Thursday, March 21, 2013

US Cup Triple Crown #1 / Bonelli Pro XCT #2

I haven't finished an XC race at Bonelli Park since September 2010, and even then I only finished after a mid race chain replacement!  In 2011 I dropped the chain a few times and fell to the back and was eventually pulled.  And last year I sheered a pedal spindle.  I was praying the "Bonelli curse" would be lifted this year, and I was going to do everything I could to avoid problems.

They say you're not suppose to change your bike set up for a race.  But I had to... I had to help my odds!  My new Shimano drive train came in on Tuesday, and on Wednesday night I mounted up a new 42/30 XTR double crankset and XTR Shadow + rear derailleur to the Highball.  I knew I liked the double setup better from having it on my Tallboy the last couple years, and the "clutch" system on the new derailleur was going to help my chronic chain retention issues.  On Friday after 6.5 hour drive south, I finally got to test it out on the brake bumps and off camber turns of the Bonelli course.  FLAWLESS!!!  But I wasn't going to get too excited and jinx myself! (Yes there's still the remnants of a superstitious baseball player in me).

On race day #1 I was out early on the course to watch my brother rock it and take 3rd in the Cat 1 35-39 category, and fellow Norcal racer Neilson Powless blow away his competition on the last lap of his Cat 1 17-18 race.  Nice!  Good start to the day!  Then I got a free massage, and chiro adjustment from a vendor at the venue!  This day is just getting better!!!  That took the previous day's driving stiffness right out of my back.  Then I lost my car keys...
Ok... chill pill... don't get worked up.  At least you can still get into the car through the keypad!  I looked all around the car and the ground, went back to the massage place, sat there thinking about where on the course they could be... nothing.  I was kind of starting to freak out.  I called Jen to tell her, as if she could help.  My family that was there was helping look too, nothing.  I needed to eat, so I did, sitting in the driver's seat on the heating pad to try and keep my back loose.  I decided that remaining calm and relaxed was the best thing I could do, and I'll have time to look more after the race.  So I kicked back, put my feet up, and had an apricot Clif bar.  It came time to start warming up so I got suited up and everything ready, and just when I was about to head out... I FOUND THEM!!!  Oh what a relief... other than I felt like an idiot!

Warmup good... tire pressure good (I did more than the squeeze test!)... call up position decent (32 of 60).  GO!  We sprinted off the line and I was on the inside of the first corner, I held my line and didn't get pinched.  Up the curb and to the right... then an opening on my side... that's never there!  It's always on the other side! I wasn't quite ready for it and I missed out, and a couple others jumped in.  That's fine, we still had the start loop (one short track course loop) to sort out before really getting on course... which really strung us out after we all had to fit through the only 'S' turn single file.  Everyone stayed upright and we all came back together before tackling the first dusty climb on the course.  I had to stay in line for the first part, but passed a couple by the time we got to the top.  I didn't really push it over the top because I knew we'd have to brake check in the next singletrack from the traffic anyway, so I saved a little energy.  Up and over a few small rocks and into a little downhill I caught right up to the wheel of the US Air Force team rider before the 90 degree, off camber, loose right turn.  Watching him I got the feeling he was going to go down in front of me in the corner.  I don't know what it was, or if I really saw anything that HE was doing in particular or if I was just staying on my toes no matter who I was following... but he went down.  His bike flung right into my path.  I went wide left into the weeds and rocks but still had to jump over his back wheel.  I made it by and put the hammer down to catch back up on the next climb and hopefully put a little gap on anyone stuck behind that bobble.  I caught up to the pack by the top and took my special lines down the rocky descent.
There's really nowhere to pass in the next section of tight turns singletrack so I settled in to recover before hitting the new climb they added this year.  We came out of the trees to a loose left turn before heading up, and the rider in front of me slips out and crashes in the turn in front of me, going slow... turning uphill.  What is going on!??!  I made it by fine though and motored up the climb and a good clip.  I was feeling pretty strong up the next couple climbs and was moving up, getting towards the end of the lap when I came to the a downhill with some new poles and rocks to jump over before jamming on the brakes for a roller-drop to a hard left.  Oh and the dirt is loose there, it's really dusty from the traffic, and the whole thing is a downhill left turn.  I hopped the first one, then pull up for the second and my right foot comes unclipped.  My back wheel hits the pole, my seat smacks my... and I'm flailing about trying to stay upright and stay lined up to go over the last rock pile.  Here's a pic from my prelap of the spot:
Now picture my right leg sticking out for balance as I hit those rocks... and he saves it!!! The crowd goes wild!!! (I actually did get quite the cheer!).  I get to the dirt road at the bottom, give a "Phew!" of disbelief that I saved it and chuckle to myself before getting back on my horse up the next climb and then finishing off the first lap, probably in about 30th position.

Lap two was much less eventful and I used it to recover a bit from the first lap craziness.  But I was still moving up and keeping a decent pace.  The bike was working perfectly and I had my rabbits to catch.  As I got into lap three, I caught Menso de Jong, who is normally way up front.  It didn't look like there was anything wrong with his bike, and he was still clean.  I was a bit confused, but I sat on his wheel for a bit thinking to myself, "He's pacing it... just follow him and learn."  After a little while though it was just too slow and I couldn't help myself, so I passed heading up a steep climb.  Turns out he had to dnf because he was sick, bummer.  Back to racing my own race... which was going well until I felt like I couldn't digest anything, my back really started to hurt, and was crashing (bonking) a little.  On a couple of the climbs I started to feel chilled at the top, which was not good.  I had to back off a little and recover.  Then I looked back at one point and saw new teammate Ryan Chandler catching me.  Oh man, don't get passed by the new guy!  ;-) So I pushed a little harder and danced that fine line of bonkage for a lap, or two.  Actually I had totally forgotten what lap I was on!  Oops!

I was starting to feel a little better though and I was catching people again, so I pushed some more.  The back part of the course was starting to clear out of spectators and photographers so I was getting to feel like the race was finishing up.  Did I miss the bell??? Was I ON the last lap already??  I asked a group of people, one being a course marshal, as I was going up a climb... "Any clue what lap this is!?"  "Last one!!!" They said.  "Are you kidding me?!"  Crap, I had to motor!  But then a few seconds later they hollered back, "No, one more!!"  Or at least that's what I thought they said.  Great... still confused!!  Screw it... just go hard anyway!  I was feeling physically better and I popped a double espresso Clif shot for that final jolt to bring it home.  Sure enough, I came across the start finish to cheers and the bell ringing for one lap to go.  Well now it was certain... I wasn't going to get pulled!  Woohoo!  I gave it what I could on the last lap and caught a few more riders, but right at the end I was passed by two more and I had no kick left to challenge.  I missed out on a top 20 by 8 seconds!  But was stoked to have my best Pro XCT finish in 22nd... and to have had a mechanical free XC race at Bonelli!  FINALLY!!!  And big props to my teammate Ryan with a solid 25th in his first Pro XCT!

I grabbed a little food but kept moving since the Super D race was just a couple hours later.  My cooldown was also my Super D course recon since they had cut in a new first descent on the course.  It was in the grass but had been worn in a little by the Cat 1 racers earlier in the day.  With a couple off camber corners it would definitely be more tricky than the old course, but at least I didn't have to worry about my chain falling off anymore!!  I spun around the course easy a few times and was feeling good enough to screw around and have some fun for the camera.
When race time finally came, the legs weren't sore but were definitely feeling the effort from the XC.  Overall I was tired and hungry, but was happy I chose to stay in fueling mode with Clif bars and gels instead of the In-n-out one of the other riders at the top said he was regretting.  I wonder if he ended up seeing that again...

Soon my start time was up, and on the sixth beep... I was off!!! Trying to just stay smooth, keep the rubber side down, and go hard!  I hit all my marks on the top and the first descent, but was a little hard on the brakes and chatter going into the first right hander.  Dang, slow... sprint!  A few more 'S' turns in the grass and I was on the pavement power section... but there just wasn't much power.  I was smooth through the technical areas and fast through the turns, but there just aren't much of them.
This course is all about the climbs and the flats... hence the hardtail.  I gave what I had left to the end which was good enough for 10th.  Time to recover and rest up for Short Track on Sunday.

I've been really working on keeping a sense of normalcy around these "big" races for this year and staying more relaxed.  If possible, keeping a routine and not changing things... making the race just something I do and not a big deal.  So on Sunday morning I went for a nice ride on the Tallboy for a couple hours with my brother and that kept the legs loose before heading off to church.  We had a nice brunch... breakfast tacos... thanks guys!!!  And after the bike was prepped I rolled back out to Bonelli to get warmed up for Short Track.

I took a nice loop around the lake, trying to grab a couple Strava segments while I was at it, which was good motivation to push and worked well to get me ready for the 20 minute suffer fest coming up.  I got a great call up, 2nd row, sweet!  Right behind Sam Schultz, Zach Valdez and national champ Todd Wells.  I tried to tell myself I belonged there... HA!  I have historically stunk up the place in short track races... but I was just going to hang on and use it to get faster.

Once we set off, there was nearly a big crash in the first 'S' turn up the curb which I avoided but had to check up for.  That put me in the chase group right off the bat.  We had caught back up to a few people by the first climb and single-file-track 's' turn, and thankfully nobody went down there in the massive dust cloud. I was in the back third of the pack though as we entered lap two but I was hanging on and making a pass here and there.  At this point I'm a little confused which lap it was, but it was still early on... As I came to the dusty 'S' turn again there was carnage (a good handful of riders went down here throughout the race).  I could see Zach Valdez picking himself up as I went by.  But a lap or two later... there he is... passing me and charging hard!  I decided to do everything I possibly could to stay on his wheel.  Which is where I stayed for the remainder of the race as we worked our way back up through the field.  I pulled a couple times for him, but it was hard enough to stay with him.  When he decided to go and sprint it was hard to match... impressive!  We hammered lap after lap and I was so focused on staying with him I didn't care how much time had passed or anything else until the bell lap... I was going to actually FINISH a short track race!!! Not get pulled and not crash!!! Zach and I stayed together through the dirt and then back onto the grass.  Do I just let him beat since he pulled me nearly the whole way?  No, this is racing... so I went.

But I did go early on the grass with two corners left.  He had enough time to counter, but he didn't have the energy... understandably.  I rolled across the line in 17th.  Thanks Zach!

So the Bonelli curse seems to have been lifted... hopefully for good!  I'm happy and looking forward to the way this race season is shaping up.  And looking forward to fewer issues and mishaps thanks to better equipment!  Next race... US Cup Triple Crown #2 / Fontana Pro XCT...

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

TBF MTB Madness - A Spectacular Training Event

In the words of Samuel L. Jackson from the movie "Basic"... (Now picture him saying it, with his usual inflection...) "What we have here, is a FANTASTIC opportunity for a SPECTACULAR training EVENT!"

I've been approaching these early season TBF races as "train-through" races anyway, keeping the big picture in mind (being fast later in the year when it matters more to me), but this past week I made it really hard on myself... mostly intentionally.

First off... I finished 7th, and I'm in no way making excuses and I especially don't want to discount the effort of the guys who beat me.  They are super fast and are training hard right now as well.  But I'll tell you why I'm pretty darn happy with 7th.

Saturday I had a great day on the Tallboy, getting in about 4 hours of pedal time and it included a good training/coaching ride with one of my clients.  We had some beautiful sunny weather and riding in just shorts and a jersey in early March is a gift.  That ride had put my tally for the week at 17 hours of riding.  That may not seem like a lot to some, but that's already close to a weekly high this year and with one day to go.  So I started formulating my agenda for race day... and didn't really stop eating.

I decided since the weather was warmer that I would ride to the race in the morning and get in a nice long warmup.  Just as I was suiting up, Jen called and asked if I could grab four bundles of twist ties to bring because they were running out at registration.  Clint to the rescue!!!  Can do... so I loaded up jersey pockets with twist ties, race fuel, various extra layers and my phone to stream some Pandora tunes as I cruised over. About 45 minutes later I arrived and offloaded the twist ties to save the day (In my head).  At this point was my first "crossroads" so to speak... do I eat again?  I didn't really feel hungry, kind of, but it was only about forty minutes to race time.  I elected to get a little bit more coffee, keep sipping some electrolyte and just start warming up more intensely   In hind site, I think I should have eaten at least half of the Clif bar that I had with me because once I started trying to go hard my heart rate just wasn't rising.  An indication to me that the I wasn't still fully recovered and the food I was eating was still going to recovery and not fueling.  But race time was here, I popped a chocolate Clif Shot (like chocolate frosting Mmmm!), and went to the line.

Now enter agenda item #2... line up at the back... way back.  With some big Pro XCT races coming up, I'd be lining up with 60+ other dudes (100 for Sea Otter) and towards the back most likely.  So I wanted to make this start as challenging as I could and teach myself how to be comfortable working through traffic at the start.  So I went to the back and hung out with the expert women, single speeders, and guys as fit as I can only hope to be in 25 years.  When the ten second countdown came I looked down at my Garmin which showed my HR at 68... "uh oh, this is gonna hurt."  GO!!!  But I hadn't... tick-tock... Ok now here we go!

See me? Yeah... not there in the front!
But this is exactly what I was going for.  After about 30 yards we were moving pretty good and there was a nice dust cloud working, not quite as blinding and lung clogging as the big races but a good simulation nonetheless.  And the road was filled with riders.  I found someone who was moving forward on the right and made my first real acceleration to follow.  Soon my momentum was exceeding his (I love sprinting on the Highball!), I saw a lane to the left and went for it, shooting to the center and still passing... and now back to the right.  The 90 degree corner was coming up so I looked for a lane to overtake a big chunk of guys.  Nothing to the inside except a picnic table and no clear lane to swerve to the outside.  I'd have to sit in behind all the brakers and try to overtake on acceleration coming out of the corner.  The crystal ball in my head suggested that the swarm would swing wide and I would cut hard through the corner and sprint from the inside.  It unfolded exactly as planned and I bit off another big chunk of traffic, but I was still way behind.  I took the outside line through the next left hander and kept passing until the first choke point between some big rocks.  Guys, you can't go three wide into that... brakes!!!  I should have taken the jump to the right.  Ok, through the rocks and out of the saddle again.  I take the outside line on another left, trying to maintain more speed than the rest of the conga, and almost wash out on the gravel before getting onto the pavement.  I sprint up the little rise on the pavement, "Go get 'em Clint!!" I hear as I weave through.  Still on pavement, I have to fall in line, hard right, then another choke point between some rocks and posts.  I see an opening nobody else is taking and I go for it sprinting by... BRAKES!!! JUMP!! Bang!  My left foot gets ripped out of the pedal by the rock.  That opening wasn't as big as I though it was (uh... yeah... maybe that's why nobody else was taking it?!?!).  "That didn't sound good!" Says someone behind me.  But everything still worked and I was pretty sure I still had all my toenails.  Now into some singletrack... still way behind but this is what I wanted.  I have to fall in line as the trees are too close to pass in the grass.  There was a bit of pavement coming up so I knew a good sprint was coming.  I sit up, relax, and take a few deep breaths... turn... turn... down the bank... GO!  I sprint by a few out of the saddle, and then get down as aero as I can, weaving in and out of the draft as I pass before having to hit the brakes behind others as we funnel back into the trail.  Nowhere to pass here so I take a few more deep breaths to recover.  I look down, my HR is only in the 150's... what the!?  I felt like I was putting in a 175+ effort.  We make the turn around and the trail widens... "On your left!" And I pass in the weeds... getting back up to speed.  Did I mention how much I love how the Highball sprints (especially paired with the ENVE carbon wheels)?  Traffic is starting to thin out now as I'm getting closer to the front.  A few hundred more yards of trail and we're on the cobble stone levy.  A final flat stretch of about 300 yards before really getting into the course and I can see the leaders at the other end already.  I go "aero" again and do my best NASCAR "Sling Shot" pass (minus about 799 1/2 horsepower) and TT to the other side.  160... geez.  I'd picked off most of them by this point but I think I was still in about 10th or so as I started up the first climb of the course.

Agenda item #3... stay in the big ring.  It's not totally out of the question on the flattish terrain of GB, but still hard in some spots with a 42 tooth.  I had a few reasons for this.  I had been working with my front derailleur and some pliers to get it in a more optimal condition than it was left after knotting up the chain two weeks ago, but I still didn't trust it.  Another reason was to be a motivator to keep pushing really hard and the last was to really work on engaging all the leg muscles, use a slow cadence from time to time, and pedal efficiently.  I made a few passes up the climb and was sustaining a heart rate around 167 which isn't terrible for me but I felt like it should have been in the mid 170's.  I caught a rider as I got up to the top, and did a bit of a supercross style block pass on the sharp left hander before hammering down the hill.  I gassed myself on the schwoopy trails out to the "Beek's Bight" parking lot crossing where I could see a couple riders together, one looked like Jim Hewitt and the other was a Santa Cruz / X-Fusion team rider I didn't know.  At least now I could see the guys at the front from time to time.  But they were still about 10 seconds up and I hadn't seen the front group yet, probably another 10-20 seconds up.  And so I chased...
I charged hard the rest of the first lap but it just didn't seem like I was making up any ground.  I expended quite a lot of energy in all that early passing and sprinting, and the guys at the front were really charging as well.  At the beginning of lap two, in a clearing, I could see the front group of about 5 riders staying close together in a string.  That's rare in MTB racing... it must have been fun attacking each other and trying to pop guys off the back.  I continued up the climb for the second time in the big ring and kept giving it everything I had.  I was gaining on Jim and starting to hope that maybe the guys at the front would start to fatigue and I could pick them off later.  I was hitting all my marks and maintaining some consistent power.  Then as we were making our way out towards Doton's Point (the course turn around), I was just a couple seconds back from Jim and starting to think about where I could make the pass.  I stood to hammer up a quick rise and BAM! "OOUUGGH!!"  I almost went over the bars and took the stem to the gut when my chain skipped and came off the outside of the cranks.  AAAHHHH!!!!  I dismounted and just as I'm getting the chain put back on, Neilson Powless cruises on by.  "Nice work!"  I holler to him.  He started a minute after us.  Awesome.  So yeah I just got shown up because he had passed everyone I had and then some.  Chain's back on... ego swallowed... and I'm off again.  A few easy pedal strokes to confirm everything's working correctly before charging hard and hopefully I could catch Neilson and tag along to the front.  He was already about 10 seconds up as I made it around Doton's Point but I didn't seem to be losing any ground for the rest of the lap.  But I certainly didn't gain any ground either and we were getting into some lapped traffic now.  Some I hit at good times and others I had to wait for... the usual story.  But everyone was courteous and passing was clean.

After the main climb and downhill from the "bench hill" on the third lap, I caught a rider just as we hit a little rock garden climb.  He took the normal center line and so I went left, standing up to power over and make the pass, BAM! "OOUUGGH!!!"  Stem to gut again... chain was off.  Ouch.  I put it back on and passed the guy at the top of the next rise as he pulled over to let me by... thanks!  Ok so there was no catching Neilson, or the front guys, unless they fatigued.  So I just kept a strong, sustainable pace in the hopes that my last lap would have some productivity.
Catching lapped riders helps keep the motivation up, as there's always someone up ahead to target.  And everyone out there is really courteous and just happy to be on a bike.  I caught one women as we came to one of the big rock walls half way through the course.  She took the safe route around as I popped up and over the big face and made the pass... catching a little air as I went.  "AWESOME!" She shouted.  It wasn't much, but that little bit of encouragement was uplifting as I was starting to battle some serious fatigue.

As I came through the start/finish to begin my 4th lap, I ditched my empty bottle... throwing it across the finish chute in the general direction of where Jen was in the timing area in the hopes I could find it again later. I heard someone say "Nice throw!" so I don't think I hit anyone :-).  I snatched a bottle from the neutral feed zone and took the last of the gel I had with me.  But I was already starting to get that empty feeling like it wasn't going to be enough.  Not "hungry" but definitely not fueled.  I was already having a hard time keeping my heart rate in the 150's and that just got more difficult as the final lap continued.  I still made the main climb in the big ring.  I still had agenda item #4 to complete: Have a strong last lap and give everything I have.  I couldn't see any of the leaders anymore, but I kept pushing.  Winding through the trees, hitting my marks, right, left... stay on top of it, pedal, breathe, breathe... 'S' turn ahead... I glance down to look at my HR at the wrong time (144...)... left... OFF LINE! $#!^!! TREE! Miss the bars! Lean! OLAY!!!  Whoa! Close one! Only grazed the shoulder... that would have been all bad!  Focus... finish... stay smooth...  That little mental lapse woke me up for sure!  And I started having fun again, jumping and banking off of the trail.  Fun is fast!  Out to Doton's Point for the final time I could see Ron Shevock.  I was getting hungry, totally bonking, but that was more motivation to keep it up and finish.  Only 10 minutes left.... push.  I caught Ron and we had a nice little conversation about how much this sucked, how much we hurt, and how much Neilson crushed our souls... until I went by and gave the last five minutes of the course everything I had.  I came across the line in 2:02:40, 6 minutes back from the Pro winner Cody Kaiser.  But that time was faster than the winner's time two weeks ago on the same course, and I was three hours and nearly 50 miles into the day's riding so I was pretty happy with that.  And that chocolate brownie Clif bar back at the car tasted SO good!

After some chatting and congratulating with other racers... and as it started to sprinkle (I guess it is still March!), I set off for another two hour coaching ride with another client.  The sun eventually came out again and we had some fun on the local trails (with a little pump track action thrown in) before ending up at home where there was food that needed to get in my belly!  Five hours on the day, 75 MTB miles with a race in the middle.  I was satisfied to say the least with my "spectacular training event," even though I had bitten off more than I could chew to finish on the podium.