Saturday, December 10, 2016

VACX 2016 Finals, or how I learned to stop hating cross and love the bike

Let's get one thing out of the way right up front: I'm still not 100% sold on cross. My heart does exotic things that do not occur in other forms of racing, like gluing itself to 178bpm and just staying there for 30 minutes at a time. That doesn't feel good.

But today, in spite of the imminent heart attack and the sub-freezing temps, was Ish. Sorta.

After completing the marathon a month ago, I turned my attention aggressively back to cycling, but was so far out of my fitness cycle that I've just felt like I had no power at all. I've commuted to work a bunch of times, and almost invariably gotten the outfits wrong for the weather, and all this week I was sick.

But I kept at it, and bit by bit I started to see some of the summer's speed come back, even if my legs felt like putty.

And in the interim, I'd made some changes to my cross setup. I'd switched to a 1x setup with a 40T chainring driving an 11x32 cassette on MUCH lighter Easton EA90XD wheels, dropping a couple of pounds off the bike. And I'd done some practicing on well-groomed single-track with it. The bike felt light, spry, agile, and shifting was crisp.

I maybe should have practiced some dismounts, but I'd done what I could, and braved the nastiest weather in preparation.

This morning, the car said it was 30F when we parked. I'd put on a baselayer, arm warmers, thermal jersey, wind vest, thermal bib, soccer pants, wool hunting socks, team socks, my heaviest gloves, and my old auto racing balaclava (probably the only guy in town bike racing in a fireproof hat). I looked pretty ridiculous, but that warmup lap was COLD.

14 of us lined up at the start, and--failing to ever learn a damn thing--I got in near the back. I spent the entire first turning complex just trying to figure out pacing and traffic, and by the time I found the first bit of straight, my heart was pegged at 180. Too much, too fast. But I got a break in the traffic and picked off a few riders early. I settled into 8th by about 1/4 through the first lap, and then started reeling a couple folks in. By the time I'd come back to the line on the 1.3 mile course, I was in 6th, and I took 5th going the long way around a hairpin, but I had a problem: I couldn't feel my hands at all, which meant shifting and braking were more "jiggle and hope" than anything else.

As I came through the start/finish for the 3rd time, I had a sizable gap and backed off a bit. 4th was out of reach, and it became a game of management. Starting the final lap, 4th had backed up a bit and 6th was closing in. I picked the pace up as best I could, and my body rewarded me by thawing my hands a bit. With the feeling back, so too came the confidence, and they made up for the sponginess of my legs, with the last lap only a few seconds off the pace of the first, and rebuilding my comfortable gap on the guy behind me.

Cross is still weird to me. I'm used to pelotons, bunch sprints, and downhill segments where you can tuck into the group and recover a bit. Not counting the number of switch-backs between me and the one or two guys ahead...that I can see. I know part of it is the diminished field aspect, and that bigger races draw bigger crowds, but even the first one just turned into a single-file race after the first lap or so.


  • The suitcase carry--thanks Youtube!
  • Stairs--probably because of the suitcase carry, but I didn't feel like the stairs were really an obstacle this time.
  • Trusting traction on dirt--I got too tired to care about whether or not the bike would stay upright, and it did! Crazier is that I had no idea how much air was in the tires. I'd set them at ~28psi a day or two before, but ran out of time to check before the race started.
  • Turning--I wasn't darting from one turn to the next, and I didn't go "tape to tape", but I was legitimately setting up the turns and used the terrain advantageously. Unlike last time, I didn't get wobbly-slow through anything.

Things to work on:

  • Dismounts--I felt like my dismounts were a harried mess. I'd had a couple of dismounts nearly go sideways at Chimborazo, where my left foot would twist but not unclip fully. It made me nervous and twitchy, and I know I gave up a few extra seconds there.
  • Remounts--Shoulda practiced. There were two dismounts/remounts on the course: one after the lone barrier, and one at the top of the stairs. The barrier was no problem because the course sloped downhill. The other one, though, was on flat pavement. Only once did I actually get pedaling without being clipped, instead of spending precious seconds fumbling with how to get on and get clipped AND THEN get moving. Needs to be a single action.

I'm really happy to have ended the season with a strong(er) finish, but I know that would not have been a 5th place finish in a bigger field. Guess I'll just have to wait until next year to see if I can improve!

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