Sunday, December 18, 2011

So much for the...

From My Racing Thoughts

I woke up at 7:30AM with the intention of heading over to my teammate Bailey's house for pancakes. I rolled out of bed and looked out the window. The courtyard was covered with a thin venire of white and powdery snow. The Afterglow was here, and the conditions were primed for epic (Note: No epic was guaranteed by race promoters). Instead I got delayed by a long awaited phone call. I had some catching up to do with my girlfriend's daughter. After connecting with her, I had breakfast and a shower, then finalized my packing. I bundled up my head for the ride over to compensate for being a little lightly dressed in the lower body. I did not layer up for the rid over because I wanted to try to ride quickly, but not get all of my clothes soaked with sweat. It was too cold for that. The ride over was chilly and into the wind, but entirely uneventful. I arrived at the Park and hopped onto the race course on the Northwest corner. I rode last few hundred yards into the finish line area. The park was blanketed with the first real snow of winter. The tall unmowed green blades poking up through the inch thick dusting of white. There was already a line 14 inches wide melted around the course where the grass was blazon green through the white. When I arrived at the starting line Mumford with a bullhorn gave me a preview of what the day would be like.

"Good citizens do not panic. That is NOT Darth Vader on a bicycle, it's just Nathan."

I do look pretty ominous when I put on my helmet, Cold-Avenger Pro and Ski Goggles, and dressed in mostly black and red.

I found our tent, warm with two heaters, and threw down my bag. I wanted to get out there and pre-ride the course. By the time I got to the park, got my gear set down, there was not really time to do any pre-riding. I could have taken off, but they were already starting to stage for the first races of the day. They were running the Master's 30+ and 40+ concurrently with the 30+s going off first, followed a few minutes later by the 40+. I got my camera out and waited by the starting line for the race to start. I snapped photos as both waves took off from the line, and then worked my way backwards around the course (cutting across at the wheel pit) to take pictures of the riders as they made their way around. I took pictures of guys making their way up and around "Heroin Hill" and then headed to the Beach of Broken Glass to watch the riders tackle what turned out to be the second fairly nasty sand pit. I even got a photo of a guy mid-wipeout out on the beach. There were two lines, and I noticed that all the fast guys went to the right. Mental note.

I finished up at the sand pit, and headed further up the course, all the way to the far southeast corner. I found what looked to be a good vantage from which to take pictures. I was snapping riders as they came around the course, and saw a form that I recognized. It was no other than Gavin from Half-Acre. I didn't realize that he was racing in the master's race today, he usually races Cat 3. Then it hit me. He wasn't racing as a master's rider. He was pre-riding. Oh crap. This was my only shot to pre-ride the course. I tucked my camera back into my bag and hopped on the course.

I lamented at that moment that I had not yet let any air out of my tires, and that I was still at road pressure of 60psi. The course was very rough at that pressure, and I did not have as much tractions in the turns. But at the same time it was okay, because I had my camera, I was pre-riding, and it was 30 degrees. I did not want to go all that fast lest I crash out and ruin my gear. I was also wearing more layers than I had when I arrived, having put on some additional clothing to keep from freezing while photographing. All of these things combined for a low-key pre-ride back to the finish, I did not get waved off the course by the officials so I continued on, but I did not make it all the way back to where I started. I made it down and around the backside of the field house where the sandy beach dropped off into 4 inches of sludge and then into the sand. I didn't need to pre-ride that. I have ridden enough mud and sand, so I turned back. The single speed race had already started so I grabbed my camera and started shooting. The single speed men made it by before I could really get into position, but I found a better spot for the women. I let the men come around a second time, and I packed in my camera for the day. It was time for me to get ready to race.

I went back to the tent, changed into my speedsuit and dry base-layers. I wanted to be warm, but I also did not want to over dress. I found what felt like a good balance, and had Michael C pin on my number. While I was standing in the tent some guy named Barry poked his head in and asked if he could drop his bag in our tent. He had just ridden down from Evanston and wanted to drop his stuff. Yeah Barry, you can hang out in our tent.

I went into the bathroom, and found that Michael had pinned my number to both my skinsuit and my baselayer. After a momentary panic I was able to pull myself together and avert a full crisis. My friend and teammate Chernoh was also in the bathroom finishing changing into his race gear. We chatted a bit and then headed outside.

We walked out of the bathroom together, and were headed across the parking lot and I literally almost ran into my girlfriend Morleigh. She was sitting near her car, waiting for me to come out. Apparently she had seen me go in and called to me, but I was in such a hurry that I missed her. Chernoh had not had an opportunity to meet her yet, and he was very pleased to make her acquaintance. I gave her a quick kiss, and I had to go. They were staging the Men's Cat 1-2-3 race and the Men's Cat 3 race so there was not much time to get my bike (let air out of the tires) and get to the starting line. Staging went fairly quickly as there were only about 70 people total for both races. The men's 123s were sent off first, followed by the Cat 3. I started from "the back row" but as there were only three rows I wasn't worried about being able to burn a match and move up in the field. And move up I did. I got past half of the field around the first corner, and fell into line when the course got narrow before the first run up. My match burned out about that time, but hitting the sand helped me hold position. I found a line through the muck, and dismounted at the turn into the second sandpit. That would be a theme for the day. I was able to power forward and hold position ahead of my teammates Brent and Forest for most of the first lap. I had one mishap dismounting for the barrier on lap one. I'm not exactly sure what happened, but as I was swinging my right leg over the seat to dismount the wheels slipped laterally, and I somehow ended up driving my groin into to top of my seat. I groaned, but did not stop. The rest of my race went fairly smoothly. Brent and Forest both passed me, but I was able to pass them both back. Brent (who was on his second or third race) faded and I was able to get past him. I rode a mostly clean race, having to only put my foot down a handful of times as my front wheel washed out on turns, but I did not hit the ground. Forest (who had a mechanical in his third consecutive race) took off on the last two laps and opened up a gap that I could not close.

The hecklers were not all that creative. "Go Darth", "What's that on your face", "Storm Trooper", and one "let's go terminator". For the record the thing on my face was a Cold Avenger Pro, a new piece of high tech winter equipment that has a number of impressive features. First, it is effective at creating a pocket that pre-warms the air coming into the mouth and nose, which reduces irritation and helped reduce exercise/cold induced asthma. Second, the surgical grade silcon cup causes moisture from breathing to condense away from the face, so unlike with a traditional cloth wrap or balaklava it does not get wet, heavy, and cold. Third, there are sufficient drainage holes on the bottom that even snotrockets drain out of the mask during the race. Fourth, as previously mentioned, it looks bad ass.

During the 4th lap I was passed by the leaders, and picked a bad time to yield by taking a terrible line through the deepest muck. I had to get off and run which took a lot of energy. My legs were completely shot by the last lap. Getting off my bike in the sand on the last lap it felt like I could hardly run. I then missed the high approach to the off-camber barriers on the last lap, and ended up sliding and steeping for about 20 feet on the upper track heading. It was ugly looking, but the course was increasingly muddy and traction was even harder to find. It felt like I could hardly pick them up to moe through the sand. I gave a good effort on the bell lap to close the gap on Forest, maintaining good balance on the technical sections and trying to power it out on the straight aways. I was able to get a little bit closer, but not enough to actually have a chance at making a move. Instead I finished in the same position I had ridden for most of the last lap. In 19th place it was my best finish of the season. It wasn't the strongest field, but I was happy with my performance and my effort independent of who else was there. It was a good enough result for me to think seriously about the New Years Resolution.

My bike was piled with mud, but I was lucky that it did not stop functioning. . My bike had literally about 10lbs of wet sand and mud piled up behind the downtube, on the wheels, and on the pedals and chain stays. There were some mechanical issues I noticed on the way home including a chain that was slipping, wheels that were out of true, and mud on everything. It was a good day, but I did not stay to watch the rest of the races. I was cold, tired, and hungry and ready to head home.

Photos: So much for the....

So much for the...

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

End of the Line

There is a photo that Edmond White took at Montrose Harbor on Sunday that sums up my day pretty well.

I am the faceless, nameless, numberless body. I am the red and white helmet, the black sleeve, and the matt black/brown bike. The thrill of victory is not for people like me. We ride by after the fact, after the race has been decided, and form at most a backdrop for other peoples' victories. But neither are we vanquished to live with the agony of defeat. There is no defeat in cyclocross. There are no losers. There are only your friends and acquaintances who rode either faster than you, or slower than you on this particular day. There are the people who had mechanicals, who were hung over, who were burned out from doubling or tripling, or even those rode their best race of the season and are super excited with how high they were able to finish no matter how low it is in the field.

The only people who lose in cyclocross are the people who do not let themselves have fun doing it.

And I should know because I have lost my fair share of races. There was the day in DeKalb that I got stung on the tongue by a bee. The last two races I rode in October were also losing efforts for different reasons. Thankfully despite the anonymity of my performance, Sunday was not a loosing effort. Let me explain.

Sunday morning I woke up at a fairly normal time for me. The race was a scant 1.6 miles from my house, so there was no hour drive in a borrowed or rented car to get there. I ate breakfast, and spent more time than necessary trying to figure out A) what to wear and B) what to bring. I consulted the weather channel, rummaged through drawers, made piles, sorted piles into new piles, and finally decided on what should be stuffed into the bottom of my newly warrantied Mission Workshop Vandal. I packed lighter than I did last year because the weather was a touch warmer, and I have dialed in my race/post race clothing needs much better this year. I don't over pack as much because I have enough experience to know exactly what I need.

I threw the pack on, pulled down the freshly washed and lubed Falcon, and headed north to the lake.

When I arrived at the park, the Master's 40+ race was already underway. Those guys generally get the short end of the stick with photography so I made a concerted effort to get out with my camera and find some shots. It took me a while to get warmed up and my equipment dialed into the lighting conditions, but I was able to get a few good shots. After their race I ran my first pre-lap of the day. The course could be described in three words: Sand, mud, hill, and not in equal portions. It was about 50% sand, 25% mud, and 25% hill. The winds had drifted and blown sand up from the beach over the barrier berm, and there was 2-3 inches of sand (thankfully it was wet) across large swaths of the course. It was a hard ride, but the difficulty of it did not make it less enjoyable. Everyone who I talked to about it said it was "Miserable", but they all had the same silly little grin on their face. It was the kind of misery we live for.

During the Master's 30+ race I went back out with my camera. I know more of the Master's 30+ racers, and it is always fun taking pictures of people that you can tag later on Facebook. I was on my bike, riding to different parts of the course, and spent a good bit of time on the hill trying to capture a "money shot" of someone coming down the hill silhouetted in front of the city skyline. My teammate Brad hammed it up a little bit for what I believe was the best shot I took that day.

After the 30+ race it was time for another pre-ride. It went smoothly, or as smooth as possible. The women's 1-2-3 race is one of the harder ones to photograph when it's cold, and I did not get out with my camera. Instead I focused on my race preparation. Getting the right layers on, getting my number pinned on, getting my number taken off when I decide that I really don't need full leg tights and realize that my number is pinned through my skinsuit into my baselayer, and then getting my number pinned back on. Before I knew it, Jason was calling for staging for the Cat 3 racers.

My staging for this race was the worst of the season. The system that was used to filter in individuals without CCC points left me back in the fifth or sixth row. The one "beef" had was that there were guys who I have raced against in CCC races, who have never finished higher than me, and who's cross results points were lower than me, who ended up being seeded higher than me. I don't know how that worked out, but I decided that I was not going to make a stink about it. Instead, I lined up in the back of the pack with my friends and teammates as we shivered, laughed, and bantered with the riders in the front who we would not see again (until they lapped us). In short, I was having fun no matter what.

I lined up on the far left side of the course. The starting grid was open, meaning there was no fence immediately to my right, but the officials warned us that trying to jump outside would result in a not-automatic disqualification. They would let you suffer for 40 minutes and then DQ you. But regardless I knew that I could jump past some of field on the long home straight away, and when the whistle blew I did just that. I burned a match and surged out and around, pulling up not with the leaders but certainly in the top 25 people going into the first set of barriers. As was typical my match did not burn for all that long, but the tight technical sections kept the pack close together and we jostled amongst ourselves for positions through the sand and around the corners. I was right where I wanted to be racing in the cloud of people that I wanted to be racing with. Not just that but I also felt pretty strong going into the second lap. Even when we surged up the hill the first time I was able to keep pace. The leaders of course were starting to pull away and open a lead, but I was holding my own within the top 25. I remember being close to Paul-Brian, because I'm always close to Paul-Brian at some point in the race, especially if I am doing very well. We passed the finish line and surged down the straight away again. We hit the barriers for a second time, and made it through the far south end of the course still in a pack. Riding up a small hill with a 90 degree turn to the left in a sand pit, my front wheel washed out and I stepped / tumbled forward. I think I might have put a hand down, and maybe a knee, but I didn't roll. I was dead stopped, so I grabbed my bike and started running. I made it about 20 ft and someone behind me was kind enough to yell "Your chain" and I looked down and saw I had dropped it. I tried to do what I did at the USGP and put my chain back on while I was running. I did that for about 30 yds and had no luck. So I stopped and started to try and get it back on. I couldn't. I tried again. I couldn't. 10, 20, 30, and 40 riders swarmed past. The bulk of the pack went by while I stood looking at my chain, feeling stupid because I could not figure out how to make it go where it went.

I took some deep breaths and looked back at the rear sprocket. The rear derailleur had shifted up about 5 chainrings from where the chain was. It was putting so much lateral pressure on the chain it was pulling it off the front ring. Only after I shifted back into alignment was I able to get the chain back onto the ring, but the race had literally passed me by. There was only one thing to do though, and that was finish. So I hopped back on my bike and started pedaling. The first person I remember passing was my friend Chernoh. He said after the race that I just blew by him, and I kept going. I would see someone ahead of me, and I would reel them in. One by one I just kept picking off riders. I felt strong, I was riding a lot of the sand pits, and I might have looked tired according to one spectator, but I didn't look as tired as the guys I was passing. I rode hard and I felt pretty good about my effort, my speed, and the number of people I was passing.

When I was talking to Paul-Brian (who did awesome) after the race I told him that it was kind of fun riding from the back and have the feeling of reeling guys in and passing them vs. the last few weeks where I started closer to the front and then watched as guys blew by me, one after the other. I caught up with and passed my teammate Sean, and even Brent who finished two places ahead of me at Ted's Double Track adventure. As I noted above, I ended up getting pulled one early like the race before, but this time I was less happy about it because given another lap I would have had at least one more place. Instead I settled for a fairly anonymous 50th place.

It was my worst finish in any CCC race, but by no means was it my worst race. For 38 minutes that I was in the saddle, I felt like I was moving. Had I not failed at Chain 101 for 2 minutes, I think I would have even been able to hang onto a top 30 finish. Shortly after I crossed the finish line the leaders of the race blew threw with much cheering and fanfare. I made sure to congratulate them, as I am in awe of how fast those guys are.

John Keating (Robin William's character in Dead Poet Society) said:
Now, devotees may argue that one sport or game is inherently better than another. For me, sport is actually a chance for us to have other human beings push us to excel.
And excel we did. Even though we did not get to stand on a podium today, and though we may never see a podium we, the nameless faceless masses excelled. I am proud to be among you my brothers and sisters.

Now, I just need about 49 of them to Cat up so I can dominate the 3s next year.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Photos: Chicago Cyclocross Cup #12: Montrose


Back in the saddle

When I left Carpentersville I was glad that I was getting a break from cycling. All year long I had been planning a trip to Montana elk hunting with my Dad, Uncle and Brother, and knew I was going to miss part of the season. It was one of the reasons why I moved up to Cat 3 instead of vying for the title Sandbagger of the Year in the 4As. I knew that missing three or four races in the middle of the season would not be conducive to a series championship, so I decided to take the leap and "Cat-up" as they say. I was able to squeeze the QuBe (my mountain bike) into the very top few inches of space in the back of the Suburban we took out west, but I was not able to ride it very much. My compatriots were unwilling to view the bike as an asset and an additional vehicle, and I didn't want to "ruin" the hunting trip by turning it into a bicycling trip. So we rode around in the truck and hiked a lot, but I only got in three short rides in two weeks, and missed three races.

My first cross practice back, a Sprockets Tuesday morning, was bad. It was really really bad. I just felt slow, and like my body was covered with a stiff tar. Guys I could ride with, even lead for a while were blowing past me. Any feeling of confidence that I had in my ability was stripped away by taking three weeks off. The rest of the season was going to be rough. Wednesday night in Humboldt Park went slightly better, and by the end of the week I was feeling comfortable the saddle again. I had registered for both races at Indian Lakes, and was looking forward to going and racing.

Instead a confluence of events kept me home. My transportation and lodging to the race fell through at the last minute, so I had no way to get there. That was combined with big project at work that blew up on Friday and was due on Monday. I ended up working 10 hrs on Saturday, and sending off the client deliverable at about 12:33AM. Even if I had a way to get out to Indian Lakes in the morning, I was completely spent. I ended up sleeping until 10AM and then looking the results up online. My "mid-season break" turned into missing half the season.

But I was looking at the wall in my house where I keep my bikes, and where I have started decorating with my race numbers. I had already raced in 14 races this year ranging from 39 minutes to 4 hrs and 8 minutes. Last season I raced a total of 13 thirty minute cross races. This season the opportunities for racing are even better late in the season than they were last year. If I feel up to it I can race in at least 5 more races after the end of the ChiCrossCup season. I am undecided on winter racing as of yet, but I would like to test myself against the Barry Roubaix again this year. Maybe have a little bit better experience by going into it a little bit better prepared than last year. We will see how that works out.

The following weekend was also a double race weekend, but only one was a CCC race. I thought about doing both races, but again transportation and work were issues. In theory I could have rented a car, but it would have had to have been picked up by 6:30pm on Friday (Rental place doesn't open until 9AM on Sat leaving me zero time to get to the suburbs), and I had a "Summer Outing" for work that turned into a happy hour. I even had a friend offer me a solution for transportation, but I didn't get the message (aforementioned happy hour) until it was too late to work out. Like the Rental car place the Metra train in the morning was running just a bit too late, and I did not get home until 1AM anyway, and had no time to prep for a race. So no double race weekend for me.

Instead on Sunday morning Sean and I rode to the exurbs with Chernoh in his friend's car. One bike went in the trunk, and two went on the rack. We had a good time chatting on the way out, and the only snag was that I had forgotten my wallet in my other backpack, and had no money. Being the good friend that he is Chernoh floated me a loan until we got back, and I was able to race.

We arrived at the course, unloaded and headed to the tent. For me it was the first "chilly" cross race so I had a extra lot of clothes. It was also the first race of the season without my trusty Mission Workshop oversized backpack so I was left holding the bag, a black duffle bag I used last season.

We made it to the Sprockets tent which was well placed on the course, and incredibly warm. It made us the center of attention even though we were not on the most spectator friendly part of the course. I had not pre-registered for the race, so my immediate concern was getting a number, getting everything set-down, and getting on the course for a pre-ride before the Master's 30+ race.

The time in the morning before a race always goes so fast. I did something a bit different after the 30+ race and hit two laps around the course. I don't think I made it all the way to the end of the second one, having been pulled off the course to make way for the swarm of women-who-are-faster-than-me, but it was good to get some extra riding in given how many weeks it had been since I actually raced.

I went back to the tent to change from my warm-up clothes into my race clothes, and while I was standing there in my base layers I heard my name being spoken outside. I turned towards the tent flap and in pops a familiar face. My mom had made the trip down from Wisconsin to see my race. So I finished getting dressed, then went outside and hung out with my Mom until it was go time.

We headed to staging, where I was pleasantly surprised with a call-up into the third row. I was expecting to start at the back of the pack with Chernoh and Sean as a late registrant, but my early season points moved me up into the third row. (It also helped that the field was small, only 48 finishers that day). The whistle blew and we were off. It was a little bit sketchy because the starting shoot led into a 90 degree turn to the right, up a hill, then a 90 deg turn back to the left, and up a longer hill. It was repeatedly cursed as the worse part of the course because it wasn't a steep hill, but it was long enough that a single match would not get anyone to the top. I was on the inside edge of the turn which made it a little hairy getting around the first tree, but going up to the top it opened up a spot on the outside to move up with the pack. After the hill started the long namesake section, the double track adventure, which was a fairly smooth long downhill. We were cruising down that section at a break neck pace of 20+ miles per hour, all of us still trying to hold onto the lead pack, and the lead pack trying to blow up the rest of the field.

The double track came to an end as it curved into some literal single track, weaving through the woods, then opening up on double track again with two rail-road tie obstacles. They were oddly spaced to bunny hop both of them, but the were rideable (for most). I cleared them and maintained my spot. As we were coming out of the woods back into the camp we opened up onto some pavement and wove around the buildings. I was passed on the downhill, but was able to reclaim some spots on the uphill. As we looped around the buildings we hit the most dangerous turn. It was a steep downhill, off camber 180 degree turn, into a railroad tie. The railroad tie was buried into the ground on the proximal end, and was all the way out of the ground on the distal end. So if you took an "ideal line" around that corner (wide, narrow, wide) you would end up running into that railroad tie with about 10 inches of it exposed.

I remember that turn because I was trying to go wide narrow, narrow, and Sasha from Tati came on my inside and cut me off, I had to brake hard but let him go by on my left side, then cut across his line so he was on my right. That put me in position to hit the railroad tie where it was only 2in out of the ground, and he hit it where it was about 5 inches. I saw him come to a complete stop, and start to fall to his right. I don't know if he was able to unclip and catch himself, as I continued onward, with a small feeling of satisfaction. That was my personal moment of victory.

Unfortunately the tide of battle soon turned. We looped down around toward the lake, then had to run up a steep-steep stair run. I did not sprint up, knowing that I did not have too many matches left in me, instead choosing a more plodding pace, and still ended up almost unable to breathe at the top. Very shortly afterwards, all of these people passed me.

And then I died a slow and painful death. I continued to lose spots and fall backwards in the pack, and could not find any second wind. The hill climb, the straight aways, everything felt like thick mud, except the sand which just felt like sand. I blew up so severely that even my dear mother, who knows nothing about cycling, and sympathy in her voice when she encouraged me to "keep going". Near the end of the second to last lap there was about a 200-300 meter gap between myself and a pack of three riders who were in front of me. I started to feel like I might have a second wind coming up, like I might be able to make a move on them and try to close that gap on the final lap, and I was mercifully denied that opportunity by the officials who made me the first person to get pulled off the course. It was the first time that I was not allowed to finish the same number of laps as the leaders, but I was okay with that. I really don't think I had it in me to catch the guys in front of me, and there was someone coming up behind. I'll take my 38th place out of 48 and go home feeling like I knocked some of the rust off, and get ready to go again in two weeks.

It wasn't a terrible finish given the amount of time that I had taken off, and the severity of my crash. It also wasn't a terrible crash relative to my friend Sean who, for the second year in a row at this same race, crashed HARD going over the railroad ties. He landed on his head, and actually cracked his helmet. He didn't know it at the time and finished the race much dazed.

We packed up and headed back to the city during the 1-2-3s race. We like to support the 4s racers (and I usually like to take pictures), but we all had commitments that evening. We exchanged race stories, and talked about the next big adventure. Somewhere in our future is a killer gravel road race.