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.