Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Sly Fox: the day all the tires died and the day my son saved my race

Winding around Sly Fox Brewery
Photo: Yehudah Perlowitz
Sly Fox was great, but it could have been awesome. Arriving early as I always do, I bumped into one of my new teammates. He said, "I hope you like mountain biking." Having never ridden mountain bikes with him but knowing that he prefers "grass crits" to more euro-style cross courses, I thought, "Yeah, yeah, I got this." Irony would soon reward my hubris with a bit of a karmic smackdown.

The Sly Fox CX race was held at the Sly Fox brewery in Pottstown, PA and, for the most part, the designers did a great job making use of the extremely limited footprint of land with which they had to work. A fast road start into some slow twisty sections in the grass behind the brewery, then some power sections on the macadam before ducking into the woods. The woods were legit mountain biking type terrain strewn with roots and rocks. The first 100 yards or so were flat, maybe slightly downhill, and fast before diving seemingly straight down into a valley and then quickly turning seemingly straight up. The trail here was about 15 feet wide with a set of log steps constructed across for most of their width. A mandatory run-up, though there was a small sneak line on the right but you still couldn't make the entire rise on the bike.
Mark Featherman on the Belgian steps
Photo: Yehudah Perlowitz

After this rise you found yourself back out on the grass. A hard right and then a 180 degree left took you past the first entrance to the double sided pit -- less than a tenth of a mile from the rocky downhill. Remember this, it becomes a factor. Curving past the pit in a sweeping right hand turn, racers come to another tight 180 degree left turn which leads back to the same gully. Again, super steep and rocky down and then steep and rocky back up. While there was no barrier on this up in pre-ride, the course designers decided to up the ante at some point and added a tall barrier about 2/3 of the way up the rise. After this, a tricky off-camber section led to some uneven double track and back out to the grass for some fun twists and turns which tested a driver's ability to power and to steer, and finally 3/10ths of a mile after encountering the second mtb-like section, you get to the second entrance to the pit. More foreshadowing. After the pit, a double barrier precedes a few more grass twists before depositing racers back out on the road. A tight grass dog leg pretty much dead smack middle in the road section kept things from getting very fast on the road. And that's a lap.

The Friday night immediately before the race I had the distinct pleasure of gluing up a new set of Challenge Chicanes that I had been sitting on for some time. I really do enjoy gluing them, it just takes so freaking long. Not really sure if I'd use them at the race, i.e. "Nothing new on race day!", I still brought them along thinking maybe I'd use them in the Elite race for which I'd also registered. With the Elite race being after the 45+ race, I had little riding on it and figured it'd be OK to try something new on race day there.

Pre-riding the course before the 45+ race, I puncture my front tire on the second sketchy section. I grab my pit bike from the pit and try to figure out a Plan B. The gash in the sidewall is easily 7mm and too long to even think about asking sealant to fix. My race bike is discs, my pit bike has canti's, so I couldn't just swap wheels -- something to think about when building your quiver. After trying to not panic and after weighing the pros and cons, I decided to put the new Chicane on the "race" bike and use that bike as the pit bike. Hurrying over to the start, I'm still second guessing my decision. As I go to put my race bike in the pit I notice the Chicane is ridiculously low on pressure. Having just glued them and then removing air to test the glue job, the tire is far too low to ride, much less race -- especially on this course. Luckily, I bump into my wife and kids who came out to their first race so far this season. Since I have no time to address the pressure issue without risking missing my call-up -- and there's no way I'm missing my hard-earned front row call-up -- I ask my son if he'll run to the car to get the pump and add some air to my pit/race bike. I head to the start not sure if he'll find the pump, find the bike, and/or be successful in adding an appropriate amount of air.

Squandering Front Row Call-up
Photo: Yehudah Perlowitz
Race time. I waste my front row start. Worst start all season (see pic) and I'm probably sitting tenth or so at the holeshot. No matter, though. I'm feeling strong and I've got 45 minutes to pick some people off. Not so fast. Second lap, I flat again on the second sketchy section. I'm forced to soft pedal the 3/10ths of mile from the puncture site to the pit. Just like at Crossasaurus, I giving away places like it's Christmas. I ghost ride my canti Crux to an imagined mechanic in the pit and grab my disc Crux from the rack. [I really should name these bikes.] Success! Shane did it! Maybe a little too much pressure, but hey, beggars can't be choosers. Getting back on the disc Crux, I'm struck by how much better I feel on this bicycle than the canti Crux. Later, my wife and kids will tell me they, too, noticed how awkward I looked on the canti Crux. They say to strike while the iron is hot; maybe now would be a good time to petition the Mrs. for a pit bike that is a duplicate of my race bike...

Back on Track -- Thanks Shane!
Photo: Yehudah Perlowitz
Luckily, I did not flat again, and I was able to gradually pick people off. I found that I made up huge amounts of time on the run ups. Eventually finishing in fourth place, just pipping Kelly Cline at the end as he, too, flatted on the second of the descents -- the one further from the pit -- and had to nurse his bike through the last section on  the last lap. Chatting with all the guys on the 5-man deep podium, everyone of us flatted during the race. Some were luckier than others in terms of timing and placement, i.e. closer to or further from the pit. Texting with Reuther today, I learned that he flatted on the section closer to the pit. Good for him. Bad for the rest of us. Obviously, Kelly's timing was probably the worst. Further spot from pit with NO time to make up for it.

I'd later learn that MANY, MANY others had flatted on this course. Mike Festa would go on to call it "the day all the tires died" and create the hashtag "#hundreddollarflats". Now, again, the promoters did a FANTASTIC job with this race in so many ways. I'm sure they spent significant time creating the "Belgian steps". I just wonder if they could have been a little more proactive in raking some of the sharp rocks out of the sketchy MTB sections. After all, we're (mostly) racing on tires that are 33mm wide and not as burly as a MTB tire, our courses should reflect and respect that. If the goal is to grow the sport and bring in more participants, there should not be such a significant percentage of racers paying a $100 tire "tax" on top of a $30 entry fee. Again, this is a very fixable issue, and otherwise the race was a fun course and a great vibe.

Reuther being Reuther
Photo: Yehudah Perlowitz
Since I'd already flatted two tires and couldn't bear the thought of puncturing yet another tubular, I decided to skip the Elite race and instead enjoy a beer and some pizza with the family. They had great stories and perspectives of the race that I can't see while racing, and it was fun to sit and relax and enjoy their company and the day. It also gave me the chance to thank Shane profusely for saving my race. It was the right choice.

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