Monday, April 12, 2010

Pure Luck

Criterium racing is dangerous. This is lap 3 from Dana Point this weekend. I'm on the inside near the front. My teammate, Terry wasn't so lucky. Fortunately, he escaped this with a skinned knee and broken bike. Others went home with shattered bones.

This nasty crash happened with three laps to go. Guys were beginning to get nervous as the end of the race was approaching and were making risky moves to stay near the front. The most common is what we call "diving for the turn." When the guys on the front of the pack are taking a wide line into a turn to shave the apex - some joker 15 riders back interprets the open space in the road as an easy way to get to the front. He then comes out of the line of riders and dives for the turn. Finding himself with too much speed he usually had to grab the breaks at the last moment and pushes the guys who were taking a sensible line out of the corner. What happened in this video wasn't a case of this particular kind of rider error - but devastating to those involved nonetheless.
Terry and I were the only Cat 3 representatives from Ritte Racing at Dana Point, but that didn't keep us from having a winning plan. Terry was in great form - coming of a podium finish the previous weekend we were confident that we could get good finishes. Terry Would motor off the front on the uphill stretch into the final turn and I would try to close the deal.

Both of us started at the back of the 80 man field, and it took me nearly 3 laps to work my way to the top 10 or 15 positions. Terry was warming up slowly so hung back until about 20 minutes to go. We stayed close to each other near the front as the lap cards began to tick down. With three to go I took the inside line on the straight away through the start finish.Here you can see my light blue helmet on the front four guys from the left. You know what happens next. Don't know why I was on the inside here - I'd taken the wide line almost every other lap. I've been lucky that way. Four years of Crit racing and (Knock on wood) never been in a crash. Probably has something to do with always riding at the front which also has something to do I suspect with a lack of results in field sprints.

With 2 to go I was without Terry, so moved myself up into the top 10 positions. The sprint is only 200 meters from the final turn - so the race is basically determined by your position into this turn. I pulled off a a third place finish this way as a Cat 4 two years prior.

Into the final turn with one lap to go at 20+ MPH my back wheel locked and started to slide out. Instinctively, I turned the front wheel into the turn unclipped my foot and started sliding across the road like a flat track racer. I nearly lost complete control 3-4 times before my brand new Vitoria tubular burned down on the pavement and burst, spraying white sealant all over my legs. It turned out that my tubular had rolled off my carbon wheel and wedged in my breaks - which in turn locked the back wheel. Had the front wheel rolled - the result would have been worse - I'd have gone down for sure.

I watched from the side of the road as the field came around for the final sprint and threw my bike in disgust -luckily not doing any further damage.

Monday, December 7, 2009

A Sweet End to an Amazing Season

This Sunday marked the finals of the Urban Cyclo-cross Series here in Los Angeles, and was a big day for me on the bike. Fans of mine and this blog already know that I've already locked up the leaders jersey in the Category 4 series. Being undefeated in the first 4 of 5 races and with no one even close to me in points, all I had to do is show up and collect my leaders jersey. Which I did of course, but the real story here is the next more advanced category I'd been racing - the 3/4's where I was tied for first place.

At the start line when the call-ups were being made the race organizer mistakenly called me out at the series leader. Rob Langone, the actual leader and I corrected him, and he announced to the crowd that we were the race to watch as the leader's jersey was on the line. In Cyclo-cross, series leaders or past race winners get the advantage of pole positions for the start. As Rob and I lined up next to each other I told him that I was not so secretly hoping that he wasn't going to show up today. He admitted that he was hoping the same.

At the whistle we were off and Rob jumped out ahead of me looking strong. From the start line there was a fast down hill section that bent hard to the right through a taped off section. In past races these were exactly the sections where Rob had the advantage. He's got good power, but he's an even better bike handler. To my surprise he took a wide line and blew the first turn. I slipped to the front and stepped up the pressure. From out of no where some giant guy on a Giant brand bike shot out ahead of us up the trail. We both knew to let him go. We were the race within the race and it didn't matter what our over all position was. All that mattered was which of us finished before the other.

I stayed out front for 1/2 of the first lap until we got the the steep barrier dismount and run-up section. Here I blew my line and lost control of the front wheel. To keep things upright I had to hop of the bike sooner than I would have liked. Rob got smoothly through the turn and rode up to the barriers, pulling ahead. With our bikes slung over our shoulders he was opening a gap on me as we ran up the hill. This was a critical moment. Following the run-up was a very technical descent over loose ground and through some trees. If I didn't stay close to him the race could be lost on the first lap.

I buried my fear and followed his line down the hill. Staying off of the breaks I slid through loose stuff and jinked through the tree chicane at the bottom. We hopped through the second obstacle section and as we passed through the start/finish I tacked myself to Rob's back wheel. The announcer called out our names as we rode over the line, reminding the huge crowd of 20 people that we were the race to watch. The series championship was on the line.

Back on the climb for the second time another rider came around us and we let him go. Still on Rob's wheel our over all position was 3rd and 4th now. As the trail narrowed I sensed that Rob was holding back, which was smart. There was a lot of racing still to do and we weren't out to win the race that day, just beat each other. But something was off. The pace was getting a little too easy. Sitting on his wheel on the climb I was actually starting to recover. Heart rate was coming down, breathing was getting a little easier, the tunnel vision that comes with oxygen debt was clearing up. "Just stay with him," I told myself as we bombed back down the dangerous single track section.

Back at the bottom of the dismount and run-up section, Rob made his fatal mistake. He caught a toe on the barrier and tripped. While I didn't actually see it happen - this was where I opened up a gap. Through the start/finish again with 5 laps to go I stepped up the power. Unlike me, Rob had some actual fans at the race cheering him on - I could hear them calling his name from behind. He was still close enough to be dangerous. This was the time kick hard. Back on the climb I pushed it at my pace this time. Missing, was the sound of his bike behind me. The gap was beginning to widen.

If there's one thing I've learned about racing Cyclo-cross, it's that the race is never over until you cross the line. There are too many things that can go wrong. The key is to stay focused and ride to the best of your ability preparing for, but not being overwhelmed by things that may go wrong.

Suddenly, I misjudged an obstacle hop and felt my back wheel bottom-out hard on a metal pole. A cracking sound began from the back wheel on each revolution. Heading up the hill alone I started to worry. I had just had the rear wheel fixed from an incident at the Storm the Beach race. I now had a dilemma. Do I stop in the pit and put on the spare wheel, risking that Rob may gain back some time and catch up? Or, do I press on with the noisy carbon Zipp 303 Tubular risking a cataclysmic wheel failure that may end the whole race. Carbon fiber doesn't usually give the bike rider any advance warning of failure - when it fails it goes from seemingly fine to total failure with no in between! At the dismount through the creek felt the rim before remounting and didn't feel any obvious damage. I decided to stay with the bike and not loose time in the pit.

Two laps to go and I was running up the hill over the barriers with the bike over my shoulder, when the uncertainty of Cyclo-cross struck again. Jumping over the first barrier I cracked my shin on the two foot high wooden plank. The bike launched off of my shoulder and tumbled up the hill while I smacked the dirt face down. Adrenalin surged and I was back on my feet with the bike on my shoulder in an instant. The remount revealed that my left break hood was knocked inward 45 degrees. I punched it pack into position and made a payer to the bicycle Gods that the bike would still roll. It did! and the awful noise from the back wheel stopped as well.

The next two laps were just about keeping it under control. In the gravel pit Rob and I crossed going in opposite directions - having never beaten him before I asked if he was OK and he reached across and gave me a high 5 conceding the win. What an amazing good sport and a good guy. The announcer declared me the series winner as I crossed the line. I stopped after the and waited for Rob. I shook his hand and told him that he set the bar this season and it was great racing against him.

Here's his account of what happened:

Going out on a high I decided that this was going to be my last race of the season. There have been great highs and awful lows. This year I learned how to win. But more importantly, I learned how to loose. It's never over and there is always that next race. Each time on the bike is a learning experience to get better and smarter. So for this year I'm hanging up the cross bike and looking ahead to a big season on the road with my new road team.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Disaster at the State Regional Championships: Crashes, Flats and the Hangover of Defeat

This past week has felt like a really bad hangover - the regret and pain of it slowly dissipating as the hours go by, occasionally brought back to mind by some reminder of everything that went wrong. I feel sick. Every time I see a state flag I'm reminded of was supposed to have been. This Bear Jersey was was going to be mine.

For some context, I've been having dreams about this race for the past two weeks. In some I've won, some I've lost, others thrown away by technicalities and mishaps. A state Jersey has been a dream of mine every since my first cat 5 race. This year I had a real shot at it. With four wins and numerous placings across categories, this was going to be my year. I had to win.

Minutes before the race, there was time for one last warm-up lap around the course. The grassy section was especially rough. My chain was slapping against the frame when my cranks suddenly froze up. Some guys stopped to help but the chain was getting sucked up in the derailleur pulleys. This wasn't going to get fixed out on the course. With just a few minutes to spare before the race I picked up the bike and ran it back toward the the start finish area toward the Montros Bike Shop's warm-up tent. The shop's owner, Johnathan had built my bike and while I don't race for his team, I was counting on a bit of goodwill to get me rolling again. And I got it. The cassette lock ring had come loose - a simple fix, but not the kind of problem you want minuted before the most important race of the year. Slightly rattled by the near disaster - I rolled over to the start line just in time to get a good position before the whistle.

Two laps into the race I was solidly in second place. The kid challenging me for the number 2 spot faded every time I got on the gas on the flat, fast sections. After a couple of turns, I dropped him. With 4 to go I drilled it on the fast paved section across the start finish. Carrying too much speed I over-cooked it off of the pavement onto the grass. My front tire washed out and I went over the bars hitting the ground hard and heard myself grunt as I made impact on the grass and gravel. Back on the bike, my front wheel wouldn't clear my breaks. Quickly I released the cantilever and got back under way - my closest competitor was still far behind.

Back down onto the pavement I had the chance to see the state of my front wheel. It was wobbling badly and rubbing against the break caliper. I knew I was going to have to get to the pit. 500 meters to go over undulating rough and lumpy grass, a gash opened in the side of my tubular. The front wheel was flat and I had a way to go before the pit. Tubular tires can safely roll for a while when flat, but controlling a flat front wheel over rough terrain proved difficult. I had to let off the gas to keep the bike under control. No one had passed me, yet.

In the pit it I scrambled to get to my spare wheel. I ripped the front wheel off and plowed my way through the dense collection of spare bikes and wheel sets. Two bikes toppled over before I found my wheels. Some neutral support guys standing around offered to hold my bike while I attached the spare wheel. Quick releases are very simple, especially when changing a front wheel. But not this time. I could barely see what I was doing and my hands felt like they belonged to someone else. What should have taken 30 seconds was taking far too long as I struggled to get the adjustment right - to tight, too loose, to tight again. "FUCK," I shouted, and some joker in the pit asked the official standing there if I ought to get docked for cursing. Finally the wheel was back on and I launched back on to the course.

I had lost a lot of time. There was no telling how many positions I had lost while I was struggling with my wheel. I began picking off a few slow guys, but I wasn't making up enough ground. I kept up the pressure all the way to the line and even managed a sprint with a guy who tagged onto my back wheel. But it was over and I knew it. That crash cost me the race.

When the results were posted - I was listed as 5th. It was a terrible result. I didn't even look to see who was first, nor did I bother to snap my customary picture of the sheet. I said good bye to my teammates and headed home.

A day later I got an email from a team mate Dave Bianco. This had been his first Cyclo-cross race, and the sting and regret of my loss was about to get worse. Here's what he wrote:

I share with hesitation, but here's the real heartbreaker. They had me down as first place, state champ. Well, that's not right. I told the officials and they said its already been posted and no one protested. So, anyway, that puts you on the podium in 3rd. The guy who won had a 1-day license which means the state jersey honorably goes to the guy in 2nd. Damn tubulars.

The truth was that Dave finished way back in the pack - not last but nearly so. I was at work when I got this email and couldn't concentrate all day.

A week has passed and I still can't look at a California State Flag without feeling a wave of regret. Looking back I realize that while I should have won this race, the loss was my own doing. I had put too much pressure on a single day. The district state championship was basically just another race and I should have treated it that way. Of all the races I've won this year there was never one where I pulled up to the line thinking that I HAD to win. But this time I did and the psychological stress was too much. I did however learn how not to approach a race. From prepping my equipment to my state of mind, I'm about ready for a little break from racing and a reset to hang up the cross bike and get back out on the road.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Post Ride: The Dumb Things Rodies Say

Created by a teammate of mine Spencer Canon from my new team: Ritte van Vlaanderen

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Numbers Game: Winning 2 Jerseys is better than 1

This past weekend delivered another trip to the top of the podium, making it 4 consecutive 1st place finishes in the SoCal Urban Cyclo-cross series. The November 15th race in Torrance featured a challenging single track climb that gave way to a dismount and run-up. There was plenty of sand sections and some nice long flat lengths to get in the drops and crank up the speed. There were only a couple 180 degree hairpins which is good for me. Tight corners over technical surfaces are definitely a weakness of mine, this was another course that was made for a power rider like myself.

From the gun, I drilled it off the front. The single track climb was the first obstacle and I didn't want to be behind anyone the first time up. If some one were to fall down or get caught up in front of me while a strong guy got away on the first climb, I could loose the race in the first 45 seconds. That scenario wasn't going to play out as I opened a big gap up the climb. For two laps the second place guy was in sight, he was fading though, and disappeared with 4 laps to go. For the rest of the race I just kept the power on and rode within myself crossing the line nearly a minute ahead of my closest competitor.

For a victory salute I opted keep my hands on the bars this time. Instead of the double number 1's I was going to execute a radical powerslide in front of the crowd at the finish line. I had a good amount of speed and mashed down on the rear break and started to lean over. I was going too fast. My front wheel suddenly lost traction washing under neath me, launching me over the bars. What was supposed to be a graceful slide turned into a spectacular blunder as I toppled over the bars in a cloud of bike, limbs and dust. Unhurt, I jumped up and the spectators began laughing. "Now THAT'S a Dismount," exclaimed a race official.

Things got even more interesting after the second race of the day. This time around I was racing in the harder 3/4 category. Noticeably absent from the competition was the first place series leader Robert Langone. I rode well and pulled out a respectable second place, giving me enough points to tie Robert for 1st. have a look:

This puts me in the unique position to win two leaders jerseys in one year in two separate series. Robert's a strong rider though and not going to give up his lead easily. We square off on December 5th.

Monday, November 16, 2009

When 3rd is 1st

The Southern California Prestige Series of Cyclo-cross hosted the most interesting course I've seen in my brief but undeniably successful first season of cross racing. Right on the beach in the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base, the course featured a 400 meter stretch over the hard pack sand on the Pacific Ocean. The runup section was surrounded by rusty razor wire left over from amphibious assault exercises.

When Third is First. While off the the front on a solo raid and first place a near sure thing, I flatted with three laps to go. I lost nearly 10 places and battled back to get the third place spot on the podium.

The course was practically made for me. Like a crit on fire roads. On the beach in the first lap I put a little pressure on the front. Looked back to see that I opened a big gap. No one followed. two laps later and I herd the announcer tell the modest crowd that I was under no pressure at all. Little did he know that I was at my limit. But the gap was getting bigger.

Into the third lap I began contemplating the win. "It's not inevitable," I told myself. "Still three laps to go. Just keep the Watts up and take it easy thought the..."

My back tire began hissing air. Unbelievable. A mile from the pit, my rear carbon rim dragging over the dirt on a flat tire. I made it to the beach and the softness of the hard pack sand made it possible to ride on the flat. But not fast enough. My insurmountable lead vanished and I began getting passed. My team mate Dave Turner came past offering some conciliatory words, and then the anger set in.

In the pit I begged for a wheel. Guys there looked away like I was a bum holding a cardboard sign at a freeway off ramp. After a second plea, one of them offered up a wheel. He helped me get it on and I was back out onto the course. This time down the hill into a deep sand pit the culminated into a 180 degree hairpin. I saw few people manage to ride through this section. Most guys tried, but had to clumsily dismount at the last second, loosing precious time. The key was to hop off the bike while there was still momentum and run through the deep sand. I nailed it and began making up time, quickly passing my first set of guys.

One lap to go and each bend on the course offered up another set of guys to pass. Back on the beach for the final time and I caught up with Turner. As of this post is the yellow jersey leader in the 3/4 35+. While never having won one this year, he's consistant finisher. While his lead is without what the french call "panache" he is the leader nonetheless. This meant I must be near the front. I drilled it a final time over the dismount and run-up.

I crossed the line with nothing left, throwing my bike to the ground. "Hey, take it easy on my wheel," shouted the guy who's wheel I was thrashing. I apologized and he gave me a pass. He saw the serious ground that I made up after the flat, and seemed happy to have made my comeback possible.

When the results finally came in I managed to pull out 3rd overall. A guaranteed win melted into total loss yet somehow came back to a respectable bronze. Cyclo-cross is amazing.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Strength, Wisdom, Agility: A Strange Realization in Feline Inspiration

While not having been previously mentioned here on this blog, another interest of mine is our pet cats. Halloween has created a unique opportunity for my personal passions to intersect in a strange and interesting way. Bicycle racing being the nexus of things, the last time this alignment happened was when I got to work on the Giro d'Italia at Universal Sports. Job + bike racing = fun job. This time, a last minute costume idea inspired a race mantra that lead me to my third, first place result of the season. The strength of Edward, The Wisdom of Louis, and the agility of Gracie.

As I pulled away from the second place guy and cleared a nice gap off the front of the race, I felt my costume cat ears begin to blow back on my helmet and the costume tiger tail begin to bounce on my back. From a joke costume I began to pull inspiration from thoughts of our pets.

Edward. The Middle Child. A pure bread Main Coon with champion show lineage. He's brutishly large for a house cat by any standard. Zero fat with big bones, he tops the scales at over 20 lbs. Hulking paws and a powerful lope, Edward is STRENGTH,

Louis. The OG. 13 years old and full of love. He's cautious yet brave, graceful in his autumn. He's trustworthy and gentle. Like an old furry Yoda, Louis is WISDOM.

Gracie. The Street Cat. A rescue who filled the gap between the boys. Lightning fast and still very much a kitten, she's demanding and precise. Independent and nurturing there's not a remote height of the house she cannot access. Gracie is pure Agility.

Continuing what has been and amazing once in a life time season on the bike, I win yet again.

Here's a bit of what the weekend looked like in amazing full color video:

The Real Hat Trick: A Weekend of Racing Yealds Another 1st Place from Litterbox on Vimeo.