Friday, August 09, 2013

Over the Hump

Seems like we are now well past the mid-season hump in terms of the summer racing season. In fact, the brunt of the season has come and gone and we are left with only a few MTB races making up the remainder of the 2013 calendar. The summer has flown by so far and has been a flurry of activity leading up to and then past the National Championships a few weeks back.

Speaking of the National Championships, which I am finally almost able to do at this point, things did not go exactly as I'd planned for. Lets start out on the positive side. My fitness was and has been pretty good. I came into the event in good shape and had been riding pretty well if not at the peak of the season. All of the indicators were positive and we ended up with a course that was among the most technically challenging that I had ever experienced. All of these things were good.

On race day I was focused and determined but a little bit nervous. That lead to some frantic racing and some stupid mistakes. I finally settled into my own race working really hard but sitting in the lead group of three at the top of the course on the first lap. This was when my luck began to change for the worse. I could hear the clanging of a broken rear spoke thrashing about in the rear wheel of the bike and soon noticed some drivetrain skip, most likely caused by the now free to roam spoke winding in amongst the chain and cassette. I stopped and removed the spoke, loosing only a handful of seconds and spots but taking a big hit on the chin in terms of confidence.

Moving again I noticed that the drivetrain skip was still there but I didn't really think about it as I was now into the technical downhill section of the course. When I eventually hit the bottom, in the super tight single-track vegetable tunnel section of the course, the unthinkable occurred and my chain broke. I stopped and ran back to grab it out of the dirt then ran with the bike and chain up the trail to try and find a point wide enough so that I could get out of the trail and fix it. I found a spot in a corner where I could lay the bike against a tree and work on it amongst the poison ivy while not blocking the course. At that point I was defeated. I spent some time simply dumbfounded with the flood of emotion and my hopes washing away. Finally I managed to get the chain back on only to find that I'd looped it over the center tab on the derailleur cage. The second time I got it right in what was probably the longest repair ever taking just a few seconds less that eight minutes.

It took a while to get back into the groove once I managed to get moving again. I'd also been passed by nearly everyone on the course at that point. Eventually I came to grips with the situation and just started riding for the ride, not for the race. I came through the feed zone after that first lap and yelled to Cathy what had happened, in a nut shell. She was concerned and disappointed and I was feeling pretty bad for letting her, and myself, down. I kept moving though with no tangible goal other than to finish up the race and get in some good training.

The course was narrow and technical and was literally choked with racers. This made passing a challenge and as everyone knew, hampered forward progress. That lasted the entire second lap and into the third before I made my way into some clearer spaces. I still had no idea where I was or how I was doing but I was making forward progress toward the only remaining goal of the day, finish. At the top of the course I caught Rich Pirro who looked as though the course was wearing on him, as it was with us all. Rich is a solid racer and assuming that I was still well back in the pack, I wondered if he'd had similar luck to mine. Regardless the two of us nary spoke but made our way down the rocky descent not more than a scarce few seconds apart. Near the end of the third lap I was starting to feel a cramp coming on in my left quad so rode the last stretch within my limits in order to stay off a seize. It worked and I crossed the line, head down and disappointed.

Cathy greeted me with cheers, smiles and hugs and I nearly broke down. The brutally hard and demanding course coupled with the extreme heat and humidity and many months of sole focus targeted at this one event, which slipped away from me anyhow had left drained physically, mentally and emotionally. Soon I was told that I'd finished in 5th place. That brightened my spirits a bit, I guess. The reality was that I had one and only one goal on the day and attaining anything but that goal was self viewed as failure. That however, is my own little warped view of the situation, pessimist I am. The reality is that I was there, in it, and despite the mechanical issues I did a respectable job with what I had left. Take the incidents away and I would have been right there at the end. That is, of course, the hardest part to deal with of all.

Next up on the day was Cathy's race. She did awesome and I was so proud of her. I quickly changed up and went out to take some pictures of her on course. She had a fantastic start taking the hole shot all the way to the single-track well up the initial climb. She also did an excellent job telling the story.

Back home the following week I took some angst out on Strava segments and then got ready for the next upcoming race, the Root 66 race series Barn Burner in Walpole, MA. This was a new race that was very near home in an area and on a course that we had never ridden. Because of the proximity we ended up with an excellent Bikeway Source/Bell Lap Racing team turnout as well, fielding racers in multiple categories.

Long story short, the course was deceivingly difficult with literally little or no respite. It was a power course the whole time with little in the way of extended climb. Just a few short punchy climbs. The course was super twisty to the point that it almost felt like a cyclocross course. You were constantly having to try and flow the corner to maintain what momentum you could and then gas it out to get back up to speed. That perpetual effort took a heavy toll.

The men's Cat1 40-49 field has historically been the strongest of the Cat1 fields, typically setting the fastest times and being the first of the Cat1 waves to finish. Of recent, this has been compounded with a number of strong guys who have dropped into the slot or have come back to MTB racing. Let me just say that they were all in attendance. Frankie, Matt and John joined Rich, Robert and the rest of the stacked crew that made up the field. Space on the front row has gotten more and more precious. Everyone knows how fast and hard the start will be and with such a deep pool it is some times a little aggressive. On courses like this, which had a fast, wide road leading to a hard narrow left into the woods ,it was important to hit the woods in or near the front. Inevitably there is an incident as the main pack tries to squeeze ten guys into a space wide enough for two.

Off the start the sprint for the woods was long and brutally hard. John got the lead and I tied onto his wheel. We hit the woods clean and sure enough, I could hear carnage behind us. Soon I could see that Matt and Frankie were both with us and that the four of us were moving well up the trail, gaining ground on the rest of the field. John was hitting hard but I was concerned that all four of us were together so went to the front and told him to hold on tight. With some work we gapped Matt and Frankie and John and I came through for the first lap together.

At that point John was looking strong and I assumed that it was going to be a really tough battle with him. I upped the pace a bit on the way back into the woods and gapped him. From there I was alone for some time. A little ways into the lap I saw Ben up ahead who had started two minutes ahead in the 30-39 age group. He was killing it and was well out in the lead of his race. I suggested he rest up a few seconds and then I squeezed by and told him to jump on. He followed for some time until we ran into more traffic and he got separated. I made steady progress and managed to get through most of the traffic from the other fields starting ahead, save of course the elite wave. 

On the third lap despite making what I though was good steady time, I started to see a blur of red and black just behind me, far too close for comfort. By the middle of the lap it could clearly see that Frankie was charging up to me making excellent progress. I focused on going clean, smooth and steady and of course, as fast as I could sustain. About two thirds of the way through the lap Frankie was literally rolling his way up to me and was within twenty yards of me. I knew then and there that if he caught me it was over. He would be super motivated from the catch and was already going faster than I was so would just power away. Best case I manage to hang with him but the simply truth is that you don't go the the line with a man of Frankie's ability. A positive outcome to that scenario is nearly impossible.

With that I hit it hard and kept the pressure on right to the end, managing to get back out of sight but never being able to run much line out at all. I am happy to say that this type of tight, hard fought race has become more the norm than the exception. We have so much talent and depth in the field that on any given course it is anyone's show. Matt excels in the truly deplorable, John in the technical and Frankie is a locomotive. My days are numbered, I know that for a fact. Frankie is coming back to the sport and I can see him improving with each race. We all know his capacity and capability. I see him doing some dominating in the near future. Personally, I look forward to the challenge.

Cathy had the ride of the day though and was sitting comfortably with the leader well into her race. Unfortunately her chain dropped and wedged between the ring and frame. She ended up having to get help extracting it, which put her back a couple spots. She chased her way back to third though. I was so proud but felt terrible about the incident marring her near perfect race.

All in all, the Barn Burner was a great event and I hope it will remain a staple on the schedule in the coming seasons. Three more MTB races to finish out the series and then it is on to cyclocross once again.


Cathy said...

Awesome results! And you NEVER disappoint me. I am proud of you for not quitting, and managing to make your way back onto the podium after the mechanicals. Disappointed FOR you, yes. Disappointed IN you - never.

R Pirro said...

Great write up as usual!

National's was deflating for me as well, banged up knee and a dropped chain pretty much sealed my fate. In a strange way I was actually glad to see you come around me. Way to bounce back! Cant wait to go back next year.