Thursday, September 13, 2012

Which comes first, the Clinic or the Race? pre-season cyclocross

Cyclocross has a sharp learning curve. I don't believe you can understand it with out doing it; and who would want to do it with out some understanding of it? When I heard about cyclocross for the first time it sounded like a cruel joke on bikes. Then out of sheer curiosity I went to a race. I was hooked immediately. But there were very few clinics ten years ago. To see cyclocross one had to go to a race. Now clinics are sprouting up all over. The 'cross curious can find many events around New England to get a taste of cycling insanity.

On Labor Day weekend, Blue Steel Cyclery held its first cyclocross clinic on the Sucker Brook CX course. The course around the Auburn School is ideal for newbies to try cyclocross. The field is wide open for easy viewing, there is plenty of off camber turns, a built in set of stairs, and just enough pavement for some quick transitions. The flat terrain gives a chance to practice basic technique with out spending alot of energy around the course. I realized that this would be a great chance to blow the cob webs off my 'cross skills.

Moreover, when a multiple time world masters champion (Kathy Savary) and the dean of New England course designers (Tom Stevens) are putting on a clinic, everyone can learn a thing or two. The clinic was limited to 70 participants. I barely got in to the afternoon session. The group appeared to be 90% brand new or near new 'cross racers. 18 or so of the group were juniors under age 14. Seeing kids on 'cross bikes makes me happy.

After a brief pre-ride of the course, we divided into 3 groups to discuss technique. My group basically rode with Tom around the course discussing cornering and transitions. After that we went straight into the practice race. I had hoped for a little warm up, but no such luck. Moreover, because of a some what chaotic rush to line, I slotted into the second row. The course start was short and narrow. After clipping in, I found myself behind a dozen others cutting through tight off camber corners. I had Tom's advise from moments earlier in my head, be patient, wait for an open stretch to gain ground. The wide range of abilities in the bunch, and hence speeds, meant that big gaps opened ahead to the leaders. At the end of the first lap I had made it through the traffic to be the sole chaser of the leaders. The group had 4 guys in it, the strongest of which was Tim Young. They had about 20 seconds lead on me.

Tim and I have raced each other many times, and often on a similar level of fitness. No warm up, however, meant that pushing up past threshold was tough. I dug as deep as I could go to gain a few seconds each straight section. Unfortunately there were few open sections on this short course. Tom had set up the course to practice turning at various angles, not for powering down straight sections.We were turning in sub 4 minute laps for the race. By the start of lap 3 I had just caught the leaders. The Nor'East guy in the group wiped out in a corner half way into the lap, so we were down to 3. During lap 4 Tim put a little more force into his jumps, and we lost Roger from Blue Steel.

Before the bell lap I realized I would need to get a head of Tim well prior to the last corner. We were coming through a bunch of lapped riders since this was a mostly newbie training race. Tim was the good teacher and had a word of encouragement for most everyone we passed. I took the lead for a brief time at the start of the last lap. By the back half, I was riding too cautiously around lapped riders, and Tim retook the lead. Coming over the barriers for the final time I caught my toe and stumbled. The last barriers were only 200 meters from the finish. so that was the race, Tim cruised over the line a few seconds ahead of me. I can't say I was disappointed. We pushed each other for a good 20 minute race effort.

The last event of the day was my favorite, barrel racing. Kathy set us up in groups of 6-7, racing head to head around a simple oval. Each barrel race was 5 complete circuits. That worked out to be ten 180 degree corner sprints in about a minute. This is a cyclocross drill I do alot. In the first match I jumped off the line and maintained a lead on Tim all the way through the finish. The second set was harder. I entered the first corner half a length behind the Nor'East guy. But I dove hard around the inside corner and took the lead from the second turn to the finish. The last was my downfall, I missed my pedal twice off the start, and never got closer than 3rd wheel through the turns.

The clinic was well attended and well run. Definitely a good way to get the rust off before the real racing begins. I hope Kathy and Tom put in on again next year.

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