Monday, November 14, 2011

Forgive me coach, for I have sinned

The title might be slightly inflammatory but it gets the message across.  The opportunity arose late this week for a chance to race in the NCCX series of races in Charlotte and I felt like this was a once in a year opportunity that I should not avoid.  In this situation, I'd advocate for a "do as I say, not as I do" kind of interpretation.  I'd never recommend someone doing this in what is supposed to be "downtime."  But, I thought long and hard and 3 minutes later decided to sign up for the race.  Beg for forgiveness rather than ask for permission, right?

For those that don't know, the NC Cyclocross Series is a series of cyclocross races in North Carolina.  Uhhh, well...I guess that summed it up nicely?  For those that are unaware of what cyclocross is - and I'd guess that if you're reading this you have a pretty good idea - it's kind of like a cross (haha...good one me) between mountain bike racing and criterium racing.  The bikes are slightly modified road bikes (to accept wider tires and cantilever brakes) and the race is held on "trails."  I say "trails" but really the races are roped off in existing parks and rarely are there true "trails."  It's basically an off-road crit.  For good measure, organizers like to throw in fun obstacles like barriers, sand pits, stairs, steep hills (up and down), tight turns (sharper than 90 degrees), off camber turns, off camber descents, roots, rocks, trees, other riders...wait, I've gone too far.  Anyway, long story short, it's a mix of sections that require technique and fitness.  Obviously, my technique is crap but I'd like to think that my fitness is good (or at least better than most in the CX 4 category).

I got to the race site early because races were going on all day and I figured it'd be a good chance to watch and see how others approached the main obstacles (steep hill, sand pit #2, barriers), both for the better and for the not-so-better.  The first one on the course was the steep hill.  It seemed like with enough speed one could get up the 20' or so without getting off the bike.  The problems started when it was crowded or you weren't powerful enough (or just didn't "set up" the hill properly in the lead-up).  Here is an example:
So that can happen.  There's also the danger of it being so crowded that it's just impossible to make it up to the top without un-clipping as you're relying on the person in front of you to make it up and the person in front of him, etc.

The second main obstacle was the sand pits.  More specifically, the second sand pit.  The first had a good lead-in and you could maintain speed through the sand but the second was after a sharp turn and had a sharp turn in the pit so you basically had to get off and carry your bike.

The third and final (main) obstacle were the two barriers.  These were especially tricky because they were on a slight downhill with a long, straight lead up and to further complicate matters the ground was quite bumpy beforehand; making it difficult to modulate the brakes and slow speed in a controlled manner.  There are three ways of going over barriers: bunny hop (I was not about to try that), portage (carry your bike), or crash.  I was going for option two.  This video was of the Pro 1/2 race and shows the first two options:
The guy that bunny hopped those is crazy.  Not really sure how he did that and I'm not about to try and figure it out myself.  While we were watching one guy got off his bike too late and caught his second foot on the first barrier and basically went sliding head first into the second barrier.  Luckily, he was wearing a helmet and was (mostly) unscathed.  The only time I fell was in the practice lap; as I was going over the second barrier I caught the rear tire on it and tried to hop on a bike that wasn't there.  Needless to say, the results were that I didn't get on the bike...

So needless to say, I was amped up to start the race.  Not in small part due to the fact that I just wanted it to be over!  Luckily Bob and Melissa were there to support (Bob in no small part due to the fact that I was riding his cross-bike!) so they were helping me get excited and cheered a lot during the race.  All the CX 4's started to line up at about 2:25 for a 2:30 start.

The first issue I encountered was that I arrived after everyone had already started to party.  At least 30 people had already lined up and were waiting to I was relegated to the back; I'm not about to be "that guy" in a 'cross race.  The officials did a "call-up" for the top finishers from the week before so that stuck me even further back.  I'd say that there were probably ~50 starters and I was in the last 10-15.  That was bad.  Given the importance of the start in CX events I was already handicapped.  At that point, however, there wasn't much I could do about it....

At the start of the whistle everyone clipped in and sprinted for the holeshot.  I did not get clipped in very smartly but managed to get started ok.  The course started off slightly uphill then took a right turn and went down the same hill and up the very steep climb.
I come in at about 25 seconds on the far left in an all black kit with a blue tri top over some Under Armor (yea, I was that guy wearing a tri top...I love it).  On the first lap it was way, way too crowded to try and ride up so I hopped off early and ended up running past a bunch of people and continued running well past where most people were re-mounting their bikes.  That proved to be a pretty good strategy, surprisingly.  The course then took a couple of twists and turns then hit a downhill off-camber turn (in the first lap a guy on the right slid down this hill) before a quick uphill followed by a longer uphill climb to the finish line area.  Then there was a series of twists and a little straight before an off-camber right hand turn in which the high line was the best followed by a straight then a sharp left turn then some more turns, then some more turns, then some more turns and maybe a straight or two and then the sand pits.  Some technical sections then a sharp downhill followed by a sustained climb onto a paved parking lot area that was a false flat then some twists and turns before eventually getting to the barriers, then some more twists and turns before getting back to where the start intersected with the course (followed by the downhill and steep climb).

The first lap was basically a mad-house.  Of the 4 (4.5 laps really since the start was not the same as the finish) laps we did the first was the most worthless.  I was stuck in the back and didn't know where I'd be able to move up; luckily for me the uphills provided a great opportunity.  On the first lap alone I think I passed 20+ people, mostly (if not entirely) on the 20-30 seconds worth of sustained climbing.  Of course this meant that by the end of the first lap I felt like my heart was going to explode.  It's difficult to explain to people that haven't experienced these feelings (and it's pretty rare in a triathlon to do so...) but you know when you have to pee really bad and it feels like your bladder is pressing really, really hard against you, trying to force it's way out?  Well, imagine that being your heart.  Your heart is so worked up that it wants to pop like a balloon and shut off the pain.  The only others times I have felt this have been during bike races, hard group rides, and intense make-out seshes.  Just kidding about the last one.  I've never done that.

Needless to say, I wanted to slow down but didn't want to be a wuss so I kept on the pressure and made it through lap two feeling virtually the same but gradually making my way up closer to the front.  I consistently lost a little ground on the tight turns and more technical sections but could make up all of that and much more on the sustained climbs.  Once it cleared up a little bit each of the "obstacles" became much easier to tackle.  I was able to ride up the steep hill on the last 3 attempts at going up:
The sand pit also became much easier.  I think with two and a half laps to go I had moved up into top 10 and wasn't that far behind the leaders (although I had no real idea where I was unless Melissa and Bob shouted at me, like so:
Towards the end of the race the barriers also became "easier," just because there were fewer people to deal with and be aware of; luckily I never had any problems during the race but was definitely very careful as this seemed the prime location to injure oneself.
I trod gingerly each and every time over those bad boys.  With one lap to go I had moved somewhere in the vicinity of the top 5 and towards the end I had caught someone in a team kit and was basically keying off his pace throughout the second half of the lap.  We each approached the steep hill and made it up without getting off and continued through the twisty turnies before hitting the climb to the finish.  At this point, I took the outside line and powered around him to the line.  I found out later that resulted in a 5th place finish.


All in all, I was pretty pleased.  I'm a pretty good bike handler as far as roadies/triathletes go but when it comes to off-road my skills are vastly inferior.  Mountain biking was always difficult for me and in this race it was obvious I had a severe lack of finesse through the technical portions.  Luckily, despite my lack of real training recently, I'm still pretty fit and that helped me out immensely.  I think that with a better start - both in terms of location and speed (due in no small part to one's location...) - I could have contended for the win.  I passed almost the entire field throughout the race so that was certainly good.  I'm not sure how many more of these are in my future (probably not many) but it was certainly a fun experience.  I definitely went against the"plans" but I think that, since it was so short, I didn't "hurt" my downtime (too much).

Other than that, this week I swam twice, ran twice and biked thrice (including the 30 minute race).  Next week will be the same (but without a race).  Thanks for reading!

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