Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Dancing with Cacti

It began with an email from KT the Man.  He was headed to Arizona for an endurance race and wanted to know if was interested.  I had followed some of the Arizona Endurance Series on the net for some time and I was eager to come down and do some grass roots racing through the prickly pear.  The Antelope Peak Challenge was a 115 or 65 mile loop on some new sections of the Arizona Trail.  I was not up to the long one, but I figured I could stretch and make the 65 mile version.  So, we were on!

The last two weeks leading up to the event were not friendly to me work schedule and weather wise.  Two straight weeks on call for work and the first rain of the season kept me to local loops, no long rides.  Still, it would have to do and I counted on all those recent hard SS rides to get me by.

I had to decide what bike to ride.  It was between the Epic 29er with the carbon wheels or the Carve SS I have been riding for a while now.  I was really liking the SS and since I was thinking about doing the WRIAD on an SS, I figured it would be good to see how this bike treated me over a longer, harder day.  So, the SS it was.  I had just received some new wheels that would have been sweet to roll on, but I did not have enough time to burn them in after installing them.  I have one rule above all when it comes to new gear/bike changes before a critical ride:  Never go into battle with an unproven weapon.  So I changed only one thing...the grips, stealing the most excellent Ergon GA-1 grips off the Blackbuck.  Those are the best I have found for SS work on long days.  I considered changing tires from the Geax TNT AKAs to some TNT Saguaros for extra grip in the desert conditions, but the pics I had seen of the trail made it look pretty smooth.  The AKAs are fast, good sized, and they were already on there.  SO, I went with the AKAs, something I regretted a bit later.

I also had a new hydration pack to try out.  It was much too big for the day's requirements, but it was light for its size and comfy to wear, so I figured I would give it a shot.  Osprey makes great stuff and I have loved owning the tried and true Talon 22.  This Escapist 30 was a bit bigger than the already big Talon 22 and was more suited for bike use, having tool organization features.

The morning came and we loaded the camping gear into KT the Man's adventure van and hit the road toward Tucson.  The drive is about 9 hours and we talked about bikes, clean diet changes, bikes, riding, job stuff, life issues, and bikes.  Soon enough we were across the border into AZ.

Rolling in to the camp area, we set up and prepped for the next day.  The trick was finding a cactus free zone to set up a tent.  Man, this is an unfriendly country.  Wearing sandals would be crazy around here.  I had a new GPS that I was breaking in, although I had tested it a bit before I left.  I would have liked to have proven it further, but it was either go with it or not go at all.  So I played with that a bit, checked over my pack set-up, and then hung around a communal fire pit, talking with some of the racers that were camping here.  Friendly banter and talk of the route and past rides ran their course and then it was time to hit the tent, enjoying the new inflatable camping pad I had bought last year.  Super comfy and packs small too.

I was awoken by the noise of the 115 miler folks leaving at 05:00 in the cold and dark.  Brrrrr.  It was cold enough at 06:30 when I rose to meet the morning.  KT the Man fired up his antique Coleman stove, the kind you have to fill with Coleman fuel and prime before you light it...have not seen one of those since I was a kid...and tea with some trail mix got me ready to roll.

GPS on...check...pack ready....check...last minute clothing decisions and we were off on the 'neutral start'.  However, the neutral start was decidedly un-neutral to SS riders.  Too fast for me right off and I dropped off the back into the stragglers.  The 6.5 miles of dirt road led us to a highway and then about 10 miles of pavement, uphill into a cold wind.  I pulled a lone lady along for a while till she dropped out of the draft and I ended up riding with 2 other guys on SS bikes all the way to the next turn onto the dirt.

Clothing layers were adjusted as the sun was making the 40-ish degree temps fade away.  It felt good to be on dirt again and the Arizona Trail began here.  I posed for a pic in front of the sign and did not realize until later that Antelope Peak, the distant point on the horizon, was our 'maypole' that meant the turnaround point of the race.  If I had seen that at this stage of the race I would have been...oh what is the word...oh yeah, 'dismayed'.

Dropping onto the trail I was reminded of that tire choice again, and I was already wishing I had opted to swap for the more aggressive Geax Saguaros.  The trail was off camber, loose, and covered with small broken rocks and cactus pieces.  Tons of switchbacks required a bit of tip-toeing to stay rubber up, but I was still catching and passing folks on geared FS bikes.  It was warming up and the miles crept by.  It was slow going but I was happy to have chosen the SS.  I was riding a lot more than I would have expected, pushing on the steeper, loose hill sections.  The Carve SS Pro was treating me well so far and I just dig the way it turns pedal input into rolling up the trail.  Singlespeeds are so cool and great singlespeeds are even cooler.

The sweeping vistas were tough to appreciate unless you stopped.  The trail was lined with more kinds of cactus then I had ever seen and it took all your concentration just to color between the lines.  Going off trail would have been very bad.

I was in the back of the pack and alone most of the time, but I would leap frog with a few guys over the course of the day.  I was feeling really strong and riding a lot of the winding trail-ups.  I also noted a bit of pre-cramping feeling in my quads and that worried me, so I began to push a bit more, leaving some money in the leg-bank.  Unfortunately, before the day was over I would end up overdrawn.  This section of the trail was pretty new and anything but buff and I was not always clear on the route, getting off course twice until the GPS and a bit of poking around and backtracking got me back on trail.  At one point I was at a cattle gate crossing and met up with two riders.  I had been looking at a distant peak, thinking that it could not be Antelope Peak as it was very far away and it was already 01:00.  Just then one of the riders pointed to the peak in question and told his buddy, "That is where we are going".  REALLY?  Oh jeepers!!!!

The backside of Antelope Peak...finally.

About, oh, 40 miles into the ride the leg cramps began to hit me.  I could not push hard, so I would dance on the pedals until I felt the legs going south, then I would push for a while...pedal...push, etc.  The sucky part was I was feeling really strong other than that.  My energy was great, my back felt great, the SS was working sweet, but I could not hit the GO button.  Sucks to be me.  Leg cramps are my Waterloo...always have been.

At about 50 miles it was 5:00 and I had about 45 minutes of daylight.  I had a head light with me, but the last section of trail was described as very hard to follow and that was in the daylight.  By now there were times I was having issues even walking.  I never absolutely locked up solid, but the threat was always just under the surface.  I was also pretty much out of water, having about three good swallows left.  I had gone through 100oz in the Osprey pack plus 5 small water bottles.

That was enough to sway me into taking the bail-out option at mile 60 or so.  The trail turned right and I stayed straight ahead on the dirt road to camp.  I was very grateful for that smooth piece of road...not flat, but if I died there at least I would be found before the buzzards got me.

I rolled in to camp just at dusk, signed in, and headed for dinner.  What a day.  The rest of the night we hung around the fire in our camp, sharing time with the locals and the event organizers as they waited for all the riders to come in.  The last 115 milers, two guys on singlespeeds, one nursing knee issues, came in at 10:30 at night having left at 05:00 that morning.  Oh man...that is a long day. 

The next morning we set out to ride the 24 Hours of the Old Pueblo course as KT the Man and Nicette, our lady of the group, were set to race the team 24 hour in a few weeks.  We rode about 12 miles of some of the flowiest, funnest singletrack in the desert.  SO THIS is where they hide the fun trail out here...right next to our camp site!  What a contrast to the previous day's trail!  Still, it is all good.  The trip was great, the company sweet, the ride was hard, and the deed was done. 

The Carve had been a perfect companion.  The tough Geax TNT casings never flinched on the rocks and the Geax sealant inside kept me flat free...I KNOW I ran over cactus many times.  The new Osprey pack was too big for this trip, but was never uncomfortable and had a pocket for everything.  The GPS was awesome to have and the new eTrex series from Garmin looks ready made for endurance nuts with the AA batts and easy to use features.  The Fluid endurance drink mix in the bottles kept me very well energized but even with Elete in the water reservoir, I still battled cramps.  Bummer.  One of these days I will figure that out.  In the meantime, thanks to the organizers and to the hard working folks who cut that Arizona Trail out of the desert.

I will be back.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Where have all the long cranks gone?

Mourn their passing.

Back in the day we used to have quite a few options in crank arm length and for us tall-ish guys and truly tall guys, a step up from a 'normal' 175mm crank arm to a 180mm crank arm was a fairly common deal.  It makes sense to me...longer legs can use longer cranks.  Shorter legs can use shorter cranks like 170mm ones.  They make more than one stem length or frame size, right?

Now it was always assumed that a longer crank meant more power applied to the pedal stroke.  Scientific tests seem to point to this being un-true, but that is not really the point of using them.  Sometimes they just feel better or work better for the rider spinning them.  When I moved up to 180s about umpteen years ago, it took a while to get used to the increased pedal circle, but after that, and some sore legs, I liked how the longer crank allowed me to stay in a higher gear and turn a slower RPM.  I am a diesel by nature, not a gerbil, so I found that the slower cadence fit well with the demands of high torque-in search of traction-long climbs on bad roads mountain bike riding.

Then this testing gig comes along and NO ONE specs 180mm cranks on bikes off the showroom floor, not in any mainline brand anyway.  So I get used to spinning 175s on all the test bikes and only keep the 180s on the SS scoots.  Fine enough.  I adapt.  Just shift down a 1/2 gear or so and off you go.

And even I have some mixed feelings about longer cranks on an SS.  When the RPMs are high, the 175 is easier to spin and they are also easier to get around the TDC position and onto the next downstroke.  But here in the digital land of So Cal and its mountains, we spend so much time far underwater on a typical climb that the 180 crank comes into its own, giving me more leverage on that slow and torturous downstroke at 10 RPM.  Still, given the option, I would run long arms on the SS for sure.

But now, just try and find a big box brand crank for an SS in 180s.  Man that is getting hard.  Is there even still an XT version or just XTR?  And SRAM does not even offer a single MTB crank in 180s except the Stylo OCT SS crank and that, from what I have been told, is fading into obscurity too.  Forget about FSA or Raceface or such like.

So that leaves us with older stuff we scavenge from EBAY...sweet XTR or something...or the little guys like White Bros or Surly, E Thirteeen, etc.  And often that means running a square taper BB or putting up with someone's idea of the new mousetrap (like the Surly or E Thirteen) and discovering that it is not all that well thought out.

So why in the world can I not buy an SLX or X9 level or XT or XO level 180mm crank?  And beside that, why so few dedicated SS cranks?  Well, if you are a manufacturer or a product manager for a bike company, slapping a one size fits all crank on a bike, especially when no one is really likely to care anyway, is a slam dunk decision.  It is likely what I would do too, if that was my job. 

Then you add in the fact that the big guys seem to have no idea what to do with singlespeeders and any thoughts they might have for longer crank arm options, and you have a tiny, carbon wrapped over aluminum perfect storm of events that is stealing our easy options for a longer lever.

Now I like options and at least here, we have less than we used to.  At least, that is the way I see it.

Friday, January 13, 2012

It's a date

March 31st.  WRIAD.  One ride.  One gear.  One hundred miles or so.  Pedal little grannygear, pedal.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Back to the Canyon.

A while ago I was able to finally get to a semi-distant trail that promised miles of relatively unused singletrack, or at least uncrowded miles.  What we found was a great trail, limited in scope mostly by our time and leg limits.  So this time we came back with more hours in our pockets to dole out, but the same old legs to do it with.  Navy Mike on his SS Jabberwocky, FFW with his newly minted Superfly 100, and I on the Carve Pro SS.

This trail is a real stunner and is very singlespeed-able for a strong rider.  We ended up with 27 miles for the day, and we were pretty worked by the end.  In the last few climbs, I was actually cramping up in between my shoulder blades from pulling so much.  However funny that was to experience, it paled in comparison to the swoosh-fest that defined many sections of that trail.

For the beginning miles, I was struggling with line choice, bike control, mind control...flow was not happening.  But by the end, 5 hours later, the mind was well in hand and so was the bike.  Flow on!  The Carve is turning into a real contender for my heart.  The ride is very decent for an aluminum frame and the pedaling performance is top notch.  Handling is much better now with the short term Fox F100 set at 100mm, not 80mm, and it was all I could have asked for on that trail ride.

I am still fighting poor picture quality out of the iPhone 4 ever since the iOS upgrade, but that just makes me want a real camera even more.  But, here are a few shots of the day.