Birthday

Romeo would have turned 13 today.

I carry him in my heart.

I wear him on my sleeve.

No amount of suffering on the bike, on skis, or running even comes close.

Godspeed, Romeo.

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Crossed Off

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It’s the First of the year, snow is on the ground and it’s less than zero degrees outside, so time to reminisce about the ‘cross season — even while I skied over 200km over the Christmas break. I went all-in this year on cyclocross. I went to camp. I did base preparation. I bought cross tubulars for racing and extra set specific for mud. I got a spare bike (used), and set it up identical to my first one.  I’m still not sure I got the return on investments and efforts I was expecting, but that goes with this somewhat uncharted territory of trying to get better while I get older.

0. Cycle-Smart Cross Camp

A great program run by one of my oldest cycling friends (and competitors), Adam Myerson, in the hill towns of western Mass. We were blessed with torrential rain and mud on day one and drilled wet, sloppy corners, built one hell of a rut, and got tips from the likes of national cyclocross champion Stephen Hyde. I was already pretty familiar on the basics — I started racing cross in 1987 — but learned a lot of little things, the glue that holds everything else together. Things I no longer have time to learn the hard way.  The pros: running through drills and techniques in a “safe” environment was invaluable. The cons: I had to rebuild my bike after the wet, muddy day and I tweaked my back practicing dismounts, and that would hamper the first half of my season.

1. Vermont Overland

Not exactly a cyclocross race, this mixed terrain, road, gravel, mud, rock, ski slope race in central Vermont was the first sustained effort on the cyclocross bike.

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Snow Day

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Photo by Katie Busick

The plan was always to ride in the snow.

My mother would have never let me leave the house if the snow were already falling, so I promised to “squeeze” the ride in before the storm.

Beneath leaden skies and not a single flurry, I bundled up and headed out, covered north-to-south with balaclava, Oakely Factory Pilots (with yellow lenses), heavy gloves, Biemme thermal jacket, plastic rain jacket stuffed in the pocket of the thermal jacket, along with a banana, spares and tools, Giordana full-bib thermal tights, and bright blue Brancale booties to cover the Dettos.

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Song of the Witches Cup

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Photo credit: Katie Busick

Last year’s Salem Witches Cup race report was an homage to Hawthorne. This year, I picked up the spirit of Shakespeare’s witches, from Macbeth, Act IV, Scene 1.

Song of the Witches Cup

Round the Salem green we go:
Into corners we must not slow.
Fighting hard for position
Laps and laps to fifty-one.
Sweating, turn, to brake or not,
Sprint again to have a shot.

Double, double, toil and trouble;
Lungs will burn and Red Bull bubble.

Scrape of pedal, squeal of brake,
In the corners, risks to take;
Eye of tiger, shift of cog,
Lap plus lap becomes a slog.
Lungs alight and legs a’sting,
Elbows flick and prime bell rings.
All for a prize not worth the trouble,
Pushed too hard, now on the bubble.

Double, double, toil and trouble;
Lungs to burn and Red Bull bubble.

Squeal of brake, scrape of pedal,
Do I even have the mettle?
Click of shift and whir of chain,
Round the corner once again.
Ever faster, tires grip;
Next time round I’m sure to slip.
Elbows bump and rub and grind,
Tires cross, no doors to find.
Ten laps remain in the race,
Two riders flee o’er the pace.
Chase them down to no avail,
Drop in speed, we start to flail.
Into the sprint, a turn of speed,
Stuffed again, I cannot fulfill the deed.

Double, double, toil and trouble;
Lungs to burn and Red Bull bubble.

Across the line, I’m out-spun,
Bottle’s empty, the race is run.

 

 

Beverly Dreams

The night before the Grand Prix of Beverly I dreamt I was flying. I had gone over the edge of a cliff during a mountain bike race and was plummeting to an inevitable death thousands of feet in the valley below when I realized there was another option: to fly.

I summoned up the willpower and, instead of the typical weak, anemic response, I was suddenly rocketing skyward. I shot past the edge of the cliff, turned a loop, and landed gently on my feet to the astonishment of onlookers.

In the car ride to Beverly, I told my wife about the dream and she said that it meant I was “unblocked” and I was ready do something special.

I had been patiently building cycling fitness, having skipped the Boston Marathon and gone straight onto the bike after the ski season. But my form seemed slow in coming. I had done a few Masters races with little to show, apart from finishing. I had abandoned the longer Pro/1/2 road races due to insufficient mileage in my legs. I had survived New England Crit week with solid bottom-of-the-top-25 finishes. But no stand-out performances thus far.

My best years were growing evermore hazy and mythical. I was beginning to doubt I had ever been a “real” bike racer.

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A Perfect Loaf

The Sugarloaf Nordic Marathon had been looming like a white whale over the end of the 2017 ski season.   Good conditions in late March can be as elusive as a giant fish in the south Pacific. Form and fitness can be fickle. And once the first signs of spring arrive, the doldrums aren’t far behind.

It takes an extra effort to close the final leagues, to have that prey in sight, to be ready to hurl the harpoon.

So it was not unexpected to find myself pondering why I persist in this sport, or any sport, year upon year. Why endure all the training, logistics and travel? Why deal with the equipment and expense? Why suffer needlessly and endlessly in deleterious conditions? If only for a few fleeting moments of brilliance when all the time and effort sunk becomes its own reward for rising above it? If only to prove that I was once a good athlete and could perhaps be one again, if only time weren’t against me?

This year’s edition of Sugarloaf already had a different feel to it. The mid-week Nor’easter had dumped 20 inches of fine, fresh powder on the course. Temps would remain cold, meaning no slow, sloppy snow. Waxing for cold, skate conditions was a simple, straightforward affair.

I was far from exhausted despite racing nearly every week and weekend since late December. Gone were the insomnia inducing fears of how I would cover the distance without cracking in the final kilometers. Confidence in my body and mental fortitude had grown.

Thus, as I lined up for the start of Sugarloaf beneath crystal blue skies and warm sun, I was calmed. I had eaten well and had a belly full of good coffee. Daresay, I was even looking forward to a 50km skate marathon (knowing full well the actual distance would be something shy of that number).

The race exploded from the gun.

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Rangeley Loppet 2017

Five kilometers past the edge of the civilized world  I was already suffering. My legs had felt blocked and wooden in the warm-up, which had been a challenge in the single-digit temperatures, and they felt no better on the gradual descent from the start line.  I strained to fill my lungs, my chest constricted by extra layers of windproof clothing.

The fast college boys were already pulling away. Up the trail, a thin line of a dozen or so skiers skated into the woods and vanished. There were a few guys caught in no-man’s land, struggling to catch the leaders while the gap widened.

I had tried that before and I knew it didn’t end well. Forty-five kilometers at 4ºF and predicted strong winds would make for a long day.

And I was playing the long game, following my strategy of a conservative start, though the signs from my body suggested I was already over the limit. I settled in behind my teammate, Frank, because I knew he would pace us smartly over the distance.

We took turns settings the tempo. At first, it was just the two of us. We caught a few guys and a few guys caught us and then we were a group of 5 or 6, working well together, but always a guy going a little too hard up the hill and a little too slow down it.

I realized my skis were fast.

By and by, my legs started to come around and my breathing evened out. Each time I started to suffer, I glanced at my heart rate monitor to make sure I was still sitting below threshold, and each time my heart rate hovered around 161 bpm.

On the climbs, my hands burned beneath the heavy gloves and I started to sweat. On the descents, it all froze up and my eyeballs watered and I was too skittish to blink. My skis were fast, despite the cold snow.  I was navigating the downhill elbows and doglegs mostly in control, though I’m not sure the skiers behind me would have agreed.

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