are sometimes smooth and silky, and other times tired and tight.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Bike handling for New and Old: Countersteering

Thanks to Davis Phinney and Connie Carpenter's book Training For Cycling I learned about countersteering before I started racing for real. There's no doubt that cutting a tight corner, at speed, has its advantages.

For those of you who have never raced in a crit, or those like me who could always use a remedial course every now and then, here's five information packed minutes of goodness.

Sit. Look. Listen.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

A sort of Homecoming (Chapter 3: right, left, right, right, right, repeat)


And you may ask yourself
Am I right? I wrong?
And you may tell yourself
My god!...what have I done?

It was just about perfect. I found myself positioned nicely. Right on the line, waiting for the third, and final, stage of the Mississippi Gran Prix to begin. This time, thanks to the assistance of the Baby Faced Assassin and Chopper, two young guns who I had traveled with, my bike was ready to roll. No more stupid mistakes. That’s when I got suckered.

Someone shouted that the race began in 10 minutes, so we might as well ride another loop, which is what I, and around 15 other riders did. By the time I circled around, there they were, the rest of the field, all lined up. I was stuck near the back. Perfect.

Fortunately, once the race commenced, I was able to wind my way through the field, and more or less get to where I wanted to be. What followed was 60 minutes of right turns, left turns, right turns, right turns, right turns, chicanes, and repeat.

While the road race had its moments, it seemed somewhat distant, if not introverted in comparison. Maybe it was my preoccupation with my wobbly wheel, or maybe it was because we were stretched out on the road, or maybe it was because it was the first day of racing? I don’t know.

At the ‘circuit race’, which in truth felt like a criterium to me, things were intimate. You tend to get up close and personal when you’re gunning for a tight-ish corner at speed. You notice who’s not shaving their legs, and you try to avoid them. You suppress the urge to tell the guy next to you, that just because he can, does not mean that he should wear a skinsuit. Especially when he has sweat stains on the top and bottom of his love-handles. You don’t even flinch when someone’s brake lever brushes your thigh, or when your front wheel is almost taken out by the guy in front of you. OK… maybe you do flinch when the latter happens.

Other than those little tidbits, there’s not much that I remember from the crit that’s worth writing about. I tried some early attacks, with visions of punk rockers in my head, but that wasn't going to fly. Once I realized that, I didn’t do much to distinguish myself, unlike jMac, who walked away with the flowers for the second stage in a row. What I did manage to do was get my first race of the season out of the way. It was just about perfect.

Monday, April 21, 2008

A sort of Homecoming (Chapter 2: The Race of Truth is a Liar)

Same as it ever was...same as it ever was...same as it ever was...
Same as it ever was...same as it ever was...same as it ever was...
Same as it ever was...same as it ever was...

I’ve never been a great fan of time trials. I do them at stage races, where there was no other option. Give me something to chase, or ride away from, no problem. Racing against a clock, or Testing (as in your psychological will) as the Scots call it , well that’s just something I’m not into. I fail that test almost every time. At the very least, I can admit it.

With that refreshingly positive attitude, I found myself preparing for stage two, of the MS Gran Prix. It’s always reassuring, seeing fit lads and lasses warming up on their Time Trial bikes, equipped with aero wheels, neatly attired in shiny skinsuits, accessorized with sleek TT helmets. If nothing else, they look part, and we all know how important that is bike racing.

Your faithful scribe must have been an intimidating sight to the competition: riding a road bike with 15 year old 32 spoke wheels, regular bibs and shirt, topped off by the cool but aerodynamically clumsy Giro Atmos helmet – a wind catcher if there ever was one. My sole nod to aerodynamics was riding gloveless, and wearing lycra shoes covers. I'm sure I shaved off at least 2 seconds for every mile working that action. Watch out world, here I come.

As for how the Test transpired, I’ll spare you the details, because let’s face it: time trials are boring. Boring to do, boring to watch, and therefore boring to read about.

A sort of Homecoming (Chapter 1: Bush League)


And you may ask yourself

How do I work this?

Butterflies. Not your typical pre-race butterflies, because I wasn’t really that nervous. The previous days rain was gone, and it was a crisp and clear morning. Yet, something still felt odd.

Was it the lack of root beer scent, wafting off of embrocated legs, and permeating the air? Was it because I was wearing arm warmers instead of leg warmers, booties, jacket, and full finger gloves? Was it the introductory spiel delivered in a relaxed Southern drawl, instead of the guttural grind of Dutch? Was it was due to the fact that I was lined up with a new group of racers, and only had word of mouth knowledge of the course? Whatever, it didn’t matter. Here I was in Brookhaven, Mississippi, about to start my first race of the year, and my first race in the US since Bill Clinton’s first term in the oval office, and to make matters all the more interesting, it was my first “Masters” race.

With a rolling descent at the beginning, I expected a fast start, and was not disappointed. The roads were narrow, and the yellow line rules were apparently strictly enforced, so the obvious plan was to keep near the front. A no brainer, and exactly what I tried to do, albeit poorly over the initial 200 meters, as I struggled to clip in fast enough. I weaved my way through the field, with mixed results, finding myself committing various misdeeds, like braking a touch too hard, or riding over the yellow line, expecting to be yelled at each time I shifted a position.

Just as I found myself where I wanted to be, in our modest peloton of 66 old geezers, I heard that familiar and unpleasant cacophony of bikes and bodies hitting the deck. This was going downhill, and we were at the most 3 kilometers from the start. Other than that, there wasn’t much to note from initial hour of racing.

There were attacks, there were counters, there were dogs, there was yelling, there was bike racing. Sitting in the middle of the group, in the back of the group, at the front of the group, even once or twice off the front of the group, I rediscovered what it was like to be in a field of racers who all speak the same language as I do, albeit with a twang. I rediscovered that I’m still far too prone to shout at people, even if they do deserve it. I also discovered that each time I was out of the saddle, climbing up the rollers, that one of my wheels was rubbing. I wondered if it was my front wheel, which had hit a pothole so hard two days before that my bars rotated. I had checked it, and it seemed fine, but maybe it wasn’t? Whatever, it didn’t matter. Or so I hoped. I opened my brakes, and focused on the road ahead.

Sometime, after the hour mark, things started to settle, for a bit. jMac, the one who told me about the race, rode alongside. He asked me how I was feeling. I told him I was doing OK, other than my rubbing wheel, as he continued on his way to the front. Moments later, the road started to twist and turn, there was a big surge, and the racing started once again. As things started getting strung out, we hit the base of the start/finish climb, the field started to explode. As I crested the hill, I saw as we crested the hill. Up the road, I saw what looked like two, but turned out to be three riders blaze away. That was the winning break, and jMac was in it.

Apart from getting hit in the helmet by a rock the size of a small plumb, the remaining hour of racing was uneventful. The peloton had no interest in letting anyone else ride off, so it effectively became a recovery ride for those with ambitions for the Time Trial in the afternoon. Whatever, it didn’t matter. After all, I was there for the experience, right?

Maybe that’s when my flexy wheel started to really begin to bother me. Whenever I was out of the saddle, it would rub. On top of that, my shifts were sluggish. I started worrying, mostly about finding someone to help me get it fixed after the race. I should stoppd, and checked it out, but I didn’t even consider that option. The peloton may have eased off, but they were still riding at a fast clip. Every time we’d hot a hill, I’d sit and try to spin up it. A few times that wasn’t enough, so I’d try to ride it out, only to feel more and more rubbing. After a while it became more of an irritation, than a concern.

As the race was nearing it’s conclusion, I pretty much forgot about it. In fact, I became a little cocky, and thought that maybe I could do something in the finish, or at the very least help out one of the guys on the team I was staying with. I rode alongside one of jMacs teammates, and asked him if I was capable, when the time came, would he want a lead out. He thanked me for the offer, but wisely chose to decline.

The road snaked, and swerved. We spotted a group up the road, and there was a jump in the tempo. It turned out to be racers dropped from another category, but we maintained the pace, the end was coming. The road took several turns, right, right, left, right… to be honest I can’t even remember.

I tried to move towards the front, and someone shouted at me “don’t do anything stupid, you’ve been nervous the whole day”, or something like that. I thought about it, and retorted with a sarcastic “uh huh”. Not exactly my best comeback ever, but at that point my wheel started rubbing the brake on the flat. Maybe he had a point after all?

With these little nuggets bouncing around in my head, the field started to set up for the final, uphill sprint. My competitive juices started flowing, and I started thinking about going for it. We hit the base, and I shifted into what I thought was a good gear. I was reasonably well placed. I waited. Not perfect, not good enough to win the field sprint, but to do well. I waited. Someone opened up the sprint on the left, I started to wind up, at least that was the idea. Just as I was planning to gun it, I heard the rubbing again, but this time I felt it, I really felt it. Whatever, it didn’t matter, no wait actually, it did. Get out of the way, but try to stay with the group, cross the line, finish with the same time, and that’s what I barely managed to do.

I crossed the line, pulled off the course, and hopped off of my bike. What did I discover? This wily old “Master”, was indeed a Master Bush Leaguer, who had forgotten to properly tighten his rear quick release.

A sort of Homecoming (Prologue)

And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
And you may ask did I get here?

Tuesday night, at the end of a group ride, I was asked if I raced. After confirming that I did, I proceeded to go into great detail about how I hadn’t raced since October, how I hadn’t been training enough, how I had let myself get far too fat, how I hadn’t yet renewed my license, etc, etc, etc. Excuses. All of them.

Regardless, the guy who asked, told me about a stage race, the Mississippi Gran Prix Stage Race, that was taking place over the weekend. I thanked him for the tip, and wished him good luck. There was no way that I was going to start my season with a stage race. No way. A couple of hours later, after drinking a few beers, I sent an email to a teammate of the guy, asking if I could travel along, maybe share a hotel room, split the costs, etc. I expected a polite “thanks, but no thanks” reply, that's most likely what I would have done. What I got was a “sure, come along.”

So there I found myself, on a Friday afternoon, a passenger in the back of a minivan, loaded with 5 bicycles, and 12 sets of wheels, with an 18 year old baby-faced assassin at the wheel, driving well in excess of the speed limit, in torrential rains, with next to no visibility. Bike racing, there’s nothing quite like it.


Thursday, April 17, 2008

Commercial Appeal?

After waxing nostalgic about Greg LeMond's Taco Bell commercial, I didn't expect to be writing about another commercial so soon. Then I happened to catch the latest Volvo XC-90 ad, I was left with no other choice.

Picture this, an opening shot of pedals spinning, shouts from the side of the road, camera pans to woman, focused on the road ahead, until she looks at the camera and smiles. That's when the camera pulls back, to reveal that we've just been looking at a DVD screen on a head rest, while what seems to be said woman's son videoing her.

The commercial continues to show the cyclist, over the constant hoots and hollers of encouragement from her family, riding here bike, pulling off her knee warmers, getting a massage in the back of the car, getting handed to her on a bottle on a mountain peak, and a 'quick' wheel change, because apparently she's in a rush while she's training.

At least I think she's training. That's what the video is labeled as, and seeing as there's nobody else out on the road, it's not a race. I think. The fact that her family are cheering here, reveals that they far too interested and alert for her to be participating in cycling's equivalent to watching paint dry, i.e. RAAM.

Perhaps this is Volvo subtly shifting away from their soccer mom image, turning the soccer Mom into a bike racer? Maybe.

The next, obvious question is: what about Dad? Does he also get the support car when he rides his bike? Maybe he's already had his race, or maybe he's doing a road version of the Madison with Mom, except he prefers his Nissan Tilda?

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The last of the last laughs

Perhaps you're already aware of the fact that I find the Scheldeprijs Vlaanderen the most boring of the Voorjaars kalssieken. There's not much to be said about racing for 5 hours over reasonably flat roads, with the final 48 kilometers on a loop. It's a rare thing for a non-sprinter to win it.

This year looked to be no different. That is until Tommeke Boonen, still basking in the glory of his Sunday in Hell (part deux), decided to emulate Erik Zabel in San Remo, and celebrate his victory a few meters too early, only to be pipped by an upstart from the Isle of Man, namely Mark Cavendish.


While most of us would have been pleased to discover that there was a slightly surprising conclusion, this year in Schoten, little did we imagine that there would be one more twist to the plot.

Was it sabotage? After all Boonen's hometown of Balen is less than an hours drive. Perhaps it was the mere thought of a swig of champers, for the baby faced young gun. Who knows? What we do know, is that Tom may have dropped the ball, but he did manage to keep his feet firmly on the ground - unlike Cavendish.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Hey hey it's the Munchies

These days cyclists make cameos on TV all of the time, whether it’s the opening credits of Caveman, a commercial for California, or any one of Lance Armstrong’s commercials for Nike, ESPN, and countless drug companies.

Despite the current glut, I always find myself thinking about the Greg LeMond Taco Bell commercial. I can distinctly recall that it was a big deal back in its day: a cyclist in a TV commercial. It made sense, after all Lemond was always talking about how much he loved Mexican food, and how his French team tut-tutted it.

If I recall correctly, when LeMond was having his usual slow start to the season, back in 1990, the commercial was cited as an example of his lack of discipline. Too busy making money, stuck in the US eating tacos, when he should have been riding.

While I knew about the commercial, it took weeks, if not months of zapping before I finally managed to catch it on TV. I was shocked, no, that's not it... I was sickened by what I saw.

Poor Greg. All of that flak, and in the end he’s nothing but a glorified Taco Bell delivery boy, in a World Champion’s jersey, with the munchies.