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.