It was a strange feeling to be back on my road bike after it had spent over a month in my shed without as much as a crankset installed. This race had been on the calendar but I had overlooked it for the most part. When I saw the prize list ($10,000 for 20 places), I figured the best use of my weekend would be to try my hand at the big show rather than some local cyclocross races.
Its been over a year since I’ve been at a road event of this caliber. The race was the final of the dozen races in the USA Crits series. (Note: USA Crits is a private series of races, and the second most important criterium series in the US, behind the official, USA Cycling sanctioned National Criterium Calendar). Regardless of standing or importance, when there is a lot of prize money at stake, the fastest riders from across the country will be sure to show up.
This proved true when I arrived at the venue. The start list of pre-registered riders was bolstered by quite a few additional pros. The pro teams with the biggest showing were Team Mountain Khakis and Optum Pro Cycling. Both had brought top notch sprinters with them and I knew they would probably be working for a sprint finish.
I’d googled the course a bit and knew it would be interesting, to say the least. I started to hear rumblings from Twitter that the course might be even crazier than I expected. When I took my first lap, I was quite surprised. I’ve race a lot of small and technical courses, but this was over the top. The entire course was only about 12 feet wide, and only 1k in length. In addition, most of the course was covered in paving stones with manholes, seams, off-camber corners, and rolling bumps that would throw you like a bucking bronco.
I took my final warm up lap as a racer from the women’s race was being attended to by medical staff after a nasty crash a the finish. The marshalls were stopping us just before the last corner. Racers were anxious to get to the staging area, as we all knew the technical course would favor a good starting position. A few simply ignored her and passed right by, while others took to the sides of the course and passed their bikes over the fencing near the staging area 50 yards ahead.
I fully understand that some riders have more on the line than I do in this sort of race (perhaps extending as far as their livelihood), but I’m always disappointed when people feel like the rules don’t apply to them. The marshall is probably just someone who was strong armed into volunteering her time and probably not likely to start giving bib numbers to the commissaries, yet I still feel like there should be more respect for each other and the rules.
I ended up starting pretty close to the back. The race started pretty quick, but I felt like I was able to hang on easily and I wasn’t ever at risk of being dropped. Moving up the field was another story. Riders were spread out across the narrow course and it was very hard to find space when the pace was slower. This lead to riders squeezing through holes that were barely there and frequently coming underneath in the corners.
On the one hand, races at this level contain dozens of very experienced and talented bike handlers, so the peloton will be much tighter, faster and more aggressive. On the other hand, riders will get away with as much as they can, and more. There were multiple serious crashes and a few riders were in a heated shouting match during the race.
At one point I was tied up in a crash myself. A Clif Bar rider hit the deck hard and I was two riders behind. The rider directly behind him ran over him and had to half-jump off his bike. As the crash pushed to the outside of the corner I was squeezed out and had to lock up my rear wheel and came to a stop against the barrier as the end of the peloton went by.
The rules state you must actually crash to take a free lap. Feel free to call me a hypocrite regarding the rule infractions I mentioned earlier, but I felt like I came very, very close to crashing. Rather than panicking and riding aggressively through crashed riders without inspecting my rear tire after a long skid, I thought it would me much safer for me to wait until the rider infront of me could disentangle his bike from the barrier so we could take our free lap.
The remainder of the race continued in similar fashion. The race was either strung out at maximum effort or spread with nowhere to go. Obviously other riders had better legs and/or more guts and were able to make their way to the front. The few times I tried I made some progress but was stymied by riders blocking the road or another near-crash. In hindsight, I wish I had committed 5-10 minutes to 100% effort to find the front of the race, but I suppose I was hoping an opportunity would come, but by 20 laps to go I knew it was probably too late.
I did fight my way up to the front half of the field, but after again being chopped in a corner and losing a few more places with 10 laps to go, I knew I wouldn’t see the front of the field. Since I was out of the money I resigned myself to tailgunning the race to finish safely in the field. I still narrowly avoided a late crash that left a Champion Systems rider sitting in the middle of the road on a straightaway as we flew past at 30 mph.
Overall I wasn’t that thrilled with my performance or the race itself. My power meter showed that I didn’t have the greatest legs (my power was perhaps 10% below what I’d expect on a good day, and the race was only 3,000′ above my normal altitude, which should only decrease power by about 5%) and I’m mostly just disappointed that I didn’t put a single dent in the race. Guys that I can usually compete with in local races seemed to be able to make the front, so perhaps I wasn’t aggressive enough along with having a bit of a bad day.
I’ve been doing a lot less volume of training lately (which is typical for me for cyclocross season) and I’ve found that low volume training doesn’t necessarily leave me with poor fitness overall, but that my fitness can be less predictable on any particular day.
Regardless, I did enjoy the opportunity to ride with some of the fastest guys in the country. It isn’t often that I show up to a race and get my teeth kicked in and its a great way to remember that there are a lot of faster racers out there in the world. The scenario will be a little different but I’m working on getting a shift trade at work so I can take on some really fast cyclocross racers in two weeks when a cyclocross race of similar stature (The USGP) comes to Ft. Collins.