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Archive for July, 2011

The race: Robeson Township Pennsylvania State Cycling Championships – Category 4
The result: 10th
The story:

Every summer for longer than I can remember, my family has gone crabbing. It’s a fun tradition. We head to Beaver Dam in New Jersey early in the morning, fill a couple boats with people and traps, and catch ourselves some crabs that we cook and eat at a party.

For people who haven’t gone crabbing: it can get a little gross. Actually, it will get a little gross. It’s a guarantee.

Before you’re even in the boat, you’re breathing in the salty air and contending with bugs. And so you put on a layer of bug spray.

Then you get in the boats and have to set up the traps. And so you cut frozen bunker in half with an old knife at 7 in the morning and shove the pieces on wire attached to the traps.

Once you have the traps squared away and tied to the boat, you drop anchor, put the traps in and start pulling every so often. And so you splash yourself with funky water.

Soon, the sun comes up. And so you decide you’d rather not roast yourself red, and spread on some sunscreen.

Eventually, the crabs bite your bait clean and you have to refill the traps. So you buy some more bunker when the bait boat comes around, chop those in half. Only, you don’t use them all at once, so the spare pieces sit in a plastic bag on the bottom of the skiff, thawing in the summer sun.

And on and on, each activity adding some new film.

In order to have any fun at all, you have to resign yourself to the fact that you’re going to get dirty and just not worry about it. You’re going to be gross when you stroll into a Wendy’s on the way back home, and your hands will smell like fish. But it doesn’t matter. Once you accept the film, it’s enormously fun.

That’s not too different from bike racing. Last week at the Liberty Crit, I didn’t accept the film. I worried the whole time about crashing, for good reason, and never focused on the fun. The result wasn’t surprising — a frowny-faced 32nd.

But I had a feeling this Sunday’s race would allow me to focus on the fun. I targeted this one for a good result. I’d done it two years ago as a Cat 5 rider and knew the course suited my strengths.

The 12-mile loop didn’t have any extraordinarily long or hard climbs, but it was unrelenting. When one climb ends, it isn’t too long before another climb or a stretch of rough asphalt comes along. And when you do multiple laps — my race did four — the physical toll can build.

I spent a good portion of the first lap near or at the front, wanting to stay out of trouble. I figured I’d try to make it hard for everybody else, really pushing the pace on every climb. But I knew I’d blow up if I kept going that way and eased off toward the end of the lap.

The second and third laps were basically an exercise in people-watching. I hung out at the back and saw who was strong, who was doing a lot of work, who was fading. Occasionally a rider popped out the back, unable to follow accelerations up the small climbs.

I didn’t feel great during a portion of the second lap, but once I got an energy gel and some water in me, my condition quickly improved. Sure, I ripped it open precisely as the group surged through a rough section and up a hill, so I had to do a delicate balancing act for a moment, but that’s beside the point, which is: I didn’t have trouble staying in touch with the group and saved a lot of energy. By the time the fourth lap began, I was feeling good about my prospects.

There were only 30-something riders in the main group with those 12 miles left, and I slowly moved up, picking up a couple positions on every climb. I went to my small chainring only a few times, so I must have had good form.

With a few kilometers to go, I hovered between 15th and 20th, firmly holding my position.

In hindsight, I should have put myself in position to attack on one of the three or four short pitches in the final kilometer, because the group crawled over them. But as it was, I sat boxed in and waited for the sprint.

The final 400-500 meters consisted of a fast descent leading into a drag up to the finish line, perfect for somebody like me, who can’t do a flat-land sprint well but can shoot up rises. I spread out to the left side of the road and followed accelerations, then kicked it into an appropriate gear and started passing people. To my left, a rider touched the wheel in front of him and nearly went down, forcing me into an evasive maneuver. But I didn’t brake and still carried enough speed to pick off a few more people for 10th.

The race wasn’t easy — my legs felt like jelly during one part of the fourth lap — but once I resigned myself to the film of a hard effort, I could hunker down and enjoy it.

Fundraiser update
Smoketown Criterium – 24th (worth $5)
Tour of Mt. Nebo – 9th (worth $10)
Rodale Park Crit – 10th (worth $10)
Coatesville Road Race – ? Seriously, my name isn’t on the results. (worth $0)
Arsenal Crit – 13th (worth $10)
Liberty Crit – 32nd (worth $0)
Robeson Road Race – 10th (worth $10)

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The race: Liberty Criterium (Category 4)
The result: 32nd
The story:

Have you ever seen sunglasses with interchangeable lenses? A set of frames with multiple lenses for different conditions?

The Tour de France is a little like a set of those, in that you can swap out lenses and see the race however you want to see it. You can see it simply as a bike race, or you can swap lenses and see it as a poetic expression of struggle and success and triumph and failure. You can put in the cynic’s lenses and see it as a doping scandal waiting to happen or a three-week orgy of publicity.

But however you choose to view it, at no point does the set of frames reduce the sheer magnitude of the Tour de France. Things like this and this don’t happen just anywhere.

Everything at the Tour happens on a grand scale. Everything is panoramic and in high definition. Everything. Even the sublime.

The Tour ended today with Cadel Evans on top of the podium and in the yellow jersey. He clinched the victory Saturday with a fantastic performance in the individual time trial, erasing a deficit to both Schleck brothers.

But on the same day he won, others had to lose. Among them was Thomas Voeckler, the French rider who was already a folk hero after his performance in the 2004 Tour, when he unexpectedly wore the yellow jersey for 10 days.

Voeckler got back into the yellow jersey this year and, once again, defended it day after day. He was never expected to keep it as long as he did, but there he was still wearing the darn thing after Stage 18. He went from a cheeky underdog to a potential podium contender against all odds.

But Voeckler lost it Friday after a hard day in the mountains, falling to fourth overall. On Saturday he couldn’t ride a time trial fast enough to get on the podium and finished just off it. Now, don’t get me wrong, fourth place at the Tour de France is a great result. Only in the context of this year’s Tour, that finish was tinged with disappointment. After Saturday’s stage, I saw a series of tweets from David Millar, another Tour rider.

– If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.

– In team car being driven to hotel. Chatting to [teammate Christian Vande Velde] & spot cyclist on autoroute ahead, dressed in full Europcar kit. Looks oddly familiar.

– Chat stops, tell car to slow. As we pass have time to look into eyes of a tired and broken Voeckler. Tragic doesn’t come close to describe.

Heading into Saturday’s time trial, Voeckler didn’t have much of a chance of riding his way onto the podium. He needed to make up a lot of time on the Schlecks and had used up a ton of energy riding in the yellow jersey.

There was still a chance, though, and when it didn’t happen, I have to imagine everything came crashing down on Thomas Voeckler — the thrill of wearing the yellow jersey and the pressure of defending it; the media and fan attention, day after day; the emotional tug of war, with the faint possibility he might actually win the damn race on one side, and probability on the other; the devastation he put his body through in pursuit of a dream.

And when that all evaporated, when he knew he wouldn’t be standing on that final podium in Paris, I have to imagine that Voeckler was finally spent. Whatever caused him to ride alone on a highway in the middle of France doesn’t reduce the feeling. He was broken.

He was not the first athlete to be broken by a performance and he will not be the last. And the fact that I’m a cyclist is likely distorting my view, but I find it extraordinarily sad that Voeckler needed to go ride around by himself for a while after finishing fourth.

But then, everything that happens at the Tour happens on a grand scale. Everything. Even the sublime, even the disappointment.

As a rider, I will never understand that level of disappointment or emotional investment. I don’t race for money or prestige, I don’t have a whole country cheering me on. But I can relate to the way competitive cycling can throw your emotions around.

One minute you’re heading into the last lap of a criterium in Malvern, plotting the move that will get you into a good position for a high placing. The next you’re riding up a hill, watching another rider’s blood trickle down after a crash that left riders strewn, bikes gnarled, and one competitor apparently unconscious.

I’m not sure what it was about today’s race that made it so sketchy. Maybe it was the fast, wide-open course that allowed fields to ride six people wide. Maybe people in my race were just so antsy to race that they left common sense behind.

Whatever it was, the whole 20-mile race was on edge. And on the last lap, I saw a bike 10 yards ahead go sideways and bodies fly. I nearly ran over the rider who was most seriously hurt, and when I saw the blood, I stopped giving two damns about a good result. I then rode to the start/finish line to make sure an ambulance was on its way before going back to the site of the accident.

I don’t want to detail the scene too grotesquely, but he lost a lot of blood. Luckily, he was lucid after regaining consciousness. Before paramedics stabilized him on a backboard and took him to a hospital, they asked him his age. He said he was 40.

That struck me. I know that many people his age or older participate in bike racing. They do so for fun and to scratch a competitive itch, just like I do. And I know this isn’t the most serious incident in the world, like I’m aware this is not the first time somebody crashed in a bike race. Accidents happen. Everybody who pins on a number on knows that risk.

But again and again, my mind kept saying, “This poor guy.” The least he deserved — any rider deserves — was a safe race. He didn’t get it.

That’s disappointing, even if there was nothing grand about my race at all.

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The race: Arsenal Crit – Cat 4
The result: 13th, and some beer

The story:
The race was held at the Navy Yard in Philly, which is a nice change from doing the PA Turnpike-to-202-to-30 progression of roads and spending hours in a car.

It was put on by QCW/Breakaway, a local club team, and it showed. My Cat 4 field was about 25-30 guys deep, and at least a third, maybe 40 percent, were from QCW. They were younger guys, including some juniors, and it’s great to see such a large group of riders getting into the sport.

We did 20 laps around a really fun course — about a mile long with eight corners and a wide, long, flat run to the finish. Positioning was super important. The constant changes in direction and some narrow corners strung out the field single-file for most of the race, making the back an especially terrible place to reside. You can waste a lot of energy sprinting out of corners just trying to hold somebody’s wheel.

There were a couple early moves in the race, but nothing serious. The QCW kids animated the race a lot, and one of them got up the road with somebody else with about 9 or 10 laps left. At this point the field had thinned, but I really wanted to be making the race, so I made a move along the finishing stretch and reeled in the front-runners over the span of two laps. I heard a “nice pull” from someone behind me when I made the catch. Thanks, guy.

Anyway, I was still drilling it at the front heading for a prime and figured I’d go for it. Prime is just a fancy word for intermediate sprint. They don’t decide the race, but they give riders extra chances to earn a prize. There were three in my race.

I didn’t think my effort would work. But lo, it did. Just after crossing the finish line, an explosive kid from QCW blew past me and motioned for me to get on his wheel. Why? I had somehow established a gap in front of the field and he saw a breakaway chance. Normally I’d think, “Awesome!” and be game, but I hadn’t recovered from the chase and sprint, then had to dig even deeper to bridge up to him.

He forged ahead alone for the final six laps and took a solo win — his teammates did a good job blocking and not contributing to a chase. It seems pretty basic that you shouldn’t help other riders catch one of your teammates, but I’ve seen it happen more than once. So, kudos.

As for the others, they didn’t seem like they wanted to organize a chase, so we were all racing for second. I stayed in the field and finished 13th.

Later, I picked up my prize for winning the prime: a six-pack sampler of Philly’s own Yards beer. Quite a tasty bonus.

Fundraiser update:
Smoketown Criterium – 24th (worth $5)
Tour of Mt. Nebo – 9th (worth $10)
Rodale Park Crit – 10th (worth $10)
Coatesville Road Race – ? Seriously, my name isn’t on the results. (worth $0)
Arsenal Crit – 13th (worth $10)

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As a daily visitor to the Gawker family of networks, I will occasionally poke my head into Jalopnik’s garage. While I wish I didn’t need to own a car — mostly because of the expenses involved — I still like automobiles, and the site runs some very cool stuff.

But when I visited there today, I found this article about the 2012 Volkswagen Beetle.

In a little over a decade Volkswagen saw its Beetle transform from Adolf Hitler’s dream of the “people’s car” to the foulest of all marketing slurs — a “chick car.” Does the 2012 Volkswagen Beetle finally provide a more manly solution? We drove it today to find out.

I wasn’t all that surprised to read that lede in a review about the new VW Beetle. That critique of the car is well known and widespread. With the, as Jalopnik put it, “old New Beetle’s flower vase? Funky pastel colors? A body shape with the same side profile as the three-breasted alien hooker from Total Recall?” it’s not hard to imagine someone taking those as cues that it’s a ‘Chick Car.’

But I think the term — and how it’s valued — says more about us than the cars. After all, VW didn’t exactly market the car as exclusively for women. They marketed it as a new hippie machine. A car for artists, romantics, adventurers, and wits. It’s a car that will make you happy.

Yet that generation of Beetle is still somehow a Chick Car.

The label undoubtedly has a lot to do with how the car looks. It’s soft around the edges, doesn’t have a menacing stance, it has a happy face. It has the flower vase. It’s cute. And for those reasons, the Beetle is called feminine.

That’s not necessarily a criticism. Cars have a certain element of gender expression — they have faces and body shapes. But the thing about gender is that, with people, it doesn’t have to be binary. People can express themselves in masculine and feminine ways that don’t necessarily match their biological sex, and to varying degrees. That could also extend to automobile design.

And if the same characteristics of masculine and feminine apply to car design, you could, for instance, posit that a Beetle is a very feminine car and a Ford F-350 is a very masculine car.

A lot of cars would fall into the middle of that spectrum because the person-to-car parallel isn’t perfect. Cars stop looking and acting like people at a certain point.

But there is some similarity, and if you’re using the adjectives masculine and feminine merely as descriptors, fine, I can deal with that. I’m most bothered when they’re used a key words for bad and good, thrown out there as coarse value judgments.

Let’s go back to the Jalopnik article and one graf that stuck out to me.

Sure, a car with a feminine side can be a novelty at first — especially if it strikes a chord with a public looking desperately for anything reminiscent of times gone by. But keep the design around too long and it’s tantamount to sales suicide.

First, I’m not sure if that’s true. Jalopnik cites massively reduced sales numbers as proof that the Beetle’s femininity is to blame, when there could be loads of other reasons. It could be that most people nostalgic for the old Beetle got a new one, and don’t need another fix. It could be that the economy stinks and there are better options. It could be that the car is just old and boring, like many, many other models.

But let’s say Jalopnik’s right in stating that the Beetle was too feminine for its own good. I wonder why that is. Why is a car with a feminine side, a Chick Car, only good enough to be a fad and a temporary sales boost? Why couldn’t it be marketed to the masses over the long term? Why is Chick Car a slur?

It’s not because so-called Chick Cars are inherently bad. Bad cars come in all shapes and sizes.

I’d guess because many men would rather not drive a so-called Chick Car. And because men have traditionally (and still have) held buying and owning power disproportionate to population, alienating them means you stand to lose a lot of sales.

Personally, I think it’s a bunch of rigid gender role baloney.

Calling something a Chick Car is only insulating for men because it insinuates that you’re effeminate and/or gay, and oh, God, when will society be done with that being an insult?

My old car was a 2009 Volkswagen Rabbit, which was called “cute” by a friend when we got some coffee last year. Initially I was embarrassed. Why? Because I’m male, and my ideal car should be a granite-solid beast with Space Shuttle power and jungle cat prowl. It should make you pee your pants when you see it in the rear view and shoot testosterone out the exhaust. So the myth goes.

The Rabbit was not quite like that. It was fun to drive, reliable and had loads of utility. Hell yeah, it was cute, and I loved it. My desire to put my money toward other things is the only reason I don’t have it anymore.

But I’m not here to advocate for some androgynous automobile utopia. People should be free to drive what they want and can, without absurd labels like Chick Car. That decision shouldn’t meant anything other than “I like this car.”

I am, though, wondering something else. If indeed it’s not profitable for an auto manufacturer to have a so-called Chick Car in its lineup, why aren’t we examining the reasons for that? Why aren’t we plotting an authentic remedy, rather than seeing masculinity as the cure?

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Sometime around 1:30 p.m. on Monday, I steered my bike toward my car, exhausted, hot and dehydrated. I had just finished a 57-mile race and was interested only in finding a half-full bottle of water I’d left in my back seat. So I unclipped from my pedals, reached into my jersey pocket and grabbed my keys, along with a couple empty gel packets. I grabbed the bottle, unscrewed the cap and took a nice, long gulp of hot water.

I can’t say it was a surprise. That’s just what happens to liquids when you leave them in a car for three-plus hours in July. But I still drank it. And if you’ll permit me a groan and a metaphor, that bottle was like my weekend of racing — some satisfaction, some drawbacks, but something I’ll definitely take.

Because of my fundraiser (still plenty of time to join in!), I want to give myself as many opportunities to get good results as possible. So I signed up for two events this weekend — a Cat 4 criterium at the Rodale Fitness Park on Sunday, and a Cat 3/4 road race in Coatesville on Monday.

Before I could get to racin’, I had to take care of my bike, which, as they say in car parlance, was running rough. Even though I’d replaced the chain and cassette two weeks ago, pedaling felt gummy and too tough, and I couldn’t figure out the problem.

The excellent mechanics at Guy’s did after I scrambled over there on Friday afternoon: one of my rear derailleur pulleys was missing a part. I ended up replacing the whole thing and had it back Saturday morning.

The mechanic actually called me on Saturday morning, before the shop even opened, to tell me he had been working on my bike. And that’s why I love local bike shops, specifically mine, and won’t go anywhere else.

Thanks to his work, I had a proper race bike heading into the events.

Sunday
The race: Rodale Fitness Park Criterium (Category 4)
The result: 10th

The 20-lap, 20-mile event rolled off at noon, and it was humid, but thankfully not raining. The course is fun — a lot of sweeping turns, a short big-ring rise, and a straight run into the finish line.

An early breakaway attempt and crash made the start hectic, but the bunch settled in after about five laps. I had to put in an occasional pull to stay near the front and make sure I made any split, but no attacks stuck. Even though a split started to develop a few times, riders would seemingly sit up. Frustrating.

Making things more frustrating was the fact that my saddle came loose midway through. I sat down and the nose just…dropped. So, every once in a while I’d have to plop down on the back of it to make sure I didn’t slide off the front.

Thankfully, it wasn’t that big a problem. Coming into the last few laps, I knew I wanted to follow the wheels of a few kids from a Philly-based team, Breakaway. They’re always there at the end of crits, and one of them has serious speed. So I gradually moved up and used the rise to gain a bunch of positions, and was around seventh wheel going toward the finish line — good for somebody with sprint speed. Unfortunately, I don’t have that, but I held on for 10th.

I was pleased to get a good result, especially because I suspected the Coatesville race would kick my butt.

Monday
The race: Coatesville Road Race (Category 3/4)
The result: Butt kicked

I will admit to feeling a bit intimidated heading into this race. I’d never raced with Cat 3s before, and had only upgraded to Cat 4 this winter. It’s hard to judge just how talented the separate categories are, but the numbers lend some weight. The numbers sort of imply that Category 3 riders should be one order faster than Category 4s, and one order slower than Category 2s.

While it’s not that tidy, I figured I’d give it a shot. I like road races better than crits, anyway, I thought. WELL.

The 11-mile long course had some nice rollers, twists, fun descents, and a primary climb that served as the end of the lap. But it also had some obstacles, including metal-grate bridges, speed humps, one undulating stretch of road, and a covered bridge that could swallow a bike tire. The biggest gaps in the wood were covered by carpet on race day, but you still had to pay close attention to where your wheels were going.

But, as it turned out, none of those things created a problem. What torpedoed my race was a pothole at the top of the climb. I hit it at the end of the second of five laps and dropped my chain. The rider in front of me avoided it at the last moment; I couldn’t. I needed to wait for other riders to pass me before I could pull over and throw the chain back on, and couldn’t make up the gap.

It bummed me out because I had decent position and gained confidence. So I rode the last three laps mostly solo in the extremely humid conditions. I’m not sure how far back I finished from the main group, but I finished, and that was enough for me.

As they say, that’s racin’. I’m glad to have done both events, pushed myself and explored my limits. Hopefully I can use that experience when I’m back in action in a couple weeks.

Fundraising update:
Smoketown Criterium – 24th (worth $5)
Tour of Mt. Nebo – 9th (worth $10)
Rodale Park Crit – 10th (worth $10)
Coatesville Road Race – ? Seriously, my name isn’t on the results. (worth $0)

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