Sunday, September 27, 2009

Buck Hill Cyclocross

Today I was signed up for one of my favorite centuries, the Five Lakes and a Steak starting from Watkins Glen. Since I had already rode this century a few times, the forecast of rain made me change my plans. If it was going to rain, I might was well get really dirty as opposed to just a bit dirty. Sometime Saturday afternoon I decided to give cyclocross a try and sign up for Buck Hill Cyclocross. I didn't have the right bike, nor the right tires. But I like getting dirty, and mud was promised, so the fun factor was guaranteed.

Ben Kraft and I carpooled to Mecklenburg, arriving at about 9am. I had some hope of competing in the masters category, since after all I am 31 and according to page 5 of the UCI rulebook I am eligible for that category. Not that I was seeking an advantage, but I knew several masters such as Ernie Bayles, Glenn Swan, Jack Rueckheim, Bill Erickson, Mark Shenstone, Bob Nunnink and Wayne Gottlieb. So I thought it would be fun to race with them. In addition, I could also try to race twice, since the open men's category had a later start. However, I guess I don't have enough gray hair or I'm not bald enough, so I was denied entry. The positive side is that I was be able to cheer for all of those guys, and I did!

At the sound of cowbells the masters came and went like a stampede. Since the start was very close to a triple barrier followed by lots of tight turns, things got jammed up a bit on the first lap. On the second lap the first positions were defined and pretty much remained that way to the end. Of note was Glenn's recovery from an early gap to secure the third position. Bill also fought back on the last lap and reclaimed the fourth position. I remained mostly next to the organizers table and had a good view of the race while I drank cider and ate apples and bagels. Breakfast at home was rather meager. Most of all I enjoyed encouraging the riders as they passed. Some of them acknowledged the cheering, but that was not expected. I also got a sense of what I was in for. You could literally see the pain in the faces of the riders as the laps progressed. Ouch!

I told Ben that all I wanted is not to be last. Even if that happened, I wasn't going to be too disappointed. I was told about the importance of getting a good starting position and to come around the barriers as close to the leaders as possible. On the other hand, this was a first time event for me and I had no hopes of placing among the first finishers, so I didn't want to get in the way. With the sound of cowbell, so awesome, we were sent off. I arrived at the first set of barriers in about 20th place. I passed a couple of riders as we jumped over the barriers and another few as we got to open road. I still could see Ben in front of me, so I knew I wasn't too far from the front. In the first lap I was certainly going faster than what I could sustain for an hour. But it was fun! I really enjoyed the muddy sections and in particular a flat stretch in the woods with a few gentle curves followed by a hump and a sharp left turn. I always seemed to either gain on riders in front of me or distance myself from whomever was behind me on this part. As the first lap ended I passed Eli Robinson on the triple barrier and I thought that was cool. He dropped me a few moments later. I heard Ernie yelling some good advice about pacing yourself and the amount of laps left. Acknowledged.

At the beginning of the second lap I was in a group of riders with Syracuse Bicycle jerseys. For a few laps we just shifted positions a bit. I felt I could go a bit faster, so I tried to pull away a few times, but I was caught on the open sections of the course. I had a bit of an incident with another rider when we came to a left turn. My MTB has disk brakes, so I could wait until the last moment to negotiate some of those tight turns. I decided to try to overtake a rider on the inside before turning, but I felt there wasn't going to be enough room, so I hit the brakes and slowed down to allow the rider on the outside to take the turn. However, he slid and went down. He was pissed. Probably rightly so, I'm not sure. I don't have cyclocross experience but I watch a lot of Formula 1, and there you can overtake on curves, on the inside, outside, as long as you occupy the space first. I felt he could have turned. Maybe he was a bit startled by the squeal of my brakes. In any case, it was a good opportunity to pull away since he kept yelling at me and I was in no mood to argue.

I managed to create enough space behind me, which I closely monitored with my helmet-mounted rear-view mirror, an asset other riders did not have. Only two riders passed me, one of which was the race leader and eventual winner, Steve. He went by so fast I figured it couldn't have been one of the guys I was with. I asked him if I was being lapped, but there was no reply. The other rider who passed me was Ethan Suttner. He managed to create a gap that I wasn't able to close. I had decided to go all out on the last lap and was saving some energy for that, but it didn't happen. Since I was lapped, I did one lap less than everyone in front of me except Ethan, who was also lapped. Oh well, better be faster next time.

At the very end Jeremy Gardner, race organizer and second overall, was about to lap me, but I made sure to put in one last kick to avoid that. Mission accomplished, I didn't finish last, far from it. I ended up in 12th place and was very happy. I was also happy for Ben, who finished 5th.

What I liked so much about the event was the interaction with the bystanders. That sweet sound of cowbell made the day. Ernie was also rooting a lot for me, and that made me want to keep on pushing.

Thanks to Jeremy Gardner, Marcia Swan, Glenn Swan, Mark Rishniw, Sara Barker, and all others involved in putting on this special event. As for cyclocross, I'll be in more events in the future. Thanks to Andy Goodell, I can share the pictures below.

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Tour de Shunk 2009

Last year the Tour de Shunk was scheduled the day after the STAP Ride for Life in Ithaca, during which I crashed for the first time, face first on the pavement. I managed to finish the century, probably hurt my chances in an interview for McKinsey with a chin oozing fluids, but got back to riding in a week or so. This year I had my sights on the Shunk for a while and I was not disappointed. The company was great, the weather was nearly perfect and food was awesome. As far as the route goes, certainly not as tough as D2R2, but a good challenge for most people.

Ben Kraft and Olivia Diamond (aka mean Bilenky tandem team) and I got a ride with Steve Powell. The tandem fit nicely in his SUV and the other bikes went on a rack. We left Ithaca shortly after 6am, arriving at Rocky's Bicycle Shop at about 7:50am. The cold was felt immediately, as the temperatures were hovering 40F. I failed to follow my own advice and did not bring arm warmers or tights along. Luckily I did bring a regular street jacket. Ben had an extra bungee and my bike was equipped with a front rack. So my troubles were solved. I would ride in the jacket till it got warm enough, then I would strap the jacket to the rack with the bungee. Of us all, Olivia was the one suffering the most with the cold. We were all eager to start moving.

Registration went smoothly, only $30 on the day of the event. For that amount we were fed at the 25, 45 and 70 mile marks and served a spaghetti dinner at the end of the ride. In addition, we could sign-up for a massage. The coveted massage lasted about 15 min and was administered by two massage therapists. Upon completing registration, we meet several other FLCCers, including John Dennis, Dan Barbasch, Gary Hodges and Stewart Wolsh. Ithaca was the city with most participants, 12 of the 203 cyclists.

Steve, Ben, Olivia and I decided to leave before the official start scheduled for 9am. The first 13 miles or so, with a total of 19 rollers (I am told), were familiar to me from the PA "Endless Mountains" 1000K. I made sure to notice the skunks painted on the pavement, indicating turns for the ride, and to be on the lookout for horses. Visibility was severly limited by the ubiquitous fog. We rode together at a moderate pace and passed a few other cyclists along the way. Picking the right speed was tricky. Ride too fast and the wind chill would make your fingers really get cold. Ride too slow and you didn't warm up at all.

As if by spell the fog started to disappear and patches of blue were seen in the sky. It would be a beautiful day. I remembered the song "Blue Skies" written by Irving Berlin, in particular as sung by Ella Fitzgerald. I could recall the tune, but not the lyrics, as is always the case with me. So I proceeded to hum along.

At the beginning of the first extended climb we were passed by a large group of cyclists in a paceline. I had stopped to take off the jacket, which was now strapped to my front rack. At this point Ben, Olivia and I separated from Steve. I was told sometime ago that tandems were fast on flats and slow on climbs. Not true for the tandem captained by Ben. I was happy to follow the pace. Along the way up the hill we passed a few cyclists. On the descent I tucked in behind the tandem and took advantage of all the draft I could get, making sure no other rider sneaked in front of me, robbing me of the awesome downhill advantage.

We had reached the 25 mile mark and the first snack stop. I still had plenty of water in my Camelbak, so I just drank some Gatorade and ate a couple of oatmeal raisin cookies. They were bite-size and delicious. At the stop we met up with Stewart along with a few Big Horn Velo riders out of Elmira. We left together just as Steve arrived at the stop.

The next 25 miles were a blur. We were moving swiftly on a downhill section followed by a flat stretch. I did not see much. Before I knew it we hit the 45 mile mark. Ben, Olivia and I decided to split from the rest of the group to enjoy more of the scenery. Riding in the paceline required attention that could not be devoted to the surroundings.

We allowed ourselves plenty of time to eat and relax in the sun. At this stop we saw several of our cycling friends come and go. Among them Blaine Chamberlain, Dan Barbasch, John Dennis and Jim Millar. I even enamored the idea of taking a nap. We left shortly after Steve caught up to us.

For a few miles after the stop we did not encounter a single cyclist. A rider behind us came close and then disappeared. I began to worry that we may have missed a turn. I looked desperately for the painted skunks and to my relief one was seen at a sharp right turn that led to a long ramp of a climb. Just as we turned a large group of cyclists encroached upon us. Our competitive side began to surface! At first I kept my pace and that was sufficient to distance myself from most of the riders that had started the climb at a higher pace than they could sustain. But a few of those riders were now climbing with us. Ben and Olivia were just ahead of me. Then a rider passed us, huffing and puffing as if in distress. I couldn't resist. It was a joy to accelerate on my steel frame with fenders and rack, passing the nice carbon frame next to me and watching it get farther away in my helmet-mounted rear-view mirror as I approached the summit. In the name of fenders!

One of the cyclists joined us for the downhill and ensuing rather flat section until the 70 mile mark. Along the way we passed many more painted skunks on the road and followed a creek for a few miles as well. I was getting a little hungry, so the stop was welcome. I drank some soda and had a few cookies along with a banana. At this point I had the spaghetti dinner in my thoughts, so I did not want to eat too much. This stop, as well as the others, was run by volunteers. Because of their continued dedication over the years, the ride has been very successful. In its current running, the 200 rider mark was surpassed and $6,200 was raised for the Lance Armstrong Foundation.

Perhaps the most unpleasant part of the ride was between miles 70 and 85. It was mostly on a rather busy road with high speed traffic. Both the tandem and I were eager to get off the busy road, so we worked together and moved efficiently along, passing several riders before we made a right turn that lead us towards the initial section of rollers where we began our ride.

The tandem, smelling the barn, imposed a furious pace. I followed with some difficulty and took advantage of draft whenever possible. We raced up the rollers before plunging down the other side. Other cyclists seemed to be immobile as we zipped by them. On the final turn we caught up with a large group that had stopped alongside the road. A few moments later I noticed we were being chased. I told Ben to go for the sprint and we successfully avoided the catch. Of course this was no race, but we did amuse ourselves.

I made the entrance into Rocky's with a hiss coming from my rear wheel. A piece of glass was stuck in my tire. Even the flat was perfectly timed. No need for a repair until the next ride.

After taking our bikes to the car we enjoyed the homemade spaghetti and sauce, along with two types of salad. Delicious. I didn't get my massage, but we topped the day off with a stop at Purity in Ithaca for ice cream.

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Sunday, September 13, 2009

FLCC Halsey Valley-Waverly-Spencer Ride

After my plan to take part in the epic Highlander on Saturday went down the drain because of the relatively high fee and iffy weather, I was looking forward to the FLCC ride. This was my first time on the Halsey Valley-Waverly-Spencer ride, which only had 5 cues, all right turns. Hard to make a mistake, right? I did!

Ben, Olivia and I decided to ride out of Ithaca instead of starting in Spencer. A 8am start would allow for plenty of time to reach Spencer for the official 10am start. Maybe because I have done so many brevets this year, I have become somewhat of a cue-sheet anarchist and haven't taken them on many of the recent club rides. It adds a little adventure to the ride. Besides, with only 5 cues it shouldn't be that hard to remember the route.

Ben had proposed a route that would take us along some very nice back roads on the way to Spencer. The morning was cool and sunny, perfect weather for cycling. Time went by quickly and conversation was very pleasant, interrupted by the occasional downhill. Ben and Olivia make a great tandem team. It was nearly impossible for me to keep up whenever the front of our bikes was pointing down. Uphill the story wasn't too different either. Along the way we stopped to pick some pears and take pictures of a few farm animals. Fall foliage is starting to appear and that was duly noted. It was about 9:30am when we arrived in Spencer. But, where is the start after all?

None of us knew. I somehow had the name "Lake Rd" in my head. We rode around a bit, but no Lake Rd was seen. Fortunately Olivia was able to use her iphone to access the calendar on the FLCC website. The name of the road we wanted to find was Water St. I entered a cafe and got the directions. Once we arrived at the rendezvous point FLCCers Mike Richter, Steve Powell and new addition Mike, a graduate student in the Applied Economics masters program at Cornell, were getting ready to ride. It would be six of us. Steve proposed to make a small detour to Sayre, PA to enjoy a meal at the Banana Curve Diner. I smiled. After applying a generous amount of sunscreen we left shortly after 10am.

The first 13 miles of the ride were very pleasant. Halsey Valley Rd is gently rolling with not much traffic. I noticed a sign that read "Change by Obama" on one side and on the other it cited unemployment rates from July and August, showing an increase of 0.3%. I am not sure the objective was to point out the difference between the two months (since we are speaking of change) or the elevated unemployment rate overall. I checked the numbers with those issued by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and they are correct. It seems that the intention of whoever put the sign up is to single out Obama. Very misleading... But after a week during which a congressman called the president a liar while he was addressing the house and senate and so much turmoil was created around a speech to children, this does not surprise me. Back to cycling...

The tandem was surely responsible for lifting the pace by a few mph and I was pretty concerned to see 24-25mph on my odometer more often then not. We were moving pretty quickly. But now it was time to turn onto 17C, a busy road with not much to offer in terms of scenery. This road was familiar somehow. It then occurred to me that I had ridden the same road on the second day of the PA 1000K in late June. My suspicions were confirmed when I spotted "Bare Facts," a strip club on the opposite side of the road. Like the day I rode by the first time, it was closed.

Shortly after we passed "Bare Facts," it was time to split. Steve, Ben, Olivia, the new Mike and I were interested in the diner stop. Sam and the old Mike had commitments in the afternoon and needed to return to Ithaca.

The Banana Curve diner reminded me of a function that is often used to test optimization algorithms, the Rosenbrock function: f(x, y) = (1-x)^2 + 100(y-x^2)^2, also known as the banana function because of the shape it resembles. Somehow I think it is unlikely that optimization or the Rosenbrock function was an inspiration for the diner. In any case, most customers at the Banana Curve diner were suspicious of our presence. It was a very conservative setting, with a flare of flags and plaques reminding us of God and slightly xenophobic statements. I was interested in the food, and it wasn't all that great. But this opinion is somewhat influenced by the setting.

Upon leaving the diner we resumed our ride on SR 34 heading north. Within the first mile a driver yelled something offensive at me. Initially I thought he was calling my name, but everyone else was pretty sure he was not. Coincidence or not, this was the same spot where an FLCCer (Don) was almost run over less than a month ago.

Out of no apparent reason, the tandem accelerated. The new Mike jumped on the wheel. I wasn't in the mood for intense efforts while my cheese & broccoli omelet was still sitting in my stomach. Steve and I rode together for a while. But now I could no longer see the tandem. OK, I guess I should chase. Since there wasn't much around worthy of looking at and the wind was blowing pretty fiercely, I put my head down and raised the tempo. After a while I passed Mike and eventually caught up to Ben and Olivia. Then we kept taking turns in the wind, missing our right turn. A couple of miles down the road we realized the turn was taking longer than expected to appear. So we backtracked and noticed that the road was labeled "Dean Creek" and we were expecting "Dean Hill." Close enough.

It took us a while to catch up with Steve and Mike. Both of them were surprised to see us behind them. The morning blue sky had been replaced by thick cloud cover. Rain seemed likely. We rode together for a few miles before arriving in Spencer, the end of the ride for Steve and Mike. Ben, Olivia and I started our last leg to Ithaca. Ben once again had picked out some nice dirt roads on the way back.

We started with East Hill Rd, where we saw a few alpacas and a horse as well. This was followed by Hart Rd, on which we experienced a high speed descent on gravel. Nothing that our tires couldn't handle. After turning onto Danby Rd we began to discuss which road would be best for our last leg. Ben was inclined to take Durfee Hill Rd, but Olivia seemed a bit reluctant. I was neutral. In the end Ben threw in some household choirs in the negotiation. Olivia was convinced.

Durfee Hill initially seems innocuous. But soon the road becomes narrower, more technical and very steep. The climb lasts for quite a while and a misshift to a higher gear in the steepest section complicated things a bit. We made it to the top together, enjoying the remaining miles on our way back to Ithaca with an enhanced sense of accomplishment. I like Durfee.

Ben and I felt this route could be improved by including more back roads, avoiding long stretches on 17C and 34. This will likely add some hills, but on the other hand we spent most of the time on the flat busy roads battling the wind.

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Sunday, September 6, 2009

FLCC Newark Valley - Maine ride

The weather in Ithaca has been spectacular in the past few days, a great excuse to get on the bicycle and ride. Today a 72 mile loop was on the calendar, taking us through Speedsville, then south of Weltonville onto SR38 up to Newark Valley. In Newark Valley the group split and those of us longing for more miles continued on Rock St to Maine, heading north to intercept SR38 once again, this time in Berkshire. Glen Rd took us back to Speedsville and familiar surroundings. The mileage was just right, the weather was just right and the company was just right.

This morning I woke up at 8am, with plenty of time to prepare for the 9am start. However, somewhat exhilarated by the 3-1 victory of the Brazilian soccer team over Argentina (in Argentina) of the previous night, I totally forgot about the FLCC ride. With yesterday's win, Brazil is officially qualified for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and continues to be the only nation to have played in all World Cups, starting in 1930. I better not start talking about soccer. In any case, I woke up to turn the alarm clock off, puzzled by why it was even on, and went straight back to bed. At 9:06am I jumped off my bed and realized that I actually had a ride to go to, and that I was already way too late. For a moment I debated on driving to Speedsville for the shorter version of the ride, but in the end I got out of the door as quick as I could and began to chase. This was not my idea of starting a leisurely Sunday ride.

I left on an empty stomach and was not warmed up at all for the effort I was putting out. While on SR79 I debated on whether it might be faster to continue straight instead of taking a right turn onto Brooktondale Rd. I decided to stick with the cue-sheet. However, I was already going up Old 76 and hadn't seen a single FLCCer. I was hoping to catch everybody before reaching Speedsville. For a moment I was frustrated. I had ridden past the start at 9:16am, and I assumed that most had left no earlier than 9:05am. Maybe even later if Gary was there. On the other hand, the same Gary usually takes off pretty quick once the ride begins. There were no major climbs, so the group would remain pretty cohesive. Just as I passed Caroline Center I saw a cyclist around the curve. A strangler! I was filled with hope. I approached whom I believe was Anne Shapiro. I inquired about the rest of the group and to my dismay she said nobody had passed her, and that she was expecting it to happen at any moment. I was perplexed. Had the group taken a different route? After a couple of minutes riding with Anne, I saw a contingent of riders in my rear-view mirror. I had gotten ahead of the group! They decided to take Ellis Hollow to avoid riding on SR79. Whew! I was happy to be part of the ride. It was a smaller group than I would have expected on such a beautiful day, comprised of Stewart Wolsh, Sam Kolins, Eileen Penner, Ruth Sherman, Wayne Gottlieb, Mike Richter, Jim (yellow jersey and old-school Camelbak) and Eric from Waverly, whom I had seen for the first time on a FLCC ride.

We soon were in Speedsville, where we met another first-timer, whose name I did not catch. She was not quite ready to roll, so some of us decided to stop at the nearby gas station to use the bathroom. While there I also bought some Gatorade and an ice cream cone for breakfast. By the time I got back on my bike it became apparent that I would not be able to negotiate a few extra minutes to eat my ice cream. Eating ice cream while you are trying to chase is not very pleasant. I ate as quickly as possible and Mike helped me catch up to the rest of the group. By the time I was settled in the pace line I thought it would be a great opportunity to take a picture. I pulled my camera out of my jersey pocket and turned it on. The lens didn't budge. Oh, silly me I thought. It was in "view" mode. I selected "camera" mode and turned it on again. The lens didn't budge. Oh no! It occurred to me that I had removed the battery to charge the night before and forgot to put it back in the camera. I asked the other riders if any of them had a camera. Unfortunately not. This is why the ride report has no pictures, so you will just have to rely on my lack of adjectives to express how beautiful it was.

Eric was off the front for a good portion of the time we spent heading south on W Creek Rd. I later learned that he was attempting to ride without ingesting carbs, to force his body to use reserves. I spoke to Eric about randonneuring and riding 220+ miles on consecutive days with 3h of sleep. I thought about BHVers Bill Fischer, John Fessenden, Mark Sheehan and also Blaine Chamberlain, who at this point were hopefully enjoying some sleep after their 24h Fake Fleche in and out of Pennsylvania. I had planned to join them, but canceled my participation an hour or so prior to the start.

Left turn on Blodgett Rd. We had reached the southernmost point of the ride. I was talking to Mike when suddenly the water bottle of our addition in Speedsville came loose and hit the pavement. Mike barely dodged the fallen water bottle with his front wheel, the rear wheel having less luck. I observed as his rear wheel went over the water bottle and the cap flew off. Fortunately Mike didn't loose control and nobody was injured. Loose water bottles can be a hazard. After the water bottle was collected we resumed the ride on 38 towards Newark Valley.

Once we reached Newark Valley Ruth, Jim, Wayne and the Speedsville addition decided to cut the ride short by remaining on SR38. They missed the best part of the ride. While some of us visited a gas station for fluids, Stewart rode up Rock St to find a pee spot. Sam did the same later. Eileen then commented about how male riders are careful when in the presence of women. I then plugged-in an advertisement for "Go Girl," a female urination device that allows women to pee standing up without any special skills. I have witnessed some women who can urinate in an upright stance with more precision than most men, but I will not get into that. You can read more about this extraordinarily simple, yet wonderful device here.

We were on the lookout for Sam as we rode up Rock St. "Sam, where are you?," could be heard as we climbed. Finally we spotted his bike and immediately thereafter Sam popped out of the bushes. Rock St continued gently up and then rewarded us with a long and fun descent. Steward rated this road among his top ten in NY. A great addition to the FLCC calendar.

The ride resumed along Tiona Rd after a brief stretch on SR26. The scenery was quite breathtaking. Pavement was in good condition and the rolling terrain provided quality exercise. The group split a bit, with Mike and I hanging a little further back. The beauty of the landscape contrasted with the not-so-beautiful properties and a junkyard along the way. With the rest of the group moving out of sight, I decided to chase. A few rollers later I joined them until we reached our first and only cue-sheet issue. The cue-sheet had us going on Tiona Rd, which becomes Kechumville Rd and then Barnes Rd. However, Kechumville Rd does not really become Barnes. Barnes is a seasonal road with a steep descent on gravel. The main road (Kechumville) bends right where Barnes begins. I was looking forward to some dirt, but decided to not voice my opinion too strongly, as most in the group were on 23's. In the end Barnes won and it was a fun descent. I did hit the brakes briefly as it got pretty bumpy, but otherwise I let the Sam Hillborne roll freely. We regrouped a mile later and proceeded on Hartwell and Turkey Hill Rd into Berkshire.

In Berkshire Sam manifested his discontent for missing the local Chicken BBQ and Bake Sale, which took place yesterday. Funds were donated to the Ruppert family. Maybe our president David Ruppert knows something about this. We all left Birkshire longing for BBQ Chicken, or at least I did. Berkshire Rd brought us over the ridge and back to SR38, where we then took Glen Rd into Speedsville. In Speedsville we stopped again. The "man with the hammer" was hovering around Eric. French cartoonist René Pellarin, under the pseudonym Pellos, depicts this man in the cartoon below magnificently. More about him and some of his cartoons can be found here.

Cartoon by Pellos

The man with the hammer did not bother any of us and we made it to EHP at about 3pm. Stewart would still ride 22 miles before reaching the comfort of his home tallying 116 miles for the day. For all of us this was the first time on the Newark Valley - Main ride. A new addition or not, this ride is a great FLCC event.
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