2017 Crank The Kanc, Singlespeed Edition

The time trial is known as “the race of truth”.  The only truth I can tell you about racing the Kanc, on a bike with only one gear, is that it sucks!

Why I continue to subject myself to it is a mystery, except it is not.  I approached the race director in 2008, asking if he would create the singlespeed category.  It’s so unique and brutally difficult, and every year I train, hoping this is the year I win and I never have to do it again.  Until then, I carry the torch I asked for.

Ask me about the one time in the last ten years I completed this race feeling like I did something right. It was 2010 – seven years ago.  A time in my life where absolutely nothing had happened yet, and everything was waiting to happen.  I turned myself inside out in that race, wholly focused on what I was there to do, undistracted.  Focused.  Determined.  The results asserted that I won that race, until I had them corrected to reflect that I was actually second best on the day.

In another year, my grandmother would pass away unexpectedly, marking the end of the period in my life in which cycling was something I gave everything for.  After this, there were no more all-day rides.  No more selfless devotion to sport.  My center was refocused.  Time was a commodity that I never saw the same way again.

We had a child, and my world was new.  In the gleaming wonder of that new life, a stream of ensuing loss.  My thirteen year old cousin.  My remaining grandmother.  My aunt.  A close friend’s father.  A dear coworker.  All to cancer.  The unexpected death of one of my closest friends in high school.  These events serve to bind me in ways that will never release me back to cycling as I knew it before.  At least, that is what I believe, today.

Here I sit, days away from the 2017 edition of this race, considering if I have done enough.  I’m confident I have not.  Thinking back to previous years, and my personal bests, and recognizing the salient milestones of suffering that made those possible.  This year, I can identify no such pillars of work.  My time now is invested 2-3 days a week training alongside my daughter for a black belt in Kenpo.  I rode only casually this year; once a week at best through the winter, and then was sidelined for two weeks with the flu in March.  I rebounded for four honest weeks of training, and then a two week taper for this race.  This, is not enough time to get into bike shape.

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Saturday arrives, and I felt great.  I’ve tapered well, I’m healthy, I slept about as well as could be expected, I had a reasonable breakfast.  The bike gave me no surprises.  My plan was to give it hell for the first hour and then just hang on for the final 4.5 mile climb, which I feel like is my only strategy.

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I started last in our field of five, which I prefer.  The top two guys went off a minute ahead of me, so my job is to ride my ass off and hope to keep them in sight.  We were all similarly geared, so they were either going to decimate me or be taken by surprise by their gearing.

I was definitely riding as hard as I could.  I confidently said that to myself about halfway into this race, which is reassuring – even when you know you’re not at your strongest.  My HR looked great for a while, maybe for four miles.  After that, it dropped kind of precipitously; down about 10bpm, until I reached the final climb.  Four years ago, when I PR’d, it didn’t do that.  Because I had legs!  When you have legs, the motor just runs free – wide open – until you crack.  That wasn’t today, and it wasn’t a surprise.

I never saw one and two.  At least twice, maybe three times, I was sure I was reeling in the second place rider, Forrest Brock.  And each time as I drew close and passed, it was definitely not him, but a geared bike racer wearing similar colors.  The eventual winner, Jonathan Meuse – a guy riding my exact bike but six hundred sizes smaller – I knew before this race even started he was a machine and taking the whole thing.  In the final results, Meuse was ten minutes ahead of my PR; Brock was five.  I was five minutes off my own PR.  In another year I could have made it more interesting, but nothing would have changed.

I have a pretty good collection of these mugs at this point, and all of them say 2 and 3.  One year it will come together.  I’ve been close a few times, this not being one of them.  Hats off to the entire singlespeed field this year.  It takes serious brain damage to want to enter this category.

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Pats Peak

I decided I would enter the Cat 2 single speed field at Pats Peak a few weeks before the Washington practice ride.  I had never ridden a bike here, but on paper it looked like the kind of brutally difficult effort I needed to put in the bank.

Also bear in mind that I just purchased a fantastic full suspension mountain bike this year.  For reasons I still do not understand, I opted not to race that bike, deciding instead that I would try to turn one gear up the side of a ski mountain for two hours.

I registered day of, and in the process caught a glimpse of the entry list.  It was only going to be three racers, and immediately I get that pit in my stomach.  It’s the feeling of “just don’t screw this up”.

At the starting line, I’m not feeling too encouraged.  Both of these guys have been racing a lot this year, and I on the other hand, have not.  In fact, my only mountain bike race in the last four years was a month ago.  So right away things are not stacking up for me.  But it’s of no consequence really.  All I need to do is finish this race and not embarrass myself.

We take off, and I the guy who I am certain will win this race takes off as expected.  The other guy I am very close to, and because I am turning 40 this year I do this “cagey mind game thing” where “I try to intimidate him”.  What this really means is I burn half of everything that I have blowing past him, thinking it will demoralize him and he will immediately give up.  That obviously does not materialize and within a few minutes he is safely past me and I am about to begin some time alone.

Pats Peak is a fucking terrible place to race a bike, at least if your bike doesn’t shift.  It is a never ending circuit of switching back and climbing, which is precisely what anyone signing up to race on a ski mountain should expect.  There was some riding, yes, but in large part, it was walking.  Lots and lots and lots of walking.  Too muddy, too technical, too steep, there was always a reason prohibiting you from spending more than a few minutes at a time actually pedaling.

The first of two laps was about an hour of this, with me never ever having sight of the other two racers.  I was firmly resigned to my third place position.  The only other racer I had contact with was a woman who had already finished, but was looking for some extra time on course because her event was cut short.  She would ride nearly everything I could not, on account of having a properly equipped bicycle.

About halfway up the mountain on my second lap, I’m in an actual “riding section” that traverses the face of the hill.  I have a bottle in my right hand, and my left is on the handlebar.  For some reason I am going a little too fast, so I grab some brake, which you’ll realize is going to be the front brake.  I immediately eject myself off the bike and through the tape into the tall grass.  As I collect myself on the ground, something has put a nasty gash in my inner thigh.  Great. This is fun.

I get back on and venture ahead, getting to a point where I just need this thing to be done.  I’m really not sure what kind of training value I’m getting out of this endeavor, as it is primarily hiking.  My energy feels pretty good, but it’s kind of useless.  Also my Garmin is now hanging by a thread, having been damaged in the crash, and it’s a constant distraction.

I finally get into the woods near the summit, where we’ll do a little more fucking around before we actually start to descend the trail system to the finish.  I’ve had enough of looking at this Garmin dangling from my handlebar, so I stop and remove it, stuffing it in my back pocket.  I’m tired of wondering if I’ll lose it, so this is strangely liberating.

Before I get going again I scan the area, and I think I see another racer well in the distance through the forest.  The switch flips and I start to give it a little bit of hell, wondering if just maybe it’s one of the guys from my field.  After a chunk of time, sure enough – I think it’s the second place racer I lined up with.  We come into a densely forested section that neither of us can ride, and I start to get that feeling.  The feeling that it’s time to race.

As we forge ahead on foot, he comes to a stop, and I pass him.  His seat and seatpost are absent from his bike, and I offer a word of sympathy before jumping back on and hammering away.  He immediately remounts, and here we are.  Two miles to go, and the podium is no longer decided – there’s going to be a fight.

I am drilling it.  I have never, ever taken so many chances on this bike in my life.  I am certain I will flat out the way I’m riding.  The tires are all over the place, washing out.  The other racer is right behind me, countering everything I throw at him.  But the one thing I can do, that he can’t, is sit.  And when I sit, I absolutely wring myself out, knowing it’s something he won’t be able to do.  I try to imagine how annoyed I would be in a particular section if I couldn’t sit, and then I sit and mash the fucking pedals with everything I have.

In a few minutes time I’m gapping him, and everything is becoming a blur.  I’m riding the same sections that I saw on the first lap, but completely differently.  They’re nothing but in the way of me getting to the end of this race in second place.

As I get to the top of a small rocky rise, both of my calf muscles lock up in excruciating pain.  There is no way in hell I will stop to work that out.  I keep pedaling in this frustratingly rigid motion, as the muscles refuse to flex.  This has never, ever happened to me before but my only thought is that I will ride it out and hope they resolve.  They have no choice, because I’m not stopping.  Not now.

I charge full gas into the final technical descent, nearly eating shit at least twice over the handlebars.  I have to reign myself in, reminding myself repeatedly that I actually need to finish the race.  All of the adrenaline is firing.  I can’t see the other racer anymore, but the paranoia is too great.

Very close to the finish the trail switches back under a ski lift, and from out of nowhere come half a dozen racers directly toward me.  I have no idea what the fuck is happening, and I’m half delirious at this point, but I’m mostly confident that I’m in the right and they’re all wrong.  Either way, someone is going the wrong way.  We pass impossibly close at speed and one of them clips me in the ribs.  Somehow no one crashes.  There is some shouting among them, and it is quickly worked out that all of them took a wrong turn.  Near disaster.

Minutes later it’s the finish, and I have seized second place from the jaws of mediocrity.  I’m eight minutes behind the winner, and put seven minutes into third place.

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At the podium ceremony, I am made aware that today’s races are USAC State Championship events.  As it turns out, I’m the only one in the field who is actually from New Hampshire, and I am crowned the NH state single speed MTB champion.

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I am not interested in racing here again.

Hanover Cyclocross and the Rebirth of SSCX

We were camping again in the greater Hanover area, so why not take in Hanover CX for a second straight year.

A few days before the race, I went all in on the decision I made a few weeks ago.

I bought a Wolf Tooth 40t chainring, and scavenged some spacers and a castoff XTR short cage derailleur from my landfill of parts.  Frustrated with trying to remove the shifter cables from the Ultegra 6700 levers, I cut the housing and cables right at the bar tape; fuck it.  This thing is going one gear and isn’t going back.  40×19 as it ended up; effectively the 38×18 I last raced routinely in 2008.  I’ve run 42×18 in recent years, and it will be easy enough to throw a 17t cog on and resurrect that ratio if need be.

(Thanks only to Sheldon I can speak fluently in equivalent gearing)

In the “late 2000s”, I experimented with a single chainring, trying all manner of different chain retention gizmos – derailleurs, drop stops, bash guards.  Nothing worked reliably, and rings like the Wolf Tooth didn’t exist yet.  So this would be a real test of faith for me, because I used to drop a LOT of chains.  In fact, I nearly threw my bike in the ocean once because I was so pissed off over dropping a chain.

Naturally I had no real time to do a shakedown of this new setup; I rode it around a campground the day before the race for about ten minutes.  It held together.  So this was either going to work out, or be a really short race.

For someone who rides singlespeed on the road a lot, I shouldn’t have been so surprised at how doable this race was with one gear.  But like anything, you get away from it for long enough and you forget.  It also helped that I didn’t pick an obnoxious ratio.

Hanover is very technical and for me, that’s a great day.  The problem is, this is my second bike race of any kind this year.  I’ve exerted myself at race pace only one time before, which was about four weeks ago at White Park.  I’ve worked out sort of regularly, but haven’t ridden much over the past few months.  Predictably, my lungs were alright, but I had NO (0) {} legs of any kind.

I turned a good first two laps, doing well to get through the infamous serpentine sands of Storrs Pond.  Then, everything just went to shit for ‘ol Chris, when a line he had been using through those granular Hasselhoffian plains seemed to vanish.  I couldn’t have looked worse.  I’d round the same turn each time, and it was just in my head.  One time I resorted to running, which was equally fast as riding as it turned out, but my fucking shoes would NOT stop plugging up.

It was a constant problem here, and it has happened before, and it can’t possibly be the shoes since I’m pretty sure everyone on Earth wearing Mavic Furys would have said something by now.  I’ve gotta try this Crank Brothers shit.  Or this Time shit?  My race at the back was absolutely decided by a complete inability to clip back in.  All I could do is scoot along and wack them against the pedals until they got happy again.  Which sucked because for a while, I had a good competitive little thing going with my nemesis Jordan.

I didn’t stick around for results, so I’m just checking them for the first time as I write this. 14th of 15.  I’m not entirely sure that’s right; I feel like I was at LEAST 14th out of 16.

The big winner though was the drivetrain.  Wholly unlike my performance in this race, it was flawless.

In honor of the first SSCX race I ever did in 2008 (actually, my first cyclocross race ever for that matter), I wore the same exact outfit – the Nike 10/2 MTB jersey I bought on clearance from the Nike Store on Newbury Street almost ten years ago, and the same pair (I think) of Pearl Izumi bibs.

That’s White Birch Session IPA by the way.  It’s gross.

A long time ago, I knew the destiny of the G&T would be to become a singlespeed cross bike.  It was cool to have it finally become a reality, fueled by my disenchantment with conventional category racing.  And more specifically some of the personalities therein.

The starting line vibe for this race was ultra loose, and the race was fun as hell.  It is exactly, EXACTLY why I did this.  The difference between this race and almost every other field of any race on any day is that all the competitors in this field know there are no stakes.  That’s why it’s perfect and that’s why you should do it.

And so why is that?  Why all of a sudden do things change in the typical geared bike fields?  What about them has to be more serious?

What’s on the line in those races that isn’t on the line in a SSCX race?

Nothing.  There is exactly the same opportunity for you, amateur bicycle rider, to do absolutely nothing of professional consequence.

There are precisely a handful of people moving onward and upward through the ranks of the sport, destined for great things at a high level of competition.  For them, racing and placing truly matter.  But those aren’t the people mired in the middle of any pack, in any category.  The destined elite are outright winning races and spend only a handful of time racing in categories you and I will spend a lifetime in.

I can understand that taking something seriously is a way to stay committed and train hard.  In fact, I totally get that.   But where I’ve seen, for years now, that passion translate into chopping guys, taking guys out, the preposterous chippy mid-pack banter – completely misplaced seriousness due to a lack of situational awareness – it’s growing this sport into something that it’s not.  And you can tell me I haven’t raced singlespeed enough to have seen that yet (I’ve raced SSCX nearly every year for the past 8 years), or I’m not up front where the tempers run hotter, but on the whole it is undeniable that the SSCX fields are mentally in a place that the others are not.  The edge is off.  Everyone has one wrong tool for the job, and everyone is resigned to having a good time getting through it.

The sport of cyclocross is stupid.  Try explaining it someone who has no idea what it is.  You can’t do it in a way that will convince them that it makes any sense.  You effectively describe something like mountain biking, but on road bikes with bad brakes and skinny tires.  Even the vaguely informed look at you like “okay buddy, sounds good”.  You may as well be telling them that you mow your lawn with a beard trimmer.

Only in some tangential, loosely fundamental way does it connect that this is something people should be doing.  It’s technically a bike, and technically a race.  Somehow, some way, people race cyclocross for a living.  But – as precariously close as we might feel to those people, by virtue of our incredible level of accessibility to them – that is never, ever going to be us.  And the moment you come to terms with that, and understand that all of this – everything we’re doing – is total bullshit, you can just have fun.

That’s SSCX.

That should be every field.

Knibb High football rules.

In defense of Craig Etheridge and SSCX Nats

Eight years ago I bought a Langster, and forever changed road riding as I knew it.  The pure joy found in mechanical simplicity and savage brutality is hard, if not impossible, to understand if you’ve not been blessed with the experience.  Thousands of miles, over century rides, and mountain passes, and four hour round trip commutes to work – all on what is effectively the wrong bike – change you forever.

The extension of that experience into competitive cycling, for me, seemed natural.  I began entering time trials on that Langster in 2008.  I returned to the world of mountain bike racing – the first time in sixteen years – on a perfectly good 29er that I removed the derailleurs from.  And I was indoctrinated into the world of cyclocross on a one gear commuter bike someone had cast off on Craigslist after a virgin ride.
My heart is in tradition, although truth told I have raced SSCX on a ziptied bike.  My preference is to not have to hassle with immobilizing shifters and taking cables out of the things that move the chain.  I’d rather invest my worry into how I’m going to make it to the top of that runup one more time, rather than fret over whether or not my chain will jump cogs.  As long as there’s adequate inspection before the race starts, I don’t get too worked up over the nuance, although seeing a race rig committed to a single ring and cog makes my heart sing.
It bothers me that Craig Etheridge has an opinion about the National Championship of singlespeed cyclocross that is almost instantaneously vilified.  His contention – that racers are using the SSCX race as a warmup for other championship events – is perfectly valid.  Because that is precisely what some racers are doing.  And it cheapens the race in the process.
Doubling or tripling up your local Saturday classic is one thing.  Nationals need to be held to a different standard.  As long as any race at Nats can be used as a tune-up for another race at Nats, it’s simply not a race that’s worth anyone’s time.  You want everyone in a championship field of one mind – that this is THE race.  All in.  The culmination of an entire season, maybe an entire career of effort and commitment.  This is the big show, the big dance, the big fucking deal.  That’s what makes it special.  If it’s not special, then it’s an expensive waste of time.   
I don’t know why that point of view doesn’t resonate.  Maybe it was lost in some other things that Craig said.  Maybe it’s because factions of the cycling community love to pile on and hammer unpopular opinions.  Will some racers be left out of racing two National Championship events?  Of course they will.  The greater transgression is that those who make SSCX Nats their only race, who pay the same money for the same USA Cycling license, who for one day aspire for the same level of entitlement, participate in a diluted experience.  If the race is worth having, it’s worth having standards.

The Gateway Drug

 Almost exactly as she looked the day I bought her in July of 2008.  This guy had put in about one ride and decided bike commuting wasn’t his thing.  Or one gear wasn’t his thing.  Summarily Craigslisted. 

First race for both of us.  Amesbury in September.

For all the tinkering that happened through the years, by 2012 we had finally gotten serious.