Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Ice Weasels Cometh

The Ice Weasels Cometh has quickly become New England's favorite farewell to the cyclocross season. It's a long kiss goodbye, an extra hug from your kids, and one for the road all wrapped up into one. It's as close as the serious New England cyclocross racer will come to the Portland cross experience where costumes, strange bikes and the party seem to be the focus more so than the racing. The competition is so good in New England most here don't want to make cyclocross into the quasi freak show it is in PDX, but it's fun every once in a while to take it all a bit less seriously.

That isn't to say that the racing at IWC isn't serious... it is... that's just that at ICW it's ok to take a beer feed even if you are in contention and snatching a cupcake in stride over the barriers will win you more cheers than any podium spot ever could.

Zanconato Racing was generously added as a co-promoter for the event by the likes of Colin, Kevin and Thom. Thanks guys, that helps us out a bit. As a result, we were all assigned volunteer tasks and comped entries into our respective races. Bonus!

100 riders registered for the 10 am Cat 4 race in 25ish degree weather... and 85+ of them showed. They put on a great show and broke up the crusty snow for the rest of us quite nicely. Thanks guys! The race was won by a guy riding a Surly Pugsley, a perfectly suited bike for the conditions.

Last year at IWC 1.0 I raced the elite field and missed the opportunity to party a bit... After the race everyone was packing up to go home you see. Determined not to repeat my mistake I swapped my entry in the elite field (2pm) for the single speed field at noon. The two kegs from harpoon were tapped at 10, but no way would it all be gone by the time my race ended at 12:45, right?

Wrong! More on that in a moment.

Having no single speed, I would have to zip tie the shifters on my bike to lock out my gears, but not before I took a few laps of the course to decide which gear to lock into. The approach was brilliant: while others had to race what they brought, I was able to take a lap in the 19, then another in the 17, and a third in the 21. Settling on the 19 the gears were locked and I was ready to race. My late number switch earned me the reverse call up... I was at the back of a pack of 50 riders when the whistle went off. Yahoo!!!

I spent the first half lap trying to work up to through the field, and the next full lap moving towards the top 10. Closing in on Kenny at the start of lap two, he went down in a muddy corner and I was vaulted into the top 7. This race paid top 5, so I set off in pursuit of the leaders.

This race was so much fun it is hard to explain. Having only one gear limited the damage that others could do to you, making the race more about bike handling and smooth pedaling. Gearing choice was a big factor as well, and I was pretty sure I had nailed it. Tall enough to get some speed on the straights but not too tall that I couldn't turn it over in the corners.

Once I made it to the top five and into the money I tried to take a feed. The handoff was captured by uber-photag Natasha McKittrick.

photo courtesy of pedal power photography via cxmagazine

With the donut gone, I came around next lap looking for a beer, but was told that both kegs were empty. Dayumm! My focus turned to catching ThomP who was unquestionally a better technical rider that me but appears a bit undergeared for the long straight sections. I nearly made contact with 1.5 laps to go when he flatted and put me into third where I finished.

That course was a blast. I had a great time for the first 6 or 7 laps trying to stay with Al Donahue, a strong elite racer who would normally drop me in an instant but was limited by the single gear. We drove hard into every corner, hoped for traction, accelerated when we got some, and tried to keep it upright when we didn't. Mike Rowell was long gone, he's a tank with lots of single speed experience, and won the race easily. He then won the 35+ race on the same bike, taking 3rd in the combined master's and elite fields.

It was a beautiful snowy and cold day... it was proof that racers can and will race when the conditions are far from perfect. Riders and spectators alike had a blast, we should do this again next year but stretch it into January.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

NBX Day 2: 12.6.09

Let’s pretend that NBX day two was snowy. That’s what we all wanted, wasn’t it? Saturday’s rain was supposed to turn to snow and where I live it did. The yard and trees were gorgeous Sunday morning but as I travelled south to Warwick, the snow cover faded to basically nothing at Goddard Park. Boo hoo.

It was windy though, and if it isn’t going to be snowy it may as well be nice and dry, right? Mostly it was with the exception of a straight at the top of the course that had a long section of rutted mud and a massive puddle. The switchbacks were all clean and dry, taking traction out of the equation and allowing me to give my worn out and used up Fangos one more shot at glory before retiring to the Shady Acres Tubular Villa where they would drive slow, dine early, and screw anything that moved like all the cool seniors do now-a-days.

Clothing selection was stressing me out pre race, but whatever I decided to use worked because I wasn’t too cold nor too hot. I made it for call ups this time (first spot, third row), and watched them all ride away on lap one again. The same cast of characters from the day before were around… J. Ferraro, B. Hornberger, S. Roszko, M. Magur, and D. Snoop. Reading back to earlier race reports from this year, the usual suspects were K. Gauvin, A. Starrett, J. Molongoski, and J. Bernhard… but I wasn’t ever really racing those guys… I was freeloading.

Half a lap into it J. Ferraro’s bike was making all sorts of noise and B. Hornberger slipped off the front. Zank was encouraging me to go chase but that wasn’t happening, it looked like the Brant from 2008 was back and perfectly capable of kicking my a$$. Roszko took over the chase duties almost immediately, Magur and Snoop seemed happy to just sit in (this seems to be a theme with them) and I was mostly second wheel with Ferraro back hanging on to our group as well.

We followed Roszko around for 2.5 laps, and could see that he was trying to keep us behind him without bringing us up to his teammate Brant. He did an admirable job of it, I tried to stick my nose in front in the twisty section at 15 minutes into the race and he immediately accelerated to discourage any change in the order of our group. This happened a few times before we all decided to just follow and wait. Our pace was higher than casual but not unbearable, there was really no one to try and ride up to at that point so I decided to sit in for the most part.

Brant was fading up ahead but still had a large lead and Steve was holding us all off effectively. I was focusing on what it was going to take to beat the group I was with, not so much on catching Brant, so it seemed that staying behind Roszko made sense as he would invariably be worn out from being at the front for so long.

With 2 to go Magur was gone and a half a lap later so was Snoop. It was clear that we were making good ground on Brant and still shedding people as well. Still, Roszko defended his position at the head of the group and we were content to follow. Turning onto the pavement at the bell I could see the D. Staffo was just ahead of Brant, and having stuck to Roszko’s wheel through that last turn I was in a good position to grab a quick breather and then roll through to the front and ramp up the pace. I commented to Steve that he is a good teammate as I took the lead over the line and down the parking lot to begin the final lap.

I realized then that I had a chance not just to beat the group that I had been riding with, but that I could possibly make up two additional spots as well. I attacked hard when the course turned back towards the wind. I made it half way to Brant and maintained first position from my group going into the sand where I knew I’d catch the guys ahead. Running up the hill I could sense that Roszko was going to try and get ahead of me again even as I ran right up to Brant and Staffo, so I used the Paul Curley wide bike carrying trick to keep him behind. At the top Ferraro was the rider on my wheel and we settled in behind the new leaders of the group, Staffo and Hornberger. Roszko crashed on the barriers but the rest of us were there and through the woods cleanly. Staffo attacked on the muddy straight at the top of the course, I grabbed the wheel and Ferraro crashed. Staffo and I pulled away getting to the beach with a dozen bike lengths on Hornberger.

I followed Staffo through the next 4 sweeping turns and attacked him on the last long straight adjacent to the finishing stretch, getting to a tight spot first and forcing him to check the brakes at a time when I was out of the saddle and sprinting. I kept on the gas past the pit and rolled in for 18th.

That last effort to get ahead of Dan wasn’t super graceful and I’m pretty sure that my thrashing around may have contributed to him just wanting to finish the race without getting hurt, but I was glad to still have some pop left at the end like that as ugly as it was.

Post race we drank and ate for hours watching our friends race on the increasingly cold course.

Another Effin awesome year of cross racing in the books! I'm not taking ice weasels seriously. In fact, I'm not even going to race.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

NBX Day 1: 12.5.09

Unless you are some sort of sick twisted freak, racing your bicycle in the rain at 38* isn’t fun. Not fun or funny at all.

The feet and hands will be frozen and there isn’t anything you can do about it Aquaman. Even the best, most warmest, waterproofest gloves, socks and boots have a weakness: a gigantic hole into which you thrust your appendages. You see, exposed arms and legs act as a conduit for rain water to flow down into your fancy overpriced socks and boots, rendering their waterproof qualities useless. Normally a jacket’s sleeves or a pant’s legs direct this flow over the cuff of boots and gloves, but not during a bike race. You can try and mitigate the damage by keeping your core warm before the race so that you’re not as cold when you start, but that will not help once the race is underway and it really is just a matter of time.

Saturday morning the whole crew was heading to Warwick to watch their final race of the season, they would not be making the trip on Sunday. Trying to get four people out the door early enough to watch Mrs. Rebecca’s 9:30 am race was stressful and distracting, so much so that we left without a single raincoat, rubber boot or umbrella between us. No problem, it isn’t supposed to rain until 1 pm, right Pete?

The rain started about 5 miles into our trip at 9:15 am. That is much ealier than 1 pm, 5.75 hours earlier to be exact. This made me grumpy: being responsible for 4 people who are about to spend 5 hours standing in the rain sucks. Ali was very positive though, telling me that they would be fine, could sit in the car if they had to, and that I should just have some fun… after all, the season is almost over.

Turns out she was right, the rain wasn’t that bad in Wahwick and the tree cover and carousel building at the venue provided enough refuge that no one got soaked that wasn’t racing. Colin and Linnea were nice enough to let me use their trainer and warm up under their tent, and I didn’t get super dirty or wet while inspecting the course immediately before the race. Getting to the line warm, dry and comfortable is a big plus and it has been proven to increase watts by up to 400% (though individual results may vary).

My late inspection lap got me to the start after my call up, but people were kind of taking up their normal spots anyway so I just stuck my bike in an open lane on the 4th row. An uncharacteristic lack of organization for a Verge event, where is Alan Atwood when you need him?

Sticking true to my new “wait 15 minutes before starting to race” philosophy, I settled in at the gun on the left, maybe 30 places deep. Had to push a few guys up the first hill, but a surprising number of people were able to ride it considering the amount of traffic. My first two laps were pretty boring, riding with B. Hornberger, S. Roszko, M. Magur, and D. Snoop. There was a long sweeping right hand turn in the field out by the parking lot that I could not figure out for the entire race (after my race I was watching the junior/cat 3 racers when I finally figured out that turn: stay far right the entire time. I learned this by watching a kid who couldn’t have been older than 15 rail that sucker), and on lap two I laid it down there and had to sprint to get back on my group. That pushed the “start” of “my race” back a bit, I needed to recover before going hard again.

On lap 3, I attacked the group on an incline heading into the woods to try and reach A. Millett and J. Meerse. It was about 20 minutes into the race but I felt good enough and the group had slowed some. I got about half way across before I noticed that I wasn’t gaining and the guys behind weren’t disappearing either. I lost momentum in that stupid right hander again and around that time J. Chabot yelled “c’mon Matt - 15 minutes!” but I was infact loosing ground to the chasers though I was trying harder. Hmmm……

With 1.5 to go I was caught by Magur and Snoop in the field (of course)… they had time trialed on the pavement to get close and then swooped in when I barfed all over that stupid right hand turn! Roszko had been dropped but he was coming back with friends this time: a bike barn and a CVC rider that I didn’t know.

On the pavement at the bell we were chasing hard and Meerse crashed ahead of us. I considered stopping to help but he popped up pretty quickly. I saw a look of confusion and worry on his wife’s face at the barriers so I yelled to her that he had crashed and gestured towards the parking lot. Magur took that opportunity to accelerate and I had to sprint to catch him before the pavement. I got to the front and led through the right hander for the final time, figuring it would be good to force him to go as slow as I had been going in that section. We were just about up to Millett when I lost it on the final 180 in the field… a turn that I had been riding cleanly all day. With the chain off, five riders went by, the last being Roszko, who I joined for the last 4 minutes of riding. Steve easily bested me in the sprint for 27th leaving me disappointed in having fallen twice.

I did manage to stay relatively warm throughout, my hands and feet were cold but manageable. I was glad I wasn’t hurt in my crashes but my final placing shows that I can’t afford to take any soil samples out there. The only other results-impacting crash I’ve had this year was in VT, and I finished 28th that day as well after a very similar slip-and-fall-and-drop-the-chain incident.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Thanksgiving, my uncle and Sterling day 2

*Warning* this is long

I was pretty high after returning home from Saturday’s first day of racing in Sterling, for the first time in a long time without having to hit the crack pipe or the flesh hooks. While I do love me some rock and self mutilation, this was turning out to be a pretty good long weekend fueled only by turkey, the company of family and friends, and a Tom Stevens cyclocross course in good weather.

Thanksgiving has long been my favorite holiday, dating back to my formative years when my folks and I would travel up to Essex County to have dinner at my uncle’s house. He was a great cook and a bit awkward socially but he could tell the best jokes… it’s all in the delivery you see, and he had it knocked. You didn’t even know he was telling a joke until a grin crept onto his face as he hit you with the punch line. Those meals were his chance to experiment with the traditional Thanksgiving fare, pumpkin chiffon pie and oyster stuffing weren’t my favorites, but occasionally he’d knock one out of the park, like the garlic mashed potatoes. After dinner, my cousin and I would hoist a few of the first Sam Adams Lagers ever brewed on the rear deck before heading out to the back yard to toss a football back and forth. We’d sit around an open fire well into the cold fall evening and gossip about any relative unfortunate enough to have missed the feast. One year I stayed with this uncle for two weeks while training for my first real job out of college, a stay the ended on Thanksgiving weekend. Someone get me a freakin’ tissue over here!

I’ve since fallen out of favor with this uncle, which it too bad as he was most likely my closest relative outside of my parents… I have no brothers or sisters. It’s been years since we’ve spoken amicably, but clearly it still bothers me. Despite the current state of this relationship, those times spent with family at his home still are some of the best memories for me, and my expectations for Thanksgiving are always high as a result.

This year my wife and I hosted the holiday meal, and we had a nice mix of friends and family over for dinner. With some efficient preparation we were able to enjoy the company of our guests on Thanksgiving without being slaves to the kitchen and my first attempt at frying a turkey was a success. PRO tip: don’t get any part of your flesh anywhere near the turkey as you lower or raise it from the pot of scalding oil. It will melt your flesh. The meal was tops and everyone went home with plenty of leftovers. The thought of establishing a new annual tradition at our home was pleasing to me as I rubbed my full belly and watched my kids playing with their own cousins on this most enjoyable of holidays. Bring on Santa.

So on Saturday evening I was amped up for the following reasons. 1) I’d been off of work for 3 days with another to come 2) I had enjoyed a great Thanksgiving on par with those of my youth 3) the first race of the weekend had been a blast 4) I’d be racing again tomorrow on a killer course at a dry venue 25 minutes from home. This is the stuff man, this is the stuff.

The superstitious hockey player in me held an electric carving knife to my own throat and forced me to follow the same routine Sunday as I had the day before: 20 minute opener on the trainer before leaving home, breakfast of oatmeal with bananas, walnuts and raisins, and lots of water. I was a bit later to race than I wanted to be, but still there in time to pre-ride the course about an hour before having to line up. Same track start but only half way around before it turned 180 degrees. Through a set of hopable barriers (if you are JPows or Adam Snyder, not me silly) and a series of turns past the pit out to the lower lot aka gravelly high speed turns of death.

Something to note here for those of you that have not raced cross at the same venue but different courses on two consecutive days. It is really fun to see how a good designer changes the course from one day to the next, but do know that the course will be different. Don’t follow the lines from the previous day because some of them are not being used any longer, as I discovered when I nearly castrated myself on a half a telephone pole sticking out of the ground that we went in front of on day one but around on day two.

From the gravelly parking lot/nut eating pole section you climbed for the next 2 minutes: first along the hill that immediately preceded Saturday’s finish, then up a set of stairs, then on a gradual power sucking incline to the base of a muddy run up that was once of those almost-ridable-but-not-quite-thanks-to-the-extended-climbing-that-you-had-just-completed kind of run ups.

From there, it went half way down the hill from the day before and turned right to head into a short section of woods. Yeah, more climbing in there. Leaving the woods it wrapped around the horse jump and headed due east across the fields towards the school. A series of turns there wrapped around a generator, a few trees, and a playground before exiting to the pavement and turning left to pass the opposite side of the pit. The sweet turns from the day prior were back again and they led into an off camber above the track and a few more turns before the finish.

I lined up on the left again and at the gun settled in mid-pack. Sunday’s start felt faster than the day before. Not possible that I wasn’t a peak freshness… no way. The accelerations out of the tight turns were taking their toll early on. JC was ahead of me, that guy can stick it up there in the top 20 for a lap or two but then he slides deep into the field. I spent a lap riding conservatively, but found myself further back than I had hoped, behind helicopter Matt, WS, and JB who I’d rather be with or just in front of. BH was with me and must have had the same concerns about how far back we were, because he powered away out of the 180 at the beginning of the second lap to move into the top 20. JFerraro was ahead and speeding up as well and when SR came through shortly thereafter I jumped on and moved up near the barriers. In the turns after the pit I caught and passed a JC’s group, mostly by braking late and diving in on corners to gain spots rather than gassing it. The climb from that lower lot hurt badly, everyone recognized that was a place to put their competition in distress.

It seems that some racers enjoy being led to the slaughter in tricky sections, following the preferred line despite the large number of others trying to do the same thing. When everyone set up to go into the woods on the left coming off the upper hill on lap two I made up several spots by going far right. Gaining spots without spending effort? Brilliant! Near the turns by the school, I was with Helicopter Matt when he commented that it wasn’t fair because I hadn’t even started trying yet. Ever humble, I told him to pay attention because I’d be going soon and that I’d see him after the race. Aww, I don’t recall what I said, probably something like I’ll be going soon, stick with me if you can or something goofly like that. The fatigue at that point was high already, but I knew that there was another gear left in me to move up rather than just hang around where I was.

Four turns later the group had swollen to a long train of 8 or 9 guys being driven by SM and I was the caboose. He’s a machine in the power sections and I didn’t want to get G-A-P-P-E-D when we hit the track so I attacked near the pit and got up to 3rd wheel. Smart move: when we hit the track SM laid it down and only myself and AW were able to latch on.

Up ahead MR and JF appeared to be slowing down and coming back to our group which had grown to include MT. We picked up MR and rode just behind JF near the end of lap 3, and though MR had been slowing, he seemed to find a comfortable pace for himself with us and he took his share of massive motorcycle-like pulls. SM fell off the pace and was replaced by SR who had ridden up to us solo and was looking strong. CR cheered for MR going by the pit while I was hiding like a hibernating muskrat in his wake. I gave her a look like “hey, what about me?” and she politely encouraged me as well. I know that she wanted him to crush my soul and ride over my grave on a bike made of my bones. That’s fine, she has to go home with him. I have no idea if muskrats hibernate or not.

Our 4th trip up that hill after the stairs approaching the run up was incredibly slow; walking would likely have been faster. I think we laughed about it right then. Coming out of the woods, I’d been letting a little gap open up ahead of me (usually to MR or JF who were at the front most of the time) then I’d drill it to catch back on hoping to shed the others behind me. That didn’t work even a little bit… not once. I had railed the turns near the school on the first lap, but struggled there for the next three, and each time it cost me effort to get back on before the pavement. The small attacks continued until we saw two to go, but our group remained intact. I started thinking that I had to ride those turns more smoothly or I’d be in trouble. Everything else was working out fine but I was worried about those turns.

The spot ahead of our group was occupied by RL and he was riding well and looking comfortable from where I was. Later he assured me that he was on the edge the entire time, but he’s so strong he makes it looks easy. AW had fallen off the pace from the smaller accelerations and it was clear we were going to come to the finish all together. On lap 5 JF continued to be the instigator, he had been at the front or just ahead of us the entire time & he clearly wanted to get away again but was unable to shake us. He’d get 5-6 lengths, and then loose them a few turns later. I was over my head on the lengthy climbing section; I had to let some spots go to stay sub-nuclear. SR moved ahead but dropped a chain and lost our group going into the woods on lap 5. I recovered enough to get back on and finally nailed those turns around the playground, amazed at how much easier it was in there when you rode the correct arc through the turn. The draft I enjoyed was just the bit of rest I needed to get back on terms and set up for the last lap.

At the bell JF was driving us around the track then sat up to let someone else come through near the 180. He took off when no one did and we scrambled to get across. We followed him through the turns past the pit and into the lower lot area. I know MR well enough to know that he was going to attack on that long climb towards the stairs. He’s a house and was riding a similar uphill in Providence hard every lap on both days. Had we been in Vegas I’d have put money on it… and I would have cleaned up because right on que he went and I rode that wheel right to the front. I tried to keep the pressure on by overlapping wheels with him on the last section of the climb before the run but the pace was slow and it didn’t matter. I just didn’t want JF to come around and ride up that thing. MR did try to ride the run but couldn’t and we were all together coming off the hill.

Smooth again through the playground turns I was second wheel approaching the tight turns just past the pit. I wanted to be first into those turns to set a pace I was comfortable with at a point where I knew no one could pass so I promptly jacked up the brakes to slow this train down for a few seconds. Coming out of those turns MR came back around (I knew he would) and said “let’s go!” Across the off camber he got a small gap, and when we hit the track he was gone. I tried to get the draft but couldn’t, and won the 19th spot over MT with a well timed bike throw.

Another great weekend of racing in the books. I have made so many good friends riding my bike in circles around a field, I’m thankful for getting to know all of them. I got the chance to share a laugh with some of the hup guys and the embrocation guys as well as my super teammates. It is always great to chat with the other guys in my field, debriefing our race experiences while cooling down and talking about how much fun it all was. Richard Fries asked me how business was… I’m pretty sure he thinks I’m someone else. Business was good I told him… it’s just insurance.

Post ride we grilled chicken and polished off the last of the candied yams from Thanksgiving. What we lacked in beer we made up for in smiles. Next weekend we’ll be sure to bring plenty of both to Warwick for the series finale. Watch for more sock premes and cookie feeds.