Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Dalby World Cup

Biding my time in the Manchester airport with a short WiFi window before flying to Germany, hoping that the freshly spewed ash cloud from Iceland doesn’t blow too heavily south before my flight. Throughout the nonstop headlines on all UK news channels, I've noted that no reporter has attempted to pronounce the actual name of the volcano. I remember last year's volcano was difficult for the English tongue, so perhaps they've decided to write this one off.

I’m feeling positive after the first European test at Dalby Forest. It’s best to look at the beginning of a World Cup campaign like a long-term investment. I’ve built a fair amount of equity in bike racing back in the states, but I’m fresh into the Transatlantic sector. Aside from preparing and racing as well as I possibly can, the biggest thing I'm focusing on is improving my start position. Over time, the more I can peck away at the field and build up points, the more I move up. The closer I am to the front of the field at the start of the race, the better chance I have at a good result. For the moment, starting in the back means I have to accept an otherwise discouraging result on paper, and look for the little victories whilst clawing my way from the back of the pack. At Dalby I made it up to 89th position, so passed around 30 riders. Not as good as the 60th I was shooting for, but next weekend in Germany is another shot.

I was called up even further back in Dalby than I expected - second to last row, so around 120th out of 130 riders. The start loop was a furious, all-out sprint for 60 seconds, and then into the traffic jam as soon as the path narrowed. The talent in the European World Cup field is noticeably deeper compared with the World Cups in North America. Here, EVERYONE is very fast, so it makes passing a bigger challenge than normal. For an example of how rough it is to start in the back, I lost nearly 5 minutes on the first lap (6 laps total) due to traffic jams. Making it through the cattle herd of racers is a mix of brute strength and luck. Either way, it's rough. Once things opened up on the remaining 5 laps, I could see on the time board that I was only losing between 70 and 80 seconds per lap. Assuming I could have started without the jams, I would have theoretically held my ground at a higher position in the field. I made up the most ground on the steep climbs, and kept passing riders all the way to the finish.

89th sounds like a discouraging result compared to my recent performances back home, but considering the speed and size of the Euro scene, my difficult start position, finishing on the leaders lap (i.e. not getting lapped), and the need to look at this as a slow, steady process of earning a better position, it was a good start. I'd give my performance a "B". 60th would have been an "A".

More soon, and pics, too.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Dalby Sprint Eliminator and Practice

After getting used to driving on the opposite side of the road and shifting with my left hand, I made it safely to Pickering, UK . I linked up with the USA Cycling crew at the Sands Farm Cottages in the beautiful Yorkshire countryside. I've yet to sample any classic UK curry or fish & chips.

Signs mark the roads around the village.

Aside from my general excitement about being across the Atlantic for the first time, the best event so far was last night's XC Sprint Eliminator (XCE) event held in the streets of Pickering. The XCE is a new format held on Friday nights at this year's World Cup events. The event involves a short course (1 to 2min) with a time-trial format qualifying round, followed by knockout rounds of four riders at once. The event is mostly for the crowd, but there are still UCI points and cash available, and it attracts a star-studded field of the world's best. Friday night included the top-ranked racer in the world from Switzerland, Nino Schurter . I thought the race would at least be a good way to make sure the long commute was out of my legs, and get mentally revved up for Sunday's cross country. I was fast enough in qualifying to make the first knockout round, and was barely edged out of the sprint, and finished 22nd on the day. Most of all, it was exhilarating to race through the huge crowd and feel how popular cycling is in the part of the world. It felt like "the real deal".

The finishing stretch in Pickering, c/o BritishCycling.com

and HUGE crowds!!

Today was the last day of practice on the XC course before the race. The climate here is just like Seattle, and luckily the weather has been mostly dry. A little rain last night has made the trails tacky and fast. The forest and track here remind me a lot of riding at home - rich dirt, roots, mossy rocks, big trees... Tomorrow we will race 1 start loop + 6 laps on a 6km course with some intensely technical sections and aggressive climbs. My start position is 109 out of 137 riders and my first goal is to fight my way to the top 60. Finishing 60 or higher would earn me World Cup points and bump me up to a better starting position for next weekend in Germany.

Here are some good links for viewing the action:
LIVE TV COVERAGE: www.freecaster.tv
CyclingNews Report: www.cyclingnews.com
British Cycling: Photos and Race Reports

more soon...

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

going part time

This whole cycling gig feels like it has entered a new realm. All the pieces from the last several month’s worth of planning are coming together. Last Friday was my last full-time day at the Ridgeline office until the end of the summer. After a warm and encouraging sendoff from friends, family and co-workers, I’m en route on my first trip to Europe and two rounds of the UCI World Cup.

Many of you reading are familiar with the storyline of the last year-or-so, but as the scope of my bicycling exploit expands, so too does the number of interested people, it seems. So insomuch as my version of elite sport pursuit is worthy of attention, it would be nothing if it weren’t for the key support I’ve received along the way. So, a little narrative of recent events which have led to this point…

Three years ago I started a job as a GIS Analyst with Ridgeline Energy , a small wind energy development company based in Seattle, WA. I was fresh out of college and had also started racing for the Portland, OR-based Team S&M under the tutelage of Kona Factory rider/NW cycling legend Erik Tonkin (a.k.a. “the Caveman”, “Wooly Mammoth”, etc.). For those who don’t know Erik, he wields, among many other talents, a remarkable flair for the ‘work-life-balance’. Explaining Erik’s life philosophy as it applies to competetive cycling is worthy of a volume by itself. But in short, his guidance and support helped me to hone my own raison d e’tre, and accept, among other things, that for someone in my position (not yet the fastest in the pack), mountain bike racing is a pay-to-play, “elite-amateur” sport, and the only way to make it work well for you is to make it work well with everything else in your life. After two years in Seattle I had raced well enough to be selected as one of seven to represent the US in the 2010 World Championships, all while managing a full-time professional commitment to Ridgeline.

There’s nothing remarkable about balancing a full-time job with an extracirricular activity like bike racing. Most people who can will do it. I’ll wait until I am a parent before thinking that I’ve really accomplished something! What’s remarkable about this balancing act, I believe, is the support I’ve received from my company. Since I began working at Ridgeline, I made it a point to treat racing with the same ‘get-the-job-done’ mentality that I used with work. This wasn’t so hard, since I love my work at Ridgeline. What I learned in the office informed the racing, and vice versa, and I valued both equally – the work is interesting, challenging, fun, deadlines are deadlines, be organized, turn out quality work, always think of ways to improve, etc… Sounds cliche, but I would have had a much harder time motivating to do well in either realm if I didn’t treat each with the same vigor. I received a promotion during the summer, and that, combined with success on the racecourse, created a feedback loop of high motivation.

I kept race travel contained to long weekends to keep from missing work and ration vacation, maybe missing a Friday or a Monday at the most. No-frills travel, in-and-out, custom-sized bike bag to save on baggage fees, sometimes flying in the morning of the race and leaving the same night…again, the way many people do it. The change came when my supervisors and company executives took notice of my performance at Nationals and qualification to the World Championships, realizing that what I had been running off to on the weekends was more than a little hobby. They asked what my scope was and if I needed additional support, and when I explained that I really wanted to pursue a campaign of the World Cup circuit and the 2012 Olympics, they encouraged me to draft a sponsorship proposal.

It was immensely flattering, and I didn’t hesitate to put together a detailed plan once the 2011 race schedule was published. In the midst of all this, I had received an offer from Kona Bicycles to race as a member of their Factory Team. Had this all been happening in the late 90’s, the offer would have meant that I could be paid a modest but livable amount of money to race my bike. For the last then years, however, elite mountain bike racing has become increasingly anemic in financial terms, and while the bike industry maintains health in other sectors, companies simply cannot offer the same financial support to their athletes, especially new-comers. Regardless, I accepted Kona’s offer. Personally, a spot on the internationally recognized team was significant, like a symbolic level of acheivement, regardless of financial compensation. It carried the possibility of a salary and expense budget, but I knew well enough that I could not depend on it for 2011. It was a classic case that many athletes face – if the job stops, so does the race funding, hmm...and ALL funding for that matter!…but if I don’t go for it…hmmm… I knew I wanted to race for Kona and to pursue a full-time race schedule, and working out a deal with Ridgeline was the best way to mitigate the financial risk and preserve my option of racing a full schedule in 2011.

Ridgeline and I arranged a deal in which I would switch to part-time-hourly beginning June 1st and return to full time after the World Championships in September (assuming I make it that far). Since I began working for the company as a contractor, I had already proven my ability to coordinate on discreet projects and produce timely, quality results while working remotely. The flex schedule would offer me the time to attend major qualifying events, and maintain a modest income to cover regular living expenses through the summer. In addition, our parent company Veolia Environnement , offered a bonus for me to put towards travel expenses to these major events. It’s an incredible situation and I’m thankful for it every time I get on my bike. I’m not embarassed that I do not get paid to race my bike. Maybe someday my tune will change, but for now, working out this current balance has been more satisfying than any paycheck.

So now…on the way to Europe. After all these months of planning and training, I wondered if the self-imposed pressure would get to me. Stepping away from my full-time status at Ridgeline felt big, like symbolically transforming this trip into one big culmination of the last few years, and therefore that it had better go perfectly! But that’s just my mind running. It is huge, no doubt, but in relation to what I’ve been doing for the last several years, it’s just a natural step forward, and I feel like I’ve prepared the best I know how. I could have the race of my life in Europe or I could double flat in both races. Point is, what I’ve learned and gained while getting to this point cannot be undone. When I think that way, the pressure is only positive.

Finally, the other essential aspect of this adventure is that it would be much less meaningful if I could not share it with anyone. I’m so motivated by the support and encouragement from family, friends and co-workers, so in recounting some stories along the way, I hope I can share the fun that you’ve all helped me to discover.
Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Round #4, Dripping Springs, Texas

For Round #4 of the 2011 Pro XCT series, I finally had to venture from the company of the Kona road crew and forage my way down to Austin, Texas. There I met friend and fellow-racer Adam Craig with his Team Giant-Rabobank support crew and we all converged for a wonderful local homestay in the hills above Austin. Thank you Gary and Mel for such hospitality these last two years!

We had all day Friday to head out to the course at Lance Armstrong's ranch in Dripping Springs and test the bikes...and get tested by the heat. Last year we all traveled to the same location, but in late May, where temperatures were hovering around 100 degrees, plus high humidity. This year, despite being a month earlier, it wasn't much cooler. About 92 and blazing sun. I got to test out two new pieces of equipment - my new Hei Hei 29er...

and a high-tech ice vest, designed to keep core temperatures and [artificially] increase a [scrawny] cyclist's self-esteem in the realm of apparent upper-body mass...

For a main stopover of the Pro XCT series, the race in Dripping Springs is unique because it has the feel of being located 'in the middle of nowhere', much like the local races I was familiar with while growing up. Compared to last year's event, the word had apparently spread much more through the local cycling community, and by the morning of the cross country race on Saturday, the sizzling hillside was covered in cars, racers, and spectators.

After a frustrating race at the Sea Otter Classic two weeks earlier, I was very focused on putting in a top-10 performance. With the temperature in the 90s, my plan was to treat the race similar to an event at altitude. In both high temperatures and high altitude, it's important to use a bit more discretion with hard efforts, as compared to cool or low-altitude events. In the heat, dehydration and fatigue can sneak up fast and take the throttle right out of your legs. My plan was to get into a comfortable position early in the race, develop a rhythm and focus on a big surge later in the race.

Photo Credit: © Dave McElwaine/trailwatch.net

My start could've been a bit more aggressive, but by the second of five laps, I was in a small group riding for top 10. This here is no shameless product plug...I couldn't have been happier with the Hei Hei 29er! I was blown away by how much energy I was conserving on the rocky, technical trail sections, and the control I felt through the loose, gravelly turns. I felt no hindrance on the steep, punchy climbs, and by lap 4 I was sitting in 9th and feeling confident that I could attack and survive the heat. With the leaders in sight on open sections of the course, I knew top 5 was not completely out of question. With half a lap to go, and the two main climbs on the course, I had moved into 6th and was closing in on 5th. I could roughly count my time gap on the twisty course. 25 seconds...19 seconds....15 seconds....12 seconds.......aaaand....finish line.

6th place!

Thanks to all of the hard work of the race promoters, officials and volunteers to put on a great race on an awesome course. A big thanks also to Nick and Foy from Shimano for tech support and shade at the big blue Shimano trailer. I would look forward to this race being a regular stop on the calendar for seasons to come. Plus...the BBQ and Mexican food in Austin is superb. Speaking of, if rolling through Austin, check out Polvos Mexican Restaurant . We went there on Saturday night, followed by a night-time swim at crystal cool Barton Springs , located right in the city.

The race in Texas was a mini personal victory. 6th is the highest I have ever placed at a National-level event, I came in right around 3.5 minutes down on 1st place which is the closest I've ever finished to the leader, and...I tied Erik Tonkin's record for top-elite finish for a racer who has a full-time, career-level job outside of racing. He placed 6th at Park City in 2007.

It's a fairly unofficial statistic, but I would be interested in researching the top "elite-amature" finishes a bit more. It would be hard to pinpoint the "top" finishes, since so many races and performances are hard to compare, and the vast majority of racers have jobs outside of cycling, and most racers do not get paid money to race. It's just less common to have top finishes in the elite ranks at premier events like the ProXCT.

I do not get paid money to race my bike, and all year have been balancing my full-time job at Ridgeline Energy working in big wind project development. So for that reason alone, having a good day at Texas feels very satisfying...some atonement for my hard work on the bike, and some reassuring evidence that I've at least been doing a few things right while, like everyone, trying to balance it all.

Along the lines of work, I will be scaling back to part-time to allow for the demanding travel schedule. It's possible to get the training in with work, but the travel to major elite events, including the European World Cups simply requires too much time away. Having more time to train and race won't take away anything from a good or bad day, it will simply give me a greater opportunity to have more good days and move ever closer towards making this cycling gig sustainable...at least for the near future. I'm incalculably grateful for Ridgeline's support of my cycling endeavors, allowing me to step away from my full-time commitments and preserving the option to return full-time in the fall. The arrangement, in itself, motivates me to do the best I can this season.

The next stop on the calendar is the World Cup in Great Britain, May 21st. More preview of that later...in the meantime, a couple more weeks in Seattle to get ready for a big summer.

Thanks for reading.

P.S. Just randomly pointing out the correct way to spell my name - lately there have been many unnecessary misspellings in results, call-ups and other press. Contrary to popular confusion, there is no "T" in my last name. Nor is it ever spelled with a "CK". Nor does it contain a lonely "X". PaXSon :)