Saturday, September 13, 2014

Thirty-six Cups of Coffee

Bike racing is a good thing to cherish, just like slow-roasting with a good cup of coffee in the morning.  The warm silence and calm focus that serves as a welcoming contrast to the challenge which lies ahead.  Both stimulating in their own complementary way, coffee and bike racing. 

But I doesn't have to be coffee, it can be tea!  And it doesn't have to be bike racing either, it can be something else that prompts a bit of ambition and purpose and fun and good health.  But I'll stick to what I know and share a snapshot of the last seven months of slow-roast mornings and start lines. 

Thirty-six elite start lines, to be precise, from March 1st to September 6th, 2014.  A somewhat modest itinerary by some standards, but always remarkable to roll back the film strip from the last snowy ride at home in March, which didn't feel all that long ago, all the way through sunny season kickoff in Texas, to the hype of the US Cup in California, to the samba at Continental Championships in Brazil, to seven-days of Pennsylvania rocks at TSE, to seven days of British Columbia singletrack at BCBR, to a muddy east-coast National Champs and World Cup campaign, to a start-studded conclusion at the World Championships in Norway...

The hype about the season arrives early, in the form of news headlines and fresh bike parts.  In the midst of winter, these are like reviving, aromatic wafts of fresh roasted coffee beans, sometimes motivating enough to prompt a session on the indoor trainer!

...With visions of the "big time" playing in the mind...

And the days of training and respite in between, well-spent with friends or completely alone, no race numbers in sight, simply enjoying good company and the back yard...

Or the constant dance of continuing to succeed at a "real job", a life completely separate from cycling, yet paradoxically interwoven, working at home or on the road, appreciating how technology has dissolved the walls of the office and allows me to pursue a relatively seamless and balanced approach to "life's work"... 

When I'm back home the bikes are always still hanging on their hooks, and I look out the window, sipping my cup of coffee and wonder about how rainy or how hot it's going to be for the day's training ride, and I appreciate the stability in my life, like strong bike hooks, nice equipment, a good coffee maker...a lifestyle that I value and that I've worked very hard to earn, and which allows me to look forward to a sense of such personal fulfillment.  

Yet the irony is that the closer I feel to that "realm of fulfillment" in my cycling career, the more I realize the need for a divergence in the approach which has brought me here in the first place.  That is, the "have-it-both-ways" approach of a maintaining a conventional professional career alongside and an elite-level athletic career.  Those cups of coffee don't just keep me energized, they keep me thinking.  These days I always think about the concept of the asymptote...continually advancing along a line of achievement towards a "realm of fulfillment", and the effort required to advance along that curve...if it's worth the exponentially increased effort, given everything else...and the time left to realize that advancement at all...and that in the end, it is only a "realm" that is sought, in all its indefinite fuzziness.  

So the buzz settles in and I stop thinking too much about these things and realize the trail will always be there anyway, which is what really matters.  

And I'll keep looking forward to riding spandex-clad with number strapped to my bar and see if I can find out a few more things about that "realm of fulfillment"...

Photo Credit: Kevin McRee

Photo Credit: Mark Thome

Photo Credit: Joonas Vinari
Photo Credit: Dave McElwaine

Photo Credit: Joonas Vinari
Photo Credit: TSE
In the meantime, it's been a refreshing, stimulating season.  Enough coffee to have me addicted to its chemical contents and the experiences it contributes to.    

Monday, June 2, 2014

Trans-Sylvania Epic 2014 - 1 Million Rocks, a Bronze, and a Purple Heart

The Trans-Sylvania Mountain Bike Epic (TSE) is a 220-mile, 7-day mountain bike stage race held on the rocky trails and leaf-strewn gravel roads of central Pennsylvania.  The 2014 edition marked the fifth anniversary of the event, and hosted over 175 racers ranging from seasoned professionals to eager novices.  The race has grown in popularity every year and has become one of the distinguished mountain bike stage races in North America.  This year was touted as the “most competitive” in the event’s history due to the long list of accomplished names lining up in the elite women’s and men’s fields.  Some went so far as to call it the “National Championships of MTB Stage Racing”.  Regardless of any competitive hype, TSE is undoubtedly one of the most challenging (and rewarding) multi-day off road events in North America.

Kona train, somewhere on Stage 4 - Photo Credit Trans-Sylvania Mountain Bike Epic 2014

The Kona XC boys (Kris Sneddon, Barry Wicks and myself) all signed up for a shot at rocky Pennsylvania glory.  Barry, who was slated to race the 200 mile “Dirty Kanza” road race the next weekend, opted to ride in the abbreviated 3-day version of the TSE aboard his trail-devouring Process 111.  Meanwhile, Kris and I were lined up against a strong field in the 7-day version of the race aboard their svelte Hei Hei Supremes.    

(l-r) Barry Wicks, Kris Sneddon, Spencer Paxson
Our cabin for the week, on a pond in the woods.
The TSE is known not only for its unrelenting rocky singletrack, but also its dynamic sequence of race formats.  The stages consisted of:

1 – hot-lap time trial, 15 miles
2 – monster marathon XC w/ 6,000’ of climbing, 41 miles
3 – 5-segment enduro, 25 miles
4 – gravel-grinder tactical road day, 40 miles
5 – primitive trail XC in the land of the Mennonites, 31 miles
6 – queen stage ridge-top marathon epic, 42 miles
7 – glory lap XC, 26 miles

Pennsylvania noir-gnar rock garden, common every day.
At over 220 miles, and roughly 40%-50% singletrack, it’s fair to say that on any given trail, there are approximately 1 to 2 large, embedded rocks for every twelve inches.  In some places it is even more extreme.  With additional smaller rocks in between (i.e. these trails re-define “small rock” to anything less than 4” protrusion…), that makes at least 1 million big bumps over the course of the week.  Smooth bike handling or not, it’s just ROUGH.  There’s no letting up.  It was a testament to engineering of our equipment that none of us Kona boys experienced a single flat or mechanical for the entire event. 

The superlative trail tool, 0 flats & 0 mechanicals in 7 days, 220 miles and ~1million big rocks
Cleaning and tuning the bikes to perfection after each stage was key.
Sneddon scrubbing
By mid-week, Barry had wrapped up a relatively straightforward win in the TS3, meanwhile Kris and I were sitting in 2nd and 4th in General Classification (GC), respectively.  Kris had been animating the race all week, riding valiantly at the front in an attempt to draw out the other GC-contenders into chase-mode while I could monitor for an opportunity to counter-attack.  People started referring to the Kona boys as the “singletrack-enforcers” for the way we would charge down the rocks.  The rough trails played to both our advantage, however I would consistently start to fade beyond the 120-minute mark.  I would do my best to play it smart on the faster gravel segments where drafting was key.  With the type of training I’ve focused on for the last couple years, my battery is pretty darn good at anything less than 2 hours, but anything longer (not-to-mention the first stage-race of the year) can pose a big challenge while riding against other leading riders with larger batteries.

Barry keeping the legs fresh for the 200-mi road race that would follow his TS3 performance.  Photo Credit: Trans-Sylvania Mountain Bike Epic
Sneddon administering cold-shower post-race
The dining-hall where breakfast and dinner was served each day, along with awards and pre-race instructions. 

Going into the last day, Kris had surged up to 3rd in GC, and had been making headlines in the cycling-world press for his beastly efforts in the race.  Meanwhile I was doing my best but had hemorrhaged time on the Queen Stage and faded to 4th.  We were still very motivated to put two Kona riders on the podium alongside the other fantastic racers.  Kris was even within 90-seconds of 2nd place, so day 7 was slated to be a race to the finish to see what we could pull off. 

Kris Sneddon, enforcing a rocky trail section.  Photo Credit: Trans-Sylvania Mountain Bike Epic 2014
That was until around 2AM when I awoke to what sounded like the Samsquanch lurching around outside the cabin.  But it wasn’t actually the Samsquanch – it was Kris wretching his guts out, having caught some gnarly stomach bug.  By morning he was completely drained of energy…and everything else.  A testament to his toughness, he still kitted up and attempted a start, but could only make it through the start-loop before he was minutes behind, and decided to pull out of the race entirely.  Mishaps in the heat of battle are one thing, but being suddenly taken out of a race due to other issues just before an otherwise illustrious end is a serious blow for any rider.  I was bummed for Kris, and did my best to put in a strong finish and defend a humbled 3rd place overall. 

Getting it done, a rare smooth stretch of trail.  Photo Credit: Trans-Sylvania Mountain Bike Epic
In the end, Jeremia Bishop (Sho-Air Cannondale) punched his stamp of authority on the race for the third consecutive time.  I ended up 3rd place overall behind Nick Waite (Pro-Tested Gear), and ahead of Ben Sontaag (No-Tubes) and young upstart Cole Oberman (Team Rare Disease).  By the end of the week, the sense of camaraderie throughout the racers was very high, one of the special things about mountain bike stage racing.  We had all endured the same challenge in our own way.  We all celebrated our last meal together, packed our rock-beaten bikes, and sent our weary selves back home for a well-deserved rest. 

TSEpic 2014 Elite Men's Podium, (l-r) Cole Oberman, Nick Waite, Jeremiah Bishop, Spencer Paxson, Ben Sontaag.  (and Kris in spirit, missed you up there, man...)

Thanks to all at TSE and the volunteers who made this event possible.  Truly a premiere event in North American mountain biking.  Already looking forward to next year.  


Monday, May 19, 2014

Words I've Learned By

Interesting fact: I still possess the original copy of the first mountain bike magazine I ever purchased.  It's an issue of Mountain Bike, Vol. 13 #10, November 1997.  

Pretty sure I picked it up at a grocery store after weekly piano lessons in The Dalles, OR, where my siblings and I used to go once per week.  I was twelve years old then, wore coordinated nylon wind suits, and rode a 26" Roadmaster MTB (you know, a plush department store bike!).  That year my friends and I had discovered the thrills of riding dirt logging roads and cow trails around our hometown of Trout Lake, WA. We had already become serious riders, obviously.  But little did we know about the larger world of mountain biking that existed beyond the edges of the valley.  Needless to say, I was fairly captivated when I opened my first issue of Mountain Bike.

Finishing my first bike race at the Gorge Games in Hood River, June 1998, Sport 13-18
Fast forward about 17 years to a life that has been largely designed around cycling, and it's interesting to see the extent to which I internalized many of those words I read as a twelve-year-old.  It's also cool to compare such a little time capsule to the present condition of the sport.

I was reunited with this dusty old rag while cleaning out an old folder of important docs.  Somehow I  had the foresight to save the thing while cleaning out my childhood room before leaving for college ten years ago.  Flipping through the old pages was a blast-from-the-past of "e-forhks", Briko glasses, Tektro V-brakes, Judy XLs, and Leslie Tomlinson riding a Kilauea.

Kona Factory Team Rider Leslie Tomlinson, circa 1997
I came across an article on page 76, by Marla Streb, titled "Secrets to Success, A Pro Racer Tells How to Make It to the Big Time."  It's crazy, but I definitely remember reading Marla's article.  I remember being twelve years old and thinking about "being" a pro.  I didn't know what it meant to be "pro" at anything, but the people in the magazine sure seemed cool.  To me being "pro" had something to do with riding and racing my bike a lot more than I already was, becoming really, really good so that my picture showed up in magazines, maybe qualifying for big competitions like the World Championships or was like this little secret campaign that began to materialize in my mind, I was always drawn to the idea of working hard on things, and this one was all mine to figure out.  That sounded like fun to me.  I probably read Marla's article a few times.

At first, I didn't realize who Marla Streb, the cyclist, really was.  But after a few times pouring through other mountain bike mags, it became obvious that she was the real deal, one of the big timers, a "pro"... someone whose advice might inform my nascent cycling campaign.  To this day, she remains an icon of the sport, and was even inducted into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame last September.  To the extent some of Marla's words helped me, things have worked out pretty well, and I think she was worth listening to back in 1997.  What's really great is that despite the growth and diversification of the sport, I think many of her words are still relevant to twelve-year-old would-be mountain bikers today!  

It started...

"So, you want to know how to be a pro mountain biker, huh?  Okay here we go.

First, it helps if you don't really have to be a pro mountain biker.  By that I mean if being a pro mountain biker is the only option you have because you were barred from practicing law, you've dropped out of dental hygiene school, you've finally told the assistant manager at the Not-So-Fast-Food-Shack to shove it or you're just tired of waiting around for the Millenial Rapture, then you've got a tough hill to climb.  It's a lot easier to become a pro if you don't actually have to win and make money to survive."

...well, I certainly wasn't forced into becoming a pro mountain biker. There were plenty of other options for things to do growing up in a small town with 12 kids in my class and going to piano lessons every week.  Actually, I jest, there were actually lots of cool things to do where I grew up, but mountain biking and racing seemed like an exceptionally cool option when I was twelve.  I valued competition and sport from a young age, but I had no mind for career or finances when I was twelve.  As things carried on, it was a pretty organic series of decisions and experiences that persisted through high school, bike-shop job, college, post-college, "paycheck" job...and I must've taken Marla's words to heart, because eventually my focus was not just to continue being a racer, but to keep the show going in a fulfilling way without becoming completely hamstrung financially...more on this at the end.

First race, definitely not worried about anything but the task at hand.  Still that way today.
"To tell the truth, turning pro is as easy as buying a hundred business cards from Kinko's that proclaim "Pro Mountain Bike Racer." (It's really no different from renting a storefront in some strip mall and hanging up a sign that says "Natural Aging Consultant.")  It may not be entirely true, but who's gonna argue?  Besides, it's not illegal."

...I remember I "turned pro" in 2003.  It involved filling out an application form after I won my first and only "semi-pro" race at Schweitzer, Idaho.  It was so dusty that day I wore a surgical mask, and announcer Larry Longo gave me shit (much deservedly) for my getup every lap until I came through ahead of everyone else, having also avoided the black lung.  After that race I applied to NORBA for my pro license, and it came in the mail a couple weeks later.  It's a similar application process today, but the title of "pro mountain biker" is still fairly ambiguous.  It ranges anywhere from "elite amateur", which defines most "pros", to a paid, contracted professional.

 "Another big factor in turning pro is to already have a rather cushy job.  It should be one that pays well enough that you can afford all the initial investment - later to be called swag when it's free.  You'll need a job with an indifferent boss who doesn't care or won't notice if you're not around most Fridays and Mondays.  And lastly - and this is super important - your job must have a great health-insurance plan.  That's basically how I became a pro bike racer - I got a job as a molecular biologist at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, and the rest is history."

...probably Marla's best advice, although could not be heeded until ten years later.  At twenty-two I moved to Seattle in 2008 for a cool job as a GIS Analyst, basically a map-maker for a wind energy development company, and the rest is history.  Racing was still very much on the docket, but I was more worried than ever about how I would keep it going out on my own in the big world.  This new job put my college degree to use (phew), paid way better than a bike shop job, and I even got my own office and business cards!  I've been there for 6 years now, and I am currently a manager of renewable energy and business development.  The best part is that the work is enjoyable, and I now work remotely (from home).  Working remotely affords me a balance which, thanks to technology, wasn't even fathomable when Marla wrote her article.  I work 40+ hours per week, bring lots of measurable value to my company, take pride in doing my work well and on time, and as long as that is achieved, precisely where and when I do my work doesn't really matter.  That means I can design a training schedule that fits with the responsibilities of work, and even take it with me on the road when I need to.  My boss is also fantastic and a proponent of laissez-faire time management and simply executing the deal.  It may not last forever, but there's not a day I don't feel fortunate for the situation which as been 10+ years in the making.

"To be a pro you'll also need lots of support.  You'll need someone to ferry you back and forth from the airport.  Someone stable enough so that you don't have to worry about his or her losing a paycheck job as you soon will, and who doesn't mind paying the bills for a while (at least until you make it Big Time).  This person should be willing to shop for healthy foods and prepare them and serve them to you after while you diligently elevate your feet after a day's work riding your bike along scenic mountain trails.  He or she must be as proficient at basic bicycle mechanics as he or she is at massage.  It's especially important to find someone who will do laundry - mindful that race chamois do not go into the dryer and race jerseys are washed in cold water, and when folding that each pair of matching race socks should be pinned together and not rolled into a big ball.  Lastly, this person will always be there for you to vent your frustrations on.  I find that a boyfriend works out well."

I've been privileged with getting lots of generous support and encouragement from my family and friends, not to mention many early-morning airport rides, but when it came to the paycheck job, I was keen on avoiding Marla's forewarning of becoming helplessly reliant on anyone by "losing the paycheck job."  After settling into work in Seattle, I focused on a way I could have it both ways. Get work done and be fast.  Plenty of the riders I knew and looked up to pulled off both things pretty well (my local road team, Keller Rhorback; Erik Tonkin, my racing mentor).  At first, it seemed unlikely that I could simultaneously advance both careers in a fulfilling way, but thanks to getting the job done, having a progressive employer, and the engineers of telecommunications, the day of the office eventually became obsolete!  The "office" was anywhere, anytime!  I'm still lazy with the dryer, but I do have the best girlfriend anyone could hope for.  She's an amazing cyclist herself, she doesn't do my laundry for me, and I [happily] work on her bikes all the time...

"Now, before you go getting all excited, you need to make very certain that you want to be a pro mountain biker.  You must be more certain that you thought you were when you wanted to be a medical doctor, marine biologist studying El Nino's effects on the world cetapod population, or a secret agent for a foreign intelligence organization.  You won't succeed if you're merely succumbing to a fad, trying to impress chicks or wanting to get back your mother for all those years of figure-skating [or piano] lessons.  The decision to turn pro requires a lot of soul-searching, reflection and realistic evaluation.  One way to do this is by driving across the country in a polka-dotted '71 VW camper bus with cattle horns on the front and bikes strapped on the back and a guy with a funny accent and shaved head beside you.  Worked for me."

...My style back then was Nylon windsuit meets Harry Potter with braces, so fads weren't really a concern.  There were like five girls in my school, three of whom I was related to, so not much to shoot for there either.  Piano lessons weren't so bad.  Mom, I'm glad you made me do that, I think that's allowed me to impress more chicks anyway...

Full-fledged dork (and proud of it), piano and metronome in background; what kind of pre-teen is this excited to get a bike seat for a gift?!  
"Of course, parents usually aren't too keen about their daughters (or their sons, I guess) becoming pro mountain bikers.  Remember that they'd always hoped you'd be a pediatrician and marry a well-mannered, sober, clean-cut insurance industry executive or supreme court justice, give birth to two boys and two girls, live in a nice cul-de-sac less than an hour's drive away and do volunteer work at the town library.  The best solution to this problem is to keep you parents in the exurbia of Baltimore County, and move somewhere far away and keep being a pro a secret until you're on a factory race team and mentioned in the magazines.  Then when you break the news to them, and after they've gotten over the shock, they can take all the credit and brag to their friends during the lulls in their Wednesday evening bridge games."

...well, my folks didn't fit Marla's portrayal of the disapproving, overly-coercive parents.  I was extremely fortunate that my mom and dad's greatest concerns were figuring out how they could race, too, and how to prepare the minivan for yet another 500-1,000 mile drive on the weekend.  Always encouraging, never pressuring.  Without them it's hard to imagine it would've ever stuck the way it did.

My original Factory sponsors, my folks are probably happy to have their weekends back to themselves to go on their own rides.  They still get out all the time.

The family van packed up for another summer race weekend.  Some of the best QT I had with my parents were on the long drives to-and-from races
"Another consideration before attempting to jump on the pro bandwagon is that it helps if you have some complementary experience from a related field.  Many current pros are former roadies, BMX rats, motocross honchos, ski phenoms or snowboard sensations.  I didn't do any of these activities, but I was a bike messenger for a while until I was blind-sided by a police car - and the next day I was fired for getting hit too much.  I also completed a couple of long, life-changing cycle-tours, but mainly I was just your plain-old run-of-the-mill down-on-her-luck adrenaline junkie."

...the best part about starting when you're twelve is that you're made of rubber and steel, and learning how to fall systematically combines well with all those years as a cross-eyed Little Leaguer, scrawny track runner and soccer player.  I think building model airplanes and playing with Legos complements the bike mechanic skills as well. What's amazing nowadays is the number of twelve-year-olds who seem to be allergic to pedaling up hills, but are already pulling backflips and linking up crazy downhill lines on bikes that make the best 1997 equipment look like a Wal-Mart department store bike...

My buddy, Elliott, executing a perfect picnic table wheelie drop, no experience necessary

Family vacations always involved a backpack and mountains and fostered a special appreciation for the outdoors

"Okay, there you have it - all it takes to be a professional mountain bike racer.  Oh yeah, one final bit of wisdom: Most pro mountain bikers don't make any money.  It helps if you know that before deciding to become one."

...indeed, money isn't exactly the primary tool of exchange in mountain bike racing.  Money is certainly involved, but mostly as an outflow, not an inflow.  It's important to appreciate that mountain biking deals in other tools of exchange which can't always be equated to cash.  One of the best things in mountain bike racing is that it's all about connections, and is full of many great, like-minded people who are motivated to share and teach the experience.  Some may be inclined to help youngsters transcend the financial profit issue, help them get experience racing and traveling, and perhaps even affiliation with a great company like Kona Bicycles.  Early on, it's people like Shane Wilson who managed Discover Bicycles who sold me my first bike and got me my first job turning wrenches, or John Kemp who ran the Devo Balance Bar team when I was a junior and developed several generations of talented racers, or Erik Tonkin who has fostered lots of gritty talent through his Sellwood Cycles Team S&M in Portland, OR.  Besides...if you're doing it mostly because you enjoy it, you'll still find that mountain bike racing is immeasurably valuable (and creates immeasurable value) in other ways, mostly interpersonal and experiential.

Back yard trails at home these days...

But Marla is still right; while racing may offer some short-term financial perks, it would be unwise to bank on it as a long-term profitable venture.  It wasn't back in 1997, isn't today, and won't be in 2027, which is fine.  Mountain bike racers create [institutional] value in the form of marketable content, which can be a mix of race results, photographs and video advertisements, stories, personalities, technology design and testing, all of which help motivate other people to purchase new mountain bikes and parts, which brings it full circle for the sponsors, and so on.  Each of those things is measurable to a certain degree, but for better or worse, the institution of mountain bike racing is small within an already small sport (culturally speaking, i.e. compared to baseball and football), and it's very difficult for a bike company to calculate their return on investment in a "professional" mountain bike racer.  But don't let the issues around institutional value get in the way.  Especially if you're twelve.  Eventually, you'll have to figure out how to make it work for you, but in the meantime, focusing on just riding, and maybe winning some trophies, is just fine.  

Sometimes a trophy is all you need.

But most of all, if you're reading this and you're twelve, put it away for decade or more, maybe make a little plan, don't take yourself too seriously, have fun, find other people who make it fun, and see if any of this is worth passing on to the next set of twelve-year-olds...  

oh, and thanks, Marla.

Mt. Hood SkiBowl race, circa 2003.  I'm #1080.  Check out the gangly guy on the far right, Mr. Barry Wicks pre Kona.