Most of what I wrote in the first couple paragraphs last year's Barry-Roubaix wrap-up remained true this year. The Barry-Roubaix is the boogieman that scares me outside into bitter cold to face snow and wind when it would be so much easy to stay inside and snuggle with my beautiful wife. (She is much better at snuggling than I am at racing bikes). This year, I took a couple of weeks off after the State Championships, and told my wife I was going to do the Rapha Festive 500 to kick off my Barry training. I rode 60 miles on Christmas day, and came down with a sore throat and upper respiratory infection the next. I was off the bike until the 6th of January.
Despite this setback, I still put in 400 miles during Janaury. That was more than I had ridden in all but three months in 2014. I continued to ride the "Gravel-We-don't-need-no-stinking-gravel" training route and the 20 minute intervals to the west, but I also created a new route. I drew a 20 miles loop that threaded it's way through the residential streets of my small suburb.
There were two advantageous features of this new route. First, I was never more than 1.5 miles from home. So no matter how cold it was, if something went wrong, I could always walk home. That gave me greater confidence to be out in colder weather. Second, there were more than 1,300ft of climbing with three climbs that hit 19-20% grades. To give it a point of reference, that's about the same amount of climbing in the 45 mile "Don't-need-no-stinking-gravel" route, whose steepest climb is the infamous "Wall" in Bull Valley which tops out at about 17% grade. I dubbed it my "#secrettrainingride", and rode it at least once a week. It wasn't a particularly fun route to ride. Most of the descents ended in stop signs or blind intersections. It was slow going (typically averaged 14-15mph) on my winter training bike, a 24-lb Specialized Tri-cross with full fenders. But it wasn't about feeling fast, it was about getting stronger by focusing on an area of weakness...climbing.
By the time Barry-Roubaix came this year, I had 1,156 miles in with 49,258 ft of climbing. Less than 20 of those miles were inside, and close to a thousand of those miles were in sub-freezing temps. There were a couple of "warm" weekends where sunshine drove the thermometer into the 30s and 40s, and we did make a trip to Georgia for Southern Cross (where it rained and was in the 40s). So when the 10-day forecast for Barry predicted temps in the low to high 20s for the entire time of the 62 mile race, I knew I was ready.
Being able to exercise in the cold is not just about mental toughness. Anthropological research on cold shows that the body's reaction to cold exposure changes with repeated exposure to cold. The below graph shows how skin temperature fluctuates when submerged in ice water. There's an immediate drop, then a rebound. Repeated exposure reduces the time it takes for this rebound to occur, increases the temperature of the rebound, and increases the pain-threshold for cold. The body also deactivates sweat glands to reduce the sweat rate and changes capillary blood flow, pulling them deeper to reduce surface heat loss.
It takes about 10 days of cold exposure (i.e., suffering) before the human body starts to adapt to the cold. My strategy was to be dressed lightly enough to be chilly during the 15 minutes (see above) as the temperature of extremities dropped, but to keep my skin temp above freezing after the rebound. Note, I did not say "to keep my hands warm". If I wanted to stay warm, I stayed inside. I wanted to finish my ride without doing any lasting damage to my skin or body, and to adapt my body and my mind to tolerating the cold. My goal was to be ready for whatever Barry county Michigan has to offer in late March.
On these early training rides, I would also carry an addition warm layer like a jacket and thicker gloves in a shoe bag for when skin temperature started to drop after the 80 to 90 minute mark. I could then add layers as needed mid-ride, or get my hands to actually be warm again. I have a good pair of winter cycling boots (Specialized Defrosters), and would always, on rides longer than an hour, use a chemical toe-warmer so keeping my feet warm wasn't much of an issue. By the time February rolled around I was going out without the additional layers. I still carried with me a pair of gloves that were warmer than the uninsulated full-fingered gloves I started the ride with, but I rarely used them. I knew exactly what I needed to stay warm for pretty much any ride in any conditions, and my hands were well adapted to the cold. I also had my log from 2014. I kept track of my clothing choices, temperature, and weather conditions for every ride I went on in 2014. This served as a handy reference when things got cold again.
Two days before Barry, I was kitting up for my last training ride, and was simultaneously trying to figure out in my head what to wear on that day (36 and overcast), and also what to wear on Saturday (20 and sunny). I drew a small diagram on a piece of scratch paper, and jotted down my thoughts about what to wear at Barry so I could focus on that Thursday's weather. Morleigh Instagrammed a photo of it, which lead to a slew of comments and feedback on my FB feed. I chuckled to myself. I was confident that I had my wardrobe, and pretty much everything else about this event, dialed in.
So after I got home from that last training ride on Thursday night, we packed our bags. We loaded the rental car on Friday morning, and set off for Michigan with only one thing on my race-checklist that not yet checked off.
I needed a bike.
My Asylum Muese cyclocross bike was still in the shop. It turned out the list of damage from four hours of mud and grit at Southern Cross was more than just a cleaning. The headset bearings needed to be removed and re-greased, the bottom bracket had seized up and the bearings there needed to be replaced, and one of the rear wheel bearings had also seized up, snapping into pieces when Justin tried to remove it. But the guys at Johnny Sprockets had it all put back together and looking as sexy as ever when we swung by to pick it up on Friday morning. Unfortunately our friend Chernoh, who we also usually picked up in the city on Friday, had some personal matters to attend to and drove up on his own Friday afternoon.
Mor and I arrived in Hasting at about 5pm local time. I picked up the packets for Chernoh and I, and then we and I went out on the course in the car to scout locations for her to shoot on Saturday. She handles most of the camera work at this kind of event because I'm generally focused on the bike. We ended up droving most of the first 17 miles of the course and getting a really good sense of the course conditions. The first eight miles are key, because historically-speaking the worst roads on the course (Goodwill Rd, S Whitmore Rd, W Sager Rd., and Otis Lake Rd) are all in the first quarter of the race. On Friday they were in the best condition I had ever seen them in. They were hard, fast, and smooth with very little loose gravel on top of the frozen hard-pack. Short of an overnight deluge, it was going to be a very fast race.
We followed Gun Lake Rd, down to Mullen Rd, and made our way back north to the east end of the Sager Rd climb. Rick, the event organizer, had sent out an email on Thursday announcing that this section of road, which we have bi-passed for the last two races, was once again "in play." We parked the car, and walked back in to check out the course conditions. There were some deep ruts, which could be dangerous if you got caught in one, but at every point of the climb there were at least 2 or 3 lines which were smooth, fast, grippy, and wider than many single-track trails. In other words, course conditions were "I probably should have brought my road bike" good. Or as Paolo from the Bonebell said "It was 62 miles of hero dirt".
Morleigh and I scoped some shooting positions, I broke off a few branches and removed debris from the trail, and then we headed back to the car. I changed into my practice kit, and made plans with Morleigh to meet back at the hotel. I road down Sager Rd and found nothing but smooth sailing on file treads at 55psi. I turned around and climbed back up the steepest part to check traction on an ascent and had no issues at all. I was happy with my tread choice, and made my way back to the hotel where we had dinner, met up with Chernoh, and went over our plans for shooting and riding.
I was amped and struggled to fall asleep on Friday night. Midnight came and went well before I was asleep, and Saturday morning came very early. We were at breakfast when it opened at 7AM, cars loaded and on our way before 8AM. We arrived in Hastings, and immediately set out to get bikes ready, and get everything I needed for the beginning and end of the race out of the car so Morleigh could be free to shoot and not have to worry about making her way back to Hastings for my finish. Our friends Rick and Mary Ann from Team Intent were kind enough to offer up some space in their tent, so I dropped a few bags there, and went out to warm up. As per usual I toured the town of Hastings a bit, and as I came back past the starting gate I was admonished by the timing official for the way I had wrapped my number plate around my steerer tube, and not to my handlebars. Shortly there after I beamed with pride (and Morleigh with horror) as an announcement was made over the PA reminding everyone that they had to attach their number plate to their handlebars. That was MY scofflaw announcement. Despite the fact that everything I know about electromagnetism and RFID chips tells me that it didn't matter whether the tag was pressed closely to carbon fiber or not, I complied. During the race I did see at least two other people with improperly hung number placards, one wrapped like mine around the steerer tube, and the other hanging provocatively from underneath the saddle. It turns out both were scored appropriately.
It was about 9:35-9:40AM when riders started queuing up in the starting grid. I cut my warm up a few minutes short to grab a good spot. I did some leg-swings along the fence to finish my warm-up, and then made small talk and banter with my fellow competitors (one of whom was actually riding a road bike with 24mm slicks). At 10AM when the leaders rolled out and we surged down Green Street I was in the fourth row, right where I wanted to be.
As we were pre-driving the course the night before, Morleigh asked me, "How long are you going to stay with the leaders?" I told her where I had fallen into no-man's-land the last couple of years (2013 = The Third Sister, 2014 = Hubble Rd climb), and that I hoped to make it a little farther than either of those two places.
As the peloton rolled out of Hasting, I held a good position on the left side, hugging the painted yellow centerline. A few careless gentlemen made the false assumption that both lanes were closed to traffic and were passing on my left. They were quite startled by the first of a couple oncoming cars, and sandwiched in ahead and behind me. It turns out the streets were not completely closed to traffic. We made the left hand turn onto Cook and despite being "unleashed" continued to roll at a reasonable pace up the pavement. It was not accidental that I was on the left side of the peloton because in past years, once we hit Cook Rd the field has started to rotate clockwise because no one wanted to pull. When I was on the right or in the middle, I found myself pushed further backwards than I liked as we approached the first Sister. This year as we came upon the "Pavement ends" sign, and the right turn onto Yeakley Rd, the field was still rotating clockwise, and I found myself in a novel position. I was within the top 10, and had an opportunity that I had never had before. So I did what any mid-pack cat 3 would do, I attacked.
With a few hard pedal strokes around the right hand corner, I was in the front of the field, surging downhill, and was the first rider of the day to hit gravel. For a brief moment in time, for the first and possibly last time in my life, I was winning the whole damn thing. If only I could have held on for another 60.5 miles. (Spoiler alert - I couldn't).
Unfortunately the course turned uphill. My 150m gap evaporated into nothing, and the entire field exploded past me and up the first Sister. But not quite. It was a combination of me being a little bit stronger than in years past, and the field being a little bit more reserved than in years past. I was able to keep up with the leaders over the first two sisters staying solidly in the top quarter of the field. As we crested the second Sister, my legs were burning, and I didn't know if I would be able to hold on to the leaders up and over the Third Sister. I coasted down, took as many deep breaths as I could to slow my heart rate, and then got ready to give it everything I had left to hang on.
And then two miraculous things happened. First, instead of getting out of their saddles and hammering, the leading edge of the knife blunted. It seemed that everyone sat down and started to spin, forming a shoulder-to-shoulder line across the width of the road. It appeared that no one wanted to take the lead up the hill into the NW wind. This allowed me the moment I needed to get my legs underneath me and hold onto the field for a while longer. Second, David Lombardo did what I can only dream of doing. He attacked, and held it for more than a few seconds. (Spoiler alert - for 60.5 miles).
I made it over the Third Sister with the leaders. That was a major personal victory for me. The field was starting to get dangerously strung out at this point, so there was no time to celebrate. I stood up into my pedals, and flew down the next hill making up spots and trying to reattach myself more solidly to the core. When we reached the next climb up Hubble Rd, either I was stronger than expected, or the field did not attack as hard as in previous years, but I was able to keep the elastic from snapping once more. I remembered from last year, that when I crested the hill on Hubble Rd., I could see the whole lead pack had already made the turn east onto Goodwill Rd. This year the leaders were just 10 second in front of me on the descent, and there was a lone rider heading east on Goodwill Rd. I didn't know who it was at the time, but David Lombardo was so far out in front it didn't seem possible that he had even started with us. He looked like some Pro out on a training ride who just happened to be using the same roads.
It's not that I wasn't hurting, or that I didn't lose time on that climb, but all that mattered at that moment that I was still close enough to reel myself back on during the subsequent descent. There ahead of me I recognized a kit similar to one of my own. "Is that Brad M?" I yelled as I pulled up next to him. He said that he had been trying to catch me since the start of the race. Funny because I had been trying to catch him for a few minutes. He passed me on the 3rd Sister and didn't realize it.
For the next six miles the field hummed along as a massive body of 60 some riders strung out over 20-30 seconds. As previously noted, this was the part of the course where for the last two years the ruts and potholes caused a massive loss of water bottles and the fields to shatter into tiny groups. This year, the road was smooth. There was no brake-checking to create a gap for the lead 10, we all hummed along as a giant mass. My wife cheered and snapped photos as we made our way past a small pond on Goodwill Rd. David Lombardo had been through 35 seconds earlier.
Don't get me wrong, this mid-pack Cat 3 was still working hard, but not nearly as hard as in the past two years when I was already in no-man's land by this stretch of road. Then I was reconnecting with teammates and trying to form some sort of chase group with shellshocked survivors. This year I was flying with the leaders with a big stupid grin on under my Cold Avenger Pro. We were going so fast that when we turned north on Otis Lake Rd, despite the 5mph wind from the North, the leaves were blowing to the north, being sucked up in our wake as we went by like a semi-truck howling down the highway. But all good things must come to an end, and so to came an end to that free-ride. When we made the left onto Gun Lake Rd, we also approached the biggest climb in the race. It was here that the field attacked, and despite a valiant effort, out of the saddle pushing a big gear, I hit the wall, the rubber band snapped, and I lost contact with the leaders. But all was not lost, there was still 49 miles of racing to be done.
So I grouped up with another Chicago native, Paul H from Jus de Orange, and someone else I didn't know, and we struggled up the climb together. There was another threesome about 20 seconds ahead of us, and their was a collective understanding that it would be better for everyone if we could catch the group and form up a chase group of 6 of us. It took a few miles of effort on pavement, but once we hit the gravel again, we caught up and started rotating through as a group of 6. We were all shellshocked, and took turns pulling, but the leaders quickly faded into the distance. We saw them for the last time when we made the turn onto Gun Lake Rd. They disappeared around a bend and were gone for good. So we focused on recovering a bit, getting our legs back under us, and mentally preparing for the infamous Sager Rd climb. I had just been there yesterday, but it had been a few years since I've actually ridden up it (2012) so I had kind of forgotten how short it is. As previously noted the conditions were really good, so the whole thing went by in a flash. I remembered to say "Hi" to my wife as we blew by, and she cheered us on from behind the camera lens.
Morleigh captured photos of more than a few riders laying in ruts, but there were no real issues in our chase group. I pulled to the left when someone bobbled, and attacked to keep us moving, but the six of us were still pretty much all together by the time we turned right on McKibben Rd, and we had even picked up a couple more refugees. We were a group of eight now in what may have been the second or maybe third chase group.
As we crested the top of the hill on McKibben Rd I found myself having this conversation in my head.
"Congratulations! You've made it over all of the big climbs in this race."
to which another part of my brain replied.
"Hey idiot. You forgot about the Killer."
But I was with a group of eight strong guys, and as we descended on the flats I suggested, and got concensus, that we set a moderate pace on the way to the Killer, re-group at the top, and then start to hammer in an organized fashion. So that's what we did. We kept a good pace, but were not flogging ourselves as we made our way towards the Killer. I kept looking back for chase groups, and there was no one in our rear view. That was the second sign that I was having a good day. In the past two iterations of the Barry Roubaix, the leaders of the second wave had passed me just after making the turn onto Mullen Rd. I had never made it to the Killer without having been absorbed by, and subsequently dropped by those ladies, gentlemen, and occasional single-speeder.
When we reached S. Head Rd., we slammed into the middle of the 24 mile racers making their way toward the Killer. Now that we weren't alone, the 8 of us picked up the pace a little bit, making our way alongside the long line of Chillers. There was some definitely some "make way for the leaders" swagger as we hit the base of the steep climb, and we all were out of the saddle trying to put on a good show. Secretly in the back of my mind, I was just hoping that they would wait for me a bit at the top. It turned out that I was able to hold my own with the group I was in. We were spread out a bit, but I did not get dropped on the Killer as I had in the past. Another sign that things were going well. We re-grouped at the top, and were catching our breath on the way down Head Lake Rd, when a new rider pulled past. First one, then two, then three. I recognized Chris Lombardo, and I called out that it was the leaders of the second wave, and that we should grab on if we can. We had made it past the Killer before being caught. Yet another good sign. So I did what I did the previous two years, I tried to grab on to this group and hold on for as long as I can. Then something strange happened. They sat up.
At first, it was great. Here I was holding with the leaders of the second wave. The year before I was only able to do that until the first hill, and then I was unceremoniously shot out the back. This year, we were going at pace in which I could even muster the oxygen to mutter a few words to the guys I knew. I said "Hi" to Chris Lombardo, told him David was looking strong when I last saw him (although I didn't realize how strong until after the race). I said "Good day" to Lucas Siebel who was up front doing major work on his SS. But when we hit Cloverdale, and my heart rate dropped into the low 120s that I started to get a little worried. The 40plus guys weren't concerned about it, but I was worried about being caught from behind by other riders from the first wave. If they could catch onto my gravy train, it could cost me places at the end of the race. I decided to take matters into my own hands, and moved to the front to start trying to pull things along. Faster would be better. So I moved to the front, and started to do what I thought was a little bit of work to pick up the pace. When I turned around again, for the second time in the race, I was 200m off the front of a large group and no one was behind me. No one ever takes seriously the attack from the mid-pack Cat 3. At that moment, I probably just should have put my head down, and gone as hard as I could. Instead, I soft pedaled into the next hill on Cloverdale Rd and got soaked back up by the surging field, and then struggle to recover as the field then decided to attack.
Even though I was very worried about hanging on, I was able to keep connection with this now large group of 40-50 riders. About this time, in almost as impressive fashion as David Lombardo, Paul S from the Pony Shop took of on a flier of his own. He pulled away on climb, looked back at the top, and then he was gone. He opened up a gap and before long was completely out of sight. Meanwhile, as I had feared, another group from the first wave had caught us, as Andrew H from Tuxedo Thunder and a few other new riders started to mix into this peloton. It was what it was, and all I could do at this point was hang on. I worked when I had to work, I recovered when everyone else was recovering. In other words I played the game that is road racing.
I continued to take the Salt Stick capsules off my handlebar one by one, every 45 minutes to an hour, continued to sip from my tube of homemade energy gels every 20-30 minutes, and drink nutrient-laden water as much as I could. Thankfully the temperatures rose above freezing by the mid-point of the ride, and the sunshine was quite pleasant so the more relaxed pace did not equate getting cold it could have. I could feel that my belly was a little cold, but my legs, arms, fingers, head, and face were comfortable the whole race. I could feel how much a difference the Cold Avenger Pro made whenever I pulled it down for nutrients. It also kept a lot of road grit out of my mouth. It is still the best piece of winter cycling gear I own.
There was one weird thing that kept happening during this part of the race. Every once and a while I would get the feeling that I didn't have sunglasses on anymore. I'm not certain if it was the cold, the grit, or the lack of oxygen in my brain, but a few times I instinctively reached up to the back of my helmet to grab them and put them on, and then realized that they were still on.
The second half of the Barry course, the part after Cloverdale, is perpetually fuzzy in my mind. I have always had a Garmin on my bar so I knew where the turns were, but I was never zoomed out far enough to know exactly where we were on the course. There were certain places that were familiar, certain climbs I recognized, but I couldn't really point to where they are on a map as I can with the features from first half. The Three Sisters are right here, the Killer is right there, and this is Sager Rd. The second half is always a blur. This is the spot where Chernoh rode away in 2012. This is where Mike Palmer passed me. Here is where I pulled away from Joe last year, but I couldn't point to any of those spots on the map and say "this is where X happened". That blur was even fuzzier this year because of the disorientation that comes from riding in a pack. It requires such attention and vigilance on the immediate surroundings, the beautiful scenery gets lost in making certain that wheels don't overlap and that you don't fall into a pothole that everyone else swerved around.
It was like that until mile 48. We were coming up on one of my favorite descents, and again the field was sitting up, just coasting down the hill at 18mph. At this point in time, the yo-yo efforts were starting to get to me. I much rather prefer to ride how I train. Set my heart rate at 155-160 and keep it there. This fast-slow-fast pacing was not to my liking, but I kept reminding myself that on average I was going faster with less effort that I would be able to alone. But we reached S. Broadway St., and were coasting down one of the largest descents, and people were braking, I had to do something. I moved to the left, took 5 hard pedal strokes, got my speed up to 30 mph, and then coasted the rest of the way down for 3/4 of a mile. Again, the field did not follow, and I opened up another gap. I didn't do it to get away, I did it because I really like going fast down that hill. It's one of my favorite descents on the course. It turned out to also be my last hurrah with that group, because over the next two hills, the field surged just as my energy was waining. There were a couple of really steep punchy climbs, and I didn't have the legs left to cover the attack. I found myself alone in no-man's-land again at mile 50. I didn't really think that I had kept my goal of finishing in the top 50, but I was not giving up. There were still hundreds of riders behind me, all of whom wanted my spot. I took a few hundred yards to compose myself. I tried pulling a fig-bar from my stem-bag, but when I put it in my mouth it was frozen and too dry to chew and swallow. The feeling of solid food in my mouth at that moment turned my stomach, so I spat the un-masticated bar onto the gravel. I ripped the last salt stick off my handlebars, finished an energy gel, and yelled in my mind to the riders behind, "If you want this spot, come and get it", and attacked the emptiness.
I was in no-man's-land, but I wasn't alone. I could see some other riders ahead, so I put my head down and started to try to reel them in. When I passed the first one, I encouraged him to "Grab a wheel" as I went by, but he wasn't in a position to do so, and I continued on alone. At mile 51 I passed my wife, dropping an empty bottle of nutrients, so I could take a bottle of water out of a back pocket and actually start to drink it. Riding in the peloton had prevented me from being able to comfortably and safely make a seat-tube to rear-pocket bottle exchange. Seeing wife allowed me the opportunity to jettison an empty fuel tank, and re-hydrate.
There was a group of three riders, including Paul H from Jus de Orange, just 14 seconds ahead of me when I dropped this bottle. I kept the ax to the grindstone and caught up with them in the next couple of miles. There were just a few more punchy climbs between mile 55 and the finish. We separated a bit as I blew up on one of them, then came back together as someone else blew up on the next. When we hit Quimbly Rd, I knew we were close to the finish, as we crashed into racers from the 36-mile and 24-mile race. There was a definite jolt of energy that came from knowing, even though we weren't with the leaders, we had ridden twenty more miles than these these folks, and were in exactly the same place. We could also almost smell the last stretch of pavement that lead into town. In my head, I was already hardening up for the last few miles. There was going to be a battle amongst the now five riders who were clumped together, and I wanted to win that sprint. The game was on.
We took turns pulling, continuing to rotate, and even as we approached the final climb into town no one was able to make a decisive move. On the descent, I took some hard pedal strokes into the lead and then started to coast and recover for what was certainly going to be a final sprint. Paul H pulled around me, and tucked into an aero position, and I glued myself into his wake. Then disaster struck. Clank! We hit an invisible pothole, and it drove my rear tire into my rim, cutting my tube. Within less than a second the tire was completely flat and I was riding on just the rubber + rim. What do I do? In my head I immediately started to do the math. I was less than a mile from the finish. It would take 5 minutes at least to change the flat. This video flashed in my mind.
The plan of action became clear.
It's only a rim. Ride until you can't ride, then run until you can't run.
So I rode. Needless to say, the rear wheel did not corner well, and handling was sketchy at best. I was able to moderate my speed through the four 90 degree corners and continue riding in. I was so gentle and smooth with my lines that I did not even pull the bead off the rim. Unfortunately there was no glorious sprint to beat Paul at the finish. I got passed by a guy in the final 100m, but I rode across the line in 62nd place with a time of 3:15:23. It was less than 3 minutes off my personal best, which was set in 2011 when it was 30 degrees warmer.
Paul H finished 60th just behind Andrew from Cyclocross Magazine at 3:14:40 and 3:14:41 respectively. So I figure the flat tire only cost me about 43 seconds and maybe three places at most. Had I stopped? One minute would have cost me 10 places. Stopping for 3 minutes would have cost me 17 places. I carried my bike back to the Intent tent, changed the tube, and then went and did my cool down.
As previously noted, it was not my best time at Barry, that was set in 2011 at 3:12:xx, but it was my best overall placing. Perhaps the biggest win was that I was able to finish the race without cramping. Yes, I got tired, got dropped, but not because I was cramping. It feels like I'm starting to get the hang of this endurance stuff.
That's good. Because my first 100 mile mountain bike race is only 3 months away.