Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Well, its finally here, I’ve reached the end of foreseeable racing in 2008. It has been a long season filled with great new experiences and valuable lessons. A year ago at this time, I was an ex-collegiate rower clinging to the hope of a continued competitive outlet in the form of sculling. I trained every day before class, riding my bike up to the Peter Jay Sharp Boathouse to meet my training partner, Alyosha at 6am for our morning row.
A year ago, bike racing was still just a far-off fantasy to me. I have always enjoyed bikes obsessively, but never turned a pedal in anger during a race. I was content to watch from the outside, riding my bike alone and hiding my secret shame that I was not a “real” racer. I was too big, too clueless and too busy to figure out racing, so I thought. As we enter this time of year when we are encouraged to reflect and give thanks, I have a lot to be appreciative for. After all, In less than a year, many unexpected opportunities have been given to me, and I am truly grateful. Before I go all mushy, though, let me get back to the final weekend. The real reason I write, after all, is to try sum up the experience of racing from the perspective of a wide-eyed newbie.
Traditionally, the Prensky family converges on the ancestral homeland of Chevy Chase, MD for the eating of Turkey and the giving of thanks. I boarded a Vamoose bus, along with the several hundred other DC-bound New Yorkers and headed out from Penn Station. Amazingly, despite getting stuck in NJTP traffic for what seemed like an eternity, we still made it to Bethesda in a reasonable five hours. Most shockingly, the bus traversed the Beltway from Baltimore to Connecticut Avenue in Chevy Chase in about 30 minutes (it normally takes at least 45). Let me just say that perhaps bike racers could learn a thing or two about speed from these drivers.
Once at my Grandparents’ house, before we began the feast, there was another age-old ritual to be completed. Just as in every year since I’ve been Bar Mitzvah’d into adulthood, I was given a ladder, a broom and a screwdriver to clean the gutters and replace the squirrel-damaged gutter guards. Once that was completed, we could move on to the newer tradition of making me carve the turkey and incanting predictable jokes about how well I was doing because I am in medical school and thus will be a surgeon and thus know (somehow) how to carve a bird. I must say, though, that I did a pretty decent job this year. I think it has more to do with my habit of eating Peruvian chicken on a regular basis, however. Its like practicing on a scale model of a turkey after all. Dinner was fantastic…Thanks, Grandma, Mom, Aunt Gail, you’ve done it again!
Ok, I promised racing and I’m still talking about the extracurriculars, I’m sorry. After Thanksgiving dinner, I returned to Camp Hill, PA with my parents. This meant that when we headed back to New York on Saturday, we would be driving within a mile or two from the PA state cyclocross championships. The urge for spontaneous, unplanned racing proved too strong and my dad and I took the minor detour off the highway in Allentown to check it out.
Borrowing my dad’s bike and shoes, I lined up with the Cat2,3,4 field. After a strong start, I had a large gap for the first lap. I wanted to create a selection right away, and as expected a couple of the fast guys quickly formed a chase and dropped the rest of the field. Zach Adams, who has been on fire recently, made a great move to bridge up with Matt Spohn. Towards the end of the second lap, they were closing, so I sat up and let Zach take the lead. He seemed content to set the pace for the majority of the race. He was clearly strong and motivated. Matt, Zach and I rode steady and gradually distanced ourselves to a comfortable lead where we settled in. The course was fairly straightforward. It was dry, so no mud complicated the grassy course’s off-cambers and there was only one forced dismount. With two laps to go, Matt bobbled a bit and was gapped. Clearly, he was in difficulty from his earlier efforts to join the front and he could never catch back on. Zach and I tactically rolled around the final lap. He peppered the last lap with little bursts of accelerations that I ached to match. Ultimately, he managed to put a little distance on me after the barriers, with about 50 yards before a right turn onto the uphill finishing stretch of pavement. I couldn’t quite get myself up to him in time to win in a sprint. Did I wuss out? Probably, but I was happy to finish well in a spur of the moment race. Besides, Zach has been racing very well these past few weeks, and deserved the win. After waiting around to pick up my prize, it was back on the road to New York City, Staten Island awaited.
Sunday morning, my father and I awoke to frigid temperatures and sleet. It only seemed to get worse as we hit the road and made our way to final borough that I had yet to visit since moving here. I called CJ from the car, and he informed me that conditions were even winterier where he was standing (putting the final touches to the course-set). I began prepping myself for the mental anguish of slip-sliding in half-frozen mud. I also had to psych my dad up. His bike was in the car, he had clothing, shoes, a helmet and the cash for day-of registration. The only thing he needed was a son who wouldn’t let him back down.
We showed up to the parking lot as things were already getting underway. Fittingly, the race course shared the park with a monument to the Battle of the Bulge. It was cold, it was wet and people didn’t seem particularly excited. I was able, however, to talk my dad into suiting up and taking his bike out of the car for a little ride. Eventually, he even capitulated to signing up to race in the B-masters field. He raced, he finished and he smiled a bunch. Much later, he would call me from the car ride back to PA. He was stuck in traffic and still full of penetrating damp coldness. He wouldn’t get a shower until seven hours after his race! That’s ‘core!
The weather made the pre race routine downright painful. It was uncomfortable to even begin to think about changing into proper clothing. I layered myself under some raingear and took a look at the course. I was happy to see Matt Spohn, my fellow Central Pennsylvanian and race companion from the previous day. We went about “warming up” by spinning around Jed and CJ’s course set. It was nice. The course utilized much of the available terrain, with a mix of grass, mud and sand. There was one exception to the otherwise free flowing rhythm of the course. A failed attempt at the famed “spiral of death” invented some years ago for the Wissahickon race, left a muddled birdsnest of tape following the barriers. Sorry Tony, I still won’t buy it, that wasn’t a real spiral! My favorite sections of the course included a fun little rollercoaster around the park’s Monument and a grass stretch that overlooked the Atlantic surf.
So, we lined up for the race. I guess I didn’t get the promised CRCA call-up since I was flying the TOGA colors. I sat on the second row. The start was too short to really get a good run at taking the holeshot, so I started as fast as I could and waited until the first grass straightaway to move up. While sprinting up the side, a rut in the mud knocked me several feet to the right and I gave the guy (winner of the holeshot) a nice hip check with all my 185 pounds. Fortunately, it was fellow big dude, and creator of the “Glomerulus of Confusion,” Tony Slokar. He gave me a sarcastic scolding, and we rolled on. Soon, I moved away from the group. A little later I was joined by Matt Spohn. We worked together to build a lead, as was our tactic going into the race. I was a bit faster running through the sand, which put me in the lead going into the woods. I preferred the front there, because it gave me the ability to chose my line and ride the run-up. The ability to stay on the bike up the steep, rooty, pitch gave us a major advantage coming back onto the grass sections of the course. Matt took the lead for a few stretches, but the mud off of his back tire made the draft less pleasant than if it were dry, so I spent as much time as possible on the front. On the last lap, Matt took the lead after the beach. We headed into the woods and hit lapped traffic on the run-up. This congestion forced us to dismount for the first time in the race. I was able to squeeze by him while on foot, scrambling up the incline. We hit the final few turns and I hit the gas. He wasn’t able to match my acceleration and I cruised in with my final win. Luckily, I barely avoided the embarrassment of crashing into a hole on the finish line while celebrating with raised arms and let out a goofy “WHOAAHOAH!” and laughed as I grabbed my bars and finished with a more restrained posture.
StatenCX, round one was a success and the photos say it all. It was especially nice to see so many familiar faces from the road season trying out cyclocross for the first time and supporting CJ and Jed’s vision for the future of cycling in NYC. Hopefully the city and CRCA, Kissena and the rest of New York’s cycling community will continue to support such a welcome development. Thanks for everybody who came out. I will leave it to CJ to finally write his wrap-up blog (which appears to be even more overdue than mine) and give the full perspective on what those guys accomplished. As for me, I am very pleased with my season. I met my goals of having fun, learning a new sport and gaining some skills. I also accomplished some things that I had not expected, namely to earn a Cat2 in something my first year out, and in ‘Cross, no less. This inevitably brings me back to my gushy, emotional stream I was hinting at earlier. When originally conceiving this piece in the context of Thanksgiving, I had the incredibly clichéd desire to express my deep appreciation for everybody who has made this season so great. So here goes…and I mean this stuff sincerely, so tread lightly when making sarcastic comments about this little epilogue
Thanks to the Sanches-Metro (stay tuned for the name change next year) guys for getting me started way back in January. I can’t say enough about how much the generosity and benevolence of the team, especially from Bob Guatelli and Vinny Vicari, means to me. I also owe a huge debt of gratitude to the TOGA guys for showing me the ropes and introducing me to the quirky world of Cyclocross. Without Paul’s pit bike, I would not have had a sled. Also, thanks to CJ, Jed, Jon Cuttler, for making the fantasy of a Staten Island race a reality. I also need to shout out to Tony Slokar, who makes a mean roast (so I’ve heard). Thanks for reading, and watch out for those little metal thingies on the GW bridge—flat city!
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
I didn’t include a race report from the USGP at Mercer for a couple of reasons. For one, by the time I recovered from the physical and mental shock that that race unleashed, a number of people had already adequately summed up the experience. My experience was in no way unique. It was muddy, I ran a lot, and I hated myself for the full three laps that I raced on Sunday. I had sacrificed the Saturday race in order to study, and one look at the C race in progress on the following day made me wish I had bagged the whole weekend. Secondly, nothing very interesting happened to me, aside from getting the chance to finally see how masochistic and illogical cyclocross racing can be. Sunday was not only a great chance for me to participate in an “EPIC” cross race, but also hone my snark with team mate Eben as we prepared. My only regret from Mercer was that they didn’t run the course into the lake to make the damn thing into a triathlon. One other highlight was when Eben and I were passed on the highway by a Lamborghini and Porshe turbo-something. They were traveling at nearly double our velocity and squeezing through smaller holes than one of those sketchy racers in Central Park that nobody knows exactly how he got a cat2 upgrade all those years ago. Supper “aggro.”
Anyhow, I took my exam on Monday. Nobody has instructed me to clean out my locker and turn in my ID badge, so I guess I succeeded in passing. On with the show…
Whitmore’s Landscaping Supercross of Southampton (or something like that):
I had intended to title this post, “A Touch of Gold” as we were racing in none other than New York City’s own classy country cousin—The Hamptons.
This location had always filled my head with wonderous visions of solid gold plumbing, foreign luxury automobiles and those fancy striped beach tent things that you see in old grainy photos from the 1920’s of wealthy Manhattanites summering at the shore in black wool bathing coveralls. I was excited to see if the Great Gatsby was still out there somewhere (I know, it wasn't the Hamptons, but I apply my Literal references liberally, OK?). I know sub-freezing temperatures are not the ideal way to experience a glamorous beach destination, but heck, I’d only ever been to Long Island once, and that was for a college lacrosse game at Pace. I tagged along with a rag tag group of young up and comers to our weekend rental home in Easthampton. It came equipped with a garage, knock-off Viking stove, huge chandelier and authentic faux gold-plated silverware in the kitchen drawers. The non-racing activities of the weekend generally included one comical folly/ near disaster after another. I will just say this to the young people out there—fire safety is important. To protect others' identities from potential future embarrassment/litigation I will only say that our group included 2 members of a local team famous for their orange jumpsuits and gas-station-like team branding, a well known promoter of NYC cross racing and bacon chic, a fur-toting DJ and a very fast female racer once profiled on this site. Oh, and I won’t say who, but one of us (not me) knowingly loaded up the car with a PARTIALLY assembled bike to race on.
As for the racing, it was cold and windy. The course was very cool. Both Saturday and Sunday’s races utilized the variety of terrain available to the site. There was pavement, grass power sections, very steep off-cambers, punchy climbs and sandy single track. One of the nicer parts of the course was that it was rather spectator friendly for the few brave souls who ventured out in to the cold (or were forced by guilt-tripping friends/family/spouses). Sunday ran a “traditional” course for the site, from what I was told, where Saturday had us racing the course in reverse. It didn’t make a lick of difference to me, as I had never seen the original, so I just tried to make the most of my warm up laps, which were hastily done to avoid getting too cold. The race organizers were kind enough to provide a “warming room” for us in the large rec center in the center of the course.
The first day went well for me. I got off to a strong start. I decided to hold back and sit in the top five instead of my usual impatient surge to the holeshot. I rode with the leaders who included Brian Lawney, Rob Collins and Andrew Crooks. I was happy to pace myself off of those guys until I made my usual brainless bobble on the first lap and crashed in a 180 degree turn. Brian rode right into my back and also went down. We got back together, though I was a little shaky. The other three guys have been riding consistently fast this season, and I knew Brian would power away if given the chance. Unfortunately, I felt the normal bad lap coming on number two. I noticed Andrew was also having difficulty. As I followed his wheel, Rob and Brian began to gap us. At some point, Andrew yelled to me that he was having mechanical problems and that I had to go for it. I tried to pass him, but even when I did it was too late for me. I was already in no man’s land. I don’t yet have the mental or physical conditioning to fight back a lead group when I’m suffering in a cross race, its enough to try and keep from crashing. I’ve noticed recently that when riding at the front, the fast guys are really fast, and once I’m dropped, its about damage control. That was pretty much my race, right there. I rode alone for a while until I was caught by another rider. I let him around and hung on his wheel for the last two or three laps. As I geared up to unleash a mighty sprint as we turned onto the pavement, my companion just sat up. Whitmore’s day 1, first MAC podium, I’ll take it. As I had expected, Brian Lawney powered away for a convincing win.
Day two was a similar race. The competition was a little more stacked, though and a few fast guys showed up who weren’t there on day one. Among them was Will Duggan, a rider on the Richard Sachs team who’s had a heck of a season in the UCI races. Apparently he needed to race with us under the banner of UVM in order to qualify for Collegiate Nationals. In any case, he was not going to be easy to follow. Again, I went out with the fast group. As usual, I was gapped at some point on the second or third lap and went into my miserable existence-questioning spiral and began getting passed while trying to hold on. Eventually, like one always does, I put myself back together. It was not before dropping well out of a podium position, however. Eventually I engaged in a private dog fight with another rider for 6th or 7th place. Over the loud speaker, I heard that Will Duggan had mechanical’d. As we rode up the steepest climb, I saw a broken chain in the grass—bam. Moments later, Duggan was on the side of the trail in the woods passing on words of encouragement to me and sparring partner. For the last three laps of the race, I began to notice something. I had a lot of unfamiliar faces cheering my name. I shrugged it off, though it intrigued me the whole race. This rider was definitely faster than me through the technical stuff. I gauged his speed for a couple of laps. For a while, he pulled away and had some decent ground between us. However, as we closed in on the last lap, I fought hard to regain his wheel. As we neared the killer climb for the seventh and final time I though about passing him. Instead, I just stuck his wheel. I took as many risks as I had to maintain contact through the single track in the woods. I felt surprisingly fresh and knew that the finishing stretch, with two long pavement sections separated by a 90 degree turn on grass about 75-100 meters from the line, would be my friend. I was exactly where I needed to be when we hit the pavement. It had been a good couple of months since I got a chance to really sprint, and I couldn't help but let a little grin sneak onto my face. With the 6th placed rider right in my sights, he began playing games. He slowed down, brought us to the barriers and then put on a little surge just to test me. I waited. With about 200 meters to go, I downshifted and stomped it. I came around and took the front and sat back down, still mashing. The little gap was all I needed as we turned onto the grass. Once back on the pavement I dropped another cog and put in my second burst. I had my tiny win for sixth and it felt great.
It turns out that my duel for the minor placing was with Colin Reuter, the architect of the amazing Crossresults.com website. So, he was just as confused as I was at the number of people cheering for “Colin” during the ride. He has a great write up of his race on his blog. He has also gained some notoriety for strapping a camera to his bike during races, he’s also a nice guy with a great sense of humor. In his report, he mentions that he hadn’t lost a sprint in a while. I don't like to end streaks, but I like knowing that I was able to finish strong against a fast finisher. However, I was pretty hungry to let one finally unwind like that.
Whitmore's Cross Cup Handlebar Cam Day 2 Part 2 from colin reuter on Vimeo.
In the above video, I appear about 6:05 in. Thanks again to Colin R.
We stayed to watch the elite race where Ryan Trebon impressed all who witnessed his ride from back of the pack with a flat to the podium. Read about it, or find a video if you can, those guys can really move.
Before heading home, I stayed with the gang to help collect "step ins" for the Staten Island race course.
Stay tuned for Thanksgiving, PA state championships and SICX...
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Another weekend has passed. Two more cyclocross races have been taken down into my mental inventory of MAC experiences. Saturday and Sunday could not have been more different, despite both races residing in New Jersey, with one exception: both races were filled with the deep searing pain that causes a person to question nearly all determination to continue. While racing, I felt like I would have rather been anywhere else on Earth. Even still, recounting the two days now makes me anticipate the next race even more. I have always been amazed at the way in which endurance athletes can become so mixed up in their pursuits of reward; where agonizing experiences can elicit intense euphoria and lead to crippling addiction. The hardest, most miserable races become the most cherished.
Anyway, I digress. What made these races so hard, you surely ask? Each race was special in its own way. In two days, racers were treated to the highs and lows of racing in distinctly different regions of New Jersey. Saturday’s story was one of sand, steps and blinding rain. Sunday provided the convergence of peanut butter mud and leg-stealing elevation change.
Saturday at Beacon provided the best of Southern Jersey ‘cross. The course was set throughout a beautiful lakeside park. Much of the racing was done on double track through the woods. The surface was mostly a tacky-enough compacted soil with a high sand content. There was little in the way of technical turning and on first inspection it looked like it would be a fast race that favored fit, powerful roadie types. The two major obstacles were a very long sand section along the lakefront beach and a run-up through an amphitheater. The sand was also freshly tilled between races for good measure. It was slow, it was deep, and it ended in a trio of large concrete steps. The run-up in the amphitheater disposed of the normal, human sized steps in favor of the large seating terraces. Each step up was probably 2 ½ feet high. That might not sound like much, but after 30 minutes of racing, its mighty high. Also, for those of limited vertical stature or leap, it seemed downright cruel.
In any event, the course was super fun on warm up and I was pretty excited to tackle it. Just in time for our race, the sky opened up. When we lined up for the start, I had little idea what was in store. I used my second row call up to tuck easily into the top two or three riders heading into the first turn. When we dove into the woods, the rain was beginning to pool on the course. We hit the opening stretches of sandy double-track at very high speed. In little time, a lead group had formed. I ended up working with another rider in UVM kit for the first two laps. He took the preme at the amphitheater run-up on the first lap, and I got it on the second time through. By the third lap, we were all together in a group of six. The course allowed drafting to become effective, though the rooster tails of wet, sandy mud made it nearly impossible to gain the aerodynamic advantage without being blinded. On one of the middle laps, a rider went down in front of me, just before the giant steps. I slipped while avoiding him, and in the short time that it took for me to gather myself and claw my way up the amphitheater. I was gapped. The five guys quickly disappeared and I was alone in my head like last week. My race sort of went south from there. Just about every time through the black hole of beach sand, I had trouble. I crashed a few times dismounting and all the running sapped my legs. The sandy eye-irrigation began to make even blinking painful. I trudged on, though (trudged is used figuratively since the total elapsed time only seemed like an eternity). Ultimately, I finished out as strongly as I could. Chad Culbertson caught me with two to go, but I was able to hang on and wait until the finishing stretch to uncoil my sprint. It felt nice to do that again. In the end, I was seventh. That’s my first top 10 in a real MAC race. While that accomplishment should satisfy me, I felt that I had more in me, but got caught up in a fall at the wrong place. So it goes. I just thought that starting in the 2nd row would make things easier. It turns out that it just takes less time to get up to the guys who are faster than you. In the end, my finish line face says it all:
Overall, the race was awesome. The course was super fun and the conditions made it really challenging. The Toga! van was in full force. We even had a tent. Paul D. even made his return to racing after his frustrating back injury. Even after a dropped chain and flat tire, he was smiling like (in his own words) “a pig in shit!” It was also cool to watch Roger Aspholm race, as it always is. He patiently rode second wheel to Mike Yozell, only to pull a magical sprint out at the end to remain undefeated in MAC Elite Masters. CJ also made his presence known with a somewhat belated Halloween race. His Mario costume must have weighed about 45 pounds in wet, sandy denim by the end of the race.
Who needs to wait for the hose?
Sunday at Highland Park was my chance for redemption, so I thought. The weather brought us sun instead of showers, and with it came an effervescent optimism. However, after a quarter of a lap on the course during warm-ups, my enthusiasm was less buoyant. The rain had created a quagmire of heavy mud throughout the course. The sun dried it out just enough to turn it into adhesive clay with the consistency of the hot tar that bubbles out of cracks in the road on a summer day. To compound this, racers were asked to pilot their bikes through this kinetic siphon at a moderately steep incline for the first half of the course. In fact, the middle of the course sat high on a hill and the start/finish was at the bottom. In addition, most of the corners were just slick enough to make me doubt my speed and trajectory when navigating them. Ok, enough of the excuses, on with the race.
The starting stretch was very short, but with a second row call-up again, I was able to easily find a favorable position at the holeshot despite having trouble clipping into my pedal. I tried desperately to hang on to the fast guys, who welcomed Jeff Bahnson (the 15 year old king of the “killer B’s”) back to the field after his 10th place in the elites at Beacon. “Why was this guy sandbagging the B’s after a top 10 the day before?” you may ask. Well, seeing as this race was a UCI race, and they don’t allow 15 year olds into the senior UCI races, I’m pretty sure we can all forgive him. In any case, before the suffering blurred my vision too far, I was able to marvel at the ease with which he drifted away from all of us. Back at the front of the rest of us, it was a spectacular mashing of gears. It was a blur of motion and sound and grimaced faces. Meanwhile, up the hill floats Jeff, as if propelled by some magical Willy Wonka levitating soda.
I, on the other hand, quickly found that my 185-pound carcass could not provide the necessary power to overcome the combination of gravity and mud-stuck friction. A familiar face who recently introduced himself to me as Fat Mark or Fatmarc (?) informed me that I was the new “king of the holeshot.” Unfortunately, being king of the holeshot doesn’t prevent me from imploding after about 5 minutes hammering. This implosion took on a spectacular form on Sunday. The mud made every inch of the course like riding a stationary trainer with the mag unit maxed out. There was no place to hide and recover. Every lap I watched people pass me. Every lap I wished to hold onto a slightly more diminished ambition. Every lap brought me the cheers of friends with chants of slightly higher placing. “Go on Colin! You’re in 5th!”… “Go on Colin You’re in 7th!”… “Don’t Quit, that’s 11th right in front of you!”
If cross races were only 30 seconds long, the holeshot king would reign supreme.
Sadly, the Holeshot King must be forever tormented in a world of 45+ minute races.
The race ultimately boiled down to a grudge match between Chad and me again. This time, however, I didn’t have the sprint in me and he pulled away from me to take 11th. I ended up in 12th. Not bad, but one would hope that the soul crushing that I sustained would at least yield a modest payout of a prize bag of socks or energy gels or even a ribbon. Sadly, prizes were only 10 deep, and I couldn’t quite reach the top 10 on Sunday. Again, I can’t really complain. My race was not defined by some stroke of fortune. I had no mechanicals and no costly crashes. I rode hard and my finish was an honest reflection of my abilities on that course on that day. No excuses, the fast guys were just faster.
It does bring me back to my rambling prologue. I have never wanted a race to be over as badly as I did at Highland Park on Sunday. I filled my head with thoughts of sleeping cozily in the van while everybody else toiled in the mud. I pushed on, however, and thinking back to the race now, it conjures up only pleasurable feelings. Why does that happen? Well, if you really want to know, I did just take an exam on Monday. Among other things, this test required studying the circuitry of the Dopamine reward system of the human brain and the changes in key structures that lead to addictive behavior. Suffice it to say, the differences between compulsive endurance athletes and most normal, well-adjusted folk is more than spandex-deep.
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
The course was a nice mix of terrain and mostly flat. There was a large sand pit that was rideable but had several hairpin turns. The course also took the riders through a barn and under a pavilion housing the beer keg and BBQ station. The loop was very long and the C field only completed 4 laps in their race.
I was looking forward to the start. There was a long opening sprint and a wide open "prologue loop" that would allow me to move out on the field. Also working in my favor, was a second row start position earned by placing 11th at Granogue. I lined up with the 57 other riders and waited for the whistle. When we got the signal, I quickly moved out and up the left side of the field. I easily won the holeshot and made a move early in the first lap. I gained a small gap and held it, hoping to spread the field out. I figured that I would ride the first lap hard, force a chase and then settle into a lead group that would have some breathing room. I enjoyed riding at the front. I was able to pick my own lines and ride relaxed. After the long sand pit, two barrier sections, barns and all the hairpin turns, I was still well out in front at the end of the first lap. I began to relax.
On the second lap, I continued to lead, but slowed just enough to allow the two chasers up to me. I figured that together we could work to move out from the rest of the field. Unfortunately, I lost my focus for a split second entering a tight corner. I let my weight get too far over the front wheel and it washed out. I went down and the chain dropped, allowing the two chasing riders to catch up and pass me. While in pursuit, yet still in contact, with a lead group of three or four (including myself), I managed to pinch flat. In an attempt to bunny hop a small log barrier, my wheel made hard contact and the 35 psi was not enough to ward off the damage.
Demoralized, I rolled around, slowly, for the rest of the lap until I reached the pit. One problem existed: I had no spare wheels or bike stashed away. I figured that by some stroke of luck I would be able to recognize a team mate's wheels, but I could not. Not only did I get passed by a whole heap of riders while getting to the pit, the racers kept flooding past me as I stood there just waiting to step under the tape and pull the plug.
Just as I was about to head out and grab a beer in consolation of my fate, my team mate Eben came sliding into the pit. Without hesitating, he handed off his bike and sent me on my way. In a matter of second I was back on course grappling with the conflicting voices in my head. I didn't want to continue, but a team mate had completely sacrificed his own race for me to continue, so I settled on pulling back as much of the 3 or 4 minutes that I had lost standing around. As I began gaining steam, I started passing the riders who I hadn't seen since the starting whistle. Some had gone out hard and blown fuses, others were clawing back time they may have lost by a slow first two laps. In the midst of the race we were all just proving something to ourselves.
I gained momentum as I desperately tried to salvage my race. I was passing guys faster and faster as I worked my way back up the the major bolus of riders that comprised what was left of the "main field." I eventually caught back up to Adam Duncan, who was so lost in his own delirious exhaustion, that he cheered me on. He was fully convinced that I had managed to lap him late in the race.
Finally, the end came, and I sprinted past one more rider on the line. After waiting for the final tally, I found the results sheet. I had slotted into 18th place. Not bad, but not what I had hoped for. The two riders who had chased and then passed me when I crashed ended up going first and second. Bryon Kremer, who had finished in second place at the Whirlybird (in his first cross race) was third. I have no doubt that I was capable with a podium finish in that race, but Cyclocross is about accepting the turns in fate and learning from the less than ideal circumstances. It also good to be reflective enough to avoid making the same silly mistakes over and over. I promised myself that the cross season would be a welcome break from the serious and self-critical machinations of the road and track season. I promised that I wouldn't take myself too seriously. Unfortunately, I am a victim of my own ambition. I always take myself too seriously. However, in honor of my promise, I will chose to laugh about the way things went.
I will also take some valuable lessons away from this. First, I am lucky to have found team mates who are willing to help me take myself too seriously. Eben went beyond what I would have expected from anybody. He handed me his bike so that I could keep riding. Sure it was a little small, but it got me to the finish. When he rolled across the line on my bike, with a 10 speed wheel jammed into its 9 speed drive train, I realized that I could only smile. The nonchalance with which Eben dismissed my thanks was evidence to the spirit of the venture.
The second lesson is about why most of the people ride cross. It doesn't matter where you finish. Every rider earns the respect of their peers just by toeing the line and staring down the racecourse. There is little to prove, except what one needs to prove to ones self. Every cross race eventually dissolves into a contest of internal wills. At that point in the race, we are all fighting our own demons- the ultimate beauty of cross is the private, internal race that unfolds and allows every rider to achieve their absolute limits.
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
As CJ, Jason and I headed out of the Upper East Side, the sky loomed with the threat of rain. Finally we were confronted with the probability of racing in conditions more stereotypical of ‘cross than we had faced over the previous few weekends. Ultimately, the weather was mildly chilly and raining. After hearing that the course was slick, CJ, Jason, Jed and I made sure to check our tire pressure. I’m still not used to the squirmy feeling, and am paranoid about pinch flats and as a result usually err on the side of too much air. I ended up running between 35 and 40 lbs.
We were getting ready in the overflow parking lot as the C race was beginning. Our car was parked right in front of the “circle of death.” A feature of the course where riders spiral in towards the center and then reverse direction to spiral back out. Imagine it as a sort of slippery green “Cinabon.” The thing about the circle of death is, that riders end up inside of it for, like, 30 seconds. That’s great for a seasoned trash-talker, but my heckling skills are not so finely tuned. I ran out of things to yell at Sam Fiorino after about 10 seconds. As he was still right in front of me, it got a little awkward. You know your bad at talkin’ smack, when your victim can heckle you back while still racing. Anyway, Sam had a great ride to finish on the podium for the second straight week, so at least my poor heckling didn’t slow him down.
Anyway, I got to the start line plenty early. I was not about to start in the back again and I traded good position for a real warm up. There was a small call up, but afterwards I was able to kind of nudge myself up into the second row. The start was nonetheless hectic, as I called to Jed to let him know I was right next to him and coming by. Some other rider leaned on me very hard for a good 40 or 50 yards before I was able to get free of him without crashing. I ended up in the top few guys at the holeshot. Very early on, a group of four formed. Chad Culbertson, Matt Harris, Bryon Kremer and I managed to create a sizable gap, working as smoothly as possible between crashes. Every one of us slipped and fell on at least one corner. At some point, I made a move and managed to win the first lap prime, but I was so slow in the technical stuff that the three other guys brought me back without a problem.
I spent most of the race trying to stay up and conserve energy. We settled into a nice rhythm by the third lap, having gained a good 20 second advantage on the field. For most of the race I rode in third or fourth position, and occasionally took my turn setting the pace. A couple times I tested the legs of the others by trying to motor in the straights, but I could never get a big enough gap to hold them off in some of the twisty stuff. It was so slick that even putting power down on the flat fast sections sent my rear wheel fishtailing all over the place. All four of us ended up riding very conservatively where necessary, even running through some of the steeper off-camber 180’s.
Ultimately, my patience and conservative race plan paid off. Towards the beginning of the last lap, Bryon went down really hard into one of the wooden stakes holding the course tape. A short distance later, Matt (who had come around me when I slowed to avoid riding over Bryon) lost his footing on a tricky corner. This opened up a window for me and I took it. I never got more than a 5-10 second gap, but it was all I needed. I drilled it on the fast, power sections and tip-toed through the tricky stuff. My glasses were so obscured with rain and mud that I tossed them for fear of crashing. With about a minute left in the lap, the sky really opened up and it went from a drizzle to a full-on downpour (I had some serious delusions of grandeur while leading the race on the last lap in heavy rain). With a few turns left in the course, I began to relax. One last off-camber descent and I was on the gravel road to the finish line.
I slowed to a stop and slumped over my bars with my friends and family who had cheered me into the finish. I noted that CJ was there already, and it meant only one thing: he would be replacing more bike parts this week (will somebody please tell him to use steel bars?). By far the coolest part of the race was that my sister was able to come out. She goes to college in the area and made the 45 minute drive so that she could stand in the rain to watch her first cyclocross race. My dad was also in town and came out to take it in. Hearing them on the last lap was really better than I could ever convey. In a sport like cyclocross, with such exquisite suffering, the encouragement of friends can really make the difference.
The Whirlybird 2008 will definitely not be forgotten soon. It was a fun, tough race. It may not have had the overwhelming numbers or prestige of a Gloucester or Granogue race, but it had the refreshing grassroots appeal that is so crucial to rabid following that this sport seems to foster. It was also fun to race in the rain for a change.
Monday, October 20, 2008
Jason Parkin and I loaded up our rental car at 6:45am on Saturday, assuming that we would have no problem making the drive with plenty of time to warm up for our 11:00 start time. Little did we know that the outbound helix of the Lincoln tunnel was underconstruction and a series of detours and bottlenecks left us idling in Manhattan traffic for much longer that expected. As a result, we didn't arrive to the venue until the C race was already underway. As we pulled in to the grassy parking area, I glanced up at the course which snaked down an impressively steep hillside in a series of off-camber switchbacks on damp grass. The first thing I saw, without exagerating, was CJ tumbling off of his dayglow bike into the side of the hill and scrabling back to his feet. Within 20 seconds of arriving, I was already presented with the intimidating realization that this course would be much different than the "Crit on grass" of Gloucester.
Where Gloucester had sizeable straight, flat, fast sections that favored my roadie skill set of putting the hammer down, Granogue favored twisty, technical sidehills and more elevation changes. We were funneled through a maze featuring grass, gravel, wooded single track as well as pavement. In fact, the course was technical enough that the promoter/course designer layed out a "prologue loop" to allow for some initial separation on the first lap before throwing a tangled mob into the convoluted barrier section and steep run-up. The rest of the route took a scenic tour in and around a small portion of the property, including rounding a stone tower up on the highest point around. This section had some of the trickiest technical turns and sidehills on the course. There also was a fun, fast, winding section that showed off the property's greenhouses.
What Granogue did have in common with Gloucester (in addition to the "G" in the name) was large fields and sizeable spectator numbers. Also, like Gloucester, the start was seeded based on series points and bib number. Once again, I was slotted into the seccond to last row along with all the other guys who haddn't raced in the MAC yet this season and were unaware that camping out on Bikereg.com would drastically improve starting position. Unfortunately for me, I heard rumors that they were not seeding the start order beyond the top 15 call ups. For that reason, I sacrificed a warmup in order to stake out my position on the starting grid 30 minutes before race time. How silly I felt when I had to take step after step backwards as I watch the 70 or so guys in front of me line up.
When the gun went off, I began the mad dash to move up before the holeshot. I got a pretty good start and was able to move up into the top 25 or 30 pretty quickly. The prologue loop really favored my intentions and offered a much longer opportunity to advance past slower guys in front of me. The fun began at the technical section up by the stone tower. some tight, off-camber turns with sizeable ruts provided a real obstacle for 50 guys on bikes trying to fit into a 3 meter-wide path. I actually dismounted and ran through these turns to get around the guys who fell while in a near trackstand. Due to the confusion and stress of this first lap, I noticed a lot more shoving and showting and use of elbows than last weekend. I decided to be patient and avoid getting wrapped up in a testosterone-off. By the time the field spread out, most of the hotheads were a long ways back.
All the switchbacks on the steep, rutted side-hill offered up some great crashes. One guy went down, only to rolle head over heels down the hill out of the course and away from his bike. I saw more guys go through the tap in this race than any funny pun CJ could come up with in his blog.
By the end of the first lap I was in good position and settling in for the 40 minutes left in the race. On a fast downhill, it happened...the dreaded Mavic freehub death squeal. I had no pit-bike or wheels, so I simply gutted out the race with my rear wheel going off like a fire alarm every time I stopped pedalling. It really wasn't a huge problem, except for the chain backing up on the cassette. I guess it was just more motivation to keep pedalling.
After a couple time 'round the course I was able to take stock of the situation. I noted where all my friends were along the course cheering. This allowed me to break up the race into little tiny sections between encouragements and beverage tossings (thanks again, CJ). I also noticed that, due to the nature of the course, the field was much more spread out from front to back than Gloucester. At any given time, I could only see a few guys ahead or behind me. For this reason, I had very little idea of my position until, to my surprise, I heard "Keep going, Colin. Your in 13th!"
At this point, with 2 laps to go, fatigue became my friend. I was so delusionally tired that I could no longer tense up in technical sections. As a result, the riding actually became much more smooth. As any experienced cross rider will tell you, smoother=faster. Also, fatigue was not affecting only me, but guys in front of me as well, and I made it my mission to pull back the cracked riders in front of me before the race ran out. That proved a little more difficult than it should have been due to my freehub problems. I dropped my chain a couple of times on the last lap while trying to coast. The race was so strung out by this point, however, that there were very few riders to put in my cross hairs (and few close behind me) and I just tried to keep my rhythm going. Mechanicals and all, I came into the finishing stretch pretty much alone, save for a few lapped riders.
I got in line for the free beer as soon as my excersize cough subsided and settled into that post-race haze of endorphins mediated bliss. I had just enough time to relax and enjoy the live band, beautiful scenery and social scene that is cross before jumping back in the car for the island of Manhattan where my life as a student could be resumed.
All in all I was totally happy with how the race went. 11th place exceded my expectations for the race by a significant margin. While contemplating the race I couldn't help but be thankful for the points I scored. Its nice to improve with each race. Its also nice to have a result that leaves you so tantilizingly close to a top-ten finish. My goals for the next MAC race are ever more clear, and this time I'll have some series points that just might get me a better starting position.
Thursday, October 16, 2008
Before adding my race report/blog/narcissistic diatribe to the cannon of cycling lore that is NYVC, let me start by saying that this year has been eye opening in many ways. Ever since watching the Tour duPont arc through my home town in a blur of colors when I was in kindergarten, I have been fascinated with cycling. I always wanted to race bikes, and the last place I expected to fulfill these fantasies was New York City. I moved here upon starting Medical School a little over a year ago with only nostalgic memories of competitive athletic endeavors past.
In the eight or nine months since my first ride with the Sanchez-Metro guys to Nyack, I have been given the opportunity to dive into a sport that I never expected to truly experience. It has provided me with a much needed diversion from the stress and focused anxiety of medical school and allowed me to indulge my compulsive nature. So, what happens when an impulsive, obsessive and insatiable newbie finds himself at the end of his first season? What does he do when presented with the bleak prospect of a winter's worth of dark nights with no distraction from the demands of neuroanatomy, pathophysiology and pharmacokinetics? He finds a new way to race, of course, Cyclocross!
Cyclocross always seemed like this far-off, exotic dance on the fine line between total badassness and just slipping clumsily in cold mud. I thought it was practiced by somber Belgians or freaky Californian dudes in thrift store dresses. it turns out, its a has just about enough of everything to make everybody who tries it smile (at least when out of the clutches of the famous "pain cave").
After making my long awaited 'cross debut in Westwood, I headed up with the Toga! guys in the team van to Gloucester for the "New England Worlds." I would be racing in the Cat2/3 field after getting my upgrade after winning the C's the week before. Heading into two days of very competitive racing, my goals were to ride smooth and finish on the lead lap. I decided to learn as much as I could by watching the elite masters field tackle the course while I worked the pit with Paul DeBartolo in support of the Toga! riders. Since I had no ranking points in the New England series, I was given the highly coveted starting position 2 rows from the back of the grid. In a field of 113 guys, that put a lot of chaos between me and the front of the pack. I figured that I could do my best to stay up, and gradually pass guys, hoping to finish in the top half of the field. The start was absolutely nuts. Imagine the most hectic field sprint at the end of a central park race, but from a standstill. I managed to squeeze myself past the obligatory mid-pack pileup at the holeshot, and by the time my brain registered the severity of the cardiovascular load I had induced, I (and 113 of my newest friends) was hurtling down a fast twisty section of bumpy grass turns before hitting the seawall that runs along Gloucester harbor. There must have been another 2 or 3 pile ups in the rest of the first lap. After the second lap, however, the race settled in and I set out to start picking guys off one by one. Every time I passed the pit area, I was met with Paul directing me to "Get that wheel!" or "get to the front of that group!" Every time I passed the uphill double barrier runup, I was met by a socially lubricated CJ shouting Big Lebowski lines at me and flinging beer on my person. I never once attempted to ride the sandpit, which was rototilled before our race and contained a hairpin turn in it. The running actually gave me a place to 'recover,' which doesn't make much sense. After 7 laps I had managed to hang on, avoid crashing and finish 19th without vomiting in my second real cross race. I was elated and my back hurt really bad. I headed more or less straight to the beer garden for my post race recovery hydration.
By the time the Elite race started, I had topped off my glycogen stores with three Erdinger Dunkel Weisens and yelled loudly at the Elites as they flew past the beer tent.
Day two began with the prospect of another rear-pack start. While I was pumped with a top-20, I had missed out on any of the Verge Series points, and would not get the coveted call-up. This time, however, I wasted no time getting as far up as possible. As soon as the whistle blew, I blasted up the left side of the field. I didn't wait for the mass of people to get going in front of me, but simply rode up with spectators diving out of their lawn chairs. By the holeshot, I was probably sitting somewhere around 25 or 30th place. The major difference in the course from the first day was a crazy-steep dirt run-up that was freshly cut out of the poison ivy and underbrush above the seawall. After dismounting, I simply put my hand on some guy's back and pushed my way through the crowd using him as a human cow-catcher. After remounting at the top of the run-up, a short gravel section provided some additional excitement when the rider in front of me simply exploded into a dust cloud. His bike slid to the left, and his sprawling body dragged to a halt across the right side of the lane. By the end of the second lap, I found myself near 20th place. By now, I could see the lead group and the gap between us. I continued to do battle with one rider in particular as we passed other fading racers over the next few laps. As the race wore on, I once again found myself drawing strength from the encouragement on rowdy drunken fans, encouraging team mates and CJ (cowbell firmly in hand). At the end of the second to last lap, Tony Slokar (who had pulled out with a simultaneous catastrophic saddle and helmet failure) urged me on with "THIS IS YOUR 2K!" The reference to the most painful physical assessment used by rowing coaches provided a clear message--pull out all the stops. Unfortunately, most stops had already been pulled, and I could do little to control my implosion. Still, I managed to pass a few guys and knew I had the possibility of a top 15 if I could just hold on. As I rounded the corner for the uphill tarmac sprint to the finish, I thought that I had a clear gap on 16th place. By the time I saw his growing shadow, there was little I could do but let out a desperately pathetic sigh as he passed me on the line to steal the last Verge New England Series point. In spite of my dejection for allowing myself to get beat in a sprint I was excited about my finish. I was within 45 seconds of the winning time after starting from the back of the pack. I had held my own, and that was worth a celebratory trip to the beer tent.
To sum up, I need to thank the guys from Toga!, especially Paul DeBartolo, for getting me up to the race and giving me an extension to the cycling season. It turns out that 'Cross really does live up to all its stereotypes. You'd be hard pressed to find more than the odd fish out of water who was grumpy the whole weekend. Also, what was so great is the sense of community that exists. All the NYC area guys cheered for each other, supported each other in the pit, and generally created a virtual team that made Gloucester that much more fun. Perhaps the racing wasn't quite as freaky as the West-Coasters', but it wasn't too far off. There's more racing to come, and I really can't wait.