Friday, July 27, 2012

Making The Case For Royal Oaks

Royal Oaks Park already features turf trails left behind by Park & Rec lawnmowers.
With cyclocross season now just six weeks away, finding a place to practice cyclocross skills is very much on my mind.  At the end of last summer the My Wife Inc. guys held practices at Kletzsch Park in Glendale … not too far away, but not convenient either.  This year MWI has moved its practices to Mitchell Park in Milwaukee.  That’s a little farther away but I still might be willing to make the drive sometime.

Of course, what I would prefer is to practice here in West Bend.  In an earlier blog post I argued in favor of Park Site “O” as a possible candidate for cyclocross—and it could be a good location if I had a small army of volunteers to help me beat it into shape.  I was dreaming then of a venue for cyclocross racing; today the more realistic side of my character just wants a place suitable for practice.  Within the city, there’s probably no better choice than Royal Oaks Park.

Located immediately east of Lac Lawrann Conservancy, Royal Oaks Park covers 24 acres, 10 of which are wide-open prairie around a tall sledding hill.  By itself the hill could be an interesting and challenging practice course feature, but with some creative routing it also would give riders a chance to hone their off-camber handling skills.  The 14 wooded acres include trails, but they’re covered with wood chips.  There’s no sand or water feature and no natural run-up … though you could simulate one without much trouble.  Royal Oaks gets very few visitors at this time of year—it’s actually more popular in the winter as people come out to go sledding or cross-country skiing—and a practice course that stays away from the playground should provoke no complaints.  There is a bathroom.  There is no parking lot, but parking near the Auburn Road entrance is never a problem.  And local guys probably would ride their bikes to the park anyway.

I don’t think you can beat Royal Oaks for features or convenience.  It would be nice if we could include the neighboring Pine Plantation Trail or the Stodola Prairie—each of which would make a perfect addition to a ’cross course—but those are parts of Lac Lawrann and we need to respect the Conservancy’s prohibition against bicycles on its trails.  As a city park, Royal Oaks is well-maintained.  There would be no grass for us to cut, no earth to move.  Break out a few cones to weave around, place a couple of PVC barriers to hop over, and call it a cyclocross course.

Who wants to give it a shot?  If this works out we could schedule a series of practice sessions before and even during the racing season—Tuesdays, perhaps, even though that’s the same day MWI will do its thing in Milwaukee.  We’re probably far enough apart that we’re not competing for the same pool of riders.  Within Washington and Ozaukee counties we easily have enough cyclocross racers to make this work.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Olympics

I have a Summer Olympics challenge for you.  Start by skipping tomorrow’s opening ceremonies, that interminable parade of people you don’t know from countries you can’t find on a map, all wearing poorly made clothing from China to placate their corporate masters at Nike, Reebok and Adidas.  When competition begins, watch the TV/Internet coverage but with the sound off or with commentary in a language you don’t understand.  See how much you can take.  See whether the competition is enough to hold your attention without the “compelling human drama” blanket that the announcers will try to wrap around almost every athlete.  I’ll bet you don’t last long.

How did it come to this?  Why can’t we just watch a goddamned sporting event without the winner crying his eyes out and dedicating his performance to his dead twin brother, his cancer-stricken sister and the illiterate club-footed coach of his JV team?  It would be one thing, I suppose, if sports journalists applied their maudlin filters to synchronized swimming, trampoline and a few other competitions so mind-numbingly dull that only the athlete profiles could make them briefly watchable.  But it’s everywhere.  Did any of these athletes get to London on the merits of their sporting prowess alone, or did they all have to pull the plug on Grandma’s ventilator before they got on the plane?

On vacation in Europe as a 13 year old, I wandered away from the family campsite one evening to watch a local tennis match.  The quality of play was excellent and much appreciated by a large group of spectators.  After one particularly well-played point, a man standing next to me smiled and nodded to indicate his approval.  I did the same.  Without knowing each other’s language that was all we could do but that was enough.  The game was enough.  It didn’t need embellishment.

As a cycling fan I am somewhat interested in the Olympic races, and I hope I can enjoy them with or without commentary.  For the 2008 Olympic men’s road race there was no TV coverage so I watched an Internet stream.  It had no commentary, just the ambient sounds of the road.  Professional riders who should have been familiar to me were rendered almost unidentifiable without their trade team jerseys.  Hopefully this year’s coverage will include enough on-screen graphics to allow me to identify the riders, to know where they are on the course, to know the distance remaining and to know the time gaps.  That would be enough.  What I expressly do not want is some sepia-toned, cloying story of Taylor Phinney’s devotion to his father Davis, the former pro with Parkinson’s disease, or yet another retelling of track cycling star Dotsie Bausch and her struggles with anorexia and drug addiction.  It has all been done.  Taylor and Dotsie and all of the other Olympians don’t owe you anything more than to perform at the best of their ability and to represent their countries with dignity.  If you need cheaply conjured sentimentality and soap opera storylines, maybe professional wrestling is more your speed.

Let the Games begin.  But let them stand on their own merits.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Stranger In A Strange Land

“The human mind’s ability to rationalize its own shortcomings into virtues is unlimited.”  Robert Heinlein
The more I think about it, the more yesterday’s WORS race was like a time trial.  In my previous mountain bike races there was always an easy part, usually a long section of flowy singletrack ridden at a speed that kept me in touch with my competition while allowing me to recover from an earlier effort.  The Sunburst Showdown really had no such section; I was on the gas almost constantly.  But I had a successful race because I can put out that kind of sustained aerobic effort.  Many of my fellow Citizens-class racers can’t, and I think I know why.

I don’t have any first-hand knowledge of my competitors’ training plans, but I suspect many of the guys spend most—if not all—of their saddle time aboard their mountain bikes.  They get lots of those flowy singletrack sections that allow for recovery.  Their efforts are explosive, but relatively short.

Because I train mostly on the road or on the Eisenbahn State Trail, I eat up miles with aerobic efforts that I sustain for long intervals.  A lot of good riders won’t go near the Eisenbahn because it’s an almost pan-flat, almost dead-straight rec trail.  But I recognize its value as a time trial course.  All of my little self-timed TTs to Campbellsport and back might seem silly to some people, but I know they contribute to my physical fitness and to my psychological capacity for suffering.

Seven races into the WORS season, I’ve proven to be a pretty fair mountain bike racer.  The Sunburst Showdown provided a rare opportunity to compare my lap times to those of the Sport, Comp and Elite racers.  At all prior venues my Citizens course was shorter and easier.  At Sunburst all categories raced the same course, just different numbers of laps.  I finished two laps in 1:01:32 … about 30 minutes per lap.  If I can assume I had one more lap in my legs at approximately the same pace, then I would have finished squarely in the middle of the Sport field.  But as I mentioned yesterday, Sunburst was a test of aerobic fitness and not of bike handling skills.  On a more technically challenging course I likely would lose ground to experienced Sport men even if I had superior fitness.

I’m probably not unique but I do think I’m unusual in that I became a mountain bike racer without first becoming a mountain bike rider.  I never go mountain biking just for fun; I ride only in the context of training for an upcoming race.  In that respect my relationship with my mountain bike is different than my relationship with my road and cyclocross bikes.  Through Sunday I had done 115 rides this year, only 34 of which were on the mountain bike.  I look at my 29er as a race-only machine; even when I’m going only as far as Glacial Blue Hills to practice, I transport the bike by car.  The thought of riding it across town, exposing all of its inefficiencies vis-à-vis my other bikes, is distasteful to me.

What am I trying to tell you?  I guess, that I still see myself as an outsider despite modest success in competition and the acceptance of my fellow racers.  I always feel like a cyclist, but one who dabbles rather than specializes.  I’m just good enough at a variety of things for each discipline to be fun, and maybe that’s all I ever will be.  And maybe that’s OK.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

2012 Sunburst Showdown

Racers traverse the dusty ski hill at the 2012 Sunburst Showdown in Kewaskum.
Today’s Sunburst Showdown—the seventh race of the WORS mountain biking season—was hard, but I was pretty tough too and earned 3rd Place in the Citizens (Cat 3) 40-49 age group.  Series leader Jim Steig got off to a great start and never looked back, completing two laps on the Kewaskum ski hill in 58:48.4.  Mases “Mo” Movsessian took second in 1:00:59.1.  I finished in 1:01:32.0, followed by Brad Jorsch (1:03:18.4) and Rick Dwyer (1:03:22.6).

Early in the first lap the switchback climb up the south side of the hill separated the contenders from the rest of the field.  And by that time the leaders of the 40-49 group were already working their way through the back end of the 30-39 wave that had started a minute earlier.  One of the 30-39 age groupers went over his handlebar spectacularly on a high-speed gravel descent, his concentration broken when he dropped his water bottle.  I was immediately behind him but avoided bottle, bike and rider.  Reaching the bottom of the hill intact, I moved well through a tedious labyrinth of pine trees and tall prairie grasses.  But Steig was slipping away.  We saw each other briefly as we moved in opposite directions on parallel trails.  He encouraged me to get up to his wheel and I assured him I was trying, but I never made it.  I did, however, dispatch Dwyer at mid-lap.  By the end of the lap I was right on Movsessian’s wheel.

I probably should have passed Mo just before hitting the long switchback climb early in Lap 2.  On one of the wooded switchbacks I lost all my momentum and had to put a foot down.  That little mistake allowed him to open a gap that I just couldn’t close.  But at that moment there was nobody in sight on the hill below me.  I tried to relax and ride my own pace to the summit.  Mo dangled about 30 seconds in front of me for the remainder of the race.  I continued to pick off guys from the 30-39 age group and nobody was catching me from behind.  Back in the labyrinth, I could see that Jorsch had passed Dwyer and was coming after me, but I outclimbed him on the tubing hill and kept a safe gap to the end.

The racecourse was hot, dusty and offered almost no opportunity for rest.  What it lacked in technical singletrack it more than made up for with climbing.  The downhill sections were super fast—too fast to allow a rider to recover.  Flat sections were grassy, often bumpy, and punctuated by numerous sharp turns.  The entire course seemed intent on breaking a rider’s momentum whenever possible.  Today was all about sustaining a high aerobic effort … with occasional anaerobic bursts.  And I got through it better than most of my rivals.

Steig now has 1,356 series points, I have 1,269 and Jorsch has 1,234.  I concede that I can’t catch Steig, who has beaten me in all seven races so far.  Jorsch could catch me from behind but he can’t do it on participation points alone.  He intends to compete in all 12 races and will amass 25 participation points.  Of the five races that remain, I am committed only to the Aug. 26 Reforestation Ramble in Suamico.  A good performance there would replace my 9th Place finish at CamRock and virtually guarantee my 2nd Place standing in the series.  I may do additional races but at this time I am not certain.

Team Extreme’s John Norman—injured on June 2 during the pre-ride at Wausau—returned to the starting grid today and it was good to have him back.  And there were many familiar faces in the crowd as the West Bend cycling community came out to support its friends.  So, it turned into a good race for me, but I sure am glad it’s over.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Bored Of France

Have you ever seen a Tour de France as boring as this year’s edition?  Bradley Wiggins pulled on the yellow jersey 10 days ago and will wear it all the way to Paris unless he suffers a catastrophic failure.  He and his team continue to prove that by following a very cautious—and consequently very dull—strategy there’s no way for someone from another team to win.  Similarly, Peter Sagan has such a stranglehold on the sprinters’ green jersey that he won’t lose it unless he fails to finish the race.  The mountain climbers’ polka dot jersey is up for grabs, but do you really care who grabs it?

As a fellow American, I want Tejay Van Garderen to keep the best young rider’s white jersey, but that competition isn’t what keeps me tuning into the daily TV coverage.  Nor is the insistence of the NBC Sports commentators who continue to promote Chris Horner, Levi Leipheimer and Tyler Farrar as somehow still relevant in this year’s Tour.  No, I keep watching in the vain hope that an audacious attack will shake up the general classification.  And realistically, tomorrow’s stage is the last chance for something like that to happen.  I would like to see Wiggins come out of the rest day with nothing in his legs, then for him to be forsaken by treacherous teammate Chris Froome, and finally to be vanquished by repeated attacks from Vincenzo Nibali and Cadel Evans.

It won’t happen.  It will be a sluggish parade of the GC men and probably a victory for a pure climber who gets into a late breakaway.

I hope that in years to come—and there’s no reason not to start in 2013—the organizers of the Tour will do something to make the race more exciting.  I have two immediate suggestions.  First, the team time trial should be a feature of every Tour.  Professional cycling continually promotes itself as a team sport and nowhere can the team dynamic been seen more clearly than in the TTT.  Second, put time bonuses back into the stage finishes.  How many stages of this year’s Tour have ended with all of the GC men simply rolling across the line together?  Yawn.

Never have I looked with such anticipation to the Eneco Tour …

Sunday, July 15, 2012

2012 Alterra Coffee Bean Classic

A female competitor finishes the last climb of her race as the Pro/Elite men grind up the gravel to begin a new lap.
A strong effort today resulted in a 3rd Place finish at the Alterra Coffee Bean Classic—race number six of the 12-race Wisconsin Off-Road Series—on the Crystal Ridge ski hill in Franklin.  My success began with good fitness, but also showed the value of good preparation.  I practiced on the trails after work on Friday and again on Saturday afternoon, so on the starting line today I was confident that I could survive the tight, twisty singletrack.  And I felt sure that I could outclimb my rivals, a huge advantage in this race.

The race began with a climb of the grassy ski hill and the Citizens 40-49 field split almost immediately.  Then came a long, flat section—not the sort of place you would expect crashes, but crashes came nonetheless.  I was up with the leaders, unaware of what was happening behind.  Brad Jorsch went down and lost what should have been a much better finish.  By taking 12th Place, Jorsch slipped behind me in the series standings.  Retaking 2nd Place in the series was my top goal today … but I had to finish well to secure it.

Things went well for me in the first section of singletrack, but soon I ran into slower riders from an earlier wave.  It took a while to get around them.  Fortunately for me, the other leaders in my age group were also detained.  We didn’t shake free until the “Craters of the Moon” climb.  Many of the slower riders from the earlier waves were walking the hill.  It’s a little grinder, but I had practiced it and knew where I could shift into a harder gear and still recover before the gravel road.  Once on the gravel road I went into my big chainring and just hammered.  That allowed me to get around a lot of riders before the next section of singletrack.  And there I was challenged, but I did enough to limit the damage and upon returning to the gravel road hammered again to the highest point of the course.  I negotiated the descending ski hill switchbacks carefully, got through a short section of singletrack at the bottom, then emerged into the full fury of a hot sun as I climbed another gravel road parallel to the grassy start.

Lap 1 was behind me.  So, too, were still more riders from the earlier waves, men I passed easily on the hill.  Lap 2 was nearly a carbon copy of Lap 1—I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that my split times were exactly the same.  I knew Ernie Huerta and series leader Jim Steig were still ahead of me, but I didn’t know how far.  All I could do was ride my own race and hope to catch them in sight of the finish.  But it was not to be: Huerta held off Steig up the grassy hill to the finish.  I came in next, 1:04.7 behind.

Steig now has 1,156 series points, I have 1,083 and Jorsch has 1,053.  I haven’t been able to beat Steig all year and the math is not in my favor as I look for ways to win the series title.  I’m 4-2 against Jorsch and will try to extend my advantage next Sunday in the Sunburst Showdown.  I didn’t see his climbing legs today due to his unfortunate crash, but mine were pretty good and in the week to come I will be able to practice at Sunburst on a few occasions.  Sunburst represents a critical point in the season: for most of the men in my category, it will be the seventh race of the season.  The way WORS determines its series champions, each race after the seventh either replaces an earlier one—if your new result is better—or adds 5 participation points to your total.  Steig would have to collapse to lose his lead and he has shown no weakness this season.  For me, taking 2nd Place would be a great way to finish my first year in the series ... and my friendly rivalry with Jorsch could come down to those participation points.  I’d like to build a safe lead before cyclocross season begins, but I may have to defend my WORS standing all the way through the season finale in Sheboygan on October 14.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Apropos Of Nothing

Rémy Di Gregorio
I am not a Bradley Wiggins fan, but I do share his disdain for the sorts of journalists and other commentators who feel compelled to look for doping offenses in every cycling achievement.  There are doping offenses in cycling, of course, and it appears that we have a fresh one today involving Rémy Di Gregorio of Cofidis.  Sad if it’s true: Di Gregorio is a talented young climber in whom the French had high hopes.  But in the wake of controversial remarks made by Wiggins on Sunday, one has to question the motives behind this reference in the story about Di Gregorio:

“In 2007, current Tour de France leader Bradley Wiggins (Sky) was part of the Cofidis team that went home after the 16th stage.”

Yes, and … ?  While that statement is factually true, it’s also true of many other riders not named in the article.  To single out Wiggins just smells of an attempt to discredit him by association.  But we all know how the 6 Degrees of Separation theory works, don’t we?  You would be hard pressed to find a single rider in the professional peloton who has not at least been the teammate of a teammate who had a former teammate who turned out to be a doper.  How far are you willing to take it?  Five years ago, Wiggins had a dirty teammate.  Today that same team—for which Wiggins has not ridden since 2007—has a new doping scandal involving a rider who has never been Wiggins’ teammate.  Implying a connection is bullshit journalism.  If the writer of the article has more information, then let him present it.  Otherwise, let’s stop with the sneering cynicism.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Playing, Fast And Loose

OK, so the New Fane mountain bike trails are not quite this dry.  But they're close.
I am rarely surprised, and still less often pleasantly surprised.  But today exceeded my expectations.  I hadn’t ridden my mountain bike since the WORS race at Eau Claire on June 24.  That’s two full weeks ago.  Making my return to the singletrack today at New Fane, I thought I would be crap.  I thought it would take a couple of practice sessions to get comfortable again, but I was OK from the start.  And on my second lap I was more than OK, finishing in a personal-best 24 minutes.  That’s 2 minutes faster than my previous mark.

Maybe there should be an asterisk next to that record.  On previous occasions I rode solo; today I followed Jeff Wren.  He’s a better mountain biker than I.  We don’t always agree on which line to take—I didn’t set a PR by stealing any secrets from him—but we’re a close match in open terrain.  My desire to stay on his wheel made me push myself harder than I likely would have otherwise.

New Fane hasn’t had a proper rain in weeks and the trails are now very sandy and loose in some places, including a couple of tight corners.  I ride reasonably well in such conditions.  With my roadie background you might expect me to over-correct when I feel the rear tire slipping, but I handle it without panic.  That ability could come into play next Sunday at the Alterra Coffee Bean Classic, on what I expect will be very dry trails at Crystal Ridge in Franklin.  Looks like I’m going to practice there on Friday after work and on Saturday during the official WORS pre-ride.  In the meantime, I will continue to practice close to home—probably a combination of New Fane and Glacial Blue Hills—to keep my handling skills sharp.  I feel fortunate not to have lost anything during the two-week layoff, and now I’m really looking forward to a new week of training.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Getting Back To It

It isn’t like me to go a full week without updating this blog, but here we are.  I followed up last Saturday’s Washington County Bicycle Club ride with a short solo effort on Sunday and a rest day on Monday.  On Tuesday I did a 41-mile road ride but my legs felt like lead.  With no softball on Independence Day, I did another short solo effort and rediscovered a little form.  After something of a slow start on Thursday’s evening group ride, I rode pretty well and had no problems with the extreme heat.  Friday’s effort was another short, punchy solo ride.

All of that set up today’s ride with the Cream City Cycle Club, leaving from UW-Washington County and wandering through Iron Ridge and Mayville.  Just like last Saturday, I used my cyclocross bike to make my ride more challenging.  But this time I opted for my lighter Mavic Aksium wheelset and my 700x25 Continental Gatorskin tires.  The 700x30 cyclocross tires I used last week are now looking pretty worn out.  I didn’t want to risk a puncture on a ride that eventually turned into my first metric century since May 28.  And today’s route included a fair bit of climbing, including Schuster Drive just minutes after the start.

I probably should have gotten on the mountain bike at some point in the last week, but I wanted a break.  I had the week off from work and spent a lot of time just relaxing and enjoying the Tour de France on TV.  This is the first of two periods of “down time” this summer, three-week blocks without racing.  I want to arrive on the starting line of the cyclocross season opener with fresh legs and nothing but enthusiasm.

In the days ahead I need to concentrate on mountain biking.  My next WORS race, the Alterra Coffee Bean Classic, is just a week away.  Being able to climb the ski hill at Crystal Ridge in Franklin will be the biggest key to a successful race, but I can’t afford to overlook the singletrack.  I already have shown that I can outclimb most, if not all, of my series rivals, and no amount of training is going to make me a markedly better climber between now and July 15.  But more practice on singletrack could yield greater confidence and better race results.