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 http://www.kaisercycling.com/.

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.