Monday, May 30, 2011

Book Review: Hell on Two Wheels: Buy it, Read it, Enjoy it.

Amy Snyder's new book, Hell on Two Wheels, is a thoroughly enjoyable account of the 2009 edition of the Race Across America (RAAM). Having followed the 2009 race pretty closely through RAAM and racer blogs, it was amazing to learn about the race and the racers from an entirely different and more intimate perspective.

While I don't want to race RAAM any more than I did before reading the book, I also don't want to race it any less, which was the impact that viewing the film "Bicycle Dreams" had on me when it first came out. The book focuses less on the suffering and tragedy of the race and more on the personalities and idiosyncrasies of the racers. Snyder also does a great job of documenting the context and history of RAAM, which promises to make the book accessible and interesting to an uninitiated, general audience.

My only complaint, really, is that Snyder's prose could have benefited from more aggressive editing as there is some senseless repetition in some areas. Nearly every time one South African racer is discussed, for instance, she is referred to as an "uber-athlete." Once would have been enough. That said, the account really is a page-turner and Snyder succeeds in conquering what she describes as a "diabolically difficult" task from a journalistic perspective with her subjects spread out over 3,000 miles over the course of two weeks. One of my favorite aspects of the book comes at the end when Snyder follows up a year after the race with participants and shares their reflections on the experience which are fascinating.

Hell on Two Wheels provides readers with an intimate and sensitive account of the world's toughest endurance challenge. It should be read by all who are interested in endurance sports and the frontier of human performance.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Eat, Sleep, Ride. The Tour Divide from my Armchair

"Enjoy the suffering; pain is only weakness leaving the body." Paul Howard.

After reading Run! by Dean Karnazes, I noticed another title pop it's head up in my list of Kindle book recommendations: Eat, Sleep, Ride (or How I Braved Bears, Badlands and Big Breakfasts in my Quest to Cycle the Tour Divide) by Paul Howard. Boy, am I glad I downloaded this title and read it right away.

Howard's account of his attempt to race the 2009 edition of the Tour Divide, the 2700-mile race from Banff Canada to Antelope Wells, New Mexico, was quite illuminating and enjoyable to read. It was also surprising in several ways. First, while a mammoth test of endurance for sure, the Tour Divide is definitely not RAAM.  Racers must be completely self-supported and literally forage for food at convenience stores, restaurants and elsewhere along the way and no one has crew support of any kind. The racers chronicled in this book also seemed to be getting plenty of sleep. In fact, Howard describes front and rear lights so lame that night riding itself seems not to be part of his plan. It may be more important to someone like six-time winner Matthew Lee whose time is significantly better than Howard's, but this is not something we'll learn from this book.

The description of the Tour Divide in Eat, Sleep, Ride makes the event sound much more like a randonee than a race. Randonneurs will recognize their own experience's in passages such as this: "we were no longer racing in the sense of competing against others - everyone was either too far behind to catch us, or more commonly, too far ahead to be caught - we were, in spite of occasional appearances to the contrary, [simply] intent on making it to the finish as quickly as possible."

All in all, this book was engaging and Howard's understated British humor and sense of irony was quite  entertaining. Like most endurance epics, it inspired me to get out and ride, just not 2700 miles along the spine of the American Rockies. We're in luck, though; because the start of the 2011 Tour Divide is less than two weeks away. On June 10, over 75 riders will begin their epic tour and the TD website will broad their stories and locations for all the world to follow. 

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Tour Divide on the Trainer

Ride The Divide Movie Trailer from Ride The Divide on Vimeo.

This week, I rode the famed Tour Divide (TD) mountain bike race. Well, at least I watched the film "Ride the Divide" that commemorates the 2008 edition of this remarkable 2700-mile mountain bike race while working out on my trainer in the studio.

The film is quite enjoyable and captures some of the magnificent beauty along this incredible route from Canada to Mexico. It focuses on three riders, Mike Dion - a rookie rider and filmmaker, Matthew Lee, six-time finisher and current yellow jersey holder and Mary Collier - the first woman to successfully complete the Tour Divide.

I was surprised by how much time riders spent alone on this race. In some ways, TD is more similar to randonneuring than it is to ultramarathon racing. For instance, racers must be totally self-sufficient. Unlike in RAAM, there are no support crews and riders must carry everything they need on their bike, forage along the way for provisions or have things mailed to post offices on route ahead of time. TD racers also wear SPOT trackers and call in at regular intervals to report their location and condition.

The field has grown exponentially on this "underground" race over the past few years. In 2008, there were 16 starters, in 2009 - 42 and in 2010 there were 48. With two weeks to go, there are 95 starters currently preregistered! Some will ride the race as an individual TT, not starting on the same date as the others and some will race from Mexico to Banff rather than the customary north-south route. Be sure to follow the race on the TD website starting on June 10.

The Tour Divide has become a bit of a fixation of mine in recent weeks as the 2011 edition looms large. I've been reading Paul Howard's enjoyable new book Eat, Sleep, Ride in which he recounts his own experiences as a 2009 TD racer. While I don't much like mountain biking and can't imagine ever racing the TD, I did get a big kick out of the strength and courage of the TD racers profiled in the film and it fuels my own determination to get back out there to complete endurance feats such as this.

Up next: a review of Paul Howard's Eat, Sleep, Ride.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Five Boro Bike Tour 2011 - Maybe Not So Bad to Miss

It's not that I was glad to hear that there was trouble, but maybe it wasn't so bad to miss this year's edition of the Five Boro Bike Tour. This note appeared in my in-box this week.

Dear Rider:

During some parts of the Tour on Sunday, there was a regrettable lack of communication to riders, which caused delays and inconvenienced some of you. We want to respond to your questions and complaints in detail. Over the course of many months, we made plans and decisions about how to proceed, taking into consideration construction schedules and other outside information.

Our plans worked well for most of the day. However, we now know that the plans were neither adequate nor flawlessly executed. We are sorry to those of you who endured discomfort, frustration and inconvenience from the bottlenecks, as well as for the lack of real-time information.

I know that my words cannot change the bad experience had by those of you who were in the latter part of the ride. Please know that Bike New York will do everything in its power to ensure that these situations are never repeated, even if it means reducing the number of participants in the Tour. The feedback we have received has not only been alarming but very helpful as we move forward to improve this event.

We are taking this matter seriously and hear the comments loud and clear. We don't have all the answers right now, but will continue to work in the weeks and months ahead to prevent situations like the ones you experienced from occurring again. We have learned and are still learning a great deal about Sunday’s Tour. Rest assured: We want all of our riders to have a wonderful experience on the Tour.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

When DNS = Definitely Not Stupid.

DNS (Did Not Start). These three letters are only marginally better than the dreaded DNF (Did Not Finish). It's an absolutely perfect day for a spring ride and yet, with 32,000 riders feeling like they just won the lottery in NYC, I sit here in my living room. Why? Well, after a steady climb towards greater pain-free shoulder mobility, I began to feel pronounced nerve pain shooting down my left arm this past week. It's not steady or unbearable, but it is concerning and limits my range of motion. I've had to back off my physical therapy exercises a bit and hope it's not something I've caused through overuse. On Monday, I logged my longest ride to date with 24 miles. Old George would have simply thrown the bikes into the car today and said "screw it, I'm sure the pain will work itself out." New George, on the other hand, is more concerned with long-term progress, so while I'm very disappointed to miss this year's Five Boro Bike Tour with my son, I hope this temporary disappointment leads to better healing and recovery. So instead of 42 thrilling miles with sun and wind in my hair, I'm off to the gym for some sweaty stationary miles and a little lifting. I realize now that sometimes, DNS means definitely not stupid. Onward ho!