'Praxis'

Canadian Cyclocross Championships: No-win/no-lose

08:35, race day. The big day I’ve tried to treat like a normal race day. The day I’ve been targeting since a year ago. The day I wanted to be primed for, prepared better than any one race I’ve done.

“Ok, your new number will be 479, we’ll have to change your chips too.”

I’m wearing my skinsuit, numbers pinned onto my shoulders and back. Taking these things off will take what, 10 minutes? FLM.

My lead-up to Canadian Cyclocross Championships in Sherbrooke, Quebec was mostly smooth. I’m talking about a year-long lead-up. I got my ass kicked in the Elite race in 2016, flailing all over the muddy course. Following that race I decided to focus my 2017 season on racing cyclocross better, and arriving at Sherbrooke for their second time hosting the race in the sort of conditioning I knew I was capable of. I’d take out a Masters license, forego elite road nationals in Ottawa, and race the 30-39 race, which would be hard, but possible to win. I’d have to put a lot of pieces together, and it’d be fun trying.

I’ve had perhaps my most fun cycling season ever; focusing my year on cyclocross has worked out exactly as I’d hoped. I had a strong string of spring classics, riding perhaps the best race of my life at Paris-to-Ancaster, did all our local training races, rode well, made space in my weekly routine for way more skills-based riding on my cyclocross bikes, did a bunch of core work, and got stronger holistically than I’ve been in years. And best of all, it was FUN.

A potential stick in the spokes entered my nationals nexus when my brother informed/reminded me that his wedding was to be on the Saturday night of nats. Somehow I’d missed this in the winter, and the revelation hit me hard one day while at work: Had I planned my season around a race I couldn’t even do? What a calamity that would be! I was relieved to see my race would be at 10:00, leaving plenty of time to return to Ottawa for the wedding; win/win! The plan was still in effect, I’d just have to race and run.

During the weeks leading into nationals I was happy with how I was racing, especially after the Rochester weekend went so well, landing 4th and 5th in the Cat 1/2/3/4/5 (Open) race, against some quality talent in the form of the Cannondale development team. Four weeks from nationals I caught one of the bugs going around, and spent the week taking it easy, leading into Thanksgiving weekend and our annual Double Cross event. Following Double Cross, a long ride in the rain, the bug came back around, leading to another week off the gas, cruising into the next race. That left two weeks to do the intervals I’d wanted to do from 4 weeks out. Each of those sessions went well enough, setting me up for what I knew could be a solid form for the big race.

Things didn’t start going a bit pear-shaped until Friday in Sherbrooke. I travelled with Mike Reeves and PY Gauthier, each of us slated to race at either 09:00 or 10:00 on Saturday. Arriving at 15:00, the rain had subsided hours ago, but it had been heavy. The sun was out, warm, a stark contrast to 2016 when it was absolutely nasty: cold, damp, soggy. Once on the track alongside the parking lot, I wasted no time in crashing, almost literally on the first turn. Greasy! Uber greasy! Even though the course would surely dry out, I was thinking my normal tires, Specialized Tracers, would not do.

New for 2017, a fly-over featured about 2/3 of the way through the course, a steep wooden staircase followed by a short top deck and a steep descent to paved path. Mike was up and over first, and all I could hear as I headed up the stairs was something failing catastrophically on Mike’s bike. Cresting, there he was, standing alongside his bike with his seatpost snapped off! He’d slipped a pedal on the descent and landed on the saddle. His brand new Giant TCX uses a proprietary post that is essentially flat in the back, perfect for snapping! Mike was ok, but he’d only been in the track for 4 minutes; how would he get his bike rolling again in time to practice? Thankfully, a local shop confirmed they had the post he needed over the phone, and Mike was able to get rolling again in time to spend a solid hour on the course. Many thanks to Atmosphere Sherbrooke for their fantastic customer service!

After spending some time on the track with the appropriate tires – tubeless Specialized Terras – I was happy with my comfort level through the turns, which were getting tackier every hour. Sticking with the Terras for the race would be an easy call, as it’d only get a bit wetter after the dew.

At our hotel for the night, cause for anxiety emerged. First, podiums were to be held after all the day’s races, which I’d not originally considered. This meant that if I had a great race and got onto the podium, I’d have to stay all day (skipping a podium is very bad form and also punishable by fine) and would be late for my brother’s wedding. Win/lose; there was no win/win. If I didn’t podium, I’d make it on time: lose/win. That’s a pretty weird and vexing position to be in.

Worse, PY clued into the fact that my actual racing age is 40, not 39. For whatever reason, that’d slipped by me over the last year, and I’d registered for the 30-39 race. Could I ‘race up,’ remaining where I was? Why hadn’t the commissaire noticed this when I gave her my license? I’d have to speak to them in the morning to make sure I was in the right race. Imagine doing the wrong category, doing well, then being disqualified? That’d be so lame for everyone involved.

Obviously, I didn’t sleep. I’m not a great sleeper at races in the first place, and the anxiety around the two issues on my mind, coupled with working on bikes until 11 without a wind-down, saw me virtually sleepless. Normally, a night like that isn’t too bad if you’d had a good sleep the previous night….nope. I’d woken inexplicably at 02:15 and not slept from then until morning, so this was the second night in a row, and, as usual, that makes for a pretty horrible physical state. Nevertheless, I’ve had pretty good rides like that, so I focused on what I had to do, and hoped for a solid warm-up.

Ha, fat chance! I was indeed in the wrong category, and had to be moved to the 40-49 race at 08:30. Thankfully, one of the gentleman from Cycling Canada, Josh Peacock, was extremely helpful in expediting the change, ensuring I didn’t actually have to change numbers. Phewf! Thanks again, Josh! This left me about 8 minutes to warm up before heading to the start and staging at the back, given I’d not been included in the random drawing of grid positions. Thankfully, Mike had a better warm-up, and was positioned a few rows up, so we weren’t both frazzled.

At this point, a number of things had gone wrong in the final 48 hours leading into this race, while the prior months had gone rather well. In the now, there’s only one thing to do, and it isn’t to dwell on how much it sucks that I’m not wearing the socks that I wanted to, or the gloves, or that my phone is over there in a pile of clothes on the ground, or that I’ve only pedaled a bike for 8 minutes today, that I feel like I need about 13 espressos, or that I’m stuck way back here while my rivals are way up there. No, I’m here to fucking race my bike, because bike racing is awesome, I love it, and I am going to do everything I can possibly do to get myself a top-8 finish so I can line up on the front row in 2018. Fuck it, let’s do this!

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Photo: Mathieu Charruau.

GO!

Starting from the far left of the corrale doesn’t open the passing opportunities I’d hoped for, predictably. Riders are strung out as we transition from the opening climb to winding descent that’s too narrow to pass. I’m holding back voicing my disapproval of the way guys are riding in front of me; why so many bonehead lines? Whatever, this is normal. I can’t hold back as one guys takes such a dumb line on a greasy turn, it’s shocking: “WTF, man?”

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The game-plan here is ultra simple: if there’s open space I go there immediately, then look for the next opening to take. Corner: pass guys. Straight uphill with room on the side: pass guys. If there’s space for me, I go. I’m passing groups of 2, 3, 6, full gas. I’ve just overtaken Mike and 5 others up a slow, soggy grass slope, and am riding up the steep climb many are running when a dude in front of me falls flat on his chest, putting me into a Flintstone attempt to keep moving up, then a forced dismount, those same 6 guys passing me back; FACK!

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Mike Reeves let is hang out.

I say that, but the reality is that I’m calm. I’m not in panic mode here, but I am surely jacked on adrenaline. There’s no way not to be, I have to progress as much as possible on this first lap if I’m to have a chance of making it to the front group. They’re moving fast; is it possible? I don’t know.

People are all over alongside the course, people who’s voices I recognize and some I don’t, all cheering me on, urging me to drive hard to catch the front group. They seem to believe I can do it, I chose to believe I can too. I am way to pinned to turn and acknowledge I hear them, I appreciate their cheers; I hope they know they are helping.

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I’ve forgotten who took this and the others below….help me out if you know!

I’m still riding as hard as I can, positive in mind, as I catch Steve Proulx. He’s riding well, and I’m struggling to stay close as I recover from my first lap. ‘Recover.’ How? There’s almost nowhere to ease off the power and not lose vital speed, and I am sort of amazed I’m still riding so hard despite how close to blown up I was from the first lap. I guess my preparation has been good.

It doesn’t really make any material difference, 8th gets me the front row call-up I will need if I am to properly contest the title next season.

How did cyclocross nationals go? It’s easy to focus on the 24 hours leading into the race and the things I’d like to go back and change. But from the moment I lined up to the moment I crossed the line I did everything in my power to get to the front of the race. I went so hard at every opportunity to pedal through open space on lap-one that I’m still amazed I didn’t blow up. I didn’t nail every line until the last lap, but only made one real mistake, a slide that required a foot down. It was perhaps the ‘cleanest’ race I’ve ever put together. Was it the peak performance I was hoping for? No, that wasn’t in the cards. But it was the absolute best I could do on the day with what I brought to the line, my bike was flawless, and I earned myself a front row spot in next year’s championships. I was, and am happy with my race, and I’m excited for 2018 already! 📷 @sherbrookecx #lifedeathcyclocross #cxlife #brodie #ovalrevolution #terrainlab #wovenprecision #gogiro #silca #canadiancxchamps #sherbrookecx

A post shared by Matt Surch Ⓥ (@cyclosomatic) on

I feel content with what I’ve done in the race. It takes a bit of time to figure out how to answer the questions I get around how the race went, because I feel proud of the way I raced the 50 minutes, and I feel good about what I brought to the race in terms of preparation. What I don’t feel good about is making a silly mistake about my category that infused a lot of anxiety and rush into the process, and that I didn’t ensure the right elements were in place to be able to sleep at least decently the night before the race. So I have a few thoughts about how to build on the experience, knowing that nobody will ever have a perfect lead-up into an A-race, but that the best we can do is try to build as much resilience into our bodies, minds, routines and equipment to allow us to race at or close to the peak of our ability when it counts the most. The cool thing is that this stuff isn’t just about racing. The same lessons apply when it comes to preparing for any challenging endeavor we might wish to tackle. In the cycling domain, it could be that cycling vacation in the Alps you always wanted to do, or climbing Haleakala in Maui, 60km of up.

Foremost, I have resolved to make sure I have the elements in place to train for cyclocross from as early in 2018 as possible, rather than wait until mid-summer to begin, as I did this year, taking the time I needed to complete my second bike. I’ll have my two Brodie bikes rolling when the last of the snow is gone, and one of them will be in cx mode, just like it is now. This will allow me to do cx rides every week on the platform I’ll race, including some riding in Gatineau Park that I’ve identified as ideal for cx-specific strength. I’ll do spring classics and all the local road stuff, but every week I’ll be on the cx bike pushing my cx skills.

I have a game-plan for hopping barriers that I put time into this fall, and want to build on. The way I see it, one needs to be 100% confident in their ability to hop barriers when fresh before taking on barriers in races. At a certain point, it’s all about confidence and being in ‘no brainer’ mode, meaning, there’s no question whether the hop will work safely. I used to bunnyhop often and pretty high on mountain bikes, but the technique used there is unlike cx barrier technique, so I have to work out how to reinforce the different technique to the point it becomes completely natural. It would be valuable to have this tool at my disposal for tactical use.

I want to continue to focus on building more full-body strength over the coming winter and 2018 season. After years of anxiety around being light enough to compete against talented climbers on the road in Quebec and New England, which is really a square peg in round hole type scenario for me, I’m taking cues from some of the riders out there I’ve observed who embrace their physique and work with it, rather than against it. Simply, I am never going to make myself a light climber, and I am growing into being ok with not being able to contest some of the races that simply have climbing that is too steep for me. By accepting that some of the races I really like are also races I probably can’t win, I give myself permission to focus more on continuing to develop more functional strength. This feels like a win, because building more functional strength is beneficial in health terms, and will enhance my resilience across the board, not least when it comes to reducing crash damage.

I feel really good about how my bikes have performed, especially my tubeless wheels. For 2018, all I really need to do is build a new pair of 650b wheels for all the trail riding I’ll do on my A-bike (with two rings) and mount a pair of fat knobby tires. I’m really digging being able to ride trails on the cx bike in this format without flatting all the time.

What remains? I’ll likely start over-under intervals 6 weeks out from nationals next year, taking the first two pretty easy, and aiming to hit them at full intensity after 3 sessions. It’s tough to fit these in while weather is still good for rides outside; I only do these on the trainer. WIth 8 Canadian UCI races within about 5 hours of Ottawa in 2018, in cluding Sherbrooke, plus Rochester, I might need to tweak this approach…or lust lean on the intensity I’m getting in the races, which begin on the first weekend of September.

Last up is a more careful focus on the last 48 hours leading into the race, which is where I can improve on this year. How, given stressing it won’t help? I’m thinking the way to do this is to work back from when I need to start to wind-down on the Friday night before the race: about 20:00. For those who struggle with insomnia, it’s all about routine. With such early starts for the Masters fields, there’s little if any time to touch bikes in the morning, so that means all bike work has to be done on Friday. Consequently, practice on the course must be wrapped up early enough to cover bike work, registration, and dinner to be in wind-down mode by about 20:00. This means the target should be practice beginning at the earliest time the track opens, as efficient as possible tire testing, quality laps, then bike cleaning. It’s easy to feel like you have all the time in the world, but, well, you don’t.

Getting into wind-down mode and sleeping early sets up morning for success: proper warm-up. If we’re racing at 09:00, we should be at the venue, dressed and ready, by 07:30. From there, there’s time to check course conditions to confirm tires, and do at least 30 minutes on the trainer to get things going. Hopefully I’ll remember to go back and read this before the race….

That’s the plan. Step by step, improve. I am inspired by the opportunity I have to further develop myself as a cyclocross racer, and feel very fortunate to be in a position to do so, and to have a family that supports me in so many ways. It would be impossible to do what I’m doing without them.

I’d like to thank all my sponsors for supporting my racing aspirations and efforts: GiroWoven Precision HandbuiltsCompass tiresAbsolute BlackKogelBrodieSilcaMad AlchemyXact NutritionVegaRe:Form.

I encourage you to check out their fantastic Instagrammin’:

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