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.

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.