Thursday, October 22, 2015

One of my better audibles

The kids got to dress up in their Halloween costumes for the race. They loved it!
Photo credit: Sean Craig
In my last post I wrote about changing my plans of riding the Omaha Jackrabbit gravel race to racing the Friday and Saturday Flatwater CX races instead. That was pretty much the best decision I could have made, I think. I was able to get two more 'cross races under my belt and by placing 2nd and 3rd on the days, I was able to secure more points towards upgrading to cat 3. Depending on how many cat 4 racers there were in my races, I believe I should now have around half the points I need to upgrade.

I realize that I could probably request an upgrade and be approved right now, I but I would kinda like to see if I can go ahead and get the points first. However, I think I'll request an upgrade for next year regardless of how many points I acquire in the next two races, especially if the races turn out anything like this weekend's races did where I was in the front 1 to 4 riders with a good gap back to the rest of the field.

The weekend was a really fun one, even though it was busier than we generally like. I got out of work a bit earlier than normal on Friday and headed home where Rachel was getting the kids up from their naps early so we could get down to Pioneer's Park in Lincoln in time for me to sign in and warm up a bit before my 5 o'clock race time. We managed to get down to the course by 4 o'clock or so and I got right to warming up on the course. Holy crap was that course bumpy! I could tell it would be a hard race with very few places to recover.

The race on Friday went just about as well as I could hope. I got a front row call up, which was key, because the path we started on was only wide enough for four riders and it was paved, so it was fast. I grabbed the holeshot and left the paved portion of the course in the front position. At that point I realized I wasn't really sure how to race a 'cross race from the front. Do you give it everything and hope you don't blow up or do you let a group form and race it that way? I decided to go about 95% and see if a group formed.

I finished the first lap still in front (which netted me a t-shirt for the holeshot prize... neato.) but with a couple guys, Adam Little and Patrick Abendroth, on my wheel. About halfway into the second lap Adam moved into the lead and I believe Patrick came around me too. I did my best to follow their wheels and not get dropped. Eventually Adam started pulling away from Patrick and I and then Patrick fell of the pace too which allowed me to move back into second spot. With one lap to go, I was pretty sure I had second place sewn up and I was close enough to Adam that it was possible that I might be able to catch him if I raced real hard and stayed clean through the corners. In the end I was able to do the last lap about 4.5 seconds faster than Adam. However it wasn't quite fast enough and Adam finished 3 second ahead of me.
Friday's Podium (1st Place - Adam Little, 2nd Place - Me, 3rd Place - Patrick Abendroth)

Finishing second on Friday meant I got the second call up on Saturday so I got to start on the front row yet again. Saturday's field was over four times the size of Friday's field and Cole Limpach was in the mix. If you remember from a previous post, I've declared my season's goal was to beat Cole in a 'cross race. You may think that it's a bit silly or bullish for me, a 35-year-old man, to set a goal of beating a 13 or 14-year-old young man in a race. But you would only think that's true if you haven't seen him race! Beating Cole is far from a certainty!

I figured Saturday's race would be the day to beat Cole because he didn't get signed up before the online registration closed, meaning he had to register day-of which meant he wouldn't get a call up. So, I'd be starting on the front row, whereas Cole would be starting in the back of a 38 person field. That would be a lot of traffic for Cole to pick his way through.

When the whistle blew, I got off to another good start, taking the holeshot into the grass again. However, my first lap was riddled with mistakes. Something was off in my head, and I wasn't able to hold on to the lead for the whole first lap again. Despite warming up pretty well, my legs were on fire with the previous day's race effort and I wasn't sure I'd be able to hold the pace for too much longer.

On the start/finish straight, there were four or five of us jostling for position before diving back into the grass. Sometime in the second lap I think I had gotten slotted into fourth position behind Adam, Patrick, and a guy on a MTB named Andrew.

At one point in the second lap, I believe it was, I hear Cole's dad, Kevin, yell something to Cole about me being not too far ahead of him. It was in a twisty section where what looks like a slim margin may actually be 10 or 15 seconds so I chose to believe that Kevin was just trying to motivate Cole rather than think that Cole had already fought his way through 25-30+ dudes.

About a half lap later I found that, in fact, Cole actually had moved up very quickly and was right there behind me... make that ahead of me as he made his way past me. I gritted my teeth and worked hard to not let Cole get away. I was banking on Cole not being able to hold the pace he was setting since he had to have burned a lot of matches working his way through the field. Fortunately, the fire in my legs had settled down and I was settling into a good hard pace that was sustainable, I thought.

At some point, I think Patrick's back started giving him problems and Cole and I made our way past him and then our race was for third place. I was still waiting for Cole to pop and was starting to worry that it wasn't going to happen. Fourth would be an okay finish in such a big field. I would still get some upgrade points, but my goal of beating Cole would remain unfulfilled.

But then it happened. Cole seemed to fade just a hair and I made a pass. I think it happened in the middle of the fourth lap. I spent the remainder of the race trying to ride smoothly enough to stay ahead of Cole and hard enough to see about chasing down Adam and Andrew. Adam and Andrew were out of sight by then, though so trying to move up a step on the podium was not looking good. The last time down the start/finish stretch I put the hammer down hard and, I think, snapped the elastic between Cole and me. I rode the last lap hard and finished 18 seconds behind Adam who was another 12.5 seconds behind Andrew.
Saturday's Podium (1st Place - Andrew Casburn, 2nd Place - Adam Little, 3rd Place - Me)

So, I did it. I beat Cole in a 'cross race. Yet, I don't know if I'm going to count it. I want to see what happens if we both start in similar position. Had Cole been on the front row with me on Saturday, I think the race may have turned out quite differently. The guy is very quick and he's better than me in the corners. The only thing I think I have over him is better endurance right now. That won't last long as he continues to grow and develop, so I better get to work on continuing to improve my handling skills! At least my stutter step is pretty much gone now!

The weekend was rounded out with a birthday celebration on Sunday for our youngest kiddo, which, while a real hoot, made for no real rest that weekend. Both Rachel and I are dragging this week something fierce! 

Next race is on November 7th where we'll head back down to Pioneer's Park for Star City CX's race. I'm looking forward to it. The Lincoln people know how to throw a CX party and I hear Hooligan's Hill is a real goody! Hopefully, I'll have accumulated enough rankings to start in the first row or second.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Cunningham Cross Report

Soup anyone?
Last weekend was my first cross race of the season, Cunningham Cross. I can't tell you how much I enjoy everything about cyclocross. The racing is intense and difficult and the environment is fun and friendly.

If you want to do well at a 'cross race, you have to have more in your bag of tricks than simple raw power, though that helps a lot. You have to handle your bike well, read an ever-changing course, and getting off and on your bike smoothly is a required skill you don't find anywhere else in the cycling world. I can't imagine there will ever be a day where I won't have some aspect of 'cross that could be improved upon.

After the race, it doesn't matter where you ended up placing so much, because now you get to trade stories about your race experiences with your competitors and there's always beer to be enjoyed and more racing to watch (unless you're a cat 1/2 whch won't be me for quite a while). And yet, even though it doesn't really matter where you placed, you (or is it just me?) always have that itch to do better next race, or to best that one competitor who keeps outpacing you (I'm looking at you David Cleasby!).
Cleasby and I crossing the ditch.
Since this race was my team's race to put on, my wife and I got there pretty early that morning and had been out at the course the night before helping to set up the course and helping to drain some cans of their beer. Being there early and the beers I drank the night prior probably wasn't the best race prep I could have done, but hey, it's 'cross! Rachel was put to work right away getting racers signed in and I somehow had the (mis)fortune of manning the microphone for the first half of the day. I've always had respect for the job Ryan Feagan does when announcing and this experience only reinforced that respect!

About two hours before my race, I ditched the microphone and got kitted up in our new team jersey and started getting warmed up. I'm not the type of rider who can go super hard off the line without a good warm-up. So, I did my best to get a few really good 30 second to 1 minutes all out efforts in during my warm-up. My legs seemed to be okayish, though it's hard to tell when you're riding on 33mm knobby tires with not much air in them. Everything feels harder than it should on pavement. I'm sure the beer the previous evening had no influence on that...
Everything is more dramatic in black and white!
With a few minutes to spare, I got one more lap of the course in (except the muddy section) and rode up to the start where just about everyone was already lined up. I wasn't really worried about getting there early since there are usually call-ups anyways. I don't know if they did call-ups before I got there or if they didn't do them at all at this race, cause I never heard them. I knew I should have shown up to the line earlier. Maybe I could have weaseled my way into the front row. Live and learn I guess.

It only took about a third of a lap for the consequences of my poor starting position to rear their ugly heads. There was a nasty set of twisties that you could really only take in single file. As you might imagine (click here if you want to actually see it) it didn't take long for everything to jam up in there with at least two guys falling down ahead of me in line. By the time I got through the twisties, the leaders were way up the road and that was really all she wrote as far as my attempt at getting on the podium.
The ground here was so bumpy!
The race was far from over though. David Cleasby and a couple other guys and I were still together and it sounded from whoever was announcing that we were racing for fourth place. At some point in the second lap, Dave started pulling away from me on the bumpy power sections and the mud and I wasn't able to use the technical section to bring him back enough anymore so it ended up coming down to me and another racer (Alex Stephens) from the Midwest Cycling Club. We battled back and forth for most of the last two laps. He seemed to be slightly stronger on the flat sections and much faster running through the mud, but I was better in the corners and climbed the big climb faster.
Splish splash!
Like I said, Alex was faster than I was running through the muddy section. On our last time through the mud he passed me but then gave me the perfect opportunity to put to use some cornering tactics I learned at Mark Savery's cross clinic a few weeks ago. At the end of the muddy stretch, there was a left hand 180° turn. As we remounted our bikes, Alex continued on the path he was on meaning he started his turn from a pretty tight position. I saw this coming and proceeded to swing wide and apex my turn a little later so I could cut inside him when he had to exit the turn wide. It was beautiful and I think I deserve a gold star from Savery next time I see him!

I held Alex off through the barriers and down the path and then hammered it up the climb knowing he had been riding that a bit slower than I had been. Sure enough, I was able to get a pretty good gap which gave me some breathing room through the last bit of technical corners and into the final flat section. I could tell he was gaining back on me here, but it is really hard to pass in those final few corners and so he had to try and out-sprint me coming out of the final corner. I clicked it up a couple of gears before the last corner and sprinted as hard as I could. He came around me somewhere around the line. It was basically a photo-finish and neither of us could tell who had crossed the line first.
Everyone's bikes were a mess by the end of the day. The mud wasn't so bad to clean, but the grass clung to everything!
It was really good to be able to have some good head-to-head competition for those last couple laps. In previous races, by the last lap, I've been pretty much by myself. Having someone pushing you and forcing you to be aware of tactics in the midst of the tunnel-vision of a 'cross race made the race come even more alive for me. Very cool.

When the results sheet came back it showed that I had just barely edged out Alex for 5th place. I was something like 3 hundredths of a second ahead of him. It had to have come down to who had their timing chip on their forward ankle at the finish. What a great race! Next time I hope I will have a better starting position and then have a better chance of vying for a podium spot. These juniors coming up through the ranks are making it really hard though! lol I seriously told my wife that my new season goal is to beat Cole Limpach at least once, and that will be a challenge!

After I got changed out of my muddy kit, I got some of my stuff packed away and grabbed a few delicious beers courtesy of Brickway Brewery & Distillery and went to watch and cheer on the P/1/2 riders with Rachel. We watched, surprised, as some guy we didn't recognize rode away from Savery (turns out this guy was on the Hincapie continental road team and spent a couple stints over in Belgium with USAC's Euro 'cross camp) and we enjoyed all the fun that is 'cross spectating. There was beer, gummy worm hand up, and a gorilla masked Emily Houtchens offering banana hand-ups. It all made for a wonderful day of racing and watching racing.

My plan for the season was to do the full Omaha Jackrabbit gravel race (125 miles of gravel) on October 17th and then switch back to 'cross mode for the Star City CX and the Bellevue GP in November for a total of three 'cross races. But after the fun of last weekend, I decided to suggest to Rachel that we load up the kids and head to Lincoln for the Friday night Flatwater race on the 16th and then head down again the next day as well, skipping out on Jackrabbit. She had so much fun at Cunningham that she didn't even hesitate to agree to that idea even though it will mean getting the kids up early from their naps and extra coordination with Grammy. I told you 'cross was fun!

I'm hoping that with two more races than I had originally planned, that I will be able to garner enough points to upgrade to cat 3 for next year. My 5th out of 23 last weekend got me 1 point which puts me 10% of the way to my upgrade. While I know cat 3 will really kick my ass, I'd rather have a 45 minute race than a 30 minute one (or 24 minutes for that matter. #thanksdarrell) since I can usually just feel myself getting into a good rhythm at around 15 minutes in.