Thursday, April 29, 2010

Peanut butter jelly time, peanut butter jelly time

I think you all know the song...

"You probably wouldn’t try to run your Formula 1 car on low−grade, regular−octane fuel, and I haven’t seen any Lamborghini owners lately filling up their ego−soothers with any form of eco−friendly fuel. That’s just not the way things are done, and it’s not the way their engines run. These are high performance vehicles with high performance needs. So you would think that athletes work the same way, right?

Well, not exactly. Sure, we scarf down heaping plates of pasta and stuff our faces with oh−so−delicious energy gels (though vanilla and coffee aren’t all that bad, I swear), but there’s more to it than that. I’m not saying that you can be an elite−level cyclist, or any type of athlete for that matter, and eat nothing but pizza and KFC, though you can certainly better afford the occasional Crave Case than the average American. But at the same time, you aren’t going to get there on nothing but brown rice and tofu either.

Let’s take this past Sunday as our test case. The race: L’Enfer du Nord. In layman’s terms: The Eastern Collegiate Cycling Conference (ECCC) Championships, hosted by Dartmouth College. The Men’s A race was 75 miles long, featured a pretty substantial amount of climbing and took somewhere on the order of three and a half hours. Oh, and we raced pretty hard. I should probably mention that. And as you may know from your experiences cruising along the highway well in excess of the legal speed limit, the faster you go, the more fuel you burn. The same applies.

So in order to survive a race like this, one thing is needed above all: calories, calories, calories. And yes, a calorie is a calorie, no matter where it comes from, but when you are trying to fill yourself with upward of 4,000, or even 5,000, of them, things get a little tricky. That plate of pasta isn’t going to cut it anymore, at least not on its own. That’s not to say that you don’t eat it, because pasta is definitely a source of high−quality carbs and is probably still going to be one of your best sources of fuel, but it’s only going to get you so far. This is where my peanut butter and jelly metaphor comes in.

The peanut butter and jelly sandwich serves both as one of the best ways to get that much−needed fuel, while at the same time symbolizing the balance that you need to strike in order to get in enough food without risking losing or gaining weight, both of which will hurt your performance.

The classic PB&J features the ideal ratio of foods for a cyclist: lots of carbs from the bread, some healthy fat and a little protein from the peanut butter, and some quick and tasty energy from the sugary jelly. It’s all there in a nice, neat package. You can wrap it up and put it in your jersey pocket, and it makes the perfect pre− or post−race snack. Personally, I never leave for any race weekend without my trusty Tupperware container filled with four premade and wrapped PB&J’s. And I would bring more too if they would fit.

But there is more to the PB&J than the sandwich itself. There is a lesson. Like I said, healthy carbs and healthy proteins are all great. We need lots, and I mean lots, of them in order to train, recover and race. But there is a time and a place for everything, and that means those “unhealthy” foods fit in somewhere too. If you’re going to get in enough calories, you’re going to have to get it from denser sources. This is where the fun begins.

Peanut butter, of course, is high on the list of approved foods. But right up there with it, and probably higher on most cyclists’ lists — including mine — is Nutella. This fatty, rich, chocolaty spread is pure energy in a jar, and it is calorie−dense and delicious. Did I mention that it’s chocolate?

It’s foods like these that help fill the caloric gaps in your diet that you just can’t account for with healthy foods alone. It takes cookies, French toast, hamburgers, ice cream, eggs, Snickers bars — you name it — to fill us up. Especially when you’re on the lighter side and your stomach probably isn’t big enough to handle large volumes of food, the trick is to choose foods that pack a lot of punch in a smaller package. (Does anyone have some Oreos for me?)

Now, I’m not saying that by riding a bike you get free license to stuff your face with whatever you want whenever you want. Fueling right is absolutely essential to performing well, and knowing when to eat that donut and when to opt for grilled chicken and a big salad is equally as important as any other aspect of your training. But it is a fine line between being a healthy, conscientious eater and being a little too neurotic. Eat too little, and you will suffer, possibly even more than if you eat too much. The key is balance. And that is why I always look to the PB&J.

Now that the ECCC racing season has come to an end, there is one collegiate race left for me before I transition to the rest of my season with my trade team: collegiate nationals. The race is a week from Friday in Madison, Wisc. In the span of 72 miles, the course ascends 8,000 vertical feet, which is simply a whole lot of climbing by any standard. For comparison, Mt. Everest ascends between 11,980 and 15,260 feet when measured from base to summit, depending on which face you start from.

Naturally, I like that. I like to climb, and this race does almost nothing but that. I’m not going to make any promises or predictions, but there is one thing I can guarantee: I’ll be bringing my PB&J."

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Army, Crashing, and Shaving

"Sliding across the pavement and off the side of the road as the pack speeds off down the road, all I could think was, “Well, that was dumb.”

If there is one question that I spend more time answering than any other, it has to be the one about why I, and all cyclists, shave my legs.

“Does it make you go faster?” everyone asks. “Is it like swimming?”

No, not really. If you take just a second to consider the physics of it, you will realize no amount of body hair fluttering in the wind could possibly create enough drag to pose a serious detriment to your performance and slow you down. I don’t care if you are as hairy as Austin Powers with a fleecy coat wrapping your body as if the next Ice Age is coming. When you’re battling the wind, it’s just not that important.

But when the pavement is your foe, now that is another story. Imagine the feeling of shedding a few layers of skin as you roll, slide and tumble across rough pavement somewhere in the vicinity of 25 to 30 miles per hour. I’ll give you a hint: It doesn’t tickle. Now add to that the bonus of all that hair you neglected to shave being ripped from its deeply rooted follicles and you have the makings of a truly memorable experience. And hence, I present to you, the razor. (Shaving cream and moisturizer are nice too, but that is another article in and of itself.)

The benefits of the shaved leg go beyond just pain reduction, though. It also greatly aids the clean-up process, as bloodied and dirt-caked hair is not getting in the way as you delicately try to extricate the bits of road from your body. You just had a rough date with some hard asphalt, and life is bad enough at the moment as it is. There is just no need to make things any harder on yourself.

Of course, there is also the vanity aspect of it. Shaving your legs says “I am a bike racer” like nothing else can, save maybe severe and permanent tan lines that make you appear like a human Oreo: brown on the outside, white in the middle. It confers membership to an exclusive club and, depending on who you ask, looks kind of cool. Body builders do it, right? Why not skinny guys in spandex?

Finally, and this is only my personal theory, having shaved legs makes massages that much better. As you work your way up the ranks in the sport, the number of massages you get increases. When you are on a bigger team with a bigger budget, you can afford niceties like masseurs and physical therapists who will gladly and expertly knead your every sinew and muscle fiber, working out those pesky knots that accompany miles of training and travel. With no silly hair to get in the way, their lives are so much easier and undoubtedly so much more pleasant, as I can only imagine the grossness of massage oil mixed with body hair (think Alec Baldwin).

Unfortunately, I am not a pro, and my massages have been few and far between (though definitely pleasant). Therefore, my reasons for shaving, at least for the time being, are largely the first two. This past weekend, though, I was thinking more about the first.

Riding along in the peloton at the ECCC Army race weekend on Sunday, I turned to a friend of mine and said, “If I try to do anything, I give you permission to just smack me.”

We had raced a time trial earlier in the morning and then, in pursuit of some quality training, myself, the aforementioned friend and one other went off for a two-hour ride on the hilly roads around the United States Military Academy. Needless to say, I was a little on the tired side, and sitting in for most of the race would have been prudent. But, despite all this, the ringing of the bell for a preme got me excited, and before I knew it I was attacking into turn one. The next thing I knew, I was sliding along on my left side, headed straight for the guard rail along the side of the road. Fortunately, I was wearing gloves and long sleeves, so that saved some skin. And, of course, my legs were cleanly shaved.

To be honest, the whole situation was quite funny. As I came to a stop, lodged under the guardrail and needing the assistance of the race marshals to get back on my feet and run to the pits to get my free lap and hop back in the race, all I could think was that I had actually just smacked myself. As soon I was back in the race, I found that same friend and told him just that, assuring him that his services would not be needed. At the very least, we got a few laughs out of it.

It’s not so funny now, and I would definitely like to extend my thanks to the ladies at Tufts Health Service for the generous box of bandages. But even more so, I feel I need to thank the people over at the Gillette company for their Mach3 Turbo razor. Its finely honed blades and delicate padding make shaving an enjoyable experience every time. Were it not for them, I might not have had such cleanly shaved appendages, and my discomfort now would probably be all the worse for it.

Hopefully for next week’s installment, I’ll be able to keep it upright."

Thursday, April 15, 2010


More on this to come when I get a chance soon, but for the meantime, here are my reflections on Battenkill from today's Daily:

"I had a personal revelation this weekend. It won’t seem like much on the face of it, and taken out of context it probably seems inconsequentially obvious. But after I backtrack a little, I think you’ll see what I mean. So what was the earthshaking conclusion that I recently came to? Simply this: No one knows me better than I do.

And now for some context.

Last weekend was the Tour of the Battenkill. The biggest single−day Pro−Amateur event of the year in the United States, Battenkill is generally the first big goal on many cyclists’ calendars. After taking second in the Category 3 race last year, I expected nothing less than the top step of the podium this time around. Go big or go home, right?

The big difference this year was that I was in a new field: the Category 2 field. Cat 2 is one level below the top level of amateur racing, and more often than not, the Cat 1’s and 2’s are combined in one field, with a few pros often thrown into the mix as well. But at a race with such an enormous draw like Battenkill, the 2’s are given their own field to race in, providing aspiring riders like me with a golden opportunity to shine.

The usual Battenkill course — on which everyone but the Pro/Cat 1’s and Cat 2’s races — is a 62−mile loop featuring 25 percent dirt roads and a number of climbs. None of them are epically long, but there are enough of them to leave your lungs burning and legs throbbing by the time you reach the line.

The Pro/Cat 1 and Cat 2 racers, though, contest an additional 20 miles, with the added loop including a second trip up one of the race’s more famous obstacles: Juniper Swamp Road. This little beast is a short but incredibly steep dirt hill that would give many cars trouble reaching the summit. Rarely is it the defining moment of the race, but if you’re not careful, it can spell the end of your day.

But that wasn’t my problem. Neither trip up Juniper gave me any trouble, and I crested the summit both times safely in the lead group without expending much effort. As the peloton rolled along on one of the less eventful stretches of paved road not long after, a rider rolled off the front and pedaled away from the field. No big deal. With about 60 miles left to race, none of us was all too concerned. Not long after, a single rider sped up the right side of the road on a slight incline, rapidly forging a gap to the idling peloton and making his way up the road as well. But still, none of us was worried about two lonely riders trying to survive 60−plus miles of dirt, hills and wind. That is a long way to go.

I should have known better. Both of those riders are known for their strength in long breakaways, and the latter of the two has been on an absolute tear all season long (though the season is barely a month old). By the first feed zone, their lead was already over two minutes. But the peloton never showed any sense of urgency, and neither did I.

We continued to take the flat and paved sections at a sadly pedestrian pace, only turning the pedals in earnest when we hit the dirt or began to climb. Then our anger would show. Then we would unleash our fury on one another. But this inconsistent pace always favors the riders in the breakaway, who are consistently putting power to pedal.

Needless to say, we never saw those two riders again. The race was for third now. As for me, a crash on one of the final dirt sectors with about 15 miles to go found me on the wrong end of a split in the field. I was having a moment of weakness after launching an attack of my own on that same long dirt section and had drifted too far back in the field when the crash happened. Forced to slow nearly to a near stop, I didn’t have the snap in my legs to reconnect with the 20 or so riders who were spared. I spent the next hilly dirt section of the course alone, turning myself inside out to regain contact, but to no avail. Back on the pavement, I was reabsorbed by a few other riders, and we formed a chase group. We picked up a few more fading riders along the way, but we never closed the gap. We finished about 50 seconds back of the group ahead, our race now for 21st place — a sorry consolation. I didn’t contest that sprint, and simply rolled in for 30th place. Not exactly the top podium step I had dreamed of the night before.

So where did I go wrong? What foiled my plans for glory? In a word, me. I, and only I, am responsible for the missed opportunity that was the 2010 Tour of the Battenkill. I missed my chance when I watched that rider fly up the road while the peloton thought nothing of it. I let myself down when I didn’t spring from the safety of the complacent peloton myself and try to do what everyone else told me was impossible

“It’s 82 miles,” they all said. “That is suicide. Don’t worry about it — they’ll be back.”

So I listened. I sat there, safely in the field doing what was supposed to be smart: biding my time until the race got truly hard and all the excess baggage was shed from the field and only the strongest remained. But wait, that already happened. Those two brave men up the road had already forced the final selection, and that excess baggage was all the rest of us. And you know what? I should have known better. I should have known that I should have been up the road with them. I should have known that everyone has their strengths, and everyone has their weaknesses. And riding in a 60−plus mile break on challenging terrain, however stupid it supposedly might be, is my strength. I may not have the raw power to drop helpless riders with a searing attack, but give me an advantage on a course like that, and I won’t readily come back.

A little cocky? Maybe. But I think it’s realism. I know what I am good at and I know what I am not. But none of that matters when you don’t even try. None of that matters when you always try to do what is “smart.” Maybe smart doesn’t mean just one thing. Maybe what’s smart for you is stupid for me. Maybe the smart thing to do sometimes isn’t really all that smart. And now I know that. I already knew what I was good at and what I was not; I just didn’t know how to let me be me."

Thursday, April 8, 2010


KILL. That's right, BattenKILL. Know that name. Study that name. Contemplate that name. There is a reason for it.

With just two days to go before the highlight of the early season for virtually every racer in the Northeast, as well as from many other regions, there's no time left for any doubt. If you don't yet know what you are doing it for, you are in serious trouble. Whether you are in it to win, or simply to give it your best shot and enjoy the ride, it makes no difference. At a race like this, there is undoubtedly more than one way to be successful. But you better know what that is for you. You better be toeing that line and pushing those pedals with a clear focus in mind, because nothing else is going to get you through. Nothing else is going to lift you up over climb after and crushing climb, drag you over dirt road after drudging dirt road. If you have a purpose, whatever it may be, and you focus intensely and singly on it, you are going to be OK.

And I am going to say it right now, here in the open for all to read, that my purpose is to win. That's all I want. That's I will accept. But that's just me, and that's just my choice. Here is a little more on that from today's Daily:

"No one looks forward to the day a paper is due. You know well in advance when it is coming, you usually know what it is going to be about, and you know how long it is going to have to be. You go to class (maybe), do the reading (maybe) and, as time goes on, you are hopefully closer to being ready to write that paper. But even the most studious among us can’t really claim to look forward to the deadline. It looms like a storm cloud, growing darker and more ominous with each passing day.

Bike racing just isn’t that way.

At the start of every season, riders sit down, either on their own or with a coach or mentor, and look out over the season ahead. They mark off a few races that they want to win the most — races that suit their strengths and racing style — and they build their entire year with those goals in mind.

Just like writing a paper, there is a process that goes into getting ready for one of these races. You set a due date: the race day, obviously. Then, you start to train. This is like going to class or doing your reading. Hopefully you don’t miss too many important workouts along the way. Sure, a few missed days here or there won’t spell defeat, but unlike writing a paper, you can’t just cram at the last minute and expect to come out on top. In fact, that’s about the worst thing you can do.

So you put in your time on the bike, pedaling away hour after hour. You ride when you want to. You ride when you don’t. You ride when it’s raining. You ride when it’s a fresh spring day. You ride out of joy. You ride out of anger. Whatever it takes, you train. The more you want it, the harder you train. It’s a little like that paper, right? The more it means to you, the more time you seem to be willing to put into it. But no matter what, you still don’t want the day that paper is due to come. It’s always, “Can’t I get just a little more time? An extension?”

But not with bike racing.

That day can’t come soon enough. You hang posters on your wall. You pour over previous years’ results, analyze the start list and memorize the course map.

Two weeks to go. One week to go. Come on, come. Let it be the weekend already. Yes! It’s finally here.

There’s no dread, not in bike racing. No emotion other than excitement, heightened by a touch of apprehension and angst. This Saturday can’t come soon enough. I’ve done my homework. Now I just want to take the exam.

The test is the Tour of the Battenkill on April 10. The biggest single−day race in the United States, it has been the focus of my training since I started riding my bike again with any purpose way back during the Boston winter, when snow was still falling and I otherwise might have just gone skiing. But I knew this was coming. I wanted it to come. Finally, it has. All I want to do is race.

Eighty−two miles. Twenty−five percent dirt roads. Hills. Lots of hills. In short, this is my kind of race. Tactics simply go out the window, and teams lose their advantage. On a course like this, it’s all about who can ride the hardest for the longest. It is a race of attrition and a race of luck. It is a race about desire. Every last one of us knows that from the moment we clip in to the moment we cross the finish line, probably about three−and−a−half hours later, all we are going to know is pain. It’s racing at its purest, suffering at its finest. But you know what? I really can’t wait.

So what makes this different? Why am I literally jumping out of my chair to get to the race on Saturday, but at the same time moaning and groaning about the paper I have due next Wednesday? I knew that both of them were coming. I know that my race is 82 miles long, and I know that my paper needs to be eight pages. I know that both of them are going to hurt, though in markedly different ways. And I’m equally ready for both: I put in all my training ,and I went to all of my classes. So what’s different? What makes the searing pain in my legs from laboring over climb after climb more gratifying than the burning in my retinas from staring at the computer screen all night long?

The answer is purpose. Simple purpose. Each one of those hills has a purpose — namely, to get me one step closer to the finish line, a line that I can point to and visualize. It is a line that I know exists and a line that I can define. It is a line that I want to get to first. But the paper? Sure, handing it in gets me one step closer to a decent grade (I hope) and one step closer to graduation. But where that leads, I have no idea. The finish line is nowhere in sight, and if anything, it is even more complex as it draws near. But not in bike racing. Not on Saturday. The finish line is there; I can see it right now. I know exactly what getting there first means, and I want to get there now."

Friday, April 2, 2010

It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's a...


Hello, there. Radio silence has resumed once more, but here I am with the newest installment of my weekly series from the Daily, recounting part of my experience last weekend at Johnny Cake Lane # 2. But before I give you that, here's a little something to make you jealous:

If you guessed that this is my new Independent Fabrication steed, courtesy of Team Ora presented by IF, you are right! She is hands down the best bike I have ever ridden, and I don't see myself giving her back any time in the near future, if ever. In the words of the dear Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar: "We're not worthy! We're not worthy!" I promise a full review is to come.

And now, some Daily action:

"Editor’s Note: Evan Cooper is a sophomore, a sports editor for the Daily and an aspiring professional cyclist. He races for the Tufts cycling team and for the elite amateur squad Team Ora presented by Independent Fabrication. This series will chronicle his season as he tries to make racing into more than just a hobby.

“Pedal faster. Please pedal faster. God damn it! Just shut up, deal with it and pedal faster!” If that were all it took, winning races would be a whole lot easier. Unfortunately, things are bit more complicated than that.

It was a cold and windy day on a flat and narrow course. Eighty−five spandex−clad, over−eager men mashed their pedals in anger, fighting through gaps and edging their way forward through the peloton with one common goal in mind: Get near the front. Didn’t they know it’s only March? Didn’t they know it’s only the Johnny Cake Lane Training Series in New York, a minor training race, and that the winner would get just enough prize money to cover his entry fee and gas (if he didn’t drive too far to get here)?

But wait. Over on the right, a click of gears, a whoosh of wind, and suddenly one of those idiots went flying up the road, desperately trying to liberate himself from the clutches of the peloton and forge his way up the road to the breakaway. What a fool — he’ll never make it. Look at him. He’s so … little. Give him a hill to ride up, and then we’ll see what he can do; but here, what does he expect to accomplish? Hold on a second. I should probably go a little easier on this supposed fool. After all, that fool was me.

So just what was I thinking as I put in my feeble attempt to snap the elastic that bound me to the field and prevented me from riding in the breakaway at the front of the race? Well, I was thinking I might win. The course was undeniably not suited to my strengths. Despite mounds of pancakes and loaves (seriously, loaves) of French toast, I am still a lightweight, which means that I like to ride uphill. And when I’m done riding up one hill, I like to ride up another. That’s where I have my best chance to win. That’s where the big men with the muscles bulging from their shorts and biceps bigger than my calves will be left in the dust. But not here. Unfortunately, not every race is designed for climbers like me, and you just cannot afford to wait for those races, especially when they usually don’t come until later in the season. And besides, I’m young and eager, and I want to win.

So there I went, dashing up the road, into a headwind, tucking low over my machine and fighting the pedals to go faster. My gap to the field grew, but so did the pain in my legs.

“Ugh. Here we go.”

As the effort went on, my power dwindled. I was just not ready for this at the moment. The itch in my muscles turned into a burn. The embers in my lungs grew into flames. The cold air I sucked down felt more like acid now. But still, I’m young and eager and I want to win. So I pedaled harder. I looked over my shoulder. The field was in sight, but I had a gap. I thought to myself, “Maybe I can hold it? Click. A harder gear. Come on, suck it up. Get to that bend. If you get to that bend, you’ll be out of sight and maybe they’ll just let you go.”

I dug deeper and came to the bend. I stole another glance over my shoulder. Not what I was hoping to see: the field. A few riders rolled by me as I gasped for air. I wouldn’t have minded rolling all the way to the back of the field and spending the rest of the afternoon chatting it up with the guy who’s just happy to be there and hanging on for dear life. But you can’t win from there, so I got up and out of the saddle, gave the pedals a few kicks, and forced my way into the line of riders near the front. A friendly face appeared next to me. “Had to give it a shot,” I huffed out. A nod. He knew why I did it.

So what was I really thinking? I know what my strengths are. I know what they are not. I know what it takes to break the chains that hold each of us captive in the peloton, and I know when I have it and when I don’t. And at this point in the season, when I’m intentionally going to races with legs weary from training and treating those races as more training, I know better than to expect too much. But still, I’m young and eager, and I want to win. I feel like I have something to prove, partly to those other colorfully clad men and partly to myself. But that’s exactly what gets me into trouble.

Though they are crucial components of success in this sport, youth, eagerness and the desire to win are often intoxicating. I’m like a racehorse with my blinders on and the finish line the only thing in sight. There’s nothing wrong with intensity and focus, but there is such a thing as wanting it too much. It is when you want to win too badly that you don’t win at all; it is when you will do anything to win that you are bound to fail.

I could make the move on a course like this. I could win on a course like this. I’ve done it before and I’m going to do it again, but it won’t be because I suddenly develop the power output of someone whose right quadriceps probably weighs more than my entire torso. No, it’s going to be because I finally remember that I’m here for more than just winning. I am here for fun. Riding my bike is fun. Racing my bike is fun. And sure, wearing spandex is even fun. Next time I’ll remember that. Next time I’ll race with my head. And because of that, maybe next time I’ll win."