Mechanical Mayhem and The Rhythm & Blues Revue!

Oh man, what a week! I broke my bike, fixed my bike, and raced three time on two days! I'm either getting stronger or going numb. Maybe some combination thereof. But either way, I've got some stuff to share.

Screw you too, course tape.

Screw you too, course tape.

See all that? That was inside my front hub bearings. Taking apart my hubs to remove the tape, I found that there are no real dust caps in the bearings, only the flimsy rubber shells that usually go over the dust caps, and those were shredded. So I re-machined the inner races (seriously, they might have been the worst bearing races I've ever seen), re-packed the hubs, and put it all back together. I called Specialized about getting some new dust caps and they told me to get bent (thanks, guys) so I guess I'm just going to re-pack my bearings after every race. I've ordered a 24-oz tub of grease in preparation for this.

Due to fixing my bike I missed cross practice (again), but I was able to make up for it because a local shop was putting on a Blues Brothers-themed race. Say what? Aw yeah, it's time for the 4th annual Rhythm & Blues Revue Cyclocross Extravaganza!

It was a small race. In keeping with my tradition of being problematically on time, I arrived before the event organizers did and spent some quality time sitting around on a nice golf course in Evanston. The course had an interesting layout - a quarter-mile start section with some funky off-camber slaloms that ran once followed by the actual course, a mile-long loop of long straights with sweeping bends followed by inexplicable hairpins, logs, adorable barriers, and a comical amount of running up and down muddy embankments in the woods. Oh, and about half of the course was underwater. It was going to be a good day. I let almost all the air out of my tires in preparation.

The men's cat4/5 field was, for once, not the last race of the day. It was also not the largest. There were 22 of us, which meant that with my mediocre ranking I got staged... on the front row? OK then. I guess I'm on the front. The whistle blew, I clipped in early, and took off. Somehow, everyone else wasn't clipped in all the way and beyond the first half a crank had run out of steam. 

Am I off the front?

I'm off the front.

What do I do about this?


I was off the front by a margin, and held it into the world's most awkward slalom where I extended my lead. By the time We all got over the bridge and onto the actual course, I had a couple hundred feet of lead. And it was surprisingly peaceful, with no traffic to worry about and only the faint buzzing of a coasting freewheel behind me to remind me that I wasn't pre-riding. I kept the power on, nailed a remount over a barrier, and listened to my lead accordion. The spider monkey (a local cycling team) behind me would reel me in on the straights, and I'd space us out in the corners. We plowed through mud, our bikes squirming below us. I made it over the line in first, ripped past the spectators, and dove into the woods. The course had somehow gotten slipperier, and I could barely keep my footing running. I got back on my bike, but couldn't clip in. There was too much mud in my pedals. It was a moot point,  as not 100ft later I was off the bike again running some logs. Back on the bike for a long straightaway, and I couldn't clip in. I was staring at my pedals, trying to figure out what to do when I glanced up and realized I was about to run into a corner. I slammed on the brakes and only just barely stopped in time to not run off course, looked to my left, and watched a pack of six rider buzz smoothly past. Well shit, so much for not doing anything stupid. I kicked my pedals as hard as I could, somehow clipped in, got back on course, jumped the barriers, and finished the lap in 7th. And then stayed there another lap. And another. And another. My derailleur was clogged with mud, I couldn't clip in anymore, and I couldn't gain places. I was stuck. I finished 7th and very muddy. But damn, was it a good time.

Back home after the race drinking my recovery whiskey and eating my recovery couscous, I reflected. It was a good race. I'd started strong, raced strong, and might have been on the podium had I been paying attention and not ridden off the course. Lessons to learn? Mud sucks for clipping in. Pay attention. It was a short race, I did OK, and I had a great time. Huge thanks to Higher Gear Chicago for putting it on, I'll definitely be back. 

Race #3 - Chicago Cross Cup - Sunrise Park

Photo: Alec Bloyd-Peshkin

Photo: Alec Bloyd-Peshkin

The last few weeks have not been kind to me from a racing standpoint. I missed a week of cyclocross because I was up in the U.P. (eh?) racing cars at LSPR, which was going very well until Zack and I went light on a crest and rolled our car several times. We were both fine, but the car was done and we had to sit out the rest of the weekend. And so I arrived back in Chicago sleep deprived, sore, and absolutely itching to get on my bike and go.  I tried to burn some of that energy off at practice on Wednesday, but my body was having none of it. I did some starts and slow laps, but the power and energy wasn't there so I went home and worked on my bike instead. It didn't need much, but I was able to greatly improve the feel of my disc brakes from sloppy mush to crisp and snappy. It's funny how much better things go when you follow the appropriate service guidelines instead of just doing things the way you always have. I hung my bike on the wall and waited for Sunday to come. My parents wanted to come see a cyclocross race, so they kindly drove me all the way out to Bartlett and back. My Dad brought along his camera and took all the awesome photos in this post. That also means I have photos of myself racing. Thanks Dad!

Photo: Alec Bloyd-Peshkin

Photo: Alec Bloyd-Peshkin

I've gotten into my routine at this point. I show up at the venue at 9, register, pre-ride, race single-speed, nap, and race cat4/5. But I messed up, registration took a long time, and I didn't get a chance to pre-ride the course. Oops. I zip-tied my shifter, hoped I was in the right gear, and went to stage for single-speed with Zach. I didn't know what the course would be like, and so I'd be flying blind the first lap. But I did have a mid-pack starting position going for me, and I was determined to keep it. Based on what I'd seen walking around the course, I knew it was long, flat, and windy. A great power course, but not technical - not good for me. There were some twisty bits and off-camber corners I would do well on, as well as some logs to bunny hop where I could make up time. And that's what it turned out to be. I was able to hold my place in the pack on the start and the first few long sprints, and then it was a game of gaining and losing positions. I could usually hold a good enough line on the off-camber bits to set up for and execute a pass on corner exit, but as soon as the next sprint came up I'd lose all I gained. I fell in some very soft dirt in the woods, lost positions I was only barely able to make up over the next half-mile on the deceptively tricky (and appropriately named) heckle hill, and then we got to the fun part.

Photo: Alec Bloyd-Peshkin

Photo: Alec Bloyd-Peshkin

Awwww yes. Freakin' bunny hops. The part of the course where my mental instability pays off because pack or no pack around me, I'm sprinting in and jumping those logs. It also happened to be the one part of the course where I could make passes stick - by jumping the logs, sprinting up the hill and bombing the descent I could make sure no one passed me heading into a narrow wooded section. Of course, after the woods was a series of long sprints, but one was paved and so I was able to keep pace on it. And to my pleasant surprise, after getting over a barrier it had been a lap. Sweet. Only on and off the bike once is good for me, because although my remounts are improving I still lose a lot of time on them. Lap two - time to go for it. Get in the drops. Power down, keep spinning, pedal in circles.

Photo: Alec Bloyd-Peshkin

Photo: Alec Bloyd-Peshkin

It was working, and I found myself in a battle for position with someone I later learned finished 24th. We'd been trading position for the better part of half a lap when the red mist descended and I went for a pass on a fast corner. I should have known better, but the red mist is dangerous and makes me impatient and irrational. I entered the corner with too much speed and my weight back, and so my front wheel had no traction. I went down hard and fast, and slid neatly off the course on my side. There went five positions. Five. It wasn't worth it. I got back on my bike, back on course, and was able to make up a few places up the bunny hops but my bike didn't feel right. The hoods were bent in and the stem twisted to the right about 30 degrees. But everything still worked, so whatever. Or at least, whatever until I bombed into a slick corner and couldn't find by brake lever. I rode through the tape rather than crash again. Back on course, another eight places down with one lap to go but at least my head was clear. I kept it clean, watched my entry speed, and made back a few places. I finished 34th, which was disappointing since I'd been in the mid-20s and the Race Predictor had me at 31st. Oh well. Such is racing. And there's always cat4/5, right?

I don't really want to talk about the disaster that was my cat4/5 race, but there's lessons to be learned so let's do it, eh?

Photo: Alec Bloyd-Peshkin

Photo: Alec Bloyd-Peshkin

Mass starts are hectic by design. I'd done well with them in the past because I was starting at the back. But in the 4th row of a field 135 riders deep, it's scary. When the whistle blows, everyone goes and up that far they're all fast. I'm not fast, but I can fake it for 100 yards or so and end up in the front of the pack. And so up in the front, maybe ten seconds into the race, the red mist descended and my brain ceased logical function. I left the pack and tried to take my own line and got dropped. I kept at it and made my place back but I was on a bad line, my pedal clipped an fencepost, and I went down. Maybe thirty seconds in, riders were streaming past me. I got back on the bike and fought my way forward, only to get caught in a pileup and go down again, though not losing so many places this time.  I powered up the hill, through the logs, and past the remnants of another pile-up. There was broken course tape blowing all over the place, and I rode right through it. Some stuck in my bike. Other riders yelled at me, "Get it out of your bike! Stop!" I disregarded them and pressed on, hoping the tape would break and fly away. It didn't, and the bike became harder and harder to pedal. And then very suddenly, much easier. I coasted off the course and began ripping tape from my bike. It was everywhere. Put the chain back on, bend the derailleur back straight enough, get enough out of the wheels that they can spin. The entire field had passed me. I was back on my bike, but off the back of the pack with an uncooperative bike. I am a rally co-driver. I solve problems, and I press on regardless. I resolved to put the hammer down, and sprinted up the hill and turned for the long descent, at which point I realized that course tape had fused to my brake pads and jammed in the calipers, rendering them useless.


Press on regardless. I am not getting off the bike again.

Photo: Alec Bloyd-Peshkin

Photo: Alec Bloyd-Peshkin

Without brakes there is no margin for error, so I focused on keeping it smooth and nailing my lines. I made it around the rest of the lap before I caught anyone. From there it was a game. For each individual, I'd watch them ride for a corner or two until I could judge how to pass them, and then I'd make my move. I couldn't pass on flat straights or downhills, only on climbs and corners. Anything else would mess up my corner entry speed, and with no brakes that would be a crash. I finished the second lap, and then the third, and sprinted for the end of the fourth lap. The back section of course had already been taken down, as it was the last race for the day. No more corners. I coasted until my bike stopped and walked back to my stuff. It was done, I'd come in 68th. Having started 32nd, it hurt.

There's a lot to learn from mistakes. And when I make a lot of them, there's even more. I'm especially disappointed in myself with this race because I broke the cardinal rule of racing, one that I teach and one I pride myself on religious adherence to:

Stay calm. This is the most important thing there is, full stop. It's something I pride myself on. I teach new drivers to stay calm no matter what's going on. Watch my reaction to rolling a rally car and you'll see what I mean. When you lose your cool, your brain shuts down and you do stupid things. You gain a single-minded focus on making that pass, with no regard for the consequences. You leave the pack and strike out alone. When the red mist descends, you always lose, and I lost big. I got too eager to make a pass and couldn't hold the corner. I know I would have made the pass five seconds later at the logs had I waited, but I didn't and it cost me big time. I left the pack in cat4/5, lost position, and crashed. Had I been patient and ridden it out with the pack until the field spread before attacking, I would have done much better.

Tactics matter. This goes along with the last lesson. Now that I'm starting in the top half of the field, I can't just brute-force my way through the race. I have to think carefully about the flow of traffic, the course ahead, and where my opportunities are. None of that matters if I can't keep calm, but I have to play that game now. Maybe it means hanging below pace in a group for a while before attacking. Maybe it means waiting a bit longer to make that pass I really want. I don't have the legs to ignore strategy, so I have to learn it.

Fix mechanicals early. If I had stopped for five seconds to pull the course tape out of my bike before it got tangled up, I might have done a lot better. I'm still repairing the damage it did to my bike. Those little strips of polyethylene caused enough damage to require a bottom bracket overhaul, new derailleur cable, re-bending my derailleur, overhauling front and rear hubs, making new parts for my hubs, and new brake pads. That's a lot of work I could have saved by slowing down for a few seconds. 

I'm taking this week to fix my bike and recover, and then I'm hitting it hard this weekend with the Rhythm & Blues Revue race on Saturday followed by the Campton Cross on Sunday. If I can keep it together, perhaps I'll undo some of the damage I did to my ranking last week. 

Photo: Alec Bloyd-Peshkin

Photo: Alec Bloyd-Peshkin

In the mean time, I'm going to emulate this guy.

Race #2 - Chicago Cross Cup - Dan Ryan Woods

I am ready. It's the night before the race and I'm actually ready to go. I did some rides of varying intensity during the week, went to a real 'cross practice, upgraded my bike, packed, and I feel good. I just need to sleep, but the sleep doesn't come. My mind is still going over every nut and bolt on the bike, every cable run and every crimp. It had started off innocently enough. The stock tires on my bike felt bad and some nice shiny Clements were on sale, so I got a set. The tread blocks were all soft and square, and the sidewalls were supple. They felt fast, and the bike felt fast until I had to shift or brake. Because I'd bought my bike at the last possible minute, I didn't have any options for groupsets and ended up with Shimano Sora 9-speed. Sora is serviceable, but it's not without issues. The levers pivot in such a way that they jam with dirt and grit easily. The shifting itself feels... rough. There's not much feel. But it came on the bike and it worked. I just couldn't get over it and I'd just gotten paid and so I woke up on Saturday morning and decided to convert my bike to 1x10. 

1x drivetrains are all the rage now. Time was everyone rode triple chainrings with a small narrow-range cassette in the back. Now the standard is doubles in the front with 10- or 11-speed cassettes. But apparently if you're into mountain biking or cyclocross, you don't need all that faff and can just go to a single chainring in the front and a nice wide-range cassette in the back. It looked clean, weighed less, had less parts to fail and if I converted to SRAM well I was at it, I could race in single-speed category as well. As a hopeless gear junkie, I was sold. So with 22 hours left before I had to leave for the race I went out to round up parts. One of many great things about Chicago is our proliferation of amazing bike shops. By walking in a one-mile loop from my apartment, I can hit three shops. One had a cassette and chainring, one had shifters, and one a derailleur and cables. The shifters didn't match, one was a carbon rival lever and one an aluminum S500, but they did the job.  The swap was fairly painless. Rip off the old Shimano kit and throw it in the parts bin, bolt on SRAM, apply profanity liberally to ease threading the cables, and go for a ride. I left an old chainring on the crankset outside the one I'm actually using to act as a chain keeper and to confuse the other people on course. Perhaps it would give me an advantage, though probably not as big an advantage as the red cassette I was rocking. I went for a ride, everything worked, and so I went to bed.


After a fitful night of wondering how badly everything would break, I headed out to the race. The Race Predictor Algorithm of Truth had me pegged as coming in 48th place in cat4/5, I felt good, and I remembered to bring a pump and pressure gauge this time.  I met up with my teammates, we piled into the car, and missed Chicago Marathon traffic on our way South to the race. We registered, and on a whim I got on the wait list for the single-speed open race. That was the other advantage of swapping to SRAM - a zip tie around the shifter and my bike can race in two categories. Registration done, I went to watch the masters race while waiting for a chance to pre-ride.

The course at Dan Ryan Woods had a rather interesting feature. Whereas Hopkins Park had one set of barriers to run, Dan Ryan typically had a short set as well. These barriers were only six inches in height and could either be run or jumped, but this year they made a moat out of them. Barrier, pool of water, barrier. Staying dry today was out of the question. But no matter, no time to dwell on it. Time to sort out the bike and pre-ride. Get out the pressure gauge, bleed tires down to 35. Ride. The course is long and tricky, and the slick mud doesn't help. There's a sweepy dry section on grass with lots of flowing corners and hairpins. I know I can make time here if I work out a line. From there it dumps on to a sprint over broken pavement and veers off onto another straight through some soft, soft grass. It's badly rutted and hard work to move through, but there are more good corners on hardpack dirt immediately after. The course then turns into singletrack weaving up a comically steep hill in the trees, and I could probabl ride it but everyone is off their bike and I'd need more speed. Back on the bike at the top, blast down the hill and back up into the trees. More people walking, then back on the bike and over to the moat. Bypass the moat, ride behind the building, get ambitious and ride up the stairs. Have to dismount for the ledge at the top anyway. Probably faster to just run the whole thing. Around a switchback, up the hill, down part of the hill, off the bike and up a very steep muddy corner, down some singletrack, wind through mud at the bottom of the course, off the bike to get over a barrier and run the hill, on the bike, down the hill, and that's a lap. Phew. Practicing my remounts over the week helped a lot, but I'm still not good at them and it's going to hurt me. if I'm off the bike that much during the race.

I headed over to registration and checked in to the waitlist for single-speed. I got lucky - got a number. Back to the pit, put a zip tie around the shifter so I can't shift, and I'm good to go. Hope I'm in a good gear. I line up on the back row of the field. It's an open field, and there are some intimidating figures up at the front, but I can't focus on them. Just get a clean start.  The whistle blows, and I don't miss my pedal on the start but I know before I've gone 50 feet that I'm over-geared. It's gonna be a long race. The ground is slippery and muddy and soft, but I power ahead. This is the only time I'm going to have fresh legs and good lungs, might as well make the best of it. Make a couple places up in the sprint, and find a wide line that's grassy to catch a few more folks in the first two corners. Passing more this soon isn't going to happen, everyone around is too fast and it's a 45-minute race. Off the bike, hop the barrier, pass a few more guys running up the hill. On the bike, miss the pedals, get passed on the downhill and mash into my section of the course. It's dry dirt and grass with technical linked corners. It's mine. It's also narrow and I can barely get by anyone. I make a couple passes, fly down the pavement in a bunch, and dig deep to get through the next muddy straightaway. More dry corners, and it's up into the woods. If I can keep my cadence above 20rpm I can stay on the bike. I ride fixed usually, so I can do it. I know it. But everyone else if off the bikes and so I have to dismount and lose more time on the remount at the top. Weaving around on top of the hill my lungs are on fire and the downhill isn't enough to catch a breath. I get in the drops on the flat sections and just try to keep pace, but before I know it the moat is looming ahead of me and I'm not carrying enough speed. Get off, run it, get on. Lose a place. Damn. Gain it back running up the stairs. Back in the drops, climb the hill, just keep pace. The second lap is also survival mode. Just keep pace. Lap three. I can feel myself dying inside every time I have to accelerate. This was a terrible idea, making the toughest course of the season my debut for single-speed. Press on. Finally ride up the hill in the woods. The pace is slowing, everyone is tired. Breathe on the downhill, run the moat and the stairs. I'm feeling better now. Time to attack. Take it really easy up the next hill, and the guy in front of me is hurting. Hold his wheel on a corner, fly by on the exit. No brakes all the way down the singletrack. Really wide to avoid the mud, and apex stupid late entering the last bit of woods. Two more passes. Survival mode in the drops heading up to the hill, run the hill, down the hill, and it's finally over. I collapse in the pits, then drink some water and eat a taco. It's a sad excuse for a taco, but at the moment it might as well be some sort of heavenly nectar. I go to rest and cheer on Leah in Women's cat4.

Four hours after my race, it was time for cat4/5 and so I cut off my zip tie. I was recovered, my legs felt good, and I had gears again. Time to shred. After last weekend's slugfest of a race I was relieved to start 62nd. The CrossResults Race Predictor had me placing 48th, and I was determined to do at least that. The whistle blew. I got my pedal first try. And flew. The course had dried out a lot over the day. What had been deep mud was now firmer, and the slick mud on the hills was hard dirt in most places now. The starting section was shaded though, so we had no such luck. Barreling through the first corners, off the bike, up the hill. Make only a few passes. The guys nearer the front are better than the guys at the back. Go figure. Back on the bike, down the hill, into my favorite technical section. Can't pass. Into the woods, ride the hill, pass some guys walking. Fly back down, mash the sprint. The moat is coming up, and I'd been chastised for not jumping it earlier. There's a gap in front of me. Go big or go home. Jump it. It's easy and the crowd loves it. The gap is closed and I'm on someone's wheel. I try to pass outside on the pavement, but my tire rolls over, I hit rim, and go down hard. Back on the bike. Catch up on the stairs and chase up the hill. Barely squeak by with a pass riding a corner he walks. No brakes down the singletrack. Flat section in the drops. Breathe. Run the hill, get back on, and go go go. Pass a lot in the twisties. Ride the hill. Jump the moat and go down hard in the mud on the net corner. Get back on. I'm out of breath and I can feel my legs burning next time up the hill. Maybe two races was too much. Nonsense, go big or go home. Come to think of it, going home might be nice. I could have a nap when i get there. Down the hill. Around the flats, I'm in a bunch. I just have to keep pace. Lap three I'm dead set on attacking like I did last time, so I go for it but my legs don't cooperate. I'm stuck in the bunch. I can eek out a pass or two but I lose it on the remounts. Back half of the course, no options left. Dead sprint, struggling for 18mph. Heart rate is pegged, off the bike, up the hill, grab a cookie from a spectator. Eat it. Immediately want to vomit. Back on the bike, gotta close the gap. Miss the pedals, and the possibility of passing evaporates. The race is done. I'm done. I eat another taco, hoist my bike onto the car, and collapse in the back. Check the results. 30th. I beat the statistical analysis. Nice.

It was a rough day. Two races was a lot to handle, but I somehow managed and came away with a few lessons at the end of it:

Be Prepared. I keep doing this - I buy a bike the day before a race, convert the drivetrain the day before, next time I want it done on Tuesday and ready to go so I don't have to worry about it.

If you're going single-speed, don't choose a gear in haste. I could have done better with two more teeth on the cog.

Pre-ride throughout the day. This one is big. I learned the course pre-riding before single-speed, but it was totally different by the time cat4/5 rolled around. Some people who also did both races were caught by surprise and lost time.

Know your limits. I successfully completed two races and even did pretty well. But I think I got lucky. On a slightly off day I could have thrown away a race by pushing too hard. I'm not sure if I'll do that again.

I'm missing Carpenter Park this week due to racing cars at LSPR, but I'm going to train my ass off and ride at Sunrise Park. Perhaps two races if it's flat. Perhaps one. I think I'll wait and see what my legs say at practice this week.

So... This Training Thing

After a couple relaxing days of lazily riding around the city, I could no longer shut out that nagging voice in the back of my head. "You must get stronger," it said. "Train harder. Go faster." It was right. I wasn't sore at all, despite my near-constant state of dehydration and poor nutrition. My legs were not the thing limiting me in the race. My lungs were. And that could only mean one thing: I had to do cardio. Ugh. I hate cardio. Can't I just drill skills instead and then do a long lazy loop around the north side? So with that in mind, I linked up with the wonderful folks from MOX Multisport for their Wednesday evening training in a small field on the lakefront just a few blocks from my work. It doesn't get more convenient than that! Troy set out some stakes, ribbons, and a few barriers of varying height to make a small course and we ran some gentle warm-up laps to get our legs going and mark out the course so I could stop getting lost.

The barriers were tricky, because they were nothing like the barriers at Hopkins Park (which were the only other barriers I'd ever encountered. Those were on a steep hill that was run at very low speed. These were both on long straightaways and were to be taken at high speed. One barrier was high - 16" - and required a quick dismount, jump, and remount. The other was low - 4" - and was easily dispatched with a bunny hop. I was just starting to get the feel for remounting at speed and dismounting very close to the barrier when Troy stopped us. "We're going to do standing starts now." 

Shit. Cardio.

And so we did starts. Long starts. 3-2-1-go and it's a dead spring over the approach, up the hill, and through the trees. Hard on the brakes at the top so you don't end up on the outer drive and an easy coast down. Lather rinse repeat. A quick break, another set. My legs are doing OK because I'm out of lungs and gasping for air every time I reach the top of the hill, and I';m relieved to take a break. And then it's hot laps.

We do sets of four laps. From a standing start, it's Troy and Nick out in front of me, and Barry ushering me ahead since he's on a single-speed. My goal is to stay on Troy's wheel so I don't lose the course, but it quickly becomes apparent that's not going to happen. I change my goal to staying in front of Barry, which is also a tall order. We sprint up the hill, wind through the trees and turn downhill to pick up speed before slamming through a really technical series of turns, then it's back on the gas along the hill, bunny hop the short barrier, down the rest of the hill, and turn by the shack at the bottom. Troy and Nick have done a very thorough job of dropping me and I can hear Barry's freewheel humming somewhere nearby behind me. I lower my expectations further and make my new goal staying on course. Whip around into hardpack dirt and take another technical section through the bushes. Nearly get within sight of Troy and get dropped on the climb. Forget where the top of the course is and overshoot before turning back downhill and bombing through the trees. Nick is passing me going the other way yelling "no brakes!" I let off the brakes and my front tire immediately washes out. Shoulda let some air out. Back on the brakes, weight on the wheel, and it bites in again. Finish the descent, hairpin around sprint to the barrier. Off the bike, over the barrier, on the bike, miss the pedals, flail. Find the pedals, sprint up the hill.

That's one lap.

We do three more and take a break.


"How was it," Troy asks. "Great," I lie, "I feel good!" My legs do feel good, but my lungs are burning and I forgot water. I focus on my breathing and manage to recover before we go to do one more set. This time I hang on to Troy and Nick for the better part of the first lap by really focusing to making my corners clean, but they're gone again on the climb. Oh well. Time to settle in and knock these out. Meditate on the corners, push the apex earlier and earlier until I'm about to wash out. Get on the power early so the front wheel is just barely hanging on during the exit. Slow in, fast out. Just like a car. Fast in fast out will come later. I change my bunny hop technique and gain some speed there by keeping my rear wheel on the ground longer. More time to get power down. My dismounts are actually getting OK! I'm getting off my bike at the last possible second and transitioning immediately into the jump over the barrier. The remounts are OK too, but I can almost never get the pedals on the first try and it's costing me.

And then our four laps are done. We rest, Nick takes off, and the rest of us do one more set. It's only two laps this time, but it's dark and I keep getting hit in the face with branches. The laps pass, and my legs are feeling it too now. I guess that means it was a good workout.

The ride home is a good cooldown, and food beckons. Over dinner, I reflect on more lessons learned:

Cardio is key. I already learned this lesson at Hopkins Park, but I get the feeling this is going to be the hardest thing for me this season. I'm coming i with good base strength but terrible base cardio fitness. Doing more training in zone 4 with efforts in zone 5 will help, but it's just going to hurt.

Keep calm in the corners. It's just like driving. If I can keep calm and nail my lines, I go way faster even though it feels slower. Cornering on a bike feels really different, and it's going to take time to get used to. But for now I have to relax so I can feel what the bike is doing.

Remember to shift. Since I had all my bikes except my commuter stolen this year, more or less all my miles have been fixed-gear. It's been good for my strength, but I often find myself mashing up a hill on my cross bike when I could be spinning. If I remember to shift before the going gets steep, I get to the top faster and with less effort. Likewise, I can make up a lot of speed on descents by dropping onto a small cog and powering downhill.

This morning I couldn't find my speed on my ride to work, and so I know I made progress last night. I just have to keep spinning so my legs recover and I'll be as ready as I'm gonna be for Sunday. I hear the course is steep and technical, so it should be interesting. Regardless, it'll be fun.

Race #1 - Chicago Cross Cup - Hopkins Park

Let me begin by saying that my quads hurt.

It was an early start to the day. Even though I was only going to be racing in the Men's cat4/5 race (the last race of the day), I was hitching a ride out to DeKalb with my teammates who were racing earlier and so we had to leave early. Bikes partially dismantled and stuffed in the back of the car and coffee in hand, we rolled into Hopkins Park during the Masters races and were able to take our time setting up and still have loads of time to pre-ride the course before our first races.

I was able to walk a lot of the course while Zach ripped along in the single-speed open. The course was much longer than I expected, with laps being just shy of two miles. Having never even been to a cross race before, I wasn't sure what to expect, but I guess it wasn't that. Partly as a result of the course being so long, lap times were long. And that meant in a 30-minute race there might only barely be time for three laps! I had to learn the course in advance somehow; there would be no time during the race. So I walked and snapped photos and looked at the line around the track. I ate lunch, and at the insistence of my teammates I suited up and went for a pre-ride. In between races, the track opens for ten or so minutes and registered competitors can so a practice lap. I felt weird doing a lap so early - three hours until my race - but it turned out that no one was judging me openly for it and it was all in my head. It was a good thing I did the ride. I was bouncing around like crazy because I hadn't let any air out of my tires, which were like rocks at 80 psi. Many of the corners I had misjudged in my walk earlier, the fast off-camber sweepers were slipperier than I thought and the tight, muddy hairpins grippier. But the most surprising thing was how difficult it was to maintain any kind of speed on grass and mud! I don't think I've ever worked as hard for a low-teens average speed. I did my lap, got off the course, and went to cheer on Leah.


With one ride of the course under my belt, I had a rough idea of a good line. But it had felt so forced, there was no flow. So I walked to some of the trickier parts of the course and watched the lines that the fast riders were taking. Where they coast, power, and brake. How they shift their weight. The race ended, and I went to ride the course again. I dropped my tire pressures to something lower (I didn't have a gauge, so I made them as low as I could without living in constant fear of pinch flats), flipped my stem so I could get lower, and got back on course. The difference in the dynamics of the bike was immediately noticeable. The tires rolled more smoothly, absorbed more of the chatter from the course, and gripped so much better. I was finding a line through some of the more technical sections, but also realizing that with the large open areas on the course I was just going to need a lot of power. I'm not a sprinter. I had to find all my time in the corners. Off the course, I went to watch the next group. Watch, pre-ride, repeat. And then it was time to grid.

Category 4/5 was the beginner race, and consequently had the largest field of entries. I had no prior experience and had registered only a few days before, so the only people behind me were those with no experience who registered that morning. There weren't a lot of them. I was placed 118 in a group of 129, crammed shoulder-to-shoulder with other riders on the starting grid. The guy next to me joked about how we wouldn't even know when the race started, since we were so far back. I laughed uneasily.

And then there was cowbell.

The pack took off. I knew I had to sprint hard for the start to get ahead of the pack before the first corner, but that wasn't happening. I am not a strong sprinter, and as such I made up only two positions before the first corner. I was hopelessly stuck in traffic, riding as hard as I could and trying to find a gap when my brain forgot I was on a bike. It was just like any other race I'd ever done. Go-kart, open-wheel, whatever. Everyone was on the same line, either missing the apex entirely or coming in way early. I poured on the power, braked late, apexed later, and was out of the mess in three corners. I had my line, I could focus. I could struggle to stay on the wheel of the rider in front of me on a straight, stay wide coming in, and then cross inside on the apex and fly past on the exit. I was a machine. Mud and grass were ripped mercilessly by my tires. Accelerate hard on the pavement section, Jump the roots on the transition, comb into the sweepers... and run out of lungs coming back out. I was coasting on the downhill, barely halfway through my first lap and I'd forgotten what pacing was. My lungs were on fire, my heart pounding, and my legs still had more to give. Catch a few breaths on the downhill and power through. "You're young and stupid," I thought to myself. "You can keep this up." I tried just to hold pace coming out of the woods, cut high over a sharp off-camber bend, and felt my heart jump into my throat when my pedal struck the ground and bounced my rear wheel off. Dirt is marvelously forgiving in combination with low tire pressures, because I don't think I would have managed to not crash there in any other circumstance. Off the bike, over the barriers, back on the bike, fly down the hill, breathe. This is supposed to be fun, but my lungs burn. Catch air off a lip and make a pass before both tires are back on the ground. "Hey! Mountain biking called! They want their jumps back!" Gotta love hecklers. Sprint across the line, start the next lap. Flow through the first section. Lungs are burning, legs are feeling it now. Shift early, pass someone who forgot and ran out of steam at the bottom of the hill. Fly over the pavement in the big ring, dodge the downed cyclist in the middle of the course (he looks like he'll be OK). Pedal strike again on a fast sweeper trying to keep the power down. Get lucky again. Coming back down the back straight I feel like I'm going to vomit, and I check my watch. Only one more time through. I can do it. The last lap is pain. My legs are running out of steam, and I have to shift the work to my quads just to make it up the hills. It's all I can do to make the occasional pass, and I have to be careful of my line so make sure that the people I do manage to pass can't immediately overtake me on a straight. Off the bike. Over the barriers. "Get a haircut, that's costing you like five watts!" Gotta love hecklers. Back on the bike at the same time as a few others, but I was running faster and got the jump on them. Miss the clip-in. Dammit dammit dammit. They pass me. They're coasting on the downhill. I pedal, and miss the jump so I can keep getting the power down but I just can't catch them. I'm over the line. The race is done and all I want is to throw up and drink some water. I do neither, and opt to get off my bike and collapse instead.

Leah found me in a heap on the ground, and we loaded up the bikes. On the trip home I checked the results. 55th? And 22nd of the cat5s? Maybe it was worth the early burn! In all, I passed other riders in three laps. I also learned a lot of lessons to take with me next week.

Setup is really important. To an extent I haven't known since working R&D at NASCAR, tire pressure is really, really important. It makes sense that a tire will grip better on loose surfaces at 40psi than 80psi, but very small variations also make a huge difference. I don't know what my pressures were, I just kept letting air out until they felt OK. Having an accurate pressure gauge and recording how a given tire performs under any set of conditions at a pressure would probably be a good idea.

Practice the course, not just the skills. I did have a little practice with carrying my bike and dismounts/remounts, but in a given lap I was off my bike once for ~30s per ~8m lap. What made up time was having done so many pre-rides. I found a good line and a few other ones in corners I thought would be busy. Knowing my line going in made it much easier and less stressful when I was trying to navigate traffic during the actual race.

Power is key. The structured training I have done is geared towards my primary interest of ultra-endurance road racing. Looking at heart rate data, I train a lot of zone 3-4 so I can sit in zone 2-3 all day long. From the time the race started until I hit the finish, I didn't come below zone 4. I was not ready for that.

So with those things in mind I'm training this week. I'm starting high-intensity intervals early in the week, and a cross-specific practice mid-way through to build technical skill and get more comfortable with finding the limits of the bike and tires. Dan Ryan Woods, the next race, is Sunday. It's a bit more technical than Hopkins Park, and I'm really excited to see what they come up with. 

In the mean time, I'll be busy falling off my bike.

The Night Before

First order of business: removing reflectors and spoke protectors

First order of business: removing reflectors and spoke protectors

There are so many things to go wrong. I've been spending all my time putting out fires and haven't had any time to prepare and suddenly the first race is tomorrow. This is fine. I can fix this.

I didn't have a cross bike, now I do. It was a few model years old, and sitting forlornly in a back corner of the shop staring at me. Calling to me. The guy at the store let me put it on a trainer so I could dial in stem length and saddle position, and then took the position I set and moved it up and back a lot. Apparently I'm still awfully low for a cross position, but I feel like I'm sitting up straight. Riding a very small track bike all the time will do that to you I guess, but it's a lot of change. I rode home from the bike shop and took a route with a lot of road construction to get a feel for the bike. It's odd to ride. The steering feels slow, a far cry from the shoulder-drop-and-hang-on I'm used to. The tires are wide and absorb road chatter, which is new for me. And I can coast! How strange! I can put my weight anywhere I want, and suddenly riding is a sublime experience. The handling issues that were bothering me disappeared in a cloud of euphoria as I played with my weight transfer. Front wheel up, rear wheel light, and I'm flying over cuts in the pavement that'll detonate the dampers in a mid-size SUV. This is gonna be good.

After I get home I realize that I'm missing something. I haven't practiced dismounts and re-mounts at all, I don't know what pressures my tires should run at, I've never ridden in mud on tires that aren't tiny rocks, and it's been raining all week. "Never mind," I tell myself, "I'll burn that bridge when I get to it."

And so it's the night before the second race of the Chicago Cross Cup, and I have no idea what I'm doing. I have my tools and clothes packed in my backpack so I can grab-n-go bright and early tomorrow, but I don't have a clue what's waiting for me at the park tomorrow. I'm seeded in the last position on the grid, and my goal is to not finish there.

Uncertainty is a bitch, let's go racing.