Sunday, March 29, 2009

Hard and Fast(ish)

My suspension fork quit working right after a ride the other day.  I haven't had time to figure out what's wrong with it yet, but I wanted to race today, so I borrowed a friend's bike.  It's a fully rigid mountain bike she bought in 1994.  Part of why I didn't just call off the whole thing, especially since this is not an important race for me, is because I have trouble with my fork every few months and was considering the idea of going to a rigid fork which would have no moving parts and require no maintenance.  This gave me a chance to race rigid without being committed to it.  Her bike also features thumb shifters and cantilever brakes and the stem can't be moved without affecting a lot of other tuning, so I left the handlebars where they were.

Before racing it, I swapped the pedals, saddle and tires.  I think that proper bike fit, having nice components at the contact points and having nice tires are the biggest things a person can do to a bike to improve performance.  Today's race was a little bit of a test of that theory.  I got the saddle height figured out last night, but didn't get a chance to ride off-road until this morning.

Pre-riding the course, I thought that the bike was going to be fine.  The handlebar position put my weight a little forward, but not badly so, and I ride with a short-travel fork so having no travel didn't really effect my ability to get over obstacles.  I wasn't going at race pace, because I was warming up and checking out the course and didn't think I had to, or that it would do me any favors.

When I started racing, at first everything was fine.  I wasn't getting great traction trying to climb the fire road at the beginning of the lap, but it was an incredibly muddy day.  Anyway, I didn't let the other two people in my age class get out of sight.  Not too far into the first lap, though, I started to get a little winded.  Not a lot winded, but enough that it affected my concentration a little bit.  I stopped picking exactly the right line every time, and I found that when I took roots or rocks a little bit wrong, my handlebars wanted to turn, hard, or my wheel got shoved to the side.  I had to put a foot down pretty often to avoid wiping out, and it got really difficult to keep the bike on the trail.

Not too long after that, I started to notice the other big problem with a fully rigid bike - all the irregularites on the trail, whether they were small holes, or tiny roots, or rocky sections - sent shocks through the whole bike.  When I'd been pre-riding, I wasn't riding that fast, but once I started to push my speed it became a pretty big issue.  That made it hard to hold my line and also to pedal smoothly, or at all, sometimes.  I like to think that I'm a pretty smooth rider in the way that I ride my mountain bike, and I have a flowy style when I'm riding well.  I wasn't smooth enough and loose enough to absorb all that the trail threw at me today, though.

So I came in third in my age class, which had three riders in it.  Results here.  The guy who won the class did it in 46 minutes.  The next guy did it in 52 minutes, and I took 55.  Obviously I'd be happier if I won, but I'm actually pretty happy with my result.  I was a little afraid after doing well last week that if I started racing in Sport class, I'd find that on the mainland, it was a much more competitive class.  Today's finish was certainly not very competitive, but between having trouble keeping my bike on the trail and not spending as much time pedaling as I think I would have on my own bike, I'm sure I lost some time.  I don't know if I lost three minutes, and I certainly don't want to sound like I'm diminishing the second place finisher's performance - he beat me, fair and square.

What I've learned from this is that technology kicks ass.  I'm a smoother, faster rider with my suspension fork than with a rigid fork.  While I finished at the very back of my age class, I don't think I was wildly off the pace.  The spreads in the 30+ and 40+ categories were over 20 minutes from the individual winner to the last rider to finish.  The fields in the series I raced in today are supposed to be a preview of the fields in the Indie Series, the one I'm focusing on, so I think that I'm up to the level of competition in the Sport class.  I got to see the front of the pack during last week's race, I finished near it, and I was at the top of my age class.  So I think that I'm in the right class - I'm just a little surprised, because I was finishing mid-pack in the lowest class racing cyclocross last Fall.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Racing Schedule for 2009

I just posted this to a mountain biking forum I read.

3/21: Dirty Dozen #1
3/29: West Side Series #4
4/12: Indie Series #1
4/18: Dirty Dozen #2
5/3: Indie Series #2
5/17: Indie Series #3
5/23: Dirty Dozen #3
6/6: Indie Series #4
6/21: Indie Series #5
7/12: Indie Series #6
7/26: Indie Series #7
8/8: Indie Series #8
Wednesdays: Wednesday Night World Championships

The Indie Series is the one I'm taking "seriously." So I'll do rest weeks before those races, turn down work that conflicts, etc. The Dirty Dozen and West Side races are going to get the race weekend treatment - light intervals the day before, and a long ride the day after - but I'll cancel to accept work, if I get the opportunity to do something really cool, etc. I hadn't really planned to do the Dirty Dozen races, but I missed a West Side race two weeks ago because it was a powder day, and I wanted to make sure to do a few 'B' races before the Indie Series started. But since I won my age class, I want to see what I can do with the whole series.  I'd like to make it to most of the Wednesday nights but those are very much a schedule-permitting thing. They're a training series, and not meant to be taken too seriously. I'll probably do hard intervals the day before those, although I'm not being too rigid about my training schedule most weeks and I'll totally substitute a mountain biking day for a road day if it's pretty out and I have enough time to drive out someplace where I can do it.

Anyway, depending on how my work situation and the season develop, I could be racing at least once a week or I could do just the Indie Series races. If I'm still feeling fast and masochistic in July, I'm going to start running and then after the last MTB race I'll start training for the 'cross season. If I'm feeling kind of beat up, I'll probably just chill out for a chunk of August and do the 'cross season, and if I'm feeling really demolished I won't race this year. I feel like I'm strongest after a week off, but two weeks off doesn't mess with me too much and the break can be good if I've gotten my body tied into little, painful knots.

Once upon a time, I wanted to be a professional dancer and I trained twenty-thirty hours a week. So this is a different type of training load for me - dancing doesn't demand nearly as much aerobic fitness, and it's usually in a really high effort level for a short period when it does - but I'm not training as many hours now as I did then. I'm also having more fun. 

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Me, Mountain Bike, Mud

My friends Paul and Amanda came to Saturday's race with me.  It wasn't very spectator-friendly, but Paul found himself a spot on one of the fire roads where he could stand and take pictures.  This is me (because it's my blog and I'll be narcissistic if I want to.)  Paul has more pictures on his photostream.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Racing my Mountain Bike as a Mountain Bike

I completed my first mountain bike race a couple hours ago.  Some of my readers might say, "Andrew, you've been racing mountain bikes every now and then since 2000."  That's true, but this is the first time I've raced a mountain bike in a cross-country mountain bike race.

It was awesome!

I tried to ride my mountain bike fast a couple weeks ago, and it was really, really fun.  I also have a blast racing cyclocross, so I was fairly confident that I'd enjoy mountain bike racing, enough that I planned my summer around it and starting getting out on bikes again in January in order to start establishing a good base for going fast starting a couple weeks ago.  But I also had a nagging worry that maybe I just wouldn't like it.  Maybe all the things I love about riding my mountain bike would be taken away in racing it, maybe it would be too long a race for the type of athlete I am, maybe I would just suck too much as a mountain biker to be competitive and have fun.

Anyway, when I got to the registration tent to sign up, my trepidation increased.  I asked to sign up as a beginner, and they said that I could but noone else was racing that class.  I signed up in the next class up, "Sport," and figured that I wouldn't judge my racing ability by how I did in this race.  At the start line, I put myself behind all the other men.  I figure it's poor etiquette to force people to pass me if I'm really not competitive with them - it screws up the other person's race without improving mine.  When the whistle blew, I clipped in, did a little bit of a sprint - nothing hard, just to get up to speed - and found myself near the front.  So I put myself on the leader's rear wheel, figuring I'd just try to stay in contact with the lead group for the first half of the race.

The course started with a long, relatively gentle fire road climb.  I felt like I was starting to work a little bit too hard at some points, but I wasn't ready to let the leaders go yet either.  So I stayed on them, and even ended up at the front very briefly.  I didn't think I could actually open a gap or maintain it for another hour and a half, so I downshifted and cruised.

I was feeling pretty cool until we hit the singletrack.  I've been riding on the road a ton, but I've been pretty bad about going out and riding singletrack - I can hop on my road bike any time I want to, but I have to drive to ride my mountain bike.  Anyway, it was twisty, with tight uphill turns and some roots and erosion barriers that I had a hard time getting over.  I lost the three leaders, but, if I remember correctly, I didn't actually get passed.

I actually ended up catching two of the lead group again after the trail section, but they dropped me again in the next one and one of them I didn't see again until I went and told him, "Good race" afterwards.  It was really fun though - I had no expectation of being competitive, let alone hanging for a while with the guys who won it.  I lost one of the other guys from the lead group for a while, but I saw him again, and caught up with him, near the end.  Someone else also passed me, but I don't remember the circumstances.  He probably passed me either in a trail section or immediately after one.

The course was 15.9 miles long.  My time was 1:23.20.  That means I was cooking along at 11.5mph.  For me, off-road, that's pretty fast.  It was a fast course, but I still rarely maintain that sort of pace even on fire roads.  There were twenty racers who finished.  12-14 men and 6-8 women.  I placed fourth overall, which meant I was pretty competitive with the men as a group, and I actually placed first in my age class.  Granted only two other people were in it, but I'm still pretty stoked about my finish.  Now I have a decision to make, though - I anticipate the competition in the series I'm most interested in to be a little bit stiffer, but if I can race "sport" and do well, I'd rather do that than race beginner and be a sandbagger.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Skiing vs. Snowboarding Redux

I wrote a blog back in February of '07 comparing my experience of skiing and snowboarding.  That was about two years ago and I hadn't thought about it since then, until now.  Someone commented on it.  The conclusion of the original blog was that I liked skis better for most things, but snowboards were better in deep powder.  The comment was "fool snowboards are good in everything."  I think he provides strong support to my point.

Anyway, since then I've upgraded skis, broken those skis, and bought my current pairs.  Now I have a pair of skis that float as well as my snowboard did, hold an edge on ice, break through crud with aplomb, and generally rock.  And a pair of carving skis that are lots of fun on groomer-only days.

Looking back over my previous blogs, I wrote that one after trying hard boot snowboarding, which I decided wasn't for me.  So the only thing that really happened between when I wrote that and was still seeing myself switching back and forth depending on conditions and now, when I only have my skis at my apartment and my snowboard's in the cabin in Lake Tahoe, is that I got better at skiing.

The difference between what I can do on hardpack depending on gear choice is much greater.  The difference I can do on off-piste terrain with older snow is much greater.  The only area where I was still feeling that snowboards were better at that time was riding powder snow.  I no longer believe that.  While I've had some tip dive with my current pair of skis, I believe that to be a combination of the nature of that particular ski and pilot error.  I think that fat skis float as well as snowboards do but I think it's easier to drop in directly into an aggressive skiing posture off of a windlip or cornice or even just a steep entry, so less of the run is wasted on getting set up, and the experience of skiing powder is much more direct.  I feel more like I'm flying when I ski powder on skis than I did when I rode it on my board.

Before the economy got stupid, I had hoped to buy an alpine touring setup.  I'm looking forward to being able to access some much wilder terrain using it than I'd be able to access on an alpine setup or standard snowboard setup.  As I understand it, the compromises involved in an AT setup are much less harmful to both the ascending and descending experiences than those involved in either a splitboard setup or carrying a snowboard and ascending with snowshoes or ascent skis.  And if a person's already using ascent skis, I can't help asking, "Why not just get a longer pair that you can go down on too?"

So I had a lot of fun snowboarding during the time that I was doing that.  But the changes in how skis are constructed have been game-changing, and I'm glad to be back.  It's interesting to be reminded of that post two years later.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Shimano Chainrings are not Compatible with... Shimano

One of the things that drives me nuts about working on bikes, at least when I'm not getting some perverse enjoyment out of it, is that parts compatibility is a huge pain in the butt. Things don't fit with each other, pull the wrong amount of cable for each other, are threaded in odd ways, etc. etc.

My most recent project was to replace one of the chain rings on my mountain bike with one that isn't worn out.  I replaced the chain recently and stopped being able to shift from my middle chainring to my small one.  The way that bicycle drivetrains wear out means that if a chainring is worn out, it doesn't always effect shifting until a worn out chain is replaced.

So I need a new chain ring. I didn't do anything about the problem for a while except to use my heel to shift, which is not a very exact or reliable method, and then REI sent me a letter about how they're really cool and, by the way, I have an REI dividend of about $33. Sweet! I spent my dividend on a Shimano chainring with the same mounting pattern.  It's a Shimano crank, so I expected compatibility to be a complete non-issue.  When I tried to replace the ring, though, a five minute task turned into disaster.

As I was gently tightening the bolts holding the new chainring on, I heard a crunch. Uh-oh. I'd noticed that there was some gapping between the new chainring and the surface it sits on, but didn't think anything of it initially - there are a number of places on a bike where parts can't just be shoved into place, but have to be tightened down. Anyway, after the crunch, the gap was gone but instead of being circular, the chainring was shaped kind of like a wave or a flower or something. That happened just before nine o'clock last night, which is too late, even in New York, to buy hardware or bike parts.

So today I wandered down to REI with the violated crank in my backpack, to ask for some advice and see if I could talk them out of a part. The bike repair guy said he'd never seen anything like that, and yeah, Shimano has a ton of internal incompatibilities. He messed with it for a while, then mounted an FSA chainring in that position instead. I had my original receipt with me, so he did an exchange and didn't even charge me the difference - the FSA ring is slightly more expensive.  I kind of enjoy it that the three rings on my crankset are in three different visual styles.

I don't know what it is about me and funky drivetrains with parts from different eras, but somehow my bikes tend to end up with them.

Anyway, the true test is going to be seeing if I can shift from the fancy new middle ring into my skanky old small ring while I'm climbing a hill.  If I can, my bike is as functional as I need it to be to enjoy riding it and to go racing.  If not...  I'm kind of stuck until I can replace the whole crankset, I think.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

More Racing Shots of Me

Because you haven't seen enough.  These were from Crosstoberfest, last October.  It was the first time I took my cyclocross bike off-road, and I had no idea what I was doing on it.

"Hmm.  This bike weighs less than my mountain bike and that makes it easier to get over barriers."

"Is that a corner?  Maybe I should powerslide.  Can I powerslide a 'cross bike?"

"Yep.  Definitely a corner."

The bike really wasn't dialed in for me yet.  About the only thing I did to try to make it fit me better was to make the drops position a little lower and tilt the bars down to make the drops a more "comfortable" riding position.  I also had way too much pressure in the tires and I was getting no traction on the off-camber stuff, so I fell a lot.  Dirt on my shorts.  Dirt on my knee warmers.  Dirt and grass actually sticking out of the front shifter.  At one point I had to stop and whack the shifters back into position because repeated impacts had them pointing inwards at too sharp an angle for me to work the brake.  And I still thought I needed those to race 'cross.

And that riding position...  By the end of the race, my back was killing me.

One of the cool things about that race was that while roadies are busy being serious about things and trying to have looks of quiet courage as they do ridiculous climbs or run around in the mud for half an hour, mountain bikers have been having fun since they started modifying Schwinn Excelsiors to be more fun to ride down the fire roads of Marin County.  Crosstoberfest was put on by a mountain bike racing promoter, lots of mountain bikers came out, and they all cheered for my jersey.  I got more support in that race than any before or since.

It's interesting to see the pictures from that race after spending the rest of the season on that bike.  By the end of the season, I was a little bigger and a lot more efficient, and I had a much more comfortable position on the bike.

The pictures were taken by a woman named Amanda who thought she was photographing a couple of guys who had a similar pack position to me.  Thanks, Amanda.  Here's a link to her Picasa page.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Stuff I Want Before an iPhone

Having too much time on my hands has allowed me to do a lot of virtual window shopping.  I've also had time to be annoyed at my friend for buying an iPhone instead of finishing a project he's been talking about since July, that I believe has a lower budget to complete than purchasing an iPhone.  So I did a "Google Shopping" search to find out what, exactly, an iPhone costs.  The search results show some suspiciously low prices - $290 being the best - but following those links reveals that those phones aren't actually available and were possibly used or something.  The lowest prices I saw that looked like they'd actually result in me having a phone I don't want were in the $500 range.

That actually gives me much more latitude as far as things I'd buy before buying an iPhone.  If I had $500 to throw at a "fun" item.

-Racing wheels and a more ergonomic crankset for my mountain bike
-Multiple seasons worth of race fees, US Cycling license, fees, fees to go to cx practice days, etc.
-Deposits into my savings and credit accounts until I don't owe anyone anything and can spend three months unemployed again.
-AT boots
-AT skis and bindings, used or clearance
-skins and ski crampons
-Road training wheels for my mountain bike and a fancy seatpost to make them less brutal
-Maybe someone's used fancy mountain bike
-New handlebars, cassette, chain, tape, stem bits, etc. for my road bike and money to spare
-Stiffer racing shoes for my off-road bikes and stiffer training sheos for my road bike
-A set of new tires for my truck.  Actually I might be able to get two sets, and a spare set of rims
-What the hell...  Many pairs of pants without holes in them.
-A set of forks for my apartment.  We have more cook books than forks right now.  Lots and lots of forks.  Or platinum forks.  Or something.
-About twenty shirts that aren't T-shirts but don't have to be ironed either.
-While we're at it, two spare wheelsets for my 'cross bike - pit wheels and road training wheels
-How about someone's used 'cross bike?  It's faster to just swap the whole thing at the pit.
-Another pair of skis.  Might be a tall order unless I make bindings a separate item, so...
-Marker Barons
-Another pair of Marker Barons since I just scored extra skis.
-Many, many deposits into my savings account.  Until it hits the limit on FDIC insurance.
-OK, fine.  An iPhone.  I'm sure by the time I have all the above stuff it'll be cheap anyway.

So not all of those were "fun" items.  But I like my cheap phone that it doesn't bother me to have cracks in.  It's also a lot smaller than an iPhone and I can put it in my back pocket.  Except in the pants that have a giant hole in the back pocket - I'm trying to get in the habit of not using that pocket anymore.  And if I chose to forgo one silly expensive item, the combination of that money and the next $500 is enough to cover a week of skiing, staying at a Best Western or Motel 6 or something and eating someplace cheap.  It's also six or seven skiing day trips, including food and gas, or a ton of movie tickets, dinners out, etc.  If there's a point, it's that iPhones are really expensive, and it doesn't seem very worthwhile to me.  Yeah, I realize it's not just a phone.  It's a lot harder to use.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Clean Mountain Bike

The shop I'm racing for includes cleaning(ish) with their tune.  The bike's not likely to look this way again until I next get it tuned, and that's not likely to be anytime soon.  So I took a picture.  It'll last longer.

Racing trim is pretty close to the same, but if it isn't raining I'll strip the fenders.  When I can get unbroke, I want to replace the crankset with something a little more friendly to my knees, and I also want to put narrower, lighter rims on.  When I wear out the rear tire, it's getting replaced with something from the same brand that I think will be a little faster and have more predictable behavior when it starts to lose traction.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Looking back on February

A forum I read has a "how was your February" thread.  This is a copy-paste from there.

My training log is kind of pathetic. It's a SI swimsuit calendar.

376 miles on the road. 17.4 off-road. And assorted errands on my commuter, which doesn't have a computer.

Bad riding weather messed with my schedule a little bit. Also missing some days for a ski trip and then a midweek powder day a while later. Ask me why I'm not crying.

It was actually a pretty good month. I'm a little disappointed that I'm not increasing the length of my long road ride, but not too much. It's already much, much longer than the amount of time I'm going to spend on any one race. I also went to a really dumb road race one day and did 32 miles in 1:46, with about 2700' of climbing. For me, that's a pretty kickass result - I had no idea I could maintain that kind of average on that kind of course.

Last month was a miles-only month. This month and the first half of April should include more off-road riding and more speed work. So my miles may actually go down, but if I get faster, I don't really care.

The reason I haven't been trying to make my long rides longer is that my shoulder starts to get pretty uncomfortable when I'm in the saddle long enough to do 75 miles.  The day I did 100, I took one of my breaks because of that.  That's actually sort of cool - a year ago, I'd have been unable to complete a ride of that length because of knee pain, and it might take me days to recover.  Shoulder pain after a period of time well beyond anything I'll do racing is really just an annoyance, and I have a few ideas as to how I can solve it.  Also, it's going away on its own to some extent - rock climbing with my friends is great cross-training, doing speed work helps, and increasing my endurance and the speed that I ride on a long ride both mean less weight on my hands.

In other areas of my life, I got myself onto the lists for work for the city and through the local chapter of the stagehands' union last month.  That's going to mean more work without me having to take an office job.  And my car continues to run.

So life is definitely improving.