Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A bit of what you want, a bit of what you need.

With this past Sunday's cyclocross finale in Almonte, the Ottawa area's mainstream cycling season comes to a close for those who have not already packed it in. Racing is done. I've been looking forward to calling it for at least a few weeks. I don't think that indicates I was worn out, just that the season is long, and it feels good to let go.

Let go of what, one might ask? In a word, the tension. In response to this reply one might counter: 'tension, why bother if racing is about that?' The answer to this question is one that every racer must confront, and continue to confront, each season. For those of us with families, this is question that often brings internal struggle. For some, including myself, the 'why bother?' question is answered simply: racing presents the opportunity to strive, to experiment, to learn what it means to push our physical and psychological limits, to try tactics, to experience camaraderie, to travel to locales off the beaten track...and perhaps, the odd time, to realize our potential. Few things are more satisfying than putting all the pieces of the puzzle together correctly at the right time, on race day. After each season comes to a close, the first question that comes to mind is: how can I improve next season?

That's the why bother part, but how might I break down what I mean by tension? I'll begin small, at the base: bicycle racing is about pain and suffering. I am by no means unique in stating this, everyone who writes about racing acknowledges and delves into the pith of this truth.  'Cycling' is not about these, racing is. I did not fully grasp this truth until I got into road racing. Having raced mountain bikes from the age of 14, I knew racing was hard, it hurt, sometimes it sucked. But I pushed myself, I raced the pace I chose. In road racing, pace was often inflicted upon me, and I came to know suffering. Hold the wheel or fail. I do not like to allow myself to fail. Cyclocross is pretty much uncomfortable to outright painful for an hour straight....unless you are so much stronger than the rest that you don't have to push. I wouldn't know that feeling.

Ok, so racing bikes is about pain and suffering. If one does not accept that, one is not racing. Fine. With  this reality comes baggage: emotional investment. This is, I believe, the primary reason Lance Armstrong feels (from what I observe) that he legitimately won 7 Tour de France titles. He put in the time, the pain, the suffering. He earned those yellow jerseys. This is not the place or time to debate LA's case, I merely raise it to illustrate how powerful the emotional investment of training can become. The utter truth is that training often sucks. The things racers have to do to glimpse their potential are generally not fun. Intervals are not fun. They must be extremely uncomfortable if not painful in order to be effective. If one is a robot, or at least robot-like, the solution is clear: do it. For those of us who are, let us say, more philosophical, there is tension: should my cycling be all about mean to ends? Or do I need to preserve an approach where I take rides as inherently valuable from an experiential point of view (granted, one might say this is a rationalization for not being strong willed enough to just do it)? In practice, I think a commonality Tall Tree riders share is a careful balancing of the poles of this tension. From where I'm standing, we all seem to find our own ways to ride our bikes for fun and put in hard work judiciously. Some are better at the latter part than others, but 'better' sounds value laden, and that's not what I want to do. Simply put, some are motivated to do the robot work more than others. Different strokes for different folks; you get out what you put in.

The robot work is taken up as an investment. Its for later. Its for the Almonte Roubaix. Its for Battenkill. Its for the Grand Prix, Sutton, the Tremblant Canada Cup, Crank the Shield....the list goes on. While our group training rides blend fun and suffering, the interval work is solitary and devoid of beauty. Its slobbering-all-over-yourself-agony. Consequently, the racer feels s/he is earning results down the road. Pain now, good sensations later. Please, let that happen.

Here is where the tension really manifests: the rest of life. This is why cycling is referred to as a 'lifestyle.'

Here's how it breaks down: Racer-X puts in time over the winter on the trainer, the fatbike, xc skis, yoga, hockey.....etc, etc, in an attempt to retain base fitness, unwind a bit, and perhaps improve some areas of weakness; say, core strength. When February 1 hits, its time to get serious. More trainer time, threshold intervals....things start to get painful. Strong in April, that's the mantra. March 1 hits and its 'spring.' I'm not kidding, regardless of what the weather is doing, I call March 1 'spring' because it has to be. As in, the races in April fall when they fall regardless of what its doing outside in March, so March 1 is 'spring.' Better find a way to get out there and put in some serious rides. That means hills. And that means shit weather on roads with holes everywhere, numb nuts, and embrocation on my face. Emotional investment: check.

Ok, so Christmas time was all about damage control (minimizing weight gain), January was about getting on track and into a routine, February was about putting in some quality work, and March was about suffering in crap weather. One might call all this 'sacrifice;' I call it 'the lifestyle.' It just doesn't make sense to undo or undermine gains clawed into being with weakness for wackloads of sugar, kegs of beer, and midnight poutine. Yes, there are times when one must allow for such 'slippage,' but the pain and suffering motivates discipline. Eye on the prize.

I personally believe the general lack of understanding around the core of bike racing - pain and suffering - prevents our colleagues, uninitiated friends, and family members from understanding us. They perceive dietary discipline as odd, perhaps eating disorder-like behavior, possibly founded upon vanity. I, and I believe many racers, view this as merely prudent. After all, the equation is simple: power:weight. That's what it is. How much power can you deliver in relation to your weight? Weight less, retain the same power, and you are faster. Simple. 5 pounds off the body could come at zero cost financially, but be worth more in speed than $5000-worth of upgrades. Recall, Tyler Hamilton stated he'd drop 3lbs rather than take EPO any day; the benefit was that much greater.

Tension inheres in the usual stuff, holidays, family time, all the moments where it would simply be easier to do what everybody else seems to do: let go.

The elephant in the room is of course the tension that resides in the parsing of time dedicated to cycling. At once, we read of training plans, how much time we should spend doing this, that, the other thing. We are bombarded with mixed messages in popular culture: live every day like its your last; don't live a life of missed opportunities, etc., while also: be involved in every aspect of your child's lives; keep your lawn pristine; be a good neighbor; be selfless in relation to your spouse and kids; have a good job; be awesome at your job; make a lot of money, etc. The racing cyclists constantly confronts tensions between these ideals, casting off some as trivial (keep your lawn pristine), and weighing others heavily (don't live a life of missed opportunities, and be selfless in relation to your spouse and kids). Oops, do those jive? The short answer is: it depends. If one is as lucky as me to have a spouse who understands my psychology pretty well, this whole 'racing bikes and having a family' thing is workable. But there is always tension. 'Should I ride for 1hr, get home sooner?' 'Eeee, 1hr is kinda short, I can't really accomplish much in that time....I won't be making doing justice to that shit I went through in February and March.....' Herein lies the primary tension I experience as a bike racer, and its one I have to assume most in similar life arrangement undergo: commitment to family versus commitment to one's sense of what constitutes sufficient effort, dedication, discipline, and toughness. This balancing act - always trying to do the best thing, the right thing - is what leads many of us to virtually give up 'pleasure riding.' We just can't afford to spend time during the season doing rides that are not contributing something to what we've set our sights on. Doing an easy 3hr ride feels like an offense to one's family and one's own sense of dedication to racing. In short, we just can't afford to do that. We are invested.

So we find ways to have fun while making it really hard at the same time. This is the joy of having riding partners who are on the same wavelength, and are able and willing to share the pain and suffering.

I think I have sufficiently established the sorts of tension racers, particularly Masters racers, deal with over the course of the racing season; so, essentially, from February to the end of November. That's ten months of the year. The end of the season means the tension is off, its sidelined, its merely a potentiality. Family time stacks up above riding time; no tension. Riding can be easy, just for fun, no strings attached; no tension. One can let the diet slip a bit...just a bit. Enjoy not caring if that's what you want.....and need.

Next post: the season in review.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Cyclocross Omnium Report

file treads!
Jamie OTB - Photo by Rodd

The Omnium is a traditional track cycling format, combining various events into one overall competition, similar to a stage race. Nick Vipond and Warren McDonald, Ottawa's two cyclists most into Buffy the Vampire Slayer, put out a call mid last week: race thrice, transcend the ranks of mice.

Its not that it hadn't been done before. Over the last couple years a number of Masters racers had omniumed. But they didn't know it, because the trio had not yet been named 'Omnium,' and thereby lacked the immense weight of intercred (internet credibility - yes, I just invented this). Our Omnium would be Epic-Rap-Battle-of-History-awesome (featuring Stephen Hawking). And I would be Stephen, with 12 inch rims. 

There are a 10-million, million, million, million, million, million, million, million, million, million 
particles, in the universe, that we can observe,
your mama took all the ugly ones and put them into one nerd.


Saturday's Anvil race, thrown by Ride with Rendall, Glenn Rendall at the helm, offered the requisite dose of goose poop and turns. In truth, the goose poop seemed isolated to the not-race-course-area, which was nice, as that stuff can be slippery. While on paper the track might have seemed to favour riders who like turns, and not so heavy on power requirements, on tires the race was demanding in every way. The start was a short punch, followed by many turns, many of which had to be sprinted out of. The Master 1 and Elite fields started together, so I was following the likes of Derek St. John and about 7 other guys as they punched like it was election day.

first lap

Jamie Pold! Soon to be Papa! Givin' 'er!

Matt givin' 'er first lap with Imad hot on his heels...

Jamie Pold! and Peter and Nick

Filtered Jamie!

Matt on a borrowed bike, still givin' 'er

It didn't take long for me to start suffering, opening the door for Kris Westwood and Steve Proulx to pass and ultimately triumph, with Steve on the top step. I wound up in a tactical battle with the ever strong (and father of two) John Fee. After following/sucking his wheel for a couple laps, I took up the lead (John 'forced me to') and attacked as often as I could. I wanted to make it as uncomfortable for John as possible, and it worked. He was right on my wheel turning into the finishing straight, but I was able to hold on by 4 inches for the third step on the podium. It was a fun battle.

A freezing rain warning for the Almonte area had us all on standby for the morning's race. I figured I couldn't lose: race or have breakfast with my family. As it turned out, the freezing rain never came, and the volunteers were out dark and early to set up. It had rained all night though, and continued to do so as we prepared for 'warmup.' The course was laid out a little differently than usual due to lakes forming, but the result was much like previous years. Being waterlogged, the track was very slow and 'heavy' to ride. A good start at 9 a.m. (thanks to Bob Woods et al accommodating those who wanted to race again later on in Nepean) had me positioned behind Matteo dal Cin. My strategy was to secure the win in the Master A category with as little effort as possible, conserving for later on. Staying with Matteo was more work than I was interested in doing, and hard charging Arno Turk (Master B) and Colin Funk (Master C) caught up before long and powered away. A couple of fine riders there, impressive! Imad El-Ghazel regained his composure, got comfortable with the ample supply of mud, and chased down Marcel Vautour, who'd come up, riding strong. There was no free speed on hand; this had to be the most physically demanding cx course I've raced. The descending turns that required foot out technique were a blast. Jim's family cheering us on was even better! Thanks McGuires!!!!!!!

Post cafe stop and failed attempt to wash bikes at a car wash, we were en route to the Nepean Equestrian Park for the Omnium capper, the Anvil. Alerted to the fact that the stables had a bike wash set up, we enjoyed warm water lavage, aided by my Pedros bike brush, booty from Saturday's Hammer. A few Dark Horse Flyers gents showed up and were keen to hear about other races in our area they might hit in 2013. I was happy to convey details about the other venues, as well as plug the Almonte Roubaix, Clarence Rockland Classic, and our Ride of the Damned. With luck, we'll see some of the Toronto guys at a few more of our Eastern events next season. We're already mapping out our 2013 season!

Camera Roll-48
My Steelwool is out of commission after an incident involving a stump and 35kph. Jamie kindly loaned his Salsa  frame to get me through the rest of the season.
Camera Roll-47
Imad wasn't so elated after realizing the shower featured cold water.
Camera Roll-41
...or the fact that a glass bottle broke in his bag, wetting his clothes for race #2.
Camera Roll-44

Camera Roll-38
Nick brought the right hat, but the wrong footwear. I left my Bogs at home in favour of my Birkenstock clogs. Also brilliant.
Ready to roll, skinsuit applied, back over to the race zone to see our own Anna O'Brien take third in the Master A women's race. Way to go Anna!




Jamie showed up just in time to not do a lap of the course (a series of unfortunate events...), then we staged for the start, this time Elite and Masters divided. I considered this advantageous, as it would mean I could pace off Steve and Kris, rather than the guys at the front of the Elite group. As luck would have it, I became detached from Steve and Kris anyhow, and once again found myself with John Fee through the back half of the race. This time I played my cards differently, knowing John would expect me to do the same as Saturday. In the lead with two to go, I punched hard as I passed an Elite, then took an off camber corner running, rather than riding. I pictured how Sven Nys does it and went for it. The turn had been so slow on the bike, I figured I could open a gap by running. It worked. Being pretty well recovered, I was able to attack hard and keep on the gas, taking chances in the turns just shy of flat out. The gap held and I ran the turn again on the last lap, John following suit. From there I was able to roll in solo, again securing third behind a reversal, Kris on top, Steve on the second stop. Congrats gents, fine riding. Same to John, always a formidable foe. It feels much better to secure a third spot when you have to work really hard for it.

Andy snapped these, nice work.




For the record, Sunday's course seemed to flow more than Saturday's, requiring fewer sharp accellerations. Perhaps this is just the impression I got as I was too tired to ride as hard as I could on Saturday. Anyhow, it was fun.

Given the fact that Warren had bailed o Saturday morning's race (though it might not have mattered for the results), the Omnium podium was topped by Doug van den Ham, followed by Imad and myself. Doug was the proud recipient of the winners jersey, a relic from Nick Vipond's tickle trunk. Congrats on three fine races, gents!

A big thank you goes out to everyone who made each of this weekend's races not only possible, but great. Thanks to everyone who came out to spectate and cheer, it really does make a difference for the racers, even if we don't show it. And thanks to Rodd and Andy for snapping photos. Click through any of them to see everyone else.

Two to go, and remember to sign up to help set up a course if you have not yet this year (but have raced), or just love being helpful early in the morning. http://cyclocross.org/page15/page15.html