Jefferson Cup Road Race: And Then There Was One

Registering for this one was a last minute decision. Having a significant portion of my life consumed by it was not. With the pressure on for The Dirt Field, it was the focus of more conversations than I can count. We discussed the entry list, the course features, the final 2 kilometers, how training in the preceding week might affect performance, what type of gas to put in the car, race strategy, sock choice. No stone was left unturned. Then, about a week out, I realized that I’d need to find some kind of training ride to do that day. Might as well race, right?

It wasn’t quite that simple – this would be a better story if it were – but it’s not untrue. In reality, I wanted more from Black Hills. Despite not doing badly, I was disappointed in myself for thinking of giving up so quickly and felt like I should have done more. I wanted to prove to myself that I could keep my head in it, but Jeff Cup was the only chance for a few weeks. And then there was the matter of upgrade points. I’ve resisted discussing exactly how much I want to earn my Cat 2 upgrade for fear of public failure, but there it is. I can’t even explain why I want it so badly, but I do and there’s no turning back. All of these factors were weighed against the risk of showing up to the race and getting hurt, wasting energy and resources to go and not achieve anything, and a streak of utter failure with road racing. When you train for 60 minute crits, a 60 mile road race is daunting. But it was there, my teammates were going, I’d already talked over every single aspect of the event, and, at the end of the day, it’s still a competition.

But I only had a few days to stress about it. I like my method.

The race plan was simple: my sole teammate and I would wait for the finish to burn our matches, letting teams with bigger numbers do the chase work. I was anxious and it showed on the first couple laps, as I sat on a break attempt or two and stuck my nose in the wind too much. A few reassuring words from Pierce brought me back to Earth and we settled in for the long haul. Around 2.5 laps in, Bike Doctor’s rival sprinter flatted, ending his day. Apparently the wheel truck didn’t even stop for him. Without that wheel to mark, I would be relying completely on Pierce for the rest of the race. A lap later Pierce flatted. It was the end of his day and it took my head out of the game. If my ride home hadn’t been feeding for the Pro/1/2/3 race, I might have pulled the plug right then.

I stayed in, hoping to coast in to a safe finish. On lap 5, that didn’t seem very likely. The field was a little sketchy all day, and the 5th trip up The Hill felt a lot worse than the preceding 4. Fast forward to lap 6 and I’d somehow managed to stay in contact with the lead group. It hurt and my legs were starting to feel rubbery underneath me, but to not shoot my bullet in the finish wouldn’t be right. I began a half lap of negotiations with myself and ultimately determined that no matter how understanding my friends and teammates might be about a lackluster finish, I would still walk away disappointed f if I didn’t leave everything on the tarmac.

And that nearly happened. With Bike Doctor’s sprinter out, The Bike Lane leadout compromised, and no clear leadership in the field, the final 2 kilometers were some of the scariest I’ve ever raced. Despite being in the first 20 wheels, I couldn’t see the front of the field. People were bumping off each other left and right, and a whole lot of guys that don’t normally contest the gallop found themselves sniffing the line. I found daylight off to the side just outside of 200 meters to go, jumped into it, and did my best to whirl my little rubber cankles around to get something resembling a sprint. It was good for 2nd in the field, which landed me on the last step of the podium. I’m happy with it.

Now begins a very much ancitipated rest week. It’s definitely a lot easier to go into it without the weight of a disappointing performance on my shoulders. And to have learned a few things about myself to help my game moving forward is a good feeling. April Fools may have been Sunday, but the first Tuesday in April is Root Beer Float Night. Jeff Cup may have been worthwhile, but you can’t beat corn syrup with a big heaping helping of sugar.

Black Hills Circuit Race: In Which I Rediscover Heart Palpitations

In 2010, the race season started with the Richmond International Raceway Criterium. It was flat. And had no turns.

In 2011, it started in North Carolina with the Wolf Pack Road Race. Not quite flat, but only a few turns per lap and only about four laps.

This year, my first race was on the roads of Black Hills Regional Park. Each 1.5 mile lap nearly doubled the amount of turning that Wolf Pack did over 10 miles – repeat 14 times – and the elevation change was enough to sear the legs every lap. Between the snap out of each bend and the climbing and the up-front riding to stay out of the way of the inevitable crashes, Team Bike Doctor’s event had ‘litmus test’ written all over it. And then there were the nerves.

Oh, right. The nerves. Hello, friends.

60 minutes [or maybe less] stood between me and some sort of validation or the kind of defeat that keeps you awake at night wondering why your attachments are so small. Nothing’s more fun than watching your own race from the sidelines.

Standing in the staging parking lot, I quickly remembered that my pre-race resting heart rate was over 100bpm. It’s the little things that make competing so endearing. Like having to pee less than 5 minutes before the start no matter how many times you’ve already gone or how little you’ve had to drink. Racing’s idiosyncrasies quickly floated back into my head like it hadn’t been 6 months. Until the race started, anyway.

Whoever said “it’s just like riding a bike” has clearly never been on the bike while  jammed onto 6 feet of pavement with a 75 alpha males all trying to occupy that same piece of real estate.  ‘It’ does not come back quickly. It is nerve wracking and fast moving and a blur of “what the crap are you doing? Hold your damn line!” So much for a seamless return to the peloton.

So, race recap. First half: uneventual. Attacks, counters, attacks. Every surge saw an HPC kid racer try to go up the road. Not kidding. Every one. Second half: uneventful. At least, that’s what I thought. It wasn’t. People shouted time gaps from the sidelines. 10 seconds. 15 seconds. 20 seconds. After a couple laps of this, I bit and asked around to figure out how many had escaped.

4. Brain off. Ugh.

And right then I packed it in. There were less than 4 laps remaining and the break wasn’t coming back despite my teammate’s best efforts. Helping him reel it in would leave nothing in our quiver for the resulting sprint. It felt a little hopeless.

When the field resigned to duke it out for 5th, my teammate – Pierce – rotated back around to ensure our plan was still queued up. I told him I was done. Sprinting for a slim shot at the last couple upgrade-point positions didn’t seem worth the risk. He shook his head ‘no’ and said we were going for it. [About Pierce: he’s 165 pounds of 6′ 3″ freight train. Working to try to bring back the break at this race, he set a personal record for 20 minute power of 399 watts. You’ll never get him to admit a race was hard, and he never shuts down a big effort. Easily one of my best friends, I sometimes hate the guy on a bike.] I’m pretty sure that they could hear me groan all the way back in Virginia.

As the bell sounded for the final lap, Pierce began threading us through the field. Half a lap to go, pre-flight checks began and the pace really ramped up. As soon as we reached the marker for open road – about 300 meters from the line – Pierce gave it full gas and I held on for dear life.

I never made it around. We swept the field sprint to lock in 5th and 6th places. All things considered, not a bad result. For somebody who fancies himself a sprinter, keeping the field at bay up that damn the hill was a minor victory in itself. A week later, I’m still kicking myself for missing the break. But that’s racing. It won’t happen again.

The day finished with Chipotle, where every dedicated athlete fuels up on essential amino acids and vital nutrients. Or something like that. It was not a day to christen a wild new victory salute. But it was also not the one that had me laying in bed wondering who swapped out the things in my shorts for peas. I’ll always hope for more, but this wasn’t a bad foot to put forward on the first day of the new race season. And considering that in 2011 the 3/4 field seemed totally out of reach, it’s improvement I won’t complain about.

Col d’Wintergreen

Google Maps says I was in Rockfish, Virginia. The Postal Service insists on Nelson, Virginia. I’ve never cared less. It’s at the top of a mountain. And it’s surrounded by other mountains. I went with nine guys from my bike racing team for spring training camp. Did I mention that every road goes up? Geographically, I’m not sure how that works. But it’s true.

Last year, I spent every afternoon, all afternoon, on the bike. The average week included fifteen hours of riding; about twenty with weekends tacked on. When it was time to race, I knew I’d prepared well. Ask a coach and you’ll get an earful about how base mile after base mile is a pretty inefficient way to go about training. And it is. But lots of time on the bike begets confidence. This year, things are going a bit differently. Most of my workouts are less than an hour and a half long: there are lots of intervals, I’m working on my diet, and I’ve been spending a lot of time in the gym. In theory, it’s an efficient, effective way to specifically train the body.

In practice, all the time spent not on the bike compared to a more hours-heavy training plans is spent second guessing yourself. It doesn’t help that this year’s goal is a lot more difficult to achieve than last year.

So I was quietly anxious about how things would go when I got here. I know where my fitness should be in relation to my teammates, but the routine of chatty Saturday morning rides punctuated with a couple minutes of drag racing isn’t very informative. The first race in the region is was March 25th, if this weekend turned into a disaster of suffering and chasing, it would be time to reevaluate my expectations. File under: Things I Do Not Want To Do.

Saturday morning, we spent hours talking about racing this year, team tactics, and “bonding.” Or whatever. Riding started at the crack of one in the afternoon. That did awesome things for the performance anxiety.

Pretending to be the seasoned vet, I got ready to ride and rolled out the front door without much talk. That was kind of a mistake. All I knew was that we were supposed to be doing a “big ride.” I never asked what the route was, how long we’d be out, if I’d need to pack a sleeping bag. As it turns out, “big” means three and a hour hours and seven thousand feet of climbing, which is sort of like having salad with a side of salad. “Demolished” pretty accurately describes how I felt when we finished the final ascent and collapsed back in to the house.

Result: exactly how I hoped I’d ride. But that didn’t stop me from finding reasons to believe that the performance was a fluke, or not representative of this season’s actual competition. Being neurotic is fun.

On Sunday, we drove a third of the way home to pre-ride the Jefferson Cup circuit. Having come down with some kind of mucus-all-up-in-my-lungs sickness, I did one lap and got back in my car. Not really the way you want to wrap up camp, but it was the smart decision and my body thanked me for it.

Next up is Black Hills Circuit Race. If camp was a nervous, anxiety-inducing experience, only can only imagine how race day will go.

Wintertime Blues

Winter can be a tough time to be a bike racer. Yeah, it’s cold and the weather is crap and all that. But the bit about not racing is the worst. Not that the racing season isn’t long enough. Last year, begrudging start line speeches from USA Cycling officials started at the beginning of March.  By July, I was so fried that top-20 finishes excited me. So when I was still racing in September, October’s rest month seemed like it would be an extended stay in a 5-star hotel. And it was. Riding only when it sounded fun. Alcohol whenever the mood struck – even if it was on the way to the ride. Whatever. Damn. Food. I. Wanted. And November’s training wasn’t all death marches to drum beats. A few hours a day. An interval or two here and there for good measure. Some gym work to feel all Manly ‘n Shit. A winter of this? Awesome.

Except not.

Time away from competition is like trying to replicate evolution by taking an eel out of the ocean and telling it to grow legs. And lungs. Then build a house. I’ve been managing, I suppose, but it’s more by way of distraction than anything else. Training is synonymous with relative performance: when I clamp the bike to the trainer, I wonder if I’m doing enough. Am I working hard enough? Am I doing enough hard work? Am I resting enough? Did that second coke go to my cankles? Did I eat enough to make sure the effort didn’t go to waste? Who ate better? Who trained better?

I am a carnival of insecurity. So much for Manly ‘n Shit.

No sin is safe and no good deed goes unpunished. In April, I will know where I stand. I will have found my way to finish lines with hundreds of other racers and done well or not. But in February, it’s all anxiety and nerves and second guessing.

And so I’ve been filling my time with Other Things. There are things Out There that are interesting and aren’t bike racing. Who knew? I now own a Triumph motorcycle, which is like earning a degree in electrical engineering every day. And I fixed up my Suzuki so that I have a motorcycle to ride. I started a blog. And I’ve been exploring some of the, previously wholly unbeknownest to me, finer establishments the area has to offer. And some of the not-so-fine. And I have a renewed interest in cars. Of all things… cars? The last time I was interested in a nice car was. Erm. I got my motorcycle license in… 2004? The Lady is even helping with my wardrobe.

Shut up. At least I know I can’t dress myself.

It almost resembles balance. And I’ve heard that balance is a pretty healthy thing. That should make me faster, right? Black Hills is March 25th. Then I can start beating myself up for not having sprinted harder or for letting that gap open. But at least if will be something I can process. And maybe I’ll hang on to a couple of these other neat discoveries.

Pipeburn

Last November, I decided it was time for a new motorcycle. My supermoto had been getting more and more time out on the road, but it wasn’t cutting it. Trips on the highway were pretty much out – ragging on the motor 2/3 of the way to redline for more than a couple minutes made me cringe – and it wasn’t the most comfortable machine around. Winter was knocking at the door, but getting the little 400 to power it’s own headlight was a big ask, so heated anything was a pipe dream. On top of the usual practical limitations that come with small displacement motorcycles, my better half was developing an affinity for riding with me and I enjoyed sharing the experience with her. Last time I checked, the world wasn’t nearly as accessible with 40 horsepower as it is with 140. Ferrari fast is supposed to be part of the package.

So I laid out my requirements and started crossing bikes off the list. Enlisting the reluctant help of my thoroughly disinterested friends, I concluded that a 2009 Speed Triple in New Orleans was the way to go. A plane ticket and a two day ride later, I put the kickstand down of the coolest streetfighter around in my parking space.

I was content: I owned a genuinely cool motorcycle that made lots of power, would get me through cold winter days when the urge gripped me, had plenty of seat real-estate for two, and made pretty noises. It was a match made in Heaven. Until the next day.

It started giving me trouble almost immediately.  The most predictable kind of trouble for British machines: electrons going places they shouldn’t and not going places they should. It’s been a couple months and the problems still aren’t resolved. I lose patience quickly now and only go out to work on it occasionally, usually when I’ve got a promising idea. I’ve learned a lot about this particular motorcycle, but I’m not sure I like what I’m finding.

At first, an intermittent no-crank condition looked like it could have been caused by a failing clutch switch. My solution would have just been to remove the switch and solder the wires together. The Internet warns against this, though, because the ECU won’t play nice with fuel maps if it thinks the clutch is pulled in all the time. Then I checked relays. Five of them, I think. After that, the starter solenoid. Eventually, I learned that the ECU will automatically cut power to the starter if the battery voltage falls below a certain level. The number of sensors and switches and safeties and fuses and general electrical complications of this motorcycle is staggering. And, as motorcycle electro-magic trickery goes, it’s a pretty simple machine.

These days, premier race machines – you know, those barely-disguised plastic wonder rockets that litter your dealer showroom and local bike hangout – are coming equipped with ABS and traction control and variable everything to get the most out of the motor in every conceivable circumstance. There are miles of wire in them. The computer can even decide which things to shut down in the event of  an insufficient-current circumstance. That Triumph? It won’t start if the headlamps are burnt out.

Full Stop.

I’m sorry. What? The bike thinks it’s better to be stuck somewhere than allow the rider to assess the risks of the situation and find the best solution?

When did we set this precedent? The starter button, which used to be a glorified solenoid jump, plumbs to the ECU which determines if it’s okay to crank the bike over before sending a signal to a relay to switch the solenoid. The kill switch routes through that same little black box along with a hundred other things. That box controls ideal fueling and spark, it reads air temperature and gear position and whether or not the kickstand is up or down and computes a really weird miles-per-gallon figure and has a magic 8-ball feature.

I remember sometime about 2006, I didn’t own a car for the better part of a year. A ’99 CBR600F4 was my primary means of transportation. It was a simple bike: electronic ignition, four carburetors, braided steel cables from the twistgrip to the throttle plates. Nothing fancy. And it quit. By the end of the year, it seemed like I was working on it every weekend. It never left me stranded, but I realized that motorcycles weren’t up to the task of every day use like their 4-wheeled counterparts and I broke down and bought one. My Honda couldn’t, so what kind of hubris lead Triumph to believe that they could overcomplicate the issue and still come out with a reliable product? Triumph… of Lucas Electrics infamy.

I’ve got a workable solution thought-out for the Speed Triple. It’s not perfect, but it will allow me to enjoy my investment. This is well and good, but  now I can’t shake the feeling that motorcycles have headed in the wrong direction. Most MotoGP racers will tell you that the most important person in the garage right now is the guy that sorts out their electronic aids. And that’s trickling down to street bikes very, very quickly. We’re in an age of CAN-bus technology and fly-by-wire throttles. I’m becoming less and less confident that I’ll be able to fix my motorcycle on the side of the road if I end up there… air, fuel, and spark aren’t as simple to track down as they once were.

Less is more. It’s worth giving a shot. All this extra stuff doesn’t seem to be working for me, anyway.

The Sound And The Fury

… I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire; it’s rather excruciatingly apt that you will use it to gain the reducto absurdum of all human experience which can fit your individual needs no better than it fitted his or his father’s. I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it.” 

Faulkner, 1929