Archive for Bicycle Racing

Cross Crusade – PIR

Sunday, I arrived in “race” mode at Portland International Raceway for the first time in over a year.  I had stopped racing the weekly bicycle road racing series relatively early last season over concerns about the safety, and my last car race there was in August 09. 

A Challenge: 

The grassy areas outside the north and west ends of the track, where the cross course is, hold a lot of water.  PIR is a city park and was originally built on land that had been the City of Vanport.  Vanport had been built to house workers at the Kaiser Shipyard during World War II but flooded when a dike broke during a big storm – it is low and near a big river.    

Storms are normal in Portland during the fall and this Sunday wouldn’t be an exception.  I knew that the conditions would be tough for me, but that I would have an advantage in that PIR is one of my “happy places”.  It would be wet and muddy, but I spend a lot of time there and I could think of that as a home field advantage.  And, I could call upon non cycling related experiences to help me here. 

A Psychological Advantage?: 

A few years ago, my friend Garth Stein wrote a novel called “The Art of Racing in the Rain”.  Rain can be a “happy place”, too, and for most of my driving career it was.  A few years before that Garth had organized a racing clinic that, in addition to being a boon for Northwest Spec Miata drivers, was a research exercise for his book. 

The leaders of the clinic were Don Kitch and Ross Bentley.  They are both highly regarded proponents of the concept that mental preparedness is a massive part of success in sports – particularly auto racing (and I say bicycle racing, perhaps even more).  They are both gifted communicators and I left those two days with a new respect for the discipline required to become successful in sport. 

I suppose that’s a round-a-bout way of getting to the point that PIR is on my happy place list and I would be racing in the rain – that’s good.  I think it is in Bentley’s “Inner Speed Secrets” book that all the hocus pocus, voo-doo, “be the ball” stuff is discussed – I’m a believer, and as such, got on with the task of preparing for what could be my day. 

To paddock near the cross course at PIR it is necessary to arrive before racing begins at around 8:30.  The start / finish line is just behind the turn 7 grandstand and the course runs out past turn 4 (between the track and golf course) on one side and down toward the center of the back straight on the other.  I set up the Ten Guys Named Alex compound directly adjacent to the cross course, near start finish in the grass, and settled in for a long day of racing.

Big Mike, Slugging it Out with the Big Boys

The first race I was interested in was the Clydesdale race where TGNA teammate Mike Hall finished 3rd and a couple of my friends from Hood River also did well.  The wind and rain came and went all day.  Ken Sutherland was out again to see some bike racing, and as with any car race, we continuously observed the weather off to the west and discussed tire pressures – I wish I’d had some sway bars to disconnect. 

The Race: 

The course was a mess by the time my 11:40 start arrived – the wet grass becomes muddier with each bike that passes.  3 races, times 5 laps, times 200 racers – yes, 3,000 bikes.  The weather, however, had temporarily become very nice.  And, I had finally earned a call-up by climbing to 13th in series points at Sherwood.  It seemed if ever I was to do well in a sloppy race, that this was the day. 

Well, not so fast…  The start went well enough and I rode the first half lap with my Hood River nemesis’ Gregg and Jeff but had a minor pedal problem that I might have dealt with a little better. 

After the first run-up everybody’s shoes become packed with mud and I couldn’t re-engage my cleat after remounting the bike.  I spent too much time trying to make it work.  It got worse after the section that was so sloppy that it became a run-down.  The gap became large and by the time I was able to work it out I was in danger of falling out of the points. 

I needed to focus and remember the plan I had made for such a situation – there is an art to racing in the rain… but, how the hell does this part go???  The solution was to start riding through some of the many big puddles – this would rinse the pedals and shoes.  It kind of worked.  So, I got on with just riding the bike and trying to get some positions back.  The racing was good and I think my “adverse conditions” riding is improving.  I wish Ross would write a bike racing book…  He could call it “Hey Dumb Ass, Most Race Cars Have Roofs and You Could be Warm and Dry Right Now!!!”  Anyway, this isn’t “my thing” and I think he could help me change that. 


I’ve got some ideas about how to attack some of the issues I’m having with these sloppy courses.  Arriving early and camping near the start / finish line helped me mentally – and that’s half the battle.  I rationalize that it has been just over two years since I did my first cross race, and I missed almost all of last season  – patience.  This reminds me a little bit too much of my return to auto racing in 2003 – I want to win now, but there are a bunch of guys that have other plans.  I worked that out last time… 

Technically, this IS girls fighting in the mud... That's good, right?

I do think that I’m done with Cross Crusade, for now.  I’m going to do some racing up north and see how the courses and format there suit me.  A big part of bike racing is figuring out how one’s skills can best be utilized to achieve success – I’ll need a broader base of experience to work that one out.  There are some long time cross venues in the Puget Sound area and I’d like to see them, for starters.  

The class structure is different in the Seattle Cyclocross series, too.  They have a 45+ Cat 3 (like B’s in OBRA) – I think I might be okay there.  And technically, I’m a Cat 4 – do I want to race, or do I want a trophy…?  They race at Steilacoom on Sunday.  

I hope it’s really wet and muddy – my new happy place.

Cherry Blossom Classic Stage Race

The Gorge kind of has it going on… It might be something in the water…, or the mountains – whatever “it” is – it inspires some clever ideas.

One of those ideas is that this would be a good place for a bicycle race.  So a local guy, Chad Sperry, some years ago started the Mount Hood Cycling Classic.  He’s turned that idea into a full time job, which means more bike races near home – last weekend it was the Cherry Blossom Classic.

Cherry Blossom is the “easy” one.  It happens relatively early in the Northwest cycling season and in conjunction with the longstanding The Dalles (a town 20 miles east of Hood River) tradition of a Cherry Festival celebration.  Cherries are a big deal in The Dalles and they have a party about it – and now, a bike race.

This would be my first real race with a new “team”.  Ten Guys Named Alex is made up of about ten guys who are mostly from Portland, and some of them are named Alex.  Because all of them are younger than I, the option of running Masters wasn’t ideal – I didn’t really care to have a “Cascade” experience this early in the season, anyway.  Tucson was fine in Master’s (could’ve included x-pros, for example), but this was going to be hard enough even at Cat 4 pace (will include teenagers with undeveloped self preservation instincts, for example) – pick a poison…

The Ten Guys Cat 4 squad this weekend included Alex Hughes, Aijiro (Japanese for Alex) Suzuki, Sean Becker, Mike Hall, and me.  The race also included our friends on the Mountain View team (where I raced last year) with Tony Dirks, Andrew Hayes, Eric Moody, John Kenny, Gregg Leion, Rob Dobrey, and Brad Ryhlick.  My brother-in-law, Joe Kolling, also came from Southern California to race with us, so pretty much everybody I spend any real time riding with would be in the same race – some older guys and some younger guys.

Sean and Mike prepared for the Friday Road Race

Sean and I got to talking about our “place” in the bicycle racing world.  We came up with a windsurfing analogy – we are like the relative newbie’s who haven’t quite figured it out yet and wander aimlessly around the Hood River Event Site asking other confused windsurfers about what size sail to rig.  In cycling though, it’s a fitness and physiology thing – it just isn’t possible to spend too much time on the bike and even at this level it is usually hard.  In a nutshell – I’m not very good at this, yet…

The Race:

The point of mentioning the different categories of racing (and our place there) is so that non bicycle racing people can get some sense of the challenges we have.  Fitness has been decided when you show up, but there are still a lot of decisions to be made both on and off the bike, and like auto racing it’s always best to make as many as possible before hand.  This was an unusually active race, especially given how short it was (the road races were both around 40 miles).  Like auto racing, I always debrief myself after a race so that I can be better next time, and there was plenty to debrief about with this one.

I could write pages about the little stuff, but in big picture terms the important take-away from 2010 Cherry Blossom Classic is that there are always some unbelievably fast Cat 4’s working their way up the cycling ladder.  The most important reminder is that young guys are young guys and do the same kind of stupid stuff I did when I was a young guy – and they took all of about 30 minutes to show us.

At the top of the first climb on Friday’s 38 mile road race, a young rider who had apparently done quite a lot of work to be near the front at the top of the climb, had decided that he wanted to protect himself from the wind during the long descent.  Two team mates were nose to tail at the front and this third rider wanted to be in the small gap (less than a bike length) between them.  The second rider tightened the gap, rather than widen it, and they touched.  Everybody stayed upright until the young guy again forced the issue and put his rear derailleur into the front wheel of the second bike – that’ll show him…  The second rider had overlapped his team mate and was now trapped between them.

I was near the rear when this happened – the above description came from Joe (who was slightly behind and left of the young guy and had barked at him about his riding after his first attempt to force in).  The first clue I had that something was wrong was when Joe darted to the left, across the centerline, to be clear of the developing disaster.  We were riding at 35 miles per hour.

I’ve never seen a worse peloton crash even on television – think of falling dominos – a lot of them.  I was, as usual, riding near the centerline which is why I was able to see the reaction of Joe before I heard or saw the bodies hitting the ground.  I immediately moved left to avoid being hit from behind and went hard to the brakes.  As I approached the far shoulder the crash continued into the oncoming lane and completely blocked the road.  I knew I was going to make it to the pile but was now more concerned about those behind – a quick rearward glance confirmed I was safe and I stopped gently against the newly placed human road block.

A bit of a note about the crash – this is my opinion and I’m curious what other (more experienced) riders think of this.  I believe that primary responsibility for safe movement lies with a rider that is trying to move into line or move forward.  By description of this mishap, it is likely that the first two riders were from Hagens Bergman – it would have been nice if the second had yielded, but he is not obligated. 

So, in a nutshell, it has always been my belief that if a rider is occupying a space (either line-astern, or side to side) it is incumbent upon those that would change position to do it safely – not the other way around. 

And, while I’m at it, if you dive-bomb down the inside of a corner it’s a good idea to leave room for the riders you’ve just passed at the exit of that same corner.  Please consider what effects your movements will have on the other bikes around you – we’ll all be safer for it.

It was a group of about 20 that had rolled through safely – I climbed back on my bike and started moving in their direction.  4 of us got together and tried to bridge, without success.  The “break” included Joe, Sean, Alex and John – this was a horrible way for it to happen, but this was the kind of scenario we had wanted.  A group of 12 -15 caught us and it would now be easier to reduce our time loss. 

Sean flatted and Alex ran out of gas – both ended up in my near 20 man group that also included Tony, Andrew, Eric and Greg.  It was kind of like any other Saturday Hood River group ride…  A dozen of us finished on equal time between 16th and 27th position and 3:34 down.  Joe had finished on equal time with the leader, but we had lost Aijiro, Brad Ryhlick and Rob Dobrey to the crash.

Andrew, Tony and Eric with Brad and his broken collar bone

That all turned out better than the first reports which had Aij with a broken elbow, Brad with a broken collar bone and Rob with a punctured lung.  The elbow wasn’t broken (but now contained a bunch of embroidery) and Rob’s lung was intact.  The whole thing was completely unnecessary (stupid), however, and I wasn’t too crazy about what the next day could bring.

Saturday’s race was 7 laps of a 6 mile orchard circuit that went, up and down with a couple of dangerous turns and some time into a pretty good head wind.  I rode around near the back of the group (and centerline), my priority being a finish with all of my skin still attached to the fleshy bits.  I was dropped early and finished with a group that had fragmented to 8 by the time we made the turn to the uphill finish – I was 24th on the day and on equal time for the race with Alex, Tony, and a Pacific Power guy with Eric only a few seconds back.  That meant that the next day would be somewhat decisive in a battle for a coveted potential top 20 finishing position…

Joe and I drove the Time Trial course before the race on Sunday.  Joe has been working pretty hard at his TT skills and we discussed strategy for the 10 mile climbing out, descending back race.  Joe finished 6th (placing him 8th in GC) and I rode my best Time Trial ever to finish 22nd and consolidate 21st in GC at the front of the group I had been mired within.

Sean and me rolling around during the Crit

The Criterium in the afternoon was unusually safe, as these things go.  The course was well marked, swept and didn’t leave me feeling like a Gladiator sent to entertain the privileged Roman’s.  We all finished with the same time and capable of walking, without serious difficulty, to the beer garden – success.

The most inspiring story of the weekend was “Big Mike” Hall.  I just met Mike recently and a year ago he was, by all accounts, quite a big guy.  He took the decision to get back into shape and he now has completed a multi-day bicycle race – awesome!!!

I think that Tony Dirks and Andrew Hayes of Mountain View rode the best races of their lives – continually clawing back to obtain good results – Andrew’s Time Trial, in particular.  There were some really great de facto intra-squad battles between the Hood River team and the Alex’s.  Alex Hughes nipped Tony by 3 seconds in the TT to finish one place (and those three seconds) ahead of Tony in GC.  I had a brief spin with Tony yesterday and there is a fierce look about him that says Alex all over it.  Final General Classification

I suppose that those are some of the reasons that I keep coming back to be abused.  The lifestyle of preparing to do “just a little bit better next time” is a good thing and is some of the common ground that we, at the bottom of the bike racing food chain, have to push us onward.

An Alex named Alex and Sean

There were also three Alex’s that had recently upgraded to Cat 3 and this was their first stage race with that group.  Will Laubernds, Dennis Petross and Ben Weaver all finished their first stage races in the higher category – well done, boys!!!

Also, all of our friends here that put on these races have spoiled us with some excellent organization and spectacular race venues.  Everything isn’t always perfect, but compared to what I’ve observed in other places, Chad and the crew at Breakaway Promotions are amongst the elites of bicycle racing organizing – thank you.

Oregon Cycling Action Story and Photos