Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Montana Gravel Challenge

For years, the spring race/event in the area was the Rocky Mountain Roubaix. Then the Cycling House moved their Montana Hell Ride up to the spring after a cancellation caused by wildfires, and last year they were on consecutive weekends and shared some of the same roads. So from there it made sense to combine them into one event.

The Robaix used to start in Frenchtown, and the Hell Ride started out on Mullan near Kona Ranch rd the last two years, but Bjorn, a founder of Big Sky Brewing, is a big sponsor of cylcing in the area and offered to host it at his house in the Huson/ninemile area, where the old courses passed anyway. That meant a place to camp if you wanted and free beer all weekend (although I waited until after the event was over to have any).

Stage 1 was a short time trial Friday evening. The original plan was to go ~4miles, but due to snow on the course it was shortened to only 2. And it was on dirt. Things started out smooth, but the last bit hit some mud and potholes, which were a challenge on a road bike after 4-5min of going flat out. My planned line went out the window and I found myself having to bunny hop huge holes, which made me a little slow at the end. But I still wound up 8th overall which was pretty good.

Stage 2 was 4 laps on the Roubaix course, which descends remount road from the ranger station, climbs ninemile, turns right, and goes back to the ranger station. Without the out and back from Frenchtown that made it about a 45 mile day. There is some climbing, but it's not really that excessive. That means our lead pack stayed pretty large every lap despite a few efforts to thin things down, and there were about 20 guys still together heading back to the finish. The last chance to create a break is on the climb back out from the ranger station, and a few guys picked up the pace. My plan was to push hard over the last rise, but I was toward the rear of the pack at that point. I still went for it, and when I got to the front I found that I had a little space with Josh Tack and a guy from Canada. I went as hard as I could over the top and down the pavement, but the other two guys had CX setups with a single chainring and I think I was the only one who could pedal at those speeds. Unfortunately that meant the pack caught us just before the last corner and after all that work I rolled across the line near the back, I think in 13th or so.

Stage 3 headed out to Alberton and up to the end of the pavement up Petty creek, turned around, then went 10 miles up ninemile road. Steven Davis from the Cycling House went off the front and the start, and while he was in sight, it meant no one from TCH was doing any work. Then Jesse went up to join him, which meant no one from our team was doing any work either. That meant around 10-15 pretty strong guys were just coasting, so the group stayed very large, probably 50 riders, and was a little frustrating for most, especially the guys from out of town who actually wanted to race and ride hard. There were some quasi attacks and attempts to speed things up, but it's hard to get away from a group like that on mostly flat roads, and then whenever one of the MBW or TCH riders pulled through things slowed down again. I tried to stay mostly near the front and near Ivan especially in spots where I thought something could go, but I was generally drifting all over the place.

Once we got to the dirt on ninemile things picked up a bit, and the road conditions were not so great. While there was some smooth dirt, there was also some mud, and a lot of potholes. Not so bad on the way up, but I did find myself nearly stuck in mud at one point and then had to put in quite a bit of effort chasing back on. But most of the ride back I was sitting just off the back, still getting some draft but able to move around to dodge holes. Not much happened over the hills to the finish, and there was still a pretty big group going into the last corner..And again, I was badly positioned for the sprint after nailing a pothole just before the turn. I was certain I'd gotten at least a flat if not broken the rear wheel, but after some inspection everything seemed fine. Unfortunately that put me on the back of the group in the sprint.

Overall, I think I wound up tied for 13th. It pretty much came down to positioning in the sprints at the end and I was just never in quite the right spot, and the group was pretty large both days. I would have preferred for things to be a little harder to thin things out, but with so many riders, things can stretch out but not break, and there are opportunities to chase back on even if you do fall back a bit.

 Well, that's how the race played out. As far as weather and road conditions go, they were much better than the roubaix the last two years, where it was raining and muddy. There was a little bit of moisture but generally not too bad. Upper ninemile road at the end of stage 3 was definitely unpleasant, with plenty of slick mud and large potholes. That section, with a big group, made the day not so much a fun racing experience, and more of a stressful "don't crash, don't break bicycle" environment. Early after the turnaround a few people went down in the mud and then there was lots of bumping and veering around holes and some near misses on the way back down. Personally, while we have lots of it, I'm not a huge fan of the dirt/gravel/mixed surface racing. It just seems to add an extra element of risk to what is already a somewhat risky activity. When you're on pavement, the road is one less thing to worry about, and instead you can put more focus on your surroundings and the race. And I mean, we have MTB racing and CX, so maybe the road races could stay on the road? I'm also getting kind of tired of the extra wear and tear it puts on equipment.

So while the race was a well put on, overall fun event, with free beer and food, that $55 entry fee really belies the true cost of participating. Last year the roubaix and hell ride destroyed my rear wheel, the bottom bracket clicks, and mud greatly shortens the life of chainrings, chains, and cassettes. And it's especially expensive when you rip off the rear derailleur and break a bunch of spokes like a friend did. On top of that, the courses were toned down and cut short due to snow higher up, otherwise we would have been on a completely different, much rougher route for Saturday (that I probably would have used my CX bike for), and gone farther up ninemile Sunday. And while I am complaining about it, I still went, and still raced in the front group, and will still probably keep going to these.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Unravel the Scratchgravels XC

I seem to be getting a little behind on posts here. I have some more gravel routes to post since that seems to be all the rage these days despite the fact that it is really nothing new for us in MT. I also haven't said anything about the Montana Gravel Challenge yet. Maybe I'm tired of gravel, and would rather ride road, or mountain bikes on actual trails? Or maybe I just need a "gravel" bike.

Anyway, Scratchgravel XC is a mountain bike race out in Helena. It takes place down in the valley so it can happen earlier than most other races in the state. The downside is that you aren't really climbing up anything long or steep (or is that an upside?), and a big portion of the course is pretty smooth double track. That does make it a good start to mtb season though.

This was the first MTB race I ever signed up for, back in 2014. I raced as a cat 3, and it was pretty close between me and another guy but I did win. I remember getting lapped by Landon Beckner, who won cat 1 as like a 15 year old, and then being amazed by his time on the strava segments when I looked at the ride later. I upgraded after that, but since our wed series are non-categorized and I always miss the Missoula XC for one reason or another, I actually hadn't done another usac sanctioned MTB race since then. So still cat 2 (although I can upgrade to 1 if I want).

Last time, the start was up a really steep and loose bit, so I had planned on trying to be first wheel up that again this time, but the start has been moved past that. There were 12 guys in cat 2 combined with the masters 40+ for 3 laps (cat 1 does 5) so it was a decent sized pack. I got myself on the front row at the start and that was a good thing

Ira, a local Helena racer, took off from the start and it was all I could do to stick on his wheel. We crested the short start climb with some space on the field and I was breathing pretty hard and my legs were already feeling it. I spent Saturday morning doing trail work and then went on a "openers" mtb ride that turned kind of long, and didn't get quite as much pre-race warm up as I would have liked. About 3 minutes in I was beginning to worry about being able to hold that kind of a pace for much longer, but then the course flattens out and descends a bit. He eased up on the flat, too much actually, so some of the group caught back up and a few went past into the next short climb and singletrack section. By the time we hit the next doubletrack climb, he had let a little bit of space develop in front of him and I went by to catch the new leader.

I followed him most of the rest of the lap, which descends some doubletrack, hits some rolling single track, decends more doubletrack, and then starts a gradual climb on doubletrack. The new leader was riding pretty quickly, especially on the downhill sections, but I was pretty comfortable following and we had about 5-6 more guys just behind us. Once we hit the climb back to the start/finish Eric Greenberg went by and the leader didn't follow. I didn't hesitate long and got up on Greenberg's wheel, then suddenly we were alone with quite a bit of space.

We traded off a bit and rode the next two laps pretty comfortably to win our respective categories. So it turned out to be a pretty uneventful race for me. I won some beer and they had nice etched wood medals.

Here's the strava

Looks like I've improved a bit in the last few years, as I put myself in the top 10 of a few segments including the "power 2" segment where I had been so impressed at Landon's time in 2014 (which I went faster than). Not sure about upgrading to cat 1 though. Being fast in MT is different from being fast in other places, and I still don't really consider myself very close to the level of the top mtb racers in the state like Toby, Joel, Butterfield, Foster, etc. I guess we'll see how the wed night races go, and the Philipsburg 46 at the end of June. Goal is to keep up what I've been doing for another month, and not crash or hurt myself.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

New tire day

I really should have bought some new MTB tires last year, but I never got around to it. By fall, when trails get all dry and loose, I had essentially no tread left, which did not inspire confidence and I didn't ride the bike all that much from about August until now. I also got a number of flats that needed patching on that rear tire, despite it being the EXO casing. This could be due to the new 120tpi design, which means a faster, more supple tire, but each thread is smaller and weaker. It was the 3rd or 4th ikon I had, with the previous tires being 60tpi, with a non-exo, non-tr thrown in there that had no issues.

I didn't mind the ikons, but last time around I tried an ardent race up front hoping for a little more grip. That was not really the improvement I was hoping for, I think because of the minimal transition knobs. With a high seat post XC bike and racey tires, you spend a good amount of time in that part of the tread and it's hard to get the bike fully leaned over onto the cornering knobs. For me at least. I might just suck at riding. So my plan was to try something with a little more even spacing like a continental x-king, schwalbe rocket ron, etc. My understanding is that a well defined set of edge knobs does give more outright grip when you are on them, but you have to get there first.

Eventually I decided to try the schwalbes, and wanted to go with a rocket ron up front, which has even knob spacing, and a racing ralph rear, which seems a a little lower profile down the center.

I had my cart ready to check out at a german website, which offer the nice evo line schwalbes at way less than they cost here, but I waited a little too long to order. I wasn't sure how long it would take (weeks? a month or longer?), and wanted tires sooner rather than later, so I decided to just order locally. However, even with my discount at Missoula Bicycle Works, those $92 msrp tires were a little more than I wanted to spend. The high price of mtb tires (and other bike tires in general), makes no sense to me. It's absurd. And don't get me started on the price of a whole bicycle...

Moving on, Schwalbe does make less expensive tires, in their "performance" line. This year they are officially tubeless ready, have a new "addix" rubber compound, and "only" cost me $50 a piece. $50 a tire I guess I can live with, and I had a goal of trying out something more budget friendly with an msrp of under $70 (which leaves you pretty limited when looking for a tubeless ready XC tire). You can get x-kings in the $40-50 range, and I also looked at the michelin force xc, but decided to go with the original plan.

Hey look new tires. QBP didn't have the rocket ron in the performance/addix/tr version so I just have racing ralphs front and rear. Maybe later this summer I'll try to order one, or go with a nobby nic to get a little more grip once the xc races are over.

The evo line racing ralphs, with the snakeskin casing in 29x2.25, are listed at something like 630g. For some reason I didn't look closely to see what the performance line was supposed to be, and later found a claimed weight of 735g. Ouch, over 200g extra weight there. Then I went and put them on scales.

Ouch again. That's a little more weight than I wanted to add to my bike. My previous tires had listed weights of 670 and 740g, so the actual weight difference is in the 150g range. But maybe that will improve durability, as my 120 tpi 3c/exo/tr ikon didn't seem very tough.

On the plus side, it's new tires. They were fairly inexpensive, and they popped onto the bead and setup tubeless right away with no hassles on my easton ea70xct ust rims. They don't even need tape- install tire, add sealant, add air, go ride.

Then I checked the width and found more disappointment

These are supposed to be 2.25" wide. But, I don't have new fancy wide wheels. They are 24mm external width, so that's what, 20mm internal? And they are new, so maybe I'll get a little stretch after awhile. But an extra 1/4 inch doesn't seem likely. The previous tires, listed at 2.2, also measured smaller, so this isn't anything new.

And here's how worn out my ikon was. I think I'm going to notice an improvement

In conclusion, they were well priced and easy to install, but heavier, and narrower than claimed. Now I just need to go ride them and see how they feel, roll and grip. There is still a lot of snow out there so I'm getting anxious to hit the trails.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Crystal Creek

Crystal creek road goes from Turah, east of Missoula, to Deer creek. Done as a loop, less than half is on dirt, and there is minimal elevation gain, making this a great easy/beginner route or something you can do quickly after work. Usually I like to go out to Turah on pavement and then back on the dirt, but this can be done any way you want. From Turah on the south side of the interstate, cross the river, and turn right on Crystal Creek road.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Holloman Saddle

The ride over holloman saddle from Clinton to Miller creek is one of the more popular mixed-surface loops in the area. Total distance is about 55 miles with 3000 vertical feet of climbing with about 20 miles on dirt.

Holloman saddle is on what's called the miller divide, or the north end of the sapphire mountains. The sapphires extend south all the way to Chief Joseph pass and idaho and have lots of other roads and trails to explore.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Petty Creek Loop

I've been meaning to post more ride descriptions and routes, and I just rode this a week or so ago so I might as well post about it.

Petty creek goes into the clark fork near Alberton, and there is a bridge, and fishing access where it meets the river. Petty creek road continues 13 miles to the top of a pass, where it becomes Graves creek road and descends down to highway 12 west of Lolo. From Missoula, this creates a loop of 80-90 miles depending on the starting point, and the new path from Lolo to Missoula makes the last section of the ride much more pleasant. The upper part of petty creek all the way to highway 12 is dirt, but this can be done with no problems on a road bike, especially with larger, more durable tires (I have some 27mm vittorias that work well for rides like this).

Friday, March 23, 2018


It seems that bike season is officially here. Looking at March, I've done quite a few miles and a lot of riding in groups. Actually, only 3 solo rides for the month and they were all the first week. Two weeks ago we had the first weekend rides, and last week we started up MBW Monday and Wednesday Worlds. Next weekend is the Polson Speedwagon race, then a few weeks later the Montana Gravel Challenge, which is basically the hell ride and roubaix combined into one event. Then in May we are putting on a road race, possibly a multiple day thing that will use the old Bearmouth course and possibly have a hill climb and crit/circuit race as well.

So I'd better keep up the riding and cut back on the beer and junk food because that's a lot of racing coming up fast.

Here are some pictures from the last few weeks