Category Archives: Lessons Learned

Tour of Places Named after Sam Houston

Our adventure went something like this: on Saturday we raced around in (adjacent to?) the expansive Sam Houston National Forest.  After spending the remainder of the day relaxing in said forest, we broke camp in the morning and loaded the bikes onto the car to drive to the city of the same namesake to race around another park named after the chap.  Somewhere in between A and B, we passed up an opportunity to drive on his highway.  After the race on Sunday, we even had supper with a kid named Sam.

The higher the hat, the higher the rank.

With all the homage paid to Sam Houston, you’d think he was kind of a big deal, and considering he was the first AND third president of the Republic of Texas,  you’d be correct.  In fact, he won the 1836 presidential election for the Republic of Texas in a landslide, taking 79.4% of the vote against another famous Texan: Stephen F. Austin, who took a measly 9.1% of the vote.  The vote most likely reflected the work ethic of the two men.  While Sam Houston was busy ambushing Señor Santa Anna, mid siesta, en-route to liberating Tejas from Mexican rule to create the greatest (although short-lived) Republics in the history of the world, Hipster Steve A. was most likely riding around the hill-country on his fixed gear.

And in this bit of history I find a tiny snippet of delightful irony in our past weekend of racing.  On a weekend where we were racing through and around the namesakes meant to pay homage to the man largely responsible for creating the State of Texas from the Mexican state of Coahuila, it was a lad from Nuevo Leon that snuck off with the victory in both P1/2 races.  Both victories were perfectly executed, no doubt from the months spent planning the revenge on Sam Houston.  Enrique Aldapa flew under the radar, right up until the point that he decided to blow the radar up and win the race.  At Coldspring, it was at the beginning of the 5th and final lap where he bridged up to my breakaway and then promptly dropped me when I failed to accelerate uphill to get on his wheel.  The story was the same at the Houston Grand Crit; Aldapa bridged up to, and passed, Veggie during the last lap.  In both races, nobody was equipped to hold his wheel when he finally went, because he was smart and rationed his efforts during the rest of the race.

As reluctant as I am to get into a car and drive east from Austin for three and a half hours into the land of Texas historic remembrance, this past weekend made me realize that I really should consider it more often.  The reasons are twofold, and strangely have nothing to do with Mr. Houston: 1) the trees around Coldspring are lovely (I highly recommend camping at the Double Lake Recreation Area) and 2) …well, the trees in Coldspring are lovely.  Reason two was going to be something along the lines of Houston Grand being a very well-done race, but that isn’t a reason to go back to Houston, except for possibly the once a year that Houston closes down Allen Parkway and lets us play bike-race for an afternoon.

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Ronde von Manor Race Report

or A Tale of Two Races

Four days ago, I wrote this, partly as a tip to get some of the 3’s and 4’s thinking about the race, but mostly to get my head around what I was going to have to do over the weekend.  Putting a complex idea into words helps me to condense it into components that can be addressed one at a time.  Sometimes, in the end, it looks simple.

“The most important thing to remember is to anticipate the hill and be in a good position to go with a move on any lap, although the later it gets in the race, the higher the probability that something is going to go.  If a few hitters make a move, I’d suggest going with it.”

This is exactly what I spent the entirety of my race doing on Saturday, and exactly what I forgot to do on Sunday.  The two days, despite being raced on the same course in very similar conditions, showed how bipolar bicycle racing can be by resulting in two radically different races.  On Saturday, one team took charge and brought the race back together for a field sprint, and on Sunday, a well represented break left an unmotivated peloton to struggle for scraps.  I wasn’t particularly successful in either race, but both presented situations that I could learn from.

Discussing Strategy for the Race

Saturday was beautiful; 85 degrees and sunny with a slight southwesterly wind.  Uncharacteristically May weather in late March; the perfect day for a race.  The close proximity to Austin meant that many of my teammates were able to sneak away from responsibilities for an afternoon to come race; Team Wooly Mammoth fielded a team of eight for the P/1/2, giving us the opportunity to practice racing cohesively as a team.  My job was to mark the hitters and get into the break only when they went; the rest of my teammates would mark other moves to make sure we were represented in any break that got up the road.

For the duration of Saturday’s race, I raced smart instead of hard.  Gaubert made the early break, so the pressure was off the team; all we needed to do was follow wheels as people tried to bridge, and if one of the main players made a bridge attempt, it was my job to go with it.  I surfed the front of the peloton and kept an eye on the “hitters.”  When they started moving to the front, so did I.  When they jumped; I jumped.  My teammates did an awesome job of babysitting my impatience. When John or Chris saw me in the wind, they reminded me to stay hidden. As a result of the team’s expectations, I rode a better race; more reserved and more focused (the way I should be racing all the time). I was always aware of what was coming up on the course, and positioned myself accordingly. With each unsuccessful attempt to bridge, Super Squadra got more impatient and finally just decided to take control of the race and chase the break down. When it was clear that the race was going to a field sprint, John and I switched roles on the fly: I was protecting him for the sprint. It was a good call on his part as he took 4th on the day.

We entered the race with a solid plan, and the race just decided to play out in another way.  Just because our strategy didn’t manifest, doesn’t mean it was a failure.  We had a man in the early break and we consistently marked and covered bridge attempts.  On Saturday, we raced as a team and we raced smart; a recipe that we intended to follow on Sunday as well, although with a smaller team of four.

On day two, we wanted to be aggressive and try to make the break; I was going to make sure my attacks were meaningful and effective, snappy enough that when I attacked, I wasn’t taking the entire peloton with me.  When the race started, we immediately took turns covering attacks and countering when the would-be breaks were caught.  We tired, but kept with the plan as attacks went off the front.  What I didn’t realize at the time was that none of the big players were active; they were waiting.  On our first trip up the hill at mile 5, Brant Speed and Gray Skinner blew the doors off the race and the winning break was established.  787 and Squadra were present, as were a few of the stronger unattached riders.  Our overzealous execution of the plan to get into the break made us unable to go with the break when it happened.

With a reduced team, efforts should have been metered, with careful attention paid to upcoming terrain and the activities of other teams.  Regardless of what changed in the peloton from Saturday to Sunday, the hill was still the most significant geographic feature on the course: it deserved an equal amount of attention the second day.  In the end, we had a plan and stuck to it, but it was too wide-open; we stated an objective without taking into consideration how we were going to achieve that goal.

View from the hill.

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la Primavera at Lago Vista

I just want to set something straight: as hilly as this course is, Lago Vista is not a “climber’s” course.  No matter which way you run it, clockwise or anti-clockwise, it is not one for the climbers.  On Saturday’s course, run clockwise, the main climb is approximately one and a third mile long at a steady 2.5% grade.  The reverse course, raced on Sunday, covers the same elevation, only the climbing is punctuated with steeper pitches.  The 15% grade at the start of the climbing punches you in the solar plexus and the rest of the climbing laughs in your face as you gasp for breath.  The steep pitches don’t crank up for long enough to separate the true climbers from the sprinters.  Saturday is a day for the guys that can crank out big watts for long periods of time, and Sunday is for the explosive riders that can repeat massive efforts over and over again.

Descending at Lago Vista

With that being said, Saturday was the course better suited to my particular skill-set.  The long steady drag on the backside of the course with a modest headwind set the stage for large teams to take the stage and gutter the field.  With 11 riders from Elbowz in the field, it was only a matter of time before the carnage started, because when the table is set for a feast, somebody is going to eat.  To survive the day, starting the climb in the top 15 of the field was critical.  Every.  Single.  Lap.  In retrospect, this is where I failed.  The importance of position did not sink in until the 2nd or 3rd time up the climb, when guys started to lose it in front of me and I needed to cover gaps to stay on the main group.  It became evident, although at that point I was already in survival mode.

A view of the peloton from the descent.

So why the trouble staying near the front of the pack, and why did it continue like that for the entire race?  For me, the problem wasn’t initially the climbing or the wind; it was the descent.  Every lap, the peloton would reach upwards of 80 kph (50 mph for the less Euro-inclined) on the steeper downhill sections of the course while taking the lazy sweeping turns back to the finish-line.  The turns weren’t techy at all, but I still needed a few laps to get comfortable navigating the corners while in close proximity to other racers.  I’d get nervous and tap the brakes in a turn that had no need for brakes and I’d lose a few positions in the pack.  By the end of the descent, I was 20 to 25 guys back from where I started, ready to start climbing again in the back of the pack where I didn’t want to be.  All the gaps I spent the precious energy covering on the previous lap’s climb were erased in a few misplaced lever pulls.  I eventually settled down and started feeling comfortable on the descents, but by that point in the race, it was too late.  I crossed the line after 83 miles in 27th place.

Saturday was hard, but I knew Sunday was going to be much, much worse based on the type of efforts that were going to be involved.  I had a chance to reflect on what happened on Saturday and I was determined to not let it happen again; my main focus was positioning.  I spent the backside of each lap obsessively moving up through the pack to make sure I hit business end of the course in the business end of the peloton.  For the first half of the race, I was extremely successful.  I spent most of it in the front, but not on the front.  The highlight of my day was having John Trujillo, a teammate that I respect for his ability to move through a field, comment on the way I was intuitively flowing into gaps in the peloton.

In the front!  Right behind multiple national champion Steve Tillford.

And then the hills started to wear on me and I started drifting further and further back on the climbs.  The first time it happened, I quickly dug deep and turned on TT mode to get back on.  During the next lap, I got gapped a little bit more and worked with a small group to catch back on after the turnaround at the top of the hill.  The lap after that, the gap was a little worse and the group was a little bigger, but chase we did.  We chased our asses off, finally catching the main field as we prepared to pass through the start-finish.  Just in time to start climbing again.  That was at mile 50, and on that lap, I imploded spectacularly: my race was over.

None of this is to say that I’m disappointed with the racing from this weekend, I’m simply honestly reflecting upon the weekend to identify and correct mistakes.  It is easy to fall into the pattern of not being critical enough: I did poorly at Lago because I didn’t have the fitness.  I’ll be the first to admit that lack of fitness played a part in my case, but to fall back on “lack of fitness” after every race is cheating yourself out of improvements that could be made.  What could I have done with the fitness I had at the time?  What was my potential, and why wasn’t I achieving that potential?

And don’t even start with the “I’m not a climber” line.  I don’t want to hear it.

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What a Difference a Week Makes

The University Oaks Criterium is a small crit that happens four or five times a year in an office park on the north side of SA.  The purse is small so it doesn’t pull deep talent from across the state, which makes it a perfect place to work on technique while also getting a fast race in the legs.  I saw this week’s race as an opportunity to work on some weak points identified during Alsatian; gain confidence in my cornering and get some practice hitting turns at full speed while in a small group.

Despite the 40 degree weather and rumors of sleet, Jim Day and I made the trip to San Antonio to race this year’s first edition of the University Oaks Criterium, put on by Kickstand Racing.  When we pulled up to the race, it was as cold as promised, and immediately after Jim made the comment “at least it’s not raining,” the sleet began to fall.  There were a lot of unenthusiastic bike racers milling about the registration tent, most joking about not wanting to race, some meaning it.  I killed as much time as possible huddled next to the heater under the Nelo’s Cycles tent (thanks to the foresight of Christopher Stanton from the Ghisallo Foundation), but after watching my old teammate Colin Strickland (Jack and Adam’s Racing Team) take 2nd from a 3-man break in the 3/4 race, it was time to get kitted up.

Trying to stay warm.

After a short warm-up, I lined up for the P/1/2/3 race.  Kristian House  (Rapha Condor Sharp) also made the trip from Austin and pretty much walked away with the race, leaving the rest of us to chase like mad for most of the hour.

Chasing House.

During the race, I tried something my teammate, John Trujillo, suggested about learning how to corner without fear: endlessly repeat “No brakes.  No brakes.”  As simple as it sounds, that’s the gist of my plan to become a better technical rider.  When approaching a corner with any amount of speed, especially when in close proximity to other racers, a little voice comes on inside my head and tells me to slow down.  It usually manifests with an uncomfortable feeling; a nervousness in the pit of my stomach.   On Sunday, I made the effort to quell that little bugger, and John’s mantra helped to give me something to focus on instead of the fear.

This is probably something I have done for a long time, only in the 4’s and 3’s I had enough strength to cover up my mistakes.  After earning my category 2 upgrade last year and doing more races against the P/1’s, I realized that I could no longer compensate with my huge engine; the behavior is a serious impediment to my success at this level.  Here’s a shot from last year, so the problem is definitely not new:

Very obvious here.

And one from last weekend during the Alsatian Crit.

Notice the fingers on the brakes.

And this is one that Robert Mercado took during the UO Crit this past weekend. Notice the difference in where my fingers are.  Progress!  By keeping my fingers off the brakes in the lead-up to a turn, I’m simply forcing myself to add a priming step to the braking process, which gives me one extra instant to re-evaluate the need to brake under those circumstances.

Look Ma!  No brakes!

Now, I want to elaborate that I’m not taking risks that will put my fellow racers in harm.  I know there are times when brakes are absolutely necessary, which is why I wanted to  practice this bit of self restraint at University Oaks before doing it in a bigger, faster, fuller race.  The course on Sunday is one that can be taken at speed.  Brakes are not needed, but it is tricky to get the brain to believe it.

Did it help?  You bet it did.  I was able to carry more speed into the corners, rarely letting gaps open.  This translated into increased efficiency; I wasn’t spending energy every lap sprinting to get back into the draft of the guy in front of me.

At the end of the race, especially when the speed was picking up for the sprint, I felt more comfortable.  I was able to stay in position in the lead-up to the sprint and gave me a much better chance at the end of the race.  I still miss-timed my jump and could have made other improvements during the race to put me in a better position at the end.  I ended up grabbing 4th in the field sprint.  Can’t fix everything in a day, but a week can make a hell of a difference.

Early-season sprint fury!

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Learning about Bike Racing at Alsatian Omnium

Another weekend of racing is in the books, and other than a game of hearts at the Castro cottage on Saturday night, I came up empty handed in the results department, but not empty handed overall.  You see, I have determined that it is up to me what I take away from each race, and my goal is pretty straightforward: analyze races to find the weak points in my racing, then make those weak points a priority during the coming months.  Write a blog about it to cement the resolve.  Reevaluate after every weekend to gauge progress.  Repeat ad nauseam until I start winning bike races again.  This is precisely the sort of approach to continuous improvement that corporate America developed in me before I disconnected from the machine.  If it works for their bottom line, it is as good a method as I can think of for improving my racing.

Saturday, February 4th

The first day of the omnium was a 70 minute circuit race in the morning followed by an 8 kilometer time trial in the afternoon.  I ended up 19th in the circuit and 14th in the TT.  Neither was as good as I was hoping for, but as long as I measure success by actionable goals, I was a champion, because there was plenty to improve upon that day.

First off, my preparation sucked.  It is obvious that I was never an Eagle Scout; no brake pads for my race wheels, and no cassette tool to put a cassette on my disk.  If it wasn’t for Sol Frost from Austinbikes saving my ass, I would have been sans disk in the afternoon.  Not a big deal, except for when you actually want to go fast.  More on this later.  Long story short: I need to start paying attention to those checklists Coach made for me when I was just a wee cat 4.  It turns out I haven’t outgrown their usefulness.

One of the infamous corners.

Next, the circuit race was another study in low hanging fruit.  It was a fast course with a hill and a few turns; standard fare in Texas.  What isn’t standard fare (or maybe it is) is my ability to take the turns while maintaining a high level of velocity.  From the extensive research that has been conducted by my team of research scientists over the past two days, shedding too much speed coming into the corners means I have to work that much harder to return to my original velocity post turn (P<0.001).  This applies to time trials as well, and is probably even more critical.

Suffering at the turnaround.

Last, the time trial and the part of the weekend I was looking forward to the most.  Here, Sol saved me so I could actually use my disk, which is pretty much required to go really fast, unless your name is Chris Trickey and you decide to do the TT without one and end up beating your hero (nameless) and finish one tenth of a second behind your teammate that is so proud of his ability to time trial (also nameless).  For a guy that supposedly doesn’t time trial, he rode a good one at right under 30 mph.

Sunday, February 5th

On the morning of the road race, the team walked out the front door of our cottage and found that the crazy-mild winter we’d been having up until that point was replaced with real winter.  The temperature had dropped from 75 degrees earlier in the week to 42 degrees.  Despite the chill, there wasn’t a single dress code violation to be found; the importance of these things have not been lost on us.

Not much to say about the road race, except Andrew Willis of Holland Racing once again did an awesome job with course selection for this one.  It was a hard race that blew apart soon after the pace was picked up halfway through.  This is also pretty close to where I was jettisoned from the flotilla and forced to make my way back around the loop one more time in a somewhat less accompanied manner.  The improvement plan from this one can be summed up in one word: patience.  Lighting off a flare and going all-out to join every would-be escape and ultimately blowing up may not be the best way to spend energy 50 miles into an 85 mile race.  As a cat 2 in a P/1/2 race, it’s not my job to be the one that chases the break.  I need to spend more time in conservation mode while being attentive to what others in the peloton are doing so I can better identify and go with the peloton when they are going to chase.  I feel that this is one of the harder skills to learn, especially at this level when a single mistake can get you dropped out of the pack.

I got to spend the weekend racing with teammates, and Willis was able to keep the rain away from the races despite having rain everywhere else in Texas.  It wasn’t a bad weekend by any means, unless your definition of bad encompasses only the “not winning” category.  I don’t like losing, but I’m trying my best to not fall into the trap of viewing bike races, especially at this time of year as a Cat 2, through such a narrow lens.  The way I see this weekend, I walked away with a lot of information about what I need to work on in order to continue improving over the course of the entire season.  After all, evaluation and feedback are the cornerstones of learning.  Without those two things, we simply stagnate.

As somebody told me once: “Learn to race your ****** bike.”  Thanks, Phil.  I’m working on it.

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An Ounce of Prevention

We are all familiar with the well-known saying spoken by Benjamin Franklin.  Over and over again, it gets harped on topics such as maintenance and health, and we hear it so often that we roll our eyes when somebody tries to tell it to us again.  The gist, take care of little problems before they become big problems.  Easy, right?  Not necessarily.

As amateur bike racers, we need to squeeze training and racing into a life packed with work and school, while also trying to not alienate our friends, family and significant others on the process.  We dedicate our mornings and evenings to training every week, and entire weekends of leisure time to travel and race our bikes.  In schedules that are already brimming, it is insanely easy to put off doing something as simple as washing the bike or lubing the chain and cables after a ride.

I fall into this trap all the time, and 99% of the time, it pays off with a few extra hours to nap on a Saturday afternoon.  Not last weekend.  All those extra hours that I saved by not taking care of my machine suddenly came back to visit me in the form of a snapped derailleur hanger.  Bad luck, right?  Things happen, no?  It’s part of racing?  I wish I could say that was the case this time.  My broken derailleur hanger was the direct result of negligence on my part.

My mentors from back in Corpus, Donnie Orchard and Michael Lidwell used to harp all the time about keeping bikes clean.  They’d say “You spend enough money on your shit, you might as well take care of it.”  Their words obviously didn’t sink in.  Brendan Sharpe, an experienced mechanic for the Brazilian National Cycling Team and head mechanic at Nelo’s Cycles in Austin, TX told me a couple of weeks ago that lubing the cable housing will make shifting easier, extend the life of shifters and reduce stress on my derailleur hanger.  I took note, but immediately lost it.  I’m a busy man.  I can’t bother to take 5 minutes to get the bottle of Tri-flow out.

Well, he called it.  This past weekend, I downshifted and ripped the derailleur clean off.  Stranded 30 minutes outside of town, tail between legs, I called a teammate and got the sag.  Then we went to brunch and got drunk, but that has nothing to do with my ineptitude at routine bicycle maintenance.  A couple days later, a good friend Chris Trickey called to check in and we got into a discussion about maintenance:

Chris: “When you go out for a ride, do you make sure your ass is clean?”
Me: “Huh?”
Chris: “Your ass.  Do you clean it?”
Me: “Yeah.  All the time.”
Chris: “Then why wouldn’t you do the same for your bike?  You’ve got to take care of your shit.”

And I finally saw where he was going with it.  And then I was embarrassed.  I was embarrassed because I’m a grown man, an experienced bike racer, needing to be told by other grown men that I need to do a better job of taking care of my equipment.  It is embarrassing because it’s true, and I shouldn’t have to be told.  These are the lessons that stick.  You can bet I won’t screw this one up again.

So where am I going with this?  It’s October.  Last month was September.  Breast Cancer Awareness Month and Prostate Cancer Awareness Month respectively.  A lot of people know about the former, not many are familiar with the later.   This month, we’ll see some pink ribbons and maybe even some pink bar tape, and when I see them, I can’t help but think of my broken derailleur hanger.  Of all the shortcuts I take in my life, not all of them are as inconsequential to my day-to-day life as embarrassing myself in front of friends and needing a ride home.

Moral of the story: Take care of things and get your shit checked.

Another big thanks to Jim Hicks for the awesome photography he provides on a weekly basis.

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The Euro New Year

September is lazily rolling to a close and calendars everywhere are running out of pages: the last monument of the World-tour calendar, the Giro di Lombardia is a few short weeks away and the Texas State Championships concluded the official TXBRA calendar last weekend.  The end of one calendar year always brings with it the start of the next; a time of year I like to think of as the Euro New Year.  Racers everywhere are getting ready to hang up their race bikes for a couple of weeks before starting to build toward the fresh spring races; only a few more Driveway races remain to entice the Austin-area peloton to continue throwing legs over the top-tubes to ride out whatever fitness remains from State.

For some, the Euro New Year means a much needed vacation from the bike, after close to 9 months of sacrifice, to let the mind recover; time spent with our ladies and our friends (or our lady-friends, if you’re following me) enjoying beers and other divine treats that were feared and avoided during the season.  Others will ride the fitness wave into Cross season and get exposed to crazy things like hecklers, cow-bells, barriers, high-side primes and run-ups.  Personally, I’m in the former camp and not the later, although I will be doing my best to mix the former with the later by making appearances at the cross races (ladies, friends and beers in tow) to heckle the suffering masses.  Regardless if the plan is completely removed from the bike or is a simple change from calipers to cantilevers, the basic goal is still the same: immerse a tired mind in something relaxing; bring fun back into the equation.

Enjoying a drink or two while not sweating my ass off.
Notice the relaxed posture, the beverages (Belgian style, of course) and the lack of form-fitting clothing; this man is ready to celebrate the Euro New Year. 

As I’ve mentioned, during the weeks around the Euro New Year, it is customary to relax one’s lifestyle slightly; possibly even smiling during what rides there are.  Oddly enough (or predictably if you are of the initiated) this period of relaxation brings with it an inner consciousness, resulting in an almost automatic reflection on the past year and projection of riding goals into the coming months.  The hours that were once dedicated to endeavors such as riding and racing will be dedicated to talking and thinking about these endeavors; a minor difference indeed, but a very important one.  So vitally important because reliving past successes give us an idea of what greater success will taste like, while every failure is used to stoke the motivational fire that cooks that wonderful fire-grilled success pizza.  Hopes and dreams are born during the Euro New Year.

“Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending.”  -Maria Robinson.

I got this quote with my check at Blue Dahlia Bistro (kind of like a fortune cookie…except at a French bistro, and the bill isn’t a delicious cookie) and found it very fitting to the New Year.  It is impossible to change the events of last season, but ripping legs off next season is the fastest surefire way to forget about them.  So, to all my friends, “Happy New Year!”  Or, as they would say in Flanders, “Gelukkig Nieuwjaar!”

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