Friday, April 10, 2009

The Commuter

Today I joined the diverse fellowship of those who commute by bicycle to work. I plan to do it at least once or twice a week when the days are long enough to do so safely. I had a couple of pretty good rides today in winds pushing up to 20 miles per hour from the east northeast. The morning commute was mostly tailwind and cross tailwind. I mostly held 22-24 mph while barely breaking a sweat. The evening commute was another story, but it provided a solid workout.

Morning commute profile
Evening commute profile

Triathlon and time trial training are the primary motivation. Before I joined Wild Card Cycling and started training and racing with the team toward the end of last summer, almost all of my training miles consisted of solo rides. Since then, I've logged most of my miles with the team. We usually do a long Saturday ride (60-100 miles) and, during daylight savings time, a high-tempo Wednesday evening ride (30-50 miles). I normally do a solo recovery ride and run on Sunday mornings before church, and sometimes several shorter morning low to middle intensity solo rides during the week, but my solo miles have really dropped. High-intensity solo riding is important for building the powerful muscles used in triathlon and time trialing, where there is nowhere to hide from that persistent antagonist, the wind.

So I'm filling the void by commuting on my bike. I can't realistically ride every day, since some days find me shopping, swimming, or tending to kids' activities and other errands after work. My home and office are separated by just over 14 miles, with slightly more than half on quiet, dark, oil-and-chip county roads. I use a rear flasher in twilight and low light conditions, but it doesn't seem very safe after sundown, even with a headlight or helmet light.

It takes about 45 minutes to ride each way, give or take depending on the wind, versus 25 minutes to drive. So I can get 90 minutes of training at a cost of about 40 minutes from my day. As a multisport athlete with work, family, and other obligations, the bicycle commuting math is definitely favorable - not a bad way to squeeze in a few solid 20 km plus time trials every week.

The Research Park where my office is located has an incubator building for start-ups. Tucked away in a corner of the second floor is a shower room. It was built ostensibly to serve workaholic entrepreneurs who don't get out of the office much, but it also suits my needs quite well.

So the big question is "what type of commuter am I?" The Aussie cycling blog Cycling Tips profiled the universe of commuters quite cleverly. I probably fit somewhere on the spectrum between the "Weekday World Champ" and the "PRO".

The Weekday World Champ (quoted from the Cycling Tips Blog):

"Every roadie loves the Weekday World Champ. This keenly competitive species of commuter is doing his own race for the rainbow jersey every morning. Usually wearing a free jersey from last years charity ride, solid black shorts, $6 sunglasses, fenders, rear mirror, and any other optional safety features. He will follow your wheel while you’re slowly rolling along the road or bike path and then attack you at the opportune time of his liking. Then his head will blow off and soon after you’ll come rolling past at the same speed you were doing for the past 20 mins. The World Champ botches a trackstand at red lights then punches it off the gun when it turns green. Again, you’ll catch up to him shortly and pass him once again."

This describes perhaps 25% of my commuting persona. When not wearing my own racing kit, I can usually be spotted in solid black shorts (some fairly plush Nike threads, mind you) and either the Tour of Missouri GC leader's jersey, or a splashy but unadorned Giordana jersey from the late 80s. Though I lack a free jersey from a charity ride, I will never ride in the Tour of Missouri and I won't likely ever lead the GC standings in a cat 4/5 stage race. I can't yet trackstand, but I know better than to attempt it in public, thus avoiding the botch. I don't sport $400 Oakleys, but my $40 sunglasses were purchased from a hardcore running and swimming boutique and my only optional safety feature is the aforementioned flasher. I also know how to ride a time trial (even if I'm not especially fast), and though I may get passed, my head will not blow off until the very end of a truly violent racing effort (or at least not until after T2). Which brings me to the other 75% of my commuting persona...

The PRO:

"That’s right - YOU. You didn’t think you were gonna get out of it so easily, did you? You’re the only one who thinks you’re the coolest kat in town. You’re the guy who gets all kitted up, pins a number on, rides the Zipps, and has an espresso flavored powergel on your way to work. But I’m sure you have good reason to ride in like this... It could be because you have a race after work, you need to take your bike to the shop at lunch, or it could be because you like to show to all your coworkers how PRO you are. Sorry, but we’re the only people on the planet that think spandex, shaved legs, and tiny arms look cool."

As stated above, I actually do race and do wear a full kit (when not sporting all black shorts) - my own kit, thank you. And I do think spandex, shaved legs, and tiny arms look cool - probably because I have no hope of having arms that are anything but tiny. I don't have $2000 Zipps and my bike lacks the full complement of PRO grade components, but it's still way too cool for 95% of the commuting public.

My teammate Rob places himself between the Hardman and the PRO. Like me, he is definitely all PRO on the Wednesday and Saturday team rides, but his usual commuter bike and threads are 100% Hardman. I ride and train in all kinds of temperatures and rain, but I usually avoid icy or slushy roads. I will probably never commute in snow, mostly because of the shortened daylight that usually accompanies it. I will never be worthy of the Hardman.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The First Road Race of the Season

On April 4, I competed in the Hillsboro-Roubaix road cycling race, organized by the International Christan Cycling Club. The "Hillsboro" refers to the location of the race in Hillsboro, Illinois. Despite being surrounded by flat plains characteristic of central Illinois, Hillsboro is aptly named, with several small hills and valleys.

Course Elevation Profile (click image for larger picture)
The hills near the end of the course at mile 20 would prove to be the hardest.

The "Roubaix" is a reference to the famous spring classic pro cycling race, Paris-Roubaix, also known as the "hell of the north" for its typically brutal, windy weather and miles upon miles of rough cobblestone roads. Hillsboro-Roubaix also includes a section of cobblestones in the finishing circuit around the town, but they are not nearly as rough as those of its namesake. Also, we were blessed with a window of beautiful weather for the 2009 Hillsboro-Roubaix, sandwiched between two days of typically seasonal wind and rain.

My team, Wild Card Cycling, brought 15 riders to this race, though we were spread across several categories defined by experience, age, ability, and gender. Last year, in the team's inaugural season, the men's category 5 riders were tremendously successful, capturing first and second place and four of the top 10 spots. We also won the women's category 4 race. I joined the team later in the 2008 season and hoped to do my part to continue the team's success. I had started criterium races in St. Louis and Jefferson City last September, but failed to finish each. This was my first ever road race.

Wild Card Command Central
Photos by teammate Rob and his wicked Canon EOS 50D

We originally registered six riders in the cat 5 field of 50. Only one team, the gi-normous Chicago-based XXX Racing-AthletiCo, registered more. This is a very popular race that filled up the same morning that registration opened. Karl, our team leader, manager, directeur sportif, and beer taster did a fantastic job at the computer to get us all in. With more than 10% of the field, we figured we could do some damage and dictate the outcome of the race. We talked about race tactics a lot in our team meetings and on our team message board.

One of our team's youngest riders, Alexei, was showing a lot of strength in the early season and seemed to have the best shot of winning the race. Nick was also riding well and we thought he should try to get to the finish with Alexei and lead him out, if the race were to end in a sprint. Art and I, as support riders, would lift the pace early to try to split the field if other teams could not or did not want to drive. Alexei and Nick would be protected until one or both felt stong enough to attack off the front of the group.

Several teammates on last year's cat 5 team advised that the field would split up on every climb. Riders in the more advanced categories have pretty homogeneous abilities, especially at category 3 and above, and most of the riders stay together in a peloton or pack for most of the race. Cat 5 is comprised entirely of relatively new racers, as riders get promoted to cat 4 after 10 starts. As a result, a cat 5 field can contain some very strong riders who are just getting started with racing, but who will probably move up to higher categories very rapidly. It also usually contains several riders in their first race who are just giving it a try and may never enter another race again. With such varied ability levels, the field typically splits up early and often, especially on hills and in crosswinds and headwinds.

We planned to take advantage of this tendency by attacking early and often, starting on the opening climb. Our race was also just a single 22 mile circuit, which meant that the pace at the front of the race would be high throughout the race (or at least high considering that the field would quickly disintegrate into many small groups of riders). Immediately after leaving town, the route descended about 90 vertical feet to a creek and then climbed about 80 feet up the other side of the valley. A turn northward into a crosswind followed shortly, though the road was protected from the wind by woodlands.

The riders rolled out by category separated by 2-4 minute intervals. The cat 5 race started near the end. We were late getting to the start line and could not find Alexei, who was to be our leader for the race. He eventually showed, but we had to squeeze onto the left side of the field, which was not a very favorable position. The first 400 meters or so to the first right turn were neutralized, meaning that we had to hold our positions. We would enter the first turn and the start of the race on outside. The roads outside of town, where most of the race would take place, were open to traffic and a centerline rule was in effect. It was not legal to pass another rider from the left of the center of the road and a violation would lead to disqualification. However, none of the roads had actual lines, so there was some subjectivity the officials would apply to determine whether a violation had occurred. As we rounded the corner, I was the worst positioned on our team, near the back and on the left side, dangerously close to the "centerline". Art managed to work his way toward the right and Nick and Alexei were up ahead on the left. I did not want to get caught behind a slower rider on the way up the first hill, so I took a big risk in moving up on the left side. The biggest problem was that other riders started to elbow in on my right, which forced me further left. I backed off a little each time I felt I was too far left, but inched my way up whenever I could.

At the bottom of the descent, the group suddenly slowed and riders were braking. I am not sure exactly what happened, but I suspect the riders in front were not tucking as low as they should have. This is typical of the rookie blunders that occur often in a cat 5 race. I am certainly not above making a few myself. Because the riders on the front of a descent face much greater wind resistance and drag, the back of the pack tends to accelerate into them. The riders in the front should pedal hard down the descent and tuck onto the handlebars to avoid causing a pile up behind. The result was nearly catastrophic. A rider in front of Art must have squeezed his back brake hard, as his bike turned seemingly perpendicular to the road. From the corner of my eye, I saw Art swerve into the ditch to avoid a crash. I had to touch my brakes as well, but tried to do so as little as possible to avoid magnifying the problem further back in the pack. Art fortunately recovered from the ditch without injury or damage to his bike, but he had lost several places and could not rejoin the back of the group on the climb.

After we got moving again, I took advantage of the holes that opened up in the pack to move up and position myself well for the climb. I hit the climb hard and managed to lead the race into the first turn, with Nick and Alexei on my wheel. I continued to ride hard for a few hundred meters after the turn to try to drop as many riders as possible. Nick warned that I should ease up, but I figured I did not have much of a chance of making it to the line with them anyway and this was the best way I could contribute. At the first turn, my heart rate was up to 172, which was extremely close to my max at this point in the season.

I soon backed off and let Nick, Alexei, and a few riders from other teams come around. Shortly thereafter, and just after we turned west into a tailwind, a rider from Chicago's Half Acre team launched a solo attack. No one followed him, and since we were all pretty new to racing, we didn't know if his was a dangerous attack or not. We hit two more significant hills in the first 6 miles and then turned into a crosswind. Even only a day after the race, my recollection of specifics is a bit hazy, but I believe it was about a half mile or so into the crosswind that a group of several riders made another attack, which Alexei joined. I did not see Nick go with him, and I briefly considered jumping on so that I could help Alexei later in the race. However, it was still relatively early and I was not feeling particularly strong. I decided that it would be best to let them go and not risk pulling other riders on my wheel and into Alexei's break. I rode at the front of the remaining group for a while, but allowed the gap in front to steadily grow. After a short while, I realized that I was all alone. The last couple of hills and the crosswind had shattered the group again. Unfortunately, Nick had also dropped back.

I backed off and just rode a steady tempo, waiting for other riders. Eventually a rider from the Cycle Smithy team caught up to me and we worked together for a few miles. Later, we caught two riders, who I suspect had dropped off Alexei's break and were joined by three more that bridged up from behind. I was now part of a comfortable group of seven to work back into the headwind and into the finish in town. Two of the riders were not doing any work on the front, but the other five of us did about equal share. It was nice to be able to conserve a little energy for the final hills in town, especially since I had driven hard earlier in the race.

It wasn't long before we hit the descent to the creek. The 90' climb on the other side (which was the opening descent) was followed immediately by another climb on the finishing circuit in town. I managed to drop a few riders from our group of seven on this climb, which was the hardest of the race. At the top of the climb, we turned left. At the bottom of the ensuing descent were the cobblestones. I was really happy to have a shock absorbing carbon fork and frame. The cobblestones continued through the next left turn and most of the straight until the final turn before the finish. I was really fighting my machine at this point, as were most other riders around me.

As I came around the last turn, I saw two riders from separate teams holding a modest tempo about 100 meters ahead. I couldn't tell if they were marking each other for a sprint or if they had just agreed to roll to the line without a fight. Even thought the front of the race had already finished, I was determined to get the best place that I could, which meant passing them if possible. I tried to gradually close the gap without alerting them of my approach. At about 250 meters from the line, I started to accelerate a little more, at which point they did the same.

200 Meters to Go

Not an experienced sprinter, I probably hit the gas too early, but I thought it was my best chance. I pushed as hard as I could to the line, coming around the left side and passing both of them for 9th place. The 10th place rider was just 0.113 seconds back. It seemed like he was less than a wheel length behind on my right. Four riders had crossed the line in the 1.413 seconds after me. Though it wasn't for the race victory, I had won my first cycling sprint. My bike computer said I only hit 28 miles per hour at the line, but it sure felt like I was going much harder. I was obviously quite exhausted at that point (and fortunately, the others were as well).

My heart rate was high throughout the race, but I maxed out at a modest 176 beats per minute. When I am on peak form, I can push well into the 180s. My average heart rate was a rather high 164 bpm, reflecting the work I did on or near the front of the group, on my own, and in a relatively small group of riders. (Here is my complete ride profile.)

Alexei finished 5th, which was awesome. Though our strategy did not play out exactly according to plan, two riders in the top 10 was a pretty good showing. Nick finished 19th, as he rode strong but struggled a bit on some of the hills. Art finished 31st, but likely would have done much better if not for the incident on the first descent.

After our race finished, I was able to watch many of the other Wild Card riders in their races, most of which consisted of multiple laps around the 22-mile course. Art and I went to the feed zone at the hill just outside town to provide fresh bottles of fluids to our masters riders as they approached the start of their 3rd and final lap. I failed my first assignment as soigneur, arriving about 15 seconds too late to deliver a fresh bottle to Martin. Fortunately, he had enough on board to finish his race. Art successfully refueled Gene, although the exchange took place at a much lower speed and with less grace than exhibited on the Pro Tour.

Gene approaching the finish of the Masters 40-49 race after 66 miles in the saddle

The second pack of Cat 3 finishers winds up the sprint.

Despite not matching the success of last year's team, it was a solid showing by Wild Card Cycling. We had some very strong riders in the cat 4 and masters races and most finished in the middle of the pack, evidence that their races were marked with very high paces and strong fields. Teammate Rob blogged his perspective of the cat 4 race. Here is a summary of the Wild Card results:

Men's cat 5:
5 Alexei Perelet
9 Scott Dahman
19 Nick Hand
31 Art Hess

Women's cat 4:
11 Becky Chan
15 Anona Whitley

Men's cat 4:
9 Tom Carlson
17 Luke Taggart
19 Rob Raguet-Schofield
38 Mark French
DNF Dan Sochacki
DNF Karl Crapse

Men's Masters 40-49:
38 Martin Gruebele
44 Gene McDowell

Men's Masters 50+:
17 Greg Youngen