Tuesday, July 30, 2013

In A Little Hot Water, But Not Steamed

Yesterday, after nearly 14 years of service, my water heater failed. This morning it was replaced and I’m out $1,000. The failure did not come as a surprise; the water heater was one of several major household systems at, near, or beyond the expected end of its service life. For the last couple of years, relighting the pilot had become a fairly frequent and increasingly difficult chore. Maria and I are relieved to be done with the death watch and we now can expect years of worry-free operation from a new unit under warranty.

Replacing the water heater is not a budget buster by itself, but it creates a ripple effect. Money set aside for a home emergency now has been used and must be replenished in anticipation of the next one. And there certainly will be a next one. Our 18-year-old furnace is a likely candidate and the biggest financial risk. When something like a water heater or furnace fails, there really is no choice but to fix it immediately. If the furnace goes before we can recover from today’s expense, then we will go deeper into debt.

Debt has been an enemy for a long time and this year it seems there is finally light at the end of the tunnel. Last Monday we had our home appraised as a requirement for refinancing. How’s that for timing? It would have been nice to show the appraiser a brand new water heater! Oh, well. The appraisal went well enough and under the updated mortgage terms we will pay off the house five years ahead of schedule, saving thousands of dollars in interest. We still have some credit card debt to eliminate but we have been attacking it more aggressively this year and the end is in sight. Not too long ago it was easy to spend just another $100 or even another $1,000 because new purchases didn’t appear to make a substantial difference on credit card balances that were already so high. Now we see each new expense for what it is: a setback on the road to being debt free. We’re going to be able to do some really nice things once the debt is gone.

In that same blog post from January I mentioned that I was awaiting a pay raise. It arrived in spring, and it has made a difference. Still, this is a moment when I am forced to admit I can’t do everything. My family’s well-being trumps my cycling aspirations. I will again defer a couple of equipment changes that I would like to make and there are cuts coming to my racing schedule. I’m already registered for this weekend’s Sunburst Showdown and I fully intend to do the Reforestation Ramble (Aug. 25) and the Northern Kettles Fall Epic (Sep. 14). But all other mountain bike races and the entire cyclocross season now must be reconsidered as I rebuild my emergency fund.

I’m finding a lot of satisfaction in doing the right things for my family and my home. It won’t be the end of the world if I have to cut back on my plans for a full cyclocross season. I can easily replace a few race weekends with special rides of my own—for example, the Eisengoose is still out there, never yet attempted. Keeping my eyes on the real prize, greater financial security, may hurt my cycling ambitions in the short term but will pay big returns later. I want to treat myself to a new bike in 2015 to coincide with a special vacation to celebrate my 50th birthday, and I intend to pay with cash.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Contractual Obligation Post

I am not in the market for a new bike right now. I intend to reward myself with something nice in 2015 for my 50th birthday, but between now and then I will try to enjoy what I already have. And I can’t say whether that birthday present will be a road bike or a cyclocross bike. I keep toying with the idea of turning my current road bike into a dedicated time trial machine and adding an endurance road bike to the fleet. That move would align my equipment with the way I actually ride; today I have a road bike that would be well-suited in a criterium or a road race, but I don’t compete in those disciplines.

June 2015 isn’t that far away and it’s always good to stay educated about new equipment as it comes out, so I frequently visit the websites of bike manufacturers, reviewers and retailers. I am not very likely to buy a bike from REI. It’s a fine company but it’s not a dedicated cycling retailer. It is one of the websites I check, though. On a recent visit to the website, this caught my eye:
All bicycles sold at REI include a free warranty tune-up. New bikes go through a normal break-in period, after which readjustment is important for longevity and performance. Bring your new bike in to your local REI for its free tune-up within 20 hours of use or 6 months from purchase, whichever comes first. Contact your nearest REI bike shop to schedule this important service.
Can you imagine 6 months elapsing before you spend 20 hours on your next bike? I have ridden 20 hours in the last 2 weeks!

And it should have been more. What’s up with this weather? Our high temperature of 59 degrees on Saturday was an insult. I wasn’t even slightly tempted to ride. Today wasn’t much better. I waited until the thermometer hit 63 late in the afternoon before heading out with my arm warmers. Looks like we will be in the 70s for the next week or so—you know I would like it to be hotter, but I’ll take it.

In the week to come I must get back on the mountain bike! I haven’t ridden it since the Subaru Cup short track race on July 14. I need one good training session at New Fane early on, and then a good pre-ride on Saturday for Sunday’s WORS race in Kewaskum. The Sunburst Showdown isn’t a technical race; a couple of mountain biking workouts and a couple of fast road efforts, plus some hills, should be adequate preparation.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

2013 Washington County Bicycle Club Century

A tour of four counties: Washington, Fond du Lac, Sheboygan, and Ozaukee.
After a four-year absence, the Washington County Bicycle Club Century returned today. If you’re familiar with other clubs’ centuries, then this ride would have looked very different to you. There were no rest stops full of cookies and smiling volunteers, no SAG vehicles, no registration tables, no free T-shirts, no post-ride spaghetti dinners. Today’s ride demanded a hardness that would have shocked the coddled masses on the bigger centuries.

But hardness and foolhardiness aren’t the same thing. A brief rain shower delayed the start of today’s ride as I took shelter in the Barton Park pavilion with my three companions. That’s right: just four riders showed up for the club century. On the upside, each knew the others from hundreds (if not thousands) of miles ridden together and it was great to begin the ride in a group so capable and confident.

Our route took us north to New Fane, then northwest to Campbellsport. We hit a succession of big hills as we approached Eden and in the next several miles after we passed through town, but it was nothing we couldn’t handle. At Armstrong we headed southeast, losing elevation all the while before we paused in Dundee for a bathroom break and a snack. It wasn’t quite halfway through the ride, but it was close enough and I really needed to lose my arm warmers. We were 2.5 hours into a ride that had begun with temperatures around 60 degrees but had become considerably warmer.

Reaching Newburg about 2 hours later with a total of 80 miles in our legs, we bought snacks and drinks at a minimart to see us through to the finish. At 75 miles elapsed, I had felt the first twinges of cramps in my left leg and I tried to eat and drink them away. Over the full duration of the ride, I consumed 4.5 bottles of sports drink, two Clif Bars, a Coke and a 3 Musketeers. I was fine for energy but didn’t keep the cramps at bay; they would limit my performance on the last 25 miles.

Our foursome dissolved as we approached West Bend. It would have been silly to return to Barton Park for the sake of form, so we all improvised the last few miles to reach our respective homes. On my 100 miles I had an average moving speed of 18.1 mph. Climbing? My Garmin registered 2,461 feet, but the total may actually be higher if my device under-reported today like it did for Cheesehead Roubaix.

Today’s ride was my first century since Aug. 6, 2011. The route was a hit with my fellow riders, but it probably won’t appear as a WCBC route again. To grow the club century we need to attract a larger and, frankly, less accomplished pool of riders. Today’s ride was good fun for a “hard man” group whose challenge was not to complete 100 miles, but to do so expeditiously.

Au Revoir, Tour de France

With my ride at its end, I was home in time to see the last few circuits of today’s final stage of the Tour de France. It was great to see Marcel Kittel win his fourth stage. During the last three weeks there were other good moments from riders like Jan Bakelants, Dan Martin, Christophe Riblon, Rui Costa and Nairo Quintana. But the Tour is really about the GC battle, and I just couldn’t bring myself to care how the race for 2nd place was going to play out. If Chris Froome really is just that much better than everyone else, good for him. I predicted his victory and he pretty much had it wrapped up at the end of the Stage 11 individual time trial. But such dominance by Froome and his team didn’t make for good racing in the days that followed. And Peter Sagan’s methodical accumulation of intermediate sprint points guaranteed his green jersey long before today’s finish in Paris. From my point of view, that makes two years in a row for the same not-very-interesting script.

Maybe I’m just more of a one-day race fan than a stage race fan. But I haven’t given up on the Grand Tours yet. Sometimes the Vuelta is the best stage race of the year. I have high hopes for it, and it’s just six weeks away.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

After six straight days on the bike—two of which were Subaru Cup races and one of which was an Ozaukee Bicycle Club ride that might as well have been a race—today I took a rest day. But like all of my rest days this one was not completely devoid of cycling. Technically, I did ride a bike today, if only briefly and experimentally.

My son got a flat tire yesterday, so today he and I went step-by-step through the process of replacing the tube. Ryan rides my old Gary Fisher Wahoo, the bike that got me into cycling 10 years ago. It’s still a solid ride but Ryan doesn’t maintain it well. I think he understands now that his flat tire was almost certainly the result of a pinch flat, and he assures me that he will be more diligent about checking tire pressure from now on.

After fixing the flat I cleaned up the drivetrain and lubricated the cables. Then I decided to try something I had seen in an Internet video: turning an old tube into a chainstay protector. Here’s the result:
Not bad!
Ryan’s bike computer has been dead for a while and I don’t think the batteries were the issue. Buying a Garmin for myself earlier this year freed up two perfectly functional Cateye Micro Wireless computers, one of which now belongs to the Wahoo. The brief and experimental ride to which I referred above was a trip around the block to make sure the computer worked properly.

So, Ryan’s happy and I’m happy. His bike is better than before and I got play mechanic without spending any money or exposing one of my own bikes to my inexpert ministrations.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Dave’s Drop

Longer races I can handle. But more technical, too?
This year’s Subaru Cup was a completely different experience than last year’s. In 2012 I drove to Mt. Morris early on Sunday morning, did a 1-lap pre-ride of the Cat 3 (Citizens) course, then raced to 2nd place in my age group and drove home. This year as a Cat 2 (Sport), I was in for a much more demanding weekend.

Legacy Cross Country

I arrived at the Nordic Mountain ski area late on Friday afternoon and rode what I thought was a full lap of the Cat 2 course. But I was misled by some of the course markings (I wouldn’t be the only one) and in reality did a much shorter lap. Realizing the mistake, I scrambled to preview the rest of the lap with what remained of the daylight. Most of the course was familiar from last year, but moving up to Cat 2 meant moving on to some more challenging trail sections. I was able to handle everything except “Dave’s Drop,” a sharp left turn followed immediately by a tight, rocky descent. I tried it again and again but couldn’t figure it out.

“Dave’s Drop” was in my head as a lay awake in my tent on Friday night. I fell asleep with no resolution. On Saturday morning I returned to that section of the course and watched other riders conquer it in practice. But every time I tried I got the same result, and I’m lucky I didn’t crash. At last I resolved simply to dismount and run through that section. I needed to stop worrying about it and get on with my warmup.

Subaru Cup combines all Cat 2 men—Sport and Comp—in the same race, and I knew that I wouldn’t keep up with the Comp guys for long. I climbed pretty well throughout the race and handled the flat stuff well enough; the descents were my momentum killers. But, funny enough, “Dave’s Drop” didn’t cost me anything. I stuck to my plan of running that section while lots of other riders crashed or lost so much speed that there wasn’t an appreciable difference between riding and running. Much like my races last month at Wausau and Suamico, on Saturday I lost nearly all the ground I was going to lose in the early miles. By the final lap I was feeling pretty good. On the finishing loop—a strange and unwelcome addition to the race—I dropped my chain three times and lost a good 30 seconds, but the overall result was an honest reflection of my mountain biking abilities at this point in time. I finished 28th out of 37 in my age group and 165th out of 227 overall.

Last year I missed the pro cross country race altogether. This year I got to watch the best American professionals (and a few guests from outside the USA) take on an even more technically demanding cross country course than mine. Lea Davison won the women’s race after a long fight with Katerina Nash that left all the other competitors far behind. Todd Wells rode away from the field to win a confused and controversial men’s race.

Impreza Short Track

You could say that my cyclocross season began on Sunday in the short track mountain bike race … and you could say that I still haven’t fixed the problem that keeps me from better results in nearly all of my racing efforts. My warmups are insufficient, so the early moments of my races are compromised and I don’t hit my stride until I’m hopelessly far behind. On Sunday I was still in a reasonable position as the group returned to the start/finish after the ½-lap prologue, but by the end of the first full lap I was surely not going to see the leaders again. I held my position fairly well during the next lap, then had a brief power outage on my third full lap and gave up a couple of spots. On my fourth lap I was starting to feel much better but I got pulled from the race to give the leaders a clear shot at the finish line. If I had been allowed to complete the race I might have recovered one spot in my age group and perhaps one more overall, but I almost certainly would have been lapped by the leaders and the race organizers didn’t want that. I wasn’t the only rider to be pulled, and I got the impression that most of my fellow sufferers weren’t too disappointed to be done. I finished 15th out of 17 in my age group and 65th of 75 overall.

In the pro short track races, both Todd Wells and Lea Davison did the double: winning on Sunday after their impressive cross country wins on Saturday. Ben Forbes and Abby Strigel won Sunday’s pro Super D races. As badly as I descend on technical terrain, I wasn’t tempted to enter the Cat 2 Super D. The pros now move on to the national championships in Macungie PA later this week. I have a three-week break before the Sunburst Showdown on Aug. 4.

Waiting For My WORS Results

Subaru Cup races are part of a national series and part of WORS. Eventually, WORS will go through the results to separate the Comp and Sport finishers. My lowly placings will look a little better and I'll get the series points I deserve. But so far my 2013 season is playing out just as I predicted: I'm taking my lumps at a higher level of competition and I don't have any expectations of a high finish in the final standings. Keep watching this page for updated results.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Mark Cavendish Is Full Of Shit

If you watched today’s stage of the Tour de France, then you saw a bunch sprint in which Mark Cavendish is credited with a third-place finish. How he is allowed to keep that finish—and the important Green Jersey points that go with it—needs to be questioned. To say that Cavendish’s sprint was irregular would be an understatement, and Tom Veelers is the guy who had to pay for Cav’s mistake.

Veelers’ job was done: he had contributed to the leadout for teammate Marcel Kittel, who went on to win the stage. Cavendish had run out of teammates and was immediately behind Veelers as the Argos-Shimano rider began to slow down. In this picture, Cavendish has just popped out of Veelers’ slipstream:

Did Cav simply underestimate the speed at which Veelers was still traveling? In the picture below, Veelers is still on his line but Cavendish already is leaning to his left. Cav is moving so fast at this moment that a collision is inevitable.

Veelers then moves slightly to his right, but it is Cav’s abrupt swing to the left that causes the contact. Even if Veelers holds his line perfectly, Cav probably takes out his front wheel.

In the picture above, that’s Peter Sagan right behind Cavendish at the moment of impact. In the picture below, we see Sagan much farther to the right and out of harm’s way:

And that’s significant because Cavendish later contended that the road was bearing to the left and that he needed to move left to avoid hitting the barriers. But Sagan, heading for the same finish line, was never in danger of hitting the barriers.

Cavendish screwed up and now his ego won’t allow him to admit it. Race officials might have relegated him, but that would have cost Cavendish 30 sprint points and effectively ended his Green Jersey hopes. Cav’s a big star and it’s good for the Tour to have him battling with Sagan, Kittel, and AndrĂ© Greipel all the way to Paris. Veelers, meanwhile, is a domestique and, on this occasion, a sacrificial lamb.

Ask yourself how Cavendish would have reacted if the situation were reversed, and what fate would have befallen Veelers. Cycling still takes care of its big stars. Everyone else is pack fodder.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Pleasant Valley Sunday

New mountain bike trails are going into Pleasant Valley Park in Ozaukee County. On Sunday evening I took my 29er out for a couple of laps on the just-opened beginner loop. More advanced trails are under construction or still in the planning stages. When the new trail system is complete it should be a lot like New Fane. Don’t be fooled by the absence of rocks and roots on the flat beginner loop; Pleasant Valley will be a fun place to ride.

But what about the park’s suitability for cyclocross? With the 2013 WCA season now less than nine weeks away, it’s time to think about cyclocross practice. Last year West Bend’s Royal Oaks Park turned out to be a very good practice venue. It might still be the best spot, but Pleasant Valley deserves consideration.

By following existing turf trails and the gravel park road, it’s easy to design a 1-mile loop through Pleasant Valley for ’cross practice. That would make its laps just as long as Royal Oaks’ laps, but still on the short side when compared to actual race courses in the WCA series. I experimented with a starting chute concept that would add a little distance to Lap 1. In the picture below, imagine starting at the green marker and then joining the course at the red marker where a sharp right-hand turn sends you around the pavilion, over a set of barriers, and then out on a big counter-clockwise loop.

“My thoughts all seem to stray to places far away. I need a change of scenery.”
As you can see, the course would have a short section of two-way traffic … just like Royal Oaks. But that section is essentially a gravel road with enough width to accommodate riders moving in opposite directions. The big loop itself is not very interesting. Imagine a set of barriers somewhere on the loop to break up what otherwise would be just a fast, flat section.

In the aerial photo there appears to be open land to the east of the pavilion, but much of that now is in use by the beginner loop of the new mountain bike trails. There also appears to be an open area west of the big loop, but that’s off limits too. Pleasant Valley Park is an old landfill and we’re not allowed on the hill created by all the garbage. That’s too bad because it’s the only place I might have located a climb and some off-camber turns. There might be an opportunity to do more with the southwest corner of the park near the starting chute. Zig-zagging through row after row of compost piles could be a good way to practice accelerating out of tight corners … or it could just be tedious.

Royal Oaks is still a really good option. Compared with Pleasant Valley, it offers the same lap length but much more elevation change and course surface variety. But it also attracts more people, and it’s hard to conduct race simulations when there are other park users on or near the course. And at Royal Oaks we waste a lot of time getting barriers and cones from/to our cars during set-up/tear-down; at Pleasant Valley the parking area is right next to the course.

Perhaps the biggest benefit at Pleasant Valley is the park’s proximity to other racers. Practices at Royal Oaks attracted a West Bend crowd. I think I could keep that crowd and attract riders from Ozaukee County by moving into Pleasant Valley Park. Getting more people to participate can only make the practices more fun and a more accurate simulation of actual racing conditions. Watch for more on this topic soon, as we’re probably just four weeks away from the first practice! Is there an even better venue for Washington and Ozaukee racers? Let me know.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Da Doo Ron Ron

Talking with a fellow cycling fan on Sunday at the finale of the Tour of America's Dairyland, I had one of those funny little moments where one party knows what he's trying to say but he can't quite communicate it to the other party.

The Tour de France had begun the previous day. The winner of the first stage—and therefore the first maillot jaune—was sprinter Marcel Kittel:

My new friend was wondering whether Marcel were "Ron's son." In conversation you sometimes can't tell the spelling differences between two things that sound alike, so immediately I thought of Ron Kittle:

Ron Kittle is a former Major League Baseball player best known for winning the 1983 AL Rookie of the Year with the Chicago White Sox. He was an all-or-nothing power hitter who slugged 176 home runs while batting only .239 over 10 seasons.

Surely, the American baseball player Kittle has no connection with the German cyclist Kittel. It took me a moment to figure out where this "Ron's son" hypothesis took root:

Ron Kiefel is a retired pro cyclist who competed in seven Tours de France, won the 1984 Olympic bronze medal in the team time trial, and is a member of the United States Bicycling Hall of Fame. He was one of the 7-Eleven pioneers who introduced a top-level American cycling team to the European peloton.

Ah, now that connection would make more sense! Still wrong, but good for a laugh.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Everybody Wins?

In Wisconsin we have two statewide mountain bike racing series: WORS and WEMS. USA Cycling recognizes WORS as the state championship series. WEMS operates independently. WORS attracts hundreds of participants who compete for awards in multiple classifications based on gender, age and ability. WEMS recognizes gender as a distinguishing attribute and allows riders to race as individuals or as members of a relay duo or team, but WEMS does not classify riders by age or ability.

Sometimes it seems like WORS goes too far with its distribution of awards, creating classifications so precise that they contain just a handful of racers. There are several categories in which simply completing the race puts you on the podium.

In WEMS races, women, duos and teams all have excellent chances of winning just by finishing. But in the men’s solo categories, you’re merely pack fodder unless you are a Pro or Cat 1 (or equivalent). You go head-to-head against even the best racers over the same terrain. Most WORS races have course configurations that get longer and more challenging as the day’s schedule progresses from beginners to experts. In a WEMS race you get to see how you really measure up, and I think many racers enjoy the purity of that competition.

But some people now are advocating a change that would make WEMS more like WORS: categorization by ability. On the surface it sounds like an OK idea, creating more opportunities to recognize the racers’ achievements. And WEMS is listening, because the change could lead to greater participation. But how would the series administer that change? I think most promoters and racers want WEMS to stay free of USA Cycling oversight. If the races remain unsanctioned and many of the riders remain unlicensed, then it falls to WEMS to develop a system of classification that includes criteria for upgrades. I wouldn’t want that headache. Everything from registration to individual race scoring to series standings becomes exponentially more complex.

This is an occasion on which it’s best to leave well enough alone. Categorization by ability could be the first step down a slippery path to categorization by age and other attributes, and pretty soon WEMS is handing out trophies to everybody who shows up. And if most racers regard the WEMS calendar as a collection of individual events instead of a season-long points competition, what’s the harm? WEMS gives unlicensed racers a chance to compete, it visits several trail systems that WORS could not effectively use, and it offers course distance challenges far in excess of the 25-30 miles that WORS asks of its elite. WEMS is a distinct series and it should remain so, without apologies.