Friday, September 25, 2015

Under Way

It all begins here!
The cyclocross season that is. Each year I am amazed at how quickly the season sneaks up on us. At some point it feels a lifetime away, in the future and then the next thing you know it is at your front door. So here were are, already two full weekends of racing in the books plus the weeknight Midnight Ride of Cyclocross race.

This year, we will be racing as part of our own team, Bikeway Source Racing, directly for our local shop, the Bikeway Source in Bedford. Additionally, we are riding and racing for the Cat Connection, a Waltham, MA based feline rescue league and shelter. These are the wonderful folks from who we adopted O&E. We want to help spread the word and bring as much attention as possible to them. I designed the kits with a cat theme, partially to boost awareness but also to make us ride hard and go fast, because if you are a middle age (plus) adult riding around with paw prints on your butt, you darn well better be going hard.

Additionally, as most know, Cathy and I have been all about Cannondale Bicycles for a very long time. Over the years we have acquired a literal fleet of their bikes. Recently we became grass roots brand ambassadors. Cannondale has always been very good to us and we hope to represent them in some small way, through everyday usage of the product, to the best of our ability. Nobody pays us to ride the bikes nor are we given bikes. We choose the brand because we believe it to be the best product available, brought to us by the best shop around, the Bikeway Source. We will be aboard our trusty Cannondale SuperX disc bikes with SRAM Red 10spd and Avid BB7 SL cable disc brakes again this year. No reason what so ever to change.

Cathy railing it at Silk City CX
Cathy and I have also taken a somewhat different tact in terms of racing this season. In the past, we've done many things but most recently, we spent a huge amount of our time racing the single-speed races. We loved the single-speed and single-speed races and adore our custom Cannondale SuperX disc SSCX bikes, which are still our primary training bikes, but last season things soured a bit and the discipline lost some of it's luster, for me anyhow. I guess that it's too bad that I let it happen. Regardless, that was only one part of the story. The other part is that I was doubling up, doing the Elite and then the SSCX races back to back. The Elite race is a full hour long race and the SSCX was 40 minutes. That made for a huge block of intensity, especially when racing both days on the weekend.

What I discovered, the hard way, was that I couldn't recover from the cumulative effect of those efforts coupled with the normal, mid week practice sessions. Over time, it added up and in the end of October at the Orchard Cros race, I crashed and crashed hard, physically. I was exhausted and it took me almost a full month to dig myself out of that hole, all the way to Thanksgiving and the Sterling races. I'm getting older and am trying hard to acknowledge my weaknesses, listen to the feedback my body gives me and avoid the pitfalls, again.

So this year it is one race a day. However, I really like the extra 15 minutes you get in the Elite races over the 45 minute Master's events, so I've been doing only those so far this year. And it hasn't been going half bad at all. Each race I seem to be roughly in the same group, chasing or being chased by Mike Wissell, but that group is well toward the front of the race, usually vying for podium spots. Granted, these are the smaller, local races but still, I'm at least competitive and have solid, strong people to race. Don't get me wrong, there is the same competition in Master's and SSCX, it just feels good to be able to do a respectable race in the local Elite field at my age. As an added benefit, I've been able to win enough money so far this year to cover the entry fees. Bonus!

Cathy killing the sand at QuadCX
The season started for us with the Silk City CX race in Mansfield, CT, just outside of Hartford. I did the race last season and it was a great and super challenging course. This year's course had some changes but also shared many of the same sections. A little more open field power sucking grass and some super tricky fresh cut in the woods plus a crazy little run up. Despite many conflicting races that day, the turnout for the race had a good block of very solid competition including Todd Bowden, Charlie Bertram, Tim Ratta and Matt Timmerman as well as a whole bunch of other folks that were very anxious to go fast.

The start was fast and hard and foreign given I'd spent very little time doing CX practice at that point. I managed to keep contact though and a gap quickly started to form. Despite the heat, which was excessive, I felt pretty good so comfortably went to the front for a bit. A bobble on the uphill switchback sent me just off the back of the group, struggling to re-connect. I dangled a bit but was so gassed from the effort that I never got back in. Lap after lap of chasing got me close at one point but not close enough. Fatigue set in later and all I could do was maintain my 5th position.

Mike worked really, really hard for that podium spot
The following was the QuadCycles Cyclocross race just a few miles from home at the Maynard Rod and Gun Club. Not only is it convenient but it is always a really good course and the race gets a large turnout. It did not disappoint with a big group taking the line in both the men's and women's Elite races. Off the line I got a fairly good start but was slotted back in about 6th spot with Nate Morse on the front. There was some mayhem occurring in the corners in terms of very overzealous racers trying to gain position by riding aggressively. This resulted in some contact and some crashing, all of which I managed to avoid. I pride myself on racing really clean and predictably and I'm also pretty efficient at protecting my lines. Maybe it's because I'm the old guy but most of the younger kids are very respectful in the interactions during the race.

Cathy ready to race White Park
Once we hit the woods, the wheels started to come off for many. Countless flats and mechanical incidents and soon I found myself chasing Elite MTB racer turned CXer Tyler Berliner, who was in second. Over a couple laps I was able to catch and go to the front to try and gain some ground on Nate. Unfortunately as things were starting to look promising I managed to flat on the back side of the course. Luckily I had a bike in the pit, which was close by, and only lost two spots.

Unfortunately, all I had was my SSCX bike in the pit. Not a terrible thing but for the task at hand I'd have really liked gears. Over the next couple laps I chased Tyler back down but the other place I'd lost, Patrick Collins, had gone well up ahead and worse, Mike Wissell, who'd had a mechanical early in the race, was nipping angrily at my heels. Fleeing madly from Mike I managed to play keep away until the top of the back side on the last lap but at that point, he caught and passed me. I stuck with him but couldn't get by without making a sketchy pass. I'd been remounting and riding the hill after the barriers on the geared bike but couldn't do it on the SSCX. It wasn't faster up but it was faster out of the hill, because you were on the bike a clipped in. Regardless, it wasn't an option. Mike handily took the sprint finish for the final podium spot leaving me with 4th.

Suckerbrook sand
Last weekend we had another round of back to back days. Saturday's race was at White Park in Concord, NH. Great course another good turnout. Unfortunately, another really warm day also. The heat really seems to be bothering me much more this year. Anyhow, we started hard and coming into the new high speed barriers, which had only just made their appearance moments before our race because someone had stolen the initial set, almost ate my lunch. I totally hosed them up and almost wiped out. The fatigue I'd come into the race feeling didn't really subside the way I'd hoped it would. Apparently I'd gone a little too hard in training that week and wasn't fully recovered. The punchy course made me pay for that. I settled into 7th and was unable to make any progress, sitting along in no-man's land. Then Mike Wissell, who'd crashed and injured his hand slid backwards by me, leaving me in 6th. Hard race for sure.

Suckerbrook 2-5, Dylan is already back and changed
The next day was Suckerbrook CX in Auburn, NH and again Cathy and I were doing the Elite races. That meant a later in the day start and an easy morning for us. The venue was it's usually busy self with races going continually through the day. The course was dry as a bone and very dusty with some great new changes making for a longer and more technically challenging lap. The day was warm and sunny but not nearly as hot or humid as in past races. I felt mediocre which I'm actually finding is usually a good thing. The start was fast and I had a chain skip, resulting in a less than stellar start. Still, I sat in the top ten through the first corner and started moving forward from there. Finding myself behind Mike Wissell I decided that was my goal, stay with Mike.

Suckerbrook Elite Men's podium
This was working great and we picked up numerous spots, eventually settling in and trading places. At that point we had Dylan McNicholas well ahead in the lead with Patrick Collins chasing and then myself, Mike and Trent Blackburn pushing forward. I managed to get a small gap and was back into the all too familiar position of fleeing from Mike Wissell. I know, should have been racing forward but knew Mike would never, ever give up. A slight bobble coming out of the sand, which by the way was horrifically difficult this year, and Mike was right on me. I kept forward focus though and was first onto the finish pavement. The resulting sprint for the final podium spot went my way though, that time and I was very, very happy with the day's ride.

That brings us to the Midnight Ride of Cyclocross race this past Wednesday evening. This is a great event at a venue not far from here. The Elite races are held under the lights and our race commenced at 8PM. The start list for this event is always one of the best of the local non-UCI Elite races. Many racers are in town for the nation's premier UCI Cyclocross event this coming weekend in Gloucester, MA and so they attend the Wednesday night race. This included the British and Australian women's Elite National champions as well as the men's Canadian National Champion and a host of legitimate Elite and Elite Master's racers. The men's Elite field had over sixty starters. I didn't feel terribly confident given that I was on the line with some seriously legitimate athletes. I was also nervous about the start, a slight downhill on gravel into a chicane which we would hit at well over 30mph, in the dark.

Midnight Ride of CX SSCX race start
At the start whistle I got a good start and charged hard forward slotting amazingly, into 4th position just behind Adam Myerson. Pressure continued at the front but I felt comfortable holding my place. Gaps opened behind me and soon we had a little room. Going through the barns and the wood chips Adam's brakes seemed to be locking some and small gaps opened, which then needed to be closed. I was now working really hard and knew I should move up to try and ease the accordion effect but just couldn't do it. On the second lap two of the Goguen kids and Charlie Bertrand passed me and that was enough to cause my separation. I dangled for a bit just barely unable to reconnect but then they organized and surged ahead some, making it nearly impossible to reattach without a massive effort, which I was in no position to make.

Fawn Lake recover ride
I remained about 10 seconds back for a long, long time. Meanwhile, a chase group formed with, you guessed it, Mike Wissell leading the charge. He had Preston Buehrer and a JAM Fund racer with him. I could see them charging ahead in every turn, only a hand full of seconds back. Not again! Yes, again and I'm guessing it won't be the last time this year. So I spent the rest of the race trying to go forward but making sure I didn't go backward, fleeing for my spot. Todd Bowden, who had been in the front group, had a wheel issue and was forced to stop and fix it so I got by him, putting me in 6th. That never changed and I managed to stay ahead through the finish.
I was dumb-founded. No, I didn't win and wasn't even on the podium but I finished significantly better than I'd expected. My goal had been top ten, which I met and then some. I'd felt really good all night and was able to keep pushing pretty well, never really fading and racing the vast majority of the race, solo stuck in between groups.

Chipping away
That's it so far. We sit poised for what is arguably the biggest race weekend of the year, the Gran Prix of Gloucester and the first stop of the Verge NECX Series. I'll be racing the master's 45+ race again this year for the series. There are some new faces that are going to raise the bar, a lot. It's going to be similar to a couple years back when we also had the addition of some very high end competition. Historically this has been a good weekend for me, but I take nothing for granted and have few expectations. I'll race my hardest and whatever will happen, wherever that gets me, is where I will end up. Bottom line is that it's just a race.

I'm having so much fun racing the guys in the small Elite races, these big master's events are a little less important to me. No goals this season. Well, maybe one secret goal, to upgrade my race category, for no other reason that I want to. I'm currently getting there, one point at a time. Will see if I can make it before the season ends.

By the way, Cathy has also been racing the Elite races all season and doing great. She is a very tough lady and I am so proud of her for all of her efforts. Much love and respect, as always.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Summer Racing

 This past summer saw some dramatic changes to the typical team bicycle race plan. Those changes simply centered around a drastic reduction in the amount of racing that we participated in. Both Cathy and I have been racing steadily since our return to bike racing, back in 2006. That makes this the tenth season in a row. We started out doing time trials and road races in the spring and summer and took up cyclocross in earnest in the fall. That season we did over road and cyclocross races as well as nearly a dozen weekly time trial races.

From there it only expanded and in 2008 we started MTB racing again, adding a full race season of over ten MTB races to full road, time trail and cyclocross seasons. Shortly thereafter we spent a couple of seasons doing well over 50 races a year, not including a dozen weekly time trials. My biggest year had me over 60 road, MTB and cyclocross races in addition to the time trails. That translated to a nearly continual stream of race registration of competition that spanned all but a short couple of months of the year, and this went on for a number of consecutive years.

Unfortunately, this simply didn't scale and we found ourselves completely consumed. The first thing to go was the road racing and we pared that down substantially. The discipline had started to fade and neither of us were making much headway so it was the easy choice. In the past couple of years, I've had specific MTB related goals so kept a focus on that discipline in the summer, not going crazy with racing but still doing nearly a dozen MTB races a season. Road racing, with the exception of some gravel road racing, had all but disappeared from our radar yet cyclocross remained a core racing target.

The toll of years and years of competition has started to weigh heavily and motivation has been low. I also recognize that I've had a block of really good years of recent and have had no down time. Usually one can expect a down turn, and a lackluster season. I'm due if not overdue and now that I'm in the upper tier of my five year age bracket, at least for cyclocross with a racing age of 48, it is a good time to take a break and maybe preempt the natural downfall with some recovery and rejuvenation so I can build back up for when the odometer clicks over to 50 in a couple seasons.

At least that was the plan and that is what I've been going with all season. It sounds terrible and it sounds lazy but I've spent the season experimenting with doing the absolute minimum possible to maintain the lowest level of fitness necessary to meet my target goals. This season I had few if any goals save for the Kenda Cup East MTB Series, a five race series of events I'd normally do anyhow. That became my only summer goal.Sure, I did a couple of other small MTB races as well like the season opener Muddy Bunny MTBTT and the Craftsbury Nordic Center MTB race but that was it.

In years past I'd always been about one thing, over training. I'd never known what just the right amount was and don't have the long term background and race history to be able to confidently say exactly X amount of training is required to meet Y goal so I just went out and did as much as I possibly could. A few years back I made the realization that for cyclocross, this model simply didn't scale, especially for a middle age racer racing both days every weekend, so I listened to my body and pared back the training. That model has been very effective and I've started to adopt a similar model during the summer as well.

This year I took that model to a new level, with mixed results. I came into the season pretty fit what with big winter and early season blocks as well as some good solid in season efforts. This carried me through the early part of the season and the first few races of the series in good form. However, once the heart of the summer kicked in things started to change. I spent the summer living in VT working on our place there. I was very busy and regularly did ten plus hour days of physical activity, often working right up to dark. That made effective riding a challenge and not terribly productive. I was constantly fatigued and unmotivated and did I mention that it was cold and rained, constantly in VT?

When it was time to race again for real in early July, we returned to MA, greeted by ungodly heat and humidity to a parched, dusty landscape. The first race in those conditions crushed me. The course was brutally difficult as well and certainly took a toll but normally, that would have been a great course for me. However, I dehydrated and bonked so badly that I could barely function. After the race I was the literal walking dead, spending some quality time praying at the bathroom alter, losing what little fluid I was able to put back into my body before finally passing out for a few hours. I lost eight pounds and wasn't right for a week.

The next week we turned around and did it all over again for the Barn Burner Kenda Cup East Series Finale which was also the Regional Championships. This race was at a local, Walpole, MA venue where I'd seen good results in the past, save for the fact that I smashed my face into the rocks and broke my nose there the year before during a pre-ride. The day was crazy hot, again. We were determined not to have the same results as the past weekend though so pre-hydrated like crazy, literally drinking no less than a gallon of fluid before the race. We packed CamelBak's full of ice and fluid for the race and sat around before the race with ice packs on our necks to control the core temperature. I refused to dehydrate and bonk.

But I was a little rattled from the week before. Losing makes you question yourself, your ability. I find that the older I get, the more this happens. Is this the season or the race where the tide is going to turn and I start the inevitable age based downslide? We all age and it is unrealistic to think that when we are already at a fairly high level, we will be able to continue to improve or even maintain, forever. I know that this change is on the horizon and know that I'm treading water, unsure of how long I can continue to do so. That is why I'm trying to force a down turn with the hope of being able to get at least one last upturn in, pushing past where I was previously.

So I get to the start line, feeling a little, cautious and reserved I'll say. I've never been one to play much in terms of race tactics. I'm more a ride as hard as I can to get away and then keep pushing, racing against and trying to beat everyone that I encounter between there and the finish. That sounds shallow and callous but literally, that is how I am wired. This works well in some disciplines, not in others. That day in that race, I knew it wasn't going to work. I questioned my own ability, uncertain as to whether or not (I believed that) I was the strongest there. This was unnerving. I knew the series was already decided based on the work I'd done up front, earlier in the series but I didn't want to win the overall without taking the finale as well. That made for some pressure to perform on that given day.

The start was crazy with a huge field of competitors, all of whom wanted one thing, to finish ahead of me and everyone else there. I found myself going into the woods in about tenth position, not optimal by any stretch. We awkwardly and frantically fumbled through rock gardens and switchbacks and by the time we broke to the first field I was sitting about sixth. Time for a test so a attacked around and laid down as much as I could afford to, but the line of traffic was still there. Not good. On the uphill powerline stretch Matt Boobar went to the front and started drilling it. It was at that point reality sunk in and I knew the plan needed to change. I couldn't drive this race, I needed to be the passenger and just hang on.

Matt led for a while with Rich Pirro and then I in tow. Rich knew the course well and was anxious to lead so when Matt started to fatigue, Rich took over and pushed hard and smoothly. It was all that I could do to follow him and hold his wheel. The pace was hard but I was confident that I could sustain it. My only hope was that Rich would push himself too hard and fatigue. Incredibly we made it through three of the four laps with little perceived change. I knew it was now or never and gambled that Rich was on the edge so coming through for the final lap I attacked hard and decisively and held it as long as I could. This snapped the line and managed to pry open a gap between myself and Rich. I was tired but hadn't run myself to the point of exhaustion in subsequent laps, allowing me to keep pushing at a reasonable pace through the finish. Yes, I had to resort to being a weasel.

Summer goal complete we returned to VT and got back at the work with a vengeance. Knowing that the time there was drawing thin and with so many projects to complete, work load increased and riding tailed in earnest. The rides we did started to evolve into short, interval based high intensity sessions at Kingdom Trails or on gravel roads. This kept them fun while arguably building specific fitness toward cyclocross season, which we still intended to participate in whole heatedly. We also got in a few good, long Kingdom Trails MTB rides on the weekends in some warm humid summer weather, which had finally arrived in VT.

Because the Hodges Dam MTB race was slated as the MA State Championships and because I'd had good success there pretty consistently since 2008, I decided that we should do it. Neither of us wanted to do the race or leave VT but I convinced Cathy to do so. The morning of the race I got an email that said the race would not be the State Championships. We both knew we didn't want to race and had only decided to do so because of the Championships but had made the significant investment to pre-register and travel to MA so got in the van and did so anyhow. During a lap of pre-ride I noted my rear hub was snapping and popping like mad. It had been getting progressively worse so I'd brought spare wheels with me. The wheels were not in great shape nor were the tires but should hold. The course was effectively the same as previous years but was run in reverse. Course marking were somewhat sparse and with numerous lines in many areas, carved out by heavy moto traffic, left the actual routes up to some interpretation. On the line there was talk about this and that if it wasn't explicitly taped, it was all in play.

We started hard and I led putting down what felt like a solid pace while trying not to completely gas myself. We still had a solid group all together though. As we crossed back over the main access road for the second time and into a twisty section of bombed out trail the flow of the trail went one way around a long sweeping corner after a stone wall but there was a hidden shortcut to the left just after that wall. I led and stuck to what I felt was the intended trail. the rest of the group broke left and gapped me. This was my fault for not knowing the shortcut was there and I blame none of my competition for using it. It, however, really pissed me off and in my rage to chase back I clipped a pedal and crashed. Then a very strange thing happened. I lost all interest in racing. I spent the next three laps riding around trying to decide if I'd race standard format XC MTB in the future. I still don't know.

Part of the issue for me personally in how I justify expenses is that entry fees have increased for the MTB races and there are no longer any payouts for Cat1 fields. I get it, we are not professionals and everyone involved in promoting a race is just trying to cover their costs and break even let alone make money. I don't fault them for this decision. I've justified racing similarly though; if I can win enough to cover the entry fee it was a good day and I could rationalize doing it, financially, vs. just going and doing a group ride for fun. Dropping $75 for the two of us to race mediocre trail, which truth be told most MTB races consists of, when we could ride Kingdom Trails with friends and spend the money on good food and beer is a really tough sell, at least for me right now. Others are different and value the competition, I'm just at a point in life where that isn't the priority it once was. Luckily, Cathy had a great race and spent the day racing with her friend Jennifer, which took the edge off an otherwise unfortunate day.

The only other thing left for the summer race scene was the Dirty 40 gravel road race at the very tail end of the summer. That is a whole other story though, one full of surprises and one that I will try and pull together shortly.

We'd hoped to do the VOGP race as well, but things just didn't work out for us (me) to be in a position to be able to do that. Too many things going on and not enough time to do all of them. Having little or no outside commitments during the summer is actually quite refreshing in and of itself. Low key isn't a bad thing.

I also need to document the camp project. Much progress but still not done. Now we are in the heat of CX season, already. Wow, fast and furious.