Thursday, October 17, 2013

Much Cyclocross - Gloucester

With the last cyclocross race at the Providence event a couple of weeks back, we rounded out the busiest stretch of racing for the cyclocross season. For us though, we front loaded it a bit and got a heavy start to the back to back big series race weekends by doing a big block of racing the weekend before with single-speed events at White Park and Suckerbrook.

I decided to double it up and do two races at White Park, the single-speed and later, the elite race. Unfortunately a punctured front tire on my geared bike less than half way into the first lap of the race resulted in a quick trip to last place and a switch back to the single-speed bike to play catch-up. Good fun and a good block of training. The single-speed events are in honesty, one of my absolute favorites though. The competition on any given day is really, really tight and the single-speed bike itself adds an level of pure, raw, balanced simplicity.

We followed up the weekend's events with yet another single-speed race at the Midnight Ride of Cyclocross on Wednesday evening. This is a local event run by a great guy at a really good venue. The team volunteered at the event and Chris ad I helped set up the course the day before as well. This gave the advantage of knowing the layout and in a few key aspects, actually getting the opportunity to design some of the more technical sections of the course, like some of the fast chicanes, the wood chips and bringing the sand pile jump into play. The race itself was great fun and then we had the chance to spectate and cheer for friends and team-mates the rest of the evening.

The mid-week evening format if, in my opinion, the wave of the future for cyclocross. The sport has already consumed all of the available weekend dates in the fall and has even transgressed backwards into the late summer. There is simply no room left on the schedule unless there is something new. The challenge is to find a suitable location that has the space as well as the lighting necessary for an evening event in the fall. There are many challenges such as people working during the week, rush hour traffic constraints and the like but I have got to think that with all of the fall festival type events that go on in many local suburban areas, at least some towns might be open to a fun, spectator friendly event that would draw a few hundred racers to a downtown for an event.

Anyhow, after the Wednesday Midnight Ride race we were thrown right into the meat and potatoes of the entire New England cyclocross racing schedule. These would of course be the back to back Gloucester/Providence race weekends. Both are big Verge series events for the amateur racers and both attract the biggest crowds of the year, possibly even the biggest and deepest crowds in the US. Historically, I have usually found good luck at both events and given the lackluster performance I'd seen at the first Verge series event this year in at Green Mountain, I was hoping for a much improved showing to give me a true sign as to where the season would be heading.

Unlike last year, the weather has been both mild and dry for the most part. Actually, dry regardless of how you look at it. The courses that we have seen have been primarily dust bowls to the point where the silt is actually becoming a technical feature. Gloucester was no different. Day one was dry and fast with comfortable temperatures. Cathy and I got there extra early to secure a parking spot. The venue although coastal and scenic in some aspects, is a bit of a hole in a number of others. For one, the parking is deplorable and the venue really can't handle parking for the number of participants and spectators that the event draws. I'm not sure why that isn't a bigger concern when selecting a venue as we have at least two of the biggest events in the country where that same problem arises. This year some vocal citizens raised a huge stink and the race venue was almost pulled. In the end the promoter got the permit but had further restrictions on parking and usage. I won't go into detail but the result was a slightly dummied down course technically.

Cathy went off directly prior to my event and had a great race in what has to have been the biggest women's field there to date. Unfortunately because our races are back to back I don't get the chance to really see too much of her race as I'm getting ready for mine. I kind of miss doing the 35+ race, which is directly after the 45+ race. That afforded me time to spectate and work the pit for her, something that she graciously does for me.

Fortunately I had a good start position on the front row because. The start is paved and turns slightly left uphill then flattens and you veer easily right into the grass. This makes for a fast and furious start. I had a good start but found myself getting swarmed by racers near the top. That was bad and I knew it but could not bring myself to throw elbows to maintain my spot. The two racers that I'd assumed would be at the front, Roger and Paul, were quickly at or near the front and starting to organize while I was fighting to make forward progress ten or so spots back. This was my fault and I needed to be more aggressive and assertive. In the end, I finally got into the race mindset and got aggressive, clawing my way to the front of what was now the chase group trying to reel in Roger and Paul.

Within half a lap I made the jump and got up to the leaders along with Billy. The four of us were together for about a lap before Bill slid out in a corner and then it was just the three of us making good forward progress and taking turns hitting each other on the front. The turns were pretty even between Roger and I at first with Paul also throwing in some good digs. After only a few laps though we started to get into traffic from the end of the 55+ race, which started a couple of minutes after we had. The traffic got more and more intense and the passing got more and more frantic. I quickly realized that this traffic had the potential to be a decisive factor in our race so spent more time on the front than I would have liked to have. This afforded me the best passing opportunities. We were moving so fast in comparison to the people we were catching that it really wasn't practical to use the lapped racers as a passing advantage in most cases. In fact, it was often just a matter of trying to get by safely.

Coming onto the pavement and going into what would be the final lap, I was on the front and had decided to play a risky strategy. We were all fairly well matched and nobody had been able to drop anyone else. I knew that a straight up sprint finish was really risky. Paul is a very good sprinter and Roger is as well. Lets just say, nobody would ever pick me to win a sprint against these guys and in fact, some of my MTB buddies were reminding me of that fact during the race. I concluded my only option was to wear them down and make the finish hard for everyone. So as soon as I hit the pavement for one to go, I opened up a sprint normally saved for the finish. I got to the top with my legs completely on fire but settled into a hard push on the grass. We all came back together but I stayed on the front and out of every corner I drilled it.

Small gaps opened and needed to be closed, time and time again. Going through the final side-hill chicanes I was smooth and clean, which also helped. Cleanly over the barriers was the hardest trick as my legs were still reeling from the effort then back up to speed and to the far end, through the corners and sand and out to the pavement, where I had the smallest of gaps. One more hard sprint and about 3/4 of the way to the line we were all within probably ten feet of each-other. I could see Paul on my right as we were approaching the finish and with my head down I gave all I had and threw the bike at the line. The finish photo that Russ Campbell got was pretty good and told the story.

How do you follow that up on day two? Well, the truth is that I didn't. After our races we volunteered to help as USADA as chaperones. This involved some quick training and then waiting around for the elite races. Cathy worked the women's and I the men's race. Lets just say that there were challenges and it included lots of standing around watching and waiting as well as lots of literal running after the subject. Not exactly the best thing for the legs for day two. That said, I can't really blame anything on that. Day two the course was a little different but was still very familiar. The big change was that the corners the second day were super hard packed, dry and dusty and much of the grass had been worn away. This resulted in the corners being slick.

Cathy, who also spent her afternoon chasing someone around saw the same overall effects that I did. Her legs and back were killing her, she was dehydrated from standing in the sun and generally tired. Regardless she had a great start and a solid race, finishing strong in another brutally competitive women's race. Another great weekend for her in what has become a great season of racing overall.

Off the start it was again mayhem and with the hairpin double corners at the top of the start straight, it was tense. Again I wasn't willing to crash and took it easier than I should have, resulting in a lackluster position. Quickly the Roger/Paul train formed up at the front and was pulling away. Again I went into hatchet mode and rode super aggressively to make up the half a dozen or so spots between us. I made it to the front of the chase and quickly jumped off toward the lead group, attaching before too long to the back and then going right to the front to put in a dig. It was short lived however as Roger came right back around me in no time. From there we traded a few times but it was clear that Roger was cornering better than either Paul or I.

Directly after I had put a dig in, Roger came around and opened a little gap. The gap quickly grew as he flowed through the corners and punched it hard on the way out. At first we tried to pull it back but we were both flailing a bit and frantic riding only exacerbated that fact.The short is, Roger kept going. Paul and I worked hard but also stuck together, unable or unwilling to detach the other and escape. At the finish I hit the pavement first but as soon as I stood to sprint, my legs revealed just how little go they had in them. Paul easily flew around me and across the line for second. I was just glad to be done. All in all, a great weekend and just what I needed in terms of results to prove to myself that the season was coming around and I was just about where I needed to be.

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