Monday, April 27, 2009

East Canyon Race Report: 4 Mistakes By The Spin 4’s

Note to regular readers: This post is all biking- no plants, bugs, birds, or weird chromosomal anomalies, and in fact it’s written somewhat as a race report for my teammates. If bike racing’s not your thing, skip this post and come back tomorrow. (I’m cooking up a good wildflower post.)

Saturday was the East Canyon Road Race, my first bike race of the season. I wanted to do well in this race, having won it last year as a Cat 5. East Canyon is a 60-mile out & back course, with a tough ~4 mile climb on the way back, close to the end of the course, and then a ½ mile uphill finish.

IMG_9281 Friday night I awoke several times; each time I heard pounding rain outside, and I was of ½ a mind not to bother driving up to the start if it was still raining when I woke up. But at dawn it had (just barely) abated, and so I drove on up to East Canyon Resort. (pic left = roadside hills on drive up to race.)

This year I’m racing Cat 4, and so my Cat 4 teammates and I- about 8 of us- met to talk strategy about an hour before the race. Here was our plan: We’d stick together all the way till the final monster climb. Over the course of the race, a couple of our teammates would attack on the flats in an attempt to draw out and wear down some of the stronger racers from other teams. At the monster climb, the 3 fastest climbers- let’s call them “Jason”, “Will” and “Me”, would take off and attempt to break away, then work together- and presumably with whichever other “A” climbers hung with us- to the finish.

That was the plan anyway; I was a bit apprehensive about my role. I’ve raced with Jason and trained with Will, and I consider them overall stronger climbers than me. Anyway, here’s what happened.

EC09 MapWe set out and kept a very moderate pace on the big climb going out, sticking- for what I could tell- all together.

MISTAKE #1: If I could replay this portion, I would’ve pushed the pace harder. Not a full-on attack, but enough to drop some of the “flotsam & jetsam” from the pack. Much of the middle part of the course was crowded, tight and potholed, and a smaller pack would’ve been safer, as we’ll see in a moment…

We stuck together on the descent, through Henifer, and out along the I-80 frontage road. It was here that the pack felt a bit crowded and hazardous, with potholes that were tough to avoid in a pack. I hit one square-on, and fortunately didn’t flat, but lost a water bottle* (my Lotoja 2008 bottle- crap.)

*In a race, if you’re remotely serious about doing well, you don’t ever stop to pick up anything you drop- water bottle, gel flask, cell phone, $50 bill, wedding ring, Hope diamond, Holy Grail, whatever- it doesn’t matter, you just go. On races of under ~4 hours, you don’t pee either. On longer races, “pee breaks” are negotiated en route…

Tangent: It was in this section that I saw the Scariest Race Crash Ever. A racer in front of me, to the right flatted, and hit his brakes (too hard.) He swerved left and bumped another racer from the Ski Utah team. The Ski Utah racer was forced left, and his front wheel collided with Jason’s rear wheel, forcing him to immediately fish-tail and slide out across the road, into the lane of oncoming traffic, where a pickup truck was bearing down on him.

Scary Crash For a split-second I thought, “Oh no- I can’t believe this is happening in front of me…” but the pickup driver reacted lightning-fast, braking and swerving onto the shoulder faster than you could think it. The Ski Utah rider stumbled to his feet, apparently unharmed. That pickup driver was the hero of the race.

We turned around at around the 30 mile mark and headed back, dodging even worse potholes, this time at a faster clip (slightly downhill.) Along this stretch our Cat 4 captain- let’s call him “Adam”- led several aggressive attacks in an attempt to draw out and wear down other racers. Teammates “Lance” and “Darin” also attempted the same.

MISTAKE #2: Adam, Lance and Darin all sacrificed selflessly for the benefit of Jason, Will and me, but their hard work was largely in vain; their attacks almost always failed to draw a response, probably because they were solo attacks, and therefore unconvincing- a single rider 20+ miles from the finish can always be reeled in by the pack, and our competitors knew it. In the future we’ll either need to have multiple teammates feint/attack together, or not expend their efforts needlessly.

Tangent: But here’s what did work- Will and I commented afterwards that we really felt completely rested all the way back through Henifer. We just rode in the pack, didn’t attack and saved our strength. That part of the plan worked great.

We stuck together again through Henifer. On the far side of town a series of rollers lead up to the monster climb, and the pace stiffened here as the would-be climbers jockeyed for position. At the dirt turnout on the North side of the road- our agreed upon launch-point- Will, Jason and I hit it, along with several other climbers. Will & Jason’s pace was blazing, and for almost 5 minutes it was all I could do to hang on- my heart racing at 183 BPM (high for a 45 year-old!) Soon we gapped the main pack, maybe a dozen of us. About 3 minutes later I noticed 2 things: First, I was getting a second wind*, and second, 3 climbers had gapped us in the lead by about 50-75 yards.

*The climbing second wind is my bizarre superpower, and truthfully my only real race-trick. When other, stronger racers fade, I often get this “Oh OK, now I got it…” feeling and everything just clicks.

So, thinking I could finally do my part, I gently pulled in front of Will and Jason so they could latch onto my wheel. Only they didn’t- they were falling back. “C’mon! C’mon!” I yelled over my shoulder, “Let’s go!*” But they were maxed.

*In retrospect, this was of course the most unproductive and annoying thing I did during the entire race. As if Jason and Will were just hanging out and would say, “Oh OK, you want to go fast now? Sure- why didn’t you just say so!” Sorry guys…

I was stumped. Of all the scenarios I’d considered beforehand, the idea that Jason and Will would fade 2/3 of the way up hadn’t even occurred to me. I looked ahead- the 3 riders were maybe 75 yards ahead, but there was at least ½ mile of climbing left, and I was feeling good. I could catch them, I could hang with them on the backside and the flats back to the finish. I could have a shot at 1st. I just knew it. I went for it.

MISTAKE #3: I was totally wrong. About a 200-300 yards from the top, I realized my mistake: I wasn’t going to catch them. And I had dropped my only 2 remaining teammates.

In desperation I looked around; 2 other racers had hung with me to the top, one from Cole Sport and the other- let’s call him “Tyler”- from Skull Candy. At the summit I shouted out, “Let’s work together to chase!” Tyler (an outstanding racer) answered, ”You bet!” But the Cole Sport racer declined; he had a teammate in the lead pack of 3 and wasn’t about to help us chase him down*. So Tyler and I blasted down the back-side of the monster climb, rotating leads, at speeds of up to 50 MPH, and then hammered out onto the flats along the reservoir, the Cole Sport rider drafting in our wake.

*I didn’t bear him any grudge for this; it was the right thing to do, and I would’ve done likewise.

Tyler and I are both fast racers, but it was 2 against 3; despite an initial gain, we weren’t closing, and soon the lead 3 were widening their lead. We looked nervously back; a chase group, maybe ½ dozen strong, was about a ¼ mile back. We didn’t want to get caught, and neither did the Cole Sport guy; about 3 miles from the finish he started rotating in with us.

Final Chase Meanwhile, Jason and Will had reached the top of the monster climb with 4 other racers. They quickly formed up a paceline and started working together. 2 of them urged chasing us down. But Will and Jason- loyal teammates till the end- refused to chase me down (and as I looked back at them over my shoulder, I suspected this was the case.) But what’s more, the remaining 2 racers were Skull Candy racers, who refused to chase down their teammate, Tyler.

MISTAKE #4: Well-intentioned as this action was, it was probably the wrong call. They should’ve chased us down, and fast. Together we would’ve comprised a group of 8 motivated chasers (and 1 hanger-on) who might’ve had a decent chance of catching the lead 3, whereupon Will or Jason- both outstanding sprinters- would have had a shot at 1st. With the path we followed, the best we could hope for a placing by a teammate (me) was 4th.

We worked together to the resort, and then started to push it on the final climb. Tyler faded; it was me vs. Cole Sport. As we climbed together, another racer, who’d already finished (presumably a Cat 3) started climbing alongside us in the left lane, talking to Cole Sport, coaching him on pacing, how hard to push and when to pop me. I will say now that this ****ing pissed me off and I climbed even harder. But in the last 50 yards, my burnt-out, chased-down legs said “enough.” Cole Sport- with his (relatively) rested legs- surged past, taking 4th, and I finished 5th. Tyler was 6th. ~15-20 seconds later, the pack of 6 arrived. Will lead Jason out, and Jason nailed the sprint to take 7th; Will took 10th.

I heard Adam flatted somewhere on the climb. I saw Darin, Scott O., Lance, Doug and Karsten at the finish; all finished respectably mid-pack. All in all, though we figured out some things to do better next time, I’m extremely grateful for the support, hard work and sacrifice by my teammates to help me/us out. That’s the coolest part of a team, and I look forward to our next race together. And special thanks to Adam- he organized us, led the planning, and repeatedly busted his ass for our benefit.

Team pic caption In the meantime, Jason, Will and I are going to be working on our climbing; we are not getting dropped at High Uintas.


KanyonKris said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this post.

I'm a sucker for race tactics (as I imagine most racing cyclists are), but the sad fact is that laziness is usually the best tactic. Just hang out in the pack, but close to the front so if a sizable break goes you can go with. All the other tactics sound fun, but in a race they rarely accomplish work. I know I'm raining on the parade, but am I right?

Regardless, it's still fun to strategize and scheme.

Congratulations on your 5th place finish and a good showing by the SPIN team.

And, yeah, that near crash scared the crap out of me just reading your report.

Anonymous said...

That near crash was an almost identical scenario to one that occurred in 2007 in a road race in Peoria, Illinois. In the women's race a touch of wheels sent one rider into the path of an oncoming truck. The driver did not swerve, and the girl (23 years of age) was killed. Although I was not there and did not see it, it was an extremely sobering event for everyone in the bike racing scene in this part of the country. The tragedy could have been avoided if the race course could have been closed, but there is no support for this in the communities where races take place or among law enforement officials. Basically, we should feel lucky they even let us race at all is the way they expect us to feel. That reality played a part - along with ongoing reticense by race officials to DQ yellow line violators - in my eventual decision to stop racing.

Watcher said...

KKris- I agree that >90% of road-race strategy planning never pans out. But I will say that when you move from Cat 5 to Cat 4, suddenly everyone gets serious about working with their team. In Cat 5 it's really just each man for himself, even if some guys are wearing matching kits.

But crits are another story. They're short enough to be fairly predictable and the dominant teams (like Spin in the C flite this year) strategize and work them pretty well.

Ted- that's an awful story. Our races in UT are open-road as well. I will say that yellow-line violations seem to be really rare in the cat's I've raced in (5, 4 and combination 3/4), but whether that's through enforcement or general custom here in UT I couldn't say. Probably my biggest safety beef about road-racing is that 1 sketchy rider can endanger so many others. In the 5's this was a continual problem (which I solved by riding up front) but even now in the 4's, out of a typical pack of ~40 racers, there'll be 1 or 2 scary riders in pretty much every race. Not reckless or irresponsible- just poor at handling a bike at speed in close quarters.

Brooks said...

Alex -- Interesting to hear what was happening in front of me...I was in the chase group with Will and Jason and the 2 Skull Candy guys, Matt and Dave...I don't think any of us realized there was a group in front of you or they might have worked withus...instead they didn't work...and didn't just sit on either. The SCs - who I genuinely enjoy racing with - would ride to the front our group and get in the pace line and then coast. I understand not working, but that tactic seemed weird. I worked trying to bridge to you and Tyler and then got smoked on the final finishing climb. Nice rode a good race.

Watcher said...

Thanks Brooks. It was great to see & race with you again after our (very!) long winter.

Re: coasting. I also enjoy racing w/the SC guys (they've put together a great team) and specifically Matt & Dave. I don't know what to say about the coasting tactic, except that I can see how it would drive one batty...