Sunday, September 18, 2011

2011 USA Masters National Road Championships

Time Trial, Criterium and Road Race (55-59 group)

No disrespect to Colonel Sanders, the Louisville Slugger and Kentucky bourbon, but in my opinion, Bend, Oregon is a much better venue for the USA Masters National Road Championships than Louisville, Kentucky.

Jim Gentes out on Bend's sweet roads
Where in Louisville you hardly saw any racers - because they were all hanging out inside air-conditioned buildings and cars - in Bend they were everywhere, all 800 of them. While I soft pedaled around the race courses on Bend's wonderful roads, entire teams of masters from around the country passed me. And all week long, racers were hanging out at the many coffee shops and cafes in town. 

I stayed at the Super 8 Motel in Bend, which is where the USA mechanics were, too - their tent standing proudly all week in the parking lot. But, 5-minutes away, at Summit High School, which was the start/finish for the time trail and road race, a lot of racers set up camp in their RVs and Sprinter vans.

This meant that no matter what time your race was, there were plenty of other cyclists around. And, there was no need to drive a long way for the races as you had to in Louisville where the TT was held 20 miles away from the road race. So overall, at this Nationals you really felt like you were part of something big and important versus at Louisville where only at the races did you have that feeling.

The 2009 and 2010 Nationals
Even with those drawbacks, Mark Edwards and I had a grand time racing in Louisville in the 2009 and 2010 Nationals. But the oppressive heat and humidity put us at a significant disadvantage. Also, the road race course, with its short, gradual climbs and endless corners, was more like a crit course than a true road race and didn't suit the way we train and race in NorCal.

In 2009 we competed in the road race and the time trial, but we only did the TT for fun. Mark had his Felt clock-beater, but it was so new he hadn't yet trained on it, or even dialed in the position. I just slapped some clip-on aero bars on my road bike and raced that.

We knew we'd get killed in the TT, but it was still an exciting race and something we talked about doing again. We didn't manage to get it together to race it last year and only did the road race. But, this year, we were good to go for the road race and time trial. And I decided to sign up for the crit, too.

Vanagons, ho!
Ready to race
Unfortunately, Mark wasn't able to race the Nationals this year and I couldn't convince anyone else to, either. So I ended up making the 11-hour drive to Bend alone with only my bikes, trainer, tools, spare wheels and over-stuffed cooler for company. 

Fortunately, Mark had given me a new training program way back in September, I had followed it to the letter, and I was more ready to race than ever before. Mark had also provided a pacing strategy for the time trial and even a trainer warm-up routine he guaranteed would have me riding my best right from the starting gun in all three races. Thanks Mark!

Here are some details on the three races and notes on how it went up there that I hope are helpful for anyone planning on racing next year. I'm happy to answer any questions about the race courses and Bend, too, so just ask me.

I hope we can take a larger team for 2012 because it's a beautiful location and I'm sure we would have some top finishers in the different age groups and races. But an even better reason is that I know you'll love the racing in Bend and even just being there.

Race reports
I raced in the 55-59 age group. Our time trail was 16 miles long, the crit was 34 laps for 25 miles and the road race was three time around an 18-mile loop for 54 miles. There were about 37 guys entered in the TT, 65 in the crit and 71 in the road race.

Tandems time trial too!
Time Trial: Wednesday, August 31 - Start/Finish: Summit HS
After racing the Madera Stage Race time trial in March on a road bike with aero bars and posting a lousy time, even though my watt meter showed that I had ridden perfect pace, I decided I had to get a proper time trial bike and bought one.

Next Coach Mark dialed in my training to help me develop the power to actually race in the aero position. And, the next thing you know I set three PRs at the Swanton time trial and then the Canada time trial, just weeks before Nationals.

So, even though we had not gone very fast at the 2009 Nationals in the time trial, Mark felt that I had a chance to go a lot better in Bend and predicted that if I rode my best I had a shot at a top-10 finish. Understand that the Nationals attracts all the time trail specialists. Some don't even race in the other races. They just try to win the National title.

The Bend Nationals TT course is actually perfect for me. It starts with a five-mile gradual climb. It's so gentle at first I didn't feel much and had to focus to stick with Mark's plan, which called for holding back for the first three minutes. I had ridden the course and driven it several times. So I knew exactly where to hit the gas and go into full-on time trial mode.

1-hour wait for bike checks!
The climb is only about 3% for the first 3 miles, then there's about a mile that kicks up steeper, maybe 5%, and it took focusing not to go too hard there. Over the top, there's a downhill stretch leading to the turnaround.

After that, you climb the slight rise you came down to the turnaround and then there's about a five-mile descent back down the climb, followed by a fun five-mile lollipop-shaped circuit with rolling hills, and back to the start/finish.

The descent is a little bumpy so it's not easy to find the fastest line, but I probably averaged close to 40mph (I don't have a computer on my TT bike) and caught one of the strong guys from NorCal who left over a minute ahead of me, by the right turn that takes you onto the final five-mile section.

Note that they use 30-second starts at the Natz, so there's a good chance you'll overtake someone. The tandems are the only ones that get to start at minute intervals. Tandems also don't start on the ramp, but use a standing start just in front of it. Watching them start, I heard awful noises from the two riders about breaking the chain and cassette cogs as they powered away from the start house.

Don't be late for your start!
On the final 5-mile lollipop section there are some tricky turns. As I warmed up on my trainer next to my van in the high-school parking lot, a couple of racers rolled back to their cars in torn skin suits and with road rash and said that they had crashed in the corners from trying to stay on their aero bars and losing control.

That made me nervous. But we had trained a lot on the Swanton course and I was determined to stay on the bars knowing that even a few seconds would make a big difference on Bend's mostly fast pavement and the rolling final miles.

How this decision played out was actually kind of funny. Here I come into the worst turn at about 35mph. The course marshal is so sure I'm going to crash that he's jumping up and down, waving his flag and yelling 'slow down, slow down!' If I had looked at him too long I would have crashed for sure. So I just focused on the right line and blasted through the turn. It was obviously way faster than braking because I almost overtook the guy ahead right there. He had gotten on his base bars and hit the stoppers.

I killed myself on the three rollers before the finish. There was a pretty good crowd along that stretch, hollering as we passed and that was motivating. But, I could hear announcer Dave Towle, and he wasn't saying anything about me, so I knew I hadn't cracked the top five. He would have known because I was one of the last riders to start.

10th place
It turned out that I finished 10th, exactly what Coach Mark predicted. I was hoping for better. But 10th is the best I've ever done at Nationals, and as usual, the top guys were all very accomplished racers, so I am getting closer. I averaged 24.59mph.

Surprisingly, Rob Anderson, who we thought would win, was 4th. Dave Zimbleman, who everyone seemed to know (he's a regular at the Cascade Classic race in Bend that uses the same courses), won, with a significantly faster time.

Some riders were worried about the thinner air (elevation around 3,600 feet). Others thought the smoke in the air from nearby fires would cause problems. But, I didn't have any trouble. And, it was a comfortable temperature during all of the races too.

I have already reserved a spot in the new UCSC wind tunnel to determine what I need to do to go two minutes faster on that course so I can get on the podium next year. Joking!

Criterium: Friday, September 2 - Start/Finish: Downtown Bend
My first day in Bend I drove over to check out the TT course, where I ran into Richard Shields who races for Hammer Nutrition in the 65-70 group, though he looks about 35 and goes as fast too.

After comparing notes on the TT course, Richard took me over to the crit circuit, which was just around the corner in a new part of Bend. That was nice, but it turned out that that's where the 65-70 group raced, but not my group. The 55-59s would race on the downtown Bend course.

I didn't realize this until the night before the race when Jim Gentes, who was racing in the 50+ - the crit after mine - texted me to make sure I didn't go to the wrong course in the morning.

It was actually great news, because the other course was far more dangerous. We heard about broken hips and collarbones and people being carted off to the hospital and I was worried about our huge pack making it safely around the tight, narrow course.

The downtown Bend course is almost a no-brainer: four corners and two 400-yard straightaways and almost dead flat save for a light riser at the top of the course. It was like if they closed off Pacific Avenue and Front Street in Santa Cruz and let us race the wrong way down Pacific and finish on Front Street by Lulu Carpenter's. Here's a video I took showing the 50-54 group tearing down the back straight (an impressive race won by Bubba Melcher who kept attacking and blew the race apart).

I knew what would happen on a course like this and tried to start on the front row. The only problem is that at Nationals they do call-ups and only the favorites get to line-up in front. So, I had to start in the third row and when the race started I came out of the first corner fighting for about 35th place in a long single line, the entire pack strung out from the speed.

This went on for the first 10 laps or so, blasting around the corners, all strung out on the straights, no chance to move up anywhere because it was just too crazy-fast. About halfway through it slowed a bit and started bunching up after the corners because teammates were blocking for the few riders that had opened a slight gap.

About then, I noticed that several NorCal riders were near the front and I tried going up into the wind thinking that they might work with me to pull back the guys out front, but nobody was in the mood. So, in the end, Bill Watkins, who was strong enough to get off the front, won the race going away and the rest of us sprinted for the podium spots.

You had to come out of the last corner in the front to have any chance of sprinting for the podium. I botched that when, going into that little uphill off-camber corner, a guy locked up his wheels and slid wildly across the road almost taking half the pack down. 

The finishing stretch
I managed to move up a little after exiting the turn on the long drag strip to the finish but there was no way I could pass all the guys that had positioned themselves better and got the jump. I finished 22nd with the same time as everyone else. 

I was impressed with Mark Caldwell, who had come out of the last corner not too far ahead of me and with his superior speed and moves somehow managed to move up down the straight and take fifth and get on the podium. Mark hadn't been at the Nats in Louisville and I wondered how one of NorCal's best would have fared. Now I knew.

I should have paid better attention to how the crit developed because it demonstrated one of the rules I'm starting to learn about Nationals (Districts, too). That rule says that in major events, racers race for themselves and they likely won't cooperate with you or anyone else. They will cooperate with teammates, of course, but it's rare that there are many coordinated teams out there in the 55+, though that was the case the first time I raced in the road race in Louisville.

The road race start/finish
Road Race: Sunday, September 4 - Start/Finish: Summit HS
I was so tired Saturday afternoon I was concerned. It had been two days since the crit and four days since the time trial. And both events had been short, only a total of 41 miles. Plus the riding I'd done on the off days was pretty mellow, just cruising around the race courses easy.

The fatigue could have been nerves. I was so shaky at the start of the TT that Steve Palladino, who I had only met a few weeks back at the Canada time trial actually asked me if I was okay. And Richard Shields tried to settle me down telling me to relax. I felt a little better at the start of the crit but the large pack and fast start I knew was coming kept me on edge.

So, on Saturday afternoon, feeling wiped out, I went back to the fine Super 8 Hotel, turned on the TV, lay down on the bed and stayed there the rest of the day to bring my legs back to life and calm my nerves.

T minus 90 min. to start time
I got to the start/finish on Sunday with plenty of time to double-check my bike, get my bottles ready, suit up and do Mark's trainer warm-up. Ours was the first group to start so as I pedaled away I watched the USA Cycling guys setup the start/finish area and listened to announcer Dave Towle warm-up the crowd milling around waiting for the start.

We were going off at 8 a.m. It was a nice Santa Cruz-like 60 degrees. As I was warming up Chris and Sam Cerruti and Evan Kapel came over to say hi. It was great to see some other locals ready to race with me.

Speaking of locals, I got really lucky in the road race. A guy came over after the crit and introduced himself as former Santa Cruz cyclist Jim Holmes, and offered to be in the feed zone in the road race to hand me up water. This was a huge help because, even though it wasn't going to be too hot that early in the morning, the mountain air dries you out and being able to get more bottles was essential. Jim saved the day. It was also great to have Sam Cerruti in the feed zone. He was handing up bottles to his dad but he gave a shout out to me on every lap and that was cool.

The top of the Archie Briggs climb
The road race is a relatively easy loop, It starts with a long downhill, maybe 4 miles. Then there's a small bump before more flat and down roads. The first real climb comes at around 11 miles. It's about a 7 or 8% grade for maybe a mile with the feed zone at the top. After that it's more flat and down with a couple of bumps.

Then you drop into a little canyon on Archie Briggs Road and at the bottom run into a wall. John Novitsky's Garmin said it was a 16% grade. I counted about 85 pedal strokes to cover the steep part. After that, it flattens out and then there are 2 small risers before you crest the top and head downhill. It's about 5K to the finish from there on the last lap.

The race started with a neutralized rolling promenade through the first two roundabouts. Then there's a left turn and we picked up speed fast as the road heads downhill. It made for a terrifying first few miles. 

Everyone was using deep-dish carbon aero wheels, sew-ups pumped to max pressure for the countertop-smooth Bend pavement. Riders wanted badly to be in front and guys were moving forward like we were in the crit again. I refused to get bumped or intimidated and stuck in the second row, but the high speed and jostling, aggressive moves were scary and I had trouble riding straight, my front end speed wobbling due to the tension in my arms and neck.

They also gave us a rolling road closure and when the guys realized they could use the entire road everyone started moving far left and far right clipping every corner. While it was fun (like we were racing in the Tour of CA or something), the locals must have missed the memo on the closure because we came around a left sweeper and there was a double-wide pickup smack in the middle of the lane. The guy on the motorcycle leading the race barely missed crashing into the truck and I don't know how the racers behind him didn't crash. It was all I could do to move right without hitting the guys next to me.

Super-smooth roads = high speeds
Once out on the course, things settled down. We hit the two climbs on lap 1 so hard my legs burned badly. That worried me, so I rolled off the front a little on lap 2 before the second and steeper climb, and they let me open a small gap. I started the wall in the lead and was able to slip slide through the pack over the top. Even with the killer pace on the climbs, there were about 35 riders of the starting pack of 65 or so still together starting lap 3.

On the third lap, we passed the fast downhill section and over the first bump and I had moved forward and was next to Wayne Stetina, who has something like 14 national championships to his credit. I said hi and told him who I was. Wayne works for Shimano and knows me as a cycling journalist, not a racer. He said something like, 'Yeah, I know it's you, Jim, and you're riding great." That was cool. Note that Wayne had basically ridden away from us at the last two Nationals, so actually still being with him so late in the race was a big change for me.

Results by timing chips
Shortly after that exchange, multi-time USA cyclocross champ Paul Curly took a flyer and everybody let him go. I heard Wayne say to no on in particular, "That's a good move." And, without giving it much thought, I just took off and chased Paul down. It took a little work to catch him but I didn't think it was too much. And I went right past him and took a hard pull to let him know I was there to help. 

We traded pulls like this for a few miles. I realized right away that I picked a questionable guy to try to break away with. Not that Paul can't win a race (he ended up taking third). But he's not very tall and I didn't get much draft behind him.

Also, it didn't seem like his pulls were intended to keep us off the front. That was okay with me. I figured that he was the champ here and the least I could do is take some good pulls and try to make the break succeed. So I took hard pulls on the small rollers on that section of road and after a little while we had opened a 30-second gap according to the motorcycle guys who came up and left the pack behind.

The hard pulls cost me, though, and when we got to the first real climb on lap 3, I was toast and told Paul as much. He said to just find a rhythm, that it wasn't about the hill. But, only seconds later, Rob Anderson caught us, pack in tow, and they then attacked the hill apparently trying to get rid of us. That almost worked. But, as the last of the pack passed me, I managed to get on a wheel and hang on and get back in with the group.

Funny race number, huh?
Unfortunately, while I was struggling not to get dropped, I wasn't watching what was happening in the front. And it was at that moment, disguised by the feed zone and confident that the starch had been taking out of the leaders after chasing down my and Paul's breakaway, that Dave Zimbleman (the same guy who dominated the time trial, and who just won the 2011 World Masters Road Race in Belgium last week), snuck away on the side of the road. I never saw him and had no idea that he had gone up the road. He ended up staying away and winning the race by a good margin.

Meanwhile, we all stuck together and finished in a field sprint. I almost got dropped again on the steeper climb on Archie Briggs Road and was toward the back of the bunch all the way to the sprint trying to move up. Steve Palladino who had helped me before the time trial, helped me again coming into the sprint. He rallied a few of us that were coming unglued by taking monster pulls and closing the gap to the front group. I tried to help with a couple pulls of my own.

We couldn't get to the front on the narrow roads and two roundabouts leading to the long finishing straightaway sprint, though. And, when the road finally opened up it was just go as hard as you can as long as you can to try to move up a few places. I managed to keep passing guys and finished 19th. 

I finished 19th in the field sprint
The guys that took the podium spots were top sprinters. I never could have beaten them even if I was near them. For example, Bob Downs, who placed in both the criterium and road race with his awesome speed. So, reflecting on how the race unfolded, my attempt to make a breakaway work was a sensible thing to try, even if it didn't work.

The mistake was going with THAT breakaway, as Dave demonstrated. Another rule to remember: the winning breakaway will likely go late in the race, after earlier breakaways have been reeled in and everyone is too tired to chase. 

All in all, it was an epic week of racing and my best Nationals yet. I'm proud to have finally cracked the top 10, and to have finished in the field sprint for the podium spots in both the criterium and road race.

After the road race, one of the guys came up to me and commented that if there was a most-aggressive racer award I should get it. So, I was at least one of the guys who tried to make something happen in the race, and that's a lot better than getting dropped like in 2009 and 2010. I'm going to keep working and trying to get on the podium next year, or the next, or…. I hope you teammates can join me in Bend in 2012.

Monday, September 12, 2011

[Track] Friday Night Racing 2011/9/9

9/9 was the last Friday night of track racing in 2011, and it was a blast. Between the PG-13 commentary by Michael Hernandez and the free food and beer, Friday nights always draw out a big crowd on beautiful summer evenings in Hellyer Park. Here's how it went down:

Fact 1: When Anthony Borba tells you to not initiate a break in the scratch race, you initiate a break in the scratch race. With a few laps to go, it was just me and Mario Hernandez from Audi. On the final lap, Mario started pulling up in Turn 1 and I went for it hard down the sprinters lane and caught him off guard. Win 1.

Fact 2: Points races are hard, but with careful attention, they are winnable. Unless you're superhuman, trying to win every points lap (every five or ten laps, with points going 5-3-2-1 to the first four riders across the line) is going to result in dead legs. I was careful to keep track of my points vs. Mario's, and while Mario won the final lap, I ended the race with the most points. Win 2.

Fact 3: Whoever made the Win and Out is a sadist. It's 15 laps, followed by a bell on each successive lap for 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and so on. The nasty part is that if you commit your effort for first place and it doesn't work out, then you're unlikely to have the legs for any decent place. Our 3/4s race was very slow for the first 12 laps, with nobody wanting to take a premature risk. Mario went with 3 laps before the first bell. I had him marked and quickly made the bridge (I think the sudden surge from slow to very fast caught many legs off guard.) On the final bell lap, I came around uptrack hard and hoped to god that I would have the legs to hold everyone off. Thankfully, I did, and the (very tense) race was over. Win 3.

Fact 4: Track makes me make crazy faces.

Fact 5:Track is crack.