Sunday, March 24, 2013

A very belated season wrap up & thank yous

I waited so long to start this post, that it now seems like too late to bother. But dammit, I told myself I'd write this post so I'm going to write it.

I think that if you read any of my posts from the last season, you likely got the gist that I was a frequent passenger on the Struggletown Express. The move from Madison to Chicago was a difficult one. It would have been just regular difficult outside of any other circumstances, but it was stressful difficult because of how it happened to fall at the start of August, when my season was just starting to come into full swing.

I truly, and very quietly, freaked the bleep out.

If it hadn't been for a ton of support from my main squeeze and those closest to me, I think I would have packed up and moved within weeks of landing. As it has many times before, the bike saved me in many ways. Racing enabled me to meet a really great community of people, and gave me a weekly social outlet that I might not have found otherwise. Or at least not with such ease. Daily workouts, as stressful as they could be to fit in, were a way for me to figure out how to get around, and gave me the opportunity to explore the crazy world that is the city of Chicago.

The season didn't turn out to be what I had hoped it would be when I mapped it all out back at the start of last year. I had a lot of high hopes for travel, and doing more national races, finishing higher up, feeling like my name had some sort of recognition. But that's not how it played out, and I'll admit, I'm finally okay with that. Because this season was so great in so many ways that I never could have mapped out had I even tried.

I got to live in a new place and learn how to ride in an entirely new way--dealing with big city streets, traffic, confusing lane routing. I learned to not back down quite so easily and be smarter around cars. To round out my skill set I should mention that it also takes me a nanosecond to throw up my middle finger and offer up a few four letter greetings. Or whatever amount of time it takes to blink. And just like sometimes you don't know you're blinking... cut across the lane to make a turn in front of me... BAM Severn salute (thanks for that one, Minxy)!

I learned how to adapt. I learned how to be a little more brave. I got to meet a lot of great new people, and be impressed by a new community of cylcocross racers. It was all new to me. Well, almost all new. The constant was what I wanted to get out of two wheels--an experience. I'm grateful for all of that, even more so now, looking back, having gotten through it and finishing out the season.

Of course, I couldn't have finished out the season without all of the team, equipment and coaching support I received. So many, many thanks to:

My team, MWI Cyclcross did a lot for me this season, and it would have been really tough without them--from the cupcakes, to the awesome new kit design to the many other forms of moral and technical support. I'm lucky to be part of that magic.

I was also lucky to have Rob Curtis be on my side this year in the form of some great Psimet 38W Carbon Tubulars. Those wheels were bombproof, and so reliable that I never had to worry about them. And me not worrying about something is saying a lot.

My coach, Gordy Paulson of Speed Cycling, was thrown a few curve balls this season (broken nose, nose surgery, moving to a new city) but he rolled with them, and with me. I'm grateful for that, and for Gordy's calming presence and confidence in me when I needed it most. I started working with Gordy mid-way through my first cross season in 2010, and I learned a lot, and quickly and feel as though I gained a good friend along the way. Thanks, Gordy, that means a lot to me.

And lastly, thanks to my homies at Smith Optics. I love the bleep out of those PivLock V2 shades. I've worn them for every day of training and racing since I got them and I can't say enough good things. It's nice to finally have found a pair of sunglasses that stay on my tiny dome during racing and riding. Like a real optic dream come true.

So, all that said, training for next season has begun. And I moved again. To New York City. Just kidding. I went back to the less populated land of more country roads. Just a bit further south.

Monday, February 11, 2013

UCI Masters Cyclocross Worlds

I've been dragging my feet on writing this post for over a week. It's been an overwhelming, difficult and incredible season, all wrapped up into one cyclocross enchilada. So for the sake of this post, I'll just focus on the last race and leave the season recap/accolades to later. Because SO MUCH HAPPENED.

I'll be honest, I was pretty ready for the season to be over after Nationals. But I knew that in my lifetime, I wouldn't likely have another chance to race at Masters Worlds on home soil. I couldn't pass that up, no matter how burned out I was starting to feel. I had successfully avoided injury, illness and UCI points, so it became an obvious choice.

The two weeks of training in-between Nationals and Masters Worlds were challenging. I was so lucky to have been dealt a mild Chicago winter, if you could even call it that. More like an extended fall and premature spring. But the last weeks of the season sure made up for it, as the weather seemed to cycle between snow, bitter cold with temps in the negative 20s, rain, freezing rain and everyone's favorite--the days on end of a wintry mix.

I couldn't do much of my training on a trainer or rollers because I still haven't totally figured out a knee issue that flares up when I spend time on either of those contraptions. So, outside or bust. And because I'm type A annoying with training, it wasn't an option to miss a day of training. So I braved the cold and the crap and everything else. I won't lie. I didn't love all of it. I had a lot of those days where I could find SO many things to do before I got my training done. Of course, once I dragged my ass out, I felt triumphant in making it through, but man, I had to fight a lot of mental fatigue at that point.

Looking back, it seems like it shouldn't have been that hard. All I had to do really was just maintain--shorter sets of intervals and a fair amount of easy hour-ish rides. It's funny really, the easier it got, the more bored I was. And I was anxious about the last race. On the advice of a trusted friend, I was trying to just treat it like any old race, and not make it big so as to undo myself mentally.

I tried to not think about how I really wanted to be up on that podium again this year. I tried instead to tell myself that I would be happy with whatever result I got as long as I did the best I could. This year the field was deeper than it was at last year's Masters Worlds. And the venue had been moved down the road to a golf course to accommodate Elite Worlds that would be that weekend.

I was predicted to get second, but knew from Nationals and the race predictor that it would be a battle for the top 3 spots. Because of the conditions, I never pre-rode the course. I walked it, and watched how people rode the different features, but for the most part, I knew that it was going to come down to power and mental strength.

It had been raining a lot in Louisville, and they weren't pumping water off of the course. The ground would be saturated, sloppy and very muddy. There weren't a lot of technical features to the course aside from a steep run-up and a twisty downhill that led into another run-up into a downhill. I was grateful that at least I wouldn't have to worry about my bikes, or the pits. My main squeeze took over for me there, and every time he does I feel that much more lucky to have him.

Who you had in the pits that day could and definitely would make or break your race just as easily as it would if you had the wrong equipment.

I had a great start, and a pretty good first lap. The second lap, very close to hell. (Don't even ask what the lap time was.) I thought we'd only do 2 laps as every race before us had done. No sir. We did three. And that third lap was full-blown into the zone of that weird space where you go a little numb, the time space continuum gets really fuzzy.

The mud was thick and the ground was so saturated. I was in my lowest gear pretty much the entire race. This season I've struggled to feel really strong, or feel like I had a lot of power, and this race would be no exception. I couldn't deny that my move and early season stress had set me back. I rode the downhill section very sloppily which cost me the first gap when I slid back into fourth place.

I was just all over--tired, fatigued and mentally beat up. And that was only after a lap. I wasn't used to this stuff, and though I felt that I was fighting, the pace was horribly slow. In a long straight stretch after the barriers, the announcer was walking next to me faster than I was riding.

I knew that getting off the bike and running was an option. I also knew that I had very little running fitness and that it taxed my legs in a way that was really tough to recover from. So I decided to stay on the bike, and I'm still not sure if that was the right choice. The mud, and I can't say this enough, was so thick. I hadn't ever ridden in anything like it. I pitted every half lap, and often in-between that would have to stop and clear out huge handfuls of mud and grass so that my wheels could keep rolling.

I tried to find the right lines, but man, who knows if I did. At times I felt like I could pick up some speed. Other times, slogging along so painfully slow, my legs and lungs just screamed. I bet I could have turned those pedals over better, and mentally been better. In the end, I harnessed what I had, and I was far out of reach of the podium when I crossed the line.

That was disappointing.

But I can't say that I didn't deserve exactly the spot I got. The women in front of me rode faster and stronger. Miraculously the only mechanical I had during the race occurred right as I rolled into the pits on my last lap. I never got crashed out. I didn't have a bad start. I definitely had some regrettable form and some embarrassing falls, but I just didn't have what I needed to stay in the top 3.

After the initial disappointment wore off, I settled into acceptance, and actually being able to hold my head up a little higher knowing how hard that race was, and that I finished it. I hadn't fallen completely apart, and that was worth something. And then, I got to really savor the feeling that my season was done. That I could not cool down and not feel bad about it. I envisioned the glass full of whatever wonderful whiskey cocktail I would get to enjoy later. Maybe too many, but that's a different post.

And never in my life would I guess that as a grand finale to everything, I'd get engaged right there in Louisville. That's also another post though.

Huge thanks to my team MWI, I couldn't have done it without you guys. And more thanks to my coach Gordy Paulson of Speedy Cycling Madison, to Rob Curtis, the man behind Psimet Wheels, to Chandler of Snyder Cycling Services for allowing us space in the compound to get my bikes ready, provide a warm place to warm up and going the extra mile in helping in the pits. To one of my favorite people, Miss Cait Dooley, for first and foremost being my homegirl, but also for coming along for a little roadtrip to Louisville and offer support, cheers and hugs. To my main squeeze for being there, for putting up with me and for letting me not have to worry about my bikes or the conditions, it means so much.

Thanks to everyone who came out and cheered, or wished me luck, or sent me a congratulatory text. I probably don't say it enough, but the people are what really make this sport, and I'm lucky to be surrounded by so many good, genuine folks. Booty pats to you all.

Here's a nice photo from the end of the race. I was happy to receive the special gift that I'm holding, post-race, from Dan Manco, member of Team Yacht Club, co-founder of Grimpeur Bros. Coffee and all around awesome dude.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Nationals: Elite Race

My second race at Nationals, the Women's Elite race on Sunday, presented very different course conditions from those on Friday. The temperatures dropped drastically, down into the 20s and colder at night. In between Friday and Sunday, there was rain, snow, crazy wind, freezing temperatures and even a tsunami. Okay not the last part. The muck turned into frozen ruts. They had scraped the course, so there were some ruts, but many sections were just flat and frozen, which made people with good handling skills a wee bit upset.

One of the fun things about racing cyclocross, aside from obsessively talking about tire pressure and tire tread patterns, is predicting the weather and what the course conditions will be like on race day. What makes for even more entertainment is breaking down predictions by the hour. So, for Sunday afternoon, rumor had it that we would have frozen mud and frozen mud ruts along with possible black ice and heavy, clumping mud as the day warmed up a bit, and other races broke up in the course.

Those conditions sounded foreign to me. Frozen mud ruts and I had met last January at Masters Worlds, but the mud and black ice component to it had me a little baffled. I was a bit worried. So, I decided to just start drinking gathering evidence.

My main squeeze and I had been lucky to have had dinner a few nights before with Matt and Pete, the fellas from Alchemy Bicycle Co., and their lovely badass of a sponsored rider Nicole. I try hard to not ask pesky questions when I'm around pro riders. Unless it's Adam Myerson, in which case it's no holds barred. Because that's what happens when you know a lot about cyclocross and I have your phone number. Just kidding not really. Seriously though, I'm not sorry, Adam. If it makes you feel any better, I do the same thing to THE MATT SHRIVER.

Anyway there we were at dinner and Sunday was on my mind. I couldn't help asking Nicole just one pesky question. Just one. I asked her what she does when she has to race in conditions that she's never raced in before. She's a really nice person, and so she answered my question. She told me that she tries to compare it to something that she does know, something that's familiar. I thanked her a few times (one too many maybe?) for that answer/advice, as it would help me quite a bit.

Because come race day, after I pre-rode two laps on the course, I would be a bleeping shivering bundle of nerves. On those laps, I was was getting bounced around like a pinball, falling all over the place, feeling so unsure of how to ride my bike and where to find the lines.

I ran into my main squeeze and he knew in an instant what was going on. He told me to calm down, to take a deep breath. I remembered the advice I had gotten a few nights before, and thought back to Masters Worlds the year before and how I had been able to conquer those conditions. And I felt better. Still nervous, but able to get out of the almost-stroke zone.

This was a very good thing.

My call-up wasn't great--I was somewhere around the 6th or 7th row in the starting grid I think. Last year I finished 33rd, and this year I was hoping for best case, top 20, least case, better finish than last year.

I can't say a lot about the race. Mostly because it was a short blur of time. I know that a lot of people told me I looked really pissed off and angry. This was intentional. Well, the look wasn't, but that mindset was. I was still a little too nervous rolling up to the starting grid, so I focused on being angry, because it's easier to focus in that state of mind vs. nervous jitters.

Also, that course was totally bleeping bananas and anything less than intense focus wouldn't work for me that day. There were people who looked terrified before the race started. It's likely that only a small percentage of the women racing had ever ridden in such conditions. Frozen mud ruts, temps hovering in the mid-20s, thawing mud, black ice. My goal was to finish in one piece, and do my best to ride the course with way more confidence than I actually had.

This was a race of attrition. I avoided a lot of crashes, I didn't crash too often or too badly, and both of my bikes were working. Those were the key factors in me being able to finish the race. The crashes were interesting--not really pile-ups like you'd normally see in a bigger field with icy conditions, but just single people hitting ice, or ruts and crashing into stakes, or sliding out.

If you were crashing (and everybody was), and you didn't have a pit bike and a good crew working for you in the pit, you were very well effed. The mud was building up quickly, and it was the kind that wanted to hang on, making things like brakes and shifters not work so well. Bikes were being washed quickly every half-lap to lap, but in doing so, many riders had problems with things freezing. Wheels were literally just not turning for some.

I rode past a lot of people running during that race. I felt lucky to not have ever been one of them, despite my crashes. I traded out bikes every lap. I was able to ride the backside of the run-up this race (well, 2 out of 3 ain't bad), something that had eluded me on Friday. I had a lot of women I was able to race with and trade spots. Coming around into the end of the 3rd lap, I took a bad line, ran into a wooden stake and hit the deck hard. It knocked the wind out of me and took a bit longer to get up than it should have.

I had been chasing 3 women who had passed me on the last hill, and was trying to get back up to them when I got pulled. That was disappointing. Getting pulled is always disappointing, but especially so when you're about to make a move, or gunning to move up a few spots.

I ended up 33rd again this year. I'll admit that I initially wasn't overly thrilled with that, as I had wanted to move up and I prefer even numbers. But looking back on it all, I'm happy with it. I'm bummed that I wasn't able to make up those spots, could have had better form on the run-up and regret not pushing a bit more on a few sections, but am glad that I have the experience of that race and those conditions under my belt. And for me, I drove my bike well and navigated that chaos nicely.

So another big round of thank yous to my team MWI, to Psimet Wheels, to Brendan of GORE Bike Wear for use of his tent, and to the guy who told me that my towel was on fire as I was doing a deck change in said tent, to everyone for coming out and cheering and to my main squeeze who did a stellar job both in and out of the pits, being encouraging every step of the way.

But the show's not over, folks. One more go to: Masters Worlds in Louisville is up next. In the meantime, the balmy winter training weather I've been enjoying so far in Chicago has gone out the window. The temps have dropped into the single digits this week and because I'm not able to ride on a trainer or rollers due to them both flaring up an old knee injury, I'm drawing from some major depths of motivation to get out every day and get my workouts in. But they're getting done, and I'm getting excited to be able to race Masters Worlds one more time on home soil before it goes back over to Europe.

Photo courtesy of  the talented Ali Engin

Friday, January 18, 2013

Nationals: Masters 30-34

This picture, right here, gives you a nice, clear image of this race.

Madison had been frozen solid for several weeks, if not longer. There was a lot of snow on the ground-8 to 10 inches I think. And then came in a January thaw with temps in the 40s, wind and rain. The course went from deep snow to slush, to icy mush and then to mud. The conditions for my Masters race on Friday afternoon were actually the more desirable ones, with the mud still soupy so it wouldn't cake up on the bike. The trickiest part for me was the ice underneath the mud and the remaining frozen ruts. I hadn't yet raced in anything like that.

I knew that I potentially had the chance to do well, and my goal was a top 5 finish, which would earn me a spot on the podium. At the very least, I hoped to do better place-wise than I had last year, which was 15th.

I had pre-ridden the course the day before when it was completely frozen, and opted to skip a pre-ride on Friday, knowing that the course would change significantly by the hour. I warmed up, tried to get calmed down, and eventually rolled over to the starting grid. I felt better knowing that I had my main squeeze in the pits for me, a guy who knows his way around a hot mess of broken bike and mud flying at him. Or, simply put. He can fix bikes.

I was excited for the start, but nervous. I didn't have the best track record racing back up in Wisconsin this season. It seemed that every time I made the drive north, my races never went as well as I hoped. I suspect I was in my head too much about what people would think, about needing to show people that I was still having an all right season, progressing as a rider, in spite of my move to Chicago.

So this time, I lined up, hoping for the best and focused on avoiding crashes and trying to stay upright. I had Jessica Hill, a fellow Chicago rider who races for Pony Shop, with me in the grid. The two of us had been duking it out all season, and I give her a lot of credit for pushing me to take my racing up a notch. She's a very skilled rider with experience racing on and off the road, good technically and tactically. Lady also doesn't take any bleep, and will throw an elbow if she has to. I learned quickly from riding in Chicago, and from racing with Jess, what it means to be safely aggressive, and to not back down.

After the gun went off, I wanted to stay up with the lead group, and tried to be 5th or 6th wheel. We hit the dirt after the starting pavement, and the crashes began. I don't think there were many, if any at all, pile-ups, but a lot of individual riders hitting black ice and sliding out. I avoided the crashes and made my way around to the first climb, which is where the groups had already split up.

I was around the back of the chase group after the run-up and crashed on the downhill. I would do that every lap, actually, and lose considerable amounts of time in my inability to figure out how to make it down that descent without falling. My chain was off after one crash, I slid out in places that made no sense, I was getting passed by rider after rider. At one point, I definitely had to get my head back in it, remind myself to get it together and calm down.

I figured a few things out coming into the 3rd and final lap, and made up a few spots, getting up from falling faster, getting out of my head and focusing on pushing and finding the right lines. I had shaken a lot of the women I had been trading spots back and forth with and found myself mostly alone on the last lap, with no one else in sight, no idea of what spot I was in.

This race was indicative of so many races for me this season, and I have to work hard to remember that getting out of my head is the only way to get ahead and continue to learn more on and off the course. I think of the time lost getting frustrated by my inability to drive in unfamiliar conditions, or the slight mental lapse where I watched riders pass me and didn't respond as strongly as I should have. It's disappointing in some ways, the fact that I can't make up for my lack of racing experience. That I can't trick my mind into being more calm before every race.

I keep going back to the Illinois State Cross race at Montrose, a race that was, for me, my most well executed race, both mentally and physically. I was calm at the start, I rode a smart race, and I never once gave up. It was one of the few races where I didn't have even a split-second moment of doubt that I could win if I just kept going.

I don't know what the magic formula was for me that day, but I was so happy to get there, and have a glimpse into what I can do.

I ended up crossing the line in 8th, with 7th almost 40 seconds in front of me, and 6th almost 2 minutes further ahead. It was a crazy race, and though I fell short of my goal of top 5, I was happy to have made the top 10 and to have improved my finish from last year. And even happier to get to celebrate that night with so many friends from near and far.

Thanks to my team MWI, to Psimet Wheels, to THE MATT SHRIVER for helping me out at the start and the finish, to everyone for cheering and of course, to my main squeeze, for being the most rad bike mechanic/guy in the universe.

A familiar sight in the Chicago Cross Cup, Jess and I got to race together often. 

Slop on slop.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Chicago Cross Cup's New Year's Resolution

I don't have a lot to say here. This was a 2-day UCI race in which I only raced one day and I did the Women's 2/3 race to avoid any possible UCI points because of Masters Worlds. The course is on a golf course, and for some reason, mentally and often physically, I just can't get into a good flow. The promoters do a good job making the most of the space, but I think it's probably just that it's a power course. And I have a tough time keeping up with the trains that form.

This race, I made some mistakes, got crashed out upside-down style before some barriers and didn't find my legs until halfway through, but overall, it was good. I learned things that I sorely need schooling about. Best part though was that I got to see some folks who I hadn't seen in awhile, and I got to host an out of town friend for the weekend.

On Sunday, I didn't race and took Hitch along with me to spectate. That was rad. I've missed being able to bring him to races this season, so he too, was pumped. He made some new friends. Like Minxy, and a nice basset hound, and mostly everyone else. Mostly. Except for the five or so folks who made rude comments about pitbulls as Hitch politely sat in front of them in his knitted butterfly sweater.

So, in the end comments aside, a great weekend full of racing, awesome people and hanging out with Hitch.

Grote Prijs & Cross Off the New Year

Thank goodness for those folks down in Kansas having 'cross races between Christmas and New Year's Day. Because I got to race my lil' booty off! A big high five to the folks who run these races--so well done, from the course to the organization to the venue selection. The course had just enough twists and turns without too many of the long straight power sections that I'm not overly fond of this season. 

It was a tale of two very different races, though on the exact same course. Grote Prijs was sunny, in the 40s and dry. Cross Off the New Year was snowy, sloppy and cold, with temps in the twenties. It was so great to have more practice in the snow before Nationals. Both days the fields had a good number of ladies (all of which were so friendly and awesome), which is always good to see. I was happy to take the win both days. 

And the best part, the venue was at an old Western town! The rest, well, I'm too far behind on these posts and too tired to write much more, so please enjoy the rest of the race report in photos, courtesy of my main squeeze. 


Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Boxing Day Cross

It was cold. Zero degrees at the start. The course was pretty open (so much tape), but had plenty of turns, something that I've come to understand is a trademark of many Missouri courses. It was good to race the day after Christmas and burn off all of the cookies I ate, and the practice of racing in the cold was good, though my lungs might not agree. 

The W123 field was small and I was able to create and keep a gap for the win, trying hard to stay on the gas with each lap and take the turns with more confidence and speed as the race went on. I was proud of myself for riding a feature that many ran, and tried to figure out the best lines on a few downhill kicker sections. 

I was lucky to have a few fans out cheering for me that day, so thanks to Justin and Andrea for coming out to cheer and keep my main squeeze company. You guys are all right.