Archive for September, 2010


Getting The Runs (Or, How I Survived My First Cyclocross Race, Almost Maintained My Dignity, And Still Got Beat By A Twelve Year Old)

 Let’s get this straight from the get-go: I don’t like to run.

I guess that it all comes down to the basic question of whether, given the choice between strapping on running shoes and pounding out the miles or swiftly covering that same distance astride a bicycle, I find it difficult to believe that a rational person would actually choose to go running.  To me, running is the masochist’s choice, and rather than presume that most runners are given to wearing studded leather lingerie under their shorts and jogbras, I’m willing to take the more charitable view that they are simply poor souls who are reduced to traveling afoot because they simply aren’t coordinated enough to ride a bike.

I realize that this attitude probably consigns me to a Hell that is populated exclusively by weekend joggers, but there you have it.

So it surprised me as much as anyone when I signed up to do a cyclocross race.  ‘Cross races, as we all know, can involve a fair amount of running.   This development provoked one of those little discussions that you have with yourself when you hold up your hand to do something that one side of your brain thinks is a wee bit irrational:

“Dude, what are you doing?  A ‘cross race!?  You hate to run.  Don’t you know that ‘cross races involve running.”

“Yup.  Running, jumping over shit, falling down, and getting muddy. Oh, and it will be very cold out.  Sounds lovely, doesn’t it?”

“But Dude, there is a reason that you hate to run.  You’re big and slow, and you run like a girl.”

“Don’t forget old too.  I’m over 40.  There’s a good chance that I’ll be the oldest novice out there. ”

“Man, this will be ugly.  Maybe you can get a Senior Citizen discount on the entry fee.  How’s your fitness?  These ‘cross races are supposed to be frickin’ painful.”

“Ahhh…don’t worry about that. The race is only 45 minutes long.   I can do just about anything for 45 minutes.”

I would later pay dearly for that last bit of hubris.

Anyway, my irrational and overconfident side eventually prevailed and I was committed to do the race.  Actually, “committed” is a polite way of saying that, having shot my mouth off about the race to certain riding buddies and family members, there was no longer any way to gracefully bow out if I changed my mind.

So with the decision made and money sent off to the organizers, it was time to get down to the business of preparing for my first cyclocross outing.  I was immediately presented with several teeny-tiny impediments to what I was convinced would be yet another glorious episode in my admittedly limited racing career.

First, I had never actually seen a ‘cross race before, let alone raced in one, so it was left up to my imagination as to what to expect or how to prepare.  I knew that ‘cross racing involves getting off of the bike and jumping the odd barrier or two or traversing some sketchy terrain on skinny tires, but beyond that I was clueless.  The only answer that I could come up with on the training angle was to occasionally hop off of my bike on the fly and then try and hop back on.  With the help of a few inadvertent top tube/gonad collisions to focus the mind, I eventually got this down pretty smooth.

Second, I didn’t have a ‘cross bike.  What I did have, however, was my trusty commuter rig, an inexpensive Bianchi touring bike.  It would do in a pinch.  Stripped down and wearing a set of 35c knobby tires pulled off of an old hybrid, it looked pretty racy.  I was in business.

Oh, and then there was the running part.  I hate running, so I skipped that bit.  I figured that, hey, it was a BIKE race and there couldn’t be THAT much running involved could there?  And if there was, I could just gut it out because, as I had irrationally convinced myself, I can do just about anything for 45 minutes.  Even running through the mud with a 25-pound bike on my shoulder.

Race day arrived cold and threatening snow.  Bundled in my thickest windproof tights and multiple jerseys, I checked in with the race control, and got my one-day license and race number with little hassle.   I was way early, so I had plenty of time to check out the course and the competition.  What I saw of both quickly set off warning bells for what was about to go down.

The course was an eye-opener. The race was being held in a local regional park, and the organizers had managed to put together a loop that included virtually every type of surface that you could think of: road, gravel, grass, singletrack.  Oh, and they managed to find a place on the course for every hill in the park, including one steep grassy incline to the top of an earthen dam holding back a small lake.  Correct that: it was holding back a small, frozen lake because, as I mentioned, it was COLD.  The cold temperature also meant that the ground itself was frozen solid.

And then there were the barriers.  Can’t have a ‘cross race without barriers.   Several sets of hurdles were fiendishly placed in the main viewing area, meaning that any humiliation suffered while traversing these sets of jumps would be extremely public.  There were, of course, other groupings of barriers placed over the course in rather inconvenient places. Most notable among these little inconveniences was a particularly nasty grouping located on a steep uphill section, about 30 yards long.  They say that visualization is a technique used by professional athletes to conquer difficult situations that require physical skill or finely honed technique, like high-speed ski runs or qualifying a racecar at Indianapolis.  So I tried to visualize myself rolling up to this section mid-race, smoothly dismounting and gracefully leaping over the barriers like a gazelle.

The best that I could muster was a vision of a slow, spastic, tired gazelle carrying a bicycle.

Taking it all in, it began to slowly dawn on me that the next 45 minutes or so of my life would not be a dignified interlude.   I tried to keep my spirits up by repeating over and over that little bit of over-confidence that got me here in the first place: “Oh hell, this isn’t too bad. I can do just about anything for 45 minutes.”

Well, we would definitely see about that.

My confidence levels were somewhat restored when I started to check out the competition.  There were, of course, big groups of honch racers decked out in full team regalia, warming up for the main event.  I ignored them.  I wouldn’t be racing against those guys.  No, I was entered in the “Citizens” race, i.e., the light comedy portion of the show that precedes the main attraction.   I spent my time sizing myself up against the other Average Joes with hairy legs who, like me, had apparently taken leave of their senses and showed up to race bicycles with skinny tires on frozen mud.

Based on what I saw, I figured that I was in with a shout.  Yes, I was definitely on the older end of the age spectrum of the group buying one-day licenses, but they generally looked a lot like the folks that I normally ride with.  I could handle this.

What I hadn’t figured on, however, were the riders in the other class of racers that were going to be waved off at the same time as the “Citizens” race.  It turns out that the true danger men in our particular little contest didn’t come from the ranks of the “Citizen” racers.  Nope.  In their wisdom, and I suspect perverse sense of humor, the race organizers lumped the “Citizens” racers in with the much younger “Junior” riders, meaning that I would be racing against kids young enough to be, well, my kids.

My immediate reaction upon finding out that we were going to race against the Junior field was to feel guilty about the Citizens-class smackdown that me and a bunch of thirty-somethings were about to unleash on these enthusiastic, fresh-faced 12- to 16-year olds.  I mean, c’mon, how fair was it for the organizers to throw these children up against grown men in an athletic contest where strength, skill, and riding savvy would separate the winners from the losers?  I rationalized that, yes, being shown how it’s really done by older, more experienced riders would eventually make these youngsters better racers.  But being the one to brutally drop young Bobby on a climb or elbow little Timmy into the weeds while traversing a section of barriers would feel a bit like shooting Bambi.

As it turned out, I shouldn’t have worried about the little assholes.

My true place in the ‘cross food chain was made abundantly clear to me while I was warming up.  I was riding the course in the company of one of the Junior racers – an angelic young lad of about 12 or so who was perched upon a rigid fat-tired mountain bike.  As we were cruising along I was quietly having fatherly pangs of guilt about the rather uneven physical contest that was about to occur and grim prospect of being forced to punt little Timmy here to the back of the pack for the sake of his personal development as a bike racer.  We eventually came to the dreaded steep uphill section of barriers.  I started my dismount and was in the middle of a series of sclerotic hops over the barriers when I looked over at little Timmy.


The little bastard busted a major move and effortlessly cleaned the section with a set of textbook-perfect bunny hops over the barriers, something that I couldn’t have done in a million years even if you had bolted a huge pogo stick to my ass.  As he cleared the last barrier little Timmy took off up the hill like a bat out of hell, leaving me there like I was chained to the spot.

Oh, the humanity….

Turns out that little Timmy is a sponsored Junior racer who has apparently been racing bicycles since birth.  Not to spoil the ending here, but the Tim-meister completely buried the field in our race, old and young alike.  Timmy, wherever you are, this frosty cold one is for you, not that you are old enough to have a drink.  Or shave.  Thanks for making a bunch of old guys feel even older.  Come back in a few years when you get through puberty.

Anyway, having had ego and expectations crushed once again, the only thing left to do was to saddle up and get on with it.

The mixed “Citizens” and Junior field numbered about 30 riders.  The organizers flagged us off, and the field streamed through a short neutralized “prologue” section in an attempt to string out the field before folks the serious hammering began.  There was a strong pucker factor here as (1) folks started wailing right off of the bat, “neutralized” section be damned, and (2) the prologue was routed down a nasty gravel access road that had me completely focused on just staying upright.  Against all expectations everyone made it to the first corner, and the ball was opened.

As I mentioned before, little Timmy took off like a fart in a hurricane and wasn’t seen again until the race was over.  The rest of us, the old and unstable, were thundering along over hill and dale in a closely packed bunch.  The first couple of run-ups spread things out a little bit, as did a few falls.  As for my own race, renewed overconfidence was masquerading as skill as I picked off a couple of riders.  I was also doing okay in the run-up sections, but it was sheer hell on my legs.  After two laps, I was sitting the top third of the field and holding my own.  About mid-way through the race, around lap three, I decided that it was time to make my move up toward the front.

There are those who say that if I had actually completed that third lap up on two wheels, I would have set a course record.   Actually, I did set a course record of sorts, just not the one that I intended.

Starting that third lap I really put my head down and just started hammering along.  I picked off a few more riders and could smell the front of the pack.  What I should have smelled was the tree root that was lurking on the inside of a tricky downhill turn.  BAM!  I went down harder than a White House intern, skittering along across the frozen ground on my ass.   Riders streamed by on both sides as I picked myself up off of the floor and got back on the bike.  Damn.

Only slightly chastened, I got back on and turned the wick up even higher, madly chasing the rapidly disappearing lead group.  I was trying a little too hard when I comprehensively lost it riding down a steep, sketchy section.  This one was a thing of beauty: I went flying over the bars and rag-dolled down the hill in spectacular fashion with the bike cartwheeling behind me at a respectful distance.  Both bike and rider were deposited in a heap at the bottom of the hill, amid polite applause from the spectators.

A quick survey of the damage confirmed that my race was officially screwed.  Still, I picked the clumps of frozen turf out of my helmet and started running with the bike, making repairs on the fly.   I was able to twist the bars back relatively straight, but the brake levers were hosed, pointing off at odd angles.  That didn’t really matter much as my left hand was throbbing and beginning to swell, so brakes were pretty much a moot point anyway.

I could have quit right then and there, but I didn’t.  Hell, I guess that I really can do just about anything for 45 minutes.  So I concentrated on simply staying up and finishing, wobbling around the course one-handed those last few laps.

The good news was that I didn’t finish dead last.   I could see last place from where I finished, but we need not dwell upon that.  I did beat out a couple of guys who abandoned, so that counts for something.

Turning the events of the day over in my mind as I put away the bike and packed up the car, I had another of those little conversations with myself.

“So, that was painful and stupid.”

“Holy shit, you got that right.  I didn’t exactly set the ‘cross world alight with that performance, did I?  Oh well.  Get’em next time.”

“What do you mean, “next time!?”  You can’t seriously be thinking about doing that again, can you?  You spent more time airborne than on two wheels.  You probably earned some serious frequent flyer miles ”

“Be quiet.  I’m tired and sore and my hand has swelled up like it belongs to the Elephant Man.”

I haven’t had any more conversations with myself about cyclocross.  My conscience and I have called a truce on the subject, at least until the swelling in my sprained thumb goes down.  The doctor said that I should keep something cold on it for a few days.  An ice-cold can of Budweiser seems to work just fine….


The Book (Part I)

As you will see, I haven’t finished this quite yet.  Yes, Karl does exist.  No, I’m not exaggerating about his abilty to destroy stuff.


We are all acquainted with riders who are, shall we say, a little hard on their equipment. Maybe they sit just a little harder in the saddle, grab the handlebar a little more firmly, or shift gears a bit more abruptly than the rest of us. Whatever the reason, lack of maintenance or lack of mechanical sympathy, the result is always the same: this poor benighted soul is constantly plagued by a steady stream of minor (and some not-so-minor) mechanical breakdowns while their friends roll up the miles without incident.

And then there is Karl.

If there is a way to destroy a bicycle-related part or component, Karl will hit upon it and improve it. Chains fracture, wheels wilt, derailleurs explode, shifters become shiftless in his presence. If a bike part can be broken, smashed, shattered, splintered, ruptured, cracked, bent or busted, Karl will make it so. He is entropy’s staunchest ally, royalty among the mechanically maladroit. Karl is to bicycles what Vishnu, the Destroyer of Worlds, is to the Hindu Bhagavad Gita. His native genius for visiting swift and comprehensive ruin upon anything that rolls gracefully upon two slender wheels simply has no peer.

Engineers who design high end racing bikes talk of creating a perfect synergy of man and machine. With Karl, that synergy winds up scaring the hell out of the machine-half of the equation to the point where it rolls over and dies of fright. Karl’s lack of mechanical sympathy is so profound and of such a magnitude that it is best treated as a force of nature, a physical law, and possibly the basis for a new religion. How else do you explain the fact that simply being in Karl’s presence can provoke feelings of despair in non-sentient hunks of metal and rubber? Or why it is that bicycles entrusted to his care uniformly decide that it is better to preemptively explode or commit velocide in any one of a hundred different and surprising ways rather than to suffer in Karl’s service? Things are going to get sketchy whenever inert objects start to develop the capacity to think for themselves and, worse yet, are able to discern the fact that their likely lot in life will be nasty, brutish, and short.

Of course, none of this is the least bit intentional on Karl’s part. He has only dim grasp of the awesome power that he wields. And he tries – Lord knows just how hard he tries – to be easy on his equipment. Like most of us, Karl would simply like to finish a ride that isn’t punctuated by the sound of wheels folding or carbon fiber shattering.As Karl’s dedicated mechanic/confessor I’ve taken it on as a personal challenge not only to repair the carnage that he leaves in his wake but to try and put a bike underneath him that will actually stand up to his talent for destruction. It is my goal that when one of Karl’s bent and mangled bikes is deposited in my workshop, it leaves not only fixed but also improved. It’s been an iterative process; a stronger component choice here, a few more spokes in a wheel there. The end result has been that, over time, Karl’s bikes have evolved into rather burly, heavy duty machines. Bikes with an actual sporting chance of seeing Karl all the way to the end of a century ride.

Flat tires are relatively small potatoes in Karl’s normal repertoire of mechanical mayhem, so I was somewhat surprised to have him appear at the door of my workshop the other day, gingerly holding a set of wheels and complaining that he was having a horrific run of luck with his tires. I hadn’t seen Karl in a while and, more importantly, it had been quite some time since he had last asked me to swap out a pretzled handlebar or to fix a deranged shifter. I had taken Karl’s absence from my work shop to be a good sign; my efforts to keep him on the road were apparently working. If the lack of explosions or whizzing bits of aluminum emanating from Karl’s direction during the weekly Thursday Night Ride was any indication, we seemed to be gaining on it.

Over a coffee, Karl poured out his latest tale of woe. His bike was running wonderfully well except, of course, for all the flat tires. Lots and lots of flat tires. Literally every time he was out on the road, Karl got at least one flat. On some rides there would be two or three flats in less than 30 miles. Because the number of flat tires that he was experiencing was simply off the charts, even for Karl, he wondered if there was something wrong with his wheels.

I was very familiar with this particular set of wheels. They are rather… special. I built them myself, just for Karl. They were to be the pièce de résistance of my efforts to contain Karl’s bad mechanical mojo.

When you think “special” wheel set for a road bike, most people think of svelte, lightweight aero confections, crafted out of fairy dust, the evening mist, and spider webs. Not these wheels. No, when you are trying to contain a destructive force of nature like Karl, lightweight simply doesn’t cut it. We’re talking heavy duty touring rims, laced up with a set of spokes the diameter of telephone poles. Describing these wheels as “sturdy” would be an understatement. Even at low speed you can hear the massive spokes go “whooshwhooshwhoosh” like helicopter blades as they shove the atmosphere out of the way. This set of wheels doesn’t so much cleave through the air as bash it to one side.

A set of wheel s this strong would be overkill on a tandem, but they were seemingly perfect for Karl. And heavy or not, the bottom line is that, for a while at least, the final piece of the puzzle concerning Karl’s vile luck with bikes appeared to be in place; the mayhem ceased, and Karl rolled along very happily indeed until the flat tires started.

Taking the wheels from Karl and shooing him out of my shop so I could work in peace, I inspected my handiwork. I checked for all of the obvious (and not so obvious stuff) – burrs on the rim, bits of glass in the tire, bum rim tape, etc. There was nothing wrong with either the wheels or tires.

And maybe that was the problem. Maybe wheels and all the other “improvements” to Karl’s bike were working just a little too well.

Maybe it was time to consult The Book.

Next: The Book – The Bike Mechanic’s Friend. The Collected Wisdom of Legendary Bike Shop Wrenches handed down through the ages. Part repair manual, part Necronomicon, part Penthouse Letters.

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