Wednesday, February 27, 2013

More races, more gear — Part two

Heck, it's only been a couple of days since my last post. You remember. The one where I detailed how I have signed up for even more races and have sought choice gear. In the short period of time between then and now, I managed to sign up for another race — El Scorcho, my first 50K. For those not familiar with the Fort Worth race, it is held at midnight in July. So that means the temperature will be a chilly 80 to 90 degrees at that ungodly hour. Why do this race? For the challenge. And because I know I can. Remind me I typed those words on July 21, please.

I didn't, however, get any new gear since my last post; although, I am guilty of eyeing those new Adidas Energy Boost shoes that are plastered over magazines and the Internet.

But enough about shoes. Let's get back to MTB Search 2013.

I am a loyal customer of Bicycles Plus. The good folks at the Snider Plaza location have treated me well. I received exceptional customer service when I bought my Cannondale CAAD10 4 Rival there in 2011. The staff is helpful and they do kick-ass ish when they're not selling or wrenching (ex. A: Kevin Campagna is prepping for Tour Divide — the self-supported race from Banff, Canada, to Antelope Wells, N.M.; follow his training and progress on Facebook). Oh, and Bicycles Plus also offers lifetime service on bikes purchased at the shop — something all LBSes should do. And all the locations I've visited (three of four, sorry, Allen) are pretty solid. During a lunch break last week, I stopped by the Coppell location to check out some more full-suspension 29ers.

BMC Fourstroke FS03 29 XC SLX (store had top-of-the-line model)
First, just let me say the name alone is a turn off — the tail end of it looks like a launch code or something CAPTCHA would spit out. That's not enough to turn me off, but the suspension is. My ideal fork in my price range is a RockShox Reba or Fox CTD 100. The RockShox Recon Gold is just not cutting it for me. That, and the rear suspension is suspect. I think the shock — Scor SHP200 — is made by BMC because I have never heard of it or seen it on other bikes. What's worse, the suspension system is too similar to the Trek Fuel 95 I had backinnaday. I was not a fan of its bobbing on even the smallest least technical climbs. These points and the fact that it was pushing the top end of my budget shot holes in this otherwise sweet-looking Swiss machine.

Cannondale Scalpel 29er 3
I never considered Cannondale bikes before I bought my road bike. But I've been impressed with it, so I figured its MTB offerings were worth considering. The obvious difference with this bike compared to the others is the Lefty fork, which is Cannondale's specialty (note: Fox, RockShox and others have helped with the internal mechanism of the fork). Lefty is certainly different. It's lighter, it's responsive and the location of the lockout is ideal (the dual crown inverted design places it right at the headset). This bike normally would have been out of my price range, but the price at Bicycles Plus was $500 off MSRP. Of course, when it comes to bikes, not all MSRPs are intended to be followed; so I can't say it's a true discount (other stores online are selling them below MSRP, too). Anyway, the Scalpel 29er 3 has a pretty sweet part spec and is a nice looking bike. But ultimately I am not a fan of the Lefty fork at any price point.

Scott Spark 950
Seeing TPG's sick Scott Plasma and witnessing how fast she can pedal that stealthy ride made me interested in seeking out the brand's MTB options. I was very interested in the Spark 950 as soon as I saw it online. Much like the BMC, the only potential problem is the Scott-brand rear shock. Otherwise, it looks like its geometry is similar to the aggressive stance of the Orbea Occam 29 H30 I really liked. Alas, no one has these bikes. Bicycles Plus and other local shops no longer stock the brand. The only place I can find that sells them is REI; one problem though: they don't have them in stock. Gotta place an order without riding, which is not something I am willing to do. Word from a couple of shops that used to carry them is that in recent years Scott has oversold its models and customers had to wait months to get their backordered bikes. That's too bad, because I thought this bike would be a serious contender.

To be continued ... 

Monday, February 25, 2013

More races, more gear — Part one

Not too long ago, I mentioned I filled my plate with some righteous racing. Well, guess what? I got a bigger plate! After running my first trail half-marathon in San Angelo on March 9, I will switch gears for my second Spinistry ride — the Red River Riot, a 120-mile gravel grinder on March 30 in Muenster, Texas. After an excellent time at the Texas Chainring Massacre, I am quickly learning that gravel is where it's at.

Oh, and I also signed up for the Triple Threat — the Wee-Chi-Tah mountain bike race on Friday, Aug. 23, which precedes the Hotter  'N Hell Hundred, which is followed by the Wee-Chi-Tah half-marathon trail run.

My calendar is looking friggin' rad these days. Many weekends this spring and summer will involve rides, runs, rallies and races, and spectating the crap out of events that TPG and others are signed up for.

It's not a maxim, but many times races/training means more gear. One piece that's essential for training for and racing in my first 24-hour race:
A bright-ass bike light. I looked at so many comparison guides and reviews to figure out the appropriate lumen ratings, the necessary accessories (batteries, cables, helmet attachments) and reasonable price (pro tip: your light shouldn't cost more than your bike). I finally settled on a sweet Gemini Duo. Such a compact design and lightweight, this little dude packs a manufacturer's rating of 1400 lumens (some reviews say its actual lumen rating is 1100). What does that look like?
That's outstandingly bright! My Duo arrived today, and I can confirm it is just that bright. I can't wait to give it a try on a dark trail!

Light. Check. That was an easy purchase. In addition to running a couple of Niterider handlebar lights, I am set for riding at night. The harder decision? Buying a new bike. I have flipped and flopped many times about whether I really needed a new bike. I like my 10-year-old Trek hardtail. It's the bike that got me hooked me on mountain biking. I've had other mountain bikes — newer, nicer, pricier, but it's the one I've kept. So why upgrade? The key factors are performance and comfort. Technology has improved, and my old hardtail isn't the most comfortable, efficient-shifting rig.

My needs: A full-suspension ride (80-100 mm front and rear), 29-inch wheels, light as possible, best mix of components (no off-brand brakes, no low-end part specs). Oh, and it has to ride like it's on rails and be fast as %#$*.

The best things about bike shopping? Staring at beautiful machines, the smell of new tires and riding bikes of course. The worst part? Visiting multiple bike shops. I have stated my opinions of local bikes shops and their wildly different levels of customer service.

First up, I visited the LBS nearest to my home. Dallas Bike Works is just about 4 miles from Casa del Trece. DBW's selection is incredible, too. Of the brands and models I wanted to ride, they carried a few. Even better, the shop has a grassy hill and BMX pump track behind it, so you can actually get a decent idea how a bike will perform on dirt.

Santa Cruz Tallboy
I have a soft spot for SC. It has made sick skateboards for decades and the bikes have always caught my eye. In fact, about 7 years ago, I almost bought an SC Blur. As much as I loved the look of that bike, it just didn't fit me — too much of a trail bike and not as well-suited for cross-country riding. That's kind of the same verdict for the Tallboy. I enjoyed riding it, but it didn't seem very agressive. It handled OK and was comfortable, but it lacked the quickness and agility I sought.

Orbea Occam 29 H30
How do you know you're in a good bike shop? The owner lets you test ride his personal bike. That was the case at Dallas Bike Works. For the second day in a row, I hopped off at White Rock Station on the DART Blue Line to swing by the shop closest to my home and test ride the next bike.

While Boyd Wallace's H30 was extremely modified — RockShox SID World Cup fork and carbon wheelset, for starters — I got a great feel for the bike's geometry. It passed the test better than the Tallboy. It inspired confidence. I knew I had a serious contender. I even fell in love with the brown/gold color.

To be continued ...

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Recap of my first gravel grinder race

Photo by Jessica Lee/courtesy of Spinistry
Race director/Spinistry founder Kevin Lee runs down the details before the start of Texas Chainring Massacre on Feb. 10 in Valley View. 

While it is true that I have a couple of half-marathons coming up, my focus lately is riding my bikes in preparation for 24 Hours in the Canyon. June is well in the distance, but one does need to prepare for such endurance events. And one of the more fun ways to prep for a big race is by entering some smaller races. Ten-or-so days ago, @24inthecanyon tweeted about the Texas Chainring Massacre. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the race (with the most bitchin' name in all of cycling) was coming up and was only an hour from my 'hood. I had to race it.

First, let me explain what TCM is and what it isn't. The race is produced by Spinistry, which specializes in endurance/ultra-endurance rides on a variety of courses, but especially unpaved surfaces. TCM is held on mostly gravel country roads and some paved FM roads. It is not a race for dudes who rock Cervelo P5s. The best bike for a gravel grinder race is a cyclocross rig; to really over-simplify, CX bikes are similar to road bikes but they have off-road tires capable of rolling over rocks, dirt, mud and roadkill (which I saw plenty of on Sunday). Most of the racers at TCM rocked CX bikes, several single-speed rigs. I rode my hardtail mountain bike, which can handle the rough roads just fine but is about 10 pounds heavier and 5-10 mph slower than the average CX bike. My goal was to get some quality saddle time on my MTB and see what tweaks I need to make to my training, fuel and/or gear.

The night before the race, significant rain descended upon the Dallas-Fort Worth area, including Valley View/Cooke County, the location of the race. Flooding in portions of the 78-mile race course forced the race director to run the race on the same course as the 50-mile fun ride. So at 9:15 a.m., all 114 riders pedaled off into a less-than-welcome 17 mph wind with gusts in the 20s. In a word, it sucked. The first handful of miles were on access roads and asphalt, but they were tough sledding with the wind smacking us in our faces. There's an abundance of farm land and fields in Cooke County but not many trees or structures along the roads to mellow the whipping wind — probably the worst obstacle on the front half of the race.

Photo by Jessica Lee/courtesy of Spinistry
The key to riding gravel is following the tire tracks of cars and trucks, which are fairly clear of sizable rocks. If you follow that line, riding is considerably easier. Otherwise, it's gonna be a bumpy ride.

The area was surprisingly hilly, too. The rocky roads only ramped up the difficulty level. As CX riders nimbly negotiated the hills, holes and rough patches, I plodded along, trying to coax my bike to move faster than I could run. It was a challenge at times, and it sure was tempting to downshift into the granny gear. But I toughed it out and stayed away from the tiny chainring. I pedaled comfortably in the larger gears on the flats and the smaller climbs.

I paid attention to my hand positioning throughout the ride. I am trying out a new set of grips, Ergon GP1, in hopes of not aggravating the ulnar nerve issues I've had in the past while mountain biking. So far the grips are doing the trick. I also am testing new fuel options. I gave dates a whirl at TCM. They were a delicious, semisweet pick-me-up that I popped every 15-20 minutes. I think they may be a winner; they're certainly easier to eat than my trued-and-true tortillas!

Photo by Jessica Lee/courtesy of Spinistry
As is true with any bike race or triathlon, ogling bad-ass bikes is part of the fun. I saw so many sweet rides. And while I won't invest in a CX bike soon, I can definitely see their benefits on this terrain. 

The race included a mandatory check-in at the support station. The planned 78-mile race would have had two stations where racers could refuel on the food they placed in their drop bags. I like this option for a race. It allows the event organizer to keep costs down (thus an inexpensive entry fee) and you're guaranteed the station will have something you can eat and drink. I didn't pack drop bags because I wanted to keep everything in my Camelbak. Now, that's not to say that I didn't have a couple dozen animal crackers and some candy orange slices. They were greatly appreciated at the 26 mile marker — half way point of the race.

The back half of the race greeted riders with more asphalt and a friendly tailwind. It also was filled with more climbing. I can't speak for everyone, but considering the wind and the weight of my bike, those 50 miles were just as difficult as riding the Hotter'N Hell 100. Cycling so slowly on rocky gravel and often with no one around you and nothing to look at demands mental fortitude. I'm pleased that I was able to stick it out. I stayed positive by appreciating the fact that I was getting to race on such a beautiful, blue-sky day. I stared at the gravel during the long, tough climbs when I didn't want to know how much farther until the road leveled out. I thought about how tough The Texas Time Trials were. I admired, smiled and said hello to the cows, horses, massive dogs and goats that broke up the stretches of empty acreage. According to the results, about 30 racers/riders DNFed.  I finished 49th out of 59 racers, a majority of whom weren't riding MTBs (stating that just for the record ... oh, and yes, for my pride's sake, too). The timing isn't official yet. By my watch, it took me about 4:15 to complete the race. I'll take it!

Photo by Jessica Lee/courtesy of Spinistry
Such a gorgeous day for cycling on a new route and testing one's mettle. 

So, with months to go until 24:00, I feel good about my fitness, especially considering how sick I was a couple of weeks ago. And it was outstanding to learn about this whole new world of racing in North Texas. I highly recommend signing up for a Spinistry event. They are fun, few-frills (good swag bag), cost less than most rallies/races and offer unique challenges. You won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Tunesday: "Swim Until You Can't See Land," Frightened Rabbit

Scotsmen Frightened Rabbit are celebrating the U.S. release of their latest album, "Pedestrian Verse," today. I haven't finished listening to the free stream on The Guardian's Music Blog, so I can't render a verdict. But I'll venture to say it's a great album, because so far I've loved the band's other efforts. The last full-length record, "The Winter of Mixed Drinks," is thematically about struggle and survival. What I like most about "Swim" lyrically is the drive to just keep going. I have little doubt these days. But I can remember what it's like to be deep in it. Doubt, depression, sadness. God willing, this state of determined optimism will remain. I really can't imagine being happier, and there's nothing I lack in life. Challenges will arise. But I've never been better equipped to face them and conquer them. That's a great feeling. A feeling I won't take for granted.  And I will just keep going as far as this path will take me — by land, by sea, by air. It's a beautiful journey.