Saturday, February 15, 2020

Race Report - 2020 Fort Ord CCCX XC MTB


Introduction

“When we were sixteen, my friend Shelly and I would mix rum with grape soda. We called it Welch’s Belches.”

I wish I could continue in that vein, but that’s not my story to tell. My subject, alas, is just another bike race. I’m on two teams: a road team and (as a coach) a high school mountain bike team. Both teams have a loose tradition of writing race reports. In the case of the mountain bikers, coaches have to really lean on student athletes to get some snippets, which are compiled anonymously, as you can see here. The grown-up roadies are more apt to write, but less apt to race … especially me. My only routine outing is the Central Coast Cyclocross (CCCX) Cross-Country (XC) mountain bike race at Fort Ord near Monterey. (Just in case that’s not enough juicy keywords to attract readers: iPhone Samsung Galaxy Tesla Silicon Valley Oscars celebrity gossip Scarlett Johansson Jessica Biel Mila Kunis.) At this event, both the kids and their coaches get to race.

Fortunately, my tradition is to go heavy on the food descriptions and mercifully light on the race details. With no further ado here is my report (Gucci Ballenciaga Valentino Prada Versace). If you’re in a rush, fear not: there are several versions, from briefest to goriest.


Executive summary 
  • Dinner wasn’t as huge as everybody said
  • Had my student athletes paid more attention they’d have seen me be a hypocrite
  • It turns out I kind of suck at this sport
  • Pointless suffering can be really fun in the right company
  • I came away with poison oak rash again
  • At least I enjoyed my beer afterward, and took a great Beck’st from the experience...
Executive limerick

A biker and wannabe bruiser,
Did a bike race and came out a loser.
He thought he was fast
But this myth couldn’t last
So he’s trying out being a boozer.

Short report

Race stats: 22.4 miles (vs. 19.6 last year); 2,362 feet of vertical gain (vs. 1,608 last year); 1:41:07 race time (vs. 1:26:27 last year); 13.3 mph average speed (vs. 13.6 mph last year). Conclusion: I was 97.8% as fast as  I was last year, over a race that was about 15% longer and 46% hillier, plus I’m a year older. I guess I should be happy about all this, but actually, isn’t it pathetic that I have to shore up my ego this way? Meanwhile, last year I missed the podium by just one spot, and this time I was much further from it. (How much further? None of your damn business.)

Pre-race Dinner: At Gino’s in Salinas:
  • Cream of asparagus soup that was hella good (I was thinking to myself, “This rivals what they have at Duarte’s” and a second later our head coach said, “You know, this soup might be as good as Duarte’s”);
  • Slice after slice of bread and butter because I was dying of hunger and the entrees were made-to-order (i.e., a bit slow to arrive);
  • This crazy pasta special of fettuccine with cream, brandy, stock, mushroom, spinach, and Gorgonzola with steak tips which was actually very, very good (though I needed the 5,000 calorie size, not the 3,000).
I also inherited some fettuccine Alfredo (alas, not as good as what I make) from one of my student athletes who, incongruously, couldn’t finish it. Everybody was groaning about how full they were and several of them, particularly the adults, left food on their plates. I wanted to go around scavenging because I was in one of those moods where I could not be sated.

Breakfast: Two thick slices banana bread; one cup super-strong coffee, black; the tip of a croissant I broke off because I couldn’t commit to a whole one (as they’re often gross, though this was rather edible).

During race: Two sleeves of Clif shot blox: one GoLytely flavor, one Jagermeister flavor (okay, kidding, they were both salted watermelon, 2x sodium); a large bottle of energy drink; 2 ½ bottles of water.

Glycogen window treat: At least four oatmeal cookies. A fellow coach shared my towering gratitude that whatever unsung parent baked these amazing cookies last year is still around this year (or has been replaced by an equally talented baker).

Lunch (post-race): Tri-tip tacos with grilled onions, jack cheese, fresh tomatoes, and guacamole … are you fricking kidding me?! Also two or three cheeseburgers, hella kettle chips, and a bunch of Acme bread. Probably some more cookies too, knowing me.


Dinner (post-race): Eggplant ptarmigan (clearly autocorrect isn’t familiar with the word “parmigiana”) that was really good because my wife knows to salt the dickens out of the raw slices first to disgorge that bitter brown liquid that has ruined so many ptarmigans. I washed this down with a beer … a real treat since I was foolish enough to swear off beer for six weeks to try to lose weight for this race. (If that seems like a ridiculous sacrifice to make for a meaningless amateur bike race, consider that it’s arguably less of a sacrifice than training harder, particularly if you’re as fundamentally exhausted by life as I am.)

New for 2020: “behind-the-Beck’st” report

Here is the post-race Beck’st I sent around:


(If you don’t know what a Beck’st is, get thee to a brewery! Or better yet, click here.)

A correspondent replied, “Apparently you were too tired to give us any details.  Also too tired to consider a safer spot for your pint glass than sitting ON your laptop, just waiting for an errant elbow to knock it down…”

So, yeah, details. There’s a lot to unpack with this photo. You can see my old-school bike computer in its PC cradle at the left, and its output—the course profile and race stats—on the laptop screen. If you zoom in you can see how hilly the course was. Also check out my race checklist (the need for which I learned the hard way). You can see all these checkboxes with “DA” next to them … up until this year, there were boxes for “DA” and “AA,” because my older daughter and I went to these races together. Now she’s gone off to college and it’s just “DA” (sniff). You can also see were I’ve scrawled some stats and calculations … figuring out how much I’ve slowed down, and if our team’s new head coach rode faster than I did. (He did, of course, even though his Category 1 race was a lap longer). You can also see how badly I wanted that beer … by the time I’d set up the photo, it was half gone. (My friend needn’t have worried about it spilling on my laptop … it didn’t last long enough for a stray elbow to come around and knock it over.) Finally, in the background you can see a photo of my brothers and me, more than two thirds of my lifetime ago. Could I possibly feel any older? Sure! Ask me tomorrow!

Full report

It was mighty cold during the first wave of races. We have a lot of new riders, racing in the beginner category, concurrently with the beginning adults which included a couple of our coaches. One coach stopped when he came through to tell me one of our freshmen had crashed, somewhere out on the course, and might need medical attention. I scrambled around, phoned the kid’s dad, phoned another dad who was near the medical tent, talked to the medics, couldn’t learn anything, and was just getting ready to head out on the course to go find the fallen rider when I heard another report that he was back on his bike. This fire drill fouled up my warm-up pretty badly, such that our second wave of student athletes, who’ve heard my endless exhortations about getting a good warm-up, got to see me scrambling around in the last ten minutes, barely getting any trainer riding in.

Nonetheless, I had a great start. Maybe it’s all that sprinting out of corners in criteriums in my past life as a road racer … on the uphill asphalt section at the top I got almost all the way to the front and was sitting snugly in third when we hit the single track. NOOICE! Unfortunately, people started passing me right and left (literally) after that.

Wow, this is already totally boring! I’m sorry about that. Of course you don’t care what happened next, and I don’t really either. I almost didn’t care at the time … it was too much like life. I was riding as hard as … well, not as hard as I could, but to the limit of my motivation, really feeling the futility of it all, like I was just going in circles (which of course I was). Here’s a photo so you can see all the bastards swarming behind me. Also, marvel at how old I look. I don’t think the clear sunglasses help. I might as well get bifocals.


This was a real bike-handler’s course, and I’m not a real bike-handler, at least on the dirt. I kept getting passed on the downhills and then I’d catch the same guys on the short flat sections, draft them through the headwind, and drop them again on the climbs. That was pretty fun, I have to say. I know better than to have any concrete goals for my races anymore … perhaps the best I can hope for is brilliant moments, however fleeting.

One guy took so much time out of me on the downhill sections on the last lap, I ran out of climbs via which to reel him back in. I’d given him up for lost until the final flat sections when I realized he was completely dying. I dug way deep and chased him all the way to the finish, just nipping him at the line, throwing my bike like a real sprinter.

I was pretty stoked about that until I checked his number. He wasn’t even in my category! I have just discovered (looking at the online results) that he’d started two minutes after I did, in the 55+ group, and made the podium. At least he didn’t laugh in my face or anything after the race. I hope I’m as gracious when I’m that age. I sure as hell won’t be that fast.

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Friday, February 7, 2020

Big Ring Tale - Cycling “Hail Mary”


Introduction

I am old. Fifty, and that’s mighty old, especially to try to be an athlete. But to paraphrase Faulkner, age “might have kilt me but it ain’t whupped me yit.” I still try to duke it out from time to time with the high school kids whom I coach mountain biking. These kids, if they did nothing, would continually improve just by getting older (and thus bigger and stronger). When they train regularly, their progress is stunning. Thus we coaches enjoy watching kid after kid go from learning the ropes to whupping us, often within the span of a single season.

This tale concerns a quixotic effort to beat L—, my team’s star rider, in a drag-out sprint recently on Wildcat Canyon Road toward the end of a team practice. If the outcome was “He kicked my ass and I never had a chance,” there wouldn’t be a story. Trust me, it’s a bit more complicated than that. My tale involves verve, poor fitness, equipment, tactics, politics, shame, equipment, tactics, suffering, equipment, luck, tactics, and luck. In that order.


Verve

Who am I to be going up against our fastest rider in a slightly downhill sprint? This kid has been on the podium in every race he’s done, except the State Championships and Nationals (where he was top ten in both). When he first joined the team I was expecting a very stocky kid because we inherited him from the football team (which had such a weak bench, they had to cancel their season when concussions claimed too many players to continue fielding a team). Instead, his physique is perfect for bike racing. He could have been a transfer from Team Ineos.

So yeah, why would I even try? Well, I always try. This is because cycling is such a complicated sport … crazy things happen that can suddenly put an otherwise non-competitive rider into contention (say, a giant crash in the final corner of a criterium that squirts a single lucky rider through). Moreover, I like taking on ridiculous odds just for the lunatic thrill of it. In a sprint you always end up going fast, and if you’re on the right wheel you go really fast, and speed feels great even when you lose.

But that’s still not the source of my foolish verve. Ultimately, if I don’t always try, no matter how doomed I am, I’ll become one of those guys who doesn’t try. That leads eventually to the being guy who never goes hard at all, and then to the guy who only rides to the bakery, and finally to being the guy who stops riding altogether.

Poor fitness

Am I going to say my opponent lacked fitness, this being February? Ha. Ha ha ha. Ha ha ha ha ha. He’s young—he never lacks fitness. Aware of his own talent, L— always has ample motivation to train, and even his light off-season training has a dramatic result, meaning that the normal sine curve of seasonal fitness doesn’t apply to him. His graph is a constant upward trajectory, albeit with a steeper slope during the racing season.

Of course it is I who had the poor fitness. This is actually a strength for me when it comes to sprinting. Because my training is almost all in the hills, getting fit means climbing (marginally) better at the expense of my (already spotty) sprinting ability. If I’m ever going to finish fast on a flat road, it’s going to be in the early season.

Equipment

I was late to the party, about halfway through the group when I saw the contenders boiling at the front. This might seem like poor tactics on my part, to be caught napping like that. Actually, it was a timeworn strategy to protect my ego: I had an excuse, I was out of position! Of course, this is a bad strategy because the relief I feel at having an excuse is itself shameful, so my ego comes out the worse for wear.

Fortunately, even as L— began to pull away from the other riders, like a running back shrugging off defenders, he suffered an equipment problem—his chain wouldn’t go into the highest gear. This slowed him slightly, giving me hope of making it onto his wheel. Suddenly he had one foot out of the pedal and was swiping at his rear derailleur with his foot. By the time he kicked it just right and got into his highest gear, I was halfway across to him with a good head of steam.

Tactics, politics, and shame

So, the perfect tactic might seem to suck L—’s wheel until the very last second, and then sprint around him. But this would be problematic. It’s long run-up to the finish, along the twisty, slightly downhill road, and that’s a long time to suck anybody’s wheel. If we were professionals and the sprint actually mattered in the slightest, we might get into one of those deadlocks like you see on the velodrome, where riders slow to a crawl, neither willing to lead out the sprint. But this was just for glory, and there’s nothing glorious about sitting in your opponent’s draft for such a long stretch.

So, to work things right politically, I’d need to take a turn at the front, and the sooner I started, the better. The smart move is to pull good and hard and long so that the stronger rider will eventually see you dying up there and decide it would be equally shabby to suck your wheel the rest of the way … so he finds himself taking the final pull, essentially leading out the sprint. He won’t like it, but he’ll be honor-bound to do it.  That was my plan, anyway. I went to the front and started slaying myself. I drilled it for a good while, and then started to slow down, very gradually, as if running out of steam—but I was faking it. Sure enough, L— eventually went to the front and I tucked in behind him. NOOICE!

Equipment

My mountain bike, though it sports a carbon fiber frame and modern brakes etc., is old-school in that it has a triple chainwheel. In the realm of mountain bike culture, this is as lame as, well, being fifty years old. A double chainwheel is much more current, and all the best cross country bikes have just one chainwheel (a “one-by”). I’ve often mused that if the one-by came first, and then the industry added a second and later a third chainwheel, that would be considered rad. Yeah, my drivetrain doesn’t look as clean, and there’s more room for shifting failures, but that third chainwheel gives me a higher gear. At the speed we were going, L— was fairly wound out in his highest gear and spinning really fast, which wasn’t as efficient as my cadence. Plus, knowing my top gear was higher than his stoked my mojo.

Tactics – Part II

As much as I longed to shelter myself in L—’s draft for as long as possible, I realized the chief problem with this strategy: I don’t have a lot of fast-twitch muscles, and it’s possible that at the very end, once I swung out to the side out of L—’s draft, he might have enough punch to hold me off. It’s never a good idea to underestimate the sheer power of a young, faster rider and I’ve been burned this way before. It’s also the saddest way to go out: you suck the guy’s wheel to the very end but still lose. So I decided I had to use the element of surprise and launch my sprint far sooner than he would ever expect. If I gave it everything, I figured it was just barely possible he’d fail to get my wheel. So, marveling at how stupid it felt to try this, I attacked L— as hard as I could, well before the end.

Suffering

Well, it worked … sort of. Truly caught out by my seemingly suicidal move, L— failed to catch my wheel. Now I was fully committed and just hammered my brains out. This is where experience can really help: part of what holds a rider back is fear of acute pain, but I’ve suffered too badly, too many times, to succumb. Resignation is a skill that can be refined and polished. I’ve learned how to distract myself slightly from the agony by stepping back to look at it, to marvel at it. Wow, it’s just searing pain! It’s amazing! The legs don’t want to turn anymore, but they do! Look at ‘em go! What a bizarre behavior, all this self-abuse just for the chance at a tiny dollop of glory I’ll almost certainly be denied in the end anyway! What a fool! Let’s see how far we can extend this!

Equipment

Every second L— failed to get my wheel increased my chances of success, so I was pedaling harder than ever and my chain started skipping. I guess I kind of knew my 11-tooth cog was worn out, but had forgotten because honestly, how often do I pedal this hard in that gear? The skipping reduced my efficiency, of course; not a lot, but I needed all the planets to line up here. This. Was. Not. Good. I looked over my shoulder and L— was not far behind. I still had a long way to go. It didn’t seem possible for me to hold him off. Ah, well … there were a dozen ways to fail at this, and going too early was one of them.

Luck
                                      
Suddenly I came around a bend and saw a car up the road, not so far ahead, that had passed us earlier when we weren’t going so fast. It was going just a tiny bit slower than I, and I figured if I could close the gap to it, I’d benefit from the large slipstream a car produces. If I got into that draft, and not L—, maybe I could maintain my lead.

Tactics – Part III

The problem with giving it everything to catch the car is that if I did, but it wasn’t going fast enough to keep me ahead of L—, I’d have expended all that energy for nothing … I’d be stuck behind it as L— caught up. Then, when the road flattened and straightened out, and the car pulled away, L— would leave me in the dust. What I really needed was for the car to speed up a bit once I caught its draft. I figured the chances of this scenario were 50/50 … a lot better than just holding my own. So I went all-in, going almost anaerobic to close the gap. (Don’t worry, I’m not an idiot … I kept plenty of distance between me and the car, so I could react in time if it did something erratic ... about as far back as another  motorist would stay.)

Luck – Part II

As I approached the car, I was close enough to see, through the rear window, that the driver was male. Ka-ching! If you wondered earlier how I’d reckoned my odds were 50/50, here’s your answer: a male, observing any kind of challenge from another male, will generally be provoked to take action. Sure enough, this guy’s ego couldn’t handle the idea that a bicyclist—that is, a nerdy person using a child’s toy as though it were a vehicle—could match his speed. Naturally, he accelerated. Even at the higher speed, my workload was much reduced. I had a free ride, and unless L— had also closed the gap (I dared not look back to see), I was home free. In the event, he hadn’t … he never got my wheel.

So … yeah, man! I took the sprint! I fricking won!

Epilogue … so what?

Needless to say, though his tiny victory meant something to me (at least in the moment), it meant nothing to L—. It was just another day, another ride, another sprint. “That was fun,” was all he said later. And he was right.

So … is there anything to take away from this little tale? I think so. When I decided to rise to the occasion and contest the sprint, I figured my chances of prevailing were very, very small. And yet I took my shot anyway, because you just never know. Moreover, there would be no downside to losing, as that was practically inevitable to begin with. To succeed was a nice reminder that throwing everything you have at a challenge is actually sometimes enough.

And when we compare cycling to life, that’s where the real lesson is. Life is often (usually?) harder than sport, and in so much human endeavor we face terrible odds. I don’t know about you, but I seem to be blocked continually by obstacles that, in aggregate, can produce an overarching feeling of futility. But by continuing to show up, by continuing to dig deep into our personal grab bag of parlor tricks, lessons learned, and arcane capabilities, we can sometimes prevail. You never know when you might have a breakthrough … all you need is the right chain reaction of verve, tools, tactics, politics, shame, suffering, and a little luck.

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