The days leading into three days of travel and cyclocross in Sherbrooke at the start of November went a bit sideways. ‘Sideways’ in parlance of any number of athletes, ‘whatever’ for the average person. I came down with a cold, was busy at work, and accordingly, pretty stressed out yet trying not to be stressed out. I’d oriented my fall around a good race at Nationals (no, that doesn’t mean a podium placing in my mind or anyone else’s), so I got as much sleep as I could, ate well, and hoped for the best. On Friday I didn’t feel sick as we drove to Sherbrooke, but I wasn’t expecting to be at 100%. If I felt ok, just not as fast as possible on Saturday, that’d be a win of sorts.
Having two bikes with my for the first time at a ‘big race’ was a special development for me. Jamie Pold (Woven Precision Handbuilts) has a new Brodie cx bike, and his old Steelwool Truffle Pig has been mostly sitting around. Since I have a mix of old, narrow, Woven tubulars and current, wider clinchers, I can’t really swap all the wheels I might want to swap onto one bike without changing brake settings. With Jamie’s bike I could run my clinchers with Specialized Terra tubeless tires mounted as a solid ‘mud’ set-up, ready to take on whatever Nats delivered. On my ‘A-bike’ I had Dugast Smallbirds, a rear Clement LAS file tread, a front Clement PDX mud tread, a front Challenge Grifo, and a pair of Challeng Limus muds. So I’d be covered for anything with that bike. Jamie’s bike happens to be the same model as mine, albeit a size down, with the same brakes and most of the same drivetrain bits. It felt similar, though shorter and more upright than mine. I wasn’t sure how that’d feel while racing, but was pretty sure I’d find out.
Friday’s weather was grim: damp and hovering around 5 Celcius along the water at Jacques Cartier Parc in Sherbrooke. The venue was great for cyclocross, offering lots of terrain to work with, which was exactly what the organizers did. Even though training had only officially opened a short time before we arrived on Friday afternoon, the track was quite muddy and gnarly.
Iain Radford, Ian Loney, and Dave Gruber met Mike Reeves and me at the park for the training session, Radford, carrying in a back injury from falling down the stairs at home earlier the week, was not loving the prospect of a lot of running. We rode the course for a solid hour, which felt adequate from a personal comfort perspective, but inadequate from a course inspection perspective. The thing was we knew it was going to change a lot, especially if it rained (which it was supposed to do). It wasn’t entirely clear whether a bunch more time on the course would be worthwhile, or simply make us tired (sick?), and more sore. We headed to the grocery store nearby for dinner supplies, then on to our chateau, among the most bizarre structures I’ve ever slept in.
With snow having fallen overnight, and what seemed to be rather variable weather, we had no idea what to expect on Saturday. Mike and Iain were to race at 0900, necessitating an early – though not really early enough – departure for the race site that afforded them about 20 minutes of trainer time before their start. Riding on the course wasn’t really in the cards, so they’d have to wait for lap one to learn what was in store for them. Iain had a second bike with him, shod in totally inadequate Small Birds, so I headed to the pits to cover him and help Mike with whatever issues he might have.
The 40-49 men went out hard and the front of the race didn’t let up. Iain and Mike battled hard, but the heavy course conditions saw them off their bikes and running far more than usual, which certainly didn’t suit either of them. Iain’s mud accumulation never got bad enough for him to change bikes, though likely contributed to the dropped chain he suffered on the last lap. Iain and Mike finished 13th and 15th, with Steve Proulx taking Ottawa’s top placing in 7th.
Ian Loney and Dave Gruber were up next in the 30-39 race. Lap times at the front were pretty consistent with the 40-49 race, suggesting the track was getting slower. Dave and Ian finished 18 and 19th respectively, solid performances, with local Doug Van den Ham stepping onto the podium for third, making Ottawa proud.
The fastest lap in the Elite race wound up being less than 30 seconds faster than that of the Senior 30-39. The track was significantly slower at the end of the day. It was obvious even before the start that the laps would be really heavy, and I suspected I’d need to change bikes at least a couple times during the race. Iain and Mike signed on as my pit crew, and off we went.
If you’ve been reading the blog lately, you’ll have seen my post on how to race CX better. There I suggest re-evaluating the common advice to always attack the first lap as hard as possible. On Saturday, however, I felt that was what I needed to do. The conditions would wreak havoc on the field, and if I could get behind better riders from the start, I could hopefully see where the best lines were and figure out where I ought to run. After that I’d try to settle into some sort of rhythm, though I expected that’d be hard to do. Choosing not to go onto the course in advance of my race was a gamble, my intent being to avoid washing a bike and getting cold in the process. With the course changing every lap, perhaps that’d be fine.
I’m staged 4th row of 5. I feel calm, positive, ready. Obviously the guys ahead will go ballistic at the whistle. I think I can find some space on the left then move to the right to line up for the left turn uphill. I’m about to find out.
It’s on, the front row guys are opening a gap almost immediately. Fighting for space, get my bars in front of his, go for that gap. We hit the left turn, I’ve got guys taking inside lines I could block, but that’d put them into trees. Do they know I’m not that kind of guy? They’re lucky I’m not.
It’s so greasy, I narrowly steer around a crash as we descent the snaking section through trees before we sweep back around to climb again. Derrick St John is ahead of me as we exit the pits, crashes, gets back on and goes hard. I’m doing ok where I am, but I’m already feeling the effort, and we’ve only done what, 90 seconds? Jeezuz.
I slide out, no big deal, but I’m already losing ground in the top 20. The muddiest section of the course is over by our tents, a south-facing slope adjacent the water that seems to retain water like a sustainably harvested sponge. Riding, dismounting, running, running….running. God, I suck at running so bad. This isn’t even running. It’s more like trudging. By the time I get to the steep euro-style slope all I can really do is hike up. Cresting, I want to jump on my bike, but can only muster a step onto it. I’m SO….GASSED! At least the steep descent will give me some momentum to try to plow through the mud bog next. Ok, not so bad, now onto pavement, I should stand up here….can’t. In the saddle, maxed out, all I can do is turn the pedals over. I’ve never felt like this on the first lap of a cyclocross lap. I’m redefining maximal effort today.
The back half of the lap is much easier, but I have to recover. I can’t back right off, of course, so ‘recovery’ is still very close to my threshold, meaning I’m not recovering enough to ride hard again. I’m trying to make good decisions, and I’m handling the bike ok, but by no means am I in this race, already.
Lap two, a rider tries to overtake where DSJ had crashed, promptly slides out into me, taking me down. C’mon, really? That was dumb. Bang my shifter back, packed with mud, camera askew, fixed. I’ll need to pit.
Climbing up the paved section for the second time feels horribly slow. The mud must be packed around my brake and bottom bracket, this is crazy. Pit bike; yes!
Trudging continues, I’m sort of figuring things out a little sort of slowly recovering. I have no idea how long these laps are taking as I feel I am able to work harder on my 4th, the leaders well ahead. The Coach Chris guy ahead is within reach, I can feel I’m putting things together now.
Timothy Austen is on the sidelines cheering me on so enthusiastically, I can almost actually muster the energy to do what he’s urging me to do: stand up and chase harder. I don’t have it in me, but I appreciate the support.
27th, the rider ahead having been allowed to continue, despite coming through the line behind me….whatever. Annoying, but of no consequence. Jeremy Martin (Focus CX Team Canada), and great young man, has won the maple leaf jersey, his team-mate, Aaron Schooler second, Geoff Kabush (Scott- 3Rocks Racing) third. I’m amazed by how much faster they were out there. You can see the results here.
Here’s the video I put together from on-bike footage. It gives you a good sense of the difficulty of the course.
The Focus team’s video captures the vibe well:
The day’s conditions highlighted my deficiencies, and cemented my decision to race back in the Master 30-39 category in 2017. Sure, I surely was not at 100% on the day, still sick, but the gap from front to me is just too big at races like this. There are one or two guys in the Elite field who also have full time jobs and families, but the vast majority don’t and they simply are not my peers. On a fast track I can do better, but this is cyclocross, true cyclocross, and I’m out of my league out here today. I wouldn’t say my performance was embarrassing, but it was close. I’m fine with others being fitter, there are limits to how much training I can and want to put into this. But I can race smarter. The problem is that racing hard enough tracks requires a lot of travel outside of our local series. Little by little, I’ll have to give it time.
Sunday brings tackier conditions, a nasty mud section cut out, and a much better scenario for me. I am weak on and off the bike, so the more I can ride the better. The Elite field is reduced, with many of the big guns sitting out. I don’t think this will affect my race much, and I’ve chosen to start hard again and do a better job of allowing for recovery.
Again, a good start, moving up into the top 10 form the second row as we snake downhill. The two riders ahead of me are going slower than those in front of them; I’m right on the wheel in front of mine. Shuck, splat. My front wheel has glanced off a root-ball I didn’t see, slamming me on my left side, sending my bike across the track to be run over. Wow, I’m amazed that didn’t cause a pile up. I’ve hit my left forearm and hip pretty hard, but feel ok. Scrambling onto my bike, it takes what feels like ages to get back to speed, 10 or more riders having passed me. Time to fight.
A couple dudes don’t like me taking the inside line they’ve left open. They’ve been going too slow, I have to get around. Thing is, if you’re going to take the long way around, others can take the short way. It’s bike racing.
I’m feeling a lot better than Saturday, and the exclusion of the mud section is allowing me to ride that same paved climb out of the saddle. I can actually accelerate today, it’s a very different effort. Doug Van den Ham and another are challenging me, Doug in the Master 30-39 category that started behind us. I ride a section of mud well and pull away, but he claws me back. I try to shake him, but seem to have overdone it, as he’s able to accelerate up the climb after the start/finish, dropping me. From here I’ll have to keep it smooth, try to chase Doug down.
This is fun. I love the right hand, muddy turn I can slide into. I’ve spotted an inside line I can get to if I go far right, then cut over the rut. Wow, it’s awesome out here, good grass, more speed up to the next muddy climb. This is the line the fast guys are taking! I found one!
Cool, I don’t have to brake here now! We drop down a steep slope and hit a sweeping tight turn that I’ve realized I can pretty much straight-line and use mud on the exit to hook up into. When I finally nail it I am carrying so much more speed, saving power for the paved climb. The little pieces are coming together. Tim Johnson and Leigh Quillams are telling me to take the wide line through the cool 180 turn with a deep run I’ve been railing near the beer tent. I trust them, try it: it’s awesome! I carry so much more speed coming out of the section, and I save some power. This is the CX magic. If only I had people telling me how to ride better all over the track!
I swapped to my B-bike after a couple laps, and I’m loving it! It has a shorter reach, and the Specialized Terra tubeless tires are cutting in better than my PDX/Limus tubular combo. Maybe the slightly higher pressure and square tread is making just enough difference, because I can feel myself able to take more speed through a bunch of turns.
I finish on the lead lap, a big improvement over Saturday, though I don’t catch Doug. On the last lap I feel and hear carbon connect with pavement, releasing air from my rear tire. It’s ultra soft, but I make it to the put without it rolling off, change bikes, and ride hard to the finish, preserving my spot: 12th.
More exhausted than emotional, it took some time to marinate on the race. It was unquestionably a unique experience, perhaps because there was so much to process the whole time. The first lap was a blur, and from then on I didn’t really feel like I was racing; more, time trailing. Massively gapped by the leaders, it was hard to understand how I lost so much time each lap. When big mistakes are made, it’s easy to identify them. Same with crashes. But this was more a matter of death by a thousand cuts. Not being able to accelerate hard anywhere because I was too gassed is easy to identify as something to address through training. But the more important question is why I was so gassed. I think the answer is that I didn’t make the best decisions in the mud. I ran a section I likely should have ridden, because I’m not a good runner. I could have been quicker to jump off when my lines put me into unrideable sludge. The problem with getting mud wrong is that you end up throwing a lot power at the situation, trying to slog through, and wind up going really slow. So you’ve bled time, and gassed yourself. Double-whammy. If I had a power meter on my bike I might find that I actually rode a very good output, but did I use that power effectively? No.
My heart rate data suggests I was riding above threshold power a lot, and spending little time at a low enough output to actually recover. Essentially, I rode the course in a way that afforded me no recovery, and the closest I could come was pedaling easier than I wanted to on the sections that allowed for solid power transfer. I can only ask myself: what can I learn and build on? After all, this is ‘real cyclocross,’ and I want to be a lot better at racing hard races like this than I am. Being more interested in the process than the results, I’m actually inspired. Inspired to identify areas for improvement on the skills and decision-making front. Sure, I have lots of room to improve in terms of form, but I’m not interested in spending more time on the trainer or doing intervals alone outside. I’ve turned a corner; I want to focus more on cyclocross than I have before, and do cyclocross-supporting training all summer. I have a plan.
Areas for improvement:
Overall cyclocross full body strength – Focusing on body weight and road fitness has worked up to a point, but my thinking has evolved. Rather than simply needing to be ‘light’ for cyclocross, I need to be lean and strong. On the road, upper body strength is only minimally required, but for cyclocross, strong core, shoulders and arms are key to avoiding injury, powering through the course, and getting on and off the bike well.
The plan: I could focus on getting lighter over the winter, but instead, I’ll work on my body composition, and work to convert fat into muscle. Perhaps I’ll be a few pounds lighter than I am now, but I’ll be stronger at that weight than before. I will begin a routine at the gym, starting late-November, to target improvements in overall strength. Three days a week, I’ll spend an hour working on squats, dead lifts, bench press, and rows. It’s been ages since I spent time at the gym, so I’ll ease into it, but I expect to see gains very quickly, and the increase in metabolism should make it easier to lean out than simply piling on trainer hours. For two months, my focus will be on getting stronger, and riding the trainer will supplement this work. I’m excited about taking this step toward becoming a more rounded athlete.
Running – I started working on this earlier in the fall, doing stair intervals. That was a good start, but I need to do more.
The plan: I have terrible running mechanics, so I will work with Iain Radford, a skilled runner, to learn how to move more efficiently. Because cyclocross requires flying dismounts, I’ll practice dropping onto the treadmill at ‘high speed.’ Most importantly, over next summer, I’ll do training rides with team-mates where we’ll run climbs with our bikes shouldered. Nothing beats specificity. Squats should help a lot here, by improving muscle recruitment in my glutes, a muscle group that tends to be rather inactive for those like me who sit at a desk at work.
Skills – While I have thousands of hours of offload riding under my belt, I simply don’t spend many hour riding off-road anymore. I’m proficient at what we have a lot of – rocks – but I spend virtually no time on grass all summer, and deep mud is a rare occurrence in our local races let alone areas I do ride in. After all, we tend to avoid muddy trails, right? However, it’s clear that I – all of us from the club – need more time spent on cyclocross specific skills.
The plan: This will be a phased approach. Phase 1: I will begin in the spring, on easy ride nights, working out a practice circuit at a park close to home. I’ll work out how to incorporate as many of the key elements required as possible: grass turns, barriers (time to learn to hop), run-ups, run-downs (I learned about the need for this at Rochester!), power climbs, and, hopefully, sand. Ideally, my circuit will be packed tightly with changes of effort so I don’t have much recovery in between executing skills. Phase 2: This one is much more ambitious, and will require a lot of collaboration with others. We need a permanent practice track in central Ottawa. Where? Will permission be granted? Time will tell. Obviously, building a track will be a big undertaking, but I feel confident it’s possible. A local track would allow for Wednesday night races, and a whole lot of youth development we can’t realize now. Actually constructing a track would not be the tough part; working out permissions will take the bulk of the time.
So that’ll be three main areas to work on, starting this fall, all intended to chip away at improving my capacity to perform well across a broad range of cyclocross conditions. The nice thing about this approach is that it meshes well with dirt road / gravel racing, some of which requires running, all of which requires strong bike handling and well developed core strength. On the road side, the short and relatively sharp efforts of criteriums will both be fun and underpin more focused intervals toward September. The approach I am mapping out is intended to add specificity and quality to my regular routine, and be fun and motivating the whole time. Ideally, I will work out timed sections to set benchmarks on, then use to track progress. This seems vital in relation to gym work in particular; one wouldn’t want to put on too much but and end up slower on the bike! I’ve already swapped to a shorter stem on my bike to get a more upright position, like Jamie’s bike, and it worked great last weekend in North Gower.
Two races to go, but I’m already thinking and taking steps toward 2017!
I’d like to thank all my sponsors for helping me afford to prepare for and race events like this and enjoy them immensly: Giro, Woven Precision Handbuilts, Mad Alchemy, Vega, Compass tires, Silca, Absolute Black, Re:Form. Their fantastic feeds on Instagram will keep you stoked on riding: @girocycling, @wovenprecision, @madalchemy, @vega_team, @compasscycle, @absouteblack.ccand @silca_velo.