Monday, June 12, 2017

Racing - 2017 Nutmeg State Games, June 4, 2017, M50+

Where to begin... Last year I was looking after my dad. It was the first season in 34 seasons where I didn't race a weekend race. Frankly I had more important things to do, and I wouldn't have traded it for the world. My dad passed in October, and my life, temporarily so set in its priorities, suddenly changed.

Like last year, this year has been a non-cycling year for sure. I started a job that I love, working at a Firestone, but the standard 12 hour days have been tough on my non-work life. I miss Junior's bed time a few nights a week, sometimes missing something like 5 nights in a row. It's precious little time that the Missus and I talk, usually me telling stories about work, sometimes her telling me stuff about her work. Other than eating and a little bit of the stuff that parents talk about (I always wondered what my parents were mumbling as I drifted off to sleep), my work days have very little to them.

When I do have some time off I have a lot of things I'd rather do that don't involve riding my bike.

That's bike riding.

Then there's bike racing.

To clarify a point, I love racing.

Love it.

I generally ride my bike only because I want to race it. I can't race it at all if I don't ride a minimum amount of training, because no fitness means getting shelled a lap into a race.

That's no fun, no matter how much I like to race.

My training, therefore, is geared to getting me fit enough to race. Doing long rides, sprints, whatever, all that is me trying to get fit enough to finish a flatter/easier race. Yes, there's an element of pleasure/meditation/etc when I'm doing some of those rides, especially the ones out in SoCal, but in general not so much.

To emphasize the not-cycling-so-much thing, I even took one Tuesday off to go karting with a coworker, his friend, and a bike racer (who karts) and his friend. It was a ton of fun.

My bike racer friend also races karts for real, so for him this was like doing a group ride vs doing a race. Any time we both drove similar karts he did better - inevitably I'd make a mistake, slow too much, and have to let him by. Karts are about not making mistakes as much as it is to drive properly, and in my newbie status I kept making mistakes.

My coworker and his friend are car nuts but even newer than me to karting. I tried to teach them how to do certain things because karts do not respond like cars. Their goal was to qualify for pro-karts, which requires dropping below a minimum lap time at least twice (in separate heats). I told them they could do it and I went not only to drive but also to give them on-site tips to help them hit their target lap times. I even downgraded to the regular karts for a number of heats so they could follow me through some of the corners.

I gave them some major tips, akin, I hope, to some of the bike racing tips I've shared on this blog. I'm pleased to say that both friends qualified for pro-karts, driving just 5 or 6 heats.

And me?

I got, until a superb driver showed up for the last couple heats, best time of the day, 9th best for the week, and 22nd for the month. Since it was May 30th it meant that most of the month had gone by, which lends more weight to my lap times. I dropped one spot in all of the above after that one driver showed up. Nevertheless I was pleasantly surprised with how quickly I learned the new layout, my experimentation with new lines, and, of course, my lap times.

That night I had some problems with my glasses falling forward, leaving me essentially blind for several laps (and most of the last heat). I might describe it as driving in the rain without using your wipers, or, maybe riding in the rain with water on your lenses. It was enough to cause me to miss turn ins, apexes, and even making mistakes that slammed myself into the wall a few times. Although I could still manage 34.x second times without seeing really well, for next time I'll have to figure out the glasses thing better. I was even thinking contacts would be better.

So... you can see how I have some distractions tugging at my limited free time.

As far as cycling goes, I started racing my bike in May, at my favorite CCAP Tuesday Night Race. Unfortunately I lasted just a few laps in the first couple races. At that point I had about 35 hours on my legs for the year. Apparently that wasn't enough to last very long in a race, even for me.

In the Friday night CCAP Kermis it was even worse. I was pretty unfit, okay, but to add to it I adjusted my too-tight front brake frantically after the first hairpin, not realizing that I was tightening the brake (my black bike brakes work opposite from my red bike brakes). I managed to push my way through the second hairpin with my brakes basically locking my front wheel, loosened the brake on the following straight, but I was done and off the back. I don't have a working powermeter (it's sitting in a box next to the computer right now) but I'm curious what I was pushing with the brakes dragging. I'm guessing it was in the 500-800w range, if not more - it was a 100% seated effort for me.

I managed to finish the third Tuesday Night race I entered, a rare night with zero wind. I felt like I'd turned a corner in my fitness, getting over the minimum required to hang onto a field in a flat race. My powermeters, both of them, are dead from lack of maintenance, so I don't have power numbers, but I'm guessing that I wasn't averaging more than about 160w in each race. For sure on Zwift I have problems maintaining 200w for any length of time, and 250w, my old VO2 max interval number, was incredibly hard.

Now that's not so bad because other things have been going well in my life.

Junior has been making strides. He surprised the heck out of me by reading words on his own the other week. He's been more independent, and, to be honest, a bit more dependent also. He misses me when I'm at work, I probably miss him more. Tonight he kept holding my hand while he was falling asleep, pulling my arm over him, and then snuggling up to me.

I treasure the time I have with him.

Work is great also. As we rolled into June I had some great days at work. We managed to help a couple people who were super grateful we were there for them. I was psyched we could do that, went home all happy, got on the bike, and basically fell flat on my face. In terms of doing a good job I think I'm doing it. I got a random fist bump from a customer in a supermarket so that was nice, and I even had a picture drawn of me by a good customer's kid (who I'd met just once at that point).

The red "F" thing is the Firestone sticker I gave him.
My hand is blocking his last name.

With things going well everywhere else, I hoped that the race at New Britain would go okay at least. This would be, get this, the first Sunday race for me since August 2015, so almost two years.

The first Sunday race in almost two years!

The M50+ race (I'll be 50 this year!) wouldn't be as manageable as a windless Tuesday Night Bs so I had low expectations. I figured I'd make it a few laps, get shelled, we'd go home, and as a family we'd hang out.

Sounds like a plan, right?

Well, as the saying goes, best laid plans...

We arrived at the race with a lot of time, enough time for me to roll around a bit, adjust my very finicky rear derailleur (something is bent and I haven't bothered fixing it), finally getting the bike so that I could shift up in a sprint without the chain skipping and throwing me over the bars.

Because shifting any time else really didn't matter, even with my non-legs.

A crash delay meant that I started getting a bit bonky before the start, as I was already stretching my eating schedule to make the race. As it was I'd woken up not feeling hungry and a lump in my throat, didn't each much for breakfast, and I was a bit worried I'd bonk. The Missus had some banana bread stuff that was great, I chowed down, and I went to the start feeling a bit better.

The start.
I'm about halfway back in the field I think.

We started out casually enough, to my relief. I think the big guns were all at Nationals, the NY ringers were at White Plains, and so it was a bit more of a CT representation instead of a few CT racers lost in a sea of area racers. Incredibly the race started even tamer than a pace lap on a Tuesday Night B race.

Talk about an ideal race for me.

I had some problems following wheels though. When a few riders noodled off the front, I couldn't go. I had to leave it to my good friend David to close the gap, which he did with some vigor. I felt bad for making him close the gap but he happened to be next to me when my legs folded.

Letting a big gap go. That's a big gap.
David is just about to pass me.

After that gap fiasco I tried to stay out of the way of the racers actually racing the race. I sat mainly in the back, uninvolved. There was just one exception - I'd move up when it got easy to get some "drift back" room. This way I'd have some cushion if someone launched an attack - it might be a solid 15 or 20 seconds as the field filtered by me, enough time for me to get going.

More than a few riders commented on my "attack" near the end of the race. I remembered the move because it was a perfect storm of doing nothing and everyone else just slowing. I wanted to illustrate how even the most conservative riding can result in an "attack".

Strung out. Note that I'm not on the wheel, due to being under extreme pressure.
Sitting behind "red bike with a Generic Jersey".
He was part of a 2 man break that won the M60 race so I'm guessing he was a bit tired.

Just before my "move" a few riders had just made some efforts. The field was strung out going into the wooded area. I was struggling to hold wheels and hoped that they'd sit up soon; if they'd kept it up for a lap I'd have been off the back.

Bunching up, I moved to the left of Generic Jersey.

Luckily for me they did sit up at the front. Seeing as I was in so much trouble trying to stay on the wheel, I decided to pedal a few extra revolutions and try and move up, to buy myself some drift back room. I moved left because it was open; I'd overlapped a bit to the left of Generic Jersey.

The path is now visible.
I'm coasting/soft pedaling but going much faster than everyone in the picture.

When I got there I realized there was a "Moses and the Red Sea" path to the front, that chasm visible in the picture above. I was coasting and soft pedaling and still going faster than the field so I let my bike meander into the gap.

And guess who attacks?

As I got through the gap I figured I'd just sit up, but then someone attacked. It was Generic Jersey. He'd gone right, I'd gone left, and we both passed the group. I did about 2 or 3 pedal strokes to follow him, declined pulling through, and we were back in the fold at the top of the hill. My non-attack and non-work meant that by the top of the hill I was fully recovered from the surge, just behind the front, and ready to go again.

So that was my non-attack.

Bell Lap

My races always come down to the bell lap, because, you know, Sprinter Della Casa.

Bell Lap.
Note that you can't see the rear wheel in front of me - that means I'm on the wheel.

As the laps counted down I started thinking that I could actually do this. No one was racing hard - the attacks were short, into the wind (not into the cross/tailwind), and therefore ineffective. The field was stacked with "sprinters" so they all jumped on moves as soon as possible, and the historically strong time trialers were either not here, not ultra fit, or fatigued from doing the race just before the M50+.

So as we hit the bell I started daring to hope for a good result.

Backstretch, bell lap.
Note again, rear wheel not visible.

I had three possible sprint scenarios. I visited all of them numerous times during the race, probably cycling through them a dozen times in the last couple laps. The wind was hitting us from the left on the sprint straight, making the right side a bit more desirable than the left.

Plan A

The first plan was to move up after the top of the hill, hit the turn near the front, jump right on the main straight if possible (sheltered from the wind), and go pretty early if I was jumping first. Ideally I'd be first through the last turn, I'd jump hard on the right curb, there'd be zero shelter on my wheel, and if I could do a 15 second sprint I'd win the sprint.

Let's rate the potential of the move using these parameters:
1. Risk level, meaning how risky would it be from a tactical point of view. How easily could I get boxed in? Lower is better.
2. Minimum strength to do well, meaning how much gas would I need to make the move work well. The more I needed the higher minimum strength I'd need. Lower is better.
3. Possible top 3, meaning what would be my chances of getting a top 3 placing? The higher the chance of a top 3 the better.

So for Plan A this was my analysis:
Risk level: Low - no one in front to box me in
Minimum strength to do well: High
Possible top 3: Low

This was a low risk tactic but relied heavily on me doing a good sprint - a good jump followed by a very solid, high output sprint. If I blew then I'd get swarmed and not place at all. In my condition this wasn't a great choice.

(Sam won his race basically doing this. As a very fit rider with a very good jump, this validated my tactical theory.)

Plan B
An alternative was hoping that the sprinters would go left (because the leadout rider would naturally hug the right curb to deny everyone shelter), there'd be a gap to the right because they'd give the right side rider some room, and I could slip through the right side gap in the sprint.

Risk level: High (of getting boxed in)
Minimum strength to do well: Low
Possible top 3: Very high or very low.

That was a high risk move since virtually every sprint up the right side at New Britain gets shut down. On the other hand sprinting on the sheltered side would make winning the sprint much more likely. This was an all or nothing move. The odds worked against me and I'd only choose this option in very specific situations. I kept this option in mind if things unrolled in a specific way, but unless there was a massive move up the left side of the road, this option is almost always off the table.

Plan C

The third and most likely alternative was to be sheltered going into the sprint then jump super hard on the windy left side. A strong jump can gain a lot of distance, especially in a slower, wind-swept sprint. Starting from further back I'd have to make up a lot of ground. However, having been sheltered more, I'd have spent less energy up to that point and therefore I'd have the most jump left in my legs.

Risk level: Low
Minimum strength do do well: Medium
Possible top 3: Low/Medium

This was the highest probability tactic, meaning I'd consistently get a higher placing. However it would be very, very difficult to win the sprint. It was the safe move but pretty much put me off the podium due to the extra work I'd have to do in the sprint. I might be able to salvage a top 3, meaning 3rd, but realistically not much better than that.

Being risk averse as I am, I chose the third option, the safe move.

Top of hill, bell lap.
Marty is just to the right of the back of the sign.

At the top of the hill I wasn't in major trouble. Through the winter I'd managed to keep my weight somewhat sane, in the 170 lbs range, which is just about where I was in the latter half of my stronger 2015 season. At 180-190 lbs I'd have been struggling, but at 170 I was okay over the hill. If I was 160 I'd be flying. For example, in 2010 I was under 160 and upgraded to 2.

It helped, of course, that no one really made a move. Marty, a former teammate from my collegiate days, went early, but with an immediate surge in pace in the field it didn't look good for him.

Last turn, bell lap.
Marty is leading through the turn.

I moved up on the slight downhill between the top of the hill and the last turn. I didn't realize it but Stephen, another former collegiate teammate of sorts (he was a 2, I was a 3, so we never actually raced the same events), had launched an attack on the left side. A danger man, others responded immediately. I was focused on following John M, a friendly rival that I battled for decades at Bethel. He's a rider a lot like me in that he sits and sprints. I thought he'd be a safe, solid wheel to sit on.

Problem was that the last little surge before the last turn caused some gaps to open up. John wasn't himself as he told me after, and he was also caught off guard by Stephen's move. The gap opened uncontrollably through the turn, as it's difficult to jump while going through it. As we exited the turn I looked around him and was surprised at the size of the gap in front of him. In reviewing the video it's clear that the riders in front had much higher entry speed into the turn and he simply got caught out by the surge just before the turn.

With the gap already there I had to jump immediately.
Note I'm going to the sheltered right; low risk, high benefit move at this point.

This meant that I had to jump just to get across the gap, and then try to do another jump/sprint for the line. I had room to go on the sheltered right side of John so I did, jumping to his right. I quickly closed the gap to Dave the Horst rider and started debating, right or left.

At this point Marty was toward the right side blowing up, Stephen went way left, and everyone followed Stephen. If I'd been good I'd have blazed into that huge gap on the right and risked going up the sheltered right side.

Getting to first group in the sprint, going a few mph faster than everyone else.
Left or right? I went left, and I realistically should have gone right.

Instead, to play the odds of placing well (safest odds) vs getting boxed in (and either winning or potentially not placing at all), I went into the wind, to the left.

It was the safe, sane choice.

I'm pretty sure it was the wrong choice.

I jumped hard to the left, trying to get around everyone so I could move more right before the line. We still had a solid 8 or 9 seconds of sprinting left and I thought I could get around everyone before the right bend. Although I went the long way I actually wanted to shorten my line as much as possible. I did a similar move in 2014 but I jumped much earlier that year. The reality was that, in 2017, with my lack of training, I lacked the punch to repeat that 2014 move.

This year I'd have to stay left all the way to the line.

I go left to pass.
David in orange, Stephen in black, Marty in green/black.
Dave's hand is visible.

As I went left I could feel the wind hit me. On the camera it's much more obvious, the wind noise is significant. My legs felt okay but I knew that the fuse was lit and I was going to blow, I just didn't know when; I figured I'd get to the line but I'd lose some speed approaching it.

Moving to the right became a pipe dream.

I kept going.

My legs still had some power. I had about 40 meters to go and I thought things were going really well. This morning I'd never have put myself in this position, where I might win the state title. Yet here I was, what looked like a pretty straightforward final 40 meters, a few pedal strokes and bang, done.

40 meters to go, give or take.
Speed starting to drop but still good.
Finish line is just before the red tent.

"Bang, done," indeed.

As I readied myself for my last push to the line, my legs went. I simply had nothing. I sat down in disbelief, looking around to see what was going on.

Just before the line.

I could see my friend David sprinting hard. I'd drawn even with him but couldn't finish it off, and he pulled away from me. Way over to the right I could see the orange Horst jersey of Dave, a wicked fast sprinter, but it seemed that he wouldn't make it by me before the line. I didn't see the dark jersey of Stephen.

I was dispirited enough that I didn't even throw the bike at the line. With all my looking around I knew the places wouldn't change even without the foot or so I'd gain with a bike throw.

At the line, photo courtesy David.
Note no bike throw. I was beyond that by this point.

I did some quick calculations. David would be the first CT finisher, putting me in second. Dave would be third.

When all the dust settled I learned that there was someone that soloed off the front. I think we just barely missed catching him in the sprint. He wasn't a CT rider so my calculations held. David would be the gold medalist. I'd be silver. And Dave would be bronze.


I convinced Stephen to hang around after the race as David went and did the M30/M40 race. Jeff, one of the folks putting a lot of time/energy into the local cycling scene, took this picture of me. If Junior is in my arms it means he's tired, but he cheered up quickly for the camera.

Jeff got this great picture of me holding Junior.
Sam is in the pink/blue, the same colors my first team used.

As a bonus Sam Rosenholtz is rolling by behind me, sporting the pink and blue. In 2010 he was a grinning, cheerful Cat 5 at the Bethel Spring Series. I've always been a fan of his, even as he killed us Cat 3s in 2010. Now he's a pro for CCB and had just returned from a racing trip to both Holland and Poland. He placed in 7th out there in Europe somewhere in some insane looking narrow road sprint.

The race behind me? He won it outright.

After David finished the race we all gathered and took a few podium pictures.

2017 M50+ CT Crit Championship Podium.
Picture courtesy David.

On the way home I fell fast asleep in the car. Then I fell asleep reading to Junior. I dragged myself to work, I was wearing my jacket and shivering in 75 or 80 degree temperatures, tried to gut it out, gave up and came back home. I basically slept for the next 36 hours. I didn't realize it but whatever it was was just hitting me as I did the race. I'm fortunate it didn't hit 6 hours earlier.


A few days later the Missus was scrolling through some pictures on my Facebook feed.

"You got the silver in 2015 also."
"I did?"
"Look, you're in the same position on the podium."

Junior was 3 years old.


It all came back. No clip because I was told to remove my helmet cam at the start line. There were two guys off the front and for sure I thought I could catch them in the sprint. But my sprint lacked sizzle and the two break riders did an incredible sprint, not allowing me to close much at all in the sprint. I'm pretty sure I never got closer than about 50 feet to the break. I hoped that the two in front weren't from CT but no such luck, one guy Michael was up there and had taken the gold.

What's interesting is that Junior refers to this race as "the race with the podiums" because they're fun to climb around, and, well, he gets to be in the pictures sometimes. With him around I earned the privilege in 2014 (bronze), 2015, and 2017. With his incredible memory (in 2015 he remembered the podiums from 2014) I am now under the gun to podium in 2018.

And along those lines, I think this is the course that gives me the best chance to earn my first summer victory - I've never won a race during the summer. Writing this post made me realize just how safe I play the end of races.

Maybe in 2018 I'll go right.

But first we'll see what life throws at me.

1 comment:

Allan Due said...

Awesome race write up Aki, and congrats at getting back on the podium!

I always find your race reports riveting - almost enough for me to get back on the bike. :)

Nice job!!!