Monday, October 28, 2013

Cow Country Classic

No matter the sport there is always repetition in competition.  Whether it be a particular team or fellow athlete, who is known to be especially tough year in and year out, a contest which is known to usually have adverse weather, or as in this case, a course which is known to be one with a lot of climbing.  A disproportionate amount of up hill, which by the time the finish is crossed which is 600 feet higher than the start, the sentiment is that you should be at an elevation that only commercial jets regularly attain.  The Cow Country Classic was host to the state championship road race the previous year, and subsequently also my first USA Cycling sanctioned race.  As such this course holds the memory of a 3rd place finish from the previous year and the dread that is felt in the very fibers that support my 6'5" frame that is induced with thinking back on the suffering that the climbing produced last year.  Now it is time for round two.

After the slog of the previous race two weeks prior in Bear Lake with the rain and cold, I have come in preparation this week with a new rain coat shoe covers to help fend off cold and wet in the chance that the rain shows up again this week.  After a 4 hour drive up through central Montana we arrive at the start line located right on the Missouri river.  As the fellow racers start pulling in, a number of familiar faces are seen and the initial sizing up of the field commences.  After sign in the discussion amongst all the racers is the expected difficulty and expectation of climbing to be encountered in the hours to come.  Yet, thanks be to God, while there will be suffering induced from the climbs, we all suffer together and more or less the same.  Yet an advantage that I have is that I have raced this course before, while most of my competition has not.  I know where the hills are, and about how long they are.

The initial feel of the day is casual, as we, my support crew (wife and four kids) have arrived early enough to not have to rush like it is the final 200 meters of the race before a single riders leaves off. So a methodical warm up, and prep of all the race equipment ensues. Spending time on the CycleOps Fluid 2 trainer, to get the legs firing and up to speed feels good.  As the muscles begin to wake from their stupor of a 4 hour car drive and engage in the necessary sequence to turn the crank and deliver power to the rear wheel and thus propel bike and rider forward all that fills my mind is "Thank You Father God for the opportunity to worship You on the back of a bike today!!"

Once the legs and lungs reach an equilibrium of sustainable warmth to put induce a level of suffering that hopefully the other competitors will not be able to sustain, a quick clean up of all equipment and wipe down of the bike and it is off to the road, for the final stretch of warm up.  "Thank You Lord, that it looks like it is going to be a beautiful clear day for a race!!"  A few sprints, and few sustained efforts to ensure that legs and lungs are fully opened and tuned into what is about to happen and it is to the starting area to wait the final instructions.  

Roll call, and course instructions and we are off.  Initially the race takes a 3 mile decent into Wolf Creek, MT after crossing the Missouri river in the first 1/4 miles.  Yet as proof the Lord has a sense of humor no sooner had the peloton crossed the bridge over the Missouri river than the few clouds that were about, exploded into an torrential down pour.  "Not again, not another race in the rain, and I left my rain slicker back at the car!! Lord, thank You that it isn't dreadfully cold at least!!" 

Last year, not knowing what to expect I left off at the front of the peloton, this year have learned from past experiences, I hold about 3 wheels back and let some of the other first timers do the work.  Although this plan sounds good as soon as we get into town no one really knows where to go as the lead car is to meet us on the other side.  So to the front it is, and through town we go.  After the town the grade switches direction and a gentle rise for about 8 km ensues, nothing spectacular (except the scenery) as follow up a creek bottom past farms and fields.  "Wait a second, no one has tried to take over the lead spot!!! It has been 3 1/2 miles, someone should have tried to pull"  So first things first, I swing across the road to open up and allow the peloton to move forward yet just like an army of ants where the front goes the rest follows, even with a decelerated pace no one wants to take the lead yet.  Finally getting tired of this, SPRINT!!!!!   After a good 30 second effort, and a look back, not only is there a gap, but it is almost 200 yards and no one is chasing. Really!?  I do not want to do the next 45 miles as a time trial.  SO, slow it up a touch it is, but also to regain any expenditure of effort, for just as the peloton comes up so does the road, at a good 4% grade for a little over 3 miles.

Not wanting to burn myself at the start of the race, I choose not to attack at this point. In fact my strategy is to make my attack at the final turn 19 miles from the finish line.  Yet to no avail, upon the initial climb, which turned into a suffer fest for most of the rest of the peloton, the lead group is decreased from 32 to 5.  "Thank You Jesus, a gap and other racers to share the load with."  Although we are a group out ahead the sentiment is still the same, keep the big guy in front, hide behind him.  Playing the game again, of guttering the rest of the group, and even slowing up a bit, not enough to allow the gap to close but to induce some concern that it could, I hear from the second or third rider back "I know what you are doing, and we are not going to get in front, you are a lion and I am not going to get in front of a hungry lion!!!"  Turns out that came from one of the guys I have raced with and dropped in three of the past four races and his goal is not to get dropped today. 

By the grace of the Lord, a pace line does form and we begin to share the load just in time for the 3rd climb of the day.  While it is not a major climb it does induce a significant effort and burning of the legs. And come to find out another gap!!!  Now it is just down to two.  The other, it is his first road race.  Looking back, I see myself in that situation only a year prior.  Thank you Lord for how far You have brought me in this past year!!  There is some banter back and forth as we form a plan of attack, which as it turns out no matter the final decision, the legs do the talking and as such this means that I will do most of the pulling.  Yet, while the pace remains moderate,  I ensure that it is just below focused conversation pace.  The idea being that I am not killing my legs this early in case the group decides to catch up, but also to let the guy I am riding with that I still have more in reserve in case he thinks about doing anything funny, like breaking. 

The second leg of the race enters with a fast right hand turn and no sign of the chase group.  Still to let up only invites the group to gain and with the race only covering slightly less than half the total distance there is still a large question mark at the finish.  Thinking back to this stretch of race the year prior the climbs were long and the descents short.  Suffering has a way of making the pain and suffering worse and the easy diminished.  Maybe it is just perception, or the suffering that was endured through the off season and early season at the direction of Equip Flamme Rouge was paying off in gains that were at once thought unattainable, either way the climbs were met with an equal descent.  And while the climbs were not easy, both the legs cranking out watts upon watts and the lungs striving to fill with air like an engorged balloon ready to burst with even the thought of more air, they were not insurmountable.
Approaching the third and final leg of the course and the remaining 19 miles to the finish line I begin to realize that the wind is going to be a foe and not a friend on the final stretch.  My plan at this point is to carry the other rider into the last climb and drop him there, so that he can likewise have solo victory and in his first road race!!  Yet as we lean into the turn, inside knee steering me like a rudder of a warship, and the acceleration into the mile long up hill grade into the wind a determination overcomes me with a sudden desire to suffer so that this up grade is attacked at the same pace as what was coming into it.  At the top of the hill the course official notifies me that the gap is at least a minute.  "Wait, 5 miles ago it was better than 3 minutes!!!  What happened"  A quick look back and the other rider has been dropped!!  (At least I didn't try to carry on a conversation about picking up the pace with him only to find that I was talking to the air)
The wave of determination, which I know was fueled by the hand of the Lord as it was a burst of energy not my own, only grew, knowing that there really was only one more big climb and then the short up hill finish.  Push, Push, Push, Don't let up, Don't look back, Drive, Drive...  The last 18 miles slip through the fingers of time almost with out memory as the elation and focus work together propel bike and rider closer to the finish.  Yet 5 miles from the finish after the final climb a dread begins to grow in my mind "are they catching me...where are they..." Like a soldier constantly looking over his shoulder to ensure that his opponent in this fray has not gained an unnoticed advantage upon him, about every 150 meters there is a panicked look back and a few more watts are cranked out.  The final climb to the finish is welcome reprieve to the fear of being over taken.  Yet as with most things in life, this fear was completely unfounded, as after a half hearted sprint across the line, more for training purposes than anything else, and a congratulations from the best team manager anyone could ask for my wife who surprised me there, and the official, it is still four minutes until the next group comes across the line.
"Thank you Lord for an awesome race, and great riders to share it with and for holding the bulk of the rain off during the race!!!" 
After watching all the other groups come and race across the line, I go to remount my BMC promachine for the 6 mile cool down back to the start, the heavens open and a deluge cleanses both sweat and tears from all who raced!! 

Friday, June 21, 2013

Bear Lake Classic Road Race

6:00 a.m. and the alarm clock begins to chirp it's persistent digital wake up to pull me out of the world of rest and into the days events yet to unfold.  After silencing the alarm clock a quick look out the window confirms that I had heard throughout my anxious rest the night past.  Rain.  Yet, never to fail, the race must go on.  For today, no only pits rider against rider, legs against legs, but also a strong measure of mental fortitude for each individual rider.  Today will be a day not measured in how many watts can be put out, or how many calories have been burned, max heart rate, but rather who is willing to suffer mentally against the rain, the cold and the wind.

A quick breakfast at the local cafe, which was smothered in raspberries, which is the local staple and my biggest weakness, finds us enjoying one of the little mentioned peeks of racing, meeting new people of similar interests.  The short break from the rain and cold in the cafe, lightened by conversation with a fellow racer out of Jackson, WY, gives the motivation for the suffering to come.  After the bill has been settled the mood of the day takes on a distinct business air, it is time to focus, time to drown out all the outside stimuli and prepare for the battle to come.  Today is race day!!!

After checking over the bike, making sure the tubulars are seated well, and inflated to the required PSI for wet roads, the quick release skewers are engaged but not locked down to tight, a fresh drizzle of chain lube applied, breaks a centered and a multitude of other last minute checks are made, everything is declared ready for action.  Going out for a quick warm up another sup rise... I bump into one of my former co-workers whom is also an elite cyclist.  Turns out we are going to be leaving off in the same group today.  "Thank You Jesus for another familiar face to race with today, thank You for the rain, and thank You that You will bring glory to Yourself today!!!"

Warming up is a welcome reprieve from the environment.  As the blood begins to surge through the muscles, and the heart rate begins to elevate the 42 degree F air does not seem quite as bad nor does the rain appear quite as daunting a foe.  With a good ramp up of intensity, a short sprint and a check that the V-Twin engine of my legs are firing properly and ready for action it is a ride back to the start to prepare for battle.

While nosed up to the start line, with senses at maximum awareness, picking up even the most minute clue as to the character and disposition of those that I am preparing to battle both with and against, the overwhelming conclusion is it is cold.  The race officials, directors and volunteers are all in jackets that are fit more for February rather than mid-May, while at the line we are all clothed in varying amounts of Lycra and a few with rain capes on.  "It's only 52 miles, 2 hours, it isn't that cold, I can suffer to 2 hours...right?  "Lord thank You again for the day and the moisture, to You be the Glory""
And with a sudden rush we are off.  37 CAT 3 and CAT 4 racers leave the start zone, make an immediate right hand turn out onto the road way and the race is off. 

The initial pace is slow, while it has only been about 5 minutes since the warm up came to a close, already muscles and lungs feel tight and sluggish, yet despite the slow pace no one is trying to do anything yet, everyone is comfortable with re-warming up.  Then like a flash of lightening drops down from the clouds above hits the ground and is gone, the first attack is sprung from with in the front half of the peloton.  A lone rider, hitting the gas, gaining both speed and distance, has the effect of pouring gasoline on a smoldering fire.  The peloton erupts, with the sound of gears dropping, frames and wheels being loaded up as riders come up out of the saddle to lay chase to the attack.  And the race is off.

Over the following 15 miles the same repeats itself more times than can be counted, or at least remembered through the hypothermic blanket that is beginning to envelope each of us.  For this leg of the race, riding north along the western shore of the lake, I find my self in either the 1st or 2nd wheel position.  Fighting the wind at the front, or the road spray of water coming off the wheels ahead like a roosters tail.  To determine which is better is difficult at best, the former uses more energy, yet I'm not taxed by the cold and the later while easier to pedal, the taxing effect of the wet cold road spray that saturates even barrier clothing takes a significant toll.  With each attack, it is as though a large rubber band connects the attacker to the peloton, the break, a gap is established and builds until a tipping point is reached in which the attacker is caught and reabsorbed into the peloton almost as fast as he initially broke away.

Reaching the northern 8 mile long shore brings about little change except for worsening road surface conditions.  Every 15 seconds or so the lead riders in the peloton chirp up about another road condition that should be avoided.  Still taking turns at the front, I begin to realize that no longer am I racing with a bunch of individuals but with riders making up a team and with strategy.  Upon this realization, I drop back a little further back in the peloton to allow the lead out men of the other teams to do their work and allow my legs to stay a little fresher. 

Coming into the eastern shore of Bear Lake it is evident that there will not be a huge break with in this race, it will be fought out at the finish line, the last kilometer.  Still turning onto the east shore the few technical challenges of the day greet us.  A series of rollers, never gaining more than a 100 feet of elevation nor grade surpassing 5%, is a nice reprieve of the steady flat riding that has been since the start of the race.  Having to open up and allow my muscles to perform and the blood to flow through helps to keep everything loose, but also shows me how cold I am.  Being soaked from helmet to cleat, as though I had just swam across the lake rather than circumvented it to the north, has caused fingers to go numb and muscles to slowly tighten so that when I go to stand up out of the saddle, my legs try not to support me.  All around each rider is trying to shake out his hands so that control of the shifters and brakes can be maintained with some level of accuracy and precision.  "Lord Jesus, it is cold, I need You to carry me and help me."

Thankfully as we reach the southern termination of Bear Lake the rain starts to abate, not stop, yet here there must have been more and heavier rain than around the rest of the lake.  The road is significantly wetter here and as such a disproportionate increase in water is thrown up off of the tires around.  To the point that my riding glasses allow rough shapes through but not sharp definition.  To wipe them clean only brings smears and to take them off fills the eyes with water.  Still the last time I had looked at the Joule GPS computer we were keeping up a pace of around 24 miles per hour.  However to confirm this a look a the Joule GPS again shows that just like the riding glasses, the screen is covered with water and grime and trying to read numbers through both clouded lenses and wet screens quickly became hopeless. 

The surrounding country changes rapidly, the lake is left to the north and we find ourselves in the middle of farm and pasture.  I am no longer in the front of the peloton either and lesson number 2 of the day is learned, while trusting in the lead out men of the other teams, I forgot that the rest of the teams would try to box out those behind.  So as we turn back north, on to the final leg of the race, bear down as we turn into the wind, I begin looking for holes and gaps in which I can gain just one bike length.  It is on this final stretch that the true suffering of the day is engaged.  The collective sense of the peloton is that the the finish is near and this is what I have to rely on as the ability to clearly read the computer was left back on the east shore of Bear lake.  The wind is whipping with a chill like that of the first snow storm of the autumn.  Muscle a cold and tight, praise the Lord still firing well, and the mental weight of the past almost 2 hours of cold and wet compounded with wind chill has taken its toll.

Then with out warning, people are on the road signaling us to make a hard left.  No one was expecting this, as signage along the road had said otherwise, brakes are laid on harder than they ought with the wet road, tires slide yet by the Grace of the Lord no one goes down.  A short descent and a straight run out for a kilometer, this is the finish.  Despite the cold and pain, the explosion of muscle and sinew dig from reserves of energy that were not known about since the first time I sat on a bike.  The legs wind up, and coming up out of the saddle naturally, gracefully and begin to pass those ahead.  One, two, three riders slip past as the legs begin to cry out for oxygen, a fourth comes into the sights and his wheel is almost caught when through the tunnel vision a white line passes beneath indicating the end of the race.  Looking up and a quick count of those ahead reveals that I did not reach the top 10 but was 13th.  Still through the suffering of the day, and a sprint that was not to be discounted the day can not be counted as a defeat, just not a win.  "Lord, thank You for carrying us through, it was Your hand that delivered me and not my own.  To You be the Glory both in victory and defeat.  Amen"

I caught up with my former co-worker just past the finish, and at this point, with the release of the focus of the race and the on set of fatigue that I realize that I had been clinching my jaw the past several miles do to the cold, a price I will pay for for the next several days.  I walked/crawled away from the day having learned several lessons and strategy and survived the most gruelling race or experience I have had to date on the bike.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Bear Lake Classic Time Trial

Bear Lake, resting on the border of Utah and Idaho is encompassed both in the beauty and majesty of the Creator and also of history for the region and is home to a 10 year old cycling classic weekend.  Comprised of 3 different events, each independent of each other, a 3.8 mile hill climb, a road race around Bear Lake itself and a conclusion of a team time trial around the lake the next day. 
After a 9 hour drive from south central Montana, through eastern Idaho, and just crossing into Utah, legs were stiff to say the least, yet ready to erupt for the Bear Lake Classic hill climb.  The final 20 miles of the drive in held attention differently than the usual focus that accompanies the approach of any start line.  This section of road not only marks a part of the course to circumnavigate Bear Lake tomorrow, but is also a portion of the LATOJA Classic, a 206 mile event from Logan, UT to Jackson, WY in one day, in which I will be competing in come September 7th.  With that in mind, anticipation is at an all time high, taking in every bend, turn, rise and dip, that will mark the opening miles of the race to come in 18 short hours.
The constant companion on the trip down has been weather in some sort or another, either wind, rain, mist; clear sky's did not seem to get the invitation for this days events.  In the same fashion, while not yet raining, the air at the base of the battlement that is calling for conquering is wet, humid and cool.  Arguable not ideal conditions but, "Lord, today is in Your hands and You have a plan, so thank You for the weather being just as it is."
First things first is to unload and prepare the bike for battle.  The BMC SLC01 Pro Machine is first wiped down and cleared of road and travel baggage and the CycleOps 65mm tubular rims and PowerTap rear hub are installed and inflated to a tight 145 PSI to minimize rolling resistance.  As every advantage to claim the summit with the lowest time will be tapped.  A quick adjustment of the drive train to ensure that the Sram Red gruppo is shifting quickly and accurately and the breaks allow clearance of the wheels with minimal clearance.  Then it occurs to me, this is a race up hill, what on earth am I worrying about my breaks, I will not be using them until I am almost back at the car.  The humor of it lightens to moments just as a single ray of sun peeking through the cloudy days gives a hope to come!!
A solid warm up on the CycleOps Fluid 2 trainer, of 15 minutes beginning with a gentle spin at high cadence progressing to full on battle pace and then returning back near but not to the gentle spin that started it.  With the muscles warm and all cylinders are firing, it is off the trainer and onto the road to refine the timing and sequence of the motor that will propel rider and bike up the hill, toward the point where the victor will be determined.  An additional 10 minutes of road warm up and keeping the everything moving to prevent the chill of the air from penetrating the thin lycra skin suit, and it is time for the battle to begin.  "Lord, thank You again for this day the opportunity to race in this beautiful place.  To You be the glory. Amen."
As the course officials final finger falls, indicating that my attack has begun, a quick step upon the pedal as the off foot finds its target and the comforting click of the cleat engaging gives confidence as the assault begins and acceleration finds its path from legs to feet to pedal and chain ring, through the chain and cassette, into the rear hub down the spokes engaging the rims and glue holding the tubulars and down onto the road.  "Breath, breath, ride smart, don't blow up, target for 12 minutes, hold power..."  Everything I have read and learned, mostly at, comes rushing through the window of conscientious, reminding me of all the small details the separate the top of the podium to a step down. 
The first miles comes and goes as quick as expected yet deceitfully so.  The tax expended has not yet come to the point of cost but as the climb continues the grade of the road becomes more and more exacting.  While never overwhelming, the ever presence of a foe straining to hold me back, slow my bike down, make me want to give in and slow up is breathing defeat at me.  "Jesus, I need Your strength and not my own, mentally and physically, thank You either way today goes, You are already victorious!!!" 
With the grade steepening and miles, and feet are passed behind, each claimed with sweat and focus on the end, the toll of the climb has begun to be felt in full force.  Yet, thinking back to my time training in the offseason, only 2 more minutes, I can hold a heart rate of better than 170 for 2 minutes.  "hold in there, do not let up, shut up legs you don't have eyes, I can see the finish!!"  With that revelation a surge of strength fills the muscles, a short down hill and as much of a sprint that can be mustered on the short return up hill and the race is complete, the battlement has been scaled and conquered and subdued.  The results will have to wait for the bottom, but the CycleOps Joule GPS reads 14:49 and knowing that the grade topped 7% I feel pretty good.  "Thank You Jesus, to You be the Glory!!" 
A quick ride to the bottom, spinning my legs to flush the lactic acid build up and the race officials come with the results. 6th out of 28, not bad, not as good as I would have wanted, being 2 minutes behind the fastest. "Lord to You be the Glory, I will be working on hills come next week!! Amen"
Tomorrow is the road race...