Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Donkey Ride: some days speak for themselves

Dirty cyclists in New England had plenty of options last weekend. There was the Rhodekill Spring Classic on Saturday, both the inaugural Plymouth Gravel Grinder & the Dirt Roller Coaster in Vermont on Sunday, and just a bit further up I-89 was also the Kenda Cup Eastern Grind XC race. If you desired to ride the entire weekend Overland Base threw it's second Maneha, a 2 day 250 mile mixed terrain bike camping adventure. Lots of ways to run your knobbies on May 14th-15th

But I was having none of those. With 3 weeks left until the Dirty Kanza, fair weather forecast for Saturday, & a family day planned on Sunday, I chose to do my own thing. So I put together a pair of big dirt road loops on some favorite local terrain. I rode the first loop solo, the second with one team mate, Kat Zalenski. She noticed so many burrows out grazing at farms we passed that this became The Donkey Ride.

I could say many things about such a long day in the saddle, but I think these pictures say enough.

ready to roll for a 10 hour day in the saddle

some creative wood stacking on Atwell Hill
old barn in Piermont 

the view from the top of Indian Pond Road

cows will be watching me on the prairie too
grand old house on Canaan Lake, a place I should ride by more often

a beautiful farm house getting restored on Jersusalem Road

Huckleberry Hill, almost at the top

Kat Zalenski rode with me for the 2nd half

Roads like these, all day long

Hatch Pond

Mile 105, along way from home

Roxbury Road will wait for another day

Carleton Road, taking a rest before the last tough climb of the day

Kat & I saw donkey's at 4 different farms, not these donkeys, but the name stuck.

across Blair Bridge means I'm almost home.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Bitten by the Bear, Doubling Up at the Bear Brook Classic

...the great bear was like the mountains, unrivalled in the valleys as they were in the skies. With the mountains, he had come down out of the ages. He was part of them.  - The Grizzly King by James Oliver Curwood

photo from The Bear
When I was leading wilderness trips for kids I regularly showed them my favorite "man vs. beast" movie, The Bear. This film is not like most of it's type, both the man & Kodiak bear are complex characters in it. Both are hunters & the hunted in the drama, yet both are portrayed with empathy. Some times you hunt the bear, some times the bear hunts you, to survive either requires as much humility & luck as courage.

My original plan for this weekend was to ride a dirt road century. The Dirty Kanza 200 was exactly four weeks away, so long dirt miles & tempo efforts are the training recipe. But when State 9 Racing decided to revive a mountain bike race at Bear Brook State Park, I was intrigued. I was even more interested when they included an "endurance 'cross" event. I certainly would benefit from a couple more race efforts before the Kanza. By racing the xc category in the morning, riding some tempo laps between events, then racing the endurance cross in the afternoon I would get 6+ hours of saddle time. That would easily equal the effort of a long dirt road ride, perfect, right?  
Root 66 Series Start Line in full effect
I had never raced at Bear Brook. Indeed I've only ridden the trails there twice. The last time a mountain bike race was held at Bear Brook State Park was 12 years ago, just as I was getting interested in xc events. But back in the day it was an important venue on the New England mtb circuit. I imagined that the endurance cross course would be like the old Big Ring Rumpus, a 6 mile loop of wide open fire roads. I was terribly & painfully wrong about that.

I arrived at Bear Brook State park just as the overnight rain stopped. The trails were tacky but not muddy. The course was a long loop of 9 miles for the xc events. A few stretches of fire road broke up the technical single track sections. Since this was my first mountain bike race of the year I lined up on the front row, being the shameless hole shot hero I am. The field for my category was large too, 41 guys on the start line.  Many of them were targeting Kenda Cup or Root 66 series points: it was going to be all out from the gun.

The whistle blew & off we went. I had a weak start & drifted back to 5th place as we headed up to the opening rise. The first single track section was just 200 meters from the start, so we bunched up quickly. The pace was snappy but I felt comfortable following the leaders. As we hit the first fire road section a gap had opened to the front 3. I made a move to close on them but only got half way across before the next single track section. A couple of guys made aggressive passes to get by me. I kept reminding myself to ride an all day pace, but we were racing dang nabit! The rest of the first lap I continued to swap spots between 6th-8th place. I finished the first lap with plenty of confidence in my shot at a top 5 result. Oh my high hopes....

on the front at the start of the Cat 2 40-49 race.
The second lap began as the first lap had gone. I was gaining on the technical downhills, holding my own on the fire roads, and giving up a little ground on the climbs. Then it happened, the one big mistake. Coming down the last steep technical drop on Carr Ridge I slipped on the exit of a rocky choke point. I was over the bars before I knew what happened. I got up with only a scrapes to my elbow & knee. But my bike was in worse shape, the lockout cable was undone, the chain wrapped around my crank arm. Bike maintenance at trail side with adrenaline spiking through your system is never easy. For a moment I thought my derailleur was bent too. A few deep breaths & running through the gears confirmed that my drive train was intact.

After a few minutes I got the cranks turning again. In that time I heard James Hall endo at the same spot I had slipped. He went down hard and was groaning beside the trail. I called back & he claimed to be "alright" as a team mate of his checked him over. After the race he told me he feared he'd cracked a rib. That rocky slot claimed several other victims this day. I spotted John Moser after his race with 4 inches of gauze taped to his knee. The "bear trap" put a gash in his knee deep enough that he was off to get it sutured. All in all I was lucky.

tight racing on lap 1
But back to racing. I was eager to at least gain back a little ground before the end of the lap. I charged down the River Trail and pounded the pedals with all I had left on the fire road. I managed to catch a couple of guys before the finish, for 17th place. I had lost 10 spots in my fumbling with my bike on Carr Ridge. But I was not injured and got a solid hour & a half of race pace pedaling.

I got back to my car, changed kit, put together the cyclocross bike, & ate a little lunch. After the Cat. 1 race started I headed out to preview the "endurance cross" course. My initial thought was "they aren't going to make us ride the first sections of single track, are they?" Oh yes they were. In fact almost half of the cross course was single track, the same tough drops we had just raced mountain bikes on. This was going to be much harder than I expected. I spun around on the fire roads with my thoughts swirling about the level of risk in racing cx on this technical track.

But I had a training plan for this day and I was going to stick to it. I went out to the campground road for a tempo loop. As I began an interval my heart rate would not go up. I spun easy for 5 minutes then tried again, still not hitting my target. I went back to the car, maybe I just needed some more real food. It started to drizzle again, so I got into the front seat, just to wait for the rain to pass. Twenty minutes later I woke up from my own snoring. I now had less than an hour before the start of the endurance cross, & had serious doubts if I should race. But I was already kitted up, so I put the number plate on my bike, slathered on the embro & headed out to wake up my legs.

Funny thing about bike racers and start lines, once we're on one all the exhaustion & doubt sometimes melts away. I lined up on the front of the combined men's field, again. I got decent but not perfect position off the line, again. So I was chasing the leaders, 3 young guys, into the single track again. I was smoother on the first section of single track than I feared during pre-ride. The demanding track meant I had to pick razor sharp lines over the roots & between the rocks. As we exited onto the fire road my team mate Pierre came past & sprinted to join the leaders. He towed along another M35+ racer to the front, Doug Reid. I pushed as hard as I could to follow but I did not have much jump. I could ride hard tempo and hoped I would close on them in the next single track section.

Start of the Endurance Cross
But as I approached the entrance two other younger guys squirted past. This would have been fine except they both slowed down once we hit the roots & narrow sections of the track. Once we exited to the fire road Pierre & the lead group had a solid 20 second gap. I worked to close some of the gap before entering the woods again. But my lack of high end sprint meant Ben Kramer continued to beat me to the single track. In the middle of the lap the two younger guys I had been blocked by took a wrong turn through a gated fire road. I almost followed them but stopped, looked at the trail markers, and found the entrance to the single track just past it. My stop allowed a State 9 Racing guy to close within a few seconds as I got back up to speed. He looked definitely over 35, so now I had a chaser. Race on.

I was not gaining any ground on my chaser in the fire roads. But I realized in the next lap that I was increasing the gap by ripping the single track. I stayed in the drops to maximize control as I hopped over roots & down the rock ledges. My triceps began to scream for mercy at the strain. Narrow tires & a rigid fork meant that lines I could bull doze through on the mtb now had to be hit with extreme precision. Such narrow lines meant that I scraped my knuckles against a fat oak tree while trying to clear it's roots on the River Trail. At the end of lap 2 I could see Pierre come past me on the opposite side of the fire road. He had a solid gap over Doug & a 3 minute lead on me. But I could hold onto a podium position with a clean final lap.

Endurance Cross M35+ podium
On the initial section of fire road during the final lap I could see my chaser was only 5 seconds behind me. I put my head down and charged through the single track. I shuffled up the log run as fast as my cramping legs could go, bike over my shoulder. On the River Trail for the last time I bombed over the roots and hopped the rocks. Again I scraped by knuckles raw & tore my glove against the same oak tree. I poured out all my remaining energy down the fire road. But when I looked back with 1/2 a mile left I could still see a State 9 jersey closing in. I clicked down two gears and cranked it out to the finish line. I kept 3rd place by 2 seconds. After the finish I realized that the chaser was Craig Schaepe who I had raced with on the road over a decade ago. It was good to get reacquainted after a fierce duel. I was worn out from racing hard twice on the such demanding track in one day. I was still exhausted Tuesday morning.

The event itself was run extremely well. Andy Gould, Aaron Miller, & all the State 9 members did a tremendous job. The kids course was one of the best I've seen at a New England mtb race. More importantly each child got a coupon for the ice cream truck that was at the venue! State 9 Racing did us a great favor in bringing back a favorite venue for many NE mountain bike racers. I hope they host it again next year, though I'll probably only do one race in the future. Getting bitten by the bear once is enough.     

The State 9 bear and cub

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Dirty Truth: my devolution from road racer to off road cyclist

I'll start with a confession: I've been a leg shaving roadie for most of my cycling life. I found my passion for racing bikes in 1983 when Greg Lemond won the World Championships. I was 12 years old. The spectacle of road racing captured my imagination like no other individual sport. I knew a few boys who raced BMX. While I was impressed with their stunts I wanted to go faster & farther than one could on 20" wheels. So for me it was road racing I dreamed about until high school forced me to choose other pursuits.

There were precious few road races in Kansas when I was a teenager. It was easier to let those dreams go than to chase them. Still I never forgot the thrill of going fast on a road bike. A dozen years later I found myself at a desk job in New Hampshire. My change in career meant I gained almost 30 lbs in 2 years. I was miserable with stress & lack of exercise. I wandered into a bike shop one day after work and found a used celeste Bianchi in my size. I also found that the town I had located to has a community of devoted cyclists. Like many cycling communities it has a Wednesday Night "Worlds" ride. My first attempts at joining this ride were absurd. The extra weight and lack of miles in my legs meant I struggled to hold on through the warm up. I spent the better part of 2 seasons getting fit enough to make it the end of a Wednesday night ride.

Field Sprint at the Fitchburg Crit 2006
By the time I could ride with the group for the distance I figured I had worked hard enough that racing wouldn't be much more difficult. That spark rekindled my interest in road racing. Several elite mountain bike racers regularly lead the Wednesday night ride, but what they did on the weekends was a mystery to me. I began with a Thursday training race series put on by the New Hampshire Cycling Club at the speedway in Loudon. Winning sprints in the "C" group only whetted my appetite for more. I discovered my field sprint after a few races in New Hampshire like the Concord Criterium and the Sunapee Road Race. After a season I began racing throughout New England, from the Marblehead Road Race in the spring to the York Beach Criterium in the fall. By the end of 2005 I wanted to race as much as I could the following season. In 2006 I started over 50 road race days, including both the Fitchburg Stage Race and Green Mountain Stage Race. I ended up with 20 top 10 finishes that year and won a NEBRA jersey.

A funny thing happened in the course of my new road racing career. In 2001 Kerry Litka offered to take me to the CSI Verge Series cyclocross race in Amherst. It was my first exposure to cyclocross. I was immediately fascinated by the sport. Part of it was watching the pros up close, much closer than any road race. But part of the draw was the dynamic skills the discipline requires; sprint, corner, dismount, run, sprint again. I dabbled in cyclocross later that year and again the next season. I was so thrilled by the racing that I was soon traveling every autumn weekend. But by 2004 I knew that my lack of experience riding on dirt was a limitation to racing cyclocross well.

Sucker Brook Cyclocross

So I began to dabble in mountain bike racing in the summer too, just to improve my bike handling. Then I began to explore dirt roads on my cyclocross bike in the spring. Then I heard about a cult like ride called the Deerfield Dirt Road Randonnee, D2R2. I was soon as interested in riding on dirt as I was in road racing. I was still doing the Wednesday night ride & going to Loudon every Thursday. But by 2008 I was racing as many mountain bike events in the summer as road events. By 2010 I was targeting XC events in the same way I had once targeted road races. By 2012 I started riding mountain bikes every Thursday with my son & his friends instead of going to the Loudon track. I did not enter any road races that summer or since.

First time racing The Pinnacle XC
I am not alone in this transition. 15 years ago the New England schedule had over 70 road race days on it, now there are less than half that number. Many road races have fallen away due to falling attendance. Friends I used to see at road races I now find exclusively at dirt road events, such as Mike & Cathy Rowell and Peter Vollers.  In 2001 mountain bike races had dwindled from their peak days in the early 1990's. Some declared XC racing dead. But XC mountain bike racing is enjoying a strong resurgence in New England. This year there are more cross country mtb events scheduled than road races. Several of these events are national caliber at festival like venues, such as the Boston Rebellion US Cup and the Hampshire 100. The new element is the dozens of dirt road events in the region. Where D2R2 was the lone event of this type 15 years ago, there are more than 30 this year. The best of these events draw top racers across categories, offer great food both on course & at a post ride meal, regularly with local beer. The top dirt road races offer cyclists of all levels both a challenge and a rolling party with their friends.  Events like the Rasputitsa & the VT Overland are sold out hits. Simply put the dirt road events in New England are a fun time with good food & beer & friends. Who wouldn't enjoy that?

Sandwich Notch Road in the middle of a dirt road century 
Then there is cyclocross. The New England cyclocross circuit is arguably the best in the country. Certainly the best bike races in the region are the top cyclocross events: best in drawing world class pro's, best in production (food, family fun, spectating), & top competition in every category. I look forward to racing and spectating at Gloucester, Providence, and Northampton all year. Several "local" non series races have nearly as much production & competition as the big events, such as Sucker Brook, Orchard Cross, Putney, & Shedd Park. I have multiple mountain bike, dirt road, & cyclocross events to choose from every weekend from April to December. I choose events now based on how much fun my family will have at the venue. Dirt cycling always wins that contest over pavement these days.

In the beer garden at Gloucester cheering on Mo Bruno Roy
So is road racing "dead" in New England? In a word, no. Fallow perhaps, but certainly not dead. I think that with J.D. Bilodeau as NEBRA administrator and the new leadership at USA Cycling the seeds are being sown for a road racing revival in the region. I sometimes miss the thrill of winning a field sprint, or going all out when it counts for something on a climb. I may be tempted in the future to return to the tarmac. I still do almost every Wednesday night ride, and my club's Tuesday time trial too. But for now the dirty truth is that dirt cycling is awfully fun.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Miles and Miles to Go: training for the Dirty Kanza

10 miles into the Dirty Kanza, photo by Eric Benjamin
This year I will start my 4th Dirty Kanza 200 in a row. The race for me is something of an oddity. I do not race any other Mid-West gravel grinders since I live in New England. I do not race other ultra endurance mountain bike or brevet events, though I am tempted. The Kanza has a special place in my heart because of it's location and the spectacular organization. If I could only enter one race a year the Dirty Kanza would be my choice.

It is no small thing to prepare for the Dirty Kanza. My dedicated Kanza training plan starts 13 weeks before the race and averages 13 hours of saddle time a week.  I ride 300 miles in my high volume weeks. I'd love to ride more, but family & business obligations precludes it. Everyone lining up has different strengths to rely on during the course. Everyone also has different weaknesses to overcome. Your challenges will likely be different than my own. This is an outline of the types of training I've found important to a successful Kanza.

My base training starts in January. I use skiing and hiking in the winter for base endurance work. This year warm dry winter weather allowed me a few 3 hour bike rides too. Most years I have under 1000 miles cycling before March, but plenty of training volume in other aerobic sports. While miles/volume is necessary it will not get me through the Kanza alone. Each year I've looked to improve my training by incorporating means of overcoming my setbacks from the prior race.

rolling out on Commercial Street, Emporia

Speed & Tempo Work: The start of the Dirty Kanza is fast. The last two years the front group was doing 25 mph+ on gravel in the first 20 miles. Staying up with the leaders early on has risks, but it also saves energy to ride in the shelter of the bunch. The longer I can comfortably follow a wheel in the lead group, the closer I am to the finish. Sticking with the leaders requires both comfort with pack racing and the speed to stay in the group. Since I don't get many race starts ahead of the Kanza, I practice on group rides. Following close to a lead rider's wheel at a quick pace approximates road racing. Tempo work is important for the long stretches of the race when I will be alone or with only a few others. I must be able to go hard deep into the race to be able to finish fast. Even on 8+ hour endurance rides I try to do 30 minute tempo blocks in the last 2 hours.

Headwind Riding: Kanza means "people of the south wind". While the wind may come from any direction on race day, it is a consistent force. Riding for hours into a steady 15 mph headwind must be expected. The only way to get familiar with pushing hard into a strong headwind is to seek it out. In New England it is easy to find sheltered roads or forest single track on high wind days. But when I'm training for the Kanza, I do tempo blocks charging straight into stiff headwinds. I practice changing gears to maximize my power when the breeze goes slack. I adjust my body position to reduce my wind sheer. Frankly climbing hills is easier to learn, but strong winds are bigger factor at the Kanza.

Descending one of the many hills at DK200
photo by the Emporia Gazette

Climbs: That is not to say that the Kanza course lacks hills. With a total of 10,000+ feet elevation gain there are plenty. But the inclines in Chase & Lyon Co. Kansas are not long by New England standards. All but a few are less than a mile. The longest is barely 4 miles consistent grade. Yet some of the hills have spot grades at 15% or more. When you tackle one of those with 170 miles already in your legs it does not mater much that the climb is only a half mile long. Training for these grades requires doing short steep hill intervals after I am already fatigued. I try to include some climbing in the last hour of my endurance rides and after I have finished a fast group ride. I also practice climbing on loose gravel when I have a chance.

Descents: What goes up must come down. The descents on the back of these short steep climbs are regularly rocky & loose. Pick the wrong line and your tires are toast. Dive deep into the thick gravel and you'll likely kiss the ground. Either result can be a quick way to end your day. On the other hand if I can descend assuredly then I earn "free speed". Actually it is the speed earned from hard gained experience. I use stretches of rocky steep jeep trails to practice my descending skills each week in the months before the Kanza.

Eating on the Bike: Consuming enough calories during a 12-15 hour bike race is not easy. Practicing it correctly is not easy either. The first factor is what to eat? Everyone has different preferences. I can not live on sport drinks & gels alone. But solid foods can be difficult to chew & swallow while pushing tempo too. I find that soft bars, dried fruit, & yogurt in squeeze tubes are the best alternatives to gels. How much & how often to eat are also critical decisions. Personally I try to eat 100 calories every 30 minutes, typically one gel & one alternative food an hour. I top off at the 2nd & 3rd checkpoints with some whole foods. But I learned the hard way a couple of years ago that stuffing yourself at a checkpoint only leads to belly cramps & dead legs.

eating on the bike old school style

As important as what to eat & how often, is HOW to eat. I never want to come to a stop while on course. Indeed I don't want to even slow down to eat. But it does take some focus off pedaling hard to get any food into my mouth. So I practice eating gels & bars while in the middle of  group rides. I concentrate on maintaining a steady position in the bunch while taking in needed food. Yuri Hauswald is of course the GUru of eating a gel on the bike.

Mental Toughness It's not a matter of if you'll want to quit the Kanza it's only a question of when & how you'll deal with it. Even the fastest & most accomplished racers have moments when they want to tap out. But as Rebecca Rusch says about racing ultra events "there will be good times, there will be bad times, neither will last". Racing the Kanza has required me to build mentally toughness like no other event I've done. I think there are 3 parts of that mental toughness: confidence, resilience, & adaptability.

I take confidence in my training & organizing for the race. I know that I have a plan to show up in Emporia prepared. My mantra in the days leading up to the start is the Little Engine that Could "I think I can, I think I can". Resilience means regaining that confidence when assaulted by doubt during the race. The Kanza is hard. I have faced dehydration, leg cramps, belly cramps, darkness, fatigue, & frustrations too numerous to list. Any of them will cause serious self doubt while on the course. Resilience is the mental process that brings me to where I can keep going & believe it can get better, regardless of how slowly I'm pedaling. My mantra when in doubt is a variation on Dory in Finding Nemo "Just keep Spinning". Adaptability is a little different. Physical issues stop many on the Kanza route, but mechanical or weather issues stop as many. I must be prepared to fix anything that breaks on my bike to keep pedaling. I must be able to adapt to whatever the weather brings and ride through it. Finishing the Kanza can be as much about problem solving these challenges as riding a bike. Positive mental attitude facing either physical, mechanical or environmental challenges is key to enjoying the ride.

Finishing the Kanza in the dark is always a possibility

Rest: While training hard is important to prepare for the Kanza, so is the opposite, rest. Enough rest is critical to complete a training plan, both for volume & intensity. In short, I must start my recovery from a hard training session as soon as it ends so that I will be fresh enough to complete the next workout. As important as daily recovery, so are the rest weeks in the training plan. After 3 weeks of  hard training in a row, I need a week of easy riding to consolidate my fitness gains. Adequate rest includes enough sleep, full hydration, good nutrition, and stretching. My rest weeks include 4 days of easy miles and 2 days of short high intensity efforts to keep my aerobic capacity. After a proper rest week I'm ready to attack the next training block. My week going into race day is similar to my rest week: emphasize sleep, hydration, good nutrition & stretching or massage. I ride every day, but limit the intensity to enough effort to open up the lungs/legs.

As I noted earlier, these 5 areas address my training challenges, yours may be different. I hope these serve as good reminders or helpful tips to prepare for the Dirty Kanza. I trust we will have a great ride to Emporia

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Rasputitsa 2016: Same As it Ever Was

you may find yourself in another part of the world

It's hard to believe that the Rasputitsa has been held for only 3 years. It seems like longer, like it is the classic it's meant to be. So the night before in the midst of my race prep stress I fixated on the 35 year old Talking Heads single, Once In a Lifetime. Thinking on it now, it's fitting that a song from the dawn of MTV and the last decade of the Cold War would be my earworm for the event: Same As It Ever Was....

But I digress. The route this year would be the exact same as last year, but under polar opposite conditions. In 2015 we faced freezing temperatures, a gray sky, &a forced march on 5km of snowmobile trail over Kirby Mountain which the promoter deemed "Cyberia". This year it was sunny, mostly dry, & everything was rideable, at least with some courage on the descents. But a dry course was not an easier course, no sir. I should not choose this event for my first race of the year. I climb long hills like a bowling ball, and this course has 3 extended climbs. But the event draws many of my cycling friends from around New England. It is like the NECX pre-pre-season opener, so how can I resist? Moths to a flame...

Last year I made two critical mistakes: first I brought a hardtail 29er thinking that I could ride the snowmobile trail with it (I couldn't) & that it would be as fast on the packed dirt roads as a cyclocross bike (it wasn't). Second, that I could hold the pace of the lead group over the first large climb. I did o.k. on the first few rollers heading toward Burke Hollow, but as the dirt climbs got steeper I popped out of the bunch hard. I recall Tim Shea yelling at me "That's not a sustainable pace Carl!" as I went backwards.

rolling out of East Burke. photo by Ralph Samson
This year I resigned myself to starting outside the lead group. Though foolish pride compelled me to line up behind Don Seib & next to David Gray. Seib told me that he was going to ride a "social pace", of course his social pace puts most of us deep into the red zone. Sure enough when we rolled out Don & his son made their way up to the front of the chase group. I followed feeling comfortable with their tempo. After the first few rollers we began to pick up stragglers from the lead group. I bridged across to Ellen Noble and gave her a shoulder tap hello. Following her down a washboard section my water bottles both ejected. 3 miles in, 14 miles to the feed zone with no water on a warm day was not a good start, not good at all.

I tried to throttled back my effort on the first long climb to avoid getting dehydrated, but it's not easy to go easy when your friends are racing past. I quickly forgot self preservation and pushed into high tempo pace. The group fragmented up the Burke Hollow climb. A few guys came past me then some would fall back again. Racing down the descent gave me some relief from thinking about my lack of water. David Gray & I played leap frog on the bottom of the Victory Road climb. I hoped he would catch me before long so I could beg a bottle from him. But he caught me closer to the top and he was down to one bottle as well. Finally I crested Victory Road. I slowed to grab 2 bottles at the feed zone, gulped half of one down, and started the plunge to Granby. Two big climbs over, one to go, Cyberia.
in the bunch on River Road: photo by Ralph Samson
The only flat section of the course is 6 miles of River Road to Masten hill. Since I had backed off the pace of the chase group in order to drink & eat I was riding alone. This is the one place on the course that drafting is an advantage. I did catch one racer a couple miles onto River Road. We traded pulls for a while, but not going all out. With about a mile left before Masten Road a group of 8 caught us. The group included some familiar faces like Julie Wright, Colin Johannen and Charlie Boudrages. I took a pull then shuffled to the back to eat before the crux climb. I have a bad habit of starting long climbs at the back of a group. Whether I back down due to lack of confidence in my climbing or to create an incentive to chase I don't know, but it's not a useful tendency.

I was feeling good since I got some food & water into my system. The group quickly splintered with each climbing their own pace. I was able to pick off 5 racers and saw the remaining 4 ahead as we turned onto Cyberia proper. The jeep trail was mostly hard pack on the climb, though occasionally we'd plow through a power sucking wet patch. We reached a false flat 3+ miles up and I surged around the remainder of the bunch. I wanted to start the descent in front of the group. I had forgotten about the last steep section of jeep trail. Catching sight of it I was demoralized. The 3 people I had just passed came by me again with a few more in tow including Charlie. I clung to his wheel as we worked past a couple of others up the final pitch of Cyberia. At the very top I downed a maple syrup hand up & readied for a tricky descent. Peter Vollers & The Rowells had warned that the Cyberia descent would be dicey. The jeep track was severely rutted, muddy, & rock strewn. This section is 1.2 miles long at an average 9% decline but thankfully fairly straight. Charlie came around me as we bombed down it. He slowed catching up to another racer so I popped over into the opposite rut. I took my chances letting my speed go down the track & hopping a few water bars. It was WooHoo factor 11.
Charlie & I pick our lines down Cyberia. photo by Meg Boucher
Someday I'll stop at the Rowell Family tent for a homemade donut at the end of the jeep trail. They look delicious. But this was not that day. I continued a quick descent on the Victory Mtn. Road in pursuit of the faster climbers. The best section of the course for me is the rollers on the final 6 miles. The short punchy grades are good for a sprinter like me to chase down fading front runners. I thought I had lost Charlie, but no. He is like the grizzly bear of NECX. The myth is that grizzlies can't climb, but indeed they can, and a guy his size should not be able to climb so well, but indeed he does. As I started up the first hill on Ridge Road, Charlie came roaring past. I pushed to regain his wheel. We caught then passed Colin Johannen & Julie Wright as we pounded tempo over the rollers. I made a hard attack on the false flat before the turn onto Brook Road. But half way down the descent Charlie zoomed past me again. There was only one thing left to do...    
As we turned onto Mt. Hunger Road, Charlie had a 6-7 second lead. I had a mile to try to claw him back before the turn onto the final chute. But he was clearly not holding anything back. I hammered the pedals to catch him on this last rise. 100 meters before the turn he caught 2 other guys and sat up. I was able to close on them with 50 meters to the chute. I wanted to be first into the final plunge, but could only get around Charlie and one of the other two. I had the line I wanted down the rocky chute, but was on the wide side of the turn coming around the East Burke store. Sand on the pavement forced me to slow to avoid sliding out. With 100 meters left I stomped on the pedals, but the guy who had the inside line sprinted clear. I held off Charlie at the line. Racing him for the last 10 miles was an all out effort. It was a glorious battle, comrades, for 33rd place. 

Michelle Roy & Karen Nash enjoying the hang outs. photo by Pete Hurt
The true reason for coming up to this brutal course is the cycling camaraderie. The racing is good, especially mixing it up with people who are outside my normal "old guys" category. But the hanging out is as good or better. Right after the finish I was chatting with John Moser & Don Seib who finished a few minutes ahead. My team mate Jordan finished just a bit later. We waited for his wife Ryanne to come across the line before going on a cool down ride together. I always would rather spin out the legs with team mates than alone, so we brought Kat Zalenski & her fella along too. The food & socializing at the Rasputitsa is the best. No other race I've been to has recovery poutine, it's worth every painful climb. The sun warmed faces and soothed our aching legs as I shared a beer outside with my team mates. Anthony & Heidi have created a very special event in 3 short years. I trust we'll get to do it again every April for a longtime to come.
The JAM Fund kids & their mentor Al Donahue

Thursday, April 7, 2016

The Bike Season is Dead! Long Live the Bike Season!

Last year was a hard one for me on the bike. Or more accurately, injuring myself off the bike. I still had plenty of good rides & accomplished my top goal, finishing the Dirty Kanza 200. Looking back it was a year of 2 seasons, everything leading up to the Dirty Kanza, and my falling apart afterward. I kept trying to make something of wounded form, but at some point one has to say enough.

This time last year I was looking at mounds of snow & wondering how I was going to get in shape for the Kanza. I was fortunate that I was healthy, the prior two years I had injuries & illness that curtailed my training. But an above average snow year meant the skiing was good until April and the cycling, not so much. I could just build endurance in 6-7 weeks but I also wanted power too.

A few races before the Kanza would help up my power. So I raced the Rasputitsa for training & hanging out. The weather leading up to race day had me question bringing a cyclocross bike. I decided to run my 29er hardtail with 1.9" tires. Mistake #1, never bring a machete to a knife fight. The 29er was not only heavier, but it didn't roll as fast on hard pack dirt roads as the cyclocross bikes. The 3 mile hike a bike on Cyberia was "special" too. Still the NECX bike party in Burke afterward that is not to be missed. I also raced Krank the Kanc again, as part of a team time trial, again. And we came in 3rd, again.

But no amount of fitness could prepare anyone for the conditions at the Dirty Kanza last year. The mud was a soul crushing bike destroying monster. Although the un-rideable stretches totaled 6 miles, they made race much much harder. Everyone was slowed by a couple of hours. I avoided the hamstring cramps that plagued me in the past, but my tender left knee ached on the heavy muddy terrain. Still, I finished, and in not too poor of a placing. I was thrilled just to be one of the finishers.
With all the fitness & mental fortitude I built for the Kanza I was excited for mtb racing the rest of the summer & a great cyclocross season. But the best laid plans...

happy just to have finished DK200
Exactly two weeks after the Kanza I took my son & his mtb buddies for a long ride on the local trails. The big attraction was a new flow trail in Fox Park. After a couple of hours of riding the old familiar single track they were ready & amped to hit the berms on the new trail. We got to the top of the flow trail & the kids hollered as they started off. As excited as they were, I hopped to mount up on my bike, and stepped into a 4" deep hole covered with freshly raked off loam. I fell full weight over my turned ankle & crumpled to the ground. By the time I soft pedaled to the parking lot my ankle was the size of a grapefruit. A few days later 4 toes on that foot were purple. I have suffered ankle sprains before, I played soccer through college, but never as bad as this one.

The rest of the summer was a contest of patience. I patiently iced & elevated my ankle. I patiently stretched & slowly strengthened my healing ligaments. I carefully applied physio tape on my ankle before each ride, then just before hard rides, then only before races. I reminded myself to wear compression socks every day to further reduce the swelling. I patiently waited for the chiropractor to finish dry needling my left leg to further the healing.
Slowly I was able to ride tempo again, then race a little, then sprint once a ride. Yet I could feel the imbalance in my pedal stroke due to the lingering pain in my left ankle. I raced the Boston Rebellion XC, for pride if nothing else. I limped for 3 days afterward. My plans of racing for the summer were scrapped. I enjoyed some big rides including the IRR & Overland GP, but with clear limits on my form. By August I could jog short distances, but not really run with out an ankle brace. How was I going to race cyclocross at all? My chiropractor (whose 3 daughter's college tuition are covered on my appointments alone) encouraged me to stay patient, keep doing the hard work of building my strength back gradually, let my body heal at it's pace.

The first few weeks of the cyclocross season were as hard psychologically as physically. I carefully taped my ankle before every race. I was able to compete without limping (too much), but my level was not where it was a year before. I was racing at 90% at most. I had to adjust my goals for October, race for fun, & keep rebuilding my fitness. Still I would rather race at some level than sit on the couch and mope. Each week I felt like I was getting a little closer to fit.
My results began to show my slow progress. I had good races at Hanover CX & Keene to finish a few spots off the podium. I was only a minute behind where I wanted to be. Everything seemed to be coming together when I Putney I was able to finish 5th in a stacked masters 45+ group. I was feeling at the level of fitness I had hoped for coming into November. Then on my warm up "hot lap" before day 1 at Northampton CX near the top of the run up I felt a sharp pop in my left calf. I yelled as if I had been hit by a fist sized rock. I could barely limp off course. I had torn my calf muscle. Since it was my left leg, I couldn't remount my bike easily. Season over, thanks for playing.
finding my groove at last Putney CX
This was not the first injury that ended my cyclocross season early. Ironically it was a huge hematoma on my other calf (from being run over in a sand pit) that ended my season the year before. In 2014 my season was over before it started due to a severe hamstring pull. Then there was the year that I dislocated my left knee at the second cyclocross race of the year. Three years later I pulled the plug at Putney Westhill since the chronic pain in that knee meant cortisone no longer worked and it was time for surgery. When it comes to managing injuries this was not my first rodeo.

Why keep at it? Why work to put myself back together each year just to race bikes at a more compromised level? I know plenty of cyclists who've retired from racing after fewer or lesser injuries. Or have transitioned to other sports after a difficult recovery from injury. I certainly have asked myself whether I can continue to race with the accumulated nagging aches. Yet each winter I plot out another year of training focused on the bike racing season ahead.

The simple answer is that my life is better with bike racing than without it. My time & energy are better focused when I have a goal to train for and a plan to train. I'm certain I could "ride for fun" but I'd then spend much more time sitting on the couch & drinking beer, which would make riding less fun.

The other factor is that my falling apart body is part of life. Most everyone accumulates knocks that no longer heal perfectly as we age. Our grace is defined by how we deal with those new challenges, how we learn to work with them, how we take better care of ourselves than we needed to in younger years. While I may injure myself more regularly by racing bikes, I also keep myself strong & limber to avoid other possible injuries. I race bikes not so much to "stay young" as to age (& live) better. SO here is to the next 25 years of bike racing (God willing)

Sunday, June 14, 2015

If You're Going to Race the Kanza: equipment for DK200

When I first thought about entering the Dirty Kanza 200 four years ago I had little idea what I would need. I had never ridden a bike, much less raced, more than 130 miles in a day. Ultra endurance cycling was to me a foreign land. I asked questions of my friends who were accomplished brevet racers such as John Jurczynski, Matt Roy, John Bayley, & David Wilcox. I read about the Dirty Kanza in articles, race reports, & forums. I mined these for details on bike set up, gear, & hydration options. I found much useful information in Dirt Rag, on the Salsa Cycles blog, & from the King of Kanza Dan Hughes. This post is my effort to share my hard won experience with others. I hope you find it useful.

I will admit that I am not the most experienced gravel racer nor the most accomplished. But take what I have to offer in a spirit of sharing. I have found what works for me to race the Kanza in fair conditions & poor.

the Bike:

All three years I've raced the Dirty Kanza on my cyclocross race bike with a few modifications. The first year I used a Seven Cycles Mudhoney SLX. The past two years I rode a Trek Boone. The Seven Mudhoney was built as a cyclocross race bike, so it is steep & quick. It also has only one bottle cage. But it's titanium down tube & stays resist damage from rock throw. The Trek Boone is lighter. It also takes a frame bag easier due to internal cable routing. I put Shelter tape on the down tube & stays to help protect from rock throw damage. Both have been comfortable for me over the whole distance.

On both I used a SRAM Force drive train with 50x34 chain rings & a 11-27 cassette. I climb many steeper & longer hills where I live in New Hampshire than anything on the Kanza route. But the rollers around Kahola after 160 miles are still a grunt. Many folks choose wider range gears. I used ceramic pulleys & bottom bracket bearings to improve efficiency. How much difference those make I can not say, but any small advantage adds up over 200 miles.

Can you race the Kanza on a hard tail mountain bike? Of course you can, but it will likely be slower than a gravel or cyclocross bike. I'd encourage a rigid fork & narrow 29" tires if you do. Do you need a purpose built gravel bike? If you want a longer more stable bike, or need more compliance to be comfortable then maybe so. But I have not felt any draw backs on a good cyclocross race bike with a few adjustments.

Contact Points:

The key to comfort on the bike comes down to position & contact. Your position on the bike will be dictated by the frame & fit. If you can not ride your bike for 6 hours without substantial neck, back or shoulder pain then you need to get a professional fit. A few tweaks to your position from stem length, saddle position, & bar height may make all the difference.

Contact points also make a substantial difference in comfort. The two primary points are hands on bars & your hiney on the seat. For handlebars I use the Salsa Bell Lap bars this year. I think that bar tape makes a bigger difference to comfort than the bar itself. For all three years I've used Bontrager Grippy Gel Tape with additional gel pads underneath the wrap. I like it because it is soft without losing grip control, and sticky without being slimy when wet.

Aero bars or not? The first year I put Cane Creek Speed Bars on my rig, I found that I used them very little. If you have a low angle stem & can get into a flat position on the bike then I think the aero bars are unneeded. Moreover bar extensions both add weight and take up valuable cockpit space. Aero position is important, but can be achieved as well by putting your hands inside the hoods & holding a flat position, like the ProTour racers do. Of course there are fast DK200 racers than me who swear by their aero bars.

Saddles are a whole other topic. I will tell what I like, the Selle Italia Flite, especially the older style with more curve in the middle. But everyone has a different shape & needs. That might be the reason there are more pages devoted to saddles in the Quality Bike Parts catalog than any other single component. My advice is to try lots of saddles until you find the shape, size, & firmness that works best for you. Then buy 4 of them so you never run out. Investing in high quality shorts & chamois cream will go a long way toward keeping your hiney happy


For the past two years I've used TRP 8.4 mini-V brakes. Again these are the same as my cyclocross race setup. I found them to be a good alternative to disc brakes. As long as your wheels are true mini-V brakes provide excellent stopping power. Rim brakes allow me to use lighter & slightly more aerodynamic wheels. The key to excellent stopping power is the pads. Every year I've used SwissStop BXP pads. On mini-V brakes those pads give me almost disc brake quality stopping power.

What about disc brakes? Certainly if you are a heavier rider disc brakes are going to work better. When you are fatigued hydraulic disc's will be easier to use. Disc brakes also allow for your rims to be out of true without causing rub. But disc brakes are heavier & typically require heavier wheels. In wet conditions disc brake pads can wear down very quickly. I have seen disc pads wear to the point of uselessness in a wet/sandy 2 hour mountain bike race. Know how to change a set of pads yourself before starting the Kanza.

Nothing is more important than staying hydrated at the Kanza. Most years the sun is bright, there is little shade, & the wind will dry you out. Getting even slightly de-hydrated will slow or stop you. Some racers rig 4 bottle cages to their set up. But bottles can shoot out of cages on lumpy roads, frequently from cages mounted behind the saddle. Others wear a Camelbak which was fine this year with cool temps. I do not like wearing a Camelbak in races, especially on warm days.

My solution is a frame bag with a 70oz. hydration bladder and 2 water bottles. Combined that gives me 125oz. of fluid at maximum. I wrap the hose around my feed bag and clip it to my stem for ready access. If you are a tall rider you may require a long hose & creative ways to keep it coiled. I drink from my set up without changing my riding position or fumbling to clip the nozzle onto the stem.

Bags & Fixings

Beyond my hydration frame bag, I have mounted a bento box on the top tube & a seat pack with my tools/ repair supplies. Each year I have used a different pack for each of these. I have varied the size & style of each until I found what is just right this year. The competing desires in the Kanza are bags large enough to carry everything you might need, but small enough that you don't weigh yourself down. It is a hard equation to solve.

The bento boxes I have used are the Lezyne, the Planet Bike Snack Sack, & the Fuelbelt Aero Fuelbox top tube bag. I like bags with a zipper closure, but it must be easy to open while bumping along gravel roads. The Planet Bike Snack Sack holds plenty, perhaps more than needed. I did not like the single top tube attachment strap of that model. The Fuelbelt Aero  was just large enough to hold 5-6 gels and electrolyte supplements. My other food I carried in my jersey pockets. It had the most secure straps of any bento box I've tried.

Saddle bags come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes & features. Again I've used 3 different sizes, too large, too small, & just right. My just right bag is a Jandd mini mountain wedge. It is just large enough for 3 tubes rolled tight, a couple of C02 cartridges, and tools. The feature I like best about it is an external zippered pocket that holds my multi-tool.
Too big, too small, & just right

The more important decision is what fixings to bring in your saddle bag. Again, light is fast, but too little can mean an early end to your race. Here is what I brought: 3 inner tubes, patch kit, Park tire boot, 2-3 C02 cartridges, inflator head, Pedro's tire lever, Lezyne multi-tool, derailleur hanger, & chain link. I also carry a Lezyne Pressure Drive mini-pump mounted to my frame. I have not needed more than the tubes & air so far, but I know plenty others who have needed more.
Yes, I did fit it all in the saddle bag

Lights & Electronics

Never assume you will finish the Dirty Kanza 200 in the daylight, ever. The weather may be fair, you might be as fit as can be, but anyone can find misfortune on this route. A snapped chain or wrong turn can change a 12 hour podium ride into a 16+ hour slow roll. Always plan for riding the last 50 miles in the dark so bring lights up to the task. The first year I rode the Kanza I thought I would only need lights for an hour or so if at all. What I brought was far too weak for 3 hours of gravel roads & route finding while severely fatigued. This year I brought a Cygolite Expilion 680 for the bars and a Niterider Lightning Bug 120 on my helmet. I chose both because they are light weight, bright, & give 2-3 hours of run time at high power, more at medium. The NR Lightning Bug I mounted to my helmet by strapping it through the vent cross bar. At 40g it is as light as any other helmet or headband light of the same brightness.

I've used a Garmin 800 the last two years. The route map & cue sheet features work well to keep me on course. The Garmin 800 has a listed battery life of 12-14 hours, which might be barely enough. However the battery life declines over time. I've used an external cell phone battery to ensure my Garmin will have power for the full course. I plug in the battery & put it in my bento box at the last check point.


No topic gets more attention on Dirty Kanza preparation than tires. The Kanza is notorious for shredding tires with sharp flint gravel and hard cattle guard edges. While many tires are good for the Kanza the two that I like best are the Clement MSO and the Bontrager CX0. I ran the Clement MSO 32mm my second year. It is a tough, light, & fast tire. It may be the most popular tire for the Kanza in the 40mm size. I do not like the small side knobs of the MSO. I find that cornering on loose gravel takes caution on that tire. While secure cornering is only a factor in the first 40 miles of the race, it could be a critical factor. The Bontrager CX0 has a more prominent side knob & better traction overall. It is a heavier tire & does not have the kevlar reinforcement of the MSO. I do like the more flexible casing of the Bontrager tire for both traction & comfort. I find that the soft tread of the CXO wears down in the center to provide a relative fast rolling tire after 50-100 miles. On a hard pack day I'd chose the MSO but in wet or loose conditions I'd certainly use the Bontrager CX0 again.

bontrager CX0 after a few miles

The other tire choice is tubes or tubeless. I always run tubeless in mountain bike races. I have always run tubes at the Kanza & will continue to do so. Why? The Kanza again is notorious for destroying tires. Most years for most people it is not a question of if you'll need to fix a flat but when & how many. Tubeless only works better until one is forced to put in a tube. Once a tire is damaged enough that sealant no longer works, a tubeless tire set up becomes more difficult to deal with. I've read reports from several DK200 racers whose tubeless systems gave them those all sorts of problems once sealant fails. The weight savings & lower tire pressure advantages of tubeless set ups can be achieved by using latex tubes. I might even put some sealant into latex tubes in the future to further the benefits. While I may experiment with tubeless tires for dirt road events, I'd still lean toward latex tubes for the Kanza.

Understand that these are my gear preferences only. Dozens of other racers have different equally successful set ups for the Dirty Kanza. I hope you find some my hard earned experience useful in setting up your own ride across the prairie & through the Flint Hills.