Monday, April 27, 2009

RAAM 2009: Right around the corner

In just over 50 days, the solo racers will leave Oceanside, CA in their epic attempt to cross America the hard way arriving in Annapolis, MD some 8-9 days later. With “the world’s toughest bike race” just around the corner, I took a peek at the race’s website to get the juices flowing and to see what lies ahead. Like the Tour de France in July, RAAM provides plenty of spectacle and inspiration. I mean this race is 800 miles longer than the TDF and completed in less than half as many days! I KNOW I will never ride in Le Tour, but RAAM? Who knows, that might actually be possible.

RAAM mystifies me. 3000 miles, two epic mountain passes, days battling brutal prairie headwinds and searing desert heat, not to mention living for a week on a liquid diet and a few hours of sleep. Financing the ride, assembling a nine-person crew and mastering the logistics necessary to participate, though, makes riding the bike look like the easy part! The total cost for a solo racer is about $20,000 when you factor in entry and all of the transportation and crew costs! One of my favorite racers (whom I’ve never met, by the way) is Kevin Kaiser. I like following Kevin because he strikes me as a normal guy doing absolutely incredible things. Kevin is a racer with plenty of randonneuring experience who raced RAAM last year for the first time in the 2-person team division with his teammate Jeff Bauer. Riding as Team Gran Fondo Fixies, Kevin and Jeff finished in fourth position in 8 days, 4 hours and 21 minutes on FIXED-gear bikes! It was great to follow their blog as they crossed the country. My favorite post involved one of their bikes flying off the roof because one of the crew members forgot to secure a quick release. I mean that sounds like something I would do! Here’s a group of guys I can relate to! Learn more about Kevin and his first solo RAAM attempt on his website. You can also donate a few bucks to help off-set his cost.

As you can imagine, RAAM is filled with characters. The four-time reigning champion is the Slovenian cyclist Jure Robic. Robic is alleged to hallucinate and become motivated by chasing demons. He has been known to turn on his crew and hurl incoherent insults at them along the way. Robic, a family man with a young son who is also an active member of the Slovenian military, finished the race last year in 8 days, 23 hours, 33 minutes. Since his principal competitor, Austrian Gerhardt Gulewicz DNF-ed after a crash at mile 562 the field was wide open for Jure to win again. The second solo racer, Mark Pattinson, came in 23 hours behind Robic. This year, Robic and Gulewicz will be joined by Marko Baloh, also from Slovenia (what do they have in the water over there?) who currently holds the world 24-hour outdoor track record with a result of 553 miles!!! Baloh also won the 2-person team division in RAAM 2008.

RAAM is one hell of a race and increasingly easy to follow in real time. Many of the riders have blogs and Twitter accounts that will post updates in real time. The central RAAM office also maintains a blog and now a Facebook and Twitter presence, so it should be easier this year than ever to follow rider progress over the 8-9 days of the race. RAAM certainly won’t be covered on the major networks, ESPN or even Versus, except as one of those “psycho-human-interest” stories that punctuate slow news days, so the internet will be the place to look for updates as you spend a week in mid-June thinking “yup, they’re still racing . . .”

RESPECT! This race is EPIC and only in my wildest fantasies could I complete such a massive undertaking. I mentioned to my wife today that I’d like to hold this out as a lifetime goal for say, when I turn 50. She quickly reminded me that I would have two kids in college at that point and, by the way, where the hell did I expect to get $20,000?!? Well, with two college-aged kids and a wife, I think I just found 3 crew members . . .

RAAM 2015?!? We’ll see; it’s only 6 years off . . . Before that maybe it will be the Race Across the West (RAW) at 1044 miles or the Race Around Ireland at 1350 miles, both of which would be great preparation for RAAM and incredible achievements on their own.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

CRDC - The First Race of the Season

After a long winter of base training and several weeks of more intense speed and hill work, it was finally time for the rubber to hit the road. The Connecticut River Double Century race, hosted by Wayne Cernak, was all I had hoped it would be and more. The weather couldn’t have been better with clear blue skies and temperatures ranging from the mid-forties to the upper fifties. The race began at 6:00 a.m. with roads still a bit damp from overnight showers, but within a short while, as the sun climbed in the sky, they dried out completely.

With the early morning start, I decided to drive up to Brattleboro on Saturday night and share a room at the conveniently located AND economical (a steal at $45/room, folks) Motel 6 with my friend Don Nolte. We even got the benefit of a personalized wake-up call from none other than the jolly Tom Bodette at 4:45 a.m. Although coming off a week-long vacation with my family on Block Island, I was a bit tired from all of the driving (RI to NY to VT within 24 hours) yet as usual, I tossed and turned during the night and didn’t get a very good rest.

There were only nine racers in the CRDC this year, which is a great mystery to me based on the event’s wonderful route and excellent organization. It may come a bit early in the season, but it’s certainly more than worth the cost of gas to get there! I highly recommend it for ultra racers and randonneurs in search of a good early season effort to get things going. In fact, it makes me realize that we should have more double century races here on the East Coast. THERE ARE 22 DOUBLE CENTURIES THIS YEAR IN THE STATE OF CALIFORNIA, ALONE PEOPLE!!! What’s wrong with this picture?!?

In all, I have not yet mastered a complete liquid nutrition strategy. I had hoped to fuel using only Hammer Perpetuem and Hammer Gel. I chose to use two one-hour Perpetuem bottles since I didn’t have a crew and didn’t want to bring a hydration pack along for the ride. Since the course was designed as a figure-eight loop that circled back to the hotel, I was able to leave an ice chest in my car with a few bottles of premixed Perpetuem to pick up at the mid-point. Aside from that, I sent a drop bag along with Wayne to the two check points (north and south) with powder to mix with water. In the future, I’ll think about mixing a multi-hour bottle of Perpetuem and taking in H2O from a second source. I also carried a flask of chocolate Hammer Gel and left one in the drop bag to pick up along the way. This came in very handy as my energy started to flag around mile 170.

I was very fortunate to fall into the company of two outstanding cyclists on Sunday. Soon after the start, I formed a lead group with John and Brad, both strong and experienced ultra racers, with great stories to share about past events. We stopped only to check in, refill water and eat a few fig bars at the three check points. John and Brad and I hung together throughout the full race and finished in 11 hours, 35 minutes which worked out to a 17.5 mph average on and off the bike. I really had no clear idea how long this race was going to take, but had set a goal of 12 hours and wasn’t sure this was possible so early in the season. With the help and motivation of two very strong riders, though, I was able to do even better. Wayne posted the results up on the website within 24 hours and I enthusiastically entered my time into the UMCA database as part of the 2009 UltraCup challenge.

In all, I was very pleased with the day and feel that the race bodes well for the season ahead. I still have no idea what 1400K is going to feel like this summer, but at least I know I’m off to a good start.

I realized a few things about my training past and future:

  1. Early season base training is critical. Even though none of my rides this season was longer than 140 miles, it helped that I completed six rides above 100 miles since January.

  2. I need more speed work, especially as it relates to sustained efforts along flat to rolling terrain.

  3. Climbing hills is a relative strength of mine, so I should probably pull back on hill training if it means more time for speed intervals.

  4. I need to train with the aerobars on flat to rolling terrain for upcoming races such as the Saratoga 12-hour race in July.

  5. I need to contiue to fine tune the nutrition.

The next organized event on my calendar is the sold-out NYC Five Boro Bike Tour on May 3. I SWORE I would never ride in this event again after the last time. Sure it’s fun to ride on NYC streets that have been closed to traffic, but with all the swerving and sudden stops from the 30,000 or so other riders, it feels more dangerous than skating with drunks. But this time will be different. This time I’m riding with my nine-year old son, Eli and we won’t be trying to ride in a pace line. Now I can’t wait!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

(R)est and (R)ecovery: The discipline of (not)riding.

If you’re like me, there never seems to be enough time to train and ride as much as you’d like. Paradoxically, though, the best strategy in the week before a big event is to pull back on both distance and intensity. It’s shocking how hard this can be. Justifications for a last minute hammer fest abound:

  • “The other riders will all be stronger, faster and better trained.”

  • “If I just ride more miles I’ll be in better shape.”

  • “Maybe more hill repeats will strengthen my legs.”
As many wiser and more experienced cyclists and trainers have written: very little gain is possible in the final week before a big event. The best we can hope for at this point is to enter the ride as well-prepared and well-rested as possible. Any intensity at this point will be counterproductive. It's time to taper. While I can grasp this on an intellectual level, it’s very hard not to get up on that bike and hammer away. This is why R & R right before a big event requires so much discipline.

Tapering has been especially hard this week because the weather is fabulous and I have so much extra time on my hands due to vacation. So I’ve spent some time as a tourist on this lovely island, ridden with my son and father-in-law at “family pace” and focused on OFF bike planning and preparation as much as possible. I’ve reviewed the race cue sheet, planned liquid resupply, scoped out the weather forecast and fine-tuned my nutritional strategy through research on the Hammer website.
I may not be the strongest rider in the field on Sunday; my focus now is to be the strongest rider I can be. So far, it seems like things are falling into place nicely.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Training at the Block Island Velodrome

No, there is no REAL velodrome on Block Island, but cycling the island’s 16-mile loop of smooth, gently undulating roads can feel a bit like riding on one. Block Island is one of New England’s true treasures. An exceptionally beautiful and peaceful 21-square mile spit of sand off the coast of Rhode Island, the Nature Conservancy has deemed it to be one of the “12 last great places in the Western Hemisphere." It’s also a wonderful place to ride a road bike. I’m fortunate to be a frequent visitor to the island since my wife’s family lives here year-round. This week, I’m spending spring break resting and catching up with family as I top off my training for the upcoming Connecticut River Double Century race this Sunday.

Steady 25-mile per hour winds have been ripping off the ocean for several days which makes sections of the island simply awful. At times like these, I am reminded of something I read by Dr. Bob Breedlove. Breedlove, the late RAAM record holder and endurance cycling god who was cut down in the prime of his life on a desolate road in the Midwest by two yahoos in a pick-up truck while competing in RAAM, referred to headwinds as “Quaker winds” because they are “friends” of the training cyclist. I like to remember, as I scream nasty epithets into each giant wall of wind, that at least there may be some gain from the pain.

In the off-season, Block Island is a cycling paradise. The roads are generally car-free with dramatic vistas in every direction. The island bears a strong resemblance to sections of the British Isles so it is not too hard to squint my eyes and imagine my upcoming L-E-L odyssey through the countryside of England and Scotland as I spin past lovely stone walls. During the high season, the roads can be jammed with day trippers, cars, scooters and bikes and it is HIGHLY recommended that the serious road rider get out before 9:00 a.m. or after 5:00 p.m. to avoid the knuckleheads. There’s more fresh ice cream available in the summer months, too, so it’s a trade off.

The paved roads on the island peak at 108 feet so the “BIKE ON CHEESE” signs are a bit of an overstatement. Installed for the faint of heart who may not have ridden a bike in over 30 years (a common species here in the summer months) these signs clearly identify the island’s three main hills. Don’t expect too much from these hills; with the prevailing headwinds, it was hard for me to surpass 30 miles an hour on descent so far this week. The roads are currently devoid of traffic and have only a minimal sprinkling of sand around the edges to slow a body down. I brought my Bianchi out this week with the compact 34/50 and 9-speed rear cassette, yet I would be perfectly happy with my single-speed or with a fixed gear track bike.

With Sunday's race in mind, I've shifted my training into a lower gear this week. Last Sunday, I rode 4x5 intervals into a 25-mile an hour headwind. On Monday, I decided to focus on “distance” and rode three laps at tempo pace which added up to 50 miles if you count the cool-down at the end. Today, I took a yoga class with my wife AND rode a gentle lap at recovery pace AND updated my blog. Ain't vacation grand?!? I really need to be sure to work yoga into my regular training routine when I get back home. It increases flexibility, focusses the mind and builds core strength, all of which are tremendously valuable on the bike.

While I have a great place to stay on the island, daily and weekly rentals are plentiful and ferries from several locations transport bikes and riders for a nominal fee. During the summer high season, boats run frequently from Pt Judith, RI, New London, CT and less frequently from Montauk, NY. Come for the day or spend a week. You won’t be disappointed. You can even leave your geared bike behind and ride the velodrome on your single speed and remember: the winds are good for you.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Family Mitzvah Day and a Quick Century or Some Days You Can Have it All

In Hebrew, the word “mitzvah” means commandment or blessing. It is a gift or responsibility that we share to make the world a better place. This past Sunday, my son’s Hebrew school organized a “family mitzvah day” for the community on the weekend before Passover. The day included options for spring cleaning, singing at an elder center and delivering food to a local food bank. It was hard to mobilize the troops to get up to Woodstock at the required hour, since we were out late at a family party in New York the night before, but we felt it was an important family responsibility, so we soldiered on. Jessie and Izzy and I chose to deliver and organize food while Eli raked and mulched.

One of the most difficult challenges for the endurance rider, in my opinion, is squeezing it all in. Sure I do everything I can to plot and scheme to get the rides in to keep my legs fresh and my lungs in top shape. I commute to school several days a week, get up before dawn most weekends, ride at night when necessary and arrange to cycle to meet the family at various destinations when traveling. The trouble is, these strategies often pull me away from the people I want to be spending my time with and sometimes don't even enable me to achieve the desired training goals. With my first race of the season, the Connecticut River Double Century, fast approaching on April 19, my need for a long training ride this weekend was unavoidable. How to do it? After speaking with my wife about the options, we decided on the following plan.

After completing our work in Woodstock, I suited up and jumped on my bike and rode off into the beautiful spring-like day for a quick and hilly century. It was a truly blessed day both off and on the bike. It reached 60° and the birds were out and there was barely a cloud in the sky. I wore sunscreen for the first time this season and needed not a single “warmer.” Not toe, nor arm, nor leg, nor knee. The direct route would have had me home in about 30 miles, so I added a large loop and reached the house in 100.6 miles instead. It was a quick ride. I’m trying my best to increase my average riding speed as well as my endurance for long miles. My on-bike time was 5:45 and my total time out was 6:02. Cutting out time spent in controls and rolling at a higher speed are both increasingly important as the season heats up.

The mitzvah my family gave to me, of course, was the time and freedom to ride on this most beautiful spring day. While it is often a struggle to fit it all in, some days you can have it all!