Half Bike. Half Run. Half Not-So-Good at Maths.

•September 11, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Come on guys, can’t we go a bit slower?

So anybody that knows me by now knows that I dig pain. It hurts really good. I won’t elaborate any further, because you either get what I’m saying or you don’t.

But back to the matter at hand. Cyclocross season has begun, and I’ve begun preparations. I’ve traded long hours in the saddle for 1.5 hour rides of intensity. Sitting down at the cafe went out the door, and now I’m running up a hill or a staircase or some barriers with a bike over my shoulder. Really. Why would anybody do this?

My first time back on the cyclocross bike was pretty embarrassing. I managed to stick with the fastest 5 or so guys on the first lap around Edgewater park, but on the second lap I started degrading, and by the 5th lap, I was all but dead. At one point my friend Mike passes me while we’re running our bikes uphill and calmly calls me a fairy or running so girly. I mean, how does that happen? It was around that point that I gave up all hope and just hit a wall. Now I remember the pain associated with the sport, and I can better deal with it for the first race on Sunday.

Ah well, here’s to closing down a bittersweet road season in Belgium, and opening the door to a successful cyclocross season and beyond.

Hatoholics Anonymous

•August 28, 2010 • 3 Comments

I admit it. I am a hat slut. 

Those stupid little thin-cloth cycling hats with the obscure, foreign team names and funky colors with the silly, short plastic brim that flips up? I’m like a junkie stumbling around in a hat-addled daze, searching for the next hit of cotton goodness. Synthetic? Get that out of my face. Wool? Good for winter. But cotton… cotton is king. 

Film maker Spike Lee introducing the cycling hat to pop-culture

 

Yes, it seems stupid to collect such a harmless product. There are worse things to compulsively collect until you’re wake up one morning and you need to get ready for a ride in the rain and need a cap. Which one do you choose? 

Which hat defines me as a person? 

Should I show my support for the oft-misunderstood French team Cofidis? How about the American powerhouse, Garmin? The sludge-green Liquigas? The Russians over at Katusha, the team named after a mobile missile-launcher? 

Don’t want to wear a team hat? How about a Belgian national team hat? Italian? No… 

A bicycle manufacturer? A bike shop? 

Okay…. let’s delve into the vintage stuff… Molteni, Brooklyn, Ti Raleigh, 7 Eleven, Elf Renault, Campagnolo….. Too many to choose from and too many great riders who donned the same caps. 

How about a blank hat? How does that describe me? It says “I have no hats,” which, obviously, is a lie. 

It’s so bad that every area that I habituate is signified by masses of hats strewn about, begging to be used. I can pick them up and put them away all I want, but they always migrate outwards towards the heat (okay, that’s not true). What am I to do, throw them away? How about over my dead body! 

An average weeks-worth of hats drying in the Belgian sun

 

So what can an addict like me do about this? They’re functional, on the wrong end of the fashion spectrum and are able to describe a bit about me. I can’t throw them away, I can only wear them with pride, knowing that they’ve saved my skin in torrential downpours and bitter cold and they’ll do it again with that certain style that just makes you look like a dork when you’re not wearing cycling kit.

Funner Than a Barrel of Monkeys

•August 25, 2010 • 1 Comment

My season up until this point was, admittedly, not so great. I had gotten some knee pains and had to take three days of rest already, and I wasn’t progressing as I’d hoped. It was still only April, but I felt time-crunched to achieve something.

Justin, Dan and I all decided to race in a city about 50km outside of Oudenaarde. Since the race was a tad too far to ride to, we decided to pony up some petrol money and borrow a van to get us over there. The communal Opel van we had at the house was in use that day, so Dan managed to swing and get our team’s loaner van, an old, faded red Fiat emblazoned in ASFRA Flanders, and Browaeys decals for the team and sponsors. The van was affectionately known as “The Fun Bus”.

The week before, our team owner regaled me with a story of how Dan had driven 20km to Ronse with the hand brake partially on in a Flanders team car. He pulled over and smoke was pouring out of the car. Everyone in the car all grabbed their stuff and ran, expecting the car to explode; it was that bad. Luc elaborated no further on the matter and changed the subject.

As Justin and I were waiting for our ride to show up at the house, we heard a moped with a broken muffler in the distance, and a pathetic beep followed. It was at that moment I was properly introduced to the Fun Bus. When stopped, the bus sounded like a sewing machine. Dan parked it up against a curb to it wouldn’t roll. He didn’t want to turn it off because it was hard to start, and he didn’t want to pull the parking brake because it was sticky. We got into the van after loading up and took off, which is a relative term, because the thing moved like a snail on a Rush Limbaugh-esque Oxycontin binge.

The fuel gauge was broken. The odometer was broken. The speedometer was broken. I actually have to correct that part; the speedo wasn’t broken, it was “gravity operated” If we were driving up a 2% grade hill, we were doing 20 km/h, a 3% at 30 km/h and so on. On the flats we were doing a mind-numbing 0 km/h. Impressive. Every time somebody used the van they had to estimate how much fuel they used and put that much in, and it was a game to see who could drive the furthest without running out. Serious. In Belgium, they make this a game; seeing how far you can drive on an unknown amount of fuel. It was like Russian roulette with a car. Luckily the two Brits I was with were not Belgian. The odometer actually showed somewhere around 600,000 km’s (~372,000 miles) and had been broken for a year.

When we got to the race, we parked up and signed in. It started and ended on a hill, with two climbs and descents in between. The race itself was uneventful, I was out after a few laps with my phantom knee pain, and Justin followed. Dan did pretty well and got some prize money. Just when we thought that we got through the hard part of the day, our stomachs dropped when Dan said that the parking brake was sticking again. It dawned on me that this was the same car that had the problem.

“Luc said he fixed it!”

As Dan tried to figure out the trick that Luc used to unlock the brake, I told him to drive a bit and see if it released. The grinding noise and smell that came from the van drew all the pub-dwellers to heckle us as we drove by, we didn’t know what they were saying, but we got their message and stopped a safe distance away from the pub and problem solved. Dan called Luc and had him on speaker just for the amusement.

“Luc, we’re at the race and….”

“Yah, yah, yah! How did you go Daniel?”

“I got (whatever place), but the reason I’m calling is the Fun Bus’ parking brake is stuck agian.”

“No, no, no! No Manneke! No! It’s good, it’s good, it’s good!”

“Well, it’s not working, what do we do?”

“You push the lever down, manneke!”

“We’re going to work on this, I’ll call you in a bit”

It was at this time that the Flemish jackals started coming. Everybody with a greasy Euro-trash mullet and a beer in-hand came to watch us figure the thing out. After 10 minutes of trying every way imaginable to release the brake lever, I came around, opened up the driver’s door, pulled the lever towards me and released it. We were safe. Dan called Luc back up and informed him of the good news. On the way back, we tried stopping for gas, but we made the mistake of either going between the hours of noon and 2pm, after 6pm or on a Sunday and they were closed. It was only 10km back home, and we decided to risk it and drive it back to the bike shop where it lives and fill it up the next day.

We made it home safe and in one piece. Weeks later, for shiggles I decided to pop the hood and take a look at the sewing machine that must be occupying the engine bay. What I saw shocked me enough that I decided to ride home; I have never seen bread ties used to keep vital equipment together, and I have never seen so many. The thing was literally held together by bread ties, chewing gum and duct tape.

A couple of weeks after that, the rack that held front wheels onto the roof broke off and Dan’s $700 carbon fiber front wheel was lost forever. Shortly after that, the van was finally retired and replaced, but not before Luc tried pawning the wretched thing off to everybody who he though would buy it. Nobody did.

The Down-Low

•June 1, 2010 • 2 Comments

Hello Internet, just writing to inform you that I’m still alive.
Just going to do a quick update here, so bear with the ugliness of the post.

– I haven’t been racing as much as I’ve been hoping to. I got sick again near the beginning of the month and after a few weeks of beginning to feel better, I think I’m pretty much done with it. Basically lots of coughing and congestion; not good for racing.

– Five of my friends got hit by a car while training on May 8th. Three of them were pretty serious. A broken femur, arm and wrist for one girl, a broken collarbone for my roommate, Emma, a fractured vertebrae for another. The other two suffered a concussion and a deep chin laceration. They’re lucky they’re still alive.

– The day after the accident, I was filmed in a commercial. It was some cheesy commercial where we had to ride our bikes around to showcase some stupid free cheeseball toy that comes with a copy of Het Nieuwsblad, the biggest newspaper in the country. We were promised that the shoot would take two hours, and it took nine, so we did the only thing we knew how to do…. we harassed the actor to his breaking point. And it was hilarious. In the final scene, we were all laughing uncontrollably and harassing everyone to the point where the film crew couldn’t hold the camera steady.

If you’re in the habit of looking for people you know, I’m one of the guys in red clothing, with a yellow/black helmet and black sunglasses.

-The next day, I went to a road race in France with 19 teammates on a big coach with a couple of team cars following. The race was tough, I lasted for the first two 10km circuits and helped out some of my fellow Anglo-teammates in those laps, but when we did the big 60km hilly lap, I got dropped on one of the first big hills. Our Director Sportif drove up to me in the team car yelling “Come on Monica! Go, go, go! Get on, Monica!”.
I got behind the car and I drafted him up the hill, felt like I was going to catch the peloton again, but when I tried sprinting around the car, I just went backwards again. I ended up catching a dozen or so other riders and finished the race in something like 150th place. I’m not totally proud of it, but after the crash and 9 hours of filming the previous days, I was exhausted going into it to begin with, and I think I was beginning to get sick.

– I got home from the race only to find out that one of my Canadian roommates crashed in his own race the same day and broke his collarbone. Two collarbones in two days for our little house. What luck…

– After the French race, I didn’t race for a few weeks because my health got worse, and I had to take some time off to deal with accumulated saddle sores. Isn’t that charming?

– Another day passes and my Israeli roommate breaks her collarbone in a race crash. Collarbone #3.

– After #3, I’m thoroughly spooked to ride my bike. A few days later, finishing a ride a kitted-out Peugeot 206 speeds through a stop sign into my Danger Zone. I yell just in time and he stops less than two inches from my right knee. He starts yelling at me like I did something wrong, so I punch out his left headlight. I’m not about to be #4.

-Somewhere around this time, my computer hit the wall. My lifeline to the outside world was contained in there, so basically I have to write on a borrowed computer. Welcome to my life, everything is breaking.

-After some good time-off, I get back into racing. It’s not a huge race, only 60-70 riders, a 10km loop and a few cobbles.
Still coughing up oysters, I made it into one of the first ill-fated breakaways of the day, but it didn’t last long. I tried for the second breakaway, lasted for about a lap, but I couldn’t handle the speed and dropped back to the first chase group, then into the second chase group. After a bit in the second chase group I was still coughing and sputtering and rode back to the main bunch in the peloton. Even that didn’t last long and on a shallow climb, I pulled myself out of the race.

– I raced again yesterday. It was in the same city as before, but a different course, this one was 7.3km, 15 times. The last kilometer was on a brick cobble road. 150 guys showed up, so it was a pretty big sized race, but still nothing compared to my first race of 238 riders (which was also in the same city of Merelbeke).
The first lap was generally just moving around in the peloton. On the second lap, I took the sidewalk on the long downhill straightaway going into a steady headwind and found myself off the front following my roommate Peter, so as not to be outdone.
Just before the 90* right hand turn, I looked back and it seemed that we were going to be caught. After the next right-hand turn, we had a pretty big gap in between the two groups but the pace kept on getting faster. Before I knew it, I was pulling at the front of the group again. All I was trying to do was keep the speed consistent, but I was using every muscle to do that. By the time the next rider pulled through and I was going to the back of the rotating line, I couldn’t sprint back on. I sat there in no-man’s land waiting to be swallowed up by the peloton, while trying to recover my legs.
They came and gulped me up and I jumped back in, destined to ride tempo in there for the rest of the race.
That’s when the rain came down. By “came down,” I’m talking about in sheets. The rain wasn’t quite Biblical, but it was enough for a bunch of Belgian racers to pull to the side of the road and pack up for the day. I pass by Peter and a Canadian roommate and they just shook their heads and pulled themselves out of the race.
When it comes to rain, I’m pretty fast, but today I was going to play it safe and back out along with my roommates. Today wasn’t a day to be a hero.

More of Myself to Kill

•April 15, 2010 • 9 Comments

I am my own worst enemy. Every night I die, and every morning I am resurrected. I am my most valuable possession.

Lengthy questions and answers and cheery greetings have been replaced by monosyllabic groans. A fat-rich diet has been replaced by pasta, rice, potatoes and chicken and an arsenal of vitamins, minerals and supplements. Leg veins popping out, razor-sharp tan lines halfway up my legs, and perpetual 3-day stubble on my face have become the norm. 20+ mph headwinds day after day have stopped bothering me, and I’ve stopped caring about whether the day’s race has cobbles, hills, tight turns or even what town it’s in. In fact, I still don’t know where I raced last, and I still don’t know how long each lap was.

Anyways, it’s easy to tell that I’m getting faster. The climbs that I used to labor up now go by faster and more efficiently, but never any easier. The fun has been removed from the cobbled roads as they fit into their place as a regular feature of the landscape. We also can’t forget the irritability that comes with the chemical changes in my body. Spring is truly in the air.

Sometime people ask me what I do with my down time. Besides sleeping and not updating my blog, I usually try to come up with new recipes, piddle through tons of garbage on the internet, or just watch TV. I’d love to read the books that I brought over here (none are about cycling, my brain couldn’t handle it), but my roommates remind me of the home section of a football game. Loud, annoying and exponentially increasing decibel levels.

Onto the subject of cooking, though. It’s my belief that bike racers, and especially ones serious enough to move to a foreign land to race, eat awful food. It’s also my belief that you become less of a person when you eat the same baked potatoes, boiled and spice-less chicken and frozen vegetables for dinner every night. That’s what dogs eat. Food should offer all of the fuel that you need to replenish what you’ve lost, but it should also taste good. What’s stopping you from buying a 50 lbs bag of Purina Bachelor Chow?

So because of this prison food that my brothers are eating, I’ve decided to compile a small cookbook for racers. Healthy, tasty and easy to make meals. It’s gotta be possible, right? Well, I’ll be finding that out.

 I recently discovered that my free time cannot be composed of the same matter as my job (in this case, cycling), otherwise I’d go crazy[er]. I think that cooking is a good medium; Ingredients are cheap and plentiful, I’ve got a full kitchen, and a whole house of people used to eating food that shouldn’t be eaten to begin with. I think this is a recipe for success.

 

 

 

The Destination Stays The Same

•March 18, 2010 • 6 Comments

“You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your .. khakis. You’re the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world.”

Tyler Durden

———————————–

In bike racing, your wallet depth means nothing. You won’t win a race because you wear a pair of Oakleys. You won’t win because you ride a carbon fiber bike, and you won’t lose because of your steel bike. Having mud on your bike will not lose you the race, and neither will the brand name and model of your shifter, or the color of your shoes or the color of your teams clothing.

In bike racing, your bike is a tool, not a jewel. To waste money on expensive parts that will “help” you is to distract oneself of the truth; that the man, not the machine, wins the race.

————————————

As we drove down the N60, I knew that I wasn’t ready. It had been almost a month to the day since I landed in Belgium. I had been training a fair amount, but I’d still had enough days that were sub par so that I knew where I sat race-wise. Despite this, I still remained optimistic. It was 12:50, and the race didn’t start until 15:00. I sat in the passenger seat of the white 9-passenger Opel van and slowly sucked down my “rocket-fuel” water with caffeine as well as a few other supplements as we passed a McDonald’s on the right.  “You know, even though I don’t like McDonald’s much, and I purposely avoid the food, I can’t help but feeling like I’m passing the US Embassy right now,” I said.

Less than an hour later we were in the heart of Wetteren, just outside of Gent. As we drove down the would-be finishing straight, we remarked at the number of riders we saw, despite it being a whole two hours before the start. As we walked to the small pub to register for the race, I was amazed at the extent to which the promoters went to ensure a good race. Metal guard rails lined the street with a large inflatable arch to mark the finish line. There was a food stand near the line that was preparing for the coming festivities. The smell of onions cooking in pork fat wafted through the air.

When we reached the pub, there was a line winding out through the door. After standing like zombies for 20 minutes, and in all probability being made fun of by the Dutch riders ahead of us in line, I caught a glimpse of the registration table. The room looked like a meeting hall with wood walls with only a thrid of it in use, on the left were two official-looking men with a computer and a bar-code scanner, and a third lost-looking old man taking money and handing out vinyl race numbers. To the right was a table with six old Flemish men drinking beer, smoking unfiltered cigarettes and cigars, playing cards and remarking about the riders waiting in line. I handed my letter declaring my permission to race from USA Cycling as well as my international racing license. I signed my name next to #34 on the sign-in sheet and paid my 8 Euro to the next man and got a vinyl number to pin on.

After thoroughly warming up as well as peeing a few times, riders formed at the start line. My jacket came off and got tossed into the van and I staked my place in the lineup. As I looked up over top everyone’s heads, a sea of riders stood ahead. I looked back and about half that amount covered the ground. Riders showing up late to the line were riding through the grass and onto the sidewalk to find a more suitable place to start. Before I knew it, I’d made the rookie mistake of being in the back. Without the time to move up as shamelessly as the others, I swallowed the hard pill of starting at the back, a relative death sentence to a bike racer, let alone a Belgian bike racer.

The start was painfully slow. The riders ahead went at normal speed while those behind were still waiting to put their second foot to the pedal. By the end of the straight, we were already racing at 40mph.

Right turn.

Now a roundabout.

Because there were so many riders, those at the rear practically came to a halt at the roundabout, a handful of riders in front of me exploited the sidewalk and went straight through the mess. Though the sidewalk was the most direct path, we had to dodge spectators. The speed was intense. I tucked to the left to look further ahead in the peloton. The rush of wind that hit me was like a punch to the face. There were about a dozen  riders shredded behind me. I didn’t know how much longer I’d hold on for. It was like a scene from a Vietnam war movie, guys were getting torn apart before the war even began. We rounded a corner with bricks. I have to move up in the field and I have to do it now, otherwise I’ll end up as burger.

It felt like a homecoming when we made the right turn onto the 2km finishing straight, but first we had to split the overflowing peloton into two to get past a traffic island.

A few riders go down. Just like that it was over.

It’s easy to think that buying the latest and greatest gizmo will make you faster. There are plenty of scientific studies down to say that such and such product reduces your physical output by some increasingly miniscule amount. Lance Armstrong worked with his helmet sponsor and his sunglasses sponsor so that his helmet and glasses would feel better together. Did that help him win races?

Bike racing is equalizing. If you’re not strong, you will not last long. At the end of the first of 10 laps, I got dropped like a hot potato in a hot potato dropping contest. Chalk one up to experience. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting to race much, I expected to learn, and I learned a lot from that single lap. By constant learning and application cycles, my racing will improve. Everything that hurts me only makes me stronger as a person and therefore better as a person. Before too long there will be too much of me to kill.

Talib Kweli said, “Life’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.”

 

 

Good News For People Who Love Bad News

•February 21, 2010 • 6 Comments

Surrounded by the heavily weathered and crumbling buildings of the city, I begin to make my escape. The city only has a thousand or so inhabitants, but the nuisance of bike lanes and parked cars on the side of the road are already starting to get to me. I wouldn’t mind stopping for a muffin or a Coke, but since it’s Sunday nearly everything is closed.   

At the Belgian equivalent of a yield sign I turn left, then right, and I’m There. The overcast skies, chilly weather and stiff wind set the perfect mood for this part of my ride, through There. There, in this case, happens to be a narrow stretch of road, about 3km (1.8 miles) long. What makes this road special is that it is all cobblestones, and not the smooth cobblestones that aren’t too rough; these are warped, twisted, ridged, rough, bone-breaking, wheel-breaking, make-you-cry cobblestones.  

There

   

  Sure, riding There hurt. Sure it made me think only of what the other side looked like. And sure my muscles felt like they’d been shifted around, then thrown indiscriminately in a blender with dull blades, but it was an awesome feeling.   

They say that the faster you go over the cobbles the easier it gets, and believe me, I tried. With a heavy wind exacting its fury on me I was relegated to a painfully slow speed, slow enough to feel every single cobble.   

When it finally ended, everything had a soreness to it. I had to physically dismount my bike and spin both of my wheels to make sure their straightness hadn’t gone astray (they hadn’t), and check everything attached to my body for more or less the same thing. Nothing had been lost, but I got that feeling again, that over any place in the world, I’d rather be in Belgium. My first real time on the cobbles was about as graceful as tripping down a flight of steps, I’ll give you that, but it was fun. After all was said and done I had a big grin on my face, and vowed that next time would be better. Lucky for me, “next time” was just about 20 minutes later. It hurt a lot less and I’m pretty sure I looked a lot better.   

I know there are a lot of people who consider cobbled sections as bad news, but what can I say? I like bad news.   

Until next time, There waits.