The local training criterium series has been a lot of fun this year. I missed out last year since I was working every Wednesday night, but this year I’ve made it to a few of the races and had a blast. The course is flat, with only about 20 feet of elevation gain per lap. All the corners are relatively gentle and can be pedaled through at 30 mph. Add to this the laid back atmosphere and $18 entry fee and it is a recipe for a good time.
I’m going to give a race report for last night’s race. I know it is a little silly for just a training crit with a small field, but I think there were some valuable tactical lessons learned. The scenario for this race was probably similar to what many amateur racers face: a smaller field (about 25), only a few pairs of teammates, and a wide range of abilities (Cat Pro/1/2/3 race).
With light winds on a flat course, I was expecting a field sprint. However, when I saw the small field and no significant team presence, I realized that the faster riders could easily split the field. The key rider to watch would be Kevin Selker. Offhand I knew he’d been riding well, but I just looked it up and he’s got so far this season at the series! He may have been the strongest rider in the race, but the strongest rider doesn’t always win.
For this race, Kevin’s teammate Erik Hamilton would set up the ideal scenario for him to win again in a perfect example of having the fitness and tactics needed to win a race. Erik would launch the first move of the day. He’s a bit of an unknown rider and he was allowed to ride away solo on the second lap of the race. A solo rider on a flat course with no wind has no hope of winning, so there was little reason to chase.
A lone rider off the front can attract counter attacks, however. If the gap remains small enough (less than a minute or two), riders may be encouraged to bridge. The attackers may seem like a non-threat as well if they attack alone, and the peloton often fails to realize that as riders leave the pack one at a time, a dangerous move may be coming together up the road.
After a lap or two, some riders wanted to try their hand at attacking/bridging. Kevin was keen to protect his teammate and marked their move. He made sure to latch on to the back of the fresh chase group. If they were caught, he’d wasted little energy. If they would successfully bridge, he would get a free ride to his teammate at the front.
I felt the moment was right and I jumped across. The chase group was losing steam, and rather than brake to latch onto the back, I came straight through them at full gas. Kevin was the only one able to respond and before I knew it, we were a group of three off the front, with Kevin, his teammate Erik, and myself.
Everyone in the race knew the situation on the road. As I mentioned, with the smaller field size, it would be possible for our strong group to out power the small field. The chasers behind knew that we were a serious threat and would be sure to chase. Only a few laps into the race, we knew the chase would be furious, so we rode our hearts out. If we could build our advantage, hopefully the chasers would give up.
Our group instantly went to work. With three corners on the course and three riders, each of us would pull about 1/3 of the course, pulling off to the outside as we exited the corners. I came within 2.5% of an all time power record over this 12 minute period. This is especially noteworthy because this average power includes time spent drafting, and most of my power records have been set up hills where the power output is more even.
Despite our efforts, a strong group of four managed to bridge, making seven of us. After a few laps, we had extended our lead and dropped a few riders, leaving five of us for the majority of the race. Kevin and Erik were still the only teammates in the group.
We continued to ride pretty hard and our lead extended to about half a lap. Our pace gradually slowed as it became apparent that we would stay away and didn’t need to work as hard to extend our lead. I carefully watched the clock tick down, and started to think about the best time to attack.
Since we’d been riding easier, nobody was tired. The flat windless course doesn’t favor any particular time to attack, although going into a corner is usually a good choice. I watched the rotation carefully and chose to attack when the biggest threat (Kevin) had just pulled off the front, so he would be tired.
Erik stepped up to the plate and pulled me back in for his teammate. Brad Bingham counterattacked but Kevin was able to cover. We rode slowly for a few laps marking eachother. I was only thinking about our small group at this point (My mistake, I should have been checking to see if the chasers were gaining any ground). Erik attacked alone and was again allowed to ride for the few moments needed to establish a decent gap.
The three of us that weren’t Erik’s teammate knew it would be best to work together. There were 9 laps remaining and we had time to catch him. We rotated smoothly, but didn’t need to work too hard to slowly drag Erik back. Kevin was sitting on the back of the rotation and would swing out to catch the wheel of the rider dropping back after they took their pull.
We had almost caught Erik with about 3 laps to go. I attacked right when a rider had pulled off the front and I knew Kevin would be dropping back and at the worst possible position. I hoped to leapfrog Erik and get away, but Kevin was too strong and we were back together again. When I looked over my shoulder to assess our little group I sawwe were being caught!
I had assumed we had enough room to play games, but never actually checked. Later Kevin said he had thought about the prospect but was confident gambling that he could win either way. He was right. The chasers had been killing themselves to work their way back to us, and had dropped most of the peloton during their chase. The five that caught us were very tired from chasing. The four of us were tired from beating eachother up. Kevin was the only fresh rider left in the race, after sitting in for the six laps we spent chasing his teammate.
Kevin launched with just under a lap remaining and quickly established enough room to coast across the line with his arms in the air. I ended up too close to the front and lead out the ‘sprint’ from 600m to go and hung on for 6th.
I got in a great workout and got more race experience. I am a big advocate of the benefits of racing as much as possible. During the racing season, a race is a highly intense and very specific workout. Race craft is an essential skill in road racing and is best learned through experience. Almost every racer can benefit from the pattern recognition gained from watching a race from the inside. Plus, racing is what we’re all here for, right?