Wallowing in the middle of cross season

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The beginning of November is a tough time for a cross racer. It’s never-ending purgatory; the season stretches out in both directions. I managed to stave off the midseason staleness with some good results.  For the past two weekends the fields have been relatively light. Many of the faster riders away racing on the east coast, making it slightly easier to get on the podium. Steve Stefko and I have had a couple good battles in the past weekends, and I’m happy to say I’ve come away triumphant both times.
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Blue Sky CX in Longmont was on a new course in the middle of Longmont’s urban sprawl. The course would have been more inspiring had the wind not blown so hard. But the elements are alway a part of cross racing, and it meant that my fast start came to nothing as Stefko reeled me in. We played cat and mouse a couple of times as he tested me at the end of the race, and I bobbled plenty. He couldn’t escape however, and it was left down to a sprint. My worst nightmare. I lead through the final corners and into the finish straight, where I hit it hard enough to open a gap, and cross the line ahead. For my first win of the season, it was great to have it be a proper battle.

The next day was one of my favourite races of the year, Interlocken. Right next to the highway on the way into Boulder, the course hides some fun features between the high-rise office blocks. The field was a little stronger than Saturday, but no Stefko to do battle with. I started well and narrowly avoided a big crash that took down some good riders. After a lap or so I came to the front and managed to pull out a small gap on the chasers. The gap didn’t grow as much as I would have liked though, and I ended up spending most of the race dangling 10-15 seconds ahead of the chase group. It was only in the last few laps that I managed to really string things out and hold on for the second win of the weekend.

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I skipped the Feedback Cup this year in favour of a Mountain Bike ride. Although the course in Golden has its positives, I’ve raced it enough that I felt a day in the hills would be better for my mental health. Christa and I had a great ride watching a storm swirl on the high peaks above us.

We then both raced the Lucky Pie Grand Prix in Thornton the next day. On a disused Golf Course, the course was original and fun. I lined up next to Stefko as usual, and it was quickly clear that it would be a battle between just the two of us. I wasn’t feeling good on the big sandy sections of the course, so I felt it would be a good idea to avoid leaving the race to a sprint. When there’s a chance you’re going to make a mistake, it’s better to have a cushion to fall back on than ending up having to close a gap. I kept the pace higher than normal and succeeded a few times in putting Steve onto the ropes, but he kept coming back. We entered the last few turns together once more, and that’s when I did make my mistake. He came around me and accelerated hard, but I had it covered. Not knowing how it would play out, I sucked his wheel. A final sweeping corner decided the race. Steve came in hotter than normal and instantly washed out. I went around him and kept the power down to the end. Another win, but a little disappointment that our hour of tactics didn’t have a clean resolution.

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I’m sure there will be plenty more opportunities to race him this year!

Colorado is past Peak Cyclocross, and why it doesn’t matter

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It’s official: we’re past peak cyclocross in Colorado. The hype has faded. The crowds have diminished. But it doesn’t matter one little bit.

As I drove into Valmont Bike Park on Sunday for the US Open of Cyclocross, I was prepared for the normal scrum. Cars parked everywhere, the parking attendant’s voice drowned under the sounds of cow bells from the 5280 stairs. But that didn’t happen. I cruised into the car park and stopped in one of a dozen empty spots. The crowds were thin, the course tape fluttering in the wind without even a hardened supporter to hold it back. What happened? The truth is that Colorado is over the hyperbole that accompanied the arrival of the National Championships in January 2014. The amatuer and elite fields have diminished in size. Even the junior fields have suffered.

Last week, the best race promoter in the state hung up his hat. Tim Lynch had run the Cross of the North for six years, bringing together challenging (and novel) courses, prize payouts, DJ’s, and a prime middle-of-the-season date. But even this wasn’t enough to stave off the inevitable. Racer numbers declined from 1250 to 1000 this year. That might not seem like a huge change, but in a business where margins are slim and prize purses have to be declared ahead of time to get the pro’s to turn out, it makes a big difference.

Why is this trend happening? I’ll list a few reasons that should piss off most people in some regard or another.

  1. High School MTB racing: It’s taking off. Over a 1000 racers on a regular basis. These young racers don’t drive to events by themselves, though; they have willing parents in tow for the weekend. This is alongside coaches and vendors who are all tapping into the huge success of the format. In a state where volunteer power and sponsoring companies are finite, it’s obvious that these events will be pulling people from master’s fields, juniors fields, and the expo arena. This is no bad thing. I’m a huge advocate of high school racing. If it’s bringing kids from outside of the sport into racing, it will be a benefit for everyone. Unlike traditional club racing, where even juniors have to know someone who’s into cycling if they’re going to start competing, High School racing has the ability to spread into a wider population of teens. This can only be a great thing.
  2. Reliance on a finite number of racers. There’s a vocal group of people that blame Boulder for races failing. The argument is this: “Boulder won’t drive more than 15 minutes to race. It’s their fault that races fail”. I’d like to reverse this argument and suggest that relying on people driving to a race when there is a local alternative is not a sound business model. Bike races are a little bit like coffee shops: if there’s one closer and the coffee is halfway decent, you’re not going to drive past it. There are great examples of races doing really well outside of the bubble. Take a look at what raceco.org are doing with the summer Race the MAC series in Castle Rock. Big turnout, friendly vibes, and few Boulderites to ruin the party. What about the Back to Basics series in Golden? Sustainable and friendly, and a business model that doesn’t rely on Boulder to fuel the fun. Perhaps a small start and a focus on attracting more cyclists from their home community will lead to a great event. Then people from Boulder might pay attention in years to come…
  3. Staleness of the courses. I’m not talking venues here, but the courses themselves. After a few years of racing, is it too much to ask that the promoter head back out and dream up another way to string the course tape? We have some great parks on the front range, but a little imagination would go a long way. Once a venue like Interlocken or Flatirons is established as a great place to race bikes, a fresh course can only be a good thing. If for no other reason than marketing: if “BRAND NEW COURSE” isn’t a way to attract racers, I don’t know what is. side note: CX of the north has had a new course multiple times, and it’s still seeing dwindling numbers, hence why this point only got to number three on the list.
  4. Specialization. People are pretty serious about cross these days. It’s no longer about beer swilling and staying fit for the “real” race season in the summer. Rather than racing twice in a weekend for two months straight, people are focusing on peaking and doing well at select events. This drives down participation. This may also be the reason why the strength of fields hasn’t fallen even as the field size has: it’s harder than ever to get in the top 10 of any category, even if it’s easier than ever to make 20th.

But this doesn’t matter. Although the number of racers has diminished, it’s still huge. Bigger than 5 years ago. The hardcore will keep racing, events will adapt to cater for that number of people, and the huge number of people who have tried cyclocross in the last couple years are unlikely to disappear totally. They’ve been immersed in the culture, and whether it’s an MTB race or just a bikepacking trip they try next, they’re still on bikes. Or simply ensure their children will race high school events and stay in the community. And that’s a good thing.

So go race your bike. Give it your all. Throw in a mountain bike ride on the occasional Sunday, and worry not about the health of the sport. It will be just fine.

 

 

A cyclocross update

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It’s been a couple of weeks since I last updated the race results. The cross of the north series was fantastic, with two good races over two days, and then some family time with Christa’s grandparents too. Since then, I’ve raced at Valmont here in Boulder, and also two days this last weekend in Broomfield and Longmont. Those races have rekindled some enthusiasm; I haven’t driven more than 25 minutes to a race, I’ve seen a lot of good friends, and I’ve been catching up with work and relaxing on the weekends too. I’m fitting everything in at the moment, and it’s been a nice change to the summer where sometimes I feel like I’m a week behind on life.

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The race at Valmont didn’t go very well: I didn’t finish. The start and first half were great. I got into a select lead group with Mitch Hoke and Danny Summerhill, and we pulled out over a minute on the chasers. I wasn’t feeling 100%, but I was happy with the pace. Then I flatted: a sprinkler head right in the middle of a corner put a tiny hole in my tyre, and it popped me from the lead group. It didn’t seal, so I pitted and got on the cannondale. Something happened to my front brake on that bike though, and it made riding impossible. I found out afterwards that the tension spring had popped out of place, leaving me with an unrideable bike. I was so frustrated to DNF.  I did everything right, was riding smoothly, and there was a good sized local crowd around too. On top of that, getting on the podium each weekend has been keeping me in groceries, and instead I’d be left empty handed. Altogether, it was not ideal.

I generally kept my frustration quiet after that DNF, but negative feelings have a way of spreading. By the middle of the week, my team had rallied around me, getting me a new set of race wheels to use (Thank you Brandon!) and the back-up of another (identical) pit bike (Thanks Chris Case). I had no excuses coming into this weekend, and it also meant I was confident that the fire I had building up could be put to good use.

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The race at Interlocken on Saturday is one of my favourites: heavy grass, leafy off camber corners, and a sand section surrounded by unrideable barriers. I got into the lead group with some very fast riders (who normally race nationally, not locally). I was comfortable following lines, and had no desire to burn any matches before I needed to. Unfortunately I got tangled with Spencer, another local rider, during a remount which left us both chasing. We got back on to the lead group, just for another tangle with Spencer to occur. I was pretty annoyed, as I didn’t instigate either crash, but was left worse off by both. I finished out the race riding in alone for fifth, about a minute back on the winner. I put both crashes down to innocent mistakes in the heat of the race – cross is not an individual sport. It taught me that I need to be the one enforcing my own space when I’m in a group. Anyway, I squeaked onto the podium, which is what matters at the end of the day.

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A small note of complaint: Two Without Limits events in a row (Valmont and Interlocken) had sprinkler heads in the middle of corners, and really poor course maintenance (lots of course tape broken and flapping in the wind). It’s lazy course marking. I made a comment to the promoter after Interlocken, but he dismissed me without seeming to acknowledge what I was saying. It’s hard to complain as an athlete.

 

Day two was at the ‘Colorado famous’ Xilinx course in Longmont. A contrast to the day before: mainly dusty dirt, a long road section, mountain bike like turns and not many obstacles to get in the way. I got the holeshot, which always feels good, but got a little complacent in the first 15 minutes. I was sitting 5th or 6th wheel when Russell Finsterwald attacked, and I ended up chasing 1st and 2nd places for the next 30 minutes. I didn’t get anywhere, and had to settle for third. I felt a little ‘too good’, and I think it made me relax too much. I wasn’t alert, and learned my lesson the hard way. I don’t know whether I could have stuck with Danny Summerhill and Russell to the end, but I don’t need to be giving them any advantages either. I held the gap at 15 seconds for most of the race, and only faded in the last lap. It was a positive result for me, as I know I can do better physically. Also on the plus side, I felt so comfortable on my bike, and had an error free race. A relief after Saturday.

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Next weekend: a big old Mountain Bike ride on Saturday, and then the Feedback Sports Cup in Golden on Sunday.

 

The Cross of the North 2014

The Cross of the North is a series of three events held at the Budweiser events centre near Loveland, Colorado. Rather than settling for the standard format of two races over two days, the promoters stepped up, rented some floodlights and made the main event a night race on Friday evening. I did some serious bike prep this week to get ready for the races. The forecast was terrible, and rain for most of the week guaranteed we’d be in for some mud. I built up my ‘B’ bike, my ever faithful Cannondale that has almost 15,000 miles on it now, just in case I needed to change bikes due to the mud. I also glued some new tubular rubber on my Focus – a set of Clement PDX’s, which are regarded as the best tyres on the market right now. I’m glad I went to the effort of getting things sorted for the weekend.

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Christa and I loaded the car with all the things we could possibly think we needed, then set off for the hour long drive north from Boulder.

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We arrived at the venue as daylight was fading, the huge floodlights warming the ground in concentrated spots as the temperature dropped towards freezing. The course was on the edge of a fairground on rough grass and broken up tarmac. The start straight was solid under the tyres, but then the course got softer as you went further it, culminating in a muddy bog at the pits.

The race started fast as always, but I’m finding this season that I can match the first lap speed pretty easily. I’m looking forward to some of the uber fast guys (Allen Krughoff, Danny Summerhill) racing in Colorado, as I want to see how I match up to their first lap speed. We strung out down the course with gaps starting to appear by the first set of tight corners.

By lap two, Mitch Hoke and I had pulled out a good 30 seconds or so on the chasers, and I was just starting to settle into a rhythm on the course, feeling smooth on the log hops and the rutted corners. That’s when I rode over perhaps the only sharp thing on the course – a block of concrete just off the racing line. My tyre sliced open instantly, and it was flat in less than 10 seconds.

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Here’s where tubulars were an advantage. I hopped up the logs, albeit with much more effort, then made it to the pit to grab the B bike. Christa was invaluable, and I got back on course just 25 seconds behind Mitch. I thought at that point the race was over, but I was still in second, with Tim Allen catching me fast. I turned in a couple fast laps on the cannondale, and gave myself enough breathing room to pit again. The Focus was mind blowing on the hardening dirt. I closed 15 seconds in one lap, then finally got onto Mitch’s wheel when he pitted with two laps to go. It was cat and mouse now. I tried to string it out, knowing that I can’t sprint this year. Mitch wasn’t budging though, and the final drag strip towards the finish gave him enough room to open it up. I couldn’t get around him at the end, and I finished a second adrift.
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Day Two  opened up with a thick blanket of fog, which cleared to reveal much needed sunshine. A few course variations lead to new mud pits to deal with, but generally a similar course to the night before. After slicing my tyre on Friday night, I would be racing a rear clincher today, and I was a little nervous of keeping it inflated for an hour.

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Once again I started in fourth place, then moved up at the end of the first lap to have some clear sight in front of me. With the thick mud and variety of barriers, there was no group advantage. I wanted to make it hard; I have the fitness but not the sprint, so I went as hard as I thought I could hold.

No one came with me for a lap, and I felt comfortable riding the muddy sections alone. By the 30 minute point, Spencer Powlison was closing in, taking a couple seconds off my lead each lap. I simply dug deeper, got out the saddle in each corner, tried to dig for a couple of seconds before getting comfortable on the straights. It paid off – with half a lap remaining I pulled out another 5 seconds on Spencer, enough to hold him off. To add to the situation, he crashed hard at the barriers, just to make sure I could celebrate at the line.

First win of the season feels really good! I made it hard for everyone, including myself. It’s the only way to ensure nothing stupid will happen in the heat of playing chess. Spencer Powlison is a really smart racer that always seems to have an ace or two up his sleeve. Fitness and skill are just two slices of the cross pie; the third is intelligence. That’s my homework for the next couple of weeks.

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I didn’t end up pitting, but my bike suffered as a result. A clot of mud and grass wrapped its way around my brake rotor and actually undid the centrelock lockring! Even after 15 minutes getting friendly with the power washer, there was plenty of mud remaining!

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The first weekend of Cyclocross season

Boulder hosts a weekend of National standard cyclocross racing every year. The two events are the only time we have a full compliment of pro riders in town to race against, so it’s a great opportunity for me to test myself against the best. This year the races were scheduled early in the season. I was tempted to skip them; it would have fit with my plans after MTB season, and give me time to prepare for the rest of the season. But the opportunity was too good to miss, so I registered anyway and prepared to suffer race.

Continue reading The first weekend of Cyclocross season