Thursday, May 08, 2008

Fixed Blessing: The 10th Annual (2008) 12 Hours of Lodi Farm Race Report...

"Most men pursue pleasure with such breathless haste that they hurry past it."
—Soren Kierkegaard

"Isn't it better to triumph by the strength of your muscles than by the artifice of a derailleur? We are getting soft.... As for me, give me a fixed gear!''
—Henri Desgrange, from an article in L'Equipe, 1902

I quickly put my foot down on the dew-stippled surface of the old metal door and try to maintain my balance. It is not a graceful pose. The other foot, my right one, remains clipped into its pedal. I’m half standing on a makeshift ramp up to an old oil tank, a rust-pocked derelict from a bygone era that is seeing new life now as a “feature” of the private race course here in Fredericksburg, Virginia. I grip the front brake lever to prevent the bike—and me—from rolling backwards. I am in a delicate moment of stasis, body hovering between bike and the dark void to the left of the tank. The rear wheel wants to give in to gravity, and take me and the bike with it. Just ahead, on the other side, another old door is positioned as a kind of mirror image to the one I'm perched on, making for a nice transition from the top of the tank down to the trail beyond.

Only the chick in front of me—right in front of me—doesn’t seem to know this last bit.

It’s lap number 3 for me, somewhere around cumulative mile 23, sometime in the wee hours of the morning. The chick has just locked up her brakes. Her front wheel has come to rest at the top of the up ramp. In response, I, too, have locked up my “brakes” halfway up the ramp. Our tires overlap briefly, the knobs grapple, embrace, release. She’s not sure, this racer, but she thinks maybe the race coordinator has thrown in a surprise four-foot drop on the other end of the tank, in the abyss just below the cone of light cast by her headlamp. She has no recourse to a previous lap's experience. Logic and the limits of liability don't intrude here, in this moment, in the darkness, in the gap between caution and competition. She doesn’t want to confirm her suspicion the hard way. She apologizes, I dismiss it, and the thought of how absurd we must look, tangled together on this incline like hapless marionettes, flashes through my weary mind. Satisfied that she will not plummet to the earth face-first in the next seconds, she remounts and pedals over the top, as my left foot begins to slide backwards down the dewy ramp.

[Prelude: The race is the 12 Hours of Lodi Farm, a small, grassroots operation 10 years in the running, and unique in its midnight start time. The course is classic East Coast-style singletrack, tight and twisty and compressed, with plenty of roots and logs and short, steep hills and sinuous swaths that double back on themselves like so much intestines. Several hours earlier, Jason, Dave B., and I agree to disband our three-person fixed gear team, The SSOFT Machines, in exchange for the opportunity to split the top three places in what would be a new category: Fixed Gear Solo. We mention this idea to Becky, who was already planning to ride solo, and she's up for it. It's a lock for three of us to podium, a clever plan hatched seconds before registration by the ever scheming Disco Cowboy. A lock, that is, until I open my mouth back at camp, at which point a flurry of activity ensues, whereby RickyD and JoeP, like piranhas frenzied by an errant drop of blood, scramble to pull the freewheels off of their bikes and replace them with fixed cogs. Left with no choice, TonyB, their third teammate, soon follows suit. In an instant, the erstwhile exclusive four-member Fixed Gear Solo class almost doubles in size. In my haste, I've just fucked myself, and quite possibly the others, right out of an easy podium spot. Of course, a second- or third-place position out of a four-person riding pool doesn't pull down a lot of bragging power. Still, it is what it is.]

I try to check my backwards movement, but with no rear brake, the bike gains momentum and I topple half off the side of the ramp, bike and right leg above me, left leg and arm crashing onto something below. Cursing aloud, I manage to right myself and get moving again. I catch the rider ahead of me near the finish, and she apologizes again, and again I explain that it's not a problem. It hits me as I roll up to the transition that a fourth lap on the bar light is a bad bet. I check in, turn over my bracelet, and head back to camp to eat something. On the way back, I notice that my water bottle—snagged in a quick pause between laps 1 and 2—is almost full: the course is such that taking a hand off the bar when you can't coast presents a danger greater than mild dehydration. In fact, it isn't a conscious decision, isn't a decision at all, really. It just doesn't occur to you. After pounding some pasta (thanks, Jo!), I decide to try to grab some shuteye, and crawl into the back of Moby Dick to lie down after a quick and welcome change of clothing. Despite the noise, despite the adrenaline surging through my veins, despite the cold temps settling in, I fall asleep.

[Flashback: Lap 1 sees me lining up with a dead headlamp just before the “rolling start” (the LeMans-style start from previous years was scrapped in favor of something that, at least in theory, spaced out the riders according to riding speed instead of running prowess). What happened? No idea. And no matter. I have a powerful bar-light already mounted. I cut back to camp after the rolling start to dump the dead light (and with it, my hydropack and helmet) and pick up a spare helmet, then head out again, forgetting my water bottle in the process. At this point, I’m dead last, but I’m not far behind the slower riders. I catch and pass several at the first muddy hummock, getting a feel for how the fixie handles the terrain. The first half of the course is the hilliest, with one short, steep climb transitioning to another and another in short order, with some mock plateaus in between for the mental torture. The singletrack is true singletrack—there are damn few places to pass without incident, and riding fixed makes an off-trail sojourn around a rider through a carpet of Mayapples a risky venture. On the climbs, roots reach out from the trail’s edge like the gnarled, boney fingers of an old man, clutching at your tires. Everywhere, trees lean into the trail like sullen thugs, and when they team up, the space between bar end and bark is measured in millimeters. There are bridges, maybe 5 or 6 in all, some sound and stable, some of questionable integrity. The sketchy, washed out, rooty hill leading down to one such bridge—a classic from years past—has been removed from the course in favor of a slight downhill grade that meets the bridgehead almost perpedicularly, offering precious little momentum for the steep, technical climb on the other side. Still in the game from last year is the 60-foot deck that traverses a nasty, but too wide to be challenging. Lap 2 is a repeat of lap 1 for me, with little variation. The trail seems to be holding up well, and more and more space is slowly but surely opening between groups of riders. Lap 3 sees a film of dew developing on the roots, throwing a little slickness into the mix. It's my worst lap; I'm slow and sluggish and already looking forward to a well-lit trail in the morning.]

I awaken to find both Jason and Dave hanging around the camp. Like me, they had decided to wait out the night to see what the morning would bring. Good thing we aren't all on the same team. We discuss strategy. Each of us stands at three laps apiece at this point. Though he takes a shot at dissembling, Jason clearly has the third-place spot in his sites. He sneaks off to join the race again, while Dave and I focus on the real issue: whether we want to pound a beer first. We decide against it, and I suggest to Dave that he should chase down Jason for the third spot. He heads out, but precious time has passed. I follow shortly, feeling stronger in the legs and lungs than I have a right to.

[Interlude: I've always had a warm spot for Lodi. It's been the venue of "firsts" for me: my first race, my first solo race, my first single-speed race, my first solo single-speed race. And now, with this year's event, it's my first fixed gear and solo fixed-gear race, and despite the physical wear and tear that is part and parcel of endurance races, I can't stop smiling. The Karate Monkey seems to climb better in fixed mode, but it may just be that I haven't ridden a 29er in a while. I do know that the big wheels eat up the roots with surprising aplomb, and my ass is happy for it. Logs are a problem, as leveling the cranks via coasting is out of the question. But soon, the mind seems to dial in the spatial relations and most times the cranks seem to align themselves automatically and without effort. When they don't, it becomes second nature to weave or skid to find the sweet spot in alignment. Breaking with the legs is a blast; the interplay between front disc and rear leg-brake is so much more, well, synergistic than it is with two "proper' brakes. There's somehow more agreement, more cooperation, more communication between the two in a fixed set-up. At least on this course, where rocks are as rare as rubies. The loop at Big Bear would surely offer a different perspective.]

Lap 4 is bathed in sunlight. Every evil thing that hid in the darkness to ambush the hapless rider has come out to fight fairly in the brilliance of dawn. I feel good on this lap, fresh and optimistic. I feel faster, and, indeed, I am. But solo riding is not so much about speed as it is about staying in for the long haul, about enduring the growing monotony. And though I've already forsaken that strategy too, I'm having fun, and that's enough for me (if I want to be fast now, I need to find a time machine). I've dialed in this off-road fixed-gear thing to the point where the occasional pedal-strike is no longer jarring and disconcerting, but simply another part of riding, another "obstacle" to overcome. As I pedal into the transition area, I see Dave off to the side with his wife, taking a breather. Almost immediately, he hops back on and again enters the race to take on his 5th lap.

I come out of the race to check on the others in our group. JoeP is readying himself to enter the fray again, as is Tony. Becky, too, is off the bike and trying to decide whether to go out for another lap. She hasn't turned in her baton bracelet, so she's still on the clock and has the option to wait it out till noon if the thought of another lap isn't appealing. I've turned mine in and have to complete at least one more lap in order to "finish". We talk for a while, Bek and I, and she decides she wants to throw it down one more time. The four of us embark on our final lap, agreeing to take it easy for this one and ride together, since we have plenty of time.

We exchange leads randomly, riding most of the tough stuff, walking some of it when it seems to make sense. Competition has loosened its merciless grip. We break when we feel like it. The mood is one of weary elation, tempered by a strong desire to be over and done with it all. We joke, mostly silly, stupid stuff, but sleep deprivation makes everything funny. JoeP finds a moment to frolic, sans bike, in a field of wildflowers, looking like nothing so much as the King Buttercup Faerie. It is a welcome moment of levity. Soon, the thought of a cold beer, a Red Rocket Ale to be exact, begins to take hold in my brain and helps fire the cranks for the last few miles.

When it's all said and done, I've wracked up a modest 5 laps—about 41 miles in all—on the fixie. Although last year's race with team The Big Meats was hard to beat, I have to admit that I had just as much fun this year, owing mostly to the challenges and joys that come with racing on a fixed gear, and to a well-designed course. Now to look into picking up some shorter, square-taper cranks...the fix is in!

Photos 1, 2, 5, 6, 8, and 10 by D. Ross; photos 3, 4, 7, and 9 by G. Ryan.

Props to all the fixed gear riders for some truly herculean efforts: RickyD (1st Place with 9 laps!), JoeP (2nd Place), Jason (3rd Place), Dave, Tony, and Bek.

Special thanks to Donna and Jojo for support—you ladies made a HUGE difference in helping to make the race such a fun time!

Oh, and TomiCOGs kick ass! Had a racer out on a lap ask me if I was running one. Turns out he knows Tomi...the boy's getting famous.


rickyd said...

Great job and a truly great writeup. I didn't do such a long writeup because my hands and body were a wreck on Monday, so much so that I called in sick.

We figured out something was amiss when we saw you guys with three baton/tags instead of only one that each team should get. Tony, JoeP and I huddled, and while Tony and I wanted to join you guys in solo fixed, it was JoeP that said he didn't want to. After 5 minutes, Joe said he changed his mind and we were in.

While I enjoyed the challenge, fixie takes such a toll out of you that I wouldn't want to do this long a race, in this mode, often.

Hjalti said...

Wow Steve, One of the best race recaps I've ever had the pleasure to read. Great job, riding and writing!

Todd said...

As always a spectacular writeup Steve. Thanks for sharing your experience, I almost feel like I was there. Next year, I will be.

b1umb0y said...

You have a way with words. Great write-up and a beautiful story.

DiscoCowboy said...

It was a great plan while it lasted.

This was one of my favorite races, great beer, bikes, mostly tolerable people, what more can you ask for.

Next year fixed gear unicycles!
Thanks for playing along.

Icon O. Classt said...

Thanks, gents; you're too kind.

Seriously, those of you who haven't done this race have got to commit to it next year. It's such a great event, and the cheapest you'll find in the area. Do it while it's still there; you'll be happy you did!