The Cyclocross Revolution's most North venue was at the Arlington Airport. The airport is active but has various corners of the property that have been used for cyclocross events in the past. My wife Deanne decided to join me for this race as did our Lab mix Poppy.
This year the Cyclocross Revolution course designers were thrown a curve ball for the Arlington event. Just a week before the event they were asked to use a different part of the airport property than originally planned. They were given a basically flat grass field that just wasn't all that large. The course was mostly yellow tape partitioned corners on the grass.
Just before heading out to preview the course I ran into Rob. He gave me an idea what the course had in store. He warned me about the imported sand section and also mentioned some short technical sections. One of them, he said, was a slow but rideable corner through a ditch.
During my course preview I learned that many of the grassy courners could be ridden without much need for braking nor accelerating if I chose my line carefully. The imported sand was placed with enough lead in straight that I could usually accelerate to speed, lift out of the saddle to help the tires float, and then coast through. Then I got a much better look at the real technical test on this course.
A short stretch of pavement progressed from flat to downhill. Near the bottom the pavement changed from dry to wet to dirty before entering the woods and a left turn with two separate lines. The inside line was short while the outside line allowed a better approach to the runup. After my preview I explained to Deanne that this might be the only real technical part of the course. The changing traction conditions required caution but I felt pretty good that I could charge flat track style into that corner and use the inside line to make passes.
After course preview I mounted Blue Moon onto my trainer and continued my warmup. Following Rob's guidelines from our previous chat I planned to spin for 25 minutes. Those 25 minutes also included a couple short efforts to get the heart rate up a little extra bit. I liked this addition to my race day ritual as it game me a little time to be inside my own head.
My trainer is a Plain Jane magnetic trainer that always works but sometimes makes an awful jet engine racket. The racer parked next to me unloaded the coolest looking trainer I'd ever seen. He removed his rear wheel and mounted the bike directly to the trainer which had it's own cassette. Is 'trainer envy' a word?
As I prepared to get my warmup going Deanne and I chatted about what I found on the course and I told her about the downhill being my only strong point of the course. After preview I also reflected that Fort Steilacoom may have been fast but that the power sucking soft grass and ground would make this a tough course for me. We also chatted about where best to watch from. It turns out she found a spot in the infield where the course came close four times.
The start included the entire front straight which was probably the bumpiest and softest portion of the course. I really hated this portion of the course. Good news came in the form of a call up based on my finish at Silver Lake.
Cyclocross is described as having a sprint that comes as the beginning of the race instead of the end. In an effort to keep myself together I pedalled hard off the line but just enough to keep me in the top 10 going into the first set of corners. I quickly learned that I could stay with the rider in front of me through the twisty tapes as long as I had the room to freely choose my line going in and out of the corners.
The first two laps went pretty smoothly and I stayed near the front. During the second lap I realized I needed to ride my own pace and I let the riders in front of me go.
On lap three my left foot did not release from the pedal going into the double barriers. Fortunately I fell sideways through the tape and not forward into the wooden barrier. By the time I was done uncleating, becoming vertical, and reestablishing forward motion I had lost two or three positions. The rest of the lap was filled with self talk. I was tired. But I knew I could do better. I chanted 'relax, relax, rotate foot' as I attempted regained my composure. This lap was about 15 seconds slower than my average.
I know how to wheel a bike around corners. I can pedal it well enough. But lap three really demonstrated something I've known for a while. My Cyclocross specific skills like dismounting, remounting, and run-ups are still at a category four level while I'm racing against category three riders.
From her prime viewing spot I got to see Deanne every lap. She cheered me on but I did not hear the exact words over the sound of my own breathing. I was hurting yet I always nodded or waived or at least lifted some fingers to let her know I appreciated her attendance. Our dog solemnly stared in the opposite direction.
This race was my first on tubulars. I've been testing, flatting, and sealing this wheelset since September. With zero race condition data I chose to go with 26 psi front and 29 psi rear. This seemed to give good front to rear balance. During my sighting lap I found that the front tire gave great feedback. From my roadracing days I learned to appreciate tires that were predictable and let the rider know that side bite traction was near it's limit instead of going from full grip to full slip. The rear at 29 psi gave a smoother ride than the clinchers I normally ride. It wasn't until the race, however, that I felt just how much that rear tire was deforming. One set of sweeping turns was set up on harder terrain that allowed a little more speed. Cornering over the bumps while pedalling worked that rear tire hard. If felt like it might roll right off the rim yet it just kept gripping. It felt odd. But it sure worked.
Laps four and five were not special. I worked to keep my pace even. Occasionally I would catch and pass a rider that was falling back from the start before mine. And I was hurting. But not too much.
My lap times were pretty consistent with two exceptions. I worked harder on the first lap and it fell about 15 seconds faster than my average. I fell on the third lap and that lap was about 15 seconds slower than my average. The other four laps were within ten seconds of each other. I'm definately getting better at listening to my body during the race.
Our class would got six laps at Arlington. For me that meant almost 48 minutes of fun. It also meant I was looking forward to that last lap. My breathing was under control as I started the final lap and I needed to continue to keep my pace correct. The first third of the lap was spent gliding through the taped grass corners and slowly closing the gap on two riders in my class. As we approached the ditch I didn't feel I could complete a pass. So I took it easy going into the ditch and closed the gap coming out.
The next thirty seconds were soft grass and the two riders ahead were a tiny bit faster. With just half a lap to go I started weighing my options. These two were definately fitter. The finish straight would play to them not me. Then we passed Deanne. Again our dog stared off into space. And Deanne cheered. And most of her words were lost. But the word 'hill' was not. The time and place to 'go' had arrived and Deanne reminded me of it.
There were just two corners between my cheering section and the paved downhill. Out of the saddle I closed the gap between those two corners and then powered down the hill. It wasn't pretty. I headed to the short inside line, right leg arrow straight, bike definately crabbing sideways, feathering the rear brake and kicking rocks onto my own bike as my left foot skimmed the surface. When the two lines converged at the bottom of the run-up I had them both in my back pocket. Then my cat 4 skillset showed itself again as I couldn't avoid a fallen rider's bike while dismounting. A quick stop, apology, and lift got my bike over. By the top of the run-up it looked like my plus two was lost but one rider's remount went awry and cost him a second. I was on the other rider's back tire.
My charge was not over. I watched the gap behind on this flat paved section and it stayed at one second. The paved section ended with two long tecnical 180's that were good for me. I punched past the rider in front of me going into the first of these two corners and gained another second coming out of the second. Another good turn of fortune was that between the two technical corners I caught and passed a rider not in my class. This put a rider between me and my two rivals coming back into a grass section. I kept the pace up. It felt good to get out of the saddle and accelerate out of the grass turns. Then I caught and passed a second rider not in my class just before entering the corkscrew.
The corkscrew, on retrospect, was one funky corner. It started as a gradual right hander that turned the rider through 450 degrees. Thats not a typo. Riders entered going North. Turned right until they were going North again. Then turned an additional 90 degrees until they headed East. The course literally wrapped around part of itself. Then the riders turned left through 270 degrees until they were headed South. Most of this corner was gradual. The exception was the last 90 degrees of right and the first 90 degrees of left. These parts were tight and slow. Most of the corkscrew was taken single file. Which was fine on the last lap since I was leading my group.
I felt good going into the corkscrew. I had just passed two riders in my class. I knew that passing the two riders not in my class could work to my advantage. I was leading this quartet into the final minute of the race. And there were a couple corners after the corkscrew I liked before our group would settle it on the long grass finish straight.
I was ready to work for a gap before getting onto the straight. Once through the tight section of the corkscrew I got out of the saddle and BLAM. I was on the deck. I heard a metallic sound. More than a squink. Just as I found terra firma. I had hit a rock I didn't see and it rolled under my front tire enough to dump me. I heard a rider shout 'get up'. I jumped back up and remounted with haste. But not before four bikes rode past. I put in some effort and caught the last of the quartet at the final corner. But I could not equal his finish line speed and trailed him over the line.
My aggressive cornering sometimes gains me positions or allows me to save energy. But at Arlington I crashed out of 8th to finish 10th in my class.
I coasted to a stop, got off the course, and layed down on the ground. All that work. Wasted. On a rogue rock.
One observation I've made over the last year of CX racing is about the designs on racer's jerseys. I think most riders are matching kits that say something like "A graphic designer created me, I'm based on my sponsor's nifty color palet, I'm sophisticated yet subdued." My Puyallup Cyclopaths Jersey seems to say "Look at me, I climb mountains, lots of 'em, Look at me!". Regardless of the the jersey's dialogue, my Puyallup Cyclopaths jersey makes me easy to pick out of the crowd. Both during the race and after.
The first racer to approach me after the race was Forest Murphy. He said he stayed just 5 or 10 seconds in front of the group I finished in most of the race and could often pick me out of the group due to my jersey. He also said he was the third racer in my group at the Fort Steilacoom race. He said "I don't know what happened. I was on your wheel. Then there was a gap. I nearly closed the gap but then I was out of gas". I admitted to him that I jumped pretty hard at Steilacoom to create that very gap. We also talked about crashing. Forest does some road racing and expressed that stepping off at ten miles an hour onto grass is a lot less intimidating than stepping off at 45 miles per hour onto pavement. I had to agree with that.
Then Mario found us. I introduced him to my wife as 'the guy that broke his wheel' and we chatted about the bad luck he had at this years Cyclopaths rides. (Frozen riders on Skate Creek and broken wheel on Triple By-Pass). We also compared Cyclocross schedules and realized we won't be at many of the same races due to his Northerly location and my Southerly location. But it was nice to see Mario again and I told him we would ride together again next Spring with better wheels and better weather.
On the drive home I thought about my day's performance. My two weaknesses were fitness and lack of speed through the barriers. I'm continuing to train and beleive that I'm slowly getting stronger. But I haven't practiced dismount/run/mount since last summer so that will need to get into my schedule.
Sprinker is the next event on my CX calendar. Last year the course suited me and maybe I'll have another good showing this year. Either way, I'll tell you all about it right here.