When the past calls

April 26, 2014 § 22 Comments

The bigness of the SPY 2014 Belgian Waffle Ride has almost gotten out of hand, such that it’s having a hard time fitting inside the vast vacuum of even my own head.  Most of us are going over the details, endlessly. Will my iPhone battery last? Will my food supplies last? Will my tires last?

And of course, “Will I last?”

But that’s not all. Some have taken to the airwaves to bash the event, a sign that you not only can’t please everyone, but if you do it right, you’ll displease exactly the right people. Others have sneered and point out that THEIR ride is longer, harder, dirtier, more grueling, etc.

And of course there are the daily BWR emails from the organizers that whip you into a frenzy just as soon as you’ve settled down. Don’t forget to set up a Strava account! Don’t forget your Garmin! Don’t change waves! Don’t speed on the dirt descents! Don’t be a wanker!

For some, the pressure gets to be too much, and that’s when the doctor’s notes, the lingering boo-boos, the kiddy soccer matches, the honey-do’s, and the stark reality of “I haven’t been training hard enough” begin to knock riders out of contention before the ride even starts. Yet it does beg the question, “Why in the world are you doing this?”

Why, indeed?

Matt McSuccess

I wish you’d known Matt McSuccess in his heyday. He was blonde, handsome, quick on the bike, and more filled with smack talk than a heroin wholesaler. But like so many, he walked away from cycling to raise a family, build a career, and live a normal life. We had stayed in touch sporadically over the last thirty years, usually thanks to his willingness to reach out.

As I was riding down San Vicente this morning, the phone rang. I pulled over and answered it. It was Matt. “Hey, man! How are you?” I asked.

“Great!” Then he got straight to the point. “I’m training and racing again. What’s up with you?”

I told him, and we made plans to get together in June, when I’ll be in Houston for a week. He’s going to drive down from Austin and we’ll spend a day enjoying the hell out of some riding and perhaps some beer as well.

His phone call put me in the best of moods. It brought back so many memories, memories of funny things, like the morning he rear-ended a Honda in his giant Suburban in front of the whole gang. He was late for the ride and driving there instead of riding. The Honda driver wasn’t hurt, and we laughed ourselves silly at his mistake.

Sad memories, too, like the passing of Matt’s best friend — and a friend to all of us –Richard Turner. Richard was a great bike racer and talented triathlete whose heart stopped while doing a swim workout.

And of course happy memories, like his marriage to Cheryl in the big Catholic church there on Guadalupe in Austin, right across from campus. These things that we experienced in our youth, all connected somehow to cycling, became memories which, in turn, became part of the fabric of my life. Hearing Matt’s voice brought it all back.

Kids do the darndest things

As I finished my ride, pedaling through Hermosa Beach, I saw Michelle. “Seth!” she yelled. She was standing with a group of about eight kids, none of whom were older than about eleven or twelve.

“Hi, Michelle. What’s up?”

“Do you have a wrench for this?” She pointed to the front fork of one of the bikes. It was a fixie with no brakes, and the wheel was secured with a bolt rather than a quick release.

“You’ll need a crescent wrench,” I said. “I don’t have one.” The kids didn’t know what to do, and they looked lost. One of them had a big backpack that must have weighed thirty pounds. “What’s all the stuff in the pack?” I asked.

The oldest kid swung off his pack and unzipped it. He was carrying a floor pump. “We figured we might need something if we got a flat,” he said.

“Where are you kids coming from?” I asked.

“Compton,” they said.

“That’s a long, long way.”

“Well,” said Michelle. “If you keep going to the pier and go up the hill there’s a bike shop next to the ice cream shop. It’s about a mile from here.”

The kid with the flat looked anxious. “How much are they gonna charge me to fix it?”

“I don’t know,” said Michelle. “Don’t you have any money?”

The kids looked at each other. “We got about three dollars if we put all our money together,” said the one with the flat.

Michelle dug into her jersey pocket and fished out ten dollars. “Here,” she said. “This should get your tire changed.”

The boys all grinned as if something amazing had just happened which, in a way, it had. What had happened is that they had started out on an adventure, and unpredictable things had happened, and by the time they got back home that night they would have stories to tell.

They would have memories, and my guess is that they would be memories of a lifetime, simply because they got up one morning and decided to go ride their bikes.

Since you asked …

Whether it’s Matt and the rear-ender, the nice lady who gave ten bucks to a bunch of kids, or the 136-mile odyssey through North County San Diego on the Belgian Waffle Ride, the thing that makes experience more than an existential pinpoint is the memory of it. Delete the emails if there are too many of them; forget about your gearing and tires; to hell with the fact that you’ll finish in the bottom third if you finish at all.

Do it for the moment, do it for the memory.

END

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The course is only part of the course

April 25, 2014 § 20 Comments

There are three things that make a course: the route, the weather, and the riders.

The 2014 SPY Belgian Waffle Ride offers up a route like no other. Much has been written about it, and each rider will discover the extraordinary difficulty of this 136-mile torture chamber at his leisure. The weather will likely be dry and cool with a moderate wind.

When it comes to riders, though, most of us will have only a fleeting glance of the strongest participants, as they will storm away in the first wave, never to be seen until the finish. If you are one of the people who is showing up to the BWR in order win a jersey, here’s a snapshot of a few of the people you’ll have to beat.

  1. Ryan Trebon. Pro cyclocross racer and sponsored SPY rider, former U.S. national champion.
  2. Neil Shirley. First place finisher in the Belgian Waffle Ride’s 2013 edition, and one of the best professional riders in America.
  3. Dan Cobley. Don’t let the Cat 3 fool you. He finished fourth last year behind Neil, Thurlow Rogers, and Karl Bordine.
  4. Brent Prenzlow. He’s an uncategorized “public” rider. He also made mincemeat of virtually the entire field in the inaugural 2012 BWR.
  5. Phil Tinstman. The best all-around masters racer in America. He time trials, sprints, climbs, and has exceptional off-road skills. Former sprint jersey winner in the 2012 edition. If Neil misses a pedal stroke, Phil’s my pick to win it all.
  6. Chris DeMarchi. This is Chris’s first BWR, and you can expect that he will ride it with a vengeance. Chris is also one of the best masters racers in America and is teammates with Phil. Look for a one-two combo from these two titans.
  7. John Abate. Lokalmotor from San Diego, John has the legs and the knowledge of the local roads to be there at the finish.
  8. Lars Finanger. Unhappily (for us) shipped off to Houston last year, Lars returns to his old stomping grounds where he can be expected to stomp people’s heads in if he’s on form.
  9. Michael Marckx. Will this be MMX’s year? He knows every inch of the course because he designed it. He’s riding with exceptional speed and strength. Could be awkward if the head honcho wins his own race!
  10. Ryan Dahl. Truly one of the beasts of North County and always a top finisher at the BWR, in 2013 Ryan earned the hardman jersey for toughest rider on the course.
  11. Brian Zink. The question mark here is fitness. If Brian is on form, he will storm the field, much as he did in 2012 when he won the hardman jersey, and last year when he finished sixth.
  12. David Jaeger. Winner of the inaugural BWR in 2012, DJ is currently on fire as evidenced by his podium finish in the state road race. If he carries it over to Sunday, he will be lethal.
  13. Logan Fiedler. If he hadn’t been felled by a broken elbow earlier this year, Logan would be higher on this list as he’s an excellent climber, skilled in the dirt, and has tremendous endurance.
  14. Robert Frank. Major Bob placed 16th last year with minimal training. This year he’s scorching, earning 2nd place last weekend at the state road race. Lean, fast, an excellent climber, and equally comfortable on dirt and asphalt, a podium is not out of the question.

Given the fact that over 500 riders have signed up for the 2014 SPY Belgian Waffle Ride, there will certainly be surprises as well as strong riders who I’m simply unfamiliar with and have omitted out of ignorance. This list, however, should include at least a handful of the top finishers. Game on!

END

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I don't think I'd give you this shirt off my back.

I don’t think I’d give you this shirt off my back.

A funeral dirge

March 17, 2014 § 29 Comments

There is still more than a month left before you line up for the the third SPY Belgian Waffle Ride. But it might as well be tomorrow.

You see, training and preparation aren’t going to help you this time around. If you were paying attention, the 2013 version was the most challenging one-day event on the calendar. It dragged us over unpaved roads, 120 miles of relentless riding, and 9,000 feet of elevation. The ride was so awful that people milled around in the parking lot afterwards trying to smile, and failing. There wasn’t enough strength left to raise the muscles around the corners of their mouths.

I’m exaggerating, of course. A handful of riders were tired but happy at the end. They were either genetic freaks who have nothing in common with you and me, or they were clever people who kept a steady pace from start to finish, refusing to get suckered into the accelerations of faster groups.

Everyone else was vulture meat.

How bad, was it, really? I was so devastated that I fell off the 3-year teetotaling wagon and have been drinking incessantly ever since. Only recently have the bad memories faded, but not really.

The 2013 BWR, however, was a cakewalk

The 2014 route map has been mostly finalized, and it is senseless in its difficulty. The ride is longer. Instead of a leg-snapping 120 miles, the total distance is 136. The ride is hillier. Instead of 9k feet, it is now 11k. Worst of all, instead of 10 miles of unpaved road, this year offers up more than 30 miles of sand, dirt, rocks, and gravel. That’s bad enough, as in “He put out his own eyes with a fork is bad enough.” But the thing that makes it worse is that much of the off-road portion is uphill. And then, of course, downhill.

Any one or any two of these elements could be properly trained for if, say, you were a full-time professional cyclist in your 20’s or 30’s. But all three elements together — distance, elevation, and road surface — mean that there is no realistic way to be ready for it. It will grind you up and leave you forlorn and mostly lost somewhere in North County San Diego on a fiery hot day in the middle of our first official Globally Warmed Spring.

None of this hell and misery takes into account the high likelihood of a mechanical, or two, or seven, or flats, or ripped out sidewalls or destroyed rims or cracked frames or shattered forks. In other words, if your equipment is right, it will be so heavy and sturdy that you will almost certainly never be able to get up the climbs towards the end of the course. If your equipment is wrong, you’ll DNF somewhere in the hinterlands, eyed by hungry pumas and by buzzards who circle overhead. Once you’ve collapsed at the roadside rest assured that the survivors will part out your bike and empty your pockets for extra food.

What’s a poor registrant to do who’s already paid his entry fees?

Below are my suggestions for surviving this miserable beatdown of a day, a day in which you will go through the spectrum of human emotions, from anger to rage to resignation to exhaustion to depression to fear of impending death to not caring anymore to beer. The happy end of the emotional spectrum will not manifest until months after the event, if ever. So:

  1. Do not pedal hard during the first 120 miles. That’s right. If you squander so much as a pedal stroke early on, thinking you can hang with the Bordines, the Rogerses, the Shirleys, the Cobleys, and the Dahls, you will come apart at Mile 60 or earlier. Trust me. I’ve done it.
  2. Do not be suckered in by the tasty waffle breakfast. Have your normal big ride pre-dinner and your normal big ride breakfast, whatever that is. Last year I ate 17 waffles and a pound of eggs and washed it down with a quart of coffee and paid the price beginning at Mile 5. That price was destruction.
  3. Avoid the rest stops unless you need water. If your nutritional plan is to fuel up on the Barbie food that will be available by the fistful, you’ll never make it. Carefully pack substantial, real food, like peanut butter sandwiches or a large t-bone steak.
  4. If you stop for water, get back on your bike immediately. Every minute you stop equals fifteen minutes of pedaling to exorcise the coagulated death sludge that will immediately clog your vascular system. If you’re not moving forward, you’re rocketing backwards.
  5. Carry three spare tubes and a mini-pump. Share your tubes with no one. This is not the day to help out people who are unprepared, or who showed up with threadbare tires, or who were too cheap to bring an extra tube, or who are riding on paper thin race tires and latex tubes, or who are simply unlucky. This is their day to die. So it is written.
  6. If you’re not on ‘cross or MTB tires (either of which is a suicidal choice, by the way), run 25-mm heavy-duty training tires. Run new ones, but make sure they have a hundred miles or so on them.
  7. Inflate your tires to 80 or 90 psi, max. The course will be covered with sharp stones, thorns, rough gravel, roots, glass, and dead people. The lower psi will greatly reduce the number of punctures as you roll over the teeth and bones of the dead and will add immeasurably to your comfort over the course of this 10- or 12- or 14-hour day.
  8. Go all-out with your gearing. 50 teeth max in front, 28 in back … 30 if you can make it work with your derailleur. When you hit the slopes of Double Peak and can crank it into your 36 x 30, you will love me and buy me free beer for the rest of the year. If you cheap out or lazy out and show up with real road gearing you’ll founder and die somewhere in the sandpits of backroad North County, never to be seen again.
  9. Do not have a single article of clothing or piece of equipment that you haven’t thoroughly tested and ridden in adverse conditions. This is not the day to try anything new, even that cute chick or guy you picked up at Green Flash Brewery the night before. Sample them later, after you’re dead.
  10. Ride with full-fingered gloves and a shit-ton of sunblock. The sun will drain and waste and sap your vital juices, so cover whatever you can stand as long as you don’t overheat.
  11. Max out your uninsured motorist coverage. In the unlikely event you are injured or killed on the course by a car, this will provide you with an avenue for compensation that you or your heirs will badly need.
  12. Make sure you’ve got at least one 120-mile day on your legs before the Big Day, but don’t bother trying to recon the whole route or to simulate it. You can’t, and the attempt will only destroy your will to live. Treat it like the invasion of Normandy. Prep the best you can, but leave the actual catastrophe to the day itself.
  13. Spend the night in Carlsbad or somewhere close to the start. That way we can all go pound IPA’s until the wee hours. Really. Because whether you show up with a bleeding hangover or fresh and rested, the end result will be the same.

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