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.