Spring Classics — April Gravel Update

It was just two years ago I rode my first “gravel grinder”.  The following year (2013) I completed 6 or so events.  And this year I may have 3 knocked out by the end of this month.  Yes, I kind of got hooked.

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I was always a cyclist, my entire life really, but had pursued it with varying degrees of intensity over the years.  But an addiction to tobacco, of the smoking variety, had hooked me in a different way- nonetheless, the cycling continued.  But I began to feel and experience things that became pretty clear signs that my health was declining and something had to change.  And I finally discarded the cigarettes, really without much fanfare, and haven’t touched them since.  Was it easy?  Hell no!  Nicotine withdrawl is very unpleasant and difficult.  The human body becomes dependent on nicotine on a chemical and neurological level, and suddenly removing it from a person who is addicted can cause some very unpleasant reactions.

But I did succeed in quitting, and part of my strategy was to pursue cycling again with a new vigor, with a longer term goal to be able to ride/race competitively on some level.  It was kind of like in the same way that I ravenously chased the nicotine rush, I was going to ride my bike with purpose and start to pursue these previously abandoned goals of racing on a bicycle.  Becoming more healthy of course was a pretty significant “side benefit”.

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So, it is 2014 now.  We had a long, cold, and snowy winter this year.  Everyone was saying “when will it end?”.  But we have had some pretty nice spring weather, and the 2014 gravel season is underway.  Lakeville-Milltown-Lakeville would be my first event of the year, right at the very end of March.  Arctic air was just starting to loosen its grip on our area (again), and temperatures for the day started in the low 30’s and climbed into the upper 40’s in the afternoon.  From previous warmer days, the roads had cleared of all snow, and dried quite a bit, but then sections might have been frozen, too, it seemed, but overall, fast and very good road conditions.  But, the day before the event, I developed a fever.  I was getting sick.  But I decided my fever was just below 100 and I could still do it.  Probably was a bad idea.  But hindsight is 20/20, right?

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The race was 82 miles.  I rode with the lead group for, I don’t know, 6 or 7 miles, but then was squeezed off pretty handily after 2 or 3 bumps we had to climb over.  There were other riders to spend some time on the road with after that, some passing me or leaving me eventually, sometimes me catching riders who had been dropped later on.  I got to the halfway checkpoint in okay shape.  The lead riders had already come and gone.  Once I stopped, I became chilled pretty quickly, and realized I was really wet with perspiration.  I took off some layers and tried to dry them and myself in the sun behind Milltown Cycles, while eating donut holes, hot bacon, drinking hot coffee and gatorade.  The longer I lingered behind the bike shop, the more I realized I really felt like crap!  I was sick.  I started thinking there might be somebody who had driven down from Lakeville I could beg a ride back with.  Then my thoughts started to turn to calling Chris back in Minneapolis.  But I had her car, and she can’t drive mine.  I’m going to have to finish this thing.

So, I did finish.  I finished somewhere behind the middle of the field.  Not terrible, but not great, either.  But I did finish.  Went through quite a bit of pain, psychological and physical, but I did finish.  And bronchitis and full blown upper respiratory infection quickly set in in the ensuing days.  Some asked me as I crossed the finish, “how was it?”  I replied “How was it? It was horrible!”  It wasn’t that they put on a bad race, not at all.  It was just that I suffered to get to that finish line, and there wasn’t a happy feeling left in my body.

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I started to recover and was back on the bike in a few days, though still to this day I don’t think I have this illness 100% beat.  The next event on the calendar would be the Dairy Roubaix.  It takes place in Wisconsin about 3 hours or so from us, but only 1 hour from Chris’ hometown of Decorah, IA.  So we decided to spend the Easter weekend with her family, and I would get out to the race on Saturday.  The weather turned very nice Saturday, warming through the 50’s as the day went on, and beautiful sunny skies.

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I found myself hanging onto the lead group from the start.  “Alright, let’s see how this goes.” The little bumps we were going over were straining me, and I thought “oh no, what is going to happen once we hit a real climb?”  Somewhere around mile 8 or 9, not even on that significant of a climb that I can recall, I was ejected from the rear.  I rode on and was eventually joined by a pair of riders.  We rode together, at first it seemed they were happy let me pull them along on a fairly long paved section, but then I decided I wasn’t going to do all the work for them.  I sat up a little and moved to the rear, we never really got into a cooperative groove as a trio, but I think each of us took some turns at the front.  Then during one of my turns one or both of decided together to leave me.  They pulled away, and I decided to let them go.  It seemed too early to fight to stay on a wheel, no less chase back to the lead group.  I was used to riding these things alone.

But somewhere down the road, back in the coulees and gravel, I was catching some stragglers again.  And then a bigger group appeared ahead of them.  It was the leaders again.  As I was gaining ground on the stragglers, it appeared that they surged.  I realized they were going to make a run to bridge to the lead group.  I hesitated.  Then I decided, I’ve got to do it, too.  I likely won’t get another chance.  I saw some of my supporters on the road gave them a shout and wave, and then shortly after, I was back with the pack.  And we were flying along, up and down the rollers and bumps, twists, and turns of some of the prettiest gravel roads in the world.  And I was more than content to sit right on the very back of this fast moving group, for as long as I could.

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And the miles ticked by quickly, and the rest stop was fast approaching.  And it didn’t even occur to me that people wouldn’t stop.  But as I slowed, the entire group went right by, minus myself and maybe two others.  I didn’t see that coming.  But I didn’t see coming riding into the rest stop with this group, either.  I ate some food, drank, and used the bathroom, and decided there was no reason to hang around.  There was a very long climb back up from the river town to the Wisconsin prairie.  I passed one rider not far from the end of this climb.  It was very slow going.  It was not long after that the first tailwind section came.  A strong steady breeze and some long paved sections.  This was a good place to ride alone and not lose time.  I tried to keep my tempo high, and use the wind as much to my advantage as possible.  It was then onto more gravel and hills, each one always just taking a little more from you each time.  It was within the last 10 miles I was joined by a rider.  We chatted a little bit.  He asked about my tires.  We took a paved breakneck descent together, interspersed with small gravel sections.  I thought “that felt a little sketchy”.  And then other riders were approaching from behind just before the turn where the 107 milers split off.  They went right, and I went left.  Nope, I’m not doing that, I am almost done.

So I finished.  One other rider caught me before the finish.  I wasn’t able to hold his pace, but didn’t really care.  I already thought I had had a pretty good ride.  It didn’t matter if one more guy passes me.  And I hit the sand pit and went flying off my bike, my pedal carving a nice long gouge in my shin.  Got back on and finished.  My computer recorded my time as 3:24.43, with an average speed of 15.9 mph, a distance of 54.51 miles, and a max speed of 42.7 mph.  My actual race time was actually about 3:35, though, on account of my break, which my computer didn’t record.  I have never seen any official results posted anywhere, but I am fairly certain my placing was somewhere around 12th or 13th.

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So, a pretty long and tough race to start the season, still finishing with not a small amount of adversity, and then a pretty decent result for the second event.  Not a bad start for 2014.  I have managed to hang on to last years fitness, and can build on that this year, with a lot of riding yet to do.  This year I will participate in the Almanzo for the first time, the Dirty Benjamin again, and several others.  Also, I’ve got my eye on some road races I might give a try, and I’m still wanting to try to race on the track, too.  Stay tuned and we’ll see what unfolds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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New Bike (650b Gravel)

I’m pretty excited about my new bike.  I had this frame sent over from England, it was almost the last one.  It is a Cotic X.

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For winter, I built this with a 1 x 8 drivetrain.  Shown with slick Pari Moto tires, just before our epic winter had struck.  It is 8 speed in the rear, because a Campagnolo 10 speed shifter pulls just the right amount of cable when coupled with a Shimano 8 speed cassette and a suitable Shimano derailleur.

I hardly was able to ride this, before it got cold.  Then really cold.  Then snowy, icy, and really cold.  Shoot!  I was looking for winter tires in the 650b size, but everything was too big.  But I decided to give the Vee Rubber XCX a try, based upon measurements others had taken.  And yes, the 650b/27.5″ x 1.95 Vee Rubber XCX did indeed fit in this frame (rear), without modification to tire or frame (which I was pretty close to doing).  And the Kona Project 2 fork, well it has tons of room, so I went with a Vee Master Blaster.

IMG_20140129_161538_402I’ve tried to get out on this as much as possible, but it has been so freaking cold!!  But so far, I like it.  I think it is going to shine the most off road and on gravel, which of course is the intended use.  And it handles the snow well, too.

The story of this bike…well, of course, I could go on and on about all the minute details- and, I really have nothing better to do, so here goes…

Actually, not a long story.  But, my experiences last season with the 650b wheels and gravel races were good, and I started thinking about what would make the bike better.  And I realized that the best thing would be to design a frame from the ground up, optimized for the wheel size.  And I sat down with Google Sketchup, and designed a frame that I thought would do everything I wanted it to.

650b Gravel RacerAlthough there are a fair number of production 650b road bikes out there now, and more coming, these are all (mainly) in the Randonneur style.  And of course there is nothing wrong with that, but it is not what I was after.  And then there is the route of the custom builder, too, which has been and is being done.  But the custom frame does carry a higher price tag, which I am not currently able to embrace, psychologically  or practically.  And if I can’t afford to employ an experienced frame fabricator, I wouldn’t be able to afford building it myself, either.

But roaming around the vastness of cyberspace, seeing bikes others had converted (to 650b), well, I searched to see if I could find something that I could convert, and meet my requirements.

My Criteria:

  • Bottom bracket drop around 60mm
  • Short chain stays, overall short wheelbase
  • Steel, but not excessive weight
  • Disc brake mounts
  • Sloping top tube geometry
  • Generous tire clearance

And I found the Cotic, and it pretty much hit all the points, closely enough, and was pretty darn close to my drawing.  So I pulled the trigger, and got it.

IMG_20140129_161839_417The main purpose of this bike is gravel racing, which I am looking forward to doing a fair amount of this coming season.  I have other bikes, road, mountain, track, but what is cool about this bike is you can take it just about anywhere.  Really just a tire change makes it capable on pretty rough off road conditions, and with a 38c lightweight tire, the bike flies along pretty well on the smoother and harder surfaces.  I really like that!

So, like I have said earlier, I have ridden this a limited amount.  I was never able to take it on a gravel ride to make a good assessment.  But I am hopeful this will be my “go to” bike this year, and proves itself up to my anticipation.  I have some new components at the ready, just waiting for Spring to break and get this bike into full racing dress.

And the custom frame, or the self custom frame, will have to wait.  But in time, that may come, too.

Gravel Bike Baby!

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Snow Bike

I did a couple gravel events last year, and in the snowy dark depths of winter, I started to think about the new biking season.  Actually so much so, that I started biking in the snow and ice, but maybe that should be another blog entry. I put this together (right) with a home made studded front tire.  Salt is brutal on bikes, though.

And I caught wind of the Dairy Roubaix, and signed up.  And started thinking about the upcoming season, and what I wanted to do, and to accomplish, on my bike.

And I needed a bike.  I rode my old Raleigh on a gravel event last year, and had a great ride.  But I don’t want to beat up the Raleigh, so needed something similar, that had the same kind of ride and fit as the Raleigh.

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The Raleigh International was a “sport touring” bike, if you will, with a longer wheelbase and slacker angles than the sportier racing models.  And built of light and lively steel tubing.  It wasn’t a racing bike, but wasn’t a full touring bike, either.  Somewhere in between.  And on gravel, in my opinion, all these things come together beautifully.

Roughly a year ago I started a project.  I had an old frame with bad paint, and decided I could practice brazing on it.  If I wrecked the frame, not a great loss.  If I succeeded, possibly a nice bike that could serve a variety of purposes.  I purchased all the little frame parts from a place that supplies that stuff to bike builders, a cheap brazing torch, and silver solder (and flux).  Learning to Braze and Part II.

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A couple of quick notes about the frame, why I thought it might be ideal.  One, the right size.  Another, steel, which can be brazed, and the ride quality, as previously noted.  And one more thing, but important–  the frame was originally made for 27″ wheels, a little bigger than the now standard 700c.  This creates an oppurtunity, as switching to the smaller wheels can allow a bigger tire and fenders, if desired.  And adding cantilever brake mounts gives the desired brake alignment to the smaller wheel size, and an all conditions brake.  One more thing, this lowered the frame which was really a size bigger than I usually ride, but helped to make the fit just right.

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Other things came up (last summer), personal things, and this project was hung up (literally), and almost forgotten.  And it can be hard to start again a project, there is a momentum that is lost.  But I needed a bike for the gravel races, and it occurred to me that this frame might be just what I needed.  After repair of some brazing errors, it was off to the powdercoater.

This is what the bike looked like completed.

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IMG_20130425_105813The color is an olive drab with low gloss, a color actually used by the military.  The bike is a mix of old and new.

The old, summarized-

  • vintage steel frame and fork
  • vintage quill stem and handlebars
  • vintage (80’s) hubs
  • vintage 7 speed cassette (customizable for gearing, longer lasting than modern 9, 10, or 11)

The new, summarized–

  • tubeless tires (awesome!)
  • modern cantilever brakes with advanced brake pads
  • modern crankset and pedals
  • very comfortable and effective brake levers
  • cartridge bearing headset (no longer offered by Shimano, though)
  • modern rims and spokes

The end result?  Well, I love the bike.  It eats up the gravel roads.  Just the right gearing for hills, mushy patches, or whatever.  Tires are, dare I say, the perfect combination of ride comfort, speed, and traction.  Tires did not slip on steep climbs, and helped me not go down when I hit a slippery section downhill at high speed.  Tires also are quite fast on pavement as well.  Steel frame absorbs road buzz and shock, and gives just the right amount of spring.  Brakes strong and confidence inspiring when going downhill and fast. Shifting  functioned without flaw.  Wheels strong, light, and compliant, adding to the comfort on a long ride or race.

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redneck ingenuity

I’m looking forward to more riding and racing this summer.

One more thing about this bike.  See the pulley?

I brazed on a post to mount a pulley, but managed to snap off a bolt in it, trying to fix the threads.  One prototype and then a second attempt resulted in this pulley, made from the clamp from an old front derailleur, and a derailleur pulley.  Works great.

All for now…

Gravel Baby!

The Dairy Roubaix has come and gone.  I remember in the photo I was trying to look wasted and pathetic, but don’t know if that really worked.

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our resident gnome, getting buried by snow in April

Our resident gnome, getting buried by snow in April

The Dairy Roubaix was 54 miles, or 100 and something miles on mostly gravel roads in hilly western Wisconsin.  I had a great time.  This was my second gravel event.  I did my best to train, but the unrelenting snow and winter made it tough to get any significant miles in.

 

 

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There I am, roaring into the finish!  So fast, I passed a Pugsley.

How was it?  It was tough.  I did an extra 10 miles, 64 total, because I lost my cue sheet.  And then, I tried to follow some other guys in, who turned out to be lost, but didn’t know it.  I was really mad at those guys!

 

It snowed like mad the day before we left, but there was almost no snow anywhere, 200 miles to the south.  The sun broke through, and it turned into a pretty nice day.

I’m really liking this gravel thing, and I plan on doing more of these.  The Dirty Benjamin is up next, unless I find something else sooner.  I’ll be adding some more about the bike I rode later.

Raleigh International Update

I’ve covered my Raleigh International before, but decided to post again about some changes I’ve made to the bike. This bike would qualify for the L’Eroica, but there were no bike requirements for the Heroic.  It was encouraged to bring an old bike, if you could, so the Raleigh  was a natural choice.

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First off, I have to say this bike handled beautifully on the rural gravel roads.  Steel frame, longer wheelbase, generous fork rake- this bike was made for this kind of riding, a true pleasure to ride.

I made a few key changes to this bike, which helped for this event, and really worked well.

Wheels- later 80’s Mavic/Shimano 600 wheelset.  Rear hub was retrofitted with a Uniglide freehub, the axle shortened, and respaced to 126mm.  More about Uniglide will come later here.

Gearing and Drivetrain – For a long, hilly gravel course, I felt I should have more of a touring or ‘cross like gearing.  52/42 chainrings were replaced with 48/39. Ramps and pins on the 48, they do make a difference.  The Uniglide freehub conversion allowed me to create a custom 7 speed cassette, which turned out to be 13/26.  It was a little humbling to find out the winner’s small chainring was a 44, and another guy who finished far ahead of me rode a fixed gear!

Tires-  Challenge Parigi-Roubaix, 27c.  It was mentioned on some forum that tires with more aggressive tread patterns aren’t necessarily better or more helpful on gravel roads, at least in dry conditions.  These tires worked well for me.  Occasionally loose gravel patches were a little challenging, but not overly so.  On the well packed smooth lines I was able to find most of the time, these tires were perfect.

IMG_0431Brake pads- I was starting to doubt the old Shimano Golden Arrow side pulls.  They just weren’t stopping well.  Although the rubber in the still original pads didn’t seem dry or brittle, they just didn’t stop well.  I replaced with some cheap Serfas pads, which work great.  I am a fan of these (and other cheap things that work very well).

I switched to a drop bar, and Suntour bar end shifters.  These shifters are tried and true.  It is nice to be able to keep your hands on the bars and shift on road conditions that can change pretty quickly.  They work well with the 7 speed Uniglide Cassette, but with a higher cog count they start to lose their effectiveness.  The handlebars were re-bent from a standard bend road bar.  The ends are bent and flared out.  Yes, I bent aluminum handlebars!

I cobbled together the water bottle holders on the handlebar.  I thought it looked a little old-timey, even with modern bottles and cages.  There is usually no support or water stops on these rides, so I wanted to be sure I had enough hydration.  As cold as it was the day of the Heroic, I actually did drink all 3 bottles.

It’s a wonderful bike, I am privileged to own it, and now race it!

Mark Skorpahl showed up with his Raleigh International, too, and he won!

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The Heroic (L’Eroica) Update, Finally

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Last October, I entered a bike race called The Heroic.  It is an (approx) 60 mile race through rural areas on almost entirely gravel roads.  It was started in homage to another race held in Italy, called L’Eroica.  (Unfortunately, it (the L’Eroica website) is only in Italian, they keep promising an English version, but never seem to get around to it…)

The L’Eroica is a non-professional, non-sanctioned “race” held in Italy.  It is intended to celebrate and honor the history of the sport of bicycle racing.  There are some requirements regarding your bicycle and dress.  Some guys show up like this.

P1000976This was my get up.

Ha Ha!     That is an inner tube wrapped around my shoulders.  The old timers didn’t have support and had to do their own repairs, and so carried tires like this.  The early Tour De France actually forbade riders to receive any help whatsoever.

This was the bike I rode.  It is my Raleigh International.  It was made in 1973, though built with later components.  It rode very well on the gravel.  I of course could go on and on about all the details of this bike, but will save that for a separate post!

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IMG_20121006_130952This is the guy who crossed the line first,  Mark Skarpohl.  He beat a lot of younger guys.  And he rode the same bike as me, except his was stock, with some really tough gearing, too.  Way to go, Mark.

This was my indroduction to gravel racing, and it was a great experience.  I had a solid performance that I was proud of.  I will be back to this and looking into other events as well.

Vive La Gravel!!

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The Hell of the North

Parix Roubaix 2012 has come and gone. The winner of this year’s Queen of the Classics was Tom Boonen, joining the ranks of only one other, Roger De Flaeminck, to have emerged winner of this race 4 times.  And in heroic and classical stye, a solo breakaway off the front until the end.

Besides the Tour de France, this is the one race I look forward to every year.  Few other races carry the mystique and the legend of the Roubaix.  Many of the heroes of the sport made their mark here.  A race of mythological proportions, and only lasts for one day.

I had my own little Hell of the North, too.  In North Anoka County.  It was a 40 mile ride, from Minneapolis to Nowthen, MN.  The day was lovely enough, but the wind in my face for the second half of the ride was my tiny bit of hell.  Actually, it was good ride.  There’s no place to hide from the wind.