Category: Blog

10 February 2017 – MBAA Havasu Havoc

I’m not sure why I’m here. 

I registered for this mountain bike race a week or so ago, when I saw there were only 11 riders registered.  There were 22 this morning when I checked before I left Tempe for the 200 mile drive to the race venue, Sara Park, a few miles from Lake Havasu City.  I never really felt much excitement about this race. 

Well, that’s not true.  When I installed a new set of Reynolds Carbon “BlackLabel” wheels, an XTR cassette, and a new, quiet, sweet-shifting Shimano chain, I was pretty happy.  I’m a bit of a tech geek and love light, high-end components.  Moreover, I sincerely enjoy working on things mechanical, especially when my work presages improvements.  I had somewhat regretted not getting the Giant Anthem Team bike when I bought my 2014, 650b ride; the difference in price between the “Team” bike and mine was small, when one considers the cost to switch to carbon wheels like those on the “Team” bike.  But at the time I was being “practical” trying to adhere to the budget constraints of a full-time high school English teacher in Arizona (50th in teacher pay, nationwide), so I bought the Anthem Advanced, a notch below the Team machine. 

But even after a shakedown ride and the transient joy of fitting these upgrades, I found little to get excited about, as I packed, drove and ruminated about this race.  Still, I soldiered on.

That lack of thrill was multiplied after only a few thousand yards of recon-riding of the poorly marked, hyper-rocky “junior loop.”  Our race, destined to start at 10:39am the next morning, consisted of this 3 mile lap and a 10 mile “long loop.”  The shorter of the two is nearly all singletrack, once it leaves the rodeo grounds parking area, so as a long-time mountain biker, I should have loved this course.  I didn’t.

While I have not loved getting beaten on a bike, like I have in the last three road races, I think I’m beginning to drift away from the “joys” of getting beaten (up) by the bike, as is so much a part of the rocky rides in Arizona. 

They aren’t called the Rocky Mountains for nothin’.

I finished the 3 mile loop and though I rode slowly, I felt my legs – heard my legs suggest “let’s not do the whole ten mile second loop recon.”  Coupled with the frustrations of the as yet poorly marked course, my legs easily won the argument – my “know-better-than-not-to pre-ride-the-course” mind put up no fight.  There was no body-mind split – my mind and body were one – unanimous. I had spoken with three other riders on recon and none of them were sure where the blue (junior) loop and the black (long) loop merged and I just didn’t look forward to pre-riding one of the many trails that branched off, only to find out that the one I checked out, would not be part of the race course. I rode about a mile of the long loop and when the trail happened to veer close to the paved road entrance to the rodeo grounds, I turned back to my car.

If this race was closer to home, I might have loaded my bike and returned then and there to the solace of home sweet home.  But I had paid for the race, the hotel, the gas, the carbon wheelset, the XTR cassette and I decided to stay.  If only to get my money’s worth.

Typing up this handwritten reconstruction of my recon ride several days after the time of those misgivings, I’m still not entirely sure what informs my reticence to ride, my reluctance to race. I’m still not sure why the event did not have the usual impact on me, did not thrill or excite me, did not provide those telltale intoxicating feelings of anticipation and anxiety that are so much a part of racing. 

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Sun Devil Criterium – February 5, 2017

I made the decision to race the Sun Devil Criterium, held on Arizona State University’s campus late in the week.  That I am an alumnus of ASU’s arch rival, the University of Arizona, did not weigh in my decision – much. But I did think about racing incognito in case one of my Wildcat peers saw me.

I had trained hard Monday through Wednesday, in anticipation of a trip to Newport Beach to visit my dear mother.  Flying with bikes is an expensive pain, so I thought two days off, if I could get in a recovery spin on a stationary bike at a gym, would not be too damaging to my training.  My legs were toast after a day of climbing South Mountain twice and two more days of longish rides on my mountain bike due to the drivetrain problems on my road bike.   And there was a race last Sunday that I would rather forget about, so I had four hard days in a row.   I was waiting for a new chain to arrive and riding the mountain bike, though it is carbon and pretty light, was an eye opening and leg “sore-ing” experience. 

A Quick Aside About the Road Bike And The Broken Chain Saga Of The Santa Catalina Omnium

  The chain, a SRAM PC-991, broke at the PowerLink.  And it was my fault.  Part of the reason that I had been using the SRAM chain is that it can be easily removed for cleaning.  I tend to keep my driveline very clean.  What I did not know is that the PowerLink is not meant to be reused.  I had removed that chain at least twice so that link was indeed the weak one.  So all my rather vocal “never again” about SRAM chains made me feel a little sheepish. 

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The Santa Catalina Road Race – January 29, 2017

My first honest to goodness road race.  Not a time trial, not a criterium – a road race.

It was windy and 41 degrees in Oracle, AZ at the start line.  Later, along the course I would see little patches of snow resting in the shadows of roadside cacti.  Many riders wore jackets or vests obscuring their numbers and no one was without tights, full-finger gloves and other defenses against the cold.  Unlike the young guns, we older gents don’t need to display our disdain for the cold by showing up at the starting line in short sleeves and blue skin. My new Garneau short sleeve base layer, Craft long sleeve base layer, tights and semi-thermal arm warmers kept me “warm” but, no matter, it was not long into this race before I wasn’t thinking about the temperature or my comfort.  My mind and body were full of the feelings of being in a pack, in a road race – for the very first time.

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I was lapped three times in thirty minutes. 

Even when the group would catch me and begin to roll by, I could not chase back on to try to ride some wheels.  Though in hindsight, I should have just soft pedaled for a lap to recover a bit and then just gone into the red to get a little draft and maybe I could have recovered a bit, and ridden with the group and would not have been lapped two more times.  Instead, I rode at red line,  alone, and in my head.  The stream of riders storming past matched the stream of thoughts and questions racing through my mind. 

I know that a group can ride much faster than a lone rider, but still I wondered, “How can these guys go so much faster than me?”  “Why can’t I get back onto some wheels?”  “What must I do to be able to compete with these guys?” 

A little truth. 

During the event these following ideas were nowhere present in my thoughts, but a day later reality visits and assuages, somewhat, my disillusionment. 

I’m riding with the “Masters Men” in the 55+ age group.  These gents are masters because many have been road racing for many years – some for 20 years or more.  I’ve been racing on the road for about 30 minutes.  Everyone in this race was a Category 4 or above.  I’m the only Cat 5.  Of the 18 starters, only one has a USA Cycling “one day license,” which suggests these guys race regularly.  Adding to the possibility that these guys race often?  Every single rider is affiliated with a club or sponsor.  And only 3 racers were as old as or older than me – the rest are a bunch of youngsters, mere 55, 56 or 58 year olds, still wet behind the ears!

A lot of truth.

A criterium is a very spectator friendly event.  From just about any vantage point on this particular course, one could see every turn and straightaway.  So I was out there, churning away as hard as I could turn those pedals, right there in front of God and everybody.  I was “that guy,” the one we see and then say to a fan next to us, “Well, at least he’s not giving up,” or, “At least he finished.”  Me. Damned with well-intentioned, but faint praise. 

Earlier in the day, the announcer commented enthusiastically about a guy that had shown up in gym shorts, a T-shirt and an ancient skater’s helmet to enter his first race.  Each lap he would roll by, the people picked up the announcer’s admiration of this intrepid gent and they cheered and they applauded and they urged this first-timer on.  Most spectators exhibited wry smiles and quiet chuckles and looks of shared surprise and wonder each time he rode by.  I joined in, clapping and urging him on. 

Later in my race, like him, I rode alone.  Lap after lap, alone in my thoughts. Lap after lap, alone. Legs and lungs on fire.  Lap after lap. Questions and wonder filling my head. Incipient tears filling my eyes.

And no one clapped for me.

 

 

 

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Today is my first USA Cycling sanctioned criterium, followed the following day by a USAC road race.  I entered them both, partly out of curiosity and partly out of sheer ignorance.  “Ignorance” in the sense of lack of knowledge, not stupidity – though the latter may prove to be more accurate.  The Santa Catalina Omnium for me will be a 30 minute criterium and a 57 mile road race with points awarded for finishes and combined for the overall results.  Sunday is billed as “Arizona’s hardest road race.”

I have ridden a lot of charity rides, some with 8,000+ other riders and I have entered a few Gran Fondos too.  Centuries, metric centuries and a few hillclimbs dot my checkered past in cycling, but I have never gone elbow to elbow with others amped up to win on the road.  I’ve done countless mountain bike races and have had some successes in those competitions.  Mountain bike racers are a different breed however, especially at the amateur level.  We laugh and tell jokes at the start line, and practically send formal, light-hearted requests when we want to pass on singletrack.  The soundtrack of a mountain bike race resounds with friendly “On your lefts” and “go for it bros.”  I once had a young gun that started in the wave after mine, slide in behind me, and in the nicest tone possible say, “Any time you’re ready sir, you can let me by.” Sir?  I want to meet that kid’s parents!  Sir?  With a single word, I felt suddenly ancient. 

Part of the reason for this niceness stems from the nature of the race course.  We all love singletrack and race promoters often proudly announce the number or percentage of singletrack miles.  So when someone blisters in behind and is clearly faster,  letting him or her by makes sense; and we can get back to enjoying the singletrack ride, or marveling at the madness of the one we graciously let storm past.

But riding in a pack, curb to curb at breakneck speed on pavement, surrounded by others intent to stay upright and upfront is a race horse of a different color.  There’s so much going on and required of racing in close quarters.  Much of it I only know from watching it and occasionally riding it in a fast Fondo or group ride.  Staying on wheels, avoiding that dreaded, Paul Sherwin “touch of wheels,” not getting dropped, avoiding the dropped bottle, riding on the rivet just to stay in contact with the group is just not a part of mountain bike racing.  There are unspoken rules in the peloton – things you never do and things you must.  Aggressively guarding your place on the road and in the group is a natural part of road racing. 

I don’t doubt there are nice, respectful boys in the bunch, but I don’t expect I will hear many “Sirs” this weekend.  I don’t know what to expect on the final lap of the criterium.  I have never had my bike handling and legs tested in an honest to goodness field sprint.  I’ve never raced through a feed zone. Never desperately tried to stay on someone’s wheel in desperate hopes that the pack will slow down a bit before my legs catch fire.  Never ridden in a race without a pump and tube and lever and multi-tool and patch kit and the skills to fix it myself.  Never broken a collar bone.  And so much more. 

Road racing is for grownups.  I’m 58, and feel like it’s long past the time that I do some growing up on the bike. Like later this morning.

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Apparently, I had been too anxious when I registered for this first time trial of my cycling life.  The online registration process provided by SWSportsReg.com, is user-friendly and quick, a real boon to the old, paper methods of registering, mailing, and waiting in endless lines at registration tables, manned and womanned by harried volunteers.  In my haste to sign up for my first USAC sanctioned race, I missed the “Choose your Start Time” button. 

I arose too early, ate my oatmeal, and finished packing and worrying over my cycling gear, bikes, spares, tools, food.  The forecast read windy and cold, with a slight chance of rain.  Due to my lack of attention on the registration website, my start time was set by the time of my registration.  I would roll off at 8:03:30 am.  Several days of rain and clouds left the Sonoran Desert bitter cold.  Okay.  Not the bitter cold of Juno in January, but nonetheless cold, to the inhabitants of Arizona – this hell on earth, this training ground for hades, this purgatory for the parched.  We desert dwellers scramble for jackets when the mercury drops below 70.  One only needs to realize that Arizona’s racing season starts in January to get a sense of just how “warm” (i.e., miserable) it will be four months hence. 

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On Saturday, January 21, I will enter my first ever USA Cycling sanctioned road race – a time trial –  a baby step in the process of other road races in the future, but I am both nervous and anxious to try this.

A few days ago, I installed a set of clip-on time trial bars and went for a shakedown ride around the neighborhood, an allen wrench set in my pocket to make any adjustments.  The biggest adjustment came in just the first few pedal strokes when I dropped onto the arm pads.  With arms that narrow, my pretty stable bike was now a twitchy beast, weaving all over the road.  I must have looked like a drunk on a stolen bike. 

After several stops and adjustments, I rode about and found that there’s no way that I could stay in that position for a full TT.  The clip on bars seemed too long and too high – an odd combination and nothing I could to with allen keys was going to make that mo betta. 

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Two days after the first race of the season and a lingering cough that sounds like I have been a smoker for decades remains.  On my last post I said that I had learned a few things from the first race and my Garmin.  Today, I discovered another.  Racing, competing against others and thinking about the next time we all meet on a starting line, is fine motivation. 

As I was running errands this morning, trapped behind the wheel of a car, I saw an older gent on a road bike, all kitted up and rolling along at a smart clip.  Envious, I prodded the go-pedal a little harder, speeding up “The Brave Little Toaster,” my ’06 Scion Xb, and hustled home, to kit up, and get out there too.   All I have to do sometimes is see another rider, out there, on the bike and I get inspired.

Inspired by this rider, my thoughts turn to musing about the recent race and I find myself thinking,  “I wonder what the other guys- especially those eleven race-rivals – are doing today? How hard are they training?”  These thoughts are reminiscent of the past, when I would use thoughts of other competitors to spur me to work a little more and a little harder – an extra set, another climb, a few more miles.

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Not much to report today.  I slept well and was not very sore, but I did feel it in my legs when I saddled up to the stationary trainer for an easy spin, recovery session.  I only spent 40 minutes on that beast. The much more noticeable “hangover” was a slightly sort throat and a ragged, gravelly cough that had started right after the race and had persisted all day. 

One race day revelation is the file on my Garmin. 

I downloaded it and was shocked to find that at the start, in the first few minutes, my heart rate spiked to 200 beats per minute (bpm).  I’ve never seen a number that high before – ever – and did not know that my old ticker could bump-it that hard.  After a few minutes it “settled down” so that for the one hour and six minutes of the race, it pounded out an average 169 bpm rhythm.  As a former dance club DJ, I know that’s a beat hard to get your groove on with.  I’m sure a pair of Rate-A-Record teens on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand would agree.  “I like the lyrics, but it’s a little hard to dance to.”

I learned something – or maybe some things from this data.  I rarely get my heart rate up to what I use as my max –  165 – though with some intervals I do see 170 or so – briefly – before my vision starts to blur.  Now I know that I can reach higher heart rates, not unlike those I regularly achieved 28 years ago.  But the lesson here confirms what I have heard for years. 

Racing is the best training.  Competition makes going hard, going all-in, much more fun.  And in the interest of making training fun and moving closer to a podium finish, I will do more races and for the first time in my racing life, I will enter some USA Cycling sanctioned honest-to-goodness road races.

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Last night may not have been the best preparation for the first race of the season.  A pianist friend was in town from D.C. and he and some of his young gun musicians were performing at The Nash – a Phoenix Valley oasis of art in an otherwise cultural desert.  Initially I had wanted see Lexie play, but as race day approached, I begged off, and changed my statement to, “we’ll see how I feel on Friday.”  This bought me some time to reflect.  But, my love of live jazz won out and come Friday night I had dinner at a new Jamaican bistro in anticipation of some front row jazz.  The menu was not what you might find on the training tables of even the Jamaican bob-sled team, so I dove into jerked braised pork belly, butter bean mash with guava reduction and washed it all down with a cup that runnethed over with pre-race guilt.  The jazz show was an evening of improvisation and cutting edge complexity, that somehow worked in satisfying ways, and went a long way toward assuaging my race meal remorse.

In so many ways this is stupid.  I’m 58 and my racing age is 59.  I love jazz.  I love cycling.   I love to eat adventurously.  There has to be a balance in there somewhere.  While I want to win every race I enter, the reality, in my many years of racing, is that I have only been on the top step of the podium once.

In the mid-90s.

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