Tag Archives: racing

It’s Here!

The anticipation has been palpable for the past six weeks. Hours and hours of riding, writing, and researching has brought me to this moment. I am proud to announce that BALM CO. is now live!

You can check us out at: http://www.balmco.com/.

BALM Co. will quickly become the web’s go to source for education, information, and in depth reviews on chamois creams, embrocation, and recovery products. In the next few weeks we will also be rolling out the web’s largest (by FAR) on-line store for these products.

Here are some things you can expect from BALM:

  • In depth reviews on chamois creams, embrocation, and recover products
  • Helpful tips and tricks
  • Race reports that illustrate how products work in intense, real world conditions
  • Interviews with industry experts and pro cyclists
  • Product reviews from athletes  like you
  • Answers to all your questions about these products

One of my favorite features of the site is “Embro in Action.” Embro in Action is part race report, part product review; BALM racers will be competing in the nation’s largest and most storied races, including the Tour of the Gila this week.

Check back each day for real-time race reports, product reviews, and interviews with pro cyclists.

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The Life of An Amateur Racer

Train, get ready, get nervous, pack, sleep….

Awake, get excited, get nervous, drive…

Warm up, get excited, get nervous, race…

Suffer, sprint, feel good, feel proud…

Pack up, drive, feel proud, dissect performance, critque…

Feel like you could have done more, feel bad, feel tired, sleep…

Awake, check results, check for pictures…

Repeat ad infinitum.

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The Truth About Bad Luck

“Santiago,” the boy beckoned, “why do we come to this spot, day after day, dropping a line with out a hook.” The old man does not answer.  Instead he continues to ply out the line, tying small loops every arm’s length. The boy turns and stares off into the distance, at the other skiffs far on the horizon. He feels the old man’s gaze upon his face and turns his attention back to the tiller.

Near the end of the line is large, leaden weight. The old man holds the line firmly, but gently so he can feel the weight scrape the sea bottom. His hands are a fine leather, well worn from age and work, sun and spray. Suddenly and sharply the line peels away from his hands, accelerating fast into the deep dark.

The old man jumps to his feet, “Ver, Manolin?!”

“Pescado?”

“No, querido niño. Eighty-five days and still you do not understand.”

“But…”

Later that night at the old man’s shack, after the lines had been coiled and sail fastened, the two sat shoveling cold rice and beans into their mouths.

“Manolin, do you know how DiMaggio strikes with such fierceness? Do you know why his homeruns appear so effortless?”

“No.”

“The ball has left the park before it even leaves the pitcher’s hand. The game has been won before the sun has risen.”

“¿qué”

“Niño…it starts with the preparedness. One must probe the deep, over and over, until he knows exactly where the darkness lies. That is the place where the beast lives; that is when the consequential catch occurs.”

The boy stares at his plate. Several hours go by in silence. Finally, the boy leaves stands to leave the room

“Manolin, where are you going?”

“To sharpen the hook, Santiago…for mañana.”

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Dissecting The Rider

For all the reading I do (less now…less than I should, anyway), I had never read The Rider by Tim Krabbé. As a bike racer who has now read the book, I know that this was border-line sacrilege. I will not waste time with a synopsis of the book, for I cannot put it in better words than Krabbé has already done. I wish more to dissect the wonder that is the book.

First and foremost, is the ever-present notion that being a Rider is more about the mental element than the physical. Or perhaps more correct is the idea that the mental element leads the Rider through the physical; for it is by committing to the mental aspect that the Rider increases physical limits.

Krabbé delves into this thesis many different ways. The first comes from Willie Hamilton, who was the first person to push the hour record over 40 kph. Krabbé states that Hamilton was paced by a dot of light projected around the track and was subsequently disqualified. While I cannot find any evidence of Hamilton being disqualified, in fact his 40.781kph record is recognized everywhere I have researched, the point of the mental aspect (chasing a beam of light) pushing the physical is clearly evident. 

The second point that Krabbé makes is about the fantastical stories told about bike racers. He points to several examples: 1.) The belief that Jacques Antuetil used to take his water bottle out if its holder before every climb and place it in his jersey pocket to lighten his bike, 2.) The idea that Charly Gaul performed better on cold, rainy days because he was addicted to the suffering, and 3.) The statue of Tom Simpson on Mt. Ventoux, who died of heat exhaustion during the 13th stage of the 1967 Tour de France, is placed at 1.5k before the finish.

In each case, Krabbé points to the falsehood of the statement to further glorify the subject. Proof comes from the fact that nearly all photos of Antuetil on climbs has his bottles in its holder (not that moving it around changes anything anyway), Gaul’s body performed better on cold and rainy days do to the increased oxygen levels (his coach attested to this), and the fact that footage of Simpson has him collapsing 3k before the finish.

Krabbé points this out not so much as to debunk the stories, but to further illustrate how the mental aspect matters so much to racers, even when they are thinking about other racers. By tweaking the stories a bit, the Rider is forced to dig deeper within him when he needs motivation the most—just like a beam of light projected on the track, compelling him to suffer better.

Krabbé himself echoes that notion in his own writing. While the vast majority of what appears in The Rider is indeed fact (Especially about the actual exploits in the Tour de Mont Aigoual), he does tweak ideas here and there to make a point. The most noticeable (to me anyway) is when Krabbé talks about Charly Gaul losing 15 minutes in the 1958 Tour de France following diabolical climb up Mt. Ventoux. Krabbé states that on the 21st stage, one marked with torrential rain and cold, Gaul flew off the front to take back all his lost time, which set him up to win the Tour.

In reality, while Gaul did claw back the majority of his lost time during the stage (coming in 8 minutes ahead of the next rider), it was in the 74k time trial two stages later where Gaul would secure the win. Is this a small detail, yes, but omitting such does add to the mystique of Gaul’s addiction to bad weather suffering.

Lastly, is the mental struggle against competitors. In The Rider, Krabbé tells of a personal battle between himself and Reilhan, where the one marks the other, refusing to work together, or at all, if it benefits the other. This illustrates another mental aspect of the sport, one of race tactics, as well as personal feuds. There are a plethora of examples of this backbiting resulting in both race favorites being marked right off the podium (Krabbé illustrates some, the list is ever longer).

Is it prudent to not work if there is the chance that your opponent sucks your wheel to the finish and out sprints you? Is it more dignified to drain yourself with the miniscule chance that you can drop your opponent before the sprint? The answer to each of those questions is personal and mental. Both evoke the image of Ouroboros.

It is truly amazing what this book manages to convey in 150 pages. I could easily write a 150-page dissertation on the points in the book that are fresh, original, pertinent, and amazingly eloquent.

In a recent tweet, Bill Strickland noted that The Rider is single-handedly the best cycling book out there, adding, “That book is so damn good sometimes I hate it. How does he *do* that? Seems near-impossible.” As a bike racer and small-time blogger, I have to agree. Krabbé’s words are both succinct, yet complexly mellifluous; and he seems to do so without trying.

For me, the most amazing part of The Rider is that it seems to be one of the first examples of a text that both illustrates the bike racing mentality and resonates with audiences in a timeless fashion. As Strickland points out, it is almost a silver bullet for those that write about bike racing though, for what can you say that Krabbé already has not.

In that way Krabbé is to race literature what Poe was to crime literature.

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1,000 Questions

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. That may be the case, but I continuously find myself with more questions than answers. Just take a gander at a few of the photos in my vintage cycling album on Google+. I have a sizable collection growing on the hard drive, but these are some of my favorites.

Charlie Gaul marking Bobet up a climb. Merckx setting the hour record. Franco Bitossi leading a group up the Stevio, through a wall of snow. Perhaps these are the pictures that illicit more answers than questions, the others though…are nothing but questions. 

Who was Tomy Hall? Who are those two guys breaking away up a gravel climb?  It is not even so much as to know their names; really, who were they? Sure Paul and Franz Sutor were track riders at Madison Square Garden, but did they really love the sport? Did they take it seriously?

What about Grenda? Did he race because his family needed food on the table and thats all he was ever good at? Was he a forklift operator by day and a fire-breathing sprinter by night? Was Elmer Collins a drunkard? Did he squander his nightly velodrome winnings on the horses?

What bike is that? Moreover, what long-extinct Belgium board track is that? Is he still alive, waiting for someone to ask about how he

dominated that track, day in and day out, until he touched wheels once and broke his back? Perhaps no one asks, so the memory and the story fades, so that he is not sure if he even did those things when he was young. Maybe that picture is the only proof.

I’ve become mildly obsessed with digging out these photos. Why, I do not know. Perhaps there is something buried in them that holds the key…the reasoning behind why I do what I do. Maybe it’s the key to the suffering. Maybe it is knowing that there have been those before me, who have ridden hard, fast, and completely, without completely knowing why or how. Maybe it’s none of those things. Maybe a photograph is just a photograph.

Did Gaul just wink at me?

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Sinatra Would Have Made a Great Sprinter

Those who ride with me know that I have a passion for the Sprint. That is not to say that I am built for it or that I am any good at it. In fact, I am built for the exact opposite—climbing. However, on our weekly Tuesday ride out of Two Rivers Coffee we have one KoM point and two Sprint points. While I always dig (double-pun there) that climb, I am constantly dreaming about the end—a flat, fast, and slightly tricky sprint.

Sprinting brings out a whole different part of the bicycle racer than climbing or TTing. Whereas much of that is pure, unadulterated suffering, Sprinting is somehow more primal, requires a snap, and is consuming. Connoisseurs of the Sprint salivate at the thought.

This leads me to believe that Frank Sinatra would have been a fabulous Sprinter. For one thing, Sinatra had that snap. There was something distinctly fast-twitch about his mannerisms; you could even here it in his voice. It is an innate, biological makeup that takes over your body, eclipsing the depths of suffering along at 35mph, and turns you into an all-encompassing fit of grinding muscles and power. When the truly talented Sprinter hits the button, it is like a switch getting cracked against a tree trunk or a whip retracting at just the right moment and in turn breeching the speed of sound.

Sinatra was also a tough guy. Though he played to teenyboppers in the early part of his career (he would try to kill himself during this period, saying he was a shame), Sinatra hit his stride after he broke away from that mold and let himself, his real self, shine through into his work. So it is that the Sprinter only achieves greatness when he sheds his self-doubt, his adversary’s shadow, and supporters’ weight.

That, too, you can hear in Sinatra’s voice. Just listen to “My Way.” Listen to the rasp, the deep, primal boom of his voice, and the explosion of raw, unbridled go-f*ck-yourself. He knew what it was to unleash that ravenous roar of rage on the pedals; I can be positive of that, despite not knowing if he ever owned a bicycle.

Like a great Sprinter, Frank Sinatra knew how to adapt. There were more bombs and missteps in his career than anyone can recall, but what people do remember are the successes, the major high-points. As such, the Sprinter must also adapt.

Obviously, no race is the same; therefore no Sprint is the same. Sometimes you are blocked out and other times you have complete tunnel vision. When do you shake the wheel in front of you and when do you hold it a tenth of a second more? When do you go early, alone, and off the front and when do you wait, wait, and wait (sometimes ultimately waiting yourself off the podium)? Adaptation is key.

Perhaps most important is that Frank Sinatra didn’t even like “My Way,” but felt that he must sing it. It is now the song that is considered to be his greatest achievement. Perhaps in that lies the real truth—that the Sprinter Sprints not because he loves it, but because what builds inside must bellow out, lest it consume him.

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Oh, How (Some) Things Change…

  • I’ll never buy road shoes
  • Chamois cream, really?
  • I will never buy anything Rapha
  • Took my tire in to get a flat replaced
  • Took the bike in to get a derailleur tuned
  • Took the bike in to get a wheel trued
  • Had the mechanic swap my brake pads
  • What’s the point of embrocation? I have leg warmers
  • Cyclocross looks fun, but I don’t think I’ll ever do it
  • Had the mechanic lube the bottom bracket
  • I’ve never ridden over 125 miles at one time
  • Gatorade is good enough
  • Peugeot, they make cars, right?
  • Those guys are crazy
  • I’ve never won a race
  • Frame pump
  • What is bonking?
  • I’ll never ride in snow
  • I’ll never use Campagnolo
  • I’ll never buy carbon bottle cages
  • I’ll never need a power meter
  • Garmins are nice, but too expensive for me
  • I’ve never ridden more than 20 hours a week
  • I’ve never ridden more than 30 hours a week
  • I still don’t consider myself a racer
  • I’ll never buy tubulars
  • I’ll never buy tubeless tires
  • Eddy Merckx… Ok, and what did he do?
  • Unattached
  • I don’t think I need a coach
  • Intervals?
  • I went hard enough
  • I’ll never make Cat 2
  • I will never buy a fixie
  • My bike will never be worth more than my car
  • TT helmet? Err, no; I’m not a sperm
  • I’ll never have more wheels than bikes
  • I will never sleep in the same room as my bike
  • I  will never let Cycling completely take over my life and love every minute of it
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Goals, Part II

In Goals, Part I, I illustrated the metamorphosis from couch-junky into aspiring racer and how that memory plays a part in my Goals process for each successive season.

What I was really trying to get across was that was: if there ever comes a time when I a.) Don’t have an uncontrollable fire eating a hole through my belly and/or b.) Don’t care whether I become unfit enough that I get dropped, I wont bother making Goals and will leave the sport.

Racing takes up an incomprehensible part of one’s life; you have to be motivated, focused, and, frankly, selfish. For the time being, I accept and relish that. Perhaps there will come a day when a job, baby, normal life, whoknowswhat changes my priorities, but that time is not now. There are many Goals that I still want to accomplish.

Much of those Goals revolve around the Tour of the Gila. Last year was my first attempt at the stage race and it was an eye-opening experience. The shear spectacle of the suffering is amazing: precarious descents, big miles, hellish winds, and long climbs. In short, it’s everything that racing should be.

Getting on the podium in this race (in any category) says something far greater about you than a podium finish at your local crit. It shows your peers that you trained through the winter months while they were stuffing turkey down their throats; you can ride a TT in hurricane-force winds and not crap your pants; it shows that you are willing to sacrifice part of your season for the chance to race well at Gila; perhaps most importantly, it shows that you are a smart racer who can suffer better than anyone else—day after day, when it matters most.

So, specifically…what are my Goals?

  •  Win Tour of the Gila – I came in 24th last year not knowing what I was getting myself into. I now know; I will now do Work.
  •  Top Ten in The Cascade Classic – I am focusing on stage races this year. With a win at Gila, a recovery period, and another build phase, I feel that I can do well at Cascade. I respect the fact that I do not know the course, though.
  • Upgrade to Cat 3 – This is not as easy as it sounds. Racing Gila and Cascade largely puts my hometown races in the ‘practice’ category. In addition, I now know that putting in a massive peak for Gila corresponds to a sizable valley when I return. Upgrading to a 3 will have to be through my efforts at Gila and Cascade; if I don’t do well in both races, I risk not making the upgrade as well.

In addition to goals, there are three bullet points I will keep with me throughout the year:

  • Off the Front – If it is a training race, I will make sure that I fully layer on the suffering. To win a major stage race I know I must train to suffer more than anyone. Putting in massive efforts in training races will help me to suffer better and, hopefully, put a few wins in my bag of confidence.
  • Grow Bigger Balls – In the Gila TT I chickened out of the aerobars more times than I can remember and the results were plain to see. More practice time in the aerobars along the Front Range in early season is essential to doing well in that TT.
  • No Excuses – I missed a lot of breaks in a lot of races this year; the vast majority were entirely my fault. Stay in the top 10-15 positions. Using spurts of power wisely to stay in the desired third of the peloton negates the potential to get caught behind crashes or anchors.
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Goals, Part I

This is a tough sport. You can fester in the 4s for a long time if you are a.) Not genetically freakish and, b.) Not approaching things the right way. Goals are imperative; it’s where everything else starts.

The fact that they are both indispensable and motivating does not make Goals any easier to put down on paper, though. In fact, while I generally have an idea of what I want to accomplish next year, I have been putting off this blog post for as long as could. Once Goals are on paper, there is something concrete, but once they’re on that new fangled wurled wy web you’re going to have to answer to a lot of people about it.

My process of developing Goals is probably grander than it needs to be, but it’s worked so far so I will share it. I begin by looking back at my cycling “career” as a whole. Seeing where I started from to where  I am now allows my brain to smooth over some of the nit-picky, near-term criticisms and disappointments…

Not a Stud

I started riding three years ago, fresh off the couch, after basically not doing anything athletic for years. I bought an oldish Trek and went to work logging long hours and heavy base miles. I never had an inkling that I would ever race, much less have Goals related to it. Gradually though, something changed in my head and I felt the overwhelming need to race a crit; it was as if I was drowning and the only thing that could save me was pounding at the pedals in a group of podium hungry dudes. 

Race I did… kindof. Fall Fling, second weekend, last day. It was your typical business park crit, though the course was wide open and the wind was howling. No experience, no real talent, no real skills—what to do? Go to the front, of course, and drag the pack for a half lap through a headwind. Oh, yea, and then proceed through the pack and off the back. You can make that kind of play if you’re a genetic freak; I am not.

I swapped pulls with a big, overweight dude until we got lapped. It was as painful and pain came (or so I thought so at the time).

I went home that day dejected and all around ok with being a cyclist and not a bike racer (I wouldn’t call myself that for a long time, actually), but… within days that feeling began to fester and grow and eat at me. Given that it was the end of the season, though that feeling would have to burn all winter long. While I do not live in Illinois anymore, I often dream about returning and winning Fall Fling, but is it a Goal? No.

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Hear Ye, Hear Ye

I’m Done. I will never be good enough. It’s Easy. I can win that, no prob. Physically, I just don’t stack up. This is the ‘God’ interval. Seven intervals twice-daily equals cat 2.

Ah, the Grand Proclamation…

The bicycle racer is inherently an egomaniac, as well as a masochist, however, I see many a racer (too many) that turn confidence into arrogance and/or meekness into self-deprecation. Very few racers understand that pedaling one’s bicycle at the limits of his or her abilities is in fact a black swan event and not a linear progression.

Do wattage numbers, coaches, plans, confidence, vision, aggressive retrospection, and the flex index of your bike frame really matter? Yes, they all do; however, significant moments in this sport most often come in a manner that does not allow you to connect the dots.

One day you’re off the back, the very next you finish in the pack. Today you nip the guy at the line for 5th; tomorrow you go OTF into an uphill finish and win by ten lengths. Today you toy with the peloton; tomorrow you are dropped for the first time in years. One day you have arguably the best team in the world, with over 500 team wins (in three years), the next you cannot find a sponsor to save your life—literally.

Very few racers seem in tune with the notion that there is something that you cannot quantify about this sport—something that you occasionally catch a glimpse of out of the corner of your eye, but vanishes if you turn your head to look. As quantum mechanics tries to teach us, the act of trying to view the particle changes it entirely, so much so that we lose any chance of obtaining the wisdom about its placement at all (the reason we looked in the first place).

Avoid the Grand Proclamation. Understand that if you love the act of racing in your sub-conscious, the actions that you take will ultimately and inherently be positive. In time, karma will lead you to the results and goals you deserve and the place you are to fill in the cycling universe. If you are meant to be G.C., you will be. If you are meant to be a domestique…you will be. Don’t fight it; embrace it.

If this idea seems too foreign or if you still think a Grand Proclamation is worth its weight… perhaps you don’t really love racing at all.

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