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.

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