Tuesday, October 28, 2008


Photo copyright Anthony Skorochod
After three weeks of jaunting around to race cross bikes in beautiful sunny weather and warm temperatures, this past weekend finally provided the weather that most people associate with the sport. I had originally planned on taking the weekend off and catch back up with the weekend tasks that have been put off to make room for my out of state travels. However, as the weekend approached and word of other New Yorkers heading down to the Whirly Bird Cross in Bryn Athyn caught my attention. The near pathological need for me to race at least once per week proved insurmountable and sure enough, I left the concrete canyons of Manhattan for the green pastures of Suburban Philadelphia on Saturday morning.
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

Crossing the Delaware

Week three of my inaugural cyclocross season brought me to Delaware for an epic struggle on the lovely DuPont family estate of Granogue. In this pastoral setting a great convergence of the Mid Atlantic Cyclocross series (and UCI C1 race) was the setting for another fun weekend in uncrossly sunny and dry weather. Live music, free beer and ample fall foliage further assured all in attendence that the best that this fringe subculture has to offer would be on display. The weekend actually paired the Granogue race with another great venue on Sunday in Wissahickon, outside of Philadelphia. Unfortunately for me, however, two of my courses scheduled exams conflicting with this kind of time-devouring recreation. In fact, I am composing this report after having finished one of the exams not 25 minutes ago. One could compare the sensation to a cerebral equivalent of the euphoric relief and exhaustion one feels at the end of a 45 minute anaerobic bike race on mixed terrain. So, anyway, rather than having two races to report on, I limited my (on the bike) suffering to Saturday.

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.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

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.