Friday, October 14, 2016

Catching up/race recaps

It's been a whirlwind few weeks here at home base. Work and school have been ramping up and the Georgia 'Cross Series has kicked off. Last week we had midterms, which I survived just long enough to evacuate for a hurricane. We lost a rug to some water damage and went a few days without power, but aside from that everything went smoothly.

A photo posted by Justin Bristol (@jbrstl) on

The beginning of October brought the beginning of the GACX series. Bryan Schoeffler and I decided to knock out some openers up in Greenville at day one of the Carolina CX Omnium before heading to the first Georgia race. The racing was hard and it was stupid hot outside. I finished a respectable last place after getting annihilated on the last lap by Chris Butler. There was too much pedaling for my taste.

Sunday marked a return to Grant Park. This is my third year in a row racing at GP and I think it's been improving every year. Last year it was a National Calendar race, like our race in Savannah was, and they continued a high level of race promotion and course design this year despite dropping off the NC.

I was excited for Grant Park as it promised a bigger field than the two races I had done so far in South Carolina. I wanted to see exactly where I stacked up in the Georgia scene, and I was happy to have some guys to race with who were in the same position as me. There were plenty of new Cat 2s out there still trying to find their sea legs this early in the season. I felt good on the course and had a clean race. Most importantly, I felt like I was actually racing the whole time, instead of just riding hard at the back.

GACX headed to Athens the following week. I missed this weekend of racing last year because of work, so I was sure that I wouldn't miss it two years in a row and no hurricane was stopping me. Jen and I loaded up and drove to my parents' house in Columbia Thursday, and then trekked over to Athens on Friday. Both races were at breweries, so it was sure to be a good time no matter how the racing went.

And the racing Saturday didn't go well. It was another pedal heavy course, with two pinwheels and a draggy uphill in the woods. On top of that, I botched a remount and landed on my back tire late in the race. In the process of embarrassing myself in front of everyone on "heckle hill" I also bent my rear brake arm into a rather odd angle. I took a bike change and limped in for 14th place, and got lapped for the first time this year. I was fine with it. One more lap would have been the worst.

A photo posted by Justin Bristol (@jbrstl) on

 I bent the brake arm straight in the parking lot, and managed to crack it in the process. That didn't stop me from racing it on Sunday though. I like that bike more. It's lighter and I feel like I have it more dialed in. Worth the risk.

Sunday I rode over to the course early to do some preview laps with teammate Gregg. After heading back to the hotel and packing up, it was time for day two. Again, I felt like I was actually racing today instead of just flogging myself at the back of the field. I could see the group I wanted to be with, but never quite got to them. Still, I was always racing with someone for the full 60 minutes, and constantly trying to move up. The course felt a little bit better today, and actually had some features I looked forward to. Ironically, even though I felt better today and finished on the lead lap, I actually finished one place worse than Saturday- 15th place.

Two weeks of GACX races have given me an opportunity to reassess where I am and set goals for the season. Some real-life stuff is preventing me from making one big trip I had planned to DC, and the budget likely doesn't allow too many trips outside of GA/SC/NC this winter. NCGP in Hendersonville is likely the only UCI race I'll be lining up for.

I know that I won't be going to Nationals this year, and that's both an odd concept to grasp after three years of making that trip and a welcome break. At least I can eat whatever I want at Christmas this year. I would have liked to be able to give myself more chances to get ProCX points and MAYBE qualify for nationals, but in my first year as a 2, I don't think that wading into the big races is a bad idea.

Moving forward this season, I've got my eyes on a top ten finish in the GACX Pro/1/2 overall standings, and finishing top ten is a realistic goal for each individual race I line up for. I've also got my eyes on a state championship jersey in the single speed race. I feel like I have a little bit more direction now after a few weeks of racing and even though it's not quite the direction I was hoping for, it's comforting having those goals in place.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The goal isn't the end.

I started racing cyclo-cross in 2009. I was finishing in the last third of races for most of that first season. I think I ran my tubulars around 40psi for most of the year, and I fell down a lot. It took me a long time to have any form of success and I remember telling my dad once in that first year that "eventually my weekend will come, I just have to make sure I'm there so I don't miss it."

I've always enjoyed racing (except when I didn't) and have always taken it very seriously. I realized a while ago, though, that any success I have will be relatively small-scale. I learned I wouldn't be heading to Europe to drown in pig shit courses pretty quickly. But one goal that never escaped me was to upgrade to cat 2 and enter a few elite races. I've been digging away at the upgrade for years now, and finally got it at the end of last season. My first UCI race will be in DC in October.

It's been important to keep my expectations realistic.  I know that I'm not going to win a national championship any time soon, and simply finishing on the lead lap of a UCI race would be a victory itself. The struggle has been, now that I've actually met my goal, how to stay focused and keep working to move forward. Having a category two racing license doesn't do me any good if I just frame it and hang it up, so I have to actually go race against people who are likely way faster than I am.

This mentality is been kind of self-defeating, but not so much that I'm ready to pack it in. I'm really looking forward to going out and racing more, even though I know that I'm probably going to get my teeth kicked in. The line between realistic expectations and optimism is pretty wide.

This past weekend was my first P1/2 race in Spartanburg, SC. Spartancross has opened my season countless times, and it was good to go back. I won the cat 3 state championship on this course in 2014, so I was happy being there again.

Lining up for the race reminded me of lining up for collegiate races a few years ago. There were a few faces I recognized from those events, and, as always in the SC upstate, a few fast roadie types. These are guys that race at a high level in all disciplines. I've worked really hard to race at the back of the pack in one discipline.

I started pretty conservatively. I probably could have raced some of the guys that were with me harder than I did. I could have challenged them for lines in turns and for a better position going into the barriers, but I played it safe and just focused on pedaling as hard as I could for an hour.

If my plan was to ride a hard solo time trial, I succeeded. I didn't really race against anyone after the second lap and I just tried to focus on going hard and smooth. I did finish on the lead lap, though, which is an improvement from the last time I raced at this level. The kid who won the race definitely used to lap me in collegiate races, so I'm chalking that up as a victory.

We'll keep pushing forward, and keep digging up motivation to continue working. I'm definitely feeling fit and strong and as long as I can stay consistent, I feel like I can race more competitively in the GACX series, and hopefully hold my own in the elite races.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Labor Day Vacation

My long weekend got especially long thanks to Tropical Storm/Hurricane Hermine. Campus closed Friday to prevent anyone from kayaking to the south side and that gave me the day off. Of course, a tropical storm and travel don't exactly go hand in hand, so Jen and I delayed our trip to Columbia until Saturday afternoon.

Saturday morning I went out to do my workout. I rode out to the trails expecting to see some carnage from the storm,but found myself surprised at exactly how bad it was. There were multiple large trees down, and derailleur hanger eating sticks and limbs all over the place. I spent some time trying to clear out some of the easier limbs, and finished my sprints in the grassy meadow.

The trip up 95 went off relatively flawlessly. Despite the storm affecting Columbia, there wasn't any debris on the roads on our way into town. We were expecting some delays on our route, but got there in a normal amount of time.

Of course, the storm meant that my normal riding spot at Harbison State Forest was closed, so I settled for the service gravel roads for my workouts.

A photo posted by Justin Bristol (@jbrstl) on

The lollipop at the end of the service road made for a good 2x20 spot. Two laps of the loop basically got the intervals done. It wasn't quite the punchy workout I would have gotten on a cyclo-cross course, but the elevation change and a few extra twists and turns got the job done. This was one of those great rides where I was able to knock around for a little while during my warm up and do some exploring, but still get quality work in during the intervals.

Monday was a day of relaxing and exploring. We slept until we didn't, and took our time getting moving. I decided to use my recovery day to check in on some favorite spots around Columbia. The canal path was lively with walkers and runners, and Hermine's effects left the temperature and humidity relatively comfortable for once. I rode the canal into downtown, and scoped out campus. I miss being at Carolina, but I'm happy to get the chance to hangout where I am now.

The next time I head out of town, it probably won't be quite as relaxing. Just a little over a week until 'cross season kicks off. Between now and then it'll be all about dialing in the equipment and finishing my last minute set up. I huffed a bunch of acetone today, and once my Carogna Tape gets here, I'll be able to finish setting my tires up. I can do four wheelsets before next weekend, right?

Monday, August 22, 2016

Red Clay Ramble Recap

A few years ago I drove to Charleston to do the Hellhole Gravel Grind Stage Race. I finished outside the top ten after two days of racing, and thought that I separated my shoulder. I remember sitting on the floor at my friends house and looking at pictures of people racing 'cross a few states away and being super jealous as I headed out for a second day of suffering. I didn't quite see the pleasure in riding 3+ hours on dirt roads when I could be racing one hour in the grass.

I think at the end of that race I told myself that I was never going to do another race that required me to put a number plate on my handlebars. Of course, I later bought a mountain bike and decided that maybe number plates weren't so bad. 

I've been talking about doing some longer races for a while now, and gravel racing has always been tempting but I've never been completely drawn in. I feel like it combines a whole bunch of things that I like, without too much of the stuff I don't. I get to use my super racer boy roadie tactics when riding in a bunch, but I also get to let my lizard brain take command and just pedal hard for a long time. It combines all the aspects of road races, cross country mountain biking, and cyclocross that I enjoy, without all the four corner parking lot dive bombing. 

Red Clay was going to be an adventure for me for a few reasons: it's the last non-cyclocross race of the year for me, and it gave me an opportunity to try out a new bike. I sourced myself a Ridley Blast 29er frame SUPER cheap (shout out to Mark for that one), and between my parts bin, some scavenging off of other bikes, and some help from a few friends, I put together a super rad drop bar mountain bike. It's no Van Dessel WTF, but it was still super fun. 

What I liked about this frame, when I found it, was that it had canti posts on the rear stays. That meant that I could build up a crazy monster 'cross bike and still use my current collection of wheels. Finding a tapered, cantilever 29er fork was a bit of a chore though, and getting a set of calipers and wheels to match the fork that I already had was a bit easier, so I went the disc route. Plus, it'll probably become a full-on mountain bike next spring before real MTB racing picks back up.

Once I finished putting the bike together and got ONE RIDE ON IT, it was time to head to Milledgeville and race. I haven't done any sort of gravel racing in three years, and didn't really know what to expect from it. I knew it would be warm, and prepared myself with some extra Nuun and Honey Stinger for the long ride. Aside from that, I didn't really know what to expect from myself, and tried to keep expectations reasonable. 

I browsed through the 2015 results, and took a look at who was registered for this year's event. I set the goal of finishing in three hours, and just waiting to see how the results would shake out from there. Not much of one for doing long races, I figured it would be best to pace myself that way, rather than trying to hang with the leaders and blowing sky high. 

I figured that I would stay with the lead group for a while, and eventually get popped on one of the rolly hills. After that the plan was to settle into time trial mode and truck in for my goal time. This is where that perfect combination of road and mountain bike racing came into play: riding in a group like a roadie, but then putting my head down to fight the course like an XC bro. 

I went into time trial mode a lot quicker than I expected due to a mechanical. I KNEW that I should have put a chain guard on my front chainring since I was runing a 1x10 without a narrow/wide chainring, but I decided not to for a varying number of reasons and excuses. Maybe five minutes into the race, I was on the side of the road putting my chain back on, while the main group rolled away. I chased for a little while, but that gap wasn't coming down any. 

I rode by myself for a little while, maintaining a solid tempo that I thought would get me to the finish in a decent amount of time. I bobbed in and out of a group of about a dozen or so riders, but either the bunch just couldn't get organized, or I was being impatient. They would ride up to me, and I would settle into their paceline but it seemed like, after a few turns, the average speed would drop below what I was trying to do, and I would continue on at my own pace. Eventually, this same group swallowed me up, and we fell into a solid routine and rhythm. 

Expecting full-on Georgia heat, I packed three bottles for the race but it rained the night before, and there was a pretty solid cloud cover hanging over us at the start, so the temperatures never ramped up to what I was expecting. I finished my first bottle right around an hour into the race, and reached to my seat-mounted bottle cage to retrieve a new one. When I reached back for the fresh bottle, it was gone, likely somewhere on the side of a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. I still had one bottle of plain water on me, but two more hours with one bottle wasn't ideal.

The group rolled on for the remainder of the ride with few interruptions. On pace for my three hour finish, I was ready to start racing when we hit the two hour mark. I knew that I needed to be reasonable with my efforts since I was running low on water, but I wanted to pare down our group and see who else was looking to ramp up for the finish. I kept rolling through my turns on the front, and made efforts to keep pushing over the rollers. I knew that the big moment in the race was going to be at 10k to go, when we hit a section of big, loose, chunky gravel and a gnarly series of climbs going into the finish. I probably could have just continued to ride with the group and made it to the finish close to my goal time, instead of planning to attack what was ostensibly the chase group. As far as I was concerned, though, I was in a race, so I planned on racing. 

With about 15k to go we turned onto a loose section of gravel. It wasn't THE section, but it was definitely challenging some of my chase-mates. I made an effort to get to the front of the group, so as not to get behind someone who slipped up in the loose stuff. This is where the mountain bike really came to life. The 2.2 inch tires floated over the loose rocks, while the riders around me were fighting to cut through. At the beginning of the race, I was afraid I brought to much bike; at the end, I was happy I had it. 

My move to get to the front of the group turned into me riding away from everyone. I looked behind me to see riders pushing to reconnect, and decided it was time to go. I put my head down and started to pedal like I was riding solo to the finish. I mean, I was riding solo to the finish, I was just doing it a few minutes behind the leaders. 

Coming into the last rest stop, volunteers were holding out cups of water. I was having horrifying flashbacks to Louisville's Derby City Cyclocross Cup in 2013 when I took a shot of bourbon mid-race. The volunteer assured me it was simply water, and executed a flawless hand up. Those six ounces of water probably got me through to the finish. 

I fought through the last ten kilometers, climbing over the loose stones and fighting to find the most secure line. I counted down kilometers, begging them to go by faster than they were. Every pedal stroke, I was certain that I was going to be caught by the group behind me, and look like a fool for trying to ride away from them. At 5k to go, I could feel the tightness of an oncoming cramp settling into my left leg. I begged it to stay away and simply kept pedaling.

Eventually, I made the right turn onto the finishing road, signifying just over a kilometer to go. There was no one in sight except for a few of the recreational riders who were finishing up their shorter version of the route. I happily rolled across the finish line alone, and set off on a desperate search for a Coke and some shade. 

I finished in 2:58:39, just under my goal time of three hours, and FIFTEEN minutes behind the winner. Do I think that I could have stayed with them at that pace? Probably not, but without the mechanical, I definitely would have stayed with them a lot longer than I did. 

I was sixth in the open male division, finishing two spots ahead of the series overall winner. While I know that result probably doesn't transfer to the rest of the races in the series and that math doesn't always apply to bike racing, it gives me pretty high hopes for next year. 

I'll definitely be targeting the Southeastern Gravel Series next year. With a proper bike and some actual race prep, I'm hoping that this time next year I'll have my eyes on the series winner's jersey.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Ground Up

I've been doing really hot base miles for a few months now and, even though I've done a few road races, I'm fully locked an loaded on 'cross season. Even when I started making plans for 2017, gravel and mountain bike have been my primary focus. The roadie burnout is in full effect.

Ever since coming back from New Hampshire, I've had a hard time motivating myself to head out for a simple road ride. I mean, I've raced a few times and done my typical Saturday morning chaperoning but, otherwise, I'm pretty certain that every ride I've done since I've been home has taken me onto a dirt road or trail. Whitemarsh Island isn't quite the same as 3000 feet of climbing and snowmobile trails, but its pretty close.

Typically, I hate driving to ride, but last week I made an exception. I had a pretty weird work experience on my normal day off and then grabbed some lunch with a very important marketing exec. After that, I had an afternoon to kill and some exploring to do. I swapped out the aero wheels on my 'cross bike and returned it to its normal style and function. Its sentence as "circuit race bike" was up, and it was ready to enjoy its freedom.

Chris the 'cross bike and I hopped in the car and drove to South Carolina (barely) to go ride around the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge site sits just north of the Savannah River, across Highway 17 from the city. The spot where I rode Wednesday was once home to a rice plantation, and remains from those days can still be seen in the landscape. As both a dirt road and a history enthusiast, I was pretty excited.

This image illustrates how an amateur photographer fails to capture a rice trunk on film.
I've known about this area for a while, but my lack of enthusiasm to drive across the river just to ride has prevented me from doing it in the past. Now I know that I've been missing out of some quality dirt road loops.

Well, mostly quality. This probably wasn't meant to be ridden.
I only rode a short loop today, 5.2 miles, but there's so much more to explore. There is another collection of dirt roads, trails, and canals across Highway 170 that I didn't set foot on. I can definitely see making trips out here in the winter for some long days in the marsh. Hopefully, as it gets colder, the bug population will quiet down a little bit, making for a better riding experience. The gators will be slower when the temperature drops too, right?

I could probably ride from my house to the refuge, but I'm not sure how much fun the two bridges across the river and Highway 170/Alligator Alley would be on a bike. I hate logging trucks.

Miles of this might be worth the car ride.
Of course, all this dirt road riding got me thinking. The Wildlife Refuge is a pretty enclosed area, with very low traffic. A 5.2 mile loop would be easy to mark and control. I haven't put on a dirt road ride/event in a few years. Maybe its time to have a race.

Gears are turning. I've pulled out some paperwork and started looking at permits. There may be a gravel grind (ugh) coming to Savannah this winter, after cyclo-cross season. Stay tuned.

The DART Gator Grind has a nice ring to it.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Rumble at Roebling Race Recap

This past weekend was Hilton Head Cycling's annual Rumble at Roebling road. Race track events have practically become a discipline of their own in this region, with races taking place in Savannah at Roebling Road and Hutchinson Island, and Charleston's annual Double Down circuit race. Racing on a stock car track makes for relatively easy (financials aside) promotion, as the course is self-contained and doesn't require traffic control. Courses are typically WIDE OPEN which makes for safe racing as well... hopefully

The DART boys and I lined up for the 3/4 race on Saturday without any real plan. I was on track for another 12+ hour week on the bike and had little idea how my legs would feel. They didn't feel great. I pretty much felt worked over from the very start of the race. I don't know if that was because of the training time I had put in, or because I lined up for a circuit race with a 46 tooth chainring on my cyclo-cross bike.

I felt like I spent a decent amount of time covering the front of the race. I figured that Sid had the best chance today, and I wanted to make sure nothing too threatening got away without covering it, or getting him in it. I tried to get away a few times myself, but never got any real separation from the group. Without much of a plan or strategy, though, we managed to get JP in second and Sid fourth on the day.

Sunday brought a pair of races for me. Both days offered a chance to line up twice, but I had to leave for work at the shop after the morning race. On Sunday, I planned to line up for both the 3/4 race at 9:10 and the 4/5 race at 1:45. Knowing that I had a second race, in the peak heat of the day, had some effect on the way I planned to race in the morning. My dead legs on Saturday weren't very inspiring either.

I knew that Sid wanted to get in a move, so our plan was to try to make that happen early and, if nothing got away, to line it up for JP in the sprint at the end. I volunteered to cover early moves, and got into a less than inspiring break early in the race. Gregg got himself into a promising looking move later, but attacks in the break saw him return to the bunch.

When I saw Gregg coming back, I attacked to try to either bridge or inspire the chase. I didn't manage to get away, but things were definitely trying to heat up. Secret teammate, Tim, wanted to be in the break of the day also and started making moves of his own. A few times, he and Sid were either just off the front, or working to get separation. After a lap or two of covering moves at the front of the group, I was gassed. Tim and Sid managed to get some separation and a group had formed so I decided to let it go and call it a day.

I made the wrong call. The group that went up the road was growing, and was getting too large to even call it a break. The field had split in two. When the move going up the road bridged to the leaders, there were 13 riders in the front, and 8 or 9 of us left riding in the second group. I didn't have much left to chase, and was happy riding at a leisurely pace at the front of our group. I didn't want to spend up any of my remaining teammates, including JP, in a chase knowing that it would take away matches for the sprint and for the afternoon race. We let the group go, and settled for sprinting out of the grupetto.

We did kill the leadout for JP though. Best leadout we've done all season. For 14th place.

The afternoon race was on track to be miserable. We managed to rest up in the DART compound, listening to music and goofing off, while attempting to stay off our feet as much as possible. It was easily in the upper 90s when we lined up, potentially low 100s or 1000s, and super windy. I figured that the race would be slow and sketchy.

A single rider rolled off the front at the start whistle. I don't think he meant to, but none of us were interested in riding hard. When we brought him back, attacks started going. I knew I wanted to be in a break in this smaller race, and that the field would be easy to control when something got established. Again, after following moves over and over, I was starting to lose my spark. I saw a group going and, knowing I couldn't follow, motioned for JP to cover. That was the move of the day and I settled in to make sure no one joined.

Covering the front of the race started to get sketchy and after following one attack, I found myself off the front alone when the other rider stopped pedaling. Someone else bridged to me in no man's land, and I asked if he would prefer to go back to the group to get out of the wind. Instead, we stubbornly kept riding.

JP dragged his group around for the rest of the race, and won the sprint from the front of the breakaway. I'm not sure anyone was really able to challenge him, even after the pulls he was taking. I put in a half-hearted effort at the line and wound up fifth. Still, it's hard to say "no" to a top five in the third race of the weekend.

The most striking statistic from the race is that we started with 14 riders. 10 finished. 7 finished on the lead lap. It was hot and stupid.

So, this has potential to be my last road race of the year. I'm tempted to go to Atlanta for two more crits, but will likely choose to do a 50+ mile gravel race instead. It's closer to home and gets me some more base miles on my 'cross bike. After all, 'cross is on its way.

To the winner goes the butt grabs

Thursday, August 4, 2016

...all I ever wanted

One of the many reasons I lucked out when I met Jen is that her family has a lake house in Gilmanton Iron Works, NH. "Grammi's cottage" was built in 1925 on the shores of Crystal Lake and has been host to decades of Huling family gatherings, and two years of my personal escape from the humidity.

Last year, we were only able to go for the weekend of July 4th, but this year we managed to scoot away from our jobs for a week of relaxing in New England. I was pretty giddy about the trip for the few weeks leading into it and, luckily, it went off without a hitch.

For Jen, GIW represents years of family memories. It's a special place for her that I can't even begin to describe. It's a pretty special place for me too, just for a few different reasons. Mostly because the riding is fantastic.

I think I've mentioned it here before, but I love base training almost as much as I love racing itself. While there is something great about mid-season workouts where you simply ride out, blast through some intervals and then call it a day, nothing compares to the long hours spent on the bike and the anticipation of the upcoming season that you get during your base period. Unfortunately, as a cyclo-cross racer in Savannah, that means three-hour rides in the hottest part of the year. Savannah also lacks in trail options. The trails that are here are pretty fantastic for 'cross training, but there are only two main trail systems that I ride on a regular basis and the loops can get old quickly.

Gilmanton offers a million training options that fit in perfectly with my training this time of the year. Unlike Savannah, there's loads of elevation change and the town and outlying areas are inundated with dirt options. My first day in town, I found myself riding snowmobile trails and exploring a nature preserve. The view at the top of the climb was fantastic but the ride back down the hill, a fast double-track descent riddled with roots and rocks, was almost too much for my Van Dessel Gin and Trombones with 28mm road tires.

Practically every ride took me down a new dirt road or trail that I hadn't seen previously. I promise that I tried to stay focused on my workouts and intervals, but it was tough to pass up on the miles and miles of dirt in favor of tarmac. On my second to last ride in town, I stumbled into a town forest after getting a little bit lost at the top of a dirt road climb (turning around wasn't an option because I'm stubborn). What I found was a system of double track and snowmobile trails that can be ridden all the way into the next town. Vacation may have to be two weeks next year.

So my vacation training camp saw me hit 12:30 on the bike. This is one of the biggest weeks I've done since the winter leading into the road/mountain bike season. It just further convinced me that riding on the road is silly, and that every ride should be on dirt or trails. After this, I'm ready to give up parking lot crits in favor of a spring and summer spent solely on dirt next year. Not only did the trip give me a chance to wind down from a relatively stressful summer, it reinvigorated my desire to train and race. I had a lot of fun thrashing my bike around, and I'm pretty excited to keep pushing into the coming 'cross season.

So with that, welcome back to the blog. Let's see how long it lasts this time, huh?

Slick tires and rocky climbs didn't mix on the first day of the trip

View from the top

Short snowmobile trip to Alaska

Did not commit to the rut

The only way to properly end a vacation: outdoor shower beers (sorry, Southbound)