Monday, October 23, 2017

Race Report: DCCX

This is what success looks like!
DCCX is one of the highlights of the CX calendar in MABRA land. It's a UCI race and it's in the District of Columbia, so everyone comes out for it. The atmosphere is terrific, the racing is hard, and the race directors do an unusually good job with port-a-johns; they even have them cleaned out between Saturday's racing and Sunday's racing!

I expected the racing to be tough, since the promise of racing on the same course as the pros always draws a larger and deeper field (if not quite so large and deep as Charm City, which had a C1 race and was part of the US Pro Cup). Additionally, the strongest 3s, who normally race the 1/2/3 field locally, join the straight 3 race since the elite race is a P/1/2. I had a few friends who raced the pros on Saturday and Sunday. I didn't envy them, but that will probably be my fate next year. If I work hard in the off-season, maybe I'll be able to finish on the lead lap.

Anyway. My race Saturday was awesome. I got a good start. I rode almost all the features smoothly. I knew that first and second were probably out of my reach, based on previous experience with those two women (girls really; they're 13 and 12 years old). I spent most of the race in fifth place, battling hard for fourth. I caught fourth place (another teenager!) with about 400 m to go in the race and held it to the end. So I got to stand on the podium at DCCX! Fourth place! Whoo!
And this is what mental fatigue looks like.
Sunday, I woke up feeling unmotivated. I didn't feel tired or sore or weak; I felt mentally tired and I didn't want to be there. I crashed hard during my pre-ride in a fast downhill section that I took too fast. There was some gravel in the corner, and I got into it right as I was turning. Fell over on my right side, banged my foot on my pedal (I was worried I'd broken it!), scraped up my elbow, and banged my head on the ground. One of the Bikenetic men saw me go down and helped me off the course. He sat with me until I felt I could go on, but I escaped largely unscathed!

I'm still sitting second place in the series, so I still get a front-row starting spot. I got a terrible start, though, and entered the first turn close to the very back of the field. There was a big crash in one of the first turns, though, and I was able to scoot past it on the left side. That got me a huge number of places back. I was able to work my way back up to about 10th place over the course of the first lap. I managed to catch and pass 8th and 9th in the second or third lap, and felt I could hold them off if I could just ride clean.

I did not ride clean, though. I slipped and fell in a loose right-hand turn that I thought I had dialed. Scraped my elbow on the EXACT SAME SPOT as I hit in my pre-ride crash, which burned like fire. Also took a bunch of skin off of my right calf, and my right hip, and my right shoulder. I somersaulted over my bike and took a second to determine whether I still wanted to go on while 9th and 10th re-passed me. I got up and re-mounted and set to work catching them again. I caught them with no trouble, but was waiting for the right moment to pass. In the final lap, I went down AGAIN in a loose chicane that was a tough turn (lots of crashes there all weekend, great viewing as a spectator) but that hadn't troubled me all weekend. I took all the skin off of my other side, 8th and 9th got a big gap on me, and I mentally said, "Just get me outta here."

I gave up at that point and forced myself to keep pedaling to the end. I managed to make one more big mistake on one of the final turns, where the course crested a hill, went over a tiny little curb onto the road, and then dropped down the other side of the hill before making one more turn onto the finishing straight. So I went into the uphill too fast, cleared the curb, but then totally screwed up my landing and came down so hard on my front wheel that I was convinced I'd broken the carbon or popped a spoke. So at that point I had crashed three times and was pretty sure that I'd broken my bike. I crossed the finish line and rolled off the course, frustrated more than tired, and skinned up all over. The woman I'd been battling for 9th place is a friend of mine, and she was ready with a hug and a "Nice racing!" That helped. Then I rolled back to the team tent, grabbed a water bottled, and rolled off on my own to cool down . . . and have a good cry. I sat on the steps by an abandoned building (the Soldiers' and Airmen's Home, the military retirement grounds where DCCX is held, has a lot of abandoned buildings), burning tear tracks through the dust on my face, and felt sorry for myself. And after about 5 minutes of that, I felt better. And I drank a bunch of beer and talked with my friends and shared stories about all our races and one of my teammates gave me baby wipes to clean off my (many) scrapes . . . and everything was good and fine and I still had an amazing time.

I'm proud of my performance on Saturday, but I've overcooked my brain with all the racing I've been doing. I could have raced much harder and probably been in the contention for 6th place on Sunday, but I didn't have the mental strength. Teaching my spin class on Monday mornings after a double race weekend is normally torture, but this morning my legs felt fresh. That tells me that I'm not overtrained physically; I'm overtrained mentally. So I'm going to shift my focus for the rest of the season and try to hone in on the Sportif Cup races, where I'm sitting second in the overall series. I won AACX, the Sportif Cup race last weekend. A few more wins and I think I'll have the overall lead. I may sit out the rest of the Super Series, or at least take a few weekends off. I'm missing the long, enjoyable, zone 2 rides with my teammates, and I miss the camaraderie of spending hours on the bike with them.

So that was DCCX--the good, bad, and ugly. I plan to take a weekend of long, easy rides and enjoy the feeling of being on a bike. And then I'll race Biketoberfest CX on Saturday and I'll hang out at Tacchino CX on Sunday (but I won't race). (Probably). (Emily, stop reading this).

Friday, October 13, 2017

Race Reports: Sykelocross, Hyattsville, and Charm City

I've been delinquent in my race reports. We have some catching up to do!

Sykesville didn't go well for me. It was meltingly hot. The course was really hard--technical and with a lot of elevation gain. I had high expectations after my performance at Hub Labels, but did not live up to them. My body absolutely exploded in the heat. I can't handle heat well, I assume because I'm small and muscular, and it places a ceiling on what I can do in the heat. I hit that ceiling hard at Sykelocross. Emily came to watch this one, but I didn't do a great job for her to watch (and she doesn't handle heat well either). Ended up 5th out of 19, so a decent showing! The results were all kinds of screwed up because the timing chip computers went down. So we stayed long enough for me to protest the results, then headed out before we melted! Considering how terrible I felt throughout the race, I'm happy with 5th.
Too tired and scared to post up properly. I would totally be the person who crashes in the finishing straight.
Hyattsville couldn't have gone much better because I frickin' won! Hyattsville is basically a grass crit with only one little climb. I got the hole shot and held the lead for most of the race, except for one little stretch where one of the local butt-kicking teens passed me. I passed her back and held a gap to the end by playing up my punchiness. I assume it's harder to be punchy when you're a 90-pound 14-year-old. First win as a cat. 3 in cyclocross, and it gave me the lead in the BikeReg Super Series!

Charm City CX was presented to me as the hardest race on the circuit. It did not disappoint. Since it's a UCI C1/C2 race, AND it's a part of the new US CX Cup, AND it's a little farther north than most of the MABRA races, so it draws the top cyclists in every category from MABRA, Virginia, Pennsylvania, maybe even New Jersey. I met people from as far north as Philly and as far south as Charlottesville. The women's fields were big! And they were full of talented women (and by that I mean waaaay more talented than me)! I won't go through the blow-by-blow, but basically the teenagers blew my doors off and won everything. There were other women my age who also blew my doors off, but the teenagers were the stars of the weekend in the cat. 3 races! Both days, I hit a brick wall in lap 2 and my back and hips went into spasm. Then it went away in the 4th and 5th laps (5 laps both days) and I was able to claw some positions back. Ended up 7th on day 1 and 10th on day 2. I think I still have 2nd place in the series, so I still have a shot at the overall!

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Race Report: Hub Labels CX

I am two weeks late with this one, so I'll keep it short.
That's how I felt after this race.
The course was good for me and I had good legs on the day. Unfortunately, my mechanic's skills weren't up to the level of my racing skills. The course had some off-camber turns, one off-camber descent into a steep hill (which I was able to ride if I could get the right line), some woodsy sections, one hill in the woods that would have been ride-able if the race director hadn't put big logs across it (just kidding, Joe!), and a little pile of rocks that you could totally ride if you got the exact right line.

I took the hole shot and led into the first part of the course. First time up the off-camber descent to run-up, I banged my rear wheel and heard it rattle. Ethel's rear quick release had come loose slightly. I stopped to open it, tighten it, close it. Lost about 3 places, but still had everyone in sight. Second lap, I went down in a corner that hadn't given me trouble before. Lost another place or two. Got back up and kept going. Went down in another easy corner, and heard my rear wheel rattling. Rear quick release was loose again. I'd just passed the first pit entrance, and had to go through a bunch of the course before I would pass the other side. A guy in the pit saw me looking for the pit entrance and volunteered to get my bike ready for me. I had to take all of the corners super easy because my back wheel was sliding out from under me. Entered the pit and got to switch bikes almost like a pro! Superstar teammate and former full-time bike mechanic Clay was in the pit to receive my bike. He saved my bacon on this race!

On my pit bike, I tried to start making up some ground. Brakes felt a little . . . not brakey. I managed to finish out that lap, but on a tight 180 around a tree at the start of lap three, my brakes gave up, I couldn't slow down, and I went right through the course tape and into the parking lot. Naturally, this happened right in front of the race announcer with tons of people standing around. I rode a slow circle in the parking lot. I'm pretty sure there are rules against going off course like that. Was I disqualified? Could I get back into the race? Did I even want to? Then one of my friends from the local scene said, "Jamie! Don't give up! Do you want to be in 15th place?" So I hopped back on the course and resolved myself to finishing super slowly . . . Until I saw Clay waving at me from the pit! He'd fixed my A bike, and I was able to change in the pit and get back to some hard racing.

My last lap was the best. I rode everything except for the uphill logs in the woods. I passed two of the women in the 1/2/3 race, which had started a minute before my race. I caught and passed a few more in my race. I was within sight of two more women in the finishing straight, but the end wasn't long enough to outsprint them. I finished 5th of 15, even with two bike changes! I was very satisfied with my racing, if not with my wrenching.

It's fun to think about how I would have done if all had gone well with my bikes. I've replaced Ethel's quick releases. Once I got Fred in the bikestand back home, I discovered that one of the pads on the front brake had come loose from its backing. No wonder it wasn't slowing me down--it was steel-on-steel! I think I could have finished second, maybe even first if I hadn't had the mechanical difficulties. Ultimately, though, it doesn't matter; taking care of your equipment and arriving to the race with your bikes squared away is part of racing!

Big, big, big thanks to Clay for being my pit crew, and congratulations to him for getting third place in the 35+ 3/4/5 race! Congrats also to Beth for getting 2nd in the women's 1/2/3, Chris for getting 4th in the men's 4/5, Eric for getting third in the 45+ 1/2/3!

Friday, September 8, 2017

New Bike Day

I wasn't planning to buy a new bike. But sometimes the bike chooses you.

One of the women in the local 'cross scene posted her 2014 Crux Pro on the DC Used Bicycle Marketplace. It had a SRAM Red groupset, hydraulic brakes, and came with two wheelsets: an alloy clincher pair for training and a Roval carbon tubular pair for racing. She was selling it for a song, with extra chainrings, chain, and rear cassette that she had laying around for it. And it was 46 cm--my size. I couldn't not check it out!

So Emily was a little surprised when she came home from traveling to Chicago for business, because there was a new bike in the stable (there are now 5). I've spent the last few weeks setting it up for me: lowering the saddle and the stem, adding new pedals and bar tape, learning how to glue (and now re-glue) tubulars onto carbon rims . . . I've never worked with tubulars, SRAM, or hydro brakes, and I still have much to learn.

But after 2 weeks of tinkering, she's finally ready to race. Her name is Ethel (Fred is my pit bike). The carbon tubulars will need to wait until the next race to make their debut, because the front one flatted on Tuesday and I need to go through the process of pulling the old one off and then regluing a new tubular. I present to you Fred & Ethel, making their debut at Hub Labels CX this Sunday!
Heeeeere's Ethel!
Fred and Ethel, ready to race!

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Going Tubeless for Absolute N00bs

There's a running joke in the local women's cyclocross scene regarding my riding style: I'm like a bull, strong but completely lacking in grace. This came about after numerous pinch flats and a fellow racer suggesting that maybe I should learn how to ride (she put it more graciously . . . I think she used the word "floating"). But I proved last year that if there is a rock, root, or sharp drop-off from pavement to dirt I will find it, bottom out, and pinch flat by riding the least graceful possible line. This is one of my opportunity areas this season; I'm working on it.

But while I'm working on my ability to float around the course while bleeding out of my eyeballs from the effort of producing my modest wattage, I also switched to a tubeless set-up. The bike I bought last year (2016 Specialized Crux) came with tubeless-ready wheels and tires. So last November I went to my LBS, bought some Stan's NoTubes sealant and valve stems, and headed to my basement shop to set myself up for a pinch-flat-free existence.

Four hours (and four days, TBH) later I was ready to pull my hair out.
These instructions . . . are not very helpful.
The only thing I've experienced in home bike maintenance more frustrating that trying to seat tubeless tires is internal cable routing. I have ultimately figured both of those things out. But as I've just mounted new tubeless tires for the season (I've been running tubes in the off season), I'd like to share what I've learned through hard-earned experience (and through asking friends on Facebook).

I'm assuming that you already have tubeless-ready rims. Tubeless rims are designed with an extra secure interface for the tire beads so they'll hook in as securely as possible. They also need to be prepped with special rim tape to keep air from leaking through and to get the beads of the tires as close to the edge of the rim tape as possible. If you don't have tubeless-ready rims, there are conversion kits and ways to DIY them. I've never tried either, and your mileage may vary. My bike came with tubeless ready wheels, and these are the steps I followed to mount them (successfully) this second time around.

  1. Stretch the tires. When you get new tires, they come all folded up, right? We need the beads to lock into the rims as tightly as possible, and folds in the beads will prevent that. So before you add sealant or soapy water or do any inflating, first put the tires on the rims and let them sit there for at least 24 hours. I go a step further and put them on the rims with CX tubes (fatter than road tubes in them) with relatively high pressure (60-80 PSI) overnight. Inflating tubes in the tires will get one side of the beads to seat in the rims right away, and will stretch the tires out so they'll lock into place more easily. I speak from experience when I say that taking the step of stretching the tires before you do anything will save time and frustration. And sealant. After letting the tires sit like that overnight, unseat one side of the tire and remove the tube. Note: Be very careful if you're using tire levers to remove your tires! If you slip with the tire lever, you can damage the rim strip and ruin the interface between rim strip, tire bead, and rim!
  2. Install valve stems. Use a pair of pliers to screw the nut on as tightly as possible. That will pull the rubber part of the valve stem deep into the rim and help plug the valve stem hole more completely. These are a pain in the butt to get out, though.
  3. Add sealant. If possible, hang the tire so it's suspended with the valve stem at the bottom. Seat most of the tire bead around the rim but leave a gap down at the bottom where the valve stem is. Pour sealant into that gap (directly into the tire) then carefully turn the tire so the valve stem is at the top and finish installing the tire on the rim. I get the big bottle of Stan's NoTubes sealant, but they also sell a smaller bottle (theoretically enough for two tires, but I'm skeptical) designed for putting sealant in through a removable valve core. If you want to go that route, you remove the valve core (there's a special tool for that, but you can use a pair of pliers if you're careful) and squirt the sealant in through the valve stem. Having the valve core out also makes inflation easier, because more air can get in through the valve stem than through the valve core. Which brings us to . . .
  4. Inflate. This is where stretching the tire should pay off. Ideally, you use an air compressor for this step (you'll need valve adapters, probably), or one of these double-barreled floor pumps designed for seating tubeless tires. I've seen people recommend using a CO2 cartridge to quickly seat tubeless tires, but CO2 gets really cold inside the tire. It can freeze and break the beads (although that's the method advocated on the packaging of my Hutchinson tires, so maybe it varies by tire bead material). If all you have is a track pump, remove the valve core and pump as fast as you can. The principle here is to get as much air into the tire as quickly as possible so the tire expands all over and the beads push into place. If you're having trouble with this step, try using some soapy water (dish soap works fine) with a rag and wet down both sides of the tire. Not sure if it's lubrication that makes this work or if the surfactant in the soap changes how much air can escape, but it's a common trick to get tire beads to seat. Soapy water will also show you where air is escaping. I've also been able to sort of pull the beads into the rim with one hand to help ease the beads into place, but that only works if there are a few gaps. If none of these tricks work, I recommend walking away and having a drink or two then coming back and trying again. Or giving up and finding a new sport. If this ever turns into a blog about curling, you'll know what happened.
  5. Spin, slosh, and shake. Once the beads have seated, you need to shake the wheel around so the sealant sloshes into all the nooks and crannies. Shake the tire in every direction you can think of. Hold it in front of you like a steering wheel and push and pull it vigorously. Steer it side to side. Lay it on its side and spin it, then flip and repeat. Bounce it up and down. If you're losing air mostly out of one side, let the tire rest horizontally, that side down, so the sealant has time to flow into that side of the wheel and seal all the holes. At this point, I would lay them both horizontally (cardboard boxes work well for this purpose, so that the cassette/disc/end caps of hubs have a place to sit) and walk away for a while. Come back after a couple of hours and flip them over. Leave them overnight. Go to sleep and pray that they still have air in them when you wake up.
  6. Ride and check. The next day, assuming they still have air, inflate them to a little higher pressure than you'll normally ride them and go for a short spin. Check the air pressure carefully (digital gauge helps) before and after your ride.
Talking to a teammate/ex-mechanic, it seems like some tires hold air a little better than others, probably down to casing material; a more supple casing will deform better and give a smoother, grippier ride, but it will also be more porous. I had a helluva time getting my Specialized Tracers to hold air last season, but the Hutchinson Toros I'm running this season were no sweat. I'm probably better at the tubeless process, but I think the tires are easier, too.

If you're still having trouble with the tubeless thing, you can always just run tubes with some sealant in them. Or you can take them to your local bike shop and have them install them for you (although that costs more). If you have any questions, leave them in the comments below and I'll try to get back to you. Or visit my Facebook page and ask there! Good luck!

Update (8/29/2017): A teammate of mine (whose cross racing palmares are extensive) offered these extra tips:

  1. Unless you really know what you're doing, don't try ghetto tubeless. Get tubeless-ready rims and tubeless tires. I know people who have made it work, but if you're an absolute n00b you probably won't and it will just frustrate you and drive you nuts.
  2. Ride your wheels right after you first get them to seat and inflate. That sloshes the sealant around and lets you know right away if they're holding air (or not).
  3. Eric seconds the recommendation for the Bontrager Flash Charger pump (one of the double-barreled floor pumps) and recommends using an air blow gun with a right-angle Presta chuck (often called a "crack pipe" adapter) if you have access to your own air compressor.
Additional note: I know that tubulars are better. They are also more expensive. Please don't leave comments explaining to me why tubeless is worth it because tubulars are so much better. This post wasn't for you.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Race Report: Dirty BikenetiCrit

Top step, baby! VWS goes 1-2!
Bikenetic's annual dirt crit is one of my favorite races of the season. It's flat, fast, dusty, and hot, with a few gravelly turns where it pays to have the right line and some great power sections. It's a good race for me.

All the women raced at basically the same time: there was a 1/2/3 race and a straight 3 that went at the same time with the 4/5 women following one minute later. I was racing the straight 3 with 4 other women and another 3 in the 1/2/3 race. The 4/5 field saw a great turnout, I think about 25 women!

We went off hot from the beginning, determined not to be caught by the large 4/5 field behind us (it's happened in MABRA crits before!). I sat second wheel and attacked on the first corner that required some technique. I waaaaaay overcooked the second corner that required technique and took a little ride through the grass. Then I stayed away for most of the rest of that lap, caught on the final straight before the finish line on the back stretch. From there I drifted to the back of the pack, which had dwindled to a group of a dozen, three from each race. I sat on the back for a few more laps as an attack or two went off and came back quickly.

My teammate was on the front riding tempo as we came through the woods in the front side of the course. As we came up on the one little rise on the course, I put in a big dig and went off the front. I floated through the best line, did not overcook the corner, and had a good gap when I first looked back. I've had a few good attacks this season, but I've always ended up doing too much too soon and wearing out. This time, I was determined to dole out my effort more judiciously so that I could stay away for the rest of the race. I think that happened with 6 laps to go.

I spent the next 4 laps by myself off the front. The moto came up to me a couple of times to give me the splits. "You've got 25 seconds!" He told me before I came around with 5 to go. "30 seconds with one in the gap!" on the next lap. I had an idea of where I could gain the most time (on the flat and downhill sections in the woods) and where I would lose the most time (uphill in the woods and the headwind on the final straight). I dug deep on the sections where I could gain the most and recovered on the sections where I would lose time anyway. I managed my effort well; I kept asking myself, "Could I do exactly this intensity for another 3 laps?"

With 2 to go, one of the women from the 1/2/3 field caught me. "You're in the 1/2/3, right?" I asked. She nodded. "I'm racing the straight 3, so we've got the wins locked up!" We agreed to work together and she gave me a pull through the headwind straight. We traded off that lap and into the next, but she was smart enough to stick me in the wind on the final straight coming to the finish line. I knew that was the right thing to do, and was pretty sure I could not outsprint her. I was still determined to try, though!

She jumped at about 200 m to go. I dug as deep as I could and managed to get back onto her wheel. As I started to pull to the left to come around her, she surged again--a double sprint! I'd already given all I had to get her wheel the first time, but I didn't give up anyway. I gritted my teeth and kept pedaling as hard as I could . . . and of course she beat me.

But I still got to stand on the top step of the podium! And I got some road upgrade points! And I got the congratulations and the "Nice moves!" of the 1/2/3 women, which is like a prize unto itself. My teammate was able to outwit the other cat. 3 in the pack for second place. In our race. We won a six-pack of beer and a mini pie. We had two other people racing from Veloworks-Spokes, Etc.: one won the 45+ masters race and the other got third in the men's single speed race.

Thanks to Bikenetic for putting on a terrific race (one of my favorites), and to our sponsor shop Spokes, Etc. for helping me get my Crux ready for world domination!

Also, in case you hadn't heard, CX is coming . . .