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.