Thursday, October 4, 2012

A Tale of Two Courses: New Hampshire Cyclocross Weekend

The past weekend I enjoyed my shortest drive to a cyclocross race of the season, Concord NH and Auburn NH. Two playgrounds, 20 miles apart, same elements, same weather, radically different cyclocross courses. Racing both was like tasting the results an of Iron Chef episode, same ingredients with surprisingly different dishes. The courses each had a sand feature, barriers on flat ground, a forced run up into a wooded section, and some flowing turns. But there the resemblance ends.

Lets begin with White Park Cyclocross on Saturday. This is a second year event sponsored by my friend Nick Czerula. It is one of the few "in town" cyclocross courses in New England. White Park is located in the middle of the city of Concord, which means random "non-cyclist" spectators can get a taste of cyclocross. It also meant that Nick had to re-stake the course on Saturday morning since vandals wrecked half his set up. But White Park is great for young kids with a large playground and a scenic pond.

The course Nick laid out was quite technical. The start went across a grass field to a ridable sand pit, then hooked around a thick grass ball field to the barriers. After that the course got challenging. A sharp up hill to an off camber traverse, then a button hook around tree on a steep slope to an even steeper paved climb meant that no easy pedaling after the barriers. The top side of the course was an out & back on a paved street, a sweeping fast down hill turn leading across the pit, and then an up hill run into the woods. The woods section was classic lumpy, rocky, rooty New England track. Each trip through the woods was a jack hammer like effort to keep the wheels on the ground with out breaking a rim. After exiting the woods, a few tight corners on hard packed dirt lead to a series of fast grass turns and back through the sand pit before the finish. The course offered little recovery since each section required either hard pedaling or high finesse. The lap was a short 1.5 miles but seemed much longer.

We started with a small master 35+ field of 14. Both White Park and Suckerbrook had small numbers for the masters 35+ 1-3 event. I think both suffered from offering a combination of other categories that siphoned away the usual M35+ guys. When an event offers a 3/4 35+ category, an non-UCI elite race, and a single speed race there are plenty of options for a Cat. 3 masters racer. Field sizes will shrink naturally as a result. I imagine promoters will adjust schedules in the future to make full fields.

White Park would also be a de facto Alpine Clinic intra-squad race since Matt Wilson, Doug Jansen, and former team member Dave Penney lined up with me for the masters 35+ event. The only tougher contest would be the age 3-7 kids race (with 5 of the Alpine Clinic Racing kids taking the start). Naturally that meant I blew my clip in off the start line. It took me three pedal strokes to get connected. By then the front pair (Ryan LaRocque and Johs Husbey) were blazing off the front. Four other guys were strung out between me and the front, and I was stuck behind GeWilli. By the end of the first lap I had edged around GeWilli in the turns and closed the gap to 4th spot. Nick had complained before the race that he had no legs, no warm up, and no sleep the night before. He was sand bagging me. I rode his wheel for a quarter lap. He made a small cornering mistake half way into lap 2 and I sprinted around him. But he was back on to my wheel straight away. On lap 3 I made the same mistake coming around the big tree and Nick charged up the hill. He would hold a 10 second gap through that lap and add to the gap every lap for the rest of the race.

That mistake also allowed Doug Jansen to catch my wheel. Doug followed me around the course for a lap. Then on the steepest hill, Doug did what Doug does, he went up it with tremendous speed. Doug got a gap to me and began to gain on Nick. I would keep the two of them in sight until the last lap, but never gain ground on pulling them back. But I did put time into the guys chasing me for the rest of the race, enough so that a spill & dropped chain did not cost me on the last lap.

Sunday's course at Sucker Brook had the same course features in a polar opposite composition. SBX is known for being flat and fast. This year was no exception. The course had twice the number of dismounts as White Park (4 at SBX compared to 2). But all of the the dismounts were fast. If you had the skill to hop the horse jump, or ride the sand pit, one could cut the dismounts at SBX in half. But few had those skills. I thought about hoping the horse jump, but decided not to risk cracking my front rim. I managed to ride most of the sand box during course preview, but the final 30 meters were so slow, that running seemed more efficient. I did see a few sub-90 pound cub juniors float through the sand box in the earlier race. We don't get enough long sand sections in New England courses for my taste.

photo by Frank Silas
I also had the opposite start to SBX than I did to White Park. I hit my pedal on the first stroke, managed to be in third wheel off the pavement. Immediately into the grass a CCB racer jumped in front of my wheel. I followed him close as he managed to botch two turns before the stairs. I braked to avoid hitting him each time, which allowed John Mosher to sprint ahead toward the leaders. I kept looking for an opening to get around, but found none until we were into the woods. Apparently the CCB rider (Kurt Schmid) did not pre-ride the course much, but by the third lap he had all the corners dialed in. We would trade attacks for a couple of laps. By that point the front end of the 45+ group was coming through in 2's and 3's. When Alec Petro and Tyler Munroe (also CCB) caught us, we both latched on. Kurt and Tyler put a gap on me in the woods with 2 to go. For the last lap I chased them about 15 seconds back, without making up ground.
photo by Mike McCabe

The biggest differences in the two courses was how the similar features played out in opposite ways; where the grass and barriers were fast at SBX, they were thick and power draining at White Park. Where the sand was fast and straight at White Park, it was deep and curved at SBX, forcing most racers to run. Where the woods section was smooth and quick at SBX, it was lumpy, twisted, and long at White Park. Two great contrasting courses. I was glad to race them both

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