Sunday, April 24, 2011

Why you should not quit

I wanted to.

I wanted to turn around and go back to the parking lot. I didn't.

(Binghamton Circuit Race)

This was one of our local races. It's a course the club does twice a month. I know the ins and outs of it. I know where I am strong, where I am weak, where the potholes are, where the wind will hit you, where the places to hide are, where the places to attack are.

And I know that the course doesn't suit me on a windy day. Oops, I forgot. It was also 42 degrees and driving rain.

I wanted to quit before we even started the first race. I wanted to quit when I was hitching up my trailer and the rain was turning to ice pelting my face that morning. I wanted to go home and go back to bed.

I didn't.

The first race, cat 4, was surprisingly well-attended considering the conditions. It was even fast at times. We had three. I was expecting to have nearly ten from our team but a whole lot of guys bailed. I can't say I blame them, but wish they had come. This did not give us much of a tactical advantage however as Rogue had better numbers and several other teams had decent representation as well. Honestly I don't think tactics made a difference in this race except for perhaps one or two moments. The rest of the time it was very predictable. Someone would launch an attack, or just look like they were going to launch an attack, or simply stand up to pedal, and the whole peloton would react immediately. It was Pavlovian.

I concluded that my original strategy of trying to get away early was doomed (especially with a south wind pushing you back on the downhill and back straight) and binned it. Mike and I had discussed some rapid-fire attacks later in the race in the hopes of catching them when they were tired, and we fell back on this strategy.

Mike had the legs to make a great gap on one of his attacks, getting a good 15 seconds on the group, but it was not going to work. The surge came rather quickly and he was caught before we hit the S/F line. After his second attempt was reeled in I countered on the top section of the hill, going clear after a prime lap and getting a bit of space but the wind blast at the top was enough to keep me from really getting much out of it. I was caught before the middle of the flat section.

This was going to be a field sprint. Everyone seemed to want it that way. Or so I thought.

One to go, and Rogue sends one of their guys up the road right after the S/F line. I hesitated.


Should have followed him. I had a hunch that this one was going to work. This was verified when his team came to the front and set up a nice false tempo that gave him an excellent gap which was increasing. Finally the bike race felt like a bike race. I made a move to bridge, dragged a few with me, made it to within 20 meters, failed. The rest of the pack had caught up to the back end of us at that point and I drifted back.

From the back I could see how things were going to play out for the field sprint. Mike chose to move up on the inside. I followed him up that way, hoping to get a clear channel from that point. He nailed it from the bottom of the hill and basically dropped me. I did my best to wind it up from there but never found the right gear. Overgeared is not the way for me to sprint here, and the inside was way too tight. I had to stop pedaling twice to keep from crashing into weaving and slowing riders.


unhappy. a frustrating race with a lousy finish. I have yet to do a cat 4 race that I didn't feel frustrated and tense during, or after.

At this point I want to quit again. I am having visions of burying my bikes in the back yard and taking up knitting. Shivering, cold, wet, grouchy. Not wanting to discuss the race.

I did not quit.

Reset. Change all clothes. Put new number on. Eat a sandwich. Drink a Red Bull. Make a phone call. Go back to the trailer and warm up some more on the trainer. Find some happiness again. Line up again.

The second race might just be a better one for me. It's a combination field. P123 and Masters. We all race together. The pace is hotter. The tactics are, well, they exist. People know how to handle their bikes for the most part.

And I am coming in to it tired from the first race. This might be a good thing. It has in the past.

Nothing to lose here, I play it safe and just look for good wheels to follow. I am playing this one as a race of attrition, expecting the higher pace and longer duration to take a quarter to a half of the race and then whoever is left will have to sort it out. The biggest difference in pace happens on the uphill, where the field will push it all the way past the line and to the top of the hill before slowing. It means you need to suffer for at least 30 seconds longer. That gets tough after a while. Being tired is a plus though since the endorphins are already kicking in.

Finding a good wheel was not as important as figuring out which wheels NOT to follow. Some guys would open up a gap in the windy section and you had to go around them and close it. That was brutal, and nearly took me out of the race with about 4 to go. I chased all the way to the little riser before the flat in the back of the course. Dragging a few riders with me, finally flipping elbow and hoping they would come around.

They did. Saved.

And the pack finally spread out a bit. This was a hard race and things strung out much more than they usually do. People were hungry for a win. Lots of them. Lots of 123s.

I tend to measure the toughness of a race by the number of times I have fantasies about quitting. By that metric this was a very hard race.

Very hard.

But once I caught back on after that agonizing chase I realized the pack was considerably smaller.

I am going to finish this one in the lead group. Heck, I might even do well in this one. Dammit! I am going to make something of this race!

1-to-go. Regrouping. Slowing. No attacks. It's going to be a field sprint. Find a spot. Be patient. Wait and see. Remember what you learned from the mistakes you made in the first race.

Getting close to the final hill... And a hole opens up in the middle! Fill the hole and get to the outside!

I do. I hit the base of the climb and click down a couple of gears. Sprint! Go Go Go Go!

I picked the proper side and the proper gear this time, kept the power on all the way to the line.


It's all in the split...

how many masters are in front of me? how many behind me? how many are 123s?

about 20 minutes later Lloyd pushes money into my hand. What's this?

"you won the masters 35+"


"no, really, you won."


Why you should not quit.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Bloomfield (or how to exploit my weaknesses)

Yeah this season has been a bit better than last. I'm still no powerhouse but I'm hanging a bit longer in these races and even doing reasonably well at times. It's true that I started doing this sport late. The age that I did my very first race is generally the age that a professional cyclist retires. Fortunately I don't have to race with the pros, although I do have to race with ex-pros at times. It's interesting to think about the amount of time someone like that has put into the sport, over the many years and hours of an entire career. Malcolm Gladwell has his "ten-thousand hour rule" from Outliers, where he details the amount of time that experts in various fields have devoted to study or practice or simply doing that which they need to do to achieve mastery.

That is a long way off.

However, I have some understanding of it. I was discussing this with someone a month or so ago and the subject of music practice came up. I estimated that I still practice close to 20 hours a week even now. Since I've been playing music for 32 years it has all added up quite a bit, especially during the years when I was putting in 9 hour days and the like. She concluded that I had reached my 10,000 hour mark a long time ago. I think it is probably closer to 30,000 by now.

When I was still in the early phases of learning how to play music I went through a lot of difficulty. Sometimes it was close to unbearable living with the fact that I simply could not do what I saw others (with more experience) doing easily. This led me to change the focus of my practicing to try to increase the level of my minimum performances. Isolate the weak spots and work on them. Don't worry so much about the strong spots. They will take care of themselves on stage.

So I apply that to my cycling. It's easy to keep working on the stuff that I do well, threshold stuff, longer hills and the like. It's not so easy to work on the stuff that tends to limit me and take me out of races. One-minute power climbs, brutal surges, repeated sprints, closing gaps in windy conditions. Hence I race a lot and work on these things. I also have tried to add more of this stuff to my training.

Bloomfield, when windy, is a course tailor-made to exploit these weaknesses. It is absolutely a puncher's course, having no climbs in excess of two minutes (although there is one section of three climbs that can add up to 5 minutes if you string them together into one effort). Most of them are short and steep, and the riders who power over them are going to be dictating the pace. Wind is another huge factor, and on a windy day this course becomes suited to heavier riders who can survive the brutal crosswinds that make even a two-bike-length gap take ages to close.

We had pretty good numbers in this race. Four RUUD guys, four Team London guys, and mostly singles and pairs in the rest of the field. On paper it looked to be a match between our team and the Londoners. Things started out that way too, with both of our teams at the front, setting a relatively easy pace. Goncalves took off early and I think we did the right thing in not pushing it, keeping him in sight. In fact he was getting a bit closer when we were on the first descent leading into turn one. Pete, first wheel, took the corner hot with me right on his wheel. I looked over my shoulder, saw I had the expected several bike-length gap (more on this later) and made a choice to jump up to Goncalves.

This was win-win. Either I get up there with him and start pushing to maintain the breakaway or the rest of the field will jump with me. If they do, then the race comes back together and the guard at the front changes. The second choice happened and I slotted back in to the field. This is where the pace started to get painful, hitting the more hilly sections mostly standing and mashing, surviving the wind while the field strings out, and generally hammering.

Things kept up that way for the rest of the lap when, upon crossing the start line again we completely strung out into the crosswind. Just before that section is a steep climb which slows the field down dramatically and I tend to keep pace there, but the shock from the harsh wind once you hit the top has to be felt to be believed. Generally, it was all I could do just to hold the wheel in front of me as we crossed the line. Bruce chose this moment to attack and Goncalves went with him (one Rogue, one London, both bigger than me and better suited to this race). I wasn't even close to the front and didn't even see it happen. Pete was there but couldn't push through the wind to jump with them.

and so it goes.

London shut the pace down with their remaining three. We had already lost two of our guys in the hills and it was down to Pete and me. We had to make a hard choice. Should we commit our two against their three (plus one OTF) in the hopes that we will still have something left if we pull the breakaway back? Will anyone help? I tested this by pushing the pace a bit and watching to see who came up there. One Kurzawinski guy was up there and he seemed moderately interested. Faso was there too, but neither of these guys was all that jazzed about suffering in this wind. It wasn't going to work. Neither Pete nor I were feeling like we could do a whole lot at this point so we didn't push the issue. London seemed to have the advantage both in numbers and in strength.

I paid attention to the corners. Every time I hit one first-wheel I could get a sizeable gap so I was counting on hitting the final corner first and then giving it 100% to the line, hoping for a decent finish and grabbing a few upgrade points if possible.

And then there were ten (or so) coming in to the final lap. The wind again. Always the wind.

I'm in the back.

I'm gapped.


And got lucky. Pete must have sensed something was wrong and looked over his shoulder. He dropped back a bit to surf me back in to the "field" (does ten riders make a field?) Of course this took FOREVER in the crosswind and we were tired going in to the hilly section when the attacks came. One attack, fine. Two attacks, sorta fine. Three... not so fine.

Dropped. Both of us. (we were not the only ones dropped, these attacks shredded the rest of the group as well)

Joe from London was dropped too and he grabbed our wheels as we tried to hang tough on the climbs, coming around and helping out in the flats and downhills. He's a strong one and sometimes he'd go so hard on the downhills that I'd have to tell him to take it easy!

This enabled us to pass a few of the previous attackers and potentially put us back in the running for a top ten finish. We picked up Mike Minerva with about 4 miles to go and I was keeping an eye on him. Minerva made his play on one of the final hills and I looked behind to see what was going on. No Pete, no Joe. I went with Minerva, hoping I would have a shot at a good finish on this one. If most of the guys up the road were 50+ I could still grab a point or two out of this one.

Now comes the last descent and final corner. We picked up another few stragglers. Minerva's in first wheel. He's starting to slow for the corner.


I blast around him, knowing exactly how hard I can go in this corner, after testing it three times before. I rail that sucker as hard as I can and get a huge gap!

At this point I give it everything I have to keep the gap open. Uhh, everything...




Minerva makes it past me on the little hill. Loews from London makes it past me at the top in the awful crosswind. I limp over the line.


Pete and Joe cross after me for 11/12. I am still hoping beyond hope that the age split will work in my favor.....


As it turned out, only one of the guys in front of me was 50+. One.

So after all that work I managed to still look like I finished in the basement with a stunning 9th out of 11. Things do look a bit differently in the overall though, where it's more like 10 out of 34. Whatever.

I wasn't really pleased with getting dropped during the attacks but I feel positive about the race in general because it highlighted two of my biggest weaknesses (punchy anaerobic hills and wind) and I still managed a fair finish.

another baby step. goo goo ga ga.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Battenkill. the first time.

I'm glad I waited.

I had the opportunity to do this race in 2009 and had to work. Again I had the opportunity in 2010 and chose not to race because of the time of year and the cost. This year I was determined to do it for the first time and I finally feel like I have the legs to handle it.

No, not win it. I am not an idiot. I think the probability of me winning this race in the Masters 40+ is darn close to zero at this time, although I suppose I would have done fairly well in the 4s or the 5s, maybe even having an outside chance to win it, judging by the finishing times in most of those fields. This is neither self-deprecation nor capitulation. It is simply an understanding of where I am now, as compared to where I might be in the future and who exactly I am competing against. There are darn good reasons to race in the 40+ however. (much smoother peloton, much more tactical racing, harder training and generally a more fun and less nerve-wracking experience). I have seldom, if ever, felt the same way in a 4 race. Those generally drive me nuts.

Hence I came to Battenkill with few expectations. Just my primary goal in bicycle racing: to have fun.




full stop.

With that said I do have a lot of little things that I work on. This year is no different. My main focus is learning how to do well in a race while expending the minimum amount of energy necessary, until the time is right to expend a lot. That means drafting closer, getting more comfortable with being surrounded by riders very close on all sides, learning how to be more aggressive about maintaining or improving my position in the field, taking any advantages that I might have and also trying my best to make the other guy do the work. Patience, and not giving up. Realizing that there are always new opportunities that present themselves, even when they seem unlikely.

The field was full. One hundred and fifty riders signed up. One hundred and fifty riders lined up. The start was civil, almost tea-party like. It was blissful to be whizzing along at 25mph while nose breathing and putting out about 100 watts in such a huge peloton. Not long into the race I noticed people were getting antsy and pushing their way forward. This is one of my flaws. I too often allow people to shuffle me back when things get super-close in the pack. I need to work on this. I did the right thing, possibly by accident, and found a channel to the right to move way up right before this, the only covered bridge on the course and perhaps the most recognized icon of Battenkill.

I had excellent position right after the bridge, but people got very aggressive at that point, really jamming their way forward.
I made the mistake of letting them do this, and did my best to compensate for it by climbing a bit harder on the minor dirt grade on which we found ourselves. I would find out later what the reason was for all of the jostling and fighting once we hit the first real kicker of a climb, Joe Bean road. It does sort of come up out of nowhere and once I saw the top of the hill in the distance, I knew I had made a mistake in not pursuing being further up in the pack when we hit this hill. It gets quite steep near the top and I could see three riders go clear. (I had a pretty good idea of who two of them were). The resulting surge split the pack in two and I was stuck in the second group.

(note to self for next year - good position for Joe Bean)

By the time we had reached the top, the race was over for half the field. A breakaway of three, followed by about 35, followed by about another 35 (my group) and that's it. Everyone else was dropped and likely never to be seen again. My group was racing full bore at this point, and we spent what seemed like the next twenty minutes either climbing full force or completely strung out chasing the first peloton. We could see them at times, especially on run-ups to a longer climb, but never got all that close. Battenkill is one of those races where, if you examine the results year in and year out, the finishing times seem to correlate with rider strength. This is not a hard and fast rule, but it does seem a significant pattern.

Here's who I was up against.

Notice the pattern on the jersey?
That's not just a clever design, it's the real deal and he's allowed to wear the stars and stripes, being the current Masters national champion in road racing, Roger Aspholm. The second rider is Fred Thomas, who put up a time trial at Killington last year that would have had him in third place in the Pro race. The third rider was someone I had not seen before who came down from Canada. I have certainly seen plenty of guys from Bloor in races and they are always strong.

And following them,

The first peloton.
Carl Reglar (Danbury Audi), who has been destroying fields at Bethel and winner of the queen stage at Killington and the Wilmington-Whiteface RR last year, able to do no more than hang with the pack. That's just how tough this race is. The rider in the foreground is Troy Kimball. Look him up. In fact, this pack is basically a who's who of Eastern Masters.

And finally the second peloton, with yours truly tailgunning.

Tailgunning was the right move for me on this day.
I could move up on the climbs if I needed, but I didn't have to. As soon as we got to a descent I would bomb them and gain a lot of ground, especially if it was dirt. Lots of riders fear descending. I am not one of them.

In fact, I didn't really see the wind until the final 20 miles of this race.
We had been steadily shedding riders on the climbs until our little group was down to maybe 20 riders. The attacks came just before, and during, and just after Meeting House Road. I was very thankful to have not taken a pull up to that point because I needed everything I had left to answer the attacks. I don't know how many of us were left at that point since I found myself leading and mostly in the front, but I'd say it regrouped fairly well. We slowed down dramatically for a few minutes.

I was starting to show signs of fatigue when the pace quickened and we strung out heading in to the last big climb of the day, a stair-stepper with five climbs in all. I watched as about half of our group attacked the base of the climb and went clear. I could do nothing to follow them. In fact I was starting to fall back and in danger of losing contact completely.

(this is one of those moments which made me realize I am starting to get a bit better at this sport)

Once it became clear that it was do or die, I just told myself to forget the pain and forget about the legs not working. Stand, sit, whatever. Just keep pedaling and keep pushing. I did it. Near the top I had no legs left, so I used my arms instead, pulling on the bars as hard as I could to muscle my way over the top and maintain my spot in the small group that was left.

That's it. No more dirt. No more hills. Just about 5k to go and the race is over. We had maybe 8 left and could see the few who got away and were determined to catch them. The pace was high and things started to fracture and really hurt. I did my fair share, pulling through as hard as necessary to keep the pace going but not gap the guy behind me and it looked like we were going to catch them but just ran out of road.

At 1k to go we realized there were six left, and that's how it was going to be. The pace slowed a bit for the last two hard right-handers (more sand and gravel in the corners than you'd normally have, but it's Battenkill so I guess it's expected) and once we hit the final stretch it's only 100m to the line. Not a long enough sprint for me but I gave it what I had. The gear was spun up to about 130rpms and that got me close at the line, but my bike throw missed it by about a wheel.



I was more than pleased with this. A step in the right direction.

I did about an hour of 50 watts or so warming down. Slept wonderfully that night.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

I win a race.

It's been a long time coming. Nearly three years of doing this sport and I had never won a race. I did get on the podium last season at the State Criterium Championships due to a bizarre twist of fate which had most of the participants coming in from out-of-state.

(I got lapped in that crit and still won the Bronze Medal for 2010.)

(It's not all bad. A lot of people got lapped in that race. Some even lost two laps. It was like a track race)

The word among the wise is that three years seems to be the point where things start to come together. I haven't seen huge gains or anything over this last winter base season, but for the first time I was focused on doing intervals throughout base in addition to the usual low-intensity stuff. I also put in a bit more time than last winter, and seemed to be able to handle the load well.

I've also noticed a physiological change. My body just seems "used to it". By this I mean that hard efforts or longer efforts seem to cause me less disruption in terms of my sense of balance. This is all in keeping with the concept that, after nearly three years of solid training, I am finally crossing the threshold from beginner.

Today's race was going to be a tough one. Lots of climbing on 5 laps of an 8 mile course. Over 100 feet per mile in total elevation gain and nearly half of the distance covered on dirt roads which were still quite wet from recent snow and rain. Be prepared for a muddy slog. A cross race with smooth tires.

My kind of race? Maybe. I do fairly well on the straight hammer sections of cross races and go uphill fairly well, although there was a "wall" in this race that hit 20%, not my cup of tea.

The Masters were split up between 40+ and 50+. All together the field was still small, like ten guys total. Not bad odds of course.

Race begins. The first thing that happens is a bizarre dude wearing a time trial helmet takes off. Nobody really knows what to think about this guy. Is he one of those kinds of guys who will just take off and never be seen again? Is he just some bizarre dude who attacks early and then blows up? I don't want to take the chance and give a surge to jump on his wheel. I sense the pack line up behind me and the race is on.

Turn one. Onto the dirt and up the long climb. Bizarro dude is in the front but his pace is not really holding. I go around him and slot in, making a pace that doesn't put me in the red zone but pushes it just a bit.

I look behind me and see Bruce from Rogue Racing. I know Bruce. We've raced a lot. He's a beast. Of all the folks in this race he was the only one I really wanted to pay attention to. I put my head down and keep motoring up the hill, but still not all that hard.

We get to the top.

I look behind me again. Yes. Bruce is there. Only him. nobody else.


(I look again)

Really, nobody is there.

(At this point I am thinking either the field was just weak to begin with or maybe I am finally starting to show signs of improved form. The latter is possible since Bruce is a good standard to compare oneself to)

I ask him if he wants to try to stay away for good. He thinks it's a good idea. I think it's a good idea.

It's a good idea. I increase the pace by just a few percent and we commence to get to work on making this little breakaway stick.

In order to do this we need to make it up the "wall" five times. Here we are on the first time. Looking pretty good...

(I wonder how we will look after five times)

On lap two we looked back over our shoulders at the top of the long climb and could see the field way back there. On lap three we looked back and saw nobody. At this point we were starting to feel like it was a done deal. He's 50. I'm 43. If we just stay away for the day then we both win.


(still having some trouble processing that one)

At this point we are starting to catch some of the 4s. They left 5 minutes before us and we've been picking up stragglers and leaving them behind one-by-one, thinking we might have a shot at catching their main field.

We see the car.

(big grin)

We pass the car.

(bigger grin)

Only about 4 or 5 of them up there.

(really big grin)

We pass them.

(dirt eating grin)

They come back to us. It's going to be a bit of cat and mouse with the 4s I guess. not such a bad situation as long as the officials don't seem to mind.

Last lap. last time up the wall. Most of the 4s are way behind us. We've already lapped one guy from our field so it's been a productive day out there all around. At this point you can see just how muddy it was and just how much suffering was endured.

Endgame. I am way out of my area here, having precious little experience in actually dealing with the chance to cross the line first in a real race. Club races have helped though, and I have certainly had plenty of chances to work on endgame on tuesday or thursday night. I think attacking Bruce on the last little climb will probably just end up in tiring me out, and is not likely to gain much advantage, since he has the better chance on the ensuing downhill before the final corner into the finish. I choose to let him take the lead and gamble that I can get around him to the line.

On the final corner we had to brake. No choice, really, since it was just as sandy and cruddy as every other section of this race, but at least it was the same for both of us.

Unfortunately that left me in too big a gear with only 150m to go to the line. Bruce is far better at spinning up a big gear and making it stick. He gave me a perfect lead-out and I did manage to push that gear all the way up to 130rpm by the line but it just wasn't enough to get further than halfway up his bike.


But like I said, we both win. Life is good. I even won money. I also set a 2-hour wattage record. yikes.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

A glimmer of form: Johnny Cake #1

This is the third year that I have done the Johnny Cake races. They are laps on a 6 mile circuit in a flat town not far from Albany NY. They run three races. I do the "B" race. I wish to do the "A" race but one must be a cat 3 or above and, as yet, I do not fit the criteria.

It's not the best kind of race for me, having almost no selectivity. No climbs, slow corners. Flat and windy. I usually just do my best to hang in there and just go for a pack finish.

When I first started doing these races, they seemed really fast. They don't anymore. Sometimes they even seem slow. This is a good sign I think.

Shovel and I lined up in the middle of the pack and after the neutral roll-out we gave a surge and slotted in near eachother. He's on a different team but as far as I was concerned, we were on the same team that day. I feel that I race better when I have people to watch out for (and to watch out for me). Shovel felt the same way. If I got shuffled to the back, I would look for him, and vice-versa.

The wind was fierce, and at times the pack would string out and get socked with a vicious crosswind. These were the only times when I felt myself approaching the redline, but thankfully they didn't last terribly long and I never got coupled off. Plenty of folks did, however, and by the last lap our field of 70 was down to 40 or so. Not what you might expect for a flat race.

As we got halfway through the final lap, I could sense the anxiety rising in the pack. People starting to get desperate to get to the front and taking chances that they hadn't before. I felt myself getting shuffled backward. Compensated a bit on the outside. Shuffled again, fought for a few wheels. Ended up maybe 2/3 into the pack. Not the best spot, but not completely out of the game. I don't give up. This is what I am learning. Never give up. Opportunities always seem to present themselves if you are calm and patient, yes, calm, even when hammering above threshold. Don't ask me to explain.

(a little voice inside me tells me to be careful.. something might happen)

bang. crash . left

bang .. crash .. me....

(slow motion)

I sometimes have an innate ability to slow down time in stressful situations and I think it has saved me a number of times. This may have been another.

(I find an S-curving path through the carnage)

2 km to go and the leadout is beginning. must! catch! back! on!

(I do.)

I find, now, that the pack is down to 30 or so. I find my way up on the outside a bit and think "gee, I am almost in a good position for the sprint...."


Then we hit the final corner. I ride right through the enormous patch of sand that nobody bothered to sweep and have to coast down a bit. So much for good position.

(but at least I am still upright)

I turn into the wind and give it a hard, but not maximal effort, surfing past a number of riders on the leeward side for 21st. Best Johnny Cake finish yet.

glimmers of form.