Mar 20, 2012

San Dimas Stage Race

I've raced in many parts of NorCal, but this was my first time racing in SoCal. I've heard many good things about this race, from racers I know who did it last year and teammates who've done it in the past. I knew the race was completely not suited to my abilities, but I really wanted to experience it and see how I'd do. There were two other teammates in the race with me, Francisco and Mike, both much better climbers than I am, so I figured that if I can be there and help them somehow, that would be my role for the entire stage race.

Stage 1: Hill Climb

There were 125 riders registered in my field, and 110 showed up for this first stage. I'm not really a climber. I can be a middle of the pack climber, but I felt absolutely no pressure going to the start line. The goal was to pace myself and leave it all on the course and see how I stack up.

The course was a 3.8 mile climb up Glendora Mountain Road. It starts out flat, but quickly pitches to about 4-5 percent and stays there for most of the climb, pitching a bit more in the switchbacks. This year, the start of the TT was moved up the road by about a fifth of a mile and the finish was also moved up one fifth of a mile to keep the distance the same. However, that changed the course quite a bit, as the flat one-fifth at the start was now replaced with a climby one-fifth at the finish, so historic times up the climb didn't really apply and this year's times were a bit slower across the board.

I was pleased with how I paced myself. I didn't go out too hard, paced myself during the climb, hit my target HR about two-fifths up the climb and kept it steady. I caught my 30 second man around minute seven and kept churning away toward the finish. My official time was 18:32, which on that day was good for 61st out of 110 -- told you I wasn't a climber. Francisco, on the other hand, killed the TT and ended up in top 10 going to the road race the next day. Good day for Squadra SF.

Stage 2: The Road Race

We pre-rode the course the day before, so we would know what to expect, but nothing could have prepared us for what was to come on Saturday -- that is not to say we didn't know it was coming. The course is a seven-mile loop that we'd be doing six times for a total of 42 miles. It starts out flat, then there's a power hill that was also the designated feed zone, followed by some more flat roads and the .6-mile KOM climb with a 13 percent kicker at the top. Then comes a really steep twisty descent, that drops you off onto a flat road and a flat mile and a quarter to the finish line.

The forecast for Saturday was rain, rain, more rain and some strong, strong winds. We got dressed at the hotel to limit the time outside at staging. I decided to go with embro on my legs because I didn't feel like dragging an extra few pounds that would have been the wet knee/leg warmers. That was a good decision. The bad decision I made was not getting a proper warmup because there's nothing I hate more than sitting on a trainer while getting rained on. So I rolled around for 10 minutes and went to staging. Where we sat for another 10 minutes before the course was clear for us to start. The whistle blew and off we went. The first lap was going just fine until we hit the KOM climb. I was actually holding my own on the climb, it's just not long enough for me to get popped, tho I probably was working a bit harder than some folks in the field.

Then came the decisive moment, the downhill. To put it frankly, I simply didn't have the balls to bomb it, it was probably at least -10 percent, the roads were a mess, looked like ice, and the last thing I wanted to happen was go sliding into a ditch on my side -- I already did that not so long ago. So those with a bit more testicular fortitude gapped the rest of us on the descent, which dropped the field into the finishing stretch that was being hit by a 20-30 mph crosswind. The field was immediately guttered by the leaders and shattered to pieces. I tried to chase back on with other groups of riders, but all I could do was watch the main bunch roll away in the wind. At some point during lap two, I got into a group of about a dozen riders and we did our best to work together to either close the gap or at least not miss the cutoff time, which was 10 percent over the winner's time.

For a second there, I really wanted to roll it in after lap two and call it a day, but then I remembered how I felt after I did that at Madera, and decided I was going to finish this race no matter what. Plus, I really wanted to race the crit the next day, and I knew if I abandoned now, that wouldn't happen and I wouldn't be able to do anything for my teammates in the crit if they needed me. I had to stay in it.

By the end of lap three, our group was whittled down to six riders. On that lap and on lap four, I noticed that I was dropping everyone in the group on the main climb and my legs started to feel great (should have really warmed up, I'm not 20 anymore). I was very happy to make the crest first because I had the best look at the crazy descent, but on laps three and four, I let myself get caught because there is a lot of flat ground to cover in the wind, and we were working much better as a group, even managing to form a proper echelon at one point.

On lap four, one of the riders in the group said, "we're probably going to miss the cutoff," and I immediately knew that there would be no more waiting on my part if another split happened. Waiting for people who are not motivated is not a good plan. On lap five, I and another rider dropped our four compatriots on the KOM climb, hesitated for just a bit in the flat section, and then I turned to him and said, "we have to go, if they want it, they'll catch us." From that point on, it was just the two of us to the finish, taking hard pulls, getting to that finish line as fast as we could to avoid getting cut. One last time down the crazy descent and I gave it all I got going into the finish, pulling at about 32mph into a headwind. If I was going to be cut by minutes, so be it, but I didn't want to get cut by seconds and know that I could have pushed just a little harder at the end.

With about two hundred meters to go, the other rider came to the front and began to pull us to the finish. Then as he was about to get out of the saddle and sprint for it (what "it" was isn't really clear to me), I said, "don't worry, you can have 'it'." He relaxed, but kept looking over his shoulder as if I was playing a trick on him. "I don't play those games," I said and we crossed the line together, with his wheel just a bit in front of mine. As long as we got the same time, I didn't really care which one of us would cross first.

I finished not knowing if I made the cut. I was wet, cold, miserable, but happy that I did not abandon and that my legs came around and performed, even when I no longer was in any contention for any placement.

A couple hours later, as we were eating lunch, results were emailed to us and I saw that the rider I finished with an I were the last two guys to make the cut (by about a minute), the four riders we dropped missed the cut by 11 seconds. Out of 103 riders who started, only 70 finished, and 60 made the cutoff. * The conditions were truly extreme and in parts dangerous. My teammates and I all made the cut, all stayed upright and were all going to be racing in the crit the next day. Given the circumstances, we called it a good day, and went back to our hotel to keep warm and hope for dry conditions for the crit.

The extreme conditions of the day merit a short paragraph of their own. The roads were completely wet and slippery. Whatever small groves were at the intersections or sides of roads turned into streams of running water that in places were  rim deep (I was racing Zipp 404s). Crashes were happening left and right in every field. On one of the laps, making the twisty corner at the base of the KOM we saw a guy in the fetal position in a ditch next to his bike and volunteers running toward him to help. Every time I went down the descent from the KOM I had zero confidence in the fact that I would keep it upright or in my ability to correct my line if an emergency happened ahead of me -- it was as good as descending on ice. 


*Due to extreme conditions on course, the cut for E4 was extended to 12 percent. So the four guys I mentioned above actually made the cut under the new extended time, but they only found out about it at midnight when that email arrived.

Stage 3: the crit

This will be very brief. It was just really not my lucky day. The course was a six corner L-shape. There was a shallow riser that started after corner two and continued to corner four, where it flattened, then there was the downhill after turning corner five into the final corner and finishing straight.

On lap two or three as we hit corner two, I heard a weird noise. I'm in a pack, so I don't know if it's me, or the guy next to me or in front of me. All I know is that at that particular moment, I don't feel anything, so I keep rolling. Then we turn corner three and all of a sudden the group is pulling away from me going uphill. My legs are lactic like crazy, I'm doing all I can, but I can't keep up. I figured that I just worked too hard the day before, but I didn't understand how everyone else still had way more power than I, even guys I was dropping the day before. 

After I realized that I just got dropped in a crit for the first time in my racing "career," the strategy was to move fast enough to get placed and not get pulled before the half way mark of the crit. I made it to the point where the field was coming up behind me and seeing three to go. The ref made the hand gesture, I sunk my head and pulled over. I went to the corner and watched the field roll by. Then as I got ready to move back to the car, I felt some resistance and immediately knew what the noise I heard earlier was. I began feeling my rear spokes until I found the guilty spoke dangling loosely in my wheel. The snapped spoke resulted in the wheel rubbing on both the chainstay and the brake pad. I guess that's where all the watts I was trying to use to keep up with the field went. Oh well, not my day. On the bright side, I thought to myself, I'm not weaker than everyone else in the field, I was just too dumb to realize I had a mechanical. Had I figured that out, I would have been able to grab a neutral wheel and continue the race. Another "rookie" error.

The overall

I really liked this race and I'm definitely eager to come back next year and give it another go with better fitness and hopefully better luck and weather. This is definitely the one to target, not just train through. I doubt that the course will all of a sudden suit me next year, but hey, things like that don't stop me from doing races like Everest Challenge for what might be the third year in a row (I'm about 60 percent ready to do it again this year) and certainly won't stop me from returning to San Dimas, if for no other reason than to be a better helper to my climber teammates. The organizers do a phenomenal job and create a great racing atmosphere. Receiving results via email shortly after the race is also a great touch. I wish more races in NCNCA would use that technology. I would have to say that despite all the adversity and some bad luck, the experience was positive, as I learned quite a bit and gained some fitness and mental toughness.

Mar 19, 2012

Madera Stage Race 2012 - mistakes, mechanicals & wind

This is long overdue, in part because I've been extremely busy last week trying to cram a five-day week into three days so I could take off for San Dimas Stage Race in SoCal (blog on that coming shortly) and in part because I've been pushing off writing this report. Some races I can't wait to write up, others I'd rather forget. You can probably guess this is the latter, but I think it's beneficial to write it out if for no other reason than to replay it once more in my head and reinforce the lessons learned.

Stage 1: Crit - the mistake

I had three teammates in the race with me, Jared, Francisco and Tyler. We figured that no one would be going out to kill themselves in the crit because a few hours later we'd have to race a TT. We also counted on the fact that no break would stick because no one would want to lose time on GC in the crit. So the plan was to sit in, preferably near the front, not lose any time and take advantage of the opportunities as they present themselves.

We lined up for the crit, which was advertised as a 20 lap race, but I knew better, so I asked the ref about the time for the crit, and he said we'd be going for 45 minutes - normal Cat. 4 crit time. The whistle blows and we're off. Other than a few break attacks and a sprint for the first prime (5 seconds), nothing really happens in the first part of the crit. The the bell rings for the second 5-second prime. I look down at my Garmin and see we're at about the 30 minute mark. I estimate we have about six or seven laps to go. A Webcor guy attacks out of corner two and I hesitate for just one second, then realize I can recover in time for the finish and dart after him. I've raced with the guy before, so I know he is very explosive, but I counted on him fading toward the start/finish line. He proved me very wrong. I kept closing the gap with another rider on my wheel, but not fast enough. If I got into his draft with 200 meters to go, I would have probably taken the sprint, but I could only get within 4 feet of him before it was time to kick for the sprint, and my legs didn't have enough juice left, so the guy I dragged with me came around and took the prime. 

On the plus side, this move helped me avoid a crash in the field that happened on that lap. On the down side, the next time we came around, I saw three to go -- at least three laps less than I thought I had to recover. "Well, I just screwed my finish," I though to myself, but I stayed in the group, trying to be as efficient as possible and save as much energy as I could. The bell rang for final lap and approaching corner three, riders got tangled in the cones and a crash happened to the side of me. I managed to get by, turned the corner and observed the field slowing down -- "WTF?!" I thought to myself. I saw Jared in the lead group, yelled out "let's go!" and hit it as hard as I could. The field got motivated and took off, but I had no legs for the finish and rolled in with the pack. No time lost, but no result either. The only silver lining was that Jared was in great position, followed the right wheels and won the final sprint. 

I was really happy to see my teammate win, but really pissed at myself for making such a stupid mistake. Lesson learned -- pay attention to lap cards earlier in the race. The crit was cut about five minutes short, but I have no one to blame than myself for my inattention to the lap cards. I should have seen five to go on that prime bell and never chased the Webcor rider.

Stage 2: TT - the mechanical

I knew that I wasn't in quite as good of TT form as I was last year, but I was hoping to at least replicate my performance  or come close. My legs felt good during warmup, but exactly how good would have to be seen during the race.

Three-two-one, off I go. I'm not feeling it at all during the first leg of the TT. I'm trying to be conservative, yet ramp up the power as I go and find a good rhythm. There was no 30-second man ahead of me, but I was slowly reeling in my minute guy. After corner one, I feel much better, my legs come alive and I really started to push it hard, the minute guy getting larger and larger as I got closer. Then I turned corner two, went to upshift and ended up with the rear shifter in the palm of my hand. I try to keep this blog more or less PG-13, so I'll let you imagine what went through my mind at the time. I was stuck in my 11 and the only shifting I could do was in the front, so it was either mash-mash in my 52x11, or spin like crazy in my 36x11 (why I have a 52/36 on a TT bike is a whole separate story). As I hit the 1K to go mark, I see that I need to cover the last km in one minute to hit last year's time. I'm not Fabian, so going 60kph isn't really an option. I do the best I can with my gears and cross about 30 seconds slower than last year for 13th place -- my worst TT placing in quite some time.

Stage 3: Road Race - the wind

I held my own in this race last year, so I figured this year would be no different, or better. At this point, Jared was sitting in 2nd place on GC after winning the crit and placing 4th in the TT, so our plan was to cover attacks, do no work in breaks, regardless of how good they looked, and try to get Jared across the finish line first to get the time bonus and that number 1 spot on GC.

There were a few early attacks I easily covered and they rolled back into the field. Third turn on lap one, a guy attacks and I happened to have been pushed back a bit, so could not cover right away. I see him quickly approaching a field of riders ahead and make my way to the front. My fear was that if he passed the field of riders, we'd have a very hard time bringing him back. I get to the front and drag the field within 50 yards or so, until my legs can't really do much more work. The field ends up catching the guy just as we hit the 2.5-mile bad section of road and attacks go flying. I'm struggling to grab wheels and know that I'm about to be majorly screwed as we hit the power rollers. I'm out of juice. I see the field slowly rolling away from me.

This was the dumbest thing I've probably ever done in a road race. My first error was that being fresh at the start of the race, I totally underestimated the headwind on the first leg of the course. My second error was chasing the guy on lap one of four in a 65. Why the hell did I chase him? Why not let him fry in the wind and come back into the field, why not save my legs for later in the race to keep myself as an asset to my teammates? Those are all questions I keep asking myself and find no answers for at the moment. Really, really stupid racing on my part. I guess the best I can make of it is keep reminding myself of what happened and try to avoid doing it in the future. 

Going back to the race. I tried to chase on for the entire second lap, working with individual riders and catching a small group at one point, but losing contact with them as well due to the energy I wasted catching them into the wind. I finished lap two and rolled back to my car, hoping my teammates who remained in the race would be able to defend the GC. I hate how DNFs feel. 

Once again, the silver lining was Jared totally kicking ass in the road race and winning in style, taking first on GC and earning respect of the entire peloton in the process. 

Lessons learned -- first of all, to be patient and smart about where I spend my energy. This is obvious, but at times needs hard reinforcement (check!). Second of all, I realized I have very little experience racing in the wind and have to work really hard on my positioning to not get gapped because in a headwind or a crosswind, a bike length can be as hard to bridge as a mile.


Mar 5, 2012

Merco crit and road race recap

Last year, racing the weekend at Merco was probably some of the best fun and atmosphere I had all season, so returning this year wasn’t even a question. A major change from last year was that Elite and Masters racers not doing the stage races (everyone but P/1/2 and M35+1/2/3) were not allowed to participate in the TT, but only the crit and the road race.

Merco Grand Prix


The course was different from last year with the completion of construction in Merced. The hairpin was out and a nine-corner course, resembling a profile of an old phone receiver, was in. The weather was warm and sunny, with 33 of us at the start line. No teammates in the race.

My original plan for the race was to sit in conservatively in the field until the final laps, then move up and contest the sprint. However, the more I thought about that plan, the more dissatisfied I had become. I figured there will be plenty of time for this type of super-strategic, one-move focused racing once I’m in my race block, racing my target races. On Saturday, I wanted to race really aggressively, and try to contest primes as well as get myself in a break – the latter often comes on the heels of the former.

I line up at the front, the whistle blows and we’re off. The pace starts fast and I’m fifth or sixth wheel. Half way through the lap, the lead guy figures out he can’t pull us all at that speed for long, and normal Cat. 4 racing resumes. As we finish lap one, prime bell rings and I’m in good position near the front of the field. Half way through the lap, I attack from two bikes back, get a small gap and gun it for the line. The fresh field wasn’t going to let me go and chased back on. I say, “what the hell,” and kick it as hard as I can down the finishing straight. Didn’t get it as two riders got me by about half a length on the line got around me.


[Above edited as post-race photographic evidence that I wasn't quite recalling that correctly.]

We keep racing and I try to keep myself near the front as much as possible, chasing a chance to get a break. Finally, around lap 11, a junior rider attacked and got about 100 meters of breathing room. I’m second wheel, again I sprint out of the field, get a gap and bridge to the junior. We start taking pulls, but as we go under the start/finish, the prime bell rings again. This prompts a bridge attempt, which ended up dragging the field to us.

We go under the start/finish seeing six to go and the bell rings again. Going into the penultimate corner, I find myself riding second wheel behind Trevor, but I know he’s not going full gas. The thought that went through my mind was I either have to go now, or we’re about to get swarmed and I’m going to be boxed in at the line. If we were going all out, I would have waited 30-50 meters, but at that speed, I figured I had to give it a shot. I kicked really hard once again, but Trevor caught my wheel and ended up coming around me at the line. That effort sent me to the back of the field with five to go. I managed to get up front again in a lap or two, but legs were no longer there and the peloton got very erratic on the last lap (what else is new?), with nervous wheels shifting in all sorts of directions. I figured I had a fun time thus far, and decided a dangerous move to break out of the box I was in wasn’t really worth it. Rolled in 20th, but very content with the type of race I had. I tried everything I wanted to try, raced aggressively, and gave the legs a good test run to see how form is coming along.

Hilltop Ranch Road Race


Sunday was another beautiful day in Central Valley. The temperatures were probably in the upper 60s when the race began and the winds were relatively calm. On the menu was a 48-mile road race, consisting of two 24-mile laps with gently rolling terrain with full road closure.

Jared and I left the city around 8:30, with plenty of time to have my usual 1.5 hours pre-race time. However, being an idiot, I didn’t read past the first line of the directions and just plopped Keyes & Olsen into my GPS and off we went. On Keyes, I was promptly stopped by a police officer blocking the course and he had me turn around and go another way to the staging area. Long story short, by the time we got to staging and got our numbers, we had about 50 minutes before race start. I didn’t even bother getting on the trainer, but just rolled around a bit and got to the line in plenty of time.

Advice from a teammate was to sit in, move up toward the end and contest the sprint – my original strategy from the day before, but Jared wanted to get a break going. He’d been successful with that previously, so I was certainly going to do all I could to help him. Despite the lack of wind, the chances of a break were not that bleak. There were many Tri-Valley and Webcor guys in our field. Together, those two teams were probably about 40 percent of the peloton, and if each of their guys was in the break, that would severely limit the leg power left for the chase.

There 43 guys in our field. The whistle blew and within 30 meters, I’m on the nose. “What the hell,” I think to myself, “might as well warm up.” So I attacked the field, got a gap and extended it a bit before settling into a nice rhythm just to get the blood moving. I spent the first five miles off the front, warming up, changing up my efforts from hard to medium.  I kept looking back at the field to see what they were doing, but they didn’t seem to be concerned. Then I noticed the peloton assumed a more pointed formation, meaning they were trying to reel me in. Feeling warmed up, I eased off my pace, making sure when the field came by to stick myself near the front again and watch the action.

Jared made several attempts at a break, and I tried to be near the front to try to block or watch for someone to bridge me to him. After a few failed attempts, he finally got into a four-man break that I thought might make it. A Tri-Valley guy went, Jared followed, and Webcor and another rider came up. Two teams with greatest numbers got near the front to slow the peloton and give the guys a chance to survive in a break.

The break stretched out approximately a 20 second lead, but then what I feared happened, Jared and another rider popped both the Tri-Valley and Webcor guys and a rush of fresh leg power came to the front to chase down the rest of the break.

Jared and I spent most part of lap one and a part of lap two on the front trying to create a break opportunity. The last attempt was made by Jared as we turned onto a stretch of bad pavement, but that was another short-lived break and I realized a break was not how this race was going to end. I moved to the back of the pack and rested up, as I was doing for a good part of lap two.

The last 3km start with a prolonged S-turn, then a straight, then a slight uphill and a straight into the finish. This is the part where I lost focus and let more guys get around me than I should have. This forced me to attack up the little riser boxed in, dodging between riders who were no longer able to keep pace. I saw the sprint start and did all I could to be there, but was just too far back and not in the best position. I just snuck in across the line in the number 10 position. I was content, but definitely not satisfied, as I know I could have done a better job being near the front of that race.

Side story

As the road race kept going on, once in a while I’d hit these horrendous pot-holes that no one pointed out and eventually, on the second lap, my bars started to slip. Meaning they began to rotate. In the final few kilometers, I hit the last of the bumps, which twisted my bars to the point where I could only be in the drops. The drops that now were somewhere in between the hoods and where the drops usually are, so it kind of worked out, but it definitely took my mind off the race in the last few crucial moments. When I got home, I discovered that the shaking and rattling of the road shook the stem screws a bit loose. Hopefully a quick application of locktite will prevent that from happening in the future.

Takeaways

I came into this weekend with fresh legs and used it as a test to see where my fitness was, as well as practicing racing with tactics and purpose. As far as fitness is concerned, legs are coming around nicely, and I should be on form around early April, as I figured earlier when mapping out my training plan for the year. The one item that I recognize I really need work on is positioning myself toward the finish. That will be one of the things I will focus on over the next series of “training” races because more often than not, Cat 4 races end in a bunch sprint and being in the right place at the right time in the last 300 meters often means the difference between top 10 and a 20-something place.