Saturday, July 18, 2009

Vacation, epic, and pancakes

I'll be the first to admit that I'm often a bit of a hard-head when it comes to pretty much everything. When I want to do something, it is pretty tough to convince me otherwise, and it's usually best to just let me go for it and deal with the consequences myself, because chances are I'm going to wind up doing it despite any objections. So it's a little surprising that I wasn't too reluctant to completely for racing this weekend; though I guess that means that I really was ready for a little time off.

There weren't many worthwhile races to go to, except the Owasco road race, which seemed like an excellent event that would have suited me well, but with no one signed up and the absurdly long drive out to Syracuse, there was just no point. So when Roger texted me yesterday to tell me he had decided not to go, I wasn't exactly disappointed. To be perfectly honest, I was pretty happy about it. I just didn't want to spend my weekend in a car. And instead of driving up to Connecticut on Sunday for 50-mile crit that I probably couldn't win anyway, I decided that this would be a good time to just ride my bike as much as possible and start to get myself ready for Green Mountain in about 6 weeks from now. It's never too early, especially with the all Cat 2 field they just added, which really opens the door for me to end my season on a great note.

So today I went on one of the nicest rides I have had the pleasure of doing all year. It was a rare chance to truly ride with my dad, who happens also to be in the best shape he has ever been at the moment, which made it a truly enjoyable ride. We set out around 8am and headed off to Bear, getting in a pretty awesome amount of climbing including Perkins, the Bear Mt race loop, and many other nice ascents, giving us around 5300 vertical feet by day's end. When it was all said and done, we had logged over 5 hours of saddle time and I had burned a cool 3400 calories according to my SRM, a number I don't think I have ever seen before. Can you say hungry? The reward of endless gorging just might be my favorite part about this sport.

As soon as we got home, I cracked open a beer (Magic Hat), and began preparing the pancake batter as my dad took a quick shower. After he cleaned up, we switched roles, and I hopped in the shower as he cooked. Mmm mmm good. You just can't beat that. And not more than 45 minutes later, I was sitting down again and digging into a heaping bowl of cereal, which probably won't hold me over for long. It's not easy to eat over 5000 calories in a day, believe me.

I definitely could not have asked for a more pefect day, and I think it's safe to say that not many people are fortunate enough to be able to enjoy 5 hour rides with their dads. I consider myself beyond lucky to have that, and it was a much better way to spend my day than racing in Prospect Park at 6am. Now I'll use whatever I have left tomorrow to put the hammer down on the Nyack Rider, our local big group ride that everyone seems to think is a race. And with just a fun camping trip planned for next weekend, my first true break from the bike since March, I might as well keep the pressure on all week. Hopefully this big block will pay off in August, when the real racing resumes to close out the year. Besides, I might as well earn some more pancakes.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Enter the pain cave

It seems that I have been saying this over and over again this season, but this time I truly mean it: Union Vale on Sunday was the hardest race I have ever done. I raced there last year in the 3/4 field, which covers 58 miles and is hard enough as is. But with an extra loop and more than a little extra fire-power, the 72-mile P123 race was another ballgame.

I felt strong as I toed the start-line and was fairly confident that I could reap the benefits of the stage-race form that I may have gained from Fitchburg. Waiting in the staging area and chatting with everyone, I realized that, for the first time this season, I would have teammates in the field. Gilberth and Rafy were both there, and Gilberth warned me that the chances of a break sticking were very good. With that in mind we rolled off for the start of our sufferfest.

Not 3 miles into the race, Gilberth launched an attack up a small roller, drawing out some other riders soon after and forming what would be the main break of the first half of the race. Overly anxious, I began to cover just about every move for the better part of the first lap, which I soon realized was a bad idea and not something I could keep up, so I finally wised up and just sat tight near the front but out of the wind. The break maintained a solid gap, but we were by no means going easy back on the pack. We caught them some time on the third lap, I think but the incessant suffering I was subject to leaves the the details a little hazy.

Going through the traffic circle at the start of lap 3, I was caught by surprise by an acceleration at the head of the field and found myself at the wrong end of a big split going into a serious head/cross-wind. I chased like mad to bring myself back, but couldn't seal the deal until we finally turned left onto a downhill section with a tailwind, where I immediately got back on. One big match burned.

The next time through the feedzone, which happens to be on the second half of the first main climb, I was too focused on grabbing a neutral bottle and let myself slide too far back in the group. The next thing I knew, an attack had drawn the majority of the field up the road and I was once again on the wrong end of a split, only this time the front end was a lot larger. Along with a few other riders like Andrew Bernstein, I chased with utter desperation, making it back onto the group just in time to fall off the back again as we headed up yet another climb. Somehow, I kept them close enough that I was able to chase back on down the ensuing descent, this time latching on permanantly. Match number two gone.

I was pretty convinced at this point that I was cooked, and that the next hill would be my last. Amazingly, though, my legs grew stronger and stronger as the race wore on, though it did not get any easier. The break was caught and a new one formed, this time with Rafy in it. I entertained no illusions about my chances on the day, switching to full on survival mode and just hanging on as the big-guns live Cameron Cogburn and Matt Purdy set a furious pace up each climb.

Despite feeling as if I was going to be dropped on every climb over the course of the final lap, I managed to drag myself over the top every time still safely in the fold. We crested the last climb with a very reduced group and began the run-in to the additional 1.5-mile finishing climb, where the fireworks were sure to start. We hit the base of the climb, which is steepest for the first half and then tappers off for a little while before pitching up again for the final 600 meters or so, and Gavi Epstein literally exploded up the left side. There was a response in the bunch, but no one could match his acceleration. The ensuing surge shed lots of riders though, and the second surge that came soon after finally shed me. Unable to even stand, I just dug in and tried to keep turning over my 25 as fast as I could, which really was pretty slow. I don't know how, but I managed to pick off a few riders along the way, catching up with Gilberth just before the flat section. We paced each other through there before I gapped him on the final steep section.

When the first piece of signage finally came at 200m to go, I tried to kick it into gear and finish as strongly as I could, but at 50 to go my legs basically failed. I could hear the whooshing of wheels coming up behind me, as Matt Cutler and Kyle Peppo, who I had dropped earlier in the climb, had clawed there way back as I faded. As I desperately tried to beat them to the line, I felt a hand shove me forward from behind, and with one last desperate kick, I got to the line first, claiming 13th place. It's nothing special, but hey, I'll fight for whatever I can. So I owe a huge thanks to Gilberth for that nice shove. Job done.

I'm not going to get into specifics, but let's just say that I put out some numbers for amounts of time that I did not think I could. I would have really liked to finish strongly and have a solid finish, especially with a climb that this one that really suits me, but the tank was truly on empty at that point. Maybe I could have dug just a little deeper, suffering that little bit more, but I am not so sure that it would have any difference. I was running on fumes. Those two matches burned earlier in the race cost me, and I am definitely learning how important it is to conserve in these races and fire your bullets when it counts, because you don't have many of them.

A turkey sandwich, a coke, a Nutrigrain bar, two hamburgers, a sweet potato, salad, a bowl of cereal, and some fruit all helped a lot bringing me back to life after the race, but it has definitely taken some time to fully recover. Even my feet hurt on Monday! Though I would have loved to finish in the Top 5, either with a strong finishing climb or by making the break, I can at least take some consolation from the fact that, once again, I was in the mix. Only my second race as a Cat 2 (if you count Fitchburg as one big race), this was definitely another good sign that I am not in over my head. I can confidently say that, when the shit hits the fan, I will be there. At this point it's not a matter of being strong enough to survive the race, I can do that. All I need now is the ability to finish the job, to have enough as left in the tank to fight for the line. But at least I'm in the position to fight for the line at all, so I'm pretty happy about that. Step by step, bit by bit, I'll get there.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The sky is falling!

Last night, as I was just hanging out with my friends Erica and Sharyu in Erica's basement, one of the most bizarre events was taking place outside. I was not aware of what was going on until the power suddenly cut out for a few seconds, prompting Erica to go upstairs to investigate, and the report she came back with was quite shocking.

Apparently, in a 10 or 15 minute span, one of the most devastating storms I have ever seen was wreaking havoc outside, sending down monsoon-like rain mixed with hail, as well as gale-force winds and searing bolts of lightening. Both my parents called me immediately to warn me to wait before trying to come home and to be as careful as possible. The warning was needless, as when I finally left for home around 12PM, I was forced by numerous felled trees and their branches to crawl along, not to mention change my route home no less than 3 times. And all of this took place in no more than 15 minutes!

This morning, when I awoke at 5AM (thanks to my cell phone alarm clock since the power was out when I went to bed last night), I was disappointed to find that my house was still sans-electricity. So I ate my breakfast by candlelight (how novel!), kitted up, and headed over to Rogers so we could make our way to the shop for an early morning ride to Bear. On the way there, we were able to see the extent of the damage incurred last night. It was quite impressive. Fortunately, and bizarrely, the epic storm was confined to a very small radius, and in 4 hours of riding we encountered no obstacles other than one fallen tree that we had to climb over in the first few minutes.

So how does this have anything to do with cycling or my life, you might ask? Well, the impressive damage caused by the brief but obviously intense storm brings one word to my mind: Power.

If you're reading this Blog, chances are you ride a bike in some capacity, so you know the meaning of that word. Power is watts. It is force applied over and over and over to the pedals, propelling each of us forward through the wind and up into the mountains. But what I have been realizing more and more as of late is that power is not merely physical. In fact, I am starting to feel that power output is as much a mental task as it is a physical one. On that note, I'd like to bridge to a conversation I had with Andreas during our ride today.

We were talking about how we both feel that we often lack the fortitude, bravery, or whatever you would like to call it that allows a rider to really unleash all he has left in the tank as the line approaches. We are both strong riders who can survive most grueling races on all types of courses. He is a super strong all-around rider, I am more of a pure climber with a decent time trial; and not to sound cocky, but neither of us is going to be dropped easily. But when the time comes to uncork those last few watts and fight for the line with whoever is left in the race, we both agreed that we often have trouble making that last massive effort to out-kick our competitors to the line. Personally, I feel that the problem is entirely mental. It has nothing to do with being a poor sprinter, as someone like Roger is by no means a sprinter but that doesn't seem to have stopped him from winning more races than I care to count, and I can assure you that they have not all been solo. It is a certain ruthlessness and temporary disregard for one's body that allows a rider like Roger to self-inflict what should be an overwhelming amount of pain on himself to claim glory time and time again.

Physically, I think I have what it takes to produce results, though I undoubtedly have a long way to go and can only get better and stronger than I am now if I continue to work at it. But, for the time being, I am just as sure that all I need to do is flip that mental switch to suffer just a little bit longer, and I will be better able to use the physical tools that I already have. Today, I felt like I took a step in that direction.

As we ascended Bear, Roger set a nice steady tempo up to the gate, though nothing that would induce any soul-crushing (not that it was meant to be). After climbing around the gate, I took over on the front and was feeling a little frisky, so I upped the ante, holding a solid clip on all the moderate pitches and accelerating a bit on all the steeper ones. It wasn't anything that could drop Roger or Andreas, but it got me breathing hard and I could hear a little panting behind me, always a good sign. I was feeling it as we approached the last bend, which is where I often crack under the pressure of Roger's pace and just make my way to the top as best I can, but this time I threw my lever to get a few more gears, stood up, and dug in for the top. After 20 straight minutes of climbing, it hurt, but I held it all the way to the top.

Did Roger still out-kick me? Of course. But for once, I think that was only because he is the superior rider, something that was never in question, and not because I backed down. It was just like last night's storm. It does not necessarily take an overwhelming or drawn-out, never-ending effort to produce results. Just as that mini-storm, or whatever it was, wreaked unimaginably massive damage, it might only take another 30 seconds of suffering to put you on the top step of the podium. It's not going to kill you, and your legs probably aren't going to give out, though they may feel as though you've dipped them into the fiery pits of hell. The only question is whether or not you are willing to endure just a little bit longer. For the first time, I think I can truly answer with a resounding "Yes." And with Union Vale this Sunday, I have the chance to find out.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Fitchburg Roundup

So it seems that I failed on my promise to post daily updates on racing at Fitchburg, but as most of you probably know, bike racing leads to laziness, and I don't claim to be any exception to that rule. But I am home now, and with two enormous cups of coffee in me, I have no more excuses, so here we go:

After a surprising 22nd in the opening time trial that left me in contention for a Top 20 overall, I was feeling pretty good. Day 2's circuit race historically features a pack finish, with most riders just trying to conserve for the queen stage on Day 3. With Mt. Wachussett out of the picture this year, though, it seems that people were holding back a little bit less, and fairly early on in the 16-lap race a large break made its way up the road and built a considerable gap. The gap shrunk and grew throughout the race, and a few riders were dropped from the break. Towards the end of the race, a few guys bridged up, and the break ultiamtely stuck, gaining 35 seconds on the field. I spent the entirety of the race comfortably in the fold, expending surprisingly little energy and getting off the bike feeling very fresh, something I did not expect at all. The break's success bumped me down to 25th on GC, but I wasn't too concerned.

The plan for Day 3 was much the same as the previous one: hold on. With Mt Wachussett gone, our race was extended to 8 laps for a total of 87 miles and 8 trips up the notorious feed zone climb, a stupidly-steep 500-600 meter, two-step hill. The first time up was one of the hardest, with riders eager to chase the green jersey points offered at the line. I was happy to have my 27 on, allowing me to spin past riders who were groaning their way up on bigger gears.

Around lap 3, a sizeable break formed and began to gain on the field. Once again, I was content just to sit in and watch things unfold, a perfectly sound strategy since I had no teammates and had been a Cat II for less than a week. Patience seemed like a good plan. Sure enough, soon after the final descent on lap 8, the race moto told us that the gap was 20 seconds to a bunch of riders who not cooperating at all, with just one rider ahead at a minute-thirty. Not long after, all but the one rider, who we soon figure out was Matt Purdy of team Spooky, were reeled in. I took a glance back and, much to my surprise, found that most of the 90+ man field was gone. In fact, I would guess that there were less than 40 of us remaining. Through clawing, grinding, and fighting, I had managed to cling to the main bunch and make the final selection. I was shocked to say the least. All the race leaders were there, and all I had to do was hang on a bit longer.

On the second of two short rollers before we turned onto the final time up the climb, a big acceleration sprung 6 or 7 riders free of the group, and they were able to hold their advantage onto and up the climb. In retrospect, I should have dug deep to follow this move, but I was just so shocked to have made it to the finish in such good standing that the thought didn't occur to me. My pre-race plans only included survival, and included no thoughts of what I would do when I actually approached the line. Call it complacency, call it shock. Whatever it was, it was a little stupid, but at the same time, I think I can cut myself a little slack for being a freshly minted Cat II only looking to get his feet wet. I ended up cedeing a few more seconds than I would have like up the finishing climb, that I passed a number of riders on the way up and dropped a few who had been ahead of me on GC. I finished 24th on the stage and climbed to 18th on GC, now officially in the money!!! I have never felt so completely shelled and empty in my life, and am still on a high from having made it through that day.

The final day's criterium was, for me, just a necessary evil. I don't particularly like crits, as they suit none of my strengths, but I know that I can survive them, so that is exactly what I sought to do: survive. I knew which riders were a potential threat to my GC position, which, though not Top 10 or anything, meant a lot to me. So I kept a watchful eye on them and did my best to stay in the top half of the field and as near the front as possible whenver I could. Some attacks were launched from time to time that had me a little worried, but patience once again proved the most prudent tactic, and all moves that could have threatened me were very short lived, as the ambitions of other riders in the filed proved just as powerful as those trying to escape. Yay for field sprints!

With 10 laps to go, I took to the front and fought like hell to not fall out of the top 10 riders, where I knew I would be safest. My friend and apparent crit-beast Connor Sallee was up there as well, so I clung to his wheel like it was my job. He proved an excellent wheel to follow, and if you're reading this, Connor, thank you! Ken Harris and one other rider took off with 9 to go and staid away to finish, which was fine by me and apparently with the race-leaders CCB team, as it took away the larger time bonuses on offer. I held my spot in the front until 2 to go when, as usual in crits, I lost my nerve and just faded to the rear. That was fine, though, as it this point everyone was just in full sprint mode. I tucked in and rolled across the line in 40th place, a first-page result but nothing to write home about. But my job was done: I had kept the rubber-side down and no one threatening to me gained any time. Whatmore, due to the bad luck of other riders, I climbed another spot on GC, slotting me into 17th at the end of the race and earning me a nice $70 check to bring home. Not that I could ever take pleasure in the ill-fortunes of other riders, but it just goes to show how important posititioning and attentiveness are in a race.

I left Fitchburg with all of my expectations met and far surpassed. I would have been content with a mid-pack finish every day, but instead I was in the mix, if not an actual factor, and emerged with a Top 20 placing, something I never would imagined. Had I had some expectations of myself going in and seized on that opportunity at the end of the road race, I could have been ever higher, but, as I said, the shock of being in the mix at all was too much for me and the possibility never really occurred to me. But I think I can now say that I learned a lot about myself this weekend and received a huge boost in my confidence. This race validates my Cat II upgrade and encourages me to start chasing some results in the near future. Next up, Unionvale this Sunday, a real climbers race with a 1.5-mile finishing climb. Who knows, maybe a Top-10 is in the cards. I'll just ride hard, hold on, and, this time, maybe take a shot.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Low expectations yield results

I came into Fitchburg with absolutely no expectations whatsoever. I have only been a Cat II since Sunday, and I wanted to be completely honest with myself and not roll up here thinking I was going to clean house, a mistake I have made before. I came here to have fun and ride my bike, and if some result comes out of that, then great. If not, I won't be disappointed because I have nothing to fall down from.

But today's opening time trial left me realizing that I actually can expect a lot from myself. After what I thought may have only been a mediocre performance that I did not execute perfectly, I snagged 22nd place in the 94-rider field. I would have been happy with anything in the top half! I was just 1 second off the pace of a Top 20 finish, so I am pretty pleased to say the least.

Before I get ahead of myself, though, why don't I rewind a bit. With a 3:57 PM start time, I had all the time in the world to kill this morning. Time to eat, relax, read, eat, think about my race, and eat some more. It was pouring rain pretty much all day, letting up here and there, so I was expecting the worst. Fortunately, though, by the time I arrived at the parking lot, the rain and stopped and it was only misting every once in a while. I got in a nice warm-up under cover of a roof overhand and timed everything perfectly, though they definitely made us sit in line at the start house for much too long, not letting me roll up 60 seconds before like I usually do. But everyone was on the same boat.

I think I paced myself very nicely over the first half of the course, hitting my goal wattage, but the second half did not go quite as well. A little while after the turn-around, Gabe Lloyd, who had started 30 seconds behind me, caught and passed me. I kept him close, and was able to overtake him crossing the bridge into a headwind with about 2.5 miles to go. But, I had given it a little too much gas on the downhill sections, and he was able to pass me again, this time for good. I kept him very close for the rest of the race, but all of this had really messed with my head, and I was no longer doing a very good job of keeping track of my power and pace, concerning myself more with Gabe (who was on an excellent ride, claiming 8th). So the return trip was less than stellar, and had I just forgotten about him and kept myself nice and steady, I probably could have gone a bit faster, maybe clocking 18th or 19th. But, that was not the case, and I am by no means disappointed. On the contrary, I am thrilled to have done so well in my first Cat II race ever.

It's a great feeling to exceed your expectations, and for the rest of the weekend all I need to do is hang on and play it safe, and I could very well find myself making the Top 20 on GC, which is in the money. I am, afterall, a climber, and I get the feeling that at least a few guys ahead of me on GC are going to crack at some point in Saturday's road race. As Roger told me today, the more boring my race is from here on out, the better I will probably do. So I'm just going to keep my nose clean and try to stay safe and make all the splits. Tomorrow is a 16-lap, 50-mile circuit race that takes us up a certifiable wall every lap. People should be conserving their energy for the road race on Saturday, but there are always people looking for a bit of glory, so I'm sure it won't be easy. My plan is to sit tight and use as little energy as possible so I can just get home safe, enjoy my dinner, and get ready for the big one.