Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Southern Cross

It’s hard to believe racing season has started already with the beginning of the American UltraCross Series this past weekend in Dahlonega, GA. It seems like cyclocross season just ended only a few weeks ago and now I find it’s time to take my heart rate up to maximum effort again. I think the off season went by so much quicker this year because of the lack of any consistent snow this winter. Usually, when there is snow on the ground, I take a lot more time off the bike and do a large amount of skiing. Even when it did snow this winter, I found myself riding my Salsa Mukluk rather than skiing on the marginal snow amounts.

With a lot more time on the bike and much less time spent skiing this off season, I figured my bike fitness would be ready to go for the first UltraCross Series Race, Southern Cross. I did well at the race last year, finishing in fourth place overall and as the first placed master rider. I figured my race result would be even better this year, since I had more miles in my legs. Shortly after the race started, though, I soon found out my day of racing was going to be a lot more difficult than expected.

The course design of Southern Cross definitely suits a rider with good early season fitness. The 51 mile course has approximately 6200 feet of climbing on mostly gravel and paved roads. Before heading out on the main part of the course, Southern Cross goes through a traditional style cross course on the grounds of Montaluce Winery. Starting this way immediately causes separation in the field of racers and sent my heart rate into the danger zone pretty quickly.

The first "run-up"
 Right off the bat things started kind of shaky for me, when my chain decided to jump around on my rear cassette just as the word go sounded. This skipping of my chain caused my left knee to go directly into my stem and caused some pretty intense pain. I recovered quickly, however, and by the first steep climb found myself mixed in with the lead riders before heading out of the winery. A fast pace line soon formed on the paved roads leading to large gravel loop ahead. I felt happy about making the split, but could already tell the pace was going to be much faster than last year.

As the paved roads ended and the gravel began, the climbing also started. Southern Cross starts off with a few rolling climbs before the longest sustained climb to the top of the mountain begins. It was on these rollers that I started having difficulty and fell off the pace of the lead group. My travel companion for the weekend, Ernesto Marechin, also seemed to be having trouble at this point, so we ended-up riding together and did our best to keep our tempo high. But, the lead group continued to pull away from us and we were eventually caught by a small group of other riders.

I had a burning in my lungs and legs that I haven’t felt in a long time as the serious climbing started. I just couldn’t seem to get my legs of lungs to warm-up like I wanted. I’m sure the main reason for my discomfort was the cold (less than 40 degrees) temperature of the morning. My body started to feel better about one hour into the race. By this time, I had pulled away from most of the guys who caught me and also started catching a few guys that also fell off the pace of the lead group. I finally felt like I found my grove and could do what I wanted my body to do.

I started the race with two water bottles. I had one filled with plain water and another with a sports drink mix. By the mid point of the race, I had only consumed about half of one bottle probably because the temperature was so cool, but knew it would be nice to have the extra fluid to drink on the second major climb of the course. My strategy to use my second bottle latter quickly ended after I lost my full bottle when descending from the top of the mountain back to the base. Since this happened at the half way point and I still had a half bottle left, I figured my remaining supply of fluid would get me to end of the race if things didn’t warm-up too much. So, I took a gamble by not stopping at the final aide station to replenish my bottle. My gamble was a good choice and I had just enough liquid to get me to the finish without too much suffering.

The start of the second major climb did not seem as effortless as the top of the first big climb. I think my body cooled down during the descent and needed to be warmed-up again. I lost contact with the guys I was riding with and even had Garth Prosser catch me after he had flatted earlier. I knew Garth was also in the masters race, so I did my best to hang with him. I had trouble matching his pace and soon found myself climbing alone and not feeling too good about my ride or fitness. I heard many reports about other racers also flatting out on the course. I was sure glad to be using my Stan’s NoTubes Crest 29er wheels mounted with 700x35 cross tires instead of a standard cross tire/tube combination. Additionally, my Salsa Mamasita seemed to be a much better choice on the descents than the cross bike set up I used last year.

By the top of the climb, my legs started feeling a little better again and I caught one of the riders ahead of me. We then rode by the last aide station and were told by a volunteer that we were both in the top ten. Hearing this news and then seeing Garth fixing another flat gave me a renewed boost of energy, which helped get me to the top of the mountain and eventually to the finishing line.
The overall 2011 master mens podium with my IUP buddy, Doug.

By the finish, I was able to arrive in 8th place overall and as the first master rider. I may not have felt as strong as I did last year, but overall was happy with my result at this very difficult early season race. I’m glad the season is just beginning because I now know that there is a lot of hard work ahead me to reach a better level of fitness before the main part of racing season begins. And, even though this is my 30+ year of consecutive racing, I am still excited about doing this hard training, the new season and the competition that awaits. See you at the races, my friends!     Happy Trails....