Doing it all the hard way...

Monday, September 22, 2014

Coffee and Lies #91 I can hear the ocean

 Almost; but not quite...
This past weekend was a conglomeration of atypical happenings.   The following is a summary of those events.

In no particular order the first oddity was that I slept almost eleven hours Friday night.  I’ve been training hard and it would be a lie to say it finally caught up with me. It caught up with me a week ago; this was just the first opportunity to sleep in and I took it.

Because of Hottie’s bike crash we opted to stay in town this weekend.  It provided some opportunities to do things that were not in the plan had we gone away.  One of those things was that I did a cross race that I had intended to skip.  I emailed my Sensei and told him I would race and anticipated he would change my Saturday workout from a thrashing to a warm up.  Without a hint of a pause he responded that I should keep the same thrashing on Saturday as this was scheduled to be a “heavy” weekend. Thank you very much.

Dutifully I punished myself with over/unders Saturday morning.  When I finished I threw my bike clothes into the washing machine and heard them splash in the empty drum because they were soaking wet. I could feel those efforts in my legs the rest of the day.  This was on top of a week where I had done stairs and over/unders already. Ouch!    I am learning how to fall asleep with sore legs.   It is a skill worth cultivating.

Tux, as a former professional racer, how did you sleep with sore legs?
As it happens; El Chefe’ was supporting a fund raiser by skipping sleep for four days making and selling his award winning BBQ ribs.  Since we were now in town, Hottie and I picked up some of his BBQ perfection and had a picnic at Alki.   We had enough left over that we called it dinner on Sunday evening.   

Hottie was moving slowly and painfully from her injury and because she is a rabid Seattle sports fan she opted to watch the Seahawks once again dispatch the Denver Broncos. This made more sense than shooting pictures of middle aged men in Lycra riding bikes in the sand.  Thus I went to the race solo.  I can’t recall the last time I raced without having my personal photographer at the race. Yeah; poor me.

I met up with Guy, El Pirate and Mr. T who would all get a head start on me at the appointed hour. Big Ben was there as well who would had so much fun passing me he did it twice.

My race was tough on every level.  It was freakishly hot by Cyclocross standards and there were two long sections of soft beach sand that could be ridden only with herculean effort and no traffic issues.  The balance of the course was a serpentine nightmare with an uphill literally around every one of the eight hundred corners found on each lap. I know others seem to have found a rhythm but I never did.  I didn’t have good lines and fought the course the whole day. The endless series of short accelerations didn’t suit my sore legs on this day.  I was reminded of some of the single track at South SeaTac back in the day. On that purgatory of a course, there were sections that I just could not get going fast no matter how much horsepower I had in my legs. This felt the same way. 

After a decent start I relaxed for a nanosecond and a couple guys popped in front just before the first turn and I counted myself ninth on the first hill. Soon a gap formed and I couldn’t close it on the technical course.  I could see a bunch of guys chasing me.  I think they started us only thirty seconds behind the group in front and we were catching guys from that group on the first lap. I moved past guys the rest of the afternoon and I didn’t really take much notice if they were in my group or were from the group in front.

Oddly the part of the course where I gained the most ground began with the second long sand section which was followed by a brief bit of solid ground before a final corner of deep, soft, slow, strength draining sand. Then with virtually no momentum you had a steep climb that led to the lone barrier followed by a loose run up on a steep hill.  The zone five remount that followed was challenging for many as it is hard to swing your leg over your seat when it feels like a soggy noodle.

The sand tackled me on my second lap and for reasons I cannot explain I am good at crashing and rolled over and resumed racing with only a momentary delay.  As I pedaled I could feel sand spilling out of my left ear.  I took my hand off my bars and brushed the sand out of my ear or so I thought.  Three minutes later I tiled my head and felt more sand exit.  That isn’t a nice sensation. This wasn’t my day.
Anything in a 46.5?
I was feeling the previous day’s effort and just didn’t have the top end that I had two weeks ago.  This was the other end of the spectrum as my earlier race and the same words applied.  It wasn’t any easier or harder, I just went slower. I found myself battling a friend/nemesis and put the hammer down.  He wanted to beat me and would not give up. Tired legs or no, his days of beating are were over and I made it so. On the next to last lap I got a shout out from the announcer who commented that I looked like I was suffering.  I was.   When I crossed the line to claim seventh place he noted my placing over the loudspeaker and added that he had no idea I was that old.   I took that as a compliment.

I compared my times to those in my old age group. My time would have placed me right where I was last year.  Considering my poor match up with this course and my Saturday trashing, I was okay with that.  I did take note that the 45 plus Cat 3 field is stacked deep with freakishly fast mofos. If anyone is looking for a category to race in that would inflict self doubt that is the place.  I don’t miss it for a second. 
 
After crossing the line I did my proper warm down and tried to catch my breath.  I pulled off my sweat splattered glasses and realized I had sand on the side of my face.  I looked at my left arm and realized it was covered with sand.  My right arm had black lines where the dust and sweat had congealed in the wrinkles on the inside of my elbow. My left leg was also battered with sand.  My tan and hair made my sand coating less visible to others.  I was a mess.

Back at the car I poured the sand out of my shoes and socks and discovered I had sand between my toes as well as in my hair.  There wasn’t much of me that wasn’t sandy.  I drank a bottle of recovery drink and then another bottle of water and then a third bottle.  I cleaned up as best I could with water and wipes.   I checked my results and I had indeed finished seventh. 

Two races so far in 2014.  One podium and one top ten.   I’m okay with that.
Next week we return to where it all began. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

There is a new horse in the stable Boone 9 Disc

As my devoted reader deduced months ago I have gone crazy about riding gravel.  It is a mix of mountain biking, road biking, Cyclocross and backcountry solitude that I have fallen in love with. Last June I had some of my teammates along for a weekend of gravel riding and I was so impressed with the performance of their bikes that I made a big decision.  I was going all in for gravel. 

There just aren’t many sponsorship opportunities for exceptionally fast old men and there are absolutely none for slow old men so I had to devise a plan.  In the weeks and months since that fateful weekend I have sold four bikes, multiple wheelsets, tires, chainrings, brakes and brake parts, a crankset and a tool.

Before you think the barn at Casa de Evo is vacant; I will confess I did all this only so I could purchase a disc equipped carbon Cyclocross/gravel wonderbike frame.  I have taken the resulting machine out on the remote roads of the Cascades and my lofty expectations have been exceeded.
I built the wheels myself both to save a couple (hundred) dollars and so I could have tubeless wheels with good hubs for riding in harsh environs.  The brakes are the TRP HyRd which come in a tad heavier than mechanical discs but are a whole lot cheaper and lighter than a full hydraulic set up.  The balance of the build is pretty predictable for me including my trademark SRAM Rival crankset and Lizardskin bar tape. Why would you want anything else?
Thus far I’m running 35mm Tubeless Stan’s Ravens which continue to impress.  White the tires are illegal by UCI standards, nobody is checking out on the gravel roads.  They soak up the bumps and have taken a handful of hard knocks only to smile and ask if that was the worst I could find.  The tires and discs allow me to be both faster and safer on loose forest service road descents.  No downside here!

With my canti’s braking was a chain of sequential events that culminated in slowing down.  First you pulled the levers. Then you felt the brakes squeeze the rims.  Then you felt the tires fighting with the ground to slow down and finally you slowed.  With the discs you squeeze the levers and you just slow down. Modulation is indeed everything they say it is. 

Einmotron said it was life changing and he was right. McWoodie likened discs on a cross bike to the difference between down tube shifters and integrated shift levers. They were correct; there is a true step function improvement.
On this bike I have been able to keep up with Hottie when she is flying downhill on her mountain bike.  It climbs without flexing and is ridiculously light. I set it up with two bottle cages and a saddle pack that allows for a third bottle so I can keep hydrated on long adventures far from refueling opportunities.

I am racing cross on this bike since I sold both my cross and pit bikes to pay for this.  I felt self-conscience when I raced on carbon wheels, now I’m going to be THAT GUY who shows up at the back of a cross race with a carbon bike worthy of Sven Nys..

Since I bought the bike for the gravel I will just smile and shrug off the dirty looks I get at the Cyclocross races. Since I get to race in a new category with fewer folks in it, I am hoping traffic won’t be as much of an issue this season.

The frame is flat black and I ran with the stealth theme and have black hubs, rims and spokes.  Black cables and bar tape add to the Darth Vader appearance.  It isn’t exactly a Hello Kitty look.  If it weren’t for the discs I think I could disappear at night. 
On the gravel roads the bike is stable and goes where you tell it to.  The tires, wheels and frame work together to soak up a range of lumps and bumps. When climbing the machine reveals both its light weight and stiff bottom bracket. The bars don’t quite jump out of your hands when you accelerate, but it launches forward more than I was used to.

The stability on rough descents is ridiculous.  I need only watch and avoid the most vicious rocks. When washboard can’t be avoided the Boone carries me through with minimal abuse.
I was reluctant to expose the Boone to potential abuse on the cross course but after the first race it was apparent this machine was built to inflict pain on those around me.  On some courses the frame makes little difference.  On courses covered with small bumps such as potholes or grass clumps low tire pressure can only go so far. The Boone not only smoothed out the ride, but kept the tread in contact so I could corner securely while others bounced around.

I’ve never been the guy on the bike that gives him an advantage.  So far I like being that guy.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Lessons I learned on Gravel in 2014

When Big John lost his balance KB thought it might be in this bag.
It turns our Einmotron just pushed him over.

It is said March comes in like a Lion and goes out like a Lamb.  I began gravel riding almost on a lark at the end of March and at the time there was much that could be likened to a lamb. The roads were mellow, the climbs short and we were wearing wool. As the snow receded from the dirt roads surrounding the Methow Valley KB and I explored here and there and a passion was born.  When wildflowers took over from snowdrifts I went higher and higher and farther and farther.  By early June I was going on four and five hour adventures that culminated in the Winthrop Fondo on Solstice weekend.   As the summer has come and gone I feel more like the Lion of Gravel compared to the newbie I was six months ago.

I’ve logged about as much gravel time as a guy who works in the city can manage. I would like to think my season of gravel has taught me a few things.  For the benefit of all, here are those things:

Just do it. 
We all get to define our gravel riding any way we choose.  It doesn’t have to be fast and it doesn’t have to be far or steep.  Like everything else, you gain experience by doing.  I encourage you to do it and find what you like. This isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.  If you don’t like it that is fine, we just don’t get to be friends any longer.
Experience doesn’t come in a can
Riding gravel is how you get good at riding gravel. The more you do it the faster and safer you become.  It just takes time. A point worth making over and over is your Cyclocross experience does not translate here.  This is different.
Equipment doesn’t matter
 I started out on a road bike with 28mm tires and then went to a cross bike with 35mm tires.  Both configurations had their benefits and drawbacks.  For the routes I was riding and the way I wanted to ride them, the cross bike proved the better choice.  Tom Ritchey is quoted as saying, “I thought all road bikes were gravel bikes…”  You may prefer smoother or flatter gravel roads and a road-ish setup might be better suited for that task. What is important is that you just go and do it.  Since nearly all rides are a combination of surfaces and grades any configuration represents a compromise. Go and do and learn and adjust accordingly.
Road bike on gravel...
If you up the ante, equipment does matter
As my tastes took me further and further from pavement, I adjusted my equipment to be more specific to my preferred adventure.  At that point fatter tires, flat prevention and good brakes took on greater importance. The ability to carry more water and food comes into play. There is a continuum that includes safety that must be considered if one chooses to get further and further “out there.”   

At least right now gravel tires aren’t crazy expensive so gravel riding is pleasantly unlike most cycling variants in that it does not have a high cost of entry.
Cross bike and 35mm tires
On gravel Speed and Safety are on the same end of the spectrum
Speed and safety on gravel are functions of experience and to a much lesser degree, equipment.  Despite years of racing Cyclocross and a smattering of mountain biking adventures I was an absolute greenhorn on gravel last March.  There is no substitute for experience and I got plenty this spring and summer. Learning what you can ride over, what you need to avoid and picking good lines both uphill and downhill just takes time. After experience the second most valuable asset is terrain appropriate equipment.  Disc brakes and tubeless wheels are amazing if you ride where I do.  They are not, however, in any way a substitute for real riding experience. Once you have the experience, upgraded equipment just lets you go faster and safer.

Small in front, big in back
Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight and don’t bring a standard crankset or a standard road cassette to a gravel climb.  While you can muscle up something short with a 39 tooth up front OR a 25 tooth in back your quads with explode and make a bloody, pulpy mess if you try a sustained gravel climb on either.  If you try a climb on a 39x25 you are quite simply a maroon.

Gravel climbs often go on for miles at grades around ten percent.  Loose surface means out of the saddle efforts can result in a dangerous loss of traction followed by a stop of forward movement and an awkward tumble to the side.  You need to be able to stay seated and spin indefinitely. My lowest gear is a 34-32 and I know that the final click between a 28 and a 32 tooth rear cog makes all the difference in the world.  A mountain bike double is worth consideration if your goals include significant numbers of summits or lookouts.

IF your gravel environs don’t involve thousands of feet of elevation changes then the gearing isn’t life or death. 
If you fight the washboard you will not win
There are four ways to ride washboard.  These rules apply both on uphill and downhill washboard. The first is to ride slow enough that you just roll over the highs and lows and you keep your momentum.  The second is to ride fast enough that you just hit the tops and the vibration is more of a hum.  The third is when your speed is in between one and two and your bike wants to buck like a bull on an eight second mission and you fight it.  Your grip tightens, you stiffen up and your vision gets blurry.  You can’t help but put on the brakes but because you are holding on so tight your bike isn’t making a lot of contact with the ground and it takes forever to slow down.  The last way to ride is the hardest to learn.  It also takes place at “in-between” speeds. Instead of grabbing tighter, you open your hands and let the bike jackhammer while you float and pilot your rig onto calmer terrain.  When you master this you can rightfully claim your Zen master status.
Up there...
As the distance from the pavement increases your bike and repair capabilities must adapt accordingly 
If you are going several climbing-filled miles from the pavement ends sign your tires need to be robust and your repair kit needs to be able to deal with broken spokes, chain, and derailleurs as well as multiple flat tires. Two tubes, levers, a good pump that you know how to use along with patches, spare chain links, a tire boot, zip ties and a tool that includes a chain tool and spoke wrench are a good start.  Water purification tablets weigh almost nothing and can make water potable in an emergency.  A Road ID is always a good idea so when they dissect the bear that ate you your friends will know that despite having the KOM on the climb you weren’t the fastest mammal out there.

Food is the currency of long rides and first aid supplies can keep a bad day from getting worse.  If there is even a slight chance you could get caught in the dark or rain a light and a layer are worth their weight any day.

Tell someone where you are going
I typically didn’t tell Hottie where I was going because I thought the names like Forest Service Road 4225 didn’t mean much to her.  Then one day I went on a four hour ride and wasn’t back five and a half hours later.  She was worried and even though I was okay (albeit totally trashed) I learned a lesson.  I now tell her where I am going so they at least know where to look.  It sounds silly but I will either write it down or text my destination so there isn’t any confusion.  Road 42, 43 and 47 may sound the same but are in fact east, south and north of us and a thousand people searching road 42 would never find me if I was on road 43. Agreeing on an amount of time before people should panic beforehand is a good idea as well.
GPS can be great
I can plot a course using the Garmin Connect website and send it to my little device.  Then I ride and the little machine tells me if I am on course or not.  Mountains and trees make the device work harder than it should and it sends out dozens of incorrect “Off Course” warnings but once you understand and accept that- the works very well.

GPS can be dangerous
I did load a course once and while on the ride the little device freaked out and became useless as a navigation device. This was an anomaly but I do strive to commit key route features to memory before setting out for unknown environs.   You are already taking your brain and it doesn’t weigh any more when full as compared to empty.

Baby’s got Base
Without intending to do so I found that my Gravel riding added up to significant saddle time and I had built up some reasonable base miles.  It wasn’t quite like discovering that eating ice cream burns fat and builds muscle, but it was an enjoyable way to get geared up for the Cyclocross season. Just the other day KB commented that I had built up a good base and I paused as I realized he was correct.   Gravel is a great and semi painless way to build base.
On top of Starvation Mountain
Don’t be afraid to go big!
If you have built the fitness and can figure the logistics of food, water and safety- you can tackle some rewarding adventures.  Aside from the “Oh shit- I am going to be so late” it was awesome to stand atop Starvation Mountain like I was the king of the world.  The full hour of descending that followed was only part of the reward.  Anything with butte, lookout, mountain, summit or peak in the name is fair game. 

The Winthrop Fondo was a chance to benefit from my hard earned experience and take advantage of someone else handling the food, water and logistics.

During the Fondo I watched with a wry smile as other riders gained valuable “experience” learning from mistakes in tire selection, pump options and what to carry in their saddle bags. About halfway into the Fondo I recall seeing a Rapha-clad maroon holding his rear wheel and a 25mm tire that was clearly outmatched lament, “This is my fourth flat tire,” which he said in a tone of surprise. His comment was only superseded by his follow on words which were, “and I only brought two CO2 cartridges.”   It takes a pretty big ego to ignore so much good advice in advance of that event.  The powers of denial are strong with this one too.
There are an ever increasing number of these events and based on my limited experience; they are awesome   I had a bunch of fun doing the Winthrop Fondo and that is part of a series of gravel Fondos which I expect will become even more popular in 2015. 

Explore galore
I’ve been riding road and mountain bikes in the Methow for over a dozen years and I thought I knew my way around.  Gravel riding has opened up more options than I imagined existed.  On the busiest weekends when the mountain bike trails are crowded and parking lots are full there are dozens of gravel roads where I can find solitude and amazing scenery and if I am lucky maybe even chase a cow or two.

Gravel biking affords us the luxury of riding from our place, as opposed to driving a car to a trailhead with bikes in or on it, which is way cool. It seems to connect our cabin to the mountains around us in a way that is hard to explain.

Like so many things you can read all you can find on this from me and anyone else but it is all translates as “blah, blah, blah,” until you go and do it yourself.

As El Jefe’s says, “Get Going!”

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

So THIS is training..

    

Working with a coach is turning out to be very different than I expected. I imagined some tweaking of my basic typical training plans.  I pictured working in some intervals on my bike commute. I figured there would be some more structure to my intervals one day a week.

What I am doing is harder in every way than I expected.  It takes more time. It takes prime time. There are some days with a morning and an evening workout.  Two-a-days? Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot! I am training during my usual dinner time a day or three each week.  Hottie has been very accommodating and we are both glad my season isn’t too long. 
I figured I might as well go all in and I have been working hard when I am supposed to go hard.  I had some surprising success in my first race and I while I could rationalize that away I am using that as motivation to stay on a challenging program. 
It is amazing that after decades of training, first in running and later on a bike, my mind still tries to talk me into cutting corners. “You can do this one real hard and skip the last two?”  Where the heck did that come from?  “Execute the plan” I tell myself over and over.  The plan is hard.  All the best things are hard. Right, Sophie?
At times it feels foolish to be a grandfather and be out running stairs before the sun comes up.  I should know better shouldn’t I?  I can’t imagine trying to do this program with kids at home and a full time job.  I am a baby about getting enough sleep and while I do get up pretty early most days I am embarrassed to tell you how early I’ve been going to bed.  Let’s just say I check my phone in the morning to see if the Mariners won.
On the other hand the hard work has an eerie familiarity.  When I ran track we did block repeats of 4x400m intervals. 400 meters is the perfect distance to get a rush of lactic acid. I recall clearly the metallic taste in my mouth and the sensation that the roots of my teeth hurt when I would fight to catch my breath after each of those twelve to twenty intervals.  When I reached the top of the 188 stairs this morning I put my hands on my knees to catch my breath.  It was still a few minutes before sunrise and under the cloudy skies my legs looked the same to my age-impaired eyes as they did in 1977.  My feet were even clad in Nikes just like they were in 1977.  This served to perpetuate the self-serving lie that I am not old. 

I can’t predict what my results will be in the coming races but I can tell you that if you like the analogy of putting deposits into the pain bank, my account balance has grown significantly.  I can’t imagine working this hard and not having it pay off.  I do realize these things take time and know that even if I don’t see results right away it absolutely will happen.