Monday, April 6, 2009

Record of Futility

I bought a month-old mountain bike a little while back -- a fine, critically acclaimed Iron Horse Azure with a mix of XT and Deore parts and the rave-inducing DW-Link suspension.
It seems a bit ... well, maybe effite isn't the word, but it at least seems a bit contrary to pet a mountain bike and marvel at its fine machinery. I haven't done that. I just like bashing around on hairy singletrack and learning through trial and error how to succeed, and how to bloody up my shins.
My road bikes, on the other hand, sometimes leave me in awe. The first of them, with a brazed Reynolds 853 steel frame, came with a full Ultegra gruppo -- right down to the cassette, bottom bracket and chain, and it is a mechanical marvel and scalded-cat sprinter that is a pleasure to ride. The other one was also a fine investment: a beautiful carbon-fiber Bianchi 928 with Ultegra shifters and RD, and 105 FD, chain and cassette and a Mavic wheelset, which a bikeshop-owning friend secured from Bianchi's end-of-model closeouts.
There's an incredible amount of craftsmanship invested in them. Start with the frames -- the carbon one's meticulous layup, or the masterfully welded joints on the steel one and the alloy mountain bike. Then consider the intricacies of machining and assembling the flawlessly performing Shimano components, or the time invested in building the wheels, and the tires, and even the laborious manufacture of the various bolts and saddles and grips and bar tape.
If you think about it, the work that goes into any one of the three is awe-inspiring. And under a good rider, the return on investment would be phenomenal: I have no doubt that anyone from Jeremy Grimm to a ProTour rider could win just as well on my Bianchi as on his. The mountain bike isn't a racer, but any rider who wants to have a ball on a sophisticated XC bike would probably love spending a few hours on it.
I couldn't be much happier. I really don't deserve what I have, much less anything better, and I am quite positive that there has never been an occasion where anything on my race bike -- even on my older steel one -- ever cost me a race I might have won had I squandered a bit more money on it.
That, though, was what I thought until I saw the new crankset from Campagnolo.
My eyes befell it quite by accident on the Performance website, and I immediately averted them. I felt unworthy of even looking at the finest bit of Italian machinery since Sabrina Ferilli, and yet I had to have it. It suddenly dawned on me that my struggles in the Cat 4 field last year had far less to do with my poor conditioning than with my poor equipment. And here was the solution -- on sale, for only $950!
That is only $200 more than I paid for my complete full-suspension, XT-and-Deore-equipped mountain bike. And only $750 less than I spent on my carbon-and-Ultegra Bianchi.
I suddenly felt like I do in those dreams where I'm in front of my college class with no clothes on and it's the last day of the semester and I haven't cracked a book.
I was ashamed. All these years, I've been riding crap. The glee I'd felt over getting an $1,800 mountain bike for $740 faded as fast as I've faded in races on my crummy, heavy, inferior Ultegra junk.
Sure, this new Campy crank is made of plastic and some machine-turned bits of alloy, glued together by grade-school dropouts -- Italian grade-school dropouts. But it must be awful, godawful fast to retail for a grand, because that's what I paid for my steel bike with the full Ultegra gruppo.
The steel bike and its precision machinery have only 18 gear options. With this crank from the 11-speed Campy gruppo, my bike would have ... well, 18 gear options. But they would surely be better. The Ultegra cranks on my two road bikes have never missed a shift (except because of operator error). But the plastic Campy crank would not miss shifts even better.
That was just the beginning of my revelation. Since then, I've discovered the $435 Super Record cassette, the $210 Super Record front derailleur, the $475 Super Record rear d and the $85 Super Record chain all await the opportunity to offset my poor conditioning and extra weight with their mechanical miracles. And the shift-brake levers are even cheaper than Dura-Ace!
I can't wait to pull out my credit card and start mowing down the competition.

- JN

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Sweeeeeede New Ride!

If you read only the first paragraph below, you'd swear my midlife crisis had gotten the best of me ...

I've finally gotten what just about every young man wants: a fast-ass car that accelerates like a TARP-chasing banker, corners like a crit bike, brakes with incredible precision and just begs the babes to dive in the back seat. And it's got a stereo that sounds great whether it's piercing your body and quite literally shaking your bones at quadruple-digit decibel levels or playing mellow makeout music.

Alas, I am not a young man. And no, my midlife crisis hasn't boiled over: The car is my new-to-me Volvo V70XC.

Yup. A station wagon. Oh, and those chicks diving in the back seat? Those are my daughters, clambering to get to the third-row jumpseat. (They also like the integrated booster seats in the back -- er, middle -- row that negate the need for car seats.)

It'll flat-out fly, then stop on a dime. But I told my wife that the best illustration of what I've become was Friday. Yeah, baby! Friiiii-DAAAAY NIIIIGHTTTT! --- and I was blasting Van Halen's "Running With the Devil" -- a pedal-to-the-metal song if there ever was one -- at a deafening volume ... as I gently accelerated my 200-hp 5-cylinder engine to 25 mph on a side street on my way to a church fish fry. If any punkass kids in a Camaro were to smash into me, my car's crumple zones would absorb the impact and my front or side-curtain airbags would safely deploy. Rockin'.

But there's room in back for a dog, or bikes and/or luggage, and room on top for bikes or luggage. (You may tell my wife she has a nice rack. On her car.) And while the gas mileage (not much above 20 mpg) is disappointingly below what I expected, it still is 30% better than the Jeep Grand Cherokee the Volvo replaced -- and better than just about any (ugh) minivan.

And I retain my dignity. In fact, I've actually come to think of station wagons as being cool. Or at least Volvos.

- JN

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Your First Bike Race

One of the newest members of my racing team is about to embark on his first-ever race. He sent an email to the team the other day, asking for some advice.
A friend saw my longish reply and suggested I put it on my blog.
I don't pretend to be an expert, so that's not what this is about. I'm not the world's most experienced racer, and Lord knows I'm not a good one.
But on the other hand, guys who have been racing for many years probably don't remember that first race, or that first season of racing, well enough to recall a lot of the little things they learned in the early going.
So if you or someone you know is where teammate Craig is as he heads to Malabar Farms this weekend to begin his weekend-warrior career, here is a baker's dozen of pointers.
I invite contributions and comments from anyone else who wants to contribute!

1) Get your stuff together the night before, as much as possible. Pack from the feet up to help you remember everything: SHOES (just about everyone forgets shoes once), socks, tights/warmers, shorts, under layer, jersey, whatever your top layer is; then gloves (maybe you don't wear gloves in the summer, but you damn well will now -- or your race will end prematurely for treatment of your frostbit fingers); shades; polyprop hat or ear covers; helmet. And post-race clothes: See No. 10 below. And a post-race snack. And a beach towel. (Wrap the beach towel around your waist while you change strip out of your shorts and into your sweats or whatever.) And your race fee. Now go back through it all and make sure you've got it all.
2) Wearing your team kit (uniform) on the drive to the race is generally not done. Not sure why, exactly, except that no one likes to race in shorts that are pre-stank and pre-sweated-up. But racers generally change into their race clothes about an hour or so before their race, or right after registering.
3) Arrive at least 90 minutes early. That'll give you plenty of time if there's a long line at registration (count on it), and time for getting your number pinned on and warming up.
4) Warm up. Rule of thumb is that the longer the race, the shorter the warmup -- and vice versa. Start out slow and easy, shifting through all your gears to make sure everything's working. Then, after about 10-15 minutes of easy spinning, start jamming hard. Work your way up to some all-out efforts, sustained for a minute or two. Spend at least 5-10 minutes doing hard efforts. Then wind down. This will get you ready for the hard efforts in the race. If your body isn't geared up for it, you could get dropped on the first surge, because the first couple feel a lot harder than the ones that follow -- less so if you get all your aerobic and anaerobic systems warmed up.
5) Ride backwards. If you're allowed to warm up on the course, spend part of your time riding backward from the finish line for a mile or so. Visualize how the race is likely to unfold there. Using your cyclocompuer, note some markers that are 0.1 from the end, 0.2 from the end and about 0.5 miles. Those translate into 175 yards, 350 yards and 880 yards, respectively. We'll come back to these momentarily (No. 9, below).
6) Expect to suffer more than you ever did on "fun" rides. When you think you're about to get dropped -- and you WILL think that at some point -- push harder, longer, to stay on.

The pace will let up just when you think you're about to completely explode, and you'll get time to catch your breath. If you slip off the back, dig hard to catch back on. It is so much easier in the pack, and the inhuman effort it might take to close that 10-foot or 10-yard gap will prove worthwhile when you get back on.
7) If you do get spit off the back, look for other people to work with. Take turns pulling. It's to everyone's advantage to work together to catch up to the main group.
8) Conversely, if you find yourself in a break with another rider or two, work together! Take turns pulling; the more people in the break, the shorter the time each one spends on the front. If you get in a Cat 5 break, odds are that you'll find at least one of the other people in it don't understand how a breakaway is supposed to work and they won't understand that it's to everyone's advantage to make the break work and stay away from the chase. They'll think you're trying to trick them if you tell them to work together, or they'll try to wheelsuck. Those people you gotta get rid of -- unless they're trying to get away from you. In that case, if a dude is real strong, milk him for everything he wants to put into it until he's starting to get gassed, then pull around him and drop him. He will have learned his lesson, one hopes.
9) Back to those markers at the end of the race: Let's hope you're in the main bunch at this point.
a) Start moving up no later than a mile from the end, so that you are among the first 3-4 racers at the half-mile mark, but ideally not first. Draft off someone else until it's time to sprint.
b) Some fellow novice will probably go off at 350 yards, which is probably WAY too soon, and will blow up well before the end. Grab that dude's wheel. You should be at a pace that's just barely short of the max you can sustain. If the wheel you're riding gives even the slightest hint of slowing down, come around, or if you're getting passed, surf to the next strong wheel. Do not be caught taking it easy, saving up too much for the end etc. You need to be working your ass off aty this point..
c) At 175 yards, or maybe 200 if you feel really strong, you should wind up to 100 percent of your sprint -- to the point where you are absolutely going to blow up within 15 seconds or so and you cannot give any more. At that point, give more. You will probably surprise yourself. When you get inside 100 yards, if anyone is in front of you, go around him -- you've passed the point of surfing wheels and drafting off the leader. It's time to win. You don't want to get caught behind someone when he blows up. And you do not want to look back, because you can't control any of the shit going on behind you. All you can do is to hit your max -- and then go beyond what you think you can possibly do, until AFTER you cross the line. You want to feel like you're gonna puke at that point -- and maybe you will.
10) At this point, win or lose, you will be celebrating that the goddamn fucking pain is finally over. Spend five minutes cooling down. Then come back and talk to everyone who will listen about the experience and every detail that happened.
11) Bring nice warm comfy clothes to change into afterward, and use that towel wrapped around yourself to get out of your race shorts. You might want to bring an alcohol wipe to, uh, freshen up. You won't want to wear a single item of clothes that you just raced in once you're done. You'll be chilled and uncomfortable, and wearing that damp crap will help give you saddle sores. Think dry and loose.
12) Bring something to eat right afterward -- a Payday bar and a chocolate milk is a good combo. Don't overdo it, but be sure to refuel. You have a window of maybe a bit over an hour in which your body is most receptive to glycogen and protein replenishment. This is the time your body needs stuff to help rebuild damaged muscles.
13) When you get home, write it all down. You will want to remember this day and relive it over and over someday.

- JN

Thursday, March 5, 2009

TT: R.I.P.

A week ago, I put the wood to the rest of Ohio's Cat 4 cycling community and sent a stern warning: I intend to defend with vigor my USA Cycling ranking in time trialing.

Last I checked, late last year, I was ranked 4th in Ohio in my cat and age group (or one or the other -- I can't remember) in the discipline of TT.

Imagine how highly I might be ranked if I'd ever actually done a time trial. Because I haven't. Not one. And I have never been on a TT bike, or worn a teardrop helmet or a skinsuit. Says a lot about USA Cycling's rankings, doesn't it? Is the sort random? Or perhaps by weight? (The same rankings "computer" once put me among the top 10 Cat 5 riders in the U.S.; talk about damning with faint praise.)

Eight days ago, though, part of that changed: I did my first TT.

It was on a Computrainer in Ray H's basement, and it was only three miles long -- a prologue, if you will. But I kicked such ass on it that among the seven or eight riders who have competed in The Race at Ray's, I now rank firmly in the top 10.

My next highest priority

I don't like climbing, because I'm ill suited for it (i.e., fat). I now know that I don't like time trialing much, either, because I'm ill suited for that, too (i.e., I don't like pain). Still, it was instructive to try it, particularly with a watt meter running on the computer screen -- another first for me.

(I've never seen my power output before. Part of me didn't want to, because I didn't want to be discouraged; part of me was afraid I'd get sucked into it like a first-time crack smoker and wind up selling my plasma to buy a PowerTap on a Zipp disc wheel.)

I really came to watch, not ride -- although riding was in the back of my mind on my way from work to Ray's house. During that 10-mile trip, I tried to warm up to my threshold HR and could barely do it.

So I laid down my excuses (they were true, but still excuses) for Ray and the others: I rode hard the prior day and my legs were shot, and my heart rate was way behind my perceived effort, and I was wearing frigid-weather commuting clothes and riding my old bike.

But the peer pressure got to me.

Then Thom initiated me into the brotherhood by revealing the Sacred Secrets of Time Trialing: Find a level of exertion you don't want to be at because it hurts too much. Then stay there and hope you don't blow up.

I was off like a shot, and immediately my HR soared way above threshold. I was sure I couldn't sustain that, and I was gasping and my legs felt like Greg LeMond's liver. So I guess I was where I should be.

A little over one third of the course was uphill, most of that in the form of a mile-long climb that is probably a 4- to 5% grade; I was sucking wind on that, as my speed plummeted from 29 mph to 13 or so. Thom, Ray and Pete spat beer at me and flogged me with inner tubes to keep my wattage from dropping into the single digits. Then, when I saw the finish line, I managed to summon up the last 650 watts I had in my body to wallow over the line at a speed rivaled by only the swiftest of donkeys.

I wound up completing the three miles in 8:06, I think, which translates to 22.2 mph. But I'm pretty sure that is misleading. First, I had no aero equipment. Second, the Computrainer factors your weight into its calculations (heavier = slower, all other things being equal) and I accidentally told Ray I weigh 186. I meant to say ... uh ... 136. So I'm pretty sure if it weren't for those factors, I would've crushed Steiner's Zabriskie-like sub-7:00 time. In fact, I could've even beat Zabriskie himself -- because unlike him, I actually had a bike to ride.

- JN

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Best of Show, Tallest of Midgets

Great news for all the Clevelanders who believe that bikes are meant to be impractical, collectible baubles to show off more than ride: One of your own, Dan Polito, won Best of Show at the North American Handmade Bike Show last week.

I'd not heard of Dan Polito before today, but now he has vaulted to a level of fame enjoyed by the nation's best foosball player, best heirloom apple grower and maybe even best bong maker. Hundreds -- maybe even thousands -- of people will praise his name and Google him. You may be one of them, which would probably make you either an idle millionaire or a fixie-riding slacker. (If you're one of the latter, you might be able to explain to me why your fellow fixie rider/poseurs favor grease-stained Campagnolo caps when Tullio Campagnolo invented -- or at least innovated --your freaking nemesis, the deraillieur.)

You say Pol-EEE-to, I say PoL-EYE-to

If I'm ever fortunate enough to meet Mr. Polito, I expect I'll find him to be very charming and interesting. I'd be intrigued to listen to him explain the art of a good weld for minutes on end, in the same way I can stand in the glass-blowers' shop next to West Side Market and be transfixed for nearly one-sixth of an hour straight. (Maybe longer if I weren't straight, in which case I'd fit right in: abundant 40-ouncers of Olde English were getting drained when I brought my kids there at 10 a.m. on a recent Saturday.)

I don't imagine getting the opportunity to meet Dan, though, because I'm pretty sure Dan and I ride in very different circles. Folks in mine ride out on the road or on the trails; I'm pretty sure folks who ride in his circle actually ride in circles quite literally, on fixies, in front of the Civilisation cafe in Tremont -- forward, trackstand, backward, repeat.

However, the day may someday come when I sell my children and wind up with extra dollars on hand and choose to spend thousands of them on a painfully uncomfortable-looking "grass track" bike, or something else that rejects all of the technological advances that make today's off-the-shelf Chinese-made bikes infinitely better than the best "artisan" bike of a generation or two ago. Should that day come and I want a bike with blinding chrome lugs and maybe some really cool airbrush paint scheme on the downtube that conjures up images of the tattooed arms of LeBron James or Aimie, the barista/performance artist, I will rejoice. Because I no longer believe I'd have to go all the way to Portland to fulfill my impractical and self-indulgent whim: We have the very best at making the very worst, right here in Cleveland. And why not? We're the home of yesteryear's steel industry, so why not be the epicenter of yesteryear's steel bikes (at 22nd-century prices)?

- JN

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


I was tooling around YouTube the other day and watching people climb Mt. Ventoux, including some geriatrics who don't just look like they wear diapers inside their bike shorts, like the rest of us do.

Yeah, I'll get that little dig in, because those old farts really can kick my ass uphill. One guy looked about 80 or 100 and he did hill repeats on Ventoux -- climbed it back to back. Another old turd had panniers hanging on the side of a bike that looked as old as me.

Videos, as we know, tend to flatten things out. Sometimes -- especially on MTB vids -- you literally can't tell whether the trail is uphill or downhill. Much of the footage of Ventoux must bve like that, because you watch it and think, "That doesn't look so beastly."

So while I was looking at women close to my mother's age smirk at the camera atop Ventoux when they should be in wheelchairs, I started thinking, "Maybe a fatass crit rat like me could make it up there."

Now, it's no secret that I don't like climbing. My lightweight friends who are actually pretty committed to this sport that I disrespect do not understand why it is that I disdain being humiliated and hurt. But I think some of them have had so many bad relationships that they believe pain and subjugation are states of normalcy, so cycling fits their frame of reference, except without the priest, or the guy up the street 30 years ago who gave out the free Hardy Boys books to hardy boys who'd watch special movies with him.

Nonetheless, I do still go out to climb as much as I can, because everyone who has a keyboard and a bike writes ad nauseum that climbing will get you in shape like nothing else. Maybe they haven't seen me climb. I'm not sure how my form is supposed to improve from rolling backward, then falling over on my side and letting loose a stream of urine onto myself, like a dog that just got hit by a car. But it must have some benefit, because that's what they write and I believe everything I read.

So today, I went out at lunch with very little time to ride and decided to make it hurt -- er, count. I rode down into the Ohio & Erie Canal Reservation, then headed southeast to Granger Road. There I turned left up one of the most awful short hills around, suffering from the delusion that I'd do some repeats up it.

The idea of going up it again started to fade somewhere around the halfway point up. As the cars and trucks whizzed by, I felt exceptionally slow and weak. I thought of the guy who was climbing the same hill last year and got hit by a car and died, and for just a moment, I thought he was a lucky bastard.

Still, after I got back to the bottom, I turned around and started back up again, like an idiot. This time I didn't make the top. I've never managed more than two trips up that hill, but now I couldn't even do that.

So I started back north and turned up Warner Road -- not nearly as steep, but still a good half-mile climb. Then I went up and down E. 71st (short, not terribly steep) and E. 49th (ditto, but seriously fouled-up pavement), flying up the road like ... a penguin.

By the time I got back to my car, I'd ridden 50 minutes of my lunch "hour" and had to call it quits. I looked down at the odometer. Ten miles, it said. Even I could do that math in my head: Including 35- and 44-mph downhill plunges, I'd averaged all of 11 miles an hour.

Maybe the day will come when that will be a fairly easy 45-minute lunchtime workout. But that will probably have to wait for the afterlife. If only I could get creamed by a teenaged driver on Granger ... the lucky dog.

As for Ventoux: It would be akin to doing all four of those hills back to back about three times, with no descents in between. And maybe with an Oak Hill stretch or two thrown in.

Judging by the look of those old farts, I have a little time to prepare. But I have a feeling that ascent would be a one-way trip. I'd climb like Homer Simpson and then do a Tom Simpson.

- JN

Potpourri of Pish-posh

Page 1: Welcome back. Neither of us have been to this blog for awhile, eh? Wish I could say I missed it more ... But I hope you did.
If so, then you probably are sort of pathetic and have a warped sense of what is funny, so I'll welcome you back with this little treat. (Do not be like Steiner and assume you've seen this before because you've seen the first few minutes elsewhere on YouTube. Watch the whole thing.)

Page 2: I've hit one of those periodic spurts of enthusiasm -- mild enthusiasm, I'd say -- for editing video footage. It's kind of fun if you have the time. I don't. But I do have a new laptop, so I've been playing with it, and used it to dig up and edit some footage from a race back in 2006, my first year of "serious" racing.
This was the Tour d'Burg, down in Miamisburg, Ohio, just south of Dayton. The day before was a ballbreaker of a race in Troy, which is half an hour north of Dayton. I'd never raced back to back days before this, and my legs felt pretty dead when I pulled up to the line with the other Cat 5s. Then the referee announced that for some reason (never explained), the promoter was combining the 4s and 5s. Great. I'd raced with Fours only a couple times before, and those were races with a 4-5 field and a 3-4 field. In other words, the strong 4s were all with the 3s. This time, we would all be together.
Watch and see what happens.
Special thanks to my brother, who shot the footage.

- JN