I decided that cross racing would be a lot more fun if I had Tim Gunn following me around telling me to “make it work.” However, I fear if I had my very own private Tim Gunn, he would most likely say something like “this worries me” when he saw me race.
This weekend was the Providence Cyclocross Festival. The course looked a lot different from when I saw it last – which was nationals ’05, under many inches of snow and ice. I have to say, it really was quite the fun course. I have mixed feelings about Tom Stevens’ courses…I either love them or hate them. I loved New Gloucester 2003, but have hated every other incarnation of it. I loved Baltimore Nationals 2001, but hate Gloucester. I can add Providence to my list of “most liked courses”. I like that it is fast, but has enough stuff and things to make it interesting. I am slowly getting my confidence back on these courses…I am not a naturally great bike handler and I lack the sort of instincts that most mountain bike and cross racers have. I flinch in turns and brake on descents and generally spend my entire race trying to slow myself down out of an innate fear of crashing. I think I crashed in every race I did in 2005, my last full season of cross racing. I attribute my crashes then to my massive amount of toe clip overlap. I notice I am not really crashing much these days, so the new bike definitely works.
With 3 cross races under my belt, I can finally make an honest assessment of the Terry Valkyrie. Up until now my fitness held me back from really putting it to the test. You have to ride a cross bike fast, on a race course, in race-y situations to assess it. I really love the way this bike handles. I have 0 toe clip overlap, which I forget about, so I still find myself freaking out in tight hairpin off camber turns and I am still flinching and trying to pull my foot out of the way when I think I am going to hit it. Then I remember that it cannot happen on this bike and I relax and pull out of it.
I spent the entire first day of Providence trying to get comfortable on the bike in all of the turns. I am still trying to figure out the tire pressure thing. I ended up going 33PSI front and about 35 rear and avoided flatting. However, I was still getting tossed around on the bumpy turn by the beer tent.
The momentum necessitating uphill off camber roller coaster turns were fun and I am glad that I finally figured out how to ride those. I think on my old bike I would have had to take really bad lines to make it work, but the new bike means I can take a normal line and apex the turns better. That’s not to say that I actually did it correctly, but I knew that I could do it if I wanted to.
Despite being halfway decent at this sport several years ago, I have long since forgotten my skills and typical things that wouldn’t faze the average cross racer scare the crap out of me. I figure it will take me the rest of this season of racing to really get comfortable again doing this, so hopefully by next year I can regain some of my competitive ability and not be last every weekend. At least I did finish on the lead lap day 1.
Day 2 was a shorter course, slightly more technical, with tighter turns and a more interesting approach to the roller coaster section. I still took stupid lines, but I found that by changing my pedals from Time ATAC xs to old fashion early 2000 era Time ATACs – the yellow ones with a flat platform – I was able to get in an out better.
One thing I have been doing over the years is changing my equipment, and I discovered that sometimes, change is bad, newer is not necessarily better, and that I should go with my instincts instead of what everyone else is doing.
For example, back in the day (that would be 2003), I had ancient used Shimano SPD pedals that were so worn, they barely held the cleat in place. The beauty of these pedals was that I clipped in instantly every time. I never, ever missed and I had this innate ability to remount and have my feet clip in the instant my feet hit the pedals…it was almost like there were magnets at work. In 2005 I switched to Time ATAC xs because everyone said they were better at mudshedding, and I have had a bitch of a time clipping in ever since. Talking with MegA at the race yesterday, she revealed that the older Time ATAC design was better because the flat platform made it easier to clip in, and you could ride the pedal unclipped and not risk your foot slipping off. So, this morning I took the old pedals off of my fixed gear and put them on the cross bike and WOW what a difference. Still not Shimano buttery smooth magnetic instaclipin goodness, but a much better feeling that the ATAC xs.
Another feature of my old bike was a lovely 38/43 chainring combination. Sounds silly, I realized, to have two chainrings in such close proximity in size. I opted for those because they were the only rings I could find that fit my 130mm BCD 165mm road cranks. Because I used 165mm cranks, I couldn’t use the standard cross cranksets available at the time, so I made do with what I had. And as luck would have it, my front shifter was kinda beat up and my front derailleur was an ancient Suntour and lo and behold, this combination meant that most of the time I had no choice but to keep it in my big 43t chainring. Which, incidentally, was the absolute perfect chainring for just about any course. I never needed the 38, and the 43 was great for powering along on the flats and actually going fast.
Right now I have a 36/46 chainring set on my SRAM 165mm 110 BCD cranks. And guess what…on a course like Providence, the 36 is really too small…lots of chain slap. And a 46? Too big for me on anything other than pavement. So, after this weekend of racing, I decided that it’s time to go back to a smaller ring, and I am ordering a 42t chainring from Cyclocrossworld as soon as I can find Andy’s credit card.
I learned today that 30PSI is too low for hopping curbs, as I promptly flatted after doing so on my way to warmup. Good to know, as I haven’t ever really learned what my optimal PSI is in clinchers. I started out racing Michelins back in 2001, but switched to tubulars of various brand in 2003.
Speaking of tires – my Schwalbe CX Pro are OK. Not the best at shedding mud, but they are great in conditions like Gloucester Day 2 and both Providence races.
Oh, and about drivetrains and such…I was used to racing with Shimano. I have only ever raced with Shimano. I have used RX100 levers, Ultegra 600 levers, Ultegra Short Reach levers, R700 short reach levers, regular old Ultegra levers, Sora levers, and Dura Ace levers. And you know what? I am quite happy with Shimano, in all of it’s incarnations (ok, maybe not the Sora). When I first got my Valkyrie, it had SRAM Rival. I thought SRAM would be better. We went with SRAM because it was cheaper than Ultegra and slightly lighter. I also read that SRAM are supposed to be “better for small hands because of the adjustable reach to the brake levers”. I’ve never really had an issue shifting or braking with my Shimano levers, and I honestly could never tell the difference between my Short Reach levers and my Dura Ace, but I figure this had to be an improvement.
Wrong. I hate SRAM. Hate it. The levers simply did not work for me. For one thing, they are slightly bulkier than Shimano – where Shimano gets narrow on the hood, SRAM gets wide. My hands ached after 20minutes riding on this, and that was just from resting my hands on them. I had pressure points on my palms that were irritated from the levers. I also could not shift to an easier gear in the rear or shift to the big ring in front. Nope. See, despite having a reach adjustment for braking – something I have never had a problem with because I use shallow drop ergobars – I did not have the ability to make it through all of the necessary lateral degrees of swing required to shift to larger cogs. This was a problem. If I was in the drops, I could do it, but I could not do it from the tops. I was unable to shift if I was, oh, say, standing up out of the saddle, hands on the hoods, climbing a hill…something that we do a lot of in cross.
So, after a few weeks of SRAM misshifts and hand pain, I made the decision to switch back to Shimano, and all was well with the world. People who know me know that I do not like change, and kinetic change is hard for me. It takes me forever to get something out of my muscle memory once it’s in there, and my hands were not ready to learn SRAM.
After a few weeks of racing, I have made some major changes to my bike – swapped out the pedals for something old, swapped the cranks for 165 Rival (the FSA Gossamer 170s were too long and too oversized and whenever I shouldered the bike the damn thing would hit me right in the back), swapped the SRAM shifters and derailleurs for Shimano, and loosened up my brakes, because apparently I brake too much. I recall not having any real braking ability in most of my races in 2003 and that really seemed to help my racing. That combined with my inability to use the little ring made for quite the improvement in my racing.
So, I am trying to Make it Work, as Tim Gunn would say (or as Gewilli DID say, every lap, when I passed the beer tent).