Friday, October 13, 2017

MRC CX: Debacalypse Now

"I was victim of a series of accidents, as are we all" Kurt Vonnegut

I like the cyclocross race that the Minuteman Road Club puts on at the Bolton Fairgrounds. I like the course, I like the local race #NECX vibe, I like getting cider donuts at the Bolton Market. I've had some good results there in the past 4 years too. But this year was not to be a good race for yours truly. I made mistakes that I haven't made in years. It was a debacle born out of my errors. Last Sunday I was only capable of getting in my own way, in every possible way. Rather than a race report I present a list of lessons (re) learned.

one of my few good moments at MRC CX
photo by Katie Busick

#1) Come fully charged. Sleep as a critical element of performance has gotten much deserved attention lately. Elite racers are tracking their sleep, scheduling 9 hours a night, setting an early bed time, and taking mid day naps. For working masters racers with kids/families good sleep is more elusive. While my sleep the week before MRC CX wasn't bad for me, it wasn't enough. I over slept the alarm by 40 minutes. Which meant I got to the venue 30 minutes later than I planned. But the biggest little error was I forgot to charge my Garmin Forerunner watch. The watch start flashing low battery as I drove down I-495. Of course race data is not vital to race success, but I like having the data. So I kept my Garmin Edge on the handlebars, no biggy unless I had to switch bikes (foreshadowing)

the rain coming hard before the M40/50+ race
#2) Prepare for the Worst case scenario in the Weather forecast. All week the forecast called for sunny breezy conditions on Sunday. Then on Friday the forecast changed to a chance of rain, possibility of a downpour mid morning. Knowing how variable New England weather is, I chose to be optimistic, I left the mud tires at home. I chose wrong. I was half way into my preview ride when light rain started to fall. When I got back to my car to finish my warm up the rain became a down pour. I switched to alloy brake pads on my race bike & put on the best wheels I had for slick conditions, alloy rims with Dugast small birds. The ground was still somewhat dry & firm, but the rain was falling fast. Small birds have plenty of grip when the mud is slick over hard pack, but not when mud gets deep. (foreshadowing, again)

here goes nothing
photo by Katie Busick
#3) Show up for Staging with Everything you need to Race. The promoters of MRC CX make improvements every year, as every good NECX promoter does. This year they added chip timing for fast results & lap count. But chip timing is still a rarity in New England cyclocross. A few minutes after I rolled up to staging I realized I did not have my ankle tag chip on. I sprinted back to the car where it was resting on the dashboard. I returned to staging to see the last row line up. The guys in my field were kind enough to let me wedge in only a row or 2 behind my regular staging position. I had ground to make up before the race even started.

on my long trot to the pit
photo by Andy Copper

#4) Advance Position with Clean Passes. When the whistle blew I was anxious to make up ground as quickly as possible. I had a good start, quick clip in, and a clean line to the front 25 guys. By half way into the lap Eiric Marro caught me from behind. We jockeyed back & forth and gained more positions through the field. As we started up the hill we were gaining on 3 guys. We caught them at the top. Coming down the slick turns at the end of the lap Eiric made the pass. I followed through the outside of the turn but the guy just passed by Eiric moved into my front wheel. I went down fast & hard. Upon getting up my stem had shifted so the handlebars were turned 45 degrees. I had a long jog to the pits ahead of me. Plenty of time for every single racer on course to pass me, and for Richard Fries to call out my misfortune on the PA several times.
just trying to make it to the finish without another fall

#5) Be Focused & Efficient in the Pit. In the substantial amount of time it took to run half the course I decided to keep racing. I had a pit bike after all, and at least I could get a hard training effort done. But I would need to switch my Garmin head unit to have the data. I grabbed the pit bike with the Garmin in my left hand. Then fumbled & slipped as I twisted it into the bracket. Unsure of whether it was secure I ran into a course stake exiting the pit. I was on my ass again, wishing I had charged up my GPS watch (see above).
looking for the rut, must commit to the rut
photo by Cathy Rowell

#6) Lines Change on Muddy Courses after Several Laps. For the next 2 laps I ripped around the course catching the back markers of the 50+ race. One advantage of being DFL was getting to choose the best lines. But with 90 guys on course and rain still falling those lines were getting deeper, sloppier. On the 4th lap around the course I was going fast at a sweeping turn on the far end that was now mud across the entire track. As I set up for the outside line my rear wheel slipped out from under me. I slid 20 feet down the course toward John Mosher spectating on the other side of the tape. But did I learn my lesson? Of course not, the next lap I set up for the outside line on that corner again, and slid out again, but with an outrigger to save a little dignity. Soft courses change quickly when the rain falls fast, even lap to lap.
trying to hang on with the leaders on the last lap

#7) Ride your Own Race. By the 2 to go lap I could see the leaders gaining on me. I had a vain hope of not getting lapped when I got my pit bike. That hope was now gone. But when Brant Hornberger came past me chasing the lone leader, I figured I would try to ride his pace for a the final lap. But I was not able to shift from tempo pace to full on race pace quickly enough. Then Mike Rowell came past leading the 50+ group. I pulled aside to let him have a clean line and tried to get back up to his pace. Pushing my speed to the pace I thought I "should" be riding lead to making mistakes in the loose corners. The woodchips in the barns & the gravel exiting the shed were deep enough to make a rut. Getting out of the rut meant sliding out, which of course is what I did on the last lap.

So I drove home with plenty of lessons to turn over in my mind. But there are always lessons to learn, even from successful races. When we stop learning we stop growing, just like life as a whole. When we stop growing we stop living fully. I hope to remember these lessons next weekend, and for every race after.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Getting Back to my Grass Roots

New England cyclocross has become a really big show almost every weekend. A few years ago there were 14 UCI races in the region, more than any where outside of Belgium. Then the UCI commission began requiring more of UCI listed events, so now we have "only" 8 (not counting the Supercross races in NY). But each UCI event has a bigger budget, larger venues, and more polished production to meet those requirements. That fact has pushed "local" races to step up their production too. The best non UCI races in NECX still have great announcers, food trucks, well laid out wide courses, and full fields. Even these races draw a larger crowd than the UCI races did 15 years ago. it is wonderful but also expensive & exhausting to make all the "big" races. For some, it is too much of a good thing.

This past weekend we had 2 options in NECX, the UCI races in Thompson CT (where most the top national pros would be racing) or a pair of new little local cross races in western Maine & the eastern edge of New Hampshire. Since Thompson CT is almost 3 hours away and I would've needed to take Friday afternoon off to watch the pro's race, I decided to stay closer to home. I chose to get back to grass roots cross.
Both the Deer Farm CX in Newfield Maine & the King Pine CX the following day were put on by Greg Dolbec. He is new to me, but as a first time promoter he did a fine job. The laps were a touch short, yet very spectator friendly. Both venues had food/beverage on site (including free beer at Deer Park) The courses had some similar elements, a rock wall hop up, a run up that was tempting to ride, and a steep switch back descent on loose dirt. But the venues, weather, & terrain were almost polar opposites.

I always *try* to arrive at a new to me cyclocross venue 3 hours before I race. Saturday I almost failed spectacularly. I was thankfully saved by a parking spot close to the start, registration was quick, and the course was open. Light rain was falling most of the drive to Newfield Maine, but was tapering off as I started to ride the course. The venue was actually a working venison farm so one needed to be aware of deer manure in the pasture sections. That added to the Flemish feel of the course.
at an actual working farm for the real feel of Flanders
The course started on a tractor path heading up into the pastures. After a few swooping turns the course double back to a sand pit with a little run/ride up then back through the pit to another hop up a stone lined lip. Then the course headed into the woods for a lumpy off camber trail section. The toughest feature was a steep short run up with a log at the bottom, a short traverse, then the switch back down hill on loose dirt & tall grass. Alan Starret & I made several passes figuring out how to hop the log to ride the hill. During the race however this was not an advantage over running it. Some swooping turns through sticky mud, then a high speed set of barriers, and a narrow sandy trail section finished the lap. The course reminded me a little of the Pinelands and a little of White Park, both on the more technical side of NECX courses.
I finished my preview ride just in time to watch the women's race start. I had a good vantage point from the car to cheer on my team mate Ryanne. She had a very strong ride to finish 2nd behind Roni Vetter. After quick warm up on the road I squeezed into my skinsuit & brought my b bike to the pit. I make no secret of how poor my condition was coming into cyclocross season. For that reason alone I registered for the Cat 3/4 race. I rolled over to the start uncertain as to my form or the group I'd be racing with, but it was just another bike race, right.
One advantage of the new local grass roots race is small fields. The 1/2/3 field had 12 guys lined up, including a few old friends like Don Seib & Mike Rowell. They started 3 minutes ahead of the 3/4 field. I lined up with a couple dozen racers hoping not to get lapped. The whistle blew, I got a mediocre start, but quickly moved up through the first few turns to 3rd wheel. A slight gap opened to the front 2 but no one was coming around me to take up the chase. I closed the gap through the first lap and moved up to 2nd wheel. Then I started making mistakes. First I babbled on the stone step ride up. Then coming down the steep switch backs I lost my front wheel and hit the turf. Both cost me a couple of spots. The problem with limited fitness is that I can not make up gaps after a mistake without blowing up. So in trying to overcome a mistake, I made more mistakes. I didn't make any spectacular stumbles, but just enough to put me in a battle for 7th place with Tim Young instead of fighting for a podium spot. That was a battle Tim won due to being cut short a lap, and my poor concentration in the corners.
the ball field front half the course
the ski hill back half of King Pine CX
Sunday was another and very different day. The sun was out, the air was warm, and breeze was up. The course at King Pine CX was also very different. It was in truth like 2 separate courses. The front half was a typical playground course was flat sections of thick grass interrupted by a couple of short park side climbs. The second half of the course was all ski hill alpine cross. A long access road climb lead us up to the top of the bunny slope, then down around the chair lift drop off, a traverse to the next ski slope, and a winding 4 turn off camber slalom run to the finish. This track looked very demanding based on the size of the hill.

Again the fields were small, but competitive. The 1/2/3 field was give a 4 minute lead this time, assuring that the 3/4 field would be lapped. Considering how the ski hill climb hung over my head, I did not mind that. The whistle blew, again I had a mediocre clip in, but sprinted through the 1st few turns to 2nd wheel. I charged up the slope the first lap to maintain my spot. Coming down the slope at the end of the lap I was conservative and let a gap open to the front 2. In closing the gap through the ball field I lost focus and slid out on a 180 corner. Mistake number 1. Again I got up to chase for the front group. For the next lap I held them at about 10 seconds. But then I started tumbling down the ski slope descent. First on my left hip then on my knee. Free speed isn't always free. A younger Sunapee came past me as I was falling down the hill. I chased him for 2 laps, gaining on the hills, loosing ground on the descent. I realized my chance to take him was on the final ascent of the ski hill. I caught his wheel a third of the way into the final lap. Then came around him at the start of the access road. The advantage of being an old man bike racer is knowing how to go all in on an attack. I went to the limit up the climb. But around the ski lift he was still only a few meters behind me. I dropped into the final slalom praying for one clean run to the finish. I saved myself with an out rigger through the next to last corner and a quick clip in to sprint out of the last one.

And just like that another race weekend done. I missed seeing the pros mix it up, sure. But the racing at both Deer Farm and King Pine was good, the venues everything we've become spoiled with in NECX. So next year, I just may be back for more good old grass roots cross