Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Truth in Time Trials

It's been a few days since the Nebraska State Time Trial Championships, hosted by Team Velo Veloce.

I've heard it said that a cycling time trial is a race of truth. There is no peleton to hide among and conserve energy, and drafting isn't allowed. No, it's been said that the truth comes in how much suffering you can manage while racing against the clock.

Given that, I question how truthful time trials really are. There are lots of additional variables that enter the equation, including the fit on your bike, your bike's style (aero/road)and its wheel set. Other advantages include skin suits and TT helmets. And let's not forget the chamois ointments and sports creams.

Allow me to digress on the use of chamois butters and sports creams. Not too long ago, cyclists used real leather chamois in their shorts to provide a moisture absorbing layer to aide in saddle comfort. But after awhile, the chamois would become hardened. Ointments like bag balm were applied to help soften/condition the leather.

Later, synthetic chamois were developed. The synthetics advantage was that they didn't dry up and stiffen over time. They were also cheaper and could be marketed in AS SEEN ON TV spots.
Yet despite the popularity of synthetic chamois, cyclists still have found it difficult to part with these beloved ointment and creams. Many say that they provide a degree of protection against grimy (sweat) that contributes to saddle sores and chafing. While this information is valuable to any cyclists, it is of particular importance to the time trialer, who's spending the majority of time rocking back and forth on the nub horn of the saddle. The post-race suffering one can endure by failing to abide by this last point can be significant.

Now please note that these ointments are not to be confused with the icy/hot types of sports creams (think of a cycling-specific version of Ben-Gay with a 500% markup that is sold exclusively at your LBS). While the icy/hots have a legitimate place in cycling, you don't want to apply those down there. You know what I mean. But apparently during cold and wet conditions, icy/hots are applied to retain heat on the legs from calf to the upper vicinity -- but not too close! -- of the nether regions. Don't worry. If it's applied too liberally, you won't ever make that mistake again. Now I would never have guessed how popular the icy/hots were until I saw a a group of cyclists dipping their grimy hands into a communal jar at the Norfolk Classic race weekend. It was like, hey friend, that's some good stuff... and hey what's that on your lip... no worries... got any Chapstick you can also lend a buddy?"

Till date, I haven't used any of these sport creams or chamois butters. But if I do, I'll forgo all of these products for a simple jar of Noxzema. Noxzema has a solid reputation of efficacy. Take Ignatius Reilly, who had "several accessories which he had once used, a rubber glove, a piece of fabric from a silk umbrella, a jar of Noxzema" (Confederacy of Dunces, 46). Granted, Ignatius applied his practice with a different objective in mind (visions of his pet border collie, Rex), but the spirit of it all is still the same: lubrication.
Can lubrication make a difference in a time trial performance? The truth: not a chance.

I've come to realize that no matter how much training and Noxzema is applied, lacking aero equipment puts you at a significant disadvantage in a time trial. Among elites and pros, the equipment difference are often trivial, because they get all of the good stuff from their sponsors. Sometimes that includes a set of Mavic R-Sys wheels that can explode (allegedly) like a trick cigar. But for the most part, pro riders' equipment is neutralized.

On occasion, however, the advantages of using aero equipment over standard among the pros is obvious.

Take this year's final time trial at the Giro. On a short (15K) course through the eternal city, challenger Danilo "The Killer" di Luca used a standard road bike in his attempt to overtake overall General Classification leader Denis Menchov, who was riding a time trial bike. In a word: FAIL. I don't get it. The Killer was already 20 seconds in the hole before the TT even started AND going against the Giro's previous time trial winner. Yet despite a dramatic crash within sight of the finish line, Menchov crushed di Luca's hopes and sewed up the Giro victory by padding an additional 20 seconds to the overall time. Apparently, you can lay your TT bike down and still comfortably win a major tour against a roadie.

If it makes a difference in the pros, imagine the disparity among amateurs.

You don't need to imagine. I'm going to tell you.

In the cat5 field, I rode a TT bike and won the category by over six minutes. The rider in second place was on a standard road bike.

Among the cat4s, my effort would have been good for fourth place. In this category, those lower than fourth were mostly on standard road bikes.

Among the cat 1-2-3s, I don't believe that there wasn't a rider in the top twelve who used a standard road bike. Most in this group had very nice TT bikes, helmets, skin suits and the like. Moreover, the riders who finished in the bottom of this category are stronger riders than I am despite the fact their times were over two minutes slower.

From this point of view, the truth in time trialing is relative; equipment is a great equalizer.

Perhaps among amateurs, time trial races could offer an Eddie Merckx category, where no perceived advantages* are allowed. That way, those who don't have the luxury of a dedicated TT bike with expensive aero components can have a more truthful comparison against similar peers.

With the allowance of a few precious exceptions, that seems fair to me.
*EXCEPTIONS: Noxzema, rubber gloves, and a swatch of fabric from an old umbrella.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

A Call to Prudence

As my previous WSCG blog suggests, I am now officially a cat5 bicycle racer.

As a bicycle racer, one is required to purchase a license from the United States Cycling Organization. You can buy a single day license for $10, or an annual license for $60. Since I'm now gulping the cycling Kool-Aid faster than it can be mixed, I opted for the annual license.

At $60, the whole license thing might seem a bit hokey to the outsider. The benefits include: 1) Ranking among 60,000+ amateur cyclists, 2) Discounts such as 10% hotel fees and magazines, and 3) Accident insurance. The latter is really the only thing that matters. Still, the marketing wizards do their best to assuage the insurance hating people that they're getting something useful (beyond insurance that they appreciate after wrecking) for their hard-earned bacon. I don't have any problems with bartering my bacon for the potential of paying medical bills. Cycling is a risky sport. I just wish they would call it accident insurance rather than the flimsy attempt to mask it with benefits I can find in the value-saver junk mail.

It's actually funny to imagine being ranked fairly among 60,000 people across different states, regions, etc. Can you imagine the BCS ranking 60k football teams? Take heart Boise State, I bet I am currently ranked 60,001 of 60,001. Helloooooooo up there!

The evening before amounted to preparing for the race: a once-over on Old Yeller, tweeting friends for a spare 9 speed wheel set to go in the wheel-truck (fail), packing and watching Conan on the Tonight Show, then the Family Guy, then Sienfeld. As I put my head on my two snow white pillows, I drifted off to sleep strategically planning how I would win the race the following morning. I was out in about 15 seconds.

The thunder and lightening served as an alarm clock at 5:30 AM. It was raining buckets as I loaded the car with Old Yeller and cycling gear for the short drive over to carpool with fellow cyclist Mike Miles (cat4). With the gloomy weather conditions, it was going to be an interesting day for a first road race among cat 5'rs.

On the way out, I asked Mike about cat5 racing strategy. He said that the best way to win the race was to sit in the pack about four deep from the front, so as to be ahead of the squirrels and to be ready to mark a potential threat that attacks from the group. That's the exact same advice that Shim (cat3) offered during a recent UP lunch ride. Both said that there would always be some yahoo who thought he was the stronger than the pack and would would launch several attacks before being swallowed back up by the group. Most cat5 races, they contended, ended in a sprint finish from the pack.

But when I got to the race, Chris Spence (cat3), gave me the green light to attack right from the beginning and TT all 32 miles to victory. Bryan Redemske (cat3) affirmed this vote of confidence.

Ultimately, I decided to sit in with the group and reassess at the halfway point of the single loop 32 mi course.

There were about 25 cat5 racers at the starting line. It was 48 F degrees and raining. I was shivering. It felt like November. I would've been at home if I hadn't become the 60,001 amateur cyclist the night before. But I was a committed foot-solder now.

There was a neutral rolling start for about a mile before the race officially started. From there, I sat in for about twenty minutes before losing patience. We were going about 16 mph on a false-flat with a slight crosswind. At this rate, it'd be two hours before we'd cross the finish line. I was getting antsy and decided that it was time to become that yahoo that Miles and Shim had forewarned about. Plan shifted here from assess to attack.

At the next hill, I dropped the hammer on the group and opened up a huge gap. Like outta sight, man. I continued pounding on the rolling hills through the next five miles of the road.

But after being away for about 15 minutes, I could see that the pack was closing in on me. With 16 miles to go, I sat up and let the pack catch me.

My efforts shed the group to 12 riders. A few in the pack were complimentary on the attack and my ability to stay away for as long as I did. Somebody suggested that I should add insult to injury by putting Huffy stickers on my plain powder-coated yellow frame. Huffy? No, I prefer to let people think that I stole the bike from Portland.

So I sat in with the group on my stolen bicycle with no name and let things get really comfortable. My heart rate plummeted to about 120 as we tried to organize a pace line. There was lots of talking. It was not unlike being on an easy peddling Shommer Shabbos+1 ride after a hard workout the previous day. If a Crane's Coffee shop was in sight, I do believe the group would have temporarily abandoned (possibly quit) the race for some 'joe.

Ultimately, I started getting cold again and prepared to yodel on the way to the top of the next climb.

When the time arrived, a Clydesdale in front and two flankers must have guessed my strategy as they boxed me in. I'd feign right: blocked; then left: the same. The big gun in front of me was practically standing while grinding out a measly 10 mph up the hill. With no other option but to go backwards, I slowed to 8mph to let them pass and then wiggled through for my escape.

This time somebody latched onto my wheel. This was a good because the two of us could work together to stay away. But after two pulls, my fellow protagonist fell off.

From there, I gave it my best time trial, but the pack closed once more about two miles from the finish. I sat up and positioned myself third in the group the pending sprint to the finish.

With 1K left to go, someone I never saw in the previous 31 miles came charging out of the pack and was pulling the Clydesdale with him. Oh, the irony. I jumped on their wheels. And then, another attacker came from the left. That's when my left calf muscle cramped. Game over. I coasted into fourth place.

The Clydesdale won.


While there are lots of skills required to win a road race -- sprinting speed, strength, bike handling, strategy -- I've learned that the most important skill in a cat5 race is practicing patience.

For example, it took a tremendous amount of patience to pin the bib on the back of my kit even before the race started. I spent about ten minutes doing that while pre-race jitters would have had me pee. It was agony. The actual cat5 race itself requires being prudent until you can see the whites of the officials' eyes. That's the demarcation between where the 31.8 mile neutral roll out ends and a cat5 race really begins.

In the end, it really doesn't matter if you're out of shape or as strong as an ox. I'd be willing to bet that you could even polish off a six pack of Schlitz the night before and roll up to the starting line with confidence knowing that despite your troubles to pin your bib to the jersey, you still have nearly 32 miles before you're required to get bright.

Tons of fun. Glad I did it. Congratulations to the victors and to all who competed.

Friday, June 5, 2009

License Upgrade

My days sniping as a category 6 cyclist have come to an end. The upgrade papers, fresh off of my laser-jet printer, have officially welcomed me, and warmly I might add, into the rapidly growing sport of competitive cycling's 60,000+ members as licensed cat 5 rider #297434.

I know what you're thinking. And the answer is YES to getting #297434 tattooed on the back of my freshly shorn calf.

It's true. I've just committed $60 (greenbacks as they used to say) for an annual road/cross racing license, as well as another $25 to ride Old Yeller with, against, under, over and through -- if necessary -- other fellow cat 5'rs in the Norfolk Classic Road tomorrow morning.

Oh boy, I can't wait.

I may have to drink an extra glass of warm milk to help me sleep tonight.