Tuesday, April 30, 2013

SSAP 2013: Knifing my way through a gun fight ...

Photo courtesy GT Luke
This weekend, I headed up to Newburgh, NY for the 5th annual Singlespeed-a-palooza. SSAP is one of my favorite events of the year. It's got everything you could want in a race: great vibe, great crowd, great course, great after-party and, of course, a mid-race beer stop. This would be the third time I'd line up for it and the first time I'd be in the open class. The last two years, I competed int he NJ & South division and finished 6th in 2011 and then 5th in 2012, so I figured it was time to try my luck in the open class.

Because I was going to be racing open, I knew it was going to be a hard race. I figured that if I could manage to finish near the top thirty (out of 112), I'd be over the moon. Coming in, I thought that was a conservative and reasonable goal to shoot for.

Turns out, my "conservative" goal was actually way beyond my reach. Well, maybe "way beyond" is a bit of an exaggeration. But not much. What really happened is that I learned a few things about racing this weekend.

On Saturday morning, I drove up to NY to pre-ride the course. This year, the guys from Darkhorse threw a curveball at us in the course design. The previous four editions were two lap races with each lap being 12 miles. This year, the lap was one 25 mile loop around Stewart Forest. Since I've raced here a few times now (twice at SSAP, twice at the Stewart Super Six Pack, and once in the Darkhorse 40), I knew the basic layout of the park. What I didn't know is which trails would be included this year, and that can be a big deal because Stewart has a little of everything to throw at you (and that's one of the reasons I love the venue.)

The course started with a couple miles of fire road, followed by a quick turn into the woods for a climb up a section called "Major Mike". Its actually a series of short climbs through a rocky and rooty section of singletrack. After that, the course alternated between fast and twisty singletrack, more fire roads, and a few short punchy climbs.

Almost the entire course was hard-packed and very fast

There were quite a few fire road sections, and these would ultimately be the death of me

Stewart is a beautiful park and the 2013 course 

The '46 Ford was the warning sign for the steepest climb of the day

Robertson was the last section before we hit the home stretch on the repeat fire road

I loved the course after the ride -- super fast and a little of everything -- but I was starting to worry about my choice of gear. The 32:18 I was running seemed a bit light given the amount of fire road and flat sections of trail. I was concerned that I was going to be spinning myself into oblivion from the start. Turns out that was anxiety well-placed.

After the pre-ride, I had a relaxing evening in my hotel with my feet up. I fell asleep pretty early, but then I had kind of a rough night. I woke up a few times with a bad stomach. It wasn't nerves -- I was really relaxed about the race this year since I wasn't planning on being all that competitive. I just think I was having some residual problems from the weak stomach I'd had earlier in the week. Eventually, i did get back to sleep, but when I woke up Sunday morning, I was feeling a bit weak and tired. I shook it off, ate a quick breakfast in the hotel and headed over to the venue.

A few minutes after I arrived, I ran into Mitch and Chris from NJ as I was spinning my legs out. We got together and headed out to pre-ride the finishing climb. I felt pretty good going up the Schofield climb, and figured maybe my gear and my body would be okay after all. Feeling pretty good, I lined up in the middle of the pack at the start line. The "mayor" gave us a few pre-race announcements and then told us to get ready to go.

And then we were off.

Holy shit. The open class was fast. Right off the start, we headed up the fire road at a ridiculous pace, and I almost instantly realized it was going to be a tough day. I was on the edge just trying to stay in contact. I was spinning my small gear at like 150 rpms. It was unsustainable. I prayed for the race to settle down into its natural order and that was lesson number one for the day: in the open class, it never settles down. The fire road turned upward, and everyone just kept moving at that same ridiculous pace. I was able to roll past a few because my gear was helpful on the steeper sections, but for the most part I was just trying to hold onto the reins of a runaway horse. Oh -- and I was also swallowing about a ton of road dust that was being kicked up by all the riders ahead of me. In previous years, I was lucky enough to get off the front early to stay clear of the dust and muck. This year? I sat in and ate all the dust from everyone else. And tried to stay fast while I did it. Not a great combination.

I managed to survive somewhere in the top half of the field as we hit the turn into Major Mike, and then I actually ended up reeling in a few riders on the climbs. But once the climbs ended, they took off and I started sliding backward. Mitch, Chris, and Norm from NJ all came around me and gapped me in short order on the flat. I just couldn't keep a cadence that would have been necessary to reel them back. I was not five miles into the race yet, and I knew already that I was in trouble. I actually felt really good physically -- my stomach seemed to settle, and my only real physical issue seemed to be that I was hacking up more soot and dust than a 19th century chimney sweep. But I was recovering my HR and breathing okay all things considered, and while my legs felt a little sluggish, I can't say that I was struggling physically. What I was doing was losing lots of ground despite feeling like I was moving pretty fast (for me.) And that's really the biggest lesson I learned all day -- having the right tools for the job is very important against really fast racers. My 32:18 works great in places like Wissahickon, where there's enough up to make it worthwhile to have a gear that can be turned over on climbs. But when the majority of the course is flat with long sections of fire road, to be respectable against a field like SSAP, I need to push that rear cog up at least a tooth or two. The fact is, speed hurts, and my top end speed, after years of focusing on endurance races, is not really that high. But if it's going to hurt to go fast, I might as well do it with a bigger gear and at least have a shot at being higher up in the field.

I spent most of the day moving backwards through the field despite keeping the hammer down, Honestly, as opposed to some other days when I've been disappointed by how I performed physically, Sunday felt like a pretty good day. I just didn't have the top end speed that a lot of other guys had. Part of that was the gear, and part of it is just that I have a lot of improvement needed to be competitive in that kind of event against that kind of competition. And that's cool. I know where I stand and there's plenty of room for improvement. I tip my helmet to the guys who ran sub 1:45 on the day.  That's fast as hell for 25 miles. I thought I moved pretty well and finished in under two hours. I finished right around 65 or so out of 112, which is nowhere near where I'd hoped, but considering just how big a difference there is between the sport and the open class, I think it's less a disappointment than a recognition that my eyes were bigger than my legs coming into this weekend.

And besides, based on the finishes, if I had shaved about 6 minutes or so off my time, I'd be in the 30's. It was that close between those spots. I think that is a realistic goal for next year. And I most certainly will be back for next year, too. This race is just too much fun and I just enjoy riding with these folks way too much to miss it.

One more thing before I sign off: keen eyes may notice something worth noting in my photos. I'll get to that in my next post because it really deserves its own recognition ...


  1. Another nice post - keep 'em coming.

    Why is your bike white? :)

  2. I've got a keen eye...but I won't give away the secret. Nice pictures, esp the old car. Cool!