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Underwater Bicycle Racing

 By Evie Boswell-Vilt

Starting a women's team is full of rewarding moments: new clothes, fast toys, unified teammates, worthwhile challenges.  Oh, and "Look at me mom, I'm in Performance Bicycle's Catalog!"  But the best thing is being part of a team that really wants to see more women on bikes and more women racing.  We have fun riding our bikes and want other women to as well- after all, our signature line is Spin. Giggle. Sleep. Repeat.

The Race Scene:  Performance Bicycle Racing has gotten off to a great start.  We've had women from our Elite and Development teams take on the southeast racing schedule with zeal: Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee... and even a race out in California.  We had a team at Sunny King's NRC race, with an 11th place finish, and had riders take to the line with some of the best female cyclists around in the USA Crit Series: SpeedWeek.  Our Development team is not to be overlooked- they have worked hard as individuals and as a team in the early season, learning and getting stronger with every race!  We are really proud of each race they have taken on!  Both team's road racing schedules will continue all the way through September.  

Our Equipment: Partnering with Performance Bicycle in our first year both as an organization and as a team could not have been sweeter.  The elite team is racing the Fuji Supreme SL- a sleek, race ready machine with dimensions and specs that seem to fit each of our (very differently sized) riders as though they were custom.  Ultegra components and a Mavic Ksyrium SL wheelset round out the package deal- it's stiff, and under 16 lbs (with carbon Forte' pedals and composite water bottle cages), it doesn't get much better.  Louis Garneau makes our custom clothing (skin suits, vests, bib shorts, jerseys, gloves and arm warmers), has provided us with their top of the line Diamond Helmet and the superior fitting women's Revo XR2 shoes

My Most Challenging Race So Far:  Athen's Twilight- the first race of the 9 day, 7 race long week.   It was raining... hard- more than once did I wish for scuba gear.  I didn't finish, but I did love every minute of it.  There was something about the thrill of racing around corners in the dark, barely being able to see through the torrential rain, that made me think of cyclocross- my first cycling passion.  And I think I even counted on my fingers during the race to the number of months that await before rain and mud are a welcomed sight to race day, rather than an anxiety-ridden one.  But I have to say, taking the line in front of the festive crowd with many women whose names i'd only previously read about in Cyclingnews, was 'worth the price of admission.' And though many of those top women are fierce on the bike, off the bike they are approachable and friendly- giving advice freely and with a smile.  I learned a little more about racing and my abilities with each race of SpeedWeek.  I plan to build on that knowledge gained over this season... and into my cyclocross one!  ;-)

Our Clinics: As The SpokesWomen Syndicate, we are dedicated to providing encouragement and inspiration to women of all cycling abilities.  Clinics are a way to connect with our community and to share our knowledge and passion for cycling with anyone who is willing.  We charge money because we believe that commitment isn't free- and we use those funds to help support another passion of ours: World Bicycle Relief.  When you attend a clinic of ours you get 4 hours of instruction by certified USAC and USAT coaches, hands-on bicycle maintenance and repair, training, bike-handling drills and pack instruction from elite-level racers.  We love what we do- and we each practice these skills regularly.  So, no matter what level of cycling you have achieved, there is something we can all learn or perfect from the clinic.  We hope you and/or someone you know will join us soon!

Our Sponsors: Performance Bicycle. Fab'rik. Louis Garneau. Nuun. DeFeet. Ion Sports Nutrition

Our Presence: Look for updates from the team on Performance's site- blog posts on our team and our team site.  We are really excited to work with them to bring more focus to women's cycling.  We aim to: Encourage. Inspire. Compete. 

Project Syd: Launch Testing

Project Syd -- Launch Testing

Just a minute of your time...

Just like the last entry, when we looked at Syd's aerobic baseline, we also performed some tests on her anaerobic power-to-weight.  Specifically, we tested her ability to go hard for a minute.  This is a crucial characteristic of racing a bike, particularly for women.  Women's racing is often about the sprint.   Staying with the group, and challenging the sprint, requires long bursts of power, much higher than one can sustain more than a few minutes.  In cycling, you can be the best at going fast on your own and still get blown away on short hill when the punchy members of a group decide to suffer.   Great time trialists are sometimes quickly eliminated from the group when those that excel at producing short bursts of power take to the front and showcase their ability to suffer.  On a short, steep hill -- the most obvious place for such an acceleration to occur -- those with the best power-to-weight are at a significant advantage.  Those without that advantage have to be smart, or face a long solo sufferfest just to finish.  We need to find out what kind of rider Syd is so we can better focus her training and tactics.  

Before we get to exactly what we're doing with Syd for the test, let's back up a bit and explain some basics.  Power is the rate energy is burned over time.  For the human machine, there are three basic energy systems:  the ATP-PC (or phosgen system), the anaerobic (lactic acid system),  and the aerobic system.  Each system is associated with a time duration, and each has an important role to play in cycling.  The ATP-PC is for short, instant bursts of energy, like running from an escaped mental patient, or sprints in cycling.   The anaerobic system is for hard -- and painful -- efforts lasting from 30 seconds to about 3 minutes.  It's about as fun to test as an electric fence, and in cycling in the real world, usually involves a hill, a breakaway, extended surges at the end of a race, a criterium after a turn, or annoying everyone on a group ride.    The final system, the aerobic system,  is for efforts longer than 5 minutes or so.  It is basically what keeps you going on a bike -- most of bicycle racing is riding at the top end of this system. 

While these systems seem like discrete elements, they are really a few different curves on a bigger continuum.  For instance, riding hard for about 5 minutes is both anaerobic and aerobic, and if it started from a sprint to get away, then it also involved the ATP-PC system. In testing these energy systems,  to sort them out from one another, you try to focus the effort of the test with making it a max effort for a given duration that squarely puts you in the right curve.

 So, back to Syd, we did a test for one minute, trying to determine just how good her anaerobic abilities were, and to develop a better understanding of the type of rider she'll become.   We used a hill that is steep -- over 10% grade -- that takes longer than a minute for most anyone to climb.  We've also run this test on one of our elite riders, one who excels at this type of effort, so we know what the high water mark is. The results?  Check out the video:


The second test results put her in the Cat 2 range in the power profile chart.    Even more impressive, is that without knowing the exact time, she kept going for an extra 30 seconds.  When she finally stopped --collapsed really -- she did nearly the same watts for a minute and a half as the aforementioned elite rider when she recorded her personal best in training.  I suspect her one minute will improve,  both with technique and training, and perhaps even focusing the effort down to exactly one minute.  (Honestly, she might have been holding back to make the hill.)     

So Syd is appearing more of an all-rounder, a rider that might excel both aerobically and anaerobically.   As she continues to ride, and starts to race, that distinction might become more meaningful.

--Joe Laltrello


Project Syd: Starting

Project Syd:  Starting

Periodically, we'll post progress on one of our Development riders, Sydney Cooke, as she starts training and racing.   The best place to start is the beginning, so here is it:

Starting.  It is sometimes the hardest part of almost any event, activity, or project.   In traditional project management, you mark a task as 50% complete when you have started it.  Especially with cycling after a long day at work, or getting back on the horse after a long lay off,  50% seems like a conservative estimate.   I know if I just roll out the door on days when I hear the couch calling, I'll have a perfectly acceptable workout.  Starting, in general, has you evaluating what you can do, and sometimes involves difficult trade-offs (like sitting on the couch eating a bowl of cereal versus riding for a couple of hours at tempo).   Such is the case with Sydney, one of our Development riders.   Syd is newish to cycling, and a neophyte when it comes to racing.   For Syd, getting started is hard from a time management perspective --   she's entering the back-half of a demanding nursing program, and she has little time outside of school and volunteering.  Fortunately, like many of the riders on our team, Syd has a solid sports background, and juggling the demands of sports and the rest of life is not a new experience.   She grew up as a team sports athlete, competing in anything from Tennis to boy's little league (until they forced her to quit). 

 She doesn't have a specific endurance sports background, and her main cardio at her start was being late to class.  She'll need to dust off some of her old sport life balancing act, and learn to fit training for cycling into her routine.

Starting a more formalized training program for Syd meant establishing a baseline.   For that, we decided to do a 30 minute test with a PowerTap.  The test was simple, warm-up for about 30 minutes or so -- she favors a long, hardish warm-up -- and ride a flatish road for 30 uninterrupted minutes of suffering.   We would examine the resulting 30 minute average watts she produced, and use this as a start in understanding of her fitness, and what she could and should do.

The result?  A great start.  See the video.

She heeded the warnings about going out too hard, and dosed out her effort quite well.   In the end, she turned in an impressive performance, one that is hopefully indicative of future 2010 season performances.    Syd did 30 minutes at ~3.5 watts/kg.  For someone without any training, that's a great result.   Doing some quick estimating based on a slightly flawed assumption and using Andy Coggan's power profiling chart, you can see that her untrained status is quite high up the ranks -- she's nipping at the heels of cat 3 men if the terrain goes up. 

We'll check back later on Syd's progress, and hopefully show what happens when someone goes from owning a bike to racing one.

--Joe Laltrello

It happens again...

I think I've finally learned not to sign up for running races in January.  Running is fun in the fall.  Running is fun at Thanksgiving.  Running is fun at Christmas. 

Come January, I just want to ride my bike.   

In the middle of an extended Xmas to New Year's vacation I decided that it would be more fun to surprise Ryan by flying to Portland, and for financial (and wanting to ride my bike) reasons, decided to skip the Miami vacation marathon.  I swear that I will run the Charlotte one in December! (it fits with the "running is fun" rules above)

It's time to ride!  I'll see everyone at training camp (which I would have missed for the aforementioned running junket)!



The Unholy Trinity of Training

I've decided there's an unholy trinity of training, a three-spoked wheel consisting of guilt, routine, and "the plan."   I stumble along in the right direction, and this trinity gets me there. Allow me to explain in my totally rambling fashion.


I'm like the rest of America, I enjoy eating healthy foods like donuts,  keeping my mind sharp with reality and primetime television, and staying hydrated through inordinate amounts coffee and sugar water. Moving towards a state of comfort is a central theme in my life.    I draw the line at the snuggie -- I've manage to make it this long without the need for stapling armholes into a third-rate motel blanket. Coffee-addled as I might be, to overcome the blissful comfort of the couch, I have to reach an escape velocity like some sort of NASA launch.  It takes the same forethought and manpower to get me moving as it does to launch a small communications satellite. One fuel for this escape is guilt. What Holy Trinity wouldn't be complete without a little guilt?   Guilt has many faces, some are genetic, like a parent or grandparent that worked literally to death; some are masks we put on ourselves, like living up to the statement, "I'll ride when I'm done with this sticky bun and my third cup of cake-in-a-cup coffee."  Guilt doesn't make most fitness training books as a motivator but every person I know, elite athlete or beginner, employs it on occasion to keep things moving along -- it's like the Mussolini of training, evil or useless except for keeping the trains running on time.  And for what it's worth, guilt has taken me through a few tough rides that felt like a failed campaign across North Africa.


Outside of guilt-fueled propulsion, routine compels me to complete a variety of tasks, on and off the bike. Routine is powerful.   If I did it yesterday, chances are, I'll try to do it today, like visiting the vending machine to ask the question, "What does nougat and chocolate have to do with a 19th century French novel?  I better investigate."   Routine dresses me funny in the morning, drives me to work through a fog of sleepiness, and has me throwing my leg over a bike, even if I could list a thousand reasons for not doing so.  Routine is the gray, low-protein gruel that I'd eat unless someone forces me to eat a salad.  I am theoretically nearing the halfway point of my longitudinal study of one, but the results are there:  I have remained close in form and function to my 18 year old self.  In many ways, I might have improved (you know, beyond the obvious points of having an income and scoring a wife out of my league or species).  I'd like to say it was something else, something profound or poetic, that drove me to this point. It wasn't.  It was routine. The lie we tell ourselves is that we are the world's best improv actor, always changing and adapting, making our own destiny with what we say and do from moment to moment. The sad truth:  we get up, we go to work, we eat, and even exercise within the bounds of a distribution called routine. You pick one and you get something in return, whether you like it or not.  Over Thanksgiving, I even had an argument with a family member about routine dictating body composition. I don't want to name names, but this person complained of her weight and said, "Obesity runs in my family though."  Ok, it was my Mom.  I checked the paperwork for the third time since Thanksgiving and I am still not adopted.


Routine is what I do every day, but '"the plan" is what I want to get done.  It's the Holy Spirit of this trinity, and I don't just mean inexplicable to anyone but the devout.  Underneath the work, the sweat, the broken bones, and the shameless avoiding of work is "the plan."  In my case, it comes to me in little pieces, tiny metaphorical messages in airline liquor-sized bottles left in my bath tub.  I will improve my power at threshold.  I will ride to work three times a week.  I will avoid Athos, Porthos, and Aramis no matter what they call to me at the vending machine.   These are plans, in much the same way a diet for a morbidly obese person is "to eat less crap."  They do change things, and are directionally correct.  Plans are not goals.  Let's not get crazy.  I might have to reach a goal.  Plans are more like traffic laws in Rome, beautiful suggestions of what I might do.


In the end, this power of this dysfunctional trinity comes from the sum being greater than its parts.   I make a plan, and it's like I'm deciding to see a movie when I see its preview.  Seems like a good idea, really interested in doing it at that moment, but it might not ever happen.  If I say it out loud, however, well, my guilt fires up, and I start to give it a legitimate try. Once I stick to it for a little bit -- you guessed it --  it becomes routine.   Sometimes damaged or unproductive thinking that might turn into a rut or worse comes together to produce results.   I am sure I am not the only follower of this unholy arrangement.  The unspoken church is strong among our numbers.   And for this trinity, our sign of the cross is turning the pedals over, for no good reason other than we just need an excuse to hang out with the rest of the flock, and beat them up the next hill.

--Joe Laltrello


You're So "Hard Core!" Maybe?

 Despite what the people where I work think of me, I'm certainly not feeling "hard core" this morning.  Got up this morning at 8 to a beautiful, sunny morning.  I donned my winter riding wear with a smile, and went downstairs to let the dog out for her morning duties.  Upon opening the door, I recoiled in horror---it was absolutely freezing.  SLAM! went the door.  

I'm feeling a little confused--was I somehow magically transported back to Wisconsin?  "Clear and cold" is something we worried about when we lived in there or in Utah.  But in Georgia?  Hah! Never!  

The computer told me it was 38 degrees (which was obviously incorrect--it couldn't have been more than 32!), and I must admit, I'm feeling pretty wimpy!  When I'm cycle commuting, it's different as I have no choice--bundle up, hit the road, get to work.  Here, now, in front of my computer, I have options--hot tea, tasty breakfast, do some laundry--any of which sound much more enticing:)

Now comes the real challenge... when will I ride... I typically count on early morning rides on weekends to log hours while my husband and baby gal are still sleeping.  This way, I don't feel like I'm missing out on too much of the day with them.  Hopping on the trainer crossed my mind--albeit it just for an instant!  As I'm sure any of the other Spokewomen will attest, the trainer (or a "treadmill for cyclists") is reserved for days plagued by cold rain and/or cold, gusty winds.   I just can't do it on a calm, sunny day.  

I did a little more research, and the weather this afternoon looks much better (50's--wahooo!!!), so I think the key will be a few hours during the baby's afternoon nap.  She'll be sleeping, my other half will be watching football, I'll be on my bike--happiness all around!

Ok, it's settled!  I smell some fried eggs calling my name!

See you on the road! 


On sports other than cycling and the Spoils of Victory

In August 2007, I fell on my head for the second time that summer in what I like to think was a graceful swan dive across the Start-Finish of the Hanes Park Crit into a pileup of 15 women.  I ended up with a separated shoulder and a condition called Muffintop Blowout - nerve damage that can result from being too fat for your jeans.  Muffintop Blowout, coupled with a crazy whirlwind of work, and a boyfriend who doesn't like riding over an hour (I still need help convincing him that you can ride 1+ hours without your butt hurting :) )  marked the beginning of my "I'm just riding (and racing) for fun" career.  

I've been dabbling in other sports that I hadn't done since high school (soccer), and elementary school (kickball...actually strike that, I played in a league in MN too).  From these sports, I've learned that adult soccer games are won by the team with the fewest strained quads, sprained ankles, and torn ACL's.  Kickball games are won by the team with the trickiest pitcher...and it's possible to pull your saetorius playing second base - ow.

I've also been running because it's a whole lot easier than finding a bike when traveling part of every week for work/etc.  Despite having already run the "only marathon I'm ever doing" in Amsterdam in 2006, I decided that it would be fun to run the Boston Marathon, and am running Miami at the end of January (fabulous vacation weekend btw). 

So, on Sunday, I blew Evie off because I didn't have a beach cruiser to ride in the Sandhills on Sunday (that race defeated me a few years ago) and ran a 10k that was running distance from my house.  Here is my first note on running from a non-runner: Do not assume that downhill = easy, and do not space out and underestimate where downtown/the finish line is.  

But, I did manage to run exactly 1 second faster than I did last year and got second in my age group.  I got a super-awesome SPOIL OF VICTORY!  A coupon for $20 off a cargo sports bra!!

The good news is that I am on track to qualify for Boston.  The bad news is that I need to get faster to get back to my performance of last year in the same race when I won my age group and got a picture of an elated woman, which I later found out was a representation of a cargo tank top I would receive if I emailed the company.   

Note on running #2: Do not discount the prize - maybe the ability to run with my iPod close to my breast is what I need to get faster.  Someday, I will again have tips on biking...for now, this is fun.


Cycling Men Can't Dunk

The obvious disparity between men and women’s athletics is no more apparent than in basketball. This history of the sport has some interesting parallels with cycling, as well as some lessons for those of us wishing to bolster the women's half of our sport.  Women started in basketball at almost year one -- just a year after its inception, it was introduced as a women's college sport.  Since they couldn’t vote at the time, the world must have offered a small consolation and allowed them to play with peach baskets and soccer balls. Probably a big debate down at the athletic center that day, since there was still a widely held belief that women’s uteruses would fall out if they ran too much.  As the sport evolved, the women's side kept pace ... well, sort of.  After ditching the weird women-only modifications, they played the same game, however, the attention and growth of the women's basketball was stunted along with the rest of women's athletics.   At the amateur level, basketball progressed, spreading as a grassroots movement through amateur athletic participation.  Ultimately, the sport's elite men were packaged and marketed, along with the rest of the sport, into an entertainment spectacle.  Meanwhile, women's basketball lagged.  At the amateur level it was added to the Olympics in 1976, 40 years after the men played their first game in Berlin. I blame Hitler. Even with a significant number of women participating, women’s professional basketball was also a late arrival.  Early successes were standout athletes and a base of industrial teams.  This sound familiar?  It should. 

The WNBA is the latest incarnation of women's professional basketball.  It’s the sideshow to the NBA.  Unlike other women’s professional leagues that have been developed and died, it has gotten a foothold in the American marketplace.  If you believe the data, it holds American attention more than the NHL. It also is financially sound. In the beginning -- and maybe still today -- if you ask a die-hard basketball fan why he didn't or doesn’t watch the WNBA, what would he say? "Women can't dunk."  The argument is simple:  while women displayed the fundamentals, they didn’t put on the same show, there were no acrobatic moves, no feats of gravity defying power.  Fine.  We can see and acknowledge the difference.  But what if it’s not there? Well, welcome to cycling.

If women’s cycling is suffering from the same ignorance and impediments as women’s basketball – and it seems that it does -- I propose we use following argument:  You, Mr. Armchair Sports, cannot tell the difference between men's and women’s cycling.  The things that draw you to cycling as a spectator sport are perhaps better, more pronounced with women.  Cycling is the struggle, a zero-sum equation, a balanced-on-a-razor’s-edge fight among the need to dispatch a rival, overwhelming the instinct to stop the pain, and overcoming personal hardships. If you love watching the Tour, you’d love watching a women’s version of the same scope. Short of telemetry or power data displayed on the screen, there’s no difference.  (I’ll ignore the baser element, and not highlight it being about sweaty, fit women in tight clothes.)  If you can tell the difference between 25 and 29MPH, you’re probably a cop in Virginia, and therefore not like the rest of us. Cycling is about the struggle, not the obvious speed or power.. If in a beer-induced pang of humanity you ever teared up watching an Olympic sport, caught up in the backstory and drama on and off the arena of play, then women’s cycling is for you.  If sprints are the essential part of the drama of the sport, I have already stated the obvious previously: the women’s races are often about the sprint.  Oh, you think you can do better, Mr. Big Talk?  Think your pain threshold is more than a female cyclist’s?  Actually, take the cyclist out of that, and perform a little home experiment: tell the women in your life that you have a higher pain tolerance and have overcome more personal hardships.  Before doing so, put 911 on speed dial, Tough Guy, and we hope the paramedics that show up are compassionate men.  Say you slipped in the shower.  Still not convinced?  If you are a believer in sport being war dressed in a different uniform, then we accept your gauntlet.  Put on your best pair of underoos and meet us in the street.  I know some women that would love to hold a class. 

Cycling is not a power sport, and unlike Basketball, the gender differences do not make for a different or “lesser” show.  If anything, it is an enhancement.  Even so, Basketball underscores the hardships, prejudices, and perhaps the way forward for cycling. I hope cycling doesn’t take another 100 years to figure out the obvious.  In trying to raise money for a women’s cycling team, we’re running up against the same story.  People innocently ask all about the professional nature of the women’s cycling and its riders, but it comes across as cringe-worthy, Victorian-era comments about race. With the ill-informed audience and a less than nurturing environment, women’s events are being canceled, curtailed, or postponed.  The men’s races on the same roads, often on the same day, flourish.  We can save the sport – and probably grow the whole thing – by making a better place and argument for the underappreciated women’s field.  We just need to get the message out: cycling men can’t dunk.

--Joe Laltrello

Sprint or Flyer?

Years ago, I read Connie Carpenter and Davis Phinney's book on cycling.  In the age before blogs and online diaries, it was one of the few American books on cycling written by someone with real world experience.   It had a frank, pragmatic approach to cycling competition, with a significant portion of the book based on life in the peloton, and colorful anecdotes about such idiosyncratic contemporaries as Bob Roll.  At its heart, however, it was a cookbook for success.   Little bits of information from the book stayed with me, for instance, in the section on women's cycling, I remember Connie impressing upon the reader that women's racing came down to the sprint. 

In the intervening years, I have heard that women's sprint fact repeated as a dictum, with scant evidence to support it aside from anecdotal references, or tangential, dry, unapproachable research.   Also -- and I am not alone in parroting this fact -- women's cycling has changed.  The competition is stronger, with more women making the jump from the elite ranks of other sports to give life on the road or trail a try.   That's great to see. Today's top cycling women, like today's female marathoners, are rapidly closing the gender gap, and in the process giving us fans an ever-improving show of athletic prowess and determination.  Check out Kristin Armstrong's time in her last National Championship or the Tour of the Gila ...she's right up there with the men.   While these comparisons are interesting, it's not the real point.  (The women's side of the sport stands on it own, but that's another story -- I'll write on that later.)  I decided to do a quick analysis of the 2009 National Race Calendar mass start events.  It's not my best data analysis work -- it'd get me grief at my day job -- but here are the basic facts:

  • Out of 38 races,  32 ended in a sprint for the line.  (See the attached chart)
  • 26 were an allout field sprint, the balance were sprints from a breakaway
  • Most of the conditions were dry, as far as I could see from the reports, the only seriously wet finishing conditions resulted in a breakaway and a sprint among the finishers.
  • Criteriums and road races had different splits, obviously, with 6 out of 14 road races ending in a full field sprint, and 20 out of 24 criteriums ending in the bunch gallop.



The solo breakaways were definitely the exception, and were significant shows of overwhelming aerobic power.  Kristin Armstrong took 2 of 6.  Hills were also a factor, meaning power to weight, but my half-baked analysis did not include topography.  (And for that matter,  the weight of riders was not considered.  Shame on me.  I know what I'll be bringing to NRC races next year. You might recognize me as the guy with the scale imprint on his face, or worse ... if the scale is no longer visible and I'm walking funny.)

If the raw tabular data, or the pie chart,  were even the least bit interesting, I'd show it to you.  Trust me.  It says the same thing in another way.  There's more to glean from the data, but the quick takeaway is this:  sprinting in the women's American scene matters.  We knew that, but there it is. The data are the data. It also means that, in the first half of race, those women that launch futile attacks against the group are mostly betting against the house.   Unless diffused responsiblity kicks in, they're probably doomed (oh, there's another topic for later).  And while we mostly know that great sprinters are born, not made, the other species of riders should note:  sprinting for the win takes a team of all types of rider.   I hope we'll get some of our own data on that later. 

--Joe Laltrello

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