Saturday, December 27, 2008

Holy Global Warming Batman!

While some of my buds in the Mid-west and Rockies got dumped on with snow, ice and nasty cold, I got to ride today in shorts and a long sleeve jersey (it's all I had with me). The temps were around 70 and you really couldn't ask for a better day.

I headed out with some of my buds: Alan, David H, Anet and Wes for a couple of hours of base building with a nice 2 mile climb at the end. We rode the familiar TNR course - host to a weekly road ride during the summer.

Short sleeves, shorts, sun and warm. You'd have thought it was May instead of December.

I ditched the tights before we started and could have really done without the long sleeve jersey but it's all I had.

We rode really easy (for a change. you see guys - and girls, really can ride together without killing each other) until we got to the climb up Buffalo mountain. Even there, we didn't kill it but we did ride a pretty fast tempo to the top. It felt great!

"Duckman" Hasselhoff summits Buffalo. (I had to un-zip, I was freaking roasting!!), Nevermind the pasty whiteness.

It was a good day to be alive.........

With two more weeks until the first race of 2009 - the opening round of the Knoxiecross series, I am devoting most of my training to base building and easy stuff. I do toss in some tempo and steady-state intervals but not much. I have never started racing in January before, I don't want to toast myself before the real racing starts in April.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Vassago Optimus Ti Long Term Review

Part of my job riding on the Vassago Cycling Team is to bash the living crap out of some really sweet bikes just to see how they will hold up. Of course I am kidding about bashing the crap out of them but having put several thousand miles on them, I consider myself knowledgeable about the bikes, how they ride and how they hold up to a fair amount of abuse.

I got my Optimus Ti frame in April of this year and built it up just in time for the first race of the year, the Cohutta 100. This is the first generation frame that was built overseas to Vassago specs (newer ones are built in the good old US of A, not that there's a problem with overseas stuff) and features the now famous "Wet Cat" geometry and some really nice sliding dropouts courtesy of Paragon Machine Works. Although I ride singlespeeds exclusively, the Optimus is "gearable" with an accessory kit that includes a new right side dropout and bottom bracket cable guides. Building mine up with a fairly middle of the road component spec, I was able to get a bike that weighed in at 19.5 lbs (with pedals!) and before you could say "She's a beaut Clark", I was putting the first miles on it. Compared with the stalwart Jabberwocky, the handling is identical, as it probably should be since the numbers are the same. The only differences between the Optimus and my Jabbers is the frame material obviously and the White Bros Rock Solid fork on the Optimus vs. the ODIS steel fork on the Jabberwocky.

From the first pedal stroke, I could tell this was a way different bike than what I was used to. The ride quality of the Optimus is amazing (and that's saying quite a bit since the Jabberwocky already set a pretty high standard for ride). Combined with the WB fork and the inherent quality of 29er wheels, small high frequency bumps virtually disappeared. It feels alot like a short travel XC bike in that regard. You know the bumps are there, you just don't feel them. Handling and stability is inspiring. The mythical 29er's can't handle tight turns, twisties and are slow handling gets busted right from the start. That's probably due mostly to the proprietary Wet Cat geometry that in a nutshell puts your center of gravity more between the wheels than above them like some other manufacturers that just took basic 26 inch geometry and stuffed bigger wheels in there but the frame material definitely contributes to the magical ride quality the Optimus possesses. 40+mph fireroad descents (I have seen a few) on this bike are a blast. It just sticks to corners and when or if it does break loose, it does so in a fairly controlled manner.

Climbing is another strong point for this bike. Light, stiff where it needs to be, it climbs like a dream. I have heard some complaints or concerns that Vassagos loose traction to easily on loose climbs due to their long chainstays. I have never experienced that. Being a singlespeed, you need to lay down some serious power to climb steep stuff and if the soil is loose, it will slip but it is no more prone to doing that than any other bike I have ridden.

To date, I have put about 3,300 miles on my Optimus Ti in terrain ranging from pavement to dirt and gravel roads, doubletrack and singletrack ranging from mild to damn scary. It has been ridden hard and put up wet more than I'd like to say but I have given it a good bit of TLC as well. One thing I haven't done is a whole lot of maintenance other than lubing the chain when needed. This has been one of the most dependable bikes I have ridden. In the 3k miles I didn't have so much as a flat tire. (To be fair, I did have 3 broken spoke nipples and one bashed rear rim that was my fault). The Paragon dropouts are set and forget. No slipping, no creaks, they just do their job clean and efficient like.

After the endurance stuff was over, I slapped on some cyclocross tires and went cross racing just for fun. The bike took it all in stride. I have purposely not said much about components because I plan to do a separate review of those coming up. This is about the total package and how it performs over the long haul.

Ok, what about the bad stuff?

Uh, ok. If I nitpick, I can come up one thing that did bug me but only slightly (and has been changed on later versions of the bike) and that's the straight chainstays. The right one rubs my ankle in certain technical riding type situations. My ankle is a bit messed up from racing motocross in another lifetime and it kinda sticks out in the way so this is probably as much me as it is the frame. Not a big deal at all but you knew something had to be wrong. I mean no bike is perfect right? Yeah, that's right but one bike is pretty close.

And I own it.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Rocky Fork

I met Bob, Anet and Wes Lamberson yesterday for my first ride in Rocky Fork, a 10,000 acre tract of pristine forest that has been the object of local scrutiny for the past several years and has just been acquired by the USFS jointly with a advocacy group. What happens next with the area is a question but one thing is certain, it has been saved from the hands of developers and big timber companies. 
Although there are no trails there (yet) except the AT that runs through a portion of the property (and is waaay off-limit to bikes), there are plenty of FS roads and abandoned logging roads to explore. I was excited to get to ride there after hearing so much about it from my buddy Bob. 
The first thing he asked me upon arrival at the trailhead, "Didja bring your climbing legs?" Yes to ride in Rocky Fork means you will climb, a lot and for a long time. Much of it steep too. 

Sounds great.

We headed out and the climbing began almost immediately. For the first several miles, it wasn't too bad. The road ran along a really nice creek that had several water falls and I am sure more than a few Trout swimming around. We got the opportunity to cross the creek a few times. At the first crossing, I looked long and hard at it remembering the last time I crossed a creek in the Winter and ended up losing my shoes . While everyone else took off their shoes and socks and walked across, I threw caution to the wind and rode it. The water was surprisingly warm(ish) and the air temp wasn't too bad either so I could deal with wet feet. 

The more we rode, the higher the stakes got however. The air temps were dropping and the creek was getting deeper.

The last one was a lot deeper than the others (over my bottom bracket) and colder too. Still, I rode the others, might as well try this one too. I made it. By now, the road was really starting to kick up. We climbed and climbed with no end really, in sight. 

It is as steep as it looks.

After riding (climbing) for over an hour, I had a snack. My legs felt great at that point and we were having a good ride. 

Snack time (why yes that is more climbing coming up).

The final mile or so pitch before the "top" (there is no top - ever. No matter how much or long you climb, there is still more to climb so forget about reaching the top. It's a myth), was a real beast. It was probably in the neighborhood of 10-15% in gradient and really was tough. The reward for two hours of solid climbing was some incredible views. 

For all y'all living in the flatlands and concrete jungles, this is what you are missing.

Obligatory "Rocky" pose ( a little soon for celebrating though, you'll see why)

Although it looks like we were at the top of the world, we still had more climbing to come. We rode on to see a massive wild blueberry patch and some grassy bald just at the AT. The climbing there was kinda messy as the "road" ( I use that term loosely now) was loamy with some evil rock gardens thrown in for good measure. 

It was finally time to turn around and descend for awhile. We went back through the rock gardens and the mucky muck and lost elevation pretty quickly until we came to......... wait for it. 

More climbing. 

Yep, smack in the middle of our nice descent back to the cars was a mile long beast that had all of us whining. Not long after that, Wes flatted and Bob stayed back to help him while Anet and I went on.  We eventually did get more downhill stuff and overall a great day of riding. 

Hopefully, Rocky Fork will develop into a paradise for multi-use trails and anyone that enjoys being outside. It is a gemstone in the crown of what makes the mountains of East Tennessee a great place to be. 

As far as a place to train, it is perfect. I enjoyed the climbing even though it did hurt quite a bit in places, I know it is what I need to make me stronger. I suck at climbing. My 32X18 gearing was bitch-slapping me all over but I defied the misery for the biggest part and only walked a few spots that were either too slick for traction or just too steep (hey, everyone cracks under pressure sooner or later).

I plan to get back over there soon.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Ok, so now what?

The bikes still sit in the garage with mud on them, the jersey hangs from the handlebars of one with the number still pinned on from the last race of 2008. I am 5 days into my "off season" which is going to last anywhere from 2 to 4 weeks depending on what I decide to do with myself.
Number one on the agenda for the winter is losing some weight. I already have a head start from a fall/early winter bunch of cyclocross and painfully changing some bad eating habits.
Second is to take a look at 2008 and figure out what I did that worked and what didn't. I am doing that now and plan to write about that in another post soon.

Last, I am starting to get confirmation on dates for 2009 races and putting them together in a schedule so I can know what I am doing and when. 2009 is going to be divided in three distinct parts - Early season, Primetime, and Cyclocross. Early season can begin as soon as Jan 1 with the Snake Creek Time Trial series in North Georgia should I decide to participate. Also in January is more cyclocross with the Knoxiecross Series in Knoxville, Tn and the Icycle race at Fontana Village in North Carolina. February is more cross and the 12 Hours of Santos in Florida. March is still undecided but there's the last round of the Snake Creek TT series and a couple of road races that I could do if I choose.
April brings the first couple of bigger races on my schedule - the Cohutta 100 and the 6 Hours of Warrior Creek. All those races are part of my early season build up to the prime racing months of May, June and July which contain 3/4 of the races I really want to do well in next year. A few more important races come up in August/September and then I switch from endurance mode back into cyclocross next October.
I have to be careful and not do too much. I could literally race every weekend if I wanted to. I am trying to keep the big, hard stuff separated by enough time to recover (no more back to back to back 12 hour, 24 hour and 100 milers like I did last May - that hurt!)

All in all, I am excited about the upcoming season. I don't race because I am particularly good at it and I certainly don't do it for the money or the fame (hahahaha). I do it because I love racing. I guess I am ok at it, it's hard to judge from results since I keep pushing myself harder and against stiffer competition each year. It's more about the war than it is the battle I guess. The truth is though, I am slowly improving each year and clawing my way a little further each season. Having seen some impressive performances from older competitors, I am encouraged about what I may be able to achieve if I keep on keeping on.

We'll see how it goes.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Fat Lady Has Sung

At 3:03pm on Saturday, the 2008 racing season for me officially ended as I crossed the line in round 6 of the Mud, Sweat and Gears Cyclocross Series. What began in February with a lackluster performance in the Icycle, ended with another mediocre showing at MSG. The stuff in between had some highs and some lows but one thing is certain, it was a total blast. All of it.

I woke up Saturday with an intense desire to race but also a keen sense that I should go find something else to do. My sprained thumb still was an issue. In fact, it was so painful still that I had a hard time buttoning my pants and tying my shoes. I could grip the bars ok but it really hurt to use the front brake on my cross bike, the singlespeed was a little better with the flat bar and Ergon grips. Conventional wisdom would say grab a cowbell and go hang out with my pals and watch the race. Duckman wisdom is sometimes in direct conflict with conventional wisdom however, and when that happens, it usually ends bad. I went to the venue and signed up for three classes - CX4, Masters 35+ and Singlespeed.

I warmed up for about 30 minutes on my trainer and then went out for a couple of hot laps. The course was really bumpy and I had trouble with hanging onto the bars in the rougher parts. On my second lap, I scouted out some better lines and dropped my tire pressure another 5 lbs in the front to #38. I went to the line for CX4 hoping for the best. I actually got a decent start and adrenalin fueled my first lap. On lap two, I began to have trouble hanging on and braking in some of the really tight corners. I began to fade. Lap three brought more fading and my hand got knocked off my bars twice. By then, I was in the front of a group of my friends that included Mark Prince (Mark has improved an impressive amount this year), Alan Sparks and David Smith. Mark got by me and I had the intentions of keeping him close and attacking on the barriers on the last lap because I noticed he had a little trouble with them. David and Alan were far enough back, I didn't think they would be a threat.

That is until I crashed on the eff'in barriers!

Yep going over the first ones, my bike clipped the top of the barrier and the pain from my thumb caused me to let go of it. I then tripped over it and fell. The pain in my hand caused me to curse in tongues. It was bad - the kind that makes you want to curl up with a blanket and suck your thumb like a baby. I got up and got back on my bike and headed towards the finish thinking Mark was gone and maybe David and Alan didn't catch me. In the last corner just before the Redline Run-up, David tries to strong arm me and we go into the tape (but not off the course too bad) while Alan tries to slip by on the inside on both of us. It was like racing motocross again. I think that 30yds of the race was the most fun I had all series long. At the top of the run-up, I was done. I didn't even try to race anymore. I just wanted to go home.

I didn't start the Masters race and just sat under Alan's EZ-up with a bag of ice on my hand. I was bummed out mostly because I love to race and all I could do was sit there and watch. I kept the ice on my hand for a while and then took it off and grabbed my singlespeed to go ride around a bit. The singlespeed is a lot more comfortable than my cross bike and the Ergon grips especially gave my hand enough support to ease the pain quite a bit. I went back and got on my trainer to get warm (it was cold but I knew I was going to race again) and I lined up for the singlespeed race.

I got another good start and although I faded towards the end and ended up outside the top ten, I felt much better than I did in the earlier race. My Vassago hasn't let me down all year. It's a great bike. I decided to do my best and to have fun. There was a group gathered by the Redline Run-up giving stuff away to people that tried to ride it and cash for anyone that actually did. I tried every lap and got the closest on my first attempt but never made it. It was just too steep and my gearing was way to high for that Tom-foolery. I did get some nice MSG socks though.

photo credit: Jennifer Dayton Church

And thus ended my 2008 racing season. Many thanks to Eric Wondergem and Dwayne Letterman for the Mud, Sweat and Gears Series, all the volunteers and sponsors that made it happen (and continue to make it happen), you guys ROCK!

Many, many thanks to my awesome sponsors that made 2008 really a great year for me: Vassago Cycles, WTB, Ergon, White Brothers Cycling, Crank Brothers, Carbo-Rocket and Under-Armour.

And finally, to everyone that I rode and raced with this year, that encouraged me, forced me to be better and those of you that keep coming back here to see what I wrote, Thank you.

2008 was fun, 2009 (only 4 weeks until the FIRST RACE whoo hoo!!!) will be even better.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Same **** Different Year....

Here I am on the eve of the final race in the 2008 MSG Cyclocross series and I am injured to the point I probably shouldn't race. Last year it was bruised ribs that kept me out, this year it's a sprained thumb. The funny thing is that in the last two years, I haven't got hurt a bit while racing. I get hurt when I am just riding. Hmmm.. Either I am just riding too hard or not racing hard enough, I don't know which.

Nah, shit happens.....

This weekend was supposed to be the first of three week-long "boot camps" I have planned for the winter for myself. I was going to race three classes tomorrow and follow up with a long but easy ride Sunday and there's something each day next week designed to help me as I start to build fitness for next year.

Right now, I have the grip strength of a burly toddler in my left hand. With copious amounts of tape and a (hopefully) fast course that doesn't require much braking, I should be fine - as long as I don't do something stupid like crash......

I still plan to race three classes tomorrow just because I know better but choose not to do what I know would be the wise thing.

Hey, I am a man. It's expected of me to make bad decisions.........................

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Snow Ride

Having to work during the 5th round of the Mud, Sweat and Gears cyclocross series had me bummed enough on Saturday and it didn't help matters when it began to snow. I love riding and racing in sloppy conditions. By the time I got off work, the race was over but the snow was coming down pretty good. Since I am usually prepared to ride at any time, I took advantage of the moment and headed over to Steele Creek Park for a really short ride.

Part car, part closet, part storage building, there's just nothing to not love about an Element.

By the time I got to the trails and got ready to ride, the snow was coming down pretty good. The trails were starting to get covered with a heavy, wet covering of the white stuff. Steele Creek is a city park in Bristol, Tennessee and the trails there are actually pretty bad. It's a shame too because the place is really beautiful with a lake and a lot of potential for some really nice trails. Instead there is a few miles of poorly designed and built trails that suffer from advanced erosion and if it wasn't so close to where I work (less than 5 minutes), I probably wouldn't even bother.

Any port in a storm they say.

There is a lot of steep fall line trails at Steele Creek like this one. It is much steeper than the picture shows.

Somebody actually thought this switchback was a good idea. It is nearly impossible to ride.

Don't eat the yellow snow.

The lake and the dam.

I call this one Jabberwocky in Snow.

Gratuitous Duckman shot.

The day wasn't a total success though. On a steep and rocky section in a fall line descent, I crashed hard and sprained my thumb. It hurt like a ****** ****er and made me mad but really I shouldn't have been riding it in the first place in those conditions. It was so slick that I fell again just walking down the rest of it. Nothing like a swift kick in the balls to top a bad day.