Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Story - Bloomin Metric and Me

So why the Bloomin' Metric?

In a way, doing the Bloomin' Metric is a bit like coming back home.

It was back over 25 years ago that I had started riding seriously. I was a kid back then, just about to leave middle school, and I'd been graduating from bike to bike. I had gone from a 5 speed Schwinn Cotton Picker, a 56 pound behemoth of a banana seat bike, to a shiny red Schwinn Traveler III (10 speed, $214.95 with tax). And I was lusting over bikes with gum lever covers, no "safety brake levers", downtube levers, and lots of aluminum. Aluminum was the old carbon and it was the exotic, light, expensive stuff. I could barely afford $2.95 steel toe-clips - $14.95 aluminum ones were out of the question.

Along these lines, I'd been pestering a friend of mine Ken about bike racing. Road racing, to be exact. I thought I was a road racer back then. I was light (four years later, I'd "grown" to 103 pounds), there was no track around, I'd never heard of a criterium, and "time trialing" was something that required lots of super light stuff made out of aluminum. And I loved to climb.

Obviously I had to be a road racer.

I said that to shops when I went dreaming about bikes - that I was interested in road racing. On hearing that one shop owner promptly threw me out.

"Get out of here, stop wasting my time."

To a kid, that can be pretty demoralizing. And it was. But a couple shops let me stare at bikes for hours at a time. One larger shop had a friendly guy who let me stare at their Dawes bicycles. And after many, many hours of staring at the bike, staring at the specs, drawing comparison charts, listing possible changes, and perusing Bicycling Magazine for parts which I could put on (and budgeting them), I decided to buy the Dawes. A Dawes Lightning.

After riding it a bit I started changing things. I was obsessed with gearing so changed the cranks to a Sugino with replaceable chainrings - and I got custom chainrings, 48 and 34. (Talk about ahead of the times - this was in 1982, long before the "compact" revolution). I got two freewheels - a "fast" 14-21 and a "long distance" 14-23. I also got some light wheels (20 mm rims) and matching tires. And finally I got a nice racing saddle.

It was after the bike upgrades that I learned about this bike racer named Ken in our school. He happened to be in a bunch of my classes so I sat next to him and peppered him with questions. Eventually I asked him what gear he used going up Wolfpit Road. Wolfpit, I should point out, has a hill on it that has to be in the 15-18% range. It's short but very steep.

"53x15"

That seemed pretty high for me, especially since my top gear was a 48x14. And doing the math (on paper), that was virtually the same gear as a 53x15.

So I asked him for a few months in the winter, four out of seven classes a day, to confirm this. Because I simply could not believe his original answer, I'd ask the question in different ways.

"So if you were riding on Wolfpit from Route 7 to Belden Hill, what gear would you use?"
"Like in a race?"
"Yep."
"53x15."
"No, no, no... Okay... if you were heading from the Center to 106 through Wolfpit, what gear would you use?"
"53x15."
"No... I don't think you understand. Say you were riding to Driscoll from the Center. What gear would you use?"
"53x15."
"Are you sure you know your chainring sizes?"

You know that skit "Who's on first?" You get the idea.

Ken said that I have to realize that riding up and hill and racing up a hill are two different things. That low gears are for blown up racers. That you can turn big gears on something other than a screaming downhill.

These concepts were all foreign to me. So after months of questioning, when a moderately warm day finally dawned, I decided to ride to Wolfpit on my Dawes, and ride the hill. I had the 14-21 installed (the "race" freewheel) and my custom 48/34 chainrings. And I was ready to make some efforts.

I started in a 48x19 (didn't want to use the big-big, even back then) and sprinted up the hill. Surprisingly I made it. But "just to make sure", I did it again.

Fine.

So I did it in the 48x17. And the 16. It got harder and harder. And I did two of each, figuring the first was probably "lucky". Finally I did the 15 and it was hard. I hadn't planned things out right - I should have started at the biggest gear but I was afraid. Afraid of rolling to a stop while tightly strapped to the pedals. Afraid of rolling to a stop when cars approached from behind and in front (there is no effective shoulder on this steep hill, and the sides are banked upwards quite steeply from the road).

So with toasted legs, I tried to go up in the 48x14. And failed. I turned around and coasted down the hill. My knees ached so bad I didn't walk comfortably for a couple weeks after that but my world had opened up.

I reported with glee my success on Wolfpit. Now I drilled Ken on all the hills, not just the one hill that everyone in town knew. Incredibly (although as an adult it's quite predictable) he claimed he'd use the same gear everywhere in a race.

I started riding around and trying big gears all over the place. It was hard work. I sprinted up everything. It broke my legs.

And it was a blast.

Ken mentioned he and his dad were going to do a local ride (it had just started) called the Bloomin' Metric. And unexpectedly, he asked if I'd like to join them.

This was different. It was one thing to talk about gearing and stuff. It was a totally different thing to ride with them. But Ken, a very mellow kid with a reassuring aura about him, convinced me it would be fine. His dad paid the fee and I got myself a nice little patch.

I showed up at the ride on my Dawes with my swim trunks - I'd read about bike shorts and how you're not supposed to wear anything underneath - and this was as close as I could get. Ken (or rather, Ken's dad) realized he might have underestimated me but we started off nonetheless.

Their pace was insane and I quickly realized I was in way over my head. We were probably going 16-18 mph but I was struggling everywhere, especially the flats. That stunned me as I had been more worried about the hills. I learned that day that speed took precedence over strength.

About 10 miles into the 62 mile ride I was fading hard. I had no idea where we were riding, we were flying along on the flats, we were going up some crazy hills, and we still had 50 miles to go! I didn't know what to do. I was actually getting a bit scared. I was a guest, I couldn't just say "I have to turn around", and even if I did, I didn't know where I was.

That's when a bee stung Ken's dad.

He was either allergic or sort of allergic. Whatever, the bee saved me (and ruined their day). Ken and I turned around to find a sag wagon, reported Ken's dad's location, and went home (per his dad's instructions). His dad made it back somehow, I don't remember the details. I just remember being appalled at my lack of cycling strength.

My discussions with Ken turned a bit more serious. I knew I didn't know a lot before but I thought I knew what I didn't know. Now I realized that I didn't even have a clue of what I needed to learn. Ken advised me on what I needed to do. First, get some riding clothing. Second, get a race bike that fit better. And third, start racing.

I slowly worked on the three things. I got a jersey by collecting granola bar UPC codes and sent them in for a $20 jersey. I bought some Detto Pietro Art 74 shoes - the standard starter shoe. I fiddled with the cleat till my knee didn't hurt too much.

I begged my parents for a race bike - a combination birthday and Christmas present. I eventually got a Basso with Campy, Excel Rino, GP4's (tubulars!), and real aluminum caged pedals (Campy knock-offs but they looked cool anyway). I had a 53x42 matched up with a 15-21 (it even had a 16T and an 18T!) and felt like a racing god. And when I got the bike, the shop made me buy some new fangled lycra shorts - I believe I was the first one to try them. One of those "Have the kid try it out, if he likes it then I'll get one" kind of deals.

I watched my first race about 6 months later (the '83 National Crit Championships), Ken there with me, both of us perusing the first ever issue of Winning Magazine (and its multitude of Eddy Merckx stories). And on my own I entered my first race about a month after that.

Fast forward about 10 years. Our team leader/captain/mentor decided we should do a double metric as preparation for the State Road Race. The Bloomin Metric was perfect - food stops, a route everyone could follow, and what we'd now call a "target rich environment". We'd do the two laps fast and steady, eating at every stop (three or four per loop), and work together to maintain a high average speed. As a bonus, we'd wear our team gear (which had our shop on it) and advertise the best way possible - ride around a couple thousand riders for 6 hours and show that we actually ride what we sell.

One of the guys on our team? The guy that sold me the Dawes. It's a small, small world.

I had no aspirations for the road race so this became my "race". I risked all and took my lightest wheels, 280 gram tubular rimmed wheels, super light 200 gram tires, etc etc. We trained for the event. The actual day had perfect weather. We rode hard and I found myself, incredibly, pulling for most of the second 100 km (it would be safe to say I pulled maybe 1/10 the time the first lap and about 2/3 the time the second). I flew up the hills, kept pulling on the flats, and rode my heart out.

I had one bad spot at about 150 km but recovered. I pushed through because I read about how Greg Lemond felt bad at the beginning of the 82 Worlds but pushed through because his parents flew over to watch him. He ended up taking second to Moreno Argentin, beating Sean Kelly into third. So when I started to fade into oblivion on a particularly hard false flat, I drank more Gatorade, dug deep, killed myself, hung on, and kept going.

Miraculously my legs came back around.

They felt fatigued, no doubt about that. For much of that second lap I kept thinking, "Oh, this will be it, this is where I'll just blow." I'd ride at the front to buy myself "drift-back" room. And I'd make it. Incidentally, this is why I pulled so much - I thought I was going to blow up so I kept going to the front. Every time I asked my legs to push through to the top of a hill or do an extra 5 or 10 pedals strokes at the front they came through. I've rarely felt that good in my life and I've never felt that good on a 124 mile ride.

Like the racers that we were, we started attacking each other towards the end of the second loop. It was much more like the end of a classic compared to a typical group ride. Typical group rides end as a bunch as the group responds to all attacks, solo or otherwise. At the end of six hours though the small group (perhaps 10 or 15 of us) was fatigued. An attack would go and only one or two would have the courage to chase. The rest would look around, hope the attackers were going to blow, and pray things came back together. The "break" would collectively blow up and things would come back together.

Our team leader took off though and it looked good. So we all peeled off, chasing him in ones and twos. I had just done a huge jump when POP, a spoke went. Rear wheel, my first broken spoke, and it was twanging around in an alarming way. I sat up and watched everyone ride off - I waved off the ones that looked back. It was only a mile or two to the parking lot and I rolled in, wheel thumping the frame and brake and bits of tire flying off.

I was physically shattered. I had shredded a virtually new race tire. I'd rubbed aluminum and paint off my frame - almost put a hole in the chainstay. And my rim was dead, a dent in it that ruined its braking performance.

But it was worth it. A great ride. And we did what we set out to do. For months and even years, customers would come in and mention something about "I remember when you guys passed me and you were on your second hundred and I still couldn't keep up with you for more than a mile."

That was my Bloomin' peak. I can't imagine doing a double any time soon. The feeling when you reach the parking lot the first time and simply turn around... there's an element of "no turning back" when you commit. And it's scary. Makes my stomach feel like it did when I was 14 and getting lost in the depths of Fairfield. It doesn't mean I may not give it a shot one of these years. It just means that it's not in my repertoire right now.

I would like to do the Metric fast one day on the tandem. That would be fun. I have a mental list of tandem updates I want to make. Closer ratio gears - I got the cassette but it's not on yet. Faster tires - I've read about 25c tires on tandems (we're running 28c's). A much more aero captain's position - currently the bars feel like I'm on a mountain bike - one that's too big at that. Maybe some Spinacci's - the semi-aero bar from the mid-90's now banned from UCI and USA Cycling events. I think a lower stem will work, maybe some narrower bars.

Of course there's the fitness. We'd need to do some more regular riding - we'll be able to do that once we've settled into wherever we're going to live. And then we can go and regularly do some good tandem rides. Get used to the nice feeling of rolling down the road at 25 mph while putting out the effort that would net 20 mph on a single.

Heck, I can live up to the threat I made Gary in January this year. We could go down to Florida some January for some early season training and try and rip apart some Cat 1 legs.

But that would be a whole different ballgame.

1 comment:

suitcaseofcourage said...

Another fantastic story - it's always cool to hear how somebody got in to racing. We were all so young and naive. Really enjoy your posts - thanks for another great one!