July 2, 2017: Back to Caveman Mode

When I don’t eat the foods I normally eat and am always hungry, blogging about it is the last thing I feel like doing. I just completed a 45 day highly restricted diet whose goal was to identify foods that don’t make me feel good. After seeing my sister Carrie, brother-in-law Darl and my mother Mary go through this process a few months back with very insightful and positive results, my partner Suzanne and I decided to give it a try ourselves. The biggest initial challenge was to find a block of time where we wouldn’t have any social events that would make us really awful guests and a time when my bicycle racing and training schedule was minimal. We began on May 8th and finished on June 22nd.

The process is called “Whole30” (https://whole30.com). I’m sure many of you have heard about it and perhaps even tried it yourself. The basic idea is that you completely (and I do mean completely – label reading is an absolute necessity) eliminate any foods with sugar, dairy, gluten, alcohol and legumes. This leaves meat, eggs, veggies, fruit and tree nuts. Kind of like the Paleo diet but you can eat potatoes and salt (yum!). At the end of 30 days, you add in one of these items and see how you feel for a few days while getting back on the plan. Then you add in another item, wait a few more days and then another until you’ve reintroduced each single item for one day. The entire process takes about 45 days.

I thought the biggest sacrifice would be to do without alcohol. While I did miss it, I really missed bread slathered with butter. Since butter is dairy but clarified butter or ghee is not, my day 31 included about 8 slices of sourdough bread with ghee. My day 34 was a “skinny boy” margarita. Day 37 was real milk on gluten-free granola and some cheese, followed on day 40 by a big bowl of rice and veggies and then some black beans on day 43. I did cheat a little and keep alcohol (gluten free) in my diet throughout the reintroduction phase since I didn’t react to it. I’m certain it made me a little happier than usual.

What did I learn? My physical weak link is my lungs, I knew this going in. I allegedly have asthma although no medicines seem to help me so I don’t do anything for it. During the 30 days of restricted eating, I felt pretty awesome and could breathe deeply without any discomfort. The downside was being hungry pretty much 24/7 and running out of energy after 2 hours on my bike, in spite of gorging myself on 100% fruit and nut bars. Since many of my rides are 3 or 4 hours, this was a challenge. Day 31, following my bread orgy, was awful. I felt like I was getting the flu, my breathing was labored and I was really congested. I had a similar reaction on day 37 after reintroducing dairy. When I went back on plan, these reactions went away. Hmm.

Suzanne made some amazing meals for us and in large quantities so I think maybe the hunger part was somewhat psychological. Many people do this diet to lose weight. Since I don’t really have any weight to spare, I ate a lot of dried fruit (even though it’s packed with natural sugars, it’s permitted in moderation) and nuts. I did lose a few pounds by the end of the 30 days but have gained it back now that I’m back to my new normal diet which is now mostly gluten free. I’m trying to substitute coconut and almond milk for cow’s milk but haven’t really taken that plunge yet. Bottom line – gluten and dairy free starting this week. Cyclocross season is on the horizon and if I can use all of my lungs, I think I’ll race better.

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April 25, 2017: Tackling a Monster

I’m not sure which was harder, the physical aspect of riding my bike from sea level to over 10,000 feet or the mental game that was going on inside my head both before the moment-of-truth arrived and during the five hours of steady climbing. One of the many reasons that I wanted to visit my daughter Hannah who lives in Lahaina on the island of Maui was to tackle the second highest climb in the U.S. – the Haleakala (“House of the Sun”) volcano. While probably not the hardest, it is certainly one of the longest. The route I took started in Paia at sea level and finished up at the observation building at 10,249 feet, 35 miles later. My goal was to accomplish this ride in less than five hours.

Perhaps it was a mistake to drive up to the top from Paia a few days before. I went from thinking that it was no big deal to wondering if I could actually carry enough food, water and clothing to be comfortable and to ride the mostly steady 6% grade for that amount of time. The temperature in Paia was in the 80’s at the start and in the 40’s with wicked winds at the top both days. In between was about five road miles and a few thousand feet of elevation which were socked in by a layer of clouds. After conferring with my friend and training partner Peter who has done the ride twice (once from Paia), I was able to get helpful hints about where along the route to find water (very limited) and what clothing layers to bring. Maybe I was going to have to ride with a backpack.

To prepare for Haleakala, I had ridden many long hilly rides in western Massachusetts in the winter and very early spring, trying to get a few rides with at least 5,000 feet of elevation gain. It was, however, impossible to prepare for the heat. Once on Maui with a nice Specialized Roubaix road bike that Peter’s brother (who owns numerous properties on Maui) was kind enough to lend me, I did two hard rides around west Maui to acclimate to the heat and sun. It was then that Hannah and her boyfriend Andy offered to drive the climb while I rode and stock their car with water, food, clothing but even more importantly, moral support. This must be what it feels like to be a professional rider!

Some of the people in Hannah’s circle of friends had heard about my plan to ride up and this put even more pressure on me as I knew that I would probably see them before I flew back home. Like most folks, the thought of not accomplishing what I set out to do was also weighing heavily on my mind and I became concerned that so many people knew what I was going to do. How would it feel to have to face them and say that I didn’t manage to get to the top? Not devastating but not the best-case scenario. Then there was Peter. How could I not do what he had already done twice? I suppose it’s obvious that we can be somewhat competitive, especially with each other.

The day finally arrived. I had done an “easy” three hour ride the day before (with 2,700 feet of climbing) thinking that I was going to ride Haleakala after a rest day. Due to logistics, we decided to go that Sunday so I was a bit apprehensive wondering if my body was rested enough. It was go time though, so off we went to Paia. After they dropped me off in town, I began the climb within 50 yards, pedaling up towards Makawao and then up the Haleakala Highway to the turnoff to Crater Road. Hannah and Andy ate breakfast in Paia, did a little shopping and then started up the road to find me. I kept a moderate pace, one that I thought I could maintain for five hours which meant no big efforts and no big gears. My worry was that I’d encounter other riders and get sucked into an unsustainable pace. Fortunately, this never happened. I saw two individual serious riders coming down and scores of recreational riders in full face helmets and body armor riding modified mountain bikes that had paid to be driven to the top so they could coast down.

I was about thirteen miles and 3,000 vertical feet into the ride when Hannah and Andy caught up to me. My strategy was to drink at least one bottle filled with Gatorade every hour. Since I was riding about 8 or 9 mph, I asked them to find someplace to pull off every 10 miles or so. These stops turned out to be great benchmarks for me as I could break the ride into smaller sections. As I would approach them each time, they’d be out on the road, dancing, cheering, yelling ridiculous things, taking photos, and generally making me laugh so hard that it was hard to keep pedaling. At one point, a car filled with young guys pulled up beside me (I think from behind they might have thought I was a woman) and gave me a lot of encouragement, ending with “You’re killing it, dude!”

My real struggles began at around the 3-hour mark at 6,000 feet. My nemesis, muscle cramps, started kicking in. I had to get off my bike at this point, stretch, drink, down a gel, take a few magnesium pills and walk for a minute until the muscles finally released. This is the point where I had to deal with my first serious doubts. Usually, once I start cramping, it’s over for me. Once they settle in, they usually don’t leave for hours. I managed to pedal another mile or two very slowly until I found Hannah and Andy, being careful to just pedal as easily as humanly possible without sliding backwards downhill so that I could sort of hold the cramps off. When I saw their car, I was in serious need of more supplies and a pep talk. Hannah is really good at this. Three years earlier, she talked me out of abandoning our trek around Manaslu in Nepal on day 3 of 12. My prime motivation out there on Haleakala was to not disappoint her. After another hour of very slow riding, all my new electrolytes finally kicked in and my cramps disappeared for the final hour.

The summit was in view at around the 8,500-foot mark. I knew at this point that I was going to reach the top. There’s a small visitor center about 300 feet below the summit and then the last half mile where the grade kicks up to over 10%. I blasted past the 10,000-foot sign and then another few hundred feet of elevation to the very top. I felt like a man possessed at this point and attacked, riding up the final paved sidewalk weaving around lots of picture taking and surprised looking tourists who must have thought a madman was on the loose. Hannah and Andy were waiting for me, taking pictures and videos while many of the other folks did as well. They offered congratulations and asked streams of questions. I kind of felt like a rock star.

If you are ever looking for a perfect descent, this is it. Never scary steep, great road surface, and, except for the layer of clouds in the middle, fantastic visibility as most of the ride is above the tree line. You can ride faster than the cars so passing is easy and I was even out of the saddle on occasion to push my speed effortlessly over 40 mph. Just be sure to brake hard going into each of the 31 hairpins (I forgot to do this on one and almost went over the edge). And finally, thank you from the bottom of my heart to Hannah and Andy. I’m not sure that I could have done this ride without you!

February 26, 2017: Furry Legs and All

 

 

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For those of you old enough to have watched the Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour or at least to have seen pictures of them in the 60’s, you probably remember the ridiculously funny mohair vests that they often wore over their crazy-funny 60’s clothing. Sometimes Cher even wore these awesomely silly furry leggings or leg warmers or whatever you would call them; like you see in the picture above that I found somewhere. Why would I possibly be talking about this in a blog about cycling?

New England just experienced record warm temperatures for 3 days. Generally, after my last race of the season (usually early to mid-January), I stop shaving my hairier than normal hairy legs for a few months or until the first time that I ride outside in shorts, usually in March or April. The feeling of riding with exposed legs with a full bush from ankle to the bottom of my shorts is like I am riding in Cher’s fuzzy leggings. You can feel the wind blowing from every direction and, at least psychologically, the wind resistance from my leg “freak flags” seems like it is sucking at least 2 or 3 miles-per-hour from my ride. It might be great training, I suppose, but nothing compared to the feeling of freshly shaved smooth skin as I slice through the air.

I did not shave my legs (my weed whacker was in the shop) on my ride on the first warm day and I kept looking down to see if a newspaper or something had blown up from the road and had wrapped around my legs to make them feel so weird. My rides on days 2 and 3 were with smooth legs and, I have to say, felt like I had about an extra 50 watts at my disposal. No comparison. Back in the old days, before I raced and therefore before I shaved my legs, it just felt normal. So this is the new normal and as climate change results in warmer days, maybe I’ll just have to shave year round. I know at least one person that’s not going to be happy about this and it’s not Cher.

January 30, 2017: A Race Where I Got Spanked By Gravity

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Is it possible to achieve terminal velocity when falling off a bike? Are there places on the earth where gravity is noticeably stronger than normal, like, perhaps in an icy corner on a golf course that, coincidently, has a bike race on it? Would it be really weird to wear super-padded underwear under cycling spandex so that when you continually land on unforgiving frozen ground on the same side, your hip doesn’t start looking like a rotten moldy tomato that has been half eaten by a wolverine? Is there ever a time in a bike race when just giving up and walking back to your car is justified? These are some of the thoughts that I was having between 9 and 10:15 a.m. this past Saturday.

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Luck plays a big role in our lives. All the preparation in the world can’t cover every possible scenario. I’m not claiming that my awful race at the USA Cycling Fat Bike National Championship on Saturday in Grand Rapids, Michigan was just bad luck. I could have anticipated that course conditions might have changed significantly from the time I pre-rode the course at 8 am to one hour later when my race started. I could have realized that the speed you ride in warm-up and the speed at race pace might make some of the slippery sections even slipperier. I should know this from the 218 cyclocross races I’ve done in my life. I could have realized that if I crashed at a certain place on the course on the first lap that perhaps I shouldn’t take that same line on the second lap and expect a different result. In retrospect, there were a lot of things that I should have done differently. After the fourth bone jarring crash in the first two laps of a four lap race and finding myself so far in last place that abandoning seemed like the right decision, I had to remind myself how much I hate seeing a “DNF “ next to my name in the results.

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I had a few friends at this race taking pictures. Somehow, they all show me upright, happily racing my fat bike. Luckily, none of them were within sight of me lying face down after each crash trying to get the birdies flying around my head to go away. Luckily, about a quarter of the way through the first lap when I was racing around a fast sweeping icy turn to stay with the leading pack of racers and went down so hard that my rear derailleur got jam packed with ice and grass and I had to spend about a minute struggling to get my chain back on, I didn’t take any of the racers out coming from behind me. Luckily when I was lying in a half frozen puddle after my third crash and was staring up at the clouds wondering about life and what the first sip of a Manhattan was going to taste like that night and why I might consider doing a fat bike race under these conditions to be “fun” and two women pushing a baby stroller came running over to see if I needed medical help, I was able to get up and continue “racing” for another 25 yards before crashing again. This was the second time in the race that I really begin questioning my sanity. I guess, all things considered, I was pretty lucky. Gravity, however, was not particularly kind to me and again, showed me that it is the ultimate force in the universe.

January 15, 2017: Wake Up Sleepyhead! The Season Ain’t Over Yet!

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The US National Cyclocross Championship is generally the end of my long season of cycling. There’s not really a cycling off-season for me but cyclocross racing absolutely consumes me, body and soul, from late August until early January. I ride year round mostly because I just like to ride and don’t really feel like my body needs an extended break. I’ll mix in other activities such as snowshoeing or XC skiing but these last two winters I usually opted to take out my fat bike on the snowmobile trails behind my house when we had decent snow cover.

The US National Fat Bike Championship (yes, such a thing really exists) is in two weeks. I’ve entertained the idea of going the last two years when it was in Utah (these were the first two years it was held) but the logistics coupled with my susceptibility to getting pneumonia a week or two after ‘cross Nationals has kept me from doing it. This year, the race is in Michigan, relatively close by, meaning I can drive there in one long day. A day or two after my Nationals race was over, I asked some of my friends if they had any interest in going out there to race with me. This is where Tim Leonard comes in since he was foolish enough to say yes.

I’ve only raced on my fat bike once, in fact, as of yesterday, I’ve probably only been on my bike 20 times and logged only 30 or 40 hours. My fat bike weighs a little more than 2 of my cyclocross bikes so it takes a significant amount of force to get it moving and turning in order to overcome it’s inherent inertia. However, I think racing on a fat bike is probably like racing on a cyclocross bike only easier. There aren’t any barriers, there aren’t a lot of hairy, off-camber turns, there aren’t any run-ups, there is little to no running, and with freakishly large clown tires run at ridiculously low pressure, the grip on snowmobile groomed snow (more than likely the surface we’ll be racing on) is pretty amazing. Throw in temperatures in the single numbers and what’s not to love about it?

Why am I so drawn to a sport that is raced primarily in the nastiest weather of the year? Why couldn’t I have taken up surfing or beach volleyball or competitive tanning or, god forbid, golf? Why couldn’t I have taken up a sport that is played or practiced when the weather is pleasant and therefore a lot more enjoyable? I guess the existential answer is that cyclocross and fat biking must have chosen me. So it’s time to wake up, get out there in the miserably cold and slippery conditions and continue to have even more fun.

December 26, 2016: Prepping for Nationals

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With the last race of 2016 in the rearview mirror, my sights are now firmly set on the US Cyclocross National Championships on January 4th. As readers of my blog and most everyone who knows me knows, winning Nationals in my age group is my ultimate goal. My expectation is that it might have to wait until I’m in some ancient 5 year age group when most of my competitors have either died, decided they were too feeble to race anymore or simply lost interest in the sport.

This year the race is in Hartford, Connecticut, a mere hour or so down the highway for me. Last year was Asheville, NC (a 14 hour drive), the year before was Austin, TX (a 36 hour drive) and previous years required an airplane (Austin really did require an airplane but we decided to turn it into a 6 day road trip). Since I’m in year 3 of my 5 year stint in the 60 to 64 year old age group, winning this year is a really long shot; one that would require a lot of bad things to happen to the 12 guys ranked ahead and some of the guys ranked behind me, and for me to have the absolutely perfect race, the race of a lifetime. It could happen.

Here’s the good news. I get an automatic front row start based on finishing 6th overall last year in Asheville. Also, conditions in Hartford are likely to be similar to what I’ve been training in for the last 2 or 3 weeks – cold, windy, snowy, slushy, icy – in 2 words, downright nasty. Another plus for me is that the course has one really steep hill in it that we will climb at least twice and maybe even 3 times per lap. I’m usually a pretty good climber so this has me excited. Finally, in my last 2 years racing at Riverfront Park, I’ve placed 1st and 2nd so the venue definitely has good juju.

What have I been doing to prepare? I’ve been drinking a lot of Manhattans, and I mean a lot. Probably way too many. This will have to change soon. I’ve been riding my bike a lot in the cold and wind and snow and slush and ice in hopes that my mitochondria will be tougher than everyone else’s mitochondria. I’ve been riding and running a lot of steep grassy hills in hopes that the weather in Hartford leading up to and on January 4th results in a grassy hill and not a bobsled run. And finally, my secret weapon. I think that’s going to have to remain a secret. Don’t worry though, it’s entirely legal.

November 11, 2016: Channeling Anger

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There are a lot of angry people out there right now. I’m one of them. Most everyone I know is angry and scared and incredulous. So much progress and compassion about to go down the drain. Where are all the happy people that elected such a buffoon? Not many where I live. Ironically, such deep felt anger can sometimes be positively channeled into cycling and if it’s strong enough, it can have a profound effect on your ride or your race.

Last year, coming into the last lap of a race, I was leading a three-man break with a sizable gap over the rest of the field. I had pulled them around for the first five laps, knowing that an attack was going to come soon. The other two guys were teammates – one of them is a really nice guy and the other one is a multiple-time national champion with a national-size reputation for doing whatever he has to do to win. He’s very fast, a very good bike rider and very good at winning. The nice guy attacked right when we entered a short single-track section through the woods. The national champ blocked me from following and rode me right off the course into the woods. To say I was angry is an understatement.

It took three or four pedal revolutions for me to get back to the course and I managed to muscle my way back onto it by using my body and pushing him out of my way. I ended up catching and passing his teammate but was outsprinted by the national champ who, again, notched another victory. What was surprising, however, is that my anger served me well and got me back into contention for the win. I am not an aggressive rider so it was good to know that I had it in me when the situation called for it.

This Saturday and Sunday is my “hometown” cyclocross race, the Northampton International. It’s so great to race in front of so many people that I know and to be cheered on all around the course. It propelled me to a double victory a few years ago in the 55+ field which still remains my all time favorite cycling memory. Tomorrow, I expect a lot of my fellow competitors will also be riding angry. If I were to make a guestimate, I’d say that probably 80 to 90% of us will be riding angry so it sort of levels the playing field. That’s okay because in a way it feels right to be out doing something I love to do with so many people that are probably channeling a similar emotion.

And just for the record, there is a movement to persuade some Electoral College delegates to change their vote on December 19th and prevent Trump from getting the 270 votes he needs to become president. Check out the petition to do this at change.org. It might make you a little less angry.