Thursday, May 31, 2012

Trans-Sylvania stage 5: RB Winter State Park

Today's stage was billed as a "26 mile XC with steady climbs, hair raising descents, and plenty of technical challenges.  Trails are rocky, challenging, and fun!"  I think the fun factor depends on how you feel about riding on rocks.

It was another remote start today - not far down the road at RB Winter State Park.  We drove by endless Amish farms on the way to the park for the 11:00am start.  I knew this stage wasn't really going to suit me well, but I didn't realize how not-well that was going to be.

I rode the 26" bike today hoping the full suspension would provide an advantage on the descents.  When we roll up for the start, I notice Jeremy Bishop has opted for a 29'er FS instead of his usual 26" weapon of choice.  Hmmmm....

And then we're off.  A nice paved climb to start the day.  I'm already struggling to keep up with the folks I can usually ride with.  I have a Quarq power meter on this bike, and the numbers look good, but I'm really not feeling so good.  I try to focus on getting to the top of the climb to recover on the descent.  But something odd keeps happening.  People keep passing me.  Usually I start toward the rear and work my forward.  I don't really like this being passed thing so much.  I just FEEL slow.

We are pretty well sorted when we get to the first part of the single track.  It's rocky, but mostly down hill.  I've managed to build a gap on the riders behind me, but just can't seem to catch the rider in front of me.   It looks like I can just roll up to the rider ahead, but the rocks suck the momentum right out of me.  So I patiently bounce along the rocks until the next section.

Finally a change.  Grassy double track.  With rocks.  Apparently, there will always be rocks today.  This section is mostly uphill and all I can seem to do is just drag along.  Instead of catching and passing people, I seem to be the one making way for others to go by.   I ride on, but I just can't seem to up the pace.  I start to think about how miserable I'm going to be on the long stage tomorrow, but quickly change my focus back to getting all I can out of this stage.

I am relieved to reach the much anticipated mile 10 hair raising descent.  It's very steep and loose, but rideable.  Well it would be if there weren't people off of there bikes all along the trail.  So when I have to dismount because everyone is stopped I notice my saddle bag has come undone and dumped it's contents somewhere along the first 10 miles of the trail leaving me with no spares.  My strategy now becomes one of getting down the descent without flatting.

I take it a bit cautiously, walking some parts I would have rather ridden, but still passing some folks.  But, every time I have to get off I have to make room for those riding.  I feel so far behind...

The last part of the descent goes well, and when we bottom out onto some double track and then gravel road I start to feel better.  I'm not sure why, but as the grade goes up I feel better and better.  The group I was going to draft up the climb suddenly feels slow and I quickly leave them all behind.  This is the biggest ascent of the day and peaks at the aid station where I get my nutrition  but opt to continue on without replenishing my saddle bag.  I had a reassuring feeling that I wouldn't need it today.

The next section of trail was really quite brutal.  Some of the time I made up on the open road climb I start to lose bouncing over the rocks.  These rocks are large and closer together than the previous sections.  It's like taking 3 steps forward and 2 steps back.  Sometimes the rocks are big enough to stop a bike wheel and sucks the power right off of my legs as I power the bike forward.  But then the rocks would let up a little.  A little.  It was still bumping and bashing along.  I'm starting to get the feel of working the bike over the rocks, but it is still power robbing rock section after power robbing rock section.  I have noticed that I am no longer being passed.  I am actually catching a rider here and there and going on by them.

I reach a super fast descent.  It's got rocks and washed-out ruts but by now I am ready to go so I keep off the brakes and let the bike fly.  At the bottom of the trail I am directed down a gravel road and the corner worker says "lots of fire road ahead."  I resolve to gain as much time back as I can.  I lock the fork and hit time trial mode.  I pace myself with the power meter, hammering the climbs and spinning out then tucking for the descents.  I catch another rider and we work together until we are directed onto the final short section of trail that leads to the finish.  I hammer it in and finish strong.

There are already quite a few people hanging out at the pavilion by the Red Bull finish arch indicating a less-than-stellar result.  But after how I was feeling at the beginning of the day I was pleased with my effort.  I'll be in max recovery mode for tomorrow's long stage.  Hopefully picking up where I left off today.

See you on the trails!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Trans-Sylvania stage 4

Stage 4 was a remote start at Raystown Lake - about a 1:00 drive from the Scout camp.  This is a super fun stage, and perfect for a middle of the week boost.

Most of the course is on machine cut, fast, flowy roller coaster single track.  With the over night storms (again) there was the added complication of some very slick spots.  Some would say muddy.

Since passing was a bit more difficult today, they started us in groups.  The pro's rolled off first then all of us solo masters racers.  We started up a short paved climb then immediately into fast single track.  It was kind of unnerving going fast on some treacherous trails following so closely behind other riders.  So when we get to a short but steep double track climb I put forth the extra effort to clear the group I'm riding with. 

...and the white-knuckle riding begins.  Many of the corners are slick, but bermed.  I would roll into the corner, the whole bike would drift wide then gain grip at the edge and I could rail the corner.  Usually.  The descents were an amazing roller coaster ride.  It seems every downhill was designed to get air on.  Often they required a precise balance of speed and control to ensure landing in time to make the next potentially slick corner.  It was probably the most intense riding I have done.  With the trees whizzing by on either side I really had to stay focused on the trail ahead.

When I got to the aid station at the start/finish line it seemed like everything was going in slow motion because of the previous high speed intense riding.  I kind of botched the stop, but manged to get everything I needed and headed back up the road for lap 2.  I'm riding solo now, so it's hard to know how I'm doing.  I try to hammer the climbs until I feel like I can't continue, but then I roll the descents, recovering as I go and I feel energized for the next climb.  The cycle continues from feeling completely cooked to full of energy.  As I start the final descent to the finish line I see a rider in my class ahead of me.   ...and he sees me.  I have enough energy left to hammer it to the finish. does he.  And he's got a head start.  So he comes in 4th and I come in 5th.

A good day today.  I pulled back some time on several competitors and moved up a couple of spots on GC - into 8th.   It'll take a pretty heroic effort to make top 5 in GC, but I didn't come here to ride tempo.

I am so thankful for the opportunity I have to be here and for all the support I have received from friends and family.  Truly Blessed am I.

See you on the trails!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Trans-Sylvania stage 3: A better day

Stage 3 was a much better day for me.

Lots of double track, fire and gravel road and climbing were scheduled for the 47 mile stage today.  All parts of a race where I seem to be at my best.

The neutral rollout starts at a pretty brisk pace from the scout camp.  Or perhaps it's just me.  I hate fast starts.  Things get reasonably sorted before the first single track descent.  I get behind some people that don't really want to descend too rapidly so we fall behind the lead group a bit.  A small group of us work together to catch back onto the lead group.  ...Just in time to get dropped on the next climb.  I thought it would be a long day of going solo, but soon a group of 5 us form and we begin to paceline.  It's kind of odd riding 20+ mph on the open road on a MTB but our group works together well.  A couple of big guys hammer the flats and I come to the front for the climbs.

At the pace we are going it only takes a little over an hour to get to the first aid station at mile 17.5.  This was a water-only aid station.  It turned out to be mostly just a place to screw water bottles all over the road because out of the 5 us, I think there were only 2 successful hand-ups.  Oh well, on to the climb.

The group breaks-up a bit on the climb, but a smooth descent and some more flat road caused us all to group back together again.  The same thing happens on the next big climb:  build a gap, bunch back up.  Next up is a short section of "singletrack" - well it starts out like singletrack then becomes large slippery rocks through the trees.  It's mostly unride-able, some of it barely hike-able.  But we all make it through.

Then onto a railroad grade.  We encounter some deep standing water, but mostly it's 2 lanes of smooth, fast rolling, gently-climbing sweetness.   Nobody seems very interested in pushing the pace knowing the biggest climb of the day is rapidly approaching so I spend extra time pulling at the front of the train.

I had some issues going through the infamous train tunnel last year, so when the tunnel comes up I make sure I'm at the back of our paceline, take my sunglasses off and follow the rider in front of me through.  It doesn't sound difficult to ride through a tunnel, but it can be a bit of a challenge to balance a bike when it's completely dark.  Plus Dracula was there, and some photographers and there "may" have been beer hand-ups.

So, after we all successfully get through the tunnel the biggest climb of the day starts.  It's rocky and steep, but it's wide.  I spend most of the time zig-zagging back and forth in search of the smoothest line.  It must've paid off because I've managed to drop all but one of the riders from the pace line.

At the top of the climb is the only fully supported aid station of the day.  The wife is there and we carry out our prearranged plan to refuel.  All goes well and I'm off rolling with one other rider.  We pace together on the gravel roads for a while.  But as the road  goes up and down, he begins to not be able to maintain contact and I'm riding in solo.  Every now then I see a rider up ahead and use them as motivation to keep pushing the pace.

Finally the yellow arrows point into the woods for a short section of sandy (and rocky - there are always rocks) singletrack, through the familiar snowmobile parking lot (this is Pennsylvania) and through the trails at the scout camp.  Another stage is completed as I roll thru the Red Bull arch.  Today there are lot less people hanging out at the finish.  Always a good sign of a respectable time.

There are some uber-fast guys in my class this year, but I felt good about my effort today.  Tomorrow is another day that should suit me well: 2 laps at Raystown Lake.  It's super-fast and super-flowy.  The big strong guys usually go a bit faster then us smaller climber types, but it's still a really fun day.

See you on the trails!

Monday, May 28, 2012

Two flats. One tube. GC hopes dwindling.

Lots of over night rain made for some slippery conditions for stage 2 today.  The riders assembled at the scout camp for a 9:30am mass start.  The 40 mile day began with a brief climb up the road then a fast double track descent.  Soon we get to a sharp single track climb which is mostly ride-able.  But as the grade increases, the moss covering increases and more and more riders become hikers.  The trail keeps bordering between ride-able and not-so-ride-able.  In the end, I decide to stick to hiking for a while to avoid all the on and off bike scrambling.  The hiking trail soon becomes a riding trail again and the trail is really pretty sweet and flowy.

Next up is the most challenging part of the trail for me today.  A very long rocky section where the rocks seem to want to keep pointing your front wheel off the trail.  I keep making mistakes - clipping pedals and bouncing off the trail.  Eventually I settle into a rhythm, work the bike, and remember to be smooth.  It's still tough going, but it's tough for everybody.  I patiently bounce through the rocks.

I arrive at the mile 11 aid station feeling OK about my placing and looking forward to making up some time on the rest of the trail.  We keep climbing up a gravel road and then onto some trail with more pleasantly spaced rocks.  The speeds are pretty high, putting caution at a premium - knowing that somewhere on the trail is a rock with your name on it.  My rock finally finds me on a fast descent and I hear the familiar hiss-hiss-hiss as sealant and air spew out as the wheel goes round and round.  No problem.  I find room to pull off the trail to do the repairs.  After being instantly covered in ants, I move a little farther down the trail.  The repairs don't go really well.  The tube installs fine but the CO2 inflator head is kinda screwed up causing most of the CO2 to end up the atmosphere and precious little to fill the tire.  Out of CO2 cartridges, I cautiously head out on the trail with precariously low pressure.  I keep my weight forward and make it out onto the open road.  Which happens to be downhill and I can't bring myself to slow down, so when the inevitable pinch flat happens I become a hiker.

Thus begins a 30 minute dialog with various riders which mostly goes like this:

Passing rider: "You OK?  Need anything?"
Me: "A 26 inch tube and some air."
Passing rider: "Sorry, 29'er"

Eventually, a kind rider of a 26" bike offers his only tube and inflation kit and continues on.  I install the tube and ready the inflator.  Unfortunately, the valve stem is too short to activate the inflator.  So now I have a flat tire that will at least hold air.

And then another very kind rider stops with a minipump that has enough thread engagement to be able to inflate the tire.  So I pump and pump and pump (there's a reason they call them minipumps) and eventually get to a safe air pressure.  I thank the rider and I'm back on the bike.  Joy!

So now I get to decide if I should just ride in at an easy pace, abandoning all hopes of GC placement, but saving energy that could help win a stage, or to hammer to the finish trying to regain as much lost time as possible.  I didn't really have to think about it too long.  The trail is pretty sweet here and begs to be ridden fast.  With the pressure off for a top finish today it becomes easy to be relaxed and flow with the trail. 

When I finally get to the mile 28 aid station my wife has wheels waiting for me, having heard that I had a mechanical.  I decide to stick it out with what I had and continue on.  The worst part of the singletrack was yet to come...

What would've been rocky, rooty and technical becomes rocky, rooty, technical, muddy and treacherous with the recent water added.  The mud tries to slide you off the rocks and also conceals the rocks hidden below.  Sometimes you sink in the mud and continue thru, sometimes you sink in the mud, hit a rock and the bike stops.  Sometimes the rider stops, sometimes the rider gets back up and hops back on the bike to go again.  After a while it becomes nearly a fun game of chance.  I got so good at going over the bars that occasionally I could go over the bars and land on my feet, unscathed.  Occasionally.

But this section comes to an end and it's 8 miles of gravel road back to the scout camp.  This goes pretty well, as I'm aided by Charlotte local, Luke Sagur, who missed a corner and added about 10 miles to his day (and I thought I had a bad day).  We draft back and forth for a while.  Sometimes we  paceline with riders we catch.  And then it's under the Rte. 322 bridge, up the paved road climb and back down to the scout camp for a trip around the pond, over the bridge and thru the Red Bull arch.  Not a pretty day, but mission accomplished.

After some time spent recovering, we get the bikes ready for tomorrow's stage.  Close the trailer and head to the hotel to eat and relax.  We'll be back at the scout camp for the daily awards and the stage 3 preview.

See you on the trails!

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Trans-Sylvania Prologue

It's finally starting to sink in that I'm in Trans-Sylvania.  This year is quite a bit different than last year.  I've got more support, more experience, and some pretty good endurance racing results recently.  But with it comes higher expectations.  Admittedly the extra pressure is pretty much self-imposed, but it is still very real.

With a rest day on Friday and full day of driving Saturday it was good to get back on the bike again today.  I felt good enough to do a full lap recon of the 12.5 mile prologue a couple of hours prior to my start time. 

The prologue is a time trial stage where riders are sent off at 30 second intervals with no drafting allowed.  I would be the first rider in my class to go off - right behind THE Keith Bontrager who is racing in the 50+ solo category.

I received the 3-2-1 countdown, clip-in and take off.  I remind myself not to hammer too hard early but it feels really good to be hammering on the bike again.  The first section of the course winds thru the scout camp with some loose trail with rocks and roots and tight corners.  I pass three riders here.  Then it's on the road and place for me to put the hammer down.  I pass a few more riders before heading into the next single track section.  This next section is very, very tight and twisty.  It's also wet in spots from recent rain and so covered with a canopy trees that it's really too dark for sunglasses.  It's here where I catch team and duo riders, meaning I have to pass riders in pairs.  Mostly they do well to clear the trail for me, but there just isn't much room for them to go.  I expend a lot of extra energy with the short bursts of power required to make the pass.

And then the climb.  There is one major climb that is always at least slightly technical, but certainly should have been rideable.  I get impatient following riders and end up off the bike briefly a couple of times.  I remind myself to calm down and fall in line behind the leading 50+ solo competitor.  When we get near the top, he lets me by.  The time spent pacing has paid off well and I'm re-energized for the next section of trail which is mostly flowy single track.  I get into a nice sweet spot rhythm and the miles seem to just click by.  I'm riding well and it feels good.

The flowy single track turns into rocky single track, then rocky single track bordered to the right by a very imposing 6' electric fence.  Then it turns sandy then sandy with rocks.  And then it's back to the scout camp.  Double track turns into a rocky, muddy, slippery mess that winds up and down thru the woods.  Fortunately this section is short.  One muddy climb, cross a bridge, do one lap around the pond and cross the Red Bull finish line.

I clocked in at 1:01 which was good enough for 4th place on the day.  I was disappointed to miss the podium, but felt good about placing ahead of last years overall winner.  Tomorrow will be a long day.  Plus there have been thunderstorms this evening including a lightning strike to the local cable company.  Which normally wouldn't bother me, but it meant listening to the Coca-Cola 600 for awhile instead of watching it...

I worked pretty hard today.  Time to get some rest for tomorrow's 9:30 am start.

See you on the trails!

Monday, May 21, 2012

SCS #8 Catawba Riverfront Classic

Just when I was starting to think I'd never be able to hang with the elite CAT 1's in a cross country race the Southern Classic Series race was held at a venue that was long enough, climbed enough, and was hot enough for me to do well.

US National White Water Center has historically been a good trail for me.  Last year I crashed kinda big but ended up finishing 3rd as a CAT 2.  This year my goal was first and foremost not to injure myself the week before Trans-Sylvania.  The second goal was simply to race hard and see how my form was shaping up before the week-long stage race.

On the starting grid I took my place at the rear of the pack.  Long time friend/competitor Carl asks me what I'm doing starting at the back then says I don't have any excuse for not doing well.  And that's when it finally hit me.  I had been working a lot and not getting enough sleep lately, but I've also been tapering for Trans-Sylvania and had a couple of easy days prior to the race.  So when there was an opening on the front row as our class rolled to the start line - I slotted in line and locked the fork.  When Neal said go - I did.  I fell in behind two Carolina Bike racers who were discussing who should lead into the singletrack.  Suddenly a Boone Bike racer comes around all of us on the left but fails to make the tight right-hander into the woods.  It causes a bit of chaos but I still get in the singletrack 3rd.  The pace felt pretty comfortable so I decide to ride with the pack as long as I could.

The Figure 8 loop goes well, with no pressure from behind.  After the first climb on the main trail the two Carolina Bike racers are recounting the 1st turn incident.  The leader suddenly hooks a root and goes down.  I'm now 2nd.  When the trail goes flat and wide, my patience goes thin and I go around for the lead.  The view from the front is nice.  It's much more relaxing than the mid-to-rear of the pack start that I usually get.

Shortly, teammate Rick Pyle, goes around me on a climb.  I know he's usually faster than me, so I run my own pace.  Perhaps those behind thought I was playing team strategy and holding them up, but I wasn't going to be able to hang on Rick's wheel.

Somewhere along the line, I managed to lose a water bottle.  Unfortunately it was the water bottle containing my HEED which I was counting on for my calories and electrolytes for the 2+ hour race.  At least I had a bottle of plain water left.  That, and my awesome team had a water bottle hand-up for me each lap.  Without them I probably would have suffered quite a bit.

Eventually the front of the pack settled in with Rick off the front, Boone Bike in 2nd then 2 Carolina Bike racers and me swapping positions around, and a Clif Bar racer gaining.  The 2nd time up Goat Hill I was following a rider too closely and ended up going down at the base of the climb.  Clif Bar passed me as I struggled to clip in and restart on the steep grade.  It seemed like I lost a lot of time and I was almost resolved to a 5th or 6th place finish (I was starting to lose count of who was in front of me).  I reminded myself to calm down and get back in a rhythm.  Not far up ahead I could see some Carolina Bike Jerseys.  I was still in the race.  Clif Bar was making up ground on them so I decided to pace myself with him.  As we neared the end of lap #2 I was starting to feel speedy again.

When we hit the clearing for the feed zone, I grabbed a water bottle feed from a team mate, drank some, poured some on my head then took off at an elevated pace.  I had apparently passed two riders in the feedzone and was pleasantly surprised to catch and pass Boone Bike before Weigh Station loop.  I caught the one remaining Carolina Bike racer in front of me on Toilet Bowl loop.  He lets me around on one of the climbs and I never looked back.  I ended up a little over a minute behind race winner, Rick Pyle, but became the 2nd half of the Cycle Works 1-2 finish.

So my form seems to be coming along, my bikes are dialed in.  I feel a lot more prepared for my 2nd 7 day stage race that is Trans-Sylvania.  Having raced there last year I now know what to expect of the trails.  I have a little more stage race experience.  My endurance seems to be a bit better this year, and I feel faster on the shorter distance races too.  However, there is quite a bit more competition this year as the race has a gained a bit of notoriety.  My humble goal last year was to make all the cut-off times.  Which I did.  My lofty goal was to finish on the podium on one stage.  Which I did.  This year my goals will be largely the same.  My daily goal will still be to finish within the cut-off times with an overall goal of finishing top 5 at the end of the week.   ...and if I dare to dream I would really like to stand on top of the podium for one stage in a Cycle Works kit.

See you on the trails!

Oh, and I'm not trying to be impersonal by referring to the racers above by their teams instead of their names.  They are all fine competitors that I love to race with and hang out with.  It's more out of respect, as not everyone likes to have their name bantered about on the internet.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

SCS #7 Hobby Park

It's hard to believe we are already on race #7 of the Southern Classic Series.

Hobby Park is a cool little park out side of Winston-Salem, NC.  It has a flying field for RC planes complete with a paved runway which served as our starting grid.  It also a soap box derby hill complete with gravel runoff and guardrails.  We made use of this hill as the initial climb to break up the pack before heading into the single track.  The Park also features off-road RC car tracks and what looks to be an overgrown dual slalom course.  There were 2 paved circles that were possibly from the days when RC planes had strings attached.  Riders used these to warm-up before the race.

The MTB trails were a bit of everything a cross country trail should be, albeit a bit condensed.  The race lap was a little over 5 miles of twisty single track with punchy elevation changes and the paved climb up the soap box derby hill.  It's rooty in places, but not in the nefarious diagonal-off-camber-wash-the-front-wheel-out kind of way.  There were some rocky sections, some loose and sandy surfaces and some smooth hardpack sections.  Throw in a few drop-offs and you've got a lap at Hobby.

I opted for the Blue FS 26" bike to take advantage of it's ability to climb and change direction quickly.  I had done the 100 mile NUE race at Cohutta last weekend and had just done some VO2 Max intervals and long tempo training on Saturday but still felt pretty racey for the warm Sunday afternoon start.

I took my usual place at the back of the grid knowing that our field of 10 riders would have to slow to be able to make the sharp corner on pavement on knobby tires then climb the soap box derby hill.  Two guys made it about halfway up the hill before dropping (or breaking?) chains.  My goal was to hang with the lead bunch then attack at the end.  Knowing the trail is key at Hobby.  It's a fast trail and tough to see what's ahead.  I wanted to follow those that knew where they were going.  Alas, I couldn't keep up the pace and had to back off and recover.  By lap 2 I felt better and by lap 3 I knew the trail pretty well resulting in 3 laps of very nearly identical lap times.   ..and 8th out of 10 riders.  There were 2 DNF's.  ...leaving me wondering if I'm trying to be something I'm not.  Clearly, absolute speed is not my strong point.  I am a lot better suited to the endurance events.

As I rode 2 more laps after the race concluded I remembered why I CAT-ed up: to race the longer distances against the fastest XC racers.  It will teach me skills and motivate me to be faster which will pay off in the long endurance races.  I just need to remind myself that these are training races.  ...and not to dwell on how far down the list I need to look to find my name in the results column.  The payoff will come later.  So I'll be back racing at the next Southern Classic Series race at USNWC  on May 20th.

After that: Trans-Sylvania Epic MTB Stage Race.

See you on the trails!