2012 Boulder Roubaix

I had intended to do a report on last week’s season opener at the Louisville Criterium but two things foiled the plan.

The first was I’ve known from way out that this past week was going to be insane. I would not only be finally in the midst of the racing schedule, but also my wife was turning 40 and we were having a party on the same day as Boulder Roubaix. While that day in and of itself would be challenging—hard race followed by sorta hard partying–it was not nearly as difficult as the preparation and amount cleaning that would be required to get the house and yard in shape by Saturday. I wanted to be off my feet as much as possible on Friday, so on Thursday I woke up at 6:30 am and pretty much didn’t stop cleaning until 10:30 at night.

The second was that, for me personally, Louisville didn’t offer up a hugely dramatic story line. The highlight of the day was my [very strong] teammate Walter soloing off the front for the majority of the race while I worked to keep position up near the front of the field. With seven laps to go, the strong riders left in the group laid down the law for several painful laps and finally caught Walt with about four to go. The unexpected twist here was that by the time the depleted field caught him, we were all so blown that he was able to sit in for a couple laps, recover, and then uncork the winning sprint.

For myself, satisfaction would rest in the fact that I finished in the lead group of the two races I did that day. This is not bad considering about 2/3d’s of the field was left behind in each race and a 50% improvement over last year when I got sawed off 20 minutes into the first race. With almost no race-effort training in the legs, Louisville is a tough course. And with the hyped-up and technical Boulder following a week later, the start of the season would continue to be a baptism by fire.

On Walt's wheel at the Louisville Crit. Photo: Mountain Moon Photography.

It’s a cool but sunny spring day as the Sonic Boom 4’s get to the front of the line with seven riders in the race. The plan is, in the midst of this chaotic spectacle, to do what we can to help our two strongest riders, Walt and Kyle. On form but with the birth of his first child imminent, this might be Kyle’s last shot at racing glory for a while. For the rest of us, the idea is to survive first, then scrap for a top 30. Boulder-Roubaix is the first “gold” level event in the local association’s Rocky Mountain Road Cup, a season-long points series to reward the best all-around riders in each category. A top 30 gets you in the points and so that was my personal goal in this field of 84 riders: finish in the top 30 and revel in the minor points.

We will be doing two laps of the 19-mile course, which is a series of north and then southbound dirt sections (70% of the total course is on dirt) connected by number of east and westbound paved sections. Based on the few scouting rides I had done during the winter, as well as talking to people who had done the last edition of the race two years prior, the crux of the course seems like it will be the last five miles of each lap. Here, a short but sharp climb ushers us off the final paved section onto the longest section of dirt, which features a series of rollers, a twisting decent into the loose final corner and onto the finishing straight with about a mile to go.

As we are the first category to start and there are apparently some glitches to be worked out amongst the officials. After being told “30 seconds” three times in the span of what seems like 10 minutes, the lead official finally shrugs his shoulders and says “uhhh, go.” This has to be the most anticlimactic start to a big race I’ve ever had and I have barely time to chuckle before I am fighting for position as we approach the first turn.

The first section is mostly uneventful. I ebb to the middle of the field as if in the slow lane of a busy freeway until we hit the pavement where I am able to hug the double yellow and move up to the front.

As we approach a hard left onto the second dirt section, the apex of the turn is coned off. The course is open to traffic and thus the organizers are attempting to discourage head-on collisions by the respective fields into the grill of any potential oncoming monster pick up. Such a collision is avoided, but unfortunately the cones are not as from just behind comes the familiar yelps of panic followed by the clatter of bikes and thud of bodies hitting the pavement. Our first victims of the day. I have only enough time to hope that none of our guys were the ones making the thudding sound before the pace heats up on the dirt and I am sprinting to stay in contact.

For the rest of the lap, our guys are spread out as a couple strong teams dominate the front, riding tempo on the paved sections and dropping the hammer on each dirt section. I am near the front and a few carefully-timed glances back reveal the field to be largely in tact and as we hammer up and over the final rollers and come through the finish for the first time. I find myself oddly disappointed that the wind isn’t worse or the course a bit more selective.

We take the turn back onto the starting straight where Kyle makes his first jump of the day, keeping the hammer down for a minute or two before sitting up. I find myself on the wheel of a rider I recognize from the week before. I generally recognize riders for two reasons: they’re strong or they’re sketchy. Unfortunately, this rider is the latter and before I even have a chance to think “uh oh” he panics at some approaching chop and grabs a handful of brake. My heart stops as I instinctively yank left to barely avoid a collision with his rear wheel.

Not a mile up the road another rider to my right suddenly pulls out of his pedal and swerves at me. Somehow, he recovers and carnage is avoided. Although the pace is high, I commit to getting to the front at all costs to avoid this madness. Before I do I take a glance back and am shocked to see only a few riders behind, with absolutely no sign of the rest of the field down the long straightaway. Kyle’s acceleration has done some damage, but with 40 or so riders left and me starting to feel twinges of fatigue, I begin to think that a top 30 is going to take some work.

We take a tight corner at the bottom of a steep dirt descent and Kyle jumps again. With Walt just in front of me, I have to sprint all out to squeeze the accordion shut. I notice Walt dangling off the wheels a bit. I consider asking him if he is OK, but decide that I don’t want to put that into his head. Kyle is forced to sit up again as the field is content to simply mark the attack. The war of attrition is officially on.

We sprint up and over the scenic Crane Hollow grade and swing left as we rapidly approach the back of a red minivan, probably headed out on a grocery run. Chaos ensues as we overtake the minivan at the hard right-hander back onto the pavement. Most riders take the correct inside line to avoid the van, but I watch as at least one rider gets boxed out by the minivan and has to stop, turn around 180° and sprint to catch back up to the accelerating field.

It never fails to strike me how important it is in a race like this to keep fighting to stay near the front and constantly keep your head up to avoid trouble. Every acceleration, every technical section, every mishap, crash, flying bottle or other calamity big or small and one or two more riders are left behind. By the time we are through the halfway mark of the second lap, the field has dwindled to less than 30 riders. The same handful of riders have been driving at the front for some time now and they ease up for a breather as we approach the final five-mile section.

As we take on final paved climb, a few riders try their hand at pushing the pace but quickly fade back. I drop into the small chainring and feel pretty good spinning up the climb. We swing onto the final, long dirt section and descend gradually as the sledgehammer comes down. Most everything from this point on is a blur. I’m on the rivet on the downhills and it’s everything I can do to grab and hold onto a passing wheel.

A few minutes of this and the mind games begin. With 20 or so riders ahead I must have earned my top 30. “That’s good enough, right? You don’t need to keep suffering like this. Just ease off a little, it’s totally OK.”

Nope. I listened to that sh*t a few times last year and always ended up regretting it later. This year, this time, I will fight.

We hit the series of sharp rollers and I jump past several struggling riders. Cresting the top I latch onto the field, now strung out single file on the twisting descent. One rider in front me gaps and I skitter through a tight, inside line of a loose corner to pass and rejoin. Another rider gaps and I tuck on a fast downhill straight to come around and regain the line as we approach the final turn.

With only a small group of riders in front of me as we slow and safely corner, I suddenly realize that I’m in at the kill with a mile to go. So is Walt, which is good to see, but again he seems to be dangling off the wheels. I’m redlining now and feel bad that I am unable to help him out, other than to gulp some weak words of encouragement as we sprint hard up the final roller to reveal the finish line, a long 800 meters away.

There is a brief pause as riders start to set up for the inevitable group sprint. I have just enough time to self-flagellate and implore myself to maybe attack and set Walt up for the counter. Or to claw my way to the front and offer some kind of weak leadout. But I’m already maxed out and just as I  shamefully resign myself to merely hang on for grim death, I glance up and cannot believe my eyes. With joyful astonishment I realize that the decision has been made for me.

Walt is 100 meters up the road and on his way to the victory.

There is a panicked surge as the riders ahead suddenly comprehend what has just happened. Two guys pass me on the left and I have to shake myself from a moment of dumbfounded satisfaction and remind myself to keep racing. I press but speed is hard to come by. I glance behind and see a large group kicking up dust and coming on like stampede.

My powerless legs cede ground over the next 500 or so meters, but I finally cross the line in 11th place, several seconds in front of the chasing group.

I chase down Walt after the finish and offer up big kudos. I ask him what was going on with all the dangling and he tells me he wasn’t feeling that good. This is a testament to both his mental and physical strength as on a off day he can catapult out of charging lead group to ride away for the win.

I’ll have to come close to that level if I want to break through the glass ceiling that is the elusive placings for upgrade points. As for today, I’m pretty happy with the result and the progress it represents.

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My introduction to bike racing: The 1994 Tour Dupont, Finale

To Possibly Transcend

The stage into Lynchburg, Virginia featured several long finishing circuits. Jeff Roake kept the crowd informed and entertained as I worked my way to a spot atop the bleachers to get a good view of the finish area. As the riders arrived onto the circuit the race DJ began to play the 1812 Overture, music that would seem totally out of place at a bike race except that somehow he managed to time it perfectly so that the finale (the part when they fire off the canons on the 4th of July) erupted just as the riders began to surge to the line for the stage win.

In that moment–here in deepest Virginia watching pro bike racers attack for the win while listening to a piece of classical music written in the 1800’s to commemorate a battle between France and Russia—something clicked. It was at that moment that I first thought “this is an awesome sport and I would love to try it.” But that thought was quickly naysayed with “nah I can’t do that—looks way too hard.”

After several stages through the Smokies and through many cases of All Sport, the race arrived in Boone, North Carolina for a classic stage finish atop Beech Mountain. At this point the general classification was tight between Lance Armstrong, currently in second, and an unassuming Russian riding for the Wordperfect team named Viatcheslav Ekimov. The race’s only mountain-top finish was much anticipated and Mike and Gary informed me that I would be responsible for the action shot of the finish as they would be shooting the battle on the climb itself.

To date, I had only performed the relatively easy task of shooting the wide context shot of the finish. Today’s shot would be tight action of the winner of the queen stage, meant to be transmitted to news outlets literally worldwide. And this was before Nikon had autofocus good enough to shoot anything other than a bowl of apples on a table. The pressure was on!

It was over before I really realized what was going on. I saw the helicopter, heard Jeff Roake’s excited commentary, saw a bunch of state police cars and commissar’s vehicles plow over the line and tried desperately to pull focus on the murky silhouette of a rider raising his arms in a thick cloud of dust.

Lance had won the stage, going toe-to-toe with Ekimov on the final climb. Rumor would later have it that Ekimov, who finished a few seconds back, had mis-shifted in the sprint and thus ceded the stage. This was all incidental to my bigger concern: Mike was looking through my negatives with a loupe trying to find the finish shot. I watched him frown as he squinted into the loupe and thought “I blew it, this is not good…” I began to explain to him the chaos of the finish, about the cars and dust… The tension became unbearable as he looked up at me, was silent for a moment and then finally spoke.

“Well, then you got lucky, mate. You barely pulled it out,” he said, handing me the loupe and negatives.

The shot was there, underexposed by about three stops but in focus and salvageable thanks to Photoshop (v2.5!): Lance in his rainbow stripes, eyes downcast, both arms in the air and fingers spread to the sky.

That night we had dinner and drinks at a small restaurant on top of Beech Mountain. Joining us was someone I had just met that day, a super-nice English guy named Phil. Apparently he was doing TV commentary for the race, or something.

A few days later we finished up the days work after covering the fast sprint finish into Charlotte, North Carolina, ate a quick southern barbeque dinner and headed to the hotel bar. The race was nearly over and hanging out in the bar with several of his Motorola teammates was Lance. As I mentioned, both photographers I was working with had known him for some time and I suddenly found myself in a small group having a conversation with the riders.

Sadly, I don’t remember many of the details and I don’t think it was because I drank too many beers. The fact that Lance was a world champion at 21, only two years younger than myself, didn’t overly impress me at the time because I had no frame of reference. He might as well have been world champion of sculling or biathlon or some such–cycling was that obscure to me.

I do remember him as being an intense guy, even just hanging out in the bar as he assertively made the case that cycling in Europe was like basketball in the US or hockey in Canada: a way for working-class kids to possibly transcend their meager backgrounds and avoid a life spent working on the farm or in the coal mines.

Lance would never overtake Ekimov on the GC as the race wrapped up in High Point, North Carolina, AKA “the furniture capital of the world.” The night after the final stage the promoters held a big party which began with a trophy ceremony for the winner, Ekimov. As the presentation wore on I found myself standing next to him so I offered him congratulations and we exchanged a few words in awkward English.

Although there are no more than just tidbits of evidence on the web that this edition of the Tour Dupont ever existed, I did happen to dig up this Ekimov quote from an article in the Phildelphia Inquirer:

“’I’m very happy today,” Ekimov said. ‘This is my first victory in a time trial. Now if I can control the mountain stages, I can win the race. I can make good climbing in this race.’”

It would be funny to hear Slava interviewed on television in subsequent years, having since become very fluent.

My final memory of that night is, with the party well underway, stumbling past the stage that had been set up for dancing and looking up to see George Hincapie posing for photos with an All Sport babe on each arm. “Heyyyy man!” he shouted and smiled as he pointed to me.

“Hey!” I pointed back. The dude was a rock star! I gotta get me some of that.

Epilogue

Though it would take a little while, the seed was firmly planted.

A year later I would be flipping through channels when I came upon ESPN’s coverage of the Tour de France. I was instantly transfixed as I watched Miguel Indurain drop all his rivals on La Plagne and claw back enough time on the lone break away, Alex Zülle, to save his yellow jersey. I started riding my roommate’s mountain bike that day and began picking up Velonews and Cycle Sport at the newsstand.

Not much came of it until 1997 when, completely burned out on the travel, low pay and long hours, I was mercifully laid off. Within a year I was racing and would go from a pudgy and weak 170+ lbs to a lean and strong 144.

I had been right when I had said to myself a few years before that it looked hard. It is. Despite having run cross county for three years in high school, bike racing would introduce me to a whole new level of pain and suffering. Forget the pro level, this is true even at the weekend warrior level if you don’t train consistently or are not a natural athlete.

But, as I first got a sense of as a spectator in 1994 and have personally experienced many times since, the sacrifice and the hours, day, weeks and months of effort are worth it when you get even the smallest taste of glory–all the little victories in pursuit of The Victory–that the sport can provide when it clicks.

That’s what has been on my mind with the season beginning on Saturday. Now somebody cue the overture.

My introduction to bike racing: The 1994 Tour Dupont, Part II

A Furious Rush of Sound and Color

The next day would dawn sunny and warm as we made our way down for the start of Stage 1 in Dover, Delaware. There would be four starting circuits around a short course, culminating in a prime sprint for a generous prize of $10,000, before heading out on the open road to finish again in Wilmington. It was in Dover that I would have my first exposure to the overt dangers of bike racing.

The start/prime line for the Dover circuits was on a wide straightaway about 400 meters after a left-hand turn with barriers on either side. At the pistol shot the riders rolled slowly out. I found a shooting position inside the barriers to the right of the prime line, dropped my camera bag and sat down to examine the angles. My hope was to get a wide shot of the riders sprinting across the line, sponsor banners flying high in all their glory against the azure blue spring sky. To my right and further up the road past the start line, another photographer was also checking the angles, contorting himself into several awkward positions—on his knees, prone, upside down on his back—apparently really trying to figure out THE perfect angle.

Many minutes later the field casually rounded the corner, seemingly on a parade lap. I squatted and snapped a few frames as they rolled across the finish line and passed in front of me by several feet. As they disappeared out of sight once more, I sat down again and listened to the race announcer, Jeff Roake, detail the exploits of various guys in the bunch. One of the Italian riders had recently done well in this race I had never heard of but was apparently so hard they called it “The Hell of the North.”

The riders came around for the second lap a little faster and the process repeated itself uneventfully, although this time they passed a little closer and I felt a strong breeze as they glided by. Shortly after they came through for the third time, the bell lap for the prime, and they had noticeably picked up speed. A little alarm bell went off in my head and I shuffled backward toward the barrier to allow for a wider birth. After they flew past, I walked back to where I had dropped my camera bag and moved it against the barrier, just in case.

When they rounded the corner for the prime sprint they were going like the TGV at full speed, right up against the barriers. “Uh oh,” I gulped as shock of panic adrenaline coursed through my body. This could get messy.

I jumped backward and crouched tightly into the barrier, then looked up to see the riders spread completely across the road, pumping wildly and surging toward the line.

Holding my breath, I had the presence of mind to raise my camera and snap a single frame as the field roared though, shaving past me in a furious rush of sound and color. I had barely enough time to exhale a nervous sigh of relief when above the wind I heard a shout and the violent clattering of steel on pavement. Someone began to scream and I thought “Oh no—my camera bag!” fearing that a rider had collided with it at top speed. But as I turned and looked I saw the other photographer sitting on the road a few feet away, stunned and motionless, his eyes wide open. I ran over to him.

“Are you alright?” I asked.

No response. I knelt down in front of him.

“Are you alright?” I repeated loudly, getting right in his face.

Again, no response. It was then that I noticed a huge, oddly bloodless gash on his forehead.

But the screaming continued. Just a little further up the road a rider was on the ground several feet past his mangled bike. Race officials and medical personnel were jumping the barriers and running over to the two victims.  I left the dazed photographer well attended and began to walk away from the finish line and past the downed rider who’s screaming had subdued somewhat now that he was being worked on by EMT’s.

I had never seen so much blood. It flowed like a thick, dark-red stream from somewhere on the rider’s body to the street gutter and I literally had to hop over it to get past. The rider was a member of Team Latvia, one of a handful of amateur national teams competing in the race. He had been well positioned for the prime but apparently either didn’t see the photographer, who had been lying in the road, until too late, or saw him and simply couldn’t avoid him. Either way, he clipped the prone photographer and went over the bars at full speed.

I would hear the next day that the rider had suffered a large laceration and some road rash but was going to be ok. And despite his injury, the unidentified photographer had never made it to the hospital and had actually gone missing. It was determined that he had been lacking an official credential and thus had no business being inside the barriers in the first place.

An unfortunate and completely avoidable incident and I had to wonder what the photographer had been thinking, or not thinking as the case may be, and what level of risk was worth getting a picture of a sporting event. Not much, it turns out. Later on I was going through my processed film and saw the single frame I had gotten from that chaotic moment: a blurred silver wheel rim not four inches from my lens. So maybe we both learned something that day.

The Grout of Champions

Subsequent days saw the race heading into Maryland and Virginia and from there on out we were in a different city every night. On each stage I had the task of shooting around the start line until after the race departed. I would then jump into our van and drive the “non-caravan” route, AKA the freeway, to the finishing venue. Once there I would set up the gear to process (actual film with actual chemicals) and transmit the day’s live images shot by Mike and Gary out on the motorcycles, before heading out to the finish area to catch the race coming in.

One unfortunate coincidence was that one of the other sponsors of the race was All Sport, as in, the sports drink company created by Pepsi. As such, when people asked me who I worked for and I told them “Allsport” they would look at me quizzically and ask “All Sport, you mean the drink? I didn’t know they had photographers…” But a nice side effect of All Sport (the drink) being a sponsor was the unlimited free sports drinks in the sponsor booth, set up in the finish area of every stage, that just happened to be staffed by two very attractive young women. Needless to say, I was well hydrated throughout the 10-day event.

At the start in Fredericksburg, Virginia, I got a close tight of a pensive Lance Armstrong waiting for the stage to get underway, resplendent in a rain cape that covered the rainbow stripes of his World Champion jersey. Looking at unaffected faces of the European riders, silently astride their bikes and wearing rain capes in the misty conditions, I couldn’t help but imagine them as something like World War I fighter aces or old-time race car drivers.

I had only just begun to understand that cycling operated under a very different financial structure than team sports in the US, in that the teams bore the names and colors of a title sponsor. These names, like Banesto, Collstrop, Gan and Mapei-Clas, were completely foreign to my American ears and just sounded a whole lot cooler than say…the Cardinals.

The apparent incongruity that the best cycling team in the world at the time was sponsored by an Italian flooring supply company did not diminish this cool factor for me in the least. To this day I get a cheap thrill when I walking through the isles at Home Depot and see the colorful blocks of Mapei lining the shelves.

I even had the occasion to buy some sand-colored Mapei grout last year and I was giddy. I mean, why wouldn’t I be? This is the grout of Museeuw, Ballerini & Tafi. It’s the grout of Rominger, Bettini and my all-time favorite Michele Bartoli.

In short, this is the grout of champions.

Part III

My introduction to bike racing: The 1994 Tour Dupont

Prologue

Last year I was facing the beginning of my first racing season in six years and, struggling to come up with interesting material for my own rider bio for the Sonic Boom Racing team website, I had a chance to reflect on something I had long ago forgotten: my introduction to road bike racing.

It was not a subtle introduction.

I was 22 in 1993 when I moved from the east coast to Los Angeles to take a job as a picture editor/photographer at a company called Allsport, which at the time laid claim to the title of “world’s largest sports picture agency”.  The company had been founded by British photographer Tony Duffy back in the 60’s and as such had a very euro point of view, which is to say that it covered a variety of sports well beyond the provincial US staples of Baseball, Football, Basketball, Nascar, etc.

Sitting in front of a computer all day was still a new concept back then but that is largely what my job entailed. I monitored and redistributed incoming picture feeds from obscure sporting events around the world. I also scanned hard transparencies and negatives into the computer for outbound file-by-file transmission at a painfully slow 14.4 kbps. As one colleague told me when he left for another job: “I’m hoping to do more with my life than sit and watch progress bars.”

Needless to say I took every opportunity I could to get out into the field to shoot–or process, edit and transmit the “live” images taken by the more senior photographers from–an actual event. So it was in April of 1994 I was assigned to cover an event that was completely unknown to me: the Tour Dupont.

Smells like…

Looking back, it is amazing how apathetic I was about covering an event that would end up dramatically influencing my life to come. I knew nothing about bike racing other than that Greg Lemond had won the Tour de France once or twice, that there was this movie I had caught on cable a few times called Breaking Away and that one of the senior photographers I was to be working under at the event, the very talented Mike Powell, was personally acquainted with this young racer who was supposed to be the “next Greg Lemond.” In fact Mike used to say the name of this cyclist—which instantly struck me as funny ‘cause it sounded like the dude was a Viking or some such–drawing it out with his English accent in faux-dramatic style: “Laaaaaaahhhhhnce!”

The Tour Dupont is arguably still the best ever attempt in the US to pull off a big-scale professional stage race with its 10 days of racing through the mid-Atlantic states. Starting in Wilmington, Delaware (headquarters of the title sponsor) and finishing just outside of Greensboro, North Carolina, the race would include sprint finishes in cities like Richmond, Virginia and Charlotte, NC, a time trial in Raleigh, NC, epic mountain stages through the Great Smokies ending in Blacksburg, VA and Asheville, NC, as well as queen stage: an uphill finish on Beech Mountain in Boone, NC.

Of course I knew none of this when we arrived in Wilmington the day before the event began. I was the junior lackey on a team of three Allsport photographers hired by the promoter to be the official photographers of the event.

Sitting in the press room the day before the start of the race Mike and the other senior photographer staffing the event, Gary Newkirk, sat me down with a round of Frescas (one of the race sponsors, unfortunately so if you’ve ever tasted the stuff) and explained to me the dynamics of road racing in general and stage racing in particular. The difference between mass starts and the time trials; the huge effect drafting has on the tactics of the sport; that the only real way to differentiate yourself from the bunch and thus get the lowest cumulative time to win the race was in the time trails and mountain stages, when drafting was not a factor; and the fact that all riders arriving to the finish in a bunch are given the same time.

“Huh?,” I asked, not really understanding the logic of that last part. “That seems unfair to the guys who finish up front, why do they do that?”

“Because if everybody was trying to scrap for a second or two at the finish, well…there would be carnage, mate,” came deadpan Mike’s answer.

Over the course of the hour or so that we sat in the press room a variety of people would stop by to say hello to the senior photographers, or sit down for a Fresca. As a humble, un-introduced junior photographer I would politely listen or daydream as these conversations rolled on only to be told after the person left  “that [big guy with the cowboy hat] was Nelson Vails, he won a silver medal in the 1984 Olympics” or “that was Paul Sherwen, he’s the PR guy for Motorola” or “that was Davis Phinney, he used to ride for 7-Eleven and won a bunch of Tour de France stages.”

One guy who didn’t need an introduction was Greg Lemond. In the twilight of his racing career, Lemond was the big draw at the pre-race press conference, which we covered that afternoon. I specifically remember him answering the question “How has the perception of road racing in the US changed over the course of your career?” with “Well, you guys don’t ask me why we shave our legs anymore.”

There were other American names in the race, young guys who were much less well known but even to my untrained eye would appear to show promise over the course of the race, names like Bobby Julich, Tyler Hamilton, Jonathan Vaughters and George Hincapie.

The only thing I remember about the prologue through Wilmington is that I spent most of the time trying to keep my cameras dry as it rained the whole time. My job was to stick around the start/finish area and try to get pictures that would put the race and its sponsors “in context” with the crowd and the city itself. It was a pretty dreary and mellow way to start the event but even so I was surprised by my own reaction to it.

Having been raised as a typical American sports fan on heavy doses of Boston pro sports as well as tennis and collegiate hockey, I found myself intrigued by the racing and these guys in their slick and colorful spandex: the determined way they powered and suffered up the lone, cobbled climb of the prologue and their polished and shiny steel bikes (especially those one’s with the kick-ass paint job and the clover on the front). And of all the weird things, I was intrigued by the acrid smell of the stuff that the…what did you call them? So-on…swan…soig…errrrr massage dudes rubbed on the riders’ legs. To this day I love the smell of embrocation in the morning. That smell, that hot piney smell. Smells like…racing.

To be continued.

And finally…Top 5 Training Hikes in Boulder – #1

Bear Peak via Fern Canyon from NCAR

UPDATE: As of August 14, 2012, this trail is back open for business.

Distance: 2.8 miles

Gain: 2,295’

Average Grade: 15.5%

Description: For those about to suffer, I salute you!

If you want excellent training, fantastic views and free parking about 5-minutes drive from Rt. 36, then there is no substitute for this hike.

But first, don’t be fooled by the relatively gentle average grade noted above. You will be hiking on the steepest (legal) terrain in the Boulder foothills. The numbers are moderated by the rolling approach from the trailhead—roughly half of the one-way distance to the summit. The average grade from the junction of the Mesa Trail & the northern spur of the Fern Canyon Trail to the summit is 27.4%!

Narrow and strewn with large boulders, Fern Canyon is one of the prettier trails in the OSMP, especially during the summer. However, like it’s sister canyon Shadow to the south, Fern can hold ice and snow well into spring. There are a few short but steep “waterfall” sections that can make for a sketchy descent even with traction (found that out the hard way).

Ascending toward the light in the primordial Fern Canyon.

Ascending toward the light in the primordial Fern Canyon.

Once clear of the canyon you’ll reach the saddle between Bear and The Nebel Horn, a primordial-looking pile of sandstone that is one of a handful of unranked minor peaks in the Boulder foothills. Incidentally it’s also one of the few obvious spots in the area to practice a little Class 3 scrambling. That is when it’s not closed off to protect perpetual Raptor breeding.

The real fun now begins. Swinging southward you begin the aerobic crux of the route: Bear’s half-mile North Ridge. This final stretch veers upward to average nearly 40% and in this aspect, rivals the difficulty of many a 14er. Also, as you are now on the ridge as opposed to protected by it, this is where you will become exposed to whatever weather is predominating the day (often a stiff and frosty breeze coming straight off the Continental Divide).

The rest of the route is a blur of steep, tight switchbacks and small boulder scrambles until finally the trees part and mercifully to reveal the rocky summit, just above. The scamper to the summit is considered “Class 2+” and care should be taken as the boulders have been worn slick from foot and hand traffic. Congratulations! You’ve just conquered the toughest stretch of trail in the Boulder foothills. Perhaps you’ll see me at the top:

If the schedule allows, a descent down Bear’s West Ridge into Bear Canyon highly recommended. Look for the junction at the base of the summit block, as it can be easy to miss.

Trailhead & Parking: NCAR. Plenty of parking, free and open to all!

There is also an alternate, unofficial trailhead (OSMP officially calls this an “Access Point”) that shortens the hike a little and substitutes the rolling approach from NCAR with a gradual uphill (nice for a warm up). There is some limited free and legal curbside parking at this location. Out of respect for residents of the neighborhood*, I hope you’ll forgive me for being vague on the details. Suffice it to say that if you consult your handy official OSMP trail map, the access point may or may not become obvious. Tip:  do not confuse this location with adjacent access points where parking is illegal!

* – Mixed feelings on this point: while it must be kind of annoying having hundreds of people tromping closely past your house on a weekly basis, these homeowners do live on the edge of one of the most spectacular stretches of urban park space in the entire country. I’d make that trade in a second!

Results of my four-week, very non-scientific body composition study

Since my post last month I’ve been keeping daily body composition stats from the Tanita scale on an Excel spreadsheet. Before I list the highlights of changes that have taken place, a few notes:

The duration of the study was 28 days. For any fans of Joe Friel’s Training Bible periodization model, this phase was a modified Base 2: six days of riding a week consisting primarily of endurance training and augmented by a couple days of tempo intervals and one on-the-bike strength workout.

I was originally going to do 10.5, 12.5 and 14 hours, respectively, but was pretty blown by the end of week 2 and so simply repeated the 12.5 hour schedule for week #3. Week #4 was an easy recovery week of 7 hours.

My nutrition strategy during the first three weeks was pretty basic: eat simple and healthy and count calories up until dinner time. I was very lucky to have my wife, Lisa, making some excellent, healthy dinners but I’ll admit that counting calories for these meals, given the variety of ingredients and portion sizes, taxed my mental fortitude.

My solution to this laziness was to arrive at dinner running a 750 calorie deficit (Basal Metabolic Rate + calories burned in training – calories of foods consumed prior to dinner). Assume about 500 calories for dinner and then allow myself a small bowl of olive oil-popped popcorn (240 calories) as a snack. In theory, the net daily calorie deficit resulted from the extra calories I burned just by going about my daily business (estimated 300-500 calories), work, chores, playing with the kids, etc.

Also, no booze during the week, which is a huge change from last year. On the weekends and during the recovery week I slacked off the diet and booze restrictions somewhat. I think these breaks from regimented dieting are critical to sustainability as they hedge against my all-or-nothing, boom/bust tendencies of last year. The idea is to periodize diet in the same way as training, tightening screws as the racing approaches.

OK, cutting to the case, here are abridged results:

Monday, January 9:

Weight: 162.6 lbs

Body Fat: 12.1% or 19.7 lbs

Body Water: 57.2%

Muscle: 135.8 lbs

Sunday, Febrary 5, 28 Days Later:

Weight: 154.4 lbs = -8.2 lbs*

Body Fat: 10.2% or 15.7 lbs = -1.9% or -4 lbs

Body Water: 58.2% = +1%

Muscle: 131.8 lbs = -4 lbs

* – the discrepancy between total weight lost (8.2 lbs) and the sum of fat & muscle lost (8 lbs) is that I supposedly lost 0.2 of bone mass, although this stat would fluctuate between 7.0 to 6.8 lbs on a daily basis.

Some anecdotal observations:

With the benefit of daily observation, it quickly became obvious to me that water % is THE critical figure in the algorithm used by the scale to determine the other numbers. In other words, body fat% and muscle weight could vary significantly (say, 0.5% for body fat and up to 2 lbs muscle) on any given day.

My theory for these day-to-day variances is twofold:

  1. Water retained as a result of training stress. Ironically, I would always see an uptick in body weight and water% (along with a corresponding drop in reported body fat% and gain in muscle mass) on almost every Sunday and Monday—the days that I was most fatigued from the week’s training.
  2. Water retained as a result of increased sodium intake. The same numbers could be explained by my slackening of diet on the weekend, which almost inevitably meant that I was consuming more sodium and thus retaining more water**. I might test this theory more scientifically this Summer, although I’m positive that a casual Google search would turn up all the proof I need to support it.

Looking to drop a couple more body fat percentage-points and 3-4 pounds this phase and another two or so in Build 1, which would get me under 150 lbs for the first time in 12 years. Racing weight is imminent. Thanks to everyone who have supported the effort.

** – Postscript: as if to demonstrate this theory in shocking fashion, on this Monday, February 6, I have gained a whopping 3.4 pounds in one day. According to the scale, I gained 3.6 pounds of muscle and lost 0.2 lbs of fat. The real story is that my body water  increased 0.5%, likely because I ate a bunch of pizza and chips at a Superbowl party last night.

This is the why having the scale is a good thing, even with its dubious method of generating the data. Normally a weight gain of this magnitude would be cause for major panic, aside from the awesome idea that someone could eat a bunch of junkfood and gain three pounds of muscle overnight. But, I have come to take these daily swings with, well, a grain of salt–much more important to watch for trends over a longer period of time. Worst case scenario is my body has reached some sort of equilibrium after a week of recovery, I have dropped under 10% body fat and retained the majority of muscle mass I started out with.

Top 5 Training Hikes in Boulder – #2

Green Mountain via Amphitheater/Saddle Rock/Greenman trails

Distance: 2.1 miles

Gain: 2,234’

Average Grade: 20.1%

Description: While this hike scores slightly lower on the epic scale than #3, it more than makes up for it in the all-important convenience factor. This is my go-to training hike in Boulder, primarily because with a start up the Amphitheater trail you’re devouring serious vertical pretty much right out of the parking lot.

And the trail, which subtly joins the Saddle Rock trail after the first 0.4-mile (directional hint: just keep going up), does not relent until the junction with the Greenman trail another 0.7-mile along. After that the trail eases for a bit, prior to swinging east and up to the nearly the crest of a ridge. From there it’s steep again for most of the remaining way to the summit of Green Mountain, with the exception of a short section just before the top—mercy for those about to blow up.

Even on days with the most freakish weather—when you won’t likely see a single soul the entire ascent—there will probably be others knocking around on the summit. And if you’re lucky you will spot the old guy who wears nothing but an unbuttoned flannel shirt (again, regardless of the weather) and carries whatever else he’s got with him in a plastic shopping bag. He’s a cool dude but his random appearances always make me feel like a seriously over-geared softy.

Anyway, a nice return loop option is use the Ranger>Gregory Canyon descent off the summit. It’s longer and of shallower grade and so I prefer it as a descent as it’s easier on the knees than divebombing back down the featured ascent route.

Trailhead & Parking: $5 per car for non-Boulder County residents (or you can purchase an annual pass for $25) at the Gregory Canyon trailhead. Boulder Country residents are free as long as you have obtained the annual pass from OSMP. Also, the parking lot at Gregory is very small, but even on busy days there is typically parallel parking along the access road. Gregory is just up the road (and trail) from Chautauqua, which is free to all if you don’t mind adding a little over a mile to your roundtrip.