In at the kill in 2012

The release of the preliminary racing schedule for the upcoming road season is always one of the most exciting moments of offseason. This will be my second offseason spent training through the apparent six-month Colorado winter, so the population of the race calendar and it’s associated boost in morale comes at the perfect moment: just as the winter doldrums are setting in and when I would otherwise need to be forced by sharpened pike point onto the trainer.

Unlike last year, when I was returning to racing after six years of enthusiastic pursuit of my two favorite deadly sins (sloth and gluttony), I have a season under my tightened belt and the new schedule inspires excitement and anticipation rather than fear and dread. So as I pencil races into the periodization schedule, it’s a good time to think about my goals for 2012 and what it will take to achieve them.

Having already been a Cat 3 at one point in my life, I have to admit that regaining this status has been a strong undercurrent of motivation since returning to racing. Cat 4 has been the de facto entry-level category here in CO (thankfully about to change due to reintegration with USAC) with its associated sketchiness and stigma and it is very natural for riders to want to upgrade to 3’s by any means necessary.

That said, I decided that I would rather be process oriented and really earn the upgrade, with the objective to be “in at the kill” in a handful of races that suit me and inspire the imagination. Basically, train to be strong enough to find myself in the Top 10 near the end of any hard road race, with a crack at the places…or better, dare I dream. Let the points come as they may.

Some of the races I would love to do well in will be new to me, like Morgul and Salida. With others, I’m looking for a little payback from last year. I was feeling good at Deer Trail but had to steer off into a grassy ditch at 40 mph to avoid a fearful crash a few riders in front of me. At Koppenberg I was very comfortably at the head of affairs on the third lap—the lead group of 15 having shed more than 2/3d’s of the field inside two laps—when I rolled over what appears to have been a the blade of a machete, or so the gash through my front tubular would have seemed to indicate. At Hugo I raced strongly and sensibly for 76 miles only completely lose my mind with a K to go when I jumped for it…and got swarmed 300 meters later.

Getting points in any of these races will be no small task, even with optimal preparation. Even in the 4’s, competition for Top 10’s is fierce for racers of a modest athletic pedigree. There are usually a handful of very strong riders soaking up the places as they blow their way through the lower categories.

This is especially true during the first third of the season where a handful of guys come flying out of the offseason looking get to get those last few points toward the upgrade. It is also true at the higher profile races which often compel one or two of the Boulder area’s high population of elite endurance athletes to come out and have a go at an amateur road race, usually with devastating consequences to the rest of us punters.

So, how to compete?

Training is obviously a no-brainer, but I’ve seen guys train intelligently, consistently and tenaciously throughout the entire offseason…only to race in exactly the opposite way once it actually counts. I was guilty of this to extent myself in 2011.

It is realistic to assume that if I wish to place consistently and get enough points for the upgrade, at some point during the upcoming season I will have to put the training dogma aside, see the potential in every race I enter, work with my teammates and with gritted teeth seize whatever opportunities come my way. Or create them. In short, I will have to race my bike, take some calculated risks and be willing to suffer.

Hopefully places, points, glory and an upgrade will be the natural outcome. If not, so be it.  I read a great quote the other day from Mario Cipollini, when asked how, in his prime, he might do in a hypothetical sprint against Mark Cavendish. His answer summed up the mentality I will cultivate in 2012: “I don’t feel inferior and I wouldn’t start already beaten…”

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Two offseason lessons from 2011

First: Don’t stress about the details during the winter

This might sound and actually be in sharp contrast to what is often advised by some of the top training guru’s in the US, but it’s an idea that is trying to address an undeniable reality: I am attempting to the balance training & racing with the demands of family and work, all while trying to hold traction on the increasingly slippery slope of middle age. This is to say that I have a limited number of motivational matches to burn and it will be much better to use them in April or May than in December.

Training consistently and getting the key workouts in, trying to eat and sleep well are important, but I’m not going to stress if I miss a session of one-legged pedaling drills. Or if I go for a 2-hour hike up Bear Peak in Boulder rather than do the specified 3-hours on the trainer because there is a foot of snow on the ground.

I’ve also cut back on the number of days I’m doing in the gym this offseason, as well as focusing more on cycling-specific exercises: 6×5-6 heavy reps of leg press or squat, some upper and lower back and full round of core. That’s it. Yeah I’d love to have ripped pecs and biceps for once in my life, but let’s face it: when you’re in the process of getting sawed off in a race, you’re never going to think “dammit, I wish I had done more decline presses over the winter.”

Diet is an ongoing struggle. Ironically, I find it relatively easy to go out any given day and trash myself in training for 2-3 hours on the bike or for half a day in the mountains, but “proper nutrition” is difficult because it is essentially a 24/7 concern. Thus I am prone to momentary but cataclysmic meltdowns of diet discipline, usually involving some salty/crunchy snack at 10:30pm (multiple large bowls of Pepperidge Farms Goldfish crackers are a favorite).

Between September and November of 2010 I lost 12 pounds through steady dieting, heading into the holidays at 155 lbs. Didn’t lose a single pound after that. Having been hardcore for three months, I simply lost interest in the details of nutrition. So if I’m going to be hardcore about what I eat for three months, I think March-May is a better window to choose.

In summary, I stressed about the details last year and had a long and productive offseason…only have my motivation and discipline gradually erode just when the racing was heating up. Better to keep it loose over the winter and save the matches. They will be needed later on.

Second: Don’t put all my eggs in a one-race basket…and then drop the basket.

Having a big goal race and periodizing your season around it is a great idea in theory, but there is a dark side to this method, or at the very least the potential for unfortunate side effects.

The first was a big emotional letdown/mild depression after I ended up performing poorly in my target race (scroll back a few entries for the ugly details). This combined with real life issues that all seemed to come up at the same time put an end to my season after only a few months of racing.

The second was that I can recall two points during the abbreviated season where I Woulda Coulda Shoulda dug deep and gone for what Mighta been a respectable Top 10 in a difficult road race. Instead, maybe a bit tired at the critical point in the race, I actually thought to myself  “well, I’m not scheduled to do well in this race anyhow” and eased off. I wince in contrition at that most regretful rationalization, not to mention the missed opportunity.

This will not happen again. Training for six months to race dubiously for two simply isn’t a good return on investment. I constantly battle the all or nothing mentality, which I’m guessing is form of perfectionism, so in 2012 I’m going to diversify my goals somewhat and seize whatever opportunities that arise. More about that soon.