Thursday, July 30, 2009

Cascade... and the end of the season

First thing first, the Cascade Stage Race. This is probably the first time I went solidly into a race with reasonable expectations and solid form. Needless to say, in my first half season as a Cat 3, I did not do well. Way off the back of the field in the road races, (surprisingly) mid field in the ITT, and just hanging on by the skin of my teeth in the Crit.
The first stage found me seeing my teammate (the only one with a legit shot at winning the GC) pulling and me slotting in ahead of him on the first two mile climb out of the staging area. I went up there, matched pace which put my heart rate right into my FT, and pulled the field up the hill. I got swarmed at the top, but it was a good test of my fitness in this (still) new field which I've only been part of for three races. I ended up doing way too much pulling in the first stage, which was partially because I felt that my teammate would stick his face in the wind if I wasn't up there, and partially because I knew I wouldn't be competing up the finishing 10k climb and I wanted to test what I could do. I was fairly pleased with my efforts up until the hill, when the field just blew by me on one of the steeper slopes (I was pretty tired from pulling). I ended the stage side by side with a teammate who wasn't feeling well, way down in 92nd place (out of 96!). Because I didn't blow myself up trying to move from 92nd place to 80th, I actually finished the stage feeling pretty good.
I was one of the first to go off for the ITT in the Cat 3 field because of my near lanterne rouge status. I brought two bikes to the race, one my "good" Trek race bike, and the other the my "crit" bike which is my old steel frame road bike dressed up with modern Ultegra components. A little heavy but solid as a brick and just flexy enough to make it corner like it's on rails. I also brought a time trial cockpit for one or the other of my bikes in the off chance that I was doing well. I didn't want to be in the situation where I had a phenomenal day on stage 1 and was out of contention on the TT because I didn't bring a stink'n TT bike. Anyway, because I was well out of contention, I simply used my Trek road bike without any aerobars or anything for the TT.
I started out great out of the holder's hands. Bolted up the hill out of the parking lot and settled into my rhythm, looking at my powertap output and trying to maintain 350W. Being that I had raced hard the day before, I ended up not being able to maintain much more than 320W or so on the way up. I caught my 30s man almost immediately once I got out on the road out of the parking lot, and I immediately zeroed in on my 1min man. I could see him up there in the distance, but was closing very slowly. He, I think, caught his 30s man, and after the turnaround, I think I caught him as well. Flying down the hill (out was uphill and back was downhill) as fast as I could push the 53/11, I couldn't quite get up to the 1m man, but I got close by the turn back into the parking lot. Accelerating out of the turn, screaming from the effort, I was sprinting for the line 400m away. Almost caught the guy.
I didn't know the time until later, but it turns out that I ended up beating one of our best TT'ers by 2 seconds (he was having a bad day, obviously) and getting roughly mid pack in the field at 50th or so place. Not bad for a recently graduated Cat 4 sprinter on a road bike.
The crit was uneventful. I got a great start and was in the top 20 or so in the field for the first few laps. Then it went like this:
grab that wheel...
losing it...
getting passed - PUSH IT! - grab that wheel!...
losing it...
I finished with the pack, but never saw the front and was never doing anything but hanging on by the skin of my teeth. Terrible performance for an alleged sprinter. Something to work on for next year; gotta make it to the finish at the pointy end of the pack before I get the privilege of contesting the sprint.
One good thing to come out of it was the realization that my discomfort in small spaces in the pack was mostly due to the very little details of my positioning. I have been crashing a lot, which is mostly because I am contesting the sprints, which means that I get to be in those tight positions when everyone's all crazy and stuff. We had a bike handling class the previous thursday which showed me two things:
First, that it's not such a terrible thing to lean on another rider. You just need to guard the handlebars but aside from that, everything is all fine - lean all you want.
Second was just a little thing that our team's coach mentioned during the clinic a couple times, but almost in passing. If your bars are in front of the rider next to you, you own him. I put this theory to to the test in the crit and as a result, I never, during the entire course of the race, even running into the corners 3 or 4 wide, felt threatened. It works both on the inside and outside guy. If you are able to get this bar forward position, you can take whatever line you want in the corner. If you don't get the position, try to get at least even so you won't get pushed around. If you fail to get the position, back off so you don't get pushed around. Positioning becomes a perennial battle where you want to lead going into the corners, and if you fail, you either accept the risk of getting pushed off your line or you back off. Even if you accept the risk, you go into the situation eyes-wide-open, which in itself lessens the risk.
Anyway, finally, the last stage was all that was ahead; a circuit race - four times around a 17 mile circuit which the first half featured a nearly constant downhill and starting around mile 10, a nearly constant uphill with a "wall" at about the mile 14 mark followed by more climbing. Just a really tough course, and something which was surprisingly suitable to my style of racing. I was inspired by Thor Hushov's ride in the Alps a few days before where he, a classics sprinter, went on a rampage off the front of a field packed with climbers on a climbing stage so he could soak up 12 sprint points and all but wrap up the green jersey in the Tour de France. I was determined to try to make it to the end of this race with the field. If I could survive the hills, this was a course with a real sprint finish!
We coasted down the hills and I got up near the front for the first uphill at the 10 mile mark. Remarkably, mostly because I am used to being blown out of the water on the climbs, I stayed right with the pack, not even giving up too many positions. I was right at my FTP heart rate (I don't wear my powertap in races; too heavy) of 170bpm and it was pretty uncomfortable, but I was hanging. Pat on the back. At the wall, I enter it in the top five or so spots and almost sprint up the wall, in the process finding on the fly that it is possible to shift the front ring while standing, if you are really careful to back off the chain tension first. Probably not the best place to experiment with this, but it is what it is. Then the long grind up the hill on top of the wall and I start giving up lots of positions. Eventually the hill ends though and I am still at the tail end of the pack. A second circuit earned.
The second circuit went the same way, except that I lost momentum on the wall when I had to dodge a guy who put his chain into his spokes (and I was tired, of course, too) and found myself somewhat off the back about half way up the grinding hill. The ground leveled out a little though and I was able to make it back on before the top of the hill.
The third circuit, I got popped at the feed zone. I went back for a third bottle to dump on my head and lost track of the peloton. Looked up and found I was 100m back. Chased, along with several others, but to no avail. I ended up not getting back on and rode the rest of the third lap and the fourth with a guy from Therapeutic Associates who had also been dropped.
Overall, I was extremely happy with how the stage race turned out. I learned that I was not as far behind with my fitness as I thought. I also found that I steered my training pretty much correctly to peak right at the race. It was not a sharp peak, but I didn't go into the race unprepared, nor did I go into it overtrained/burnt out. Now, as far as I am concerned, my road season is done. I'll take some time off of serious training, for a week or two, then start in on long endurance and tempo rides (and just having fun with commuting and such) and start losing weight for next season and building base, with some 'cross races thrown in to keep myself sharp. My goals are to raise my FTP another 10% to about 350-360W, and drop my weight another 10lbs to 165lbs. We'll see. This is the first time I've ended the season on my terms and on a relatively high note with a definite plan on what needs to be done for next season.
I also spoke of Thor; that guy inspired me. I now know what kind of rider I want to be. Everyone needs a focus, and now that I have two years of racing under my belt, I think I have a good idea of what kind of rider I am. I am a natural sprinter. That is one thing I've learned. I have a great kick. I could be a crit or track specialist if I wanted to. But I don't want to. I'm going to be a "classics sprinter" like guys like Thor, Boonen, Zabel and O'Grady. My focus of the season will be the spring classics with the peak in the spring stage races in April. I'll be working primarily on my aerobic base so I can motor with the best of them on the flats and climb reasonably well. If not well enough to chase the little sprites up the 10 mile climbs, then well enough to stay with the pack to contest the sprint at the end of a long classic style road race.

Saturday, July 4, 2009


10 miles left.

No water.

Cramping legs.

Never before have I been cursing society more for making us fear drinking from nature's streams.

Friday, a group of 10 of us from the club and the team decided to migrate over to Mt. Hood and climb some real climbs. Not these little prissy 2-3 mile climbs like we have around Portland. Real hills. Hills that you climb for a solid hour or more.

The ride started well for me, with the first climb being a few miles into the ride and lasting a good hour. My heartrate was high; not sure if this was from the heat or the elevation (probably the heat), but it was a consistent 10bpm higher than normal for the power output. Then a hair raising descent along a narrow, gravel road for five miles; full of potholes and teeth rattling washboard.

We make it to a store at the bottom of the descent and restock. Each of us have three waterbottles, except for one of us, the smart one, who brought a camelback. He was the only one of us who didn't run out of water on the following monster of a climb. The climb in front of us now is 25 miles long. I don't comprehend this. I don't think I've ever done a climb that's required over an hour to ascend.

We start out at a hard pace. 90% of ftp, is the number I am looking at warily on the display of my powermeter. 90%. Can I hold this for two and a quarter hours? Really? 300W and I am keeping up with the group. Then I drop off, my heartrate, which is still higher than I am used to for the power output, at 180bpm. 270W and I am losing ground. 250W and I am starting to suffer. My heartrate isn't dropping with the decreased power. I look at the readout and do a quick manual reading of my pulse. Yup, I'm really pinging 180bpm.

I am going through my water at a worrying rate. Then the first twinges of an impending cramp. I pry an electrolyte pill out of my jersey pocket. Hopefully that will keep things from cramping up completely. I am starting to get chills. That's not good. It's a sign of impending heat exhaustion, when the body temperature starts rising because the body can't regulate it's temperature anymore.

I can barely eak out 200W now. Then the full cramp. I wait it out, stopped, straddling my bike. My plan is to wait for some of the guys I know are behind me, but I wait and wait; they are very, very far behind. One guy, the guy with the camelback, passes me and declines my invitation to stop. He's probably the smart one. Legs tend to seize up if you stop for too long. I have the opposite problem. I pop a couple more electrolyte pills, this time chewing through the capsule to make them take effect faster. I get going again, start catching the guy who passed me, then cramp again. 10 miles of climbing to go and I have 2 inches of water in two waterbottles left.

I round a corner and find the team regrouped and waiting. We stop and wait for the rest of the group; two more who were behind me, one with a flat, and one who was suffering worse than me. All regrouped, I get another waterbottle filled with stream water and iodine from one of my teammates. At the behest of another, I put in some Alka Seltzer, which is rumored to buffer against cramping. Off we go again. Feeling better, I still get dropped, but I'm no longer getting chills. Probably because there is a headwind now keeping us cool while obliterating the legs. Exchanging one poison for another, I walk a fine line between making progress up the hill and cramping.

Finally, it ends.

I reach one summit, go downhill for a ways, then climb over another, smaller summit and there's the rest of the group at a store. Then 8 or 9 miles of downhill back to the start.