Thursday, November 19, 2015

Kutztown Cross and The Unofficial Team Laser Cats presented by Snacks Team Tent

I line up to race with my pink bar tape
Nobody's looking at me now
Like, "Who's that chick that's rockin' knee socks?
She gotta be from out of town."

So hard with my girls not around me
It's definitely not a Louisville party
And suddenly I seem so slow
I guess I never got the memo

My tummy's turnin' and I'm feelin' kinda home sick
Too much pressure and I'm nervous
That's when the starter dropped my favorite tune
And 'cross season was on
And 'cross season was on
And 'cross season was on

There's no hand-ups,
But they're playing my song,
The butterflies fly away
Skiddin' through the turns like yeah
Racin' up the hills like yeah
There's no hand-ups,
But they're playin' my song
I know I'm gonna be OK
Yeah, it's a 'cross race in the USA
Yeah, it's a 'cross race in the USA

I kind of struggled with crossasizing my song lyrics this week, but theme of the song fit perfectly. I actually got the idea earlier in the season when “Party in the U.S.A” was playing over the speakers at a race and it struck a chord with the out-of-place, sort of bummer feeling that I was feeling at the time. I decided to pocket the idea until I could turn into something positive, and this week seemed like a good time to pull it out. As I’ve said before, sometimes my weekly blog post is just an exercise in exploring what was positive/interesting/funny about the previous week when the events of racing and training are a bit mundane.

And my race at Kutztown on Sunday was definitely mundane. Due to the fact that the course is very flat, not very technical, and had lots of long bumpy straights, it wasn’t particularly surprising that I didn’t do well. I was basically strung out in my place near the back by the time we even got through the prologue, and while it was normal for me to settle into the spot right behind Michaela, instead of our regular epic battle, I just tried unsuccessfully to close the gap and watched her become smaller and smaller as the race wore on. Basically, nothing else happened the rest of the race except for one girl who had been slowly creeping up through the first lap and a half finally riding away from me on the worst straight of the second lap.

Then I mostly just tried to keep pedaling hard and make it to the end while the new Garmin 520 that Frank had given me as a birthday present earlier in the week beeped at me for the entire last two laps of the race. Apparently I accidently turned on a pre-programmed workout feature, and after 20 minutes, it kept beeping and telling me that I needed to maintain a minimum of 200 watts. Sorry, Garmin, I know we don’t know each other that well yet, but I really only break 200 watts when I’m accelerating out of corners.

Kutztown was a good day despite not being the best race for me, thanks to the “Unofficial Team Laser Cats presented by Snacks Team Tent”. After a successful team bake sale at Sly Fox, the Laser Cats were discussing what to do with the money that was earned, and the idea of a team tent came up. I imagined a central beacon of Laser Cat awesomeness where we could gather at races and perhaps serve as the candy-colored first installment in Pennsylvania’s equivalent of the tent-lined “Heckle Hill” at the Kings CX course. I remembered the unused Kellogg’s Snacks tent that Frank and I brought to a couple of races last year in hopes of recreating some OVCX team tent magic, only to discover that it was a lot of work and kind of lame with only two people on board. I realized that I now had the right group of people to make the thing actually work. Plus snacks are an important part of the team motto, so until we could afford a custom tent with cats and lasers and pretty colors, a snacks tent would serve well enough.

It worked out really well with all of the Cats, friends of Cats, and dogs of Cats having a place to hang out and spectate throughout the day. I’m really glad that I’m starting to get to know the team and feel like part of the group, since my journey to full-fledged Laser Cat-dom has been a bit slow and awkward throughout the season.

When my friend Tanya texted me back in the summer saying that there was a women’s team called Laser Cats looking for members, I couldn’t jump on that bandwagon quickly enough. However, I think I may have misinterpreted the third-hand message, and there was more to becoming one of the team than simply joining a Facebook group and ordering a skinsuit. So it was a little weird introducing myself to team members when the season began, as we’d had only a bit of Internet interaction. Basically it felt like, “I have no kit, I don’t live in Philly, and we don’t actually have any direct mutual friends, but I’m one of you, I promise.” Slowly, as I got my kit and talked to the other girls at races more, I started to feel like part of the group. In retrospect, I guess that if I met my fiance’ on Instagram, it’s okay that I met my teammates there, as well.

I know that my PACX experience will never be exactly like what I had in OVCX, but enough time has passed for me to realize that isn’t a bad thing. While I would still like to see a greater manifestation of race day community/fun, where everyone comes together to socialize and spectate before and after their own races, I think there is something special about the Philly-area cycling community in general that I’m only beginning to understand and appreciate after taking off my Shamrock green tinted (or tented) glasses. I’m excited about the commitment to women’s cycling outreach and advocacy that our team has, as well as the commitment to fun that involves cats, bikes, and snacks. I hope to contribute what I can from my “satellite” location in State College, and maybe bring some of the spirit back home with me when I have a chance. Maybe my contribution to the team mission can be finding more ways to inject the race day “fun” factor into the PACX scene, but maybe that doesn’t necessarily mean heckles and hand-ups the way it used to, as the latter actually will get you disqualified here. All I know is that my race days have become a lot more fun lately, thanks to a great groups of girls in candy-colored cat kits.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Sly Fox Cross: The View From The Cheap Seats

This field ain't big, this field ain't small.
It's a little of both they say.
Our Cat Squad may be minor league, but at least it's triple A.
We battle through the turns, behind the brewery wall.
We can make a race all by ourselves.
No ref, we didn’t take hand-ups at all.

They brew their beer with Belgian yeast.
We bake our cookies egg-free, no gel’tin.
That race director, what’s his name?
Well we can't even spell it.
We don't worry about our upgrade points.
We just hit the run-up and dig deep.
There's nothing like the view from the cheap seats.

As we drove to Sly Fox Cross on Sunday morning, I thought through my race strategy based on what I learned during my two minutes of racing at the previous year’s addition. Most importantly, don’t put your foot directly on the log stairs if they are damp. You’re gonna have a bad time.

The worst part of that lesson is that up until that point, Sly Fox 2014 was looking to be my best race of the season. Thanks to a decent start and a technical course, I hit that log stair somewhere in 6-8th place and was feeling like I might actually be able to hold that. Still there were things that could have been better. I’d gotten the last front-row starting space on the far left before a short road sprint into a hard right turn. I hadn’t been well positioned for the turn and was caught further back than was ideal in the long series turns that made for wheel-to-wheel riding for quite some time. Eventually the girl in front of me ran into the tape and a gap formed to the rest of the field. I sprinted to catch up and bombed into the woods before falling and smashing my face on my stem during the first run-up, so I never got to find out how that one would have ended. The second most important lesson I learned about Sly Fox was that your position into the first turn is HUGE, and I thought hard about how to maximize that in 2015.

Then it occurred to me how great it was that I was even able to engage in this kind of thinking at all. Having raced most of the PACX courses last year, I was able to plan a strategy and even a Plan B for most of the races. While this is the tenth cyclocross season in which I have raced in some capacity, I hadn’t spent a lot of time in the scrum until last season. You know, because Philly girls don’t give up and all, but also because I was neither fast enough to ride off the front and stay out of trouble but still too fast to make falling off the back and giving up acceptable. Now I realize that I’m starting to be a better racer because I’m actually having to race in the middle with, you know, people around me.

On that note, I arrived at the course to find that road section had been more than doubled, followed by a long, straight woods section and another little bit of pavement before the twisty turnys kicked in. This would make both starting position and holeshot position matter a lot less, because everything would string out a bit more before the first grass section and there would be places to pass before the very twisty section.

My starting position was better this year, but that did not help my holeshot position at all. Thanks to the beauty of Strava, I learned that the “Sly Fox #critzone” was a 0.2 miles long with a 2% uphill grade, and with the exception of the initial starting sprint, was taking about a minute out of each 8.5 minute lap for me. That is to say that, for the most technical course of the series, 12.5% of the course reeeeeally did not suit my strengths at all, and it was that part that would determine my position for the rest of the course.

I did my best, clipping in quickly and standing for a few pedals strokes, and then sitting down to settle in only to realize the field was coming around me like a great food. I stood and sprinted again to no avail before sitting back down and helplessly spinning my way to the grass. In what’s beginning to be our usual Laser Cat confluence, I could hear Roz and Michaela’s voices behind me as we took our places in the train through the woods and tried to avoid the pile-ups.

This is where my hard-learned patience came in handy. In the past I probably would have been getting upset not being able to ride cleanly through the features of the first lap, but I’ve learned that if you don’t have the legs to get to the front, it’s best to take it kind of easy and keep your eyes peeled for trouble brewing ahead. By doing this, I was able to save energy by not sprinting into something where I was just going to have stop, and could give the congestion just enough time to break up so that I could ride around it. For the amount of pile-ups that happened on the course yesterday, I barely even had to put my foot down anywhere that wasn’t an official forced dismount. I think this ended up keeping me a lot fresher for when the course did start to clear.

It took about three laps of Laser Cat intersquad battle and moving up through the 45+ field before I finally rode off on my own with two to go. I ended up with 16th out of 32, so another top 50% finish was accomplished. Of course, now that I’ve done it two weeks in a row, I want more. Top 30%, maybe? While I wish I had the watts to be closer to the front of the pack this season, I’m really starting to appreciate the lessons learned from mid-pack, especially with the company that my candy-striped compatriots have provided. While it may not cost any less race mid-pack in the PACX women’s 3/4 field, and there’s no chance of winning back your money, perhaps it’s still a great value for other reasons.

(Since today’s song selection is a little more obscure Taylor Swift's lesser hits, if you want to know what I’m talking about, click here.)

Triple A Cat Squad

Monday, November 2, 2015

Swashbuckler Cross: This Is How Fast I Go

This weekend’s Swashbuckler Cross was very much the opposite of Crossasaurus Awesome the week before. The course was not awesome in any traditional sense, I rode alone for most of the race, and I was a lot more ready and willing to go out for my fifth lap.

The course had a ridiculous percentage of the riding surface consisting of loose gravel, including one fast downhill bomb near the finish where you crossed dirt, gravel, pavement, cobbles, and grass all in about three bike lengths. It is my personal opinion that ‘cross courses should not include loose gravel at all, or at most, a short perpendicular crossing of a gravel path or one straightway, if the gravel is reasonably well-packed with no high-speed turn onto it. PACX seems to love the gravel with the two-way parking lot crossing in the middle of an otherwise pretty great course at Town Hall and the sketchy landing at the bottom of the hill at Stoudt’s. One would think that I would relish the courses being more “technical”, but even though I’ve personally managed to stay upright on them so far, I feel like gravel on a ‘cross course crosses the line from technical to dangerous. That being said, Swashbuckler did have some cool features, and I started to enjoy it more as the race went on and I learned exactly how much I could let it go in the turns.

And the venue had kittens, so there's a big plus.

Once again, I got a good start in the sense that I got clipped in and up to speed very quickly. Since the start included a fairly long strip of flat pavement followed by more flat, gently-snaking course before the first hard turn, I settled in quickly and let the higher-wattage riders go ahead and pull away. Luckily, there really weren’t that many girls ahead of me when the split occurred, and my teammate Roz was the only one to come around and try to give chase to the lead group. I just churned the flats the best that I could and then challenged myself to see how much I could rail it and still stay upright once we hit the sketchier parts of the course. By the time we hit the barriers for the first time, I’d worked my way back up to Roz and pushed myself for an extra quick remount to take the lead. After the race she would say something to the effect of, “You maintained your speed well,” and upon the inspection of my GPS file when I got home, it appears that this was very true.

The first lap was partial, so this is 2-5.

After the first lap, I was mostly just cruising solo, and despite staying on the gas, each time I hit an open section, the next couple of girls up would be a bit smaller. The only ones I managed to reel in were a woman from the 45+ wave and a couple of 3/4 woman that each seemed to magically appear in front of me out of nowhere, presumably due to crashes. One I successfully passed and rode away from, but the other seemed to hover just out of reach for a lap or two before regaining her confidence on the final lap and riding out of sight. Luckily, I have the above proof that it was her speeding up and not me slowing down during the last lap. No giving up for me this race.

Even as I approached the end of the fourth lap, I was okay with doing another. I saw what I thought was the 1/2/3 leader entering the long 180 stretch that contained the barriers as I was leaving, and I knew she would not catch me in the short, fast section of the course that remained before the finish. However, the girl that I thought was the leader was actually second place, and I really had no idea how close I was to being lapped until Laura Van Gilder flew by me a few bike lengths past the finish line on my fourth time through. Although it lengthened my race, I also knew that it meant that anyone who could come up from behind me was cut off, and that I had been given one more lap to see if I could pick off anyone else. I wasn’t able to, but I was proud to have held off being lapped in a race where more than half of the girls didn’t.

It is important to stretch after exercise.

That brings us to matter of the half of the race in which I finished. Although I was already satisfied that I’d done the best I could do on that given day, after the team photos were taken and the turkey legs were eaten, the results showed that I had finished 8th out 19, my first top 50% in a PACX race. It was incredibly satisfying to finally have an unqualified good race this season, and I’m proud of myself for sticking with it through a (literally) bumpy early season. I’m actually excited at the prospect that I might be able to improve a bit more before the season’s over. Of course, the next race is Sly Fox, so while I have high hopes because the course suits me well, the goal that stands out most in my mind is not falling on the stairs two minutes into the race and almost breaking my nose. Never stop dreaming, right?

I guess this happened during my blogging break last year. Fingers crossed for a non-repeat.