"It never gets any easier. You just go faster." ---Greg Lemond
"Don't buy upgrades. Ride up grades." --- Eddy Merckx
"You drive like shit." ---The Car Whisperer


Thursday hate

I've not been posting much lately while I've been in my dark, dank, moldy base-training torture cave, or alternatively chasing the sunrise across the country for a few hours of riding in only one layer...but the rage has been building up to the breaking point during my silent suffering, and will now erupt...

...all over your FACE.

Count down from 10, baby...

I've got a lot of problems with you people.

First up - the loud talkers at the gym. You guys are the male equivalent of women who sit around and talk about their periods or breast milk storage. "Yep! Just bein' a guy, here! Right Barry?!" [sniff!][adjusts crotch] "Laughin' real LOUD, talkin' 'bout WORK - how no one in my department 'cept me can do their JOBS..." [lifts up shirt to check out abs in the mirror] "...what a crazy BITCH my wife is...yep! A GUY at the GYM!" [sniff!][blows out hard so cheeks puff][sniff!] "Gimme a spot on the bench?!"

How about more lower body today, bird legs? You're more imbalanced than a hormonally-grown Tyson chicken. And save us some hot water and leave the conversation for the drive in on your bluetooth? Some of us had a real workout this morning, actually breathing too hard to talk while riding here 15 miles in the snow and could use a hot shower.

Next - hallway walkers who cut the left turn. We walk on the right in this country, like we drive, and while I know you wish to be all alone, other people do work here. So, don't come around that turn all the way over to the left, staring at your shoes, then act completely surprised when you run square into my chest. I will plant my feet and pick you like John Stockton.

People on Metra who act like Raymond Babbitt from "Rain Man" when you A) ask them to move from the reserved bike stowage seats or B) when you put your bike over theirs. "Forest Glenn. I'm getting off at Forest Glenn. Four stops. Won't make it. That's my bike. Forest Glenn." Then start beating their forehead with a clenched fist.


Hump day

It might take a second to see what's going on here, but the sheer coincidence of it all is worth it (click on the picture to view the full size):


Chasing summer

Saturday, February 13

Clowning around with our morning downtime; little chair, big beard, bigger book:

Still recovering from our close call with hypothermia on Friday and faced with the very real possibility of not being able to ride again from our present location, we decided to head even further south and salvage what we could from the trip.

Coach Randy's brother Dean was in Orlando, and once he got hold of him and his okay to crash there, we were on our way. A quick check online also netted us a criterium just 90 minutes away in Dade City.

I wasn't too sure if I wanted to race or not, or even drive that far. The weather looked pretty good in Savannah, too, just five hours away, instead of 10. But the consensus was definitely in favor of a free place to stay and a race, so I wasn't going to stand in the way of that.

The weather is looking up that night:

Near the GA/FLA border in Valdosta, we found a very popular and tasty BBQ place:

It was just a straight shot down I-75 from Atlanta to the Florida Turnpike, and then another 30 or so miles to Dean's place. It was 11 pm when we arrived. I'd joked that he'd better have a grapefruit tree. The last time I was in Florida we'd enjoyed fresh grapefruit every morning. Not 10 seconds after walking into the garage, Dean said, "I hope you like grapefruit! We just picked over 300 of them."

There were already air mattresses and blankets set out for us, and after settling on an action plan for the morning, we were all asleep pretty fast.

Sunday, February 14

We drove an hour and half west after the nine of us enjoyed a breakfast of oatmeal and fresh grapefruit. It was a gloriously sunny morning, not a cloud in the sky. Arriving in the parking lot and going through my prerace routine - getting dressed, checking my equipment - all seemed like a dream. It was the middle of February and, yet, here we were standing in sunshine as the temps climbed above 50 (yet all the locals had on coats and scarves!).

I was simultaneously nervous and lackadaisical regarding the race about to happen. I hadn't planned on doing my first competition for another month, and Friday's climbing was the first real intensity I'd had since cyclocross in early December. I knew these Floridians had been going for a month and some would already be on form. But, just being here was surreal enough, so why not throw in a race?

Getting ready:

It was a six-corner criterium, part of a weekend of racing; we'd missed the road race driving down yesterday. The corners came quickly, starting with a slightly downhill right onto jarringly rough cobbles, then right-right-left-right-right-start/finish.

First race of the year, over a month ahead of schedule and I was definitely off my game. I went straight to the back, and there I stayed; afraid to move up through the rapid-fire turns. Partly to blame was that I wasn't as diligent with my equipment check as I should have been; my needing-to-be-replaced left cleat came alarmingly loose early. I didn't want to have my foot come detached during a dig in front of the whole pack. So I sat in, grabbed wheels, worked on my cornering, enjoyed the unique training.

Tom finished the best out of us four, 13th. Ben, wearing our XXX Racing kit for the day, was 18th. Liam was 26th, but that finish is deceiving: he spent over 12 minutes off the front, chasing the 2-man break up the road. I was 24th, out 33 that finished.

Randy, Dave, Brian, Ed, and Seth raced the Pro/1/2 event, 85 minutes plus 5 laps. Ed and Seth, either fighting or recovering from sickness, dropped out before the halfway point. The pace looked very fast. We watched Randy and Dave sit in the rear lounge for most of the race while Brian was very active at the front, even after a crash split the front nine riders in a breakaway from the main group. And off they stayed. Oddly enough, our boys weren't the only familiar face in the race: Andy Crater, formerly of Milwaukee's Wheel and Sprocket team, now racing for a team out of Asheville, NC, was in the break.

With five to go, crafty Randy suddenly worked his way all the way to the front of the main group. Brian put in a couple more digs over the final laps to string it out, and then it was over. Crater, who'd sat in on the break the entire time needed only six turns of his biggest gear to come around the leadout for the win. Brian, Randy, and Dave all finished in the top 30 spots.

We regrouped for a picture, removing our knee and arm warmers as the temperature topped 60, and headed out on a training ride over a couple laps of yesterday's road race course.

Things got pretty heavy pretty fast. Ed, bummed about his early departure from the race, decided to get some major work in and spent almost all of our second 17 mile lap at the front. The first lap was at time trial pace - it doesn't take much to get the stampede going, just a couple of overeager pulls or leg openers off the front. A fun ride for sure and great workout.

We spent another night in Orlando with Dean and Ginger's hospitality, enjoying a delicious white bean chili.

Monday, February 15

The next morning was a 6:15 departure and breakfast at McDonald's. Randy and Ed had an evening flight out of Atlanta, so their ride today couldn't end any later than 10:30. We drove a bit to a state park along the turnpike, and headed out on a trail in the growing sunshine and rising temperatures (although at that moment, my fingers were ice cubes and we all had on knee and arm warmers:

Rolling out of the state park with Ed behind me, it was a bit chilly:

Randy and Ed said their goodbyes at 10ish after 40ish miles, and the rest of us turned around and Brian led three more laps on the state championship road race course, nearly breaking all of us off on two giant hills. Each were about twice the size of Spring Prairie's penultimate climb, and followed by a raging descent. The second had a round about at the end of it, which you could zoom right through, no brakes, with the right line.

The second lap was the hardest and I was dropped on both climbs. Almost all of us were dropped by Brian on one of the laps. It was easy to reconnect however, and the four and half hours we spent riding that sunny Monday in 71 degrees were easily worth all the driving and Friday's suffering in the snow.

Computer geekout moment:
  • 4.5 hours ride time
  • 87 miles
  • 211 watts avg
  • 280 normalized
  • 318 TSS
Post ride - Dave, Brian, Liam, Tom, Ben, Seth, me:

Whoa. We were destroyed. And had a 10-hour drive back Lake Burton, GA to look forward to. Luckily, we had time for another stop at the Smoke 'n Pig, which actually put us in an even worse stupor:

...and the weather cooperated as well, with no snow until the following day. Tuesday morning, I was incredibly tired, and slept in while Newt, Tom, Dave, and Liam got a spirited hour to town and back. As they were returning, I headed out for a short 30 minutes to explore the neighborhood around the lake.

Soon, we were off in our loaded van returning to Chicago.

47 hours of driving. 14.5 hours of riding.

It was all worth it, and if the van showed up outside my apartment right now, I'd jump in without any hesitation. I still can't believe I was ever in Florida, riding in the sunshine in my shorts. I sit writing this, fighting a cold, hoping I can manage even 30 minutes on my trainer, dreading the forecast of almost a foot of more snow coming overnight and into tomorrow.


We found the devil in Georgia...

...and hell had frozen over.

Thursday, 11:30 am

My fears that we'd have a delayed departure, completely understandable given the logistics of renting a van from O'Hare at 9 am and then picking up five more cyclists with bags and bikes, were proved unfounded. Seven dudes, - Dave, Tom, Ben, Newt, Liam, Seth, and myself - plus 14 bags and nine bicycles were rolling on Lake Shore Drive to a date with some epic riding in northeast Georgia on Friday morning.

For the last 10 days we'd all been feverishly checking the forecast for Clayton, GA and our emotions had been given a wild ride. The predicted weather waffled between gorgeous and sunny with 50 degree highs, to a depressingly familiar wintry mix and not seeing much above 40. We were relativistic about it, however, since the latest snowy blast just days before our departure had given us some perspective.

Cold weather sucks. Cold weather and flat terrain sucks even worse. The training potential in the mountains of Georgia would be worth the trip, no matter the weather. How bad could it be?

The trip south was very entertaining. A drunk diver just ahead kept us rapt through most of Indiana. Kentucky greeted us in spectacular fashion:

Backseat Tecmobowl on Liam's laptop:

We counted no less than five Family Inns along the two mile main street through Pigeon Forge, the hometown of Dolly Parton and the Vegas of the South, if minigolf were gambling. Gatlinburg is only slightly less rednecky and a thousand times more consumerist, with its Ripley's Believe it or Not museum, aquarium, and Hard Rock Cafe. Thankfully, it ends in blackness almost as quickly as it began, and soon we were winding through the solitude of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the dark country roads beyond.

We arrived at the lodge shortly after midnight, with the time change. Brian was already there from Miami, and Coach Randy and Ed arrived within the hour from their flight to Atlanta. Newt had arranged for us to stay at his extended family's vacation home, and it was an absolute paradise. We'd all chipped in for his mom Jane's ticket down, and upon arrival in the rural dacha - replete with mounted trophies, a pool table, satellite TV, and 10 beds - dinner and homemade cookies were ready for us.

We chose our beds, unpacked enough to be ready to ride in the morning, and turned in late with the plan to ride the next day as long as it was dry.

Friday, February 12

We ate breakfast and watched the apocalypse unfold on The Weather Channel. 49 states received snow that day, or would. Pensacola. Oklahoma City. Dallas received 11.5 inches for God's sake. It was only a matter of time before it reached in our mountainous little hole just north of the Chattahoochee National Forest. But we figured it still couldn't be as bad as riding through Chicago's north burbs again, and up there was deeply covered in the white stuff.

Out we went.

It was very similar to my training rides in Asheville. Two lane roads, little traffic, run down shacks next to palatial plantation estates, ridges and hollers. Over the rollers we rode through the crisp winter air, dead grass and bare branches, ancient tractors and rusted cars filling in the rest.

One of the goals of coming to riding "vacation" like this, a camp, is to climb. The group can stay can together on the flatter parts at endurance pace, and on the mountains, it can be allowed to break up while everyone gets the intensity they are seeking - knives in the quads, flame in the lungs, tunnel vision. Then comes the descent, roller coaster fun, bombing corners as safely as you can - acquiring vital skills for fast criterium racing and cornering without brakes - then everyone regroups at the bottom, with no one dropped and lost in unfamiliar terrain.

First up was the famed Brasstown Bald, a stage-finish of the now-defunct Tour of Georgia. The gate was closed just after the turn off, but we decided we'd go until was no longer safe to descend what we'd just climbed. Soon we encountered a bit of snow, and maybe a half mile later the leaders stopped ahead due to sketchy gravel and other scree beginning to cover the pavement.

But I'd climbed well. Not sure if the others were holstering anything just then, but the gap hadn't grown very large at all. I'd pegged my heart rate about 90% and felt ready to go hard all the way to the top. Sorry to say that as far as we could go. Brasstown is one of the harder climbs in the country. Its last few hundred yards are in excess of 18% incline. It would've been great to add that climb as a notch in my seat post. But there we turned, and kept it calm and safe on the way back down. Even here it would be far too easy to slide while banking hard in a corner.

Before heading to Hogpen Gap, another climb in the old race, we stopped at a general store for water and fuel. The climb was steeper and longer than what we'd just previously done, still nothing like the torturous days in Asheville, and we soon encountered our first fresh snow. I was dropped by the group this time, with a more severe gap and came up eighth out of ten. Arriving at the gap at the top of the ridge, we stood there, incredulous:

The descent down took us below the snow immediately and the pavement was quality enough for full speed and barely any brakes. Good stuff. Dave, Tom, Newt, and Ben were working as a group ahead, while I was gapped slightly behind them. We reformed at the bottom, realized we were 50 something miles into an 87 mile ride, and decided to keep it together for remainder home. One last big climb remained.

As we curved up the ridge top the snow fall grew thicker, wetter, and heavier. Some of us were getting cold. Brian and Liam rode together just off the front of us, and a couple had fallen behind the pace on the way up. We regrouped at the top of the ridge and the snow was steadily falling with an ominous accumulation.

People began to shiver and question their ability to safely make it home. We all descended that last climb perilously in slick conditions, pumping the brakes while our faces were stung with the airborne ice and sleet that was forming in the lower elevation. At the meet up down there with core temperatures falling and stress levels rising, Ed and Seth decided to knock on the door of a house across the road and the Good Samaritans living there took them in. Brian bailed at the BP station, and Randy, in his ever-unflappable manner, announced we had 18 miles to go and led us off.

At first, the snow turned to mostly rain and I still felt strong and warm beneath my waterproof shell; but the spray from the road was soaking my winter bibs and gloves. Soon my fingers were going numb and when Randy said, after a seemingly interminable stretch of riding, that we still had 11 miles to go, I had to deliberately switch my mindset to do-or-die.

The sleet turned back to snow. Now I was was shivering. My fingers couldn't sense the shifters - not that it mattered. My chain was stuck in the 17 cog by ice accumulation. The brakes were caked in snow and dirty ice and would barely move. The descents were terrifying and the climbs treacherous, as the gearing was too much torque in the snow and the wheel skidded with each turn of the crank. A flat now would be disaster. There weren't many cars coming by now, and with my body struggling to keep its temperature up, I could be a half hour away from deciding to take a "nap" in a drainage culvert.

My only thought at this point was to keep Randy in sight, once he'd finally announced that we had two miles to go. Then I knew we'd made it. I was still terrified at the thought of those still behind me, and the slow, personal, shivering hell they were each experiencing. I began chanting "thank God, thank God," when I saw Randy signal right and turn off the highway, and soon I was following his tire track to the driveway of the lodge, dismounting my bike, and tromping in through the front door.

I couldn't get my gloves off fast enough. I was hesitant at the same time, afraid to see blackening fingers, but I knew that a stinging pain would follow the numbness in true frostbite. Instead I saw pale raisins and then immediately felt a burning agony as the blood began to flow back into them. Randy pulled off my shoes covers. My hands couldn't grasp the wet rubber soles and pry them over my cleats. Several times I doubled over shivering as my body sensed the warmer temps inside and began to expend all the energy necessary to try and elevate my body heat.

I jumped immediately into the shower after frantically getting the rest of my clothes off. I felt waves of warmth rippling through my limbs and up my neck. As I stood there with rivulets of hot water flowing over my eyelids, cheeks, and lips, Liam, who'd just arrived with Dave, Ben, and Tom, came running in asking for my camera, even though Tom was shivering uncontrollably in the next room. Still, he had a point:

His camp name was "Jedediah."

Tom eventually stopped shivering. We recovered that night over homemade meatloaf and veggies, and then ice cream and beer, and began to discuss our plan for the next day. More snow was forecast and we were deliberating heading south.

Next up, racing and riding in Florida. To avoid keeping you in too much suspense, it didn't suck:


Through a snowy daze, the Devil awaits

First, allow me the obligatory apology for going so long without a really substantive bicycling post. Although, substantive is pretty relative, so even yet, you may remain disappointed...if you even care.

Today was a productive one for staying at home in the snow. Early work done, via telecommuting, a lunch time session on the trainer (my single-leg drills are up to 2'30" on each side now), and I just got back from Target with about $40 worth of Clif Bars for my upcoming riding vacation to Georgia on Thursday. Of course, there was time for play, too:

(dig the line of drool on his chin!)

Winter is quickly running its course and I almost can't believe I'll be starting my first race in six weeks. New Year's Day I was far from confident I'd be ready when the time came. Time to ride in the shadows of the pros along the shaded and damp mountainous routes of the now departed Tour of Georgia. To see how the previous six weeks of training have changed my body, given me strength, improved my mettle to hang with eight others; stronger, lighter, faster guys than I. To hear only my own ragged breathing, to keep pushing though the heavy scent of the wet pines in the February air.

But I am ready. I am much faster than I was at this point last year, and I am able to work much harder as well.

For example, when I first looked at how my training plan was to progress over the coming weeks, I dreaded the tempo workouts. Tempo is high-end endurance pace, the most amount of work you can put out for a sustained period. Any higher, and your body can't intake any more oxygen, and thus starts pulling energy stores from your muscles, which is why they begin to hurt. This is known as your anaerobic threshold.

While actual maximal oxygen uptake is physiologically set almost in stone, training can increase your relative threshold in large amounts, that is, the amount of discomfort you can tolerate during any sustained effort. Not that it means anything to most of you, but my average watts per workout are much increased it seems over last year. Three and four hour rides that at one time would've seen averages of 180 or 190 watts are now coming in at 210 or 220 watts. And my recent tempo workouts, which I have really never done before, have consistently been in the 260-270 watt range at 90 minutes apiece. This is about a 3.18 ratio of watts/kg, if you're keeping track. Not world class by any means, but not bad in February for an hour and half, the whole time just below the edge of pain.

As much as the recent work has contributed to my current fitness, I believe I am finally beginning to see the fruits of my long term commitment to the bike, firmly at this level since mid-2007. Last year I raced more and harder than I ever have and took part in cyclocross for the first time. This sport is cumulative, meaning the hours training over your life count for much more than the hours over the last month. You must be incredibly patient. And while I still gained my customary 15 pounds during November and December, it has quickly come off and dropping further still, not only from the bike, but because of the work I've done in the weight room, as well.

I hired one of the personal trainers at my work's gym to give me lifting programs for December and January, and will do so again once back from Georgia. The initial sessions to show me the workout, as well as subsequently on my own, have been brutal. The other members watch warily as I throw myself around the gym from station to station, drenched in sweat while contorting and hopping about with dumbbells and machines, not stopping for more than 30 seconds over an entire hour. Its been ridiculously hard, but results are results and the final push to the beginning of the racing season will be worth it.

A few of the guys I'll be riding with this weekend train with a coach who adds a lot more intensity much earlier in the year. As such, I expect the initial pace up the climbs to be fast and painful. Mentally it will be hard not to crack early and lose contact. However, I know I have the solid base miles on which to recover, and the added tempo of this winter has given me the confidence to push further and hang on longer. Possibly, I'll just make it through the worst of it and stay with them for a glorious ride to the top.

It will be a great way to top off the winter, and finally stick some knives in my legs. My coach's training philosophy is more old school, adding intensity later in the year after many base miles, and racing into full speed by summer. It is ideal for me this year, as I'd like to avoid the burnout that plagued me after racing so much this past May and June, and to be flying for the championships in August and September.

I've realized that in order to have fun at this sport, you can't think too much, and finally getting the Cat 4 monkey off my back has showed me this. You simply ride lots of miles, and read and watch lots of cycling. Then come Race Day, have fun, and leave as many calories as you can and all your regrets in front of the finish line. Results are relative. Get the most out of them with your preparation.

The view from house where we'll be staying in Lake Burton, GA, just north of the Chattahoochee National Forest:


Happy Friday

"Strange was the only dog I’ve ever known who could belch at will. It was his idea of high comedy. If my mother had some of her friends over for a game of pinochle, Strange would slip into the house and slouch over to the ladies. Then he would emit a loud belch. Apparently, he mistook shudders of revulsion for a form of applause, because he would sit there on his haunches, grinning modestly up at the group and preparing an encore. “Stop, stop!” he would snarl, as I dragged him back outdoors. “They love me! They’ll die laughing at my other routine! It’ll have them on the floor!” I will not speak here of his other routine.

"In general appearance, Strange could easily have been mistaken for your average brown-and-white mongrel with floppy ears and a shaggy tail, except that depravity was written all over him. He looked as if he sold dirty postcards to support an opium habit."

---Patrick F. McManus, "Skunk Dog"


The importance of seemingly minor details...

...such as the color of your bicycle seat:

Thanks to Nikki for the find...