As I rolled up to the race to pick up my number, clouds were brewing overhead. I’m known for my constant optimism, and I make no exception when it comes to weather forecasting. I checked the radar as I left the house and thought there was a good chance it would stay dry. How wrong I was… It started raining steadily about a half hour before the start.
The only rain gear I packed was my cycling cap. This is the most important piece of equipment (in my mind) for a race in the rain. The rain comes towards your eyes at an angle, so the brim of the cap blocks some of the rain from your eyes. Combined with a rather new pair of clear prescription lenses in my Rudy Project Ekynox SX glasses, I was able to see throughout the race despite the torrential downpour.
In Colorado, rainy races are rare. I personally know of at least three racers that chose not to start due to the rain, and I’m sure there were more. A rainy criterium is a particularly nasty proposition. Imagine racing with slippery corners, poor visibility, poor braking on carbon wheels and a nervous pack. To make matters worse, the course was a short, technical loop with a hill, and a brick crosswalk on the most difficult corner.
As if that wasn’t enough, a friend of mine had crashed in the Cat 4 race. He’d clipped a pedal over the bricks, falling hard enough break a few bones. The risks of racing were fresh in my mind, but so were the benefits. There were quite a few pros on hand (Wonderful Pistachios, Bissell, Garmin Development), including National Criterium Champion Eric Young. The prize list was also rather large at $1,500, but would only pay the top 5 finishers.
My plan for the race was to place as high as possible while staying safe. After a single lap of the course, I knew I would have to stay very close to the front. The course was situated on a gradual hill, with a long climb, a downhill chicane, gradual descent, and then hard braking into the final corner. The final corner was narrow, bumpy, paved with bricks, with the finish line a short 100m beyond.
About 40 riders took to the start line, and we started with light rain and wet roads. As soon as I caught the first roostertail of road spray directly in my face, I remembered what a wet criterium is all about! I committed myself to riding in the first few riders. Going into the final corner, there was a lot of braking. A speed of 35+ mph was easily attainable on the descent, but the corner could only be safely taken at about 28. Riders at the back will always have to slow more than the riders at the front through such a difficult corner. This leaves the riders at the back sprinting to catch up. Eventually gaps form and the riders are split off the back a few at a time.
This race was no exception. Within a rather short time period, a large section of the peloton had been split off the back. At the front, there was constant attacking. I figured the technical course would blow the peloton to smithereens, but the race was actually so slow in some sections, that the breaks had difficulty getting much of an advantage.
About 10 minutes into the race, I found myself off the front with Danny Summerhill. He raced last year’s USA Pro Cycling Challenge for Garmin’s ProTour team as a Stagiaire. He is still under 23 years old, so he was passed over for his ProTour spot, but I’m sure he’ll be hired next year. He is also a talented cyclocrosser, so I knew he had the motor and handling to make a good partner for the break.
We traded a few pulls and lead for a few laps. As my turn came to a close I flicked my elbow but didn’t get a response. It was a critical moment for our break and I asked incredulously, “Seriously!?”. He said he was cooked and unable to help. It wasn’t much longer after that, we were caught.
I tried my hand at a few more breakaways, but few were able to gain much advantage. The keys to staying away seemed to be horsepower on the hill and guts on the descent. The magic combination turned out to be a solo rider. Danny attacked later and would stay away and eventually lap the field. I’m sure he was riding close to the limit on every corner. This would be hugely beneficial since the peloton would occasionally have a more timid rider lead the descent, giving an advantage to a lone rider who could corner predictably setting their own rhythm and speed.
I’m left wondering if Danny truly didn’t have the energy to ride with me early in the race. Perhaps he was bluffing, or didn’t want a breakmate and thought he’d rather ride solo. Actually I think I was probably stronger than him early in the race. I’m continuing to learn more about my abilities and I’m particularly good early in the race. My mom asked “Are there any pro races 15 minutes long?” My response was, “sort of… on the track.” I’ve never ridden on the track, but when the new track is built nearby, I promise to at least give it a try.
During races, I sometimes use my speedometer in criteriums to help me gauge my speed for key corners. I’ll make a mental note “I can take this at 34 mph”, and make sure not to over brake if I’m alone or in a small group. Unfortunately the rain made it impossible to see my garmin, so I was left riding on feel alone. This is another skill of racing that can only be learned by cornering on closed roads: the ability to judge a corner as it is approached, cornering at maximum speed by feel alone.
As we saw 5 laps to go, only about 15 riders remained in the group. I decided to lead the group. I figured I would have the best chance to stay out of trouble, and if I was lucky, I would be strong enough to keep riders from passing on the gradual climb. As there was nowhere else to pass on the course, this met my goals of a good finish placing while staying safe.
I led the last three laps from the front of the field. On the last ascent of the climb, a few riders flew past. I caught the wheel of Colt Peterson and nobody else came past. Colt was cooked as we entered the corner at the top of the course so I used my last bit of energy to come around him and lead the descent. There wasn’t any change in our positions before the finish and I came through with a few riders in front of me.
I thought I was close to the top 5, but I wasn’t sure. My mom, wife, toddler, and a friend had come to watch (luckily they found a sheltered spot) and said I’d finished 6th. I took their word for it and we left the race immediately so I could dry off and we could get dinner.
I didn’t find out until Monday that I’d actually finished fourth! It is one of my better results of the season against a strong field. Courses like this suit me and I usually do well when the weather is bad. In this case the race flyer said I must be present to collect my money. I’ve contacted the promoter, but haven’t heard back yet. I’m hopeful, but I also realize I made a mistake. Next time if my result is worth sticking around for, I’ll be sure to take the time to double check results!