Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Crossasaurus Awesome: Philly Girls Don't Give Up

N-now th-that that don't kill me
Can only make me stronger
I need you to hurry up now
Cause I can't wait much longer
I know I got to be right now
Cause I can't get much wronger
Man I've been waiting all night now
That's how long I been on ya

I can only imagine these to be the thoughts of one of the many racers who I have passed during a ‘cross race this season who have then passed me back again…and again, each time I made my move and then started to settle in for the long drive to the finish.

After winning the OVCX Cat 4 series championship in 2011, the couple of demoralizing years in the back of the elite field came as no surprise. It is even less surprising in light of the fact that those two years coincided with some serious life upheaval that resulted in my terribly out-of-shape arrival on the Pennsylvania ‘cross scene last season. I thought that the availability of a 3/4 field in which I could hide would make things easier, but for most of 2014, I wasn’t that much further from the back of the PACX women’s 3/4 field than I had been in the OVCX women’s elite field. After riding much more over the summer this season, I was hoping for better results, but the improvement has been marginal at best.

Now I may be pulling out the cyclocross equivalent of “the sun was in my eyes”, but after one and a half seasons in Pennsylvania, I’m starting to believe that despite what the field size numbers and Cross Results points might say about OVCX vs. PACX, it feels like the Cat 3 and 4 women here are a lot tougher. I’m not sure what the contributing factors are, but it seems that on average girls here are younger, fitter, and more experienced in bike racing or at least bike riding by the time they line up for their first ‘cross race. Sure, you still see the timid newbies on mountain bikes and 35+ moms who jump into the race because their kids and husbands are racing, but they are much smaller percentage of the field than they were OVCX land. Whatever the reasons, it makes it a lot harder for this 35+ cat mom (who incidentally was the 4th oldest woman in the 3/4 field on Sunday; WHAT?!!) to rest on her laurels, because as I’ve said to myself so many times this season, Philly girls don’t give up.

Sunday was my return to racing after a long CX drought. Luckily, the course for “Crossasaurus Awesome” was, in fact, actually awesome. It had lots of twisty, turny stuff, a few little short, steep sections, and set of three little rideable log stairs. Plus, it had rained just enough that morning to be the perfect amount of tacky that even mud-haters love. The added bonus was that it was my first race in my Laser Cats Feline All-Stars kit, and I was really excited about it. It turns out that I had at least once teammate directly in front of or behind me for almost the entire race. This was pretty fun and motivating.

The race went well enough, considering my current state of fitness and my lack of racing of late. I still managed a front-row call-up despite missing the West Chester race for Iron Cross, and I accomplished my goal of getting off the line and up to speed faster than everyone else. I didn’t, however, waste the extra burst of power that it would have taken to actually contest hole shot, knowing that right now I have no business trying to hang with the front of the field. I just wanted to prove that I could still perform a good start, since I haven’t in a while.

Then it was time to settle in and let things shake out since a good start but bad power meant that I was getting passed a lot for the first half-lap or so. Then things shook out, and I just worked on keeping a steady pace and picking a girl or two off when I could. As I neared the end of the fourth lap, my Garmin was showing nearly 40 minutes, there were no girls ahead in sight, and the ones behind were far enough back that I was confident that I could hold them off until the line.

And I did hold them off to the line. What I hadn’t counted on was that my race wouldn’t be done when I reached the finish line. So far this year, my only race that went to five laps was Quaker City, which was a very short course. This one was very long, so it never occurred to me that we would do five, even as I noticed the Cat 1/2/3 girls still heading to back part of the course as I approached the finish for the fourth time. I guess I thought they would pull us to keep the race on schedule, even though we hadn’t actually been lapped.

When I made the turn and started to wind up for the finish, I was demoralized to see one lap to go. I had just finished my normal last-lap mental bargaining game of “lap time through the bumpy section, last time over the barriers, last time through the sand…”, so “one more time of EVERYTHING” sounded pretty awful.

At least we managed synchronized 'cross tongue.

I was passed by my teammate Michaela as we crossed the line and I let her go as I willed my legs to do another lap. I was passed by another girl in the next straight section, but as she passed I found one last second, third, fourth wind and kept her from really pulling away. I held off any other passes through the rest of the last and kept Michaela and the other girl from gaining too much more ground. In the end, I finished 15th out of 23, and I was okay with that for my first race back. The fifth lap was pretty cruel, and once again I learned the hard lesson of “Philly girls never girls never give up.” It’s a tough lesson, but hopefully it will eventually sink in and make me faster.

I now have six races left in my ‘cross season with Thanksgiving weekend being the only break. The first half of the season hasn’t gone as smoothly hoped, but I guess I just need take inspiration from my teammates and colorful new kit and not give up until it’s over, Philly girl style.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Last Week Tonight

After Iron Cross, I was definitely ready for a break from the break in my ‘cross season. I returned to action Sunday, but a couple of cool things happened before then. I think I’ll just cover those for now, since I want to do a little more work on my race report post.

The first good thing was that I was able to take a day off from work on Thursday, and reset from the travel, stress, and Iron Cross Fail that had been bringing me down. Since moving to State College, I’ve learned that sometimes there’s just no substitute for a solid sleep in followed by long ride combination for the restoration of sanity. I always relished the opportunity to reduce the sleep debt which a rarely seem to come out of, but I don’t know I quite appreciated the opportunity to wear out my body after clearing my mind as much before moving here.

I took Hellga to Raystown to enjoy the lovely combination of fat bike and machine-cut trails. My first time on a fat bike was at Raystown, but Hellga made for a much more pleasant ride than the Surly Pugsley demo from a year ago. It was also an appropriately good workout, as I refuse to use the little ring when there is no snow. It was basically a singlespeed ride on the climby parts, but with just the right gearing to make it tough but doable. And, of course, the reward was lots of rippy, grippy downhill goodness.

Despite the fact that I supposedly only bought a fat bike to keep my sanity through the long, cold winter, the announcement of a four-race New Jersey Fat Bike Series, has me actually looking forward to winter now. All of the races are the kind of long, flat base miles that I should be doing during the winter months anyway, so it’s not like “racing” will detract from my training for things later in the year. It will mostly give me motivation not wuss out on riding when the weather gets cold, and will also hopefully give me the chance to befriend some other like-minded crazy people who like to ride bikes in the snow.

(Okay, I’ve barely ridden fat bike in actual snow yet, but I like the idea of liking it.)

Saturday would normally be lazy day/opener day during the season, but Frank and I took advantage of the fall color and finally got some engagement photos taken since our Nittany Lion Cross photo-shoot plans had fallen through. Sadly, we weren’t really able to include bikes, but at least we now have some nice pictures of ourselves in non-bike clothes that we can send to our families and whatnot. It feels good to have made it through another non-dumpster wedding milestone, even if it didn’t turn out the way I'd originally planned.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Iron Cross Fail

I haven’t written in the last couple of weeks, because I missed a weekend of racing to meet my mom in my old stomping ground of Bloomington, IN for mother-daughter activities. This was her choice, not mine, and it was definitely a little weird being back, and even more weird being back for such a short period of time. We met in Indianapolis on Friday afternoon, drove to Kentucky, saw Mammoth Cave on Saturday, drove to Bloomington, saw her favorite preacher doing a guest appearance at a local church Sunday, went to Nashville so I could “demo to win” a Liv Intrigue SX, did the Nashville tourist thing, and flew home on Monday. This was sandwiched between two busy weeks at work, along with a few other building stressors coming to fruition. So with airplanes, hotels, jammed calendars, lack of sleep, and a general feeling of uncertainty in several facets of my life, the last couple of weeks haven’t exactly been awesome for me.

I’d decided a few weeks ago that with the breaks in the PACX schedule and knowing that I’d miss another weekend of racing for the trip, that my ‘cross season was simply not going to play out in the “race early and often” manner that I prefer. I was interested in doing Iron Cross since we’d been riding so much gravel during the last half of the summer, and the way my ‘cross schedule was working out, I thought, “Screw it. What’s one more weekend off from ‘cross?” With the breaks in the race schedule and couple of carefully placed PTO days, I thought I’d be able to maintain my gravel fitness well enough into October to survive.

Of course, my body didn’t necessarily comply with the aggressive endurance schedule that I wanted it to maintain once the ‘cross season started, and I didn’t get in nearly the amount of gravel time in the past few weeks as I’d planned. We got in one last-ditch 42-mile ride the day before I left for Indiana that didn’t actually feel too bad endurance-wise, but was a lot slower than what I was doing in August without actually feeling slower while I was riding. I guess I’d lost more than I thought.

Fast forward ten extremely stressful days later, and I found myself lining up at the back of 200 riders on a downtown street of Williamsport, PA with the temperature hovering around 35 degrees. As we took off for what was supposed to be the 15 m.p.h. “neutral rollout”, I spun out a steady but not hard pace as I warmed up for the long day of climbing ahead. I also noticed that my “steady but comfortable pace” was allowing me to slip further and further to the back and off the back of the group, to the point that I was pretty sure Frank and I were DFL with the next riders up fading out site by the time we’d gotten out of town. It turns out that we actually weren’t DFL, but it was close.

My confidence started to rise as we hit gravel and then a long Jeep road climb where I began to pick off a few riders here and there. By the time the section ended, I had passed five girls and was pumped enough to set the goal of increasing that to ten by the time the day was over. Oh me. 

We immediately dumped out on a short gravel descent and then onto a paved climb on a busy road. I briefly paused for a gel and because Frank had stopped when we hit the gravel. I was passed by two girls while stopped, and I set to work reeling them back in only to find out how long and steep the paved climb was. My hatred of pavement was in full force as I watched them pull away only find a long paved decent, an aid station, and six to seven miles slightly uphill pavement grinding that followed. By the time we got off road again, I’d lost at least half the places that I gained on the first off-road climb.

What followed was seven miles of chunky climbing with some technical, rocky descending to break it up a bit. The climbing didn’t *feel* bad, but it was just a long time of never really being able to go fast. It took us four hours to get through 33 miles, which was a lot worse than the 10 m.p.h. average that I was expecting, so we called it a day when made it to the second aid station.

Obviously, I’m not exactly proud of this turn of events, but those are the facts. At this point I just want to put it behind me and start doing what I can to start breaking up the dark mood that’s been building in me for the past few weeks before it gets out of control. I hope that I can still make something of what’s left of my ‘cross season, but at this point, taking care of my brain and body are of the utmost importance.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Psycho Cross

Cause the racers gonna race, race, race
And the mechanics gonna hate, hate, hate
Baby I'm just gonna shake, shake, shake
Shake it off
Disc brakes are gonna brake, brake, brake
And the canti’s gonna cake, cake, cake
Baby I'm just gonna shake, shake, shake
Shake it off, Shake it off

Things got a little weird in PACX-land last week when the last-minute schedule addition on October 3 turned into a last-minute cancellation when it rained for most of the week and was predicted to rain on day on Saturday. Normally this would be a mud racer’s dream, and I was getting pretty excited at the forecast. Unfortunately, it seems that the venue was not as amenable to mud as the racers would have been.

It was a bit of a bummer because it would have been the closest race for us all year at a mere 1.5 hours away, but with multiple East Coast ‘cross series in operation, people will just choose the best/closest race on any given weekend, save a few hardcore folks chasing series points. With much-loved New Jersey series races right over the river this weekend, the chances of many Philly people making it into Central PA was pretty slim to begin with.

Hey, hey, hey
Just think while you been getting down about the lack Central PA ‘cross
And the lack of consistent competition from weekend to weekend
You could have been signing up for this sick race 

When the PACX race was cancelled, I leaned toward not racing and just getting in some miles for Iron Cross, as I was staring down the throat of a few ‘cross-less weeks, anyway. However, when Frank suggested we go to Psycho Cross in Maryland instead, I decided to take his motivation as my own. Let’s face it, the only way I would actually end up riding my bike in the rain on Saturday would be if I raced.

Despite my body feeling a little off from the cycle of overtraining then over resting over the previous couple of weeks, the race turned out pretty okay. There were 1/2/3, 3/4, and Cat 4 women’s categories all racing in the same time slot with starts a minute apart. Despite my self-proclaimed mud proficiency, I felt like I was passed by the entire 3/4 field in the first couple of minutes of the race when I got bogged down in places that I thought were rideable but were not.

The course was on the grounds of an old mental institution, which made the clich├ęd name almost forgivable. The first half of the lap contained two steep climbs that were probably not rideable for most even in good conditions, and definitely not in the mud. The rest was filled in almost exclusively with steep downhills and off-camber sections. For someone who has been accused of being much better on the bike than off the bike, I held my own and even made up ground on most of the run-ups. It was my first time using toe spikes and I adopted the strategy of scanning for footholds and taking the biggest steps I could as quickly as I could, rather than trying to “run”.

Big steps...

After the first run-up sat what became a much greater nemesis for me than any other girl in the race. It was a rooty, off-camber downhill covered in deep, sticky mud that spit you out onto a little rise that wouldn’t have looked like much in dry conditions. The problem was that you had to stay high on the off-camber or you ended up much further down the hill with lots of slick mud between you and the top. If you could successfully stay high, you would eventually hit dry grass and be able to easily pedal over the top. Unfortunately the high line was super sticky and rutted by my race, and I never made it to the dry grass without sliding downhill and having to run over the top. Elements like this made it feel a lot more like a skills clinic than a race, as I was more concerned about choosing good lines and staying on my bike more than the other girls than I was actually racing them.

This off-camber on the other hand, I was killing.

After some line choices the first lap, my strategy seemed to work, as I was passing more people than I was being passed by in the first half of each lap. The second half was more flat, twisty stuff in between the buildings of the old institution. There were a couple of tricky turns, but overall, it favored those with power more than skill, so I wasn’t making up a lot of ground in that area. There was on girl who I could see the entire race, and I would make up ground in the first half of the lap only to lose it in the second.

At the end of the third lap, I seemed closer to her than I’d been at the end of the previous two laps, but as I entered the finishing straight, I got pulled. This was annoying, as I could see a group of three girls not that far ahead that hadn’t been pulled. It was hard to tell if they were in my category or not at that point, but I was disappointed at not having a chance to try and chase them down or at least get one more shot at that tricky off-camber.

Despite the anticlimactic finish, the results revealed it to be my best race in quite some time. I accomplished my “top 50%” goal by placing 6th out of 13 in the 3/4 and holding off all but two girls from the Cat 4 wave. It was just confusing because I felt like there were way more people in front of me than that, but perhaps I was wrong. I’ve scanned the pictures and the results over and over, and yes, I do seem to have really been in 6th.

I guess it’s time to accept my placing and my first sub-600 Cross Results score since leaving OVCX and figure how I’m going to maintain it.