Friday, January 30, 2015

Moose Brook Fat Bike Race 2015

This past Sunday, Cathy and I participated in the second annual Moose Brook Fat Bike Race at Moose Brook State Park in Gorham NH. Last year's event was literally, one of the highlights of the race year and we were sure not to miss this year's edition. From the event and over the year, we have also become friends with a number of the folks who promoted the race. This winter we have been riding with them and others from the Coos Cycling Club on a regular basis.

We've had the good fortune to not only ride the trails at Moose Brook a few times but also ride the area quite a few times this season. Good things are going on that neck of the woods. Additionally, we have also been introduced to some of the local establishment that sponsored and catered that initial race last year, primarily SaALT at Libby's and the White Mountain Cafe. Both are great businesses with outstanding product located right on RT2 in Gorham, NH. Check them out if you are in the area. You won't be disappointed.

Last Thursday evening, Cathy and I drove over to Gorham and met Ben and Aaron from Coos Cycling Club and the race to do some laps on the course. We had a great time and the course was firm, packed and riding very well. Pretty incredible what a stroke of luck this is really, given the weather coupled with just how finicky fat bike trail can be. Not enough snow and icy and it would be a mess. We had a massive warm-up and rain storm just the week before yet the snow held and the trail packers, who packed the tight, twisty singletrack trail with snowshoes, were able to get the trail in good shape before the refreeze later that same week, Too much snow, particularly fresh unpacked and unset snow would make for a horrible slog of a race. That snow in fact is coming down right now, just a couple days after the race. So basically, a week earlier or a couple days later and the race would have had a very, very different flavor and as such, fun factor.

The format of the race is simple, a mass start event on the same four mile, multi-lap course. The course was 80% single-track and about 20% groomed snowmobile trail,used primarily for the big climbs. The event had two different categories, a four lap event for men and women and a two lap event for me and women. Each of the laps gained about 625' of elevation, much of which was done in two sections of snowmobile trail, the second being long and grueling. It also had two distinct single-track climbs, the first climbing up from the river low point of the course on bumpy, steep hard-pack and the second being winding switch backed  single-track. Not really a grunt climb but it let you know that it was there for certain.

Last year Cathy and I were on our entry level Charge Cooker Maxi fat bikes. Those bikes were great and served us very, very well. A great value indeed and honestly held us back in no way at all. That said, we were looking very forward to racing our new Borealis Yampa full carbon bikes this year. These bikes have been incredible in many ways, none less than the fact that they weigh ten pounds less than the stock Charge bikes did. I know, it isn't about the bike but still, these things are very nice. We were lucky that we could convince Chris at the Bikeway Source to become a dealer, just because of us. That speaks volumes of his dedication to us, dedication and support that is greatly appreciated. In fact, the new kits will be here in a couple of weeks. They are pretty darn sharp and I don't say that simply because I designed them. Will be proud to be Bikeway Source Racing for the future.

Luck was with us though and fortune further smiled with temperatures starting the day at just below freezing with fairly calm winds. Just about perfect I'd say. The event this year was so popular that the pre-registration sold out the 75 open spots within one day of opening. In fact, many were unable to get in including last years runner up, who wields the most fat bike racing clout of anyone at the event by racing a full fat season and promoting a race of his own at Bromont in Quebec. That event is coming up next weekend in fact and I'm told the course is pretty incredible. I'm sad to have to miss it.

We spent some time Sunday AM chatting with friends at the event and getting ready to go and then it was time to race. A brief last minute warm-up ride brought us to the line shortly after everyone had started staging. Late to the start line again. I sheepishly slotted in on the outside left of the front row, trying my best not to be inconsiderate but not wanting to get caught up in what I was certain would be the starting mayhem. Jeremiah then further staged us forward a little and said that we had four minutes left. My final starting spot was a bit better with me lining up next to my primary rival from last year's race, Christian Gauvin. It was a pretty certain bet that he was gunning for the win this year and that he was going to hit the start really, really hard and fast. I wanted to be on the side because the edges of the trail, almost all snowmobile trail, are usually by far the best as they tend to have very little sled traffic at the edges to cut the groomed surface. We'd pre-ridden the start that AM and it was indeed the case.

As expected, the start came well before the estimated four minutes had elapsed and to no countdown. Also as expected, it was fast, as fast and hard as any CX start I can recall given that we headed uphill in snow for a fairly significant amount of time. We were literally in a full on stand up sprint for the first minute and a half of the race trying to get the hole-shot to the woods. This did some damage and spread the field out quickly and effectively. I could still see Don Seib back a bit but chasing hard but that was it. Luckily, this year I was able to match the brutal effort that Christian was putting forth and followed closely through the next single-track down followed by the long bumpy climb back up to the sled trail. On the sled trail I went to the side and put in a hard dig, taking over the lead into the top section of single-track but not displacing Christian at all.

I led the next single-track section as well but was unable to claw out any real gap. Going into the last section of single-track Christian slotted by me on the inside of the sled trail and took over the lead. At that point, I was thinking that if I couldn't drop him and he wanted the lead, I may do better to set and dog him for a while and see if I can recover. Christian rode hard and smooth, flowing better and more confidently in the single-track than I. Still, I was able to follow closely and never give anything. All along I was monitoring my effort. While at the helm I was running in the mid 160 bpm range, CX race pace, which for me is pretty high for a two hour winter effort with virtually no hydration or calories. That concerned me and was part of why I settled in the follow spot. As I'd hoped, following at Christian's pace allowed my HR to drop a few beats per minute, settle in and recover a bit. Now I was in control, at least in my mind. It is ironic how sometimes assuming control of the race actually required relinquishing the lead.

Christian dug hard and consistently for the entire first and second lap with me sitting right on his wheel, biding my time, like a leech. I realize, there is no benefit to following someone on an offroad race. In fact, it is a detriment as you don't see the lines as well and are a slave to whatever the leader does in many ways. Being first is also a strategic advantage when it come to passing lapped racers, which on the second lap we started to hit. Still, I was comfortably biding my time waiting for that perfect moment.

Last year was much the same and coming out of the woods and heading to the start/finish for the lap was an open straight that saw huge headwind. That was where I made my move, into the biggest gust of wind of the day coming in to start the third lap. Ironically when we popped out to this same field this year we were greeted by a strong headwind and almost as if an omen, I took advantage of the fortuitous opportunity and put in a strong attack, standing up and sprinting around Christian in to the wind. I looked back at the bridge crossing and saw he did not respond. As I'd hoped, he'd been working hard in the lead and didn't have that extra kick at this point in the race, the half way point.

In truth, neither did I but if I could just sustain for a few minutes of increased effort and get a gap, then I could settle back in. That is what I did and as fortune would have it for me, it worked perfectly. Through the next lap I rode hard and consistent taking few risks. The final lap started strong but fatigue started to set in near the mid point. With the fast, tight and twisty hardpack that was also somewhat bumpy, it was easy for the course to get away from you and cause a mistake, one that could be highly detrimental like crashing and hitting a tree.

Luckily that didn't happen and I was able to finish up cleanly, retaining my spot. Shortly after Christian came rolling in the finish as well followed by Don. Another excellent race and a superb event. Again, a highlight of my season and a good day on the bike.

I quickly threw some dry clothes on and headed back out onto the course to spectate, hoping that Cathy was having an equally good day. I'd passed a number of men and a couple women but had not caught Cathy. She was not back at the van, so I was optimistic that she was having a good race. She's been riding really, really well lately. Well enough that I though she had a reasonable chance against what I assumed was the main competition, Melissa Seib. Melissa a young powerhouse and as she has matured, she has developed into one of the best overall junior racers in the nation.

I made my way to the only close vantage point and started waiting. The men's field still had plenty of racers coming in so I had plenty folks to cheer for. Both Peter Vollers Jr and Sr came through strong after spending the race chasing back from a late start. Soon after Melissa came through so I was hopeful that Cathy wouldn't be far back. Sure enough withing a couple minutes Cathy came through strong with a huge smile on her face. I managed to get the picture, possibly the best one ever. Cathy finished a strong second to a legitimate elite cyclist who also happens to be much less than half her age and had fun doing  it. I was so proud as always I am, of my wife. This was truly a great for the team, our team.

As we looked back at our personal statistics there were a couple notes. Cathy cut over thirty eight minutes off from her elapsed time year over year in a race on the same course with similar conditions while I managed to cut eight minutes off. The splits for the first three laps were within a few seconds though the fourth lap was about twenty seconds slower. Between the two of us, we drank slightly less than one water bottle during the race, which was filled with straight water and took in zero calories. We were both soaking wet with sweat despite having no wind layers on the torso.

The after party was awesome with great food from SaALT at Libby's, coffee from the White Mountain Cafe, cookies from all the mom's and wives who baked and just an overall, excellent atmosphere. Literally an hour after the event the ranger station, which had a roaring open fire in the fireplace, was still jam packed. Many thanks to all of the sponsors and to the promoters and volunteers, Ben, Jeremiah, Aaron, Jamie, Jason and Kara who we now call friends. You have the best scene going and the overwhelming sense of community is unprecedented.

Looking very, very forward to next year and beyond as well as lots more adventures this winter.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Staying Warm

But not too warm, that is the battle with winter cycling. As easy as it sounds, the truth is that this is one of the biggest challenges that you will face in trying to remain comfortable on the bike, outdoors in the cold. Biking stands somewhat alone in terms of the diversity of energy output. We are often likened to Nordic skiing, which is close but I will argue not quite the same, at least for where we ride. The difference is that Nordic tends to be a more even power output. Also, you are using your arms and legs, which keeps them warm. Like running you can XC ski with very light clothing, even in extremely cool temperatures.

Biking is a little different though. Sure, if you ride at a consistent level of exertion, one that does not generate an over abundance of heat, you will be fine. Take for instance, a nice steady ride on a flat road that has little or no requirement for changes in effort, stops, starts, hills, descents. Things of that nature. Then it is fairly easy to regulate and meter.

However, most real world winter riding is done on varied terrain, with varied conditions. Cathy and I tend to do a ton of fat biking on snowmobile trails. For those who've never been on snowmobile trails in Northern New England, they tend not to be flat. This is partly because the trails tend to be located in out of the way areas, running through the wilderness. They also tend to frequently have grades that rival those of the streets of San Francisco, with sections often above 30% and sustained sections above 20% commonplace. Add to that the varied conditions of the snow surface and you quickly get into situations calling for a whole lot of energy output.

What goes up, usually comes down and there within lies the rub. You finish a two mile long ascent dripping with sweat even after stripping down only to then find yourself atop a cold, windy peak. Once the fire goes out you immediately freeze. If that freezing occurs before you get all of those clothes you stripped off, back on, you are in a world of hurt for the descent, which is often as long as the ascent was. Add to that the fact that the warm clothing you stripped off, which was probably at least a little damp, is now cold if not frozen and you can see that things just don't scale well.

So what is the answer? Honestly, I don't know that there is one. This is one of those problems that you need to isolate into many individual challenges and then attack one by one, I think. The core is pretty easy. Doesn't take much to keep that warm as your body works with you on it. Your head as well with the same thought being, critical systems take precedence when it comes to your body keeping them regulated. Keep in mind though that the single best place to regulate and vent excess heat is the head, and stow that away as an ace in the hole.

If the head and core are the easy parts, the extremities are the hard parts. Your body shuts them down at the drop of a hat so keeping them warm is the big challenge. I've come to find though that in trying to keep them warm, keeping them cool is the bigger key. You see, I sweat, a lot. My hands and feet included. Inevitably what happens is I get warm, sweat and swamp my extremities. Then as you would imagine, they eventually get cold. For my hands, I ran a test yesterday. Once I was warm I stripped my heavy gloves off and rode successfully with simple glove liners, in low single digit temperatures, until I started to descend. Then I put my cold, swampy gloves back on and it all went downhill from there. Within a half hour I had to switch to the standby, heavy expedition mittens. They are overkill but the only thing that keeps my hands warm, if also wet.

For the feet I haven't gotten it right yet. My new 45NRTH Wolvhammer SPD boots are the best I've had by far. That said, my feet still sweat, swamp and freeze. I made it three hours yesterday but once the sun was gone and the temperature dropped, I started to lose them. When I took the boots off, my socks were damp with sweat. I need to find a pair of silica gel socks I guess, or something that can deal with the moisture.

Getting back to the core, the key I have found is breathability. You need material that has loft, but also allows air to pass through, wick away moisture and regulate body temperature. I'm a big fan of fleece and zippers to help regulate between the layers. When it is warmer, I use the Pearl Izumi thermal jerseys. Not the ones with windblock though. For colder weather, I've been using a hybrid jacket that is Polarfleece on the back and arms and Primaloft insulation in the front. I regulate temp via the zipper. I also use a zippered thermal long sleeve jersey as my mid layer and will unzip that as well, letting air pass right through to my base layer. The jacket also has a hood. I love hoods for winter as they are like a free security blanket. Worst case, keep your head warm and you will survive numerous extra hours in the snowbank before dying cold and alone.

For the legs, no real secrets except that I've found wearing pants with a cuff that goes over the boot works better than a tight tucked into the boot. It tends to keep the warmth in and the cold out, of the boots. We both use XC ski pants which have a wind block front panel and lighter, breathable Polartech fleece back panel. Just throw on your favorite padded shorts and some knee or leg warmers underneath and you are good to go.

As for the head, I use a thermal beanie that also covers my ears. This fits easily inside the helmet and keeps me plenty warm. Again, I sweat a whole lot and having no hair, that lightweight beanie helps vent some of the excess heat and moisture. Often I will use a mesh top beanie to let more heat escape or I will remove it all together. The last piece of crucial clothing is a lightweight buff. I usually start and finish with it but strip it off for the bulk of the ride.When super cold or windy it is great for keeping the face warm.

The last bit of advice is that if you are planning longer rides in remote areas, be prepared. This means be prepared for having to walk, potentially miles. Be prepared for big weather changes. Think about what could happen and try and be prepared to deal with it. We always ride with extra glove liners, a wind jacket, chemical warmers, and a buff. If we are more remote, we carry a packable down jacket with hood in addition. You can always strip your wet base layer off and throw the down on and stay warm. The other piece of advice is stay dry. Strip stuff off before you swamp up and use breathable clothing. Save the wind layers for later or for emergencies. A wind layer over dry clothing will be warm but throwing it over wet layers, not so much.