Joining the Cyclocross Cult

Somehow or other, over the past couple of years, I ended up doing a bunch of riding with members of the cult know as Cyclocross Racers. I say cult because, aside from their devotion to riding bikes that are not quite road bikes and not quite mountain bikes, their secondary goal seemed to be to get everyone who wasn’t currently a Cyclocross Racer to become one. Not having a suitable CX bike, my out had always been “It sounds great but if I try to sneak another bike into the stable I’ll be in trouble…”. If I had $1 for each time a CX’er had said, “Look…it’s SO fun…you HAVE to do it! You’ll LOVE it!”, I’d be well on my way to a sweet carbon CX rig. Eventually, last Fall, the local CX Cult Leader Mike Rowell became so annoyed with my “Don’t have a bike” tactic that he climbed up into his attic, rooted around in some boxes in his basement, and handed me a CX bike with instructions of “See you Wednesday at 5:30 at The BikeWay Source.” 

kyle1That Wednesday evening I found myself sprinting pell-mell around a field in pursuit of a bunch of seasoned Cxers, mostly watching their taillights rapidly disappear in front of me. We then switched to some skills practice where we did laps on a course that involved weaving through a swingset, riding across a beach, hopping off the bike and jumping over some PVC tubes then hopping back on, and myriad other silly tasks apparently designed to cause me to contact the ground in an embarassing fashion.

As we began the laps, I was doing a fairly decent job of applying the lessons I’d just learned during the field laps, and was firmly in the middle of our group as we approached the barriers where we were to dismount, jump over while carrying the bike, and then remount. Like a pro, I unclipped one shoe, swung that leg off the saddle, and hit the ground in stride. With ease, I cleared the 10” high PVC pipe, put the bike down and attempted to mimic the graceful mount of those in front of me. The smoothness with which I’d executed the maneuver to that point gave no hint to those behind me of what was to happen next. Instead of nimbly settling back onto my seat and sprinting away, I managed to get one knee mostly onto the saddle, but the other leg stayed firmly on the ground. With the bike’s forward momentum, I quickly had to start hopping along on the one leg as the bike started a decreasing radius turn, ending with some combination of me on top of the bike and the bike on top of me, and a lot of bewildered cursing from the people behind me.

The advantage to riding with experienced people is that they have really good bike handling skills, which thankfully meant that nobody ran me over as I skidded to a halt and lay there on the ground tangled up in my bike. A timeout was officially called and with the input from those behind me, my crash was carefully reconstructed, analyzed, and deemed one of the worst attempts at a mount anyone had ever seen…quite an accomplishment given the experience level of those present.

Despite the collective best efforts of the group, I couldn’t seem to convince myself to commit to the mount, mostly due to my internal concerns about the sensitive nature of the saddle/rider interface region. Instead, I concocted an awkward but repeatable maneuver of slowing down to a near-walk, clipping into the closest pedal first and then swinging my other leg over…a near glacial procedure but I reasoned it was preferable to ending in a heap again or coming to a complete stop.

We continued tearing around our makeshift course for another 30 minutes, regrouping every once in a while to repeat the following exchange:

Cult Leader Mike: “What do you think, has everyone had enough?”

Everyone: “YES!”

Cult Leader Mike: “OK, we’ll just do 2 more laps then.”

Everyone: “ARGGGH! You said that last time!”

Cult Leader Mike: “GO!”

After 3 or 4 of these exchanges, Cathy (Mike’s wife) responded to the suggestion of “2 more laps” with “I’m heading home.” Apparently, nobody wanted Cathy to have to ride home alone, because everyone else offered to go with her. She claimed she’d be fine on her own, but everyone insisted.

Later that evening as we adhered to the time honored tradition of following CX activities with beer and good food, I knew that the hook had been set. I even reasoned that if I could ever figure out how to get back onto the bike in a reasonable fashion, I had the potential to not be completely awful at this crazy sport…maybe. Either way, I was already looking forward to next Wednesday night’s practice session.

When I arrived at home, my wife asked me how it had gone. I told her “It was SO fun! I’m telling you honey, you HAVE to try it…you’ll LOVE it!”


Steve Marcus 1953 – 2014

It’s been a hard week for me and I thought I might share a bit about one of the greatest guys in the NE cycling world.

Steve died a week ago having battled brain cancer for almost a decade with the humor, grace, and fearlessness that he lived his whole life. Steve is the reason I race and I will be forever grateful for his friendship, encouragement, and advice.

In 1977, I walked into a bike shop in Allston and said I wanted to buy a racing bike and start racing. Steve sold me a Peugeot PX10 for $400 (a lot of money for a bike then) and told me to meet him at the shop a 6 AM the next morning and he’d take me for a ride. Ooof! Kind of an eye opener. After a few weeks of getting into shape we started riding every evening after work for the next 15 years. He got me hooked up with NEBC, out to Hanscom for Thursday night training races, out to Concord for the Tuesday night TT (now the CBTT). We would race and ride together until we both started families in the mid-eighties.

Steve left the shop side of the business after graduating from BU and became an independent sales rep. He rep’ed Bell, Shimano, Thule, everyone. He was the best, hardest working rep in NE. Every company wanted him. If any of the shop owners knew the kind of dough he made, they’d be sick.

For the last 20 years music and guitar playing was his thing. His band was his joy and they had a blast.

But most of all, Steve was a absolute gentleman, in the finest and best sense of the word. Never mean, never unkind, always a sparkle in his eye, always laughing. You couldn’t ask for a better friend.

So long, Steve. I’ll miss you.

2013 Cannondale SuperX HiMod Disc Review

PJ Racing to the win 2013 Shedd Park CX

So this was my first year racing CX, or even getting on a CX bike for that matter, as I am a MTB racer. I was concerned with weight, braking, and overall performance, so opted to go with the Cannondale Super X. Given I was pretty clueless, thanks to the Bikeway Source for expertly consulting/selling and servicing the bike and to MKR for building the bike to epic levels.

The first impression I had of the Cannondale Super X was “smooth and fast”. Here’s my overall highlights:

* Gearing I have never been a big SRAM guy, as I just had great luck with Shimano gearing, but the SRAM RED is just flawless. No missed shifts, and just goes where you put it through thick and thin conditions.

* SRAM Disc brakes (mechanical) – As far as braking, some folks seem to debate this, but I love the disc brakes and can’t see going back. I think back to technical and wet races like Providence this year, where the SRAM disc brakes saved me from bobbles and even allowed me to maneuver around competitors who were grabbing all the non disc brake they good-  and still unable to hold a line or finesse through a technical section.

* Weight – A 16 pound CX bike? – this was just too good to be true and can’t tell you how many times during weekly CX practice and local races (including 2 wins in CAT4/5) I was able to power the bike over hills and hop barriers with this uber light race machine.

* Wheels/Tires – Originally, I thought I would have to shed the Stans No Tube ZTR Alpha 340s but they really held up and performed well. Sure, going to carbon wheels may be in the cards for weight and performance, but no complaints with Stans wheels, performing, and only broke one rear spoke the entire season. I am not a big fan of the longevity on the Schwalbe Racing Ralph tires, but they performed pretty well until I swapped them out for sage MKR recommended Clements PDX and LAS tires. I know teammate Plumper has gone tubeless with mixed results, I would love to join the dark side as tubeless rocks on my MTB, but have resisted the sirens call thus far as MKR and others say it’s bad news.

* How was the rest? – the stock bars, seat post, fsa cranks, and the like are more than adequate. The Super X seems to come with pretty top shelf bits, and I had no performance issues despite a season of CX abuse. My past experience with FSA cranks was awful, as I had a warranty issue where the aluminum pedal thread insert popped out multiple times form the carbon crank, but FSA fixed the issue and this generation FSA crank performs well.

Overall, I am a critic of all my bikes, and can show you areas for improvement, but the Cannondale Super X is just that rare exception – light, fast and just holds up and performs well despite the training and racing abuse.

No wonder I see so many Super X’s at the local races.

Product Review: Giro Code MTB Shoes — The “other” yellow shoe


Brand new Codes size huge.
Brand new Codes size huge.

For years I’ve been envious of many of my cyclocross racing counterparts and their snazzy yellow kicks from that French company that starts with an “M.” I’d see them, scrambling the run-ups and remounting the bikes effortlessly in those feather light bright yellow shoes. Apparently the French have small feet or are discriminatory of those of us that have anything bigger than a size 46 EURO. So for years I went with the old stand by size 48 MTB shoe from the big “S.” These shoes worked well enough and were light but weren’t very durable… The buckles would always break and I really would only get one season of MTB and cross out of them before the soles would break away from the uppers. They were expensive to boot.

Enter the Giro Code. Many people know of the company Giro for its stylish lids. I’ve used Giro helmets for years and find them to be a light weight and comfortable fit. So when Chris Li of the Bikeway Source posted a pic of their high-end MTB race shoe, the Code, on FB in that beautifully obnoxious Highlight Yellow…I immediately asked him if they came in a size 48. He said they did and I had him order up a pair. The shoes arrived quickly and I nervously went to the shop and slipped them on. I say nervously because a size 48 shoe can mean many things to different manufacturers. I suspect that at the extremes of the size range the tolerances just aren’t there and you end up with a shoe that is too small or way to big. Not the Code, it was a perfect fit. My first impression of the shoe was that even in a size 48, it was exceptionally light, the Easton EC90 carbon sole was super stiff and mated to very sturdy looking uppers. Notable were the scuff guards around the shoe, placed to resist excessive wear on the upper itself. The 2 hook and loop straps as well as the replaceable ratcheting strap seemed very secure and was comfortable even when extremely tight. The ratchet mechanism itself seemed more durable than the ones on my “S” shoes . We shall see.

The first thing was to set them up with a fresh pair of cleats. I have been using the Crankbrothers Candy pedals for years and I find them to be an excellent mix of durability and good price. I got the cleats mounted, roughing them in from my old pair of shoes. My first attempt to clip in on my MTB was unsuccessful as there seemed to be interference with the cleat. I took them off and inspected the cleat/pedal interface more carefully. I quickly determined that in order to have room to engage the pedal properly I would have to remove some of the tread material on the bottom of the shoe. This may sound like a major issue, but I’ve had to do this on just about every pair of MTB shoes I’ve ever owned from various manufacturers. It is easily done and would not affect the form or function of the shoe. It is also possible that other cleat/pedal brands would work fine without removing material but I don’t know. I easily removed a few millimeters of the tread surrounding the cleat and attempted to clip in again, this time with an affirmative click of cleat meeting pedal. Good to go.

On the bike these shoes are stiff and you feel like you are transferring 100% of your power into the crank. Off the bike the shoes comfortably yield to the tip-toed run ups we tend to get in cyclocross. I think this combination makes it a perfect cross shoe.. stiff on the bike but also a competent runner. I should mention that the shoes come with what Giro calls the “SuperNatural Fit Kit.” This is basically an adjustable piece of insole that allows you to change the level of arch support in the shoe. A nice feature indeed, it saves you from spending extra dough on insoles after the fact. I did not personally need to adjust my insole and the factory setup was just fine for me. The shoes are available in Black, Black/White, and of course, Highlight Yellow. Giro claims 355g weight for the size 42 shoe, not bad at all. I don’t have a weight for the 48’s but I can say they are the lightest shoe I’ve owned yet for MTB/CX. All in all an excellent shoe, Giro has really paid attention to the need of the serious cyclocross racer with this one. I liked them so much I got a second pair.

The Code’s after a hard season of cyclocross. Still looking good.

The Codes at the end of a New England CX season.

Edit by Mike Rowell;

I wanted to add that I too rode the new Screaming Yellow Giro Code for the entire CX season. This was my second pair of the Code’s so I have two full MTB and CX seasons in the shoes. Still very pleased with them.

I have a wide forefoot and the Giro last seems to fit my feet well. The arches are perfect for me and with the included insoles, somewhat adjustable. With CX as well as MTB, you are often running with your bike. It is important that the heel cup is secure and holds the foot in place, otherwise you develop painful blisters on the heels. They are a nice stiff platform with the Easton EC90 soles and I have even had good luck using them for extended dirt road riding and racing with the CX bike and SPD pedals. I’ve found none of the typical “hot spot” discomfort caused by the small pressure point of the cleat under the forefoot. Additionally, I’ve seen no carbon disintegration related issues at the cleat mount interface, such as were often the case with first generation SPD compatible carbon soled shoes.

The Code’s are the best I’ve worn in terms of providing a comfortable, secure fit. They are well ventilated so a good choice for summer MTB racing but also breathe well in the cold races so your foot doesn’t sweat up and freeze. I had good luck in super cold weather (below 20 degrees F) by using a wool sock and a chemical heating pad on top of the forefoot. Like all cycling shoes, they can develop organic smells that you just wouldn’t think possible in a synthetic material. To that, I have washed them with soap, water and various bio-agents numerous times without a hint of a blowout. The toes have held up very well to scuffs and in general, when cleaned up, the shoes still look good even after a full season of CX racing. The toe spike mount is secure and holds the spikes in place without strain the soles to failure, like some other shoes have been known to do.

The only complaint that I have about the shoe is the design of the ratchet buckle. It works great and is well built (strong), but the release lever mechanism protrudes from the face of the buckle, extending out into the open. This makes it far to easy to inadvertently strike the lever and release the buckle. This has happened to me a number of times during the season, forcing me to re-tighten the buckle by hand. Moving the buckle position a bit into the upper mount slots and away from the side of the foot, from the lower mount slots helped, but did not fix the problem.  I’d like to see a re-design there to make the lever impervious to normal incidental contact.

Overall though, love the shoes and the color and will certainly buy them again next time.