Saturday, May 31, 2008

Racing - Pre C3 Post

Short and sweet. I'm tired but I'm racing tomorrow at Bethel. Imagine that, a race at Bethel.

Today I went and dug the van out of the bushes at my dad's place. Amazing how much plants grow when it's warm and wet out.

The missus and I had to load up a few things, remove a few snow/cold related things, and the van would be packed. 15 minutes tops and we'd be ready to go.

I opened the back door.

There were a bunch of ants. Like a lot of them. Big black ones. Carrying little white things around. Larvae.

The missus, handicapped by an extra 10 feet of distance, interpreted the scene a bit differently.

"Are they eating the rock salt?"

First thing I thought was that I haven't had enough Gatorade recently. I looked at her like she was a city girl. Actually, I'm a city boy, and I surprised myself by getting close enough to see that the white larvae looking things really were larvae. Then, in an act of supreme courage, I started to clean out the ants.

I guess the ants like the wood podiums and set up camp in the biggest of the three. The "rock salt" was everywhere. Obviously all of it would have to be cleaned out before the van could be considered "ready". I couldn't imagine trying to do all this stuff at the race tomorrow.

Taking a page from Bill Murray, I reverted to using two leaf blowers (one hand held, one wheeled one) to forcibly move the well developed ant colony. Okay, I also used gloves. A hint - don't hold a leaf blower over your head, upside down, to blow ants out from on top of a podium - gas drips down. And a tenacious ant will withstand a prolonged 120 mph hand held leaf blower air blast. However, they wilt (and disappear) in the face of a 6 HP wheel blower.

Just the other month I'd talked about Sim Ants, a game where you try and help an ant colony thrive.

Think about that for a second.

If you see an ant colony, does it "struggle"? Does it seem like it needs help? Of course not. As long as the weather is nice, they do fine. The ultimate proof, for me, was that if you left Sim Ant running overnight, you'd return to the computer to find your game completely and totally overrun with your ants. If you did the same with the people version of the game, you'd return to a wrecked city, burnt and looted until there was nothing left.

The ants didn't need my help and I had to ruthlessly remove them from the van.

I can only hope that the bike racing gods and ant gods don't talk to each other.

Anyway, I skipped my pre-race ride to clean out the van. Luckily I'd cleaned my bike (again - riding in a torrential downpour undoes even a thorough cleaning job) before we left, and I'd packed all my gear and all that. So not much else to do.

I forgot my SRM, my watch, my cell phone. I won't be be able to record my power, I won't know what time it is (since I use my watch or phone), and I can't make any calls. I remembered my ring and my wallet, so the missus is not upset and I could drive today and race tomorrow.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Story - Harlem Skyscraper Criterium

So I read that Rock Racing is going to be at the Harlem Skyscraper Crit. If you're ever in the New York City area, it's Father's Day, and you don't know what to do, go up to some park off of Martin Luther King Jr Blvd at about the 125th Street range and look for signs of a bike race - closed roads, police cars, and riders warming up.

Actually, this is Harlem. The racers don't ride around to warm up - they just sit on trainers next to their car.

I did this race a few times, none very successfully.

For one thing the fields are just enormous. I was on a wait list one year - about 100 riders down the list, with the 150 rider field completely full. I decided that even if I got in, I didn't want to race in that kind of mayhem.

With a field that size, lining up at the front, normally not a priority for me, is critical. Some riders (former winners and such) get called up. But the rest of us have to scramble for position. The second Harlem I did, I warmed up for a bit and sat down on the curb exactly at the start/finish line before the Women's race. I waited the whole Women's race, guarding my spot on the curb, my feet on the white finish line, my bike next to me. No matter who pushed and shoved I didn't move.

Then they called the Cat 3s to the line. I stood up, turned my bike 90 degrees to the left (to point down the course) and found myself...

on the THIRD row of racers.

I've since learned that holding a forward position in the field is next to impossible unless I'm riding brilliantly. It's so hard, so nerve wracking, I've since decided it's better to sit at the back, avoid crashes, and move up when the opportunity arises (usually in the last 10 laps, but before 5 to go).

A 150 rider field, on a 0.75 mile course, is something to behold. The field looks like a big comet, the incredibly packed main body followed by a much less dense tail. Curb to curb for the first 50 guys, then 100 guys sort of waiting for the inevitable crash to happen. And man, the crashes would happen. Almost every lap someone would tag the wooden barricades coming out of a turn. Look, if you think about it, when you turn hard when the field is spread curb to curb, the inside guys get cut off and the outside guys get run into the barriers - but they race like that anyway, at 28-30 mph. I've been sitting in the field going 35 mph, wondering who the heck was pushing the pace at the front.

The field would take up the whole straight on a long part of the course. I remember sitting at the back (it's not curb to curb there), looking up, and exiting Turn One I'd see the lead guys leaning as they entered Turn Two. It took a good 20 or so seconds to get to that next turn, and I realized that it'd take something special to move up.

After doing the race once, I returned with kevlar belted 200 gram Panaracer tubulars and a "no equipment is sacred" attitude. I moved up by riding up the shoulders, covered with tons of broken glass and interrupted by heavily dipped sewer grates and sunken manhole covers. Back wheel bouncing off the whoop-de-doops, I managed to work myself into a top 30 position in the last lap of the race in a pouring rain Harlem. That year, the one year I had a chance at doing well, I ended up bumping my hip and arm along the wooden police barricades for about 50 feet with two turns to go, people screaming in my ear the whole time. End of my race, my foot in 6 inches of water, my hand resting on a wooden barricade.

Speaking of screaming, the crowds are really entertaining. They love crashes the most, but they really, really appreciate hard efforts. If you attack, are moving up aggressively, or are trailing along but looking like you're trying (bleeding from road rash helps), they cheer you on like it's 2 seconds left in the Super Bowl. You can't hear yourself think, you can't hear your gears, your bike, nothing. I can't imagine racing up an Alpe D'Huez or the Manayunk Wall, with such noise and energy pushing you the whole way.

Crashes take the cake for the crowd though, they love crashes. Until noon the races are reserved for local residents, inexperienced racers. One guy took off from the line, impressively fast. I'd say he could out jump 90% of the Cat 3s based on his acceleration. He didn't slow at all for the turn though, and t-boned the first wooden barricade on the next stretch at 30 or 35 mph. He cartwheeled on top of the barricades for a good 30 to 50 feet, his bike cartwheeling on the street next to him. The crowd went bananas, cheering and screaming. "Did you see that guy crash?! Did you see that blood?!" Then they tried to help the poor guy up, bleeding from everywhere, dazed and confused.

Some of the crowd aren't interested in bike racing, they're interested in making money. It's not uncommon for someone to walk by, look at you, and mimic the motion of smoking a joint. In other words, "Want to buy some?". Or, in the heyday of another drug, they'd walk by and ask, "What's crackin'?"

Not me.

Others are so out of it they don't even realize there's a bike race.
A guy in a strong break one year t-boned a kid who rolled through about 5 cops, right into the road in front of the break. Racer's frame broke into two, end of the day for him. The local was totally out of it (high?) and didn't seem to understand why he was on the ground all of a sudden. He just tried to pick up his bike and then got mad because his wheel was bent.

In such a poor/bad/stereotyped neighborhood (even local NYC folks say not to go above about 110th street, and this is at about 125th or so), people think more about theft and crime.
A lot of the racers park in what I call "The Corral", a basketball court (maybe 4 of them?) with a 20 foot high chainlink fence surrounding it, in the middle of this 2 block park (the race goes around it). You have all these rich racers (relatively speaking), with their multi thousand dollar bikes (a standard question from locals is "How much is that bike?"), nice cars, suburban clothing, suburban accents, dropped off in the middle of.. Harlem. It's something else.

Inside this tiny chained off area, everyone looking out for one another, in the middle of a "bad part of Harlem". Within that area things are quiet, no screaming, no commotion. You see a lot of trainers, guys warming up next to something familiar - their car, their friends. Not the foreign world outside the Corral. Even the locals seem to avoid the racers.

But outside of it? Complete and total chaos.

A teammate once told me, "If you crash, hang onto your bike". Not sure if it's rumor or what but apparently bikes disappear after big crashes. When my best friend crashed on the last lap of the race (my saddle broke over all the bumps and I'd already dropped out), I got into a tug of war with two other people over his bike. One was a friend of ours, the other I have no idea who he was. The friend and I won, and I didn't even know it was him until we both looked up to see who was fighting for the bike. We both smiled and he let go - apparently he dove in when the other guy dove in, and he knew the other guy wasn't a racer. So my best friend's bike was safe.

Another friend, my Belgian trip teammate, crashed, big crash, on the rainy day, and stood up, panicking because he didn't see his bike. Then, along the line of spectators, he picked out a little white woman holding his 66 cm bike. He walked over and she told him that she grabbed the bike for him so no one else would take it.

Now, granted, although there are a lot of stereotypes at work here, it's important to be sensitive to the fact that you're entering a different culture, a different type of area. I know this even though I'm pretty naive with a lot of things. Some people don't understand this though. One year, deep in my naive state of being, I got a ride with a teammate of mine. He also drove another guy in, someone I'll call Mister Brilliant, a white bread suburban racer.

On the way to the race Mister Brilliant would lean out of the car and holler at the others "Who do you think for the Finals?" (Apparently it was basketball talk - but I'm ignorant of basketball so I don't know). Whoever they chose - Phoenix maybe? I don't remember. Anyway, whatever team the other car chose, Mister Brilliant had some good thing to say about them. "Yeah, me too. They have So-And-So and they have more defense." Or whatever basketball teams have.

Sometimes it took a while to get the other car to understand - at 65 mph on I95, I can understand why. I just slunk lower into the back seat, embarrassed to be in the same car as this guy.

Then, when we finally got off the highway in the insane maze called New York City, we promptly got lost. So, Mister Brilliant started asking for directions. Now, I could understand if he said, "Yo, you know where 125th and MLK is?".

Did he do that?


We'd pull up to a light, he'd motion to roll down the window, the other guy (a "local") would do so, and Mister Brilliant would phrase the question such:

"You speak Jive?"

The first time he said it (yes, the first time) I expected either a hail of bullets or a fist coming through the window. I literally dove down in the back seat.

As you may imagine, we didn't get a lot of helpful directions, just a lot of mention about crackers and calling Mister Brilliant's mom all sorts of names as well as questioning his choice of mating partners.

I pleaded with him to just ask for directions, pointing out that my mom wouldn't appreciate reading about two white guys and an Asian guy killed in a non-descript Chevy in New York City. Nevertheless he insisted on opening his conversations the same way, insisting he knew how to speak Jive. Finally, after about five close-to-getting-killed conversations, even the driver, who initially thought this was hilarious, told him to chill with the Jive talk. Plus, as he pointed out, it wasn't called Jive anymore. So Mister Brilliant chilled with the Jive talk and would you know it, someone finally told us how to get to the race.

For the life of me I can't remember how I did that day. It wasn't the barrier day because it wasn't raining. The only thing I can remember is looking at the guy who might be able to give directions, his cautious rolling down of his window, and then his face change when he heard Mister Brilliant's opening phrase.

I don't speak Jive, but at some point I'll make it back to that race. Maybe even this year. And we'll see if anything has changed.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Training - Granby, CT

I train in Granby regularly. My Mountain Road loop goes through Granby. We looked at houses in Granby, even made an offer on one.

The other day two cyclists were struck by a drunk driver at just after 7 AM.

Okay, that's not really that surprising, a drunk driver hitting something. But it's interesting what people think about it when able to post anonymous comments on the Internet.

To borrow from the Eastern Bloc Cycling Club forum, here is a good tip if you go to the link I'm about to post:

1. Don't feed the trolls in online discussions. You won't win and you'll just make yourself angry and frustrated.

With that warning, here is the Topix link.

Sobering, isn't it?

My own experience has been that drivers ignore me until I move closer to the white line. Since many drivers go over the white line regularly (i.e. drive on the shoulder), even on straights, I need to move to the white line so they don't put a mirror into my rear end. Only if I ride on the white line do the drivers seem to at least stay out of the shoulder. This is the case in all the towns in the area - Simsbury, Canton, Avon, Granby, the towns that currently make up my training box.

In contrast, when training in Norwalk (and Fairfield County in general), drivers were more conscious of their driving - they wouldn't straddle the white line for hundreds of yards at a time, at least not to my recollection over my 25 years of training there.

Down there they also don't do the following:

1. Simsbury Stops (rolling through stops at 20 mph seems to be somewhat common here).

2. Simsbury Follows (where you follow the next vehicle on the road close enough such that you can't see their license plate).

3. Simsbury Reds (red lights are Spanish red lights - at least one car can go through a red before you have to stop).

4. Simsbury Pull Outs (driver pulls out 30 feet in front of a car going 45 mph).

Our visitors regularly express shock and dismay when witnessing one or more of the above driving techniques. I tell them that it's because people around here are too nice. No horns, no guns. In Norwalk you didn't pull stuff like that because either you'd get a ticket or you'd get shot.

Up here they smile and wave.

So, although I stop at stop signs, I also cringe because the person behind me (doing a Simsbury Follow) is typically surprised by my stop. I don't tailgate so it gets the folks behind to follow me even closer (Simsbury Super Follow?). I hit the brakes when the lights turn yellow, also cringing in case the driver behind me (again, doing a Simsbury Follow) is going to stop in time, instead of plowing through me because they were expecting me to do a Simsbury Red. And finally, I simply don't have the nerve to pull out right in front of someone. So I don't.

Up north, in the next state, maligned as it is for poor drivers, it's not too bad.

Roads? Bad.

Drivers? Well, in their own state, they seem okay. When they're here? Bad.

But road shoulders? On Massachusetts, Route 10/202, forget about it. The white line can be literally inches from a drop off into gravel or dirt so there is no room for error. I have to ride further into the lane than comfortable, but it seems the drivers understand this is not my fault. Roads further off the path seem better, and with virtually no one living in the area, cars are somewhat of a rarity anyway. So riding up there isn't too bad.

So as not to make Connecticut seem like a horrible place, I don't normally get honked at when I ride. I did have an unfortunate driver who didn't think I should be able to turn left and so honked and yelled at me for, well, turning left. I was on the (unmarked) shoulder, riding as close to the right as practical, but that wasn't enough for the driver. Of course the driver passed me on a blind hill crest (hill is literally 40 or 50 feet long), on the other side of the road, yelling and gesturing at me while driving on the wrong side of a busy road.

Except for that one incident, I can't recall anyone being anything but polite when passing me. I'll have to keep track a bit better going forward.

A quick recovery for the rider who has been released, and best wishes for the one still hospitalized.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Racing - Indurain on sprinters

"I'm fascinated by the sprinters. They suffer so much during the race just to get to the finish, they hang on for dear life in the climbs, but then in the final kilometers they are transformed and do amazing things. It's not their force per se that impresses me, but rather the renaissance they experience. Seeing them suffer throughout the race only to be reborn in the final is something for fascination."

Miguel Indurain

Monday, May 26, 2008

Racing - Hartford Crit 2008

Ah, yes, the Hartford Criterium. Always a good race, always one that, if I feel somewhat decent, a race where I want to finish well.

The day had great weather, blue skies with puffy white clouds. I don't know their type but my last attempt at naming cloud formations made the missus crack up so I won't try. Upper 70s but I'd swear it was 80+ in the sun. Dry, a little breeze.

Felt like California.

We got to the race a couple hours before my race started so I had an inordinate amount of time to prepare. None of this "Dress and ride to the start line" business like a Bethel. I warmed up a bit, more than normal, and tried to get my heart rate up a bit higher than I normally do. I've been doing some double secret training and one of the things I learned was that I can't ride hard until I ride hard. Go figure.

The missus asked about my game plan for the race the night before. I'd been stressed about this unmentionable stressful thing in my life and this was a good way to transfer my focus from "stress" to "race". I thought about it, thought about what I'd learned about my body in the last four weeks of racing. I also thought about what I went through the last time I did Hartford.

The last time I did Hartford I was an absolute wreck. I was killing myself to hang on and I was so dead at the sprint I couldn't get up out of the saddle. This year I felt a lot more confident about my "sitting in" strength (i.e. my overall fitness). This boosted my confidence approaching a race where I'd previously died a thousand deaths.

So when the missus asked, I thought about it seriously for the first time, realizing that, under normal circumstances, I'd have been thinking about it for a week prior. It came to me pretty quickly.

"I'll try and start off by getting to the front. If I feel okay there I'll stay there, but if it's hard, I'll go right to the back. I'll move up at 5 to go if that happens. And depending on where the sprint is, I want to either lead it out or be in the top three coming out of the last turn."

Heady predictions.

A smaller than expected field lined up - maybe 55-60 racers, a far cry from the 100 racer fields I've seen in the past. As this was my first race since Plainville, the second turn (the first fast one) caused me a tad bit of concern - as I went sweeping through the bumpy right bend, I thought to myself, "Oh, this is my first group ride since April 23rd". I told myself I need to do more group rides. Within a lap I was comfortable in the tightly knit field and found myself racing without a hint of nerves for the rest of the race.

I quickly realized that if I sat at the back of the small field it was sort of like if I started moving up at 5 to go in a big field and it was 3 to go. In other words, if I'm 40 riders back in a big field, I think I'm in a decent "jump off" point, one that allows me to move up to a very good bell lap position. If I'm 40 riders back in a small field, I'm... at the back.

After a few laps of no data (I never looked down), I checked my SRM, wondering what my body thought of the race. Seemed that I would gain about 7-8 bpm on the start/finish hill, lose the same around the rest of the course, and then gain it again. If I rode the hill a bit smarter, I'd only gain 2-3 bpm. Regardless I was well within my comfortable range, in the low-mid 160 bpm range.


The niceties started the crumble in the last ten laps. Suddenly I was working to make sure I wouldn't be gapped off the back. Someone later pointed out I started sitting a bit to one side on the seat. Since I never had a hint of saddle discomfort, I guess that's my "tell", my sign of weakness. I didn't check my heart rate but I'm sure it was a bit higher than the low-mid 160s.

I decided that since I was already in a "3 to go position" (in a large field), I'd skip moving up at 5 to go - it'd be too hard to fight for five laps. So at 3 to go I started to move up. And I sort of rocketed up, so at 2 to go I was watching a team setting up a lead out and a lot of other guys yelling and stuff. It was getting sketchy like it always does.

I heard someone yell to his buddy "Dude! It's one to go, one to go, you gotta move up now!"

And that set the tone.

I moved up a bit, to the outside, and when someone hesitated a couple guys in front of me, I yelled at him to keep going. He or another guy really did go - took off just before the last turn and started sprinting up the hill.

I decided to go for it then, not wait 50 meters till after the turn, and went scampering off after him. My bike kept switching gears (I'd tuned it so aggressively to drop into smaller cogs that it dropped down an extra cog accidentally) so I had to keep shifting to keep my sprint going.

I was going perhaps 85% (I'll have to retrieve the SRM to check, but I'm guessing it was 1100-1200 watts), waiting at some level for the inevitable stream of guys sprinting past me. I don't like sprinting on my own - I'd much rather sprint against others.

Nevertheless something didn't seem quite right. It seemed too easy, too slow. And when I approached the finish line I understood why.

"One lap to go, one lap to go!"


I looked back and saw the field roaring up the hill. I looked forward to the guy who'd jumped before me.

"I thought it was the last lap," he said, looking back at me.

"I did too."

I contemplated doing a "get back in and trounce them in the sprint" move but my legs were dying and that was that.

To everyone's credit no one laughed at me after the race. One magnanimous racer asked me if I did my "final effort before dropping out" bit. Those that knew me probably knew that, as unlikely as it might have been, I sprinted on the wrong lap. I'd never take a flyer at the bell, not in my current state, and I haven't done it successfully for any sprint since 1986. I've also, to my best recollection, never sprinted on the wrong lap. There's always a first time, right?

The missus was proud of my race, regardless of my race end faux pas. With all the non-cycling stress and the resultant skipped training, it would be normal if our expectations were lower than normal. I didn't expect much, honestly, but I knew that I could maintain a torrid pace (in the field) for a long time, and although I hoped I wouldn't have to, I knew I could even sprint at the end of such an effort. It seemed I had plenty left at 1 to go, compared to my last race there where I was simply wondering when my legs would fall out from under me.

I got off the bike, sat in the shade, drank some Gatorade, and cooled down a bit. Ah well. There's always next week.

And next week is Bethel. We'll see how it goes there.

You can trust me on one thing for sure - I'll be making sure I know what lap I'm on.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Racing - Hartford Crit Pre-Race

I've been going through an extremely stressful process in the last few weeks, with the end of it, well, not in sight. With that came a lot of thinking (about myself), talking (mainly with the missus), and a sort of focus on concrete objectives that I haven't seen since I don't know when.

I suppose, thinking of it now, having concrete objectives helps. It's like suffering in racing versus suffering in training. In training, especially solo, it's so easy to just sit up and decide to make the effort "next time". There's no immediate negative feedback, no slap on the wrist, and in fact waiting until "next time" might actually be a better thing.

In a race it's totally different. If I'm hanging on for dear life at the back of the field, you better believe that I'm doing all I can to hang in there. There's no "next lap" if you're off the back. Okay, after the race, there's a "next week". But at the moment in the race there's only the "right here, right now". You get it done or you don't.

That's how my life has been, which is fine. In fact I prefer it that way, this knowledge of exactly what I need to get done and a guideline of exactly how to do it. I can improvise at a certain level, and I think I need that freedom, but the idea of having guidelines, of even just instructions, I like that. Let's put it this way - I had that in only one job in my whole life and when I had that job I loved it.

Ironically I quit it after seven months to go chase some extremely flighty money at a place that had, you guessed it, no structure.

Anyway, life goes on, no matter what you might think while in the midst of a stressful day. And just the other day, driving on a newly discovered training road, I found myself in a deja vu moment.

I had been swapping out CDs of MP3s in the blue car, reveling in the much nicer sound system, cranking the tunes, driving along. The car just aches to be cornered hard, to accelerate hard, even to brake hard, and I tried to oblige, all within the constraints of things like safety, speed limits, and the like.

One CD had a bunch of songs on it from way back when, from the time that I dreamed of being a pro bike racer. Music, for me, has this powerful memory effect. Play something and a flood of images, emotions, and thoughts wash over me. Ah, sweet memories. Dreaming of becoming a pro racer.

Of course the last bit never happened.

I can't climb, I can't time trial, and I struggled to stay with Cat 2s. Forget about the 1s and pros.

But I am pro-like in one very significant aspect. I didn't know about it when I was 19 years old, but in the late 1990s I learned about something called "hematocrit". Pros, it seems have hematocrits in the low to mid 40s. Hit 50% and they consider that a sign of doping. A sign only, no proof, so they ask you to take two weeks off.

And then hammer you with tests to try and figure out exactly what you'd taken to hit that number.

Enough of that. So there I was, driving out in no-where Connecticut. Ironically I'd just had a second vial of blood drawn for a physical. The first one had problems and they couldn't finish all the tests. The platelets - the clotting part of your blood - had clotted. Imagine that.

Anyway, I ask for my blood work results as a habit, and I've saved a bunch of them from over the years. Since my hematocrit is usually pretty high, one of my goals has been to hit the magical 50 mark. Then (as long as I don't have any races coming up) I could raise my hand and say, "Hey, I'm over 50%, I'm going to take two weeks off." Then I'd go do some climbs while I still believed I could, my high hematocrit and all that pushing me up and up.

(Of course, if I had a race, it'd be a different story. I'd bring my various blood tests for the last decade or so and say, "I have a hematocrit of 50% but it's normal, see? May I race?")

I explained this 50% thing to the nurse and said I wanted to hit it. I know it's not really the right thing to aim for but it's kind of cool. Like getting a speeding ticket while riding a bicycle. No I haven't gotten one, and no, that's not one of my goals.

Since I'm going to race in Hartford, my first race since mid-April, I really didn't want to have to raise my hand and disqualify myself. So it was with conflicted emotions that I looked at the blood work numbers.

Can you find the line I check?

Hematocrit: 49.7%

Close, but no cigar.

Yes, I was a bit dehydrated, but nothing major. I didn't eat tons of red meat like I did last time (six or so pounds in five or so days), but last time I was in the 47% range. I have no idea what I did differently, but it felt good to reverse my slide down the charts. See, the first time I checked my hematocrit, it was in the low 49% range. Since then I haven't broken 49%.

So, yes, I was disappointed not to have hit 50%. But 49.7%, that's close. As a bonus, from a technical point of view, I can race in Hartford.

Yes, life has been very stressful recently. But at that moment, listening to some throw back tunes, driving a car that I could only dream about owning when I was 19, a slip of paper next to me announcing my pretty-much-legally-maximized hematocrit, things didn't seem quite so serious.

Now the big question. How do I utilize what I know about my body to race my best at Hartford?

We'll see how I do.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

How To - Clean Your Bike, Illustrated

I did a post a while ago on how to clean your bike but I didn't take any pictures. Since I wanted to redo it and add perhaps twenty three thousand words of description, I decided the easiest way to do it would be to take 23 or so pictures and add a bit of text. I do type a lot but 23,000 words... that's beyond my capabilities for a simple blog post, my other posts not withstanding.

In the previous installment (I focused on the work stand in that post) there is a picture like so:

Equipment you need to clean a bike, including a bike to clean.

You'll need the following equipment:

If you have a hose collect the stuff below:
- One bucket with soapy water (use car wash stuff, the kind with wax in it is fine)
- Simple Green sprayer (on the right, on the ground)
- gear brush (mine is a Park one to the left of the Simple Green, I also have a Pedros one)
- big brush just in case (to the left of the Park brush, I didn't need it)
- car wash mitt thing (the green thing hanging on the rim of the soap bucket.

If you don't have a hose add one bucket of water and a screw type waterbottle. The flip type bottles end up too slippery when they're soapy and wet. Trust me on this.

Here are the the gross "before" pictures.

Ew. Yuck.

Ew, yuck.

First things first. Put it in the big gear - big ring up front, little cog in the rear.

The bike looks fast in its top gear, doesn't it? When I was a kid I'd go downstairs to check my bike before a race. Problem was that I didn't know how to do anything so I just looked at the bike. If I was really antsy I'd hang the bike by bungie cords or ropes and spin the rear wheel as fast as I could.

Set gun to "stun". Okay, not really. Set it to Spray, not Stream. Shotgun, not rifle. Unless you're really good at aiming with a bottle sprayer. I don't know how many times I've sprayed a stream right through the chainring and into whatever was behind the bike.

Start spraying. Hit the chainrings.

Hit the cassette.

I start by scrubbing vertically on the outside of the chain, spraying Simple Green in the bristle area every few brush strokes. Makes the black chain reveal that it's actually silver. Get all the gunk off as you slowly backpedal. Feel free to keep spraying the Simple Green onto the brush/chainring area.

When the plates start looking silver (after one lap of the chain), I start hitting the inner bits of the chain. The outside plates build up a lot of crud on the inside. Push it out using the brush.

When you finish the middle, hit up the chainrings. Wow, the teeth have silver on them. Note that all the gross stuff is streaming down my previously clean cranks. Don't worry, keep spraying, it rinses.


Yikes. I don't know if that's supposed to happen. Is everything melting off my bike?

Rinse and pray.

Hey now. I knew that it would work. (By the way, note even the frame is clean - just hit it up with some Simple Green right before you rinse).

I did the rear without taking pictures. Get the sides and the valleys of the teeth. The valleys hold the actual grit. Get the derailleur pulleys while you're at it. After you rinse, it might look like the picture above. Note that the cassette is so clean you can see the reflection of the blue spacer between the cogs.

Yeah, that blue spacer.

Now wash the bike. You can take the wheels off if you want. If you don't have a stand, you can make do with the wheels on. Either way, use the gear brush around the brake calipers and front derailleur, and spray that Simple Green stuff on the chainstays, seatstays, downtube, and seat tube, since there will probably be chain stuff there.

Start with a soaking wet sponge thing and start washing the bike down. This isn't dripping like it was when I first pulled it out of the bucket because it took a few seconds to dry my hands and pick up the camera. After you soap the bike, rinse it with the bottle.

When you're done, put the frame bit aside. I lean it against something, carefully placing the fork tips and the brake levers on the ground.

A better illustration of how wet you should have the sponge. I'm not squeezing. Wash the wheels off the bike, you need to get ALL of the Simple Green and chain gunk off. You don't want to find that one slippery spot of stuff on the side of the tire in the final turn of the crit, do you?

Take this chance to clean up the cassette if necessary. Yeah, I found some imperfections. Also get the inside of the rear derailleur cage. It's really, really dirty. Trust me.

When you put TWO wheels on at one time on a frame, by yourself, it can be awkward.

Do it like so:

Firrst, put the front wheel on without bothering to tighten the skewer.

Second, put the rear wheel in. It's easier when the front wheel is holding up the fork right? Beats trying to balance the fork tips in the dirt or on the pavement. That's the bit that's tricky. Use the front wheel to hold the front of the bike up off the ground.

Then, after the rear wheel is secure, secure the front.

No fuss, no muss. I'm holding the bike up right after I slipped the front wheel in place. Note the skewer is not closed.

Wow. Looks impressive!

Now for some obligatory "show off the bike" shots.

A clean bike is a happy bike.

Once you're done, bounce the bike gently to shake off any excess water. If you're in arid conditions, this won't be necessary, as the bike dried before I could take all the pictures in the 70 degree, sunny, breezy conditions I had for this shoot.

Lube the chain, paying special attention to the rollers in the middle, and hit up the pivots for both derailleurs. Wipe off excess lube with a towel or rag, repeat once, and you're done.

Congrats! You have a clean and happy bike!

(NOTE: Simple Green, if left on metal too long, will damage it. Chains will actually crack. Rinse with lots of water, and if you have any doubts, rinse more. It's water soluble so if everything looks clear, you're good.)

Friday, May 23, 2008

Equipment - Blackburn Workstand

Unfortunately this thing isn't made anymore, but if someone you know is getting rid of one, you should get it. I like it because it's simple, light, and easy to use. I bad mouthed it at the beginning but at that time I had a 70 pound based professional Park stand and everything else seemed... light.

Now that I'm in the real world, especially since I now live in an apartment type place, it's come in real handy. And I wish I hadn't decided against it so early on.

This is a "Part One" post since I have a bazillion pictures of "How to Clean a Bike". To get things started I'll just show you the stand I used in the process.

Okay, that's it on the buckets, the silver bar thing. Not much to look at, right?

Ah, when you remove the cap it becomes a bit more obvious. There are three aluminum tubes in there, capped on one end in black plastic, threaded on the opposite one.

I have the three legs out (threaded side visible) and I'm showing you the rear two legs on the main "bar" where the word "Workhorse" appears. I think if they had four legs it'd have been better, but maybe it would have added too much cost and complexity.

Here it is set up, the bike in the background. Takes about a minute to set up. Note the sliding front skewer holder - you can move it to fit your bike. Technically you're supposed to be able to mount your bike backwards but I think I'm missing some spacers or something.

Now the bike is there. See how I think the front should have two legs, not one? Also, the stand has an unnerving way of tilting back just a bit. Two front legs would have helped. This tendency to "wheelie" was my main criticism when I first used it.

Close up of how the bottom bracket is supported.

Okay, that was quick and easy. Next up, how to clean the bike.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

How To - Get the Chain Back On Cleanly

In an ideal world, your chain would never fall off your chainring. But it seems that it happens, inevitably, no matter how well you adjust your derailleur.

One thing worse than the chain falling off the chainring is the fact that you have to get it back on just to get going again. And usually, unless you clean your bike obsessively, your chain is covered in black inky stuff that gets everywhere after you finished putting on your chain.

In order to replicate this dilemma authentically, I've (ahem) purposefully neglected cleaning my chain for a few weeks. Combined with a wet lube, my chain is now appropriately "untouchable".

So, if you dump the chain off the rings (like I did one one recent ride), what do you do?

I've seen people fiddle with sticks, leaves, napkins, allen wrenches, all sorts of McGyver tools, trying to avoid touching the gross black chain. But there is one tool you can use, it's free, and it's available anywhere (except when you're falling, but if you're falling that long, getting the chain back on will be the least of your worries). What is that tool?


Yep, good 'ole gravity.

And you thought its only purpose was to slow you on hills.

Gravity is very useful when you have a dropped chain and a bit of time. Now, if you do a Millar and drop it while you're winning the prologue of the Tour, then my technique below would be inappropriate. Get your fingers greasy and expect to need new bar tape for the next ride. But for virtually any solo or understanding group ride, the steps below work well.

First off, please excuse my poor photography. I'm at a loss at how to light things properly without using a lot of lights. Lights are one thing we're a bit short of in our temporary apartment. The flash is great but it lights up whatever is closest.

Anyway, let's start with the premise that you just dropped the chain. If you really want to do this, pedal backwards and toe the lower bit of chain inwards while standing on the drive side of the bike. The chain will derail to the inside of the small ring (if you have a right side drivetrain).

Role playing would add some feeling of authenticity here, so I'll do it in font.

"Egads! I've dropped my chain!"

(For the R rated version you'll have to go on a group ride and listen for the various realistic things to say when someone drops a chain).

Okay, you've dropped your chain. Now what?

Step 1: First verify that you dropped the chain due to a sloppy shift or sloppy adjustments. If the crank is falling off and that's why the chain dropped off, then you should fix the crank or at least figure out if it's rideable. Just make sure the chain dropped and that's it.

No other problems with the bike? Then carry on.

Step 2: Pick up your bike. Yeah, bike riders don't have strong upper bodies, I know, hurts climbing and stuff. Personally I think climbing is overrated, and for me anyway, protecting my collarbone is up there in importance. Having some muscles around the shoulder area helps pad impacts. But some upper body strength also helps in lifting your bike.

Grasp the downtube and lift the back of the bike so high off the ground that your bike looks like it's trying to float away on a balloon attached to the rear wheel. In other words, hold the bike vertically, front wheel down. You should see something like this (if you're staring closely at the bike):

Note the poor, derailed, dirty chain on the poor, dirty bike. I'm holding the bike like this, the picture was not rotated. Chain is kind of limp.

See how the chain is hanging? That's a good sign. If it's not hanging, if it looks sort of jagged like a heart rate line next to a hospital bed, your chain is probably stiff and not happy. A nicely hanging chain is a happy one.

Step 3: Tilt the bike back and forth along its main plane (i.e. parallel to its wheels). You'll see that the chain tilts back and forth too. Tilt the bike such that the chain engages the chainring. You'll want to engage the small ring, or the middle ring if you have a triple. I purposely derailed the chain on my bike from the big ring off into the bottom bracket for these pictures. So the derailleur is positioned over the big ring. Don't worry if your derailleur is too. No matter where the front derailleur is situated, this trick works.

Here is the chain, floating just next to the small ring. I'll tilt the bike clockwise to get the chain to sit on the chainring. And no, Michelin didn't pay me to put the tire label in the picture.

Note that the chainstay (yellow sticker) is now pointing to about 12:30 PM. In the prior picture, it was pointing at about 11:30 AM. I tilted the bike about 1 hour worth. And now the chain is engaged on the small ring, just for a few teeth.

Step 4: Start rotating the cranks with your hand. GENTLY. This will pull the chain onto the chainring.

I'm starting to pedal GENTLY. The chain is just barely engaged. The angle of the lower part of the chain (the right side in the picture above) shows that most of the chain is still derailed. The fact that the right side of the chain (in the picture) is straight means it's no longer hanging limply.

Pedaling here, you can see I've moved the crank about 90 degrees from the prior picture. You can see that the chain has engaged about halfway. The rest of the chain is still off. But with another 90-120 degrees of pedaling, the chain will be on.

And lo and behold, the chain is on. I know, black chain (it's silver when it's clean) on black chainrings are not ideal for photographic purposes. Sorry.

Step 5: If you derailed off the big ring, or you want to put it in the big ring to start off, put the bike down, shift into the big ring, lift the back of the bike up again, and pedal (use your toe to turn the cranks). The chain should go right up there. I didn't take a picture of that but you can imagine it in your head. Or, if you want, practice it with the bike.

Step 6: Check your fingers (the cranks get dirty too), wipe off on your shorts or any very dark pieces of your kit (letters of sponsors' names work, or logos, etc etc). Then, after putting the bike down with a feeling of satisfaction, throw your leg over it and get ready to go.

Chains shouldn't drop off but they eventually do. This will allow you to get going again without touching anything "icky". It demonstrates a certain fluency on the bike and not only will it keep your kit pristine, it will also be another skill you have that differentiates you from the "non-serious" cyclist.

Since the bike is so dirty, I'll be doing some picture type things on how to clean the bike. That'll be coming up later.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Life - Disappointment

I had a first for me in a long, long time - an absolutely crushing disappointment a number of Saturdays ago. October 2007, to be precise. I took a physical test - suffice it to say that I really, really wanted to do well, to pass, to hit the high mark. I actually practiced and did some self-tests to make sure I could pass, and I felt pretty confident of that I could repeat those efforts "under duress", so to speak.

But then I got sick.

I felt ill just before the tests. I didn't have just a fever but I was downright weak, infantile in strength. I thought maybe my nerves were finally getting to me, or maybe, I hoped, that the adrenaline would save me. During my own test sessions I could easily pass the standards so I figured I'd lose a bit off the top due to my illness but still pass nonetheless.

I went, signed in, and promptly failed the first test. Took all of five minutes for all of it to happen.

And with that, I left, dejected. Call the missus and her (our) friends, whose house was my home base for the test. They came by and picked me up and we went back to their house. It would have been one thing if it was like a bike race because, you know, "There's always next week."

But this wasn't a bike race. And there wasn't a next week. It might have been a once in a five year thing, maybe a once in a year thing, but from my point of view, it was simply very important and it was gone.

I suffered in silence for a while. I wrote much of this post right after the test, my dejection pouring out in font, trying to look for something positive in all this negative.

When I got better I looked back on the failed test and said to myself that, hey, I was sick, I know I can do everything, and in fact, when I felt normal again, I went out and blew away the test standards on my own.

So, at some level, I rationalized the result. First off, it gave me a goal - I would take the test again , officially, and I'll pass it. Now, due to some deadline stuff, the next ones really didn't have the same significance as the one I failed because passing the test was also a timing thing. But if I pass the test, I would be ready for the opportunity if/when it appears again.

Second, I'd just have to deal with my failure and the accompanying disappointment.

As a bike racer, I am extremely familiar with disappointment.

Cycling happens to be a great sport for encouraging disappointment. It's not like, say, soccer, where you have a 50-50 chance of winning. In cycling, if everyone was equal, it'd be something like a 1-80 chance of winning (and if you're at a big race, maybe 1-100 or 1-120).

One racer wins. Everyone else loses.

When you play a field game, it's hard to find yourself off the playing field, and in fact, it might even cause everyone to stop and restart the game from the "off" point (if you go out of bounds, for example). In cycling, if you tire and get dropped, you probably won't see the others until they lap you (crit) or you pull into the parking lot (road race). There is no waiting, no resetting the race.

To continue the sport in such circumstances is hard - everyone knows you're not in the game anymore and they watch you trundle along on your own, maybe a polite clap or two to help you on your way. If you have a speck of self consciousness it can be difficult to climb back on the bike. When you race, you're not supposed to get dropped. It's not like the rodeo where everyone expects you get get "dropped" and if you don't, you win.

Imagine if everyone who finished a race "won"?

I suppose this is why my original teammates advised me first to finish races regardless of my position in, or in my case, behind the field. The time trialling I did behind the field was a great way of learning my ultimate limits in a way that was impossible to do on a solo training ride.

Then, after a lot of working hard, at some point it dawns on you that, hey, if I was in the field, it'd be a lot easier. This motivates you to work extra hard not to get dropped. I remember sprinting into the back of a rapidly slowing field, panicked at the thought of letting a gap go. I was 15 years old, had not one iota of a clue of what to do, and I spent the whole race alternating between sprinting and slamming on the brakes.

But, at the finish, I was in the field. I was ecstatic. The first race I finished. And although fathers on the sidelines (I was in a Junior race) were telling me to ride just a bit more evenly, I didn't know how to do all that stuff.

I rode digitally - On or Off. Fast or Slow. One or Zero.

Eventually I learned to meter my efforts, my early introduction to IT not withstanding. I found that my effort dial had some hidden indents in the middle of the range. I no longer had to turn it all the way up, I could just turn it a little bit. Naturally this took some experimenting. In some races I carefully rode myself right off the back of the field, metering my energy just a little too finely.

Ultimately, except for really hilly races where I needed a dial that went to at least 20 and mine only hit 10, I figured out how to do it. I'd go moderately easy until I needed to do something - move up, fill a gap, close a gap, or hang on for dear life - and then I'd peg the needle. Then I'd ease and wait until the next crisis.

In some races there was a crisis eight times a lap (Scotch Plains, NJ). In others, maybe five times a race (I'm not telling which race that would be). Suddenly, Eddy B's matchbook analogy made sense. He likens a rider's legs to a matchbook. It's full at the beginning of the race. For each crisis, each attack, each hard effort, you burn a match.

Your condition depends on how many matches you have in your matchbook.

Some years I'd find myself sawed off the back after literally one effort. A One Match race, so to speak. And usually One Match races were followed by a bunch of other One Match races. My whole season would be something like 20 efforts.

In other years, the opposite would happen. I might make those 20 efforts in the first half of a race. Or, at Scotch Plains, in the first 3 laps of a 50 lap race. The best times were those where even I didn't know what my matchbook looked like. Due to extenuating circumstances, like dropping both bottles at the beginning of a hour long crit in asphalt melting heat, I got to learn the best way - by not running out when I thought it was over. At that race I figured I was running on empty, or would be within a couple laps, so I stopped conserving. I thought I might as well make one more effort so I could do one more lap. And suddenly, at the bell, I was still there, my matchbook still bulging enough that I could scamper off the front going into the last turn of the race (I got second).

Those days are special days, the Matchbook thick with matches, countless matches pouring out. You could set the world on fire on those days.

Of course you do need to be in the race to make it happen. I prepared meticulously for one particular race on a particular year. I raced there a lot and learned all sorts of things. My super fast narrow tires skipped when I attacked in some of the bends on the course. I had to wait forever to launch my sprint. The "sharp" corner wasn't very sharp - I learned I could pedal through it. I put on a bigger small chainring so that I'd have an even narrower and more finely tunable set of gears. And the ornamental rocks lining the course were, to put it mildly, dangerous.

I honed my warm up routine, my diet for the couple days prior (I really carbo loaded in those days, meaning I did a depletion stage, not just fueling up a lot like I do now), I wrapped my bars with new tape, shortened the cables and housing to the minimum necessary, and stacked up my wheels for different conditions (wet or dry - no "aero" back then).

I also knew that I didn't have to sit at the front of the field, an art I hadn't mastered. I knew that it'd be possible to move up aggressively at the end of the race and still have an extremely strong sprint still in my legs.

So, with the laps winding down, I sat in the field. My legs had finally lost that swollen feeling that comes with carbo loading (at least for me). The skin on my legs didn't feel like an overfull water balloon threatening to burst at any second. I knew that my legs were coming around, that they'd be ready to go. I had on my 17mm "fast" tires, the dry weather ideal for their narrow and light design. This also meant I had my ultra narrow and ultra light 17 mm rims.

I couldn't wait for the sprint.

Then, the rhythm of the bobbing backs in front of me changed. I started to brake before I heard the sickeningly familiar sound of bikes crashing onto pavement. I'd gambled on lighter, smaller, and more "aero" brakes, giving up stopping power to save a few grams. I paid the price. I swerved around the stack up right onto the grass, my narrow hard tires suddenly useless on this slippery green stuff.

Riding around a small building nearby I rolled back onto the course, perhaps 200 meters behind the field. No free lap, we'd just gone into 5 to go, so I had to chase. I did my best to close the gap quickly because that's what Sean Kelly said - it's better to sprint across a gap for a kilometer than to spend 50 kilometers time trialing across it.

Problem was I wasn't Kelly, and I blew sky high when I was within maybe 50 meters of the field. I recovered quickly and went into "I'm 15 again" mode and time trialed behind the field.

Incredibly I lost very little time in those last few laps, finishing perhaps 30 or 40 seconds behind the field. The team "den mother" (as we called him) came up to me after I crossed the line, putting his hand on my back, supporting me as I shifted into my smallest gear, a 45x21.

"You did great! You barely lost any time and you were on your own! Great ride!"

I couldn't answer. All my planning, my notes, the work on my bike, the training, it was all gone. I felt devastated.

Yet I continued. And, although I never won that race, I've placed there many, many times.

So, that crushing October morning last year, it was a One Match day, a crushing disappointment, a devastation of morale.

But, after a short break where I moped for a bit, I started back up.

In March of this year, in the middle of the Bethel Spring Series, I went and did the test again.

And I passed.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Life - Pressure

Pressure, pressure...

Not tire pressure.

Today the weather was excellent, the sun beating down, the bright outside making me scurry back inside to retrieve my sunglasses. A great day for a ride, right?

Well, yes. And no.

Actually, I didn't go for a ride. My choice and mine alone, no pressure or anything, and the missus thought it'd be a great day to ride too. Let's put it this way. I didn't sit down to type out some thoughts thinking, "Man, I really wanted to ride today and I'm bummed that I didn't."

In fact, I'm sort of glad I didn't ride. With some non-cycling high stress events in the last week, my non-cycling life has been moving at a rapid pace. Which direction, I don't know, but it's moving rapidly.

Yet there are some things from the spring which I need to wrap up. To me, spring means Bethel and getting my fair weather car out of hibernation. Then, with the missus done with her work (they are busy until April 15th), there's a break which announces "You've made it through another spring!", namely our annual trip to Vegas (at least that's what it's been for two years).

This year though I still need to finish up "spring stuff". For example, with the Bethel Spring Series, the women's trophies need to be sent out. They should be ready but I have to pick them up, package them up, and mail them. I need to finalize the site for the 2008 year as well, with all the results and such posted locally on the site, not just here on the blog.

My fair weather car (it's blue) is still hibernating. Starving for action, I'm sure, but hidden away in a secret garage. With the warmer weather, I'd like to have the blue car here as my default car, and I'll be picking it up from its secret winter hibernation garage tomorrow. Normally I'd have made this switch in late April, but this year other things got in the way.

I keep talking about these unnamed other things. The non-cycling aspects of my life which are moving, namely job and home, are at least in some state of motion. For many months they were in a state of total rest. Tons of potential energy, no kinetic energy. Now the kinetic energy level is increasing, rapidly at some times.

Regarding "job and home". Since the latter ("home", i.e. buying a house) is somewhat dependent on the former ("job" - the missus and I think it to be imprudent to purchase a house without me having a job), it's really the former creating excitement, stress, and anxiety in my otherwise extremely calm life. Since I am uncertain what will happen, and I don't want to jinx anything by mentioning things prematurely, I'll have to leave it as "the situation is changing and that is much better than it simply stagnating".

A potential big thing, especially for the blog, is that if things do work out with the "job", I'll be extremely limited as far as blogging goes, even more so than the pitiful one post per week rate I'm writing at right now. Well, one post a week might be about what I'll be able to do, but not much more than that.

With all this extraneous excitement and stress, my cycling life has been struggling a bit. I find I'm very goal oriented, and without a definitive target in sight, my motivation to ride weakens considerably. Add to that the fact that a non-cycling thing is a big goal for me (and therefore absorbs a lot of my energy) and cycling loses out, even with an upcoming race.

Since I'm pretty sure I'll be racing at Hartford in two weeks (I haven't registered yet), you'd think that was motivation plenty, but it's no longer a target race for me, and the non-cycling bits of my life seem, for the moment, much more important. Even the lure of the Nutmeg State Games feels weak for now, unusual when you consider that New Britain is my absolute favorite course and always a target race for me.

So, if I seem a bit out of it at Hartford, you'll know why. In the meantime, in my non-cycling life, I feel like I'm carrying the leader's jersey in a seven day stage race.

Problem is that it's day four. And there are three hard stages ahead.

I don't know how those other guys do it.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Life - Training Cycle Downturn

Yesterday I got carded.

Not just a joking, "No, I really have to check your ID", but a genuine, "I'll need to see your ID."

I looked up a bit surprised, as did the missus. Was our waitress simply trying to work a nice tip?

Her stern face belayed that thought.

The missus smiled. "He's forty."

The stern face melted into surprise. "No!"

I pulled out my ID.

I got my beer.

See, I've been trying to drink a bit more. I feel like I'm taking a break in my training, sort of a "recovery period". It seems that whenever I take such a break from the bike, I try and start drinking. This way, when I quit, I'll get better. At least that's what all the guys around me seem to do.

"Yo, just quit drinking for a bit. I did, lost 15 pounds, now I'm flying."

(This after the guy destroys me in a sprint.)

So during our break (in Vegas), I tried to drink more than normal. A couple margaritas, a mohito, a couple (full) glasses of wine. I think I managed to get 8 or so drinks down, making my year's total about 10 or 12. I figure I'll need to drink a couple more drinks, then I can quit. Hopefully then I'll lose 15 pounds just like that. Then I can drink again, maybe another 10 or 12 drinks, and lose another 15 pounds when I quit. I'll be like 140 by August.

That's how it works, right?

Drinking, for me, is kind of difficult. Yeah, yeah, laugh all you want. I crammed all my drinking into my college years, then a couple days after that, then... not too much. One big night of booze preceded my best ever Gimbles ride, but that's a long story for another post. At least I'm a cheap drunk, a drink or two and I'm seriously buzzed.

So anyway, I'm in bike racing limbo. No races scheduled, no big bike type trips, nothing. I have this "break" for a couple reasons. One was the aforementioned Vegas trip. I decided to skip riding for the trip, and in fact, against orders, didn't do an iota of work while I was out there. Just a lot of walking around.

The other is a bit more serious - I'm actually trying to get a job. It's a tough life being a "full time cyclist" but I really need to get on with my life. I've been doing a lot of soul searching for the last couple years and I've decided on two possible career paths. I've been thinking about non-bike stuff about as seriously as I think about bike stuff, maybe even more seriously. The missus pointed out that I looked "stressed". Nervous might be more accurate, but part of being nervous is being stressed.

Nonetheless the racing season isn't sitting still. I have one major commitment - to help Connecticut Coast Cycle hold their second CCC Criterium. Luckily it's in Bethel so it's a familiar venue for me. There are a couple minor commitments - riding a sponsor's ride (or helping out at it), finishing up Bethel (we never got the Women's trophies - I have to go pick them up and mail them to the winners), and hopefully, somewhere in there, do a couple races I just love, Hartford and New Britain. There are some other potential projects but I need to be discrete about them for now.

I also want to go down to the urban jungle where I used to do my sprint workouts. Up here I simply can't find a similar area to do sprints and it's really been irking me. Since I want to do it at night, using all my lights and the helmet cam, it'll be a semi production. And since I'll want to do it at night, I'll have to get down there so I can get on the bike at around 9 PM or so.

I also want to do Gimbles, a ride I haven't done since I don't know when, and one that I didn't do for a long time because I worked weekends. Ironically, even without working weekends, I haven't done one in, well, for probably a year or more.

For now though, I'm at the bottom of my first major training cycle of 2008. Almost a week off the bike, minor mileage before and after (seems like my old ways of training), legs complaining even after a short, easy ride.

I've made a few adjustments and adaptations though. First, I never got my shifting down right on the new bike. It never dropped down well in a sprint, making my jumps less than optimal. Actually I was scared every time I jumped that it wouldn't shift, so I eased into my sprints. I've fiddled with it for a bit and now it's good. My jump should be its chain slamming self again.

Second, my right knee was bugging me. I normally adjust my cleats one way for a narrow Q-factor crank, another for wider ones. I thought the narrow Cannondale cranks would be fine with my standard narrow Q-factor angle but I seem to be wrong. I went with my wide Q-factor angle and my knee twinges disappeared. I always think your body will let you know what it wants to do, and I've been riding the trainer a lot while twisting my foot a bit. Now the cleat is in such a position that I don't exert any twisting force on my foot. Hopfully this translates to no knee pain/twinges.

I'll do a harder ride tomorrow to verify both these things were really fixed. And then start on Part 2 of my 2008 season.

See you out there.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Racing - Worrying About Crashing

On the forums, in the race section, riders inevitably post a question about racing and crashing. It might be phrased one way ("Should I do the Masters 5 race or the normal 5 race?") or another ("Should I race my race bike or my beater bike in my first crit?"), but ultimately they ask the same question: "Will I crash?".

Such questions garner a flurry of responses. Some people think using the beater bike negates the reason for buying a race bike. Others think that the Masters are always safer. You'll even find people who think that if you're worried about crashing that you shouldn't race at all.

As someone that's been racing for a long time, mainly in the 3s, and riding in high pace groups for even longer, I *know* that I have an opinion, but it was hard to express until I thought about it some. So here is my rule:

If you feel comfortable in a big group ride (20+ riders) where at least a bunch of them are racers, then you'll be fine. If you don't know what riding comfortably in a 20 rider group feels like, then you're probably not ready to race.

Racing is like a performance, a show, where you use your known bike skills, kind of like playing a violin at a recital.

At a recital you don't play the piece you're just learning. Likewise you don't ride at your absolute limit of bike handling when you race, except in emergencies - but hopefully even then you're within your comfort range. Fine, the pace may be hard, but the bike handling should be easy.

When you select a piece for a recital, you play a piece that you play extra fast because you've played it so many times it's boring. When I played violin I was performing pieces that I'd finished learning a year or two earlier. I never performed the last couple pieces I worked on because I never got super comfortable with them. Since they were the equivalent of, say, time trialing at 29 mph (i.e. Cat 2 or 1 level), I realized I lacked something in violin playing. The last piece was especially hard for me - I struggled to learn the first 1/3 of it for a year and never mastered it. So I stopped taking lessons because they cost a fortune and I didn't want my parents paying for them. To give it perspective my sister blew through those same pieces when she was 12 or so, and she studied pretty consistently for another 12-15 years. If I was a decent Cat 2 on the violin, she is probably a domestic pro level violin player.

Bike racing was more fun so I kept racing

So, if you are worried about crashing, check out how you ride and decide for yourself.

You steer with your hips? (Aero wheels require a smidgen of bar input in addition to hips)
You coast when you need to ease, not brake?
Can you regularly get within 3-6 inches of a rider you know?
You hold a straight line when you look around?
You look down to look back when you're in tight company?
You understand you cannot choose your line when you're in a field?
You understand the difference between riding on the hoods and riding on the drops? Implications regarding braking, accelerating, turning?
You feel comfortable bumping someone?
You rarely (if ever) bump someone except in drills?
You check your rear quarters before you move laterally?
Can you ride out of the saddle and have your *torso* follow a straight line?
Can you do that without thinking about it?
Can you avoid being near riders you want to avoid?

If you answer affirmative to all these things then you should go race. If you don't, I'd consider doing more group rides, doing drills with someone more experienced, etc etc.

Most crashes are caused by one of a few things: Lack of group riding skills/judgment, lack of individual riding skills/judgment, mechanicals, or conditions.

Almost all crashes are caused by lack of group riding skills or judgment. Skills are easy to define - these are things you need to be able to do without crashing yourself or others. Drafting in close quarters, light bumping or touches, being able to hold a line, things like that. Judgment refers to making decisions without taking into account the group around you. So if you decide to set up for a right turn by swerving left first and you *don't* take into account all the riders to your left, you'll probably cause a crash. The latter is a more common error in racing - many riders know how to ride in a group but still ride like they're out on a solo training ride.

A decent percentage of them are caused by inferior mechanical work. Typically they include crashed caused by a poorly installed chain, poorly installed tire, lack of general maintenance, or even a catastrophic mechanical (i.e. one that has no warning and a 100% part fails catastrophically). I've rarely (if ever) seen a true catastrophic mechanical and this is almost never the actual cause of a crash. Even when my bottom bracket axle snapped in two I had ample warning which I thought was unimportant (my cranks creaked for a while - I figured I'd overhaul the bottom bracket "next week"). I've seen horrific accidents caused by poorly installed chains and tires, guys doing faceplants in sprints when their chain breaks. On the many occasions I examined the chain afterwards it was obvious that they chain was installed incorrectly - the crash was no accident, it was an incident directly related to the chain's installation.

A few crashes are helped by course conditions. Weather is an obvious condition - pros are notorious for going down on wet pavement, probably because they are so strong they can ride fast enough so even in semi-sketchy conditions they're already pushing the limits. I, on the other hand, have no reason to go so fast in the wet so I slow and tip toe around the turns. Course conditions count too - a huge descent with a foot deep pothole in the middle of a blind corner is a recipe for disaster. So too is a hairpin turn where the pavement suddenly drops down, or is covered in sand. The first few riders in the group will probably be fine but the riders following close behind will be tested to their individual riding skills' maximum.

Finally there's the race situation. The third turn on a criterium course normally doesn't change too much during a race (except for weather or a spilled bottle), but that turn will be very, very different on the first lap of the race versus the last lap. Usually the first few laps are not super critical so racers will be a bit more spread out, a bit more forgiving, and much more willing to let a spot go. On the last lap? Everyone will be fighting viciously for their spot, lead out riders will explode and go flying backwards, and people will fly into turns very, very hot. The slightest error or misjudgment and racers will start toppling like dominoes.

I think a lot of Cat 5 crashes are caused by riders who do not take into consideration those around them. It's driving vs operating your bike or a car. You might be able to drive a car and turn left and right and stop while in a "driving course" like a parking lot.

Now can you do the same thing on a public road without bumping into things - other cars, the curb, telephone poles, buildings? It's much more difficult - in fact, if you check the news, you'll see just how difficult it is for some people - and because of that there are a lot of laws designed to help you. For example, a basic law is that we drive forward on one side of the road (in the US, the right side). Another is that if you're driving on a multi-lane road, you're supposed to stay in your lane, marked by stripes on the road. A red light means you stop. A green light means you go. Etc.

Now take it to a race track (but no racing for now). You have no lane stripes, no signals, no stop signs. Just a wide expanse of pavement. On straights it's pretty simple, just don't steer into another car. But corners? It becomes very, very different when you're driving a car and there is no line separating you from another car in a corner. Now it's up to both of you to keep your tires out of each others' cars. Who gets the inside line? Can you even drive on the outside? How fast can you go?

One more step though, because you still need to race. Get back on that race track but reward those who finish first. It's a whole different ballgame now. Not only do you have to think about your individual skills (how fast to corner, when to brake), you also have to think about your group skills (if a car is to my left, how should I drive to keep both of us from colliding), your tactics (if that car to the left wants to pass me, how can I prevent him from doing so), and finally your judgment (I could just turn left and ram him, or I could brake a bit later than he brakes).

Sounds intimidating, right? It really isn't.

Your individual riding skills, those you work on every time you ride. Easy days are the best - you can concentrate on holding a straight line, taking drinks without looking down, looking back without swerving, riding one handed, riding no handed, even practicing victory salutes (optimists) or bike throws (slightly less optimistic racers).

Group riding skills require riding in a group (of course). Focus on not making waves while being in the draft. Pedal a bit more softly than normal, make gradual changes in pace, get comfortable riding side by side with someone, things like that. Drills are required for practicing some more intricate stuff - touching wheels, bumping shoulders/elbows - because practicing those things will eventually cause you to fall and you want to fall in controlled circumstances. I'd recommend a grassy field, lots of layers of clothing, and low speeds.

Riding judgment is difficult to teach, but it's pretty easy to remember a few "rules". A good one is that if someone in front of you stands, you should stand too. Standing carelessly will throw the bike back about six inches. If you're behind a careless stander, you'll need to avoid this bike shooting backwards at you. You can swerve (not ideal), brake hard (less ideal), or imitate the rider and stand also (probably the best choice). This is why you'll see a field of riders suddenly stand (and maybe some swearing around those that swerve or brake instead) - one guy stands and everyone follows.

Generally speaking, when dealing with a slightly slower rider in front of you, it's better to coast than to swerve, swerve than to brake, and brake than to crash. When dealing with a rider who is slowing significantly (i.e. he crashed onto the pavement or he sat up) then your choices are different. You'll have to exercise judgment and figure out what's best. Ultimately, if no racer or bicycle gets hurt, you probably chose right, no matter you hear out of the other riders' mouths.

Finally you have to think about tactics. If someone does do a faceplant in front of you in the sprint (you'll probably think "bad chain install" if you've read everything to this point), what should you do? Swerve? Brake? You have to accommodate all the factors above - your own riding skills, group riding skills, and judgment - to decide.

Can you brake at all? Meaning are your hands near the brake levers? If not, you already screwed up on judgment. Do you know how to initiate a hard swerve? If not, you need to work on individual skills. Do you know if it is safe to swerve, i.e. if there is a rider next to you? If not, then you need to work on group riding skills.

I should note that contact is an absolute last resort. You should never choose contact over less aggressive moves. If you're trying to barge into a line of riders just before the finish, you should not push, shove, tap, poke, etc. anyone. Contact is almost always a result of lack of group riding skills, lack of judgment, and/or lack of tactical astuteness.

One guy (got second in the P123 race one week) passed me so closely his elbow ended up inside my arm-chest-thigh triangle of space. But no contact, not one iota. He knows how to ride extremely smoothly, he knows how to ride in a group and he also judged exactly how comfortable I'd be in that situation, that I wouldn't freak out. Tactically his move was somewhat necessary - we were at the back of the field, the pace was hotting up, and I kept getting gapped. An excellent move, completely appropriate, nothing to fault there.

In a different race, many years ago, in the 3-4 race (of course), a guy wanted to attack the field going up a short hill. He shifted up, put his head down, and launched a sharp attack. Problem was that he was in the middle of the field. He slammed into the guy in front of him, bounced off of him, ran the guy to his left off the road, and, with a clear path (all the other racers were rapidly moving right to avoid the carnage), he launched his attack. It came to naught as everyone chased down this lunatic who just barged into a bunch of guys. Strung out in single file, they caught him right away. Instead gently merging with the group he slammed into a guy in the single file line of racers.

Now, although you may laugh at the ridiculousness of the incident, it illustrates a few things. First off, the barging rider knew how to ride a bike, individually. I'm a decent bike handler and I'd be hard pressed to ram into someone so hard they crash. But the barging rider lacked group riding skills, judgment, and tactical astuteness.

I know a lot of Cat 4s and 3s can't answer affirmative to all those questions above but that doesn't change how I feel about them. They are group riding skills mixed in with some judgment. I think everyone who races should know and feel comfortable with all of them. If you do not feel comfortable with them, you should work on them. For exercises involving more than one or two riders (bumping and touching wheels come to mind right away), ask your team to organize something. Judgment and tactics you can practice on group rides, and, eventually, in races.

I guess that ultimately, if you are worried about crashing, work on answering all those questions above to the affirmative. If you can, you've significantly reduced the chances of taking a fall. Although that's no guarantee of not crashing, you can stop thinking as much about crashing and a little more about racing.