Race Report: Rose Festival Road Race

Spoiler alert: I won! This was my first even win, so I’m incredibly stoked to have finally won a race. I really learned a lot today, so I’ll try my best to pass that on to you the reader, but also to help remind my future-self!

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I know I don’t look too excited here, I think I was still in shock!

Intro: I outlined a lot of details in my strategy post, so I’ll be brief here. This was my second “A” race this season. I chose it because it traditionally has a relatively small turnout, and I thought the parcours suited me pretty well. After a fairly successful crit the weekend before I had some confidence about this race. While warming up I was able to tell myself with a straight face that I could win this race. That was the first time that’s happened to me.

Capture

Course/Conditions: The course is a 20 mile loop ridden counterclockwise, done twice. The roads are typical Iowa country roads — lightly rolling and fully exposed. As you can see from the Strava image above there are two or three decent sized hills, but the final hill was by far the most serious. It was steeper than the others, and mostly flattened out for the last 200 meters. Thus you would get good and tired going up the hill, and then had to sprint to finish it off.

Weather was humid and in the low 80’s. I brought two nearly full bottles of water and half a Clif bar. For drink I used water in one bottle and Skratch Labs Hydration Mix in the other.

 

Field: The Men’s Cat 4 field had 16 starters. This ended up being a very strong field, including guys who had won some big local races. Only one team was well represented (Sakari, with 5 guys). I only knew one or two guys, so I was pretty clueless what everyone’s strengths and weaknesses were.

 

Strategy: I did a whole post on this, so I’ll be brief here. Suffice to say, I wanted to be in a break if one happened. If not I planned to sit in and conserve energy. The finish line was at the top of a fairly steep hill:

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I knew that this finish would suit me well since I am both light and can sprint fairly well. The beginning slopes were 5%-6%, and as you can see it eventually flattened out. I knew that if I tried to go for it at the bottom of the hill I would be dead by the top. Thus I planned to hold back as long as possible.

Racing: Racing started out very calm. At the first corner someone launched a soft attack, but it was quickly absorbed. This continued throughout the first lap, but everyone was very fresh and had the legs to chase attacks down. If one member from a team went up the road I was sure to jump on their wheel. Today I was racing to win, and being a one man team I needed to cover any potentially dangerous moves. I covered two or three such moves, but nothing really came of them.

As the second lap got on it became more and more obvious that a bunch sprint was the most likely outcome. The one well represented team had the bad habit of chasing down their own teammates, so it seemed unlikely any break would get away. I moved towards the back of the pack and got as sheltered as I could. Each time we approached a corner I would move up in the pack since attacks out of corners were very common.

Coming into the final finishing straight (~6-7 miles long) another attack came out of the corner. The pace stayed high and I just got into the drops and focused on positioning. About three miles out two guys went off the front. Two guys in front of me looked like they were gearing up to chase the breakaway down, so I jumped on their wheel. It looked like they were starting to echelon, but then they just calmly went back to riding. I shouted at the guy in front of me to keep echeloning. He calmly told me that there was no way in hell the two out front would stay away. At this point my only choices were to trust him and sit in, or try to bridge a ten second gap at 30+ mph. The latter seemed nearly impossible for me, so I got in line and waited it out. In fact he was completely correct. He noticed that the high speeds and stacked peloton meant that there was no way those two could maintain their gap.

As we approached the downhill leading to the final hill it became clear that we would indeed catch the break. I made sure to stay in the first few people and positioned myself behind someone who had been riding strong and seemed to still have energy. The yellow line rule was in effect even at the finish, so I knew that if I got stuck behind someone who was gassed I would be done for. We carried a very fast speed up the beginning of the hill. People started to launch attacks as soon as we hit the bottom, but I kept reminding myself to wait. About halfway up the hill I wanted to launch, but I realized that not only hadn’t we reached the 200 meters to go sign, but it wasn’t even visible yet! So I held back and kept on a wheel. Finally we hit the 200m sign and I launched. I pulled up next to the guy I was following and mashed the pedals like I never have before. About 25 meters from the line I truly believed my legs were about to seize up completely. At this point I had been gaining on him and had just pulled up even. I knew that if I stopped then I would certainly lose the race. Thus I forced myself to put out a couple more pedal strokes. I did a bike throw slightly earlier than I normally would have and saw that I was nearly even with two other racers.

I believed that I had won it, but wasn’t confident enough in that to say it outloud. In fact, the guy next to me cheered like he had won it. So I quietly rode around for a couple minutes to cool down. Whenever anyone asked me how I did I would just say “good”, and say that I wasn’t sure where I got. After a couple minutes I rode back to the start line and asked the USA Cycling official what the finishing order was. It was fantastic to hear my number read first! In that final sprint when I was gaining on the rider in front of me I had the realization that I could win this race! As the power was going out of my legs I started to think I would lose it, but my mind quickly forced me to give that extra tiny bit. It ended up being just enough!

 

What I Learned:

  1. Winning involves a lot of luck. If the guy in front of me at the end would have been gassed I would have been stuck. With the centerline rule in effect I would have had nowhere to go. It felt great to win, but it also put it in perspective for me. Had I been pinned behind someone at the last minute, or had I been 2% more fatigued I would have been knocked down to 2nd or 3rd place, at least. And yet I would be the same rider and done almost exactly the same work. So while I need to keep a winning mindset, I also need to realize that winning is unusual. So many tiny factors have to go right. Some of those factors you have control over, but many of them you don’t.
  2. As I cat up the other riders become much stronger. Teams are more invested in bringing back breakaways, and a small group of riders is much less likely to stay away. This race taught me just how important breakaway group composition is. I know see that what constitutes a strong break relies on many factors: teams, number of riders, distance left, current speed and terrain. This is something that I really feel like I’ll need to learn through experience.

 

Analysis: Every time I do well in a race I always go into future ones with a much stronger mindset. So the fact that I have a “W” under my belt means that I can truly picture myself as a winner. But as I mentioned in the first “What I Learned”, I also know that winning is a very slippery thing. What I don’t want to do is get in my head that I need to win to feel good about myself. I see that training hard and racing smart means I can get myself 95% of the way there. But that last 5% is a tricky thing, and can spell the difference between winning and being off the podium.

Lastly, this race showed me that as I progress racing gets much more complex. Everyone I’m racing with has experience, and everyone has seen at least as much as I have. Thus you need the ability to make complex calculations on the fly in order to determine the best move. Some of this will come from analyzing the race ahead of time or in the moment, but some of it will only come from experience. I need to continue working on both to do my best.

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Your First (and Second) Crit

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Criteriums are a unique beast. While a road race relies heavily on fitness (especially aerobic fitness) and drafting, criteriums rely on cornering and bursts of speed. In addition you can expect non-stop action. There’s very little “sitting in” and you’re constantly having to fight for position and sprint out of corners.

It’s very common to hear from racers that they hate crits, and that they’re “crash-fests”. Often these views come about because the few crits they’ve done involved some combination of getting dropped and crashing. With that in mind I’d like to give you my guide to surviving, thriving, and enjoying criterium racing.

Why Race Crits?: Racing a crit can feel like being in an action movie. You’re carrying high speeds through corners, rubbing elbows with other racers and sprinting for the finish line. For the fun factor alone I highly encourage anyone to give crits a try. But besides the entertainment, racing crits can reap huge benefits in your bike handling, situational awareness and ability to stay calm while racing.

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Bike Position: Your position on the bike between time trials and road races is drastically different. The same is true between road races and criteriums. In a criterium the primary factors are cornering speed and the ability to put out short bursts of power after each corner. For both of these things your best position is in the drops. In the drops you have better leverage on the bars and a lower center of gravity, so cornering is easier and more precise. In a 30 minute crit I’ll often spend 25+ minutes in the drops. I recommend getting into the drops after you’re off and clipped in, and then make that your default position. If the pace slows drastically, or you’ve got a long straight where you can draft, then feel free to move up to the hoods for a bit to open up your breathing. But once the fireworks start again, it’s back to the drops.

Some corners you can pedal through, some you can’t. This is what warmup laps are for. Take at least one warmup lap at nearly race-pace, and see how tight the corners are. For corners that you can’t pedal through, you should always have your inside leg up at 12 o’clock.

Look at the picture above. The rider has his inside leg up, he’s on the drops, he’s looking through the corner, and he’s relaxed. This is what you should aim for.

 

Your First Crit: I like to enter every race with certain goals in mind. Even if I believe I’m going to get dropped, I’ll still have a goal like hanging on the first few laps, or practicing my pack movement. In your first crit your goal should be to not crash.

Look at the first photo above. That corner was a 30 mph corner for me as a Cat 4, so you can only imagine how fast the Pro/1/2 guys in that picture are taking it. Yet look at how close everyone is. My point is not to scare new racers, but to give you an idea why first-time crit racers tend to crash a lot. Imagine that you were the guy in blue on the inside. If this was your first crit it’s very possible that you would panic and either hit the curb, grab the brakes, or go wide and hit another rider. If you jump head-first into your first crit guns-a-blazing, and don’t have the proper mindset, then crashing is very likely.

In your first crit I recommend taking the first couple laps as safe as possible. In practical terms this means taking a line through the corners that gives you extra space. Don’t take the tightest line through the corner, and try not to put yourself in a position that you’re riding up the inside of anyone. If you do find yourself in this position, try your best to stay relaxed. Hundreds of people will be doing that exact corner on that exact day, and 99% of them will not crash there. There’s no reason that you will crash there. Look through to where you want to go, keep your hands on the drops, stay relaxed, and stay off the brakes.

If you make it through the first few laps without getting dropped, then I congratulate you! At this point you should be starting to gain some confidence. Each lap you do you should try to hone your cornering skills. One of the absolute best things about crits is that you get to practice the same course over and over. What better way to learn cornering than to take a corner 20-30 times? Now, repeat that for every corner on the course. In my last crit I did 26 laps. Each lap had 6 corners. Thus not counting warmup and cooldown laps, I rode 156 corners at speed in 30 minutes. There is simply nowhere else you can safely get this much practice. So make the most of it!

Okay, now to the harsh truth. You will probably get dropped after a couple laps. I’ll talk about this more in the “Your Second Crit” section, but being near the front is key in a crit. But for a first time crit racer being near the front can be dangerous (at least for the first few laps). So getting dropped is a very real possibility. If you are dropped, continue to ride hard and use this as a chance to practice your cornering. With no one around you can take corners faster and see just how fast you can take them.

Before we leave, allow me a short story. My first crit was also my second race ever. I took the corners cautiously, and within a few laps I was dropped. At first I was pretty down, because I had just come off a block of winter training. But in taking the corners on my own, I soon realized just how fun this was! All the corners were swept clean and there were no cars around! I had my own little race course all to myself! By the end of the race I was sad about getting dropped so easily, but I also knew that crits were fun. Keep a positive mindset and enjoy your first crit, no matter what happens (but don’t crash, okay?)

Your Second Crit: Okay, here’s where things get fun. If you finished your first race crash-free, then you’ve probably built up some confidence cornering and riding with others. Doing well in a crit is largely about one thing: cornering. If you can take the corner faster than the people behind you, then they will have to sprint to catch up with you. As I said above, my last crit involved taking corners 156 times. If the person behind you has to sprint to catch up even 10% of the time, then they’ll be sprinting over 15 times. By the same token, if you can’t stick with the guy in front of you, you’ll end up wasting a lot of energy sprinting up to him to close the gap. In a criterium, cornering is everything.

The corollary here is that the more people that are in front of you, the higher chance that one of them will be slow through the corner. Sure, you may be glued to the wheel of the guy in front of you, but the train of people in front of you will be sprinting to close up to the leaders, which means you’ll have to as well. This means that to maximize your energy savings you need to be near the front. I find that 3rd to 5th wheel is typically perfect. You get all the savings from drafting, but very few people to worry about.

So you’re at the start line and the whistle blows. Get clipped in fast, and then race to that first corner. The first lap is not a time to worry about saving energy. The start will be hectic and everyone is fighting for position. It’s okay to be out of the draft for a couple corners, because position is more important than anything else. But once you’ve got into a good position, get on someones wheel. After a lap or so the pack will typically be strung out due to a high pace. That means if you’ve not on a wheel quickly you’ll end up riding next to that string, rather than in it. The fortunate thing is that the amount of cornering in a crit means that the pack rarely stays perfectly formed. Gaps will open, people will drift around, and you will end up with an opening.

I won’t say too much here about strategy, since that depends heavily on your strengths and weaknesses. But in a few words, if you know you are a strong sprinter then simply conserve energy throughout the race. This is where being near the front helps greatly, because you’re conserving energy by cornering quickly, and everyone behind you is burning it by closing up gaps. If you can’t sprint then be on the lookout for people taking a flyer. It’s almost always better to go off the front with someone else. The brutal truth is that you’re probably not stronger than the combined abilities and strengths of all the other riders, so solo breakaways very rarely work.

Your goal in this second crit should be to boost your confidence even more and hopefully not get dropped. You want to leave it feeling like you can corner better than you could before the whistle blew, and that you feel more comfortable riding fast near other people. Have fun, race hard, and learn!

Third Crit (Extra Credit): I want to throw in a few tips and tricks that I’ve learned. You should only use these once you feel comfortable with the basics of cornering fast and riding near others.

  • Speak up. If you’re coming up on someone before a corner and you’re not sure if they see you, say something like “left side” or “inside, inside!”. Don’t be an idiot and dive-bomb corners and think that shouting out where you are will make everything okay. But being vocal helps keep everyone safe.
  • Fight for wheels. Imagine that you fell back a few spots and need to move up. You ride up to third wheel, but the draft is already taken by another rider. Don’t simply ride in the wind. Instead, try to take the third wheel from the other rider. Don’t do anything dangerous like bumping into them or overlapping wheels, but simply scoot over a bit. Some riders are very uncomfortable riding near others, and they’ll just move over and let you have it. Others will fight you, but the thing is, the rider in second place probably has no idea what’s going on behind them. At some point they’ll probably move over your direction a bit. When they do, take the wheel and maybe even scoot over a bit more to put the previous third wheel rider in the wind a bit. The more others ride in the wind, the better the advantage you have.
  • Give up wheels. This may seem silly after the previous point, but there are times you want to willingly give up a wheel. Suppose you’re sitting third and the guy in second puts in a huge jump. You could chase him down, but that’s a lot of effort. Undoubtedly someone behind you will jump to grab onto that guy’s wheel. This means that there’s now someone else you can use to draft off of. When that’s the case, I’ll tell that person (by name if I know them) to come on in. They’re often grateful for it because it means they’re no longer in the wind. Also, you got out of it less effort and more drafting. Done properly you may only lose one spot, which means you went from 3rd to 4th. That’s something you can easily make up later when the pace slows.
  • Relax your body through bumpy corners. In reality you should try to always be relaxed, but it’s especially important while cornering, and even more-so in bumpy corners. Keep your hands in the drops, but allow your butt to float out of the saddle a bit. You’re not taking it like a mountain biker, but you want to allow the bike to bounce freely without jarring you.

Go have some fun, and good luck!

Rose Festival Road Race: Strategy

On Sunday, June 21st I will be racing the Rose Festival Road Race. This is my second “A” race for the season (the first being the Grinnell Crit, where I got 4th). In order to be as prepared as possible I’m going to lay out my strategy. This will be published after the road race happens, but I’m writing it in the week before the race.

CaptureCourse: A country road rectangle, ran counter-clockwise. Each lap is 20 miles and we’ll be doing two laps. The elevation chart makes it look quite lumpy, but there really is not much elevation change. The maximum gradient is less than 5%, and in general it looks to be more like 2% to 3%. I’ve never ridden the course so I can’t talk about it too precisely. In addition, the Strava segment seems to be a little misleading, because I believe that the race actually ends before the segment does. Here’s the segment for the final hill leading to the finish line:

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Based on my strengths, this is where I’ll need to attack. Looking at last years Cat 4 race, the second place finisher (who I follow on Strava) did this hill in 56 seconds. My one minute power/weight ratio is actually my worst, so on the one hand I should consider waiting to go all-out until the second half of the hill. On the other hand the first half of the hill is the steeper part (5%-6%), whereas the second half flattens out a bit (2%-3%). I think I’ll need to see what the hill is actually like before I make a decision on how exactly to act. If the peloton takes it slow (unlikely) then it’s probably a good idea to attack early. But if they push hard then I need to sit a couple wheels back for the first half, then unleash an uphill sprint.

 

Weather: Predictions say light winds from the NW, with temps in the low 80s. We haven’t had many 80+ degree days around here, so that temperature might be a little uncomfortable for me.

 

Competitors: Right now there are only seven people preregistered, however last year there were 16 starters, and the race was won by a sprinter who I regularly do group rides with. He’s very strong and very good at sitting in. If he has teammates he’ll be hard to beat, and will almost certainly be my main rival. In addition there are at least two others who are quite strong and have won hard races. Despite this being a small race, the field seems to be quite strong.

 

Strategy: In my race report from Grinnell I talked about how I need to set up “trigger points” for a race. My trigger point for this race is as follows: if a team has at least three riders and one of those riders goes up the road, go with them. Second, if a New Pi rider (a local team with a strong sprinter) goes up the road, go with them. Third, if one of the three strong riders I know go up the road, go with them. Basically I want to be sure to be in moves with the strong riders.

Besides this, my basic strategy will be to sit in. I don’t yet know how steep some of the hills are on this course. If they’re steep enough that eating wind isn’t a big issue then I may choose to push a bit. I don’t want to be off the front solo, because I just don’t have the strength to maintain that. But if I can turn the screws a bit and cause a few people to drop off, or at least be forced to chase back, then that energy will be well spent.

I think however that the most likely outcome is a bunch sprint, with a partially reduced peloton. The last straight leading in to the finish line is roughly 6.5 miles. If we get to that straight and we’re all together then I’m just going into energy saving mode. About a mile or so before the finish line I’ll be sure to line up behind the sprinter I talked about in the competitors section above. In my second race of the season I did the same thing. I ended up getting second, but I still lost to him. The issue was that I waited for him to do something before I reacted. Thus by the time I reacted to him shifting and getting out of the saddle, he already had a gap on me. In this road race I’ll need to be more proactive by anticipating his actions, rather than responding to them.

Finally, I assume that someone will go early for the finish line since it’s an uphill finish. The finishing hill is almost half a mile, starts out in the 5%-6% range, and eventually flattens out (and even dips downward slightly) at the finish. Thus going too early here is a recipe for disaster. I don’t want to be the one who chases down this person, because I assume they’ll burn out. So being third wheel in this situation would be about perfect, so I think this will be a case of holding back. The downside to holding back is that you have less time to get around the guy in front. So I’ll need to be ultra-alert. Wish me luck!

Race Report: Grinnell Twilight Criterium

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Intro: This was my second year racing the Grinnell crit, but the course was different this year, so count it as the first time. I went into my first season as a Category 4 racer being realistic about my expectations. This race normally has a smaller turnout, so I was targeting this one and a road race next week as my “A” races for the season. Besides a “choose your own category” race at the beginning of the season, I haven’t had much success in Cat 4 yet. So I was hoping this race would turn things around for me. Last year this race was where I hit my stride and got 4th place. After that my results continued to be solid (3rd at Rose Festival Crit and 4th at Iowa State RR Championships). So I think that based on my normal training schedule, this is about the time of year that I start getting my best fitness. Thus I had high hopes for this crit.

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Course/Conditions: The course is a 6-corner, pancake-flat crit, run counter-clockwise. Weather was overcast and in the high 70s, with almost no wind. All of the corners were quite wide, although the last two left-hand turns (going around the right side of the park) were fairly choppy.

 

Field: I raced Mens Cat 4, and the field had 14 starters. I knew several of the guys racing, and a local team had entered three guys. One I knew was a sprinter, and one hadn’t raced crits in a while, so I wasn’t expecting him to be doing too much today. Before the start, a buddy of mine racing Cat 3 told me of a particularly strong guy who would be racing with me. So besides 4 or 5 guys that I knew, I was pretty clueless about what the field would be like.

 

Strategy: As I said in the intro, I really wanted to get a good result today. I’ve written before about racing to place vs racing to win. In that post I basically said that trying to get a “good” placing had caused me to not take risks. However today I knew that I would be content with a “good” placing. I wanted to feel like my training had paid off, and like I belonged in Cat 4. This drove my strategy.

This course had three factors that made me believe we would end in a bunch sprint: flat, wide corners, and no wind. Thus my plan was to conserve energy and contest the sprint. Even though the corners were wide I still wanted to avoid sprinting out of corners, so I always stayed between 2nd and 5th wheel. I was careful to wave people past me once I got too far up the line, but also to move up immediately if I started to slip too far back. I feel very confident cornering, so I tried to always make up places there.

Finally, I wanted to keep an eye on potential moves, but wasn’t interested in chasing anything down on my own, or on initiating anything.

 

Racing: Racing started out fast and stayed that way. Our average speed for the race was 25.3 mph, and I know that the Pro/1/2/3 field averaged 26.8mph (in the second group, which seemed to consist mainly of the Cat 3 guys). Thus we had a reasonably fast pace.

About five laps into the race one guy went off the front. This was the guy who I was warned was fast. Since I’m a small guy I didn’t believe that I could hang with him if it was just the two of us, thus I sat in the field and waited. After a lap or so one guy from the team of three bridged up. At the time I knew that if I wanted to win this race then I needed to go with him. But I didn’t. As for why I didn’t, there are several reasons/excuses. One is that I don’t really like breakaways, because I don’t have the raw power numbers to contribute properly. Two is that the two breakaway guys dangled off the front at only 5-10 seconds for a couple laps. Thus I believed that someone in the group would pull them back. However the team of three played it well, and always sat around second wheel in order to discourage any rotations. So instead I decided that if anyone else went to bridge I would jump on, and if not, I would be happy racing for third. One or two people did jump, but nothing stuck. Slowly the breakaway’s advantage grew to 30+ seconds, and it was clear we were racing for third. Again, based on my goals for this race I was fine with this situation.

The last 20 minutes were pretty uneventful until the last lap. At the bell lap the sprinter I spoke about before went for it, and the last lap we averaged 29.6 mph and I put out 423 watts NP over the roughly one minute lap. Going into the second-to-last corner the sprinter punched it hard to get a gap, but overshot the corner. He ended up hitting the corner and crashing spectacularly. I was third wheel going into that corner, thus after his crash I was now second wheel. The crash made me lose my concentration briefly, and the guy in front of me took advantage of it. He continued to push hard, and coming out of the last corner he had maybe 50 meters on me. I kicked hard, but couldn’t close up the gap. I finished comfortably in fourth place, and just inside the money. Given my strategy and goals I was very happy with this result. While a podium finish would have been great, I was still extremely happy with fourth place. Finally, I felt like I can race in Cat 4.

 

What I Learned: The most important thing for me was that I learned that I can compete in Cat 4. True, this field was not as stacked as many of the races I’ve done this season, but there were still plenty of fast guys. I’m going to take this confidence and try to build on it in the next race. But now, here are some specific things I learned:

  1. Have some “trigger points” ready. Pre-race I knew that if the team of three sent someone up the road then it would be hard to bring them back. But when I saw one of those guys go, I simply waited to see what the response was. Since I was shooting for a good placing (as opposed to only caring about winning) I feel okay with my decision to not follow him. But next race I need to set up some trigger points. By this I mean that ahead of the race I will decide that if X happens then I will do Y. Otherwise I waste time during the race deciding what to do, which often means that I don’t have enough time to do anything.
  2. I need to continue developing better race awareness. I saw the three laps to go sign, and then I lost my concentration. It wasn’t until I heard the bell and saw someone step up the speed that I realized we were on the bell lap. My positioning was good so I was able to respond appropriately, but nonetheless I wasn’t mentally prepared for it. Maybe something simple like saying out-loud to myself “three to go”, “two to go”, “next is bell lap”, etc. would help me.
  3. I’m a “burst” type rider. I don’t have a big FTP. My watts/kg are good across my power profile chart, but since my weight is so low this means that my watts are low compared to most of my competitors. However I have a strong kick, which I can use to sprint, close gaps, or get into position for a corner. I already knew this, but this race enforced that I need to utilize that knowledge. I need to be prepared to immediately jump onto wheels during important moves. I can put out good power for 30 seconds, and my small size means that I get a good draft. But if I need to spend one to two minutes bridging then I basically stand no chance. This is something to work on for next season, but for right now I just need to accept it and use that knowledge accordingly.

 

Analysis: I really had a blast racing this crit. I love fast cornering and elbow-to-elbow racing. There was plenty of that, but (most) everyone stayed safe. My next race is a 40 mile road race this coming weekend. Armed with the knowledge and confidence from this race I truly believe that I can place well, meaning top five.

Race Report: Snake Alley Criterium

(I’m in the black kit with white gloves, third rider)

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Credit: Rich Egger / Tri-States Public Radio

Intro: Snake Alley is hard. Really hard. This is my third year racing it, and my first year racing Cat 4. Last year (as a 5) I raced it and ended up mid-pack. After that I raced two criteriums and a road race and got 4th, 3rd, and 4th respectively. My point is, being good locally is not enough to get good results at Snake Alley. Therefore, in my first year as a 4 I didn’t have any expectations of good results. I simply wanted to get out there and see what I could do. Category 5 does 6 laps, while Cat 4 does 12 laps. In the past two years I nearly died after 6 laps, so I was simply hoping to keep going as long as possible.

Snake Alley Lap

Course/Conditions: The Snake Alley Criterium is a 0.8 mile loop in Burlington, IA. Its defining feature is an extremely steep climb (20% according to Strava, 12.5% according to the race website) with five switchbacks, and all on bricks. It’s bumpy, twisty, narrow and steep. Unsurprisingly then, pack position is incredibly important in this race. In fields bigger than 20 or so people, if you hit the snake near the back of the pack you will probably need to get on the brakes. Thus you have to hit the climb ahead of as many people as possible. After the snake you get a fast and fun descent. The corners are very wide, and though the road is a bit bumpy in places, if you’re a reasonably competent bike handler you should be able to take all corners at full speed.

The conditions were beautiful, with nice weather and no rain predicted.

Field: Category 4 had 31 starters. This is a race that draws people from all over the midwest, and sometimes even further, so the field is always high-quality. Last year a young Hincapie Racing Team kid crushed the Cat 4 field. This year some DRAPAC Pro Continental guys showed up for the Pro/1/2 race. Also a women on a 2016 USA Olympics development team nearly lapped the Women’s Pro/1/2/3 field. As I hinted at in the opening, if you can do well here, you can do well most anywhere.

Strategy: I came into this race wanting to survive as long as possible; I had no delusions of a good placing. However I had to balance two opposing issues: if I got lapped, then I would get pulled. On the other hand, if I pushed hard through the first few laps, then I would almost certainly run out of gas and be unable to climb the snake 12 times. So my survival strategy was to push very hard in the hill leading up to the snake, and also on the snake. Then I would take the descent as fast as possible, and use the rest of the lap to recover. I figured I could pull a gap through the snake + descent, and hopefully force those behind me to work hard to catch me while I was recovering.

Racing: I registered early, and thus got to line up in the first row (pro-tip: If you race Snake Alley, register as early as possible! They line you up according to when you registered, and the start is crucial!). I got clipped in reasonably well, and hit the snake around 5th place. I pushed super-hard and maintained my position. I took the descent fast, but then dropped off the wheel of the leaders once the road flattened out. Since I knew I had no chance of truly hanging with the leaders I simply backed off and recovered.

At the time it felt like every lap I just had people streaming past me once I got onto the flats after the descent. It was very difficult mentally, but I stuck to my strategy. In reality lots of people were streaming past me, but I also passed 5+ people each time in the hill leading up to the snake, and on Snake Alley. I loaded up the Strava flyby and watched the guy who got 13th. For the first three laps I stayed well in front of him, and then for the next two laps I was not too far behind. So the situation wasn’t quite as bad as it felt at the time.

After the fourth time up the snake, I had to spend the rest of the lap convincing myself to keep going and not pull out. Simply the thought of having to climb it again was so difficult to endure that I had to psych myself up every lap. On the sixth lap just I convinced myself that I would do at least one more lap, and then if I really thought I couldn’t do another one after that, then I could pull out. But I got pulled. I wasn’t lapped yet, but the leaders must have been approaching. So it was a bit of a disappointment to get pulled at the end of the sixth lap. I pulled off and that was that. I ended up getting 23/31.

Looking at the results, it seems like they probably pulled roughly half the field. That made me feel a little better.

What I Learned: At first I wasn’t planning on writing this post, simply because I wasn’t expecting a good result, and I didn’t get a good result! But after thinking about it some more, I realized that there is plenty of training advice I would like to give myself for next year.

  1.  My power-to-weight ratio is pretty good for the snake. All my times up the snake were between 26 and 35 seconds. For reference, last year my fastest time was 32 seconds! In searching Strava I was able to find the people who got first, second, and fourth. Their times up the snake were all in the 27 to 35 second range. Thus (at least for the first six laps), I was putting in times up the snake which were competitive with what the leaders were doing. Below you can see my six times up the snake in 2014, compared to my six times up in 2015. (In 2014 on my last lap I bumped someone and had to unclip and run up the snake, hence the terrible time.)Snake Alley effortsThe place I was struggling was with power on the flats, and the ability to recover. This is really highlighted when you do a similar comparison for the entire lap (not just the climb). Snake Alley Lap effortsHere you see that my times this year were not generally faster than last year. Basically, this says one thing to me: if I want to do well at Snake Alley next year, I need to train my FTP. I’m a small guy (~135 lbs), so while my watts/kg at FTP is fine for my category, my watts are still numerically low. This year I spent the month leading up to Snake Alley working on hill repeats and similar efforts. Now I see that my time would have been better spent primarily focusing on power on the flats. A higher FTP would mean that I could still ride at a “recovery pace”, and yet be going faster.
  2. In my first two times up the snake (when I was pushing the most power), I had issues with my rear wheel skipping. I believe what happened was that I was out of the saddle, I was cornering, and I was pulling up some on the upstroke. This caused the rear wheel to become unweighted and skip around. It didn’t cause a crash or anything, but it is wasted energy and it slowed me down. Trying to go fast while turning tight and avoiding others is quite difficult. This is an area where I could go faster without needing to get stronger.

Analysis: I went to this race hoping to have fun and improve as a racer. Immediately after the race I knew I had enjoyed the racing, but I didn’t really think I saw how to improve. It was only after some reflection that I realized just how much I could learn from this race. At the risk of being a bit audacious, I believe that next year I can get a decent placing here, maybe top 10, if I focus on this race. It’s a little to early to be planning next season, but I have some thoughts about what races I want to target, and Snake Alley might just fit in.

4iiii Precision Power Meter: My Experience (and Review)

This post is being continually updated as problems and fixes arrive. Please scroll to the bottom for updates.

Background: 4iiii (pronounced “Four-eye”) is not a household name for cyclists. They make a number of different cycling and running products, but seem to focus mainly on sensors (heart rate, speed, cadence, and now power). I first found out about them when DC Rainmaker posted about their power meter prototype. His initial findings were positive, and they were shooting for a price point of $400. Because of all this I decided to pony up for a pre-order. At that point the estimated shipping date was Q4 2014.

What they were claiming was a power meter that looked much like Stages, but for roughly half the cost. A unique aspect was that you installed it yourself on your crankarm, using an installation kit they would send you. Additionally, this could be installed on either crankarm, and in fact on both crankarms if you bought two units. Therefore you could start out with single-leg power, and then later upgrade to full left and right power measurement. Finally, the unit would broadcast over Bluetooth LE and over ANT+.

However, just as DC Rainmaker predicted, 4iiii was unable to hit their initial Q4 estimate. Moreover, they ran into some regulatory issues with shipping the glue. Their workaround was to have you mail them your crankarm, and they would then install the unit for you, and then mail it back to you. My understanding is that they’re still working on having the user do the installation, though it’s unclear at exactly what point they will make this switch. The price is still $400, and all the details listed above are still true.

Installation: Installation is trivial. After they mail you back your crankarm with power meter installed, you simply remove your old crankarm and install the new one. It took me less than five minutes. You’ll need some allen keys and a little five dollar Shimano tool.

Next up is pairing the unit. I initially had been using my phone (Moto X, Andoid v4.4) as a bike computer, using either Wahoo Fitness or Strava. Once I got the Precision installed I opened up Wahoo Fitness and found the power meter (using Bluetooth). Unfortunately, Wahoo would not receive any data from the Precision. I had similar experiences with Strava. I then switched to my wife’s iPhone 5s, and this time Wahoo Fitness found the Precision and received data. It seems to me that the issue is with the Android apps. I contacted 4iiii about the issue, and they spent a lot of time with me trying to solve it. 4iiii does have their own Android (and iOS) app which indeed sees Precision and receives power data, but it doesn’t do any recording. In the end nothing helped, and I simply had to abandon using it on Android.

After the issues with using my phone to communicate with Precision, I broke down and ordered a Garmin Edge 500. I’m happy to report that everything works perfectly over ANT+. My guess is that most people who want to purchase a power meter already have some sort of ANT+ head unit. If you do, then you should have no worries about using Precision. Moreover if you’re using an iPhone and plan to use Bluetooth, I would also not worry. However, if you’re an Android user and do not own an ANT+ head unit, I would be a little wary of ordering. I assume that eventually the apps and 4iiii will get on the same page and everything will work. I will continue to test as these apps (and the power meter firmware) get updated. I’ll post future updates here.

Usage: Since it’s a power meter, it transmits both watts (power) and cadence to your head unit. It is up to your head unit or some other sensor to handle speed.

Ideally I would compare Precision to another power meter in many different settings. Unfortunately I don’t have another power meter! Therefore I’ll leave that to DC Rainmaker. In my limited experience with it (~2 weeks) I haven’t run into any problems (see my 8/6/2015 update below for a re-analysis of accuracy). If you’re the technical sort then you can check out this thread on Slowtwitch. The engineer who designed Precision (Keith Wakeham) pops in and talks a bit about the accuracy, and how it compares to other power meters on the market. In short, he believes Precision is highly accurate. I haven’t seen anything to make me believe otherwise.

Customer Service: I’ve (unfortunately) had the opportunity to spend a good deal of time with 4iiii customer service. This stemmed from being unable to get the unit to communicate with my phone (as discussed above). Even though we didn’t really get the issue fixed I still came away happy with their service. I communicated with them through both email and through telephone. Responses were prompt, and I was told that if they couldn’t get the problem fixed then they would send me a new unit. Once we realized that the fault was not with the power meter, this no longer became relevant.

As one final note, when 4iiii shipped the power meter out to me they sent it overnight FedEx from Canada, all for free. This was highly unexpected and extremely nice. I was out on a ride when I got an email saying it had shipped, and the next morning by 10am I had it in my hands. I’m sure this couldn’t have been cheap, and even though a difference of a couple days doesn’t really make that much of a difference, it feels big to eager customers.

Closing Remarks: So, the obvious question is, should you buy a 4iiii Precision power meter? First off, I would suggest waiting until DC Rainmaker posts a more in-depth review (Edit: He has released his review! In it he examines accuracy in far more detail than I do, and finds that overall things are looking pretty good. He concludes by saying that “4iiii Precision is a solid left-only option.” Head on over for the full review.)

If you’re happy with left-only power and you don’t need the power meter within the next couple weeks, I would highly recommend Precision. Besides the bluetooth issues I’m not seeing any problems. It’s very small, and at least according to the main engineer it’s significantly more accurate than Stages, while also undercutting Stages by at least $300 (at least a 40% discount).

One touted feature of Precision is that you’ll be able to convert to dual-sided power measurement by simply purchasing another Precision and installing it on the other crankarm. Their point is that you can try out single-leg measurement, and if you eventually decide you need more accuracy then you can upgrade. However I’m not so convinced by this logic. For $800 (the price of two Precision units) you’re right up against other dual-leg power meters (Pioneer, Vector, PowerTap). If testing ends up showing that Precision is significantly more accurate than those existing power meter then of course the Precision is a great deal. But in my eyes the biggest draw of Precision is that you can start training with power for just $400. There’s simply nothing else like that on the market right now. I’ve wanted a power meter for at least a year now, but dropping almost $1000 on one seemed crazy to me. For that money I could buy myself another (used) bike. But $400 drew me in, and thus far I’m glad that it did.

Updates: 

12/8/2015: DC Rainmaker has released his review, and he recommends the Precision and finds no serious accuracy problems. Here is the link to his review. On my end everything has been great! When firmware updates are released I’ll continue to talk about the impact they have. I haven’t had any problems in the last few months, and battery life has indeed increased with the recent firmware updates.

11/25/2015: 4iiii released a firmware update this week. As with the previous updates they’re claiming another increase in battery life (claimed 25% improvement). I’m back to riding regularly, so I’ll keep reporting back. However in my opinion one of the best new features is that the 4iiii app (Android and iOS) now shows the remaining battery percentage! Previously there was no way to know how much battery you had left, so that’s now been remedied. Besides that, everything has been running as it should for me. I still find calibration on an Edge 500 to be a bit slow (and it sometimes fails), but I’m not sure where the fault lies with that. More and more I’m just happy with how it’s performing. No major problems coming up, battery life is now respectable, and they’re pushing out firmware updates. I’m going to ride with this for another month or so, and then come back and update my review a bit with my revised thoughts. Until then, ride on!

10/16/2015: Update to the last update! I counted up my hours, and I have 56.5 hours of riding recorded on the last battery. Note that that does not include commute time. I don’t record my commutes, but I would estimate (very) roughly about 20 hours of commuting. So it looks like this last battery lasted roughly 75 hours; a big improvement! I’m back to training now, so my usage will be more regular, and if that number is correct then I should be updating again in about 2-3 months. I’ll be back!

10/9/2015: Two small updates. First is that my battery finally died. If you’ve been reading the previous updates then you know that before the firmware update the battery was only getting about 20-25 hours of riding before it would die. I haven’t had time yet to add up my hours, but I will do so very soon. My time includes commuting, which I don’t record, so I can’t get an exact value. However I definitely got more than 25 hours, but I would guess less than 50.

Second, DC Rainmaker has put up a new post where he (very briefly) rides a dual-sided 4iiii prototype. His impressions are positive, and he doesn’t see any obvious flaws. When he pressed them about when this dual-sided power meter would be available, they could only say “early 2016.” However, based on how inaccurate their initial ship dates were, I wouldn’t put much faith in this estimate.

Besides that I’ve had no problems lately, though admittedly I’ve been riding much less this past month. Base training is kicking off for me on Monday, so I’ll be putting in more miles then. So keep checking back for updates!

9/11/2015: I spoke with customer service at 4iiii to find out where they’re at with new orders. They said that if you order a Precision today, you should expect to have it in your hands in about 2-3 weeks. As I briefly addressed in my previous update, it seems like they’re basically caught up with their backlog of orders. This is definitely good news for new customers. They also said that for the foreseeable future they will ask customers to ship their cranks in, and 4iiii will do the installation. In my opinion this is better than customer install. You’re essentially getting a Stages power meter, but at a much cheaper price.

I’ve been watching all the new power meters coming out, and for the most part I feel like my statement about there being nothing else out there like Precision is still true. Prices for other power meters (that are currently shipping) are still at least $600. The only other power meter that seems really appealing is the Power2Max. Their entry-level power meter is only $610, which includes a full chainset (FSA Gossamer). The downside is that if you want a nicer crank then the prices go up significantly. So if you currently have something like Ultegra or DuraAce and want the equivalent from Power2Max, then you need to tack on several hundred more dollars. 4iiii on the other hand doesn’t care what crank you have (so long as it’s not carbon!)

Finally, I haven’t posted any updates lately about battery life. This is because I took about a month off training after my racing season wrapped up. I’ll be starting up my base training next week, so I’ll post some updates soon about how that’s looking.

8/6/2015: In my review I purposely avoided the topic of accuracy because I didn’t have any other power meters to compare the Precision to. That is still the case, but after riding with it for almost five months now, I feel qualified to make some preliminary statements about accuracy. In all my time of riding, only once have I gotten power numbers that seemed wrong (it lasted about a minute in the middle of a ride, and then reset itself back to normal). My power numbers have progressed as you would expect them to progress with training, and always seem very believable. Is it possible that the numbers are always off by 10 watts, or that there are weird spikes that I miss? Absolutely. But for someone who wants to train by power, and is only interested in measuring against their past performance, I’m not seeing any problems with the Precision. I trust the power data, and never once have I looked at some interval and thought, “I bet those numbers are wrong.” My personal guess is that the accuracy is excellent.

Finally, a word about purchasing Precision. For a long time 4iiii was way behind on fulfilling orders. On their “Friday Files” page they post weekly updates, including showing their orders sent vs received vs fulfilled. I’ve posted the July 31st graph below. As you can see, they’re mostly caught up. A few months back if you ordered a Precision you could have expected to wait months to receive it. That no longer seems to be true. Currently Clever Training is projecting that new orders will be fulfilled in September, which seems reasonable.

7/17/2015: Firmware update released! I’ll be flashing it and begin testing it out starting tomorrow. They don’t list a changelog, but they do mention that the firmware should “significantly reduce battery drain” and also “also improves the zero offset measurements, giving you more precise readings during your ride.” Battery drain will take a few weeks to test, since on the old firmware I was getting between 20 and 25 hours, which is roughly three to four weeks of riding for me. Previously I was swapping the battery around the 20 hour mark to avoid it dying in the middle of a ride, but with this new firmware upgrade I’ll keep it going until it dies. Check back for updates in the coming weeks!

6/30/2015: I went back and tried Strava and Wahoo Fitness again, since both apps have received updates. Unfortunately there were no changes, so neither communicates with the Precision.

6/17/2015: It’s been almost a month since my last update, and I’m glad to announce that these few weeks have been problem-free! I proactively changed my battery at around 20 hours of use to avoid it potentially dieing on me during an important ride. Still no firmware update from 4iiii, so I’ll update again once that appears.

5/28/2015: Things have been a little wonky with the battery swap, but seem to be working fine now. As I mentioned on the 5/20, the battery swap initially seemed to get Precision working again. However on a race day it decided to stop talking to my Garmin; great timing! When I got home I took out the battery, reinserted it, and again restored factory calibration values. Since then I’ve ridden twice and everything has gone just fine.

I realize that reading these updates may make it seem like the power meter is constantly giving me problems. That’s not really true. I’ve now had Precision for about 1.5 months. In that time there have only been 3 or 4 rides where I had a problem, and for the most part those were fixed pretty easily. Obviously zero problems would be preferable, but I’m willing to wait out some growing pains.

5/20/2015: After putting about 25 hours on Precision (all problem-free) I was on a ride and stopped to recalibrate on my Garmin. It refused to recalibrate, and so I simply finished the ride without power. Someone online had mentioned that other people had battery issues at around the 20 to 30 hour mark. So I replaced the battery, and my Garmin then saw and calibrated it. Unfortunately on the next ride the Garmin still wasn’t receiving data. Long story short, after replacing the battery I needed to go into the 4iiii app (Android or iOS) and reset and save the factory calibration values. After that everything seems to be working fine. I haven’t gone on a full ride yet to test it, but riding around my parking lot it delivered consistent and realistic power values.

Finally, I emailed 4iiii about the battery issue. They said that it is a known issue, and they’re working on fixing it in the next firmware update. They estimated a few weeks for the update. They also said that the reducing battery drain also was reducing power accuracy. So obviously they’re trying to fix the battery drain issue without also compromising power accuracy. I’ll update again when that firmware update comes out. Until then, you can find the correct batteries on Amazon for very cheap. I bought some extra and are changing them as needed.

The Advantages of (Not) Being on a Team

…or, “how to use that big team to your advantage.”

Most beginning racers are not on club teams, or if they are on one, then it’s very likely that the team has only minimal coordination/participation. The next race you line up at, count how many teams have three or more people on them. Of those, count how many you can see talking in hushed tones about strategy. Unless you are on one of those teams that you just counted, you are essentially racing solo.

So let’s suppose that you are racing solo. It’s common knowledge that a coordinated team has more “cards to play” than an individual racer. If you (the solo racer) want to initiate a breakaway, your only choice is to launch off the front and hope it sticks. But a team can first send someone out to soften up the group, and then counter-attack with the person they really wanted to be in a breakaway. I was once in a race with about ten starters, roughly five of which were from a single team. They would simply send one guy up the road, and then sit and wait. If the rest of us chased him down, then that team got a free ride. If we didn’t chase him down, the team just kept the pace low and let that person get away. If no one gets away, then they simply let their (well-rested) sprinter go for the win! This clearly illustrates the power that a team has.

But it also illustrates something else. What is it that the team is really doing? They’re recognizing when they should work, and when they shouldn’t. They don’t send three guys up the road, because that’s two more than you need. Also, when one of their guys is up the road, they don’t sit at the front and pull, because that effort only hurts them. This idea of appropriate and minimal energy expenditure is key. Let me talk about each of those separately.

By “appropriate energy expenditure” I mean using energy only when it is to your advantage. In my Spring Race Experiment post I talked about a situation very similar to what I described above. This time the field was large (about 20-30 guys), and one team had five or six guys (we’ll call them the “green team”). My decision making process in that race was follows: once someone went up the road, I would look and see who it was. If no one from the “green team” was up the road, then I didn’t need to chase. The fact that the green team had a solid presence means that they would be disappointed with anything less than a win. Therefore, they had the impetus to chase down any breaks, and so I could just sit in and let them do the work. The point is, I only expended energy when it was appropriate for me to do so.

Now, suppose instead that the person off the front was from the green team. Your first thought in that situation might be to go chase that person down. But the better idea is to get someone else to chase that person down! In that race this exact situation happened, and I was ready to go chase the green team guy down. However, I was boxed in, and couldn’t easily get out. The guy next to me was a younger college guy, and I told him that the people off the front were strong, and that we needed to chase them down. In his enthusiasm he shot off and closed the gap. My plan initially had been to do exactly what I said I was going to do. But once the college kid closed the gap, there was no longer any need for me personally to work! As the saying goes, bike racing means licking your opponent’s plate clean before starting on your own. This perfectly illustrates the idea of minimal energy expenditure.

In both of these situations we are simply assessing if we personally need to work, or if someone else can reliably do it. A large team can usually be relied on to chase down breaks in which they’re not represented. Additionally, other racers can often be relied on to do work for you, usually out of impatience or nervous energy. A question that I always ask myself during the middle of a race is, “does it need to be me?” Does it need to be me who chases down that break? Does it need to be me who closes the gap in front of me? Does it need to be me who’s pulling? Sometimes the answer is yes! But most of the time the answer is “no”, and in those times you are preserving your own plate, and eating off your competitors’. When the answer finally is “yes,” you’ll be more likely to have the energy to do it.

 

Spring Race Experiment #1: The Results!

I wrote in my last post about wanting to try a breakaway in a race. I won’t rehash all the details of my plan, since they’re laid out clearly in that post.

So, how did it go? Surprisingly, it turned out almost exactly like I had imagined! This year there was an excellent turnout, and my group had about 30 guys in it. Most people here were Category 4 or 5 racers, and many Masters racers. The first half of the race was spent riding into the wind. A couple people tried to go off the front, but it always got chased down.

Next we turned into a crosswind for about a quarter mile, which lead up to a right-hand turn onto a hill with a stiff tailwind. As I explained in the previous post, my plan was to shoot to the front in the crosswind, corner fast, and then punch it on the hill. I had been able to conserve a lot of energy on the headwind section, so I felt comfortable executing my plan. According to Strava I held 26+ mph on the corner, and then pushed hard up the hill. I actually think my biggest gap came from cornering so fast, because about halfway up the hill I glanced under my armpit and saw I was completely alone. I think if I had coordinated with 4 or 5 other people to go with me, this break might have stuck. However on my own, my FTP is just too low. I held out for about a mile, and saw that the gap was just slightly decreasing, and no more than 5 seconds or so. Thus I soft-pedaled and formed back with the group.

In the next 4 or 5 miles several people tried to get away. However, one team was well-represented at the front, and so I knew that as long as it wasn’t one of them going off the front, then the flyer would get chased down. In those last 5.5 miles we averaged over 26 mph over rolling terrain, so it was a fast finish (tailwind helped a lot).

When we were about a mile out from the finish I lined up behind the guy I knew to be the best sprinter there. I could have gotten behind him earlier, but I didn’t want him to notice me and try to shake me off his tail. So around mile out I tucked behind him and stayed there. It was a very tight bunch, with about 10 or so guys thinking seriously about sprinting. Unfortunately only 4 or 5 of them actually had the legs to do so, so as the sprint got started it was difficult to pick through the crowd. I followed behind my man as he launched, but he had a really good kick and got some separation from me. I pushed hard and peaked at 40mph, crossing the line at about 35mph (it was an uphill sprint, hence the deceleration). I got second, which I was very proud of, though of course I wish I could have contested the sprint better.

Lessons Learned:

  1. I need to work on my FTP. I already knew this, but a concrete example always helps you get out the door to train it.
  2. Fast cornering can open big gaps. Especially in a big group, you can assume that the back 80% of the peloton will need to slow through the corner. It can potentially be much more than that if the people at the front aren’t comfortable cornering. So it’s worth it to eat the wind a bit if it means you can get a nice gap through the corner.
  3. Find which teams are well represented at the start of the race. Because I knew that one particular team was well represented, I knew they wouldn’t let anyone else go. There were several times where I almost went to chase down a flyer, but held back because I saw no one from that team was in it. Each time I was right, and the break got reeled in by them, and I stayed sheltered.
  4. Be proactive at the sprint. I was waiting for my man to jump, and then I planned to try to pass him at the end. The problem was that the time between seeing him react, and me being able to react, was simply too long. Once he went I still needed to get out of the saddle, shift, and get wound up. By the time all that happened he already had several bike lengths on me. Instead, I need to anticipate when he will jump. That way I can truly stick with him.

Conclusion:

I felt like this was a great learning experience. This was exactly the kind of learning experience that I feel I didn’t have enough of in Category 5. I also suspect that this year in Cat 4 the races will be sufficiently fast that I’ll have a hard time getting these sorts of experiences very often. Thus I need to grab these opportunities to race “below my category” whenever possible. I also need to train my butt off this season, so that next season I’ll be able to have these learning experiences again, but this time in Cat 4.

Spring Race Experiment #1: The Breakaway!

I have my second race of the season today, April 15th. This race is only a training race, as is emphasized by the fact that there are only two categories! Men and women simply self-select into Men’s A or B, and Women’s A or B. While the Men’s A race would undoubtedly be better physical training, I am going to race in the Men’s B category (1 loop, 13 miles). I’m doing this because I feel like finding hard, race-intensity riding is quite easy. There are group rides several times a week which push the pace extremely hard. However, finding places to really work on race tactics is rare. For the Men’s A category I would simply be trying to hang on, and thus I don’t feel like I would learn much tactically.

Capture

So, here is my plan for tonight: I want to initiate a breakaway. I’ve never attempted that before, since I feel like my FTP is not terribly high. However, I feel like it would be a good learning experience, and this race seems like a great opportunity to try it.

There will be wind from the east at 10-15mph. That means we’ll have a tailwind once we turn onto that back “straight”, which is about 5.5 miles long. For the first half of the race we’ll mostly be riding into a headwind, so I expect very little activity. I’m going to watch for moves at the very start, because normally one particular team is well-represented, and they like to send out flyers at the start. If I can get with one of those and they stick, that would be great. However I’m going to assume that fresh legs will mean that nothing early will stick.

So suppose we get up to that eastward “tip” of the course and (at around the 7 mile mark) we’re still together. Once we make that right turn we will be riding with a crosswind. Then we’ll make another right turn and travel mostly westward for the last 5.5 miles (on the elevation chart the turn to head west is that hill at about mile 7). There is a long-ish and steep-ish hill once you turn right. My plan is to carry a lot of speed through the corner leading up to the hill. I feel fairly comfortable cornering at high speed, so I’m hoping that I’ll open up a small gap just from cornering speed. Then I will punch it up the hill. I’m light and climb well, so that combined with the tailwind means that I should be able to get a decent gap. I plan to push hard enough to get a gap, but no so hard as to explode. If, after getting near the top of the hill I’m all alone, then I’ll assess how much of a gap I have. If it looks reasonable (whatever that means) I’ll simply try to go alone. If I have less than four people with me then I’ll get someone else to pull through and hope that our little breakaway sticks. If I’m unable to drop many people on that hill then I’ll to simply sit in and plan for a bunch sprint at the end.

I would love to try to stay away solo on the back straight, but I know that time-trialing is not my strong suit. I’m a small guy (~135 lbs) which means I don’t have the “diesel engine” needed to stay away. However, the tail wind means that a chasing group has less of an advantage than they normally would. In addition there’s another long (though not steep) hill about two miles from the finish. This means that even if I don’t achieve a huge gap by then, I still may be able to open it up a bit on the hill.

If we end up in a bunch sprint then that is fine as well. I sprint pretty well and really enjoy it, but this is an uphill sprint, which I don’t feel as comfortable with.

I’ll be back tomorrow to tell how it went! Wish me luck!

Race Report: Kent Park 2015

Intro: Held on March 15th, this was my first race of 2015. Last year I raced this as a cat 5 and got dropped on the first lap. Over the winter I upgraded to cat 4, and spent a decent amount of time training on the indoor trainer. So I hoped to do better, and was cautiously optimistic I could do so. As I said, last year I got dropped immediately, but ended up racing very successfully in the second half of the year. So while I wanted to do well, I also knew that my result in this race does not “make or break” my season.

Kent Park VV

Course/Conditions: As can be seen above, the course really has three defining features. We would start at the bottom-left of this picture and go counter-clockwise around 6 times. Each lap is about 4 miles, making for about 24 miles of racing. It’s a little hard to see in the above picture, but there is one very short but steep hill not long after the start. Then the back section (right-hand side) is pretty flat. Then we hit two big hills coming in relative succession. These were fairly long and stop. They were long enough that you couldn’t just use momentum to carry you up, and steep enough that you had to get out of the saddle.

As for conditions, things were pretty calm, with only a light wind from the south (see “north” on the top-left of the map).

Field: There were 24 guys registered for category 4. Since I had just upgraded I didn’t know very many people. However, the ones I did know are quite strong, so I expected a very fast race.

Strategy: As you can read in my pre-report, this race is very much about survival (at least for me), and so I wasn’t really going into it with strategy in mind. My goal was to stay with the peloton for the first lap. I knew that if I could do that, then I would be able to hang on for several more, if not until the end. Thus I wanted to hit the big hills relatively near the front to allow for some time to drift back if needed. This race has a lot of downhills, and thus I wanted to move up “for free” whenever possible. Beyond that I just knew I needed to push myself harder than ever before.

Racing: I expected the race to start fast, and I was not dissapointed! Our first lap was done in 9 minutes 45 seconds. For reference, in the cat 4 race last year, their fastest lap was 11 minutes! If we filter according to this years race, but for all categories, then our fastest lap was only beaten by the Pro/1/2 category. Needless to say, it was brutal! I expected to have a hard time hanging on once we got to those two big climbs, but in fact I was having a hard time just hanging on in the flat section! Thankfully I did, as I think did pretty much everyone else.

Things slowed down quite a bit after that initial lap, and we settled into times around 11 minutes. It was still hard going, but I was able to hang on, and was feeling pretty good about myself. The climbs were still difficult, but I was climbing them at least as fast as everyone else. After that first lap I was no longer worried about those two big climbs. The short and steep climb near the start was a little more difficult, because I didn’t have the power of some of the other guys. But I still didn’t lose too much ground there either.

One of the things I really enjoy about bike racing is the close-quarters cornering, and the skill needed to navigate a bike successfully through a pack. In the 5’s there are very few people who feel comfortable doing this, so gaps were generally pretty big, and I was able to move up at will. Thus it’s great after upgrading to be in a more challenging situation. I had some success squeezing through small spaces, and also had a couple times where people shut the door on me and I had to hit the brakes. In all I would say that the “pack dynamics” were my favorite part of the race.

Near the start of the third lap I started to feel lightheaded and nauseous. I thought it might pass once the flatter sections, but it only got worse. I didn’t feel super tired, just very “out of it” and wanting to vomit. Once we got towards the big climbs I just sort of “dropped myself” because I didn’t feel safe riding like that. I slowly rolled back to the start and abandoned, having done 4 of 6 laps.

What I Learned: This is a little tricky, because this race was largely about “survival.” Because I spent so much time just trying to hang on, I didn’t get much of a chance to notice what was happening. Rather than trying to force some lessons out of it, I will just count this race as a subconscious learning experience.

Analysis: This race taught me that strength-wise I’m on track. I was able to keep up on the climbs, even though I’ve done minimal short interval (< 8 minute) training. This is really encouraging, since a lot of guys are coming from racing in cat 4 for a year or more, and so have built up more strength. I think that my “blowing up” was the result of pushing myself so hard. Last season my max heart rate was 185 bpm. In Kent Park it was 209! In fact, I was above 185bpm for eight minutes throughout the race! This shows that I pushed myself extremely hard, which I am very proud of.

When I first started racing (in cat 5) I thought that everyone was so damn fast! Then after a few races things “slowed down” (in my mind, not in reality), and then finally near the end of the season I was the one making the race fast. The same thing happened when I started doing group rides. One thing that these all have in common is that they showed me that my previous definition of “fast” needed to be raised. This race did exactly the same thing. That will help me to train harder and thus get better results. I’ve decided that I’m going to start doing the faster group ride each week. I expect to get dropped for a while, but I believe that after a month or two I’ll be able to comfortably hang with the group. I think this will be a good season!