Sunday, March 29, 2009

Piece of Cake, it was not...

The graph on the power tap software tells the story. A flurry of activity for the first 13 minutes. Then a line. For an hour.

As a racer, up till now I've been pretty cautious. Stay with the pack. Bring back breaks that look threatening. Maybe attempt a break myself, but always well within my abilities and always pretty short. I've never raced in a way where I just put my head down and went off the front. Till today.

The day was clear, mostly, but pretty windy. A flag near the start was just on the verge of sticking straight out, which according to my father's old rule of thumb (he used to be an Airforce Pararescueman, which means he jumped out of airplanes with a parachute) means the wind is blowing at about 25-30mph up where the flag is atop the flagpole.

The field isn't huge, maybe 40 racers, and the start is casual enough. The course is arranged in such a way that most of the roads have cross winds of one sort or another. This means that there isn't that much shelter. The Piece of Cake is (in)famous for having narrow roads, which doesn't help anything.

It is a typical Cat4 field, which means that everyone is trying to hide, so the pace is pretty slow. A couple of us go up the front to try to make things work a little smoother. I am echeloning with a few other riders, and dealing with the fact that only a few riders want to work, but many people want to take shelter in the echelon.

Pretty soon, I find myself at the front, so I start pushing the pedals a bit harder to up the pace a bit. My intent wasn't to go off the front (we were only about 10 minutes into the race!), but off the front I drifted. Seeing this, I had a decision. I could sit up, let the pace fall, or just start going harder and see where that took me. I decided on the latter. I dumped a couple of gears and accelerated, then, seeing 500W, took it down a notch and let it sit at about 300W. I know from training that this is a pace that I can definitely hold for an hour, and probably longer. I still had 5/6ths of the race to go!

I kind of expected for the pack to start behaving like a Cat4 pack and bring me back in a couple minutes. That's typical. But I look back and they aren't gaining on me. So I put my head down, forearms on the bar tops, and concentrated on making 300W display on my powertap readout.

I look back again, and they are now a bit further behind. The wind is at my back.

I turn the corner and start going into a stiff head-cross wind. The pack is closer because they are still in the tailwind section, but not gaining after the corner.

I turn another corner straight into the teeth of the wind, and I decide to make the display read 315W. I reason that the pack will be less willing to chase hard into the wind (Cat4, nobody wants to pull, etc.).

Another corner and I hear my name and some cheering. Past the finish line. One lap down, two to go.

I am still holding 300W, pushing it up to 315W or so in the headwind sections. I am starting to feel my glutes complaining. I am not used to pushing this much power for this long with my forearms on the bar tops; back completely flat. Down at the bottom of the course, I take a peak behind and see a group of about 8-10 riders going off the front. They are hard charging, but I am not really losing any time to the much diminished main group. I figure this is in my favor as the big guns are probably in the chase group. Once they bridge, I'll be part of a select group with enough firepower to take it to the line.

I am off the front for 1 hour, 3 minutes when the chase group bridges up to me. Perfect, I think to myself. Then I see how dysfunctional this group is. Gaps opening up everywhere. Nobody knows how to echelon into a crosswind. Some big motors are what is keeping it away, but there is no way a 3/4 cooked person like me can keep closing gaps in the group and keep pace.

I fall off. The main group catches me. Yay! I'm safe. I can hide for a little while, get my legs back under me and contest the finish as others in the group do the work of bringing back the lead group I've fallen out of. It's not to be. Crosswinds and narrow roads kill any thought of shelter. Echelons form and break away, always right in front of me, exposing me. I keep pushing the "GO" button to close the gap. I try falling back a little, but the pack is thin. I've promised to lead out one of my teammates. I close a gap or two with him on my wheel, but eventually, we change places. I'm on his wheel. And dying.

I remember an interview I read somewhere of a pro who described racing in Belgium. Knowing that there isn't anyone behind you. Seeing that there isn't a spot to fit into at the end of the last echelon. Watching them ride away from you, the gap getting bigger and bigger and there's nothing you can do about it; you're in the wind, they're not. Now, instead of just remembering the article, I am experiencing it first hand. 10 miles to go in the race, I hit the "GO" button once again, but I don't get the response I want; a drag chute deploys instead and I am officially off the back. With no motivation and the race out of reach, I can only get the display on my power meter to read 200W.

51 miles, 2 hours, 20 minutes. Of that, I spent 1 hour off the front and 35 minutes off the back. I was only part of the peloton for 45 minutes. Certainly a record for me. There is a silver lining though. I know, for sure now, that my FTP is well over 300W, and the 330W assumption that I've been using (I've never formally tested myself), is right about right.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Self Massage

Sounds naughty, doesn't it.

Up till now, I haven't fully been on board with the whole massage thing. I mean, it seems like it's for prissy men or pro cyclists; I don't consider myself either. The epiphany came right after the ride today, as I was preparing for my shower. I remembered an article I read somewhere that said that leg massages for cyclists should be done by doing a "smoothing" action from the bottom of the muscle (closest to the foot) and moving up the leg towards the heart. So I did this a little bit. Lo and behold, some of the soreness from today's ride went away!

Discovering this, I reasoned that this would be more effective after my shower and leg shave, and with some lotion so the massage motions won't burn the skin. After showering and shaving, I did the massage on my quads and calf muscles... and no more soreness! Beautiful. Not that I'm not still a little tired from the ride, but the soreness is gone. And it's something that will be imminently helpful considering I have a stage race coming up in a week, where getting the soreness out of my legs as soon as one day's stage is over might be considered important.

It also really highlights one of the reasons why competitive cyclists shave their legs. The self massage isn't a full "pro" massage by any means, but it certainly feels better without hair on the legs. So, two mysteries of competitive cycling: massage and shaving, I now better understand.

Friday, March 27, 2009

My "don't care" bike

Today was my first commute into work of the year.  22 or 23 miles, over some hills on some quiet roads mostly free of traffic.  Beautiful. 
Last night I went about re-configuring my commute bike to be a zippier, more fun, machine.  I took off the rack and fenders, lowered the handlebars and put some larger tires on it.  I saw that the computer had run out of batteries, so I just took it off.  I put on some road pedals.  Cleaned it up and trued up the wheels.  Perfect.  
It's still probably the heaviest bike in my fleet.  But it's fun to ride!  No instrumentation.  No fancy brifters - just good, old fashion big tires and downtube shifting.  It's a race bike again, but from the 80's, not present day.  It's my "don't care" bike.  The one I'll ride when I just want to re-connect to cycling.  The one that I'll waste precious training days to just have fun.  The one I ride junk miles on; when I ride just to ride.  
So, when I did my commute today, I did it on my "don't care" bike.  I have been falling into a rut lately.  My motivation has been low.  I needed miles, but moreover, I needed to just reconnect with cycling and have pure driven fun on a bike.  In amoungst all the training rides and races I do, every once in a while, or maybe more than once in a while, I need to just get out and ride.  And on those days... I have my "don't care" bike.  

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Banana Belt #4 (#3)

It's amazing what can happen when a team just starts meshing. Last week, at BB#3, I was able to lead out Ron, and the team really controlled the race. Well, if the team controlled the race last week, we smothered it this week. We got some major respect out of this race; not only our number and strength, but because of how we race.

"The fireworks started right out of the gate with the boys from Portland Velo setting a wicked fast pace...." Those words came from the blog of a Vista Ridge Velo racer in the race with us. And we certainly did. Right from the start, the head of the peloton was one skinny line of riders. We were really driving. This was the theme of the race. Everyone contributed. We had six riders in the field: myself, Johnny Rockets, Couzens, Kromonster, Dan Petross, and Alex Gonzalez. We all had our roles.

After driving the peloton around for most of a lap, some people start trying to break away. Kromonster goes off on his first breakaway of the day. He gets brought back eventually and I counter right after passing the finish line. It is becoming very apparent to me that I do better at races where I go off on a breakaway early. I don't have the stuff to stay away long, but it seems to warm me up and I am better able to ride the rest of the race.

Kroman really was a monster that day. By his count, he went off on breakaway attempts five times. He had the peloton hating his guts. I have never heard so much complaining about the pace! And everyone was involved. At one point, Petross went off. Every time a PV racer went off the front, I tried to make it a point to get onto the front to try to block. Well, this time, an Existential Velo rider was up to what I was doing. He had two other teammates with him and he was organizing another 5 or 6 riders to try to keep me off the front. When another rider tried to bridge up to Petross, I was getting into position onto his wheel when the Existential Velo rider stole it away. We were elbow to elbow, battling out for position on the bridging rider's wheel. Eventually, I let him have it.

Every time the pace slowed a little, there was Kroman right there to shoot off the front again. At one point, the pace had slowed at the beginning of the last lap, like it normally does right after a break goes off. For about 10 seconds, it felt like a classic Cat 4/5 race where things would settle out and people would ride together to the finish to sprint it out; everyone thinking they are a budding Cipollini or Cavendish. Then, 10 seconds are up and Kroman shoots off the front again! You didn't have to listen that hard to heard the groans.

Coming across the dam and up toward Lee hill, I moved up to the very front of the peloton, like I did the week before, so I could surf the pack up the hill. (There's even a photo series to prove it; yes, someone caught my pack slide on film!) We hit the hill hard and over the top I get back the lead group, though I couldn't make it to the front for the next uphill stretch. After the last hill before the little bump at the finish, I find myself behind the lead group about 10 or so meters back. But they are really driving! With no wheels to follow, I momentarily panic as I am not making progress towards catching them, and the 1k sign is coming up very soon. I leap out of the saddle and close the gap as fast as I can, getting back to the group just before hitting the 1k sign.

I set myself up on the right side of the road because I know that, not only is the line clear because nobody wants to ride the gutter and risk a flat, but it's also the fastest and shortest line in the sprint. I get right up into the top 5 or so riders as we sweep around the corner and across the bridge. We get to the base of the hill and I can't wait any longer. People are starting to accelerate and I need to go, NOW! So I hit the sprint with everything I've got and slowly, ever so slowly, pull away from the main group of sprinters. There's one guy in front of me who started sprinting about the same time as I did on the other side of the road but had a better jump. I cannot quite get up on his wheel and we are going down the hill now. I concede first place (he's about 2 bike lengths ahead and I'm not gaining), dump a couple gears, put my head down and concentrate on putting every watt left in my body into the pedals. Mr. Rockets comes blowing by me about 50m from the line; he's been on my wheel this whole time and I'm in 3rd. I take a peak behind me and see that there's a pretty good gap between us three and the next person, so I relax ever so slightly and cross the line third. Johnny in first, and the guy I was chasing rounding out the podium.

Not a bad day. Portland Velo is starting to get a reputation: not only did we lay down a lot of hurt and control the race, we closed.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Banana Belt #3 (#2)

This is reposted from the race report on the Portland Velo website.


Man, this race felt good.

It started out with all of us huddled in our cars trying to keep dry and warm while we waited for the race to start. It was poring down rain, coming in sideways. All my gear was wet even before I was finished changing into my kit. I gotta tell you, it was tempting to just pack it all back up and go home.

I spent all the time I should have been warming up debating whether to take my rain jacket or not. The question remained unresolved right up until the last call for the Cat 4's to come to the line; I decided to keep the jacket in my pocket and just go with a vest. It was a good decision. The decision not to warm up was not a good decision.

We're off. The pack is sketchy as all hell, what with everyone, myself included, half frozen and unable to keep a line. About half way through the first lap, I take off on a flier to warm up a little and test the legs. The legs are crap. Ron comes up to join me, but the pack is close behind and the legs have nothing, so we sit up.

Gradually, things started to warm up. The peloton was rolling fast and my fingers and toes were thawing out, even with the driving rain. It feels like being in one of those fancy showers that sprays your entire body from all angles. I'm getting hit from below, above, behind and in front. I can't decide whether to keep my glasses on or not. It was a true dilemma. Keep them on and run into pot holes, or take them off and spend the race blinking crap out of my eyes. Eventually, after putting them on and taking them off twice (probably to the consternation of the guys behind me), I decide on the latter route.

Portland Velo had six guys in the field and it showed. We controlled this race; there was almost always at least two of our guys patrolling the front. When the pace slowed, one of our guys went to the front and picked it up. We chased down or helped chase down the breakaways and initiated some of our own attempts. Some of the guys in the field mentioned after the race that they were watching us closely to see if we would try a breakaway because of our numbers. But while that didn't quite happen, the last lap really showed that our crew is getting our stuff together.

After a very slow third lap, the last lap started heating up with a couple breakaway attempts that were shut down quickly. Leading up to the dam, my first thought was to get through that corner safely. The lap before, everyone up front came in hot - even the lead car overcooked the corner and ended up in the traffic guard's lap. After getting through the corner safely, my first thought was to get to the front of the pack going into Lee hill. I always get pushed back in the pack up that hill, and that killed my attempts at a good finish two weeks ago, so this time I led the pack onto the hill, did the pack slide, and really pushed it and kept the gas down going over the top to get back up to the front again. I did this in time for the next hill, slid back a little and gassed it toward the front as we rolled downhill toward the finish. I reached the front at the 1km sign and looked at who was there. Paul had been pushing things since the top of Lee hill and was probably gassed. Ron is a good sprinter and was up there, and it didn't make sense for both him and me to be waiting for the 200m mark to sprint.

So I get over on the right shoulder and get up next to him. He started to jump a little, seeing me come up on the outside but not knowing who I was and not wanting to get boxed in. I said "Hey Ron, grab my wheel". Hesitated for just a moment and then clicked up a couple gears and accelerated. I took a page from the Dave Haag book (he led me out at a Hornecker sprint one Sat.) and didn't jump like in a sprint, but rather just kept shifting up, mashing on the pedals and keeping the torque high, the acceleration constant and my head down. I hoped that Ron heard me and I wasn't just dragging the pack around; I couldn't see him on my wheel. Down, over the bridge, still accelerating, trying to keep the speed up. Up the rise before the finish and starting to bog down a little. Right up to the crest and Ron comes sweeping by with a single guy on his wheel. I have momentary thoughts of continuing my effort to try to place, but I am really, really flamed out. The guy on Ron's wheel gets up to his bottom bracket and I am hoping that Ron can hold him off. They are accelerating toward the line and I am accelerating the other way, so I miss the finish and just concentrate on keeping out of people's way.

It was a great race, with the best execution of teamwork of any race I've been a part of. None of it was planned, but you can really get a sense that the Cat 4 crew is getting used to riding with each other and we're starting to know each others' strengths. We are starting to learn how to race. No other team attempted a leadout; leading out Ron was like shooting fish in a barrel. It turned a statistically favorable win into an almost sure thing.