Friday, June 12, 2015

Niagara Classic: OCUP #4, May 17th

I'm beginning to appreciate the value of a little experience

Not that I have much. But familiarity – returning to a race I've done before –  makes a huge difference. Just knowing where everything is (parking, registration, washrooms...) really takes a lot of the stress out of the equation.

The same can be said of knowing the course. You you what you're in for. Or up against, which in the case of Niagara is the famous Effingham Hill, a poisonously steep, short climb that pretty much ruins an otherwise pleasant ride out in the country. The M3 circuit was 5 laps, which meant five climbs of this delight. I managed only two circuits last year before I called it quits. This time I came in better prepared, and determined to at least finish the bastard.

Bottom right corner of the course: Effingham, you bastard.
Other valuable local knowledge was the that the "neutral" start was not particularly neutral, and that the field basically bombed off the line before hitting the left-hand turn that quickly runs up against the first Effingham climb. So I knew to be as far forward as I could get at the start, and to hammer hard to stay in the pack on that climb – two things I fatally failed to do last time.

So I stayed in the pack for the first two laps, but after the second climb started to slip back and lost contact. I had a few other guys with me but they were young E4s and they didn't seem to know what a rotating paceline was, and the middle of a race was not exactly where you want to run a seminar. So it ended up being awkward random pulls, which was too bad because we might have been able to get back on – for a lap or two the pack was tantalizingly in sight –  if they had known how to get it together. Anyway.

The numbers refusing to lie, as usual
The Strava data is very instructive here: every lap and every climb I got slower and slower. Looking at some of the top finishers' data the main difference was consistency. Some guys hit the same numbers for that climb every time. Mine went from a respectable 1:39 on the first round to a grinding 2:27 by the last. Lap one, the fastest (20:19 at 36.4 kph), was at 170 watts and average HR 160 bpm: perfect, right below threshold. Last lap: 168 watts, 179 bpm, 24:52 and 29.7 kph. Slower, and way deep in the red. The domino effect of not staying with the pack is the real killer.

In the end: 42nd place out of 57, 1:56:22, 15:24 off the winning time.

Solutions? Strategies?
Two things really:
1) get my fitness up so that I can hit more of my max wattage with less of my max heartrate. It's something we were working on pretty specifically at the Cycling Gym. It means training carefully to stay up near, but not over, my lactate threshold (or however you want to call being in the red) for extended periods.
2) improve my climbing. One thing I realized afterwards is I had become biased against standing up to climb, and had sat and ground it out every time when actually it would have helped on the very steepest parts to stand for a bit; if for no other reason than to change up which muscles were being taxed. I've since started to mix that in more on hills and it definitely helps, and there's a bit of a psychological boost to it as well.
3) Both of which are contributing factors in the need to stay with the pack. Every race I'm doing less and less shit-out-the-back time trialling, but I still haven't got all the way to the end of an OCUP race actually in the pack. 

Put those three things together and maybe then I can actually start racing.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

K-W Classic: A Classic Mistake

Now listed among the Top 10 Dumb Things I've Ever Done

is driving away to a race with my bike safely on the roof rack, and my front wheel sitting on the curb where I left it as I was loading up. Which is why I missed this year's OCUP #6, The K-W Classic*.

I have no idea why the light bulb suddenly goes on an hour after the fact and says: "Hey – did you put your front wheel in the car?",  or why it goes on 30 kms from the race, rather than 30 metres from the house. Doubtless neurological science is working on that tricky conundrum as we speak.
The painful irony is, I know I'm pretty foggy at 5 am, and my whole pre-race (or early club ride) routine is designed to get me on the road or on the bike properly geared up without having to be particularly sharp (or even fully awake) – i.e., all my stuff is laid out or pre-packed, with a pre-race checklist to minimize the need for any actual thinking.

Sure. Good luck with that.
That said, there's no prophylactic measure to prevent momentary distractions and/or stupidity.

And then there's that terrible moment of realization that one is pooched, because:
  • I'm 90 kms from home. No time to go back for it;
  • I had decided not to bring a spare this time (the race is too short to bother trying to get back into it if I flatted, goes my thinking);
  • my M3 race had the first start time of the day, and everybody I know was in later races & wouldn't be there early enough to lend me one;
  • and even if they were, I'd probably not get in a proper warm-up by the time I got that sorted;
  • and oh yeah: my wheel is lying on the sidewalk. In my neighbourhood, even at 5:45 am, it might last two minutes there before somebody scoops it up. Which was the case. So now I'm out one good front wheel.
I always want to learn something from every race. Definitely learned something this time:
Try Not to Be an Idiot, I think, was the lesson for today. And between the entry fee and the cost of (most likely) replacing my wheel (or paying its ransom/reward for return) it's a pricey one.

Live and, uh, learn, I guess. (I hope.)

*"K-W" is Kitchener-Waterloo, a Mennonite community about 130 kms from Toronto.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Race Day Kit Checklist

I can't think at 5 am

Especially if it's 5am on the morning of a race. I'll be too busy being stressed about the race and tired from being up later than I wanted. And The Curse of OCUP Masters 3 Races is that they are almost always the first or second race of the day, and an hour or two away from Toronto, so I have to be up at an ugly hour to get to the start on time.

Stress Removal Device: the Cat5 Case
I've discovered that the only way for me to cope is to remove the requirement for coherent thinking and get all my stuff organized and ready to go the night before. So I created a race-day checklist to simplify that. Even in my groggy morning state I can double-check it to alleviate my paranoia about forgetting something vital.

Crucial to this process is my Cat5 Cyclist Case kit bag. Highly recommended. Perfect for race day, but I actually use mine all the time to keep my gear organized. Very reasonable price, and snappy colours too.

RACE DAY CHECKLIST (download the photo for a printable version or copy & paste this to build your own)

KIT (working from the bottom up and the inside out)Shoes
Chamois cream
Heart rate monitor
Road ID
Contact lenses
Race dots (magnetic number holders. They're brilliant.)

So much better than those damned pins
Water (a couple of big bottles)
Biosteel (drink mix)
Post-race food (like, real food)

Spare tubes
Spare wheels
Hex wrench set
Trainer for warm-up

Printer friendly 4-up checklist.
Shoe covers
knee/leg warmers
Arm warmers
Rain jacket


Course map/technical guide
First aid kit
Gas in the car
UCI License
BIKE! (don't forget the bike!)

Hope this is useful to you. It certainly helps me sleep better.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Six Goals for Racing

The other day, one of my clubmates quoted some hammerhead dick as saying, "There's no point in racing if you don't intend to win."

Sure thing, Lance. You go.

I view bike racing as more like kung fu: no matter how good you are, there's always somebody, somewhere who can totally kick your ass. And the gap between normal amateur-racer humans – including the Hammerhead Dick – and even the lowest rung of professional or world-class riders is actually a giant chasm, so while winning an Cat 5-level amateur race in Ontario is kinda cool, it's also relatively meaningless.
Hammerhead Dickism can lead to this

Personally, I feel I need to approach the thing with a bit more humility. Not that I have much choice. Maybe some day I will be in a position to contend for a win in my M3 division, but that's fairly unlikely. I'm just in it for the fun of it (in which fun gets a broad definition that can include subjecting myself to the pain of exertion at pretty much the outside limit of my physical capabilities for extended periods of time). And what the hell, somebody has to fill out the field.

Here are my Six Goals for any race (in descending order of priority):
  1. Don't die.
  2. Don't crash.
  3. Finish the race.
  4. Don't finish last.
  5. Improve on time or placement if I've done the race before.
  6. Learn something about how to race better.
  7. Have fun. (Actually, so long as I get  to six, seven is guaranteed. )
That said, I do have one big hairy audacious goal* for this racing thing overall:
Just get one lousy OCUP point in M3.
That means a top 15 finish (or maybe top 20 in the races with a bigger field).

That's actually pretty ambitious for somebody with my limited talent, and probably can only happen with the happy convergence of a lot more work by me, and a lottery-load of luck on a particular day. But if I can manage it by the end of Season Five of Racing, I'll be pretty happy. (This is Season Three.)

(* à la Jim Collins, Good to Great)

Sunday, April 12, 2015

On Chamois Cream

Great Mother of God...

Why didn't anybody tell me about this before?

I mean, I knew about it; but I didn't, y'know, know about it.

The winter indoor training rides were putting a bit more stress than normal on the ass regions, so I decided to give this stuff a shot & see if it helped. (Filzer Happy Chamois Cream. Got it at Mountain Equipment Co-op.)

Holy crap. Wow.

Maybe it's the best chamois cream going, I dunno, it's the only one I've ever tried. All I know is, as far as my chamois is concerned, it's very well named.

The greatest thing since bib shorts.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

OCUP Race #1: Good Friday: 75% Gain, 25% pain

I had never ridden The Good Friday race before

so this was bound to be an adventure. The course is sorta undulating; no big hills to speak of. Four 16-km laps for about 63km total. The main challenges are the winds that can whip across the treeless farmers' fields, and one scrabbly section of road that is more suited to a cyclocross course that leads from the start line out of the Ancaster fairgrounds.
GFRR course: 3 good laps in a 4-lap race.

Generally the pack sticks together all the way and it ends with a bunch sprint. If there's a selection, it's usually decided by the strong winds that can be a feature of this race. So going in, my goal was to stick in the pack as long as possible, and if all went well, to finish there too. I didn't care about placing, but I really wanted to see a "00:00" time beside my name on the results sheet.

 That would be the best-case scenario.

It was a cold and foggy morning, and I didn't really get enough time to warm up properly even though I had arrived ridiculously early. It was nice to have my DHFlyers/Cycling Gym pal Kris Henrnandez on hand to introduce me to some of the riders in my new team, Morning Glory CC, and warm up under their tent; and I met another familiar face in Steve Hart of Lap Dogs, in the starting pen. Steve is a super strong rider and a very nice guy, and he had a plan to stay at the front and cover any breaks. Which he could actually do. Whereas "get to the front and cover the breaks", even once, ever, is more like a lifelong aspiration and bucket-list item for me.

The race went off at a pretty good pace, and I had a good starting place near the front so I was able to stay reasonably close to the front as we got going. I had been warned about the way the race accordions over the undulating roads, and that was a pretty accurate assessment. Surge, brake... surge, brake... and it was a pretty tightly-crowded pack, so there wasn't much room to manoeuvre. With the crappy end-of-winter weather, not many of the racers had actual ridden in a group yet (me, for example), and all around me regular choruses of "HO-HO-HO" "WHOA" "OH" were accompanying some sketchy move or other. (As far as I could make out, I was not responsible for any of them.)

If you're not moving up, you're moving back
Rush Hour at the GFFR. I'm the Mystery Rider the in no-name kit.
 At the Grey County RR last year I made the fatal error of fixating on holding the wheel ahead of me, and not paying attention to all the riders slipping past me.
Partly I wasn't confident about making any moves inside the peloton, but also I had more of a "just happy to be here, hope I survive" mentality. As a result I got strung out & dropped pretty quickly, and spent most of the race time trialling. This time I was determined to move up any time I had a chance, and fill in any space I saw. That strategy made a world of difference. Not only did it keep me up in the pack, it made me feel like I was actually racing.

Once we were into the second lap I started to relax a bit, as I was having no problem staying in the pack. The only thing I was looking at on my Garmin was my heart rate, and I knew that so long as I kept it under 163 bpm (around  80% max) I was fine. Where there were strong surges I was able to keep pace no problem. On lap three the pace heated up a bit as teams sent riders up the road; and on Book Road heading west there was a bit of a headwind that started to string the pack out a bit and I think that's where I blew it.

Racing with the brain. Or not.
I'm not sure if I got complacent, or just lost my focus, but I didn't notice a lot of riders slipping past me on Book Road. There's a sharp and narrow right turn on to Trinity Road, and immediately after that everybody opens it up to get a good spot going into the scrabbly fairgrounds. But the first couple of times around in a big pack it just meant another surge-and-brake. I think that's what I was expecting coming around that turn, but in fact most of the pack had slipped by me by this point and I couldn't hold the wheel of the guy in front of me, and suddenly I was off the back. I fought to get back in contact but slowly the peloton just rolled away. It's remarkable how a small gap very quickly looks like a gigantic chasm opening up in front of you. Throughout the race I hadn't ever looked back, so I assumed that once off the back I was dead last. As it turns out there were quite a few riders back, and I briefly hooked up with a trio that was working together, though I lost them too in the last couple of hundred metres, and the last lap ended up being mostly a time trial, with the emphasis on "trial".

In the end I finished 1:48:09, 5:33 off the winning pace, 55th of 84. Considering that last lap, not bad, and for the first race of the season, a decent result. In many ways, my best race ever.

That said: being happy with the race is not the same thing as being satisfied with the result.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Tour de Terra Cotta 2014

Three Lousy Seconds

Sure it's short (only 26K) and is billed as a "Beginner" race; but the winning average speed (38.0 km/h) is right up there with the Intermediate (39.7) and Elite (40.5) races. And some of the riders in it clearly knew their way around tactics. Nevertheless, I really thought I had a shot a podium on this one, at least an age-group spot if not an overall placing. And realistically, this race is probably my best hope for ever getting on any podium.

I knew the course, having raced it the year before. I was feeling a lot stronger, having seen some noticeable improvements in key Strava segments that I was using as fitness benchmarks. And with a bit more race experience under my belt I felt a lot more relaxed going to the line.

I was comfortably up near the front of the pack in the first lap, and, wary of the mistake I made the previous year, I kept a steady pace and on the big climb of the second lap. But it was at this point that a couple of riders attacked, and by the time the front of the pack crested the hill, a group of 6 riders had established a break. I was in the second group of about nine that shook out after that. A couple of them took flyers to see if anybody would help chase down the lead group, but they were riding hard, and for the next two laps held a  30-40 second gap that we were unable to close.

There is one long downhill about a km from the finish, and I noticed on the first two laps that I was getting down it faster than the group around me. Whether I was just heavier, or had a more aerodynamic tuck I wasn't sure, but with that in mind I attacked on the final descent, figuring if that if I pedaled hard down it I could get enough of a gap that I could hold off the rest of the group until the finish.

I got a gap all right, but it wasn't enough. There was just a bit of an incline to the finish (which somehow slipped my mind), and at the 500m marker I had the terrible sense of very suddenly and decisively running out of gas. At which point the seven-man group behind me barreled right by. I had nothing left to get on a wheel, and it was over. End result: 15th over all, and just 2 seconds off an age group podium. Had I stayed in the pack on that hill and come in with them, I would have had a way better shot in the sprint, no question.
"Huit seconds... huit seconds... huit seconds...."

Apparently the late, great Laurent Fignon for years after the 1989 Tour de France would walk around counting out 8 seconds... 8 seconds... 8 seconds... OK, missing a third-place 50+ age group placing in a beginner-distance citizen's race was not exactly comparable losing the Tour de France by the smallest margin in history. But to blow any podium spot by 3 lousy seconds just because of a dumb tactical error bugged the living hell out of me.

And still does. 3 seconds... 3 seconds... 3 seconds...