Sunday, November 8, 2009

Race Report: HPT Grand Prix CX

This was a cool race.

The course was laid out at Topeka's Heritage Park, which is a racing track. You know, where they race things with motors.

Except on this night (yes, it was an avondcross, or evening cross race), all the racing was of the two-wheeled variety.

Like the other races in the 60CX series, the women go in the first round of racing, along with most of the masters. What that means for us is that we get to pack down the grass for the big boys, which I don't think is fair at all. Of course, the trade off is that any chicanes and sharp corners that are likely to get slick aren't too bad (at least not until towards the end of the race).

This course was different from any other CX course I've been on, and not only because it was dark when I was riding it. Started on a short strip of tarmac, then a moderate, grassy uphill into a downhill chicane. Few more yards of tarmac, then a hard right into the racing arena and on to some of the finest surface you could ask for in a CX race. The dirt was hard packed, but with some texture, almost like course sand, but softer. It was fast. I even got into my big chain ring (53) on that stuff. Hammered around the outside of the race track, then a 180 switchback and more hard dirt riding into the wind. A sharp right onto the infield, with some (very) patchy grass, still moving fast. Through a small dip with a little mud (take the smoothest line and you don't even get wet), a right turn that's sharper than it looks, a little more grass, and hammer so you can beat anyone around you to the best line going into a series of very tricky (very fun) switchbacks. Left, then sharp right, then right, then left, like a snake folding back on itself. Out and around, through more grass, crossing the track, then uphill and hard right along the back straightaway of the dirt track. A downhill chicane (more than a little scary on that loose, sliding dirt) and then stairs. That's right, stairs. Sharp ramp off the stairs (out of the arena, now), slight left, another chicane, then downhill and around the backside of the arena. Bumpy bumpy bumpy, and watch that huge bump (got worse as the night went on and got darker) at the bottom of the hill. Then the grass gets thicker and thicker as you move into a false flat. Steep hill (only about 8-10 yards of it, but gotta be 20%), fight over it, then fight the urge to recover as you head back into the tarmac. Another chicane (don't hit that tree!), up and around to another flight of stairs. Remount, one more chicane, then a hard left and do it all over again. Phew.

Topeka is a 2-hour drive (if you interpret the speed limit somewhat liberally) from me. Rode up with my Cross Yoda, who got very chatty about 30 minutes after he had a little energy drink. We arrived 20 minutes before registration for my race closed. We changed and got all our gear, then went to take our bikes off the rack. I aired my tires up before I took the bike off the rack (I have to let air out of my tires to get the wheels on, because I use my road bike for cross and it doesn't have cantilevers), and must have finagled the valve stem into a strange position. After I aired the rear tire up and went to get it off the car, I heard a "CLICK pfshhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh." Shit. It's now 15 minutes until registration closes, and my rear tire is flat.

Fortunately, my new investment (a pair of Bontrager Jones CX tires) totally paid off. And I do mean investment. Those tires were $50 a pop (although, thanks to our awesome sponsor, I got a good deal on them). I had the tube out and changed in 3 minutes flat. Stress level returned to normal. Plenty of time to register, pee, and pre-ride the course before staging.

As I was riding a warm-up lap, I realized that I really, really didn't want to race. Seriously. Not only had I not been on my bike for a full week, I hadn't been off-road in at least three. I told you how my mojo's been off. That's translated to almost no outdoor cycling, and absolutely no CX practice. Also, I've never ever ever had to do stairs with my bike. My bike weighs 23 fucking pounds; it's a 44 cm triple-walled aluminum monstrosity with a steel fork. And I am very, very short. In order to get that bike high enough to clear stairs, I have to get the top tube on my shoulder. I can't reach down under the down tube and set the seat on my shoulder (I tried) because the front wheel isn't high enough to clear. And I can't curl 23 lbs with my right arm (the shoulder is FUBAR). Which means that in order to get up those steps, I have to squat down low enough to get a shoulder under the top tube (which--believe me--is way, way low, even for me). Of course, none of that would be a big problem if I'd been practicing run-ups. Which I haven't been, stairs or no stairs.

At any rate, I totally wasn't feeling the race vibe. I didn't want to suffer. I didn't want to hurt. I didn't want to fight. I seriously considered chucking the race fee and calling it a night. But it was $20, plus the 2-hour drive up and the 2-hour drive back, plus gas and turnpike tolls . . . so I sucked it up and staged with the other women.

Big field, at this one. 14-15 in the Cat 4, and about another 10 in the open. That's a significant number, for the women's field. Lots of mountain bikes, too.

I learned from the last race that I don't want to get too good a starting position. Especially at this point in my season, I can't hang with the big girls, and I don't want to put myself into that much hurt early in the race. So I tried to get a good enough start to clear most of the chaos (especially coming into that first chicane), but didn't push to get good position. My plan was to sit in and see how things developed.

Most of the women took off without me, but I started making serious headway once we got onto the track. I put it in a big gear and hammered. I quickly established myself with a group of two other women, and followed some wheels before I realized I could whip around them with no trouble. It was a little dicey in the infield on that first lap, before everyone broke up, but I beat a few girls by getting to the inside line.

I lost all the time I'd gained on the stairs. That chicane made me really nervous, and every time I stopped, dismounted (and not the cool way), and ran up the stairs and down the ramp. I was very tentative with those steps all night. Through the grass, I made up some more ground, but really had a rough time getting over that steep hill on the back side of the arena. It was full-body, wrenching the handle bars, trying to get my damn ass over the top, then regain some momentum coming out of it. The second set of stairs was not as bad as the first, but I still lost time there. 

Every time I hit that second set of stairs, I could hear spectators crying, "C'mon, Sandy!" Now Sandy is a woman I met at Smithville last year. She's a triathlete, too. She does Emporia every year. We've done several CX races together. And I've always beaten her. So when I heard people calling her name as she's right on my tail coming into those stairs, I knew I had to give it all I got, take the best lines through the chicanes, and let loose on the track. That strategy worked pretty well, too. I put some serious time on her on the track. But every time, I lost so much of it back at the stairs. On lap 3 or 4, she passed me on the second set of stairs. I gapped her in the arena. She passed me on the other stairs. I caught her in the grass. We traded off and on for the next couple laps. With 2 laps to go, she had a sizable gap on me (again, from the stairs), but I was gaining on her through the infield, and caught her on the back straightaway. Again, stairs. She dismounted and remounted beautifully, and I looked like a camel (I'm sure) getting bandy-legged off my bike, running up the stairs and down the other side. I happened to look down at my chain ring and notice that it was in the granny gear (which is not where I'd put it), and stopped to readjust it. I didn't want to risk losing it completely when I hit the big hole on the backside. That's where I lost Sandy. Once we got onto the grass, I could see she was still within striking distance and I thought, "Okay, still have 2 laps to go, just pace yourself." I knew I could catch her with 2 laps. But I didn't put it all on the line with 1 lap to go, because I didn't want to blow up and really lose it. They stopped us after that second-to-last lap, though; we'd already been lapped by about half the masters field, and the top woman, as well (she started 15 seconds ahead of us). So I never got a chance to catch Sandy.


But I definitely found my mojo at this race. And even though Sandy and I were fighting for 9/10 place, it was definitely a battle. And every ounce of mental and physical energy I had was going into that battle. It was amazing. And invigorating. At the end of the race, I found myself wishing that I could go out and do it again. I think part of that was the course design; I never felt that tired, burny, oh gods make it stop feeling that you normally get at a CX race. I think that the course was laid out in such a way that you can follow the flow of it without the start/stop sprint/coast dynamic of most courses. It was still a tough course, but in a very different way.

I was really happy with my performance in the race, even though I only place 10/13. Cross Yoda kept telling me, "Hey! Top 10! That's not bad!" but I just can't get excited about placing only 3 spots up from DFL. And last time I got 6/12. So if nothing else, I have to prolong the CX season for one more race, just to prove that I belong in the middle of the pack (not at the bottom).



Of course, it might also help if I would actually practice.


Additionally, I would like to give major props to Cross Yoda, who--in spite of crashing in a big tangle-up in the first chicane--came back to get 4th place! And props to Boulevard Brewing, as well, for providing post-race refreshment for free.

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