Monday, May 31, 2010

Snake Alley Criterium (in 6 words)

Big man no go up hill.

(Inspired by Six-Word Memoirs)

EDIT: Proof that I was top 10 the first time up the snake...but more importantly, proof there was an old guy in flat pedals and tube socks in the race. Picture compliments of Vanessa.

Wapello-Burlington Road Race 2010

This past Friday, I departed, along with teammate Trent, for a weekend of racing in Iowa. I am originally from Iowa and would be staying at my parents house all weekend. I was excited for three races (two of which are quite unique) in one weekend.

The first of the three races was the Wapello-Burlington Road Race. The race was a point-to-point 33 mile road race. Point-to-point road races are fairly uncommon for Cat 5's in the Midwest, so I was excited to be participating in something different. The course was fairly simple, 33 miles of rolling hills with a downhill sprint into downtown Burlington.

I was nervous because this was my first road race. I was coming off of a tough week of work and my head was nowhere near where it needed to be for me to be competitive for 33 miles of racing. My biggest concern was staying hydrated and eating enough. Being a big guy, I tend to sweat more and burn more calories than my competitors. In 30-45 minute crits, this isn't a big deal. But 33 miles in 90 degree heat is a different story. I decided to race with 3 bottles, all filled with Gu Brew and a couple of Gu Energy Gels in my jersey. This ended up not being the right choice, but an ok choice in the end.

They lined us up early and made us stand in the sun for quite a while, but the race went off pretty close to on-time. The race started out so slow that I thought we had a neutral roll-out. There was no neutral roll-out, but we nonetheless rode at 16 mph for almost a mile. Finally a Bike Burlington who was right in front of me moved to the front. I followed him and ended up sitting second wheel for the 4 miles he pulled. We were mostly riding with crosswinds so I was not too concerned about sitting second wheel.

Between miles 5 and 30, nothing too exciting happened. People tried to attack but were always pulled back. Trent and I spent a fair amount of time working on the front trying to keep the pace up and drop some riders off the back but I think our efforts (along with the efforts of others at the front) were generally unsuccessful. The problem we had to deal with was farm equipment on the rode. Such an Iowa problem! The course officials would not let us pass the vehicles by ourselves, so when we came upon one, we would have to slow down, giving everyone time to catch up, and then pass when the course officials let us go around. This was frustrating, but probably did not have much of an effect on the outcome of the race.

Around mile 22, I was moving up on left side of the pack. At the same time, another rider, who was in the middle of the pack decided to move over to the left for no reason, pushing the rider next to me and myself into the other lane. I got a warning from the course official for crossing the line but fortunately he did not pull me. Little did I know how foretelling this incident would be.

The officials had told us at the start that when we saw the Case plant, we were a mile and half from the finish and the finish was downhill. I took this to mean that the course was downhill from the Case plant. Oops. I guess it would have been beneficial to have driven the course before, oh well. I attacked right after the Case plant and was actually able to get some separation. However, after I turned the corner, I realized that there was an uphill before the downhill (there were actually two). So I slowed down and came back into the pack.

After cresting the hill, we were working down the descent when someone on the front tried another attack. I was sitting a bike length behind Trent with no one in between. The rider next to him, the same rider that had swerved earlier, decided to try and cut across two people horizontally (I have no idea why) and clipped the rider next to me's wheel. The rider next to me made a valiant attempt to save it, but he ended up going down hard. The last thing I saw was a carbon wheel near my head, but luckily I escaped unscathed. I looked back and no one had made it past the crash after me. I looked forward to see about 15 riders in front of me. Mentally, I was completely fried and let a gap grow. The lead riders went crested the final hill before the finish and I was a couple bike lengths behind everyone. As I saw the finish about 500m ahead, I got in the drops and gave it all I had. I passed two people and finished a satisfying 14th. Trent rolled in ahead of me picking up 7th. Sprinting at 40 mph on a downhill was an exhilarating experience!

Reflecting on the race, I was quite happy with how well I rode. I was active on the front and finished well considering the circumstances. I will make sure to never try and drink 3 bottles of Gu Brew in a race as I ended up giving myself terrible cottonmouth. I am really not a believer in blaming people for crashes, but the rider error I witnessed in the race was disappointing. I took it as a lesson on what racing in the 5's could be like.

After the race, Trent and I took a quick ride up the Snake (see the next blog entry) and rode the bus back to Burlington. We headed back to Iowa City for some food and quick rest before attempting to conquer one of the toughest crits in the U.S.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Tour of California - Stage 8

Stage 8 took place in Westlake Village, CA which is a couple miles northwest of Los Angeles. The race started at a mall in Thousand Oaks, CA and had a neutral roll-out until it reached the real start/finish line in Westlake Village. The rider would do 4 laps on a brutal 20 mile(ish) circuit with 2 big climbs each lap. Due the layout of the race, I decided it would be too hard to try and go to the initial start and then jump in my car to try and catch the rest of the race in Westlake Village. This ended up being a great decision as I was able to snag and amazing spot to watch the race.

This post will be much shorter than the previous one, I promise! I spent pretty much the whole day in the same spot because it gave a fantastic view of the race every time it came around and the race announcer kept the fans updated (as well as the flatscreen behind him...more on that later.) My only regret of the day was not somehow procuring a bike and riding out to the the climb where craziness ensued.

The main thing I learned standing in the same spot all day was that there were not a whole lot of people in attendance that knew anything whatsoever about cycling. Now that I sound like an elitist, let me give you some examples. The large family in front of me was decked out in exclusively free t-shirts. They singlehandedly repped just about every sponsor of the tour of California...and cheered more for the police cars than the actual racers. The man standing in front of me at the end of the race remarked to me, "Isn't it funny that the guy leading the race is named Mitt Romney?" For those that are unaware, the race leader, and winner's, name is Michael or "Mick" Rogers. The person near me who seemed to know the most about cycling was the drunk senior citizen who spoke exclusively in a foreign language and was waving a Slovenian flag that appeared to be signed by none other than the Slovenian Time Trial Champion, Jani Brajkovic. This alleged cycling knowledge was unfortunately removed by the Police after he tried to steal a folding chair from the aforementioned family.

Near the end of the race, I spotted prolific cycling blogger Neil Browne (a.k.a. @neilroad) of whom I am a huge fan. So I used the zoom on the camera to take a creeper picture that was reminiscent of my sister's pictures of *NSYNC from when she was 14.

I promised this post would be shorter, so I must end the stories. I shot a lot of awesome (or what I consider awesome) video. I have posted it all in chronological order below. Hope you enjoy!

The field rolls through the start line after the neutral roll-out:

Lap 2 begins as the break rolls through, followed by the peloton:

Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) and Mark Renshaw (HTC-Columbia) who dropped out of the race earlier in the week threw on their team kits to take a ride through the finish line! In the middle of the race!

The break begins the third of four laps:

The peloton begins the final lap (I accidentally deleted the video of the break grrrr):

Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Transitions) beats out U.S. National Champion George Hincapie (BMC) to take the final stage! Mick Rogers rolls through shortly after in the Golden jersey to take the overall.

Tour of California - Stage 7

I have been an avid cycling fan for about two years now and I decided it was time to attend my first professional stage race. Luckily, the wonderful people of AEG moved the Tour of California to May and drew an absolutely stunning line up of riders. So I packed my bags and headed off to LA to catch the finals two stages.

The first stage I attended was Stage 7, the individual time trial in LA. I arrived early and had no idea what to expect. I took a quick browse through the "Lifestyle Festival" (read: free stuff) but quickly realized that this was the seventh day in a row that these people had set up their tent, and as I was there an hour and a half before it opened, their grumpiness was understandable. I walked down to the finish line expecting a big crowd of people camping out for the prime spot. I instead found some disappointing news. Unless you were "VIP", you weren't getting any closer than 100m to the finish line. This was made more annoying by the fact that there was a bend in the course just after 50m to go. So I would not be watching the end live.

I grabbed a quick breakfast burrito and some coffee and went back to exploring. I met an awesome dude at the Felt (makers of Garmin-Transitions bikes) tent and chatted for a while about the brand new TT bikes the argyle boys would be riding in the afternoon. I found out he was a former team mechanic and heard some interesting stories about David Millar's finicky bike needs and Tyler Farrar's R-rated rants. He pointed me to the team buses and I headed over to see if I could meet any riders.

After finding the team buses, I learned that time trial days are the worst days to meet riders. Most of the riders I encountered were noticeably nervous and focused on their time trial. I did have the pleasure of chatting with Mike "Meatball" Friedman (Jelly-Belly) a former Garmin rider and Chicagoland native. He had been DQ'ed for drafting a team car the day before, so he had a lot of time to talk. I also had the chance to chat with Steven Cozza (Garmin-Transitions) and his parents. It was fascinating to hear Meatball and Steve chat about "the olden days." I realized that it wasn't that long ago that these guys were working their way up through the amateur ranks that I have recently become familiar with. After an awkward failed attempt to meet Ryder Hesjedal (one of my absolute favorite riders) and Jonathan Vaughters (team director) I decided to go find a spot to watch the time trial.

I ended up finding a prime spot about 150m from the finish line. The problem was, the course was two laps and there was no way to find out riders times. So I was basically watching guys fly by with no idea whether they were finishing or taking another lap; no idea if they were doing well or not; and in many cases I couldn't even tell who the rider was unless it was a national champion (or Fabian Cancellara). I snapped some pictures at a couple of places around the course but got bored of following the race by checking my iPhone, or following just as I would were I at home.

I headed back to the team buses to see if I could see any of the big guns warming up. This was pretty much as unsuccessful as the first attempt to see riders (to give some perspective, Mick Rogers was warming up IN the team bus to avoid people!). I found that the start line was the best place to watch because there was an announcer who kept us up on how people were riding and giving final and intermediate splits.

After all the riders had taken off, I went back up to the finish (or near the finish) and watched Rogers, DZ and Levi finish on the Versus broadcast being shown on a jumbotron on the outside of the ESPNZone. I definitely enjoyed the day but it was a first lesson in the difficulty involved in watching a bike race.

All of my photos and 1 video from Stage 7.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Fox River Grove Cycling Challenge 2010

Honestly, I did not know about the hill when I signed up. I promise.

For those that don't know, the aptly name Fox River Grove Cycling Challenge is a crit on a 1.2 mile course with an 80 vertical feet climb up the back of a nordic ski jumping hill. For those that know, sorry for just making your stomach churn thinking about that climb.

For those that don't know, I weigh around 230 pounds at the moment. That is a laughable amount of weight to think about carrying up a climb (in a race?). I think that I outweighed the winner of the 1/2/3's race and the 4's race combined. Or maybe the entire juniors podium. I'm not making excuses.

I actually did alright the first time up of the climb, as evidenced by the same guy who recorded Vernon Hills two weeks ago.

If you get a little bit into this video (and parts 2 and 3) you will notice a lack of Matt. Yeah, the race was over for me after lap 1. The second time up hurt infinitely more than the first and left me gasping for air at the top. There was a guy taking pictures at the apex of the climb and I'm sure he had a good time laughing at the pictures of me on Sunday night. On one of the laps I think I even hammed it up a little bit for him and really gritted my teeth.

EDIT - Here's a preview (thanks to Tim Speciale of Psimet and the photographer Katie Cook)

To keep it short (the race was only 20 minutes), I finished, I was not last, and it hurt the whole time. But the descent was fun! There's nothing like bombing a corner while experiencing serious oxygen debt. This will go on the NRTDA (no reason to do again) list for next year assuming I don't lost 70 pounds in the offseason.

Speaking of hills, next up is the Burlington Road Race, Snake Alley and Melon City over Memorial Day weekend in my home state. I am excited to race with some Iowans and see the family.

Monsters of the Midway 2010

Monsters of the Midway holds a somewhat special place in my heart. It was the first bike race that I attended in person. It was also where I saw my teammate lying on the ground moments after smashing her face on the ground. My emotions going into the day were about the same: excited to race another crit after a successful ride at Vernon Hills but weary of the course that for some reason is home to so many crashes. The 5's filled up before I had a chance to register, so I settled on the 4/5's thinking it would be a safer race and thinking I would probably only race once to save energy for Fox River Grove the next day.

One of the great things about Monsters is that it is only a quick warm-up ride from where I live. I jumped on the lakepath, met up with my teammate Ben, and dodged the four-seater family bikes and stray children and dogs all the way down to the Midway. I arrived with plenty of time to watch a couple races and get a good warm-up. When I got to the Midway my stomach felt like total crap and my hydration was nowhere near where it needed to be due to a late night out celebrating a certain teammates birthday the night before. I tried to take in as much water as I could, but the crappy weather was not helping me want to do anything but stand around. I got about a 30 minute warm-up in on the trainer and finally started to feel hydrated. I threw on some sweats and went to the edge of the course to watch the end of the 4's. The last lap produced a decent sized crash, but as far as I know, everyone (not everyones' bikes) came out alright. My teammate Drew took 3rd with a well-timed sprint on the outside.

They let us on to the course and I took a couple warm-up laps. I noticed that none of the turns seemed that smooth and all of them were a bit off-canter. My pre-race thoughts were mostly focused on the crash that just happened, the fact that I was racing with 4's and that I was racing in the biggest field I had ever raced in. In short, not the best place for my head. I was totally out of it...and the fact that we got about 8 more warm-up laps due to the ambulance on the course did not help. I lined up in a fairly good spot about 3 back from the front.

The whistle went off and the guy in front of me dropped his chain trying to clip in. My race was instantly going better than at least one other persons. I rode around him and was sitting mid-pack around the first turn. I am quickly coming to love the hilarity that ensues in the first couple turns of a crit. All of the nervous talking, profanity and of course, needless, but is starting to feel like home. I had some great pre-race advice from teammate (more like mentor) Bryan who suggested I shift down into corners 1 and 3 and start shifting up before 2 and 4. This worked out great and I think I was able to save a lot of energy compared to the people that had to stand up coming out of 1 and 3 (and subsequently, every corner).

The first few laps of the race were fairly uneventful. The field was too big to really drop any but the most out of shape. The pattern that seemed to develop was that people would try to move up on the back stretch when there was tailwind and sit in on the front stretch going into the headwind. The problem was that after the crash in the 4's on the back stretch, everyone was moving from the outside of turn 2 to the inside of turn 3 to avoid the bump in the course that had caused the crash. This meant that it was difficult to move up many spots on the back stretch.

Around 20 minutes in, my brain finally turned on and I started to consider what I was going to do. I decided to go on the outside of turn 4 and start moving up the outside. I was in perfect position on the second to last lap and moved up a ton of spots to about mid pack (I'm guessing around 20th.) Problem. I thought it was the third to last lap. Problem. As I was making my move up the outside, I realized (somewhat late) that there were 2 orange cones on the course next to the officials stand that I needed to avoid. In the adrenaline rush caused by the two pesky orange cones, I completely missed the bell. Oops.

I was able to maintain my position all the way into turn 3 when my teammate, birthday boy, did a hilariously bad job of taking the corner and almost crashed me out. I didn't really care, but the guy behind me definitely did. Oops. As I came around turn 4, everyone sprinted like normal...except a lot more than normal. After I was passed by a couple people I started to realize the mistake I made. I stood up and gave the sprint all I had, but everyone that wanted to sprint it out was lonnngg gone. I did nip a guy at the line to ensure a top 40 (haha) finish.

Overall, another great race for me. Being able to hang with the 4's was a good boost of confidence. However, nothing had prepared me for the pain that was to come the next day. Next stop: Fox River Grove.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Vernon Hills Grand Prix 2010

My blog as it formerly existed is dead for now...but I am still going to use this as a place to post my race reports. For those that have never visited, please feel free to enjoy the 134 posts of complete nonsense (and 1 race report)...for those who were fans of the nonsense, call my bosses and tell them to give me less work!

Quick background: my teammates convinced me last year at a 312 fueled event (thanks to the generous people at Goose Island) that I should try out racing. I got a quick introduction by racing two races (in one day) last year at the Ronald Reagan Crit. I walked away from these races with a couple of thoughts: bike racing is exhilarating and something I want to do again, I am not in good enough shape to be remotely competitive and that was not as scary as advertised. I took those thoughts into the offseason, along with a CycleOps Fluid trainer that I snagged through a great deal from the people at Green River Adventure Sports before I left Dixon that day.

The next 7 months were spent in the gym and logging hours on the trainer with thoughts of what was to come in next season. For those that aren't familiar with winter training as a cyclist living in Chicago, here is a great visualization. As I signed up for Vernon Hills, I wondered (often) was all that misery worth it?

Sunday dawned early for the Cat 5's...we had the pleasure of an 8:10am start time. I woke up at 5:30am with enough nervous energy to power the lights in my dark apartment. Trent and I packed up the car and headed up to Vernon Hills. The ride up was rainy and definitely did not take any nervousness away. At least I remembered my shoes though, thanks to the inside collar of our 2010 jerseys.

We arrived a little later than planned and after Trent tried to register for the kids wrestling tournament, we realized that registration was not inside the high school. By the time we registered and pinned our jerseys, we realized that we did not have enough time to set up the trainers for a proper warm-up. I was not excited about this change in plans because, if you know me, you know I have a big engine that takes some time to get started. We headed up to the course to check things out and try to warm up a bit. The course seemed pretty basic and wide-open. I noticed that on two of the turns, there was a median after the turn that was probably not going to be a lot of fun to navigate with 50 other Cat 5's. I made a mental note to be either on the inside or outside on the turns if it all possible, to avoid making love to the nicely planted trees on the medians. I felt really good after the warm-up and lined up in the 3rd row behind Trent. Trent's number was on wrong so I found myself with something to do to distract me from getting nervous at the line.

The race started off smoothly with both Trent and I clipping in flawlessly. We were sitting about mid-pack as the race got started. At the second turn, I was shocked at how slow things got. We were slowing down to less than 10mph at the 2nd and 3rd turn every time. This of course provided the wonderful accordion effect...every time. After 3 laps of accordion-fun-time, I started to feel the work in my lungs and legs. As I had never finished a race without getting dropped, I only knew second-hand of the fact that crits tend to slow-down a bit after the first couple I kept telling myself that people were probably right and fought off the ill feelings my body was sending to my brain. The next thing I knew, I heard 5 laps to go.

Hearing 5 laps to go and passing a lapped rider was exhilarating for me because I knew at that moment that the months of training were worth it. My mental game turned on as my body recovered slightly and I realized that I was damn tired of sprinting out of every corner. So I decided to find a wheel I liked up front and stick to it. I had lots of choices, but I decided that since Joel Friedman had won this race the year before (and subsequently was a Cat 3 at the end of the season) and rode for Bicycle Heaven, that the Bicycle Heaven guy that had been upfront the whole time seemed like a good wheel. I made a good choice and was able to save a lot of energy not having to work as hard out of the corners. With (I think) just over 3 laps to go, I saw Trent sitting up front, so I decided to join him...which for some reason turned into me deciding to increase the pace and pull for almost half a lap. This was silly, and I knew it at the time, but at that point, I was joy riding. Luckily, someone was rocking a helmet cam and recorded the whole race...including my joy-ride on the front.

After my cheeky pull up front, I knew the race for 1st was pretty much over for me (not that it had ever started). At 2 laps to go, the pace increased and since I had lost my position near the front I was back to sprinting out of the corners. As the bell rang for the final lap I was sitting about 20th and remained there until the final corner. Everyone gunned it out of the final corner and (now back-to-back Cat 3 winner) Nate's words of wisdom from the previous week rang through my head "be patient because everyone will sprint too early." The problem was, at this point in the race, Nate would be sitting top 10, not sitting at the back of the lead group...haha, oops. So while everyone took off, I momentarily lost contact and had to sprint just to catch back on to the pack. I sat back down and got ready for my first field sprint...but then realized I didn't have any energy to sprint anyways. I saw the guy immediately in-front of me give up so I stood up to sprint around him and ended up catching someone else. Altogether, a great race and a proud 28th place finish for my first time ending with the pack.

Next stop, Monsters of the Midway.