Learning about Bike Racing at Alsatian Omnium

Another weekend of racing is in the books, and other than a game of hearts at the Castro cottage on Saturday night, I came up empty handed in the results department, but not empty handed overall.  You see, I have determined that it is up to me what I take away from each race, and my goal is pretty straightforward: analyze races to find the weak points in my racing, then make those weak points a priority during the coming months.  Write a blog about it to cement the resolve.  Reevaluate after every weekend to gauge progress.  Repeat ad nauseam until I start winning bike races again.  This is precisely the sort of approach to continuous improvement that corporate America developed in me before I disconnected from the machine.  If it works for their bottom line, it is as good a method as I can think of for improving my racing.

Saturday, February 4th

The first day of the omnium was a 70 minute circuit race in the morning followed by an 8 kilometer time trial in the afternoon.  I ended up 19th in the circuit and 14th in the TT.  Neither was as good as I was hoping for, but as long as I measure success by actionable goals, I was a champion, because there was plenty to improve upon that day.

First off, my preparation sucked.  It is obvious that I was never an Eagle Scout; no brake pads for my race wheels, and no cassette tool to put a cassette on my disk.  If it wasn’t for Sol Frost from Austinbikes saving my ass, I would have been sans disk in the afternoon.  Not a big deal, except for when you actually want to go fast.  More on this later.  Long story short: I need to start paying attention to those checklists Coach made for me when I was just a wee cat 4.  It turns out I haven’t outgrown their usefulness.

One of the infamous corners.

Next, the circuit race was another study in low hanging fruit.  It was a fast course with a hill and a few turns; standard fare in Texas.  What isn’t standard fare (or maybe it is) is my ability to take the turns while maintaining a high level of velocity.  From the extensive research that has been conducted by my team of research scientists over the past two days, shedding too much speed coming into the corners means I have to work that much harder to return to my original velocity post turn (P<0.001).  This applies to time trials as well, and is probably even more critical.

Suffering at the turnaround.

Last, the time trial and the part of the weekend I was looking forward to the most.  Here, Sol saved me so I could actually use my disk, which is pretty much required to go really fast, unless your name is Chris Trickey and you decide to do the TT without one and end up beating your hero (nameless) and finish one tenth of a second behind your teammate that is so proud of his ability to time trial (also nameless).  For a guy that supposedly doesn’t time trial, he rode a good one at right under 30 mph.

Sunday, February 5th

On the morning of the road race, the team walked out the front door of our cottage and found that the crazy-mild winter we’d been having up until that point was replaced with real winter.  The temperature had dropped from 75 degrees earlier in the week to 42 degrees.  Despite the chill, there wasn’t a single dress code violation to be found; the importance of these things have not been lost on us.

Not much to say about the road race, except Andrew Willis of Holland Racing once again did an awesome job with course selection for this one.  It was a hard race that blew apart soon after the pace was picked up halfway through.  This is also pretty close to where I was jettisoned from the flotilla and forced to make my way back around the loop one more time in a somewhat less accompanied manner.  The improvement plan from this one can be summed up in one word: patience.  Lighting off a flare and going all-out to join every would-be escape and ultimately blowing up may not be the best way to spend energy 50 miles into an 85 mile race.  As a cat 2 in a P/1/2 race, it’s not my job to be the one that chases the break.  I need to spend more time in conservation mode while being attentive to what others in the peloton are doing so I can better identify and go with the peloton when they are going to chase.  I feel that this is one of the harder skills to learn, especially at this level when a single mistake can get you dropped out of the pack.

I got to spend the weekend racing with teammates, and Willis was able to keep the rain away from the races despite having rain everywhere else in Texas.  It wasn’t a bad weekend by any means, unless your definition of bad encompasses only the “not winning” category.  I don’t like losing, but I’m trying my best to not fall into the trap of viewing bike races, especially at this time of year as a Cat 2, through such a narrow lens.  The way I see this weekend, I walked away with a lot of information about what I need to work on in order to continue improving over the course of the entire season.  After all, evaluation and feedback are the cornerstones of learning.  Without those two things, we simply stagnate.

As somebody told me once: “Learn to race your ****** bike.”  Thanks, Phil.  I’m working on it.

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Filed under Lessons Learned, Race Report, Racing, Team Wooly Mammoth

Dr. Strangebibs

or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bike.

The off-season is officially over.  For me, the last two weeks of October were categorized by long periods of physical rest punctuated by brief, intense spells of mental restlessness.  Repeatedly, over the first few days of those two weeks, I succumbed to near panic attacks as I watched the well-tuned fitness I had developed over the last few weeks of the season slowly die like the embers of a once mighty fire.  I had no desire to be racing or training, but I still had frayed nerves from the vast, empty time that lay in front of me.  To survive, I channeled the nervous energy into other tasks.

During this period, I was able to finally get around to working on projects that were on my list but never really had the time for during the season.  The mix of cooler weather and free time provided the perfect environment to precipitate action out of somebody that is used to riding for at least 3 hours a day.  I cast off the spandex bibs in favor of my trusty (but equally ridiculous looking) gardening hat and went at it.  All it took was a day off from work and a full Bodum to turn a stack of extra two-by’s into a new raised bed garden.  Add some seeds and some water and let the waiting begin.

Raised bed handiwork.

The waiting; this was the hardest part of the off-season for me.  For those two weeks, everything seemed to be in suspended animation.  Coach put a restraining order on the bike and the discipline that comes with daily rides.  A mind that is occupied by nothing but waiting can be convinced to do anything.  All of a sudden, things that were terrible ideas a month ago are perfectly acceptable.  Rain on a Saturday morning?  Sleeping in.  Sweets?  Yes, please.  Beer with dinner?  Can’t hurt.  Wine glass filled with bourbon?  Bueno!

Bueno!

Without the need to get up at 6 am to get a ride in, one beer easily turns into many beers.  And why not?  The consequence of a hangover can be spread out over an entire day and is often completely forgotten about when that one teammate  (you know the one; he’s on every team) calls back at 7 pm to repeat the process from the night before and go get “a beer.”

After the two week descent into debauchery, even the most race fatigued mind is ready to get back on the bike to return to something that even vaguely resembles a routine.  As soon as the cleats clip in for the first time for the first ride, the world exhales; the pause is over.  Somewhere over those two weeks, a mind that was fried off of bike racing re-discovered the ability to enjoy riding a bike again.  Seemingly out of nowhere, what appeared fallow is now beginning to show signs of life.

It's ALIVE!

Bring on the base miles.

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Open Letter to Austinbikes

Dear Sol, Eric and the rest of the Austinbikes team,

I admit that I foolishly scoffed at the idea of custom insoles when you first threw the pitch. I thought they were too expensive for a guy like me and wouldn’t offer much in terms of a competitive advantage. I thought they were just another luxury item marketed to the disposable incomes that seem to hang around our sport.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. I will gladly cop to my folly. After getting Cyclesoles made by Sol in January, I was able to string together the necessary results to earn my Cat 2 upgrade by early May. I then continued on to win the Texas State Cat 2 Criterium and Time Trial championships during the summer. I’m not trying to imply that Cyclesoles magically made me a contender; that would be a translucent claim that any bike racer could see through and would not do anybody any good.

Cyclesoles simply fixed a biomechanical problem that has nagged me from the day I decided to first throw a leg over the top-tube. I don’t have to think about my knees anymore. I haven’t had to take time off the bike to stay ahead of knee problems while they flare up. I haven’t had to coddle myself during training to ensure that my knees stay happy. In this regard, it has freed me to train more consistently: I have been able to flog myself day-in and day-out over the last 9 months to make the best use of training time I have available. A year ago, I wouldn’t have been able to do this. Cyclesoles got me back on the bike and kept me on the bike; they saved my season. These are the single best bike-related investment I have ever made.

Once again, thanks.

-Matti von Kessing
Texas State Cat 2 Crit, ITT and TTT Champion
Now, a little bit of background information:

Cyclesoles are a fully custom footbed made out of heat-moldable foam that are shaped to the foot while in the riding position on the bike. The bottoms of the insoles are then ground down to match the sole of the cycling shoes. In this way, they offer a completely rigid platform for the foot that does not deform under power and will not collapse over years of use, which is one complaint of other heat-moldable insoles.  Finally, the insoles are covered with an anti-microbial fabric woven from unicorn hairs or bamboo or something. I don’t know exactly what it is, but it looks so dope…like having Wall Street executives in my shoes when I ride. The whole process takes around 2 or 3 hours.

Custom footbeds...lots of arch.

Going from off-the-shelf insoles to the Cyclesoles was a HUGE change for me; they took some getting used to. I had some discomfort during long rides until my feet grew accustomed to having something other than empty space under my heel and arch. The little button between my toes was like a burr on a tooth that I couldn’t stop feeling, just because it was there. Not bad, just there. But, after a week or two of riding, the Cyclesoles became invisible. Now, I don’t even know they are there.

Sidi, Specialized and Cyclesoles footbeds.

If you have ever had knee problems on the bike and find yourself in Austin, make a trip to West Lynn and drop in on Austinbikes to say “hi” to the guys there. Tell Sol about your problems. You’ll be glad you did.

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Filed under Crushing Souls, Equipment, Racing, Science!, Sponsor Links

An Ounce of Prevention

We are all familiar with the well-known saying spoken by Benjamin Franklin.  Over and over again, it gets harped on topics such as maintenance and health, and we hear it so often that we roll our eyes when somebody tries to tell it to us again.  The gist, take care of little problems before they become big problems.  Easy, right?  Not necessarily.

As amateur bike racers, we need to squeeze training and racing into a life packed with work and school, while also trying to not alienate our friends, family and significant others on the process.  We dedicate our mornings and evenings to training every week, and entire weekends of leisure time to travel and race our bikes.  In schedules that are already brimming, it is insanely easy to put off doing something as simple as washing the bike or lubing the chain and cables after a ride.

I fall into this trap all the time, and 99% of the time, it pays off with a few extra hours to nap on a Saturday afternoon.  Not last weekend.  All those extra hours that I saved by not taking care of my machine suddenly came back to visit me in the form of a snapped derailleur hanger.  Bad luck, right?  Things happen, no?  It’s part of racing?  I wish I could say that was the case this time.  My broken derailleur hanger was the direct result of negligence on my part.

My mentors from back in Corpus, Donnie Orchard and Michael Lidwell used to harp all the time about keeping bikes clean.  They’d say “You spend enough money on your shit, you might as well take care of it.”  Their words obviously didn’t sink in.  Brendan Sharpe, an experienced mechanic for the Brazilian National Cycling Team and head mechanic at Nelo’s Cycles in Austin, TX told me a couple of weeks ago that lubing the cable housing will make shifting easier, extend the life of shifters and reduce stress on my derailleur hanger.  I took note, but immediately lost it.  I’m a busy man.  I can’t bother to take 5 minutes to get the bottle of Tri-flow out.

Well, he called it.  This past weekend, I downshifted and ripped the derailleur clean off.  Stranded 30 minutes outside of town, tail between legs, I called a teammate and got the sag.  Then we went to brunch and got drunk, but that has nothing to do with my ineptitude at routine bicycle maintenance.  A couple days later, a good friend Chris Trickey called to check in and we got into a discussion about maintenance:

Chris: “When you go out for a ride, do you make sure your ass is clean?”
Me: “Huh?”
Chris: “Your ass.  Do you clean it?”
Me: “Yeah.  All the time.”
Chris: “Then why wouldn’t you do the same for your bike?  You’ve got to take care of your shit.”

And I finally saw where he was going with it.  And then I was embarrassed.  I was embarrassed because I’m a grown man, an experienced bike racer, needing to be told by other grown men that I need to do a better job of taking care of my equipment.  It is embarrassing because it’s true, and I shouldn’t have to be told.  These are the lessons that stick.  You can bet I won’t screw this one up again.

So where am I going with this?  It’s October.  Last month was September.  Breast Cancer Awareness Month and Prostate Cancer Awareness Month respectively.  A lot of people know about the former, not many are familiar with the later.   This month, we’ll see some pink ribbons and maybe even some pink bar tape, and when I see them, I can’t help but think of my broken derailleur hanger.  Of all the shortcuts I take in my life, not all of them are as inconsequential to my day-to-day life as embarrassing myself in front of friends and needing a ride home.

Moral of the story: Take care of things and get your shit checked.

Another big thanks to Jim Hicks for the awesome photography he provides on a weekly basis.

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The Euro New Year

September is lazily rolling to a close and calendars everywhere are running out of pages: the last monument of the World-tour calendar, the Giro di Lombardia is a few short weeks away and the Texas State Championships concluded the official TXBRA calendar last weekend.  The end of one calendar year always brings with it the start of the next; a time of year I like to think of as the Euro New Year.  Racers everywhere are getting ready to hang up their race bikes for a couple of weeks before starting to build toward the fresh spring races; only a few more Driveway races remain to entice the Austin-area peloton to continue throwing legs over the top-tubes to ride out whatever fitness remains from State.

For some, the Euro New Year means a much needed vacation from the bike, after close to 9 months of sacrifice, to let the mind recover; time spent with our ladies and our friends (or our lady-friends, if you’re following me) enjoying beers and other divine treats that were feared and avoided during the season.  Others will ride the fitness wave into Cross season and get exposed to crazy things like hecklers, cow-bells, barriers, high-side primes and run-ups.  Personally, I’m in the former camp and not the later, although I will be doing my best to mix the former with the later by making appearances at the cross races (ladies, friends and beers in tow) to heckle the suffering masses.  Regardless if the plan is completely removed from the bike or is a simple change from calipers to cantilevers, the basic goal is still the same: immerse a tired mind in something relaxing; bring fun back into the equation.

Enjoying a drink or two while not sweating my ass off.
Notice the relaxed posture, the beverages (Belgian style, of course) and the lack of form-fitting clothing; this man is ready to celebrate the Euro New Year. 

As I’ve mentioned, during the weeks around the Euro New Year, it is customary to relax one’s lifestyle slightly; possibly even smiling during what rides there are.  Oddly enough (or predictably if you are of the initiated) this period of relaxation brings with it an inner consciousness, resulting in an almost automatic reflection on the past year and projection of riding goals into the coming months.  The hours that were once dedicated to endeavors such as riding and racing will be dedicated to talking and thinking about these endeavors; a minor difference indeed, but a very important one.  So vitally important because reliving past successes give us an idea of what greater success will taste like, while every failure is used to stoke the motivational fire that cooks that wonderful fire-grilled success pizza.  Hopes and dreams are born during the Euro New Year.

“Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending.”  -Maria Robinson.

I got this quote with my check at Blue Dahlia Bistro (kind of like a fortune cookie…except at a French bistro, and the bill isn’t a delicious cookie) and found it very fitting to the New Year.  It is impossible to change the events of last season, but ripping legs off next season is the fastest surefire way to forget about them.  So, to all my friends, “Happy New Year!”  Or, as they would say in Flanders, “Gelukkig Nieuwjaar!”

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Filed under CREDO Racing, Crushing Souls, Lessons Learned, Off-season, Racing, Relaxing

Texas State Road Race Championships

The weekend’s race can be summed up in 3 words: “margin of error.”

The higher the category, the smaller the margin of error.  Often, a small amount of fatigue or a bad move during the race won’t end a race, but as the stakes get higher, the price one pays for these small mistakes tends to also get much larger.  Competitors are able to pick out small blunders and will strategically exploit them.   In order to win, or even hang onto a race like this one, not only does someone need to be fit, they also need to be smart.

Looking back on the race, I see places that I could have made different choices to put myself in a better position to finish stronger.  At the end of the 2nd 33 mile loop, the pace picked up substantially on the finishing stretch and the peloton got guttered.  I was the last to get dropped off the leaders as Michael Pincus went to the front and slaughtered everyone.  Instead of looking back to see the other 12 guys chasing, I focused intently on the last wheel of the leaders’ group, approximately 50 meters in front of me, and tried to time-trial my way back on.  Eventually, the momentum of the large chase group boiled over and they caught the leaders and me.  I was able to get on as they went by to get a bit of recovery, but I had burned too many matches trying to chase solo.  When we reached the 5th category 5 climb of the day a couple of miles later, I was out of gas.  Dunzo, off the back.  I spent the rest of the day chasing.  Had I spent more time recovering in the chase instead of trying to do all the work on my own, I feel confident I would have gotten over that climb.  I’m not sure I would have had the legs to finish strong on the day, but I would have been part of the race longer than I was.

In this way, the race rewards smart decisions, and penalizes the bad ones, which starts a chain reaction of post-race decision analysis.  Would I have been better suited to going with the break-away that went off in the first 4 miles of the race?  The long, steady miles of the breakaway could have suited my riding style better.  Instead of the surging of the chase/stall game that the peloton was playing, I could have just set the cruise control and let my legs do their thing.  In the end, I had a plan for how to approach the race, and I followed the plan.  Was this a good plan from the start?

I could 2nd guess the decisions I made for the entirety of the off season, but it doesn’t do me any good to beat myself up about it.  On that same vein, an integral part of the improvement process is to seek feedback after a race;  mistakes and weaknesses from Saturday’s race will be used in the off-season to fuel the motivation.  Reflecting on errors will ensure that those errors are not made in the future.  But it is a precarious line to walk; venturing too far down that rabbit hole could get one lost with Alice forever.

My lack of a result on Sunday doesn’t put a black mark on my season.  I still feel I had an amazing year, and anyways, winning all 3 of the state championships this year would have been just plain greedy.  As Meatloaf says, “two out of three ain’t bad.”

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A huge thanks to HED. Wheels

I’m thoroughly impressed. The product is outstanding, but where HED. stands out from the rest of the wheel companies I have dealt with is their customer focus. Trite? Hear me out.

3 State Championships on HED.  Thanks to Dave McLaughlin for the photography skillz.

Exhibit A – the product: Take a look at the Texas State Time Trial Championships: The four fastest 40k’s in the state this year came on HED. wheels: Stinger front with a Stinger disk in the rear. Brant Speed was on HED. Logan Hutchings was on HED. David Wenger was on HED. I was on HED.  You get the point? I know it has a lot to do with the engine, but this is compelling. If I was in the market for race wheels next year, I’d pay attention to this list.  Guys who are very serious about going fast are riding HED.

The chain-link fence makes this look so industrial.

HED. takes a different approach to a disk wheel than other manufacturers.  Instead of a foam core disk, HED. bonds carbon fiber fairings to their spoked Stinger 9 rim.  The result is a disk that is always 100% straight and true out of the box, can be re-trued, and is dynamically stiffer than a normal disk.  Ever try climbing on a TT bike with a foam-core disk?  Yikes.  Not a problem here.

Exhibit B – the service: A friend and teammate of mine was having problems with breaking spoke nipples on a wheel by a major French wheel brand. They shrugged off his complaint and tried to say it was his fault for sweating while riding indoors, despite the fact that he doesn’t train inside and doesn’t even own a trainer.  They eventually conceded and told him they would replace the one broken nipple under warranty, but would need to replace the rest of them because they were showing sign of similar failure. He would be charged for the rest. Needless to say, the run-around they gave him was not a positive experience.

Around the same time, I was busy training like mad on my Ardennes. After breaking a 3rd spoke on the rear wheel, I called Vince, our team’s contact at HED. He said they suspected a bad batch of spokes and would have it re-laced under warranty. Just send the wheel in. A week later, I had a freshly built wheel with all new spokes. Oh, and they serviced the hub for me while it was in the shop. Killer.

Exhibit C – the commitment: Recently, when replacing a tubular on my rear Stinger, I pulled up a patch of carbon (I guess my glue job was good). The mechanic at the bike shop said “no problem, just glue a new tire on it.” Vince said “no problem, we’ll warranty it.” I sent the Stinger 6 into HED. and in a week, I had a new Stinger 7 sitting in my living room. Stiffer and more aero? Yes, please.  To me, this demonstrates that they want me on the fastest equipment possible, and they want that equipment to be perfect.  They wouldn’t ride it like that, and they don’t expect me to either.  Now, some shots of the Stinger 7:

Stinger 6 front with a Stinger 7 rear.  Killer combo.

Stinger 7 rear with Stinger 6 front.  Quite a difference.  We’ll see about the stiffness and stability this upcoming weekend at Ft. Hood.

Rear Sonic Hub.

The hub off my old rear wheel.  It’s a pretty solid hub design.  Even as a fledgling mechanic, I have no problem taking it apart and putting it back together.

SCT = Stability Control Technology.  The real deal.

The new rim shape for the Stinger 7…this thing is huge.  I guess this is just my way of saying “thanks” to Vince and HED. for everything they have done for me over this season.  You guys are outstanding.

❤ Matti von Kessing

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