Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Race Report: Carl Dolan

You've seen the movie a thousand times:
The orchestral score swelled. The crescendo was near. Months of training and sacrifice were about to peak. Our hero (good, noble, dedicated) was about to achieve victory. His comeback was nearly complete.
We were on the cathartic threshold. Tears welled, but did not yet fall. Palms sweated and limbs trembled in anticipation. The apex of tension was upon us.
He powered toward the line. Tunnel-vision. Ears echoed the wind and the sounds of the crowd. Cowbells clanged as he sucked wind deep into his heaving chest. His legs pumped with adrenalized fury. They felt good, warm. No lactic acid burn (yet). No scream to stop. Acceleration.

Three across, they approached the line. Podium already in hand. Victory in reach. In his first race he would be first. He was about to win!
I was sitting upright watching dozens of riders hurtling toward and past me. The kaleidoscope of colors and the whirring buzz of the gears was...pretty.

Right hand clutched left shoulder. "Where's my bike?", I mused.

"Ouch," I added. 

One second I was surging for the line. The next second I was watching the race from a rather unique perspective.

How? What? Huh?

Morning dawned cold for the 17th Annual Carl Dolan Memorial/Howard County Library Spring Classic, hosted by DC Velo (there's a mouthful). Temperatures in the upper 30s greeted me when I racked my bike onto my car for the short journey to Columbia Gateway Center.

Like my first cyclocross race, my first road race (practically) would be in my backyard. Even though local, I was still up before dawn for a solid oatmeal and salmon breakfast (lots of honey and chilies, too!). If I was going to get into the 0800 race, I needed to fuel up early.

I was wait listed for the day's races. Circumstances not worth detailing prevented my registration. Though on standby, I was still having kittens Saturday night.

Amped and nervous, I approached registration as soon as they opened and declared myself ready, willing, and available for the first race. I was secretly pleased by the chill air, as I suspected it would keep some folks in bed. I also knew that a raft of riders had ridden the Baker's Dozen race the day previous. They were likely no-shows.

Carl Dolan is a 10-lap, clockwise circuit race around the Columbia Gateway office park oval. The road has two features of interest: a downhill, 90degree turn and a small hill leading to the finish. The turn is relatively easy. The concern is that every man needs to keep his line as the crowded peloton comes through it. The hill is a little over half a kilometer long. It is not steep, it's simply there. The finish line is at a false flat near the top of the hill.

Warm up?

I took a "warm-up" lap in the frigid air. I was ill-prepared. As I cut the wind, my fingers screamed in the cold. By the time I made the decisive downhill turn I could barely shift gears. My digits were useless. I was wearing a softshell gilet over my skinsuit (over a merino base layer), so my body was reasonably warm. It was my fingers that killed!

With 10 minutes to go they opened the race to the wait-listers. I paid my fees, got my bib number, and one of the hosts helped me to pin on my bib.

Minor problem. Once I took off my gilet, the wind viciously cut through my skinsuit. It was cold. So, when I went back to the car I quickly took off the gilet and wore it under the skinsuit. Fashionably obscene, but completely practical.

Did I mention I was freezing?

I got to the start and stood in the back row. We were seconds from the bell, so I didn't even have time to get nervous. And off we went!

And they're off!

I achieved my first goal—clipping in without landing on my arse. There were a lot of slow clippers and slow starters, so withing the first minute I was directly in the middle of the pack.

My plan was simple: sit in and survive. I had no idea what to expect from anything—the course, the riders, or myself. I was determined to observe and learn from the experience.

Nervously, the pack approached the downhill prior to the turn. In close quarters (and I do mean close) we accelerated, spreading out vertically, while the horizontal lines remained. Mercifully, everyone held their lines and we were through!

Furiously pumping out of their saddles, the pack surged downhill to the base of the "climb". Much ado about nothing. Everyone re-formed during the climb and we crossed the line to start lap number two in much the same condition as lap one.

Several more laps passed in this manner. I experimented with my pack position for the downhill turn, on one lap I even came through it first. I was poking and prodding, finding gaps and filling them, while watching the pack and teams interact.

I felt good. Really good. Surprisingly good. So much so that during laps six and seven I removed my knee warmers (one each lap). As we rode the long flat approaching the downhill I dropped to the back, unclipped a pedal, figure-foured my leg over the top bar, and took off the warmer, stuffing it into my jersey. Both times I was able to re-connect with the pack without stress. In fact, the quick sprint enlivened my legs and gave me confidence.

"Here we go" I decided, and I hammered it for the 300 yards to the line.

I easily crossed first (and to this day I have no idea if it truly was a bonus lap), sat up, and coasted. It seemed like a long time before the pack caught me. I let it pass and rejoined somewhere in the middle

"So," I thought, "I think I've got the hang of this."

I knew I could hang in, but could I compete?  I committed myself to stay near the front. I'd see what would happen. I expected chaos, but I thought that if I was near the front, a top 10 finish would be cool.

I was, after all, just sitting in.

We finished lap 9 and got the bell for the final lap. Things got interesting. Two teams jockeyed for position near the front. Since I was alone, I was able to slide into the seams and hold a position. No elbows necessary. As we approached the turn I was electrically attuned to everything. I saw the two lines in front of me, felt my machine working smoothly beneath my beating engine, and sensed the approach of the pack behind me.

We came out of the turn and the teams hit the afterburners. I was in the slipstream and got pulled along at more than 38mph. I barely had to pedal as the huge draft sucked me forward. Riders took their pulls and dropped from the line, tossed out of the passing train like so much garbage.

I was watching a battle of attrition between the two teams, and I was right in the middle of it.

At about 500 yards it all dissolved into individual efforts. The trains were gone, and 5 of us remained. I was still riding someone's wheel when we came to 300 yards. Someone attacked. Two went with him.

It was the three of us for the line.

I had a lot left in the tank as I took up position between the two other sprinters. There was plenty of room as we approached the line, three across.
I powered toward the line. Tunnel-vision. Ears echoed the wind and the sounds of the crowd. Cowbells clanged as I sucked wind deep into my heaving chest. My legs pumped with adrenalized fury. They felt good, warm. No lactic acid burn (yet). No scream to stop. Acceleration.

Three across, we approached the line. Podium already in hand. Victory in reach. In my first race I would be first. I was about to win!
And what did I win?

A broken collarbone.

On to Tales of Titanium Caterpillars→

Friday, April 9, 2010

FLANDERS! (2010 Ronde van Vlaanderen)

I may never erase that race from my DVR.

Ever. Never-ever.

A race to make a hard man weak. David Millar is shattered →


It made this 40-something fanboy (me!) into a pre-pubescent, squealing mass of hysteria.

Greatest. Race. Ever.*

If you didn't see it, you missed a race for the ages. It was spectacular.

Absurd! The favorites break free...can it get better? →

The favorites delivered: Boonen and Cancellera. Mano a mano. Cobbles. Koppenberg. Muur. Those fans. 163 miles.

163 miles on those roads.


Americans are familiar with the tour and the legends thereof. Lemond and Armstrong made that happen.

But the classics are a world apart. They are a different geography, culture, and climate. They are as hard as it gets. They are ruthless. They reward the strong, the cunning, and the lucky. They're one shot in one day, not many stages over weeks. They're fickle and scary.

How steep is the Koppenberg? 22% near the top.

Look at the pavé! It's not well-groomed tarmac. Look at the hills! They are short and brutal, not long, sinewy and elegant like the mountains of the grand tours.

Pros walk up; and there is no shame!

He's a tourist. Famously, many of the pros will be walking the Koppenberg as well.
In fact, one of the pros from the lead pack  hesitated, and had to walk it this past Sunday.

It Got Better

Boonen and Cancellara broke away. Tom Boonen has the better sprint. Fabian Cancellara is the world time trial champion. To win, Fabulous could not roll to the finish with Boonen. There was only one logical place to attack, on the Muur.

It's a climb so famous, it has several names: Muur van Geraardsbergen (English: Wall of Geraardsbergen/Grammont), Kapelmuur, or Muur-Kapelmuur. Most people know it simply as The Muur.

It sounds so easy: 1 kilometer with an average grade of 7.7%.

However, the official race data tells a different tale: length 475 meters, average 9.3%, max 19.8% (all cobbles).

20%. Cobbles.

Everyone knew it was coming. And it happened. Cancellera rode away.

As Heinrich Haussler wrote in his blog:
...when Cancellara went on the climb and dropped Boonen....I've never seen anything like that before. You look at Boonen - he's the strongest I've seen him in years and he's winning races again but Cancellara didn't even need to stand up or sprint - he wasn't even breathing.
"He wasn't even breathing..."

When the best step up, it's a thrill. When they go head-to-head, it's a spectacle.

And when one can completely dominate the other, such that everyone can say "the best man won on the day," it's the stuff of legend.

Hup! Hup! Ronde van Vlaanderen!

Now, bring on Roubaix!

*Hyperbole recognized, noted, and duly acknowledged...


On the bike...I wear black.

My high-school girlfriend was fond of saying: "I wear black on the outside, because black is how I feel on the inside."

This is not black. She was not my girlfriend, either →

She loved The Cure, and she was goth long before Shirley Manson perfected the vamp and the 'tude.

Johnny Cash wore black.

AC/DC were Back in Black.

The Damned's Black Album is a gem.

The Stones wanted to Paint It, Black.

Er, Why Black?

I came to cycling during the 80s, when color knew no bounds. Look at that lovely, exuberant lady. Admire the neon! Such grace! Such style!

Doesn't she make you cringe?

Cycling in the 80s meant Greg Lemond, neon green, Cannondale, and Wide World of Sports (replete with John Tesh-penned soundtracks).

If you wore this jersey and listened to John Tesh, you, too, would find solace
wearing black and diving deep within the Johnny Cash discography.

But today I am older and wiser. So much so that when I picked up a copy of Bicycling magazine and saw an ad insert for Rapha, I was immediately hooked.

Glory, Glory, Halle-Rapha!

Black and white. The photos and the clothes.

No peloton-passing-through-fields-of-Van-Gogh-inspired-sunflowers photos here.

Gritty, essential; that's the Rapha way.

Hyper-idealized reality? Yep.

Pretentious? Sure.

Stylish? Absolutely.

Grey cobbles, not pink pullovers →

Pricey? Check. But their clothes are exceptionally well-constructed using amazingly high-quality materials. And the customer service is old-school (a very welcome surprise).

Rapha is to cycling style as Paris-Roubaix is to the Giro. It's grey, not pink. Frites, not fettuccine. (No disrespect to the Giro, I'm talking about style. )
I love Rapha.

So, Why Do You Wear Black?

Style, baby.

I'm anti-80s (thus defining myself as absolutely 80s).

I'm classic—my little black jersey will never go out of style.

I'm me.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

What's Your Excuse?

It's been a country-music-lyric kind of bad day...
  • I missed my bus.
  • I spilled my coffee on my pants.
  • My boss sent me an email to tell me that he thinks I'm lazy.
  • Now that's a bad day →
  • My computer locked up just before my presentation to the board (remember the coffee on my pants?).
  • I called the CEO "Honey".
  • I dropped my cell phone down the stairs as I rushed for the...
  • I missed my bus.
  • I sat pressed next to a smelly person on the next (non-air-conditioned) bus.
But when you apply a little perspective, it's all just silly-twaddle.

The Dude's Blind!

His name is Matt Gilman. He lost his sight to the ravages of diabetes. He rides bikes.

He's a trials rider. (AKA "mountain bike trials". It's a cycling discipline in which the rider attempts to pass through an obstacle course without setting foot to ground. It's a bit like pogo-stick on wheels. It's an extreme test of bicycle handling skills, over all kinds of obstacles, both natural and man-made.)

So, What Is Your Excuse?

Can you imagine how frightening (in a primal, bone-quaking kind of way) it must be to steer and hop your bike on to and off of objects you can't see?

You have that kind of courage in you, too.

When you think you're having a bad day, think about Matt. He conquers his fear. You can conquer your day.

The rest? It's just silly-twaddle.

Spectacular Spring (and the Joys of Zyrtec)

My Saturday ride through the rolling hills of the Columbia Triathlon course was...spectacular. Trees were blooming, birds were singing, the sky was blue, and I was wheezing.

It's remarkably difficult to appreciate the beauty around you when your eyes are rimmed red, your hoarse throat warbles, your nose drips, and you keep sneezing.

I know that my sinus's trumpet blasts scared spring foals and baby birds all across the county.

To them all, I apologize.

I will now hype-myself up on Zyrtec

With that humiliation behind me, I must report that the Columbia Tri bike leg is perfect for me. I will be competing in this year's event (for my first triathlon), and I wanted an early view of the parcourse. I am familiar with several of the key hills, and it has the undulating profile I love. It's not up, it's not down. It's sawtooth.

The see-saw profile is perfect for my riding style, and it should minimize
my "I don't own a triathlon-specific bike" handicap.

After riding uphill (and then downhill) for miles in California, I am confident in my climbing ability. Two miles of climbing at a 5-6% grade taught me that a half-mile at 8% is just a sprint. As I have written before, I am neither gazelle nor greyhound. What I do have is a strong motor. (Which goes a long way toward explaining the Johnny Cash playlist that's always in my head...) It's simply a matter of finding the right gear, revving the engine, and going.

The Man in Black rides on...

I'm looking forward to the event. My current plan? Tolerate the swim, rock the bike, and survive the run.

Oh, and finish.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Early-Season Pro Racing (A Few Thoughts...)

The pro racing calendar has been roaring like a lion these last weeks of March. Spring has sprung, and kaleidoscopic pelotons have started flashing across Europe's panoramas and battlefields. Here are some headlines, and a few thoughts...
Armstrong, Contador Struggle at Criterium International
Contador and Armstrong fire blanks in Criterium International

    I hate these headlines.

    Guess what? Someone (Pierrick Fedrigo, a Frenchman no less!) actually won the event!

    Why, oh, why do editors perpetuate this childish focus on Lance and the Alien? It has gone from interesting, to silly, to annoying, to downright insulting.

    WE GET IT ALREADY! Give me something real to chew on; you're losing my interest.

    Basque madness? Or inscrutable strategy?

    You could have discussed the crazy-work put on by the mad Basques of Euskaltel-Euskadi. Were they insane to lead the peloton to the final climb, possibly setting up Contador? Why not make Astana work more? Did they really believe that Sammy Sanchez had it? Or, does Criterium International matter at all? Were they really stretching themselves in preparation for the Giro and the Tour?

    What about Team RadioShack? They placed three in the top ten overall! Or HTC-Columbia? They had two in the top ten? 

    How about Chris Horner's performance, or Cadel Evans's form?

    It's lazy editing, and I'm disappointed.

    Hey editors, how about some analysis of this...

    Haussler to miss Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix
      This is huge news.

      G'day! Guten tag! My name is Heinrich →

      Haussler had a great 2009 (heartbreaking second-place in Milan-San Remo and his stage win in the tour, among other Palmares) and was poised to make further gains in 2010. I was looking forward to watching this Germanic Aussie.

      Whatever the specifics of the knee injury, it has taken a real toll on his 2010. Some might say that it benefits the God of Thunder (Thor Hushovd). Others may see it weakening the Norwegian classicist and sprinter.

      Regardless, could someone please have the discussion? Sheesh....

      Bernhard Eisel Wins Ghent-Wevelgem
      Eisel sprints to Ghent-Wevelgem win

      Let's all just face it...Columbia wins

      Hooray! I won! And I'm NOT Cavendish!

      In 2010 they're doing it without Boy Racer (Mark Cavendish). Greipel wins Tour Down Under and a few Euro stages. Eisel wins this major classic, and heaven-only-knows who will be the next winner from their men's roster. Oh, and their  women's team? Yeah, they're terrifyingly good. 

      As cycling fan, I am delighted to watch them.

      I just hope that they don't take anything away from my BMC boys...

      BMC happy to be in the Tour de France
      BMC Racing Team Earns Tour de France Berth

      Oh rapture, oh joy!
      They did it! The got the wild-card bid to the 2010 TdF. Translation: Evans, Ballan, and Big George are returning to the big show! Further translation: current World Champion, former World Champion, multiple US National Champion are going to the big show.

      From a hotel in California to the Tour in six months. Not bad. Now, for our next trick...the podium?

      Evans: “While I was never sure we would be in the Tour, I did not have much doubt that we would be left out, as I felt our team deserved to be in the Tour de France...”

      I love that Aussie confidence!

      Hincapie: “I’m sure there will be days during the Tour when I’ll be suffering and wondering what the heck I’m doing back again. But obviously I still feel good and I want to continue doing the Tour de France as long as my body feels good.”

      Too right!

      ContraLancelot will dominate the headlines, but I expect BMC to show. John Lelangue has something to prove, and he has collected an enviable stable of riders.

      So, the 2010 Tour will have several intriguing new entries.Joining BMC will be Team Sky, those bike-porn-straddling Brits led by some muppet known as Wiggo.

      Beware the Blue Train...

      Expect the old boys to be shaken up by the new school. Radio Shack, Astana, QuickStep, Saxo, and all the rest need be mindful. In 2009 Cervélo showed the newbies how to get it done.

      It's not even April, and this year's Tour is already looking like one for the ages. It's what cycling needs.

      I'm just glad I have a few months to make space on the DVR!