Monday, December 7, 2009

A Sweet End to an Amazing Season

This Sunday marked the finals of the Urban Cyclo-cross Series here in Los Angeles, and was a big day for me on the bike. Fans of mine and this blog already know that I've already locked up the leaders jersey in the Category 4 series. Being undefeated in the first 4 of 5 races and with no one even close to me in points, all I had to do is show up and collect my leaders jersey. Which I did of course, but the real story here is the next more advanced category I'd been racing - the 3/4's where I was tied for first place.

At the start line when the call-ups were being made the race organizer mistakenly called me out at the series leader. Rob Langone, the actual leader and I corrected him, and he announced to the crowd that we were the race to watch as the leader's jersey was on the line. In Cyclo-cross, series leaders or past race winners get the advantage of pole positions for the start. As Rob and I lined up next to each other I told him that I was not so secretly hoping that he wasn't going to show up today. He admitted that he was hoping the same.

At the whistle we were off and Rob jumped out ahead of me looking strong. From the start line there was a fast down hill section that bent hard to the right through a taped off section. In past races these were exactly the sections where Rob had the advantage. He's got good power, but he's an even better bike handler. To my surprise he took a wide line and blew the first turn. I slipped to the front and stepped up the pressure. From out of no where some giant guy on a Giant brand bike shot out ahead of us up the trail. We both knew to let him go. We were the race within the race and it didn't matter what our over all position was. All that mattered was which of us finished before the other.

I stayed out front for 1/2 of the first lap until we got the the steep barrier dismount and run-up section. Here I blew my line and lost control of the front wheel. To keep things upright I had to hop of the bike sooner than I would have liked. Rob got smoothly through the turn and rode up to the barriers, pulling ahead. With our bikes slung over our shoulders he was opening a gap on me as we ran up the hill. This was a critical moment. Following the run-up was a very technical descent over loose ground and through some trees. If I didn't stay close to him the race could be lost on the first lap.

I buried my fear and followed his line down the hill. Staying off of the breaks I slid through loose stuff and jinked through the tree chicane at the bottom. We hopped through the second obstacle section and as we passed through the start/finish I tacked myself to Rob's back wheel. The announcer called out our names as we rode over the line, reminding the huge crowd of 20 people that we were the race to watch. The series championship was on the line.

Back on the climb for the second time another rider came around us and we let him go. Still on Rob's wheel our over all position was 3rd and 4th now. As the trail narrowed I sensed that Rob was holding back, which was smart. There was a lot of racing still to do and we weren't out to win the race that day, just beat each other. But something was off. The pace was getting a little too easy. Sitting on his wheel on the climb I was actually starting to recover. Heart rate was coming down, breathing was getting a little easier, the tunnel vision that comes with oxygen debt was clearing up. "Just stay with him," I told myself as we bombed back down the dangerous single track section.

Back at the bottom of the dismount and run-up section, Rob made his fatal mistake. He caught a toe on the barrier and tripped. While I didn't actually see it happen - this was where I opened up a gap. Through the start/finish again with 5 laps to go I stepped up the power. Unlike me, Rob had some actual fans at the race cheering him on - I could hear them calling his name from behind. He was still close enough to be dangerous. This was the time kick hard. Back on the climb I pushed it at my pace this time. Missing, was the sound of his bike behind me. The gap was beginning to widen.

If there's one thing I've learned about racing Cyclo-cross, it's that the race is never over until you cross the line. There are too many things that can go wrong. The key is to stay focused and ride to the best of your ability preparing for, but not being overwhelmed by things that may go wrong.

Suddenly, I misjudged an obstacle hop and felt my back wheel bottom-out hard on a metal pole. A cracking sound began from the back wheel on each revolution. Heading up the hill alone I started to worry. I had just had the rear wheel fixed from an incident at the Storm the Beach race. I now had a dilemma. Do I stop in the pit and put on the spare wheel, risking that Rob may gain back some time and catch up? Or, do I press on with the noisy carbon Zipp 303 Tubular risking a cataclysmic wheel failure that may end the whole race. Carbon fiber doesn't usually give the bike rider any advance warning of failure - when it fails it goes from seemingly fine to total failure with no in between! At the dismount through the creek felt the rim before remounting and didn't feel any obvious damage. I decided to stay with the bike and not loose time in the pit.

Two laps to go and I was running up the hill over the barriers with the bike over my shoulder, when the uncertainty of Cyclo-cross struck again. Jumping over the first barrier I cracked my shin on the two foot high wooden plank. The bike launched off of my shoulder and tumbled up the hill while I smacked the dirt face down. Adrenalin surged and I was back on my feet with the bike on my shoulder in an instant. The remount revealed that my left break hood was knocked inward 45 degrees. I punched it pack into position and made a payer to the bicycle Gods that the bike would still roll. It did! and the awful noise from the back wheel stopped as well.

The next two laps were just about keeping it under control. In the gravel pit Rob and I crossed going in opposite directions - having never beaten him before I asked if he was OK and he reached across and gave me a high 5 conceding the win. What an amazing good sport and a good guy. The announcer declared me the series winner as I crossed the line. I stopped after the and waited for Rob. I shook his hand and told him that he set the bar this season and it was great racing against him.

Here's his account of what happened:

Going out on a high I decided that this was going to be my last race of the season. There have been great highs and awful lows. This year I learned how to win. But more importantly, I learned how to loose. It's never over and there is always that next race. Each time on the bike is a learning experience to get better and smarter. So for this year I'm hanging up the cross bike and looking ahead to a big season on the road with my new road team.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Disaster at the State Regional Championships: Crashes, Flats and the Hangover of Defeat

This past week has felt like a really bad hangover - the regret and pain of it slowly dissipating as the hours go by, occasionally brought back to mind by some reminder of everything that went wrong. I feel sick. Every time I see a state flag I'm reminded of was supposed to have been. This Bear Jersey was was going to be mine.

For some context, I've been having dreams about this race for the past two weeks. In some I've won, some I've lost, others thrown away by technicalities and mishaps. A state Jersey has been a dream of mine every since my first cat 5 race. This year I had a real shot at it. With four wins and numerous placings across categories, this was going to be my year. I had to win.

Minutes before the race, there was time for one last warm-up lap around the course. The grassy section was especially rough. My chain was slapping against the frame when my cranks suddenly froze up. Some guys stopped to help but the chain was getting sucked up in the derailleur pulleys. This wasn't going to get fixed out on the course. With just a few minutes to spare before the race I picked up the bike and ran it back toward the the start finish area toward the Montros Bike Shop's warm-up tent. The shop's owner, Johnathan had built my bike and while I don't race for his team, I was counting on a bit of goodwill to get me rolling again. And I got it. The cassette lock ring had come loose - a simple fix, but not the kind of problem you want minuted before the most important race of the year. Slightly rattled by the near disaster - I rolled over to the start line just in time to get a good position before the whistle.

Two laps into the race I was solidly in second place. The kid challenging me for the number 2 spot faded every time I got on the gas on the flat, fast sections. After a couple of turns, I dropped him. With 4 to go I drilled it on the fast paved section across the start finish. Carrying too much speed I over-cooked it off of the pavement onto the grass. My front tire washed out and I went over the bars hitting the ground hard and heard myself grunt as I made impact on the grass and gravel. Back on the bike, my front wheel wouldn't clear my breaks. Quickly I released the cantilever and got back under way - my closest competitor was still far behind.

Back down onto the pavement I had the chance to see the state of my front wheel. It was wobbling badly and rubbing against the break caliper. I knew I was going to have to get to the pit. 500 meters to go over undulating rough and lumpy grass, a gash opened in the side of my tubular. The front wheel was flat and I had a way to go before the pit. Tubular tires can safely roll for a while when flat, but controlling a flat front wheel over rough terrain proved difficult. I had to let off the gas to keep the bike under control. No one had passed me, yet.

In the pit it I scrambled to get to my spare wheel. I ripped the front wheel off and plowed my way through the dense collection of spare bikes and wheel sets. Two bikes toppled over before I found my wheels. Some neutral support guys standing around offered to hold my bike while I attached the spare wheel. Quick releases are very simple, especially when changing a front wheel. But not this time. I could barely see what I was doing and my hands felt like they belonged to someone else. What should have taken 30 seconds was taking far too long as I struggled to get the adjustment right - to tight, too loose, to tight again. "FUCK," I shouted, and some joker in the pit asked the official standing there if I ought to get docked for cursing. Finally the wheel was back on and I launched back on to the course.

I had lost a lot of time. There was no telling how many positions I had lost while I was struggling with my wheel. I began picking off a few slow guys, but I wasn't making up enough ground. I kept up the pressure all the way to the line and even managed a sprint with a guy who tagged onto my back wheel. But it was over and I knew it. That crash cost me the race.

When the results were posted - I was listed as 5th. It was a terrible result. I didn't even look to see who was first, nor did I bother to snap my customary picture of the sheet. I said good bye to my teammates and headed home.

A day later I got an email from a team mate Dave Bianco. This had been his first Cyclo-cross race, and the sting and regret of my loss was about to get worse. Here's what he wrote:

I share with hesitation, but here's the real heartbreaker. They had me down as first place, state champ. Well, that's not right. I told the officials and they said its already been posted and no one protested. So, anyway, that puts you on the podium in 3rd. The guy who won had a 1-day license which means the state jersey honorably goes to the guy in 2nd. Damn tubulars.

The truth was that Dave finished way back in the pack - not last but nearly so. I was at work when I got this email and couldn't concentrate all day.

A week has passed and I still can't look at a California State Flag without feeling a wave of regret. Looking back I realize that while I should have won this race, the loss was my own doing. I had put too much pressure on a single day. The district state championship was basically just another race and I should have treated it that way. Of all the races I've won this year there was never one where I pulled up to the line thinking that I HAD to win. But this time I did and the psychological stress was too much. I did however learn how not to approach a race. From prepping my equipment to my state of mind, I'm about ready for a little break from racing and a reset to hang up the cross bike and get back out on the road.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Post Ride: The Dumb Things Rodies Say

Created by a teammate of mine Spencer Canon from my new team: Ritte van Vlaanderen

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Numbers Game: Winning 2 Jerseys is better than 1

This past weekend delivered another trip to the top of the podium, making it 4 consecutive 1st place finishes in the SoCal Urban Cyclo-cross series. The November 15th race in Torrance featured a challenging single track climb that gave way to a dismount and run-up. There was plenty of sand sections and some nice long flat lengths to get in the drops and crank up the speed. There were only a couple 180 degree hairpins which is good for me. Tight corners over technical surfaces are definitely a weakness of mine, this was another course that was made for a power rider like myself.

From the gun, I drilled it off the front. The single track climb was the first obstacle and I didn't want to be behind anyone the first time up. If some one were to fall down or get caught up in front of me while a strong guy got away on the first climb, I could loose the race in the first 45 seconds. That scenario wasn't going to play out as I opened a big gap up the climb. For two laps the second place guy was in sight, he was fading though, and disappeared with 4 laps to go. For the rest of the race I just kept the power on and rode within myself crossing the line nearly a minute ahead of my closest competitor.

For a victory salute I opted keep my hands on the bars this time. Instead of the double number 1's I was going to execute a radical powerslide in front of the crowd at the finish line. I had a good amount of speed and mashed down on the rear break and started to lean over. I was going too fast. My front wheel suddenly lost traction washing under neath me, launching me over the bars. What was supposed to be a graceful slide turned into a spectacular blunder as I toppled over the bars in a cloud of bike, limbs and dust. Unhurt, I jumped up and the spectators began laughing. "Now THAT'S a Dismount," exclaimed a race official.

Things got even more interesting after the second race of the day. This time around I was racing in the harder 3/4 category. Noticeably absent from the competition was the first place series leader Robert Langone. I rode well and pulled out a respectable second place, giving me enough points to tie Robert for 1st. have a look:

This puts me in the unique position to win two leaders jerseys in one year in two separate series. Robert's a strong rider though and not going to give up his lead easily. We square off on December 5th.

Monday, November 16, 2009

When 3rd is 1st

The Southern California Prestige Series of Cyclo-cross hosted the most interesting course I've seen in my brief but undeniably successful first season of cross racing. Right on the beach in the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base, the course featured a 400 meter stretch over the hard pack sand on the Pacific Ocean. The runup section was surrounded by rusty razor wire left over from amphibious assault exercises.

When Third is First. While off the the front on a solo raid and first place a near sure thing, I flatted with three laps to go. I lost nearly 10 places and battled back to get the third place spot on the podium.

The course was practically made for me. Like a crit on fire roads. On the beach in the first lap I put a little pressure on the front. Looked back to see that I opened a big gap. No one followed. two laps later and I herd the announcer tell the modest crowd that I was under no pressure at all. Little did he know that I was at my limit. But the gap was getting bigger.

Into the third lap I began contemplating the win. "It's not inevitable," I told myself. "Still three laps to go. Just keep the Watts up and take it easy thought the..."

My back tire began hissing air. Unbelievable. A mile from the pit, my rear carbon rim dragging over the dirt on a flat tire. I made it to the beach and the softness of the hard pack sand made it possible to ride on the flat. But not fast enough. My insurmountable lead vanished and I began getting passed. My team mate Dave Turner came past offering some conciliatory words, and then the anger set in.

In the pit I begged for a wheel. Guys there looked away like I was a bum holding a cardboard sign at a freeway off ramp. After a second plea, one of them offered up a wheel. He helped me get it on and I was back out onto the course. This time down the hill into a deep sand pit the culminated into a 180 degree hairpin. I saw few people manage to ride through this section. Most guys tried, but had to clumsily dismount at the last second, loosing precious time. The key was to hop off the bike while there was still momentum and run through the deep sand. I nailed it and began making up time, quickly passing my first set of guys.

One lap to go and each bend on the course offered up another set of guys to pass. Back on the beach for the final time and I caught up with Turner. As of this post is the yellow jersey leader in the 3/4 35+. While never having won one this year, he's consistant finisher. While his lead is without what the french call "panache" he is the leader nonetheless. This meant I must be near the front. I drilled it a final time over the dismount and run-up.

I crossed the line with nothing left, throwing my bike to the ground. "Hey, take it easy on my wheel," shouted the guy who's wheel I was thrashing. I apologized and he gave me a pass. He saw the serious ground that I made up after the flat, and seemed happy to have made my comeback possible.

When the results finally came in I managed to pull out 3rd overall. A guaranteed win melted into total loss yet somehow came back to a respectable bronze. Cyclo-cross is amazing.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Strength, Wisdom, Agility: A Strange Realization in Feline Inspiration

While not having been previously mentioned here on this blog, another interest of mine is our pet cats. Halloween has created a unique opportunity for my personal passions to intersect in a strange and interesting way. Bicycle racing being the nexus of things, the last time this alignment happened was when I got to work on the Giro d'Italia at Universal Sports. Job + bike racing = fun job. This time, a last minute costume idea inspired a race mantra that lead me to my third, first place result of the season. The strength of Edward, The Wisdom of Louis, and the agility of Gracie.

As I pulled away from the second place guy and cleared a nice gap off the front of the race, I felt my costume cat ears begin to blow back on my helmet and the costume tiger tail begin to bounce on my back. From a joke costume I began to pull inspiration from thoughts of our pets.

Edward. The Middle Child. A pure bread Main Coon with champion show lineage. He's brutishly large for a house cat by any standard. Zero fat with big bones, he tops the scales at over 20 lbs. Hulking paws and a powerful lope, Edward is STRENGTH,

Louis. The OG. 13 years old and full of love. He's cautious yet brave, graceful in his autumn. He's trustworthy and gentle. Like an old furry Yoda, Louis is WISDOM.

Gracie. The Street Cat. A rescue who filled the gap between the boys. Lightning fast and still very much a kitten, she's demanding and precise. Independent and nurturing there's not a remote height of the house she cannot access. Gracie is pure Agility.

Continuing what has been and amazing once in a life time season on the bike, I win yet again.

Here's a bit of what the weekend looked like in amazing full color video:

The Real Hat Trick: A Weekend of Racing Yealds Another 1st Place from Litterbox on Vimeo.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Mens Cat 4 (1-99) Cyclo-Cross Rankings in CALIFORNIA

Pleased to discover that my hard work on the cross bike has paid off with some very nice state wide results. Even without the last week of wins, I'm currently ranked number 2 in the state of California. After this weekend I'm confident about moving up to number 1. I'm hoping to stay in Cat 4 for the State Championships in November. Having a State Championship Jersey has been a dream of mine since I started racing. Is this the year?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Two Days, 5 Races and Every Step of the Podium

Besides having great riding weather year round, Southern California offers amateur bicycle racers lots of opportunities to compete. The cyclo-cross scene is no exception with two competing race series that allow for racing on Saturday and Sunday’s through out the fall. Saturday’s line-up was the SocalCross Prestige series and Sunday offered the Urban Cyclo-cross series. While I do my best to stay out of the local cycling club and race organizer politics, I have observed that there is a rivalry between the two local race series. Without knowing the details, this animosity was enough to bring Saturday’s race organizer to tears.

For those of you with a proclivity for instant gratification and prefer video over prose, we'll start this race report with a visual account of Sunday's racing action from the Urban Cyclo-cros series.

First Place for the Second Time. from Litterbox on Vimeo.

With two 1st place results in the Urban Cyclo-cross series cat 4, I'm now the points leader and am close to locking up the actual leaders jersey which they award at the end. Looks like another pair of yellow socks for this coming weekend.

It's also worth pointing out that I got 3rd in the in the mixed 3/4 field. That result has me in second place overall in the series for that more difficult category. Here are the full series results.

Back to Saturday here's the full prose account of my day in the Socal Cross Prestige series:

The first race of the day was the Category 4. The field of 30 or so guys sized each other up at the start line. Guy with hairy legs - not a threat. Dude carrying that inner tube of body fat stuffed under his jersey – not a contender, just don’t get stuck behind him on the first narrow stretch. Muscular looking 23 year old in the skin suit – hmm, he looks fast.

On the whistle we were off, sprinting from the gun to get good position on the pavement before the race turned into the park and on to the grass. I was about 5 wheels back from the front and began the work of picking off the guys ahead one by one. The #4 man lost control on a loose patch of dirt and got tangled up in the barrier tape. One down. Number 3 was starting to breath so heavily I could hear him puffing from behind. His head started to hang down a bit and he was starting to crack. I went around him and never saw him again. The next two guys were just a formality and I found myself at the front again. Familiar territory these days. I dialed back my effort from extra hard to regular hard and settled in to do this for another 30 minutes.

Three quarters through the first lap and I took a look back over my shoulder, hoping to assess the size of my lead. It wasn’t much. On my wheel was the super fit 23 year old and he didn’t look like he was in any pain at all. On the next open stretch I poured on the coals hoping to crack the kid. I took another look back. Still on my wheel, he said, “I’m not going anywhere.” It looked like we had a real race on.

Into the section of 180 degree hairpins on deep, loose dirt, I blew the corner nearly loosing the front wheel. To keep from toppling over I had to pill a foot out and tripod it through the turn. The fit kid handled the turn perfectly and came around me. Pissed at myself I passed him on the next straight patch and drilled it again. I had to shake this guy. Checking back again, and he was still there, “You’re not going to drop me,” he reminded me. We were coming to the completion of the first lap and bunny hopped off the grass back onto the pavement to the start finish line. If I couldn’t drop him, I was going to make him do some of the work. I sat up and took my foot off of the gas. This annoyed him, “So that’s how it’s going to be?” he said, then started a sprint for the grass. It took a 100% of what I had to stay with him, but he wasn’t going to drop me either.

With a stalemate established we had locked up 1st and 2nd place. We could see a guy behind us holding down 3rd, but that’s where he was going to stay. The fit kid let off a bit and we both settled into the “regular hard” pace. The third and fourth place guys were somewhere behind us, but we sensed that they weren’t going to be a factor. Fit kid and I weren’t going to get rid of each other so took turns pacing for the next few laps.

Each time we got to the 180 hairpins on the loose ground Fit kid seemed to get through faster than I did. On the penultimate lap he asked if I was a road rider. “I could tell,” observed. On the bell lap the pace picked up again. That tricky hairpin was coming up again and I knew I had to stay with him through it.

Into the 180 for the final time and he played his card. Coming by me on the inside and peddling through the difficult section he opened a gap. I blew the turn again, and was chasing. Evenly matched, he wasn’t getting any further away, but I wasn’t getting any closer. The gap stayed the same even as we opened up our sprints to the line. Fit kid took first and I happily settled for second. We’ll played, Fit kid.

Race #2

The Next two races on Saturday ended with mechanicals. In the 35+ ¾ I was holding down the third place position and gaining on the second place guy. He had gone out hard, opening up a sizable lead on the first lap of the race. I thought for sure that him and the first place guy were gone. But before the lap was over he was showing signs of fatigue. The line across the back of his shoulders had begun to bow down toward his handlebars, and his once big gap was shrinking. I was beginning to think that I had second place locked up for a second time, when disaster struck.

My back tire developed a fast leak. I tried to ride through it for an other lap but was beginning to loose control in the turns. To keep the bike upright I had to back way off the gas. Guys were starting to come around me. Second place gave way to third, then fourth and so on. Like the escaping air in my Tufo tubular tire, so went my chances at a result. Finally the bike became unmanageable and I pulled off into the pit and threw a tantrum. In the tradition of Danish Tour champ Bjarn Reese, I picked up my bike and threw it onto the ground. Thankfully no one was running a camera on me. It was without doubt an embarrassing performance.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Little Man: Impressive Performance from a Future Star

Here's a great clip of a father/son team on what I estimate was the medio fondo. This clip features great image of the 15% grade where people were reduced to walking their bikes. Little Liam, like myself -rode all the way up.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

GranFondo: My ride with Levi Leipheimer

Things had gotten a little dark. I was 85 miles into the GranFondo, with 25 to go, and I was entering what my coach called the "pain cave." It's the place where you're mind begins to give in to physical suffering and negative thoughts become a feedback loop of self doubt and pain. After a fast, long stretch south on highway 1 from Jenner the ride got hard again as the tailwind gave way to yet another vicious vertical pitch. It was hard to tell if the hoards of people walking their bikes up Coleman Valley Road were an motivator or a curse. At least I wasn't walking the bike, although it did look easier. One woman wore flipflops as she pushed her bike up the grade. Even through the suffering I thought to look at her pedals to check if they were "flipflop" compatible. They weren't. She had SPD's, but had the foresight to bring walking sandals.

When the grade of a road gets above 10% your ability to ride uphill becomes a matter on pure physics. You can be the strongest motherfucker on the planet, but if that strength is attached to a large frame then gravity is you're nemesis. Without going too deeply into power-to-weight jargon, the math is very simple. A 100lb person has to generate half the work (or watts) as a 200 lb person to climb the same hill. No work-arounds, no tricks, just Newton and his brutal laws of physics working against those of us who are closer to the 200lb end of the scale.

So there I was with the inclinenometer reading 16% - pushing as hard as I could sustain on yet another vicious ascent. Dragging a black, block of concrete like a diagram from a high school physics text book, hoping that the next rise would be the last, I was rescued. Just as I had drifted into the deepest recess of the ride I heard a quite toothy whistle over my left shoulder. Two short encouraging notes that turned my attention off of the wall in front of me to the left. There floating past me in a turquoise, white and yellow kit was Levi Leipheimer, out of his saddle making a mockery of the incline.

At once I came out of the pain cave. "Hey, hey, hey!" I shouted at him and sparked back to life. My suffering made a small but critical transformation from senseless to meaningful. What had been a lonely adventure in pain, was now a mission. My lower back still ached and my legs and lungs were still filled with fire, but it was worth it now. I had the chance to ride with Levi and I was going to take it.

My Ride with Levi from Litterbox on Vimeo.

As luck would have it, the next rise was in fact the top of the climb. The aweful incline became rollers and I began to get my momentum back. An Italian 3 wheeled scooter, bristling with bicycle wheels pulled up next to me. The driver turned to me to complain about the wind. "It's hard enough on his scooter," he commented in a strong unidentifiable European accent, "I couldn't imagine it on a bicycle." He accelerated past me, then slowed a bit. A short invitation to hop on. I pushed a little harder to get into the slipstream of the scooter. The wind noise quieted and my legs began to turn a little easier. In the scooter's rear view mirror I met the eyes of the driver. He had done this before. A smile cracked his face and he began to pull me along. Increasing the speed incrementally. My heart rate came down and I was moving faster.

At the rest stop, I had a chance to chat with Levi. After asking for a picture with him, I told him that he had snapped me out of a dark place. "Day dreaming, were you?" he said, smiling.

"More like a Nightmare."I told him. But that was over. For the next 25 miles over some more familiar and less punishing terrain, I rode on Levi's wheel all the way to the finish in Santa Rosa.

At the finish I heard Todd Gogulski announcing on the stage. I'd seen him at the start of the ride, MCing the start, but he was clearly too busy to bother. Him and I worked together on the Giro d'Italia at Universal Sports. He was less busy in the post ride so I had a chance to catch up with. He asked me about my health an how my broken collarbone was healing. An amazing finish had just gotten better.

The next day in the hotel lobby, my wife Janine saw the local newspaper on the table. "I found you again," she said. And there I was on the front page of he Santa Rosa Press Democrat, rolling across the finish with Levi Leipheimer..

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Great Expectations: Existential Relativism and How a Win Changes Everything

On Sunday I pulled 4th place in the Socal Cross Prestige series cat 4 race. Just a couple months ago this would have been a big event. MMS text messages would have been sent around with images of the results, calls made home proudly reporting the great news. A residual high would have gotten me through an other wise gloomy Sunday evening and motivated a Monday. Not today though. Today, 4th place seems... not that great. Not after standing atop the podium last week as number 1.

Some time back when I was freelancing at Universal Sports on the 09 Giro d'Italia, I formed a negative opinion of sprinting sensation Mark Cavendish after he did an embarrassing performance on the race leaders podium at the end of stage 3. After donning the maglia rosa (pink jersey) and retaining his lead in the over all, the obnoxious prat could barely muster the enthusiasm to uncork his double magnum of preseco to make the obligatory spray onto the crowd. I couldn't believe the amount of disrespect this guy was showing. He looked like a spoiled little boy who got the wrong present on Christmas day. As a fan of professional cycling any subsequent win from Cavendish seemed hollow to me. Yeah, so he's the fastest guy out there, but his attitude sucks. As I'm no Anglophile to begin with, I've come to enjoy seeing the guy loose. At least then he's got something to cry about.

This weekend however I gained a small insight into what motivates his embarrassing behavior. Once you've won a race - anything less than that feels empty. Before winning, I never used to understand why guys seem disappointed with second or third. But once you've crossed that threshold your point of view is rearranged. The lens from which a winner see the world has a narrow focal point, where being number one exists in sharp and vivid contrast, while second and third place are background elements, softly focused and less appealing.

Take for example this image from the cover of last month's issue Velo News. This is a guy who's not used to being second to anyone in the Tour de France, finding himself of the third step of the podium. The look says a lot about reward and expectations. To come back at the top of the sport after four years and even be on the podium of the Tour is an amazing accomplishment, but for him clearly not enough.

How does one ever adjust to anything less than the best after being a winner? Is there ever a way back to mediocrity, where a good finish is good enough? Perhaps there isn't. Once you crossed though the winner's door there is no going back. It explains a lot about why many winning athletes make "comebacks." For me, the important thing is to try maintain perspective - so yeah I've won a race. I just need to make sure that win continues to fuel my motivation to train hard and win again.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Video From This Saturday's Race

Ken Scott, one of the guys I raced with this weekend had mounted a small solid state camera on his bike and posted a clip of the race's first lap to his Vimeo page. While I'm not featured in the clip there is some great footage of my teammate, Jerry Sanders.

I ended getting 10th place in this one.

Mens 35+ 3/4 race 9/19/09 SoCal Prestige series #1 from ken scott on Vimeo.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Cyclocross '45


This should have been required reading

I was catching up on pro cycling news at velonews this afternoon when a banner ad caught my eye. Even though I'm one of those people who intentionally clicks through ads on sites that I like just to support them this one caught my eye.

If you're here at the Blog then you already know the theme is about racing bikes in Belgium. So you can imagine my surprise to see an ad for a book about a guy who went to race in there for real. Not like the adventure tourist and blogger I am, but the real deal. A young guy who went there to make it as a pro racer at 18 years old. It's very raw and gritty - talks about things that I heard rumblings of but never saw first hand. It affirms the innuendo and suspicion I felt there about drugs in Belgian amateur bike racing and includes a foreword by Bike racing legend Bob Roll.

Best of all the first chapter is free as a .pdf

Monday, September 21, 2009

First Place: Urban Cyclocross #1 Cat 4 Race report.

Having pretty much given it everything I had the day before at Bonelli park in 2 cross races, I wasn't sure there was going to be much in the tank for another two race day on Sunday. I didn't sleep that well due to soreness in muscles and I even woke up once needing to make an Advil run to the bathroom. Not the ideal start for what was going to be one of my best days on the bike ever.

After getting in a good warm-up on the course and keeping my legs opened up on the trainer, I was feeling pretty good at the start line. The guys around me looked pretty fit so I knew I had to be fast off the line and be the first one to the turn into the grassy section. It was made up of very tight S turns around trees and the ground was loose with pine needles and big lumpy tree roots. At the whistle I gunned it off the line and quickly jumped out ahead of the pack and was the first one to get to the grassy turn. As my back wheel left the pavement I realized that I made the turn too early and was off the course! The organizers hadn't done a good job marking the first turn, and now I was going out of bounds and and nearly everyone followed me. All at once brakes were locking up and guys were cursing. I had not only made a mess of the race, but lost my good position going into the turn. Now I was four wheels off of the front and had ground to make up. I easily passed my number 3 and 2 riders at the first dismount and climb. After a smooth remount I dropped both of them quickly. The guy out front was another matter completely.

In the confusion of the start he was able to open up a big gap of about 1oo or so meters and looked to be motoring along pretty well. Being new to cross judging distance between opponents can be tricky. Because the courses snake back upon themselves enemy riders can at times seem closer or farther than they actually are at different points along the way. Being unsure of his real distance, I just stayed on the gas concentrating on not falling down. The gap didn't look like it was getting any smaller and before the first lap was even over I was already beginning to mentally settle for second place. And then he cracked. As if the air went out of his balloon he collapsed in on himself. As we ended the last grassy chicane before the long paved stretch back to the start line I was on his rear wheel. The timing was perfect - the one section of the course where drafting could be an advantage, and I was there on the wheel of the number one guy taking a long break before things got hard again.

Past the start finish line and into the first grassy obstacle I punched past him just as the second lap began. Gaps open quickly in cross it seems, and suddenly I was out front in the leading the race. While warming up before the race I had imagined this exact scenario. Me alone at the front of the race. I'd never been there before, and I was telling myself, "This is where you belong." And it was. I was putting big distance in to my closest rival.

At the second dismount obstacle, I was jumping back onto the saddle when I felt my left foot catch somewhere on my rear wheel. There was a sharp pang that sounded like a spoke. Brief rolling pause and the wheel felt OK so I got back on the power down a short hill into a 180 degree hairpin over hellish tree roots. Pulled the rear brake lever and my stomach sank as it snapped dead to the bars. My rear break was out of commission. I decided to press on. If I couldn't get through the next lap smoothly I'd stop to fix the break. There was no stopping. Four more laps and I began lapping the stragglers. I started to think about how I'd cross the line. Zip up the jersey, arms up, maybe with dual number 1 fingers... It wasn't over though. I had to keep the pressure on.

And then it happened. I won my first race after three years of trying - by a lot - completely solo. I looked back just to be sure, then zipped up the jersey as mentally rehearsed. Then promptly fell apart as I crossed the line. Shouting and cursing - clapping my hands. Clapping my hands? That was never in the plan. I was like Edvald Boassan-Hagen after his win at the rainy stage of the Giro d'Italia this year. No composure. But I won.

Later when talking to the second place guy he admitted that he'd never been at the lead of a race. He felt like he would be better off following a wheel around the course. He didn't tell himself that he belonged there, and so... he didn't.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Anti-Sandbagging: The Ethical Work-Around to Racing Success

Everyone hates a sandbagger. Nothing is more frustrating in competitive racing than being beaten time and time again by the same person who refuses to upgrade to the next category even though they have more than enough points for a mandatory upgrade. There is one such character who plagued my Cat III racing this year here in southern California. In every criterium I raced against him this year he finished with either a win or a top 3 finish - without fail. So sweet the intoxicating elixir of victory is that one would elect to hang back in the easier divisions to steal away the wins. I won't mention his name directly - only parenthetically (Jack Oh) so as not to incur the wrath of a libel suit. I however will offer a preemptive apology to (Jack Oh) if he finally grew tired of his cheap and stolen winners high and actually got around that Cat II upgrade. Where by the way the level of road racing difficultly is an order of magnitude more difficult than that of Cat III. The races are longer and faster, and that category if often combined with Cat I and Professional racers. Take that (Jack Oh).

Since this Blog isn't about (Jack Oh) it's about me, I wanted to take some time discussing my more ethical work-around on the topic of sandbagging. I've briefly considered making a run at the Cat II upgrade myself as I'm just 10 points away. But I, unlike the a fore mentioned parenthetical antagonist (Jack Oh) I have hardly been stealing candy from babies. In fact, this year has been without a winners high of my own. A few top 10 finishes but none of the adrenalin fueled, drunken swagger that accompanies a podium finish. There is a way however I can sip upon the electric pap of victory again.... CYCLOCROSS!

For the uninitiated, here an example of what cyclocross is all about:

While Southern California features very little mud as it pretty much doesn't rain here, the tenor of the CX scene is ubiquitous. Laid back and more "fun" than road racing. And therein lies my plan to exploit the system. The fine and intelligent folks at USA cycling have wisely decided that racing categories be separated out across disciplines. As such, no matter where you are as a road rider, you'll have to start at the beginning category in cyclocross, mountain bike, track racing, or BMX for that matter. It's not sandbagging if you're "required" to race in the easier category, is it?

So my plan, simply distilled, is to use my superior Cat III fintess and apply it to beginner cyclocross racing and once again quaff down the addictive nectar of victory! Then when I've reached the requisite number of races or points, I'll take the highroad as make my upgrade as required by the rules of the sport. Genius, no?

This of course supposes that "Cat III road fitness" actually applies in any tangible way to cyclocross. It could turn out that I have no gift for the new game. A surprise lack of coordination or congenital clumsiness could derail my plan for small pond domination. But I won't dwell on all that. If nothing else I'm in good shape and I like winning. So when I've harvested all the low hanging fruit from the cyclocross tree, I'll move on to a different cycling orchard, targeting track and then mountain biking. Thus guaranteeing at least 2 more years of cross discipline podium finishes and rationalized gratification.

Friday, September 11, 2009

I Stand Corrected

A brief correction to yesterday's update. You'll recall that I witnessed a "guy" inexplicably fall down at the end of the Lance ride. Well it turns out that that guy was actually a "girl," and her fall had a perfectly reasonable explanation. One of my teammates was right there and offers this account:

Jim: For the record, the "guy" that crashed at the end of the ride was a girl. She went down right next to be. I believe it was an over-eager photographer that caught her bars when he leaned out for a pic.

It's strange that I didn't make the connection between the photographers and the crash. Although thinking back, I do remember them dodging out of the way at the last second as we pulled back into the Zoo parking lot.

Hell, it's even happened to Lance!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

I Rode with Lance this Morning (Along with 2000 of our closest friends)

It's not every day that the biggest sports celebrity on the planet sends out a tweet saying:

@lancearmstrong Hey LA - get out of your cars and get on your bikes. Time to ride. 7:30 tomorrow am. Griffith Park, LA Zoo parking lot. See you there..

Does Lebron James say, "Come on down to the Staples Center and shoot some hoops with me, or does Manny Remirez beckon, "hey baseball fans let's all hangout at Dodger Stadium and play three flies up?" No they don't, but Lance did exactly that yesterday afternoon. And while I had to do a double take at the tweet, the opportunity was too good to pass up. Griffith Park is a 20 minute ride from my house.

Here's a clip of the ride along with the madness that ensued afterwords.

My Ride with Lance from Litterbox on Vimeo.

I apologize for the riding clips not being as good as some of my work from Europe but riding no handed, facing backwards with a camera in front of Lance Armstrong ads a little pressure to cyclo-cinematography. Can you imagine being THAT guy? The one douche who in a desperate attempt to get a action shot of LA, goes down in front of the 7 time tour champion, causing perhaps another broken collarbone or worse? Seeing how animated the crowd was over his signature, I'd probably get a massive group beat-down. "He made Lance go down! Kill him!" they would certainly shout, and then thousands of skinny armed punches and carbon soled cleat kicks to the head would rein down upon me! That kind of infamy would be difficult to live down.

Fortunately, the most fame I attracted (other than this Blog, which is totally blowing-up [not]) was being featured in this morning's LA times. I even made the picture. That's me, second row all the way to the right (partially obscured). Also further proof that I like to sat near the front of even a 2000 person peleton.

The media scrum was more surprising to me than the rider turn-out. While not every cyclist uses twitter, word spreads quickly by other means. My Team's mailing list was flooded with the news of the ride and we had a strong turn-out of 15-20 guys flying this year's Black and red colors. I counted at least three news crews the topper was when the news chopper came in low to cover the action. I heard lance say, "Wow, we even got a news chopper - only in LA!"

Being at or near the front for most of our three laps around Griffith Park I had a couple of opportunities to talk with lance. The first chance was at the top of the hill on the first lap. I pulled up next to him and suddenly couldn't think of anything to say. I had thought ahead of a few anecdotal comments to break the ice. First, for example that my coach Rick Babington, works with Chris Carmichael, Lance's coach, and had worked with him early in his comeback last year on his new time trial position. That's a good one. Or perhaps, that I had just gotten back from Belgium where the racing was WAY harder than in the US. Also a good ice breaker. no? But there I was riding with LANCE and I couldn't even say anything. He finally said the first words. Pointing down at my Ergomo power meter, he asked, "What the hell is that thing?" Not as cool an opener as what I had planned, but hell, I was talking to LANCE ARMSTRONG. I told him it was an old power meter and that it probably wasn't as good as the wireless SRM that was mounted on his bars. Clearly unimpressed, he had nothing more to say to me. With that we crested the hill for the first decent down to the Zoo.

Things went notably better for my second interaction and amazingly, someone snapped some pics at nearly the exact moment of this encounter. On our third and last lap heading up the hill in the park I found myself next to him again. This time I was more composed. A little out of breath from the climb and doing my best not to show it, I simply thanked him for doing this. How totally cool for him to do an open group ride with anyone and everyone who wanted to show up? And not without some risk. There were huge gaps in people's ability and group riding skills. The smallest incident could send the champion to the deck. He said, "Why not?" This time, with out a comment about my antiquated power meter. I then told him that I thought this ride was more dangerous than any Crit I'd ever ridden in and he completely agreed. "You Should have seen what it was like in Dublin," he told me, "there were guys on the deck everywhere." Then another rider, Joseph Ainsworth, who was on Lance's other flank, said, "Jim, can you imagine this in Belgium?" This was a perfect opening! Joe had done me a big solid, opening the door to talk about racing in Belgium. I told Lance that I had just gotten back from racing there. But our time was up again. We crested the hill and began the final decent back to the Zoo parking lot. Completely satisfied with my LA encounter I floated down the hill, avoiding the big sand patch and the giant road bumps at the bottom and thinking that it was amazing that I hadn't witnessed a single crash. Until the very end, that is.

Just when we were about to complete the ride and turn back into the parking lot, the media frenzy was at high tide. Dozens of photographers and video camera crews were lined up on the road. It looked more like the end of a pro tour race than a fun ride in the park. It was at the height of the press attention that some guy inexplicably toppled over. No one in front of him, no hole in the road - the spectacle must have been too much and he just fell down. The pack let out a giant and simultanious "OOOHHH!" Luckily for us all he was out of the bunch and caused only embarrassment for himself. A dumb crash is bad enough without the entire Los Angeles press corps there to make record of it.

On my ride home, I chatted with a random cyclist who told me about an even more embarrassing crash he witnessed and participated in. Apparently a woman ahead of him had crossed her front wheel up and went down. He attempted to jink to the right, but his shoe caught on the waist her cycling shorts, sending him over the bars. More shockingly however is that as he launched over the bars, his trailing shoe pulled the poor woman's shorts all the way down to her ankles! Where was the media for that one? Just another reason to wear bib shorts I suppose.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Museeuw MF-1 Review

I'll preface this review of the Musueew MF-1 with the fact that I'm not a cycling industry journalist or a professional reviewer. The perspective I can bring is that of a 3 year criterium and road race veteran with podium finishes and now (ahem) European racing experience. I've already covered the process of getting the bike but if you missed it here's a link back.

Getting my hands on this bike was a real coup. A main premise of the whole trip to Belgium was to race bikes. This could have been severely undermined if I ended up with a garbage bike, or no bike at all! Happily, not only did I get fantastic bike, I got an exotic piece of top-shelf European racing hardware that combined truly unique materials, pro-peleton components and eye catching styling.

MF-1 Music Montage from Litterbox on Vimeo.

Since the bike was a demo from the factory it's equipment load-out was a mystery until the day I picked it up. I had some hint from my contact at Museeuw Bikes that it would be equipped with Campagnolo components. This for me would have been a great option as my bike at home is similarity built-out. Which is why I was surprised to find that the XL MF-1 frame was set-up with SRAM Red from the cock-pit to the derailleur. I've had some experience with the SRAM gruppo from some months back when my coach loaned me his Colnago rigged up with the SRAM Force group. Transitioning to this component group takes all of 10 minutes on the bike to get used to the shifting mechanism. If you've never ridden it, the shifting features a single control lever behind each break lever the works on a "double tap" method. On the right hood you press the lever until it clicks once to shift into a bigger or "harder" gear, and press two clicks to shift into an smaller or "easier" gear. Since this isn't a component review it leave it at that except to say that my only gripe with the SRAM shifting with that the front derailleur has very limited trimming capability, expecially in the small chain ring. This can cause some irritating chain rubbing when riding in a crossed-up configuration - which I'm want to do. The component group is very light however, with crisp and dependable front and rear breaking complete with Swissstop break pads and precise shifting felt right at home on what was to be a very fast and capable road bike.

For wheels the MF-1 came with some very stiff and capable Museeuw branded shallow section carbon and aluminum clinchers, dressed smartly with top-end white and black Vredesten tires. The saddle was a very Euro looking white Fizik Aerione, with carbon braided rails, adding, or subtracting I should say from the already light feeling bike. The cockpit was an FSA intergrated stem and bar combo with a 110 milimeter length stem section and medium reach ergonomic drops. For me this was a perfect fit combined with the rest of the bikes geometry. And I should add also shaved additional grams from the biked over all weight.

Even in Europe Museeuw bikes are a rare sight. This one with a very understated gloss finish over naked carbon weave and smart looking and restrained graphics turned out to be a real head turner. When stopped in the French walled city of Burgues for a water break, a group of little french kids gathered around asking how much I paid for the bike. Almost everything about this bike is unique - from the long integrated seat mast to the dramatic wishbone fork and seat stay sections, even the carbon/flax texture stood out. I'm not sure if the composite 1/2 carbon and 1/2 flax material contributed to the look, but a close examination of the outer material wrapper revealed a tan organic looking reflective quality that seemed to live just beneath the carbon weave. In sunlight, which I was lucky enough to have a lot of - the bike really sparkled. While featuring a lug and tube design, tube shaping is anything but orthodox. This is most notable on the top tube and head tube lug assembly. The top tube has a variable shape with a thinner profile at the seat tube section that quite noticeably thickened toward the head tube section. The head tube lug has a bow like shape in profile and narrows at the front into bladed airfoil shape. To the naked eye I couldn't tell if the head tube featured a tapered design. The threads at the top of the headset looked like they were the same diameter at the top of the forks. This didn't detract from the bikes solid front-end ride qualities.

Steering was crisp and responsive but not jumpy or nervous. The front wheel tracked impeccably through turns and handled predictably over the roughest pave. And there was plenty of that to experience on this adventure. Nearly all the streets of Brugge had different sized cobbles. Some were neat and tightly placed, while others resembled the nightmarish broken blocks as seen in such races Paris Roubaix or Liege Bastogne Liege. Over all of this rough stuff the MF-1 preformed perfectly, gobbling up and heavy patches with the smooth qualities of a classic steel frame combined with the bottom bracket stiffness and weight of 21st century carbon. The unique material blend of carbon and flax fiber delivered on these great ride qualities. I suspect that the frames geometry and over-sized wishbone fork and seat stay played a roll in this area as well. This combo of stiffness and comfort are things we often read about, but rarely get to experience. In ride quality the MF-1 delivers big time.

The seat bracket atop the integrated seat mast was simple and very functional. Forgoing the flashy complexity of some other brands the MF-1's seat mount offered 3-4 centimeters of adjustment. This was important because the mast on demo bike looked as if was uncut at it's full length from the factory. I'm tall at 6'3", and needed all of that adjustment down ward to get the seat height at my optimal position. I've been riding long enough that I can get a seat height adjusted by feel, but it wasn't always that way. Some many years back I found some formula online that took into account inseam to calculate a proper height adjustment. The number worked for me and I've been using it since. It seems that things in Europe are somewhat more old school in this regard. The mechanic at Plum, the bike shop in Oostende offered to adjust the seat for me by having me sit on the saddle and dangle my feet with my toes on the ground. When he was done the seat was nearly an inch higher than I was accustomed to. I had some of my own tools so discretely adjusted it later.

While I never weighed the bike, the old "lift test" screamed "I'm light!" While I was waiting to check into my hotel in Amsterdam I had the bike with me at the check-in desk and the bell hops and concierge all took turns picking it up and marveling at it's subdued but rich rich styling. This bike was unabashedly at home in the lobby of a 4 star European hotel. I shutter to think what this thing would weigh with a light set of carbon tubular race wheels. I estimate that the bike as equipt for me was under 16 lbs. Impressive for an XL sized frame with clinchers.

After two weeks of exploring West Flanders, France and The Netherlands and then testing the bike in some very extreme race conditions it's difficult to find anything wrong with Museeuw's top on the line MF-1. I did have some issues keeping the headset tightly adjusted, but I cant hold that against the bike as a whole. The MF-1 is comfortable enough for the recreational rider looking to do cyclosportif riding and centuries, but stiff, agile and light enough for real top end racing. The MF-1 could easily be standard equipment and any Pro-tour team.

Perfection comes at a price as they say, and the MF-1 is no exception. I was very lucky to demo one. I've seen Musseuw frames and forks listed for as much as $6500.00. Certainly not a bargain, but if superior ride, race capability and a unique bike are your goals no bike I've ridden compares to the MF-1.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Blood in my Spit Part II

What had been a long day of sitting around and killing time had finally slipped away and an abundance of time suddenly seemed like not enough. With 45 minutes to go I got my number pinned on and began riding up and down the street near the cafe attempting to get warmed up. It wasn't completely clear where the start was going to be and if it was announced I missed it in the Flemish babble. I was hoping to get a look at the course, but it wasn't really marked so didn't want to get too far away.

While the actual warm-up wasn't going so well I was able to get a couple additional facts. 1st, the wind was even worse than I thought. A cold and steady 30mph blast with vicious gusts up to 40. This was very new to me. I've never even ridden in winds like this let alone raced. The second bit of intelligence I gathered was that I had put my number on incorrectly. In non pro-tour California racing we are instructed to put our race numbers on our rib cages - as I did here. In Europe however they put their numbers on like the pros do - over a jersey pocket on the lower back. So as not to look like a tool when I got to the line, I hopped off the bike, pulled off my jersey and moved my number.

The race was scheduled for 4:30. That time was quickly approaching and it still wasn't obvious where the start was. Guys we're circling around so I just tried to stay close to them. Then without instruction everyone seemed to line up and a blue shirted officials appeared to get everyone organized. I was in front of the lineup so found myself in good position at the start line. This was good news - if it was going to be fast off the line being at the front from was the place to be. The road was pretty narrow so trying to fight though 106 guys to get to the front would be tough. Things were tranquil and I was feeling relaxed. Having done plenty of racing, I don't really get that nervous anymore. Maybe I should have been a little more anxious, a slightly higher heart rate may have prepared me for what was about to happen.

One of the officials said something, and everyone began moving up to some imaginary new start line. Being in my tranquil fog, I was slow to react and guys started pushing forward all around me. Before the race even got going I was loosing my good position. These pricks were aggressive too, literally bumping into me and pushing my bike out of the way. Annoyed, I tried pushing back but it was too late. What was a good spot at the front was now wedged in toward the back. There wasn't much time to be upset though, an official blew the whistle and the race was on.

It was so packed in at the back that I had to wait for guys to get moving before I could even start to roll out and clip in. The acceleration that immediately followed was acute - shocking. From the start everyone was out of the saddle sprinting from the dead stop. There was no windup, no parade lap to see the 8k course, it was balls to the walls all out sprinting to simply hold position. Being at the back I couldn't see the road ahead and when we hit the first roundabout everything exploded into total chaos. Bikes were darting left and right, bunny hopping onto the sidewalks and over the center median. Everyone was yelling and pushing each other out of the way. I had guys leaning into my from both sides and it was everything I could do to protect my front wheel and handle bars. As we cleared the round about and turned to the right the next big acceleration came. The guys at the front who we're able to get through the obstacle quickly dropped the hammer again, while those of us in the pack and were lucky enough to make it through upright were sprinting again to catch back on.

Only 3-4 kilometers into the race and I suddenly became aware of my breathing. I looked down at the old Garmin 305 I brought on this trip to get an idea of what my heart rate was doing, but the screen was blank. The barging and bumping had vibrated the old cycling GPS off, again. This had been an issue throughout the trip, particularly over rough cobblestone roads. On previous training rides around Europe it was easy enough to simply turn the unit back on. But now at the very top end of my capability it was one task to many. I decided to leave the unit off. Taking my hands off the bars and looking down would be too dangerous. And besides, I didn't need a heart rate monitor to tell me that I was past the red line already.

After the hairball roundabout we were flying through a residential neighborhood. Without the computer I can only estimate the speed, which based my perceived hear rate and the fact that I was sitting in the wheels would say was close to 30mph and faster. The road was good, fresh pavement and two full lanes wide. Houses on both sides plus my position in the field had me "protected" from the wind. I knew I needed to move up. Spotting some small gaps I was able to take a few positions, but that was it. I was going about as hard as I could and getting no where. Guys who race with me know that sitting-in is not my style. I usually like to stay near the front in the top 10-15 positions but I simply had nothing more to give. I had the pedal to the floor, and like an old VW bug trying to get on to the freeway - this was as fast as I could go. Next came a fast 90 degree turn to the left and crosswinds came.

As fast as the turn was made the road narrowed down from a well paved two lane residential street into a 9 foot wide rutty farm road. I was inside and everyone was hard on the breaks pinching us through the corner. The turn onto the narrow road created a frightening bottle neck effect that cost us sorry bastards at the back precious momentum. As we came to a near standstill the sadists at the front began a full sprint out of the turn forcing the rest of us to chase again.

This is when the suffering really began.

That 30mph wind was now blowing directly across the rough narrow farm road. The front 20 or so guys formed an echelon blocking the the wind for each other, while the rest of us were "in the gutter" strung out in a long line with no protection from the wind - doing more work than the guys up ahead while trailing helplessly behind. It was the worst place to be and I knew it. Now I was way past my anaerobic top-end - jaw dropped open, gobs of mucus splattering across my face and on to my sunglasses, it crossed my mind for the first time that I wasn't going to be able to keep this up for another 110 kilometers.

Somehow, I managed to stay attached through the crosswind section and the field made another left turn, this time directly into the wind where being directly behind the guys in front offered some protection. We crossed back through the town center finally completing the first of what should have been 13, 8 kilometer laps. I glanced back over my shoulder to check my position in the field and realized that I was the last guy. The thought of being at the back for another run at that crosswind section was terrifying. There was no way I was going to let that happen again. Like the hundreds of thousands of men who died in trenches on the very ground during the first world war I made what was to be my "final push."

With the last of what I had in the tank, I jumped out of the saddle and surged through the pack moving up to a sheltered position mid field. Needing to let off the gas just for a second, I tried to catch my breath but choked on a gob of goo that erupted from my lungs. In that moment letting off the pressure - guys surged around me, and again I was slipping toward the back. Now I had run out of anger. The poisonous thoughts of giving up were encouraged by my pounding heart thumping against my ribcage.

No, I had to stay in this!

I latched onto the wheel of one of the guys surging around me and was again moving up instead of back. A brief flash of light filled my universe of suffering for that moment - if I could just hang-on. If I could make it to the front for the crosswind section and get a protected position they were surly going to ease up at some point. I just needed to hang-on.

Suddenly we were in the round about again and this time I was forced onto the sidewalk in a pack mad shouting Belgians, punching at each others thighs and fighting to keep the wheels on the ground. In a flash, the guys in front of me parted to the left and right revealing a mailbox directly in my path. Who would put a mailbox in the middle of a bike race? Why would a bike race be on a sidewalk? The absurd madness of it all gave way to pure survival instincts. On the breaks, rear wheel locking up I miraculously missed the mailbox. But the damage was done. Now I was at the back again. I was starting to crack.

The field turned again onto the narrow crosswinds section and I was shat off the back. As the field pulled away I had to lean into the wind to keep the bike upright. Now I had a clear view of the echelon ahead noticing for the first time that there were big white and brown cows looking on from the open fields around mus, an ambulance parked on the shoulder and a few silent spectators who knew better than to try to cheer me on. There was some solace in that I wasn't the only one left behind. Even in my depleted state I was passing others for whom the effort was also beyond their physical range.

Pulling into the town center for a second time I was mercifully pulled from the race by a clipboard wielding official in a blue shirt. Head hung down I coasted to a spot out of the wind and leaned my bike against a wall. I slouched down into a heap on the sidewalk and began coughing as my heart rate finally began to come down. Producing foamy lumps that I shamelessly spat into the gutter, I noticed the coppery taste of blood in my spit, feeling deeply thankful that the suffering was over. Thinking back to the first post of this blog, "How Hard Could it Be?" I thought, "THIS HARD," as I tried to wash away with my water bottle the disgusting pustules of my lung mucus collecting in the gutter in front of me. But I did it. I put myself in a whole new place attempting the impossible and the insane against semi-pros and sadists.

106 six racers started the race and only 9 finished.

All Strong guys, future pros and crazed enthusiasts gave it a go here in Belgium and I felt proud to have lined up with all of them. As my hacking finally began to subside, the smell of golden and crispy fritjes (Belgian french fries) wafted my way from the stand around the corner.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Blood in my Spit Part I

To preface the race video posted below, I'll make a few comments before a more detailed, written account of my day at the races in Sant Jan, Belgium. I was told that racing in Belgium was going to be hard. That was a huge understatement. The pace was harder and faster than many of the Pro 1/2 crits I've seen in here in southern California and certainly faster than any race I've participated in. Instead of a wind up to a fast final few laps, it was a sprint from the gun. 106 guys battling to be at the front, taking insane risks through roundabouts and corners, riding on sidewalks and forcing guys off the road - and then came the wind...

Sant Jan Kermesse from Litterbox on Vimeo.

As mentioned in the video, I got to the race way too early - hours and hours too early. I spent the first hour in the cafe on the corner. Later I found out that places like this are called brown cafes, because everything inside is brown. Filled with the stale stench of cigarettes and old beer and a smattering of unfriendly intoxicated local drunks. I asked for a menu of what food was available and was given the single choice of a croque-monsieur. Being hungry and with no other apparent choices I accepted the offer. With-in fifteen minutes I was eating a rather home made tasting toasted ham and cheese sandwich and gagging on the the thick smoke of off-brand European cigarettes. Didn't these guys know I was a bike racer?

Here's a pic of the cafe from during the race - it was much less lively when I was eating there.

With only an hour killed and many more to go I decided to take a little drive into the center of Ieper. There the city center had a more tourist friefriendly selection of cafes - I should have just gone there in the first place and had a better lunch, but somehow I was afraid that if I left I'd miss the sign-in. In Ieper I supplemented my meager lunch with a crepe and a cafe au lait and burned the rest of the time staring at the beautiful town square.

With most of the extra hours burned off it was time to head back into Sant Jan where it was beginning to look more like a bike race. Race officials were getting things ready - people began milling about, and the cafe Hof Van Commerce was transformed into race check-in, albeit still reeking of old beer and cigarette smoke. Inside I presented my international UCI race license and permission to race letter to a row of cigarette smoking and curmudgeonly Belgian race officials sitting at a table in the back of the cafe. The most ancient looking one demanded that I produce my badge - thinking that he meant my UCI license I told him that that was all I had. This seemed to really annoy the old coot and after a bit of back and forth in Flemmish with the other guys he begrudgingly pulled out a stack of "Identificatiebadge Buitenlandse Renner" cards or "Foriegn ID racing licenses," and for a mere 5 Euros I had one of my very own. Then for an additional 8 Euros I got my canvas race number and a plastic frame number. The slightly less ancient guy at the table told me that I'd get 5 Euros back when I returned the numbers at the end of the race. From doing research ahead of time I knew that I'd have to return the number at the end of the race, and that they never have safety pins so I brought my own. The frame number however was a surprise. When I asked if they had zip-ties to affix the number to my frame they all looked at each other for a moment and then back at me as if I had just asked them for one hundred dollar bills. Belgians have a unique national facial expression that's used as a catch-all for many different social situations. Their lips purse out in a kiss-like way and they raise their eyebrows as if to say, "what the hell am I supposed to do about that?"

Outside the cafe with race numbers in hand and the streets filling up with racers spectators cops and officials, I heard an American accented voice ask if I was American. There I met a young guy wearing a USA Cycling polo shirt. From Macon Georgia his name was Christian Parrett and he races on the US U23 development team and he'd been racing in Belgium since may of this year. He's the one features at the end of the race in the video above. He asked if I needed any help as it was clear that this was my first time racing in Belgium. Offering up some safety pins he gave me me a few tips about how things were going to go down. He said it was going to be fast and to try to stay near the front from the start. Having good position at the start line was important. I asked him if he brought a trainer to get warmed up and he told me that they don't really do that here - they just start the races. He tried to just ride around a bit.

With just an hour to go before the start of the race we parted ways to suit up and get ready. I starred down at that canvas number 8 in the trunk of the car taking note of the hundreds of pin holes from previous races and racers and thought about all the guys who'd worn that number before me. How many had crashed, how many had won and the 106 other riders I was going to line up against this day.

Up Next... Blood in my Spit Part II.