Monday, December 12, 2016

Alastair's first "season" of CX

Sometimes just showing up is enough.

Alastair was exponentially more skeptical of cross than I, so when I told him that his first foray into racing would be on wet grass, he was not thrilled. But since his entry would be free, I gave him no real choice and told him it would just be an opportunity to learn.

Reluctantly, he went along with the program and, while he HATED every pedal stroke, he at least finished the race.

It was good enough for a podium, but because this area doesn't see a lot of competition in the juniors divisions, it was also last place.

We skipped the rest of the season, with me shifting into marathon training and him putting time on the soccer field, but since the season finale was going to be in Richmond, I told him he needed to try again.

As I mentioned from my own race report, it was VERY COLD. And getting a 10 year old to put on lycra to go ride in sub-freezing conditions is not easy, but this time was dry, and he'd been putting in some decent training on Zwift.

He didn't get on the podium this time. Of the 3 other racers out there, one wins just about everything he does, another was the son of the guy who took 2nd in my race, and the third had been to every single race this season. Alastair was outgunned and didn't take it seriously until it was too late.

But.

He showed up.

Series results were posted this morning, and somehow, magically, irrationally, he took 5th place, out of 33! It looks like 27 other kids just did one race, but if he's truly a member of the junior development program on the team, then he got the overall best position on THE WHOLE TEAM for this cross season.

Mind: blown.

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 kinda...fun. 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.

Improvements:

  • 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!

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

CX

Somehow I failed to report on my first cyclocross.

It was October 1, it was cold-ish, soaking wet from the prior day's rain, and the city had done very little mowing. My team was responsible for helping set up the course, so Alastair and I were there well before dawn to help get things going. I think by the time I actually started my race, we'd been there for about 4 hours already.

I had done a bit of practice: mostly just dismounting and remounting, and the 2016 Giant TCX SLR 2 was still functionally brand new to me. I'd spent some time chasing down a braking issue that turned out to be a grain of sand wedged into the rear caliper, but the bike was ready, and I was...not. Honestly I had very little idea of what to expect, other than exhaustion.

The race was both slower and faster than I expected. I had no problems on the straights, but little to no confidence cornering, especially since one of the first corners saw a massive wreck. So instead of racing smooth and smart, I was basically just b-lining from one corner to the next and trying to keep the bike upright. The top half of the course played to my strengths, with largely sweeping turns and space to just crank. The bottom half required something I do not possess on dirt: finesse. Darting switch-backs, tight hairpins, a couple of zig-zags into and off of long straights, a BRUTAL uphill climb that became very muddy and led to a stone staircase with a steep asphalt climb at the end. It was all I could do to hang on in that complex, and I ended up finishing just north of the top 50% mark...tasting blood and almost unable to breathe.

I've said before that I don't know how to do semi-competitive, and while 'cross didn't really suit me, I wasn't about to throw in the towel, especially because I LOVE that bike. But I felt I could love it more...

So, not knowing how to leave well-enough alone, I whipped out my trusty gear-ration chart and did some calculating. The bike came with 36/46 chainrings and an 11x28 cassette. There was a lot of overlap in that range--maybe one or two gears of independent range on each chainring. I'd managed to keep the bike off the bottom gear, but I hadn't gotten anywhere NEAR the top.

Since pulling the front derailleur had netted a 1.1 lb savings on the old mountain bike, I ordered a 40T single chainring and pulled a spare 11x32 cassette. The extra depth made up for any losses from the slightly larger ring, and in fact the bottom two gears are nearly identical to what they were before. And with a 1x drivetrain, Shimano's 5800 short cage derailleurs do not have clearance issues.

But the weight savings were nowhere near what I'd seen on the MTB. The bike was clocking in just under 23 lbs.

So I went with the only logical upgrade: wheels. I just got a set of Easton EA90XD wheels and mounted them...tubed. Right now the bike is sitting at 21.6 lbs, and I know that going tubeless will get it closer to 21, but I'z askairt of tubeless, and technically my tires aren't rated for it, so that can wait.

Since making the changes, I've taken the bike out and put it through its paces. 25mph @ 90rpm in the top gear is perfect, and there wasn't an obstacle I couldn't clear at the bottom of the range on a bit of single-track (this bike is majestic on flowy single-track). Now I just have to learn how to ride smart, trust the traction in turns, and get over my fear of exotic low tubeless pressures.

Next race is Saturday. Forecast calls for HOLYSHITTATSCOLD. I think the person who finishes with the most toes and fingers wins.