Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Giddyup, Giddyup



By   riding 409 miles this month I established a new personal best for November. My previous record was 350 miles, set in November 2015. It’s my third monthly record this year—February and October were good to me too—and I’m at 5,561 miles, year-to-date. I won’t beat the record of 6,236 miles I rode in 2015, but with decent weather I might make a run at a monthly record for December. Anything more than 175 would suffice.

I got to 409 this month with a bunch of short rides. I rode 17 times, so that’s only 24 miles per ride on average. (But it’s way better than the equivalent amount of time on the turbo trainer!) For comparison, I rode 19 times in September, 19 times in May, and 15 times in April. I rode most frequently in August (23) but my highest mileage total came in July (796). This month’s weather allowed me to ride more often than I expected. I kept the rides short, though—nothing longer than 35 miles—as a concession to limited daylight. In December there will be even fewer available hours and I will be almost exclusively a weekend cyclist … if that.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Gut Check


Was it only one week ago that I rode my bike in shorts on a 70° afternoon? Winter is here. It arrived last weekend, bringing our first dusting of snow and wind chill in the teens. The change was dramatic, but not unexpected. I felt really good about not having any more races on my 2016 calendar. WCA cyclocross went on without me in Milwaukee on Saturday and in Madison on Sunday.

But by mid-afternoon on Sunday the bike was calling to me again. I wanted to ride, and I especially wanted to prove to myself that I could renew my uneasy peace with cold weather. Prior to last weekend, temperatures in West Bend were consistently above normal for November. On Sunday, normal would have been 42° but we reached only 32° ... and that’s the bottom of my range. The sun was out, though, and the roads were dry and the wind wasn’t too bad. I actually enjoyed my 1.5-hour ride. It wasn’t merely a case of enduring something unpleasant. I did another 1.5 hours on Monday, and yet another 1.5 hours on Tuesday. A relentlessly wet and sloppy Wednesday turned into a rest day, and today was always going to be one because there was no way to get an after-work snooze and do a ride before my in-laws arrived for Thanksgiving dinner. I will be back in the saddle tomorrow if the rain stays away, and the weekend actually looks pretty good. I am 20 miles away from a personal record for miles in November, so I have extra motivation.

The bathroom scale is proving motivational too: my weight is creeping up. I spent most of the cyclocross season at 187 pounds but today I was 190 … and that was before the big feast. I exited November 2015 at 189 pounds and that’s not a bad goal for November 2016.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Done

“I’m not joking. This is my job!”


In   college I had professor of English who, in flashes of inspiration, would say, “I want to give you a word.” Proceeding to the chalkboard, he would write the word and then give the class its definition. The students quickly understood that these words were to be taken seriously. Anything written on the chalkboard was likely to appear later on an exam. So, it seemed odd when at the very end of the last class, when all exams and writing assignments were behind us, the professor returned to the chalkboard one more time.

“I want to give you a word,” he said. Then he wrote D-O-N-E and bade us farewell. And “done” is an interesting word for one so small, so common, so … monosyllabic. It can be a simple statement of fact, or a lament, or an expression of joy. For college students wearied by a week of finals, it was certainly an expression of joy.

Today my 2016 racing season is done. That’s a simple statement of fact, and a lament, and an expression of joy. I’m glad to be done, glad to be rid of obligations and expectations. I would have liked to go out on a high note, but frankly that seemed impossible. Last week I spent only 4.5 hours in the saddle, adding a paltry 69 miles to my total. It was my worst week of training since May 9-15. This week isn’t going to be much better, and I don’t feel fit enough to give a good account of myself in the remaining WCA cyclocross races.

It’s probably not a coincidence that such a bad week immediately followed the end of Daylight Saving Time, and the days will continue to get shorter for the next month. Colder too: we’ll have some 50° days this week but West Bend might fail to reach 40° on Saturday and Sunday, and high winds on Saturday could bring sub-freezing wind chill. I really want to spend some time hiking, an activity I can enjoy under weather conditions that make cycling unappealing. And I really want to spend more time lifting weights, especially since I expect mountain biking to be the focus of my 2017 season.

There is no offseason anymore. “Done” is the just the end of one thing and the beginning of another. Today I get a head start on next year.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Sven-less-ness



Fan support for cycling can be hard to quantify. You can count the visits to websites that provide racing coverage. You can even look at TV ratings … especially outside of the United States. But if you want to talk about attendance at races, then you quickly realize that in most cases fans don’t buy tickets to gain access. Perhaps they do for track events in the controlled environment of the velodrome, but they don’t for most of the road races, criteriums, or cyclocross races.

This morning, Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad published a short analysis of recent professional cyclocross races, concluding that Belgian fans are less engaged this season than they were in 2015-16. The reason? Sven Nys, the now-retired legend of the sport. Without his star power, the newspaper argues, cyclocross has lost some of its allure. Certainly, Nys’ departure is a factor. I would argue that the premature departure of another popular rider, Niels Albert, and last year’s retirement of 2-time world champion Bart Wellens also makes for a less compelling starting grid. Klaas Vantornout and Kevin Pauwels no longer produce consistent results and even at their best are quiet, introspective men whose victories can go unnoticed. Tom Meeusen remains one of the more engaging fan favorites, but he has raced with limited success so far this season. Lars van der Haar is out of action as he recovers from an injury. On the women’s side, the amazing career of 7-time world champion Marianne Vos is coming to a close. Her heir-apparent, Sanne Cant, has combined a somewhat prickly personality with a baffling inability to win a world championship despite being a prolific winner otherwise.

Still, there’s so much to like. Current men’s world champion Wout Van Aert and 2015 world champion Mathieu van der Poel are great rivals already … at the ages of 22 and 21, respectively! Laurens Sweeck is just 22 and Toon Aerts just 23. These are riders at the top of the sport right now, with many epic battles ahead. And current women’s world champion Thalita de Jong is just 23. Yes, there has been a real changing of the guard in the last couple of seasons, but cyclocross is in good hands.

I am forced to admit, though, that I am less enthusiastic about the pro road racing scene. The big stars of the previous generation gave us great storylines. Sometimes those storylines proved shameful, but we enjoyed the show while we suspended disbelief. Fabian Cancellara, Ryder Hesjedal, Michael Rogers and Fränk Schleck all retired at the end of the 2016 season, and Peter Sagan now stands out even more clearly as the bonafide superstar in a peloton full of guys who don’t make a lasting impression. You might admire the accomplishments of somebody like Chris Froome, but can you really say that you find Chris Froome to be a compelling personality whose every move demands your attention? I can’t. And it doesn’t help that there were only 5 Americans in this year’s Tour de France, and only 2 in the men’s road race at the Olympics in Rio. It also seems to be true that young road racers serve longer apprenticeships than racers in other disciplines. In football or basketball, a college stud can make an immediate splash upon turning professional. In road racing, The Next Big Thing rarely lives up to the hype.

Cycling is not a team sport in the same way as baseball, basketball, football, hockey, or soccer. Teams in those other sports are inextricably tied to geography, and you probably cheer for the ones closest to home. Players come and go, but the team endures. Fans cherish its history, its stadium, its uniform. Cycling teams have no such continuity. One day you’re riding a Brand A (“Best bike in the world!”) for a manufacturer of writing utensils and the next day you’re riding a Brand B (“Best bike in the world!”) for a company that sells hardwood floors. Fans attach themselves to individual riders—team is, at best, a secondary consideration and probably not even that. I’m more inclined to support an American on the basis of our shared nationality than I am to support a foreign rider.

The point is this: personalities matter. Superstars matter. Of course there’s a little post-Sven Nys depression in cyclocross but it will pass as the greatness of the new generation becomes even more obvious. Road racing is in bigger trouble because of its reliance on Sagan. The careers of Alberto Contador, Tom Boonen and Mark Cavendish are winding down. Somebody new must step into the void to create the stories from which we cannot turn away.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Watch Cyclocross, Please

This is my view from the turbo trainer.

At   the end of October, Trek announced that its website would host live video for 10 of this season’s top European cyclocross races. American fans welcomed the news: Trek says it had more than 10,000 viewers for the first webcast on November 1. That was last Tuesday; weekend and holiday numbers should be higher. This Friday, for instance. As we observe Veterans Day, Belgium will observe Armistice Day, commemorating the end of World War I. Even if you have to work, I encourage you to dedicate a browser window to the webcast of Jaarmarktcross. Even if you turn off the speakers to stay out of trouble with your boss (you’ll get ambient race sounds, but no commentary … and it wouldn’t be in English anyway), even if you aren’t actually watching, tune in. Lots of website hits will encourage Trek to keep providing the coverage beyond the 2016-17 season. And it costs you nothing.

Well, probably nothing. If your Internet access comes from a cable TV company, then you may be familiar with data caps. Those are the bandwidth thresholds at which the cable company says you have had enough fun for one month … unless you don’t mind paying a premium for more. The data cap system is a money grab that has nothing to do with network congestion or fairness, and its primary targets are people like me.

In January I told you about my early experiences with cord cutting—i.e., getting rid of a wasteful, expensive bundle of Internet, home telephone, and cable TV services. Almost a year later, my family and I are very happy with the new arrangement. Thanks to mobile phones, we haven’t missed our land line at all, and our Internet connection is our connection to television programming. We have been experimenting with Amazon Prime, Hulu and Netflix, watching about 80 percent of our shows “on demand” and about 20 percent live, over-the-air. So far, we haven’t had any data cap issues. That’s probably because my kids weren’t big TV watchers in the first place; your household’s experience might be different.

Smart TVs in the living room and master bedroom made the transition easier than it would have been otherwise. They have built-in apps for the on-demand services and they connect easily to my ChromeBox or to my laptop if I want to watch streaming coverage of a bike race on a screen bigger than the 22-inch monitor in my home office. But down in the home gym, the TV is an older high-definition model with no Internet connection, no way to connect to my laptop, and an NTSC tuner that can’t interpret the new digital broadcasts. The solution there was a $37 converter box with an ATSC tuner and a USB port to which I can attach an external hard drive. That allows the box to function as a DVR, but so far I’m using it only for over-the-air TV and to play back bike races. YouTube has countless hours of racing coverage. Using an online converter to change the format from FLV to MP4, I can download to my external hard drive and then play through the box to keep myself entertained when I’m on the turbo trainer or lifting weights. The setup isn’t as slick as the YouTube app, but I have a workable solution until one of those smart TVs ages into the home gym, its upstairs replacement funded by all the money I’m not paying for cable anymore.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

A Winning Weekend ... Weather-Wise



A full weekend of cyclocross racing in Wisconsin with temperatures in the high 60s and sunny skies … in November? Yes, please! Historically, the average high temperature in West Bend for Nov. 5-6 is just 49°, but on Saturday we reached 64° and today we hit 68° to break the previous all-time high of 66°, set in 1924. I raced in Milwaukee County and Dane County, respectively, where the weather was just as nice. What a treat to leave the winter clothes at home!

Estabrook Park

The course at Estabrook Park in Milwaukee (and Shorewood and Whitefish Bay, believe it or not) is never exactly the same from one season to the next, and Saturday’s edition of the race featured a section of Milwaukee River bottomland that isn’t normally in play. But the inclusion of that section also allowed the organizers to use a challenging stone staircase that might be the toughest run-up in Wisconsin Cycling Association history. And the stairs were just about the only section of the course that you could be sure was firm. Even flat sections open to the abundant sunshine failed to dry out completely. The race was positively energy-sapping from start to finish, but I enjoyed it tremendously and sustained a very steady effort. I was 19th of 27 overall in the Masters 45+ Cat 1/2/3 race, 15th of the 22 Cat 3s. John Lirette (Ben’s Cycle/Milwaukee Bicycle Co.) took the win. I felt like a winner after the race when I retired to the Estabrook Beer Garden for a complimentary brew and bratwurst.

CamRock

Today I most emphatically did not feel like a winner. In fact I was dead last: 13th of 13 in the Masters 45+ Cat 1/2/3 race, 8th of the 8 Cat 3s. I overtook the back of the 35+ field that had started 1 minute ahead of my age group, so I wasn’t literally the slowest man in the race, but that was my only consolation. Once again, the guys to whom I lost were simply faster. The guys at my level have been very hit-or-miss with their participation this season, so it was only a matter of time before I was DFL in a small field. John Lirette won the 45+ age group again today. He does well under all conditions. I do well, relatively speaking, on courses like CamRock, and I didn’t ride badly today. If I could race against the Dave Hanrahan of Nov. 8, 2014, when I placed 3rd at CamRock, I’m sure I would kick his ass. But he was a Cat 4 in a field of Cat 4s. Now I’m overmatched. Cyclocross is still fun, but from a competitive standpoint I don’t matter very much. It’s becoming what it probably should have been from the start: a way to stay fit at the end of the year, but not an end unto itself.

Monday, October 31, 2016

A New Argument For Park Site O



When the WCA announced last Thursday that Milwaukee County would not allow the Halloween Cyclocross Classic to run at soggy Washington Park, some racers wondered why the organizers immediately canceled the event. There was another option: Mitchell Airport Park is the backup venue for Milwaukee-area races. Why wasn’t the race relocated rather than canceled?

At least part of the answer is that Mitchell Airport Park isn’t a very good option. It’s really just a field, almost completely flat and almost devoid of trees. Any cyclocross course there would be purely a creation of posts and tape, a labor-intensive setup yielding uninspiring results. The park has no buildings, no electricity, no off-street parking, and very little adjacent on-street parking. A race promoter would have to bring in portable toilets, electric generators, and some kind of tent/pavilion to shelter the registration workers and race officials. With most races already operating on extremely thin margins, nobody is going to accept those extra costs. To cancel a race will always make more financial sense than to relocate to Mitchell Airport Park.

For the Madison-area races, Trek’s corporate headquarters in Waterloo is the backup venue. That’s not just private land, it’s also a permanent cyclocross course … more-or-less. By using familiar lines, setup wouldn’t be as labor-intensive and the resulting course would be more than satisfactory. (If it was good enough for defending world champion Wout van Aert at the Trek CXC Cup in September, then it’s good enough as a backup venue for a WCA race.) Maybe that should be the backup option for all WCA races. It’s a half hour east of Madison and an hour west of Milwaukee. Promoters are probably still on the hook for portable toilet rentals and electric generators, but course setup would be easier and, at least this year, racers would welcome the opportunity to preview the state championship venue. Attendance should be good, and you need that to cover your costs.

Still, it’s too bad the Milwaukee area doesn’t have a permanent cyclocross course. It wouldn’t need to be on private land; it only would need to be somewhere that isn’t environmentally or politically sensitive. Even if it didn’t have buildings or electricity, it would at least be no worse than Mitchell Airport Park, and it would have the enormous benefit of being easy to set up on short notice. Imagine a course that is mostly defined not by posts and tape, but by a lawnmower. Imagine something like Badger Prairie, where so much of the course is simply carved into a field of tall grasses. We could have that at Park Site O in West Bend. To be an ideal location for a race, Park Site O would need electricity and bathrooms. As things stand, a promoter might be able to work something out with the Kettle Moraine Ice Center that sits on the property’s eastern boundary. Mitchell Airport Park has no neighbors from which it might borrow or rent resources. Like Mitchell Airport Park, Park Site O is easy to reach from the freeway system, but only Park Site O has off-street parking. It’s 90 minutes from Madison but less than 45 minutes from Milwaukee, and it’s a closer relocation option for the Manitowoc, Grafton and Oshkosh races.

Weather-related cancellations are rare in the WCA cyclocross series, and you couldn’t justify development of Park Site O as merely a backup site to be utilized once every five years or so. I envision a permanent bike park with multi-purpose turf trails that can be used throughout the year. Creating them would be a big job—too big for me to tackle by myself—but it’s still mostly a function of mowing and raking. We could have this by next summer, then work out any kinks during our Tuesday practice series in August and September. Wouldn’t it be cool to see it in use as Plan B when otherwise a race would be canceled outright?