Monday, February 29, 2016

February 29-er

Let’s make February 29 more interesting by reserving for it all of the shenanigans that we typically associate with April 1. “February Fool’s Day” would have the advantage of being four times less frequent than “April Fool’s Day,” which comes too often to catch us off guard. Leave April 1 alone from now on and get to work on February 29 as the new holiday of harmless hijinx.

I’ll get you started.

Did you know that the cycling term “29er” originally had nothing to do with the size of the tire? The 29er was invented—if we can call a refinement of an existing product an invention—by Alan Epstein, an engineering professor at Rochester Institute of Technology in upstate New York and an uncle of Linda McCartney. (Yes, that Linda McCartney, wife of Paul McCartney of the Beatles from 1969 until her death in 1998.)

As an undergraduate in the early 1940s, Epstein was a member of RIT’s track cycling team. During World War II, RIT’s athletic programs were shut down. Many never came back. Those that did return were given a new nickname: since 1946, the sports teams at RIT have been known as the Tigers. But during Epstein’s letterman days, RIT was the home of the 29ers. The original nickname was a reference to the founding of the college in 1829, in the same way the Philadelphia 76ers and the San Francisco 49ers commemorate the American Revolution and the California Gold Rush, respectively.

In 1968 RIT built a new campus in the suburbs. The school disbanded its track cycling team and the old velodrome was torn down. (The land then sat vacant until 1994 when a new stadium was constructed for Rochester’s minor league baseball team. Today a plaque near the Plymouth Avenue entrance reminds visitors of the velodrome that once occupied the site.) Epstein, by then a full professor, took possession of the school’s track bikes and loaned them out to students for trips around the campus.

As mountain biking was starting to emerge from weirdly cobbled-together machines in northern California, Epstein was fitting knobby tires on some of his old track bikes back in Rochester. Who would want a fixed-gear mountain bike with no brakes, you ask? No one, of course, but Epstein didn’t think of himself as a mountain bike pioneer. His application of knobby tires to a 700c wheel was motivated purely by Rochester’s snowy winters. And the concept proved successful for campus commuting. The visual effect, though, was comedic. Everywhere he went, Epstein was asked, “What is that?” His answer: “That’s an old 29er.” The name stuck, but more than that, it traveled to every part of the country when Epstein’s students went home at the end of their studies. When the style of mountain bike that we now know as the 29er came along, the name was waiting for it. But it’s only a remarkable coincidence. To Epstein there was no correlation between the name and the wheel/tire diameter. His bikes were rolling on very low profile, very low pressure tubular tires that were designed to maximize the contact patch on snow and ice. They were “28ers” at most.

And here’s where you would say, “February Fool’s,” and admit the story is a fabrication … albeit one with enough factual elements to hook your audience. You can read the real history of 29ers at Wikipedia, but I like my story better.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Laatste Ronde

Sven Nys with family and friends at the end of today's race ... the end of a remarkable career.
Today I watched the final race of cyclocross legend Sven Nys. What can you say about someone with these credentials?

 2 UCI World Championships, elite
 2 UCI World Championships, U23
 6 UCI World Cup series titles
50 UCI World Cup race victories
13 Superprestige series titles
 9 Trofee series titles
 9 Belgian national championships

Nys also won 5 national championships in mountain biking and, when he was a kid, 8 national championships in BMX.

Many professional athletes hang on too long and then retire with broken bodies, tarnishing their legacies with greatly diminished performance. Not so with Nys: at 39 he is still one of the best in his profession. It’s sad to see him go but it’s good to see him go in this fashion. He will remain close to the sport and no doubt will continue to inspire new generations of racers.

Here in Washington County we’re making a different kind of transition. We have reached the point of the year at which our afternoon temperature usually is above the freezing mark. On Friday we reached 50° for the first time in 2016 but high winds made the prospect of a bike ride too unpleasant, if not dangerous. At times the winds were holding steady above 30 mph and we had gusts as high as 49 mph. Saturday was a better day for cycling. The air temperature was just a little cooler at 46° but we had plenty of sunshine and much lower wind speeds. The effect was a day that felt warmer than its predecessor, and I was very pleased with my 30-mile road ride. Today was only 34° and overcast but there was no wind. I rode in relative comfort thanks to heavier gloves, heavier socks, and toe covers for my shoes, but I kept my effort to just 20 miles. Monday and Tuesday should look very much like today, and that’s good enough. A shift in wind direction could bring a few inches of snow by the middle of the week. We had a little taste of spring this weekend but winter isn’t done yet.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Cross-State Rivals

The big city bias is simply a function of demographics.

This week the Wisconsin Cycling Association is giving us a sneak peek at the 2016 cyclocross season. The WCA is conducting a poll to gauge racer interest in a handful of issues. Responding on Facebook, some people have called for a more widespread distribution of races throughout the state. Our series is mostly a Milwaukee and Madison affair, and that makes sense to me because those are our largest cities. Wisconsin has about 5.9 million residents, almost 3 million of whom live in these 12 contiguous counties:

Milwaukee County     956,000
Dane County          510,000
Waukesha County     394,000
Racine County       195,000
Kenosha County      168,000
Rock County         161,000
Washington County    133,000
Walworth County     103,000
Dodge County         89,000
Ozaukee County       87,000
Jefferson County      85,000
Columbia County      57,000

That’s 51 percent of the state’s population. A little harder to quantify—but not to be discounted—is the large pool of racers from northern Illinois, many of whom appear in the results of WCA races.

The 2015 season featured events in Manitowoc, Sheboygan and Oshkosh, proving races can succeed on the fringe of the Milwaukee-Madison corridor. But how would an event in Wausau fare? Or La Crosse or Eau Claire? By themselves, those areas just don’t have enough population to sustain a big race. I can assure you that they wouldn’t draw from Illinois, and I’m pretty sure that they wouldn’t draw from Milwaukee either. Historically the WCA has had very little success with road events outside of the Milwaukee-Madison corridor, and the cyclocross crowd is essentially the same group of people. Eau Claire might be close enough to the Twin Cities to pull in a Minnesota contingent, but it’s the wrong place for a WCA race.

Still, an alternate series could work in the northeast. Almost 1 million people surround Lake Winnebago:

Brown County        255,000
Outagamie County     180,000
Winnebago County    170,000
Sheboygan County     115,000
Fond du Lac County   102,000
Manitowoc County      81,000
Calumet County       50,000

Imagine a 4- or 5-race series that includes the existing events in Manitowoc, Sheboygan and Oshkosh, plus a new one in Green Bay, Appleton or Fond du Lac. Again, it’s hard to expect much support from the Milwaukee-Madison guys, but there might be enough regional interest.

What happens in other states? I looked at last year’s USA Cycling results (except for Oregon, which has its own governing body) to see where sanctioned races were held, reasoning that they wouldn’t exist where they weren’t wanted. In almost every state the cyclocross scene is centered in the largest urban area. California is something of an exception because it has so many urban areas that I can’t say one is more important than another.

AL - Birmingham
AK - no events
AZ - Phoenix
AR - Little Rock
CA - various
CO - Denver / Boulder
CT - Hartford / New Haven
DE - Wilmington
FL - Orlando … kind of
GA - Atlanta
HI - no events
ID - Boise
IL - Chicago
IN - Indianapolis
IA - Des Moines / Iowa City
KS - Kansas City / Lawrence
KY - Louisville
LA - New Orleans / Monroe
ME - Portland
MD - Baltimore
MA - Boston … kind of
MI - Detroit
MN - Minneapolis
MS - Jackson
MO - Kansas City
MT - Bozeman
NE - Lincoln / Omaha
NV - Reno
NH - Concord / Manchester
NJ - Philadelphia PA
NM - Albuquerque / Santa Fe
NY - Buffalo / Rochester
NC - Raleigh
ND - no events
OH - Columbus / Cincinnati
OK - Oklahoma City / Tulsa
OR - Portland / Bend / Eugene
PA - Pittsburgh / Philadelphia
RI - Providence
SC - Greenville
SD - Sioux Falls
TN - Nashville
TX - Austin / Houston
UT - Salt Lake City / Ogden
VT - no geographic center
VA - Richmond / Washington DC
WA - Spokane
WV - Morgantown
WY - no events

Maybe your goal is to have just one race in central Wisconsin, not to be the state’s cyclocross hub. The point is that you need concentrated population to make cyclocross sustainable. Look at our neighbors in Illinois. Chicago Cyclocross Cup races are enormous: a single category may contain 100 racers. But in Rantoul, an easy 2-hour drive to the south, Patriot CX serves only about 100 racers across all categories. If you’re a race organizer, then there’s a threshold below which you’re not serving enough racers to ensure legitimate competition across categories, followed swiftly by the threshold below which you’re not serving enough racers to cover your costs.

Mountain bikers will drive for hours to reach unique trails that they can ride all day on Saturday and then race on Sunday. Cyclocross is different. Almost any park will do, and your course probably doesn’t offer anything that another course—a closer course—cannot. Even in the Milwaukee-Madison corridor, there are many racers who are Milwaukee-only or Madison-only. Many of those who do travel would be more inclined to race in northern Illinois than to drive to far-away central or western Wisconsin.

There seems to be a misconception about the function of sanctioning organizations like the WCA, a notion that they are traveling shows that need only to stop in your town and set up a race. In truth, the sanctioning organizations merely keep score and enforce rules. Each race comes from a dedicated local organization. Until you have that, you have nothing. And even when you have that, your invitation may not appeal to a distant audience.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Split Personality Of The Riverfront Parkway

West Bend’s original bike route: the Riverfront Parkway.

In my earliest days as a cyclist, before there was an Eisenbahn State Trail, the Riverfront Parkway featured prominently. I still use it today, though never its entire length. I like each end of the parkway but the middle does nothing for me as it runs through downtown West Bend, parallel to the Eisenbahn and far less efficient.

When you ride the 4.7 miles of the asphalt-paved Eisenbahn from Rusco Drive to Northwestern Avenue, the experience is consistent and predictable. I mean that in a good way. By contrast, the Riverfront Parkway is sometimes this and sometimes that. On the east side of Riverside Park, it’s a narrow gravel path. Then it’s paved. Then it’s a sidewalk as it runs along Auxiliary Court and Veterans Avenue. The section from Washington Street north to the bridge at Rivershores is nice enough, but how do you get to it? And then you’re on the sidewalk again until you reach Park Avenue. Tracing the west side of Barton Pond, the remaining section of the parkway is great until it unceremoniously ends at Roosevelt Drive.

If you ride the parkway from end to end, you may be left with the impression that you journeyed from nowhere to nowhere. This proposed bike route system would use only the northernmost half mile of the parkway to create a car-free connection between Regner Park and Barton that skirts around the hill on Main Street. The rest of the parkway just isn’t ready for prime time. Aside from its other shortcomings, the parkway suffers from inconsistent maintenance. Entire sections are blocked by snow in the winter and by flooding in the spring, reappearing only when Mother Nature permits.

Still, there is some reason to hope that eventually the parkway will morph into the west end of the long-promised Milwaukee River Trail. It wouldn’t take much to connect the parkway to the trails in Quaas Creek Park, and from Quaas Creek Park the city wants to extend a rough trail east to the airport. Following the contours of the river, a trail from Quaas Creek Park to Newburg would be just 8.5 miles, and much of the land is owned by the city, the county, the Town of Trenton, and the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust. A fully realized Milwaukee River Trail is years away at best, but it’s an intriguing possibility. For now, the parkway is just what it always has been: a trail whose individual parts are strangely more valuable than their sum.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

New Bike/Ped Path Along Highway 175

In March the Wisconsin Department of Transportation will begin reconstruction of State Highway 175 in southern Washington County and there’s a small but important bike/pedestrian component in the plans.

The entire project covers about 2 miles from Beechwood Industrial Court north to Polk Street in Richfield. Highway 175 is one of our least bike-friendly roads, and that stretch of it is an especially busy area with lots of shopping and restaurants. A new multi-use path will be constructed along the west side of the highway from Beechwood Industrial Court north to Elm Street, a distance of 1.5 miles. It will run right past Richfield Elementary School, where today there isn’t even a sidewalk. Nice deal for the kids in that neighborhood!

The Richfield Volunteer Fire Company will host an open-house meeting next Wednesday, February 17, 4-6:30 p.m., for anyone who would like to learn more about the project.

Sunday, February 7, 2016


With a 24-mile road ride on Saturday and a 27-mile road ride today, this weekend I rode on consecutive days for the first time since Nov. 24-25. We’re not getting consistently nice weather, but we are getting good days just often enough to keep cabin fever in check. Normal for this time of year is 29° but Saturday’s high was 32° and today we topped 40° for the first time this month. Bright sunshine more than made up for the wind, which in general was higher than I would have liked and sometimes hit me with gusts up to 23 mph. In the new year I was a solo rider until today; training partner Jeff Wren joined me for 22 of those 27 miles. We had not seen each other in weeks.

I can’t complain about very much today, but I will complain about this: when I got home from my ride Garmin Connect was down. I rely on the site to sort out my ride stats. I upload the FIT file from my portable GPS device and Garmin Connect shows me a map of my route and all sorts of other information. Websites go up and down all the time but Garmin Connect is usually pretty solid. Today I didn’t feel like waiting for the service to be restored, so I tried to crack open the FIT file with a text editor. Unreadable. OK … what does Google say about FIT file editors? As it turns out, there are several choices for third-party software. I went with this one, which is free of charge, downloads and installs quickly, and gets the job done. The map gives a color-coded view of where I was faster or slower. I can see where I reached my top speed, and clicking on the red dot at the end of the route shows a summary of the entire ride. Not a bad little “emergency” backup for Garmin Connect.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Motoring Into February

On Saturday we got to 41° in West Bend, 14° above the average high for January 30. Saturday was our warmest day of 2016 and our first taste of 40° since we hit 54° back on December 23, a record for that date. I spent the afternoon on my 29er but it was the wrong tool for the job. The roads were perfectly dry and those 30 miles were slower than they should have been. Under dazzling sunshine this afternoon, I did a very satisfying 26-mile ride on my cyclocross bike.

Did you catch all the big cyclocross stories last weekend? On Friday the UCI announced its 2016-2017 World Cup schedule and Iowa’s Jingle Cross made the cut! That is huge news for American cyclocross in general and for the Midwest particularly. Jingle Cross is very popular with Wisconsin’s cyclocross community, as Iowa City is within a 4-hour drive of something like 90 percent of us. The Trek CXC Cup dates were announced on Saturday, so we can look forward to this amazing block of racing in mid-September:

Sat., 9/17 Trek CXC Cup, Day 1 @ Waterloo WI
Sun., 9/18 Trek CXC Cup, Day 2 @ Waterloo WI
Wed., 9/21 UCI World Cup: Cross Vegas @ Las Vegas NV
Sat., 9/24 UCI World Cup: Jingle Cross @ Iowa City IA

Technically, Jingle Cross will be held Sep. 22-25, but the World Cup race is the main event. I wonder if the Trek CXC Cup will attract more top-level talent as our best domestic pros tune up for the bigger prizes of Cross Vegas and Jingle Cross. And I wonder whether the Wisconsin Cycling Association’s cyclocross season will be on hold for those two weekends.

On Saturday at the UCI World Championships, Thalita De Jong of the Netherlands was the surprise winner of the women’s elite race. Belgium’s Sanne Cant, the prohibitive favorite after another outstanding season, slipped from first to third in the last half of the final lap. Then came the bizarre story of Belgian U23 women’s champion Femke Van den Driessche, and we all went to sleep feeling a little worse about the sport. But Sunday’s races were great, first for the U23 men and then for the elite men. In the finale, Wout Van Aert of Belgium outlasted Lars van der Haar of the Netherlands in a brilliant head-to-head duel. Cyclocross legend Sven Nys thrilled his fans by surging into the lead at the midpoint of the race. Nys eventually finished in 4th place, just behind fellow Belgian Kevin Pauwels. With 2 World Championships and 50 World Cup wins to his credit, Nys will retire at the end of this season.

Today I was very motivated to ride outside because tomorrow we’re probably going to get significant snowfall. Then comes another long stretch of sub-freezing days. As I flip the calendar over to February, I feel some pressure to train properly. Time to dust off the turbo trainer …