Wednesday, August 30, 2006

My First Bike Race Win!!

This was my second real bike race ever and was the 2nd-to-last race in the Dixie Classic Criterium Series held in Winston-Salem, NC at the fairgrounds. My first race was a total disaster (synopsis: I somehow managed to find myself 70th out of 75 Cat 4/5 riders going into the first turn and never recovered, then had a minor mechanical issue which psyched me out and was pulled) so I was anxious to try one more race before the end of the year and get at least a little bit of experience so I would know what to focus on this off-season. I'd like to do enough racing next year to achieve legitimate Cat4 status by the end of 2007.

I arrived early enough with my trusty new bike to do about half an hour of warmup riding on the course. It's essentially a half-mile oval with a turn at each end but they've added an S-turn in there between the two ends for good measure. The road conditions are decidedly sub-optimal with lots of bumps, various metal manhole cover things, and some crazy asphalt seams--but the turns are easy enough that they can be made without too much loss of speed if you're at the front and watch your line. I suspect the Cat4 and higher guys can pretty much pedal through the turns even at high speed if they're careful.

I'm talking about watching your line as if I have a clue what that means. I don't, but I was lucky enough to see a couple of guys warming up and it was obvious that the guy in front was an experienced rider who was showing the guy in back how to navigate the turns. I pulled in behind them just close enough to follow the line and it was extremely helpful. After a few times around the course I felt like I knew what I was doing so I just spun around until the start of the race.

I lined up on the far outside (the race runs counterclockwise so I was on the right edge) behind one other guy. After a roll-call--I'd say there were about 35 people in the group--the announcer yelled "GO" and I made sure to clip in quickly and bolt for the first turn. There were several people already at the turn by the time I got there so I stayed wide with the idea that I'd be able to keep on the gas until I could wedge my way into the top 10 riders on the straightaway. I was surprised to find that the speed of the group entering the straightaway was much slower than I expected and I found myself moving right up to the front of the pack. Hmmm, not good.

So there I am, in the main field of a race for the first time ever and I'm leading the way. I pulled for three quarters of a lap or so until we rounded turn 1 for the second time, brought the speed up to about 27mph on the straightaway, drifted to the left, and then flicked my elbow. Everyone stayed behind me. I decided "bag this, I'm going to get worn out pretty fast at this rate" so I just sorta soft-pedaled at about 130 watts until a group of guys surged past. In retrospect I probably should have made the "my turn is over" gesture more obvious by pulling over or something, I don't know. I need to learn the racing ettiquete since it's obviously different than a non-competitive group ride.

Anyway, with a quick kick I was able to bridge the gap immediately and then sorta worked my way politely but firmly into the 3rd or 4th position. Again, I don't know the protocol for this but I wasn't going to let the whole train go by after pulling for nearly a lap.

So, we go around another corner and the same thing happens that happened earlier: the effort required to stay with the group on the straightaway is much less than I had expected. Soon, I'm at the front again and I pull for nearly a lap but can't seem to get anyone else to take a turn unless I soft pedal. This pattern is repeated throughout the race. I probably lead the way for half of the race. There were a couple of times when I actually sat up and took a drink from my water bottle and still folks were reticent to take a pull. In fairness, there were about three other guys who took a couple of turns but I spent way more time up front that one would consider prudent.

During the race there were two different accidents. The first time I heard a sharp "ping" a couple of bikes behind me and it turns out one guy had overlapped wheels with the guy in front of him and actually managed to send his quick release into the other guys wheel. A couple people went down but luckily it was in back of me. The second time I guess a couple of folks misjudged the S-curve and took out a few people. Again, I was lucky to be in front of it. From what I can tell, only about a third of the field managed to stay with the front group until the end. I'm guessing that this was in part due to having to slam on breaks to avoid accidents and then not being able to catch back up.

Ok, so the announcer calls out "10 laps to go" and in my mind I'm remembering the story about the beginning racer who sprinted for the win on the wrong lap. My mind wanders a bit and I go over one of those seams in the road, my backwheel actually leaves the ground, and I feel my handlebars slip. Crap! Crap! Crap! After a triathlon over the weekend, I had flipped my stem yesterday back to the more upright position and had apparently not tightened it enough. The jolt of the bump was enough to start the slippage and over the next 10 laps the bars got more and more loosey goosey until they were so loose that they would actually move from side to side--not just up and down--if I wasn't not careful. As I'm riding I find that the only thing I can do is stay down in the drops with the bars pulled down but I can tell that I'm not going to be able to really stand up and sprint for the line with any authority because of the precarious handlebars.

We get to the final lap (yes, I'm listening for the bell!) and I let a few guys pass to catch my breath just before the first turn and then I accelerate smoothly on the last straightaway and pass the group as we approach the S-curve. I'm probably going about 28mph but I'm staying seated--I can't risk what will happen to the handlebars if I jerk up out of the saddle to sprint. Then what do you know but I'm gaining fast on a group of about eight lapped riders just entering the S-curve. Um, aren't you guys supposed to pull off in the last three laps or something? So I yell "Gimme the inside!", round the corner, and bring my speed back up as best I can--again just trying to stay smooth so as to not rock the proverbial boat.

The handlebars are so loose it's ridiculous at this point. I keep the gas pedal down as hard as I can without getting out of the saddle, feeling like it's going to really suck when the train stands up to sprint and blows past me because I can't get any kind of jump with these handlebars (and of course it's not the bars' fault--it's my fault for not tightening them). But the thing is, my acceleration prior to the S-curve had put a gap between me and the rest of the field and I manage to get through the group of lapped riders cleanly with about a 10-bike length lead.

So I go around the last corner as quickly as I dare and then I try to pedal as hard and smooth as I can on the final straightaway. I simply don't dare to stand up. The legs are burning but I'm trying to stay smooth and just be Jan Ullrich since I can't be Tom Boonen. I quickly glance back ever so carefully and I briefly think I see someone behind me and I'm mad as hell that I'm going to lose because I forgot to tighten my handlebars so I push for the line for all I'm worth. Again, sitting down but pushing as hard as I can.

I cross the line first with what I believe was a sizeable gap but I don't even dare to look back or even raise a hand because the handlebars are pretty much worthless at this point. I don't even dare to try to make turn one and cool down so I coast to a stop and get off the bike to go look for a wrench, relieved and feeling pretty darn good about having won. My prize, incidentally, was a water bottle with a few candies inside. Wooo-hooo! (Cat5 riders are not allowed to win monetary prizes.)

I'm obviously very happy with the win--I'm sure it's the first athletic event I've ever won--but more importantly there are several things I learned. First, no mechanical changes or adjustments the day before the race! Second, I need to figure out how to work with others to do shared pacemaking instead of spending the race on the front. Third, I need more practice in a race paceline--getting in and out, following someone around a corner--since it's way different than riding in a casual group ride. Fourth, I have lots to work on over the winter and spring to improve my ability.

BTW, I intentially rode without the MPH showing on my PowerTap, but I was able to gather some info after uploading the data:

Duration: 30:04.32
Average speed: 24.3 mph
Speed at finish: 33.2 mph
Average power: 270 watts
Normalized power: 283 watts
Power at finish: 720 watts for last 15 seconds (damn handlebars!)
Average heart rate: 183 bpm
Heart rate at finish: 196 bpm
% of time not pedaling: 13%

I can't wait until next year!!

Saturday, August 26, 2006

My 2nd Triathlon Relay Report

This morning I competed in a triathlon for the second time as part of a three-person relay team. My neighbor and his wife were my teammates: she did the 500 meter swim, I did the 16-mile bike ride, and he did the 5K run. There were approximately 400 entrants with 99% of the athletes being from North Carolina. Although there were a few "serious looking" guys out there, this is clearly a local event and is by no means one that caters to professionals. (The awards were hats, not cash.) Still, it was a chance to set a fitness goal to work toward and it gave me a chance to gauge my cycling progress this summer.

On Thursday my neighbor and I rode the bike course together to get a feel for the terrain and the difficulty of the hills. It's certainly not a flat course but the climbs are manageable (with an average of about 50 feet of climbing per mile over 16.15 miles). There were a few patches of rough road and some sharp turns so it was really good to get a feel for when I would need to slow down. We went around once together at a leisurely pace and then I went around again solo at just under my threshold speed level. I set my Garmin to not show speed or distance; I simply wanted to focus on staying fluid and pushing at just below my limit. When I got done, I was surprised to see that my time for the 2nd loop was 41:35 which would have been a few seconds faster than the best bike split posted last year (by the overall winner). Of course, relay people don't count and it's not fair to compare my bike time with someone who has to dismount and run 3.1 miles, but I was happy nonetheless.

My goal for the race would be to have the best bike time of anyone in the field. For this race, I used my new road bike with aero bars, an aero helmet, a skinsuit, and booties. In other words, I decided to pull out all the stops in an effort to break 40:00 of bike time (plus a few seconds of mount and dismount at the start/end in that twighlight zone between the official chip transition and the place where you're allowed to mount your bike).

In the end, my biking time was about 40:35 with another 40 seconds of running time for an official time of 41:14. A good effort, but unfortunately this year's top ten finishers' combined times were about 5 minutes faster than last year's (I'm not sure why... the total times looking farther down the list are very similar) and the best cyclist--a 50 year old man who finished 2nd overall--finished with bike split of 40:14. Wow, that means I potentially have 15 more years to improve!!

Our relay team's time of 1:12:35 would have finished "first" in the individual field last year (I know I'm comparing apples to oranges here) but would have been good for only 6th place this year. Nonetheless, our group managed to pull out the relay team victory again so I'm happy about that. I'll probably never wear the hat and I really wish I could have posted the best bike time, but I'm happy nonetheless. Once again, it was a lot of fun but it left me feeling like I need to get over my phobia of swim breathing (I can't seem to blow out underwater) and take some swim lessons so I can do an entire triathlon myself. I just have to buckle down and do that this winter during my cycling "off" season.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Does this guy look like a Dork to you?

Let me ask you something... Does this man look like a dork to you? I mean just what exactly is that black bib he's wearing and WHY WOULD HE WEAR SOMETHING LIKE THAT? A year into my cycling hobby, not only am am I not asking that question anymore but I'm now actually wearing goofy stuff like this:

When I first started cycling last year it took me a while to get used to the funny clown clothes everyone wore (weird clickety-clack shoes, tight lycra shorts, comically colorful shirts and socks, zany helmets). If you're not a cyclist you know what I mean: you pull up to a stoplight and you see a guy next to you standing over a bike wearing an outfit that makes you say "wow, he sure must be comfortable with his sexuality!" Yet after a month of cycling, I grew accustomed to the outfits and it all started to seem fairly normal to me. But I'll confess I still wasn't prepared for the shock of seeing my dad walk into the kitchen one morning wearing nothing but a pair of those funky bibs as we got ready for a planned long ride. The exact words out of my mouth (albeit under my breath) were "You have got to be kidding me. Dad, what are you wearing and why?"

A year later, I own two pair of those funky bib-looking tight thingies and wish I had a few more. Why? Because they are extremely comfortable while riding long distances, surprisingly more comfortable than the tight shorts that I regularly wear and, frankly, I'm comfortable with my sexuality. I must be.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

I Bought a New Bike

Ok. I have been wanting to buy a new bike for about a year now. When I first got into cycling last summer I borrowed one of my dad's bikes (a Giant OCR1). At the end of the summer I bought an old Trek 5200 for $1000 on eBay with the idea that I wanted a decent bike but didn't want to buy a brand new Madone if my interest was going to wear off. In the last year I've upgraded the Trek somewhat but I always planned to buy a new bike if I was still "in to" cycling a full year later. Well, a year later I'm more interested in cycling than ever.

I really thought I'd buy a full carbon fiber bike--perhaps a Pedal Force or a top-of-the-line used Giant/Trek/Felt on eBay--and I've enjoyed lusting after all kinds of different bikes but ultimately I concluded that I really want TWO bikes: a road bike and a TT bike. So rather than spend $2k-$3k on a road bike I decided to spend about half that on a road bike and put the rest toward a set of Mike Garcia wheels with a PowerTap SL. I'll buy a TT bike next summer if I'm still cycing a lot (gotta keep those carrots out there as motivation!!) and I can use the PowerTap on both bikes.

After looking at the Motobecane Le Champion SL for quite some time I finally took the plunge. I didn't think I'd buy an aluminum bike but the compact carbon crank, carbon fork, and optional full carbon bars seemed like enough carbon for my comfort and the amazingly light weight of the bike was a real bonus because my two most important events for the coming year are a couple of epic hilly century rides.

Anyway, the bike arrived last Wednesday and I completed the assembly myself (which means it's not too hard). I had already purchased and gotten used to a carbon fiber seatpost and a lightweight saddle I got from Performance Bicycle during one of their mega sales a few months ago so I moved those from the Trek to the Motobecane. Obviously I need to spend a few weeks/months with this bike before I'm absolutely positive it was a good buy but I've done rides of 35, 22, and 80 miles thus far and I'm extremely happy with the bike. Yesterday's 22 mile ride yielded a new best time for that course by nearly 1mph (yeah I know it's the placebo effect but still)!

As pictured, this bike is at least as comfortable as my Trek (which is old enough that it doesn't have a carbon fork) probably due to the fork and the extremely comfortable carbon bars. The bars are absolutely fabulous. It's a sweet bike at any price and an unbelievable value for the price.

Still to do:

- Put on my new Look Keo Carbon pedals when they arrive from

- Swapt out the Ultegra 11-23 cassette with a DA 12-27 cassette I got a while back on eBay (less weight, better for monster hills)

- Swap the AC420 wheels with the Mike Garcia wheels and PowerTap SL (I already have these wheels but I didn't include them in the picture because my PT is being serviced right now due to having been caught in a horrific rain last week--by the time I made it home the water level on the side of the road was above the level of my pedals. I should have just called my wife for a ride home.)

- I might switch out the 110mm stem with a 120mm stem because the 58cm Motobecane has a top tube length that is a bit shorter than the 58cm Trek, but to be honest the bike is extremely comfortable as is.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

My First Bike Race

On Thursday I competed in my first ever official bike race. Yeah, I had previously participated in a few unofficially competitive organized rides but this was my first actual race: the 2006 Cat 4/5 Salisbury Criterium. If you're not familiar with competitive cycling, a Criterium is a loop course less than 1 mile long with 4-6 turns. At the beginner level, a "crit" usually lasts about 30 minutes so it's an exercise in cornering, sprinting, and suffering in close proximity to 30-80 other cyclists. In short, it's not at all like normal riding.

Although I felt like I could certainly keep up with the average Cat5 rider on a flat, straight course I was somewhat (read: very) apprehensive about the idea of a Criterium because of the technical nature of navigating the turns at 20 miles per hour in a group. I also knew that my legs would quickly grow tired of the inevitable sprint-out-of-the-corner that typifies criterium racing.

My wife and three kids came along to watch which added to the pressure--my six-year-old son who watched the Tour de France with me kept asking if I was going to be able to beat Tom Boonen and Thor Hushovd--but at least I knew I'd have a ride home if I crashed out. We got there in time for me to register and do a few warmup laps, which was nice because it allowed me to at least get minimally comfortable with the high speed turns. I wasn't expecting the course to be hilly (since crits are typically on flat courses) but this one was surprisingly non-flat. I assumed this would work to my advantage because it would spread out the field and result in less traffic around the corners.

As I kept doing warmup laps, I was careful to keep an eye on the Start/Finish line to make sure I'd have a good spot but it didn't work out that way. At the end of my last warmup lap I was shocked to find that the number of riders had immediately balloned from noone in line to about 70. In other words, I was going to be lining up near the very end of the group. NOT A GOOD WAY TO START A CRIT.

There was not starting gun; the announcer simply yelled "go" and we were off. I got sorta caught off guard and by the time we rounded the first corner there were only 4 people behind me. NOT A GOOD WAY TO START A CRIT. In fact, it was essentially all over at that point and here's why: it's nearly impossible to catch up to the pack on your own. At speeds of 25+ mph the wind resistance is simply too great if you have to do all the work yourself.

By the sixth lap I had made up a little bit of ground but I had spent almost the entire time on my own which means that although I was passing a few people here and there I was actually losing ground on the main field. It was only a matter of time until I would be pulled (they don't let stragglers stay on the course) but I kept fighting until I started hearing an obnoxious tick-tick-tick-tick sound: the speed sensor magnet on my rear wheel somehow got knocked loose and was hitting the sensor arm every time the wheel went around. At that point I packed it in and headed to the start/finish line to meet my family and watch the end of the race.

By the time the race reached the 30 minute mark, everyone except the top 20 riders had been pulled (which made me feel better about my gear malfunction) and in the last two laps a two-man breakaway managed to stay off the front until finally one of the riders got a good jump on the other guy who he'd been working with and finished all by himself for a solo win. It was an exciting finish.

I learned a lot but mostly three things: start near the front, sprint right from the start to get in a paceline, and I need more practice.