Sunday, September 29, 2013

Hellhole Gravel Gravel Grind Stage Two

Stage Two was more of the same as Stage One with the addition of about 7 miles of single track.  I was 30 seconds off the podium for GC at the start of the day.  My only hope to gain time today was if at least one of the three riders in front of me was more fatigued than me.  My plan was to get in the lead group and stay there safely conserving energy until about 5 miles to go and then drilling it.  Of course, if an opportunity presented itself to bridge to an attacking group, I was open to that, too.  I didn't have anything to lose if my strategy didn't pan out.  And it didn't.

Without yesterday's One-day racers and with the fatigue from yesterday, the pace started out a little easier.  I was able to hang on from the start with no fear of being dropped.  The single track section came early.  I was in pretty good position entering the trail.  It wasn't really what I was used to as far as MTB trails go.  The surrounding terrain dictated that it would be flat.  So no climbs to suffer on and no descents to bomb.  Just a lot of pine needles and some tree roots.  On a CX bike the pace seemed to be limited more by the beating one is willing to take than by skills or fitness.

Normally this would not have been a problem, but already having sore spots, I resolved to just suffer through the best I could.  When we reached the end, I was happy to be through with all the air in my tires and to be safely in the peloton that quickly reformed when we hit the open road.

From here it was more gravel road and double track.  The roads were mostly smoother today then yesterday (or maybe I'm just used to it by now?).  There are about 5 of us pace lining with about 5-8 more skipping their turns to lead-out.  We dropped a few riders, but the pace didn't feel very hard.  I want to up the pace, but there is nothing to gain by doing so yet.  So I wait in the group, taking my turn pulling at the front.

Somewhere after mile 30, nobody really wants to work anymore.  The pace slows and I know it's just a matter of time before someone takes off.  I stay attentive.

And then it happens, the leader in my class, who is also my coach, puts in a big dig to get off the front.  No one wants to chase.  I do, but I'm not sure if I should.  I don't really want to do all the work just to bring the pack back together.  I know I can't beat him, and maybe can't  even catch him.  I decide the best plan is to let him get a gap and then to try to solo across.

So, I waited a few moments and then hit the gas.  But I didn't have enough gas to get away.  I pulled hard and was closing the gap.  But, when I looked back, all my main competitors were right there with me.  Although, it did look like they were struggling.  I decide to fall in line and see if they kept the pace up.  They didn't, and now we were on some double track with tall grass on either side and in the center, making it difficult to see the potholes, rocks and branches in the road.

I was having a hard time riding behind the rider in front of me, so I switch sides of the double track to follow a  rider I had followed so successfully yesterday.  Unfortunately, right after I did, he bunny hopped a pothole that I didn't see, resulting in me hitting it full force and flatting my front tire.

I pulled off to the side to fix the flat while the group pace-lined off into the distance.  It was hard to get the motivation up to change it in a hurry, knowing all GC podium hopes were now gone.  Still, the repair went well, and pretty soon I was back on my bike.  Common sense said there was no need to go hard at this point.  It would be better to wait for another group.  Common Sense said it would be better to save my legs for another day.

I didn't listen.

I used my power meter to gauge my effort.  I rode at the watts that I was pulling when I was taking my turn leading the paceline - hoping they would back off the pace like they had done previously.  I keep looking ahead, looking for a rider to catch.  And then, in the distance, I see the white jersey of a rider that I had been reeling in with the group before I flatted.  Perhaps he was holding on to the rear of the group, I hoped.  But as I closed in, it was apparent he was still solo.

It was probably 10 miles from where I flatted before I caught him, and when I did he didn't want to (or couldn't) help with the pace.  So I tow him along.  For miles.  Eventually we catch and drop another rider, then finally we catch a 3rd rider.  This one hangs on, but he didn't want to (or couldn't) help with the pace either.  So now I am leading 2 other riders to the finish.

At 6 miles to go I gradually up the pace.  By now my passengers are struggling to keep up.  At 5.5 miles I lift the pace again.  I don't look back.  At about 5 miles to go I am on the road that leads back to the finish line and I hit the gas as hard as I can, not sure if I can maintain it to the end, but darn sure going to try.  When I get to the section of road that was marked from Friday nights ITT, I know that I have 1.8 miles to the finish.  I know I can make it from here.  I keep up my hard, steady pace to the finish.  My legs ache but they manage to keep the pace to the finish line.

I would come in at about 3:31 for the 66 mile day today.  Fifth place in 40+.  About 3 minutes behind the group I was with when I flatted.  Not too bad for a 31 mile solo effort - but it didn't gain me any positions.

I wouldn't have ridden it any other way.

See you on the trails!

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Hellhole Gravel Grind Stage Race: Stage 1

The good thing about today's stage was that the course was so flat that there was no need to tape an elevation profile to the top tube.  The bad thing about today's stage was that the course was so flat there was no need to tape an elevation profile to the top tube.

We all started from the Witherbee Ranger Station in Francis Marion State Forest in one mass start.  The opening pace was hard as the lead group of riders try to reduce their numbers.  With no climbs or no major technical sections to split the field, this was going to be a drafting race.

I hung on as long as I could, but found myself drifting away from the lead group.  I ended up in a fast chase group of about 5 riders.  Then 4.  Then 3.  The 3 of us would pace-line to the finish.

I had the .GPX course loaded into my Garmin 810 so I was notified of corners before we got to them.  Even so, the course was well marked.  Although I had to wonder why some of these roads were even built.  They seemed to exist only to take you to another road that only existed to take you to another road... Never really passing any meainingful landmarks and precious few residences.

I will say that the gravel road surface was mostly a pleasure to ride on.  For the most part it was well-packed double track.  There were a few sections of overgrown, really rough sections but these were short.

Our 3 man pace-line worked pretty well together.  It didn't take long to determine who the strongest rider was.  He was in the open class, not the 40+ class so I wouldn't have to try to outsprint him at the finish if we stayed together.  He seems happy to take the longest pulls at the front.  Dutifully pointing out the numerous potholes and other obstacles we had to ride around.

It was pretty intense riding for me.  I had to hang close to the wheel in front of me to get maximum benefit of the draft just to be able to hang on, but this made it impossible to see the terrain immediately in front of me in time to react to it.  I ended up nailing quite a few potholes but never flatted.  My ribs and shoulder didn't really appreciate it though.

When it's my turn at the front I watch my Watts to maintain a nice steady pace.  I watch the timer to be sure I'm doing my part to keep the pace line rolling, but not so long that I end up getting shelled off the back to no-ones benefit.

Every now and then we catch a solo rider that's been shelled from a group.  The further we go into the race the more frequently we catch riders.  Most don't even try to hang on to our pace line.  None succeed for very long.

With 5 miles to go, the young rider in our group asks if we want to drill it or if we think it would be advisable for him go it alone.  I told him he was the strongest of the group and now would be the time to go if he was gonna go.  So he takes off.  Now it's me and another Masters 40+ rider.  I can pretty much draft behind one if his calves, so I know I can't take him in a sprint.  I decide to up the pace and see how he's feeling, though he hasn't shown any signs of weakness so far.

In the last 5 miles we caught a lot of riders.  Two of which were in our class, one of which had a fully functional seatpost.  In the last 3 miles I really upped the pace.  I didn't look back.  Just kept pushing the pedals over like in the time trial.  When I got to the road where the ITT finished yesterday I knew exactly how far I had to go to the finish so I drilled it.

Unfortunately, I was mostly just doing a really good lead out.  When we got to the final road crossing (a 55mph hwy) we had to check-up to verify there was no traffic.  From there it was a short sprint to the line which I lost, but felt good about my effort.  It ended up being the sprint for 3rd place in Masters 40+, so I would be 4th.  Perhaps placing me 3rd in GC as the 2nd place rider today did not race the prologue yesterday and no one seems really sure how the bonus time works.

This had to be one of the fastest gravel grind races of forever.  My time for the 63+ miles was 3:09.  Tomorrow will be a similar stage that will determine the overall winner.  Hopefully I've regained endurance enough to keep the same pace.  If so, I think I have a shot at the overall podium.  Whatever happens, it's great to be back on the bike and feeling good.

See you on the trails!

Friday, September 27, 2013

Hellhole Gravel Grind Stage Race: Prologue

What a difference a week makes.  The Hellhole Gravel Grind Prologue is everything Three Peaks was not:  warm, flat and short.

Being an inaugral event, I wasn't really sure what to expect.  Looking at the pre-registered rider list I knew there would be some tough competition in my class.  It is an actual stage race where the times from Saturday and Sunday minus bonus time from today's Prologue will determine the overall winners.  The course is very, very flat (max grade for the weekend = 1.0%) and not technical, so I am anticipating a lot of pack riding the next 2 days - making today's prologue bonus time that much more important.

I arrived early to do a recon lap of the 6 mile course.  Very flat.  Very fast.  Three left hand corners, one right hand corner. 

The first rider would roll off at 6:30pm followed by another rider every 30 seconds.  I was scheduled to start at 6:50.  Front and rear lights were required by the organizers, but there was enough daylight that it wasn't really warranted.

When the start line official counted down "5-4-3-2..." - I took off on "1" and settled into a conservative pace to avoid going out to hard.  When I made the first lefthander 1.1 miles later I upped the pace 20 more watts and looked for the tail lights of the rider ahead of me.

I kept my head down and focused on maintaining a consistent pace.  After the second lefthander I could see a tail light in the distance.  I'm feeling OK, so I up the pace ever so slightly.  I am now noticeably reeling in the rider ahead.

Before the final lefthander I catch and pass the red light I've been chasing.  I recognize him as the rider that started 1:00 minute ahead of me.  It's now becoming difficult to maintain the pace but as I approach the final righthander that will lead me back to the start/finish, I up the pace a little more.

When I round that final corner, I know it is only a little more than a 1/2 mile to the finish so I get all that I can.  Watching my power only to make sure I don't let up.  I keep pushing the pedals over - each stroke getting me closer to the finish.  I can see the lighted finishing area up ahead.  I can hear the crowds at the line, and the generators used to power the lights.  All drawing me closer to the finish.  I would've stood to sprint, but couldn't in a way that would be faster than sitting and focusing.  So I sit and focus on putting the power to the pedals as efficiently as I can.

And then it's over.  17:07 after I started.  My goal was a time in the 16's, but I was happy with my pacing.  Later, when I downloaded the data I was pleased to discover that I was close to my pre-crash power numbers. 

Tomorrow will be 63 miles on similar roads to today's ITT.  It will be interesting to see how the dynamics of a mass start will play out with so many fast riders here.  ..and to see if a little guy like me can keep up with the big power guys.

See you on the trails!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Three Peaks USA

Three Peaks USA

   Although this would be my 4th race since my crash and resultant surgery, I really felt like it was my first real race.  I rode the bike and set-up that I felt was best for the conditions instead of choosing a more comfort and “just get to the finish” approach.  I had raced the 72 mile Pisgah Monster Cross last weekend (on a MTB), so I knew I could go the distance.  I raced a training series race on my CX bike Thursday to be sure I could still ride a CX bike (actually, I doubled up and did 2 races just to be sure).  So when we all lined up behind the neutral roll-out vehicle – I knew that I was ready.
   The start was a bit chilly.  Most had jackets or arm warmers, many had leg or knee warmers.  We didn’t warm up much during the neutral start as we were braking more than pedaling down Beech Mountain.  As soon as the road turned upward on Peak One the race was on. 

   The first climb started at a brisk pace.  I had to really push to keep up. The overnight rain had made the first unpaved section very hard packed and very rideable.  I'm happy to be on my CX bike.  The fast rolling 35c tires I have picked are working well.  They have a tough sidewall and plenty of air, so I could pretty much ride with reckless abandon - except for the nagging pain in my side that keeps reminding that i still have some healing to do.

   The road from peak one to peak two is mostly paved, predominantly down hill.  The little group I am with swells as we catch smaller groups ahead and larger groups catch us from behind.  I feel like I should be going harder, but it's a trap. I would have to put in a lot more effort to go slightly faster by myself than I would just cruising along in our pace line.  Some people are chatting, indicating the pace isn't very hard.  Still, I press on, reminding myself to stay in the pack.  Determined to save some energy.

   Finally we get to some unpaved road and the pack starts to spread out.  This is my cue to up the pace.  We ride along the creek that we will soon have to cross.  At about mile 21 we get to the crossing.  I had enough foresight to dismount and carry my bike above water level to keep the chain dry. Others did not.  It's deep enough that it's cumbersome to run it, so most just walk.  I did.

   This section of the course is the lowest altitude of the day. It's also where the rain has collected into puddles. I'm leading a couple of other riders in and around the puddles. Sometimes we can go around them, sometimes we have to go through.  Sometimes they are deep, sometimes they are shallow. Sometimes there is soft mud, sometimes it's packed.  It's hard to tell the difference and I am getting tired of being the crash test dummy so I check up and let someone else test the waters for a while.  

   The puddles go away when we begin the climb up peak two. It's steep. My low gear is not really low enough, but standing is not a good option for me.  So I sit and churn the gears over.  This last half of the race has 2/3 of the climbing so I pace myself knowing that when it flattens out I'll be near my first planned stop - aid #2. 

   Soon the gravel turns to pavement. Gary Pflug, having stopped to fix a flat, blows by me on a steep switchback.  On his single speed...

   And then the pavement levels out and I meet my wife at the aid station. I get some nutrition and some encouraging words. It will be a 10(ish) mile "lollipop" loop back to the aid station.  The first half is mostly uphill to the top of peak two.  It starts out reasonable enough, mostly undulating, then gets steeper.  And then more and more sections have loose gravel.  My high pressure/speedy tires are struggling for grip.  I press on.  When I get to the steep, rutted, rocky, 4 wheeler trail section I hop off and hike it.  Some of it seems rideable.  Some, not so much,  but it seemed to be a waste of effort to try to ride it at what would be a walking pace anyway and I really didn't need to be crashing on any rocks.  So I hike.  And hike.

   The volunteer at the top says "it gets better from here".  Which it did, but it was still quite rocky and I was in constant fear of flatting until I got back onto the stem of the lollipop loop that would take me back (predominantly undulating downhill now) to what would now be aid #3.  There are still riders starting the loop from aid station #2.   As then road undulates up and down, the face and pace of the oncoming riders gives a good indication of the terrain ahead.

   After aid #3 there is a fast descent and I really want to drill it, but when I get to the bottom I know that it is one long climb to the finish so I am careful to keep some in reserve.  It's always better to go harder when the going is harder and easier when it's easier.

   When I start the climb up peak #3 I pace myself a bit conservative.  My PowerTap battery has long since died, but I'm watching my heart rate.  I start to get impatient but I know if I go hard now I'll have to pay for it all the way to the finish as there is no place to recover until the finish.  I get passed by 2 riders.  Another singlespeeder(!) and a rider from my class that I had passed on a descent.  Dang it.  Still, I keep to my pace, lifting it ever so slightly as I continue up the peak.  From the profile taped to my top tube, I have a pretty good idea how much climbing remains.

   When I get to a section that levels off for a bit, I keep the same intensity and go up thru the gears.  I catch an occasional rider, including a mtb in my class.  I pass him through one of my favorite parts of the course.  It's got lots of ruts and big, rideable rocks.  Barely rideable, that is.  A perfect balance of sketchiness and ride-ability.  I'm fatigued, but determined.  More determined than fatigued.  I ride the section clean.  Smooth.  I think to myself, "I can still ride a bike".  I smile and prepare for the last, steep part of the climb.  There is less than 5 miles to go and I intend to get all I can in that distance.

   Though I catch several riders, only one was in my class.  Still, I want to beat my goal time of 4:30 and at this slow pace of climbing the minutes are going by faster than the miles.

   By now it is easy to lose focus.  I tell myself to pedal.  Keep pushing.  Pedal.  Push.  Keep pushing.   Some of the gravel is loose and the road so ridiculously steep that it's hard to maintain traction, hard to keep the pedals turning over.  It's hard for everybody.  Keep pushing.  Pedal.  Finally, the last pavement section.  I can see the Pinnacle Resort Inn where the start/finish line awaits.  Pedal.  Smile.  Hammer out the finish.  Finish strong.  No rider ahead.  None behind.  Drive it home.  4:18.  Smile.  Recount blessings and relax.

   I can still ride a bike.  Joy.

   Everyone has strengths and limits.  I can't change my circumstances but I can choose my response.  I've worked hard to get back up to speed.  With the help and support of some awesome friends and family, I was able to make a speedy recovery.  My circumstances changed, but my priorities never did.  To be a healthy athlete, first you need to be a healthy person.

Thank you to all who have helped along recovery road!

See you on the trails!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Pisgah Monster Cross

My first race back after breaking a collar bone in 2 places and a few ribs was the 2nd annual 70 mile Pisgah Monster Cross Challenge.

I had done a little bit of riding on the road in the past week, but mostly I have been logging "miles" on my Computrainer.  So there was some trepidation on how I would hold up in real world race conditions.

I opted to race my Raleigh Talus 29'er hardtail with 700 x 40c CX tires.  I figured having the suspension fork and lower MTB gearing would be more rib-friendly.

We started from the Pisgah Ranger Station with a lengthy neutral roll out on a cool morning.  I managed to work my way nearer the front than usual for me.  I wanted to be sure I gave myself the best opportunity to hang on as long as possible.

When the racing starte in earnest we immediately begin the longest sustained climb of the race.  My Quarg power meter was not working, but my heart rate indicated I was putting forth a pretty hard effort.  ..and I was getting passed.  On a climb.  I set a goal: to not get passed by 10 riders on the climb.  I started to count them off:

Ok that's one. 

Another one.

Dang it.  Two more.

When I got to 6, things started going my way.  Downhill.  Suddenly me and my MTB passed all of the riders back that had just passed me and I gained some more spots.  As it turned out, I could still ride a bike.  Joy!

I kept a steady pace up the remainder of the climb.  When I got to the paved road that lead to the Blue Ridge Parkway I found myself pace-lining with another MTB and 2 cross bikes.  Until we got to Pisgah Point, or whatever the highest point on the BRP is called.  After that, those of us on MTB's couldn't hang with the CX bikes on the loooong paved descents.  I was pretty well spun out at 36mph, so I would pedal as fast as I could to get up to speed then tuck and coast at 36-42mph. 

So, after working like a dog on the places that I could pedal, it was kind of de-motivating to be caught by about 10 pace-lining CX bikes.  I fell in line with the group.  It wasn't long before we turned off the BRP and stopped at aid station #2 at mile 44.  I made a hasty water bottle refill and took off down the rocky/loose gravel Bent Creek descent.

By the time we hit pavement again, it was just me, one cx bike and the MTB from earlier on the BRP. 

From here on out I pushed hard.  It was clear I was able to maintain pace more than the others.  One by one I caught all of the riders I was around at the begining of the day that had gotten ahead of me.  The final descent is a rib rattler.  It's a bit painful on the ribs, but the frequent, tight, loose gravel corners keep the speeds reasonably low.  I know the finish is near, so I push hard with all I have. 

I catch one more rider on the road just before the finish.  He is riding a flat rear tire to the finish.  "Bummer", I say.  "It happens" he says, smiling. 

I do a pretty mediocre cx dismount before the only set of barriers placed in front of the finish line.  I crossed the line somewhere around 4:27, which translated into 20th overall.  After looking at the quality of riders that finished ahead of me, I felt a bit better about not being higher placed.  It was a good day back.  A good day on the bike.  The days mission: accomplished.

I'm not sure what the rest of the season will bring, but it's great to see everyone back at the races.

See you on the trails, or, maybe the gravel roads!