Friday, November 30, 2012

Crushing Gravel?

There will be gravel.
There will be mud.
It will be cold.
Some will cry.
We will not wipe your tears for you.

Trans Iowa 2010.  Photo courtesy of Kristin Riching

These are the lines that greeted me on the event page for Dairy Roubaix.  Come mid April, I'll be attempting my first gravel road race.  Don't ask me why...I'm still trying to figure it out.  I can only guess that my decision was made after several beers.  This is when I make most of my stupid and yet fun decisions.  All I know is that an ugly little seed got planted in my brain last April when my husband and I shared a short section of the course while on a mini bike tour.  I can also put some blame on my friends since several of them race Dairy Roubaix, Almanzo, and Trans Iowa (three more friends are training for this suffer fest right now). 

The first few times I allowed the idea of racing/riding these events grace my mind, it played out like a horror flick.  Why the hell would I want to go down 20% grade gravel hills?  Going up doesn't seem to bother me so much, but the down part kinda makes me want to puke.  My husband knows me well enough to foresee mini meltdowns on my end when we go down steep, freshly chip sealed roads.  He, of course, isn't riding the Dairy Roubaix, so I'll have to contain my whimpers at all costs.  

Until the actual race date comes into focus, I can count on Kristin Riching, BJ Bass and Michael Lemberger  to be my Obi Wan Kenobis.  I asked them each a few questions to enlighten those of you who have not heard of gravel road racing.  Who knows...maybe more seeds will be planted.

Q:  What got you started in gravel road racing and what was your first race?

Michael:   My first race was the 2011 Almanzo 100. Raining, windy and 44˚F. Made it about 32 miles in before we got cold and called it. Rode another 14 back to town on pavement. Finished the 67 mile version of the 2012 Dairy Roubaix. About 70% gravel. Very hilly.

Kristin:   Trans Iowa was the first gravel race for both of us.  BJ signed up for Trans-Iowa V3 because (being stupid boys) he and his friends Matt and Travs refused to back out after Matt sent a link to the website with the subject "check this out".  I attempted the following year as I was converting into a more avid cyclist and I had heard talk of little else since starting to date BJ!

Michael doing a bit of trail riding and camping.  Photo courtesy of Micheal Lemberger
Here's Michael after an actual race.  Photo courtesy of Michael Lemberger

Q:  How do you train differently for these types of events?

Michael: Uhhhh...  *I will note that Michael is currently training for Triple D and rides year round, so really he never stops training.

Kristin:  100 mile races are trained for by doing 50-100 mile rides on weekends, and 2-3 20 mile rides during the week.  Try to keep the intensity high for as long as possible and then limp home.  We usually depart into a headwind and return home with a tailwind which give you something to look forward to during the ride.

TheTrans Iowa is a little different being a much longer and completely unsupported event.  The key to training for T.I. is to schedule your training rides and then do them regardless of weather or conditions.  We typically do a century each weekend starting 10 weeks before the race, and have 1 weekend a month before the race where 120 miles are ridden each day.  A trip to Galena or Sheboygan makes it a lot harder to punk out on day 2 of that weekend.  Equipment is also very important, and endless deliberation on just the right equipment keeps the training interesting and gives you something to discuss with other riders.  Keep experimenting to keep the rides interesting. Training rides are as much about fitness as testing equipment and finding out what works for you.  A strict rule to follow: never race on anything you haven't tested for at least 100 miles.  

Q:  Are there any gravel events that you haven't done and are on your "must do" list?

Michael:  Trans Iowa  *Michael will be doing his first TI this spring!

Kristin:  No.  First and foremost, gravel racing is social.  The distance of the events keeps most riders at a conversational pace for at least half of the race.  We'll do a few per year based on which ones have been fun and free, and where our friends are planning to ride.  Especially in the unsupported events we all need to look out for each other.  Being friendly and social is important under those circumstances.
Q:  Explain what gear you like to use for these events.

Michael:  Not-so-fancy Surly Cross Check with good wheels and tires; 1x8 or 2x 8 drivetrain. Minimal cool-weather kit. Food and water.
Kristin:  Bike: cyclocross or hybrid frame with drop bars, disc brakes preferred for when it rains or gets muddy/snowy. Have clip on fenders as an option, but full coverage fenders can pack solid with mud.  Do not use full coverage fenders on gravel when it's raining.  They will fill with peanut butter.  We run the largest semi slick tires we can fit in our frames.  In the case of our bikes the continental cyclocross speed 700x42c tires roll well, provide plenty of cushion, and don't puncture.  Picking tires based on weight usually leads to time fixing flats.  Don't worry about using an all-around cyclocross tread, gravel bounces too much when it's rough to make use of it, and gravel provides enough vibration without the help of knobby tires.  Frame bags: make sure you can shoulder your bike when it's necessary.  Even a 30 foot stretch of mud can be brutal if there isn't a good way to carry your bike.  Kristin's frame is small, so she typically just uses a seat bag and relies on a camelbak to carry extra gear and food.  BJ uses a small frame bag (one that still allows access to water bottles) a camelbak, and two seat bags (a standard type and one that hangs from his Brooks saddle.)  BJ uses a brooks saddle with springs.  It weighs a ton, but remains comfortable after 340 miles of gravel and washboards.  Kristin uses Bontrager Inform Race saddles, which have a little more padding than the higher end RL versions.  Clothing is really personal.  The main things that we consider are: make sure there's a place to store layers you shed, and when it's cold out, bring an extra shirt to change into if you plan to stop and eat during a ride/race.  (this may be more important during training rides)  For cold weather, make sure layers are breathable.  Using a windproof layer that doesn't allow you to dry off will just lead to getting soaked and chilled inside your jacket.  We use gel inserts under our handlebar tape.  Double wrapping makes the bars too large in diameter for both BJ and Kristin.  Kristin uses toe warmers for temperatures up to 45 degrees.  Always overdress on your hands and feet when it's cold.  We typically assume that we'll drink 1 ounce of liquid per mile, so a 100 mile race unsupported will likely include 2 water bottles and a 50 oz camelbak.  This rule doesn't work when it's hot out, but at temperatures between 30 and 65 degrees it holds pretty true.  Don't skimp on water storage by drinking 50 oz before leaving, you'll just end up peeing on the side of the road.  Both of our bikes can be turned into singlespeeds in case the derailleur hanger gets torn off.  This hasn't been necessary yet, but it happens to a lot of people and Kristin had a close call last year.  Any advice we might give about bike fit is really personal.  Make sure you are comfortable in multiple hand positions.  Many bikes are set up with the bars too low to make good use of the drops.  Make sure that the tops, drops, and hoods are all viable options even when you're tired and sore.
Kristin's bike for Trans Iowa
Q:  When the going really gets tough, what tricks do you use to keep going?
Michael:  Uhhhh...dogged determination and speed metal.
Kristin:  Different people respond differently to getting super exhausted and worn out.  BJ never considers quitting an option.  The truth is that most of these races require that you keep going to make it home.  Plan B is often an hour or two away and freezing in the ditch until your ride shows up is typically less appealing than gritting your teeth and pedaling those two hours to get home.  However, if bike riding is causing suffering, you're doing it wrong.  There is a lot that we give up to do these races.  Weekends, family time, and relaxation all get sacrificed on the altar of gravel races.  Time spent on the bike should be as enjoyable and fulfilling as the alternatives.  Gravel racing doesn't have a strong culture of social status given to the winners. There is typically no prize money.  Time spent riding and fond memories are all the reward you can expect to be given.

Kristin (on the left) on Trans Iowa.  Photo courtesy of Kristin Riching

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Giving Thanks

You can't always get what you want.  But you get what you need.  And you always have more than you could want. The wanting just gets in the way of enjoying what you have.  Acquisition is a greater pleasure than possession.  And since you get what you need, the easiest way to acquire stuff is to give so freely of what you have that you're always in need.  Less stuff to carry around that way too.

                                                                                   -Paul Williams
                                                                                     Das Enuji

Our Thanksgiving hike at Indian Lake
A cycling friend of mine makes it a point to ride on every holiday--no matter what the weather is.  I love this idea.  Although I don't necessarily ride on every holiday, I make it a point to do something active outside, which depending upon the conditions, may be hiking, skiing, running or yes...biking.  To set aside time, on a specific day, forces me to slow down and be present.  Be present of my surroundings, and during Thanksgiving week, be present and thankful for all the gifts I have been given.

For me, meditation and thankfulness always flows a bit better with some form of movement.  I've never been one for seated meditation.  Not that I'm against it, it's just that my energy often feels blocked when I'm seated for long periods of time.  With movement, I'm able to drop all the non necessary chatter in my head and just focus on what's important.  This week, during my rides and hikes, I allowed the warmth of gratitude to wash over me.  Although not every moment was spent in a "blissed out" state of mind--like when a SUV passing a tractor almost ran several of us cyclists off the road--I purposely tried to reflect on the positive and give thanks for my health, my partner in crime (my husband), my family (many of whom are not blood related) and the gift of time to do these amazing activities.  This gratitude extends out to my entire cycling community--some old and some new.  I thank you all for exploring the state with me, sharing your stories and simply put, enriching my life in so many ways.

Freezaroo Ride coffee break

Annual Freezaroo ride

Thanksgiving lunch post ride and hike (photo by Michael Lemberger)

*A special thanks goes out to Michael, Gloria and Olive for opening their home to all the misfit toys this Thanksgiving!  You truly are amazing.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

I'm too sexy for my bike

The models post show
picture by Darryl Jordon

How many cyclists, dressed in several layers of winter gear, sweating profusely, does it take to bring winter weather on?  From the looks of Madison Bike Winter's fashion show last week, it takes about sixty-five.  As the models filed into Machinery Row Bicycles one by one in pouring rain, not sure if they were wet from the outside elements or their own heat build up, the temperature outside began to drop.  Almost like magic, winter was knocking at our door.

Troy showing off his wool kilt
photo by Nathan Vergin
This was the third year of the Madison Bike Winter fashion show and definitely the most successful.  Aaron Crandall did a fantastic job organizing the event and everyone seemed giddy about the upcoming season.  With the help from about ten models, Pat Gallagher from MMM acting as our announcer, the generous Machinery Row staff, and our sponsors, we put on an informative, PG-13 rated show (PG-13 just because we weren't sure if one of the models had underwear under his wool kilt).

For those of you who don't ride in the winter, we proved that no matter what your budget or skill level is, it can be done with ease.  Although bike specific winter clothing can make your ride much more enjoyable, many people will ride all winter long dressing in layers, with their work clothes acting as their base layer.  When people ask me what I feel the most important items to purchase are, I usually suggest wind proof gloves, a balaclava, shoe covers and a wind proof outer layer.  Being visible is also extremely important and several of our models explained what they use.  Neon yellow and orange clothing makes a cyclist so much more visible in flat light.  Reflectors around the ankles also help since they are moving parts.  Each model had a different lighting system that they prefer, including Christmas lights around the wheels.

Some of the audience
photo by Nathan Vergin
Here are some pictures from this year's event.  If you have any questions about how to dress for winter riding, feel free to send Madison Bike Winter a message on facebook, contact or come to one of our many meet-ups.  We are always happy to get newbies out there!

*All of the following pictures are courtesy of Nathan Vergin.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Tale of City Mouse/Country Mouse

You'll find signs like this one all over Chicago

Those who know me, even just a bit, have seen my bi-polar sides.  Call it the city mouse/country mouse syndrome.  Growing up in Minneapolis, just a couple miles from downtown, in a very eclectic neighborhood, set me up to appreciate, if not love, a raw and edginess only a city can provide.  I grew up learning how to play Frogger in real life when crossing streets and got a thrill out of squeezing myself and my bike through narrow lanes of moving cars (shhh...don't tell my mom).  I got a rush walking on the edge.  Each risk I took--and survived--set me up to try another.  In the middle of the city, I found beauty in architecture, graffiti and all the different colors and shapes of people.

For some reason, however, the city didn't complete me.  I was born as much a country girl and couldn't wait to go milk my relatives cows, ride their tractors and search for new farm kittens.  I would come home from exploring the area as a child and my mom would always have to check my pockets for salamanders, turtles, worms or snakes.  Thinking back, my fondest childhood memories either revolve around sneaking out with friends to Uptown at night or carrying around chickens and goats.

When I got old enough to move out on my own, I was torn.  Do I move to a big city or head for a wilderness mecca?  After hanging around Minneapolis a bit too long, I took off for Bend, Oregon.  Following that, a string of moves brought me and my husband back and forth to the coasts, into the Rockies, out to Hawaii and France and finally to Madison.  I like Madison, in fact I've written about it having the best road riding I've ever experienced, but sometimes it feels like neither city nor country.  Sometimes I crave a true urban vibe.  For that, we head to Minneapolis, Milwaukee or Chicago.

A bike shop on the edge of Logan Square and Bucktown
So here I sit, in a neighborhood called Logan Square, on the Northwest side of Chicago.  It's perfect and it's what I needed.  Beautiful architecture, diverse populations (Logan Square is a cool mix of Puerto Ricans, East Europeans and hipsters), great food and lanes galore.

A mere ten years ago, Chicago's bike scene was pretty sketchy.  Bike lanes were hard to come by and unless you felt like weaving through the hoards of joggers and skaters on the lakefront--something locals just don't do--you'd be risking your life on every ride.  Now, the city is dumping money into an improved bike infrastructure (this movement was started by mayor Daley and is continued by mayor Emanuel).  The owner of the place we stayed explained that every time a major road is redone, bike lanes are added.  Couple that with the bike center near Millennium Park, the bike share program, groups like and all the small bike shops dotting each neighborhood, and Chicago is an up and coming leader on the bike friendly city map.

A regular hang out for cyclists in the Bucktown neighborhood
Chicago gets creative with their bike racks

The more time I spend here, and the more the city invests into becoming more bike friendly, the more I could see living here for a year.  Would I miss the beautiful, hilly rides West of Madison?  You bet!  Honestly, I wouldn't even try to go road riding while in Chicago.  I would instead become fully immersed into city life and would pare my bike collection down to two steeds--a fixed gear road frame for summer and a single speed cross frame for winter.  The car would be gone and we would most likely live in a ten mile radius.  My husband is even on board--although he would much prefer a city like Paris, San Fran or Sydney.  Until we take this giant plunge, long weekend trips will have to do. 

This post is dedicated to the two cyclists who lost their lives to drivers this past weekend in the Chicago suburbs of Skokie and Des Plains.  My thoughts are with their families and all the other cyclists in the Chicago area.