Saturday, July 17, 2010

French Broad Road Race - calling all climbers!

This weekend is the French Broad Cycling Classic held up in Marshall, NC. They actually have three races - last night's Cane Creek time trial, today's Liberty Bicycles road race and tomorrow's City of Asheville Criterium.

While some of my Greenville Spinners Racing Teammates are going for the omnium, I participated only in today's Road Race. This is a very hilly 40 mile route

Several of my teammates ride in the Cat 4 group. In chatting with them briefly after the race, it seems they felt pretty good overall, but each was challenged on the most significant climb of the day. The best result was a 15th place for Peter with Brian, Kirk and Randy coming in 33rd, 37th and 41st respectively.

I'm still riding cat 5, and this makes my 6th race. A few more and I won't have a choice but to cat up to 4. No problem, having fun is what it's all about anyway. Today Allen joined me in the Cat 5 group. He made a difference for me in the beginning. I really felt like he was watching over me because of my shifting problems. Probably my imagination, but hey, I was glad he was there. Allen pulled a 16th on the day so a great result for him.

The ride actually starts off flat for about a half mile. Wouldn't you know it, as we turn on Marshall's main street, I shifted up into my big ring and the chain popped off the pedal side. Bummer, I pulled to the side (but kept rolling) to get it sorted out and had a super nice guy ride up next to me and push me for a moment. I said thanks to him, but that I had it. He continued and I got the chain back in place.

The route turned up pretty quickly for some big rollers - I would almost say these were bordering on actual hills based on the length of these things. I did my best to stay with the lead pack and found the pace to be hard, but manageable.

Shifting was a big problem for me today. Obviously, I damaged the big ring in last week's crash. Every time I shifted from the small ring to the big ring (near the top of the climbs of course), I had to be super careful. I found if I shifted while in the biggest cogs, it wasn't too bad, but if I was in any of the 4 or 5 smaller cogs, the chain wanted to go over to the pedal side of the chainring. A number of times I had to use my foot to insure the chain stayed on the ring. Things worked out ok, but it took energy that I needed for the climbs.

Around mile 13 or so, the road turns up for the first part of the biggest climb of the day. It's really two climbs with a descent in between. The first climb is not too bad - the grade is manageable and the pace was not crazy. I managed to stay mostly with the lead pack. Occasionally, a gap would open (as normal) through turns between the riders at the lead and the riders further back. I tried not to let this happen, but I was staying away from the very front - probably in the top 20 riders or so. That far back, the accordion effect is pretty pronounced. Burned some energy pulling back up to the pack when that happened.

As we finished the descent from that first part of the main climb, we entered into a relatively flat and very straight section of roadway. Wouldn't you know it, a crash occurred about 10 bikes in front of me and I had to take evasive action.

Thankfully, I heard after the race that no-one was hurt, but I watched one guy go over his handlebars when he hit the guy in front of him. Unfortunately, a very strong rider I know and who I have ridden with several times got caught up in the crash and it took him out. Not because of injuries to his person, but to his bike. Bummer as he was riding really strong today.

For me, my evasive action put me into the grass. I kept the bike upright and got it stopped in time, but that was the problem, I couldn't go around the crash due to the terrain - I had to stop. Meanwhile, the lead riders who were in front of the crash kept going.

I quickly dismounted and brought my bike back around the other side of the riders who were now untangling their bikes and bodies. I re-mounted and took chase. I caught up to a 2nd group that was chasing the lead group. One guy commented to me "I guess they're not going to wait up". "Nope", I said, "they're going to make us work for it".

Then, the gradient increased and we were into the largest climb of the day. Not the steepest, but certainly the longest. It was about 5 miles long and as I rode up the early part of the ride, I managed to gap that 2nd group I briefly rode with, but the lead group was gapping me. I did not push hard enough to reel the leaders in.

I did manage to collect and gap a number of riders on my way up, but one rider who I have ridden with in the past caught my wheel as I rode past him. He and I worked together on the climb, then we collected Senior on the early part of the descent.

As we passed Senior, I called out to him "Come on Senior!", and sure enough, he grabbed our wheels. The three of us worked together as we rode through the very beautiful North Carolina countryside. It was mostly a descent, but the grade was not steep. Still, we could carry (relatively easily) 25 - 29mph in most places. Senior and Tom would pull for long distances in the beginning, but as we all began to tire, they slightly shortened the time they spent out front. This left a little more load for me, but I was feeling pretty good (and if you know me, I love to get out and pull anyway).

As we started the final 2 mile climb of the day, Senior called out his thanks and began his own pace. Tom and I tried to keep a solid pace up the hill. It was funny, because as with other riders I have known, he was commenting on his physical condition. I actually told him he can't look at it that way - it is self-defeating to talk about how tired or sore or how badly your legs want to cramp.

In fact, my legs were getting pretty tired by that point as well. I kept it to myself and as the grade was not getting any easier, I kept up my pace. Tom did a great job of staying with me, and in fact several times he pulled slightly ahead. But I knew based on the way he was talking that I would be pulling a gap on him later in the climb.

Sure enough, with a little over a half mile to go, the gap started widening. We thanked each other for the work as we rode along the river, and I started to slowly pull away.

There was no other Cat 5 riders close to me, but I continued to pass the stragglers from the womens / masters / cat 4 group that started in front of us. I crossed the line by myself thinking maybe I got lucky enough to make top 15, but surely I got top 20.

When I pulled up the results, I was quite pleased to find that I actually crossed the line 10th for the 50 rider Cat 5 field. That makes me feel pretty damn good!

Reviewing the race after the fact: I felt good and did well up until the crash. I was riding with the lead pack and even with the shifting problems, I felt like I could hang with them. When the crash occurred at the base of the most significant climb the lead group gapped me.

The question I ask myself - would I have been better off to bridge up to that lead group? I had been keeping with them for the entire ride to that point, but once the gap formed, I went into my climbing mode - not necessarily my race mode mind you. I went into my little zone where it is me, my bike and the road. I could see those guys for a while, but it got a little confusing as we were catching up on the tail end riders from previous groups who set out before us.

Had I bridged up to the lead pack, I may have pushed myself a little harder on the climb which could have resulted in a better finish.

However, they obviously were good climbers as they were pulling a gap on me as I climbed. It is also possible that I could have blown myself out on that first climb and had nothing left for the relatively flat descent along the river. I suppose I'll just have to keep working on my climbing and try again next year. Until then, I'll have to accept the 10th place.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Going in hot (too hot in fact)

Another great weekend of riding here in the upstate. It started with a ride from Tigerville, over Callahan Mountain, up the watershed, along Mine Mountain and then up a dirt road past Pearson's Falls. That road brings you out right at the Bakery in Saluda. From there we went out Holbert Cove Road and circled around to climb the switchbacks on Green River Cove Road.

It was a great ride with a bunch of good guys. Four of my Greenville Spinners Racing team-mates met up with a half dozen or so guys from the Cyclists Against Cancer team (formerly Myers Center). With these guys it is always a hammerfest.

I felt pretty good going into the day - managed to stay in the top third or so for Callahan Mt and the first part of the watershed. Kirk and Randy and one of the CAC riders (Joe) were riding really strong on those climbs and pulled a pretty big gap on me.

At the right turn for the second part of the watershed climb, Kirk, Randy and I waited for our team-mate Abhay before we set off in chase of the CAC guys. They blew past us as we circled around for Abhay.

Kirk set a blistering pace up the road. Even on the steepest section, I was working my tail off just to stay on the wheels of those guys. Eventually, he pulled off the front and I expected him to tag right on to the back. Unfortunately, Randy kept up that blistering pace and Kirk didn't have anything left to grab our wheels.

After a little while, Abhay had enough and pulled out of the line. I grabbed onto Randy's wheel and he kept up the pace. With Kirk's blistering leadout and Randy's diesel motoring up the climb, we had the other guys in sight. I recognized the signs of fatigue in Randy, so I pulled up next to him to take the lead.

We weren't that far away and I love a good chase, but unfortunately at the state line, I was still about 8 bike lengths back from that group. A little more distance, or maybe if I would have sprinted I could have caught them, but alas, I didn't quite make it. It was a blast hanging on Kirk's then Randy's wheel before making the final bid.

I stopped at the state line to wait for those three while the others kept on rolling. We set off in chase, but didn't catch them until after we made the turn onto Mine Mountain road. We all played racer along Mine Mountain, but when the time came to make the turn, they turned right to climb the grade, we turned left to climb the dirt road.

Once at the Bakery, we convinced them to follow us along on the Holbert Cove / Green River Cove Road ride - it would add about 20 miles to the ride.

The last time I rode this section of roads, they had just re-done the chip/seal paving on Holbert cove road. As we made our way along it this time, the amount of gravel was significantly reduced. I was pleased as this is a really fun road with some hard rollers that are almost real hills (relative to the effort you have to exert to get up them).

Pretty early along the road, Randy set a blistering pace. At the top of one small climb, he and I were at the front, but he had about 4 bike lengths on me. As we crested the top, I saw him shift and knew he was going for the break. I briefly considered sprinting to catch him, but I had a line of riders behind me and that would defeat the purpose of Randy's break attempt. So, I actually backed off slightly and let Big Mike come up to the front. It was my job now to simply hang with these guys and respond to any attacks they might make.

Randy built a sizable gap pretty quickly and was soon out of sight with all of the twists and turns this road takes. As we road along, I remembered a pretty wicked hairpin turn right at the bottom of a pretty steep little hill. I warned those guys about it as we approached, but we still went in pretty hot.

I was behind Big Mike and Will was behind me. Scott and Joe were also riding along and I think they were behind Will. Bringing up the rear was Abhay and Allen. As we all braked for the hairpin turn, I watched Mike roll across the other lane and into the grass. I had managed to bring my speed down pretty well and was able to roll through the turn. When I looked back, I saw that both Will and Scott (and perhaps Joe) had gone across the other lane and stopped in the grass on the shoulder.

Of course, being in a racing mindset, I saw this as a great opportunity to go for a break. I went through a couple of other turns, and then I came upon another right hand hairpin. Unfortunately for me, I wasn't fully prepared for this one, and despite my best braking efforts, I couldn't get slowed down quickly. Compounding the situation was some areas of gravel that caused me to get the bike completely sideways at least once.

It was this sideways action that made me fully realize my error. It was then I knew I wasn't going to be able to make the turn. Unlike the first hairpin, I didn't see any run-off area by going straight ahead. So, I simply increased the radius of my turn while I continued to scrub as much speed as possible. I crossed over the other lane and went into the grass just past mid-way through the turn.

Of course, I was at a pretty good lean angle (even though I had straightened up as much as possible due to the gravel) so about as soon as I went into the grass, I went down on the low side.

Of course, the low side is generally much preferred over the high side, so I was pleased about that at least. I was also pleased that I was completely off the pavement before any part of my body or bike hit the ground. However, I saw the right shifter / brake lever jam into the ground pretty hard and the bike did actually do a 180. I had to roll my body along the ground as my right foot was still clipped in.

When I came to a stop, I took a brief moment to do the self-check - no broken bones, no head injury (didn't even hit the ground), untangled myself from the bike and stood up to assess the damage.

The chain had come off, and there was damage to the hood on the right shifter / brake lever. This caused me some concern, but the only way to check it was to ride. Of course, as I was checking out the bike, here comes the rest of the crew.

I got the chain in place and set off to keep with them. It was then I realized I sprained my left thumb. It hurt quite a bit and I couldn't shift to the big ring with my left hand. I also realized the right shifter was a little out of wack. It wasn't shifting cleanly and didn't seem to be returning all the way after I used the brake.

I played around with it for a while and it seemed to start shifting a little better. Because my hand was sore and I was unsure of the damage to the rear brake lever, I tried to stay out of the rotation and at the back. Last thing I wanted to do was to cause an accident while riding in the pack.

We continued along Green River Cove Road holding a pretty good pace. My shifting seemed to get better as I used it. Made me think that there was probably some grit down there and through the use it was getting worked out.

As we got closer to the switchbacks, Randy and Allen made a break and opened a sizable gap. Nobody responded, and I was still riding near the back. I was starting to feel better, so eventually, I managed to open a gap as well. I overtook Allen before the switchbacks, but Randy was going strong.

As we started climbing, I could see Randy as he was generally on the same switchback as I was. I worked towards reeling him in, but was watching behind.

Sure enough, Big Mike was powering up the hill like a madman! He pulled past me looking really strong and overtook Randy pretty quickly after that. Joe was coming on strong behind him, but I managed to hold him off for a little while. I can't recall now if I passed Randy before Joe passed me or not, but eventually, it was Big Mike, Joe, Me, Randy and Scott. The order after that was unknown to me. I tried to stay on Joe's wheel, but he was pumping away and I just didn't have it to stay with him.

We took a store stop and decided the best course of action would be to head back along the traditional bakery route (essentially straight down the watershed). The fun part was riding through town - the Coon Dog Day Parade was going on and we managed to ride through as part of it! Big fun!

Going down the watershed was as fun as going up it. From the state line, Randy set a hard pace and we had a short line of bikes rolling behind him. It ended in a sprint to the 'stop ahead' sign where Randy inched me out (dammit!).

We made the turn for the final descent down to Dividing Waters road. This time I took the lead and started at a reasonable pace, but gradually wound it up as we descended. As we approached the turns, Randy came flying by followed closely by Scott. Of course I took Chase! Randy and Me against one was better than any one on one!

We rolled through the turns and ended up in a 3 bike rotation. Randy took the first pull and gave a great effort. I did my best to keep up the pace and did my share of the work. As I dropped off to give the lead over to Scott, Randy said to me "let's take it all the way to the line". I wasn't sure exactly what line he was talking about, but I thought what the hell - I'm game!

When Scott took the lead, we were maybe a mile from the intersection of Callahan Mt Road - this is the line Randy was talking about. As I rode in formation behind Randy, I saw him tap his thigh. Obviously he was about to make like a rocket!

No doubt - he stood up and hammered it! Had he not warned me, I would never have been able to respond. But, because he did warn me, I was ready for it. I stayed on his wheel as we flew past Scott. After a moment, I looked back and saw Scott trying to respond, but our attack was so swift and we opened a gap so quickly, he had no chance.

I stayed behind Randy until I sensed he was starting to tire. At that point, I pulled around him and kept on the gas. As I approached the Callahan Mt road intersection, I looked back and Scott was still well behind Randy who had let up a little after I came around him.

Despite going into one corner way to hot, it was a super fun ride with some great peeps. We worked ourselves pretty hard on the climbs and on the descents. When I was loading up my bike, I pulled the hood back on my right side shifter and found a rock wedged between the brake lever and the hood!

I rode again today and the shifting was no problem - at least until the cable broke. But that is a tale for another day.