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Archive for May, 2009

I have never really taken to the Hartford Crit.  It is not a horrible course, though the road is rough, especially on the back stretch, and the corners can be a little tricky (more on this in a bit).  However, it never felt like a fun race.  The first time I did it, I struggled to hang on to the back of the pack, and that set the tone for all subsequent performances.  It felt too hard for what it was.  One year was marred by one horrible crash and one smaller crash; I got caught behind the second crash two laps to go and decided to pull myself out of the race.

This year was my first time to race with the Cat 3 group in Hartford, and I found it to be a much better experience.  Largely because of my less than happy memories of the crit, my goals were modest.  Goal #1 was to keep from crashing.  Goal #2 was to finish with the pack.  Goal #3 was to learn about racing techniques in the higher categories.  Happily, I achieved each of these goals, although they may have kept me from placing any higher than I finally did.

This year also saw a lot of crashes in the earlier races, and one racer, a teammate of SOC, went down hard and broke his femur.  Because of this, the whole race scene felt somewhat skittish as the 50-something riders lined up at the start of my race.  Nevertheless, I went to the line with a strange sort of confidence in myself, knowing that I would either not crash, or that I would try my hardest to crash well.  (Crashing well, by the way, means trying to take the fall in such a way to minimize injury.)  As I already said, I achieved that goal and finished unscathed.  In fact, there were no crashes in the race despite some close calls.

In the days leading up to the race, I kept envisioning the course and thinking about where I should be placed and what lines would be the safest to take through the corners.  With this pre-race mental preparation in mind, I lined up closer to the outside (left) edge of the course, with the idea that I couldn’t get squeezed against the curb as easily that way.  When the whistle started the race, I tucked in behind SDC for the first lap before moving up a little.  I wanted to stay with the pack and not get lost off the back.  One problem I have always had at Hartford is cornering well.  For many reasons, I always got pushed to the curb or let myself get pinched in an uncomfortable way, causing me to slwo down and back off in the corners, forcing me to accelerate hard to catch back up with the pack.  This time, though, with my mental imaging helping out, I took pretty good lines through the corners and managed to keep my speed fairly well.  As a result, I achieved Goal #2 and finished withe the pack, somewhere near the middle.

Goal #3 was more amorphous.  I wanted to get a better feel for the race and not just pedal fast around the course.  To this end, I relaxed at times, and did not worry too much when I found myself at the very back of the pack.  I used these times to practice moving through the riders to get closer to the front, and on a couple of laps I crossed the start/finish line in the top five or ten.  I did not aggressively defend a top spot, though.  This may not have been the best strategy for winning the race, however.  When I moved up in the back stretch, I hit a very hard and blustery headwind at corner 3, which ended up taking a lot out of my legs.  As it gave me practice finding a good spot to line up for corner #4, I’m satisfied.

Looking back on this race, I see many places where I could have raced more conservatively or more aggressively and done better.  I could have timed my moves through the pack better and been in a better place to launch a sprint; as it was, I was sitting too far back at the end of the bell lap to contest the final sprint.  However, by treating this almost like a training race or even a series of drills, I think I have made myself a stronger racer.  I am getting a better feel for how the race can and should play out, and, more to the point, I have more confidence in my own pack riding and racing skills.  Here is one example of what I mean.  Somewhere about the middle of the race, we were approaching the start/finish line when the pack squeezed together for some reason.  A guy coming up behind me got pinched so much that he came up inside my elbow, his handlebars brushing my hip and pushing against my right hand.  Instead of swerving or overreacting in any way, I simply held my handlebars tightly and worked to maintain my poise.  If either of us had had any weaker bike handling skills, there would have been a dozen bikes scraping the pavement at 25 mph.

In the end, it was a decent race.  It certainly will not rate terribly high on my favorite races list, but it was not as bad as the anxiety in the days leading up to the event might have foretold.  We were fast, with an average speed of almost 27 mph, and a last lap speed of almost 29 mph.  Despite the higher speed (the Cat 4 races I’ve done here in the past were a couple of miles an hour slower), this Cat 3 race seemed easier and smoother.

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Absolutely Mental

I ride a lot.  Like any racer hoping to stay in a race and not get spit out the back of the peloton, I train at varying intensities, throw in a lot of hills, do some speed work.  My physical stats are not bad, except for being about 10 pounds overweight, with a resting pulse and blood pressure that always makes doctors and nurses stare (40, 100/60).  Last year, in the weekly training series B races, I was top dog.  This year, racing with the fast guys–category 1 beasts–I’m mostly pack fodder, sweating, drooling, crying in agony pack fodder.  However, in the transition from fast guy in a fast race to fast guy in a blindingly fast race, I have noticed that the physical aspect is a relatively small part of racing.

So far, I’ve raced in three of the A races.  In the first, I got gapped and finished 20 or 30 seconds behind the leaders.  In the second, I hung on for dear life as the leaders sprinted for points.  Last night, I tried to stay in the middle of the peloton, missed the 6 man breakaway, but managed to take second in the main field sprint, good enough for 8th overall.  My physical conditioning in each race allowed me to stay more or less with the pack (I never had to drop out, and I never got lapped), but by far the hardest part of racing turned out to be the intense mental strain.  My body hurt–in one race, my heart rate stayed in zone 5 (the highest zone of exertion) for the entire 44 minutes of the race–and my legs burned and ached all of the following day.  The real fatigue, though, came from the concentration necessary to ride at that level.

At one point in last week’s race, I was riding as hard as I could go when I realized the bike in front of me was pulling away.  If I lost that wheel, if that guy got too far in front of me, I would not longer have the benefit of the draft, and I would have to work harder, and I would probably end up out of the race.  Instead, I concentrated every particle of my focus on that wheel and more or less willed myself to stay in the draft.  Everything else ceased to exist for me except for that wheel.  My awareness narrowed so much that it was very much like tunnel vision: looking back, it was almost like I was staring at that wheel through a cardboard tube, with everything outside of that small circle of light at the end just a dark blur.

Last night’s race hurt in a different way.  I had eaten my lunch a couple of hours later than I usually do–2:30 instead of noon–so I felt a little sick during the race.  The other physical pains were not so prominent; my heart rate, for example, was slightly lower than the previous week, and my legs hurt a little less.  I kept thinking about dropping out of the race, though, as my stomach cramped and my late lunch considered making an unwelcome reappearance.  A big part of me did not want to end the race prematurely, and I kept reminding myself that racing with the fast guys was a great way to get faster myself.  Most of all, I just did not want to give up and then stand around after my race, watching Dorothy’s race, knowing I had quit.

Somehow, then, I managed to stay with the group, sometimes hanging off the very back of the peloton, forcing myself to work just a little harder, pedal just a little faster, climb that hill just a touch more aggressively.  When the bell rang for the last lap, I felt as if I had already won something: I was going to make it to the end!  The pack stretched out the way it does when someone is really pushing at the front, and small gaps appeared bewteen the bikes as racers started to crack.  I slipped in behind Pat, and thought I should have a good chance in the sprint.  Then, right before the last curve, I noticed that Pat had cracked and a large gap between him and the lead group was growing larger.  Without hesitation, I went around him and did a short sprint to catch them.

Just as I latched onto the group the final sprint began.  I shifted into my highest gear (a 53×11) and stood on the pedals with all my force.  As I started to pass people, I concentrated on keeping my form solid and my sprint perfect.  Nearing the top of the hill, I did not let up or fade as many racers seem to do.  Instead, I looked into myself and found a little more to pour into my legs.  I knew I would have the room to pass all but one of the guys ahead of me, and I caught the last guy two feet before the finish, taking second in the field sprint, which was good enough for 8th overall.

In the sprint, I did not feel my body at all.  This is probably a very good thing, because my heart rate in the sprint hit 183.  My maximum heart rate is 185.

It is far too easy to say something like “90% of any sport is mental.”  It has, after all, become a well-worn sports cliche to talk about the “mental game.”  The truth is that it is always mental.  We have nothing else.  I also don’t mean to suggest that anything we can think of we can accomplish, or any other stupid and cheesy motivational poster piety.  Like many, I still tend to think in that Cartesian mind/body split, where my body takes care of all the physical, while my mind deals with the more important matters.  But there really isn’t a ghost in the machine.  The ghost is the machine.

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Teaching Abroad

I’m currently buried in papers and exams to grade. but I am so excited by the latest news that I decided to jump back to my sadly neglected blog and talk about it a little.  A couple of months ago I ran into one of my friends from another department on campus and he was bubbling over with his latest plan to teach a course on Irish film next year at our school’s study abroad program.  He suggested that I look into the possibility of teaching a course myself.  Naturally, I loved the idea, so I contacted the campus coordinator for the program.

Every year we offer short term study in January and May as well as full semester programs in Dingle, Ireland.  I met with the coordinator today, and I will be teaching a course in Old Irish literature next May.  It’s a two week program, with many opportunities for field trips and visits with guest scholars and speakers.  We will be able to see archaeological sites and get a very real taste of the scenes I’ll be teaching.  We will be reading, for example, Brendan’s Navigatio, and Brendan was born just a little east of there in Tralee, so we will have some geographical points of reference for the story.

It gets even better, though.  The faculty stay in small cottages separate from the school, both so we don’t infringe on the fun of the students’ pub crawls and so their pub crawling doesn’t infringe on our sleep.  I can have guests stay with me, so Dorothy will fly out and stay during the second week of class, and then we will go off to see more of Europe after the class is over.  Right now we’re thinking about going to London for a few days and then hopping over to Paris for a few more.  If I can teach the class again in a couple of years, we’ll go visit other places, like Edinburgh, Vienna, and Rome.   I can’t wait–this is going to be so much fun.

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