Friday, April 29, 2011

Teamwork and solo suffering: King's Valley and Horning's Hustle

King's Valley

I had a lot of fun at the King’s Valley race last year, and this year promised to be even better because I would have three strong teammates this time.  For the first time this year, Matt, Brian (BVB), Boyd (The Kiwi), and I would all be racing together in the same field.  We even formulated a sophisticated, top-secret strategy prior to the race.  Even though it will no longer be top secret, I will divulge that master plan here: Everyone attack lots, and don’t pull on the front when a teammate is attacking.  Earth-shattering innovation as far as bike racing tactics go, I know.  Perhaps because our plan was so unorthodox, it actually worked this time…
Early in the first lap, all of us managed to make our way to the front of the field, and it was not long before Brian launched the first attack.  He was soon joined by a couple of other riders who were willing to work with him, and their small group pulled away from the field.  Matt, Boyd and I all happened to be near the front of the pack when this was happening, and we calmly watched them go.  Because Brian is our teammate and we wanted our team to win the race, it was in our interest to allow him to build as much of a lead as possible.  One frequently maligned technique for doing this is known as “blocking”.  To block in a bike race when you have a teammate off the front, you do all you can to slow the pursuit by attempting to be the lead rider in the paceline and riding slowly.  This can be especially infuriating and effective if you have multiple teammates, and can form a wall of “blockers” riding slowly across the front of the field.
By this definition, at no point in the race did our team do any blocking.  When Brian was off the front, Matt, Boyd, and I all rode near the front, but never attempted to ride slowly at the front.  Nor did we ever attempt to prevent any other rider from getting up there to push the pace.  We all wanted to stay at the front both because this is the safest and easiest place to ride in a pack of riders, and because if Brian’s breakaway was brought back in to the fold, we would be well positioned to launch our own attacks to form the next breakaway.  When the natural ebb and flow brought us to the front of the pack, we soft pedaled and swung off to allow the rider behind to pull through, since we were not about to work to make it easier for the peloton to catch Brian’s escape group.  Essentially, we stayed near the front and didn’t do anything to help bring Brian back, but didn’t purposefully slow down the field to help him stay away.
Even though we didn’t do anything to help make it happen, Brian’s breakaway was reunited with us in the peloton.  We didn’t wait long before launching another attack.  I can’t remember if it was Matt or I, but one of us went for it shortly after Brian came back.  This move didn’t stay away for long however.  There were many more attacks at this point in the race.  On the only promising one I was involved in Luke Demoe accompanied me.  We got a decent gap on the field, and I was committed to burying myself to stay away.  After a couple of minutes of this, Luke informed me that the pack was chasing hard and he thought we should go back.  I somewhat reluctantly agreed, and sat up.  After Luke and I came back some dude I didn’t recognize went and got pretty far up the road.  I think the field was getting tired of chasing people down because everyone seemed content to ride easy and let him do his thing up there.  Matt must have realized that this was the perfect time to make a move.  He nonchalantly rolled up beside the line of riders at the front of the field, looked right at each one of us, and then smoothly accelerated away from the pack.  It wasn’t long before he was up the road with the other guy.
Matt's breakaway working hard. Photo by Oregon Cycling Action.
Things remained fairly sedate in the peloton, and another rider joined Matt’s group.  The three of them began working well together, and it wasn’t long before they had at least a minute on the field.  Boyd and I remained near the front at this point, basically sitting on wheels and avoiding pulling.  Eventually some guys realized that we had a teammate off the front and began trying to set a hard tempo.  There were only about three guys that seemed willing to work though, and Boyd and I weren’t the only ones near the front who were just sitting in.  For that lap, slacking prevailed over working in the peloton, and Matt’s breakaway go so far ahead that we could no longer see them even on the straightaways.  They must have been hammering just as much as we were slacking for the gap to get that large.
It became quite clear that Matt’s break was going to stick during the final few miles of the race, and the pace slowed even more as guys began to attempt to save themselves for the finish.  The slowness was getting a tad silly, and finally Cary from the Gentle Lovers attacked hard with about 5k to go.  I went to the front and drilled it to bring him back, and kept hammering after catching him, hoping to force a selection in the field leading up to the final climb.  I’m sure a few guys got shelled, but we still began the climb with a rather large group.  I got swarmed with about 1k to go, and had to try to weave my through a mess of fading riders in the final stretch to the finish line.  I was pretty boxed in as we crossed the line, and so was Boyd, so we weren’t factors in the sprint.  We were both happy for Matt though, and saluted him when we saw him waiting by the side of the road watching us finish.  We were even more elated when we rolled over to chat with him afterwards and learned that he had won the race!
Matt climbing to victory! Photo by Oregon Cycling Action.

It turns out that Matt won by being both the hardest and craftiest rider in the break.  He worked hard with his companion, but left a little in the tank for the finish.  This enabled him to ride his sole remaining breakaway companion right off his wheel on the final climb.  Huge props are due to him for an awesome ride!
The team chilling after the race watching other fields finish.

Speaking of awesome rides, I had the pleasure of watching my better half crush everyone in the field sprint to take the win in the women’s Pro/1/2 race.  Congratulations Lisa!
Lisa sprinting to victory with a solid gap.  Photo by Catherine Cooper.

After the race, we all went to Block 15 brewing in Corvallis to celebrate the victories.  Good times were had by all.  Especially amusing was listening to Boyd having to apologize to his lady on the phone multiple times for being late in kiwi-accented German.  That dude is quite the international citizen, and a freakishly strong one at that.  We all rode strong in that race.  Brian, Matt, Boyd, and I all had enough zip in our legs to animate things almost from the gun.  I am really looking forward to doing more races with these guys.  Racing is even more fun when you have a team, and everyone on that team is strong enough to make the team tactics effective.  It will be intriguing to see how the other teams deal with us in Eugene Roubaix and other upcoming races.

Horning's Hustle
 The day after King’s Valley, I drove up solo to the weird rural compound known as “Horning’s Hideout” which would be the venue for the Horning’s Hustle mountain bike race.  I’m not sure what the purpose of that place is.  They must do something there other than host bike races because there are all sorts of strange little buildings and even a stage.  Perhaps it is the headquarters of some kind of cult. 
I have a new Bronto mountain bike for the race season, and this race was going to be its first competitive outing.  It was a bit of a wet day, so a part of me was cringing at the thought of subjecting my beautiful new ride to muddy conditions.  Pre-race ride reports claimed that the trails were not sloppy at all, so I decided to brave the potentially messy wet trails.
Once I arrived and headed out on the course for a warmup, I quickly realized that whoever had claimed that the trails were tacky was dead wrong.  Even before hundreds of racers had torn through the landscape, conditions were slick and sketchy.  It was clear that this would be as much of a bike handling test as a test of fitness.
It also became clear that the race was not the most well-organized event ever as the start was postponed twice.  Additionally, the number plates we had been given at registration seemed to be made of something similar to extra-thick toilet paper.  Even before the race began, the number plates of some riders were beginning to disintegrate and fall of their bikes.  The organizers told us to memorize our numbers, and shout them every time we crossed the officials on our laps through the start/finish line.  I looked at the officials and shook my head in pity.  I could already tell that this race would be hell to officiate and determine results for.
The course started with a hard climb up a gravel road.  I am not the best rider in the mud, so I decided to attempt to distance myself from my field on the climb and enter the sloppy singletrack in the lead since this would probably be my only chance to overtake other riders.  With this in mind, I buried it on the initial ascent, gaining a gap on my field and catching the tail of the pro group who had started before us.  I entered the singletrack descent ahead of all of the other Cat. 1’s and began slipping and sliding down the trail.  The descent was slick enough that struggling to stay on the trail was so taxing that I wasn’t able to recover much before the next climb.  Because of this, I felt like I was sustaining an all-out effort for the entire race.
In the mud early in the race (evident since I still have a number).

Throughout the rest of the race, conditions deteriorated continually, and many descents were essentially unrideable by the final laps.  My number had fallen off on the first lap, and everyone else’s was definitely gone by the end.  Many riders lost track of how many laps they had done, and some others ended up only riding partial laps since the course was a figure-8.  Several chose not to finish since the mud was wreaking havoc on all of our bikes, and many decided that finishing was not worth damaging their rigs. 
My Bronto has fantastic mud clearance, but I was still experiencing horrible chainsuck near the end of the race.  I had to do the final two laps in my big ring because of this.  I later determined that this single ride had stretched and destroyed my previously new chain, hence the chainsuck.  Mud = suck.  I also crashed multiple times, once while on foot trying to get around another fallen rider.  It was literally so slick that it was hard to walk out there.  I got passed by a few riders, but I was reasonably sure that they were in a different category than mine, although I was not certain.  
My poor abused steed after the race.  The short chainstays and curved seat tube gave me good traction and mud clearance but couldn't prevent the destruction of my chain and subsequent chainsuck.

I soldiered on, despite the horrendous riding conditions, and completed all of my laps.  It was apparent that most riders hadn’t done all of their laps, since almost no one else was still on the course, and I was positive that I was at least in the top 4 of my Cat. 1 field.  There was a band playing and a keg of beer, but the atmosphere was not exactly festive.  It was cold and wet, and everyone was absolutely destroyed from struggling in the mud for around 3 hours.  When the results were posted, everyone was pretty much outraged.  It seemed that none of the results were accurate.  I wasn’t surprised when I was listed nowhere in the top 10.  I made my way up to the officials’ tent with a mob of disgruntled racers to see if things could be rectified.
It was chaos up there, and I basically wrote the race off since I was sure there was no way they would be able to figure it all out.  Eventually, someone came up with a provisional result that listed me as the winner, and I was cautiously happy about it.  I thought it was possible that all of the racers that had passed me were in other categories, although I thought it was sort of unlikely.  I left the Horning’s compound for home, and once I got there I spent over an hour hosing off all of my gear.
After some hosing/washing at least it was pretty again.
 Eventually the official results came out via OBRA, and it turned out that I got 3rd.  I think this is probably a remarkable approximation of reality under the circumstances.  I am stoked to have officially made the podium in my first category 1 mountain bike race.  Hopefully I’ll be able to get some more decent results this season in races that are a notch less miserable.


Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Cherry Blossom Stage 4: Me = CRACKED

            I was extremely nervous going in to the final decisive stage of the Blossom on Sunday.  It didn’t exactly help things that our race was the last one of the day and didn’t start until almost 1 P.M.  I managed to sleep in a bit, but still spent hours trying desperately to relax (relaxing in desperation isn’t really possible I discovered).  About an hour prior to my start, Lisa rolled back in to the host house from her race and promptly collapsed on the floor.  She reported that the course was indeed brutal, and that the hardest climb was not the gravel one, but the paved one immediately prior to it.  She still managed to hang with the leaders for her entire race only getting dislodged on the climb to the finish line.  I was hoping that I could do the same.  I kept telling myself that I had no problems riding at the front on the climb on stage 1, so this one should be no different.  With that thought in my head, I set out to warm up on the course.
            I had done this stage last year as a Cat. 4, and the race had gone quite well for me then.  This year, the course included different roads however, roads with much longer nastier climbs on them.  I managed to roll down to the base of one of these new climbs on my warmup, but didn’t have time to climb up it.  It did look steep, but I couldn’t see much of it and assumed that it wasn’t much longer than the climbs on the short Cat 4 circuit from what I remembered of the course profile.  Little did I know that this unseen climb would soon be the undoing of my GC hopes.

Lined up at the start.  I wasn't consciously posing like a superhero, honest! Alex Clemens zipping up his jersey to the right of me, and #2 on GC in the second row in the Fare Start kit.  Photo by Leonard Johnson.

            I made my way back to the start line, and slotted in at the front of the pack for the beginning of our race.  The officials informed us that we would have the whole width of the road for the final climb to the finish line, but that we wouldn’t need it since our field was guaranteed to be blown apart.  This didn’t make me feel terribly secure about my one-minute lead on most of my competition.  With that warning, we finally got the race underway and I stopped worrying and started pedaling.
            The first two laps of the race were on the short loop that had formed the entirety of our course last year in Category 4.  I rode near the front on those loops and was feeling quite comfortable on the climbs.  A couple of little attacks went away, but nothing stuck and I was beginning to feel confident that I might just hold on to the lead.  I didn’t begin to have any difficulty until the feed zone climb immediately prior to when we would set out on to the long circuit with the bigger hills.  On the feed zone climb, someone accelerated at the front (I think it was one of the Hammer kids) and the pace within the group increased significantly.  The pack immediately strung out and I soon realized that people were coming around me as I slid backwards through the peloton.  I dug deep and fortunately managed to avoid being gapped due to the shortness of the climb.  I managed to remain in the lead group, but was near the back with little room to “packslide” should I run in to difficulty again on a climb.
            After the feedzone, we turned on to a steep fast descent that presented no opportunity for me to improve my position in the group.  Immediately after going down this hill, we began the steep paved climb that I had glimpsed during my warmup.  Again, someone at the front began to drill it and the pack strung out.  The climb was made significantly harder by the fact that we had a tailwind as we ascended.  This had the effect of giving riders further back in the pack (like myself) little to no advantage from their position.  We had to work just as hard as the guys in the front since we were all feeling the wind equally.  About halfway up this climb, I started to feel really bad.  I was having to push harder and harder just to hold the wheel in front of me, and soon I was at my absolute limit and was still losing that wheel.  Riders began to come around me as I drifted backwards.  I realized that if I lost contact with this group I would probably never regain it and would surely lose the GC lead.  I tried as hard as I could to find some last bit of power in reserve but it was simply not there.  I had cracked.  Blown.  Shattered.  A rider in a green kit pulled up next to me and said “come on leader, grab my wheel!”  He slowed down and did all he could to try to pace me back on to the group near the top of the climb.  All I could do to thank him for his efforts to help was to say “aughhahdhdf”.  What I meant to say was “thanks a ton, I really appreciate it, but I simply cannot pedal this bicycle any harder right now”.  He eventually realized, perhaps from my incoherent comment to him, that I was already way beyond my limit and pedaled up to the field without me.  I wish I could remember which team he was on so I could figure out who he was.  It truly was a nice gesture to try to help me out like that, but I was too wrecked to remember anything but the color of his kit.
            Finally, I crested the climb and began descending the other side about 50 meters off the back of the pack.  I tried to get as aero as possible in an attempt to sneak back up to them, but didn’t make up much ground.  At the bottom of the descent was a flat section with a headwind.  I found myself down there, riding as hard as I could, desperately trying to ride through that wind back in to the group.  It was heartbreaking to see them slowly gaining ground on me as I desperately gave it everything I had to try and rejoin them.  After a few minutes of this, I realized that I had a passenger in my draft.  A Team Oregon rider was calmly tucked in behind me, and would not pull through despite my desperate, oxygen indebted elbow flicks.  I was losing the race, and I thought that if this guy would just pull through, both of us could possibly rejoin the leaders.  I got more and more frustrated with him, and attempted to swerve across the road and accelerate to shake him from my draft.  I was so shattered that my acceleration didn’t amount to much, and he calmly remained there until we made a right turn onto the long gravel climb.  Once we began climbing, he came around and attacked, easily dropping me after my long effort against the wind.  “Thanks for nothing!” I shouted at him as he rode away.  If only my green friend from the climb had stuck around for the flat stretch afterwards. 
            As I climbed the gravel road, I used my anger to motivate me to keep the Team Oregon rider in sight. I was feeling much better than on the previous climb where I had popped and got in to a rhythm, pedaling with some strength again.  I kept tracking him as I ascended, passing dropped riders from our field and the masters race along the way.  Near the top of the climb I was caught by Alex Clemens (also from Team Oregon), and Alex Telitsine who was currently 2nd on GC, only 8 seconds behind me from the time trial.  I was able to match the pace of this pair without difficulty, and we became a trio as we crested the hill and began speeding down the winding descent.

Ascending the gravel climb with Alex Clemens and Alex Telitsine post cracking. Clemens was riding strong! Photo by Leonard Johnson.

            After the descent, we promptly caught the Team O guy who had pissed me off earlier.  He apologized, explaining that he had a teammate in the lead group who had designs on taking the leader’s jersey off my shoulders, so that he tactically shouldn’t help me to re-join the group.  I was still pissed, but I had to admit that he had a point.  I took a step back and realized that this whole thing is essentially a game that we were playing, and his tactics made sense.  His teammate would certainly overtake me on GC.  However, if he had worked with me, we could both have possibly rejoined the leaders, instead of both being off the back.  Whatever, its water under the bridge at this point.
            On the final lap of the course, Alex from Team O did the lion’s share of the work.  He set a solid tempo on the big climbs; we overtook multiple riders that had been popped from the lead group, and most of them couldn’t hang with the pace we were riding.  I certainly had to work a bit to stay on his wheel.  On the flat stretches, we worked together well, with everyone rotating through and taking good pulls.  It was understood in our group that we were all out of contention for high GC placings, and it would be advantageous to all of us to work together to finish as quickly as possible.
            Finally, we reached the descent leading down to the climb to the finish line.  The Team O guy who had pissed me off earlier accelerated, and I grabbed his wheel, where I remained until the finish line.  I didn’t bother to sprint around him to grab 19th place or whatever it would have been.  We passed Travis Monroe, who must have had a bad day and blew up spectacularly like I had earlier.  After crossing the line our little group hung out and chatted about the previous couple of hours of suffering.  Racing is great that way; one minute you can be in absolute agony, ready to strangle the guy next to you, but after you cross the finish line, most dudes are slapping each other on the back, congratulating each other on a good effort.
            So in conclusion, I had a bad day on the bike on stage 4.  I cracked and watched the race lead ride away from me up a hill.  I’m not sure if it was entirely from the day’s effort or if it was cumulative, but I felt ill for the rest of the afternoon and evening.  I was starving, but felt too sick to eat anything until much later, and even then had to force down the food.  It sounds like a horrible day and perhaps a ridiculous way to spend ones spare time.  However, as a whole, the race was an awesome experience.  There is little I enjoy more than pushing myself to my physical limits and competing with other guys that share my bicycle obsession.  I can’t wait to get out there in another stage race and see if I can be in the mix for the overall lead again.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

In the leader's jersey!

The forecast called for wind in the town of Dufur (the host of our TT) today and unfortunately it was very accurate.  Getting dressed and my bike set up on the trainer for warm-up were annoyingly challenging due to the car doors constantly blowing shut.  It was not only windy, but freezing-ass cold as well- definitely not optimal conditions for fast time trials.  The only good thing about the conditions was that the wind was blowing such that we would face a head wind on the first leg of the TT and would be aided by a tailwind coming back.
My warm-up went well in that pushing my TT wattage didn’t seem too taxing on the legs, so I had high hopes when I lined up for my start.  I ditched my gloves and leg warmers, rolled up to the line, and tried to think warm thoughts for the remaining 30 seconds of rest before all-out exertion.  There was nobody to hold riders upright at the start and we went straight up a freaking climb from the get-go, so as I set off I missed clipping in to my pedal a couple of times before getting underway.  I did the initial climb slightly above my TT pace, anticipating being able to recover when it leveled off, but was dismayed to discover that it got even harder at the top of the climb because I turned directly in to the headwind.  This was no normal headwind either; it was reportedly around 25mph.  I tried to get as low and aero as possible and settled in for the suffering.
During the headwind stretch, I had serious trouble generating the wattage I usually have no problem with in training.  This was in large part due to the fact that I was running a rear disc wheel and a 90mm deep front one.  I was seriously debating running a different wheel combo before the race because of how hard it can be to control such a setup in strong winds, but ended up gambling that it would be fine since the predominant wind was not a crosswind.  Once I was racing, I discovered that there were in fact gusts coming in the crosswind direction, and these were nearly blowing me off the road.  It is difficult to concentrate on one’s effort when one is coming so close to crashing nearly constantly.
Despite having to wrestle with my bike to keep it on the road, I did manage to catch several riders who had started ahead of me.  I used the thought that perhaps they were hurting even worse than myself as motivation to keeping pushing.  Even though my power meter says otherwise, the headwind leg of this TT felt like one of the hardest efforts I have ever done.  I was super relived when I reached the turn around point.
Once I did the about-face in to the tailwind, my speed shot up enormously.  I was spinning out my largest gear at times and surpassed 40 mph on multiple occasions.  I discovered that it is actually kind of scary to go that fast on a TT bike, especially when there are crosswind gusts and your position is very low and sketchy.  I passed a few more riders coming back and made it to the turn on to the finish line stretch very rapidly.  I came terrifyingly close to crashing just after crossing the line due to a combination of fatigue and crosswind.  I was spitting out weird stringy stuff, which I actually took to be a good sign that I had worked sufficiently hard.  Nevertheless, my wattage was sub-par so I wasn’t super optimistic about my result.
Because of this, I was shocked and delighted when I saw on the results sheet that I had won the stage!  I guess that the conditions probably knocked everybody equally off of their game.  My gamble on running deep wheels probably paid off as well since I certainly felt like they were acting like a sail to propel me on the return leg of the course.  Even though it sucked, I guess I liked that TT in the end.  I guess TT’s always suck though, and I like TT’s, so perhaps that means I like things that suck.  Hmmmmmm.
Anyway, we also raced a criterium today, and I was determined to: A) not get caught up in a crash and B) not let any of my rivals gain any time on me.  I was unconcerned with trying to get a good result on the stage.  From the gun, I went to the front and remained there for the first 2/3rds or so of the race.  We kept the pace high, and no attacks came that lasted more than a fraction of a lap.  Once there were around 6 laps to go, I allowed myself to drift a little further back in the pack to try to avoid some of the jockeying for position that would surely ensue leading up to the final sprint.  When that sprint came, the victory was taken by none other than Travis Monroe, the climber kid who got crashed out on stage 1.  I’ve said it before: that kid has some serious talent.  It will be exciting to see how he does when he inevitably starts racing at the next level.
After the crit was over, there was some confusion about the podium situation.  They got everyone there for the stage victory podium, but not so much for the GC podium.  I collected my leader’s jersey and tried to leave, but the lady who presented it to me insisted that I get my podium picture taken too.  I decided to try to make up for the lack of podium mates by striking a pose.

Hopefully I will get a chance to get a better podium shot after the epic climbing stage tomorrow.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Back at the Blossom: Stage 1

            Last year I had a fantastic time racing the Cherry Blossom Classic as a Cat. 4 and ever since then I have been looking forward to doing it again.  The time has finally come, and I am now in The Dalles having at it. 
            I got up bright and early this morning for my 9:20 start time, and rolled down to the familiar middle-of-nowhere school at the start/finish area.  I got kitted up, warmed up, and made my way to the start.  There were several familiar faces in the field, including my Cat. 4 podium-mates from last year, teenage ├╝ber-climber Travis Monroe, and the awesomely named all-arounder Rusty Dodge.  All three of us are in the Cat. 3 field now, and I was curious about how we would stack up against the competition in our new higher category.
            The first lap was pretty uneventful—very similar to last year in that it was very bunched up and difficult to move around in the pack at the beginning.  As usual, there were a couple of sketchball characters in the field that I had to work pretty hard to avoid.  I was quite thankful when the major climb on the course arrived and the field strung out a bit.  I was able to muster the horsepower to move up through the field when I had an open avenue, and crested the climb near the front.  Travis and Rusty were up there as well.  In that way, it really seemed like last year all over again, with a few new faces thrown in to the mix.
            Lap 2 had a bit more action in that there were actually a few attacks.  Most came on flat parts of the course however, and never came to anything of consequence.  The second time up the climb a rider on an older bike in a well-worn Guinness jersey attacked and got a gap on the field.  He had a herkey-jerkey peddling style which led me to believe that he probably wouldn’t have what it would take to stay away.  Surprisingly, he proved to be much stronger than he appeared and held his gap for much of the climb.

Like my field, but lots more estrogen.  Lisa's select group cresting the climb.
            The beginning of the third and final lap was pretty slow.  I kept finding myself on the front of the pack, where I would take a pull and then sit up waiting for a rider to come around me, only they often never did, even if I slowed waaaaaay down.  I guess everyone must have been saving themselves for the finish.  At one point, the herkey jerkey Guinness guy attacked again, and actually stayed away until the climb.  It was pretty impressive to see how fast he could go by flailing at the pedals like that. 
            Due to the slow pace leading up the climb, I was pretty sure that somebody was going to punch it once we started going uphill, so I made sure to be at the front.  Once we began climbing, it was true that the pace had gone up a notch compared to the previous two times, but I still found it manageable.  Travis Monroe was up there driving it, and we caught the Guinness guy pretty quickly.  The speed stayed uniformly painful all the way up the climb, and it was clear that some dudes were at their limit.  One of these gassed riders was in such oxygen debt that he couldn’t really ride in a straight line any more, and weaved over right in to Travis (who was right next to me), who went down hard.  It was almost exactly like the crash that split the field last year actually, only this time, everyone that made it around sat up and waited for the field to catch up.  I guess the one nice thing about the Cat. 3s is that they are more sportsmanlike.
            Going down the backside of the hill was pretty terrifying.  There was a lot of jockeying for position combined with some squirrely bike handling.  Sure enough, I heard riders behind me shout CRASH, signaling that someone else had hit the deck.  At that point, I decided that there were enough scary bike handlers between me and the front of the field that I was just going to make sure that I crossed the line with the same time as the winner, and not contest the sprint.
            I made it through the final hairpin turn at the finish line without incident, only to narrowly miss going down in yet another pileup near the 200 meter sign.  WTF, I thought the 3’s were supposed to be LESS sketchy than the 4’s!!  I rolled across the line in the lead pack, happy to have survived the day and not to have lost any time.  I chatted with Travis after the race who was pretty pissed.  He made it through with some road rash, but his bike apparently got a bit messed up.  Rusty got caught in the final crash and was pretty pissed as well.  Hopefully people will get their acts together for the coming stages and there will be less carnage.

The stage 1 finish line. Pretend that the Pro 1/2 women are in frame for the sprint. Hard to capture with my point and shoot camera..
            In other news, Lisa had an awesome ride today, making the winning break of 8 riders, and managed a 4th place finish despite ending up on a bad wheel and getting gapped in the sprint.  It is awesome to see her having such a great time racing her bike.
            We checked out the TT course and discovered that it is not nearly as flat as advertised.  I had high hopes for tomorrow, but now I am not so sure… We’ll see how it goes tomorrow morning!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Piece of Cake 2011

            I have finally overcome the inertia that has kept me from blogging for the past few months and am back.  I’m now regretting not having written up anything about my ride in the Cascade Creampuff last year when the experience was still fresh in my head.  The main bits I recall at this point are that it was a really long ride, there was a horrendous amount of climbing, and it was brutally hot.  It was also the most rewarding experience I have ever had on a bicycle.  Here is a picture:

Now on to current events:  The Piece of Cake Road Race.  One of my main goals of the 2011 racing season is the Cherry Blossom Stage Race, which is coming up next weekend.  Having not done any racing since 2010, the Piece of Cake seemed like the perfect event to get my legs ready for the upcoming thrashing they would receive in the blossom.  I’ve been a bit reluctant to race so far this year, mainly because the weather has sucked so badly.  I was out of weekends before Cherry Blossom, however, so I decided to brave the wet and kick off the season.  The course sounded interesting at least – some rolling hills and 3 miles of gravel roads, which might help make the race hard enough to break up the field and generate some excitement.  This turned out to have been true for the most part.
I got up bright and early on race day, and picked up my teammate Matt Baumann and Pete Moe from the Wolf Creek Racing team, both of whom would be joining me in the Cat. 3 field.  Pete said that he had seen a weather forecast that predicted a break in the rain precisely corresponding with our race time.  I thought he was joking as we drove north through the rain showers, but sure enough, there was genuine blue sky above when we arrived at the course.  Perhaps the race wasn’t going to be as miserable as I was initially expecting.
Once the race got underway the pace was rather civil until we arrived at the gravel road section of the course.  Once there, it was not long before someone at the front of the pack dropped the hammer, and the field strung out in to two single-file lines on the smooth car tire tracks in the road.  As expected, there were numerous flats the first time through the gravel, as those who either showed up with thin, lightweight tires, or just got unlucky were thinned from the herd.  There were so many punctures that the follow car with spare wheels ran out on the first lap, and had to go back to the start to resupply.  All of the flat tires combined with the brutal pace caused many gaps to form in the lines of riders that I needed to bridge to avoid losing touch with the lead group.  The most chaotic gravel segment had no smooth car tracks, forcing us to fish-tail our way through the loose rock.  As if this wasn’t enough, that segment had a strong crosswind, so riders were spreading all over the road trying to find the draft.  There were rocks and water bottles flying everywhere and all sorts of mayhem.  In other words, it was a lot of fun in a masochistic sort of way.
Our field enters the Gravel. Matt on the right edge.  Photo by Kenji.
After the loose gravel, it was not long before the shaking ended and we were back on smooth tarmac.  The pace immediately slowed way down and I took stock of the havoc wreaked by the rough stuff.  Our pack had shrunken considerably and about 3 riders were off the front.  One of the breakaway riders was on the Therapeutic Associates Inc. team, and had several teammates in our group who were on the front, controlling the pace so that their buddy wouldn’t get caught (as they should).  Despite the TAI guys, we eventually reeled in two of the escapees, and I chose the moment of them rejoining the pack to launch an attack and join the lone TAI guy who remained off the front.  I thought that it had the potential to become a successful breakaway (even though it was only the first lap) because he seemed strong to have stayed away for so long, and had more teammates in the lead group than anyone else.  Unfortunately, when I reached him we only traded a couple of pulls before he decided to rejoin the pack leaving me off the front by myself.  This also happened to be in the headwind section of the course, making it suck really badly to be a lone rider with nobody to share work of fighting the wind with.  I put myself in to TT mode and commenced suffering.  I began to loose hope as I periodically looked back and realized that my gap was not getting any bigger, and sure enough, near the start/finish area, I was brought back into the main field.
 We rode through the gravel again, and the pace was much less painful.  I made it through without incident and the pack was all together on the smooth roads.  Matt and I were working to stay near the front of the group, and that paid off when another TAI rider attacked hard.  The guy shot off the front like a rocket, and Matt must have recognized that he was strong because he immediately followed suit and joined him.  Again it looked like the move had serious potential because the front of the main field was dominated by TAI riders, and I was spending my time up there as well.  None of us was inclined to do any work to bring back Matt or his companion.  Unfortunately for Matt, the TAI dude almost immediately slowed down, or Matt sped way up (what’s with these guys not wanting to be in breaks with Paul’s riders?!?!) and Matt was off the front alone.  I did my best to hang out near the front but did not contribute at all to making the pace.  It was kind of nice actually to be able to rest a bit.  Matt, on the other hand, was up the road alone turning himself inside out and got a sizeable gap on us.  At this point, the sky opened up and a torrent of rain came down.  It was ridiculously horrible, raining so hard that it seemed like a solid stream of water rather than individual raindrops falling.  I felt kind of bad for Matt, but at least he wasn’t getting sprayed by water from anyone’s tire in addition to the rain.
Me getting drenched. Photo by VelocityPhoto

We rode through the start/finish, and began our third and final lap.  We entered the gravel, and the pace picked up a bit again.  I made it through, despite the usual gravel chaos, and was stoked when we emerged onto the pavement without catching Matt.  I thought his solo move actually had a legitimate shot at working.  Just as I was thinking this, we approached a rider on the side of the road removing his rear wheel, and I saw with disappointment that it was indeed Matt.  He must have flatted just as he was leaving the gravel section.  I felt really bad for him, and considered waiting up to try to pace him back on to the pack.  I quickly decided that this would most likely lead to both of us finishing off the back of the lead group and pressed on.  Talk about horrible luck though…  Matt rode super strong staying off the front like that.  If his luck changes in upcoming races, some awesome results are definitely coming his way.
 At some point in the gravel, a Portland Velo rider attacked and got a gap on the field.  He was doing a remarkably good job of holding his gap for most of the final lap, and the fact that no one was willing to work on the front of the pack was certainly helping his cause.  I decided to attack and try to join him, but when I jumped, I looked behind and saw the field stringing out not far behind me.  I then sat up, not wanting to be the chump that did all the work of bringing the race back together.  That should be the TAI team’s job, although to be fair, this is Cat. 3 amateur racing, and they probably shouldn’t be expected to function like a well-oiled machine like a euro-pro team.  Anyway, I tried to bridge to the Portland Velo guy a couple of more times, but the field was in no mood to let me go.  Finally, he must have gotten tired and we began reeling him in.  Just as he was about to get caught, I went again.  I actually got a bit of a gap, but either the field got organized, or I got tired and slowed (probably both) and I was caught.  I decided that I had little chance of winning the field sprint, and my only chance of winning was to roll in solo, so I attacked yet again.  This move barely lasted at all, and I was brought back.  At this point, I was getting frustrated and decided that I should at least get the best workout possible for the upcoming Cherry Blossom, and I attacked once more, again to no avail.  I was pretty tired at this point, and the race was almost over since we were crossing the 1k to go sign.
 A rider from the Hammer Nutrition team attacked hard shortly after the 1k sign, but couldn’t get a gap on the field.  He realized this and sat up a bit, but we were running out of racecourse, so the pace stayed fairly high.  I was on the front with Cort from TAI and a smaller dude from Bridgetown Velo.  We were all kind of looking at each other with 500 M to go and I decided to try and catch them napping by starting my sprint early (temporarily forgetting that I kind of suck at sprinting).  I actually thought it might work as I crossed the 200 M sign and was still leading.  The line got closer and closer and I started to get excited despite the fact that my legs were really giving out on me.  Sure enough, Cort and the Bridgetown dude came around me with probably 50 M to go, and even more riders came around right at the line as I finished blowing up. 
Tongue out, out of gas.  About to cross the line.  Photo by Kenji.
Despite losing many places in the final few meters of the race, I am happy with my 6th place finish .  I did all I could think of to go for the win and left it all out there on the road.  Also, Matt rode amazingly in this race: he attacked multiple times in addition to his long solo bid.  If we keep racing like this, perhaps our team will get an aggro reputation that will strike fear in to the hearts of Cat. 3 riders statewide!  Either that, or we will just annoy everyone, or perhaps entertain them.  Regardless, I’m enjoying being able to animate things in these races, even if I don’t win.

Friday, June 4, 2010

THE CLAW - a reality check

I had a fun if somewhat unsuccessful stage race in Enumclaw aka "The Claw".  This race has been around for a long time, but this year was the first time it was being run as a stage race rather than an omnium.  In an omnium, riders receive points based on their placing for each stage and the rider with the most points at the end of all the stages wins.  In a stage race, the overall winner is the rider who finishes all of the stages in the least total amount of time.  Stage races favor time trailists and climbers.  TT's and mountaintop finishes generate the biggest time gaps between racers since drafting is taken out of the equation.  I was stoked about the switch from omnium to stage race given my recent Coburg TT results.  I was hoping to put time into my competitors in the TT, and then do my best to finish with the same time as the winners of the crit and road race, resulting in a solid overall placing.  That was the plan anyway.

The first stage was the TT.  I arrived at the course somewhat late and spent several minutes struggling to get my power meter working.  I finally managed to fix it and got a bit of a trainer warmup, only to break the valve extender on my new super deep aero front wheel right before my start requiring a frantic wheel change.  I fortunately didn't miss my start time, sprinted out of the gate, and felt pretty good during the first leg of the TT. After the first turn, the course got pretty twisty and I found myself having to look up quite a bit to avoid crashing.  Looking up in a TT annoys me because I really have to strain to do so and it totally screws up my aero tuck.  Despite all of the craning of my neck, I kept the watts high and kept my effort steady up the short climb on the course.  I eventually reached what I thought was the final stretch of road and began wondering where the hell the finish line was.  I passed a couple of people on the side of the road who I thought might be race officials in my TT-induced delirium.  I sat up after passing them, and then noticed a corner marshal who was gesturing that I needed to turn onto another road.  I made the turn, saw the real finish line, and made a sprint for it, pissed that I had lost a few seconds because of my confusion.  I didn't come close to vomiting during the ride and was therefore disappointed with my performance, until I looked at my power data which was actually solid.  Sure enough, when the results came out I was happy to have taken 3rd in the TT, missing 2nd place by only one freakin' second.

Next up was the crit.  Bourcier had warned me ahead of time about the technical nature of the course, and he wasn't kidding.  There were 8 corners and each one of them had crosswalk paint, manhole covers and sewer grates galore.  On top of that, there were a few potholes and gobs of rough pavement.  I got to line up in front because they called up the GC leaders at the start, but once the race began I was quickly shouldered aside by more aggressive riders and ended up near the back of the pack on the first lap.  The pace was high from the start and never let up, making it pretty hard to move up especially since the straightaways were fairly short.  About 15 minutes in to the race, the rain began.  A few drops here and there rapidly turned in to an all-out downpour and the course went from "technical" to "dangerous" in my opinion.  Not surprisingly, there were several big pileups as riders lost traction on the numerous ice-like paint and metal features in the corners.  As the course got progressively wetter and more slippery, the field became even more strung out and my position remained just as crappy near the back.  Eventually the rider in front of me lost the wheel in front of him, and I was unable to come around and close the gap.  It turned into another TT for me, only this time much more miserable and sketchy.  When it was all said and done, I had lost 40 seconds and dropped to 12th on GC.  As if to drive home the insanity of the course, a rider crashed in the warm down lap as we were all rolling around the course at an easy pace.

After the crit, Lisa and I took advantage of a coupon that we found at race registration for a free buffet dinner at the nearby Muckleshoot casino.  Of course there was the usual broad selection of greasy stuff, but there was also a limitless bounty of smoked salmon, shrimp, and crab legs.  With some bread and veggies, we had a fantastic dinner and were stupefied by the fact that we didn't see any other bike racers there.  We went back to our hotel and slept well with full bellies.

 Mmmmmm crab legs!

With Sunday came the road race.  The weather had not improved much since the crit so I piled on the layers.  We got underway, and shortly after the neutral roll out ended, I noticed that my bike was feeling a bit more cushy than normal.  As I feared, a minute later my rear tire had gone totally flat and I pulled to the side of the road for a wheel change. The car pulled right up and the change was quick, but the field had still pulled pretty far away.  I got back on the bike and began a frantic chase.  I probably would not have made it, but I was able to draft behind the wheel car, and then the official car once I got reasonably close to the pack.  Once I was back in the fold, I realized that it wasn't going to be a good day for me.  I was pretty exhausted from the few minute chase after my flat, and was having trouble moving up through the strung out field of riders.  I started feeling even worse when we hit the climb. The hill on the course is pretty similar to McBeth.  It starts off steep, then levels off, then gets steep again.  I felt like crap on all of the steep bits, and didn't feel much better on the more gradual parts.  It was nothing like Cherry Blossom or even Silverton where I have been able to use the climbs to move up through the pack.  I was hanging on for dear life every time up that damn thing.  I managed to stay in the fold until the 3rd time up.  The strong guys at the front really turned the screws that time and the field shattered into 3 different groups.  I was in the 3rd one.  I was somewhat reassured that I didn't totally suck when I saw the skinny climber kid from Cherry Blossom ride up next to me on the climb.  He and I began working to bridge up to the second group on the road, trading pulls. Unfortunately, he was able to summon up a final kick at the summit and join them, while I just didn't have the horsepower to do the same.  I dangled in no-man's land for a while and was shortly caught by the group behind me.

We got a hard rotating paceline going, but we simply could not close the gap.  We had the lead group within sight for the first half of the final lap, but they eventually pulled away when we approached the climb for the final time.  Everyone was pretty dejected, and to add insult to injury, it began pouring rain on us at the top of the climb.  We kept a decent tempo going, and rolled across the finish line several minutes after the lead group.

Overall, this race was a bit of a reality check for me.  Sure I can TT pretty well for a cat 3, but I am certainly not a fantastic crit rider or climber.  I guess it is good to know what I need to work on to be a better all around road racer.  Then again, if the weather ever improves I think I would like to start spending a lot more time on my mountain bike.  The creampuff is coming up soon.  Enough of this road bike stuff.  I really need to get in some epic MTB rides!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A weekend in the dirt: Eugene Roubaix and Mudslinger MTB

This weekend I decided to take advantage of my seemingly good form and resolved to race on both Saturday and Sunday.  Both races would be dirty ones: Saturday's Eugene Roubaix is a road race that features a stretch of gravel road, and Sunday's Mudslinger promised to live up to its billing as a particularly muddy mountain bike race with all of the "liquid sunshine" we have been enjoying this spring.

I have helped put on Eugene Roubaix for the past few years and I always wanted to be fit enough to race it.  Since I am actually riding well this year I was stoked to make a serious effort at winning the race I had been involved in since its inception.  I even bought special Schwalbe tires for the event with extra volume and reinforced sidewalls to help combat gravel induced punctures.  Since it was a local race, I got all lycra-ed up at home and rode my bike out to the course.

I lined up for the start and noticed that the Pacific Power team was again out in force amassed at the front of the field, no doubt as part of a plan to control the race from the beginning.  Unfortunately for me, they were somewhat successful this time.  From the gun, one Pacific Power and one Life Cycle rider went on the attack.  The gap began to grow alarmingly so I went to the front to keep my eye on it.  I decided that it was too early in the race for a break to succeed and put in some hard pulls to reel the escapees back in rather than attempting to bridge the gap and join them.  Soon after they were caught, another P.P. guy went for it, and this time I jumped on his wheel to join him.  The field was having none of it, however, and we got no more than a few bike lengths of a gap before giving up and slowing down.  This pattern essentially went on for the rest of the race.  The only move I went with that I felt had any chance of success was an attack I put in on Crow Rd. to bridge up to a couple of guys that had gotten about 50 yards ahead of the pack.  One of the stronger P.P. riders went with me and was keen on working to make the break stick.  We reached the pair that was up the road and continued working together trying to stay away.  It only lasted for a couple of minutes, however.  There must have some pretty strong or at least fresh guys still in the pack, because they reeled us in disappointingly quickly.

 Riding through the gravel.  Photo by Lou Swing.

I put in a couple more attacks on the last lap, but didn't have enough power to stay away from the field alone.  I realized that my last chance to make a move would be on the gravel section immediately prior to the finish.  Going in to the gravel, things got pretty sketchy as everyone attempted to move to the front of the pack.  At the start of the gravel, I was about 10 riders from the front, which was too far back in my estimation.  A couple of wheels in front of me a strong Bend Bike and Sport rider pulled out in to the rougher part of the gravel and accelerated to the front of the pack.  I liked the looks of his move and did the same.  He had a small gap at the front, and I pulled in right behind him.  That is where I stayed until the end of the gravel, thinking I could come around him and sprint to victory at the line.  In hindsight, I should have pulled to the left again in the gravel and put in an attack to get a gap on the field.  Maybe I'll try that next year.  This time, I was second wheel, right behind Mr. B. B. and S. coming off the gravel on to the pavement 200 meters from the finish line.  I tried to sprint for it, but got passed by 3 riders before I crossed the line in 5th place. 

It was a decent result, and I know what I need to work on to do better next time: my short explosive power.  If I could produce stronger accelerations I could generate bigger gaps when attacking and have more success getting away from the field.  I could also have a chance in sprint finishes like the one in Roubaix this year.

In other news, my friend and teammate Matt Baumann put on a spectacular show in the Cat. 3 race, staying off the front of his field for almost a full lap before being joined by two riders in the break.  He killed it on the front through the gravel the final time and got 2nd in the sprint at the finish.  Way to go Mateo!

After Roubaix I went home, donned the recovery stockings, and prepared for my early departure for the Mudslinger MTB race the following morning.  Todd Gardner built me an amazing mountain bike this winter and I was eager to race it.  I fitted some mud-appropriate tires, generously lubed the chain, and declared my steed ready for racing.  Unfortunately all of my Paul's team kit was stankified, so I was going to be racing incognito in an old (and now baggy) Midtown Racing kit.

My beautiful bicycle.  Todd can build one for you too!

I arrived in Blodgett the next morning, registered for the race, warmed up, and rolled down with the massive pack of MTB riders to the start line.  I sort of did a MTB race once before, but it was before I had ever raced a bicycle and had no idea what I was in for.  I ended up just riding (not racing) the course keeping Lisa (who had never even considered racing a bicycle before that day) company.  There were thunderstorms and my bike broke multiple times.  I finished, but was DFL.  I lined up knowing that despite all that could go wrong in this race, it couldn't possibly go worse for me than my previous attempt at racing in the dirt.

When the race got underway the organizers sent us off in waves with our respective categories, which finally made clear who we were racing against after the chaos of the start line.

Photo by Oregon Velo I'm near the road sign in the red and black kit.

The race began with a long gravel road climb.  It felt like a road race as we were all bunched up in a peloton on the road.  After Roubaix on Saturday, Baumann told me that I would like MTB racing because it was like a TT and I generally do alright at those.  Matt's words were echoing in my head early on the climb and I realized that I wasn't riding anywhere near my TT pace in the pack.  I pulled up to the front of the field and cranked it up to the intensity I would be at had I been hunched over in a skinsuit and aero helmet.  This was enough to separate me from the pack.  Since no one was following me, I got a little worried that I was doing something stupid that was due to my inexperience at this discipline.  The knowledge that I couldn't possibly do worse than the last time I attempted a MTB race encouraged me to press on, however, despite the possibility that my strategy was flawed.

On the gravel climbs, I managed to work my through the shrapnel of dropped riders from the Cat 1 women and singlespeed fields.  Once I got on the singletrack, however, I stopped passing people with regularity.  I was a bit sketched out by the muddy conditions and almost crashed a few times.  There were a couple of doubletrack stretches with very deep waterbars cut in them that caused me to bottom out my fork and almost go over the bars on multiple occasions.  I came to a horrifying realization: I am becoming a freakin' roadie!  I've been spending way too much time on the pavement and not enough time in the dirt honing my bike handling skills.  Something must be done about this....

This was one of the less muddy parts of the course.  Photo by Oregon Velo

Eventually I was passed on the singletrack by a rider who I thought was in my category.  He was also pretty fast on the climbs and I lost sight of him after a few miles.  I continued going all out since 2nd place would still be pretty sweet and I really wanted to hold on to it.  I didn't get passed again until the final stretch of singletrack on the course which also turned out to be the most muddy.  I clumsily made my down the trail with one foot unclipped and heard a rider coming up behind me.  It turned out to be not one, but two guys who came around me just as we emerged from the trail on to the gravel road that led to the finish line.  One of the guys accelerated violently on the slightly downhill road, and I jumped into his draft.  I don't think he noticed me back there.  I rested up for a little bit, and then sprinted around him, getting enough of a gap so that he wasn't in my draft.  I got as aero as one can get on a mountain bike, and hammered all the way to the final climb to the finish line.  I emptied the gas tank on the climb, all the while expecting one of my chasers to sprint around me.  It never happened, though and I held my position across the line.  

The organizers provided free post-race spaghetti and bread to the racers, which was incredibly awesome.  I hung out and ate my noodles and wandered over to the results board.  To my surprise, it turned out that I had actually won my category!  The one rider who had passed me was from the category that started immediately after ours.  After the race I stuck around for the awards ceremony and raffle.  I have to say that the post race atmosphere and activities were way more cool than at any road race I have taken part in.  I think roadies could learn a lot about having fun from the mountain bike crowd.