Thursday, September 25, 2014

The triple double - Part 2

It was a short week. I worked on Monday and Tuesday, and Wednesday morning we loaded up the car and headed north towards Hayward.  We stopped in Madison for lunch at a cute little cafe called Manna, Wisconsin Dells for shopping at the outlet mall, and in Eau Claire to try on cowboy hats and have an Orange Julius.  I have two sets of Uncles and Aunts who have houses on the same Lake southeast of Hayward, and we met both of them for dinner at a small bar/grill in Stone Lake.  We went back to Del and Nancy's cabin, and settled in for the night. 

The next day we slept in late, exhausted from the drive.  I got up and started to get ready for a training ride, and Morleigh wanted to use that time to explore Hayward.  She had never been.  I spent some time staring at maps, and found what appeared to be a lovely 37 mile loop that headed in roughly a square, 9 miles south, 9 miles east, 9 miles north, and 9 miles back to the west. When I set out at 1pm it was very cool, about 30 degrees cooler than my last ride. It was certainly a shock to the system. 

The ride was beautiful. I had found some abandon roads that run parallel to the new highway. The road was cracking pavement and the trees were overlapping over the road making a lush green tunnel.  On one section I startled and immature bald eagle from a perch in the tree, and he swooped down in the tunnel, a bit of flesh dangling from his talon, and he flew down the tunnel slowly ahead of me about 15 ft off the ground, and maybe 50 yds ahead.  He let me follow him closely for maybe 10 seconds before finding a gap and swooping up out of the canopy. 

The stretch of the route running east was on a bicycle trail which was a converted rail bed.  The gravel was wet from the previous night's rain, and slow going.  It was simultaneously rough from the large irregular stones, and soft.  The lubrication provided by moisture allowed the wheel to sink in deep.  It was rough going. Eventually I got tired of slogging through the wet and mud, and jumped back off the trail onto the highway.

The north leg was notable only for the unexpected glacial moraine that I was climbing up and into. The first two legs paralleled rivers, and were cut flat, but the third leg scrambled up, and up, over some steep undulations.  My path back west was meant to be my prep for the Fat tire fest, a long gavel fire road that cut horizontally across the Lacout Orelles reservation.  The ground continued to undulate, but the net was definitely downhill as I headed back west. I was making very good time until I dropped down one steep hill into a wide flat valley, maybe a mile from end to end, and saw the road disappear under a tranquil blanket of water.  As I looked ahead, wondering how deep it really was, I could see along both sides of the road the tops of the vegetation growing on the margins of the road.  It was about knee high grass and shrubs, and looking at the topography of trees and the adjacent hills, I felt pretty confident that the water was at it's deepest 18-20 inches.  The water was clear, but had the color of cherry cola from by the vegetation and mineral content. I could see the gravel as I approached the edge of the puddle so I kept rolling slowly on my bike. 

Eventually I pulled out my camera (while riding) got it out of it's waterproof case, and help it in one hand as I continued to ride.  The scene was surreal, and the video captures some of that.

I had to dismount in the middle of the video because the top of the water was finally approaching the bottom of my bottom bracket.  I know the bearings are sealed, but I have learned from past misadventures that "sealed" is not "submergable". The water was cold. When I got to the far side my feet were numb, and there was a car approaching from the far side of the lake.  I stopped to wave him back, and then continued on my way.  I made it off the fire road without further incident, and onto another road which was a little more "improved."  It was still gravel, but wider and more recently graded.  As I rolled over the top of a random hill I saw a black spot along the should of the road.  I immediately recognized it as something out of place, something different.  I had a feeling I knew what it was so I started to reach for my camera so I could take video as I rolled past.  As soon as I got my hand back, to my rear pocket a car, the oncoming car I had seen since leaving pavement, rolled over the next hill.  Sure enough, as the car approached the black spot on the other side of the valley it turned an ran back into the woods.  The clear and distinct profile of a black bear lumbering into the foliage. 

I returned back to the Cabin, and shared my accomplishments.  My wife had a great time exploring Hayward, and we grilled out dinner with my Aunts and Uncle's again. 

Friday we spent the day resting, and preparing. We went to town and did some shopping for some vital clothing I was foolish to leave at home including warmer socks and knee warmers.  We then made our way out to the course, and drove the route from Hayward to Cable, so I could get a sense of what lay in store, and so Morleigh could get a sense of where she wanted to stage herself for photos.  We found many of the fire roads onto which the course had been re-routed, and actually were able to drive a significant amount of the course. We ended up at registration, got my number and our media passes, and headed back to the cabin.  We stopped at a very nice restaurant (we even got a relish tray and a candy dish to bookend our meal) on the way back to the cabin, and then made final preparations and went to bed.

The alarm was set for 4:15AM.  We woke up that early so we could head into town and place our bikes in the staging grid when it opened at 5AM.  We arrived in town at 5:05AM and there were already a few bikes queued up.  We flipped Stumpy upside down, and then tried to figure out if we were going to stay in town, or head back to the cabin.  We ended up heading to the Norske Nook, a local Norwegian-themed restaurant, and sitting in the parking lot for 40 minutes snoozing waiting for them to open.  We had a nice breakfast, and chuckled to ourselves when we overheard the group at the table patting themselves on the back for being up so early, and how no one would have their bikes out when they went to the starting grid after breakfast.  We finished our meal, and headed back to the starting line.  The sun was coming up, and the area was starting to bustle with activity. Morleigh grabbed the camera, and I ended up helping some of the volunteers hang banners over the staging area.  Eventually it was close enough to the start of the event to start warming up. I had put my mountain bike in staging, so I used my CX bike to warm up. I got some funny looks and questions about my choice of ride, but assured everyone who asked that I had no intention of riding the course on a cross bike. 

The last half hour passed quickly.  The ghost bike patrol started their work at precisely 9:30AM and the no-rider bikes at 9:45AM. At 10AM the cannon sounded, and we were off.  I wish there was more of an opportunity to savor that moment, of being in a throng of 2,100 mountain bikers rolling down a small city street, but my eyes and attention were laser-focused on the seething mass of wheels around me, avoiding, merging, passing, surging.  The first turn was to the left, then back to the right. The divided high-way split the field and I positioned myself towards the inside.  You can actually pick me on the areal drone footage, as I used the median as a highway to squeeze pass some people when it faded from elevated bank to just some rumble strips.  It was as soon as we turned that corner that the race was on. 

Within seconds we were flying east along WI Hwy 77 at 30mph. It was at least 5 minutes above 25mph. My eyes started to roll back into my head and my heart felt like it was going to explode.  There was a crash 3/4 of the way to Rosie's field, the start of the actual off-road part of the race, but it was far enough ahead of me and to my right that I was able to flow outside onto the shoulder to get around it without being caught up in it.  We made it to Rosie's field, I saw Morleigh taking photos on the right side of the course, and then I blew up climbing the hill. I wasn't done racing by any stretch of the imagination, but I definitely settled into a pace heading up the hill that was slower than the group I had been riding with. I lost maybe 50 or 60 spots as riders swarmed up from behind. Once we made it into the more undulating part of the course I was able to recover and match speed with the field I was riding with.  The big concern was a course re-route at mile 4-5 around a large puddle that race organizers warned could cause bottlenecks.  I was hoping to get there before the masses piled into the narrowing and jammed up.  We didn't have any issues, the field had already narrowed into a single file line by the time we hit the puddle, and we navigated around it without issue. 

A few miles up the road, at mile 6 we made it to the first road crossing, and re-routed out onto the long stretch of gravel.  At this point, two things happened.  First, my lungs started to "wheeze" as they are sometimes prone to do when exercising in cold air, and second my friend from SpiderMonkey, Johnny5, came up on wheel.  He said "Hey, grab my wheel and let's go", and I would have liked to gone with him, but I was reduced to nasal breathing trying to get my lungs to relax, and had no gas to accelerate.  He disappeared with a wave of other riders, and I sat in with the group I was with, hoping to hold on.  Only 31 miles remaining.  From here on in it was suffering and pain.  My wrist, which had been giving me problems for weeks, locked up to the point where I was doing descents at 20-25mph on rough gravel roads and couldn't grip the handlebar with my left hand.  My back too, started to lock up as it became the main shock absorber over the rocky and rut-filled fire road.  I was in a group of riders I did not know or recognize, except for Abby Strigel, who for some reason was racing on the back of a tandem with another woman.  We were riding in the same pack for almost 30 miles.  They pulled ahead at times, and dropped chains and fell back, but we spent a lot of time near on another. 

The big obstacle of the event is the infamous Fire-tower climb.  The trail jumps 211 vertical feet in .44 miles.  I hadn't seen the hill before, except on video, so I wasn't certain what it would be like.  It took me about 5 minutes of granny-gear spinning, but I was able to ride the whole hill which in and of itself is an accomplishment and not a guarantee.  At the top of the hill they said it was all downhill from there.  They lied.  It turned out there were two more big hills to cross.  At this point though I was in survival mode, focusing my effort not on speed, but on continuing effort.  In the last few miles another group of riders caught up to me, including Kelly from Psimet and the rider from Higher Gear who finished 3rd in my category the week before.  I would have liked to hang on with that group of riders, but this is where being a first timer hurt me.  I didn't know the course well enough to appropriately ration my effort.  Could I really burn a match on this small climb, or was it the start of another big climb?  I wasn't certain so ended up being a little more conservative that I probably needed to be.  But as I was heading up what turned out to be the last hill, my quads started to cramp. I had managed my energy and sodium very well, and powered down the hill as the big-top tent came into view.  I was able to get back two more spots on the sprint to the finish, and was so happy to see my beautiful wife standing there at the finish waiting for me.  It was most definitely the best part of my whole day. 

The course modifications due to rain meant the course was shorter than it had been in previous years.  The official distance was 39.5 miles, but that must have been measured to the center of the course.  My Garmin only showed 37.5 miles ridden, in just over 2:25:54 which was well ahead of my goal of finishing within the qualifying time for my start-gate (2:31:00 - 2:46:00).  I was happy with it.  My overall place was 267th which doesn't sound all that good, until you learn there were more than 1,800 finishers.  The winner, Brian Matter, finished in a blazing 1:59 (first time winner was under 2hrs) and my friend Johnny was about 15 minutes ahead of me.  Despite the wrist and back pain, it was a great weekend. 

The next morning we were up early again, and on the road.  We stopped for hot chocolates and gas in Eau Claire, lunch in Madison, and in Lake Geneva to race.  The weather when we got there was amazing, the field was large and full of friendly faces, and it promised to be a great race.  My race was the last of the day, so we got to watch the Pro Cat1/2 women and single speeds battle it out.  Hey, there's Abby Strigel...totally winning her race.  Sadly, even though we spent most of Saturday together doing the same thing, I would not be winning mine. 

I had finished out the previous year very strong in the CCC, with low enough points to end up on the front row at staging.  I didn't get the hole shot, but was in 4th place as we rounded the first corner, and was able to hold that position through some of the early twisty turns.  But at the first slight uphill straight-away, the field started to surge around me.  A couple guys here, a couple guys there.  I made it over the barriers still in good position, but by the time we got to the bottom of the course, my inital salvo had been fired, and the long gradual gravel climb was once again my demise.  I couldn't put much power into the pedals, so I downshifted and spun my way to the top.  Meanwhile, the field surged by. 

But I knew it was going to be hard to come and race with less than 100% of capacity, so I just gave 100% of what I had.  I worked on maintaining speed through the corners, trying to get good lines and maintain speed.  I had settled into a position in the middle of the field, some riders in front that I was trying to keep up with, and a few riders behind that I knew I didn't want to catch me.  It wasn't a smooth race.  I dropped my chain twice.  The first time was in lap 3 while running up the hill after the double barriers.  The first lap I remounted quickly at the bottom and rode up, but didn't have the legs to do that every time.  I don't remember what I did to dislodge my chain off my front chain ring, but I did remember, while racing, about a cyclocross clinic that started by having people practice putting chains back on by using the front derailleur.  So while running up the hill, I used one hand on the right hood to work the derailleur and the other on the pedal to turn the crank, and was able to pop my back chain on whilst running up the hill. 

The other time I lost my chain it was in the rear on the second to last lap.  I was battling with Steve Shaffer from Village Verdigris for 22nd place, and my chain jumped over my cassette into my spokes as I was powering up the hill. I had to dismount to get it out, and when I looked up Steve was gone.  I thought I might be able to catch him, but his last lap was something like 17seconds faster than his previous lap.  I could not keep up with him, so instead, I did the most foul and evil thing you can do when racing.  I started looking over my shoulder.  I started racing not to get the spot ahead of me, but to avoid losing my current spot.  But it had been a long weekend, so I attacked the hill, and spun my way through everything else.  The fellow behind me closed in to where he was entering the sand while I was leaving, but I was able to power into the finish without having to contest a sprint.  I took a few laps, gave some high-fives and atta-boys, showered, and went to Tuscan's for the second weekend in a row for a lovely dinner before driving home to wash bikes, unload the car, and get ready to repeat one more time. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The triple double, Part 1

I haven't done much writing here in a while. As previously noted, the photography, getting and being married, working, training, and racing has been taking precedence over the writing.  However, I got some positive feedback on the blog this weekend (i.e., I heard tell that someone was actually reading it), so I figured it would be worth while to jot down some notes about my season thus far.

The official Chicago cyclocross season doesn't begin for another few days, but we at SnowyMountain Photography have been hard at work.  There was the trip to Hawaii, the climb up Haleakala, and a full road season.  Road you say?  Yes. This year instead of racing in the dirt and the hills of Wisconsin, we ended up staying closer to home and risking our lives in the circles of death that are American-style criteriums.  Those are all stories for another day perhaps.  This story is about September of 2014. 

I spent most of the summer ignoring the biggest race of my year, the Chequamegon Fat Tire Festival, a 40 mile point-to-point mountain bike race near my Aunts and Uncles's cabins in Hayward WI.  I applied for the lottery in February, and was selected with 2,100 other people for the full-length race.  Instead of doing what I should have been doing, and spending long hours on my mountain bike, I mostly ignored it.  I can count on one hand the number of times I pulled Stumpy off the wall and rode this summer.

But at the beginning of September it was time to get serious and start planning, and not just this weekend but the entire month.  Looking at the race calendar I saw something disturbing. With a little bit of planning, a few nights in a hotel, we could race six races in three consecutive weekends.  I broached the subject with my wife/coach/partner/love/soigneur/manager hoping she would talk me out of it, and instead she thought it was a great idea.  So we made a plan, and when the time came, we executed. 

My wife suggested we head out to a local park on the way to the gym, and she would spend some time video taping me going over barriers.  I took my bike on a quick loop around the park, and after 3 minutes of riding on grass I had that awful realization that nothing I had been doing for the last 8 months had done anything to prepare me for the start of CX season.  Maybe next summer I need to remember to pull the CX bike and the MTB off the wall a little more often and get dirty.  But I digress.  RelayCX was also a pretty big shocker to the old system.  I got a good placement on the LeMans start, and then proceeded to get passed by almost everyone on the first lap.  Sigh.  Thankfully my partner was able to battle back, and we ended up in 20th place (out of 28 teams).

I had a few days then to ramp up my practices.  I burned in a small loop in the easement behind our house, and rode laps until my wrist hurt so bad I couldn't go any more.  At the Night Bison, I started out hard and ended up alone off the front, and stayed with the lead 10 until an attack at mile 38 fractured us into 6 and 4, then 5 and 3.  I felt pretty good at the end of the ride having covered 53miles of gravel at an average speed of 20.2mph. 

On Saturday the 6th we headed out early on a drive to the first official CX practice in Sheboygan, WI.  The drive up was sunny and uneventful.  We arrived in time to see some of our friends from Chicago race in the women's and SS race, and to pre-ride the course a few times.  It was familiar as I had raced a WORS race in the same park a year earlier, although there was less single track and we stayed entirely on the south-side of the road.  The Eliminator (steep hill) was still part of the course, and as I tried to ride up it the first time, my chain skipped when I stood up to start putting down power.  I went to the bottom, and tried again.  Again my chain slipped. 

I took my bike to SRAM neutral support, and Ben hooked me up with a new chain.  After the next race I went back with my new chain, and tried again.  Less skip, but I still couldn't make it to the top.  I had to dismount just below the crest.  The rest of the course was bumpy and fast with a steep gravelly descent. 

As I was walking out of registration after my final pre-race trip to the rest room, I saw one of the promoters walking out the door with a piece of paper in his hand. I asked him if it was the start-list for the Cat 3 race. He nodded, and I asked him

"How many do we have?"


"Wow, that's really good considering there were only 3 people pre-registered two days ago"

He chuckled.

"Just kidding, there are only eleven." 

"Finally!  A reasonable chance at a top-10 finish in a Cat 3 race." 

With only 11 pre-registered, I wasn't two concerned about staging.  I arrived as other started to gather, we were loaded into the start grid, and we were off.  With my explosive speed off the line, I got the hole shot.  Unfortunately with a gifted teenager or two behind me, I wasn't able to hold it for long.  Morleigh was taking video on what I think was the third lap, and I had already fallen back to sixth.  It was a close 6th, and although I was hurting, it felt like I could maybe recover for a few laps and still contend for a spot on the podium.  Then, on the steep gravelly downhill I got a pinch flat.  I could see the rock coming, triangular like a shark's tooth sticking out of the ground, but at 28mph there was no time to change lines and I hit it hard. I was completely flat by the bottom of the hill, and on foot for probably half the course back to the pit. 

Andy Swartz, father of Caleb who was leading the race, was in the pit and asked me what I needed.  I yelled "mountain bike", and he gave me a puzzled look.  I tossed my cx bike at him as I entered the pit, and ran over to my mountain bike, which I had the foresight to place in the pit. I grabbed my Garmin and went out to finish the race.  I was there for training, so there was no point in getting a DNF.  I was lapped by the leaders shortly after leaving the pit, but I couldn't grab back on and keep pace.  Besides, I had another race tomorrow, there was no point in turning myself inside out trying to make up an entire lap.  I finished the race DFL, 8th place out of 8 finishers with 3 DNFs. Not the way I wanted to start the season. 

We packed up that night and drove back south and stayed in Brookfield, WI.  The next morning we were up early and headed to Lake Geneva for WORS #10, Tredfest.  The goal was to get more time in the saddle, so instead of racing Cat 2 Sport as I did the previous year, I raced the Open Clydesdale category. It was three laps instead of two over a much longer course. This was the 4th year in a row that I was racing the course, so I wasn't too concerned with pre-riding. My main concern was the rock garden which we had been routed around in the sport category.  I got Morleigh set up on top of the hill with chairs, tents, and the cooler, and then went into the woods to run over the rock garden a few times.

I probably should have looked a little more before attempting it to find the right line, but I took a quick glance, and then rode up the trail to come at it with speed.  I made it all the way through the garden unscathed, but then as my wheel dropped out of the garden over the last big rock, my weight came forward and I tumbled over my handlebars onto the ground.  Thankfully I was clear of the rocks, so I landed on dirt and was uninjured.  I picked up my bike, went back to the top and tried it again.  The second time I made it through by taking a slightly different line, and keeping my weight farther back.  Lesson learned.  I didn't want to go all the way down, so I slammed on the brakes before I hit the chute, and ended up stopping and twisting on my front tire, pulling away the bead and losing about 20psi of pressure.  I walked my bike back to the tent, inflated the tire, and went off to warm up.  It was what it was, I was either going to make it or miss it.  The bast strategy, I was advised, was to let it rip.

My race started shortly after the pro race, and while we were in the starting grid we found out that one of the riders in my wave had put up a cash prize for the pro men and women who made it around the first lap the fastest.  Someone asked what we got, and Don, the legendary race organizer said, "Nothing, there are enough sand-baggers in this field already, we're not about to reward any of you for that."  I was certainly not sandbagging. 

When Don yelled "go" to start the race we surged up the hill.  The course started with a straight climb, then wound around and back down, and then up 2 more times in the first half mile.  The last climb was around the back and all the way to the top.  Like the rock garden, the top of the hill was reserved for the pro/comp guys so I had not climbed past the lift-tower before in a race. I was in the back half of my starting wave by the time we hit the second climb. I was able to make up some spots on the third climb, as many guys blew their wads on the first two, even though it's the 3rd that is most important.  At the top of the 3rd you dive into some really fun descending single track, and have time to recover and no time to pass.  If you're fast through the single track, and no one slow is in front of you, it's easy to make up time.  At the start I was only able to identify 4 riders in my category with the "C" written on their number plate.  After the third climb there were two in front and one behind.  I caught up to the first rider as we were heading up the Son of a Butch climb. I could see that I was faster than him in the single track, and he was very tentative through the rock garden.  So I made a move and passed him on the open double track, and tried to open up a gap.  3/4 of the way through the first lap, I started to realize how long 7 miles of single track really was, and I backed off the tempo a bit so I could actually finish all three laps and not blow up too completely. 

It was fun to be on the mountain bike, but neither my back nor my wrist were strong enough for the task at hand.  Both were very sore, and I had to back off the gas even more in the second lap to allow my back time to recover. At the start of the 3rd lap, I caught up with another group of riders, one of whom I recognized from previous years racing WORS.  He was hurting and in the open of the ski runs I could see him free-falling back towards me.  By the time we got to the final climb I was nipping at his heels, and I squeezed by him right before we entered the single track.  I had never beaten this particular rider before (and I really wanted to), so having him behind me gave me a little bit extra on the next two big climbs. 

I don't remember much else about the last lap.  I know I caught up to and lapped a few of the women in the open field.  I know that the top 5 in the men's pro race lapped me.  My back was on fire, my wrist hurt so badly that I was seriously considering going and getting and X-ray, and my arms were tired enough that my handling was getting very sloppy. There was nothing in my legs left to climb, so I spent a lot of time sitting down on climbs and spinning, something I rarely do.  However, I did not see any C's pass me at the end, so I was pretty certain that I had ended up 2nd in my category, and that is how I ended up.  We broke down our encampment, and headed south.