Monday, May 15, 2017

Seven Days in Spring, v.2017

Monday, 11:30AM, somewhere on the Prescott Circle Trail in Arizona amidst the desert sage and beardgrass, Willow Creek Reservoir looks like an inviting oasis in the distance.  We're low on water and just 40km into our 100+km day.  Lunches are "cooking" in our backpacks with a rationed pour of water into freeze dried food packs.  We're testing this preparation strategy and hoping they don't spill. In years past we'd all be on an airplane by now, headed home from the race which took place the day before, the Whiskey 50 Backcountry Race.  This year it was the "Kentucky Derby" of mountain bike marathon races, the first of a triple-crown series with a $50k prize, and the most competitive version in our seven years of attending the event.  None of us are in it for the money, which is good since none of us were fast enough to win any.  That said, our legs are punched, but at least it's not important to go fast during our self-imposed Stage 2 of the trip.  We travel for more than just racing nowadays. We travel for mountain biking and seeing the world and bringing our friends along for the ride.  For some of us this is vacation from work, for others it's an evolution away from the height of our competitive careers, and for a couple it's a route towards the next peak.

Is it lunchtime yet? (PC: Patrick Means)    

The author navigating desert rocks 7hrs in...(PC: Patrick Means)

The day finishes atop a 7,000ft mountain overlooking the Bradshaw Mountains and the Finger of Barry pointing out the desert version of ROYGBIV...we slept well that night...

The day before had been a blistering fast race for 50 miles through the desert where I burned 3,000 calories in just over 3 hours...(PC: Joe Lawwill)

 Hot and greasy in the team van, Wicknasty Advetures LLP, President Sneddon looking on in need of a burrito and a beer...(PC: Patrick Means)

Saturday, 2:30PM, Cultus Lake, British Columbia - Before there were trails at Vedder Mountain, BC there was pizza and mountain biking. The year was 1984 and it was the first “unofficial” Canadian MTB Championships, comprised of a group of cyclists from Deep Cove and the BFJCC, including the eventual co-founder of Kona Bicycles.  The winner was Alex Stieda, who would go on to become a 2-time Olympian and, in 1986, the first North American to lead to Tour de France.  The route began in Yarrow and finished near Cultus Lake with apr├Ęs celebrations planned at Beethoven’s Pizza off the Columbia Valley Highway. 

Mark "Donny" Allison with his eyes on the prize...

Today there is still pizza and mountain biking at Vedder Mountain.  Beethoven’s has endured and the trails have evolved.  In fact, the mountain bike community in the Fraser Valley (Fraser Valley Mountain Bike Association) has grown in the last three decades to create a trail system that may be as timeless and pleasurable as a hot slice of pizza pie.  And so on the weekend of May 6-7, 2017, hundreds of cyclists and their friends flocked to the lakeshore for two days of mountain bike racing.  Day 1 was the Vedder Mountain Classic, a historic marathon cross-country race birthed from the original event held in 1984.  Day 2 was the Fraser Valley Enduro, a multi-stage downhill trail race and part of the more recent BC Enduro Cup and North American Enduro Tour.

Role-playing and rolling with no pre-ride in Sunday's enduro.  (PC: James Lissimore)

During the post-race interview on Saturday, I was asked what is special about racing in this part of world.  My on-the-spot answer spoke plainly to the sense of fun, community and great trails that are so abundant in BC.  After the interview I had a further thought.  I’ve only been racing mountain bikes since 1998, around the time when the Vedder Classic went on a 16-year hiatus.  That said, I’ve raced all around the world since then, and have grown up with this sport and lived and breathed its evolution as a core participant.  What’s special about racing in this part of British Columbia is that there is no nostalgia around it.  The heritage and the heroes are still there, some are still fast as hell, all are still stoked, and some even share podiums with their children.  There’s no pretense to riding or racing here, no matter your skill level, and no need to waste time on reflecting on how it used to be, because in BC, mountain biking and racing just is.  It’s a f*@#% good time!

Saturday's XC podium at the Vedder Mtn Classic (PC: Scott Robarts)

So, thirty-three years after the first event, it seemed fitting that a few of us representing the now globally recognized Kona Bicycles brand could collect a few accolades.  It was worth a few extra slices from Beethoven’s, and with specks of Vedder’s loamy trails and pizza grease on my face, I headed home happy and ready for more. 

Brett Tippie asks how many slices of pizza I'll order with the race winnings. (PC: Scott Robarts)

Monday, 6:30PM, on Highway 542 approaching Glacier and a rendezvous with climbing partner Stephen Ettinger.  Bike is loaded with skis and camping gear for a 24-hour Full Moon excursion on Mt. Baker.  Forty miles of my funny-looking shadow rolled by in a quick 2.5hrs.  When work and weather allow, these days come together in the name of adventures, full moons, and good times with friends.  This season the outings aren't all determined by a race schedule. The new evolution of The Kona Bicycle Co. factory team program includes a special ops branch dedicated to good days outside - The Kona Adventure Team! Fat tires, skinny tires, wide bars or curly bars, mountains, beaches, forests, deserts, urban jungles - they all fit in as long as it's about championing an agenda that includes the extraordinary days amidst the ordinary days.

2.5hrs earlier, loaded up for the ride to the mountain.

Baker-bound. Stay seated while loaded (PC: Stephen Ettinger)

As we approached the flanks of Heliotrope ridge the sun had set and we were shrouded in soupy clouds and fog, hopes of a full moon sighting dwindling...

Racing the dark and waiting for the transition to the blue lux of the moon, the fog lifted as we scampered up a steep ridge.  We eventually jumped out of the slushy snow and onto the recently exposed tussock in order to gain elevation as quickly as possible. 

Atop the ridge, the clouds part and the lights of the Fraser Valley twinkle below.  The juxtaposition of the city lights with the remoteness of our spot create a sense of adventurous clandestine escape. We're surrounded by air and snow on all sides as the clouds behind the mountain illuminate as the moon rises over the horizon.  We never actually see the full moon. 

Camp and two cups of micro-ground coffee awaits in the morning after a deep slumber on the ridge top.  Clock is ticking to an approaching weather system, but before that we'll spend the morning farming corn snow up toward Coleman Peak and the Roman Wall.

We're not in Europe anymore...which is where we have spent the last six years (in Stephen's case, the last eight-or-so) during May, competing in the World Cup of mountain biking, chasing boyhood athletic dreams and the top of Abraham Maslow's pyramid. We're better for it, and now we're even better yet for sharing the sun on the mountain together!

Just ripping...(PC: Stephen Ettinger)

and slushing... (PC: Stephen Ettinger)

Why we do this kind of thing...whether deliberately or unconsciously, I believe it's the project of the pyramid, building it, climbing it, repairing it when needed.  From up here, and from some point along all of these sorts of adventures, I believe it's possible to look out upon my own pyramid and observe how my blocks are set.  

From desert to rainforest to snowy mountain, a special week of heavy lifting put a few more bricks on the top of the pyramid.  Soon it will be time to help someone build a new pyramid of their own from the ground up.  I consider this all training for that ultimate undertaking.  To understand that cryptic concept, stay tuned!

Thanks for reading

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Tale of the Pisgah Humdinger

If the Bible had been written in the Pacific Northwest, the expression “shake the dust off your feet” would go something like “scrape the moss off…” At least that was my thought as I hummed out of town in my moss-covered truck early one April morning for my first race trip of the 2017 season.  It had been a long and wet winter in Bellingham.  The longest in recorded history.  I had let the legs go good and fallow since my last race in November, and then spent all of December off of the bike (on account of the snow).  For the past three months I had been riding the magic carpet of loam on the trails around town to get back in shape.  Now it was time to put it to the test and wake the senses from hibernation with a trip to the Pisgah Stage Race in North Carolina.

Needless to say, I was keen to get out and stretch my legs in the old crumbly Blue Ridge Mountains and rhododendron groves of western North Carolina.  The objective was the Pisgah Stage Race, a 5-day humdinger of a mountain bike stage race based out of the town of Brevard.  This would be the 9th edition of the famous event and my first time racing it.  Along the way I’d link up with new teammate and North Carolina native Kerry Werner and the good folks at Tennessee Valley Bikes (TVB) in Knoxville.

There was no lacking in fine Southern hospitality as soon as I landed in Knoxville.  In no time I had tossed my bag into the back of a big truck and was driving down the highway with a Nikki Lane song twanging on the radio as the sun set over the Smoky Mountains.  A big dinner of hole-in-the-wall Mexican food with Scott and Eric from TVB and the road warriors from Kona Bicycles Demo Tour had me feeling fat as a tick.  With a happy post-travel coma fast approaching, I passed out that night to the sound of the local crickets and katydids.  

We shook our legs out at the Kona Demo Day at the new Knoxville Urban Wilderness trail system, followed that evening my some official pre-fueling at TVB’s new shop grand opening.  Kerry and I were elected as chief judges for a “guac-off”.  We sampled 14 different kinds of guacamole scoring on 8 criteria each, then topped off on street corn and sausages before bidding farewell to Knoxville and caravanning down the Blue Ridge Highway to Brevard.  We weathered a flat tire on the RV and made it to the Pine Ridge campground and my first night in the Pisgah Forest.  Just before midnight I had pitched a tent on a little grassy nook next the Davidson River with the blue light of the moon shining so bright I could read a book without a flashlight.

Coffee, pancakes, and NPR News in the morning would begin the routine for the coming week as Kerry whipped up a mighty fine breakfast before our first day pre-riding some of the Pisgah trails.  The weather was looking prime, with sun and short-sleeve temperatures forecasted for the week, maybe a frogwash or two along the way, but otherwise uncharacteristically dry for spring.  Despite the warm temperatures, the trees had not bloomed yet, and the only green in the woods was the dark evergreen of rhododendron groves.  The absence of leaves gave the forest a brisk and flinty appearance. I kept an eye out for the famous white squirrels of Pisgah and imagined old-time Civil War era history as we rolled out to the trails.

“This one’ll get a little loose,” noted Kerry before we dropped into the first descent of the day.  I had expected Pisgah to be rough based on the stories I had heard, but that said, I was caught off guard after four months of riding the luxurious loam carpets of Cascadia.  Yes, our trails in Bellingham can get rough and wild, but there’s a nuance to everything.  The trails of Pisgah are refreshingly raw, rocky and rooty, ungroomed and unapologetic.  Riding fast here requires a smoothness akin to the prolonged vowels of the Southern drawl.  Managing traction and speed are as different here as the accent.  Fundamentals are the same, but the expressions don’t work without the subtleties.  I felt like I couldn’t carry my speed if I had a bucket with a lid on it!  Let’s say my Yankee rigidity would hold me back through the first half of the stage race, but I eventually adopted a smoother Southern style.

Racing arrived soon enough, and on the morning of Stage 1 the air was abuzz as the crowd of 200 racers from 11 countries lined up for the 5-day, 140-mile journey.  We plunged through an icy stream and into the rhododendron forests.  A group of four, including Kerry, a local elite rider named Tristan Cowie, one Mystery European and myself, quickly separated from the masses and soon we were all seeing double as we navigated our way up and away into the forest.  The battle was on.

Kerry was the defending champion of Pisgah and bringing the thunder after a career best cyclocross season in 2016, not to mention a long history as one of the top MTBrs in the country.  Tristan Cowie was no stranger to the top-level of mountain bike racing himself, having been a regular on the US National Team in the 2007-2009 period.  And as a local, he knew each of the trails like a tree knows its roots.  The Mystery European turned out to be from Spain and was an ex-World Cup dominator.  With fast conditions and good legs, we blazed through the stage setting a course record a whopping 20 minutes faster than the year before!  Midway through, Tristan launched a perfect attack into a long descent, placing the Spaniard between him and myself.  Spaniard’s skill going down was not as good as it was going up, and Tristan began to float away.  I eventually snuck around Spaniard, but I wasn’t riding very smooth either, and though I was reeling Tristan in, there wasn’t enough of the day left to close the gap.  I came in second on Day 1 by 19 seconds, a gap that would ebb and flow through the week.  Kerry rolled in third.

Meanwhile, Kona Supergrassroots rider Jenna Greaser was dominating the Open Women’s category, and would go on to do so through the week.  Jenna is beginning to rack up impressive results, with a top-3 finish a few week’s prior at the TransRockies Moab Rocks stage race in Utah.  Desert to Appalachia, she is a Canadian force to be reckoned with.  In the Open Men’s field and just a possum’s tail behind us was Supergrassroots rider Cory Rimmer, a young and rising star from North Carolina.  Cory put the hustle to the enduro sections like a fart in a fan factory and would go on to take second overall in the Enduro portion of the race.

At the front end of the field, the days at Pisgah are relatively short at around 2-2.5hrs each.  The upside is that the fatigue doesn’t stack up the way it does in longer death-march style races where each day is over 4 hours.  The flip side is that the short days make for very intense and fast racing.  The pace each day is faster than green grass through a goose.  Course records fell left and right as we stormed through the hills, beating times set by previous legends of the sport Jeremiah Bishop, Thomas Turner, Sam Koerber and Adam Craig.  Was it the trail conditions, the modern equipment, the legs, or all combined?

Whatever it was, it made for a tight battle between Tristan and me.  It turns out we were well-matched.  I won three stages and chopped the gap down to as little as 9 seconds, while he won the other two stages.  My advantage early on was in going uphill, a metabolically expensive option. Tristan was already strong as an ox on acid on the climbs, yet his advantage was in going downhill, a much more energy-efficient option.  Each day we logged at least 10 minutes worth of sustained 6 watts-per-kilogram efforts, interspersed with plenty of digs so hard they could make a preacher cuss, and long descents that left the arms feeling like a pair of arthritic snakes full of hot sauce.  By day 4, I was going downhill on pace, but just couldn’t close the gap.  Despite my best efforts, I finished my now customary 2nd place by less than 0.2% after five days of racing.  That’s tighter than a pair of pants on a bloated elephant, and something like my 6th consecutive stage race that I’ve finished as bridesmaid.

Kerry wrapped up the week in third overall, and took the win in the Enduro, the race within the race, comprised of a timed segment of downhill trail on each stage.  Kerry rode over those rocks, ruts and roots faster than a one-legged man in a butt-kicking competition, and was still there with a cheery smile to make breakfast for us every morning.  When it was all said and done we basked in glory and downed several beers, sprawled under the sun in a grassy field at the after party listening to Nikki Lane live in concert serenade the crowd, grinnin’ like possums eatin’ sweet taters.  It was a damn fine week.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Arrangements with the Weather Gods, Part III

Disclaimer: This post may not be compatible with your attention span.  That said, I encourage you to challenge your inner goldfish and read on!

Update: My, how the pendulum seems to swing.  At this time two years ago, a very sweet (but temporary) deal with the weather gods had us Pacific Northwesterners (and Canadian Southwesterners) indulging in one of the mildest "winter" seasons in memory.  At the time it was hard for me to resist a smug "you're welcome" to everyone I passed on the trail in their short sleeves and tinted lenses.  Now in March, only just emerging from a handful of "sunny, mild days" since October, incessant snow, slushy mud, and barely enough neoprene and wool to make riding worth it, I'm glad that I wasn't too boastful.  As with all good arrangements, however, the ever-intended balance is running its course.

Typical trail surface in Bellingham this off season...
In fact...some days this off season, the skiing on the trails has been better than the riding...while the bike riders may have suffered, the poor skiers and snowboarders finally got their fix!
Brief Background: What does all of this mean, you ask?!  And who is to blame?! Well, for those of you familiar with this narrative, you may recall that back in December 2014 I made a special deal with the architects of the elements: the weather gods granted two years of warmer-than-normal winters as a trade for the wind energy projects that I helped develop during my seven years as an employee of the Friends Of The Atmosphere industry [read: utility scale wind and solar energy development].  The warm weather supported training for an international tour with the Spandex Circus [read: professional mountain bike racing and the mountain bike World Cup]. Then, after two years, it would be time to rebalance and recalibrate, to "get back to work", "limit ink in the passport", etc.  It would also be time to replenish the water table with, you guessed it: more frost, ice, snow and rain.
Some Explanation: While it has seemed like a "bad" winter, it's all part of a larger scheme. And after two easy winters, we Cascadians may have been getting pretty soft here at 48.7°N. The weather roller coaster is not just a result of my little arrangement, for there is exceptional weather occurring in other places, too. For example, the Aussies had to cancel their DH National Championships this weekend on account of summer rain

In general, the global council of weather gods is not communicating well amongst themselves.  They're confused.  Some are angry with having to deal with us millenials' self absorbed approach to the world, like adjusting the weather for bicycle racing, or at scientists creating a breach of natural selection (which used to be mainly the job of the weather).  The weather gods are also struggling with how to hold a civil court amongst themselves.  Like us, they have become technologically interconnected on the one hand, yet isolated in their own meteorological echo chambers on the other. And to make matters worse, this guy "Izzy" (below, Aztec god for frost, resides in what is now called Mexico) has really been acting out this year after hearing there might be a wall put up between his home and his favorite riding spot in the Cascadia Zone. He is now keen on bringing the winter and the rain further south to make more loam.
The Special Sporting Career Continues: Despite all of this, good things must still go on, and for 2017 I am as thrilled as ever to be upholding my end of the arrangement. Of course, the sporting career continues with a truly rebalanced and recalibrated focus.  I will be partnering with Kona Bicycles for the seventh year, along with several other terrific outdoor recreation companies including Clif Bar, Superfeet, and Stages Cycling. The focus will be on North America, which means more time with local and regional communities, and less time burning tons of jet fuel. The application will be biking in mountains across a mix of high profile competitive events and non-competitive backcountry missions. 

Given the maturation of mountain biking as a sport and industry, I look forward to the increased emphasis on adventure and lifestyle rather than representing the sport exclusively as a spandex-clad racer. The evolution feels good. That said, I still plan to compete and perform at a very high level! As I grow with the sport, I feel there is a deeper expression to be practiced, from personal time spent in the outdoors, to community involvement and promoting health and recreation, to channeling creativity through mediums of physical endurance, writing, photography, and outdoor exploration. The bike is the brush, the outdoors the canvas.    

Mountain biking (PC: top Blake Jorgenson, middle Sarah Paxson, bottom Blake Jorgenson)

Curly Bar Biking (PC: top-bottom, Patrick Means)
More good days working with this motley crew, the Kona Adventure Team (l-r: Cory Wallace, me, Kris Sneddon, Barry Wicks; PC: Patrick Means). 
Bike Racing (XC, marathon, cyclocross, enduro, etc; PC top to bottom: top Diane Paxson, middle Dennis Crane, bottom Dave Silver)

Getting Back to Work, Starting My Own Business: And yes, the winter has also been a queue to hunker down and get back to my workingman racer program.  Over the years, I have felt most fulfilled while racing and working full time (like any normal person), so I am excited to be working on a new project alongside cycling. But this time it's not a corporate job, it's my own business! 

In 2016 I started a sole proprietor LLC in order to do freelance consulting work for renewable energy developers. At the time I also had an inkling that I'd want to do some form of "bike consulting".  In the fall, I had the opportunity to co-design and teach a 6-week strength and conditioning course with my wife at her physical therapy clinic, CorePhysio.  It was such a rewarding experience that it had me consider applying my other professional background (my unaccredited PhD in cycling), so I decided to develop my credentials for doing “human energy” consulting, i.e. coaching! Thus, I spent the winter working on my "alphabet soup" for health and fitness: a CSCS certification from the NSCA, coaching license, studying physiology, earning a wilderness first response (WFR) certificate, and building my general small business knowhow.  I've been learning a lot and it has been very fun.  

My coaching service is called Peak Energy Performance, and in the coming months and years I look forward to working with clients to help them become healthier, stronger and happier doing the things they love, like riding bikes! With coaching, the combination of people interaction, education, creativity and data analysis is great for me, and it opens up possibilities for contributing to the local community and public health which I feel increasingly passionate about.  I have a small group of coaching clients so far, and eventually am excited to see if I can grow this little side project into a bigger resource for the community and my career alike.  

Running back to my past or toward my future? (PC: Sarah Paxson)
New Adventures: Understanding that the coming coldness of winter would be an opportunity for recalibration and rebalance, my wife and I embarked on a small journey of our own to really find out what that meant. In the autumn before winter's arrival, we travelled to the land of frost, glaciers and mountains (Alaska!) to get in touch with ourselves, feel small in nature, and think about our futures together.  We crossed iceberg lakes and glaciers, climbed up and over mountains, walked under the frosty full moon and watched lots of sunsets. Among the many things we learned, one was a lesson from the cold weather gods, a reminder on the meaning of winter which I had forgotten since getting to know Robert Frost in Vermont: that the cold and winter is the usher of life, clearing the way for new things to emerge.  And since I've heard that all good episodes are supposed to end with a cliffhanger, I'll maintain the suspense and just say there is a new and very exciting chapter to this adventure due to arrive this summer!

Thanks for reading...