November 4, 2016: The Gray Zone of Heckling

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For the record, I bear only the slightest of resemblances to Willie Nelson. If you were to see us standing next to each other, you might think I look more like George Carlin or Charles Manson. I do not wear my long hair in pigtails very often like he does. I do, however, have a grey beard and my wrinkled and weathered face is starting to look more like his with each passing season. And I have absolutely no musical talent unless I’m by myself in my car and Christina Aguilera’s Beautiful happens to come on the radio. Then, I’m amazing and even half-upset that she didn’t ask me to sing background.

One of the spectator traditions of cyclocross is heckling. Heckling can come in many different forms and can be hurled with different intents. Helpful, constructive, encouraging, witty and funny heckling is awesome. When someone in the crowd yells out my name or tells me how far ahead I am of my closest competitor or tells me that I’m absolutely killing it; this is fantastic and makes me want to go faster. I also try to thank them if I’m able to get a word out through my hyperventilating and lightheadedness.

Heckling that I consider more borderline might make an astute observation about my physical appearance. I don’t mind these much but it sometimes is a little weird. I’ve heard things like “Go Ponytail!” “Oooh, you’re pretty!” (mostly guys), “Go Sexy Man!” (again, mostly guys), “Hey Blondie, whatcha doin’ later?” (guys again), and “What’s a girl doing in a Master’s race?” All of this heckling, of course, makes me want to go faster.

However, some heckling is just downright mean. When someone says that this is a bike race not an ice cream social or that I was just passed by a pregnant woman on a fat bike or that I might want to check to see if my brake is rubbing or that I should consider taking up golf or put some meat on those bones for cryin’ out loud, it just makes me want to go faster.

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The best thing that I’ve seen a spectator do at a cyclocross race wasn’t heckling but more like entertainment. It was at Roger Williams Park in Providence, Rhode Island and this woman appeared on one of the hillsides, made into a run-up because of several barriers. She had on a grass skirt, a coconut shell bra, a lei and serenaded everyone by singing Hawaiian songs while strumming her ukulele. It somehow seemed like the most perfect thing to do and I watched her for a long time after my morning race.

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 07:  Willie Nelson signs copies of his book "It's A Long Story: My Life" at Barnes & Noble Union Square on May 7, 2015 in New York City.  (Photo by Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images)

This brings us back to Willie Nelson. For the past 3 years, there are a few guys who show up at most of the New England races. They must be cat 4 or 5 racers because they always seem to do the early race and must begin drinking by the time that my Master’s race begins later in the morning. I don’t yet know their names but they have near-megaphone quality voices. They’ve been calling me Willie Nelson from day one – either during warm-up, the race or even if we cross paths later. They’re persistent and I find it quite amusing. Usually they just yell out “WILLIE NELSON!!!” when I come past them each lap, sitting in their cozy tent canopy set up along the course. However, sometimes they’re more creative and heckle things like: “HEY WILLIE, PAY YOUR TAXES!!!” or “WILLIE, ON THE ROAD AGAIN!!!” or “YOU’D RACE FASTER IF YOU LAID OFF THE WEED!!!” or their latest, coined at the Gran Prix of Gloucester this year, “WHEELIE NELSON!!!” I love these guys. They make me want to go faster.

August 29, 2016: Racing with Juniors – A New Cyclocross Season Begins

 

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The 2016 New England cyclocross season began for me (and a lot of my other racing buddies) yesterday in Springfield, Massachusetts. If you like flat courses with about 3 feet of elevation change per lap (and that 3 foot hill was not rideable by most people when we were out there on the next-to-last race of the day), if you like breathing in several pounds of dust, if you like roots, roots and even more roots that would guarantee a flat if your tire pressure was at a normal level, if you like about a hundred deep, sandy 180 degree turns that threaten to devour your front wheel at any given moment and send you flying off the course, if you like starting the race mixed in with about 20 kamikaze-crazed kids that seem to have no fear of crashing or respect for their elders, if you are at least 55 years old and if you like sunny, hot 90+ degree temps, then this was the race for you!

I’ve always enjoyed this early season contest that the Cyclonauts Racers put on each August at Blunt Park. It’s a good test of equipment, body, heart and soul. It’s also a good reality check to remind you what aspect of racing might need some attention before the bigger races coming up just around the corner. Equally important, it also gives you an idea of where your competition is at in their quest to beat you senseless over the next 5 months. But most of all, it’s a great opportunity to hang out with my cyclocross friends. I haven’t seen most of them for more than half a year.

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This community is unique in a lot of ways. Yes, of course we all try to beat each other every race and will do almost anything to accomplish that. However, we’ll hang out before and after the event, catching up on each other’s lives, injuries, work, retirement, equipment changes, training, vacations, whatever, but once the whistle blows, none of that matters. It’s a huge motivation to beat someone who races at my level or above and devastating when someone beats me that is ranked below. So many things can happen during the race to change that dynamic – crashes, flats, dropped chains, getting stung, stopping for a beer handup or a selfie – that there is usually nothing entirely predictable about how the final results will shake out when all is said and done.

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The other fantastic thing about the cyclocross scene is that it includes men, women, girls and boys of all ages and abilities, usually separated into their own field (except for this race). I know entire families that do various races over the course of one long day. In how many other sports do you see this other than perhaps bowling? Yesterday, one of those kamikaze juniors was in my race. Jaden Wise is a 13 or 14-year-old boy who probably weighs about 75 pounds covered in dirt and sweat. I’ve had the pleasure to watch him in many of his 45 races over the last 4 years. Cheering him on were his mother (raced in the last race), father (raced in the first race), sister (watched), grandmother (watched) and a few other family members. This kid beat me to the hole shot, refused to give an inch and managed to stay ahead of me for the first half of the race. Meanwhile, I’m getting heckled by some of my “friends” for letting a junior beat me. Hats, or shall I say, helmets off to you Jaden. I think I see my future and I’m not sure that I particularly like it.

August 15, 2016: Preseason

 

New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. (13) makes a one-handed catch for a touchdown against Dallas Cowboys cornerback Brandon Carr (39) in the second quarter of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 23, 2014, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)  ORG XMIT: ERU108

Like the National Football League, cyclocross spans three seasons. For both, training has to start in the brutal heat of mid-summer. Some of the early races take place in these somewhat oppressive conditions but as the season gets into full swing, we are usually racing in the sometimes-perfect weather of autumn just like the big boys who wear a lot of padding and get the crap knocked out of them. However, the most serious part of the cyclocross season is the National Championships, which take place in the depth and chill of the January winter, fairly close in time to when the Super Bowl is played except now they usually play the game in some balmy southern location.

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When I was a fifth grader in 1965, one of my best friend’s fathers was an assistant coach for the New York Jets. John and I would oftentimes be allowed to accompany him up to the Jet’s training camp at the Peekskill Military Academy and hang out both on the field and in the locker room. As fate would have it, this was also the year of Broadway Joe Namath’s rookie season. He arrived each day in a fancy sports car, surrounded by the press but also accompanied by his Irish Setter, Pharaoh. On our first day there, Joe came walking by on his way to the locker room, trailed by photographers as John and I stood by watching. Joe handed us the leash and asked us if we’d take care of Pharaoh while he was busy with practice. Are you kidding me?

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The days of their training camp were similar to the hot and humid days we’ve been having in Massachusetts the last few weeks. When the players broke for lunch, they would all walk into the locker room where they immediately encountered two drinking fountains. One was a normally functioning one while the other was turned off and the basin filled to overflowing with yellow salt tabs. The players were supposed to grab a handful and wash them down with a lot of water. I loved salt then as I do now and would frequently pop a few, imagining myself as an NFL star. Around this same time in the garage of my friend Jeff who lived across the street (and now a bank president and a member of the Federal Reserve Board), we would hang out and suck on rock salt crystals from a bag his dad kept for ice control. Apparently this didn’t mess too much with Jeff’s career path, as I’ve never read anything about his edema or hypertension.

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The other vivid memory from these hot days in Peekskill was also in the locker room. At the time, the Jets had an offensive lineman named Sherman Plunkett. I assume this was before the days of steroids, EPO and HGH. Most football players were big but certainly not by today’s artificially induced standards. Sherman Plunkett was the biggest football player of his time, weighing in at around 350 pounds. I was a pipsqueak, literally having to stuff my pockets with weights in order to be allowed to play football in my hometown where there was a minimum weight requirement of 60 pounds. Walking into the locker room and seeing a naked Sherman Plunkett (or roughly 6 of me) was an image that will not ever leave my memory, in spite of my best efforts.

As I try to get into peak cyclocross racing shape again this year, in this heat, I think back to the New York Jets, in full gear on a completely unshaded, exposed football field, dropping salt tabs by the fistful. Riding a bike, largely on singletrack back in the woods with two or three bottles filled with scientifically balanced energy and electrolyte drink, I have to remind myself that I’m not roughing it like they were. I know that cooler days will be upon us soon and winter lurks not too far behind.

 

July 29, 2016: “Rest” Week

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When is a week off from training not a week off from training? When you decide to take a vacation to go visit your daughter in Juneau, Alaska. Hannah happens to be a naturalist guide for the Gastineau Guiding Company and leads whale watch trips that sometimes double as scientific research missions, and hikes to glaciers and through Juneau’s rainforest trails. This is the same daughter that talked me into trekking through the Himalayas of Nepal for 2 weeks when she was living in Thailand several years ago.

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Other than long travel days on either end of the trip, my original concern about suspending my preseason cyclocross training schedule for a week was entirely unfounded. This time of year, Juneau gets about 20 hours of daylight a day. Hannah’s philosophy, as she has said to me several times in the past is “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” It’s really tough to go to sleep when it’s light out and it’s even tougher to stay in bed in the wee morning hours, especially when there is so much to do.

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Day 1 was a 5 hour hike up to an alpine lake and meadow. Day 2 was a slightly shorter hike to a glacier and waterfall. Day 3 was another long hike to the same glacier, different side, but this time we went underneath it into an ice cave formed by a small stream (other than standing at the top of the Larkya La pass in Nepal, this was easily one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been) and a 2.5 hour bike ride on Douglas Island. Day 4 was spent sea kayaking from the Amalga Cove. Day 5 was a 5+ hour bike ride north of the city (with these 2 rides, I think I covered 90% of the paved roads in the greater Juneau area) and then a short hike to the Butt Palace (a network of salmon nets strung high up in some trees on top of some cliffs overlooking the ocean). Day 6 we took it easy and explored an in-town trail, the local salmon hatchery, and, oh yeah, took a helicopter ride up to the upper reaches of the Mendenhall Glacier to go dog sledding. On Day 7 I was allowed to tag along on one of Hannah’s whale watch trips. This was kind of like a rest day.

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So I came back home, I wouldn’t say well rested but certainly energized by the experience. We did and saw some amazing things! In addition to being enormously grateful for the week that Hannah planned out for us, I was extremely proud of her confidence, professionalism and enthusiasm for life. Now it’s time to get back to the serious work of getting ready for the 2016 cyclocross season. Thanks honey!

May 30, 2016: Way Outside My Comfort Zone

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I think enough recovery time has now elapsed (2 weeks) that I can finally write about this. Several months ago, at the suggestion of one of my riding buddies, I signed up for the Farmer’s Daughter Gravel Grinder. This is a 67 mile ride (not a race) with almost exactly 1,000 feet of climbing for each 10 miles or 6,700 feet. That didn’t sound too terrible. However, there were several factors that I didn’t consider that made this an epic 6+ hours of riding.

First, due to a variety of issues, I really only had about a week of riding in my legs after a month off my bike. Second, some of the climbing was on dirt roads or singletrack that was over a 20% slope. Third, the temperature at the start was around 40 degrees. Even though the forecast was for a warming trend with sunny skies, this never materialized and the temperature at the finish was right about where it had been 6 hours earlier. Finally, some of the trails were so muddy from the downpours the night before that our bikes quickly became somewhat unrecognizable.

Now, here are the ugly truths that I’ll admit to. I walked some of the steep uphills. I walked some of the gnarly, muddy singletrack. I was occasionally passed by freakish monsters on fat bikes going uphill. It did actually snow at one point about 3 hours into the ride. I considered cheating the course and not doing a technical loop about a mile long that ended right where it began but was shamed into it by my friend Dave Beals. In retrospect, I’m glad that I did it. Here’s a great shot of my friend Tim Leonard navigating some of the singletrack:

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Now the beauty. The scenery was spectacular. The course was spectacular. The organization and support was first rate. The food at the 2 food stations was perfect. My goal was to simply complete the course without having to call in a Med-Evac helicopter and on this front, I succeeded.

I was also able to ride the last half of the course with the aforementioned Dave Beals. He took my mind off the suffering enough to finish and for that, I’m eternally grateful. It took almost a full week for my legs to feel good again but I’m sure I’ll be back next year. Thanks folks!

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April 4, 2016: Training in Three Seasons in Three Days

 

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Would we all be better riders if we lived someplace with perfect year-round weather like San Diego? As Chris Carmichael argued in the April 2016 issue of Road Bike Action Magazine, tough conditions make for tougher riders. Mark Twain famously said, “If you don’t like the weather in New England, just wait a few minutes.” At almost every place I’ve been in the world, except for maybe Southern California, the locals say something approximating this. I think this is just the nature of weather, made even more unpredictable by the wild and crazy effects of global climate change leading to increasingly extreme weather. The last few days in Massachusetts have been no exception.

Friday, I trained in summer-like conditions; Saturday, I trained in early spring; and Sunday, I trained in winter. That’s 48 hours, three seasons and completely out of the natural order of what we expect from the way seasons generally work. The upside is that this is great training for the upcoming cyclocross season (which begins in mid August and ends in early January). If you substitute spring for fall, you’ve got the range of seasonal conditions we encounter compressed into three consecutive days in April. Friday was a 2-hour road ride in almost 70o sunshine. I was dressed in bib shorts and a short sleeve jersey. Saturday was a 3-hour dirt road ride on my cyclocross bike and I was kitted out in thermal tights and 3 layers with a rain jacket on top. It was 42o and raining when we left. Sunday saw three inches of fresh snow. The temps were hovering around 32o when I left and in the mid twenties when I got home. I was out on my fat bike and dressed in almost all of the cold weather gear that I own. There’s something special about riding trails with fresh powder and 4.25” wide knobby tires that make the hour and a half seem like nothing, even in this kind of cold.

Given my stated goal of winning a National Cyclocross Championship in my age group at some point in my life, I feel it important and necessary to train in these sorts of conditions. In every National Championship event that I’ve competed in, it has been some combination of cold, windy, icy, snowy, muddy and wet. Providence, Bend, Madison, Louisville (World’s Masters), Austin and Asheville were the previous venues. Hartford Connecticut is certain to be tough conditions in 2017 as well, if not the worst ever. Since rounds 2 and 3 of the latest storm system are moving through today and promise to dump another 7 or 8” of snow, maybe I should bite another bullet and head out into this opportunity.

 

March 15, 2016: Fifth Grade

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My fifth grade teacher was a tall, imposing, angular man who happened to have a background in oceanography. I’m certain that he inspired in me a lifelong interest in science and nature. I always knew that retiring before I turned 60 meant that I had a lot more in me to give; I just wasn’t sure what form it might take. Of course I wanted to turn inward and devote myself to becoming the best cyclocross racer possible given my inherent limitations. I also wanted to finish writing my third novel. However, when I allowed myself to turn outward for a moment, I quickly rediscovered the amazing world of teaching young kids.

I applied to become a substitute teacher for the town that I live in as well as three other towns that are part of this Pre K-6 school district. I thought it would be a great way to justify my next bike purchase with the meager stipend that subs receive. In the first week, I got two assignments – one in the 6th grade followed by another in the 5th grade in the same school. After a week away on vacation and a week of illness, I was given the opportunity to sub again in the same 5th grade class for two days in a row. This was followed by a request from the principal that I consider becoming a full time, long-term sub for that class until the end of the school year in June due to a maternity leave and some creative staff shuffling.

The bottom line is that these kids are nothing short of amazing! The class is small but it has a full spectrum of kids with a wide range of abilities. I am definitely drawn to the super-bright kids that are totally on top of their game but find myself even more drawn to the kids that struggle. There are kids that are at least several grades behind in certain subjects; there are kids that don’t want to be a part of any of the academic action and live for recess; there are the quiet kids that prefer to work on their own; there are the kids with huge personalities; and there are the wise-asses and jokesters. In a way, I can relate to each and every one of them.

So for the next three months, I’ll be giving up some training time to focus on something even more satisfying. It surprises me how much I’ve gotten to know these people after such a short time. It also surprises me that they have accepted me for who I am. All I really had to do was be a warm body and pass a CORI check and not have fingerprints that tipped off the authorities that I had some dreadful, nasty past. Maybe I’ll even discover that this is what I should have been doing with my life all along. Maybe it’s not too late for this old dog because I feel a few new tricks coming!