South Sound Super Prestige at Fort Steilacoom Park 2014

The MFG Cyclocross brought the show to Lakewood last weekend. Those guys have flair and it shows in the the naming of the event. Although my race schedule doesn't usually include MFG events I figured if they hosted an event in my backyard I needed to do my part and participate.


Cyclocross Racers and Pierce College

My last event cemented in my brain how important pre race preparation can be. For the Super Prestige I stuck with some proven rituals. Plenty of water for the 24 hours before the event. Dinner before the race to include pasta. And get to bed on time.

My race morning schedule was leisurely. I arrived at the venue in plenty of time to handle paperwork and get kitted up. For the first time I chose to invite my Garmin Edge 200 GPS cyclocomputer to go racing. To prevent distraction I carried it in a pocket. Because I know the trails at Fort Steilacoom Park well I believed that my preride focus would be on the turns laid out in the grass field and to see the transitions on to and off of the straights.

Cyclocrossing through the grass corners

Did I mention the straight away? Most of Angle Lane was used as the finish straight. It was just over a quarter mile long and paved. A sweeping  corner led onto this straight away and a near perfect decreasing radius corner exited the racers back onto the grass. Drafting would become a factor on this long straight as well as a few other key points on the course where the course was smooth and/or lined up with the slight North wind.

 

A fast and straightish course does not favor my skillset. But my preride revealed that the width and layout of many of the corners in the grass sections did play to my strengths. There was just a single climb on the course. It took riders up a moderate ascent to the near high point in the park from where they executed a sharp righty and raced right back down to the flats. The remainder of the course was basically flat.

Between course preride and starting my warmup I chatted with another racer named Rob. I was curious about his trainer based warmup ritual. He gave me the Cliff Note's version and we decided to finish the conversation after the race. _My_ warmup ritual was almost comical. There were enough bikes, cars, and kids at the Park to preclude comfortably riding up and down the paved road. So I found Soccer field 'A', used the goals as turning marks, and rode near endless ovals around them. The soft grass and ground provided resistance and I circled for 20 plus minutes while my body warmed up.

MFG's perfect decreasing radius first corner
MFG's perfect decreasing radius first corner

The first two rows of the near 50 starters were awarded by callup. Then riders were called up by random to fill the ranks. Luck fell my way and I ended up on the third row.

My pre race strategy was determined nearly a week before the event. Before I saw my start position. Before I saw the size or depth of the field. My strategy was determined by the speed of the course. I needed to suck wheels. On many courses I earn a little rest by carrying speed through the corners. On this course I would only earn rest by keeping my nose out of the wind. I also wanted to practice my pace setting. My last blog post spoke of listening to my body and it was my intention to keep that promise.

I lined up behind a rider who looked like he had his bike in the correct gear. The rider too his left was in too tall a gear. The rider too his right was on a single speed. This guaranteed an opening. Either the guy on the left wouldn't accelerate or the guy on the right would spin out before the first corner. Either way I'd advance a row before the first corner.

It is my hope that this blog reaches the ear of the individual that laid out the MFG Super Prestige course. That first corner was a work of art. It safely funnelled 40+ racing cyclists into double file by the second corner. By the third corner I was in about 10th and happy. The course gets to the climb a third of the way into the lap. My climbing speed was good but others wanted to climb faster. I needed to honor my own pace. Two or three powered by.

As we executed the righty and started the first half of the descent they rested. Dwaine didn't rest. Not yet.

Gravel descent
Gravel descent

Time trial strategy dictates an even effort even after cresting a hill. Click, Click, Click as I accelerated down the hill.

From previous races the course was more worn on the far left side of this gravel road to avoid the loose gravel in the center. Circuit knowledge reminded me that the far right side was also firmly packed. As my acceleration was not matched by the riders in front of me I was forced to make the choice of slowing to their speed OR floating it through the gravel to pick up the packed right side. It was a simple choice and I stayed on the pedals as I realized the potential for gain. On this first half of the descent I passed about four riders before the descent turned left. Buoyed by my success I attacked on the brakes at the bottom of the descent to gain one more spot.

Positionally, this was the high point of my race. I was solidly into the top ten. For the remainder of the lap I just held the wheel in front of me. If a rider behind needed to power by I let him go. If a rider ahead chose a poor line I chose a better one. I found and held a wheel down the front straight where it mattered most.

On the second lap there was a surge of speed on the second half of the climb. I did not respond and watched the wheel open a gap. And then a few riders went by. These rider had the strength to climb fast. I held myself to a pace that I could sustain for five laps. On the plus side I picked a few off on the second descent. But I knew they were faster and I gave them plenty of room to get by on the next flat section.

I wasn't the only rider unable or unwilling to keep pace with the lead group. Initially four of us formed the second group. Early on I heard 'we can bridge' but there was no response from anyone. I'm guessing we all knew the score. Our group of four stayed together going onto the front straight and a strong rider wearing Cucina Fresca colors towed me down the straight with the other two hanging on.

Cyclocross Colors
Cyclocross Colors

Over the course of the next three laps our group mostly rode together. And we each showed our strengths and weaknesses. I soft pedaled into the grassy corners. They outclimbed me every time. Then I'd close the gap on the descent. The other riders accelerated out of some corners harder than me but I could usually make up the difference going into the next turn. And we all knew the value of staying close as we entered the straightaway.

I felt like one part of my prerace strategy was written in ink. Keep my nose out of the wind. But on lap three, when our group had slimmed down to three, I had to re-evaluate. Two riders, me included, had not yet pulled. I'd rather get my work done early so I took the best pull I could muster.

It's tough to know if the other riders were happy with my pace. But it felt good to lead a group across the line and into the first corner. This was my first shot at this decreasing radius. I stayed _way_ outside skimming the outside fence and then bent it in as late as I could get away with carrying much more speed than previous laps. The rest of my group did not match my speed and I gained a short lived gap.

At the end of lap four the third rider in our group did not take his pull. Cucina Fresca stepped up and did the work. I was tight on his wheel and soft pedaled most of the straight.

By this point in the race I was mentally working the finish out backwards. Our finish order would be decided by drafting on the straight. The three short sections leading to the straight were draftable but hard to pass. The barriers were just before the the three short sections. And I was fastest through the four grassy corners leading into the barriers.

The author picks a different line
The author picks a different line

On laps three and four I lead our group into the barriers where I was slow and usually lost a position. But I worked hard to stick to the wheel that came by. On the final lap it was the same and the Cucina Fresca colors came by with authority. He gave extra effort on the first of the three short sections. I held his wheel and the third in our group held mine.

Helmet hair courtesy Giro
Helmet hair courtesy Giro

For right or wrong I conceded to myself that I couldn't beat both of them. I'd work with Cucina Fresca. I was following close and I yelled up that I would lead him out. Instead of waiting for the straight, however, I wanted to get a gap on the wheel behind me early so I sprinted past through the corner that led onto the long straight. Cucina Fresca got on my wheel momentarily but then blew right on by. I surged into his wind shadow, checked over my should to confirm our gap, and then rode protected across the line.

The results were not exciting. We finished 9th and 10th in a field of 44 finishers. We were 80 seconds behind the winner. We did not meet the podium girls. But I think we raced smart. I stuck to my goal of riding my own pace. He did a mountain of the work and earned my respect when it came time to pick sides.

The man inside the Cucina Fresca kit is Brian Palen. We had a chance to chat after the race. I commented on his strength and he commented on my cornering. We also realized we had raced against each other last year at McCullogh park where we finished second and third in our Category 4 race.

Here is the summary from Strava:
My lap times were all within ten seconds of each other.
My two fastest laps, separated by only one second, were the first and last.  

These metrics don't indicate that my pace was perfect. But they do indicate consistency. Which is a good start.

Although my finish position number wasn't particularly small I'm quite pleased with my race. I mostly stuck with my plan. For the first time in Category 3 I felt like I raced the race instead of it racing me. I think I learned a little more about the nuances that are taking place at this level of racing. And the fast course was a lot of fun.