Barry Roubaix 2015

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Barry-Roubaix, in it’s sixth year, is quickly becoming a spring gravel road race classic. It’s a 100km course, rolling hills, often windy, a few short, hard climbs. The weather is a toss-up: in the four years I’ve done it I’ve seen sheet ice to dry roads, 15 degrees to 60 degrees. This year, it was 20 degrees at the start, warmed up to 30. The roads were dry and the sky was blue, so it felt like ideal racing conditions for a spring event in Michigan.

Returning from a victory in 2014, winning by a two-second margin over MacKenzie Woodring of Foundry Cycling, my goal was clear: to defend my title against multiple-time Barry-Roubaix champion Woodring – and also 2015 Worlds Cyclocross Team Member Crystal Anthony – participating in this race for the first time.

At the beginning of the race, Crystal Anthony rode by with a friendly “hello”. I trust her wheel and know her strength well, having finished behind her twice at the Hilly Billy Roubaix– so I was happy to ride behind her. Riders in our 200+ field vied for position, and crowded me in as a car passed, and I lost her wheel. This lack of assertion cost me.

Shortly thereafter, the pace really got going. After the third roller, our field was strung out double, then single-file. A gap formed about 10 riders ahead, and I hung on to the wheel in front of me. The gap widened, and it was clear: I was on the wrong side of a crucial split.

Riders surge up a dirt hill. Photo credit - Barry Roubaix facebook page.
Riders surge up a dirt hill. Photo credit – Barry Roubaix facebook page.

I found myself in a pack with about 20 riders, including four women: Kae Takeshita, Verdigris-Village CX, Kathryn Cumming, Cyclocross Magazine, Vicki Munnings, WAS Labs Cycling, and Victoria Steen, Lady Gnar Shredders. Victoria was quite active in the front of the pack, with Kae lingering in the middle. Kathryn and I were riding toward the back, and although we didn’t know each other, we quickly became race “co-conspirators” – discussing the pace and the other women in our pack, and who might be ahead of us. We estimated at least two riders – Crystal and McKenzie – were up the road.

The pack hummed along at a good clip when we turned into Sager Road, about 20 miles into the race. Sager is a rutted four-wheeler road with a few small rocks and some sand in sections. There was also a sink hole with ice on it. I passed Kae early on, after encouraging her to push through up a riser. That was the last I saw of her in the race. There were three crashes on the uneven road, which I did not get caught in.  However, many riders hesitated to pedal through the lumps and bumps, simply coasting. I encouraged them to pedal, “Pedal”! What I should have done was find a way to ride through them. When I got to the end of Sager, the strongest members of the pack were about 10 bike lengths up the road. I put my head down and chased, which was a bad decision, because some stragglers had reassembled, were chasing hard, and I was so gassed out by the time they passed me that they rode me off their wheels.

Sager Road at Barry Roubaix, courtesy of their facebook page.
Sager Road at Barry Roubaix, courtesy of their facebook page.

I spent the next five miles chasing that group into the wind. The pack in my sights, I simply could not bridge – despite numerous full-out sprints (and recoveries).  In a lucky twist, the pack was slowed down behind a few cars at a left hand turn, and I was finally able to latch back on. I was hoping to be the only woman to make it this far with the group, but I found Victoria and Kathryn mixed into the pack after I caught on.

The rest of the race was relatively uneventful. Victoria got dropped at an uphill feed zone. A mystery woman who was further up the road from our pack (and who would have finished 3rd or 4th) got a flat – Kathryn and I passed her as she repaired it. Kathryn fell off our group about 10 miles from the finish, and I rode over the finish line with the pack, finishing fourth behind MacKenzie, Anthony, and Kelli Richter (PSIMET Racing) who was, unbeknownst to me, three minutes ahead.

The podium, and me in 4th. Photo credit to Crystal Anthony.
The podium, and me in 4th. Photo credit to Crystal Anthony.

Fourth – I was hoping for top three, but an (extended) podium finish is still gratifying. More importantly, this race has set that fire in me to be more assertive, even aggressive. A little hesitation at the beginning of the race can cost all. Sometimes I need a race like this to remind me how important that is. My next race is Amish Country Roubaix in Ohio – and I just might play the start a little differently.

One highlight of the event, unrelated to cycling, is that promoter Rick Plite asked me to come on stage after awards and sing a song with the band. How so? Over the course of the last year, I’ve been posting to youtube and facebook silly videos of myself singing. I’ve also done some more formal recordings with family friend Richard Franklin, who is a concert guitarist. My postings must have set the idea in Rick’s head to have me sing, and I was thrilled! In the midst of the training and racing, it’s easy to let other hobbies fall by the wayside. Here I was combining two things I love to do.

Singing on the stage at the after-party.
Singing on the stage at the after-party.

I chose “Dream a Little Dream of Me”, popularized by Mama Cass – because I’ve been singing that song since childhood and I knew that regardless what state I was in after a 60 mile race, I’d remember the words.  It wasn’t a perfect rendition, but I must give the band, Sweet Japonic, great credit for a superb accompaniment – considering we had not practiced once together. So in that regard, despite a race that didn’t quite go my way – the event did, pardon the pun, end on a good note.

Special thank you to promoter Rick Plite, all the volunteers and timers, the town of Hastings and surrounding areas for their warm welcome. Hearty congratulations to all finishers and especially those who made it on the podium. I can’t wait to see what weather holds for Barry 2016!

Monster Cross 2015

logoAfter being postponed from the original race date of February 22, due to ice and snow on the course, the re-scheduled Monster Cross gravel/dirt road race took place on March 8, 2015, at Pocahontas State Park in Chesterfield, VA. After a winter of heavy snow and cold temperatures, we were greeting with a warm, sunny day of around 60 degrees. This 50-mile race consisted of two loops on rolling dirt roads – and I’ve been told it’s a fast course – however the road surfaces were water-logged, with a sticky kind of mud that slowed everyone down.

 The men’s and women’s elite group started as one, and we swooped together through the asphalt turns leading to the first trail. Once on the trail, the women riders fell off the elite men’s pace one by one. Teammate Selene Yeager held on to the lead group the longest. I trailed behind in second and Erin Silliman-Wittwer was close behind in 3rd.  I sat up a bit to ride with Erin. What I had in mind was to trade pace and ride with her, but it was my best to sit on her wheel. After a few miles, I fell off her tempo, so I resigned myself to riding a smart race within my limits, and focused on not falling back any further.

 Soon, the single speed men (who, with the rest of the competitors, had a staggered start), came whizzing past me. My heart sunk as I could not hold their pace for very long. Small groups passed me, I stuck with them for a while, got dropped, and finally settled in with a nice group of about seven riders on mountain and cyclocross bikes. (I was riding my Specialized Carve with a rigid fork.) We stayed together until the finish of the first loop, at which point the group dispersed, with some of the riders stopping at team tents.

The gently winding trails of Pocahontas State Park, Chesterfield, VA.
The gently winding trails of Pocahontas State Park, Chesterfield, VA.

 I headed into the second loop with a rider who looked smooth and set a nice pace – so I followed his lines and appreciated having someone to ride with. After a few miles, I told him he had a very smooth pedaling style and after chatting a bit, he admitted that he was a multiple time national cyclocross champion Fred Wittwer. He was also Erin’s father-in-law. I told him that Erin was in second place.

 And speaking of Erin – at about that point in our conversation, we both spotted Erin up the road! We inched our way closer to her and caught her around 15 miles from the finish, where she stopped briefly at a water station. Fred called out and asked how she was, and from her unenthusiastic reply, it sounded like I might have a chance of getting away and maintaining my lead. On the other hand, I feared that Fred would sit up and pace her to the finish line – as any good Father-in-law would do – so I quickened my pace and tried to get a nice gap.

 And then who should come along but Paul Mica. Paul is a road racer from Alexandria with DC Velo who carpooled to the race with Roger Masse; I had met Paul at the starting line. Mica had the misfortune of breaking a chain four miles into the race, so after repairing his chain (which is not a quick repair), he had decided to just “ride it in”. As Paul rode by, I did my best to match his pace, and in doing so, maintained my time gap on Erin. Paul’s cooperative attitude and riding really boosted my spirits.

 When I crossed the line, I figured I was in second place and was very happy with this result – for my first race of the year. To my dismay, I soon found out that my teammate Selene, who had been leading, had gone off course and did not finish. So – that put me in first place: I had won Monster Cross!

 After the race, I returned to my car, got changed into some street-clothes, and headed back to the finish line, where Lee’s Famous Chicken and Strips was catering the event and the Friends of Pocahontas State Park were serving Center of the Universe beer. First things first – I went to find my Monster Cross pint glass provided to all participants. I went up to the first cyclist I saw who had a beer glass, and asked him where he got the glass. He replied -those men over there by the boxes are handing out the glasses, but they are only for the athletes. I said, “I’m an athlete!” He told me that since I’m an athlete, maybe they’d sell me one….

 And that is the lucky story of my 2015 Monster Cross!

Congratulations to teammates Cole Oberman and Roger Masse on their successes this weekend! Special thank yous to race promoter Mark Junkerman who endured the whims of mother nature and prevailed to finally hold the race, and to the most-hospitable Ann Hardy and Chip Atkins for hosting our group of four Pittsburgh racers for the weekend.

Women's Elite Podium
Women’s Elite Podium
My Monster Cross medal.
My Monster Cross medal.

Iron Cross 2014

Iron Cross is a race that will melt you down. This is fitting since the race course skirts the Pine Grove Furnace State Park, location of a historic iron works from the late 1760’s after which the race is named. “North America’s Original Ultracross” traces a figure-8 around Michaux State Forest (Pennsylvania) and in its 12th year, it is the longest running in the American Ultracross Championship Series. The runners-up in that category, in a 3-way tie, are Southern Cross, Barry-Roubaix, and Gravel Grovel, all in their 6th year.

The Pine Grove Stack Furnance at Pine Grove Furnace State Park produced iron from around 1764 to 1895. Photo courtesy of www.cnyhiking.com
The Pine Grove Stack Furnace at Pine Grove Furnace State Park produced iron from around 1764 to 1895. Photo courtesy of www.cnyhiking.com

Although originally intended for cyclocross bikes, more mountain bikes are ridden every year at this race. The debate is heated and on-going as to bike choice. Flats plague racers at this course and mountain bike tires may hold up better than ‘cross tires, but on the other hand, the terrain is appropriate for a cyclocross bike, save a very few rocks and logs better tackled with a mountain bike. In ultracross, riders may use any bike they choose. In the one camp, “spirit-of-the-event” ‘crossers squint their eyes and look side-ways at the “best-tool-for the-job” mountain biker school. More and more ultracross races are won on mountain bikes, so hanging on to tradition for traditions’ sake may not get you to the top step. On the other hand, if you do win on a cyclocross bike, it will get you street cred’ and at this race – a cash payout to the first man and woman cyclocrosser. I rode my Specialized carbon disc Crux and felt it was the best choice for me – since I am roadie-origin and more comfortable on a road style set-up.

Riders make their way up a gravel road at Iron Cross. Photo courtesy of outdoorexperience.org
Riders make their way up a gravel road at Iron Cross. Photo courtesy of outdoorexperience.org

The 68-mile course provides lots of variety: some asphalt, a lot of gravel climbing, some gravel descents (which go by too fast before the next climb), a few single track sections, trails through grassy fields, some four-wheeler roads, a long, steep “run up”, and a few log obstacles. The course has such unique features that the title sponsor, Stan’s No Tubes, designed a wheel for, and named the wheel after this race. Stan’s awards a wheel set to the winner of each class.1

In the women’s race this year, (same as last year), RDC teammate Selene Yeager started as if launched from a canon – and rode ahead by herself within the first few miles. The follow pack was able to catch her on an asphalt descent (due to some cars slowing things down) but when we turned onto a gravel road, she worked her way out of sight again, and that was the last we saw of her… until she stood on the top step of the podium!

The “chase” consisted of last year’s winner Ruth Sherman (Corning No Tubes), Pathfinder of West Virginia’s Nicole Dorinzi, and me. In the first few miles of the race, Ruth turned into Lippencote trail (rocky single-track) ahead of Nicole and me, and got a slight lead. I got a gap on Nicole toward the bottom and then I saw a Rare Disease Cycling jersey and a friendly face whiz by – Andrew Dunlap! Andrew had flatted at the start and was catching riders quickly after his repair. He towed me back to Ruth’s group on the fast asphalt stretch after Lippencote, where gravel-race enthusiast Jayson Mahoney, known for his excellent race videos, was also to be found. Andrew paced me all the way to the extended run-up known as Wigwam and I was so grateful for his help. At that point in the race, Nicole was a minute or two behind.

Whether you push or shoulder your bike up Wigwam trail, either way it will sap you. Photo courtesy of outdoorexperience.org
Whether you push or shoulder your bike up Wigwam trail, either way it will sap you. Photo courtesy of outdoorexperience.org

I trudged up the rocky, steep Wigwam trail right behind Ruth, but she hopped on her bike a little faster at the top and surged hard. Her strong pedaling, combined with me going slightly off-course heading back to a gravel road – put just enough distance between us that I could not catch her. She was in and out of my sights until a little before the half-way mark.

It was a windy, lonely ride after getting dropped at the top of Wigwam, until a small group of men formed to work with on a flat section around 37 miles in. Leading the group was local Pittsburgh/Greensburg rider Jay Downs, who flew by and told me to jump on his wheel. Boy was I happy to see him!

At mile 42, I hit a mid-race slump and had to eat a bunch of fig newtons to bring myself back to life – as I watched our little group ride away. At this point, a woman in green and white came from out of nowhere and spun by at a good pace.

This was Katrina Dowidchuk (MidAtlantic Colavita) who was having an excellent climbing day. She went on to catch Ruth as well, who also admitted to having a mid-race slump. Luckily, I revived, but it was too late to catch up to either Ruth or Katrina. Ruth, a fighter to the bitter end, managed to drop Katrina on the final descent and pedaled up the final climb to second. Katrina was in sight of her, finishing third.

I must have hit something sharp on the last descent, a 4-wheeler trail, because I lost all but about 10 pounds of pressure in my rear tire, after which the Stan’s sealant plugged up the leak. After hearing from another rider that Nicole was only a couple minutes behind, I was hesitant to lose any time by stopping to pump up the tire. So, I nursed the rear wheel for the final five miles, riding off the saddle over bumps in an attempt to spare my rims, and rolled across the finish line as the fourth woman. Nicole finished close behind me in 5th.

Selene on the top step, flanked by Ruth Sherman in 2nd, Katrina Dowidchuk in 3rd, me in 4th, Nicole Dorinzi 5th, and Sally LaCour McClain in 6th.
Selene on the top step, flanked by Ruth Sherman in 2nd, Katrina Dowidchuk in 3rd, me in 4th, Nicole Dorinzi 5th, and Sally LaCour McClain in 6th.

Very happy to see Selene dominate the women’s field, she is riding really strong. Fun to ride again with ultracross companions Ruth and Nicole, and perhaps we have found a new gravel racer in Katrina, although she specializes in cyclocross. It was nice to see that I improved my gravel descending this year from last, and also very glad to finish strong (after totally bonking out last year and getting passed in the last three miles). Nevertheless, there is still lots of room for improvement. It’s races like these that keep me motivated through the dark, cold winter – so I will put in some cold-weather riding and get some frozen feet – with the goal of further improvement next year.

Thank you very much to RDC sponsors Specialized bicycles, DNA Cycling clothing, Pro Bikes shop, and Carbo Rocket race fuel. Thanks also to Mike Kuhn, promoter, all event staff and volunteers, the police directing traffic, and all Iron Cross sponsors including Stan’s, Foundry Cycles, Hammer Nutrition, World Cup Ski and Cycle, Plain Talking HR Consultancy, and A.E. Landes photography.

1 Bob Nunnink, Stan’s Sales and Marketing Manager states, “We have sponsored the Iron Cross event for many years and it was part of the inspiration for this wheel [the Iron Cross model]. We wanted to make a wheel that was as tough as Iron Cross and would hold a 700 x 35c tire better than our mountain bike rims. So the wheel is designed for cross and really excels at the long distance gravel (and Ultra Cross) events.”

Dirty 40 2014

Brilliant greens paint the mountains and fields of Vermont.
Brilliant greens paint the mountains and fields of Vermont.

Vermont is gorgeous. My first race trip to New England took me to Derby, VT – so close to Canada I got a global roaming alert on my phone. Vibrant green rolling hills, welcoming mountains thick with dark green trees, small towns with old wooden houses. The area is truly magical. Sparse traffic, no billboards on the highway make even driving a meditative experience.

Derby’s  Dirty 40, the 5th race of seven in this year’s American Ultracross Championship Series, leads riders through 70 miles of rolling dirt roads. There’s one extended climb, a lot of smaller kickers, a few fun fast descents, and around 5,600 feet of climbing. The roads are hard packed and smooth with occasional sand in the corners and small gravel here and there.

At the Dirty 40, riders have different ideas on the best tool for the job. This year, about 25% of racers chose road bikes, the rest cyclocross bikes with a few mountain bikes thrown in. Tires ranged from 25mm road tires to some medium sized mountain bike tires. I rode my Specialized Crux carbon disc cyclocross bike with 40mm Clement Xplors, which have a beefy file tread. In retrospect, 35mm tires with a minimal file pattern might have been more appropriate.

QuebecbordVT_1
Derby, Vermont is very close to Canada.

And on to the race:

400 starters, including 40 women, are led out neutral two miles by a very slow tractor. When the race begins, it’s fast and single file within the first half mile. The first ten miles are a blur, as I hang on to the rider in front of me. Over the following ten miles, the life blood is sucked out of me.

Mile ten:

I get dropped from my group, chase back on into the wind, riders in front surge, I’m dropped again, sandy riser and I catch back on as riders with road tires walk. Another surge, dropped, catch back on a downhill as riders on road bikes descend tentatively. Repeat for ten miles: fall off, fight back on, dangle on like a tooth that’s about to fall out. Because I expected the pack to settle in. Eventually. But they do not.

A tractor leads out the race.
A tractor leads out the race.

Boom. 20 miles into a 70-miles race my legs give out. I soft pedal. Riders pass me, I try to jump on, legs are jelly. Eventually, a small group with one woman pass me and I grab on.

I hang by a thread for the next 50 miles. Had dug myself into a hole in the first part of the race, hit bedrock, and there was no climbing out. Meanwhile, the woman who had caught me, Julie Wright (Ride Studio Cafe Expedition Team) pedals along like she is on a comfortable touring ride.

Thank goodness for drafting – I hide from the wind like it is poison gas. Meanwhile, Julie and other riders lead a chase that gobbles up riders until we are about 15 strong. Thank goodness for my high-volume tires. Just when I am at a point of profound weakness, a sandy descent allows me to point my bike downhill, gain ground on Julie (who is riding 25mm road tires) and soft pedal until she catches back.

A small group of riders make their way down a gravel road at the Dirty 40.
A small group of riders make their way down a gravel road at the Dirty 40.

With about 20 miles to go, my spirits lift as I see friend Brian Rogers (who had sat up from the lead group, recovering from 12 days solid gravel riding). He’s content to cruise along with us in the last part of the race. And then along comes Hilly Billy Roubaix race companion Scott Bond, catching us from behind. Scott Bond had paced me to the finish in the last 20 miles of the Hilly Billy Roubaix last June. Two allies! Nevertheless, my legs are still incapable of putting pressure on the pedals.

About 60 miles in, on a steady climb, I get separated from our medium-sized group of riders. Thankfully, Julie is also back from the group. Brian and Scott drop back to urge me on. Brian leads me down a descent and we gain significant distance on Julie. She is out of sight. Brian and Scott say it’s go-time. But my legs fail me yet again. …And then a yellow helmet appears in the distance. Julie is catching us. We drop her downhill three times (due to our high volume tires on sandy roads, compared to her road tires), yet three times she fights her way back. Was she not getting tired yet?!

On a short, steep climb three miles from the finish, I drop my chain. Rider error completely. Julie powers away. Scott says, “If you have any sprint left, now would be when to use it!” Standing up on my pedals, my legs crumble beneath me. Julie is out of sight. A descent into town, then a short riser. One last burst? It feels like squeezing a tube of toothpaste you should have thrown away days ago. (Nothing left.) Crossed the line 39 seconds back from Julie. Neither of us knew it at the time, but we were racing for the win.

On the second step at Dirty 40. I was so disoriented I pulled the wrong clean jersey out of my bag.
On the second step at Dirty 40. I was so disoriented I pulled the wrong clean jersey out of my bag.

The Dirty 40 was hard to race, and harder to lose! It’s easy to ask “What if I hadn’t gone out so hard? Or dropped my chain?” but Julie was the stronger rider of the day. I only made it as far as I did by hiding, drafting, and descending well. After getting decisively dropped on raging gravel descents by friendly rival Ruth Sherman, both days at the Dirty Double gravel stage race last May – I have to celebrate my improvement. I’m hoping the confidence I picked up on the descents at the Dirty 40 will help me on the loose gravel at the next stop on the Ultracross Series – Iron Cross on October 4th!

* Congratulations to RDC teammate Mary Boone who finished 19th in the open women category. Also, big thanks and congratulations to our Vermont hosts Rebecca and George Michael Lowe, who were 1st and 3rd in their respective single speed categories.

End Note: The Dirty 40 was named to describe the original course, which was 60 miles long, 40 miles on dirt roads. For 2014, the race was 70 miles, 55 miles on dirt.

Appalachia Visited, 2014

Appalachia Visited, put on by JR Petsko (abraracing.com) and his tireless team of officials and volunteers, is a nice way to close out the road racing season. The race is 60 miles up and down the Cheat River Valley around Rowlesburg, WV – 25 minutes from the Maryland border. Rowlesburg, population ~600, is an extremely cycling-friendly town, and also hosts the Mountain State Dirty Double gravel stage race in May and the Appalachia Time Trial Championships in September. The Rowlesburg area offers challenging climbs, fast, twisty descents, and a number of rolling, country roads in the valley.

Aerial view of Rowlesburg, courtesy of WV Dept. of Commerce
Aerial view of Rowlesburg, courtesy of WV Dept. of Commerce

Our combined pack of masters men 40+ and women was over 50 riders strong. We stuck together as we started out on the gently rolling valley road. However, a climb about 10 miles in practically split the group in two.

The next big split would come around mile 20, at the base of the highest peak of the day. The same as at the Mount Davis race two weeks ago, a small group including Gunnar Shogren, Frankie Ross, and seven other riders kept a snappy, steady pace up the climb and rode away from the remaining members of the pack, including the women’s group and about 10 men, with others scattered across the landscape behind.  Gunnar would go on to win the 50+ category, followed by Brian McAndrews of Wayne, PA and Henry Swinty from Fort Wayne, IN.  The 40+ race was won by Grayson Church of DC, followed by John Nelmes of Virginia. Nathan Goates of Shippensburg, PA, edged out Ross for third. After getting dropped and sprinting back on a few times, out of breath and with no benefit of a draft going uphill, I watched, disappointed, as the lead group pulled away.

However, it was pleasant to have a large group to work with for the rest of the race. Our pack would break up on the climbs, but come together again on the roads in the valley. I was glad to at least be among the strongest climbers in this group, so I did not have to fight to catch back on further in the race.

The rolling country roads along the Cheat River allowed riders to regroup after getting separated on the climbs. Photo courtesy of WV Dept. of Commerce.
The rolling country roads along the Cheat River allowed riders to regroup after getting separated on the climbs. Photo courtesy of WV Dept. of Commerce.

The last climb, about three miles long, at around mile 48, is followed by an equally long descent with twisty U-turns, 9% grade, and a rolling seven miles to the finish. Defending women’s champion Michele Sherer, Team BMC Bike Stop of Warrenton, VA, set a steady pace at the base of the climb that was just fast enough for her, me, and Stokely Samuel of Bowie, Maryland to pull away from the group. Thanks to the turns in the road, we were soon out of sight, which can be an advantage in a race. However, the disadvantage was that we did not know how far back the other riders were. Michele was concerned about the pack catching us on the flats after the descent, which had happened a few other times in the race. So, she was glad to have Stokely and me along to work with. I sensed she lessened her pace a hair in order to keep us all together. We crested the hill in a group, descended pretty tight together, and then began a hurricane paceline to keep the other riders away – including Nicole Dorinzi and Melissa Hiller, who were close behind and would finish 3rd and 4th. I had just enough left to get off my saddle for a sprint in the last 200 meters, and rolled over the line slightly ahead of Michele, same second.

Rowlesburg was a good warm-up for the Dirty 40, a 60-mile gravel race next Saturday, August 30 in Derby, Vermont. A number of riders from “West Pennsylginia” will be making the trek north including RDC teammate Mary Boone, and Nicole Dorinzi of Morgantown. It will be nice to have some familiar faces in the pack! I am glad to have had good hilly road races in Appalachia Visited and the Mount Davis Challenge – to prepare for the hard climbs of northern Vermont.

Michelle Scherer (2nd) and Nicole Dorinzi (3rd) sometimes get the better of me on a hill, but today was a good climbing day for me.
Michelle Scherer (2nd) and Nicole Dorinzi (3rd) sometimes get the better of me on a hill, but today was a good climbing day for me.

Hilly Billy Roubaix 2014

Prize-winning volunteers in Hillybilly Attire from the 2013 race.
Prize-winning volunteers in costume from the 2013 race.

 

The Hilly Billy Roubaix is the ultracross race closest to my heart. It’s local (one and a half hours from me, in Morgantown, WV), and as the race gets closer, most local bike discussion revolves around course conditions, predicted weather, bike choice, tire choice, and general trepidation. Promoted by JR and Gina Petsko of ABRA racing, it is well-marked, and numerous volunteers come out in hillbilly attire to marshal the course and cheer us on. In fact, without the numerous volunteers, who stood in the rain for countless hours this year, this race would not be what it is. Thank you, volunteers!!!

With its 72 miles of gravel, road, and mud, it is the longest in distance of the American Ultracross Championship Series races – and in my opinion, the most physically taxing. The climbs are not as long as Three Peaks, and there are no crazy run-ups like Iron Cross, but the bumpy roads and constant short, steep hills wear me down more than the other races.  Perhaps hard efforts generate reverence and affection – I was moved to write a song about the race! [Youtube video of my parents and me performing the Hilly Billy theme song here.] In the spirit of the event, I even painted little bottles of moonshine on my nails.

Getting into the spirit of the event - moonshine on my nails!
Getting into the spirit of the event – moonshine on my nails!

After my 2013 race, in which I was nursing some cracked ribs and had been off the bike a few weeks, I was expecting to feel better this time around. And as it shook out, 2014 was my best year yet! A good omen was that the course conditions were perfect…for me. Water-logged and muddy with heavy rain is what really amps me up.

The main competitors I was watching out for were Crystal Anthony/Riverside Racing and Nicole Dorinzi/Pathfinder of West Virginia. Crystal is a highly talented and accomplished mountain bike and pro cyclocross racer from Massachusetts. [A very good Cyclocross Magazine interview with her about her career and experience at 2014 cyclocross worlds is here.] Nicole Dorinzi/Pathfinder of West Virginia has finished ahead of me at this race three years in a row and recently climbed away from me on the final steep pitch of the Tour of Tucker County road race, so I knew she was in good form.

I had a good, steady start near the front of the group. About 3 miles in, Crystal rode by me on a moderate climb, and I watched as she effortlessly wove her way through the riders ahead of us, and out of sight around a bend. Nicole soon appeared and rallied us to chase. I fell off her surge, but was able to catch back up on a flatter stretch of road. Nicole and I raced together for the next few miles, but I discovered I had a small gap coming out of Little Indian Creek Road – one of the many infamously bombed out, muddy back-roads with car-eating potholes. (See photo.)

Many course roads are not suitable for cars.
Many course roads are not suitable for cars.

[I must note here that it is unusual for me to get ahead of Nicole on any technical section because she is a skilled technical rider, but I can only imagine that I had an advantage riding a mountain bike with 40mm tires, while she was on a cyclocross bike with 33’s. Five days before the race, I had a bike issue which required me to switch bikes from my normal disc cyclocross set up. Teammate Gerry Pflug suggested I set up my Specialized Carve with a rigid fork and my cyclocross wheels. Somewhat of a purist, I had never raced a mountain bike in an ultracross race, but the fluke situation worked in my favor. I was more comfortable than ever on the descents, and the bike handled great in the mud.]

 

My gap out of Little Indian Creek did not last long. Nicole and the group she was with worked her way back up to my group on the flat asphalt section which followed. During a sustained gravel climb, however, I was able to get a gap on her, and maintain it. Here is where Derek Clark/Dynamic Physical Therapy showed his strong riding and knowledge of the course. He lives close to the route, and knew where to power down, when to let up and recover for a coming climb, how long the climbs would last, and basically coached me through the stretch between the crest of that particular gravel climb and aid station 2. Little did we know, however, the larger group Nicole was with was gaining on us bit by bit. By the second aid station, mile 38, she was only about a minute back, I learned from a rider who had bridged up.

After the draining climb out of aid station 2, we hit a flat asphalt section and some “new horsepower” in the form of about five riders caught our little group, and took pace at a fast clip. I hung on as long as I could but our small pack exploded on the next long gravel climb. At that point, it was me and Scott Bond/Speedway Wheelmen of Indiana remaining, with some ahead, others behind from our former posse. Here I must give great credit to Scott. Without his pacing up the climbs I surely would not have kept speed. I was hanging on for dear life on the climbs, my eyes half shut, open just far enough to make sure I had his wheel in sight. In fact, the rest of the race was spent in a semi-delirious blur, hanging on and trying to keep a leg cramp at bay that had been threatening to shut me down. Scott gave me a pace to hold and something to focus on beside my legs, and took us both to the finish. His pacing was also very helpful on any slight down-grade because I was totally spun out on my mountain bike gears. In fact, I was out of gears on most flat-ish sections.

Finishing in second place, at 5:05, I set my best time by 10 minutes, on the slowest conditions I’ve raced it. Crystal smoked the course ahead of me. I’m so glad she came! She provides a model of great strength and tenacity to follow. Looking ahead to the next four races in the ultracross series, I am sure that this race put some good fast miles on my legs that will help me going forward.

Congratulations to Rare Disease Cycling teammate Lesley Butler, who finished 5th place.

RDC's Stephanie Swan is second to Riverside Racing's Crystal Anthony at Hilly Billy Roubaix
Celebrating our finishes on barrel podiums, with a pet pig to cheer us on.

Mixing it up with the Men at the Fort Classic

RDC’s Stephanie Swan wins the Cat 1/2/3 Women in the Fort Classic Road Race

“I’m never complaining about racing with the women again!”

“I never did complain about racing with the women!”

…Overheard men’s voices at the awards podium after the race this past weekend…

The women’s field was mixed in with about 40 masters men in my race on Sunday – The Fort Classic Road Race in McDonald, PA. It can often make for a more exciting, faster effort to race co-ed, so I am always glad when we are combined. Here’s how it worked out:

The course is a flat to rolling eight mile loop – we did five times around. Despite various attacks and chases here and there, the group stayed together, as flat races do. There was somewhat of a “hill” which spread out the pack, but then it would come back together over the course of the loop, with a few riders getting popped off the back here and there.

It was only in the last lap that things finally got broken up. Two riders known for their sustained power -Frankie Ross/Sette Nove and Jim Doan (unattached) – attacked and got away at around four miles to go. At that time, I made my way to the front of the group. I wanted to be within the top five riders going into the last four miles of the race because, barring any further breakaway attempts, here is how I imagined it would play out: There’d be a series of attacks, stringing out the field but not breaking it up, and a mad effort to hold a wheel. When that happens, you can’t move up easily, so it’s best to start as far forward as possible.

Here is me, fifth wheel back in the red helmet on the right side of the picture. Exactly where I want to be.
I am fifth wheel back in the red helmet on the right side of the picture. Exactly where I want to be. Photo: Fred Jordan.

Close to the front, I took my turn in the rotation. However, when I took my pull, and pulled over (at about three miles to go) no one came around me to take their turn. No one wanted to be up front (fair enough!) so I stayed at the front riding a comfortable pace, listening for the sound of sprinting wheels behind me. I rode on the yellow line so I’d only have to watch for sprinting riders on my right side.

A round of attacks started with about two kilometers to go. It was rapid fire for the rest of the race but since I was so far up front when it started, I was well positioned to grab Eric Hodos’ wheel (UPMC/ProBikes) as the field got strung out single file, and little groups got gapped out and shelled off the back. Was happy to get fourth in the uphill sprint – so sixth overall and first woman. Nicole Dorinzi/Pathfinder of West Virginia, the current leader of this ABRA road race series, was the only other woman to make it to the sprint, and finished same time as me.

And here is my sprinting to 4th place, partially obscured but you can see my red helmet on the right. Mark Nicholl/GPOA takes the 40+ field sprint.
Here I am sprinting to 4th place, partially obscured but you can see my red helmet on the right. Mark Nicholl/GPOA (in green) takes the field sprint. Photo: Fred Jordan.

After the race, the winner of the 50+ race (Michael Angove/WWVC Racing) came up to me and thanked me for the lead-out. He said he looked around and I was the best wheel he found in the final hectics, so he jumped on for the win in his category. You are welcome, Michael!

Practice Makes Perfect

Racing with men, as I’ve written about before, presents different challenges than racing with an all-women’s field. On the one hand, a woman is “tolerated” more in the pack because we are not direct competition. On the other hand, I feel invisible at times and really have to stand my ground, and move in on riders when they are riding the “easy chair” draft between two riders ahead of them. Do you not see me? Do you not see the rest of the field lining up two-by-two?

I enjoy rotating through the pace line and contributing what I can. My goal, regardless how fast the pace is, if my turn comes up, is to take enough pedal strokes to keep up the pace and pull through. Even if it’s only ten pedal strokes.

Being comfortable riding with the men can often mean success in a mixed field – so it’s something I am constantly working on. Riding the weekly training crit at the Pittsburgh bike oval is great practice for that. What is my strategy there? One time, I was on a break with three CAT 1 men for about 100 meters – got shelled pretty fast as they sprinted away from the field and got blown off the back of the main pack after the effort.  So how do I make it fun and competitive if I cannot directly compete with the leaders? I focus on pack skills. Working my way up the field as much as possible. If I get to the front, I take my 10 or more pedal stokes. Participation like that is gratifying. Integrating back into the pack after a pull is challenging in and of itself.

One the one side of the coin, the training crits with “Pittsburgh’s Best” repress my competitive spirit. I’m in a race I do not aspire to win. But on the other side, success of any kind at these races is all the more gratifying. My best placing in the training crits was 10th in the sprint, and the day I won a Nugo Bar Prime – well that I consider a big accomplishment!

…and if I get a compliment racing with the men, even a backhanded one like “I’m never complaining about racing with the women again!” – well, I’ll take it.

Barry Roubaix 2014

 

Starting Chute at Barry, from the race's Facebook page.
Starting Chute at Barry, from the race’s Facebook page.

Barry Roubaix started so fast last year I got dropped before the first climb, about two miles in. Rode by myself first half of the race, and dropped my chain in the sprint finish to miss the fifth spot on the podium by 10 feet. So I knew what I wanted to avoid this year.

Warmed up well. Got to the line 25 minutes ahead of time- which meant 15th row in the starting chute for the 255-strong combined field of men’s 40+, men’s single speed, and women’s open. In its sixth year, Barry Roubaix is immensely popular. 3,500 riders descend upon Hastings, Michigan – increasing the town’s population of 7,300 by practically 50% on race day. (The race starts in sixteen separate waves by category.)

There were 44 women registered, including women’s 2013 American Ultracross Championship Series champion Ruth Sherman, 2013 Hilly Billy Roubaix champion Vanessa McCaffery, 2012 Barry Roubaix champion Samantha Brode, and last year’s Barry champion Mackenzie Woodring. Woodring has numerous accolades including a gold medal in the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing, China, where she (as pilot) and visually-impaired cyclist Karissa Whitsell won the women’s tandem time trial.

Few of these women were in view, however, as we waited for the start. I was surrounded by cyclists unknown to me. As the race began, riders got strung out to a manageable 5-wide, allowing me to work my way up the field. When we made the right turn into the first muddy climb, I was situated well enough to be carried up the hill by the momentum of the other riders – and some pressure on the pedals. Samantha Brode appeared to my right and I took this as a good sign. She always has a good start at this race.

Road conditions 2 days before the race:  Some pot holes, some dry dirt, some mud, no ice. From the race's Facebook page.
Road conditions 2 days before the race: Some pot holes, some dry dirt, some mud, no ice. From the race’s Facebook page.

The pace for the first 15 miles was so fast I knew I could not sustain it for the full 62 mile course. No idea where most of the other women were, I had a feeling there was at least one in a pack ahead of me. As the race spread out into smaller groups, I found myself in a pack of 20 men, which soon doubled as we caught riders ahead and other riders caught us. Out of nowhere, a woman unknown to me (Illinois State Cyclocross Champion Danielle Smith) attacked our group, and jumped up to the next pack. I knew my legs didn’t have it to follow, so I hung on for dear life with our group as it surged forward.

We eventually caught the pack with Smith and around 20 miles in, we swallowed up a smaller pack with Woodring. For the next 25 miles, we settled in, but the gas was on the whole time. Single speeders George Lowe and Dan Rapp (who finished 5th and 7th respectively, in their class) were in the pack with us – pushing the pace on this flat-to-rolling course.

With about 10 miles to go, George rode up to me and said we had gotten a 30-second gap on the larger group on one of the steeper rollers. There were 15 of us left. Mackenzie was still with us but Danielle didn’t make the selection. George rode up to the front and quickened the pace, and with the effort of two other riders, widened our gap.

As we came into town with about half a mile to go, Mackenzie made a strong surge that gapped me out. I caught up and with no time to catch my breath, put all my strength into a sprint pretty far out from the finish. I held my position and won by a narrow 2 seconds – after 62 miles of tough racing.

My First Place Plaque, complete with Michigan gravel.
My First Place Plaque, complete with Michigan gravel. Photo from Jack Kunnen Photography.

My finish and my progress this year has me dizzy with happiness! I have so much to be thankful for – including Pittsburgh riders John Cotter and Chris Mayhew – who led group rides through the rain, snow, and sub-freezing weather this winter. My coach Jacob Fetty/CycleSmart gives me a training recipe for success and my Specialized Crux rode like a champ – not flinching once over the numerous potholes and washboards on the course. So grateful for my team support from Rare Disease Cycling and Pro Bikes Pittsburgh. I feel like I should also thank my legs and lungs. Thank you, everyone and everything!  This is my best race so far, and words don’t describe how happy I am.

Congrats to Gerry Pflug who won the men’s single speed category after getting caught up in a crash and time-trialing back to the single speed leader. Congrats also to Mary Boone, Pittsburgh Rare Disease Cycling teammate who finished 14th out of 41 in her category. Here’s to more strong racing for all in 2014!

Southern Cross 2014

We could not have asked for better weather at the first race in the American Ultracross Championship SeriesSouthern Cross in Dahlonega, Georgia. The 300-rider field rolled out under sunny skies, upper 50’s temperature.

The race start was a bit hectic since the women were directed to start one minute behind the men. Not all women heard the instructions and some left with the men. Others, including me, started staggered, quickly catching the end of the men’s field. We came to a standstill within the first 500 meters of the race, behind numerous bottlenecks and crashes which occurred in the taped-off cyclocross course leading out of Montaluce Winery – the start and location/sponsor of the event.

Montaluce Winery. Location sponsor of Southern Cross, Dahlonega, Georgia.
Montaluce Winery. Location sponsor of Southern Cross, Dahlonega, Georgia.

Stuck behind so many riders, all I could do was wait for the clogs to clear and hope to catch women ahead of me when the course turned out of the winery onto the open road.

When I got to the asphalt, I found that despite the cold weather and limited outdoor riding of a Pittsburgh winter, I felt light and snappy on my bike. Picking off one rider after the other, I had caught all but one woman, Meghan Korol, by the top of the first major gravel climb.

Me ascending Springer Mountain on the first major climb of the race. Photo credit to Jayson O'Mahoney.
Me ascending Springer Mountain on the first major climb of the race. Photo credit to Jayson O’Mahoney.

The second major climb (of two) was more gradual and I settled into a steady drive forward, but wished there were some other riders to work with. By starting staggered, the men I sometimes ride with at these events were further up the road.

At the bottom of the second climb, after a twisty gravel descent, I caught up to a male rider, who told me the third woman, Lisa Randall, was just a minute back. (Lisa is a champion mountain biker and adventure racer, who also promotes races in the Georgia area through her company, Mountain Goat Adventures.) She finished ahead of me the two previous years at Southern Cross so I was very concerned she would catch me. Between the scare of being chased and the knowledge that the finish was less than 10 miles away, I got a late-day surge of energy that got me to the line as the second woman overall, looking behind my back all the way to the line!

Women's Podium at Southern Cross, 2014. Photo credit Meghan Korol.
Women’s Podium at Southern Cross, 2014. Photo credit Meghan Korol.

Southern Cross was a great kick-off to the 2014 racing season. A welcome break from riding in sub-freezing temperatures, and gratifying to feel good on my bike after so many indoor trainer days.

Congratulations to Gerry Pflug, who took the single speed win at Southern Cross, to Selene and Roger for their wins at Monster Cross, and to all Rare Disease cyclists who started the season with a “Bang!” this weekend. I’ll take the team’s successes as a harbinger of more good races to come and say – it’s going to be a good 2014 for Rare Disease Cycling.

Sub-9 Gravel Grovel

The last race in the 2013 American Ultracross Championship Series was the Gravel Grovel, in the Hoosier National Forest, Indiana. 60 miles of beautiful, rolling, forested gravel roads with a few short, steep climbs. The way the points worked, if I had won the Gravel Grovel and Ruth had come in second, we would have been tied for points, and since the Grovel was the tie-breaker, I would have won the series. It was a tight margin with little room for error!

For the first part of the race, Ruth and I rode together at a fast clip with a group of otherwise male riders. (We were the first two women.) Around 15 miles in, we entered a road called Combs, which was narrow and muddy and more like a trail. On a perfectly harmless downhill section, I was right behind Ruth and my front wheel caught a rock hidden under some leaves. I crashed pretty hard on my left hip. By the time I got myself and my bike together a few women had passed me. It was hard to pedal due to my sore hip but I kept going as best I could, and ended up fourth in the race.

After racing 6 of the 7 Ultracross races in the 2013 series, I finished second overall in points. Completing the series this year has solidified my love for Ultracross: I am determined, motivated, and focused to race my best season yet in 2014. In fact, I can’t wait for the series to start all over again – with Southern Cross this February in Dahlonega, Georgia.

StehpanieSwanGravelGrovel

Pittsburgh Cycle for Life

The Pittsburgh Cystic Fibrosis Foundation Cycle for Life took place on September 15, 2013. Lauren DiMaria of the CFF worked tirelessly to secure sponsors, register riders, get the course approved with PennDOT and municipalities, and put together a great after-party. Course design, headed up by Stephanie Swan with essential support from the Pittsburgh Team CF riders, saw numerous hours of scoutings and re-routings due to poor road conditions, bridges under construction, and a change in the start-finish location, but a scenic course was found that toured rural, rolling terrain and hilly, tree-canopied back-roads unknown to many locals.

The race got off to a brisk start in the 50’s but soon the sun came out and everyone warmed up. Over 150 riders rolled out of the tree-lined drive at historic Rosalea Farms in Moon, PA. Pittsburgh Team CF riders dispersed throughout the ride – acting as roving motivation and mechanics – and saw the very last riders on the short and long courses to the finish line. Finishers were greeted at Rosalea Farms with barbeque, live music and lawn games.

The course was undeniably hilly, with about 4,000 feet of climbing in 58 miles, but about as flat as any route that could be created in Western PA. Next year, more attention could be given to preparing participants for the terrain of the area. Also, next year’s event might use the occasion to reinforce rider safety on the road. Even on deserted roads, it’s always good to have a reminder of safe riding – staying far right and being aware of car traffic.

Rising to the challenges of the course, participants gave good feedback on the course and the event. At the after party, Mary Pat Joseph (Western PA Chapter Executive Director) ran out of sign-up sheets for next year’s event! With such a solid foundation at the Western PA inaugural event, next year’s Cycle for Life is sure to be an even bigger success!

A sincere thanks to CFL Pittsburgh sponsors including Aptalis, Accenture, Children’s Hospital Foundation, Full Pint Brewing, GNC, 5 Generation Bakers, Creekside Springs Water, B-B Productions dj’s, Rosalea Farms, Bicycle Times Magazine, sponsors in the photos below, and many other valued contributors.

Team CF Ride marshals ready to roll.
Team CF Ride Marshals ready to roll.
Team CF members and friends put together a big team for the event.
Team CF members and friends put together a big team for the event.
Riders take a break at the well-stocked rest stop. Thanks for Pro Bikes for mechanical support!
Riders take a break at the well-stocked rest stop. Thanks for Pro Bikes for mechanical support!
Finishers enjoy live music and barbeque provided by Buffalo Blues.
Finishers enjoy live music and barbeque provided by Buffalo Blues.

 

All Smiles! with dessert from Eat N' Park.
All Smiles! with dessert from Eat N’ Park.

A

 

Tip of the Week – Adrenaline

Are you ready for the lions chasing you?

My pre-race routine used to consist of getting to the race venue shortly before it started and rushing to register and suit up. The adrenaline “rush” from being late caused my hands to shake as I pinned on my number. That shot of adrenaline also served as my warm-up. But it took away valuable energy reserves that I could have used in my race.

Our body’s ability to react to stress is not infinite. It also does not differentiate between “worthy” reasons to get amped up or trivial ones. That is, whether a lion is chasing you or someone cuts in line at the grocery store and you stress about it –your “adrenaline factory” goes into production. So, it is useful to limit stress reactions as much as possible, and conserve the raw materials in the “adrenaline factory” for when we really need them.

How to avoid stress?

Easier said than done, of course. Some stress is unavoidable. We can’t have all our ducks in a row all the time. Just like you can’t keep up with laundry unless you stop wearing clothes – there is always something to be done, and it usually involves finite time. Besides keeping up with daily chores, deadlines at work, accidents and illness, and arguments with those close to us tend to crop up and may be unavoidable.
For me, a successful stress reducer is proper time management. That’s allotting enough time for activities, not scheduling too many activities, being punctual, allotting time for preparation and relaxed consumption of a healthy meal, and getting enough sleep.

Another way to avoid stressing out is to approach stress with your head rather than your emotions. Here are three examples. I use traffic to illustrate my examples because they are a potentially major cause of stress for me.

Change yourself.

Do you really need to yell at the person who cuts you off on the highway? You’re not getting through to them and you’re just firing yourself up. I like to assume the person is learning disabled and I choose to feel sorry for them, and ignore them.

Change the situation.

Traffic gets backed up when you travel to work and you are always five minutes late. Change the situation by leaving 10 minutes early. If traffic gets backed up, it’s no longer something to stress over because you have an extra five minutes’ buffer built in.

Remove yourself from the situation.

On your evening training route, the close calls with vehicles induce several “near death experiences” per night. Pick a new route, drive out of town, ride indoors, wait half an hour… Rack your brains: how to avoid that situation.

I do not have the calm of the Dalai Lama, who is a master at remaining serene and detached when faced with the stresses of life. The tips I’ve included above are things I work on daily. Still, I’ve noticed that the more I eliminate stress by proper time management, changing myself or the situation, and removing myself from the situation, the more energy and resources I have to produce adrenaline for when I really need it – in my racing.

In conclusion, I hope you don’t get chased by a lion any time soon – but proper stress management will have you putting out your best sprint effort if you do!

lion_chasing_zebra

Hilly Billy Roubaix!

I’ve never seen so many cyclists cringed up along the side of the road. The hot weather on Saturday induced cramps in even the healthiest of riders. It looked like a forced march through the Sahara Desert at times.

The race started at 10:00 am when it was still relatively cool. I had the best start of the three times I’ve done this race, and at aid station one (20 miles) both first and second place were just a few seconds ahead of me while I sat in third.

Having contact with the leaders that far into the race was significant because in the past, I had lost a lot of time on a muddy road with slick, water-filled potholes as wide as the road itself. I did not ride that section fast, but it was the fastest I’d ever done it.

Unfortunately, soon after aid station one, I irreparably bonked – with 52 miles to go. I watched helplessly as the lead woman spun away from me up a hill. This was going to be a long race.

It’s fair to say I was not prepared for this event. Three weeks prior, I was in a pretty violent crash on the road, and although I didn’t break anything, I was pretty bruised up all over and could not inhale all the way due to bruised ribs.

You never realize how much limited lung capacity can slow you down until you experience it yourself. On the plus side, I got to ride a lot with my father during my recovery. He had a knee replacement a few weeks prior to my crash – and we made a fine pair – creeping along the rail trails around Pittsburgh together at half strength.

After I bonked, all I had to help me get through was my head. So, I rode as smart as I could – drafting as long as I could behind other riders, coasting down  every slight downhill, metering out my food as planned. I knew the course, which gave me a sense of familiarity, at least.

I constantly looked over my shoulder, wondering when (not if) the next woman would catch me. Every time I came upon a steep hill and saw other riders walking I thought – this is it, I am going to have to walk this hill. But somehow, I made it up every one. I credit my gear choice for this – I have mountain bike gearing on my cyclocross bike.

Since Hilly Billy is my home territory, all the corner marshals knew me and cheered me on, but I could barely groan in response to their encouragement. If I am painting a pathetic picture here – it is because this was by far the worst I have felt at any race, ever.

40 miles to go, fourth place hadn’t passed me. 30 miles to go – anything can happen! 20 miles to go, I keep looking back for her. 10 to go and my friend yells, “Keep grinding, Stephanie!” By some miracle, I made it to the finish in third place. I have never felt so happy – to feel so bad. I was thrilled with my result considering the circumstances.

Three Peaks is the next ultracross I’m planning on, in September. Between then and now I plan to make a full recovery and train hard. With my improving gravel riding, that will assure that I am prepared for the challenges of the mountains around Banner Elk, North Carolina.

Smokey Drain Road - a steep, rutted ATV road a few miles from the finish. (Photo from a previous year.)
Smokey Drain Road – a steep, rutted ATV road a few miles from the finish. (Photo from a previous year.)
Referee in a muddy pothole. Photo from a previous year, but this is the size of the "potholes" if you call them that.
Referee in a muddy pothole. Photo from a previous year, but this is the size of the “potholes” if you call them that.
Here's me crawling to the finish, about 10 miles to go.
Here’s me crawling to the finish, about 10 miles to go.

Tip of the Week – Find Motivation “Overnight”… Sleep and Mental Attitude

The silver Chevy Tahoe starts tailgating me and proceeds to weave through traffic aggressively. On the narrow four-lane street, I get caught in the right lane between a rusty red dump truck on my left and a city bus in front of me, which will inevitably pull up to the green light and stop. But I’m humming a catchy pop song. Patiently, I wait behind the bus.

Welcome to my morning car commute. Why am I so content? I got a good night’s sleep. I am calm and resilient in the face of the day’s annoyances.  I have the energy to concentrate at work and ride my bike afterward.

Let’s look at the other side of the coin. When I have a bad night’s sleep, I get up late and rush out the door with my cereal box and milk carton in hand – for breakfast at my desk. On my commute, the drivers annoy me because I am late and they are in my way. I am grumpy because I haven’t eaten. At work, I feel overwhelmed by the tasks piled up on my desk. No chance of exercise after work.  Even if my body could handle the physical stress, I am so mentally fatigued from rushing around and negative thoughts that I go home in a tired stupor.

Sleep has a greater effect on our mental health than we may realize. If you are feeling unmotivated to train… work… or socialize… look at your sleep patterns and see if there is room for improvement.  Here are a few easy things to consider:

  1. Don’t try to squeeze too much in your day. Folding the laundry can wait. Go to sleep at your ideal bed time and you’ll be more efficient the next day.
  2. No TV or YouTube. Don’t watch cute cat videos in bed. You’ll never be able to turn them off!
  3. Stay away from large meals and chocolate close to bedtime. Don’t eat a sleeve of Oreos at 10 pm.
  4. Do not exercise heavily right before bed. After the weeknight training crit, I frequently toss and turn in bed for hours, the adrenalin from the race still coursing through my body.

A simple Google search will yield many more suggestions on proper “sleep hygiene”.

For those who have serious sleep disorders – do not give up! Seek advice until you find something that works. Beyond traditional medicine, consider anything and everything that might help: yoga breathing, talk therapy, consultation with a professional of Ayurvedic or Chinese medicine, for example. Some “wild” and unconventional therapies might work if you give it a try. You deserve your sleep – fight for it!

As for me, I need to follow my own advice. Just last week I got up late and ate breakfast at my work desk every day. But every day… and night … is new. Tonight, I’m turning off the cat videos, leaving my clean laundry in the basket, hiding my Oreos in the freezer, and going to bed.

happy bear waking up

 

Poolesville Road Race

Generally, I have very good luck with my bike equipment. If I have a spectacular blow-out or break a spoke, it’s usually 200 meters from my front door. Not so this weekend.

The Poolesville (Maryland) Road Race is a 10-mile circuit with a 1-mile gravel section. The course is flat-to-rolling through lush green farmland and dewy woods. The women CAT 1/2’s were run with the men CAT 3’s for a planned 60-mile race.

On the first lap, I was 7th into the gravel, so I could see the potholes, and a drainage ditch cut perpendicularly into the trail, way before I hit them. I was in my element – I love gravel and I’m growing fond of potholes. Lap 1 ticked away on my cyclocomputer, 10 miles completed.

We made the right turn onto lap 2. I went over some uneven asphalt and “Crack!” My saddle had shifted and was pointing up like a plane taking off. The leaders pushed the pace for the next lap and I forgot about my saddle as I dangled on the back, fighting to hang on. 20 miles done.

Lap 3 the pace was snappy, and the field got strung out at the onset. After the gravel section, I was the only woman left with the men. But that was no time to celebrate. At mile 27, I went over another uneven patch of asphalt. “Crack!” My saddle fell off completely. We encountered some rollers so I climbed out of my saddle and finished 30 miles with the pack.

As we turned the corner onto lap 4 I was still with the group, but I was causing a bit of a disturbance. I kept yelling out to the course marshals, “Please, get me a bike with Speedplay pedals! My saddle fell off!” Luckily, the pack decided to sit up this time around the circuit. I nestled myself into the back row of riders, sat with one leg on my top tube, and coasted behind them.

As we entered the gravel section for the fourth time, I got caught behind a crash and was decisively dropped about 35 miles into the race. I knew the second woman had been dropped at the same spot 10 miles earlier, so, I pedaled as hard as I could on the flats and hills. When there was a downhill, I sat with my leg on my top tube and tucked my knees into my frame.

All the while, I kept yelling out to the course marshals for a replacement bike. After 10 miles with no seat, a man called out, “They have a bike for you, about 8 turns up the road.” I was going to get a bike! This turned out to be a miscommunication. There was no bike, and the marshals grew weary of my pleas. “Well, you asked last time and we STILL don’t have a bike for you!”

My heart sank. How long could I last doing this, riding without a saddle? About 45 miles into the race, and after about 20 miles with no saddle, the moto-ref pulled up to me and said that I was in first place and there was no one behind in sight. He said that he had decided the cut the race to 50 miles considering the circumstances. I was overjoyed! Could I stay away for the next 5 miles?

Soon after that, a course marshal pedaled up to me and said, “I have a Speedplay bike for you!” I asked the moto-ref if it was okay to switch and he said yes. There was still a chance I could get caught, so I took the other bike. 400 meters down the road I realized that something felt funny. When I stood up, my cleats popped out off the pedals. But when I sat down, I couldn’t put any power on the pedals either. It turns out this bike had an incompatible version of Speedplays and was a size 48, a bit cramped coming from my 56cm frame.

After all, though, a bike still is a bike. I balanced my cleats on the pedals and rode the child-sized bike to the line. I had won Poolesville on a day I would never forget.

Springtime in Maryland. The lush green grass and rolling farmland is a beautiful sight.
Springtime in Maryland. The lush green grass and rolling farmland is a beautiful sight.
Riders charge through the gravel at Poolesville. (photo courtesy of National Capital Velo Club website.)
Riders charge through the gravel at Poolesville. (photo courtesy of National Capital Velo Club website.)
I made it to the finish!
I made it to the finish!

What’s in YOUR saddle bag?

There’s nothing like finding yourself 20 miles from home with a mechanical problem that could be easily fixed – if you had just brought along the right stuff! Most riders carry the basics: inner tube, patch kit, tire lever, C02 cartridges (if you use them), frame pump, allen wrench set, cell phone, personal ID (medical info), $20. Below is a list of often-overlooked “life savers”:

Casing patch. To prevent your inner tube from exploding out of a slashed sidewall, you can line the inside of your tire with an energy bar wrapper, but I prefer a self-adhesive tire boot.

Universal spoke wrench. You trust your spokes until one breaks, and then never again.

Chain tool/quick link. After my chain broke during an ultracross race, a kind stranger repaired it with his quick link and I finished the race. Now I carry these with me.

Valve adaptor from Presta to Schrader. This tiny adaptor will allow you to use a gas-station pump.

Rag. I wrap my spare inner tube in a piece of flannel to protect it and to wipe my hands if greasy.

Caffeinated sports gel on reserve. If you have an unexpected bonk, make a wrong turn, find yourself in a deserted area, or on a ride that was longer than expected – a “reserve” gel might be the thing that will get you home.

Sample-size sunscreen. It’s easy to forget sunscreen on the way out the door, but you won’t forget the burn as easily.

Wind vest. Even in mild weather, I tuck a wind vest in my pocket. Unexpected rainstorms, clouds, or high winds can make a bike ride feel like being trapped in a meat locker. Also, when the sun goes down, the temperature can drop drastically. A wind vest packs small and will get you home in comfort.

Extra pair of gloves (in cold weather). Winter gloves often get sweaty inside and freeze in the cold air. When my hands are frozen, I switch to a dry pair of gloves and this helps bring them back to life. Alternately, when it’s cold but will warm up, I start with winter gloves and tuck a full-finger knit glove in my pocket for later – because no one likes riding around in swampy winter gloves on a pleasant day.

Mini first aid kit. These items have come in handy for incidents ranging from road rash to dog bites: 2 wet wipes, 2 alcohol wipes, 2 band aids, and a mostly used-up tube of antibiotic ointment (so it packs flat).

NOTES:

  1. Never count on your riding partners for tools, etc. They are probably counting on you!
  2. Definitely carry a frame pump! One day, your flats will outnumber your CO2 cartridges.
  3. I carry three tubes in an ultracross race. You can throw one out to a stranger and still have two left.
  4. For more information and recommendations, take a look at “Tools and Spare Equipment”, pp 16-22 in my father’s reference guide.

Stephanie Swan

My saddle bag and its contents
My saddle bag and its contents
Preparedness has a cost – in the neighborhood of 1 lb, 5.8 oz
Preparedness has a cost – in the neighborhood of 1 lb, 5.8 oz