Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Summer and Fall 2014 - Happiness isn't what you have; it's who you have and what you do.

As the snow gathers outside and the temperatures dip below zero, I cannot resist incessantly reminiscing over this past Summer.  I haven't posted on here since the end of the past semester in early-May.  One way to explain it is that I was too lazy to write.  Another explanation is that I was too busy living to stop and write.  Now that the summer has passed and I long for its return, I know the latter explanation is true.  Nobody lusts over past laziness - I want this summer back because it was really good.

I am not going to whine over a wonderful summer so I'll get my negativity out in two paragraphs.  Also, there are a lot of paragraphs up top, but a lot of pictures to break up the post later.  

2014 was the worst racing season I've ever had.  I was really damn slow and it was by my own doing.  Honestly, that is another reason I didn't want to write this and I'm largely leaving racing out of this post.  

I left my job at Peak Cycles at the end of the summer.  Since October 2013, I worked in an administrative and customer support role for both the shop and (prior to that I was a mechanic)  I appreciated the experience and greater responsibility, but I reached a point where I dreaded each day of work.  That is not what working in a bike shop should be, at least not at 21-years-old, and an unhappy employee is no good for a shop known for friendly service.  It was not the fun summer of wrenching on bikes and talking to customers that I have previously experienced.

There were other bummers of the summer, too, but that's life.  No big deal.  All of them have been valuable learning experiences.  If I look at the value of the good times I had, the significance of the summer's wonderful experiences and the permanence of their implications, this was an outstanding summer.  

I absolutely loved Peak Cycles itself and the guys who work there.  The opportunities John Polli has given me over four years are as innumerable as the moments in which he has advised me, encouraged me, and helped me out.  The community of riders who make Peak what it is, both employees and customers, were the most significant reason I returned to Colorado after leaving Lees-McRae and they continue to be my closest friends.  Mines Cycling is included in that.  All the time I spent with friends this summer reenforced that this is where I am supposed to be.  

Shortly after my last post, I took a trip to Loveland Pass with Weston Burcar to do some night sky photography.  The results are not as good as I want them to eventually be (they never are), but I was pleased, nonetheless.  

The most incredible experience of the summer was being able to share most of it with my girlfriend, Ginny.  One month after my last post (that puts us in mid-June), Ginny flew out to Colorado to visit me for a week.  We explored the near-ghost town of Silver Plume and climbed up mine tailings to check out abandoned mining sites above the town.  We drove to the top of Loveland Pass, hiked up a few hundred feet above the road, made mini-snowmen, then drove down the other side past cyclists enjoying the warm weather and skiers enjoying one of Arapahoe Basin's last days.  We went off-roading near Fairplay and got caught in a snow storm in mid-June, but only after riding the gondola up the mountain in Breckenridge for a lunch with an incredible view.  We visited Idaho Springs and found excellent Mexican food.  That was just one day.  

We also attempted to ride Mount Evans from Golden with some friends, but were forced to turn back at Echo Lake due to weather. At some point we checked out downtown Denver for a little bit, too.  We caught a show at Red Rocks with John and Sarah Polli.  Regardless of what we were doing, we were enjoying each other's company.  

The best part about the week Ginny spent with me in Golden was that it didn't end when she flew back to Maryland on June 19 - I flew home with her.  We had a whirlwind two and a half weeks in the mid-Atlantic that saw us traveling around for at least as much time as we spent near our homes.  

During the first weekend we were home, Ginny and I travelled to a race she was competing in just north of Philly.  Ginny crushed the competition for a top-5 result in the Pro Women's field before we headed to downtown Philly to meet one of my friends for cheesesteaks and pizza.  

Not to be content with one weekend of bike-related fun, the following weekend we joined Kevin Pedlow and his friends on a three-day road riding trip on Skyline Drive in Virginia's Shenandoah Mountains.  My cycling fitness was so terrible at this point in the summer that I struggled to finish the first day of riding, opted to do my own easier ride on the second day, and skipped the third day of riding all-together.  During the first night of camping (between days one and two), torrential downpours occurred throughout the entire night, filling our tent with water and soaking both Ginny's and my sleeping bags.  After trying to deal with the conditions for nearly five-hours, we took a soggy one-mile walk to the lodge and got a room.  We spent the second night crammed in the back seat of my dad's truck.  It worked out to be surprisingly comfortable and we were definitely dry!  

Despite riding poorly and having all of our stuff soaked, I couldn't have been happier as I rode beside Ginny on the first day, took in the incredible views, and descended some ridiculously fun roads. I wish I had felt good enough to do the rides all three days but I still enjoyed the trip knowing that Ginny was having a blast on some awesome roads. 

Just two days after finishing our trip, which was about the time it took to get totally dry again, we decided to make a three-day visit to Ocean City, MD.  We both love Ocean City but had never been there together, so our visit was a whirlwind of our favorite activities.  We visited our favorite donut shop, Fractured Prune, Ginny's favorite Mexican food restaurant, Tequila Mockingbird, and one of my favorite dinner restaurants, The Angler.  I asserted my dominance in an aggressive game of mini-golf only to be firmly put back in my place when Ginny took me surfing the following day.  Ginny also succeeded in getting me awake before the sunrise so we could enjoy watching it from the beech.  All of the way to Ocean City and all of the way back we listened to Ginny's favorite CDs, mainly the Beach Boys, which was far more appropriate for an Ocean City trip than the punk rock on my phone.  

On the way back, Ginny convinced me to do the unthinkable.  I ate at a Taco Bell.  After telling her that I was emotionally scarred, although it actually was pretty good, we headed a bit closer to home and stopped at Wye Mill.  After enjoying the historic mill and being "those people" as we looked out over the neighboring lake, we finished our drive back home.  

That evening, my dad, Ginny, and myself headed to the Inner Harbor of Baltimore for the Fourth of July fireworks and enjoyed an exquisite dinner on the waterfront.  Thank you, parents!  

Sometime during the time home we caught an Orioles game.  

Ginny is an incredibly talented mountain bike racer, as you'll see later.  While we were home, her jersey was hung on the wall of one of the area's most established sports bars.  I joined her and her family for a fun evening of stories and laughing, which was definitely a good time.  She also has some incredible cycling tan lines.  That's dedication! 

A few days later, I hopped on a plane with my family and headed off to Europe for a 12-day trip.  I took a ton of pictures there, of course, and links are below.  With the insanely fast pace of the trip, the pictures tell the story of Bavaria's history and beauty better than I can relate in words at this point.  The beer was excellent, the food was excellent, the exceptionally loud and vulgar hillbilly family on the trip with us was not excellent, but they were a great conversation piece for the rest of us.   I took an almost identical trip with my dad in 2007 and to be able to repeat the trip with both parents and my younger brother was an incredible experience. 

No words or pictures can match the somber, tragic, and imposing atmosphere of a concentration camp.  Decades later and on the most beautiful sunny day, the weight of enormous death was so perceivable in the air that it seemed to be a physical presence.  The pictures will show what it looked like, but nothing other than a visit can convey the gravity of the experience.  

Unless otherwise noted, the locations are in Germany.  You can click the links below to see them:

I had been planning to surprise Ginny at Mountain Bike National Championships in Bear Creek, PA for most of the summer.  She describes it pretty well in her blog post from this summer: 

"There was also another part of the nationals weekend that turned out to be awesome. Josh told me that he was going to return from Europe while I was away at nationals and basically only have time to get home and go back to the airport for Colorado. I totally believed this. That morning when I woke up for the race, I saw that Josh had texted me pretty early. I thought for a second about how the only reason he would be awake so early was if he was driving up to Bear Creek to see my race. When I got to the start line and he wasn't there I figured he was not coming. I raced and was pretty upset about the race. I was hot, tired, and had a lot of adrenaline emotions, so all I wanted to do was go back to my room and shower. When I got there, to my dismay, the maids were cleaning it. So I went in and started talking to the maids, with my "let's be friends with strangers!" attitude. Then from the hallway I heard, "Hey Ginny." It sounded like Josh. It WAS Josh! So he came in the room and hugged me. It was probably the longest and most meaningful hug of my life. I felt pretty awful, and that hug made everything better. So it turns out that Josh had planned to come to nationals the entire time, and everyone but me had known about it. He saw the entire race, and was even out on course taking pictures. I don't know how I didn't see him because he was with Tommy, and I saw Tommy. That was probably the best surprise of my entire life. The rest of nationals was a lot of fun, especially the heckle pit. There were pickles being spilled in front of riders, USA speedos, Anne Rock and Jimmy in their costumes, meat sticks, and lots of heckling."

Spending Nationals together was wonderful.  As Ginny said, I snuck a few pictures of her racing in the woods without her noticing.  

Although I was, in fact, able to make it to Nationals, I did have to return to Colorado the following day.  I headed back out west just before the last week of July.  I moved from my dumpy old apartment on Fifth Street, which is managed by a property company that is the shit stuck to the shoes of the scum of the earth, into a newer and nicer apartment that isn't managed by a slumlord.  That was a positive change, for sure.  No mice, ants, mold, or permanent grime.  The appliances and fixtures all work and the place is clean.  When something breaks in the new place, it's fixed quickly.  Oh yeah, and it's the same price as the last place.  

I also finally sold the XX1 component group from the Reign X I bought in the winter and outfitted it with a full XTR groupset.  The bike is incredible.  

Another thing I did was get the emissions tested on the Jeep.  35-inch tires don't fit on rollers, so I had to get smaller ones put on the back axle.  I definitely got funny looks driving around like this:  

Just two and a half weeks after coming back to Colorado, I made a quick trip back east for a weekend for two very special reasons.  Saturday I helped my younger brother with his Eagle Project and Sunday I watched Ginny represent the United States in the Windham Mountain World Cup race in New York.  

UCI World Cups are the highest level of mountain bike racing in the world.  Ginny was one of a select few U23 American women who were chosen to represent the U.S. against the best riders from dozens of other nations around the world.  

I left Maryland at nearly 9 p.m. on Saturday with a long drive to New York's Catskill Mountains ahead.  I arrived at the hotel room Ginny was sharing with her mom at 3 a.m.  I fell asleep only after setting an alarm to make sure I woke up in time for the race - her and her mom were going earlier so she could warm up.  My iPhone had been struggling with low-memory and the new iOS update.  After all of my driving and effort, the alarm failed to go off in the morning.  I woke up on my own and, realizing the situation, was driving to the course within five minutes.  I won't discuss how quickly I completed what is typically a 45-minute drive.  

Despite my best effort to beat the clock, I arrived at the venue just after Ginny had finished her race and gotten back to her car.  I wasn't there to encourage her at the start.  I wasn't there to cheer her on in the race.  I wasn't there to watch her fulfill one of her lifelong goals: completing a World Cup.  There is not a single picture of her racing it because I wasn't there.  It was one of her biggest achievements and I am still kicking myself for missing it.  

Although I missed her race, we were still able to spend the rest of the day together watching the Pro Men's race, which was an incredible experience.  Seeing riders we had only read about online whizzing past us was awesome.  Talking to them after the race was even better.  

Although Ginny's mom had long headed back to Maryland, Ginny and I were leaving the venue around 5 p.m.  I told her that I would take her somewhere special for dinner.  We took a scenic route along the Hudson River towards New York City and then spent a thrilling three hours in highway traffic navigating things like this:  

Eventually we were in New York City and I parked us at Battery Park, just adjacent to the Staten Island Ferry Terminal.  We admired the Statue of Liberty from across the harbor and then hopped on a subway bound for Times Square.  We took in the lights, sights, and perpetual mayhem of the square and then checked out some of the side streets for late dinner options.  Just after 11 p.m., we found ourselves seated in the cozy back room of an Irish Pub enjoying excellent food and live music.  Contently fed and tired, we boarded  the subway and headed back to the car.  Not too bad for operating with no plan!  

The drive back was less enjoyable than the day that spawned it.  We ended up splitting the New Jersey Turnpike between us and, after a 45-minute snooze at a rest stop, arrived back in Maryland around 7 a.m. Monday morning.  Ginny had been up for at least 25-hours and I was not too far behind.  I had an early evening flight to catch so we parted ways that morning.  

It wasn't so bad to part ways that Monday morning because on Tuesday evening Ginny and her mother arrived in Denver to move Ginny into her college in Grand Junction.  We enjoyed dinner in Golden and Ginny was able to see my new place for the night before I saw her and her mother off to Grand Junction the next morning.  

The next few weeks gave me a chance to fully settle into my new apartment, get back to riding after taking the entire month of July off and riding very casually during the first week of August, as well as prepare for the impending start of the semester.  I also had the chance to finish my fixed-gear project bike.  Well, not finish... but "make-ridable."  

August 23 was my first race since the dismal performances of late-spring and I was less than optimistic about how I'd fare.  The race was Winter Park's King of the Rockies, one of the oldest and most established mountain bike races in Colorado.  Although it doesn't attract the stacked Pro field of other races, many consider it to be a classic Colorado race.  My friend Benn Stover was in town from Kansas to race with me and see a show in Boulder.  He was riding a brand-new Trek Superbly outfitted with the XX1 from my Reign.  He took the win in the Expert Men's field while I rolled in for fourth.  Fourth out of six.  Benn's time would've put him in a good position in the Pro Men's race while my performance was mediocre, at best.  That's alright, though, because I had been back to riding for only a couple of weeks.  Although I wasn't going nearly as fast as I should've, I didn't feel as awful in the race as I did in the early-season races and summer riding when my body was burnt out.

The real highlight of the day was discovering, upon returning to the Jeep, that Ginny had gone to see the Pro Cycling Challenge stage in Vail that afternoon.  That meant that she was a mere 90-minutes from Winter Park, and she said it'd be great if I could join her.  I was able to make it to Vail in time to meet up with Ginny and her friend Duncan for dinner.  We ran into Weston and one of his friends so they joined us, too.  

After our usual prolonged goodbyes, Ginny and I parted ways and I rolled back to Golden in the Jeep.  The next day was my final day of work at Peak: the U.S. Pro Cycling Challenge stage through Golden.  Just like 2011, we were open for two hours before the stage, closed during the stage to ride up Lookout Mountain and cheer the riders.  After cheering, we descended back down to see the riders come through town on their way to Denver before reopening the store for a few more hours.  Upon closing at 5 p.m., the party that had already started rapidly escalated.  I will not implicate myself or others in the specifics of what may or may not have occurred, but I will say that everyone present still talks about that night.  Most of that night was funny when it was happening, a lot of it is now funny at this point, and one or two things may take a year or two to be funny.  But it was one hell of a night.  

King of the Rockies was the first of an eight-race series that preempted Collegiate Mountain Bike National Championships held October 24-26 in my least-favorite college town, Banner Elk, NC.  All eight races were on consecutive weekends from late-August through mid-October, allowing a one week break before Nationals. The first two races were non-collegiate races I chose to do, while the latter six were the regular collegiate season.  

Labor Day weekend was Grand Junction Off-Road.  How convenient it was that one of my favorite races from 2013, and one of the biggest races in Colorado, was held in the town Ginny lives in!  I headed out to Grand Junction on Thursday evening since I have no classes on Fridays.  I was planning to come back Monday evening since Metro had no class on Labor Day, but Jeep troubles had me stay until Tuesday evening, and honestly without a word of complaint.  

The race went as I expected it to.  I felt alright and rode well for the first half, faded in the third quarter of the race, and thought I might die in the last few miles.  Being able to finish a ridiculously technical 40-mile race in sweltering heat, slightly less than a month after returning to simply riding a bike, was pretty satisfying. 

The real highlight of the day came about 30-miles into the race just as I was hitting the last major climb.  A voice from behind me yelled, "who's that hot Peak Cycles racer?" and I turned around to see Ginny powering up the incline toward me.  She looked about 100-times better than I did as she passed me and she quickly disappeared into the distance above me as I struggled up the climb. When I finished, she was already waiting at the finish line with a huge hug and the prettiest of smiles, as always.  I only enhanced the moment's charm by telling I felt like puking.  For nearly half an hour, she sat next to me as I rehydrated and cooled down, trying not to puke.  Eventually I felt better and my spirits were further buoyed upon Ginny and I learning that she had placed second in the Women's Open race and was barely one minute behind the winner! Not too bad for her first race in Colorado!  She definitely got the prize for best-dressed on the podium.  

The following day we decided to take time off from riding and explore some of the (very) mild four-wheel-drive trails around Colorado National Monument.  We wandered our way into McInnis Canyon and found incredible views.  

The next day, Monday, we headed over to the North Fruita Desert to ride the 18 Road Trails.  The ride was awesome.  As Ginny put it, "Watching the sunset in the desert, while on your mountain bike with someone you love, is something you should definitely do."  My thoughts exactly.  

On Tuesday I headed back to Golden already looking forward to racing the first collegiate race of the season the upcoming weekend.    I did one hell of a rad ride on Wednesday, though.  I took the Reign X up Herman Gulch to the Continental Divide Trail at over 12,000-feet of elevation and then descended all the way back down.  It was hard as hell and totally worth it.  

The 2014 Collegiate Mountain Bike Season passed in a blur of driving, camping, racing, and having fun.  If I could've raced as fast as the season passed, I'd have won a stars-and-stripes jersey at Nationals.  It was nice to do the entire mountain bike season and even nicer to race it all with Ginny, who was representing Colorado Mesa University.  I won't bore you with the nuances of each weekend's events, but rather pick a few good ones.  We raced six consecutive weekends in what could've been a tour of the region's best riding locales.  We hit Granby, CO; Crested Butte, CO; Snowmass, CO; Red Feather Lakes, CO; Angelfire, NM; and Grand Junction, CO; which marked my third visit to the town this year.  

The highlight of the Granby race was watching as Ginny placed fifth in her first two collegiate events ever.  The low point was when I DNF'd the cross-country and got DFL in short-track.  I also raced a Super-D and placed sixth, although the results were questionable, as is always true in collegiate racing.

The next weekend in Crested Butte brought less-than-ideal performances to both of us, but an hour-long recovery ride together to the ghost town of Gothic made things better.  Snowmass saw better races for both of us and had me camping next to a river in the nearby national forest.  The views were spectacular.  

The following weekend in Red Feather Lakes was what collegiate cycling is all about.  Short-track courses with jumps and bonfires at night.  I had a pretty terrible cross-country that led to a DNF, but Ginny got a good result in the race, which was awesome since she wasn't happy with her short-track result (even though it was still good).  The only thing in either race I enjoyed was the short-track jump.

Photo: Laura Leonard

The cross-country race at Angelfire was on Saturday, October 4 - Ginny's birthday.  I managed to get us into a hotel room for the weekend which proved to be far better than camping, as one would expect.  After Ginny had a great cross-country race, placing fourth, and I won my first-ever Men's C dual-slalom, we showered and headed east to Cimarron, NM for a special birthday dinner at the historic St. James Hotel.  After being stuffed with an endless procession of appetizers, steak, potatoes, and dessert, we headed back to the hotel.  On Sunday Ginny did well in short-track and I got dead last.  No surprises there.  I then hopped on the lift and raced my first-ever downhill race, again in the Men's C category, of course.  I was riding well until I crashed about two-thirds of the way down and put some nice cuts into my leg.  The cuts weren't all that bad, but the bruising atop my thigh was.  I kneed my shifter hard enough to bend the shifter body one way and the shift lever the other, while the middle of the shifter stayed put and gouged my leg.  I got up and finished as quick as possible, but on a five to six minute course, the damage was done and I finished waaaaay back in dead last.  

The final race of the season was in Grand Junction.  Again, I headed out on Thursday night and, since the teacher of my one Monday class is super laid-back, came home on Monday night.  I finally had a decent cross-country race (felt decent, didn't place decent) and just had fun in the on-campus short-track at Colorado Mesa University.  Ginny had a solid cross-country race and crushed the short-track for fourth place.  We had fun rides before and after the race weekend and I took Ginny on a surprise trip to Aspen for dinner on Sunday night.  I remembered she had always wanted to go there and I promised I'd take her after we weren't able to go during the Snowmass weekend, even though it was 15-minutes away.  Between checking out the town, the Peter Lik Gallery, an excellent dinner, and especially Ginny's excitement over it all, the evening was a blast.  

Photo: Laura Leonard

The following weekend was the one weekend between the regular collegiate season and Nationals.  The weather was nearly summer and I took full advantage of it with long road rides three days in a row.  Colorado is beautiful.  

The Tuesday afternoon following my riding-filled weekend saw me packed into a van with five of my friends from Mines Cycling headed toward Banner Elk, NC for Collegiate Mountain Bike National Championships.  25-hours nonstop in a van headed to a race is one thing.  25-hours nonstop in a van coming home from the race is a entirely different experience.  Still, there's nothing I'd trade for that experience, now for a second year in a row.  Black Cat Burritos in Boone, NC was a fitting reward.  "Brotha Z's Wang Shack" in a commercial slum outside of Nashville was more of a near-miss than a reward.  All part of the ride.  

While my results were objectively mediocre, I was happy with them after my pretty terrible 2014 season.  I finished three-quarters of the way back in short-track and two-thirds of the way back in cross-country.  I rode well and felt good going hard, which I was very pleased with.  Now I just need to make myself go faster when I'm going hard.  I also discovered what happens to a carbon fiber XTR brake lever when you crash into a tree.  

Ginny had a spectacular weekend of racing with phenomenal results.  She finished sixth in short-track, fifth in cross-country, her team-relay squad placed third, and her college placed second in the overall omnium.  She came home with three out of four potential medals.  

Every rider is thrown into awkward confusion after Collegiate Nationals.  It's not unlike awaking from a pleasant - but very busy - dream, and now finding yourself at a loss for what to do on weekends.  I have definitely filled some of my time with sleeping and catching up on studying, both of which were somewhat neglected during the season.  I will also have time to focus more on my internship writing articles for USA Cycling.  The first two of my articles were published last week and can be found here: 

University of Michigan Cycling Team and Ann Arbor Velo Club, Partners in Success

Collegiate Racing Brings New Experiences to Both Elite and Beginner Racers

This past Sunday I also was able to get in some downhill shuttle runs on supposedly secret trails near Idaho Springs.  They were fast, steep, and loose.  A good time was had by all.  

As I sit here, now hours past when I began this post, I realize that I am one lucky guy.  I have packed dozens of experiences that others would only dream of into the summer and fall of 2014.  As I mentioned initially, a big part of this wonderful experience is due to my incredible group of friends.  It's not necessarily a huge group, but it's a true and meaningful group.  The few weeks spent with my family were definitely a highlight, as well.  The longer I live in Colorado, the more I value family time.  An underlying experience that has stitched together everything mentioned here is being with Ginny.  She is a wonderful girl, as kind-hearted and smart as she is funny, cute, and beautiful, and she is absolutely irreplaceable.  She has picked me up when I'm upset and making her happy has been the most selfless yet fulfilling endeavor of my life - one that I hope never ends.  At this point, we are not sure where our future is headed but I have a feeling that, just like this past year, who we are with and what we do will bring us happiness as long as we do it right.  

Photo: Forrest Russell