Tuesday, May 3, 2011

MASH 2011 Twin Peaks Time Trial

Sunday I rode my Ritchey Breakaway out to a new bike shop in San Francisco. No, not a replacement for the Weight Weenie void left by the closure of Bike Nüt (insert a moment of somber silence.... okay, we can continue now); it was MASH Transportation, a new shop which seems to be marketed towards cycling culture and urban riding (more the fast messenger than the hippster crowd), and apparently, alleycat racing. Indeed I wasn't there for the shop itself, but rather to the race they were organizing: a timed event to the summit of Twin Peaks and back.

From MASH 2011 Twin Peaks Time Trial

This is racing in its purest form: get from point A to point B (and in this case, back) and we don't particularly care how you do it. There were two groups, one for fixed-gear bikes (no freewheeling, a penalty if it had mechanical brakes) and one for "geared" bicycles (bikes with a freewheel, allowing for coasting; no penalty for brakes).

First the "qualification": riders did as many out-and-backs to Yerba Buena Gardens as possible in 30 minutes. At each end-point, riders got their green "manifests" authorized. Top eight in each category advance.

Now, I'd heard about alleycat races before, and seen videos. But the amazing thing about this one was the atmosphere was so positive. Some of the behavior, in particular intersection managaement policies, one might estimate to be completely suicidal. I'd have thought at least half the participants would have been taken out by cars, maybe one or two fatally. Yet there was not, from what I saw, a single collision. One rider crashed, I heard, but that was a solo incident. No surpise with people descending these roads at the limit without brakes. It causes one to question ones assessment of risk. Dangerous? No question. But more dangerous than the Wente criterium occurring the same day? Insufficient data.

There were only a dozen geared bikes entered, more fixies (the traditional alleycat bike). You might have expected a tactical contest, like a miss-and-out at the track, with riders gauging their efforts based on their position within the group. But the strategy of the day appeared to be to go as hard up the hill, then as fast down the hill as possible. More than a couple of the fixie riders grabbed on to passing cars for a tow up the hill. Rumour was in one case cash changed hands to facilitate this. None of this was against the rules because honestly there were very few actual rules. One rule was not to lose your manifest. One geared rider made that mistake and was eliminated. I saw no evidence of any other.

From MASH 2011 Twin Peaks Time Trial

Keith Hillier of Strava was the top qualifier, the only rider to complete six complete laps. Chris Phipps, also on a geared bike, finished five and a half to finish second. Chris claims to have throttled back after it became obvious he would qualify -- you can read his report here. I would argue it was obvious Chris would qualify from the moment he clipped in at the start.

From MASH 2011 Twin Peaks Time Trial

After qualifying, I was amazed to see a large red Taco truck pull in front of the shop. Fixie riders flocked to get their free tacos, this before a gut-twisting maximal effort back to the summit of San Bruno. The geared riders, virtually all experienced racers, were more restrained.

Things seemed to be moving towards the finals starting, so I rode off with my bike towards the summit to find a good photo spot. As I climbed, I didn't regret my decision to not race today. The preferred route, the one with the least interference from car traffic, crossed a traffic light and several stop signs before merging with busy 17th Street. From there it was a signaled left turn onto Clayton, then a right onto Twin Peaks, and a left to stay on Twin Peaks at Clairmont, then an unimpeded steep climb to the summit.

I found a good spot a bit below the top where I'd have line of sight of riders both climbing and descending. I parked my bike, crouched in the grass, propped my small camera against a guardrail post, and waited. And waited. And waited. I had expected the first rider of what had been advertised to be a time trial to come through soon after I arrived. With the wait I shut the display off on my camera to conserve battery charge. I knew I wouldn't get it back on in time to get the first available shot of first rider but for the rest, including the top qualifiers, I'd be ready. Finally, around twenty minutes after I arrived, Chris Phipps rounded the corner with his usual impressive climbing form. Whoops.

So much for the traditional "start in reverse ranking" time trial. Later I learned it had instead been a mass-start, and Chris was leading here. I managed to get my camera ready and fire off a decent side shot of Chris as he passed. He was flying up the hill.

From MASH 2011 Twin Peaks Time Trial

Soon after, Keith in his Strava kit turned the corner:

From MASH 2011 Twin Peaks Time Trial

Third to appear was Joe Mulvaney. Joe's an impressive rider, making his presence felt in the Strava KOM lists last year with Mission Cycling:

From MASH 2011 Twin Peaks Time Trial

Then a mixed group of fixies and geared riders came into sight. It was impressive seeing the fixie riders here: they were at on obvious disadvantage on the steep hill.

From MASH 2011 Twin Peaks Time Trial

I was amused to see first one, then more of the fixie riders veered by me, dismount, and began scrambling up a dirt short-cut to the summit above. I had run this path last weekend: since it was so steep with dicey footing, I didn't think running would be faster. But I was told by one of the riders that he got to the top faster than riders he'd been with who had chosen to ride.

Greg McQuaid followed this group, along with a fixie rider who'd solved the problem with fixed gear bikes lacking an adequate climbing ratio:

From MASH 2011 Twin Peaks Time Trial

From MASH 2011 Twin Peaks Time Trial

Soon after, down came Chris. I managed to get a decent shot of him cornering, and of all the riders that day, he seemed to take the corner the most aggressively. He'd just won the Wente Road Race the day before, so has plenty of recent experience going downhill fast.

From MASH 2011 Twin Peaks Time Trial

Keith followed somewhat later. He wasn't going to catch Chris unless car traffic got in the way, a very real possibility.

From MASH 2011 Twin Peaks Time Trial

More riders followed, some descending the hill, fixie riders scrambling back down the dirt and getting on their discarded bikes at the foot of the path.

From MASH 2011 Twin Peaks Time Trial

From MASH 2011 Twin Peaks Time Trial

Here's where the fixie riders faced a real challenge. Any gear low enough to get up the climb is going to be too low to descend at maximum speed. Some riders let the pedals carry their feet around, trying to minimize the resistance offered by their limbs. Others, according to Chris, removed their feet fully from the pedals and let them freely rotate. Since there was a penalty applied to fixed gear bikes with brakes (not to mention the fixie-fashion faux-pas), most if not all of the fixie riders didn't have them, so without feet in the pedals the only way to control speed was to rub their feet against the spinning tires. If the cars didn't finish them off, surely, I'd have throught, lack of speed control would send them hurtling off the side of the road and over the guard rail. But there were no casualties.

From MASH 2011 Twin Peaks Time Trial

Last up the hill was Kate, the sole woman partaking in the fun. I had to ask her if she was racing as I hadn't seen her in qualification, and she replied she was. Maybe she was exempt, since she was the only woman there. She had the trophy for top woman locked up, so obviously didn't need to take the risks of the others.

I waited a bit to see if anyone else arrived. Nobody did, so I went up to the summit myself to see if anything was left of the checkpoint. Finding nothing, I began my cautious descent to the start/finish.

Greg was already riding home as I approach, but Greg's always quick to leave races. The others all seemed to still be at the shop, feeling good about the day, waiting for prizes to be awarded. I didn't wait long for this, and Mike Martin soon called everyone together for the prizes.

From MASH 2011 Twin Peaks Time Trial

The prizes were impressive. Not only the cash prizes, which were substantial, but the utter bulk of the trophies exceeded anything I've seen at a sanctioned road race. The largest was reserved for the fixie category, clearly the focus of the event:

From MASH 2011 Twin Peaks Time Trial

Then Chris Phipps got to hoist the geared bike trophy:

From MASH 2011 Twin Peaks Time Trial

And finally Kate took her well-deserved prize:

From MASH 2011 Twin Peaks Time Trial

Needless to say, I was impressed. Of course I'd never put on an event like this myself, this was almost the antithesis of the Low-Key Hillclimbs. But it was in another way very much like the Low-Key Hillclimbs: participation oriented, low overhead, with everyone involved feeling good about being there. I was glad I'd seen it. And nobody was hurt, which can't be said for the vast majority of competitive or even semi-competitive cycling events.

More photos are available on my PicasaWeb album.

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