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