Monday 7 May 2007

My Time Trial Weekend: Racing in Virginia and Pennsylvania

Although I have been a member of Squadra Coppi for two years, I have done precious few mass-start races while wearing the blue jersey. As the lowest of the low, a Category 5 racer, I find myself racing people thirty years younger than I am so the road races often end up being solo time trials for me once I am dropped and the criteriums–well, I get pulled off the course before I can be lapped. Given this, I figure I may just as well do time trials–the race against the clock-- and get to be on the course for the entire race. Since I am quite a bit larger than most of the racers I think that I am probably better suited to producing lots of power on the flat. So of course the time trial I like to do each year is the one that involves 800 m of vertical gain in 10.8 km...

Yes, it is time again for the Wintergreen Ascent, climbing up the Blue Ridge through the Wintergreen Ski Resort. On Friday I returned to the site of the recent Squadra Coppi training camp, the Acorn Inn in Nellysford, to ensure that I got a good night’s sleep before the race. Last year, I got up at 4:30 am and drove in from Washington. Needless to say I did not feel at my sharpest and my time on the course, 54:29, was a minute slower than my 2005 results. I was determined to do better than this. Robert Panzera, who runs the training camp I attended in San Diego in January, was very helpful with advice and a training program that I followed religiously but he was doubtful that I could hit my target of 50 minutes given my previous results.

As I was driving in to Nellysford, I saw Martin Versluys, the proprietor of the Acorn Inn, out on his bike. I thought I would join him and once I unpacked a bit I took out the bike even though there was only about an hour of light left. We met up on the road and headed back to the Inn together. Then Martin suggested we drive up to the Wintergreen Resort and get our numbers. This was an excellent idea as it meant we would not have to go back up the hill in the morning except for the race itself. While picking up our numbers we met Mariette and Rick, fellow-PPTC cyclists who were also doing the ride.

The next morning I went on a bit of a wild goose chase to get a new battery for my bike computer. When I finally located one I could not get the computer to work, so I thought that this was the end of the line for this expensive piece of equipment which, admittedly, I have been using for 8 years. Anyway, no time to bother with this. I packed up the bike and the wind trainer and headed off to the community centre at the base of the hill.

I arrived in plenty of time to set up and get in a good 45 minute warm up, listening to cool workout tunes on my MP3 player. I changed into my racing gear and headed out to the course. The weather was gloomy and rain and drizzle had been forecast for the day but it was dry as I rolled onto the course as 11:26:30. All systems go!

Although my usual practice is to use both my heart rate monitor and my bike computer speed indicator to pace myself, the dead computer meant that I was going entirely by heart rate, which is sometimes not a reliable indicator of how much power you are actually generating. Nonetheless I was able to stick to my game plan of going a bit slower on the bottom of the course, which has a 3.6 per cent grade for two miles. There is a gradual increase in grade until you turn right past the Wintergreen gatehouse and hit the first of the 15 per cent grades. For some reason, my bicycle’s bottom bracket chose this moment to start creaking and groaning, which it continued to do for the remainder of the ride. While it was irritating, it did encourage me to get the ride over with as fast as I could so I would not have to listen to it anymore!

I had overtaken a few riders who were already suffering but I did not feel too bad yet. There were several slightly flatter sections and I found I could actually increase my pace on the hill. I was not able to do this the last two years, where I had simply ground my way up to the top, with a little sprint at the finish line to relieve the tedium. It was fun to speed up occasionally, and I even passed a few more riders on the way up.

Mr. Intensity going up the road
Photo by Gilbert Craven

Of course, the left turn up through the parking lot that heads towards Devil’s Knob took the wind out of my sails. This is a very short, steep section–another 15 percenter–followed by another left turn. I was out of breath after this second turn and for the first time on the ride felt how hard it was. Rising up past the final parking lot to the finish line I kept a steady climb, encouraged by the kind bystanders, but had nothing left for a big sprint. The announcer said: “And here is a rider from Squadra Coppi. And his number is upside-down, so he’ll be penalized!” And sure enough, it was upside-down! Looking at my heart rate monitor’s clock I was a bit disappointed since it looked like I was well over the 50 minute mark, probably 51. But riding up Wintergreen is so hard at a certain point all you care about is just finishing rather than what your time is. And the penalty comment was a joke, although in racing if the judges cannot read your number they will not score you.

Martin and Rick were at the top, having completed their rides, and Martin was hoping for a podium finish in his 60-69 age group (he came third!). At that point the fastest finisher had completed the course in 38 minutes! Loading my bike on the shuttle bus, I joined three other riders and we headed back down the hill to the community centre, passing riders still climbing the hill and all of them looked like they were suffering.

I packed up the car and headed back to the the Acorn Inn, where I showered and then drove back to Washington, passing through yet two more traffic jams before I got home. I took the bike out and dumped my stuff in the washing machine. While I waited for the laundry I put my time trial bike into the car and then made some spaghetti for dinner. An hour later I hit the road again, headed for Harrisburg, PA, two hours and fifteen minutes away. I checked into the Howard Johnson’s Hotel at 9:00 pm and immediately went to sleep.

A peaceful Pennsylvania farm

Another day, another race! Waking up early this morning, I had the usual pathetic “continental” breakfast served in inexpensive chain hotels and drove the 10 miles to the start line of the US 40K Time Trial Challenge. This was directly next to the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant and the steam generated from the stacks showed us that the course was going to be a windy one today. Red Rose Races, which organizes a number of cycling events in Pennsylvania, was launching this inaugural event and under clear cool morning skies 146 riders had assembled.

And the stacks of the Three Mile Island power plant across the fields...

I chatted with a local rider named Paul, who lived in Carlyle. He had taken an early retirement and moved to Pennsylvania from the DC area so that he could participate in all the races Red Rose was promoting! He was as new to time trials as I was and had a very nice Cervelo P3 that he had bought from someone who had lost interest in the sport.

After my usual forty-five minute warm-up, I headed to the start line. I passed a rider who had just finished and looked dead. He said that the side wind was really bad about halfway out, and that coming back the hills were more of a problem than the wind. Since I was using my 11-23 cassette I knew that I had to watch out not to get winded on the hills.

I have had various little mechanical issues with my Leader time trial bike in the past but everything seemed to be going well today. I even managed to reset my computer to zero as I was about to be started. Ahead of me was an older gentleman on a beautiful Trek time trial bike which must have cost a bundle. He also was wearing a Louis Garneau Rocket helmet, the same as mine. He looked pretty nervous. Behind me was a woman, so I guessed I must have been the last of the Masters 50-59 group. This is the first time I have ridden with the Masters rather than Category 5. In the unlikely event I finished in the top ten I would actually get back some money! The woman and I chatted for a bit since she recognized the Squadra Coppi jersey and she was quite impressed that I had ridden Wintergreen the day before.

Out on the course now, I was amazed that my legs felt quite strong. I knew that they would show how tired they were at some point so I was really doing this race for practice since there are so few time trials held around Washington. With the strong wind and the hills on the course I did not expect to record a brilliant time but would be satisfied with 1:09-1:10. I had an excellent start and the road began going downhill so I was in the aero position very quickly and accelerating smoothly. With a little tailwind I reached 61 km/h on the descent. Within 2 kms of the start I could already see my 30 second man on the Trek up ahead and I determined to slowly reel him in. He descended well but was losing time on the climbs. But it was hard to catch him as whenever we passed an open field we would be slammed by the sidewind. He passed someone whom I soon passed as well and then just before I caught him someone else passed me, moving pretty smoothly. This last rider had already taken 2 minutes off of me!

As we reached the turning point a third rider swooped by at startling speed, his disc rear wheel humming. I could not believe how fast some of the riders were going and it seemed impossible that they were in my Masters’ age group. I passed two more riders and attempted to close the gap on the fellow who had started two minutes after me when two riders blasted by me, the fastest I had ever seen on a time trial course. But by this point I had other things to worry about. I was focused on the 2 minute guy but he was slowly pulling away further up the road and I was starting to see my heart rate jump a great deal on the hills. But I tried to ride as smoothly as possible even though the wretched wind was more of a headwind than a sidewind. As I approached a sign that said “2 km to finish” I poured on the coals and tried to up the speed but of course the friendly downhill that had been at the start now became a very mean uphill, with a headwind straight down it. I could see the finish line but I could feel myself fading quickly and I crossed the finish line not feeling very triumphant at all. I had calculated my time as being around 1:07, which was quite acceptable. Specifically trained for a 40 km time trial–-the last one I did was in June 2006-- and properly rested I am sure that I could easily have taken 2-3 minutes off my time with no additional effort. I am sure that the last 2 kms was the Wintergreen effect kicking in.

I packed up my gear, after drinking all three bottles of sports drink I had kept for the finish, and then Paul rolled in. He had had a good ride–-1:04–and also said that the last 2 kms were terrible for him. He is planning to do Union Grove and I am considering it, but I will probably see him at the new 40 km time trial series being held in Carlisle itself every two months or so.

Driving home I took Interstate 81 which is a bit longer but has much nicer scenery. I had considered stopping in a brewpub in Frederick for a late lunch but instead decided to go directly home and cook for myself. It was just as well because by the time I reached Washington I could feel the cumulate effect of two days of racing and was very tired.

A hearty lunch eaten and lots of laundry done, I went onto the Internet and saw that the finishing times for both races were up. As expected, my time for the 40 km time trial was 1:06:51, which put me 13th out of 19 Masters’ 50-59 riders, the fastest of whom completed the course in 57:44. I was 87th out of 146 riders overall, which was pretty good. I discovered also that the guys who had passed me so fast were not in my category at all. Everyone started by order of registration so I was not competing directly with most of them. The two superfast guys were Pro/Cat 1/Cat 2 and one of them was second overall with a time of 55:47, so it was no surprise he passed me so quickly. Very impressive. The guy ahead of me on the Trek was one of only three Masters’ 60-69 and while he took two minutes longer than me and came in last in his category he was still on the podium!

The Wintergreen results were also in and I was delighted to see that not only had a I done better than last year, I actually had surpassed my target, finishing with a time of 49:37, placing me 21st out of 38 Category 5 riders. This was nearly 5 minutes better than my 2006 result and nearly 4 minutes better than 2005. If I would have raced Masters’ 50-59 this year I would have been 11th. Although I enjoyed the races very much, it did represent two hotel bills and 688 miles of driving over three days. Then again, I did lose three pounds since Friday...

So all in all things went very well: no mechanical or weather issues, plenty of time to warm up and acceptable performances to set up a baseline to gauge my future progress. And I realized when I got home that I had attempted to put the battery in backwards in my computer so it works fine now too!

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