Sunday, April 14, 2013

Racing - 2013 Circuit Francis J Clarke Report

Last week I didn't even bother with a race report. Although the morning started out very calm, as it usually does, the wind really picked up during the day. I decided to go all in and use the Stinger 7 front, Stinger 9 rear, the tallest wheels I have. I figured the "SCT" (Stability Control Technology), meant to help deal with crosswinds, would help overcome the height of the rims.

Well the first bend almost blew me off the road. Now, granted, I had a 75 mm tall rim up front. I think an old 46 mm rim would have done the same, just more sharply. Whatever, the tugging on the bars wasn't good.

I redoubled my grip on the bars and chided myself for gambling too much with wheel selection.

Regardless it didn't make much of a difference. I was in trouble from the very beginning, well over my limit within a few laps. I hung on grimly at six laps in, really pushed hard to make the seventh, but on the eighth I was done. I exploded on the backstretch, the wind sawing me off the back. Shelter smelter, sitting in didn't matter when I couldn't get up the hill or when the wind was so gusty it hit you from all directions.

So last week's race report would have been pretty short... like the four short paragraphs above.

The wind started deceptively light in the morning but even when the Cat 5 clinic started it had started to pick up. I knew that it'd be ferocious by the early afternoon.

Therefore I decided to skip the tall front wheel.

You see aero wheels work differently at the two ends. On the front, the steering end, a tall wheel increases instability. The way a bike stays upright is by steering, not because of gyroscopic wheel effects, not because of the head tube angle, not because of trail. It stays upright because the rider can steer into a "fall" (or into a tilt if you will) and avoid actually falling. By tilting and then steering left and right repeatedly the rider can stay upright. If you want to try an experiment that'll make you feel very clumsy you can lock the bars of a bike in place - use straps or tape or something, or, if you have a totally beat up unfixable junker, just tighten the headset until it won't turn anymore. Try riding it. When I tried it I lost all fluency and almost crashed into a wall, and this after about 12 race seasons under my belt.

Or, for an easier, less harmful experiment, go to a MUP (Multi Use Path, aka Rails to Trails etc) and watch a 4 year old on a bike. You'll see this "steering/tilting" in vivid action as the child wobbles left and right repeatedly.

My very scientific uncle tried to explain this to me when I started riding a bike. "Steer into the fall," he told me. I wasn't sure what that meant but it only took a couple skinned knees for me to start riding around.

So that's the front wheel.

The rear wheel increases stability. It has no bearing on the steering of the bike therefore it doesn't do anything negative. In fact a tall rear wheel notifies me what the wind is doing and allows me to react to wind. When the whole bike feels like it's getting pushed a bit I know the wind is picking up and I should therefore be attentive for veering or wandering riders (including myself).

I used to put the tallest rear wheel on for races with high top speeds. For windy conditions or high top speeds I'd choose my Zipp 440 (predecessor to the 404), the Specialized Trispoke (now the HED3), or a prototype disk wheel. I remember racing a windy Ninigret once with a disk wheel in the back and a TriSpoke up front. I figured the disk would help stabilize the bike a bit and that would let me get away with a TriSpoke up front, a decidedly unstable-in-wind wheel. I ended up in a 10 lap break in the 1-2-3 race, eventually finishing 15th or 20th behind two breaks that actually stayed away.

With these wind lessons in mind I decided to keep the Stinger 9 in the back - it's a 90 mm tall wheel but with SCT so it's very rounded on the inside - and use my training wheel up front. That's a 24 mm Ardennes rimmed wheel. When I bought it HED called it the Bastogne. Now HED calls that class of wheels Ardennes with different letters for the different models. The Bastogne is sort of like the Ardennes LT now.

A couple laps in. Frisky.

A couple laps later. Still frisky.

I realized today that I can always go up the hill a couple times okay. My fitness determines how many times I can go up the thing okay. I remember climbing off my bike at the end of a long day many, many, many years ago, having just done both the 3-4 and 1-2-3 races, and someone excitedly telling me I'd just done 83 laps of the course (he was 10 years old I think and he counted every lap).

In 2010 I felt good 70 laps in, loose, fresh, eager to contest the finish of the 1-2-3 race after having placed in the 3-4 race. The Cat 3-4 are 30 laps long, and have been for a few years.

Last week I was good for 8 laps.

This means that I have to race very carefully, very conservatively. If I was a race car the pit crew would be telling the drive to save gas, save the tires, save the car. Gun it once or twice and the car would blow up, so gun it when it really counted.

A funny incident. SOC is to my left.
Note the gap to the riders in front of me - I couldn't close it, believe it or not.

SOC is one of my teammates, a friend, and a much stronger rider than I am. When we did some practice sprints a couple years ago he actually sprinted away from me. I was on his wheel, I knew when we were going to jump, and he just rode away from me.

At any rate during the race he drifted to the back after some efforts. I was already struggling, unable to keep within a few feet of the riders in front of me. When he appeared ever so slightly ahead of and next to me I figured I'd get on his wheel for shelter. I eased and moved behind him.

SOC eased to let me pull up next to him, wanting to tell me something, something about the race. He didn't understand just how redlined I was at the moment.

SOC hangs back a bit to give me shelter.

When I didn't come around he realized that for whatever reason I was just hanging at the back. He didn't feel it important to close the little gap in front of him because it would take two pedal strokes for him to close it.

For him. Not for me.

He closes the gap easily on the hill, not realizing I was close to the limit.

At some point on the hill, two pedal strokes and SOC was back in the group. It took me an agonizing 15 seconds to get back in and another few laps to recover from my "effort". Pitiful, yes, but it's all I had to offer.

I was determined to keep going as long as I could pedal. Either I'd cramp or I'd explode, but I felt the need to keep pushing. I had a few troubling moments during the race after the humorous SOC one.

When the Stage 1 / Fusion Think rider (in red) moved over and jumped I was gapped.

One of them was when the field was in full cry. With massive wind by Turn Two and on the backstretch I had to manage the gaps well. Just like how SOC closing that minor gap put me in trouble, so did the action in the above picture. The Stage 1 / Fusion Think rider jumped hard to move up - he knew potential trouble when he saw it and the strung out field wasn't looking very cohesive. A gap here, a gap there, and we'd be talking a whole different ballgame.

When he went it left me with about a 10-12 foot gap to close. I pushed very hard to close it, briefly contemplating sitting up.  I had to push hard for a while to close the gap. In the end I closed the gap before I blew up so it worked out okay, but I think it took me a couple laps to recover from that seemingly minor effort.

The field splitting apart under continuous and ferocious attacks.
Joel is in front of me.

The other major crisis happened when the field split in two. In the above picture you can see a front group splitting off, followed by a trail of racers trying to bridge the gap. I couldn't grab a still of the two groups separated because by then my head was down and all I could see on the screen was the rider in front. In fact the above picture is one of the last shots before all but four or five riders disappeared from the camera's view as my head dipped down. I knew the split meant trouble and I was already deep in the red when it happened.

I found the chase/thought process in the back group interesting. First, when the split happened, guys started easing a bit, looking back, seeing if someone else would take a pull. During all this they'd move to one side or another, causing the group to spread out.

At that point we resembled a group ride that just left a parking lot on a group ride. We were scattered all over the road, not really a "peloton" as much as a "group". As the racers realized that this one or that one wasn't about to come through, that they weren't in a position to help, the ones that had the legs gathered themselves together and went to the front. The others knew a good thing when they saw it and they all closed in and hung onto the wheels.

The group immediately coalesced into a proper peloton and went about the business of chasing after the field. Ultimately the battle up front subsided and the two groups came back together.

Disaster, at least for me, had been averted.

Bethel was, and will always be, a battle between the sprinters and the non-sprinters. There is so much shelter at Bethel that sprinters can arrive to the finish with some kind of reserve, even if they were at the limit throughout the race.

Therefore the time trialers try to break the field. It makes for very tough racing for everyone involved. The time trial guys are at the front just killing it. Everyone behind, including the sprinters, grovel on the wheel, hoping for an end to the insanity.

In the Cat 3-4 races a break can work, especially if there are larger teams sitting at or near the front, chasing down any counter moves. When the larger teams are working for a sprinter, though, any aggressive moves get marked by a clump of racers.

For this race it came down to a field sprint.

With our team leader Bryan absent I figured it be best to support another teammate Jeff - he had earned points last week so he was by default the GC leader on the team. I learned the hard way that I can't do anything worth talking about if it takes longer than 30 seconds. If I tried to give Jeff a leadout I'd use myself up just getting into position or within meters of hitting the front. Dumping Jeff into the wind at 500 meters to go wouldn't help him much.

Therefore my goal was to place immediately behind Jeff. This way he could get whatever place and I'd try and be a filler rider just behind him, denying someone else any points available there.

The last time I tried to help by placing behind someone it was when I wanted to place behind Bryan. Unfortunately Bryan exploded in the sprint so I just sat up, finishing a sort of accidental 13th.

To assist I'd have to be up front. That's easier said than done, especially after three hard-for-,e efforts to get back into (aka stay in) the race.

Bell Lap.

At the bell I was pretty well buried in the field. I'd moved up a little bit but not really into the front - I was mainly "out of the back" rather than "in the front".

Turn Two on the last lap.

At turn Two things stayed the same. The first stretch was so hard on me I couldn't afford to use extra energy to move up - it was all I could to to maintain position and mentally prepare for the second half of the lap.

Gap opening up in front of me. I will take it.

The Brauer rider moved to the right a bit, opening a big gap. I zipped up into it, my legs reasonably fresh from going easy the last half lap. Obviously I was leaving it late but I hoped that the ferocious wind had taken the edge off the legs of the riders in front of me.

Through the gap, waiting for an opening so I can go.
Jeff is just ahead of me, Joel is fading on the left.

We're now in the heart of the sprint. On a good year I'd launch from here, even earlier perhaps, but this year isn't one of those years. This week I waited behind two riders, knowing that at some point a gap would open somewhere. Eventually one moved enough to let me by - I went, 100%, as soon as I saw the opening.

Trying to place behind Jeff.
Missus is standing holding Junior who is wrapped in the green blanket on the memorial.

Coming up to the line I had one guy in my sights. My sprint isn't what it used to be so I couldn't think about passing more than just the one guy, but that would be enough - the rider in front of him was a very well placed Jeff. I figured I should be able to pass the one guy and finish the race behind Jeff, exactly as I wanted.

Then I heard movement to my right. Someone was making a late surge for the line. I was taken aback enough that I couldn't really throw my bike - a couple quick downstrokes and a poor lunge for the line and I knew that the other guy had beaten me.

Ironically I saw that on review he was the guy that moved right and gave me the opening I needed to get into position for the final part of the sprint.

A quick (and very poor) throw but I didn't realize he was there until he was passing me.
Stinger 9 in the back, Bastogne up front. Tsunami Bikes frame.

It ended up that Jeff got the last points place so getting a place behind him wasn't critical. Lucky for me since I didn't get that spot behind him. In addition the guy that passed me wasn't in for the overall anyway so my place holding ended up a moot point. Regardless it was a better execution of the same plan I had twice before. Once I wasn't anywhere near my protected rider and the other time the protected rider blew up.

I did a cool down lap, unusual for me, and then found the Missus and Junior. Junior was funny - he wasn't sure who the guy was with the helmet and stuff, but as soon as I nuzzled his cheek he smiled and leaned his head into mine. He knew it was dad and started waving his hands and kicking his feet.

The Missus was happy for me, knowing how I've been struggling at the races. It's not fun to struggle, even less so when it just leads to getting shelled. At least today I got something for my struggles.

I got to think, to plan, and to try and adjust my riding to fit another rider's needs. I struggled like crazy a few times, once literally giving up just as everyone else sat up, and managed to get to the last few laps in the field. It reinforced the idea of not giving up.

I made a good equipment choice - the shallow front wheel - based on my experience from last week, getting blown around on the course. I felt less stress holding a line, I felt more comfortable sidling up to another rider, getting better shelter.

Of course I say all that but lasted all of two laps in the P123 race. For now, though, I want to focus on what I need to do to become at least marginally competitive in the races I'll be doing throughout the summer. Right now it's all about training and getting some hours in because, frankly, I can't use my equipment as any kind of excuse.


SOC said...

Always love your race reports since it's always impressive how much you remember and can relate. That makes them even more educational - especially to a thick-skulled racer like me. I shoulda paid closer attention - sorry I didn't do a better job at bringing you up! Good luck Sunday - sorry I'll miss you, but very much looking forward to the summer races!

Aki said...

I have to admit that I have some solid memories (usually of the suffering) and some vague sense of what else happened. Reviewing the helmet cam footage is invaluable in seeing what happened. For example I thought you crossed that "gap" before the hill, not on it. But then when I saw it was on the hill I remembered, "Oh, yeah, it felt like this and that and I had to do that and this."

I'm sorry you'll miss Sunday but it's all good, we have the rest of the season.