Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Settling into Summer

My garden is in full bloom with soccer ball sized heads of broccoli and 24" tall potato plants already. Yesterday I packed my daughter off to Summer camp in Vermont, where she is happy as a clam and enjoying all the best bits of being almost 11. I skipped the bike races this past weekend in favor of domesticity, relaxation and sleep...and my apartment it still a mess.

I have been pretty slack about blogging lately, but I am on a plan to be less slack, generally, starting now, so I'll start by playing a little catch-up and then get to some interesting recent developments.

Bike Racing:
Over the weekend of 6/13-14, teammates Matt Purdy, Matt Mainer and I descended on the little mountain town of Jay, NY for the 2nd annual Wilmington-Whiteface Road Race on Saturday, and the Saranac Lake crit on Sunday. This is a new race weekend put on by the Placid Planet club, and they have done a great job. I really hope people continue to support these races, because racing up there in the region around Lake Placid is just awesome.

Given that the race is nestled nearly in the heart of the High Peaks region of the Adirondacks, and that a DEC trailhead for Whiteface and surrounding peaks was all of 500 meters from our hotel doorstep, this was a good weekend for my long suffering girlfriend to come along to the races and have some fun of her own. No, not in the feed zone!! Perish the thought. Purdy's parents had that under control. My girl was gettin' her hike on in style, covering Whiteface and Esther while we were racing. Interesting factoid: Esther is the only peak in the 'Dacks named after a woman, and it got its name when a 15 year old girl went out and charged her way up it, solo, against her parents objections
in 1839.

In any case, the race is pretty cool, and a high quality field showed up including Colavita's Dan Vaillancourt and CCB's Dan Cassidy; a semi un-retired Kevin Bouchard Hall, and a respectable smattering of strong French Canadians, Vermonters and New Hampshire folk. The race proved tactically interesting given that many of the strongest riders lacked teammates, and while the course is selective, with one notable climb and many rollers per lap, the group kept splitting more or less in half with 15 or so apparently evenly matched guys at the front, eyeballing each other. On lap three of four, we decided to send Purdy up the road to a growing break while I annoyingly brake-checked on the front of the field. He made it, I snuck off solo a bit later, and then a chase group containing all of the favorites caught me at the top of the feed zone climb. Mainer had made the chase group, so with Purdy up the road, we exercised our right to sit on the group, hoping Purdy could pull out the win up front, and figuring to be fresh for the counter-attack if he got caught. This left a group of 8 chasing a group of 11, so there was still plenty of uncertainty in the outcome, and plenty of racing left to do.

Thanks to hard pulls by Vaillancourt, Cassidy and rising strongman, Cameron Cogburn, the break never got more than about 90 seconds ahead of us, and the last time up the feed zone climb we began catching stragglers from up the road. As we made the turn to head back toward Whiteface for the finishing climb, we could see Purdy still going strong in a group of 4 or 5 about 30 seconds up the road. Cogburn continued to pull like his life depended on it, Vaillancourt also worked hard, and everyone else either started playing cagey or was simply too tired to pull anymore. As we began the 1.6 mile, steady 8% climb to the finish line, Purdy's group had a lead of about 20 seconds, and Vaillancourt, Cogburn, and Michael Joanisse of the Quebecois Nativo Concept team crossed the gap almost immediately. Mainer hung on to this train as long as he could making an impressive effort, and I settled into a sustainable (for me) pace, picking off riders one at a time.
In the end, Cogburn won in a seriously impressive effort, with former mountain biker and first year roadie, Joanisse, taking 2nd, and Vaillancourt 3rd. Purdy and Mainer were hot on their heels in 4th and 5th, and I put in a painful effort to catch a couple of guys in the last 200 meters and take 9th. In hindsight I should have just hurt a little bit more and caught 7th and 8th places, too, but I was a little lazy. All three of us in the top 10 was pretty solid, though of course we had hoped for the win. We were beaten by really good guys, though, and there isn't much you can do when the other dudes just pedal harder, so we were happy.

Sunday's crit looked to be a blast on a rolling, tight, 3 corner, 1/2 mile circuit with the finish line on Main St in Saranac Lake. But with only 18 starters in the 1/2/3 race, and rain falling on the slick, painted crosswalks as we lined up, "fun" began to seem like a relative term.
I was aggressive early, getting away immediately, getting caught, then getting away again with one other rider. When I got caught, 4 guys rolled away, we missed it while I was catching my breath like a wanker, and that was that. A 10 or 15 second gap doesn't seem like a long way, but when it rains and the corners have an absolute top speed, in order to close the gap you have to go significantly faster on the straightaways than the break is going. I tried for the entire race to get across solo, and once with a willing partner. Each time I would close to within about 5 seconds of the break, the field would chase me, I would get caught, and then we would ride slowly. It was the most frustratingly negative race I have been in recently, and I was pissed at myself for missing the move. Eventually the inevitable happened and I finally got away for good (I say inevitable because I was the only one trying in earnest) and the field was lapped by the break. Michael Joanisse continued his good run from the day before, taking off from the break to win solo, and I rode in with him, having never worked harder for a crappy 5th place in a tiny local field. Anyway...

Back to Olde New England:
Until last week I had never raced in Ninigret park down in Charlestown, RI (for the uninitiated: zoom in on the figure 8 in the bottom left corner of the aerial view to see the permanent "ten-speed bike course"). As a fairly experienced Northeast/New England bike racer, this really seemed like a serious omission, so I decided to head down to the Mystic Velo crit at Ninigret last Saturday with Al, Mukunda, Sullivan, and the form-building Dan Greenfield. Seriously, if Dan keeps riding his bike he's going to get back to the form he had in '05, and then everyone else will be really, really sad.

The field was a classic New England mix of everything from cat 3 juniors to stalwart veteran pro's, like Myerson, and perennial contenders like my teammate, Al, and CCB's Amos Brumble. Early on in the 41 lap race, a break slipped away containing Al, Amos and two other riders and the rest of us did a good job of frustrating any chase attempts, confident as we were in Al's chances fromt he break. Myerson remained aggressive, as did Alister Ratcliffe of Bikereg/Cannondale and a few others, but nothing was going. I made a solo bid to bridge and made it to within "I think I can" distance, but overreached, blew up and got caught. Oh well, it was a good interval. The pace remained high, the juniors aggressive, but the break continued to gain time on us until it began to look like they would lap us. Ultimately a chase group got away late in the race, and the break did lap the field. Al won the race with a little leadout help from Myerson as well as our guys, and I took 5th, getting bested by half a wheel in the chase group sprint by Luke Keough. I got a little cocky and shifted into my 11 cog instead of just winding out the 12, whereas Luke had no option but to keep his head down and spin out his 52x14 junior gearing. My mistake, shifting always costs you a second's hesitation and that was enough for Luke to keep accelerating. Good for him though, those kids are badasses.

After the race local boy Sullivan guided us to a magnificent wharf-side seafood joint, satisfying Al's hunger fro Quahogs, and we all ate more fried seafood and french fries than you would imagine possible for a bunch of skinny bike racers. Really: we may or may not win the bike race, but I promise you we can eat any other team in the country clear under the table. Al alone put away about $40 worth of deep-fried happiness.

Sunday was the classic and painful Housatonic Hills Road Race. Long story short, I slept a horrible and fitful 4 hours Saturday night and felt lousy on the start line. Maybe it was the friend food? This is a really hard and unforgiving course, constantly up and down, and there really isn't anywhere to hide if you're having a bad day. I was having a bad day. After two laps of riding like and idiot, starting the climbs at the back of the group, getting dropped, chasing and getting dropped again, I pulled the plug at 52 miles of the 80 mile race and logged my first DNF of the season.

Purdy and Tremble made the front split, however, and hung tough to finish 7th and 13th, respectively. Had Purdy had better positioning in the sprint he looked good for a podium and Tremble had really bad luck and flatted about 10k out. Mainer and Al rolled in in the second group, and that was that. A funny takeaway from this day for me was that I was reminded how sometimes hanging out at bike races is more fun than racing in them. Honestly, I haven't talked to some of the people I caught up with that day since last Fall.

In addition to the flash-fiction contest from a couple of weeks ago, I have been busy at work putting together a job letter and application packet for a couple of community college teaching jobs. Honestly I think some of the most important work done in the landscape of public education is done in community colleges. It's a great place to really teach, and to do so for folks who haven't necessarily had a great time of it in terms of educational opportunities. Anyway I am looking forward to it.

And some time soon I will have a regular, bi-weekly column appearing in Embrocation Cycling Journal. They are launching a new, online format and it looks like it's going to be one of the top cycling cites on the web in short order. Check it out.

More to come.


Wednesday, June 24, 2009


There has been a lot going on lately. I am in arrears on bike race reports, which I hope to make up for by the end of the week; I've been working on a job letter to actually try and land a teaching gig come Fall; my daughter is "graduating" from the 5th grade today, and my garden is going amazingly strong. My fellow community garden plot sharers are coveting my broccoli. Word.

Upcoming posts will recap recent races, address the bizarre trend of graduation ceremonies for elementary school aged kids, and talk a little bit about my non-blog writing. It looks as though I will have a column coming up soon in an online cycling journal.

Until then,


Thursday, June 18, 2009

Tidbits of Good News

Apparently the reputation of elite cyclists worldwide is on the upswing. News from the UCI reports that the majority of riders in the ProTour peloton are clean. Now if the Euro pro's are clean, and the domestic American and Canadian pro's are slower than them, and if the domestic amateurs are, on average, a notch or two slower than the domestic pro's, well, you get the picture. Believe in your local elite racer, believe in Euro pro's, too. Just don't start asking too many questions about NFL football, the UFC, or professional soccer.

And I had a short-story published online as part of a flash fiction contest put on by Canadian publisher, Biblioasis. The winner gets a stack of books, a token amount of money, and his or her story published in a Canadian quarterly. Guess whose idea this was...

In other news, the Adirondack North Country Race Weekend went well for us, and Mukunda managed to win a 30+ masters crit in Connecticut. Another weekend of geographically diverse solid results for the Spooky crew. Full reports to follow.


Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Ride: Spooky "Skeletor" Review

I get asked a lot of questions about my bike this season, and a lot of people aren't yet familiar with the Spooky brand. I thought I would take this opportunity to get in a little plug for my team's main sponsor, but also to offer an honest appraisal of the bike's performance.

The Spooky "Skeletor":

*Pics to follow

Spooky bikes are manufactured regionally, for those of us in the NE anyway, in Easthampton, MA. The legacy of the brand is definitely mountain bikes, and going back to the early-mid 90's they had quite a cult following. Current owner, propriety, engineer and purveyor of all things Spooky, Mickey Denoncourt, apprenticed as a frame builder with them while racing mountain bikes in the 90's, and resurrected the brand in recent years, maintaining the traditional focus on mountain bikes, but introducing a road bike line, as well. Mickey's philosophy is "bikes for bike people" and he chooses to focus on engineering and ride characteristics over pricey paint jobs and slick finishes. The result, in the form of the Skeletor road bike is a light, stiff aluminum all-race machine that handles better than any road bike I have ever ridden. The finish is no-frills anodized black aluminum with tidy, kitchy decals, and some models leave the shop matte black with no stickers at all.

Part of the philosophy of keeping the bikes priced within range of real world, workaday bike racers is an emphasis on stock sizes. With a compact geometry, steep seat and head tube angles, and beefed up and reinforced chainstays, almost any size rider can be comfortably fit to a stock Spooky. To help with this, fit Guru and Spooky partner, Carl Ditkoff has his Retul fit shop set up in the Spooky shop, so the perfect fit for your ride is all part of the package. Custom geometry is available for special needs at no upcharge, but those cases are the exception.

So what should a race bike do, anyway? Well, it should want to race, and the Skeletor does. This bike is twitchy, in the sense that it accelerates fast, and goes where you point it, but it tracks with unbelievable stability, owing in large part to the Edge Composites fork around which the frame is designed. I have raced a custom IF Crown Jewel, a Cannondale, a Specialized, and a Giant TCR Adanced 0, and I can say without hesitation that I have never been so confident while descending or cornering at speed as I am on my Spooky Skeletor. This is consensus within the team, as well, and all of our guys are delighted with the bikes.

Another common observation among the riders on the Spooky / NCC / Kenda team is that almost to a man we are set up with more aggressive positions than on past bikes, meaning more handlebar drop, but we are also more comfortable. The geometry of the bike and the seat tube angle have allowed me to shorten up my reach by a centimeter or so, better positioning my center-of-gravity over the bottom bracket, but at the same time lowering my bars by a full 3cm compared to my Giant. I am much more aero, the bike handles better through corners, and my back still doesn't hurt. What more could you ask for?

Now it might seem like I would be unwilling to say anything critical of my bike given the importance of keeping sponsors happy, and it is indeed hard to look a gift horse in the mouth. We have all been instructed by said sponsor, however, to be as honest and critical as we can in the hopes of making the bikes even better in the future. Nevertheless, I have no complaints, and genuinely love this bike. Given the price tag of $1295 for frame, Edge fork & headset, (and the Edge fork is arguably the best racing fork on the market, and American made, to boot) or $850 for the frame alone, I would be hard pressed to recommend a better buy for a race bike. And built up with Rival, with carbon race wheels on, my ~56cm model weighs in just under 17 pounds, and that's with aluminum bars, stem and seatpost. With Red, Dura-Ace or Record and carbon bars, the bike would easily skim 16, if one cares about such things, which I don't.

Aluminum is stiff, of course, and that's the point. I won't pretend that 6 hours on this bike doesn't get to feeling a little rough, and it is certainly not a touring bike. If I were to suggest one structural improvement it might be the addition of carbon wishbone seatstays, but that would jack up the price and might also compromise the stiffness and handling that I love about the bike, so I'll say leave 'er as is. You don't expect an Indy car to have plush leather interior and cup holders, right? Right. Race bikes are for racing, and whether you're into fast club rides, training crits, or full time avocational/semi-professional/professional-amateur racing, the Skeletor delivers in spades.

Basically the Skeletor just begs to be raced, it is a joy to sprint on, as it seems to accelerate itself, and it climbs as responsively as you could want it to. And as I already mentioned, the handling on descents is just about perfect.

So if you want a race bike for racing, and if performance is more important to you than brand recognition, and if you like the idea of American designed and made bikes that have truly emerged from grassroots racing culture, then get yourself a Spooky.


Tuesday, June 9, 2009

A steady Diet: Then and Now

Racing, travel, training, racing, travel, training and occasional and much-needed down time in between. I tend the garden with Charmaine, we go on dates, have fun, we're a pretty annoyingly happy couple, and I like to think I'm a pretty damn involved and on-top-of-things dad, too. But these days, what I am is a bike racer.

This past weekend was the Balloon Festival Classic close to home in Cambridge, NY on Saturday, and a local crit on the (in)famous Bethel course on Sunday. Full race reports are up on the Spooky / NCC / Kenda team site.

My net takeaway for the weekend was positive: a little bit of prize money pocketed, some quality team bonding achieved, and a couple of more solid results added to bolster my recent confidence boost. I've also had some quality time to reflect on what it is that I get out of being so committed to cycling these days.

I have worked really hard at riding bikes this year, and it feels good to get something of a payoff in terms of results after the last couple of years, which have felt pretty lean at times. It's such a small thing, and I'm sure the really talented guys take it for granted, but for me, to have finally put in enough time that I can show up at local races and not struggle, not worry about getting dropped, and actually start thinking about how to win the bike race, well, it's gratifying to say the least.

This sport is so hard, and so many people quit. It isn't the physical difficulty that kills people, though in objective terms I think we work harder than most other professional, or elite amateur athletes--MMA fighters being a possible exception--but it's the physical difficulty with no guarantee of immediate reward. In the end, no matter how fit you are you still have to respect the sport, you still have to drive your bike and make good decisions, and you're still subject to that mysterious collective will of the peloton, which is a completely unique aspect of bicycle racing shared by no other sport. The drive, the inertia of the aggregate ambition of every racer in the pack manifested in unstoppable forward motion. A bike race lives and breathes, and to win one you have to wrestle yourself free from its grasp, and this grasp is not subject to the control of any other individual racing. It's an is.

That's the alligator I'm wrestling with these days, trying to win a big one. But I feel more evenly matched than I used to, feels like a smaller 'gator.

So I scored 6th at Balloon Fest, soloing in from a group of 3 thanks to some stellar teamwork from my teammate, Matt Purdy. We had Mainer in the break, I soloed half a lap trying to get across, didn't make it, and was joined by Purdy and Ron Larose of CCNS. Hijinx ensued, we raced bikes, etc. We put over 2 minutes into what was left of the field, (led home by Al, also solo) and there was a time when that alone would have felt like a victory. These days, though, I want more.

I got a dose of perspective on Sunday, though. When I arrived at Bethel for the 3rd annual Connecticut Coast Criterium, I immediately ran into Dan Greenfield at registration. Dan is racing a bit again this year, and has been coming along, fitness wise. He's been rocking the Spooky kit with us when he can, and he even bought a bike from Mickey, because why shouldn't one of the stronger guys New England ever produced race one of the better bikes New England ever produced? I got 3rd in the race after taking a risky inside line and winding up boxed in. I got out too late, and got beat. But that isn't the story.

When I started racing bikes in 2005, Dan was The Man. He won Bear Mountain, was 2nd at Palmer, 3rd at Jiminy and seemed to be top 5 in every pro 1/2 race in New England that year. He turned pro the next season and after a pretty solid year with Targetraining, he found himself totally burned out and overtrained, so he bailed and started a PhD in economics at Northeastern. He can still pedal wicked haahd.

I used to stick around after my cat 5 and, later, cat 4 races that season to watch the finish of the pro 1/2 race sometimes, and those guys--my teammates now, Al, Mukunda, Dan--on Louis Garneau, or CCB or Fiordifrutta, or the regional pro's like McCormack, they were untouchable to me. I came to cycling late, came to sports late, for that matter, at 26 after a lifetime of cigarette smoking and worse, 70 lbs overweight. That all ended in July 2004 when I bought my first road bike and the rest is, well, the rest, and here I am. But back then, still sporting a head full of Jesus hair, and half expecting to wake up in the morning with all that hard-lost weight back on due to some unfortunate, magical fluke; back then the local elite guys I saw every weekend were effing rockstars. I just couldn't imagine being that good no matter what I did, or for how long, or how many intervals, it just couldn't happen. But something was there, some little drive, some spark, some blast of energy that wouldn't go away, so I stuck with it. And now I quibble about missing the breakaway.

So getting a leadout from a guy like Dan, on his way back up, racing for the love of it, for the rush, the sensory overload of flying along at 35 mph, buried in the peloton, colors and sounds unified, just loving life, that's a reality check I need.

I love this sport.


Tuesday, June 2, 2009


I won a race on Sunday for the first time this year. It was the combined 30+/40+ field at the Saratoga crit (aka Marshall & Sterling Racing City Grand Prix and NYS Criterium Championships, but that's a mouthful) and while I could be (and have been) accused of being a sandbagger, I wasn't the only one, and I don't really consider myself so good that doing a masters race is unfair. As long as Mark McCormack and Roger Aspholm are racing masters, I'll call it fair. Anyway, winning is never easy, there were some good guys there, including Ciaran Mangan from CCB, who has won his share of races, masters and otherwise. Considering that I attacked to establish the winning break, then crashed myself in a slippery corner, and attacked again to get away for the W, I'll say I earned it. My teammate Al Donahue was with me in the break, which was fun, and he took third behind a strong effort from NAV's Steve Francisco who is looking good this year. Steve and I came through the last turn a couple of lengths ahead of Al so he had a little ground to make up and Steve just squeaked through. Mark Sumner of Keltic seems to get stronger with age and he took 4th overall to win the 40+ race ahead of our remaining break mate, Gary Steinberg of Global Locate. It was a fun break to ride in and everyone worked well until about 4 to go when with the gap unthreatened at about 40 seconds, the other guys stopped doing much work, which they had every right to do with Al and I both up there. Mukunda took the field sprint for 6th, or 4th in the 30+ and Purdy, not liking sprints, particularly in the rain, didn't really contest, figuring to keep his powder dry for the 1/2/3 race later in the afternoon.

The event was quality and a lot of fun, and the community seemed supportive, so hats off once again to Dieter Drake and Andrew Bernstein for putting the race on.

The 1/2/3 race was canceled due to a tragic accident, and that really put things in perspective. I ended the day reminded on the one hand of just how insignificant the act of winning a bike race is, and at the same time feeling acutely how important it is to live fully in each moment you are granted.