Tuesday, September 28, 2010

You need the Skills

photo by Janice Checchio

The variety of skills needed to race cyclocross is under-appreciated. Cyclocross is not always a criterium on grass, it is not usually a mtb cross country race on narrow tires. The skills are more than just hopping off the bike and over a set of planks. Going fast in cyclocross takes a long list of techniques for the various challenges.

photo by Janice Checchio

Nor'Easter Cyclocross at Loon has to be the most challenging course I've raced in New England. In Europe near impossible descents on cyclocross courses are more common than in the U.S. In the early days of cyclocross, courses would include "death drops" that today seem like mtb gravity stunts. I've watched Belgian races on the inter tubes where some downhills are better to run than to ride. Loon was challenging because the descents were HARD, white knuckle full brake grip hard. Anyone who could carve down the loose steep twisty descents got plenty of free speed to help them win. I was pushed to my limit in transitioning from tough climb, to tougher descent. But I made it down everything without touching the dirt, at least in the race. I would have liked to go down it faster, but I made it clean. Of course you still had to run, sprint, and dismount, but it was descending that made the race.

photo by Rob Bauer

Sucker Brook CX required other skills than just hopping barriers. SBX is a flat course with few features that experienced cyclocross racers would find challenging. The only places you can get into trouble is cornering too fast on the grass or in the loose section on the fire road. So I went back on word to myself, and signed up for the Killer B race. The only time I've left a bike race in an ambulance was the last Killer B (cat 3) race I did 6 years ago. I needed to be at the front early to avoid the carnage. I figured that top 15 coming off the start would be good enough. I was wrong.

I got to the start a little late and was on the 3rd row. I popped the start hard and moved up to 10th coming through the grassy turns, so I figured I was golden. But as we came over a set of dusty little whoop-de-dos, the guys in front of me stacked it. Anyone who pre-road the course would expect to just roll over these. It was hard to see in the dust, but no need to STOP. From going 20 mph to complete stop shot me off course. I jumped back on the course from behind the pile-up, only to be blocked and forced off the bike again 100 meters further up. And I drop my chain too. To add actual insult to injury G-Ride heckles me as he comes past. (like Nelson going Ha-haw, "kryptonite") So from 10th to DFL in under a minute, just because kids these days don't know how to ride their bikes in the dust! I jumped back on full of fury, racing in anger. I managed to ride everything clean the rest of race, hopping the log feature every lap, chasing back up to the front half of the group. I even cut under G-Ride in a loose corner as revenge, but without taking anyone out. I could make all the turns, but I could not keep my head together enough to move up to the top 20. I was mentally exhausted from my rage over the first 3 laps. The skills are not just bike handling. I needed to keep a grip on my anger.

A completely clean race and a top 10 result would have been nice. I should apologize now to all the cat. 3 racers I yelled at as I tore past in laps 1&2. I was loud, I was angry, I wasn't nice. And everyone has to learn their skills somehow. The cat. 3 race is the place for guys who have more speed than experience. I realize that I did not get the nick-name "CCR" by accident, but by lots of accidents, and slips, spills, splash downs, generally poor bike driving. Yet, each incident taught me something to improve my CX skills. Everyone falls down sometimes, good racers develop the skills to go faster and fall less. To race cyclocross, you need the Skills.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Deep End of the Pool: swimming with New England CX sharks

photo by Janice Checchio

New England does not have the highest turnout for cyclocross races, I think that goes to Chicago area 'cross or to Seattle. Nor does it always have the nastiest weather, that definitely goes to Portland. But it does have a very deep field in most every field.
Last weekend was the New England Championship Series #1-2. And it was the second week of the season. About 400 total racers each day lined up in northern Vermont, half the draw that will come to Gloucester or NoHo. The turnout was light partially because there is still road racing going on, partially because the course at the Catamount Center is hard; really really hard. Day 1 had 486 feet of climbing each lap. The masters 35+ did 5 laps in 42 minutes to the leaders for almost 2500 feet of climb. Day 2 was not much easier since there is no coasting on this course, it was all grass power sections, turns, and short steep climbing.
But the biggest factor in making the races tough, is the competition. I counted 5 current national champions, 9 former national champions (in juniors or masters or collegiate), and 1 former and 1 current worlds masters champion, including the current pro/elite U.S. champion, the guy pictured above. Every field had deep talent. Everyone was racing for their best result.
And that is the lesson that I learned last week; in New England cyclocross, victories are rare for most. Even podiums or top 10's are hard to come by. If you're going to be a cyclocross racer, you have to race for the love of it. There are much less demanding ways to win trophies and medals. Bike racing in these parts is about the love of going as fast as you can, and trying to do a bit better each time. It helps to keep your sense of humor and humility packed with your race kit. Those things help salvage a badly bruised ego after a tough race.
It also helps that we are friendly, if often sarcastic, bunch. I love the camaraderie of the NE cyclocross regulars almost as much as the racing, almost. Because I do love to race cyclocross first and most of all.
I think everything you need to understand about the depth of cyclocross around here, is summed up in 1:40 sec of video shot by the uber cyclocross nut, Henry Jurenka. Note the first shot, 2 current, and one former master's national champion. Everybody, though, giving it their all. Enjoy.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Not Dead Yet....

Yes, dear blog, I've been away for a long time. But I have not forgotten you. Its just, well, I've been distracted for a few months, by training, and racing, and being injured, and getting over a chronic injury, and starting to train/race/recover again.

A few things I've re-learned along the way:

Training is not racing. No matter how hard the group ride or the intervals, they are not like a race. There is not the same level of effort, fear, or thrill as in a hard race.

Racing is not training. Maybe for the pro's it can be, but there are too few chances to race, and too many guys trying to smack me down to treat any race as just a training event. If I am going to suit up for a race, than I better come prepared to give it a wee bit more than group ride.

The most important race to win, is the one between your ears. The old maxim "I am my own worst enemy" is true for racing bikes as well. We all can underperform when we think "I can't", whether it is closing a gap, positioning for a sprint, or climbing a hill. We also wreck our chances at peak performance by failing to sleep enough, eat the right food, stay hydrated, or get to the race fully equiped. Daily focus and good habits help race day performance. The most stunning fact I've learned this week is that mental stress can lower hematocrit levels! So just by being an anxious stressed out mess, I am reducing my blood values and thereby ability to perform.

The converse is true too, the more mentally & emotionally together I can become, the better I will train, the better I will race. It takes more than just having your head in the game, its keeping it together as much as you can, every day. Racing is not like life, it is life. It is not all of my life, but it is an intregal day in day out part of my life, like it is for all racers.

Fortunately, we all have been taught how to win the race between our ears since kindergarten:
Just keep turning over the wheels, you'll get to the top faster than you imagine.