Mar 242014
The trip to Elkinsville, any way you slice it, is one tough mother.

The trip to Elkinsville, any way you slice it, is one tough mother.

(Read Part 1 here)

The wisdom of our end-around route to avoid Combs Creek Road was soon called into question by a surprising amount of elevation change, and what seemed like an endless number of miles. In fact, our grand plan had added some 12 miles to our total, and they weren’t anywhere near as easy or swift to traverse as we had hoped. By the time we had climbed the mile-long, rutted doubletrack to the cemetery at Elkinsville, we were all ready to give our initial plan a harder look.

Endless, winding gravel. Fun if you're feeling well. Hell if you're not.

Endless, winding gravel. Fun if you’re feeling well. Hell if you’re not.

Even after the length of our excursion was clear, I was hesitant to deviate from it. The only other way South, where the remainder of our checkpoints lay, was on the dreaded Road-That-Sometimes-Isn’t. Jason’s condition had continued to degrade, and he was unable to make more than about 12 miles an hour, even on the flats. We had a choice to make, and neither option was good. Either we headed back the way we came, around half the county to avoid the mud, and risk grinding Jason’s legs to a dead stop, or we took on Combs Creek, and hoped that the hike wouldn’t blow them out entirely. Oh, and that my cyclocross bike would be up to the task of singletrack through a swamp.

In the end, we decided that miles were more daunting than the mud. We would take Combs Creek Road. That crusher of spirits, that destroyer of dreams, that haunt of the souls of men; that was the road we chose.

I didn’t have a great feeling about it.

As it turned out, it wasn’t so bad as the nightmares of last season’s event had persuaded us it would be. The colder temperatures of this winter had left a portion of the water still frozen under the mud, so it wasn’t as deep, and the standing water wasn’t as high. Even the sections that were impassable by bike were welcome in that they provided a change of pace. Being off the bike for a bit and walking, even if it was trudging through the mud, allowed our legs to relax a bit.

We spent the next two miles riding when we could, walking when we couldn’t, and setting our jaws, as men do against difficult tasks. The members of the fairer sex we encountered on Combs were handling the challenge with characteristic grace, smiling and encouraging each other with compliments and jokes. We grunted and panted up the hills, trying to smile at their greetings, but mostly wondering how they could be so damn cheerful in a time and place such as this.

While taking this picture, Jason was contemplating a permanent residence here.

While taking this picture, Jason was contemplating a permanent residence here.

What did put a smile on my face was the performance of my humble little ‘cross bike. Despite being placed in conditions never imagined by its designers, it did everything I asked of it, and then some. For one stretch, behind a couple fat bikes whose 4-inch tires were tailor-made for the conditions, I actually found myself gaining on them!

Slowly, the mud bog gave way to creek crossings, then jeep tracks, and finally the gate that closes the route to vehicular traffic came into view. We had made it! We conquered Combs Creek Road! Or at least I thought we did, because when I turned around, I couldn’t seem to find Jason. A few minutes later he emerged, looking very haggard indeed, but with the relief of knowing that what we expected to be the worst was over.

Although we had cut significant mileage from our overall route by taking Combs, there was still quite a way to go to reach our final two mandatory checkpoints. It would be another eight miles to reach Hanner, with a brief stop along the way at Cornett for a time bonus that didn’t seem to matter any more.

Jason was suffering, there was no other word for it. I knew by this point that it wasn’t a matter of his conditioning, but that something else had gone terribly wrong, but he was determined to continue on, and so that’s what we did. Adding to the misery of his still-building fever was the fact that he was starting to have serious leg cramps, and had run out of water. I gave him one of my bottles of electrolytes, and he cashed it immediately. We hadn’t seen a SAG wagon for hours, and if we didn’t see one soon, I’d have to give him my hydration pack as well.

Four mandatory checkpoints down, one to go...

Jason’s smile is only because he finally got some more water. Four mandatory checkpoints down, one to go…

It took us every bit of an hour to get to Hanner Cemetery, where we finally ran into the SAG wagon. I refilled my bottles, and Jason replenished his CamelBak, and took in a little food. I felt terrible for him, but there was nothing I could do. I thought of swapping bikes, but figured that my bike’s more aggressive gearing would negate the weight advantage, especially as we were again into hilly territory. The cheery afternoon light had given way to a gloomy early evening, and I began to feel as if, for Jason and I alike, this just needed to be over. We had been out for a long, long time, and I couldn’t yet say how long we had to go. I did know that we’d stopped having fun some miles ago.

We turned right onto State Route 58, and I hoped that, it being a main road, the terrain would remain relatively flat. We turned into a slight wind, so I got in front, set my speed at a pace I thought Jason could maintain, and tried to give him a tow. A hundred yards later, I glanced over my shoulder, and he had dropped off already. I circled back and tried again, sitting tall in the saddle to block as much wind as I could, and setting a speed a couple clicks slower. Same result.

There was no pulling him. He was so overcome with sickness at this point that he bordered on delirium. I filed in behind him and offered what encouragement I could, counting down the miles to our next turn and reminiscing aloud about the events of last year. Anything to take his mind off his present misery.

Then the road did something cruel. What had been a false flat became steeper, until it was a legitimate climb. It rose nearly 300 feet by the time we turned, and most of that in the last half mile. My gearing wouldn’t allow me to stay with Jason without bogging, so I pulled ahead, opting instead to stop periodically and wait for him.

That face about says it all.

That face about says it all.

For me, this became the enduring image of the race. Despite how he was feeling, despite the miles and the mud and his cramping legs, Jason never quit. He clicked down to his granny gear and churned away at the pedals, dieseling up the hill with all the grim determination of a prize fighter in the tenth round. As much as I pitied his condition, I admired his resolve to finish even more, given his obvious and legitimate reasons to call it a day.

Our final checkpoint was Hickory Grove Church, situated at the top of an eponymous, winding ridge line. The road that took us there stayed at the top of that ridge, which meant that we had already accomplished the final big climb of the day. But there were plenty of little rollers along the ridge road, and each one became a mountain to my ailing teammate. We both began to wonder if we’d make it to the finish before the 6 pm time cutoff.

The twisting nature of the gravel road to the church deprived us of the obvious landmarks and lines of sight which make judging progress easy. I tried to break the remaining distance to the church into manageable segments for Jason, fearing all the while that my “just around one more curve” promises would become demoralizing if I was wrong. At last, the church came into view, and I feigned exuberance and sped ahead, hoping he would catch some of it and be able to forget his agony for a few moments.

It didn’t work. He rolled to a stop by the sign, and I could tell from his face that it was all he could do to get off the bike. We’d been out for so long that my phone battery was nearly dead, but I managed to snap our last two required photos before it did.

I love this bike. I think I'm going to name it Hoot.

I love this bike. I think I’m going to name it Hoot.

The good news was that this was our last checkpoint. The better news was that it would be nearly all downhill from there to the finish, and that meant we might just make it in time. We’d only have about 6 more miles to cover, and then it would all be over, and it would be time for beer, a hot shower, and food, and a warm bed!

At least, it would’ve been only six miles, if I hadn’t chosen that very moment to make my only navigational error of the day, and miss the turn onto McPike Branch Road. My miscue sent us zinging down the ridge on the South side instead of the West, adding two miles to our total when we could least afford it. As we neared the bottom, I began to suspect my error, but the lack of road signs and a dead phone battery meant I couldn’t quite be sure. We turned right when the road ended, and I glumly hoped that my gut feeling was wrong, and that we had taken the correct road. We hadn’t.

Jason was crestfallen, and I felt like I had let the air out of his tires, stolen his candy bar and kicked his puppy all at the same time. There was nothing to do for it now, only to pedal out the remaining four and a half miles to the finish. It took us half an hour. The county road dumped us out onto State Route 446 again. A slight rise was ahead, not more than 50 feet of elevation before our final turn, but it might as well have been Alpe d’Huez for Jason. He was so exhausted he couldn’t even look up, and so he just kept turning the cranks, watching his front tire eat up pavement, until he caught up to me at the top.

From there, it really was all down hill, and we coasted across the bridge to the finish, me standing on the pedals to charge the final few yards, and Jason nearly collapsing beneath the pats on the back from our waiting teammates. To the casual onlooker, it may have appeared an anticlimactic finish for a race. But those who have survived the Death March, and anyone who saw Jason’s condition knows that there should have been a brass band for him at the line. He was a soldier that day, and he earned his beer, even if he was in no condition to drink it afterward.

Finishing the Death March last year taught me about how far my body could be pushed. It taught me how to overcome physical pain with sheer determination. This year, it taught me that trying to avoid challenges sometimes results in bigger challenges. It taught me that “the right tool for the job” is sometimes overrated. And it taught me that holding back to help a friend make it home is just as rewarding as pounding through on your own. Jason’s endurance through suffering to get to the finish, both for his own conquest and to help me get the result I missed last year, will not soon be forgotten.

What trials, tricks and turmoil will the Death March bring us next year? I’m already making plans to find out.

Mar 242014
My wonderful, versatile 'cross bike!

Number plate affixed, ready to rock and roll!

That my last attempt at the Sub 9 Death March nearly killed me should have served as some deterrent. That this winter has been particularly severe and persistent should have discouraged me. Last year’s teammates opting out of this year’s event for those reasons and others should have been reason for me to follow suit.

But I didn’t. After training hard all through the winter, I wanted to have another go at the race that took me to the edge and showed me how to live there. I wanted to beat it, to show the hills how much stronger I’ve become, the mud how much better I can ride. I wanted to bring my teammate to the finish with me, thus earning the result I missed last year, since the rules require that you finish with your teammate.

So it was that I found myself on a brisk Saturday morning, bouncing my truck and trailer along the muddy fire roads in rural Brown County, Indiana. The Death March, as you loyal readers will recall, is an on/off road checkpoint race, which uses a selection of 17 old cemeteries as the checkpoints. There are five mandatory checkpoints in all, three of which are preselected, and two chosen out of a hat just before the start of the race. All additional checkpoints may be reached for various time bonuses, which will be subtracted from your overall time at the finish.

The original plan had been to scout part of the race route the day before, but that plan collapsed under the weight of a full day of packing and loading for a week-long adventure. I brought three bikes with me; the mountain bike I used last year, my cyclocross racer, and my motorcycle, which of course wouldn’t see the outside of the trailer until I arrived in Florida on Sunday evening.

Two wild and crazy guys!

Two wild and crazy guys!

Which knobby-tired bike to use would depend on what I found on the gravel roads that made up the majority of the route. If they were in suitable condition, I would take the ‘cross bike. If they were not, or if a checkpoint was selected that would require extensive use of singetrack trail (read: Callahan), I would take the mountain bike.

Our scouting excursion on the way to the staging area proved as encouraging as it was useful . The roads were mostly clear of snow, and the muddy spots seemed either navigable or entirely avoidable. The three pre-selected checkpoints (Hillenberg-Stephenson, Elkinsville and Hanner) would ensure that we covered respectable mileage, but on my ‘cross bike this was no issue. Then we were granted a favor when the final two checkpoints (Hickory Grove and Mitchell) were drawn. Neither added substantial mileage to the route, and more crucially, neither required the navigation of muddy, serpentine trails to reach.

Two checkpoints down already? This is easy!

Two checkpoints down already? This is easy!

There was only one limiting factor in our plan: how to get to Elkinsville. The direct route takes you up Combs Creek Road, a route that, for some stretches, loses the “road” part of its appellation entirely. Last year, it was the graveyard of many racers’ dreams of a finish, including those of my teammate. The power required to slog through the muddy mess that the road became sent his legs into cramps and spasms from which he never recovered, and he was forced to retire.

Having been warned off by previous experience, this year’s team agreed to take the long way around, avoiding the muddy nightmares of Combs Creek “Road” and picking up the bonus checkpoints at Houston and Lutes, instead. We reasoned that what it added in length, it would make up in speed. When we came to the bridge at Maumee, we would turn right where other teams went left, and time would tell if our gamble would pay out.

After the final two checkpoints were announced, our foursome, which consisted of Mike and Kelly on one team, and Jason and me on the other, huddled over our maps briefly, and then set off across the bridge at an easy pace. Mitchell Cemetery was only a mile from the start, so we took the low hanging fruit early. The couple of rolling hills on the way there gave us a chance to warm up our legs, and I was happy to feel the wind on my face again, after a winter spent with too many hours inside, slaving on the trainer and at the gym.

Word to your mother.

Word to your mother.

We rolled out of Mitchell and turned right, up the gentle hill on State Route 446 toward Hillenburg. This was the route that the majority of teams took at the start, so despite our delayed departure, there was a logjam of bikes and riders by the sign, waiting for their turn for the requisite picture. Completing two of the five mandatory checkpoints so quickly created a deceiving sense of progress, even though we had ridden a scant five miles, and most of that on pavement.

The race began in earnest when we turned off of State Route 446, onto Tower Ridge Road. The road gave us enough mud, gravel and rolling hills to keep our attention and challenge our legs a little. I made sure to keep my aggression on the climbs in check, knowing that the grueling parts of the race were a long way ahead of us. Still, the miles were coming easy, our crew was in good spirits, and my bike was working flawlessly. There were some patches of slushy ice along this stretch that kept me on my toes. The mountain bikes would blow past me on the descents, confident in the traction of their fatter tires. But I would surge past them again when the grade turned upward, standing on the pedals just to stretch my legs.

Top of the tower.

Top of the tower.

We paused at Todd Cemetery for an easy bonus, then pressed on to the lookout tower itself. Climbing the 133 steps to the top was worth a 35 minute time bonus, if you were so inclined. Some of our crew were not, but my teammate and I climbed all the way to the cab, and snapped our pictures. We took our first break when we came back down, munching on some food and getting some electrolytes. As we rolled out onto the gravel road again, Jason mentioned that he was feeling a little queasy. We both shrugged it off–it was probably nothing, right?–and pressed on.

A series of swift downhills brought us to Robertson Cemetery for another time bonus, and then we slogged along some soft gravel and mud to the bridge at Maumee. Sticking to the plan, we turned right as the rest of the crowd headed left, and thought ourselves clever as we sped down the pavement.

Some weirdo behind us was still having fun at this stage.

Some weirdo behind us was still having fun at this stage.

It was on the three mile stretch to Houston that I began to notice Jason lagging behind, especially on the occasional hill. I held back the pace to stay with him, figuring that the additional weight and less advantageous gearing of his mountain bike made speed on the road less easy than my  comparatively sleek, light, and road-geared ‘crosser. In fact, and unbeknownst to all of us, his lack of power was due to an unfortunately-timed case of the flu, the effects of which would become increasingly debilitating as the race wore on. Even when the four of us were set upon by a few farm dogs (whose gravest threat beyond their barking was that one of them ran in front of Mike’s wheel and was nearly run over), he didn’t seem able to accelerate much.

I'm laughing at my poor decision to cut across the cornfield. Jason is finding no humor in any of this.

I’m laughing at my poor decision to cut across the cornfield. Jason is finding no humor in any of this.

I, on the other hand, was feeling no such illness, and so jumped at the chance to cut across the edge of a cornfield, in order to take a more direct route to the cemetery in Houston. That shortcut proved a completely terrible idea. The ground was softer than it appeared, and so we all ended up in our granny gears, churning through it and laughing through gritted teeth. I suspect the others were laughing to keep themselves from cussing me out. It was like riding through peanut butter. The grassy yard between the cornfield and the cemetery was in no better condition, and I nearly fell over when my tires sank inches deep into the turf-camouflaged mud. If my teammates had chosen at that moment to make me carry their packs for the rest of the race, I would hardly have blamed them!

We departed Houston and made the long, gradual climb to Lutes. My teammate’s condition was declining with every mile, and he found his legs unwilling to respond to his calls for more power. We rallied up at Lutes and I made sure we each took in some food. A few hills later, the unspoken decision was made to separate our teams, allowing the stronger pair to go ahead, while I stayed back with Jason. We would rally again at Elkinsville.

To be continued…

It's starting to become a long day, and we're not yet half way through...

It’s starting to become a long day, and we’re not yet half way through…


Nov 162013
Riding along the beach in a straight line? Not so bad.

Riding along the beach in a straight line? Not so bad.

This morning, I made the pleasant drive to Alum Creek State Park, host of Cap City Cross #7, dubbed the “Beach Party.” The race was to take place along and around the beach on the south side of Alum Creek Lake, and promised to be equal parts sandy slogfest, fast straightaways and off-camber mayhem.

I’ve been looking forward to this race every day, since my cyclocross baptism by fire at John Bryan with the OVCX series. I got my clock cleaned that day, but for whatever reason (or maybe that was the reason), I wanted more, pronto. I’ve been practicing with varying degrees of success on the CX course at JB in the weeks since, but what I really wanted was to grid up and have another go, and see if I could do better than next-to-last.

I pulled into the parking lot at Alum Creek a little under an hour before my race was to start. Usually that’s plenty of time to get ready, and I thought that it was, until I got out and took my sighting lap of the course. I was immediately concerned that the best tool for the job might not be my CX bike, but my mountain bike! Far different from the courses I’ve raced at Darree Fields and John Bryan, this race had a huge variation of surfaces and conditions, many of them bumpy, rooty and muddy enough to make me wish for some suspension. Unfortunately, by the time I had registered, kitted up and taken my practice lap, there were only 10 minutes left until the race start, so I made the call to stick with the ‘cross bike and hope for the best.

Time to whip out those mountain biking skills!

Time to whip out those mountain biking skills!

The intriguing thing about cyclocross as a discipline is that it’s never quite the same. Every course is different, and race organizers will frequently rearrange courses held at the same venue, just to change it up. Then there are the variables of weather, which can change everything about the race. Even the time of day that your race falls, and how many races have preceded it, can have a  huge impact on the course conditions and your accompanying strategy. As much as cyclocross rewards fitness and bike handling, there are many elements of strategy that can make or break your race, as well.

The mud rut didn't go so well for everybody... (Click to enlarge)

The mud rut didn’t go so well for everybody…
(Click to enlarge)

One of the most obvious bits of that strategy is how to approach the obstacles. There are some, like stairs and ride-ups, that intentionally require dismounts. Others, like deep mud, ruts, sand or logovers, rely on the rider to decide if it is more expedient to try and ride over, risking a crash, or dismount and hoof it for a few yards.

The course at Alum Creek presented several of those, including some sand sections on the beach, a couple man-made obstacles directly after, and a huge, muddy rut about half way through the lap. On my sighting lap, I noticed a lot of riders standing around the rut, or rolling their bikes through it while dismounted, trying to figure out if it was passable. I looked at it while I was riding up and knew what I was looking at, which is something of a first, for me. To the right were huge rocks, and the left was already churned up and slick from so many riders trying to go around. So I picked a spot in the middle and just plowed right through, letting my momentum carry me through the mud and over the lip on the other side.

That’s a strategy I’ve employed on a lot of rides this year on the mountain bike, and it rarely lets me down. If you’re looking to get through mud, aim for the middle, where it’s likely to be level and more compressed than around the sides. Go in fast, keep your weight off the front wheel, and just hold on, and you’ll make it though. At least most of the time. You might be muddy and wet once you make it, but less than you would be if you try to go around the side and crash!

It was encouraging to know that at least some of my mountain bike skills can transfer over to cyclocross, and that helped with the decision to stick to my Airborne Delta for the race. I rolled up to the starting grid for the Men’s Cat 4/5 heat feeling loose and confident of a better showing than I had turned in at JB. There were no call-ups, so I gridded myself conservatively, not wanting to hold up any of the series regulars, and waited for the start.

Trying to turn in the sand? Well that's a little more tricky.

Trying to turn in the sand? Well that’s a little more tricky.

After some brief instructions, the marshal walked to the back of the 34-rider grid, calling “30 SECONDS.” Next we heard the whistle, 34 shoes clicked into pedals like a mechanical round of applause, and we were off! Wave starts are always exciting, and I found myself grinning as we all barreled down the road toward the grass, and the first turn.

The opening corners were far less congested than at John Bryan, owing partly to the smaller field, but mostly to the longer start chute and wider first few corners. I had intentionally let myself slip back a few positions in the starting run, but now found myself getting held up by a couple riders as the course climbed up some doubletrack, away from the beach. It was time to start making some moves! I found a hole as the course reversed on itself and poured on the gas, passing three riders before cresting the rise.

That felt good. Real good. I’m accustomed to passing people in running events, but my only attempts at cyclocross to date have involved a lot of me riding along by myself. This felt like racing, and I liked it! I kept the hammer down as we exited the woods and wound through a grassy section, toward some off-camber switchbacks that sent us all into our climbing gears. I was determined to keep the riders behind me, behind me! We slugged through a little mud and a lot of wet, bumpy grass before slamming across an impromptu bridge made of a wooden pallet and some rugs, then headed down the hill to the already-infamous muddy rut.

I spent the whole last lap running away from this guy. He didn't get me!

I spent the whole last lap running away from this guy. He didn’t get me!

I eased up on the pedals a touch as I rolled down the hill, watching the riders ahead of me dismount and jog around the hole. I got lined up, stood on the pedals, and hoped that it hadn’t gotten too much worse since my practice lap! But my strategy worked, and I blasted through the rut, sending muddy water everywhere, and delighting the nearby photographer and spectators. Best yet, I passed all those guys who had dismounted and were now running with their bikes, trying to remount and climb the hill! My extra momentum from staying on the bike helped me get to the top without much trouble, and I was grinning, as my chest heaved and my legs dripped with mud, as we turned left, onto a brief gravel section.

Did I mention this course had everything?

A winding gravel road brought us to the beach portion of the lap, and I was again thankful for my experience on the mountain bike. I had a chance to ride some very sandy trails in North Carolina last year, with sections that were so deep that my front tire sank in and just stopped. This wasn’t nearly so bad, but it was loose enough that the turns were sketchy. A lot of riders fell on the second left turn, as the sand had been so rutted and churned up that staying upright required as much luck as skill. I took a wide line, intentionally missing the apex but staying out of the loosest portion of sand.

Properly dirty.

Properly dirty.

The beach section emptied into a muddy section, and I was reduced to slogging through in my granny gear. I looked back as I rounded a turn and saw two riders behind me, gaining ground as I was slowed in the muck. A bermed corner turned me back toward the start/finish, before which there were two obstacles, just low enough that hopping them was a tempting thought! But I was taking enough chances each lap, and my hopping skills are sub-par, so I dismounted and ran across the barriers, taking a flying leap back into the saddle on the other side.

A longish grassy section led from the start/finish to the doubletrack for another lap, and it was soft and bumpy such that it sapped your speed and energy. It was one of those sections that messes with you, because there’s not a visual cue as to why you’re working so hard, but your lungs don’t lie! I was relieved to finally get back into the woods, onto the relative ease of mud and gravel, and build some speed again!

I passed one more rider as we climbed through the woods, and kept the hammer down again to cement the pass. There was one more rider I could see ahead of me, and I hoped to be able to reel him in, though he had a couple hundred yards on me, still. A rider I hadn’t seen before came past me and quickly cleared off, perhaps the victim of an early crash that left me ahead of him when I otherwise wouldn’t have been.

Once more we rattled across the bridge and I slammed through the muddy rut, noticing that the far edge had gotten sharper as the race wore on. I only hoped it would be good enough for one more attempt! I was gaining ground on the rider ahead of me, but I couldn’t tell by how much. Up the hill, down the gravel road and back to the sand, and I tried a different line through the beach, looking for a way that wasn’t so slow. Nothing doing.

I trotted over the barriers and rode past the start/finish line, glancing ahead and then over my shoulder to figure out my place in my part of the race. I was still inching up on the rider ahead of me, but hadn’t put any distance between myself and the rider behind since my initial pass. The cowbells rang and the board indicated this would be the last lap, so it was time to go all-in!

I felt like I was getting faster with every lap, negotiating each section more confidently and putting more trust in the bike to do its job. I gave it all I had on that last lap, trying to really hit the areas that I had found myself to be faster than other riders, and find faster lines through the parts where I wasn’t. The last lap was cat-and-mouse, the three of us in a loose chain, reeling in and being reeled in, in turn. By the time we reached the beach again, I was nearly spent, but had put in just enough to insulate myself from attack by the rider chasing me. Unfortunately, so had the rider ahead of me, we finished the lap in the same order we had started it.

In the final tally, I finished 27th of 34 finishers in my race, which doesn’t seem like anything to be excited about. But after being left for dead in my last race at John Bryan, I couldn’t be more pleased with the result! I got to race with other riders, didn’t get left, rode strong and had a blast. As icing on the cake, a comparison lap later in the morning on my mountain bike revealed that I even made the right choice in equipment. My full-suspension rig was simply too heavy to be any faster, even if it was more comfortable and sure-footed over the bumps and roots.

I’m really hoping I’ll have another chance to race cyclocross before the season winds up. I’m in that puppy love phase where I get better at it every time I go out, and that sort of progress gets addicting, fast. But if I can’t make another round before winter closes in, I’ll be happy to finish on a positive note, and roll into 2014 ready for more!

(Photos courtesy Susan Hackett and Rick Jordon. Thanks you guys!)

Nov 152013

Gotta wash all the mud off, so I can go get it muddy again. Make sense?

With what may be my last race of the year coming up tomorrow at the Alum Creek CX race, I thought it would be prudent to get the bike cleaned up for the occasion. The ‘cross bike was pretty well caked over with mud, after I kept crashing it in practice at JB, so I wanted to give it a proper once over to make sure everything was still in rig. Happily, after a quick bath, some oil on the chain, and a couple tweaks here and there she’s running smooth and quiet, ready to take on whatever the Cap City Cross boys and C.O.M.B.O. have to throw at me tomorrow morning.

Nov 042013
Any two-wheeled athlete knows what these scratch marks in the mud mean.

Any two-wheeled athlete knows what these scratch marks in the mud mean.

After our trail work day, I figured it was a good opportunity to get some more practice on my ‘cross bike. The race course from the OVCX weekend is still quite visible in the grass, and I’ve been using it whenever I have a chance to work on my fitness and skills.

Besides not having lungs big enough (boy, can those guys ever hammer…), one of my big limiting factors in cyclocross has been my bike handling skills. Despite being, at first glance, the halfway point between road cycling and mountain biking, there hasn’t been as much skill transfer to CX as I would have guessed. I often find myself tiptoeing through turns that I should rail, just from a lack of confidence. On a course with as many twists and turns as your typical CX course, that can add up to a lot of time lost in just a single lap.

The problem compounds. I’m not carrying enough speed through the corners, which makes me work harder in the straights to make up time, which exhausts me more quickly than my more experienced competitors, which makes me rush corner entries, which squanders my exit speed, which makes me have to work harder in the straights… It all adds up to me getting gapped within the first lap. The only solution to this is seat time, which I’ve been grabbing whenever I can. With my mountain bike in the shop, and the weather getting a little cold to enjoy a road bike ride, focusing on the ‘cross bike has been pretty easy.

Fortunately, some of my motorcycle experience comes into play with this problem. While it’ll take some time to figure out what I’m doing wrong and correct it, I at least have the tools to approach and evaluate what I’m doing and what I need to do to fix it. Line choice affects exit speed, and one of the first things I’ve noticed is that I’m approaching the corners too narrow, or towards the inside of the turn. This effectively makes the turn sharper than it should be, lowering my speed mid-corner and leaving me in a hole at the exit. It’s a fine tactic when you’re in the lead, because it makes you very hard to pass. But let’s face it, I’m not in danger of being in that position any time soon.

Line choice is an easy enough problem to correct. It only takes a few laps of repetition, slowing down and making deliberate choices as you enter each corner until it becomes habit. But it rolls me right into my next problem, and that’s understanding the limits of the available traction. On a race track, the ideal race line gets better as the day goes on, as more rubber is laid down and traction increases. On a cyclocross course, the more bikes go through a corner, the more sketchy the ideal line can become. To be able to carry speed through a wide, sweeping line, you have to know exactly how much speed and lean angle are too much. Finding that limit is a classical exercise in trial and error, and lately, the balance of my efforts have been error.

... again?!

… again?!

This is an area where neither my experience on asphalt or dirt really helps me, because of the difference in visual cues and variety of surfaces involved in cyclocross. On a racetrack, the pavement is more or less consistent, as is the level of grip that goes with it. There are bumps and patches, but they’re pretty obvious, and after a few laps of experimentation, you know what you can expect from them. Likewise, on singletrack trail, the traction can vary dramatically based on the conditions. But the visual cues are straightforward and plentiful most of the time, so as long as you know what to look for, you can adjust on the fly.

Cyclocross is just a hot mess. You’re riding on grass, and mud, and hard-packed dirt, and through sand, and occasionally on pavement. One corner may look very much like the next, but the available grip can be entirely different. You’re going as fast or faster than you would on a mountain bike, except that the surface you’re riding on is often obscured, and so your best gauge for how well your tires will hold is to simply toss it in and find out.

Part of the art of cornering a cyclocross bike is becoming comfortable and proficient sliding the bike. This is made more difficult by the fact that a rigid bike provides very little warning or compensation for a loss in traction, so the difference between a controlled slide and ending up on your head can be slight. Just how slight, I found out while practicing on a soggy course at John Bryan. I found myself on my back twice in as many laps, the victim of just a tiny bit too much speed on mud that was covered in grass and leaves.

Nobody likes crashing, and I especially hate having to clean mud out of my components. But this is the sort of thing that’s involved when you’re finding the limit. If I’m going to get good at this cyclocross thing, it’s something I’ll have to become accustomed to.

Oct 302013

303a1It’s that time of year, again. time for raking leaves, dressing your kids up as scary/cute things, breaking out your favorite hoodies, and screaming slurred expletives at college football games.

And growing moustaches.

That’s right, boys and girls, it’s almost Movember, the time of year where I allow a hilarious little fuzz strip to inhabit my upper lip, for your amusement and for charity! And not just any charity. Movember’s purpose is to raise money specifically to fight Man Cancer. We’re talking about prostate and testicular cancers. They aren’t pretty, and so they don’t get as much attention as, say, boobs. That’s understandable. But ignoring Man Cancer isn’t.

My maternal grandfather had prostate cancer, and it eventually claimed his life. He taught me many things as a kid, but the most important lessons were those of character and integrity. He worked hard every day of his life, and for the whole time I knew him, did it sporting a fantastic moustache.

So in his honor, starting 1 Movember, I’m declaring a thirty-day hiatus on shaving in my upper lip region. I’ll be posting regular, hilarious updates as to my… er… “progress” for you to follow, like and share. And this year, I’m upping the ante.

Last Movember, I ran a little contest each week to let people name my ‘stache when they donated. While that was humiliating for me and fun for you, I don’t think it involved enough pain and suffering on my part to keep you all engaged. So this year, I’m going to match you, mile for dollar, all month long.

That’s right. You donate a dollar, I run, ride or row a mile. I’ll post proof of my mileage on here along with updates on my fuzzy little lip friend. Now because you people have surprised me before, and because I may occasionally have to go to work this month, I have to cap the mileage total at 500. But that ain’t nothing. It’ll represent my single biggest total in a month all year, and fully 1/4 of the miles I’ve posted so far. But if you’ve got the cash, I’ve got the time.

Let’s do this. Click the link below to donate, share this page with your friends, and let’s team up to help stop Man Cancer in its tracks!

Oct 242013
Not every small, square box is filled with chocolate.

Not every small, square box is filled with chocolate.

One of the unfortunate discoveries I made while cleaning off my mountain bike the other day was that my pedals had become… crunchy. They still worked, but the bearings had gotten stiff, likely the result of too much abuse and too little love. I went ahead and transferred them to the Delta anyway, but during my ‘cross race, I had serious trouble getting clipped in on the left side. Not a good problem to have in a race with required dismounts.

So I’ll need to send them in to CrankBrothers for service, but I can’t be stuck sans-pedals in the mean time. So it was off to Amazon, where I found a deal on these Candy 2s. They’re almost the same pedal as the (now discontinued) Candy SLs they replace, with the exception of having a full metal cage, instead of plastic. I’ve heard rumors of quality control problems at CB over the past few years, so here’s hoping they hold up just as well as my old set!

Oct 202013
Chipped, bibbed, and cow-belled. Time for some 'cross racing!

Chipped, bibbed, and cow-belled. Time for some ‘cross racing!

When one has acquired a new bicycle, the only logical next step is to go race it. Right?

So imagine my giddy surprise when I found out that the Ohio Valley Cyclocross (OVCX) series was coming to my back yard this weekend! That the race fell the morning after the MoMBA XC Classic was no deterrent. Have new bike, must race!

I’ve tried CX before, but never on a proper bike, so I hoped to do well. I held no illusion of being truly competitive, but I thought maybe I’d at least hold on to the tail end of the pack. And anyway, my goal was just to go out and learn, since I have all of 5 miles on this bike.

Race morning was cold, but a brilliant sunrise replaced the clouds and rain from yesterday. I showed up 90 minutes before my wave was to start, got registered, and eyed the course while the previous waves went off. It didn’t look all that bad from the sidelines, at least.

The atmosphere was buzzing. Hundreds of riders swirled around the parking areas, in various stages of bike prep, warming up, or spectating until their races started. Music blasted from loudspeakers, interspersed with two very experienced announcers calling the races like professional sportscasters, and recognizing racers by name. This was no mom-n-pop bike race, this was the real deal! I felt at once like I was in over my head, and jazzed about being a part of something so hugely impressive.

There were two races before mine, and between waves, they were allowing a short gap for riders to preview the course. I got kitted up and pedaled around while the second race wrapped up, leaving my hoodie on as long as possible. I figured at race pace, that I’d be warm enough, and I can take the cold for a mere 30 minutes, anyway. But that didn’t mean I wanted to freeze before the thing even started.

Having a laugh after call-ups.

Having a laugh after call-ups.

As the leaders from the race before mine started to come across the finish, they opened the rest of the course for sighting laps. I rolled onto the grass and started circulating, trying very hard not to look like it was my first time. I’m not sure I succeeded.

The course itself seemed fast overall, not terribly bumpy and not chock full of obstacles. The hardest feature for me was the sheer number of muddy, off-camber corners, which would require me to test the limits of my comfort zone, and the limits of traction on my new bike. Line choice wasn’t hard to figure out, as the previous two waves had worn a pretty obvious path through each turn, but as the day went on, those lines would become sloppier.  There were two log-overs that I likely would have hopped over with more experience on the bike, and two plank-overs that required a dismount from everyone, regardless of skill.

My favorite obstacle was the sand traps. I got a little experience riding in the sand when I was in North Carolina last year, so I knew to just plow through them with as much speed as possible, and let the bike go where it wanted to go. In the races before mine, a whole lot of riders found themselves underneath their bikes in the sand, but it wasn’t as much a worry, for me. I gather from talking to other riders that that makes me weird.

I finished my sighting lap and coasted down to the start area to wait for call-ups. Despite the appearance of being a simple mash-up of road cycling and mountain biking, CX is its own sport, with its own set of lingo to learn. Start order is set by call-ups, wherein the race organizer racks and stacks the riders based on some criteria, or by his personal preference. They are so named because you wait in a gaggle until the director calls you up to the line.

Then there are hand-ups, wherein people standing just outside the tape will try to hand things (beer, money, swag) to the riders as they come by. Most hand-ups happen at the least opportune times, such as in the middle of a sand pit, to add to the challenge (or create opportunities to crash, depending on one’s perspective). And don’t forget run-ups, barriers and pits… I’m still learning.

The size of the field for my race was impressive, and unlike any bike event I’ve started this year. There were 58 total starters in my wave, and I was gridded almost at the back, thanks to registering at the last moment, and not having any previous results to move me up. That was fine with me, as I figured on being a rolling chicane for the first lap anyway, and I didn’t want to get run over.

A voice ahead called 10 seconds to the start, and 58 shoes clicked into pedals in acknowledgement. Then we were off! The whole collection of us surged forward, and I stood on the pedals to charge, only to be sat right back down. The short start chute gave way to a collection of tight corners, and we were gridlocked. This underlines the importance of your starting position in a CX race, something I’ll have to remember when I get more competitive.

The start was exciting! And then it was gridlock.

The start was exciting! And then it was gridlock.

Tiptoeing through the corners, like a newb.

Tiptoeing through the corners, like a newb.

I held my line as best I could through the opening sections, trying in vain to gain a few positions while we were packed so close together. Then the course opened up, and the riders around me poured on the speed, and I was surprised at how easily they slipped away from me! I was staying with them in the straights and gaining on the brakes, but my mid corner speed was awful, and my corner exits were so tentative that I couldn’t pull them back.

The course wound around the trees, took us over a couple logs, and then zigzagged into the woods for a short section of singletrack. I was hanging on to a few riders yet, but working hard to do it. When we got out of the woods, there was a short dash across the gravel to another curvy section, this time with more mud, and I got left. The corners in this section were faster and more sweeping, but with even less traction than the other parts of the course, leading me to throw out the anchor and wobble through.

I found dismounting for obstacles less challenging than anticipated.

I found dismounting for obstacles less challenging than anticipated.

... where'd everybody go?

… where’d everybody go?

I came across the finish line on my first lap sucking wind and all alone, the field stretching off ahead of me. That was fine, as I was just out here to learn, but I had hoped to hang on a little longer. Still, there was one rider behind me, and I made it my goal to stay ahead of him, no matter what. If it was to be a race for next-to-last, then that was the race I was going to win, and I used that little motivation to keep the throttle pushed forward.

Having lost track of the riders ahead of me, it was down to simple experimentation, trying to learn how to ride this cyclocross thing. I played around with different lines in different types of corners, tried different braking techniques, and started pushing the bike into a slide when I felt comfortable, all while hammering on the pedals as hard as I could in the straights. I realized that I was a little tired from yesterday, but not so much that I couldn’t hit it pretty hard.

One lasting impression from this race will be the crowd. Short track racing is an excellent spectator event already, but I was impressed with how lively and fun this bunch was, and how positive. Even though I was clearly out there struggling, working hard to go slow, it didn’t deter anybody from cheering and clapping as I came by, offering hand-ups and encouragement. One guy in particular made it a point to get right next to the ribbon as I came by, clapping and yelling “you’re doing it!” That meant a lot to me, getting my butt kicked as soundly as I was, and it kept my attitude in check. I was doing it, even if I wasn’t doing it every well, and that means something. I remembered some advice I got a few years back at a motorcycle track day: “You’re upright, pointed the right direction and on two wheels, so you’ve already got most of it right.”

Deep sand, always a favorite for a cyclist...

Deep sand, always a favorite for a cyclist…

I came around a corner and onto the pavement by the finish line for the third time, and looked up to see a guy with a radio, waving his arms for me to stop. The organizers decided to pull me off, and he said they’d place me. I was a little bummed. I know it was unlikely my position would have changed, but I at least wanted the dignity of having run the same distance as the leaders. And anyway, I was learning the whole time, getting faster every lap, and I wanted another go to see how much faster I could get. But it wasn’t to be. I would be credited with 57th of 58 in my wave, and 45th of 46 in my category.

My baseline goals any time I try a new race are 1. to finish, 2. to not crash too hard, and 3. to not finish last. I accomplished those things, so I can’t be too disappointed. The racer in me is horrified at being left for dead, but given the mitigating circumstances, I have to be satisfied at having gone out, and raced, and learned. And even though I sucked, I can’t wait to do it again!

Less shiny, more muddy. That's more like it.

Less shiny, more muddy. That’s more like it.

Oct 152013
Yeah, that seat isn't gonna stay way up there...

Yeah, that seat isn’t gonna stay way up there…

When fortune smiles on you, you’d better be ready to say yes.

I’ve been eyeing cyclocross bikes ever since last fall, when my brother-in-law duped talked me into doing a Cap City Cross race at Daree Fields. It was a cold, miserable, lung-busting affair, made worse by the fact that I raced it on my 30+ pound, full-suspension mountain bike. But I loved it. The atmosphere, the short track nature of it, the downright silliness… it was all intriguing.

For a very short time, Airborne Bicycles produced a disc-brake Cyclocross bike called the Delta. It was positioned to be a category killer, with a retail price of just $1200, and equipped with SRAM Apex drivetrain, FSA Gossamer cranks, BB5 mechanical disc brakes, a carbon fork, and all the other goodies you expect out of a CX bike twice the price. They sold like hotcakes, received positive reviews, but Airborne’s management decided not to renew the production run anyway. I’d be mad, but they’ve been busy turning out bikes like the HobGoblin and developing the jaw-dropping, drool-inducing Pathogen, so they’re forgiven. For now.

When they decided to close out the Deltas, I had just gotten my road bike, so I wasn’t in a position to buy. I watched the last few get gobbled up at sharply reduced prices, and resigned myself to having to pay more for less, when I was finally able to pick up a ‘cross bike next year or so. But sometimes you just get lucky. A few more frames were found while cleaning out part of the warehouse here in Dayton recently. After checking them over and building them up, the boys at Airborne put them up on their Facebook page for sale, at a price so low I couldn’t say no.

I ran down to their headquarters that afternoon to pick one up, and am now the proud owner of this rare commodity! A full review will have to wait until I have some miles on it, but first impressions are mostly good. The thing is tall. It’s taller at every point than my road bike, despite only being a 1cm (nominal) larger frame. I’m told this is normal for CX bikes, but I don’t have another point of comparison. Even after dropping the seat as low as I feel I should, I feel like I’m a million feet off the ground. That’ll serve me well when trying to tackle log-overs later, but for now it’ll take some getting used to.

The slack geometry is also interesting. The seat tube angle places the rider further behind the bottom bracket than I am used to, leading to the feeling of pedaling ahead of yourself. Again, this isn’t good or bad, just different. I’m sure I won’t even notice it after a few hours in the seat. Despite the frame being possibly a size too large for me, the overall ergos feels right. The reach is fine, my back angle is comfortable, and the bars are narrow, but not uncomfortably so. And boy is this thing ever solid! Even bunny hopping it on pavement produces almost no noise at all, and the drivetrain is even quieter than the Shimano 105 setup on my road bike. The SRAM Apex shifters are maybe a touch slower to actuate than the Shimano, but they’re also a touch more precise, in feel.

The Kenda Kwicker tires are on the aggressive side, and I expect they’ll offer superior traction in wet grass and mud. I may swap to something more durable and less knobby for winter riding on pavement, as I expect the Kwickers will wear pretty fast on asphalt. Good chance I’ll also double-wrap the bars for added comfort, and install some tubes with longer stems in them. I can barely get a pump on the stock valve stems.

So this is my new challenge, and yet another discipline to add to my already chock-full training and racing schedule. Time will tell whether this is puppy love or the real deal, but I’m leaning toward the latter.