Monday, January 24, 2011

Redemption and ending

Last weekend's 'cross race was not a lesson in perseverance, but a test of mettle. Multiple trips to the ground, hanging out well off the back of the race and periodically having to stop to remove clods of mud and grass in order to get the wheels to roll was a test of not giving in to the siren's song of dropping out. It is those times that mean you must be satisfied with simply completing what you started. DNF'ing is a slippery slope; each time you dropout, it gets a little easier to do it again the next time.

So I headed to the last race of the NC Cyclocross series on Sunday with an eye towards redeeming myself in my own mind. My previous race in Wilkesboro was not how I wanted to end my season. Those low points and bad performances can haunt you until the next season comes. I had a better race left in me and I needed to let it out.

After spending about 4 hours resurrecting my bike from all of the mud and crash damage suffered in Wilkesboro, I was shocked to get to Greensboro, hop on the bike and start hearing a loud and disturbing creak emanating from my bottom bracket. After borrowing some tools (thanks to Kerry Shields and the mechanics from the American Classic team), I got things right and set about warming up. Riding the trainer, listening to Girl Talk put doubts about the bike out of my head.

For some reason, the bright sunshine gave the illusion that it was warmer than it actually was. I arrived to the line with simply a long sleeve skinsuit to keep me warm. No gloves was my call and it was almost the wrong call as my hands got so cold that braking and shifting were difficult, but at least not impossible.

We took off from the line going up a paved climb and then swinging right on to a grass field. The course was undulating with lots of flowy turns on grass with a few patches of mud peeking through to keep you focused on your technique, a double sand pit and a nice set of stairs. There was little flat riding as the course was either going up or going down.

It was good, close racing as the course was open enough to see everyone around you. It is a lot of fun to see the people ahead of you as you chase them down and motivating to see the people behind you chasing you down. In other words, you couldn't let up for a moment. I rolled across the line in 8th place, having flirted with 5th, 6th, 7th, and 9th during the race. I didn't crash. The bike didn't explode or fall apart. And I redeemed myself with the best finish of the cyclocross season.

Thanks to Carroll Composites for the fantastic King Louie cyclocross frame and carbon wheels that I and the Fiets Maan Racing team have been on this season.  The King Louie is hands down the best cyclocross frame I have ever raced and it has been a pleasure to ride it every time I have swung my leg over the top tube. The cyclocross specific carbon wheels have proven to be light, fast and confidence inspiring with their wider rim bed to get more glue surface for the tire to adhere to. They've never even hinted at allowing the tire to peel off the rim.

With the close of Cyclocross season, I'd like to encourage you to get out there and race this coming season. You've got 7 months to get ready...

Friday, January 21, 2011

What is mastery? Proficiency?

photo by Leo Reynolds

I'm deep into standardized testing week with my students. I long ago gave up the stress that many teachers associate with this since, to read any major educational researcher is to know that standardized testing is not a  way to measure learning, but rather a way to measure the students preparedness for a test. With that in mind, my attitude is that the test cannot possibly measure what I do as a teacher, whether students do well or not.

After getting my student's scores back, I am shocked at how high they are.  Almost all of them showed a significant amount of "growth" from what they were predicted to make to what they did make. Now remember that I said this test doesn't measure what I do as a teacher. Many teachers say that when the scores are bad, but then take credit when the scores are good. I am not one of those teachers.

I started digging into the numbers that were given to me for all of my students.  This somewhat cryptic data set that isn't clearly defined ended up being somewhat decipherable after spending a bit of time with it. What I deduced from it was shocking to me as a teacher and really makes me feel like a cog in a big, dirty, broken machine designed to churn out intended results rather than alert and able people ready to strive and make positive contributions to society.

To be considered proficient and on grade level meant getting 50% of the multiple choice questions correct. If the test were complex and complicated, I would agree with such a percentage, but it isn't. It is a fairly basic and low level test of mastery of just a few basic facts, ideas and methods.

I hate the implications for our future that this current testing regime in education has. When students do little, know little and then are branded as proficient or even said to have "mastery" of the content, we teach them that little is actually a lot, that poor results are actually good, and average results are actually excellent. We are electing people and encouraging the gaming of the system. We aren't encouraging results, we are tabulating numbers. It is smoke and mirrors. It is as if I decided that I am no longer middle class but actually quite wealthy because I now consider every dollar I have to actually be worth ten dollars. That is just a numbers game and signifies nothing in reality. Unfortunately, that is the education system that we have gotten.

Have you noticed how since education became politicized (beginning with Kennedy and then exploding with Reagen) that everyone is busy trying to fix education, while everybody else is busy measuring how broken the system is? We are in an educational ouroboros that is spinning out of control. Meanwhile, we grind our future into dust by tacitly encouraging mediocrity in the generations that will form the future of our society. It is a recipe for disaster.

Monday, January 17, 2011

In defense of friction

photo by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center

Friction is usually the enemy.  It wastes energy, turning it into heat.  It resists force and motion.  It's the reason why our world doesn't behave in perfect Newtonian ways.  Imagine getting on your bike, pedaling up to speed and then not pedaling anymore, but never slowing down.  Friction is what you have to blame for the constant need to pedal.  Whether it is the friction where the road meets the tire or you having to fight through the thick soup of gases called air, friction is the steady hand that pushes back on you.

But friction is not all bad.  Before we had indexed shifting systems on bikes (yes kids, shifters used to not "click"), there was good old downtube friction shifting.  Pull the lever and the derailleur shifted.  Push the lever and the derailleur shifted.  It was simple, elegant and bomb proof.  But more than anything, it was a direct connection between the rider and the drivetrain.  The rider had to get the derailleur in the right spot not to make noise,  The rider had to learn where the gears were in order to shift smoothly and cleanly.

Index shifting has introduced a level of convenience and dependability to cycling that allows the newest rider to shift cleanly and smoothly.  By eliminating the learning curve for clean shifting, however, it introduces a level of abstraction between rider and machine.  The beginning rider understands less and less what is happening in the drivetrain.  The race to incorporate electronics into this equation introduces and even greater level of distraction.  

I have ridden the new Shimano Di2 electronic group.  I've also ridden bikes equipped with Mavic Mektronic, Mavic Zap and I've even seen a mountain bike that had a Browning Automatic Transmission on it.  Di2 is remarkable not just in the fact that it works (unlike any of the Mavic attempts - at least in terms of reliability), but that the shifting is so extremely precise and requires no thought on the part of the rider.  I rode it trying every dumb shifting combination and technique that usually results in a thrown chain or missed shift and it handled it flawlessly.  

This means that the rider can now buy perfection rather than seek it within themselves.  I don't think of this as a step forward.  There are trials and tribulations that we have to go through in order to initiate ourselves into things.  We must be cautious about offloading the difficult things to technology.  I am no Luddite, but I fear a loss of intimacy with the things that we love and depend on.  The only upside to the electronic shifting movement is that the cost is still prohibitively high, but the trickle down is coming soon.  Within this decade, it is safe to assume that electronic shifting will become the most common form of shifting on bikes (at least road bikes).

If you ever get the chance, take a bike that has friction downtube shifters out for a spin.  Feel those tiny, elegant levers move smoothly through their range of motion.  Notice the fluid sweep of the derailleurs as the move fluidly with the lever.  Note the quietness of the shift and the different tones of chain on cogs as you adjust the shift to the perfect position, known by the lack of noise coming from the chain on the cog.  It is a simple, beautiful thing and it will be gone before you know it.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The buried winter

Every mile is two in winter. - George Herbert (1593-1633) Jacula Prudentum

Ray's Weather has officially buried their mild winter forecast having realized that we are experiencing one of the coldest winters in quite a while.  Their previous seasonal forecast said we would have a very mild winter with no snow and warmer than average temperatures.  As I write this, it is 14 degrees celsius, the roads still have patches of ice on them from last Sunday's snowfall, students have been out of school all week and are on a 3 hour delay today.  So much for a mild winter.  It is little comfort to have your hopes dashed and then receive an apology for having them built up in the first place.  But such is the nature of weather forecasting.  Despite our best, most advanced attempts at quantifying data and observation into prediction, Nature just does not neatly fit into a data table and behave as it should.

Winter for a cyclist can be a grim and lonely affair.  The warm group rides of spring and summer are like hazy mirages seen in the distance.  When group rides do occur, they provide relief from the loneliness of riding the trainer, locked up with your thoughts on a solitary hamster wheel in your basement, but the quest to remain warm, to keep blood flowing through your extremities can put a damper on the camaraderie of the group.  

Few cyclists are solitary creatures.  Sure, there are the time trial specialists who prefer to suffer alone in the quest for perfection in the balance of power and aerodynamics and there are the triathletes whose complex multisport workouts don't lend themselves to more than a training partner or two at best.  For most of us though, cycling is as much social interaction as it is athleticism.  The bonding ritual of shared effort that comes from group rides is of great importance to all but the most elite cyclist.

This is what is missed most by me in the winter.  Seeing friends.  Riding with friends.  Meeting new people out on the bike.  Having new people come visit the shop and ride with us. So how do we capture the magic of the balmier times while suffering through the bitter doldrums of winter?  Rather than putting off riding until it is warm, or grinding away on the dreaded trainer in solitary penance for your misdeeds, the answer is to ride indoors together.  

In our ongoing effort to eradicate SCAD (Seasonal Cyclist Affective Disorder) from the world, we will be holding group trainer classes beginning Wednesday, Jan. 26th and then every Tuesday/Thursday after that.  Classes will be from 6:15 to 7:30 (please try to arrive by 6:00). Classes will be $10 per session or 8 classes for $60 paid in advance.  These will be structured workouts featuring loud music, lots of motivational yelling and anything else that can be done to help you through this bleakest of winters.  You will need to bring your trainer/rollers (we have a couple of loaners), a towel and water.  We need to have 5 people prepaid by Monday, January 24th in order for the class to take place.  No matter what level of cyclist you are or hope to be, a solid winter base will help you achieve your riding goals for the coming season.           

Monday, January 10, 2011

Hell sNOw

Cottrell Hill descent on Sat. 1/8/11
Don't get me wrong, I like snow.  There are a lot of very cool things you can do in the snow.  Fun, active things that make steady, predictable amounts of snowfall enjoyable, even something to look forward to.  But that isn't the case here.  Sure, every now and then it snows enough to make me wish I hadn't gotten rid of my cross country skis when I moved here, but that is only a couple of times every few years.  That isn't exactly a record that would indicate this place is a winter wonderland of snow sports and activities, now is it?

No, snow sends most people here into an apoplectic tizzy that results in everyone stocking up on batteries, generators, and as Charlie Frye is fond of saying, French Toast ingredients (eggs, milk, bread).  There are those who react with an opposing level of indifference as indicated by their false belief that a 4 wheel drive vehicle can be driven the same way regardless of weather and road conditions.

We find ourselves blanketed with snow once again today.  The 2 to 3 inches of unplowed snow currently on my street makes everything feel isolated and remote.  There is no rejoicing with such a snow event here (other than students being happy that school is canceled).  You get a sense that now everyone will hunker in to their bunker-like houses, cautiously optimistic that everything will be ok, but also keeping an eye on the family pets just in case the isolation runs longer than anticipated and protein is required for survival.

I must also confess that all of this bad weather is probably my fault.  Resolving to ride 1 mile outdoors every day for a year seems to alter weather patterns pretty dramatically.  In the past month, we've had snow, winds that threatened to lift me and my bike off the ground, a week of sunshine and temperatures approaching the mid-50's and now more snow.  Consistency we ain't got.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Zen and the Art of Pillow Fighting

The pillow fight is an ancient, venerable form of combat that stretches back millennia.  The earliest accounts come from ancient Greece where young Hectorus of Nod is said to have first picked up a pillow and struck his brother, Boger the Nosy, as retribution for being wronged.  But while we have this deep seated tradition that is passed on from generation to generation, few of us receive any formal training in the pillow fighting arts and it is that egregious oversight that this guide hopes to overcome.

Know your opponent
 Appearance is the first offense of the pillow fighter.  Their reliance on a carefully cultivated look of both innocence and defenselessness is a time-honored first attack that is designed to get you to relax and drop your guard.  Do Not Fall For This Ruse!
 For in reality, this innocent is a highly trained, highly skilled adept of the combat arts whose favorite weapon is whatever is closest to hand!

Exploit the weakness of the Offense

The classic opening attack

The typical opening salvo of the 4 year old, classically trained pillow fighter will be pure offense: an overhead blow designed to strike the head of the opponent and calculated to leave them momentarily dazed and confused.  This leaves the opponent open to the more devastating side blow attack which can and will inflict maximum damage.

The side blow (or Roundhouse) sequence in 3 shots

But let us note the weakness of this offensive posture: the knees.  At the opening of each attack, the knees and lower legs of the attacker are clearly undefended.  Confident of their training and intoxicated by the knowledge that their training has given them, the typical 4 year old pillow fighting adept forgets to protect their foundation and concentrates solely on the attack itself.  As the pillow fighting master, it is incumbent upon you to show the young adept the error of his or her ways.

At the beginning of the attacker's power phase (or the windup), a well placed low powered blow to the soft spot just behind the knee will send your opponent crumpling in a heap to the ground and leave the open to a fast and merciful final blow.  Thus will end the pillow fight.  Dispatching your opponent without regard to their age, size or attempts to use laughter, giggling or feigned outcries of love and affection for you will only make the pillow fighter into a pillow warrior, ultimately saving their lives in times of battle.  Teach your children well for the Pillow Wars of old may one day yet revisit us...

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Topic of discussion: Is steel really real?

I walked into the shop after school yesterday and sitting on the counter was a brand new, gold Niner SIR 9 frame.  A bit of disclosure before we continue: I have been lusting over this 29" wheeled bit of Reynolds 853 steel goodness since before we became a Niner dealer.   Those slim tubes, that huge, oversized eccentric bottom bracket shell that allows the SIR 9 to be converted from a geared bike to a singlespeed....  Sorry, I'll pull myself together.

Its funny after owning a lot of bikes, riding a lot of bikes and seeing thousands of brand new bikes at countless industry tradeshows, I still get excited and to be honest, fall in love with particular bikes.  Its like being attracted to another person.  There are no hard and fast rules about what will be attractive, but when you feel it, you know.  Well, needless to say, this particular frame caught my eye when looking through a bike magazine and I happened to catch a glimpse of it in an advertisement.  Now the object of desire was in my hands.

I don't know what it is about steel, but it just looks right as a bike frame material.  It has the right blend of strength and fragility to my eye, I guess.  The other frame materials like aluminum and carbon with the large, oversized tubes look like they are trying to hard.  While titanium with its dull gray color looks cold and uninviting.  But steel in the raw with its rainbow of heat marks around the welds looks fascinating.  Then when a lustrous paint job is applied on top of that it becomes this warm, inviting to the touch frame that just begs to be ridden.
But everyone has their different tastes.  This I know and understand.  And while I would love to sell a lot more steel framed bikes, I am not such a hopeless romantic to think that steel is right for everyone or even attractive to everyone.  Enter the Jet 9 full suspension frame from Niner.  To most reviewers, the 29" wheeled full suspension bike is the sweet spot of bike set ups; the "if you were stranded on a desert island and could only have one bike" bike.  This I cannot speak to with authority, since I have not ridden one.  The beauty of it all is that both of these bikes are being built up as Demo bikes for anyone to take out for a day of riding on the local trails so they can see exactly what they are like where it counts.

I might just have to take that SIR 9 out and make sure its okay before anyone else tries it out. Kind of a quality control check...

Saturday, January 01, 2011


Yesterday's ride capped off an almost complete year of riding.  I managed to be on my bike 360 days in 2010.  I rode back and forth to my teaching job through snow, rain, wind (one particular gust stopped me dead in the middle of Hwy. 18), sunny weather, heat and humidity.  I've developed a pretty thick skin when it comes to how some people in cars act towards a cyclist on the road (waving - its like a weapon to be friendly to rude people).  I've ridden for sheer fun on the road, the mountain bike and cyclocross bike.  I've hauled 6 ft. folding tables, loads of 2 x 4's, carried a complete mechanic's work station to do neutral race support for the local triathlon (it was especially great to ride up the hill fully loaded past the triathletes walking up the hill because it is "really steep"), done a bike tour in a new to me section of the Blue Ridge Parkway while hauling camping equipment and a wiggly 3 year old.  I've raced the disciplines I mentioned previously, and even managed to find the podium (3rd place at the Warrior's Creek 6 Hour mountain bike race in the co-ed duo division with my wife, Golden).

What started out as a Facebook challenge called 30 Days of Biking, became a passionate quest to do as much by bicycle as possible.  For 2011, I have started the MS 365 Project which ups the ante a little bit.  I plan on adding a Surly Big Dummy to my stable of commuter bikes and I hope to get a Surly trailer to make hauling lumber, bikes and other big items that much easier.  All in all, I hope to a have another great year of health, family, riding bikes and meeting new friends and hanging out with old friends all while keeping a thriving bike shop running on all cylinders.  I hope your 2011 has as much fun as you can stand plus a little more for good measure.

Happy New Year!