July 31, 2008

The Fit

I started playing soccer when I was six years old. I wasn't particularly good, but I happened to be on a really good team that year. We made it all the way to the league championship game. And lost.

I threw a fit, the likes of which you wouldn't believe. I was so upset I refused to take part in the team picture after the game. My dad tried to pick me up off the ground and place me in with the rest of the team for the team photo and I wanted no part of it. This photo of my fit has become a family classic.

July 29, 2008

The Antidote

There were a couple incidents at the latest Critical Mass rides in a few major cities. Unpleasant altercations with a motorist in Seattle and with a (horrible, by the looks of it) police officer in New York (watch the video). Of course there are two sides to the stories, and as you can imagine in these cases both sides claim the other started it.

If you're not aware, Critical Mass is a group of "bicyclists" who meet the last Friday evening of every month and ride through the city completely blocking traffic and generally disrupting motorists as much as possible. I think the idea initially was to protest how bicycle unfriendly many cities are, but it seems to have degenerated into lets go get rowdy and piss people off.

I hate Critical Mass.

Why? I ride my bike every day on city streets. I obey laws. I signal turns. I am courteous to automobile drivers, pedestrians, and other bicyclists. I respect them and I hope they will respect me also. Critical Mass riders antagonize drivers one day a month, and then I ride on the same streets as those drivers every other day of the month. Am I one of the rude, disrespectful Critical Mass riders? No. But motorists don't know that. It's very easy to stereotype and think all bicyclists are the same (just as it is to think all motorists are the same).

A funny thing happened last November when I was in California on a business trip. I was riding around San Francisco on a friday evening when I came up to the back of a group of 20 or so bicyclists on Market St. At a stop light one of them looked over at me and noticed my Dahon Helios XL and turned to his friend and said "Hey look, this guy's got a Helios." Anyway we started talking and apparently he had the same bike. I asked what was going on and he informed me I had stumbled upon a Critical Manners ride. They described it as the antidote to Critical Mass. This group has the same basic mission as Critical Mass (to demonstrate the need for more bicycle friendly cities), but they obey traffic laws and are generally nice to people. The ride is organized by the San Francisco Bike Coalition. I rode with them a few blocks until I reached my destination. It was a good time.

We'd probably all be a better off with a little more manners and a little less mass.

July 24, 2008

The Backscatter

Yesterday was mostly wasted. At 7:37 A.M., shortly before I intended to sit down to start working, I started receiving spam backscatter emails. What happened was some asshole, somewhere in the world, sent probably hundreds of thousands of spam emails with my email address forged in the From: line. Tens of thousands of the email addresses they spammed were invalid. When one sends email to an invalid address the mail server usually sends an automated reply informing you the address was invalid. Since my address was the From: address of these spams, I received automated responses to these spam emails yesterday. It continued all day. I received dozens per minute. All day.

I was completely overwhelmed and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. Over the past few years I have received a few random backscatters. A couple months ago I received 8-10 in a single instance. A few weeks ago I received about 400 at once. Yesterday I received 15,673. The first several hundred went straight to my inbox. Eventually my junk mail filter started recognizing them and filtered thousands automatically, but there were still several hundred in my inbox. I literally spent all day dealing with this shit. There was at least one legitimate, work-related email that I completely missed because of this. I only learned about it by searching my junk mailbox after someone asked me about the missing email. Who knows how many other legitimate emails are mixed in with them? I am still receiving them, but thankfully they are becoming less frequent (maybe one per hour now).

What an asshole.

July 19, 2008

The Qualifier

Ever since successfully talking me into the Mattoon Beach triathlon two weeks ago, my friend Martin has been trying to talk me into doing the Evergreen triathlon today. I was on the fence about it. The Evergreen tri is an Olympic distance race, which is about twice as long as the two sprint triathlons I have done this summer. An Olympic distance triathlon consists of a 1500 meter swim (that's almost a mile), a 40 km (25 mile) bike, and a 10 km (6.2 mile) run. I was not worried about the running and biking, but the swim was going to be a challenge. Up until this past Thursday, the longest I had swum non-stop this summer was 800 yards (i.e. less than half the race distance).

Unfortunately, Martin was one of the many people who was involved in the nasty crash last Wednesday. He had already registered for the race, but was now unable to compete in it (doctor's orders). On Thursday he kindly offered to transfer his registration to me. I accepted.

Next, I needed to prove to myself that I could actually swim 1500 meters. I have been swimming on Thursday afternoons most of the summer so that day I did a long swim, and ended up going 1760 yards (one mile) nonstop. That evening I took a spin on my triathlon bike, which I hadn't used in almost two weeks. It checked out okay. I was as ready as I was going to be with two days preparation.

I packed the car last night. We woke up at 4:20 am, packed a few remaining items, and headed over to Bloomington. We encountered heavy rain on the way. Crap. I really should have checked the weather. The race was to start at 7:00 am. Registration was fairly smooth, despite having to explain the registration transfer situation.

Rob rushing around pre-race

I always intend to arrive plenty early to triathlons so I don't have to rush my preparation, but for some reason this summer it just hasn't worked. Today was no exception. The prerace meeting was underway while I was preparing my transition area. I still needed to pick up my timing chip, get my race number marked on my arms & legs, and get my swim cap I gave to Melissa for some reason. This was about 10 minutes before the race started. It was raining the whole time. This was one of the most stressful race preparations I've had, second only behind the half Ironman in 2003 where I got a flat tire warming up on the bike about 20 minutes before the race start. Somehow it worked out this morning. I got myself to the starting line, and before I knew it we were off.

Rob lined up at the start of the swim

The swim was loooong, as expected. I had a hard time seeing the course markers so I had to trust other people to know where they were going. Shortly before the halfway point the first person from the wave after me (started three minutes later) passed me. A moment later I passed the last people from the wave before me (started three minutes earlier). That indicated I was probably doing about average.

Rob exiting the water after a 28 minute 1500 meter swim

The transition area was fairly long and was littered with small rocks on the asphalt. Running on rocks doesn't feel good with bare feet.

Rob in the wet (and somewhat gravely) transition area

Rob starting the bike

I got off to a good start on the 40k (25 mile) bike leg. I passed several people fairly quickly. A few people passed me, but not nearly as many as I was passing. I could tell I was having a good day. There was a light headwind and steady rain. There weren't very many corners, but I navigated them all safely. I reached the half way point still feeling fresh. There was a bit of a tailwind on the way back and I was really able to ramp up the speed (over 30 mph at times). I ended the bike leg with the same average speed as the Indianapolis triathlon series June race, and this bike leg was 2.5 times as long. I felt great the entire time. This really was one of my best bike rides in a triathlon.

Rob finishing the bike after averaging 22.1 mph for 25 miles

Rob starting the run

The 10k (6.2 mile) run started out pretty well. My first three miles were all around 6:40-6:45. I could tell I was getting a little dehydrated. They had ample water stations out on the course, but I find it really difficult to drink when running that fast. I bit the bullet and grabbed a cup at 3.5 miles. My fourth mile was a few seconds slower, but I was still feeling okay. There was a turnaround after 4 miles and for the first time in the run we faced a headwind. The wind, combined with slight dehydration, combined with general fatigue from 2 hours of hard racing really made the last 2 miles difficult. Fortunately, the struggle lasted less than 15 minutes and I crossed the line in 2:20:56, after averaging 6:55 miles for the run. I would have liked to run a little faster, but I'm content.

My only previous attempt at this exact same distance was in August 2002, where I had a pretty good race and ended up in 2:27:46. I'll take a 7 minute PR any day. Looking back at my splits from that race, my swim was almost 3 minutes slower today, while my bike and run were both several minutes faster. In those days I was swimming 3000 meters 4 days a week. This summer I've been swimming 1000-1400 yards 2 days a week. So the slower swim was no real surprise.

After standing out in the rain for 2.5 hours Melissa's teeth were chattering and her lips were blue so she went back to the car to try to warm up. I packed up my (by this time soaking wet) gear and headed back to the car. I did manage to find a dry tank top and pair of shorts I left in the car. Melissa had only my race t-shirt to put on.

I hadn't been expecting an age group award because this was a longer race with tougher competition. I did have a good race though, so I decided to go check the results to see if I would get an award. The preliminary results had been posted and I finished 5th in the 30-34 age group. Some races only do age group awards to the top 3, others to the top 5, others go even deeper. I checked the race information packet which I had printed out (but not read) and it indicated they would give awards to the top 5. Then came the surprise of the day. Since this was the Regional Championship race for the Olympic distance, my top 5 age group finish qualified me for the National championship race in September. Not bad for an unplanned race.

Great, so I get an award. Crap, Melissa is cold, wet, tired, & hungry. She graciously agreed to wait for the award. The award was a cowbell, which was unique and interesting. It was particularly ironic that Melissa just purchased a cowbell a week ago for my bike race. They also handed out nice embroidered jackets to everyone who qualified for the national championships. Score.

I received a unique cowbell award for finishing 5th (out of 27) in my age group

I also received a nice embroidered jacket for qualifying for the national championships

July 16, 2008

The Crash

I still feel a little sick to my stomach. There was a pretty nasty crash tonight on my regular Wednesday night group bike ride. I somehow managed to stay upright, but many others weren't so lucky. I think around 6-8 guys went down in a chain reaction at 23 mph. I didn't see how it started, but I saw how it ended.

I've ridden with this group for about six years. While there have been a couple of minor crashes over the years, I haven't witnessed this kind of carnage before. A few riders broke bones (collarbone, wrist, ankle?, rib?), others were just left bloody. A few non-injured riders turned around immediately to go get cars to transport the injured riders to the hospital. Others called family members to pick them up. Apparently nobody thought their injuries warranted an ambulance. Interestingly, an ambulance actually drove past the scene of the accident at 55 mph without so much as a glance. It was kind of horrible standing on the side of the road in the middle of several injured (and somewhat pissed off) people and not really being able to do anything to help them. Hopefully everyone has a speedy recovery.

In my cycling "career" I have crashed four times. Of course, this doesn't count all the times I've simply fallen over at stoplights from not clipping my shoes out of the pedals in time.

I got my first road bike at age 15. Just a few weeks later I was riding around Danville like a real hot shot. I was in the street on Winter Ave and I turned onto the sidewalk on Vermillion. I took the corner way too fast and overshot the sidewalk onto the grass... straight into a fire hydrant. The bike came to a screeching halt, but my body didn't. I flipped over the handle bars and nearly landed in the road. I was fine. The bike was mostly fine. My pride, on the other hand, was not. This is one of the busiest intersections in town and a lot of people saw this. I got back onto the bike as quickly as I could and fled the scene with my head hung low.

It would be another 12 years before I would crash again. In my mid-20's I got into racing triathlons. Then I injured my knee running, so triathlons were out. Next I decided to give bicycle racing a try. My very first race was the 2006 Cobb Park Criterium in KANKAKEE. It was challenging and a little scary, but I was handling it reasonably well. About half way through I saw the guy two in front of me hit the deck, then the guy right in front of me. I had enough time to think to myself "oh shit," but not enough time to do anything about it. I hit the guy in front of me at 24 mph and went down as well.

I hit the pavement and it took my breath away. I was fine, but in a little bit of shock. I crawled off to the side of the road and made sure I still had all my body parts and they were functioning correctly. I could have gotten back into the race on the next lap, but I wanted no part of it. What a first race. My knee & elbow were bloody (I still have scars on both). When I got home I realized that my buttocks were also scraped up and bloody. Nice. I took a day off then started riding again on Monday. I was down, but not out.

A scant two weeks later I found my self in a similar situation. Near the end of a Saturday group training ride we were really hammering the pace. We hit an uneven stretch of pavement. Martin was riding in front of me and he hit the lip in the road at a bad angle and crashed. I plowed into him, flipped over the bars, and rolled onto the concrete. Fortunately, this time I did see it coming and I was able to slow way down so this was almost a fall rather than a crash. I wasn't injured, though Martin had to get stitches in his chin.

Last October was the most serious crash I've had. I was training for the Deuces Wild Duathlon alone on my time trial bike. I was hauling ass on my way back into town. I was doing about 25 mph on Bradley Ave west of Champaign. I crested a (very) small hill as I approached Rising road from the west. As I got to the top of the hill I could see a car heading south on Rising pull up to the stop sign at Bradley and stop. At this moment I hesitated a bit in my peddling because I was expecting the car to pull right through the intersection, as most cars would do in this situation. I was approaching the intersection, but there was still time for the car to make it through. I waited, and waited, and waited. The car didn't go.

Alright, the car is waiting and properly yielding the right of way to me (I did not have a stop sign), so I start peddling really hard again. Right before I entered the intersection the car took off straight towards me. Shit. They didn't see me. I slammed on the brakes, but at that speed they simply locked up and I started sliding out of control, so I let go. If I took no action I would have hit the side of the car at high speed and it would have hurt. Bad.

Onto plan B. I veered right and peddled faster. At this point I was heading directly in front of the car, but it seemed like the lesser of two evils. Had I continued straight I would have definitely hit the car. At least this way I had a chance to either completely avoid getting hit or maybe simply get knocked over. I looked to my left and saw the hood of the car coming directly at me, but it was still a few feet away. I breathed a huge sigh of relief as my torso completely cleared the vehicle, but I wasn't in the clear yet. The car hit the rear wheel of my bike, knocking me into the ditch at the corner of the intersection.

Had this been any other ditch on any other road I would have simply coasted upright to a stop. This ditch was insanely deep (4 feet) for no apparent reason. My front wheel dropped straight down and I flipped over and landed on my head, cracking my helmet (kids, always wear a helmet). I slid and rolled to a stop in the grass while my bike flew about 20 feet into a corn field. I immediately noticed a huge pain in my right leg and in my neck. This is bad. I laid there trying to figure out which body parts were working and which weren't. I have to credit the driver for doing the right thing and rushing to my aid. My situation could have been a lot worse had she not done so. After a brief exchange of words she called an ambulance for me.

The next thing I knew I heard a voice call out, "Rob?" It was my old next door neighbor who was out for a jog. From a quarter mile away he witnessed the entire incident, which he promptly explained to the paramedics and police as they arrived. He even offered to take my bike home for me, as I would be going home in an ambulance.

I laid on my side in the grass until the ambulance arrived. With the pain I was having in my neck I didn't want to take any chances of making it worse by trying to move around. They loaded me onto a hard, uncomfortable wooden board, which I rode all the way to the hospital. Actually the most unpleasant part of the ride was that my cell phone was in the back pocket of my bike jersey and I was laying on it the entire way.

It took an eternity to get to the hospital. I don't know how it could have taken this long. I seriously could have ridden there faster. And with the sirens on we don't even have to stop at stoplights. Wait a minute. Why are we completely stopped? We must be at a stoplight. Wait a minute. Why don't I hear any sirens? Crap. The sirens weren't on and we were stopping at every light in town.

At the hospital, after the x-rays and examinations, I had the unpleasant duty of calling Melissa to confirm her worst fear, that I had been hit by a car while bicycling. Ring ring. Ring ring. No answer. Next I called my parents. My mom freaked out, justifiably. She and my dad immediately rushed over from Danville. They got in contact with Melissa on the way and they all arrived soon enough. Everyone was relieved upon seeing me. Apparently I wasn't as mangled and ugly as they were expecting. That's a plus. As I was leaving my mom asked me about the large swollen lump on my leg. It was my muscle. I ride a lot :)

My injuries turned out to be pretty minor. My leg was just bruised (presumably from hitting the handlebars). My neck wasn't injured at all, it was my shoulder. There was enough pain that I couldn't initially pinpoint where it was. My bike didn't have scratch on it. I stayed home the next day and started riding to work again two days later. My leg healed in a few days. My shoulder took quite a bit longer. There was some spraining/straining/stretching of some tendons. I'm not exactly clear on that. It took a few months of physical therapy (on the other side of town in the dead of a horrible winter, of course I rode there) and a cortisone shot to get back my full range of motion. I still have a small amount of pain in that shoulder from time to time, but I'm an endurance athlete. I eat pain for breakfast (that and Raisin Bran Crunch). My only concern was being able to swim again, and I can.

Interestingly, I returned to the scene of the accident a week later and found my water bottle (which had been flung off my bike) lying in the corn field.

These are horrible stories. If you're still reading you're probably horrified and depressed. Keep in mind these are only four crashes over the course of tens of thousands of miles of bicycling, including a number of races (which are inherently more dangerous than regular riding). Regardless, cycling is still far far far less dangerous than riding in an automobile. That definitely necessitates a helmet.

July 12, 2008

The Blue Island ProAm

This morning five Wild Card Cycling members headed up to the Chicago suburbs for the Blue Island ProAm criterium. We did the Cat 4/5 race, which was 25 laps on a 1 mile circuit. This is kind of long for a criterium, so the speed wasn't insanely fast the entire time. The course only had 4 corners (as opposed to 8 at Proctor), which was good for me because I suck at high speed cornering.

Since Melissa did such a good job taking photos (and ringing the cow bell), this entry will be largely pictorial.

Tom, Mark, Dan, & Rob warming up for the Cat 4/5 race

And they're off

The pace started off fast, but not too fast. The whole group stayed together for the first 10-12 miles.

I stayed to the outside for the first 6-8 laps, taking all the turns very wide. I tried to stay relatively close to Luke, who is far more experienced than I. The pace increased and decreased repeatedly, causing a few riders (but not many) to drop off early. Eventually, I got stuck on the inside for one of the turns. As it turned out (despite my fear of this scenario) it wasn't bad at all. The turns were nice and wide and I realized the shorter distance on the inside actually took significantly less work. After a few more practice runs on the inside I changed my strategy to favor the inside on the corners.

I assumed Luke knew what he was doing, so I stayed near him the first few laps

Rob & Dan round a corner early on

Tom & Mark were very active near the front of the group. Tom frequently tried to break away with a few other random riders, but the lead group didn't let him get too far ahead. Next, Mark would go, then Tom again, etc. We worked pretty well together as a team. Whenever one of us would be in a breakaway the others took turns chasing down other attacks.

Tom & Mark stayed near the front the entire race

One of Tom's many attempts to break away

Rob & Dan chase down an attacker

Mark tries his luck in a breakaway

Rob had to work hard to stay in front of the kid half his age/size

About 12 miles into the race Tom made a big move off the front with 1 other rider and they built up a pretty good lead. Tom's attack caused a split in the group. About half of the field fell behind the lead group at that point. Luke, Dan, & I were all caught in the second group. Luke & I immediately surged to bridge up to the front group, but Dan didn't quite make it.

Tom & the other guy stayed away for a long time. They were partially aided by Mark & Luke, who moved to the front of the chase group and slowed down the pace. Eventually, Tom's breakaway partner fell off the pace and came back to the chase group, so Tom was all by himself as we were getting close to the finish.

Tom breaks away with another rider, splitting the field in the process

Luke & Rob round a corner later in the race

The lead grew

Mark & Luke stayed near the front (for Tom's benefit) to intentionally slow down the chase

Tom's breakaway partner fell off the pace, but Tom continued in front alone for 5 more miles

A little less than 2 miles to go and the chasers caught up with Tom. Luke attacked as soon as Tom came back to our group, but he didn't get very far. The group caught him with 1 mile to go. At this point somebody needed to try something. I didn't have much left, but I thought what the hell and jumped off the front as they rang the bell (indicating 1 lap to go). About a quarter mile later my heart rate was 190 and I had nothing left. The group pulled me back and it was all I could do to keep up with them until the finish.

Tom & Mark both stayed pretty close to the front on the last lap, while Luke was near the middle, and I was at the back. Tom & Mark both started the final sprint in good positions and placed pretty well at 2nd & 3rd. Luke started to sprint, but had a mechanical problem and coasted across the finish line just ahead of me near the back of the group. We were 11th & 12th. Dan finished a short while later in 20th place with the next chasing group.

As luck would have it, the race had awards 12 places deep, so I ended up winning a small cash prize (and by cash I mean a $20 check).

Rob attacked with 1 mile to go... but it didn't last long

Tom & Mark sprinted in for 2nd & 3rd place, respectively

An all orange podium (the winner just happened to have an orange jersey also)

Our team had a pretty successful race. I think this was Tom's 5th podium finish of the season, and Mark's 1st. This was also an interesting race in that it was:

  • the first criterium where nobody crashed immediately in front of me (though I am told there was a crash behind me...). Apparently Eric the bike destroyer wasn't there :)
  • the first criterium where I finished with the lead group (mostly due to being caught behind crashes in all previous crits)
  • the first bike race where I actually won a cash prize

July 5, 2008

The Run Split

My friend Martin suggested a few days back I do the Mattoon Beach triathlon. This morning I took him up on that (yes, I ran a 5k race yesterday). This race was in many ways very similar, yet very different from my last triathlon in Indianapolis. Both races covered similar distances and both were quite well organized. The last race had several hundred competitors, whereas this race had several dozen.

Mattoon Beach Triathlon

There were actually two different races, one sprint (1/8 iron distance) and one international (1/4 iron distance). I chose to do the sprint race which consisted of a .3 swim, followed by a 14 mile bike, followed by a 3.25 mile run.

We awoke at 5 am this morning, loaded our stuff into Iris, and departed for Neoga, IL. We arrived with plenty of time before the race started. I'm not sure how I passed the time, but before I knew it the race was about to begin. I didn't have time to warm up on the bike, which had some unfortunate consequences later.

before the race

After the wetsuit fiasco in my last race, I opted to forego the wetsuit in this race. It was short enough that it wouldn't have helped me much and I likely would have wasted time again taking it off in the first transition. Luckily the water was quite warm, so it was all the more unnecessary. Since this race was much smaller I was able to get a much better starting position for the swim, right in the front row near the outside edge.

The swim went really well for me. Unlike last race where I practiced twice, this race I practiced five times :) Though it doesn't seem like much it made quite a difference. During the last race I was just trying to transport my body across the water. This time I actually raced the swim. There was one guy out front. I was in a chase pack of five people a short ways behind him. I exited the water at the back of the chase pack in 6th place, a placing with which I was thrilled.

exiting the water

The first transition went very smoothly, in fact I think it was the 2nd fastest transition split of all competitors in the race. As I mounted my bike I immediately noticed something was wrong. My right foot slipped off the pedal twice and I couldn't get my shoe to clip in. After much confusion I eventually looked down to notice I had accidentally left the plastic cover on the cleat of my right shoe. Whoops. I took the left one off before the start of the race and apparently forgot to take the right one off as well. So I reached down, pulled it off, and tucked it into my shorts rather than discard it on the side of the road. Despite my frustration I really did want to keep it.

the first transition

starting the bike

It only took a few hundred meters into the bike to notice my bike seat was too low. How did this happen? My triathlon bike only fits into the back of Iris if I take the seat off. When I reassembled the bike upon arrival I thought that I had it at the correct height, but apparently I didn't. Since I didn't warm up on the bike I didn't actually notice until the race, at which point it was clearly too late to do anything. So I rode the 14 miles with my seat too low. Now, it wasn't that bad, but when you spend as much time on a bike as I do you notice little differences (somewhere between 1/2"-1") like this pretty quickly.

Despite the early difficulties I had a decent bike ride. I passed two people early on and one more a little later. Around the half way point one guy passed me. I finished the bike in 3rd place after riding the 6th fastest bike split.

finishing the bike

changing shoes in the second transition

starting the run

My second transition also went fairly well and before long I was out on the run. I started fairly conservatively in an effort to avoid the side stitches I encountered in the last race. One guy passed me early on, though he never got very far away from me. After about a half mile I hit the gas and picked up the pace, passing two guys pretty quickly. I could see the race leader a few hundred meters ahead of me. It was quite a distance, but not insurmountable. That's when I really started moving. I ran the last mile and a half with my eyes fixed on his back. I got closer to him, but not enough. I ended up finishing 2nd place (1st in my age group) after posting the fastest run split in the race (6:14 pace). Not bad after yesterday's 5k. I've done fast run splits in triathlons before, but there's always been people faster than me. It was a good consolation for not catching the leader.

finishing the run

the finish line

Here's a recap of my race:

I had a pretty darn good race. After I finished I was able to watch Martin's progress in the longer race (twice the distance of my race). He had an okay swim, a spectacular bike (at over 25 mph he had the fastest average speed of all competitors in both races), and a solid run. He was 3rd overall in the longer race, 2nd male, and 1st in his age group.

Martin finishing the bike

Martin finishing the run

We stuck around for quite a while for the awards ceremony. The organizers were very generous with the age group awards, handing out 5 for each division. This allowed many many competitors to pick up age group awards, including many first time racers. This was a nice touch to a well organized, fun, small race.

I was 1st in the 30-34 age group (I turn 30 in October)

Update: The results have been posted for the sprint & international races.