Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Testing 1, 2, 3...

I decided to start off my 2014 racing season in pretty much the same way I ended the 2013 season by doing an American Ultracross Series Race.  There used to be a time when my racing season started more gradually by doing some local road racing before any meaningful races were attempted. But, over the past few years, the Southern Cross Ultracross Race has been my first race of the season. Starting the season off with an important race is certainly a good way for me to test my legs, bike, and other new Team Rare Disease equipment, but I never feel quite prepared for this early start of the racing season.  

The Southern Cross Race is roughly a 50 mile race loop with about 6700 feet of elevation gain, on a mix of mostly dirt roads, some standard grass cyclocross course stuff, and some pavement.  Overall, it's a nice mix on a variety of surfaces to make this race interesting, challenging and fun.  This was my fourth attempt at doing this race, so I was pretty certain of what to expect.  But, the crazy weather of this winter had me guessing a bit about what the course conditions would be like this year, especially with the Dahlonega, GA area receiving a good amount of snow about a week before the race date.

All racers are somewhat concerned about course conditions, but singlespeed racers have to consider the conditions a little more closely to make sure the right gear ratio is used. I assumed the recent snow fall, the melt of it from warm temperatures arriving the week leading up to the race, and a couple days of rain were going to make the course soft and slow.  However, when I did my pre-ride of the first part of the course on Friday, I discovered it was a lot faster than I expected.  As a matter of fact, the course was so much faster I decided to use a bigger gear ratio than I used the year before, even though I was using a MTB this year instead of a CX bike.

I've pretty much determined that cross bikes are more exciting to use at ultracross races, but mountain bikes are safer and probably faster over.  And, after the limits of my cross bike were tested and beat in the final mile of the race last year, I was certainly not going to make the same mistake of using a CX bike this year.  I went from using 700x35 tires on my SSCX bike last year to using 29x2.2 tires on a SS MTB this year.  I was happy with the change and my finishing race time was over 4 minutes faster than last year because of it, in my opinion.  The biggest difference I noticed was being able to relax more on the fast gravel road descents, not only in riding position, but also mentally because I wasn't as stressed about getting a flat tire.  Interestingly enough, it is a good thing I didn't have to worry much about getting a flat tire because about 7 miles into the race I realized that my CO2 cartridges were not in my jersey pocket, but were left back at the car. If I would have flatted, my means of inflation would have been to beg for a pump or CO2's from passing riders.  I'll chalk that mistake up as not being completely prepared for the first race of the year... man, that was stupid of me!

With this race starting on a pretty tight and technical cyclocross type of course, I decided to get out in front early to avoid being stuck behind any crashes or other mayhem.  Surprisingly, this plan went so well that I was actually the first rider to the top of the first run-up and then also the first to exit the cross course riding onto the roadway in front of Monteluce Winery.  I sat up a bit after making it to the road and waited for some geared riders to help pull me along this super fast section of the course.  I was joined by a small group of about ten riders, which included only one other SS rider, Dan Rapp.  The paced picked-up a bit on the road, which caused Dan and I to spin like crazy to stay attached to this group.  Dan sat up and said to me, "Man that was hard." I nodded, but didn't feel the same way.  So, I decided to go a little faster and attempt to close a small gap forming quickly between us and the top geared riders.  I was able to close the gap, but Dan fell behind.

I was liking my bigger gear ratio choice and it definitely helped me stick with the lead group longer than I was able to do last year.  But, eventually, I made a decision to let this fast geared group ride away from me about 9 miles into the race.  It was at this point that the serious climbing started and I thought it would be wiser to ride the climb at my own pace rather than push myself a little harder than I wanted at such an early point in the race.  In previous years, I've ended up catching other riders that have fallen-out of the lead group on this big climb and this year was no different.  But, what was different this year, was that I caught the overall winner of the race last year, Brian Toone.

An awesome video of the 2014 Southern Cross Race from Jayson O'Mahoney.

Brian is a fast guy and I knew riding with him for rest of the race would be a big factor in helping me win the SS class if I could hang with him.  Interestingly enough, Brian was not climbing as fast as usual, so I did my best to give him some assistance on the climbs.  I knew the favor would be returned on the faster sections of the course and it was without a doubt.  Thank you Brian!  Not only did Brian give me a ton of help, but it's also better to have a friend along to make the time pass a little faster during the race.

Brian and I ended-up riding the rest of the race together.  We saw a couple other geared riders out there, but I never saw another SS rider after Dan fell off the early fast pace.  Feeling like my time gap over my SS competition was pretty good, I was able to ride the long, fast descents a lot more cautiously and this gave me some piece of mind about not having any method of tire inflation stored away.  But, I did have some stress when I heard a loud cracking noise come from my rear wheel about 25 miles into the race, which was immediately followed by a clanging noise.  I immediately knew the noises heard were caused by a spoke breaking on my rear wheel.  The broken spoke continued to make noise off and on throughout the race, but my wheel never went abruptly out of true, or gave me any other trouble, so I didn't stop to make an attempt at fixing things.  The last thing I wanted to do was lose Toone's wheel and waste time trying to fix a non-issue mechanical.

The 2014 Singlespeed Podium
By the end of the race, I ended up finishing the race in 3 hours and 11 minutes and as the first place SS rider, about 13 minutes faster than second place.  My result, the performance of my carbon Specialized Stumpjumper SS bike, and my overall race preparation made me feel like I had passed my first test of the season.  Doing this race also put my mind back into race mode and got me thinking more about the season a head.  Before doing Southern Cross, I was less concerned about riding and more concerned about getting new snow for skiing and fatbike riding.  Now, I'm ready to ride and race!  My next test, and it's going to be a much tougher one, is the first NUE Series Race of 2014, the True Grit 100, in St. George, UT.

Happy Trails....  Gerry