Yesterday, I finally went and did it. I raced my first crit. Two years ago, I course marshalled the inaugural Glencoe Grand Prix. At the time, my impression of a criterium was a race where crashes were common and painful. It's one of the reasons I started to race cyclocross figuring that a) I wanted to race a bike b) cross was slower and c) if you fell, it was on grass, dirt, mud or sand. Crits had the risk of high speed + sharp turns + hard asphalt (or concrete) and I didn't want to complete that equation. However, after watching the GGP, I thought, I could handle this one and made plans to race it in 2008. Unfortunately I got invited to a wedding and couldn't sneak in a race in time, so I had to put it off a year.
Finally. 2009. I registered a week early and got my number and timing chip the night before (an excellent idea, by the way). Had a nervous night followed by a nervous morning. Drank some coffee, ate a Pop Tart and a banana and drank some water to fuel up. I got in my kit and did a 30 minute warm up before returning home to pick up my back pack and rode to the race.
I got to the event about 20 minutes before my race, Cat 5. This gave me some time to visit with some friends before the start. We did get in a practice lap before lining up for the race. I was still quite nervous while the preliminary announcements were going on. It didn't help that there was a problem with the count in the race which delayed our start another 10 minutes.
I looked around and saw two familiar faces, Paul and John. These were wheels I could trust, even if they weren't strictly teammates in this race. There also was quite a turnout from XXX Racing--15 or 20 racers, I think. It was at this moment I realized that I was still in my small chainring from the warm up lap and made the quick decision to unclip and shift into the right gear for the start. I sure didn't want to drop my chain ring at the start. I was a novice, but I didn't want to be a rube.
And then, we were off. I clipped in and got underway without causing or being part of a collision. First goal achieved. The initial acceleration was pretty fast, similar to what I experienced at at cross race. The pack slowed for the first turn and accelerated out quickly. Then we were coasting, then braking into turn 2 and accelerating out. This became the pattern for the race. It wasn't what I expected (what was I expecting?) but soon I settled in making sure to hold my line and watch for the riders in front and around me. The first three laps I stayed with the pack, holding my position near the middle and just feeling out the rhythms as we went around the course. I knew that this constant accelerating was going to wear me out and was looking for a way to take the corners smoother to save energy.
Early in the race, heading into turn 2, I saw a rider plow right into the back of John's bike. I was close enough to get spooked, but far enough away to avoid it without slowing down. I found out later that John wasn't hurt, but the collision broke his bike's derailleur hanger.
I have to admit that I was so focused on riding safely and holding my line that most of the race is a blur to me. I remember that after about 5 laps in, I was feeling more confident in the turns and was using them to advance forward in the pack. Usually about 2-4 positions at a time. At one point, I took turn 2 on the inside perfectly and accelerated out so smoothly that I found myself at the front. This couldn't be, could it? I was convinced that due to the lack of XXX jerseys around me that they were out in front and we were chasing. It was then I noticed the pace car in front of me ("And I had never seen a hole...playing for Temple.." -Bill Cosby) and realized that indeed I was in front. What the hell was I doing here? I spent about 15 seconds up there and realized I had no business being where I was and that there was no way I could maintain 26 MPH for long unless I wanted to get dropped (I didn't) so I pulled off to the inside to allow the front riders to pass me. Not being a friendly group ride, they let me stay in front for a bit (softening up the fresh meat) before accelerating past me into turn 3. I got back in the pack about half way back and realized that I really ought to plan on what to do in case that happens again.
The next laps were uneventful for me. I was riding well and maintaining my position. Barry told me that I was third wheel on several laps. Honestly, I don't remember. I was concentrating so hard on holding my line and riding smoothly that I don't remember hearing grandstand announcements or keeping track of what position I was in. I just thought I was mid-pack or at least in the front third.
There were about three laps to go and I was feeling remarkably well. The jitters had gone and I was moving with the rhythms of the race and feeling reasonably well. Coming out of turn 3 something felt wrong ahead of me and I tightened my grip on the brakes slightly. That's when the rider ahead of me plowed into the rider ahead of him. I think one of them veered wide on the turn and the rider behind just plowed into him. I had opened up enough room in front of me that I was able to brake hard and avoid hitting them (and praying no one would plow into me). I kept it upright, avoided the collision and the rest of the lead group passed me. I tried to get on, but just couldn't grab anyone's wheel.
OK. I can do this. They're not that far ahead and I can now take the turns as fast as I want. I put my head down and went into time trial mode. Or at least what I thought was TT mode, since I have never done a TT. And, based on the next 3 laps, I'm not likely ever to do a TT. I just couldn't catch them. They seemed within reach the first lap, but after that the pack just got farther and farther ahead of me. On the bright side, every time I looked behind me I saw nothing. No one. I heard the bell lap and still, there was no one behind me. As I rounded turn 4 and hit the home stretch, there continued to be no one behind me so I just rolled in, as it turns out, to 27th place out of 50 starters.
Well, not a bad result. I rode safely, competitively and, had it not been for the bad luck getting caught behind the collision, I would have done better. Still, a good first time.
As I rode over to my friends, I realized that in all my nervousness, I had forgotten to remove my saddle bag before the race. What a rube.
Now I had 90 minutes to relax, unwind, eat and drink before the 30+ 4/5 race. The next two races were the Womens 4/5 and Masters 45+. I had friends and team mates in both races so I took a few (OK, 175) pictures before taking a quick spin around Glencoe to loosen up before the race.
I did remove my saddle bag before the race. The field was bigger (72) and I was still pretty tired, but the nervousness had left. The race started, much like the first and the first 15 minutes found me in familiar territory: Accelerate, coast, brake, turn, rinse, repeat. Around the 20 minute mark, I could tell my legs weren't going to make it. All those accelerations were doing their cumulative damage and wearing me out. Around 25 minutes in I got dropped. I was done. No chasing for me. I was content to ride the course at 20-21 MPH and finish. After a while, my speed dropped to 19-20 and I had thoughts of dropping out. And then I thought no. Harden the fuck up and ride. A couple more laps and I met up with two other riders and they were willing to work together to make finishing the race easier for all of us.
With around 4 laps to go, we got lapped by the field. And that was it. We kept riding, no one else gained on us and we didn't catch any dropped riders. On the final lap, after turn 4, I decided to make a sprint for the line. What the hell, I might was well finish in style. With about 200 yards to go I jumped. So did the XXX guy and it was on. Mano a mano in a race to the death for 48th place (because, ya know, 49th is for losers). I pushed harder and passed him, but he countered and was gaining on me. I pushed harder and my legs were burning. I remembered some research about how cursing makes it easier to bear pain and then thought better of it since the GGP is a family friendly event. So I just let out a blood curdling yell.
I thought he had me, but chip timing reported that I took 48th place by 0.002 seconds.
I'll take my victories any way I can get them.
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