Monday, September 29, 2014

Town Hall Cross

All my life I was trying to get on a highway 
I was wondering which way to go 
Spending all of my damn time 
Leaving all the weight behind

This weekend we picked up again with the PACX series at Town Hall Cross in Bethlehem, PA. Being closer to Pennsylvania cyclocross “civilization” (Philadelphia) than the previous two PACX races, the turn-out was bigger than before. At staging I heard a girl complaining about losing her front row start because the first two races were “too far”, meaning that they were approximately as far away for her as every race is for us. I didn’t want to race bikes in a cornfield in 80-something degrees on August 31st, either, but I wanted a good call-up for the season, so I did. It was very similar to hearing OVCXers say that Bloomington was too far to go from Cincinnati, when the Bloomington faithful were out on the two-lane highways to the south and east every Sunday with little complaint.

After all that, I almost didn’t get my reward for racing in a cornfield in August. I noticed my number was seemingly too high when I got it, but I thought that maybe the numbers were in order of registration but would they would still call the women with series points up to the front row. There were only about five of us with points, but then I saw that the others were being called up by their appropriately low numbers. I stopped the official and said that I should be in the front row because I had points, and she just kind of shrugged and motioned for me to go up. Then she threw in the jab of, “Did you pre-register?” as I started to roll up. That really pissed me off, because of course I did, or why would I have said anything? I guess next time if my number doesn’t look right, I need to say something at registration. So much for OVCX and their call-up lists posted on the Internet the day before the race; here they don’t even bother with names.

It probably didn’t actually matter that I got into the front row, because the start did not suit me at all. It was a long uphill drag up to a climb of who knows how many switchbacks. I didn’t fare too well on the race to the switchbacks and on the first pass it was hard to get a rhythm with everyone so bunched up. That’s unfortunate, because switchbacks are the only time I like climbing in ‘cross. The rest of the course was pretty flat and twisty after the big downhill bomb from the top, so I tried to make up spots there. I thought I was doing pretty well, but I was still getting redlined trying to defend my position on the straights. The heat started to sap me as it always does, and each time up the climb I got a little weaker. I spent most of the last two laps battling with a couple of girls who were a bit faster on the climb, but slower on the turns. It seemed like there was still a decent number of people behind us, but they must have been all juniors and 45+ women, because the results showed me as 19th out of 20 in the 3/4 race.

I can’t say that I was happy when I saw the results, but I’m strangely not taking my new place in the cyclocross hierarchy too badly. I almost feel like I should feel bad that I don’t feel more bad about it, but the fact of the matter is that I’m racing again. Like, actually racing. I’m not just showing up and going through the motions; I’m actually fighting again. I actually don’t understand why I’m as slow as I am right now, but at this point there’s nothing I can do but keep racing and hope the tide turns.

Racing every weekend seems to be doing me a lot of good mentally, too. The depression I was feeling over the summer seems to have lifted, and I’m not overcome by the “I’ll never get back into shape” demons that I encountered when I was trying to break through the wall of mountain bike fitness with my tiny hammer. I guess my biggest problem through the spring and summer was not knowing what to do to make myself better. Cyclocross season, I know how to do that. I feel better now that I have steady weekly schedule that doesn’t overtax me mentally or physically, and whether I manage to show some breakthrough fitness this season or not, it’s laying a good foundation for the winter.

I’m actually kind of sad that I won’t be racing again until October 19, but there are no races in PA next weekend, and my parents are coming to visit the weekend after that. My hope is that I won’t lose the progress that I’ve made during the surprisingly quick first half of the season, and that I’ll come back in three weeks to more ‘crosslike weather and hopefully even some mud.


I also need to mention that, despite my terrible placing, Frank got his first podium on Saturday with third place in the singlespeed class. I'm pretty proud of my 'cross protege, even if he is doing better than me now.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Charm City CX

This weekend we travelled to Baltimore for Charm City CX. These races were the third and fourth of the MAC series, and Frank had already registered for them when we decided to pursue the PACX series instead. It’s probably just as well, since I sort of prefer to race every weekend once the series starts, and these were the only races in the region.

If nothing else, the course certainly made up for the lack of “features” that I have seen so far this season. It contained the standard set of barriers, a flyover, two sets of three-step stairs, and a *quadruple* sandpit.

 The thing about the stairs was that the steps were so high that I probably couldn’t really run them, even wearing sneakers and not carrying a bike. I pretty much had to lift my bike to step above me and then use it to help pull myself up. It was not a quick maneuver. The setup of that section seemed to suit me well otherwise, as it would involve a tight downhill turn into the stairs, a run to the top, then another tight downhill into the next set. I got pretty good at coming in hot to the bottom of the stairs and still managing a good dismount, so it made me not hate them as much as I would have otherwise. None of the other girls could really climb them any faster than me, and I was better at the swoopy down and punchy ups that surrounded them.

The sandpit was another story. Instead of the standard run through the sand, short 180 degree turn on grass, then back through the sand setup, some particularly sadistic course designers decided to put in two more 180 degree turns for a total of four trips through the sand. This was definitely my Achilles heel on the first day, as mostly spent the race competing against the sandpit at the expense of competing with the competition. In typical Lindsay “Imma ride it, dammit!” style, I stayed on my bike until I fell over even though I could clearly see other girls going faster on foot. The first lap I made it halfway through the third pass, halfway through the fourth the next, and finally made it through all four on the third lap. Of course, I had still lost places to the runners when I successfully rode the whole thing, so the last lap I tried running the entire thing. It was definitely faster at first, but I was incapable of running that fast for all four pits. On Day 2 I narrowed it down to a reasonably successful “ride three, run one” strategy that was the fastest method that I could come up with, but it still left me feeling like I might poop my pants up the exit of the fourth pass.

It may seem strange that I have spent so much time describing the course before I really even begin to describe my races, but when I think about it, I do feel like my races were more of me against the course this weekend than me against any other girls. With 50+ starters both days and me in the next-to-last row, knowing that I would be caught up in traffic was a given. They also funneled us into a bottlenecking feature less than a minute into both days, the first being a straight shot into the stairs section and the second day being a weird little 180 degree off-camber left turn.

I think I must have done reasonably well on the stairs the first day, as I lost more places than I gained as the race went on. After the stairs there was long straight climb up an old sidewalk that had too much grass growing between the cracks to actually resemble pavement. I think it was actually bumpier than grass. Each lap girls would pass me on this climb as I moderated my effort up it, but then I would make the places back through the bombing downhill followed by a series of punchy climbs and swoopy downhills that followed. Then I would lose those places back during my sandpit experiments. It was annoying because I was faster than all of the girls around me on everything but the sidewalk climb and the sandpit, but those two things were enough to lose probably 10-15 places for me throughout the course of the race. I ended up 36th out of 49.

Day 2 was much the opposite. I knew the little off-camber turn at the beginning would be a mess, so I took it pretty easy from the start until that section. If I was going to have to slow to a near-stop, anyway, there was no point in making myself tired first. By the time I got there, it was just a sea of girls running, but I calmy soft-pedaled through the crowd, watched for my chance, and slipped through the gap still on my bike. I didn’t really make up any places doing this, but I exited the section feeling completely calm and fresh while the others had already wasted energy scrambling. Things didn’t stay so calm as I set about the business of working my way through traffic.

 Things are kind of a blur for the rest of the prologue lap as the junior boys who had started a minute back started catching us, which was extremely frustrating. I had to deal them trying to stupidly/aggressively pass me while I was trying to pass girls myself. I just remember a lot of yelling and rubbing and getting knocked around, then finding myself entering the first full lap and realizing that I was stuck back in a very slow group. From that point, I was on a campaign to work my way through traffic and get as many places back as possible. By employing my new “ride three, run one” sandpit technique, I was even able to hold my position there. I made up quite a few spots, which even included winning a sprint to the line, because the girl I was chasing didn’t realize that we were lapped and done. I’m not sure how I finished because the results aren’t out yet, and I’m sure my time spent at the back will make the final place worse that I’d hoped, but I was still pretty happy with how I executed that race.

Next up is a PACX race on Saturday, and then a three week break before we conquer the second half of the season. I’m looking forward to racing in a smaller and slightly better-known field next weekend.

Monday, September 15, 2014

PACX #2: Rivertown Bummertown

As Frank and I walked across the field to registration at yesterday’s PACX Rivertown ‘Cross race, we encountered a small boy on the tiniest-sized pedal bike available being chased by his 1 or 2 year-old sister. He was maintaining a lead of about one bike length and kept looking back to taunt her. Then he crashed hard while looking back, and knowing that he wasn’t actually hurt, we couldn’t help but laugh. I said to Frank, “A significant part of winning is staying upright”, and that sort of set the tone for the day.

I was actually pretty excited for this race, as once again had me slated for a podium performance. However, unlike last time, I had enough knowledge to actually sort of believe it, as there were only seven women pre-reg’d and only one first-timer. I did my research and Google image searched which jerseys I should keep my eye on.

When I saw that the course was significantly more technical than anything that I’d encountered so far this season, I felt even better. It was right next to the river and was similar to Eva Bandman in that sense: one side going up and down the levy next to the road, some meandering on the flood plain, and some singletrack-esque stuff in the woods directly on the river’s edge with some nice drops in and out. There one sketchy corner into the woods with a gravel-to-loose-sand transition where I almost crashed on my warm-up while I was chatting, so I made an extra effort go back and scout it a second time by myself. This effort proved fruitful later on.

I went for the holeshot and took it successfully, although I didn’t really have much intention of holding it. I just wanted to throw the first punch and see who responded. My legs felt kind of awful on the first punchy climb, despite my most extensive warm-up efforts in a long time, and I was passed by two girls, followed by another two on the next climb. I made it into the first woods section in fifth place and was able to stop the hemorrhage there, and recover a bit. Coming back out to the switchback climb up the levy, I could see two girls still within catching distance, and I started to reel them as we bombed back down to the woods.

Approaching the first sketchy little scramble up to the back part of the course, I passed a girl who had crashed and did a mental happy dance to find myself in fourth. “Just one more place to podium”, I thought. The back part of the course was almost all twists, turns, and singletrack, so I was within a few bike lengths of third at the end of the first lap. She gapped me again on the levy during the second lap, and I was beginning my campaign to reel her back in on the back section when she crashed on the loose sand corner that I had carefully planned in my warm-up. I couldn’t help but celebrate how my ability to stay upright was paying off.

I passed her, motored through the singletrack, and hammered through levy section of the third lap. The last hill of this section was a double-barrier run-up with a turn into an off-camber remount. I was a mere remount and drop into the woods before I could start building my lead for a last-lap assault to the podium. Then I kicked my rear brake open just and helplessly fumbled to close it while three girls passed me.

So it was not my fitness, my handling skills, or an impact-induced mechanical such as a flat or ripped off derailleur hanger that ruined what was probably on one shot at a podium for the season. It was a stupid little problem that I was aware of all season and never fixed. I even pointed out that I would need to be careful remounting on that hill, because I wouldn’t have the room or speed for the kind of clean remount that would my rear brake safe.

 Of course, it was idiotic of me to put myself in the situation where I had to worry about something dumb like that on top of normal race exertion. I had kicked my rear brake open on a remount exactly once during my cyclocross career prior to this season, and yet it happened almost every lap of the relay cross race, several times at Wednesday CX practice, and of course, during the first day of Nittany Lion Cross when I wasn’t so upset about having to stop for a couple of minutes to fix it. I’m afraid that this is the result of my resorting to the Salt Creek Cycle’s “Post Death March Overhaul Special” during my super-broke single girl desperation last spring. Since then, both the front and rear brakes are stupidly hard to close, and yet the rear brake opens with the tiniest of bumps. I should have been more insistent on doing something to fix the problem after the relay cross race, but Frank kind of acted like it wasn’t a problem, so I didn’t push the issue.

As a result, this was the most devastating race that I’ve ever experienced. As hard as it has been for me to go all in during races the last couple of seasons, I was finally able to see the tiniest bit of success back within my reach, and I was gutting myself to try and get it. I know that getting a podium in a tiny local race with a not particularly strong field shouldn’t mean that much. I know that even though my license says that I’m a 3, that I’m not even a good 4 right now, but that silly little podium would have made me feel like I was on the road to maybe being one again. So to have it be so close and then be ripped away because of something so dumb was heartbreaking.

Despite last night’s railing against Frank’s attempts to comfort me by saying that I’d have other chances this season, because realistically I probably won’t, I still registered for Charm City this morning, ran the race predictor, and started plotting all over again. So I guess I’m more resilient than I thought was, and I have, in fact, still managed to stay upright once again.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Nittany Lion Cross

And who are you, the proud lord said,
that I must bow so low?
Only a cat of a different coat,
that's all the truth I know.
In a coat of gold or a coat of red,
a lion still has claws,
And mine are long and sharp, my lord,
as long and sharp as yours.

This weekend we traveled to Trexlertown, PA for Nittany Lion Cross, which was the opening weekend of the MAC series. We’d already signed up weeks ago in an attempt to get good call-ups, even though we later decided that we are going to pursue the PACX series instead of the MAC. Regardless, it was still a good opportunity to get some racing in, and try to be ready for the PACX races later in the season.

The first day was blazing hot again, and it took its toll on me. I rode well enough in the first lap, although there was a lot of traffic. Despite my quick sign-up, I was still called up 31st, because everyone with any MAC points at all from last year got priority. It didn’t really matter in the end, because I didn’t fare well on the roughly bajillion long straightaways that made up the course. I kept being passed by 2-3 girls on each one until the end of the second lap where the heat really got to me and I succumbed to the “I can’t keep going this hard for two more laps” thoughts. I slowed waaay down to try and get my body feeling under control again, during which time I was passed by several more people. Then I kicked my rear brake open on a remount near the end of the third lap. The stupid amount of time it took get it hooked in again did give me a chance to catch my breath, but also lost me a few more places. At least when I finally got going again, I was able to put in a decent last lap, but there weren’t a lot of people left to chase down, so I ended the day 50th out of 55.

The second day was cooler and a little damper, with one good mud puddle, at least. I started out with the goal of simply riding hard the entire race and not blowing up. There was also a girl that I was getting close to catching before my blow-up on the first day, so I also set the goal that if she were in my sights once the initial scramble cleared out, that I would work extra hard not to let her get away. I was more conservative during the first lap than the day before, which meant that I was basically just cruising around amidst the traffic for the first lap. It’s not really my style to sit behind girls that are slower than me in the turns, but after the suffering I’d experienced in the last couple of races, I decided to just deal with the annoyance for a while rather than putting myself in the hurt box to get in front them only to be passed back in the straights and be much worse for the wear. As much as practicing patience during this race annoyed me, I guess it was what I needed to do.

Near the end of the second lap, I found myself closing in on my mark, but with two laps to go, I decided not to put in a pass until I was more confident that it was going to stick. This meant following her slowly through the twisty part at the end of the second lap, then letting the rubber band stretch a bit through the long straightaway through the finish. I set a steady pace going into the third lap and watched her slowly come back to me. I was finally right back on her wheel before a 180, and I decided to go for it. I sprinted to the turn, got on the gas, and never saw her again. I did my best to recover from that effort and stay strong through the rest of the lap, but I couldn’t seem to gain any ground on the next group of girls who were about a minute up. I ended up 40th out of 50, which was an improvement on the day before, but nowhere near the mid-20’s place that I’d hoped for coming into the weekend.

So now I have a pretty honest assessment of where I stand at the beginning of this season, and although it’s not where I want to be, at least now I can adjust my goals to my current state of fitness. The good news is that I will soon have both victims and nemeses on again, which hasn’t really been the case the last couple of years. So although a series championship is probably off the table, I can at least focus on converting the latter to the former, just as I did on Sunday.

My biggest struggle since moving to State College is that my methods for training, eating, etc. that have brought me success in the past don’t work in the new context, and I have yet to discover what does work for me now. I feel like I’m getting closer, so I hope that this cyclocross season can be used for good in that sense. My 2012 season was a bust results-wise, but I learned a lot of important things that helped me be successful in the winter and spring. That is, of course, until I blew away the context again and had to start over in new circumstances. What I hope to gain from this season is to start learning some new success strategies that will hopefully pay off next year, even if the success is not immediately apparent.

Monday, September 1, 2014

PACX #1: Cross of the Corn

Last week when I said that it was time to say goodbye to summer, I had no idea how immediate that would be. We'd planned our first individual 'cross races of the season to be next weekend at Nittany Lion Cross, which is the opening weekend of the MAC series. I wasn't really that stoked on racing the MAC series this season, because the races were all a minimum of 2.5 hours away, they didn't allow even a single drop race in their series scoring, and they didn't have a singlespeed race even for the men, so Frank didn't have a lot of choice outside of the 9 a.m. men's 4/5 race. However, Frank posted a link to the PACX Series site, which I previously hadn't heard of, on my Facebook wall on Wednesday, and although we had our 'cross plans all laid out, it didn't take long for me to change them.

The PACX series counts the best eight out of ten races, and I will only have to miss the one that is the same weekend as SSCXWC/Eva Bandman. It also has the women's race at 12:15 and a men's singlespeed race at 3:30. The races are also much closer on average for us, so we will just be racing two the first two weekends of the MAC series that we'd already signed up for, then keeping it to PACX the rest of the season, save our road trip to Louisville.

The Team Awesome Junior Gnarsity p/b Cheez-its CX Tent. PACX doesn't seem to know about party tents yet, but we're going to teach. So far all the party we've had is a couple asking to park their baby under the tent, but it's a start.
The one downside to this plan was that the first PACX was this weekend, which seemed too damn early, but also a good chance to get an early grab at points. The entry numbers were probably about half of what we'd seen on the results of last year's series, but I believe that this is only the second season and the first time starting this early.

The fourteen women signed up for the 3/4 race proved to be enough for me. had me predicted as fourth, so I had hopes of slightly exceeding their expectations and possible getting my first (earned) podium in three years. As it turns out, I'm either in worse shape than my Tuesday mountain climbs imply, or the fact that I was able to get not last in a few OVCX women's elite races last year garnered me better points than mid-pack finishes in 3/4 races in PA.

Regardless, I went out hard like I belonged at the front of the pack, only to discover that I couldn't maintain that pace in the blazing heat. The only action that happened after the first lap was that I passed one girl who went out even harder than me and then died even harder than me, and was passed by a girl who seemingly went out slow and took advantage of everyone's melting in the end. I ended up eighth out of fourteen, which was disappointing, but at least it gave me a marker for where I stand. I have something besides "not last" to work for now, and I'm sure that I'll improve as the weather cools down and we hopefully get to race on some courses that better fit my skill set.