Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Old and the New -- (By Dwaine)

SeaTac Park might appear to be a new course to the CX newbies. But, in fact, it was a regular on the 1990's cyclocross schedule. The actual newish course, just its second year, is the Frontier Park course just outside Graham. Both courses consisted of primarly single track trails. Both courses offered enough technical challenge to keep me competitive. But they also differed. SeaTac was subject to the near defeaning air traffic noise while Frontier Park, with the presence of vacant barns and outbuildings, gave the feeling of a wooded country farm.

Course knowledge was important for both venues. Trails can lead to bottlenecks and I knew that to be competitive I needed to keep moving. At Seatac I prerode the first corner. Then I prerode it again. I didn't see anyone else studying this corner which, later, became even more evident. The course surface wasn't challenging. But figuring out how to link the sections together while saving energy took some figuring.

The start at SeaTac park used a first lap only course alteration. The first lap only first corner was a tight uphill 180 degree turn. Not every rider seemed prepared for this and I found myself easily at the front with Erik as we exited that first corner. Eric set a conservative pace and I held his wheel for the first half lap but I could feel the riders chomping at the bit behind us. On a short climb at about the halfway point of the first lap their patience gave up. In just a few seconds three or four riders went by as they took the pace up a few notches. I responded too slowly and found myself well back but still in the lead group.

Near the end of that first lap a lead group rider went down. Eric went right and I went left to avoid the rider. I came to a complete top off the trail but was able to resume quickly. Eric hit the deck and required a detangle before resuming the chase. From this point forward I was out of touch with the other racers.

Hurdling at SeaTac Park. Photo courtesy Woodinville Bicycle.
So I focused on racing my own best race. This required balancing the energy usage from the two substantial runups. And finding the few spots where a powerful acceleration could be complemented with a short rest or descent.

To this end I succeeded in maintaining a fast and consistent pace. Eric later reported that, in a places where the course doubled back, he could see me and our gap stayed the same throughout the race. Relative to each other anyway. The leader was well off the front and finished over 30 seconds ahead. I finished alone in second. Eric came in fourth.

Looking back on the day it was no surprise that a mostly singletrack course could be good for me. There were plenty of spots where a little preparation, like preriding that first corner, could even the odds against the power brokers. The winner, of course, probably prepared AND brought the power. But I did do my part. My suffer factor was at ten. (Only Fort Steilacoom Park generates an eleven!) And my tired factor was pegged. After the race I felt like I had given my all and left not even fumes in the tank.

SeaTac Park marked the middle point in my CX season and a time for reflection. I concluded that my improvement curve was still up but that it was becoming less steep. I alco concluded that I was having a great season. In five races I had visited the podium four times. My season points total for the Cross Revolution series was on pace to finish at the top. But finish at the top for Category 3 35+ was something I had done the year before. I felt it was time to step aside and let someone else earn that crown. So I graduated myself to Category 2. Kind of.

My USAC license was still Category 3 and, for USAC races, that's where I would be staying. But I decided that for non USAC races, which often take place on the more technical courses, I would elect to share the course with the Elite riders by changing to Men's Category 1/2 45+. This decision was not taken lightly. Dr. Doane's comment 'Those Cat 2 guys take their racing seriously...' continued to concern me. I needed some time to prepare for the tougher races and lower finish positions.

Men's Category 1/2 45+ starts as the third wave of the Elite race. I would be altering my race day preparation schedule. I would be seeing new faces. And I brought a belly full of nerves to my first Cat 1/2 race start.

Race day also brought the rain. Frontier Park is on what is probably a glacial moraine and the soil is generally well drained. Yet there was still some mud on top where the topsoil was thick. In the places that the course layout included tight corners and the ground was turning slimy, the course was as technically challenging as I've every seen in a CX race. I was able to ride those sections. Barely. I pre rode as much as possible and found that the course was changing from lap to lap. I settled for finding lines that may not have been the fasted but at least weren't the slowest.

Going into this race I did not expect to win. I wanted to get a fair representation of how I faired at this new level of competition. I also had the goal of not getting lapped by the leader of the Open Category 1/2 race. Going into this race my strategy was pretty plain. Race for an hour at the pace I felt I could sustain. And, to give myself a better chance at avoiding a narrow trail bottleneck, execute a start sprint from the last row.

Starting from the back row meant I had a lot of riders to get past to even see the front. The start was on a crowned dirt road with shallow ditches on each side. Which is how I found the space to move forward. By using the right side ditch I found some space. I had to bunny hop some roadside debris and by the time we reached the barriers, which immediately followed the second corner, I was in about 6th or 7th.

Cross Revolution typically uses two successive two by twelves for the barriers. But at Frontier they found four ten or twelve inch logs that resembled barked telephone poles in length and taper. These logs were easily rideable. But the course was slightly uphill and running turned out to be significantly faster. Although I'm typically more efficient when I can figure out how to ride obstacles, I did find a decent technique for the logs that felt good enough to run them every lap.

So I entered those logs easily in the top ten, passed one rider who decided to ride them, and remounted on the other side feeling pretty good about my start. But the course was long and about half way into the first lap it was time to stop following the wheel in front and dial back to a pace I could sustain over the entire hour.

The Frontier Park course took over ten minutes per lap and consisted of mostly trails with plenty of hidden rocks ready to bash an aluminum rim. It also consisted of plenty of short climbs and and opportunities to accelerate and then coast. Over the first few laps I concentrated on finding this eb and flow of effort and recovery. Making sure to miss the rocks and roots. And at about the fourth lap I did find that just right rhythm that allowed me to suffer properly when appropriate but also rest just enough to stay out of the red.

Of course, I was loosing positions. But Mark and Mario cheered me all the way anyway. At the end of the fourth lap I was comfortably in the zone and saw the 'two laps' to go board.

I sat on that data for about two minutes. I hadn't been caught by the leader yet and I decided that I would burn some matches to keep it that way. I clicked my effort level up in an effort to prevent going a lap down. And it worked. For most of that 5th lap I was burning as many matches as I dared and I passed the 'One lap' board before the eventual winner passed me.

After exhausting many matches on lap five, lap six got real tough. But I was slowly reeling in another racer. I closed that gap with about a quarter lap to go and then followed him while trying to regain my composure for the finish. It was not to be. He made his move a little earlier than I anticipated. And when I attempted to respond all I could do was go through the motions. No extra power was available. I was cooked.

After a few minutes of cool down I learned that I had finished 12th of 28.

Not bad. And not lapped.

I was congratulated by a number of people who had taken notice that I was out in my first Category 1/2 race. I also noticed that the venue was markedly different than at the end of a Category 3 race. There were almost no spectators. The sun was setting, it was cold and quiet, and the only action was the Cross Revolution crew continuing to remove the course markings.

As I loaded my gear for the drive home I quietly reflected on my first 'big boy' race. I was pretty pleased to not have embarrassed myself while wearing the Puyallup Cyclopaths jersey. Finishing mid pack felt pretty good. And I was no longer second guessing my choice to self upgrade. Men's Category 1/2 45+ seemed the be a good fit for my skillset. At least when racing on the trail centric Frontier Park course.

My next event will be USAC sanctioned, at my home course of Fort Steilacoom, and I'll be racing with the threes again. I'm hoping that I can parlay some recent racing success back to the venue that usually makes me feel most humble.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Perfect Race -- (By Dwaine)

My last blog spoke of a good finish at Swan Creek Park on a new and some what peculiar course. Since then the Cross Revolution series has returned to the familiar venue at Sprinker Recreation center.

Sprinker never seems to get muddy. A thin layer of grease will form in areas on top of the hard packed ground when the rain is falling. And then, as quick as the rain came, the soil will drain and good traction returns. My daughter, again, accompanied me to the races. This time we remembered to bring her bike and we rode a course sighting lap together. Her wheels were shod with slicks and she managed to, how do we say, exceed their coefficient of friction. Fortunately neither body nor spirit were affected and we continued our sighting lap without further incident.

As the day went on the rain stopped, the sun started, and the course quickly dried. By 11:00 the course was no longer slick and at race time the sun was out.

One of the themes I'm learning this year is the art of racing my own race. I'm learning to keep an eye on the racers around me but to think twice before letting their actions dictate my race pace. At Sprinker I figured even if I lost a few seconds on the faster sections I could make up the difference in 'the pit'. The course layout through 'the pit' forced us to make many tight turns up, over, and through some elevation features. This part was highly technical and usually catches some riders off guard. And it usually plays well to my skillset.

Vintage Sprinker action from 2014. Photo curtesy Mark.
The start of a Cyclocross race is not where we choose to limit our effort. And this year the first corner was metal barricade lined. This corner could be taken pretty fast and was probably the most dangerous place to loose control. My previous good finish did earn me a call up to the second row and I worked hard enough to file into that first corner safely and in 5th or 6th position. Within a lap I was in second and could hear the leader's fans cheering him on. Soon I was hearing those same fans telling me I was 'only ten seconds behind Erik'.

Bending into the fast paved corner was nerve racking. Any mistake and I would have met a metal barrier one-on-one! Photo courtesy Woodinville Bicycle. Image post processing courtesy the author's daughter.
Lap after lap I closed a little bit of the gap in 'the pit' only to see it open right back up at the other end of the course. My pace seemed good and I was confident that when, not if, I finally did close the gap, I would have the gas left in the tank to put up a good fight.

On my second to last lap I bobbled coming out the tiny sand feature. This mistake cost seconds and energy. By the time I regained my composure I was taking the '1 lap' board. I took the first two minutes of this lap at standard pace and then clicked up a gear.

It felt good to put down some power and I thought I was making up some time on Erik. I wasn't slowing for any lapped traffic. I simply rode off into the weeds to get around when necessary. With about one minute to go I got to within a couple seconds of Erik and then I hesitated. I hesitated in passing a lapped rider. I chose the safe route of following the lapper through the corner and setting up a safe pass on the exit. To have a chance of closing the gap I realized, just a second too late, that I needed to aggressively take the inside line and pass the lapper entering the corner.

I did _not_ close the gap to Erik Anderson. I did _not_ show him a worthy sprint. I did finish a close second.

After the race Erik, who I've come to know through Cyclocross racing, was elated. He grabbed the holeshot, lead every lap, and then claimed the win. A perfect race.

My post race celebration was less grand. I played it safe, didn't tangle with another racer in the final 60 seconds of our race, kept the rubber side down, and still finished a solid second. Less obvious, however, was my success at riding at my pace. Despite the smallish gap between me and the leader I didn't get lulled into working past my limit to get to the front and go into the red in the process.

Best of all, though, was the retelling of the race to my daughter on the drive home. Instead of having to explain scrapes and bruises from a failed inside line move gone bad, I extolled the virtues of patience and wisdom in regards to last lap passing. Which was certainly the parent (and cyclist) modeling I hoped she might someday follow.