure a teammate was up in the top three going into the final corner, but alas.

With about three to go, as I was moving up the field, I somehow ended up on the nose, but after one hard pull, quickly pulled off – though not as quickly as I would have liked because getting anyone in that field to do any work to bring back the break was not easy. I know why the guy behind me didn’t help, he had a teammate in the break, but not sure what the rest of the field was thinking. On the bell lap, I made a hard effort up the first part of the hill and was sitting in the top five or six spots, but going into the final corner I was cut off and had to lose a few spaces. I had enough in me for a good kick, but sprinting out of a really bad position only gets you so much.

I ended up 14th, or 10th in the field – depending on how you look at it. The day before, I got into a break and paid for it. This time around, I refused to go into a break and also paid for it. It’s a gamble, but with the info I had and the composition of the field, I think I made the right decision at the time. Hindsight is of no use here.

The technical nature and challenge of this course made it a lot of fun. I hope they keep the course the same (some road improvements wouldn’t hurt though) and I’ll definitely put it on my calendar for next year.  

Jun 8, 2011

It doesn't really matter

My first adult road bike was a 2006 Fuji Roubaix RC from Performance Bike. It had an aluminum frame with carbon chainstays/seatstays and fork, and Ultergra drivetrain. I still remember the feeling of getting on it for the first time, pushing the pedals and feeling the acceleration that was unlike anything I ever felt on my mountain bike or the hybrids I rode as a kid. It was the bike on which I fell in love with the sport, it was the bike on which I had my first crash and it was the bike on which I honed my wrenching skills.

After a couple of seasons, however, I wanted something more, I wanted carbon. I heard it was more shock-absorbent, stiffer (though I still didn’t have a clear understanding of exactly what “stiffer” meant) and a more comfortable ride. So I began hunting for a frame online until the 2008 Orbea Onix caught my eye. I built it up with Dura-Ace, Nokon cables, carbon cranks and as much bling as I could afford at the time, thinking it would make me go faster. It took me months to get all the components, as I was trying to find deals on everything that went on that bike. To this day, it is my most frequently ridden bike and I love riding it.

At the time when I built it, I was happy with it, but I felt that as I put more miles on it, as I become better, fitter and a more sophisticated cyclist (whatever that means), I would want something better, something new, something different, perhaps something to make me even faster. But recently, I came to realize that in fact, my thoughts on this topic are moving into a totally different direction.

The more I ride, the more I race and the fitter I get, the less I care about what I’m actually riding. With each passing day, I’m becoming more and more convinced that what I ride has absolutely no effect on how much I enjoy the actual process of riding my bike.

I ride for fun, and I race for fun, and no amount of money, carbon, titanium or anything else will make a ride more fun. The only thing that makes a ride more fun is having the fitness level to be able to do it, to hang in there. That’s what really matters – the right leg, the left leg and the engine. The rest, it doesn’t really matter.

I think there are two schools of thought with regard to bicycle riding and racing. One the one side, there are cyclists who will spend as much money as they possibly can afford to make their bike more aero, lighter, stiffer, you name it, to improve their performance. On the other side, there are cyclists who will train harder every single day to improve their performance regardless of what they ride. The two schools of thought clearly intersect because without training, a superlight bike won’t serve its purpose. But just because both sides of the issue are in play, doesn’t mean that one can’t predominate, and it often does.

For example, I’ve sworn off buying components because I think they will improve my performance or will make me faster. Yeah, there are things I’ve considered, like oval chainrings most recently, but at the end of the day, I don’t feel that I’m at a level where that will make a dramatic change in my performance. When something breaks, I’ll replace it with a part that will work and will be reasonably priced, regardless of whether it’s a few grams heavier – it just has to do its job well.

I think this philosophy is circular. It starts with a total newbie, untrained and just entering the cycling world. This individual is ready to throw money at a bike just to make it faster because it is a quicker gain of performance (and arguably easier) than training. This is a good description of me when I was going from my Fuji to my Orbea.

As I became more experienced and fitter, I continued to move along the circle and stopped thinking about the fact that the guy next to me in a race is riding a Specialized that might be 2lbs lighter, or that the guy I’m racing in a TT has the Shiv when I’m on a mid-last-decade Airborne. I know that if I need to be competitive, the first thing I need to do is train and change my body, and when I’ve exhausted the levels to which I can bring my fitness - meaning I’m as fit as I can possibly be at my age – perhaps then I will once again consider “buying watts.” But I’m very far off that target right now.

Which brings me to the closure of the circle – professional riders. These are guys who have arguably done (I’m not getting into a doping discussion here) what they can to make their bodies perform at the highest possible level and when seconds are at stake, it may matter what bike they ride or what componentry they use. But even those riders never lose sight of the fact that their bodies are far more important then the machines they ride. Even though as professionals, they often need to have the best tools available to them to do their job well.

As far as race performance goes for me right now, it doesn’t really matter what I ride, it is first and foremost about fitness - that's what really matters! 

Jun 7, 2011

Sequoia Double Metric ride report

This is one of the best, if not the best, Bay Area organized rides, and remembering how much fun I had there last year, I eagerly registered again. This year, however, there was one wrinkle: the Saturday before the ride, the weather forecast was 60 percent chance of rain. One thing that’s not fun to do in the Santa Cruz mountains is biking in the rain, but I was determined to do the ride regardless of the weather, it was only a matter of being prepared.

I woke up at 4 a.m. and immediately went for my phone to check the radar. The projections only went to about 10:30, but it looked like it would stay clear until at least that time. I figured that if we can drop down Alpine to the lunch stop before it starts raining, the rest of the ride should be fine, even if a little wet.

There was a mass start planned with some Mission Cycling and SF2G members at 6:20, so naturally we left the parking lot at 6:30. The first few miles are flat along Foothill and a good opportunity to get the legs warmed up before the first major climb – Redwood Gulch. We all moved as one group, knowing that once we hit the climb, the group would separate into several smaller groups as people find their comfortable pace for this 200k adventure.

The selection was made rather quickly as Michael G., Bret, Andrew and I moved ahead and up the undulating road leading to the left-hand turn onto Redwood Gulch. Another rider joined our group for a little bit and at one point, before we hit RWG, came up next to me and asked, “how long is this climb?” I said, “This isn’t the climb.”

I forgot how much RWG hurt last year and I think it hurt even more this year as Strava tells me that I was actually slower this time around. I’m not surprised, as my legs were not at all fresh for the ride, still recovering from Hamilton and the 90-mile ride through Marin the day after. The two-hour hard M2 session the day before the ride didn’t help things either. Michael and Andrew went ahead of Bret and me. They were never more than 50 yards up the road and I knew that once the climb leveled off near the top, I’d make the bridge, which I did. Bret was right there on my wheel.

Once the four of us came together, we struggled for a bit to find a pace all of us were comfortable maintaining going uphill, but through trial and error and some HR ups and downs, we were able to figure it out. Our goal was not to hammer the entire ride, but rather, move at a brisk pace where we could and make as few stops as possible. With that in mind, we skipped the first rest stop at the top of the hill and continued downward, once again closer to sea level.

Luckily, no rain was in sight and the downhill was not as bad as it could have been, despite the roads being wet in parts. I was not in the mood to bomb down any downhills that day given that I’ve crashed twice in the last two weeks, so I cautiously made it down and proceeded to clip along until the next rest stop at mile 40. There were some minor separations on the descent, so the stop gave us a chance to bring our group back together, fill our bottles and make use of the facilities.

The food selection at the stop was amazing. In addition to the regular stuff you would see at centuries, there was hummus, coffee cake, bagels with cream cheese and tons of other goodness. This is probably the only ride that I know of where you could actually gain weight if you wanted to. The slices of coffee cake looked like they were 2.5x2.5x5 inches – too bad I’m not really into coffee cake. Oh, and did I mention there was more than one kind?

At this stop, Brooks and Beckett caught up to us, and we all departed together. Ahead lay our second major ascent up Highway 9 to Skyline. Now there were six of us moving together, and again after some back and forth we found our rhythm and moved uphill as a unit, going narrow and spreading out each time a car would pass. We were moving at a very good pace and soon we’d reach the part where Skyline intersects with Page Mill/Alpine and a 10-mile descent lay ahead.

Bret and I were the first to drop down and while we weren’t doing anything daredevil-like, we were making it down at a relatively quick pace. We caught some other riders, who in my opinion were using their brakes a bit too much, which made me nervous. A turn here and another there and we made our way ahead of them. A couple more miles and we were at lunch. All I will say is that the food was amazing and there was a lot of it. I won’t go into detailed descriptions because it will just make me hungry and I just ate – so that wouldn’t be very good for race weight.

It was still dry. We arrived at lunch around 11 and I was happy that we were able to come down that 10-mile descent with no water falling from the sky – it would have been miserable and potentially hazardous.

The next 30 miles would take us to the coast and along Highway 1. As we left the lunch stop, we jumped on a long train and the clip was quick to the coast. Due to the dynamics of the group, there was some slingshot and yo-yoing going on. At one point, Michael suggested the six of us break from the group and have our own train going, but I have a policy of not dropping groups on these types of rides when on flat ground and heading into the wind; unless of course the group moves really slowly. So I said we should stick together for the time being.

Then we hit Highway 1 and all things came apart. It was a bit of a hectic stretch, mainly because as last year, we intersected with the AIDS LifeCycle ride as they made their way down to Santa Cruz. On the one hand, it was awesome to see so many cyclists riding their bikes for a worthy cause, on the other hand it was not very pleasant to weave around them at the same time making sure a pickup wasn’t coming up behind. After the first couple of rollers or so, we lost the train and we also lost Andrew and Beckett. We knew that they weren’t far behind, so once we turned off 1, we slowed the pace and they very quickly caught up.

In a matter of a half a mile, the hectic pace of Highway 1 was nowhere in sight. We were now riding through nature, making our way toward Pescadero and then the final climb. We planned to stop at mile 100 at the Bike Hut to refill bottles and have some food. But ahead we had three bumps on Stage Road, each taking about five minutes to navigate.

At mile 94 or so, my Achilles tendon started to bother me. I had it taped with Rocktape and wore an Ace compression support over it. This served me well for the first 94 miles and 8500 feet of climb, but I knew that the remainder of the ride would be a bit less comfortable. We made our scheduled stop to refill our liquids and to get rid of the unnecessary ones, and after 10 minutes or so, once we were all together, we headed up Tunitas Creek. It’s a beautiful climb that winds through shaded woods and ends at the intersection of Skyline and Kings Mt. Rd.

The first three miles of the climb are very mellow and we all hung together. Then, as the pitches got steeper for the middle miles of the climb, I told Michael that I’ll fall back and spin it easy. With less than 25 miles to go in the ride, I didn’t want to aggravate my tendon any further, so I went between a 34x24 and a 34x28 (there’s nothing in between) and spun it until the pitch leveled off and I could pick up some speed. I caught Beckett about a mile and a half from the summit and we finished up the climb together. Luckily, the whole group was still at the top.

I asked for a Coke, but all they had was Diet Coke. I don’t know why at mile 109 of a 124-mile ride anyone in their mind would want a Diet Coke, but that’s what they had. I was just craving a Coke, so I took what they had, drank about two-thirds and was ready for the 4.5-mile descent and last flat miles to the finish.

We all split up on the descent and once I hit the bottom, I felt full of energy and started the push toward the finish. I caught Bret and another guy who joined our group near Bike Hut, I think his name was Jesse(?) (let me know if I’m wrong). I was feeling great and figured I’d pull them along for a while. At one point, I was going about 30 mph, then I looked behind me and they weren’t there. A moment later, I was stopped at a red light and Bret caught me (thank you!) to inform me that I missed a turn.

Last year, this ride was very well marked with arrows, but the rains on Saturday made the marking more difficult, as some of the stickers pealed off or perhaps never stuck. Once we figured out where we were, Bret quickly came up with a quick way for us to get back on course. I don’t think this cut any miles or made our ride any longer or harder, so this can be filed in the no-harm-no-foul category. Then something weird happened.

My sugar dropped in a matter of seconds. One moment, I’m feeling great; the next, I’m bonking. As I felt it dropping, I quickly ate whatever Powerbar Gels I had left, but I knew I was too late. Bret and Jesse pulled ahead as I could barely turn my pedals. I caught them at the next light and explained my predicament. Bret offered a Hammer gel that I sucked down, but I knew it would be a matter of minutes, not seconds, before I felt normal. I told them to go ahead and that I would be fine in a bit. I proceeded to turn the pedals waiting for my sugar to get to normal levels. A couple miles from the finish, it finally happened, and I was able to finish strong despite the little mini-bonk.

I was glad I was able to recover before I finished because if I hadn’t, I probably would have eaten way more food than was necessary, despite having burned around 6k calories that day (or at least that’s what my Garmin told me). Once again, I won’t go into detail about the great quality or variety of food that was at the finish, but I will say that they had two types of ice cream and chili, and it only got better from there.

I saw everyone from our group at the finish. We exchanged handshakes, congratulations and feasted on some deliciousness. A good day, a great ride, greater company and awesome luck – not a drop of rain all day! Looking forward to riding it again next year. 

Jun 3, 2011

Car vs. bike

This all started with a link being sent out to the Mission Cycling list. If you bother to read the comments, which I wouldn’t advise unless you have nerves of steel like yours truly (in fact, as a general rule, I’d advise not reading any comments anywhere), you’ll find some of my responses to the ignorant masses that have posted there. But that got me thinking about the whole controversy and I figured I have so much to say about it that I may as well blog it. So here goes.

If you’ve been reading with any regularity, you know I come here from the Midwest, where my cycling hobby began. Riding in suburban Chicago, I’ve become quite well acquainted with honks, yells, barking dogs, things being thrown out of cars, cars getting in front of riders and slamming on their brakes, suburbs passing unconstitutional (I won’t get into why they were unconstitutional) “no biking on the road” laws and many more examples of such cycling ignorance.

Contrast the above with the Bay Area. There is a huge, wonderful cycling community and culture here that I just fell in love with the moment I moved here. There is better infrastructure for cycling, motorists seem to be more used to cyclists and I have not experience any over aggression on the road. It absolutely exists, as the article I linked to shows, but much less so and I personally haven’t encountered it. The worst things that happen to me are drivers who decide the need to floor the gas pedal as they pass me, probably to compensate for too much room in the cranium or boxer shorts, or both.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the aggression doesn’t exist. I think it is more subdued here, but also more widespread. Midwest has fewer bikers, and fewer angry folks who, because they are in a majority, feel they can be overtly aggressive. Bay Area has huge numbers of cyclists and even more pissed off motorists, who keep quiet because they aren’t quite sure if they are in the majority or not. At least that’s the way it seems. Below are some of my observations on our coexistence as a cyclist and as a motorists.

First: critical mass. This is a nuisance of the highest degree that doesn’t do anyone any service. In cities like Chicago, it might show people that there are a lot of bikers on the roads. What does it accomplish in San Francisco? People already know there are a ton of bikers. The fact that they decide that one Friday of the month is the day they can do whatever they want and ride in any manner they want is an absurdity. I’m all for organized riding, but the name itself implies there is nothing organized about it. Some would say that even without critical mass drivers would get pissed off. Maybe that’s the case, but from my personal observations, many on these critical mass rides actually enjoy pissing drivers off, and I don’t agree with that.

Second: notorious traffic violators. Have I run a red light? Yes. Have I run a stop sign? Yes. Do I run every red light and every stop sign? Absolutely not, I want to live. There are some traffic lights that simply won’t change until a car pulls up, so what are bikers supposed to do? And some T-stop stop signs are safe to roll, provided you slow down and look out for traffic – I always slow down and look for traffic and if I see someone coming, or a pedestrian walking, I’ll make sure to stop. There are those bikers, however, who notoriously run red lights, run stop signs and do things that are plain and simple dangerous. They make the drivers nervous and angry and give all cyclists a bad rep. One example I remember very well was when I was still in Chicago, driving on a very narrow part of Fullerton in Lincoln Park and I saw a rider coming up behind me. I made sure to be as much to the left as I could to give him as much room as possible to pass and be safe. And what did he do? He passed my car and proceeded to roll through a 6-way intersection on a red light. I thought to myself, “why did I even try, the guy will kill himself at some point anyway.” So don’t be that guy, it pisses cyclists like I off because then I have to explain to motorists that I’m not that big of an ass.

Third: bad drivers. I’ve driven in many, many places around this country and Bay Area drivers are horrible. Not in the sense of bad people, but in the sense that their driving skills are so far below average, I’m shocked more people don’t get killed in car accidents here. No one signals for anything. Everyone drives below the speed limit as if they are stoned, even on 280 sometimes and in the left lane. It takes forever to get anyone moving when a green light goes on. People are apparently oblivious to the fact that their car is better visible with the lights on when it’s raining out. And holy cow do people not know how to drive in the rain. I think that before drivers start obsessing about how much they are pissed off at bikers, they need to assess their own driving skills because when I’m behind the wheel of a car, it’s the other drivers that piss me off the most, never the bikers. And lastly on drivers, I bet less than 10 percent know that when they are passing a cyclist they must do so with at least three feet of clearance – that’s the law! they should know that the safest way to pass a cyclist is to give them some room. Many states have adopted the 3-feet law, but to my surprise (hence the strike through), California is not one of them. However, it has been proposed in February of this year, so it may still happen here, at some point.

I don’t really know what it will take to end the debate of who owns the road, but few facts are clear. The roads were paved because governments were lobbied by cycling groups in the late 19th century and the first traffic laws ever adopted (in Iowa I believe) were directed at cyclists. All of this was going one before the infamous Model T was ever in production. California laws, as in many other states, afford cyclists the same rights as drivers, but impart on us the same responsibilities. It may just be that once we as a cycling community become a bit more self-policing and start taking those responsibilities more seriously, we’ll stop looking like the ultimate violators to those behind the wheel. At the same time, drivers need to calm down and understand that at the end of the day, the more cyclists there are on the road, the better off they are: more parking spaces, less congestion, less pollution and shorter (if at all) lines at the pump. It’s kind of sad of how it works these days: when a driver hits a cyclist, THE driver is bad; when a cyclist violates some traffic rule, ALL cyclists are bad.

I guess of it all, it’s the ignorance of most motorists that bothers me the most, their eagerness to lump us all in one indiscriminate group of notoriously reckless human beings. I doubt many of them see us as athletes. Perhaps an outreach program educating non-cyclists about the biking culture could ease the tension and cure some of the ignorance.

The bike was here long before the automobile became widespread, and if modern innovation continues, it will be here long after the last vehicle has been junked.