Training, racing, gear, facial hair styles and thoughts from my push to become an elite cyclist.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Summer Flashback- Enduro Prep

Earlier this week I was deleting pictures off of my camera when I stumbled across this shot of my second drop bag that I prepared for the Vermont 50. The tech bag is the same one I used for the Hampshire 100 and fortunately I didn't need the chain lube, rag, CO2 inflator, tube, patch kit, spare chain and duct tape for either event.

This is an example of my mania for cycling details, and I can partially thank/blame my father for that. My Dad taught me to always be prepared, and that planning eliminates fear. After a broken chain nearly derailed my '09 Hampshire 100 campaign I decided to prepare for it this time around.

I also packed a clean pair of sunglasses and set of gloves in each drop bag, which in retrospect were unnecessary and added time to the rest stops. It was awful nice to have clean shades and dry gloves, though.

The key thing was the Chomps and the bottles filled with dry GU Electrolyte brew. Those two fuel sources kept me rolling for 7 hours, and without them I wouldn't have made it. Last week I was taking inventory on all of the fuel I used in training and racing, how many tubs of Brew drink mix and bags of Chomps I stuffed in my mouth, and it was too many to count.

One of the first things I learned about cycling was to always have enough food and warm clothing. On long rides that means stuffing my pockets full of supplies, but fortunately at the races I can use drop bags. Next time I'll skip the spare sunglasses and gloves though.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Spa: CX Race Report

This was the last week of a training block, and my rides on Wednesday and Thursday were good but I could tell I was tired and ended up sleeping 9 hours several nights in a row. With that heavy and worn out feeling I made the trek to Saratoga for the Spa: CX

My expectations for the race were pretty low, but the plan called for racing this weekend so I decided to go for it. Last weekend's Uncle Sam CX was a great event, so I had high hopes for the Spa: CX. I wasn't disappointed.

The course was hard, and I would describe it as lumpy with chattery tufts of grass and tons of sand. From the paved start stretch it was basically a series of short, steep-ish bumpy uphills connected by some twisty corners, then a fast section into a couple hundred yards of sand that was anywhere from slightly slow to nearly unrideable. The part I feared the most in my warm up was the sand, but I rode it cleanly every lap during the race. The uphills were tough, and I knew I could only go a certain speed so I went as hard as I could up and then used the corners and sand to my advantage on the way down.

Somehow I got a call-up to the third row. As I dropped my thermal vest and knee warmers I felt super pro and disappointed that I knew I didn't have the legs to take advantage of my great line up spot. My teammate and 'cross race rabbit Nate was also in the 3/4s, but he quickly pulled away on lap 1 and I didn't see him again until the finish. I met a couple of other teammates (who's names I forgot) at the start line. Terry was there to give us encouragement, take pics and provide his low-key, affable support throughout the race.

The gun went off and as expected I slotted into the group and watched the leaders pull away on the first lap. I was seriously hurting, and I was slowly getting passed by many riders on course. We did 6 or 7 laps, which is a lot for 45 minutes of racing. When I rolled through and saw 5 to go I almost quit.

Somehow I kept going and was focused on just riding the tough stuff smoothly. As I did that I started to pull back some of the places I'd lost earlier in the day and remarkably I saw 2 to go and realized I could finish. Somehow I'd also managed to pass Pinarello Man, last week's nemesis, and a couple of other familiar faces from the Troy pain cave.

With 2 to go a particularly vocal and disappointed racer was yelling sand riding tips from behind me. As I pulled out of the deep sand I glanced over my shoulder and thought to myself "seriously?" He never got any closer than that.

On the last lap I traded jabs with another guy on a mountain bike, though this guy had shaved legs and the courtesy to follow the rules and remove his bar ends. He got ahead of me going into t he barriers and I could have sketch-passed him on the inside corner but didn't. I waited for the pass on the last pavement stretch. As I wound it up and shifted into the big ring my chain jammed. I quickly downshifted, shifted back into gear, stared sprinting again and finished less than a bike length behind him. With another fifteen feet of road (how many times have you heard that one) I would have beaten him for a most excellent 37th place... or whatever it was.

After a quick cough-filled cool down I packed up my gear and headed home. I was pushing it pretty hard and didn't realize that it was in the mid 40's and raining until I stopped moving.

The NYCROSS series hasn't let me down and is worth checking out. If they can make my start time a more reasonable 12 I'd make it a point to make all of them.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Uncle Sam Grand Prix - More Photos

This is right after the semi-sketchy transition from pavement to slick uphill where I was always worried about denting my rims.

The run up. It looks flat, but I assure you it was pretty steep and very slick. If I look like I'm slow in the picture it's because I was slow in real life.

Standing up to get on it. This was one of the may corners that had an uphill exit. In an effort to maintain speed I stayed in the big ring, which of course meant some extra effort to keep it rolling.

More camera tricks. This was a 90 turn. Is it possible that I'm in the right position, setting up wide to apex the corner, and dare I say looking pro?

This shows some of the serpentine lower section of the course. It was fast, slick and challenging on both days.

Uncle Sam Grand Prix Race Report

This weekend was the Uncle Sam Grand Prix in Troy, NY, part of the burgeoning NYCROSS series. It was an interesting weekend and my first double race weekend of the season.

Most people have heard of Troy if they’ve driven by Albany on the way to the airport or have some familiarity with RPI (Renssalear Polytechnic Institute, a top regional engineering school). Those familiar with New York’s Capital Region have a more jaded view of the city and refer to it as “the Troylet,” a clever combination of Troy and toilet. In spite of Troy’s less-than-stellar reputation as a place to live it does encompass two esteemed technical colleges and a nice town park well-suited to a cyclocross race.

If you race cyclocross at one of the established New England venues you pretty much know what you’re going to get- a flat-ish course in a park or schoolyard, lots of grass, a punchy climb or two, some short dirt sections and maybe 50-60 feet of trail/singletrack. Venturing beyond the well-worn courses can be frustrating with inappropriate venues and poor course design, but fortunately the courses in Troy were a pleasant surprise and rated very highly on my list of favorites.

The NYCROSS series has been gaining steam over the past few seasons and offers competitive racing with reasonable field sizes. In many ways this past weekend felt a lot like the Verge New England series ten years ago when I started racing ‘cross- small but efficient venue, good course layout, decent parking and manageable field sizes. Anyone with ready access to these races should check them out- they are well run and worth the trip.

Saturday’s race was a boondoggle. I was planning on leaving at 6 AM and arriving in time for my 11:30 start. After a slightly improvised route I got to the venue about 15 minutes later than I had planned on. This made things a little hurried but not frantic. I chatted with a couple racers who parked next to me as I put together my bikes and got ready to warm up. They were Nordic ski guys who had made the trip down from Lake Placid and were pretty excited to race. Their low-key approach and relaxed demeanor belied the fact that these guys were fit. From previous experience I’ve known big-time Nordic skiers to be super fit aerobic powerhouses and these guys would turn out to be no different. As I got ready I ran into Todd, a fellow NAV racer from Saratoga. It’s always cool to see teammates at the races, and the NAV guys are always good company for a warm up lap.

I took a ten minute warm up ride then swung back to the car to grab a water bottle when I overheard one of the Nordic guys talking about getting to the start for 11…not 11:30. I asked him if that was right and he assured me that it was. Shit. I had been thinking I had 30 more minutes so I was taking my time, but now I had to rush at near frantic pace to peel off my warm up clothes, slide into my skinsuit, embrocate and get to the line before the gun went off. I had laid out all of my race clothes before I went on my “warm up” so I was able to get ready fairly efficiently.

At 10:45 I was dressed and ready, but I had to choose between riding the course for a lap or bringing my spare bike to the pit. I opted for the lap on course thinking that I’d definitely be riding the course but might not need my spare, which was an obvious oversimplification but true nonetheless.

With a minimal warm up, too much air in my tires and a poorly-scouted start line position I started the day in the middle of the field and had settled in with a small group by the end of the first lap. The corners were very slick from the heavy rain that had fallen in the days leading up to the race and I ended up tripod turning most of them. On lap 2 I ended up trading places with a guy on a Pinarello. He was stronger on the hills and running sections but I’d reel him in on the long descent and through the slick corners. Our contrasting strengths made for an interesting race and although we weren’t consciously working together we did reel in a few riders.

On one particularly steep and slick off camber section I had been taking the high line and dropping down velodrome-style so that I was able to exit with some speed. For the first three laps that approach worked great and I gained a gap each lap, but on the fourth lap the minimal traction had eroded enough that I slipped and slid down the hill. In the process I stuffed the right shifter blade into the mud all the way to the hood. After I pulled the bike out of the ground and fought to shift out of the big ring as I remounted a particularly vocal IF racer yelled “on your left, guy” as I fought to get up to speed. It was as if I’d planned to derail his effort to finish 21st and left him no other line than the one I was moving into. Earlier in the day I’d heard him yelling that he hated the course, so it was obvious that his dissatisfaction was deeper than our brief encounter.

While crashing I lost four places that I never could pull back, and it turns out that crashing makes every line the slow line. I felt like I was pushing hard but still only going in slow motion as I muddled my way through the closing laps and over the finish. As I packed up my gear I thought about my day and hoped for better luck on Sunday.

That evening was pretty low-key- I drove home to spend time with the family, had dinner and watched some baseball before going to bed at a reasonable hour. Isn’t racing glamorous?

Sunday morning I got up on-time with renewed enthusiasm for getting to the venue based on the 11 AM start. Fortunately I got the park on schedule but was amazed to find a swarm of cars parked on both sides of the road for an organized-looking football game taking place in one of the lower fields. It was an interesting scene- the skinny, tightly-clad racers in their imported cars peered over at the American truck driving beefy footballers in their baggy shorts and hooded sweatshirts. The footballers peered back with equal curiosity. On every other Sunday morning the footballers probably had the park to themselves and I’m sure they were as surprised to see us as we were to see them. Amazingly there were no altercations caused by the conflicting events and tight parking accommodations. I think somehow the love of sport was the common ground that we could all agree on.

With a knowledge of the start time at the front of my mind I set out for a very deliberate warmup ride. As I worked my way around the park criterium-style I considered the merits of bringing a trainer to my next race. Still, I enjoyed the sensation of steering and feeling my bike moving under me as I turned the pedals.

I got to the start on time, slotted into the grid in a good spot and when the gun went off I comfortably knew where I had to be through the early sections of the course. All in all I felt comfortable and smooth as I pushed the pace and settled into a group.

Mom and Dad made it to the race and took some of the pictures shown above. It’s great to have a cheering section, and I had the advantage of both my parents and some unidentified hecklers "cheering" for me. As I raced around the course I could hear Dad’s bellowing voice above everyone else’s, even the lady with the bullhorn who was slinging insults from the top of the run up.

Halfway through the race I attacked the group I’d been riding with, which included several of Saturday’s antagonists (Pinarello Man and a Verge guy) plus a guy on a mountain bike…with full suspension and bar ends. The mountain bike guy was able to stay ahead of me in the end, but what amazed me was that he was bobbling the technical sections but forcing the pace where he could pedal hard. And again Pinarello Man would put the hurt on when it tilted uphill.

After some attacking and counter attacking the group split and I ended up in the middle between Pinarello Man and the group behind. For the last two laps I pushed to catch back on but couldn’t. It was a hard day, but I felt like I had raced better than my 23rd position warranted. My fitness was improving, I had dialed in my tire pressure (scary low) and re-learned how to ride with the shorter 172.5 cranks.

Not bad for a weekend’s worth of racing.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

KMC X9 SL Ti Review

I'm pretty jaded and cynical when it comes to new things that promise to be lighter, better shifting and more durable. When I had the opportunity to get my hands on a KMC X9 SL Ti I jumped at it, and I'll admit it's because it was gold, not because of the claims about improved performance.

Over the course of researching KMC I learned that they've been making chains for a long time, and have done contract manufacturing for Shimano among others. They've gotten some good press about their chains, but I have to admit that I thought a lighter than normal chain would be more problematic than its more substantial brethren.

This summer at the Windham World Cup I talked with Bentley Lee of KMC USA, and his confidence in his product convinced me to give KMC chains a shot. The last thing Bentley said to me was "you will notice the shifting performance immediately."

On my first mountain bike ride after the Hampshire 100 I exploded the PC 991 chain that had been installed the week before the race and had carried me through the 63 miles of racing. The race was hard, and the conditions were challenging, but I had hoped to get more than one long day's worth of riding out of it. Of course this had to happen on a group ride so my riding partners had to wait for me while I pieced it back together.

When I got home and cleaned up the bike I installed the X9SL Ti. I could tell that the chain was palpably lighter than the one I was replacing although I didn't have a scale to quantify the difference. After having a bad experience with a standard chain I was questioning the logic of installing a superlight chain right before an endurance race.

What I first noticed when I installed the chain was the shifting performance- the chain moved noticeably quicker through downshifts and upshifts required less effort. Bentley was right- this chain did shift better in the workstand and on my first test short test ride.

With guarded optimism I headed out for a ride to really put the chain through its paces. The local trails start with a sharp climb right at the trail head and I almost always climb it in the granny, which means a forced front shift under load. Remarkably, the chain moved quickly and smoothly as I dropped it down into the 24.

For the next few miles I was paying strict attention to shift quality and chain performance and I wasn't disappointed. Somewhere 20 minutes in I forgot about the chain, refocused on the ride and enjoyed a trouble free day on the trails.

After those good initial test results I decided to run the KMC chain at the Vermont 50, and I was glad I did. In dry and dusty conditions the chain performed flawlessly with its treatment of Boeshield T9 lube. I honestly think the titanium nitride coating improves shift performance and helps shed dirt (the picture above is from after the Vermont 50 and the rest of the bike is still coated in a film of dust and dried energy drink). In almost 6 hours of racing the chain never miss-shifted or faltered in any way.

What I find most amazing about this chain is that after that race it shows less than .25 wear (almost new) on my Park Chain Checker and has many miles still left in it.

I am thoroughly impressed with the KMC X9 SL Ti and highly recommend it. If you find the gold too garish you can opt for the X9 SL version without the ti nitride coating. There are also the marginally heavier X9L and X9 versions both available with or without the ti nitride for less money.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Foliage Mileage

September and October are my favorite months to ride in Vermont. The weather is cool, the scenery is amazing and it’s all somehow sweeter because I know that winter will soon arrive.

In a previous post I mentioned my aggressive training plan to ramp up for cyclocross. I’ve had an up-and-down week with a couple of great long rides, a tough mid-week training race in the pouring rain and a cold.

Fortunately I was able to “rest aggressively” and rebound with only missing one day of training. It was a subtle reminder that I’m not bulletproof and I need to be very careful to stay healthy. As I ramp up the miles I need to make that rest and proper nutrition are part of the program as well.

Here’s a picture of my road bike in fall training livery. The tape is low maintenance black at the moment, and it will probably stay that way through the winter. I’ll post more details on this bike in the future, but for now this is a look at my primary training tool, my Powertap-equipped Moots Custom Compact.

Friday, October 1, 2010

'Cross- the Best Kind of Pain

Cyclocross is something that is near and dear to me. It's one of the things I love most about the fall in New England, and for the past 11 years it's been the shortest and sweetest part of my season. No matter what I've done over the spring and summer I've always made a push to make it out to at least a handful of 'cross races.

The first 'cross race of the year is one of the most painful days of the season. Every time it's a brutal shock to the system and I get the "speed hack" cough to remind me that my lungs haven't been opened that far since the end of the previous season.

I've already got the first one out of the way, so I keep telling myself that the rest are going to get easier. That's half true, because the pain is still as bad but I can go faster. The big change this year is that I've got a season long training plan, and it starts with a 5 hour training ride tomorrow.

Most training plans are focused on intensity, and that's the key to success in cyclocross. The difference is that my plan is based on my aerobic strength rather than just focusing on racing. This is the downside of telling your coach you want to become an elite- he builds a plan that will kick your ass, make you work for it and make you better.

How hard is the plan? I'll need to take some time off work so that I can fit in my mid-week rides. I'll be pushing volume into the fall like I never have before. With any luck, my results will follow, but there's no guarantee.

It starts tomorrow, and on a sunny autumn Saturday in October there's nothing I'd rather be doing.