Friday, June 24, 2011

Bigger is not always better

Picking a gear for singlespeed racing is like picking a fine wine. Like the matching of a wine to a perfect dinner, there are many elements that go into making the perfect SS gear selection for a race. I find that many singlespeed racers have a tendency to pick too big of a gear for racing. I have made this mistake myself many times and it can make a hard race even harder, especially towards the end. As a matter of fact, I used a gear that was a little too big at my first two singlespeed attempts at the Lumberjack 100 Race in Wellston, Michigan. Even though I was able to win those two attempts with the gear ratios that I chose, I felt like I could have been a little faster with an easier gear. This past weekend I made a third attempt at the Lumberjack 100 on a singlespeed bike and promised to myself that I would stick with an easier gear choice this year. Here is my version of how things went down at the front of the singlespeed race with my easier gear choice.

There is a fast start on two miles of pavement at NUE Series Race #4, the Lumberjack 100, which then leads to 98 miles of trail riding. I had to spin my butt off, so that I could keep towards the front of the pack and ensure that I got into the woods with a decent position. My plan to spin fast at the start worked and by the top of the first set of climbs in the woods, I was in the first group of riders containing the fastest geared guys and a couple of my singlespeed competitors. Man, this is going too perfect and I’m feeling great, I think to myself. We start going down some fast descents that eventually lead into some fast, twisty single track. I’m happy that I am keeping up with the fast pace being set at the front and like the feel of my easier gear choice. All is going well, just stick with this group I keep thinking.

After riding the trails with this group for about three miles, I slightly veer off the cleared single track path for a split second and hit a tree stump I didn’t see hidden in the grass. The stump causes me to go over the bars, sending my bike and body to the ground hard. I’m a little dazed by the crash because it all occurred so quickly, but I get up as fast as I can to try and catch the fast group riders now leaving me behind. Damn, they’re gone I say to myself and I now feel totally frustrated that I didn’t pay better attention to the trail in front of me. I decided to calm down a bit when I realized that I had fallen off the fast bus, I then stop my pursuit of the group in front of me and started taking inventory of my body and bike.

During the check of body and bike parts, I noticed right away that I hit my knee pretty good during the crash because I felt some pain there, but overall it seems that most of my injuries are only minor abrasions on my legs and arms. The crash also moved my rear brake lever to an awkward position, caused my suspension fork to not release from the locked-out position and somehow also moved one of my Selma Alternator Dropouts, which loosened my chain significantly. After taking inventory, re-gathering my thoughts and trying to get back into a riding rhythm, I got caught by another SS rider, Matt Ferrari, and a group of about 5 geared guys. Nice, I think to myself. Now I have another group to help me out.

I ride with this group of riders for only a few miles, while I slowly regain my composure and start feeling a little more confident again. I then decide that the pace of the group I’m riding in is too slow and that I need to get going if I want a chance at finishing well. So, I initiate an attack on a wider section of trail with a slight incline to get away. I’m able to get clear and Matt comes along with me. Cool, maybe Matt and I can work together to start reeling in the two SS riders in front of us. Slowly Matt and I start catching some riders dropping off the fast group in front of us. I start thinking that maybe I still have a shot at making the podium and do my best to keep my pace high, even though my body is trying to tell me that what I am doing is NOT a good idea. Matt and I continue riding together and we end-up catching Jorden Wakeley who is one of the two SS riders from the fast group ahead of us. With Wakeley now in our group, only one other SS rider, Rob Spreng, is ahead of me and my two SS riding companions.

I have raced against Matt Ferrari very often in the NUE Series during the past few years and I know that he is a strong rider. Jorden Wakeley is a fast, local Michigan SS Rider and I knew he was a rider that could possibly win this race. I also was very familiar with Rob Spreng because he lives near me and we have raced against each other many times, but mostly on geared bikes. Rob recently broke his geared frame, though, so he decided to try the SS race out at the Lumberjack after I convinced him to give it a try. I also knew another fast SS rider, Mike Montalbano, was in the race, but I had not seen him at the front, yet. It is always helpful to know your competition and what their strengths and weaknesses are. I knew this group of riders had few weaknesses and that I would have my hands full racing against them even if I didn’t crash earlier.

I rode most of the second lap with Matt and Jorden in my tow. I could tell that they were starting to fade during this time, so I didn’t really make any demands for them to help me at the front. Instead, I would put extra effort into my climbs to attempt to drop them and make them work harder. I figured this way I would keep my speed high and make my two competitors work harder to keep up with me. Eventually, my plan worked and I got clear from my two competitors. Yes! Now I just have to catch Rob, I think to myself. Unfortunately, just as my time gap started to grow between me and the two riders behind me, my chain dropped off my front chainring because of it being loose from my earlier crash. You’ve got to be kidding me…Can’t a guy get a break. I get the chain back where it needs to be on the bike quickly, but don’t go super hard after the repair because I am leery of what might have actually caused my chain to have loosened. I decide that I will take a closer look at the bike when I arrive at the start/finish area because I will have better access to tools there. Even with riding gingerly to the end of the second lap, I am able to maintain a slight time gap over Matt and Jorden.

Before the start of lap #3, I grabbed some tools and quickly fixed my dropout before going back out for my third and final lap. The Salsa Alternator Dropout is so easy to use that I am able tighten my chain to proper tension in no time. During my repair, I was caught and passed by my two SS competitors, but I quickly caught the two and immediately got away from them before the top of the first big climb. I now just had Rob Spreng in front of me again and I knew that he was running a bigger gear that might cause him to fade towards the end of this race. I am thinking at this point that I still have a chance for the win if I can just convince my body to keep going hard.

Not long after Jorden and Matt fell off my pace on lap three a different and another fast SS rider, Mike Montalbano, caught me and came by me riding very strong and fast. I start wondering if I will ever get a chance to take just a little break during this endurance race with cross county like speed and a yo-yo like pattern of up and down events. After Mike came around me, I did my best to hang with the fast pace he was setting. Not long after we started riding together we see and catch-up to the lead SS rider. Rob is fried when we catch him and he immediately allows us go by. When we went by Rob, we were on a climb and I noticed that I was got a nice gap over Mike pretty easily. I kept my pace up after the climb, but was caught a short while later because Mike was running a much larger gear than me. I noticed that his bigger gear allowed for me to ride away from him on other climbs on the course, but I also noticed that he would eventually catch me again on the fast, flat trails. After catching me one time, Mike said to me that we are going to have to sprint this one out for the win. I said back to him “I hope not.” I’m not sure if Mike knew it or not, but I am not much of a sprinter and the thought of actually sprinting to the line after 100 miles of racing was definitely not how I wanted to end things.

I knew the course had one last big climb about 2 miles from the finish and I planned to make my final move there if I could muster enough strength to ride the steep climb one last time. I went as hard as I could on the climb when we arrived there and I got the gap that I wanted. Yes, I got this race wrapped-up now, I think to myself. The only problem was that I now had an extremely fast two miles to go until the finish and I was afraid that Mike might catch me with the bigger gear he was using. I kept looking over my shoulder while pedaling as fast as I could and the gap between us was shrinking much quicker than I had anticipated it would. I wasn’t sprinting, but I definitely could not have spun my cranks any faster and I don’t think my heart could have beaten another beat faster either. I took one last look over my shoulder after going around the last bend on the course and was happy to see that I had maintained my gap over Mike. I knew only then that I would make it to the finish line first.

This was the hardest I have ever had to push myself at the end of a 100 mile race. It hurt bad, but could not have felt more rewarding to me. And, now that it is over, I am definitely glad I stuck with a gear choice that many SS riders considered to be too easy for this course. I feel like I am finally becoming a SS gear connoisseur. So, let me remind you all again, my friends, that bigger is not always better.

Happy Trails, Gerry