About shannykoenig

bicycles, landscape ecology, cats, music, maps, and flemish reds and abbey ales are all of interest to me.

Thunderstruck

After what has seemed like an eternity since I picked up my showroom-fresh Rocky Mountain Thunderbolt 770 (my initial impressions here: http://wp.me/p3nKds-S), I have finally been able to devote some quality trail time to adjust to my new ride and form some opinions with regards to 27.5″ wheels and the bike in general. For those of you only interested in the Coles Notes version: I’m officially a ‘tweener convert. Technical climbing prowess, more traction, and increased smoothness and momentum over rough terrain more than make up for a nominal decrease in agility and acceleration compared to a 26er.

For those of you interested in all the nitty-gritty details, first some general stats. Rocky bills the Thunderbolt as a bike for “when XC gets rowdy“. The build out of the box certainly reflects this, and while it features a respectable arsenal of higher-tier Shimano and Fox components and Stan’s Crest wheels, at just over 28 pounds it is definitely not a weight-weenie XC bike (details here: http://www.bikes.com/en/bikes/thunderbolt/2014). I rode the bike a few times in the stock configuration and was admittedly overwhelmed by its heft. Despite a strict budget, I went to work swapping a few key items to shave off a bit of weight, and in the end, a Whiskey carbon bar, Selle Italia SLR seat, ESI grips, and Schwalbe Rocket Ron tires set up tubeless brought the weight down to a more tolerable 26.5 pounds. Still not “race light” by any means, but not bad considering the full aluminum frame. Swapping out the heavy OEM tires and going tubeless saved a pound alone and livened up the bike significantly – if you can only afford one improvement, lighter tires and/or wheels will give you the most noticeable improvement in ride quality and the biggest bang for your buck.

My slightly lightened-up Thunderbolt. Not weight-weenie approved!

My slightly lightened-up Thunderbolt. Not weight-weenie approved!

Mmmm, Whiskey bar...

Mmmm, Whiskey bar… Redbike makes it easy to find sweet upgrades for your ride.

On to the riding. Rocky describes the Thunderbolt as “An agile, playful XC bike that loves punchy, technical climbs and flowy singletrack descents“, a description that I agree with entirely. I’m typically quite a conservative rider when it comes to launching off trail features or choosing more reckless lines (old bones take a long time to heal), but the bigger wheels and bit of extra travel (120mm front and rear) really taunt and tease you to ride more aggressively. I’m getting air, and I like it. The extra traction provided by the bigger wheels certainly helps to eat up punchy, technical climbs, of which there are many in Edmonton, and I’m finding cleaning tricky sections is a great deal easier and takes less energy. Notably, if I do stall a bit while trying to overtake a large root or obstacle, it takes a lot less effort to get the bike moving again and successfully roll over the offending obstacle. Me likey. I also enjoy that the Thunderbolt likes to be (and in some cases needs to be) muscled around a bit, another reflection of Rocky’s “this is XC in BC” design philosophy. The bike is responsive yet stable, and despite a low bottom bracket, I am experiencing way less crank-arm and pedal smashing into roots and rocks than with past Rockys I’ve owned, likely a side-effect of the larger wheels and greater travel. Where in the past I would consistently clip certain obstacles and would expectantly cringe waiting for the familiar smash each time, now I can pedal through the same section cleanly with way less ratcheting and smashing, and way more smiling. Of course the bike’s grandeur isn’t completely owing to ‘tweener-sized wheels; this is my first experience with thru-axles (front and rear), a tapered headtube, and the short/wide bar/stem combo, which all certainly contribute to the ride quality and enjoyment factor aboard the Thunderbolt. Again, I’m finding myself pushing way harder and faster when coming into corners or when descending with no doubts in the ability of the bike to hold its own. I definitely don’t see my self ever reverting to skinny bars or quick releases.

The only downside of wide bars is remembering just how wide they are...

The only downside of wide bars is remembering just how wide they are…

Of course I do have a few complaints – what finicky cyclist doesn’t? The weight of the bike certainly holds one back on long, steady, open climbs. The Thunderbolt is clearly no match for a carbon hardtail 29er on such terrain, but then again I’m quite certain it wasn’t designed with it in mind. When after all have you ever encountered playful and flowly gravel road climbs? As a female rider, I also find the bike’s weight starts to become a challenge as I become fatigued – you might say, “when I gots no muscle left, I gots no hustle left” with this bike. The rear suspension of the bike is also very active when in trail mode – I find myself using the dual lockout (climb mode) way more than I initially thought I ever would, locking out on anything smooth, whether it be flat or climbing. Not a big deal if you’re always on rolling, techy, obstacle-laden trails (as the bike is designed for), but the bobbing is noticeable, and the constant button pushing to attain a more efficient pedal stroke can be a bit tiresome when riding highly variable terrain or in race situations. Finally, and not uncommon among small-sized full suspension frames, it’s a tight squeeze for a water bottle – a side loading cage and small bottle are required to avoid unsuspectingly flicking the rebound dial while indulging in liquid refreshment.

All in all, I’m happy to say I’m having a ton of fun on this bike so far.  It’s not built for hammering up gravel roads, so if that’s what you’re into you’re probably going to be happier on a 29er. If you’re more like me though, the bike is a blast to ride where it counts most – on punchy, rolling singletrack. If that’s where you’re in your element, this is a great bike for it, and I would highly recommend it. Additionally, I would certainly advocate to shorter women and guys to try out 27.5 wheels – the benefits of the platform far outweigh the small loss in agility compared to a 26er, and the bike actually fits someone my size properly unlike a 29er. Yes, it is a bit hefty for an XC racer, but then so am I, so you could say we’re a perfect match.

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Devon-ately a Cyclocross Town

This past weekend Alberta CX racers congregated in the scenic town of Devon, aka Biketown, for races 10 and 11 of the ABA calendar. The racing promised to be fast and furious with only a handful of races left before the Provincial championships and the end of another Alberta CX season. Bicycle races in Devon have always ranked among my favourites – no matter what the discipline, racers and spectators can count on an enjoyable day and leave feeling inspired by a community in love with bicycles.

Sadly, The United Cycle race team was forced to move their race from the Devon Lions Campground (my personal favourite) due to some flooding and erosion issues, but luckily an equally cross-worthy backdrop exists just up the river at Voyageur Park. This venue was introduced last year, and from memory I knew it would provide plenty of variety and challenging terrain to make for a satisfying doubleheader. Special mention should be made of the town’s very impressive bike skills park at Voyageur Park. What was just a small park with some skinnies and teeter-totters last year, is now a fully developed park complete with jumps, a flow trail, and plenty of features to practice and build skills on. I know more than a few of us were wishing we had brought our mountain bikes along; however, the distraction of the bike park quickly faded as racers donned their skinsuits and focused on the task at hand.

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Task number one for me was to get in solid warm ups this weekend. As I get older and older, it takes me longer and longer to get warmed up. Despite knowing this, I’ve been rather lacksidasical with regards to warming up all season, and you really pay the price for this in cross. So, as opposed to just squeaking in one lap before my race, I arrived early enough to get in a pre-ride a full race before my own and then concentrated on pedaling to keep the legs warm and on staying hydrated until my race.

The pre-ride helped to highlight the technical nature of the course – lots of corners, loose soil, bumpy grass sections, a sandpit with a challenging entry, and a super steep run/ride up – all features that gave me hope I could finally bag my first win of the season. I tried to remain positive but realistic, since anything can happen during a race, especially on a course such as this one.

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The skills park at Voyageur park even found its way into a section of the course. Photo courtesy Chris Hubick.
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Josh murdering the steep climb. Photo courtesy Chris Hubick.

The promise of a holeshot prize made for a fast and furious start, and without even knowing what prize I was racing for I went for it and made it to the woods first to score a ginormous 750g Toblerone. Podi-yum! I maintained the lead until the first time through the sand pit, where what I had cleared without too much difficulty during pre-ride punished me for not choosing the proper line. I stalled out magnificently, getting caught up in my bike in the process, and watched Andrea sprint past me in what has become a sort of first lap Groundhog Day pattern for me: lead it out, screw it up, spend rest of race trying to make it back up. Only difference was that in this race I was actually able to make back up enough time in the corners and on the climb, and by the last lap I was back with Andrea and pretty confident I could make a dig for the win when the timing was right. Unfortunately though, I was a bit too hesitant and sat back too long, and when we got to the final time up the steep climb, Andrea stalled out just as she got to the top. She was able to foot push over the top, but positioned right behind her I was forced to stop and hop off my bike and scramble up. The gap was made, and Andrea earned the win. Drat. The sting didn’t last though, as deep down I knew I had the steam to win, and it only made me more hungry for a win the next day.

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The holeshot Toblerone. Victory never tasted so sweet. Photo courtesy Chris Hubick.

I stayed smart about warming up again on Sunday, and once again the pre-ride revealed a course well-suited to donkeys. Essentially the previous day run in reverse, the Devon Bicycle Association had strategically rerouted a couple sections to include the full length of the sandpit, a riverside beach section, and a stair run up out of the beach section. These alterations also allowed the reinsertion of the previous day’s steep climb, although now much trickier to ride since you approached it from an awkward angle. I had a feeling this was the feature that was going to make or break the race.

Race started fast again, and not wanting to ruin my streak, I led it out and proceeded to screw up the steep climb magnificently, taking the opportunity to step on my bike and rear wheel in the process, and just like so many times before watched Andrea run by and get a gap. I shrugged it off and focused on keeping her in sight, but my attention on her was quickly replaced by what was happening behind me – wonder kid and wonder lady cyclocross phenoms Sidney McGill and Marg Fedyna were just behind me and chasing at a furious pace. I knew I couldn’t afford to make a mistake, for they were both there ready to capitalize on any seconds I was willing to give up. Luckily, this initiative from behind inspired me to go a little faster, and as the race wore on I was able to latch back on to Andrea about halfway through the second last lap. I hesitated here for a bit, but knew I couldn’t play it safe if I really wanted the win and made a dig so I could lead going into the last lap. We stayed together, and as we approached the steep climb I knew this was the deal maker/breaker. Clean it and I would have a gap and an essentially clear run to the finish, or dab and likely have to settle for second yet again. No dab. Made it up and over and headed for home as fast as I could muster, finally earning a spot on the top step of the podium.

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Being tailed by Sidney, who is more than 20 years younger than me. Where’s my botox. Photo courtesy Brent Topilko.

I wasn’t the only one scoring a personal victory. Mighty mite Sydney came in 3rd, and barely in her teens she will surely prove to be a force to be reckoned with in the next couple of years. It was an excellent showing by new racers also, including a group of local ladies who looked like pros using all the skills cross champ Pepper Harlton had taught them in the weeks leading up to the race. I bet they’re as excited for next year as I am!

I’m really loving how the smaller Alberta communities are embracing cyclocross. Everybody wins – we get awesome courses and can visit new communities, and the communities get to experience the excitement of our sport and hopefully also get caught up with a healthy dose of cycling fever. For some great video action from the weekend, check out Sheldon’s video here:

Donkeykoenig’s Cyclocross Season So Far…

And just like that, we’re already a third of the way through the ABA cyclocross season with five races done and about ten to go.  Cyclocross is a funny beast; it’s kind of like a cycling version of what the average non-cyclist would think about a weekend trip to Vegas – when it happens it hurts like hell, you don’t really remember much about what actually transpired during the whole thing, and your body hates you Monday morning, but for some reason you’re able to laugh about it after and even secretly look forward to the next time.  Also along the same lines, you suddenly notice you’re making a lot of new friends on social media, and pictures of you (both good and bad) keep popping up of you from your weekend endeavours…

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Shanny rippin’ (Photo: Bill Quinney via Social Media)

My thought on the season as a whole so far is the events have all really been top notch.  It’s great to see the registration fees have come down to a reasonable amount from the staggering heights they had climbed to last year, and I would say everyone’s enjoyment factor is the same if not even higher, which goes to show you don’t need a ton of money to host a great event if you know how to budget and put your registration dollars in the right places.  Another highlight so far this season has been the inclusion of some new locations for events.  RMCC came through on short notice to host a fabulously fun and scenic race in Canmore, and despite being faced with an unsympathetic Parks Department in Calgary, Crave Racing and Bicisport used some great initiative to find and transform the Airdrie Pro Rodeo Grounds into a great cyclocross venue.  Finally, the addition of the Novice Men and Sport Women categories have really been successful at getting new and inexperienced cross racers to the line.

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New locations have added serious spice to the ABA calendar!

Now on to some on the ground reporting from this past weekend’s races, the Crave Cupcake Cross and the Bicisport Rodeo Cross, both held at the Airdrie Pro Rodeo Grounds.  I’ll admit to being a bit hesitant when I first heard about the venue – as a kid I saw my fair share of rodeo grounds while spending my summer holidays travelling around Alberta in a motorhome with my Grandma, and my now distant memories of them are two: 1. Flat and open, and 2. Dry, dusty, and windy.  Bicisport organizer Brent Topilko’s directions to the site: “Follow the signs to the Airdrie Waste Transfer Station!” only added to my anxiety, but upon arrival and survey of the course all my fears faded quickly as racers were treated to a fun and dynamic course with several elements that highlighted the unique flavour the grounds had to offer.  Yes, it was still windy and dusty, but you can’t really control that.  Yet.  I think everyone agreed the section through the gymkhana corral (see, I wasn’t lying about knowing rodeo sites) was a definite highlight and test of skill – the loosely packed dirt meant you couldn’t take the corners too fast, and I noticed more than a few people must have slid out on those corners judging from the dusty thighs I saw.  Maybe chaps are in order for next year.  The back section provided some punishing and bumpy climbing and descending, which rewarded those with the endurance to suffer consistently through the 6 to 10 laps of the course.  Several long, fast swoopy turns and a couple of punchy ride/run-ups also helped to keep things interesting for racers and fans alike.  It was definitely one of those courses where a couple of mistakes could cost you a few places as I quickly found out dabbing on the run-up, watching my gap become someone else’s.  Especially with the wind making it hard to close any gaps that opened up, once people became isolated not much changed between racers, and when it was all said and done I ended up second to the super fast Andrea Bunnin (curse those super-fit Bunnins!).  We all got delicious Crave cupcakes on the podium though, so it didn’t take long to turn my frown upside down.  Crave Racing hosted a super day, and while I didn’t indulge on a cupcake hand up during the race (I’ve made that mistake before), it was fun seeing the photos of all those that did.

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The tricky corral section. Next year remember to pack yer chaps!

The next day we were treated to even stronger winds (boo-urns) and the course run in reverse.  The lap was equally fun and challenging backwards, a true testament to the well planned out course design.  The previous day’s long, rough descent now became a leg-sapping climb, and a tricky off camber descent with a sharp corner became an even trickier, short, punchy climb up.  Despite riding a much cleaner and solid race, I finished a step lower in third as I find I am still lacking that extra gear in the speed and fitness department I’ll need if I’m to climb up onto the top step of the podium this season.  Maybe next year I’ll actually start cyclocross training early like you’re supposed to instead of trying to race myself into shape.  Who am I kidding?  I’m just going to stick with the “I’m looking to peak a little later in the season” façade.  Toy ponies instead of cupcakes were our reward on the day, with Pepper Harlton claiming the largest and most glorious pony for finishing first, although she very graciously surrendered it to some little girls who mobbed her when she was least expecting it.  I’m all for the crazy novelty podium prizes in cross, and Bicisport really came through with the podium ponies in addition to a very well organized and run event.  Looking forward to coming back to this venue next year for sure.  Next up on the calendar, the Dark Knight Cross, which I am forced to sit out due to my night vision akin to that of a naked mole rat, and the Cadence Coffee Cross Classic at Canada Olympic Park, a course that with it’s super long sand pit and punchy climbs is one of my favourites.

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Josh testing the limits of his new carbon steed. (Photo: Masa Higuchi)
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What every girl wishes for: a third place pony.
 

donkeykoenig’s Canmore Iron Maiden & Organ Grinder

This past weekend was the Iron Maiden XC/Organ Grinder Marathon at the Canmore Nordic Center – a guaranteed double-header suffer fest.  The Nordic Center has it all – great trails that keep getting greater every year due to some phenomenal trail building and maintenance, amazing scenery, great facilities, nice town…  If you haven’t ridden there yet, what are you waiting for?

Both Mark and I signed up to race, but Mark also signed up for a 40-year-old boys gone wild weekend, so this was destined to be a solo donkey trip bringing back fond memories of my early days racing as an Independent.  Luckily, a late 2:30pm Saturday race start even permitted me to perform a gig Friday night in Edmonton and have a full night’s sleep.  The drive to Canmore went quickly with the new Daft Punk to keep me company, and I pulled up with a generous 90 minutes to get ready for the XC race.

Let’s just say my race prep in the days leading up to my first couple of races this season has not been ideal – I arrived to the Lethbridge Coulee Cruiser with little more than two hours of sleep and working the nightshift, and the Summer Solstice race (not affiliated with the actual summer solstice in any way shape or form) had me rolling up to the line not even a day after arriving home from two weeks in Germany with a serious case of jetlag as a souvenir (I don’t know how the pros do it…).  These “shananigans” rewarded me with two last place finishes and left me questioning my ability to duke it out with any of the girls in Elite.  Needless to say, I felt a bit nervous as I put on my kit and zipped tied my race number, especially with a very stacked ladies field including the likes of Trans Portugal dominatrix Kate Aardal and Olympic track medalist Tara Whitten.  Yikes.  Racing Elite is a funny thing.  You learn early on how to keep things in perspective and choose your battles and set your goals wisely.  Since it was a beautiful sunny day, and I knew from last year’s race the course was an awesome one requiring a complete skill set to match the technical trails, I decided early on to focus on riding a clean race and, with any luck, to not finish last.

The start was fast, and Kate, Trish Grajczyk, and Tara immediately gapped the other four of us and carried on to scoop up the podium spots in that order.  I knew from a hesitation and mistake I made last year that I needed to make it to the single track before some of the more fit but less technical riders, so I dug deep and managed to hammer into the single track in fifth place.  I quickly realized with the number of technical descents and climbs to follow, if I could ride clean and steady I could maintain my positioning and perhaps move up one more spot.  Well, moving up one more spot wasn’t meant to be, but I did ride an exceptionally clean race, which I was very happy with.  I also came away with something I lost after the first two races this season: the confidence I needed to call myself an Elite rider.  Even though I don’t have the natural fitness and lung power of most in my category (I like to joke my VO2 max is more of a VO2 min), I can say I have some pretty good skills, as evidenced by my ability to clear all of the advanced “A-line” sections of the course consistently on an outdated, aluminum 26er from 2008.  Sweet.

Shanny

Celebrating my draw prize and new race-walking kit

Because the weather was so glorious, clean up and pack up was quick, and I even won a killer draw prize – a kicky visor and headband combo that will come in handy when I start my next athletic pursuit: race-walking.  Visors off to the SpinSisters for putting on a great event complete with schwag and post-race eats, two things that are sadly becoming few and far between at many ABA races.

I was able to steal Mark away from his mountain man-cave sausage fest for supper, and we enjoyed some fantastic flatbreads and a celebratory pint from the Rocky Mountain Flatbread Co.  We then parted ways as Mark wasn’t racing the five hour enduro the next day and had a bonfire to build, so after a quick stop at the Sobey’s for some chocolate I turned in early to rest up for five hours of fun and punishment (phunishment I like to say) the next day.

Food

Reason to race #17: No guilt for eating things like this 

Like the SpinSisters, the Cyclemeisters promised to also put on a quality day of racing on Sunday complete with schwag and post race food.  This event is one of my favourites if only for the all-you-can-eat Spolumbo sausage post-race barbeque.  Marathon XCs are an interesting beast; for some reason they attract quite a different field of racers that don’t attend regular XC races, which undoubtedly makes for an unpredictable race full of dark horses.  On the other hand, I can usually pull out a pretty good result at these events because they complement my steady-eddy, donkey style of riding.  On the other hand, I was a bit unsure of how I would actually fair at this race having not yet raced a marathon yet this season, so I kept my goals reasonable and told myself if I completed three of the 12km laps I could call it a day and earn myself a sausage with all the fixins.

The start was typical of an enduro: the fast racers took off and jockeyed for positioning while the rest of us eventually sorted ourselves out according to our desired pace.  I quickly found myself in an enjoyable group of chatty guys (whoever says women are chattier riders is dead wrong – men are total riding social butterflies) and was enjoying the trails and moderate pace.  However, to add a little spice to the mix, the weather gods decided to be not quite so kind on Sunday, and by halfway through the first lap an off and on, yet persistent drizzle settled in, and each lap the trails became a bit more challenging.

By the third lap, I had no idea where I was in the mix, but I did know I was getting tired and starting to make little mistakes.  With the trail conditions only deteriorating, I told myself I just needed to finish off this third lap to earn my sausage treat and call it a day.  I was really looking forward to finishing as I pedalled towards the start/finish, but then an interesting thing happened.  As I walked my bike through the transition area with nothing but the thought of sausage in my head the commissaire casually mentioned I was in 3rd place with the 2nd place rider just 30 seconds ahead.  I couldn’t stop now.  I had a podium spot to defend.  Crap!  With two hours still left in the event, any girl behind me merely had to ride another lap to steal third place.  I silently mouthed a creative series of expletives, and after a morale boost of supporting words, a rice krispie treat (thanks Ryan!), and a delicious homemade cookie (thanks Aleks!) I hopped back on my bike and told myself I could have a second delicious sausage if I rode a fourth lap and defended my position.  Well, those sausages and my love for them proved to give me the upper hand that day as I ultimately caught that second place girl and built up a seven minute gap to give me my first podium finish of the season.  My aged bike also helped out in its own special way, as it and the muddy conditions conspired to make riding in the granny ring a futile battle with chain-suck, forcing me to push bigger gears than I would have otherwise chosen to do.

MuddyShanny

Unlike the day before, it took a long time to clean my bike and myself of the coating of mud and forest floor debris, but I did finally get my two sausages and a chance to enjoy the glory of the podium.  And what a payoff it was.  Four and a half hours of suffering and second place in the Open Women’s category earned me a Knog blinkie light.  It’s a good thing I don’t do this for a living.  I do it for the sausages.