Thursday, July 24, 2014

One more for the road: Gear and training post

I realize that I promised no more South Africa posts, but that's before I remembered that I wanted to do a Freedom Challenge gear and training post-mortem. Shortly after the race, Liehann asked me what I would change about my gear if I were to ever try this again. The short answer is: Not much. As for what I would change about my training, the short answer is: Lots.

My bike is a Moots Mooto-X YBB 29" titanium soft tail. Here are the specs:
Shock: Rock Shox Reba RLT dual air, QR
Group: Shimano XT 2x10 (XTR shifters)
Brakes: Shimano XT
Wheels: Mike Curiak built Stans Arch + DT swiss 240s hubs, tubeless
Tires: Front: Bontrager XR3 team issue 2.30 Rear: Maxxis Ikon 2.35
Tubeless setup. Shimano XT skewers.
Seatpost,stem: Thomson elite
Handlebars: Ritchey wcs aluminum riser
Headset, BB: Chris King
Saddle: Terry something (probably Butterfly.)

This bike was my dream bike when it became mine in April 2012. It is still my dream bike. I'd be happy to never get a new mountain bike, but instead just continue fixing whatever components break on this one, until frame death do us part (which hopefully will not happen for a long time.) This bike was built to be touring bike — especially of the mixed pavement, trail, and dirt road variety — but it's also solid on technical trails (within the limits of my abilities.)

Yes, I use platform pedals. No, I'll probably never change. In addition to the comforts of wearing large trail-running shoes (Montrail Mountain Masochist, size 10), I really do move my feet around on the pedals all of the time. I press down with my toes, I press down with my heels, I hold them up and shake them out for a while. I'd rather not lock my contact points into any position when spending twelve-plus hours per day in the saddle, be it my butt, hands, or feet. It's a personal comfort thing. I realize I could improve my technical control if I used clipless pedals, and my shins took an awful beating in the Freedom Challenge. Still, for me, the benefits of platforms outweigh the drawbacks. My nerve-damaged toes are happy.

Freedom Challenge racers also participate in the ongoing debate of 29" versus 26" wheels. But unlike U.S. bikepacking races, 26" full suspension bikes seem to be the most popular choice in this race. Big forks also win out in many cases. It makes sense to me; there is quite a lot of rugged terrain on this route, and all-mountain bikes, while a beast to haul on one's back, will ensure less downhill hike-a-bike. I'm likely to hike the harder stuff either way, so I'd just stick with the 29'er soft tail for optimal performance on long climbs and dirt roads.

There are also jokes about using a super-light carbon cross bike, since there's so much hiking in this race. I wouldn't recommend it. There's a lot more riding in the Freedom Challenge than my blog report lets on, and very little of it would be fun on a cross bike (think lots of barely-there cattle trail, rocky jeep tracks, and sand.)

Backpacks are also a point of debate. I used a Salomon XA 25-liter waterproof backpack, and believe it or not, I actually had one of the smaller packs among the riders we met. Many Freedom Challenge riders race with most or all of their gear on their backs, because there is so much bike carrying in this race (I know I said there was a lot of riding. There's a lot of both.) Bike bags are starting to take hold in the South Africa bikepacking community, though. Quite a few riders had seat post bags made by Revelate Designs in Alaska; they called them their "Revelates." I didn't see anyone else with a frame bag.

My system actually worked pretty well, because the backpack itself was half empty most of the time. I usually packed three liters of water and miscellaneous warm clothing (the puffy jacket always made it look fuller than it was.) I should have utilized this extra space sooner, but on the last day, before hiking up the Stettynskloof, I transferred most of the items from my seatpost bag and frame bag into my backpack, lightening up the bike as much as possible. It worked, because with a better distribution of weight, I was able to pick up and carry my bike on my back without pain for decent blocks of time — at least until that final, impossible climb.

As for clothing, I mentioned I recycled much of my Iditarod 2014 kit. Here's the rundown:

Kit: Castelli Elle skort and Patagonia capilene long-sleeve mock turtleneck with zip
Wind and rain layer: Skinfit shell pants, Outdoor Research Mentor Jacket
Insulation layers: North Face ThermoBall jacket, Freedom Challenge thin fleece pullover (only ended up wearing indoors), GORE windstopper tights
Head: Regular buff, windstopper buff, windproof hat, thin skull cap.
Hands: Outdoor Research fleece mittens, short-finger bike gloves, RBH designs mitten shells
Feet: Montrail Mountain Masochist, size 10; Acorn fleece socks; Integral Designs vapor barrier socks, Drymax socks (x3)
Sunglasses
T-shirt and running shorts for indoor use

I'm not sure I'd change anything about clothing. There were a few items I didn't use often (the shell pants, vapor barrier socks and mitten shells), but I certainly would have used them in the event of heavier rain or snow. The GORE tights have been one of my favorite items, both in Alaska and in South Africa. They're just so versatile — warm and windproof, and yet easy to unzip and vent when the day heats up. They're running tights, so there's no chamois — which means they're great for hiking. The Freedom Trail tore them to shreds, and I'm sad to see them go. The Patagonia capilene also acquired a bunch of holes. It's been a fantastic shirt; I think I've worn it in every major race I've participated in since early last year, including a bunch of 50Ks.

As for training, well, where to begin? During the race I had major issues in the upper body department, which were largely concentrated in my upper arms and forearms — muscle pain, numbness, constant aches, and outright muscle failures during lifting. I don't even know where to start to strengthen a weak upper body — which is why mine is so weak — so I won't weigh in on what I'd do differently in training just yet. But in the unlikely event this bug ever bites me again, I would spend a lot more time building core strength, as well as strengthening shoulders and arms. I would also swallow my pride and actually go for training hikes while carrying a bike on my back, even though Californians would look at me like I was on drugs. Time in the saddle ... eh. I can't even say my mileage prior to the Freedom Challenge was all that high. Through March I was focused on Iditarod training, and then I continued running two to three times a week throughout April and May (lots of good this did me for the hike-a-bikes. Ha!) Still, I had no problems in the saddle. Riding bikes for a long time ... in the Freedom Challenge, that's the easy part.

Finally, navigation. So important. One of the guys we crossed the VuVu Valley with estimated that navigation was 80 percent of this race. For the Race to Rhodes, I would absolutely agree with that percentage. Beyond the 500-kilometer mark it gets a little easier overall, but not much. At 21 days, we finished about as fast as we could without submitting to night navigation. Most who want to ride faster than 20 days will have to be a lot more comfortable navigating in the dark. If I were to ever do this again, I would take the time to learn some more advanced orienteering techniques, such as dead reckoning. I'd also try to get a better grasp on the southern night sky so I didn't have to constantly watch a compass.

Liehann mentioned printing the 1:50,000 maps larger. This would help to some extent — it was extremely difficult to read the maps while the bike was moving. Still, these race-provided maps are partially hand-drawn and somewhat limited in detail, especially when it comes to trying to judge a position based on topographical features alone. The lines just weren't precise enough to discern real shapes. I suppose this is where orienteering techniques come in handy. Terrain association techniques, pacing techniques (because bike odometers do not work when a bike is being carried), and more focused use of compass bearings. You know what's funny? I hate all this stuff. Honestly, I do. Freedom Challenge did not turn me into a Rogaining enthusiast.

Another thing I would do different in a future Freedom Challenge is carry a more robust sleeping system — probably a 32-degree down sleeping bag and lightweight pad, along with an emergency bivy. For an extra two or three pounds, I'd gain a lot more willingness to take on some of those more difficult segments at night. Getting stuck out with little to no gear is so less than ideal that I was never willing to risk it. I feel like a sleeping bag would give me a lot more peace of mind. And it actually would be fun to sleep out occasionally, although at -10C with a granola bar dinner, it still wouldn't be terribly comfortable.

I know other blanket-wearers (as the Freedom Challenge riders call themselves) check in on this blog. I'd love to hear your thoughts and tips on how to succeed in the Race Across South Africa.