Thursday, June 27, 2013

Why race?

One time, I was in a cab in NYC on the way to the airport and trapped in the middle of the New York Marathon.

It was about 3 hours into the race, and getting out of downtown was proving to be a nightmare for my cab driver. He was neither culturally attuned nor sympathetic to this whole marathon business. Stuck at one intersection as some 4:30-pacers ambled through he burst out, "Why are they still running? the race is over! They lost!"

I didn't bother trying to explain. I wanted to make my flight.

One has to admit, though, that from outside the bubble inhabited by dedicated amateur athletes (cyclists, runners, triathletes) it does look a bit pointless. We aren't elite athletes, most of us will never win a thing (OK actually some of the DH Flyers guys seem to win regularly). And yet we will dedicate a lot of money and hours and effort to training... for what? Not for our health, we're way past that (though the great marks for cardiovascular at annual checkups is a nice side benefit). Not for the social aspect (though it's comforting to know there are other nuts like oneself out there).

As my pal (and cycling guru/Dark Horse stalwart) Michael says, in the end we're just racing ourselves. Which is true. Exploring the outer edges of one's own physical capabilities is undeniably, weirdly satisfying. (Otherwise Strava wouldn't have such a hot business model.) And nothing pushes you to that edge like racing.

But I think there is something else to it.

In my best race ever, the Niagara Duathlon, in 1993, I came in 16 minutes behind the winner, Mike Buck, a guy who regularly challenged later Olympic gold medalist Simon Whitfield. When I was a kid I learned to play the piano; not a prodigy by any stretch, but I got to about grade 9 which meant I played some stuff that real professional pianists played on recordings. A few years ago I played in a charity hockey tournament that features a bunch of ex-NHLers. I had the pleasure of being casually turned inside out on a rush by the great Borje Salming, and was later set up for a goal with the best pass I've ever got in my life from Stew Gavin, a former Leafs winger from the 1980s.

"Bingham: Swedish for pylon."
What all that stuff did was give me a little glimpse into what it must be like to be exceptional. To have the magic combination of genes and talent and circumstance and long, hard work that conspires to make somebody extremely good at something. By getting that close to Mike Buck, by playing the same Bach Prelude as Glenn Gould, by being on the same ice as Borje Salming I got a visceral understanding what exceptional really is.

Being in touch with that is pretty cool, in my opinion.

"Hmmm hmm-hmm,  hmm-dahdeh..."
Tell a civilian that Bradley Wiggins rode the ITT of last year's Tour de France at an average speed of 50 kph over 53 kms and they might ask whether that was good or not. To a cyclist, that is an almost inconceivable, mind-blowing achievement. With a good lead-out and a tail-wind I can hit 50 kph for maybe 100 metres, on a good day. So when I ride a race and manage a 32 kph average speed, I get a very deep understanding of how amazing real pros are.

I can't catch him; but, 4th from last in my crappy little Masters Cat 3 race in a cycling backwater like Canada, I can see Bradley Wiggins on the horizon.

Why race? That's why.

Definitely not worried that I'm gaining on him.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Tour de France, 1962

1962 was my first Tour de France.

The first one I was technically in existence for, anyway, if in utero.

That year, the great French film-maker Louis Malle made a terrific short film about it called "Vive Le Tour". It's an amazing 50-year time capsule of the event, and shows both how much has changed, and also how little.

The crowds, the cars, the spectacle, the smoking, the nuns, the beautiful jerseys: it's awesome.
Worth a viewing just for the scenes in which domestiques stop and do "supply raids" on bars and cafes en route, and then pass around beers in the péloton. (Apparently the bars sent bills to the race directors afterwards.)

Anyway, a great warm-up for the 100th Tour:

UPDATE: embedded Youtube links don't work anymore, but this link at Vimeo does.
And if you want to know who's who (Anquetil won), here's a full team & rider listing with numbers.

Part one

Part two

Monday, June 17, 2013

"Zen of Cycling" my arse

I've subscribed to Bicycling Magazine, off and on, since the late 1980s.

Always a good source of new toy info, and they had an old editorial philosophy in product reviews of "we don't print press releases", which I always respected. Not sure how much that is holding up these days, and the editorial follows a pretty predictable pattern, but every now and then they come up with a piece of genuinely good journalism, like the recent piece on the lameness of bike helmet testing standards, or the 2011 Eddy Merckx profile.

I still read every issue, cover-to-cover.
And almost without fail, every issue has what I would call the "Boomer-on-a-bike-has-an-epiphany" piece.

The format is pretty straightforward: Narrator describes a Ride of Particular Significance; said ride is either:

a) through some beautiful setting, described in luscious detail;
b) a hell-ride of some sort: brutally bad weather, endless impossible gradient, way faster younger (or older) guys applying an ass-kicking; or
c) a done-it-a-thousand-times familiar ride – but with an unexpected twist!

Narrator finds himself (let's face it, it's always guys), as a result of the [beauty, joy, pain, serendipity] of the ride carried away in some Zen-like reverie or contemplation or revelation:

• For the first time I truly understood what Dad meant on his death bed when he said.... 
• And I realized that this hill with its agonizing switchbacks was in fact a perfect metaphor for my life...
• I knew then that Old Bob would always be with me and Scooter and Dave, in spirit, every time we crested Hog's Back...

If Steven Seagal rode, he'd write for Bicycling
That sort of thing. Think Stuart Maclean on a bike, if you're Canadian. (Garrison Keillor if you're American.)

I don't doubt the sincerity of these pieces. But I have to say: when I'm riding, I don't get no stinkin' epiphanies. Doubtless I am a less enlightened man than these authors.

When I'm on the bike, my consciousness shrinks to nothing but the present moment of the ride: who is around me, what's ahead in the road, what's my cadence, speed, heart rate, how do my legs feel, thirsty, hungry, need to piss, what's my strategy on this hill, what is this body of mine up to at the moment?

This makes me a pretty crappy conversationalist in group rides, I know. (Sorry.)

But actually it's one of the things I really love about cycling: not needing or wanting to think about anything else for an hour or two (or three). For me that kind of brain vacation is a great luxury.

Damn. That sounds like an epiphany. (But it's not. OK?)

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Leg Shave: A Ritual of the Tribe

My hat goes off to women everywhere who shave their legs.

Today, for the first time in about 40 years, my legs are hairless.

I crossed the leg-hair Rubicon after this morning's club ride. It was kind of a spur-of-the-moment decision, but partly inspired by the photo I got from the KW race. The socks were bad enough, but the hairy legs just looked... wrong. On today's ride I felt downright self-conscious about it.

I didn't realize what I was getting into.
Good Lord, what a task.

Shaving your face is one thing, but there's not that much real estate to deal with. Doing two entire legs is like mowing a wheat field with a lawnmower. There's bloody acres of it.

It takes forever. There are all kinds of weird corners around kneecaps and tendons and so on. The razor clogs up like crazy and you have to keep pulling something that looks like a small rodent out of it. I was ready to quit after one leg. But that would have looked entirely too idiotic.

After. (Not exactly as shown)
Bear in mind that I'm an ironic gen-Xer with commitment issues (the idea of a tattoo just gives me the cringe) so this kind of body mod is a big leap. It means I'm serious. I couldn't really do it til I had raced, though. I had to prove to myself that I'm a real rider; that I had earned entry into one of the rituals of the tribe.

It was a bit of a frightening sight at first. But once I got used to it it looked pretty cool. Felt nice too. Once I get a bit of sun colour on them they will be less startling, I hope.

One thing is certain, however: this will make me faster.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Ten Lessons from Race #1

The best thing about my first race is I never have to go through the experience of my first race ever again.

Not that it wasn't fun; it was, in a wow-I-can't-believe-I-actually-did-that kinda way. It was also confusing, nerve-wracking, frightening, humbling, and a very good learning experience. Inevitably I screwed some things up; I assumed I would. (My first triathlon 20 years ago must have set some kind of record for dumb newbie mistakes, so I figured there would be some of that here too.)

The good news of course is: next time it will be better. 

Here then is a list of 10 lessons I took out of Race Number 1:
What was I thinking with those socks?

1. Know the course. If you haven't actually ridden it, give thanks for Google Maps. I used Street View to familiarize myself with the course and even though I hadn't ridden it before, it was all completely familiar & there were no real surprises. Except how the hills actually felt. You can't really get a feel for gradients from Street View. ( is good for elevations.)

2. Warm up a lot – leave time to get in at least 25 minutes -- and include sprints & climbs if possible. Especially if it's a relatively short race. The start might be brutally fast, and you need to be in mid-ride form so you can hit it hard right away. In my race, a good half the field got dropped in the first few laps and could never bridge back on.

3. Check your bike thoroughly before you line up. The first time I needed to touch my front brake there was nothing there & I realized that I had left the release lever open when I put my front wheel on. Panic! (And really – not a good place to panic.) I had to gingerly feel my way down the head tube to the fork, not daring to look down as I was still in the pack and doing about 40 kph, and flip the lever and pray I didn't put my hand into the spokes.

4. Get to the line early. I screwed up a couple of equipment things (left on my knee warmers, forgot one glove) and the trips back to the car meant I was one of the last riders to the line. Starting that far back just meant I got dropped sooner. I might have held on a lot longer if I had been farther up and more protected.

5. Hang tough. That painful, burning sensation in your lungs and legs gets surprisingly manageable after 25 or 30 km. Train for lactate threshold.

6. Talk to people. Make alliances. When you get dropped, look for other riders to team up with on a paceline. Even if finishing with the peloton is out of the question, everybody still wants to improve their time and placing. And it really helps.

7. Be a meteorologist. If there is wind, Know which way it's blowing across the course. The start in my race had long straightaway with a tailwind which was part of the reason it went off so fast. And I knew there would be wind on the uphill portions of the course so it was not unexpected. It might have been very discouraging otherwise. If the forecast calls for rain, wear your shoe covers. A hard rain hit in the middle of the race and quickly soaked my shoes, after which they weighed about 5 pounds each.

8. Bring a towel. You'll need it, or your bike will need it, or both. For something. Guaranteed.

9. Stick around afterwards
for the podium presentations. It's cool to see who won, and personally I think it's sportsmanlike to acknowledge the winners. And it never hurts to visualize yourself up there some day.

10. Pack good post-ride food. You need protein, carbs, and a sense of reward, as soon as possible after you get off the bike. Make it something really good.

And just in the realm of aesthetics, yes, shave the legs. (I felt I had to race once before I did it.) One shouldn't look like a hippie douche going to a Critical Mass ride. And maybe wear contacts and decent shades, rather than goofy-looking wire-framed prescription sunglasses. And OK, that helmet may have to go, too.

Just sayin'.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Race #1: Well, THAT was humbling.

Race Number One was a revelation.

Well, a bunch of revelations, actually, the first of which was holy shit these guys ride fast. 
(See below.)

That piece of news came in about 30 seconds off the starting line when the peloton took off like a 65-deep greyhound race, at which point I realize I'm in way over my head. Not a good feeling

I managed to hang on the back for about a lap and then got dumped out the back with the slow guys. We formed into a few impromptu paceline alliances to help each other out, but they tended to break up and re-form as people lost and found their legs, so a good half of my race was essentially a time trial. And did I mention the lashing rain that hit around lap 8, to go along with the crushing headwind that only hit on the course's big climbs? (The wind was a bastard but actually I didn't mind the rain.)

By lap 3 (the course was just under 5 km) my lungs were burning, my legs were screaming, my HRM was showing me a number I normally associate with hard hill repeats, and I'm pretty sure I've blown well past my lactate threshold. And I'm not even close to keeping up.

Somewhere around lap 5, I seriously considered dropping out. I mean, it was ridiculous, there was no way I was ready for this. I'm not exactly sure why I didn't. Stubbornness, partly. (Old guys are good at that, bloody-mindedness is one of our few advantages.) But I think I wanted some kind of small victory out of it. Because if I had to come back to my next race without having even finished this one it would feel like I was starting at square one, again. But if I finished, that at least was something to build on. Even if I was dead last. Which I wasn't. So... Woot woot!

And I left motivated to do better next time.

(Hey, as far as I'm concerned if you're DNF – did not finish – I beat you. Even if you're Bradley Wiggins and got a flat.)