Doing it all the hard way...

Monday, November 23, 2009

Woolley Cross Race Report

Davo earning his spots !

In stark contrast to last week’s race that was so close we didn’t even need to get on the freeway, this week we headed out before dawn. Seven AM saw the war wagon on the road with Hottie and I armed for our respective battles. The grey sky looked foreboding and the cold rain was relentless. This was primo Cyclocross weather.

In every other season, my business travel has taken me away and I always missed a series race or two, this year I have been in every race. Consequently I have earned enough points to be in a good position on the call up list. In the past I was always glad just to get a call up, now I am in a prime position on the second row and that is about as good as I could hope. This pathetic shot at middle aged glory has kept me pushing hard and my patient Hottie has been fully supportive of my quest.

This past week I was again flirting with the fine line between training hard and killing myself. Friday I left work early because, despite my finely honed denial skills, I suspected I was getting the flu. A ton of sleep and a lazy Saturday later, I was feeling almost okay.

Spring in rural Washington is a festival of greens. The greens can be so bright they border on florescent. Conversely, the winters in the low lands are full of fields of matted green grass and stalks of brown weeds and the skeletal remains of blackberry bushes alive under dark skies. Fallen leaves form a layer of brown decaying slimy ooze that never ever dries.

We arrived at the venue to find abandoned drafty farm buildings and the green and brown foliage described above. Everything was wet and the rain just kept coming. I opted to walk some of the course under my trusty umbrella to prolong my dry state. I saw riders out on the course warming up wearing parkas with mud stripes up their backs. This was going to be a slop fest.

I dressed and added an extra layer to peel off before the start and rode my extra wheels way, way, way out to the pit at the far end of the course. I rode the course from the pits back to the starting area. For the first time all year, I didn’t even ride a full loop of the course. I wasn’t quite a hundred percent and the cold cut me to the bone.

At the start line I checked my front tire and it felt hard so I let out a few psi. Then I felt it again and it was softer than a sponge. Big problem and maybe two minutes till the whistle. Panic time. When I had first checked it I had been leaning on my handlebars so my weight on my front tire had made it seem harder than it was. A quick dash to the Kona tent and a friendly pump from a stranger had me race ready. I returned to the starting line and took my spot. I was chatting it up with a guy from Old Town Bikes and I took off my jacket, pants and beanie and tossed them aside. The rain had slowed and I was hoping it hold off. I was wrong.

At the whistle I got a good start and was happy with my position when a few heroes shot past. Forty five year olds dreaming of glory I suppose. On the sweeping right hand downhill we were still flying from the start and a pile up on the right side made my line on the left the only place to be. Three lanes of riders merging into one lane caused me to grab my brakes.

“Holy crap,” I thought as I squeezed my brakes and felt almost nothing. I had switched out my front brakes and put on some new pads. I had meant to ride the CX bike on Friday to break in the pads, but as I said earlier, I felt poorly Friday, so I didn’t ride. I had essentially no warm up today, so my brakes were getting broken in right now! Stoooopid, I thought to myself.

The double track road had some puddles and that just led to splashes. Then the road turned muddy with large car-sized puddles. Most riders were riding single file on some grass to the right of the road but a brave soul in front of me tore through the mud and I elected to do the same. This proved smart as I passed about five riders who had been forced to slow as they took the single line to the right of the bog.

I hit the barrier/run-up combo and moved up again. Some bumpy grass took us past the pits and then another speed draining bog had to be navigated before a slippery, but straight, downhill. Then we were churning up a slippery uphill that required you to sit to keep your back wheel from spinning out and then Batman, more barriers. Then we were on a long boggy mud fest that took herculean strength to keep your bike moving even in your lowest gear. Some elected to run this but running in mud takes a ton of energy and seemed to be slightly, if at all, faster. The end of the bog brought you to a gravel road.

Before you think we were riding on a gravel road I need to clarify that while it was kind of a road, and the surface was indeed gravel, it was deep, soft, easily displaced gravel that was akin to riding in soft sand. So while the gravel did serve to clean the mud from your tires like a rock tumbler, you were still working super hard and going super slow. After what seemed like an eternity, the road firmed up and soon you were in your highest gear flying toward the pits.

Some tricky turns on slippery grass brought you to a slip and slide descent on an S-curve trail with hill on your left and a cliff with blackberry bushes below it on the right. The climb out of this ravine was slimy and required lots of power to stay upright.

Sam at the bottom of the S-Curve downhill

A couple of grassy loops and then finally onto firm double track to head back to deep speed sucking grass just before the finishing straight.

This was a power course that had a few technical sections. The steep descents were generally handled at a cautious speed and the turns, with few exceptions, were sweepers that asked for power rather than bike handling skills.

I was in between my two teammates. Mike was a few places ahead of me and Dave a few seconds behind with an Old Town rider in between. About half way through the last lap the Old Town rider who I was talking to before the start passed me. I hung on his wheel and would not let go. I passed him on the long bog and he passed me back where the gravel road firmed up. I trailed him through the pits and down the slip and slide S curve. When the grassy turns dumped onto the double track I took the left lane after he took the right. I stood on the pedals and muscled past him. I could sense him giving up and kept the power on through the grassy bog and onto the finishing straight. I finished and rolled up to my teammate Mike who had finished eleventh.

I was fifteenth on the day and the final effort had taken whatever I had left right out of me. I slumped over my bars and fought to catch my breath. The fellow I beat congratulated me and we shook hands. Dave rolled up and was as spent as the rest of us. This was his first really muddy race and he had a look of astonishment. It is hard to believe grown men and women do this for fun. This was a good race and everyone was glad the suffering was over.

The cold rain had increased during the ride and most riders, including myself were sitting second in a race with hypothermia. I left my bike at the team tent and let my pit wheels enjoy the rain as I raced back to the wagon and stripped off the muddy layers. Shoes, gloves, jersey (with number – I’d unpin that at home) and finally knees and bibs all into the wet bag. Standing on a rubber mat with a small towel on top I wrestled dry socks onto my wet feet. I put on layer upon layer as well as my thick beanie and warm gloves. I looked around to see other riders performing their post race rituals. A woman had a blue tarp covering the entire back of the inside of her Subaru and she tossed her muddy bike, soiled clothes and everything else in a heap, apparently without care, no doubt intending to sort it out when she could feel her fingers. At the back of a pick up truck a woman handed her man a coffee thermos which he opened and poured the black contents over his feet to wash and warm them. The steam rising told me it was warm, the lack of screaming told me it wasn’t too hot.

I returned to help Hottie with her shooting by sheltering her with an umbrella as she did her magic. I am sitting eleventh in the series and will have a good position for the series finale next week.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Sprinker - SSCXWC 2009 Doing the Double Cross The confidential report

Finally the race weather was cool enough to embrocate. After donning my long sleeve jersey for the first time this racing season and warming up I returned to the wagon and opened my precious jar of gooey heat. Slipping on a latex glove I took a finger full of the orange fire and smeared it on my exposed quads, knees and calves. The warming smell of Cyclocross wafted to my nose. The start at Sprinker seemed all too fast and sketchy for my conservative judgment. I hit the first corner about twenty-fifth and spent the rest of the race moving up. I was running just over thirty psi up front and about thirty-four in back. The tubies bit like vampires and I kept the rubber side down.

After a consistent, though unspectacular 15th place finish, I made my way to the war wagon. The intermittent rain had come and gone during my race. My bike had a thin, but thorough coating of mud and grass. I managed to get it secured for the remainder of the day’s travels, and changed into some dry duds. I found the superstar photographer and provided her minimal support as she shot it up for the next two races.

Although John “The Destroyer” McHale had offered to keep his bike a mono cog for an additional week and let me race that, I had opted to return Sam’s Kona to the mud from which it had originated. The decision turned out to be a lucky one as once again John proved himself the bicycle torture test. His herculean strength resulted in multiple mechanical failures on the varied course. How do you break a brake?

After the 11:15 race we sped to Taco del Mar and refueled our bodies for the remaining items on the agenda. Once we were heading south on I-5 the rain did exactly the opposite of what we had expected and got heavier and harder. Occasional glimpses of blue sky gave us fleeting moments of false hope. Speaking of hope, as the radio signal for the Sounders game faded, so did their playoff hopes. Three miles from the Columbia another deluge told us that while we would surely get wet, the racing in Portland would be epic. On the way down I had placed my gloves, which were wet from my race, over the defroster vents and flipped them every few minutes like pancakes to try and get them dry. On a whim, I had hung my long sleeved jersey on the back of my seat hoping it too might get dry.

We found a parking spot and walked toward the scene of the crime. The riders leaving from their Cross Crusade races looked like battle weary soldiers, covered with mud as if they had been swimming in it. More than one thousand mile stare from these broken souls told me all I needed to know about the course conditions. These spent men and women walked bikes with broken derailleurs, glopped so completely with mud that if someone walked past you with your bike, you wouldn’t recognize it.

We were greeted by the smell of barbeques and wood fires mixed with the scent of frites, waffles and hop beverages. I would say the scene was a circus needing only a juggler, but there was in fact, a woman dressed in black leather juggling torches. Bagpipes competed with several small stereo systems, but the drum corps provided the definitive backbeat for the afternoon festivities.

Battling sensory overload we made our way to secure my race number and get some finer points on the schedule for the race activities. Back at the war wagon I ducked under the tailgate as the rain kept coming and dug out clothes for my second race of the day. I was delighted to find my jersey had dried so the short sleeve jersey and arm warmers stayed clean in the bag. I put on clean bibs, knee warmers and undershirt. Sealskin waterproof socks were the ticket, although I put my 20/20 colors on over them. While image isn’t everything, it is something. Lastly I put Kevin’s super fro hair over my helmet as some level of costume was de’ rigueur for the day.

We lined up semi- Le Mans style. Those wearing thongs, skirts, tighty-whities, or shirtless were fighting off hypothermia waiting for the starting Whistle. I spotted Jenny in her 20/20 kit with an added fairy skirt for effect. She had a foot or so of course tape attached to her helmet to indicate she was one of the fairer gender riders. This seemed odd to me as NO amount of mud could result in the males who were cross dressing being mistaken for women.

The start had the expected chaos of two hundred and fifty riders squeezing onto a course that was ten feet wide. The run up was steep, crowded and slippery. Then we hit an off camber of oozing mud that I never figured out the best way to navigate. I ran it twice and rode it twice, each time convinced that what I had just done was wrong.

Quickly we were headed up a slippery hill that you just had to muscle/run/swim/slip/claw your way up and then your silent prayers were answered. After thinking, “enough slippery uphill,” you hit a downhill that you had to pedal to get moving. Though once moving, pedaling, braking or coasting had no effect on your speed as you slid down and onto pavement. Going fast felt strange and soon you were sliding down another steep off-camber and then pavement again. Then we did an infield loop where you could receive offers of bacon or beer while enjoying barriers. Finally we heading out to remote mud bogs alternated with sections of gravel road forcing an ever changing cadence. A hub deep one hundred meter pond provided the full spectrum experience.

Then returning to where you started you rode through the Thunderdome A monkey bar dome thirty feet high that would have made Buckminster Fuller proud. Swinging inside were cunning assassins trying to knock unlucky riders to the ground. Having climbed up the outside of the structure were screaming fans that kept up a raucous roar in the dome. After escaping the din you repeated the carnage of the lap described above until the day was done.

The costumes were plentiful, to the point where riders just wearing team uniforms looked out of place. Popes, Friars, Missionaries, Nuns, and Men dressed in Parochial school girl uniforms only added to the blasphemous atmosphere. Odd bikes, including a big wheel (I mean a really big wheel, 48” in diameter) and built for purpose tandems made it at least one lap. Those of us less encumbered, were able to enjoy multiple laps.

When the race officials finally shouted, “you’re done,” it was received with mixed emotions. The conditions of the course meant everyone had to work hard just to make it around. Costumes only added to the challenge. However, being part of the spectacle and having fans screaming for you, felt so good I was sad to see it end.

Sam’s bike was by now, unrecognizable. If not for Kevin’s “trolling” wig, my own sweet wife would have been unable to spot me. Back at the wagon, I hosed the bike and brushed off the globs. Laying down protection from the mud, I carefully put the bike INSIDE the car for what was to be a rainy drive home.

Then I peeled off sopping wet muddy layers and put on clean, dry clothes. My dirty clothes sack was bulging from two wet races. I splashed water on my face and wiped it (almost) clean. While the photographer edited photos on the Mac most of the way home I enjoyed the remnants of tingling warmth from the morning’s embrocation. I also smiled a weary smile, warmed by the memory of pulling off the long distance double cross.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Yankee Fans raise your hands !

So the rest of us can stab you in the heart..