Friday, July 4, 2014

1st Grafton County Grand Ronde Report: when petite is enough

Last Saturday I held the first annual (I hope) Grafton County Grand Ronde. Originally I planned a 140 mile 13k ft. climbing loop in the vain thought of riding dirt roads all day. I spent the past year plotting and checking suitable roads. I also sketched a 99 mile "petite route" that would become the choice of the day. I hoped for fair weather. Thankfully the weather co-operated. We had clear skies and moderate temperatures all day. The morning was a touch cool, but a stiff 2 mile climb a few minutes into the start kept us warm.

We began with a group 6, expecting to meet up with another 3-5 riders along the route. The group included my team mates Jordan, Ryanne, & Andy, and the accomplished brevet racers John Bayley & Pam Blalock (aka the Blayley's). John & Pam were riding their custom Seven tandem to equalize their power against our more modest strengths.

The opening climb up East Rumney Road was just enough to keep the knee warmers off. We shot down the back side toward Campton Bog. Andy dropped his sunglasses causing Jordan to slow and Ryanne touched his rear wheel. She went down hard and we all stopped to help her assess the damage. Ryanne soldiered on bravely to Plymouth and on to the base of Bridgewater Hill. But the fall had bruised her shoulder too much for long steep climbs, so she departed with Jordan to ride home.

Paul Lohnes met us along the route to Plymouth. We apologized & explained our delay. We stopped in Plymouth long enough for a cup at Cafe Monte Alto to prepare for the vertical efforts ahead. I warned the group that the toughest climbs faced us in the first 40 miles. I don't think they entirely believed me. Bridgewater Hill is a beautiful beast of a climb. The first half a mile is paved but an average just shy of 15% grade. As we stomped up this wall Andy called out the spot grades from his computer, 16%, 18%, 19%. 14%. Once the road turns to dirt it flattens out to "only" 7% grade for the next half a mile. A small dip in the road leads to the next 8% section. The sight of the old Town Hall makes one think the climb is over, but it continues for a final steep ramp at 9%. The view of Newfound Lake at the top is spectacular. We all enjoyed a rest in the clear morning sun.

What goes up of course must come down. The descent on Poole Hill Road was tricky. The rain from a few days before left some spots on the dirt road tacky. Negotiating steep drops with occasionally wheel sucking wet spots took nerve. But we all made it down with out incident. We fortified ourselves with a few pasteries and refilled water bottles at the Newfound Grocery.

After a pleasant lakeside transition we started up the next challenge, Washburn Road. John and Paul were familiar with this climb from the Kearsarge Classic. The temperature was climbing as we were & the morning cool mist changed to humid sticky air. I took off my helmet in an effort to stay cool. Still, my head was drenched by half way up the hill. Paul was climbing better than all of us. He had time to take great photos from the view at the peak.

After a few minutes of enjoying the views of Mt. Cardigan & the Green Mountains to the west, we shot down Wild Meadow Road. The tandem lead the way. I quickly realized that I could kill myself if I tried to go the same speed as John & Pam on a familiar descent. We grouped up at the turn north around the west side of Mt. Cardigan. The road on this stretch bumps up & down, never climbing for long, but always going up. After descending from Tuttle Road, we bushwhacked a few steps onto the Northern Rail Trail for the pleasant flat miles into Canaan.

After climbing past Canaan Lake and down again, we stopped for more water. The humid warm air was draining us quickly. Andy seemed to be in difficulty. He was on antibiotics from a dental procedure a few weeks before. The heat & the drugs sapped much of his normal power. But he rallied after the stop, hoping that by lunch he'd find his legs. We continued to bump up and down the Grafton Turnpike. The slope sides at the Dartmouth Skiway were covered in purple lupines. It was a gorgeous alpine view.

We arrived in Lyme for our lunch stop a bit past 11:30. After 6 hours of elapse time, and over 4.5 hours of riding we all needed replenishment. The Lyme Country Store has everything we could want, from sandwiches & chips to cookies & ice cream. Rather than stand in a long line at the deli counter I grabbed a sandwich from the cooler & a big bag of potato chips. (turkey, cheddar, & granny smith apple on a croissant. what could be better!) I entirely expected to share the chips. But everyone else bought a bag of chips to share as well. Funny thing though, all the bags were finished before we left Lyme.

Now I had told the group that the worst of the climbing was over after we past Mt. Cardigan. We all decided to ride the petite route by lunch, Andy was still suffering from antibiotics, Paul wanted to get home for his son, and my knees where starting to complain. In my mind Bridgewater Hill and Washburn Road are the hardest climbs on the petite route due to their length. As we crested the 8% grade on Pinnacle Road Pam called me over: "You said the hard hills were over, Liar." I feebly replied that this was a shorter climb than the ones before, "LIAR!" she repeated. I knew there were more short steep dirt climbs ahead. My knees groaned in agreement with Pam's opinion.

We dropped down to Orfordville then up again on Dame Hill Road. I dislike Dame Hill only because it gives you a stark view of the back side of Cottonstone Mountain: a severe warning of the steep dirt road to Indian Pond. We churned our way up the hill and arrived at Indian Pond about 1:45. I was glad that I changed the lunch stop to Lyme. Paul shot ahead down the descent eager to get back to Plymouth. When I arrived at the turn to Piermont Heights Road I did not see him. I worried that he might have missed the turn on the fast descent. When Andy, John, & Pam arrived I suggested we continue down to Rte 25c to find him. Pam began to object as we quickly sped down the 8% grade after the turn, but it was too late. At the bottom, there was no Paul, he apparently had made the turn without stopping. I apologized but the damage was done. We needed to climb another mile and a half back to the planned route.

Once back on course we quickly found the most challenging track of the day. Piermont Heights Road becomes a Class IV "Summer Highway" after half a mile. This meant picking our way through baseball size stones and around craters on essentially a jeep trail. Fortunately John & Pam appreciate a good bike handling challenge. Once we descended to the smooth dirt road past Upper Baker Pond we all were fatigued. Paul was far ahead of us. I suggested we skip the final dirt road climb up Nichols Hill and simply take the paved road down to Wentworth. The group readily agreed. We arrived at our final stop weary but not broken. Each of us took in just enough water, food, & caffeine to ride the final 11 miles. In the end we all rode within our limits for the day but just.

Arriving back in Rumney was a joy. Ryanne and Jordan joined us for food & drink. Apparently Jordan had tried to ride the reverse route, but arrived much earlier at Indian Pond than we did. He still got his dirt century in, but solo. After changing clothes I grilled some burgers & sausage. We ate all the chips in the house and drank a few (many) beers. We talked about the day's ride, and past races & rides, and rides to attempt in the future.

It was a grand time.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Just a few miles more: the week in New England Dirt Road Cycling

New England is enjoying an explosion of dirt road cycling in 2014. A few new and an old favorite event are now on the calendar for this year. But before I mention upcoming rides, there was a little race in the Adirondacks last weekend that deserves mention.

The Black Fly Challenge bills as a mountain bike race, but since it's beginning 20 years ago, most winners have been on cyclocross bikes. Indeed the organizers now divide out the categories between cyclocross, expert mtb, sport mtb, ect. The race draws over 700 cyclists to the start line for 40 miles of upstate New York gravel road. Most notably several of New England's top masters & junior cyclocross racers made the trek to the Adirondacks. Colin Reuter chose to "sandbag" the expert mtb field, with predictably hilarious results. You can read about his race here. Meanwhile, Al Donahue (coach of the NECX all stars) won the cyclcross category & set the course record.

Back here in New England proper, 2 more events have popped up for September 27th. Actually one new event and the confirmation of an old event.

The new event is the Hills & Hollows 50. It's listed as a 50 mile race or a 25 mile tour in Poultney VT. The course is described as mostly dirt with some class IV roads & 4000ft climbing. Vermont is truly the center of New England dirt road cycling as of now. Information on the event is linked on the calendar page or you can find it here

The old event is the New England Randonneurs Fall Classic. Staring in Burlington VT this course heads east to Stowe and Jeffersonville then back. Two routes at 114km and 200km. The routes are approximately half on dirt road. Full brevet rules with control stops & timing. Find out more or register here

That's this week in New England dirt. Go out and ride somewhere less traveled.


Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Prairie Monumental: the 2014 Dirty Kanza 200

The Start, photo by TBL Photography
"only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go"  - T.S. Eliot

The Dirty Kanza 200 is a huge endeavor. Racing a bike on the 202 miles of gravel track through open prairie is as overwhelming as a clear blue Kansas sky. If I wasn't born & raised in Lawrence KS I would never have seriously considered attempting it. But I am a Jayhawk, an idealistic, & stubborn Kansas native. The chance of spending a day riding through the tall grass prairie was part of the draw. I also understood how severe the heat, the hills, and the wind could make this race. The other draw is the simple question "can I do it"? Yet this is no fevered hallucination, no Oz story, it all happened just as I recall.

Last year was my first attempt at the Dirty Kanza. I barely had enough time to train properly. I broke my foot in early March. I was forced to play catch up on my training in April & May. I was also woefully naive as to the mental challenge of a race this long & hard. I finished last year, but well into the night. When I finally got back to Emporia I was emotionally empty, mentally crushed. My early mistakes cascaded into further delays from mile 75 to the end. My poor hydration in the first 50 miles lead to extreme cramps, which lead to an hour stopped at the 2nd check point, which lead to a missed turn and another hour off course, which lead to riding slowly in the dark & getting lost again. I decided to return if only to prove to myself that I was capable of learning from those mistakes and finish in the daylight.

This year I made an ambitious training plan, but again it was postponed by a long New Hampshire winter. We enjoyed some of the best skiing in a decade, but I was not able to ride on the road until April. Dirt road riding would wait until mid May. During our long cold spring (or "still damn winter" some days) I was able to nordic ski & do strength work. The whole time I kept in mind that I needed to hit my weight goal, endurance goals, & power numbers more than ride a bike on dirt.

The plan seemed to work. I was lighter & more fit by May than last year. More importantly my old climbing partner Jamie agreed to crew for me. His expedition planning experience & attention to detail gave me a big boost of confidence preparing for my second Dirty Kanza.

my DK200 race ready rig

We arrived in Lawrence on Thursday with bags & bike intact. After a quick gear check, we went downtown to the Free State Brewery for dinner. We dropped in on the Sunflower Bike shop event, Rebecca's Rendezvous. Rebecca Rusch gave a lecture on preparing for ultra distance events including her mental strength tips. Her advice that "there will be good times & bad times in a race like this, neither will last" would prove valuable. Sunflower Bike is where as a boy I drooled over celeste green Bianchi's. The shop is now owned by Dan Hughes, the 4 time winner, a.k.a. King of the Kanza. Rubbing elbows with Dan, Rebecca, & some of the other heavy hitters already in town got me excited for the race ahead. The vibe in the room was Lawrence casual but there was an under current of nervous tension. We all understood that the Kanza is a serious event for every rider.

Friday Jamie & I gathered groceries at the Merc, Lawrence's great natural food co-op, then high tailed it to Emporia. After registering I went out for a preview spin of the first 25 miles. The track was dry & dusty, much more so than last year. I was a little concerned that my Clement MSO 32's would not corner well enough in the tight racing in the first 20 miles. On the other hand, I remembered how much I had to adjust my cornering speed a year ago on different tires. We just don't have the loose gravel roads in New England that are frequent in the Midwest. I decided to try to corner smoothly rather than change tires.

lined up, photo by Dustin Michelson

Race day started at 4:30 a.m. after a fitful night of sleep. Jamie had the bike running well, the gear sorted out. I had the route loaded onto my Garmin & a back up map in my pocket. The Garmin 800 routing worked perfectly. I was thankfully able to avoid any wrong turns this year. I lined up on the third row at the far right, next to a couple of local shop guys. I hoped for a clean start through the first 15 miles; no wheel touches, no slide outs, & most of all no crashes ahead of me.

The race started a little faster than last year, but considering the top contenders top speeds, it was a controlled pace. While people were riding 3-4 wide into corners, I noticed less shaky bike handling than 2013. One guy asked me as I maneuvered into the middle slot on a turn if I was going to wipe out on him. No sir, not this New England cyclocross racer. By the time we crested the first real climb the front group was still 60 or more strong. I rode next to Rebecca for much of the first 15 miles. The low mist & cool temperature made for a beautiful start to the day. I shuffled to the back in order to eat at mile 21. That turned out to be a minor mistake. Just before the Olpe Tower climb the front group split. I moved up at the base of the climb, but the leaders were pounding up the hill. Rather than burn several matches to bridge up I decided to race my own pace. I did not want bury myself in the first 50 miles only to be empty in the last 50 miles.

riding with Rebecca Rusch, photo by Eric Benjamin
I got into Madison a few minutes behind the leaders. Jamie had me refueled & chain lubed in seconds. I left confident I could ride strong to Cassoday. Unfortunately my belly had other ideas. Only 5 miles into this leg my gut started to rebel against the buffalo jerky I had eaten just before Madison. I had to make a quick stop to relieve myself, but felt good afterwards. Nutrition, it turns out, would be my downfall all day long. Yet I remembered to avoid my big mistake from last year, I drank plenty & rode a steady pace in the second section. I was riding with a good group of 5 when I made another little mistake. While crossing a cattle guard in the pace line, I failed to bunny hop high enough, thus pinch flatted my rear tire. I got it changed quickly but the speedy group was long gone. I was surprised that more than a dozen racers passed in the few minutes I took to change the flat. Compounding that mistake, I also under inflated the new tube, so flatted again 8 miles up the road. Another quick change, this time with more air in the rear tire. On the Kanza course there are good hard packed gravel roads, and there are bad chunky tire detroying gravel roads, neither will last.

Important for my frame of mind, I passed the point where a year ago doubled over with cramps I nearly tossed my bike into the weeds. I cheerfully shouted out "better than last year!" and upped my pace. I caught up to the lead tandem about 7 miles outside of Cassoday. I jumped into their draft with one other rider. We cruised in at 23+ mph to the mile 100 check point. Jamie & I spent extra time getting the saddle pack reloaded, checking tire pressure, & fueling up. I had lost 30 minutes or more between the flats & my "bio-mechanical" on the 2nd section. But it was still in much better shape than in 2013. I knew the leaders were out of reach after my 3 stops, but also felt I could make a run at a sub 14 hour ride. Jamie urged me to eat & then eat some more. After a sandwich, bag of chips, a few pickles, a handful of M&M's & a ginger ale I was plenty fueled.

Shawn Omara earlier in the race
I left Cassoday into a steady head wind on the long straight road out of town. I rolled out with a local rider in an Adventure Monkey jersey, Shawn Omara. We were soon trading even pulls on the 8 miles of rolling road. Once we hit the first hill I found that my legs were dead. I had eaten too much at lunch. All the blood that should have been in legs was working to digest that meal. Nutrition lesson number 2, you can't eat too much when you're racing for 12 hours, but you can eat too much at once. As Shawn  and others eased away up the hills I soft pedaled & kept in mind what Rebecca said on Thursday, "there will be good times, there will be bad times, neither will last". I hoped that by the time we turned north into the bigger hills on Madison Road my belly would no longer be an anchor. In fact with a little tail wind I did start to pick up the pace. The cross breeze had kept us cool, but now the sun was on our backs, it started to feel hot. But I was finding my race legs. I started picking off guys heading toward Matfield Green.

riding out of Cassoday, photo by Neil Shirley
Then I felt the familiar twinge of hamstring cramps. My left leg started to seize every time I pushed on a seated climb. I drank as much as I could stomach, soft pedaled for a while then tried to ramp up the pace again. A few miles later the hamstring cramped again. I un-clipped my left foot & shook the leg out. That helped for a few more miles, but as I came to the lumpy climbs outside of Cottonwood Falls, the cramps came back. This is my favorite section of the course. I enjoy the twisting roads and hills south of Cottonwood Falls. But I was nervous that each push would lead to more cramps. Eventually I had to get off the bike to stretch. I hoped that some rest & more intense stretching at the 3rd check point would alleviate the issue. The mental battle now was holding off the frustration of only riding my race pace half of the time.

I pulled into Cottonwood Falls more worried than tired. I felt like I had pedaled hard for only 20 of the prior 50 miles. I was consumed by the mental calculations of time & speed & distance to Emporia: what pace could I maintain? was it enough to make the finish by sunset? Jamie got to work straight away getting fluids into my system. But it wasn't dehydration that thwarted me, I needed salt. I ate chips, I took electrolyte tablets, I asked for more sea salt in my drink mix, and finished the jar of pickles. Yet I was already depleted and cramping. I could only remedy the situation so much.

With earbuds in & agro music on high, I charged into the last section hoping I could make up time and keep the cramps at bay. At very least I expected to beat the sunset & finish in the top 100. The first 10 miles I felt so amped I almost sprinted up the road. After 30 minutes both of my hamstrings decided they had enough of that pace. For the next 35 miles I could ride hard tempo for 10-15 minutes then I would need to soft pedal, shake my legs out, or stop & stretch. I played leap frog with a dozen riders in the last section. I would fly past 5-6 guys, only to stop then watch them cruise past me again. My cyclocross skills proved useful in finding "free speed" on the bigger downhills. By 5 miles outside of Americus I was in the middle of a solid 6 rider pace line when cramps hit my legs again. I had to sit up & wave the rest of the group on. When I could pedal hard, I did. When I had to stop I stopped. I  focused on making as much speed out of what my legs would give me. I kept up my positive attitude by saying "better than last year" each time I passed another challenge.

After Americus I had the giddy confidence that I was close to finishing before sunset. A cool water bottle handed to me by a local family on the road side boosted my spirits too. Several houses outside of Americus had free water bottles set out for desperate racers; the oasis of the Dirty Kanza.  I began to catch a few stragglers from the pace line I had waved on before town. The rush of being close to Emporia gave me new energy. Still, I was afraid my hamstrings might seize up & I'd flop over like a turtle in the road. I pushed carefully to the finish, a little faster each mile. The cheers of the crowd in Emporia were overwhelming, humbling really. I finished in 14 hours 17 minutes, good for 155th place overall out of 469 finishers.  Jamie quickly shepherded me to a seat for water & rest. The organizers had recovery tents set out with couches, water, food & ice packs. I saw dozens of weary dusty salt streaked bodies in different depths of exhaustion. Several blocks of Emporia's main street were closed off for the race. I was even more humbled by the number of local residents who congratulated me and asked with genuine interest about my race .

Downtown Emporia blocked off, photo by Dustin Michelson
As much as the distance & terrain, the energy in Emporia makes the Dirty Kanza an extraordinary event. Jim Cummins runs a great show, but the participation of the whole town makes this race very special. Personally I think I can ride a better race at the Kanza. I figure I lost an hour or more working through hamstring cramps. I realize that good nutrition for a 10 hour bike ride in cool New England weather is very different than the demands of a 13 hour race in the Kansas sun. That is my critical lesson for next time. I imagine that the Dirty Kanza will always have new lessons to teach, new challenges to overcome. Whether a racer is at the front, wringing themselves out to win, or another grinding away in the dark to finish before midnight,
the big Kansas horizon, photo by Eric Benjamin
this course tests each person that lines up. Everyone struggles sometime, whether it's the heat or the wind or another blown tire or just pedaling hard after 12 hours. It is the hundreds of cyclists racing their bikes toward the far off prairie horizon, hours from the start, hours away from the finish, that makes the Dirty Kanza monumental.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Dirt Keeps Cropping Up: 4 more New England(ish) events in 2014

A couple of weeks ago I posted a list of New England dirt road bike events. Since then several more have come to my attention.

But before I get to the new additions, last weekend there were 3 New England events, the Stowe Gravel Grinder, the RSC Ride Diverged (extended to 2 days), & the Detour de Connecticut. Despite the wet weather, all 3 events went on (though Detour delayed until Sunday). Pictures & reports so far look very positive for all three events.

Anthony & Evan McNelly spent at the finish. photo by Kimberly Bailey
On top of that, the race that is becoming the most competitive dirt event in the north, was also held last weekend. The Paris-Ancaster saw a substantial number of New England cyclocross racers head to Ontario to tackle 50 miles of Canadian dirt/gravel roads. JAM Fund prodigy Anthony Clark took the win ahead of a very strong field including his mentor Alec Donahue. Read about it on Cyclocross magazine's website here

Now for the new dirt:

May 10th The Muddy Onion, Montpelier VT

Vermont is now the heart of New England dirt road riding. I'm not entirely sure why, but there are a lot of great dirt roads & a bunch of bike nuts in the state. So here's another one, put on by the good crew at Onion River Sports. Low cost at $20 but limited to 100 riders. 32 miles 90% dirt.

July 20th Tunbridge Classic, Tunbridge VT

This new event has a team time trial format, i.e a gentleman's race. Teams of 3-10 start and finish together, racing against the other teams. Solo riders welcome also. This is long route at 105 miles with 8,000 feet of climbing. An early morning start means you may want to camp out the night before. Camping is available on site for an additional $10.

September 27th, Rail Trail Ride, Andover, NH

The northern rail trail is a long stretch of packed dirt riding from West Franklin to the Vermont border. While riding a flat rail grade may sound dull to some, there are fantastic dirt roads & climbs all along this corridor. This event also supports a great charity, Special Olympics New Hampshire. 100km or 50km (62 or 32 miles)

October 11th les 100 B7, Bromont Quebec

New England cyclocross loves Lyne Bessette (she's married to Tim Johnson after all). Last year she put on a ride around her home roads in southern Quebec. This year it's back using a Strava segment Gran Fondo format. That means the "racing" will be only on the timed segments along the course. Lowest cumulative time for the segments wins. Awards, raffle prizes & post race food at the finish. 100km (62miles) 95% dirt/gravel road. C'est Bon!

By my count there are over 2 dozen dirt road events this year! That's a whole bunch of gritty fun before we even start cyclocross season. I will consolidate the list on a separate page on this blog sometime in the next few weeks. Until then, get out and ride somewhere less traveled by

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Rasputitsa Report: Banana's & Nuts

The Rasputitsa was banana's, complete & utter banana's. Do you know, dear reader, how much cyclists like banana's? Bike nuts love banana's.

A year ago two wonderful people who had never put on a bike event decided that a dirt road race was exactly what Newport VT needed. Anthony & Heidi did such a great job of promoting it & laying out the course that 200 cyclists showed. The enthusiasm & organization they put into the inaugural Dirty 40 made the race memorable.

This year they decided, why not put on another race, in mud season. Thus the Rasputitsa was born. Again the promotion was superior, the organization even better. So 300 people packed an alley off Main Street in Newport VT waiting to race 48 miles of dirt road in mud season.

Personally, I went up knowing that I have bigger fish to fry. I am training for the Dirty Kanza 200. Last year I had almost no racing in my legs before going to Kansas. So I figured 48 miles of dirt road racing would be just what I need to get the engine revved up. I brought my cyclocross bike and the Clement MSO tires that I will likely race at Dirty Kanza. Bike & tire choice were a wide variety at the start line. Some who had raced Dirty 40 were on their road bikes with 25c tires. Some had cyclocross bikes with file treads. Some were on 29er's or fat bikes. There were no wrong choices, but a few folks on 25c tires spent as much time fixing flats as racing.

The race started after a long chilly set of introductions & instructions. I slot up to 4th row at the start. Once the pace car pulled off it was clear that for most this was a race, not a ride. The front group had serious fire power in it too. The pro's, Tim Johnson & Ted King, might have been only riding tempo, but the New England master's champions & strong Quebecois were going to keep them honest. John Funk, Mike Rowell, & James Nash lit up the pace on the first hill 5 miles in. Indeed everyone seemed to be pushing & maneuvering for race position. I kept in my mind that I was there to train more than race so I tried to ride a sustainable pace. After 10 miles I was in the 2nd chase group, but still in sight of the leaders. After a strong pull I bridged up to the first chase group.

Then we hit the entrance to Cyberia. This section was talked up for a month. I figured it was just a steep somewhat loose jeep trail like many I ride at home. No it was much more. 2 miles of snow & ice covered hike a bike with several rocky stream crossings. Running it looked dangerous. Riding it seemed impossible. Early on I chose to walk Cyberia carefully. I did not need a repeat of a year ago & break a foot before Dirty Kanza. But my cautious approach meant I lost at least 10 minutes on Cyberia. Though that pace did allow me to take a frosty maple syrup shot or two. Once I crested the top I followed Dave Rath down the slippery snowy field. His bike handling on this difficult descent was impressive.

As we resumed the dirt road climbing part of the course I started to feel cramps in both calves. I knew that if I rode steady I could keep from locking up, but if I pushed it my day would be over. The road conditions were wet in spots but mostly packed firm dirt. I felt very comfortable descending & cornering on the Clement MSO tires. I think I would have felt too loose on narrower slick tires that day. I may have lost a little speed on the long paved section in the middle of the route. But it was a marginal difference in the group I was riding with. Two different groups caught me in the 2nd half the race. I could roll with each for a while, feeling good. Then we would hit a stiff climb & would need to back off to avoid cramping up. Frustrating as that was, I just had to keep riding my own tempo. By the last 7 miles, I still had energy and my calves felt better. I started picking off riders who had fallen off the pace. I kept upping my tempo & passing solo riders all the way to 500m to go. It felt good to finish strong through the big Bontrager arch on Main Street back in Newport.

The best part of the day was yet to come. The post race meal & party was top notch. Even Ted King, who seems to love to eat as much as he loves to race bikes, was impressed. For many of us it was the first chance this year to connect with our bike racing buddies. Everyone seemed happy to have finished & happy to be there, even folks who had a much harder day than they expected.

Thom Parson's documented all the shenanigans during & after.

Honestly this was the most fun I've had at a road race in longer than I can remember. I will absolutely go up again for more dirty gritty suffering with my fellow bike nuts. Did I mention how much I like banana's?

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The year ahead: New England Dirt Road Cycling Events 2014

The winter in New Hampshire has been long & deep this year. As I write this I am recovering from a day of skiing in 10" of new snow. But winter can only last so long. My friends who ride points south are already on bare single track. So it is time to turn my attention to the season ahead.

New England Dirt Road Cycling Events of 2014!

Even two years ago only a handful of these events existed in New England, those being drop bar bike non-cyclocross race dirt rides. This year over 20 such events are in the works. BikeReg has actually added a "Gravel Grinder" category to it's listing options, crazy. Here is my working calendar:

March 23rd Vermont Overland Maple Adventure Ride:

Woodstock, VT. Peter Volers has organized a spring dirt road ride for several years. This year he is inviting more folks to come up and enjoy the start of sugar season on Vermont dirt roads. 40 miles, all dirt.

March 30th Rhodekill Spring Classic Ride

West Warwick RI. In order to ride dirt free of snow in springtime, sometimes you have to go south. This ride is new to me. 2 distances, each has some dirt sections. 63 or 43 miles, ?% dirt

April 19th Rasputitsa

Newport VT: The fine folks who put on the Dirty 40 last year are running a spring/mud season race. Given the great reviews of the Dirty 40, this should be one to line up for. 47 miles, 75% dirt road RACE!

April 26th Ride Diverged

Lexington MA. Last year the Ride Studio Cafe hosted this event as a sort of Ronde de Rosey lite. I have a feeling this years ride will be much more. A casual mixed terrain tour of the Boston 'burbs. Note that the link is to last year's event page. I will update when available. 42 miles 50% dirt

April 26th Stowe Gravel Grinder

Waterbury VT. I had not realized that the Stowe MTB Club has been hosting this ride for 7 years! Well supported with food & Long Trail beer. 35 miles 90% dirt

April 26th Detour de Connecticut

Manchester CT. This is a long one, 118 miles long. No support, but plenty of new friends to ride with. The route is a figure 8 so you have a chance to shorten the ride if you like. 118 miles 50% dirt.

* 3 event on April 26th! I'm getting misty eyed, New England

May 25th Memorial Day Dirt Road Ride

Lenox MA. This is a new event. The route through the Berkshires looks promising. 55 miles 80% dirt?

June 8th Tour de Heifer

Brattleboro VT. This event supports local farms, so the ride is also fully supported with local food! 3 routes of 15, 30, & 60 miles. The course is a D2R2 lite (even using some of the same roads). 60 miles 80% dirt.

June 8th Raid Rockingham

Newmarket NH. Arlon puts on great events. Lately cycling events have become his passion. He is also the organizer behind Ted King's ride in October. 62 miles 45% dirt

June 14th Green Mountain Double Century

Deerfield MA: This is the hardest ride in New England. 208 miles, 22,000 feet of climbing. Sandy Whittlesey is the promoter of this ride/race/challenge. He is also the organizer of a little ride called D2R2. Sandy runs the GMDC with full randonnee rules except one, he expects you to bring a crew. The difficulty of the course demands that you have a bail out plan. Expect to ride for 18-25 hours. Some more sane individuals split this up into a hard 2 day tour. 205-210 miles, 80% dirt (some very rough)

June 20th Dusk to Dawn

Lexington MA. This is a new Ride Studio Cafe event. All night on cyclocross bikes, what could be better?

June 22nd Central Vermont Cycling Tour

Montpelier, VT. Fully supported tour/race around the middle of Vermont. Last year the organizers included timing of riders in the long route, so folks who want to "race" the event can throw down. Fully supported stops & sag for the tour. 59 miles 90% dirt.

June 28th Grafton County Grand Ronde

Rumney NH: This is my challenge event. My hope is to ride cyclocross bikes from dawn to dusk. Self supported. Several good country stores along the way. But this is a big ride, 160 miles, 17,000 feet of climbing. 80% dirt (some very rough)

July 12 Raid Lamoille

Stowe VT: Arlon likes western VT and he likes dirt road rides. Expect a challenging course and a great post ride meal (including Smuttynose beer!) 62 miles, 6k climbing 80% dirt

July 19th JAM Fund Grand Fundo

Southampton MA. Technically with less than 25% of this course on dirt road, this event shouldn't make the list. But this ride is so much fun and supports such good people I have to include it. Jeremy Powers & Alec Donahue host the best cycling party/fund raiser for their development team. Fully supported including  an ice cream truck stop, sag wagon, & a pig roast post ride meal. 64/85 miles 25% dirt.

August 2nd IRR 3.0 Irreverent Road Ride

Waterbury VT. Last year Adam St. Germain told me he would do this route on 53x39 gearing & 23c tires. I told him he was nuts. This year he is warning people to run a minimum 28c tire & 50x34 gearing with a big cassette. This is a long tough route. Fortunately there are many bail out points. Self supported 125 miles, 13k climbing,  85% dirt

August 9th Pemi-Baker Dirt Road Ronde

Plymouth, NH. Save the date for my local club's event ride. Four support stops including lunch and post ride meal. 2 routes, a 100km and a 100 mile. Lots of climbing, scenic views of the White Mountains and Connecticut River valley. 100 miles, 75% dirt

August 23rd Deerfield Dirt Road Randonnee D2R2

Deerfield MA, This is the grand daddy of New England dirt events. Almost a 1000 riders will attempt one of 5 routes from 60 miles to 115 miles. The long routes are very challenging with up to 12,000 feet of punchy climbing. The ride has no sag support, but many food stops, a full lunch & post ride meal. So many people are riding the routes that finding help with a spare tube is easy to come by. Every New England cyclist should do this ride at least once. 115 miles, 75% dirt

August 24th Vermont Overland Grand Prix

Woodstock, VT. Peter Volers decided to put on a dirt road race this year too! He has picked a spectacular finish & a very tough course. 6800 feet of climbing in a 53 mile route. The finish in on Main Street in Woodstock VT. Food stops for those riding this event as a tour. Limited other support. 53 miles 90% dirt

August 30th Dirty 40

Newport VT. Last year this was the first dirt road race run in New England since who knows when. By all accounts it was great. This year it should be even better. The promoters plan to have road crossings marshaled and some sag support. Mostly it is a tough 60 mile RACE over 65% dirt roads.

September 6th Kearsarge Klassic Dirt Road Randonnee

Newport NH. The New Hampshire Cycling Club puts on a fine event over a scenic route. 85 miles including a few long stiff climbs. Food stops with water & snacks, mid point lunch, and a post ride meal of home made chilli & baked goods. Starts & ends at a historic barn with a view of Mt. Kearsarge. 85 miles 75% dirt.

September 13th Honey 100

Lexington MA. No one throws a bike party like Chip Baker. This is a tour of his secret stash of trails suitable for 'cross bikes. Starts and ends with a treats at the Ride Studio Cafe. Fully supported. 62 miles, 65% dirt.

October 5th Fall Foliage Gravel Grinder 

Becket MA. A tour through the Berkshires during foliage season. Full support and post ride meal. Starts and ends at a historic bed & breakfast with camping on site. 66 miles 75% dirt?

This is a working list. I will add events as new ones come up. If you are a promoter and want to add information or other events, email me & I'll be happy do so. Enjoy the ride.

*disclaimer: these are only the events that I am aware of, but I've attempted as comprehensive a list as possible.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Slip Sliding Away: The challenge of Baystate CX & "true 'cross"

The penultimate round of the Verge New England Cyclocross Championship Series often gets short shrift. Sure it falls on the weekend after Thanksgiving. Some racers will take that as an excuse to skip the race. But those are the same folks that have had enough racing by the first of November. The diehards, the true cyclocrosser's are eager for this event. This year the course and conditions made it a true 'cross in every sense.
Jeremy Powers riding the steep hill
Tom Stevens is the maestro of course designers in New England. He has had a part of putting together every long standing event in the region. While others have taken over laying out the courses in Providence and else where, Sterling remains Tom's signature event. In the BTB-TV weekend preview Colt stated that the one key element at Sterling is the horse jump. He could not have been more wrong. Only a handful of riders ever attempt to hop the horse jump. So the jump is not a decisive element. Even smoothly hoping it only gains a second or so. I think there are two key elements. The first is the steep run up. A very small number of racers can ride the whole thing, likely not many more than can hop the horse jump. The difference is that the remount at the horse jump is fast, at the top of the run up the remount is slow. Curtis White, Austin Vincent, Jeremy Powers, & Peter Gougen took full advantage of riding up the steep hill on Saturday, gaining 4-5 seconds each time they could clear it. Any weakness in running is amplified by that hill. I watched Mo Bruno-Roy gain precious seconds each lap on Laura Van Gilder & Arley Kemmerer on that section. Unfortunately for Mo, both LVG & Arley have the speed to close down that advantage in the flats.

the first tough off camber section
The second key element is the off cambers. And there are plenty of off cambers at Bay State CX. The difficulty of these sections was amplified Saturday by slippery frozen conditions & on Sunday by mud over frozen ground super slick conditions. Finesse was critical to simply ride the off cambers, much less race on them. With 5 tricky off camber sections, the racers with the best technique gained valuable time every lap. Tire choice & tire pressure were also critical decisions on the slick off cambers. I tried my FMB Griffo's for a test lap & felt they had too little grip. The FMB Gripo XL were much better, but I should have dropped the pressure another couple of psi. I spotted Alan Starrett on the new Challenge Chicane tubular. When the course was still hard frozen I thought this would be a great tire. As we started to race the track began to soften. I was glad at that point to have more center tread than the Chicane. I'm convinced the Tom is the Picasso of cyclocross course designers. While there do not seem to be any spectacular elements, the flow and less obvious challenges of the Sterling course makes for very tough racing. Add the slippery conditions on both days and Bay State was the most demanding race of the season in New England cyclocross.

As for my own race, I started well. I was moving up into mid field through the first two laps. I got caught behind a falling junior on the steep ride up on lap 1 and bobbled after the barriers on lap 2. But I was well positioned attacking my old friends Dan Coady & Scott Livingston. Then the wheels came off. Specifically, I  went down on the stairs when my feet slid out. I fell on top of my bike and jammed my right shoulder. After I got on my bike again I could barely hold the bars with my right arm. Shifting was difficult for a lap too. I gritted through the pain, but lost ground on the group I was racing with plus another few spots. I was relieved to finish, but only to be done. At least I had a big shoulder to rest on afterward.

Still, a tough day of racing in New England cyclocross is better than an easy day on the couch. I was happy to watch Peter Gougen & Austin Vincent crush our field. Curtis White & his younger sister Emma showed their immense talent in each getting on the podium of the elite races. The youngsters of NECX are very fun to watch as they develop into top racers. Racing in challenging conditions on a demanding course can only make anyone better next time. I did not get to Sterling for the super challenging conditions & course on Sunday. Both my wrenched shoulder and the wrecks on the highways around Fitchburg meant there was no chance of me making the start. I wish I could have. Each time I push myself in the cold, wet, muddy conditions of a true 'cross I gain knowledge & skill. I'm confident that all who did were improved by racing in the toughest course NECX has seen in a few years. We only get so many difficult mud courses each year. Each one should be savored as an chance to enjoy "true 'cross".

All photo's by the incomparable Russ Campbell. Full gallery available here:

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Grassroots Grow Up, Shedd Park CX

I almost did not race at all this season. I've been injured, then sick, then overwhelmed at work. I had resigned myself to just riding for fun since I have so little fitness. I thought it might be better to prepare for next year. I was getting cranky to the point that my wife almost insisted I race at least once. So I figured Shedd Park would be the best choice: a course I like, not far away, local grass roots type event.

Except Shedd Park CX isn't a "little grass roots" event anymore. When I first raced the Boston Road Club event in 2005 it drew just about 200 racers. The flyer included a caveat that the elite men's race would be cancelled if less than 10 guys pre-registered. The course had a bare minimum of tape, a handful of spectators, & no call up or staging grid, results were on a handwritten sheet tacked up. Over the years New England cyclocross has improved each year for good reasons: the racing is intense, the crowds friendly, the courses high quality. More than double the number of racers now show up for Shedd Park CX as did 8 years ago. This year the count was 548. That is a number larger than most Verge Series races had in 2005. The increased attendance has forced the promoters to use a professional timing service, dutifully provided by Alan Atwood. We now stage on a grid based on crossresults points. This is much better than the year we staged 20 wide & where I got my front wheel chopped then run over  by a dozen or so at the first turn. All of the features that once were found only in Verge series races are now also at Shedd Park. The race is one of the best non-series events in New England cyclocross and the numbers reflect that fact.

Now the only "issues" are finding a place to park and crowd control. A few years ago Shedd Park was the race where the officials cracked down on hand ups, for good reason, since 4-Loco was offered on the run up (which soon became an up-chuck). Shedd Park introduced the "spiral of death" feature in New England cyclocross which has thankfully gone away too (since those usually become a spiral of boredom). Sure, this event has had growing pains, but it has worked through them well. Since the park is in the middle of Lowell sometimes non-cyclists from the neighborhood will come to spectate. This adds a tiny bit of Euro feel to the event, where in town races & spectators walking to the race are common.

Much of what makes New England cyclocross strong has always been part of this race. Some really fast guys & girls show up for the elite race, the ones that get points at UCI events. The masters go hard but cheer on every one else after their own race. Everyone encourages the juniors and new racers. The course provides a mix of speed, technical skill, and power. And the NECX juniors are still some of the fastest kids in the nation.

My own race? Well I got off to a poor start, missing my pedal on the first & second stroke. Though once I was in the race I negotiated the course well. I steadily moved up through the field, avoiding the early lap crashes in the technical turns on the descent. I pushed myself without going into the red (not knowing how much I really had in the tank). I watched Tom Francis pull past me on lap 2, which was a mistake since I should have worked a little harder to follow his wheel. With a lap and half to go I was racing comfortably in a loose group of 6. I started to attack & steadily gain ground. Then at the bottom of the descent by the backstop I dropped my chain. I lost the 5 spots I had just worked to gain. With half a lap to go I caught the tail end of the group, but failed to sprint around anyone at the finish. Yet for a race I almost didn't start, I was more than happy with the result.

More importantly, I felt better than I have in weeks after the race. I almost forgot how good I feel after a good race, both mentally & physically. New England cyclocross, it's good for what ails me.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Why I ride bicycles: the short story long

The inevitable question asked of a cyclist is "Why do you ride?" I've had a difficult time forming an answer. I had wanted to ride a bicycle for almost as long as I can remember. My first bike was a silver Schwinn Stingray. I was so enthralled with it that I was excited to get out of bed every morning the summer I learned to ride. Since age 6 I've rarely gone more than a few weeks without a bike. Why I rode bicycles when I was a boy is different than the reason I ride now, but not as much as you might suppose.

Then and now, I ride for adventure. When I was 7 the adventure was simple; it was the fresh freedom of discovering the next neighborhood down the street. The flight of moving twice as fast as I could run was an awesome thrill. The unrestrained ability to travel around my small town meant I could (and did) explore each field & corner. Discovery is the basic aim of any adventure. I still find new places on my bike. In fact, since I've transitioned from road racer to a dirt road brevet rider & mtb/cyclocross racer, I find new places regularly. Even in riding familiar roads I find new vistas, people, & oddities. Riding at a pace one third as fast as a car with no filter to the view lends a radically different perspective. Much is overlooked when traveling behind a windshield that is revealed on a bicycle.

Adventures are not only the discovery of new geography. Adventures often require attaining new skills. No one calls a journey an "adventure" if it is routine. Whether going to uncharted places or attempting a route in a new way, an adventure is defined by the challenges of the endeavor. Those challenges can be technical, mental, or emotional. Cycling adventures have presented me with all of those, sometimes at once. The technical challenges of cycling may be obvious: the bike itself, repairs, tire selection, the proper kit, or route finding. The less obvious challenge is learning to ride well; not the simple act of balancing on two wheels, but to learn the subtle skills of holding a line, riding in a close pack, standing to climb without throwing your bike backwards, or flowing through a corner takes time & attention. In a tense situation such as a race you draw on all your experience & discover what more you have yet to learn.

The mental & emotional challenges come from the attempt to go farther &/or faster. Whether its just to keep up with the fast kids on the group ride or to win races, cyclists push to extend their limits. This is where the suffering comes in, this is where cycling gets hard. I maintain that the suffering in cycling is more emotional & mental than physical. We all hurt sometimes on the bike, the challenge is to follow Jens Voight's method & say "Shut up legs". The physical pain on the bike is never difficult to stop, just quit pedaling hard. But then comes the anguish of falling behind. Pushing through pain to a next level is about mental focus & conquering emotions. This is the internal adventure; discovering your emotional peaks & valleys on the bike and through a season. As I ride farther I find whole new sources of mental & emotional strength.

In truth though, the adventure of cycling, whether it is new vistas, new skills, or new accomplishments, is secondary to why I ride now. I ride my bike to ride my bike. Most of my rides are routine. They are varied, but they fall in a fairly predictable pattern from the early spring to start of winter based on what I'm training for & when I'm recovering. Each year I seek a new challenge of some sort, but most of my cycling goes in a familiar direction. I am a cyclist because I must ride my bike, I ride my bike because I am a cyclist.

An old Zen question asks "why do you wash the dishes?". The answers differ, "to have clean dishes" or "to serve others" or other reasons, but the ultimate Zen answer is always "wash the dishes to wash the dishes". I am blessed to have good roads, nice trails, & beautiful bikes to ride. A good ride is relaxing, cleansing, healing as often as it is a challenge. For many years as a boy I only wanted to ride nice bikes, as a young man I only wanted to ride fast, later I only want to be a good cyclist, now I just want to keep riding.

I ride my bike because I ride my bike

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

How to lose a bike race in 30 seconds: the Pinnacle Debacle

Coming off a massive amount of training for the Dirty Kanza 200, and a little more than a week of rest, I thought I could just jump into a mountain bike race and get a result. Of course I could count the number of times I had ridden my mountain bike this year on one hand before the Pinnacle. But I had all this fitness, and I was light, and fit, and skinny, right? Plus I've had good races at the Pinnacle, well one good race, when I was a novice mtb racer.

I filled up my car with mountain bike gear for the first time 2013 with great hopes of arriving early enough to ride a full lap. Yet I neglected to account for enough set up time. I did manage to ride a half lap. I got warmed up just enough, and saw both the beginning & end of the full lap. I did a couple of quick jump efforts after my pre-ride to finish my warm up.

A bunch of friends & Plymouth area riders showed up to race. I was great to see the Boobars, The Foulkes, the Lehmanns, and a full compliment of Sampsons. Andy Harvey also brought his four freshman mtb club members to get their first weekend race starts. I didn't feel any more pressure to perform, but I also did not want to under perform.

I slot into the narrow front row, managed to take the hole shot rather easily, and punch through the first section of woods to fire road. I backed off the pace and let a Biker's Edge racer come around. My thought was to ride wheels through the first lap & perhaps even the second lap to get a sense of the course. I felt comfortable following the Biker's Edge racer for a mile. Then he stumbled & a Bikeman racer came around. He was riding smooth of the single track, but slowing down on the open up hills. We traded pulls for a while until he stumbled. I was at the front for the second half of the lap. I pressed the speed a little bit with out going all out. But I was in front, so I was not able to see how the guys behind me were riding.

I bombed down the old ski hill that is "the pinnalce" and made the sweeping right had turn to start lap two. I saw that my gap was a few seconds, but a gap none the less. I pressed the front a little harder, but made a couple of dabs in the single track allowing the group behind me to close. In the middle of the lap a racer who I had not seen before gracefully edged around me into the tightest section of single track. He did not look like he was racing at all, just riding with flow & finesse. I tried to keep him close figuring I could close on him in the long down hill section. But he was riding so smooth that I had to work hard to pull him back on the hills. But I continued to work my plan. I went down the long technical descent as fast I could. Just before exiting the single track to head toward the top of "the pinnacle" I heard some argie bargie behind me. I recognized the voice, it was my nemesis Rich Blair. He is an ex-downhill racer, so I knew better than to let him pass easily, or hold his wheel once he did. Sure enough, he eventually squirted around & flew down the slope. He was in sight though as I crossed the start/finish. I surely would be able to pass him on the first hill.

And that's where I made my mistake. Rather than watch the bridge entrance across the big creek, I was looking up the track at Rich. So I missed the bridge. I went over the bars into the creek as my saddle slammed into my lower back. When I crawled out of the creek, the three guys I had been leading zipped up the trail ahead of me. When I got back on the bike (after resetting the dropped chain) I had no power on my right side. I had bruised my back & hip enough to block the muscles. So all I could do was spin, and hope to lose no more position.

The third lap was long, and painful, and frustrating. But I ground my way through it. I was surprised, even pleased, to finish 5th. I was disappointed that I had not held it together to race for the win. But all it takes is one big mistake.

I was happy to see Seth Warner win his first xc race (chip off the old block) and the other Plymouth/Rhino boys come in 3rd & 4th. Andy was his age group, Tom Sampson won the Elite race. So for club as a whole, it was a very good day. And to be honest, any day racing bikes is better than a day in a cubicle.