Thursday, February 25, 2016

Of Monsters and Classics

Last weekend was the first outdoor event of my 2016 racing season. It was not a good start.

The event was the annual MonsterCross race at Pocahontas State Park, a 2 lap, 50 mile mixed-surface event open to mountain and cyclocross bikes, and the weather forecast looked to be just about perfect for the first 3 hours of the ride.

I mounted SPD pedals and Schwalbe CX Pro 32mm tires on the Fuji Sportif 1.1D and headed down last Thursday for a recon ride. Within the first 5 miles, I was already regretting my life-choices. At 12 miles I was convinced the park was trying to kill me, and at 20 miles I was hopelessly lost on a maze of trails that all have the same name, and rapidly running out of daylight.

After a bit of panic in the wilderness, I calmed my shit down and found the way back to the car, displeased that I would have to repeat the activity on the weekend, but taking solace in the idea of suffering with 500 of my closest enemies.

Sunday morning, with the best big-boy attitude I could muster, I packed the car and rolled back down to Pocahontas.

The environment was amazing, and my attitude quickly improved, almost to hopefulness. Almost. I got the bike ready, did a quick warm-up, and got in the corral and waited. And waited. And waited. The race, for whatever reason, started at least 15 minutes late. I've done a fair number of timed competitions in the past few years, and aside from one very small local 5K, none have ever started late. Whatever: that would be the least of my concerns.

The first few miles were exactly as I'd thought: jockeying for any ground to move forward. Being a roadie, I was ill-prepared for the need to keep a constant eye on the ground below the bike for roots. Thursday's recon ride had told me it would be nasty, but nothing like the first 'hit'. At about 5 miles into the race, on a long fast dirt & gravel descent, I hit a root that twisted my handlebars down by about 15 degrees.

From that point on, I was putting extra stress on my back, but I kept fighting and pushing and eventually fell into a really nice rhythm that held up for another 5 miles or so. I got in with a group of CX riders who were on a strong push to the front, and as we made the turn toward the first steep descent & creek crossing, was asked to team up with another guy. As soon as he asked the question, my rear tire went down. Pointed downhill at about 20mph on big loose rocks (I'm sure the rim is toast, but I honestly haven't even looked at it since).

I pulled off and got into my bag quickly, pulling out the tube and tools and just couldn't get the damned thing to mount. I spent 14 minutes stopped by the side of the trail putting on a frickin' tire, which is insane, and then forgot to lock the wheel in place when I got going again. That was caught by total blind luck, and I started on again. And then a mile later, I crashed the bike. ON THE ROAD. The actual paved road. Grrr. I was making an outside pass in a sharp-ish turn when the guy inside casually turned out from the apex, leaving me pointed straight at a ditch.

The impact was very light, with only minimal bleeding and no tears to my kit, but I didn't realize it turned the left brake-hood inboard by about 10 degrees.

So now my handlebars were pointed down and canted inward and my confidence was done. But I rallied. I decided I would likely only do one lap, so it might as well be balls-out. I briefly held KOM in Strava for the next segment, and I blasted through the woods as hard as the bike would allow, heart-rate alarms going off every 30 seconds or so.

I got to the north half of the course--where I'd gotten lost just 3 days before--and picked off bike after bike until I felt like I'd made up most of the time lost on the tire.

And then came the worst conditions I'd seen so far: 3 more creek-crossings I hadn't seen on Thursday, and a muddy road that was somehow muddier than it had been before, in spite of dry weather. But I didn't care. I was flying. And as I was nearing the top of another ascent, 1 gear off the bottom and grinding out those last few feet, a mountain-bike rider took my lane (in spite of a shouted "on your left") and I darted farther left, not realizing that I would have to go through 12" deep leaves. I made it 10 feet before I was forced to acknowledge that the bike couldn't get back up on the trail and rode straight into a tree.

....and scene. Race done. But 4 miles from the car is not where one can arbitrarily declare oneself "done". So against any sense of better judgment, I continued on, *still* rolling as hard as I possibly could, which was really freaking stupid because I knew I have a race coming this weekend, too. Three of those last four miles are not designed for cyclists, and on any other day are explicitly prohibited for cyclists. I imagine the mountain-bike guys probably liked some of it, but the CX guys had to have hated it: sharp climbs, lots of roots, no room for error, really fast descents with loose crap all over the road. It was terrifying, grueling, and with no spare tubes left, I wasn't sure I was going to make it back to start/finish.

But I did, at 1:57 & change on the race clock. I'd put in one lap and had less than no interest in repeating the experience, so I packed it in and ate a whole mess of fry. 1 hour later, it started to rain and the temps dropped. I'm confident I made the right call.

Tl;dr: MonsterCross was awful.

So with only 5 days between that and my first road race, I needed a little boost.

I tore down the drivetrains on both road bikes, cleaned them as thoroughly as possible (why are Ultegra chains harder to clean than KMC?), and signed up for Tuesday night's Zwift ZTR-PDT C race.

I've done a couple of abortive attempts at Zwift races. In the first effort, I over-spent and got dropped on the first lap. In the second effort, I lost my Internet, and Zwift does not appreciate working offline. Plus, the laptop was 3+ years old, so running Zwift at all was kind of a stretch.

New laptop should alleviate such problems, right? And one can foolishly hope-against-hope that the new laptop will somehow...not...lose...internet? Right? Maybe? Well I did. Hope, that is.

Of course I missed the start of the race by 40 seconds, because I am me. And then Zwift started doing its magic: locking up my brand new PC while it tried to resolve rider names. The neat thing about Zwift racing is that results are compiled after the fact by uploading rides and comparing ride and rider names against Strava, so if you go offline, you can still race, but you lose the draft. And without the draft, you have to work really, really hard.

I was not about to have a repeat of Sunday's misery, so with the internet flaking in and out, and Zwift locking up hard from time to time (anywhere from 5 to 90 seconds), I just rolled as hard as I could until 5 laps were done and waited for results. In so doing, I inadvertently increased my FTP to 246W (an increase of 20W as measured by my trainer, or 10W by the power meter) and unlocked level 10, which grants access to incredibly fast wheels in the game.

And when the results came in, I got really weirdly mixed news: one site had me in 12th of 15, and another had me in 5th of 13. Because of my lockups, the site that analyzes my saved ride-file recorded only the time that Zwift was actually working properly: 1:14:11. The other site, however, looks at known GPS coordinates at known times, and therefore captured where my PC clock had me: 1:20:59.8. If, however, I take my un-corrected time of 1:14:11 and subtract that from the race-winning time on the second site, I move to 4th place.

Because the locally-saved ride file captured the actual effort of my ride, I'm going with the 5th place finish. And I'm quite proud of that.

So now I'm getting ready for this Saturday. At 8am I'm scheduled to start my first road race, the William & Mary Tidewater Winter Classic. At 22 miles, it should be over in an hour.

The course is mostly flat, with two short climbs. I've fitted my lightest tires to my rebuilt wheels and my fastest gear-set, and now I'm wrestling with kit and strategy.

It will be cold, but how cold? If it's above 38F at start time, I know exactly what to wear. But if it's much below that there are glove, bib, and jersey choices that are warmer, but at dire cost to weight and flexibility.

It's a Cat 5 race (entry-level), so nobody has a lot of experience. I know I can pump out 22 miles in an hour, but looking at past results, it looks like the Cat 5 typically ends at 1:04 to 1:10. Is that just a conservative pace-line that holds until 20 miles and then breaks? Do I just say 'screw it' and blaze for an hour, hoping the other guys will pop first? I doubt that's the right answer with almost 40 riders in the field, as I'd be giving a free tow to at least 2 or 3 of them. Do I watch carefully for the first rider to break, or wait for the first group to break? I know how many times I can bridge before I'm toast, so I know where I need to stay in the group. What about if I break at the first hill? The second?

The math nerd in me says to break early and hold a 22mph+ pace for the hour. It would be tough, but not impossible, and would put me almost 6 MINUTES ahead of a 20mph pace-line. That's a hell of a lot farther out than any human can achieve in a 2-mile sprint at the end. Even at 30mph for the last 2 miles, you would only gain 2 minutes over a group moving 20mph. Of course that needs a REALLY early break to work, as doing only half the race at 22mph hands back 3 minutes.

I'm so nervous and excited!

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