Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Wintergreen Cliffhanger MOUNTAIN BIKE RACE

40 days. That's how long it took from buying my mountain bike to racing it. That sounds like plenty of time to prepare, except that's about how long the biblical rains have been coming down in the area, too.

As such, I had only managed to put about 20 miles in on the thing, and only 6 or 7 on the converted 1x10 drivetrain, and only 2 of those on the extended range 40T cog. I was not feeling prepared when I rolled up.

But I ran into two of my teammates who helped put my nerves at ease and warmed up a bit in the morning sunshine.

At 10:15, about 15 of us lined up for the Beginner race, a 4 mile loop down the slopes, through the woods, and up up up on single-track and scree. As soon as we were rolling, I knew I was in trouble. The loose stuff was so loose, and I was soooooo stiff, that I couldn't keep the bike on the course going downhill. I overshot almost every switch-back and really got aggressive on the brakes. By 0.5 miles in, I was where I expected to end up: dead last.

But then came level ground and the first slight incline, and instantly I started reeling people in, like to the point where I was worried I was working too hard. By 1 mile into the race, I was squarely back in the middle of the group. Then came the trails. The unending twisting trails. Switch-backs, roots, rocks, constant grade-changes, and trying to make passes stick on the tight single-track.

Fortunately, everybody out there recognizes the inherent risk of this kind of racing, so passes (at least at the Beginner level) were very cordial and carefully coordinated--not at all like out on the road.

After a mile or so of constantly unclipping and coming off the pedals, I finally got to freedom, and The Hill. I couldn't tell when I first saw it, but it looked like The Hill was a bit on the steep side. It also appeared to be wide and gravelly, so I was optimistic. But when I got to it, I realized it was more of a wall than a hill. Thank God for the 40T cog!

I got a running start at it, shifted onto the 40, jumped up over the handlebars, and just focused on putting out the best circular pedal-strokes I could. One by one the other riders came to me, 3 on the steepest part of the climb (24% at one point, on frickin' gravel), and another two at the crest, and I was up! 15th fastest rider on that climb, according to Strava, which I'll happily take for having so little experience.

After that meat-grinder, there was another downhill section that I was too tired to fight, and actually managed to ride pretty well because of it, and then another 500' or so of climbing through more single-track and scree. Through all the climbing, though, I kept catching other riders. Even coming unclipped over and over on those loose switch-backs (and nearly pitching off the side of a couple tiny bridges), I still kept reeling them in.

Then I heard Alastair shouting for me to go go go, so I put my head down and struggled through the last few hundred feet to the end, where there were only 4 bikes scattered around in front of me.

Somehow I'd managed to pull off a 5th place finish!

It's worth mentioning that there was a little boy lined up with us at the start on exactly Alastair's bike: a stock Specialized HotRock 24. That bike is HEAVY (~29lbs), has only 7 speeds, and that little boy couldn't have been a day over 8. How he managed, I will never know, but he finished that 4-mile lap in just over 80 minutes. Mad props to him!

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Bryan Park Training Series #1 - B Race

Last night was the rescheduled start to the 2016 Bryan Park Training Series, and it was awesome, with a big asterisk. Like maybe this big:

Probably bigger, honestly. And definitely redder. But we'll come back to that.

I got to the event at my usual time: entirely too late to warm up, and with barely enough time to pin on numbers. And, as usual, I could barely satisfy the self-identification requirements at check-in. One day I'll get that stuff right, but it wasn't last night. Fortunately, because I have a season pass, I can pre-pin my numbers from now on and arrive at least another 3 minutes later.

I'd not done Bryan Park before. I'd ridden the course a couple of times with my teammates, but that was months ago, and I was suitably nervous about the quasi-hairpin and long uphill back straight. I was busy worrying about that at the back of the starting line-up when I realized the guy in front of me was in a very high and aggressive gear for starting off, so I shifted my worry to getting around him and clipping in. And with good reason, because dammit: both were tough.

But then we were rolling.

And I mean rolling. ROLLING (average speed for the race was 26.2mph). The first 4 laps were spent moving from the back of the pack to the front 15 or so. I like sitting about 10 - 12 wheels off the lead so I can respond to an attack if necessary, but not blow up. My concerns about the hairpin were perhaps a bit unfounded, as it turned out to be easy enough to roll through 2 abreast with the leaders, but the back straight felt like I was riding across a rock garden. The patches of pavement were extremely disruptive to the bike, and the pace we pulled out of that turn was staggering.

Each lap would see a run through the turn at just a tick over 20mph, then a blast up to about 32mph up to the dog-leg, then a lot of sitting up. I spent a lot of time on that back straight on my brakes.

The front straight was much the same, with a tight exit from the final turn, a blast of power, then a whole lot of nothing past the kink.

Team orders for the race were to not allow a breakaway that didn't include one of our guys, and since there weren't any of us ahead, I stayed GLUED to 10th wheel, responding to every attack, lap after lap. When I finally saw one of our guys pass me, I was ready to sit up and drop back, but then he did the same (I found out later he was going for a prime). So I stayed on the back of the lead group.

In the 10th lap, disaster struck: reaching down for my water bottle, I hit a tiny bump and heard the sharp, unmistakable "ting, ting, ting" of my wedding band bouncing down the road. I nearly stopped right then and there, but realized that there would be no better chance of finding it then than after the race, so I just shouted profanities for the next half a lap and rolled on. FWIW: you will never find a better group of people to call teammates. They helped me comb through hundreds of feet of grass & gravel after the race, but the ring is gone. Fortunately I am married to a wonderful woman who was not angry about it.

Regrouping, I realized I'd let a bit of space form in front, so I powered up and caught on to the draft again. By this time I was joined by most of the team, but no solid breakaways were happening with the blistering overall pace. Since we were collectively positioned well, I fought on.

On lap 14, the pace slowed a bit in anticipation of the bell. Tragically, the front guys dropping pace meant a bunch of riders were able to move up from the back, and the bell lap was just a hot mess. What had been 4-wide on the back straight became 8, and my plan of getting a solid run up the inside was summarily cut off, forcing me into the grass for a second before rejoining. As we rounded the last turn, I knew I'd been pinched and put out of contention.

I hammered as hard as my 15-lap, 40-year old legs would allow...seated...and managed to pick up a position or two as the leaders violently yawed their bikes to the finish.

I finished off the lead group, but still clear of the pack, and once again I think I'm about 15th or so. Next time I'll take that lap 14 lull to move forward. I may not have a solid lap of sprint in me, but I do not want to get caught behind a knot of riders who are all on the brakes again.

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.