Tuesday, December 30, 2008
I read this thread and I sat back, wondering why I felt a little bit defensive. I'm currently a Cat 5 - I spent my first racing season focusing on track racing, with a handful of road races thrown in here and there, mostly for fun. Now I've got some racing experience under my belt and I'm gearing up for a full season of road racing, but still a Cat 5. I guess that I'm proof of something - hey, I know what I'm doing when I'm racing! Not all Cat 5's have no idea how to attack a field or sprint or...
Where'd I learn that racing stuff?
Hint: it's a bumpy banked oval out in Queens (side note: I recently learned that "Kissena" means "It Is Cold" in Algonquin - which fits all too well VeloCity '08, mentioned in this post (video at the end)).
Which brings me to my advice: want to learn how to race? Race at the track. The logic is simple. You can hop in a road race and spend some time groveling at the tail end of things and not even see how races develop. Or you can straddle your bike at the velodrome during an omnium, hop on to the banking, race in a smaller pack where the race happens faster, right in front of you, over and over. And when you get off, spent and exhausted, coughing and grabbing for your waterbottles, you can watch the other fields - specifically, the more experienced riders - do the same races.
And you can learn: oh, that person made a move stick on a faster field because of how he came off the banking on turn 4 (lesson: attacks have to be fast). If he would have done it on turn 2 he would have been going into the wind (lesson: be aware of the environment and terrain). And those riders two work together (lesson: make secret teammates). And that guy's a sprinter who can turn it up on the last 200m, so in this race format they're wearing him down, fast (lesson: just because somebody's faster than you, doesn't mean you can't beat them).
I'm entering the road season feeling like I know what I'm doing. I'm planning to be consistent at some early-season criteriums with a friend or two (Plainville and Bethel), and I'm already developing a couple of different plans on what to try when in different races.
Of course, plans will only take you so far. Time to get out the rollers.
And a parting word of advice - if there's a velodrome within a few hours of where you live, borrow a track bike or buy a cheap one, and go hit the banking.
Saturday, December 27, 2008
Then I started riding fixed gear bikes. Fixed gear bikes are a small step above the hammer-and-duct-tape school of bike repair. It's very easy to wrench on fixed gears, and very hard to mess anything up. No finesse is required. No special tools are required. In fact, if you don't have a chainwhip for changing cogs, you can make do with your frame and the chain that's already on it.
I'm tenacious, though, so have thrown myself headfirst into a few challenging tasks. I've built a handful of wheels, and I also built up my roadbike from a bucket's worth of parts. I measured each length of cable and housing a dozen times before cutting it (I still need to re-trim since I changed stems and handlebars). I fiddled with the alignment and tension of each derailleur about a hundred times in the first week or two. Practice makes perfect, and I got a lot of chance to practice on this one bike. Not quite at perfection yet, but I'll attribute that to Ergo levers that need to new G-springs.
Casting shame on my clumsy hands is a mechanic in a bike shop in Bloomfield, New Jersey who is blind. Apparently the tasks that I muddle through can indeed be mastered through persistence and experience, but also can be done without sight.
I'd love to be a fly on the wall in that shop, seeing what tasks Mr. Tinsley does and doesn't do, and how. Does he measure lengths of chain? Does he feel the alignment of a stem to the front wheel?
I just read an interview with Roger Aspholm, a dominant local racer. He talks about experienced riders training by feel rather than by science: knowing what your body is capable of, how to push your limits, how your body responds to duress. It's neat to think that the love for the bike could lead to similar feel for tools and bikes, not just one's body.
Several years back, as a grimey mechanic was putting cranks onto my bike while I hung around asking questions about everything that I could, I asked him how he knew when the square-tapered cranks were on snug enough. He had just leaned into the wrench, bringing it and the crank together, smoothly and forcefully installing the crank onto the spindle. He shrugged and mumbled, "Been doing it for fifteen years."
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
I'm really just starting my commitment to training - my season of racing in '08 was largely based on my fitness and strength as a commuter. One of the things that's regularly on my excel spreadsheet is an entry - "15C." Many days- 15 miles, commuting pace. It's a conservative estimate of the ride in to my delivery job, a few nonsense miles during my shift, and the ride back. A busy day is probably more like 20 miles - nothing to brag about. Getting the blood flowing in my legs. Spinning quickly up 10th Avenue, back down 9th. Bikerattling romps over cobblestones in the meat packing district. And, in weather like last week, slipping and sliding around a fair amount.
It's not much of training. It's not endurance, I don't do intervals, and though I do put effort into my accelerations it's not like I'm launching Monster Sprints in my low-geared fixed workbike. So what good is it? Well, it keeps me on the bike. It keeps my legs supple. It lets me feel my progress, my fatigue and my strength, as I work out indoors.
I think that it also fertilizes a useful stubbornness - a willingness to ride as far as it takes for as long as it takes, in as much discomfort as it takes. The cranky commuter mentality just might be a lot closer to the classic definition of the cycling "hard man" than your average road racer. Those of us who are out on the streets day in and day out, whether commuting or working on our bikes, have a different relationship with the bike. It's not a toy, not a hobby, not a beloved exercise machine. An integral part of every day life - no choice, but simple fact. It's a prosthesis, and with it we are coordinated, adept, as smooth as if it were a part of us. Last week, I stubbornly pulled on a pair of pants over my tights and two pairs of socks as I set out in temperatures touching down at 15F. I snarled at the weather and launched myself head first in to it. I had to get to work. It's not like in New York City we've got a whole lot of room indoors in which to train, anyway. I set up my rollers in the kitchen doorway, with just enough clearance from the refrigerator (behind me) and the couch (in front of me).
I never trained for my first season racing - I just commuted every day, about 24 miles round trip from the Bronx, through the cold months, the rain and the snow, the traffic, the darkness, and into the spring and summer, into the insistent heat and humidity, the perpetual sweat. Fatigued? Saddle up - you've got another forty minutes of riding before you get home.
Maybe it will make me stronger, more bullheaded. Maybe just provide that chip on the shoulder, that motivation to work hard, to train with my body, to race hard on used bicycles, to prove to myself and anybody who might listen that a scrappy punk-rock underdog with a slim budget can race with the big boys. It's a story I play out largely in my head, the old trope about the outsider.
Maybe it's a little bit silly since I've never been made to feel like an outsider while racing.
But there it is.
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
So, when it comes to bikes, I really like seeing new things that I just plain-old haven't been exposed to yet. Last week it was Cantiflex Tubing, used by Bates in the 1930s as a way to make oversized tubing work with conventional lugs. It's a curious little corner of frame construction.
Even more so comes from this Casati pursuit frame currently on eBay, with the photo above. The 1980s and 1990s saw revelations about the importance of aerodynamics in cycling (see, for example, 1989's Lemond v. Fignon, and some more details here) - time trial bikes got lower front ends, Greg Lemond introduced aero bars to much controversy, and disc wheels - brought to the sport by Moser's hour attempt gained more widespread use. I always enjoyed this video of a 1987 Tour de France team time trial - you can see different aerodynamic developments being employed by different teams.
But I've never seen a bike with such design as that Casati. It seems to me to be a flawed frame design, , sacrificing front end stiffness (admittedly not of paramount importance in a pursuit) for - well, I'm not exactly sure what for.
Conversations about experimental frame design almost inevitably turn toward somebody saying, "There's a reason that the double-triangle frame design has been used regularly for a hundred and fifty years." It's true - it's a good design. But there's something about all the experiments, the attempts to create something new and revolutionary, that makes the standard classic racing bicycle even more beautiful. I suppose that's part of why I love the stories behind the Hour Record - it's got experimentation, that unusual combination of engineering and athleticism, and the story ultimately forks, reigning in one element in order to let the other blossom.
Thursday, December 11, 2008
However, this post is going to focus on recycled content. In the last few days I've been sitting around, thinking about my winter training, poking around on bike blogs, watching race videos while riding rollers, and just generally immersing myself in the excitement of waiting for the 09 season to start. Here are a few of what I've been spending my daydreaming with:
Hipster Nascar has some photos of a new indoor velodrome being build in Boulder, Colorado (website; image above). Track dimensions: 143 meters, 45 degree banking. I'm used to riding on the Kissena Velodrome - 400 meters, 17 degree banking. The thought of an extremely short, extremely steep 'drome... it's a bit of a sphincter-clencher.
I usually forget to check VeloGoGo with any kind of frequency (and I don't use an RSS feed anymore), but when I do, I'm rewarded with lush imagery and insane componentry (if you want to spend $1200 on your brakeset...).
Meanwhile, when Belgium Knee Warmers takes a break from writing about embrocation, they offer some stunning race clips. Their short commentary says it all: Attacking on a descent in the rain and drifting both wheels on your way to catching '86 World Champion Moreno Argentin and beating him in the sprint is stunningly PRO.
And, bringing it all back home, Kissena Track Racing has photos from last month's 150 lap end-of-season ride at the Velodrome. As much as I love Kissena I'd be hard pressed to keep my brain stimulated during such a period of around-and-around. I love the cold, windswept look of the velodrome in the autumn. It reminds me of Cyclehawk's VeloCity 2008 tournament from this past March - the dead and browned infield grass, the 31-degree temperatures, the painfully clear blue cold sky. Video is here:
Thursday, December 4, 2008
Gabby's a great racer to watch - she attacks viciously, tearing apart the race field with strong solo efforts. When she enters races where she's the only woman in the field, she does exactly the same thing - makes daring attacks early in the race to break it up and be competitive in a field full of big, powerful men, many of whom are more than twice her age.
The article mentions racism in cycling - or, at the very least, white-dominance, calling Gabby "
an anomaly in the sport of cycling: an African-American girl, competing in a sport that's marked by a prevalence of white participants." The upper levels of cycling might be dominated by white people, but to call the grassroots level white-dominated is to ignore a lot of people and perpetuate the very problem that the Daily News takes pains to point out. Reality is created by what we acknowledge and discuss.
Two interesting things to consider about cycling being white dominated: one, an essay by Malcolm Gladwell on expertise:
Sport, too, is supposed to be just such a pure meritocracy. But is it? Take ice hockey in Canada: look at any team and you will find that a disproportionate number of players will have been born in the first three months of the year. This, it turns out, is because the cut-off date for children eligible for the nine-year-old, 10-year-old, 11-year-old league and so on is January 1. Boys who are oldest and biggest at the beginning of the hockey season are inevitably the best. And so they get the most coaching and practice, and they get chosen for the all-star team, and so their advantage increases - on into the professional game. A similar pattern applies to other sports. What we think of as talent is actually a complicated combination of ability, opportunity and utterly arbitrary advantage.
And, two: an organization called The African Cyclist, training Kenyan athletes with the goal of making one of them the first black man to compete in international professional road racing. It's turned out impressive results, with two cyclists - who have been riding for less than a year - clocking times of 46 minutes up the Tour de France's legendary Alpe D'Huez. A week after their first attempt, one of them raced again and finished with a time of 42 minutes (video here, which would have placed him 11th in the 2004 Alpe D'Huez time trial in the Tour de France.
My point is that not only is cycling far less white-dominated than the Daily News might have assumed, but that it also has the capacity to be much less monoracial at the upper echelons of the sport.
It's not like I expect excellent racial politics from the Daily News, but come on, this is New York City. Cycling is only dominated by white people when all the forty year old men drive in from Long Island and New Jersey for Sunday morning Prospect Park races.
And getting back to what started this post - Congratulations to Gabby. Having an article about you in the newspaper is such an awesome thing. Best of luck in the 2009 season!
Monday, December 1, 2008
Okay, there's something involving air and slipstreams or something. That much is clear. But how do you win, and what teamwork can there be when it comes down to what is left in a rider's legs?
And, so, a brief initiation:
Take yourself to four minutes and twenty seconds in the video above, which comes from the 2001 Paris-Roubaix. One of the famous "Spring Classics," the grueling Paris-Roubaix involves stretches of atrocious cobblestones which break up the pack and greatly complicate the race. A rider from the Domo team had been in the lead, several minutes up the road from the main group of riders (the peloton). George Hincapie, the tall man in the muddy blue kit, makes a strong effort to join the leaders, but two other men on the Domo team are with him. In order for Hincapie to reach the leader, he's got to ride fast. If he does, he pulls two Domo riders to the front as they conserve energy, riding in his slipstream. If they stay on his wheel without "taking a pull" - riding in the front, breaking the wind for the others - they are being dead weight, uncooperative opportunists. It sounds dishonorable in a sport where cooperation is the name of the game, but it's exactly the right strategy at this point in the race. If your teammate is in front, you mark the attacks but don't do the hard work. They put Hincapie in a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation. He could hand the race to Domo by dropping back. Or he could hand the race to Domo by towing their riders to the front.
George Hincapie is a great rider but in this race, he got absolutely shelled. Being in the lead group against four riders on the same team is like being a football quarterback without an offensive line. And, in the way that a football player's performance can't be judged by the number of touchdowns scored, a cyclist's performance can't be judged just by whether or not she or he won the race. An article in the Wall Street Journal (of all places) about the Tour de France's top Lanterne Rouge - the last rider to finish any given stage - points out a somewhat counterintuitive characteristic of those at the back of the pack: [Wim] Vansevenant's team director, Marc Sergeant, credited his rider's low placing to a combination of physical prowess and race savvy.
An outsider to the sport wouldn't expect that one could praise the physical prowess and the race savvy of a rider who finishes dead last, but the curious role of the domestique in cycling means that winning isn't the goal for many members of a team. Their strategy is to set up their team leader for the touchdown, for the win. They do this by pushing the pace faster, by making a breakaway, by reeling in breakaways - whatever is necessary to create the race conditions that will favor their ringer. If their ringer is a top sprinter the domestiques will want to keep the pack together - chase down breakaways, control the pace in hilly terrain to prevent the field from being split, so that it will come down to a high-speed mass sprint to the finish, where speeds in the last 100 meters can hit well over 40 miles per hour.
It's a little bit more than "who can get on their bike and pedal the fastest," which is reassuring to folks like me at the lower levels of the sport. I don't need to feel pressure to win every race I enter - the possibilities for success are much broader than that. I can do well by leading out a teammate, by chasing down breakaways, or by controlling the pace if a teammate is in the breakaway. It's one of many reasons why I'll be glad to pull on the orange, white, and blue of the Kissena Cycling Club in 2009. Winning is nice, but since I'm rarely the fastest guy on the asphalt, I'll be glad to know that I can improve my own chances for being fulfilled by racing by getting involved in team tactics. And I'll automatically be racing at a higher level.
I jury-rigged a cyclocross bike that I hoped would withstand the course: put front and rear brakes on my everyday bike, put a freewheel on it, geared at 42x18, and squeezed some 'cross tires into the frame. The clearances were tight - I hoped that caked mud wouldn't slow me down too much.
When the whistle blew, forty riders surged forward, each hoping to get toward the front and avoid being subjected to other riders' mistakes. The rough, sandy sound of wet, muddy brakes hitting rim came too often as riders slowed into turns - I realized I'd have to get clear if I wanted to ride my own race. So I powered along the flats and took kamikazi lines through tight turns, picking off the riders in front of me one by one. The course was great - hairpins, a set of two barricades, nice twisty bits mixes with some fast flats, a beach run, and a long section through the woods that tested bike handling skills. Used to riding this very bike over curbs and through the awful cobblestones of Manhattan's Meatpacking District I was able to plow through the technical sections, passing riders before the steep, root-ridden runup.
For fortyfive minutes I had some of the most fun I've ever had on a bike, and rolled into the finish line in 4th place, coughing, wet, muddy, and fatigued. Not only that, but though I was cold and wet watching the 2/3/4 race and the Women's Open, there was hot chocolate, veggie burgers, and Belgian waffles to fill my stomach and warm my core while I stayed shivering in the rain.
This could become fairly addictive. I'm an idiot for waiting till the end of the season.