Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Hendersonville that wasn't and the season finale

The decision not to go to Hendersonville the weekend after the state championship sucked, but it was definitely the right one. I felt bad for bailing on my friend, who probably wouldn't have gone if I hadn't encouraged him to. I wasn't too upset about skipping the UCI race, though. I knew I probably wasn't cut out for it, and probably would have done the single speed race again anyway.

Plus, my face was full of snot.

 I didn't ride for most of the week after the race in Conyers, trying to get better and finish out the school year. I rode on my birthday on Thursday, and then didn't touch my bike again until I ran off to Gainesville, FL on Sunday to race. I figured I was still relatively fit, so if I couldn't make a full weekend trip, I could at least drive a few hours to a "close" race. I needed the day on Saturday to study for finals, but still wanted to get some 'cross racing in before the season ended.

Gainesville was a lot of fun. Good course, and very down-home, grassroots feel to the race. Everyone was calm and relaxed, and it was warm. Much warmer than Hendersonville.

It was a small Pro/Open race that morning. We settled into our positions pretty quickly and then stayed like that for the next hour. A local Florida racer rode away from Bryan and I pretty quickly and Bryan gapped me by the second lap. I rode around in third place all damn day and wasn't too upset about it. I struggled to breathe, and took breaks to try to drink, but still got to have my picture made on the podium again at the end of the day.

I decided to skip the single speed race that afternoon, even though I heard the winner got a tattoo. I needed to go back to sleep, and study some more.

The following week was much of the same- snotty and busy. Finals week was crazy at word and, combined with my own school work, I lost out on a lot of my normal riding time. I didn't get back out on my bike until Friday, but managed to ride three days in a row!

The season was set to wrap up the next weekend in Macon at the Thompson factory. This was my second race at Thompson this year, and it went way better than the mountain bike race I did in the spring.

I decided again to do the single speed race. I was still struggling with the cold and knew that I was rapidly losing fitness. I could pretty much guess where I would finish in the P/1/2 race, but figured I could compete in the SS.

I started on the second row, yielding to the de facto call ups claimed by the guys with series points. The thing about splitting my time between P/1/2 races and SSCX races was that I didn't quite accumulate enough points to make the top 8 in either category, not that I should have in the pro races anyway.

After getting caught in some traffic in the first wooded section, and the death spiral (ugh), I settled into a chase group of four riders. One guy was already up the road and gapping us like we were barely moving. I went to the front of our group, working my way around some less than motivated racers, and tried to close down on the leader. We rode like this for most of the race, with one guy going horizon, me on the front of the chase, and two guys on my wheel. Coming to the last lap I yielded my chase duties and settled in third wheel.

On the last lap, the group leader used some traffic to create gaps in our group, passing lapped riders in narrow or technical spaces and leaving us to try to squeeze through the same space without killing someone. I ended up closing down these gaps a few times and the settled back onto his wheel.

The death spiral was probably 3/4 of the way into the course, and one of the last major features before the finish. I couldn't manage to get around him in the spiral and even if I did, there was nothing I could use to create a gap. We came to the last turn, a 90 degree left hander about 300 meters before the finish, and had one more group of lapped riders to get around. He passed them in the turn and started to sprint out of it, and I got held up. I tried to close him down in the sprint, but it was pretty useless and I finished third.

It was nice to finally find some success at the end of the year, and the single speed races were a lot of fun. It's cool tinkering with your bike before hand, but not having anything to worry about during the race and it forces you to focus on your driving and skills, instead of just pedaling hard. Choosing the single speed races for the last two weekends of the series meant that I gave up my chance of finishing top ten in the Pro/1/2 series. I think I was 13th, which was consistent with my finishes, so I can't complain.

It was definitely a fun year and really, really hard. I'm excited for the break, but I know I'm going to miss 'cross pretty soon.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Closing out the season

As December approached, I had to take a big look at what my season goals were, and how they lined up with the end of my school/work schedule. I was looking forward to the break, but knew that I had a few key events coming up that I really wanted to crush.

One of those big events that I had circled was the Hendersonville UCI weekend. It was the closest UCI race of the year, and my last chance to line up for a ProCX race. It was also the weekend before my final exams, and easily the most stressful time of the year for me. If not for Hurricane Matthew, I would have been completely free this weekend and the week following. Mother nature had different ideas.

I was coming to the end of my financial aid stipend that I got from my graduate assistant position and traveling for a full weekend wasn't looking great financially, either. Unfortunately, the time came and I had to pull the plug on Hendersonville, sending my teammate Gregg to compete by himself in the cold. In the end, I knew it was the right call. I won't be able to say that I did a national-level pro race this year, but I got some decent experience and fitness out of it. There's always next year.

Hendersonville wasn't the only big race in December, though. The state championship race was the first race back after our week off, and it was a big one for me. I decided a month or two before to line up for the single speed race, as I knew I could be competitive there, and I hoped for some success. I didn't expect it to be a given, but I knew I would at least be near the front end.

The conditions that day were great. Sloppy, slimy mud covered the course, forcing us to make quick decisions regarding running or riding, and turning the first wooded section into a foot race between the top four racers. Three or four of us established a gap at the start, and I was sitting fourth. I dismounted and ran earlier than the rest of the guys around me, but managed to maintain my momentum, instead of getting bogged down and stopping as I hopped off.

I rode the first bit of the race in second place, with first place rider Murphy Davis still in sight and third place close behind. Coming into the last lap, Murphy still had a gap going into the wooded section, but I caught and passed him running. I worked to establish a gap, pedaling when I could, making the decision to dismount and run before I got into trouble, and trusting my Tufo Cubus tires to hold me down in the turns. I ran into a bit of trouble on one switch back turn and hit the ground, but managed to maintain a gap for the creek crossing and run up that followed.

I came to the line alone, and still managed to keep my hands on the bar so John Patterson wouldn't penalize me for not being able to read my number. It was pretty emotional, and strange. I hadn't won a race in almost exactly two years, and wasn't really sure how to act afterward. It was great to be able to set a goal and achieve it, and a rare experience I'll always appreciate.

Then I got sick.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Looking back on the mid-season slump.

The unfortunate part of cyclo-cross season is that it starts at the beginning of the fall semester, and ramps up in line with all of my school work. As the term grinds on, I find it hard to keep myself motivated to keep riding and I rarely have enough free time to maintain a blog. I have enough writing to do as it is, and writing for fun just isn't in the cards.

The end of October was the busiest time for me. We had a foster kids in the house for a brief bit and I had the Savannah Cyclocross Superprestige to organize. We spent so much time getting ready to host our race, that riding to train for the actual racing was a luxury at best. I begged to be pulled out of the Pro/1/2 race on Saturday night, unable to even maintain enough momentum to have fun in the process. The frustration and stress of putting together an event wore me down, and even a beer hand-up wasn't going to lift my spirits. Despite feeling like I was barely moving, I didn't get caught by the leaders until they were on their last lap. So, a relatively normal day on the course.

The next day was better despite barely sleeping Saturday night. I decided that I clearly wasn't fit enough to do the P/1/2 race on Sunday and sat it out in favor of only racing single speed. It was a tough call since I was hoping to still finish top ten in the overall series, but getting beat that badly every week isn't as fun as you'd think. I managed to actually race that afternoon in the single speed race and didn't feel like I was just riding around in circles. I pulled in a fourth place after thirty minutes of playing in the dirt, and then set about tearing the course down.

As the season trudged along, I kept getting similar results. I fought for lead lap finishes and pretty much always managed to stay just outside of the top ten. In my last post, I mentioned how I felt I had a little bit more direction and hoped to still have a go at some UCI races. ProCX races kept coming and going and I realized, especially given my performance in the local series, that traveling to race the big guns likely wasn't the best use of my resources this year. After my hometown race, it took some work to recover and focus on the next few weekends of racing. I discussed things with my coach and made a plan to try to regain some fitness going into the end of the season. The week immediately following my race was tough but I lined up for both the single speed and P/1/2 races in order to try to get some extra time in on my bike, and work on my technical skills after losing our local trails to the hurricane.

Despite my inability to perform, I was still generally enjoying the races. The new course at Atlanta Motor Speedway was great fun, and I edged my travel partner/pseudo teammate out in the sprint. It made for some solid banter, but completely drained me for my second race of the day. It was all about extra training anyway.

I chalked November up as a rebuild period and set my sites on December. There were three big weekends of racing all back-to-back after the Thanksgiving break, and I wanted to build up as much momentum as possible.

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.