Monday, March 25, 2013

A New Year: Southern Cross

February is a tough time of year to be racing, or even riding really.  It's cold, and it's been cold for sometime- months here in West Virginia.

It's dark.  It feels like there's no hope, warm weather is far away over the horizon.  You can try and stay motivated, and I do, but it's the toughest time of year.  I'm glad it's March, even if it's been a tough March, and April is around the corner.

February is not exactly the time to be going and doing an epic 52 mile race, with 7000 feet of climbing on tough gravel "roads".  Especially if you've been out of the saddle for weeks.

Typical look for a ride this time of year
And yet, with my time in WV narrowing, I knew that if I ever wanted to do Southern Cross, it'd have to be now.

I just decided that I wouldn't worry about it.  I knew I could finish, the time and place were not important.  It was about finishing this time.  Next time?  Well if there is a next time, and I hope there is, perhaps I can think more about results.  But not this year.

Still I did get some solid base miles in, if not consistently, and I at least had a little base from my XC skiing.

So with this in mind, I headed south with some members of the team- Todd, Shawn, Jeff, and JR.  The race is a 10 hour drive south to the northern mountains of Georgia.  JR was gracious enough to rent a large van, and we piled all of our bikes and all of our bags into the van, and headed down on a Thursday morning.

I was very excited to get away from work for a bit of a mental break from the stress that was swirling around in my head at the time.  The race was something to focus on, something to take my mind off the hell I was in at the office.

After an uneventful drive, and a pretty nasty dinner at pizza hut, we arrived in Dahlonega, GA around 9pm.  We pretty much just got to the hotel and called it a night.

I slept great.  Shockingly.  Lights out, and I was asleep in no more than 10 minutes and I slept right through until 8 am.  Even after everyone was up and moving about.

The next day we hung around.  I walked to Dunkin Donuts and got some coffee, and some disgusting oatmeal.  We worked on bikes for a while in the parking lot, lubed everything up with our ProGold, and I snacked on various items I had brought with me- cereal, fruit, nuts, lara bars, etc.  I decided to just stick with water, nothing special for this race, and really just stayed pretty calm.

I got a little nervous when we decided to work on my brakes for a while- embarrassingly in my rush to get them on, I had seriously botched the install.  JR helped me get my new mini-linear pulls set up correctly and after that I had amazing stopping power.  It all worked out, and they worked a lot better after they were adjusted right.

Around 1 or 2 we drove to the course, I had to force them to stop so I could get some lunch- the story of the whole trip actually.  JR especially is like a camel, and doesn't eat much during the day- same with Jeff, and Todd just brought a bunch of stuff he munched on.  I don't know how they do it, without a real meal I feel awful- and wasn't going to risk anything the day before a race.  So I got a burrito from Moe's and ate it in the car on the way to the course.

On the pre-ride we had beautiful sun.  The weather was nice in the 50's and I rode in shorts and arm warmers.  We rode pretty hard- much harder than I would have otherwise, and much harder than I would next time.  In fact, I was actually sore the next morning from our hour and forty five minute, 22 mile, semi-hammerfest.

But, again, it was about the experience, and it was great to see the first part of the course, and the beginnings of the huge climb, and ride with my team mates, and chat about whatever we felt like.  I wasn't worried about it, really.  Which is saying something.

We then drove the course, and I tried to stay awake all the way back in the 3rd row as I got knocked around by the huge holes and trenches that were on the "road" we were to bike.  All dirt, except for a bit at the beginning, tiny bit in the middle, and then again at the end; it was looking like it was going to be epic.  Wish I could have kept my eyes open though...

But at the times I could, I saw huge sweeping corners looking over the edge of what were essentially cliffs; and with no tree cover this time of year you could see for miles.

While we were out driving, it started to get dark, and I was getting hungry- surprise.  So I ate some trail mix and a couple cookies Jeff's mom made him.  I was glad when we finally got back to town and picked up our race packets.  I was ready for dinner.

JR really wanted Chinese or some kind of Asian food, and picked out a Japanese place.  I wasn't so sure, and almost went with Todd who decided that Chinese wasn't for him before a race.  And with so many good choices of places to eat in town, I don't think he felt like he had to come with us..and neither did I.

But, I am SO glad I did go with JR, Jeff, and Shawn though.  It was the most amazing sushi I've ever had!  Who knew in the middle of the mountains in Georgia?  And I had lo mein, and hibachi chicken, and it was just incredible.  And all only $22 (8 pieces of sushi with soft shell crab, a salad, hibachi chicken, and side of lo mein)!  The place was called Hoka-Hoka I believe, and I encourage others to check it out.

We headed back to the hotel, picking up Todd on the way, and turned in.  Shawn worked on his bike a little (he was having creaking issues), and it resulted in being up later than I would have liked.  It probably wouldn't have mattered, as I didn't sleep much anyways.

I woke up feeling neither rested nor overly confident.  But we got out of the hotel quick, and everything went smoothly.

There was one little thing nagging at me- the temperature.  It was freezing.  No, colder than freezing.  It was in the high 20's by the time we got to the winery.  What should I wear?  There's so so much climbing, but also LOTS of descending.  And the elevation was going to mean it could get very cold.  I was going to wear just leg warmers, arm warmers, a warm sleeveless base layer, and an underarmor knock-off top (both under my jersey of course).  Warm gloves.  Warm gloves, and a cycling cap under the helmet.

Morning of the race I ate a pancake made by chef Gernert, a bagel, honey stinger waffles (2), cliff electrolyte drink, Gatorade and some cereal (frosted shredded wheat).  This was over a 3-4 hour period.

When I got to the winery (start site), I got my bike out, got it all ready, got myself ready, my drop bag, etc etc.  I was running Kenda Small Block 8's in 32cc- I wish I had 35's, but I didn't at the time (I do now!).  I decided on 68 psi in the back (I actually flatted the day before on the pre-ride) and 65 psi in the front.  The small blocks were the perfect tire for this race, unlike maybe the Hilly Billy.  I was using my flashpoint 60's with the powertap in the back, and of course was riding the 09' Cannondale CaadX.  I also ran my 11-32t cassette, like I always do on the 'cross bike.

As I got ready, I got more and more concerned about the cold.  I was freezing.  And RIGHT before the start I switched to a real winter cap, and stripped my sleeveless base layer off, and decided to use my awesome champ-system winter team winter jacket.  Could I be overdressed?  Yeah, but I'd rather be a little hot than freezing.  Oh, and my Savageman toe warmers.

A little warm-up (like 3 minutes of easy spinning) and I lined up at the start.  Probably about 40 people back.  I just lined up with JR, I had no idea where.  There were about 260 people pre-registered, and over 230 lined up at the start.

At the start, I took off easy.  People flew by me and JR.  I just took it easy through the 'cross course (there is a cyclocross course at the beginning- with obstacles and a giant run up) and laughed at the dozens of folks who blew by me.  Good luck fools- way to kill yourself on the cross course, I'm sure I'll see you in about 10 miles when you blow up.

Once we got past the log dismounts, the giant run up, and the cross tape, I settled into my actual race strategy.

JR pulled away on the pavement and I let him go- I know he's much stronger than I, and I am not about to chase after him thinking I can keep up.

I kept an even keel throughout the entire first portion of the race.  I talked to some folks, tried to stay out of the hammering that was commencing around me.  I don't know who these folks were, but they clearly had no idea what the word "pacing" means.

After a bit the pavement ends and the dirt begins...and the climbing.  The course is crazy, and I encourage you to look it up.  7000 feet of climbing that's essentially made up by 2 giant climbs.

I rode with team mate Todd for a while, and then lost him dodging people.

As soon as the little climbs started to come, people started to drop.  I just kept my eye on my powertap computer, and continued to let the legs spin.  No more than 10 to 12 miles in, there was a guy laying on the side of the road, practically in tears, breathing super super hard- he blew up.  I kid you not, I asked if he was OK and he said it to me.  TEN MILES IN.  What the...???

Anyways, I stayed even throughout all the first dirt part.  On the first major climb, I started going by people, especially at the beginning.  I tried to go TOO easy at the beginning- but I think I did it just right.  The climb just keeps going and going, mile after mile.  And, even though I didn't feel I needed it, I took a gel at the bottom- only about 45 minutes in.

I got into a good tempo and kept my head down.  And when it got really, really steep, I was still trucking.  I was shocked to see how many people were walking- I mean, I wasn't in the back either.  I was absolutely not going to be one of them.  I didn't in the Hilly Billy, I didn't in Savageman, I sure as hell am not doing it here.

Still, after a half hour of climbing, I was starting to see stars.  This was brutal!  If you lost concentration for even a moment, the rocks and rubble would get you.  If you let off a little, the soft, tacky road would leave you in a track-stand, unable to move.  The going was getting tough, and I was gritting my teeth.

But then...I caught a glimpse of someone ahead, someone walking.  Someone with a blue and white hat...wait...I know that hat...

It was former team mate Ben.

Oh hell, it's on now!

I have got to catch him.

So I picked it up.  I figured I was closing fast enough that I'd catch him before the top.

It gets rutted and nasty towards the top, and I had to focus on what I was doing, so I lost view of him.  But right as I crested to the first aid station, I saw him mount his bike and go over to the aid.

Hell yes.  I am ahead of Ben!  He's a freaking strong rider, much stronger than I think I am.  Maybe not this year...???

So I stayed on it, used him as motivation.  I have nothing against Ben, I like him a lot, he's super nice- even gave me some good career advice- but he's also super fast and I wanted to try and beat him!  Could I?

The climb, although it seems it, isn't really over for a few more miles, but I took the opportunity to take in a gel and a waffle and a huge gulp of Clif electrolyte drink.  I was sweaty and had my coat open, and my face was hot.  That would change.

While I've done a fair bit of climbing in my time living in WV, I've rarely done any descents like those in this race.  Once you crest the huge seven mile climb (which is really more like ten if you look at the map) it's six and a half miles of down!  Huge sweeping corners, blistering pace- all on gravel, washed out, rutted "roads"- it was amazing.

Right before I got there, Ben caught me again.  I knew it was going to happen, so I wasn't too surprised.  He pulled up next to me and we talked a bit, made some jokes, and then he slowly rode away.

The Finish!
But as we started to go down, I quickly caught him again.  And flew by.  I passed at least 10 people, at least, going down.  I was crushing it, and my confidence was soaring.  I connected all the turns and concentrated very hard.

When I got to the bottom, and was not focused on going down, I realized I was pretty cold.  My feet were numb, my fingers cold, and my body overall was definitely chilled.  I felt like my muscles were lead and it was hard going.

You hit pavement after the long down, and I was struggling to keep cadence or power up.

A guy from Rutgers pulled up next to me, he had been drafting me I guess, and said "let's work together".  I said sure, and we did.  We pulled each other along on the pavement to the next dirt section.  We talked a little here, but it was clear he was feeling stronger than I, and he took off as I settled into a better pace.

I ate some again, another waffle, and another gel, and worked on focusing on my cadence.

Here, the course starts to slowly climb again- it's not constant, but almost.  And you snake along next to this beautiful river.  I really did take the time to look around and take in the sights.  It's a very nice part of the country, no doubt about that.

As I spun along, Ben caught me again, as did several other people, and they all passed me.  No problem, I don't want to get ahead of myself, I know it gets crazy again soon.

I was starting to really hurt too.  My legs were burning, and my feet were totally numb, and I could feel fatigue building.  Still, I felt I was in a good position- if I could keep making contact with Ben like I was, I was definitely having a half-way decent race, if not a very good race, even if my time seemed a bit slow.

Here and there the road is a little soft like I mentioned before, and it saps the power out of you- it's very demoralizing, even though I knew why.  So I think I slowed a bit through the section between the pavement and the next large climb.  I actually was by myself a lot, couldn't even see anyone in front of me due to the corners and rollers.

But as I hit the next [very] significant climb, I started to think...damn you're getting close to done!

I took another gel, and started to think- you can probably let it hang out a little now, take a risk, put some power down!

So on the big 2nd climb (it's another 6+ mile climb) I dug a little deeper.

And it paid off.  I caught Ben again.  And the Rutgers rider that had left me some miles ago.

Coming into aid station 2, I knew I was having a good race.  I blew by, as I had plenty of drink left, and wanted to waste no time.

Ben and I swapped back and forth, and even did some work together- in fact, Ben told me he thought he was cooked and said he'd help me by pulling me along a bit.  Which he did for a little while, but I felt that it was unfair so I ended up riding next to him mostly.  We climbed together for a while, and then he'd get a little ahead, and then I'd catch up on a slight down grade, or a flat.

But as I approached the final down hill, the big scary one, I knew if I was with him, I could beat him.  I knew I could out descend 80-90% of the field here, and I was confident that the last little bit isn't long enough or hard enough for him to catch up.

So I stuck with him, worked hard.  And we crested together.

The only picture of me on course.
So I REALLY took some risks coming down.  My hands and forearms were screaming, as were my brakes, as I eked out every single minute amount of speed I could coming in to every corner.  And coming out, I treated it almost like a criterium- I was up out of the saddle powering away.

Despite my confidence and skill, I caught, nor saw, a single rider on this downhill.

Down, down, down through the amazing sweeping 90 and 180 degree corners.  When I hit the pavement at the bottom, I was freezing again, and my hands were very tired.  Hadn't felt my toes since mile 23- I was now on mile 43.

But I knew I couldn't rest.  I had to keep up the tempo, especially on the pavement, if I was to stay away from the handful of guys I kept behind.  And Ben.

So I stormed along- too hard probably.  And I could actually feel my stomach grumbling.  At that stage, usually I'm hard-core bonking and totally done.  But this time, for whatever reason, I wasn't at all.  And I didn't want to stop to eat.  I said, it's only another 6-7 miles, you can get there, no time to waste on getting another gel.


I caught a few folks on this section, and passed them.  Including a woman, the first I had seen (but there were several in front of me).  We went back and forth for a couple miles, then I actually rode her wheel for about thirty seconds, and took off again on my own.

I never looked over my shoulder, but I could feel those I had passed breathing down my neck.  I will not be passed this late in the race.

There is a bitch of a climb near the end on pavement that is just a slap in the face.  You think you're done, but then there it is.  And it hurts so bad.

When I hit this, I was chasing a group of 6 or 7 guys.  I focused so hard on trying to get them on this climb, but they actually got away.

Shoulda ate that gel Jerry.  Mistake.

I was starting to feel bonky.  Ut-oh.  It's fine, power power power, it's only another couple miles!

But then, it wasn't.  And when I thought it was supposed to be about 48 or 49 miles, it ended up being 52.  And while that may not seem like much, it felt like a million miles.

I just kept my head down, and hammered (well, relatively).  I caught the 7 guys in front, and launched an attack on a grade coming back.  One of the guys went with, and the rest dropped away.

As we turned into the winery, still no Ben.  I was starting to think it might happen!

My head was a cloud, and my legs were jelly now.  I couldn't talk, and I couldn't really see straight either.  I'll never say "oh it's just another X number of miles, don't worry about calories" again.

Because then, you have to do a run up.  And I'm not just talking about a small section of grass you have to stumble up, I'm talking a super steep, 100 yard long, muddy climb you have to push your bike up (I couldn't even lift mine at this point).

And there, the guys I had attacked caught me again.  And a couple passed, and as they did, one said "Where did you even come from?  We passed you miles ago!".  I only replied "I don't know".  It's all I could think to say!

I was losing motivation.  F&*%$ this stupid god damn mother f$%^*@g course.  It was a mantra in my head.  How dare the race officials make us do this last part- another cross course!  It's not fair, they're idiots.  Fools!

But of obviously I was not in my right mind at all, and I couldn't feel my feet, and I was flat out breaking.  I think it's a swell idea now- really icing on the cake.  But it's torture.

As I was thinking evil thoughts about what I'd like to do to the race director, I was barely moving along.  But then, ahead of me, I saw two other riders I knew- Derek and David.  Both EXTREMELY strong riders, always kicking my ass, and it absolutely set me a fire.  THEY WERE RIGHT THERE!  I'm like, what, 1 mile from the finish of an almost 4 hour race and there they are!  I can get them!

But they saw me too, and obviously had a lot more left in the tank than I did, because they rode away.

I tried to stay in it though, used this as motivation- look at who's around you!  These are guys who traditionally are much much stronger!  You are having an awesome race!  So your time is slower than you would have hoped, maybe the course is slower!  And this is the easy part, the cross course, this is the part you're good at.

And then I flipped head first into a brook.  Right in front of 4 volunteers.

As I picked myself up, my hands soaked and my ego shattered, I vehemently started cursing the race director again.

I couldn't re-mount my bike, and despite my stinging feet, I ran the next 100 yards of the course.

The Kenda Pro Team doing a Photo-op

When I got on my bike again, I could see the finish.  But it must have taken me at least 3 or 4 weeks to get there.  That's what it felt like.

But as I was only about 200 yards from the finish, the guy from Rutgers that I had worked with miles and miles ago came up along side me and passed me.  I said good ride, and he just nodded.

But then I thought- what the hell is wrong with you?  You passed him, this is the end, and you are not going to let this guy beat you in the last 100 yards!  So when he had to swerve around a spectator who wasn't paying attention and walked out in front of us, I stood up and sprinted for the line.  And I got it.

And I beat Ben.

And I ate a ton of chilly.

Time 3:53
Place 60th overall (all categories); 31st "Under 40 Men"
Avg Watts: 196
Best 60 min Watts: 241
Best 30 min Watts: 260
Distance: 52 miles
Elevation Gain: 6618
Total Elevation: 13252

I think I surprised a few people, including myself.  I think after a good season of cycling, and lots of cyclocross, has put me in good form to go into 2013 strong and much more competitive.  I hope.

After the race we had much discussion of what went well and what didn't.  JR had an outstanding race finishing in the top 30!  Jeff had a very very bad race, with 3 flats, so no surprise he was slower than anyone thought.  Todd was disappointed with his race, but he did really well for his first event of this kind.  He was just over 4 hours and in the top 100.  Shawn had a fine race too; especially for how few miles he had been riding.

The course was definitely slower this year, everyone was saying it.  It was tacky, it was cold, and there was wind.  All of which meant even the winner was significantly slower than in years past.  And the winning woman talked with cycling dirt about how slow it was.

So, some closing remarks.  It was an awesome event, in a beautiful part of the country.  Truly.  I probably should have gone a tad harder in the middle.  I probably should have worn shoe covers.  I definitely should have ate that last gel- gets me every time.  I definitely had a good race.  And, I definitely followed a great race strategy.

Could I have been faster?  Definitely.  Not being sore race morning would have helped.  But...could I have been slower?  DEFINITELY.

That night, we had calzones, and I was tired.   And the next day, I actually slept in the van- the first time in probably 2 decades I've slept in a car.  And ate a ton.  A ton.

Earned every calorie.

And now, a month later, I'm using the confidence from that race, to carry me through Morgantown road race next weekend.  Here's hoping it's enough.