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Product review: 2016 BMC Team Machine SLR01 – Part 1: Build

When you increase the level of game play, things start to happen to you because you’re more engaged in the world.  Sometimes they are good, sometimes they are bad.  But it’s all subjective and really, you shouldn’t be shaken up too much about it, because, after all, it’s all relative.

The bike-building drama (yes there is such a thing) I experienced this year was quite, interesting.  A broken BMC mid-season gave way to reviving a beloved, steel dinosaur which eventually broke.  Replacing it meant building and riding a Bianchi Sempre Pro borrowed, then bought from a good and gracious friend in the local cycling community.  And after a month without a halo bike to ride, BMC finally resolved it by standing by their products and sent me a replacement frame before anyone else had one.  Even the pro team didn’t have it in their hands yet.

I later discovered, it’s one thing to have the frame, and another to actually build it into something rideable without breaking.

The build and the drama

I started tinkering with the bike for a few days before the major job was to start, just so I could prepare myself with the task.  I knew it was going to be a challenge because of the new technology and standards, of which, I had little experience – BB86 instead of Italian threaded cartridge bottom bracket, integrated headset instead of the traditional cups, new electronic shifting components.

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Wiring harness fed through before bottom bracket install.
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Wiring fed through to battery installed on seatpost.
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Front derailleur hookup.
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Charging and control unit.
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Easier than dealing with shift cables.
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The dreaded brake cable still  needed to be fed internally.  Thank goodness for pre-installed guides!

The Bianchi was a dress rehearsal as the BMC frame too had internal cable routing.  But miraculously, that was the most fun and easy part of assembling the bicycle.  Everything else, not so much.

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Trying to press fit the bottom bracket.
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The aftermath of a poorly installed bottom bracket.  It broke.

I must say – I despise pressfit bottom bracket systems – with a passion, as you can see in the picture.  They are the most troublesome and expensive standard.  They wear out, creak and are immensely difficult to install – for an amateur mechanic.  The act of installing the bottom bracket should have been easy.  It wasn’t.  First, it took me 30 minutes to figure out how to use the pressing tool.  Then, when I finally figured it out, I destroyed the Shimano bottom bracket because it didn’t align properly.  Basically, if you have this bottom bracket with your group, throw it out because it’s plastic and it’s garbage.  That’s Shimano trying to skimp on one of the most important components on a bike.

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Wheels Manufacturing bottom bracket.

Instead, I got upgraded to a Wheels Manufacturing aluminum anodized BB86, thanks to after-hours service from LL Bean by Matt.  I was able to drop-off the bike in the early evening then come back later that night after the work was done.  And I was on a deadline to give it its maiden voyage on my Monday night club ride.  By the way, this was during Labor Day weekend.

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Completed in the wee hours of the night!
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The crank slipped off the spindle attached to my foot, dragging it on the ground.

The fixing bolt for the crank was also plastic.  And it didn’t work, as I found out.  Because when I did get to ride the bike on Labor Day Monday, it too failed and left me stranded.  (It’s a good thing I have friends to bail me out.)  So I ordered the Dura Ace version, an aluminum part that actually held the torque.  I later learned that part of the failure was due to using a too thick spacer that was included in the bottom bracket assembly, reducing the amount of clamping purchase for the left crank.

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Crank was positioned too far outward.

The Lessons

After all the kinks in the build had been eliminated, the bike rode perfectly, though there were times when I soft-pedaled, anticipating the crankarm to fly off the spindle again.

“Too much power…”

…I insisted.

In retrospect, with each of the five builds that I’ve gone through since the 1990’s, I’ve accumulated wisdom and lessons learned.

Lesson 1:  “Don’t skimp on tools and assembly.”

Lesson 2:  “Let the professionals build your bike.”

Lesson 3:  “You rarely get it right the first time.”

If I had followed the second lesson first, I wouldn’t have to learn the third lesson on bike-building.  Nor would I have known more about the components that made up the modern bicycle.  Nor could I impress myself and my friends that I was more than just a racer.

Stay tuned for part two – The Ride Review.

The Specs

Frame – 2016 BMC Team Machine SLR 01 (58cm);

Cockpit – Shimano PRO Vibe 7S (44cm) handlebar, PRO Vibe UD Carbon (130mm) stem, Cinelli white cork handlebar tape.  Stiff and light and for the traditionalist in me;

Components – Shimano Ultegra 11speed, Di2, (53×39, 175mm, 11t-28t);

Pedals – LOOK Keo2 Blade CroMo, 12nm;

Saddle – Selle Italia Flite Kit Carbonio, 143mm, 165 grams;

Wheels – 2014 Reynolds Assault SLG, clincher;

Tires – Vittoria Corsa SR & CX (24mm front, 25mm rear);

Bottle cages – Reynolds carbon.

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It’s been a long season.

We’re finally at the end of the season.  It ended last week.

But before I go ahead and stop training and eat a crapton of fatty foods (i.e. poutine) and drinking beer because I’ve been depriving myself of indulging in the taste of the day, there’s next year to think about.  What better way to think about next year but to review the past couple of months.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted on this blog, because I’ve been training and racing with my team, Tall Sock Racing.  We’ve had some epic rides and races lately.  We rode the Loon Echo Trek and did a team camp at Rangeley.  I also completed the Cadillac Century for the first time since my first attempt back in 2007.  I completed the metric and didn’t get to go up the mountain due to lack of fitness.  What a stark contrast that was from this year.

Bobby, Todd and myself doing our job to eat goodies.
Bobby, Todd and myself doing our job to eat goodies. (Loon Echo  Trek)
Evan's Notch climb.
Evan’s Notch climb.  (Loon Echo Trek)
Reached Evans Notch on my new bike.
Reached Evans Notch on my new bike. (Loon Echo Trek)
The best goodies of the ride.
The best goodies of the ride.  (Loon Echo Trek)
Majestic Rangeley.
Majestic Rangeley.
Team camp nerding out.
Team camp in Rangeley.
Taking in the view at the top.
Taking in the view at the top.
Yeah. Rangeley.
Yeah. Rangeley.
Obligatory selfie.
Obligatory selfie.
...many, many bikes.
…many, many bikes.
Immaculate view.
Immaculate view.
Bonjour, Monsieur Poulin!
Bonjour, Monsieur Poulin!
Woke up to this the morning of the Cadillac Century.
Woke up to this the morning of the Cadillac Century.
I'm home to roads like this.
I’m home to roads like this.
At the Seawall.
At the Seawall.
Park Loop Road before the climb.
Park Loop Road before the climb.
Rewarded at the top of Cadillac Mountain.
Rewarded at the top of Cadillac Mountain.
After the descent.
After the descent.
This is what you eat after a century - Maine style.
This is what you eat after riding 100 miles – Maine style.

The last two races we completed were the Maine Apple Classic in Vasselboro and just recently, Jamestown Classic in Rhode Island.

Maine Apple Classic

Maine Apple Classic.
The team at the Maine Apple Classic.

One gentleman commented when he saw our team, seven of us hanging out at the registration area, in our matching red kits,

“You guys are like a [professional] tour team.”

Well, that inflated our egos somewhat.  But that only gave others a signal that we’re a tight team.  And it showed in the race.  We were together from the beginning, riding with each other in a tightly-knit formation.  It was an amazing sight to see a sea of red in the peloton.  The course was undulating and a bit short.  I was nearly shelled off the back a couple of times because of the notorious end-of season fatigue but caught back up riding at threshold.  It was two laps on an eleven mile circuit with one major climb each lap.  It was “Purgatory-lite” because the pace was fast and unrelenting (but no souls were depleted), especially on the short, punchy climbs.  I made it a point to stick with Chris and Kent as they were the closest to the front most of the race.  But somewhere along the way, I lost concentration and drifted back a couple of positions.

No points were awarded because it wasn’t a USAC sanctioned event.  However, up for grabs were a bag full of apples and bragging rights.  The finish was a bunch sprint for those who survived.  Chris Poulin just missed the podium finishing fourth.  Do note that beyond the top three places, the results recorded for our team were all wrong.  We probably confused the officials because there were so many of us.

Jamestown Classic

Jamestown Classic on the other hand was a different story.  A few of us headed down a day early for a mini-vacation in Rhode Island and to pre-ride the course.  Needless to say, it was absolutely perfect, until I got a bit of a chill with the gusts of ocean winds on the recce.  Heading down early made a big difference in our demeanor – extremely relaxed and pleasant, cracking jokes left, right and center.  Bobby had these knee-high, striped socks that were comparable to those on the legs of the wicked witch from the Wizard of Oz, after she was crushed by a house.  They were so bright, it would have confused competitors whether or not to sprint.  I need to get myself a pair of truly tall socks like that!

A better look at Bobby's socks and Todd's mug.
A better look at Bobby’s socks and Todd’s mug. (Photo credit: Todd Strehlke)
My socks have nothing on Bobby's.
My DeFeet socks have nothing on Bobby’s.  (Photo credit: Todd Strehlke)

Even eating was a pleasantry not to be missed:

Lunch – salmon sandwich with Parmesan risotto;

Dinner – clam chowder, cod fish tacos, quinoa and kale salad with crushed nuts and ahi tuna;

Breakfast – chocolate chip pancakes, oatmeal with maple syrup and cinnamon, orange juice and espresso for impulse power.

A perfect amount of savoury protein and carbohydrates to fuel the body without overloading the digestive system.

CAT 4 start.
CAT 4 start.

The weather too, was perfect on race day, with a slight breeze of 5 to 10 mph – a big difference from the 25mph gusts on the recce.  Temperatures were hovering around 65F.  It was going to be fast for all categories.

But it wasn’t.  At least not for the CAT4’s.  With the young and old fields combined, the race became a circus and a few riders got wheels tangled immediately in the first few miles, crashing out with a hiss of a blown tire.  We kept speeding up and slowing down and it didn’t help the riders’ nerves.  You could feel the tension pile on.

The turn-around at Beavertail Headlight.
The turn-around at Beavertail Headlight.

Over the course of the race, the middle became the back as several riders were shelled.  I gained a few positions halfway through the last lap, sprinting out of the turn around that we’ve practiced so many times on our Saturday morning rides.  Each element of the course, the climbs and dips, the wind, the turns and the straights felt like it was replicated from our usual club rides.

On the lead up to the sprint, there was a climb.  I had thoughts of winning this race and I could only do so with better positioning.  I tried moving up while others struggled.  They were breathing harder than me so I knew they were suffering a lot more.  I had to navigate through the pack to get to the front, threading several needles.  I went into a bigger gear before the peak of the climb and just powered on, eventually hitting 42.1mph at some point, stomping on 53×12 gearing in aero mode.  I passed a few riders on the descent making up a couple of places, but it wasn’t to be.

I had bought the ticket, but missed the train by a few seconds.  I ended up 13th in my age category – which isn’t bad, but I knew I could have done better.  This race wasn’t nearly as hard as our club rides.  I felt I could have given more.

The final sprint.
The final sprint.

The silver lining was that in the final sprint, I had passed one of my fellow racers, Steve, while trying to keep up with another, Matt, both from the Downeast Racing team.

“Nice job!”

…Steve exclaimed as he slapped my leg, rolling to recover after the sprint.  What a gentleman was he!  Such encouragement!  I told him at one point on our coffee rides that when I beat him in a sprint, I know I’m getting better.  It took me more than a year to do that.  Even among competing cyclists, there’s camaraderie.

And that’s what it’s all about.  Our Tall Sock Racing team finished the CAT5 races with two second places by Chris Poulin and Pete Talbot, and one third by Kent Ryan.

We’re starting to make a name for ourselves.

Eight of us raced that day and it was one of the best showings we had for the year.  We’ve come a long way.  It started with an idea mixed well with passion.  It showed in the team parties we attended, the epic rides, and the training camp at Rangeley.

Next year, for spring training, we’re thinking about heading to Florida for some proper sun and fun.

I can’t wait.

Kent Ryan before receiving his medal for 3rd.
Kent Ryan before receiving his medal for 3rd.
Chris Poulin at the podium for 2nd.
Chris Poulin at the podium for 2nd.
Pete Talbot at the podium for 2nd.
Pete Talbot at the podium for 2nd.

“It’s All Relative.”

It’s all relative.

This was the phrase that my yoga instructor said to me when we were comparing notes on how our lives were going.  She had just finished the chaos of outlining and then facilitating a Yin Yoga teacher training curriculum in addition to her regular classes.  I had to juggle my professional, personal and amateur schedules.  The busy-ness and the amount of energy required to upkeep ourselves, to keep engaged was immense.  It’s part of the reason I haven’t written anything in a while.  I’ve been too busy training, racing and traveling for work.  On top of that, I’m also a single dad, so my son requires my attention about every other week.

Another way to put it is:

“It’s all about perspective.”

Because it is.

Having completed the Purgatory Road Race in Sutton, MA, and it did live up to its name, every ride afterwards seemed much easier.  The course was a power course – fast and unrelenting with no respite because of the even quicker downhill sections sprinkled with bumps and ruts in the pavement.  The climbs were short, punchy and steep, but long enough to discover that you need to lose another few grams of fat.  Hill repeats did its job in preparation for this race.  Just.  Everyone pushed the pace.  It felt like the couple of CompuTrainer sessions I attended earlier in the year, panting like a dog with my tongue out, drool dripping onto the top tube.  The race was soul depleting but fun nonetheless.

As a way to build form and to give back to the community, I participated in the Trek Across Maine – a charity ride to raise funds for lung health.  This was my 8th year riding 180 miles for three days.  Granted, I’m certain I could do it in just one day and not make it into such a big production.  Still, it’s a great cause.

Two out of the three days were sunny and pure bliss.  Little did I know the third day would become an adventure.  Having passed most of the field (of 2000 cyclists) on the first two days, that didn’t change on the third day – except for one thing.  It was a deluge.  Not only did I pass most of the field, it seemed like over half the field abandoned because of the rain.  I saw truck after truck with racks full of bicycles pass me on the road.

“He must be crazy.”

I’m sure the warm passengers thought as they buzzed by me.  But I wasn’t the only one on the road.  Others had toughed it out to finish the ride.  The pros do it (in snow too).  And any cyclist as passionate as myself would do it.  Those who do are badass.  (See Rule #9.) It’s also a matter of being prepared mentally and physically – in terms of the clothing you wear.  As I was riding in the rain, it came down harder until there was a point in time when I suddenly felt my base layer saturated with water.  The arm and leg warmers weren’t enough.  But then again, I doubt any high-end softshell rain gear would’ve protected me from the elements.  I picked up the pace to keep warm and had to skip most of the rest stops.

At one point, I got so cold, I couldn’t feel my fingers.  And I couldn’t shift my gears easily to something easier when I hit the climbs.  I had to use my left hand to shift my right lever down a gear, and sometimes, I couldn’t even accomplish that.  I was stuck on 53×15 and doing stomps when the gradient increased.  I recalled this having happened on some early winter training rides, but not in the summer.

At the end of the jaunt, I was treated for near hypothermia, trying to return color into my face in a heated BMW X5 medic vehicle.  Hot chocolate and the Trek volunteers were more than helpful in getting me sorted out.

Not all goes as planned

Here’s where things went downhill – literally.

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See the frame failure at the bottom bracket? The result of 11,000 miles.

Sasha had broken.  The adventures she had taken me through since 2011 have ended.  I named her Sasha because at the time, I considered the frame quite exotic and not everyone knew of BMC.  She was the third of my BMC frames – the first being the impressively engineered, SLT, with its mixed use of aluminum skeletal lugs and carbon. The second being an earlier version of the Team Machine SLR01.  It was near identical to the third.  The bottom bracket shell of my beloved Sasha had given way, sheared off of the frame with only strands of carbon holding it together.  The crankset moved with a click-clak every time I pedaled the downstroke.  At first I thought it was just the bottom bracket bearing needing replacing but a more careful inspection revealed that wasn’t the case.  Taking her to a bike shop confirmed my worst fear – she was irreparable.

My world stopped.  It was cathartic.

This happened several days before I were to race in the Berkshires in Massachusetts at the Tour of Hilltowns.  I was gutted.  My competitive advantage had vanished despite having trained hard for it weeks before in the White Mountains with my Tall Sock Racing teammates.  15.5 pounds of bike was no more.  I was left with riding with my backup – a 1994 TIG welded, Columbus-tubed, steel frame.  The complete bike weighed 20 pounds, and now probably just under that having stripped the BMC of its parts and swapped the carbon wheels and brakepads.  She was called, “Panzer”.  The couple of days of getting acclimated to Panzer wasn’t enough as it was evident on the first 8%+ climb in the race.

That morning before the race, I had also done a few things wrong which affected my performance.  I had mistakenly ate dairy for breakfast, upsetting my stomach.  I also took a shower thinking it would be the only chance to feel like a human that day.  But that made my legs feel heavy.  I tried to counter that with a warm-up, knowing too that the first climb would be brutal without a proper warmup.  But that didn’t help.  On top of that, during the race, I had a mechanical while riding Panzer – her handlebar suddenly twisted after hitting some rough sections of the course.  The quill in the stem wasn’t tight enough.  I had to stop to get it fixed.

Everyone has a bad day. I had a bad week.

A broken Sasha, started my downward spiral.  I was a mess even before the start of the race.  But there was a silver lining (if you can really call it that) I didn’t discover until during the race.

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Panzer at a coffee ride.

With her weight advantage on the downhills, Panzer ate up the road.  The uphills didn’t matter (but really, it did) because time would be made up on the downhills.  Because I was diligent in my climbing and descending at slightly higher speeds, I had caught up with a small group of mixed categories (but not before being passed by the leading group of CAT 5’s mid-race).  The course was similar to Purgatory RR with its notable difference being the longer 5 mile climb before hitting the midway point. It was something Sasha couldn’t do, even though she was a better all-around bike.  But alas, it wasn’t enough to win the group sprint.  Panzer’s added weight was a disadvantage.

What now?

With Sasha broken, I’m without a competitive bicycle for the hills.  I tried to get BMC to honor a full warranty, but the rules they set out made it unfair.  And their frame failed in a most catastrophic way.  I even have proof that I’m the original owner, of not just one but three BMC’s.  And being one of the biggest BMC fans out there, (I wore the team kit religiously the last couple of years,) it seems loyalty means nothing to them.

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Two broken BMC frames hanging like carcasses.

In order to get a proper replacement, I have to go through the crash replacement policy, which is bittersweet.  It means I’d still have to pay for the frame but at a reduced cost.  And if you know how much BMC frames cost at retail, you know it’s still a good amount.  With the Green Mountain Stage Race in Vermont looming in September, I don’t have much time to prepare.  I’m without a bike and it takes time to acclimate to one.  So now, I’m having second thoughts and considering other brands.

I’ve ridden Specialized once, and I do like their lineup.  Venge or Tarmac?  Cervelo’s R5 is another consideration as well as Wilier’s Cento 1SR or Zero 7.  I also heard from a friend that Wilier replaced his broken frame that was “out of warranty” quite easily.  Exceptional service goes a long way to produce customer loyalty as does companies standing by their products.  Our sponsors (most notably DeFeet and Maple) in our Tall Sock Racing Team stand by their products.  Why shouldn’t the bicycle companies who produce the bikes we ride do the same?

Of course, things could be worse.  To put it in perspective, I’m still able-bodied and living out my passion.  And I will always remember that it’s all relative.

Erasing the Past

When Cycling gets Personal

It got personal three years ago when I was lying down on the ground, the chainring having done a number on my leg and blood from a cut to my left eye blurred my vision. It got personal when I repeatedly yelled out,

“I don’t need this!”

as a fellow racer stopped to comfort me when I was angry and in pain. It also got personal when I was in the hospital, and I questioned whether or not I was going to continue cycling for that brief second, because at one point, I hated it so much for what it had done to me.

That was the memory that had lingered.

Cycling has always been personal. It’s given me life, adventure and health.  It’s given me friends and a unique perspective that no other activity (aside from Yoga) can give you.  It’s a part of who I am and what I’m about. There’s a spiritual side as well as a ferocity.  It’s an expression of quiet and Zen as much as power, violent side to side and forward movements at speed, augmented by mechanical advantage, two wheels and a frame.

The clubs rides for the past year had been a dress rehearsal for this race – The Killington Stage Race. It was here where I had to confront the memory that caused me to be immobile for 45 days in the best riding days of the summer of 2012. And I had to do it alone without my teammates physically being there.  It wasn’t easy.

Stage 1 – 37 miles total, 2 laps, total ascent 1,847ft

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I was nervous that day because the weather conditions weren’t ideal. I don’t race well in the cold as it takes a long time for my muscles to warm up. And the wind didn’t do anyone any favors. It was at the freezing point when I woke up and it went to 40F just as the race started. I distinguished myself with DeFeet’s yellow fluorescent arm warmers and sported knee warmers just like everyone else. Full-fingered gloves were worn by everyone. Talking about the weather conditions only meant that this stage wasn’t my best. It was actually a near repeat of my last race in 2011. Just as the peloton hit the first KOM (King of the Mountains sprint line), the pace went higher and I was spat out the back. It caught me off guard and I could have caught up, if I only found my legs. Shifting to a higher gear was too late. I was done even before it started. A bit deflated, but the silver lining was that I wouldn’t be racing with everyone else increasing the chance of crashing. But that’s the price you pay for being out of contention. That’s the price you pay for being slow and fatigued from being “on” for the past month in my professional life.

But I was there.

I lost almost 10 minutes in the first stage. But I didn’t crash, so it was a personal victory.  I survived and that was all I cared about.

Stage 2 – 61 miles, total ascent: 5,115ft

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I was looking forward to this stage because it had more climbing. The last 11 miles were all about that.  The first half was all about descending about 30 to 40 mph and surviving the dirt roads. They were nothing compared to the Tour of the Battenkill.  Many of the riders slowed in those sections.  Those having done the Battenkill plowed on.  After the first KOM, a somewhat long climb, I was losing contact with the lead group, as did the race leader.  Mike and I hung together and he dragged me across the flats and descents as much as I paced him up some of the hardest climbs of the day.  We met up with a couple of other riders, obviously suffering from the day’s efforts.  But somewhere along the way, I lost him.  He either went ahead of me or fell back.  I couldn’t remember.

The headwind picked up en route to Skyeship Base, the bottom of the climb.  Four of us worked well together to motor on, taking turns at the front.  I poured on some power to bridge a gap to some other riders only to be called back to tempo to save our energies.  Then we hit East Mountain Road and it started.

These DeFeet socks are now my favorite!
These DeFeet socks are now my favorite!

Within a few hundred metres, I dropped my fellow riders and found myself riding alone.  There it is again – am I a mountain goat or a rouleur in the grupetto?  I’m in no-man’s land again.  The only company I had was my breathing, so I plodded along and kept just below anaerobic (or mid threshold) up the 10%+ grades.  I passed a few people who were breathing as heavy as I was.  There’s actual fun in suffering and suffering together.  I passed another KOM flag and I wondered who won it.  I knew if I forced it more, I’d be in oxygen debt.  There was some respite on a short downhill section but that only led up to the finish which was just as difficult as the access road.  K1, they called it.

Key to success is to be prepared.
Key to success is to be prepared.

The only time I felt my lungs were going to burst was in the last 500 metres where I gave it my all.  Cadence went up as did my breathing.  When I crossed the finish line, I had achieved another personal victory.  On top of that, I finished in the middle of the field, moving up several places on the General Classification.  I was proud.  I was relieved.

Jim greeted me at the finish line.
Jim greeted me at the finish line.

Stage 3 – 10.1 miles, Individual Time Trial, total ascent: 440ft

I had brought my aerodynamic equipment – helmet and clip-on bars, but I decided not to use them since I wasn’t in contention to begin with, and I wanted to test out how I’d do by Merckxing it.  Well, it didn’t go so well even though I finished.  I took a look at the starting roster, those before me and those after me.  I predicted I’d get passed by one person but also that I’d catch up to another.

The great thing about this race was that they provided trainers to warm up before the time trial.  I did so 25 minutes before my start time to calm the nerves.  Then the girl staged me.

“You got me?” I asked.

“I sure do,” she replied, with her two hands grasping my saddle.

I went an instant 24mph off the line then slowed my pace, breathing already heavy.  I kept just below anaerobic – a sustainable effort.

I did as predicted.  On the uphill, I passed my 30 second man, only to get passed by him about a minute later once the road became more flat.  He had the aero advantage.  And I got passed by another racer behind me who was clearly stronger, aero gear and bike and all.

Before I knew it the race was done and I had crossed the finish line.  I felt like I could have given more.  It was as if I treated this as a longer time trial.  I hadn’t done one since 2011 in the Maine Time Trial Series.  So I didn’t leave it all on the road.  I was out of practice.

And that was it.  I successfully completed the Killington Stage Race.

Creating a new future

In retrospect, the racing was just the motions I had to go through.  What was more important this time, were the friends I made during the race and the moments of being present.  I made a good friend in Tristan, a guy from Brooklyn, NY who’s down to earth and works at a bike shop in the marketing department.  He parked next to me on the first day with his blue VW R32 having noticed my car.  We met each day before the start of the race, claiming our spots, only he didn’t continue on the third day because he crashed out on the second day.  I’m sure he worried his girlfriend to no end.  And I’m certain our paths will cross again.

I also made new friends in Juan and Mike.  Fellow competitors who needed help and I was there to offer it to them.

The other moments I saw that were important was being present at any point I felt a bit of anxiety or uneasiness.  Studying Eckhart Tolle and Thich Nhat Hanh helped immensely.  I didn’t have that three years ago.  And it was also making it to The Inn I stayed at each day.  I promised myself I would do just that, at minimum, to fully enjoy the breakfasts Mary had prepared for me.  The last meal was sublime – blueberry waffles with zucchini bread and chocolate chip muffins.  I ate everything she served.

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My greatest accomplishment out of all this was that I no longer have to talk about my demise three years ago. I’ve created new memories to draw upon, and with it, a new future. The negative has run through its course and it’s out of my system.  Travis asked if I were immune to crashing.  Only if I can help it.

It’s Game Time!

Finding Resolve

My last appearance at a road race was in 2012 at the Killington Stage Race in Killington,  Vermont.  That was when I was taken out by a competitor in front of me who let up and swerved into me, taking out my front wheel, shattering my fork.

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I’ve since recovered from my injuries and gradually planned my comeback.  Actually, I started thinking about it the minute I found myself resting in the hospital bed.  My comeback was going to be epic.  What better way than to start racing again in one of the hardest races in North America.  The Tour of the Battenkill.  68 miles of a mixture of paved, dirt and gravel roads, some rutted, 18% grades, multiple climbs and fast downhills.  In some segments it was a combination of everything.  But it wasn’t the terrain that got me worried.  Mix that with 100 other people riding in proximity, and it’s a circus.  Anything could happen at the touch of the wheel, a wrong judgement, equipment failure, or someone just not paying attention.

It’s incredible the amount of anxiety I had just a day before the race.  I was thinking of the future and not of The Now and that was what was feeding it.  But really, it was a mixed bag of emotions.  Excitement, readiness, anticipation, fear, confidence, caution, determination – anything that you could name, I could feel, and I really didn’t know what to make of it.  There were times when I asked myself what I was getting into.  I instigated signing my whole team up for this race just by mentioning the registration date in a phone text.  In just a few hours, we went for it, not knowing  the level of difficulty.  We’ve heard stories and some tips, but that was it.

“Run wider tires so you don’t puncture.”

“Stay in the front so you don’t crash.”

But we were excited and that was all that mattered at the time.

So the way to quiet my mind was to breathe more.  I did some yoga stretches after the reconnaissance ride of the last 12 miles to relieve some of the fatigue I could still feel in my legs.  And even before heading out to the race, just as I woke up, I did a 12-minute meditation.  It helped immensely in centering myself and finding resolve and solidifying my confidence.  I was ready at that point.  I also decided which socks to wear for the race after some indecision.

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I got everything prepared the night before, so that the day of the race could be dedicated to saving my energies.  I read it in the book, “Reading the Race.”  What you’re supposed to do is not walk any more than you have to, and not think any more than you need to.  Any extra steps or extra thoughts clouds the mind.  That meant no social media until after the race.  That also meant spending time pinning my numbers on my jersey before I needed to.  We did it as a group that Friday night and it felt like a knitting club.  It also meant getting our bikes cleaned, wiping the dirt off from the rain we went through from our four hour drive.  And it meant getting the elevation map I so diligently put together in Adobe Illustrator with indicated dirt sections and feed zones onto our bikes.  Apparently, that was key to the success of knowing what terrain was coming up and it prepared us when to eat in the race.

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I was in a better place having done all the preparation and doing things the right way.  We were graciously accommodated by Chez Brown, with perfectly cooked spaghetti and marinara sauce, garlic bread, veggies and dessert afterwards, then topping it off with a large living room to sleep in.  Granted, it wasn’t sleeping in a first class, king-sized bed with plush bedding and down comforters – it was better because we were all together as a team.  The course of the night was all about calming our nerves with positive energy, cracking jokes good and bad alike.  At the evening’s end there were nine bodies strewn around a big living room, generating enough BTU’s to heat a small house.

Race Day

The team woke up to this majestic view in the morning:

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We got ready, packed up and said our goodbyes to the Browns.  But not before we took a team picture.

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Having prepared for everything the night before, all I had to do was wait.  It was 9:15 am and my start was at 10:32 am.  I took a few breaths and lounged around doing nothing except watching the second hand on my watch run its cycles.  Then 10:05am hits.

“It’s game time!”

I clapped my hands.

I got my gear together and my teammates wished me luck.  I reciprocated.  I was nervous and I was ready.

With over 3000 cyclists registered for the race, approximately 400 CAT4 racers were divided into four fields.  For the CAT5’s, there were nine fields.

I congregated with the CAT 4B’s at the start line.  I made a few jokes and got to know some riders and they came from all over –  from Montreal, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.  It’s incredible a race such as this drew so many cyclists.  It’s the first real test of how your form is doing on a broader scale of competition after a long winter of base training.  It’s also a good indicator of how prepared your body is for racing.  Those who do well will win races this year.  Those who don’t have much work to do for next year.

The neutralized rollout started for the first mile.   We rode slow.  S.L.O.W.  And even as we passed the mile mark, the next few miles, we didn’t even pick up the speed.  I thought we were on a coffee ride.  We went so slow in fact, the pace car had to stop about 500 metres ahead of us.

Once we hit the first dirt section, that was also the first difficult climb.  I felt fresh.  Riders in front turned up the pace immediately, but many more dropped off.  The selection began.  This was Meeting House Road.  I was able to keep up with the lead group of 30 just enough.

A few more climbs appeared after that and I ended up in no man’s land.  A small group began to form to chase back to the leading group.  I was part of the echelon fighting the torrid pace and 15 mph crosswinds.  We chased back and met with the lead peloton after 10 minutes of work.  But once we hit a steeper climb on a dirt section, that was it.  The group was blown apart.  I ended up riding by myself for some time, which was good, because when I went down the fast dirt section, hitting 35 mph with just 24mm of tire, it was across some of the most jarring terrain.  Ruts had formed and it shook me to the bone.  I held on for dear life at speed, trying to keep the handlebars straight and absorbing all the shock throughout my body.  My water bottle popped out of my cage like popcorn, joining their BPA-free cousins for a get-together in the dirt.  There wasn’t a way to go back to recover it either.  Who would want to ride that again?  I was surprised that my bike survived that terrain.

The group I rode with before formed a few more times, but they wouldn’t, or couldn’t, pick up the pace.  One rider tried to micro-manage everyone and it annoyed the group.  A few times, I rode away from him just to get away from the Bill Lumbergh‘s of cycling.  Another rider from Australia living in New York with a heavy accent wanted the same thing and made himself known by joining me.  He admitted he was a bit too heavy for the hills, but he told me he could pull me on the flats where the winds howled.

“I’ll do you proud!”

…I told the Aussie.

There was a section of road where the hill was short, and I just punched it on the big (53×19) gear, foreseeing the momentum I would lose if I shifted lower.  I immediately lost everyone.  Later on when we met back up, the Aussie told me,

“You’re really killing me on the uphills, but it’s great because you’re crushing it like Lance Armstrong, dancing on the pedals.”

What a great compliment.  But that put me into no man’s land.  I couldn’t chase up because the lead group was too far ahead.  And I couldn’t stay back because that group was too weak, at least on the uphills.  I knew I belonged in the lead group, but that didn’t happen.  My intention was to be in the top 20 at the very minimum.  If I got to the top 9, then I’d get points to add to my category upgrade.  But it wasn’t to be and I missed my positioning.

I rode alone for some time, which was okay especially on some difficult sections.  There was a downhill where I hit 45mph and it was winding and twisty.  I had never done such a technical descent at speed, if you don’t count Evans Notch.

By the time I came across the plains of New York State, the headwind slowed me and the group caught up again.  They were the same people I’ve been trying to ride away from the entire day.  I recognized them with their most distinct characteristics.  A green Cannondale, a red and white Pinarello, and the Aussie jersey.  So really, I’m somewhere in between a mountain goat and the gruppetto.

I conserved my energy before the last climb – a climb we recce’d the day before.  I knew it by heart and I knew I could attack.

And I did.  It was a steady pace on dirt and it was winding at parts.  It wasn’t a real switchback because there was no respite.  The grades just kept going up stepwise.  I turn it up another couple of notches and within a few seconds, I lose everyone – except the Pinarello-man.  He’s a few lengths ahead of me and I eventually lose contact.  I keep at my own pace with the heavy breathing.  Doing Pranayama enhanced my rhythm.  At the top, they tell me there’s one mile left to go.  I punched it with all my will and never looked back.  But there was a problem.  One rider caught up to me in the last 500 metres.  The dirt section turned into paved road at the top, then to gravel as we hit the fairgrounds in the last 300 metres.  I took the approach to the gravel road from the outside line, having learned from a past gravel road entry that going too hot on the wrong line can make you wash out into the ditch.  The rider behind me swerved to my right to take the inside line.  There’s no way I was going to be taken out after all this.  I backed off and waited for him to make the mistake.  He’s too hot and his approach was all wrong.  He slowed up on the gravel realizing that.  That was my cue.  I punched it again only to see Pinarello-man just ahead of me.  We’re in the same category so I shifted another gear up.  I’m sprinting on gravel with a road bike at that point!  That’s a first.  I passed Pinarello-man just metres before the finish line at 28mph.  We received the same time but I think he forgot it was a race.

My placing:  37th of 78 riders.

Just as I predicted – smack in the middle.  My third eye has been quite powerful as of late.

At the end, I waited patiently for my teammates to come in from their races.

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In retrospect, the race was a success, despite having one of our teammates get into an incident with another competitor and ending up in the hospital for some contusions.  (No, there wasn’t a boxing match.)  Of the 9 riders, 8 of us finished and many of us had respectable placings.  But what was most respectable and something we can be proud about was our grit and determination to back each other up no matter what happened.  It’s the kind of support you can’t buy.  It’s the kind of support that comes naturally.  And really, we haven’t known each other all that long.

As for the next race, stay tuned.

Smarter Riding is Necessary

Strava has these training plans, that if you follow them, they will improve your abilities.  I’ve been through Carmichael Training Systems’ 30 and 60 second sprint plans in two months.  I’m on the 90 second sprint plan right now in its third week, but with a little deviation.  I opted to ride a club ride on the Monday last week instead of opting for a rest day.  This, after last Sunday’s hard effort in a criterium.  And then I managed to swap out my rest day and made it into Tuesday instead – using Yin Yoga and Meditation and then Vinyasa Yoga as my “easy workout”.  Granted, the plan seemed to work, up to the point when it didn’t.

Vinyasa Yoga, especially when heated is hardly an easy workout, even though I felt so much better.  My muscles were tired.  I was tired.  And with the swapping of a rest day, it messed up the entire plan.  The plan was messed up because I paid for it on Saturday and Sunday.  That and because I didn’t get enough rest.  I only had myself to blame.

The fatigue set in on today’s criterium.  Saturday’s ride had overtaxed my legs and they couldn’t recover.  After a crash on the third lap where wheels touched, releasing the chaos into the peloton, riders running into each other and others scrambling to avoid the carnage – I went the agricultural route simulating cyclocross, a few of us caught back up but I had nothing in my legs left.  And with every lap that had passed, my speed kept dropping.  I was in the downward spiral off the back.  It was the worst feeling, but I still pushed on, even though my legs were screaming.

And of course, my teammates pushed on.  According to their reports, they pressed the pace and never let up.  They pressed so hard, I almost got lapped on the last lap.  Lesson to me, kudos to my team.  We even got a third place.

And this is where smart riding is really necessary.  Tactics placed our team in a better position when the field was much bigger than last week’s.  But there wasn’t smart riding on my part, especially if I go off the training plan.  With the Tour of Battenkill coming up this Saturday, this week should be dedicated to rest and tapering down, not to some ego-driven riding.  That’s not smart riding.  And I’ve had this thought in my head for the longest time, having raced back in the 1990’s:

“You must ride without an ego.”

When you ride without an ego, and use more of your mind to ride smart, conserving your energy and expending it only when necessary, your chance of success is much greater.  The other side of course, is to consistently press the pace – something you cannot do alone.  And in the Battenkill, I will be alone in my category, so it will be challenging.

I’ll be there to test myself in a broader competition.  I’ll do as many things right as I can in the race – stay in the front, avoid crashes and punctures, stay upright.  And I’ll do as many things right leading up to the race.  My soul demands it.