Monday, July 27, 2009

Time to Rant: on Sandbagging and why I race

This post began as a reply to a thread on Colin Reuter's blog but I realized it was much too long for a comment and hey, I have my own blog, right? This is what happens when I don't race for two weeks...I rant. For the uninitiated, we are discussing cyclocross racing, and the categories into which cyclocross racers are sorted based on ability and results. Umm, yes. This is uber-nerd stuff, You've been warned. And yes, I do occasionally have arguments with my girlfriend over the pronunciation of spells in the Harry Potter books. Though just yesterday she astutely pointed out that in the beginning of "The Half Blood Prince" Luna shouldn't have been able to see through Harry's invisibility cloak because it's a Deathly Hallow, and as we all learned in "The Deathly Hallows" you can't use a spell on a Deathly Hallow. Yes, we had this conversation. I digress, but only just.

So without further ado, here is my mini-dissertation on sandbagging, why it more or less doesn't exist, and why--in the cases where it does exist--it doesn't matter.

Is there an obligation to race "up" a category? Is it dishonorable to do races you can win easily? Is it silly to do races where you are almost guaranteed to get lapped? Does anyone care? Would anyone pay any attention to their license category if we didn't live in the age of Internet stalking? And yes, by the way, this all has not a hell of a lot to do with Colin's original post. But it got me thinking, and then I drank a bunch of Jet Fuel coffee after several caffeine free days, and damned if the rant didn't just start to flow. I needed something to blog about anyway...

To me, "sandbagger" is an over-used term, and we're all too concerned with category, mostly because of the Internets, and guys Colin and me who manage our OCD and time between races by mining the racing lifestyle for introspective, ego-boosting minutia. The sandbagging that feels unfair to me is when I used to play chess against Russian immigrant teenagers who were internationally ranked experts but would move to the US and buy a novice license to enter into $20,000 prize purse tournaments and steal the entry fees of hapless patzers like me. In that case, there is a deliberate concealment of ability in pursuit of profit. On the other hand, everyone knows who the guy is who won the B race 3 weeks in a row, there's no concealment. And given that there is an overall season prize, and a B national championship, I think the dominant B's have every right to race in a category they can win right up through nationals. With the new category structure, I think cat 3's have the same right. After all, what's the use of accumulating points toward an overall series win if you're going to be "honor bound" to upgrade after a win or three?

For all of us except perhaps riders like Katie Compton, Alberto Contador, or Sven Nys, any time we win or place in a bike race, it is directly related to the fact that there weren't many riders in the race who were better than us. You could fill an oil tanker with riders who can beat me in a 'cross race. Lucky for me, most of them don't live in New England, so I get to feel like a top 10 or top 15 placing in a Verge series race means something. Really what it means is that, in those races there is an echelon of guys who train a lot and are very talented, and then there is a rearguard of guys who train some, and maybe aren't as talented as the front group. In between those two echelons, there is me and the group of guys I race with every weekend: we're sorta kinda talented and we train quite a bit. In that group, I do ok. Yes, I jest and oversimplify, but not by a whole lot.

In all seriousness, the main reason I race bikes--other than the fact that it is fun and there is part of me that is perpetually 7 years old, and completely swept away by the simple joy of self-propelled speed and wind whooshing by my ears--is that I have the opportunity every weekend to find out where my limits are and what I am made of. 21st century life is short on opportunities to discover our simple, primal worth, and I think there is tremendous value in involving yourself in games that stimulate the fight-or-flight response under controlled conditions and give us the opportunity to release endorphins and focus the mind intensely, if only for a little while. I get preoccupied by race category, and what people think of me, how my results look online, when my reimbursements will show up from my sponsors, etc etc. But none of that has anything to do with why I really do it, month after month, year after year. When I rant like this, I am mostly reminding myself to focus on the joy and the effort of racing, and what a privilege it is to be able to pursue it to the extent that I do. Seriously.


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Ne2c Climbing Extravaganza live video feed

So my brother Pete puts on the biggest, baddest and most multi-media rock climbing competitions in the world. Seriously, he's becoming a mogul in the outdoor industry, and sells designer clothes on the side.

Today (this evening, beginning at 9:45 EST) in SLC at the Outdoor Retailer trade show the pro men's and women's finals of the Mammut Bouldering Championships will be video streamed live at this link and live blogged here at the most trafficed climbing blog on the net.

North America's top boulderers will be putting on a hell of a show, and the wall they had built this year is really cool. Check it out!


Monday, July 20, 2009

I shouldn't have...

...But I did. 3&1/2 days off of coffee and I cracked this afternoon at Jet Fuel in Toronto. I was caught off guard by the fact that there was no decaf, no brewed coffee at all in the place. Just a stoner behind the counter with a 'spro machine and a bunch of cycling jerseys. No biggie, my adrenal glands can continue healing tomorrow when Char and I head out into the St. Regis wilderness for our 2nd annual canoe rumpus and disappearing act in honor of her birthday (happy birthday, Baby!). But for now, I'm insomnia boy.

Anyway, it's good for the writing and I'm finished with my column for the upcoming online edition of Embrocation Cycling Journal.

Keep an eye on the team site, too. The full TDQ report will be up shortly.

- There are no hills in Ontario/There are nothing but hills in Ontario. Hard to tell.
- Having spent nearly all of the last two weeks in various parts of Ontario and Quebec I am now more convinced than I usually am (which is a lot) that where I live sucks. Dang.
- Resting is good, but stressful because what if fitness go byebye? Little bit of fitness go byebye=good because it means body heals up, fitness come back in hurry, lasts longer. So I hear.
- The municipal workers in Toronto are on strike. So the public washrooms are closed. I peed on a tree.

Until Thursday...

And how 'bout that Tour De France, eh?


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Midsummer Travels

Just back from the Tour De Quebec, which was cool, and will be written about in detail on the team site. Suffice it to say that I raced hard, rode a solid TT, and made a key break, but I ain't Josh Dillon. He smooshed the race.

Up to Vermont tomorrow to bring Silas back to summer camp and go for a wee mountain spin, maybe check out the GMSR TT course and eat some Ben & Jerry's.

I'm in the middle of a little rest block and a bunch of days off the bike, or off the proper training, anyway. Char and I are headed to Ontario for a bit, which usually means lots of downtime and is therefore good for blogging. I also still have a stack of Toronto area gift certificates to cash in on from the crit in May, so shopping spree, here I come! After that it will be back to full bore training and a pretty full month of racing in August, all of which will lead into 'cross season which is delightfully close at this point. Montreal-Quebec, aka the Classique Louis Garneau is coming up soon on 8/2, and I am super excited for it. After most of a week up in Quebec and some time practicing my French, I'm looking forward to 250k worth of time to annoy the Quebecois dudes with my bad pronunciations and badly conjugated verbs.

I just got my cat 1 upgrade last week, which is pretty cool, though it doesn't change all that much. Still, it's validating, and with GMSR having a pro/1 field this year and Univest coming the week after, I'm looking forward to the opportunity to do some big kid races before the season is over.

And that's all for now. More race reports to come, and hopefully pictures from canoeing in the 'dacks next week.



Saturday, July 4, 2009

Ups and Downs: Update from Fitchburg

I'm home on the couch, drinking tea, instead of being at the bike race in Fitchburg.

I have mixed feelings about this. I have a slight, but annoyingly persistent cold, and yesterday during the circuit race I felt absolutely horrible. I sucked it up, rode a smart race, tried to be a part of the actual racing, and rolled in with the pack to an ignominious finish. The thing is though, with the form I have had in the last month or two, I should have been able to pick that race up and spin it on my finger like a basketball. Instead I suffered all day, had heavy legs, felt crappy, and descended into a spiral of negative thinking, self loathing, and general unhappiness. Not a particularly rational reaction to having a bad day of bike racing, but nobody has ever accused me of being particularly rational.

So I pulled the plug. I don't want to get sicker, I do want to race well at the Tour De Quebec next week, and racing when you're sick, trying just to follow wheels and survive, is no fun at all. I have never dropped out of a stage race before, and it doesn't feel very good, despite being sure that I made the right decision. After dropping out of Housatonic two weeks ago feeling the beginnings of this same cold and suffering from short sleep, I'm starting to feel a little all-or-nothing about my season, which was going really well until a couple of weeks ago. Being sick is being sick, though. So what? It's a good opportunity for me to catch up on some life stuff and settle for a few days while I get better. And given the time of year and the volume of racing and training I already have in the bag, the extra rest will likely do me a heap of good.

In much better news, my good friend and teammate, Matt Purdy, won the cat 2 road race today at Fitchburg in fine style. He dropped his early break companions to solo for the last two laps, which on that course is no joke. In the end he held a minute and a half gap over the chasing duo of Dylan McNicholas and Cameron Cogburn, who had both looked pretty unbeatable over the last couple of stages. He got the win, the points jersey, and moved himself way up on GC, possibly onto the podium but the results aren't in yet. I have said it before on this blog, but Matt is a seriously strong and motivated bike rider, and he has trained, and sacrificed, and suffered in anonymity for a long time now. He deserves this win in a big way, and I am really proud of him.

I'm a little sad that I wasn't there to help and to share in the victory, and to tell the truth I feel a bit like I let my team down. I have this "what if?" feeling like maybe I should have started today...but I know I shouldn't. I know my throat hurts and I'm achey and lightheaded, and pedaling up that hill yesterday--which usually makes me feel like a tough guy--made me feel like a chump. But I have a score to settle with that road race, and I was really hoping that this was my year. And with Wachusset removed, it looked like it might be. But the nice thing about bike racing is that it's a team sport, and there's always another race next weekend. But damn I wish I was there to see my boy come across that line with nothing but air behind him! Next time.


Thursday, July 2, 2009

Pre-'Burg Thoughts

It's still wet. Everywhere.

Fitchburg starts today, which means I will likely ride a squishy wet time trial later this afternoon. I used to get really excited for this race, to the point of it almost always being a bit of a disappointment. The race comes right around the time that many folks start to feel like a mid-season break is in order, and given that it's the only NRC stage race in New England, and one of only 2 four-day stage races in the region all season, it definitely is a high point on the calendar. But it's also kind of a mediocre race around a truly depressing little town that I can't imagine wanting to visit for any other reason. And yet, I've grown pretty fond of the rolling hills and tree-hidden ponds and reservoirs out around Princeton.

Don't get me wrong: the road race is beautiful. And this year, with the mountain top finish on Mt. Wachusset taken away the race actually suits me better. And the crit and the circuit are cool, and this year's tt course is pretty well right up my alley...but. But something. The race is a cruel mistress and seems every year to be both more and less than the sum of its parts. I had hoped to race this year as a cat 1 and do the NRC pro race, and I probably could upgrade at this point if I were so inclined. But it seems like a good idea to do one last cat 2 race where I can ride to win and really put the stamp on my cat 1 upgrade. And the 2 race is no giveaway--I can think of two guys I know personally who were in the 2 race last year and are pro this year--but it's more of a level playing field than the pro/1 event, which is unforgiving enough to stretch the limits of the definition of the word "fun".

In any case, I am definitely feeling the need for a mid season break coming on, but I am still pumped to race hard. I'm just feeling a bit conservative in my expectations, which is a good way to start a big race. I've been so close to a good result at Fitchburg for years now, and it always gets away from me. So nothing to lose, right? Apart from that, after Fitchburg finishes on Sunday, I will be home for 2&1/2 days and then head up to race the Tour Of Quebec in and around Quebec city. Now that should be fun.

So today, a rainy Thursday, I sit in my brother's kitchen in Northampton, MA, and I think about bike racing, about missing my daughter, missing my girlfriend, getting a job in the Fall and feeling scared of trying to become the teacher I want to be. And in the midst of all that, as much as I don't want to clean my bikes, or race in the rain, or deal with bike racer attitudes sometimes, I am grateful. I'm grateful for this sport that pushes me so hard and tells me where my limits are. And I'm grateful for those limits presenting themselves immediately, and frequently. It can take a long time to really, honestly discover for yourself how good you are as a parent, or a teacher, or a lawyer. But bike racing is intensely honest, for the most part, and you are revealed to yourself, for good or ill, awfully quickly, week in and week out. I suppose that can be jarring, but it's also reassuring in a way that is addictive, I think. I look forward to a more balanced life some time soon where my self-definition week to week is more well rounded, and where intellectual limits present themselves to me with the same clarity as physiological ones. But for now, today, it's Fitchburg. I'm racing, and if I'm going to bother to pin on a number, I'm racing to win. But first, breakfast.