Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Road Trip

So it's mid-December and the local 'cross race scene dried up two weekends ago leaving over a month until Nationals and Worlds. I finally pulled the plug on going to Nationals, the thought of Madison, WI in January coupled with World's the following week was getting to be a bit much logistically. The nail in the coffin was not being able to fly out Saturday after my race as there were no flights late enough. My buddy Jay has been trying to get us to go race in North Carolina for a year now and the was a double race weekend in Winston Salem on the schedule put on by Mock Orange Bikes, the local shop. Looking to keep some race fitness before going into a month of just training, we decided to make a team trip out of it. Friday afternoon Birner pulled up with Allyson in the Sportif team van and I piled the few things in I didn't throw in Jay's car since he was supposed to be rolling down the day before. In an effort to conserve space, I left the pit bike and the Limus mud tires at home, the same tires I got after BCA and decided not to ride at Taneytown, so they are still mint. Maybe World's?

We hit the road around 12:30 and in front of us were Jon, Cory, Jay and Eric with Barry staying somewhere in NC with some relatives. Steve and Jen were rolling down later in the afternoon which gave us a contingent of nine Sportif riders and Eric, apparently MABRA's most hated B-men's sandbagger. As we're rolling down 81 towards Harrisonburg I get a text from Jay that they are driving through sleet. Pulled up weather underground and apparently a large storm was passing through North Carolina and southern Virginia, right over Winston Salem. I've never raced in NC but I have watched My Cousin Vinny and I know the soil down there is more clay than the hard packed loam we have up here. Not bringing the mud tires may come back to bite me as it rained pretty much all night.

After settling into the Embassy Suites we all went out for a nice Italian dinner downtown. I can't sleep in hotels and Friday night was no exception, the kids bouncing around in the room above us didn't help so I ended up popping a Lunesta. Didn't roll out of bed until 8 or later, already a bad start for me as the race was at 11:45 and I'm usually well awake and moving this close to race time. Grabbed some breakfast and hopped in the van to head off to the park to watch the earlier races with Jon and Allyson. As we pull into the parking lot the first thing we see is this massive wooden structure. At first it didn't look too bad but no sooner did we go see how people were riding it and everyone seemed to be taking headers about 15ft after exiting the ramp, at least one was a broken collarbone.
The only problem with it was that it had no transition to roll you smoothly out onto the bumpy dirt and a soft, muddy rut was forming at the bottom from everyone taking the far right line. Steve was the first of us to take a go at it and went over the bars at the bottom busting up his hand and bending his frame. Not a good start to the weekend.
The more significant feature of the course was the steep, muddy ride/run up on the opposite side of the flydown. A steep hillside about 20% grade and 10m long made for some fun riding. The course had a nice downhill section to get you up to speed for this beast but there was only one good line on the right as the rest of the hillside being chewed up from people walking it. It took a lot of speed and commitment to clean this feature. My first attempt was half hearted just feeling it out and made it to the top lip but put a foot down to get over. Second effort cleaned it easily but could have still used more speed. Aside from that the course wan't nearly as saturated as expected given the amount of rain. There were some muddy sections but nothing heavy or sticky and a few corners were super greasy from the wet clay. Worst part about the course were the power sucking grass sections that felt like riding on a wet sponge.

Day 1 race was rather uneventful. Jon had taken 4th in the Master's 45+ and Allyson won the women's race earlier in the day.
Jon on the run up. Photo courtesy of Jen Riskus

Mike, Jay, Cory and I lined up against only a handful of guys as most were saving their legs for Sunday's State Championship race. One strong guy in our field was Charlie Storm so I lined up behind him on the start figuring he would just take off. Unlike every other race this season, the start was unnervingly slow. Charlie didn't take off and looked to let someone else take the holeshot. After some guy blew himself up on the front in the first 30s of racing I set out to make a mark on the NC 'cross scene. Half a lap in it was blown apart and the race was really just Jay, Mike, Charlie and myself with Cory dangling a few seconds off our group.
Cory on the run up. Photo courtesy of Jen Riskus

My goal was really to just hit this steep run up and the flydown first to have the best line. Rode around pulling Charlie for the next 4 laps and as expected he attacks me in a tricky section halfway through the last lap where I was having problems finding the best line. Got back to him by cleaning the run up but he put in one last effort before hitting the pavement to seal the win. Rolled in for second with Jay and Mike behind for 3rd and 4th with Cory taking 9th.

Eric took 3rd in the Cat 3 race even for not looking so sure about the flydown.

Day 2 was a bit harder. Field size was double and call ups for series leaders. Unlike most series' they only called up the top 8 riders so I was positioned for a 2nd row start until this guy in a skinsuit emblazoned with guns and a really bad mustache hops the tape in front of me. Must be a NC thing becasue I don't see how bikes and guns mix. This guy would also prove to the bane of my race day.
Guns 'n' Ammo guy. Photo courtesy of Weldon Weaver

With the long road start and seeing how slow we started Saturday I wasn't worried about 3rd row. As the whistle blew, I knew today was going to be harder as the race went off like a gun shot. Guys were killing it to get down the pavement but knowing the start everyone would cut the right hand turn leaving the left side wide open to move up which is where I burned a match to get to the front and take the holeshot. Mike saw the move and worked through traffic to get behind me and apparently Mr. Guns 'n' Ammo took exception to outsiders lighting up his race and started jawing at Mike about something. I led out the first mud section and up the first steep hill before some guy blew past me. I completely botched this tricky downhill/uphill section and lost a few more spots and soon found myself in a chase group with Mike on my wheel. About halfway through the lap Guns 'n' Ammo guy decides he needs to get to the front and comes up on my right as we're going through a series of tight turns. In an effort to keep him from chopping my wheel I get caught up and go down dropping my chain. I can hear him and Mike going at it again through the woods on the other side. I start chasing back and starting the second lap this guy is sitting along the course trying to fix his bike, I gave him a few choice words as I rode by him and set out to get back the time lost but could only manage to finish 10th. Jay rode strong to finish 5th while Jon repeated his Saturday performance with another 4th. Allyson also grabbed 4th in the women's race. A lot of strong performances by the team.

Overall fun weekend, great course and well run event. It's nice to get out of the area and see how others race and design courses. The atmosphere was laid back but still probably better than most events around here. The flyover was incredible, the guys from Mock Orange Bikes put a lot of time, effort and expense into this feature and they rolled two Barbecue grills off the race trailer and started cooking food. Race results for day 1 were posted online before we even left and for day 2 were up later that day. Will definitely look to go back for this race, hopefully it will be same time and same location next year.

Monday, November 28, 2011

How We Roll

I was sitting on the step of the garage yesterday afternoon putting my cycling shoes on to grab a ride on what might be the last warm day of the year when I looked up at the scene in front of me. Seven bikes, just in the garage. Three are mine, three are Maddy's and one is Gina's.
I love bikes, period. I remember getting the old Bike Nashbar catalog in the mail as a kid and just poring through endlessly at all of the stuff. It was better than the Sears or JC Penny catalogs that were 10 times as thick and full of toys. Problem is I never really got into cycling when I was younger, I played baseball and skated. Honestly, I could never really afford a nice road bike, at least anything even as nice as in the Nashbar catalogs and I thumbed my nose at the refurbed 10 speeds my dad would bring home from a buddy of his at work because they weren't nice enough.

I did however manage to take one of them out every once in a while, one occasion being a fundraising event for a classmate. It was a 36 mile loop from Middletown out to about where my parents live in Wolfesville and back. Some really hilly roads on a hot summer day. I had no clue what I was doing, not sure I even took water or wore a helmet. I rode in her place to raise money for a band trip or something, for me it was just an opportunity to ride a bike. Looking back, about the only other riding I would ever do on a 10spd would be from my grandparents house in Yellow Springs up Hamburg Rd. to the top of Gambrill State Park. Not exactly the easiest ride in the world, all I remember is paperboying it up the hill and being scared as hell riding back down, especially given the fact I never wore a helmet.

Since buying my first mountain and road bikes in college I've wasted no time or expense making up for all of those hours spent memorizing the Nashbar catalogs and hours not spent out riding a bike. Now I want to pass that on to Maddy and hopefully Leah. Maddy loves her bike, when she comes home from school she drops her bag in the garage, puts on her helmet and takes her bike for a spin around the driveway. She's about to turn 4 but has already learned to ride a pedal bike. It took her all of 30 minutes or less and happened while I was racing my bike. I took her and Leah to a race in Mt. Airy a few weeks back where a teammate brought her a hand me down 12" pedal bike. Up until then she only had a really small pedal bike with training wheels and her Strider which she has spent countless hours on all summer and races every weekend in the Lil' Belgians race.

As she quickly found out, the pedal bike was a lot heavier than the Strider and her first attempts to even sit on it upright let alone ride it were failures. Unfortunately, I had to go race and convinced her to put the bike aside and that we would work on it when we got home from the race. 45 minutes later as I pull up to the team tent after my race I look over to see her flying around the parking lot on the pedal bike, it was awesome. Apparently she wouldn't take no for an answer and convinced my teammate, Randy, to help her ride this bike.

Here she is at home when we got back from the race. She's wasted no time learning to go faster and already has her dismounts down. Now she just needs to get a bit stronger so she can pedal in the grass and figure out modulation of the coaster brake and she'll be set.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

This Isn't Checkers so HTFU

com-pe-ti-tion \ˌkäm-pə-ˈti-shən\
Defined by Merriam-Webster as: a contest between rivals; also : one's competitors competition>

sport \ˈsprt\
Defined by Merriam-Webster as: (1)physical activity engaged in for pleasure (2) : a particular activity (as an athletic game) so engaged in

I was having a conversation with a teammate yesterday about the season and the high and lows that go along with racing bikes and the cyclocross season specifically since it is so short and intense with a race or even two every weekend for close to four months straight. Each season it's typically the same familiar faces with a handful of guys moving up in the ranks from the season before to test themselves against faster competitors. Some guys are always top 5-10 riders while others race all season looking to "crack the top 10" and marking a significant milestone in their racing careers. Going into the weekend you always have a sense of where you should finish based on the level of your competition. You must prepare yourself mentally well before you even get to the start line.

With cycling, and most any sport, you get out of it what you put into it. 'Cross is not an easy discipline and requires an additional amount of technique and finesse that for most is only gained after years spent racing. In 'cross one starts out as a Category 4 (beginner) racer and work their way up to a Cat 1/Pro. As a Cat 1 one has achieved the highest possible "degree" in the sport. It means you're fast enough to have either won or collected enough upgrade points to mark a notch in your cycling belt so to speak. The difference between Cat 1 and Pro is minimal in technical ability but can be huge in physical ability. As you move down the ranks these gaps typically become somewhat smaller but still exist and therefore the need for a system to rank riders and appropriately place them together into racing classes. This achieves two things, first it ensure to a degree that riders of similar technical ability are riding together and second, that riders of a similar physical capability are riding together. This ensures a novice racer is not mixing it up with faster, more technically capable riders and causing a dangerous situation.

To some degree riders have control over their category. Once you hit Category 3 your upgrades are more or less optional unless you are always winning, then USAC gives you an automatic upgrade to the next category. Upgrading sometimes comes with a price, like never going back to being the big fish in the pond. This is more so once you hit Category 2 as there are very few non-Elite races out there that allow Cat 2 racers who are looked at as being the next Cat 1s and thus treated so by being forced to race the faster races.

I've been racing 'cross on and off for the past 12 years and only in the last two have I found any real success. I'm a highly competitive person when it comes to sports. I started playing teeball around 4 or 5 and spent the next 15 years excelling at baseball until I couldn't play at the level I wanted to any longer. Rather than become bitter at the fact I could no longer compete in a sport I loved and competed in for so long, I found other outlets. In college it was volleyball. While only a Division 2 club team at UMBC, we were still pretty damn good. I also picked up competitive cycling in college in the form of mountain bikes and eventually road bikes. Bike racing allowed me an outlet for my competitive nature after college.

Now, as a 36 year old Cat 2 with a family, work and other commitments, I don't have the time to dedicate to racing in the Elite/Pro ranks even if I were gifted enough physically to do so but I also have not lost my need to compete at the highest level possible and continue to push myself to get better within the confines of my life. Fortunately for myself and a lot of other guys like me, races are also broken out into Master's categories starting at 35. This allows for highly competitive "old" guys like myself to go out and smack each other around for 45 minutes on Saturdays and Sundays. Anyone who takes the time, effort and money to register for a bike race, pack up the car with all of their race day gear, travel to the race and spend the time away from family and friends must have either a strong love for the sport, a love of competition or a combination of both. I'm the latter, I wouldn't do this if I weren't going to go out there and give it my all I expect that of my teammates and competitors as well.

In the conversation with my teammate, we talked about comments that had been made from guys who have been regulars over the years but weren't racing because the sport had become "too competitive". WTF? This has to be the lamest excuse I've ever heard and is an insult to everyone who goes out there every weekend and pulls on a kit, pays their entry fees and drives over an hour one way for a 45min race. It's one thing if life changes force one to not train and be as competitive as they once were, one has simply lost their desire to race, or maybe just can't stand being the small fish in a new pond and misses the days of beating up on their lesser brethren. But to use the excuse that the sport has become "too competitive" is cop out. I've pulled out of races or not raced for long periods of time because my head wasn't in it but I never blamed my fellow competitors for my own lack of desire to race.

Here are your choices, choke down your ego and request a downgrade in your racing license so you can go back to being the big fish, race in a "less competitive" field, or just stop racing all together and lead group rides where there are no entry fees, no race numbers, no officials scoring you at the end, no podiums and no one cheering for you even if you're riding DFL because you're having the worst day ever on your bike.

Friday, November 18, 2011

File Treads and Market Forces

I've gotten a lot of questions this season about riding file treads for 'cross. First off, this is the first season I've actually ridden a file tread, my tried and true tire was a Challenge Grifo Medium on an FMB casing, before that and while still very mountain bike centric in my thinking, it was the Dugast Rhino, you can never have enough tread, right? Something just never sat right with me riding off road without knobs on my tires.

I, like a lot of the people who are asking me this season what I think of file treads, was the person last season asking what people's thoughts were who rode them. So, I figured I would just share what I've learned.

Ok, second admission, the only file tread I've ridden is the FMB Sprint and I don't consider this a true file tread. There are several "true" file treads out there, the Dugast Pipistrello and even the Challenge Grifo XS with it's minimalist side knobs to name a few.

The key differentiator between the Sprint and the true file treads is the addition of sturdy side knobs to provide better traction when cornering, especially at the much higher speeds of the drier or even slightly tacky courses we've been experiencing over the past couple of seasons. I actually went all in this season, at least initially, and only ordering a set of Sprints for my choice of all-around race tire.

I can say for certain they are faster and using the same side know pattern as the SSCs the Sprints hook up just as well as my Grifos in the corners. Even after 10 races on them, I'm still finding their limits when cornering. If you haven't ridden a file tread or have been wary of the lack of tread, check these tires out. I have ridden them in every race this year except the BCA mudfest and the following day at Winchester where both days warranted at least the Grifos. Unfortunately, I'm not sure this tread pattern is practical in a clincher version as they do require lower pressure (26-28psi for me at 170lbs) to really work well so you'll have to stomach the price tag for the tubs.

What made me think of this post? Well, for years Dugast has set the bar for 'cross tires with their supple cotton casings. Where they've fallen behind is tread selection. While you could spend the extra money and have some Michelin Mud 2s or Jet treads mounted to Dugast casings, they were just weren't advancing their tread designs. Then along comes FMB. If you're not familiar, FMB is another small French cycling tire company specializing in handbuilt cotton and silk tubulars. Andre Dugast actually sold the business a few years back and the tires are now produced by the new owner in the Netherlands, albeit with the same high quality of the original A. Dugasts. Today most top Euro PROs are still riding Dugast tires, primarily out of tradition (and being that they are free) but FMB is slowly making it's way to the top, in my opinion, and unseating Dugast as the best handbuilt tubular 'cross tires available. If nothing else, the introduction of FMB to the market has forced Dugast to take a hard look at tread design for tubulars which has long lagged behind the clincher market. I think the days of relying on name recognition alone are gone.

What did FMB do? First off, made popular treads from other manufacturers, i.e. the Challenge Grifo tread, a standard offering. Second, again in my opinion, made a superior casing. Not necessarily in performance but in durability. When you pay $125-$140 for a tire, you want it to last more than a season. Rarely did I ever get that out of a Dugast. Aside from hammering a sidewall into pavement and tearing it, the casings on the FMBs from last season are holding up nicely. I think that's also in part to the fact that FMB pre-seals their casings unlike Dugast in which you need to Aquaseal them yourself and reapply through the season if racing in wet condition a lot. The FMBs also seem less prone to rot than the Dugast, a by product of the construction and sealing process of FMB casings. Maybe I just never used enough Aquaseal.

Now, back to my original, original reason for this rant about tires no one else rides. Dugast has introduced a new file tread similar to the FMB Sprint, the Pipisquallo. Pulling the side knobs from their tried and true Rhino and matting them with the Pipistrello tread. I thought this was interesting given that FMB has offered the Sprint for several years now and Dugast is still figuring it out after a failed version of the Pipistrello with minimal side knobs. As much as I would love to spend $270 to ride them and compare to the Sprints, I probably won't, simply because I'm satisfied with the FMBs and may be hard for me to revert back to Dugast.