Cyclocross is almost the exact opposite of a gravel race and only has some things in common with road or mountain bike racing. It forces the racer to "sit" right at my rev limiter and that pushes a type of fitness that most of "us" (meaning gravel, mountain bike, endurance etc.) type riders never use. Even compared to a crit it requires more constant high effort and similarly forces you to go past your threshold in bursts.
For what it's worth, my previous CX experience consisted of about a dozen local weeknight practice races over the last two years, 4 local "microcross" races and 4 official starts last year- 1 being a DNF in St. Cloud and the other 3 all taking place at Jinglecross 2010.
After the Dakota Five-0, which was a disaster for me, I was slow to get moving again. I knew that the end of the year was still far away and I remembered being burnt out and slow late in 2010. I wound up coasting along well into October before really doing any "training". This was partly by design and partly due to lazyness. I had the idea that the fall would be a good time to not do too much- I'd be ready to ride/race fast in Gentleman's Ride, the Heck of the North, Heroic and Dirt Bag because I would be fresh and I would hopefully leave the season still wanting for more and inspired to begin training hard for the next.
The plan worked well for the endurance races. I had known that my form was coming around since the Dairyland Dare and Jesse James Century rides. I also knew that my OCR was a fast bike setup and fit my style and needs well. The realization that aero bars could totally eradicate back pain has been huge! That combination allowed me to ride more aggressively than I ever had before and also to have more fun because I wasn't worried about DNFing or back pain etc..
We went to Copper Harbor for some mountain biking in Mid October and did race a CX race there, but I was woefully slow and generally felt "off" trying to get on that bike without enough practice. It was probably good to jump on it then if only to see how far I had to go.
That all left me with good "endurance" form and with just 6 weeks of cyclocross to go. At this point I had done 3 Tuesday night CX practices, the race up in Copper Harbor and a couple other short rides on the bike. I decided to dedicate as much effort as possible for those 6 weeks to CX and see what I could learn. I knew that 6 weeks wasn't really enough time to do as well as I "could" based on where I was coming from, but figured I could learn a lot by trying. I hoped to learn something that would help me in the future if/when I decide to put more emphasis on cyclocross.
Here is what I did and, briefly, what came out-
I had a cold this week, but wound up riding 8.75 hours. We rode 2 hrs at Levis-trow (this was the last day of our mtb trip), I commuted by bike, I went on one cx practice ride on Thursday and rode Eastwood with an emphasis on bike handling.
Races- I raced both weekend days. On Saturday I finished 18th of about 30 almost 5 minutes behind the Fred Mills. I thought I rode well, but was out of touch from the race from the start. On Sunday I was determined to stay more "in-touch" and rode very hard and mistake free to finish 12th around 2.5 minutes behind Fred Mills once again.
This was the Dirt Bag week- I had to put my CX goals on hold and rest for the race. I also wound up working 18 hours of overtime at work so only rode 6.75 hrs including the race. I shocked myself by winning the race, which I surely didn't deserve but am proud to have done.
Now it was time to get serious. I'd gotten beat up pretty good in all 3 CX starts thus far and only had a few weeks left to "get fast". I had to rest/recover from the Dirt Bag and found that I needed more days than expected. I was having trouble taking deep breaths all the way to Wednesday and although I rode I couldn't really push the CX type practice. The best I did was 2 easy laps of Eastwood, again focusing on bike handling. I also became fed up with the breathing problems and went back to the doctor again about them (last year I went though the same thing and wound up with no solution). This time I was prescribed Albuterol.
Racing- Saturday I had an early mechanical in the SS race, but felt I rode well in the cat 3 race where I finished 8th around 1.5 minutes behind the leaders. Sunday was the first time I tried the Albuterol and I found myself leading a much smaller field for much of the race. I wound up finishing 2nd to Brenden Bellew by a small amount. 2nd is much better than 8th, but I think the overall level of my riding was pretty similar both days this weekend. The USAc points value assigned to my finishes was about 295 both days which in some way confirms that as well.
I rode 10.25 hours this week. Again, I did one specific CX focused practice ride (this time was able to go "hard" and not just work on bike handling) and the rest was commuting. We also went up to the Icebox 240 where I rode my mtb hard for 90 minutes.
Saturday's race was a complete failure, I banged my bad knee on my bike at the start and more or less wimped out from there. I didn't want to risk any extra injury to that. Sunday I rode very hard out of the gun, made some mistakes but was pleased to find myself pulling people in after I spent a couple laps catching my breath. I didn't have a "good" race this weekend, but overall I felt like I was still getting stronger. The USAC points system correctly shows that I went slightly slower this weekend.
9 hours this week with two 45 minute practice cx races thrown in. I used my GPS to map lap times and speeds and really push myself. The rest of my hours were warm-up/cool-down and commuting.
Saturday was the State Championships where I rode pretty strong- I found myself looking at finishing between 4th and 12th or so based on my "form" and a late mistake dropped me to 9th. Overall, this was very solid for me. 61 people showed and a couple of the guys in front of me hadn't been at earlier races to beat me there. The Sunday race went very similarly- I thought I had a shot at top 5 but again fell back late, this time to 8th. I left knowing that I hadn't quite put together my best race, but feeling good overall. I could tell that I was still getting stronger and that I was definitely stronger than the week before. Somewhere this weekend I also began to feel comfortable getting on and off my bike. These were my best points value races thus far according to USAC.
7 hours this week. This time just one practice ride- a 45 minute practice race on Tuesday.
This was Jinglecross. Friday my back cramped right away. I believe this was due to using my Albuterol slightly differently and basically overdosing it. I corrected this for the rest of the weekend and avoided any problem. The MN guys did very well and I felt good going into the weekend about my prospects after watching them (Fred and Nils in particular). Saturday I had a strong ride and finished 11th on the toughest day of the weekend so far as the strength of the field was concerned. It was a close race and in the end a small mistake on the first time up the hill cost me a few spots. That said I couldn't have made the podium and 11th was respectable! Once again this was an improvement in the USAC points system with about a 260 (looking back that first race was 420 or so, seems very significant). Then Sunday, disaster struck and my derailleur hanger bent/broke. I left Iowa frustrated that I hadn't done better, but feeling like I "could" have if things had fallen my way a bit more.
So what did I learn?
cyclocross is incredibly fun- although, I guess, I already knew that
with a large endurance base it doesn't take too much cx specific training/racing to make big improvements. I have no idea how long it takes to hit a "plateau" though either.
6 weeks isn't enough- I felt I was still improving at the end and also would have benefitted from a week off somewhere.
Looking at the improvements I did make has given me ideas about how to plan my schedule for next year in order to try to get more out of cx. I think it also has ramifications about how I should schedule other types of races. I'm pretty sure that doing 3-4 expert mountain bike races in a row might REALLY net a lot of improvement similarly to how this racing did. This is the first time I've ever yet totally immersed myelf in one type of racing for any time period since mountain biking my first season. This is intuitive and obvious, but this experience really underlines it's importance. I think I can plan a schedule that allows for "pretty good" finishes in all of the types of races that I want to compete in.
Where does gravel fit in? I'm not sure- it seems like gravel endurance racing is the one type of racing that I do that really benefits from all other types of riding. No matter what type of riding I do it seems that it directly translates into greater strength/endurance as applies to gravel/endurace road riding, it's when I need more "high end" that I need to do more specific training.
No idea if this was at all interesting to anyone else, probably not... but it helps me to think it through.
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