Monday, June 27, 2011

The Hilly Billy

The Hilly Billy Roubaix was a great experience for me last year and I was looking forward to doing well at the race again this year. Additionally, with the Hilly Billy being scheduled as the first race of the new American Ultracross Series, I was also hoping to do well because I am planning to do the entire series. I knew doing well at this race was not going to be as easy as it was last year, though, because the field of registered riders was a much faster group this year. Repeating last year’s performance would require that my bike and riding would have to be perfect.

After doing the race on a single speed cross bike last year and feeling a little less than confident on some of the descents and also knowing that I could go faster with a bike that had gears, I decided to do the race this year on my Salsa Mamasita with cross tires. I could tell early in the race that using the Mamasita over a cross bike was the right choice for the Hilly Billy. I was descending faster than the other riders I was with and was having no problem riding the faster road sections on my fully rigid 29er.

The first 17 miles of the race was going as I had hoped. I was riding very comfortably in a fast breakaway group with Steevo, Joe, Mike and Angry Andy. We were all riding well together and everything was going fine. But, then, on a fast descent a few miles before checkpoint #1, I bombed down a steep hill to make an attempt at splitting-up the group a little. I did get a nice gap on the descent, but unfortunately I nailed an unavoidable deep pothole at the bottom of the hill with my front wheel and crushed the sidewalls of the rim. After the impact, my spokes started rubbing against my disc brake caliper and I immediately knew things were not looking good.

I rode to checkpoint one with the group thinking that maybe someone might have a spare front wheel there. I was not able to get a wheel and the checkpoint, but I did get my spokes to stop rubbing after some finagling. I lost time to the breakaway group during my repair, so I was left all alone to start my chase back to the front. I could see the group on the climb in front of me, so I climbed hard and tried descending fast to make up my lost time. While flying down one steep descent, my tubeless rim started leaking air fast. I knew it was from the earlier damage done to the rim, so I stopped and tried to put a new tube in it. Unfortunately, the damage was so bad to the rim that I could not get the air valve out of the rim until I decided to hammer it out with my Topeak Multi-tool. Then, I couldn't get the new tube value into hole for the same reason, so I had to put my multi-tool to work again to widen the hole. Due to the issues I had with my rim, I lost a ton of time repairing this flat and a bunch of guys came by me.

I started chasing again and eventually worked myself up to fourth place overall after catching steevo at checkpoint two. I didn't initially know it was him, though, so I climbed hard and descended fast again to put time on the rider. On the rough and rutted descent after checkpoint two, I was probably going a bit too fast again and flatted my rear tire. I was without a second tube, so I begged steevo for a spare when he caught me. Luckily, he stopped to give me one because I had already used the one I had during my first repair. After fixing the flat, I went to put the rear wheel back into the frame and somehow got my disc rotor stuck behind one of the brake pads instead of between them. I pulled the wheel out to fix the problem, but one of the brake pads got stuck on the rotor and pulled out with the wheel. I tried to get the pad back in, but it would not stay in place, so I decided to continue riding without a rear brake for the next 30 miles.

After my second flat repair, I seemed to be climbing well and felt good overall, but I could not keep my speed up on the flats. I think it was because my front wheel had such a bad flat spot on it that it was not rolling very well at higher speeds. I'm sure it required a lot more effort to move than a round wheel. I guess after everything that happened I was lucky to still be riding my bike and to still be in contention for a podium spot.

By the end of the race, I was able to finish as the third placed master rider and as the sixth placed rider overall. After all my bad luck, I was happy with my performance for the day, but must admit that I was a bit frustrated that I didn’t get to battle with the leaders at the front all the way to the finish. These types of races will happen, though, and while I may not have had the great experience that I had last year when I won the race, I got to say overall the Hilly Billy Roubaix is a blast to do.

Happy Trails, Gerry

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

Sunday, June 12, 2011

June: Whirlwind and Waves

Man, is this month flying-by. It seems with racing, training, working full-time, doing bike maintenance, and taking care of all the other responsibilities in life that I have very little spare time for anything else. If you are an avid racer, I am sure you can also relate to this and know first hand how fast time seems to move during the busy summer racing months. I knew June was going to be crazy because I wanted to do well at four important races on my schedule. First, there was NUE Series Race #3, the Mohican 100, at the beginning of June, which was followed by the Big Bear 2x12 on the second weekend. For the second part of the month, my schedule includes doing NUE Series Race#4, the Lumberjack 100, and the first race of the new American Ultra-Cross Championship Series, the Hilly Billy Roubaix. Yes, June has been a whirlwind of activity for me so far and the next two weeks will be no different.

I had plans of posting my Mohican 100 experience on my blog last week, but my priority list of things to do never allowed for me to write it last week. But, since the Big Bear 2x12 race was on Saturday and pretty close to home, I have some free time now to finally write about my Mohican 100 and Big Bear Race 2x12 race experiences.

The Mohican 100 is just a fantastic 100 mile mtb race. I say this because I like the mix of terrain on the course and think that overall it is organized pretty well. I’m sure there are a lot of riders that may disagree with me because the race seems to always have pretty extreme weather conditions. Usually, the race is held under very hot and humid conditions, but last year it stormed hard during most of the race, so riders had to learn how to deal with another extreme variation of weather on this course. For 2011, the weather returned to its usual hot and humid status that certainly took its toll on a number of racers. While many complained about the heat, I seemed to bask in it.

Things heated-up quick in the singlespeed race right from the start and remained very competitive for me until checkpoint #2. After the road climb out of Loudonville, fellow singlespeed racers Matt Ferrari, Montana Miller and Dylan Johnson were all riding right along with me during the initial section of single track. We were all in chase of my Pro Bikes Teammate, Justin Pokrivka, who had created a gap on the three of us in the initial section of trail.

I then heard a nasty crash behind me while riding down one of the steep descents in the first sections of trail, but I never looked back to see what actually happened. After coming out at the Mohican Camp Ground, I looked around to see where the other singlespeed racers were and saw all the contenders but Ferrari in sight. After the race, I learned that Matt was the rider that crashed behind me on the steep descent. By the time I re-entered the single track and started working my way through the geared riders a head of me, Justin’s gap over me and the other singlespeed racers had increased to a pretty good margin.

Dylan, Montana and I rode the single track together at a fast, but conservative pace, trying to reel Justin back to us. But, it wasn’t until we arrived at a steep hike-a-bike section of trail, about 25 miles into the race, that we saw Justin again. When we got on the gravel roads leading to checkpoint #2, Dylan dropped off the pace Montana and I had set to catch Justin. Eventually, Montana and I were able to latch onto to Justin and a group he was riding in that contained about 5 geared riders. We all rode together from that point of the race to checkpoint #2 at a moderate pace trying to recover from our efforts in the single track, but at the same time keeping a watchful eye on the other riders and waiting for someone to make a move.

I figured things would be hectic at the checkpoint with the arrival of so many riders at once, so I kind of pushed the pace going into the checkpoint and was one of the first to grab my drop bag. I then left quickly and got a gap on the two other singlespeed racers and all but two of the geared riders. Fortunately, the other two geared guys were as anxious as I was to put a time gap on our competition, so we all worked together pretty well. I never saw another singlespeed competitor after that point in the race and basically either rode my own race or rode with a geared guy or two. The heat really became noticeable after checkpoint #3 and trying to deal with it became my biggest battle of the day. However, I manage my fluid and food intake well and was able to maintain my gap over the other singlespeed racers until the end of the race for the hard-earned win.

So, with my win at the Mohican 100 in the books, I began to focus on the Big Bear 2x12. In 2010, Weston Schempf and I were able to ride together for the singlespeed victory at this race. Earlier this year Wes and I planned to ride the race together again to see if we could repeat our 2010 performance. As things turned out, however, Wes was unable to join me this year due to his wife being pregnant and having a due date very near the date of the race. I didn’t learn for certain about whether Wes would be racing or not until the day after the Mohican. Fortunately, I had already talked to Montana Miller about racing with me at Big Bear and he said that he would do it if Wes could not make it. With team Schempflug out for 2011, the team of Salsa Cylces and the Rotten Guacamole was born. I’m sure you all can guess from where the Salsa Cycles part of our team name came, but are probably having a hard time with the Rotten Guacamole part. All I can say is take a look at Montana’s green Niner Frame with the Purple I9 Wheels and the name should become self-explanatory.

The Big Bear 2x12, for those not familiar with the event, is a relay race held on the old 12 mile course used for 24 Hours of Big Bear Race. It was set-up as a race after everyone learned that 24 Hour Nationals were not going to be held at this fantastic mtb racing venue last year. At this race, expert teams of two riders do a total of six laps on a technical 12 mile race loop, with each rider required to do 3 laps. Montana and I discussed our strategy for the race and decided that we would alternate our laps rather than doubling-up our laps like Wes and I did last year. We also decided that it would better if Montana started and I finished the race. We had our plan and all we needed to do was make it work.

The start of this race is a hectic mass frenzy, as all of the individual team starters race up the prologue hill at once to the entrance of the single track. Montana had a great start and was one of the top five riders going into the trail head. He continued riding fast for the remainder of his first lap and came in as the first single speed racer and in the top seven teams overall. This gave me a clear shot into the single track and allowed me to add to our time gap over the other singlespeed teams. Needless to say, things were looking good for us at this point in the race and the rotten guacamole didn’t seem too bad at all to my taste buds.

After finishing my first lap, I handed Montana the baton and as he left I told him to ride fast, but smart. In events like this, a mechanical or a crash can change the order of things quickly. Well, as luck would have it, Montana ended-up double flatting on his second lap, which caused us to lose our significant lead. As a matter of fact, not only did we lose our lead, but the second placed team of Marc Glass and Rob Loehr had about a four minute advantage on us by the time I started my lap.

I knew that I could not afford to ride a conservative second lap, since we were down by so much time. I took some chances on the trail and spun my Ti Selma as fast as I could in an attempt to catch the team ahead of me. After about riding ¾ of the loop, I did catch the leading singlespeed rider ahead of me and was even actually able to put some time on him before I made it back to the relay exchange tent. Montana looked to be calm, but ready for his finally lap. I again told him to be smart out on the trail as he left the tent.

In between each of the approximately one hour laps, I would cool down from my effort, eat and then get ready for another hard effort about 15 minutes before I expected my teammate, Montana, to arrive. I headed to the exchange tent a little early for my final lap thinking that Montana was going to burn-up the trail after his miserable second lap. Well, as I waited for Montana and time started ticking past the time I had expected his arrival, I began to worry.

My worrying became a little bit more troublesome as I saw Marc Glass arrive at the tent first again with no sight of Montana being near. I asked Marc about Montana and he said that he was riding, but didn’t look good. Meanwhile, the clock continued to count off the minutes and put more time between us and the now first place team. During this time, I mentally prepared myself for what would be my third super hard lap of the day. Again, I knew that I was going to have to ride at very fast clip to try and catch the team ahead. The taste I had acquired for the rotten guacamole was quickly becoming too much for me to take.

Montana arrived at the tent about two minutes after the first place team did their baton exchange. I knew that I still had a chance to win the race for us, but I also knew that it was going to have to be another fast and flawless lap. If I crashed, flatted, or had any other mishap, finishing as the first place team would not be possible. In situations like these on a geared bike, I can go faster by pushing a harder gear. On a singlespeed, however, the only way to go faster is to spin more. I spun my butt off to chase down the lone singlespeed rider in front of me. I was feeling good and I’m sure all of the endurance racing that I have done this year was helping me ride fast at the end of the race.

I ended-up catching Rob with about 2-3 miles to go until the finish. He seemed to be pretty spent when I caught him and immediately moved over to allow me to get by. I thanked him for giving me the trail and told him to keep on pushing it until the finish. I continued to push myself hard for the rest of the race to ensure a victory for my Salsa Cycles and the Rotten Guacamole Team. The race might not have gone as I had hoped or planned, but having an undetermined outcome for the last couple laps of the race sure did make it more interesting. I’m sure glad that the Rotten Guacamole didn’t spoil my party, even if it did make me feel sick for a little while.

Well, next up is the Lumberjack 100 in Wellstone, MI. I’ve been pretty close to breaking the 7 hour threshold time on this course the past few years. I’m pretty certain that I would have broken 7 hours last year if it wasn’t for a bad crash that I had part way through the race. I’ll give it another shot this year, while I try to continue riding this wave of good luck that I’ve been on lately. I’ll gladly continue living my life in a whirlwind if I can continue my ride on this perfect wave.

Happy Trails, Gerry