Monday, December 10, 2007

Racing - CCC

A couple years ago, at the Bethel Spring Series, I was, as usual, touching up the course while the first races went on. The old joke is that I clear my sprint lanes extra carefully so that I can jump and sprint where I want to on the course.

The funny part of the joke is that it's true.

So I spent a lot of time fixing up the edges of the last 200 meters of the course. It meanders to the right and then the left so the field typically moves from one side to another in the sprint. Although it's not ideal it's at least on an uphill and slows even the fastest sprinters substantially. This met one of the race's initial goals - the slowest possible finish in order to make the race safer as well as ease the job of picking places.

Since the races go off pretty much in reverse experience order, the newest additions to the racing world, the Category 5s, go first. With small field limits (to keep things safe) we actually hold two races each week. Then the 4s go, and we proceed through the ranks until the peak of the day, the Pro-1-2-3 race.

I was using our big leaf blower to push the little pebbles and such ("marbles") off the outer perimeter of the finish - if I needed to move over a lot, I didn't want to find my tires skating over this stuff.

Every lap I'd stop and watch the race go by, in this case the Cat 4s.

In particular I noted a tall, lanky rider on a new Specialized carbon fiber bike. The racer had asked me some innocuous questions and said that he'd actually come to the race the prior year, watched it, and thought bike racing was the coolest thing ever. He returned with a bike and the rest, as they say, was history.

This year he was a Cat 4. He'd joined a new team, Connecticut Coast Cycle (CCC), had that spiffy Specialized, and looked very strong out there. He'd attack constantly, and although he never got away, he placed well in the uphill sprint.

He reminded me of an untamed Cat 5 from a few years prior - he also attacked relentlessly, used all his reserves, and still managed to place well. One race he spent 10 laps solo off the front, got caught shortly before the finish, and still placed (I think) second. As the namesake to my first favorite author Alistair McLean, I felt obligated to direct his obvious strength in a little more focused way. I approached him and, after complimenting him on his strength, suggested that maybe he should sit in a little more, that when he felt that irresistible urge to attack that he should instead picture himself using all the saved strength in the final sprint, annihilating everyone around him.

He won the next race in a field sprint.

My "coaching" score with new riders one for one, I approached this lanky CCC rider. He too seemed very fit, very strong, and with a bit of focus, that energy, I felt, would net him a win.

I learned a long time ago that a good way to coach or advise is by using the "hamburger" method. No, you do not ply your people with McDonalds and hope for the best. The hamburger refers to your data dissemination approach. First you compliment the advisee on something they've already done or are doing (the "bun"). Then you point out what they need to do, what they did wrong, or whatever else is the actual message (the "patty"). Then you finish with either an illustration of the potential improvements or send a compliment or two their way (the other "bun").

The "buns" have to be genuine - you can't tell a racer who got dropped at the first turn that he "looked strong". Instead, you might point out that "he did a really good job clipping in right away". If the bun is not genuine, the racer will not listen to you.

With this in mind, I found the lanky CCC guy. I don't recall the exact conversation but it went something like this.

"Hey, how'd you do out there?"

(Like I didn't know - I'm the promoter and I post the results.)

"I got second (or third or whatever) again. I just can't win and it's frustrating."
"Well, you look really, really strong out there - to solo for those five (or whatever) laps midrace takes a lot of power. I was really impressed."

(That, in case you didn't catch it, was the top bun.)

"Yeah well I wanted to break the field apart but it didn't work."
"You know, I was watching you race out there. You were just off the win but you were up there even after that huge effort. Now I've seen a bazillion races out here and it's really unusual that someone breaks away in the 4s. Have you thought of sitting in, saving your reserves for the finish, and going for it then?"

(The meat of my advice.)

The rider looked down, in a bit of thought.
"I don't know, it seems risky to just wait for the sprint. I feel better if I could break away."
"Well, you sprinted pretty well this week even after your big effort."
"But it's so hard in the middle of the race to just sit there - everyone's going easy and I just want to go!"
"When that happens just think of all the energy you're saving and hold yourself back. Think about womping them all in the sprint."
"I'll have to think about this."
"You know, you're probably one of the strongest riders out there. You just need to harness your power and you'll do well, I'm sure of it."

(That's the bottom patty.)

He won the next weekend.

I found a picture of the win and sent him a link - it ended up on his computer as his desktop for a while. I smiled when he told me that - my most significant win ended up on my computer as my desktop for a long time too.

The next year he was in my race, and he'd recruited a bunch of guys to join him. My season goals, as usual, were to win the Bethel Spring Series and the Nutmeg State Games. My goals and their reality collided on the first two weekends when they walked away with the lanky rider in the lead and me with nothing to show after two miserable (for me) races.

Their teamwork, cooperation, and even help running the race (they were marshaling as well) impressed me. With my overall chances shot (miss out on points on one week and you have a chance - two weeks and you have no chance), I decided to try and help them out.

I talked to them about setting up the field for a sprint at that course. I should know since I got probably 2/3 of my (small number of) race wins there. I talked to them about wind, gearing, efforts, and what it really means to do a leadout.

They did fine but I think someone took the lead from them that next week.

Now I decided to actually ride for them. During the race I'd let gaps go if they had a few guys in front of me. I'd force others to chase, do more work, all in a very subtle way. In fact, I was so subtle that sometimes their riders didn't know I was actually doing stuff and they'd end up closing the gaps I left. I guess I'll have to explain more about faking it and stuff. Unfortunately I could never contribute that much. In one race a huge group (including a bunch of the CCC guys) got away. In the last lap I decided to make an effort - and one of the CCC guys, when he saw me on his wheel, tried to lead me out. I was so blown that I couldn't follow. And the next week I got distracted by some stuff that happened on the last lap and never actually rode for them in the finale.

I decided to try and remedy that the last week of the Series. Mother Nature had her say though - that last week was marked by the worst rain storm in a hundred years. The storm closed I95, a lot of local streets, and the rain came down in sheets for the races. Although I couldn't do very much, I was one more guy in the small miserable field that didn't chase things down. One of their riders went, no one chased, and he won both the race and the Series. The lanky guy finished up there in overall but he was happy the team won, an unusual thing for a strong rider to be so generous like that.

I rarely raced afterwards but followed their progress through the New England scene. They seemed very strong, got a lot of good placings, and then their intense winter caught up with them. After the tall lanky guy did really well at Fitchburg, they seemed to fall off their incredible collective form. Burnt out or injured, they dropped from sight.

In the meantime, I started to see some changes in the future of my team. My main sponsor, the one emblazoned across my chest and back, is my employer. I noticed a "shift in the winds" a few months ago and started preparing for the worst. One thing I did was to consider actually making money off the Bethel Spring Series, and so I've been preparing to make it legal for me to draw money from that account. I started exploring other career choices, with the intent of moving to one if I found one that suited me.

I also decided that if things went south at work, I wouldn't race for Carpe Diem Racing. I love the name so I'd keep it (like a domain name squatter) and let whoever wanted to use it as their team name. For the actual members, since there were only two or three active racers on the team, I felt it would be okay to stop racing for the team.

And so I did.

I contacted the lanky guy and asked if they'd be willing to take me on as one of their Cat 3 racers. He was happy to take me on and announced the newest addition to the rest of the team. I got a warm welcome and immediately felt like I was part of the family. I sent out an email to my old team saying I'd be racing for another team, CCC. One spoke to me privately and said that with his recent move to a different area, he'd also be riding for a different team. Carpe Diem Racing, it seems, will be going into a bit of hibernation for a while. There is still one or two guys out there so you may see it out there, but for now, it'll be unlikely.

Appropriately, a week later, I was out of a job.

I feel fortunate actually. I was looking to leave the IT world, or at least the 24 hour IT Support world. I can pursue my other goals full time now. Even my "cycle-therapy" allotted time will go up. I trained 1100 miles between April and October in 2007. I hope to do that in a few weeks now.

As the missus put it, "You're going to be so strong next year."

Let it be, let it be.

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