Monday, September 26, 2016

Etiquette and CX Racing

A busy race weekend. Since I came into the season with the mindset that I'd be chasing the MAC series and this was a double PACX weekend with Town Hall on Saturday and Quaker City on Sunday, I went from not being sure if I'd race at all to doing three races in two days. Coming off a rolled tubular, a long run, and horrible points on the second day of Nittany, I was eager to exorcise some demons, clear the mind, and test the legs.

Saturday: Town Hall Cross
Photo: Tom Burrows
Town Hall Cross, which I'd only done once before in 2014, is almost infamous for its seemingly unending switchbacks up the large hill which makes up the most challenging part of the course. This year, though, the switchbacks were, for the most part, gone, only to be replaced by a section that seemed to be pretty darn close to straight up.  After this biggest climb of the course there was a brief downhill which was really just a tease, because it was followed by a steep grassy pitch up across which two rows of small landscape timbers had been placed. The timbers were mostly rideable; just a bit of an energy suck.

As I found myself in 2014, I had no PACX points from last year and so started third row. I got off to a good start and quickly found myself in the top ten. From there, I went to work gradually make the cut into a group of 4 or 5 that included Bob Reuther, Kelly Cline, and Glenn Turner. At one point, lap 3, I believe, Kelly made a vicious acceleration and I thought, "This is going to suck!" We matched his tempo and hung on his wheel. Then, I believe it was the same lap -- tough to remember when you're on the rivet -- eventual race winner Kevin Malloy took off on that longest climb of the course. I like to think that it was because he was a bit of an unknown and we all assumed that his acceleration would fade and we would quickly reabsorb him into the group that we let him go, but it is perhaps more likely that we just didn't have the legs. As things started to settle into a rhythm, Bob and I rode away from the others in the pack. Even though we were racing hard, several times I thought we could pick up the pace even a bit more and chase the leader a bit harder. However, I still see myself as relatively new to the sport and often defer to Mr. Reuther's experience, strength and wiley racing skills. I didn't know -- and still don't know -- what the etiquette is on passing a teammate, pushing the pace, etc. In fact, at one point, Bob took a wide line just before the drop into the woods and I passed him thinking he wanted me to take the lead for a while. This was not his intention and he (relatively) kindly let me know. After that, I sat on his wheel thinking he'd let me know if and when he wanted me to take a turn at the front. Given it wasn't that windy and there were few long sections of steady pedaling, I didn't think this an unfair burden on him. However, after much deliberation and soul-searching -- as a racer, I probably need to work on this, at least during the race -- I attacked the final time up the hill, passed Bob and held on for second place.

I'm not sure the time difference to the winner, but I wonder what might have been had I pushed harder in those spaces where I was riding Reuther's wheel. I may have blown up and been passed by Reuther, Kelly, Glenn and more. I may have caught Malloy. Who knows? Also fresh in my mind is a conversation I had with a racer after a race the previous weekend. Despite the fact that I race hard and fairly aggressively, I usually err on the side of caution when making passes or taking corners, so I was a bit taken aback by this rider's accusations of over-aggressive riding. I think this also played a role in my relatively relaxed tactics.

All this to say, (again) I'm relatively new to this, especially at this level. I will continue to race hard and fast, but if you see me doing something that is less than sportsmanlike, or worse, dangerous, please do not hesitate to let me know. Feedback when given generously and kindly is a gift. Also, if you have advice on racing with/against teammates, I'll gladly hear that as well.

Sunday: Quaker City Cross
Photo: Tom Burrows
I had never done this race before and had no idea what to expect. This race was so close to home, I almost didn't know what to do. In fact, I actually arrived later than I wanted because I wasted so much time thinking I had so much time. Seeing Gamble upon arrival, we went for a pre-ride, he warned me well before hitting the course that it was crazy bumpy. He was spot on. Except for a very short section of somewhat manicured grass before hitting the woods, the entirety of the race was either in the woods (~10%) or in a rolling meadow (~89%). The meadow section was cut in very short with a mower, but not tracked in at all, and was, therefore, very clumpy. On pre-ride, the bumps just seemed to suck the momentum from your wheels.

Jumping on the trainer for warm-up, my legs reminded me of the effort they'd endured the day before. I almost stopped the warm-up short for fear of zapping what little energy remained. I also reasoned that perhaps the short power spikes that I knew were coming in the protocol would wake the sleeping muscles. In the end, I decided to persevere and finish the scheduled warm-up. Starting second row, I was still relatively nervous about how the legs would react once the whistle blew.

I had another good start. (Thanks Kelly Cline and for suggesting an alternative to what I had been doing!) After a decent stretch of straight prologue section, the course took a 90 degree turn onto the course proper and the first decent uphill pitch of the race. The course twists and turns in that meadow for a bit before dumping us back out onto the prologue section in the opposite direction. After passing back through the start/finish area, the course made a left turn into the decent grass and then the woods. After a muddy 180 degree turn, we were greeted by super steep hill that, I believe, everyone except Mike Festa ran up. The run up was followed by a climb through the low back wrenching meadow. A fast, but bone-jarring descent took us back into another section of rooted woods where there were a set of barriers. Exiting the woods, a set of uphill switchbacks led to a power line descent and back to the point where we first hit the course proper. There was a double-sided pit here on the uphill section, and another entrance on the downhill just before the course turned back to the prologue section.

As early as the prologue and ensuing first climbs and twisting turns, my rear tire would make a "BRAAAP" sound around every corner. I believe by the end of the first lap, Reuther and I had opened a decent gap on the rest of the field. After we'd passed the pit that first time and were working our way through the turns, Bob asked what the noise was. I explained that I thought my rear tire pressure was low. He suggested I switch bikes the next time we go past the pit in the uphill direction. The consummate rider/coach/sportsman, he was even reminding me to recover (i.e. relax) in the downhill sections. As suggested, I took a bike the next time through. Bob soft pedaled until I got back on his wheel. We rode together, keeping the pack at bay until two laps to go. I would not forget Reuther's kindness, but still wanted to race him. I had in my mind that no matter where we were at the finishing straight, this was his race to win. We swapped spots a few times over the remaining laps, but there was never any question in my mind who would win that race. Reuther's sportsmanship earned my loyalty -- for a day anyway ;).

Photo: Tom Burrows
Despite the legs feeling heavy before the race, I felt really good after the race and was itching for more. Feeling a little conflicted about entering the 3/4 race -- I am technically a Cat 3 and don't have enough points for an upgrade to a Cat 2, but have been racing at a level slightly above my current category -- I consulted with Gamble and Reuther about whether or not it'd be sandbagging. They assured me it wasn't. I hurriedly checked to see if I could still register. A quick scribble on any entry form and I had another number. Since I'd already loaded the bikes on the car, I rushed to get them and get over to the pit and start. Upon reaching the start grid, everyone was already lined up. The official gave the one minute warning. I stumbled as I hurried with my bikes. The 30 second warning came. I joked with another official, "I guess I don't have time to get my pit bike to the pit, huh?" With that, the whistle blew. A woman standing near the grib said, "We'll get your bike to the pit." I was very appreciative and handed her the bike. I threw my water bottle toward the base of a tree and sprinted off to catch the disappearing pack. It took about two laps to work my way through the pack and get into second place. I gradually reeled in the first place rider and passed him. Lap after lap, I could not shake him. He would match every acceleration up the hills. Finally, I let him lead the second to last lap. I passed him on the final long straight uphill and given the tight turning nature of the remainder of the course, I assumed victory was mine as long as I didn't let off the gas too much. Wrong. On the final turns, an off-camber s-turn section, this whippersnapper pulled off a pass that I felt was a bit too dangerous, especially given the recent conversation I'd had at Nittany with another rider. After that, the race was his. I'd lost so much momentum avoiding him in the turn, I didn't even contest the sprint.

Again, still learning how much is too much. How little is too little. And, again, as always, open to advice/criticism/guidance kindly given.

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