Sunday, February 23, 2014

Not all is well that looks well

Having not ridden dirt in ages and jonesen to get dirty, I headed down to the Cape at risk on Saturday. I had no wheeled accounts of how rideable Nickerson State Park was. Back in 2011, I rode Nick several times, as the usual Cape destinations of Otis and Trail of Tears were under snow that year. Otis and ToT were clearly socked with snow this weekend, but models suggest just a little further out was clear. I've been burned by these models in the past. Nearby webcams can be misleading too. They show harbors, bridges, downtowns, areas typically that capture more sun and stay warmer from human activity. To partially mitigate the risk, I at least brought my hardtail with studs in case foot traffic left trails icy.

As I approached the eastern most reaches of the Cape, my hunches proved correct. The area was largely devoid of snow. Saturday was supposed to be a ski day, but skiing in slush at 50F didn't seem as much fun as riding dirt at 50F.

Heading into the trails, I quickly realized snow and ice were not going to be my biggest impediment. To be sure, areas open to the sky but shaded from the sun still had quite a bit of snow. Fortunately, these areas were small and less than 10% of the riding terrain there. My biggest impediment was tree debris. The landscape looked post hurricane - continuous debris from twigs to whole trees.

Starting out, overdressed.

Some of the lesser traveled singletrack trails required such frequent dismounts and bushwhacks to get around fallen trees, it almost wasn't worth getting back on your bike each time. So much for getting a good workout in. If it hadn't been so nice out and the singletrack so dry, it would have been easy to fall into a sour mood.

Blue water and skies, green forests. Still 18" of snow in my yard 2hrs away.
Along Cliff Pond, still overdressed.

The doubletrack linking up singletrack was far from dry. Any routes that had seen vehicle traffic had frost in the ground, which of course was thawing. Runny brownie mix was the top inch.  The sand on the Cape is quite coarse. Shimano narrow drivetrains do not tolerate this well at all. Still nearly new drive train - chain suck big time. Drivetrains should never sound like a blender on high with handful of gravel thrown in. Drive train is not almost new anymore.

On the Brewster high point hill. Shorts with winter riding boots, odd combo.

After hitting most of the good stuff in Nickerson, I crossed over Rt 6 to ride mix of singletrack and ATV trail in Hawksnest State Park nearby. The forest there was much more open, less evergreens, which seemed to contribute to most of the debris on the ground at Nickerson. Awesome, I could meander around in here for quite a while, I thought, only infrequently having to carry over a blow-down or untangle my drive train.

Some boiler plate ice on south shore of Cliff Pond.
Only place studs were helpful.

But then it happened, that dreaded crunch of metal and carbon fiber breaking. In a split second I sheared the pulley arm off my derailleur and bent everything else up. At least I didn't lose any spokes. This was an XTR derailleur with carbon lowers, still original from when I built the bike up 5yrs ago.  My mood went south real quick.

An alloy XT derailleur might have fared better, although I've broken them
on the Cape too.

I pulled out the chain tool, broke the chain, removed the severed lower pulley, then sized the chain for a small ring/small cog ratio. I've found in the past, you have to start as small as possible and it will jump up to a wicked tight cog. If you start big, it just falls off.

When I got ready to splice the chain back together, I learned I only had 10spd pins with me. I must have used the last 9spd pin and forget to restock my tool pack. Son of a bitch! I thought maybe the 10spd will work, there's what, only 100um difference in width? I no more than put the 10spd pin into the chain than it fell apart! There's no way to start a pin without the starter post. Now I was f'd. Chain was already shortened to as short as possible. I couldn't pop another link out half way and try to reuse a pin, like the good old days. Or could I?

I still had the 20 link section I took out. I could pop one of those pins out part way, splice it on to the main chain, then re-shorten it to the minimum length, but only popping that pin out part way too. This actually worked. Upon turning the crank, the chain jumped up two cogs and got so tight I could barely turn the crank by hand. The BB and freehub bearings were both making hideous sounds. That would have to do. I wasn't walking 5mi back to my car. I think I had a 24x13 ratio, a pretty stiff gear for the many steep climbs on the way out.

Legs shredded from tree debris.

The reused pins held with angry mashing all the way back to my car. I finished with 27.5mi and 3000ft of climbing on the Garmin. A pretty junky workout as far as training value goes. Enough to make me tired but couldn't maintain any periods of sustained intensity. Was it worth heading down there? A wash, me thinks.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

First Tracks, Hill Junkie Style

Played hooky this morning. I missed my Tuesday night Weston fix due to storm in progress. Didn't want to suffer through another drive like a few Tuesday's earlier. It's a wonder I maintain any semblance of ski fitness at all, skiing no more than twice a week. All I can squeeze in with crazy work hours right now. So with a warm, wet spell coming up, I had to get a midweek fix in before things got too ruined.

So I hit Waterville, which has the best accessibility of big vertical areas from where I work. Plus they wouldn't warm up as quickly as some of the more southerly areas. It was already above freezing when I got there. Fortunately, I keep my Toko structure tool in my car, and I still had some pure fluoro on my skis from racing the weekend before. Hopefully that would keep the morning from becoming a quagmire slog.

I was the first to lay tracks heading up Tripoli Rd. Being Massachusetts ski area subsidy week (winter break), I was surprised to have most trails completely to myself. North end grooming was quite good. The trails were firm, but quickly getting soggy in the brilliant sun. My skis didn't get sticky, just slower.

Of course, I had to hit my other favorite climb there, Livermore/Cascade. Cascade rarely gets in as good of shape as it was today. Too bad I'm such a timid descender. After nearly 2.5hrs of immersion in dreamland, realities of daily life snapped me out of it. I had to get back to work. A great workout. I should do this more often during the week.

First tracks on Tripoli Rd

From Bob's Lookout

Solid base. Note picnic tables on left.

Monday, February 17, 2014

What abomination am I bringing into my quiver?

I bought my first road bike in the fall of 1999, after a pathetic novice class MTB race performance. I learned the fast guys put a lot of road miles in. I picked up a Specialized Allez. It has served me well for over 14 years. I know multiple riders that bought the same model over a couple year period back then and broke their frames a few years later. You'd think with all the high Wattage climbing I've done, my frame would have failed long ago. But no. The fork is going to shit the bed before the frame does.

The fork crown is heavily corroded at the bearing race. Much of the alloy is just gone. I could keep riding the bike, waiting for it to fail, so Specialized can warranty it, but what good would that do me? I could end up being fed through a tube for the rest of my life. So it is time to retire that bike, strip it, recycle the aluminum. The frame can only accommodate a 1" steer tube fork, and I don't want to invest any more money in such an old relic.

The crown is about half gone. Should I not be going 50mph down hills with this bike anymore?

Most of the years I've owned the Allez, it was used as my salty/wet/dirty roads bike. It could not readily accommodate fenders, so I too got disgustingly dirty each time I rode on messy roads. It was time to invest in a bike that was more pleasant to ride in unpleasant conditions. The problem was, I just couldn't see spending serious coin on a bike that was going to get trashed right away.

I considered $99 Nashbar frames. Reviews weren't that encouraging. You get what you pay for. The cheapest route was to buy a dirt cheap frame and transfer the parts. But if I wanted an all-weather bike, I pretty much needed a cyclocross frame. That made costs jump dramatically, as I'd need different brakes. I could not use the old fork or stem either. And the Allez bar was original 25mm and probably way past due for replacement. When you start adding all these things up, you are quickly into many hundreds of dollars.

Googling cheap cross bikes, I came across Reviews of them weren't bad. Basically they deliver straight from Taiwan.  A Motobecane caught my eye. Frame and fork seemed decent, disk mounts on both for future upgrades. The component build was pretty low end, 8-speed Shimano. The bike shipped for $599.

Replacement winter beater. Toe clearance with fender looks suspect.

I'm working upwards of 60hrs per week for the foreseeable future and don't have a lot of time to build a bike up from scratch. So I made an impulse purchase. Took less than a week to hit my doorstep. All I had to do was mount the handlebar, seat and wheels. Everything seemed pretty dialed on the bike stand. I also ordered Planet-Bike fenders. I think it is going to be a long, messy spring on the roads. At least I'll be prepared.

With Pedals and fenders on the Motobecane, it weighs as much as my long travel 29er mountain bike. It is beastly heavy. It'll be great resistance training, I'm sure. On the positive side, this new bike cost only a tenth of my previous bike.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Beet Juice, Baby!

With a ton of new snow on the ground and an interval start Eastern Cup race nearby at Waterville Valley, I decided last minute to jump into the fray. These races attract mostly elite collegiate skiers. This particular race in the series was interval start, a skier going off every 15 seconds. Kind of like a cycling individual time trial. Not as intimidating for a old master skier. To be sure, we were seeded toward the very back, as we finish toward the very bottom.

The 10km course consisted of two 5k laps with modest climbing. I was not too excited about heading into the course getting passed by wicked fast elites completing their second lap, particularly on the downhills, where I suck. We went off after noon, and races went on all morning. The copious new snow hadn't yet had time to firm up, so surely the course was going to be rutted out on the descents and chewed up into mashed potatoes on the climbs.

Brett, Isaac and I headed out on Swan's Way trail to warm up. I started on my Atomic rock skis with Toko HF Blue wax. They are pretty much polished smooth now, no structure left, so I thought these would be a good cold ski if conditions seemed to favor them. They actually felt fairly fast. The snow had a coarse, sugary texture to it.  Brett was raving about how fast his skis felt, and he waxed them with Toko HF Red with Star F1 Fluoro top coat, exactly how I prep'd my Salomon race skis. My rock skis seemed to be way faster than Isaac's skis, so I couldn't imagine my race skis being much faster.  Was I going to be disappointed with my race skis again, as I was the last two times at Weston?

Twenty minutes out, I switched over to my race skis. Yep. In two seconds I could tell they were faster, but not by a lot. Isaac went off 2-3 minutes before Brett and I, with me 30 seconds behind Brett. Perfect. Brett and I have been skiing consistently close to one another the last couple years. This 10k could go either way between us. I don't think we've been much more than 1% apart in everything from a Weston 5k sprint to a Rangeley 50k marathon over the last two years. I tend to edge Brett out in sprint distances while Brett takes me in marathon distance events.

It was disheartening to see how fast the college kids took off. Perfect form. I suspect many of them have received professional coaching nearly their whole life. I took up skiing in my 40's. I'm told "Go!" All I could think about was what a doofus I must look like.

The initial climb felt much harder and longer than what I thought it would be by looking at the course map. Pretty chopped up too. Really needed to put upper body into it. Cyclist like delivering power to the snow through their legs. Doing that in these conditions, all you end up doing is moving snow, not your body. I must have been passed by 10 kids at 2x speed differential on this climb as they finished their second lap.

Photo credit: Jamie Doucett

The descent was a bit treacherous. Not rutted up like Lake Placid gets, but enough that my fear forced speed scrubbing. Lots of it a couple times. If I got passed at 2x speed differential on the climb, I got passed at 3x speed differential on the descent. No sign of Brett, not even on the long straight-aways.

I thought there'd be no chance of catching Brett on this course. His superior form lets him carry more speed through terrain like this. This would more than make up for any cardio advantage I had on the climb.

Coming through for lap two, there would be no more yielding track to faster kids.  On the long grind up, I caught a brief glimpse of Brett. Oh man, that had to be more than 30 seconds up, our staging separation. I proceeded to bury myself, passing a young kid that had previously blown by me on a descent. Even if I could make up 10-15 seconds, Brett would surely erase it on the descent. Seemed like a lost cause.  As you can see here, in my head there were only two racers on the course.

I had a little more confidence going down the chicanes a second time, but so would had Brett. I very nearly crashed myself twice, catching skis in the deep ruts where skis were punching through the soft, deep base. Then we come to climb #2 in the lap. It is much shorter. I saw Brett again, this time picking a landmark next to him and glancing at my Garmin time. When I reached the landmark, 25 seconds elapsed. So I did make up a little time since the beginning of lap two. I was surprised my oxygen deprived brain could compute this. But five seconds with a couple kilometers to go is nothing. There was some flat turny stuff in there too, and Brett can V2 really well through that.

On the second descent, I came stupid close to crashing. I was in an anaerobic stupor and caught an edge. Just like that my left ski went behind me. I think the tail almost hit me in the back of the head. How I recovered from that one is beyond me, but I stayed upright. There were too many turns to see my nemesis.

Rounding out onto the finishing field, I saw Brett across the field and he saw me. It was 50/50 whether I was less than 30 seconds back, and we both knew it. Just as Brett and I were closing in on the finish, we caught Isaac too. Pretty freaky that we'd be coming in so close to one another when we started at different times. I saw Brett look at his Garmin as he crossed and he started counting down. 20 seconds elapsed, which meant I was 10 seconds faster with a time of 35:03.2. That is less than 0.5% difference! It's great having a ski training partner so closely matched.

Three hours before the race I drank a bottle of beet juice. I've commented here before about the merits of beet juice. No idea if this really does anything for me or not. Worst case, it is a healthy but expensive way to hydrate for a race. But if beet juice proponents are correct, the juice could easily have made greater than a 0.5% difference in such a short, intense race. This will no doubt bug Brett, as he didn't "go on the juice." I'm pretty sure if we had been staged the other way around, with me first, Brett would have come out on top. Having that carrot out in front of you is a huge psychological advantage.

Afterward, Brett skied a course cool-down lap while Isaac and I headed to the North End. Isaac and I briefly swapped skis so I could see how slow his were and he could see what fluoro top-coat feels like. What a difference in glide. Additionally, I couldn't keep the tails of Isaac's skis off the snow. They dragged badly. When swapping skis back, I looked at his bindings. He uses Salomon Pilot bindings like I do. On both bindings, the second pin hooks were broken off! Pilot bindings only work if that spring return mechanism is working. So not only did Isaac have slow skis, he had two broken bindings. He surmised they might have broken in a crash at Windblown last weekend.  I'm sure Isaac would have beaten Brett and I had he not had these issues.

Isaac and I both felt like poo heading out to the north end and the next snow storm was starting to move in. We cut things short, but not before I skied over Cascade. The descent is finally open, and it skied quite well. My skis still had seriously good glide coming down Livermore, scaring myself and maybe recreational skiers a few times. Ended up with 37km for the day, inadvertently two tracks on the Garmin for warmup/race and post race. Skiing right now is as good as it gets. Not so much for cycling. Great complimentary sports.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Crash and Burn at Weston

A pattern has emerged over the last few weeks. We get a snow storm mid to late week, great skiing over the weekend, race Tuesday night at Weston, then ride trails that are just nicely packed down on Wednesday before the next storm hits. Repeat. Not a bad routine, other than weekend riding has been pretty sucky. I refuse to do indoor workouts when there is always something you can do outside to get your fix.

This past Tuesday, Weston finally had the full course groomed. We'd be skiing on natural snow instead of gritty Charles River snow. A 10km race was planned. I was stoked. No matter how badly work is pulling me down right now, I was not going to miss Weston. I was not going to feel guilty leaving work three hours earlier than my usual 8pm hang it up time.

I was a bit dismayed to find the course very hard packed. It was pretty much my worst case conditions, where I flail and become a menace to everyone around me. Ugh. Was the Piston Bully down? I warmed up on my edgeless rock skis and old cold wax on them. The snow felt a little sluggish, as the temp was plummeting, and the packed powder hadn't yet been transformed through a thaw cycle. I then swapped for my race skis. They felt even slower! I waxed warmer, Toko Red. After this happening two times in a row, I'm beginning to think my race skis have a structure that is better suited for warmer, transformed snow. I didn't want to go back to my rock skis like I did the previous time, as my race skis edge so much better on the hard pack.

I lined up a couple rows further back than usual, being apprehensive of conditions. We go off, and as soon as we started to go up the climb, somebody skied over one of my skis and I went down. The two of us tangled up with others caught almost on top of us. By the time I got on my feet again, I was DFL and my race was gone, like around the bend and out of sight. Bye-bye. Guess that pretty much settled it right there. I wasn't going to be a menace to anybody in this race.

I chased like hell to get back on, catching the back of my wave as the first of four 2.5km laps was wrapping up. The problem now was, there was a large group skiing three across and no way to ski up through them. Pretty frustrating. On the long straight, things strung out single file. I drilled it and picked up maybe 8-10 spots. I was seeing cross-eyed after that effort, yet still a minute or more back from where I'd normally be in the race.

I sensed my skis getting slower. They shouldn't have been picking up dirt, as I'm pretty sure Weston did not make dirty snow since the storm. I found myself not able to coast in the slipstream on downhills, a very unfortunate situation. Crash, explosive intervals to gain back spots, only to have deteriorating glide. At least I would go home with a solid 30 minute anaerobic workout.

In the third lap I broke free of a long paceline. Don't remember if I bridged or took others with me, but I found myself skiing with Tom, Ulandt and Viktoria. It was no trivial matter staying with these three. There was nobody in sight ahead of us. No point in trying to bust free either, not that I could have.

In the fourth lap, Viktoria blew us apart and I finished fourth out of our group, 25th out of 85 overall. Pretty crappy finish for me, but I was not disappointed in the workout I got. You simply can't get that on your trainer in the basement.

Wednesday I hoped to ride trails near work, reading mixed reports that the MTB trails at Horse Hill were marginally rideable, even for fat bikes. I was skeptical it was that bad. There was a snowshoe race there over the weekend with a lot of fat bike traffic since. It got very cold overnight. The snowshoe course had to be in good shape.

I headed out with my 29er with studded tires that barely measure over 2" wide. I tried going in my usual way on Quarry Trail. It sucked and I turned around. Not enough traffic to pack it. Was I looking at a 90 minute hammer session on pavement with studs? It wouldn't be the end of the world. It was a gorgeous day.  Riding is riding.  I rode several miles around to the main trail head. Another rider was fixin' on heading in with skinnies.

The snow was marvelous. I would have no trouble getting a solid workout in. I followed the snowshoe course, which was further packed by fat bikes. Anything else was a no-go for skinnies.  I finished a full perimeter loop in not much more time than I would in summer. Good stuff.

I've riled up the fat bikers here a couple times. Some may think I hate fat bikers, or even fat bikes. Not true. I admire their perseverance to prep trails for riding after a big snow dump. It means I can get on the same trails that much quicker, rather than waiting for snowmobiles or foot traffic to pack trails. What I don't appreciate is fat biker supremacy attitude, just like nobody cares for attitude roadies or down-hillers can have. We're all cyclist, riding for health and fun.

I've been riding Horse Hill in the winter for 12 years now, way before NEMBA starting building there, and certainly before fat bikes came on the scene. Too be sure, winter riding opportunities were much more sparse back then, primarily on snowmobile tracks after a thaw-freeze cycle. But there was some good riding to be had. I remember stuffing my front wheel in a stream crossing once and pile driving head first into the water. Four miles back to work, down Greens Pond Rd. Not pleasant.

I'd still own a fat bike if the stupid wide Q-factor didn't destroy my knees. Apparently I'm one of about 1% of riders very sensitive to Q-factor. I see the Surly Krampus can accommodate 3" tires with standard Q-factor. Maybe that is a good 'tweener snow bike. Still hard for me to rationalize though, as there aren't that many times a year where trails are too soft for skinnies and roads are too dangerous.

So now another major snow dump has arrived and the cycle starts over again. Weston hopefully will be mint on Tuesday. Will the fat bikers have the trails packed for me by Wednesday?

Saturday, February 8, 2014


Sir Isaac Newton is often credited with "inventing" gravity when an apple fell from a tree and struck him. Not much was understood about gravity at the time, especially in explaining why planets and moons moved the way they did. What Newton did invent was a new set of laws of universal gravitation. Basically any body with mass acted on any other body of mass. It explained why the Earth's moon could stay in a perpetual orbit.

It's only fitting that when heading out for a slug-fest against gravity, that I ski with a guy named Isaac. As an engineer, I studied a lot of Newtonian physics from high school all the way through grad school. I have this weird tendency to mentally put a "Sir" in front of Isaac's name when communicating with him.

New England has some pretty pristine skiing conditions right now. Finally, all Nordic centers are open with all or nearly all of their terrain groomed. One of my favorite places to ski is Northfield Mountain in western MA.  There was certainly a lot of interaction between the Earth's mass and my mass on Saturday.

Northfield has been open only a tiny amount so far this season. With Wednesday's big dump, they were able to open all their trails. I jump at the chance to ski there. It is a Hill Junkie approved place to ski. However, it has stayed cold since the snow dump. I was concerned about a soft, sandpaper snow, slow slog.

Starting out, the snow begrudgingly offered up any glide. After a cursory lap around the field, we went right for the mountain, 10th Mountain Trail that is. Isaac killed it. Half way up I was seeing cross-eyed as he disappeared. Even though it was still pretty cold, I couldn't find enough zippers to undo to keep my core body temp in check.

Isaac at the Reservoir

Bombing down Reservoir Rd at about 30mph, I thought my tearing eyes would freeze shut. Isaac hopped into the classic tracks to go even faster, only to realize they started to get squirrely on him. I thought for sure he was going  biff.

If 10th Mountain is the second hardest climb at Northfield, Toolleybush is the hardest climb. Heading up on this one, we learned the sides were very soft. I managed to punch a ski through and promptly face planted. Ha-ha, Sir Isaac thought that was pretty funny. Then we got into the heinously steep stuff. Isaac disappeared on me. In an anaerobic haze, I got too close to the edge again where the trail momentarily leveled and my speed was much higher. This time I literally face planted, even ejecting my water bottle. I had snow packed in behind my glasses. Sir Isaac wasn't there to be entertained by that one.

HJ at Summit

At the top by the reservoir, we took 10th Mountain down. Pretty sketchy at speed. For the few seconds I could see Isaac, I didn't see him scrubbing any speed. Me, death-wedge snow-plowing several sections.  Descending sucks. Climbs? Pure bliss.

Pretty much all trails at Northfield go up and down the mountain. Net vertical is 800ft, but you'll log more than 1000ft of climbing on the way up with undulations. Our third time up was a much tamer romp up Reservoir Rd. Nice steady grade, none of the 20-30% grade BS. Isaac commented that the first two climbs did some damage. I was very glad to hear that.

After bombing back down Reservoir Rd, Isaac asked if we were going up again. The Hill Junkie can't say no to such a question. Absolutely!  It didn't matter how bad I was hurting. This time we picked a circuitous route up the middle that included another steep black diamond trail called Hill and Dale. Yeah, that was pretty much the death nail. Of course, we couldn't just go down easy Reservoir Rd again. With noodly quads and glutes, we had to go back down the way we just came up. Had to suffer through another high-speed sketchy descent.

So non-skiing readers may wonder how climbing on skate skis in slow snow compares with climbing with road bike on pavement. If you put a small child in a sled and pull that behind your road bike on 10-20% grades, you might get an idea.

When all was said and done, we logged nearly 4700ft of climbing in only 22.4mi of skiing. I was Isaac'd by pace and Newton'd by gravity. Certainly my most solid workout of the season. With skiing this good, wonder if I'll get on a bike anytime soon?