Training, racing, gear, facial hair styles and thoughts from my push to become an elite cyclist.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Uncle Sam Grand Prix Race Report

This weekend was the Uncle Sam Grand Prix in Troy, NY, part of the burgeoning NYCROSS series. It was an interesting weekend and my first double race weekend of the season.

Most people have heard of Troy if they’ve driven by Albany on the way to the airport or have some familiarity with RPI (Renssalear Polytechnic Institute, a top regional engineering school). Those familiar with New York’s Capital Region have a more jaded view of the city and refer to it as “the Troylet,” a clever combination of Troy and toilet. In spite of Troy’s less-than-stellar reputation as a place to live it does encompass two esteemed technical colleges and a nice town park well-suited to a cyclocross race.

If you race cyclocross at one of the established New England venues you pretty much know what you’re going to get- a flat-ish course in a park or schoolyard, lots of grass, a punchy climb or two, some short dirt sections and maybe 50-60 feet of trail/singletrack. Venturing beyond the well-worn courses can be frustrating with inappropriate venues and poor course design, but fortunately the courses in Troy were a pleasant surprise and rated very highly on my list of favorites.

The NYCROSS series has been gaining steam over the past few seasons and offers competitive racing with reasonable field sizes. In many ways this past weekend felt a lot like the Verge New England series ten years ago when I started racing ‘cross- small but efficient venue, good course layout, decent parking and manageable field sizes. Anyone with ready access to these races should check them out- they are well run and worth the trip.

Saturday’s race was a boondoggle. I was planning on leaving at 6 AM and arriving in time for my 11:30 start. After a slightly improvised route I got to the venue about 15 minutes later than I had planned on. This made things a little hurried but not frantic. I chatted with a couple racers who parked next to me as I put together my bikes and got ready to warm up. They were Nordic ski guys who had made the trip down from Lake Placid and were pretty excited to race. Their low-key approach and relaxed demeanor belied the fact that these guys were fit. From previous experience I’ve known big-time Nordic skiers to be super fit aerobic powerhouses and these guys would turn out to be no different. As I got ready I ran into Todd, a fellow NAV racer from Saratoga. It’s always cool to see teammates at the races, and the NAV guys are always good company for a warm up lap.

I took a ten minute warm up ride then swung back to the car to grab a water bottle when I overheard one of the Nordic guys talking about getting to the start for 11…not 11:30. I asked him if that was right and he assured me that it was. Shit. I had been thinking I had 30 more minutes so I was taking my time, but now I had to rush at near frantic pace to peel off my warm up clothes, slide into my skinsuit, embrocate and get to the line before the gun went off. I had laid out all of my race clothes before I went on my “warm up” so I was able to get ready fairly efficiently.

At 10:45 I was dressed and ready, but I had to choose between riding the course for a lap or bringing my spare bike to the pit. I opted for the lap on course thinking that I’d definitely be riding the course but might not need my spare, which was an obvious oversimplification but true nonetheless.

With a minimal warm up, too much air in my tires and a poorly-scouted start line position I started the day in the middle of the field and had settled in with a small group by the end of the first lap. The corners were very slick from the heavy rain that had fallen in the days leading up to the race and I ended up tripod turning most of them. On lap 2 I ended up trading places with a guy on a Pinarello. He was stronger on the hills and running sections but I’d reel him in on the long descent and through the slick corners. Our contrasting strengths made for an interesting race and although we weren’t consciously working together we did reel in a few riders.

On one particularly steep and slick off camber section I had been taking the high line and dropping down velodrome-style so that I was able to exit with some speed. For the first three laps that approach worked great and I gained a gap each lap, but on the fourth lap the minimal traction had eroded enough that I slipped and slid down the hill. In the process I stuffed the right shifter blade into the mud all the way to the hood. After I pulled the bike out of the ground and fought to shift out of the big ring as I remounted a particularly vocal IF racer yelled “on your left, guy” as I fought to get up to speed. It was as if I’d planned to derail his effort to finish 21st and left him no other line than the one I was moving into. Earlier in the day I’d heard him yelling that he hated the course, so it was obvious that his dissatisfaction was deeper than our brief encounter.

While crashing I lost four places that I never could pull back, and it turns out that crashing makes every line the slow line. I felt like I was pushing hard but still only going in slow motion as I muddled my way through the closing laps and over the finish. As I packed up my gear I thought about my day and hoped for better luck on Sunday.

That evening was pretty low-key- I drove home to spend time with the family, had dinner and watched some baseball before going to bed at a reasonable hour. Isn’t racing glamorous?

Sunday morning I got up on-time with renewed enthusiasm for getting to the venue based on the 11 AM start. Fortunately I got the park on schedule but was amazed to find a swarm of cars parked on both sides of the road for an organized-looking football game taking place in one of the lower fields. It was an interesting scene- the skinny, tightly-clad racers in their imported cars peered over at the American truck driving beefy footballers in their baggy shorts and hooded sweatshirts. The footballers peered back with equal curiosity. On every other Sunday morning the footballers probably had the park to themselves and I’m sure they were as surprised to see us as we were to see them. Amazingly there were no altercations caused by the conflicting events and tight parking accommodations. I think somehow the love of sport was the common ground that we could all agree on.

With a knowledge of the start time at the front of my mind I set out for a very deliberate warmup ride. As I worked my way around the park criterium-style I considered the merits of bringing a trainer to my next race. Still, I enjoyed the sensation of steering and feeling my bike moving under me as I turned the pedals.

I got to the start on time, slotted into the grid in a good spot and when the gun went off I comfortably knew where I had to be through the early sections of the course. All in all I felt comfortable and smooth as I pushed the pace and settled into a group.

Mom and Dad made it to the race and took some of the pictures shown above. It’s great to have a cheering section, and I had the advantage of both my parents and some unidentified hecklers "cheering" for me. As I raced around the course I could hear Dad’s bellowing voice above everyone else’s, even the lady with the bullhorn who was slinging insults from the top of the run up.

Halfway through the race I attacked the group I’d been riding with, which included several of Saturday’s antagonists (Pinarello Man and a Verge guy) plus a guy on a mountain bike…with full suspension and bar ends. The mountain bike guy was able to stay ahead of me in the end, but what amazed me was that he was bobbling the technical sections but forcing the pace where he could pedal hard. And again Pinarello Man would put the hurt on when it tilted uphill.

After some attacking and counter attacking the group split and I ended up in the middle between Pinarello Man and the group behind. For the last two laps I pushed to catch back on but couldn’t. It was a hard day, but I felt like I had raced better than my 23rd position warranted. My fitness was improving, I had dialed in my tire pressure (scary low) and re-learned how to ride with the shorter 172.5 cranks.

Not bad for a weekend’s worth of racing.

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