Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Welcome Spring!

Last week was the first spell of real nice weather in months in the Pittsburgh Region. It was a great prelude to the official coming of spring and hopefully the start of much more fine weather to come. The weather was so nice, that I was actually able to do my bike commute to work all week long. To me, there is nothing better than starting or finishing a day at work by being on the bike. Additionally, it is a great way to get in a lot of riding without taking up a bunch of free time.

With no close races to do on the first weekend of spring, I decided that doing a hard, long road bike ride on Saturday would be the best choice for my race preparation. Additionally, I wanted to test out my newly built Salsa Podio Road Bike. I don’t think that there is any better way to test a bike than to build it up and then take it on a super long ride the very next day. Anyway, to find some riding friends, I posted a message on Facebook looking for volunteers to join me for my planned hell ride. My recruitment of other riders only generated two other people that were crazy enough to join me: Rob Lochner and Justin Pokrivka. Brian Wieczorek and his work colleague Zack did join our small group for a little more than an hour, after they rode down from Ligonier on their bikes to my place.

My ride plan was to do a very difficult road bike route, in preparation for the start of the NUE Series in about a month. The three of us all seemed to be in agreement with this plan and the ride was executed just as I had expected it would be. After doing many long mountain climbs, riding at least 10 miles of sketchy dirt roads someplace in WV, we ended up with over 7 hours of riding, 112 miles and 10870 feet of climbing. It was indeed a good early season challenge for our legs and we all seemed to pass with flying colors. It was also an absolutely perfect ride to welcome the first day of spring.

To make the weekend even more special, sometime last week I found out about a bootleg road race going on in a town very close to me from my long time friend Brian DelVecchio. The “race” seemed very interesting to me because of the multiple stage format of racing up 8 climbs, while at the same time riding one big loop. I didn’t commit until the actual day of the “race” because I was not too sure of how my legs would feel from my hard effort the day before. I can certainly say now that I am very happy about making the choice to do the event after riding my Podio to the (undisclosed) starting point and meeting up with all the other riders.

After everyone threw a little money into the registration pot, the event started with a kind of crash-up-derby style event for bikes. The rules of the event were that all fifteen of us would start in a small circle and the last man standing in the circle without putting a foot down would be declared the winner. I ended up third in this stage because I did my best to avoid everyone until Don Powers decided to take me out. Thanks, Don! The real racing up the hills started soon after this fun and from this point the race leaders were determined by awarding points to the top 7 finishers on each designated climb. But, to make things more interesting, points could also be accumulated by finding things during the ride on the side of the road like panties, porn or a Pontiac Fiero. I tried my best to score some bonus points but with expert underwear hunters like Jason Mahokey in the group, I had no chance for any extra credit points. Fortunately, I was able to do well enough on the actual riding portion of the event to score the overall win of the “race” without collecting any bonus points or my inability to score any points at the PBR Beer Chugging Stage.

After completing this crazy event of cycling madness in about 3 hours and since the weather was super nice, I decided to continue my awesome weekend by doing some more riding. My wife was planning on meeting me at my mother’s place for Sunday Dinner at her home near Mars, PA. Initially, my plan was to have Brian give me a ride there in his car, but with the nice weather I could not resist riding my bike back instead.

The ride to my mom’s ended up being a pretty tough one because of all the climbing on the route that I took and because my legs were shot from sprinting up eight tough climbs during the race. And, I am sure that the 112 miles in my legs from the day before did not make things any easier for me. In any respect, I completed the ride, feeling like a beat down man after logging 88 hard miles for the day and a total of 200 for the weekend.

I can’t imagine that I could have welcomed in the spring in any better way than I did this weekend. Thanks to my friends that made it so much fun, including you Mr. Todd “insane race promoter man.” Oh, and BTW, if you are considering a new road bike this spring, the Salsa Podio is very, very sweet! I could not be more pleased with how it felt after just building it and taking it on such a hard test this weekend.

Happy Trails….

Monday, March 1, 2010

Vacations help me feel complete

This winter has been a brutal one in the Mid-Atlantic Region. There have been many frequent and deep snow storms during the entire month of February where I live, which has made outside bike riding almost impossible to do because the snow has been between one and two feet deep on average. I usually don’t mind riding in cold winter weather and actually enjoy riding my bike in manageable snow amounts, but the depth of snow this winter has mostly been way too high for riding. To be honest, though, my inability to ride has not been too much of a concern to me because I do enjoy skiing and other outdoor snow sports. I spend so much time on my bike during the year that taking a break from riding and doing other activities during the off season is a good mental break for me. I must admit, however, that if I am given a choice between riding in nice weather or staying in cold snowy weather, I will most likely choose the warmer option with riding my bike.

So, with this in mind, when my mother asked if I would like to join her for a trip to Southern Florida a few weeks ago, I made the required arrangements to go without hesitation. Taking a little vacation time is always a good thing for me, as it is for most people. When I take a vacation that is not associated with going to a bike race, I almost always take my bike along with me anyway to do long rides and explore the area that I am visiting. I like going on new adventures and taking my bike to places which are not easily accessible by other means. Doing bike trips like these are something special and rewarding for me.

In total, I had six days of riding in Florida during my trip. Since most of the first day was spent traveling, I was only able to do a short 30 mile ride. The rest of the week, however, I was able to spend at least 3 to as much as 7 hours spinning my legs. I have found over many years of riding that the best bike to use for this type of riding is a cyclocross bike with on/off road style tires. For this particular trip, I actually chose to go with a single speed cyclocross bike with disc brakes.

I enjoyed ever ride I did during my trip, but my longest ride in both time and mileage will forever be stored in my memory as something special. The ride, like most of the others over the week, was a combination of paved roads, dirt roads and trails. Initially, I had planned to ride to a Florida State Park by using some paved roads and then take some dirt roads and trails once I was in the park. When I arrived at the park, I found the out and back trail that I had initially planning to ride, but decided that it was too wet to continue riding after being on it for a short while. After exiting the trail, I then went back to the dirt road and took it deeper into the park.
The maps of the park I had viewed prior to my ride showed this road as being a dead end. But, when I followed this dirt road to the park boundary, it then entered into another wild area preserve. Until I came upon this second wild area, my initial plan was to turn around once I came to the end of the dirt road. But, now, with a whole new area to explore and a large posted trail map at the trailhead, I decided to push forward into the unknown. I have never been a fan of out and back rides anyway, unless I know for certain there is no other way to go forward. With about three hours of riding in at this point, I figured at most I might have another 2-3 hours of riding to go from what the posted map at the trailhead had indicated.

I had started my long day with two bottles of water, one bottle of a sports drink and two energy bars; easily enough nutrition for me to stay fresh on a ride of less than 6 hours. I also had my newly purchased GPS system mounted and figured that going deeper into the Everglades should not be a problem even though I was riding alone. The ride was going great as the wild preserve I entered switched between paved and unpaved roadways. There was absolutely nobody around and no sign of civilization, which is exactly what I wanted to find. I was even more excited when I saw signs along these deserted roadways giving caution about being in a panther habitat. I thought of how special it would be to see a rare glimpse of a Florida Panther. I also saw a few wild alligators sunning themselves just off the dirt road I was riding. It was definitely a new experience for me to suddenly come upon a couple of alligators on the roadside. Of course, this was something that I just had to stop and photograph.

Lookout for possible panthers and alligators!

Eventually, the wider dirt roads lead to rougher double track. From the posted map, there should have been only one trail system to get me back to the paved roadway that I knew. But, as things usually go for me, there were many trails pointing in all directions. To make matters worse, the majority of the trails were not marked and the trails that were marked did not have trail names I had seen at the trailhead. I decided to continue forward anyway and take my best guess at finding my way by using the compass feature on my GPS unit to head west. Besides, the trials weren’t too bad and I was still having fun.

The first trail I chose ended up being a loop and basically took me back to the trail where I had started. This was probably a warning sign of things to come that I should not have ignored. Anyway, after this mishap, I then decided to take a second trail basically heading west, even though it was marked with a name I knew for certain was not on the trailhead map. I was on the trail for quite awhile and did a lot of hard work pushing my big 42x17 single speed gearing through a lot of soft sandy areas, when I came to a four way intersection in the trail. At this time, I also noticed on my GPS that I was heading more north than west and was probably not even close to where I needed to be. By this time, I had been riding for nearly 5 hours and still did not have a clue as to where I was going. I decided to take the trail that headed south at the intersection because I figured it would eventual run into a good trail heading west. After being on this trail for awhile things turned really bad when the trail basically came to an end at a large swampy area. I considered going around the water but the vegetation was too dense and thick for passage. So, with some uncertainty, I started riding through the nearly hub deep murky water and eventually made it to dry land without any issues. I was happy that I made it through the water without much trouble, especially after seeing alligators only a short time earlier on the trail side. The trail remained dry for a pretty good portion, but I soon came upon another large wet section. Since the last section was not too bad, I again went through the deep water. This section was much longer than the last and only lead to a brief section of dry trail. By this point, it was starting to seem as if the trail had completely disappeared and had instead become some type of water way.

Here is a picture of one of the lovely “trails” I encountered on my ride.

My ride time at this point was now well over 5 hours and I knew that I definitely did not have enough nutrition to head back, so I continued riding and pushing my bike through the deep nasty water, keeping my eyes very focused on the water and “trail” sides for lurking animal dangers. I must admit that I was pretty freaked out at this point and figured it would be only a matter of time before I came across another alligator, snake or other type of wild animal which could do some major harm to me. At the same time, the noise I was making would scare large birds out of the thick trail sides, which would in return cause me to jump as each would suddenly fly out in front of me. Becoming very frustrated with the situation, I would occasionally deviate from heading south onto other trails that appeared to be drier. Of course, after changing direction, my new trail would also soon turn into deep swamp water. I started to wonder if I would make it out of this mess alive, but certainly did not want to go back from where I had been.

As I was pushing through the swamp, I came upon 3 otters playing in the muddy mess. They looked to be pretty happy in the muck, but they only made me think of what a nice catch they would be for a hungry alligator. I yelled at the otters to see if they would react to me. They stood up and looked at me before swimming off quickly, but continuing to play with one another during their escape. After they swam away, I thought to myself about how cool of a picture that would have been to take. It was like an animal show on the Discovery Channel or something watching those guys play in the mud. After my comic relief from watching the otters play was over, I now had to trudge through the same area where my new friends had been playing. I think at this point the water was up to my waist and I was wondering if quick sand might also exist here.

It took more than an hour to totally make it out of this swampy mess. I am probably lucky to have not encountered any major problems during this time and I can’t tell you how happy I was to hear the sound of automobile traffic noise. I usually prefer dirt over pavement on my rides, but I can’t tell you how glad I was to ride that one hour of paved road back to my hotel.

In total, the ride was 7 hours long and 83 miles in length. I would definitely rate this as one of my toughest rides ever because of how nasty and tough the swampy portion was. But, as tough as it was, it was absolutely amazing to do. To me, there is nothing like the feeling of adventure and conquering something difficult. It is hard for me to explain and probably even harder for other people to understand the amount of satisfaction I get from doing long hard rides like this. Without this bike ride, my vacation would not have felt complete.