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Saturday, October 13, 2018

The Big Goal

The "A" race. The premier event. The epic destination.

For endurance athletes, the end of the calendar year triggers dreams of the big goal for next year. What could it be? Is it even possible? How? To make it so, what must be? What must not be? The questions and analyses percolate for hours, days, weeks, even months. And that's just identifying it. Then the real work begins. Gotta plan. Gotta organize. Gotta train. Gotta turn everything around to focus on the big goal.

I've spent most of my adult life with such a mindset, resulting in many memorable races, events and destinations over the years. There's much to be said for setting a big goal and working to achieve it. I'm a big fan of big goals.

The big goal dominates all thought, like Pikes Peak looming over the Colorado landscape.
Back in 1989, my big goal was the Pikes Peak Marathon.
Undue emphasis on results, however, inevitably leads to a letdown afterward. That is, after achieving the big goal, what then? Typically, I respond by identifying the next big goal and fixing it on the horizon. Start the process over again. Then again. And again. The process becomes a lifestyle, all dependent on setting and achieving the next big goal.

It's all good. Until there is no next big goal. Or identifying the next big goal is elusive. What then?

In July of 2017, I finally completed a bicycle ride covering the 310 miles of the Black Hills BackBone, a North-to-South remote road crossing of the State of South Dakota. Admittedly, the ride was different from that originally conceived, but I celebrated achieving a major, multi-year goal. Three Days of BackBone.

Then I drifted.

Months passed. Fitness plunged. Weight soared. In October of 2017, the changing season eventually triggered a nagging feeling that I needed a big goal to kick start stuff. But identifying it was more than elusive. For some reason, I could not even begin to consider one.

A simple journey with no big goal in sight.
To clear my mind one day, I went on a long bike ride. Somewhere along that remote dirt road, I recognized what has been a mainstay for the past 10+ years - my daily bike commute. Every day I ride to work, unless a family commitment prevents it. It's what I do, regardless of weather, mood, physical ailments, or any thing else. It's just part of my day. There is no big goal.

Well, maybe it's that simple. Maybe I don't need the next big goal, after all. Maybe I should just add something small to my daily routine. Make it part of my day. Like my bike commute.

But what? What's missing? Running. I don't run any more, since all but abandoning it over 15 years ago. Thousands of hours spinning circles over the years must have physically changed something. Running now is awkward and uncomfortable, rather than natural and smooth. This will be difficult to start, let alone maintain, especially without a big goal.

Then, one morning I just started. It was short (less than a mile), slow (barely above walking speed) and painful (ice and ibuprofen afterwards). Too sore to run the next day, I ran again the day after that. To allow some recovery, I decided to run just three mornings a week, making the third run on my favorite M-Hill trails. Time passed, but progress was almost imperceptible. I repeatedly reminded myself that speed and distance mattered not. Just keep at it.

Now, over a year later, I am still running three early mornings a week. Speed, distance and difficulty have increased some, but not a lot. Maybe that's the next step, or maybe not. I just love getting back out there running. A part of me awoke from a long slumber.

I didn't set or achieve the next big goal in 2018. It's much bigger than that.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

A Gravel Community Builds

The Black Hills of South Dakota are a forested island of imposing granite and shale, surrounded by rolling seas of prairie. Throughout these lands wind remote roads, trails and paths of every description, beckoning the adventurous cyclist. With so many ride options and such variety, the relatively small cycling community naturally scatters and often feels smaller than it is.

How then to draw together this small, diverse assortment of cyclists? A start is the Black Hills Gravel Series. By organizing these rides, Lucas Haan tapped into a wide spread yearning throughout the Black Hills for a low-key, regular gathering for area cyclists of all kinds to share their passion. Every other week in April and May, folks could simply show up at a fun start/finish restaurant, sign a waiver, receive a set of cue sheets, ride a unique, remote rough road ride into the amazing Black Hills, and then hang out for lunch. What a wonderful addition to the local cycling scene.

Lucas Haan addressing the gathering collection of cyclists at the 2018 Black Hills Gravel Series - Hill City.

This all started slowly in the spring of 2017, with a core group of maybe 10-15 cyclists riding the first several rides. By the sixth and final ride that year, however, the word was out and that number had more than doubled, twice. These rides were a boat load of fun and the atmosphere was friendly and lively. For months thereafter, informal groups continued to regularly ride area gravel and dirt roads. A gravel cycling community took root. A Six Course Feast.

When Lucas announced the 2018 Black Hill Gravel Series, folks jumped at the opportunity. Despite a series of crazy spring snow days and some re-scheduling, over 100 cyclists rode the first ride out of Sturgis. About that many rode the second ride out of Spearfish, as well as the third ride out of Hill City.  The fourth and final ride out of Custer drew a smaller group, as persistently nasty weather brought 30-something degree rain and sloppy roads. In any event, around these parts, that's a lot of cyclists in one place. And they were out there having fun. A Gourmet Meal Discovered.


Lucas Haan checking on the riders out on the course at the 2018 Black Hills Gravel Series - Hill City.

Where did these riders all come from? Well, apparently from all across the cycling spectrum. For 2018, Lucas added a 10 mile "Starter" route to each ride, which drew beginners that added up to about 15% of all riders. For many of these riders, a 10 mile ride on unknown dirt roads into the forest was a very big step. At the other end, the 50 mile "Scenic" ride totaled about 35% of all riders. Many of these were seasoned gravel grinders building base or adding speed for bigger events later in the season. What about the remaining 50%, who enjoyed the 25 mile "Social" ride? I'm thinking a bunch of those social riders added the 2.5 hour average ride time to the 9:30 start to reach a noon finish for a first call for a round of micro-brews. Just saying that a lot of folks enjoyed these rides and the get-togethers afterwards.

In any event, the growth of these rides was not fueled by local racers chasing trophies or enthusiasts chasing the latest trend. And it certainly was not fueled by big production starts, finishes, celebrities or prizes. For the bulk of the riders out there, the Black Hills Gravel Series was a nice spring challenge with like-minded folks in a low key, social environment. It was fun.

I can't wait to ride whatever Lucas dreams up for next spring. And I hope to see even more of you out there in 2019.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Iowa Wind and Rock - The Gravel Family Steps Up

The King is dead! Long live the King!

In 2005, Mark Stevenson and Jeff Kerkove cooked up a mind bending endurance bicycle race called Trans Iowa, sparking a grass roots movement that continues to change the face of cycling. A Gravel Pilgrimage. After the completion of Trans Iowa v14 earlier this year, Mark announced the end of this pioneering event, leaving in its wake hundreds of gravel events of all kinds all over. And just ask a Trans Iowa veteran about their experience. What a legacy.  Trans Iowa v14 - The Last Lap.

Mark Stevenson (orange cap on the left) with final instructions and well wishes to racers at the start of Trans Iowa v14.
But wait. No Trans Iowa? That's a big crater on the endurance cycling landscape.

Sarah Cooper, Dennis Grelk and Steve Fuller recognized the significance of this loss to the cycling community and stepped up to do something about it. Highly accomplished endurance cyclists all, they banded together to create Iowa Wind and Rock, a new event crafted in the spirit of Trans Iowa.

Here is part of their announcement from their website.

"For 14 years, Trans Iowa, one of the most difficult gravel races in the U.S., took place in Iowa at the end of April. It was difficult not only because of the terrain, but also due to notoriously fickle Iowa weather, and the challenges it required riders to overcome just to make it to the starting line. The end of Trans Iowa in 2018 meant that a unique chapter of gravel racing history closed. As Iowans, Trans Iowa finishers, and people who enjoy stretching personal boundaries, we didn't want to see this unique opportunity for people to challenge themselves disappear. Iowa Wind and Rock is NOT, nor will it ever be Trans Iowa. However, we want to provide people a similar challenge - A free, 340ish mile, cue sheet navigated, late spring, Iowa event that allows entrants to challenge themselves, expand their boundaries, and allow them to see what they are capable of." Iowa Wind and Rock.

Whoa. Slow down. This is worth noting. These folks would not have to do this and certainly would not have to do it this way. Sarah, Dennis and Steve each have raced successfully at high levels over many years. They could easily leave this alone or trade their panache for cash. That's not happening here.

Iowa Wind and Rock represents an enormous commitment of time, effort and money from Sarah, Dennis and Steve, as well as from their families and friends. Nonetheless, they decided to create this event, in the spirit of Trans Iowa and with Mark Stevenson's blessing, to offer the cycling community a similar boundary-expanding experience. And they offered it for free. Guitar Ted on Iowa Wind and Rock.

Wow. Awesome. This is the Gravel Family. In action. Doing what needs to be done. And doing it right.

Thank you, Sarah, Dennis and Steve.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Staying Out of Rome

It's a great time to be an endurance cyclist, with freedom to choose among hundreds of events of all kinds all over the country throughout the calendar year. Freedom. The quantity, quality and even the very nature of events that exist truly depend on you, the cyclist, for attendance and support. Choose wisely, so as to support that which you actually support and not support that which you do not.

Pell Duvall and Scott Redd fording the water crossing in the 2014 Almanzo Royal gravel bike race.
Yes, I took this picture during the event, while I waited for everyone to safely cross.
Here's a recent incident highlighting the stark difference between a USAC sanctioned cycling event and a non-sanctioned event. LoToYa, a 206 mile USAC sanctioned endurance road event marketed as "road race" to categorized, licensed racers and a "cyclosportive ride" to others out for a challenge, disqualified three finishers, at least one of whom was a cyclosportive rider. Two were disqualified for "Selfie at finish line" and one for the "Obscene gesture" of flipping off the finish line itself. Selfie-Disqualified. Cue social media outbursts from all sides.

In the USAC world of sanctioned, licensed road racing, the thick rule book apparently includes a ban against using a cell phone during a race. With large packs of racers often fighting for each position, such a rule makes sense. Applying that rule to a cyclosportive rider documenting the accomplishment of finishing such a ride, with no one else in sight other than his riding buddy, does not. But it's the USAC's world. They set and enforce their rules. Live with it, or leave it.

Start of the 2018 Trans Iowa. In addition to starting in the dark, a finisher of Trans Iowa rode all day, through the night and into the next morning. In contrast, the LoToYa Race Guide says, "Riding after dark is unsafe and creates an intolerable risk." Both race directors have earned the right to create and manage their event their way. You choose what to support.
My take-away is simple.

If you enjoy competing in USAC sanctioned races and rides, know their rules, follow their rules and have fun. You're supporting their rules, their officiating and these outcomes by paying to attend events with USAC sanctioning. If that's your thing, go for it.

On the other hand, if you enjoy challenging yourself in endurance cycling events without the bureaucrats' rule book, instead look to non-sanctioned events, know each event's rules (probably not very many), follow those rules and have fun. And be sure to share all your pictures with everyone.

There's plenty of opportunity for everyone.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Jones 29 Plus LWB - The Build

Last week, I posted some observations from riding a Jones 29 Plus LWB over the past four months on my favorite single track in the Black Hills of South Dakota. In response to several inquiries, I have listed the build specs for this bike, along with a few notes on the selection and build process.

Now that's a meaty bike ready to take on the Centennial Trail, and any Bulldog along the way.
My basic design criteria for the Jones 29 Plus LWB was to build an every day, every trail mountain bike to confidently and comfortably ride single track on everything from short local jaunts to multi-day expeditions. In concept, I envisioned a trail companion to my Black Mountain Cycles Monster Cross that handles all roads. More specifically, I wanted a mountain bike to cruise around with friends, hack around some local races, explore remote back trails in the Black Hills, bike pack on trails overnight and longer, and maybe someday take on the Tour Divide and the Trans America Trail. Yeah, that's a tall order, but this bike is designed to handle it.

Once mentally committed to the Jones 29 Plus LWB, I started the process of selecting components to build it up myself, as I had done for my past several bikes. Upon realizing the extent of truly unconventional things about this bike, however, I decided against buying just the frame set. Rather, I decided to draw from the deep well of knowledge of the man himself, Jeff Jones.

Surveying the scene above Coon Hollow on the Storm Mountain trails.
For Jeff to build up your Jones bike, he asks to talk with you to get everything just right. My two hour conversation with Jeff was amazing. He first sought to learn my riding history, preferences and aspirations. With that basis, he launched into a detailed discussion, analysis and recommendation first on the style, size and material of the frame set and then for every component. Every single one.

The experience of going through this process with Jeff was remarkable. No detail was too small. Jeff covered everything, after comprehensively expressing every pro and every con. For the most part, I followed his recommendations. For example, he eventually talked me out of the new Paul Components Klamper disc brakes, citing too little improvement at too great a cost. In the end, the rest of the build ultimately looks much like I envisioned beforehand. Here it is.

After the build, Jeff Jones sent me this photo, which looks practically catalogue ready. Yes, that's my bike.

Frame Set 
Frame - Jones Steel 29 Plus LWB, Medium (black)
Fork - Jones Steel Truss (black)
Headset - Jones Sealed Cartridge Bearing H-Set (black)
Seat Post - Thomson Elite Zero-Offset (black)
Seat Post Clamp - Paul Quick Release (black)

Rear Wheel  (hand built)
Hub - Shimano XT Boost with CL Adaptor (black)
Rim - WTB Scraper i45 29er (black)
Rim Tape - tubeless tape
Spokes - DT Swiss Competition (black)
Nipples - DT Brass (silver)
Thru-Axle - Jones TA bolt
Tire - Vee Tire Bulldozer 29x3.25
Tube - WTB Tubeless valves, Stan's Sealant

Front Wheel  (hand built)
Hub - Jones 150-F (black)
Rim - WTB Scraper i45 29er (black)
Rim Tape - tubeless tape
Spokes - DT Swiss Competition (black)
Nipples - DT Brass (silver)
Thru-Axle - Jones TA bolt
Tire - Vee Tire Bulldozer 29x3.25
Tube - WTB Tubeless valves, Stan's Sealant

Stem/Bar
Stem - Thomson X4, 70x10 (black)
Spacers - Aluminum, 50 mm (black)
Handle Bar - Jones Butted Aluminum Loop H-Bar 710 (black)
Grips - Jones Kraton H-Grips for 710 mm H-Bar (black)
Tape - Jones B-Tape, rear crossbar (black)

Brakes
Front Brake - Avid BB7 200 mm Rotor
Rear Brake - Avid BB7 180 mm Rotor
Brake Levers - Avid Speed Dial 7
Brake Cables - Jagwire Stainless Slick
Cable Housing - Jagwire Ripcord, compressionless (black)

Drivetrain
Crankset - Shimano M-8000 170 mm, Boost, 34/24
Bottom Bracket - Shimano MT-800
Cassette - Shimano XT 11 Speed, 11-42
Front Derailleur - Shimano XT Down Swing, top pull
Rear Derailleur - Shimano XT Shadow+ SGS
Shift Levers - Shimano XT Rapid Fire, 11 Speed
Chain - Shimano 11 Speed
Cable & Housing - Shimano SP-51
Chain Stay Protector - Jones
Pedals - Time ATAC MX-4

Accessories
Frame Pack - Revelate Designs for Medium Jones 29 Plus LWB (black)
Handle Bar Pack - Jones H-Bar Pack (black)
Truss Fork Packs - Revelate Designs for Jones Truss Fork (black)
Spare Derailleur Hanger - Jones DMD Hanger for Thru-Axle
Saddle - WTB Speed Comp (black)
Extra - Jones Tumbler (stainless steel)

Bike Build
Build, tune, test ride, tune, test, check, clean, pack for shipping

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Jones 29 Plus LWB - What It Is

The Jones 29 Plus LWB is an odd looking bike from any perspective.

What is it?

It's a mountain bike. It's a surprising, thought-provoking, fun mountain bike.

The Jones Plus 29 LWB in its single track element along the Centennial Trail
above Pactola Reservoir in the central Black Hills of South Dakota.
For the past four months, I have regularly ridden a Jones 29 Plus LWB on a variety of local, familiar single track trails. Despite its exceptionally long wheelbase, slack geometry, tall and wide tires, and upright body position, it rides like a mountain bike. A really fun mountain bike.

The Jones makes a big first impression. As in, that's a really big bike. But hop on it and the thought vanishes, immediately replaced with another, more concerning one. That's an odd body position on a bike. Very odd. One sits very upright, with hands very high, very far back and very wide. Picture Miss Gulch riding her bicycle during the tornado scene in The Wizard of Oz. That's a mountain bike?

Oh, yeah.

Most common question - What's with that fork?
Next most - Is that a suspension fork?
Jeff Jones has been designing and building his unique Jones mountain bikes for many years now, with significant press coverage and reviews over time. In late 2014, Jeff announced the Jones 29 Plus in an extended, explanatory blog post, with subsequent videos explaining and demonstrating his designs. Bike geeks will love the innovative thinking and tinkering behind it all. New Jones 29 PlusJeff Jones Videos.

I'll leave the technical discussion to Jeff, who has developed his designs over years of creative thought, analysis and experimentation. Besides, with so many variables off the norm, it's difficult for me to isolate cause and effect of any one in particular. Somehow, it all works together marvelously.

Up and around Storm Mountain on classic Black Hills single track.
I will share some of my observations, starting with traction. Even on the steepest, loosest and roughest pitches I've attempted in years, I still haven't spun out a rear or washed out a front. Maybe it's the 3.25 inch rubber. Maybe it's the low gears on the 2x11 drivetrain. I think maybe it's the spot-on centered body position over an exceptionally long wheel base. In any event, there's no need to slide forward to the saddle nose or lean over the handle bars to weight the front. Just stay seated, or stand straight up, and the bike stays planted both front and rear. Straight up the loose, rough stuff.

Ditto for steep, loose and rough descents. I've yet to slide off the back of the saddle to move weight back and I'm riding harder and harder stuff every week. Admittedly, I'll never be much of a technical trail descender, no matter the bike, but this Jones is making more descents possible and more fun.

Let's go to cornering. One would think that a bike with 19 inch chain stays and a 48 inch wheel base would turn like an aircraft carrier. One would be wrong. Even at slow speeds, the handling is very intuitive, once I stop trying to analyze everything. When those 29+ tires spin up to faster speeds, it grips and rips through turns. Regardless of speed, I'm learning to think less and just let it go.

Comfort. The very upright body position and swept handle bars create a Barca Lounger ride, with essentially no body weight pushed forward. With several 3-4 hour rough single track rides so far, I have yet to experience what I would consider "normal" hand, wrist or arm fatigue. The upper body simply controls the bike, without supporting much, if any, other body weight. I can see this bike being very comfortable for all-day and into the night rides, day after day, on all kinds of trails.

Just cruising on the Centennial Trail.
I'm having a blast riding the Jones 29 Plus LWB on all my favorite local trails.

I can't wait to take it out for the primary reason I chose it.

Bike packing.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Freedom

Riding a bicycle on remote gravel roads is freedom. Freedom from fast, heavy, annoyed traffic. Freedom from distracted drivers. Freedom from convention. Freedom from "The Rules." Freedom to challenge, not merely compete. Freedom to just ride. Just Enjoy the Show.

Freedom to just ride.
Riding a bicycle in a gravel race also is freedom. Foremost for me is the freedom to choose amongst a veritable smorgasbord of experiences. That also means freedom to choose not to support events, as well.

The wonderful variety of gravel events results from race directors themselves having freedom to put together races their way, with relatively few barriers to entry and without a template mandated by others. More specifically, gravel race directors have not been confined by the dictates of a centralized governing body or by the "Shalt Haves" and "Shalt Nots" of elitists posing as self-annointed arbiters of all things gravel. Even with today's groupthink push to conform and accommodate, race directors still can create an event of their own design, implement and adapt their own rules to guide the event toward that vision, and live with the consequences of their decisions. Riders then choose to ride, or not. That's freedom.

Having options between many, very different types of experiences is a great thing. Out here in the Black Hills of South Dakota, a local rider named Lucas Haan dreamt up a crazy cool series of gravel races, each with a unique course and an unexpected twist. How about a rock infested, quad busting mile and a half spur up to an abandoned look out tower near the end of a fifty mile, 5,000 foot elevation gain gravel/dirt road race? Who does that? A Six Course Feast. Such gems are possible when race directors are free to create their own events.

With so many choices, preferences develop. Like everyone else, I certainly have my preferences and naturally are drawn to them. Almost three years ago, I even described aspects of gravel events that I liked best. Components of a Special Gravel Race. Whatever the preferences, however, it's one thing to turn toward your "likes" and away from your "dislikes." It's quite another thing to work to impose your preferences on another, or worse, on everyone. That's the essence of elitism. Try this instead. If an event doesn't suit you, leave that event to those who enjoy it and move to something else.

Here's a confession I'm reluctant to express as it may be misconstrued. Dirty Kanza is not for me, even though it's a highly publicized, influential and popular part of the gravel scene. Stay with me, here. Dirty Kanza is great for gravel cycling. I love that Dirty Kanza exists, that many swarm to it and that I rode it once. My experience was memorable, but overall the event is just not for me. That's OK. I don't knock Dirty Kanza or try to change it. They run their event as they see fit. They've earned that right and respect. I applaud those who work to make the experience available, cheer on those who ride it and simply commit my time and energy elsewhere.

In the words of William Wallace, " F R E E D O M ! ! "