Monday, July 13, 2009

The Bar Has Been Raised

I went to a race near Bellingham yesterday. It was really hard. Bellingham is about 90 miles north of Seattle. I spent the night there the night before, so on race day all I had to do was drive a few miles to the race, which I ended up having some difficulty finding, check in, pre-ride and race.

Checking in was a little bit of a pain because there wasn’t a separate line for pre-registered riders. I love that line. Then I had some trouble figuring out where the course was, so I started my pre-ride several minutes after I’d planned to, and barely finished it in time to get to the staging area for my start. I’m still glad I did the pre-ride, though. I learned that the course was really, really difficult. A lap was 3.2 miles, according to the race promoter, with 650' feet of climbing and some really tricky descending. That makes it comparable to my "hills" route in terms of feet of climbing per miles, except off-road. There were a couple of spots that I didn’t think I could climb mounted, and ran instead, and there was one section I didn’t think I could descend, and ran instead.

“Running” is a very positive way to describe what it’s like to go down something on foot that’s too difficult to descend on a bike – usually it’s easier to get down something weird on the bike. This particular section had three lines, of which I spotted two. The straight one required getting over an off-camber thing that I thought would make me skid and hit a tree. The next line going to the left required turning on the off-camber thing immediately after dropping off a root, and I wasn’t confident that I could do that either.

During my pre-ride, I felt like my rear tire was a little too soft. When I got to the start area, it was 11:29 and my start was at 11:34 I saw that the women starting in the 11:30 start hadn’t gone yet, so I figured I had enough time to top it up before my wave. I was right, barely. I borrowed a floor pump and put a few extra pounds in my rear tire just in time to run back to the staging area, drop my bike in the pile of bikes belonging to 19-34 Sport Men, and join the other riders.

We did a LeMans start, which means all the bikes went in a staging area and we started about fifty yards away from them and had to run to them when the race started. Just getting through one lap on yesterday’s course was difficult for me, so I decided to do the race pretty conservatively, to make sure I could complete it. I didn’t run very hard during the start, and I allowed a ton of passes during the rolling section before the first steep climb. I passed a few people too, but anyone I pass during those initial miles really shouldn’t be in front of me in the first place, in my opinion.

Things started to stretch out a lot when we started climbing. I passed a fair number of people, and got passed by a few. Some of them gained their spots back when the course flattened out a little bit, briefly, and I allowed some more passes on the descent, where I’m really not that strong. One of the things that I enjoyed about this course was that I saw a lot of the people who passed me on the descents again as soon as the course turned upward. I didn’t necessarily pass them right away – that section of the course didn’t have long climbs, but they were super-steep, including two of the portions I ran instead of riding. I think it cost me less to get up that stuff than a lot of guys, and I did run past a few people, as well as maintaining my place running among riders who stayed mounted. I used to think I wanted the next cassette on my mountain bike to be geared the same, or even higher, but now I’m inclined to get something geared a little lower – the climbs were long, loose and steep, and I couldn't always maintain a fast cadence in the gear I had.

Around lap 2, some of the fast guys from the 35-44 and singlespeed classes passed me. Some time during lap 3, the faster part of the 35-44 field did, although I think I only saw one or two singlespeed riders. I also started passing women and Clydesdales during lap 3. The Clydesdales looked like they were really hurting – the total weight of me and my mountain bike is probably about 165 pounds, maybe a little less with some of the fancier bits I’ve put on mine since purchasing it. To race Clydesdale, the rider has to weigh 200 pounds before even adding the bike, water, and any gear. I don’t know if I could get that much weight up the climb, but they do have higher power outputs than me.

During the third lap, I allowed a pass before the downhill section I never figured out. Both riders hooked sharply to the left and dropped off a root onto the section I’d been running. That line never occurred to me, and I was mad at myself for not seeing it – I think it was a way to do the descent that I could have done safely and consistently. I resolved to do it that way on the fourth lap.

The race was four laps, so on an easier course I’d probably start thinking about where I wanted to start attacking some time during the third lap. I actually had that thought yesterday, but by the time I finished the climbing at the end of the lower portion of the course, I dismissed the idea. The fourth lap found me struggling in lower gears than I was using in the second and third laps. I made mistakes in some of the technical sections, and decided long before I saw the hard descending section that I wasn’t going to try to do it. Attempting something at the end of the race that I couldn’t do fresh is pretty egotistical even for me, and I didn’t want to get hurt.

Surprisingly, I found I still had some energy to burn when I got to the last climb, so I did it fairly quickly, and then shifted into my big chainring and started going as fast as I could on the last descent, which was gently rolling and had banked curves. I threw a little gravel around on the last chicane and then got into my best tuck and spun my way to the last corner, then sprinted the last forty yards to the finish. I hear there was nobody near me, but I can’t always tell when I’m racing and after almost losing a win to thinking I was alone, I try to sprint all my finishes.

I came in eleventh. I’m not sure how many people were in my field, so I’m not sure how good that is, but I think it puts me at least in the top half. I’ve been finishing most of my races this season in the top half or top third, so I’m pretty happy with that result, although it would have been cool to make the top ten.

I used to think that cyclocross races were the hardest thing I do on my bike on purpose. This race had moments as intense as racing cyclocross, but it lasted about two hours. It's now the single hardest thing I’ve ever done on a bike on purpose, although I didn't feel quite as destroyed at the end as after my first cyclocross race back in college.

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