Monday, May 19, 2014

Sharing my Data - I am qualified.

This past weekend, I decided to travel to the western portion of Maryland to race the Greenbrier MTB cross country race. I had never done this event before and had never visited the venue. My 2pm start time was unusually late. I didn't mind as I had three hours of driving to get there.

I did some minimal recon earlier in the week. Searching the web for a little insight about the course and terrain. A race consisting of 4 short laps just over 5 miles each. I would do 4 laps in the Cat 1 race.

I arrived about two hours ahead of my race start. Allowing for enough time for me to do a pre-race lap of the course. Some earlier races were still underway. I got my race number, got dressed in an extra race kit and scoped out the staging area and course.

We go to the race start to get an idea of what to expect when it is our time to race. This helps to reduce anxiety when it is time to go to staging. This race was extremely organized at the race start. A corral for each age group. Each one labeled with a small sign. I made a note of the position of a nearby tent. An easy way to identify my corral when I returned for my race.

I set out on the course. Aware of those racing around me. I don't want to get in the way of those who are racing. I didn't put my number on my bike yet. I didn't want to cause any confusion for marshals or scorekeepers.

I went over the first climb and down a long descent. Then I came up to a stream crossing that was high and flowing. Damn, I don't want to get drenched or muddy. I stopped to watch a few racers go through and create a plan of where to ride during my race later. Water sprays upwards as each rider goes through. Damn! I considered turning around but I was already pretty far out on course. Riding backwards on course is a bad idea. I had to go forward. I went through slowly and ratcheted my cranks. I got across with just a small splash on my shoes. I had brought extra race clothing but only had one pair of bike shoes. I wanted to keep them dry.

I continued on. I found more deep water or mud but was able to go around it. I finished my lap with dry feet and a clean butt. Nothing worse than getting soiled and wet before your race even begins. Note to self: Bring extra pair of shoes regardless of what trail conditions you expect.

I spent some time here talking about my pre-ride because this is how we all did it 15-20 years ago. There was no internet, GPS enabled devices, or pre-race course maps. The promoter showed up the afternoon before to mark the course. If you wanted a preview, you showed up early to ride the course before racing later that day. I'm old school. It is also good as the course is always subject to change and conditions vary from day to day.

I got back to the car, changed, and relaxed before starting my final warm-up. Nothing major here. I was just relaxed and riding up and down a shallow grade around the parking area. Then went to the start.

The corral system used at the start worked awesome. I wish more promoters used this method. Each wave started one minute after each other. I didn't rush to the start. I found myself at the back in the corral. Not ideal. Eh, I was just chillin. As we waited, a volunteer came around writing a number on our leg. We could use this to identify others in our race out on the course.

Before the start, guys moved around leaving an open space in the corral. I picked up my bike on the back wheel and moved into the spot. In front of others. I employed one of my old cliches. "When someone leaves a bike-length gap, put your bike in it."

I spoke to others briefly in the corral. A few guys were counting the number of racers. This race was the first Nationals qualifier in our area. The top 15 racers in each age group of a qualifier get an invite to nationals. There were fifteen in my group. Everyone was relaxed. There would only be one winner but we all earned something for showing up.

The race started and I found myself near the front. I often get good starts as I am all business. Know the gear you want to start in. Lock out the suspension for the initial sprint. Get clipped in and punch the accelerator. "Elbows out" when in a crowd. Find a good wheel to follow and stick to it like glue.

Once settled, I bleed a few spots on the first climb. That is fine. I often start slow and find myself able to hold my pace longer than others. It makes my races interesting as I pick off riders later. Not always a good strategy but that is just how my races unfold. I have learned to expect it and remain calm and within myself.

The course had three significant climbs. The first is gradual, short, and smooth. We ride side by side. The second is the largest. A long gear grinder with waterbars that put you right on the edge of traction. I stay in the saddle but really low and close to my handlebars. Keep both wheels firmly planted on the ground. Front for directional control. Rear to keep your effort propelling you forward. The last climb was steep with many rocks scattered about. We bounced around all over the trail in search of a smooth path.

The descents were fast and relatively smooth. Lower portions of the course contained standing water and then mud to follow. Racer drag water out of the crossings or puddles and make everything else muddy. I was loving my new bike at times. Just felt a fun groove as I weaved my way down swooping trails.

Not much else to report. I raced well without mistakes. I passed and was passed by racers in other age groups. I figured I was mid-pack but had no way of knowing. I didn't give away much time and felt good about my effort.

Four laps later, I was passed near the end. I missed the number on his leg as he was covered in mud and had a tattoo on one leg. He rode away pretty briskly. I caught him towards the end as we came out into a field towards the finish. Again, I looked at his leg. Starred at it trying to see the number. I couldn't see it. I often find it silly when racers in obviously different groups try to outsprint one another to the finish line. In this case, I couldn't tell what class this guy was in. "Screw it, I'm racing to beat this guy!"

I sat on his wheel as he was chugging to the line. Around one last wide sweeping turn in grass. I lean towards the inside. Taking a shorter path and remaining in his draft as the wind was coming from the other side. He heard me coming and stood to sprint. I had just a bit more and beat him by a bike length. We roll ahead and come to a stop. Hanging over our handlebars, we glance at one another. I ask, "What age group are you in?" He replies, "Yours! I was hoping to hold you off!" We exchanged pleasantries and I patted him on the back as I rode away. "Great race my friend!"

Looking at my data from the race, I paced myself pretty well. After a fast first lap filled with adrenaline produced my fastest lap time, the remaining laps were all within three seconds of one another. Doing that and finishing with an empty tank is near perfect pacing.

The results showed that I finished fourth. Ahead of what I expected. I enjoy surprises. No podium picture or prize but I earned my spot at Nationals in July. Not certain that I will go just yet but I certainly won't wait until race day to pre-ride that course.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Sharing My Data - The Exit Strategy

During my road racing clinic in early April, I explained how we are often forced to ride in close proximity to other racers. We position ourselves in the draft or slipstream of those around us. The closer the better. For new racers, being surrounded by other racers is unnerving. Claustrophobia maybe. For the anxious racer, I suggested riding along the perimeter of the group. You may not get the most benefit from the draft but it is likely better than nothing. You may feel much less anxiety with riders only to one side of you. Then, you can focus on things that matter in the race.

We have to put a lot of faith in the rider(s) around us. We may not always feel confident in those around us. Maybe a rider is looking around, weaving around, seems distracted, or just makes you feel uneasy. The easiest way to avoid them is to stop pedaling and slow down. Racers will go around you and you can change your position.

I prefer to move ahead of a racer that makes me uneasy. When ahead, anything that rider does will have no impact on you. If someone is riding poorly, get them behind you.

During my lecture in the clinic, I added something that I normally don't mention. If you feel anxiety, have an exit strategy. An open area around you that you can move to in case of an emergency. When riding on the perimeter, you can simply move away from other riders.

I made use of this recently during the Turkey Hill Classic road race on May 3rd. A fast run in to the finish. Everyone is still together. Everyone has an equal opportunity to win. That means racers are excited and ready to take risks.

I positioned myself along the perimeter of the group. On the left. Opposite the cross wind we were facing from the right. I had the full benefit of the draft. The road was along a farm and an open field of grass/weeds. I was right along the edge of a road with no curb.

As we neared the finish line. Riders tangled and crashed on the other side of the road. Just ahead of my position. The mayhem began cascading towards me. I felt a bump on my right side. A tire exploded, emitting a cloud of tire sealant. The rider closest to me was getting tangled up with another rider hitting the ground.

What did I do? I made a brief attempt to hit the brakes. Honestly, the exploding tire is what spooked me most. You can't ride a flat at those speeds and it was really close. I consciously executed my Exit Strategy. I leaned to my left, pushed the bike forward, and pointed myself into the grass.

I held the bike out ahead of me and just waited to slow down. All my fingers on the handlebars to get the best grip possible. The grass would slow me down. I just hoped to avoid a hole or depression in the deep grass.

I slowed to a crawl and attempted to shift down. The grass was disrupting my shifting. I came to a stop and walked back to the road. I was recording the entire race on video. This is how it all went down at the finish.
So, when you feel uneasy about those around you, develop an exit strategy. My strategy on this day was very unorthodox but it was far better then hitting the pavement.

Thanks for reading.