Cyclocross & Speedskating

I read cyclingnews.com every day, keeping up on my old passion of bike racing. It’s been quite painful to be a fan of elite racing recently, but the sport itself is still wonderful.

Recently they had this article about Cyclocross, one of my favorite kinds of cycling, and the article interviewed someone I used to drive to races with, good fella extraordinaire Adam Myerson. There is much food for thought in this, if these lessons are extrapolated to speedskating.

What is cyclo-cross?

Imagine steeplechase, but on road bikes! conditions usually combine mud, sand, logs, slop, hills & barriers requiring dismounting and running with the bike on your shoulder, some mandatory fast asphalt for the start/finish, and generally appalling “more fun” muckitude.

To the right is me, at 19, happily covered in mud while racing at Wompatuck state park, just south of Boston.

Basically cyclocross is riding road bikes off-road with knobby tires. Although mountain bikes can compete, they are often at a disadvantage to a true cross bike due to the nature of the courses.

Here is an image gallery from the elite men at the recent US nationals. And here are the women, A typical slop-fest fun ‘cross race!

In Europe, road racers have been doing ‘cross since the 1950’s to keep in shape over the winter, and it is HUGELY popular due to the short spectator friendly courses & “festival mentality” surrounding Euro-racing. Lance Armstrong has even raced ‘cross, here is a photo gallery, and this particular one is priceless and channels the spirit of the sport.

Racing cyclocross helped me train the physical aspects of cycling I am awful at, and made me very confidant while riding a road bike in terrible conditions. I very rarely ever cracked the top half of the results in any cross race, but it did not matter. The mud-spattered, endorphin-addled idiot grin was why I raced.

In the early 90’s, cyclocross was a cult sport in the USA, practiced by just a tiny number of people. I was a happy part of the New England cult. Races were small, often only 50-75 total athletes in a few categories. Nationals would attract a few hundred.

I bet in 1990, nationwide, cyclocross was very similar to speedskating in total numbers of participants, maybe even smaller.

From the late 90’s through to when I did my last cyclocross race in the fall of 2001, something DEFINITELY CHANGED.

Attendance at races skyrocketed, a national series cropped up. Multiple categories became the norm. There was suddenly prize money involved, and world class road & mountain bikers started appearing. Nationals used to happen all on one day. Now it takes 3.

I found my true calling in ice speedskating in 2002, and lost touch with ‘cross, as the racing seasons both start in October. The only speedskater I know who did both was multiple-US ice marathon Champion Rob Kramer. He raced a lot of ‘cross until the ice would come in at Lake Placid, then it was all skates.

If you don’t want to read this cool article I linked above, no problem, but here are the lessons I think can be drawn from it.

  1. A strong, visible national series, where the top people all gather, is essential.
  2. Cyclocross was never supported by USA cycling, it really was created by race promoters & passionate folks like my buddy Adam. They saw a problem and solved it regionally, with passion & elbow grease.
  3. It’s ok to have regional differences/flavor in how racing is run, as long as differences are celebrated.
  4. When speedskaters whine about lack of support at the elite levels, we are riding the IOC gravy train compared to the top-crossers (or inliners, for that matter).
  5. Ice Speedskaters also can train to compete at the world-class level without a mandatory move to Belgium or Switzerland!
  6. Speedskating equipment is CHEAP comparatively. Most top crossers need 2-3 bikes at each race. Top bikes are many thousands of dollars each, and cyclocross destroys equipment like nothing else. The bike I am riding in the above photo, I snapped the down tube at a race my parents attended. My father never fails to give me good nature crap about how proud I was of this.
  7. Cyclocross has certainly benefited from the explosion of Mountain biking, in the same way ice speedskating should joyously cross-pollinate with inline.
  8. Speedskating has visible national heroes; everyone agrees there has been a massive failure to turn their celebrity into a grassroots program. Is there another model? I think cyclocross shows one.
  9. What are the lessons? cyclocross grassroots promoters show them in these excellent examples, I found 20+ local series websites in one googling, none of these series existed when I did my first cross race in 1988.

    The Pacific Northwest’s cross crusade.
    The Verge New England verge series.
    Tennessee’s Mud, sweat & gears
    The Southern California cross folks.
    Seattle cyclocross
    Surf-City Cyclocross
    North Carolina Cyclocross
    Utah Cyclocross

    and the national series, the US Grand Prix of Cyclocross.

  10. Imagine if the America’s cup races were organized with outside sponsors, like any one of these… Taken as a whole, these websites have something to teach speedskaters as it shows passionate individuals creating regional race circuits, attracting money & industry sponsors, creating grassroots community, etc.
  11. A bit of passion, a bit of cult, is a good thing, but popularity does change the sport.
  12. TV coverage is nice, but there has never been cyclocross on American national TV. Most people in the population at large know about speedskating & can name a few speedskaters. Mentioning ‘cross to a non-cyclist draws a blank stare.

Its easy to say “oh, these are such different sports for XYZ reasons”. Yes, they are, but 17 years ago, I believe there were far more similarities than differences.

Taking the long view, 17 years from now, where will speedskating be? We can thrash around in the dark of our own morbid frustrations, or we can look to other examples of “small-sport” success, and model our own efforts upon the best examples of them.

Trolley Square

Trolley Square, this afternoon.

Last night an 18 year old shot 5 people dead here. We don’t even know the name of the killer yet, but the reasons that teenage white men put on trench coats & go nuts in a blaze of dysfunctional family-provided firepower often pan out the same.

Dozens of news trucks are surrounding this small mall of restaurants, clothing shops & a movie theatre. Satellite dishes and huge 50 foot antenna masts loom over news anchors streaming constant updates & commentary skyward about this nationwide “tragedy of the day” as traffic blithely hisses past.

I can see the lit entrance of Trolley Square from my bedroom window, and drive by it several times a day. The gym Jessica & I lift weights in is “Trolley Corners” right across the road.

This how the New York Times described what happened:

Witnesses told of the sounds of gunfire, screaming and crying and of a scene of havoc that lasted almost an hour during dinnertime

and here is the Salt Lake Tribune’s piece:

The bodies were found “in various parts of the mall.” Witnesses told The Tribune that three bodies were in Cabin Fever card store, one in Pottery Barn Kids and another outside of Bath and Body Works.

Horrors, absolute horrors.

When random violent death comes to “Pottery Barn Kids”, does it change how we look at this world?

I have often wished in a small way that this was a wider kind of blog, so I could write about more things that simply skating in a circle. I went to practice this morning, skated well, and forgot all about murder on my doorstep. It did not even really register emotionally when a coach told me his wife was headed to Trolley Square when this happened, and at the last minute she went to a different mall.

Then I drove by Trolley Square on my way home.

I wrote about 10 paragraphs that I just deleted, firstly about how our culture is changing because of the Iraq war, like this shocking photo in the NY times of this tragedy as it happened.

I wrote about the connection between this seemingly random horror and the 100 found dead every day in Baghdad. Many of them tortured with blowtorches & power drills before being shot.

Is there a connection? Absolutely! The connection is in what a human soul goes through, and how is it humiliated, shaped, & twisted, before being able to commit horrors like this.

And are we, as a wider society, partially to blame? Both in the emptiness & loneliness of our own society, that so often is a catalyst for the latent psychopathic element that has always been and will always be with us.

And are we to blame, as Americans, for creating a place where extremely well armed psychopaths praise god on one hand, and then create 20 Trolley Squares worth of death every single day with the other.

I almost just deleted these last 5 paragraphs, but this time, I will leave them.

Food Poisoning

Really, really sucks!!!!!!

I will spare you a lyric description of violent digestive purging, but the aftermath felt like I was at the losing end of drunken fistfight with a rolling ball of sledgehammers.

This past October, I was skating like never before. Since then I have been sick twice, (getting slower each time) and now this.

Our strength as thinking creatures is that we can see patterns in the world. However it’s also been scientifically proven that humans constantly imagine & create patterns where there truly are none. The gift of intelligence is also it’s Achilles heel.

Am I overtrained? Getting old? Not enough veggies in my diet? Struck down by vengeful muses who cursed the spicy bean dip Jessica made for a Superbowl party?

Who knows…

But I do know this for sure; there were quite a few moments yesterday when I was so incapacitated I did not give a damm about skating, and before my unfocusing eyes was that burning truth we so often ignore until it ferociously smashes us into blubbering bits:

Health is wealth, and should be appreciated every minute that we have it.

Korean skaters bow before stepping on the ice. I will practice my own internal, silent, westernized version of that next time I am at the rink.

I feel much better today, still sore from the sledgehammers, but I might actually be able to eat. Yay!

Wasatch Short Track

A week ago, the Wasatch speedskating club put on some low-key, fun races.

I rarely get to watch short track racing, and I had many friends competing, so I left my skate bag home, and trooped over to cheer on the fun. Short Track is such a blast to watch.

For a few skaters, this was a final tune up skate before National Championships. For others, just some fast laps with friends. For some of the younger ones, maybe it was one of their first times stepping to the starting line.

I brought my video camera, the results are not perfect, but for those unfamiliar with the daring and athleticism involved in this G-force defying activity, this is fun to watch. I have not tried to tape Short Track before, and learned a lot about catching the action, and included clips from every category. The song is “sorrow” from the Pink Floyd Album “a momentary lapse of reason”.

Click here for a high quality Quicktime, or start the YouTube below.

(this is the kind of video where you can really see the vast difference between quicktime vs flash-based)

It’s worth mentioning that in the opening sequence, a skater takes a nasty fall, Anthony was ok, even though he had his bell rung pretty nicely by hitting his head on Matt’s passing thigh.

If you are going to smack into a human being at high speed, the quadriceps of a speedskater are not the softest, most shock absorbing choice.

Something you are

The bicycle and I are old friends. After spending a decade of my life competing in 450+ bicycle races, maybe it’s more appropriate to describe this particular old friend as an abusive co-dependent sweat & endorphin-drinking buddy.

Here is me and my old friend in 1991, racing through the rainy streets of Boston right next to the Charles river. But I shouldn’t complain too much about this old friend, or the crazy things we used to do, I still have both collarbones intact, and more fond memories than crash stories.

I ride my Powercranks indoors during wintertime, but owing to how brutally cold this winter has been and my focusing on the ice speedskating season, it’s been months since I rode outdoors.

However, today, 55 degrees!! Omigosh!!!

I could almost hear my single speed road bike howling with uncaged titanium joy as I wheeled it from the garage.

Within a few minutes I was bopping through the hills of the Avenues District of Salt Lake. However I was surprised to feel the bike was an imposter between me and speed; the handlebars were rudely intruding into my field of vision, and I felt like a dumb motor turning the gear(s) on a machine.

I never feel that when skating. When skating I am flying, free, willing myself into velocity and skimming across the land like a cruise missile (well, a slow missile, Mr stopwatch tells me I am still skating like crap).

A wonderfully written and fascinating blog, Fat Cyclist, had this quote about riding recently.

I love the climb because the descent payoff is incredible. The curves come at you nonstop as you’re descending as fast as you dare to go, making bets with yourself as to what your tires’ limits of adhesion are.

If you get into a descending groove, you stop feeling like your bike is something you’re riding.

Instead, it’s something you are.

It’s been so long that I’ve been away from bike racing, that this feeling is a hazy memory. Or maybe there is only enough room in a soul to feel that about one thing at a time, as I have heard similar ecstatic descriptions of driving a sports car, horse jumping, etc…

There will be time to find the bike again this summer. Since I don’t plan to be leaping about in the lactic acid blast furnace of dryland training, I am looking forward to knobbily skipping my way across the slickrock in Moab, or leaning through twisting canyons near my house, feeling those wild changes of air temperature as a climb-sweat soaked body plummets downward through the swirling mix of rising desert heat & sinking mountain air.

Sigh…. Like so many, I am an addict of that moment, that oneness with velocity. I am never sure if it’s the moment itself that is peaceful, or that one finds peace after feeling those moments.

Sometimes a man can be dated as surely by his athletic gear as he can by his favorite band during high school. Here is a photo of my single-speed’s drivetrain.

If there are any other old-school bike snobs like myself reading this, I give them one guess as to who was president when I was most active as a racer.

Short Track & Sauron’s eye

I left a comment on Andrew Hegarty’s blog recently, my comment was about writing.

And it was the clearest thing I have written in this past week. I’m still 20% sick, and sleeping as soundly as Dixie cup in a windstorm… yuck, being sick has sucked the creativity right out of me.

I did shoot some video of the Wasatch speedskating club short track races, & they came out great. Short track is wonderful fun to watch & I have tons of respect for that physics defying sport.

Here is Anthony & Matt, traveling warp 9. The thought that their entire bodyweight, multiplied by several G-forces, rests on only an inch of blade hooked into the ice is pretty cool.

I am working on matching some video selections to a good song that says “short track.” any suggestions from the assembled folks would be appreciated.

Also I did shoot this image of the moon over the edge of my house. I have never seen a ring this huge around the moon. Motion of the camera blurred the crystal clarity a bit, the sky was a jet black circle piercing the fog, and the moon looked like Sauron’s relentless eye searching across Middle Earth, or… ummm, Salt Lake.…

Maybe this counts for creativity….. Click on the moon for a desktop-friendly version.