Friday, November 7, 2014

Double Race Weekend #1 – A Mansion & A Maze

by Ben Coleman
Saturday, August 30th – King’s Gap Time Trial/Hill Climb
Since 2011, the Harrisburg Bicycle Club in association with the Friends of King’s Gap volunteer organization has staged an individual time trial type hill climb event at the beautiful King’s Gap State Park. It’s a very low-key affair, with more emphasis on riders getting to enjoy the park’s grounds, the Cameron-Masland mansion, and the outrageously smooth and pleasantly twisting ribbon of asphalt that allows access to the park than finishing times and final standings. It is also a very well organized and operated event, due mostly to the dedication and endless work of Kelly Szymczyk and Mark Riordan who every year wrangle a crack team of volunteers to make sure everything goes as smoothly as the road we’re racing on. If you've never attended this event or ridden up King's Gap Road, I strongly suggest doing both at least once.

With my moving to Mt. Holly earlier this summer, there is now only five miles between the park entrance on Pine Road and my front door. Knowing that the parking lot would fill up quickly, I decided to ride to the event. Shortly after sunrise I donned my warmers (it was a cool morning) and headed out. On my way down Pine Road I was passed by several cars toting bikes heading in the same direction I was, driven by other competitors also making their way to the event. Turning onto King’s Gap Road and beginning my first ascent of the mountain that morning I began getting passed by more and more drivers, many of which were all smiles and waves as they went by. I began to feel the vibe of this event wash over me, where no one is concerned with what category you are, what tire pressures you’re running, or even if you’ve ever done any bike racing before. We all come to this ‘race’ just to see familiar faces and enjoy time on our bikes. Yes, there are numbers on riders, and the ascent is timed, and there are awards for the top three finishers in each gender, but that’s where the similarities to any other race end.
After picking up my number packet and getting some help with pinning it from another rider, I rolled back down the mountain to begin warming up for my 9:33 start time. I had just over an hour’s wait once I got to the bottom so I headed further south along the base of the ridge to explore back roads and keep my legs spinning and loose. It soon became time for me to head back to the park and the race staging area, and as I rolled my way along I began to really think about my goals and the possibility of achieving them that day. This would be my third time competing in this event, and the previous two years had gone well. My target time for the first year was 15 minutes, which I ended up missing by just over 30 seconds. Last year I merely wanted to do better than my first performance a year earlier, and I was still determined to beat the 15 minute mark. I did so that year, and finished the ascent in 14 minutes and 22 seconds, cutting over a minute off of my 2012 time. This year, I thought that expecting to drop another minute was a bit too ambitious, but I did want to crack into the 13 minute range.
By the time I rolled up to the starting queue and found my place in the starting order with my fellow riders I was plenty psyched to get going. So much so that I actually found myself slightly surprised, thinking I was getting way too serious about it all. But it was a good anticipation, free of any nervousness or tension. Four riders were left to start in front of me. I was feeling good, I knew the course and the characteristics of the climb. It always seemed to me that the steepest sections were in the bottom one-third of the mountain, so I planned to take it easy from the start and try to not burn myself up too early. Three riders to go, then two, then just one. The last rider before me rolled off the starting line and I took my place at the start. A few friendly words with the man working the stop watch in between his time warnings kept me feeling loose and relaxed, and even when he called 10 seconds to go I still felt calm. He counted down from 5 seconds, and then I was off, on my way towards the top of the mountain.
It was a conscious effort on my part not to go all-out off of the line, and I had to remind myself several times in the first half-mile to keep a conservative pace. A little further up the mountain the grade would get shallower and then I could spin harder and build more momentum to carry through the rest of the climb. I still felt calm and relatively strong at the halfway point and was thoroughly enjoying my ride and how well I perceived it to be going. Entering the second hairpin corner of the ascent I spotted one of the photographers and gave him a quick thumbs-up from across the road. Shortly before the finish, where the road splits into a one-way loop around the mansion lawn, there were plenty of volunteers offering final cheers and motivation to finish strong. I grabbed another gear and forced my legs to turn it over and over as I pushed towards the finish. With the last 100 yards in sight I gave it everything I had left and hit the line, gasping for air but happy about my ride. I knew it would be a while before I got to see what my time actually was, but I felt good that I had ridden the way I wanted to, the way I hoped I would.

As the last dozen or so riders rolled in with various gaps between them I relaxed on the grass and enjoyed the atmosphere at the finish. Once everyone was in, final times were tabulated and the results posted. I found my groups’ sheet and scanned the page for my name, excited to find out what this year’s time was. I had climbed the mountain in 13 minutes and eight seconds, putting me sixth in my group, and more importantly, and surprisingly to me, one minute and 14 seconds faster than I had just a year before. Very happy with my result, I packed my gear up and rolled back down the King’s Gap Road and home to Mt. Holly.

Sunday, August 31st – Cross of the Corn
Coming off of what I felt to be a good performance and just a good day on the bike the day before, I was especially excited to be heading to the first “real” cross race of my season in Aspers at the Fields of Adventure complex. This is the first year that I’ve decided to put any actual effort and planning into racing a full cross season, I even bought a USAC license (although I felt a little dirty doing it) and I have plans to get my $70 and then some out of it! A short drive through the apple orchards and thick morning fog delivered me to the venue, a family-fun kind of place featuring a corn maze, zip-line, and other fall-themed games and activities built on two rolling hills of farmland. I ran into Bobby Lee on my way to the registration table as he was coming off the course from a few recon laps. “How is it out there?” I asked. “Bumpy” was his answer, “bumpy and fast.” I had no idea at the time just how bumpy he meant.

With my number pinned and other pre-pre-race prep complete I headed out with Bobby and Dave Wilson for a few sighting laps of my own. My first thought was ‘Does anyone know for sure we’re going the right direction?’ Not exactly, but it seemed to be the general consensus of the other riders near us so we went with it. I have to say, for a USAC sanctioned event there seemed to be a worrying amount of confusion and lack of information available, but I was hopeful that things would smooth out before it was time to get the days’ racing underway. Another thing that I, and I think everyone else there, wanted to see smoothed out was the course. It was literally ‘built’ on farming-type fields. When I say built I mean that there was a path that had been mowed through the grass, weeds, and scrub brush that covered the property. Then a bunch of stakes connected with ribbons of course tape were added, and that was pretty much it. There was also a short section utilizing part of the on-site corn maze, a few uphills, and a gravel driveway included as well. With two sighting laps completed I was able to determine several things about how the day would go; first, to say it was bumpy would be like saying that beaches are sandy. A true statement, but mostly unnecessary due to the fact that the vast majority of beaches are nothing but sand. Similarly, this course was nothing but bumps and holes and shallow ditches. There was no smooth part to be found, anywhere at all. Now I’m not the kind to lobby for groomed courses and perfect features, far from it. But when your fingers begin to go numb from vibrations after just two laps it takes a lot of the fun out of racing. Second, there was nothing technical about the course. It was the kind of course that would favor the kind of rider who could turn a big gear for a full race, with no need for moments of recovery. Third, these two facts combined meant that my hopes of doing well at this race were quickly washing away.
I returned to my vehicle to do the last bits of race prep and chat with fellow racers as last minute details like course boundaries and the location of the pit were sorted by the USAC officials. Soon enough it was time to get to the line and organize ourselves in the call-up to the grid. The sentiment gathered from the chattering on the line was that many of us expected were in for less-than-good races. Oh well, at least we’d all be suffering together. The 30 and then 15 second warnings were given, the start whistle was blown and the 31-racer CAT 4/5 field was off. I got a pretty good start off the line and was near the front as we immediately began pulling ourselves up the rising incline of the long gravel driveway that funneled into a 90 degree left turn. I held back a little on this first climb, not wanting to have to back off the pace and recover somewhere later in the lap. I was passed by a few riders, but I was still within the top ten after we had ridden the outline of two sides of the corn maze. Then, in the left turn into the corn maze section the rider two wheels in front of me had his front tire swept out from underneath him by one of the ruts we had to traverse diagonally through the corner. The rider directly behind him had nowhere to go to avoid him, and packed up into the back of the crashed racer. I also had no other option than to make it a three rider pileup. Obviously not the way I wanted to start the race, but it happens sometimes. With the field streaming by and the two other riders involved in the wreck back up and underway I remounted and tried to rejoin the group. Half of a pedal stroke later I realized that my chain had dropped in the crash, and with no momentum to be able to try and shift it back on I was forced to dismount and fix it manually.

Finally making it through the corn maze section I popped out into the open straightaway the fed into the back end of the course. I was now dead last, off the back by at least 50 yards. My race strategy had now gone from conservation and survival to as high of a pace as I could bear at any given moment, desperate to get back in the bunch and try to salvage a decent result. With my head down and my legs full of frustration, I managed to pass eight or nine riders by the end of the first lap. The field was quickly getting strung out and separated as small groups formed here and there throughout the pack. This made it harder by the minute to gain back positions as the race went on. I kept working, kept trying to hold onto a pace that felt unmanageable over the bumpy course that was getting slicker from the grass being folded and beaten down with every passing tire. I had lost count of how many riders I had passed by the halfway point of the race, and the further up through the field I got the harder it was to make passes and have them stick. I got around a group of three or four riders in the back section of the course, only to have my pedal strike a tree stump hidden in the grass that bucked the rear end of my bike and nearly took me down. One of the riders I had just passed re-passed me in the incident, but offered a “nice save” as he went by and rode away.
With two laps to go I found myself in no-man’s-land, not fast enough to make contact with anyone ahead of me but refusing to slow down and be caught by anyone chasing. My hands were so numb now that I was having difficulty shifting and braking. I began looking to see where my fingers were on the levers to make sure they were where they needed to be to get the right shift before I moved them. Coming out of the corn maze and heading down the straightaway something hit me just to the outside of my left eye. I quickly found out what it was as it proceeded to get stuck in between my helmet strap and face, furiously buzzing and repeatedly stinging me near my temple. With one numb hand on my bars and the other frantically trying to poke the kamikaze insect loose I kept pedaling, because at that point in a race like that it’s just what you do, because what else can you do? Bastard bug dislodged and knowing I was nearing the end I had a moment of acceptance that I had done what I could with this race, and would most likely finish in the position I was currently in. I had no idea what that position was, but I knew I was still on the lead lap at least.
Exiting a section of corners where the course doubled back on itself I saw my Indecisives teammate from a week ago, Bobby Lee, in the thick of a three man battle that also included one of his Blue Mountain Velo teammates Paul Sieber. The look on all three of those riders’ faces told me that there was a proper fight going on for that spot, the spot just behind me. Knowing they’d all be going maximum attack through to the end I summoned up everything I had left and put it into that last lap. I pushed to stay away, to not get caught, swallowed, and spit out by the ferocity of three ‘crossers dueling for position. Entering the last corner before the rolling straight up to the finish line I looked back to survey the gap that remained. It was almost gone. I knew that if their battle went to an all-out sprint for the line I would surely be caught. I dug in one last time waiting to hear the sound of tires clawing for traction from behind me, but it didn’t come. I managed to finish ahead of the three man group in 16th, but only by the slightest of margins. As I crossed the line I looked over my shoulder to see where they were, and all I saw were BMV jerseys. I’m not sure how that race within the race played out, but Paul and Bobby got themselves around the third rider, and from Bobby’s account Paul nipped him right at the line.
So a crash on lap one, a course I wasn't at all suited for, and a bee sting in the head. Not the way I had envisioned my first real cross campaigning year starting off. Although, I can't feel too bad about my riding that day. I came from dead last through nearly half of the field to finish mid-pack and still on the lead lap. No, not feeling bad about that one at all.

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