Oh yes, it's cyclocross season alright. Today we raced the seventh round of the GPTB in Washington, just over the Columbia River from Portland. While it was relatively dry and dusty for the Cross Crusade in Bend, it was cold, rainy, and muddy for our race, as many think it ought to be for this sport.
Rumor had it that there was going to be a long, muddy run-up, so I prepared appropriately:
I didn't have a costume, but I wore these fangs
Just before the start, it was pouring rain and chilly, but not too cold. It was cold enough, though, that I did my warmup earlier in the day; and, in the moments before the race while I had the car to myself, I concentrated on taking some time to focus, staying warm and ingesting some nice, hot home made chai:
Chai. Comin' in hot.
With greased legs and a happy stomach, I rolled to the line. I have a habit of starting too hard for my own good and today I was determined not to do that. It seemed to work as, when the whistle blew, I settled quickly into 5th or 6th position. I stayed there for a lap or two while I got used to the flow of the course and the conditions.
Besides three barriers on the flat bits, including one cleverly placed in the middle of a hairpin turn, the course had two nasty run-ups per lap. The first wasn't too bad at 26 to 30 seconds, but the second seemed to take forever. I was to be able to do it in 45 to 50 seconds, depending on traffic. In seven laps, these add up to about 9 minutes of deeply-tracked uphill mud running – nearly 15% of the race! I went a bit faster up the long run in the middle and later laps, so my slow-start plan seems to have worked.
Let's have a look at my data file from today's race:
David Douglas CX #2: Red is Heart Rate data, yellow is Power data, and blue is Speed data. The dashed red line is at 180bpm. The dashed yellow line is at 350W. Click the image to magnify.
If we observe the relationship of speed (blue) to heart rate (red), it's interesting to note that the highest heart rates occurred at the lowest speeds. These were the run-ups. Each lap, there were two HR spikes where these happened, reaching 185+bpm. This speaks to the off-and-on nature of the race, and the difficulty the run-ups posed to good pacing.
Speaking of pacing, here are my HR averages for each 20-minute third of the race, respectively:
So, despite the spikes required for the run-up (both on my shoes and from my HR!), I was able to start at a good pace and gradually increase it as the race went on. My HR average for the race was 173bpm – significantly less than my tested Threshold HR. Again, this is due to the off-and-on nature of this particular race.
In the end, I finished 3rd on the day, a result I am happy with. Here are some photos from the race:
First lap – all nice and clean, with fangs exposed
The first time up the long run-up. Running makes me feel haggard.
Coming through the muddy twisty bits before the first descent
Going through the same
Over the hairpin barrier (in a very determined way, it would appear)
It is no exaggeration to say that last week, here in Oregon, summer came to an abrupt end and winter arrived. One day it was in the 70s and sunny and the next it was in the 50s and raining. It's still raining, only now it is even colder.
This sort of thing, of course, makes for great cyclocross. I think it is safe to say that the dust races of 2012 are over and the mud is here to stay.
The weekend started with the Canby Cross-Word CX Challenge. A smaller race, not part of either local series, it was nonetheless well-attended and saw some good competition. It was also the first muddy race of the year, and we all had to adapt to the new conditions after dealing with hardpack and dust thus far.
I started at the back, but quickly made my way up into the top three. As you can see from the file below, I started a bit too hard and I paid for it later on. The first 1/3 of the race saw my HR average 183bpm, with correspondingly high power output (which I will keep a secret for now!). The rest of the race only saw an average of 179bpm – the cost of an imprudent start. At one point, I had caught the #2 rider, but a slip on corner saw him ride away and I had to settle for 3rd place on the day. Small mistakes often have high costs in 'cross.
Canby CX: Red is Heart Rate data, yellow is power data. The dashed red line is at 180bpm. The dashed yellow line is at 350W. Click the image to magnify.
Cross Crusade Heron Lakes:
The weekend's second race wasn't what this cycling coach had hoped for. The Heron Lakes course at PIR is one of my favorites – flat, fast, and hectic. I missed last week's race (I was attending the USA Cycling Coaching Summit, my first one as a Level 1 coach) and so I had forfeited my call-up and had to start at the back again. It didn't seem to make much difference as less than six minutes into the race, my rear derailleur decided to join my front derailleur and I was going nowhere. It was a curious failure as it did not seem to involve sticks or mud, or other riders. The body of the derailleur simply sheared off the pivot bolt.
I'm looking at the bright side – I have one 3rd place, and my bike frame and my body are intact. It's easy enough to get a new derailleur.
Here are some photos from the weekend:
Canby CX. If I look surprised by the mud, it's because I am.
Heron Lakes: My teammate Monty (aka Montador) and I before the start.
Heron Lakes: Erik V and I round a bend in the first 3 minutes of the race. That was about the half way point for me!
Heron Lakes: My rear derailleur breaks, ending my race. Aw, muffin!
A few weeks ago, an athlete contacted me asking for a few private coaching sessions on the basics of cyclocross. Those sessions seem to have worked as today he won his category at the Cross Crusade Rainier and now he has to upgrade!
Although there is no substitute for some hands-on practical cyclocross coaching, I thought I would outline in writing what we worked on. It's a good start for anyone who is getting into the sport and a nice reminder for those who have been in it a while and may have developed some bad habits or lost a bit of the flow. I'll write more on the latter in a later installment.
Here is what we covered in the first session:
Low-speed, high-traction corners
Low-speed, low-traction corners
High speed corners
Intervals for CX preparation
Let's review one topic at a time.
A properly fitted CX bike should feel a bit different than your (properly fitted) road bike. Individual fit is very specific and the following will not apply to everyone. It's best to find a qualified fitter in your area and have that person do a specific fit for your CX bike.
That said, your CX bike's saddle will likely be a bit forward compared to your road bike. The height, however, should be the same from the pedal to the saddle top, accounting for the difference in shoe and pedal systems.
Next, check your handlebars. Some riders prefer to have about the same reach as on their road bikes, but with a saddle/handlebar drop that is less than on a road bike. Others prefer to have a shorter reach with the same drop, or a bit less. It depends a bit on your flexibility as well as on the bike itself. If you're not positioned on the bike the way it is designed for you to be, it won't handle optimally. Finally, since a lot of time is spent on the brake levers in 'cross, many riders run their bars and/or brake levers a tilted slightly more upward than on their road bikes. I prefer to do this as well, but I also run compact bars so the drops are not simply along for the ride.
Typical road handlebar tilt and brake lever position.
CX handlebar tilt. Notice the levers are a bit higher relative to the bar tops.
Low-speed, high-traction corners
Remember always to stay relaxed! This is the golden rule for all good bike handling. For these corners, brake and pedal at the same time. This sounds a bit silly, but the idea is to keep drive to the rear wheel so that it "pushes" you around the corner. The brakes counter the drive and together they help you balance.
Low-speed, low-traction corners
Brake early in slippery conditions so that you don't lock up your wheels on the approach to the corner. Make sure to keep the power on from about 1/4 of the way through the turn. Lean the bike instead of steering it. When the front end slides, keeping the power on will bring the bike back into line. RELAX and have confidence in your bike. It's designed to get you out of trouble, so let it. It is good to practice this in deep, loose gravel (remember, SLOW speed). Once you get used to the front wheel sliding a bit, it won't seem so scary.
High speed corners
Very similar to the road - relax your arms, stay low, lean and counter steer a bit. Keep your weight low and push downward on your outside leg, which should be at the bottom of the pedal stroke. Trust your tires and don't be afraid of a little sliding around. Relax.
Compress by crouching with your arms and legs, then spring upwards and lift the bike with you. First, focus on lifting both wheels at the same time, then focus on first the front wheel and then the rear in a rocking-horse motion. The former is useful for low obstacles, while many prefer the latter for higher ones. You can even land your wheels briefly on the top of the obstacle as you roll over it. Set out some 2x4s on grass and practice. This is a great video example:
Intervals for CX Preparation
You have worked hard with your cycling coach and have been targeting CX all summer. You have done your endurance homework and built a nice foundation for day-to-day recovery. On this foundation you can build the House of Cross. It's not a church, but with weekly attendance, each Sunday your competition will kneel before the altar of your awesomeness.
If you are racing on Saturdays (and I encourage you to, since they are often low-key and casual), go hard on Tuesday and Wednesday and take Thursday completely off. This may change depending on your individual qualities of recovery and training load capability, but this is a good place to start. Here are a couple of sample workouts for you on these days:
WU (warm up): 20 mins easy/medium spin. Keep cadence high at 90_+ rpm.
MS (main set): Do three sets of 5 x 30 seconds at 100% effort with 30-second spin recoveries. Rolling starts, standing, big gear. Get to top end quickly. Cool down easily and stretch.
CD (cool down): 15 to 20 mins easy spin.
WU: 15 mins easy spin, L1.
MS: 3 sets of 5 x 20 seconds On FULL GAS, 10 seconds OFF with 4 minutes between sets.
CD: 15 mins easy spin, L1.
Start by only doing one interval day mid-week and another aerobic day. Ideally, make this a Tempo/SST. SST is "Sweet Spot Training" - high tempo/low threshold, or 87%-90% of your threshold capacity (the power or HR you can hold for 1 hour). Here is a good one:
WU: 15 mins easy spinning.
MS: First 30 mins - SST. Final 30 mins SST. Everything in between at L3 - Tempo.
This weekend was a cyclocross double header, with two races on warm, sunny, October days: GPTB Heiser Farms and the traditional Cross Crusade opener at Alpenrose Dairy. Since I'll be away next weekend, I decided that I would do the double.
I'm flying fit right now, so I am trying to take advantage of my good form and do as much racing as I can. I'm also having loads of fun and really enjoying myself. Plus, as a cycling coach, it's good to stay in the game and learn as much about myself as possible.
It would appear these days that my LTHR is a bit higher than I thought, or maybe it's not. Let's have a look at this weekend's races:
Heiser Farm CX
This race was fast and relatively smooth, in terms of one's efforts, with only one dismount over a set of three barriers. With the first Crusade race of the season looming the following day, attendance was a bit lower than normal with about 30 riders taking the start. The competition, however, was still strong with all of the series contenders in attendance.
Let's have a look at my HR file:
Heiser Farm CX: Red is Heart Rate data, blue is speed data. The dashed red line is at 181bpm. Click the image to magnify.
At the start, I accidentally hit the wrong button on my computer, so I'm missing data from the first lap. However, the separation really began on lap 2, and that is where we begin our analysis. My average HR for the race was 181bpm. From the graph, you can see that, after the first 3 laps, things settled down a bit. At this point, I was in the main break of 4 riders. With 2 laps to go, my HR goes up again as one rider punctured and the rest of us fought it out until the finish. I came 3rd in that battle, but I gave it all I had, so I feel good about my race.
Lately I have been racing at a HR a few bpm above my normal LTHR. This could be for a few reasons:
I underestimated my LTHR (not likely)
I'm relatively fresh coming into the races these days as CX in-season is largely race-and-recovery
I've had some anxiety as of late and that raises one's HR
It's been warm and even a bit hot at some races.
It's not uncommon to have a "fresh" LTHR and a "fatigued" LTHR that is a few bpm lower. With the combination of the above factors, and keeping this in mind, it is not a stretch to say that my effective LTHR these days is more like 181bpm than 178bpm. The next day proved this again.
Cross Crusade Alpenrose Dairy
This race, in contrast to the day before, required a lot more short, hard bursts of effort. The course was hard and bumpy with several short ride-up sections, a set of barriers, and two run-ups. Here is the HR file:
Alpenrose CX: Red is Heart Rate data, blue is speed data. The dashed red line is at 181bpm. Click the image to magnify.
This time I hit the correct button at the start, so my data is complete. The start saw the highest HR as all 93 riders in my field careened down a short paved section and into a loose dirt and gravel s-turn. A short descent was followed by a steep ride-up that had everyone fighting for traction. After lap 2, when things began to separate, I got down to the business of making up as much time as possible. I missed the races at which I could have had the possibility of scoring call-up points, because I was busy racing MTB Marathon Nationals. Thus, I started in the last row. Other than a bit of pacing difficulty mid-race (which is easily seen in the data), and legs which were a bit tired from the day before, I was able to put out a steady effort. This netted me 17th on the day, just inside the points!
Despite having raced the day before and ridden to this particular race, I was able to maintain an average HR of 182bpm. The heat and a bit of under-hydration played a role in that, I am sure. That, and the crowd support was fantastic.
Here are some photos from the weekend:
The start at Heiser Farm
This is what I look like just before I have a great time
"It is not so difficult. Go flat-out before the corner and then go flat-out again."
-Tommi Mäkinen, four-time World Rally Champion
Today I raced the Battle at Barlow, a traditional course east of Portland on the grounds of a high school. The course was dry and dusty, consisting of some open, although bumpy, grass sections, one bit of asphalt, and a few twisty singletrack climbs. The centerpiece of the course was a two-barrier descending dismount, followed by a steep run-down, a wooden bridge, and then a series of tall railroad ties as a run-up. Confused? So was I when I hit it at full speed.
I started several rows back, due somewhat to bad luck, but mostly to laziness. This was a mistake. On such a fast, twisty course, it would prove very difficult to make up time on those ahead, even once I found my rhythm. The race started fast and within 30 seconds I was at my LTHR. Today would prove to be another data anomaly as was able to maintain a 181bpm average for the entire hour. Again, I was able to maintain a higher-than-normal average for a couple of reasons:
It was warm again, and this always elevates HR slightly at a given effort, and,
I was very fresh, having done very little riding in the previous week in order to try to fully recover from a pulled muscle in my left leg.
So, although I didn't feel like I was on a great day, I can see from my data graph that I was able to pace myself well and do a very good effort:
Battle at Barlow CX: Red is Heart Rate data, blue is speed data. The dashed red line is at 178bpm. Click the image to magnify.
A dropped chain on the third time up the railroad ties cost me about 7 places. I think I managed to get a couple of those spots back, but I never saw the other guys. This guaranteed that I would be out of the top 10 on the day. One pays dearly for small mistakes in cyclocross.
It wasn't the greatest race ever, but I made the best of it and managed to learn a few lessons along the way. I also had the mid-race pleasure of seeing the always-friendly Ira Ryan and that awesome smile. He looked so happy to be racing his bike.
Today we raced in the sand. Not far from the scene of Het Meer a couple of weeks ago, Zandercross took place in Vancouver, WA. It's part of a burgeoning series I like to call Couve Cross. Happily, it was a benefit for the excellent non-profit P:ear.
The promoter decided that the main feature of today's race would be sand, and its waterfront venue provided plenty of the loose, deep, and soft stuff. In addition to a few barriers, there were two (for some people three) long running sections in the sand. There were a few steep banks, but all could be ridden if one took the right line.
I pulled a muscle in my left leg last week at Marathon Nationals, and the all the running today only served to irritate it even more. It made running and dismounts painful, but I don't think it really slowed me down. The data show a decent pace, even if the start was a bit harder than I would have preferred:
Zandercross.Red is Heart Rate, blue is speed, and orange is elevation data.
My LTHR is 178bpm, but today I was able to average 180bpm for the hour-long race. This is possible for a couple of reasons. First, I was relatively fresh. I hadn't done a lot of training in the past week as I was (and am) tired from last weekend. The aerobic system recovers quickly relative to the body, however. So, even though my body was still a little tired, I was able to maintain a slightly higher HR since my aerobic system was relatively fresh. Second, it was warm today. In hotter conditions, one's HR is often slightly elevated.
If we break the race into two halves, we can see that I started a bit on the fast side (for me). For the first half of the race, I averaged 183bpm, while for the second half my average HR was 179bpm. I hit my max of 193bpm about 20 minutes in, while passing some people on one of the sand runs. That effort cooked me a bit and afterwards I had to slow down to recover. My effort today netted me 7th place.
Here are some photos:
The start. I got the call-up, but dust makes me chicken.
I have had a day or two to digest what happened last Saturday and I've finally had a chance to sit down and look at my data file as well.
It was a day where everything came together just right: The start was fast, but not too fast. The climbs suited my new lighter physique. The bike felt perfect and I was confident on the descents and singletrack. I had no mechanical issues. I had rested properly in the previous week. The distance and hot weather both suited me. I was able to stay focused for the entire 4+ hour effort.
All of those things are the ingredients of the perfect race. Together, they allowed me to do my best possible ride on the day. In terms of numbers, here is what that ride looked like:
Click on the image to magnify. Red is Heart Rate, blue is speed, and orange is elevation data.
My LTHR (Lactate Threshold Heart Rate) is 178bpm, represented above with the red dashed line. This places my Threshold Level (also referred to as Level 4) at 169-188bpm. Theoretically I can ride at 178bpm for about 1 hour. On Saturday, the data shows ideal pacing over the duration of the race. I managed to average 167bpm for the entire distance, keeping my effort sustainable over that period.
The nature of MTB racing is such that there are often times when you must exceed your LTHR in order to clear an obstacle, or stay with a rider you need to stay with, etc. Several times I bumped up against my maximum HR of 194bpm, but my training has been such that I was able to recover and maintain a high pace. During the race, my HR never dropped below high Level 2 (Endurance), even on the descents. It was a consistent effort, and by the finish I was completely spent.
The last week has seen two great lessons in pacing in two very different types of events (see the post on last week's cyclocross race here). One event was short and intense, while the other required more endurance and the ability to focus for a very long time. Happily, both yielded great results!
I came to Bend not expecting too much from myself. I haven't been myself lately, and my anxiety level has been really high. It's tough to concentrate like that, and for a 4+ hour race, it's a tall order to do so. In addition to all that, I hadn't touched my mountain bike in months.
None of that seemed to matter today. I put it all behind me. I felt great, rode well, and did my best ever National Championship result: 6th place.
It feels amazing. I just wanted to finish and I dared not dream of a top-10 placement.
The rest of the crew had pretty good days as well. Mark and Jeff just squeezed into the top-20 of their respective classes, and Chris (Specialized/Adventures 212) was running in a solid 15th until a cut tire dropped him to 20th.
My race seemed to last forever. The start was harder than I would have preferred (just about every one is), but I settled in on the first climb and started to feel better. The descent to Flagline was awesome, and that is when I began to move up in my class. I knew a lot of people had started at a level they would not be able to sustain, so I simply rode at my own pace and made sure to eat and drink regularly (a special thanks goes out to Chris Graham for doing hand-ups for us). One by one, the riders began to come back. I wasn't sure, but I thought I was in the top 10.
By the time I reached Tiddlywinks, just about everything hurt, including my stomach after the USAC neutral feed handed me a bottle of Gatorade (ick). I managed the descent without incident, and barely hung on while I climbed Funner to the finish. Desperate to know where I stood, I asked a checkpoint official where I was. He simply replied, "Oregon."
When I finished, I had to lay down for a while, the violence of the effort having taken its toll over more than 4 hours. Once I was told I had come 6th, I went back to the car and had a little cry by myself. I'm still not sure I believe it.
I didn't know if there would be any photographers out there, so I took some snaps myself:
Mark's car ready to roll to Wanoga and the race start
Prepping with my pal Brian Gerow
The tail end of the lead group rides under the highway
Somewhere in no-man's land. I decided I still had enough energy to snap a photo
Today I am in Bend, OR with one of my pro MTB racers, Chris Peariso (Specialized/Adventure 212), his wife Michelle, and my best bud NURD from California. We are all here to race the USA Marathon Mountain Bike National Championships, which take place tomorrow.
The course consists of some sandy doubletrack, some rocky climbing with sand, and lots of sandy singletrack, all starting and finishing at the Wanoga Sno Park. It has been very dry here this summer, and the trails have a deep cover of fine powder. Here is the not-very-simple map from USA Cycling:
We rode the second loop, which is one of my favorite rides. The last time I rode it early in the summer was one of the best rides of my life. It's all singletrack with a long descent followed by a (at least on the pre-ride) mellow climb back up to the finish. NURD, on his first MTB ride in Oregon and had a blast. We have since cleaned all the bikes, taken naps, eaten lunch, and prepped for tomorrow. Now all we need to do is relax and enjoy the sunshine.
Here are some photos from our morning out:
Aliens with large heads prepare to ride. From right: Chris, Michelle, NURD, Ak
Today I raced my first cyclocross race of this season, the TBGP Het Meer race in Vancouver, WA. I made a day of it by riding out there, doing the race, and then riding home again. It was a cool, overcast day and perfect for cross (unless you like mud).
The race consisted of lots of straight, fast sections, followed by some twisty, fast sections, followed by a mean sand trap on a lake beach. The drop into the sand trap caught a lot of people off guard, resulting in some spectacular crashes. I managed to avoid them:
I'm on the left avoiding the unlucky fellow who is now going the wrong way.
Once I got into the groove, I was able to ride the sand without any trouble.
I've been having trouble focusing lately, but CX racing is a good place to put life out of your mind for an hour and just concentrate on what you are doing. This is what I look like when I concentrate:
Notice the tongue (and the cute girl with the dog).
Despite all the craziness, I had a great race, ending in 5th place. I was able to start off within myself and finish strong, picking off one-by-one the riders ahead who had started too fast. I didn't have my Quarq on for this race, but I did record my speed and HR data. The graph shows a nice, steady cardiac drift. This is an example of good pacing. The red line is HR, with the dashed horizontal at my LT HR – 178bpm. Check it out:
red – HR
blue – speed
Despite a relatively open course, I was able to start easy, settle in right at my LT, and then push it up a bit in the last laps. This served me well and garnered me one of my best ever CX results – in the season's first race!
It's likely we've all said those things or something similar at one time or another. All of these statements have one thing in common – they put the speaker in a position of not having to take responsibility for the outcome of the race. They are built-in excuses that allow us to explain not getting the result we had really wanted.
Once some years ago, I was racing a stage race which featured a road race on Saturday followed by a Sunday Criterium. In the road race, some riders ahead went down on the wet roads, and the fallout from the crash took me off my bike as well. I chased with 3 others, and although we came within seconds of the field, we never regained it. Frustrated, I told my teammate that I was not going to race the criterium the next day. My teammate is an optimist, and told me that I was better than the rest and that I should race. He urged me to put that day behind me and look forward to a fresh opportunity. I thought about it all night and in the morning, I was ready to go. His positivity was infectious and deep down I knew he was right. On the start line that morning, I knew I would win. Even though criteriums are not my specialty and everyone who knows me knows that in a sprint I often go backwards, I won. The previous day, I didn't even want to race. Now, I had won, and the reason really boils down to one thing: I found the positive side of a difficult situation.
Finding the positivity in one's athletic pursuit takes practice. It's easy to get down when things don't go your way, and it becomes self-fulfilling. If you tell yourself that your legs are tired, then they are going to feel that way when you race.
Here are a few ways to stay balanced and keep perspective on your training, racing, and outlook:
Keep a journal. This is not a training journal (more on that later), but an actual diary. Write down each day what you're feeling and how you feel you're processing it. Later, go back and read it. Notice your language and the tone of your thoughts. This will give you some perspective on yourself and help you see that, even though sometimes things are not exactly as you want them, they will change.
Set your expectations. If you're a new cat 3, it's not likely you'll ride the Giro any time soon. However, you may well upgrade to cat 2 in the same season. Set your expectations accordingly.
Learn from your failures. Don't focus on them, but make them part of your success. Success builds on success and your expectations of yourself will follow.
Log your training. Keeping your data and looking for trends in what you do and don't respond to is a good idea, and so is actually writing down exactly how you feel about how each workout went. This helps put you in touch with your body and your mind.
Hope for the best when you set your goals. This is really another way of saying "focus on what you want." Visualize success and achievement and remember to visualize being happy with your achievements. You need to believe in yourself.
Achieving a positive outlook will help you to not only get the most out of your athletic pursuits, but it will help you go about your days with confidence and the knowledge that you are doing your very best to succeed.