Tossing and Tortured 'Till Dawn

I come back to you now, at the turn of the tide.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Let's get the good news out of the way first, since it's pretty short. Yours Truly is a newly-minted Cat 2. As they say in geek-land, "Ding!"

Cycling is a weird sport. You win some, you lose some, you kind of sort of win others. Say what? In ball-and-stick style competition, things are pretty cut and dried: one guy or team scores more than the other, and so there's a winner and a loser. It might be a close game or a blowout, but in the end, the column says "W" and that's all anyone really looks at. In motor racing, there's a winner, and usually a podium where the second- and third-place finisher are also awarded a smaller prize -- except in NASCAR, where they don't do that. I think in running races people are more interested in their ability to cover a certain distance in a certain time, like a ten-second 100m dash, or a 2.5-hour marathon, but I'm not quite sure.

In bicycle racing, one rider wins. Unless it is a stage race, in which case one rider wins each stage, and a seperate prize goes to the overal winner, who may or may not have won any of the stages. Each rider has a team, which kind of sort of wins if their rider wins. Also, there are usually other things to win besides stages and the overall General Classification (GC,) like a king of the mountains prize, a sprinter's prize, and a best team prize. There are even races-within-a-race for the best rider who is older or younger than a certain stage. Then, in criteriums, there are bonus prizes that don't "count" for anything but can win you more money than actually winning the race!

Simple, right?

The Tour of Walla Walla stage race was this weekend, and I got to sort of lose, sort of win. I didn't race like a loser, but the results sort of make it look like I did. In other news, if I could make a deal with the devil to get tires that would never, ever go flat, it would be hard to turn him down.

So, on a beautful, sunny Friday, I wedged myself into the back of a honda filled with bags, wheels, trainers, and cyclists, and headed north, east, and south to Waitsburg, WA. I like the "charm" of old-style downtowns, with narrow streets and 2-floor businesses, and Waitsburg is cool. I wish I'd have had a little more time to tool around there, but we got there about an hour before the race started, so had to just rush about getting bags and gear unpacked and ready to race, then sign in and track down my race packet. I hate paper numbers, and I especially hate attaching paper frame numbers with twist-ties.

The stage today is a weird one for Category 3 riders, since it is an "optional" stage. What the heck does that mean? Well, for the 1/2's, they've got a three-day, four stage race, but I think the organizers realized that most Cat 3's have careers and families and most were coming from the Seattle area. So, many wouldn't be able to haul their spandex-clad butts to greater Walla Walla if that meant taking Friday off of work. If that was the plan, I guess it worked, since there were only about thirty racers in Friday's field, but the rest of the stage race had its full compliment of 100. The course is short, but my race ends up even shorter. The fun and games start on the first little climb, and I get into a pretty solid-looking move of about eight riders. On the descent of that climb, clocking about forty miles an hour, there is a few bits of gravel on the road, and my tire finds the sharpest-possible piece to run over.

An easily audible pop-hiss makes me curse, and then I realize that it's my front tire going down in a hurry, so I'd better get this thing slowed down quickly or I'm going to find myself on the pavement. I look behind me and see that the pack, such as it is, is completely blown to pieces, and another rider pulls up just beside me, also having punctured. Well, okay then. The wheel truck pulls up beside us, we both snag wheel changes, but decide it's not worth chasing back on. The break is pretty far up the road at this point, and since this stage doesn't count for anything, there's no point in flogging ourselves into the ground just to get back on terms with the remants of the main field. So, we roll it into the finish, and I notice, curiously, that my new front wheel is a Mavic Ksyrium ES. Crap, who puts those wheels in the truck? Those cost about a thousand dollars...

Too bad, though, because it turns out that break stayed away, and the dude that won is as skinny as I am!
Saturday is the big day for this race, and it looks as though the rain will at least mostly stay away. In the morning there's a short time trial, and I laugh at the number of miles we've all had to haul our time trial equipment to do under seven miles of riding! As I'm warming up for the time trial, with about twenty minutes to go until my start time, I notice my rear tire has gone flat. Oh, come on. Because they have different systems on them, I'm using my training rear wheel on my TT bike, and it is the only one I have, so I just whip out a new tube and change it pronto. I look through the tire for glass and find nothing, but then, this tire also went flat on a training ride last wednesday, so I hope there is no phantom shard of glass that I can't see. Once I get it changed, I've got 15 minutes to go, so I just roll over to the start area rather than try to reinstall my bike onto my pain in the butt of a cheap trainer. I really should warm up more, perhaps ride around the street, but since my teammate before me missed his start time doing just that, I park myself near the start area and constantly fidget with my rear tire and hope it holds up.

Is it flat? Nope. Is it flat? Still no. Is it ... well .. is it a little soft? My rear tire does feel a little less inflated than my front. I think. Maybe.

I spend the fifteen minutes until I'm called to the line obessing like this, and then it's time to go. The TT is basically one gradual false flat on the way out, and a gradual descent on the way back. What can you say about a time trial like this? It's short, and it hurts, but it's over before it hurts too badly. I spend the whole thing trying not to look down at my tire. It's hard to get into a rhythm on the way out there -- the grade is just steep enough that I feel like I can't find the right gear anywhere, and then on the way back, I wish I had a bigger gear! Sixteen minutes later, I'm done. That wasn't too impressive of a time. Top quarter of the pack, but outside the top ten, and off the lead by just shy of a minute. I'm going to have my work cut out for me.

A few pancakes later, it's time to get ready for the road race. As I look over at my time trial bike, I notice the tire is flat. Crap. Was that soft during the race? Did it cost me time?

It doesn't matter. I am where I am, and my teammate is where he is, which is fourth place, and that means I will have a job to do in the road race, 75 miles over rolling hills and farmland between Walla Walla and Waitsburg. There is a 3-kilometer, 5% climb to the finish, and we'll do it once halfway through the race as well. Those climbs are frustrating to me, since I can go hard and string things out, but it mostly hurts the people at the back; there's still plenty of draft. When we get to the climb, I get to the front and ride a hard tempo, keeping the group pinned but basically together, which works out okay. From then on I patrol the front of the race, and when a move goes, I go with it. Eventually I start a few digs of my own, and one of them pulls a couple of guys away from the field.

Some other strong racers, after the event, told me they thought I'd have had a better personal result if I had conserved more energy instead of attacking so many times. In some ways, it felt good to tell him that I had a job to do for the team, though in another since it would've been cool just to race my race.

The break that I get into quickly develops a weird character. There's three of us, with myself and one other racer able to really do any work. We stay out front for a few miles solo, then two others bridge up to us, and at first I think this is great, since a 3-man group probably isn't going to have the firepower to stay away. It's a tough course for an escape, with long, open roads, constant low-grade undulations, and a fair bit of wind. Well, you can't commit halfway to a break, and I'm not going to sit on, but it looks like a couple of other guys are. One of the riders who just bridged across claims he's on the team of the GC leader, and so can't work.

This would be understandable, except for he's not really on the GC leader's team. A bunch of these kids came down from Canada, including the winner of the time trial, who is all of 16 years old. That's just not fair! They are on two seperate teams with seperate jerseys, but they basically consider themselves one team and race like it. Anyway, as soon as the GC leaders' sorta-teammate is sitting on, one of the other strong riders that I'm working with says that, since his team has the second placed rider on GC, that he won't work any more, either. That doesn't make any sense to me: you don't ride for second place. The GC leader's dude isn't riding in the break because his team is on the front chasing! I really don't think the 2nd-placed rider's team is chasing. But, whatever.

Because of all of this, the break doesn't really gain tons of ground -- a couple of minutes -- and changes character a few more times as two more groups bridge up, but a bunch of other riders get dropped. In the end we've got seven, maybe eight riders, with four or five working. It's not quite cohesive enough, either -- riders can't figure out when the rider behind him is or is not going to pull through or sit on, and people swing FAR to far to the right or left when they pull off. Most people get the "pull off into the wind" thing, but some don't. The GC rider's teammate does a slick job of getting the break pulled back, too, taking a few crappy pulls that just disrupt the flow of things.

So, just past the 10k to go sign, we get caught, and I am absolutely cooked. I let myself sift too far towards the back of the pack because of this, as everyone ramps it up for the last sprint point in town before we head to the finish. If there is one thing I could've done differently in the race, it would've been to stay in the front there, no matter the pain. As we round the corner onto the climb, I'm probably two thirds of the way through the pack, and I can see a front group attacking, with my teams's leader tagged on. Good deal. It's also got the yellow jersey in it, which is expected, but not such a good deal.

The little loser voice in my head tells me that the race is done anyway, so, why bother hurting yourself for nothing? Screw that. There's no reason to save anything. I push out onto the gravel, pass about 30 riders, and set out after the attackers. My team's leader, a bigger dude, gets popped about halfway up the hill, and I pull along side him to see if I can't encourage him to go any faster. I ride the hardest tempo I can, dragging a small handful of stragglers up towards the lead group. I'm honestly feeling pretty angry at this point, because I love hills, and I'm a pretty competent climber, but this is all the faster I can go and it just ain't that fast. Where's my speed, my snap? Of course, I left it on the road 30 miles ago when I committed to making that break work.

Then, it's over, we're at the top. The skies have greyed over, and it's pretty cold coming down the hill. I try to tell myself that it's all right, that I did everything I could, and teammates and opponents alike congratulate me on a strong race, but, crap. This is that weird part of bike racing.

Sunday is the criterium, in downtown Walla Walla, which is even cooler than downtown Waitsburg. WW is a quite a bit more happening of a town, what with Whitman College and all, so the downtown area isn't just a mostly shuttered collection of old buildings. The loop is a six-corner course over bumpy, rough pavement, with manhole covers and other obstacles. to contend with, and a section of bricks in corner six, leading into the finish line.

The rain does not hold off. I'm not a criterium expert, by any means. In truth, I kind of suck at them. This has been exacerbated by me basically not racing any criterium I could avoid in the season and a half of bike racing I've done so far. Again, a big chunk of my head doesn't want to suit up at all, but I'm not DNFing this race, not for anything. Plus, there is actually a best team prize at stake, and they call up our whole four-man contingent to the line to point out that we're leading that classification. Well, that's something, at least.

I suck at this crit, too, but not as bad as I usually do. The pace is pretty easy, and though there are two big pileups, no one is seriously hurt, and I avoid them. Also, though it is wet, there have been groups riding on the closed course all day, so it has a surprising amount of grip. I only slide my rear tire a couple of times, and the bricks aren't so bad. I keep it upright, finish in the pack, and we hold onto our team GC lead.


You win some, you lose some, and you kind of sort of win some, right?

I would've liked to leave Cat 3 with a big win, but I don't think I embarassed myself and the team too badly out there. I did a lot of work, got into the moves, it just didn't come together.

Next time...

Two other quick notes: One is to say I feel really bad for K-man, who got the Flat Tire Curse in the road stage that DID count, and then got crashed in the criterium, though he later remounted.

Also, a Gigantic thank you to the family that hosted our team for the time we stayed in Walla Walla. You have no idea how nice it is to have a bed, and a shower, during races, not to mention a real kitchen to use. You guys make bike racing able to actually happen...


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