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.
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 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.