A couple weeks ago, after looking at my time and finishing position, I decided it was time to quit strategizing and go really hard from the very beginning, to try to stay in contact with the lead group of guys in my age class. I got fourth place a few weeks ago, with a pretty large gap, but I also had a lot of mechanical difficulties and I'm sure I lost a lot of time to them, so I thought I might have it in me to stay with them if my bike could behave.
I put myself in the second row on the side, and gave myself a position a few riders back from the front racing up the paved uphill at the start. I don't like to be in front until near the end of the race, unless letting someone else lead puts me at too slow a pace. The format was going to be four and a half laps - we were taking a different turn at the start of the race, and skipping half a lap. I let it startle me a little bit when we blew past the turn I was expecting and took the subsequent left, but I don't think that really effected me.
As soon as the pack got onto the singletrack, I started to lose my place a little bit. The rider in front of me would open up a gap going into a turn and then I'd have to reel him back in. Riding like that takes a lot more energy than maintaining the same speed if I carry more of it through the turns.
Before the lap was over, the lead group, with me still in it at that point, had started to fan out. So it was more like lead riders. I guess I was probably in sixth. I was working really hard staying on the wheel of the guy in front of me. He opened larger and larger gaps in the curvier bits of the course, and I had to work harder and harder to get back on him, and then I decided that if I kept doing this I was just going to bonk. So I let him go, and shifted to a little lower gear, and then I rode pretty much on my own for a lap or two.
Some time after that, during the second full lap, one of my teammates passed me and there started to be more traffic on the course again - the faster Sport riders in the older age groups were catching me, and some of the 19-34 riders who hadn't started as strong as I did. They weren't going a lot faster, so when they'd pass, I'd grab a wheel and hang on for a while.
My speed had been drifting up a little bit again during the latter half of the second lap, and I was feeling pretty strong again once I started racing the older Sport class riders. I started to feel like I was a little too hard again, and I ran out of water during the third, but with only a lap remaining, I decided to quit worrying and just ride my bike. Some time during the third lap, a guy I trade places with a lot on Wednesday nights showed up on my wheel. He corners a lot faster than I do, but I climb a lot faster than he does. He passed me going into the more technical side of the course and I didn't think I'd see him again. Then I caught him again toward the end of the lap, on a climb of course, and managed to stick with him until the fourth lap. There was another guy, wearing green, who passed me in some twisty stuff, then I caught in a climb, then lost in some twisty stuff, etc.
Kurt's in the same class as me, and I was pretty sure the green guy was close by too, a little behind me at that time, I think, so a little while after the fourth lap started, right after we came out of the woods and got onto the uphill road that the start had been on, I started riding really, really hard again. I got by Kurt and into the singletrack, and I figured he'd probably be breathing down my neck and pass me somewhere on the dirt. There's a sandy climb that's deep enough to give really poor traction and slow me down a lot, and on the last lap I ran up it because I'm faster on foot on that kind of surface. I heard him cheering, "Run it out! Run it out!" I may have opened a gap there but I'm pretty sure he was still close further toward the end of the lap, when I got to a slightly sandy packed piece of trail that goes really, really fast. The last part of the course consists of the really fast hard-packed section, followed by some sandy descents and climbs, and then a steep, firmer descent and a broad curve to the finish, with lots of grass on either side so there's plenty of room for several riders to sprint for position. I'd had to adjust my pace down a little bit after my first attack during that lap, but I opened up again at the fast part before the climbs and I guess I just dropped everybody.
Thanks to ges5690 for the picture.
I guess that last sprint wasn't necessary. It's not a bad habit to be in though - being able to sprint on tired legs has helped me defend my position at the end of a couple of cyclocross races.
When I finished, I felt like my heart was going to explode, pulverizing my lungs. I also felt like my head was going to explode, and my legs, while not shaking, were pretty weak. It's funny - I had it in me to keep charging while I was finishing the race, but then I was done. Amanda says that she likes to see me finish races like that - it lets her know that I'm not some kind of cycling god (I'd say the sixteen guys who finished ahead of me are evidence of that as well) and I get tired too.
The race was four and a half laps. I did it in 1:48:30.4, finishing in eighth place in my age class and seventeenth in the Sport class as a whole. Assuming the first half lap was exactly half a lap, my lap time was just over 24 minutes. The guy who won it in my age class (and finished first in the Sport class that day) did it in just under 1:39. That means his lap time was about 22 minutes per lap. The next six guys were in a group, and finished in 1:43:15.8 to 1:43:58.3. That puts them at about 23 minutes per lap. If I were 5% faster, I'd be in second place. (Or I could race beginner - my lap time is just slightly better than the guy who won it. That would be super-classy.) The guy who won in Open had about a 19 minute lap time, and they raced two more laps than Sport class.
I'd say that my two main weaknesses right now are that I'm not able to corner as fast as the other guys - I actually fell twice trying to do corners a little faster, so I need to do them better, and then worry about speed - and that I can't maintain quite as high a speed in flat parts of the course as the guys who are beating me. I'm doing a different kind of intervals lately that I think will do more for the speeds I can maintain during the entirety of a race, as opposed to sprints at really high effort levels, which are more applicable to cyclocross, and if I also go mountain biking more often, that should help with the corners.
I have another race in exactly a week. I felt really strong going for a fast ride on my road bike yesterday, but I don't know if I'm enough stronger to hang in with the six guys right in front of me. Next week, I'm going to try to be disciplined about letting the guy in front of me drop me if it's early in the race and I don't think I can spend another ninety minutes at that effort level. Sometimes when I do that, I discover that he can't either and I reel him in later and sometimes I don't, but my overall goal is always to ride my own best race. I think that not pushing too hard in the beginning is part of achieving that - I doubt that I'd have caught the seventh place rider last weekend even if I hadn't gone too hard in the beginning, but I'm sure I'd have had a better time.