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.


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