In With a Whimper, Out With a Slightly Louder Whimper?
More like half a CX season in review...
It's no secret that Cyclocross season is one of my favorites. It's unfortunate, because it's always coincided with a busy time of year: the Tour of Alberta wraps up the first weekend of September, which presents it's own set of struggles, school kicks into full swing, and the days get shorter, colder and darker.
But it's Cyclocross, and it's infectious. The camaraderie, the action-packed racing, the endless battles for positioning. It's too much fun, and I've always tried to come into some sort of form for September and October.
This year, my plan was a little different. I've worked with the ATB Tour of Alberta (TOA) since 2015, however this year I was brought on for a more involved role. Little did I know, this more-involved role would entail a whole lot of time spent in the offices until 10 pm (or later) and a lot of early mornings. Hard to fit in my usual training volume between that. No problem, I planned a big block leading into the last week of August, when I knew I would get busy with the TOA and not have time to ride a bike. Then on September 5th, after the race was over, I'd get back into the groove, use the first 1 or 2 race weekends to tune back up, and hopefully come into some sort of form shortly after. That was the plan.
Plans were made to be broken
Here is a picture of my fitness/fatigue/form graph that I very loosely pay attention to. It tracks fitness based on training duration, intensity and frequency. Upward trends are good, downward trends bad. The start of my plan played out - I did put in some decent riding before the last week of August struck. After that, not so much...
To the left of September, my last ride was August 27th. Then 3 rides (2 real rides, 1 that barely counts) took place from then on until September 25th.
After the TOA, I felt more run-down than usual, so I took an extra few days off riding to catch up on sleep, get settled in with school, and all the usual life stuff that happens off a bike. Then I hit a couple sets of intervals over a few days. Maybe it was too much, too soon, or maybe it was inevitable, but shortly after, I came down with what I've deemed the world's longest man-flu. *okay, very far from the longest man-flu, but it seemed to take forever - weeks and weeks to feel better. I was watching my plans to race into shape for October swirl around the drain.
I couldn't quite kick the seemingly never-ending man-flu, so after another week of frustrating lack of progress, I entered a midweek CX race to stay sane, getting outside and doing something!
It might have been all I needed. My experience is that the first high-intensity ride back from illness is always nasty, and this was certainly no exception. But it seemed to clear a lot of congestion and put me on track to finally start riding a bike again.
54 Blue and Deadgoat Supercross Double Header
Day 1 - 54Blue Cyclocross Race (Cochrane, AB)
So September 30th, after barely having kicked some illness, I made the trek down to Cochrane for a double-header CX weekend. I was unsure what to expect, as I'd never raced their before, but I had a feeling my back wouldn't be happy, as it was at the Cochrane Rodeo Grounds. (I vividly remember walking funny for a week after the races at the Airdrie Rodeo Grounds in past years....)
I took a spin out on the course, which could best be described as a very fitness-based course. There were a couple tricky corners, but overall, it would be a drag race as most corners could be ridden at full speed, with little time to let off the gas. It was a pretty windy day, and the entire pack actually stuck together for the first 2 laps.
Photo Credit: Bill Quinney
At this point, I even though to myself, maybe I'm in better shape than I thought. I'm literally only 5 seconds off of 1st place. It was shortlived, because the hammer dropped shortly after, and the pack exploded! It was quite a windy day, so I fought to hold wheels, and settled into a good group, trying not to stick my neck out into the headwind.
About 2/3's through the race, I couldn't hold the repeated accelerations, and fell out of the group I was riding with. It was a lonely 20 minute finish to the race, and although I wasn't dead-last, I was the last person to not get lapped on course. Sometimes it's the little victories that matter.
Day 2 - Deadgoat Supercross (Cochrane, AB)
I woke up Sunday morning, and immediately considered not starting Day 2. I know, not exactly a real A+ attitude. It was incredibly windy out, with gusts up to 60 km/h, and I wasn't relishing the idea of more panicked sprints to try to hold wheels. And yet there I was, 5 hours later on the start line for Day 2. Because as much as I pretend to complain about it, I really do love bike racing. Even if I'm getting fed and shelled off the back of the pack.
I actually felt better on Day 2 once the racing got going. I found wheels to settle into, and wasn't left in no-mans land for the majority of the race. But with a couple laps to go, I again found myself without any matches left to burn, and all of a sudden, I couldn't hold the wheel I had been following for much of the race.
I settled into a pace that got me across the line, again not dead last, but the last person to not get lapped or pulled from the race... Remember how I said it's the little victories that matter? It's because it's the little victories that matter.
Shockingly, I could walk normal the next day - no major back issues from the rough course - something I know I owe to the time I've spent at ATHX Performance, working on all the things that a cyclist usually sucks at.
United in Cross and DBA's Puncheur CX Alberta Provincials Weekend
Day 1 - United in Cross (Devon, AB)
When I opened the tech guide to look at the Devon races, I fully expected to see the Devon Campground as the venue, as it had been for the past handful of years. I almost squealed with excitement when I saw the venue had been moved back to an old favorite, Devon Voyageur Park. (Yes, seriously almost squealed, I think Voyageur Park is legitimately the best CX venue in Alberta!)
Racing at Voyageur Park has a little bit of everything - great curves and turns, sand, sandy/muddy descents down to the river, stairs running up from the river, steep run/ride ups, all on the scenic banks of the North Saskatchewan River.
Riverfront property on-course. Photo Credit: Nancy St Hilaire
Day 1 was a normal Alberta Cup, with the Provincial Championships to take place the next day. It was a perfect 'get acquainted with the course' kind of day, and I hit the start line feeling like I might actually have a chance to not suck as bad as I had sucked in Cochrane.
I had a terrible start (remember kids, practice your starts) and spent the first lap playing a bit of catch up, getting tied up in a few bottlenecks, and burning matches in bad places. BUT, I didn't spend the race riding alone off the back, made some passes, and finished 8th on the day. More importantly, I beat some Valveda kid who started working at Pedalhead this year. ;)
Day 2 - Puncheur CX Provincial Championships (Devon, AB)
Day 2 was an almost identical course to the day prior, with 3 extra turns thrown in for good measure. Off the start whistle, I found myself in a decent spot, midpack, not losing many positions from my 2nd row start. A couple laps in, I settled into a pretty fun race within a group of 4 or 5 of us.
The group I spent most of the race rubbing shoulders with. Photo Credit: Nancy St Hilaire
The pace was high, and any stumble, misstep, or error was met with a shake-up of the positioning within the group, and a mad dash to try to regain contact. I felt like I was racing smart - smarter than I have been anyways. I don't have the top-end fitness to chase down certain moves or burn matches the way I had been burning them in Cochrane. Instead, I was letting certain moves go, knowing I could claw back time without expending too much energy on different sections of the course.
Dust trails on the gravel road. Photo Credit: Nancy St Hilaire
About halfway through the race, on the long gravel road, the only section of the course that was truly wide-open, I was feeling good and made a move, pushing the pace. Pedalhead mechanic, Valveda, was the only one to match my move, with the rest of the group splintering behind us.
It was only another 2 minutes later where I started to second guess my move - my legs were screaming with lactic acid, and I had to back off the pace a touch. I had visions of being swallowed up by the chase group behind, but as I recovered, I noticed the gap behind was still sizeable. Time to put the gas pedal back down!
Photo Credit: Nancy St Hilaire
Valveda dropped his chain about 234325 times over the course of the race, and every time he did, I put in as much of an attack as I felt I could without blowing up my own race. Yet, he kept clawing back onto my wheel, or even past me.
With 2 laps to go, Valveda had figured out how to keep his chain on, which didn't bode well for me. I did what I could to hold his wheel and manage gaps, but not long into the bell lap, he opened up a small advantage. I did what I could to try to bring it back, but I was redlined. I kept my lines clean and rolled across the line in 14th place in the competitive Provincial Champs race. By no means a result to write home about, but also a big step up from worrying about being lapped... Like I said, it's the little victories.
"Don't crash into the river, don't crash into the river, don't crash into the river" - likely my thoughts at the time. Photo Credit: Nancy St Hilaire
A huge shoutout to the DBA for their efforts in organizing. Ever since stepping down 2 years from the Board, I have felt a little tinge of guilt in no longer contributing to the amazing, tight-knit Devon cycling community that the DBA has built and fostered, but it's clear they are in good hands!
Redcross CX and School of Cross Double-Header
Day 1- Redcross (Edmonton, AB)
The finale weekend for my cyclocross season kicked off with some great weather - no snow for every CX race of the year for me - the first time that I can remember that happening. I didn't have high expectations leading into this race - on Friday I spent the day driving a car with an exhaust leak back from Calgary, and I'm no expert, but I'm pretty sure that's not good for the lungs...
I fumbled on the start line, and was immediately dead last on the first lap. Not a good start! I was lucky in that the course wasn't too terribly selective, so being at the back of the pack wasn't a death-sentence for the race. I made some moves and settled into a good group midpack, with a few racers, including shop-rat Valveda, and Redbike super-event-organizer of the day, Mark Jung.
We spent much of the race together, and it turned into an incredibly fun, strategic race. We each swapped turns attacking, testing the group to see where separations might be able to occur. Around the midway point of the race, one of the attacks stuck, and the group of us whittled down to just myself, Mark and Valveda. I was able to open up some small gaps on some of the long straights, and although they always clawed me back, I kept it in mind, knowing it would be where I'd want to make a move near the end of the race.
Sometimes (all the time) cyclocross is kind of hard and painful. Exhibit A above.
With 2 laps to go, Mark attacked, and I barely had the jam to match his move. I thought I was done for, but I managed to hold wheels as we whipped around the course at break-neck speeds. With 1 to go, Valveda went to the front and started opening up a small gap. He was faster on the steep run-up that came near the end, so I knew if I had any chance of catching him, I had to get ahead before then.
The gap had grown to 20 seconds - I put in a big move on a straight away, hoping to claw back time. I got within 10 seconds, but never closed the gap entirely. That attack did put enough seperation between me and Mark that I didn't have to sprint him to the finish though, which was good because I was cooked! Fun day of racing, even if it was a race for 10th place.
Day 2 - School of Cross (Edmonton, AB)
Usually the second day of racing plays into my strengths - residual endurance from the Spring I'm guessing - so I hit day 2 feeling good, ready to end my CX season with a bang. This entire post is getting linked right back to the opening line - In with a whimper, out with a slightly louder whimper - because my last day of cyclocross racing definitely did not set the world on fire.
I started out well, mixing it up with racers I usually would never be riding with. I spent almost half the race there, trying to ride smart - the way my short CX season had gone, I was racing far above my pay grade at this point. Feeling like mixing things up, I made a pass over the barriers, only to immediately fumble the remount. Wasted move.
Feeling a little over-confident in my ability to stick with this group, knowing it was the last race of the year and I was racing for 10th place at best, and wanting to have some fun, I took a handup of beer that was being offered by hecklers on the sidelines. (Have I mentioned I LOVE cyclocross). Unfortunately it also came in the midst of 3 180 degree turns. I blew the corner, immediately getting gapped out. Oh well, may as well have some fun with it I thought.
I sprinted out of the 3rd corner to regain contact with the group, conveniently blowing myself up. Less than half a lap later I was shelled off the back. Tactical error? Maybe. Was the beer worth it? Hmm... maybe?
I raced the 2nd half of the race in non-mans land. Not quite able to re-establish contact with the group ahead, and holding off a group of riders behind. Because it was my last race of the year, and I was by no means feeling fast enough for a result I'd be happy with, I also took a few more beer handups. Definitely gotta have some fun with it!
I finished in the exact same spot a few laps later - ahead of a chase group, and behind the group I couldn't stick with after an ill-timed handup.
With that, a very short season is over. The usual thanks have to go out to ATHX Performance and Pedalhead Bicycle Works for all of their support. Time to get ready for a winter of some fun fat biking. 2018 is already sneaking up!
As always, thanks for reading!