Thursday, April 21, 2011

Here's to not pissing off the world (or getting killed) while riding a bike

On last night's Wednesday Night Worlds ride, I got to know Chris Spence a little bit. Spence is a very fast local Cat 1 who's been racing for 11 years, so I was eager to pick his brain.

After I got over him yelling at me during a crit last weekend (I kid, Spence, I kid), he told me that he was almost hit by a car that had buzzed him earlier in the day. "I've never been hit," he said. "Come close a few times, and I know a lot of guys who have been."

We discussed how it's getting better for cyclists in Omaha. More riders mean more awareness from drivers. More riders means more drivers who personally know someone who rides a bike. This knowledge can help transform cyclists from selfish freaks into vulnerable human beings--at least in the eyes of motorists.

But we agreed there's a threat of a backlash, too: more cyclists on the road means a greater chance that one of them is going to do something selfish and stupid to piss off drivers. Yes, I know--motorists break laws and piss each other off all the time. But drivers are used to being pissed off by other drivers, and even the enraged motorist wouldn't deny the other driver's basic right to use the road. But becasue there are still so few cyclists on the road--even as our numbers in Omaha are growing--whenever one of us blows a stop sign or cuts in front of a car, the result is much more memorable. We're fighting for our right to the road, and drivers can use any and all examples of poor behavior by cyclists to justify their road rage.

That road rage can get us killed. We can't control drivers, of course, but we can control ourselves. We can try to minimize the negative impressions we make.

Negative impressions don't often lead to positive consequences.

So, after my chat with Spence, I trailed off the back of the group ride once the pace ramped up; I promised myself I would take it very easy this week, and for once, I kept my promise. That perspective from the dead-ass end of the group helped me see something that scared the crap out of me. As my group of 5-6 riders descended the hill on North River Dr., a large white pickup (why is it always a white truck?!) rolled along behind us. The driver actually waited to pass until we crossed the intersection with Ponca Rd, and he returned my wave after he passed. Great driver. Very safe and courteous.

After he accelerated away from us, I saw a small group of three trailing riders about 200 yards ahead. They were spread out all over the lane. The truck slowed, signaled, and then began to pass them. At that exact moment, one of the riders, without signaling at all, pulled a U-turn right in the middle of the road, forcing the truck to swerve onto the left-hand shoulder.

Frankly, a less attentive driver might have run him over.

This rider is a guy I know a little. I've ridden with him. He's always been nice to me. I like him. But that u-turn was a brain fart. I'm sure that's all it was; I've never known this guy to ride like a deliberate scofflaw. But that otherwise courteous-to-bikes motorist will probably bitch and complain about that near-accident for weeks. Maybe his frustration will lead to impatience next time.

And that's a negative consequence.

Okay, that's my soapbox speech on bike safety for the year. Here's a supporting opinion from former pro Colby Pearce:
I am more in love with the sport then ever, and yet I still watch a pack of cyclists negotiating traffic or click-clacking through a coffee shop in their cleats, and I cringe. We are truly our own worst enemies. As the planet becomes more crowded and cycling moves from a fringe sport to a mainstream trend, we need to get it together. It is time to stop being entitled and running stop signs because you are lazy, while flipping off SUV’s and mumbling about gas mileage and air pollution, and secretly harboring a silent justification that stop signs don’t apply because you have carbon pedals and you don’t want to wear them out by unclipping.
Most racers I know drive SUV’s to the grocery store eight blocks away to buy organic milk because their legs are too trashed from the 88 miles of riding they just did. It is time to stop riding three abreast while telling stories about the latest doper or taking up the whole lane on a group ride. It is time to be vocal when passing someone on a bike path or trail, because no matter how many times you buzz someone on your bike, it won’t make up for the times you were buzzed by a car at 90mph, but it scares the shit out of the buzzee in either case.
Two wrongs don’t make a right, and anger begets anger — unless you are big enough to stop the cycle. Stop signs are opportunities to improve your explosive power. Single-file riding is a chance to stop talking, which most people need anyway. Bike paths are not places to go 25 mph. If you were in that much of a hurry, you would be in your SUV. These are the examples we need to produce for the next generation of cyclists. There will always be lycra haters, but the way we behave now, we are not helping the situation. At least take away the most basic ammunition.
Thanks, pro.

Tonight I'm going to Harrison Elementary School's first annual Bike Rodeo. Activate Omaha managed to scrape up some funds to install bike racks at the school, so the PTA is celebrating the kids' new right to ride to school by hosting a safety workshop and practice session. The other roadie in my house is ecstatic becasue, as "Abbey's daddy," I'm attending in full TT aero gear. I'm going to try to teach the kids how to be safe. I'll also try to connect with some of their parents about the joys of riding.

But I'll probably have to defend my right to road from some dad who's pissed about the actions of "this one idiot in spandex."
 "She knew by now that she would never marry, and that she was in a very real sense wedded to her brother for life. It is hard to argue that Dorothy missed out on a writing career for her devotion, but it is certainly the case that she sacrificed herself as a woman to William's (vocational) desires."

--Kenneth R. Johnston, The Hidden Wordsworth
                                               Dearest Friend;
We two have known such happy hours together
That, were power granted to replace them (fetched
From out the pensive shadows where they lie)
In the first warmth of their original sunshine.
Loth should I be to use it: passing sweet
Are the domains of tender memory

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Justin Townes Earle, redux

On Sunday I saw the Decemberists for the second time this year. They were great, even though the rarefied setting of the Holland Performing Arts Center might have dampened the crowd's enthusiasm.

But. But, but, but! I've been a J.T.E. fan for about six months: when Kevin told me that he'd be opening for the Decemberists at their Omaha show, I nearly ran off the road.

THIS is the song that hooked me. He didn't play it on Sunday night, although his rendition of "Mama's Eyes" was abundant recompense. Close readers of this blog will understand my attraction to "Rogers Park's" themes of geographical entrapment and temporal panic. He also alludes to the Allegory of the Cave from Plato's Republic, which I evidently explained pretty well when I was a sophomore in college all those years ago. (Yes, Tiff, that bit's about you)

If you like Americana, alt-country, roots rock, or folk--or whatever the hell any of those appellations mean--buy this record.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Triumph of Failure

That's the title of the biography of Padraic Pearse, one the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising. Irish Republicans seized tactical and symbolic targets throughout Dublin in an attempt to begin an uprising against British occupation of Ireland. They knew their effort was doomed from the start; James Connoly, the head of the Irish Citizen Army, said "I know we're going out to get slaughtered." Signing the declaration of the Irish Republic was tantamount to signing a death sentence, but they strode out into history anyway.  Most of the leaders were executed by firing squad, but the British sued for peace and ended the Anglo-Irish War five years later.

It's Easter week. Friends are going to Lenten fish fries at Holy Name, daffodils are popping up all over the city, and I'm trying to race my bike.

Last week at the Twin Bing road race, I pinned on my number fully expecting to get shredded by the pack on the very first hill less than a mile past the start line. I couldn't anticipate anything past that moment. But I survived the hill, decided to sit in and endure, and still got popped off the back 15 miles later. By racing only not to fail, I guaranteed my failure.

And that's my internal debate right now: should I strive for efforts beyond my ability and probably fail, or should I attempt only what I know I can do and just sort of slide by?

I'm in much, much better shape now than I was last year at this time: I'm 12 pounds lighter, I can rotate with the fast guys as well I could at the end of last season, I have a few hundred base miles in my legs, my back only hurts after 2 hours or several really hard efforts in the saddle, yada yada yada. But I'm still a middling Cat 3 with too much weight and not enough power, and I'm lining up against good Cat 1/2 guys in small fields that offer few places to hide. Recipes for failure.

But I'm too stupid to willingly accept that. This weekend, I tried to actually race at Le Tour de Husker, a three-event stage race run by the UNL Cycling Team in and around Lincoln, Nebraska. And planning for more than mere survival made the racing much more futile--and much more satisfying. (Bryan's got a good post on his blog about racing to train and survive. I don't fault him at all for taking that mentality. But I tried that approach last week and sort of hated myself for it. And finishing a road race alone after getting dropped demands enough self-flagellation without adding to it by racing scared. Again, I'm not criticizing anybody for racing not to get dropped. But it doesn't work for me.)

The road race start list showed me the writing on the wall: in a field of less than 20 Cat 1/2/3 racers, Bryan, Brady and I were stacked up against 7 Team Kaos riders, all of whom are really, really strong. The 60-mile course circumnavigates Branched Oak Reservoir five times and features strong crosswinds and several rollers. Bryan told me at the start that since my size makes me the best cross-wind rider of our three Midwest Cycling Community guys, I needed to try to get into the break when it went up the road.

One of the Kaos guys rolled off the front on the very first hill, but I was boxed in behind three of his teammates. As riders started to jump across, I panicked because I could see the split happening in front of me. When I got enough space to surge across a false flat to reach the front group, two Kaos guys latched onto my wheel. I got about three-quarters of the way across and predictably blew up like Krakatoa. And just as predictably, my two tailers jumped me and made it across. Now the move featured eight guys, and Brady, Bryan and I all missed it. Bryan made a heroic effort to bridge, but he popped, too.

After latching back onto the chase of 10 or so, I managed to stay with them up some other rollers, but my heart rate was through the roof and lactic acid was searing my quads. It was sheer agony, and I mentally quit for a few moments. But rather than letting those moments stretch out and get me dropped, I stood up, gave it everything I had, and regained contact in time to turn into a tailwind descent.

The race was barely 20 minutes old, and I'd already burned three big matches. Dumb.

Two guys in yellow University of Iowa kits started to rotate and chase, so I got in line and traded pulls for a few minutes. Soon another rider joined us, but with every effort he made, he got gapped just a little bit more. I actually told myself out loud to "get off this guy's wheel," but I didn't listen soon enough. After another minute or two, he got gapped so badly that all the 10 or so riders who'd been sitting in surged around us. I stood up on a hill and pinned it trying to latch back on, but that effort was all I had left. I connected with the tail end of the group for a few seconds but blew again and watched the rest of the field scamper up and over the hill. I tried to chase for a few minutes, but I couldn't sustain the anaerobic effort. I was alone.

For three more hours, I rode alone. I had gotten dropped at mile 9 or 10, so I had to ride the remaining 50 miles with just my thoughts. Awful stuff. I asked myself if I should have just sat in the group, hidden from the wind, and merely followed wheels? Probably. Would that have only delayed the inevitable? Probably. So I took solace in the fact that I tried to RACE. I tried to cover a move (and failed), I tried to help rotate in the chase (and failed), I tried to latch back on and recover (and failed).

I've been dropped in plenty of hilly road races. But I still pin on my number and toe the start line because I want to support local cycling. I want to try to help my teammates. But most importantly, I'm addicted to failure. Riding alone after getting dropped teaches all sorts of horrible lessons; the inward eye is harsh and grating when the body is mired in deep dregs of losing. But I wouldn't ever ride that long and hard alone without a race number on my jersey, and the stored-up granary of suffering and resolve that helps me win races is accumulated during those solitary failures.

And I do eventually win races. I just have to remind myself that sucking in March and April leads to podiums in June and August. It always has before.

So I didn't quit. I finished more than 40 minutes down on the leaders, but only finishers would be allowed to race the TT & Crit on stages two and three. Besides, Brady held the latern rouge at Twin Bing, so I couldn't allow that dubious award pass to another team.

I ate my PB&J, sucked down some recovery drink, nibbled on fruit, and took a nap lying in the parking lot with my feet propped up in the trunk of my car.  These skins, BTW, are amazing. We sell 'em at Trek Store of Omaha and on Velogear.

After my three-hour idyll in the sun, I shimmied into my skinsuit and aero helmet for the TT, a single, 15-mile lap around the lake. I only spun around enough to accumulate a slight sweat before heading to the start line. I was the first 1/2/3 guy off; Bryan started 30 second behind me. I fully expected him to pass me on the first few hills.

I always go out way too hot and blow up in TT's, so this time I promised myself I'd stay below threshold no matter how easy it felt. But I was also strangely calm and focused. And I didn't feel awful once I started. The climbs on the first part of the course were hard, but I stayed in the aero bars, turtled my head out and up, and concentrated on pedaling circles at a decent cadence. I also forgot to turn on my computer's display, so I never had any idea what my heart rate was. I just tried to endure the climbs and rail the flats.

A Kaos rider flew past me at about mile 7, and Brady and I played chicken-egg for the last few miles, but I never saw anybody else. I finished somewhere in the middle of the pack. I felt really, really good and enjoyed the effort to end the day.

After an amazing meal at the Boiler Room on Saturday night with some out-of-town guests, I drove back down to Lincoln for the Stage 3 crit, which was contested on a strange course that circled the main building of Lincoln Southwest High School. A headwind-blown false flat negotiated through a chicane roundabout before turning downhill and curving gradually along the backside of the building. A sharp left opened back onto the false flat into the start-finish line. It was threatening rain at the start line, and I shivered a lot in a skin suit and arm warmers. But Kaos launched hard at the gun and helped me forget about the cold. I almost got popped right away, but the headwind was strong enough that I could sit in on the false flat, and my crit skills were good enough to keep me attached on the turns. I found that I could handle the surges and recover pretty well. Frankly, I was damn near overjoyed.

Two flyers in the first three or four laps both cam back, but then Kevin Limpach (who won the previous day's road race) launched a solo flyer that dangled for 2 laps. I tried to bridge to it twice but found myself dragging GC contenders both times, so Kaos wouldn't let go. I also would have popped hard had I reached Kevin, so I sat third or forth wheel and watched the team dynamics. Kaos seeemed to be protecting their podium spots and not letting Ian Robertson from Flatwater Cycling get up the road.

An Iowa rider named Kevin Temple bridged a few laps after, soon to be joined by Kevin of Monkey Wrench Cycles. Since my name's NOT Kevin, I didn't feel like I belonged in the break. I seriously thought about following the third bridge, but again, Ian was on my wheel. Chris Spence told me that I was free to go up the road, but since he had to shadow Ian, I got stuck.

Notice, however, that I'm narrating a race story. I actually raced my bike--I surged, I attacked (without any real effect, but I tried), I covered other surges--I even tried to help Bryan get a gap when he launched a solo flyer off the front. Damn, it was fun.

Ian rode like a lion, trying again and again to either get across or drag the group back to the break.  I tried to help 2 or 3 times, but while I could surge and recover at a Cat 1/2 pace, I started to blow whenever I sat out too long in the wind:
photo courtesy of Dan Farnam

And that was my Easter rising. Ian tried one last big effort on the false flat, and it looked for just a second like Kaos was hesitating. I launched with everything I had up the other side of the road and tried to get over to him. Too late, I heard Chris yell, "I got it!" I had hoped to pull through Ian and drag him a bit so he and I could rotate, but of course I popped. Hard. The lap counter said 3 to go when I blew, and I watched the group meander through the corner at the top of the hill with Kaos latched back onto Ian's wheel. I couldn't recover in time to reconnect, so I rolled the final two laps by myself. 55 minutes of good racing was punctuated by one desperate bit of hubris. Had I just sat in for two more laps, I would've contested the field sprint for fourth and maybe put the fear of God into some people. But I had to try to get across to the break just one more time. It was a futile failure--but at least I went down swinging.

I finished dead last on the day and in the GC. But I'm remembering what it feels like to suffer and still keep going. The pain is good, and it's talking sense to me again in a language I can almost dimly recall. I don't yet have the fitness to race the way I know how to race, but I'm motivated and confident enough not to race the way I hate myself for racing.

Triumph only rises from the attempt.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Combating post-excercise dizzy spells

I’m a heavy, heavy sweater. Not the cashmere kind, but the lose-five-pounds-in-two-hours kind.

When I performed my last “Conconi” lactate-threshold test at the UC-Davis Sport performance laboratory, a crowd of my Cal-Aggie cyclist teammates gathered around and watched with open mouths. They got kind of close, but not too close.

Everybody watched because Coach Judd VanSickle said that the Aggie record for a Conconi was 450 watts. That’s the max anybody had held for one minute—after pushing 150 for one minute, 175 for another minute, and so on. It’s a graduated stress test that starts off feeling really easy and escalates to utter humiliation.

I broke the record and made all sorts of ugly faces, so most of the team watched me and rooted me on. But they started backing away from my trainer about 8 minutes into the test. Afterward, I figured out why they kept their distance. It’s the same reason smaller riders fight like hell for my wheel in the beginning of a race but tend to shy away from it later on.

Water pours off my body faster than a cold beer bottle on a humid August day. Droplets cascade from under my helmet and splash all over the rider behind me.  After I finished that Conconi, it took two full-size gym towels to soak up all the pool of sweat under my trainer. It was gross.

After the test, I sat huddled on a folding chair and waited for my legs to stop shaking. But when I tried to stand up, I almost fell over sideways. I got really dizzy and saw thousands of little Mario Cippollinis sprinting all around my head.

I lose a lot of fluid during exercise, but my sweat is also really, really salty. So I get moderate orthostatic hypotension when I stand up too soon. After screwing around with hydration levels, I’ve figured out that sodium supplementation helps eliminate the post-ride dizziness that plagued me the day I did that test.

I’ve found two products that really help:

Clif Shot Margarita Blocks: 6 for $2.00, 200 Kcal per package. 
These little coagulated boxes of snot taste like my memories of the drunken skinny-dip that my English Department colleagues once talked me into feeding me several ounces of Tres Hermanos tequila. They’re redolent of shame. But they give me a slightly slower energy rush than gels, and the energy seems to burn a bit longer. Plus, they have 3 times the sodium content of a “normal” block, which helps stave off late-race cramping and my post-exercise dizzy spells.
Hammer Endurolyte Fizz, $10 for 12 tablets
These are new at the Trek Store of Omaha where I moonlight a couple of days a week. I think Nuun was first to market this kind of thing, and Clif followed shortly after. But I like the Hammer version best. You just plop a tab into a bottle like an alka-seltzer after a tequila binge. It fizzes up and adds a bit of pizzazz to the mix.

They come in a little plastic cylinder so you can stow them in your race bag. Each tablet contains 100 mg of sodium, 30 mg of chloride, 50 mg of calcium, and 50 mg of potassium. No calories, though.

I add one tab to plain water for easy rides and one tab to my Gatorade powder for long or intense rides. The extra salt really helps with recovery, so also I put one in my post-exercise bottles as I try to rehydrate. They taste kind of like diluted Squirt, which is easier to tolerate than the taste of dissolved Endurolyte capsules.

When I can’t get my hands on Endurolyte tabs, soy sauce will work in a pinch. Then there’s the always-popular Clausen Cocktail—a tradition my eldest has adopted with gusto. 

I guess natural is the best way to go. But if pickle juice leaks in your race bag and gets all over your new team kit, you may have to die of shame. So try these tablets. I think they'll help. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Twin Bing Suffer-ing

Bryan's asked why I look so angry in this photo:
photo courtesy of Lois Brunnert
I think it's pretty obvious: my Mylar number kept flapping in the wind, my Udy Proje~ helmet kept dripping sweat in my eyes, and my "bastard love-child of Rocknasium & Trek Store of Omaha" kit fairly ruined my sartorial sang-froid.

Plus, I'm fat. And that damn hill sucked.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The pastoral, a Miltonic Eden, a Romantic bastard, and bikes! This damn clip encapsulates pretty much everything I think about in my professional and personal lives. Plus, Catherine Ross? My gawd.

In a Catherine Ross mood? How about another one of her films, this one with allusions to T.S. Eliot and his lilacs. Don't all great love affairs begin in April? It's just too damn bad they have to end in September.