February 20, 2013

Specialized Espoir Elite road tires, Long-Term Test

In a world chock full of "Ultra", "Turbo", "Pro Race", and "Jet", a name like "Espoir" stands out.  It's a strange name for a tire, yes; but, in Specialized's defense it loosely means "Hope" (l'espoir) in French.  Aside from Italy, France obviously has had much to do with cycling lore and history.  More specifically still, in France, the term Espoir also refers to the 19-22 year old cycling "hopefuls" category, known here as the juniors or U-21 leagues.  Now the name sorta grows on ya...Not bad, certainly original.  But, what's in a name?

I didn't want to post anything too early after first trying these tires back in June of 2012.  After all, the internet is already far too full of shallow reviews from short-term product users.  Electronic devices like phones are an easy mark here, where thousands of converts to the latest iDroyd smart-device post within five minutes of having the package open that they've found "the best phone EVAH.. buy it now!  AWESOME!  I LOVE IT!"  
SO, yeah -- I didn't want to be THAT guy.  

Compounding things, I'm a bit of a hard sell.  I'd been using Panaracer's venerable Pasela TourGuard tire since 2005 with hardly any complains whatsoever.  That story is still true today:  they are cheap, light enough, well made, quite flat proof, long wearing, comfortable, grippy, easy to change, and sorta retro-chic.  All good qualities.  My only real complaint involved their constantly evolving price-tag in response to Japanese exchange rates, oil prices (which no tire is immune to, really), and waiting for my special order to arrive -- requiring two trips to the bike shop, which, ultimately, equates to more cost in the form of time and gas money.  To that end, I sought out a potential replacement:  something locally stocked.  It was initially a fruitless search, as no other tire seemed to meet more than a few of the criteria mentioned earlier, which the Pasela always delivered in spades.  Until last summer.

Specialized and I have a checkered past when it comes to road tires... come to think of it, so have most people.  For the mountain bike and utility bike market, the California-based company has done quite well.  Tires like the Nimbus are legendary for their toughness and reliability for mountain bike users looking for a great mid-range commuter tire for a 26" wheel.  For the dirt crowd, the Captain and Ground Control trail tires are nearly legendary in some circles.  Their road tires, however, with a few bright spots in exception, have had struggles.  In the late 90's their Turbo series tires proved fast and light, but lacked flat-resistance and their tread life was questionably short.  Later, the Armadillo anti-flat casing started a revival of Specialized in the road tire space with the All-Condition models, yet, the casing - while tolerable in the utility range - rendered the ride quality less than optimal for road use... while still allowing the occasional flat.  The Mondo revived the design and scope of the original Turbo tires, but with better tread life and flat resistance - yet, they were still priced like a race tire, and lasted only slightly longer - despite being amazingly fast and nimble.  The Roubaix tires looked to answer those concerns with better tread compounds, and a hybrid casing design, placing the treadcap from a 23c tire onto the casing from a 25c mold.  The result was a very fast and comfortable endurance tire, yet, early versions had layer adhesion issues, which Specialized stood behind with their no-questions warranty and replacement program - yet, reputations are easily damaged.  The Roubaix Pro2 has since solved all its predecessor's issues, however, and has remained successful ever since.  The current version, I've heard, is even better.  

The Espoir seems to come to the table as a true 25c version of the Roubaix platform, but, with a tougher tread compound, mild tread siping on the shoulders, and with a new flat protection belt called "Black Belt", which replaces the long-standing Flak Jacket anti-flat belt.  The result is a long-wearing tread which rides comfortably and grips well, wet or dry... or on gravel or packed dirt.  After starting the initial installation of the Espoir tires onto the front and rear, I have since rotated the rear tire out, logging 1,800 miles before retiring it - which is above average for most tires with this level of feel.  However, it should be noted that I retired that rear tire prematurely, on the eve of a long brevet far from home:  I elected to not take any chances with a tire whose (very handy) built-in wear indicators had finally worn to subtle "shadows".  Certainly, I could have taken the original rear beyond 2,000 miles, but I wanted fresh rubber for the "big ride".  Instead I rotated the original front tire to the rear wheel, and replaced the front with a fresh Espoir.  So far, the wear indicators on the rear are still well visible, and I expect to extract an estimated 3,200 miles from that original tire.  With a price of $35.00 MSRP for the Espoirs, compared to $49.99 MSRP for the Paselas, which would normally yield 4,000 miles, the cost per mile is nearly identical.  The benefit of having the Espoirs right on the bike shop peg, however, increases the value further.

The sizing is typical Specialized:  a little larger than most other "25c" tires, but not as large as the Pasela 28s I have used in the past (which tend to run small for a "28").  For my build and weight, they seem to be perfect, volume-wise, soaking up the bumps nicely and riding comfortably on chip-seal, jointed concrete, tarmac - even rough roads are handled well, surprising for a tire with a recommended pressure of 115 PSI.  The ride, overall, is excellent for a tire in this class,  price range and with this casing construction.  The flat protection belt doesn't seem to detract from the ride quality at all, and the 60 TPI casing is surprisingly supple - but not prone to cuts: a good balance.  Despite a few extended gravel road forays, certainly outside Specialized's intended use, the tires showed no signs of sidewall abrasions.  

The Espoirs "feel" fast, and acceleration is good.  They aren't a super-light tire, but they are light enough to enjoy speedy endeavors.  The folding bead and advanced construction certainly keep the heft at bay, and they come in just a breath lighter than the Paselas @ 270grams advertised.  The tread rolls very well, and they feel stable - good for long days in the saddle.  

Flat-protection is excellent.  The Black Belt casing is, dare I say it, a revelation when combined with this particular tread compound - and the Espoir gets 2 layers of the stuff.  I had been waiting to get a flat tire before writing this review, mainly to see if it would ever happen, and to see how the tires handled punctures in general.  Certainly, "your mileage my vary" applies here - but, the best test came during my last 200km ride, which found me on wet roads for multiple hours - on streets that had been treated for snow and ice in the month prior.  This particular combination creates a "perfect storm" of flat tire potential, with sand, glass shards, tiny sharp rocks, and trash littering the right-hand 3 feet of every road and highway in the area.  Add moisture, and tires become sponges - gathering and hanging onto countless potential sharps that could eventually work their way into the tread, and into the tube.  Rear tire #1 had been retired, as I'd mentioned, after 1,800 miles with no flats and only a few random tread cuts.  The original front tire, now on the back, has still not had a flat, with 2,500 miles logged.  This first flat came on the front tire, oddly enough:  but, it's how I found it that is most remarkable, in my eyes. 

After finishing the 200k, I cleaned up the bike briefly and hung it back up.  Due to countless after-work school functions and appointments, I haven't been able to ride since then, February 7th.  I discovered the flat last night, February 18th.  Eleven days after the ride, I gave the front tire a squeeze and noticed it was soft.  The rear tire was still firm, so something was amiss.  I took the opportunity to get out my "tire pick" (and old eyeglass repair kit flatblade screwdriver) to review each tire and pry out anything I might have picked up on the last ride.  I must have pulled a thimble-full of assorted glass, rock and metal bits from each tire, they'd picked up so much; but, nothing had worked its way through the flat belt on the rear tire:  the most likely candidate for a flat.  The front had collected fewer bits of junk, yet none of them yielded the familiar "hiss" when removed, which would indicate they were the culprit responsible for the pressure loss.  So, I decided to just pump up the tire and see if it'd lose air again.  Remarkably, still no hissing - back at 115 PSI.  I circled the tire again, with more scrutiny, and finally found a 1mm wide grey dot flush with the tread surface.  I began to pick at it with the screwdriver, and as it came out, the hissing started.  GOT IT.  As I continued to work on getting the "thing" out, it just kept coming... and it ended up being a metal tack or brad, about 0.75cm long, and razor sharp at its end.

Squeezing my bike tires briefly as I walk into the garage is a daily thing for me.  It's right there, and I just reach up and give them the squeeze test.  Nothing is flat-proof, this is true - yet, this particular tire's tread compound and the flat belt had held this tack so tightly in place as to almost keep an airtight seal around it...for eleven days, before I noticed any change in pressure.  I've never had a bicycle tire behave this way, and it made me wonder:  did I pick up that tack at the beginning of the ride?  Near the end?  BEFORE the ride, at some other time?  Surely as no two flats are alike, this is probably a very specific, unique case... but, for a tire to have resisted all the other junk I'd yanked out of the tread alone is impressive enough.  Similarly shaped objects extracted from the Paselas on odd occasions certainly didn't behave in this way, instead putting me on the rim in a matter of a dozen or so rotations.  For something as sharp as this was, it was only a matter of time before the Espoir's flat belts gave up - but, what could have been a very unsafe front tire blowout, or at least a very rainy flat change in a muddy ditch, instead ended up going completely unnoticed until long after the ride had ended.  The tire had dropped to 50 PSI...which really, is probably still rideable - if a little mushy.  Impressed, yes I am.

Some would argue that having a tread compound that picks up such debris is asking for a flat eventually -- so why not have the tread not be so "grabby"?  To be fair, I must reiterate the conditions of the roads before the ride - February in this area, if snow/ice treatments have been laid down, makes for nasty conditions for any tire.  By contrast, with the drought, this is the first truly rainy ride I've had on the Espoirs.  Similar conditions after dry rides, the tread has picked up practically nothing.  This represented the first time I'd really had to break out the tire pick since installing them.  Contrast to the Paselas, which have more defined tread and manage to grab potential flat-makers even when it's dry, the Espoirs really don't pick up much at all.  For the conditions, it was a terrific test.  Considering maybe 5% of my riding ever occurs in the rain, I don't see it as an issue, and the flat belts truly did their job - with that one, exceptional exception.   

Overall, I've been extremely pleased with the Specialized Espoir Elite road tires.  They are just as comfortable as the Paselas they replaced, and the tread wear is on-par and could exceed the Paselas (followup to be posted when replacement occurs).  They roll fast, and feel nimble, and flat-protection is superb in light of their comfortable ride and excellent handling - qualities usually sacrificed.  They are reasonably priced, cost-per-mile is low, they benefit from subtle logos and discrete "just-a-tire" styling, they handle nearly any road or weather condition, they mount easily - yet securely - which gives them good marks for roadside repair ease, and they are available locally at my favorite bike shop.  Sure: anything is available online, especially bike tires - but, you're getting more than product at your local bike store, and that's the avenue I still encourage.  

It's often difficult to find "the right" tire for randonneuring, but the Specialized Espoir Elite - at least for this randonneur - seems to fit the bill nicely.  It was indeed a hard sell, because aesthetically I still have a soft spot for tan sidewalls on my lugged steel bike... but I've let go of that in lieu of these inexpensive, great performing, easy-to-live-with tires.  Eight 200km permanents, gravel rambles, and countless commutes, they've done everything I've asked of them, and the way they handled the ONE flat I've experienced so-far seems to have sealed the deal.  My only hope is that Specialized will continue to manufacture them for years to come.

Hope... get it?  See what I did there.... yeah... 

Thanks for reading!

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Specialized Espoir Elite tires are available locally at:
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February 17, 2013

Headgames and Headwinds - the February 2013 permanent

“It’s going to take another hour of this?”  I thought outloud, knowing that Terry couldn’t possibly hear my voice over the constant rush of wind in his ears.  We completed our left turn at the intersection of 199th and Metcalf, and it popped into my head - usually GOOD news - that only twelve miles remained ahead of us.  Granted, at the end of any of my last few 200km rides I haven’t exactly felt fresh and ready to attack the last dozen miles, but at least it meant that within the hour I’d be done pedaling.  This time out it seemed that even another HOUR would possibly be a stretch.  That same thought had been repeating for hours, ever since we’d left Pleasanton, KS. at the halfway.

Confidence... sometimes I don’t bring a lot to the table.  Surprising, sure; but that’s my personality type.  Much of this came from a month with no commutes to work, due to many responsibilities simply too numerous to wrangle into a commute radius and schedule.  I’d done one, solitary 16-mile training ride (if you can call it that) perhaps 2 weeks earlier to try out some new shorts.  That’s it for riding.  So, similar to a few months back when circumstances arose to fill my head with doubts about whether or not I’d ridden enough to support 125+ miles of riding, I was repeating history.  Things IN my favor, however:  a new mental outlook on the ride.  I know it’s February, the last of the hard months to get in this part of the country - and it’s supposed to be the off season (whatever THAT means), so I had an excuse to try and take it easy.  This was going to represent base-building, nothing more.  No personal time limits other than what the control card would read.  Check.  The aforementioned new shorts, coming to me from my favorite supplier, Boure, whose ware’s have been out-of-budget for a long while; finally back in the arsenal: a good pair of “weekend” shorts for the longer rides.  Check.  Finally, after much talk and very little “do”, I’d whipped the diet into shape, losing (so far) 14 pounds.  Check.  All-in-all, it was setting up to be a great day out.  Now, about that weather forecast.

In all honesty, this was a terrific ride -- I can play up the weather and the headwind, but, a finish is a finish.  There are times of hardship occasionally when astride a bicycle for more than a few hours, but, with steady rain and a temperature hovering around 40 degrees, I recalled why I liked riding in exactly those conditions so much.  Wool from head-to-toe, my trusty O2 Rain-Shield jacket, fenders... perfectly dressed, comfortably damp, and not too warm or too cold.... give me 40-50 degrees F and rain, and I’m a happy cyclist.  Now, rain doesn’t exactly do wonders for steel tubing, exposed cables, chain life, or flat avoidance - but, hey... all in stride, and all things fixed with an extra tube or two packed away, and a quick wipe-down and re-lube after the ride.  Like certain political discussions, however, the wind and I seldom get along when dishing out opposing opinions face-to-face.  

In the opening hours of the ride, it seemed perhaps we were getting a slight tailwind - but, our speeds didn’t reflect any assistance.  Flags and trees were far too water-logged to help find wind direction, and eventually I came to the conclusion that the precipitating portion of the passing storm was creating something of a windless vacuum around us as we rode south -- not really hurting, but not helping either.  At times, still, rain would sneak underneath the brim of my Walz cap and dot my eyeglasses... headwind?  Who could tell?  The only choice, continue pedaling until we decide to stop, or when a control arrives.  Aside from a quick dismount, restroom break and bottle refill at Louisburg for me, and Terry and I barely put a foot down for the first 45 miles of the ride, but, we’d barely maintain a 15 MPH average.  So far, so good, really... time for some hot food, though, as we pulled into the Casey’s at La Cygne... somewhere I hadn’t set foot in what seemed like a year.  After 13 visits to the Border Patrol route over the last few years, I’d done well to try new things over the course of this recent R-12 run - but, in rainy conditions like this it was nice to be on familiar turf.  

Cheesy potato bites for me, and some orange juice;  for once, real food goes down smooth and quick.  On a real breakfast of oatmeal and blueberries with honey, and good coffee, my stomach had carried me all the way to La Cygne without so much as a grumble.  I’ve adopted a “halfway top-off” routine with the powdered Carbo Gain in my bottles, with one extra serving stashed in the seatbag, as a bonk-ration.  So, at the start, two bottles of “mix” to begin on the right foot -- one down by the 23 mile mark, and then straight water with electrolytes from there to La Cygne.  The plan seemed to work well, though the pace wasn’t too rushed, either - so it was difficult to tell if I was really stressing the calorie stores.  At the halfway point, I’d planned to start again with two fresh bottles of “mix”, and then use real food along the way at the controls.  I figured, despite what I may be burning per hour, there’s no practical way to replace ALL of it - nor is that a recipe for a happy tummy - so, while the Carbo Gain would effectively fill any carbohydrate gaps acting as a “lunch” at the halfway, the real food would be limited to what I could reasonably eat in 15 minutes or so... seemingly my average control time... and it would prevent me from carrying along too much powder.  

Casey’s potato bites came in at 420 calories, OJ at 170, and a Hammer Gel for good measure I suppose - I packed on per control stop:  total at La Cygne, 680 calories.  Combined with breakfast and the Carbo Gain, that brought me to about 1,350 for the trip so far... just over 1,000 for the ride itself.  Seems like a lot - but, I felt neither weighed down, nor starved for energy.  I suppose, really, I’ve not taken the care to count or track food to this level in years - so maybe, for now, I’m simply creating a baseline.  I won’t turn this blog into too much of a calorie journal -- so I’ll conclude with noting that I consumed, over 140 miles, five 82g servings of “mix” at 300 calories each, the aforementioned potato cheese bites, 32 oz. of OJ, four Hammer Gels, a double-decker oatmeal creme pie, and nine mini crunch donettes (1.5 packages) = 4,081 calories total with breakfast, 3,828 on-bike only; compared to what the exercise journal calculated as 8,028 calories burned over the course of the ride.  I’ll have to read up to see if that’s on par with anything or not... but, heck... things felt pretty good, with the exception of the oatmeal pie, which I’ll get to later.

And now, hills.  After personal disappointment from January’s walk up Renner Road at the halfway point up from Holiday Drive, I admit I entered this month’s ride with some trepidation on climbing.  Yes, the task would be marginally easier with the weight lost, but having ridden only 16 miles of “training” since that fateful January excursion, I certainly hadn’t done anything to prepare aside from a *LOT* of rest and basically getting over the head cold which had been partly responsible for the hill-walk.  This next section between La Cygne and Pleasanton would let me know pretty quickly where my weaknesses lived.  

Terry and I emerged from Casey’s into a strengthening rainfall, and I noted the sudden ability to see my breath in the marginally chillier air.  Hmmm.  Bags zipped, jackets zipped, helmets buckled - we saddled up and headed west on K-152, anxious to build up a cushion of body warmth under our wet layers as we pedaled.  Traffic proved forgiving, and soon we made our turn south onto one of my favorite roads:  Linn County 1095.  What a great ribbon of pavement!  Already well documented in these pages, this is simply where the interesting bits of the Border Patrol route live, scenic and challenging; but, it’s also proven consistently quiet for traffic.  Depending on the mood of the county road works department, there are some patches of pavement that are better than others - but, really, it’s a great road.  I eased out a comfortable pace and chatted with Terry, while I anticipated the first real hill of the day.

Shift, shift, shift.... tug....  cyclists know the feeling here:  the road pitches up, and you answer with a progression through the gears... each click unleashing a larger cog, to ease the strain and level the hill... until you pull one more time and the lever fights back:  confirmation there are no gears left.  Yep.  More often than not, I try to forget the proud days of tackling things like the Liberty 200km or the Hell of the North 300km route on my old Trek single speed.  Those days, when faced with a steep hill, I’d simply rise from the saddle and unleash fury and torque until it was behind me.... those days that I am beginning to long for once again....  today, however, and for the past few years, I reach down to the shifter - and based simply on the way the lever feels in my palm, I can tell where I am on the rear cluster... and I know I haven’t used ALL my gears.  I try to make a point and somehow justify my return to gears by ensuring I NEVER use the bailout 27-tooth rear cog... even when my knees beg me to.  Today, however, I was already there, in fewer clicks than normal.  Okay... no problem.... we’re base-building, remember?  Relax... and enjoy!  Right about then, the noise in my head is cleared by Terry’s voice commenting on the pristine conditions and the soundtrack my internal dialogue was trying to spoil.  All around, the steady rainfall was meeting matted undergrowth and leftover oak leaves in the thickets of forest on either side of the steep road, and birds - perhaps a few weeks early - were revelling in the resupply of moisture, relief from months of drought.  I decided that for the rest of the ride, I’d stop worrying about what gear, what tempo, and what time - and just pedal and listen.  That worked for awhile, at least.   First hill down... three to go, until Pleasanton.

I’d wished Glen had tagged along - but, he’d taken ill after returning from abroad.  Given the conditions, staying home and resting was a FAR better idea - but, our usual band-of-three was down to two today.  Still, Terry proved excellent company as always - and we spent much of the day either side by side, or close at hand.  The second hill didn’t seem too bad compared to the first, and Terry and I both enjoyed the long, extended downhill that followed - twisting and turning down, down... down to the valley below as we made our way to the turn toward the halfway point of our journey.  Flathead Pass was next, and then - more food and a welcome rest indoors, out of the rain for a spell.  The road began to pitch upward, and I reached again for the bailout gear... time to engage pure cardio, and keep that tempo high, ‘dude.  Definitely feeling the lack of riding - but still feeling 100% better than I’d felt last month - I slowly huffed my way up the long grade, even managed to shift up once, and finally rolled over the top.  WHEW... no walking today!  

One has to fall down, in order to appreciate getting back up....  Although I have said many times in these pages that a finish is a finish, I cannot help but strive to improve... at least on paper.  It is clear to me that the past few months have merely been examples of me striving to complain.  Finally, FINALLY, I feel as if I’m back in a place where I have turned those personal complaints into action.  The weight is coming off again, willpower and focus toward goals is returning - and while this ride wouldn’t prove groundbreaking, it still represents a positive step.  I think what occurred last month - despite the lingering illness - I now view as “the bottom.”  Heck, I can justify it any way I like.  I walked that hill.  I did what I had to.  I still finished.  But... down deep... I don’t walk hills.  I don’t want to repeat that.  Fitness was a factor, weight was a factor, and I’ve officially had enough.  In fact, I look backward to February of 2009, the “lucky 13” ride -- after completing my first R-12, I remember myself in a similar wasteland of complacency... and that’s the ride where I had to walk the hill on the Knob Noster 200k route, toward the end of the ride.  I think now it may be time to set a short-term goal to get back out to Knob Noster, and show that hill a thing or two.  I know I’m tired of re-reading it, and I know I’m tired of typing it... whether I go back in time and exorcise those old demons or not, it’s time to move forward and DO ... instead of just wishing.  

Ok, enough of that for now...

With Flathead Pass behind us, Pleasanton - and the halfway, loomed.  The rain began to abate, and in its place Terry and I began to benefit from a distinct Westerly breeze, noting a slight uptick in speed as we strolled toward town.  Hmmm... well, that might be interesting on the return trip.  No matter - the halfway was here, and it was time to maybe dry out a bit... even a patch of blue sky seemed to appear, only for an instant, as we entered the c-store, and started out routine.  Halfway!

Those small crunch cake donuts, some OJ, and water refills - I decided to save the “mix” top-off for when we’d arrive back in La Cygne... for this route, in some ways, arriving back at the Casey’s represents the “real” halfway for me, depending on the day.  Getting these hills in the middle section out of the way needed to come first on this ride.  I was happy, but I still had to climb them on the return trip, and now - it seemed - facing a growing wind.  Terry and I mopped up after ourselves, after leaving about a gallon of drip-dry rainwater on the c-store floor, and headed out into the slightly chillier air to saddle up.

The first big hill was in front of me before I knew it, and the gear changes came quick.  It’s straight up the back of Flathead Pass, and a bit of a grunt.  The good thing about hills, they sometimes block the wind.  One down, two to go.  We continued west until reaching 1095 again, passing the bridge, the horse farms, and Mt. Carmel cemetery along the way.  The turn north at 1095 came like a slap in the face, though the wind still seemed to come mostly from the west at first.  The slight curve back east confirmed that we’d get a tailwind for, oh, at least 7 miles of the return leg.

The next hill came, steep as I’d remembered... and demanding every gear yet again.  I couldn’t really stand and power it out... so, seated grinding and spinning ensued.  Terry and I rounded over the top and set our sights on the next few miles... the last, and I think steepest, longest climb of the ride still sat waiting up the road.  

The rain behind us, after feeling just a smattering of leftover droplets since leaving Pleasanton, at least we’d remain dry for the last part of the ride - but, it revealed the only real drawback to wool clothing:  it doesn’t dry quickly.  This is offset by its insulating properties, if you keep it on your body -- wool gloves become a headache at times for this reason, but I still think they’re the superior choice for rainy riding -- but if it stops raining, wearers of wool should be prepared to stay mostly damp for the rest of the day, even in a dry wind.  Fairly certain the rainwater was slowly being replaced by sweat anyhow, at least I wasn’t cold - and the jacket helped, of course.  Again, I had very little to complain about during the ride, apparel-wise.  

Finally, the last big hill -- which I haven’t gotten around to naming yet -- came into view.  After a few miles of flats and twists, passing the old school house, the house with the goats in the front yard. and the old Paris, KS. townsite, the final hill appeared ahead of our wheels.  OK... one last challenge... certainly not as steep as the hill I’d had to walk last month, but definitely nothing to sneeze at, the hill began to pitch upward after we’d passed the old stone wall (Stonewall Mountain, perhaps?  Catchy...) and didn’t let up for what seemed like an eternity, eventually leveling off to a manageable enough level to allow for standing up and stretching the legs.  Whoo!!  Finally... the real test behind us, we’d survived the hills of the Border Patrol once again!  Now, it would be the untiring “climb” of the headwind, which would come to test us.  

Thinking ahead, there really was one good climb left... we had yet to leave the La Cygne valley, after all.  

No matter ... heads down, the flats now became the enemy, as the trees parted and open farm fields invited the full brunt of mother nature’s growing assault to our party.  At least on the hills, one is occupied by the gradient and the effort enough to ignore such petty concerns as speed, but, on the flats the mind drifts, the pavement never changes, the gear choice rendered pointless... and the display on the cycle computer glares back at me in disappointed laughter... 9 mph... 8... wow, 10.... nice work, loser.... don’t think!  Don’t look at it!  I reminded myself of the scenery I’d miss if I continued my fruitless staring contest with the handlebar’s veritable Eye of Sauron, and managed to pry my attention to birds, the horizon, the giant plume of steam from the La Cygne powerplant billowing violently due south.  Cap brim pulled low, and cadence high, the game turned to wills.

With a little help from the remnants of the westerly wind, Terry and I rolled into La Cygne’s welcome arms - and we rushed inside for the next receipt, the next signature, and more food.  I recalled the push and staying power I’d experienced last month with the consumption of an oatmeal creme pie, so I ponied up for the double-decker version.  THIS would surely show that wind a thing or two.  Combined with the fast-becoming standard-issue orange juice, I topped things off with another 5-Hour Energy shot to replace the one I’d surely burned off since 7:00am’s start, and after a reluctant restroom break, we were ready once again ... 45 miles to go!

This is the point where things began to stretch out.  Despite the continued push from the west that would help us reach the new “last hill of the ride”, almost immediately I began to regard the oatmeal pie, this time, as a mistake.  After topping off the bottles with enough Carbo Gain to make the trip north, the same dosage as I’d started with at the depart, I began to question whether I needed the additional food at all - or, if it instead was the added sugars working against me.  The pace was not any slower, thankfully - lest I not finish at ALL - but, discomfort set in.  As we made our way up and over the “last hill”, old 69 highway stretched before us - and the wind seemed to increase with our change in heading.  I knew it was perhaps 9 miles until we’d reach the new highway - so, I repeated the usual headwind tactics -- head down, pedal it out, and look around.  Try to enjoy, because despite it being slower than I’d like, it’s progress.  Slowly, with the droning imagery of the pavement passing under my legs and the rushing whoosh of wind in my ears, the mind began to turn inside.  Songs circled about, conversations with myself, and others, dogs barking -- occasionally for real -- seemed to pass along with the miles.

Oh, wait... that dog might be real....

My only issue with Jingo Road (old 69) are some of the homeowner's positions on leashes or yard chains, and their use.  I would think, as a dog owner myself, that most folks would like to keep their animals OFF the public roads - especially roads like this one with a 55 MPH posted limit.  Of course - most dogs don’t see passing trucks and cars as property threats.  Bicyclists, however, to a dogs nose, must smell downright threatening... or tasty, I haven’t decided.  Most dogs are usually only interested in a good jog, others merely curious, others still are smart - yet authoritative:  barking and charging, yet stopping short of the road, and giving up the chase when the property line approaches... buried fence, or good training; arguable... but, good dogs either way.  The one’s I dislike come straight onto the road in a tear, looking to edge their nose in front of cyclist’s wheels - much like they’d instinctively head off a wild rabbit or other game.  Edge in front of their nose, hesitation and a studder-step from the prey, answered with a quick set of teeth snapped tight around their neck.  You can see the look in their eyes as they approach the road: it’s business.

This one had my number.

For over a decade I’d never really had anything close to a real dog problem -- fast dogs would be answered with simple acceleration - but, today, the wind had already stolen much of my potential.  This ambitious, grey-mouthed mongrel approached from 11 o’clock, and quickly lined up alongside my left leg as I pedaled, teeth bared.  I did almost nothing to answer... no shift down, no quick burst of speed... I don’t know if I was unplugged or just unfazed - but, I didn’t really register the events unfolding until I felt a little tug and nip about midway up my left calf muscle, and heard Terry hollering out from behind.  “Hey!  S I T !!!  STAY!!  HEY!!!”  The dog continued to work on getting hold of my circling leg, stymied by slick Spandex leg-warmer fabric versus old, dulled teeth... thank goodness for the combination.  Three attempts... but, without even so much as a snag in my clothes, the dog gave up.  Strangely, my heartrate didn’t even respond to the incident -- whether I was just out-of-it, or genuinely not panicked, I’m not sure -- but, with tales of similar dog incidents circling my head from years of cycling, as heard from other riders - perhaps doing nothing had been the right choice.  As much as I probably should have swerved, sprayed the beast with water, smacked him with my frame pump - or even tried to land a good solid left kick to its forequarters - the number of times I’ve heard of owner retaliations assured me that perhaps I’d made the right move by simply letting it go.  I was, however, after enduring at least four other encounters with dogs in other places along the route, quite finished with four-legged rendezvous for one day.

Terry and I finally made our way to 359th street, and prepared to check off a major Border Patrol landmark by finishing the new US-69 highway section leading back to Rutlader, KS.  Without the usual south wind hurrying us along, however, it would prove a long three miles.  We rested for a bit after reaching 335th, the first time both of us would admit out loud that perhaps calling it quits would be a terrific idea... but, neither of us completely serious, the usual sarcastic wit and laughter about the situation took over - and soon we were pedaling again, toward Louisburg, and the next opportunity for a rest and regroup.  Usually noted in my previous blog entries as a particularly long and tiresome 6 miles, the section along Metcalf from Rutlader to Louisburg seemed to slip by surprisingly fast this time out - though certainly my speed was quite low, I had been doing my best to ignore it and just ride.  I instead took in the sights and smells of the farmland fringe of central Miami County, and ended up amazed when I realized I’d passed 295th street already, and I’d already set foot upon Louisburg’s south doorstep.  Not bad!  Maybe those mental tricks DO work, after all.  Louisburg, BP station... here I come!

With Terry close behind, we regrouped at the small counter inside the c-store, refilled bottles, and circles like vultures - searching for something to carry us the last 22 miles to the finish.  Finally settling on donuts - but not certain I really needed anything other than the discomfort in my gut to pass - I snacked a little, downed a Hammer Gel, the last one, and sized up the situation.  The temperature dropping, wind increasing, and light fading... a ride I’m used to finishing in the height of the afternoon, it looked instead like Terry and I would roll into the thick of evening rush-hour traffic instead.  Sure, the 7:00am start for this ride represents the latest I’d ever begun the Border Patrol, but, combined with perhaps the slowest I’d ever ridden it (at least, the slowest 2nd half) the math began to look bleak.  I’d never finished this route even CLOSE to sundown... much less in the dark, and it hit me... I love riding at night, so what’s the big deal so long as there’s time left, right?  I pulled an extra head and ear layer out of the seatbag, and layered up for the dropping temps and wind... time to get back to work.

Vests on, taillights blazing once again, Terry and I paired up and I took point to block the wind while we struggled further north.  Each minute, we were closer to finishing... the mantra repeated... but, I’d redo the math... 20 miles at 10 mph... wow... okay, I’ve got 2 more hours in me... no problem.... just don’t stop.  It certainly could not have been a bonk, because calorie intake was on-par, but with the miles to-go shrinking steadily, so too did my push, my stamina, my reserves... I was just plain ole TIRED.  This, despite a generally successful day, probably is where the lack of riding time really hurt me - fatigue.  Clicking through my gears again, but this time on the flats instead of on some steep climb - I was spent.  On paper, I’d done nearly the 200k required - but, there were still 18 miles to go when Terry finally took lead position, and created a draft... just in time.   I latched on, and hoped for the best.  With the strength of the wind now plainly evident with the sudden difference in effort required to maintain forward momentum, I began to realize how tough of a day it’d truly been.  Cheating the odds and risking over-use injury, I’d managed to pull off another 200+ km permanent with very few opportunities between for training or commuting.  I certainly don’t recommend it... it’s not bragging material to be clear, and I was sure I’d spend the rest of the long weekend paying dearly for it, but, in the moment, I chuckled to myself and shook my head.  Despite the hardships, some of which being plainly self-imposed, and the weather, it would seem that I’d pulled off another February surprise without incident... with 8 miles to go after a thrilling downhill run on Antioch, Terry and I tried our best to ignore the clock and just make our way home for the official finish.  But, man... close.  Too close, if you ask me... the clock passing 7:00pm, it had turned into another half-day epic, just like last month, just like White Cloud in November.  Yeesh... base training?  Check.

...and we still weren’t done...

The long, endless shoulder along 179th and 175th streets stretched before us, as we waged battle against a now howling northwest headwind.  The temperature... who knows, but zippers were pulled full stop, faces covered, toes forgotten.  Terry and I both laughed as we turned north on MurLen -- the LAST turn -- and three miles to go... at this point, it’s a joy-ride, normally, with a steady downhill and south tailwind... man, did we ever pick the wrong day and the wrong route!  Pedaling DOWNhill just to keep moving, it seemed as if the last 2 miles would take the rest of the night.  7:45pm passed on the clock... good grief... another 90 minutes, and this ride wouldn’t even COUNT, but no worries now... we could WALK the last mile, and be on-time - and sometimes that’s all that matters.  Finally rolling onto the sidewalk of the 7-Eleven, five minutes shy of 13 hours in total, Terry and I could at-last call February “done.”

Same as last month, I’ve made several “revelations” about getting in more riding between the permanents - something I need to DO, instead of wishing about it, but, in light of having a fresh mind with which to tackle these endeavors, perhaps this lack of riding during the week IS my “off season”, and maybe I needed it.  Surprisingly, likely a credit to the act of “less talk, more do” tactics employed toward my recovery routine, post-ride, I felt surprisingly fresh and rested the next morning.  Hydration, the right food in the right amounts, and stretching... things I don’t always do correctly... it all paid off, and I managed to escape this ride not just injury-free, but quite nearly ready to do it again two days later.  The weight loss streak continues - slow and steady... and that leaves me with good feelings about the March ride.  For now, no promises.... but, the R-12 (R-20 now?) streak does and will continue... and it’s only going to get better.

Thanks for reading!

February 9, 2013

Chronicles of Character-Building

The February edition of the R-12 run is in the books.  
Assuming I can organize my thoughts, and the rest of life allows for the keyboard time, this ought to make for a decent post - if nothing else, a good log entry for the "I've had worse" files.  A pretty challenging day -- started in the upper 40's with a hard rain, and light winds... sporadic enough that at times I swear we had a slight tailwind, and at other times it felt like a headwind.  The rain continued for the next 6 hours until tapering off, and then the winds shifted, strengthened, and the temperature began to drop with a strong cold-front passage.  Terry and I waged battle with 20 mph north winds for the entire return trip, dropping our pace into the basement.  Mental math was all over the place - and amid random thoughts of phone calls and cashing it in, at times it seemed the pace and the control closing times would decide our fate for us.  The goal of ten hours passed, then eleven, then twelve... it was brutal.  Digging into layer after layer of reserves, Terry and I pushed to finally finish just under 13 hours.  Not my worst ET for this route - surprisingly - but, one of the toughest rides in recent memory - and definitely a mental wringer.  More details to come, in usual style -- but for now, very, VERY happy to have February checked off.  March seems far away, still... but time to take the slow, base-building pace from this ride and build the arsenal for some spring-time fun.  

More to come -- thanks for reading!