Saturday, December 26, 2009

One season ends as another begins.

This week marks a turning point. We just passed the shortest day of the year here in the northern hemisphere and I look forward to getting a few bonus moments of sunshine each day for the next six months. Soon my commute will not be completely shrouded in darkness, yet it will be quite some time before temperatures rise predictably above the freezing mark around here.

A few days ago, I officially ended one season and began another with the same ride: an indoor (6 hour) century on my trusty Cycle-Ops trainer.  I submitted this ride as my final effort in the 2009 UMCA Year Rounder competition which pushed my total over 3000 miles and allowed me to achieve my goal of the 3000 mile “Gold Award.” I also consider this indoor session to be the first official base-building training ride of the 2010 season. Having spent the past few months taking it easy with both mileage and intensity, I’ve been picking up the volume recently with indoor rides of 2 hours or more and this was my first full-out distance effort with 2010 goals in mind. I hope to log at least two indoor centuries per month between now and April to deepen my base and add raise my position in the UMCA Indoor Challenge.

With 2010 bearing down on us, it’s also time to look back on the past year and plan for the season ahead. In 2009, I:

  1. Completed my first 1200+ event on London-Edinburgh-London.
  2. Missed the sub-100 hour goal on LEL by 45 minutes: roughly equal to the amount of time spent at a pub celebrating the (near) end of the epic event.  Glad to have chosen the social over the symbolic. It wasn’t a race after all.
  3. Successfully upgraded my equipment to include a Schmidt dynohub and an Edelux headlamp, both of which work beautifully.
  4. Reached Gold classification (3000+ miles) in the UMCA Year-Rounder competition.
  5. Finished a double century race in less than 12 hours. (11h34m)
  6. Placed second in the Rapha Gentlemen’s Race.
  7. Did not win the Saratoga 12-hour race, but placed 4th and finished with a respectable 226 miles.

Under the tree this year:

  1. The above photo (framed) taken by my darling daughter.
  2. A Garmin eTrex Vista HCx GPS. I’ll report back once I’ve spent a little time figuring it out.
  3. A black PACE Sportswear Merino Wool Cap (available from Boure)
  4. Spinervals 2.0 Lake Placed Training Ride DVD. Trying it out tomorrow at 6:00 a.m.

Next up: Goals for 2010.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Bicycle Quarterly: My favorite piece of mail by far.

As the new issue of Bicycling Quarterly arrived in the mail the other day, I was again reminded of how much I love this journal with its esoteric preoccupation with classic French and English mid-century randonneuring bicycles. Jan Heine, the journal’s editor and principle writer, is a seemingly tireless advocate of all things rando and Bicycle Quarterly rarely disappoints.

BQ is part bike porn, part how-to-manual for the D.I.Y. set, part product review compendium and part travelogue. The crisp black and white photos of classic and modern handbuilt frames are drool-worthy and the high quality paper on which BQ is printed ensures that back issues will land on a special place on a bookshelf for future perusal rather than in the recycling bin like so much else being published about bicycles today.

Major features of BQ are the bike tests and product reviews undertaken by Jan and his friends in the Pacific Northwest. The bike tests have a decidedly scientific methodology and read like a cross between a scientific paper and an episode of "Mythbusters." Jan and his crew tackle the big issues of bicycle efficiency like aerodynamics, the impact of rider weight on speed, tire width on comfort, etc.  Many of their findings seem counterintuitive, like the fact the wide tires are generally faster than skinny tires; that shock absorbing forks are not as effective as wide, soft tires at shock absorption along with many others. Having developed tons of bad habits over the years, I have recently changed aspects of my cycling technique as a result of the BQ articles I have read. I now break with my front break almost exclusively and my handling skills are better than they’ve ever been on descents and elsewhere.

The reviews of equipment and gear of particular interest to randonneurs like lightweight baggage and lighting hardware are peerless. What material is best for waterproof luggage: canvas or synthetics? What lights are better for fast descents at night: LED or HID, dynamo or battery powered? The pages of Bicycle Quarterly are also filled with exciting stories of epic rides both recent and historical from around the globe as well as profiles and historical essays on epic races, bike builders and their products.

I walk away from every issue of BQ inspired, having learned something important and immediately applicable about the sport I love. What’s more, BQ is validation of the beauty found in the esoteric corner of the cycling world known as randonneuring. As I sit here in mid-winter contemplating the season ahead, BQ provides me with inspiration and specific tips to make this year my best ever.

BQ is a must-read journal for all cyclists interested in randonneuring, touring or cycling generally for that matter. BQ does what all great journals can do – provides engaging entertainment, accurate and hard to find information and even creates community. If you do not subscribe – do yourself a favor and sign up today. Subscriptions are $30/year (US) and $55/year (International).   More information can be found on the BQ website.

Friday, December 4, 2009

A lap of Puerto Rico in February? What’s not to like about that?

If I had a thousand bucks burning a hole in my wallet, I’d certainly be riding with the La Vuelta gang in PR this February. 375 miles in 3 days. Temps in the 70s. 9 historic lighthouses. Where’s my Christmas bonus? In this economy, I’ll be lucky to afford a new pair of wool socks and some chain lube.

Early bird registration has been extended until December 14, 2009. Check out their website for more details. If you have the cash and the time, La Vuelta 2010 looks like an outstanding way to spend both. Do me a favor, though, just don’t post the photos like this guy did when you get back. It's just mean.

Monday, November 16, 2009

“Bike Rides: The Exhibition” Carbon, titanium, bamboo – oh my!

As David Byrne famously sang, “what a day it was.” David Byrne has been on my mind lately, you see, since he was the driving force behind the “Bike Rides” exhibit at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, CT. Bryne, a major bike advocate and life-long urban commuter, recently published Bicycle Diaries which should be high on your holiday list as it is on mine. After reading about the show at a small art museum 60 miles from my home, I realized it was a perfect destination for late season Sunday ride. So after a few emails, I arranged to team up with my pals Andrey (local) and Don (in CT) for a ride, lunch and museum stroll. For this trip I tried the Bike Route Toaster mapping program and, boy, was it a pleasure! Forget "MapMyRide" (!), this web interface is clear, quick and easy to use and the instant cue sheet function is outstanding; all turns were clear and accurate.

I awoke on Sunday morning early and after large cup of fresh coffee, hit the road shortly after dawn to meet Andrey at the new Walkway over the Hudson and covered a nice assortment of secondary roads over the hills of eastern New York on our journey to the Connecticut border where we met Don for lunch. The three of us sat outside a local deli and enjoyed a fresh sandwich in the warm late morning sunshine. On the final mile to the museum, Andrey stopped into a CVS to get supplies to tend to a nasty patch of road rash he incurred on a stretch of wet pavement we encountered on the way over.

The exhibit at the small, lovely Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum begins before you enter tall glass doors that front the building. A modern red bike rack welcomes riders to the museum. While it was not entirely clear to us how to best use the rack, it did feel good to be a “part” of the exhibit in some way. My wife would later berate me for not locking my $4000 bike before entering. The first thing you see as you enter the museum is a tricked-out Piragua cart favored by urban “icey” vendors. The bright orange hue wagon contrasted nicely with the multicolored syrups in glass jars above. Video screens and stereo speakers completed the effect. This was one bad-ass rig. Further inside we were treated to a collection of fully customized single-speed wonders on loan from the Brooklyn-based Puerto Rican Schwinn Club. In addition to these customized bikes, visitors can view a collection of high-end concept bikes from Cannondale, Parlee, Seven and Richard Sachs up close. Hung together from translucent wires, these bikes were beautiful to admire.

A major disappointment for me was the utter lack of classic or contemporary handmade light touring or brevet bicycles. While a copy of Jan Hein’s Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles was prominently displayed in the museum’s gift shop, there were sadly no historical or contemporary examples of this fine craft. One only has to think of the wonders at the North American Handmade Bicycle Show (Feb. 26-28, 2010 in Richmond, VA) to realize all of the missed opportunities. The closest thing to a drool-worthy rando training bike was the fixed-gear Viridian bike crafted by Seven Cycles president Rob Vandermark with its custom titanium frame, wooden fenders and cork bar grips. Did I mention the two bikes that Lance loaned the show? They were cool, too.

After a short, yet satisfying, visit to the museum we were back on the road in an effort to make it home by nightfall. Sadly, we missed the discussion scheduled for 4:00 p.m. with Bob Parlee and Rob Vandermark, but it was a great afternoon for a ride and the fact that we rode 120 miles to see this show sits a lot better than driving down just in order to chat with the builders. So grab your bike, and hit the road. The show is up until January 17, 2010.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

My wife's yoga class kicked my butt (in all the right ways)!

I think Vinyasa is Sanskrit for “make your husband look like a silly fool.” At least that’s what it seemed like this morning as I peered around my wife’s yoga class. This was not the first time I jumped into some form of physical activity thinking “how hard can this be . . .” nor, sadly, will it be the last. Yet as I bent in ways I did not think possible and felt the burn in my hamstrings, abs, and muscle groups I don’t even know the names of, I realized how good this was for me despite my inexperience and self consciousness in the class. While it's nice to be "corrected" by the teacher, is she coming over to me because I look like an idiot?

I’ve done some yoga in the past, but I’ve never made a practice of it. This will be the year! It’s amazing how a good class can make you feel stronger, more limber and mellow all at the same time. More developed core strength will make me a better cyclist. It will also just generally make me feel fitter. I also hope that yoga will help take the "little old man" curve out of my posture that hours on my bike only seems to make worse. Now that my cycling has tapered off considerably with reduced light, colder weather and the psychic need to give myself a break to maintain my love of riding, it’s time to switch gears to other forms of exercise and training. Taking yoga classes with my wife this winter will bring us some real joy doing something together and that’s no small thing after spending so many hours away in the saddle.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Planning for next season: the RUSA 2010 calendar is live.

October is truly a magical month in the Northeastern U.S. The leaves are majestic and, when we’re lucky, the air is crisp and fresh. Another great thing about October is the release of the upcoming brevet schedule. Last week, the official 2010 calendar appeared on the RUSA website. After realizing that the calendar was live last week, I immediately began the process of entering all potential rides into my on-line Google calendar. Superimposed over family and school commitments, I'm now beginning to see the possibilities and the shape that my upcoming season will assume. Since my main long-term goal is to participate in PBP in 2011, I want to make sure that my events correspond with and support the evolving requirements set out by the French organizers.

At the moment, it appears that:

  • NATIONS will raise their total rider allotment through the total number of events ridden during 2010 by all riders.
  • INDIVIDUALS will be able to register according to deadlines associated with the highest total distance event they complete in 2010.

Today, the weather was marvelous and I enjoyed riding more than I have in weeks. The wonderful beauty and warm air all around me started me dreaming of next year. So check out the new calendar and see what’s in store for you . . .

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Outside Magazine's Commuter 101

I can’t believe it, in the glossy pages that usually feature the latest carbon fiber wonder frames, am I really seeing a photo of a Rivendell A. Homer Hilsen with full fenders and handlebar bag? Described as capable of "dreamy handling on high speed descents?” 650B wheel size explained? Has the word “randonneuring” actually appearing in print? Did I slip in the shower and hit my head? Is this really happening? Is it “opposite day?” Well folks, it seems that bicycle commuting has finally hit the mainstream, which is good news for all of us. The more bikes on the road, the safer we are.

Follow this link to the on-line version of this article which includes sensible answers to the six biggest excuses for NOT commuting by bike to work. Also included are some gear reviews and slick photos. Ortlieb’s Backroller Classic, Acorn’s Boxy Rando Bag and the Kona Africa Bike One all get favorable nods. The print article has a few more tips and accessories not included on-line and it’s worth the newsstand price if you don’t have a subscription. In addition, David Byrne is interviewed this month about his new book, Bicycle Diaries in which he details his love of and reflections upon bike commuting around the world.

If that isn’t enough, there’s an article on mysterious detached human feet washing ashore near Vancouver, B.C. How sick is that?

Friday, October 2, 2009

Catskill Climbfest 200K Permanent

After LEL, I kicked it into low gear with no real long rides to speak of in either August or early September. Instead, I enjoyed a restorative vacation on Block Island for several weeks with my wonderful family. My riding fell into the 1-3 hour variety for the past six weeks or so. The end of August always means that school is on the horizon and faculty meetings and the hustle and bustle of planning and executing a new school year means less time in the saddle for yours truly. Needless to say, within this context, my ride last weekend on the Catskill Climbfest 200K permanent route I manage was most welcome. The Catskill Climbfest is a route I pieced together taking in several of my favorite climbs and back country roads through the amazing Catskill Mountains. I tend to ride this route about 6 or more times each year and it always feels like a homecoming when I do. I was lucky to have the companionship of my friends Don and Andrey last week which made up for the fact that we encountered the first significant rain of the month.

Don and I arranged to ride on the last Sunday in September to be sure to net the miles needed for both Don’s R-12 and my Year-Rounder awards. I long ago gave up on the prospect of an R-12 as a reasonable goal at this point. I would much rather squeeze in a fun race or build to a 1200K than use up my family cycling “credits” to simply get out to complete 200Ks on a monthly basis. Cycling year-round in New York State is hard enough. Mabe when my kids are a bit older. Don drove over from Connecticut on Sunday morning and Andrey rode over from his house which is just a few miles from the start. We met at a few minutes before 7:00 a.m. in the rain and brought our brevet cards into the Stewart’s Shop to be stamped. A woman who works the early shift reached for the store stamp as she saw us walk through the door. While she didn’t remember my name, she knew who I was and why I was there.

Anyway, as luck would have it, the weather forecast was ominously wet for this one day so we all planned accordingly. We headed out shortly after 7:00 with fenders and rain gear into the rain, which fell on us with great consistency, but never very hard. It was more of a steady drizzle with temperatures up in the 60s so that, while my feet were drenched the whole day, I never really felt too cold. In fact, for much of the day, riding in the rain felt like a blessing. The air smelled heavy and alive and the sounds were more muted than they would have been on a sunny day filled with cars on the roads and wind in the trees. I felt strong on the two major climbs of the day and it was comforting to see that my conditioning had not totally disappeared over the past month. It was also a treat to ride with friends after so much time training solo. I look forward to our next 200K in a few weeks.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Race Around Ireland Update

It's been a rough few days in the Race Around Ireland. Only five of the original eleven solo riders are still in the race. Several riders, including the great Fabio Biasiolo pulled out due to illness. USA's Stephen Bugbee bailed due to a case of Shermer's Neck. Irish racer Joe Barr is out in front and Mark Pattinson remains competitive in second place. The team racers are already coming in. Check out the action on the race website.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Race Around Ireland is Underway!

Joe Barr's Race Around Ireland: Tuesday = Start It Up! from moxyfilms on Vimeo.

The first annual 1350 mile, single stage Race Around Ireland is underway with ten of the original eleven solo racers still in the action. Some big names in ultra cycling have shown up. At this point, Italian Fabio Biasiolo is out in front with hometown favorite Joe Barr not too far behind. Joe Barr, an ex-pro Irish cyclist, is racing not only to win, but also to raise funds and awareness for the Northern Ireland Cancer Fund for Children. His principal sponsor is Chain Reaction Cycles. Veteran RAAM racer Mark Pattinson is also on hand as is Caroline Van Den Bulk. The only US rider in the solo field, Stephen Bugbee, is out there too and doing a respectable job after some early navigation errors.

Follow the action at the Race Around Ireland website.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

London-Edinburgh-London: Building the right bike

During my first season of ultra-distance cycling, I realized that I needed a new bike. My stock Bianchi Imola just wasn’t cutting it anymore. What worked fairly well for 100 miles was not adequate for 375. While a decent entry level road bike, the Imola is not designed for long distance cycling. The geometry is much too tight which causes it to be somewhat twitchy on descents, Shimano 105 components are not as smooth or reliable as one would want, and the dimensions of the frame limit my ability to use accessories like full fenders that would improve the riding experience. I had no idea how much difference a better bike would make, however, until it arrived. I wanted a bike optimized for brevets, double centuries and randonees such as LEL, but I also wanted a bike that was quick and light that I could strip down for races as well. My budget was $4000.

While it would not be accurate to say that I built the bike specifically for LEL, with this ride on the horizon for 2009, LEL was very much on my mind when I designed the bike and chose the components and accessories. I received the bike in September of 2008 and put several thousand miles on it, but it LEL would be the true test.

Choosing the right builder:

Throughout my first season of randonneuring and ultra racing, I was a sponge sucking up tips and useful information about frame type and bicycle design from more experienced randonneurs and ultra racers. I also poured over past and present issues of Bicycle Quarterly, the outstanding journal lovingly devoted to the performance and aesthetics of long distance bicycles. I scoured old issues of BQ, and read test reports of various custom-built bikes, learned about the importance of a wide range of engineering principles, and drooled over the pictures of vintage and modern constructions. In fact, the currect issue has a whole section devoted to choosing a custom frame builder. It was actually a tip I ran across in an old issue of Bicycling Magazine, of all places though, that sent me in the direction of Independent Fabrications (IF), the small, Boston-based frame builders I would decide to use. A reader had posted a question about designing a randonneuring bike specifically for PBP several years ago and was advised to look into the IF Club Racer.

The Club Racer, designed for randonneuring or (the more commonly understood) “light touring” is basically a cross between the IF Crown Jewel racing frame and the IF Independence touring frame. The geometry (which is fully customized) includes an appropriately long wheel base and room at both the fork and seat stays for full fenders. The Club Racer can be made in steel (which I could afford) and titanium (which I could not). It would be optimized to my particular body and riding style as well as to randonneuring in general with all of the esoteric bags and components I would need. Since it would take me another year, at least, to afford a frame from one of the boutique frame builders that specialize in creating French constructeur frames, I decided that Independent Fabrications was just what I needed. A frame builder with a great reputation who could build me the bike I wanted at a price I could afford within a reasonable timeframe.

Getting the correct fit:

All IF bikes are custom build and I found that Signature Cycles, an operation run by Paul Levine a fit specialist with a great reputation in the New York City area, was listed as a dealer on the IF web site. I called up Signature Cycles to discuss the process, and found that working with them as a dealer, the price of a professional fitting would be included in the price of the frame. After saving my nickels and selling just about everything that wasn’t nailed down in my house on eBay, I made an appointment to meet with Paul. Before opening Signature Cycles with offices in Manhattan, Greenwich, CT, and Central Valley, NY, Paul ran the Serotta Fit School where he developed his craft and trained others in fitting cyclists of all types to custom bicycles.

When we met, Paul explained that he had some interesting experience fitting randonneurs, having flown down to Puerto Rico in 2006-7 to fit over two dozen local randonneurs on bikes in preparation for PBP 2007. He also explained that he had fit a RAAM racer or two along the way. Paul’s office is graciously appointed with leather chairs, half a dozen beautiful steel and titanium frames on the walls and a large stationary bicycle hooked up to and computer that looked like elaborate wide-screen TV. The process started with a long interview during which Paul asked myriad questions about my riding plans and the fit and feel of my current bike. He also tested my power output and pedal stroke on the stationary bike, saying positive things about my power output and giving me a few tips about building my core strength. We also discussed the importance of frame dimensions to accommodate wide tires and fenders. After about an hour and a half, Paul sat down with me to share the CAD drawings he put together based on our conversaqtion and I made a final decision about color and decal placement.

Selecting the best components:

After much research, I decided to outfit the new bike with Shimano Ultegra components. While Campaniolo would have the advantage of freeing up valuable real estate for a front handlebar-mounted bag, I thought that the greater popularity and ease of repair associated with Shimano STI parts might come in handy someday should I encounter a breakdown out in the middle of nowhere. Since nearly all US bike shops stock Shimano parts, it would likely be much easier to find replacement parts should my shifters give up the ghost in the middle of nowhere one day. I went with the compact 50/34 crank up front and a 10-speed 12/27 cassette in the rear so that I’d have plenty of options for both hills and flats. For brakes, I choose the Shimano “Long Reach” to compliment the Ultegra drive train, but found upon installation that what Shimano calls “long reach” are actually “medium reach” and were not wide enough to accommodate my 43mm fenders. After a bit more research, I swapped out the brakes for a set of Tektro R556 which are truly “long reach” and work quite well. I also chose Kool Stop salmon-colored pads for their improved braking power and wear under wet conditions. I was shocked to learn how easily standard pads can wear in the rain during the New England Fleche 2008, but that’s a story for another day. For wheels, I went with Mavic Open Pro rims for strength, durability and security in the event that I ever run into trouble with a spoke on a long ride.

I also read a lot about the benefits of wide tires and I wanted to make sure that the new frame would accommodate tires up to 30mm. While I normally ride and train with 25mm tires, I knew that I’d like to have the option of running Grad Bois "Cypress" 30mm tires on long events such as LEL and PBP. To fully cover the wide tires and enhance the aesthetic quality of the bike, I selected a set of the beautiful Honjo 43mm aluminum fluted fenders. It was a toss-up between the “hammered” style inspired by the French constructeurs, but in the end, the crisp lines of the fluted version seemed preferable. As far as details go, I asked IF to include a pump peg on the inside of the head tube so that I could install a Blackburn full frame pump and a sterling silver head tube badge just because it looked so darn cool. I chose a pair of beautiful stainless steel bottle cages from Velo Orange and was also able to transfer several recently upgraded components over from my Bianchi such as my beloved saddle, a Brooks B-17 Champion Special with titanium rails (which had nearly doubled in price since I bought it in 2007!) and my Time RXS carbon pedals. Once the frame and fork were built, painted and delivered, Paul’s crew assembled the bike in their Manhattan shop and was kind enough to install the fenders for me; the precision measuring involved with installing Honjo fenders would certainly have driven me mad.

So the jury is in – the bike performs like a charm. Within two weeks this summer, I achieved two personal goals. I rode my fastest 12-hour race (finishing with 226 miles) and enjoyed the hell out of my longest randonee at LEL (875 miles in just over 100 hours). While my training and the additional experience are partly responsible, I am convinced that the IF Club Racer helped tremendously and I recommend it highly to others with similar goals and budgets. The comfort and stability of this bike over 875 miles is hard to convey. The Grand Bois tires (at 85 lbs. psi) softened the ride and smoothed out even the roughest roads. The fenders kept me as dry as could be expected under the circumstances and the overall geometry made for a very comfortable and stable ride. I experienced predicable leg soreness at times, especially in my knees, but my back, neck, rear-end and other joints felt just fine. The numbness in my left hand is likely the result of applying too much pressure on my handlebars and I will seek to fix this by improving my core strength and altering my saddle position in the future. Who knows, maybe some gloves with thicker gel would help, too. Finally, while I LOVE the look of the bike, the one decision I might rethink if I were to do it all over again is frame color. Despite what people may tell you, it’s hard to keep a Vanilla Shake frame looking clean. Next time, I might try black . . .

Thursday, August 6, 2009

London-Edinburgh-London: The Ride Report

The completion of L-E-L marks my most significant athletic achievement to date. After several seasons of completing brevets and ultra races, this was my first attempt at an event of over 600K. With almost two years of anticipation and planning, it was a challenge with organizational, mental and physical dimensions. As I packed for the journey, I was certain I was forgetting something critical. As it turned out, I was as prepared as I could be and had all that I would need. After slogging it out through some pretty brutal rains and cold temperatures, I finished in 100h 45m on a beautiful sunny afternoon in great spirits with a group of amazing cyclists.

Day One “How hard could it be?”

The field of just under 600 riders was organized to depart in two main waves on Sunday (8:00 am) and (1:30 pm). Within each of these two groups, riders were subdivided into smaller starts of 50 or so in 15 minute increments. After signing in at the Lee Valley Hostel around noon, I set off at 1:45. At first, the route shoots through a fairly congested area of suburban London, but before too long, we were riding amid endless fields and breathing fresh air. With low, grey clouds threatening rain, it was not a question of whether but rather when we would get wet.

Enthusiastic and eager, I took off at a fairly fast clip out of the gate. In no time, I was passing riders who had set off in the previous group. At the first control at Gamlingay (65K), I took the opportunity to fill my bottles and use the toilet. (This would become a recurrent theme). After a few minutes, I was off again as the rain had begun to come down in earnest. In this first stretch of road, I was alternating between riding along solo and pedaling with others. I was enticed to ride quite fast with a few Russian and British riders for an hour or so pushing big gears. The benefit of this approach was to propel me further down the road and to make up good time. The downside was that I was working too hard too early in the journey. Eventually reason won out and I let the rabbits go and rode solo for a while. I hit my first roundabouts as a solo navigator and these proved to be an interesting challenge.

After riding and navigating solo for a spell, I began to question whether I was in fact still on route. During a short lull in confidence, I doubled back for a kilometer or two and ran into Audax UK rider Robin Tomes coming towards me confirming that I was in fact on the correct route. It turned out that Robin and I had much in common and so fell into riding at a similar pace. We swapped jokes and stories and ended up riding together for the entire adventure. Robin’s ace navigational skills were of tremendous value and convinced me that GPS is the way to go in the future. As we pedaled, Robin shared what was to be the mantra of our ride in the form of a quote from a fellow rider he overheard at the first control. “1400K: how hard could it be?”

After a long stretch of night riding in the pouring rain it was nice to stop at the Washingborough control (216K). Here I met Israeli cyclist and RUSA member Lev Broitman who not only rides a beautiful black Indy Fab, but also follows my blog! “You’re George Swain?!?” What a trip. Robin and I said goodbye to Lev and slogged on through the wet night arriving at that Thorne Rugby Club (321K) control at about 3:00 a.m. soaking wet and ready for sleep. After a hearty meal, we rented two blankets and were shown to the locker room floor where we would spend the night.

Day Two: “Are you sure that was a left before the 23K climb?”

The alarm went off after about 1.5 hour of sleep and I shuffled down the hall in my cold, damp clothes looking for coffee. It was grey and wet when we set off, but the sky would clear later in the day and we would have several hours of dry riding through a lovely stretch of English countryside. We passed through quaint villages filled with old stone cottages, some roofed in thatch. After lunch at the Middleton Tyas control (463K) we passed Barnard Castle and began climbing in earnest into the northern Pennines. The main work of the day was a gradual exposed climb over Yad Moss. The roads on Yad Moss are outstanding and quite enjoyable to cycle. The views are panoramic, the roads weave, and the tarmac is smooth as butler. As long as you stay clear of the sheep that range freely, you’re set. After climbing Yad Moss, we descended into the village of Alston where we would stop at the control for a meal of Shepherd’s Pie.

The next stretch through moorland England was somewhat hilly, but the transition into Scotland was abrupt and dramatic. It was twilight as we crossed the border and it was not long before we were out of our saddles and gasping for breath on climbs of 15-18%. Up and down we went as we gained attitude through the dense wooded countryside. There was a 23K stretch from the final turn on the route sheet to the control through what turned out to be completely desolate forest. I was desperately hoping we didn’t make an error since there was no one to be seen along this stretch. We pulled into Eskdalemuir (633K) after midnight. Again we ate; again there were no beds. We found spots to fill between sleeping riders and shivered for three hours before waking to take on another day.

Day Three: “Would you like a wee dram of single malt in that?”

After a truly lousy sleep, we set off into a beautiful morning sunrise with the wind at our backs. The trip from Eskdalemuir to Dalkeith (Edinburgh) is breathtakingly beautiful. The vistas are expansive, the hills dramatic and the valleys seem to roll on forever. It was a joy to cycle northbound through the early morning light. Between Eskdalemuir and Dalkeith, there was a secret control at Traquair (678K) set up in a local village hall with a very nice staff and wonderful food. The porridge was outstanding and I don’t ever remember eating something so welcome. The descent into Dalkeith is precipitous and exhilarating.

Shirley Rinaldi, one of the teachers I work with at home, was visiting with family near Edinburgh so we arranged to meet up in Dalkeith for a little visit. It was fabulous to see Shirley there with her family waving American flags and cheering on riders when we arrived. After checking in at the control (716K), I spend a few minutes catching up with Shirley and then took a much-needed shower and changed kit which had been sent forward to the control in a drop bag.

The journey from Dalkeith back to Eskdalemuir was a painful slog through hell. It wasn’t just the climbs that we knew from our northbound journey to expect. The headwinds were merciless off the moors and it became clear to us that we were pedaling DOWN while northbound riders were coasting UP the very same hills we had climbed with ease a few hours earlier. Clearly, this was a place of misery. On the return leg, I was again offered porridge, but this time with a “wee dram of single malt” in it. After the past several hours of riding I could see why that combination may have developed. Despite the pain, I declined the Scotch.

After checking in at Eskdalemuir (799K) one final time we decided to push on to Alston to stay ahead of the largest wave of cyclists since we knew how tight the sleeping arrangements would become that night. The following day, we heard reports of over 200 riders “sleeping” in that tiny space and knew we had made the right decision. It remained somewhat dry as we rode through the hills of southern Scotland and started to rain again in earnest as we headed into northern England. It was wet, it was dark, there were ugly headwinds and I was cold to the bone. Hocking the bike on Ebay seemed like a very appealing option. While gorgeous, it was truly miserable. Knowing that the Alston control would be filled, and realizing that a third night without sleep would be brutal, we began to imagine the options.

Just as we dismounted to walk the bikes up a short dangerous patch of pave (cobblestones) in the town of Alston, we were approached by an angel of mercy who asked, “Would you boys like a room?” Apparently, her hotel was full-up, but she called a friend who had one more room at her B & B around the corner. At 15 pounds each, we didn’t think twice. We were introduced to the owner, a lovely, kind diminutive English matron who served us tea and homemade biscuits at 11:45 pm and placed our wet shoes into a warming closet to dry.

Day Four: “It’s a fine line between extreme and holy sh*t”

We awoke well-rested and clean after a full five hours sleep and sat down with two Belgian cyclists to a full English breakfast complete with hand-pressed coffee and warm, dry clothes. After our meal, we cycled 3K to the Alston control (894K) and felt as if we were walking into a refugee camp. It was hard to choke back the laughter, but after signing in and lubing my chain, I was off with a fresh set of legs. Riding over Yad Moss was a complete pleasure. The roads were smooth and the stretch involves some gentle and pleasant descents. Our Russian friend Anton flew by and shared an “almost untranslatable” Russian proverb with us to the effect that “in endurance activities, there is a fine line between extreme and holy sh*t!” At times, it felt like we crossed that frontier. We arrived at Middleton Tyas (969K) to see one of Robin’s riding buddies and some of his “mates.” We joined them for a second full English breakfast and heard about the weather warnings for heavy rains and serious flooding across much of the UK for later that afternoon. 2 inches or rain was predicted. Luckily it would not get that bad.

After a long day in the saddle, we had dinner at the Thorne control (1110K) and made the difficult decision to push on. At only 8:00 pm, it was really too early to throw in the towel for the day, but we were tired and sore and it was raining (again!) It seemed critical that we make it to the next control before sleeping which would leave only 200K to the finish after sleep rather than 300K. As others riders sat down to pitchers of fresh draft beers, we suited up in our wet clothes, I rubbed my sore legs and we headed out with NC Randonneurs Mike Dayton and John Ende into the misty rain. To our great surprise, the skies cleared as we rode to reveal a beautiful sunset on the horizon. We rode hard for 100K discussing past rides and making future plans. I was especially eager to hear all about the Csascade 1200K which is now firmly on my calendar for the future. We met up with several other cyclists, including Spencer Klassen on fixed, as we neared the next control. We arrived at Washingborough around 11:00 pm Spencer bending his chain ring a few kilometers from the control. After some welcome food, we were shown a large open space with cots (and no blankets!); I guess you can’t have everything. We slept for several hours, grabbed a quick bite to eat with some coffee and then head out for the final 200K.

Day Five: “Time to put this fish in the boat!”

I wouldn’t call the legs I left Washingborough with “fresh” but there was only 200K left to the finish so “how hard could it be?” Robin and I rode this next stretch along with Mike and John and their fellow NC randonneurs Jimmy and Will. It was a very pleasant ride socially; those guys from NC know how to have a good time! But it was physically pretty brutal for me personally. I was developing significant pain in my knees that would eventually grind me to a rather embarrassingly slow pace. At one point, it felt like someone was driving daggers into my knees with each turn of the pedals. I realized around mid-day when worries of a DNF began to enter my addled brain that the ibuprofen had worn off. I quickly swallowed 600mg and kept on riding.

When Robin and I stopped at the penultimate control at Gamlingay (1336K), it was all I could do to imagine getting back on that bike one more time. I ate several ham sandwiches, drank a fizzy orange soda and a few cups of Joe, massaged my legs and got up and walked out the last door we would cross until the finish. At this point, our ride amounted to 60K, a typical Sunday club ride. As we rolled out of the control, with sun out and stomachs full, something very strange happened. Not only had the ibuprofen kicked in but a serious burst of adrenalin brought life to my legs I did not think possible. I felt like I was being shot from a cannon. Our new friend “Cap’n” John Ende pointed out that “it was time to put this fish in the boat!” Robin had to warm me several times to keep it under control, fearing that I would wear myself down and bonk before the end. Robin and Mike and Jimmy and I were able to ride strong for the final stretch and stopped just a few kilometers from the finish at a pub where Mike bought everyone a drink in celebration. We had done it, 1400-freaking-kilometers. After a brief celebration, we rode the last few miles into the control.

I finished the ride in 100h45m. Before LEL began I had several “goals” in mind. Some related to time: under 90 hours, under 100 hours, and others related to finishing: NO DNF. There was no way for me to be fully prepared for what this ride threw at me. In all, I felt as prepared as I could have been. My body was well trained, my bike was solid, comfortable and reliable, and my accessories were well-suited to the journey. I made several new friends and enjoyed the hell out of the event which was far more important than pushing an abstract time goal. Randonneuring is more fun than racing and I need to remember that while there’s a place for both in my life, the goals of one should not affect the enjoyment of the other. I’ll be back in 2013!

Monday, July 20, 2009

So what is this London-Edinburgh-London (LEL) business anyway?

On Sunday, July 26, 600 riders from over 34 nations will set off to complete the 2009edition of the 1400K London-Edinburgh-London (LEL) randonee and I will be one of 13 American riders in attendance. Not technically a race, LEL is a timed endurance event (or randonee) with a maximum time allowance of 116 hours. Modeled after the fabled Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) ride, which has was first run in 1891, LEL is put on every four years by Audax UK. As with other randononeurring events, the emphasis is on self sufficiency. Riders must carry all that they need with them as they follow a prescribed route on back country roads stopping at about a dozen checkpoints (or controls) along the way. In addition to serving as checkpoints where riders will have their “brevet” cards stamped, controls offer food and drink and a place to rest (or sleep) along the way. I hope to return to London within 100 hours (in fact 90 hours would be gravy), yet weather and sleep needs will largely define my prospects.

At this point, my training is what it will be. The Saratoga 12-hour race last weekend was my final long ride in preparation for LEL and the two weeks leading up to next Sunday’s start have been filled with shorter training rides and interval sets to boost my speed and keep my legs fresh. This week, I’ve also been dialing in my equipment, assembling gear and ironing out my travel plans to ensure that I show up to the start with everything I could possibly need for four days of hard riding. Today, I got my bike back from a final tune-up at the Bicycle Depot where Geoff discovered that a frayed cable was the source of my rear derailleur trouble. This is a huge relief as my shifting has been twitchy for several weeks and I was a bit worried about what might happen out on the moors at 3:00 a.m. when my shifter gave up the ghost completely.

I had LEL in mind last year when ordering my new custom Independent Fabrications Club Racer. The frame set is designed to accommodate fenders and wider tires, both of which will come in handy on an event of this type. Next week, I’ll be riding with 30mm Grand Bois high performance road tires. These are a full 5mm wider than my standard 25mm Conti GP4000 tires and will be inflated to only 85 psi rather than the standard 100+ psi typical of thinner tires. The difference is immediately noticeable in the suppleness of the road feel which will theoretically be amortized over the four day duration of the ride. A study of rolling resistance undertaken by Bicycle Quarterly determined that wider tires are not slower tires. A comfortable rider is a happy rider, though. My LEL set-up also includes a lovely pair of 43mm aluminum Honjo fenders. These sturdy fenders won’t rattle and weigh less than similar fenders of the plastic variety. In addition, this winter I had Peter White build me a new front wheel around a Schmidt dynohub to power my new Schmidt Edeluxe LED headlamp and B & M Seculite Plus taillight. Look ma, no batteries! Finally, I’ll be packing all of my necessary gear into a Detours seat-post mounted rear pack.

So on Thursday night, I’ll fly to London to spend a few days acclimating to the time change and prowling London’s streets for a cultural fix. Then on Sunday morning, it’s off to the Lee Valley Youth Hostel on the outskirts of London where I will join 599 other cyclists on the big journey north. God willin’ and the creek don’t rise; this should be an outrageous adventure. I plan to post periodic updates during the ride via cell phone to this blog. Wish me luck!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Saratoga 12-hr Race: A Podium Finish (Almost)

It had been a full year since I last rode in Saratoga at the 24-hour race last July, but the roads were still fresh in my mind. With L-E-L two weeks away, though, I decided that the 12-hour race was more in line with my general training plan. It would provide me with a final long ride, some speed work and a great day of fun out on the road. The other truly exciting part of the plan was that I brought along my first ever crew for support. I may not be cycling in the Tour de France, but with Eli, Izzy and Jessie mixing my drinks and passing me bottles, I felt like a rider on the ProTour (minus the EPO). What a difference a support crew can make. In this case, I was able to stop only twice for a total of maybe 7 minutes off the bike in 12 hours. I also feel like I showed up to the race in good form, having followed UMCA Director John Hughes' advice on tapering to the letter by really keeping the miles down over the past week with a few intense days of intervals to sharpen my speed and keep my legs fresh.

The Saratoga 12/24 is held on a lovely 32-mile course with gentle rolling hills, smooth, well-paved, low-traffic roads, and only one little nasty climb and a few miles of open fields and river which seem to naturally generate headwind. This year, the weather forecast wasn't too promising. It looked pretty definite that rain and thunderstorms would hit by late afternoon. As it turned out, the rain held off until around 6:30, so I only faced a downpour on the final lap. The nasty lightning even held off until the drive home. The headwinds were vicious, though, thoughout the day on the "back 9" side of the course with gusts up to 30 mph.

In all, this was a very successful race for me. I got out in front early and held onto third position for most of the day. Throughout three or four laps, RAAM veteran Rob Morlock and I rode at an acceptable distance away from one another in this non-drafting race, leapfrogging each other from time to time and chatting a little bit as we passed. Rob is an awfully nice guy who rode with the support of a crew that leapfrogged him at various spots along the route. It was a pleasure to watch their well-oiled machine in progress and I definitely learned a few things about racing from the experience. Later in the day, when the rider in first position dropped out, it seemed like I had third place sewn up. It wasn't until the final lap that I was passed in earnest by a rider on his fixed gear bike who went on to take third place overall and first in the fixed gear category.

always learn something about training and racing with every event. What I learned from this race was:

1. Tapering is very good.

2. Regular speed and hill work are good.

3. Long base miles ridden during the winter seem to pay dividends.

4. Carrying more than two bottles on board the bike should be considered if and when I race without a crew.

5. Racing with a crew that leapfrogs and passes off nutrition and such through pedestrian hand-offs is the next horozon.

6. The race isn't over until its over.

It was such an honor and a pleasure to have my family along for the adventure. I'm sure I enjoyed it much more than they did, but I'm so glad that they have this little window into why I love being an endurance cyclist. I hope to include them in more interesting ways in the future. More immediately, though, I look forward to adding this result to my UMCA UltraCup standings, which have been languishing a bit since my last ultra race in April. With luck, I will finish strong in London and hope to ride at least two of the four laps at the ADK540 in September.

Next year's goal: to qualify for RAAM at one of the 500-mile races with a full crew.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Following RAAM: Let Me Count the Ways

Who thought following RAAM would be like watching paint dry? This is one exciting race and there are many ways to keep track of the action! The intrepid RAAM media crew is posting frequent updates to the blogs hosted on the RAAM web site. These updates include short video clips as well as blog posts and photos. In addition, endurance cycling fans with shorter attention spans can follow the frequent tweets from the official "RAAMrace" Twitter feed. Individual riders and teams are also posting updates on their personal web sites and blogs and sending out email blasts through Google groups set up for the occasion.

Just after the halfway point in the race, four-time RAAM winner Jure Robic continues to ride strong and maintains a healthy lead over second place rider and 2006 RAAM winner Dani Wyss. It is not a very big lead, though and with Wyss is riding stronger than predicted, he continues to give Robic a run for his money. An upset victory for Wyss is not out of the question. Austrian Gerhard Gulewics, who crashed out last year, is riding very well in third position. Slovenian Marko Baloh is currently in fourth. Rookie Christoph Strasser from Austria, who was riding in the top group for most of the first 1000 miles, took a DNF at mile 1471 for medical reasons. These amazing riders have maintained a high level of competition in the front of the pack.

There has also been serious movement in the "back" of the field. With nine male racers having DNFed, solo rookie Kevin Kaiser has been climbing his way up from last position (where he was breifly due to several DNFs) to 6th. His pace has increased and he seams to be getting stronger with each mile. Kevin is currently the top US rider and it is not out of the question for him to finish in the top 5. Kevin rode RAAM 2008 on the two-person team Gran Fondo Fixie team with Jeff Bauer who is now a member of Kaiser's crew. You can learn more about Kevin (and make donations to his RAAM fund) at

The other amazing story of RAAM 2009 is the Great Grand PAC Masters, a four person team with an average age of 75! Riders Lew Meyer, Lee Mitchell, Robert Kash and Chris Stauffer have maintained an unbelieveable average speed of 15.6 up to mile 2105. UMCA Director John Hughes is serving as Crew Chief.

I rode with Lew Meyer on my first 400K in 2007. He is an wonderful guy and an amazing cyclist. Over the course of the day, he shared a wealth of information about training and equipment and I listened in awe to his stories of PBP and the Fireweed 400. More memorable, though, is what a strong cyclist Lew is. I remember fading a bit, having never ridden a 400K before, and having Lew lean over to say, "just get behind me and I'll pull for a while." I mean this guy was 73 years old and he was pulling me all over creation. Respect!

So there is no excuse. With plenty of ways to follow the action, dial in an update today and see what these superhuman cyclists are up to. The first finishers will pull into Annapolis some time on Thursday.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Rapha's Take on the Gentlemen's Race

Rapha Gentlemen's Race - New Paltz, NY from RAPHA on Vimeo.

Here's Rapha's take on the fabulous Gentlemen's Race they put on in New Paltz last month. The five minute film is a hoot and the images on their website make the world look just a bit more beautiful and weird than it ususally does in only the way an expert photographer (or photo editor) can. Keep your eye's peeled for our signature green Bicycle Depot jerseys. It was truly a day to remember and it will probably be some time before I race in an event that sports its own film and camera crews. It was an honor to participate, a thrill to take second place and a hell of a lot of fun to ride.

Each of the teams was asked to send in a ride report. You can read them all at this link. Here's ours:

It all began on one of our regular Saturday morning rides in mid-April. When Mike shared the news that Rapha planned to stage a Gentlemen’s Race in New Paltz, it sounded too good to be true. A 200K race in our backyard with strong riders from across the East Coast? As the local boys (ex-locals for some), we knew these roads like the backs of our hands, but it was the first time that this team of six would ride together.

The climb up 44/55 went by fairly painlessly, and so too the rollers up to the base of Sugarloaf (some locals have dubbed it Pinch-a-loaf). Up until this point we were having a good time sitting on Danny’s wheel; chatting and screwing around a bit, but for better or worse we all knew what was in store. The hardest climb of the day broke a couple of us more than the others but the food and water at the summit was a big bonus.

The top of the Frost Valley climb prompted the now famous, “wounded animal” quote about the sounds one of our riders was making, but the descent off the backside was just dessert. In hindsight, stopping at the deli was probably a bit of a waste of time since the next good chunk went by very quickly as did just about everything until the base of Mohonk.

The final climb showed us for what we were: A mismatched bunch of locals who thought this race sounded like fun…almost six hours earlier. The 90 degree heat wore on us and though some of us climbed with no signs of fatigue, others fought back tossing Hostess Fruit Pie (apple) all over the road. Still, we all made it with some semblance of grace and were inspired to get this thing over with. We half expected one of the stronger teams to come rushing past us in the final trudge up Route 299, but it was not to be.

As the horses started to smell the barn, the skies opened up and we got some well-earned relief from the heat. With the rain, headaches disappeared, sore backs and legs felt new again - riding was truly fun for the first time in a while and with only Empire Cycling in front of us, it looked like the beer was staying in New Paltz this year.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Film Review: “Bicycle Dreams” (2009)

Bicycle Dreams” is an entertaining and informative documentary on the Race Across America (RAAM) which examines the 2005 edition of that annual endurance event. Filmmaker Stephen Auerbach profiles half a dozen racers including endurance cycling superstar and four-time RAAM winner Jure Robic, fellow Slovenian Marko Baloh who currently holds the 24-hour world record, Frenchman Phillip Autissier, British racer Chris Hopkinson, Swedish cyclist Catharina Berge and American Chris Macdonald. The film follows their progress, includes interviews with racers, organizers, and crew members and showcases beautiful footage of the countryside between Oceanside, California and Atlantic City, New Jersey. "Bicycle Dreams" does a very good job of illustrating the dynamics of endurance cycling, including sleep, nutrition, crewing, etc.

As with the Everest expedition featured in Jon Krakauer's book, Into Thin Air, it's remarkable that tragedy befell participants in the event as it was under such close journalistic and artistic scrutiny. This was the race in which 53-year old Bob Breedlove was killed when he was struck by a pick-up truck near Trinidad, Colorado. In what are some gripping emotional moments in the film, participants and crew members of various teams find out about Breedlove’s death in real time and make decisions about their own participation as we watch.

There are a few things that Auerback leaves out that might have enhanced the story of what RAAM means to those who compete and follow the “world’s toughest race.” The film doesn't discuss the costs of competing in solo RAAM, which one 2008 racer estimated at over $10,000 or the training that goes into competing in this event. The film also focuses on the solo race only; no mention is made of the team racers at all during the film.

In all, this is a very good film that explores the fascinating psychology of self-imposed suffering and agony that is endurance cycling. RAAM seems to be difficult to get out of one's system, too. Robic, Baloh and Autissier will all be racing next week when RAAM solo racers pull out of Oceanside on June 17. Fans can follow their progress on the RAAM website as well as the racers' personal websites. One of my favorite lines in the film is “If you’re not afraid, you’ve got a problem.” The film is available on DVD from the Bicycle Dreams website for $19.99. Buy it today.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Rapha Gentlemen’s Race: A Podium Finish!

Cars lined the sides of the wooded country road on the edge of the Shawangunk Ridge as riders wearing matching team kits pulled expensive road bikes down from rental car roof racks. The inaugural East Coast Rapha Gentlemen’s Race was about to begin. The rules were simple. Each six-person team had to follow a prescribed route, start together, hit three checkpoints together and finish together. Crews and drop-bags were forbidden. Entry to this invitation-only race was $60 per team and a case of beer. The winning team would win a Rapha jersey for each rider and the second place finishers would take home all the beer.

The field was comprised of eleven teams from as far away Boston and Pennsylvania. Bicycling Magazine, Empire Cycling, Embrocation Cycling, Rapha Racing, Rapha Continental, and others would be in attendance. When I looked at the roster I realized that Selene Yeager (The Fit Chick) would even be racing. It was an eclectic mix of teams with riders of various categories. Some teams, like the Empire pro-development team based in NYC, were assembled of twenty-something CAT-1 racers, while others had a splattering of riders in CAT-5 through CAT-1. The race was “handicapped” with teams heading out in small groups over a span of 45 minutes. First team across the line would win. We were seeded in the middle of the pack.

, the British cycling apparel company which has wedded a retro wool aesthetic with urban bike messenger chic and a stylish technical fit was coming to town. I have been a huge Rapha fan for several years and would own only Rapha gear if my salary allowed. As it is, I can afford only one or two Rapha purchases each year, yet I follow the Rapha-sponsored riders with awe and anticipation. Rapha sponsors elite teams such as Rapha Condor team in England as well as two US “Continental” squads that fit more easily into the randonneuring ethos of long, self-supported epic rides. Continental riders wear Rapha gear and their ride reports covering some of the most beautiful sections of North America are featured with eye-popping photos on the Rapha web site.

I heard in mid-April that Rapha was planning to sponsor this race in our backyard, I knew that we had to assemble a local team. I felt like Dave Stoller in Breaking Away with the Italians coming to town. The locals were going to get a chance to race with the big boys (and girls). Mike Newman, who co-owns the Bicycle Depot in New Paltz, assembled a strong team and we were in. Knowing the local roads and specifically the hills we had in store for us was helpful. Danny Brennan, the former Bicycle Depot owner who now lives in Pennsylvania, was our strongest rider and did more than his share of pulling us over hill and dale throughout the day. We also had super strong road riders and triathletes Alex Sherwood and Travis Turner on board along with CAT-3 racer Patrick Clifford who recently finished third at Battenkill, Mike and me.

race covered a challenging 200K course with 8500 feet of climbing. We began with a 1000-foot climb up route 44/55 over the Shawangunk ridge. On the climb we passed the HUP United team that had started 5 minutes before us. The next section contained rollers with a general ascent to the foot of the fable Sugerloaf climb. A several mile-long climb with a grade of up to 18%, Sugarloaf is a killer. The Rapha crew set up the first check point in a hair-pin turn just before the last bit of climbing. They refilled our water bottles and handed out bananas, gels and energy bars for those in need. There was a sweet descent that followed and then about 20 miles of “alpine” riding along a quiet stream in beautiful Frost Valley. After our disciplined paceline rolled through this valley, we enjoyed another screaming descent down Slide Mountain, a hill I normally do in reverse. It felt like sweet revenge on that bloody hill to ride down it for a change. Downhill riding is a major limiter as far as my racing goes, so I expended the slight gain I was able to muster on climbs by heading out in front of my team on the big descents. While they love a good 50 mph descent, I am happier at 40 mph. Looking at the computer, though, I realize that I topped out at 42 mph which is a PB for me.

At the bottom of the hill, several of our riders
needed to refill their bottles so we stopped at the small deli and then hammered out the stretch of Route 28 down to the town of Phoenicia were we hit checkpoint 2. Around mile 85 as we neared the Ashokan Reservoir, we saw the first (and only) team to gain ground on us. Empire Cycling, whose Mike Magritte recently took second place in a recent Philadelphia criterium race would drop us like a bad habit. They caught us as we waited at the only red light on the course. I felt like a fish looking back at a pack of sharks. We held their wheels for a mile of so until we realized that just wasn’t going to work. We rolled on at a good pace and prepared for the last major climb of the day at mile 105. It was the climb over Mohonk mountain that all of us knew so well.

a day of hard riding, I finally cracked a bit on the back climb of Mohonk. It was close to 90 degrees at this point; I should have poured some cold water over my head to cool down, but all I had in my bottles was warm Perpetuem. We regrouped as I crested the hill and enjoyed a fast and pleasant descent into New Paltz. We didn’t know how far back the next team was so we kept the pace high on the climb back up Route 299. Before Mohonk our pace averaged 21 mph which is not too shabby with about 8000 feet of climbing. After it, our average dropped down to 19.2 which was still pretty respectable over a hilly 200K. On the final few miles, we learned from one of the photographers that the next team was quite far back so we relaxed a bit just as the skies opened up to cool us off. It looked like that beer was staying in New Paltz.

from each of the eleven teams gathered on the porch of the house that Rapha rented as a base to enjoy some pizza and share epic tales from the ride. It occurred to me, as I ate my fourth slice, that the Rapha Gentlemen’s Race wasn’t like Breaking Away after all. The local team took second place rather than first, and those “Italians” sure were nice.

Monday, May 18, 2009

How the 5:1 ratio is saving my marriage.

In Bike for Life: How to Ride to 100, Roy Wallack and Bill Katovsky ask readers to guess the ideal balance between “deposits” (generous acts we offer our families) and "withdrawals" (demands we place upon them) in a healthy relationship. Most men responded 2:1 while most women say 3:1. Contrary to popular belief, researchers have found that an ideal balance involves a 5:1 ratio to keep a marriage/relationship going smoothly!! In other words, people should make 5 “deposits” for every “withdrawal” to keep things feeling fair and respectful. No wonder the divorce rate is so high in this country. It is easy to lose track of the impact that being on a bike for 10 hours a day on back-to-back weekends with half days of driving and overnights in hotels can have. No wonder my wife was getting so testy every time I got near my bike.

My wife and I both work in schools and have two young children. Let me tell you, the month of May is an absolute killer. Evening after evening, weekend after weekend, we are beset by events of all shapes and sizes. Learning how NOT to fight this inevitable feature of my life makes everything much smoother, though. Last Saturday, I gave up riding altogether to be the Guy Friday at my wife’s annual spring dance concert. It was actually a lot of fun and it felt great to repay some of the tab I’ve run up for all of my time away.

During my first season of randonneuring, I made the serious tactical error of underestimating the impact that all of my riding was having on my wife and kids. I will not do that again. I made several concrete changes to get closer to that magical 5:1 goal.
  1. Don’t talk about cycling all the time. It just makes people angry. My family easily mistakes talking about riding with riding. I don’t want to squander valuable time on the bike.

  2. Offer to take the kids so my wife can go off and spend time with her friends or on activities she enjoys. Don’t wait until she asks me.

  3. Do nice things for my wife and kids without being asked.

  4. Say “yes” more to opportunities to be together as a family. Look at the calendar carefully and work alternating weekends of long rides into the schedule.

  5. Commute to work whenever feasible (usually 2-3 times per week.) This is tricky for me as I work in the school that my children attend. A carpool to work has helped me squeeze miles in.

  6. Ride to family events whenever possible. My in-laws have a house in the mountains 75 miles north of us. If I add a few loops in, it becomes a 100 mile ride. If I help pack the car the night before and head out early, we can arrive there at the same time.

  7. Ride at night and early in the morning. My wife is a light sleeper so waking up at or before dawn often involves waking her as well unless I sleep in another room.

  8. Try to involve my family more. In addition to entering a few events with my son, this year, I’ve also asked my wife and kids to crew for me at the Saratoga 12-hour race. We’ve secured a lovely B & B right near the staging area so every lap of the 32-mile course will bring me into contact with “my team.” I’ll really benefit from their help, not having to refill and mix my bottles, and moral support. I’m hoping that the thrill of the race will rub off on my loved ones and they will understand a bit better the pull that events like this have on me. I also hope to add miles to my results with their help.

Who knows? The 5:1 ratio may be impossible. So far, though, the effort has been paying off. The fact that I love my wife more than my bike has never been in question. Making her feel that this is the case is not always a simple matter.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The NYC Five Boro Bike Tour

I swore I would never do it again. The last time I rode in the annual NYC Five Boro Bike Tour, I decided that I stood a better chance on the open streets of NYC, playing chicken with cabs than trying to dodge the swerving riders who were a little rusty around the edges. Then my son changed all that. This year, I had one of the most exceptional rides I can remember because not only was it a hell of a lot of fun, but I discovered that my son is superman.

When I first proposed the ride to Eli back in March after receiving a flier in the mail, he instantly said, “sure – let’s do it.” He had just signed up for the Team Get Outdoors bike challenge and had fire in his eyes about logging in long miles. He had not yet ridden more than 10 miles at one time, but hey, how bad could it be, dad, we get to takes breaks, right?

Now training wasn’t exactly what I’d call methodical. In fact, it was tough to get out for more than 10 miles at a time together in the weeks leading up to the big ride. He found the rolling hills on Block Island to be somewhat daunting. I looked at his little circus bike the week before the big day and I began to think this might not have been the best idea after all. Since the 5 Boro route is a fairly tight loop and riders are never too far from a subway stop, it seemed like we had plenty of options if things should turn south. In fact, I had my eyes on the Brooklyn Bridge bailout at mile 25 as a real likely scenario.

My in-laws' apartment in Tribeca provides the perfect staging ground for this ride. We could wake up at a leisurely 7:00 and still get to the start in plenty of time. We filled our bottles, quickly dressed and brought the bikes to street level by elevator and headed out for our two mile ride to the start. The mass start of this event is well-orchestrated but the wait is a killer. After 45 minutes of waiting we rode off into the horizon. The atmosphere was pleasant and festive with riders passing beach balls across the avenue to kill time. The weather was dreadful, though, and it rained all day.

After we rolled out, we easily settled into a comfortable pace as we rode quickly through the Village and Chelsea on our way to Central Park. The absolute best thing about this ride is that the streets of NYC are closed to traffic for the full 42 miles. It’s simply magical to ride through one of the world’s major cities with 30,000 other cyclists. There’s nothing quite like it and the magic worked its spell on Eli.

The park itself was less pleasant than the preceding section because of the bottlenecks that the narrower streets caused. This was to be a recurring drawback on the ride. Due to the huge size of the field, whenever the road narrowed significantly, we were forced to walk our bikes like drivers in bumper to bumper traffic on the Long Island Expressway. This was especially challenging when soaked to the bone and chilled later in the ride. After exiting the park into Harlem, we hopped across the Madison Avenue bridge for a short 3 block foray into the Bronx and the headed south over the Third Avenue Bridge to the FDR drive.

The first official rest stop came at mile 15 at a school off the FDR drive at 116th street. Eli and I stopped to pick up a few energy bars and some water and use the porta potties. The FDR Drive down the east side of Manhattan was a major highlight of the ride. The large southbound lane was closed and we were able to take in the impressive vistas as we travelled downtown. Especially welcome was the tunnel under the UN and Tudor City which provided relieve from the rain. It was also exhilarating to yell and screech in a tunnel with hundreds of other cyclists. As we headed downtown, the route crossed the East River at the Queensboro Bridge. The bridge was a bit crowded which led to a delay at the entrance but the views were cool as was the ironwork and drop netting to protect vehicles from flaling debrius. The second rest area came at mile 18 in Astoria.

After riding through Brooklyn for a bit, we were presented with the 25-mile short cut crossing the Brooklyn Bridge back to Lower Manhattan. It was an option many riders were exercising. When I presented this option to Eli, he said, “What are you kidding me? And miss Staten Island?” We pedaled on with determination. The Brooklyn Queens Expressway was fairly pleasant, but also beset by lane closures that resulted in bottle necks and walking our bikes in the pouring rain. There were a few grades on the BQE and I was amazed to watch seemingly healthy adults walking their bikes. No mechanicals, just the result of exhaustion. Not Eli, though, he just kept on pedaling throughout the event. Eventually we made it to the base of the mighty Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. This was actually a pretty big hill. At one point, Eli slowed to the point where it became hard for him to sustain his forward momentum and we walked a bit. I pointed out to him that if I pushed him a bit it would be easier to pedal that to walk. He gave it a shot and rode the rest of the climb. After the crest, we both cruised down to the bottom where the festival awaited.

The festival is a bit of a tease, because after we reached it, there was still a 3-mile victory ride to the ferry launch where we met our ride home to Battery Park. The wait was about 20 minutes in the cold wet air, but the boat ride itself was warm and delicious. We disembarked in lower Manhattan like our ancestors before us only with this time with bikes. A short pedal up to Tribeca and we were home to family and a warm shower.

A few great Eli quotes from the road:

• “Once you’re’ wet, you can’t really get much wetter.”
• “Why do we keep stopping at the rest areas Dad, let’s keep going.”
• “This is so much fun. I can’t believe we’re doing this. I can’t believe how much fun this is.”
• “We never do anything like this, just the two of us.”
• “Let’s do this every year.”

What amazed me most about Eli’s performance is his absolute consistency and stamina. Pedaling away on that little circus bike, he never once suggested we bail out, turn back or even modify our goal in any way. He was like the Energizer Bunny banging that drum all the way to Staten Island.

Unlike the trophy Eli gets for simply showing up in his soccer league, he EARNED the right to feel immensely proud of his accomplishment. Other people were quitting. Grown-ups were walking their bikes. He hammered up the huge grade on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. At one point, we saw a young boy on a road bike and in that moment I saw some very exciting possibilities unfold for my son and me in the future.

What was I like as a nine year old? Would it ever have occurred to me to ride 46 miles on my bike? Doubtful. For me, that came later. For now, Eli is superman and I am in awe.