A Loaded Question

“What do you have to do to train for ‘cross?”

I was in the middle of playing Angry Birds, or maybe reading that Thomas Voeckler interview in Cycle Sport America. Or I could well have just not been paying attention. Either way, my wife was asking me about getting ready for cyclocross.

“Well, you kind of need to be in shape to start with, and then … blah, blah, blah.”

I went on through a pretty long-winded (and unnecessary) explanation of training and workouts and all of that stuff. What I failed to grasp was exactly why she was asking. Surely she doesn’t really care about what I plan on doing in preparation of gutting myself through the fall, does she?

And since she’s five months pregnant, she’s not asking for herself right now, either. So what’s cooking?

I have a feeling it’s a little bit of this fall – for me, since she’s unable to ride – and a little bit of next fall. She’ll be one year post-kid … I get the feeling she’s starting to think about her own racing ambitions.

That’s an interesting prospect, mainly because of her bike-racing history – which is completely nonexistent. She’s done her share of riding, and she’s not without athletic ability, but ‘cross as your first bike-racing endeavor?

Yikes.  Then again, giving birth twice isn’t exactly easy, either. She has a bike already – she requested a bike that could go wherever she wanted to go. That meant road, gravel and a bit of dirt. Sounds like a ‘cross bike to me.

We’re big fans of ‘cross here at VeloGear – maybe even super fans. Last fall, Jay our buyers (Matt and Mark) and I embarked upon a seven-hour drive from Omaha to the VeloGear warehouse in St. Louis. The topic of discussion for at least two-thirds of the ride? Cyclocross.

The three of them spent their spring and summer road seasons preparing for … you guessed it … cyclocross. My own preparations – getting a new bike, shoes and thinking about running (but just thinking about it for now) sound pretty lame by comparison.

And while getting a new bike and shoes is certainly fun, think of how committed you have to be to start thinking about laying the groundwork for racing more than a year from now?

Yikes. I hope I can keep up.

Harder Than It Looks

In my youth sports and high school days, my parents made an effort to be at as many events as possible. Baseball, cross country, track, band – they put a lot of miles on the ‘ol 1992 Chevy Lumina. And when I was older, they followed me to a pair of marathons.

But for this latest phase of competition – call it hanging on to youthful exuberance – they’ve been mostly absent. There’s a reason for that, and it has to do with the very real possibility of bone-crunching destruction.

Of course, I do have a track record. In the horrible summer of 2009, I went to the hospital four times. Two visits resulted in overnight stays. One was merely a broken finger.

Yeah, I can’t see why they wouldn’t want to go to a bike race.

But I finally convinced them to come out last weekend for a criterium held about 45 minutes from my hometown. Within five minutes of setting up their lawn chairs, a Cat. 5 racer ate it in a corner right in front of them, blowing up his bike and losing most of his skin – and shorts – on his right side.

There were more crashes later in that Cat. 5 race, which did nothing to reassure my parents that I wouldn’t be next. But my wife talked them down, explaining that as the afternoon went on, the riders would be better and better – able to handle the course mostly without incident.

She was right, of course, though there were plenty of close calls. That said, any time you’re riding elbow-to-elbow at 25-to-30 mph, turning every two blocks and spiking your heart rate, you’re going to have close calls. But instead of skittering across the pavement, close calls are corrected and mitigated.

In my own race, where we went very fast on a very fast course for 55 minutes, I could feel fatigue robbing me of my technical ability as we went on. A bad line in a corner, an inattentive run down a straightaway … there were plenty of opportunities to wad the whole thing up.

Magnify those opportunities, then, over a 120-mile stage of the Tour de France – every day for three weeks. It’s not the terrain itself that’s dangerous, it’s the stress of the race, compounded over miles and miles and miles of effort expended. They’re among the best riders in the world, and they’re among the most stressed-out riders in the world.

Or, in other words, if I was cross-eyed and ready to barf after 45 minutes, how do you think it feels to have survived the Col du Tormalet (and the descent) and then have to go back up Luz Ardiden? Think your technical abilities would keep you safe until the end? And if you’re not worried about yourself, what about someone else’s abilities? Like that dude on your right elbow who looks really stressed … .

Riding a bike is easy. Riding a bike fast is slightly harder. Racing a bike is hard – much harder than it looks. Were it just about going fast, we’d see a lot more riders entered in local races. But it’s about managing your effort, maximizing your ability, reading the race and – yes – staying upright.

Bike racing itself isn’t dangerous. But stress that comes with it is.

Undivided Attention

For the first six months of the year, despite near-constant internet access, and despite having plenty of opportunities to watch race coverage from around the world, I found myself blissfully ignorant of what was happening in the pro peloton.

I didn’t see Phillipe Gilbert’s domination of the Spring Classics, I didn’t see Alberto Contador make a mockery of the Giro, and I definitely didn’t find time to watch the Tour de Suisse or Criterium du Dauphine.

Why? Why so little attention paid by a guy who really likes pro cycling? For one, I don’t have cable or satellite, so therefore I don’t have Versus. Second, while free European feeds can be found online, they’re usually spotty, twitchy and generally unreliable. That doesn’t exactly make for appointment viewing.

Come July, though, my mornings are built around watching the Tour de France. You could argue the Giro d’Italia is the more beautiful Grand Tour (it is) and the Classics are more brutal and dramatic.

But the Tour is more accessible. As the biggest race in the world, it enjoys wall-to-wall coverage. The online feed – which I happily plunked down $30 to see – is reliable and high-quality. I can watch it on a laptop, I can send it from our computer to our TV, and I can have it on in a separate window when I’m writing blog posts.

That accessibility – long before live internet video feeds – is what so attracted me to the Tour to begin with. I watched none of Lance Armstrong’s Tour victories live, as a fan of cycling. I was aware of it all, but not paying close attention.

When I started racing, I quickly found that Midwestern snow makes winter training hard. And then I found that riding the trainer in place of going outside is impossible without the proper distraction. One of my then-teammates offered up a trove of race videos – you know, like the ones we sell here – to help pass the time.

And that’s when I really got to know the Tour de France. I caught up on 10 years’ worth of cycling history over the winter thanks to the detailed, expansive volumes from World Cycling Productions. I plowed through the Tour, learned about the Spring Classics and then headed way back in time with some Eddy Merckx features.

I can appreciate the Classics, but they’re so very dull until the fireworks start. It’s not until a Tom Boonen or Fabian Cancellara launches that things get really crazy. Meanwhile, there’s something new on the Tour every day. Sure, the pattern is the same – breakaway, catch, attack, etc. – but the players are different each time.

Over the course of three weeks, you get to know the riders. Who can or can’t climb with the big boys – who’s most likely to make that long flyer stick. Instead of one day of possible heroics, you get the goods delivered every day.

Thanks to full, consistent, easily accessible coverage – which the other Grand Tours can’t boast – you can watch it all.

Each morning I get up, get my work done (other writing projects, because I’m surprisingly not getting rich writing these posts) and ready the live feed. Yesterday I built my training ride around the expected time of arrival of the peloton within the last 20K.

And this morning, my son and I ate pancakes at the table while we watched the action unfold. He doesn’t yet understand how the whole thing works, but he knows about the polka-dot jersey, team cars and crashes.

Next week, he’ll learn about the mountains.

Random link time:

  • So, there’s this. Laugh if you must, but that video fairly sums up a few of us here … minus the Euro-mullet and cigarette. Oh, and if you dig that kit (I do), it’s from the Capo Dorato collection, and it’s here in red.
  • Nick Legan of VeloNews did some investigative work before a rainy Tour stage earlier this week. As always, it was a great read.
  • Are Grand Tours getting less sprinty? Probably. At least one rider thinks so.

Upgrade Fever

It took only a few minutes at the start line of my first bike race to get upgrade fever. To my right, a full Dura-Ace bike. To my left, a bike with wheels called “Zipp.” I took a mental note: “Figure out what that means and why everybody else is starting at them, too.”

Just a bit of research when I got home confirmed what I’d already come to believe: I had to get those parts, regardless of whether I really, truly needed them.

Similarly, it took my son just a few minutes at his first “race” this summer to realize he was on inferior equipment. For those who haven’t seen such a spectacle, most criteriums around here have a kids race, which means they line up the little buggers according to age and have them rip down the pavement for a couple hundred yards.

In his category, the “kids on balance bikes and training wheels” group, he was destroyed by the little monkeys who went flying down the road on their Striders. And despite the fact that my son is perfectly competent on his 12-inch bike with training wheels, he was very suddenly unimpressed with his ride.

The next day, he demanded I remove his training wheels. After a little session in time out, we went outside and gave it a shot without training wheels. It ended like I thought it would: he wanted the training wheels back on.

Fast forward a couple of weeks. He’s still talking about wanting a balance bike, and the last time he was in the store he took the opportunity to take one off the rack and show me he knew what to do with it.

I wasn’t convinced until he carved a corner around one of our product displays and kept right on rolling. He went home with that bike, and I imagine we’ll be getting our money’s worth over the next few weeks. I’d be willing to bet his training wheels aren’t long for this world.

And at the rate he’s growing, his little 12-inch bike might not last long, either. But as long as his next upgrade doesn’t include anything with “Dura-Ace” or “Zipp” in its name, we should be OK.

Now, about my bikes … .

Random link time:

Be Safe Out There

I grew up in a small farming town in Iowa. How small? When I go home, no matter where I go, someone greets me by name. Guaranteed.

This is the same kind of town where you’ll quite often wave to your fellow motorists – even if you don’t know them. It’s just a friendly, “Hey, neighbor” sort of thing.

I haven’t lived in my hometown for 15 years, but lately I’ve found myself waving at motorists while out on the bike. It’s that same, “Hey, neighbor” wave, too. As in, “Hey, there. Thanks for giving me plenty of room and not putting my life in danger.”

On one of my semi-regular riding routes, there’s a guy who always waves back … with his middle finger. He’s an older guy – white beard; kind of looks like an angry Santa Claus. Since I last saw him a couple of weeks ago, he got a new car. Good for him, I suppose.

At no point on any of my rides have I seen him and not seen the bird shortly thereafter. As far as I know, I’ve never done anything to upset him – the guy just doesn’t like cyclists. He’s an habitual offender, too. Last winter he was cited for reckless driving after an incident on the road.

And that, of course, means someone else did something to upset him. You know the script by now: Motorist gets upset, displays displeasure, cyclist(s) shoots it right back. Future cyclists are condemned to the same treatment, no matter their actions.

I have to wonder what touched the guy off. While bike gear is certainly tight and flashy, it’s hardly offensive (besides, I have nice legs). Ultimately, I’d be willing to bet it had something to do with having to wait behind one or more cyclists on the hilly, winding road. That’s understandable, I guess – nobody wants to be late. But in the big picture, those few seconds, or that minute or two probably wasn’t a big deal.

What is a big deal, however, is this driver’s lack of respect toward cyclists. He sees them not as a person, but as an inconvenience. An obstacle. Something in his way. The reality, of course, is that we’re people with families, careers, responsibilities – people with lives. But unfortunately, he’s not alone in that thinking.

Respect is a two-way street. If we as cyclists insist on being treated fairly, we have to follow the rules of the road. We have to ride responsibly. We have to be aware of our impact – individually and as a group — on everything around us.

Sure, sometimes there’s nothing you can do to make someone happy. They’re just not happy to see you.

Even so, that person gets the same wave from me. “Thanks for seeing me, have a nice day. (Even if you’re being fairly uncool right now.)”

The ultimate reward, other than not being buzzed? When the driver waves back – with all five fingers.

Random link time:

  • Garmin says its pedal-based power meter is coming in the fall. We’ve been hearing about it for more than two years. I’ll believe it when I clip into it.
  • Awww, poor ‘Bert.
  • This isn’t really surprising, is it?

 

Road Trip

Racing season is in full swing in these parts, which means not only pinning on numbers but coordinating travel, finding motel rooms and swapping cash for gas and food in the parking lot of the race venue.

When we started talking about rebuilding/reorganizing/creating a new team last fall, we thought about who should be on this team. We finally settled upon a pretty easy criteria: Would you like riding in a car with them for a couple of hours? Sharing a motel room?

Or perhaps more importantly: Would you gut yourself in a race to give them a shot a winning? If you look down your team roster and answer “yes” after each name, you’re on a good team.

Over the past weekend, we loaded up the various cars in the team fleet (read: whichever ones had bike racks mounted on top) and headed off to the races. While we were there to make our bikes go fast, a two-day, overnight trip is always good for bonding and morale boosting and all of that kind of stuff.

For example: The guy I pegged as least likely to be able to do anything athletically other than pilot a bike turned out to be the miniature-golf champion of the group. He was also the one who chased his post-race meal (at 3 p.m.) with a pair of Red Bull-and-vodkas.

Additionally, I seriously underestimated my teammates’ love of sweet-potato fries. They’re good and all, but three plates’ worth? Apparently so.

Between Red Bull, vodka and sweet-potato fries, we rehashed the day’s races in all-too-precise detail. What went well, what didn’t, what to do next time and what to never, ever do ever again. Ever.

We even managed to resist the temptation to throw something off of our (indoor) balcony into the pool (also indoors). Indeed, it was a successful night. (And it was soooo easily within range. We could have tossed anything in there with ease.)

The next day, we saw our lone masters’-race teammate off and then schlepped his spare wheels to the wheel pit … about 10 minutes late. Whoops. Luckily he didn’t need them. And a few minutes later we were spread out all over the course trying to offer strategy more detailed than, “pedal harder!”

We did it a few more times over the course of the day, and had the favor returned to us when we lined up for the last race – for all the marbles. From the gun, we were on the same page. Lap after lap, we did what we needed to do to deliver the goods at the line.

The result? A podium sweep.

As much as I’d like to say I was up there on the stand, waving and accepting a gift basket of salted meats and soft cheeses, I was not. For I was cross-eyed and gasping for air when the cannons launched at the end.

But I got my work in earlier – chasing attacks, slowing the bunch as our guys rolled away and taking an ill-fated flyer of my own. Remember one of those criteria listed above? The desire to turn yourself inside out for a teammate?

Check. It was horrible, awesome, exhausting and exhilarating, all at once. After the race we did another cash exchange in the parking lot and headed home.

What else was left to cover? Just splitting the pot from a successful day on the bike, that’s all.

 

Living the dream

In case you haven’t noticed, we tend to be all about the bike at VeloGear. Of the four guys entrenched at VG Headquarters on a daily basis, three of them usually have a bike in their offices. (We let the fourth guy slide, since he has to deal with our expense reports.)

As for me, it’s gotten to the point where it’s strange if the laundry doesn’t have bike stuff of some sort in it. And for some reason, I have three helmets. They’re all the same age. No, I don’t know why, but I use them all.

Our bike-first mindset aligns perfectly with a lot of the brands we carry – none more so than Capo. A small California-based company that specializes in Italian styling and production, Capo is a lifestyle brand – something you wear when you tend to be all about the bike.

Predictably, there’s a lot of Capo at our houses. The way the company rolls – get up, drink coffee, go ride all day, eat well, go to sleep (and then repeat) – fits pretty well with a typical weekend in Omaha.  Oh, and the gear looks (and wears) great, too.

A couple of weeks ago we threw a Giro d’Italia party, complete with Italian wine, cheese, bread and salted meats, courtesy of Capo and Boccalone. The next morning, bright and early, we were kitted up with our Capo rep and rolling down the road. A few hours – and probably too many climbs later – we rolled back, cleaned up and tucked into a hearty meal.

Though it was a damp, chilly day, we saw a lot of people out on their bikes. A couple from one of the groups we saw on Saturday came into one of our Omaha retail stores the next day and headed straight for the Capo racks.

“This is the stuff those guys were wearing yesterday,” one of them said. They each left with a couple of pieces, and I suspect they’ll be back for more.

Chances are if you see us out riding around, you can get what we’re wearing on VeloGear.com. And that’s not because we get good deals (we do), it’s because we like wearing it – it’s good stuff. Over the years we’ve tried almost everything. If it’s sold here, you can be assured it’s good stuff – because we probably each have some at home.

Ultimately, we’re no different than any other pack of “bike guys” – salted-meat parties notwithstanding.

Random link time:

  • Chris Horner. You have to love a guy who eats burgers, drinks beer and says nobody but Contador can drop him.
  • Xavier Tondo died recently in an accident at home. Les Clarke of Cyclingnews.com wrote a great tribute here.
  • Because kids are awesome, and because it’s been everywhere else this week. Why not here, too?

Vanquishing Old Foes

For a good chunk of my first year of racing – long ago by now – I lined up against a college kid probably 10 years my junior. While I was fit and coming from five or six years of running fitness, he was young and strong and … well, 10 years younger.

He put a good three or four minutes on me in a time trial, then followed my wheel as I attacked the group in a road race, only to out-sprint me at the end. The next time, I again set up the move and he again got past me for the win.  Same with the crit, after which he put another few minutes into me. It was great fun. No matter what I did, I could not get past this guy.

I think you know where this is going. He turned into my white whale. I didn’t care where I finished, as long as it was ahead of him.

The next season, when my running legs finally turned into cycling legs, I handled him easily. He was my minute man in a 9-mile time trial. I passed him after mile 2. Ouch. (This is where I note that he had mono – twice! – over the winter and hadn’t touched his bike.)

Anyway, fast forward a bit: Spring, 2011. He’s back on form, 30 pounds lighter and back on the podium. And over the weekend, he lined up right beside me.

When he rolled up, I remembered our first frustrating battles (frustrating on my end, at least). Then I remembered everything that’s changed since then: fitness, race smarts, etc. A lot of miles have been pedaled in the interim.

And after the whistle sounded and we took off, I didn’t think about him again until checking out the results. After checking out where my teammates and I placed, I scanned down the rest of the way. There he was.

Five years ago, having my name listed above his was the sole motivation for racing. Now, having my teammates’ names atop the list is king, and if I happen to end up in a good spot, all the better.

But I gotta admit, it was pretty nice having to scan past my name to find that of my old nemesis … on both days.

And what of Velo Jones Jr.’s race? He took off like a bat out of hell, gawked at the crowd, gave high-fives at the turnaround and left a skid mark when he stopped. That’s my boy.

Random link time:

  • Get on with it, already!
  • Silly season usually doesn’t fire up until the Tour, but it looks like we’re getting a head start.
  • Nick Legan is back with another Tech Q&A. Always a good read.

On the line

It’s a race weekend here in eastern Nebraska. There’s a Saturday criterium and a Sunday circuit race, which is code for “longer criterium.” The weather is supposed to be nice, the courses are fun and the fields will probably be stacked.

In other words, I should be getting my money’s worth.

I used to get a lot more worked up about racing. I’d mentally pack my race bag, review strategy, visualize the course … man, it was exhausting work. But since I’ve come under the VeloGear umbrella, I worry less and less about what happens when numbers are pinned on.

Why is that, I wonder? It could be that at my old job I had way more time to think about such things. (Of course, spending time thinking about such things could also be a clue to as to why that’s my “old” job.) And anybody who knows me is aware of what happens when I have too much time to think.

For example, Jay calls me “Headcase.” It’s a term of endearment, really.

So partially because I simply don’t have time to think about it and partly because I’m older and wiser, I’m not terribly concerned with the weekend’s slate of events. Sure, I’m excited and everything. I’ll get my race bag packed tonight and my bike tuned and ready. I might even break out the special socks.

But I probably won’t really worry about too much until an hour or so before the whistle sounds. Honestly, the thing I’m worried about most is my son’s “race.” Since he heard me mention “kids’ race” to my wife earlier this week, he’s been pretty much a non-stop stream of “bike race bike race bike race.”

This is where I mention that my son is 3.5 years old. He’s been all over the neighborhood this spring, getting more and more confident on his bike. And he’s pretty amped up about getting to race in the street, “like grown-ups do.”

If you’ve been to an event that featured a kids’ race, you know full well it’s just a ceremonial lap on the race course. Some older kids will blast around the thing, and some of the younger kids will need to be prodded and cajoled to even turn the cranks, let alone try to go fast.

This was my son, less than a year ago. A semi-interested crowd was clapping and cheering for the little-kid peloton and that boy simply would not move. I actually had to kind of nudge him to get him going. When he finally started pedaling, he was way more worried about the crowd (“They were saying my name!”) than making his wheels roll.

I’m not too concerned about that his time around, but there’s always that little shred of doubt: “I wonder if he’ll actually pedal this time?”

As for me, I know what needs to be done: Go really fast at the whistle and hang on for dear life. The story of my life.

Random link time:

Rainy-Day Music

The radar screen yesterday afternoon was a beautiful mess of greens, yellows, oranges and deep, deep reds. This is a pretty standard component of a Midwestern spring – humid morning, a bit of sunshine and … BAM! Afternoon fireworks.

The problem with yesterday’s afternoon fireworks was the timing. Really wet until 5 or so, a lull and then more later. Wednesday Night Worlds starts at 6, leaving everybody to wonder when that little bit of “more later” is.

In all honestly, my worry wasn’t “later,” it was riding on wet roads, being soaked to the bone within five minutes of starting and then freezing for the next two hours. Wet roads, a small group, falling temperatures … sounds like a recipe for a miserable night.

These are the thoughts that go through my head pretty much every time it’s wet outside. “Do I really want to do this?” “It’s going to be pretty crappy.” “I’m going to have to completely overhaul my bike when we get back.”

Those concerns are rarely warranted, though, and I’m always happy I went out. Even last night, as we were ripping down the paved rec trail at an inexplicable 30mph (hey, we were all alone), I was having fun.

Fun goes away a bit, though, when the rain starts again. Sure, there’s the idea of how bad-ass you look when you’re drilling it in the pouring rain and fellow citizens are in awe of your dedication to the sport. But then when one of your buddies flats – twice – during that downpour, the fun is pretty much gone.

In the end, we got it fixed and got rolling again. And despite getting home much later than I’d planned (and being really cold there for a short time), it was still fun.

That said, I’m also looking at a bike that needs to be wiped down … again … and may need some bottom-bracket work in a few days.

Eh, it was worth it. A day on the bike, even in the rain, is better than one without.

Random link time:

  • The Giro is heading up Mount Etna, which is a fairly lively volcano. And guess what? She’s starting to talk, just in time for Sunday’s stage.
  • Wouter Weylandt: No. 108
  • The Tour of California is going on, too? We probably should have noticed, but we have a pretty solid case of Giro fever in these parts.