Thursday, August 13, 2009

MTB Season Finale Blog, Conclusion

So what's next?

Well, cyclocross season. But since I'm going to Bhutan for most of October and may or may not be able to race competitively on my return, I'm not going to be very serious about 'cross this year. I'll still race with my whole heart, when I race, but I'm not going to be turning down work to do it, and I'll probably only try to go racing every two weeks. So cyclocross is kind of an afterthought. That happens before the next thing.

After 'cross, I'm putting away the fast bikes for a month. I'm not going to look at them. Often. And I'm not going to do speed work or rides over two hours. On purpose. Unless one of my friends wants to go.

Then in January, the bikes come back out. It'll be me and the people riding New Year's Resolutions, doing laps around Lake Washington and passing all the shut down drinking fountains. I'm going to try to do two training blocks, in the beginning of January and the beginning of February, ramping up to three four-hour rides the last week of the second block. Maybe I'll finish it with a Century ride. My current record is 11.5 hours start-to-finish, with 7.5 hours rolling.

The first mountain bike race of the season will be in February if the schedule follows the same pattern as it has in the past. Those races are typically shorter and easier than the Indie Series races - perfect for reintroducing fast riding to my (hopefully) endurance-trained legs. That gives me a little less than two months of "go fast" riding before the Indie Series starts in mid-April.

This time, I'm going to make base rides a priority in my training and do fewer speed days. I don't need to go much faster to do well in my races, but I do need to be able to maintain a slightly faster speed for the whole race, and I need to be more efficient when I'm off-road. Which brings me to my other priority for next year's training. More mountain biking. It's not really practical to do intervals off-road, and I like doing my recovery rides on a road bike, but tempo rides and long rides can be on a mountain bike. Part of why I'm racing cross-country instead of on the road is that mountain biking is really my first love as a person who rides bikes, and I want to do more of it. So the last training week before my first Indie race should have two speed days, one or two long days, and two easy days.

For all the above, I'm going to try to be even more relaxed about my training schedule. I think that part of why I started feeling overtrained this season was that I misread the Indie Series calendar when I was planning and thought that races tended to fall every three weeks. It's more realistic to say that they alternate between two and three weeks between races, and when I noticed this I started skipping recovery weeks before some races. Unsurprisingly, I didn't race as well as I could have when I went to those races. I also think that part of why I haven't been as healthy this summer as I'd like to have been was that I was pushing myself too hard. So the only part of my schedule that I'm going to try to structure in blocks is the base period. Once the racing starts, I'm going to make every pre-race week an easier week and every other week a training week. Unless I'm still feeling beat up from racing the weekend before.

Next year's pre-race weeks will have a Wednesday night race (probably) and a bunch of easy rides. Post-race weeks will have recovery or long ride, depending on how I feel. Followed by a recovery or long ride, until I've done a long ride. Then a day off. Then I'll figure out if speed work even fits in before my next rest week. Intervals are really only going to figure into my training schedule in March, since racing is already speed work and once the Wednesday Night Worlds start up, I'll be doing those instead.

Some people say that the best way to train for racing is to race. Other people say that racing breaks athletes down, and they should only go to 'A' races and only target a few. I think racing's fun, so I'd rather go to a lot and do what I need to to be in the best possible condition for all eight of my 'A' races and five(ish) 'B' races. Anyway, the idea for next year is to work out a little more before the racing starts, then race a lot more and work out a little less through the end of the Indie Series.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

MTB Season Finale Blog, Part II

In the spirit of "Wherever you go, there you are," my race on the 8th gave a pretty good snap shot of my current condition. It's been a long season to put myself there, though.

When I did my first complete cyclocross season last Fall, I didn't really have enough time to train for it. I had a period of enforced inactivity in August, so when I arrived here in Seattle in mid-September, I was out of shape, for me, and started the season pretty unprepared. I didn't even have the right bike at first. While the racing season lasted three months, I didn't really do anything before it started and the ending was pretty anti-climactic - I skipped the last race I'd planned because I had a cold and it wasn't part of the series.

This time, I knew pretty far in advance that I was going to be racing. I thought I'd be racing in the beginner class this year, since it's my first year racing mountain bikes, and I started doing base miles in late January. It's now August - this project has run over seven months.

Despite beginning my preparation earlier, a lot of things this season took me by surprise. One of the biggest was probably finding I belonged in the "sport" class instead of "beginner." In the Indie Series, the sport class races run about two hours. The beginner class races run about one hour. My base training was a bit haphazard and really a little much for beginner, but I don't think I was really consistent enough to prepare for two hour races either, so when the races really did run close to two hours, completing them was difficult. The other thing I wasn't necessarily prepared for was the amount of climbing in the latter half of the series - the first three courses are relatively flat, as are most cyclocross courses. The last three races each had over 2400' of climbing. The initial climb on Saturday's course was probably the most vertical feet I've ever ascended in one shot, somewhere around 1300'.

At this point, I think I've become a better mountain biker than I was in college. I definitely did more off-road riding at the time, but learning to loft my front wheel with my drivetrain has made me a much better climber and I'm learning to control my rear wheel a little better too. I'm certainly a lot faster. I didn't really push my speed when I was in college, so aside from descents I never rode at the speeds I do now. I also didn't start climbing on singletrack until pretty late, and that's something I do fairly often now - I'm a much stronger climber than I used to be. And I used to take breaks - that's something that doesn't make any sense in the context of a race. The thing that holds me back the most is that I'm not an especially strong technical rider and I have a hard time keeping my power output and speed up in flat, technical areas.

After somewhat inadequate preparation, another problem I had this season was that I got sick after my third race. Followers of my blog will remember that I think I actually got sick before that race, but, almost by definition, a race effort is pretty punishing and it really sealed the deal. After I got better, I never quite found the form I feel like I had in the earlier part of the season. Something that's pretty important to me as a cyclist is my cadence - the speed at which I spin the crank. At the best of times, I have a pretty narrow range of "good" cadences. I don't know if it's narrower than the next guy's, but there's usually one "good" gear for me at any given time, and sometimes I find that one gear is too tall but the next lower gear is too easy to maintain speed. When I'm having a fast day, though, I can use the next gear or two up from my "good" gear and maintain cadence, which means I go faster. On a really fast day, my "good" gear is probably a little higher too.

At the beginning of the season, I could spend a lot of time up a gear or two from "good" on any given ride, and it made sense for me to try to hang on to the back of a fast group during a race. I even dropped people from time to time. Unfortunately, that only lasted for a few races - the race I did at Port Gamble and a couple of Wednesdays. I didn't really bring that to any of my 'A' races - the first one was a slog through mud that felt like a cyclocross race from hell, on steroids, and I barely finished, and the second one saw me riding too aggressively at the beginning of the race to maintain my effort level through the middle, although I rallied at the end and dropped a group of riders who were with me at the time. Based on the times from that race, I opened a pretty big gap.

After those two races, though, my season plateaus. I had some pretty high hopes for the Whidbey Island race, but my legs never "woke up" and while I raced well, it came pretty hard from the start to the finishing corral. After that I missed two because I was sick (and one was really far away) and I never quite got my form back for the last three.

That's not to say that I'm not satisfied with my season. I'm strong and consistant enough that my bad days still put me in mid-pack. I went to a few Wednesday night races at North Seatac on days that I wasn't feeling fast and discovered that even then, I should start on the second or maybe third row, not at the back of the pack. I think I've also improved as a technical rider - I'm wheelieing up and over obstacles that I might not have been able to clear in the beginning of the season, and I'm descending more confidently as well. I think I'm also remounting a little better following runs on the things I can't climb. I finished the series in 7th for my class, and while not many people attended enough races to get the maximum number of races credited for their series points, I think it's fair to assume that most of the people who did were pretty stiff competition. Especially since this is my first season racing mountain bikes, or doing any races as long as the two-hour races I was doing in the Indie Series, mid-pack in the "sport" category is a good place to be.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

MTB Blog Season Finale, Part I

I completed the last race of my mountain bike season on Saturday. It wasn't quite as hard as Roslyn, and I felt better at the beginning than I did at Padden Mountain, but it certainly wasn't easy either. I typically try to pre-ride the course at all my races, but I didn't with this one - my class, "Sport," was going to be riding one long loop and one short loop. I figured it would be a little silly to ride the short loop, since anything I really needed to see would be on the long loop, and a little silly to ride the long loop since it would be more than half my race, and I wouldn't really have enough left in the tank if I did. I rode around some to try to get warmed up, but I'd been feeling overtrained and couldn't get my legs to "wake up."

I had it on good authority that the first big climb in the race was going to be on a fire road, so when the pack started going faster than I felt I could hang onto during the start loop, I let it go. The start loop went down a dirt road, into the lower singletrack portion at the end of the course, and then through the start/finish line and into the lower singletrack portion at the beginning of the main loops. Rough, flat singletrack has to be my biggest Achilles' heel as a racer - I'm not a brilliant technical rider, but on the climbs, fitness level is more important and on the descents, I don't think it's as important because the descent itself will help me get back up to speed if I negotiate an obstacle more slowly than the competition. During the climb, I worked my way up past a lot of the people who had opened gaps on me in the singletrack earlier in the race.

I did the big descent somewhat poorly, for a couple reasons. It was pretty exposed, which scared me, although it made for some amazing views, and I was too much in my head and not enough in the moment, so I stayed a little slower to avoid making mistakes. I still wiped once during the first lap because I tried to negotiate a drop in a more advanced way than it really called for and landed with my front wheel a little cockeyed, turning it into a fulcrum so that my bike could catapult me over the bars. That was my only unintentional separation from my bike, although it was enough - I was definitely feeling that fall on Sunday. There was a creek crossing after the hard descent. That scared me too, but it looked totally cool.

The descent fed back into the singletrack on the valley floor, then there was a shorter version of the climb leading into what felt like most of the descent, more of the valley floor singletrack, and the race was over. Aside from being pretty bad in the singletrack especially between the first and second laps, I felt pretty good about my second lap. I think I even managed to be a bit more aggressive in the singletrack the last time, and I found it in me somewhere to charge the finish.

I ended up coming in tenth in the race. There were 18 finishers in my class, and another four men who started. My time was 2:21. The guy who won my class did it in 1:53. Finishing this race tenth landed me in 7th place for the series. I was only 9 points (on top of 370) away from being tied for 5th, so I'm already thinking about how to do better next season. Anyway, it was a good race for reminding me how far I've come, and also a good race to motivate me when I start doing base miles in January and the weather's really hostile.

I'm not saying where or how I got the first photo. The second one is from joelb_98045's flickr.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

A Dog in a Hat

My friend lent me this book, by Joe Parkin, a couple of days ago. Joe Parkin is an American who traveled Belgium to race bikes, racing for Belgian teams from 1986-1991. He then raced on the road for a few more years for American teams and raced mountain bikes for a couple years at the end of his career.

The book's pretty well put-together. Rather than trying to shove five years of minutiae into the book, he chooses some specific incidents from different parts of his career and gives them some real time and attention. The book is stitched together with short bits of summary, so it flows quickly but smoothly.

My friend lent it to me because he was interested to know how it compared with my experience of bike racing. The world inhabited by Joe Parkin in his book is one populated by pro cyclists. With the exception of the guys at the top, the racers seem to have either unrealistic dreams of being able to win some races or they've accepted that they're never going to, or at least have a pretty long road ahead. My experience of cycle racing is racing with amateurs, and I don't think that most of us have ambitions any higher than maybe dominating the sport class for a season and moving up to expert. Depending on the race, a lot of riders aren't even planning to move up - a look at the results for my series shows a ton of people who come out for one or two races a season. Parkin's teams sound like once the season starts, they're racing a couple of times a week.

The attitude about riding and training in the book is very different too. The amateur racers I compete with vary in attitude from guys who have very specific, heavy schedules that they follow religiously to guys who just ride their bikes a lot. I think a common pattern is for people to be very serious about their training for a year or two, and then back off due to loss of interest, other commitments, or finding that it's not necessarily effective. The majority of their riding, though, is in training. Parkin and his contemporaries sound like they're spending more saddle time in actual races and their bikes and bodies reflect that. Their attitude about races reflects that too - there are a lot of races described in the book in which Parkin doesn't even finish. By the end of the book, he's working as a very good domestique. He doesn't win races, but does a lot to protect his team's interests. In amateur races, and Parkin mentions this a few times, everybody is out to win the whole race. Parkin doesn't typically expect to, but he ended up wearing the stars and stripes in championship and cup races a few times, so he was clearly an excellent athlete.

The emphasis on the athlete's ability and desire to win and on racing over training is very refreshing and human in a sport that can frequently be somewhat dehumanizing, especially with the emphasis on technology. Parkin suggests that the bikes he and his teammates ride show the dirt and wear of tools used on a daily basis, as opposed to the clean and fetishized bikes one sees in a lot of amateur races and in contemporary professional cycling.

The aspect of the book that really struck a chord with me was the arbitrariness of the events. When I was living in New York and studying as a dancer, a lot of things happened seemingly at random. At auditions, who stayed and who got cut could be very mysterious. Tours, contracts and local gigs all seemed equally senseless, although a lot of that did go to dancers who clearly had more talent. Another way that I identified with Parkin, in fact, was that his career seemed marked by being very good, but not quite good enough to get to the next level. Distribution of talent seems to me to be another way that the worlds of both a professional dancer and a professional cyclist are similar - both groups tend to have a lot of workaholics, because we wish we could be better by virtue of working more or harder, but ultimately there are many things an individual just can't control.