25 February 2011

Mr. B

Mr. Biagioni:

I'm not sure you know who I am; after all, it's been 25 years since I was your student, and probably 20 since you last saw me. Maybe you remember me as a gangly 12-year-old not paying enough attention in the back of your 7th-grade classroom, or as a hyper-hormonal 17-year-old haunting the gym waiting for my girlfriend to get done with volleyball practice. As I look back on my time at Algonquin Middle School and later Jacobs High School, I doubt I made much of a positive impression on you.

But I wanted to write to say thank you, because you absolutely made an impression on me. I honestly cannot remember what subject you taught -- I think it was science? -- but the lessons I learned from you have stayed with me all this time. Because of you I learned to tie a necktie; a skill I used for both high school and college graduations, for every job interview, when meeting Presidents and lobbying Congressmen, and most recently when celebrating my Mother's life when she passed away suddenly last month. And because of you I learned to read a topo map, internalizing your insistence that translating grouped lines and compass headings was an important skill, and learning to love cartography. I have always harbored a secret wish to make that my career, and even today my office is decorated with quadrangles and terrain maps depicting the Blue Ridge Mountains that surround my new home.

Most of all, though, I want to thank you for the way you taught those lessons. I'm sure there was classroom work involved -- and I'm pretty sure I failed my first attempt at a necktie -- but what I remember most was that both units involved homework. For that I thank you, because that homework meant an opportunity to interact with my dad one-on-one, and for whatever reason, those two projects stick out in my mind as very special moments in our relationship. I've come to learn the value of my time with family much more in the past year, and so I am forever grateful to you for that connection I have with my father.

I was saddened to hear of your passing last weekend. For more than 35 years, you were a fixture at District 300, and through your teaching, your counseling and your coaching you shaped the lives of thousands of kids who are making their way in the world now, better for having known you. I'm sorry I cannot be at the services honoring your life this morning, but you are in my thoughts daily, and I appreciate the opportunity to have had you as a teacher. What's more, know that you live on in our hearts and minds, and your influence will last long after you've gone: Tonight, when I pull out the detail map of our National Forest, I'm going to sit down with my little girl and tell her about this great guy named Mr. B who taught her daddy, with Grandpa's help, to read it.

Thank you.

1946-2011

23 February 2011

So far ahead I might be behind?

It's always a fun game as spring springs and workouts begin to ramp up to evaluate "where you are." Cycle race geekdom is a pretty straightforward numbers game: Take P wattage, divide by W weight, and you get a rider's power:weight ratio, which "at threshold" is a pretty good indicator of performance. There are others (most notable being rate of ascension on a climb), but P:W is easy to figure out, easy to monitor, and within certain parameters, easy to equate to racing categories.

Where it becomes really interesting is when you're in pre-season, trying to lose weight, and your numbers are good. At what point does your increased mass -- if you've been good and in the weight room, it's muscle -- equate to increased power, and where do the percentage gains on that curve equal each other out? More succinctly, at what weight and power are you most efficient? For years, cyclists have simply tried to get thin -- but is that always the best answer?

Anyway, what happens in parallel is that cyclists begin to evaluate. It's an interesting phenomenon -- with enough data, you can very accurately pinpoint "where you are" at a given point in the year. So you begin to hear that so-and-so is "a month ahead of last year." Or, "6 weeks ahead." Or, "3 weeks behind because of illness." This isn't a subjective how-are-you-feeling, it's an objective, numbers-based assessment -- my threshold power, or my P:W is such-and-such in February, when it was that same value in March last year, or April the year before.

The reality is, after a decade of so of training and racing, provided that you're all grown up and not ingesting anything illegal, you plateau. Your measurable limits are pretty defined. Then, it becomes a matter of management -- can you find a training program that brings you to those limits at exactly the right time to allow you to win this race, or to perform that duty as a team member. And that's where the timeline comes in -- if you're flying in February, May can become a pretty bad scene, so is it good that you're 4 weeks ahead this year? And at what point do you get so far ahead that your December numbers equal May of the same year, and you crash and burn in April?

Things are going well here in the WNC mountains -- I had a good lead-in to Frostbike, and am back on my bike in wonderful 65-degree weather having survived the blizzard this past weekend. Driving in snow is like riding a bike -- thankfully, since it was pretty nasty in MSP on Sunday and Monday. And now that I'm back, the legs have come around again, and it's just fun to be out and about on the roads and trails. I have a lot of work to do -- am I ahead or behind? -- but I also have a plan, a few fun goals, and a whole 'lotta coffee to get me through. Bring it on.

22 February 2011

YYW 3725

NC license plate YYW 3725, Red pickup truck, maybe a Dodge, black accents, rear hitch with a ball joint and that strange Kokopelli-esque deer-hunter head sticker on the rear windshield, right-hand side. Approximately 7:45 this morning on Clear Creek Road just west of Hendo, west of Howard Gap Road near Clear Creek Elementary. Just some bravado -- he got stuck behind me (because he doesn't know how to pass a bicyclist), then blew his big ol' horn at me and flew the bird as he passed -- and then almost put himself in a ditch.

Best part is, he then got stuck at a car accident site with me behind him. Rolled down his window and started yelling back at me. Typical stuff, get off the road, etc.

Him: "Get of the **** road." Maybe some other choice words.
Me (in a very loud voice, but polite): "It's legal for me to be here. If you'd like to discuss it with that nice police officer over there, I'd be happy to."
Him: More choice words.
Me: "Really, it's legal for me to be here. We can also discuss the attempted assault and harassment while we're at it."

He rolled up his window pretty quick.

No harm, no foul, but this is the best way for me to get to work via bicycle, and chances are I'll see him again. Flip side is, it was a warm and humid 50 degrees today, so much better than the 30 degrees and 16 inches of snow I left behind in Minneapolis yesterday!

Enjoy the ride!

14 February 2011

Mamma always said ...

... if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all.

So I'll say this: This weekend was awesome. Unbelievable. Darn-near perfect.

It started with this:

... and ended with this:

... and in between was a whole lotta' reasons to love the fact that we live in the mountains of Western North Carolina now.

As you may have gathered from my posts last week, things were kind of rough. One minute I'm doing fine; the next, something triggers a thought and I'm off in pityland. It's not pretty, but it is helping me work through where I'm at, I suppose. And it's something I need to face.

Wednesday was probably the worst, and that night I was just done. I curled up in bed at about 7:30 and let myself just drift. I was wiped.

But then a funny thing happened on Thursday: I rode my bike. Twice. I rode it at lunch, and then the weather broke enough that I could ride it home too. And it was fantastic. All of a sudden, things were looking up. I was back in the game. I felt good -- mentally and physically -- for the first time since New Year's.

The sunshine continued on Friday, and I got confirmation from Greg that he was in for a big boy loop on Saturday. A big big boy loop that would include the one trail that I hadn't hit yet. Was I ready? Hell no. Was I excited for it? Oh, yeah.

NMR > 5000 > BCG > 5000 > 1206 > Laurel Mtn > Parkway > Big Creek > Reservoir Road > 5000

Funny thing is, it didn't start off that well. I thought I was climbing sort of slow as I made my way up to Bent Creek Gap to meet Greg, and I started wallowing a bit. I've always been prone to depression, and it's so easy to slip into ... honestly, if I had been alone, I would have turned around and gone home.

But then I met up with Greg, and we had a long descent back to NMR, and then a long climb to Yellow Gap, and things just ... got better. We talked about everything and nothing, and I felt better. Better than better, actually -- I felt good. I appreciated that Greg wasn't crushing his single gear, and by the time we crested and were on our way to Laurel, I was into it in a big way. let's see what we've got!

As expected, Laurel was in good shape, what with its rocky tread and south face. It's a long climb, sure, but we were at Sassafras before I knew it, and the time in the weight room paid off in a fairly easy ascent of the "staircase." Good Enough Gap was certainly good enough, and then we were into the sketchiest part of the day, as we hike-a-biked the north-facing end of the trail as it connected to the Parkway. Slip-sliding through snow and ice, a couple-hundred-foot drop off to our right, it took all our concentration to make it through what's a tough section even in the dry. But then we made it, and the view of Little Bald Mountain was there to greet us ...

The view from Buck Spring Gap (first picture in this post, thanks to Greg for both images) was amazing, folded mountains stretching forever, from horizon to horizon. I was finally this close to Mount Pisgah, another adventure for another day. And as I'm reading Cold Mountain right now, it was fun to be able to see it first-hand from an amazing viewpoint.

After a few minutes in the wind, it was time to ride. A few short minutes freezing our way down the pavement and through the tunnels on the Parkway, and then we were turning right onto our big objective of the day: Big Creek. It was the last unchecked box on my must-do list, and Saturday was the perfect chance to grab another notch ...

Now, you all know I love my Siren. But seeing as how I'm still unclogging it from the adventure at Snake Creek Gap, and seeing as how the top of Big Creek might as well be a downhill run, the work Ibis got the call. And oh. my. gawd.

Now, a year in Pisgah has taught me a few things. But there is still a lot to learn -- a lot -- and I'm rather humble when it comes to my ability to ride downhill. In fact, I would say I'm a downright ninny. But for the first time in my life, I'm starting to feel like I've got a few skills to match the motor, and Saturday was a chance to give 'em a try ...

I made one promise to Kim when we moved here: I wouldn't buy armor. I wouldn't ride trails in such a way that I would need an exoskeleton to protect my bones. After Saturday, I'm beginning to rethink that. I was riding way over my pay grade, executing moves I've only ever seen in movies. I mean, riding a nose-wheelie around a downhill swichback hanging over a 200-foot drop? Um, yeah ... the skidmark in my shorts was longer than the skidmark on the trail. But I cleaned it. And it felt good.

The river crossings were cold, really cold, but with an air temperature approaching 60 on a fine February day, the frigid mountain stream was nothing to worry about. Greg and I rode out the pedal section, being a bit careful on the no-tread, off-camber root boles that have taken over the trail but otherwise railing the coves and hammering through the false-flat downhills. We were right near 5 hours when we hit the reservoir, so rather than pushing up to Trace via the Creeks, we opted to ride out the gravel and head home. What an awesome, head-clearing way to start the weekend.
Sunday was slated to be another full day in the woods -- Stephen had organized a weekend work crew building trails at a local middle school, and though early in the week I had begged off, it promised to be a fun family affair and a chance to get Kate exposed to the "give-back" side of hiking and riding. So we loaded up the family early and headed north, where Todd had been leading the charge behind a machine and a full 1/4-mile of trail had sprung up overnight.

We spent the next few hours clearing roots, moving rocks and cutting backslope, and while there was a little fear that the Dingo would eat my baby, we all just had fun and got it done. I know I've mentioned it before, how awesome the community here is, but it bears saying it again: The folks here are awesome. Stephen, Rhonda and Jubal; Nolan and Clark; Greg; Todd and Heather; the two Tracys; Amy; and a host of other folks I didn't even get to meet all came together and in a few hours of work on a beautiful weekend created a resource that will benefit the entire Erwin community. And I'm proud to say we were a part of it, and proud that I get to show my little girl how important it is to give back. Volunteerism runs deep in my family, and without my Mom here to show her the way, it's up to me to guide Kate along that path.

I had to duck out a bit early for a work meeting ... and by "meeting," I mean a semi-mandatory meeting of a group of work folks out on the trail. Whereas conditions in Mills River were pretty great on Saturday, Bent Creek was another story on Sunday, and while we did our best to be responsible, we saw more than our share of folks who thought keeping it high and dry was more trouble than it's worth. And it was crowded, as in, solid parked cars from the first parking lot to the third along the road, where it was gated to prevent more erosion. BC isn't my first choice of riding destinations anyway, but we made the most of it, and how bad can a work meeting be when it involves beautiful climbs and hair-raising descents ... all on a February day with no armwarmers and no legwarmers?!

Then I was on my way home, where Kim had fired up the Weber and was grilling hot dogs and squash. We had a nice family dinner, and then it was time for Kate's treat -- roasted marshmallows! We opened up the grill, and mommy held her while Kate got her treat nice and toasty ... and no, she wasn't wearing pants ...
And that, that, was a nice way to end what really was a picture-perfect weekend.

09 February 2011

Ups and downs

Things are pretty weird right now -- there is a disturbance in the Force, one I've not felt since ...

Pretty much, life is up and down right now. The emotions that have been just below the surface for a month now have decided to make themselves known, just in time for Kate to enter a fun development phase that has her thrashing about on the floor, naked and screaming, whenever she doesn't get her way. I'm pretty sure I may have dropped an f-bomb near her yesterday morning, and I'm certain I threw her shirt on the floor and stomped out of her room. And it was Kim's birthday.

But then last night was all smiles and kisses, and this morning she used the toilet successfully for the first time -- the daycare director called to let us know. And it's fun seeing her learn -- she was flipping through a book last night, and when we told her it was time to put it away and get ready for bed, she informed us she was "almost done." Seriously?!

The real challenge right now is that all these memories are incomplete. I'm struggling with that the most -- Kim and I went to the Biltmore for the first time on Sunday, a place my mom never got to visit. She meant to -- the plan was a Parkway trip this coming autumn -- and I know she was looking forward to it. But for the whole day, something was off. Kim and I had fun, it was a lovely afternoon of exploring, but my whole frame of reference is off. The best way I can explain it is this: Out of deference for our parents, we are trained to be in a sort of constant evaluation mode -- would they be OK on these stairs, would they like this restaurant, what would they think of this room. And, most pressing, how will we explain it to them on our weekly phone calls. I found myself continuing to do that, to evaluate, to think through -- but there was a pea lying under the mattress, and I couldn't ever quite get comfortable with it.

Riding is a refuge for me in many ways -- it was one thing that my mom never quite got her head around, though she came close this past summer. So I've got that going for me -- rides in the hills and countryside here are my own, living in my head, only to really be shared with Kim. But even that is up and down -- this is by far the latest into the season I've ever gone without a 20-hour training week, and I discovered yesterday that pedaling into a 25mph headwind up a 15% grade pretty much just sucks ass. And makes me feel like I'm pedaling through molasses. And that just sucks.

I keep telling myself that I'm doing myself a favor, pushing the long, hard rides back to when we have decent weather all day. I've not ridden to work in 5 months, as our overnight temps are too cold and the timing just hasn't worked out with weather, etc., and I've spent enough time on the trainer that I'm about ready to chuck it through the window of our workout room at work. My goal races aren't until late summer and early fall, so I have time -- but now is the time, at least in my mind, to be getting ready for those events. And I'm not.

So things are very up and down right now. Snake Creek Gap was an up day -- a righteous mudder that had me smiling the whole way ... well, at least until the ridgeline at the very end, when I was ready to be done. For the first time in my life, I felt like a mountain biker: an East Coast mountain biker at that. Big Red was flawless, and though I undoubtedly lost time due to the big rubber up front, bike and body were one, the tires were hooking up in all but the very worst stuff, and I cleaned damn near everything, with no unplanned ejections, missed turns, or sprained ankles. Though I'm still lugging several extra pounds along for the ride, I managed to stay in it mentally, even pushing past a guy climbing better than me at the end to secure a just-under-4-hours time on a day with not-ideal conditions. I've got a couple of travel dates ahead of me that will feature no bikes, so the March Snake will likely be a little tougher, but it was a fun course on a fantastic trail system and a great way to get some trail time.

But then the last few days have been down, and I'm struggling to keep it afloat. Just a lot of weird mojo around, and I'm off-kilter enough that it's throwing me for a loop. This weekend is looking nice though, and maybe some more time in the woods will do me good?

04 February 2011

Back at it

It's been years since I raced a bicycle in February. Not quite as long since I raced outdoors in February, but still -- it's been years.

Back then, I used to line up to take my midwinter whipping from the likes of Masters honches Puffer and 'Druber, and up-and-coming young studs like Reid Mumford and Bryce Mead -- the Midwest version of the Twin Towers -- both of whom went on to careers in the domestic peloton. I did OK in these early-season contests; hours spent staring at Tour videos in our living room in Evanston prepared me well for the "course" we faced in the basement of the Winfield rec center. Think high-school gym meets testosterone-fueled group ride, and you begin to get a picture of what it was like at the Mid America Time Trial Series Indoor TTs. And to think: I dragged Kim out there on her birthday one year.

I've mellowed over the years, taking my winter training a bit less seriously in an effort to extend the season mentally and stay off the trainer. I'm proud of my last full winter in Chicago, when I managed to go the full season with only 3 hours of indoor riding. The nasty black ice and lack of bike lanes here in the mountains have changed that a bit -- in the past 14 months I've done my share of basement training -- but I still do whatever I can to mix it up and stay off the stationary bike.

Yesterday was a unique experience, in that I rode the rollers for the first time. It went OK -- I managed to crash only once -- but it was an easy ride, without much in the way of a "workout." I would argue that even so, I still worked harder than I would have on the road -- the amount of concentration required was a bit draining. Still and all, it was a fun diversion -- though I'll do today's workout on the trainer, thank you.

And tomorrow, I'll line up for an outdoor race in February. Another year, I may have taken this a bit more seriously, going after the belt buckle promised the three-time finisher. And maybe next year I will.

Instead, the extent of my prep for this has been to rinse off Big Red -- her first cleansing since SWANK way back in November -- and to freshen up the Stan's in my tires. The mixed-wheel Siren Song sounds like the perfect weapon of choice here, at least for the first 17 miles, and despite some icy rain and wintery-like precip in the past 24 hours, I'll likely run my standard Karma-Karma setup. I've packed the big rubber just in case though.

This isn't to say my heart's not in it. Quite the opposite -- I've laid out a pretty awesome-looking season, and I'm psyched to get out there after it. But given the way this year has kicked off, and my attendant lack of fitness, I have to treat this more like a Parkside than, say, a Hillsboro. I'm hoping that translates to bigger training hours when it's actually pleasant to ride, and a freshness in the legs that will manifest itself on the power-hungry courses of June and July ... and September and October. Tomorrow is going to be fun -- yes, there's a river crossing just a few miles into the 34-mile course that will have my feet numb before I even know how I'm rolling -- and I'm looking forward to my first foray on Georgia's Pinhoti Trail system and through the gap made infamous by Gen. Sherman himself. Maybe racing a bicycle in February isn't so bad after all?