Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Swish, Swish, Swish...

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 Nyk√§nen, 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!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Racing from "Base Miles" to "Echo Base"

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.