T-Cycle

A friend pointed out this blog entry. Myself and several others in formerly mutual circles have for some time now distanced the author for a pattern of less than truthfulness in matters from everyday living to cycling business, and a similar inability to assess their role in issues ranging from simple crashes to official authority, and a lack of respect and consideration toward their friends and others around them.  Those traits are unfortunately born out in the history of our interactions presented here, which is, suffice to say, not at all accurate and a decided reinterpretation and reorganization of actual events and multiple aspects.  I don’t have any need to engage with the author on it further though and wish them all the best.  If anybody does have questions or concerns, I would as always be happy to talk privately.
The latter part recounting positive developments in transgender participation in competitive cycling of course still stand as great things that I hope to see continue and grow.
Thx

Should Froome Run?

Yesterday, Tour de France yellow jersey bearer Chris Froome was caught up in a crash approaching the end of the monstrous finishing climb up Ventoux caused by the congestion of spectators. His bike broken but with no team or neutral support car in sight, he started running up the hill.

Let’s set aside all questions of whether it matters or not that Froome broke a rule (UCI 12.12.14: Attempt to be placed without having covered the entire course by bicycle), and the more important question of why don’t the ASO and UCI do more to ensure safe and fair courses. Here’s a much smaller but still interesting question: Did it make sense for Froome to start running?

I would argue that it doesn’t make sense from the perspective that he took a big risk on slipping & falling, twisting an ankle, or any number of other problems by running in his cleats. But, purely from a time perspective, did it make sense?

That turns out to be not as obvious as it might seem. A smart friend who’s an experienced racer & official made the reasonable point that you want the support car to catch up to you as quickly as possible. Being on a bike is much faster than being on foot, so running away from the car and prolonging the time it takes to get a new bike doesn’t make sense.

My argument was that if the car is blocked from getting to you quickly, you should continue moving forward. Once it clears any slowdown, i.e., the crash site, its speed will dwarf the distance you’ve gained, so you won’t be penalized by running from it. Therefore, in the interim, while the car is slowed or blocked, you should gain what ground you can. Otherwise you’d just have to cover that distance anyway, but after standing around waiting and wasting time.

Model

To investigate I wrote a simple simulation. The model works as follows.

Scenario at T0.

Scenario at T0.

At time zero the racer starts running or waiting patiently at distance zero, the crash site, while the support car is some distance behind.

The car passes the crash site and starts moving at its full speed.

The car passes the crash site and starts moving at its full speed.

The car moves at its blocked rate until it passes the crash site, at which point it starts moving at its free rate. The racer meanwhile moves at their running rate.

The car catches the racer and gives them a new bike.

The car catches the racer and gives them a new bike.

Eventually the car catches up to the racer, who then switches to their new bike and a faster rate of travel.

The finish!

The finish!

The racer then eventually pedals on to the finish some distance ahead.

Simulation

A program implementing that model is very simple. I wrote one in Go:

Screenshot_2016-07-15_18-18-20

You can play with it yourself in your browser using this link. Hit the Run button up top, and in a moment the output will show up at the bottom of the screen. You can change the scenario by altering the parameters starting on line 17:

  • goaldistance: How far the crash is from the finish line;
  • runrate: How fast the racer can run;
  • bikerate: How fast the racer can bike;
  • carstart: How far behind the support car is when the crash happens;
  • blockedrate: How fast the car goes until it passes the crash site;
  • freerate: How fast the car goes after passing the crash site.

Whether you use miles or kilometers for the parameters shouldn’t matter as long as you consistently use the same units for all of them.

Investigation

The default settings in the script seem like reasonable approximations of the Ventoux scenario or something similar:

  • The finish is 1km away;
  • The racer can run at 4mph and bike at 12mph (I believe these guys are generally going 12–14mph on Ventoux);
  • The car starts only 1/16 of a mile behind (~100 meters, .0625 miles) and can move 16 mph while blocked and 20 mph afterward.

The simulation reports the rider will finish in 3:18.03 minutes. That makes sense: The car gets to them very quickly, so they do nearly all the route at their cycling pace of 12mph, which would take 3:06 minutes. But, changing their running rate to 0 to reflect not running and waiting for the car, they take 3:20.38 minutes to finish. Therefore they should run, and that bears up if they run a little slower (2mph: 3:19.33) or faster (6mph: 3:16.36).

Obviously those aren’t huge gains, but this is a sport where seconds matter quite a lot. Those default parameters are also arguably friendly toward the not running hypothesis. Watching the clip, I could believe Froome is running better than 4mph (a brisk walk). I also doubt the vehicles can do 20mph in that heavy congestion even after the crash.

Importantly to the final time, no support cars are anywhere in sight. There are clips of Froome definitely running for a solid 30 seconds before one arrives, and the video cameras seem to have missed the start of his run. So, plugging some numbers in to get a ~30–40s catch time, if he did 4mph on foot and the car did 12mph and then 16mph, it would have started just under 1/8 mile back (200 meters, the length of a good sprint), which seems plausible.

Froome himself said in interviews later that he believed his team car to be a whole 5 minutes away. At those same speeds, a car half a mile back would take 2.5 minutes to reach him if he didn’t run, which fits his very rough estimate of it being minutes away. After waiting for the car, he’d finish in a total of 5:09.70.  If he ran just 4mph though until caught, he’d finish in 5:02.56, definitely worth it.

Analysis

Trying to look at the question a bit more systematically, I had the script vary over some reasonable parameters:

  • goaldistance: 1km, 2km, 3km, 5km, 10km
  • carstart: -1/16 mile, -1/8 mile, -1/4 mile, -1/2 mile
  • blockedrate: 4, 8, 12, 16
  • freerate: 8, 12, 16, 20
  • bikerate: 8, 12, 16

Among those combinations I discarded instances where the freerate was less than the blockedrate or the bikerate, under the very reasonable assumptions that the car does not go slower after passing the crash, and after the crash goes at least as fast as the rider (the latter constraint actually posited by my running-skeptical friend). For each combination then I evaluated the racer running at 0mph (reflecting waiting for the car), 2mph, 4mph, and 6mph.

That tabulation is available in this spreadsheet. The upshot is that at each running speed it makes sense to run in ~72% of the scenarios.

Glancing through the spreadsheet the pattern is pretty clear, and a quick formula confirms: Strictly in terms of time and under this abstracted model, the only cases in which it makes sense to stay put is when you can bike at least as fast as the car can go at its full speed. Remember that cases where the racer can bike faster than the car have been discarded from the spreadsheet, but in those unusual circumstances it also makes sense to stay put.

Outcomes.

Outcomes.

Physics

We as humans naturally focus on the rider, but the best way to think about this is in terms of the bike. Its progress is what controls the overall time required to finish the race. Going back to our model, its progress has three components:

  • Interval A from where the support car starts to the crash site;
  • Interval B from the crash site to wherever the car catches the rider;
  • Interval C from the catch point to the finish.
The three intervals through which the bike proceeds.

The three intervals through which the bike proceeds.

The easiest case to see this is when the rider can go the same speed as the car. In that case it doesn’t matter if the bike is moved by the rider or car, so the rider may as well stay put at the crash site.

In the rare situation when the rider can go faster than the car, you want to maximize the length of Interval C and minimize Interval B because the former progresses faster. So then it also makes sense for the rider to stay put.

Conversely, if the rider is slower, you want to minimize Interval C and maximize Interval B, so that the bike covers the most ground at the best rate. The only mechanism available to do this however is for the rider to advance during Intervals A & B, when the bike has to be with the car. So in this common case, it makes sense for the rider to run. Now, the time spent traversing Interval A has nothing to do with the rider, it’s completely determined by carstart/blockedrate. The rider may not be able to get very far in that interval. But it’s still increasing the amount of distance traveled at the best rate, Interval B, so formally speaking it’s going to be faster to run, even if only marginally. Note that none of this depends qualitatively on how slow the blockage is. You should always run. The only thing the blocked rate affects is how much benefit there is from running, not whether or not there is a benefit.

Unfortunately my numerical analytical modeling is embarrassingly rusty so I haven’t been able to put together in short order the equations formalizing that. But a related graphical way to think about it is in terms of a plot of the bike’s distance over time. It has three segments, corresponding to Intervals A, B, and C. Interval B has the greatest slope, so you want it to be the longest segment by time. The only way to make that happen is to run, so get going!

Conclusion

Long story short, assuming there aren’t errors above (*), strictly in terms of time this modeling argues that Froome made the right decision to start running, and benefited from doing so. I still think it was a big gamble in terms of risking getting hurt. And ultimately the officials’ decision to nullify the end of the race made it moot. But running wasn’t nearly as ridiculous as it at first seemed.

(*) I would be very happy to hear any comments or corrections.

 

Winter MTB Videos

These are a few videos posted over the winter from a couple great rides.

A bunch of us made it up to Kingdom Trails’ WinterBike festival:

Driven mad by permanently iced trails at home, a huge crew went to Batsto:

The Drexel oldheads had a near-calamitous ride on those iced trails:

I survived the ending of that last one just fine, despite the ice water soaking.

Race Report: D&L Canal Fat Epic

About two months ago a whole bunch of ECCC mountain bikers lead by Ian, Kenny, and Forrest gave me a fat bike. I almost literally haven’t ridden anything else since. It’s less of a bike and more of a pet monster best friend that sleeps in the basement and goes on adventures with me. This Saturday’s undertaking was our first race, the D&L Fat Epic, an 116 mile gravel path fat bike race along the Delaware and Lehigh canal trails from Washington’s Crossing to Allentown and back, organized by Hilltop Bicycles.

D&L Fat Epic promo image.

False advertising: The race did not look like this shot from the flyer.

Route map and non-elevation.

Route map and non-elevation.

Recap

Fortunately for me it did not snow as the organizers hoped, though we got close with the dusting earlier this week. Thinking about this event in advance was a bit awkward and quite different from summer racing: If conditions were good, I figured it’d be a 9–12 hour race; if it snowed, it could easily become a 24 hour race or longer. That’s a huge difference, and a much greater span than summer where I generally have my time estimates dialed in. In the end though the trail was muddy in several sections but others were very fast, at least by fat bike standards. Wind was minimal but with the riverside trail largely exposed and the sun not making an appearance, temperatures never went above the mid-30s.

In the very early going, by far the brightest sun of the whole day.

In the very early going, by far the brightest sun of the whole day.

Unfortunately I did not have my act together and missed the start. Dragging my feet about the whole affair, I arrived  in what would have been just barely in time for the opening gun but still didn’t have my equipment fully arranged. I had not been able to acquire a frame bag for my bike in time, and my untested, last minute, half-assed stopgap solution to pack extra clothes turned out to be at best quarter-assed, so it took a while to get strapped up and rolling. A powerful “Do as I say, not as I do” testament to not trying out new things on raceday…

That was a huge bummer as it meant I missed the best part of the race, some 40 fat bikers all streaming along on the very narrow trail as the field slowly disintegrated. On the “upside,” I got right down to the heart of the business: Grinding along the totally flat, completely non-technical rail trail for hours and hours on end. Normally that could at least be maybe justified with scenic views, but not on such a dreary overcast day. Needless to say, I had a lot of quiet time to ponder the absurdity of a race premised on taking some of the most rugged and capable human powered vehicles in existence and dropping them down on a basically linear, terrain-free route. Definitely the kind of “I’m-a-gonna do this ’cause I’m-a-gonna do this!” blockheaded project that I support 100% or more.

Mukmuk all loaded up and mudded up, at the halfway point.

Mukmuk all loaded up and mudded up, at the halfway point.

One semi-subconscious true upside to missing the start was that I didn’t have anyone to be tempted to keep up with, as hard race-pace efforts are challenging for my lower back. I had also been pretty careful to put as much as possible on my bike rather than in my hydration pack. Still, after about an hour my back hurt significantly from a combo of extra supplies weight, chugging along at a good pace with no terrain to force frequent posture shifts, and a slightly more aggressive saddle height for this gravel route.  I was pretty set on turning around at the 1st-quarter aid station and heading home.

When I got there though I was ahead of the positive end of my internal schedule and had already caught a third of the field, so at that point it was game on. Knowing I had more than enough water, I didn’t even pause at the tent so that I could put a few more minutes on the handful of people refueling there. Continuing on without any easy bailout was definitely a risk, but I was able to keep my back under control and the more serious spine/nerve symptoms I’ve learned to monitor didn’t develop at all.

After that, catching people became naturally harder and harder. I lost several more minutes falling on rocks portaging my bike along the river edge to skirt an active construction site completely blocking the path. Another good bunch of minutes I lost to navigation. Of course the several seemingly tricky spots on the route which I’d studied were no-brainers in real life, while another junction that seemed completely straightforward beforehand for some reason left me uncertain. Fortunately another rider, Shawn, came by shortly and helpfully confirmed the way with his GPS.

At the halfway point I also spent a good amount of extra time to change everything but my bibs and leg warmers. Obviously not in contention for a high result and with the people around me in the standings fairly well spread out, I thought I could make it home ok in my sweat-soaked, thinner outfit even with sundown coming soon, but it wasn’t worth it.

That was probably a good call as I slowed down quite a bit in the home stretch. As a guy at the final aid station put it in the best racing pep talk I’ve ever gotten:

Ok, you’re two to three hours from the end, the winners just finished, the sun’s going down, and you’re deeeep in no-man’s land so I really doubt you’ll see another competitor up or down for the rest of this race. But go, go, go!

Stopping there was humorously incongruous. By that point they had their routine totally down and were the model of a high efficiency pit stop. But I just wanted to eat cookies and chat, so I couldn’t understand why they were so eager for me to “Go, go go!” He was right, however. Having not seen anyone since the halfway stop, I wound up going for four hours in the second half of the race without seeing another competitor. Eventually I just got complacent and was moving smoothly but relatively slowly when out of nowhere a rider, Bill, caught up. That was great though as all of a sudden I remembered I was racing and the two of us rocked out the last seven miles at a quick pace for a strong finish.

Outcome

In the end I finished 19th of 39 starters, 34 finishers, with official race time of 10:14 (including my 14 minute late start!) and 9 hours of actual riding. It’s tempting to be a little frustrated: I should be faster. I have been faster. Objectively though that’s pretty good. In a few rough patches I reflected a bit on the many people I know, even active cyclists, who would be real jazzed to just go and ride like that on essentially a whim, and I kept chugging along.

All told the D&L Fat Epic was a great day, assuming you’re into that kind of thing. Hilltop Bicycles and the organizing crew did a good job with this event debut. In most ways and in the style of this kind of racing it was very low key: The aid stations were minimal though much appreciated and the volunteers awesome; the course was completely unmarked once out of the starting lot; nobody knew the trail was out at the construction site and the way completely blocked; and the final aid station got booted by the park rangers at sundown for not having a permit. But they had really great, relevant trophies for everybody; warm food at the finish; and in a surprise, everybody got a Mehler bikepacking tent. More tellingly, people came from a broad geographic range just to do this event. A large crew was down from the far reaches of upstate New York. Having people willing to travel and make a whole weekend of a race is a great positive indicator. I would definitely do it again.

The finishers' trophy, railroad spikes I believe actually collected from the trailside.

The finishers’ trophy, railroad spikes I believe actually collected from the trailside.

Perseverance

More than the solid finish, this is the first ultraendurance-ish race I’ve done since abandoning last year’s Cascades RAAM qualifier due to back and neck injuries from an  earlier 24hr MTB solo. It’s actually even the first long-ish ride I’ve done since then other than a casual double century earlier this summer. Going in I had real doubts about the wisdom of signing up—road riding remains somewhat uncomfortable after more than about two hours, and I’m still regularly seeing a chiropractor. Being a bit tired but otherwise in solid shape today is thus a big relief. It was also deeply rewarding to be ten hours in and maybe not too fast, but still pedaling smooth, mentally on board, and not at all struggling despite not having done a ton of riding lately. All those hours and hours of ridiculous training rides the past few years are in there somewhere. As satisfying is the competence to just head out and do a ride like that without real worries, with almost no hope of on-trail support or pick-up, just above freezing temps all day, and a fairly new bike and a lot of new, last minute gear.

It’s difficult to classify this sort of thing as “fun”—the couple times I stopped I got a stream of text updates from my fellow fatbiker friend Forrest (who, to be fair, is in NH and couldn’t make it) about his much more exciting activities throughout the day, like sipping homemade hot chocolate while luxuriating on a couch with a warm blanket. But this is definitely what I’d rather be doing.

The ECCC votes to make fat biking mandatory.

The ECCC votes to make fat biking mandatory.

Race Report: Coup de Cascades Ultra

Last weekend I attempted the Coup de Cascades 425 mile solo ultra-endurance race, a RAAM qualifier outside Seattle. Unfortunately I had to abandon after 281 miles, 18.5k feet of climbing. I have some ongoing disc and nerve issues from an MTB ultra earlier this summer that I just can’t bull through much past ~16 hours of riding.

Back at the starting area post-abandonment.

Back at the starting area post-abandonment.

For those who’ll skip the text, more photos are in the Flickr gallery.  Strava logs are up here: Part 1part 2.

Thanks

Any race like this is a big production and takes a lot of people.

I especially have to thank Johann Liljengren (TriCycles/UPenn) for crew chiefing the race, supporting both the race and the extensive planning beforehand. Brian Thompson, my brother-in-law, also worked the on-site crew. Tim Manzella (TSV/Drexel) was incredibly helpful as my chief mechanic, keeping my bike running smooth and doing an extensive overhaul leading into the event. My wife Caitlin (PBCO/Tufts) of course was also as always supportive and helpful.

Johann and I revel in our pile of awesome!  This... doesn't even include food, water, etc.

Johann and I revel in our pile of awesome! This… doesn’t even include food, water, etc.

Brian has no idea where he's going to nap, but the answer is anywhere and everywhere.

Brian has no idea where he’s going to nap, but the answer is anywhere and everywhere.

Just another Friday night for Tim, drillin' out a stripped bolt at 2am...

Just another Friday night for Tim, drillin’ out a stripped bolt at 2am…

I also want to thank Richie Cortez at Philly Bikesmith for spending a morning on his day off on some last minute bike fitting. Alex Walker, Johann’s brother-in-law, also lent us tools and spare parts out here in Seattle so we didn’t have to bring everything cross-country. Ted Slack (QCW) graciously leant his bike case for the trip.

As usual, both Caitlin’s and my parents are unspoken heroes, shuttling us and all of our stuff to & from airports at all hours of the day.

Riding

A few days out there were serious mudslides on the first mountain pass of the original course, closing the road indefinitely. We were just glad the organizers came up with an alternative, though it turned out the local endurance racers felt the new route was much harder. For us the big effect was that we had no time to really chart up the map and figure out how long the climbs would be, etc.

The final course featured four 4000ft mountain passes and otherwise rolling terrain with almost literally no flat spots, conceptually broken into 4 parts:

  • A hundred miles of rolling hills starting a bit east of Redmond;
  • A hundred mile block crossing Stevens Pass eastbound out to Leavenworth, followed by Blewett Pass;
  • A hard, remote 150 miles through Yakima and over White and Cayusa passes alongside Mt Rainier;
  • Seventy five miles of rolling hills back to the finish.
The road ahead.

The road ahead.

Between Stevens and Blewett Passes.  I think.  It's all kind of blurry.

Between Stevens and Blewett Passes. I think. It’s all kind of blurry.

Breakpoint at the top of Stevens Pass.

Breakpoint at the top of Stevens Pass.

The first ~200 miles and two passes we flew through in ~12 hours, including two refueling breaks, well ahead of our time goals and the other two solo competitors. At that point though I had to take a long break. The multi-hour climbs up Steves and Blewett had put a huge toll on my back injury. I was barely pedaling at the top of Blewett, and it was almost an hour before I could put force on my feet again. By the time I got rolling both riders had passed me.

Still, we were hopeful because I pulled another solid 4 hour night block, covering another ~76 miles of hills into Yakima. Along the way I recaught one rider, and it seemed promising I’d be able to catch the other and be near my time goals even with substantial recovery periods after each of the mountain passes.

After that though the load had just built up too much. Another hour and my nerves were burning even softpedaling flat stretches, and I was already well past the 24hr anti-inflammatory daily limits without clear sign it was helping any more. After a few more hours of start & stop riding trying to pull it back together, I eventually just ground into a wall of pain I couldn’t overcome.

Race Nutrition

The nutrition plan I’ve been using lately was working out well. My main goal beside hydration is trying to take in around 300 calories an hour, to my limited understanding very roughly about the rate your body can process. A key point is that you can’t skip hours, you’ll never make up that deficit.

The first 12 hours of a ride the bulk of my calories come from egg & rice patties Caitlin makes from the Skratch Labs Portables recipe book (~100 calories per patty), with occasional Clif bars (240 cal), basically a a bar or 1–2 patties an hour. Hydration throughout this is a bottle an hour of Nuun (0 cal) or Hammer HEED (100 cal), supplemented by straight water from a small hydration pack.

Between 12 and 16 hours of riding I tend to find it pretty hard to continue using solid food. The rice patties are nice in that they’re fairly bland yet appealing once you bite the bullet and force them into your mouth, but it gets harder and harder to do that. So around this point I start using Hammer Perpetuem drink mix (270 cal/bottle). It’s somewhat hard to train with because it’s really best consumed while chilled, so you can’t easily take a bunch of bottles on a 4 or 6 hour ride. It also is pretty bland yet vaguely appealing and seems to play well with my stomach and deliver just enough of both calories and satisfaction, so I’m happy with it.

First stop. While I was originally mostly trying to train in ~6 hour blocks, we cut to 4 in an attempt to preempt back troubles.

First stop. While I was originally mostly trying to train in ~6 hour blocks, we cut to 4 in an attempt to preempt back troubles.

An hourly bottle feed.

An hourly bottle feed.

Technical Notes

On my bike we did a couple interesting things. After years fighting the logic of it, I did recently switch to 50×34 compact cranks to go with my standard 11×28 cassette. As a high cadence rider, frequently pedaling at 100–120 bpm, I can really use the extra gears on long or steep climbs to rely on my cardio and avoid digging into my strength reserves. Note that this setup works on a standard length rear Shimano derailleur, but just barely.

I also sparingly used a set of clip-on aero bars. Beyond the more recent back problems, I’ve had trouble adopting a true TT position, though this isn’t a huge problem on climbing-intensive courses. It puts so much more emphasis on your quads that I can’t sustain power in it for more than a couple hours. So, my clip-ons are set up fairly non-aggressively, as are my bars in general. The pads are also set farther forward on my forearms than normal and the rails cut down to match for better leg clearance climbing out of the saddle. Even only using them sparingly though was helpful to have a fifth hand position and stretching out my back on less technical descents.

Part of Johann’s whole system of over-engineered paper notes and spreadsheets for tracking mileage, estimating times, monitoring nutrition consumption, etc..

Just some of the stuff from our packing list, in this case logistics-oriented materials.

Just some of the stuff from our packing list, in this case logistics-oriented materials.

One other notable is that in focusing on this kind of long form riding, I’ve consciously been less conscious about dieting. Historically I’ve been pretty good about being able to hit a pretty lean peak fitness weight for targeted events. But a true minimum weight is a literally thin line to be riding. At that point any travel, bad weather workout, or other exposure, and I get sick. That’s especially true under very high training volumes. So this year I opted to not worry about it so much. That’s cost performance on short, steep, high-intensity, climbs like the local group hill rides, but paid off in not getting sick nearly as much.

Parting Thoughts

This was a crushing disappointment, especially to be so close to doing so well. I’ve been thinking about this most of the year, since realizing it was the weekend before we would be out here for Caitlin to do IronMan Canada. A lot of prep work and planning went into the logistics, on top of all the riding. Worst, as far as I made it wasn’t even much of a stretch in length, and not at all in climbing, from many of my training rides earlier this summer.

That said, behind the disappointment it was still a really good experience. Our logistics and prep all seemed spot on, and I think we can dial it down even more with what we learned here. My vaguely structured, ultra-flexible training regimen, more a set of principles and desires than an actual plan, did a reasonable job at navigating a lot of work travel, ECCC commitments, and other obstacles to deliver the fitness I needed to do well, and based on this experience I can tweak that as well as plan even better for other events.

A middle of the night breakpoint.

A middle of the night breakpoint.

Re-catching second place on a climb along I-82 toward Yakima, approaching midnight.

Re-catching second place on a climb along I-82 toward Yakima, approaching midnight.

Also on the positive side are the simple basics of some great riding. Despite some overly busy sections, most of the course was really nice. Best though, the night sections were an amazing surrealist dream of incredible cycling—spinning along deep purple ridgelines under the slowly churning, looming blades of windfarms in silhouette; cranking at maximum speed down flats and false descents as endless wheat fields wafted in the breeze on either side, headed directly into the low hung full moon ahead; the lights of Yakima suddenly appearing in the deep valley below over a final peak. Unforgettable.

Beyond that, the event was also still a lot of fun, though obviously only in retrospect now that I’ve ice creamed to my best ability for the bulk of a week and am even starting to feel my feet again in ways other than burning. It was great calling and getting together with Johann to work logistics, and debating mechanical options with Tim on long rides. Having the guys with me was also really meaningful. I’ll always mantain that the team time trial is the most satisfying form of competitive cycling, and this is really similar. The crew fills a very different role, but it’s most definitely the same kind of collective team effort, and deeply satisfying in the same way.

Next time!

Again, there are more photos in the Flickr gallery.

FOT4153

Arsenal Crit Cancellation

Though very unfortunate, the cancellation of this year’s Arsenal Criterium is a good opportunity to think about how amateur cycling races in our area are put on.

Notably, no one is more disappointed than Charles and I, the organizers on behalf of QCW. A lot of effort, especially on Charles’ part, has already been sunk, and costs incurred. Instead of spending a day hanging out at a cool race, we’ll spend a lot of time in the coming days writing refund checks and reading Internet comments.

Beyond that, it’s inarguable that Charles and I are unreasonably dedicated to making races happen and this is a large disappointment to us. For this year’s Philly Phlyer—without question the most ambitious and substantial amateur cycling race in the Philly area—we personally staked over $12,000 on the event, and were relieved to come out having only lost a few hundred each. Even as a student I regularly risked $10,000+ on the Phlyer. Now, as director of the ECCC, I volunteer 1,500 to 2,000 hours a year—essentially a full time but completely uncompensated job—to ensure collegiate races from Delaware to Maine happen and happen well.  Anyone pushing at us the commitment of race promotion or demands that promoters take the hit on losses had better be making similarly extraordinary personal commitments of time and money, or stop talking real fast.

Causes

Unfortunately, this cancellation is just about money rather than weather or other act of god. Watching registration trickle in, the QCW general leadership and us become duly concerned about the looming financial loss. Even under very optimistic, unrealistic models for day-of registration, QCW was going to incur a loss amounting to a substantial portion of the 2013 club budget. At that point we decided to pull the plug somewhat early so that racers would have at least some opportunity to replan.

Part of the calculus here, especially for Charles and I, is that this just isn’t that big a deal. It’s unfortunate for all the racers, particularly the women who do not have ample opportunities to just go do another race or group ride instead. But, this just isn’t an event people are traveling to, peaking their training plans for, etc. In contrast, I hold ECCC races to a much higher standard—we simply don’t cancel races if at all humanly possible—precisely because hundreds of riders each weekend are making exactly those commitments. This disruption is annoying and unfortunate, but not the end of the world or a financial loss to any racers.

Similarly, the Arsenal is a great race but ultimately a business park crit. Burning the club budget and crippling QCW’s ability to operate and support other activities in return for a great, ambitious road race or a well attended but expensive major event crit would be one thing. Taking a huge loss to enable fields of ~20 riders quietly spinning around is another.

Risk

To that point, it’s just not reasonable to ask promoters of these kinds of small time races to simply absorb extravagant losses. In the business world—notably including promoters putting on races on a business footing—you can reasonably place that expectation. Sometimes you make a profit, sometimes you lose, and as long as you keep the former ahead of the latter you’ll gain in the long run.

But events like Arsenal and other small cycling races simply aren’t businesses. There is no profit, everyone’s just hoping to break even. They either lose or they lose, without the large gains to offset bad years. Absolutely no one has the right to simply ask individuals and clubs to just accept losses, because the promoters don’t stand to gain anything if it does work out. They’re doing it purely for the community. Further, it’s simply not sustainable to ask promoters to take on nothing but risk—since there’s no gain worth speaking of—and not cut their losses when that risk becomes too large. That only guarantees eventual destruction of an event or even a club, and you can see that over the years in the loss of many great, traditional Philadelphia races that simply don’t exist anymore.

Sponsorship

The usual response to this, especially from armchair promoters, is that you need to cover the difference with sponsorship. Extra cash and other support is of course great and it’s important to try, but sponsorship is not an efficient or sustainable mechanism to enable these kinds of races.

It takes an extensive investment of time to procure any amount sponsorship. Worse, hunting sponorship is absolutely one of the least enjoyable, most miserable tasks entailed in promoting a race (or running a club). Put those two facts together and it’s incredibly difficult to have volunteers work that angle successfully.

Further, no matter how much effort you do sink, sponsorship isn’t reliable. Ultimately there just isn’t a strong business case for cycling sponsorship even in the professional leagues, and none whatsoever at the amateur grassroots. Without such an objective rational, sponsorship is reliant on personal whims and interests, and corporations being flush with cash. Your patron benefactor moves to a different company, the market goes down half a point, almost anything will cause that critical support for an event to drop out and not be there next year.

Between that difficulty in procuring it and the unpredictability in retaining it, sponsorship of individual small events isn’t a viable foundation for long term sustainability. That core financial support has to come from within the participants and the community.

Foundation

Small tweaks could be made to address some of these risk concerns, e.g., moving pre-registration dates earlier to have more commitment from riders to match commitment from promoters, or substantially raising entry fees to generate actual profit in good years and enable a business-styled boom/bust amortization. Neither of these or similar ideas are appealing or likely to address root issues though.

An idea myself, Charles, and other ECCC and Philly-area cycling leadership have been kicking around is to work toward a substantially different model for these kind of small, amateur races.

The predominant current structure is races backed by particular clubs or even individual people. As discussed above, that entails them taking on a lot of financial risk for something for which there is essentially no possibility of gain. It’s not reasonable to peg all of the cost and risk on one entity when the only value is to the community as a whole simply in having a great event. Long term sustainability and reliability would be much better if those costs, risks, and the effort, were better diffused throughout the community rather than focused on individual organizations and people.

The basic proposal then is to establish a non-profit association or foundation specifically for organizing and promoting races, in this case in the Philadelphia area. The organization would promote multiple races, both enabling new events and moving existing races out from under their individual promoters and into this umbrella. The Phlyer would be a great flagship, the Arsenal another good candidate member, and then other races as promoters are interested.

Each race would of course be run to break even plus some safety margin, but losses would be backed by the foundation. Money for that in turn would come from invested clubs, the community as a whole, and sponsors. An umbrella like this would enable all area clubs to contribute large or small amounts to ensuring good races happen. That’s opposed to the current model requiring that single promoting clubs be able to take on the entirety of the risk, something none can sustain through a catastrophic loss or for years on end. We also believe, and have seen in experiments with the Phlyer, that a fair amount of funding could potentially be crowdsourced from the community; there are even many people who do not race themselves but are eager to support good cycling events. Finally, by enabling multiple events, it becomes more rational for businesses to provide, and more efficient for organizers to seek, meaningful sponsorship.

Beyond that financial support, this organization could also provide the structure to address other issues. Basics include coordinating race dates in the immediate Philly area, and drawing volunteers from all clubs as well as the larger community, thus addressing another critical issue in race promotion: People power. Additional frills could also easily embellish this scheme, e.g., standings and awards across a series made of the foundation’s races.

In sum, there are built-in, structural, completely valid reasons why great traditional events like the Philly 2-Day or Lemon Hill crit have ceased, and cancellations like this year’s Arsenal happen. But it’s possible we shift the underlying model to address those issues and work together as a community to ensure important events continue or even restart. We have some more detailed ideas than the above and would be eager to talk with any interested parties about getting this off the ground.  Of course we’re also eager to hear any other ideas as well as positive or negative comments.  Finally, obviously, we also deeply regret this particular cancellation and hope to see everyone out on the roads, trails, and at other events in the future.

Thanks!

Race Report: Burn 24 MTB Enduro

Last weekend my wife Caitlin T (PBCO/Tufts), Alex L (QCW/Temple), Johann L (Tricycles/UPenn), and Adam L (Tricycles/Drexel) went down to North Carolina for the Burn 24 Hour MTB Challenge at Dark Mountain.

The dream team.  And some random hanger-on.

The dream team. And some random hanger-on.

They did the 4 person relay and will have to recount their own details (Caitlin has a race report up), but an outsider summary sounded like this:

  • 12pm: “What a beautiful day—woo, bikes! Let’s race!”
  • 8pm: “Let’s make some dinner! Awesome race! Party times, woo!”
  • 12am: “…”
  • 4am: “Wake up, damnit, wake up, it’s your lap!”  “No! No! And don’t ever talk to me again!”
  • 12pm: “Well, I might MTB again sometime… if forced… maybe.”
"Yep, you're doin' a great job there Adam.  Great job.  Keep it up."

“Yep, you’re doin’ a great job there Adam. Great job. Keep it up.”

Intense logistics and strategizing!  Also, they completely stopped checking on me, and I needed checking on!

Intense logistics and strategizing! Also, they completely stopped checking on me, and I needed checking on!

I finished 2nd of ~15 in the Men’s Open Solo race. The winner did 18 laps and 3rd place 15; I did 17 laps in 24:17 hours race time, exactly 17 hours riding, for 108 miles, 13400 ft climbing. The GPS track is an amazing mess of scribbles.  Fantastically, a couple guys in the 40+ bracket crushed us all. As much as cycling is an old man’s sport, endurance mountain biking is a sport for grizzled old men with bones as old as the dirt underneath.

That result was completely unexpected. Work has been real busy in 2013—I wound up riding just a few hours less than I slept the preceding week, and went straight from the weekend to another work trip—and I’ve been MTBing very little the past year. This was really just a training and fun race to ride as much as I could, and I was mentally prepared for that to be as little as 6–8 hours.

But in the end it was a very rewarding experience and fitness check. Besides work, cycling this year has been tough. The last ~18 months or so I’ve largely “just” been distance riding, and balancing riding with other life priorities, travel, etc., my force and speed have really suffered. It’s discouraging to go to Greentree every week and just be pack fodder after being reliably able to touch the breakaway the past two summers. Late in the race then it was rewarding to still be riding well, rolling down the trail in the Carolina sun, and reflect that this is exactly what I’ve been “training” for and here I was, with 2nd place all but locked up.

The full(er) story & some technical notes follow below.

The real accomplishment was stepping onto the podium without falling over.

The real accomplishment was stepping onto the podium without falling over.

Recap

The defining moment of the race came just after midnight, my 12th hour break. I was still riding well, but without joy. I’d even been chased by a dog on a lonely, lonely stretch. Caitlin was out then and I was terrified she would be chased as well and come in… not happy, to say the least. I decided to clean up, wait to check on her, and go to sleep. Luckily the dog was chased off and she never saw it. But just as I was about to tell her to let me sleep as long as I could, she said “Yeah, Joe, you’re still in second, two laps up on third!” File this under THINGS TO NOT TELL A YOUNG-ISH ADULT MALE WHOM YOU ARE TRYING TO ENCOURAGE TO MAKE HEALTHY AND WISE LIFE DECISIONS.

Instantly I faced a strategic dilemma: Try to crank out more laps, or sleep and hope to recoup the time in better riding afterward? Any sport in which power napping is a valid strategy is an awesome one…

When the night calls...

When the night calls…

Full moon rising!

Full moon rising!

In the end I took a nap, figuring: 1) Otherwise I’d just wasted half an hour; 2) A break would ensure my lights lasted the night; 3) Third place probably wouldn’t be able to regain 2 laps on me. So I told Caitlin to wake me up in an hour and a half… and in 90 minutes told her that again, for a good 3 hour nap before heading back out at 5am.

Then: Near disaster—3rd place did two laps while I was sleeping! At an 8am break I learned I’d only been 4 minutes ahead of him at 6am. That’s nothing! I had to assume he was passing me even then.

At that point there was nothing to do but go crush four straight laps and hope I caught him or he fell apart. It must have actually been pretty exciting in that 3am–9am period as he got on lap and then tried to chase me down. Well, as exciting as a race drawn out over 24 hours with dudes riding around like zombies can be. The volunteers at the halfway aid station clearly knew a close race was going on and were real real stoked. 3rd place told me afterward they’d been excitedly giving him splits on me every lap.

In the end though that was his high water mark. I must have started my 5am block just ahead of him on course so it was fortunate I hadn’t slept any longer, but after that I reclaimed 5–10 minutes a lap. Unknown to me he saw this happening and gave up around 10am.

"Yep, we don't know these idiots.  Just here for a Sunday ride..."

“Yep, we don’t know these idiots. Just here for a Sunday ride…”

On trail though, I didn’t know. Realistically I figured he’d probably stop at 16 laps, but if I stopped I’d be rolling the dice if he slogged out another. Plus, the race ain’t over till it’s over.

Coming through the grasstrack start/finish loop to head out for that final, 17th, lap was loaded with trepidation. I hadn’t actually managed 4 straight laps without a break since the 1st & 2nd blocks of the race. That’s ~25 miles, in and of itself more than enough mountain biking for a good day. It was clear this was going to hurt.

Ultimately it was indeed probably one of the five physically hardest things I’ve ever done. Tellingly, 3 of the other 4 are also MTB enduros. My legs were still spinning well, my hands and arms solid enough to hold me on course, but my lower back rapidly degraded from passable to completely unforgiving. It was actually a fascinating lesson in physiology. It turns out you need your lower back for all sorts of things besides pedaling—like hard steering, and reaching for water bottles! On the steepest pitches I was finally forced to walk. On lesser climbs the effort required to put my lower back into it and anchor the pedal strokes was intense. How many times you can tap a completely tapped muscle before real bad things happen?

It felt like forever, but I focused on the lap mileage ticking away, no matter how slowly, and just kept rolling around. Eventually I hit the top of the course, saw daylight, and sailed down to the finish, safe in 2nd.

This is the end; my only friend, the end; of our elaborate plans, the end.

This is the end; my only friend, the end; of our elaborate plans, the end.

Tech Notes

For a few technical notes, my current ride is a carbon Jamis DXC Pro (26″ wheels). This is an amazing bike: Great climber, responsive, but very comfortable. Osprey Packs gets a shout-out for sending me a free replacement bite valve in very short order in time for the race. Rudy Project gets a big thumbs down; one of my helmet strap adjustors cracked for no reason early in the race, a significant problem later trying to stabilize a heavy helmet light. That’s the third straight Rudy I’ve had fail like that and won’t be buying them again.

Nutritionally I did pretty well. Caitlin and I have been experimenting with sticky rice cakes from the most recent Skratch Labs book, and I ate a couple of these per hour on average. That was augmented with some Tofurkey and cheese slices, muffins, bananas, and oranges in the breaks. This worked out really well, I had zero gut rot, indigestion, or nausea throughout the entire race.

The one downside was that in the last third solid food became very unappealing. I had to consciously work on continually eating, and needed something like protein shakes or yogurt. I’ve been meaning to figure out a liquid diet I like and will have to get on that. The last block I drank a couple bottles of Accelerade to compensate for eating less solids, but otherwise drank water and Nuun, caveat a couple sips of Coca Cola early on.

"Mmm...  Peanut butter... or peanut butter?"

“Mmm… Peanut butter… or peanut butter?”

Strategically, it worked out really well to break the day up into 4 hour blocks. Even if nothing else, that reduces the whole thing down to mentally palatable chunks. Each block I would break for a bit to refuel, stretch, and beg the guys to do some minor bike work. Every other block I cleaned up with towels and baby wipes and switched out all of my clothes. One thing I did have to fight a bit mentally was to stay focused on 4 hour blocks, rather than trying to do a set number of laps per block and winding up grinding out one too many.

Mountain biking is haaaaard!

Mountain biking is haaaaard!

Buuurn!

Unfortunately this was the final Burn 24; the organizers are, appropriately enough, burned out and taking a break. That’s a shame because they did a great job and it’s a really good course. I highly recommend anyone with the opportunity to go ride on those Dark Mountain trails outside Wilkesboro, NC. It was like racing an all singletrack version of the Kingdom Trails, a high compliment.

Of course, what really made the weekend possible was being with a great crew of friends. I had almost no mechanical problems, but it was incredibly helpful to have guys on hand to deal with what little stuff inevitably cropped up. Other than the obviously necessary 3am gruffness, the group attitude also made the whole thing a great time. It really helps to be with good people when it’s 4am, pitch black out, raining lightly, and you need to chamois up and head out…

See y’all out there!  Just a few more photos are in the Flickr gallery.

"That was great.  Now let's never ever do this again," said everyone.

“That was great. Now let’s never ever do this again,” said everyone.

Kevin Ware

I don’t really follow any sports (cycling included), but for those similarly unaware, it’s worth reading up on an incident from over the weekend in the NCAA college basketball tournament: Kevin Ware, a sophomore from Louisville, suffered a fluke, particularly gruesome compound leg fracture on live national TV.

The relevant points are all about the NCAA and its relationship to the players. It seems most likely that Ware won’t be able to play again for at least a year, maybe more, and quite possibly not ever at the same level. His scholarship arrangement isn’t public, but Louisville is staunchly against guaranteed athlete scholarships, so he is probably going to lose it. Even setting aside any long term health costs, it’s actually even possible that he could wind up paying exorbitant amounts for the immediate emergency and followup care. Beyond all that, his whole career plan most likely just went up in smoke, without ever having been compensated for his part as a critical worker in that billion dollar industry.

Now, in reality the media’s going to be watching this so presumably Louisville will look out for him pretty well. I think it most likely he is just looking at the opportunity cost of not having a pro career, rather than that *plus* a lot of immediate costs, *plus* his scholarship. However, there are tons of others out there who’ve suffered injuries bigger and smaller, without having the protection afforded by having it happen on prime time TV.

Meanwhile, the Louisville team alone is incredibly profitable, let alone the NCAA and the March Madness tournament as a whole…

These are good recaps of this incident and the Louisville team:

The context for this is the long term questions of how collegiate cycling matures and evolves, all of this going to the basic point that almost any step in the direction of the NCAA is not one that can be supported by any but the most basely profit-driven rationales.

2012 Highlights

In amazingly timely fashion, my movie/TV, fiction, and music highlights of 2012 are up:

http://tjkopena.com/wiki/?n=Reading.2012Highlights

In less amazingly timely fashion, my post on 2011 highlights that’s been laying around half-completed for a year is also polished and up:

http://tjkopena.com/wiki/?n=Reading.2011Highlights

New York Marathon (Update)

A blog that I read has been ranting that this week’s New York Marathon should be canceled in light of this week’s hurricane and the continuing recovery efforts.  For what they’re worth, these are my thoughts on the issue, from a response on that site.  I am not running, so I have no personal stake in it other than a (often unfounded) belief in the ability of our nation at its best to meet any challenge.

One point that should be corrected is that the race isn’t something “a trivial number of people care about.” Last year just short of 47,000 runners started the race. Multiply by a few spectators per runner, and you’re talking about a good number of people immediately invested in the race.

It’s also not something that can be just rescheduled for any time. At the most basic, the marathon is indeed a huge event with a big footprint. New York’s a busy place with lots of things going on, you can’t just throw these kinds of events around anywhere on the calendar. Similarly, many of those 47,000 people times however many spectators will be travelling from far and wide. Beyond losing out on reservations, etc., if this weekend is scrubbed, they’re not going to be able to just pick up and do it some other random weekend next year.

Beyond all that, almost all of those 47,000 people will have been training and dreaming about this race all year. Setting aside the pros and hopefuls with career riding on it, think about all the people doing their first marathon. All the countless people who would have never previously thought they would be able to run a marathon. All the people who’ve shaped up their lives and found some discipline just to make this one goal happen. All the people super excited about their big—maybe their first—trip to New York. Though intangible, that’s an awful lot to just throw away if holding the race is at all feasible.

If America and New York are as awesome as our idealistic collective vision of them, the race should be able to happen unless the situation is much more dire and immediate than what’s been projected. Whining about a couple generators is small & shrill. If it’s as simple as throwing around a couple extra generators to fix the problem, there wouldn’t be a problem.

Update

Monday: As expected and pretty clearly bound to happen, the generators and all the supplies (water bottles, food, emergency blankets) simply sat in the park through the weekend despite the cancellation of the race.  Some were still there late today.  This was reported with varying levels of outrage by “news” outlets, with most people continuing to fail to really account for some obvious points in their complaints and cancellation rationales.

As pointed out by the mayor’s office and more cogent commentators, the generators in question physically aren’t applicable to most of the city’s needs due to their output characteristics.  Even if they matched, there were no resources to transport them.  Afterward they also had been or were immediately contracted to move to other sites.  Most importantly, power generation does nothing when it’s the power distribution grid that is destroyed and immersed.

Food and other supplies presumably were not distributed for similar reasons.  The region’s not exactly a site of mass starvation, and what problems do exist seem to be largely about transportation (road blockages, gasoline shortages) and lack of electricity (no ATMs, functioning stores, etc.).  If the problem was mere acquisition of crates of PowerBars and bananas, the situation would have been rectified long before now.

Most shockingly, despite the cancellation of the race, the many off duty police and other course marshals thereby released did not magically transform into the engineers and construction crews required to drain subways, inspect power lines, rebuild houses, and conduct the countless technical tasks actually required of disaster recovery once the initial crisis is over…

Finally, it is worth noting a point to all of the uproar about the propriety of conducting the race.  I mean, obviously spectator sports like the football games conducted Sunday in New York “Gave NY-NJ region much-needed respite from Sandy’s aftermath,” but participant sports are clearly just utterly inappropriate at this juncture.

Regardless, Sandy’s wake is without doubt terrible.  So far ~110 people have died in the US and ~70 in the Caribbean, as well as a few others.  Reported numbers vary widely, but tens of thousands of people in the New York/New Jersey area have had their homes destroyed or rendered inhabitable (ten, twenty, and forty thousand seem to be typical estimates).

However, every day of the year in New York City, over 50,000 people spend the night homeless.  Over 110,000 people rely on the homeless shelter system at some point throughout the year.  More than 500 people are murdered every year in New York City.  Similar or (many) more die needlessly simply because they don’t have access to medical care.

But, somehow, there’s hardly ever any outrage or questions of propriety and spectacle about any of that.