Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Battle of Charge Pond

Well if there's anything I should be worried about bringing a roadie to a MTB race, it's certainly not an overly well-developed fear of death. At this weekend's outing to Charge Pond, there were four significant crashes in two races, one of which took out a quarter of the A field, making sitting way off the back and trying to stay on your bike a reasonable strategy for finishing top 25. Thankfully no-one was wheeled off on a gurney. The main things injured in the carnage were the finances (and likely, by association, the marriages) of a large number of middle-aged white men. There's nothing that says "don't go home without flowers" like blowing your kids' college fund on a $10,000 bike and then turning it into mechanical pencil refills in a human fender-bender a month before the real racing season starts. (I maintain the moral high ground by continuing to avoid carbon fiber bikes like economy cars with bashed up front-passenger quarter panels).

Eric managed to keep the rubber side down and out of the wind to hang for most of the race until a narrow miss of the biggest mashup put him off the back and his legs refused to carry him back of to the front.
I similarly kept the rubber side down by making the strategically flawed but ultimately safe decision that you can't get crashed out by someone else if you're on the front. Coming from a purely off-road background, the concept of not going as hard as you can sustain for [insert race duration here] from beginning to end is totally foreign to my sensibilities and thus I pulled a lot of wind. Seemingly, I didn't break enough of it to keep the field off my back wheel. Nonetheless I came into the last corner second wheel, where I executed my second major tactical error. Knowing I could take the corner faster than the lead I elected to take him on the outside (as he initially took the inside line). Of course he crossed a couple logical lanes by the end, barely keeping on the pavement and sending me into the sand. Needless to say I wasn't in the best position for the sprint... Inside next time for sure.

Being a veteran of multi-hundred mile off-road stage races that have fewer injuries than this hour of racing, I was truly dumbfounded at how it's easier to get hurt riding a road bike around a paved circle than doing a full tour of duty in Iraq, until I saw this:
I know doping is rampant in road cycling (and probably in MTB too, although the sport isn't popular enough for anyone to care), but note the warning label on this pill bottle that clearly states: "May Cause drowsiness", and most likely further down "do not operate machinery while using this medication", though I didn't roll it over to check for fear its owner might wake up while I was futzing with his meds and kill me to keep me from telling the WADA. Anything that makes you sleepy isn't going to make you faster. As empirical evidence shows, it will probably just cause you to destroy your foofy carbon bike.

Back to the woods where it's safe!

More photos here.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

How the Other Half Lives

If there's anyone still reading after I geeked out about mountain bike tech for a week, today I bring this blog back to its roots. Some months ago Eric and I embarked on a journey to turn his spandex clad butt into the baddest, meanest, off-road podium junkie that ever lived. Though filing Eric's incisors has increased the effectiveness of his wily grin by orders of magnitude, there's still a lot of work to do--mainly on his bike... As there's a high likelihood that I'll be torturing him endlessly over the next 14-weeks, (sorry, man) it seems only fair that I walk a mile (or 25) in his remarkably uncomfortable looking shoes. Thus, (and you'd better sit down for this) I'm going to enter a road race this Saturday. In keeping with my streak of never having entered an official USCF road race, my foray into the world of skinny tires will be the Charge Pond Training Series for a dizzying number of laps around 1.36 miles of pavement in a pack of 60 dudes all sitting in for the sprint at the end. My Cat 4 road status will keep me from racing up with my intrepid partner in the A race, which has the advantage of leaving plausible deniability around any claims regarding the quality of my performance (Read: having your partner hand your butt to you on a platter along with 50 other guys would be a significant blow to my ego), and maybe give me some chance of not being last.

The Goal: Don't Pull a Lance.

Hopefully the roadies will keep their distance if I wear this (from Taipei Cycle show):

img credits:

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Geometry: Fit by the numbers.

In my last geek-tastic post about bike geometry, I talked about the trend toward moving the rider back on XC bikes with respect to the center of the bikes' wheelbases. And mused about the usefulness / comfort of exploiting the lengthened wheelbase to move a rider more forward on a bike with respect to the back wheel, and by association, the pedals.

After spending some time at my LBS riding bikes, I'm convinced that comfort and riding style are largely independent of seat angle, provided there is ample cockpit to acommodate one's wingspan at the required seating position. This means that the cockpit can be shifted forward and back along the wheelbase freely to affect other characteristics of the bike.

What I did find to have a big effect on my comfort with a bike, however, was the relationship of my position (in two dimensions) to the front and rear contact patches of the bike. Being an unusually tall guy, it's easy to get myself going head over heels, both forward and backward if I'm not careful about shifting my weight properly, so every little bit of stability in either direction helps.

Though there were many things I disliked about it, one of the best climbing and descending bikes I rode was the Specialized Epic Comp. As compared to my current bike, the rider sits quite a bit more forward of the rear wheel, but because the BB height is higher, it's only a little bit more forward in terms of stability. In any case, with 63mm more wheelbase, the rider not only sits a little more forward of the rear wheel, but also a lot more behind the front, lending the bike to more confidence on both climbs and descents. Normalizing all of the other bikes for the same climbing position of the Epic (because we've now decided that this is ok--imagine simply shifting the saddle and lengthening or shortening the stem), the rest of the bikes from the previous analysis stack up like this (click for big):

(higher bars indicate a higher ratio of [horiz. distance to front wheel]:[vert. distance to ground] from the rider's Center of Mass. All cockpits have been shifted so ratio for rear wheel is standardized)

The take home message here is that my poor old ride (Superlight '06 modified), despite being awesome in a lot of ways, is really tippy on both ends compared to everything else out there right now. Just about anything I could buy would descend more confidently without a decrease in climbing stability. Maybe this is a long path to a short conclusion regarding my own ride (I already knew it was too short), but it does yield a good quantitative comparison tool the extrapolate one handling aspect of a whole bunch of bikes I'll never get to ride from the few that I can find at my local shops. As you can see, there is a lot of choice among new bikes in simply this one measure. Deciding where I want to be on this spectrum immediately narrows the options enough that it's possible to optimize the path for getting there: Are lower pedals a reasonable compromise for stability in a shorter bike (new superlight), or does it make sense to go bigger and sacrifice some nimbleness for decreased pedal strikes? Is it better to have a steeper head angle and longer TT or the other way around? These are all questions that still go unanswered... for now.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Hump

The Hump: an imaginary mountain that many of us humans who forgot our bikes for a little too long and indulged a little too much over the winter are doomed to climb every spring (or late winter, in our case). To call it a "Hump" is a classic exercise in understatement. You begin your ascent fat, weak, and buried in a cocoon of winter insulation that drags you back at every turn, but despite being cold, sore and demoralized you keep turning one foot over the other lest you be forever trapped in the cold dark valley of the hump, a fate we wouldn't wish on a worst enemy.

One foot over the other with your head down, only to be lifted one day by the spring dawn reaching it's tendrils over the mountain's peak. Suddenly drinking the warmth of the eastern sun you smile and realize how good everything feels.

25 degrees this morning, and all I want to do is ride singletrack. (and I did. It was excellent.)

14-weeks to go. It's all downhill from here.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Why can't we all be engineers?

In response to my over-analytical post on bike geometry, the indefatigable TMB linked me to a sexy German machine called the Liteville 301. Now I'm not sold on the geometry, weight or suspension design of this thing, but MAN do they know how to make a chart.

Check this out:

Let every bike manufacturer take a lesson from this piece of art. They followed all of the six commandments of part specs:
  • Thou shalt post detailed specifications of your part on the internet
  • Thou shalt make a diagram to show what your measurements actually mean
  • Thou shalt choose one, and only one system of measurement in your chart. (though it's ok to have two charts if you like)
  • Thou shalt identify the size fork your bike is designed around
  • Thou shalt identify the weights of your components
  • Thou shalt identify what the weights you post actually mean
and then added BONUS FEATURES to boot. First, weights with and without interchangeable parts (shock), awesome. Then a reference table for how the geometry changes with different forks so we don't have to do math, yes, Yes YES. 40 Pedal Points! (though BB drop is a useless measurement most of the time. I get that they do this because it doesn't change with tire size, but the doing math thing to get BB height doesn't sit well...)

Somebody in the industry send this around, please...

crying tears of joy,

Friday, March 20, 2009

Nobody Said it was Easy...

Mountain bikes have come a long way since the dawn of our little sport. Long gone are the days of winged lizards and beaked fish that roamed the earth when the sport was young (yes, the bike on the right has two forks. Circa 1995), but that doesn't mean the evolution of the MTB as stopped by any means. MTBs are a really difficult design problem, they need to be adept at high and low speed, steep climbing and steeper descending; nimble on hardpack, stable on bumpy stuff, grippy in mud, and these days aren't given a second look if they're more than 22 lbs. Thinking about designing one makes me want to sing this (don't ask me how I made that connection, but imagine you're singing it to your third not so good prototype design as you're hauling it out to the trash and it totally works. Go ahead try it, here's the music)

Anyway, I'm in the market for a new bike. I'm convinced the top tube on my '06 Santa Cruz Superlight is too short for my 6' 4" frame, and a quick look at the geometries of the bikes on the market right now revels the fact that bike manufacturers are doing some very different things now than they were when my SL (generation 2 of 3) was the hot new thing. To illustrate what I mean, here are some graphs of the changes in key geometry measurements of 7 bikes from 4 manufacturers over the last 10 years or so (all bikes size XL or equivalent.. I scaled up the old Blur to an XL to compare with the new Blur XC carbon. And yes, I know it's a limited sample, but this is only a blog, k?):

There's has been a clear trend in slackening of head tubes across all the bikes surveyed. In 2009 every single model is at an all-time low in terms of this measurement. Somewhat relatedly, wheelbases have also been increasing across all these bikes.

It's also worth noting how short top tubes were in the early days of MTB, as illustrated by the 1997 HKEK, and how closely most manufacturers have converged on this parameter. We have come along way indeed, thogugh the Yeti seems to be clinging to the old ways of shorter top tubes.

There doesn't seem to be any significant trend in seat angles, some companies seem to be going forward, some back, some nowhere, though a common design decision of late has been to push out the top tube, slack the head tube and steepen the seat angle as seen with the Epic, FSR, and Superlight above.

ST angle increase or no, every single bike above has achieved a net rearward movement of the rider's center of mass with respect to the center of the wheelbase, when combined with a slacker HT angle, that means that all will likely be more confident descenders. My hypothesis about the steepened STs is that it's a compromise to improve climbing efficiency on steep grades and power on the flats at the expense of rearward positiong for downhills. As a die-hard seated climber and endurance racer with big long femurs, my initial reaction to steeper ST is "bleghhhh", but one never knows, this could be some sort of silver bullet...

Another effect of a slackened head tube is increased Mechanical Trail (as defined by David Gordon Wilson's "Bicycle Science"), which increases the amount the bike's center of mass drops and shifts to the inside while turning. In my experience, this tends to make the bike feel livelier under the rider for a fixed sharpness of turn (though you need to turn the bars farther than with a steep HT angle), making it easier to move the bike out of plane with one's body.

In all, I'm in agreement with most of the evolutionary changes seen above, though I'm still skeptical of the more forward [wrt the pedals] riding position created by steeper ST angles. With XC courses becoming more technical every year and light materials allowing for bigger travel and bigger bikes for less weight, shifting XC bikes in a plusher more stable direction makes a lot of sense.

Over the next couple of weeks I'm going to be riding some new bikes, and will be back with more blather on this thread...

[Edit: A note on why I chose the bikes I did. As a Santa Cruz Rider I'm particularly well acquainted with their history. Eric rides a Yeti. Specialized is a recognized standard in MTB, as was GF some years ago (I also used to ride a HKEK). Both these companies also had awesome archives on their websites. I excluded Trek, despite their being a huge company, because IMO they couldn't make a mountain bike that rode well until the advent of ABP and they didn't have geometry in their archive. Then I got tired before adding more.]

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Out of House and Home

Eric and I got back to the woods today, with a trip out to "Otis AFB" in Falmouth, MA (quotes because we'd get shot at if we actually went onto the base. We were just sorta in the woods behind it). In the course of our adventure, which included three hours of hammering swoopy singletrack (and yes we hammered real nice), we managed to eat three bagel sandwiches, a bottle of accelerade, a gatorade, an iced tea and a whole large pizza.

Fearing the wrath of my housemate if I ate all the food in the house and didn't replace it, I went to the grocery store and did some stocking up on the way home:

As I carded the $266 bill, I got to wondering "how much does this little sport of ours really cost us [in food]?"

Let's assume my base metabolism is about 2400 Cal/day. This is probably a little low but it makes for round numbers. Now let's assume I average about 800 Cal/hr while training (for me, this corresponds to a heart rate in the 130s while riding). By these numbers, I burn 700 Cal extra for every hour I'm training. If I'm training in one form or another about 10 hr/wk on average throughout the year, that's 700 x 10 x 52 = 364,000 Calories.

I did a little internet hunting to figure out what 1000 calories might cost in terms of different things. In power bars, it's about $4.17, in rice it's about $0.25 and in a mix of green vegetables it's about $36. For the sake of argument, I'm going to take the lowball number of $2/1000 Cal (this is roughly what low income Americans spend). By that math, my cycling habit costs $728/year simply in extra calories I burn during training, not including an increased base metabolism, race fees, and parts I break (which, including today's chain, is already over $200 this season).

Anyone want to take up couch surfing?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Another Sort of Power-Tap

I just recently read "Three Cups of Tea", the story of an American who dedicated his life to building schools in the remotest regions of central Asia (think Baltistan and Northern Afghanistan). Of the many amazing qualities exhibited by Mr. Greg Mortenson, the most striking was his singular focus and dedication to the integrity of his mission. In a place where an American infidel invariably brought suspicion, the purity of Greg's actions brought him favor with nearly everyone he met, and made him a hero among tens of thousands.

I have to confess that I sometimes have a hard time taking Eric seriously when he expounds upon the profundity of what we do (cycling). After all it's just a sport, and of the sort that's largely inaccessible to most of the world's inhabitants due to the whole part about needing a bike. At the same time, as I read Greg's story, I couldn't help drawing parallel between his focus and integrity, and that of a disciplined athlete. In sport, you are the sum of the work you pour into your own success. There are no shortcuts (lest you bring shame to yourself or your sport), no pretending you are what you are not, and everything you are is laid out on stage (or bikereg) for the world to see. Embracing the realization that you can hide nothing and that everything you receive is by the strength of your own back builds an increasingly rare type of character not unlike Greg's--a character with the strength to move mountains. As athletes we are all lucky to possess even a little of this strength. In our long hours alone on the road, when a ribbon of white line steers the direction of our thoughts, we would all do well to ponder what mountains we should be moving after we get home.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Let's call it "Cross-training"

You know your head is a little too deep into conditioning when you start having to justify your extra-curricular activities to your training plan, no matter how shoddily prepared that plan may be. 

When one of my best buds rang me up last week and said, "Pack your bags, we're going to Colorado!" I nearly bailed, and for all the wrong reasons. Sure, I didn't want to spend the money right now, and I have a pile of work to do when I get home, but the straw that nearly broke it (the camel's back, that is) was the prospect of another five days away from the bike.

Coming back from two months of shameless atrophy has been a mental and emotional struggle--all of a sudden having so many weaknesses it's difficult to know where to start--and being obsessive by nature, the obvious solution is avoiding all unnecessary distractions until I'm back at 100%. Skiing, of course, was not on the gym schedule.

Sitting here in Phoenix, after three days of crashing trees and hucking cliffs above 10,000' (thanks to Amy for giving me endless crap until I ponied up and hopped a plane), I've now had adequate time to develop the appropriate rationalization for cheating on my wife, er... bike for the long weekend. Two Words: CROSS TRAINING.

First of all, we have the altitude. There's nothing like panting through a quarter-mile of moguls at eight times that distance above sea level to get your cardio in order. Not to mention the extra aerobic benefits of running an adrenaline overdose for half a day at a time.

If the altitude isn't enough to convince you (myself) that powder-chasing is a worthwhile training exercise, consider the experience gained operating in adverse conditions (right). I may be aging, but my beard isn't that white yet. It is however, a pretty excellent snowflake magnet, even when compared to Pat's beard-cicles (far right).

Third, the line-finding skills required to negotiate a mountainside full of tight, un-tracked trees is not that unlike threading the needle through gnarly singletrack. As you can see below, I'm a lot better at singletrack.

And finally, I was provided with yet another reminder that there are plenty of things way scarier and more dangerous than mountain bike racing.

...and there's nothing more valuable than perspective.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

TDD Part 3: The Base-ics

It's been a long time since we talked training philosophy. In fact, I promised this post months ago, you know, before I left the country for an extended period of time and Eric dropped off the face of the earth into a Cytomax, er... tokamak. Either way, knowing we're going to a race for sure (though the exact details of that might be in flux again...), does indeed provide focus, and as I pushed through a trainer-driven viewing of Seasons this morning in leiu of our snowed-out MTB ride, a vision of the next couple of months began to unfold.

I've always had natural ability as a pure endurance rider, and as such the long, slow base thing has never appealed to me as a training strategy (since it's already my strength), but I think there's more to my skepticism about long, slow base than personal preference. Low-intensity training does three things very well--burn fat, build capillary density, and improve spin. For most everything else, higher intensity training causes much greater physiological adaptation per unit time. Translated into english, slow base makes you a cyclist--reshapes your muscles, improves pedaling technique, trims body fat, vascularizes your muscles; and since the recovery time from riding slow is short, it's possible to put in massive hours--again great for the new cyclist. Once you're already a cyclist, slow base confers a much smaller benefit, and IMO should be deemphasized.

"So what do we do all winter after the beer runs out?" Personally, I switch to "the only whisky you can drink for breakfast" (according to my partner from TR last year, at right), but when I'm good and tanked enough to be able to brave the 15 degree temps, I do ride "base", and by no means is that plugging along at a fast walk for 5 hours at a time.

The success of any training activity for a particular ability is related to how well that training tests the limits of the ability, and naturally, the harder you go the more abilities you test. An endurance MTB racer is concerned primarily with two abilities: aerobic endurance and muscle endurance, where aerobic endurance is cardiovascular fitness and muscle endurance is cardiovascular fitness plus strength. (Strength is important factor in the latter because pushing muscles closer to their force limit breaks them down faster.) Spinning long hours at a pace that isn't at the limit of your aerobic power output stresses neither of these abilities.

So dump base altogether and do intervals till you puke? Though a 2007(?) issue of Bicycling suggested just that, or at least the I2Puke part, there is a reason to ride somewhat slow, and it's all about physiology. So far as I have read, the one physiological adaptation that simply takes time is the improvement of capillary density in your muscles (I'm assuming you already have that sculpted cyclist body here...). When muscle tissue is constantly in demand of oxygen and energy, the blood slowly erodes new channels to service that tissue, but like water eroding stone, it doesn't happen very fast. The capillaries also go away if you don't need them. If you were to ride as hard as you could all the time, your muscles would never be able to recover enough between rides for you to put sufficient hours on the bike for maximizing your vascularization.

Instead of dropping base altogether, pick it up a little. By riding your base miles near your aerobic threshold you challenge your aerobic system without significantly increasing recovery time (studies have shown that both fatigue and recovery time spike as soon as you cross over your AT), and if you're already a trained cyclist you'll have no trouble keeping this pace up for 4 hours at a time with some practice. For clydesdales, focus on duration. For us skinny guys, it won't hurt to go a little shorter and venture over your AT into the hills for building up those muscles. In most athletes, your hart rate at your AT is about 20-30 bpm below what it is at your lactate threshold, which is usually defined as the pace you can hold for the last 20min of a 30 min time trial.

For you voyeuristic folks here's what I'm doing (Eric is on a very similar plan). If you subscribe to my blog reading philosophy, you may choose to stop reading now:

Since returning home a month ago I've been riding pretty much pure "Base", or "BS" as it was called in our original plan layout. I tend to respond well to crunching, so I've been riding at AT for as long as time allows fri-sun, leaving most of the week open. As one of my biggest weaknesses is force, I've been trying to hitting the weights 2x/week (mon-wed), working both the upper and lower body. I keep reps high on the lower body (25), while doing fewer reps (10-12) and more weight with the upper body.

Right now, while strength training is of high importance, the riding during the week is light, generally consisting of easy off-road rides 2x week, time allowing. After about 6 weeks on the weights, weight room visits will decrease to 1x/week and the reps will drop for half the sets to 5. My philosophy behind the rep decrease is that power lifting improves muscle recruitment and coordination, which I lack. The second weight day will be replaced with hill repeats at high intensity as the start of a "build phase".

Once sprint practice and racing start happening in earnest, the weights will get dropped altogether with the hope that the intensity in everything else will retain the strength gained in the gym.

If you want to know even MORE gory details, you can view my ride log here (it will live forever more in the right sidebar). I've gotten over my guilt about the fact I never fill out the weekly goals, and my embarrasment that Eric refuses to use it at all (as a monk of the anti-datarian order, it offends his religious sensibilities), to bare all against a backdrop of google spreadsheets. Feel free to heckle me when I'm not riding enough. I'd do it for you.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Same Tires, Different Partner

When you're in the midst of preparing for a team event where ramp-up begins 6mo in advance, there's always this little voice in the back of your head saying "what ever will we do if something happens to [your partner here]?" especially if if "something" is an important broken bone (knock on wood) and it happens a week before the event. Every once in a while that voice gets loud enough while you're out alone in the woods that you start thinking of alternates.

The obvious first First Alternate choice is your other riding buddy who kinda wanted to go but didn't really think he could afford it, or get the time off work, or have enough time to train (despite the fact he's on EVERY ONE of your rides), but would be powerless to resist being a hero if called upon in the final hour. I was basically this guy my first season. The hook is simple: You hand him a pint and the chance to join you on a huge testosterone-fueled competitive adventure with the excuse (for wife/girlfriend/mom/boss) that he has to do it because his buddy is in a pinch and has nobody to turn to... He's in for sure.

But if he bails too (SOME FRIEND YOU ARE!) don't forget about your other best friend:

Sure, he doesn't ride a bike, but he's way faster than you on the singletrack and always has a spare wet-nap for your shades. Loyalty is his middle name, and he never complains about the fare at aid stations:
Your four legged friend might even be a ringer. In Transrockies 2006, Rufus, the camp dog from Nipika, ran the entire 64k to invermere and came in 136th overall (of 175). Sure, that's not a podium spot, but he was RUNNING, and probably stopped to pee on at least 300 trees.
I took my second alternate out for a ride today in some "choice" conditions to test him out against the studded tires from my last post. It was 24degF and snowing with a trail surface that was about 60-70% clear and 30-40% glare ice, all blanketed with about 3/4" of fluffy white on top. The tires do grip a little better at speed than doggie claws, but in the rough stuff I didn't have a chance against a quadriped.

Glare ice + about an inch of snow tends to be the most difficult terrain for a studded tire because the snow packs between the studs and the ice then slides. As a designer, you're always working a compromise between more rubber for better dry traction or deep snow shoveling and less for better spike bite. Schwalbe erred all the way in the bite direction with with tall, narrow-headed knobs and lots of open space (click pic for big). Not surprisingly, the Schwalbe performed very well today, somewhat justifying the compromise on deep-snow traction. This is truly an ice tire (good thing I live in New England). As expected, it didn't grip particularly well on exposed rocks, of which we have many at the moment, but the grip was consistent and when it slid, it did so predicatably. Eric has a pair of Nokians in the mail, so we'll be pitting them head-to-head with my setup if the (crappy) weather holds.

Ride safe. Ride in the woods.