Sunday, February 11, 2018

Focus On Fatbikes

The focus was on fatbikes this weekend, even for me. No, I haven’t taken the plunge, and I don’t think I ever will. A fatbike can ride over snow—sometimes—but it doesn’t make the air temperature any warmer. The little interest I have in fatbikes is satisfied by the occasional demo day. Milwaukee’s Fyxation hosted one today at Pleasant Valley Nature Park & Trails in Ozaukee County. I was there with my daughter. That’s her in the picture above.

I left without taking a ride. With the wind chill at 7°, witnessing crash after crash, and hearing nothing but complaints about the poor quality of the snow, I decided it wasn’t worth waiting for a demo bike in my size. The last fatbike demo I attended also was ruined by bad snow. On that occasion, the temperature was too warm. Today, the problem was the “freshness” of the snow we received last night, which apparently spoiled the “perfect” conditions that existed yesterday.

I was at Pleasant Valley yesterday, snowshoeing for the first time in 3 years! It has been a long time since we had a deep snow base, but the 12+ inches we received over the 10 days has dramatically changed the landscape. Hitting Pleasant Valley on Saturday was a conscious choice to help prepare the trails for today’s event. Snowshoeing is a complementary activity: it packs the snow without leaving holes or ruts like hiking does. Of course, mechanized grooming works too:

Trail boss Eric Hackbarth checks on the progress of sled driver Jed Kimla.

But like I said 3 years ago, if the snow needs to be compacted to a smooth, road-like consistency, then why not just ride on the road? That’s what I plan to do later this week when the temperature gets back above freezing. The road starts at the end of my driveway; I don’t have to load the bike into my vehicle and drive to a trailhead. And the road gives me innumerably more route options. I’m barely a mountain biker, and I’m no kind of fatbiker.

Some people are, though. Like my teammate Matt Grady. Yesterday in Grand Rapids MI, Matt became the USA Cycling Fatbike National Champion for the men’s 23-29 age group. I think he’s the first national champion in Team Pedal Moraine’s history. We’ve had state champions in different disciplines and categories, but no national champions that I can recall. Well done, Matt!

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Tiny But Mighty

Hier kom ik om de dag te redden!
At last weekend’s UCI Cyclocross World Championships, not everything went the way the experts predicted. Few people thought Wout van Aert, despite being the 2-time defending champion, would beat Mathieu van der Poel, this season’s most dominant rider, for the men’s elite title. And I’m sure nobody thought 16-year-old Harriet Harnden of Great Britain would take 4th Place in the U23 women’s race.

But there were few surprises otherwise. The sport continues to be dominated by Belgium and the Netherlands.

Belgium and the Netherlands have occupied every podium position in the men’s elite race for the last 4 years (Czech rider Zdeněk Štybar won the 2014 championship). Belgium and the Netherlands have won 9 of the last 10 women’s elite races and current champion Sanne Cant is still complaining about the one that got away: Pauline Ferrand-Prévot’s victory for France in 2015. Belgium and the Netherlands have won the last 8 men’s U23 titles. In the 5 world championship races last weekend, Belgium and the Netherlands occupied 9 out of 15 podium spots.

It’s not only cyclocross in which Belgium and the Netherlands excel. They produce some of the most successful road and track cyclists too. How do these two countries, whose total population is just 28.5 million, so consistently turn out great racers? I think part of the answer lies in population density. The combined land area of Belgium and the Netherlands is less than half the size of Wisconsin—you could drive across either country in less than 4 hours. That gives them roughly 1,000 people per square mile. Every race on home soil is a race against the best the country has to offer. Contrast that with Wisconsin, where Madison guys don’t go to Green Bay races, Milwaukee guys don’t go to Wausau races, and so on. Now expand that idea to the entire United States: 323.1 million people spread out over 3,794,083 square miles—just 85 people per square mile. To be part of a major series, or to accumulate UCI points, or (especially) to win a national championship, an American racer must spend a lot of time and money just traveling between race locations.

Finishing in 15th Place on Sunday, Stephen Hyde was the top American in the men’s elite race. He’s a New Englander who traveled almost 3,000 miles in January to win the USA Cycling National Championship in Reno. His 2017-2018 domestic itinerary included Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio, Maryland, Kentucky, and Nevada, plus a few races closer to home. Fellow Massachusetts resident Jeremy Powers, a 4-time national champion, followed a similar schedule and said in an article published last week that his travel costs are a big problem. And he is perhaps the most highly sponsored of the lot! Imagine the hardship for racers with little or no sponsorship money.

Is it any wonder that the amateur categories at nationals are dominated by racers who live nearby? We don’t see an even distribution of riders from across the country; in both time and money, the travel burden is simply too large for most racers. And when last year’s champions don’t defend their titles because this year’s races are too far away, the quality of racing isn’t what it could be. That eventually comes back to bite us against fields of international riders who have been knocking the stuffing out of each other since they were kids.

I don’t have a solution. The United States will continue to have pockets of racing prowess across a landscape that remains largely empty. In cyclocross, this is really noticeable for the elite men: 14 of the 19 Stars & Stripes jerseys awarded since 2000 have gone to New Englanders. (Katie Compton’s dominance on the women’s side is a product of her unique gifts and not of a Colorado racing scene that is head-and-shoulders above all others.) Maybe the only answer is to support your local racing scene, making that pocket as big and as strong as it can be.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

2018: Off To A Good Start

I do some goofy-looking routes at this time of year, but they get the job done.
I’m exiting January with 8 rides and 150 miles to my credit. That’s an improvement over last January, when I rode 5 times for 120 miles. My all-time best January was in 2015, when I rode 11 times for 241 miles. Any miles at this time of year are a bonus.

The Northern Kettle Moraine region is exiting January with almost no trace of snow. That’s bad if you’re a skier but it’s awesome if you’re almost anyone else. If we keep melting off every snowfall before the next one can add to it, then we should see an early opening for the mountain bike trails. Whether early access to those trails alters my racing schedule seems doubtful though, as this year’s WORS and WEMS calendars don’t align very well with my other objectives.

There’s already a change to my plans for 2018. The “Jack Lake” race on the WEMS calendar isn’t in Kenosha County after all. I wondered about that when it first appeared, and it turned out to be an error. The actual site of the race is in Langlade County, a 3-hour drive north of West Bend. That’s pretty close to impossible to accommodate when work keeps me in Brookfield until 7 a.m. on a Saturday. And September 15 is probably going to be a cyclocross date anyway. After doing 11 mountain bike races in 2017, I might be down to only 2-3 this year.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Part Bad News, Part Good News

Since 2010 I have been a Mavic wheel guy. I have 3 sets of Aksiums and 1 set of Ksyriums, and for the most part they have been good to me. But when something goes wrong, getting them fixed is a lot of trouble. That would be true of almost any “system” wheels with proprietary parts, but it seems to be especially true of Mavics. Something as simple as replacing a spoke becomes a scavenger hunt through multiple bike shops, which seem not to be able to buy individual spokes and instead must buy them in big, expensive lots. Even shops that sell Aksiums and Ksyriums don’t always have spare parts!

I’m tired of it. So, after popping a spoke recently on my well-used rear Ksyrium, I decided to create my own parts cache. Instead of fixing the wheel—an uncertain process, given how badly warped the rim had become—I opted for disassembly. The next time I pop a rear spoke, I’ll have one on hand. The front Ksyrium is still a usable spare, but it too has taken a beating over the years and wouldn’t be worth fixing. I plan to keep the Aksiums running as long as I can for 3 very specific applications.

The oldest and heaviest Aksiums are now on permanent rail-trail duty. Paired with 700x32 slicks, they go on the cyclocross bike when I use it on hard surfaces. My newest Aksiums also are dedicated to my cyclocross bike, but they are outfitted with a nice set of race-worthy cyclocross tires. That makes them perfect for practice sessions and as a backup set on race day. My primary setup for cyclocross races is tubeless: Shimano Ultegra wheels with Bontrager CX3 tires. I use the middle set of Aksiums for backups on the road bike, now that I have new Ultegras as my primary road wheels.

I still have confidence in my Aksiums, not to mention a financial investment, but I’m transitioning away from them. At least in the short term, I’m moving into Ultegras. They perform exceptionally well, and they represent an industry-standard approach to wheelbuilding that is easily understood and supported by any bike shop in the world. Getting parts and service won’t be an ordeal. Sooner or later, though, I’ll buy that high-end cyclocross bike with the disc brakes ...

Friday, January 12, 2018

Connecting Lizard Mound and Sandy Knoll

I mentioned on Wednesday that Bike Friendly West Bend’s plan for a network of city bike routes has taken too many political hits lately to be realistic in the short term. But that plan is only one of the group’s initiatives. BFWB wants to advocate for better cycling throughout Washington County, not just in West Bend, and to that end it is partnering with the county’s Planning & Parks Department on a countywide route plan.

As Wisconsin counties go, Washington County isn’t very big. With a total area of 436 square miles, it’s the 5th-smallest county in the state. But we have great road density. The county’s highway department maintains 1,100 lane miles, and municipalities like the City of West Bend maintain hundreds more within their corporate limits. Some of those roads aren’t suitable for bike routes, but overall it’s an embarrassment of riches. What criteria should the county use to determine which roads are part of the bike route network? How should it balance the equally valid demands of transportation and recreation? I won’t try to sort that out today, but I can assure you the routes will develop over many years in piecemeal fashion. A complex series of seemingly unrelated road and trail construction projects eventually will mature into the completed network.

That long timeline can be discouraging, but every great journey begins with a single step, right? So, here’s an idea: let’s connect Lizard Mound and Sandy Knoll county parks to each other and to nearby residential neighborhoods in the Town of Trenton. (The suggestion to use new trails to link existing county parks got 95% approval from county residents who responded to survey published in 2014.) Lizard Mound features Native American effigy mounds—it’s a cool place, but it’s underutilized because it can be accessed only from County Highway A. That means nobody is going there on foot or by bicycle. Sandy Knoll is one of the county’s most popular properties, a good place for picnics, swimming, and hiking. The parks are just half a mile apart “as the crow flies,” but 3.5 miles apart by the shortest on-street route.

The map above shows how to tie everything together in a way that I think will increase attendance at Lizard Mound but I know will benefit residents near Sandy Knoll. The blue line is a 2,300-foot-long section of Wallace Lake Road that connects Eastwood Trail, a quiet residential street, to the park road entrance for Sandy Knoll. I see dog walkers and people on bikes along that section all the time. There’s no sidewalk and no paved shoulder. Let’s make an off-road path there, or at least make wide shoulders on the road itself. Then let’s connect Eastwood Trail, Jubilee Court, and Forest View Drive with a new 1,500-foot-long path in the power line corridor shown above in purple. A lot of kids live in those neighbors and they don’t have a proper park. This plan gives them a safe route to Sandy Knoll.

Making the connection from Sandy Knoll to Lizard Mound could be fairly simple too. There’s an existing farmer’s path (shown above in orange) that links Lizard Mound to Newark Drive. Public access to that path could be gained by acquisition … say, a 100-foot-wide corridor with the path at its center, not unlike the Eisenbahn State Trail. But at the moment there’s no reason to think the County Board would spend money to acquire new park property. The best solution could be an easement: simply get permission from the farmer. In either case, preserve access to the corridor for farming and improve the path to make it easy to traverse by bicycle or by farm vehicles. Then it becomes a great deal for the farmer, who will have easier access to adjacent cropland and no maintenance to perform on the path. With that piece in place, all that remains is to link the farmer’s path to Sandy Knoll.

The red line on the map shows a 2,500-foot segment of Newark Drive, ideal for a new off-road path or wider paved shoulder. As drawn, the line connects the farmer’s path to a now-closed vehicle entrance to Sandy Knoll. That entrance already is popular with cyclists. But there’s another way to make this link. It’s just 550 feet from the farmer’s path to the intersection of Newark Drive and Trenton Road, the northwest corner of Sandy Knoll. At that corner you will find an unpaved trail currently used by hikers and snowmobiles. Eliminate the ridiculous rule that keeps bicycles off Sandy Knoll’s trails and you’ve got nothing more to build.

From Forest View Drive to the parking lot at Lizard Mound, this is a 3-mile-long system, roughly half of which already exists. It would take only a modest effort to make all the links. Trenton residents would benefit immediately from better access between the neighborhoods and to Sandy Knoll, and in the long term this system could be part of an even greater network of bicycle routes across the entire county.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Notes For The New Year

Last night at City Hall, Bike Friendly West Bend held its first meeting since its proposal for a citywide bike route system died before the Common Council on December 18. BFWB suffered another setback when the route plan failed to gain inclusion on the upcoming advisory referendum on street maintenance, so Tuesday’s meeting was a somewhat downbeat affair. BFWB refuses to abandon the route plan, which it sees as the cornerstone of its advocacy efforts, but in 2018 it will focus on other goals. The group will continue its partnerships with the city, local businesses, and Moraine Park Technical College to design, fabricate, and install more bike racks around town. It also will be instrumental in the implementation of the Cycling Without Age program. And there might be a role for BFWB to play in breaking a legal deadlock that is holding up several enhancements to the southern terminus of the Eisenbahn State Trail at Rusco Drive. Stay tuned.

Ridge Run Park and Lac Lawrann Conservancy are closed to the public through Sunday, January 14, to allow bowhunters an opportunity to thin out the deer population. LLC is always off-limits to bicycles—for no good reason, if you ask me—but neighboring Royal Oaks Park is not. I’m leaving this note here to suggest you not ride in Royal Oaks right now. There’s no clear boundary line separating it from LLC, and I wouldn’t count on the hunters to know where one ends and the other begins. Better safe than sorry.

Some Washington County parks now charge admission for motor vehicles. You still can visit for free if you leave the car at home and enter the park by bicycle instead. Note that municipal parks operated by the City of West Bend, the City of Hartford, the Village of Kewaskum, and other such entities are not affected; the new fees are applicable only at certain county-run parks.

The Wisconsin Cycling Association released its 2018 road calendar this week, surprising me with a new road race in Fredonia on August 4. I’ve never done a WCA road event—almost all of them are criteriums—so the prospect of a road race in the heart of Cheesehead Roubaix territory is intriguing. It’s going to be a BELGIANWERKX production, and that could mean a couple of those gravel roads will be part of the course. Should be fun!

Monday, January 8, 2018

Out Of Hibernation

We reached 40° today, our first day above freezing since December 22 and our first 40° day since December 19. Good enough for me: I did my first bike ride of the new year. It was only 18 miles around town on my mountain bike, but I was happy for the opportunity. And there should be more opportunities this week. Tuesday and Wednesday will be around 40° and should feel even warmer than today because the winds will be lighter. Thursday holds some promise too—the temperature will approach 50° at noon—but then a cold front will arrive with a chance for rain and flurries.

I’m dealing with some lower back pain right now. Hopefully, today’s ride won’t be my only ride this week.