Sunday, May 01, 2016

PlaySkool MyFirst Criterium

50 degrees and drizzly, 42 nut-jobs, and 30 minutes on a banked oval that a week before had hosted the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. The only way our race could have been more different is if we'd ridden it clockwise.

This was my first crit, the kind of racing for which my Blue Axino is purpose-built. It was cold enough that I spent an hour last night vacillating over what to wear, and just wet enough to make sure you felt that cold. Everything I'd read and been told was all the same: do not crit in the rain. But once the whistle blew, nothing mattered except the wheel in front and the vibe of the pack.

I was just self-aware enough to keep my plan of finishing upright, and while I waited over and over for "the big break", it never really came. There were two juniors running out front. Both were high school students, and in fact just two weeks ago I'd bought a mountain bike from one's brother. They threw numerous abortive attacks off the front, but every time they pulled out a lead, they would look at each other and sit up. At one point they pulled a STRONG charge, and it was all I could do to bridge across, but again: they just sat up after a lap and the group reeled us in.

Once that break failed, we started shouting as a group to let them charge and not chase. Of course, even though everybody was shouting it, they'd still jump when the teenagers said.

After about 8 laps of this, the grown-ups took over and pushed a proper race pace for several laps. It was easy to stay out to the right, safely just shrouded enough to catch a draft, but just far enough outside to avoid disaster.

Each lap developed a rhythm: fast through turns 1 & 2, coast halfway down the back straight, a hard charge on the outside heading into turn 3, and a sickeningly tight bunch through turn 4 with a charge to the start/finish line.

When the bell rang, it was game-on with .7 miles to the line. I honestly did not believe I would have that much sprint in me, so I stayed on a wheel and let the break form around me, figuring some of the early jumpers would pop.

But this was a flat surface, and there was no wind to speak of. My decision took me from about 10th to about 25th in .3 miles, and the guy in front of me was blowing up. I jumped and rolled pretty hard--still worried about blowing up early, pulling in 6 riders and realizing I'd wasted a huge opportunity. I ran the last guy down just before the finish line and was left with nobody but myself to blame for the disappointment. I quickly tallied up the bikes ahead and was convinced that, for the 3rd time in a row, I'd managed 16th place.

But then I learned that the two juniors were running in our class. So, 18th.

Needless to say, this was not the result I had hoped for. I *did* finish upright, and I *did* add to my completed-races count, so I will get to continue toward upgrading to Cat 4 (7 races left!), but I threw away an opportunity to really shine and settled with a mid-pack performance.

Racing must not be about settling. Though it is critical to make a race plan and stick to it, it is equally critical to recognize opportunity and seize it. I need to stop taking such a conservative approach and just let 'er fly.

Next up: the Cap2Cap century ride on May 14. Not a race, but a test of willpower and determination.

Then it's off to the Bryan Park Training Series May 17. It will be interesting to see if I'm even capable of doing a century and a crit in the same week.

Monday, April 04, 2016

Let's ride bikes really fast up hills until we feel like puking

Yesterday I survived the Jefferson Cup in Charlottesville, VA, my second cycling road race, and my first as a member of Full Spectrum Racing.

I managed to arrive in time to get numbers pinned (with help) and have my teammates strip my bike of unnecessary bits (lights & seat-bag), but not in time to get a warm-up ride. My goal for the day was not to win, not even to place particularly well, but to finish. Three laps of that course adds up to 2500 feet of climbing, and I have never done that much climbing in 30 miles. Three laps of one looooong slow climb followed by a steep .4 mile 110' ascent and a couple of beastly rollers was a harrowing thought. Survive. That was all I wanted. And as a Cat 5 racer, it's honestly all I needed.

But just as we were about to roll out for the 2-mile neutral zone, race control stopped us in the parking lot and announced that a power outage along the route was going to force the race to drop from 3 laps to 2.

And in the blink of an eye, strategy changed across the field. The roll-out was actually as punchy as the William & Mary road race, with teammates trying to find each other and folks jockeying for position. I took up a spot near the back of the group, ready to just ride with a group for as long as my legs would carry me, but it became clear, even in the roll-out, that the field was divided between racers and survivors. With 2 laps and only ~1500 feet to climb, maybe--just maybe--I could be a racer. So I moved up.

And I am glad I did.

Once across the start line, the pace quickly jumped from 17mph to 25mph...uphill. We rounded the turn onto Blenheim at 19.5mph and hammered up the hill. And at only 1.5 miles into the race, it was already decided. The field split with 20 bikes off the front, and my choice to move up during the neutral zone was the only thing that kept me in contact with them.

I watched the tete de la course get about a 15 second advantage over me at the start of the descent, and broke out the super tuck, hitting 45.4 mph on the downhill and carrying one other rider with me back to the front. I am really glad I took the time to learn how to do that.

Once back with the lead group, the ride held a strong average speed of 23.7 mph for 8 miles, including the long grind up Carter's Mountain Rd. There were a couple of small incidents, including one of the lead riders wildly veering left in the bunch and going off the road. Fortunately, nobody was taken out. During the Carter's Mountain climb, a rider to my left dropped his water bottle under the wheels of the three following bikes, including that of my teammate Matt.

Then came that beast of a climb again, and this time there was no hanging on. I made it up 2/3 of the way with Matt, but I'd spent too much and fell back 15 seconds again. Only this time the super tuck wasn't enough, as the leaders pedaled hard down the other side. I stayed 20 seconds adrift for about a mile, then two other riders caught me up and we tried in vain to reel the group back in.

After 3 more miles, our little 3-man group broke up on a climb, and having nothing left to spend, I sat up and waited for them. Only one came, and he and I worked hard just to make it to the final turn. A couple of glances back revealed that there was nobody within half a mile, so I let that guy go and decided not to hurt myself any further, riding in at a painful, if somewhat more relaxed, 18.5 mph average.

Only after crossing the finish line did I look down and realize I hadn't had any water in the entire 2nd lap. That is a quick and stupid way to burn out.

I don't know how I finished. I want to say I'm somewhere in the top 20, of 65. I lost the leaders, but I never saw the peloton. By Strava's reckoning, I finished the race in 50:59 at 23.3 mph average. So I achieved my goal, and arguably exceeded it.

I do know that I hurt myself. There is a deep searing pain at the base of my spine that *could* be from a bump while super-tucked, but could also be something muscular or worse. Either way, I'm off the bike for at least a week.

***UPDATE*** Results are in: I came in 16th of 64. That's the same position as last time, but in a bigger field. Right on the outside edge of the top 25%

Monday, February 29, 2016

First cycling road race in the books!

Saturday morning I got up bright and (dark and) early at 5:50am, loaded a sleepy boy into the car, and headed down to Williamsburg for my first ever road race. The morning was cold--24F when we left the house, and predicted to be only 30F at the 8am start time--though the day was supposed to warm up considerably. The car had been packed the night before with all the necessaries and sundries to keep a bike, a boy, and his bike in running order through a long day, and yet somehow we still managed to take a 1-hour drive and turn it into a 95-minute panic attack.

We arrived with only the barest of time left to unpack and get to registration, so it was with great relief that I heard the start had been pushed back to 8:15. I got my bike ready, made sure Alastair was warm enough and knew where to be to watch the race, and gathered at the start for the neutral roll-out.

The pre-race briefing was very difficult to hear, but I heard the guy mention "centerline", which was a term I'd learned literally just the night before while watching race videos. The "centerline" rule means the double yellow line on the road is inviolable, just as for cars, and within 3 miles of the start, I learned just how inviolable it was.

Just past the neutral roll-out, I found myself in the left side paceline, tight on the wheel of the guy in front. We'll call him Yellow Armwarmer Guy, or YAG, because he comes  back later on. The group in front accordions, and YAG zigs left across the double yellow to avoid a collision. Only instead of tucking back in, he breaks and charges up to the front. His break comes maybe 100m from a right turn, and I follow as other riders fight for space on the right (really? nobody wants to widen out that first turn?). Only instead of crossing a double yellow, I'm charging behind him in an unmarked area, and there is no line past the turn. Right as we get to the front (with 1 rider way out front trying to make something for himself), up comes the motorcycle, beeping like crazy. YAG gets dressed down and told to go to the back, and I quickly drop back into the paceline.

YAG is pissed.

The race continued uneventfully for the next couple of miles, with that one lone rider eventually getting reeled in and another pair trying to break at the first climb. This time I was closer to the front and bridged with enough momentum to continue the break on my own. I was hoping they'd chase and make a 3-man break, but they didn't, and after a mile or two out in the air, I sat up.

When the group caught me, I went pretty far back into the pack, pinned down on the right shoulder. Amazingly, for the next 6 miles, nothing happened. Nothing at all. No attacks, no breaks, no nothing. Just a parade of 50 bikes in a tight peloton. I managed to work back up to within sight of the leaders--maybe 20 riders from the front.

Then course is only 9.44 miles, repeated twice, with a 1-mile road off to the left at the end. So as we began the 2nd lap and approached the first climb again, it was clear that everybody had exactly the same strategy: make a break at the climb. But the trouble with the centerline rule is that, because you can only use one half of the road, if the group is still together, the whole group can only move at the speed of the slowest riders up front. So again: no break. I realized I was too far back to effectively counter a break if it happened, so I spent the next couple of miles working back up to the front.

I made it my only goal in life to suck wheel off the lead rider. When any attack started, I'd rob the 2nd rider of the wheel. I must have done it 10 times in that last lap, when YAG came back. First he tried  to break on the right, but the lead rider (6'+, 200lb+) moved right, and YAG went off onto the shoulder. He fought back, now extra super pissed, and decided to try to steal my spot.

This was the first time in my life I've ever rolled 20mph+ and had someone intentionally run into me, and YAG had me by at least 30lbs. But I knew it was coming, so I put myself a few inches ahead of him, making my position more stable and lower on the bike. YAG did not win that battle, but he tried and tried and tried for the last 1/2 mile to the final turn. It was frankly terrifying, but with each failed attempt, I gained a bit more confidence at holding my position.

And even though there was just about a solid mile left at the turn, that's when it happened: everyone broke en masse. My coveted 2nd position was swamped by two pace lines, then 4, then 6. Riders everywhere, all abandoning any sense of teamwork or even wheel-suck, just hammering like lunatics for the final mile to the finish.

And I'd over-spent. I watched about 20 riders pull ahead and was just on the verge of saying "screw it" when we got to the last short climb to the finish. And riders started bonking. Within sight of the finish line, five riders just dropped their pace and slogged up, and I got them all. I'm not sure, but I *think* YAG was one of them. I hope he was.

I was credited with a 16th place finish out of a field of 50, and I learned a TON. I cannot wait to do it again.