Monday, February 04, 2013

The Big Adventure

It has been some time since I've posted much of anything. Life has been pretty crazy, as it always seems to be. We've sort of missed out on much of any winter so far. Yes, we have had more snow than we did last season but it seems to all be nuisance snow; the kind that doesn't amount to enough to ski or do any dedicated winter activity with but does make cycling somewhat troublesome. The month of January saw lots of slogging through an few inches of snow on the MTB. It also saw a couple of good long road rides and a whole lot of cross rides. Why cross rides at this point in the season, when the racing is long since done? Well, that's because the season wasn't over, at least not until last Friday that is.

Cathy and I registered for the US National championship events back in December, literally just before the registration closed. We did so just in case we wanted to go, though it was clear from the start that neither of us was really excited to make the long trip to Madison, WI in early January. Because of that it was no shock when we decided at the last minute that we didn't really want to go. Actually you could more accurately say that at the last minute we didn't decide that we really wanted to go. Of course as soon as it was too late the regret started and haunted me there after.

Secretly I decided that I didn't want to make that mistake again. There was one more chance to continue the season and try for something more, the Masters World Championships which were held in Louisville, KY in conjunction with the Elite World Championships. This was a huge event, the first of it's kind in the US. Louisville was also a bit closer than Madison and in a direction that would hopefully yield significantly more stable driving conditions. I quietly registered for my event and continued riding with that goal in mind.

Part of this was easy as with no snow to be had, I would be riding anyhow. The harder part was to try and get the intensity in. Races were difficult if not impossible to find since the race season was over. The saving grace to some degree would be a few training races that were put on locally. Even then it was tough I found to keep the right mix going through that point in the year. Luckily I had some friends who were willing to ride in the cold dark of winter. I also found the motivation on occasion to put in some hard efforts as well. The conditions were perfect for winter training and afforded me ample snow and frozen rutted rides on the cross bike. I was confident that if conditions matched those of the riding that I was getting in, I would be in good shape.

The van was covered in ice from freezing rain through PA.
So let the adventure begin and last Monday at 4AM it did when Cathy and I piled into the van which was pre-loaded with two bikes and gear and headed off for Louisville, KY. The directions suggested a 15 hour drive of 965 miles. We made good progress through MA and into CT then into NY and crossed into PA. It was then that the sky started to look a bit gray and ominous, the way it does before it starts to snow. Shortly there after, the snow began. The temperature was 24 degrees. Luckily it never snowed to terribly bad and the roads remained stable with light snow on them. As we climbed through the mountains of PA on route 80 the snow changed to rain. The temperature was 24 degrees. The rain froze. The van was encrusted in a thin coat of ice as was the antennae, which became heavy and flexed to the increased wind drag. Nervous hours indeed as we ticked off the countless silent, white knuckle miles. Through it all the road remained passable thanks to a massive treatment of halide. We finally crested the highest point in PA on route 80 and began heading down. The temperature was 28 degrees. With luck the temperature quickly started to tick upward rapidly. I've never been so happy to see 32 degrees and then 34 and 37. Finally a sigh of relief as we clicked over 40 degrees and continued upwards.

As we finally exited PA and into OH we were near 50 degrees with light rain and that is about where it stayed for most of the trip. American is a really big country. It is made up of some really big states. Square states that are square in more ways than one. Unsightly, ungodly places in reality. When traveling you can think of these places and your time spent there as Purgatory, a wasteland of 24 hour truck stops and adult super-stores where you pay the dues of your trip to a better place. We successfully made it through the sensory under-load to Cincinnati and were getting very close to our destination. That was when my phone rang with a number I didn't recognize. I was too busy to answer but Cathy soon went to make a call to reserve a room for the night in Louisville when she noted a number of missed calls and a text from our friend Serene, who was watching the cats.

With some calm panic Cathy returned the call to find that Ellie wasn't feeling so well. In fact, she had been pretty sick all over the house and was now in a really foul mood. This was cause for concern as we'd never had that experience with either of the cats in the past. We feared the worst and began contemplating turning around, 850 miles an 14 hours into a 965 mile trip. It was then I vowed never to take another trip again. Serene had spoken with the vet already who suggested a wait and see. She also determined the primary cause of diarrhea in felines was people-food. In helping us clean the fridge of leftovers the day before, Ellie had consumed roughly half of pig in the form of pork-ribs. She'd also eaten probably double what she normally would as we worked the kinks out of the automated cat feeders we had purchased days before. It all made sense and with much discussion and emotional debate we decided to press on to Louisville and check back in later for progress. It would turn out to be as expected and Ellie would quickly rebound and be fine. We vowed never to overfeed the cats again.

The view from the hotel room at the Galt House.
As soon as we hit Louisville and parked the van in the garage at the Galt House Hotel, our residence for the week, I changed up and jumped on the bike to spin the legs out a bit. The temperature was 55 degrees. Cathy headed to the hotel room to settle in a bit and I cruised around the block a bit not straying too far away given that I had absolutely no idea where I was. We cleaned up from the long trip and walked downtown for some dinner then returned to the room exhausted from a long stressful day.

Lots of folks from New England in attendance.
Tuesday was an open day for me as my qualification race heats were scheduled to take place on Wednesday and my final race to be held on Friday. We headed to the course to get a feel for the venue and to get in some laps on the course. Immediately we started running in to friend and people that we knew from New England. I got in some laps on the course, which was wet and spongy and pretty well devoid of anything in the way of technical features. The reality was that because the Elite championship was also in town, the normal venue, Eva Bandman Park was reserved for the Elites and a secondary venue was setup just down the road for the Masters. This venue was a golf course, which meant it was pretty flat and didn't have many trees. I finished my practice laps literally melting down from the near 70 degree heat and we headed for the Car Wash on Brownsboro Road to clean the bikes and the van.

Dinner with friends in the downtown.
That night Cathy and I met up with a friends Eric, Tim and Derek for dinner downtown. Once again, we chose a familiar place to eat. What can I say, creatures of habit. The food was good as was the beer and it was convenient.

Yes, that is all standing water that you see.
Wednesday morning greeted us early with the steady whine of what we would later realize was the city's tornado warning siren. A quick peek out the window revealed driving horizontal rain and fierce winds. My categories qualification heats were the first of the day, scheduled for 8:30AM start. The funny thing about being to the far left of the time zone is that it stays light until after 6:00PM at night. It also doesn't get light until after 8:00AM in the morning. We drove through the rain and dark arriving to find the venue very wet. Parking became a challenge as we were to park on the grass which had become mud. After nearly getting stuck we decided to play it safe and park on dry ground a bit of a ways away. I got set and headed toward the venue top warm up only to find that there was a two hour delay in effect. The wind had made a mess of the course and the infield was flooded. There was standing water everywhere. The crew and city were working to beat the band to get us back on track though. There was a steady stream of dump-trucks full of wood chips coming in and crews of tractors and Bobcats were moving and spreading making land from what was once sea. I can't say enough about the job that these folks did. It was incredible. The temperature was again very mild with the day's high near 60 degrees.

Sitting briefly in a good spot early in the race.
The starting order for the heats, of which my category had three, was random. I drew number 72 which had me in the 3rd row of the 3rd heat. I'd learned that on a course like this with a long wide start it really doesn't matter so I wasn't worried. I lined up next to Eric in the starting grid and soon we were off. I went hard to gain position and easily filled in behind the current world and national champion. It wasn't long though before the course had it's way with me. The heavy slog required boatloads of steady hard power to maintain forward momentum while requiring very little in the way of technical skills to manage.

We spent lots of time at the car wash. Notice the helmet on the floor.
I finished in 6th place within the heat which ended up netting me 17th place overall in the starting order for the final event. After changing up I got back on the bike and rode easily to try and spin out some of the intense sting from the effort. We then packed up and headed again for the car wash to clean the bikes and the gear which was encased in mud. That night we met friends Matt and Mark and their friends Mike and Freddy for an awesome dinner and drinks near the condo they were staying in. Thank you so much gentlemen.

Missing helmet, reward! Last seen at car wash.
Thursday was another free day devoid of racing. We took the opportunity to sleep in and then get an excellent breakfast at the hotel. As I was getting ready to head out for a ride I noticed that my helmet, the beloved discontinued matte-white faded digi-camo Giro Xen, was not where I though that it should be. Not only was it missing from that location, it was also not where I was hoping that it might alternately be. It was in fact gone. This was cause for some agitation as it was my absolute favorite helmet. It fit my deformed head better than any other. It was also my lucky helmet, which had guided me to the bulk of my successes this season. I frantically tore the van apart looking for it and then the hotel room. I then rode over to the car wash which was where I last saw it but the helmet was never to be found. That unfortunately put a bit of a damper on the day though I did, fortunately, have a spare helmet with me.

We rarely have desert but chose to split the bread pudding. It was pretty amazing.
Friday was race day and it was looking good. The temperature had taken a huge dive throughout the day on Thursday and it had snowed lightly overnight. My race was mid day and if it could just hold steady in terms of conditions I'd be in good shape. Frozen mud ruts and slick, snow covered grass were my new found favorites. Upon arrival at the venue we saw Kathy repeat as world champion in a spectacular, heart stopping race and then Karen have a hard fought battle to take the bronze in her category. Shortly after that we were able to get out on course to discover that despite a temperature that was still in the high teens with a steady wind, the sun was melting the shallow frost in areas and turning the course into stiff mud in many spots along with frozen ruts in the shade and even some glare ice in other spots. That mud then froze instantly to everything it came into contact with.

I queued up in the 45-49 main event with New England cohorts Eric, Dave, Jonathan and Geoff, all of us bundled heavily and still shivering off the cold. We stood in the start grid in mud, which I noticed froze to the cleats. My trick was to get the left foot clear and clipped then lean against Cathy and clear the right cleat. I then stood balanced on my right heel with the left foot in waiting for the whistle. I shared this tip with Dave who was staged beside me. Soon we were off and I managed to get clipped in and going quickly. When we hit the first mud pit there was a splash of mud that flash froze to everything including my glasses. I seemed to be moving well though and made good ground quickly. The first lap saw lots of aggressive riding through very slick and tricky conditions. Coming around for the start of the second lap I'd made my way up as far as 5th place.

Unfortunately, that would be as far as I would get on the day. I'd left the bike, my beloved Cannondale Super-X disc, in the big ring for the first lap. When I hit the mud pit shortly into lap two the 46x26 gear was a little too much for me to push. The frozen mud made sure that was all I'd get though as the front derailleur was clogged and frozen where it was leaving no chance of a shift. I reluctantly pitted and switched to my spare bike, which although a fine bike, isn't nearly the same. I couldn't instantly feel the difference and that went straight to my head. I quickly lost more than ten spots and was still going backwards.

Mud ruts en-route to mud.
Despite having a bunch of great folks working on my bike they needed the whole lap to get it going again before I could switch back. The problem was that trying to pry the frozen mud out was a manual and labor intensive process that took time. This meant one switch per lap, by the end of which the bike was nearly unusable. It also insured that it would take the full lap to get the bike ready again. By the end of lap three I'd made my way back to 12th place which is where I remained, firmly outside of my goals. That said, given the conditions, I can live with it. This is what I had to say to ThomP after the finish of the race.

The crew working the pit for me, which included Cathy, Jeff, Matt and Karen and also Kathy giving me splits worked like crazy people and did a phenomenal job. Without them I literally would have been unable to finish, as so many others were in my race and throughout the day. This literally became a race nearly as much about resources as skill and fitness. I'm not saying that is my excuse, I'm just saying that in this case, being able to switch bikes twice per lap was a clear advantage. People without spare bikes literally could not finish. I was one of the fortunate ones to have the people helping me that allowed me to finish. I also had an incredible amount of support out along the course during the race in the form of some many friends and supporters cheering me on. I'm truly blessed for the people that I know.

The thick mud froze instantly to everything it touched, locking it solid.
So from this experience much was learned. If ever I try and compete at this level, I will be better prepared in many ways. It is the real deal and the top contenders treat it as such, with the respect that it deserves. Of course I am not satisfied with my result but I can use that as fuel for the fire, for next season. I let the conditions get to me and let them beat me. I don't like ending the season on that note but it will help give purpose to the long lonely rides that are soon to come. I'm not totally discouraged or disappointed. I am thoroughly tired though. It was a year charged with great emotion, one like never before. I think that in and of itself takes a toll.

Friday night after cleaning everything up and getting ready, we had a great dinner and drinks with Jason and Sorcha and then met up with the Blue Steel family and friends for some celebration. An epic day for certain and a truly incredible adventure. Thank you Cathy for making it possible. I never would, or could have done any of this on my own.

Completely wiped out!
Saturday I woke early with some severe dehydration and couldn't get back to sleep. Looking out the window I noted that it was not snowing, yet. By 3:15AM I asked Cathy if she was ready to leave. She said yes. The plan all along was to leave Saturday AM as we were not able to get a hotel reservation for Saturday night anyhow. By 4:07AM we were in the van leaving the hotel and heading for home, just as the snow was starting. The snow was heavy all the way through Columbus, OH but didn't really stick to the heavily treated highway. We did a marathon drive stopping only three times for fuel and to use the restroom.

At 6:19PM we pulled into our driveway. We'd missed the Elite world championship races which took place that day but had made it home safely. We were very happy to be home and went inside to hug the kittens, unpack and clean kitten poop. How can one small cat get poop absolutely everywhere? I'm talking explosive. I simply can't fathom the horror of the actual act. I can only imagine what it looked like before Serene cleaned it up. I can't thank both she and Teri enough.

I've got to admit though, I am completely wiped out. Looking forward to some down time and variety. In hindsight, an very excellent adventure and great end to an incredible season. Now on to the next.


Colin R said...


omg mike.

Cathy said...

Colin - yes :) And very glad we did.

Mike - I am SO PROUD of what you have accomplished this year. You had a terrific season, and a terrific showing at Worlds as well. Revel in your accomplishments, and we'll both look forward to what is yet to come.

Fatmarc Vanderbacon said...

"Purgatory, a wasteland of 24 hour truck stops and adult super-stores where you pay the dues of your trip to a better place. We successfully made it through the sensory under-load to Cincinnati and were getting very close to our destination."

loved that line...
great read, great job


Hill Junkie said...

Great post and fantastic season! It all starts over again.... now.

CB2 said...

Oh great, more fuel for your fire...

How'd you like the discs in those conditions? Any problems?

mkr said...

No problems with the discs at all. I contest if set up properly, they will last through just about any CX race in just about any conditions. I've done an ultra wet, sandy and muddy race that was 1:08 long (Plymouth day 1 this fall) and had no problems with stock (organic) pads. Also days two days of the Downeast ME mudbog with no problems. Hydro would be better but the cable are far superior to canti or V IMHO.