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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Hear The Midgets Roar and Other Observations from Planet Bike USGP CX Race in Madison WI

By Guest Blogger Ryan Lindsay-Zephyr Wheel Sports/Cyclesport (pictured left and still on his bike at OVCX Kingswood)

I decided to take a trip to Madison, Wisconsin this weekend to race the Planet Bike U.S.G.P.'s and take the chance to see 3 time cyclo-cross world champion Erwin Vervecken race in America before he retires at the end of the year. Friday morning loaded up and headed north, all was well until I hit Illinois, lets just say their highway system sucks, especially their toll roads, but thankfully Wisconsin came and things improved. I got to the course at Angell Park Speedway around 2:00 P.M. and see the following sign at the entrance to the track "Hear the mighty midgets roar!", while at first glance it could seem offensive, it is really a dirt track for midget and sprint race cars, so no need to call the ACLU on behalf of any vertically challenged folks.

The course was pretty bland, a lot of flat wide open straights mixed with a few tight turns, off cambers, and a run up with some railroad ties on a hillside, but thankfully for me it rained on Friday, so Saturday was going to be wet for us working class racers. I got to the course at 7:00 a.m. Saturday to pre-ride before the Cat. 4's and juniors, things were still muddy and slick and I was loving my Challenge Fango's. 10:15 and I am lined up 67th out of 80 riders, the gun goes off, the sprint begins, and just as we are up to speed I hear the sound of bikes hitting pavement, not good, next thing I know I am running over people and then get slammed in to the steel fencing and hit from behind to boot, we hadn't even got to the start line yet! I get up, only to see my front tire peeled off the rim, so I do my best sprint for 300 yards to the pit, switch wheels and set off from what appeared to be last place, I got my anger channeled and started picking my way back through the pack, passing people in the technical areas and even a few on the power sections, all told I ended up 55th, and given all the problems was pretty happy with that. The pro's made it all look easy, 3 time world MTB champ Allsion Sydor amazed all when she rode up the railroad ties on the run up, and on the men's side all of the big gun U.S. riders were riding up them, while Vervecken
(pictured below courtesy CXMagazine.com), swiss national champ Christian Heule and others were on foot.

Sunday I was hoping for some redemption, again got to the course early, things were changed up a bit for Sunday, the run-up was out, replaced by a short, steep climb, only to ride right back down to a 180 degree off camber and ride right back up, the announcers called it the "hillside strangler", I just called it tough, really a strength zapper, but we don't ride 'cross because it easy now do we? A few other minor changes to the course, but by and large it was very similar to day one. Cheered on the Cat 4's, juniors and begginers, including the Red Zone juniors from Louisville who were representing nicely. Lined up 68th out of 80 plus on Sunday, got a great start and was picking off guys pretty quickly, got up to around the top 40 and was settling in, came through lap one feeling good, and put in a dig right before a 180 degree turn to get rid of some people, only to have disaster strike again, rear tubular rolled, about now I am feeling like Bill Murray in "Groundhog Day", my motivation is now in the basement, so in a repeat from the previous day, I do my best Carl Lewis impersonation and run to the pit, switch out wheels, which takes a little time when you have to deflate the tubular to get the wheel off and start the same pursuit for the second day in a row, I managed to pick off about 15 people in the next three laps, but my heart wasn't in it and with the leaders quickly aproaching to lap me, I decide to pull myself, just had enough of the frustration by that point.

I regrouped and went in to fan mode for the rest of the day, got to talk with Tim Van Nuffel from Belgium and ask him what he thought about U.S. 'cross, he said he liked it, our courses are much more firm than what he is used to, he said he likes the muddy stuff better than fast, dry courses, little did we know, he'd get his wish. The ladies race was pretty much the norm, Katie Compton (pictured left from CXmagazine.com) versus the Luna tandem of Katerina Nash & Georgia Gould, with Compton reigning victorious. Minutes before the elite men lined up, a brief storm rolled through, turning what had been a sticky, grippy circuit in to a slippery ice rink, the guys with multiple tire options were smiling, but you could sense the fear in guys that were stuck with less than optimal rubber. Most of the big dogs handled the slippery conditions well, although did get the misfortune of seeing Troy Wells go sliding across some really rough asphalt in the final turn with a lap to go, he got up, but pulled the plug and had some nasty gashes on his left side.

Observations:

1. I need some guidance gluing my tires.

2. Illinois roads and drivers suck.

3. U.S. 'cross is quickly closing the gap to the old world nations

4. OVCX is a great training ground, our riders won the Cat 4 race, and 45+ masters both days, not to mention great rides in the juniors, masters 35+ and even some of our elite guys beating former national champions like Jesse Anthony and Justin Robinson.

5. Don't quit when things don't go your way, even if it seems like the race is a disaster, might as well just keep going and see what you can pull out of yourself.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Paradise Paved Over

That could be a photo of a country road you’d love to ride, a trickling creek to one side, rural homes dotting the other. (Photo: BioWheels-Mitch Graham) However, had you known Binning Road in its former state of dilapidated decrepit neglect, this photo might make you sad. It’s not often a road cyclist doesn’t celebrate new blacktop. Most recently, many of Northern Kentucky’s rural roads have been repaved, and they make you smile even more when you ride them. However, Binning Road, between Roundbottom and Hwy222, connecting Milford with Batavia northeast of Cincinnati was famous for its inner tube eating, death grip on the bars potholes and broken pavement. If the competitive group was in tact before Binning, especially the stretch between Roundbottom and the bridge, no doubt it’d be shredded on the way out. Binning taught teammates how to trust each other. Binning taught riders how to relax the death grip and really handle a road bike. Like a hometown Paris Roubaix sector of cobbles, Binning taught racers how to think ahead and get to the front. Binning also made local bike shops a tiny fortune in inner tube sales.

(Here’s what Binning was like before it got paved! Well…at least it felt that way.)

Like an ugly dog, for the past nine years, I learned to love Binning Road and its potholes, broken pavement, uneven surfaces, and the section where the road narrowed leaving only a double track or a dirt berm choice to ride around the rocks that had fallen from the adjacent railroad tracks. It was the worst road and the best road for all the same reasons. Cyclists chose Binning Road to avoid the busy Highway 50 when traveling from Round Bottom Road to Hwy 222 between Batavia and Milford. However, the real reason cyclists chose to ride Binning still exists: its fast-flat corners through its ever changing-with-the-seasons scenic valley farm fields. That vista might even be better now that you can unglue your eyes from the wheel in front of you. You might find yourself saying, “Wow, I had no idea what a pretty valley this is.”

At the root of it, Binning Road is dead to those that loved to push the pace while those with less nerve slid a finger down the brake lever and has new life to those who ever dropped a chain, flatted, or lost a something out of their seatbag. I’m going to miss the beat-up old Binning, but chances are I won’t be missing my tail light or my water bottle next time I come home from a ride.

Friday, September 25, 2009

It’s Not About The Barriers: Risk, Reward and the Cyclocross Course

The worst and the best cyclocross courses, I’ve raced them both. While you remember Cyclocross courses for certain features, the difference between a good and bad course rarely comes down to sand pits, log barriers, off cambers or cool hand built flyovers. The great courses offer risk and reward. (pictured above Masters racers take the risk of a fast entry into a 3 wide sand pit at OVCX Gun Club Race, 2008 Milford Ohio)

Cyclocross is much more than a fastest person wins bike race. It’s a mental game pitting skills versus speed. Some of the best courses I’ve raced tempt riders to make hard decisions throughout the course. The choice can be as simple as run it or ride it or as daunting as grabbing a handful of brake or blasting wide-freaking-open. At the OVCX Kingswood course this past weekend, a double barrier was followed by two 180 degree hairpins. Right off the bat, you’re thinking that sucks. It’s a total - everyone goes through slow and single file - choke point, but it wasn’t. The beautiful part of it was that you had to make the first hairpin a delicate fraction of a second after remounting from the barriers. The corner was taped wide. Some riders chose to run the first 180 the first lap and ride the turn on successive laps. Some opted for the longer but less susceptible to carnage outside line. Others tried their skills only to fumble getting clipped in through the turn. Multiple choice, but only one fast answer per lap. Brilliant.

One of my favorite risk/reward course set-ups was the natural double log barriers at the OVCX John Bryan race in 2008. The logs were a bunny-hop-able 10-12 inches thick, separated by a 10-12 yards of grass long enough to land and relaunch for the 2nd log. However, the logs were on a fast straightaway, leaving riders to question whether it was faster to dismount at high speed and run, or slow to hop them. With conditions changing and fatigue setting in over the course of the race, it left a helmet scratching decision every lap. It rewarded strong riders with the skills to risk bunny hopping them every lap. It still rewarded those that could dismount at speed without touching the brakes. It punished those who committed beyond their talents. Now, mentally make those logs 16-18 inches round and roll them within 4-5 yards of each other. Unless you’re the one freak-of-nature in the race that can bunny hop anything, everyone is going to hit the brakes and run the logs. The risk and reward is gone. It wasn't about the logs, but how they were placed in relation to the course and each other.

Don’t get confused; risk/reward in Cyclocross has nothing do to with opening up a course or making it less challenging. It is about choices. Take the Green Monster flyover at the USGP course in Louisville in 2008. It was a behemoth wooden bridge structure with about 10 stairs on one side, a table top, and a ramp down the other. The stairs were tall and shallow. The table top wasn’t more than 2-3 feet longer than a bike. The steep ramp shot you out into a wide fast turn. The structure was wide enough for riders to tackle two abreast. It rewarded those with extremely quick dismount/remount skills combined with technical skills and punished those who hesitated for a split second of indecision or a case of nerves. More than once I saw it cause a gap between a rider with buttoned up skills and someone who had to look down to clip their foot in their pedal. Sure the Green Monster was challenging and an intimidating sight, but it was it's placement on the course that really made it spectacular. Had there been a tight turn at the bottom, riders would've played it a little more safe and never have attacked it as hard as they did.

Risk/reward, in regards to cyclocross courses not only applies to the obstacles, but the little nuances of the course. One of my favorites, while just a mosquito of a detail, is having a section of the course be a little pavement on one side and grass on the other. I’ve encountered this feature number of times and have learned to look for it in my pre-rides. Imagine a grassy stretch leading into a long sweeping corner. However, the corner slightly crosses a paved drive or golf cart path. Experienced riders will know that riding on pavement is faster than grass, so they’d take advantage to stand up and bang out a few hard pedal strokes on the pave. Others simply didn’t see the crumb of advantage right in front of their eyes. The risk: we all know what can happen going from wet grass to smooth pavement. Whoops!

My last example is about adding the element of speed to a course, particularly into and out of obstacles. When you put a tight turn in front of or after an obstacle, it forces all riders to stack and slow. Now replace those choking turns with a more direct or fluid route in and/or out of the obstacle. Riders that can really attack the obstacle at fearless speed are rewarded. Intimidated riders have to slow. The better all around cyclocrossers are rewarded, not the lucky ones who eek through the stacked up carnage.

Even though cyclocross is gaining immense popularity, the courses are still crafted by grass roots clubs and teams, not ex-pros or people that try to eek out a living on race promotion. It’s still September and a whole season is in front of us. When most design a course, they think: we need a sandpit, some off camber, a stretch of single track, some logs, some tight corners, a set of stairs, a little pavement, a nasty run-up and our logo on the barriers. Those are just elements, paint in the can. Tie those elements in a way that rewards riders who can take the risk and do it faster than the competition, now that makes a good course.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Chequamegon Drift - 2009 Chequamegon 40 Fat Tire Festival

By Bill Baldwin – Best Guest Blogger Ever

Conditions were perfect, if not a bit dry. Temperature was 65 at the 10 am start and climbed to about 75 by mid-afternoon. The venue is beautiful -- extremely isolated in rolling hills, blanketed with 80-foot stands of pine trees. The 40.9 mile point-to-point course from Hayward to the Telemark Resort started with a 2-mile paced rollout on pavement through cheering throngs of onlookers in the town of Hayward (risk being DQ'd if you try to pass the four-wheelers leading the rollout). Riding in a pack of 1,778 adrenaline-pumped mountain bikers was a huge thrill, and pretty sketchy as the pack lurched, then slowed, then lurched, then slowed all the way to the dirt. Although I placed my bike in the start chute at 5:45 am, it was not early enough to get me any closer than the 200-300th starting position. So I was completely surrounded during the rollout. Once we hit the fields that led to the Birkebeiner Cross-Country Ski Trail (the "Birkie"), the race began in earnest with the elite/pros flying off the front en masse and everyone else jockeying for position.


(7am hundreds of bikes hold riders places for the 10am start of the 2009 Chequamegon 40 Fat Tire Festival)

Aside from the first couple miles, passing is not an issue on this course. For most of its length, the Birkie Trail is wide enough for four automobiles to drive abreast. It's mostly trimmed grass (think lawn), bordered by towering trees, with a strand of singletrack running the middle. A good portion of the race also covered gravel/dirt forest roads, with a few sections of true singletrack. Although the course is fast, it is by no means flat, best characterized as rolling terrain punctuated by several power climbs followed by immediate descents each mile. And while the course gains quite a bit of altitude over its length, there are some ripping fast descents, with the last half-mile shooting diagonally down the face of a ski hill to a 90 degree turn partially back up the hill before leveling off to the finish. The last 3-4 miles of the race is actually brutally (like Mohican) hilly, getting up to the top of the ski hill for the final descent. And frequently the descents ended in sand pits where it took good handling skills to hold your line at high speed. I remember having the sensation of Tokyo-drifting the turns on a number of gravel downhills. The dry conditions made for a ton of dust -- most racers at the finish line looked like coal miners coming off a shift underground.

The winner set a new course record at 2:02 and, from the account I read, won by less than a one-second margin, as the second place finisher apparently took an insane line down the ski hill to make up about 100 yards in the last quarter mile. Personally I had a great race up until mile 25 when my sciatic nerve acted up and wouldn't let me push the big ring anymore. Although I was inexplicably able to kill the climbs during the last 10 miles, I couldn't generate the power needed to hammer with the pack I had maintained contact with for most of the race. My bike was set up perfectly for the race with Mitch's fully rigid carbon fiber fork. (Thanks Mitch!!) I flew past fellow racers on the steep technical climbs, including the Seeley Fire Tower which is a four-tiered, half-mile, fall-line beast of a climb about 30 miles into the race. On the climbs I was easily passing guys who could hammer me on the flats, only to have them drop me within a qurter mile after the climb. Still, it was extremely gratifying to have the bystanders complimenting my climbing in those tough sections where half the racers were running their bikes up. (Which made it more frustrating to have the back and leg issues prevent me from keeping pace on the flatter sections toward the end.) I ended up finishing in 2:42 for a pedestrian 409/1,778. To give you an idea of the volume of riders on the course, if I had finished only 10 minutes faster it would have been good for 250th. There were a lot of fast guys (and girls) out there.

Overall I'd say the race organizers pretty much have the formula down -- it was a great festival atmosphere with a focus on bands, beer and grilled meat. It's worth noting that there are an additional 800+ racers at the finish line who complete the "Short and Fat" race, which is about a 15-miler that covers a separate course but finishes down the same downhill and at the same time as the 40-miler. A great laid back vibe permeated, and everyone was very friendly. (Of course the excellent weather played a big part in the event's success.) Although I probably wouldn't do it again because of the amount of travel involved, I'm really glad I got to experience this race. Especially those of you without kids should really consider making the trek -- you won't be disappointed. Do it!!

Results & Race Info Click Here

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Practice Your Podium

Ha. Look at that guy on the left. He looks like a spinning ballerina statuette on top of a little girl’s musical jewelry box. I can say that, because that less than manly man is me. This is the first time I’ve ever stepped on a podium and it shows. I’ve won two other races, had some 2nd’s and 3rd’s, but this is the only time I’ve been on an actual podium with actual photographers actually posting the picture to actual Facebook pages and race websites. I’ve got a lot to learn.

Take the stud who won the race, Peter Hills. He owns the podium like a freaking cyclocross super hero, which unfortunately makes my pretty pirouette pose look even prissier. For chrisakes, I’m holding my prize bag like a bride about to toss her bouquet of Black Eyed Susan’s. I’m surprised they didn’t take my man card away after that shot. Below is a photo of me mid-race, just to prove I can look hard-ass on a bike.

If you spend hours training, polishing your technique, drilling your skills, practicing tactics, you should at least practice your podium. Seriously. Sort of. Close the bathroom door. Stand in front of the mirror and do a couple intervals while saying the word “confidence.” Hands up. Hands down. Hands up. Hands down. Three sets of five, once a week.

The more I dissect my embarrassing lack of podium prowess; I’ve realized a good podium composition is all about confidence. Just look at the 3rd place guy. Steve Bivens may have a Masters aged hairline, but he’s all confidence. “Yeah, uh huh, I scrapped it out for 3rd with these guns. Please, hold your applause while the announcer is talking.” Meanwhile I look like I’m a geriatric with my pants pulled up too high simultaneously pinching back a turtle head.

When I first heard I was to report to the podium, I did the mental checklist: clean kit, check, sponsor brand hat, yup…well that’s it I guess. I never even considered the pose or the fact that 9 people would be snapping photos from all angles. So here’s what I can offer on how to take a good podium photo and make your teammates and sponsors proud:

Confidence. Own the catwalk…I mean the podium. Don’t look surprised or relieved.

Be stoic. Stand still, legs shoulder width apart with equal weight on each leg. You are Adonis.

Flex those quads. Show the guns that shot the others down.

Give a presidential smile. Don’t smile like you saw a cute puppy. Smile like you’ve just signed the peace treaty and are bringing the troops back home.

Raise both hands when they say “hands up” but slightly bend them at the elbows to show you actually have some muscle and body tone and don’t end up looking like your skinsuit is a sausage casing.

Don’t try to play to individual cameras or you could get caught off guard in mid-glance.

Unless you have a sponsor obligation, don’t wear a hat. Hat’s hide your chiseled jawbones and intimidating caloric deficit gaunt.

Before you hit the podium, go to your car. Make believe you’re stretching or looking for your podium gear, but in reality practice your podium pose real quick before you hit the spotlight.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

In Heaven There Is No Clipless Pedals

…or spandex cycling shorts for that matter. I just returned from a week in Whistler, BC the home of the Nordic events of the 2010 Winter Olympics based in Vancouver. I have the Quatchi souvenir Olympic lunch box to prove it. We and maybe three other people were the only cyclists without platform pedals, baggy shorts and more suspension on our rental car than our bikes.

While expensive, Whistler is Heaven, not only in the sense of gorgeous freshwater mountain lakes surrounded by lush glaciated peaks fed by a network of great bike trails and paths, but also in the sense of pretty much any sport that that has ever graced the cover of Outside Magazine you can do in Whistler. Hiking, mountain climbing, bouldering, zip lining, eco-touring, kayaking, bungee jumping, canoeing, sky-gliding, horseback riding, ATVing, or skiing, you name it and you can do it in Whistler. While Breckenridge and Park City continue to draw more summer vacationers each time I visit, they are still only a notch above ghost town when compared to Whistler. The only difference between having a beer at the base of Whistler Mountain in September and January is the temperature and those coming down the hill in September have big bombing downhill bikes rather than ski’s and snowboards. The place was packed with people and bikes! However, I have a love-hate relationship with cycling in Whistler.

We love taking summer vacations to ski-areas more or less for the great cycling and off-peak rates. Whistler is a bit different than say a Breckenridge or a Park City. Whistler, at about 2100 feet above sea level, doesn’t have the altitude to make a fit person get a head rush climbing the stairs to the post office. If you want to travel from a low lying city like Cincinnati and go out for a five hour hike or ride or paddle in the mountains the minute you get off the plane, Whistler is the place no Sherpa or acclimatizing necessary. My big problem with Whistler is the mountain biking.

Yes. I have an issue with mountain biking in Whistler.

The issue is that the trails in Whistler are marked with easy, intermediate and expert signs when they should be marked with cartoon pictures of testicles: one small nut for easy and three huge ones for expert. I’m not talking about the downhill mountain bike park. When you put your bike up on a ski lift and are surrounded by people with full face helmets, body armor, and enough suspension to make a Hummer jealous, you know what you’re getting yourself into and you better have a big nut sack. Believe me, there were plenty of dudes wearing casts walking, hobbling or wheeling their chairs through Whistler Village to prove it. I’m talking about Whistler’s general single track trails around town, what you might call cross country trails. The Whistler Valley trail maps may try to deceive you with a variety of expert, intermediate (sign above says it all) and easy trails. There are really only two types of unpaved trails in Whistler: awkward rooty and rocky with varying degrees of drop offs or wood structures or silky smooth crushed gravel easy trails and fire roads.

Durango, Breckenridge, Park City, Pisgah, Tsali, you name it they’re all packed with what I’d call great cross country mountain bike trails. Trails that usually start out with a nice long climb and level out on some sort of ridgeline trail that traverses the mountain side. When I laid the Whistler map across the coffee table, I eyed the Intermediate (blue) Rainbow Sproat trail and a drip of drool plopped on the map. It appeared as I described above. However detailed, topo maps don’t show endless rock gardens, drop offs and the density of 4 inch tree roots per mile. While the double/single track climb was fine, when I got to the actual Rainbow Sproat Trail, it was an unrelenting exercise at maneuvering through the obstacles: rocks and roots and surprise drops. Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy the challenge. I cleaned most of it on a sweet XT equipped rented Rocky Mountain Element from Summit Bikes. Even though the switchbacks were fun and the scenic payoff at Rainbow Falls was breathtaking, I really didn’t enjoy the riding itself.

I have daydreams about the Peaks Trail in Breckenridge and the Mid-Mountain Trail in Park City. Just like Whistler, the climbs are tough and so are the various drops, rocks and roots. Unlike Whistler, the technical sections of other mountain town trails are broken up between long stretches of flowing single track. Single track that makes you say woo-hoo as you whiz through hours and miles of forests and meadows. Whistler single track is all tough and technical. By the time I rode the intermediate ranked Rainbow Sproat, Cut Yer Bars, the tight single track at Long Lake Park and watching my wife wreck on a trail called Blueberry…I didn’t dare tackle any expert trails (photo of Comfotably Numb trail junction in Long Lake Park) without a bigger bike and more protective gear.

Whistler trails, more specifically the intermediate and expert ones, all require expert technical ability. The only discernable difference I could see between expert and intermediate trails was the size of the dropoffs or how high the wooden bridges were. Twenty meters into any intermediate trail and I soon realized why so many people were wearing body armor and baggy shorts, had platform pedals and their saddle lowered on trails outside of the ski lift area. That’s cool, if you know what you’re getting yourself into. So, now you know what you’re getting yourself into. There's no middle ground in Whistler. It's body armor or basically bike path.

Till I vacationed in Whistler, I never saw the need for more than 100mm of front suspension or to lower my saddle or wear body armor or to go with platform pedals. Although from time to time I’d prefer a full suspension XC bike, I’d take my Niner Air 9 hard tail to Breckenridge, Park City, Durango, Moab, Pisgah, Tsali or dark West Virginia single track in a heart beat. My Niner in Whistler would be like bringing a knife to a gunfight.

Whistler made me realize my favorite mountain biking combines the free flowing beauty of Whistler’s “easy” trails with the occasional challenge of Whistlers rocks, roots and drop-offs. It's just that In Whistler, you can't have both at the same time.