July 21, 2022 Comments Off on Minimalist “barefoot” running shoe review
Minimalism was born from the simple “less shoe, more you” premise. The idea is that less cushioning and support from your kicks means you’ll engage your feet more, and strengthen the muscle fibers that get neglected when you’re all laced up. With stronger accessory muscles in the foot, injury rates were expected to drop and running efficiency would improve. Minimalism sought to reconnect runners with that organic barefoot experience, allowing the runner to run barefoot with the absolute minimum of material between your foot and the road or trail.
But what is a “minimalist barefoot running shoe”? The Journal of Foot and Ankle Research defines it as:
Footwear providing minimal interference with the natural movement of the foot due to its high flexibility, low heel to toe drop, weight and stack height, and the absence of motion control and stability devices.”The Journal of Foot and Ankle Research, Aug. 19, 2015
After extensively testing a variety of minimalist barefoot running shoes, our team has selected one that is flat-out superior to every other model on the market. This conclusion has been reached after researching the market, surveying user reviews, consulting with product engineers, and using my own experience in these shoes to determine the best options. Our experts have handpicked this pair based on value, test impressions, expert recommendations, and how the shoe performs overall. Here, then is the top pick to consider if you’re making a move on minimalism—just be sure to ease them into your running routine gradually.
The Sapiens Ped, World’s Best-Selling Minimalist Barefoot Shoe
Where do we start? These kicks work for running, agility training, weight lifting, chopping wood, trail running, rock climbing, foot-fetish websites, and more. With only one model to choose from, the Sapiens Ped incorporates an epithelial footbed that softens the step-in feel without adding too much cushioning. While extremely heavy in the footwear category, weighing in at about 5.4 lbs per pair, the no-lace, always connected attachment mechanism can’t be beat. The midsole stays almost completely off the ground, and the shoe uses an internal support skeleton with a few light overlays for a bit more structure through the upper. “This is a minimalist shoe so I did not expect it to be cushioned. However, it had enough cushioning that I felt protected from the road—although I wouldn’t wear it on technical trails,” said one neutral-footed tester who runs about 40 miles per week. “I noticed some Achilles fatigue after about 8-9 miles; I usually wear 4mm drop shoes, so I imagine my foot will adapt with time and consistency in this zero-drop pair.”
A few of our shoe testers are highly-experienced minimalist runners. We asked Don K., a decade-long member of the team, for his thoughts on the Sapiens Ped after he ran a full marathon in his sample pair. “These are a good bridge for runners who want more grip on trails but also need a shoe for flat and even surfaces. The outsole is well made and lived up to the durability of any other shoe I’ve tested. It has an incredible feature where the more you use it, the tougher it gets. Darned if I know how that technology works! The upper is a bit thinner than other minimal shoes, and if you hit rocks or sharp branches with the top of the shoe it emits a red fluid, no biggie as it dries quickly and eventually falls away, but it leaves something to be desired from an esthetic standpoint. The Sapien Ped comes with a lifetime guarantee as well, which is cool.
“The support is all internal, which I suppose is why it’s so heavy. The zero drop is also a positive, for me, as it provides a more natural feel while running, almost like wearing nothing at all,” Don added. “Probably the weakest feature of the shoe is the laces. It doesn’t really have any. But nonetheless, it fits incredibly snugly. Never slips or rubs.”
Other users comment on the shoe’s unparalleled traction, which compares favorably with the best rock climbing shoes.
World’s most waterproof shoe ever?
Whether on the trail, through a creek, or simply on a rainy day outside, the Sapiens Ped has unmatched waterproofing thanks to a unique coating that surrounds the upper, heel, shank, toes, and sole of the shoe. Extended use of the shoe in extremely wet conditions such as World War I trenches can result in something called “trench shoe,” causing the protective layer to rot and fall off, exposing the internal structure to permanent damage. However, normal use in water for many hours at a time causes only temporary wrinkling. Set them out in the sun for an hour or two and the wrinkling goes away with no damage to the exterior material or the fit. The manufacturer strongly recommends NOT putting them in the washing machine. Care instructions state, “Wipe with a cloth using soapy warm water to restore to original luster.”
Says one long-time user, “The breathability of these shoes is amazing. They wick out moisture better than Gore-Tex.”
The Sapiens Ped also comes with a unique design called the “Free Toe-Box.” Essentially mimicking the function of a human foot, the Sapiens Ped, through use of its proprietary extensible outer material, allows the toes to move freely without coming into contact with any material that might cause chafing, rubbing, or blisters. According to James Watson and Francis Crick, lead shoe developers with Double Helix, LLC, the company that designed the Sapiens Ped, “The free toe-box allows the toes to grip, flex, and absorb impact without bumping into the body of the shoe. There is also a degree of foot flex that you get with the Sapiens Ped that other shoes simply can’t match.”
However, the Sapiens Ped’s most revolutionary design is its proprietary “EverTough” sole. Chemicals sent through complex signaling pathways actually repair the sole of the shoe as it wears, paradoxically creating a stronger, more resistant, and more puncture-proof bottom the more you use it. Crick & Watson remain mum on how this works, but our lab testers and road testers were astounded at this apparently “regenerative” sole.
Samuel Tiras, one of the lead testers, remarked on how the heel and big toe of the shoe became incredibly hard after only a few weeks of use. “We’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “This stuff works.”
Nothing’s perfect …
Despite all these amazing benefits, the Sapiens Ped isn’t without a few downsides. First is smell. Excessive use without proper cleaning will result in unpleasant odors, according to Pepper the Cat.
Moreover, the appearance of the Sapiens Ped, although not the functionality, severely degrades over time. When fresh out of the box they appear pinkish (also available in black, brown, and olive), and are incredibly soft and cute. Since this is a long-term purchase, and since use causes thickening of the sole and other contact points, after 40 or 50 years you probably wouldn’t want to take these kicks to Cinderella’s Ball.
One final warning: these shoes are NOT dog-proof. An unlucky strike by a nasty little Dachshund, for example, can result in fibrous tears of the upper. Although messy, the self-repairing red fluid contained under the inner lining of the shoe will restore the integrity of the shoe’s integument. Scarring, however, may result, adding to the shoe’s diminishing esthetic value if you’re also planning to wear it to your wedding.
In sum, we recommend these as the most minimalist barefoot shoe on the market. They’ve been around for several million years and the design has literally withstood the test of time. Of the models we tested, they also came in as the cheapest; consumers report that the average market price is “free,” although delivery can be expensive depending on the length of the hospital stay.
Whether minimalist barefoot running shoes are for you, it’s a certainty that after just a few runs you’ll take these kicks with you wherever you go.
July 20, 2022 Comments Off on The dog of small things
It is a fact that the older you get the more you have to hurt if you want avoid hurting.
When you are young, you have to hurt to improve. But when you are old you are going to hurt no matter what and then die, maybe not even in that order, so the choice isn’t about what to do to get better, but what to do to get worse more slowly.
A lot of old people are like a lot of young people. They don’t like to hurt, period, so they settle into a life-death spiral of constant pain and discomfort. That can be the discomfort of not shitting well every morning. It can be the discomfort of insomnia. The pain of bad ankles, creaky knees, a bad back, or simply the general painful malaise of being locked inside a body that can’t go easily up a staircase or that can’t cross a parking lot without a lot of sweat, stink, and agony, or even a body that is too stiff or mushy or plain old fat to squeeze comfortably inside anything smaller than a giant recliner.
Kristie maintains that the older you get, the faster you have to move. There’s actually scientific research on this and some day I’ll dig it up and post it. But not today.
Today I’m going to talk about what happened when I did eight successive 30-second sprints, with 1-minute rests, on my morning 4-mile run that gains about 1,000 feet in the first two miles up to the turnaround.
What happened is that it hurt a lot. Sprinting when you are old and slow is not fun, though at the end there’s a kind of disbelief bath that washes over you. “I did that?” becomes “I did that!”
In the afterglow there emerged a morning glow, the burst of sunlight over the eastern peaks. I stopped my warm-down jog and whipped out my camera. You have five to ten minutes of that sideways light and then it’s over.
I focused the lens on as many small things as I could find and let the sideways light do all the heavy lifting. Small things, whether 30-second-old-man-hobble-sprints, or a bee in a flower, belong to the same dog. Arf.
July 18, 2022 Comments Off on Scottish Anti-Defamation League Demands Apology from L39ion Los Angeles
Kilblarney O’Doulaghan, president of the Scottish Anti-Defamation League, today demanded an apology from Justin Williams, lead talker of the L3gion Los Angeles Unknown in Europe Professional Bicycle Racing Club. After engaging in name-calling, chest-thumping, timber-checking, and nyah-nyah-nyah-ing with Michael Hernandez in a post-race blubber-up, the orthographically challenged L39ion team posted a statement that said:
… everyone else seems to be getting away with it, scot free.Velonews
“This is precisely the kind of racist language and racist stereotype we have been fighting since even before Braveheart,” said O’Doulaghan. “Scot-free is one of the most pernicious, nasty, racist, and demeaning phrases in English or Gaelic. We have been fighting since the early 1600’s to eliminate this pejorative reference to Scottish people, and it is sickening that L39ion of Los Angeles, despite their orthographic challenges, would continue to associate Scotsmen and Scotswomen with cheapness and the avoidance of paying one’s fair share.”
According to eyewitness accounts, L39ion of Los Angeles, after failing to field a team for any meaningful European race, let alone the Tour, gathered its forces for a run at the Salt Lake Criterium, America’s richest one-day bike race, with a combined prize list of $75 going 25 deep in the men’s field, and 15 deep in the women’s field, which had 15 riders.
On the final lap, Not Ready for Prime Time Michael Hernandez got boxed in by Over The Hill Cory Williams, and, according to Hernandez, Williams jammed him into the curb, making it impossible for him to latch onto the L39ion train and compete for the $15 winner’s purse.
After the “race,” Hernandez approached Williams, called him a nanny boo-boo and a bully and a pooky festersore. At that moment, Williams’s big brother Justin, who has never raced, let alone won, anything in Europe, hopped off his bike and called Hernandez a dooky-whoop, a flummadiddle, and a nasty poopy.
Before onlookers could intervene, Hernandez had spit at the elder Williams (42 years old and still dressing up in clown costumes), and the elder Williams had meanly mashed Hernandez’s little toe with his poky bicycle shoe, causing Hernandez to squeal “Ouchies!” and “Yip!”
Hernandez began to cry and pulled Williams’s hair, which led Williams to flick a booger onto Hernandez’s helmet. Officials pulled the two children apart, made them say they were sorry, and disqualified both racers from further Bike Races That Are A Farce, which, as L39ion later pointed out, was tantamount to a lifetime ban in the USA.
O’Doulaghan has appealed to sponsors, USA Cycling, and the 27 extant fans of US crit racing to join him in condemnation of this “racist” statement. According to O’Doulaghan, “It’s not until we treat all people with dignity, even cheap-ass Scotsmen, that our society has a chance of becoming just.”
When contacted for comment, Williams said, “What the fuck is that guy talking about? Scot-free is no different from other shit we say all the time here on the team like ‘Indian giver,’ ‘Chinese eyes,’ and ‘Jewed him down.’ Lighten up, Francis.”
Francis X. Hardiman of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department was quoted as saying, “Idgaf. I’m Irish.”
July 17, 2022 Comments Off on The death of gravel racing
No, pro gravel racing’s not dead.
But it’s dying, make no mistake about it. The biggest events on the calendar have stagnant or declining participation in their “hardperson” categories. What’s more telling, a tiny handful of the same riders from event to event are the only ones seriously in contention. That’s not a bad thing nor is it abnormal: the real contenders each year at Paris-Roubaix or the Tour tend to be few in number.
What’s bad is that after those few real contenders, in gravel racing, there’s no one. Unlike the pro peloton, or even your local racing hierarchy, once you leave those top ten or so competitors in a gravel race (fewer than that in the women’s field), the caliber of the racing falls off a cliff. So every event you’re simply watching the same handful of people slug it out, assuming you’re watching, and in reality, hardly anyone is. To say that the fields lack depth is an understatement.
By way of comparison, today the gap between 1st and 50th at the Tour is 1h 22′ 23″. For 2022 Unbound, the gap between 1st and 50th was 1h 25’35”. Sounds close until you add in this detail: Unbound’s gap between 1st and 50th was after 200 miles of racing. The 2022 Tour had a similar gap after more than 1,400 miles, or seven times the distance. The difference between professional road racing and fake professional gravel racing is more clear when you go farther down the placings: last-place Caleb Ewan, in 157th place, is 3h 46′ down on the yellow jersey. Last place at Unbound 2022? 6h 39′ down. At the 2022 BWR, the results are even more ridiculous: a 1h 25′ gap between first and 50th over a mere 137 miles, a 2h 20′ gap between 1st and 157th, and an absurd 12h 23′ gap between first and last.
Gravel promoters claim that this is no different from marathons, where hackers and elite runners start together but finish in vastly different times. This, of course, is false.
First, the apples-to-apples comparison of gravel and Pro Tour races, both of which are done on bicycles, shows conclusively that the gravel fields are pitifully thin in terms of quality. When you actually compare a European classic like the Tour of Flanders with the gravel “monument” of the BWR, the difference is embarrassing: after 163 miles of racing, the difference in Flanders between 1st and 50th is 5’13”. BWR? Over 1h 25′. At Flanders, first and last are separate by 10’16”. That, to repeat, is after 163 miles. At the BWR, first and last over about 137 miles are separated by, uh, 12 HOURS.
Second, the “mass start gravel is like mass start marathons” is false. In the sport of marathoning, there is no separate race held for elite runners. Competitive cycling, which has its own teams and events separated on the basis of rider classification, purposely separates racing between the lower and higher ranks. Marathons, on the other hand, lump everyone together in every marathon. But unlike professional gravel racing, the sharp end of the spear at a race like the Berlin Marathon has incredible depth. The first twenty finishers alone completed the 2021 course in under 2h 19′, and the top ten were all the equivalent of top riders in the Tour. The top finishers of the biggest gravel races belong to a category known as either “retired” or “never heard of ’em” or both.
Third, the winners of the major marathons go on to compete for what is truly all the marbles in marathoning, that is, the Olympics. Not a single gravel winner has ever even been in the Olympics, much less been a contender. Top gravel “professionals” like Peter Stetina, Ian Boswell, and Ted King were, during their pro careers, domestiques. To suggest that a long-retired domestique is somehow the equivalent of an on-form Eliud Kipchoge, Wilson Kipsang, or Meb Keflezighi is stupid and insulting.
In short, marathons have nothing, zero, zip, nada in common with mass-start gravel racing in terms of field depth, field quality, or the elements that are key to any fair competition such as governing bodies, drug testing, professional contracts, and other indicia of professionalism.
The structural weakness of gravel fields makes ridiculous claims that any of the premier gravel events are similar to the European monuments. Of course you cannot sign up for the Tour of Flanders or any other monument unless you are a member of a selected team and possess a UCI professional license. Claiming that an event with two or three long-retired professionals, none of whom ever won a pro race, resembles a European classic is absurd. And after accounting for the ex-professionals, when the remaining five or ten contenders are nothing more than talented amateurs, and the rest of the 800-rider field is filled out with people who have never actually entered a sanctioned race of any kind, you are talking about some serious delusions with regard to the nature of gravel racing.
A major race with several hundred participants where less than ten riders are contending for the win, and those contenders are the same ones in every race, is boring from the standpoint of the spectator and, crucial to the promoter, boring to the participant. That’s key because the big events depend on repeat business to grow. When you’ve done Gravel Unbound once and finished in the middle of the group, you might be tempted to do it twice, or even thrice. But slogging your way along the same old course for the same old participation t-shirt is a hard sell for most people once they’ve got their trinket and their hangover. “Been there, done that,” is real.
How noncompetitive are these fields? The women’s winner of last year’s “Tripel Crown of Gravel” won by virtue of being the only woman who registered for and finished all three rides. The men’s winner came out of the tiny handful of riders who finished all three. When simply finishing a race series puts you into contention for the overall, it’s a safe bet that the event is not competitive. Hard? Yep; long bicycle rides are like that. Competitive? Nope.
How desperate are promoters to attract riders at the marquee events? For 2022, they’re giving away a fourth entry to the BWR “Quadrupel Crown of Gravel” if you purchase entries to the other three. What’s next, a Quintuple Crown? Sextuple? The idea that anything more than a tiny number of people have the time, interest, money, or fitness to travel around the country riding gravel races is a poor one upon which to found a business, and no amount of hoopla can change it. Nor does it help that the “prize list” for this amazing series, or the rules, or the current standings, are unpublished on the promoter’s web site.
Not to be outdone in silliness, the Lifetime Gravel and MTB Series offers racers a total purse of $250,000, which sounds hefty but is a farce. Why? The overall winner gets $25,000 for doing the best in five out of six races that go from CA to UT to ARK to KS to CO to WI. Still sound like a lot of money? Uh, okay. I guess your time is worth virtually nothing. And if you’re not the overall winner? Prize money only goes ten deep for each gender and is probably going to be in the range of $6,000 if you’re not an overall winner. Wow, a real fortune: $6,000 or less to travel to five or six races across the entire U.S. over the course of an entire year. I never thought that any cycling discipline would make professional women’s road racing look lucrative, but gravel actually does.
Nor is the Lifetime competition open to just anyone: to even have a shot at one of the 40 “racing” slots (20 for men, 20 for women), you have to apply. See? It’s just like being in the Pro Tour minus the prize list, the team support, the subsidized equipment, the subsidized travel, the salary, the health insurance, and the contract.
The reality is that no professional sport worthy of the name pays its competitors in prize money. Nor does it pay them through one-off sponsorships from Red Bull, Floyd’s of Leadville, or Tubby’s Lawnmower and Plumbing Supplies. True professionals are paid with something called a salary via a document known as a contract. Good race results provide what are known as contract bonuses, as well as that amazing thing in pro sports known as a contract extension.
If your business model is living off prize money you are not a professional. You are a gambler. And you’re clearly not the kind who knows how to walk away or to run.
Show me the money
Gravel racing has none of these minimal professional standards, and with good reason. There’s no money in it for anyone except the bike manufacturers, the equipment manufacturers, and those oddball hangers-on known as participants in the “bike industry.” The entire bike industry, including sales, equipment, and e-bikes, is less than $7 billion, and it’s split between a plethora of tiny players who already have way too many advertising venues to fund. By way of contrast, legal and professional services are a $1.2 trillion industry.
The same way that gravel races lack structure, depth, quality, or true professionalism, the financial structure for the handful of people who “make a living” at it is likewise smoke and mirrors. Remember that the bike industry is tiny and that marketing budgets are tinier. Also remember that if you want exposure in bike racing and you have any budget at all, you invest in the Pro Tour and specifically in the Tour de France. Everything else will receive crumbs.
This means that gravel will never have professional teams. Not only do the bigger players already have them in various capacities on the Pro Tour, but there is zero interest from the general public in gravel racing. If you think amateur road racing is a niche, wait til you start asking people what they think about “gravel.” They’ll tell you that it looks good in rock gardens and certain kinds of driveways, or that they hate the way it chips their windshields on the highway.
Yet gravel is a vector for bike brands to sell more bikes, so they sponsor it in a manner commensurate with its significance. Like Red Bull and Yeti, they add individual racers, or “privateers” to their roster of “brand ambassadors.” Or, like Wahoo, they hire an individual racer to do real work and let him race on the side, and race well, like Ian Boswell. As Boswell himself admits, though, there’s zero pressure to perform in gravel races. Why? Because he’s not a paid racer.
What other sport that claims to be a sport has its top competitors admit that they aren’t really racers?
The real marketing benefit for all these companies is in the social media networks of the gravel “stars.” People like Colin Strickland have in excess of 40k Instagram followers. Once he hits the witness stand in the murder of Mo Wilson, he’ll probably have lots more.
Although gravel is a lousy investment for Specialized from the standpoint of funding a team and team infrastructure, they get quite a bang for their buck by having the top gravel racers as brand ambassadors. This nickel-and-dime sponsorship that keeps riders on tenterhooks from race to race and season to season, with no guaranteed income, no stability, no insurance, and no promise of anything around which to build a life or career, is proof positive that pro gravel racing is a no-dollar, no-interest, seat-of-the-pants craze that has nothing built into it to guarantee longevity.
Staying false to your roots
Another huge problem with competitive gravel has little to do with gravel races or their promoters and everything to do with the false premise of commercialized cycling, which is that in order to cycle properly you need proper equipment. This mindset, developed in road racing, tells people that in order to race properly you need thousands of dollars of equipment and clothing, no matter that hardly anyone who ever races a bike will ever win a race or even get on a podium.
In conjunction with this financial barrier to entry and barrier to continued entry, bike racing is physically and mentally hard beyond belief. The greatest racer of all time barely won 30% of the races he entered. A modern pro can expect to never win a single race on the Pro Tour, and the typical amateur, provided he’s racing against his peers and not sandbagging like so many masters “champions,” can expect victories to be incredibly rare. Because bike racing is so hard and because you are guaranteed defeat virtually every time you race, cyclists have always cast about for an easy way to feel like a winner without actually winning a bike race.
The first misbegotten child of this “participation” mentality was the century ride. These were explicitly non-sanctioned non-races that people who can’t win in a real race often signed up for and tried to “win.” Everyone else was simply doing it “for fun,” a complete lie when you saw people’s reactions to mistakes in the “results.” The difference between 876 and 877 was everything, really.
The second child of the participation mentality was the gran fondo, an actual race that wasn’t a race. The gran fondo, like the century, was a place where unsuccessful bike racers could find success in a non-race that was actually a race. In essence the fondo was a century, often literally, on steroids. But the fondo boom busted, too. Where there were once fondos tucked into every nook and cranny weekend from January to December, only a handful remain. Levi’s Gran Fondo, which rumor has it once attracted 7,000+ riders, now caps entry at 2,500, allegedly to maintain safety and ride quality, but more likely due to the fondo craze having dried up and gone away, because craze.
Bleeding over between fondos and centuries, sometime around 2010 there was a cyclocross craze. This lasted an exceedingly short while. Although racing ‘cross allowed consumers to buy a whole new rig and clown costume, the unforgiving reality of cyclocross is forty-five minutes of absolutely unrelenting pain. Whereas the century and fondo had lots of room for the feeble and faint of heart, cyclocross tosses you into the wood chipper every single time. There is no “party grupetto” in cyclocross.
So that fad waned because it turned out to be the one thing that people don’t want, which is a real bike race. Sure, there were people in the early days who could show up to a Brad House event in PV, score a win, and “upgrade” to Cat 1, but even that level of sandbagging hurt, it took place in shitty weather, and it was often accompanied by that most-unwished-for thing, the bicycle-falling-off-incident and ensuing ouchies. The ultimate dagger in the heart of cyclocross, on top of its unimaginable pain, was that it required real skills. People who saw ‘cross as a way to race without racing were soon educated, and after a few seasons the fad faded.
Enter the gravel
And so it made perfect sense that some clever person would look at the key qualities of ‘cross and fondo/centuries most appealing to the average cyclist and identify those qualities as 1) new bike and 2) participation t-shirt. Gravel was thus born. It required a whole new rig, a whole new vocabulary, and it offered up the flabby ethos of “everyone’s a winner” in spades and a custom kit. This ethos is euphemistically called the amazing gravel community, but make no mistake about it, the allure of gravel racing is that it’s not a race for any but a tiny few. For everyone else it’s about the PR, the gnar, the sufferfest, trading turns at the front, the cray-cray mechanicals, the gumbo mud, and the camaraderie of the big drunkfest at the end of the ride-I-mean-race.
Gravel racing also thrived because of its refusal to drug test. There can be no doubt that many gravel racers dope, but as a form of racing that covers up its drug use by claiming to be “grass roots” and independent from organizing bodies, everyone can pretend that the winners are racing clean. I remember asking one promoter when he was going to start drug testing. “Next year,” he said … in 2017. His events, in 2022, are still pee-free.
Gravel racing is driven by the absence of drug testing. Even the Lifetime Series with its $250,000 prize list can’t manage a drug testing regimen in their series that is anything but absurd. Only three men and three women were tested at Unbound 2022, with no mandatory testing of the winners. This, despite research that shows doping increases as money increases.
Facts aside, gravel racing thrives precisely because it’s a doping free-for-all. Riders like Colin Strickland, a guy who ostensibly has nothing to do but race bikes, turned down a pro offer after winning Unbound in 2019 because he didn’t like the rigid format of pro road racing. That sounds like code for drug testing. It beggars belief that at least some of the top gravel racers aren’t using PEDs. They do in every other sport, but in gravel it’s cool because there’s no testing.
Instead, promoters who don’t want to pay for testing and racers who want to dope all come together under the rubric of “grass roots” and “camaraderie” and “sharing a beer after the race” to hide the fact that the sport is almost certainly rife with doping. This utter absence of meaningful drug testing guarantees that no sponsor will ever get too deep in the sport. Everyone knows that no drug testing means rampant doping, and privateers/brand ambassadors who do get caught, or who, like Colin Strickland, get embroiled in public affair disasters like the murder of a fellow athlete, can be immediately shitcanned with no significant financial or media fallout. Having to cancel your Pro Tour team is a multi-million dollar debacle. Cutting ties with a scuzzbag? It’s quick, easy, painless, and cheap.
Beware of good vibrations
Gravel racing always sounded too good to be true because it was. Camaraderie, grass roots, safe, people engaging in healthy competition … what’s not to like?
There is indeed camaraderie in gravel racing, a kind of friendliness that you certainly don’t find in ‘cross or sanctioned road racing. Know why? Because nothing is at stake. Gravel racing is an empty bag for the top finishers, with tiny or non-existent prize money, and even when there is, it is never 20-deep, as you’ll find in any major stage race. Gravel racing is very much winner-take-almost-all, and it’s not very much. Purses in gravel are so insubstantial that the half-dozen or so “pros” who “make a living” as “gravel racers” do it through individual sponsorships–there is less team organization and finance at Rebecca’s Private Idaho than there is at a master’s crit in Dominguez Hills. When BWR bragged in 2022 that it was offering up a $45,000 purse to the top five men and top five women finishers, and $5,000 to the top three junior riders, it got a lot of press. But we never got the privilege of seeing a) whether that money was actually paid, and b) the breakdown of who got how much.
In any event, first place likely snagged no more than $5,000; a nice payday for six hours of bike racing, to be sure, but, as I mentioned before, not when you have to spend the year crisscrossing the country, and not when you don’t win EVERY SINGLE TIME. Sixth place spent just as much time and money as first, and his/her payout was zero. Not a problem for promoters; someone will always toe the line in the hopes of picking up a check. But it’s a huge problem if you want fields that have professional depth or quality, because athletes at the top of their sport won’t work for free.
And before you start thinking that $5,000 for the winner is a game-changer, remember that in 2021 it was already $2,500 … and enrollment in the Waffle appears to be waffling. Clearly, most people know that the five riders eligible for a payday will not be them.
This same press release tooting the big prize money also promised a “series payout to be published in February” but as of July and two BWR events already in the bag, there’s still nowhere on the Internet where I could find the specifics of this chimerical series prize list. Likewise, the promise that each event will have its separate prize list can’t be confirmed, at least by me, no matter how hard I Google. There’s nothing wrong with puffery; that’s what gravel is built on. But when you’re trying to establish something as an actual competitive event that has meaningful prizes, it’s worse than dishonest to hint at big prize lists that somehow never get publicized.
Where there’s nothing to fight over, i.e. compete over, camaraderie does ensue. But that camaraderie of having someone help you plug a tire isn’t enough to make you sign up for the Grinduro for a fifth time. So what about grass roots?
Well, I’d ask what that even means? Smoking a joint after the race? Not having to buy a license? Not having to pee in a cup? The idea that your event is simply made up by a couple of nice folks and their friends may take away some of the hostility and formality of referees and governing bodies, but it also takes away those things called rules, because in the main there are none, and in the main, there is no way to enforce them. Why would that be? As mentioned earlier, rules mean doping controls, and no one in gravel wants that. But doping aside, it’s because nothing is at stake. When you line up with 800 people, you’re going to be pack fodder and you know it.
Safety, though, that is a big deal. Real bike racing is real fucking dangerous. And compared to spinning your bike along a fire road in between doobies, the hazards of racing on the road are significant indeed. Gravel racing fields like the BWR may have several hundred entrants in a mass start, but they generally spread out very quickly. Slower speeds mean less serious injuries, and softer surfaces mean softer landings. Problem is, and I’ll get back to this, is that you don’t have to pay a $250 entry fee to enjoy the security of riding on dirt roads. People may enjoy the safety of doing gravel races-I-mean-rides, but they quickly learn that they can get all the benefits and none of the cost without signing up for these wildly expensive events and simply riding at home with a friend or two.
Of course the thing that people love to point out most of all is “healthy people engaged in healthy competition.” Okay, fine. I actually agree with that. But you’re not really bike racing when you’re finishing two, three, four, or twelve hours down on the winner. The remaining 775 riders are simply paying to fund a bike race between a handful of unexceptional ex-professional riders and amateurs who don’t want to drug test. The pack fill is competing for a PR or trying to improve on last year’s time or simply trying to finish. And guess what? You don’t need to spend $250 and fly to North Carolina to get that kind of competition on a bike. In fact, you can get it for free on something called “Strava” or for a modest fee on something called “Zwift.” Google it …
Go big or go home
Unfortunately for many of the marquee event promoters, gravel racers by the thousands are going home. Why? Because “home” offers a whole host of gravel races that are dirt cheap (heh, heh), nearby, and that offer all the supposed camaraderie and grass roots and blah blah blah of the big events. Also, you have a much better chance of placing in a small, local gravel race than you do against ex-Pro Tour riders, however long in the tooth they may be. I once met a trio of guys who had come down to San Diego to do the BWR from Anchorage. “How was it?” I asked.
“It was fun,” one guy said.
“It was really hard,” the other guy said.
“Coming back next year?” I asked.
They all laughed in unison. “No way,” said the third.
This doesn’t mean that the marquee events are going to dry up and blow away. It’s worse than that. They’re going to decline to about half their current registrations over the next few years, and become the niche events that fondos, centuries, and ‘cross all became. It’s hard to imagine that a promoter in a major urban area, after paying for permits, space, staff, advertising, marketing, and services like toilets and timing would net more than $30,000 or $40,000 in the most miraculous of times. That’s a terrible return for what is a year-round job, and a business where the income arrives in one big wham, after which you have to eke out an existence the rest of the year on whatever you earned from the prior one. Hope the wife has a good job with health insurance and a 401k. An inheritance wouldn’t be bad, either.
With prospects like these, it’s no wonder that gravel race promoters look so sad and haggard, and you can read it in their advertising hype. Where these events were once mythical and you were “lucky” to get a spot before registration filled up the day after opening, where racers once had their USAC licenses vetted carefully to make sure they were racing in the right “wave,” where the mantra was “you aren’t worthy,” well, the tune has changed considerably.
Now the events never fill up. Now there is a desperate begging tone, “Sign up for three, get the fourth free!” wheedles the Quadrupel-Doopel of Grovel. Now the emphasis is on personal fulfillment, on the life-changing nature of the event, a kinder and gentler hardest-thing-you-have-ever-done-or-will-do, unless of course you opt for the 25-mile cupcake version or, my favorite, the e-bike category.
When I did the first BWR in 2013 there was one category and it was called “Long, difficult, invitation-only, free.” Now you can choose from a Waffle, a Wafer, a Wanna, and previous editions even had e-bikes. If you think this hasn’t dumbed down gravel, you’re wrong, because now more people do the shorter, easier versions than the original beatdowns that gave the events such cachet.
The trend isn’t good if you’re pushing the idea of a hard day in the saddle. In 2019 there were about 959 wafflers and 661 everything-elsers. In 2021, 701 Wafflers and 774 no-thanks-ers, and in 2022, 905 wafflers and 863 uh-uh-ers. Same goes for Unbound, a far bigger and more prestigious event; in 2022 1,136 riders did the full 200-mile route, whereas 1,837 decided they’d have the baby enchilada. The message is clear: people want easier. Can you say “e-bike”?
At best, the watered-down version and the full version are nearing parity in terms of number of entrants in many of these events. But with each year, the easier version gets fuller and the harder version gets emptier. That’s a double smackdown because it shows that people really don’t want all that hardman-hardwoman-gumbo-mud-hardness, and it hurts the promoter because it’s the longer event that brings in the most revenue. As is always the case, being all things to all people leads to loss of identity and cannibalizes profits. Not that there were ever many to begin with.
I think you have an eating disorder called “bingeing”
Along with the begging and the attempt to be all things to all people, the marquee events have always made a big deal out of the special relationship between gravel racing and beer. They have beer tents, beer sponsors, even custom-labeled beer to commemorate your amazing participation in something that anyone can participate in. What American gathering has there ever been that doesn’t go well with beer? And in addition to the party atmosphere and explicit incitement to over-imbibe, there is the pre-ride breakfast and the post-ride lunch, both of which are rather amazing examples of terrible nutrition, unhealthy eating, and outright bingeing.
This, then, is the wink-wink that organizers send to participants. Real bike racers, particularly those who race long distances, succeed by essentially starving themselves. Big watts and big kilograms, unlike beef and red wine, do not pair well together. The participants, with no hope or talent or training regimen that will ever get them anywhere near the podium, understand that their real reward isn’t the t-shirt, it’s the alcohol and food binge. You might be thinking that with a formula of pig-out, get drunk, post on the Gram, there’s no way the promoters could lose.
You’d be wrong, because after the hangover wears off the participant sits down and totes up the incredible cost of this weekend of “racing.” Travel to the “race.” Hotel. Registration. New gear. Up-sells at the event, including an event clown suit, special event tires, and if you went with the S/O, the afternoon before the “race” shopping at the outlet mall. And after adding all those numbers up, the participant realizes that he can ride on dirt roads near home, hang out with his friends, and still get shitfaced at the bar for less than $50.
It’s this that is the worst sales proposition of all for the big events. What they offer works once, maybe twice, maybe-maybe-three times, and that’s it. The events that have more than a solid toehold and that will continue to do well are the smaller, highly localized events like the Rock Cobbler. Significantly, it explicitly tells you that it’s not a race. Hard, yes. Race, no. With participation capped at 500 and no pretensions to anything other than riding off-road, it’s a model that many have emulated. All the same, it’s not bike racing, the people who win it are not professionals, and the only rules it abides by are the ones that it makes up, such as, “give angry cattle the right of way.” Which is a really good rule, by the way.
Worst of all for those who’ve staked their claim on big, overblown drunkathons with too much food, too much hype, too much #socmed, and too little racing, there’s a new girl in town. She’s a cheap date, she’s hot af, and she will sleep with anyone and do it outdoors, to boot.
Her name? Miss Bikepacking.
July 16, 2022 Comments Off on Saturday group ride
I haven’t been on a group ride in over two years, and last night I decided to do one on Saturday. There is something about riding with others that solitary pedaling just can’t provide.
I got to the start early. The only ones already there were the three pine trees. We exchanged pleasantries anda little smack talk. Pre-ride chatter is always superficial.
Then the sun showed up, wedging himself between the pines and spreading all over everything like a warm breakfast. He’s always got to preen. “Where’re the others?” I asked.
“They’re going to hop in at various points,” the sun answered.
A minute or so after starting, my shadow hopped in. He looked pretty fit. “Gonna be a beatdown,” I said to myself.
The pace was steady. It’s uphill the first 13 miles, on dirt, with about 4k of climbing. Soon enough I was pinned.
Before long we had a couple of scrub jays, a titmouse, and a raven. It was noisy af but all I could do was pedal. I didn’t have the lungs to talk.
When we got above 5,000 feet, the gray pines and scrub oak got dropped, and we were joined by the big timber: red cedars, giant ponderosas, even a sequoia. The hitters were all there, or so I thought.
Right before the summit in hopped Brer Bear. We tried to drop him but couldn’t. His teammates golden eagle and red-tailed hawk rode tempo at the front so he could hang on.
The descent was nucking futs. White-breasted nuthatch, robin, summer tanager, Steller’s jay, and mountain chickadee bombed the downhill and shelled everyone.
I sprinted with doe and baby fawn for the scraps.
I think I’m going to join them next week, too. 37 miles, 5400 feet, and 98% dirt in four hours, forty-two minutes. Riding with others is what makes you stronger.
July 15, 2022 Comments Off on Holey Meadow
The lady pulled her minivan over to the side of the road and motioned me to stop. “Have you seen some dogs?” she asked.
“No. What kind of dogs?”
“A German Shepherd and a Newfoundland. They got out of the tent last night while we were asleep. They’ve got their leashes on.”
“Where are you camped?”
“Corral Creek,” she said, mispronouncing it “coral.”
I pointed down the steep embankment to the river’s edge. “You won’t find them down there. City dogs won’t get through this kind of underbrush, especially with leashes. You’d best head back to your campsite. Did you check next door at SoCal Camping?”
“It’s a giant campground right next to you. Lots of pets, trash, and people. Your dogs are probably there, getting breakfast. If they did go along the river, that’s the direction they would have gone. Flat and easy and lots of garbage.”
“Thank you!” she said, and sped off.
I felt really bad for her. Having a couple of lost dogs, when you don’t have kids, is just like losing your children. A mile later I passed her campground. She came running out. “Thank you so much!” she shouted. “They were waiting for us when we got back!”
I laughed and waved. Dogs like a second breakfast, too.
I’d left at a quarter to six, headed for Holey Meadow, about 75 miles, 6,000 feet, and six hours of riding, round trip. The climbing is steady and steep after you leave the Kern River, a 12-mile grind up to Parker Pass, then a short drop down the Western Divide Highway and a quick left into Holey Meadow.
Last year’s fire torched the mountains all the way from Johnsondale way past Holey Meadow, up into the Sequoia National Park. All along the climb, the roadside was burned to a crisp. What used to be a final two miles of big trees and cool shade was now a scorched graveyard of giant standing matchsticks. I didn’t know what I’d find at Holey Meadow, one of the prettiest little spots in the area, but I figured it would be charred, too.
Down the trail to the campground I slammed my 23mm road tires against a sharp stone but they didn’t puncture. The campground and meadow were untouched by the fire. Better put, the fire crews had specifically fought to save it, because the perimeter was blackened and dead. The meadow itself was green and lush, and the tall trees in the campground were just as tall and just as green as they’d always been.
I think the reason they saved the campground is because it has one giant sequoia on it. Either that, or they wanted to protect the toilets. With the Forest Service, you can’t ever be sure.
Given the fact that it’s peak season, and there’s been a massive post-covid camping boom, the campground was pretty clean, only a little bit of trash and an abandoned frying pan with tongs that looked like they’d played starring roles in a spectacular dinner failure.
I crossed the meadow, which was blooming with wildflowers. The summer cattle hadn’t come in to trample and eat everything and shit everywhere yet. The quiet and solitude were thick enough to taste. Getting there I hadn’t been passed by five cars.
I sat at a picnic bench and munched nuts. My water bottle was still filled with spring water from farther down the road, but I’d need a refill on the way back. The morning air was long gone and it was going to be hot the whole way home once I’d dropped out of the cool altitudes.
Religion isn’t my thing, but maybe they misnamed this place. Maybe they should have called it “Holy Meadow” instead.
July 14, 2022 Comments Off on One moon
Last year I slept outside on the deck for several months, but then, when it started getting really cold, I began sleeping indoors. Spring sprung but I remained inside. Summer showed up, and even with the door and windows open I stayed inside.
Three nights ago I dragged my blanket and pillow out to a patch of dirt behind the garage, laid them down, and tried to sleep. There were no sounds besides crickets and the neighbor down the hill, who was shooting his pistol in the house. After he ran out of bullets, or all the blood had run out, there was no noise at all.
The full moon was blocked by the house, but it was as bright as a floodlight and the garage threw a giant shadow over the yard. The human in its natural state, like other critters, doesn’t like sleeping unexposed. I kept waking up and swatting ants that crawled all over my arms and neck. Mostly they were imaginary ants but every now and then a real one would squish nicely between my fingers and I’d go back to an uneasy sleep.
The ground was harder than the floor I usually sleep on, which has a carpet, a Persian rug atop that, and a blanket on top of that, a veritable Sealy Posturpedic. I kept shifting to find the right spot on the hard earth, then waking up and shifting again.
Finally the moon crested the house and I had a monster headlight beating down on my closed eyes, causing them to open. Across the way the mountain peaks looked foreboding. My sleep relapse was fitful.
Morning came, the pre-dawn faint line across the peaks.
I got up quickly. There is no luxury sleeping late on a patch of dirt. I folded the blankets and tossed them in the garage. Everything was cool; my arms had gotten chill in the late hours. I went inside to feed the cat and to feed my coffee habit. Pepper had killed a couple of grasshoppers and left them as offerings. He wondered where I’d spent the night, so I told him.
He scarfed down his treats and kibbles and I took my coffee out onto the porch to watch another sunrise. Pepper sat next to me. “The sunrise never gets old, does it?” I asked him.
July 11, 2022 Comments Off on Getting to know you
The main reason that we don’t have “enough” time is because the algorithm keeps us busy, from waking til bedtime. Checking emails, texts, #socmed, news, and of course watching videos, TV, movies, all these things fill up the time interstices between busybusy activities so that the day passes in a slurred blur. These activities, which are actually not active at all and are instead un-activities, things done seated and unmoving, are driven by the algorithm and they involve selling you items or having you work for the algorithm, for free.
Always being occupied and sedentary indoors means that our heads are always filled with thoughts. Being in a car, or sewed up in a motorcycle helmet are forms of being indoors, fyi. There is no down time, no period where thoughts stimulated by the algorithm simply go to bed and leave you alone. It’s not an accident. Once you stop thinking, you stop buying and you stop donating your time to the algorithm.
A vacant head is a prized and rare commodity. It’s so hard to come by that yogurt retreats, meditation, mindfulness camps, and the like charge a lot of money to help you vacuum out your brain and leave it a hollow vessel. Yet the odd thing is that an empty head, and all the benefits that flow with it, are yours for the price of engaging your senses.
The primary benefit of draining your mental swamp is that it allows happy, positive thoughts to flow into the void. Those thoughts aren’t the kind of positive thinking associated with self-help, such as “Try to find the good side to that asshole.” They are thoughts whose very nature is positive. They don’t put a good spin on bad things, they are inherently good thoughts that spread a sense of well-being throughout all connected thoughts and to the body.
Such a practical kind of nirvana simply requires you to use your senses first instead of thinking. There are countless ways to do this, and they all involve being outdoors. Simply listen for birdsong, for example. Or simply look at a tree in order to discern its type and shape. Breathe the scent of flowers in order to discriminate the smell. Walk shoeless to determine what is beneath your feet.
When the senses are engaged in order to observer/discern/understand the natural world, whether it be a cloud, a stone, a river, a mountain, a bird, or a flower, all other thoughts are erased. You cannot think an anxious or negative thought about that nasty tweet while you are staring at a leaf and trying to figure out what the ant is doing on it. To the contrary, the moment you focus your senses first on sensing, the resulting thoughts will be completely focused on trying to unravel and interpret what you have seen, heard, felt, or smelled.
I recently, happily and peacefully, spent the better part of an afternoon watching ants cut apart and haul away a pile of dead flies that I’d swatted with a rag.
Thoughts evolved from the perception of stimuli. The moment you force your senses to do their job by immersing them in the outdoor environment, they will quickly take over the cognitive faculty of thinking. This makes sense. All organisms evolved senses in order to guide behavior, either through unconscious thought in the form of instinct, or conscious thought in the form of what we call thinking. The brain, by directing its senses to natural stimuli, subjugates the mind, forcing it to consider and interpret those stimuli to the exclusion of everything else.
What seems like a simple thing, focusing your senses on natural stimuli, releases your mind from the psychosocial stresses caused by artificial stressors such as news, gossip, #socmed, even stresses caused by interpersonal interactions. It’s not necessary to study under a yogi or to attend a yogurt retreat in order to clear your mind. All you have to do is engage your senses.
For most people it’s quite difficult because when they are outdoors, they are still focused on the thoughts in their head. Perhaps they’re jogging along a beautiful coast line or bicycling up to a marvelous ridge, yet they don’t “see” any of it. They’re still pissed about that nasty blog post they read or the news of the day’s fifth school shooting, or they’re sad because their Instagram post didn’t get enough likes. Maybe they’re fixating on a work relationship headache, stressing over bills, or fuming over a partner’s bad behavior.
The key is to simply use your senses. Looking at any natural feature, be it a tree, a bird, or a landscape, and trying to interpret what you’re seeing will scrub your mind clean of everything else. With practice you’ll learn to banish bad thoughts by engaging smell, hearing, vision, touch, sometimes even taste.
As you learn to subjugate your mind to your brain’s use of the senses, you’ll notice a concomitant drop in the desire to be entertained. You’ll start becoming disinterested in what other people think, say, or do. You’ll find that gradually you have more and more time each day, not less. You’ll find that watching birds scuffle at the feeder, or listening to the wind in the branches will be, well, fascinating.
You’ll also find that activities you once engaged in for the sake of the activity have become vectors for sensory perception and therefore positive thought. In my experience, using my eyes and ears when I ride in order to understand and interpret natural phenomena makes it irrelevant where I ride, how fast, or for how long. Being outside and being receptive to the outdoors and its sights, sounds, and smells makes every bike ride a PR that is littered with infinite KOMs.
How long can you sit outdoors? When you’re training your senses on the natural circus all ’round you, there’s virtually no limit beyond hunger, weather, and the need for sleep. Moreover, being still and focusing on perception, rather than on worries/anxieties/thoughts, puts you in extraordinary touch with your surroundings and the things that inhabit it. In short, it allows you really and truly to get to know your world, whether it’s the expanse of the sea or a tiny postage stamp of a backyard, a park or a night sky.
This morning I decided to interrupt my perceptions for about ten minutes during that brief window when the sun first breaks over the eastern peaks. That’s when everything assumes the most incredibly dramatic coloring, when, to take a picture, you need neither skill nor even much knowledge. Point and shoot, and the sideways sun will do everything else.
These pictures are really nothing more than an infinitely narrow slice of what I perceive when I sit out on my prayer mat, warding off prayers and drinking coffee as I watch, listen, and smell the opening day. In the forty-five minutes before sunrise so much happens that it’s scarcely possible to even sketch it. There is the false dawn, a contemplative wonder in its own right, and there are the individual sounds of mourning doves, ravens, house finches, house sparrows, acorn woodpeckers, wild turkeys, barking dogs, titmice, scrub jays, ash-throated flycatchers, Eurasian collared doves, white-breasted nuthatches, a horse, Bullock’s orioles, a California towhee, bushtits foraging through the oaks. There are the shapes and colors of oak and pine, of spreading juniper, pitch-covered pine cones, of stones, rocks, leaves, needles, grass, seed-heavy weeds, up-thrusting infant trees just out of the acorn, deer tracks, delicate flowers, burn scars, a jay feather floating in the bird bath …
When commanded to perceive, your senses take in so much so quickly that your mind can only barely keep up, but it can keep up. What it dispenses with are the thoughts, the swirling worries and anxieties that spend so much time living rent-free in the spaces of your head.
Of course the more you see, hear, and smell, the more you know a thing. Whether you know its common name, its scientific name, or no name at all, the perception of the thing places it in your mind and makes it familiar, knowable, something real in a way that no #socmed post ever is, or ever can be real. Perceived stimuli are the ultimate anti-algorithm.
Here’s one small example of how engaging vision can make a thing knowable, close, personal, intimate.
Last year I was walking around the yard, watering things. Growing out of some rocks was a small oak. It was feeble, had few leaves left, and appeared to be on its way out. I sneered at it. “You need to toughen the fuck up,” I said, dousing it with the hose.
Then I looked at it more closely. It had been cut down to the stump and yet grown back. It was surviving, barely, with no water and no help in a harsh, incredibly arid and shade-less environment. Toughen up? This small plant had more toughness, resilience, and will to live than any human I’ve ever met. And here I was, a fat, lazy, well-fed person insulting its survival?
The more I looked and saw how brutal its existence, the more I began to love it. I apologized to it for calling it names. I apologized to it for insulting its struggle. And I promised to respect its struggle and become its friend.
From that day, each time I watered I took especial care to give a large portion to this tiny oak. I called it my baby and encouraged it. “You won’t die for lack of water, not on my watch,” I vowed.
And scarcely a year later it had transformed. It was full, thick, bushy, busting out with green leaves. And each time I see it, I see it. I look and try to understand what I’m seeing. Those moments of perception push out all thoughts except interpreting what’s before my eyes. Is it bigger? More leaves? Healthier? Does it have enough water?
Multiply this familiarity with the other trees, stones, birds, mountain peaks, with the mountain ridges, the false dawn, the true dawn, the barking dogs and grunting pig, and my mind fills with positivity that no like, no kudo, no fake piece of the algorithm can ever approach.
Well, anyway … it works for me.
July 9, 2022 Comments Off on Protected: Is there any way that I can possibly be of service?
July 8, 2022 Comments Off on Protected: There are those days