Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A Huge Slice of Humble Pie

After getting back from Memphis I went on a few warm-up rides for my 4th race in 5 weekends, the Mt. Hamilton Road Race.  Mt. Hamilton is the largest of the 3 long Bay Area climbs (Mt. Diablo and Mt. Tamalpais are the other 2 long climbs).  This race was also one of the very few point to point road races.  By this I mean that we start and finish in vastly different areas as this race started in San Jose and ended 63 miles away in Livermore.  As this was the case I carpooled with a teammate to the start location and we dropped off a car at the finish line so that we didn't have to ride back after we finished the race.

The race starts with the first 19 miles mostly uphill to the top of Mt. Hamilton (it is really 3 different climbs with small gaps in between each) and from the top of Mt. Hamilton you descend the back side of the mountain where there are a few smaller climbs before the mostly downhill finish into Livermore.  That may not sound that bad but I can assure that it is.  Our race started with a neutral roll-out before the police motorcycle pulled away and the racing started in earnest.  The pace immediately quickened as the best climbers put the pressure on the field.  I quickly realized that I would be in some trouble if I couldn't stay with the field to the top of Mt. Hamilton.

Talking with my teammate before this race it seemed that the best strategy was to make sure that you get to the bottom of Mt. Hamilton with at least a few other riders as it would be a very long ride to the finish line without anyone else to help with the workload in the wind.  The following thoughts crossed my mind as I watched the main field charge away up the road and out of sight after only the first 30 minutes of racing.  My first thought was pure frustration mixed with a few choice words for the riders who were setting such a high pace so early in the race.  The second thought was whether I was going to stick this race out and finish it or head back to the car as it was considerably closer than it would be for many hours.  Luckily the turnaround impulse didn't last very long as I had already made a commitment to finish every race that I started this year.  The last thought was that I now needed to figure out how to start the long process of finishing this race with as much dignity as possible.

I now had 55+ miles to go and still a bunch of climbing before I even reached the top of Mt. Hamilton. Luckily I had realized quite early that I wasn't going to be strong enough to stay with the real climbers in the field and therefore I had backed off to a pace that I could maintain.  As riders from the main field blew up from the hard effort I began to catch them and convince them to stay together to make our last 50 miles as efficient and fast as possible.  My group that had originally started with about 3 riders now grew to about a dozen as we started the last push to the top of Mt. Hamilton.

A quick note about riding in a group and pacing.  One of the lessons that you learn from riding in a group is how to properly pace your effort when you are riding at the front of a field.  Riders usually take turns at the front of the field and everyone has the natural tendency to ride faster once they get to the front.  This can cause major problems for the rest of the group as everyone speeds up to catch the excited rider on the front and can cause the feeling of doing interval training (not good in a long race).  Our group had a few excited riders during our climb and I had done my best to verbally calm down these guys as it would be easiest to maintain a pace up the climb instead of constant accelerations.  We had one rider in our pack who just couldn't help himself and every time he would go to the front he would increase the pace and it was causing problems for the rest of the group.  I started to pick up on this and each time he went to the front I would speed up and go in front of him and slow down to our normal pace, effectively blocking him and allowing everyone else to catch up.  He eventually went off the front and not surprising our constant pace eventually caught his over-zealous acceleration (tortoise and the hare anyone).  One last note about this, I wouldn't normally care about pacemaking in the group as this is a race and I am all for using any advantage within the rules to beat your opponents but in the scenario we were in it was quite obviously better for our group to keep as many members as possible and to stay consistent with the pace (we still had too much of the course left to start racing each other).

We crested the top of Mt. Hamilton with a group of about 15 and began the very sketchy descent of the backside.  I had spent most of the climb on the front setting the pace and I definitely wanted to be in the front on the descent as I am typically faster than others at descending and I didn't want anyone getting in the way or causing problems.  I took the descent pretty easy as I knew there were some very tight turns and it was pretty steep.  After seeing a downed rider getting medical attention and blood covering his face I knew that it wasn't worth it to race down the descent.  By the bottom I had still caught a group in front of me and dropped all of my original group.  We formed up and began the pacemaking but it became apparent once more that I wasn't going to be able to hold the pace.  I dropped off the back of this pack and waited to be joined by the next pack.

I still had over 30 miles to go and I wasn't feeling very hot about my chances.  The next pack that I was waiting for never really formed up and I learned later at the finish that after I had left the group on the descent they stopped communicating and the group quickly broke up as they began racing each other.  I was passed by many other riders from different fields (and probably my own) on the lonely road to the finish as I rode solo for the rest of the race.  With a few miles to go I decided that I should give it my all to finish as strong as possible.

By this time I need to explain another unique phenomenon of road races.  We start staggered with about a 10 minute gap between each field (generally the faster fields start early to reduce overlap).  Inevitably the fields start to catch others on the road but the rules state that you aren't allowed to draft off of riders in other fields (essentially you should only race those in your field and don't gain an advantage from others in a different field).  This can be hard to do with so many riders scattered across a 63 mile course but it is basically up to each rider to follow this rule.  As I was pushing hard to finish strong I passed a rider in a different field and he decided that he was going to hitch a ride on my back wheel to the finish line.

Not only was I tired and in pain but I was now getting angry as another rider was going to try and gain an advantage off of me.  The course started to descend gently towards the finish line and I was fuming when I realized I was dragging someone with me.  I started hammering the pace out of every corner and carrying huge speed thru each corner; I wasn't going to let anyone follow me to the finish line.  After about 2 minutes of really hard riding I had dropped the other rider and finished the race on my own terms.  I certainly didn't need to drop the other rider as we weren't racing for anything but I was angry and wasn't going to let it happen (I used the excuse in my head that at least I was racing for dignity).

After 3 hours and 40 minutes of constant riding I finished the race and as I tried to lift my leg over the top tube and get off the bike my right quad cramped up on me (insult to injury).  I had consumed 3 water bottles (picked one up on the course), 3 gel packs and 2 honey waffles.  I finished in 43rd place out of 57 total.  The official verdict is that I was crushed and completely unprepared to race 63 miles with that much climbing.  I gutted it out to the finish line but unless I improve my stamina I will never be competitive in road races and will get stuck racing crits around industrial complexes. (back to the drawing board when it comes to my training regimen)

After the race we went to my teammates house, showered up and picked up my truck from the start line.  I then went and packed up my motorcycle as I was headed up to Thunderhill Raceway for two days at the racetrack (more on this in my next blog post).  Stay tuned.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Berkeley Hills Road Race + Memphis

Still have a few race reports to catch up on and some travel that I have done recently.  Going all the way back to mid-May I raced in the Berkeley Hills Road Race only a week after the Cat's Hill crit.  The race takes place just in the hills above Berkeley, CA around the San Pablo Dam.  The race is mostly flat with three climbs at the very end of the lap known locally as the Three Bears (Mama, Papa, and Baby if anyone is counting).  My race was 50 miles and it ended at the top of Papa Bear at the end of the second lap.  As a side note, Papa Bear is the longest of the climbs and the most consistent.

I arrived at the race early and got in a decent warm-up before we started.  It was a little bit foggy but we all knew that it would probably burn off during the race and heat up.  The race started pretty mellow with a few people trying to attack and establish a break on the first lap but they weren't very committed to it and eventually they came back to field.  Halfway thru the first lap I took the front of the field as nobody else wanted to ride on the front.  The race stayed pretty calm over the climbs and for the next 2 laps until we arrived at the start of the last lap.

At this point the whole field was together and everyone started fighting for position.  I was almost taken out by a Berkeley Bike Club rider who cut me off in the middle of the pack.  The rider next to me just looked at me and we both shook our heads.  It was very obvious that for the rest of the lap people would be fighting for position and where the beginning of the lap is on wide roads, the end of each lap moves onto tighter roads where it becomes very hard to move up.

My goal for this race was to stay with the main field as the previous road race that I had done was the Wente Road Race and I was dropped with one lap to go.  At this point in the race I was pretty confident that I wouldn't get dropped until the last climb when everyone would start attacking.  The fighting for position increased as we approached the spot where the road narrowed and there was a crash next to me when two riders came together.  I was already drifting towards the back of the field due to the increased pace but this just confirmed that it would be getting very hectic for the last 5 miles.

Sure enough there was a second crash that took out about 6 riders but because I had given myself some space at the back I just rode around it and moved up about 10 positions.  We now reached the last two climbs of the day and the last 3 miles of racing.  I hung on to field on the first climb but I knew that there would be a few riders who would get away on the last climb up to the finish line.  I also knew that there would be a lot of riders attacking to early and they would end up blowing up before the finish line.  On the last climb I kept repeating to myself to be patient and finish strong.  I was towards the back of the field at the bottom of the climb but as we continued our way up to the finish I was starting to drag back more riders that had attacked too early.  I was exhausted at the finish but happy that I had timed it correctly.  I finished in 28th place which put me inside the top half of the field.

Berkeley Hills Bike Race Results

The following weekend I had my first vacation of the year as I went to Memphis to visit my sister, brother-in-law, and my two nephews.  My parents also came down to visit as it was Graham's (youngest nephew) first birthday.  I took the red-eye on Thursday evening and arrived Friday morning in Memphis.  Kim picked me up from the airport with both Benjamin and Graham in the car.  Benjamin was very excited to see me and you could tell as he kept interrupting Kim and I whenever we would try and talk.

Benjo playing with the pinwheel that my parents brought for him.  Kim putting together a gift for Graham.
After a few hours of playing with Benjamin we grabbed lunch where the cashier at the sandwich shop confused Kim and I as husband/wife.  My parents arrived in the early afternoon and shortly afterwards Blair came home from work for the day.  Kim had called me earlier in the week to see if I would like to go to a barbecue contest in Memphis with Blair, and of course I wanted to go.  My dad, Blair, and I hopped in the car and headed down to the barbecue festival.  To say this was awesome would be a huge understatement.  Blair had a connection from his work and therefore we had free access to one of the 150+ vendors in the contest.  Let me elaborate a little bit.  The contest was set on the banks of the Mississippi river and most of the contestants are teams of people with a love of barbecue (there are restaurants that compete as well).  They build 3-story tall scaffolding rigs where they serve their delicious barbecue to anyone lucky enough to be given a wristband (you can't buy these from what I understand).

After arriving at the event we went over to the team location, grabbed a beer (free), and went to the top of the scaffolding house to chat while we waited for the barbecue to be served.  After a few minutes they announced that the food was ready and we went down to grab food from the feast before us.  Smoked chicken, smoked pork, smoked bacon, wet ribs, macaroni & cheese, and some very awesome baked beans were piled onto the plate and brought back up to the rooftop to watch the sun set and stuff ourselves.  The food/drink were free and I can't say I have had barbecue as good as this in a long time, if ever.
The birthday boy.

Saturday was spent prepping for the Graham's birthday party and at one point my dad and I took Benjamin with us over to the local Harley Davidson dealer to check out the motorcycles (he loves motorcycles).  I think we sat on every motorcycle in the place as we chased Benjamin around the store. After we got back we finished up the prep work and soon Blair's family and their friends started showing up for the party.  It had been a couple of years since I was in Memphis so it was great getting to see some of the faces from a few years back.  Sunday went pretty quickly as I was leaving to head home just after noon.  The visit to Memphis was great and I am sure that Kelsey and I will be going back to visit in the future.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

My Ride with the Pro's

Lots to catch up on from the last few weeks of riding, racing, and travelling but I needed to start this post with one of the most awesome rides I have had all year.  On a random Tuesday morning about a month ago I received an email from one of my teammates asking if anyone would want to host a few pro's on a bike ride that evening.  I immediately knew that I had to join, I mean how often do you get asked to host some of the best in the world at something that you like to do.

We met later that evening at our usual spot in Danville and after a few minutes the 2 pro's from the United Healthcare Cycling Team arrived.  Boy Van Poppel and Jay Thomson (the pro's) were in town for a sponsor event prior to the Tour of California and were looking to go on a ride but didn't really know the area.  Luckily, one of my teammates is friends with their team manager and we were asked to host them for the evening.  About 10 of my teammates had showed up and we decided on a ride up Mt. Diablo to showcase our local terrain.

We rolled out and after about 20 minutes of riding I was positioned next to Boy Van Poppel, a young Belgian with a pretty good sprint.  He had recently finished well on a couple of the stages at the Tour of Turkey and he went about describing how hectic the last 3km of the race was with crashes and turns wreaking havoc on the field.  He is conversational in English but it was apparent that some of the slang is still lost on him.  He also has a moderately thick accent that takes a little bit getting used to.
Jay Thomson on the left and Boy Van Poppel on the right.  I am sort of in the background.
We reached Mt. Diablo and the paced picked up for a few people but most people were more interested in cruising with the pro's as it was their rest day and they were taking it easy.  On the bottom part of Mt. Diablo we rode by a rattlesnake, the first that I had ever seen on Diablo and I got a little bit too close because it hissed at me to get away.  Boy had brought a camera and snapped a few pictures as this type of scenery wasn't native to his home country of Belgium.  He also took a few pictures of some large condor's that were flying overhead, all the while riding up Diablo at a pace I struggle to maintain on most rides.  It was actually quite comical to see him riding uphill, no hands on the bars, head pointing straight up at the sky and snapping pictures.  He was far more fascinated by the diverse wildlife than our company.

Once we reached the Junction we took a few more pictures of the group and I had the chance to catch up with Jay Thomson.  He is from South Africa and is a few years older than Boy.  He typifies the life of most professional cyclists in that he spends a vast majority of his time dragging races forward, he is the kind of guy with a "big engine" and can maintain a high pace for a very long period of time but will only win a race on very rare occasions.  He is the sacrificial lamb of the team.  Altogether they were both very nice and willing to answer all of my questions about the lives of professional cyclists.

We continued our journey further up Diablo as the light started to fade with Boy snapping more photos at every opportunity.  It often times gets lost on me that I do live in an amazing area of the country and that many of the pro's are now younger than me (including both Boy and Jay) and that most of the US is new to them.  After a cool descent down Diablo, we had a dinner prepared at one of my teammates houses.  I rode home first to shower and get out of my cycling kit.

Dinner was delicious and the topic of conversation soon turned to cycling and everyone's war stories of crashes and broken bones.  Jay took the cake as he was plowed into by a car and had spine damage that will haunt him for the rest of his life.  He lives half the year in South Africa during our cold months and spends his summers in either Europe or California.  In the summer it gets so hot in South Africa that he wakes up at 5AM to get his 6 hour training rides in before noon.  The quantity of time that they spend on the bike is just staggering but I guess if that is your job you probably would spend 6 hours on the bike everyday.