Battle at Fort Steilacoom

Readers of this blog may infer that the Battle at Fort Steilacoom was waged against one of the other cyclocross competitors. That is not the case. Long time readers might read between the lines and conclude that the battle was between me and the Fort Steilacoom venue. Yes, my poorest finishes often come at this venue. And I might blog about that statistic on another day. But _this_ post is going to focus on the 44 minute battle of my will against the soil, rocks, sand, hills, grass, and kidney jarring bumps that made up the racing surface for the MFG South Sound Super Prestige cyclocross race at Fort Steilacoom Park.

I don't usually do well when racing at Fort Steilacoom Park. The course description by MFG read:

Another speedsters course, starts fast with a few sweeping turns before turning uphill for long while. The downhill plunge demands attention to your cornering technique; the finish your sprint.

To fill in the detail lets break the course down into sections:

The start/finish straight was paved and fast and not quite long enough to make drafting helpful. Pedal power mattered most. There was no place to rest here.


Smooth grass section was fast and fun

After bending into the first corner the course made a few zigs and zags through a pretty smooth mowed grass field. This section had one corner of concern but was otherwise almost completely open. Acceleration mattered as did raw speed. I found I could coast into the one corner but otherwise I was on the pedals most of the time. Looking back this might have been the place to slow just a tad to save energy for elsewhere on the course.

Next up came the climb. The corner making the transition from flat to ascending allowed me to coast for a second. Then it became each rider's 60 second power to weight ratio that determined their time. I hoped to climb efficiently with a steady effort from bottom to top. But there is no getting around the physics that every watt spent is a fraction of a second shaved. I lost many positions on the first half of the climb and then lost fewer on the second half. I suffered the most at the top of this climb which was a good indicator that I wasn't far off my potential.

The descent seemed the only potential rest period. After a short burst at the top to get up to speed the course wound down for almost a minute which gave legs a well earned rest. Halfway down a deceptively squirrelly corner caught a few riders off guard. Me included. Then the final pitch steepened as it dumped the rider into a ninety degree right hander. Concentration was required in this section as it quickly developed stutter bumps in the braking area and holding on to the bars was no small feat. Because I've studied this descent I regained positions on the descent most every lap.


Lead group in the 1:50 race

Barriers were placed on a short smooth grass section. A short section that divided two sections of long grass field. These long grass sections really defined the course for me. The soil under the long grass was soft. The soft soil and grass required extra effort. And the soil was bumpy. Really bumpy. I tried riding seated for high efficiency but was rewarded by being bounced out of the saddle. I tried clicking up a gear and riding out of the saddle. This saved my body from the violent bouncing. But my tired legs could not handle that much work for that long. I even tried floating my bottom just over the saddle but that solved neither the bouncing nor leg abuse issue. These sections were long enough that they really sapped my energy and spirit. At best, I can say I survived these sections of the course. Barely.

At the end of the second long grass bump section we were asked to re-accelerate back onto the start/finish straight away.

Save for the descent, every section of the course required lots of what I was lacking: sustained power. Before the race started I figured this course would be a real test of my fitness and grit.

No call up came my way and I was lucky to find a slot in the third row. In the starting grid I finalized my race plan. It was pretty simple. Sprint up the front group on the start. Then hang on as long as possible.

By the second corner I was in 6th or so and content with my position. I worked to hold the wheel in front of me until the climb where I started to bleed positions. On the descent I started passing groups of riders and snuck up to fourth as we entered the corner that ends the descent section. Despite the little bit of rest on the descent I could already tell I was over extending myself. At the barriers I gave up the chase and dialed down to a pace I hoped to hold to the finish. My first lap finished respectively with a time of about 6:50 to the leader's 6:40.

But I was well into the suffer zone. My first lap effort put me into the red and I was paying the price. With a course that offered few places to rest I managed my effort as best I could. The 'bumps' section was especially tough as it required leg power and mental concentration. I was low on both.

My second through fifth laps are not distinct in my mind. My head hung low on the straight. Slobber fell to my frame and shoes. To save energy I used the brakes only during the descent. The climb continued to humiliate me as lead riders from later starts sped by. The bump section jolted my kidneys if I sat and burned my quads if I stood. And I dug deep to provide the effort to keep the bike moving over the soft grass and soil. These laps were about forty seconds slower than my first lap at about 7:30. And I was steadily moving backwards from my high point of 4th position.

The '1 Lap to Go' board never looked so good.

My 'time to go' spot was on the climb. At the halfway up point I popped out of the saddle and started asking my legs for just a few extra watts for just a few more minutes. I was surprised when they responded. My speed was better all the way through the end of the 'bumps' section. I could feel that my body was fading fast just as I entered the start/finish straight for the last time. I looked and felt pretty bad but was able to pedal across the line.

I did not crash after finishing the race. I don't know how. My respiration rate was off the chart. My muscles were shaky. I coasted off the course and then pedaled at 4 mph to my vehicle. Against which I gently leaned Blue Moon and then gingerly laid myself on the ground. Everything hurt. The combination of bumps and pedaling turned my arms and legs to Jello. My skin stung from Blackberry scratches. And sweat was stinging in my eyes. It was a full ten minutes before I was ready to become vertical.

Later that day I learned that I finished 14th. Not my best. And that I was over three minutes behind the winner of my class. Compared to some of my better finishes that was pretty humbling. The 13 riders in front of me were clearly better racers that day. On the bright side my last lap effort had some effect. It dropped my last lap time to about 7:15. It was also on this lap that I put in a good enough time to be 5th on the Strava 'descent only' segment. With only Elite riders posting faster times. That felt good.

But my finish position was not the real story. Getting my butt kicked so thoroughly by the course was the lesson that will stay with me for a while. Damn, that was tough.