Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Downeast Cross Weekend

The morning started out on the warm side and definitely humid. The drive to the venue was in a thick fog with intermittent mist. The night before saw heavy rains. The event was almost certain to be muddy, as in years past. The question would simply be how muddy. For those not familiar with the Downeast Cyclocross race, it is held at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester, Maine. The ground are breathtakingly beautiful. It is an active farm and education center.

As such, the race course consists of loops through agricultural fields and roads around about the barns. This often adds a taste of nature to the course in the form of fertilizer, natural fertilizer. We got out for a single pre-ride lap just to sample the course layout. Given the weather and the fact that the grounds had standing water literally everywhere. John, the master-mind behind the race, did an excellent job minimizing the amount of time we spend in the open pasture, which was always a mud big. Instead he utilized the dirt roads to the back of the course, which were as dry as you could hope for. Despite the design, there was deep mud, two sections of in the pasture. There were also sections of the dirt road there were deceivingly slick and power sucking. The grassy side-sloped were like ice, giving little or no purchase and there were a number of transitions that had deep muddy ruts that could swallow the front wheel and the rider if handled poorly. The race was going to be interesting and it would be a test of the equipment, skills and fortitude.

Cathy was off first and raced off into a sea of dim light, mist and dense fog. It was actually quite beautiful to see and make for some spectacular photos. She had a very good race and was running well within the top ten the entire time. She finished just off the podium for the women's masters race, one of her best finishes ever in a highly competitive and deep field.

My race went off directly after and I was cautiously optimistic. After-all, I tend to do pretty well in the mud and miserable conditions. I was concerned about the grass causing clogs and chain-suck or worse, derailleur suck. That very thing actually happened to me the last time I was at this race and I didn't want to have it happen at this outing. Off the line I got good position and settled into about third wheel. I spent the first could of laps settling in and observing. We had formed in to a group of five by mid way into the first lap, that being Paul, Sam, Don, Jeff and I. Sam was strong as always and was having little trouble with handling if any. Paul was struggling with the traction. Jeff was struggling a bit with the pace and Don was having a good race once he calmed down a bit and started riding smoother. One thing I quickly noted was how much faster I could descend the dirt road on the far south end of the course. This was because I could wait to brake until the very end while others were struggling with wet carbon rims and cantilever brakes. I of course, had disc brakes.

A few laps in I decided to test the hill and see if I could make something happen, so I moved to the front and accelerated down the hill, braking at the last moment and shooting across trail through the mud, which sucked the excess momentum off and allowed me to come back into control. Up onto the dirt road for the climb and it had worked, I'd gotten a gap. Don was close still and Sam not far back so I kept a steady pace keeping the pressure on. I was never able to claw out much of a gap but I did have a gap to work with, which I was lucking able to maintain through to the finish narrowly edging out Don and then Sam. That marked my first Verge Series win ever, another wonderful highlight in a season full of highlights.

The course was tough and nobody had much of any legs left over for sprinting, at least from what I could tell. Those are the days where it would be interesting to have a power meter on the bike, to see just what kind of work you are really doing. The low speed slogging through the mud really takes a toll though. A good day on the bike topped up by a strawberry-rhubarb pie from Debbie's Pies in New Gloucester as the prize.

The Pie!
Day two would surely be another challenge though the weather was supposed to clear and cool a bit. That would help dry the course, though with that amount of water, it may not be enough. We arrived bright and early to a cooler, clear and sunny sky. Out on course for the pre-ride we found that there were some changes from the published map. Again to minimize the mud and misery, we would be doing the same dirt road back stretch as the previous day. The bulk of the course change was subtle routing differences in the loops we made about the grounds. Though minor, many of them proved to be very challenging as the ground was less about wet grass and more about thick, peanut-butter mud that clung to the tires and made for horrible and unpredictable traction.

Cathy was off first again and from the start I could see she was struggling. As the race wore on she settled in but never seemed to find a rhythm. She still managed to tough it out and finish strongly as always.

I was up next and was ready to go. Strangely enough I felt OK, unlike the day before where the legs felt a bit heavy. I was also fairly motivated to try and make something happen so at the whistle I settled into second behind Jeff who was the first off the pavement. In the next corner I came around and charged as hard as I could. With some really sketchy cornering and nearly out of control handling I stayed at the front by the pit and charged hard down that same dirt hill that was the decisive point the day before. Through the slop and back onto the road it didn't appear to have done much of any damage. In hindsight it was a combo of the drier conditions yielding better braking and the first lap fitness that everyone still had. Bad idea on my part compounded when Sam flew by me up the hill putting in a big dig. I was now taking on water as riders streamed past me, my legs loaded was lactic acid and screaming at me to stop.

The miscalculation cost me a couple of spots immediately and then a few more spots as I tried to recover. The damage was done as the laps afforded little or no opportunity to recover. With a couple of laps to go I was able to claw back some spots and chewed my way up to Mark when he too a bike change in the pit. Mark and I are very complimentary riders who if combined, would absolutely kill it as we balance eachothers shortcomings. What that translated to was us taking turns attacking each-other where the other was most vulnerable. That just plain hurt a ton but was good fun and helped us make up time on the leaders. Unfortunately Sam was well off the front and had shed Jeff, who had dropped back to Paul and the two were fighting it out in their own battle.

Coming out of the woods at the far end of the course, I took an easier line that Mark and attacked him, getting through the mud-bog and onto the dirt road first. Mark then attacked me on the slightly down sloped dirt road toward the barriers. I took a more direct line cross slope on the 90 degree corner that turned off the road and slightly up into the pasture approaching the barriers. This had me first over the barriers and around the tight slick uphill turn and by the pits. From there passing was really tough so I caught a break.

Yea, not really feeling the love.
As we came by the barn and made the turn by the bunker (where the manure is scraped out of the cow barn and housed) Paul had gone down and was just getting up. He managed to get back on ahead of me and keep moving. I contemplated a sketchy attack but knew I'd struggled with the greasy, side-slope corner directly after the straight all day. With that I settled back and waited for an opportunity that I already knew would never come. The final pavement stretch was too short to really get a good sprint and the approach was tough with tires full of sticky mud. I would have to settle for missing the podium. In hindsight, I'm disappointed with myself for not being better prepared for the race and not racing smarter. The adrenaline induced start certainly was a bad move, one that I'd been managing to avoid of recent but whose grips I temporarily slipped back into. I also need to pay more attention to a cool-down skin after day one and be careful what I eat and (don't) drink. Standing around after the event spectating and drinking beer is a bad plan if you care about your day two performance and then having a hamburger and beers late in the day is a poor choice for dinner.

Still, hats off to John for putting together an excellent event that minimized the misery as much as possible. This is why we continually like this event. Congratulation to Sam for a stellar weekend as well as to all of the other men who challenge me to ride harder and be better. Much appreciated.

The bike setup was pretty much spot on. The new Cannondale SuperX disc bike just fits me really well. I'd thought that my Ridley X-Fire was the perfect fit but can honestly say that this bike is working out much better. Throughout the weekend of races I never took a bike change even though I had a bike in the pit. Really I never needed to as the stay and fork clearance doesn't really promote much clogging. Having no cantilever brakes to collect the mud and grass also helps a ton. The tire choice was also really, really good. I went with Clement PDX tubulars this season as the tire of choice. I only run one tire all year so wanted a good all around tire that could handle anything yet leaned toward the wet conditions and handling side, giving up a little on the speed side. Hard to win a race lying on your back I like to say. The tires are great and the Bikeman/Carver carbon disc wheelset has been bulletproof. There isn't a thing that I would change on the bike at this point. If you are looking for one, my local shop, the Bikeway Source in Bedford still has a couple in stock. Chris will treat you right.

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