Monday, April 28, 2014

May 3, 4: Another Big Cycling Weekend in Central Arkansas

Only a few short years ago, it seemed cycling events available for riders in the Little Rock area were relatively few and far between. Now, in the peak seasons of spring and fall, riders can often choose between several organized rides, races or tours. There seems to be something for everybody, whether you want to race against stiff competition from across the country as in last weekend's Joe Martin Stage Race in NW Arkansas or try your first metric century at the Cardiac Classic held here in central Arkansas. The upcoming weekend also features a full dose of activity.

CARVE presents Rock City Racing and the 1st Annual Rock City 5K and Kids Fun Run

SimplexQ, Central Arkansas Velo,  and a number of local sponsors are offering up 2 days of criterium racing in downtown Little Rock. It is a USACycling  event.

The Saturday course will start and finish at 5th and Ferry Streets and will feature the growing 3rd and Rock area. 

Sunday racing takes place in the South Main area of downtown Little Rock. SoMa is rapidly developing its own funky vibe as businesses like Boulevard Bread, The Root Cafe, and the Green Corner Store anchor a thriving little local business sector. The recent repaving of Main added bike lanes and serves to slow traffic while making the area much more friendly for pedestrians and cyclists. The surrounding residential districts are seeing revitalization and an influx of residents.

The Run: Rock City 5K and Kids Fun Run

Register here for this Sunday morning event. If you're not a rider, come run the 8:00AM 5k and then stick around for the 9:00AM start of the crits. If you're simply a badass, run the 5K for a little warm up and then ride the crits.

Details for both events cane be found on Facebook.

To add to the weekend fun, the Southwest Tandem Rally will bring 100 tandem teams to town for a weekend packed with activities. The Rally, which is headquartered at the Capital Hotel, has been long sold out, but it will be very cool to have 100 tandems rolling around town.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Changes In Attitude

A couple of years ago, Arkansas had the dubious distinction of being named by the League of American Bicyclists as the least bicycle friendly state in this great land of ours. 50th out of 50. While we regularly rank near the statistical bottom in areas like obesity, children's health, poverty, education, and income, being DFL is usually reserved for Mississippi. Among the major strikes against us were the lack of a statewide bicycle plan and the absence of a statewide advocacy organization.

The poor ranking served as a bit of a wake up call for Governor Beebe and members of his staff, as he set up an advisory committee to determine some of our needs and pulled representatives of  the AHTD and Arkansas State Parks and Tourism among others. We are starting to see some movement as a result, and that bit of progress was demonstrated at some recent meetings held around the state.
This was the announcement for one such meeting:
Arkansas Statewide Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan Stakeholder Meeting
> Metroplan Committees & Partners
> April 1st, 12 pm Jeffrey Hawkins Conference Room

The Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department and Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism have undertaken a contract to update the Statewide Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan.  Their consultant team will be conducting stakeholder meetings throughout Arkansas this spring. 

This stakeholder meeting at Metroplan was followed by some public meetings, including one at the UALR Stephens Center.
What do these signs of progress mean to us as riders? It's really hard to say with any certainty, but the very fact that the state agencies, especially the highway department, are involved is a move in the right direction. While Parks and Tourism is and has been on board with the promotion of cycling, my view is that AHTD has regarded cycling and demands for infrastructure support as a nuisance. They've given us a little lip service along the way, but have largely ignored calls for serious engagement in the realm on non-motorized transportation (See: Broadway Bridge discussions). Though the AHTD is a constitutionally independent entity with its own funding stream, commissioners are appointed by the governor. That means that Gov. Beebe can still demand attention when his office makes a call-to-action. It's an election year, and I can only hope that Mr. Beebe's replacement will, at the very least, allow the current bit of momentum to survive.
Any results from these meeting will likely be years in coming, but they will come, and we've can only start from where we are. This is all political. Mention bicycle-pedestrian plans to every politician that approaches you for your vote (and you'll have plenty of chances this year!). Let them know that voters want transportation and recreational alternatives because they are good for public health and good for business. Cycling infrastructure has been proven to draw educated, employable young people to those communities that have embraced these quality of life developments. If you have any doubts, shuffle on down to the River Trail this weekend. You'll see what I mean.
Highway Commissioner Robert Moore speaks at BACA
Commissioner Robert Moore spoke at a recent BACA meeting. As has been the case at recent BACA meetings, the meeting room at US Pizza, Hillcrest, was packed with around 100 people. Mr. Moore, former Speaker of the Arkansas house of Representatives, was welcomed warmly, and he spoke in a  humble, congenial manner. I'm not sure what we expected, but what we got had very little to do with the AHTD's view of the future of cycling. Moore mentioned his participation in the Tour de Hoot and his support of the event; however, he spent the majority of his available time bemoaning AHTD's lack of funding. He presented facts, figures, charts, and tables to demonstrate the financial woes facing the road builders, making it clear that he considered his constituency to be cars and trucks. Much of our highway funding comes from fuel taxes and, as fuel usage has been reduced over the years, revenues have followed. There is no political appetite for raising fuel taxes, so the highway department seems to have set its sights on some of the state's general revenues.
 Voters recently approved a sales tax that will be used to repair and maintain interstate highways across the state, but a bill to increase transfer (sales) taxes on new and used cars, tires, etc, failed in the legislature. This bill be come back in the next legislative session. I don't think most voters realized that the sales tax dollars were going primarily to the interstates, which is in large part a subsidy of the trucking industry.
Mr. Moore threw the possibility of a bone to the BACA crowd when he said that the commission would "look favorably" at using some Transportation Alternative funds if the cycling community provided substantive support for the  the proposed transfer tax. He also said he'd be open to taxing the sale of bikes and related goods to provide the AHTD with some funding.
Mr. Moore is by all accounts a good guy, and he is likely a good highway commissioner, but very little he said made me think that the AHTD was ready to move away from being the "Department of Cars and trucks".
Though I was disappointed in Moore's message, one in which he seemed oblivious to the venue and the audience, I was still glad to see him there. Institutional change is slow, but the very fact that we're engaged in a conversation at the state level is a good sign. Mr. Moore is a politician and, though he's not running for office and his agenda seemed to be all about siphoning more money to his department, he could not ignore that fact that 100 people showed up as an expression of their own agenda to promote cycling in Arkansas.

Monday, April 21, 2014

NLR Parks' Hard Working New Addition: Shep the Goose Dog

A couple of weeks ago, as I cleaned my bike of desiccated night crawlers that I had collected on a wet morning ride, I wondered to myself, "What could be more disgusting than scraping worms off of my fork, frame, and brakes?"
"Goose poop" came immediately to mind, though I decided that it was a toss-up on the slime scale.
What also came to mind was the fact that North Little Rock's riverside trails, fields, and roads have become blessedly almost goose free in recent months. While geese are by nature migratory, they are also lazily efficient and adaptable. When they find an environment that offers easy food sources, safety from predators, and a convenient place to poop, they tend to settle in to a routine of eating, pooping, and reproducing. A couple of years ago, the NLR City Counsel caught hell over a proposed urban hunt to thin out a huge and growing population of resident Canada geese in the parks along the Arkansas River. It had become difficult to ride the River Trail without encountering flocks of surly geese and it was a test of skill to ride through many stretches without pasting the bike with some of the thousands of nasty green poodle-turd-sized droppings that littered the trail. The geese had easy living on the golf course, soccer complex, and in the grassy fields along the river. Though trail users and golfers had complained, things came to a head when soccer games began to be cancelled or moved as fields became too littered with feces to allow for play.
After an outcry over the proposed thinning of the flock by way of a hunt, NLR decided to hire a firm to use dogs to chase the big birds out of their comfort zones. It worked. The geese are adaptable and quickly figured out that it was not worth loitering in areas where they would be chased regularly by an eager canine. Unfortunately, as soon as the dog contract expired, the geese started returning to the area in large numbers and were soon back to their lowdown ways.
Park officials had looked into specially trained goose dogs, which were very expensive, but eventually were offered a bit of a bargain in the form of Shep, a local rescue dog with the instincts and a good start on the training needed to do the job.

NLR park ranger Ian Hope and Shep on patrol along the river. Geese have become scarce, but Shep is constantly vigilant.
I will have to admit that I was predisposed to like Shep. He is my kind of dog and he would fit perfectly into our little pack of rescued mutts. He's a catahoula mix weighing in at 40 pounds, with a merle coat and "off" eyes, one blue and one brown. I had sought out an exclusive interview a couple of months ago when he first arrived, but Mayor Joe Smith had other ideas and Shep was introduced to the mainstream media at a press event. That's just as well, as my recent encounter with the team of Ian and Shep gave me a chance to scratch his ears and get acquainted one-on-one. He was very approachable and friendly when I rode up and, like many working breed mixes, Shep seems eager to please, laid back when not engaged in his job, but ready to launch like a missile when duty calls.  Good boy!
Ranger Hope did let slip the fact that Shep is still a work in progress. He does his duty with geese, but he has a bit of a squirrel problem. Our dog Willie loses all sense of propriety when he sees a squirrel, so I understand Shep's response to squirrel sightings. Ian feels it is bad form for Shep to be chasing squirrels in the park, so they are working on it. In the meantime, my advice to squirrels is to stay in the trees where they belong, at least according to Shep and Willie.
"Squirrel problem? Who? Me? I don't have a squirrel problem."
 Shep was a little coy when the subject of his issues with squirrels came up.
Shep and Ian make a comfortable team and they are doing great work in helping to keep our riverside parks clean and hospitable. For goose lovers, there are still enough of the birds around to be enjoyed, but the large intrusive gangs are regularly encouraged to move along. 

Friday, April 18, 2014

Along The Trail: Skunks, Scouts, and Girls' School

The weather has continued to limit activity along the Arkansas River Trail. It has just been cold and as a result not many folks are getting out. The numerous group rides that are usually well under way by this date are just sputtering to a start,  parking lots that are usually overflowing are half-full, and I've hardly had to complain about all of the inconsiderate assholes in my way. That said, time marches on, it looks like we are finally turning the corner to warmth, and there are still happenings along the Arkansas River Trail.
In case you needed another reason not to pet the skunks...
This warning was posted at various Burns Park locations after a skunk tested positive for rabies.
This is NOT a kitty with sporty stripe kit.
Skunks are numerous in Burns Park and in Two Rivers Park, and are a common sight for evening and nighttime trail users. Most of us don't need much encouragement to give them plenty of space, but be particularly cautious of nocturnal critters taking a daytime stroll or that appear to be ill.
Eagle Project In Burns Park

"The eagle flies on Friday, Saturday,I go out and play...."
Well, they call that song Stormy Monday, but both held true for me last weekend. As I rode through Burns Park last Friday afternoon I spotted some signs of a construction project along the trail near the fishing pier. Some folks were sitting around the site enjoying the evening so, of course, I had to stop to find out what was going on. I found that they were preparing to start work on a couple of 10'x 20'picnic pavilions as an Eagle Scout community service project. Appropriately, they were also observing a mature bald eagle that was soaring overhead. I'm not sure what that meant, but it must have been a prodigious sign of something!

Saturday lunch break. Zachary Baxla, at right, is building two pavilions with the help of donated materials and volunteer labor.
One of the pavilions will be dedicated to Wounded Warriors and the other will be dedicated to Native American tribes.
I passed by on my way to ride out west last Saturday and found that the crew had been hard at work. I also saw a pair of eagles over the same stretch of trail. Eagle sightings are not as rare as they were in the bad old days when they were seriously threatened as a species, but it still thrills me to see the big birds on the wing over our city.
Shop Talk: Women's Bike Clinic 
Willa Williams of NLR's Fit2Live conducting a workshop.
Also on last Saturday, I came across a workshop being conducted by Willa Williams. A group of women were learning how to fix a flat tire, shifting strategies, and other mechanical basics about the bike. I'm always tempting to refer to the events as "Wenches With Wrenches" but I have been told that it is insensitive and possibly offensive, so I refrain.

Bad Dogs On Pinnacle Valley

It has been widely reported that a runner was attacked by a couple of German shepherds while using the path along Pinnacle Valley Road, just south of Maumelle Park. Apparently the dogs charged the runner, who landed a few punches, stumbled into the ditch, and subsequently escaped without injury when passers-by caused the dogs to retreat back to their yard. Pulaski County deputies were called and were to contact the dog owner.
Riders should always beware of dogs, though few dogs will actually attack. Most are either encouraging bikes to leave their territory of simply enjoying the fun of the chase. That said, they can still cause crashes and injury.

Be alert, be polite, stay right

This weekend is shaping up as prime for crowds along the River Trail.  Keep in mind that many of the folks that we encounter on the trail may be clueless, so regular trail users need to take responsibility. We have plenty of trail miles and unlimited open roads around town, so consider those crowded stretches around the bridges and in Two Rivers Park as your routes to freedom. Take it slow and enjoy the smiling faces of the unsupervised children darting into your path.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Paris-Roubaix: If you think the Tour de France is tough, watch this!

Paris-Roubaix is this Sunday, and it is regarded by many as the hardest bike race on earth. The stage was set last week at the Tour of Flanders when Fabian Cancellara took the win out of a select group of four.

Like many Americans, I followed the Tour de France to some extent even before I got seriously engaged in cycling. Greg LeMond gave us an American hero who was able to twist the tails of the French and we loved it. When I started getting more interested in the pro cycling scene, a neighbor started telling tales of the hard men who ride the spring classics, and especially "The Hell of The North", Paris-Roubaix.
He brought me a VHS tape of the previous year's race, one in which rain and mud added to the intensity of an already brutal race. The famed cobbles, or pave, sections are little more than paths paved with rocks the size of loaves of bread, and the fight to be near the front of the pack before these sections is warlike.
There is a reason that the name "Roubaix" is used for everything from the warmest winter clothes to the most robust wheels and bike frames. Paris-Roubaix is considered to be the ultimate test for both riders and their equipment.
Last year, the drama was high as two riders battled it out to the end. Here's a YouTube video of that race.

Bike racing gets little TV coverage here in the US, so we are dependent on outlaw feeds from sites like and SteephillTV for live viewing. These sites are a bit of a pain in the ass. If you choose to go that route, you'll find the view cluttered with ads and links for browser upgrades, etc. DO NOT download them! If you can get an English language feed on which you can click the full screen button, got for it and the ads will go away. Otherwise, you can watch the race later on YouTube. My problem with that option is that in searching for the recording, I'm inevitably exposed to the results.
These are not the races of diminutive climbers like Contador and Froome, but are dominated by the hard men like Fabian Cancellera and Tom Boonen. Peter Sagan has the kind of talent and toughness to contend, but to date he has not been up to the task of winning. Team tactics are in play in the early battles leading to the cobbles, but you won't see lead out trains and team leaders surrounded by squadrons of domestiques. Sometimes a contender is lucky enough to have teammate or two along deep into the race, but it usually comes down to man-to-man combat. No mass sprint, no time bonuses, no saving legs for a later stage. The first man over the line wins, and that man is usually one bad son-of-a-bitch.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Along The Trail: Malingering Spring

Spring in Arkansas and much of the rest of the country continues to be bludgeoned by a winter that simply does not want to go away. We Arkies are accustomed to seeing enough warm days in February to chase away the winter doldrums, followed by a March that includes enough warm weather to encourage gardeners to plant too soon, make Buffalo River float trippers forget that the water is still frigid, and drag even the most chill averse riders out onto the road.
Instead, we've had a March that felt like February and an early April hasn't really even felt like much of a March.

This is not the usual April Saturday morning scene on the Big Dam Bridge. There was a little sun shining through, but the temperature along the river was in the high 30's.

This is not to say that we have been bereft of all signs of spring. While many trees and flowers are coming on later than usual, a few recent warmish days have brought out the blooms and buds like a load of gravel out of a dump truck; that is, all at once! A jacket might still be in order, but our home state is as beautiful as ever. Though the flowers and leaves are visible, insects, tan lines, and group rides have been held at bay.

Bike cleaning challenge in one word: Worms

I joined a couple of my riding partners for a Saturday morning ride weekend-before-last. Being an astute user of the available tools of 1) weather forecasts, 2) a thermometer, and, 3) a clock, I had lobbied unsuccessfully for a late start. The forecast told me that a high of 67 degrees was on tap, my thermometer told me that it was still too friggin' cold as I rode out at dawn over wet pavement, and my clock told me that I had all day to wait for a warm up.
Being a sport, I showed up on time and only whined for the first couple of hours. Heavy rains the night before assured that the pavement was wet and that there was still plenty of water standing or running across the trails and roads. That is the usual recipe for a filthy bike, as everything that is flung up off of the road sticks, but the flooding rains of the night before had added a little meat to the road grime stew along County Farm Road near Two Rivers Park. The road was littered with drowned night crawlers.

When I got home and started to clean my filthy bike, I discovered that it was festooned with organic streamers. I had worms dangling from cables, worms on the fork, and worms pasted on brakes. By this time, they had dried sufficiently so that the usual hose and brush approach was ineffective. I found that scraping with a soft plastic tool was required.

The River Trail is not Venice Beach, but....

Venice Beach, CA, is well known as a showplace for weirdness. While our homegrown promenade, the Arkansas River Trail around the Big Dam Bridge and the Two Rivers Park Bridge, has yet to build a wide reputation for whacky characters as are found at Venice or the Key West, FL, pier, we are coming into our own.

Venice Beach

Two Rivers Park Bridge-Something is happening here..

..what it is ain't exactly clear.*

 * For what it's worth, my apologies to Buffalo Springfield.
Star Wars burlesque review??
The weather for the next few days looks seasonably warm, promising an explosion of trail users, buffalo gnats, and pale hairy legs. Saddle up, enjoy, and be patient.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Arvest Bank Little Rock Gran Fondo: Step Up In Class

If you read cycling publications, you've read about Gran Fondo events. Known as randonnĂ©e cyclosportive by the French, the Italian Gran Fondo has caught on here in the English-speaking U.S. as the popular term for mass start, long distance rides.
I first started noticing gran fondos a few years ago when riders like Levi Leipheimer put together rides that drew thousands of cyclists to ride with some pros and enjoy a unique experience that was not really a race but that featured amenities above those of a typical charity or event ride.
Gran Fondos have since sprung up all over the country and the world. While some appear to simply be a re-labeling of a "Tour de Somewhere", most feature unique and challenging terrain along with better-than-average food and swag.
Such will be the case with the Arvest Bank Little Rock Gran Fondo.
Get on board. There is only one "first" Little Rock Gran Fondo! The ride will be limited to 250 riders.

I had the opportunity earlier this week to sit down with Michael Chaffin of the Capital Hotel and Jason Warren of Arvest Bank. Appropriately, we met at the Spokes Coffee Bar at Orbea, USA, at 119 Main Street in downtown Little Rock, a venue that features a view of the nearby Capital Hotel.
Chaffin and Orbea's Tony Karklins started developing the idea of the ride some time back, and their goal was to create what might be called a premium experience in comparison to other local event rides. An analogy that occurred to me was a comparison of a night at a Holiday Inn versus a night at The Capital Hotel.

This is NOT a Holiday Inn.
Both places provide a clean bed, good service, and a restaurant, but from that point on, the experiences are very different. One is adequate while the other is excellent.

About The Ride
The ride will be around 70 miles and, from what I can tell, will be mostly flat. It will include some unpaved road, but nothing that calls for anything but your road bike. Chip timing is included, so you can throw down if a good official finishing time is what you're riding for, but.....I have been advised that riders will not want to pass up the 2 rest stops. I don't know what will be served, but I think your choices will extend beyond Powerade, bananas and boxed cookies. From the website:

"Taking some pages out of the Capital Hotel’s book, you won’t find service like ours on any other ride...from start to finish...and at every stopping point in between. Who says you can’t take Concierge service on the road."

At The Finish
The start and finish will be at or near 2nd and Main. After crossing the line, riders can hand off their bikes at the secure bike storage at 117 Main (next door to Orbea) and head on over to the Arvest Finishers' Lounge for refreshments.

The Food
If you've ever ridden in Europe or heard stories from those who have (I've just heard the stories..damnit!), a prevailing theme is that of good food and drink. That is not lost on the organizers of the Gran Fondo. Michael said he thought that it would be cool if he could get a couple of Little Rock's top chefs to come out and share their talents at the post-ride street party. He came up with a list that included Matt Bell of South on Main, Tomas Bohm of The Pantry, Arturo Solis of the Capital Hotel, Travis McConnell of Butcher &  Public, and Donnie Ferneau. He extended the invitation and was hopeful that one or two of the five would accept. Well, a grand slam results in four runs and I guess that Chaffin hit one better when all five accepted.
The result will be "Pop On Main", consisting of five pop-up restaurants, each serving the unique creations of the individual chefs. I expect delicious fare including a lot of locally grown ingredients.
Tickets for the Pop On Main will be available for non-riders, so your entire clan can enjoy the event.

Food sponsors include Ben E Keith Co. and the Arkansas Times

The Swag
I've got no idea what will be in the riders' swag bags, but was assured that it will be much better than the typical drug company ball point pens and note pads, coupons, and unusually flavored gels.
Custom jerseys by Santini will be available for purchase.

The Partners
Sponsors for the event include title sponsor Arvest Bank, The Capital Hotel, Obea, USA, Bicycling Magazine, and Italian clothing maker Santini.

I asked Jason Warren, who happens to be one of my regular ride partners, what made the event attractive to Arvest Bank. Both Jason and Jim Cargile, President and Sales Manager, are avid cyclists it has not escaped their attention that many of their customers can be seen out on the road or the trail on bikes. As part of Arvest's core values of community service, the bank often sponsored golf tournaments and similar events as a means of engaging the local community. Those events are traditional in the banking business, but they felt that sponsorship of the Little Rock Gran Fondo would help in further building the growing image of central Arkansas offering many quality-of-life amenities, but that the sponsorship would directly touch many of their existing and prospective customers. After, banks are in the business of money and the cycling demographic is an attractive one.

All of the sponsor/partners represent premium brands and Chaffin emphasized that all of the partners are adding their input to the event.

The registration fee for the Arvest Bank Gran Fondo is $125.00 unless you jumped in early, but the reality is that premium quality comes at a price, and this may prove to be a bargain.

Note: As I wrote this article, I called Jason Warren to confirm some information. I
 found him in Austin, where he and Michael Chaffin were going to check out the Texas Gran Fondo for ideas.  In the background, I could hear Michael saying, .."and we're going to be better than Texas."

Texas has a reputation for doing things big. This team has a reputation for doing things well.