I’ve got a couple solid excuses as I stand at the line. I could easily phone this thing in, but it feels so pathetic to enumerate the reasons why I know I’m going to suck in this bike race, before, during, and after. Reasons, excuses, causes. . . whatever. I have to ride as hard as I can, because that’s why I’m here, this is bike racing, and it beats sitting at my desk job no matter how I veil it.
Friday night’s practice at Rochester CX’s new venue, the Frederick Law Olmstead-designed Genesee Valley Park, was a mixed bag of human experience. None of the lows were truly low by any stretch of the imagination, we’re talking life-is-pretty-damned-good-and-my-problems-ain’t shit stuff. I kicked off my poor race preparation by overdoing our Wednesday night grass track session, where I decided we ought to do some high speed dismounts and run-ups. You know, for the first time this season. Why not, it’s Wednesday. I’m an idiot.
Sure, Jim McGuire could pull it off. He’s a way more rounded athlete than I am. The man can not only do push-ups, he can do all manner of cross-fit style moves that I get hurt just thinking about. As we drive to Rochester I moan about my still-shredded hip flexors and upper quads (let’s not get too technical here) and my anxiety about damaging them more during training when we arrive. This isn’t anything remotely resembling my A-race for the cyclocross season – though it’s certainly the ‘biggest’ – but still, I want to be able to ride well! Instead I’m stressing about crashing because I can’t pick up my legs when I’ll have to run.
Jim’s race went pretty damned well!
My muscles don’t feel like total trash as we ride the course, checking out all its cool features, but my mind-brain does when I realize that cracking/crushing sensation in my back right jersey pocket signals my crank literally killing my iPhone. Are. You. Fucking. Kidding? Again, I’m an idiot. Nathan Underwood kindly suggests I couldn’t have possibly predicted this event, but I feel I certainly could and should have. I was trying to get a few good shots to share over IG and FB. Instead I’ve got to think about which tires I won’t be able to buy for the race season because I’ll have to fix or repair my phone. FML.
Truth is, I’m pretty good at letting shit like this go. Not perfect, far from it, but pretty good. I focus on riding, because there’s really nothing I can do about my phone situation. I’m here to ride my bike, to have fun; that’s why I race. Unlike all the guys and gals here who need to pull off a good result on Saturday, I don’t need to do anything. I’m racing for the love of it, no strings attached. Fun is the focus, and this is what I need to keep in my mind. Get what I can from the race, even if I’m at perhaps 70%. Learn something, bare minimum.
And meet great people. Steph Cholyk is from Toronto, fairly new to CX, and tonnes of fun to talk to over the weekend. She also happens to be a pretty talented photographer. Deb Sachs is a fascinating, insightful woman I have the pleasure of spending about 40 minutes with as her husband, Richard and Jim race.
The pros have to maintain laser focus over the weekend, at the expense of some of the social graces they might otherwise enjoy. Jeremy Powers is the star of the show; virtually everyone wants a piece of his time. He’s perfected the art of short conversations closed out with panache. I have the luxury of having far fewer demands on my time, which means I can wander around, pit for Jim, and simply enjoy being at the race. As my wife writes, there is a lot to be said for enjoying and appreciating where we are, right now.
Saturday morning, officials have installed a new sandy descent that button-hooks into a shallow climb away from the Genesee River, skirting the park, a defining feature of Rochester’s layout. I run down for the first time an hour or so before our 4:00 start for the C1 elite race, and immediately strain my left quad (which quad? No idea) in the middle of my thigh. WTF? Since I’m already used to the idea that this race won’t be a peak performance, this injury is morbidly funny. I guess I’ll just have to hope it’s better in an hour, right? Whatever, I’m here to learn, to build toward better days later this fall. Hell, it’s summer out here, that’s pretty rad, right?
Talk about a shit start. I’m staged in the 5th of 6 rows, the last incomplete. #43 of 54, that’s me. Scott Fitzgerald, of Toronto, riding for Mariposa Bicycles and all-round fantastic guy, is in front of me. He’s going fast enough, I’m going fast enough, but where can we go? Nowhere, as is bog-standard for a CX start from the back. The first turn causes a bottleneck that sees us all over the brakes, Powers and the rest of the big guns stretching away as we barely move. The elastic continues to expand and contract as we progress, not yet truly registering the oppressive heat: 33 degrees Celsius and humid. It’s mayhem everywhere technique is required. All I can really do is pass a guy here, there, maybe him too. I don’t have much, any, real snap in my legs, so punching past others is tougher than it might normally be.
Shit! That was definitely skin separating.
I intentionally didn’t tie my shoes up very tight, expecting my feet to expand with the heat. I didn’t want them to hurt. Backfire. Instead of overheating, my left foot rolls inside my shoe as I round the run-down, off-camber, run-up, clawing at the dusty, root and rock riddled surface for traction. I’ve sheared the pad of my left big toe almost completely off. It hurts a lot. Pedaling hurts, stepping hurts more. Of course, I can’t, won’t stop for this; that would be truly pitiful. I’ll have to take my steps carefully to keep it from worsening much, somehow. I’ve got day-2 to think about.
Osmond Bakker has passed and dropped me, confirming that I won’t be able to pull off a ‘good’ result. With a couple laps to go, I’m well beyond the manic first 20 minutes, the my-life-sucks middle 20, and am inside the final 20 of the race. Some dude has been chasing me for a while, pursued by another. Should I not give a shit, just ease up, let it happen? I’d have reasons, right? Ok, maybe they’d be ‘excuses.’ F-in right they’d be excuses! Osmond is beyond reach, but in order to feel ok about this race, I need to stay motivated and not allow this dude to get me. Stay on the gas, ride smart, don’t give up.
Buddy gets close, but suffers some manner of mechanical as he draws within seconds. That gives me enough boost to keep the pressure on through the finish, along with the desire, somewhat desperate, not to be pulled. The laps are long enough to avoid that, despite being more than 6 minutes down on the leaders.
That sucked, but at the same time was pretty good. Giving up in these races when things go poorly is pretty easy to succumb to. I didn’t do that, so that’s the kernel of quality I will take away. I guess not crashing or really screwing anything up was good too.Tomorrow is another day, all I have to do now is figure out how to walk with my legs feeling utterly destroyed as they do, and my toe mangled. Italian for dinner, guys?
Last night’s Italian dinner went down great. I wasn’t shy about slamming a healthy serving of pasta and vegetables, and even slept pretty well after constricting my legs long and hard with my muscle floss. Breakfast again at the old Christler dealership turned Spot Café was good enough; their large coffee comes in an enormous mug, just how I like it! This place is a must-visit for it’s 1950’s architecture and décor. It’s truly a fascinating echo of the past.
I’m racing the Master 35+ race instead of the Elite UCI C2 today, thanks to Osmond being registered – giving me the moral license – and the organizers being 100% accommodating about me switching categories. This way, I’ll race at the same time as Jim and the other guys, which will both let me RACE rather than survive, and we’ll be able to get home 4 hours earlier! In an instant, following the registration swap, I feel excited about riding my bike. I’m not obligated, I want to race. Nathan has moved to 35+ too, so at minimum, the three of us will slug it out.
Did I eat too much for this early start, noon? Even if I did, I’m slamming a Vega gel (have you tried them? They are tops) 10 minutes before the start. I probably won’t vomit.
Front row position! There are only 12 guys in our field, but still, this is good! It’s way less hot today, at least 10 degrees cooler, which really is fantastic, as it means I made the right call in not handwashing my summer race suit for use today and hoping it’d dry in time. Instead I’ve got my ¾ sleeve cx suit on, which feels perfect. My shoes from yesterday are still soggy, but I’ve got my other pair of Giro VR90s on, dry and tied up nice and tight. My toe is bandaged and taped up snug inside my shoe, little room for movement. Let’s do this!
Osmond takes the whole-shot, I latch on immediately. It’s been mere moments before I’m wondering whether I will be able to hold on. Speed is everything. I know, this is obvious, but it’s also very common to fall back to throwing more power at the problem in bike races. On the road it might look like it’s that simple, but it rarely is. One can always ask: how should I deliver power? Slow cadence, fast cadence, in the saddle, out of the saddle, aero position, upright, following wheels, leading, pedaling with the glutes, using lots of hamstring, etc. Myriad variations, without any bike handling and line choices involved.
Amp all that up in the case of cyclocross. There’s not one line through the turns, there are at least 3 distinctly different options in every one. Dismounts: when to come off, which side, where to grab the bike….shoulder it or suitcase? The name of the game is riding smooth, because that’s the fastest way. This approach is something I’ve had to learn little by little in cyclocross, having come from a mountain bike background where I really enjoyed slamming turns, edging hard on my tires, jumping, popping off things. . . riding in an explosive way. Early in my cyclocross ‘career’ I learned that edging hard, turning square, and getting rad isn’t the fastest way to race. Instead, the best approach is to turn in sweeping curves, tape to tape, and focus on maintaining traction into the power phase of exiting. Tire pressure isn’t all about shredding. It’s about the balance between rolling resistance (the lower, the less rolling resistance), cornering stability (on soft surfaces the tire will dig in more, fold over less than hard surfaces), and flat resistance (bottoming the tire hard on a square edge will likely puncture the tire/tube). Essentially, one wants to run the lowest pressure that will hold up to the hardest cornering and the most severe impact on the course. But within that frame, there is room to choose alternative lines through turns, entry speeds, and lines/speed through rough obstacles it these tweaks afford the ability to run lower pressure over the rest of the course. This is a strategic trade-off one can make with an eye to carrying more speed across the whole course, rather than maximum speed through every section. From what I can tell this is the art of cyclocross that the best racers in the world have mastered. I have a lot more to learn, which is part of the reason I’m here racing this weekend, and why I appreciate hard courses that force me to think through all of these elements and make decisions I am not pushed to make on our courses back home.
I’m running 29 PSI in my Clement PDX and MXP tubulars today. This is on the high side, and these tires have more tread than I need. There’s a lot of grip on the grass today (like yesterday), and the only slippery stuff is dust in a few turns that knobs don’t help for anyhow. But my file treads are not race-ready this weekend, so I’m on what I have that is in good shape. The knobs slow me down across the course, but I am not thinking of this as I trail Osmond. I watch his lines through the turns, and modify mine to try to conserve a pedal stroke here, there. He stands for more power, I try to pedal smoother in the saddle so I don’t have to stand. He runs the log in the woods, I ride it, conserving energy for the same speed. Through the technical sections I am doing well, but Osmond has the edge on the run-ups. I just can’t go as fast on my feet. He’s gapped me over the top of the right-hander run-up, and it takes the balance of the lap to close back onto him. I can see that I have more power to work with on the wide open sections, but he’s got me on strength-to-weight.
Two laps down, Osmond gapped me again on the run-up, and now I’m not closing enough. Is this how it’s going to be? We have a big gap over third, who seems to be Nathan, and I’m sitting at about 7 seconds behind. Maybe I just don’t have enough today. I’ve never beaten Osmond in a CX race.
Deb, Richard Sachs’ wife and pit-crew is yelling splits at me, urging me to go for the win. Man, that’s awesome. She thinks I can do it, even though I don’t I should try! Why not try? I should try!
One lap to go, I’ve made just one mistake all race, misreading the tape that was changed before this race, heading into the pits. One more, it is possible. What if Os makes a mistake? I could easily get 10 seconds on him. I’m motivated, kill mode, fuck it, lay it all out, crash and burn, chase him down!
Eleven seconds. I didn’t do it, but this is the smallest margin between Os and me ever. I am happy, really happy. That was a friggin good race. I know what I need to do to improve: race harder through the middle laps, don’t leave it for the last two. I need to practice really steep runs up and down. I need to do a lot of over/under sprints. I need to keep working my tire pressure down and adapting my riding style. I need to work on my dismounts on the right side of the bike until I can do them as well as the left, then do them both better. The process won’t end, there is ‘good enough’ when it comes to skill and tactical nous. There are always boundaries to push up against and work through, lessons to learn, lessons to share. This is cyclocross, this is why I love it.
Here’s some video, first lap with Osmond:
Jim has had a less fantastic day, finishing 7th. I’d have loved us to both have cause to be stoked, but he’s not discouraged. Saturdaywas great in the heat, which is pretty amazing for a big guy like him. We’ve got a whole season of CX ahead of us, and Nationals in Sherbrooke will be the highlight. As long as we keep on reminding ourselves that we do this for fun, we can’t go wrong.
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.cc and @silca_velo.