Sunday, August 28, 2016

Lighten Up!

Why have your own blog if you’re not going to brag about yourself from time to time? Today I weighed in at 185 pounds, and that’s a good thing. It’s not just my lowest weight in 2016, but it matches my lowest weight from 2015.

Last year, I didn’t hit 185 until October 29, and I last hit that mark on November 15. By December 1, I was already at 191. On March 20, I hit 200 pounds. I stopped the damage at that point, but I didn’t get back under 200 on a consistent basis until April 20. Losing 15 pounds in 4 months would be a big deal for a lot of people, and obviously I wouldn’t be writing about it if it weren’t significant to me. But this has been a pattern for me for the last several years. The thing that makes today’s weigh-in truly notable is the date: I am far ahead of last year’s schedule and that’s a good sign as the cyclocross season approaches. I don’t have as many miles in the legs as I had last year on this date, but the intensity has been there. Racing—cyclocross in particular—is the reason my weight bottoms out late in the year. The recent combination of Race The Lake, the Reforestation Ramble, and the Tuesday cyclocross practice series has given my fitness a jolt. I’m down 5 pounds since August 10!

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Chicken & Egg

Do we lack choices because we lack interest, or do we lack interest because we lack choices?
I know I’m like a broken record with this, but I’m thinking again about the uniformity of mountain bike racing in Wisconsin. I don’t expect any changes to come from the Wisconsin Endurance Mountain Bike Series (WEMS), which exists to promote the cross-country marathon format. The Wisconsin Off-Road Series (WORS) offers one Super D and one short track cross-country (STXC) race per year, but otherwise sanctions cross-country races that look very much alike. Super D and STXC are on the program only at the Midwest MTB Championships. That three-day weekend—the less-prestigious remains of the WORS Cup, which, in turn, was less prestigious than the Subaru Cup—is supposed to be the jewel in the WORS crown, but the top pro riders who used to compete here now compete elsewhere. We’re no longer on the map of the big national series. Nonetheless, the inclusion of Super D and STXC make that event unique in Wisconsin.

Well, unique for two more weeks. There's a great-looking weekend of collegiate mountain bike racing planned for Sep. 10-11 at Alpine Valley. It’s too bad the weekend is open only to collegiate racers. The format is almost identical to the Midwest MTB Championships, with cross-country, Super D and STXC on the schedule. And the downhill run will be significantly longer than a typical collegiate downhill, which should be very welcome news for racers and spectators alike.

Super D wouldn’t work at every WORS venue, but think of the series you could have with just Iola, Mt. Morris, Portage, La Crosse and Lake Geneva. That’s half of the calendar. And who says a Super D race has to be only an undercard fight before the main event on a WORS weekend? Have a date at Alpine Valley for everyone, not just for collegiate racers. Come to Washington County and race again at Sunburst, or create a Super D and Freeride event at Little Switzerland. When you don’t need miles of singletrack, there are lots of possibilities.

STXC could be a feature of every WORS weekend. At Nordic Mountain in Mt. Morris, former home of the Subaru Cup, they probably still remember where to set up the course. CamRock and Sheboygan have hosted cyclocross races, so those STXC courses would be easy to define. Even the Brown County Reforestation Camp—normally a challenging place for spectators—can host STXC. It proved that last Saturday night when local organizers ran a short track race on the lighted ski trails. The camp has about 3 miles of those, and the STXC race was a great addition to the Reforestation Ramble weekend … even if it wasn’t technically part of the USA Cycling-sanctioned WORS program. The prospect of bad weather kept me in West Bend until Sunday morning, but friends had a blast and the entry fee was only $10. If the STXC race comes back to the camp in 2017, then it will go on my calendar.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

2016 Reforestation Ramble

It  would be dishonest for me to say that I went to Suamico today with no expectation of doing well in the Reforestation Ramble, race 8 of 10 on the Wisconsin Off-Road Series calendar. After all, I won my age group on those trails in 2012 and 2015. But this year I have done very little mountain biking—today was just my 7th time on singletrack—and it was my first ride on my 29er since the WEMS race at Suamico on July 16. On Wednesday I paid a rare visit to the Pleasant Valley trails in Ozaukee County and spent about half an hour on a Rocky Mountain Pipeline at a Belgianwerkx-sponsored demo event. Sure, that was mountain biking, and perhaps riding an unfamiliar bike on unfamiliar trails resulted in a quick boost of my handling skills, but I was not perfectly prepared for today. Ideally I would have attended Saturday’s pre-ride, but with rain in the area I elected to stay home. Arriving at the Brown County Reforestation Camp this morning, I had only enough time for a quick tour of the newest section of singletrack before I was forced off the course by the start of the Cat 3 (Citizens) race.

It didn’t matter. I was strong and focused and ultimately very happy to take 3rd place out of 20 in my age group and 29th of 141 overall in the Cat 2 (Sport) race, finishing in 1:21:49.59. Series leader Lloyd Cate (Wheel & Sprocket) won the age group in 1:19:29.79, followed by Mark Badger (Brazen Dropouts) in 1:20:13.61. Both men are new to the age group this season, and Cate has a stranglehold on the series points that will determine the state champion. Today they benefited from call-ups that put them in the first row, while I started in Row 3 and had to work through traffic. I never saw them after the start.

Prior to today, the Reforestation Ramble differed from other WORS races in the length of its laps. In past editions of the race, it wasn’t unusual to do just two 12-mile laps, but today we did three laps of about 5.5 miles. That meant a higher percentage of singletrack and less time on the cross-country skiing trails where I excel. But I rode the singletrack as well as I ever have, and my lap times were super-consistent: 27:32, 27:13, and 27:03, respectively. Lap 1 was a dash through most of the series regulars who started in front of me … and it was a get-to-know-you lap on a trail system that can be configured in dozens of ways. As Lap 2 began my confidence soared because no one was passing me and I was moving steadily through younger riders who had started earlier. Late in Lap 2 I overtook a trio of rivals who would be very dangerous if I couldn’t get a gap, so early in Lap 3 I worked with riders from other age groups to build my advantage. But then I was unpleasantly distracted by a pair of crashes by riders in front of me, one of which forced me to dismount and hurdle the fallen rider as if he were a cyclocross barrier. I can only assume my pursuers were delayed longer than I was. In the final miles, the leaders were out of sight and I no longer felt pressure from behind, so I continued to work with younger riders to consolidate my position.

Last year the Reforestation Ramble was my only WORS race, and that will be true again this year. But I’m not done with mountain bike racing in 2016; there’s still the WEMS race at New Fane on Sep. 17. I should probably start riding there again. I haven’t been to New Fane since July 12!

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Cyclocross Tubeless

Last year at this time I switched my mountain bike over to a tubeless wheel/tire setup. Now I am experimenting with tubeless for cyclocross. The objectives are the same in each case: run lower tire pressure to increase handling and ride quality while eliminating the chance of a pinch flat. Is it a cure-all? Certainly not. The risk of a pinch flat is gone because there’s no innertube, but in its place is the risk of a burp. That’s a momentary separation of tire and rim, resulting in a big pressure drop and, probably, a bit of a walk. I have had a couple of promising cyclocross races ruined by pinch flats, so I want to see what tubeless can do for me.

The really serious cyclocross racers swear by tubular tires, which offer even lower pressures, unbeatable cornering and run-flat capability. No, thanks. The cost is prohibitive and, anecdotally, I have seen more tubulars come unstuck from their rims than all other in-race tire failures combined.

On the mountain bike, I haven’t had any trouble with my tubeless setup. On the cyclocross bike, the jury is still out. I tested the setup for the first time at the end of our practice session at Royal Oaks Park last Tuesday, then did the entire practice session with that setup this week. There were no issues, and I felt like I could have gone even lower with my tire pressure. I’m counting on the extremely tight fit of Bontrager CX3 tires on Shimano Ultegra rims to burp only under extraordinary circumstances, if ever.

For me, tubeless is worth a try. If things go badly, then I will fall back to a traditional setup. Even accounting for the extra weight of the tubeless-ready tires, running the new wheelset with tubes would be a lighter and stiffer alternative to my aging Mavics.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Ain’t Been Home In Years

When I moved to West Bend in June 2001 to take ownership of the house where I still reside, I was 36 years old. The move was the 24th time I had changed residences. I was already on house number 5 as kindergarten began and house number 8 as high school ended. I had 11 addresses in the 1990s alone, including an insanely turbulent 50-week period between September 1993 and September 1994 during which I moved from Milwaukee to Nashville to suburban Chicago and then back to Milwaukee all for the sake of a lousy management job with a now-defunct retail chain whose only saving grace was its willingness to cover my U-Haul bills.

I wouldn’t recommend my experience, and that sort of instability wasn’t something I wanted to inflict on my children. My oldest was just 2 years old when we arrived in West Bend, and my youngest was only 8 months old. This is home for them, as I hoped it would be.

But it’s not home for me. I haven’t been home since August 16, 1976. That was the day my family pulled out of West Newton PA, bound for Charleston IL. West Newton had been my home for 6 years—more than half of my life at the time—and it was where life really began. West Newton had given me friends, school, bicycles, baseball, comic books, Hot Wheels, monster movies, Saturday cartoons, rock ‘n’ roll, and even the most hopeful and tentative introduction to romance. It was idyllic.

Of course, the needs of a child are relatively few and simple to satisfy in most places. West Newton wasn’t magical; it was magical to me. I was a nice kid with nice friends and we all were protected by loving adults. West Newton itself, like many Rust Belt towns in the 1970s, was in decline by almost every measurable standard. Had I stayed, I soon might have regarded it with contempt. The childhood I enjoyed likely would have given way to a bored adolescence with all of its pitfalls. In a way, my departure stopped time. The real West Newton continued to crumble and the people I had known there moved on with their lives, but my West Newton was preserved. No, not just preserved; it was mythologized. It was my Camelot and I was its Arthur, the once and future king. I could go back. I could do a lot of good there.

In recent years, West Newton has made a modest comeback thanks to the conversion of an old railroad line into a key section of the Great Allegheny Passage, a recreation trail that links Pittsburgh and Washington DC. West Newton has its own bike shop now, something I would have loved as a kid. We had a little BMX course on the banks of the Youghiogheny River. That wouldn’t fly with me now because it was set up without permission on private property. I know just where I would put a public pump track and skate park today, and I’m sure those facilities would get a lot of use. And I know I could squeeze a cyclocross course into Goehring Park to put West Newton on the map in the too-short ABRA season. And, boy, that 300-mile-long recreation trail must be nice.

But I am at least a decade away from retirement, so I am probably at least that far away from relocating for the 25th time. Still, when the time comes, West Newton will make its case. It may not win—I almost always side with reason over emotion—but for a long time West Newton appealed only to my emotions. Today it’s a place with low real estate prices, low property taxes and low crime rates … attractive attributes for the prospective retiree! The fact that it now is a place where I could continue to be a cyclist only strengthens its call for me to come home.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

2016 Race The Lake

Partners on the road: Brandon Moscho, Mary Reichardt, and me.

Well, that was good fun and great training. Race The Lake is an 88-mile road race around Lake Winnebago, and it’s the largest cycling race in Wisconsin. This year there were 904 finishers. I was 283rd, but I should have been so much higher.

We started before sunrise, leaving Fond du Lac in waves separated by several minutes. The pros went first … and finished first: the overall winner was 24-year-old Stephen Wagstaff (Lakes Area Physical Therapy), who completed the course in 3:21:25, averaging 26.2 mph.

I started in Wave 4, which quickly proved itself to be a disorganized mess of riders who were reluctant to get into a paceline. Early miles were slower than they should have been. Approaching Oshkosh, I found myself in a “breakaway” with 28-year-old Brandon Moscho of Manassas VA and 34-year-old Mary Reichardt of Alpena MI, who would go on to win her age group. We worked well together, first dropping the rest of Wave 4 simply by increasing our pace and then picking up riders who fell out of the waves that started earlier. At the midpoint of the race I led us up the big hill at High Cliff State Park, the only real climb on the whole course. I had never seen that climb before, so I was relieved to find it a relatively easy obstacle.

Emerging from High Cliff, our little band turned into a proper peloton as we scooped up more riders from earlier waves. This should have been a good thing, but it proved a burden because none of them would work. I urged riders to take their turns on the front, but only Mary, Brandon and I were in the rotation. We sensed each other’s frustration, and when I uttered a simple “let’s go” we attacked and quickly dropped the wheel suckers.

Our trio continued to work well together a while longer, but at Mile 64 things went badly for me. A little bonk, I guess … all I know is that the power went out and I said goodbye to my new friends. I soldiered on as a solo rider for a few miles before a group caught me from behind and dragged me to the little hamlet of Marytown, where a fresh sports drink handup was gladly accepted. It was clear that I still wasn’t out of trouble when I got dropped on the hill out of Marytown, but I had caught teammate Justin Schroeter. Due to a registration mistake, he had been forced to start with the pro wave and now was drifting back in the field after hanging with the fast guys for a while. Justin and I worked briefly as a duo before I continued alone.

Just north of Mt. Calvary—now heading west into a strengthening breeze—I caught on with a small group that stayed together until Taycheeda, the last little town we would see before re-entering Fond du Lac. I had recovered some snap in my almost-cramping legs on a long descent and was looking forward to the finish line, just 3 miles away.

Then I got a rear tire puncture. My first attempt to fix it failed: something’s wrong with my inflator. Training partner Jeff Wren (Team Extreme) saw me at the side of the road and offered another CO2 cartridge. My attempt to use it failed: apparently I forgot to re-open the valve on the tube after my first attempt. Then teammate Justin arrived with a third CO2 cartridge and this time I was able to get enough tire pressure. I did what I could with the last 3 miles but I lost dozens of positions while I was stopped. There was no way to retake them all.

So, yeah … 283rd place, finishing in 4:04:33 with a 21.5 mph average. For what it’s worth, my Garmin device measured my average moving speed at 21.9 mph. I might have been 240-something if not for the flat tire. And there’s no trophy for that, of course, but I’m still a little disappointed. I was 38th of 113 men in the 50-54 age group. I guess that’s OK for someone doing his first real road race since 2008.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Feeling The Burn At Royal Oaks

(Anthony James photo)

It’s not cyclocross weather, but I’m not complaining. This is the fifth season for our practice series at Royal Oaks Park in West Bend and the summertime temperatures are contributing to our training load. At last week’s series opener we had just 5 racers, but we had 14 today and the workout was intense. We’ll keep doing it every Tuesday through the end of September, so join us! Click here for more details.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Hold Back The Rain

No time for worry ’cause we’re on the roam again.

Watching the women’s road race from the Rio Olympics early this afternoon, I was almost literally sick with worry during the final kilometers. It wasn’t anxiety for American Mara Abbott, who looked like she might take the gold medal. It was anxiety for Annemiek van Vleuten of the Netherlands, who had been 30 seconds ahead of Abbott on a tricky descent before she crashed with about 10k to go. And what a crash: van Vleuten overcooked a corner, locked up her brakes, went over the handlebar and landed on her head. She didn’t move after that. The TV cameras cut away and the announcers started to speak in hushed tones. If she had not crashed, van Vleuten almost certainly would have won the race. Abbott, a pure climber, ultimately could not hold off a powerful trio of chasers. Anna Van Der Breggen of the Netherlands took the win, followed by Emma Johansson of Sweden and Elisa Longo Borghini of Italy.

Van Der Breggen’s victory only added to my discomfort. I am not a religious or superstitious man, but I was saying prayers to any god who might be listening that the coaches, family members and friends at the finish line were not about to tell this beautiful 26-year-old girl that the biggest accomplishment of her life had come at the cost of her teammate’s. Van Der Breggen had seen van Vleuten lying motionless in the road just minutes earlier. To everyone’s relief, shortly after the conclusion of the race we got the news that van Vleuten was conscious and able to communicate.

Bad news might have so thoroughly demoralized me that I wouldn’t have gotten on the bike today, but good news had quite the opposite effect. I did my longest ride so far this year, 70 miles at an 18 mph average. It was a good tuneup for my big road race of 2016: Race The Lake, now just one week away. I felt strong. I’m “switched on” right now and it’s almost a shame that I will be tapering this week instead of riding hard all the time.

Success by her teammate is going to be a consolation to van Vleuten, and maybe it will mean something to her that in remote corners of the world there are cycling fans who wanted nothing more than for her to be OK. Here in southeastern Wisconsin we had a beautiful summer Sunday. I could have ridden anywhere, but it was no coincidence that my route took me to the Dutch enclave of Oostburg in Sheboygan County. To propitiate whoever answered those prayers? Maybe.

Get well soon, Annemiek.