USA Cycling MTB Marathon Nationals

Sue Lynch on the Top Step at Nationals
Sue Lynch – MTB Marathon Nation Champion

The race was held at Wildwood Park in Appling, GA which is just outside of Augusta. The venue was beautiful, situated on a lake and had many river and streams running through it. The woods were scented with honey suckle and sweet jasmine. It smelled wonderful. The 60 mile loop was about 50 miles of single track and 10 miles of fire road, open field and paved road. The single track was mostly pine forest with some nice hardwood forest as well. My favorite term new description of the trail was “brown ice” local speak for the super slick pine needles which made sharp corners treacherous. The weather was perfect, about 60 degrees at the start and 80 at the finish. The trails were dry and fast, not too technical and had delightfully fun “pump track” like bumps throughout. Continue reading “USA Cycling MTB Marathon Nationals”

Stages Power Meter Review

Last summer both Cathy and I purchased Stages single sided crank based power meters for our FSA SLK-Light crank cyclocross bikes, which also serve duty as our cyclocross training, gravel road and all around go to bikes. The cranks were the first viable crank based power meter on the market to break into the sub $1000 range, making them a clear challenger to even the lower level and much heavier hub based power meters from Powertap. We both have other systems on our dedicated road bikes, Cathy a Quarq Elsa and I a CycleOps Powertap G3 wheelset. We have both used power meters for a few years and log our data in Golden Cheetah. As such, we have built a pretty good amount of historical data against which to compare.

The Stages meter is sold as a single sided, non-drive side replacement crank arm for various cranks such as Shimano, FSA, SRAM and Cannondale. Because the Stages power meter has a strain gauge in only the left side crank arm, it means that the unit is only capable of measuring the force applied by one leg, the left leg. The unit then doubles this to give the power output. For most people, this is fairly accurate as most vary only slightly from one leg to the other.

IMG_0854AThe other note is regarding crank based power sampling as opposed to hub based power sampling. When measuring at the crank, you are measuring the power that the rider is actually putting into the pedals. When measuring at the hub, you are measuring what power is actually making it to the wheel. This means it takes into account drivetrain based power loss. Typically, in a well tuned bicycle, the power loss and resultant discrepancy only translated to a few percentage points less that the power actually being put out by the rider, as would be measured by a double sided crank based unit or the Stages unit with a rider whose right/left leg power matches. This is not a complaint against one or any of the different power metering systems, simply a data point. The result is that if you use different types of meters your data may not be wholly consistent from one meter  to the next and could be off by a few percentage points one side or the other. If you only use one type of meter though, none of that matters as you would get consistent polling which will give you good data. As we all know, it is futile to compare power data between individuals as many of the numbers are arbitrary. Even power/weight ratio has little use for application to anything but your own personal training records.

Out of the box, the Stages meter is just an OEM crank arm with the Stages meter grafted into it. One note is that all of the crank arms are machined to accept the meter assembly. This means that Stages only uses aluminum crank arms and does not use carbon fiber arms.  For Cathy and I, we have FSA SLK-Light BB30 on our Cannondale SuperX disc bikes. The compatible Stages offering for the FSA cranks is the FSA Energy arm, an alloy model. It weighs a bit more than the SLK Light and is a different accent color than ours, but fits and works perfectly with our cranks. Installation was identical to the OEM crank arm. The Stages power meter also takes a common CR2032 battery which is easily accessible with no disassembly. Setup is easy and quick, pairing with a Garmin 500 head unit in our case, via Ant+ data transmission. Simply search for the device once activating the meter by spinning the pedals a few revolutions. When the unit is paired, you can easily calibrate the meter on your head unit with the crank arm in a vertical position and no torque on the pedals. A further nice feature is that the meter is Bluetooth compatible and can communicate with a free Stages smartphone app. This allows firmware update as well as calibration or diagnostics on the unit from the app.

On the road, the Stages works flawlessly and as expected. The data transfers and displays quickly and accurately to the head unit. Though I expected to see some discrepancy between data from the Stages versus the data from the Powertap, I was surprised to find little discernible difference. Realistically, I’ve noted no difference. For instance, I didn’t all of the sudden start setting historical power output records with the Stages meter. In fact, the data of the single sided crank based Stages meter looks nearly identical to the data of my hub based Powertap, again when compared historically. No big increase in power as some would have you believe could be the discrepancy between single sided crank based.

IMG_0858ARealistically, I suspect that what is happening is that I have a slight left/right power offset, given that I am right handed and right side dominant. That slight offset to the right is compensating for the for the assumed increase in measured power at the cranks as opposed to the hub, which again accounts for drivetrain degradation. Regardless, the data from the Stages meter has not skewed my historical records adversely in any way. Additionally, since I’m using the meter on a bike with different purposes than that of my other meter, it is even less of an issue anyhow.

The only issues we have seen in a full year of usage are battery life in some intermittent cases and the battery door. This door is a plastic unit with small tabs on it which are quite fragile. I’ve ham fisted and broken a number of them. The folks at Stages have been awesome in  sending new ones though free of charge and now state that they have redesigned the doors using different material that is less fragile. So far, so good with the latest batch and with the latest batteries.

If you are looking for an easy and affordable means of measuring your power output on the bike, I’m sold on the Stages for the time being. Sure, there are meters out there with some neat new features like the ability to measure leg offset, but they cost significantly more money. The hub based meters are, I believe, on their way out. The pedal based meters are just starting to come to market and are seeing some issues. Ultimately, that will be a very viable solution, I’m sure, but for right now, the Stages is a great choice in my opinion and both Cathy and I have been very happy with ours.

Quabbin Race Report

At the Quabbin Tower
Team at the Quabbin Tower

A few weeks ago Skip Thomas floated the idea: Wouldn’t it be great to race Quabbin with you me and Mike Bolio-we might be able to get away and team time trial to the podium? Then, as Rasputitsa tore my legs off, and Skip won the fat bike, leaving me curled up in Cyberia’s snow….it began to dawn on me that he had a plan for pain.

Leading up, I began to remember I’d raced here as a CAT 5 unnattached newbie just after my first son (now almost 9) was born – where the final 3.5 miles’ 600′ climb left me tied to a tree. Skip’s team time trial idea seemed pretty good as I didn’t want any part of a sprint finish.

Arriving at the Tower, Mr. Harris shivered up to the car, bundled for the 50+ field. Somehow seeing a fellow teammate was both welcoming and reassuring. And while it felt colder than Rasputitsa, there was sun and it wasn’t snowing.

During kit up, I realized that we were truly a CAT 4/5 road racing group: Mike needed help pinning, Greg Bosworth (a friend from Velo Underground) had ridden the Battenkill Fondo but was unaware of USCycling licensing, I admitted to googling “how to win a bike race” the night before, and Skip lost his safety pins, again.

Team with our Motorcycle Escort
Team with our Motorcycle Escort

Time seemed to accelerate as I made final adjustments to my Bikeway Source Giant TCR for her first race . . . call to the line, the sun hotted up, mad scramble to de-clothe, instructions to never pass the motorcycles and to only turn right, and then all 50 of us were off. Led out by a Blue Indian (literally the name on the back of his vest and the color of his awesome motorcycle) and a flag waving trimotorcycle we dropped through the cold on brand new road to Rt 9 on a neutral start.

The first 30 miles were pretty windy and slow on the hills with a couple of near-misses with a cell-phone suburban and a dropped chain/solo crash, and nobody showed a lot of inclination to pull – Skip clearly had legs as several times he just climbed away from the pack gapping out of sight at least once, and several hundred yards a couple other times. Mike, Greg, and I did the same but to a lesser degree. Individuals in the pack seemed to be saving themselves. This was fun!

Coming around the top of the Quabbin at 30 miles the BSBL guys seemed comfortable, but Skip’s cassette had worked loose (those safety pins again), and he was riding on 5 gears. At 47.5 miles, a hard sandy right turn led to a steep climb over Greenwich Rd where I’d been forced to claw back before, I thought to stretch things out a bit and was first over the top onto a steep long narrow twisty descent. Through blurry eyes, I passed the Indian and surreally, the Flag Waving Trimotorcycle (at the finish, the Blue Indian said he was sideways on the sand…and the triman said he couldn’t corner at all).

Turning onto Rt 9, with 7.5 miles and only two climbs left, I heard one guy mutter, “This is where it starts to hurt.” And then Skip turned the screws, gently, but the pack didn’t follow.  And when he was gone, out of sight, I thought, maybe he has a chance? Time for Plan B team tactics?

Mike and I blocked mercilessly and Skip stayed away, even on a windy descent and long flat he was still 200 yards ahead at the turn to the final 9 minute climb. I was in the top 5 getting twitchy, thinking don’t go, don’t tie yourself to a tree, wait for someone else, wait, don’t bridge the group to Skip, stay smart, somebody is going . . . punch it! Suddenly I found myself 100 yards ahead with only 50 to Skip – WTF did I do? I was alone, in limbo, redlined, 8 minutes to go. Crap. Looking around I can’t really see the pack and my only hope is ahead.

After soloing for almost 5 miles, Skip amazingly traded pulls, and gave hope, “I think we can stay away Joshie” This was the perfect play, the one I’ve heard Phil Liggett say every year during the TdF . . . two teamates have joined up and the pack is closing, can they make it?

Josh Closing the Deal!
Josh Closing the Deal!

3 minutes left, one guy bridging, road kicking up, everything getting fuzzy. I heard Skip pop and knew that I had to go. And my bike responded. I wasn’t tied to a tree!  200 M sign, snot flying, foaming, and an eternity. And then, Mr. Harris welcoming us at the line. My first road race win!

Skip hung in for 3rd, Mike finished his first road race with the pack and Greg completing the Battenkill/Quabbin double.

Fat Biking 101

It seems that over the course of the past year especially, fat biking has become one of the hottest sectors in the bicycle business. Though the bikes themselves have been around for more than a decade in mass production, it seems that only recently have they really caught on. People who once exclaimed “not for me”, myself included, have gotten bikes and been smitten by the two wheeled winter adventure that they open up.

Charge Cooker Maxi

Last year, my wife and I purchased a pair of Charge Cooker Maxi fat bikes from Chris at the Bikeway Source in Bedford. Charge is owned by the parent company of Cannondale, Dorel, so as a Cannondale dealer, Chris was able to get the bikes for us. The Charge are and good quality steel framed bike with solid and reliable mid level components. They were a great introduction into the market space without completely breaking the bank. After all, we were not sure how we would like the discipline and didn’t want to spend too much trying it out.

As luck would have it, last year was a banner snow year. We had the luxury of spending much of the winter in Western Maine where the snowmobile trails were abundant with access literally just down the street. We quickly grew to love the adventure of being out in the frigid winter nights with nary another sole in sight. We loved it so much that we rode literally every day last winter and spent over 100 hours on the bikes exploring over a thousand miles. One thing that became quickly clear was that when riding in the dead of winter, at night, in a northern climate, normal cycling clothing is inadequate. As a long time year round cyclist I’m used to riding in the cold weather. That said, cold weather riding in MA was usually in the upper teens at a minimum. Now imagine starting your ride in falling temperatures that start out at ten degrees colder than that. We very frequently rode in the single digits and did ride that never made it above zero.

45NRTH Wolvhammer SPD

We found that the biggest challenge was keeping the hands and feet warm. To those ends, when it was really cold we resorted to heavy, expedition weight mittens and thin wool liner gloves. Sure, the hands got moist and using the controls with mittens on was a challenge but so was trying to do anything with frozen hands. On warmer days we would wear insulated ski gloves, which afford a bit more dexterity and control at the expense of some warmth. We also always carried spare mittens when doing colder or longer rides, just in case.

On the feet, we used winter SPD cycling shoes with neoprene over boots. These worked pretty well, for a certain length of time and to a certain temperature level. Below about 15 degrees you only had a couple of hours before your feet would get cold from the moisture buildup. Chemical warmers helped stave off the cold as well so we often used them. This year, we have gone to the 45NRTH Wolvhammer SPD winter boots (which run small IMHO so I ordered two sizes bigger than normal). Luckily Chris was able to get some into the shop for us before they sold out for the season. They are the top end for warmth when it comes to SPD compatible cycling boots. We are looking very forward to using them.

In terms of other clothing, we were fans of Nordic wind-front ski pants from Salomon with suspenders and bib shorts with leg warmer underneath rather than cycling tights. The nice thing about the pants was that the cuff went over the top of boot, which helped keep the warmth in and from escaping. In turn, I felt that my feet stayed warmer as well as my legs. Up top I used a myriad of different layers and materials. In the super cold we wore down sweaters outside with a long sleeve wicking base and a breathable thermal layering mid. When it was warmer we went a wind-vest over a long sleeve wicking base and a heavy breathable thermal layering mid. Also, whenever we went on longer rides we went prepared for the worst. This meant carrying a hooded packable down jacket, a thick winter hat and/or balaclava and extra mittens. If something went wrong when you were even a few miles out it takes no time at all to go from hot and sweaty to hypothermic. Where we often rode, there was no cell reception so we were on our own.

Borealis Yampa X-0/X-9

This season we have bumped up the game on many front. I’ve already mentioned the boots. Additionally, we are trying some new designs and materials for outerwear. On top, we are going to use a hybrid jacket for cooler rides. These have thermal insulated fronts with lighter, breathable stretch arms, back and hood. For ultra cold we are switching from down to man made lightweight insulation. Hopefully these will be less susceptible to degradation and pack-out from moisture. We  are getting some heavier gauntlet style gloves as well with the hopes of retaining some of the dexterity. As a note, we tried pogies/bar-mitts but felt confined and never felt they provided the warmth we’d hoped for. On the bottom we are stocking up on more wind front active-wear with suspenders, so they stay up and down expose in the tail.

One other thing to consider is hydration. When it is below freezing, keeping your drink from freezing is a challenge. Clearly bottles don’t work. The best luck that we have had is to use a minimalist Camelback worn under your outerwear, such that your body heat keeps it from freezing. Obviously, the hose needs to stay inside as well less it freeze and render the liquid somewhat useless for all intents and purposes.

Oh, I almost forgot. We also upgraded the bikes as well. We had so much fun last season that we jumped in with both feet, convincing Chris and the Bikeway Source to become the areas only Borealis Fat Bikes dealer. We bought a pair of the X-0/X-9 Yampa, a full carbon-fiber frameset with a very respectable parts spec. We opted for a 2×10 with double front chainrings for the range they offered. We ride some very diverse trails that have some incredibly steep sections that require low end, steady torque to maintain traction. On the same ride there are often long, fast downhill sections where I feared an adequately low one-by would spin out. My guess is that the weight saving alone, nearly ten pounds, is going to make the bikes feel like they can fly.

As you can imagine, we are very much looking forward to the winter months. If you are thinking about getting into fat biking, stop by the shop and see Chris. He usually has some bikes sitting on the floor, though this time of year, they are going out the door quickly.