Wednesday, October 19, 2011

AZ adventure

I spent the weekend hanging with my Flagstaff people, including Nathan, doing a little bike racing and a little hiking. After hearing about Pines to the Mines for the last 6 years, I figured it was time to experience the spectacle and put what little remaining endurance fitness I have to use.

almost done.
The race is 80 miles from Flagstaff to Jerome, and takes racers from the ponderosa pine forests of Flag to the sun-baked, exposed mining roads of Jerome. Mostly dirt roads, there is one section of singletrack that was a mix of perfect and un-ride-able. Nathan and I soft-pedaled the ride after realizing neither one of us was going to be in the mix, and it made for a pleasant day in the saddle. The 12 mile climb to the finish was a little rough, with the sun sucking the energy out of you, but it went down.

hiking out to the Wet Beaver Crack
Sunday, a big group headed up to the "Crack" at Wet Beaver Creek (no joke) in Sedona. A 4 mile hike in the sun takes you to a semi-shaded, spring-fed canyon with 15 foot deep water and cliff jumping. Nate set up a slackline across the water for the talented to play with, and the rest of us floated beers in the icy water to cool a refreshing beverage. And there was a little cliff jumping to top it off.

In the "crack"
A great way to spend a weekend, save for 25 hours in the car to make it happen.

Photos here:

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Trans-Wales Mountain Bike Challenge...

A week has passed since I've returned from the U.K. and, though I'm still getting back into the swing of real life, I have a few loose ends to tie up... Fixing a busted mountain bike, sorting through photos and helmet cam video, updating this here blog. The thing is, real life is hard work... a constant battle to plan and prioritize and find time to accomplish everything.

Lining up for day 1.
Stage racing, on the other hand, is easy. Here it is summed up quickly:
  • wake up, find clean chamois
  • eat
  • tell legs to shut up about the dull ache and ride
  • eat
  • clean bike, lube chain
  • drink recovery beer(s), eat
  • hang out in team bus and talk shop about the race
  • glass of wine to put you sleep
  • repeat
Sure there are days when crawling out of bed is a little tougher. There are days where the stage just goes on and on. Days when you're convinced your body can't handle it. Days when the weather and trail conditions conspire to make it as hard as possible to keep the motivation to turn the pedals. But really, it's simple. Sleep, eat, ride, beer, repeat.

The norm: heather, sheep, and incredible views.
Anyway, here's a quick shakedown of my thoughts on each stage. Keep in mind, each day was a 70-85 km "linking stage" taking you from point A to B. Untimed, but you have to finish within the time limit. Somewhere within that "linking stage" is a timed "special stage". Think a 10 - 20 minute time trial at red-line in the middle of a 5-6 hour endurance ride.

Good weather, by Welsh standards.
Stage 0: This was supposed to just be a 40 km "prologue warm-up." Mickey and I got lost and ended up riding the entire first stage, before ending up at the Knighton Football Club a day early. All's well that ends well, I suppose, because I ate 2 dinners that night after doing 80+ km on a ClifBar and a bottle of energy drink.

View from the remains of Clun Castle.
Stage 1: It sucked doing the entire previous day's ride all over again, but it was easier the 2nd time around. The trail had dried out considerably from the day before, and it was easier going with the group energy of 200+ riders together. Although I still got lost when the group convinced me to turn left when the day prior I had gone right at the same spot. We were all ashamed when we had to re-climb 700 vertical feet after they ignored my warning and I followed like a dim-witted lemming.

Make time every day for beer and puppies.
Stage 2: We actually hit some decent trail in this stage. I don't remember much about it other than the weather was decent and I got some video chasing sheep through a field. The timed stage was on a downhill course with some tabletops and doubles, and I rode it like shit, but it was fun as hell. Somehow, at this point, I find myself in 9th overall and realize that I should change my goal from "finishing in one piece" to "finishing in the top ten."

Stage 3: Definitely the low point of the race for me. It was my 4th day of riding, and I knew I had 4 to go. The weather was crap - cold, blustery wind and rain that was more like 105% humidity than rain, but it felt like needles when the wind gusted. The ground was a soggy, spongy, rutted mess covered in sheep shit that soon covered me. I found a good wheel and stared at it all day hoping to not use my brain once. The only bright point: good company for the day - I found the group I'd ride with the rest of the week.

Unlucky sheep.
Stage 4: "And if it takes shit to make bliss, then I feel pretty blissfully." Stage 4 is when it started to get good. Really good. Not sure if it was the low point the day before, or the miles of beautiful forest fire roads or the flowy, fast singletrack, or the incredible views, or the intense special stage - a 6 km romp down a rocky, wet downhill course, but it was awesome. Also had that "over the hump, know I'm going to make it" feeling. My bike starts to make a funny screeching / croaking sound, and the mechanic and I can't find the culprit.

Stunning, lush, green.
Stage 5: Another day of beautiful trails and fire roads through a very rural, lake-spotted country side. Sunshine and rocky, technical goodness kept the motivation high. The special stage was a 5 km descent on flowy, bermed man-made singletrack followed by a 4 km climb known as "the legburner." Super fun. The stage ended with a surreal ride through a wind farm, with the turbines turning smoothly and humming quietly as we descended into our midge-filled campsite. The sounds coming from my bike sound like a "raped badger" and upon finishing the stage, we pull the seals off my freehub to find that the bearings have collapsed. Of course, no one has a spare 29er rear wheel with a 12x142 thru-axle, so I'm on a borrowed bike for the last 2 days.

Fix a muddy flat. Nick had some creepy green slime for sealant.
Stage 6: They claimed this day would be a gem, but I found it to be a slog. In one section, we crossed the same river 14 times, sometimes it was waist deep. Novel? yes... fun? meh. Especially on the borrowed Lynskey, which was the wobbliest, least-stable bike I've ever ridden (no Ti for me, thanks). The final descent through a long, wildflower covered valley was supposed to be the icing on the cake, and the views were spectacular, but every time the trail started to get good, it was interrupted by something horrible: deep, soggy, unrideable grass; hub-deep, mud-filled ruts; washes where the trail had been swept down the hillside; sheep-stopping fence gates. It felt good to get it over with. But the special stage was a treat - a night stage that had us climb 3 km up a fire road, and then descent through another man-made berm-and-table-top-filled trail center. I caught my 30 second man on the climb, held the gap through the descent (coming off the bike once, but recovering quickly) and finished 9th quickest on the day.

Stage 7: Short but sweet. The final day was wet and rainy and muddy, but the trail we rode held up well in those conditions. There was some combination of great riding and the knowledge that you were less than 50 km from the end that made this day a pleasure. I was shattered when I crossed the line, and still had to finish the 3 km special stage for my final time - I had a minute above and below me on the rankings - near impossible to make up or lose in a 7 minute time trial, so I rode hard, but conservatively and finished 10th overall.

Riding and drinking crew.
So that's the shake down. I was given an on-the-spot prize for being the idiot who spent his summer vacation in a cold, wet, muddy shire: a bottle of Spitfire Ale and a crappy "summer holiday" picture frame. But it was worth it. I met some incredibly cool people, had a chance to see every aspect of Wales, tested my desire to continue to ride a bicycle, and consumed more Stella in a week than I have in the rest of my life. My only advice to anyone trekking over there to do something similar is: BYOB. Oh, and bring waterproof over-shorts.

The rest of my photos are up here:
2011.08.13 Trans-Wales Challenge

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Trans-Wales Friday Update

Note: this post is a few days old, written on Friday Aug. 19. I ended up 9th quickest in the night stage, which was a 2 km hill climb followed by a 3.5 km bermed, rolling, fast downhill in the drizzle in which I came off once.

It’s Friday afternoon, and I’m camped out near the light charging station in a big barn in the middle of nowhere, Wales. Cilycwm, to be exact. I just finished my recovery drinks – a bottle of Stella and a cup of instant coffee. We ended up here after leaving Cymystwyth (the Welsh love their vowels) and enduring a 74 km slog over some fire roads, 14 river crossings (some almost waist deep), some loose, questionably rideable shaley double-track climbs, and the most tiring mud bog of a “descent” through a stunningly beautiful valley.

Today’s ride was a linking stage, getting us from Point A to Point B, and tonight there will be a timed special stage. A long grinding fire road climb up 675 vertical feet and then riding some unbelievable swoopy, bermed manicured trail back down. We did a little scouting loop today to see what we’ll have to ride in the dark. Amazing.

I’m currently in 10th place overall, but seem to be slowing down each day on the special stages. Perhaps it’s the 3 – 4 pints each night, and the wine with dinner. But what are you supposed to do when you’re swarmed by midges and charmed with good company?

Today was a rough day, mentally more than anything. Yesterday I finally pinpointed the noise coming from my bike for the last 100 km: a bearing in my freehub body had collapsed. Of course, it’s not a standard size and easily replaced, so my bike is no longer rideable. Luckily, my new mate Jon lent me his XTR kitted Lynsky Ti 29er and I rode that today (sorry for all the river crossings!). As great as it was to have a nice bike to ride, it was not my bike, and though I’ll end up finishing this race on that bike, I’m not as quick or confident. And the saddle is a serious ass hatchet...

But more than anything, I’m learning the highs and lows of stage racing. Some days you’re on, and the trail is just stunning. Some days are a grind and you just keep your head down and try not to get too deep in your own head. Either way, you have to get up each day, throw a leg over the frame, and convince your body it’ll be alright once you start moving. The promise of great views, or great trail, or just an “on” day are what keep you going, and the camaraderie is amazing (thus all the beer).

So, after tonight’s special stage, I’ll pass out in the Merida team bus for one last night, and look forward to putting this race in the bank. When it’s all said and done, including my accidental repeat of stage 1, I’ll have put in 589 km of riding with over 16,800 m (55,000 feet!) of climbing. Top 10 would be icing on the cake, but I’ll be happy with this showing either way.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Trans-Wales mid-week update

So here's the mid-week shakedown. Four linking stages of the
Trans-Wales Mountain Bike Race are in the bank, including 3 "special
stages" (think a 'cross race in the middle of a 4 – 6 hour slog
through grass, dirt, tarmac). For me this means I'm up to 5 long days
in the saddle, totaling about 375 km. I'm sitting somewhere around the
top 10, but that could get better or worse after tonight's results
come in.

If you had asked me yesterday after the stage if I'd ever come back to
race this thing, I probably would have said no. We woke up to rain,
wind, and soggy ground that had been saturated all night. To top it
off, the stage took us through proper Welsh moors: boggy, soggy,
energy sapping grass covered in sheep shit that had been turned into a
pasty consistency that just sticks to everything. There wasn't even a
special (timed) stage to keep it honest, so it was really all about
survival, and for some, making the time cutoff (for every minute you
come in late, they add a second to your overall time). Many of the
grassy climbs were walked with the wind lashing away.

On top of the draining soggy grass, many of the trails on the course
were sheep paths, really just narrow, peanut butter filled ruts that
catch your wheel and toss you sideways. It was a miserable day.

But, a couple of the limey bastards here joined me at the local pub
and we had a few pints of Carlington (shite beer) and told tasteless
jokes. Plus, I learned that I'm not the only one to finish an
endurance race naked.

And today I awoke to a new day. Good weather, very little grass, lots
of tarmac and fire road to pass the day quickly, and then some amazing
singletrack to end the day. The special stage was a terrifically
technical rocky descent. Not sure I had it pegged, but I felt smooth,
if not a little conservative.

The only real crap bit of the day is that the technological marvel
known as my Specialized Epic Expert 29er has developed a horrible
crunching, groaning creak when I pedal. We've pulled the cranks,
checked the bottom bracket. Maybe it's the rear hub, maybe it's one of
the bearings in the suspension linkages, either way it's not easily
resolved and it sounds like broken carbon every time I pedal.

I'm going back to singlespeeding.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Trans-Wales Day 1 (for real this time).

So the one word you need to know if you ever decide to come to Wales
to ride a bicycle is "sheep." Bring your velcro gloves and your kilt,
as I'm told that's why Scots wear kilts: sheep can hear a zipper.

But seriously, to make Welsh mud, mix 43% soil with 52% sheep shit and
5% water. Then take it and throw it all over your legs, back, and
bike, and you have a good idea of a "dry" day in Wales.

Today was one of those – a dry day – and also the first day of
"racing." The Trans-Wales stage race is interesting in that it's
illegal here to RACE on public carriage ways, so 90% of the 75 – 85 km
stages are untimed. Somewhere in the middle of a stage, there will be
a timed Special Stage. Today's was a 1 km hill climb.

So basically imagine doing a 3 minute cross race in the middle of a 5
hour easy ride, and you have a general idea of the format. Given that
I rode the entirety of today's stage yesterday, accidentally, I took
today to enjoy the company of the other riders and take some photos.

And I've been pursuing my favorite new pastime, chasing sheep on the
bike. Those little bastards can run, and they like to dart in front of
you randomly. Great fun.

Since I'm still on the mobile, I'm having trouble with pictures, but
I'll see what I can do. Time to finish my 2nd bottle of Stella (crap
beer here) and head to dinner.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Trans-Wales Stage Race Day 1... Errr... 0.

So wireless is hard to come by camping in Wales so I'm updating this
from my mobile. Bear with me as I'm going to keep it short.

Today's Lesson: pay attention to course markers, or don't, actually.

So today was a "warm-up" prologue with no actual bearing on the
overall race starting tomorrow. The course was essentially the first
half of tomorrow's 1st stage, then head back to camp. I was sitting in
about 15th with a kiwi singlespeeder, and at the bottom of the descent
we saw a course marker to out left and followed it. Problem was, it
was tomorrow's marker and not today's, which we would have seen if we
looked right.

Long story short, we arrived at tomorrow's stage finish and realized
the error, and called for a ride home. So it turned out we had about
80 km of riding and 6500 feet of climbing - all on 40 km worth of food
and water (1 bottle of perpetuum, 1 clif bar). So tomorrow we'll run
this stage again, but with all the beta!

Oh, there are lots of sheep. Lots. More on that later.