Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Tash and Bilal do France, 2015

This whole idea of riding around France with heavy panniers attached to our bikes only took shape following Natasha's incessant bemoaning over how much she misses Europe and how she hasn't seen her mom in a while (a few months but who's judging). Her mom lives in Brighton, England and we could have simply flown there but whats the fun in that? So we decided to fly to the south of France instead and ride up to Brighton on our bikes -- a bit circuitously through the Pyrenees of course!

Trip Planning
Half the fun of such trips is planning them. Given that both of us are severely allergic to the tourist industry, we charted out our own route using ridewithgps with daily mileages, campgrounds to stay, places to stop for lunch, etc. We also decided that we'd spend our money on good food and not splurge on hotels, instead staying in campgrounds and sleeping in a tent. After much google OCD, I manged to find the lightest two-person tent in existence and after another round of OCD, managed to find the cheapest price for it. Anyone looking for an absolutely awesome two-person tent that is suitable for bike touring, look no further than the Terra Nova Solar Photon 2. Luxury tent this is not, but it weighs 2lbs and packs up into a tiny little ball. Given the real estate on our bikes was in high demand this was quite the space saver.

Other things that went into our panniers were sleeping bags, pads, pillows, and clothes. We packed light with only a couple change of clothes, an extra kit, fleece and rain jacket, lights, flip flops, and some lightweight loafers.

We didn't plan to carry any food with us apart from knickknacks we'd pick up locally. Our nutrition plan was simple -- eat a nice breakfast, a nicer lunch, and an awesome dinner. We were going to France after all!

With tickets booked and bikes packed in boxes, we headed to the airport to begin our 12 day romp around France...

Excited to be on a plane to France!

South of France and the Verdon Region
Landing in Nice, we were immediately greeted with a nice bike assembly workstation right next to the baggage conveyor belt. After a bit of technical haggles assembling the bikes, we finally got on our way out of Nice in the late afternoon.

Got bike?

This being summer, Nice was super crowded with tourists. The beaches were really nice but were packed with people so we slowly made our way along the coast to Cannes. Soon thereafter, we turned inland and immediately the climbs hit us hard.

This was a tiny spot on the beach that wasn't overflowing with people

A bit of background -- we had just gotten off an 8-hour plane journey, were sleep deprived and jet lagged, so yeah we were a bit tired. Anyway we had about 50 miles to do that day and turns out about 42 of them were uphill. Curses.

Riding uphill on a loaded bike is an adventure. While Natasha had her brand new shiny touring bike with a dinner-plate cassette on the back, I had a measly 12-28 in the back and was carrying about 40lbs of weight. So it was a slow uphill grind -- Froome-esque cadence I did not have!

With a few extra chest hairs grown, we pulled into our campground for the night. Campgrounds in France are no joke -- they're super clean, well maintained, with hot showers and an onsite restaurant. After showers and a nice meal, we settled in for a well deserved sleep.

Our general plan was to ride towards Mt. Ventoux as its been on my bucket list for a while. Unfortunately we were a bit too optimistic with our planning so ended up having to skip Ventoux in favor of reaching Nimes in time to catch our prepaid train to the Pyrenees. It was disappointing to miss out on Ventoux, but hey the mountain isn't going anywhere and we now have a reason to come back!

The next few days we wound our way across the Verdon Gorge and towards Avignon. This area of France is absolutely stunning. I had no idea before coming here that this region is so beautiful. Some of the locals we met were also surprised that we were bike touring there as not a lot of foreigners come to the area. Well I'm happy to report that we found a real cycling gem. You now know where you want to go for your next cycling vacation -- it is absolutely stunning out there.

Retirement home anyone?

Verdon Gorge

Avignon is a nice city and we spent an afternoon there catching up with Natasha's uncle and aunt and then made our way to Nimes the following day to start the second half of our journey. 

Avignon -- apparently the construction crew went on strike... a century or so ago

One quick note here about bikes on trains in France -- no one cares one bit if you bring your bike on a train. Every website we checked beforehand told us how stringent the rules are and how bikes aren't allowed on certain routes... total BS.. Apart from the TGV, you can simply roll your bike onto any train and basically leave it anywhere. On our last leg from Pau to Paris, the conductor even put our bikes in a sleeping couchette!


Into the Heart of the Pyrenees
Our train brought us into the small town of Foix, at the foothills of the Pyrenees. This is a really cute little town with a nice castle but not much else. After a quick look around we started our uphill slog toward Masat, a small village some several thousand feet up. This was a grind but by this time we had both found our rhythm and happily ate up all the uphills. What was more scary was the 18% downhill we had to negotiate riding into Masat. The road was narrow and bumpy and I have canti brakes on my bike (which if you know canti brakes are simply a suggestion for the bike to slow down). So this was an interesting descent but we managed to come away unscathed.

In Masat we stayed in a local cycle lodge for the night. This was one of the nights we had earmarked to splurge on a nice bed in a hotel. It was definitely worth it and we enjoyed a great meal and some good company of other cyclists.

Unfortunately, this was also the day I felt really sick with a terrible saddle sore and the beginnings of a fever. However, after a good night's sleep and some aggressive saddle sore treatment we kept on chugging forward. I guess it helps to be stubborn at times!

Riding through the Pyrenees is surreal. Many times over the next few days we were above the clouds and the views were absolutely stunning. Every person we met, be it on a bike or in a car was super friendly. Most of the roads we were on didn't really have cars on them at all. I think we saw more cows than vehicles especially atop Col d Aspin where Natasha befriended one who didn't want her to leave!

Riding above the clouds
I just met you and I love you
We camped atop the summit of Col d' Ares the next night and then continued onto Luchon and beyond the next day. This included the climb up Col d Peyresourde which is really steep and the temperature was nearing 100 degrees. But we kept our steady march towards our ultimate goal in the Pyrenees -- Col d' Tourmalet.

It was hot...

...but Tourmalet beckons

For those who follow professional cycling, Tourmalet holds a special place as its one of the iconic climbs of the Tour de France. We arrived at the base of the climb the day before and started up it early in the morning.

Tent up, bikes put away, kits hung to dry, gf sunbathing... all is good in the world

The climb is steep with the gradient steady at 8+ % the whole way with many steeper pitches. But quite anticlimactically this turned out to be an easy climb for us because we had left all our weight and pannier bags at the campground. So we were climbing like everyone else -- super light.

The top of Tourmalet was a circus with so many cyclists and everyone wanting a picture next to the famous cyclist statue. One guy in particular (see below) insisted on taking picture after picture of himself, both alone and with others at the summit. Natasha and I took our picture, ordered coffee, consumed coffee, ate a croissant, and all this while this guy was taking pictures. Well good on him, he'll have about 60 of them to show his kids!

The attack of the selfie-man! 

Our day wasn't done. We descended back to camp, packed up and then continued on our way all the way to Pau. The last stretch ended up being quite exhausting as both of us were pretty tired. And to top it all, the campground we had earmarked to get showered and changed had closed down so we had to resort to stripping naked behind some bushes and dry cleaning with a towel.

R and R 
The final stretch of our journey was an overnight train from Pau to the ferry town of Dieppe.

Here we caught a ferry to England and rode our bikes early in the morning to Natasha's parents' house in Brighton. We spent the next four days simply catching up on sleep and calories before finally boarding a plane back home.

This was a most memorable trip and indeed the first of many to come. We're already busy plotting our next adventure!

The end -- a couple of tired but happy cyclists!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014


The end of endurance racing season in early October marked the beginning of cross season and a complete shift in gears. 45 minutes of redlining is so different than 8-10 hours of steady tempo and the training is different too. But slowly I've come to appreciate tabata intervals and microbursts as they do prepare you pretty well for cross racing! Very explosive and brutal, indeed.

I'm doing much better this year than last year and making steady progress towards the top 10. I've snuck in a few top 20s but the fields are competitive and I'm still missing some top end power and skill. But the beauty of bike racing is that you never stop improving.

Plus the post race rewards are definitely worth the effort! If you haven't a clue what I'm talking about just come to a cross race and join in the fun.

I spot a barrel... oh what could be in it?

We're bookin it outta here fast

Post race banter (and recovery)


Thursday, October 16, 2014

You finish some and you DNF some...

Iron Cross was one of my target races this year and I was coming into it with a brand new super bike (Trek Boone) and some decent fitness. The day started off well with teammate Andy showing up at my house sometime around 5:45AM and keeping me awake for the drive up to the start line in Michaux.

The one thing that no one was prepared for was how friggin cold it would be at the start -- 36 degrees with close to howling wind. We all froze our butts off waiting for the race to start and took off like banshees at the gun. Immediately the pace was brutal and I'm never good at redlining at the beginning of races so I let a big group go so I wouldn't bonk half way through the race. As an aside, I'm not sure if this is mental and perhaps I should just try to redline the first 30 minutes of a race and see what happens. 

The bike felt great and I started working with a smaller group and we kept the front group somewhat in sight. All bets were off as soon as we hit the single track at Lippencote, though. My bike handling has improved by leaps and bounds thanks to mountain biking so I managed to ride pretty much the entire section and gained several spots. Close to the end of this section I came across my teammate Tyler who had flatted and was trying to put air in his tubeless tire with a quarter sized hole in it. I urged that he put a tube in it and gave him my CO2 and inflator. Thankfully he recovered quickly and managed to finish strong.

After this brief stop, I managed to tag onto a super fast paceline led by some Rare Disease Cycling folks who were really pushing the pace on the road section. I was feeling pretty good here and even took a (brief) pull. The climb up to the WigWam run up is tough but the legs were responding well and my switch to Infinit for nutrition was working great.

The run up or rather crawl up on WigWam was a chore and I got a few twinges in my lower back by the time we reached the top. But my resolution at the beginning of the year was to not waste time in races so I kept on moving and just stretched on the bike. Soon I felt fine again and made good time to check point 2 which was also the start line. Made a quick bottle switch and was off for loop 2, still feeling good.

The bombing descent off the ridge on a dirt road was just awesome. I hit close to 45 mph there on my cross bike and passed many folks. The new bike just inspires so much confidence and the hydraulic disc brakes are phenomenal especially coming from cantilevers.

But all good things must come to an end. At the bottom of this descent (and thankfully not halfway through it), I realized my rear brake was completely gone. So I stopped to see what had happened -- turns out my left heel was constantly clipping against the hydraulic line in the back and had knocked the bolt loose that connected the line to the brakes. So all the hydraulic fluid had drained out, doh! This was such an odd thing to happen, one in a gazillion chance and it had to happen to me on race day. oh well.

I knew there were several more testy descents coming up and taking those on a front brake alone would be daunting. But I tried for a bit and took a (minor) header on a turn and just lost interest in the race. Sucks but I couldn't get myself to get back in the game with just a front brake and a history of some bad crashes. So I called it a day and rode gingerly to a radio check in and turned in my number.

Crappy way to end the endurance season but the upside is that I felt great and was about 13-15 minutes up on last year's time at mile 40. Importantly I was feeling good at mile 40 this year whereas last year I was already ready to bonk so more time gains would have been had later in the game had I continued. Oh well. There's always next year.   

Time to switch to 45 minutes of suffering for the rest of the year. Maybe I'll learn a thing or two about redlining the whole race!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Minor Hill Repeats: Shenandoah Mountain 100 Race Report

Pre Race: 
The race was on weeks before the SM100 even started. The pre-race race was to lose some weight and gain back some lost fitness. Basically, I raced the Wilderness 101 at the end of July a good 10 lbs over my race weight thanks to a buttload of work travel and jet lag induced unhealthy eating. I was also desperate to gain back some fitness after being off the bike while traveling.

So the pre-race plan was to live like a monk for a few weeks, eat healthy, and bank some saddle time. For the most part I did eat healthy and managed to drop 5 lbs by the race eve. I was still 5 lbs overweight but that's significantly preferable to being 10 lbs overweight!

In terms of training, I was behind so coach Eric Sorensen and I concocted a brutal weekend of training a week prior to SM100. Maybe too much too late but the counterfactual doesn't exist (for me) so I'm going to confidently say no :)

The weekend consisted of 5 hours on the road on Friday riding no harder than tempo to simulate pacing at the race, 4 hours of endurance riding at the Schaeffer Farm mountain bike race on Saturday (somehow I got 4th riding tempo which boosted my confidence), and 3 hours of Patapsco singletrack on my new awesome cross bike on Sunday. This 600 TSS weekend simulated the TSS I would probably accumulate in one continuous effort a week later (turns out my TSS for the race was 619, so a pretty accurate prediction!) 

SM100 simulation part 1, Friday: 5 hour road ride with teammate Homer

SM100 simulation part 2, Saturday: 4 hour endurance race at Schaeffer Farm

SM100 simulation part 3, Sunday: 3 hours on the new cross bike on Patapsco singletrack. Side note: hydraulic disc brakes rock!
 Rice cakes, gels, and Skratch hydration worked well for me at Wilderness so I didn't mess with the formula. I added some pistachios to Allen Lim's rice cake recipe and they turned out to be quite delicious.
Rice cakes, yum!
The one big change I did make from Wilderness was to switch over to bottles instead of a camelbak and to strap my spare tubes, CO2, etc to the bike. Both these systems worked great and I didn't have any significant back pain throughout the race and it was much easier to monitor hydration and refill bottles at aid stations. I feared it would be difficult to drink from bottles on singletrack but it really wasn't that hard -- its a 100 mile race so slowing down for a few seconds to retrieve a bottle didn't hurt one bit.

Race Day: 
I drove down to the Stokesville campground/start line on Saturday afternoon and setup camp. At packet pickup I ran into Erin Conner and her Sticky Fingers teammates and they were all super welcoming and invited me over to hang out at their camp. That didn't last long as I was in pre-race jittery mode so soon retired to my tent.

I must have the worst luck in the world because I ended up camping right next to the loudest snorer in the world and I had forgotten ear plugs! So I was up well before the wake-up gong went off, but on the bright side had enough time to make coffee and eat a significant breakfast.

All geared up
Cheat sheet with elevation, distance, and aid station markers
The race started off a bit fast as usual, but my plan was to ride within myself and certainly keep heart rate below threshold on climbs. I felt really good for the first 45 miles or so and rode tempo, catching a few trains here and there on flat sections. The first three climbs all had significant hike-a-bikes but I was in a forward enough position to be able to ride big chunks of the trail, which saved quite a bit of time. 

Around aid #2, I caught an experienced racer, Marc Genberg, and wondered if I was riding too hard. But he reassured me that the remaining climbs weren't as difficult. That's hard to believe with an 18 mile "death climb" on the horizon! 

Turns out Marc was right. The death climb is actually the easiest of all the climbs on this course. Its long but its steady and you can get into a rhythm. The upper reaches get a bit steep and unending but by the time I got there I was having other far more pressing issues. Turns out I simply stopped eating around mile 40 because I couldn't stomach anything anymore. I also fell back on electrolytes and binged on a handful of salt tabs all at once which likely caused even more distress in my stomach. 

By the time I was on the death climb, my stomach was in serious revolt and I couldn't keep my HR up beyond 160bpm. But I found a couple other riders to pace with and we chugged along albeit pretty slowly.

Finally aid #5 showed up and I took an extended break here, mostly because of an urgent need to use the port-a-john. But finally I felt a bit better and managed to eat a bit of pringles and drink some coke.

The climbing wasn't close to being done yet but I managed to get my HR up a bit again. Got some more pringles and scud fries (yum!) at aid #6 and headed out for the final climb. By this time I had lost hope for a 10 hour targeted finish but was gunning to make it to the line by 11 hours. I really attacked the last descent (even when it went uphill, go figure), but missed the 11 hour mark by about 4 minutes. 11:04 is still a decent time and good marker to beat next year! Almost 13,000 feet of climbing is a big day on any bike.   
HR and elevation profile for the race. Note the dichotomy of avg HR in first and second halves of the race. I paced well in the first half but bottom fell out in second half. Nutrition and hydration? Fitness? Heat and humidity? Maybe all three?
This was only my second 100 miler so a lot  to learn still. As another experienced racer, Greg Rittler told me, it take a while to learn how to pace these races. I think I also have to learn how to eat throughout the race. I think I'm going to try liquid nutrition (infinit) in training and see how that works for me.

I also need to work a lot on my descending skills. I think most other people had way too much fun on the fast curvy descents, whereas I was on my brakes a lot of the time and too timid on many of the faster sections. Practice, practice, practice!

Finally I'd like to give big shout outs to the entire Sticky Fingers crew. They took such good care of me the whole weekend, got me water and other adult beverages after my finish, helped me patch up a small wound, and were super fun to hang out with. Sincere thank yous to Erin, Honey, Dierdre, Angela, Megan, Dave, Bec, Tim, Larry, Isabel, and Faith (pls. excuse if I missed anyone!). You guys rock!

Back next year for SM100 part deux.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

My First 100 -- Wilderness 101 Race Report

Lets do dis!
Wilderness 101 is part of the National Ultra Endurance (NUE) 100 mile mountain bike race series, run out of the small town of Coburn, PA about 3.5 hours north of DC. Its a very well run race with excellent course markings and extremely helpful race volunteers.

Importantly, this was my first 100 mile race on a mountain bike! I've done a few 100K races before and several road races/rides/fondos longer than 100 miles, but this was by far the hardest day on the bike I've ever had. My training stress score (TSS) of 610 was more than a 100 points higher than some extremely mountainous road rides I've done such as the Mountains of Misery double metric or the Garrett County Diabolical Double (both 200K), or hard Ultra Cross races such as the Hilly Billy Roubaix. As an experienced rider told me after the race, it takes a while to get used to these but then they get addictive!

I think I'm pretty hooked to endurance mountain biking already. But admittedly this first race was quite a struggle. First, I was coming into the race after a week of work travel to Africa, which meant that my lead up to the race involved a ton of jet lag and literally no time on the bike. Additionally, I ate a bunch of crap while traveling and was shocked to see my weight higher than its been in 2 years the day before the race! But 100 miles is a long race and I was hoping I'd lose a few pounds by the end of it :-) 

Second, I made a few crucial rookie mistakes. I carried a large camelbak and put all my race essentials (spare tubes, pump, levers, etc) in the bag along with my hydration. I was cursing this decision around mile 60 as by then my lower back was ready to give out from all the jarring. I also carried a large bladder (3 liter capacity) and absent-mindedly asked the super nice volunteers to fill it up at each aid station. Turns out I didn't need that much water and lugging up the extra weight up each climb was highly unwelcome. 

Third, I followed the well-intentioned advice from an experienced racer to over-inflate my tires to help with the incessant fire-road climbs in this race. What I failed to anticipate was that each one of these climbs was followed by extremely steep, nasty, rocky, jackhammer descents on single track! By mile 85 I couldn't feel my hands anymore and my butt hurt like hell. Only then did I actually stop and let air out -- should have done that at mile 40! I only have one data point but I'm pretty sure comfort trumps any marginal gains in speed from over-inflated tires plus I could have taken some of the later descent much faster if my body wasn't hurting so much. 

Fourth, I miscalculated the course profile and was shocked to hit a final climb that I didn't anticipate. One of the smarter things I did prior to the race was to draw the available course map on some masking tape and put it on my handlebar:      
Course profile cheat sheet
This worked really well for the first 70 miles or so but turns out the race profile had changed a bit this year and for some inexplicable reason my cheat sheet displayed a previous year's version -- hence my plight! Next time I'll make sure to double check everything and note course changes mentioned in the pre-race email!

But enough with the negatives. I had fun most of the race, kept nutrition and hydration going, didn't cramp or bonk hard (small bonks don't count), rode everything (including every downhill, rock garden, and dark tunnel), didn't have any spectacular crashes, and came out of the race wanting to do this again! 

As for the race, it started off fast, partly because there generally is nervous energy at start lines and partly because the weather was pretty amazing (slight drizzle and low temps). 
A wet start (Photo Credit: bobs-photogallery.com)
The first several miles were entirely paved or dirt/fireroads and I managed to get into a group of about 15 riders who worked well together to get a good paceline going up to the first aid station. Some of the stronger dudes kept saying that we're going too fast but it felt good and everyone kept pushing the pace up the early climbs and on the flats.    

Aid #1 came at mile 19 and everyone was still fresh. At this point I heeded my coach's advice and slowed the heck down to ride the next grassy climb at my own tempo. Turns out this was a wise decision as I came across several exploded riders later on in the race. 

We didn't hit the first single track till after mile 35 or so and it was pretty sweet. I've really started enjoying technical single track as of late and my Trek Superfly simply loves rocks. I flew through this section despite what the picture below suggests: 
This narrow bridge had steep drop-offs on both sides. Can you tell from my expression?! (Photo Credit: bobs-photogallery.com)
I rode with the eventual women's winner for a bit here and complemented her on her yellow shoes. Turns out she was just motoring along whereas I had burnt a few too many matches early and didn't see her at all after Aid #2 at mile 40.

I kept the aid stop short and soon was on the biggest climb of the day. It took forever, was mighty steep in places, and I couldn't help but curse the extra pounds I'd put on and the 3 liters of water I was carrying on my back (never occurred to me to dump some out). Never again! I'm getting down to race weight starting today and am going to switch over to bottles for the next race (or buy a smaller camelbak).

As soon as I crested the hill, some nice race volunteers ushered us into some single track. I felt happy to see some technical sections, which soon gave way to utter fright as it wasn't just technical single track, but rather a technical single track descent on some seriously nasty steep terrain! So no rest for the wicked -- I was off the back of my saddle, butt nearly on my rear wheel holding on for dear life the whole way down. Remember how I was bitching about over-inflated tires earlier in this post... yeah, restated!

The rest of the race is a bit of a blur. Each descent was followed by another ascent on fireroads and then some single track descents. I did enjoy a section of technical rocks which was relatively flat and rode strong through it, probably my favorite part of the race.

After what felt like an eternity, I hit the final aid stop at mile 95 with only a few more miles to go. Didn't stop for more than 2 minute to fill up (just a bottle this time!), and after a brief hike-a-bike section managed to ride home at a decent clip.

The final dark tunnel wasn't as tough as others had suggested, I just committed to a line and rode it fast, thankfully without incident. My goal for the race was to finish under 10 hours but I only mustered 10:39. Was a bit disappointed but others say that its a pretty decent time for a first 100 miler, especially since this is one of the harder ones. I think with the lessons I learned here and a better lead up and hopefully lighter body (and hydration) weight I can start the process of shaving off time from this first attempt. For now, I'm happy I finished!   

Finish line! (Photo Credit: bobs-photogallery.com)

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Kigali Kalling

Rwanda is such a fascinating country. There is much to be admired -- the road infrastructure is fantastic, cleanliness is a priority (e.g. plastic bags are banned), traffic rules are sensible and strictly enforced (e.g. bike helmets are mandatory), crime rate is very low, and economic growth is on the upswing. Its hard to believe that a mere 20 years ago this was the site of one of the world's worst human tragedies!

Work is what brought me to Kigali in July and I'm glad I came.  What I wasn't too happy about was my complete inability to kick jet lag for the week I was there. This meant operating in a zombie state for nearly all my meetings and conferences, though I managed to get through with a constant drip of coffee.

On the bright side, I managed to pursue my favorite travel activity -- running in the early morning hours to observe a city wake up in its natural cycle.

Dawn runs are the best
From a training perspective, the mile high elevation and steep terrain promised to challenge my running legs, but the random applause from locals and welcome company of school kids running alongside certainly made it a lot easier.  

The views were quite spectacular

Daily water collection

Bottles on a tree -- go figure!

Early sun in all its glory

I even managed to catch a flash mob of local dancers, mostly little kids, who put on quite a performance!

Some serious drum talent
And once all the conferencing was done, my work colleagues and I enjoyed some local hospitality and revelry offered up by our hosts. Of course, the coolest cat at the party decided to join our table and it was clear we were having a good time

Naturally, we had an internal bet to extricate his hat and turns out my colleagues have multiple talents -- needless to say I owe everyone at the table an expensive dinner!

Overall a fun fun trip and some good work output to boot. Hope to be back again soon!

No blog post is complete without a selfie