You’re the Rabbit

I’m not sure if it was meant to be a motivational speech or just a humorous quip at the start of the race, but the starting attendant leaned over to me just before I launched into my epic lap with this sly grin and said “now, you know….you’re the rabbit…everyone’s chasing you today”. Gee, thanks. It’s not like I wasn’t already running scenarios through my head about how fast I should go. However, whether simple conversation or a pre-race motivational speech, it worked. I rode like a….well a rabbit being chased by greyhounds.

But, before I post up my numbers, I thought I would share a little bit about today’s race. The weather was a bit chillier than I anticipated due to a few clouds and some wind. When the sun was shining and you could find a spot out of the wind, it was really quite pleasant, though. This made for a cold warm-up.

Evan (my brother-in-law) and I met up in Holland at 8:30 and drove together to the Deep Lake Campground, arriving around 9:30 where we met up with my brother, Tim. This is where the trail head is for the Yankee Springs Mountain Bike Trail and the start of the race. The experts and elite riders were being released starting at 10 so it gave us just enough time to stop by the Cross Country Cycle Team tent to say hello to the guys, grab our registration packets from the registration tent, and head down to the race start to cheer on the team riders and take some video. Once they were off, we finished getting ready back at the car.

I thought it would be a fun idea to warm-up by riding to a section of trail a couple of miles away by road. I figured each lap would take the elite and expert riders about 45 minutes to complete, plus or minus a couple of minutes, and this spot should be about 5-8 minutes away from the start/finish line. While we waited, we noticed that the temperature was slowly rising, especially in the sun. Last minute clothing choices are such a fun, yet integral, part of race strategy. Evan decided he was going to ride with just a short sleeve jersey, despite my quality recommendation for him to ride bare back. I waffled on my own attire.

After watching most of the Cross Country Cycle Team go by, we headed a bit further up the road to a two-track that led to a single track that pops out right onto the main mountain bike trail where we watched another couple of dozen riders. By 11a.m. it was time to start seriously warming up and heading back towards the start. A quick stop at another point in the course allowed another vantage point, and cut my brother’s ankles up pretty good from traipsing through the woods. I mentioned earlier this morning that my hamstrings felt unusually tight, and they still were so I took another loop up around the bend of the road before heading back to the car for last minute prep.

My wife, mother-in-law, and two girls came out to see the race today, which I really thought was great. We met up with them at about 11:30, just in time for a photo op and to situate them for the perfect view of the start. Evan and I started in the top 10 slots which were established based on registration order. I managed the pole position, somehow.

The race organizers decided to cap this year’s race at 700 riders. That cap was met on Thursday night which meant for the first time ever there were no day-of registrations. It also was the highest attendance in its 23 year history (I believe). There were also 16 team tent spots on starter’s row. As a newbie to racing, I’m getting acclimated to having a dry place to change your clothes, hang your bike, and have a seat out of the wind. Riders and their families were buzzing everywhere, which made it both hectic and joyous at the same time. I love race day vibe.

Just before Evan and I headed down to line up for the race start, the elite and expert riders started piling in. It was a good showing for team Cross Country Cycle with mostly smiles and positive trail reports. Only one incident of an under hydrated teammate challenged the overall sentiment of satisfaction and enjoyment. I made my final decision on attire (long-sleeve jersey; shorts) and headed down to the race start.

After the comments from the start attendant, I took off in a fury. The time trial start was structured so that one racer would start every 10 seconds. Your time began when you crossed the start pad and ended when you crossed the finish line pad. This creates a gap between riders to help alleviate traffic. I rode no more than 1/8 of a mile into the trail before starting to wonder when I was going to start hearing the grinds of the gears on the bike behind me. I thought I heard them about a mile into the trail on a climb. At that point I realized that my warm up routine had not been focused enough nor adequate. My legs felt like concrete. I thought for sure I would be caught and passed within the next few turns. I tried looking back a couple of times on some switchbacks and kept pumping my lethargic legs up the hills and through the flats. They finally warmed up at around mile 8 (that’s what it felt like, anyway).

I never was caught. As is usually the case, I get stronger as the ride wears on (or maybe put a better way; I wear out less than the average bear). The trail received some trail maintenance within the past week that included a major re-route around a nasty hill climb. I felt like I was going to get caught in there as I fumbled my way through the new and unfamiliar trail, but once through it, I felt pretty confident that I wasn’t going to be caught today. There’s only one major climb after that point and had felt my legs come to me by then so I began focusing my attention on crushing the hills and sailing the downhills.

The race ends by riding along the entrance drive after popping out of the main trail and riding it down for a ways near the start line again. My mother-in-law was waiting for me at the corner out of the trail, yelling loudly and cheering me on. That was awesome. My wife and girls were down near the finish line to cheer me through the last 100 yards where I passed over the finish pads and timer clock. It read 12:48:blah, blah, blah. I couldn’t catch that last little bit then, but it ended up being 12:48:41. I had absolutely crushed my goal of under 55 minutes and even surpassed my stretch goal of under 50 minutes. I took 1st in the Sport Clydesdale division, and 4th in Sport overall. If I was the rabbit today, there were many hungry dogs when it was all said and done.

In addition to my finish, Evan put up a 3rd place finish in his age group, falling behind two other Cross Country Cycle Team riders and Tim took 2nd in Beginner Clydesdale. It was Tim’s first mountain bike race and he hammered it. Cross Country Cycle had many jersey’s in the winner’s circle today, so it was a great race for the team. The Fort Custer Stampede is next in two weeks so I’ll smile about the win today, but tomorrow its back to training for the next challenge.

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Race Day

I’m heading out to my first mountain bike race of the season, the Yankee Springs Time Trial (Barry-Roubaix is now considered a cycle-cross race). Over the past 3 weeks I’ve put in some good hours on the bike with a taper week this week. We’ll see how my plan works. My hamstrings are a bit tight for some reason, so I’m going to have to carefully and completely warm them up before the race to work them loose. Otherwise, I’m feeling good. I slept well last night and most importantly I’ve avoided the family cold going around our house…..so far.
The weather for today looks great. Sunny skies will provide optimal visibility in the trail. The temperature is currently in the mid 40’s, but will be low-to-mid 50’s by my 12 o’clock start time. Considering that, I’m planning on wearing the team shorts and my long-sleeve jersey. This temp also means I’m going to get away with only having to carry one water bottle (and maybe only half of that).
I will be the very first rider in the sport category, so the only traffic I’ll see will be from behind. I’m just hoping that my brother-in-law, Evan, doesn’t catch me (he starts at 12:01). We’re going to get there by about 9:30 to catch the start of the Elite/Expert race and possibly get out to some inner sections of the trail to grab some pictures of other Cross Country Cycle teammates.
All-in-all, I’m ready and excited for a great day. I’ll update later tonight with results and post-race thoughts.

Economics of Mountain Biking

I’m just going to warn you, this is a long blog post. I thought about summarizing to shorten it, but I was worried that I would neglect some important concepts of my thought process. Also note that this is purely a Monday Morning Quarterback perspective of something that’s really a great and successful activity. So now that I’ve made you not want to read the rest of it….

 

In thinking about doing some writing about my ride last Wednesday night with the group I found myself re-visiting a conversation I had with my friend Mark after our ride a couple of weeks ago. After talking about attendance at the various mountain bike race events throughout Michigan during the year, I shared my observation about why Mountain Biking seems to be behind in popularity from running events, triathlons, and road biking tours. Even the adventure races like Tough Mudder have experienced faster growth over the past few years than Mountain Biking. The fact of the matter is, that mountain biking is not a great fan sport. Because mountain biking is generally best experienced in limited access natural locations (the middle of the woods), opportunities for comprehensive or even decent vantage points for fans are limited. Finding your way to a good vantage point is even harder.

To be fair, the sport of Mountain Biking is growing. Race attendance at many events has been on the rise over the past few years. More race organizers are putting caps on participation to keep events manageable and many sold out races are drawing more and more regional and national pros. But mountain biking is still primarily an experience sport. The only way to really enjoy it is to participate in it. So the question becomes: “So what? Does it need to be commercialized to be successful?” There’s a cake saying that I can’t quite put my finger on that might apply here.

A whole new understanding of ‘sports as a business’ hit me this past year after the Iceman Commeth Challenge in Traverse City, MI. This sold out epic of a race drew international pros this past year along with the national household names that have been attending for years. The thing to remember about Iceman, though, is that what might be an epic challenge to the average rider is really only a mild training day for a pro. It’s relatively short at 30 miles, the hills are many but manageable, and much of the course is two-track (faster and typically smoother than single track).

Most of the pros are interviewed after the races for cyclingdirt.com and what struck me was how many of these riders were heading down south directly after the race to compete in a cyclo-cross race the following day (I was thinking food, beer, hot tub, more food, sleep, and then don’t touch the bike for a week). Cyclo-cross is a popular sport in itself and has experienced success in Michigan in recent years. KissCross Cyclo-Cross, for example, has developed a very successful race series in the greater West Michigan area that happens in the fall.

The other thing that struck me was how many of the riders mentioned the purse as one of the reasons why they were at the race. The winning pro for each gender received $5,000 for first place. Follow that up with $3,500 for second, $2,250 for third, and another $4,385 for 4th through 10th places. Even for all of the sport categories, average joe’s (yes, I’d consider myself average in this aspect) get paid money for a top 5 finish ($175 for 1st). On top of that there’s raffle prizes and drawings. That equates to big money in mountain bike racing terms. In contrast, the Leadville Trail 100 MTB Race offers no prize money at all but it is known as one of the most grueling mountain bike races in the country.

But, in order for awards and prizes to even be feasible, race organizers need to be able to fund them. For that, there are three primary revenue sources: Race Entry Fees; Vending; and Sponsorships. Race entry fees vary by event, but most of the races I’m entering this year will cost $25-$40 to participate. Obviously, the more participants you have, the more revenue you generate. But if you cap the number of participants, you have to start increasing the entry fee in order to increase revenue.

Vending includes clothing (t-shirts, race jerseys, socks, beanies, etc. with that year’s race artwork on it), knickknacks (pint glasses, bottle openers, etc.), and possibly food sales (I’m not sure if the food vendors pay a fee to be there or not). Again, it would be logical to deduct that the more participants you have, the more vending revenue you’re going to generate. The more challenging your event, the more proud participants will be to buy and wear the t-shirt (again, look at Tough Mudder and Warrior Dash).

Sponsorships, though, seem to be the cake icing of race revenue. Build up a great event, and sponsors will be easier to find to headline your race…and pay more money to do it. Sponsors in mountain biking should take a look at their involvement no differently than their involvement in advertising anywhere else. Put your name in front of as many people as possible at the lowest cost per eyeball. I don’t want to make light of the fact that there is also an element of simply supporting the sport through sponsorship as well (some races raise money for charity or trail maintenance for example). Rather, what I’m proposing is that once you move beyond a certain threshold of sponsorship for support’s sake, you enter the realm of sponsorship for advertising purposes. Are you beginning to see it? There’s a challenge that mountain biking economics presents.

Without a significant amount of fan attendance, you only have your race participants to advertise to. That’s definitely a targeted audience for brands related to biking, but you really need a larger (and possibly wider) audience for more general brand inclusion. Meijer had sponsored Iceman up until last year when Bells took over I’m sure in part because of the high level of fan attendance. Aside from the fact that the race included a higher than average number of participants, each participant represented 1 of maybe 2-3 overall participants as most riders will bring their family and friends to watch the race and socialize with their rider after the race.

Aside from being a great endurance challenge to most of the sport riders that make up the majority of the participants, Iceman offers several great spots to watch and encourage race participants. With a starting route that cuts through 1-2 miles of Kalkaska streets and public parks, a halfway point that intersects a paved and easily accessible forest road, and a nasty hill climb (at least it feels nasty by the time you get there) that is within a few minutes’ walk from the finish but a several minutes’ ride from the finish, friends and family can encourage their favorite racer, feasibly from at least 3 different locations during the race.

So what does this mean for race organizers who want to grow their event? I think there are a few options. Before you read them, though, please understand that I have a great appreciation for race organizers in the work they currently do. Most of them that I know of have other full time jobs that they hold down and these events take an immense amount of time and effort to put together. These are just some observations that I’ve made about what seems to work well.

  1. Include entertainment/activities at the start/finish for non-racing participants. This doesn’t have to be elaborate, but make sure there’s music playing (live or otherwise). Have some community gathering areas like a bon fire or a picnic area for congregated eating. This also could include events for kids and parents.
  2. Make the start/finish line as accessible as possible to fans. The idea is to allow for friends and family as many opportunities to watch their racer in action.
  3. Include directions and instructions on how to access available vantage points on a race course. If there are roads or hiking paths that would allow fans to access the race action and don’t interfere with the race course, make sure everyone knows how to get there. Include that information on the info page of your race website and send it out to all of the riders before the race (as early as possible) so that appropriate planning can be done in advance.
  4. Contact local media outlets 1 month, 1 week, and 1 day before the event to try to get as much coverage as possible. Notifying the local community before might draw additional fan participation, and a race summary story with pictures just goes to build interest in the event for next year. It’s also a great way for race participants to read and re-live their experience at the race.
  5. Make sure the professionals get paid. This might be debatable. However, I enjoy watching the pro’s shred my time like wet paper and it adds to the excitement of the race day to be able to watch them hammer out a trail. But, they need to be at the race in the first place. Posting some good prize money for the top Pro/Elite riders should entice more pro/elite riders to attend. There are thousands of races that go on every year and I know that the pro’s have their favorites that they’re going to attend, but if you could pull even 2-5 regional pros that haven’t traditionally attended, I think you’ll make the race exciting to watch and give the rest of us something to shake our heads in disbelief about. This also means that the pro/elite race needs to be scheduled at a time where all of the other racers are able to watch them ride as well.

This by no means is an exhaustive list. There are a ton of other great ideas that make mountain bike races very successful. Not every race is going to have the ability to incorporate these ideas, either. Course enjoyment can play a part as well and that is far less manageable by the race coordinator. I do think there is a snowball effect, though, once you start enhancing a race’s fan access and finish area activities.

So why does the sport of mountain biking ‘need’ to grow? Well, the short answer is that it doesn’t, really. I have fun doing it, I love the health benefits of riding, and it satisfies my competitive itch. I don’t need more riders to compete with; I can’t keep up with all the riders in my current group. Bringing more participants to the sport might negatively commercialize it or dumb it down. However, I look at other sports and see that where there’s a good pro circuit and fan participation, there’s increased sport participation.

In the end, increased sport participation amongst adults is a good thing for both our health as well as our psyche. In my mind, growing the fan participation along with the racer participation in mountain biking will ultimately grow the overall sport. It’s taking some great strides already and I hope that mountain biking just continues to be successful in growing overall participation in the future.

Easter Ride

After eating enough ham to sink an aircraft carrier, I wondered how my anticipated afternoon ride would go. My plan was to ride my bike from my house down to the Shore Acres Bike Park to ride a few laps. My parents offered to entertain our girls for the afternoon and return them to us at our house after their evening church service. Ever family conscious, that offer excited me because I wouldn’t be leaving the girls alone with Courtney for the afternoon while I took a 2-2 ½ hour ride.

Upon leaving my house, I noticed that the wind was coming directly out of the west, which for a north/south ride meant that I’d feel it both ways for the most part. From my house I have to travel east to get around Lake Macatawa before heading south and west through town to connect with the route down to the Saugatuck area. The first 7 miles of the trip follows along the shoreline of Lake Macatawa which is really scenic. Southshore Drive is a winding, rolling, two lane road that passes by the large homes situated on Lake Macatawa’s shoreline.

Once out of town, the primary route down to Saugatuck, if you’re not taking the highway, is 64th Avenue. This road typically carries a fair amount of traffic at 45 miles per hour (or faster), but the shoulder has to be at least 6 feet wide most of the way so I never felt squeezed or in danger. Yesterday afternoon’s traffic also seemed relatively quiet, so it was a comfortable ride. I typically see cyclists on 64th Avenue, and was really surprised to only see one cyclist going the opposite direction on the way down.

The route includes a series of gradually increasing elevation with a few short declines so that your end elevation is slightly above that of Holland. Coupling that with the steady wind present yesterday, the ride south can be a good workout. It had been about a year since I’d taken this route, so I had forgotten about the elevation gain.

Just to the west of the direct route, 66th Avenue has also become a popular route for cyclists as it cuts along the Lake Michigan shoreline, goes right by Kelly Lake, and winds around Gilligan Lake before cutting you back east to either 65th or 64thfor the last couple of miles down to Blue Star Highway (the main drag into Saugatuck).

The temperature was in the mid 50’s yesterday, so I was wearing cycling shorts, mountain bike shorts over top, smart-wool ankle socks, my long-sleeve Under Armour, and a bike jersey. This ensemble ended up being about perfect as I was never really cold and never really hot. My ears always get cold fast, so I did wear a mid-weight beanie under my helmet just to keep the wind off my ears. My hands don’t get cold too easily, so I wore my long-sleeve mountain bike gloves which are vented and the ones I wear all through the summer. Unless I’m racing, I always bring along my Camelbak hydration unit because getting water out of it is easier and it adds a bit of weight (I figure it’s like running with weighted shoes or swimming laps with a t-shirt on).

It took me about 40 minutes to get down to Shore Acres Park. The parking lot was about ¼ full, mostly with disc golf players who were peppered throughout the 40 acre course. The mountain bike trail begins near the parking lot entrance and for the most part winds around the outer edge of the park. Occasionally it appears to cross a disc golf hole, so I took extra precaution not to interrupt anyone’s game. Being the first weekend I’d ever ridden the trail, there were definitely tricks to learn about it. It is a fun, but technical trail with tight corners, switchbacks, and a few loose sandy areas. Though the underlying park is essentially located on a dune, the trail is mostly hard pack. The new trail we cut in on Saturday was rough, but I could tell it was easier to navigate with each pass and that it shouldn’t take too long with average traffic to wear it in. After 3 laps, I headed back home.

What goes up must come down was a welcome concept as I cruised back north on 64th Avenue. I was able to keep a pretty consistent 20-21mph average. I am running a Specialized Renegade tire on the rear and a Specialized Fast Trak tire on the front of my Epic so carrying speed on pavement is a heck of a lot easier than it was on my Paragon which had some burly tread. I sacrifice a little traction in muddy trail conditions, but I haven’t felt like I’ve lost any speed because of it, yet.

The wind that was in my face heading west on Southshore helped push me back downtown where a quick turn north and then west for a short 2 miles brought me back home with 2 hours and 17 minutes on my odometer. I wouldn’t call the ride a training ride, but it wasn’t leisurely, either and it was nice to spend a couple of hours pedaling on a gorgeous Easter afternoon. The Yankee Springs Time Trial is in 2 weeks and I’m feeling good right now….or is that just the ham?

Trail Day

I spent an hour or so down near Saugatuck at the Shore Acres Bike Park working on a trail re-route this afternoon. It’s the first time I’ve been to this trail, and unfortunately, it’s the first time I’ve ever done trail work at any of the local trails on designated trail days. So, both of these first experiences were way overdue.

Shore Acres Bike Park is situated adjacent to the Felt Mansion and the Saugatuck Dunes State Park. The bike park includes a BMX track, about 2.5 miles of mountain bike single track, and a disc golf course. Mark, the trail manager, has worked diligently over the past several years developing the mountain bike trail around the disc golf course and has really developed a fun, technical, but flowing trail.

The new section we cut in today was a reroute of a hill climb that inadvertently encroached upon the adjacent State Park property. Mark had already marked out the new trail a week ago with orange flags and began blocking off the old trail sections. Today’s chore was to mow weeds, trim trees, move logs, rake in, and tamp down the new trail section. Despite the fact that there were only two of us working on the trail today, it didn’t take an exceptionally long time and we were able to knock it out with time to spare for a ride.

Now the trail simply needs riders. I plan on making another trek down there tomorrow, biking from my house. This should present a good ride as its 13.5 miles there, meaning I should be able to put 30-40 miles in getting there and back including a few loops. I sure hope I run into some other riders down there.

Wednesday Night Ride

I walked away with a few scrapes and bruises but a big smile last night. The Wednesday night group was strong last night in both quantity and quality. Starting out at the Yankee Springs Deep Lake trail head, the group rode for a little over two and a half hours including a full traditional loop during the first hour, and then an hour and a half of undisclosed two-track and single-track with a ton of hills. I was on the group for about 2 of those hours. We had a group of about 12, which is always cool to see as you wind through the woods single file.
The Wednesday night group ride is the first real riding group that I joined. It’s a loose group of Johnson Controls Inc. employees who started riding together years ago at various places in the Grand Rapids area. The group has slowly evolved and grown over the years and now includes about 35-40 people that follow the weekly announcement of where we’re riding, with a consistent core of 5-10 that show up every week. Ability varies, as does the trail selection, though typically we ride Yankee Springs in the spring and fall, Cannonsburg State Game Area (some call it Egypt Valley), Cannonsburg Ski Area, and Luton Park through the summer. When I say AND to Luton, there’s a group that has ridden the tri-fecta (CSGA, CSA, and LP back-to-back-to-back) on many of the summer night rides.
Over the last two years several members of the group have started riding very competitively and have joined the Cross Country Cycle Mountain Bike Team. The last time I was on a competitive team was collegiate intramural softball in Montana. We won the championship under my outstanding team management. I’ve played on other softball teams since as well, but I had to throw out the championship reference. Anyway, joining the team this year brought some real excitement and pride to my riding. It’s pretty impressive to see a large group of guys wearing matching spandex shorts and form fitting jerseys cruising through the back country on their bikes….no really…it’s not weird….honestly.
The next race we’re all planning on is the Yankee Springs Time Trial (YSTT) on April 22. The YSTT is the first mountain bike event of the Championship Points Series race schedule, and I think the first mountain bike race of the season in Michigan. It’s the most widely attended mountain bike race besides the Iceman Commeth Challenge and the Ore-to-Shore Mountain Bike Epic. Nearly 450 people have already registered compared to last year’s 530 riders, of which over 100 registered the day of the event. This year’s event will be capped for the first time at 700 riders.
The Cross Country Cycle team will have riders competing in nearly all of the categories. Because of this, our group rides on Wednesday nights can turn from casual no-drop to “I’m going to whoop you up that hill!…and then around these bends….and then down this decent…and…hey, where is everyone?” in the blink of an eye. This has the effect of really challenging guys like me who probably ride the line between ‘sport’ and ‘expert’ (really competitive in sport / maybe not last in expert). Last night’s ride ended up being a bit less of a no-drop ride and more of a no-messin’ ride (my term for a no messing around ride). And that’s how the scrapes and bruises happened.
It’s fun to keep up with the fast group out on the trail. But in mountain biking, going faster is more than just increasing your physical fitness. On both occasions last night my spills were the result of me steering poorly (as opposed to someone else steering poorly and me running into them, I guess). Some of it may have been endurance related as I find that if I climb like mad on an uphill, I’ve sucked all the blood and oxygen out of my upper body which is necessary to drive the bike on the way back down. But the other part is simply trying to avoid stuff that is coming up on you quicker because of your increased speed.
My first little spill involved me choosing a high-ground line too late to avoid a 1 ½ inch sapling separating the sandy line from the line I wanted. I ended up finding out why you wear a helmet….it’s to collect sand and leaves when you do summersaults with your bike without leaving the ground. My neck is a bit stiff tonight, but otherwise that was merely comical. We were only about a ¼ mile into the trail when this happened, so it had nothing to do with fitness and everything to do with handling skills not matching the speed we were carrying at that point.
The second spill was half way through our first loop and I had been pushing really hard to keep up with our Elite and Expert riders through the first set of climbs. After cresting the top of a long climb, I knew I was winded, but kept pushing because overall I felt good. Coming down the back side into the winding descent, my front wheel veered off the trail into some loose dirt and over the handle bars I went again. This time my left lower leg took the brunt of the fall and got scraped pretty good. No significant injuries again, though, so I tried to hop up and get back on my bike before I lost my spot in line. However, as soon as I stood up I realized that maybe, for my own safety, I better just let a couple of the guys go by and cool down in the rear of the pack. That ended up being a good decision because I would have most definitely worn out to early for the rest of the ride’s pace.
The rest of the ride was uneventful for me but our group overall took a beating out there. There were several other riders who came back banged up, scraped up, and cut up from the trail. I don’t recall any other rides being that brutal, but then again it’s the beginning of the season and for the most part our group is starting out faster than we did last year (which for most everyone is faster than the year before that as well).
Ending the night, as we usually do, at Uccello’s in Wayland, we were treated to some great stories about the night’s ride as well as group ride legends that become tradition to retell at all gatherings. Several of the group members ride with point of view camcorders so we get to check out some of the night’s ride via laptop as well. Ahhhh the age of technology. In case you forgot what that ride looked like, you can experience it again within minutes of completion without any of the effort. That’s actually really fun. Our server got a kick out of it anyway.