Sunday, August 2, 2009

Bike racing is stupid

On paper, the Tour DAY Park City should be the best road race in the Intermountain West. 170 miles, 9,544 feet of climbing that takes you over a 10,700 foot pass and through some of the most scenic country in the most scenic state in the nation. The race is fully supported, with musette bags for the racers and wheel cars following behind--no need for your own support vehicle, unlike Lotoja. In addition to the climbing, you've also got a six mile "pavé" section of dirt road. Kind of like a spring classic and a grand tour mountain stage all rolled into one.

Moreover, it's located in Park City and starts and ends in the same place, which has ample parking and dining choices for after. The Park City location means I can sleep in my own bed the nights before and after the race. Really, what more could you ask for?

Here's what I would start with: the name. Why in hell do race organizers feel compelled to use "de" in race names? We're not in France. The word "tour" means the same thing in French and English. We live in an English-speaking country, so why can't they call the race "Tour of Park City?" Tour of Utah, Tour of California, and dozens of others get it right. But Tour DAY Park City and Tour DAY Georgia insist on being all Francophile and crap. Get over yourselves. If you're going that route, why not call it the "Giro di Park City" or the "Vuelta a Snyderville?" The fact that the Tour DAY Georgia got mothballed this year should serve as a lesson to all race organizers that if you don't want to offend sponsors, viewers, and the local Red State government that you shouldn't use French words in the name of your race.

Name notwithstanding, the real problem is that for all the good intentions of this event, the execution is pretty weak. It's a new race, and they're still getting through some growing pains. Regardless, 170 miles is a long way and it's dangerous to have people out there that long if things aren't working like they should. Good thing for them we sign away our rights before it even starts.

The problems began with the rollout. In every other UCA race, the Cat. 5 field is limited to 50 racers, and the Cat. 4s go out in their own wave. If there are more than 50 Cat. 5s, they split the field. Except yesterday. There were close to 100 Cat. 5s and another 50ish Cat. 4s. We all started together. For at least half of the Cat. 5 field, I'm guessing this was their first or second race.

To describe this many inexperienced riders--all wanting to be in the front half in order to stay out of trouble, even when they're the ones causing the trouble--as a rolling junk show would be an understatement. It was a clustercoitus, a SNAFU, absolutely frightening more often than not.

In the first 60 miles, there were at least three crashes. Could have been more that I wasn't aware of. Centerline violations were de rigeur, most notably from a guy in full Caisse D'Epargne kit,* who would go left of the double yellow to get around a bunch of people, then get back in the group and ride with his hands off the bars while he fiddled with something. He was a menace.

*Why do people wear team kits for Pro Tour teams? This will be the topic of a future post, but suffice it to say someone so attired in a race is nearly always someone about to cause a crash and to be avoided at all costs.

The first feed zone was a disaster in more ways than one. First was the obvious confusion of so many people who had never been through a feed zone before. Then there was the volunteer who left her baby sitting in the stroller right to the side of the road. At least one wreck was caused by riders trying to avoid the stroller itself.

Then there was what was in the actual feed bag. The race bible said there would be two bottles, one with water, one with energy drink from the event drink sponsor. There would also be peanut butter sandwiches, bananas, candy bars, probars, and other energy bars. I thought beforehand that this sounded great and I'd just need to bring enough food for the first 50 miles, after which I would have more than enough. In fact, the description indicated that the feed bags would have more than enough so we could sort through and choose the things we wanted and still have plenty.

As I sorted through the feedbag, I felt like I was opening a preschooler's lunch box. There was half a banana, a microscopic Nestle Crunch bar that I think was somebody's kid's leftover halloween candy, and a quarter of a peanut butter sandwich. That's right. Not a half, a fourth. Maybe 50 calories. Oh, and there was a bag of Chili Cheese Fritos. Yes, Chili Cheese Fritos in a feed bag. At a bike race. Srsly.

To add insult to injury, the event drink/energy food sponsor was Hammer Nutrition, whose products are all complete and total crap. They keep sponsoring these events in hopes that having us use their garbage will make us want to actually buy it. My reaction is now one of wanting to avoid events that they sponsor, the stuff is that bad. The energy drink tastes awful and induces nausea, and their energy bars are made from ground-up raisins and cause a persistent gag reflex if you try and eat one. I threw the hammer bar on the side of the road, and a mangy stray dog whose ribs and spine were visible through its skin walked over, sniffed it, and walked away. OK, not really, but it would have, they're that disgusting.

Once we hit the dirt outside of Evanston, most of the Cat. 4s, including Tyler1 and Tyler2, whom I thought were the men to beat, and a handful of smart Cat. 5s had made their way to the front. As soon as we were on the dirt, they drilled it. 26-30 mph across a potholed, gravel-covered dirt road. The intent was clearly to shake off as many of the weaker riders as possible, which they did. Dug's colleague, whom we'll call Tyler3, thought he had a flat and slowed to check his wheel. We had talked about working together, but that was the last I saw of him.

At the water station in Evanston, I was already out of food again (yes, I ate the Chili Cheese Fritos) and asked the volunteers if they had any. One, who was holding a bag of food, told me "no." Clearly her bag of food was to support another racer, even though personal support was verboten. I knew I was in trouble at this point, as I already felt weak and needed something besides that crap Hammer sport drink. Steve gave me a pack of Gu Chomps that I took, feeling guilty that it may jeopardize his race.

The climb up Mirror Lake Highway is a war of attrition. It starts out gently and slowly ramps up and beats you into submission. The real climbing starts after you have over 100 miles in your legs, and nearly everyone is already hurting. From Evanston to the feed zone at about mile 100, nobody wanted to take a pull. There were four or five of us who would try and get a paceline going, but nobody would pull through. I sat up and soft pedaled at about 16 mph, and nobody responded but one Cat. 5 who didn't look like a climber. I let him be a hero and go up the road in a solo breakaway.

At this point the lack of food was really getting to me, and I told Steve I couldn't find a gear that didn't feel like I was climbing the North side of Suncrest. When we finally rolled into the feed zone, I grabbed my bag but also stopped at the tent to look for the Coke products that were supposed to be there. They had lemonade and Vault. I grabbed the Vault and pounded it, then I ate everything in my feed bag but the Spicy Nacho Doritos, which I stuck in my jersey pocket for later. No Hammer bar this time, or I would have gagged that down too. I just kept pedaling and hoped it was enough to get me to the next feed.

As we began the climb in earnest, Tyler1 moved to the front, but suprisingly didn't set a hard tempo. Steve, Tyler2, and a handful of others were in the group with us. I knew if I didn't run out of gas, I could hold this pace to the top.

About 2/3 of the way up, the bonk started rearing its ugly head again. My heart rate wasn't too high, my legs weren't burning. I just had no spark. I started falling off. I could see the leaders and with any energy at all could have chased back on. I watched them nearly to the top, tantalizingly close, but the elastic had snapped.

The worst thing about the Mirror Lake climb is that you get to the first crest and then descend for a few miles before starting up again and grinding away the last 1,000 feet to the true summit. I was alone at this point with nothing but the carnage of the shattered Cat. 1, 2, and 3 fields around me. I knew I was ahead of a lot of Cat. 4s but was never going to catch the leaders.

I grabbed food at the top and started descending, at this point downright angry about the inadequate food, the fact that I felt worse than I ever have on the bike (mostly from lack of food), and that there were Winnebagos pulling trailers full of motorcycles trying to pass me. My anger fueled my ride, and I rode solo to the final water stop at 150 miles. The water stations were supposed to have Coke products, but instead of sitting, oh, I don't know, at the side of the road in a cooler where people could actually get them, they were 50 yards away. Sitting in full sun on a 90 degree day. I didn't care. I waited for a volunteer to run and get me a hot coke and drank it as I soft pedaled until the group I saw behind me caught up.

All but one of the racers were from another category, so my only concern was not letting the Cat. 4 get around me. He fell off on the second-last climb. I stayed with the two riders that were left, but on the final climb, I was completely done. I stopped and asked the course marshall at the last intersection if she had any water. She said she had, but she'd already drunk from the bottle. Like I cared. She kindly gave it to me.

I was caught by a group of mostly Cat. 1 and 2 racers and followed them until about a mile from the finish, but then I was too blown to hold on and limped in alone.

I saw Rachel and the kids as I crossed the line. Then the first person I saw after that was Tyler1. "How'd it go?" I asked.

"It went OK." Not realizing Steve and I are brothers, he said, "I think your buddy won, though."

I was thrilled. I went and found Steve. It was down to him and Tyler2 at the end. Tyler2 was completely blown, so Steve pulled the last two miles and easily outsprinted him at the finish to take the win. Not only did Steve win, his time was better than the winning Cat. 3 and would have placed eighth in the Pro/1/2 field. (I realize these aren't apples to apples comparisons, as the tactics in each race are different unless it's a hill climb or TT, but I thought I'd point it out anyway.) Not bad work for his second race as a Cat. 4. I somehow managed to finish 10th.

Alex finished in the winning bunch of Cat. 3s and took third. After a couple fourth place finishes, this was his first podium as a Cat. 3. And he was apprehensive about upgrading. Sheesh.

During the descent and while I was soloing along for over 40 of the last 60 miles, I hated this race. I thought about how stupid racing bikes is to begin with. I wondered why I endure saddle sores, dehydration, starvation (both acute and chronic), and put in efforts intense enough to induce vomiting from time to time. It makes no sense. The Darwinist would say it's rooted in an instinctual desire to show potential mates how strong I am. But I'm married and monogamous, as are most of the guys I race against. You'd think the gene that triggers that stupid desire would figure that part out and that 30 and 40 somethings would lose whatever it is that makes us do this crap by now.

I have no answer to this. Bike racing is hard. It is miseable. There is very little about it that's fun while you're doing it. I had no reason or desire to do this race again next year. But Steve has to defend his victory. So of course I'll be right there with him.


  1. Sounds like somebody needs to do more mountain biking. The Canyons race was a blast. I'm just sayin'.

    Strong finish regardless.

    My word verification: "shagg." Yeah, baby, yeah!

  2. I'd be pleased with a 10th place finish in anything.

    Bummer you didn't get the food you needed - I'm sure you'll carry more next year to avoid that problem.

    In general I like the race and the route, but 170 miles is too long for me to enjoy. But I have been tempted to try it just to see if I could finish. Then I come to my senses: I can hop on my bike and go for a nice ride anytime.

    For contrast, I thoroughly enjoyed my hike up Timp.

  3. Aaron: in a mountain bike race you're on 100% of the time. If it's a two hour race, it's two hours of pain. In a road race the pain is greater at times, but it's shorter duration. And there are long periods of just sitting in the pack and not having any pain at all.

    Kris: I guess it's all a matter of perspective. Going in, given the course and the field, I was hoping to finish top 10. But watching my brother and rival win left me feeling like more was possible. That's the trouble with winning though--once you've won, anything less is a disappointment.

  4. "That's the trouble with winning though--once you've won, anything less is a disappointment."

    thus, i'm always happy. forget that other "Secret" crap, this is the real secret.

  5. I guess I'm just saying that I don't know if I've ever hated a mountain bike race. Except for the time I raced after an all night puke-fest down in Hurricane. That was just me acting stupidly.

    Why don't I race road? Mostly because of fear of road rash and lack of time. But also because I'm afraid if I race Lotoja, I'll never want to ride my bike again. And I don't want that to happen.

  6. Plus Aaron, you know that if you race road you will dominate the dojo and will have to continue to defend your winning ways! Nice finish for you Mark and your bro. I actually registered to race and was planning on trying to hook up with you and your bro for as much of this race as I could but alas, i did not hear my alarm clock and I missed the race completely. I wish I could say that is a lame excuse for wimping out but it's the truth.

  7. "That's the trouble with winning though--once you've won, anything less is a disappointment."

    or maybe move up:)

    I'm with Aaron, but my reason is that I can't find anything fun about riding down the pavement for 170 miles when most of it is spent with a low HR with a disturbing view.

    Now the riace I did saturday, 6 hours, mid to high HR, awesome views. Fun singletrack.

    Oh, and even though they had awesome aid stations (5 of em) I brought my own stuff, cause you never know. But chili fritos would of been awesome

    Heck I wasn't even a boy scout.

  8. Aaron, one of us is clearly doing it wrong. I've been in pain for nearly every minute of every mountain bike race I've ever done. I often have the thought "this would be a really cool trail to ride--I wish I didn't have to be racing on it."

    Bob, "riding down the pavement for 170 miles when most of it is spent with a low HR..." the low HR part is the part I like. FWIW, I just moved up on the road and will move up again once I have enough points. My fear with moving up on the MTB is that it will just make it that much more painful. I think I'm waiting for the mandatory upgrade there.

    Dave, bummer about the alarm. Getting up at 4:00 a.m. was so much fun.

    Dug, you're so very zen.

  9. the move up was in jest.

    The husband of the women who went with us this weekend was given a forced 3 to 2 upgrade this year, he took 2nd in the 1-2 race saturday, crazy.

    What I meant to ask before.

    Is it the racing that is stupid or the racer? I blame the bike, or all 3.

  10. Bob, all three are to blame. Clearly. If it's not the course, then it's the bike. The racer is stupid for expecting different outcomes from the same inputs.

    Cat. 3 is kind of like the bizarro world Hotel California. Everyone wants to get there because it's the first upgrade you have to earn with results. But once there, nobody ever wants to leave. Usually for good reason. This guy seems to be the exception.

  11. I vote that racing is kinda stupid.

    For mountain biking, I enjoy the pre-ride way more than the race.

    I hear there were plenty of crashes and at least 2 broken bones at the final ICup race at The Canyons. Nice.

    I feel racing makes more sense for road than mountain. The group dynamics make road racing more interesting.

  12. i've not heard a single person say they liked ANYTHING about that race.

    with your post I am 99.99% certain I won't ever have to say anything about it myself. I'll race vicariously through you and the other yahoos that sign up for that thing.

    at least this year no one got run off the road by some yokel with anger issues.

    congrats on another top 10 finish.

  13. SBJ- Yes, you are totally right- bike racing is stupid. My favorite theory is... oh never mind. It's just stupid.

    Great job Saturday. 10th is excellent in that race. And your brother is a phenomenon- I look forward to meeting him sometime.

    We should've talked food beforehand; I would've pitched you on my strategy: carry food, pick up liquid. I never even looked in the feed bags- just pulled out the bottles and tossed it.

    Eber: Now you've heard someone say they liked it- me. It's tough and awful and horrible and brutal and everything else. It's also great. I'll try to get my report up by the AM.

  14. I've been staring at my computer for ten minutes trying to think of a reason that bike racing is not stupid, but I can't think of any.

    Chalk up another one that likes The TdPC. Watcher, you summed the event up perfectly. I look forward to meeting you too. SBJ has told me a lot about you.

    SBJ, There is nothing worse than racing when you know you are not taking in enough food. A few hundred more calories for you and we would have been descending together.

    Whenever I watch a bike race and see a breakaway group I rank their chances of staying away from one to ten. I gave Tyler and I a one in ten chance of staying away. I fully expected you guys to catch us. I also fully expected Tyler to drop me like a bad habit on one of the last two climbs. I've never been in a bike race I didn't love. How stupid am I?

  15. Steve, I've thought about the "few hundred more calories" thing. I like to think that was the difference, but can't help but wonder if it would have also been the difference for Tyler1 and any of the other contenders.

    Kudos to you and Tyler2 for killing it out on that course. You were the hard men on Saturday.

    Oh, and it usually takes between 2 and 12 hours for me to go from hating the race to loving it. The reaction is always the same.

  16. OK, I'm a little behind on my reader... but I find it fascinating that you hate Hammer products SO much that you'd chuck a perfectly good bar on the ground! :) Guess I'm a sucker because I'm hooked on the stuff. Then again I think road races half that distance are tough. Maybe I need to switch over to the hot Coke fueling plan to keep me charged for the super long races. Great report!