Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Late Homework, Part II: Debriefing

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 clich├ęd 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

Thanksgiving at Camp Prensky

it can mean only one thing:

Up on the roof to clean the gutters and ponder the age-old question of whether my grandfather's gutter guards actually do anything.

Late Homework, season end wrapup, Part I

Whew! Its been a crazy couple of weeks. I’ve got a pretty substantial back log of race reports to write. I’m going to attempt to survey my final three weeks of Cyclocross racing, Season 1. If it is too long, I’m sorry. Maybe I’ll just ‘twitter’ the next on.

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 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...

Monday, December 1, 2008