29 May 2012

28 May 2012

BURNing Man


You'd think, in the middle of the night, that the aliens would give you power.

You'd be wrong.

Instead, as you pass through the landing zone for the creatures from another planet, the flashing strobe lights play with your head; the little green and purple men startle you around every tree; the detached heads with pulsing red blinkies appear just on the edge of your vision and then are gone; and the blaring, distorted, disturbing cat-calls entreating you to line up to be probed that then changes to glaring German techno-industrial metal (who knew aliens speak German?) all contribute to play with your head, messing with your mind to the point that when you finally drop out of the forest and into the big field with its 24-hour village, it's so disorienting that on some laps, you don't even know where you are.

And that is the essence of BURN.

Held on the Dark Mountain trails at the W. Kerr Scott Reservoir, the BURN 24-Hour Challenge is one of the longest-running 24s in the Southeast. It's somewhat a rite of passage around here, with folks from Knoxville to Orlando putting together teams or making solo runs, and has become a Memorial Day weekend tradition for hundreds of mountain bikers. The Brushy Mountain Cyclist Club, and race director Jason Bumgartner in particular, do an amazing job putting together a super-fun event, with all proceeds going back into a trail system that last year was named an IMBA Epic.

It's also one of the most demanding 24s I've ever done.

I wasn't able to get out to the course until the day before the race, when I showed up in 90-degree heat to set up the Cane Creek compound on the transition side of the big field and get in a quick pre-ride. I'm glad it worked out that way; though the course is marked year-round via a great sign system, I'm not sure I could have followed the little blue arrows at some of the speeds we carried. Instead, I got to check it out with the help of course tape already set up -- and it's a good thing I did!

The race starts with a 400-ish meter run around the village, before we head straight up a jeep road to the top of the mountain. (Subsequent laps took us away from the village to the river, where we switchbacked our way to the top, dropped down, and then climbed back up more singletrack before dropping in.) After a bit more climbing, we then take a screaming, switchbacked run down to the river, followed by a couple of minutes of climbing, a short descent, then the long climb to the top again. This marks the halfway point of the course, just over 3 miles in, and also is the location of the one check point/rest stop. We traverse the top for a few minutes, then take our first screaming descent down to the lake. We climb back up, with the village down to our right and the aliens just ahead (when they land sometime in the night), before topping out once again on the jeep road and then dropping in to our right -- a full-on Super-D finish to the lap, 3-4 minutes of bermed jump line before suddenly popping out of the forest at the village, where we ride down to the lakeside before coming back up to transition.

And here's the thing: The entire lap is only 7.5 miles. With maybe -- maybe -- 500 meters of pedal section, including the lumpy grassy section at the end of each lap. On-course, there was maybe 150 meters -- which means we were climbing or descending pretty much the whole time, with no opportunity to eat while we moved. All on singletrack -- probably 95% or more. And those descents? Super-fun, no-touching-the-brakes, Mach 10 rippers -- on trails criss-crossed with roots, g-outs and small drops the whole way.

Short laps + tough climbs + rough descents ... For the first time following one of these races, my upper body and hands are more sore than my legs, by a long shot!

The organizers kindly reserved us a spot just past transition, just off course right at the start of each lap -- in fact, they used our Cane Creek flags as the start line! It was a pretty good location, especially so since I had to stop each lap to eat and drink, rather than trying to make it happen on-course. I suppose that's one positive: The route was so challenging, it demanded your full attention the entire time you were out there. One second of inattention, one moment spent looking at a root instead of riding over it, and you'd be down and out -- by the end, the skid marks and trail edges were a testament to folks who overcooked it and paid the price.

As for me, I felt pretty good with the course. A year ago it may have scared me -- in fact, compared to my attempt at Warrior Creek last year (which is nearby at the same trail system), I feel like I had Dark Mountain pretty well dialed. The Spearfish was the perfect bike, balancing the climbs with being able to tear up the descents, and for once I stayed off the brakes as much as possible, carrying my speed and coasting wherever I could, pumping the trail to avoid sitting on the saddle and turning the pedals. I was kind of surprised as I outran many competitors on the downhills, and in my entire race -- plus the two pre-ride laps on Friday -- I had only one unplanned dab!

As for the race ... well, I went into it looking for a win. It was by no means certain, but I sort of felt good beforehand, and everything just seemed to come together to give me every advantage. And for the first 17 laps -- of 25 I did total -- I was racing from the front. But by that point I was already overcooked, and in fact had started a slow decline about 6 hours -- 5 laps -- before. It was thankfully not a spectacular self-destruction, but it was enough: Cory Rimmer started a bit slower and hit a strong, consistent middle to catch up and then pass me somewhere around 3 a.m., while I pushed hard in the 90+-degree heat of Saturday afternoon, slowed down a bit when I realized sundown did not bring immediate cooling in the high humidity, and then dropped more time with a couple of rear wheel issues and then at each pit stop as the sun came up and my body just refused to push any harder. Thankfully by that point I was 2 laps up on the chase for 3rd place -- eventually captured by Sean Eidemiller, a fierce competitor I've raced in Knoxville whom I was worried about -- and I was able to shut it down at 11:21 a.m. without needing to go for one more. It was bittersweet, as I realize now that I went too hard, too early, and I should know better. Still, standing on that podium was pretty awesome, and I have to thank Kim -- and all the folks who helped her! -- for running a spot-on pit to Formula 1 standards!

From the gun, I knew I was going hard, as most teams sent runners -- like, runners in running clothes and shoes! -- and I was the first or second solo through transition. I grabbed my bike from Kim and headed up the hill, knowing full well I'd be walking by the top thanks to the cluster of team riders getting hung up on the rocks. No biggie, chance for a break, my only worry being the super-tight left switchback down near the river. And, true to form, someone had taken themselves out, so I didn't have to worry about being "that guy" myself!

The rest of the lap went quickly, and on the second lap I joined forces with Eric Hagerty, the leading single-speeder, who would go on to crush the race with 25 laps -- all before 10 on Sunday morning! We were soon joined by Adam Stephens, a fellow geared solo, and before too long we figured out that between the three of us we were well ahead of the rest of our competitors. (This is not to discount Morgan Olsson, who was racing 40+ Masters in his first 24 solo, and went on to finish an astonishing 30 laps ... just one week after finishing 2nd Master and Top 10 overall in the Pisgah 111k!) Through the first 7 laps, Adam and I -- and occasionally Eric between us -- kept up a strong pace, steady but still pushing it. We were never far from each other, and in fact had a few funny moments "chasing" each other to the line on a lap or two ...

On laps 4 and 5, I wasn't feeling that great, and let Adam get ahead a bit on a couple of the climbs. I was able to catch back up on the descents, which surprised me -- though he was on a Cannondale hardtail, he is from West Virginia, and I wasn't expecting to keep up with him going downhill. Somewhere in there, we stopped at the rest stop when Adam got a warm bottle at the start of the lap, and the delicious, freezing-cold  water and quick rest absolutely rejuvenated me. By lap 6 I got a little ahead before Adam caught back up early in the lap, and I was shocked on lap 7 when we pulled out together but he dropped off the pace on the  big climb. He was cooked, and when he broke his pedal on the next lap, his fate was sealed.

Meanwhile, I kept on with a fairly steady pace, and managed 11 laps before putting my light on. My pit at 8:30 took a few extra minutes, and by that time I sort of knew I was going too hard -- I was extremely sleepy, even that early in the race, and though the sun had gone down, the humidity was oppressive, and I wasn't able to cool off -- I was constantly overheated, and couldn't stomach anything more than water and applesauce. Still, I kept at it, and really my pace didn't fall off too badly -- instead, I started taking more time at each stop, trying to take in calories and cool off enough that I wouldn't throw them up at the top of each ascent. That got to be tough, and on a couple of laps I felt like I was going to pass out -- my ears were burning and my head was pulsing ... and my heart rate was only in the 130s.

Though I was struggling, I was still on pace for 28 laps -- the winning number from the past couple of years. So I pushed myself for 14 laps, through my perceived halfway point, telling myself that I wouldn't do any strategic walking until I was past that. And I didn't -- though around lap 10 I started to dab the super-tricky switchback on purpose, I was still big-ringing quite a bit of the traverse on top, and I refused to get off my bike otherwise, unless I needed to put a foot down to allow a team guy (or gal!) to pass me. I also saw Adam in there somewhere, who told me I was a lap up -- he meant on himself, though I mistook it to mean the field, and I think subconsciously I backed off just a bit.

Starting on lap 15, I designated a couple of short, uphill steeps as walking opportunities. My back was hurting, my legs wanted to cramp, and eventually even my hands needed a rest -- those downhills took their toll, as they weren't really a chance to rest and demanded all-body attention. I also started small-ringing even the traverse -- I was definitely paying the price for the earlier push. Thankfully, it finally cooled down enough that I could stomach a bit of food, and Kim did an amazing job, shoveling in potato chips and scrambles and cookies as I walked off my back pain and drank as much as I could. At one point I even downed a hot dog, and at another a couple handfuls of turkey lunch meat! I did manage to stay on my bike from the start of each lap to the river, excepting the switchback, on every lap, which became a goal of mine as the night wore on.

My gut was working overtime, and twice I had to stop long enough to use the personal porta-potty that our next-door neighbor Arleigh had so incredibly thought to rent for the weekend. Talk about a pro move! The first time, I also used it as an opportunity to change clothes, which brought some relief but was not the cure-all I was hoping for. With no flat portions to speak of, any pedaling was done deep in the saddle on an uphill, and the only time my butt was off the seat was while hammering downhill! This made chafing a constant problem, and also made it difficult the three times I had to stop on-course to pee -- this race beat me up, body and soul! I think this is when Corey took over the lead, though I didn't know it for quite a while -- Kim and I have an agreement that we don't discuss standings until after 4 a.m. or so.

At the start of each lap, Kim told me to "Have fun!", so that's what I concentrated on doing. By midnight, I knew what gears I had to be in, and where, and each lap I worked the downhills as much as I could for free speed and a chance not to turn the cranks. Around lap 22, my rear tire went soft, as I either burped it or the cooling morning temps caused it to change pressure, so I nursed it a bit on the final run after I almost lost everything on an earlier g-out. Pressure restored, I hit lap 23, only to g-out late in the lap and snap a spoke! With the help of Mike from Cycletherapy, our other next-door neighbor, I got the rear wheel changed quickly, and after a quick trailside pad contact adjustment, I was good to go. Those were the only mechanicals the entire time, and this was another chance to push my Pro Gold lubricant to the Extreme and have it hold up wonderfully!

With two laps in hand, I started my countdown early, knowing I needed just 4, then 3, then 2 laps to finish. Corey was out of reach by that point, and my final laps were just steady -- I even sat down in a chair for a few minutes before starting up my last one. I had done all I could, but I had gone and done it too early -- thankfully the cushion I built worked to my advantage against the chasers, but it also meant I had nothing left to go after the win. Still, it felt good to catch some air on my last lap, and crossing the finish line a full 40 minutes before noon meant we had a few extra minutes to just enjoy the atmosphere and start getting cleaned up. And when the local barbecue place showed up with delicious free food and sweet tea? We were darn near the first folks in line!

As tough as BURN was, it was a great event. We couldn't have asked for better neighbors, as Arleigh's crew and the massive group from Cycletherapy helped Kim entertain the kids -- this was Daniel's first 24 and, incredibly, Kate's third. And a huge thanks goes out to the organizers, the sponsors, and especially the volunteers -- I can't say enough how well-run this race was. I understand now why it's a rite of passage for so many folks, and why the aliens invade every year!

And in a strange twist of irony? In addition to the very generous cash prize I won for taking 2nd place, I also received a gift certificate from one of the sponsors ... for my very own Cane Creek 40-Series headset! Hmmm ... now I just need another new bike to put it on ...

24 May 2012

Inspiration

I'm pretty sure I've mentioned it before, but as I sit here, 49 hours or so away from the start of another solo 24, bouncing out of my skull with a taper-induced and Koffee-fed excess of energy, it bears repeating:

I wouldn't be where I am today without the influence of Jason Berry.

See, I never wanted to be a mountain biker. In fact, I remember once telling my brother, who had just acquired a Gary Fisher Big Sur, that I would never ride a bike off-road. Even with my own Miyata Triple Cross, sporting 700c (ahem, 29er) wheels, canti brakes, a flat bar and semi-knobby tires, the only reason to hit a trail was to go hide so I could smoke cigarettes. For the guy who grew up idolizing Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault, mountain biking was too impure, too ... dirty.

Enter Jason Berry. Jason, you see, makes up the writer-director half of Gripped Films, and along with producer Ken Bell, has created a few of the more amazing docu-dramas in the bicycling sub-genre. Right about the time I was figuring out that my cyclocross career would benefit from some trail time, Gripped released Off Road to Athens, an intimate, heart-wrenching look at the chase to make the 2004 Olympic team. I'm not sure when I first saw it, sometime around June 2006, but I was immediately transfixed ... and just a few weeks later, my cycling career -- indeed, my life's path -- was inexorably altered.

In a perfect fit of symmetry, I purchased my first mountain bike on my brother's birthday, July 28. There really is no such thing as coincidence.

Fast-forward to April 2007. By now, I had raced and done well in a couple of WORS races. I had managed to get myself fired from a toxic, no-win, personal-life-destroying job. And in a miraculous turn of events, had found myself taking on the communication duties at a nascent nonprofit called World Bicycle Relief -- which just happened to be co-located in the world headquarters of SRAM Corporation, one of the companies responsible for making mountain biking really happen nearly two decades before.

There really is no such thing as coincidence.

That April, I headed to California for my first Sea Otter, where Gripped would be hosting the world premier of 24 Solo, their second film, chronicling Trek racer Chris Eatough's attempt at a seventh World Championship title. Before arriving in Monterey, I had never heard of Chris Eatough (though he makes a cameo in Athens), but I knew the film would be a good one, given how much I loved Athens. Further, the Trek team supported WBR, so there was a bit of a personal connection. I'm not sure how, but I managed to score tickets to the theater, got there super early and was first in line, and treated my volunteers to an evening out.

(That morning, Allison Eatough came by the tent at Sea Otter and we chatted for a few minutes. How awesome was it then, several hours later, when she and Chris exited their limo onto the red carpet, she was sure to track me down to get a few posters signed that we eventually raffled off. Class act!)

There's this fantastic montage in the movie where a bunch of mountain biking luminaries -- from Gary Fisher to Ned Overend to Travis Brown -- talk about how insane it is to do a solo 24-hour race. There we are, sitting in a darkened theater, one row behind Alison Dunlap (yes, that Alison Dunlap), and all of a sudden she's also right there on the screen, larger than life, saying, "24 hour racing is definitely something I'll never do again. ... The riders who do that are crazy; I mean, you really have to be a little bit crazy." The theater erupts in laughter; the person sitting next to her gives her shoulder a playful shove.

And all I could think was, "Damn. This is what I want to be doing."

Of course, I bought the DVD that very evening. I watched it on the plane ride home. I watched it again that weekend. And just like with Athens, I pretty much put it on constant rotation for months -- right up to and including two nights before my own first solo 24 attempt, at Wausau's Nine Mile Forest, the site of the 2007 National Championships. Kim and I went into it with no real expectations, enjoyed camping the night before, had a fairly laid-back race, and still managed to pull off a decent finish. I took the start on July 28, one year to the day after I bought my first mountain bike.

There really is no such thing as coincidence -- and I was hooked.

Now here we are, nearly 5 years later, lining up for another. I've learned a lot in the 24s I've done since; every time we get out there, it's a new experience. This morning, I threw on 24 Solo as background noise while I worked through e-mails, and it came to me: Not only has Jason's writing and directing been an influence, so too has the music for his films, scored by Haik Naltchayan. I've mentioned Haik's work before, but this morning it really hit me -- as Craig Gordon humps his way up the hill in Conyers (and Dicky fades into the forest), with a big, soaring, martial melody in the background, I realized that this is the soundtrack to my racing. This is what I imagine in the world around me as I push through the night. This is a large part of what inspires me.

And I can't wait to get back out there.

I've learned since that Jason left a promising advertising career to pursue his film-making passion -- and was summarily publicly ridiculed and laughed out of his office by his supervisor. His is not the easy path, but I sense that it is all the more worthwhile because of it. I catch up with Jason from time to time, usually at the SM100, and the other day sent him a note to let him know how much his films have meant to me. His reply surprised me -- he revealed that has never done a solo 24 himself, though he so perfectly captured its essence -- and he shared with me a bit of wisdom from a fellow cyclist that I really needed right now:
"Most people don't do well because they don't think they've earned it. If you have worked hard remind yourself you deserve it. Take it and don't think twice. Just take it."
Game on.

23 May 2012

Twelfth Night


This is a photo of the BURN24 village at sunset.

FSM willing, I won't be there to see it. Instead, I plan to be ripping my way around the IMBA Epic trail that makes up the course, somewhere around lap 10. Or 12. Yeah. Twelve would be fitting.

See, Saturday marks the 11th anniversary since I really started racing. I'll never forget that cold, misty morning hanging out in downtown Burlington, Iowa, watching pros warm up on their trainers under awnings, with absolutely no idea what awaited me on the rain-slick bricks of Snake Alley. I remember talking to one regional pro who told me to skip it, that the risk wasn't worth the reward ... but I was as green as a Fred can be, and so of course I toed the line. And -- miracle of miracles -- I didn't place last.

I guess technically it was my first Top 10 finish. Ninth out of eleven, for those keeping score. But it wasn't until Monday, in the "Rage in the Cage" death match criterium in downtown Rock Island, that I had my first breakthrough: A legit Top 10 in a full-field 4/5s race, in only my fourth race ever. I doubt the blue-shirted USA Cycling official had any idea, as she handed me my medal in the dark, back hallway of the Holiday Inn that served as the race headquarters, that she was basically handing a rock of crack to a junkie. I was hooked.

Just look at me now.

Eleven years later, it's fun to look at the results from that first Memorial Day weekend, and reminisce about some of the folks I knew then. What's even better is to look over the list and see names of men and women with whom I've become riding partners, teammates, friends, co-workers. It's a pretty small world we live in, and how awesome is it that as I begin my 12th year of racing, I find myself still spending time with some of the folks who shared that wet, nasty weekend along the banks of the Mississippi way back when.

With that in mind, here are a few photos from last week. I didn't get a chance to see much of my family, and instead because of work and volunteer duties was with bike folks who have become good friends. The cycling world is pretty awesome, and I'm so glad that first eye-crossing, stomach-churning, blackout-inducing ascent of Snake Alley didn't scare me away, 11 years ago.

Why get your feet wet when there are bridges? Buckhorn Gap Trail. Photo by Amy.

Amy's first time in Pisgah. You call this work? Big smiles all around! Photo by Arleigh.

Twin Falls area. Photo by Amy.

Twin Falls, unintentional superhero pose. D'oh! Photo by Amy.

This is the root boll that ate my derailleur hanger a year ago. Apparently I've got a lot of this to look forward to at Dark Mountain this weekend too! Photo by Amy.

Black Mountain Trail overlook. One of the most amazing places on earth. Photo by Clay.

21 May 2012

11th hour

What a fantastic weekend.

First, I'll get this out of the way: Yes, Kim and I celebrated 16 years of marriage on Friday.

And no, we did not see each other. In fact, we basically had about an hour -- total -- together, from Tuesday evening until Sunday morning. And on our anniversary? Nada. She was out the door at 5:30 a.m., I didn't get home until 11.

But it's all for a good reason.

I spent the weekend volunteering with Eric "PMBAR Honcho" Wever (now maybe to be known as "Eric 'This Goes to 111' Wever") at the first-ever Pisgah 111K, aka the "Eleventy-One." This amazing event was born out of a love of these mountains by Upstate South Carolinian Jeff Papenfus, who, having ridden Leadville, wanted to have a world-class hundie in Pisgah. Sadly, Jeff died on a training ride last summer, leaving his race plans incomplete; Eric and Erinna picked up the ball and ran with it -- just as Jeff would have wanted.

I shed a few tears last summer, though I never knew Jeff. It was so close to Mom's passing; I remember calling Kim at work when I found out, breaking down pretty badly: One of my greatest fears is that I won't come home from a ride. And Jeff died on a stretch of trail I have trained on, alone, in 90+-degree heat. Ours is a selfish sport, and stuff like that plays on your mind when you're out there, let me tell you.

Although already committed to race next weekend, I really wanted to ride the 111. But I know these mountains pretty well by now, and I know 70 miles of tough trails the week before a solo 24 is maybe not a good idea. So I signed on to help instead, and spent Friday evening and all day Saturday doing whatever needed to be done. Mostly I helped with registration and timing; when I got there Friday, I was introduced to Lisa ... it wasn't until several hours later that I realized it was Lisa Papenfus. Wow. I can't imagine what she was going through, seeing her husband's dream come true, except that it was such an amazing event that I can't help but think he would have been proud.

We had a good crew, Friday went smoothly and Saturday was a blast. I did get a bit of a ride in, heading out to Yellow Gap and Aid Stations 2&3, before heading back doing the last of the course marking with Clay. Kim and the kids came by for a short while, and Kate and I walked the trail with Jubal. All in all, it was another wonderful day in the woods!

Finally on Sunday we had a bit of a celebration. We took the kids to Mellow Mushroom, and the gluten free Funky Q Chicken was divine. By then we were WAY past bed-time, for all of us, so we were all a little fried -- but it was worth it.

Now, I'm staring down the barrel of a 24. BURN kicks off in exactly 5 days, 42 minutes. Yikes. I'm not ready -- at all. Nothing like waiting until the 11th hour to make something happen!

18 May 2012

Sweet Sixteen

Who knew?


Happy anniversary to my lovely bride. I love you more with each passing day. You are my sunshine!

17 May 2012

Man crush

So, full disclosure: I wrote yesterday's post before I even had a chance to ride my bike. Seriously -- I could tell how awesome my suspension would be just by bouncing it around in the parking lot.

Now that I've had a chance to ride it, I think I have a man crush. Mike Rischitelli is my new hero.

No, not that Mike Rischitelli. Even though he does a passable Daniel-Craig-as-Bond-James-Bond:

My Mike R. works for Suspension Experts. I'm not sure he's ever played Australian Rules Football.

But he knows his way around a damper.

I headed over to the horse stables last night to meet up with the Southeastern reps for Quality Bicycle Products -- which, when you think about it, is like saying I read Playboy for the articles. "I went to a meeting last night with customers in which we rode our bicycles in Pisgah."

Rough life. I try to make the best of it.

From the word go, my Spearfish was alive. Both fork and shock were smoother and more responsive than ever, "like butter" in the official technical parlance of the bike industry. After a bit of time on the fire road doing silly bike racer things, I met up with the Q-Berts and we headed to Buckhorn Gap Trail. It was Amy's first time in Pisgah, and she's fairly new to mountain biking, so taking it easy and enjoying the sights was the order of the evening.

As soon as we dropped in, I knew. The guys at Suspension Experts are wizards.

Not that Buckhorn is anything spectacular as technical features go. It's a sort-of lightweight Pisgah trail, in that it features smaller versions of just about everything you'll find elsewhere in the forest. It's beginner friendly, but it also offers more advanced riders a chance to rip it -- you can go fast in both directions, down and up.

We were taking our time, walking Amy through the rough bits, but I also got a chance to open it up a bit and get a feel for the handiwork. "Plush" does not even begin to describe the ride. It sounds silly, but it was like riding on a cushion of air; which, of course, I was. The fork and shock were perfectly matched and in sync, and the bike behaved itself through the roots in a way that made me appreciate the ride more than I ever had. My face stretched in a perma-grin, I realized that what they had done was make the bike better -- better than stock, better than I had ever felt a suspension bike before. It was awesome.

We made our way to the horse tie-out, and then hiked in to Twin Falls. I was there once in February, but realized I never got a good look at the top of the falls -- I had stayed low, too exhausted to climb any higher and worried about broken brakes and unseen challengers. It was more fun this time, and on the way back Arleigh picked my brain about the upcoming BURN24. Amy and I kept our feet dry (I was totally being a wimp), and when I hit the stairs, I again got a full appreciation for Mike's work: there was no harshness whatsoever, and even though I let the front wheel get a bit too far ahead, I managed to control the bike right onto the board without a second thought. Both O-rings indicated I had hit full travel, but it was so smooth to get there that I didn't even feel the bottom-out. "That's what suspension should feel like," I thought to myself.

Daniel had an appointment up that way this morning, so I took him on his first beer run and we dropped off a 12-pack and my other Reba. Mike was gracious in accepting my praise, and asked me a few questions to make sure everything was all set with it. I talked with Chris and Kevin for a few minutes, and thanks to Daniel I learned another fun fact:

The guys at Suspension Experts don't just know dampers. They know their way around diapers, too.

Which is all the more reason to love them.

16 May 2012

Little blue stripe

I might have just become "that guy."

I've tried really hard, for a long time, not to be "that guy." I've come close before, and I'm pretty certain Lou and John might call me on it, but it's ill-defined (which works to my advantage), and so far I feel like I've managed to keep from falling too far down that rabbit hole.

Until now.

One of the things that defines "that guy," in my mind, is an obsession with equipment. Every spoke is weighed, every nut is torqued to spec ... before every ride. Decisions are made based on color-coordination, gram count, or both -- and they are clearly competing priorities in some cases. Many times, "custom" becomes the name of the game, and "that guy" will spare no expense in the quest for a one-of-a-kind, ultra-tony, "perfect" ride that likely only he can appreciate. (Not that I'm talking about anyone in particular. Really.)

I've always kind of been the opposite. Stock is good, insofar as "stock" is as close to the top shelf as I can afford. I don't mind working on my own bikes, but I'd rather not have to touch them -- I quit track racing because, quite honestly, I got sick of changing out my gearing all the time. I can barely be made to change a tire unless I have to, and even then, I've settled on a tread setup that I won't change anytime soon. I have had a couple of custom/semi-custom frames, and they have served me well, but even those were partially a trial run at production by Brendan. I'd rather spend my time riding than rebuilding; spinning the cranks instead of spinning a wrench.

With that in mind, I've always kind of looked askance at the burgeoning aftermarket suspension service market. No doubt these guys know what they're doing, and for the feel-obsessed downhiller, it might make sense to send in your fork and your damper for a "custom" tune that will make your next run on A-Line that much more supple. But for little ol' me? Notsomuch. I always passed over the advertisements in Dirt Rag in favor of a bit more Dicky.

Ahem. Yeah. As you can see from the photo, things have changed.

It took some time after I moved here, but eventually I started meeting the guys from Suspension Experts out on the trail, or at events, or even just around town. Kevin Booth and his team have been at it for a while, doing custom tunes and rebuilds at a blistering pace, right here in Asheville, just outside the gates to the Biltmore Estate. In fact, they were one of the first factory-authorized Double Barrel Service Centers, providing much-needed support to what used to be a one-man, in-house warranty department.

Sometime in the past year, a group of us headed over to Heartbreak Ridge, and Mike Rischitelli and I found ourselves at the trailers together. As I chowed down on some gluten free ginger snaps, we started chatting about my Spearfish, and I asked about a few things: My faithful Reba was going on 4 years with only a minor rebuild and my seals were popping open; my other Reba wasn't doing much better; and most importantly, the Monarch-equipped rear end tended to pack up over root bolls and g-outs, even with the rebound wide open. With a sly look, Mike told me "we can take care of that," and the gears in my head started spinning.

Days turned to weeks turned to months, I got busy, and Suspension Experts got even busier. Every time I'd see him, I'd tell Mike I'd be in soon; and every time, I'd keep putting it off. Finally, I promised myself a birthday present: As soon as I was done with PMBAR, it was time to get some suspension work done.

I wish I hadn't waited.

As you can see from the little blue stripe in the photo, Mike rebuilt my Reba from the inside-out, giving it the famous Suspension Experts treatment, and did the same for the Monarch ... which now sports a corresponding blue stripe. He monkeyed with the rebound on the damper as well, giving me a bit more room to play, which will no doubt come in handy across the roots I'll encounter at Dark Mountain next week. I've become obsessed with the improved feel, and will be dropping off my second fork tomorrow. I even called them ... twice ... to check on the work. (To be fair, I had other reasons, but I couldn't help asking ...)

In short, I've become "that guy."

And damn, it feels good.

14 May 2012

'Til we found a sea of green

I've got another thing to add to my list of Top 10 Things I've Learned About Pisgah:

11. Don't follow the flag line.

The weekend started off well enough, with a fun time at tumbling class and a very happy little girl wishing her Daddy a happy birthday. Kim made the best French toast we've ever had, and things were pretty relaxed before I rolled out to Pisgah. I had a bit of exploring to do, on this, my last long weekend before BURN.

Ranger Station > 276 > 477 > Buckhorn Gap Tr > Clawhammer > 5057 > Avery Creek > Club Gap > 477 > 276 > 475B > 225 > Cove Creek > Davidson > 475 > 475B > 225 > Daniel > 475 > Cove Creek > 225 > 475B > 477 > Club Gap > Avery Creek > 5057 > Clawhammer > 477 > 276

If you look closely, you'll notice that I got a little loopy out there, but I figured, what better way to spend my birthday than dropping a couple of my favorite descents that I haven't seen in a while, while getting to check out 5057 in anticipation of future PMBARs and Double Dares? I was planning on hitting either Maxwell > Black or Buckhorn > Maxwell > Black to finish, but it started raining in earnest as I approached Club Gap, and it was time to pull the plug anyway. Now, I've done it before, so I knew descending Clawhammer in the rain isn't the most fun, but I made it alright and drilled it back to the Ranger Station ... where it had stopped raining. All that gunk on my bike for nothing.

Kim made the call for pancakes on Sunday, and Kate was even more excited to give Kim her presents than she was the day before! It was another nice, relaxing morning, before I headed out into the steady rain with my boots this time ...

Fish Hatchery > Cat Gap > John Rock > 475C > ???? > Art Loeb > Butter Gap > Long Branch > Cat Gap

I should know better, I really should. But I've been trying to get a sense of what's left on the Bracken Mountain project from maps, and haven't quite wrapped my head around it. So I headed out 475C to try to find the end of the Forest Service road and what I thought was the beginning of the Bracken Mountain trail ...

I've been up there before, on my bike, and turned around at the campsite below Cat Gap. The brush gets too thick after that for a bike, so I put off any further exploration for another time. Well, Sunday was that time, and a-exploring I did go ...

Things started off well enough, as the road bed was pretty well defined. It was slow going, and I startled a mother turkey and her tiny chicks, but it wasn't too bad. I hit a small gap, and there were even very helpful pin flags showing me around the turn. Then I came to a couple of small mounds, with pin flags marking an X, and assumed that was the edge of the Forest Service property. But the road bed continued, and so did I.

The rain was really coming down, and as I was following a contour line, I wasn't generating much heat -- in fact, I was starting to get kind of chilly. What's more, I was pushing through knee- and waist-high fern fields, so my boots and my pants were becoming thoroughly soaked. And they were getting heavy -- Carhartts are great -- when they're dry. When they're wet? Holy crap I could hardly lift my feet.

I came to a small clearing and sort of poked my way around the trees. There, off to my right, was a flag line ... hmmm ... where could this go? Could this be Todd's work? I couldn't be far from the cleared Bracken trail ... could I?

Nearly an hour later, I stumbled back to this spot, soaked to the bone and shivering uncontrollably in the first stages of hypothermia. In the intervening time, I had made it maybe half a mile, probably less, following pin flags and strips of pink and orange ribbon tied to trees through a couple of small coves, around a shoulder and toward a small ridge ... all on 20-plus percent sidehill, through overgrowth so thick I could see only 50 yards ahead as I searched for the line. The temperature had dropped, I was fighting for every step with what felt like leaden boots, and at one point I even lost the flag line on the way back as I dipped into a cove and the flags went up the hillside. I did see the most amazing orange salamander out there -- it looked like a child's toy -- but I also realized that no one knew where I was, the footing was treacherous at best, I was hungry and tired, and I was starting to make sloppy mistakes -- it was time to head home.

I never did find the trail. Also, I came to realize that I'm not a big fan of bushwacking. It's quite an adventure ... but I'm OK leaving it to others.

After I put on every piece of clothing I had with me, ate and drank some, and headed back up to Cat Gap, I started to feel better. The climb warmed my body and lightened my mind, and I knew -- or rather, I believed, that I wasn't that far from Butter Gap. So when I hit the gap I turned left, eschewing the quicker way down -- instead, I went up and over, checking out the massive rock face above Sandy Gap and making my way to the shelter. It was great to stop for a dry minute under the overhang, and then I made my way through flowing sediment back to the car -- good Lord, do we need to get up there and clear some drains. It looked like someone had done two of the worst spots, but there were many more that need help ...

All in all a great weekend, even if I do need to find some dry clothes. I guess maybe it wasn't so bad after all, if I'm already looking forward to more exploring sometime soon ...

13 May 2012

These Days

... One of these days, the clocks will stop, and time won't mean a thing ...

1962

2012

11 May 2012

"I have a idea."

Hi Mom --

This morning on the way to day care, Kate started singing to her brother. It was awesome -- totally uninhibited,  completely off-key, just Kate being Kate. And as she warbled along, it hit me: I haven't heard that song since you used to sing it to me. I can only imagine that you sang it to me on my birthday, when I was 3-going-on-4, so it's been, what? 35 years?

This will be the second birthday/Mother's Day without you. I think this weekend more than any is a marker for me: After 37 years in a row celebrating our combined "holiday," including our last one together in 2010, it still doesn't feel quite right. It's a little odd, but I actually take comfort knowing that we never spent a Mother's Day away from you. I'm pretty sure that would have broken your heart.

You know how Kim doesn't like to spend money -- well, on a whim, I took the kids to the Dollar General near our house to see if we could find something little for Mother's Day, from Kate and Daniel. Kate was so cute -- as soon as we walked in, she looked around and said:

"I have a idea."

And then she started to explore the toy aisle. She would pick something out, and I'd say, "Well, what about something else?" She'd smile and say, "OK. I have a idea." And go wandering off, this crazy intent look on her face.

She even picked out a card -- of course, the first one she grabbed was for a Grandmother. So now, she's trying to convince us all that Sunday is Grandmother's Day. Which is somehow fitting.

Kim took this photo about a week ago -- this was Kate's outfit to go ride in the forest. I still can't get over how much she looks like you ... I'm not sure I ever will. Oh! Especially now that she has that haircut -- she chose the short look, and let me tell you, with pigtails it's absolutely darling.

We miss you, and talk about you often. Especially when something happens that's pretty obviously you -- it's comforting to know you're still watching out for us. Thanks for that. Or when Kate acts exactly like I used to -- we always say Nana is laughing at us just then ...

I get sad when I realize there won't be a voicemail tomorrow, or an email. But I get to take Kate to tumbling class, which is probably the best birthday present a father could ask for. I think we'll probably have French toast for breakfast, and I'll see if Kim is up for cooking tacos like you used to -- after all, every Saturday starts with French toast and ends with tacos, right?

There may be a few tears on Sunday, and we'll be sure to talk to Grandma, and talk about you. We have so many great memories to share with the kids, it's hard to know where to start. Maybe we'll begin with that Saturday afternoon, 39 years ago tomorrow, when somehow -- against all the odds -- both you and I managed to survive some pretty scary stuff, and how a few hours later it became our very first Mother's Day together.

Love,

ME

07 May 2012

PMBAR!

PMBAR Sunrise, stolen from BradO

What's not to love when you get to spend a day in Pisgah with a good friend, chasing a bunch of like-minded fools and pondering the existential while hinged to the side of a mountain on 8 square inches of knobby rubber?

Grins (grimaces?) all around! Photo by Eric 

Greg and I had a darn near perfect PMBAR. No mechanicals, no throw-downs or throw-ups, only one episode of cramping, and the best route for us we could have chosen. Add in amazing weather (storms threatening, which apparently then dumped in Asheville but never made it south to affect the race), fantastic volunteers and a set of challenging-but-achievable checkpoints ... what more could you ask for?

From Smokers Cove > Black (mandatory, passports at Pressley Gap) > Black > Turkeypen Gap > Singletrack > Bradley Creek (CP 1) > 1206 > 5051 > Yellow Gap Trail (which doesn't go to Yellow Gap) > North Mills River (CP 2) > Lower Trace > Wash Creek > 5000 > 1206 (water at the campground, Coke at the Gap*) > Laurel Mtn (CP 3) > Pilot > 1206 > 276 (water at Pink Beds) > 475B > 225 (CP 4**) > 225 > 475B > 276 > 477 > Avery (CP 5) > Buckhorn Gap Tr > 477 > Clawhammer > Maxwell > Black (mandatory) > FINISH

A full hour faster than last year for a finish in 9:40, good enough for 9th place overall and some sweet prizes: Greg walked away with a new Wingnut pack and I landed a pair of sweet 29er hoops courtesy of DT Swiss!
Courtesy Eric 

Eric put together some serious sponsorship this year, and I'm proud that Cane Creek is included in that. Most of all, though, I owe a huge shout-out to Bruce Dickman at ProGold -- not only has ProGold kept me running for more than 5 years now, Bruce has seen fit to support PMBAR with an amazing set of prizes, Pisgah Area SORBA's spring edition of Take A Kid Mountain Biking Day, Trips for Kids WNC, the Cane Creek shop and so many other great folks ... watch for a full write-up soon!

Not-so-silent night under a Super Moon. Photo by Eric.

Now for a couple of race notes:

* Stephen Janes of Trips for Kids WNC has become a fixture at Yellow Gap on FS1206, serving up hot grilled cheese sandwiches and ice-cold Coca-Cola while keeping watch on the off-limits ascent of FS5015. He purchases all the supplies out of his own pocket, helping build awareness for TfK in return. This year, while Greg sucked down a sandwich and a Coke, I slammed two sodas -- by the time we topped out on the Pilot Connector, the caffeine kicked in, and I absolutely railed Pilot Rock. It was off the hook -- I was scared out of my mind, but I might just try that again sometime ...

** At this point in the day, we were inexplicably ahead of Wes and Geoff, who had gone a different way earlier in the day. We motored along toward Club Gap and Avery Creek (another caffeine-fueled hyperspeed downhill), and the Red Ones passed us just as we exited 477 and started to climb. From what Wes said, they were out of their minds; I was stoked that we didn't get passed the rest of the day, they apparently made up some 6 or 7 places to make it to the podium. Mad props to them for closing the deal in dramatic fashion!

04 May 2012

PMBAR, to the letter

I like racing my bike. When I get old(er) and can no longer turn the pedals in anger, I'll look back on the past decade with satisfaction: I have lived my dream. I was seven years old when the dream took hold, and thanks to Kim, it became a reality.

But please, for the love of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, I wish people would stop asking me, "Are you gonna' win?"

I hate that question. I'm shocked how often it gets asked -- days, weeks, sometimes months before an event. Funnily enough, it's never non-bike-folk who ask me -- instead, it's other riders, usually racers, who know how hard it is for everything to come together all at once on race day to pull off a V. I'll admit, it gets in my head, and I actually get angry -- Hell, no, I'm not going to win. I'm not Mickey-friggin'-Mantle, pointing his bat to the left field fence and then smacking the ball out of the park. I'm not Bode Miller, intent on out-partying the competition and then slicing to the win with a raging hangover. And I'm sure as heck not Eddy Merckx, who could basically predict that he would ride away from the competition and raise his arms in victory as he crossed the line.

To be sure, I've had some solid wins these past few years. They're fun -- winning is pretty awesome. But I've also had more than a few heartaches, events that I targeted only to have them go pear-shaped just minutes past the start line. Or races where I've been feeling at the top of my game, only to come up against someone whose game was just that much higher. And it's a quirk of my personality that sometimes when those things happen, I go to a very, very dark place: For every winner's medal I have in a box at home, I can tell you 10 stories of days when I've decided to quit racing forever.

It occurred to me yesterday that you can tell a person's personality as it relates to racing by how they approach PMBAR. The Pisgah Mountain Bike Adventure Race is a one-day romp through the most awesome trail system on the planet, a choose-your-own-adventure adventure that will have participants exploring singletrack trails, rock gardens and gravel roads for anywhere from 6 to 14 hours. What's more, it's a team event -- each team is two people, who are required to be within shouting distance of each other the entire time. From the moment the checkpoints are revealed at Smoker's Cove tomorrow at 8 a.m., participants will spend the rest of the day together ... through highs and lows, thick and thin, up one hillside and down the other.

How a team tackles PMBAR can be determined by which letter they emphasize most. For some, it's all about the "R" -- there's no question that Wes Dickson and Geoff Bergmark are in it for the win (provided they bring their reading comprehension skills -- Wes has said as much). Same with anyone paired with Sam Koerber. And that's great for them -- they're prepared, and they'll kill it out there. They want to race.

For others, it's all about the "P" -- we have racers coming from far and wide just to get a fun day in the Pisgah National Forest with their buddy and a bunch of other nutters. It's a great excuse to get out and explore, and maybe ride some stuff they wouldn't otherwise travel to see.

The "M" folks are in it for the bragging rights that come with accomplishing several thousand feet of elevation in a day (cough, Clay, cough); the "B" folks need an excuse to get out and ride, as opposed to doing yardwork or any other number of things that real life throws at us each weekend.

For my partner, Greg, and I, PMBAR is at its best for the "A." We've been riding these events together for 2 years now (there's a 2-day version each October called Double Dare), and from the start we made a pact that we would approach each race as just a big day in the forest, come what may. As our friendship has developed over the past few years, even our emphasis on the "B" and the "P" has faded -- Greg is an experienced hiker, and it's a blast to get out in the woods with him by foot, even if the trails aren't in our beloved Pisgah National Forest.

We've had some success with this -- our surprise finishes last year were pretty incredible -- but more importantly we've had a lot of fun. There are some tough moments out there (the Sunday of Double Dare can go either really well or really, really badly), but we've also had some pretty cool experiences, and we've done it all without killing each other. Greg's Zen-like approach to riding is a perfect foil for my near-sociopathic, structured approach, and I have learned a lot from him in terms of how to prepare mentally for each event. He's a monster on the bike, for sure, but he's not out there to crush people; the experience ultimately counts for more than the result. And if the result is good? That's just so much sweeter.

So please, if you see me this afternoon, or tomorrow morning, ask me what I'm hoping to experience out there. Ask me about our approach to mapping the checkpoints, and how we figure out our Adventure. Ask me how it feels to roll down Thrift Cove at the end of a very, very long day in the woods, knowing that together, Greg and I have thrown all we can at the trails, and have prevailed. Ask me how good it feels to jump in Davidson River and feel the icy waters envelope my legs, washing away any bad memories as it rinses the mud from my skin.

Ask me any of those things. Just don't ask me if we're going to win.

02 May 2012

Our day in Pisgah

Apparently some people like to look at themselves in pictures on the Internet.

We call them Tüls.

Especially when they stuff their shorts.

Dicky getting in a pre-ride snack. Check out that bulge. 

By:Stickel in the wild. We'll forgive him the fjork, since it matches nicely with the stem. 

Every one of these guys pulled a wheelie at the end of the bridge. 

Only, I wasn't expecting it. 

Until the almost-last rider came through. 


Greg and Ben played it safe ... or is this Ben and Greg. Stare too long and you'll go blind from all the orange. 

I'm not sure how the guys at Salsa did it, but the Spearfish is damn near invisible in Pisgah vegetation. It's like I'm not even riding a bike when I'm out there. 

OK, so I'm cheating just a little bit, in case this is a PMBAR checkpoint on Saturday. Actually, Lee is in this photo -- but he's so fast you can't see him. 

Big smiles from the locals ... 

... and pretty serious concentration. 

It wouldn't be Pisgah without a nice river crossing. 

Especially when the flat-landers try to ride it ... we know better ... 

Doing his best Jeff Conaway impersonation. This was take 2. 

Start with a snake, end with a snake. We didn't see him on Saturday, but this little guy was stretched across Thrift Cove trail on Sunday afternoon!

01 May 2012

Scoots

The rest of my weekend went sort of like this:

Daniel has discovered mobility, and while he's not crawling, he's able to scoot and flop around -- like Sunday morning, when he pushed backward under Kate's art easel, and couldn't figure out how to extract himself.

Or Saturday night, when he backed his sister into a corner doing his "head crawl:"

Yes, he did that to himself, using his head a a pivot point to push himself around.

The most amazing (and adorable) thing is that he's enamored with his sister. That's his No. 1 goal in life right now, except when he's hungry: He must be able to see Sister. It's pretty amazing the lengths he'll go to, to get her in eyesight.

Of course, once she's got him, all bets are off.

'cause that's the other thing he's mastered lately: The "Oh, Sh!t" grip.

We spent Sunday morning as a family with good friends at the Cradle of Forestry exhibit, where we got to "ride" in a helicopter, win a prize and climb all over an old steam train. Then, with the little ones teetering on the edge of going downhill, Kim headed home for nap time while I headed up -- another day, another day in Pisgah.

From The Hub: Estatoe > Black > Thrift > Black > Maxwell > Clawhammer > Black > Avery > Buckhorn Gap > 477 > Maxwell > Black > 276.

Two solid days in the mountains chasing "form," just in time for May. I love it when a plan comes together.

I rolled back to The Hub and met up with the guys from Rockshox. They were still waiting on one more equipment return, because -- let's face it -- there's no better training for PMBAR than an 8-hour ride in Pisgah. That's how Hill People roll.

After that it was dinner in Asheville, a big, steaming pot of jambalaya with a side of cheese grits -- good food, good folks and a beautiful spring evening dining al fresco, watching the homeless hippie perform a sky dance to the rhythmic tunes of a bagpipe player, his tambourine-wielding girlfriend, and their drummer buddy ...

I bet they don't have that in Charlotte.