Moaning about adversity

What I find myself writing this Monday morning is about 180° from what I had hoped I would be writing.

What I hoped I would be writing:

“I’ve been planning revenge at the Koppenberg Circuit Race for the better part of a year. Last year I was in excellent position in the depleted front group of about 15, marking the moves of the strongest riders.  On the third of four laps I ran over what appears to have been, judging by the cross-sectional gash that instantly deflated my brand-new $95 tubular, the blade of a machete.

This year, in good form and having scouted the course on five separate occasions, I survived the early squirreliness, drove the dwindling field over the top of the climb each of the first three laps, dug deep to mark the attacks on the last lap and then sprinted out of the lead group of six for 3rd, or 2nd or…”

But instead of reporting this glorious result, my report is as follows:

“DNS because of illness.”

As I mentioned last week, I woke the morning of Mead up feeling a little rough. That didn’t stop me from a decent performance and although I felt like I had hit by a truck on Monday due to a combination of the affliction and the race, I figured all I would have to do is back off early in the week in order to get healthy again for the big race on Saturday.

Nice idea, but whatever was ailing me got progressively worse as the days went on. I went through the motions of preparing for the race. This included three short rides (took everything I had to get off the couch), prepping all my gear on Friday afternoon and crossing my fingers that maybe if I just took a bunch of Tylenol and sinus meds I might be able to muscle through for a result.

I even went so far as to Google “racing while sick” to see if I could divine some web wisdom that might help see me through. The results of this search revealed two things: 1. It may or may not be a good idea to race while you’re sick and 2. It probably is not a good idea to get medical advice from a mob of amateur athletes on the internet.

By late Friday with no energy, a low-grade fever, a wickedly sore throat and a left tonsil swelling to the size of a golf ball, I pretty much had to accept that Koppenberg would deny me yet again. Disappointing given how much I had prepared for this race, but also because all the guys on the squad had lined up to help me get my revenge result.

So while the first wave of racers tackled the circuit on Saturday morning, I headed to the see the doctor about a mile away. She was impressed by the size of my tonsil and immediately prescribed a course of strong antibiotics, although the exact cause of the illness remains a mystery (Strep tests came back negative). I was slightly amused when when she told me that this particular antibiotic (Clindamycin) works well on infections caused by both aerobic and anaerobic type bacteria.

I was still ambulatory at this point, so after leaving the doctors office I headed over to the course to wish my teammates luck and watch race from a grassy curb near the finish line. They performed well amidst the carnage of the race (two major crashes and a number of race-spoiling hiccups on the climb), with Aaron and Greg putting in their best performances of the season at 7th and 10th.

The rest of Saturday and most of Sunday were pretty rough. I was feverish and laid up on the couch watching a bunch of movies on cable, a stage of the Tour of Romandie and handful of NHL playoff games, the results of I didn’t really care about since my [defending Stanley Cup Champion Boston] Bruins got ignominiously bounced last week.

Anyway, when I started writing this blog I promised myself I would focus on stories and avoid moaning about adversity, roughly defined as any of the numerous physical and psychological setbacks that every endurance athlete has to overcome on a regular basis to keep training and racing. That said, I hate when people talk up some big feat they’re going to tackle and, when it doesn’t work out, they disappear and you never hear what happened.

I missed a big race that I was hoping/primed to do well in and I’ve likely lost some fitness at a critical point in the season. There’s a temptation to become despondent, but It’s taken me most of my adult life to realize that such a reaction is counterproductive. You can’t worry yourself into better fitness, you can only do the training. It’s a long season.

Here’s to turning the corner on this freak illness, regrouping a bit and picking up things at the Deer Trail Road Race this coming weekend. As for Koppenberg, you can expect that I’ll be back next year looking for payback with interest.

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The Sands of Mead Roubaix

AKA the Mead Roubaix Festival Road Race. Mead is a small town about 30 miles to the northeast of Boulder in wide-open rolling ranchland prairie country.

The first incarnation of this race, held last year in lieu of the Boulder Roubaix, generated a certain amount of controversy amongst the local racing population. It is yet another race with a number of dirt sections, as the Roubaix moniker would suggest. The course in 2011 included three sections of dune-deep sand, which caused all kinds of physical and psychological trauma.

Despite the fact that I had beached it on the final hill each of the last two (of three) laps and had to hoof it over the top, I would fall squarely in the “epic race” camp. Not that I would want to do a race like that every weekend, mind you. The opposite camp bristled with moral outrage an uttered angry oaths at the promoter for including those sections on the course, saying in effect that the race was akin to an episode of Fear Factor for unassuming roadies.

Although I’m not sure of the details (perhaps these slings and arrows were too much to withstand?) the promoter of the 2011 Mead decided to give up the race and a new coalition stepped in this year. The big change for 2012 would be the elimination of the entire northern section of the course and with it, all the sandpits and most of the hills. What remained was a 12.5-mile circuit with two dirt sections, which represented about half of the total mileage. We 4’s would be doing three laps for just under 38 miles (coincidentally, almost exactly the same distance as Boulder).

Reports from people scouting the course began to filter in last week and the word was that the new sections of dirt road that had been added to complete the shorter loop were “not as bad as the sandpits, but pretty loose.” Uh oh. Suffice it to say that anyone expecting this race to be like Boulder with it’s short-ish hard pack sections, or to be a lot easier than last year’s Mead, would be in for a shock.

On Saturday, the day before the race, I head out and ride a few local dirt trails and a couple reps of the Koppenberg climb and honestly, I feel super. There are pros and cons about a Sunday race: the con is that you’re advised to go short and easy on Saturday if you want to have fresh legs. This squanders a beautifully sunny, 70° Spring day on which you might otherwise be out doing four hours in the hills. The pro is that you can train hard on Tuesday and Thursday and still do a “micro peak” for the race by resting on Friday.

Having gotten 11th at Boulder, the sensations in my legs (Euro term) have me hoping for a Top 10 with perhaps a shot at the elusive upgrade points, which with our expected field of about 40, will kick in at 7th place. As it is, you never know who’s going to show up, or what kind of luck you’ll have, so it’s best to focus on what you can control: show up ready to suffer, battle and ride smart. Results will take care of themselves, or not.

After a night of fitful sleep, I wake up with body aches and a sore throat. No! I must have caught a bit of the infection from my 3-year-old who had a fever earlier in the week. No way I’m going to miss this race, but I’m slow getting going and the idea that I might ride home from Mead after the race for some extra miles is now summarily rejected. Luckily, the race starts at the luxurious time of 11:58am and I have plenty of time to drink several mugs of tea and allow the Tylenol to take effect before my teammate Greg swings by to pick me up.

At the start for Sonic Boom Racing are myself, Greg and Cris, the three of us veterans of many an ill-fated Sunday training ride this winter. Our strategy is the same as Boulder: stay up front and out of trouble and play it by ear.

The pace is modest on the first few miles of asphalt, with the obligatory young guns pulling hard tempo on the front “just because.” The speed picks up as we approach the first section of dirt when suddenly one of the young guns takes a right turn where we’re supposed to go straight. There is a burst of shouting from the pack and realizing his mistake, he overcorrects on the gravel and piles it up, taking a few other riders with him. Welcome to Mead.

We clear a few gentle turns and once on the straightaway, several flahutes power to the front and drill it. Instantly I realize that reports of the course’s demise are not exaggerated as I struggle to keep the bike moving forward at the necessary speed and in a consistently straight direction. It’s a long drag of a false flat and there is no clean line, or if there is I can’t see it as I am tucked in behind a line of riders in the middle of the field.

I see Greg riding strongly a few riders ahead and Cris comes past me in a line of guys moving up in line to our left. We uncomfortably negotiate alternating sections of loose sand and washboard. I’m redlining it when the gradient finally relents and we barrel down into a right turn and back onto pavement.

Just time enough now for a breath and sip or two before we swing right back onto dirt and the process repeats itself. This time, we bottom out on a right-hander and I power slide on loose gravel over hardpack. Up ahead is the only significant hill of the day and as was the case at Boulder, I am able to use it to regain some position near the front.

We swing left onto a straight of several miles of continued dirt. This is the crux of the course: basically a longer and harder version of the first section with it’s false flat of sand, washboard and now a light but noticeable diagonal crosswind. Guys dodge right and left trying to find a clean line and eventually two competing trains form on either side of the road with me on the left.

As if the pace and terrain aren’t challenging enough, several times my front wheel starts to wash out and I have to stop pedaling in order to keep the bike tracking straight. Following each of these washouts is an agonizing few moments of anaerobic effort to close down the gap that has necessarily opened. On this stretch I have the depressing epiphany that powering over several miles of sandy false flat is simply not a strength. I feel like the obscure Spanish climber, tortured in his crossing of the forêt.

As we approach the mercy that is the right turn onto the paved finishing stretch, the train on the right has gained an advantage and clears the corner with a gap of several seconds. I quickly count their number as six and as our train clears the turn with myself in fourth position, I look behind to see no one. That’s a problem.

Greg is with me and we try to organize our little group for the chase, but it’s haphazard and the leaders begin to pull away. As we near the end of lap one, a larger group catches us from behind. Thankful for the help, I let everyone know that if we’re going to chase back on, now is the time. We drive for the next half of a lap but lack the necessary firepower, organization and will.

I’ve been at the limit for the better part of a lap now and when Greg drifts back, still looking strong, I admit to him that I can’t keep up this pace for the rest of the race. On the sand it’s all I can do to hang with the bigger riders. I try to make up for this weak effort by taking a few pulls on the intervening paved sections, but it’s all to no avail as the leaders disappear up the road for good.

Onto lap three we go. The pace has slackened and a plan is afoot. With six up the road and eight in our group, we are only one dropped rider shy of guaranteeing Greg and I the meager consolation of a handful of points in the local association’s Rocky Mountain Road Cup competition. Mead is a “bronze” event in the Cup, which means that points go 13 deep. Not to mention there are still four places in the Top 10 to sort out.

I tell Greg that the next time we hit the climb I’m going to attack and suggest that he follow whatever wheels come after me. I’m thinking that with a couple miles of sand between the top of the climb and the finish I’ve got little chance to stay away. Best case scenario, Greg can sit on with the big guys forced to chase and then take them out in the final.

Right before the base of the climb I entreat the aid of a strong racer, Brendan from Natural Grocers, to help me in this scheme. He agrees and we make our move, taking one other rider with us.

Up to the top where we swing left. I’m not looking back, but Brendan tells me we’ve got our gap. The three of us trade pulls on the dirt but it’s impossible to keep a tight formation in the sand and we end up all over the road. At one point Brendan is ten feet in front going strongly and I have to claw back up to his wheel.

I look back and can see the remnant of the chase formed up and coming for us, but as we hit the turn onto the finishing stretch I see that they’re busted up all over the shop. We’ve got our Top 10.

We paceline smoothly for about a mile and then start to look at each other a bit. While not in at the kill, there is a whole upgrade point on the line here. The finish line comes into view up ahead, and I start to think about positioning myself for a smart sprint. I come through behind the third rider, who has taken a tentative pull and before my brain even knows what’s happening, I’m launching it.

I pass the 1K to go sign and there’s a brief moment of doubt, having not thought it out that maybe I was attacking too early. I look back and though the two are in pursuit, a sense of confidence comes over me as I think “no worries, this will be just like cherrypicking a Strava segment back home.”

I am able to hold my gap to the line and cross over relishing my first Top 10 of the comeback. I turn into town and see Cris standing on the sidewalk, having suffered a puncture on the first lap. Greg comes in a minute or so later having pulled off his best road result yet at 11th.

Checking the results afterward, I am surprised to see that I’ve gotten the bonus of 6th place—either I miscounted the lead group or one of its riders foundered. Anyway, it’s good enough for two coveted upgrade points and an excellent shot for the morale as we head into the wheelhouse of the early racing season. Koppenberg is next…more dirt!

In the meantime, thanks to RallySport Racing, cyclingevents.com and the town of Mead for putting on a tough race.

2012 Boulder Roubaix

I had intended to do a report on last week’s season opener at the Louisville Criterium but two things foiled the plan.

The first was I’ve known from way out that this past week was going to be insane. I would not only be finally in the midst of the racing schedule, but also my wife was turning 40 and we were having a party on the same day as Boulder Roubaix. While that day in and of itself would be challenging—hard race followed by sorta hard partying–it was not nearly as difficult as the preparation and amount cleaning that would be required to get the house and yard in shape by Saturday. I wanted to be off my feet as much as possible on Friday, so on Thursday I woke up at 6:30 am and pretty much didn’t stop cleaning until 10:30 at night.

The second was that, for me personally, Louisville didn’t offer up a hugely dramatic story line. The highlight of the day was my [very strong] teammate Walter soloing off the front for the majority of the race while I worked to keep position up near the front of the field. With seven laps to go, the strong riders left in the group laid down the law for several painful laps and finally caught Walt with about four to go. The unexpected twist here was that by the time the depleted field caught him, we were all so blown that he was able to sit in for a couple laps, recover, and then uncork the winning sprint.

For myself, satisfaction would rest in the fact that I finished in the lead group of the two races I did that day. This is not bad considering about 2/3d’s of the field was left behind in each race and a 50% improvement over last year when I got sawed off 20 minutes into the first race. With almost no race-effort training in the legs, Louisville is a tough course. And with the hyped-up and technical Boulder following a week later, the start of the season would continue to be a baptism by fire.

On Walt's wheel at the Louisville Crit. Photo: Mountain Moon Photography.

It’s a cool but sunny spring day as the Sonic Boom 4’s get to the front of the line with seven riders in the race. The plan is, in the midst of this chaotic spectacle, to do what we can to help our two strongest riders, Walt and Kyle. On form but with the birth of his first child imminent, this might be Kyle’s last shot at racing glory for a while. For the rest of us, the idea is to survive first, then scrap for a top 30. Boulder-Roubaix is the first “gold” level event in the local association’s Rocky Mountain Road Cup, a season-long points series to reward the best all-around riders in each category. A top 30 gets you in the points and so that was my personal goal in this field of 84 riders: finish in the top 30 and revel in the minor points.

We will be doing two laps of the 19-mile course, which is a series of north and then southbound dirt sections (70% of the total course is on dirt) connected by number of east and westbound paved sections. Based on the few scouting rides I had done during the winter, as well as talking to people who had done the last edition of the race two years prior, the crux of the course seems like it will be the last five miles of each lap. Here, a short but sharp climb ushers us off the final paved section onto the longest section of dirt, which features a series of rollers, a twisting decent into the loose final corner and onto the finishing straight with about a mile to go.

As we are the first category to start and there are apparently some glitches to be worked out amongst the officials. After being told “30 seconds” three times in the span of what seems like 10 minutes, the lead official finally shrugs his shoulders and says “uhhh, go.” This has to be the most anticlimactic start to a big race I’ve ever had and I have barely time to chuckle before I am fighting for position as we approach the first turn.

The first section is mostly uneventful. I ebb to the middle of the field as if in the slow lane of a busy freeway until we hit the pavement where I am able to hug the double yellow and move up to the front.

As we approach a hard left onto the second dirt section, the apex of the turn is coned off. The course is open to traffic and thus the organizers are attempting to discourage head-on collisions by the respective fields into the grill of any potential oncoming monster pick up. Such a collision is avoided, but unfortunately the cones are not as from just behind comes the familiar yelps of panic followed by the clatter of bikes and thud of bodies hitting the pavement. Our first victims of the day. I have only enough time to hope that none of our guys were the ones making the thudding sound before the pace heats up on the dirt and I am sprinting to stay in contact.

For the rest of the lap, our guys are spread out as a couple strong teams dominate the front, riding tempo on the paved sections and dropping the hammer on each dirt section. I am near the front and a few carefully-timed glances back reveal the field to be largely in tact and as we hammer up and over the final rollers and come through the finish for the first time. I find myself oddly disappointed that the wind isn’t worse or the course a bit more selective.

We take the turn back onto the starting straight where Kyle makes his first jump of the day, keeping the hammer down for a minute or two before sitting up. I find myself on the wheel of a rider I recognize from the week before. I generally recognize riders for two reasons: they’re strong or they’re sketchy. Unfortunately, this rider is the latter and before I even have a chance to think “uh oh” he panics at some approaching chop and grabs a handful of brake. My heart stops as I instinctively yank left to barely avoid a collision with his rear wheel.

Not a mile up the road another rider to my right suddenly pulls out of his pedal and swerves at me. Somehow, he recovers and carnage is avoided. Although the pace is high, I commit to getting to the front at all costs to avoid this madness. Before I do I take a glance back and am shocked to see only a few riders behind, with absolutely no sign of the rest of the field down the long straightaway. Kyle’s acceleration has done some damage, but with 40 or so riders left and me starting to feel twinges of fatigue, I begin to think that a top 30 is going to take some work.

We take a tight corner at the bottom of a steep dirt descent and Kyle jumps again. With Walt just in front of me, I have to sprint all out to squeeze the accordion shut. I notice Walt dangling off the wheels a bit. I consider asking him if he is OK, but decide that I don’t want to put that into his head. Kyle is forced to sit up again as the field is content to simply mark the attack. The war of attrition is officially on.

We sprint up and over the scenic Crane Hollow grade and swing left as we rapidly approach the back of a red minivan, probably headed out on a grocery run. Chaos ensues as we overtake the minivan at the hard right-hander back onto the pavement. Most riders take the correct inside line to avoid the van, but I watch as at least one rider gets boxed out by the minivan and has to stop, turn around 180° and sprint to catch back up to the accelerating field.

It never fails to strike me how important it is in a race like this to keep fighting to stay near the front and constantly keep your head up to avoid trouble. Every acceleration, every technical section, every mishap, crash, flying bottle or other calamity big or small and one or two more riders are left behind. By the time we are through the halfway mark of the second lap, the field has dwindled to less than 30 riders. The same handful of riders have been driving at the front for some time now and they ease up for a breather as we approach the final five-mile section.

As we take on final paved climb, a few riders try their hand at pushing the pace but quickly fade back. I drop into the small chainring and feel pretty good spinning up the climb. We swing onto the final, long dirt section and descend gradually as the sledgehammer comes down. Most everything from this point on is a blur. I’m on the rivet on the downhills and it’s everything I can do to grab and hold onto a passing wheel.

A few minutes of this and the mind games begin. With 20 or so riders ahead I must have earned my top 30. “That’s good enough, right? You don’t need to keep suffering like this. Just ease off a little, it’s totally OK.”

Nope. I listened to that sh*t a few times last year and always ended up regretting it later. This year, this time, I will fight.

We hit the series of sharp rollers and I jump past several struggling riders. Cresting the top I latch onto the field, now strung out single file on the twisting descent. One rider in front me gaps and I skitter through a tight, inside line of a loose corner to pass and rejoin. Another rider gaps and I tuck on a fast downhill straight to come around and regain the line as we approach the final turn.

With only a small group of riders in front of me as we slow and safely corner, I suddenly realize that I’m in at the kill with a mile to go. So is Walt, which is good to see, but again he seems to be dangling off the wheels. I’m redlining now and feel bad that I am unable to help him out, other than to gulp some weak words of encouragement as we sprint hard up the final roller to reveal the finish line, a long 800 meters away.

There is a brief pause as riders start to set up for the inevitable group sprint. I have just enough time to self-flagellate and implore myself to maybe attack and set Walt up for the counter. Or to claw my way to the front and offer some kind of weak leadout. But I’m already maxed out and just as I  shamefully resign myself to merely hang on for grim death, I glance up and cannot believe my eyes. With joyful astonishment I realize that the decision has been made for me.

Walt is 100 meters up the road and on his way to the victory.

There is a panicked surge as the riders ahead suddenly comprehend what has just happened. Two guys pass me on the left and I have to shake myself from a moment of dumbfounded satisfaction and remind myself to keep racing. I press but speed is hard to come by. I glance behind and see a large group kicking up dust and coming on like stampede.

My powerless legs cede ground over the next 500 or so meters, but I finally cross the line in 11th place, several seconds in front of the chasing group.

I chase down Walt after the finish and offer up big kudos. I ask him what was going on with all the dangling and he tells me he wasn’t feeling that good. This is a testament to both his mental and physical strength as on a off day he can catapult out of charging lead group to ride away for the win.

I’ll have to come close to that level if I want to break through the glass ceiling that is the elusive placings for upgrade points. As for today, I’m pretty happy with the result and the progress it represents.