So I finally gave in this year to partaking in the winter activity that many of my “better” bicycle racing friends and cronies already indulged in: cross-country skiing. Being originally from the San Francisco Bay Area at just about sea-level, I was never really into winter sports much growing up. Sure, I have the faintest memories of watching the Winter Olympics now and again and fawning over (then) East German figure skater Katarina Witt, being amazed by the totally insane ski jumps of “the flying Finn,” Matti Nykänen, or the U.S. men’s hockey team with its “miracle on ice.”
Temperate, Mediterranean climate notwithstanding, let’s just say the ethno-cultural three-ring circus of my childhood was more inclined toward images of dancing skeletons than racing skeletons, sombreros and tequila vice than hat tricks on ice, and perhaps more in tune with pico de gallo than Picabo Street.
Anyway, after a couple of rounds of badgering and soliciting advice from said cronies, I finally made my way to an REI store and a local ski shop and eventually did get kitted out at the REI (where I received excellent service, by the way). I was all set, with skis, boots, bindings, and poles. I even purchased a little tub of ski wax for the tips and tail ends of my “wax-less” classic Nordic skis.
In my eagerness, I had to roll straight to one of the local county forest preserves to try out my new setup. Before we get into that madness though, let me just say that the process of teaching oneself to cross-country ski is akin to what it must be like to try and learn to swim or ride a bike as an adult, having never learned as a child… awkward and unnatural.
Pull skis out of car. Walk to what might only seem like an appropriate spot adjacent to parking lot. Place skis on snowy ground’s surface. Clip into binding with one leg, then another. Waddle-step around like a penguin a bit and start sliding around like I’m on the NordicTrack indoor exercise machine commercial in my mind, only now I’m doing this FOR REAL. Oh, what’s that?... A slope? Oh, now I’ve fallen, and like the old lady in that classic TV commercial …“I can’t get up!!!” (wow, those TV images do get into our brains!) Ok, so I’m back up, trying not to laugh out loud too loudly, and looking around for jeers and unfortunately entertained onlookers.
This same process of alternating arms and legs gliding (okay, more of an ungraceful sloshing at this point), falling, and getting back up to repeat goes on for the better part of half an hour, before I decide to retire to the comfort of my car’s heater on full blast (it was a crisp 16 degrees that afternoon). Better make my way over to get some coffee, soup, and a bear claw for nourishment and much needed consolation.
So that was my maiden voyage en route to Thor-like Nordic fitness. Subsequent, regular ski-outings have thus far proven exhilarating and quite positive. I seem to fall less, and feel smoother and have those moments of being “in the zone” at times. I even have enough oxygen in my brain to take the occasional photograph (2 of 3 deer, not impressed with my technique):
I do regret having lived in the Midwest this long, and waited just as long to make the leap and start skiing. A couple of friends tell me that once I master “classic” Nordic style, I can try “skate” skiing, and that I will become addicted to the speed. On that note, how about the sport of “biathlon,” where competitors race against each other on a course and have to occasionally stop and take pot shots with their back-slung rifles at target settings on the course!?!? Really, how awesome is that? Skiing and shooting!!! (here's Germany's Magdalena Neuner being awesome, skiing and packin' heat!):
One variation on a Nordic sport at a time though, please. I should probably take care that I can ski for a couple of hours without falling down before I go strapping a loaded weapon on my back and hitting the snow. I’m on it though, so those Norwegians and Swedes had better watch out!
The 2010 Illinois State Cyclocross Championships have come and gone, which wraps up my “competitive” cycling season for the year. The day was “epic,” at least as far as the weather and course conditions were concerned. But, before I get too immersed in lurid descriptions of the epic-ness of this epic-fest, I’d like to back up a bit to a few weeks ago… (insert dreamy-harp, once-upon-a-time musical riff here)…
Earlier this fall, I had decided to take a hiatus from racing the local, Chicago Cyclocross Cup racing circuit, opting instead to spend vast chunks of weekend days putting in longer miles at easier intensity, figuring I simply had not had enough racing in my legs (ok, not much AT ALL) during the summer season to take me into fall cyclocross with enough of a base. So off I went into the languishing fall and waning weekend afternoons.
Elaborate plans I had worked out post-dissertation defense, final edits, and graduation simply had not materialized this summer. Instead, I started teaching on a regular rotation and things got crazy at work, and (insert reader-preferred excuses here and here…). Long story short, it simply didn’t happen.
So, when I embarked upon my anemic attempt at a series of ‘cross races that I did take a stab at, it was under less than ideal circumstances as far as any sort of proper “training” was concerned. What’s more, I even experienced a phenomenal crash into a camera-toting videographer in one of the races that completely left my front wheel trashed (hmm, best order up a new set of CX-specific hoops to rebuild around those old hubs…).
After a few more subsequent disappointments on two wheels (say, the whole month of November), I decided to go into self-imposed racing exile to spend some quality time with Bruni & Co. “Bruni” is short for Brunhilde, my trusty 2005 Raleigh ‘Team Cross’ CX bike... the “& Co.” means whatever else I happen to have ridden. And quality time it was!... It probably included as much coffee and pastry as Accelerade and PowerGel. On a few occasions, I even went out and overcooked my estimate of available sunlight (see last posting). Note, the igloo under construction, post-race:
So, with some longer miles in my legs, and the freshened (delusional?) perspective that a break from competition will bring, I decided to NOT race what was left of the 2010 Chicago Cyclocross Cup series… ESPECIALLY the last, Hoth Ice Planet scenario that is typically the Montrose Harbor race…*Until*, of course, I gave in to the ever-lurking manly-man peer pressure that includes the usual on-cue chorus of “Come on man, I’ll race if YOU race…” and “Dude, you got that new wheelset rebuild, don’t you wanna use it?” Yes, such intense male gauntlet throw-downs happening in the deadly serious environs of said friend’s Sony Play Station 3 setup. Challenges to one’s masculinity simply take on more weight under such circumstances, and are never to be taken lightly! But ultimately, at the end of the day, it was I who made the decision to seek a final hurrah of racing glory for the season. And glorious, it was.
The final race of the series at Chicago’s Montrose Harbor is close enough to the shore of Lake Michigan that there is an actual mix of snow, ice, and sand on some stretches of the course, no doubt blown about by gale-force winds coming off the lake, as well as the fact that the course intentionally meanders onto the actual lakeshore itself in places. Keep in mind, this is December in Chicago. Cold. Wind.
But, remember what I’ve mentioned about competitive bike racers. D e l u s i o n a l . The need to suspend one’s disbelief plays a strong role in all this. Am I the only one that gets the occasional moment of self-doubt about such an enterprise? “Hey, it’s December in Chicago, 20 degrees out with crazy wind-gusts.. AND there’s four inches of snow on the ground… Should we really be racing bikes?”
H E R E S Y ! ! ! ! !
Such thoughts are quickly banished by another strange brain fluid mixture that counters with “Dude, what would be *truly* epic would be if it were all cold and windy like this and it started snowing, AGAIN…”
The absolute best parts of this race were the starting straightaway of frozen tundra, and the final moment of crossing the finish line. There was something truly primal about the start of the race, as though the field were moving headlong in desperation to reach the first corner (only to hit the brakes and slow down) if only to generate enough body heat to stay alive. I was, depending on who you ask, “giggling like a schoolgirl,”… or… “laughing maniacally, like a raving lunatic…” Either way, I was at THIS point in the race, actually having a good time.
Ice + snow = lack of traction, even with barely inflated tubular tires. So barely inflated in fact, that a couple of times I actually stopped on the course to check my rear tire to make sure I was not running completely flat. Okay, I had to dismount anyway to hoof it over frozen quicksand, so I may as well check tire pressure, right?
So after about one to one and one half laps of this madness, I’m starting to generate enough body heat to at least be able to fantasize about people sitting in elegant houses, sipping warm drinks (preferably, hot cocoa or hot apple cider) in front of a cozy fireplace. Raising alpacas in California… or sheep, in Ireland… or wearing wool sweaters made from alpacas or sheep, while sipping hot drink in front of said cozy fireplace… All the while, my brain is concurrently attempting to harness the fine motor skills to keep the bike upright AND keep pedaling, lest I fall over (which, I eventually DID), and be taken by a local Hoth Wampa.
It’s not long before I am waaay off the back. So far off the back, in fact, that a local cross country skier friend of mine is riding his bike along the side of the course, openly mocking me about when I’m going to decide to make my tactical, decisive move for the victory. So far off the back, that I am actually lapped by the race leaders. The upside to being lapped is that it eventually means that the end is near, as some race officials tend to really enforce the “lapped rider,”… “Hey, get a load of how far off the back this guy is!” rule.
So, amid the sounds of cheering fans, hecklers, and clanging cowbells (more cowbell, please!) I’m eventually, ignominiously (along with seemingly everyone else) ushered off the course with the official’s blow of the whistle and wave of the hand. HURRAY, I can STOP NOW!!!... This is the one race of the year where the shame and humiliation (ok, agony) of defeat is ameliorated by the conclusion of the harsh racing conditions. “What? Time to jump into a car with the heater going full-blast? Right on!!”
And that, brings to an end, my bicycle racing season for 2010. It is also the last race in a certain “racing age” category (let’s say, a particular ‘decade’ of a number between 20 and 40). Perhaps I’ll save the lessons learned from bike racing in that interval for a later posting. For now, I’m so tired, I need not count sheep nor alpacas, though I’m certain they, will haunt my dreams. Better they, than Hoth Wampa.
In the interest of trying to squeeze in some late-November (pre-Thanksgiving) miles, I went out today for another long steady distance ride. A friend of mine refers to these types of rides as "LSD" (Long-Steady-Distance, ... get it?). While there is happily, no LSD of the chemical kind involved in this sort of training, a bad 'bonk' experience can make one feel as though... well, never mind.
This time of year, these rides either happen exclusively on weekends, supplemented by a night or two during the week indoors on the Kreitler rollers. There's simply not enough daylight at the end of the workday to get many quality miles in. That leaves the option to go out and ride in the morning... but really? Leave the comfort of a warm bed when it is sub-freezing outside? I'll simply admit here and now that I am not enough of a "hardman" as we like to refer to those Belgian hardmen of cycling's 'Spring classics'. These days, I'm actually trying to heed German pro Jens Voigt's admonition to "HARDEN THE F*** UP!!!" Indeed.
In recent memory, it seems more and more that my idea of a "hard" ride is one that fails to involve a stop at a Starbucks or Caribou for some sort of pumpkin-gingerbread sugary syrup latte goodness. ESPECIALLY during the fall months.
So, today, while I thought my ride would be "epic" only in spirit, it turned out to be quite epic for real! On my way home, it seems the temperature dropped a good 10 degrees and the wind really started to howl. To add to the epic-y-ness of the experience, I had somewhat miscalculated the amount of sunlight I would have left late in the afternoon, and dusk quickly gave way to darkness. The suddenly overcast gloom did not help my cause. Finally, my lack of ANY lights on my bike for this ride meant that I'd become that guy... that idiot who goes out to ride in the dark with no reflectors, no flashing tail light, no head lamp... LUCKILY, most of my ride was along portions of the Fox River bicycle trail, so by the time it got really dark, I would mostly be invisible to other cyclists, runners, and evening strollers. Jens Voigt's injuries (seen here in hospital bed) were sustained not on a recreational bike path, but during the 2009 Tour de France. Jens and I are almost exactly the same age, separated by only 5 months, and a pro racing contract here and there. Otherwise, we have so much in common, Jens and I. "Jens" even sort of sounds like "Jes" doesn't it? But, I digress...
As much as I do enjoy group training rides (the more, the better), most cyclists know that it is essential to sometimes go solo, or with very few others from time to time in order to better manage the prescribed intensity of the ride. This time of year though, unless people are still racing cyclocross, most racers are well into post-season mode, and it can become increasingly difficult to round up a posse. So, one rides alone... and after a few miles, the mind starts to wander. On days like today, the brain turns to fantasies of Belgium or northern France early. "And now they've entered the Forest of Arenberg!!!."
The introspection comes next, along the lines of "It really is sorta cold today... perhaps I should have stayed in the house and hit the rollers..." and that leads to the self-doubt of "Why am I even bothering to do this? It's really not THAT much fun, just riding a bike... IS IT?... Come on, it's gotta be better than that Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 1980 with French great Bernard Hinault off the front..." THAT was EPIC.
I mean, it wasn't even snowing today. Fortunately, most racing cyclists also have an extremely high capacity for self-delusion regarding our past, current, and future abilities on two wheels. A little bit of self-delusion is essential to keep at it, for if one ever realized exactly how futile the pursuit of actual victory is (given all the variables one cannot control for), it would drive one insane (like thinking too much about the massive black holes that are said to exist at the center of galaxies). Not good.
However, a *little bit* of delusion, of the "I *am* big!!!" Norma Desmond-variety (as opposed to what used-to-be) will keep one training and racing well into AARP eligibility (perhaps they can kick down a race registration fee discount?). So it's not only the Lance Armstrongs and Brett Favres of the world who delude themselves into one more ride, one more season... but most of the amateur racers I know in their 30s, 40s, 50s. But what else would we do, really?
So the same desire and commitment to extend our viable racing lives thus gets applied to extending the season itself, when we DO remember to take our bike lights with us. Just like that... fiat lux and there is light. Here are some of mine:
Ultimately, we all ride for different reasons. Some a *bit* more deluded than others at their prospects for actual victory in competition. Winning is nice, and I can attest to that with the few podium spots I attained the better part of a decade ago (SO CLOSE to winning,... As Springsteen sang, "Glory days well they'll pass you by..." No doubt!). But it's really something else that keeps us slogging through, mile after mile, year after year. Bragging rights on the local circuit? A lifetime of (exaggerated) memories? The chance to win a stale box of Clif Bars? I'm not really certain.
But I do believe that Robert Louis Stevenson was onto something when he wrote:
"To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end of life."
I only know that quote because I had to write the sentence about 800 times as punishment for daydreaming and "acting a fool" during the 6th grade. I now, somehow, feel vindicated.
With the late September temperatures finally peaking in the high 80s in Chicagoland this week, it seems that summer finally had its last hurrah. FINALLY, a steady stream of days ahead in the 60s and low 70s. Fall in the Midwest is special,... well, at least it seems more so to a West Coast (SF Bay Area!) guy like myself that grew up knowing basically great weather, and o.k. weather (a cloudy or rainy day here and there). But here in the Midwest, we actually have seasons!.. and, plenty of deciduous broadleaf (term from my undergrad geography coursework days!) trees. This means fall colors!!
It also means fall riding and racing cyclocross (or, at least, plenty of TALK about racing cyclocross). It is a great time of year to ride in the Midwest, to the extent that, should one stop to take in a view or snap a photo, or call Lady Gaga's telephone, one is not immediately carried off by mosquitos the size of flying monkeys. Whether it ever happened or not, I seem to have these great memories of being on these "epic" weekend fall rides when I'd be rolling along some country road, and at times, a little jetty of air would leave a few leaves tumbling in my wake as I passed. I must have seen that on an old Buick commercial or magazine ad somewhere and it kinda stuck. Speaking of flying monkeys and other odd creatures on might encounter on the road, here are a few of my stalwart training partners I pass from time to time on a regular route:
They were less impressed with my lack of form than I was. I swear they kept saying "laaame, ... laaaame!!" every time I passed by. It always seems to be the same old scene, three billy goats gruff waiting for the mothership to land, or just sunning themselves in the late afternoon. In case any of my Chicagoland friends are curious to see this spectacle, they're on Beith Rd., way out west of St. Charles before crossing Meredith Rd. I take their chorus as a form of encouragement on the way out to meet the ride, (as I do the route backwards) and try to hold on as long as possible. Such mockery is a form of consolation on days (often) when I am spat out the back of the pack. These days, I'm just glad to see them, as I'm glad to see most of my bike racer geek friends. Yes, fall means great riding conditions and vistas, but it also means our days of youthful wanderlust in the warm sun are numbered. Sort of like the post-season for a baseball fan. Great memories and all that, but summer's end makes the reality set in that once again, the Cubs went nowhere (Let's go A's!!) and there's "always next year..."
Finding my “form” on the bike has been a MUCH slower process this year. It seems that the grandiose plans I had post-graduation of a summer filled with nothing but training and racing never did come to pass… (okay, training, racing, and a couple of journal article manuscript submissions) Well, at least the racing never happened. As far as training goes though, I seem to have deluded myself earlier this spring that it would somehow be a good idea to try a half-marathon (as in the kind you run, on foot…) this year, so for the last couple of months, the time spent “training” for the Batavia 'Half-Madness' half marathon has indeed taken away from at least a bit of time in the saddle. It SO MUCH seemed like a good idea at the time! On that note, I have NO IDEA how multi-sport, or triathletes, or whatever they call themselves do it… spend all that time training… swimming, cycling, and running… and maintain any semblance of a normal work and social life. I have a difficult enough time just keeping up with one real sport (er, cycling…) and one imaginary sport: FIFA ’10 on friends’ Sony Play Station(s).
Silly? Sure, but it is a LONG, winter in the Midwest. What else is one to do??? Shovel snow? Read books? Conduct scholarly research and writing? Blah!..
On that note, what exactly is “form” anyway? Cyclists like to throw that term around like it’s somehow part of some secret dialect within the cult or secret society they (we) all belong to. “Yes, Armstrong’s form was really groggy that spring, but by the time the Midi Libre rolled around, it was really beginning to come around…” Or, something that is seldom, if ever (okay, actually NEVER said), “Man, Velo-Maniac’s form is super strong this year.. he’ll really be a contender at the Sherman Park and Wood Dale Criteriums!!!” Most days, I’d be happy just to find less form of the kind that gathers at one’s waistline (a negative example, where LESS form is better!!).
So, with summer on the wane, and form just starting to find me, I will probably bid farewell to the likelihood of much racing on the road this 2010 season. However, all these miles are not for naught, as that nutty, cult-within-a-cult sport of cyclocross is nearly upon us. Yes, cyclocross, where grown men (and women) in tights participate in a steeplechase-by-bike or sorts, prancing over barriers in parks and other venues at maximum cardiovascular threshold, all for the chance to win a box of stale Power Bars or a couple of dollars back from their race entry fee which they had to pay in the first place.
Ideally, cyclocross is a way to extend the racing season on the bike (or in my case, START it) into the months of fall and early winter, whence presumably, one will emerge fitter (and yes, with better form) in the spring of the following year. This is of course, in an idealized world, where beer tents and bratwurst, and potato pancake stands do not exist on-site at the race venue. I am quite certain that I have actually had race days where I have consumed twice the number of calories I have expended. I mean, really, why be any sort of “endurance” athlete, if you can’t partake in a little nutritional sin from time to time, right? Serious athletes will mention something about the need to see “food as fuel…” whereby food is not merely consumed for the sheer pleasure and epicurean enjoyment that it brings, but for some loftier, noble goal of fueling the body, no more or less than it needs.
So, on that note, I am inspired to venture forth on an experiment. I should on this night, explore as scientifically as possible (for an historian), which dairy group product serves my nutritional needs more effectively… A pint of Ben & Jerry’s Oatmeal Cookie Chunk, or a large strawberry sundae from Dairy Queen. Good form depends on it.
Aaah beer... sweet nectar, and source of my bicycle sloth!... For the first time tonight, I attempted to roll forth and meet one of the local training rides out on the road. Since time is of the essence and the ride hits the road so early (relative to the time I leave work), I have to park the car at a local nature preserve, and do the route "backwards," meeting the pack out on the road. This also allows for a bit more of an appropriate warm-up than I might otherwise have. The ride is SUPER-fast, and super competitive. It is basically a combination of a bike race, giant chess match, and test of physical stamina, populated by a bunch of neurotic, narcissistic, obsessive alpha-males (or those that aspire to alpha-male-dom). Maybe that's my problem all these years... just not "alpha" enough, but more resigned to my happy fate as a more mellow "beta.." (is that how that all works? I'm making assumptions here..) Mellooowww... Mellooowwww... Racing a bicycle is really hard. REALLY hard... Training for bicycle racing is also really hard. Most racers would say that ideally, one should try and replicate "racing conditions" while training. No problem there, as these guys are so fast, that I'm suffering like a pig on a spit almost instantly. I have some friends who complain that these guys go too hard, too fast, too soon. Part of it is of course, testosterone-fueled. The other part is cabin fever with the advent of spring temperatures in the Midwest. Add to this, the fact that I am pretty much an undisciplined slob when it comes to training over the winter months (okay, I'm ALWAYS an undisciplined slob!!), and it just adds to the pain, suffering, and dejection that the early season will have in store. Not only did I spend many an hour this winter eating pizza, fatty sandwiches, fries, sweets, and drinking beer and wine, but also wrapped up the better part of a 300 page doctoral thesis, so, needless to say, the girth increased. But as I've said before and will say again.. THE PARTY IS OVER..!!!
Here are just a couple of photos of a winter project I have going. Waay back when I was in high school and just starting in the world of bike addiction, my friend Joe used to have a Raleigh Grand Prix in an odd metallic aqua green color with an even stranger metallic lavender head tube. We used to spend epic hours riding in the hills above Milpitas, CA, high above the Santa Clara valley. At the time, I could keep up with him just fine on my 1985 Peugeot (which I MIGHT write about later!). Anyway, he had this Raleigh with the "new" Shimano 105 group.. Ooh, "index" shifting! It was also made of Reynolds 531 steel tubing to boot! Nice. From time to time, I'd pop into this shop just over the city limits in San Jose (cannot remember the name now!) and they used to have these red and black Raleigh framesets hanging on the wall. They were roughly the same vintage as the one on which Connie Carpenter-Phinney won the Olympic gold medal in the women's road race in 1984. Sooo... a couple of years ago, while out in CA visiting my parents, I happened to have spied a beaten up 1986 Raleigh Grand Prix on craigslist and figured it was worth the $100 for some nostalgia. Here is the project so far. Decent power coat job. I will probably just use it as a "heavy" training bike from time to time and on long, easy Sunday rides. For now though, I'm thoroughly enjoying just looking at it from different angles, admiring the lugs, and daydreaming about the miles we have ahead of us.