Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Barry-Roubaix VI

So yesterday was my sixth consecutive Barry Roubaix. Every year I've written lengthy blog posts detailing the experience. In revisiting last year's post, I was struck by the complete reversal of fortune between my 2105 and 2016 campaigns. My 2015 post started with a failed attempt at completing the Rapha Festive 500, and then detailed a very successful winter training program. I talked at length about acclimation to cold, and long lonely winter miles. This year I successfully completed the Rapha Festive 500 for the first time, and then my winter training plan was completely derailed. Instead of long cold miles, I spent January, February, and half of March putting in a new kitchen. after a water-heater-flood-while-on-vacation destroyed our old one. In 2015 I had more than 700 miles in January and February. This year? Just over 100 miles in the same time frame.

Last year, when they announced the change in date of Barry from March until April, I groaned aloud. My entire spring gravel schedule softened as organizers of all three races I had done in 2015 (SouthernCross, Barry-Roubaix, Tour of the Battenkill) announced that they were moving each race back a month on the calendar to avoid the sometimes harsh and variable weather that made these events so interesting. But I have to admit, the extra few weeks benefited me greatly this year, as it gave me time to get a solid block of training in to prepare for the event. The 10 day forecast leading up to the event was for sunny conditions and temps in the 70s by mid-day. By far the warmest Barry on record, so all those winter miles would have been for naught anyway.

The biggest block was a five day training camp in Las Vegas with my new team, SpiderMonkey cycling. I rode a personal best 292 miles with 16,000 ft of climbing in five days, finishing with a 91 mile ride across Las Vegas and up into Red Rock canyon, and then back to Henderson. It was a good opportunity to clear out the legs and the mind, and get reconnected with cycling. Instead of looking at Barry Roubaix as my first real training ride of the year, it began to start looking and feeling like a race again.

Well, delusions of a race anyway. As I settled into a training routine back at home that involving my #secrettrainingride and an extended version with added 10 miles and pushed the total amount of climbing over 2,200 ft. As the miles and feet started to accumulate again, I set some very aggressive goals for myself, both process and outcome goals. I wanted to stay with the lead group for longer that I did the year before, I wanted to finish in under 3:15, and I wanted to crack into the top 50 in the Open 62 mile race. So I was less prepared and had more aggressive goals? What could go wrong?

We made a pretty big change in our trip planning this year. Four out of the last five years, I spent the night before the race at the Bay Pointe Inn on Gun Lake. This year, Morleigh wanted to try something different and called the Holiday Inn Express just outside of Hastings and asked if they had any rooms available. They did not. Each year they ask existing guests if they would like to make a reservation for the following year. They were completely booked for 2016 the day after the race in 2015. However, we were 3rd or 4th on the waiting list, and when they called for a cancellation we jumped at the opportunity to stay a few blocks from the start of the race instead of having to drive 20 minutes into town.

Friday we picked up Chernoh in the city, and stopped by Johnny Sprockets to make a last minute change in tires. I knew the race would be hard and fast from the gun with the dry and warm forecast, and I wanted to reduce the width of my tires 38 to a 33 for the sake of reducing drag. We made it to Michigan a little later than we had in previous years, but the later date on the calendar meant we were after daylight savings, and after the vernal equinox, so sunset was an hour later, and days were longer than nights. This gave us some extra daylight to explore after arriving in town. We checked into the hotel, and changed for a quick leg-opener. I put on long sleeves because I couldn't fathom it being warm enough for riding in just bibs and a jersey. Within 5 miles I had to stop and take off the base layers with sleeves, as it was just too hot for layers. As we were in town instead of at Bay Point, it allowed us to explore some new gravel roads including a few miles of the 24/36 mile course coming back into town. Chernoh and I had never seen those roads, as we had always both done the 62 mile race. We opted to skip the final climb back into town, and instead backtracked down Cook Rd to get back to the Ace Hardware to pick up our packets.

Big kudos to the race organizers and volunteers as yet again packet pick-up was well organized and took almost no time at all. We were in and out within a few minutes, and on our way back to the hotel we swung by the Specialized demo tent to chat with our friend Eric B. He was just getting ready to close up shop so Chernoh and I helped him break down tents and put away his demo fleet, and then made plans to have dinner in Hastings with the four of us. Dinner in Hastings was a nice change of pace as we had in prior years had our pre-race dinner at the Inn. We headed back to the hotel where Chernoh and I both wrapped some Salt Stick capsules in aluminum foil and taped to our stems for easy mid-race access, filled up our water bottles, and then settled into bed.

Being in town afforded us an extra 30 minutes of sleep, as we no longer had to worry about driving to the race course, parking, unloading, and then getting dressed. We were able to get dressed in race clothes, and head directly to breakfast. I tried to avoid eating too much, as I have done in some years past, with a good mix of carbs, protein, and fat. We returned to our rooms and made final preparations. Wardrobe is always a big part of getting ready for Barry. This year, with forecasted temps in the 70s in the afternoon, I was unsure how light to start. I opted for short-sleeved craft base layer with wind-stopper briefs under the UCI kit I bought in Richmond. I also had on arm warmers and knee warmers, as it was still a chilly 49 degrees when I made it to the parking lot. Nutrition wise, I opted for 3 of my homebrew gel packs, four Salt Stick capsules on my stem (in addition to the two that were already in each gel), and three bottle of water. I was ready before Chernoh, so I started with some laps around the parking lot while he was finishing his preparation. We then headed up to the course, rode out Cook Rd., and turned to come back to the start.
Just a jersey?

I had a small bag with a change of clothes for after the race in case Mor wasn't back from shooting when I was ready to change. The ride over convinced me that I was still overdressed even in a short sleeve base layer, so I stripped off the base-layer and warmers and shoved them in my bag and stored them in a safe place with my phone and wallet until the end of the race. At about 9:30 AM there were already guys starting to head to staging, with my extended roll to the start of the race and some stretching I was ready to go, so I headed up to staging and took a place near the front. There were already some people in the starting grid, including one guy who was sitting on a set of rollers 6ft off the start line inside the grid warming up. A friend from Chicago noted "Whenever I think I'm starting to take this too seriously, I'm comforted to run into THAT guy."

The start grid started to fill up as the seconds ticked away. I'm always amazed at how quickly the last 20 minutes before the start of a race slips away. Star Spangled Banner, invocation, and all of a sudden the field is surging forward across the line and down the street at 25 miles per hour. As the first wave flew down the road I did my best to stay near the front. As we made our way down Green Green street, some fast guys who were late to staging tried to sprint up the outside and then work their way in near the front. I managed to shift to the left from my spot in the middle of the pack, and get back into this flow and maintain a position near the front. So close to the front in fact that as we turned south on Cook Rd, and people sat up on the climb I continued to push into my pedals and surged off the front of the field. I wasn't the first one on the gravel this year, but I did take my turn at the very pointy end of the bike race which is more than a lot of people can say. I didn't really do it because I wanted to be on the front, I had found a comfortable pace and level of effort, was starting to feel warm, and didn't want to sit up quite yet.

We reached the base of the first sister, and unlike in 2015 when the field collectively sat up and watched David Lombardo ride away, the front of the field attacked, and it was as if they tossed hand grenades over their shoulders with how quickly the field blew up in their wake. They attacked and counter attacked up and over the first, second, and third sister, and by the time I reached the top of the 3rd sister the leaders were down the other side and out of sight, and only a comet tail of debris followed in their wake. I pushed into my pedals for the descent, made it across the highway, and made the left turn onto Hubble Rd. Since first year I did Barry, I've always thought of it as "the cow climb"because of the Holstein cows that were standing in the pasture next to the road. The three sisters are steep, but I've always felt like the slog up Hubble Rd was the more dangerous climb. That's the one where people start to crack and the field really separates.

Already off the back by Hubble.
That's why I stationed Morleigh at that top of that climb this year. It's really beautiful, important in the race, and no one is generally there. She got some great photos of the leaders on their way up, and lots of others on their way down. I saw her and cheered for her as we passed, but I was on the wrong side of the field to appear in any photos. When I crested the top, the lead group of about 50 was where David Lombardo had been the year before, at the bottom of the hill turning right. My goal of hanging onto the leaders was gone, so I focused on the next goal of doing better than in years past on the paved climb on Gun Lake Rd.

The road was littered with riders dangling backwards from the lead group like the tail of a comet. I didn't necessarily have any hope of catching back onto the leaders, but I was thinking about the big climb, and I was thinking about wanting to finish in the top 50. I had no idea where I was in the field, but I knew there were a lot of guys in front of me. I started to focus on "the next wheel" and started working my way forward. Road conditions at this point in the race were pretty sketchy. The dry gravel and sand made everything very loose and very dusty. I was fortunate that when I was in big groups the wind was blowing across the road, and only rarely was I in a position where I was caught in a plume of dust that I couldn't escape.

At this point it felt like I was riding well and racing smart. I was grabbing wheels when I could, taking short pulls when I needed to, and keeping my arms relaxed as we hit some pretty loose and sandy turns. As we approached a particularly nasty corner from Sager to Otis Lake Rd I saw David Reyes standing on the road which was not a good sign. I asked him if he needed anything, and he said he broke a derailleur hanger. I hollered over my shoulder that I did not have one of those, and pressed on as I caught sight of one of his teammates, Matt, ahead. Otis Lake Rd was the last section of gravel before the paved climb, so I settled back into a group of riders, including Matt, that struggled through the loose and sometimes very sandy trail. At this point I was trying to catch my breath and recover, knowing that the climb up and over the top was going to be taxing. I did my best to hold onto the tales of this 12 person kite, and mentally prepared myself for a steep climb.

When we turned left onto pavement we hit some downhill sections. I tried to hold back a bit, and stay with the group on the descents, saving up matches for the climb. When we reached the base of the big climb, I fully expected to be dropped off the back of this group, and to my surprise the pace of the leaders was challenging but I was able to match and hold onto the rope keeping myself together with the group. When we crested the top I mashed into the pedals and then got into a good tuck and blasted by everyone else. I was off the front of that group for the entire descent, and grabbed back on when we reached the next ridge on the other side. We had been riding for almost 45 minutes, and I realized I hadn't reached back to eat anything and had hardly drank anything out of my water bottle. I started to force feed a little bit, knowing it would come in handy later. It wasn't until we made two more turns and started to head back East on Duffy Rd. that I hit my first mini wall. We were climbing up a grade and the spring fell out of my step and I started to drift towards the back of my group, in danger of being dropped. I managed to dig a little deeper and stay with the tail of that group as we turned back onto pavement and headed south to Sager Rd.

In 2015, I had a pretty good run up Sager Rd., feeling strong and holding with the group I was with. This year I had some challenges with both my legs and with traffic. I had a couple of riders go down or come to a dead stop and had to take evasive action to keep rolling. The 2-track climb really split apart the group of 12 riders I was with, but was still with a couple of riders as we made the right onto McKibben Rd. As I looked back I saw some riders approaching fast from behind. I didn't sit up and wait for them, instead I pushed on ahead trying to catch the next wheel before I was caught. That didn't go so well, as I completely over-bake the left hand turn onto Mullen Rd and locked up both brakes and skidded for 15ft before losing enough speed to be able to make the turn. Within a half mile the group from behind caught me, and I latched on to the train of faster moving riders and followed them to the timing sensor which was set up just before the right hand turn onto Head Lake Rd. I asked the official where we were in the group as I was the last rider in that group. I was sitting in 74th place at mile 24.5. My heart sank a little.

As we headed south on Head Rd towards the Killer, it was a struggle to stay together as we were now fully emerged in the middle of the 24 mile field. When we reached the base of the Killer we were fortunate enough to be in a relative lull and had enough of the road to maintain momentum and stay mostly together as a group. Half way up I saw Mor standing on the left side of the road cradling a water bottle in her arm as she tried to take pictures. I yelled out that I didn't need the water which she acknowledged by taking a picture of me. Ironically out of focus because I set up the camera with the incorrect autofocus mode for her. I was suffering greatly just to stay with the group, but as I crested the hill and started to pedal towards the turn off I was not alone. And in a few moments we were really not alone as the leaders of the second wave finally caught up with me. I recognized Lucas Siebel on his single speed spinning away like a madman leading this group of 40-50 riders. I knew a dozen or so of the riders in this wave by name, and said "hello" and "It's about time." to a few of them as I settled into their wake and started to recover on the ride to Cloverdale. It was a big group, and my goal of finishing in the top 50 was further evaporating as I tried to figure out what percentage of that group of 40 to 50 riders were in my wave and what percentage were from the second wave.

At that point, things were starting to get hard. I didn't know how long I would be able to stay with that group, I had the sense that no one was attacking at the moment as we rolled through Cloverdale, but once we made it through Cloverdale all bets were off as the pace quickened and the accordion started to play. Someone would attack at the front on a climb and the whole field would serge to hold that wheel. The field would stretch, the attack would fail, and the field would compress. Each time hurt a little more. Ironically it wasn't a surging field that finally did me in and sheered me off the back of the group, it was traffic.

Just short of mile 40 we were going down a hill at a pretty quick pace, and there was a car on the left shoulder with a few riders huddled behind. There was also a car coming up the hill towards us, forcing the field into a relatively narrow chicane first moving left to avoid the stopped car, and then moving back right to avoid the oncoming car. The oncoming car did not pull over or stop so the chicane got tighter and tighter. I drifted too far to the left and had to grab brakes to slow down and get back to the right. The field continued to roll down the hill and attacked on the other side, and before I could drop an F-bomb I was dropped off the back and in no-man's land.

Things really started to go south at this point. I was starting to feel like I was cramping so I took a salt tablet. That sat in my stomach with water for too long without digesting or absorbing. The pre-cramping started to turn into actually cramping, so I took another salt-tablet, drank some more gel, and tried to soft-pedal and coast as much as possible to let my stomach catch up with my body.

It didn't work very well. By the time I made it to the aid station at mile 44 I was hurting and moving slowly. I had finished one water bottle and knew that after not seeing Mor in Cloverdale I was going to be maybe running low on water by the end of the race. It was starting to get really warm, and sweat was running off the brim of my visor. When a volunteer held up a full water bottle I grabbed it, and tossed one of my empty bottles into the ditch. All I needed was for my stomach to start working again so I could actually drink some more fluids.

After mile 50 things started to get very hard. There are some sharp punchy climbs in the last 15 miles, and at each one I wondered if I would have to get off and walk. I was with a pair of riders for a few miles, before getting dropped on one of those climbs. My legs, starting with my calves, were cramping for real now. I chewed my last sodium packets and tried my best to choke down some gel. A few larger groups, 10 - 20 riders mostly from the second wave passed me as we approached the finish, and one final group, just as I hit pavement to pull into town I turned around and saw a hard charging group of about 10 riders. I really wanted to try and stay with them up the last climb into town and beat them in a sprint, but my legs had other ideas. I just kept turning the pedals and watched them ride away. I did push myself as much as possible on the descent into town, but still didn't really have enough in the tank to make up any time. When I crossed the line I was pleasantly surprised to see that I had finished in my 3rd fastest time, 3:21:37. I was 71st out of 172. So five minutes slower than the year before, but only 9 places back in the field. So not exactly where I hoped to be, but still a pretty good result. When people asked me how my race went, the short answer was "Good, but not great."

I sat down on a bench for a while next to Brian B from Chicago who finished a few minutes ahead of me, and tried to drink water and get my legs back under me. It was still hot as we exchanges stories of how hard it was even though it wasn't cold. After a few minutes I came to my senses and realized I had better tell my wife I was finished, so I went back to the expo to retrieve my cell phone and instead found my wife. She took me back to the car where I drank some more water and laid down in the shade next to a church and looked very much like I had died.

My face and jersey were covered in brown dirt, sticking to anywhere that my skin was wet with sweat. There were claw marks on my head where the dirt blew in the vents and stuck to my scalp.

We had also decided to spend Saturday night after the race in Hastings. When Chernoh finished we gave him some time to get settled, hydrated, and come back to life, and then he and I rode back to the hotel. We showered and headed to the Waldorf for our traditional post-race meal. We then went back to the hotel and I started editing the photos that Morleigh had taken, while Chernoh graded papers.

The next morning Chernoh and I were up early, heading out for a recovery ride. I'd plotted out a route east of Hastings, somewhere that I've never been, and we took off in the early morning light. We rode easy for about 2 hrs seeing a few deer and having a lovely chat about training and life. Although the race was only "good" the weekend was certainly "great!"