Monday, January 12, 2009

Slog is a Four-Letter Word

slog |släg|
verb ( slogged , slogging )
1 [ intrans. ] work hard over a period of time : they were slogging away to meet a deadline.
• [with adverbial of direction ] walk or move with difficulty or effort : he slogged home through the gray slush.

Yeah, yeah, I know, long timey no bloggy. Guess I've had other things cooking.

So I did the the Triple D Winter Adventure Race on Saturday. Right up front I should mention that I was a complete adventure sport virgin before Saturday. Yes, I've ridden a bike for commuting and for recreation year-round since 1989, and even did a bike race in the summer of 1990, but I've never done anything competitively in the winter. Not so much as a 5k cross-country ski race. This was a hell of a way to start.

I built up a chinese-made Motobecane mountain bike frame (blogged earlier here) for the race. (But because I can't afford to have a bike just for winter racing, it will also eventually serve as a replacement for my current winter commuter.) All of last week, trail conditions were reported to be fast but icy. My friend Chuck kindly offered to lend me his set of Nokian Extreme 294 studded tires, which are designed for off-road winter racing. I eagerly accepted and put them on for my Wednesday and Thursday commutes. Perfect for icy conditions. On Friday, Madison and Dane County got 4-10 inches of fresh powder, but Dubuque got less than an inch. We arrived at the Grand Harbor Resort Friday night after a nice clear, uneventful drive from Madison, and after a visit to the water park with the missus and youngin, I went to bed with visions of having a really a good ride on Saturday.

Then it snowed.

We woke up Saturday to a fresh 5+ inches of powder on top of all that nice fast ice. In the words of race organizer Lance Andre, "there is no good bike for these conditions." And he turned out to be right.

Hour 1
About 40 cyclists rolled out of the resort parking lot under an overcast sky, with 20-degree temps and a light wind out of the north-northwest. We went northwest through Dubuque to a paved section of the Heritage bike trail. I ran near the back of the pack right from the start. Then we turned west onto another paved bike path on the south side of highway 32 and began the long climb out of the river valley. At the top of the hill, the bike path ended and we crossed to the westbound shoulder and continued almost until Middle Road, where the route went into the ditch adjacent to the road. Up to this point, which was about 10 miles from the start, I had been maintaining a respectable 9 mile per hour pace and dropped the 5 or 6 riders that had been behind me. Pushing the bike uphill through fresh powder over ice slowed progress to about 2 mph. My homemade insulated toe covers and chemical toe warmers conspired at that point to cook my piggies, and the toe covers had the added benefit of covering the part of the boot tread best suited to pushing. The fun had begun.

Hour 2
After another short stint on the road, the route cut onto a private ATV trail that ran through a hay field. Here the pushing began in earnest. Pushing up one side of a hill led to a not-so-controlled roll, slide or push down the next. I caught a whiff of bacon and decided it was time to stop and take the toe warmers out of my boots. I also switched from clear ski goggles to sunglasses as the cloud cover had begun to lighten. After more pushing and one wipeout, I came out into an industrial park running a couple of minutes behind the biker ahead of me. By the time I had gotten to the next off-road section a mile or so later, there was noone else in sight.

Hour 3
Next came the What the Hell am I Doing Here? moment. I found myself mostly pushing along this "trail" through farm fields, up and down hills, through a drainage ditch (mostly glare ice under the snow) and finally to come upon another rider fixing a flat tire in the company of a race volunteer and the event photographer. They told me that I was not in last place—so that, along with the sunshine, lifted my spirits quite a bit. As I continued on, the guy who had been fixing his flat passed me pretty quickly. I pushed on over another couple of hills, catching up to another rider just as we reached Humke Road. He was riding a Specialized FSR XC with homemade studded tires, which probably worked just as well as my bike, but he was having trouble with cramps. Humke runs along the top of a ridge and was windy, but clear pavement was more than welcome. Caught up to flat tire guy again , who had decided that three flats was enough and used my phone to sag out. Passed another pair of riders fixing a flat in someone's driveway. Thought that if I could just make it to the trailhead in Graf, I might be able to make it to Dyersville. After another mile or so, Humke became a gravel road and then an unmaintained track known to Iowans as a "B" road.

Hour 4
Here the route ran downhill through a wooded area, with maybe 7 or 8 inches of powder on top of a healthy sheet of glare ice. After falling about 4 times, I switched to a Fred Flintstone-esque dabfest, and then finally resorted to pushing the bike down the hill. This was by far the silliest part of the entire day. On one especially steep section near the bottom of the hill, my feet slid out from under me and I fell on my butt, sweeping a 10-foot long patch of ice clean of snow with my tights, all the while dragging the bike along behind me with one hand. Had to laugh. Had two more similar falls before reaching the bottom and the intersection with a mercifully plowed Girl Scout Road. From there, I practically flew to the trailhead near Graf to find the trail covered in as much snow as the rest of the off-road sections. This, combined with the sight of other cyclists headed back toward Dubuque prompted me to bag it and head for home. After chatting with 3 or 4 other riders coming to the same conclusion, I set out up Graf Road through Graf, headed back toward the finish at the Handle Bar in Durango.

Hour 5
I rode up to Asbury Road, took a little snack break and helping out a lost snowmobiler (I know, I couldn't believe that either) and setting upon the long climb to the Sundown Ski Area. One would think that I would have known that a ski area would be at the top of a rather large hill, but that didn't occur to me when I chose that route. The hill must have been a at least two miles of steady but not especially steep climbing. At the top, just before the ski area, a black Nissan Xterra with a bike rack headed in the other direction stopped and backed up to where I was, and a very nice man who introduced himself as Frank asked me whether I wanted a ride. It took me a second to snap out of my get to Durango mindset, but I graciously accepted. He gave me a ride back to the resort, where I had a shower, dinner, and a couple of hours at the water park with the youngin. I slept really well that night.

24.5 miles, 5 hours, 35 minutes (or thereabouts.)

Some of this might have sounded crabby, but this was a challenging event and a good reminder that nobody controls the weather. Sort of humbling, really. All tallied up, it was a beautiful day the day of the event, and I have to give the organizers credit for putting on a well-run show. Now I just have to decide whether I'll try it again next year...

Special thanks to Revolution Cycles, Planet Bike, Chuck S., Andy S., my folks (for hosting Princess Lillianna at doggie camp), the entire Triple D crew (especially Lance and Traci and Frank F.) and most of all, my wife and daughter for putting up with this foolishness.


Joe said...

Looked like that sucked. I HATE pushing a bike for too long.

Joe in Iowa

Mauricio Babilonia said...

Amen to that...after pushing for what must have been about 6 miles, I have to say that I like riding a bike a whole lot better.

Pete said...

Congrats for making the attempt!

Doug said...

I know pushing, or slogging, is part of snowbiking. But that's insane. Great job hanging in there with it for as long as you did. I had considered doing this race earlier last year. Kinda glad the option was off the table for me this year. I prefer riding to pushing when I'm out on the Pugs.

Mauricio Babilonia said...

Cheers Minnesotans, and thanks!

Yeah, Doug, I much prefer riding myself. Hey, and glad to hear that your arm is on the mend...being off the bike for that long would make me crazy...I can't even imagine.

Antoine said...

Things that suck at the time make for good stories in the years to come. You'll be dining out on this one for some time.

My most memorable holiday (in Thailand) was one I didn't particularly enjoy at the time, but we still talk about it a decade later.

Could the specialist snow bikes with the really fat rubber ride any of this stuff?

Mauricio Babilonia said...

Yeah Antoine, even with the benefit of just a couple of days, it seems it'll be remembered as more fun than it was at the time. In fact, I've become pretty pleased with myself for having participated in what the organizers have called "the toughest one day bike race in North America." Regular Me might have chickened out, but Adventure Me stepped up. Good times.

I think the fattie bikes were better in some of the more "normal" road sections and the off-road downhills, but everybody pushed the off-road uphills. At least several of the ten or so who made it to the turnaround in Dyersville did so by running their tires almost flat, to the point where they could hear the bead moving around on the rim. Even so, they were managing only 4 miles per hour (6.5 kph) versus 2 mph walking.

Tarik Saleh said...

Sweet report. I like slogging for about a mile, then I become very unamused and bail out. Well done.

Lance Andre said...

Yup it sucked! No good bike, of those that made it to Dyersville it was 50/50 on the bike setups...
Even my Fatback with 100mm rims could only be ridden on the sections that had snowmobile traffic towards the end (with little to no pressure). And it was actually worse to push those monster wheels in the deep snow...
And yes, when the likes of numerous AH135, Iditasport & sustana 100 veteran racers drop you know it’s a difficult race.
Your setup was one of my fav's, simple, reliable and efficient.

Mauricio Babilonia said...

Hey Mr. Salad and Lance, thanks a bunch!

Yeah Lance, the bike wasn't the problem making it to Dyersville, if you know what I mean. Nonetheless, I'm now entertaining the idea of doing the ride again if it happens next year...

Cole said...

Hey, It's me, the guy with cramps and the homemade studded tires. Great race and thanks for the few minutes you hung with me. The look on your face as you decided to consume what looked to be a half frozen banana will always stay with me. Saturday we all said, "never doing this race again, what a joke." Monday it was, "Here is a list of what I'm going to do differently next year." See you in 2009.

Tex69 said...

'Sconny, thanks for brightening my morning with stories of pushing the bike downhill. Impressive stuff. and certainly more of a man than I. It certainly does make for great stories.

Mauricio Babilonia said...

Hey Cole, regarding your muscle cramps, sorry I didn't have anything better than some lame "fluids and electrolytes" advice (free advice—worth every penny). And yeah, I've already decided to ditch the seatpost rack in favor of a better frame bag for next year.

Hey Tex, at the rate you're going, you may well go on to do better things than me. For example, you outmiled me this year—I only managed 3219...