Category Archives: Racing

Mineral Wells Stage Race

Every downpour begins with a solitary raindrop, and on the 17th of February, that first raindrop hit us just as the sun was setting as we merged into rush-hour traffic on Mopac, headed north to escape Austin on our way to Mineral Wells.  It was like the sun was the only thing keeping the rain at bay, leaving the clouds to do as they wished as soon as the sun was enveloped by the trees on the horizon.  Thick sheets of unrelenting rain; erasing the world outside the reach of the headlights.  It was the kind of rain that induces an anxious, uncertainty induced terror that forces the cautious drivers on the road to slow down to 45 mph in an attempt to stay ahead of the dangers that may be hiding in the curtains of rain.  A white-knuckled four hours after leaving Austin, we were unloading the car at the hotel, praying that the rain couldn’t continue into Saturday.

We were wrong.  The temperature dropped and the rain continued.  The crit was a disaster, and was a great example of how not to prepare for a bike race.  Morgovnik and I made the 10 minute ride from the hotel to the course early enough to pick up numbers, but the cold, rainy weather removed any motivation we had to warm-up once numbers were pinned.  As such, we started the 60 minute race with ice-cold muscles and very little motivation.  It showed, as the pack split almost immediately into several groups.  I’m only guessing at this, but I feel the guys that felt comfortable cornering a technical crit in the rain were the ones that made the initial selection.  Cornering through 3 inches of water is not one of my strong suits, this I know.  I ended up out of contention in one of the trailing groups on the road.

Critting in the rain.

Like the rain, the temperature continued to fall throughout the day.  By the 1 pm start time for the cat 2 time trial, the temperature had dropped to 40 degrees and the wind had picked up significantly.  Despite the cold and wet, I was optimistic that I would redeem my poor showing in the crit.  In fact, the time trail was the part of the weekend I was looking forward to the most, even in the inclement weather.  I got in a short warm-up on my trainer at the City Park and then rode to the start tent a couple miles way.  One minute before my scheduled start, I shed my jacket and gloves; I was ready to race.  As my start time crept closer, I took a few deep breaths and cleared my mind.  15 seconds, the official held my bike upright and I clipped in.  10 seconds, I visualized the calm suffering that was about to take place.  5 seconds, a few more deep breaths…

When the clock hit 1:08, the holder let go of me and I jumped forward from the start house; not quite a sprint, but not a sustainable pace either.  I got up to speed quickly and then tucked into the position I would stay in for the next 20 minutes.  The course was hilly, but the pitches were never bad enough to need to come off the aero bars or shift out of the big ring.  As my legs began to burn during the first major climb, I just counted my pedal strokes to keep a rhythm: 1-2-3-4.  1-2-3-4.  The slower pace of the climbs were a welcome respite from the sharp, stinging pain of being blasted on every square inch of exposed skin; the 43 mph descents turned the soft raindrops into searing needles.  Even if I didn’t question my decision to ride without arm warmers, I certainly wished I had my sunglasses on.  Cresting the 2nd major hill of the course, I felt my spirits sink as the finish-line was nowhere to be seen.  The long descent followed by another climb lay stretched out ahead of me.  There was no visual cue to lock in on for the last few kilometers, but I was familiar with the course profile and knew the finish-line couldn’t be much further than the last climb.  I stuck to my plan and rode the last climb as hard as I could; I wanted nothing left in the tank when I crossed the finish line.  Mission accomplished.  Had I tried to stand up to sprint at the end of the race, I would have fallen off my bike.  Thankfully, a couple of guys from DNA Racing out of Oklahoma offered me a ride when they saw me make the turnaround to head home, wearing nothing but a skinsuit.

Time – 20:21
Place – 2nd
Status – Redeemed

Soggy and cold, we were finally done for the day.  Time to relax and recover for the road race on Sunday morning.

There isn’t much to say about the road race.  I raced aggressively in order to take pressure off Adam Gaubert, who was sitting at 3rd overall in GC.  Our goal was to put somebody into the major break-away of the day so we could put ourselves in a good position at the end of the race to counter-attack if the break got caught.  Leading into the 3rd lap, Michael Sheehan and I bridged up to a 3-man break-away that had been up the road.  The five of us worked well to stay away.  We almost made it, too.  With approximately 2 miles to go, Gaubert rode the wheel of another rider across the gap to us and that caused the pack to start chasing.  The break dug as hard as it could to stay away, but it wasn’t enough.  In the end, we were caught and Gaubert’s courageous move fell short.  I suppose that’s the nature of a sport where there can be only one winner.

With the exception of the crit, I’m pleased with the way I raced over the weekend.  The time trial shows that, while I still don’t have any top end, the engine is still there and is strong.

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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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Filed under Lessons Learned, Race Report, Racing, Team Wooly Mammoth

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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Dr. Strangebibs

or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bike.

The off-season is officially over.  For me, the last two weeks of October were categorized by long periods of physical rest punctuated by brief, intense spells of mental restlessness.  Repeatedly, over the first few days of those two weeks, I succumbed to near panic attacks as I watched the well-tuned fitness I had developed over the last few weeks of the season slowly die like the embers of a once mighty fire.  I had no desire to be racing or training, but I still had frayed nerves from the vast, empty time that lay in front of me.  To survive, I channeled the nervous energy into other tasks.

During this period, I was able to finally get around to working on projects that were on my list but never really had the time for during the season.  The mix of cooler weather and free time provided the perfect environment to precipitate action out of somebody that is used to riding for at least 3 hours a day.  I cast off the spandex bibs in favor of my trusty (but equally ridiculous looking) gardening hat and went at it.  All it took was a day off from work and a full Bodum to turn a stack of extra two-by’s into a new raised bed garden.  Add some seeds and some water and let the waiting begin.

Raised bed handiwork.

The waiting; this was the hardest part of the off-season for me.  For those two weeks, everything seemed to be in suspended animation.  Coach put a restraining order on the bike and the discipline that comes with daily rides.  A mind that is occupied by nothing but waiting can be convinced to do anything.  All of a sudden, things that were terrible ideas a month ago are perfectly acceptable.  Rain on a Saturday morning?  Sleeping in.  Sweets?  Yes, please.  Beer with dinner?  Can’t hurt.  Wine glass filled with bourbon?  Bueno!

Bueno!

Without the need to get up at 6 am to get a ride in, one beer easily turns into many beers.  And why not?  The consequence of a hangover can be spread out over an entire day and is often completely forgotten about when that one teammate  (you know the one; he’s on every team) calls back at 7 pm to repeat the process from the night before and go get “a beer.”

After the two week descent into debauchery, even the most race fatigued mind is ready to get back on the bike to return to something that even vaguely resembles a routine.  As soon as the cleats clip in for the first time for the first ride, the world exhales; the pause is over.  Somewhere over those two weeks, a mind that was fried off of bike racing re-discovered the ability to enjoy riding a bike again.  Seemingly out of nowhere, what appeared fallow is now beginning to show signs of life.

It's ALIVE!

Bring on the base miles.

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Open Letter to Austinbikes

Dear Sol, Eric and the rest of the Austinbikes team,

I admit that I foolishly scoffed at the idea of custom insoles when you first threw the pitch. I thought they were too expensive for a guy like me and wouldn’t offer much in terms of a competitive advantage. I thought they were just another luxury item marketed to the disposable incomes that seem to hang around our sport.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. I will gladly cop to my folly. After getting Cyclesoles made by Sol in January, I was able to string together the necessary results to earn my Cat 2 upgrade by early May. I then continued on to win the Texas State Cat 2 Criterium and Time Trial championships during the summer. I’m not trying to imply that Cyclesoles magically made me a contender; that would be a translucent claim that any bike racer could see through and would not do anybody any good.

Cyclesoles simply fixed a biomechanical problem that has nagged me from the day I decided to first throw a leg over the top-tube. I don’t have to think about my knees anymore. I haven’t had to take time off the bike to stay ahead of knee problems while they flare up. I haven’t had to coddle myself during training to ensure that my knees stay happy. In this regard, it has freed me to train more consistently: I have been able to flog myself day-in and day-out over the last 9 months to make the best use of training time I have available. A year ago, I wouldn’t have been able to do this. Cyclesoles got me back on the bike and kept me on the bike; they saved my season. These are the single best bike-related investment I have ever made.

Once again, thanks.

-Matti von Kessing
Texas State Cat 2 Crit, ITT and TTT Champion
Now, a little bit of background information:

Cyclesoles are a fully custom footbed made out of heat-moldable foam that are shaped to the foot while in the riding position on the bike. The bottoms of the insoles are then ground down to match the sole of the cycling shoes. In this way, they offer a completely rigid platform for the foot that does not deform under power and will not collapse over years of use, which is one complaint of other heat-moldable insoles.  Finally, the insoles are covered with an anti-microbial fabric woven from unicorn hairs or bamboo or something. I don’t know exactly what it is, but it looks so dope…like having Wall Street executives in my shoes when I ride. The whole process takes around 2 or 3 hours.

Custom footbeds...lots of arch.

Going from off-the-shelf insoles to the Cyclesoles was a HUGE change for me; they took some getting used to. I had some discomfort during long rides until my feet grew accustomed to having something other than empty space under my heel and arch. The little button between my toes was like a burr on a tooth that I couldn’t stop feeling, just because it was there. Not bad, just there. But, after a week or two of riding, the Cyclesoles became invisible. Now, I don’t even know they are there.

Sidi, Specialized and Cyclesoles footbeds.

If you have ever had knee problems on the bike and find yourself in Austin, make a trip to West Lynn and drop in on Austinbikes to say “hi” to the guys there. Tell Sol about your problems. You’ll be glad you did.

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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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Filed under CREDO Racing, Crushing Souls, Lessons Learned, Off-season, Racing, Relaxing

Texas State Road Race Championships

The weekend’s race can be summed up in 3 words: “margin of error.”

The higher the category, the smaller the margin of error.  Often, a small amount of fatigue or a bad move during the race won’t end a race, but as the stakes get higher, the price one pays for these small mistakes tends to also get much larger.  Competitors are able to pick out small blunders and will strategically exploit them.   In order to win, or even hang onto a race like this one, not only does someone need to be fit, they also need to be smart.

Looking back on the race, I see places that I could have made different choices to put myself in a better position to finish stronger.  At the end of the 2nd 33 mile loop, the pace picked up substantially on the finishing stretch and the peloton got guttered.  I was the last to get dropped off the leaders as Michael Pincus went to the front and slaughtered everyone.  Instead of looking back to see the other 12 guys chasing, I focused intently on the last wheel of the leaders’ group, approximately 50 meters in front of me, and tried to time-trial my way back on.  Eventually, the momentum of the large chase group boiled over and they caught the leaders and me.  I was able to get on as they went by to get a bit of recovery, but I had burned too many matches trying to chase solo.  When we reached the 5th category 5 climb of the day a couple of miles later, I was out of gas.  Dunzo, off the back.  I spent the rest of the day chasing.  Had I spent more time recovering in the chase instead of trying to do all the work on my own, I feel confident I would have gotten over that climb.  I’m not sure I would have had the legs to finish strong on the day, but I would have been part of the race longer than I was.

In this way, the race rewards smart decisions, and penalizes the bad ones, which starts a chain reaction of post-race decision analysis.  Would I have been better suited to going with the break-away that went off in the first 4 miles of the race?  The long, steady miles of the breakaway could have suited my riding style better.  Instead of the surging of the chase/stall game that the peloton was playing, I could have just set the cruise control and let my legs do their thing.  In the end, I had a plan for how to approach the race, and I followed the plan.  Was this a good plan from the start?

I could 2nd guess the decisions I made for the entirety of the off season, but it doesn’t do me any good to beat myself up about it.  On that same vein, an integral part of the improvement process is to seek feedback after a race;  mistakes and weaknesses from Saturday’s race will be used in the off-season to fuel the motivation.  Reflecting on errors will ensure that those errors are not made in the future.  But it is a precarious line to walk; venturing too far down that rabbit hole could get one lost with Alice forever.

My lack of a result on Sunday doesn’t put a black mark on my season.  I still feel I had an amazing year, and anyways, winning all 3 of the state championships this year would have been just plain greedy.  As Meatloaf says, “two out of three ain’t bad.”

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