Monday, February 20, 2017

Taming the Monster

Taming the Monster

Last week was rough. My poor baby girl had 5 shots at her 6-month check-up and spent most of the week with a high fever. This wore her poor momma out, caused several sleepless nights (for everyone), and a couple of missed gym appointments. It was also the week that Alastair began his science experiment: a 6-week power-building program on the bike trainer. The last night of that was ruthless.

But Friday came, and with it, Katelyn's parents. Catherine's fever broke in time for the ladies to make it to the gym, I rode my bike to work, and the forecast for the weekend looked magnificent. I even left work early in the precursor to the perfect weather to get in a nice ride home.

I worked that ride a bit softer than usual on the first half, knowing I had a 50-mile race on Sunday, and not wanting to go into it dead tired. Plus I'd had some issues over the previous week or so with my knees not wanting to cooperate. But as the ride wore on, the speeds increased, and the knee held out. Yay!

With that in mind, I set about planning to do a simple 20-mile easy ride Saturday morning just to keep loose for Sunday. But I am an idiot. With my in-laws in town, I didn't feel quite so bad about taking a little longer for my ride, so I casually rode down to the local Saturday morning group ride...and then spent another 16 miles crushing out ~21mph, including a couple of pulls at way too high output. But it was fun. I had a teammate out there with me and we were just having a great time playing in traffic.

So my plan for a keep-loose ride went up in smoke. I ended up putting down 40 miles the day after doing 45, and knowing I had to get up the next day and do 50 in a race. Stupid (but fun).

I put Alastair in the car and we headed out to pick up our race packets, and everyone else headed to Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. When we met up with them, Catherine was all smiles, Fiona was energetic and beautiful and my whole heart was full. I LOVE my family.

Later we got to enjoy watching Catherine take her first bites of solid food. She loved it, but clearly wanted something a bit more adventurous than rice cereal.


Sunday morning, race day...

Alastair and I got up at 6, made sure everything was packed, and headed down to Pocahontas State Park for MonsterCross. I signed up last year and gave up halfway through, but this year I was gonna do (or try to do) the whole 50-mile shebang. Alastair was nervously signed up for the 25-mile Mini Monster. We had done the whole packet pickup thing on Saturday, but word was out that there would be separate timing-chip pickup at the event, which was weird, and meant there likely wouldn't be much warm-up.

We got to the park and had everything unloaded into the tent by 9:05, checked equipment, hung out, and rejoiced in our tent's proximity to the starting line. I set out spare water bottles so that I could toss empties after the first lap and grab new ones before rolling off for lap 2. We were set.

And just like last year, the event started late. It's tough to corral and organize 600 riders, and the pro/elite guys got a 2-minute head start, but like Tom Petty said, "the waiting is the hardest part". Once we started, it was just like last year: 2 or 3 miles of just trying to keep moving forward in a sea of slow-moving cyclists. This thing was PACKED.

Once it started to (s)pace out, the speeds went up and up and up. My pre-rides told me where I could fly and where I needed to reserve, what parts were rooty and what tire pressure would likely get me through without flatting. And there was flatting a-plenty. Rider after rider by the side, the first group of whom included one of my pro/elite teammates.

There's a trail segment at Poco that's called "I eat water bottles and skinny tires for breakfast" on Strava. Last year that segment rotated my handlebars downward. A week ago it curled my rear shifter in. This time I was ready for it, though even if I hadn't been, the pile of lost water bottles would have called it out quite obviously as a hazard. Literally, there were at least 20 bottles scattered around this section of roots.

I dodged to the left as another guy started down the middle, recognized the danger too late, and jerked over into my lane. I saw his move just in time to back out, but it cost me some positions.

The whole rest of the first lap on the bottom half of the park was spent at 100% output. Pacing with a group of fast CX riders the whole time, we were MOVING. I stayed with them into the top half of the park for a few miles, then realized I still had to go another whole 25 miles after the first lap, and backed way off...and they did too. It was kinda weird. I finally forced myself to get dropped and picked up another group, but by that time I was exhausted enough to start having trouble steering. I wasn't even a whole lap in, and already I was in trouble.

The last two miles of the Monstercross course are the only technical miles out there. They're really not even all that technical, but they do require a lot of quick uphill punches and darting around corners. I had the uphills, but the darting was beyond my tired arms. I think I nearly wrecked a couple of guys behind me by over-slowing, but I just couldn't get the rhythm.

I ended up cranking out that first lap in 1:30, and I know it could have been a minute faster if I hadn't balked at the turns.

When I came through start-finish, I made my way to the team tent and grabbed a fresh water bottle. But only one, and it was a huge mistake.

The 30 seconds I spent at the tent brought a bunch of familiar jerseys back to me, and we proceeded on for the first 5 miles or so of lap 2 before I actively got off the gas. At 1 hour 45 minutes, I'd eaten nothing and was starting to feel the bonk coming. The pace we were setting was too much to manage eating, so I got out of line, found some nice open space to ride alone, and ate most of my snacks...and drank most of my water.

At 33 miles, my back started to seize. Coming off the 2nd gravel climb from the dam, I was in trouble: riding the granny gear and feeling a fire raging up my back, with little water remaining. I'd never been happier to see pavement.

Rider after rider passed, and I knew my only game plan was just to try to finish. 35 miles. 35.5. 36. Diving back onto fire-roads and double-track, the climbs were ruining me, but I took solace in seeing that everyone else was suffering in silence, too. And then we were at 40 miles. I started doing the head-math on how much longer I had to be on a bike. I would have just stopped at the swimming pool, but I didn't want the results to say "Adrian Amos...DNF" like they did last year.

41 miles. Approaching the back side of the swimming pool complex, I did something I hadn't done in 5 miles: I passed someone. I felt a surge of energy and jumped on it...just to come up on a sea of emergency vehicles and stopped riders.

I still don't know the exact details, but someone was airlifted off the course, and everyone but the absolute top 10 or so riders were stopped. Some were told the race was over and left. By the time I got to the group, the wait was mostly over. I had, in effect, negated all the gains they'd made on me in the previous 10 miles. Oh snap son.

Except I had almost no water, my legs were starting to shake, and there were still another 8.5 miles to go, with some tricky climbs and those dreaded dead-arm turns. As everyone else started off, I spotted my savior: Alex Guzman, not racing, cheering me on. I stopped and asked him to run up and grab me a water bottle, and he did. It was the best 4 minutes I've ever waited on anything. I didn't give a half a happy horse-crap how many people rode past me: I was not going to die of dehydration.

And as a side-benefit of the time I spent waiting, I got to see Alastair come across the bridge to finish his race!

With fresh water in hand, I set off with no goal other than to finish. Counting down the half-miles, head-mathing the total time & time remaining, pissed off at my over-exertion on the first lap, and granny-gearing every climb, even the gentle ones.

Amazingly I never had to step off the bike, even for the climbs that I'd struggled to granny-gear on the first lap. I kept finding *just enough* reserves to handle them, and the only time I had to put a foot down was coming through the last water-crossing, where 600 riders had turned the exit into a thick bog.

But once I'd cleared that, I knew I was gonna make it. I bombed down the last couple of downhills faster than the prior lap, actually caught and passed a few riders climbing the paved ramp, and crossed the line at 3:19 and change.

Alastair finished his race in just a tick over 2:30, though final results have not yet been released pending a lengthy protest period.


Coming back to reality, we met the ladies at the park and I got to watch my beautiful children enjoy a summery February afternoon.

And this morning, for the first time ever, Little Miss Fiona pooped on the potty!

An amazing weekend, all around.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

How (not) to prepare for race season

This Sunday marks the official kickoff of the Mid-Atlantic bike racing season, with the 50-mile Monster Cross at Pocahontas State Park. I did this event last year with poor results, retiring after one lap with a busted bike and absolutely no idea why anybody would ever voluntarily ride a bike on dirt.

But after some significant equipment changes and a whole lot more time riding off-pavement, I was feeling ready-er. And good thing, too, because after this weekend there's not a single weekend without a race until May.

But 12 days ago, I snuck out for a late afternoon ride and wrecked. The 'cross bike seized underneath me (caught on a root, maybe?) and I went flying, landing on my right side and whacking my head into the dirt. The Garmin's accident sensor started wailing, and in an effort to kill that horrendous noise, I forced myself up and dusted off quickly.

I knew I was hurt, but I had full range-of-motion, and the head-hit wasn't hard enough for me to be concerned (the helmet did its job). But of course, more important was to determine if I could successfully get back to the car on the bike. Astonishingly, though the handlebar and tape were destroyed, everything else was fine. Dirty, but fine.

I got on and started home tenderly, constantly probing and testing to see how badly I was really hurt. No holes in the kit, but pain was building under my armpit.

After replacing the heavy aluminum bar with a fancy new carbon bar & matching tape, I finally admitted it might be time to go get an xray a few days later. The doctor confirmed at least one, possibly two broken ribs. But they were clean breaks, and the doc didn't argue with me when I told him I was going to keep riding while I recover (I also didn't bother to tell him I'd put in a couple of crushingly hard rides in the interim).

So there I was, 9 days away from the start of the racing season, nursing a broken rib, and riding 6 - 8 hours per week, when my left knee decided to get in on the action. It started to hurt during a particularly tough ride on the trainer, and I'd damned myself by ignoring the first twinges and pushing through. The next day I could hardly walk, and was scheduled for a 25-mile team ride the following day...which I did anyway.

Fortunately for me, I'd brought Alastair along, and while it was his longest and most aggressive mountain bike ride to date, it was just exactly the level of output that would not risk further injury. Though the knee still hurt a bit, it was not throbbing by the end of the ride, and minor adjustments in pedal-stroke and seating position could alleviate any pressure that started to build.

Last night I pushed a little more, testing the waters of a 30+ mile ride on the trainer. Again, some twinges, but nothing serious, and today the knee actually feels less awful. In addition, the rib pain is abating day-by-day, though I've found myself over-compensating and creating nasty cramps that come and go. In theory, barring any wrecks this weekend at Monster Cross, I should be sufficiently recovered from the break to go hard in the peloton at William & Mary.

Now my daughters are sick, so I'm confident I'll move straight from broken to sick.

2017 is off to an interesting start.

Monday, February 06, 2017

A Bit of Science, Mixed with a Dash of Crash

2017 has started off with an aggressive uptick in my training. Probably too aggressive, but I'm having fun. Or I was.

I spent almost all of 2016 on the road bikes. I logged over 5000 miles in the year, and probably 4600 of those were on the road. I chased every moving part on the Blue more than once, rode the Fuji 'til it got stolen, and then was back up & rolling a week later on a new Fuji commuter/back-up-race-bike.

But in the Fall I got a cross bike, and while it was more of a novelty last year, it's really become something of a new obsession this year.

When we took a family trip to MD last year, I took the cheaper road bike. This year I took the cross bike with two sets of wheels: one for road, one for dirt.

I've spent time chasing the setup on the thing, too, and I really got it to the point where I could do just about anything on it, for any amount of time, and just love the experience. I'd dropped from 2x11 to just a single 40T chainring, and the road wheels run an 11-28 cassette while the mud wheels run 11-32. All run through Shimano 105, and yes thankyouverymuch a short cage derailleur works just fine.

But while I was able to leverage my 2016 knowledge to set up the tire pressure on the road wheels, I found myself watching waaaaay too many Internet videos for the cross tires. The videos said most racers run around 30psi, and might dip as low as 25. But when I asked around, I heard what sounded like impossibly low pressures of 20 - 22psi. At that range, the rear tire appears to be flat when I get on...and I only weigh 140lbs.

I'd long theorized that most people can't actually tell what the "right" pressure is, and that outside of an extremely narrow window (maybe +/- 2psi), it's either simply too low or simply too high. This theory came from my experience in motorsports, where a .25psi change in tire pressure can result in a net suspension change of 25lb-in. Bearing in mind that a Miata goes from "compliant" to "rock-hard" with a 50lb-in suspension change, I decided to test my theory.

I started my test by just running the bike at a fixed pressure: 22psi front & rear. I did this not-very-scientifically for about the last month or so on a pair of Clement BOS tires mounted on Easton EA90XD road-tubeless wheels. I found the setup to be absolutely buttery smooth on cobbles and gravel, but any slight bump went straight into the rim. On dirt & grass, 22 seemed to offer fantastic traction, as well, so it seemed like a great setup.

But then I rode with some teammates who were on matched bikes, but clearly much higher pressures, as their rear tires looked rigid. I noticed they were far less cautious in picking their lines through roots & rocks than I, so I figured it might be worth some further experimentation.

A bit of research suggested I might consider a 45/55 front/rear air-pressure split, so I aired the front to 26psi and the rear to 28. It was horrible: wildly bumpy on cobblestones, the tires meandered through gravel, and worse yet: roots still went straight through to the rim. But on smooth surfaces, the low-rolling-resistance made me faster than ever.

Friday afternoon I split the difference and ran 24 front / 25 rear and tried again. Once again, the bike wanted to wander on gravel, but seemed far more planted on cobblestones, while still offering a fair amount of speed on pavement. I found the bike to be very controllable on hard-pack dirt, too, but before I could find any grass to test...

I crashed hard. I guess after 8000 miles I was overdue for a big one. I was coming out of a long smooth trail, eyes up and moving fast, when it felt like something just grabbed and stopped the back wheel. Not like a lock-up, but like it snagged on something. I had just enough time to register the increased resistance before I went flying.

I've played enough sports in my time to know not to stick my arms out, and while I don't know exactly how I landed, I know it was hard enough to bend my handlebars around and smack my head on the ground hard enough to give me a good headache. So I avoided the common wrist & collarbone injuries, but there may be a rib or two that's not quite what it used to be.

The good news is I was able to ride out and get back to my car. The bad news is I don't know exactly what pulled me off the bike, so I don't know how to avoid it next time. Well, that and the need for a new helmet & handlebar. And possibly some ribs. But other than that...

So now I'm on a mandatory rest day off the bike. I rode yesterday outside to see my general condition, and while I felt ok then, I do not feel ok today. Racing season starts in 2 weeks. Yay timing.