Monday, September 29, 2008

Cyclocross hurts

So here's me after one of the runups.  I'm pretty sure it was the big one.

There were a couple others, but I just look like I'm out for a leisurely Sunday morning ride in them, and here I've just completed a flying mount.  Since I'm standing in the pedals, I'm guessing I mounted a little too early, while there was still a bit of a grade, stalled, and am trying to get started again.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Race #1

So I just got up from my post-race nap.  I finished my race 85th in a field of 106.  I'm actually happy with that result.  There were a lot of things about race day today that didn't work well for me, but before I whine about that, here's what my result means.  I wasn't last.  I was actually many places away from last.  The place number alone doesn't tell you this, but I also completed all the laps.  So while I would hardly consider myself to have been in contention with the leaders, I didn't get lapped either.  The fact that I finished at all means that I didn't have any major problems with my training, equipment, or the way I chose to run the race.

My race day went pretty smoothly.  I printed out directions and a liability release form last night, laid out the clothes I planned to wear, and lubed the chain on my MTB.  It's been tuned recently and didn't need much further work, although I think I got the shifting to work a little better.  I also went and found an ATM, which is difficult in Seattle, and got some cash so I wouldn't need to do that today.

This morning I got up, went to the little deli near my house to get coffee, at which I failed, dressed, put my stuff in my truck, and drove to the race.  Along the way, I got passed by a bunch of people with cyclocross bikes on their cars, so I was confident I was going the right place.  Also, I wanted to pass them back later, on the course, but it's impossible to know what class they were in and whether or not I passed them later.  I parked further away than I had to, but whatever.  So I changed shoes at my truck, put my release in my pocket, and rode back to the race course.  Registration went super-smoothly, since I pre-registered.  They looked up my pre-done stuff, took my form, and gave me my numbers.  That left me with an hour and a half to kill before racing, which was the plan.

Getting into the race area was fun because I was wearing my Ride the Lightning jersey and the start/finish trailer was playing "Enter Sandman" when I arrived.  I decided to consider that a good omen.

In pre-riding the course, it felt longer than the ones I did in college.  I think that's an inaccurate perception because four laps in my class was a little under six miles, which meant the course was actually a little short.  There was also only one set of barriers, a double, which were placed during a gently inclined uphill section.  The run-up was in a completely different part of the course, and it was pretty nasty.  It was steep and sandy.  I'm glad I found the toe spikes for my shoes, although I think they didn't help as much as in firmer soil.  Oh, well.  Pre-riding I just pushed my bike up, which was difficult enough.  The run-up was followed by a somewhat more gently inclined section before leveling out briefly and then descending almost as fast.  During the pre-ride, that section was almost immediately followed by a very short, steep incline leading into a series of switchbacks alternating between grass and exposed dirt.  The switchbacks were incredibly tight.  The tape around the outside would continue around the turn keeping the course at about the same width while the tape at the inside just ended, so they were pretty extreme.  I found that making sure to get to the outside of the turn and turn in late was important.  Thanks, Grand Turismo.  The switchbacks over grass pretty much continued working back toward the finish line, frequently up and down a bank that ran along the south side of that part of the field.  Sometimes there were some sections that had dirt instead, but mostly it was shady spots rather than paths.  The barriers actually fit into the course between the finish line and the staging/starting area, so in a four lap race I only did them three times.  Pre-ride felt like a lot of work and my legs were feeling tired, so I decided I wasn't going to be too ambitious when I raced it for real.

I was rode around some and tried to keep myself warm after the pre-ride, then had some coffee, then they called the Category 4 Men.  They ended up holding us for an extra ten minutes due to some problem that I didn't really find out about.  C'est la vie.  I placed myself a few rows back from the front and was the lone mountain bike in a sea of cyclocross bikes.

When they called "start," I didn't go too fast because being in a massed start made me nervous and I didn't want to blow myself out.  I think, actually, that I paced myself well.  Our starting/staging area was on a grit running track and we spent about two hundred and fifty meters on it - we started around the middle of one straightaway, with the elite juniors organized behind us, went around the curve, and did the whole straightaway on the other side before going onto the grass.  I did the whole track at a chill-out speed, and got passed by a fair number of guys whose cruising speeds were higher than mine.  The start was pretty clean and I don't think there were any crashes behind me, but I thought that at one race where I later learned that the dude behind me tripped over a barrier and took out half the field.  The first switchback was a huge bottleneck and some guys even dismounted.  I had to take a foot out of my pedals and dab some because of how slow the pace got, and I didn't get to line myself up to do any of the switchbacks before the run-up with any kind of racing line.  It can take a long time for a race to start making sense, though, so that didn't bother me.

Earlier in the day, it occurred to me to do runups holding my bike under my arm by grabbing the down tube.  I figured out when I was practicing on Thursday that I can't shoulder this bike, which is unfortunate because it makes run-ups much more difficult, but that definitely beat holding it by the top tube which requires me to keep my arm very flexed to avoid dragging a wheel.  Anyway, the run-up was a little shocking in how hard it was.  It was very sandy, and very steep and I didn't do it at anything approaching racing pace when I pre-rode.  For me and for most people I saw in the following race, it was a little more of a stumble/jog/scramble-up.  It was also longer than anything I did in college.   Supposedly I have a worse one to look forward to at the end of next month.

Anyway, the run-up spread out the field more, but I was still afraid to really charge the following descent.  I was on a bike that I could just point at the bottom, but the guys in front of me were going more slowly and I didn't want to hit someone or try to pass.  After the day's first race, the organizers decided the course was too short, and it turned out that the way they lengthened it was by adding a switchback immediately following that descent.  That made me happy, because I'd thought I'd have to regulate my speed on the descent in order to be able to turn into the mini-runup, but the additional course length eliminated that problem.  The mini-runup was something I probably could have done mounted if I wanted to, but it was very sandy and I thought I'd probably expend less energy running it.  On the first lap, there was also too much of a bottleneck there and it was impossible to maintain speed anyway.  I saw one woman in the race after mine do it mounted and while she made it look easy, she was the only person who did it that way.  I'd say after the mini run-up, the field in my race was spread out enough for me to stop worrying about the guys around me and just ride the course.

I did the rest of my race essentially just as a slightly faster MTB ride that happened to be between tapes and incorporated barriers and run-ups.  I found a couple spots where I could really book it into corners on my mountain bike and a couple of little rollers to take joy hops off of, and had fun with it.  People still passed me a little bit in the laps following the first, but I think the field mostly organized itself during that lap, so it didn't happen much.  A guy on a Stumpjumper with a Manitou fork passed me at one point, which I sort of enjoyed because it's what my bike would be if it weighed a whole lot less.  It still took him a couple laps to catch me.

By the fourth lap, I was pretty tired.  I don't know if my lap times took a dive or not - it would be interesting to have that information, but I don't think they record anything that detailed for all 150 people or so who start in the 10:20 race.  In any case, I didn't have a kick left in me by then.  The course layout also didn't have a good place to do it, in my opinion.  The finish line seemed like it was just a spot in the middle of a slightly elongated section after a bunch of switchbacks, but it was quite a short section and the stuff leading up to it had a fair amount of up-and-down and some slight direction adjustments.  It would have been very difficult to fight for position with someone coming into that area.

Things that worked for me about today's race include getting all my stuff ready the night before and my shoe/pedal system.  I was also spot-on in how I dressed for the race and was neither too hot nor too cold when I was racing.  Mechanically, my bike performed pretty well.  I occasionally had trouble with shifts under load but in general I'm a better mountain biker than that and know to anticipate.  I think my mounts and dismounts were pretty good.  I ended up drifting away from the technique I practiced, which is to swing my right leg through the space between my bike frame and left leg and started just tearing my left foot out of the pedal as my right leg came down - more of a jump than a step.  I think that's fine - it's faster, anyway.  I also didn't find myself moving my right hand to my top tube before doing that, but I don't think that really slowed me down.  I saw some people dismounting, hefting their bikes, and then changing hand position, and at least I didn't do that.

The biggest thing that didn't work for me about today's race was that I felt tired coming into it.  My brother tells me that he sometimes turns in his best times when he starts feeling tired, but I'm fairly sure I'd have had a higher pace and maybe a kick at the end in me if I'd been having a better day.  The other thing that didn't work for me is that my bike's not very fast and it's quite heavy.  It weighs close to two pro-level cyclocross bikes and about one and half of what I'd like to buy.  If I decide after doing some more stuff I need to do next week that I can't afford to spend $1200 on another bike, I might get the $900 bike I rode last week and didn't like as much (which is at least racable, unlike the $700 cx bikes) or I might get some lighter wheels and faster tires for my mountain bike if I don't want to spend $900 either.

The training schedule I can change for this weekend.  I think I'm going to try making Friday an off day instead of a riding day, and Saturday an easy day so that I come into race day having had a more recent rest day and then a day to blow out the cobwebs.  It should also help that I'm done with all my travel and messing around and I can get back to regular riding.  Now that I've got all my bikes here, I should also be able to add some off-road days to my schedule.  Off-roading is aerobically less intense but more demanding of muscular endurance and power and given today's result I think that muscular endurance is a more important thing to work on for now.

It's pretty cool to be in a place in my life, now, where I can do this stuff.  I'll see if someone posts any pictures of me later, since I didn't bring anyone to the race with me today.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

If you haven't seen enough of me

One of my coworkers, Roger, took this at a gig.  It was actually a really hot day and if I look like I'm just chilling out...  It's because I practice.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Getting ready to race a whole season

Cyclocross racing
Six hardest miles ever done
Blood but no glory

Actually these races are a lot of fun. But they've also been the most miserable forty minutes I've ever done on a bike. Imagine alternating full sprints and inadequate recoveries, with the motivation to go further into your anaerobic zone than you ever do in training. The first time I went racing, I almost puked all over the finish line when it was over. The second and third times I paced myself slightly better and wasn't in good enough shape to push quite as far into the whole "Oh my God, my heart's going to explode and I'm going to vomit it out and die" zone. I think that roadies call that zone by a number.

Many of my readers already know that I'm planning to compete in the Seattle Cyclocross Series this Fall. I've wanted to do some more racing ever since the last time I went racing, back in college, but dance was more important at the time, and doing any kind of off-road racing while based in Manhattan is incredibly difficult. I have the opportunity to do a whole series now, something I couldn't do in college or since, and so I'm going to take it.

In a way, cyclocross is the perfect sport for me. Conventional road and mountain bike races both take place over many miles and at least two hours (ok, maybe not crits) and because of my knee problems I can't complete that kind of distance. In my race class, a cyclocross race takes place over three or four laps of a 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 mile course. It also requires some off-road skill, which I have, fast accelerations and sprints, which I have, and a high degree of mental endurance - the course isn't long, but the unique joy of cyclocross is that a course includes obstacles requiring dismount and remount, and some uphill running. None of these are very long, so they can generally be done at the fastest sprint a racer is capable of given the footing. When I've gone racing in the past, I've found that maintaining a good flow was the most important thing for me to have my best race, and that this was a matter of maintaining the focus to do clean mounts and dismounts over the barriers and before the runups, and to charge the runups, mount cleanly, and accelerate out of them.

When I went racing in college, I had no strategy, per se. The first time, I just wanted to check it out. I'd been riding my mountain bike a ton for the latter half of the summer, and was doing a ton of riding in general, so I just went racing. I did well for the first three laps, but hadn't paced myself for a fourth and lost a lot of places during that lap. Even so, I actually did fairly well - I think I was in the top quarter of the field in my class (Beginner, but it was my first race.) The second and third races I went to found me in no condition to race. They were after I'd hurt my knee, and aside from commuting, I wasn't doing a lot of riding.

I don't remember where in the field I placed, but I'll always remember my third race because I found a guy to get competitive with at the end. I'd been doing alright for most of the race, but not well by any standard. I was passing some guys but I was also getting passed a lot. This guy, who was older than me, passed me with about a lap and a half to go. The thought that sprang into my head was, "No. You are not passing me." I reached a little deeper into my self and pushed a little harder and passed him. Then he got around me again. We did that for almost all of the remainder of the race, right up until the paved section before the end. For the lap and a half that we raced each other, we were both still getting passed a lot, but for me at least, this was where the race was happening. The other riders didn't matter, and for all I knew they could have been in a different class anyway, but this man was not going to beat me. That course ended with a straight grass section leading onto about a hundred yards of pavement before the start/finish line. The other guy and I were pretty even until we hit the pavement, but then I still had a sprint in me and he didn't. While from a performance standpoint, that was probably the worst race I ever rode, it's been my best racing experience. From the way that he said "Good race," and shook my hand at the end, I think it may have been his best too.

I don't know how I'll do this year. I haven't been riding off-road a lot, but I've had the best weekly mileage since college this summer, and I'm doing some interval and hill training here in San Francisco. I can also afford to buy a real cyclocross bike this time, which should be a considerable improvement over racing on the old sport/touring bike I was commuting on in college, which was still better than racing on a mountain bike. My goal for the first race is to time my kick for the right part of the race, so I don't blow myself out before the finish, finish the race, and not be the last rider across the line. Depending on how competitive my category is, that may be difficult - lapped riders get pulled - but my experience suggests that at my current level of fitness I ought to be able to achieve that. For the other seven races in the series... We'll see. It'll be good to get to do a whole season of racing.