Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Help a Newbie Out

About a year ago I was in a position that a lot of burgeoning cross racers find themselves in now. I hadn’t been in a cross race, but had already been bitten by the bug. After volunteering at a local race and meeting a few of the folks that make up the Mid-Atlantic cross community, I was hooked. I spent a good bit of time reading through anything I could find on the net related to cross (since I hadn’t found CXM yet) and tried to incorporate all the skills and techniques involved. After convincing my wife that, yes, I needed ANOTHER bike, I thought I was ready.

Innocently, or ignorantly, I signed up for my first race. Granogue, Queen of the MAC Series, held in early October. I went from feeling ready to hanging on for dear life as I watched the leaders power away before I had even started. I rode on what I thought were properly inflated tires, but bounced around the course like I was riding on a pogo stick. I missed a turn and ended up in the woods, tangled in an extension cord. And I finished just about DFL, but it was an experience that I will not forget.

After some recovery activities, like remembering my name and how to get home, I started to look deeper into the world of cross. Reading everything I could, I settled in and resigned myself to using this season as a learning experience. Following one of the first pieces of standard advice given to most newbies, I managed to gain entry into a local training group. Members of which, after watching my teeth chatter for half of my first practice, finally gave me a lesson in proper tire pressure. I rode the next lap feeling like I was going to slide out as my tires flexed in every turn. But I had learned the first of many valuable lessons.

As I look at starting the next season of cross, I look back and I’m amazed at how much I have learned. Through connections with other riders and racers, both personal through the community and virtual over the web, I have already established relationships that will serve me well in the future as I develop as a crosser. I have learned the benefits of lower tire pressure, improved my bike handling and now approach corners at speed knowing that if my brakes are squealing, I’m working too hard at slowing down.

Looking back though, I realize there were a few lessons that no one shared with me. There is the standard advice, ride as much as possible, practice mounts and dismounts find a group to train with and LISTEN to them. But there are other things that I have learned. Things that no one told me, things that at the time I didn’t even realize I was doing or needed to do. After only two and a half races, I still consider myself a newbie. But even I can pass along a lesson or two that may help those just starting out.

Learning the limits of your gear can be painful, but necessary. Now, I’m not talking about how much abuse your equipment can take before it breaks. It’s more about how far you can push those tires in the corner and just how hard can you land on that particular saddle before you realize it may not be the best choice after all. And more than anything it’s about having the confidence to see how far your ride can take you. Diving into corners harder than I thought I could has, much to the entertainment of my training group, resulted in a few less than graceful dismounts. But it has also rewarded me with smoother lines and faster exits.

Riding in the drops on the road is a powerful aerodynamic position. Feeling comfortable in that position while speeding over grass and rocks or tearing through singletrack, takes a whole different level of confidence. But being there is an aggressive position that can improve handling and give you better access to your controls.

Learn to be comfortable moving hand positions at speed in rough terrain. Moving from the drops to the hoods or tops and back seems like an easy thing to do. But developing the speed and confidence to accomplish that simple transition while speeding over rough ground toward the next set of barriers, takes a little rehearsal.

Find a group with a regular practice. Yes, this is the standard advice I was trying to steer clear of here, but the value of this cannot be over-emphasized. Cross is a sport where there is no substitute for experience. Ride with more experienced riders and you will see improvements. Fitness gains from chasing faster, smoother riders around courses. Advice on equipment and technique from seasoned veterans are instant and free upgrades.

Cross is a rough sport. You’re going to hit the ground, maybe a barrier or two, and you’ll probably have to bail half-way up that slope that others had the good sense to walk up. Make your first mistakes early, preferably in practice and not in front of the spectators. Your new friends may heckle just as much, but there will be probably be some instruction in there somewhere.

Now, I don’t expect this to come across as the wisdom of the ages. It’s simply the lessons learned that I hope may help another newbie or two over their first barrier. But more than that, it is meant as a challenge to get you thinking. I’m sure there is a lot of good advice out there. Let’s hear it.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Race Coverage

Covering a race for a magazine is a blast. It forced me to go way beyond my social comfort zone, but it was really cool to meet and hang out with the other racers that came out for Spectacross.

Haven't had a chance to put together my race report yet, but I will. Got some photos to go along with this and wrote a report of the second day.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Place Your Bets.

As I sit here and watch the first week of the 2009 Tour, there is one persistent question running through my head.

Who is gonna get busted this year? Who's the doper that noone suspects?

OK, so that's two questions. But chances are, if you can name past winners other than Lance, you've had questions of the same vein run through your mind. Some would call it cynical, but in some ways it's realistic. Ricco. Rasmussen. Kohl. And the list goes on. In RBA this month, Bobke put together a list of 15. Busted during or shortly after they basked in the glow of podium finishes and unbelievable performances.

I'm not talking about a debate of who's guilty and who's not. This isn't about that. This is something more visceral, something that affects the very foundation that fans like me have built our love of this sport on. We've seen heroes fall in the heat of battle and that in some ways only increases our respect for them. But to see one of our idols brought down because they CHOSE to cheat, is something very different. Not only does it take away the enjoyment we have gotten from watching that rider succeed, it shakes the faith that we have in our sport.

Menchov is obviously not having the Tour that he had hoped for. But you have to respect the man who keeps coming back. The man who can fall in the final turn of the final stage of thsi years Giro, remain calm and then explode in uncharacterstic emotion at the finish. I'm not really a fan of Menchov, but I do respect the competitor that can handle that. The emotion that was so surprising coming from such a stoic rider, was likely echoed by fans all over the world. And it's that type of effort in the face of failure that deserves such support.

I have to admit that watching Ricardo Ricco being walked out of his hotel for questioning almost turned me off to the tour. After Landis, which I have different opinions about that you may read about here at some point, Vino, which I hated so much I almost felt personally betrayed, and all the others through Puerto in 2005 and 2006, I'd had enough. How could I continue to watch a sport and invest my heart and passion into something false?

But, and if you're still with me here I thank you cause here's the point to all this, I think a new era is emerging. There are some holdovers and questions from the past. I mean, I have no respect for Basso after his whole "I only planned to cheat" spiel. And I have no idea why Vino seems so entitled to come back, especially since his plan violates UCI rules. But there is a new environment around the Tour. I can't explain it, but something has changed.

Garmin and Columbia. Saxo Bank and Cervelo. These are teams that I think I can get behind again. Vandevelde is likely an outside shot at the podium, and I'm not sure he's got a win in his legs. Cadel, twice a bridesmaid, is probably a better shot for victory, though he probably needs a little more support. And I would love to see Levi on the podium, unlikely as it may be given the team leaders lined up in front of him.

But these are the guys I can have faith in. Not so much because of how they have succeeded, but because of how they have recovered when they have failed. Vandevelde cracked how many bones in that Giro crash? Even lining up makes him a tough man, but he's hanging with the leaders so far. Cadel seems to be racing this year's tour with a new attitude. No longer content to let the race unfold in front of him, he has already shown himself at an antagonist. He just needs to work on his timing. And Levi, well he always seem to have that one bad day. It may take him out of the GC picture now and then, but you'd never know based on the intensity he continues on with.

I'm not dwelling on the past anymore. I'm looking at the news each day to see how everyone fared on the stage, not if they made it through the drug test afterwards. I just hope it can continue.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Life is a Highway

or maybe rollercoaster is more like it. Been a lot of ups and downs lately, though most of them are contained within my own head as usual. Thinking I may have to up the meds again.

I have absolutely no patience left for my boss. My most productive hours right now occur not because of the leadership I report to, but rather in spite of it. He seems to have some type of personal vendetta against his boss, which I don't really understand. My boss's boss (this is touch without spelling out to the world who I'm irritated with) seems like a good enough person. He has rewarded my efforts with honest praise and opportunities for new projects and challenges. I don't understand the issues that exist between these two, but I am caught squarely in the middle of it. And frankly, I've just had enough.

There is also the ongoing saga of my wife and her funemployment. We have limped through a year of it, but one way or another it is coming to an end soon. We are both pursuing avenues that we haven't really gone down before. So something will work out.