Sunday, June 5, 2016

Round and Round We Go ...

Where do you begin to tell the story of a race weekend that starts with a cross-country flight on Thursday and ends when your return flight is delayed in Denver and you finally get back home at 4:00 Tuesday morning? Maybe you start with the accidental "good fortune" that got you easy check-in and pre-boarding all weekend. Or start with the reunion between your wife and brother-in-law ten years in the making. Or maybe you start with the disaster that nearly caused your worst case scenario - a "DNS"- Friday afternoon.

But all that seems to be just parts of the whole story and when I think about it all now, a week later, the whole thing does seem kind of epic. So maybe the best place to start would be at the very beginning.

I've had the 24 Hours Round the Clock on my radar for a couple of years now. I like the idea of riding new areas, and racing seems like a great way to justify traveling to far off places just to pedal new terrain. This particular race offered another opportunity on top of that - it gave my wife the chance to see her brother. He lives in Spokane Valley, about a half hour east of the race venue, and she hadn't seen him in ten years. (And I think in hindsight, the moment she saw him was probably my favorite of the entire weekend. She's really close to her family and I know it bugs her that she doesn't get to see them more often.)

My schedule this year made 2016 the best option to get out there and do it, so I put it on the schedule and started planning the trip. There was a while there where we weren't sure if Joanna would ultimately be able to make the trip with me. April was a really tough month for us as within two weeks of one another, we lost our two cats, BK and Kramer. BK went first from multiple myeloma. That was so tough I still can't really process it. "BeeKs", as we called him, was a special little being. His back story is pretty amazing - he chose to come live with us. And he was the most unique animal I've ever encountered - he was a tough customer who still loved to curl up between the two of us every night and purr himself to sleep. I miss him more than I can possibly say.

The BeeKs ...

Then just two weeks later, our old man, Kramer, passed away. He was 20 years old, so that wasn't really unexpected. But he's been a part of my life as long as I've known Joanna, and a part of her life for much longer than that. Neither of us even thought of him as a pet. He was just a part of the family. His last few weeks were tough as he was starting to have trouble breathing. But he was still The Krame, and he'd insist on taking up his spot on my lap every night when I would sit in "our chair" in the living room.

The Krame
We were both pretty devastated by their passing (still are) but even before they passed, Joanna and I weren't sure it would be right to leave them if they were still around. We did ultimately adopt two bonded brothers - Pauly Pawsby and Oscar Featherman - a few weeks after they passed (the house seemed to empty with just the two of us), and then wondered if it would be right to leave them for a weekend so soon after they first came to us. But in the end, we decided that we'd take a chance and finalized arrangements for the trip. These two new guys have really adapted well to their new home and now I can't imagine not having them around. It's cool because they've both established their own personalities that aren't at all like our other two guys. We both missed them all weekend long. It's nuts because before all these guys, I was never a big pet person. Nowadays, I can't wait to get home from work just to see them. Go figure!

Oscar (top) and Pauly enjoy drinking from the faucet, getting into every corner of our house, and checking out the views in the backyard
Before we knew it, we were getting up at 4:00 Thursday morning for an 8 a.m. flight. A few weeks before, Joanna had hurt her knee stepping out of her jeep - the kind of freak accident that often turns out to be a lot more serious than we want to believe. It was giving her all kinds of trouble, and she'd taken to wearing a knee brace at work. But the brace was really uncomfortable, so for the long flight she decided she would wear it on the outside of her pants just to make it easier to remove if it became too annoying. It turns out, that was a bit of luck. When the ticket agent at the Southwest counter saw her brace, he asked if she'd need assistance. She was in pain and knew we had to walk a long way to our gate, so she said, "Sure". And with that, we were allowed to pass quickly through the TSA checkpoint, and board our flight before everyone else. And they put it in the system, so that held for every flight the rest of our trip. As much as it sucks to have an injury, there do appear to be some perks! I joked with Joanna that I'm going to kick her in the knee every time we fly from now on!

So we arrived in Spokane around mid-day Thursday with no issues (my bike made it through the transfer just fine and was coming down the over-size carousel just as we arrived.) We had no trouble finding our hotel and I put my bike together without much difficulty. After that, we called Joanna's brother and he came over to meet us for dinner. The two of them were so happy to see one another. That was a pretty cool night. It was the first chance I had to meet his family and I really like all of them. Just a really great group of people, and we had a pretty awesome dinner at an Italian place down the road from the hotel.

Friday morning, we were up early to do some food shopping and then headed over to the venue to set up our pit area. It took me a while to get the tent set up (hadn't done it in a while and forgot that directions are attached to the bag.) But eventually we were all set up and Joanna decided to hang out while I went out for a pre-ride. And that's when our smooth trip took a decidedly rough turn.

I wasn't 100 feet into the first single track section when the entire front end of my drivetrain came off. And I mean "off". I was standing there looking down at my right foot with the drive-side crank and chain ring hanging off the bottom of my shoe. My first thought was "There's no scenario in which this is 'good' ..." My second thought was, "PLEASE let this just be a issue of a loose BB." It wasn't.

When I got back to the pit area, I looked at it and discovered that the self-extracting bolt that connects the drive-side to the spindle had snapped off at the bolt head. I knew right away I was in trouble. That's not exactly a part most shops carry on hand. So I knew I might have some trouble getting it fixed just hours before the race. And that turned out to be the case.

Joanna and I started visiting every bike shop in Spokane, spiraling outward from the area near our hotel without any luck. By 3:00 in the afternoon, we were trying to get our minds around the fact that we'd made the entire trip only to not even get a chance to start. It was tough. As a last ditch effort, we called a shop called This Bike Life all the way on the southern edge of the city, about a half hour away from the hotel. The owner told us to stop on by and he'd see what he could do. He said he was confident he could help us. I didn't share that sentiment at that point, but figured I had nothing else to do. So off we went. And I'm really glad we did, because not only did he track down a fix for us (it wasn't a self-extracting bolt, which means I'll need a crank pull to get it off in the future) but he had it fixed and ready to roll in under 20 minutes. And he told us it was only $5 for the fix. I gave him $10 and said about a hundred "thank you"s. Then I took Joanna back to the hotel and headed back to the venue to finally pre-ride.

I took a few photos along the ride. The course was a lot different than what I expected. When I think of "Pacific Northwest", I picture loamy flow-trails through old growth forest. Well, there was some of that, but much of the course was a lot rockier than I would have thought. In fact, there was one section about a mile long called "Dan and Ed's Excellent Adventure" that was pretty much just one long rock garden. There wasn't a ton of climbing, but what was there came all at once and featured some pretty steep pitches. And the main climb, called "Five Minute Hill" had a lot of very loose sand to navigate, which is kind of the worst case scenario for a singlespeed. The whole thing was a bit of a wake-up call. I finished my pre-ride realizing that the next day was going to be potentially more challenging than I had really ever thought it would be. But I was okay with that. It was a really well planned course and lots of fun to ride. And there was enough variety where I was pretty sure I wouldn't get bored riding it over and over throughout the day. Plus, my bike held together really well which was a huge relief. After some consideration, I decided  not to mess with my bike any more than I absolutely had to, so I left the 34:19 in pace rather than switch to a "spinnier" 34:20.

Friday night, we chilled with Joanna's brother again out at his place and then headed back to the hotel to relax. It had been a pretty stressful day, but at that point it was all systems go and all I had left to do was wait for the start.

Finally ready to roll ... note the color coordination in the number plate and my kit. Total Pro!
Race day finally arrived after a terrible night's sleep. I was a bit concerned that I was about to spend an entire day riding a bike after barely sleeping the night before. But whatever - at that point I was just happy to be there for the start. I went to the pre-race meeting feeling antsy to get moving. It seemed to take forever, but eventually they called everyone up to line up for the Le Mans start. The start would take us up the first steep hill and immediately back down through the woods to the Start/Finish to pick up our bikes.

On the run

Then the countdown started and just like that we were off! I took it super easy on the run - no need to burn a single match there because there would be plenty of time to make up any gaps over the next 24 hours. So I slow jogged up the climb and skipped down, falling well behind many of the riders.

The day was actually pretty perfect for a race - mix of sun and clouds, temps in the low 70's. And since Spokane is a high desert region, there was almost no humidity. So one thing I knew I wouldn't have to worry about all day was overheating. I grabbed my bike and rolled up over the first climb, passing a whole bunch of riders in the first section. I spotted the tell-tale climbing style of another singlespeeder ahead of me. I decided that no matter what, I wasn't going to chase. Getting caught up in actual racing that early would only lead to disaster later on. So I settled into the conga line of riders and fell into a nice steady pace. I was moving faster than I originally thought I would, but I wasn't feeling like I was pushing at all, so I just kept it steady and hung with the group I was in.

We hit Five Minute Climb about 4 miles into the 15 mile lap, and I made a conscious effort to find an easy line and not put out too much effort. I was passing a whole bunch of riders by virtue of being on the singlespeed, but I didn't feel too stretched out at all. Just before the top, another singlespeeder came around me and I thought he looked like he was putting out a lot of effort so early. So I just let him go.  He started to really gap me in the following section, and I had to fight off the urge to chase. The first guy had long since disappeared, and I was kind of hoping this guy would do the same. Out of sight out of mind. I knew I had a pretty solid plan and I was feeling pretty good, so I didn't want anything to get in the way of sticking to the plan.

My pit was along the straightaway heading into the Start/Finish and as I rolled up to my pit area, Joanna was waiting for me with a bottle and some food. She told me that I was currently in third - about a minute behind second and a few minutes behind first. She said that the guy in first looked really strong. That made sense. I didn't know at the beginning if there were more ahead of us or if we had been the first three. But I did know that the guy up front had looked really strong as long as I had him in sight. At any rate, I told Joanna that I couldn't worry about that this early and said I'd just keep to my plan and keep moving. Then I headed back out for another lap.

At this point, I need to say something about Joanna. This is the second time she's worked as my support at one of these (the first time being way back in 2009) and I have to say that I am amazed at just how damn good she is at it. She downplays it whenever I mention it, but the fact is it's really hard to do that job at one of these things. And she's never had anyone to tell her what to do. The best I could do to prepare her was give her pretty generic advice - always have a bottle and some food ready each lap. But it's actually much more than that. She stayed on top of where I was, knew the gaps, mixed up the food so that I had the right nutrition at the right time, and was always several laps ahead on my bottles so that if I had to get it myself if she had to step away for a while, I'd have an easy time grabbing what I needed. She also kept the feed zone organized and cleaned up all the stuff I'd just toss aside as I came through. She did a masterful job this time just like she and our friend John did last time. She's really well organized all the time, so that certainly helps, but I was just so impressed by how smoothly she kept me moving all day. Without her there, my day would have been a lot tougher. I insisted before the start that she not plan to spend the night - it gets cold for those of us riding so I can't imagine it's anything but awful for our support. By virtue of our having traveled so far, we were operating a pretty scaled-down pit area (just a tent and a chair for Joanna along with bins for food.) We had no fire pit, not heaters, and nothing to make it comfortable enough to spend the night. So I knew she'd be heading back to the hotel after dark, but she still left me with a dozen bottles and organized food packs to get me through the night. All I had to do was stop, grab and go. As a result, my pit times over night were no longer than during the day. Everything was done for me. I couldn't be luckier with my support team!

Over the course of the day, the laps start to blend together. I kept my pace nice and steady, and by dusk, I was feeling really good - a lot better than when I started, which is pretty typical for me. I ride a lot of big mile rides, so I've noticed now that I take a while to get into a real groove. My first four or five laps were all around 12/5 mph, which is really fast. I was kind of worried that I might be burning matches I'd need later, but in all honesty, I never felt too taxed. The course was fast for sure, but after a while I started making conscious efforts not to push on the few tougher climbs. One of those climbs is called "Devil's Up" and its a short, steep pop over some fairly big rocks. I decided after a few laps to ride up to the first rock hop and then walk over the last bit. This didn't significantly slow me down, but it gave my legs a brief respite that over time I came to appreciate.

One thing that didn't change at all was that I was still sitting well behind the leader, and Joanna was telling me every lap that he was looking really strong. It turned out that I was right about the other guy who'd been ahead of me - he apparently cooked himself early and stopped after only a few laps. I don't know if he had other issues with his bike or something, but I wasn't surprised to hear he was out either way. He just seemed to be pushing a three hour pace out there and that's just not sustainable for a full day of riding. So as Joanna got ready to leave, I knew I was in second place and about 10 minutes back on first. That's not a ton of time, but I saw that gap growing and I kind of thought that if he could keep up his current pace, I really had no chance of catching him. And according to Joanna, he was looking really strong every lap so I had no reason to believe he couldn't keep it up.

Photo Credit: Rene Guerrero
I always feel good riding at night. I think part of it is that I ride a lot with lights during the year, either in the winter for post-work rides or in the spring and summer with dawn patrol rides. Whatever the reason, once the sun goes down, I don't necessarily get faster, but I can hold my normal pace without too much trouble. I think this gives me some advantage, since a lot of folks don't ride as much at night and perhaps have to adapt to the lower visibility. I don't know for sure, but I definitely feel good riding at night. And Saturday night was no exception. I didn't know where I was anymore without Joanna's updates, but I didn't really care. I hit the midway point at midnight and kind of laughed at the thought that I'd been riding for so long and was just halfway.

One thing I wasn't prepared for was how early the sun rises in Spokane. I really didn't need my lights anymore by 4:30. I guess it's because they exist on the eastern edge of the western time zone, but it was odd to be riding without lights before 5 am. By that time, I'd been riding all night with no idea where I was. I knew I hadn't passed any other SSers on course, and I knew none had passed me, but a lot of times in races like these, you won't even realize when you lap someone because it happens in the pits. Someone gets tired and stops for a while and you'll never see them, especially if they're sleeping int heir tent. The one thing I knew was that I had no intention of stopping for any longer than I had to. I'd already made one stop to change when the temps had started dropping into the 40's over night, and I made one slightly long stop to change my light batteries over night, but other than that I'd kept myself moving the whole time.

As I was finishing my 15th lap, Joanna was back and she had news. The really strong guy who'd been ahead of me had apparently blown up sometime during the night and stopped. He was pitted near us and she saw him try to go back out a while later only to turn back around and go back to his pit complaining of leg pain. By the time I saw Joanna, he was already a couple laps down and had pretty much taken himself out of the running, and right then I was in first place. But then she told me something else - there was another rider who was chasing me now, and he appeared to be getting a lot stronger as the morning wore on. That wasn't good, because after a long day of feeling really good, it was all finally catching up to me. For my part, I was definitely slowing down.

All along, my expectation was that I'd shoot for 16 laps. It was pretty apparent at that point - some time after 9 am - that I'd have no problem meeting that goal. I told Joanna that I really didn't want to do any more, and she told me that it was looking like there was no way I'd get away with anything less than 17 if I wanted to win this thing. That was kind of depressing. I told her okay, but there was no way I'd do any more after that - even if it meant losing. I was just toast and I couldn't face the possibility of doing more laps. So I head out on my 16th lap with my mind made up that I'd do 17 and no more.

I finished my 16th lap around 10:05 or so and Joanna told me that the kid behind me was still right there. I had about 30 minutes on him, but by her estimation, that meant that he'd finish his 17th before 24 hours was up and if that happened, he'd get 18 and if I stopped I'd be in second even if I finished 17 before him. I told her I was exhausted and didn't care. And then I headed out for my 17th lap.

Number 17 was by far my slowest lap of the day. Part of that was intentional. I was really hoping that I'd time myself out and make it back with barely any time left. It didn't occur to me that my doing that would mean nothing to the guy chasing behind me, but I was really hitting a wall and suddenly wanted nothing more than to stop. I'd left my Garmin back at the pit after 16 because it was losing power, so I had no idea of the time. I asked one of the folks at the last check point what time it was and was actually disappointed to find that I would definitely finish this lap with over a half hour left. So at that point, I made one final decision - perhaps the best one I'd made all day.

As I said above, Joanna did an incredible job supporting me all day. And perhaps the toughest part of that job was the last few hours, when she have to find a way to keep me motivated and not let me do something stupid that I'd regret later on. When you're that tired, all you want to do is stop. And she seemed to recognize that, but she walked a really fine line to keep me from listening to that negative voice in the back of my head. The decision I made as I was climbing the last rocky section on lap 17 just before the straightaway to my pit area was that I would just listen to whatever she told me to do. My reasoning was that I was tired enough where I couldn't trust my own judgment at this point, so I'd just let her take over. I was secretly hoping she'd tell me I cold stop, but as I turned the corner and caught a glimpse of her ahead of me, I could see she was holding what looks like a water bottle and some food. And I started to laugh and said "fuuuuuuuuuuck" out loud. I knew what that meant.

I rolled up to her and she just handed me a cold Pepsi and said, "Listen to me. He's going to get back in time. I don't want you to regret this, so if there is anything left, you need to go do this." I just smiled and nodded and told her, "I got it." She swapped my bottle and off I went. I didn't give myself any time to question it. I just pedaled a way and waved back as I went. It was 11:30. And it was going to be 18 laps.

Oddly enough, my 18th lap went by in a blip. In fact, it was my fifth fastest lap of the entire race at about an 11.8 mph average. Having that Pepsi helped (I've said before that an ice cold soda is a real treat during a long race.) But I think the bigger thing was that I was motivated by fear. I knew my 17th lap had been really slow, so I was thinking now that my chaser wasn't that far behind me. So every time I heard anything behind me, I pushed a little more thinking he was running me down. I was smart on the big climb, but rode more of it than I had in several hours. And then every time the course flattened out, I pinned it. I even managed to pass a few geared riders. All of the solos had been given a small yellow tab to hang off the back of our seat that said we were solo, and at one point as I passed a geared guy out on the course during one of my fear-induced tempo sections, the guy just said, "how the hell are you still riding like that?" I just laughed and replied, "Fear, dude." Then I took off.

I enjoyed the last few sections of the course and thanked as many of the folks at the checkpoints as I could - they had really been so awesome all day in cheering and keeping us all motivated. A I hit the last climb before the long screaming dirt road descent, I looked back and saw nothing behind me and for the first time allowed myself a moment to recognize that I was really going to win this thing. I hit the straightaway to the finish line and pinned it as hard as I could. Just before the dismount area, I gave a little punch in the air and smiled when I saw Joanna. I hopped off, tapped the lap counter with my transponder and handed it in to the timing judge. Then I ran around the tent opening and saw Joanna walking toward me with a big smile on her face. We'd done it.

Afterward, I found out that the guy in second had finished his 17th lap 20 or so minutes behind me and once he found out I'd gone out again, he decided just to wait and finish with 17. So he never went back out. That was a good decision because even if I was running slow, 20 minutes in one lap would be a tough gap to overcome.

I got changed - Joanna had already packed everything up (like I said, awesome support!) and we packed up the car before heading back to the Start/Finish area for some food and the awards ceremony.

Singlespeed podium - I'm alone because 2nd and 3rd were smart enough to get some sleep instead!

And then I found out something really cool. As it turns out, I had not only won the SS class, but my 18 laps were good enough for the overall solo title, which came with a nice cash payout! Actually, I didn't quite know what was going on when they started to announce the overall. I didn't hear them say what they were announcing, but I heard them say that the 2nd place SSer was in 3rd. I turned to Joanna and said, "That's not right - he was 2nd." But then they announced 2nd pace, and it was the 40-49 geared winner. And then I looked at Joanna and she was smiling. She figured it out before I did that this meant I was the overall winner. And sure enough, the announcer then said, "And the top solo finisher overall, first time we've had this from a single speeder ..." And my eyes popped as I realized what that meant. I was really shocked. I was the only one to do 18 laps (270 miles), it turns out. And that gave me the win. Pretty cool! We stuck around for the SS podium and then had to split.

I had to get back to the hotel to break down my bike and pack everything up before dinner since we had to clear out by 10:30 in the morning for a 1:00 flight. That was overkill in the end because of our pre-boarding status, but it was good to get it all out of the way quickly. We met up with Joanna's brother and his kids for dinner one more time before we left and then they stopped by the hotel in the morning to see us off. Even with the success of the race, I still think spending time with them was my favorite part of the weekend. Joanna was just so happy to see them and they're really cool people and funny as hell. I could hang with them any time.

Our flight was delayed in Denver for bad weather back east, but to be honest I was fine with that. After such a full weekend, I didn't mind the downtime of just reading in the airport while we waited for our flight.

All in all, it was a pretty awesome weekend. I was really nervous about how it would all play out beforehand, but I couldn't be happier with how it went down in the end. The logistics of getting a bike and race gear so far from home is a nightmare, so I'm not sure I'll be doing more 24 hour races like this that I can't drive to, but I'm so happy we actually made this trip happen. The 24 Hour Round the Clock is just an awesome event and it's really hard not to have a good time there, whether you're doing it solo or on a team. I don't know if I'll ever get to have another adventure quite like this one, so I'm happy to have the memory (and be able to share it with Joanna!)

Until next time, see you on the trails!

Sunday, May 22, 2016

SSAP 2016

Last Sunday, I drove up to Montgomery, NY for the 2016 Singlespeed-a-palooza. SSAP is a really fun event, but it demands a skill set I just don't have anymore. Yesterday was the first time I've done it in four years because when it was in April it always conflicted with LBD, which is much more up my alley. And it hurt! Holding speed like that for 26 miles just feels so much harder than riding an endurance race-pace for 100+.  And I'm fine with that - I just wish that I didn't have to cough up my lungs the whole drive home whenever I do a race like that.

I lined up near the front with all the big guns. I looked around and knew right away that I was being - what's the buzzword for it? -- "aspirational". I had JP from MTBNJ on one side of me, Ross  Anderson from Finkraft on the other, Igor & Utah from NJ, Ron Harding and Mike Montalbano in front of me, and then Giant Pro/Former Olympian Adam Craig off to my right. It actually made me laugh. But I did have a reason for being there -- I figured I was going to get dropped when it got serious (and correctly guessed that would be right about at the fork in the road), but I also knew that with 90 or so racers in Open, being near the front was just common sense because someone was going to fall. It always happens in large fields. I just didn't want it to be me and I figured I'd get safe and then fall into that no-man's land between groups on the road by the time I hit the Schofield climb. And that was largely what happened, except for one brief moment in the first quarter mile when I was actually out front of everyone. And that was a conscious choice too because we were just starting that little descent and I was right behind Adam Craig and the dude goes into a super-tuck. That scared the ever loving shit out of me because I knew there was a massive set of potholes at the bottom and even though I'm sure Adam could have bunny-hopped them in without getting out of his tuck, I didn't want to be the douchebag responsible for bumping the back tire and possibly killing an Olympian because my own pothole-coping game set is decidedly weak. So I jumped around him and went through the section onto the little incline in first overall and prayed that someone would be there to photograph that I was leading this group of monsters (and if that happened, I'm pretty sure I'd have faked a mechanical and just called it a day right then.)

But it wasn't to be. And I eased off the gas (lest my lungs start bleeding out of my mouth) and let the whole crew by as they all started to go batshit crazy at the fork in the road. In like three seconds, I went from first to probably 20th. And then we turned into Schofield and I pulled the pro move of totally losing it and bailing before my face hit a tree.  I got up, grabbed my bike and decided all was good (adrenaline is awesome because it turns out I jacked my shin pretty bad but didn't even feel it until after I got home several hours later.)  But then I had to get back into the conga line. And that wasn't happening. I watched as at least 40 or 50 riders came through before I could get back on the bike. The nice thing about that is that my HR was all the way down by the time I could go again, so I was much fresher on the actual climbs than almost everyone in front of me. As I was climbing, I thought, "Okay, shithead, now you've got something to do today." And decided I would spend the day just seeing how many of the racers ahead of me I could pull back. I also told myself that no matter what, I'd ride everything. That last one went out the door after a valiant effort on that muddy field climb. I made it pretty far up, but slid out just before it got to where you could actually ride it normally. But I managed to pick off like 10 riders right there.

And I picked off another ten on the steep climb (Major Mike) a bit later . I don't even know if I knew any of the people I passed because I was all in on just moving ahead. I picked off a few more somewhere on the dirt road climb, and then another ten in those rolling sections that end with that rocky step up (I took the left side line to get around a guy there and thought "Damn, I've never ridden that line before".) At some point, my entire ride because just hoping to see a few more riders ahead of me so I had something to chase because I didn't want to have a reason not to push.

I went over 40 people total when I came around Chris Michaloski on the dirt road and saw an MTBNJ kit ahead of me. Turns out that was Iggy and it took me a while to run him down. Man, it's frustrating to see someone ahead of you and not be able to close them down! I really thought he was out of reach and I think it was only the fact that I was running a bigger gear that ultimately let me catch up.  I caught him in the last singletrack section, but then when we hit the dirt road, Iggy, Chris and Dano came rolling up behind me in a train and I just said, "So, does this mean I get to pull you guys to the finish?" Iggy later told me that he wasn't about to pull a roadie move like that on me and he went around me right away and I pinned myself on the inside of his wheel. Chris was much smarter than I was and knew exactly how far we had to go and just steadily built a lead that never felt like it was too far to make a run on - until it was too late. By the time I saw the flags, I knew I couldn't catch him. I cut back around Iggy and felt Dano on my wheel and was just barely able to hold him off. In the end, I finished 26th, which I was really happy about since out of all the people I passed, the only one who came back around me by the finish was Chris, so my day of bridging to other racers went about as well as I could expect.

I cleaned up and then spent a little time hanging out with Mitch & some of the other MTBNJ crew, enjoying some Newburgh Cream Ale and the best peanut butter brownies I've ever had before pulling the Irish exit and hitting the road for the long drive home. All in all, I'm really happy with how the day went even though I probably could have finished  little higher if I never crashed. This race is so different than any other I do anymore and I'm well aware that I don't have the top end speed of the guys up front. Congrats to Utah for killing it and finishing a close second to an Olympian! I don't know how they go that fast!

So now that I don't have to pretend to be an actual racer anymore, it's back into my "comfort zone" with my next race, the 24 Hours Round the Clock out in Washington over Memorial Day weekend.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Road Ragin' ...

Most of the time, I use this blog for race reports, and when it's not that, it's usually to write up a particularly good off-road adventure or maybe some other type of organized event. But so far this year, I've been doing a lot more road rides than I have in the past, and since I do them usually over my lunch hour, they tend to be a lot shorter than my typical ride - usually maxing out around 50 minutes of actual ride time. I've been enjoying those rides quite a bit.

Part of that is due to my Ibis Silk SL. I love that bike, but for a long while I wasn't really wanting to ride it because of an annoying grinding I was getting in the rear wheel. Ever since 2013, when I crashed and cracked the frame during the Rapha Ride, I'd noticed the sound on and off, and it had gotten considerably worse over the last year, and the rear wheel seemed to be leaning toward the non-drive side. I figured this was due to some flaw in the repaired frame, but I never knew for sure. And I prefer to ride off-road anyway, so eventually I just kind of put the bike aside when I got fed up with it. Then, about a month or two ago I finally brought it over to Scott at Evolution and got it diagnosed. It turns out I had a  cracked axle! It never came apart because of the skewer, but being supported only by a thin little skewer explained the leaning. It was an easy fix and since then I've had no problems. Well, no problems with the bike itself.

As I aid, I've been enjoying my daily rides quite a bit. But there are two things about riding on the road that I will never like. The first is the weather. I have to admit that I hate wind. It just sucks the life out of riding for me. And we've had a lot of wind this year. I've been on rides where I've had to lean hard to one side to avoid being blown out into the road. Thankfully, it's kind of calmed down lately, but that might be because Mother Nature decided to swap it out for rain. Rain isn't too bad in and of itself, but soaking wet roads suck. You worry about slipping on every turn and by the end of the ride your feet are always soaked. But it's all manageable - the slickness just means you go slower and hopefully, a new pick up I made this week should help with the latter:

Foot condoms!

I'd heard these work really well, and they're super cheap ($17/pair!) so why not give them a try? I tried them on today for the first time and I can see why people like them - they really leave no way for water to get in.

The second thing I don't like is a little more problematic: cars. The simple fact is, it really is dangerous to ride a bike on the roads in this region. It seems just about every time I go out on the road, some issue arises with a driver. And it's very rarely because of aggressive driving. Most of the time, it's a function of drivers just not paying attention. And if you ask me, that's an even scarier proposition.

In fact, just last night I had a very close call with a box truck on Tennis Avenue in Horsham. I had been having a pretty decent ride, steady rain notwithstanding. I'd turned onto Tennis Ave off of Sumneytown Pike just below Spring House. It's a nice road where you can turn up the pace and just move. As I was riding along at about 25, a few cars came around me cautiously and then all of the sudden a large box truck with  'Got Junk?' logo on it came flying by me so close I could feel mirror a few inches from my ear. It gave me a near panic attack, and that was quickly followed by a flood of rage. I looked ahead and saw a light up the road and pinned it. I had no plan in my head what I was going to do, but I was really hoping I'd catch the truck on a red light. In hindsight, that was really dumb - for all I knew, this guy could have been gun nut or a juice head who'd turn me into a pretzel. But at the moment, I didn't care. I just wanted to vent. I caught the truck at the light and as I came around the driver's side, I saw a guy completely focused his cellphone, and I just lost it. To be honest, I very rarely get angry on the road or trail - I just see no point in it most of the time. But this time, I was so angry I could barely speak - this ass clown had come very close to killing me and probably never even knew I was there because his head was down in his goddamn phone. I stopped in front of his truck and because I was so angry I couldn't think straight, the only words I could muster were, "Four feet, you fucking asshole! Four fucking feet!" He looked up stunned (though not as stunned as the poor guy in front of him who seemed to think I was talking to him for a moment) but didn't say a word. I was shaking mad, and decided that I needed to get out of there before it all escalated. I turned back around and too off on the green light, fully expecting to get run down from behind. I guess he must have been turning because he never came by me. It took me a good 20 minutes to calm down (during which I probably burned a to of matches by pushing myself as hard as I could!)

So, yeah, riding the road can be a hazard when you live in an area as densely populated as the Philly region. But I'll keep heading out there just the same. The enjoyment of the ride still somehow outweighs the stupid moments like last night!

Friday, April 15, 2016

2016 Leesburg Bakers Dozen, Part II

Part I here

I popped out of the woods into the main pasture heading back toward the start/finish and pit area at the end of lap 1. I was running hot, but didn't feel like I was burning out. My speed was good, the trail was good, and the traffic jams of all the riders from the start were already gone.  I made a quick stop at my pit area to lose my jacket and skullcap and I was off again. Everything appeared to be smooth sailing.

About five minutes into lap 2, though, two riders came up behind me. The first guy asked to get around me and I obliged. He was a geared rider, so I knew he'd outpace me on the flats, especially if he was coming around me this early. And that was true ... but the course isn't entirely flat, now, is it? This guy was definitely quicker than I was as long as we were on fast and flow singletrack. But the moment we hit anything even remotely technical, he was getting hung up. The first two times I thought that's okay - one of those was the massive rock drop that challenges even the most technically skilled riders. But then on the third rock section, I realized he just didn't have much skill. And I wasn't alone in that. The other guy who'd been riding with him turned out to be the first solo single speeder I encountered on the course, a guy named Chris Lane from the Joes Bike Shop Team, and we were both getting a little frustrated with the stop/go nature of following this guy around the course. He was a nice enough guy - he apologized every time he screwed up - but it was pretty disruptive for anyone riding behind him. We ultimately did get around him once we reached the tree grove halfway through he lap, and after we'd passed by, Chris laughed and said, "Finally!" (As a post script, that guy would later take me out when he insisted on getting by again and immediately slid out trying to ride over a rocky section. At that point, I put in a big effort to get away and stay away from him for good.)

I rode the rest of the lap with Chris and we were chatting as we rode along - I was on the front, so I didn't get much chance to actually see his set up, but he told me he was riding rigid and I knew that would eventually catch up to him. The course is very fast, but there are enough rocky sections that your upper body will take a beating even with a fork. I did the race rigid my first year and I was recovering for a week afterward. I told Chris that might get old fast, but he was a strong dude, so I thought that was maybe more wishful thinking on my part. He pulled around me and took off at the end of the lap. About a lap later I caught up with him, and passed him when he stopped at his pit (I didn't have to stop so I kept on rolling.) And that was the last I would see of anyone in my class until much later in the day. I should note that even when I was riding with Chris I had no idea where I was place-wise. I just knew there was at least one behind me or one in front of me depending on where the two of us were.

In the meantime, I had a few other things to deal with. By the third lap, it was raining again, and shortly after that the rain turned to snow for a bit and then finally around noon or so, it started to sleet. I didn't mind the snow at all, and even the rain was okay, but I have to say the sleet was rather unpleasant. It was hitting me in the face whenever I was in the opening and that kind of sucks.

But even with the sleet, I felt like I was moving well. The course remained unaffected by the weather. In hindsight, I can't say that I experienced anything that I had heard about vis-a-vis the course condition in bad weather. The weather was, to my estimate, about as bad as it could be at times, but the course held up like a champ. Aside from one or two small muddy sections, it was pretty much pristine. I had replaced my tires two days before the race and maybe that helped them hooking up in the clay-like dirt, but the fact is the course was holding up very well.

I rode most the afternoon nice and steady, and kept most of my pit stops under 20 seconds. I was keeping a pretty good pace overall - just about all of my laps were holding under 50 minutes and I even had one guy in the pits yell at me that I needed to slow down or I'd blow up. But I wasn't feeling stretched at all and I just smiled when I heard that. Before the race, I had set one sort-of-goal for the day - if weather allowed, I'd like to shoot for 18 laps. I figured that would guarantee me a spot on the podium, and it would be a definite stretch goal for me fitness-wise. By mid-afternoon weather was starting feel like the only real wild-card. By around 4:00 or so, we had gotten the rain, the snow, the sleet, and even some sun. But by far the most impactful element of the weather was the wind. BY 1:00, it was gusting over 40 mph and I was nearly blown off my bike a few times in the pasture sections.

But even with all the crazy weather, I was still rolling pretty strong by the time early evening rolled around. I was into my 15th lap before I needed to use my lights, so I started doing the math in my head and realized that I was going to be very close to being able to do 18 laps. And to be honest, I also realized that what I really wanted was to have the option to do 18, but not actually need to do 18.  Because it was cold and I was tired. As I finished my 16th lap, I realized the I would need to do my next lap in about 45 minutes to get an 18th. That would be tough this late, but it wasn't impossible. If I raced a really solid lap, I'd have a tough call to make at the finish line.

For the most part, I had a pretty good 17th lap. I went out, kept my pace nice and steady and even pushed a bit through the tech tree grove climb. And as I came through the campground and entered the last two miles of singletrack, I still had no idea if I'd make it or not. Ultimately, I realized with about a little more than half a mile to go that it wasn't going to happen, and I shut it down. I crossed the line in 13 hours and 4 minutes with 17 laps.

Normally, I'd probably ask about where I was placewise, but that's not what I did at that moment. I've been through enough of these races at this point to know one thing: after I finish, I need to get to a warm place fast because my body is about to crash. This happens every time - I start to shiver so bad that I can barely function. It always starts about five minutes after I stop. I don't know anyone else that this happens to, and I think it has something to do with my "strategy" in races like these. I pretty much never stop. My pit stops probably average less than 20 seconds. It's stop, swap bottle, and go. When I need food, I grab a Clif Bar and eat it as I ride away. I never stop for any longer than I have to all day because I worry about whether it'll start to feel too good. So when I finally do stop, it's usually just a matter of time before my metabolism stops working for me and my body starts to realize that it's done. So after I finished Saturday, I didn't bother to ask about results or anything - I just made a beeline for my pit area to clean up and get into my car to warm myself up and change. I was able to avoid the full crash by doing this (I was running the car with the heat on full blast and I put on every stitch of clothes I had in my bag, including three shirts, a cycling vest, a down jacket and a neck gaiter.) Then I checked my phone and found that a friend and former teammate had been tracking me and few other folks all day on the scoring company's website and she knew more than I did about the results. I didn't even know you could track the race online!

And that's how I found out I had won the SS class by quite a wide margin (4 laps.) This made me even happier, by the way, that I didn't do an 18th lap. After a call to my wife to let her know I had survived the weather gamut, I stepped out of the car and ... instantly began to shiver uncontrollably. The wind was still blowing and it was 30 degrees out. I immediately climbed back into the car and drove over to the closest point I could get to the bonfire before getting out and sprinting over to it to get warm.

The bonfire that saved my ass!
I hung out at the fire until the awards ceremony, and then bailed as soon as possible to go get some food into me before my entire system shut down. Its funny how you can feel fine as long as you are putting in an effort in these kind of events, but as soon as you stop, your body reminds you that it's just not normal to ride a bike for 13 hours straight.

All in all, I couldn't be happier with how LBD turned out this year. As it turned out, none of the solos did more than 17 laps. In fact, my finish was good for second overall among solos, behind only Jake Wade, who did 17 laps about ten minutes faster. I've raced with and against Jake going all the way back to my very first race and he's always been a crazy strong rider. He's a genuine pro talent. To be on the same lap as him at the end of an event like this is about as much as I could hope for.  Overall, I felt good all day and could have kept going if I needed to. And that's encouraging because I've got an even longer event coming up in May. The highlights of the day included my fastest ever off-road 100 miles (8:47), some nice consistent lap times all day, and with the win, I've completed the trifecta on podium positions - 2 years ago, I took third place, last year I was second, and this year I got the win.

The LBD is a special event that I'll return to as long as I am able. Despite the weather, I didn't experience the horrors of a bad course the I'd heard about, so I can't really think of much that would keep me from coming back. It's a great race put on by really cool people with a great vibe from the fellow racers. If you ever thought you might like to give endurance racing a try - either as a solo or on a team - definitely give this one a hard look. It's just a great way to spend a Saturday!

Thursday, April 14, 2016

2016 Leesburg Bakers Dozen, Part I

This past weekend, I did my annual pilgrimage to Leesburg for the Bakers Dozen. This was my fourth year doing the race and it's always one of the highlights of my year. To some folks, spending 13 hours riding a bike would sound like a special kind of hell, but I love everything about it. How often do you get the chance to just focus entirely on one thing you actually love doing for that many hours? Sure, you're going to be pretty destroyed at the end of it all, but that;s a small price to pay for an experience like LBD.

And "an experience" is a pretty great way to describe the 2016 LBD.

To understand why, I need to take a step back. All three previous versions of LBD that I've done had one thing in common: perfect weather. Sunny, temps in the 70's all day ... a perfect day on a bike. But I'd heard that when the weather isn't so great, the race is a whole different animal. And early last week, it became fairly apparent that 2016 was going to be a "not great weather" LBD.

But Friday, when I drove down the VA, it was anything but bad weather. I arrived in Leesburg around 1:00 pm and headed right over to the farm to pre-ride the course under sunny skies. It may have been a little bit windy, but that's been pretty much every day of April so far here, so that was nothing new.

During my pre-ride, I noticed that even though there had been rain most of the week leading up to Friday, the course was in great shape - like, possibly the best condition I'd ever seen it. There were a few muddy spots, but the course was running super fast. I finished a two lap pre-ride and checked in to my hotel to clean up before heading back over to pick up my registration packet.

Had a pretty decent hotel room ...
After I picked up my packet, I grabbed some Chipotle for dinner and headed back to my hotel to rest and hope that the weather for Saturday would be a repeat of Friday.

That wasn't the case.

Ready to go in the rain ...

When I woke up Saturday morning, it was pouring rain. And when I went out to put my cooler and gear in the car, I discovered that it was also below freezing out. It was going to be a long day.

The rain slowed to a light shower by the 9 a.m. start, but it was still very cold, so I wore a wind jacket and a skullcap to stay warm on the start. The start ... one of the few things about LBD that I've never been a fan of was the start. It's a mass start, which is fine, but it typically started on the dirt road only a short distance from the first singletrack (regardless of which direction the course is run in a given year.) That always creates a massive bottleneck since either way we are going, there is a significant technical feature only a short way into the singletrack. I've been able to avoid serious backups the last two years (I was caught out the first year) by putting in a pretty huge effort to stay near the front early. I don't mind going hard off the starting line, but I usually try to avoid going too hard, and you kind of had to do that to avoid the backups at LBD. But all that changed for 2016 - we started with a loop through the pit area that dropped us into the first pasture section before we headed out toward any singletrack. That allowed probably an extra half mile to spread us out. I still lined up as close to the front as I could, but I could already see the field breaking up long before we hit the entrance to the  woods. But even with the smoother start, I was feeling a little cooked almost right away. Despite the low temps, I realized that I was a bit over-dressed. I made a mental note to shed the jacket and skullcap after the first lap.

But until then, I had some work to do. It sounds funny to say this about a 13 hour race, but you really do have to push a little harder in the first few laps if you want to be in it at the end. It's a funny balance - you need to go as hard as you can afford to go without blowing yourself up. And while you have to pick your battles if riders are trying to pass, you also don't want other folks in your class to get too far ahead early in the day. So I always put a little more effort into the first lap or two and then keep speed as high as I can within a sustainable range from there out.

As I fell into the conga line of riders hitting the singletrack on Saturday, I tried to move up through he field with a little extra effort every chance I got, and always kept an eye out for other single speeders because, aside from a quick glimpse of one other on the starting line, I hadn't seen any and had no idea where I was in my field. And as it would turn out, that would become a familiar feeling.

And so, as we headed toward the first real test of the day - the tree grove climb out across a pasture about halfway through the lap - I didn't know if there was a rabbit up ahead or if I was the rabbit for the folks behind. And to be honest, I didn't mind not knowing. At that moment, all I knew was that I was feeling surprisingly good for such a crappy morning.

That tree grove ahead contains the most consistently technical sections of the entire course
That seems like a good place to end Part I. Tomorrow: the weather goes schizo and I finally find another single speeder ...