Sunday, March 29, 2009

Hard and Fast(ish)

My suspension fork quit working right after a ride the other day.  I haven't had time to figure out what's wrong with it yet, but I wanted to race today, so I borrowed a friend's bike.  It's a fully rigid mountain bike she bought in 1994.  Part of why I didn't just call off the whole thing, especially since this is not an important race for me, is because I have trouble with my fork every few months and was considering the idea of going to a rigid fork which would have no moving parts and require no maintenance.  This gave me a chance to race rigid without being committed to it.  Her bike also features thumb shifters and cantilever brakes and the stem can't be moved without affecting a lot of other tuning, so I left the handlebars where they were.

Before racing it, I swapped the pedals, saddle and tires.  I think that proper bike fit, having nice components at the contact points and having nice tires are the biggest things a person can do to a bike to improve performance.  Today's race was a little bit of a test of that theory.  I got the saddle height figured out last night, but didn't get a chance to ride off-road until this morning.

Pre-riding the course, I thought that the bike was going to be fine.  The handlebar position put my weight a little forward, but not badly so, and I ride with a short-travel fork so having no travel didn't really effect my ability to get over obstacles.  I wasn't going at race pace, because I was warming up and checking out the course and didn't think I had to, or that it would do me any favors.

When I started racing, at first everything was fine.  I wasn't getting great traction trying to climb the fire road at the beginning of the lap, but it was an incredibly muddy day.  Anyway, I didn't let the other two people in my age class get out of sight.  Not too far into the first lap, though, I started to get a little winded.  Not a lot winded, but enough that it affected my concentration a little bit.  I stopped picking exactly the right line every time, and I found that when I took roots or rocks a little bit wrong, my handlebars wanted to turn, hard, or my wheel got shoved to the side.  I had to put a foot down pretty often to avoid wiping out, and it got really difficult to keep the bike on the trail.

Not too long after that, I started to notice the other big problem with a fully rigid bike - all the irregularites on the trail, whether they were small holes, or tiny roots, or rocky sections - sent shocks through the whole bike.  When I'd been pre-riding, I wasn't riding that fast, but once I started to push my speed it became a pretty big issue.  That made it hard to hold my line and also to pedal smoothly, or at all, sometimes.  I like to think that I'm a pretty smooth rider in the way that I ride my mountain bike, and I have a flowy style when I'm riding well.  I wasn't smooth enough and loose enough to absorb all that the trail threw at me today, though.

So I came in third in my age class, which had three riders in it.  Results here.  The guy who won the class did it in 46 minutes.  The next guy did it in 52 minutes, and I took 55.  Obviously I'd be happier if I won, but I'm actually pretty happy with my result.  I was a little afraid after doing well last week that if I started racing in Sport class, I'd find that on the mainland, it was a much more competitive class.  Today's finish was certainly not very competitive, but between having trouble keeping my bike on the trail and not spending as much time pedaling as I think I would have on my own bike, I'm sure I lost some time.  I don't know if I lost three minutes, and I certainly don't want to sound like I'm diminishing the second place finisher's performance - he beat me, fair and square.

What I've learned from this is that technology kicks ass.  I'm a smoother, faster rider with my suspension fork than with a rigid fork.  While I finished at the very back of my age class, I don't think I was wildly off the pace.  The spreads in the 30+ and 40+ categories were over 20 minutes from the individual winner to the last rider to finish.  The fields in the series I raced in today are supposed to be a preview of the fields in the Indie Series, the one I'm focusing on, so I think that I'm up to the level of competition in the Sport class.  I got to see the front of the pack during last week's race, I finished near it, and I was at the top of my age class.  So I think that I'm in the right class - I'm just a little surprised, because I was finishing mid-pack in the lowest class racing cyclocross last Fall.

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