Sunday, February 26, 2012

Post-Omloop Hoop Post

Is this the "sweet spot" where performance and price intersect?
Road racing returned to Europe this weekend with a very entertaining Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on Saturday and a sadly predictable Kuurne—Brussel—Kuurne today.  Garmin-Barracuda’s Sep Vanmarcke, a 23-year-old Belgian, got himself into the winning breakaway and just plain out-sprinted Tom Boonen and Juan Antonio Flecha for the Omloop victory.  Mark Cavendish won K-B-K almost by default as none of the other teams made a serious effort to control the front of the peloton after the last breakaway failed.  I watched streaming coverage of both races on the Internet, then capped off my weekend with the Tour of Oman highlight show on NBC Sports.

I spent much of the weekend thinking about the equipment I will need to achieve my own competitive objectives for 2012.  My big purchase will be a mountain bike suitable for WORS and WEMS races.  I want to buy into the sport at a high enough level to ensure that my results be limited mostly by my fitness and skill, and I think I know which bike I’m going to get.

But I’m much less certain about buying a new wheelset for my road bike.  Currently, it’s outfitted with the wheels that came with my cyclocross bike.  They’re OK for indoor training and will serve as backups for both road and cyclocross, but they’re inadequate as a primary set for either bike.  Road racing doesn’t figure prominently in my plans this year, but road riding does.  I’m thinking about upgrading the wheels on my Diamondback cyclocross bike and returning the trusty Mavic Aksium wheelset to my Raleigh road bike.  At 1950g the Aksiums are kind of heavy but as training hoops they’re just fine.  And for those rare competitive events on the road this year I could temporarily swap-in the new, lighter wheels.

Lighter, but not too light.  I’m always around 200 pounds and a new pair of super-light, low-spoke racing wheels would be a poor choice for my needs and my budget.  I have almost talked myself into another set of Aksiums, which for 2012 are down to 1735g without sacrificing strength.  That’s almost a half-pound savings, and that’s enough to yield a performance benefit even for a rider of my modest abilities.  At around $300, new Aksiums would be a sensible upgrade.  They also appeal to my spartan aesthetic: black rims laced with black spokes to black hubs.  My cyclocross bike would be the Stealth Bomber of Masters Cat 4.

Outfitted with 700x25 Continental Gatorskin tires, the Diamondback is proving a very capable winter bike.  I haven’t ridden the Raleigh outdoors since Sep. 10 and it may be weeks before I take it outside again.  But sooner or later that day will come and I want to be ready when it does.  With bad weather in the forecast this week, I might do some shopping to make sure I’m prepared … and to keep the blues away.

Friday, February 24, 2012

On The Ryan Braun Situation

Let me get this straight: Alberto Contador loses his 2010 Tour de France title because of a positive test for a trace amount of clenbuterol, a substance which he could have ingested accidentally and whose concentration in his body was too small to have produced a performance-enhancing effect, but Ryan Braun keeps his 2011 National League MVP title despite a positive test for a huge amount of synthetic testosterone, a substance which could not have entered the body accidentally in a concentration more than seven times the amount that constitutes a violation of league policy.  Whoever said “cheaters never prosper” simply had the wrong team of lawyers.

I’m just about done with baseball.  The Braun ruling is the latest in a long series of insults to me as a fan.  During the era of Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro, baseball was unwilling to address its doping problem in a meaningful way.  Today it appears willing but remains unable.  The effect is the same: the integrity of the game is compromised.  And I’m a purist anyway.  I believe the game was better before it lowered the pitcher’s mound, brought in the fences, created the designated hitter, placed interleague games on the regular-season schedule, and added wildcard teams to the playoffs.

My absence from Miller Park will go unnoticed.

The mood in Milwaukee is celebratory today and you shouldn’t doubt that Braun will be received warmly when the season begins.  He’s ours.  He couldn’t have done what they say he did.  Now, accusations against Albert Pujols we would have believed.  We would have been scandalized had he escaped on a technicality, because everyone knows the Cardinals cheated us out of the pennant last year.  Get ready for another round of baseball’s answer to Stockholm Syndrome, that same suspension of disbelief that allowed Bonds to bask in the love of San Francisco Giants fans for 15 seasons while the rest of baseball recognized him for the cheater he was.

The law finally caught up with Bonds but instead of prison time he was sentenced to 30 days of home confinement … in his Beverly Hills mansion.  He’s still the all-time home run king and a 7-time MVP, honors that will never be taken from him.  If baseball metes out any justice at all, it will be in the form of delaying or denying Bonds entry in the Hall of Fame, as it has done to Pete Rose.  Braun is still early enough in his career that his positive doping test will be a footnote as long as he avoids further trouble.

On the morning after the Braun decision I’ve already seen opinion pieces on the future of drug testing in baseball.  The more dire predictions assume that doping controls will collapse now that attacking the testing process itself has proved a winning strategy.

What bothers me most is the attitude of fans whose only concern is whether performance-enhancing drugs are being used by rival athletes.  When accusations fall on one of their own, either those accusations are false or their boy is merely doing what he must to compete in a sport full of cheaters.  (Lance Armstrong apologists, you know who you are.)

Football is undeniably America’s premier sport—and here, again, we’re all happily fooling ourselves about how much human bodies can achieve without PEDs—but baseball still holds a cherished place in our collective heart.  Cycling is a niche sport of European origin, and much easier to dismiss as dirty.  But cycling is doing more to ensure clean competition than baseball and football probably ever will.  Its willingness to punish big stars like Contador, Alejandro Valverde and Jan Ullrich is a stark contrast to baseball’s record with Braun and players like him.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

More Fun In The Winter Sun

Some weekend for February, huh?  I spent Saturday afternoon hiking through Lac Lawrann Conservancy and Royal Oaks Park, then hopped on the bike today for a 22-mile spin through the countryside southeast of West Bend.  Each day began with European professional cyclocross streaming live on the Internet.  Shortly after today’s cyclocross race, I watched streaming coverage of the final individual time trial in the Volta ao Algarve.  The ’cross coverage was in Flemish and the TT coverage in Portuguese.  “Something something something, Niels Albert.  Something something something, Richie Porte.”  Good enough for me.  Thanks,

Tomorrow it’s back to work for the company that pays my bills—no three-day weekend for me—but it should be a routine day that gives me an opportunity to ride outside late in the afternoon.  Mondays are technically the end of each week of my 12-week training plan, and they’re supposed to be rest days.  But I’ll ride outside if I can.  I’m nothing like “overtrained” at this point of the offseason.

I started this year’s training plan a week later than last year’s, reasoning that I don’t have any important races until July.  I wonder if I’ll regret that decision on April 7.  I will be in eastern Pennsylvania that day and I’m thinking about registering for the Fools Classic, a 79-mile sportive that includes roughly 18 miles of unpaved roads and has around 6,500 feet of climbing.  It’s billed as a “tribute to the Ronde van Vlaanderen” and “ideal preparation for those who plan to go to the Tour of the Battenkill.”  It would be a hard ride any time of year, so in early April I would expect it to kick my ass.  But it might be just the thing to jump-start a full week of training while I’m on vacation.  Registration opens tomorrow night.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

W(h)ither The Bicycle Club?

Is this the future of the bicycle club ride?
Social media is changing the world and if you are not engaged with it then you will be at a serious disadvantage in nearly every aspect of society in the 21st Century.

How’s that for a sweeping statement?  Well, get used to the idea.  Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and the like have revolutionized the way we interact with each other.  In years to come we may know these things by other names and access them by other means, but there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle.  Everyone will have the tools to create content, and everyone will be judged on the merits of that content.

And the phenomenon of social media is not just for the individual; its potential already has been recognized by governments, religious and civic organizations, social causes, corporations … every imaginable group.  If you are absent from the Internet, then you are absent from the mainstream of public discourse.  You are invisible.  The people who want or need your services expect easy access to information about you.  Without it, they will obtain those services elsewhere.

Listen up, bicycle clubs.

Some clubs are doing a good job with social media, staying in control of their own message and presenting themselves to the public in positive ways.  That’s the way it should be, but that might not be enough.  I think they’ve got a problem no matter what they do, because at their core bike clubs are really just the organizers of group rides.  Some clubs raise money for charities, but charities would be just as happy to take a contribution from you as an individual.  Some clubs furnish maps and cuesheets, but almost no matter where you live you can find route recommendations online through MapMyRide, Strava and other sites.  (You can download all of the Washington County Bicycle Club’s cuesheets since 2008!)  Some clubs arrange for discounts with local bike shops and other businesses, but increasingly these businesses offer similar discounts for online “friends” who “like” them.  Some clubs provide insurance for members who are injured while participating in a club event, but when someone joins a bike club the last thing on his mind is the prospect of injury—crashing is something that happens to other people—so this benefit is no enticement.

It really is all about finding other people who want to ride in the same place, at the same time, in the same manner that you do.  Social media is far more adept at meeting those criteria.  It gives you what you want in a very focused way without shaking you down for dues, charitable contributions or volunteer hours.  Don’t get me wrong: dues, charitable contributions and volunteer hours all can be put to excellent use and provide a real sense of community and purpose for club members.  But let’s be honest: for a lot of people, such commitments are barriers to membership.

I like to browse the websites of bike clubs from all over the country, and I see some of the same problems again and again.  Chief among them is our aging population.  Demographic trends are destiny … to a large extent, anyway, and the average age of club members can’t go up forever.  Clubs are doing a lousy job reaching younger riders.  Social media offers clubs a way to speak to younger riders in a way they understand.  But if social media is just a portal to a club that retains a traditional structure and mission, I suspect the initiative will fail anyway.  It isn’t that younger people aren’t riding; they just aren’t motivated to join a club.

So, what is the future—perhaps the very near future—of the bike club?  I believe most traditional clubs will die of old age, having clung too long to an outdated model.  Some will morph into social networks, and new “clubs” will be social networks from their inception.  The survivors will be those whose members are:
  • bound only by a common interest in the activity itself
  • organized but have no central leadership
  • governed by the best ideas, freely debated
If this sounds a little too much like “Occupy Wall Street,” there’s one big difference: the specificity of the activity to be pursued.  There won’t be a one-size-fits-all club; you might be a member of the Sunday Brunch Bunch and the Tuesday Hill Climbers and the Thursday Gravel Grinders.  Vague promises to promote cycling in general will fade from our memories as we indulge our particular desires.  We’re not all in this together and we never were.

Each cyclist already is an expert on the subject of what he enjoys.  Social media is the tool that will allow us to find those who are most like ourselves and to collaborate with them in very narrowly-defined ways that give us just the experience we want.  It’s happening now.  The Washington County Bicycle Club retains its traditional club structure and offers 14-16 official rides each season.  But the club is also a Group on Facebook, one whose unofficial rides are a growing part of its appeal.  These ad hoc gatherings don’t conform to normal club standards for scheduling, start/finish locations, distance or other parameters, and still they find an enthusiastic audience.  Maybe that’s the future of the WCBC: simply to be a forum in which area cyclists can organize themselves organically and democratically, and not to mandate when, where, how and with whom group rides must take place.

Wouldn’t it be ironic for a such a small club, ordinarily so resistant to change, to find itself among the early adopters of the new world into which social media is leading?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Winter Weekend Wrap-up

Training at Washington County Winter Bike Day
Would you believe I slept until about 10:30 this morning?  That’s four hours later than normal and an indication of just how wiped out I was after a long Saturday.  But Washington County Winter Bike Day was worth the effort.  There were 9 riders for the indoor training session and several curious visitors for the bike swap.  Expedition Supply and Mountain Outfitters were there with bikes, parts, clothing and other things to sell or swap.  Business wasn’t brisk, but a few items found new homes.  Pedal Moraine came through with a box of parts and a nice older wheelset to donate to DreamBikes.  And I now have several jerseys to give to the Ripon College mountain bike team, which in turn will donate them to African cyclists in need.

On Saturday evening the Washington County Bicycle Club held its annual business meeting and set its 2012 club ride schedule.  The season-opener is scheduled for Saturday, Apr. 21, in Hartford.  There are some details to work out before the full schedule can be published.  You’ll find the schedule here when it becomes available.

Late on Friday afternoon my boss approved my vacation request for April.  Mom’s birthday falls on Easter Sunday this year and I’ll be in suburban Philadelphia to celebrate with her … until NBC Sports airs Paris-Roubaix at 7 p.m. EDT.  At that point, I’m all business.  Fortunately, it shouldn’t be hard to keep myself from learning the winner before the tape-delayed broadcast, as it might be if I were at home.  And yes, I’ll be riding a lot while I’m in Pennsylvania.  I felt like I got cheated out of my “training camp” in Georgia a few weeks ago.  Surely, that couldn’t happen again, could it?

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Family Affairs

Today I did my first hike since December 26.  It was only 1 hour at Ridge Run County Park as the sun was setting, but it was nice to get outside.  A steady breeze made today just a little too cold for a bike ride.  Hiking was a good substitute … and something I could share with my youngest child. For my oldest child, hiking "is boring … like cycling." Fine. Stay home and suck.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

ToAD Releases Its 2012 Schedule

The schedule is out for this year’s Tour of America’s Dairyland.  As in years past, ToAD remains a crit-heavy series.  I’m just not interested in racing crits.  But they are spectator friendly and I’ll be in the crowd at Grafton and Downer Avenue for sure.  The road races at Greenbush and Erin (Holy Hill) are slightly interesting but they’re also hilly courses on which I wouldn’t expect to do well.  Here’s the complete schedule:

6/21 (Th) Shorewood Criterium                (pros only)
6/22 (Fr) East Troy Criterium
6/23 (Sa) Giro d’ Grafton Criterium
6/24 (Su) Carl Zach Criterium, Waukesha
6/25 (Mo) Greenbush Road Race
6/26 (Tu) Schlitz Park Criterium, Milwaukee
6/27 (We) Town of Erin Road Race
6/28 (Th) Sheboygan Harbor Centre Criterium
6/29 (Fr) Fond du Lac Criterium
6/30 (Sa) Downer Classic Criterium, Milwaukee
7/01 (Su) Madison Criterium

I missed out on the fun at Downer Avenue last year and I’m keen to make up for that.  Frites and Belgian beer from CafĂ© Hollander are already on my mind.  Let’s make it a party!  Who wants to go?

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Another PR … And Some Future Plans

Feets don't fail me now.
Dry roads, above-average temperatures and bright sunshine pulled me outside for two rides this weekend: 33 miles on Saturday and another 30 miles today.  Those 63 miles are a personal record, beating the 55 miles I rode in February 2011.  I hope to add more tomorrow when the temperature again flirts with 40 degrees.

After tomorrow things will cool off for a while.  That’s OK; I can’t delay my indoor training program much longer.  I’ve merely dabbled with trainer workouts so far this winter.  There has been no sense of urgency because I’ve been riding outside much more than in any previous winter and I don’t have any important competition goals until mid-summer.  Saturday’s Washington County Winter Bike Day will mark the start of my formal training period, roughly 12 weeks of structured workouts designed to elevate my fitness by the beginning of May.  Many of those workouts will be done on weeknights in the home gym.

If all goes well I should be in racing shape in time for the WORS opener at Iola on May 6.  But it remains to be seen how much of the WORS schedule I’m going to do.  Iola is a strong maybe, not a firm commitment.  And even if I’m comfortable with my fitness I may not be comfortable with my technical skills.  The New Fane trails—access to which is important to my development on the mountain bike—didn’t open until April last year.  Hopefully we can avoid significant additional snowfall this winter and get a March opening.  That would give me extra time to practice.  Also, it looks like I will be on vacation in southeastern Pennsylvania in early April.  Spring arrives a few weeks earlier there than it does here, so I might be able to test my skills on the trails in that area.

I probably will do a little racing in the first half of 2012 but I won’t really expect good results.  These would be training races in the same way the pros stretch their legs in places like Qatar and Oman before really getting down to business in the spring classics and Paris-Nice.  My spring classics will include Cheesehead Roubaix, of course, and probably a couple of gravel grinders.  But I don’t expect to get really serious until the July 7 WEMS race at Suamico.  Then comes the Sunburst Showdown in Kewaskum on July 22.  The Bryce Master TT in Harvard IL on Aug. 4 looks like a good tune-up for the Kirke Vei TT in Cottage Grove on Aug. 18.  On Aug. 26 I will return to Suamico for the WORS Reforestation Ramble.

My fitness should be really good as September begins.  My challenge will be to maintain it.  September is perhaps the most important month on my cycling calendar because I will use it almost exclusively to prepare for the new cyclocross season.  That means lots of short, hard practice efforts and skill development, and little or no actual racing.  Cyclocross is my main competitive focus in 2012 and I don’t want to be burned out before it even begins.

The long, gradual build-up begins next weekend.