Monday, May 20, 2019

Wintergreen - 3rd time up the mountain

Glad that one's out of the way...

Time trials are a special form of hell. They're 100% mental, and exploit the depths of your willingness to suffer. Time trials uphill are also mental, but give you less choice: you either stay on the bike when it gets miserable, or you get off. Depending on the gradient, you may not have any other choice to make.

Wintergreen has a couple of places where that limited set of choices comes into sharp relief. The course traditionally starts on a false flat, rises steadily for about 2 miles, then hits some punchy ramps up to the entrance of the resort. Once you hit the resort, at about 4 miles and ~950' of climbing, the real work begins: the remaining 2.x miles contain 2/3 of the total elevation of the course.

I say 2.x miles because the finish usually includes three back-to-back brutally steep ramps. But this year the course ended beside the first ramp, on a relatively mild pitch about 200' lower.

I took that reduction in elevation to mean MORE POWER!! And I'd switched over to a compact crankset for the first time, so I had functionally another whole gear under me.

But it was also 30 degrees warmer than in previous years, and the sun she was a-shinin'. No wind to speak of, and 80-degrees F all the way up. Those two places where the choices get slim? They claimed a bunch of folks.

I've never seen so many people off their bikes, and attendance was down.

I made it through the bottom section with no real problem, though I ran out of gears sooner than I'd expected to. But I'm trying a new thing where I don't stupidly stay off the bottom gear just because, and the choice was paying off: I was able to keep my cadence in a tolerable range, and my heart took longer to climb into zone 5. I was slower than years prior, but my overall power is down and my weight is up, so that wasn't a surprise.

The top part, though, takes riders through a miserable section that sees one of the steepest turns on the course lead onto a withering ramp, followed by another steep turn that opens into direct sunlight. If you make it to the sunlight, you know you're near the top. It was in that first turn where I began to regret all of my life choices, and coming out of it I realized I was not alone: at least 5 riders walking or standing next to their bikes.

There was no way I was getting off the bike that close to the top, even if I was moving slowly enough that the Garmin kept auto-pausing, and my heart was pushing deep into the 180's.

I made it to the sunshine and was surprised to realize I could still add a little kick. The course leveled out a bit, and I managed to goose it one last time coming through the finish, though there was no way I was going to try to sprint it in.

My goal was not to win. I'd seen the finish times for all the other riders in Cat 3, and my best hope was to be just off last place. But I guess the heat got people more than I'd expected, and I LOVE the heat. I ended up 4th of 8, still several minutes out of first, but less than a minute off the podium.

I think the revised finish played to my favor, as did the weather and compact crankset. But Wintergreen is still hard AF. If I'm not vying for a BAR jersey next year, I doubt I'll have a compelling reason to do it again.

For now, though, I'm rewarded for my efforts by being officially 2nd in the BAR race, and I've earned a 2 month respite--there are no BAR events for Cat 3 until late July! 3 of the remaining 5 scheduled events are TT's, so my curious aversion to bunch sprints (new for 2019!) may not play as big a role as I was fearing.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Tour of Page County Stage Race: A Lonely Way to Fail

We've just barely reached the midway point of the racing season, and I'm struggling. After failing, for the first time this season, to score even a single point at Jeff Cup last week, I had a terrible showing at the first of 3 events this weekend, and put myself out of contention before the action even got heated.

The Tour of Page County is a 3-part stage race comprising a road race on Saturday, followed by a TT and a crit on Sunday. The 3/4 group drew the short straw this year and got the earliest start time of 8:30a for the road race. Just like Jeff Cup, the race is ~60 miles, but unlike Jeff Cup, the signature climb on this course strikes fear into the hearts of mortals.

I'd done this course twice in the past. Once as a 5, and then the following year as a 4. Both times I'd come in 3rd in relatively small fields of ~30 or less. The 2nd time I did it on crit gearing and sat on the front for about half the race.

I felt much more confident going into this than I did Jeff Cup. And I'd been a good boy and not over-cooked it in the week before. No crushing group rides or anything crazy: just persistent low-level training. And a cough I'd been struggling with for the past month finally fully abated.

I even started the race smarter, rolling in the back 1/3 and moving up as gaps opened.

The first time over the climb wasn't too bad. My position allowed me to easily keep contact while sag climbers moved backward through the group, and there was no real surging. The heart rate crept up near the top, but the pace was very manageable. The descent on the other side, just like Jeff Cup, saw me sitting bolt upright to avoid running over the group. And then the finish climb, while horrible, still was no worse than the winery climb's pace the previous weekend. Good.

The 2nd climb was almost exactly the same, and I felt like I was in a good position to sit back and let the juniors do the work in the wind. I'd sink a bit on the finish climb and then roll back up to the front of the group in the valley.

Then, on the 3rd climb, all hell broke loose. The juniors attacked from the base of the climb to the top. I held on to the top, lost a few meters over the top, regained it on the descent, and completely blew up on the finish climb. Coming over the top, I saw the group riding away, easily 20 to 30 seconds ahead.

I caught another straggler, and we agreed OUR race was done. At only ~30 miles. I've never lost contact so early in a race.

Then a small group of riders caught us, and then another, and suddenly we were 10 riders. Someone took up the mantle of road captain, and we quickly established a reverse left-over-right rotation. 3 miles later, we could see the peloton. Another mile or so and we were back in the group. Big round of cheers all around.

Except we were close to the base of that climb again, and when we hit it, we hit it hard. The group pressed a pace every bit as tough as the previous lap's, and there was nothing I could do. I was 15 seconds adrift by the top of the main climb, and completely out of sight through the finish climb.

The 5th lap was sad, solitary, and slow. Amazingly, Strava shows that I actually gained back some time for a while, but was never within a minute. I caught and passed a few riders from different race groups, and since you can't draft off other races, rolled steadily on. By the time I'd reached the middle of the big climb, I was out of gears: 39x28 and struggling to turn 70rpm. By the finish climb I was weaving and just about to get off and walk the damn thing.

I crossed the line and asked the judges if I could stop. Initially they said no, but after a few seconds they relented and shouted that I could be done.

And that was it: I was pulled. I requested it, and to be honest I'm not sure I physically could have completed another lap, but that meant my stage race was already lost.

When results were posted, they confirmed that all of us who were pulled (which was almost half the field!) were penalized 10 minutes. Pulled does not equal DNF, fortunately, so I was able to continue to compete, but I'd be racing for peanuts.

I managed to pull up a couple of positions in Sunday morning's TT, catching my 30-second and 1-minute riders, but nothing spectacular. My heart just wasn't in it.

And the final event, the 45-minute speedway crit, was just about finishing. Since placement is on overall time, just finishing in the field would mean posting roughly the same time as the field, so I was pretty confident I would not lose any places in the overall if I just finished the damn race. And I did. The pace was just a tick under 28mph, there were no wrecks (though just barely), and I stayed in the back the whole time. I didn't get dropped. Yay.

When all was said and done, I'd finished 33rd for the weekend. I pulled up 6 positions from my road race finish, but it was not at all the weekend I'd hoped for.

But hey, now I can say I've done a stage race! And that's not bad.

Jeff Cup

I've had a big lump in my throat about Jeff Cup since 2016. It was only my 2nd ever road race, at the time, and my first in FSR team colors. I felt I had an obligation to do well, and I failed. The race was shortened to 20 miles before it even started, due to a power outage on the course, and the MABRA teams just turned it into a 20-mile sprint. The climb broke me, and it got in my head.

In 2017 I missed the race after breaking a rib the prior weekend at RIR, and in 2018 I skipped it because of weather...that never really happened.

So it's had 3 years to grow in my head and turn into a big ugly monster of a race. Yay.

We went up as a team a few weeks ago to get in some practice laps, including a hard full-lap effort after doing 40-ish miles through the mountains. The climb seemed more manageable, and folks seemed to be on-board for taking it on as a team effort.

Then came the forecast: strong winds from the South, which meant a big push up the hill, and a nasty headwind once over the top. So anybody foolish enough to attack over the top would likely get pushed right back to the group. Good. Really good.

Feeling better.

---

2 days before the race I commuted to work on the race bike, just to make sure everything was solid. And I figured I'd ride over to the local Thursday night fast group ride and just sit on for a bit to regain some confidence in a fast-moving group. It was a lovely plan, but I am an idiot. We were rolling fast toward a Strava segment that I worked myself half-to-death to win, and I was concerned that it might fall, so I took a flyer. Ok, one effort: no big deal. But then I got stuck near the front, and when we came to the first set of climbs (that I should not have even been present for), I decided to sag climb to save for the weekend.

And somebody in the group pissed me off. An offhand comment passing me uphill, but clearly derisive and meant to show that on that day, he was stronger. So...I chased. Hard. Too hard, for about 2 miles. Heart DEEP in zone 5, legs burning. I passed cars. And I caught back up to the group, but for no good reason other than damaged pride. My legs were TORCHED. They hurt all day Friday, and Saturday they felt like they should the day before a major race. Except Saturday was the race.

---

We started out with 3 guys in green, and a plan to keep contact with the group, and a backup plan to spice things up at the end. I still felt my weakness would be losing contact over the top of the climb later in the race, and the soreness in my thighs wasn't helping my hopefulness.

When the whistle blew, somehow I rolled off faster and harder than anybody else, and I spent the first 2 miles off the front. Not really working too hard, but just hard enough for a solid Z4 effort. Again, dumb: but it did help shake some of the nerves. After half a lap, I settled into the front 1/3 of the group and just let the race unfold.

The climbs weren't particularly aggressive, though the wall after the first turn always managed to get the heart above 180bpm.

And because of that, on the 3rd climb, we got neutralized near the top. The masters rolled through, we all took a "natural break" (peeing en masse in public!), and got back on. And then it LIT UP. The juniors apparently did not take kindly to being neutralized, so they literally chased the masters back down in half a lap.

The attack over the winery hill was so strong I was gapped off the back, and had to rely on my teammate Erik to get back to the group. By the time we got to the bottom of the hill, I couldn't breathe. Riders were rolling by me in droves, and I was panicking: my heart was at 180, I couldn't draw air, and it all looked done. And then the last rider passed me, and I clawed with everything I had to hold that wheel. The pace stayed super aggressive, and then we got neutralized again for catching the masters. Holy crap. Yay?

Fortunately the group settled down after that. No more crushing pace up the climb, no more attacks over the top. The only challenge was managing space: when the juniors want space, they just take it. They'll move over on you to force you physically off the road. They race to kill, and it is not pleasant.

Only in the last lap did a small group of 3 actually get away, and they were kept at under 30 seconds. One or two riders tried to sneak across, but I'm not sure anybody actually made it.

When we came through the final turn, I felt pretty decent. I was still in the main group, there was just over a mile to go, and the pace, while fast, wasn't so hard that I wouldn't be able to sprint.

At just under 1K to go, we hit a major problem: we'd re-caught that masters field. They were set up on the right, and our group paused, unsure of what exactly to do. The front guys were gone, but there was tremendous confusion: do we pass them? CAN we pass them? Will it ruin their race? Will it ruin ours??

After almost half a km of sitting on their wheel, the group got testy: shouts of "GO!!" came from the back. I was sitting right on the wheel of my main competitor, and one of the strongest sprinters in the region was on my wheel. We'd moved right of our group, in the center of the road. The group surged, and as we moved alongside the masters field, the juniors in the group pushed to the right. The masters looked around, moving slightly left, and all of a sudden, at 200m to go, we were in a kill-box. The guy ahead of me snaked through it, but just as I cranked up the power to 800W, I ran out of road and had to slam on brakes to avoid hitting a masters rider.

I crossed the line in 29th place, my teammate in 30th.

How we didn't crash is a bit of a mystery. It sucked to have come so far, have stayed with the group, and to have had the legs for a sprint, only to have it taken away, but I did bring the bike home in one piece, and I didn't lose any points to any other riders for the season: only one VA Cycling CAT 3 BAR contender finished ahead of me.