NE Crit Week - My Experiences
“This race is going to be apocalyptically hard”
Overhearing this before a race you are about to participate in, when it is pouring rain on you, from the person who won a seriously hard race earlier in the week does not inspire huge levels of confidence.
Me after 40+ miles and an hour and 20 minutes at break neck speed in the rain at the Fitchburg Longsjo Crit. My face says it all....
Let me back up…
Those who know me are well aware it’s been a tough year for me on the bike. Of course it has been a great year professionally and personally (funny how there is an inverse correlation there). First and foremost I finished my dissertation which completed my requirements for a Ph.D. This was a huge step for me and my family, but it took insane amounts of concerted work for about the last 15 months to truly get it done. I was also teaching numerous courses at Trinity College in Hartford and watching infant/toddler son, first 3 days a week in the fall and then 2 days a week this spring (and still this summer). In addition to finishing my PhD, I also landed a pretty sweet two year full-time visiting professorship (a big promotion over being an adjunct) at Trinity.
THAT was apocalyptically hard……
I know wah wah, look at all the cool things I am doing that make it so I can't bike race #humblebrag. Regardless of the quality of my excuse for not being in shape, you can imagine all this didn’t leave a whole lot of time for training. In fact it left almost no time for sleeping either. These charts illustrate my lack of riding relative to years past:
*Note the different scales of the graphs so the time difference is even more pronounced than it appears. The big gap is me desperately trying to get a complete draft of my diss done before Christmas. Though my fallow period continued through April.
As you can see, in 2012/2013, the last year I had some decent results in Pro/1/2 races--and by decent I mean getting into breaks, some top 20, top 10, and podium finishes--I was much more consistent and had a much higher volume than the same period for 2014/2015 (and 2013-2014). This makes sense right? We had a kid, and I wrote a very well researched book, and gave four to six 1.5 hour long presentations each week (teaching).
Can you tell I am building towards something here? I knew coming in this NE Crit week was going to be hard for me, extremely hard, and I only planned to do 3 of a possible 5 events! But sometimes life with a kid and a job means trying to manage your expectations. So my goal was just to try to finish the events I started.
Bike Racing's Unique Level of Difficulty Explained.....
I know, there are no medals for just finishing in bike racing if you are over the age of 10, but my goal wasn't to get medals it was to start rebuilding my confidence as a racer, and just finishing Pro/1/2 bike races is actually a fairly legit accomplishment if I do say so myself. You see, in addition to being way more dangerous, bike racing is totally different from other endurance sports like running or triathlons for an important reason. In most of those you certainly CAN compete against other people, but you don’t HAVE to compete against other people to participate. In your local 5k or even a big marathon, you can pretty much run at your own pace and compete against yourself if you want. Same with a triathlon. Hell, even in most stick and ball sports you get to go the full time (unless there is a mercy rule in effect).
In a bike race because of the HUGE influence of drafting, which means the pack can go much faster than someone on their own, when you can’t keep up you get dropped. If you get dropped in a criterium (which is many short laps, usually in an office park or downtown course) you usually get lapped quickly and pulled from the race. This can happen very early in a race, so sometimes you pay money and drive a great distance to race for 10 minutes and then WHOOPS TIME TO GO HOME! More on this later….
So what is New England Crit week?
For the uninitiated, New England Crit week is the replacement of what we used to call unofficially “New England Race Week” which included the Keith Berger Memorial Crit, the Exeter Crit, and the Fitchburg Stage Race. This was an exciting time because usually the big NRC (National Race Calendar) teams would be in town to do Fitchburg, so some famous bike riders would jump into our local criteriums.
With the demise of the old Fitchburg Longsjo Stage Race, New England CRIT week started last year and has been, in my opinion, a big success. It consists of basically the same venues, but now they are ALL Crits, which are more fan friendly than stage races. They are also easier on amateur racers who can pick and choose which events to do rather than having to complete each day to keep going.
The Keith Berger Memorial Crit
“New Pavement!” “Will it rain, or won’t it rain?”
These were thoughts on everyone’s mind as they suited up for the Keith Berger Memorial Crit, the first event of the week. Fortunately, for my race (which is all that matters to me) it turned into a beautiful day and the fresh pavement was AMAZING! The speed was high, we averaged 28ish mph. It was a fun, well-organized event. I did my best in this race, I sat in the middle of the field and just wanted to make sure I didn’t have to use too much unnecessary energy because I knew this was the event I really should have no trouble finishing with the pack.
This brings up yet another important point. Since I am not training like I did in 2012/2013 (so it’s really been two seasons now since I’ve had big volume or consistency) I always have to make sure I am not wasting energy since I never really know how I am going to recover from something like that. Sometimes I feel fresh and energized by a hard effort. Other times my legs feel numb and won’t do what I furiously insist they do (yelling SHUT UP LEGS doesn’t work when you can’t feel your legs, apparently). So I have to be careful.
I was careful and had no trouble finishing this race and having a lot of fun while I did it. It was also awesome to watch Aki SATO, of the Expo Cat 3 team, expertly negotiate his way through the field (see video evidence below) on the last lap so he could deploy his super-duper sprint powers. Sadly, he was undone by a flat tire with half a lap to go. Better luck next time Aki!
Watch Aki (Red Expo Kit -- he comes in from the right side of the screen move) up through the field with 1.5 laps to go.
Aki has bad luck on the last lap, safe as always though.
The race ended with a victory by Bikereg.com's Jerome Townsend (who turned out to be that the center of a storm at the end of the Fitchburg Longsjo Crit a week later). I was well back, but rolled in about mid-pack. Below is a video of the last lap shot from my handlebars.
Last lap of the Keith Berger Memorial Race 2015.
The Leominster Criterium
Because I was nervous about using up too much energy I decided to skip the second event of Crit week, the Exeter Criterium. This is always a tough decision for me because it is probably the event I WANT to do the most. It is a twilight crit (which are always the best) in downtown Exeter NH right near where I went to college, and many of my collegiate cycling teammates help put on the race. That said, it is a five hour round trip drive and hard to justify in the middle of the week…..so that’s that.
Thus, the next event for me was the following Friday (Berger was on a Sunday) in Leominster MA. I did this crit last year and it was a blast. A really fast but doable four corner crit in a very nice downtown. The crowds are big and really make for a great atmosphere.
Unfortunately, my positive experience last year was not a harbinger of a good experience this year. Remember, earlier in this already really long post when I talked about how in bike racing you have to be able to keep up with the pack to be able to participate? Yeah, so fitness-wise I think I was fine, but that couldn’t prevent me getting caught out by a crash in front of me 5 LAPS INTO THE RACE. Two riders from the same team went down (Greenline Velo), and I had to veer well off my line onto a sidewalk to avoid them. I got going again quickly, but the field was already almost a ¼ lap ahead and there was NO WAY I could catch back up solo. Because I didn’t actually crash I don’t get what’s called a “free lap” which goes to people who have mechanicals or actually hit the deck. Within three laps the last official’s motorcycle had caught me from behind and I was unceremoniously “pulled” from the race. My race was over in under 8 minutes.
This is, without a doubt, one of the worst feelings I’ve experienced in sports. Because I’ve been a Category 2 rider since I was 23 (so almost 10 years now) and I have to compete against pros and Category 1 riders most of the time. I’ve been pulled from quite a few races during my life and it never gets easier. You see an event continuing on without you and it is just maddening. It is those feelings of sitting the bench and being completely left out of the cool kids group on the playground all rolled into one. To add insult to injury you now have to repeat, in reverse, your 1.5 hour drive home to your waiting wife and child, and try to justify this massive exercise in wasted time to them and to yourself.
But you find a way. You say to yourself “that’s bike racing”, and you know that in a day or two the bad feelings will fade, and you will want nothing more than to pin a number on again for at least one more day. In a way, being a bike racer requires a sort of relentless optimism, in the “next-time-things-will-be-different” sort of way. You have to admire us for that right?
Oh yeah, Sam Rosenholtz, a Cat 1 rider for Greenline Velo/Zipcar, won in a really exciting Sprint with Issac Howe of Champion Systems (and UVM alum). You can find a cool video of it somewhere on the interwebs....
So because of the goddam weather people, who are right most of the time only if you give them HUGE margin for error, I decided to skip the fourth day of Crit week which was the Worcester Crit. Last year the course was sketchy and I figured, what with the BIBLICAL RAIN they were predicting WOULD DEFINITELY ARRIVE IN NE BY LATE SATURDAY AFTERNOON, that I would skip it and stay safe. The weather people were of course off by a few hours and then the rain that was DEFINITELY SUPPOSED TO BE OVER BY SUNDAY AFTERNOON kept going and I arrived to 55 degrees and pouring rain in Fitchburg. This type of weather is never fun, but it is particularly depressing when it is summer and you have gotten used to riding in warm weather (in other words you got soft) and when the crit you are about to do is 50 miles so will probably take about an hour and 40 minutes.
That said, at least the Fitchburg course is not that sketchy. It is basically shaped like a slightly bent paper clip with two tight turns at the bottom and top of two long straightaways. Fortunately, the really tight turn is at the top of the course, so you take it after climbing a long gradual front straight and don’t come into it too fast. I have to say I was very impressed with my Trek Madone and Bontrager wheels and tires. The bike handled like it was on rails despite the rain, and I was able to pick-off 4 or 5 riders every time through the bottom corner because I never felt out of control and could carry speed really well. This was probably what kept me in the race because going up the front straight it was often very very hard (like 550 watts hard) and by the halfway point I was in almost constant danger of ending up on the back of the field. So I NEEDED those 4 or 5 spots each lap.
Although I never saw it, the front of the race was apparently a veritable smorgasbord of activity with breaks and attacks going for the first part of the race. A break finally got away and held on for most of the race. I have no idea who was in it, except that it was missing some key players like domestic pros Adam Myerson, Issac Howe, and a few others from bigger teams.
Despite my excellent cornering and all my efforts to stay at least around the middle, as the laps wound down it felt I had to burn more and more matches just to hold my position in the field. Yet, at 10 laps to go I dared to hope that I would make it to the end and cross the finish line with the pack.
Sadly, it was not to be, as the aforementioned big players in the race decided they WANTED THE BREAK BACK ASAP and absolutely dropped the hammer at the front. I was going up the start/finish straight full gas just to hold the wheel in front of me and after two laps of that I went into full vapor lock. My hip flexors, calves, quads, and back just all stopped working at once. I tried a pathetic effort to keep going for one more lap off the back of the pack, hoping I could limp in before I was pulled, but realized pretty quickly that I could hardly peddle. The moto official finally caught up to me and said "you done? DNF?" and I repllied weakly, "yes."
The break was brought back very quickly, and as a consequence my race was over. Kai Wiggins from CCB would go on to win the race, after an apparently crazy final lap (after which punches were thrown, which was amazing because that stuff almost never happens).
Cycling, as someone famously put it, is one of those sports that never gets easier, you just get faster. Each race is a very personal battle for every rider. My battle was to hang in there for as long as I could, and if I’m realistic, my effort was solid, but of course I was disappointed. Yet, ever the optimist, I am already planning how I can get stronger and use my training time more efficiently forthe rest of the summer so that I can get back to riding competitively in these races. This race will always be “apocalyptically hard” but it is a lot easier to stomach that effort at the front of the field than at the back. Inexplicably, however, it still seems fun either way, because we are crazy…